Game Rebellion Party for Their Right to Fight

Embedded with Game Rebellion in the psychedelic bunker of Jimi Hendrix’s fabled Electric Lady Studios, it’s clear that this brown punk band’s abiding creative aim may be that their shit never come off corny, but these brothas’ vibe is also imbued with a great deal of gravitas. What was never in doubt from the git-go is that this rock-‘n’-rolling sextet of Brooklyn youngbloods is the finest group in its genre the city can now boast. And their debut mix tape with J.Period, Searching for Rick Rubin, loudly declaims that it’s deep, too. Four years after they began to unleash the mind/metal fury along the Afro-Atlantic continuum, they’ve successfully worked out the aesthetic hot mess that is ghetto gothic. And, well, the Rebels are already wowing ’em from Puerto Rico to the PCH—and beyond to the Old World, which is always so much more receptive to black artists who would do their own transgressive thang. For those about to rock at the fourth annual Afro-Punk Festival, throw ‘dem horns with my dear friend, a New York native son and beloved music-biz veteran who, upon first seeing and hearing Game Rebellion at Don Hill’s back in January, told me they were ready for the Garden.

Now, Game Rebellion will doubtless consider the Afro-Punk bacchanal—featuring veterans like Tamar-Kali and more recent arrivals like meteoric space-rockette Janelle Monaé—to be a true Emancipation Day, fanning the flames of incendiary change revived by the band’s “Halfrican” hero in this election year: B-rack Obama. It seems kismet that the group emerged into prime time just as the official 50th anniversary of rock ‘n’ roll hit, with their simultaneous renovation of rock essentialism and seeming refutation of the racial and cultural ambivalence threading the networks of post-black, post-liberated indie bands so trendy now.

Searching for Rick Rubin is something of a miracle, trumping Game Rebellion’s fear and loathing of The Corny by matching an intellectually rigorous concept to densely layered sonic dexterity, riding on its Rubin- and Bomb Squad–informed wall of sound. Rhyme-spitting seamlessly saturated with street sense and an activist’s awareness links these bros’ flow to such immediate predecessors as recently incarcerated Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy. And, just as the formerly most intriguing rap-rock theorists in Royal Trux often channeled vital rap and punk ancestors like Betty Davis and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, black beauty ex machina abounds per lead axman Yohimbe citing the Rebels as acolytes of Bad Brains, Mos Def, Dead Prez, and Rage Against the Machine. Tattoo-emblazoned redbone frontman Netic delves into the aesthetic tension at the heart of his band’s sound on “Freedom Ring,” wherein he breaks down the ways young men of color like himself are exploited for the strength of their hydra-headed, street-spawned subculture and purposely kept in the dark about ways to overcome in the world of white power. Yet he also convincingly expresses his love and hate for hip-hop, while pursuing The Real by unflinchingly laying out how his peers are complicit in their own volunteer slavery.

The mix tape is a hybrid that works flawlessly, nodding to the 1990s apotheosis of rap-rock experiments while simultaneously dismantling that troubled legacy single-handedly on the starkly beautiful Red Hot Chili Peppers rewrite “Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” recorded with Yay Area soul rebel and Brer Beatlemaniac Martin Luther. Almost all of Rubin’s production sources are mined save, alas, Sir Mix-A-Lot (my father’s favorite rapper because he, y’know, enunciates). Cleverly, Game recoups gloriously big-mouthed Dixie Chick Natalie Maines into their musical meditation on “Back Down” (featuring W. as an unwilling guest hype man), citing her as a Voice of Their Generation to limn their political bent in a time where sexism has re-seized rock in force—while also presciently reclaiming country as mainstream African-American folk music just as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and our local Ebony Hillbillies are resurrecting sepia twang.

With the album they recorded at Electric Lady still to unfold, the mix tape is the powerful manifesto to get with for now, as it underscores all the directions in which Game Rebellion are stalwartly (re)building community. And they’ve even got their own Pedro Bell in street artist Miguel Perez (a/k/a Bounce 1) to deftly illustrate the message in their music. Not to mention the dirty dozen Mosh Generals who follow the band around the circuit and conduct rock-steady workouts at gigs with the serious, disciplined dedication of the S1Ws or the long-ago Ghetto Brothers.

At last summer’s Restoration Rocks Festival—put on under the aegis of my fellow Chocolate City transplant, black progressive art promoter/Shrine for the Black Madonna leader Brian Tate—the black- and brown-skinned moshers were out in force, but so were gaggles of fierce young children who took the stage with Game Rebellion and rocked out hard while their parents fondly banged their dread-and-‘frohawked heads in pride and pleasure. These young soul rebels, with volume-dealing members spanning the African Diaspora from Haitian keys spokesman Emi to Egyptian rhythm guitarist Chief (Ah)Med, most effectively made of that unforgiving stone plaza in Bed-Stuy an illusory multicultural wonderland.

I like big butts and I cannot lie, so I must ‘fess up that what first caught my attention about Game Rebellion was the beautiful women arrayed around them on the stone plaza at Restoration Rocks. Folk forget that rock ‘n’ roll was once not about a hip colony so much as true style (not to mention sex), so this was an important deciding factor in sussing the group’s relevance. This mental jiggering of equivalents would not be lost on Molotov metalist Yohimbe, whose father survived Altamont to enjoy a career in reggae and impart the mysteries of the six-string to his ebullient sophist son. Some Negroes ain’t skurred of guitars, see?

As our conversation in the temple that Jimi built ranged from the sacred Aleem twins who supported the Voodoo Chile hisself to Yohimbe’s nonprofit organization to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X to a Voice cover story about cops vs. rappers, the breadth and depth of Game Rebellion’s science richly demonstrated that they possess the stuff necessary to overcome. Now, these boys ain’t saints: They’re not above appreciating the myriad pleasures of European groupies, nor any of the other sacraments wholly holy to rockers since time immemorial (or around about 1954 CE). And they definitely want to make it to high times. Still, not for nothing are they the self-proclaimed and self-evident heirs to the polemical torch of Public Enemy and Rage. And there’s definitely a lot of space for the badass feminine in their cultural revolt: Jean Grae guests on “No Sleep Til BK,” and they just might have the grace and sense to undertake Searching for Betty Davis next. The men of Game Rebellion are keenly aware of the sacrifice and single-mindedness inherent in their project. They’re not just the spawn of the icons and lowlifes who comprise New York hip-hop’s canon, but also of the Diaspora’s supermen, from Nat Turner to Obama. Game Rebellion’s “gangsta-militancy” is not mere shuck-and-jive: Their fiery innervisions are firmly grounded in 400 years of African struggle upon these shores, plus five decades’ worth of Afro-futurist cultural revolt.

July Game Rebellion perform at the GGMC Parking Lot July 9 as part of the Afro-Punk Festival,


Erykah Badu: The Plebeian, Militant Homegirl

New Amerykah, the first real Erykah Badu record in a long eight years, kicks off with agitated funk guitar and the Roy Ayers brass-horny blaxploitation groove of “Amerykahn Promise.” With her neo-soul-defining Baduizm back in 1997, the now-37-year-old Southern girl (née Erica Wright) allowed boho songstresses like India.Arie and Corinne Bailey Rae to embrace their inner Joan Armatrading, presenting multifaceted images of the black female singer-songwriter. That’s great and all that, but Badu wasn’t gonna leave it there: Three years later, she invoked space-age ancestors Betty Davis and LaBelle to bust out another modern soul classic (while upending the genre) with Mama’s Gun. Her latest storms out the gate like a 21st-century Superfly. New direction?

Sort of. What “Amerykahn Promise” has in common with the rest of New Amerykah is that it’s more of an unstructured groove than a song; tracks like “My People,” “Twinkle,” and “Master Teacher” (with a muted Curtis Mayfield sample) follow suit. “Promise” ends with a little girl asking, “Has anyone seen my 42 laws?”—a characteristically arcane allusion to the 42 divine principles of the Kemetic goddess Ma’at—while “Twinkle” transitions into someone speaking the ancient African language of Mdw Ntchr before closing with the Peter Finch monologue from Network. What’s always distanced her from the likes of Jill Scott, Macy Gray, or Joi is that sacred woman Badu is a little deeper: With too much knowledge to be borne over a single album, she’s prepping New Amerykah: Pt. Two for summer ’08. Giving it up to Farrakhan and bragging about sharing a birthday with the Nation of Islam’s Savior’s Day (“Me”) is what’s always set Badu apart, lyrically and substantively.

The minimalist “The Healer/Hip-Hop” and “Telephone” both pour libations for the late, great J. Dilla; overall, New Amerykah seems adherent to the old “cohesive studio album” mold of the soul/neo-soul eras. Only the breezy, low-key “Honey” seems crafted with radio airplay in mind. As ever, Badu wants to meld plebian homegirl energy (i.e., Mary J. Blige) with a militant/holistic/spiritualist vibe—see “Soldier” and its references to Iraqi troops, The Final Call, and baptism at the broken levees of New Orleans. Pt. Two is probably where the real songs are, but for now, at least Badu’s back.


Monumentally sleazy ’70s funk, unearthed and still unhinged

In her early ’70s heyday, Betty Davis set the standard for future funk broads with strong come-ons that would scare most modern wanna-humps back to the Stone Age. On these excellent reissues of her
best records, every word hisses and slithers out of the former Mrs. Miles Davis’s chompers like a cobra ready to strike, while her uber-afroed, 17-inch bell-bottom funk backing band has a go at fuzzed-out glam stomp. Songs like “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” “He Was a Big Freak,” and “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” prowl out of the speakers so violently you might as well start looking for the baby powder now.

Like any freak, Betty takes some post-coital cig breaks (“In the Meantime,” “I Will Take That Ride”). But for the most part these reissues focus on wah-wah guitar, shuffling snares, and catty back-up gals curling around Betty’s snotty come-slither. Her relative obscurity now is regrettable, but her haunch has hovered ever since over Rick James, Prince, OutKast, the Bellrays, Amy Winehouse, and more to come.


Californian Democracy

One of the all-time classic questions of rock music is, “Where is Sly Stone?” With the funk icon’s habit (no pun intended) for turning up late (or not at all) to live performances back in the day—and his consequent disappearance from the public eye entirely by the mid ’80s—it’s long been a damn good question. Such a good question, matter of fact, that folks under 40 might not be out of line in asking, “Who is Sly Stone?” Last month, on April Fool’s no less, the 64-year-old maestro played Vegas with a band calling itself the Family Stone, reportedly singing hits for nearly an hour. They have a Montreux gig lined up for July. Beginning with a brief showing at the 2006 Grammys, despite no small amount of apparent bodily ailments, Sly Stone is slowly returning to lay a few questions to rest.

The Collection answers everything else of consequence. A timely box set of seven remastered albums ranging from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1967 debut A Whole New Thing to the ’74 last gasp Small Talk, this anthology, with the usual accompaniment of fawning liners, rare pics, and B sides, provides detailed blueprints on how to construct a dirty-funk bomb. The late James Brown never withstanding, the soulful rock fusion in the sonics of N.E.R.D., Betty Davis, Martin Luther, Rick James, Labelle, and thousands of everyday-people funkateers
selling homegrown joints on all trace their syntheses back to the Family
Stone, from Freddie Stone’s manic electric guitar on “I’m an Animal” to the pioneering slap bass of Larry Graham Jr. corralling “M’Lady” (both from the long-overlooked Life) to the straight and narrow.

It began when former Autumn Records a&r man Sylvester Stewart ditched his DJ gig in San Fran to wave his freak flag with a newly formed, newly signed multicultural, unisex band. The Family Stone stood for the flower-power spirit of the Woodstock days like former Uptown a&r man Sean Combs embodied 1990s hiphop arriviste attitude. Living the zeitgeist, Sly was among the first to trade his psychedelic drugs for coke (and later “from coke to pep,” according to Fresh‘s “In Time”), setting off his creative slide. But first came 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the enigmatic masterpiece of both the Family Stone and an era straddling hippie idealism and Vietnam disillusion. It’s sadly hard to imagine any of Sly’s progeny—OutKast, for example—crafting something as nakedly litmus-like for the Iraq era. For the meantime in-between time, we’ve got The Collection. Who’ll be first to start the Internet petition for Sony to compile Sly and the Family Stone: Live at Woodstock?