Tag Archives: Public Enemy

The ’87 Sound: “Rebel Without a Pause” by Public Enemy

“Rebel Without a Pause”, Public Enemy’s breakthrough single, is a perfect example of the changes music, Hip Hop and otherwise, would go through in 1987. P.E released their first album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” on February 10, 1987, after recording it in the summer of 1986. By the time it was released, it’s DMX drum machine dominated sound already sounded dated, next to the new, sleek James Brown samples of Eric B & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” Writer Christopher R Weingarten put it this way, “Tempos became quicker and peppy drum licks zipped around the sluggish elephant stomps of 1986’s DMX drum machines.” Bomb Squad lead producer Hank Shocklee said that by ’87 he heard the DMX in so many songs he was tired of it himself. These newer, sleeker beats, which in actuality were closer to Hip Hop’s breakbeat party origins in the days of DJ’s Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, also enabled new, more complex rhyme styles, pioneered by Rakim, KRS ONE, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. The inspiration for “Rebel Without a Pause” on a musical and technical rapping level came from Eric B and Rakim’s Funkadelic and Bobby Byrd sampling “I Know You Got Soul”, which itself would inspire Chuck to say in this song, “I got soul too!” Chuck and Hank Shocklee speak of going to a party and being dejected by the brilliance of “I Know You Got Soul”, which inspired them to go into the studio and concoct “Rebel Without a Pause.”

A James Brown sample would power “Rebel” the same way it did “Soul”. Interestingly enough, just like Eric B and Rakim’s record, they found their J.B sample, not in James Brown’s catalog, but in his extended catalog of artists he released and produced, this time from The Bootsy and Catfish Collins lead original incarnation of the J.B’s, from the song “The Grunt.” Ironically for those who feel sampling is theft, “The Grunt” itself is an almost wholesale interpolation of an Isley Brothers song called, “Keep on Doin.” But what the J.B’s had that the Isleys didn’t, was the wild, wailing, almost atonal sax playing of Robert McCullough, which The Bomb Squad would utilize as the sound that occupies the high end on “Rebel.” When Chuck D took the record home, his mother wondered if he had a tea kettle going off in his room. It’s interesting that that horn part came from a player Fred Wesley describes as “inferior to any horn player the James Brown band had before him”, but it had a raw vibe that was perfect for the alarming note Public Enemy was sounding in the late Reagen age.

The record itself begins with alarming sounds, first, the strong, southern voice of Jesse Jackson at WattStax, introducing the Soul Children’s record, “I Don’t’ know what this world is coming to”, which he began with a booming, now legendary “Brothers and Sisters!” Which P.E then follows with another alarming sound, the horn hits of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing”, which had been used before in Boogie Down Production’s “South Bronx.” “Get Up Offa..” is one of JB’s angriest records, made at a time when he felt his commercial relevance was slipping. Also interestingly enough, Jesse Jackson himself was launching his second run for President in ’87. Chuck begins his legendary rap verses with a thundering, “Yes!” He goes on to say in the verse, “They played the music/this time they play the lyrics” which is a reference to how Public Enemy’s first single, “Public Enemy No.1” was rejected by New York Hip Hop D.J Mr. Magic. “Bum rush the sound/I made a year ago” was a reference to the fact that the album P.E had just released some months earlier was actually made in 1986, a kind of apology as P.E dropped this brand new bag. He ends the verse speaking of “Panther power/on the hour/from the Rebel to you”, which is an even more explicit embrace of Public Enemy’s “Black Panthers of Rap” position they’d been slowly cultivating during their time in the music.”

In between the verses, Flavor Flav provides his Bundini Brown, Bobby Byrd, boxing cornerman hype, which was in itself a radical new sound in Hip Hop at the time. Chuck begins the next verse with the classic and often sampled, “Radio/Suckers never play me/on the mix/they just okay me”, which was a clear protest at the way Hip Hop was treated as a whole on urban radio and Public Enemy in particular by the New York Hip Hop elite. Chuck’s goes on to rap in the new style, using shorter sentence lengths and multiple rhymes to lay out the points through which Public Enemy’s whole career would rest on, such as stating he was “old enough to raise ya”, a reference to P.E’s late 20s ages at the time and the older mindset they brought to Hip Hop. He also proclaims them “Supporters of Chesimard”, a reference to Assata Shakur, who is still in the news today as Conservative forces call for her extradition from Cuba.

“Rebel Without a Pause” is a landmark record of 1987 for many reasons. Public Enemy and their producers The Bomb Squad were able to react with almost Internet era speed to the changing tides of Rap music at the time, away from the drum machine sound to the funkier, more supple samples of actual funky musicians playing on wax. Also, lyrically, Chuck and Flav introduced a strong, Pro Black, radical message, through the voice of the young people’s music, Hip Hop, that would provide a touchstone for the Afrocentric explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As we will see as our series on 1987 continues, even older socially conscious musicians like Stevie Wonder and EWF would get back to their commentary as a rejoinder to the Reagen administration, but Public Enemy here does it for the younger set. This song and others like it would basically form the attitude of young Black people from the late ’80s to about the mid-’90s. This was born out of a New York City that was full of racial tension in the ’80s, often times aided and abetted by the man who is President as of this writing, Donald J. Trump. But Public Enemy also succeed here in changing the musical side of the times, taking the innovations of Marley Marl and affordable samplers and grounding the James Brown beat as the foundation of Hip Hop. In fact, when you put “Rebel” and “I Know You Got Soul” with Prince’s “Housequake” and many other records, the late ’80s may be one of the best times the James Brown sound has ever had in the business. This sound would not only be big in Hip Hop but it would also go on to influence the realms of European and American sample-based dance music as well. And this was the first truly landmark, revolutionary record in a career that has taken P.E all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Panther power on the hour from the Rebels to you!!!!

* A little bonus material, Public Enemy’s performance of this song on Soul Train, and the diss from Mr. Magic that inspired some lines on this song and much of P.E’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

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“The ’87 Sound”: “Sign O the Times” by Prince

Of all of the songs that come to mind when I think of the music of 1987, Prince’s “Sign O the Times” shines among the brightest. It’s slightly delayed, knocking rhythm groove, and bluesy synthesizer bass, slurred like the speech of old men drinking cheap liquor, was the perfect seasoning for the meat of the matter, Prince’s late Reaganomics, state of the world address, sung in a plaintive falsetto very close to the moan of the old spirituals.

It’s clear that for Prince, those words were the thing, evident in the lyric video he produced for the song and the posters with the full song reprinted as if he wanted us to learn and take heed to each and every word. On this particular song he once again achieved the lyrical poignancy of his musical role models such as Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and many others. He also succeeded in updating the blues for the age of Digital R&B and Hip Hop in much the same fashion Marvin Gaye did for the age of Funk with 1971’s “Inner City Blues.”

Prince’s singular ability to take all of the wonderful music he knew, could play and imagine, and distill it into their most vital elements, is essential to the musical success of this piece, which caught my ear coming from my Dad’s stereo system. It starts off with four kick beats from the drum machine, answered by a delayed percussion sound, in a digital African call and response pattern. No snare drum, no vocals, no bass line, until Prince lets out a soulful “Oh Yeah”, which is the cue that brings in the reverberating snare drum and that bass.

That bass. Oh, that bass. The bass line was one of my early attractions to the song, it is a synthesized tone with a very human, vocal quality. The spareness of this arrangement is part of what makes it stand out, as other musicians and producers of the time such as Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jam and Lewis or even The Bomb Squad might have added more delicious layers to the track, Prince simply let it be so that he could bring his message across. And of course, Prince had a musical history of making the most of simplicity, as seen in previous classics such as “When Doves Cry”, and “Kiss.” This also helped him in the climate of a rising nation of Hip Hop music that focused solely on the rhythm and made him an influence on that side of music.

Part of what Prince shared with the pioneers of Hip Hop music, as well as innovators like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and many others of his time, was no fear about making music through technological means. And “Sign O’ The Times” is a song made possible by the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an expensive sampling keyboard and computer system that only the richest of musicians could utilize in the 1980s. The synth sold for $40,000 back then and it amazed many musicians with its ability to put a whole orchestra at your fingertips, which is something modern DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) do for a fraction of the price. But Prince pulled most of the sounds you hear on this song straight from the factory settings of the Fairlight.

“Sign O The Times” is so important to me personally because it is the very first song I can say that started me on the road to being a Prince fan. Being born in the early ’80s, I grew up with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “1999” and “Soft and Wet.” All of this was music you heard up and down the block in Oakland, California. I’m also the youngest in my family and my siblings were all teens at that time, and Prince’s music expressed what they were going through as teens and young adults. My mother and father were also fans of music, especially my father, but Prince, along with Hip Hop, is where they began to question things. Part of it was the fact they were very religious, Jehovah’s Witnesses in fact, which is ironic because Prince himself would be for the last 20 years of his life (and Larry Graham was once a member of the exact same Kingdom Hall I grew up in Oakland, California.) My mother used to say, “That boy is fine, but why does he have to be naked?. It’s funny because the outrageousness of Prince’s image and approach wasn’t itself new. In their collection they had Issac Hayes albums where Black Moses was shirtless, chained, wearing tights, they had Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” with a naked lady covered in the white stuff, numerous disco albums featuring scantily clad ladies, The Ohio Players soft porn album covers, even gender benders like Little Richard and David Bowie! And certainly…LOTS of short rock stars in HEELS (James Brown, Mick Jagger, Miles Davis etc).

Now my Dad in particular, he was rigid without being rigid. He never railed AGAINST Prince, and he tapped his toes and nodded his head to several hits over the years, maybe even picked up a 45 or two, but he mainly saw Prince as an entertaining gimmick more than a musician, and Dad’s first true love was Jazz. But “Sign O’ The Times” hit him much differently. ’87 was a big year I remember because Dad was going back to Liberia, West Africa for the first time since the 1980 coup. He was excited about getting some local mining exchanges started up that would help people in the interior of the country. Now when Dad was in Africa, he was known as one of the best people to get the new American music from, and he wasn’t about to let his reputation slip in ’87! So he taped a lot of songs off our local radio stations in the Bay Area, mainly KSOL, to take with him and play for Liberian parties.

“Sign O The Times” really caught Dad, from the plaintive vocals, the modern beat, and the comprehensive state of the world lyrics, dealing with AIDS, Natural disasters, gangs and drugs, the Space Ship Challenger and many other things. In fact, here was Prince with a record that very much supported a Biblical, “end times” view of the world like the JW’s had. Also, the deep blusey nature of the song hit Dad in a deep place, because Jazz and Blues were his roots music.

It seems in 1987 though, after two terms of Reaganomics reverse Robin Hood approach (Steal from the poor to give to the rich), many people in Black music had sentiments very close to Prince on this song. In this series, I will cover other politically themed songs from Stevie Wonder, EWF, and new (at the time) Hip Hop artists like Public Enemy and BDP. In history, 1987 would see the greatest stock market crash since the Great Depression, and the fiasco of the Iran Contra affair, which left a serious stain on the Reagen Presidency. The Inner Cities were beginning to crumble as ’87 was about the second or third year of the crack epidemic.

“Sign O’ The Times” has continued to grow in importance for me, from my elementary school years in 1987 to now. Chuck D, one of my favorite artists, once said on VH1 that he was impressed by and influenced by the lyrical power of Prince’s “Now he’s doing Horse, Its June” line from the song and how much that taught him about lyrical economy and suggestion. And it just so happened 20 years after that, when I walked into a party here in the Bay Area playing Prince music, hosted by DJ’s Dave Paul and Jeff Harris, the song that was playing when we walked in was “Sign O the Times” which me and my friends knew every word two, now picture that, 8 Black men singing “Sign O The Times” in unison! Prince took the title of this song from the journal of his 7th Day Adventist religion, and it was very fitting, not just for this masterwork of a song, but for the amazing transitional, funky, grooving, urban message-oriented music of 1987 and the late ’80s!

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“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.

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Music 4 the Nxt 1, Black History Month Edition: “Illegal Search” by L.L Cool J

L.L Cool J’s classic 1990 (don’t call it a )comeback album, “Mama Said Knock You Out”, is one of the greatest albums in Hip Hop history, and one of its most well balanced. Hip Hop can often be a genre where observing certain limits can often drive an artists appeal. Some of the greatest artists are known for creating and exploring rather limited personas. At the same time, there are also Hip Hop artists who have always started from the center of Hip Hop and made excursions to the boundary lines. LL, from the beginning of his career, to the present, has always been one of those artists. What amazes me to this day about “Mama Said Knock You Out” is it’s incredible balance and range. Hip Hop albums were generally diverse in Hip Hop’s “Golden Age”, but few did it as well as LL did on “Mama’s.” On this one album L.L included a posse cut (“Farmers Blvd”) an ode to car soundsystems that sampled En Vogue’s then current hit, “Hold On”, (“Boomin System”), songs that addressed his legions of enemies (“To Da Break of Dawn”, “Jingling Baby”), an allegorical story about a down on his luck rapper (“Cheesy Rat Blues”), one of the greatest ode to everyday working class women ever penned (“Around the Way Girl”) and an extremely funky Hip Hop/House?New Jack Swing fusion (“6 Minutes of Pleasure”) along with several other varieties of cuts. This was all crucial to LL’s career survival at the the time because his previous album, “Walking With a Panther”, was seen as overindulgent, bloated, satisfied, and not politically relevant to those revolutionary times. But on “Mama’s”, L.L expanded his scope and topic range, taking from all the approaches that were developed during that era of Hip Hop and delivered the solo artist masterpiece of the times. On todays Black History Month song, “Illegal Search”, L.L took the time to discuss racial issues from his perspective, that of a successful young Black man who despite his success, and really BECAUSE of it, still couldn’t get himself out of that target Chuck D designed for the Public Enemy logo.

The driving force behind the “Mama Said Knock You Out” album is the legendary Marley Marl’s production. Marley was already acclaimed by 1990 as one of the top producers in Hip Hop by virtue of his work with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap and the rest of the artists associated with his conglomeration, “The Juice Crew.” The music he provided for the album was a cutting edge collage of the most popular funk samples of the day such as James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, cut and pasted in a method that was dense like Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad but also done in a way that was more consonant and tuneful. The song begins with L.L in his car, with some blaring guitar playing from his system, instructing a passenger in his car to “put your seat belt on.” After that a swinging New Jack influenced Hip Hop beat kicks in, with a looped bass part that will reappear later in the song during the break. The vocalists harmonize on the song title, “Illegal Search” as a sample of Rufus Thomas says “I’m gonna do it”, taken from one of his dance classics. Along with that funky swinging groove, a swirling digital organ tone of the type then popular in house and New Jack Swing plays a funky riff. L.L begins his rap strong, “What the hell are you looking for?/cant a young man make money any more?/wear my jewels/and like freakin’ on the floor?/or is it my job to make sure I’m poor?/cant my car look better than yours?. LL goes on to paint the police animosity towards him as jealousy towards his success combined with stereotypical beliefs about how the financial rewards of that success were earned. Behind him the groove features a sharp, metallic snare sound with a trash can tone and shakers that keep the rhythm hot. During the next chorus L.L tells us he’s “totally relaxed” because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.

In the next verse L.L again highlights the difference of perspective between he and the prejudiced cop, “I call it nice/you call it a drug car/I say disco/you call it a drug bar/I say nice guy/you call me Mr. Goodbar/I make progress/you say “not that far.” But L.L’s paperwork checks out because his car is in his “Uncle’s name.” L.L goes on to detail a traffic stop where the police harrasses him, because he wants to turn LL’s silk outfits into prison “stripes.” After that verse L.L tells Marley Marl to “get funky”, after which Marley reintroduces the repeating, looping bassline heard at the top of the track, with the the vocals all cut up to say “Illegal/Illegal/Illegal Search.” In the last verse L.L wins his court case against the prejudiced cop. The beat breaks down to a drumbeat with some the “Illegal Search” vocals phased and vocoder like while L.L chides the police and memorializes a brother who was evidently killed or beaten back in that time in New Jersey. Marley Marl let’s the swinging groove play out for almost a minute after L.L’s last words.

“Illegal Search” is an important song to me because of the perspective L.L was writing from. While it was after N.W.A’s classic anti police songs, and nowhere near as hard hitting, it presented the perspective of an average, hard working young Black man who was being stigmatized by racist cops. L.L was the premiere male solo Hip Hop artist in the world at the time, but in his narrative he also represented those young men who had nice little jobs and were able to stack their money to buy nice cars that were their pride and joy. This is all in a climate of the late ’80s crack cocaine trade and the drug raids that treated every young Black man in or out of the inner city area as a threat. So L.L’s side of the story, with no allusions to being involved in any type of criminal activity on his part, was the basic young Black male story of his times in many ways. Sadly, the swinging New Jack song is still relevant in today’s climate of increased police killings. In L.L’s time I must admit, we were worried more about police brutality than police murder. As brutally as Rodney King was treated, he also lived for many years after that whipping, which show you to a degree how bad things are in our current times. So the police brutality of that time has seemed to escalate into more and more police killings. But it’s a testament to L.L Cool J’s artistry and the unique position he has always had in rap, as your everyday, around the way fly guy that he was able to capture the situation as well as he did on “Illegal Search.”

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Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition II: “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love

One thing I’m always thankful for is that I grew into my appreciation for Hip Hop in the middle of it’s late ’80s, early ’90s “Golden Age.” Besides the dope funk samples, high tech rhymes and pure fun of the music and images of that era, one of the most valuable things the artists of that time did were strengthen my familiarity, understanding, and appreciation of Black issues. The majority of artists mentioned something in this vein at that time, but of course the most prominent were Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, X Clan, and The Native Tongue family. One of the most powerful records from the Native Tongue family was a record I discovered watching the local video music station, “California Music Channel”, with my father, Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s classic, “Ladies First.” This song hit me on several levels, from the smooth way the ladies sang the chorus, to the fresh sample based beat, the Afrocentric attractivness of the ladies rhyming, and the seriousness of it’s divestment era South African aparteid footage, which was possibly the first time in my life I’d seen those images.

After the video opens with powerful images of great Black women like Harriet Tubman, Sojurner Truth, Winnie Mandela and Angela Davis, the beat comes in. The groove is based on a funky drumbeat sample of Bahamian percussionist King Erricsons cover of The Doobie Brothers classic, “Listen to the Music.” The heavy fatback funk drumming is supplanted in this case by the prominent mix of King Erricsons hand drums. It creates a very similar effect to another prominent Hip Hop sample, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searcher’s “Ashley’s Roadclip.” Very soon after the drumbeat comes in, we’re hit by the sweet chorus, a female voice crooning “Ooooh/Ladies First/Ladies First”. The next time around another vocal comes in that harmonizes the first. After that sweet refrain, the music intensifies it’s aggressive funk, as a funky bass line comes in, which will repeat its one bar pattern for the song, and the top end is taken care of by a horn sample of five notes playing a syncopated melody. Latifah kicks in the door hard like Big Daddy Kane, “The ladies will kick it/The Rhyming is wicked/Those that don’t know/how to be pros/get evicted/A woman can bear you/break you/take you/Now its time to rhyme/can you relate to?/A sister dope enough to make you/Holler and Scream”, before she turns the mic over to the super fresh London born M.C Monie Love, one of my great crushes of that era! Monie gets on the mic and spits some super fresh, tongue twisting syncopated rhymes ending with “Let me state the position/Ladies first yes?/Yes.” After another short chorus interlude, Monie comes back rapping another verse, which she ends with “we are the ones to give birth/to a new generation of prophets/cause its Ladies First!” Queen Latifah follows her with a “lyrical freestyle” much looser than the tense rhymes of her first verse, and one of my favorite rhymes in the song is her call and response couplet, “Some think that we cant flow. Monie Love: “Cant Flow? Stereotypes they’ve got to go, Monie Love: “Got to go”. The South African Apartheid footage of the video is intersperesed with Latifah in a darkened conference room pushing giant African fist chest pieces off the map, as well as shots of Latifah’s two B-Girl dancers. Latifah and Monie go on to drop fleet lounged rhymes as the video features other female rappers of the day such as BDP’s Miss Melodie, who was KRS ONE’s wife at that time! Latifah ends the song with a freestyle lyric in a very laid back cadence where she speaks of the songs producer, DJ Mark the 45 King wanting her to “sing”, which she would go on to do later in her career in classics like “Just Another Day” and in her career as Dana Owens.

“Ladies First” made an incredible impression on me as a young dude, to see beautiful Black sisters rhyming so competently and invoking both the history of great Black women in America as well as how that connected to the struggles in South Africa. It did something to me to see all those Black people running from the Afrikaner cops in the days of Apartheid. In one of the great ironies of Hip Hop, Latifah’s rhymes were co written by a member of the Flavor Unit named Apache, who went on to have a hit with a song a few years later called “I want to Gangster Boogie with my Gangster Bitch.” That transition in itself pretty much summed up where Hip Hop went after the golden age, with the same MC who penned lyrics for this song penning “Gangster Bitch.” Apache pretty much renounced that part of his career in the later years of his life though. But no matter, I am thankful that Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First” formed a positive, strong attitude about Black women for me in my formative years. I remember my Dad, who was only impressed with Hip Hop when it was weighty or just so funny it could be enjoyed in a disposable way, enjoying this song on that video show back in 1989, and being shocked by its sophisticated potrayal of Black history and the then current struggles in South Africa. And no matter how far I or Hip Hop have strayed, I’m thankful that songs like “Ladies First” provided my foundation in the music and culture, as opposed to the negativity that often came later.

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