Tag Archives: Hip Hop

“Music 4 the Nxt 1, Black History Month Edition: “Self Destruction” by the Stop the Violence Movement

“Self Destruction” is one of the greatest collaborative songs in Hip Hop history. KRS-ONE, lead rapper of Boogie Down Productions, and one of the greatest philosophers of Hip Hop, formed an organization called “The Stop the Violence Movement” in 1987 in response to a concert homicide. What hit even closer to home was the death of BDP’s own DJ Scott LaRock, founding member of the group and a known peace maker in the community. “Self Destruction” was released in early Hip Hop’s golden era in the year of 1989 and featured a who’s who of M.C’s including M.C Lyte, Stetsasonic, Just Ice, Heavy D, Public Enemy, and Kool Moe Dee. It was so successful at capturing the anti violence, Black unity sentiments of the rap community at the time that a similar project entitled, “We’re all in the Same Gang” was put together shortly after this song was released. For those of us who were there at the time “Self Destruction” is one of the ultimate reminders of the fresh, youthful, common sense activism of the golden age of Hip Hop.

The song begins with a sample from one of the primary intellectual fathers of Hip Hop, Malcom X, saying “All of the speakers tonight agree that America has a very serious problem.” Then the beat comes in, riding a large sample from another one of Hip Hop’s fathers, James Brown, taken from Fred Wesley and The J.B’s Nixon era funk classic, “You Can Have Watergate, But Gimmie Some Bucks And I’ll be Straight.” The main bass line from “Watergate” is sampled along with the laid back funk guitar chords of the J.B’s song. This is laid over a hard, slightly shuffling Hip Hop beat. Underneath the beat are powerful 808 drum kicks that play a pattern every other bar, leaving space for the heavy thump to be absorbed. A crashing horn sample is inserted every two bars right on the “One”, highlighting James Brown’s favorite beat. At the end of the cycle snare drums play 8th notes that bring you right back to the top of the arrangement, while the whole group chants, “Self Destruction/ya headed for Self Destruction.” KRS ONE begins his verse with a stripped down drum beat featuring a siren like horn sample. He speaks in the video from a lecture at the Schomburg Museum of Black History in Harlem, New York. KRS’s verse says, “Well/todays’ topic/self destruction/it really ain’t the rap audience/that’s buggin/it’s one or two sucka’s/ignorant brothers/trying to rob and steal from one another.” KRS makes it clear that the Hip Hop community was banding together to address the violence in the Hip Hop community, which was itself a microcosm of the dog eat dog violence in the Black community as a whole, stating “We got ourselves together/so that you could unite/and fight/for whats right.” KRS brings it home with, “The way we live is positve/we don’t kill our relatives.” M.C Delight of Stetsasonic makes it clear that Black on Black violence should be limited going into the 21st Century, saying “M.C Delight here to state the bottom line/all the Black on Black violence/was WAY before our time.”

The O.G rhyme master Kool Moe Dee raps next, delivering one of the most compelling of all the rhymes he ever delivered in his illustrious career, not just for his usual pollysallbic internal rhyming, but for the succintness of his message. He paints a scenario where a man got stabbed while his wife cried “cause he died/a trifling death.” The Moe Dee delivers one of his greatest lines, “Back in the ’60s/our brothers and sisters/were hanged/how can you gang bang?/I never ever ran/from the Ku Klux Klan/and I shouldn’t have to run/from a Blackman!/cause that’s!….” After which the group chants the chorus again. It always amused me how Moe Dee maintained his black superhero persona, slowly bobbing his head with his Geordi LaForge shades on while everybody else rocked to the beat! A sample of Gil Scott Heron counting down to “The Bottle” en espanol leads in to M.C Lyte’s famous “Funky fresh/dressed to impress/ready to party/money in ya pocket/dying to move ya body”. She goes on to describe how parties get turnt out in the hood, as brothers enter the club with drugs, knives and guns. She says “There’s only one disco/dont close one more/you aint gaurding the door/so what you got a gun for?”

Wise and Daddy O of Stetsasonic come up next, delivering a tag team rap in a jail house set over a sample of Donald Byrd’s “Falling Like Dominoes.” They use their verse to lay out the prison repercussions of stealing and tearing down the community. Next up is BDP member D-Nice, who warns that if we don’t get it together, “The rap race will be lost without a trace.” He paraphrases the Black Panther Party saying, “To teach to each/is what rap intended”, then laying down a prescient warning about what would happen to rap if the community did keep it, “but society/wants to invade/so do not walk this path/that they laid, its”. Mrs. Melodie of BDP follows next with encouragement, after which Doug E Fresh raps backed by a drum beat and his own distinctive beat box mouth percussion. Doug E insists, “It dosent make you a big man/and/to wanna go and diss your brotherman.””

Hardcore rapper Just Ice comes next, talking about his own criminal past and saying firmly, “You don’t have to be soft to be for peace.” The late great Heavy D follows Just Ice’s biting flow with his smooth New Jack delivery, saying clearly, “Heavy’s at the door/so there’ll be no/bumrushing!” After which the beat is enhanced by a sample from “Pass the Peas”, which had been immortalized by Eric B & Rakim’s “I Aint No Joke.” Heavy makes a very poignant statement for Black people when he says, “I don’t understand the difficulty, people/love your brother/treat him as equal.” He also addresses racist stereotypes head on, saying, “They call us animals/uhm uhh/I don’t agree with them/I prove ’em wrong/but right is what/you’re proving ’em.” Fruitkwan of Stetsasonic comes on smooth in black gloves rapping about how the penetentiary is the most likely end for those who don’t heed the songs message. This makes way for the masters of political rap, Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, and Chuck delivers one of the most fiery activist orations of his career, “Yes we URGE to merge/we live for love of our people!”, as Flavor Flav provides his agitated interjections. You can hear a snippet of Jesse Jackson’s “Brothers and Sisters”, just as it was used on P.E’s breakout hit, “Rebel without a Pause”, as Clyde Stubblefield’s classic beat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” also gives you “Rebel” deja vu. Chuck says it’s our job to “Build and collect ourselves with intellect”, as he raps from a radio DJ control booth reminiscent of the one in the movie, “The Warriors”, while Flavor hits dance steps outside. Chuck ends the song with a firm summantion, “To revolve/to evolve/with self respect/cause/WE GOT TO KEEP OURSELVES IN CHECK/or else it’s….”

“Self Destruction” was so strong and so potent in it’s time it formed my perception of what Hip Hop was. 7 years after Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s classic “The Message”, the next wave of M.C’s had transformed rap into a Malcom X quoting, James Brown powered explosion of Black creativity. This era of Hip Hop would essentially die out in 1992 with Dr. Dre’s nihilistic classic, “The Chronic.” But the steps these M.C’s took in their time to use whatever influence they had to steer the community in the right direction will never be forgotten by me and many others who groove to this song. While its now an obvious truth that good music cant stop or overturn the larger economic forces that Black people or any other group face, it’s also admirable for anybody who has a public voice to use it to promote the perpetuation and saftey of human life. Ice Cube would make the ultra pragmatic observation, “Self Destruction don’t pay the f!@#$ng rent” within the next year, but he also would become almost a strict message rapper in the years after this song. Though this song did not end violence, just as “We are the World” did not end poverty, it stands tall as a group of young Black men and women taking the responsibility to use their platforms to talk about something of benefit to the community. Which is something that must never be forgotten or diminished.

1 Comment

Filed under Music for the Next ONE

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Special

Black History Month is admittedly one of those things my opinion of has vacillated on through the course of my life. When I was a young child in school I enjoyed it more than anything else in my school curriculum. I have always been the type of individual who views the acquisition of knowledge with the attitude of exploration and discovery. And Black history, both in Africa and America having the “Hidden” quality that it does, due to suppression, ignorance, arrogance the profitability of subjugation and domination. My parents always had a strong sense of Black history simply from their backgrounds, my father being born in the Depression era south and being active in the Civil Rights movement, and my mother being a Liberian with a rich understanding of both Africa and her country’s roots in being established as a haven from American slavery and white supremacy. Still, I don’t think the majority of Black parents want to overburden their children with sad and negative messages. So even with my parents having the knowledge of things that they did, some of the most substantial information would come out when they were watching and responding to news items.

I was fortunate enough to have Asian and white teachers in Oakland, California who were very responsive and understanding of the predominantly Black demographics of their school, under the guidance of Mrs. Kelly, a strong Black Principal, to inject Black and multi cultural information into the curriculum. I still remember my kindergarten Teacher Ms. Huen giving us red envelopes for Chinese New Year, which is also this month, and marks the return of my birth sign, the Rooster!

So I always enjoyed learning about Carter G Woodson, Lewis Latimer, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B DuBois, Madame C.J Walker, and the numerous other luminary figures who against all odds contributed to America and kept Black people alive to get to the point we are today. Many of their inventions and discoveries proved to me a truth my father related to me from his experience down south, that a great many things were invented by very hands on Black people who were tasked with getting the work done and took it upon themselves to find an easier way to get those tasks accomplished.

Then when I grew up, in the Def Comedy Jam ’90s, I got innundated with the same jokes as everybody else, about how they “gave Black people the shortest month.” Which totally overlooks the contributions of Carter G Woodson and the fact that Black History Month is a BLACK invention. More recently the line has been “Black history is all year round”, which is one that I wholeheartedly agree with and try to practice on this blog and my other writing activities. However, just as with holidays, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other events, there is a reason Human beings choose dates to commemorate things. There is a great power to Human ritual that we sometimes forget in our modern fragmented world, a certain purification of purpose and inspiration. And it’s in that spirit that I’m adding a supplement to “Music 4 the Nxt 1” in honor of Black history month. I will still review funky songs but the scope will expand in terms of era, genre, and locale. I will cover songs of inspiration, songs in honor of Black historical figures, and songs that were just breakthroughs or inspiring to Black people at any given point of time. These grooves will come from Reggae, Soul, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz and many other genres. I hope that my readers enjoy it and that it reminds you of the struggles, accomplishments, joys, pains and exultations of peoples of African descent and why it is critical our position continue to be strengthened for the good of all.

2 Comments

Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

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!

1 Comment

Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, FUNK, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

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!

1 Comment

Filed under Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

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

imageimage

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.”

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

imageimage

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Black Issues, Book Recommendations, Social Timing

Music for the Next ONE 7/18/15 : “i” by Kendrick Lamar

As Hip Hop moved away from what some call “The Sampledelic Age”, when producers like The Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, Marley Marl and Dr. Dre would layer songs with a drumbeat from here, bass from there, guitar and keyboard hooks from this record, vocals from that record, songs from the legendary group The Isley Brothers began to yield some of the biggest results for beat samples and song remakes. This includes records such as “Today Was A Good day” by Ice Cube, “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G, “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs N Harmony, and “At Your Best You Are Love” by Aaliyah. The past 15 years in Hip Hop have seen a moving away from samples, as well as a moving away from soul, funk, and traditional forms of Black Music. Something else the music and culture has lacked is artists to pick up the crown worn in the past, the crown of encouragement, motivation and cultural value through music. With today’s weekend funk feature, “i”, Kendrick Lamar accomplished both the reinvigoration of a classic funk/soul sound through hip hop, as well as delivering the type of universal message music the people need.

“i”, produced by L.A producer Rahki and featuring Butcher Brown guitarist Keith Askey, dispenses with samples all together to recreate The Isley’s classic, “That Lady.” Interpolations, or re created cover versions, were a staple of early hip hop, providing the basis for early classics such as “Rappers Delight” and “Beat Bop.” Lamar made the wise creative choice to interpolate rather than sample “That Lady.” The music to the Isley’s classic song sounds reinvigorated as a result, and Rahki uses skillful hip hop oriented production techniques to highlight basslines, guitar parts, and percussion, revealing the intricacy of the original composition as well as the recording musicians performances.

The song begins with the classic “That Lady” intro, a guitar strumming groove over three straight eight note kick drums that sound like heartbeats. Lamar begins in a very heartfelt matter, “I done been through a whole lot/trial, tribulation, but I know God.” As Lamar goes through his verse, rapped in his trademark technique of alternating vocal tones, Askey fires up the lead guitar, exactly as Ernie Isley did. The verse is timed so that as soon as Lamar ends his verse, the hook begins, which also brings in the classic busy funk/calypso bass line, eighth note rock/funk drumming, and classic overdriven lead guitar. It’s to great musical effect that the super powerful chorus “I love myself” is tied to the explosive rhythm arrangement of “That Lady.” Lamar and Rahki solve the challenge of fitting rap lyrics into a busy funk arrangement, setting Kendrick’s raps over a relatively subdued section of the music and the inspirational chorus over Askey’s interpretation of Isley’s soaring guitar. In particular I like the musical section arranged for the last verse, with the bass improvising a busy sixteenth note line, and a drum machine being utilized with sharp horn stabs. The song flows out with busy military style drumming and a fine sixteenth note oriented bass guitar solo.

The throne of relevancy in black music has sat vacant for a very long time. The throne once sat artists such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Earth, Wind & Fire, and P-Funk. Not to mention hip hop entities such as Public Enemy, BDP, Nas, Tupac, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Lauryn Hill. The throne and crown that goes with it of an artist making music that is both funky and musically appealing, while also relevant in its spirituality, humanism, and value for human living. Kendrick acknowledges those links by including funk icons George Clinton and Ron Isley in the video for “I”, as well as asking Isley’s permission in person to use the song before he recorded it. Nelson George wrote once that Hip Hop starts with the word “I”, positioning Hip Hop music as a Muhammed Ali influenced exercise in black self esteem, pride and redemption. Even when the message isn’t there, Hip Hop always has that value by nature. Kendrick Lamar writes his “i” in lower case letters, just as bell hooks writes her name, to emphasize the individual’s connection to other individuals. And that self love should translate into love for ones neighbors, community, nation and world. He goes back to the rousing spirit, Afro-Latin dance funk of “That Lady” because in the black community that ’70s funk, long before there was a thing such as crack cocaine, represents hope, optimism, peace, love, and having fun, as James Brown and Afrika Baambaata put it. Looking at YouTube comments, some youngsters didn’t get it, mainly because they’ve been raised on a steady diet of Playstation music. But there were many things I didn’t get when I was younger either. In the end, I still vote for “i” as the new Millennium Hip Hop version of “The Greatest Love of All”, “Wake Up Everybody” and “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now.” The new link in a long chain of hope, resilience, and freedom. All Hail King Kendrick!

1 Comment

Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

#SummerOfJ.B: A Funky Introduction.

image

The debut on August 1, 2014 of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” starring Chadwick Boseman, Jill Scott, and Viola Davis, allows hard core James Brown fans like myself a chance to reassess his legacy. When the Godfather passed in 2006, there was a suitable outpouring of emotion represented by his tributes at the Apollo Theater and at James Brown Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. Yet, Brown had survived Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Little Willie John, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and many other artists of his generation who were essential in providing a musical soundtrack for the social changes that took place in the latter half of the 20th Century. Because of his longevity and the massive reach of his impact, Mr. Brown became someone one could almost take for granted.

The true appreciation of Mr. Brown for me began early, but still somewhat later than it should have. As an ’80s baby, I grew up with The Godfathers descendants such as Prince, and Michael Jackson. The large funk bands were generally seen as on the decline, excepting Cameo, The Gap Band, and survivors like Kool & The Gang and The (Lionel Ritchie less) Commodores. Groups like New Edition had the youth audience. New soul flavors were coming over from the United Kingdom. My parents were huge James Brown fans but they were also musical progressives. In the home I was hearing a lot of Grover Washington Jr, Miles Davis, Sade, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, George Benson, recent late ’70s Commodores, Herbie Hancock electric funk, Steps Ahead, and a whole lot of Reggae. My older brothers and sisters were playing Prince and Hip Hop, plus great ’80s singles like “Hangin On a String” by Loose Ends. On lazy Saturdays or Sundays Dad would break out the reel to reel machine and play Coltrane, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, old Miles Davis, Eddie Harris, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Diz and Bird, and many programs he D.J’ed for VOA’s “Sound of Jazz” program.

Somehow in all of this, I only saw and heard fleeting glimpses of James Brown. Of course, J.B was very busy at this time, recording “Unity” with Afrika Baambaata, having one of his biggest pop hits ever in “Living in America”, touring all around the world, and eventually, getting into trouble. But somehow, in Oakland, California, a city that had been finally taken over politically by its black majority, and which had always been a key stop on the James Brown Express, I didn’t actually hear too much J.B in my earliest years.

All of this seemed to change around 1987, 1988, which is right when Hip Hop reasserted James Brown’s influence on both their music and the culture. The early Hip Hop D.J’s in New York used all manner of James Brown tunes to rock their parties. What sometimes gets lost is, many of these James Brown songs were contemporaneous to the early hip hop parties. For instance, in 1974 when the first Hip Hop parties were held, James Brown had singles such as “The Payback”, “Doin it to Death”, and “Funky President.” He also rocked the concert in Zaire (now the Congo) that went along with the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title fight known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, of which this year is the 40th anniversary. James pop profile dimminished each year after that, but he still had thunderous hits like 1976’s “Get Up Offa That Thang” (which provided the horn blasts for Boogie Down Production’s classic “South Bronx”). He was a fixture on the R&B charts even in the late ’70s, as viewings of ’70s episodes of Soul Train will attest to. Records like “The Spank”, “For Goodness Sakes Take a Look at Those Cakes”, “Eyesight”, “A Man Understands”, “Bodyheat” and “Give Me Some Skin”. These records captured the essence of the J.B groove in the high point of the great funk bands such as EWF, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Commodores, Kool & The Gang, The Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, Graham Central Station, and many other funky artists in that funky decade. A glance at Soul Train episodes post 1975 will show you how whether a song went to the top of the charts or not, James Brown funk always did what it was designed to do, get people up!

Of course, around 1988-1989 Mr. Brown came into my attention for the troubles he was having with the law at that time. I’d seen him earlier do his cape routine on the special, “Motown Goes Back to the Apollo.” It was kind of hard to seperate James Brown, his impact, and how his music still related to the modern thing, when he was placed alongside his peers and rock and roll legends such as Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and the Four Tops. All of these artists were great, influnetial artists, but their music and social impacts were not about to reignite like Mr. Brown’s was, in the late ’80s.

I remember watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom and seeing Mr. Brown going to jail and her talking about “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and James Browns concert in Monrovia, Liberia, and how she loved his hair. My dad talked about James Brown and the J.B’s and his favorite songs, like “You Can Have Watergate (But Gimmie Some Bucks and I’ll be straight), and “There Was a Time” with it’s “Groove Maker”, and “Doin it to Death”, and J.B’s career as an organist on Smash records.

Then, my real immersion into hip hop began. Earlier Hip Hop in the ’80s had used drum machines to contstruct spare, original beats, inspired by older funk and rock, but not directly sampling the recordings. By the late ’80s it seemed the world was a constant barrage of raw, James Brown beats. On every side of hip hop I liked, JB was there, from Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Aint No Joke”, to Salt & Pepa hollering “Pick up on this”, from Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”, to The 45 King’s “900 Number.”

My primary two influnces in hip hop, disparate as they were, both trafficed in James Brown. Public Enemy and M.C Hammer covered different sides of the man’s music and legacy. Public Enemy sampled bits and pieces of many recordings to create their own new funk. Chuck D and Flavor Flav traded off vocals in the manner of James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Their music focused on street conditions and black empowerment, just as Mr. Brown did on “Dont Be a Dropout”, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, “Mind Power”, “Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved”, “Soul Power”, “Funky President”, “Reality”, and many other songs. The controversy they generated at times in their career could call to mind the social currency James Brown had, the way he was black listed after “Say it Loud” for instance.

M.C Hammer, my Oakland hometown hero, represented another side of James Brown legacy. While Public Enemy were consumate performers as well, Hammer actually was a dancing machine, with a large band, back up dancers, and the theatrical presentation that Mr. Brown and other soul era performers bought. He also was largely successfull and admired for his business acumen, as Mr. Brown was in his day, when he was known for owning 4 radio stations and a Lear Jet. Hammer built on and expanded on the R&B influenced side of Hip Hop performing, represented over the years by Afrika Baambaata, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Whodini, and Kool Moe Dee. This style has pretty much always lost out in hip hop to the spare RUN DMC style of M.C’s walking back and forth across the stage, which some people feel is more pure and reflective of Hip Hop’s New York City park origins. But there are always people like Hammer who bring the R&B glitter and excitement to their performances as well. Hammer though, was the best and the most compelling.

Hammer also represented the other side of James Browns social concern. If Public Enemy was pegged as the radical side, Hammer represented the side that was about stopping the violence in the urban neighborhoods, getting an education, going to work, owning businesses, and building. Of course, in a post Civil Rights, post Black Power world, Hammer, who was from the city of the Black Panthers, had a millitant side too, but that is not what people saw. Hammers insistence on not cursing because he was a role model for kids was also from the James Brown book. Together, Public Enemy and Hammer represented all those sides of J.B.

But Browns impact was not limited to them. Somehow, as a little kid in the ’80s I didn’t know Michael Jackson and Prince were descendants of J.B as well, maybe the TOP two. M.J maybe took James Browns performance based ethic to it’s highest height, and Prince expanded on his role as a musical innovator of funk, by also incorporating the innovations of Brown’s contemporaries, like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, P-Funk, Al Green, and many others. But M.J and Prince were able to inhabit a whole other rarified air for black pop stars, delivering music that was authentic and yet widely popular at the same time. But somehow, it would take much later for me to understand the high tech, futuristic funky pop of The Thriller and His Royal Badness as fruits from the James Brown root.

Arsenio Hall’s show was key in exposing me to James Browns performances. I remember pestering my Dad about Brown, and pops breaking out the vinyl to “Live At the Apollo Vol 2” and “Doin it to Death”. He laughed as he recounted stories of Richard Nixon and Watergate. And he told me about a huge audience in Monrovia, Liberia singing along to “Hey, Hey, I Feel all Right.”

My appreciation for Mr. Brown would grow throughout the ’90s, as I purchased CD compilations and eventually vinyl albums. A James Brown concert was even my first concert ever, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, with my parents and my best friends, Jesse and Frank. The appreciation of Mr. Brown has been something I’ve bonded with over many people, and his determination, drive, attention to appearance, independence, pride and many other aspects of the man continue to inspire me to this day.

This series will cover various aspects of James Brown’s music and career in anticipation of the August 1 release of the “Get on Up” movie. It will continue to run for the duration of the summer, which will take us into around October on the West Coast. James Brown’s funk music is very direct and does not take much thought to get into. But James Brown’s life, career, impact, and the specific messages he put out there are very rich subjects that point to a very unique viewpoint on America, Black people in America, and the world. James Brown was a poor sharecropers son who grew up in a Whorehouse and was a Juevenile Delinquent, who rose from that to become one of the most impactful, classiest entertainers of all time. As such, he had a unique message to share. And he was never one of those singers who felt they should “just sing.” Brown was unique because although his show definitely provided escapism, through its funky grooves, slick outfits and large dynamics, it was an escapism of, or through IMMERSION. James Brown, in that fine Black tradition, immersed you in reality, and sometimes troubles, to get you to go past and transcend them. Or as he would say, “Get Up offa that thang, and dance till you feel better!” As Chadwick Boseman brings him to life across the celluloid screen, now is as fine a time as ever to look at a portion of what Mr. Brown did and how he did it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appreciation, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")