On Big Daddy Kane’s record cover, three Nubian hand maidens in a regal, Greco-Roman fantasy tend to the every wish of the Cameoed King. Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin’) one whispers as she leans over his shoulder, proffering a goblet of Calvin Cooler. Pause, then flip over this bad, blood-filled, basement-party album. Centuries later, Kane plays a game of Trouble in a Brooklyn living room with Mad Money Murf, while the same unnamed virgin looks on. DJ Mister Cee rests, dreaming of another master plan or mix. Dancer/rapper/barber Scoob Lover, dancer Scrap Lover, and a teddy bear chill.
A historically-hushed rift is implied by these two images. Between ancient Afrakan vivacity—ripped off and up by uneducated Greeks and post-their-Renaissance Europeans—and modern-day African-American samo-samo lies a chasm of truth, one that opens long ago near the Grand Lodge in Luxor, Egypt. As George G. M. James reveals in Stolen Legacy, as Martin Bernal expounds in Black Athena, and as Kane alludes in the exultant “Word to the Mother (Land),” Luxor is where Socrates saw the words “Man Know Thyself,” then bit ’em, sure that they’d work great as a slogan back home. He was right.
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The rift widens. Much gold around a king’s neck might hint at Luxor’s heyday, at Kane’s revision of the Staple Singers’ warm, wet, free-at-last Utopia (also called “I’ll Take You There”), or of the great Kankan Musa. Tells historian Maulana Karenga, this Malian mansa, or emperor, left on a yearlong pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, taking along 60,000 baggage men, royal secretaries, soldiers, and Black urban professionals. Passing through Cairo with these, 80 to 100 camel loads of gold dust, and a generous attitude, he gave away so much gold that its Egyptian price was depressed for the next 12 years.
Yup. Kane’s fat gold ropes might remind you of Mansa Musa from Mali. Then again, they might just remind you that DeBeers/Botha break Black backs with demonic regularity in South African mines. Today, the hoops and dookies are cold sold for a king’s ransom, not given away, in stores with door buzzers and inch-thick glass. So, Big Daddy—where you at? Past, present, or Black to the future? Are you the ruler of old on the album’s front, your toplofty tone most dominant in “Long Live the Kane,” or an around-the-way on the back, endearingly dope in “On the Bugged Tip,” lovestruck and longing on “The Day You’re Mine”?
What he is is a point-blank African-American, complete with the requisite wish list. Kane supports Minister Farrakhan and the fact of Afrakan historical primacy, though critics still fiending for Public Enemy’s warm jockstraps, Rakim’s glowing brilliance, or acid house probably haven’t noticed. Kane plays the riffs and rifts well (Afrakan or American? Gold trunk jewelry or Black rule in South Africa? Light skin or dark? B’klyn or anybody else?) over an original music made from scraps of original music. Five-Percenter self-sufficiency gets with Roy Rogers, Gucci, and Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, and it all comes to a head. In 1988 Blackland, drug dealers are arbiters of taste, and We, descendants of Afrakan kmgs and queens (but lacking diplomatic immunity), are target practice for the 5-O. For Kane, as for James Brown, Hendrix, Coltrane, Beethoven (Black, caucasianized for the record), and other new music makers, here the future of music (dope) meets Black life’s particularly present-day dick-downs (dog food).
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“I wanna get into my thing!” Kane quoted one June night at the Apollo. “Can I get into my thing? MOVIN’? GROOVIN’?” Then, as Scoob ‘n’ Scrap twisted, shook, and folded their unfailingly limbered physiques, the Microphone Lord dropped a brand new bomb and “Set It Off,” popping pailfuls of pentametrical poetry, knotting together metrical foots trochaic and trisyllabic. The crowd searched hard for their minds, hyped by this smooth ‘n’ sweaty showman’s versificatory variations. If Rakim flows, Chuck D jump-cuts, and KRS ONE conversates, then Kane blurs. He’ll race, as he does on the upcoming, rabid “Wrath of Kane,” or he’ll rhyme like he wrote the lyrics out on a chalkboard, smeared the words with an eraser, then said that. His tone is teeth-sucking, like a brother sounds when he’s about to wax the behind of some recalcitrant basskicker. “You don’t want none o’ this!” Kane insists on “Set It Off,” right before one of his velvet-gloved beat-downs—hyperbolic, discombobulating, gentlemanly assaults so swift you don’t realize you’ve been insulted ’til much later (“Get you a nurse … too late! Get you a hearse!”). Nobody’s spared, with “Raw,” muscular rhetoric front to back. “Shut the fuck up,” Kane snorts mock-pissedly on “Mister Cee’s Master Plan” when his DJ gets mike-happy. From “Half-Steppin'”: “I grab the mike and make MCs evaporate/The party people say, ‘Damn, that rapper’s great!'” Spoken wistfully over producer Marley Marl’s odd, dreamy, butt-swingin’ groove, the boast comes off as a most sublime mastery of understatement.
Big Daddy Kane, the man who would be king, is, in a way, hip-hop’s most normal, gimmickless artist. That is, if L.L. Cool J was state-of-the-art in 1987, Kane’s the same in ’88. Not to say at all that L. is outta here, y’all, but yo: If he ever takes off the Kangol, there best be a Hi-Lo below.
P.S. Editor Marty Gottlieb & Co. say: “Doesn’t being thanked on the back of Kane’s album affect your critical credibility, Harry?” I’m not a critic. I’m a brother who speaks the people’s truths on their terms, and I’m thanked for that. My credibility? Most intact. ❖
Big Daddy Kane will be at the Apollo November 18.