Music for the Next ONE 10/2/15 : “Work It To The Top” by The Foreign Exchange

Without question, The Foreign Exhange has been one of my favorite groups since it’s inception. Producer/Musician Nicolay, Writer/Vocalist/M.C Phonte, along with musician Zo!, and the fabulous female vocalists who contribute so much to the groups sound, make up one of the most deeply rooted, forward looking, progressively funky musical outfits on the scene today. Their last album, 2013’s “Love in Flying Colors” was an outright masterpiece that perfectly captured mid ’70s Stevie Wonderesque synthesizer led song writing. Zo!’s album “Man Made” along with his fantastic single “We’re on The Move” upped the stakes for producer/vocalist albums last year. The group returns this year with a new album, “Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey.” Today’s funk bomb, “Work it to the Top”, ups the ante in the early ’80s funk vein mined recently by Dam-Funk’s catalog, and the smash “Uptown Funk”, among other recent jams. It’s a record built on Phonte and company’s unique ability to deliver old school sounds with tounge in cheek humor as well as trying on dad’s coat respect, exemplified by their hilarious Whispers inspired video for Zo!’s “We’re on the Move.”

“Work it to the Top” begins with the drums pounding out a steady beat, kick drums thudding in a lock step on all four beats. Synth bass is also present, a variation of the bass line on The Fatback Bands classic, “Backstrokin’. “Backstrokin” is one of the true classics of ’80s funk, and it’s influence has been fossilized into modern music through the work of Dr. Dre, who has interlaced it in many of his G Funk arrangements, from Snoop Doggs “Ain’t No Fun”, to his own “Let’s Get High.” As the funk cycles back around through the influence of the 1990s, “Backstrokin” pops up again through Mark Ronson and Tuxedo’s interpolations of “Ain’t No Fun.” The bass line includes a pentatonic flurry similar to Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mamajama”, that leads u back to the top of the line, making the song a true compilation of early ’80s funk. A high pitched sawtooth synth tone plays a single note line on top of that, with juicy synth chords chiming in. Phonte takes on the lead rapper, M.C role so common to Funk through the work of a James Brown, and especially Dr. Funkenstein George Clinton, emulated in many other funk records. This was a style funk had in common with the early hip hop, as Phonte brings us “Tales from the land of Milk and Honey”.

The song begins in classic funk style, with the chorus on top, a unified choir of male and female voices, sing, “When you think you’re gonna stop/shake your thing/and work it to the top!” To which is added the hearty male exclamation of “Huh!” Found on records such as War’s “All Day Music”, and many a Brass Construction jam. A high pitched synth note holds a drone like figure up top as synth parts sneak around the vocals and comment on the grooves open spaces.

Phonte begins to sing in a nasally, high pitched soul whine that’s an obvious homage to Steve Arrington, drummer and lead vocalist for the group Slave. The lyrical text recalls “Watching You” as well, as Phonte croons, “Pretty girl/looking fine/walking down the street.” A Fender Rhodes part begins to play lush tones that help distinguish the verse from the chorus as Phonte kills it with the Arrington influenced idiosyncrasies. Female voices answer him, and he promises to “take her to the top.”

The Foreign Exchange continues to bring the Funk with this song, capturing so many elements of early ’80s funk as embodied by groups such as Slave, Skyy, Fatback, Cameo, Lakeside, Con Funk Shun and many others. They mix up a phat synth bass, single note synth leads in place of guitars, group chorus singing, the mixture of male and female voices, steady drums, and girl watching lyrics to create the ultimate age convertible, top down, city so bright I gotta wear shades Backstrokin’ joint. Score up another win for the soul brothers from different mothers!

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Music for The Next ONE 9/19/15 : “O.B.E” by Dam-Funk

The lead in single to Dam-Funk’s new “Invite the Light” LP, “We Continue”, an anthemic inspirational funk banger, is one we covered a few weeks ago on “Music for the Next ONE”. Since then the full album has dropped, and with it a bunch of funk goodies, from Glide Tonight”, to “Howugonnafuckaroundandchooseabusta”, to the beautiful triumph of “Virtous Progression.” The song we are showcasing this weekend, “O.B.E”, is a body rocking, uptempo electro/disco/funk record that can get anybody moving,doing any activity, from vacuuming your house on a Saturday morning, to switching lanes on the expressway in the afternoon, to cutting some smooth steps in your best shoes that night at the club. It’s got a slick sophistication that could play at glamorous watering holes like The Buddha Bar in Paris, but also takes you back to the hood in the late ’70s and 1980’s.

The song begins with a four bar percussion break, the type that disco records used to set the dancing tempo from the get-go. The drums pound out a quick tempo’ed disco beat, kick drums banging on all fours, with a slight echo to them that creates a rolling, tribal Indian type of polyrhythm. This is supported by party time hand claps on the two and four beats. On top of it all is a sizzling hot shaker pattern, like you would find in African and Afro-Latin music. The rhythmic intensity reminds me of an electrified version of B.T Express disco-funk hits like “Express” and the Native American influenced, “Peace Pipe.” After four bars Dam brings in the beautiful California sun ray, long tone chords that are his trademark. Quite characteristic of his music is the way he gives the chords lots of room to breathe, playing on for almost fourteen bars before he brings the bass line in. The bass line wanders in, a funky, hyperactive synth line. The synth bass is jiterry sixteenth notes, very upbeat. It’s a call and response type of pattern, three notes answered by four notes. A funky rhythmic relationship is set up between the slow long keyboard tones up top, the steady pounding drums, the fast and consistent shakers, and the fast and sporadic bass line, a polyrhythmic stew that gives the body different things to move to.

In a whisper, Dam suggests phrases like “Don’t cross your legs/don’t close your eyes.” These sound like dance song type instructions but also might be instructions on the albums theme, how to “Invite the Light.” Dam’s layers of keyboard rhythm include a Rhodes or similar electric piano type sound, playing an eighth note pattern that also ends up being held as a chord. After a while the bass plays a computeristic, robot sequence type bass riff that serves as an interlude to kick the bass groove back off. At 2:54 into the track the synth bass let’s off it’s relentless intensity, playing a simpler pulsing line. Dam begins to bring his singing more to the forefront, repeating his instructions in a more audible falsetto. The groove continues on, with Dam Funk breaking it down, singing his exhortations, and revving it back up to carry us to the fade.

“O.B.E” is a good example of what I like to call “T Tops music”, music that has an early ’80s vibe that reminds me of the time cars with T-Tops were popular. Dam Funk’s lush synth pads conjure up the dreamy associations of sunshine and sun rays that make up the California of both myth and memory. When I think of his music, what usually comes to mind is slower, bumping West coast phat tracks. This joint offers something a little different, an uptempo, cyborg funk stepper that would have worked well on the soundtrack to “Tron: Legacy.” “Invite the Light” is a wonderful diverse album of funk styles that must be purchased and played for the funk of today to flourish.

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Music for The Next ONE 9-12-15: “Fear Not of Men” by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey)

The explosion in Fela Kuti’s popularity in the early ’00s, just a few years after his death from AIDs in 1997, has been for me, one of the very best musical developments of the millenium, one that both keeps funky music on people’s radar, as well as it creates a greater awareness of a richly deserving artist. I was already well familiar with Fela Kuti and his music when I first heard today’s “Music for the Next ONE” selection, “Fear Not of Man” by Yasiin Bey, then known as Mos Def, back in 1999. My family was in Africa during the 1970s, and my dad had copies of Fela Kuti & Africa 70 albums like “Shakara.” Around 1989 or so I remember my brother in law, Joe, gifting Fela’s then current album, “Beasts of No Nation”, to my father on CD, and pops playing it over and over and over again, with that album serving as my contemporary introduction to Fela. I rememeber when Fela passed in ’97, being hurt by it and contemplating how much more I wanted to know about him and his music. Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” released in fall of 1999 is one of my favorite albums of all time, a diverse masterwork of Hip Hop and other black musical styles, including Funk, Soul, Jazz-Soul, Rock, and on “Fear Not of Men”, Afro Beat. Mos Def here does a masterful interpolation, or cover version of Fela’s 1977 “Fear Not for Man”, a song expressing his fearlessness in the face of the represson he was facing at home in Nigeria. Mos Def mixes some samples with live playing from himself and a musical legend, Weldon Irvine, to spin a tale of fearlessness and human resistance at the dawn of the 21st century.

The song begins with Mos whispering “Bismillahirahmanirraheim” which means “In the name of Allah, the beneficient, the merciful” which is the beginning of Muslim prayer. After which the funky Tony Allen sampled Afro Beat drum programming kicks in, a unique for us but proto Afro Beat drum part, with the snare drum delayed off beat 2 but landing dead on beat 4. Its very similar to the Afro Beat drum sample Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is based on, with the “late” snare drum playing with the listener/dancers expectations and creating a unique kind of pattern and rhytmic dip. The beat plays for a full 16 bars while Mos gives his introductions. After the drum introduces itself fully, Mos brings the “Fear Not for Man” bassline in, which he plays himself. The bassline is a very busy one, full of sixteenth notes, comprising a nine note pattern. But before it gets too Jaco, Rocco, or Larry on us, the bass repeats over and over, just a one bar pattern that seems to get energy every time it begins again. Mos also introduces percussion at this point.

Mos gave a spoken introduction to the song that spoke to me a great deal when I heard this song originally. He spoke of the coming milenium and the tension surrounding it. Then he spoke specifically of Hip Hop during that time period, and he dispensed some wisdom that has become central to my understanding of Black Music. He said that if the people who comprise Hip Hop, listeners and creators, were alright and moving in a postive direction, than the music would as well. The music was not some outside force influencing the people, it was the music of the people, and it would become more serious and level headed when the people themselves were that. That was a great comfort and a call to responsibility for me when this record dropped. As he talks, Weldon Irvine begins to play the organ riff, which is a condensed version of the rhythmic melodic riffs Fela played on the 1977 original. He then proposed self worth and value from an eternal source.

Then Mos goes on to speak to some things that are even more of a concern right now, Post 9/11 than they were when he was saying it. As Fela horn samples are incorporated into the track, he speaks of the new electronic methods of survelliance, just beginning at that time, but which would be a regular fact of life during the “War on Terror.” Mos saw this as man trying to be like God, as sampled sirens and Mos’ own human beatbox sirens play in the background. He says he’s not concerned with that because he feels there will always be limits to man’s ability to observe and control humanity. After that he delivers a rap verse, with the full beat kicking back in. He puts all his faith in God and humanity, because men, no matter how powerful they seem, “must die.” His rap verse serves more as a rap style chorus, becuase he repeats it again on the fade out of the song, which is one of Mos particular trademarks, taking rap and repeating them in the manner of songs/poems.

“Fear Not of Man” did exactly for me what Fela did in his music and what Mos hoped it would do. It encouraged me during a relatively dark time of pre milenial tension. I was concerned about the Illuminati and The “New World Order” far before it became fashionable, and educated by Hip Hop records like The Goodie Mob’s masterfully spooky “Cell Therapy.” Fela continued to make funky music that opposed one of the most repressive systems you could imagine in newly oil rich 1970s Nigeria, ruled by a succession of military dictators (“soldier go/soldier come”). Mos picked up on that courage here for a situation that potentially could mean that type of repression for the whole world. Two years after this record was released the 9/11 tragedy would happen and freedom would be exchanged for saftey in the United States. But this song and Mos entire “Black on Both Sides” album would always serve as a comfort for me, especially with Mos following the template laid down in the ’90s by The Roots, Lauryn Hill and Outkast and playing instruments himself, while handling most of the production duties on the album. It was also very special that he reached out to Weldon Irvine, who’s music has formed a foundation for much of Hip Hop, to play on this and other songs of the album. So this song then is a collboration between Fela Kuti as songwriter, with the Africa 70 and Tony Allen playing on the record through samples, the great Weldon Irvine, and the great Yasiin Bey/Mos Def as musician and M.C. Who can be afraid with that much power behind them? Not me!

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Music for the Next ONE 9-5-15 : “Looking for A New Love” by Jody Watley

A few weeks ago I wrote about Herb Alpert’s “Diamonds”, a collaboration between the trumpet player, Pop icon Janet Jackson, and the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That song is one from 1987, a year in a time period that I feel was one of the best post ’70s time periods for funky music in the popular sphere. When I go back and look at it I realize I’m really talking about a four year period from 1986 to 1989. ’87 featured peak records such as “Sign O The Times” from Prince, and “Bad” from Michael Jackson. Although Janet Jackson’s epic “Control” album was released in 1986, she still had hit singles popping on the radio in 1987, including “The Pleasure Principle” and the aforementioned “Diamonds.” One of my favorite aspects of that year was legends like Stevie Wonder, Barry White, and the group Earth, Wind & Fire found new steam on the R&B charts as well, updating their classic sounds. Hip Hop also began to gain steam, building it’s increasingly complex socio-political rhymes on beds of dusty funk samples that brought the sounds of the original funk era back I to full view. Today’s Saturday funk jam, “Looking for a New Love”, by Soul Train and Shalimar alum Jody Watley, was one of the funkiest, biggest and best hits of the year, a Minneapolis inflected classic that was dropped right in January of 1987, ringing in that new year with some sassy, no nonsense funk.

This is one of my favorite songs, and it got me right from the intro, back when I was a little kid in East Oakland, California. The song was produced by Prince’s friend and one time bassist, Andre Cymone. The intro to the song caught my ear way back then by setting the scene for Jody’s break up tale instrumentally. It begins with a keyboard bass tone that has a slight acoustic bass/synthesizer flavor. The bass line hits on the one, leaves some space and then hits with a flurry of notes. U can clearly hear the bass line setting up the dark minor chord progression/vamp as it goes back and forth between bars that start on the root of the chord. In the background there is a very simple yet sonically distinctive high pitched synth part playing a simple 4 note melody hook, all of this being done without the full drum set, just the cymbals keeping the back beat on the 2 and 4. Towards the end of the 8 bar intro the bass plays a line that seems to strut upfront paving the way for the full groove to kick in in the next bar.

The groove kicks in with a cracking back beat, a loud, militant chain gang sound on the snare drum. The synthesizer bass line, one of my favorite, is an insistent, one bar repetitive vamp, four notes notes from the A minor scale with two notes that lead u back to the top, over and over again, like a girlfriend resolutely throwing things in boxes a nd she curses your tired ass out when she’s had enough. There are also some funky synthesized counter rhythms in the back and Minneapolis keyboard horns, playing an extremely loud, brash kick off of a chord voicing. Another horn sample plays Right before Jody begins to sing.

Jody goes on to sing a tough lyric about an unfaithful boyfriend. The hook “I’m looking for a new love baby/a new love/yeah, yeah, yeah” is one of the strongest in my memory. At various intervals the song returns to the sweet bass groove found at the top of the song. And the video shows off the beautiful Jody Watley doing the camel walk,what else do you need?

Back in the day, this song probably had as much or more impact on me than Janet Jackson’s great records of the time. I remember it being a mainstay of Soul Train in 1987, understandably so as Jody was one of the great dancers of the ’70s on the show made good. Her self titled debut, “Jody Watley” is one of the best albums from its era, and a great debut to boot. Jody had more success, but her career slowed down in the ’90s, which is not really as bad as it sounds when u consider she’d been so active and successful through the ’70s and’80s as a Soul Train Dancer and a member of Shalimar. “Looking for a New Love” itself was the #16 overall record on the Billboard charts for 1987, and spent 4 weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. And u can hear echoes of it in the sassy R&B/Hip Hop music of so many since then, from En Vogue, to TLC, to Lil Kim and The Spice Girls. Viva ’87!!!!

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Music for The Next ONE 8/29/15 : “Please Don’t Take Your Love” by Smokey Robinson ft. Carlos Santana

The great Smokey Robinson has inspired many people in his long and illustrious career. The scope of his inspiration stretches from lovers in the backseats of large American cars, teenagers slow dragging in basements under red light, and his fellow artists, who stand in awe of his lyrical dexterity. Dr. Funkenstein George Clinton himself has named Robinson as one of his top influences in lyrical terms. Of course, as any artist in R&B/Soul, Smokey has recorded his share of funk over the years too, from nascent grooves like “Going to a Go-Go”, to #1 pop smashes like “Tears of a Clown”, to deep ’70s funk like 1976’s “Open” and “Do Like I Do.” This weekends new funk treat, “Please Don’t Take Your Love”, from 2009’s “Time Sure Flies When You’re Having Fun”, features a fellow traveler in the art of soulful seduction Smokey has made his life’s work, Carlos Santana, with his soul piercing Afro Latin Blues guitar tone. The interplay of Smokey’s still vibrantly shimmering soulful falsetto and Carlos’s melodic fills over a blues funk beat equals a modern funky soul classic.

The song begins with a drum roll that leads into a slow, funky and chunky dark groove. The bass line is a funky two bar pattern, with a guitar playing some bass notes and then strumming funky chords. A shimmering, vibratoed Wurlitzer electric piano holds minor chords in the background. After the first four bars set the beat up, Señor Santana comes in with his sustaining, emotional wrenching guitar tones, using the slow groove as a chance to wring juice out of every note. He solos for 4 bars and Smokey comes in singing right where he stops playing.

Smokey entreats his lover en Espanol and Frances, “Por favor/s’il vous plait/please, please, please/don’t take your love away.” An extremely strong opening line that finds Smokey begging in three languages. His voice has lost none of the ethereal shimmering vibrato that is one of his vocal trademarks. As he sings his verses, Carlos Santana provides screaming guitar fills that testify to the passion of the lyrics. Smokey explains his polyglot romancing in this way: “No matter how you say it/however you convey it/it’s the same good thing/being said”, as Santana stretches, bends and distorts his guitar notes.

When Smokey sings “Por favor/s’il vous plait” on the chorus, he’s backed by a chorus of female voices. After the chorus Robinson let’s out a soulful “ow!” After which the song goes into a funky Afro-Carribean percussion breakdown. After the next verse the song stops in earnest for Santana to do his thing. He begins his solo repeating the same note over a few times with a wide vibrato, in the classic blues fashion. The percussion break comes back underneath the solo as Smokey calls out “Car-Los, Car-Los, Car-los”, encouraging the solo. Carlos plays a descending lick to go with those chants and then begins his solo in earnest.

Santana plays a masterful Santana solo, taking his time to build and going higher and higher as he hits his target notes, stopping to pause and isolate and vibrate specific notes at key emotional points. As he solos an organ tone is introduced, which holds a tense chord that provides lots of drama. His solo gets higher and higher until the end when the band hits an Afro-Latin rhythm unison lick that sounds very much like something Santana’s band would play. After the solo Smokey comes back ad libbing come ons and then saying, “Si, Si”, Oui, Oui”, with his female chorus backing him. Smokey gets them to say yes in many different languages! The song grooves out with Smokey singing and Carlos accentuating Smokeys vocals.

The combination of Smokey Robinson and Carlos Santana is a rhythmic romantic melodists dream. Carlos was a friend, student and fan of Miles Davis. And he’s a very similar musician, because while Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Van Halen, and other great trumpet players and guitarists display dazzling technique, Miles and Carlos focused on melody and emotional content and how much could be extracted from each note. Both of them then would find huge inspiration in a masterful soul singer and songwriter like Smokey Robinson, as he’s precisely the type of singer they base their instrumental approach on. And the romantic, modal moods Davis and Santana set musically are also good settings for a writer like Smokey, as this song shows. So basically, this is just a funky love song that features greats doing what they do best, and that’s what I dig about it so much.


Filed under Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE

Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me”, a Riquepeaks Review.


W.E.B DuBois century defining statement that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” was explored and fleshed out in many of that times most compelling books, such as “Beloved”, “Soul on Ice”, “Black Boy”, “The Invisible Man”, “Blues People”, “Die, Nigger, Die”, “The Fire Next Time”, “The Color Purple”, “Roots”, “To Be Young Gifted and black”, and many more. The Atlantic Magazine editor Ta-Nehisi Coates summertime book, “Between the World and Me”, is one of the best such books to appear in a long time, and it’s appearance is a timely one, occurring during a time of consistently documented police killings, a real erosion of black wealth, and The United States first Black President. Coates tone is one of fear and often hopelessness, as he talks to what is every parent’s and ultimately humanity’s hope for the future, his child. He borrows the structure from a chapter in James Baldwin’s book of essays, “The Fire Next Time, entitled “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” a letter to his nephew. Coates book has already inflamed Boomer activists such as Dr. Cornel West with its lack of rousing rhetoric, prophetic fire or spiritual hope. Coates makes it clear he was raised by an ex-Black Panther, in a household totally absent of religious faith, so when the firehoses, batons and attack dogs of white supremacy hit, he has no God to call on. All he has is fear over the destruction of his physical body, his one and only life. The Nation of Islam is a precursor to this type of thinking in the Black community, preaching, “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.”


But Coates refuses to trade Christian religious faith in the afterlife for a supposed Muslim belief in righteous justice, or any other strategy yet employed Black people to grasp at the ever elusive freedom of self determination. While the book recounts the great joy he found in the diversity and protection he found on the campus of Howard University, and he locates glimpses of Black culture and power in music, and exchanges as subtle yet seemingly mundane as a brief conversation between himself and a Black man working at the airport, he does not provide us with a larger strategy of liberation. Part of this is because his analysis of history both national and personal leads him to tell his son Samori, “I do not believe that we can stop them because ultimately they must stop themselves.”

What he definitely does not do, is ask for any higher struggle or righteousness from his son, other than to continue his own growth and development as an intelligent, bright, diverse human being, telling his son, “You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”

This affirming of black essence and rejection of respectability politics which underscores Coates stark, cold and often scary racial bottom line, along with his lack of faith in mass movements, are very familiar to me because they’re the attitude of my generation. Coates is a member of Generation X, born in the ’70s, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. William Strauss’s book “Generations: A History of America’s Future”, characterized Generation X as being reared in a tumultuous time, the ’60s and ’70s, a time of a weakening America and a rising Third World, raised by parents intimately involved in the social and political revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, kids raised in a time of rising divorce, a more explicit media culture, and uncertainty about societal roles.

For Coates, like Tupac and Kanye West, this meant having a Black Panther parent, and his father had gone on to being a publisher of Black books. Black Gen X in inner cities like Coates native Baltimore, grew up during a time of white flight, busing to white school districts, “benign neglect”, the crack epidemic, redlining, and Reagenomics. It was also the time period of hip hop, which reveled in blackness, but who’s circumstances at the time of its creation promoted Blacks self determination, or at it’s most chaotic end, individualism, materialism, and personal survival, in a nation that, after Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, was way beyond moral pretensions, with people engaging in a mad dash to “get theirs.” Hip Hop could quote Christianity but it was largely post Christian, applying it’s same sampling Post Modernist verve to investigations of belief, faith and knowledge systems. Coates reflects then, Tupac, Nas, Jay Z, Biggie, Scarface, Ice T, NWA, Ice Cube, The Wu Tang Clan, and many others in his ultra realistic, Black and proud, yet religiously pragmatic world view. Because of it’s skepticism in human nature both Black and White, and it’s realistic appraisal of the entrenchment of white superiority, Black elders such as Cornel West, Calvin Butts and C. Delores Tucker have seen the music and views, the attitudes of this generation as apathetic, avaricious, anarchic, hopeless, self defeating, counter revolutionary, and nihilistic. To which mid-90s rappers replied, they were simply “Keepin It Real”, their time period did not afford them the same strategies of liberation or American faith their predecessors had employed.


In this time, when Coates grew up In a decaying Baltimore, surrounded by what he’d term, “black bodies”, the actual threat of white people is a far away, systemic one. In a hard scrabble situation where about his peers were predominantly Black, We find Coates a shy bookish kid, forced to learn the attitudes, stances and mores that would keep his body, his black ass, alive. And it’s Coates constant reference to “Black bodies”, borrowed from Black Feminism, that makes me to understand black folks constant use, often in vehement tones of warning, about yours, mine, or their own “black ass”, sometimes said with the slave drivers anger, other times with revulsion, at other times with pity, desire, and pride. It all comes down to the body, and the survivability and viability of it. Coates didn’t deal as much (at least in this version of his story) with the direct conflict with white kids we might read in older black books because by the ’80s most of the white people had left the city for the burbs.

Coates depicts this suburban life as “The Dream”, which equals out to white kids enjoying the innocent teenage life depicted in ’80s John Hughes films without fearing for their lives by doing something as innocuous as walking and wearing a hoodie while carry Skittles. Of course white kids still had to deal with personal problems of abuse, divorce, bad parenting, bullying, and etc faced through all kids throughout time, but not the specific problems created by American racism on top of those. Coates is in the hood meanwhile, terrorized by other Black kids who are victimized by the same system, fighting to prove their own bodies will not be destroyed.

Coats breaks all the terror in Black history down to a destruction of the black body, and all the survival strategies of Blacks as attempts to protect those bodies. For in America, “it is traditional to destroy the black body, it is heritage.” Which seems like the perfect rejoinder to those who insist the Confederate Flag is heritage, which it is, but one built on pillage and plunder.


In this focus on the body he illuminates some of the basic thinking behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a basic questioning of the perceived value of black life in country and a hemisphere in which, “Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a resource of incomparable value.” In Coates reading the pillage of black bodies is what makes the A,Erica. dream itself possible.

Coates world is as grim as that of Scarface, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, or Tupac’s. He finds glimpses of the power of Black culture at Howard University, which he calls “The Mecca”, because it draws Blakcs from all over the country and the world, of every style, orientation, gift and sensibility. A small glimpse of what a thriving, functioning Black world would look like. He talks about Paris, France, and how it represents for him something similar as it did for James Baldwin, an escape from the American racial dynamic,although it has it’s own troubling racial history. All this is offered to his son as he hopes his son can maintain his more open spirit, free of the ghetto from which Coates had to unlearn so many self defense mechanisms.


Ultimately, escaping the ghetto and living closer to “The Dream” instills the fear in Coates that his son’s body will be sacrificed, as was Trayvon Martin’s, in order to preserve and protect somebody else’s Dream. Coates son no longer has to worry about Tyrone and Ray Ray, but his father is afraid he will have his progressive lifestyle and mindset taken away from him, like his handsome, charismatic friend Prince Jones, murdered by the police. He visits Prince’s mother, Dr. Jones, seemingly both to pay his respects and learn something as a parent. He finds in Dr. Jones honesty about the racial situation, and a comparison of the situation they face to Solomon Northrop’s “12 Years a Slave”, recently made into a successful picture. That no matter how far a Black person escapes economic indignity they can never be far away from the possible race related loss of their body. But he also finds in her the impassive, righteous strength of the Civil Rights generation, a strength he finds curious and attempts to understand. At the end he’s looking at the ghetto out of the window and once again feeling fearful.

Coates book is easily one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time, and valuable for me because it captures a specific racial attitude of Some black people who have grown up after the gains of the Civil Rights movement and the aggressiveness of Black Power had started to recede Into history. Although my own view is not as hopeless as his, I do believe a book like this is both along hard look into the mirror and a long unsentimental look at the terrain that is needed before the dynamics of action can be properly formulated. Coates didn’t set out to save souls but to save lives or at least help us understand why they are lost, mourn them when they are lost, and make sense of how their loss enables someone else to live.

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“Straight Outta Compton”: A Riquespeaks Movie Review


It really shouldn’t raise too many hip eyebrows that the N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton” is the most artistically and financially successful Hip Hop biopic to date, joining movies such as “Ray”, “Lady Sings the Blues”, “The Five Heartbeats”, and “The Doors” in the pantheon of the better music films. The Los Angeles based rap group, with it’s snarls and mean mugs, Raider gear, Jheri Curls, Rupert Wainwright directed videos, Dr. Dre’s Westside version of The Bomb Squads manic productions, and Ice Cube’s vivid street reporting lyrical narratives, were tailor made to represent the turmoil of ’80s L.A, and by extension, urban America. N.W.A didn’t just rap about the attitudes and circumstances that young black men found themselves in, inside of a Reagenomics practicing crack infested nation, they used their L.A instincts to embody them in sonics and appearance. Director F. Gary Gray’s film goes beyond simply recounting the details of N.W.A’s rise and troubles, to painting one of the best portraits I’ve yet seen of the perilous decade of the 1980’s in urban America. It throws you for a loop when you realize the young men being repeatedly slammed and thrown to the ground by the police would go on to become cultural icons.


Th movie begins in the action, with scenes to introduce the principals of the group and film, Jason Mitchell as the diminutive , charismatic Eazy E, Corey Hawkins as the angsty music lover Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, playing a youthful Ice Cube, talented, thoughtful, and resolute. One of the historical points I appreciate is a chance to see the “Batterram” in action, which was a Tank the LAPD used to bust down doors of residences in the inner city. The brutality is crucial when the vehicle uses it’s large gun to push a young lady into the wall, forcing Eazy to run through backyards and hop on roofs as he makes his escape.

Dr. Dre is introduced as a young man lost in music, laying on pile of vintage funk, soul, and jazz records, listening to Roy Ayers anthemic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” on headphones while his little brother shares the next bed. He’s soon kicked out of the house by his mother because she feels he’s wasting his young life. We meet Ice Cube at the end of a school day, being bused from a rich white neighborhood, riding a school bus with notebook in hand, scribbling rhymes, as a gangster boars the bus to warn the youngsters about fronting. The montage provides something all too rare in film, presenting the troubles a young black man might face in terms of humanity rather than pathology, dangerous and life threatening as they may be.

N.W.A is already very close to forming as the film begins. D.J Yella is introduced as an appendage of Dre, and comes off as a fun loving, Morris Day cum Ron Johnson type figure, which is brought across well by Neil Brown Jr. The “Villian” M.C Ren on the other hand, is introduced with Eazy, and Aldiss Hodge does as much as he can with a fairly limited role, about the only thing notable is the fact that Ren is a serious M.C and writer. The movie includes cameos of other rappers who would make up the grand, dynastic saga of L.A Hip Hop, including the D.O.C, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur.

The main villains of the movie are Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, and R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, and on a larger level, the police. Giamatti’s Heller is portrayed as a typical show biz guy who latched on to some black kids nobody would touch and ended up with unexpected, tech start up type windfalls, getting in on the gangster rap business on the ground floor. He’s dowdy, frumpy, and therefore credible enough to sneak his slick show biz hands around N.W.A’s necks. He only flinches mildly when leaned on by the great black Villian, Suge Knight. Suge’s character is not as loquacious as Don King, but he got to members of NWA on the same premise, that his familiarity, blackness, and muscle would give them a Better cut than they were getting from the white boy. He’s exposed as a brutal, bullying gangster, of the kind that has always existed behind the scenes in American show business. The members of the group struggle to come out from under the grip of the white devil on one side, and the black devil on the other. And victory is reached in this movie by surviving the control machinations of both. Ice Cube is the first to break free, refusing to sign a contract giving up his rights for $75,000.

The main villains in the movie though are the police, both white and black (“Black police showing out for the white cops”) who serve as the living face and hands of white supremacy. I literally lost count of how many times members of the group are “jacked” and “ganked” by the cops, thrown on the ground and cuffed up. It happens in front of their parents, their siblings, before stardom, on the way to stardom, and after stardom. There was one sequence where the audience was laughing at something said, and as soon as the group members step out of the door they’re immediately jacked by the police, a jarring example of how regular young men get criminalized in the urban environment.

The rise for the group happens relatively quickly, as they strike gold with their first recordings. The objections of the old school are represented by World Class Wreckin Cru founder Alonzo Williams. The group rises to stardom, women, and parties, but begins to fall apart when Ice Cube realizes they’re being exploited by Heller. Soon he is in New York recording “The Nigga You Love to Hate”, with stand ins for Public Enemy’s Shocklee brothers and Chuck D in the control booth. This forces the group to go after Cube, after which he records one of the greatest diss records of all time, the Brick sampling “No Vaseline.” The story progresses through the rest of the saga, well known to fans of ’90s Hip Hop, from the triumph of Death Row and “The Chronic”, to Ice Cube writing “Friday”, to Eazy E’s success with Bone Thugs N Harmony and tragic death from AIDS.

One of my favorite things about the entire movie is the use of the old school funk music that NWA built their music on. Steve Arrington’s “Weak at the Knees” appears in THREE different forms, first with Ice Cube free styling over it at the club, to it’s use behind N.W.A’s “Gangsta Gangsta”, to it’s manipulation by The Bomb Squad for “The Nigga You Love to Hate”. Big party scenes are underscored by late P-Funk hits like “Knee Deep” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” I already mentioned how Dr. Dre is introduced listening to Roy Ayers “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which could serve as an anthem for the Sunshine State.

“Straight Outta Compton” puts flesh on the story of “The Worlds Most Dangerous Group.” It has the distinction of being produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy’s widow, Tomica Woods Wright. As such it provides a first person view of who N.W.A was and who they thought they were, which I applaud. In doing so, many have complained it glosses over the groups attitude towards women. But I think several scenes make that clear, and should become even more clear when people go back and do their wikiapediang. What the movie does show is how central their wives and significant others were to their success. Love stories for N.W.A? Who would’ve thunk it? It does not quite reach the level of a love story, but Cube and Eazy’s significant others were shown to have very sizeable parts to play in their careers. I think the movie is doing so well because it’s one of the first that covers the historic environment of the ’80s and ’90s Hip Hop explosion, with a group that represented both the best and worst of that time. It sticks right in the 20 year zone of nostalgia, which sadly “Get On Up” missed, but it also does not make the mistake so many make when telling a black story of not dealing with the larger community. The depiction of the hectic environment of ’80s and ’90s Los Angeles takes us behind the Jheri Curl and the frown, and I believe viewers will be better off for it.



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