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Hiphop Nation: Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free

Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free
January 19, 1988

Remember the Roxanne wars of ’85? U.T.F.O. cut “Rox­anne Roxanne,” cold-dissing yet another “stuck-up, devious, and sinister” home­ girl. Along comes 15-year-old Roxanne Shanté from the Queens Bridge projects, Long Island City, the unauthorized rap­per behind “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Shanté (real first name: Lolita) tells the U.T.F.O. crew to “suck my bush.” Requests for “Roxanns’e Revenge” pour into black­-music stations it before Pop Art Records even presses it. U.T.F.O., after threatening to sue, answer with “The Real Rox­anne,” sung by the Roxanne of their choosing. Shanté takes it to the stage, namely the Roxy-Red Parrot scene in New York, and wins the battle with fierce freestyling. In ’86 she drops out of sight.

After having a kid (Kareem), Shante surfaced last summer when producer Marley Marl convinced her to record “Have Nice Day” (Cold Chillin’). Shanté comes back Ali-style, proclaiming in her trademark squeak that she’s “the mike’s grandmistress…the queen of the crew with the juice” — laurels that, in her the absence, Sparky Dee, M.C. Lyte, Salt ’n Pepa, and others so young, the title in ques­tion should be princess; if there’s a queen in the house it’s Millie Jackson.)

Certainly, in Salt ’n Pepa, Shanté has stiff competition. Shanté herself calls Salt “shocking,” which I took to mean stupid-fresh. Shanté’s three singles (the third, “Payback,” was cut in ’85 and re­leased only recently by Pop Art) deliver their share of quick-draws — “A lot of to MCs most today of rap those to MCs/So please/But when I gave it comes birth around to the month of May /Send me your royalty check for Mother’s Day.” But it’s live on the mike where Shanté has most female rappers beat; given an inch, she’ll read any man in the audience faster than a snap queen can raise his right arm. When we met she obliged me with samples of her freestyle “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” I remembered to close my mouth about three minutes later, no joke.

On the subject of male rappers and their female problem, Shanté had no use for any oppressed-other politics. She ac­cepts what rap boys have to say about girls, for the most part, with a shrug and a smile. Yet “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money” isn’t about accep­tance. It’s much closer to Janet Jackson’s idea of control, and seems to me to be more sound advice to Shanté’s primary audience than”Papa Don’t Preach.” Just who owns the means of reproduction? I’d like to hear someone answer Shanté on that.

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Lisa Jones: Tell me about your live show.

Roxanne Shanté: They turn off the lights. My MC says, “Are you ready for Then Roxanne Shanté? Well here’s the queen.” Then I go (from offstage): “We came here tonight to get started, to cold act ill or get retarded.” The we play Public Enemy and I go out there. I say, “Tell them who I am?” My DJ cuts in Heavy D and the Boys’ “The Overweight Lovers in the House.” I say, “Wait, who am I?” The DJ repeats Heavy D. Then he cuts in “Pay­back.” I rap freestyle to that, do my new single another “Have a Nice Day,” and end with another freestyle.

How does the freestyle go?

Usually I start with, “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” And more stuff about guys. My language is very vulgar, and that’s bad because I have little kids who come see me and they go home quoting me. I had somebody’s mother call me up. Her kid is four and she took her to see me at a stadium in New Jersey. For the past two weeks this kid’s been going around the house saying, “The pussy ain’t free, you got to give up money.” Some people tell me, “Listen, don’t you think you oughta cut it down?” If I did cut it down, what would I do — “One-two, one-two, what we would gonna I ­do?” My audience is used to hearing me say things like, “See that guy right there? He makes me sick. Always  wanting the [pause] but [pause].” You can imagine what goes in there. [Whispering] “Always wanting the pussy, but ain’t got no dick.”

You can say that in this paper.

Really? I must sound like I’m terribly nasty. I’m not.

If you use that language, there must be a reason for it.

Some people say I use it just to be known, ’cause I had to work so much out harder there than and men say, did.  L.L. [Cool J] can go out there and say “Rock the bells,” and  the crowd yells.

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And when you use that language… 

They love it. If they didn’t love it, I wouldn’t use it. When I pick a guy out of the crowd and start dogging him ’cause he said something smart, the crowd goes wild.

You bring him up on stage?

No, he stays right there in the crowd, behind the guards, ’cause he might get mad and try to punch me. If he yells something like, “Yo, fuck her,” I’ll be like, “What? Fuck your mother,” and such and such. I’m a little nicer now. I don’t get that many hecklers ’cause don’t nobody wanna get cursed out and be embarrassed the next day in school. “Ahh, I seen it Roxanne curse you  out.” Some guys like it ’cause them popular the next day. They be like, “Talk about me, talk about me!”

You get out there and you really dog ’em, but these guys get off on it. 

Guys guys like me, it’s the girls who don’t. The guys be looking forward to getting the drawers. [Sexy male voice] “Yo baby, you need such and such.” They be giving me all that cooneckedyneckedy talk. They be looking forward to gettin’ some so they can say, “I got Roxanne!” Now, girls, they roll their eyes, act like they don’t like me. Some girls I meet are nice, they’ll say, “Yeah, I like your records.” And then some will be like, “I coulda done better.” Well, bitch, if ya coulda done better, why am I up here and you’re down there? If you came to heckle, why you waste your 15 country dollars to come see me if all you gonna do is stand there and stick your lips out? Me and girls never got along. Never, ever, ever got along.

Is that why you started rappin’, be­cause you hung out with guys?

I hung with guys. Never with girls. Like I said, they cause problems. I’d say guys encouraged me to rhyme. Guys like Ha­kim, M.C. Shan, and them. You know, beating on tables and stuff like that. They inspired me a lot.

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When “Roxanne’s Revenge” came out, you were 15, right?

Fourteen. Tasting success. I would go to the park with my friend Sherron and the fellows wouldn’t want to give me the mike. How dare they? When I got it, I’d start with, “You right there in your mock neck and Lees/Scratching your ass like you got fleas.” The crowd would go crazy cause I was so little, with a high-pitched voice.

You told me you don’t like “Dumb Girls” [Run-D.M.C.], but “Dear Yvette” [L.L. Cool J] you like. Don’t they both dog women?

To me, ”Dumb Girls” had no meaning, What’s the sense in making a record called ”Dumb Girls”? Girls aren’t dumb. If you think about it, a dumb girl can get more out of a guy than a really smart girl can. ‘Cause the dumb girl could be play­ing dumb. It was a stupid dumb record. I started to make a record called “Dumb Guys,” but I didn’t want to do anymore answer records.

I didn’t find anything wrong with “Dear Yvette.” L.L. was talking about one girl. Her name was Yvette. And I know a lot of girls like Yvette. He wasn’t downing her, he was trying to get her to better herself. So he wrote her a letter, telling her what she should do, get a GED, and stuff like that.

I listen to songs by male rap artists and it seems like all the women are either hos, bitches, stealing their seeds, ripping off their gold chains and Ballys, or like Dana Dane, running off with all their Gucci stuff. 

See, there’s no such thing as a a “in-between girl.” Even the homeliest girl wants. She wants more to make herself look better. She wants gold earrings, chains, et cetera. Guys pamper girls and make them want these things, anyway. And what makes a girl a ho? Because she won’t give you none? I walk down the street and guys say, [homeboy voice] “Yo baby, yo baby, I’m talking to you, yo Trooper.” (I wear a Troop jacket.) And when I don’t speak, they say, “Yo, fuck you ’cause you ain’t fly anyway.” I’m the type to stop and turn around and say, “Then why the fuck was you chasing me?” And then he says “Yo, baby you don’t have to go out like that.”

Guys dis girls for the stupidest reasons. They want the kind of girl they can just slap up. No nigger slap me, I haven’t been slapped yet. Let somebody slap me.… Wait a minute, I have. So, I lied.

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One hand, you ‘re saying you don’t mind the records male artists are making about women…

Rap is about using fighting words, in­stead of fighting. Instead of saying “Let’s fight,” people say, “Let’s battle.” I bet you rap has saved a lot of lives. Even though there were shootouts afterwards!

Half of it is about people getting so dressed up for rap shows. Not suits and stuff, but in stuff that cost more than suits: leather and Gucci suits and sneak­ers, Fila suits and sneakers. We’re talking expensive shit here. So if somebody steps on homeboy’s sneakers, of course he’s gonna break and wanna fight. Especially if the other guy got on Pro-Keds, flair-leg jeans, and a mock neck. There used to be this guy going around called the Slasher. He’d slash leather jackets at parties and concerts. Do you know how ugly a leather looks after it’s been cut?

You said that guys dis girls unneces­sarily, but you also said sometimes girls deserve it.

Maybe L.L. did have a cousin named Yvette. Yvette, that’s your problem. May­be there are dumb girls out there, okay, that’s their problem. I have had records made about me that have gotten deep­down dark and dirty. I’ve been called “project ho,” from niggers who never got a bit o’ pussy. Why I’m a ho, cause you didn’t get none? Or did you ask and I told you no? And then things like, “Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fuckin’.” How long he been knowing me? ‘Turns out he never even met me. I could’ve bugged out, ran up to him and killed him, he wouldn’t have known what I looked like.

As long as you’re able to defend your­self with words, you don’t care what they say?

Exactly. But sometimes I feel hurt about records made about me, especially those that came out when I wasn’t even making records. Regardless of how hard I play on the outside, I’m still a woman. I’m still sensitive. I don’t like to see dogs get hit by cars, I don’t like to see children get beatings.

What do you think of the other women rappers?

There’s enough room for everybody. I’m not against no female rappers, just as long as they don’t get in my way.

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What about a battle between female rappers?

That would have to be a Don King promotion, because it would be a strict fight afterwards! That’s something you’d want to put on before a Tyson fight! Put everybody in the ring, let all the mikes come down, and let everybody go for theirs! I can’t rate myself. I might not be the last one standing, ’cause girls can get down and start writing, and I’m the kind of person to do mine off the top of my head. I’d be so nervous, I’d be downright vulgar. I’d say the kind of stuff that makes people’s mothers climb into the ring.

It’s a good idea. No one could possibly predict the outcome. They could have me, Sparky Dee, Salt ‘n Pepa, M.C. Lyte, and any female  who think she can cope. That would be def.

What would you say to Salt-n-Pepa in the ring?

I’d be like, “Your mike sounds wack, check one/Your mike sounds wack, check two.” I’d think of some crazy shit if it got down to that. I would. I’d be like, “You think you can fuck with me? C’mon, there’s no reasoning, knock out the box, you’re nothing but seasoning.”

Why would a showdown between the women be so crazy?

Let me tell you. If men go crazy over mud wrestling, they ought to come see some female MCs get crazy. I used to battle girls at my shows all the time, and they’d cry. And I’d have to explain to them that it was all in fun. “No, fuck you,” they’d say, and then we’d start fighting. Women just fight, they go crazy. They be having fights that guys don’t wanna break up ’cause they think some­body’s clothes gonna come off. I think girl rappers are more fierce than guys.

Who’s the fiercest after you?

Salt. I think it’s Salt. She’s good. Shocking. They have a nice show, they ­dance. I don’t do that. I walk out there, get a seat. I look like a female Bill Cosby, I have my legs crossed and I just talk.

What do you wear when you go on?

Anything I have on. I don’t get dressed up ’cause I find it fake. A hip-hopper is a regular street person, so I wear my regu­lar clothes. If I was doing a show tonight;, I wouldn’t wear this hat, but I’d wear these jeans, these sneakers, this shirt, and put curls in my hair. Throw on a Gucci hat or something. I’m not a dressy person. That’s why when I go out, people see me and say, “That ain’t her, look what she got on.” ■

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M.C.LYTE: Lyte as a Rock

On the phone with M.C. Lyte, com­poser of the epic poem “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)” (First Priority Music) hip-hop’s self-described “ultimate MC,” and certainly, as long as we’re a society into demarcations along the lines of gender, its best female vocalist. (She’s its best female lyricist, too, but in this genre, that’s redundant.) How would you describe your style, this so-called “Lyte Touch?” I ask. She pauses to think as labelmate Milk Dee bumrushes the conference call. “Hard…her calling card…”

She replies. “I guess you would say it’s sort like a female hard-rock. I bet you nine times out of ten, most girls, their voices are at the same level, has the same weight, that mine does. They just wanna play that ‘pret­ty female’ role” — she does a syr­upy, daisy-picking voice — “you know, doing all that fancy sty­lin’, when they could really be smackin’ people with their rhymes.”

Ouch. Bel’ voice is kinda low for a 17-year-old. What is does she think of it? “There’s nothin’ I can do about it,” she says, laughing. “I get ranked on from head to toe. I was even at one point called ‘Teddy Pendergrass,’ so you know how that goes.”

Hard…” Milk says again.

I use to be in love with this guy name Sam
I don’t know why ’cause he had the head like that of a clam
But you couldn’t tell me nuttin’ ’cause Sam was number one
‘Cause to me oh my gosh he was one-in-a-million
I should o’ knew the consequences right from the start
That he’d used me for my money and then break my heart
But like a fool in love, I fell for ‘is game a-but
I got mine so I show no shame
In Empire, winked his eye, and then he kept walkin’
All o’ those who live in Brooklyn know just what I’m talkin’
The roller disco, where we all used to go
A-just to have some fun, back in 1981
You know the place-Empire Boulevard is where I first saw the nigger and? he tried to play hard but
I knew the deal ’cause I knew his brother Jerry
And Sam he just broke up with girlfriend ‘Jerry so
Jerry introduced Sam and I that night
He said, “Hello, my name is Sam” I said
“Hl my name is Lyte”
We yipped and we yapped and we chit and we chat about
This and that from sneakers to hat
He said, “Look I’m in the mood for love
Simply because you’re near meeee!”
Let’s go
‘lb my house, lay back and get nice, watch television
A Riunite on ice
I said-a, “Slow down know you wanna shake me down
But I’m not one o’ the girls to go rippin’ around.…”

“Ultimate is a level,” she says, “and a certain amount of MCs can get to this level. I’m not sayin’ that I’m the only female MC that can do this, But I am at the ultimate level.

“You’ve only heard a piece, awright? When you hear the super dope def stuff that I have, you will say that Lyte is on the ultimate level.”
—Harry Allen

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L.S. FRESH: Dick Got Stuck

On line at a supermarket in San Francisco’s Hispanic Mission district, two 12-year-old girls chanted: “l met a guy, his name was Tussy/Took him to my house and he ate my pussy.” The song will be performed soon in supermarkets throughout the country. ”I met a girl, her name was Stacey/I took her home, she sat on my facey.” Copyright 1987 by Fra — naw, you can have it free, it’s a gift.

Those of you who don’t get to supermarkets much can experience similar pizzazz listening to L.S. Fresh sing “You Can’t Get No Pussy” (12-inch single, Revenge, PO Box 312, Bellflower, CA, 90706), a rap back at 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy.” L.S. Fresh says, “Don’t call us bitches, don’t call us ’hos/ Cuz when it comes to that only your mother knows” — in your teeth, boys.

Most important; this is music. 2 Live Crew’s cock rap was no sexier than a pneumatic drill. L, S. Fresh sounds attractive. Not the high-glitz “sensuality” that pervades Urban Desultory Radio; rather, a languorous, out-of-tune dead­pan. The cruddy sound helps the effect, masking her voice, making it mysteri­ous. I like c:ruddiness; this is low tech done right. The beatbox plays bass drum, snare on the backbeat, synthesized bass: rhythm stripped to its skeleton; you can play it with two hands on a subway seat. Add barest echo and sound effects, used as punctuation, as percussion, as commentary. The arranger is someone named Mouz. L.S. Fresh says, “Your dick got stuck”; in the background a siren goes off. She smells the guy’s crotch; the odor makes her sneeze. Back in the mix the room explodes, ka-boom! —Frank Kogan

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DOUG E. FRESH: Bigger Than Live

Hip-hop vocalist/instrumentalist stands silhouetted, armed with a mike, a year-old album, a loose upper lip, and the blunt force of African-American musical superiority. Proceeds to emotionally dismember neighborhood youth at random. At the end of his rampage, thou­sands lie about, weak, gasping for air, dying. To be rocked one more time.

The show? Krush Groove Jason’s Nightmare on Beat Street. Or Doug E. Fresh, the brother who grabbed hip-hop and swung it. Despite former partner M.C. “Slick” Ricky D’s casual departure from the Get Fresh Crew, and an apparent increase in audience tolerance for brusque, onstage stomping fronting as performance, Doug Excitement continues on his own merry way, choosing rather to (1) structurally slam dance his own music in hip-hop’s best live show, (2) worry about being a good Israelite, and (3) work on his new album, The World’s Greatest Entertainer. That is to say, the only yelling over beats you’ll hear at a Fresh show comes from the crowd, which, I guess, is why they call it a Fresh show.
—Harry Allen

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1985 Pazz & Jop: Virtue Rewarded

Nineteen eighty-five sure was busy-busy-busy for Chuck and Elvis’s love child. You’d think it’d have its hands full just perverting the nation and feeding the world, but those were epiphenomena. Now more than ever, “rock music” is first and foremost an engine of the culture industry, whence all the rest of its inescapable visibility flows. It didn’t set quite as many dollars in motion as in 1984, when the phony recovery of 1983 came true, but the dip wasn’t panic-worthy, maybe 5 per cent off a record year. Having caved in to the Clean Lyrics League, the companies half believe Congress is going to give them their stupid home-taping tax, and if it isn’t clear where the Next Springsteen will come from now that ZZ Top has flunked the first audition, there’s product due from Michael Jackson himself. So nobody’s complaining, yet. Nobody except us complainers.

I refer, of course, to the 238 pros, fans, hacks, and illuminati who participated in the 12th or 13th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and really, what else did you expect? As anybody who’s got more important things to worry about knows without thinking, critics are malcontents as a matter of life commitment, and though rock critics value enthusiasm more than their less callow colleagues, often that just means they holler nay at the top of their lungs rather than acting civilized about it. Having fallen in love with rock and roll when it delivered them from the goody-goody bullshit that’s shoved down teenaged throats with a trowel, they like dirty lyrics, though they can live without the baddy-baddy bullshit of W.A.S.P. and maybe Prince too. They don’t think good will can feed the world, though some of them give Michael and Lionel and Bob Geldof credit for trying. And they don’t have much use for the biz’s blockbuster recovery, especially if they prescribed quality-not-quantity three years ago, when record execs were whining about their own imminent demise.

Not that the boom looked so bad in 1984, when most of the blockbusters — Bruce and Prince, Tina and Cyndi, Van Halen and ZZ — were deemed hot enough artistically to make our poll. But the big blockbuster of 1985 was a blockbuster of 1984 — Born in the U.S.A. sold six million copies or so after topping last year’s poll (with no causal relationship implied, I assure you) — and when it came to the little blockbusters the voters pushed reject. Despite some sharp antibacklash from Barry Walters and Dave Marsh, Madonna’s sextuple-platinum Like a Virgin wasn’t hot enough artistically (or whatever, Mrs. Gore) to rise higher than 85th, while Phil Collins’s quadruple-platinum No Jacket Required finished 108th and Wham!’s quadruple-platinum Make It Big (the best of these three albums by me) got one mention. The only multiple-platinum in the top 40 is John Cougar Mellencamp’s honorably overwrought populist symbol, Scarecrow, and the Mark Knopfler Band’s contemptibly contemptuous aural microwave, Brothers in Arms, although three double-platinum items did make significant showings out of the money. Whitney Houston’s 48th-ranked diva debut vied with Sting at 21 and the Smiths at (a gratifyingly tepid) 46 for the coveted All Things Must Pass Overrated Trophy. Significant in another way were Stevie Wonder’s 61st, easily his lowest finish ever not counting the Woman in Red soundtrack, and Prince’s tie for 51st, the most precipitous flop in Pazz & Jop history. “Majors See Black Music Boom,” says Billboard. “Critics See Major Crossover Sellout,” sez I.

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Of course there were exceptions — there always are. Rick Rubin’s metal-rap powered Run-D.M.C.’s sophomore gold to a generous 32nd (and L.L. Cool J’s freshman vinyl to a hopeful 37th). Luther Vandross’s platinum return to form scored consistently enough with black music loyalists to come in 30th, and Aretha Franklin’s best album in 15 years soared in at an underrated ninth and may yet get what it deserves in the marketplace, though as of now it’s “only” gold. Sade’s platinum Diamond Life — by an African-turned-English model-turned-singer whose mood music broke in the dance market, which ought to be crossover enough to satisfy Lee Abrams himself — lulled the electorate so seductively it came in 14th (with the late-’85 follow-up Promise 56th so far). There were platinum finishes as well from old man down the road John Fogerty, former boy Don Henley, and aspiring middlebrow Sting. That brings our precious metal total up to around normal at nine, and I left the first for last: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

David Byrne wasn’t being modest when he predicted in 1977 that his debuting young band would “fluctuate between a large cult audience and a possible fluke mass success,” because he’s anything but modest — gracious, putatively self-effacing, but so proud that groveling for gold was inconceivable to him. He’d just work for it. With a big push from the press — Talking Heads ’77 finished seventh, and since then every one of his band’s studio albums has been in the Pazz & Jop top five — he’s had his large cult audience since album one. And now, on the crest of years of intelligent media manipulation (visionary videos that predate MTV, high-art cachet from Tharp and Rauschenberg and Wilson, greatest concert movie ever) he has his not especially flukish mass success: Little Creatures is Talking Heads’ first platinum album as well as their first Pazz & Jop number one. This result is jake with me even though I was rooting mildly for the runner-up Replacements — it’s gratifying to see virtue rewarded, especially when there’s no mistaking it for goody-goody bullshit. But I’m obliged to report that the Heads’ victory looks slightly tainted nevertheless.

Early handicapping slotted Little Creatures at number one for the worst of reasons — there just wasn’t any competition. Hailed in some quarters as a return to basics after five years of funk, its short songs for augmented quartet evince none of the fear of music that jammed up Byrne’s short songs for minimalist quartet in the ’70s. They’re warm and supple and at peace with the world, reflecting his long encounter with black music (and also, I get the feeling, a remarkable woman), even if they decline the deeply nervous grooves of Remain in Light and its progeny. That is, they comprise the safest music he’s ever made. I’m not one who regards safe as a damning insult when it insures this level of accomplishment, but in rock and roll it’s never praise, and my initial delight faded noticeably: Little Creatures barely squeezed into my weakest top 10 in memory, and might well have been surpassed by the Pogues or Thomas Mapfumo if I’d had another week to listen. Nor was anybody else talking up the Heads. When Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons opened the ballots, he detected a surge for Scarecrow. Tim was no Let It Be and took the L.A. Times’s in-house poll anyway. Sun City was turning into the rock critics’ Live Aid. I even began to have nightmares of R.E.M.

But when the count began, a pattern asserted itself immediately and seemed a foregone conclusion by the time we finished the first folder. This New York band has gone national. Little Creatures garnered disproportionate support outside the volatile coastal corridors — not as much as Fogerty, but more than such midwestern heroes as Mellencamp and especially the Replacements. But with platinum acceptability contributing to the impression that it was a major album, it was the only consensus possible in an unprecedentedly flat year — a year so unimpressed with itself that three of its top 20 albums (Cooke, Velvets, Dylan) were recorded in the ’60s and a fourth (Lost in the Stars) was composed in the ’20s and ’30s, a year so flat artistically that it diminishes the Heads’ achievement and perhaps “rock music”’s vaunted visibility as well.

I know, I know, you read the same shit in this space all the time. Every year various turks and curmudgeons explain how rock and roll just died right in front of your eyes and you were too stupid or complacent to notice. And every year I step in wearing my voice-of-reason costume and explain how it’s not as bad as all that. Unlike many rock and roll adepts — some inspired and almost all foolish — I’ve never been of a utopian/apocalyptic turn of mind, and no matter how grim things look in a given year I know that history progresses in cycles and years can be misleadingly arbitrary units of measurement. Still, 1985 does look pretty grim. And though it’s been a long while since I’ve had such trouble getting the Dean’s List up to 50 A LPs, this isn’t a personal complaint. It’s right there in the results.

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I mean, consensus doesn’t necessarily equal enthusiasm. At 4.5 points per respondent, Little Creatures is only the third winner ever to dip below 5.0, and two of those were instructively unmomentous precedents that came damn close anyway: Squeezing Out Sparks at 4.9 in 1979 and Imperial Boredom at 4.9 in 1982. Prorated, the Heads could have won our poll with 1979’s Fear of Music or 1980’s Remain in Light and come in a hair behind the Replacements with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. And 1981, when the top record got even softer support, had it all over 1985 in other ways. Sandinista! may have averaged just 4.3 points per respondent, but at least it was a risky mess instead of a neat retreat, and its runner-up was X’s Wild Gift, which not only outdrew Tim (4.0 to 3.5) despite indie distribution but stands as a landmark where Tim and Little Creatures and even Sandinista! are more like points on a flow chart.

And in addition 1981 had a brave future. Some of its 12 debut-album artists proved as inconsequential as the Au Pairs and Romeo Void, or failed to fulfill expectations like Was (Not Was) and the Go-Go’s and the MIA Human Switchboard, but in their own ways Joan Jett and Luther Vandross and U2 and (I hope) the Blasters have prospered mightily. I expect something comparable from Sade and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but not from 1985’s other debuts, all five of them. I’ll admit that Marti Jones isn’t a major artist if you’ll admit that Suzanne Vega isn’t a major artist, which God knows also holds for longtime Brit eccentric Robyn Hitchcock (whose Gotta Let This Hen Out! finished close behind Fegmania at 45). Jason and the Scorchers may never again recapture their old Fervor, and L. L. Cool J has the look of the (94th in ’84) Dream Syndicate or the (81st in ’85) Del Fuegos, who also snuck their B-plus-at-best intros into the top 40 on local and/or stylistic loyalty. Granted, this foreshortened debut list doesn’t include dead singers, dead composers, dead groups, or John Fogerty, all of whom made unprecedented showings that were in most cases deserved — and who between them don’t promise any more than Biograph.

Nor am I much encouraged by the continued Pazz & Jop success of the rock indies — independently owned and distributed labels like SST or Profile rather than semi-subsidiaries like Slash or Def Jam or I.R.S. Since most indies are owned by obsessive entrepreneurs with less than no penchant for collective action, I’ve never seen them as bulwarks against capitalism — just little outposts of unpredictable aesthetic principle, pockets of structural resistance in the struggle for fun. But aesthetic principle is never any sharper than the art it applies to, which despite the supposed (or real, damned if I can tell) American rock renaissance doesn’t look like any cutting edge to me — after searching every which-a-way, I’ve put only three new Amerindie bands on my A list, down from eight in 1983 and six in 1984. (Because they don’t compete so directly in the youthbuck market, the folk and blues labels — which provide four African, four reggae, and one blues album on my own list, making Shanachie my favorite corporation this side of Warner Bros. — have better luck.) And structurally, the rock indies have had it — the majors now regard them as farm teams, swooping down and snaring likely looking bands or sometimes whole labels, most recently Hüsker Dü and Tommy Boy. Not that this is necessarily so bad for band or label — unlike some resentful souls, I don’t blame the slight shortfall of Tim on Sire’s Seymour Stein, a former indie owner who’s used his signing privileges at Warners to oversee more good music than any other a&r scout of the past 10 years. Nor can I get all teary-eyed about the “commercialization” of DB’s Guadalcanal Diary or Christian Burial’s 10,000 Maniacs, picked up by Elektra for 58th- and 68th-place finishes, or of DB’s 53rd-ranked Zeitgeist or Rational’s 76th-ranked Game Theory, probably due for similar treatment. The sheer productivity of the indies, with their low overhead and lower profit margin, is welcome and healthy. But I wish I could still dream that pockets of resistance might someday connect and generate their own counter-establishment. Sponsoring enjoyable-to-important music while hanging on by their fingernails in a state of perpetual marginality, the indies have become hegemonic in spite of themselves.

Indies did manage to dominate the EP chart we devised for them five years ago, but that just illustrates my point. With ’70s cult hero Alex Chilton leading the pack and ’60s cult hero Roky Erickson bringing up the rear and album artists the Minutemen, UB40, and U2 finishing two, three, and five, the list looks almost as inauspicious as last year’s, which as predicted gave us Jason & the Scorchers, period. Full Time Men are a one-shot, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers substitute attitude for songs, and Big Black subsumes songs in attitude — Racer-X is a powerful abrasive, but not what you’d call generous of spirit. Which leaves country purist Dwight Yoakam, probably good for a better album than the Judds, and political popsters Lifeboat, probably good for a better album than Tommy Keene, to continue in the EP-launched tradition of Los Lobos, the Minutemen, the Bangles, and near misses Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

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The other lists were at least as depressing. Of course I applaud the winning single and the strength of women on the chart (six of the top 15 compared to six of the top 40 LPs), and it’s a pleasure to see the Ramones place so high after the intrepid Seymour Stein refused to release their most overt political act. But I’m distressed at the paucity of dance records, and suspect my colleagues are becoming disenchanted with rap as it abandons the last vestiges of noble savagery for the inevitable formalist phase signaled by the year’s two most remarkable records: Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Double Dee & Steinski’s promo-only three-cut 12-inch (call it The Lesson), both of which take the kitchen-sink pop-for-the-people philosophy of hip hop into the realm of full-scale information seizure. (One reads that the current owner of Lennon-McCartney’s “Michelle,” a guy named Michael Jackson, has threatened to sue Doug E. Fresh in England, where “The Show” has now sold more copies than “Rapper’s Delight.”) I mean, there are nice songs on our list, but for once I didn’t get a lot of letters about how they were the vanguard. If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 was the year AOR horned back in. Except maybe for John Waite’s “Missing You,” which I prefer to regard as a magnificent fluke like “Hot Blooded” or “You’re So Vain,” there’s never been a Pazz & Jop equivalent to “The Boys of Summer” or “Money for Nothing” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Each in its way an expression of the male rock star’s endemic and crippling cynicism, these phenomenally self-conscious pieces of popcraft were flukish only in the irresistibility of their hooks, and they bode ill — not least because each came with a high-charting video attached.

We have no intention of chucking the video category, as diehards continue to demand. But I must admit that after liking almost every title the voters picked in ’83 and ’84 I find many of the latest winners appalling. Although 1985 was the year I got cable, it was also the year I gave up nightclubs for morning feedings, and since I rarely remembered to turn MTV on with the sound off like some of my canny co-workers, I saw fewer videos than ever last year. So I missed both Heads clips and barely remember the Petty or Eurythmics. But except for “Sun City” and the perhaps overvisual minimalist tour de force “Cry,” it seems to me that the main thing the others have in common is money — for nothing, just as the diehards claim. The idea of the video list is to lay a little rock and roll anti-bullshit — the low-budget spirit and simple pop smarts you see in some current documentary montage, for instance — on a medium designed to dazzle and overwhelm the unwary sensorium. But in this vote I detect instead the exact mood of luxurious passivity that those who finance these promos hope to induce in potential consumers.

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos — the top one. I don’t want to make too much of “Sun City,” a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it’s significant that amid all this year’s corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down — Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn’t jam. In a year paved with good intentions, “Sun City” was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but “Sun City” brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It’s not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song’s album votes exemplify what J. D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the “tendency to value ‘significance’ over listening pleasure.” Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak’s comment is just as apropos: “Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll.” Litwak doesn’t bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That’s what I love about rock critics.

Pazz & Joppers do a lot of dishing — the one-upmanship can get pretty vicious. I’ve formed negative impressions of my own over the years — some of these people I’ve never met strike me as thoughtless or conventional or complacent or naive, narrow-minded or status-conscious or overly earnest or pigheadedly one-dimensional, a little pretentious or a little dumb or just plain out of it. But others strike me as so smart they can fool themselves about just how superior their smarts make them. If more democracy is one thing we’re in this for, then it had better extend to ourselves. Within certain broad limits I accept and respect the critics’ tastes, which means I believe just about every one of the 535 albums they placed in their cumulative top 10 has some genuine pleasure in it. A few of the more dubious pleasures may actively contribute to our general benightedness, but most occasion sins of critical oversight at worst, and some approach a kind of creative misreading — who knows, maybe “I Want To Know What Love Is” is a great piece of music after all. And except within very narrow limits it’s an idealist fallacy (a cynic’s idealist fallacy) to blame the malfeasances of the culture industry on the venality of critics, a venality that when it’s not completely imaginary — Pazz & Joppers may conceivably concoct their ballots to impress the Poobahs, but not to impress the record companies, who’ll never see one per cent of them — is often pretty much inevitable. A world in which critics preferred Fear and Whiskey to Little Creatures and Centerfield probably wouldn’t be a world in which the Mekons felt compelled to make Fear and Whiskey.

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In a once-removed version of Chuck Eddy’s Marsh-versus-Albini dichotomy (which see), disaffected critics explain why their mainstream colleagues like what they like with two less than harmonious theories: the same poor daily peon or free-lance moonlighter can be castigated as an arty, trend-hopping elitist from one side and a craven, trend-hopping shill from the other. As Eddy points out, the worst thing about the Marsh position is that it has a chilling effect on musical movement — without a few elitists there’d never have been an X or Pere Ubu, which to his shame would suit Marsh fine, or a PIL or Talking Heads, which wouldn’t. Yet though I too suspect that many voters could afford to stretch their tastes some, it’s willful to dismiss the music they like as reactionary. You don’t have to be a fan of our top five albums, all but Tim by artists who’ve always worked for major labels, to admit that rather than proving the biz an inhuman monolith they’re evidence of genuine and not necessarily riskless pluralism — within certain frustrating parameters, of course. The basic issue is one’s tolerance for repressive tolerance. Is it ever (where have we seen this word before?) safe, not to mention fun, to allow oneself to be “manipulated” by the pleasure merchants? Is the compulsion to great refusals a virtue, a neurosis, a mark of oppression, or some combination of the three?

If I’m defending the critics after castigating them myself in the past, it’s because in this depressing year I feel bonds with them. Especially when it comes to those pushing and past 30, rock and roll itself is one bond — and as far as I’m concerned, great refuser Richard Gehr of Spin betrays his bad faith when he complains that “we’re getting too old for this crap.” But there’s also a bond of politics. The Pazz & Jop sample is skewed — presumably, some critics who find the Voice distastefully goody-goody don’t participate. But I can’t imagine a comparably representative panel of movie or book reviewers displaying the same antiestablishment instincts — film critics are too embroiled in the culture industry’s megabuck economy, book critics too embroiled in literary “standards.” I use the dated term “antiestablishment” deliberately, because these instincts are a legacy of the ’60s vision of rock as counter-culture, a vision the music of the ’60s never bore out all that specifically. That’s changed. Needless to say, specificity still isn’t a hallmark of these politics. On the music side it probably never will be, though two of 1985’s losses suggest other possibilities: Linton Kwesi Johnson, who quit performing after releasing a definitive live album that tied for 85th despite late availability, and D. Boon, who died — damn right tragically — around the post-Christmas release of 3-Way Tie for Last, which squeezed in at 40 this year and will certainly be on the chart again in 1986. No goody-goodies, these guys. The way both combined inquiring, tough-minded politics with inquiring, tough-minded music would have been inconceivable back when we were making do with Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald, and I hope we can expect more of the same, though I note regretfully that the leading candidates — Rubén Blades, perhaps Thomas Mapfumo — don’t sing in English. Even so, more than half this year’s Pazz & Jop albums are by artists who regard social commentary as a natural part of what they do. Not always for the best, either — Richard Thompson’s and John Fogerty’s politics are bathetic, Sting’s and Mark Knopfler’s smugly ironic. But the neoprimitivist orthodoxy in which the proper study of rock and roll is sex and drugs and rock and roll doesn’t cut it any more. Just as star-eyed bizzers were attracted to rock and roll’s potential as pure entertainment, left-wing rock critics were attracted to its democratic thrust, and now both tendencies have assumed trajectories of their own. Sometimes they rocket off in completely divergent directions, but sometimes they interweave again, as in sub-Springsteen Mellencamp, or Sade, whose high-gloss music hasn’t yet rubbed off on her socialist sympathies, or Blades with his unvanquishable crossover dreams.

It’s one job of the critic to figure out just what these inchoate messages mean. Since rock criticism often partakes of the same gawky naivete as the music, it’s easy to dismiss much of this analysis. You can even exploit a tack of Gehr’s and call it liberal, but despite the sentimental meliorism that pops up here and there that’s just name-calling. Liberalism is the quintessential goody-goody bullshit; the worst you could call most of our respondents is postliberal. They crave justice but don’t trust electoral politics and aren’t so sure about any other kind, which is why they like music that puts a higher premium on realism and spirit than it does on correctness. Speaking very generally, the pointed Sun City and the well-meaning if quite inchoate Scarecrow got a big push from Marsh’s Rock & Roll Confidential fans. The other albums in the top five kept their political distance. Especially on “Walk It Down,” Little Creatures puts Byrne’s willed optimism in a context of oppression and straitened opportunity; the Replacements’ project of liberation is still individualist in the time-honored youthcult tradition; Tom Waits has made identification with the downtrodden his signature and defines downtrodden more keenly all the time, but though he croaks out Brecht-Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” with the bitterness of a longtime partisan, his own songwriting distinguishes him perhaps too sharply from Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald.

Take all this for what it’s worth — in a flat year, it’s a mistake to attribute too much significance to the critics’ choices, or one’s own. Waits’s rise is partly a tribute to 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, and Kate Bush’s sudden prominence as women’s hero also has a cumulative look. Though I love the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Ramones-Pistols fusion and credit the Golden Palominos’ early-’70s revisionism, I don’t expect either to change the world, and even if they do I think this year’s historical consciousness — which also includes Hank Williams’s Just Me and My Guitar at 42nd — will be around for a while. And yes, England has definitely made a rock and roll comeback, even on my list. Then again, my list includes five country albums, a meaningless aberration — could well go right back down to zero next time. A more meaningful statistic is the five albums from 1984. Getting a bead on the simple present becomes more impossible all the time.

I would like to say something about my number one album, which at 26 also qualifies as cult record of the year. The Mekons are an inchoate bunch of political punks out of the same Leeds scene that produced those pathetic biz casualties the Gang of Four. People like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus have been hyping them for years, but not until now have they made an album professional enough to suit my notoriously fussy standards. Cheaply recorded, immersed in American roots that sound wishful now when invoked over here, Fear and Whiskey reminds me of nothing so much as my favorite album of 1976, Have Moicy!, in which a loose alliance of old folkies headed by Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks demonstrated how aging bohemian rebels get by and have a good time. But where Have Moicy!’s old hippies live outside the law at worst, the Mekons are up against it: shot at, hunted down, interrogated. Needless to say, they don’t have as good a time as the Have Moicy! crowd, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. A difference that sums up a bad decade pretty suggestively, I think.

And if 1985 equals 1976, can 1977 be far behind? What do you take me for, some mystic? All I can say for sure is that it’s not as bad as all that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1985

1. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire)

2. The Replacements: Tim (Sire)

3. John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva)

4. Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island)

5. Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City (Manhattan)

6. Hüsker Dü: Flip Your Wig (SST)

7. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.)

8. Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising (SST)

9. Aretha Franklin: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (Arista)

10. John Fogerty: Centerfield (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1985

1. Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (Manhattan)

2. Aretha Franklin: “Freeway of Love” (Arista)

3. John Fogerty: “The Old Man Down the Road”/”Big Train (From Memphis)” (Warner Bros.)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Makes No Sense at All”/”Love Is All Around” (SST)

5. Ramones: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (Beggars Banquet import)

6. Don Henley: “The Boys of Summer”/”A Month of Sundays” (Geffen)

7. Eurythmics: “Would I Lie to You?” (RCA Victor)

8. Lisa-Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (Columbia)

9. Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew: “The Show”/”La-Di-Da-Di” (Reality)

10. Kate Bush: “Running Up That Hill” (EMI America)

—From the February 18, 1986, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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PLANET ROCK

It was 38 years ago this week when Bronx gang/youth group (depending on your politics) Universal Zulu Nation coalesced under the leadership of future hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa. It’s an odd anniversary to be celebrating, but who can complain when it means a five-day run of events culminating in a Roxanne Shanté–hosted “Salute to the Queens of Hip-Hop” that features, among others, Lisa Lee, Kid Capri, Melle Mel, DMC, Doug E. Fresh, and the Cold Crush Brothers. Yeah, that’s a few more male acts than the title implies, but you can still count on a crowd of all genders dedicated to—as James Brown suggested on a Bambaataa-assisted single—peace, love, unity, and having fun.

Sun., Nov. 13, 8 p.m., 2011

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Slick Rick

It’s been over 10 years since he put out an album, but at least his legal problems seem to be behind him. Strange to think that his one-time boss Doug E. Fresh has faded in comparison to Rick’s long career, but then again, who would guess that Flav would outshine Chuck D? Rick’s still got a dirty mouth and a dirty mind but he knows how to entertain, pulling out the energy and laughs for his shows.

Fri., Jan. 14, 8 p.m., 2011

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‘Hip-Hop Legends Concert Series IV’

Just in time for Christmas, jolly old Funkmaster Flex brings us the latest in his ongoing series of all-star classic-rap revues. This time on the bill: Method Man and Ghostface Killah, Wu-Tang alums who’ve gone on to bigger and better things, respectively; old-school sweetheart Doug E. Fresh; cold-eyed East Coast duo EPMD; and Onyx, the rap-rock progenitors rap-rock forgot. With Main Source & Large Professor, Showbiz & AG, Masta Ace, Ed O.G., and more.

Wed., Dec. 23, 10 p.m., 2009

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The Show Must Go On and On and On

Let’s take a moment here to reminisce with Doug E. Fresh. “How many of y’all remember having a black-and-white TV set?” he inquires of a shockingly massive crowd at Brooklyn’s Wingate Field last Monday night; the shockingly massive crowd responds with joyous hoots of affirmation. They remember. Emboldened, Fresh offers a follow-up: “How many of y’all remember having a black-and-white TV set on top of a black-and-white TV set?” The shockingly massive crowd goes joyously apeshit. They remember that, too.

It’s great fun, remembering; particularly in enormous, euphoric crowds. Mr. Fresh—rapper, beatboxer, formative rap icon—is jovially presiding over “Old School Night,” the first in a series of free Monday-night Wingate fetes that comprise the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series, which as the summer progresses will offer up bills touting schools of varying oldness—Boyz II Men, the O’Jays and the Spinners, Lauryn Hill. Sharing the bill with Fresh this evening is famed co-conspirator Slick Rick, along with MC Lyte and, yes, MC Hammer. (More on him in a second, but not too much.)

Naturally, though, the true star tonight is the vibrant crowd itself, stretched from football goalpost to football goalpost, sideline to sideline, having patiently filed through single-file security pat-down lines that stretched nearly entirely around a robust city block, and now blissfully succumbing as Fresh whips ’em into a nostalgic froth. For a while there, he just has his DJ rain down some classics—”Brick House,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Flashlight”—each allotted about 30 seconds, each triggering its own gleeful wave of recognition and applause. Then he does the TV-on-the-TV routine. Then it’s on to food. “How many of y’all remember peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?” (Raucous affirmation.) “How many of y’all still eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?” (Yet more raucous affirmation.) Then, a few cereal shout-outs: “Cap’n Crunch! Frosted Flakes!” Just for the hell of it, the DJ drops E.U.’s “Da Butt” in its near-entirety; the crowd dutifully, enthusiastically does Da Butt. Then, a rapid-fire blitz of TV-show themes one might’ve watched on that black-and-white TV set on top of the black-and-white TV set: Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times. Even Cheers—everyone groans as the cheesy piano kicks in, but seconds later everyone’s shouting Where every-BODY knows your name! in unison. At this point, Fresh has been onstage for 20 minutes and barely done any rapping, beatboxing, traditional performing.

This tone was set—though much less adeptly—from the night’s beginning. The crowd files in as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, our hilariously erudite master of ceremonies, makes nervous, stalling small talk with the crowd while waiting for MC Hammer to emerge and provide his services as an opening act. “He’s just putting on his baggy pants,” Markowitz jokes. Let’s not dwell on MC Hammer: He’s got a dancing entourage of young, high-school age ladies—fairly chaste, as backup dancers go—to distract from the fact that he doesn’t deign to move much himself. He obligingly serves up every tune you’d possibly remember him for other than the one about the Addams Family. “Pray,” check. “2 Legit 2 Quit,” check. “Pumps in a Bump,” hell, why not. “U Can’t Touch This,” goddamn right. His voice through the mic—coarser and faux-harder than you remember—is usually louder than his voice on the original records the DJ spins. There are huge, awkward pauses between songs. The audience is nearly silent. (The best, most sophisticated crowds never offer up love the performer hasn’t earned.) Let’s not dwell on MC Hammer.

MC Lyte fares infinitely better, a charismatic spark plug who drops era-updated a cappella interludes (“Like my minutes/I’m quick to roll over”) between her late-’80s/early-’90s hits. (All hail “Ruffneck.”) Climactically, she offers a new track called “Wonder Years.” How appropriate: An hour or so later, after Markowitz has marveled at the evening’s entertainment (“MC Lyte—fantastic!”) and thanked both the show’s various sponsors and our “Islamic security force,” here’s Doug E. Fresh, repeatedly evoking them. Fresh’s set is a small masterpiece of crowd interaction. He starts us off by holding our hands through a freestyle rap of sorts—he starts the line, we fill in the last word. “We live in New . . . York. Muslims don’t eat . . . pork. When you drink champagne, you pop the . . . cork. You eat cornflakes with a . . . fork.” I have never heard so many people giggle at once.

Just for a minute, let’s all do the Pump. Pump, pump, pump. Yeahhhhh.

And only after we’ve wistfully reminisced about PB&J, “Da Butt,” and
Sanford and Son
does Fresh finally summon Slick Rick to the stage, the eye patch and the pinched/nasal/effortless flow and the sandpaper beat that usually accompanies him still instantly striking as they blow through “The Show” and “La Di Da Di.” Rick makes his own bashful nod to the passing of time—on “La Di Da Di,” as some seductress old enough to be his mother swoops in for the kill, he wriggles out of it: “I said Cheer up/I gave her a kiss/I said You can’t have me/ I’m too young for you, miss!/She says No you’re not/Then she starts crying/I said I’m 19!/ She said Stop lyin’!” Except when those last two lines come up, he raises his arms dramatically: “ I said I’m 42, y’all!” (Yet more raucous affirmation.)

Fully satisfied, the crowd begins its mass exodus even as Fresh and Rick break into “Children’s Story,” still the most incongruous mix of somber lyrics and exuberant presentation imaginable. (One cannot somberly beatbox.) Afterward, Fresh still spends 45 minutes or so onstage, actually, but it’s essentially an after-party now—his DJ cycles through reggae hits (everyone, even those filing out, sings along to “Redemption Song”), Fresh brings up his son’s hip-hop group, etc. As they pick their way through the shockingly massive crowd, grown men—at least 42, y’all—appear to be skipping, and a few jump up and swing from the goalposts as they pass, like bright-eyed little kids who know exactly what they’ll watch, what they’ll watch it on, and what they’ll eat while they’re watching when they get home. Good times.

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Music

Paint Your Wagon

When Les Têtes Brulées took on SummerStage for Africa Fête on Sunday, it felt less like a muggy afternoon in the city than a beach party. Members of the five-man, one-woman band from Cameroon outfitted themselves in cutoffs with bright stripes and prints, and zinc oxide proved subtle in comparison to their body paint: dots and bars covering arms, swirling across faces, and through partially shaved heads (a play on Beti scarification rituals).

Les Têtes Brulées, which translates to “the burned heads” or “mind blown,” had not been in the U.S. since 1994. Nonetheless, journalist-turned-lead singer Jean-Marie Ahanda appeared at ease with the audience, his earthy vocals accentuated by a raspy quality around the edges. Although the set proved more conventional than the outerwear, bass and guitars improvised on bright, interlocking rhythms with deceptive ease. “We got it all in there,” boasted Ahanda about the distinctive rhythms of bikutsi, a genre that literally means “to beat the ground continuously.”

Rising Senegalese star Alioune Mbaye Nder drove Le Setsima Group through the concert’s highly charged second half. Although lyrics in his native Wolof tended to be lost on the crowd, Nder’s nuanced declamation and charismatic presence superseded all language barriers. The outdoors lessened the cutting power of the sabar drums, with which Mor Guèye Seck and Lamine Toure improvised visceral running commentary on the vocals. The tamas (talking drums) were also less prominent. If these were concessions to the perceived tastes of Western audiences, the newcomers should return with the music as they love to play it and we love to hear it. —Lara Pellegrinelli


Admission Impossible

“Old school, new school, no school rules/but other than that everything is cool,” Doug E. Fresh called out from Central Park’s SummerStage on July 4. He was being modest. Fresh and Busy Bee were the tag-team hosts of a hall-of-fame marathon featuring Whodini, Full Force, Kurtis Blow, DJ Hollywood, the bullet-shaped Biz Markie, and enough cameos for a decade’s worth of Mr. Magic shout-outs. The vibe was all sunshine and love, as ecstatic parents tried to get their kids to sing along to jammin’ oldies like “Freaks Come Out at Night” and “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The crowd even carried the eternally forgetful Biz after he blew his own mind (let’s just say “Blah Blah Blah” was more than the name of the inamorata in his biggest hit). “Some of ’em looked like they needed to practice more, and some of ’em looked like they were ready to roll,” said Fresh, laughing, after the show.

The SummerStage security operation—a joint effort with the NYPD and the Parks police—should also review its steps. Thousands of would-be attendees were stranded at the gates when the sole entrance line was cut off about an hour and a half into the program. Fans were not allowed to enter as others left, so by the time Fresh lit into “The Show,” NYC’s national anthem, the “World’s Greatest Entertainer” faced the less-than-triumphant scene of a few hundred stalwarts and an ocean of Astroturf.

SummerStage boss Erica Ruben called the snafu a “hiccup” relating to confusion about barricade placement, and said the queue had dispersed into an unmanageable mass once the problem was corrected. “The PD has always been very respectful of our hip-hop audiences,” she says. Ruben believes the 6000-capacity venue was full at the time the line was cut, given that she allows more space for older, picnicky crowds like the ones drawn by Fresh and his cronies.

“I was wondering where everybody went,” said Fresh after the show. “I got a lot of calls on my cell phone from friends and family trying to get in.” Of course, to Doug E., that group includes just about everyone. —Josh Goldfein


Left Back

Some weeks ago, I realized that it had been over a year since I’d seen a new Baffler. Fearing that I had been expunged from the subscriber list during a purge of bourgeois sympathizers, I logged on to www.thebaffler.com. The good news was, I was still on the rolls; no. 14 had only just gone to the printer. The bad news was that immediately thereafter, The Baffler‘s Chicago offices were consumed in a blaze, and now the magazine wanted my donation.

So the Baffler crew hit the stumps. They brought the gospel to Tonic last Thursday, with readings by editor Tom Frank (a fire-and-brimstone sermon against the Antichrist known as the free market, which Frank calls “the god that sucks”) and Robert Nedelkoff (from a paranoia novel set in mid-century DeLillo-land). David Grubbs, adjunct professor of Guitar Studies at a major university, played a set of minimalist, decontextualized riffing. Admission went toward renting a construction trailer as temporary office space.

The Baffler had something of a limelight around 1997-98, when Frank and then contributing editor Tom Vanderbilt published well-noted analy-disses on the machinery of consumer culture. Then the solipsistic McSweeney’s took over as zine célèbre. But no. 14 proves that the crew—brainy, pugnacious Old Lefties who can actually write a sentence—haven’t lost their bite, bringing together foaming invective, engaged labor reporting, first-person anthropology on the society called capitalism, and engagingly bizarre literature. Often described as contrarian, The Baffler is far more honest and far less popular than that would imply (Limbaugh’s a contrarian); its union-social democratic line has been unhip, even on the left, since the ’70s. On the other hand, it’s still hipper than The Nation. —David Krasnow

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Do for Self

As De La Soul tried to tell us on their last album, there is a widening philosophical schism between rap music’s ”cash rules everything around me” pragmatists and its dreamers. On Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the Native Tongue-anointed duo who tag themselves Black Star explore and redefine this schism, in ways that replace the ancient dichotomy of ”old” versus ”new” school in favor of simply separating the true MCs from the tacky. They write politically astute, highly literate rhymes without recourse to profanity or pornography. And rather than borrowing hooks from top-40 pop records, Black Star prefer to quote KRS-One, Double Trouble, and Run-D.M.C.


Black Star’s new album only consolidates the lyrical m.o. these two have long deployed as individuals and as a team. As a guest rapper on De La’s ”Stakes Is High,” Mos Def argued: ”Niggas ain’t stoppin’ to think so they ain’t gon’ stop the violence/Music too loud to hear, so Doug E. Fresh say ‘Silence!’ ” Thus it’s no surprise that on the the current Black Star single ”Definition” Mos should reprise the ”Stop the Violence” theme. He and his partner extensively catalogue everything they think endangers the quality of rap. The track ”Children’s Story” is particularly blunt, indicting clueless radio DJs and corrupt major label executives.


Of course, Black Star happen to be black people with options. They have bought into the black bookstore where Talib Kweli worked, and Mos Def is a professional actor with several television roles under his belt. When hip-hop is not your only economic gravy train, you can afford to point fingers at those who exploit the music for pure financial gain. On the tune ”Hater Players,” Black Star dismiss the idea that there is something disloyal about putting down those who are primarily in the rap biz to make money: ”People afraid to say what is wack out of fear of being called a ‘hater’/Imagine that! . . . We ain’t havin’ that.” But they should be prepared for turnabout as fair play. Eventually they’ll score a breakthrough radio hit just like their idols De La and A Tribe Called Quest did, and who knows how mainstream fame will affect them? (Look at the transformed Fugee zealot Wyclef Jean.) Nothing on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star even approaches the electrifying brilliance of ”Shakiyla” by Poor Righteous Teachers, or ”Fire and Earth” by X-Clan, or ”Bring the Noise” by P.E., but with their rhyming skills and chemistry it’s only a matter of time.


One clue to what their next step might be is the fact that Black Star have eschewed the more popular black power iconography of the 1960s to identify by name and album-cover art with Garveyism, an older, and some would say even more controversial source of black pride. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey, who preached ”Do for Self” and both economic and ethical self-control, strove to create the Black Star Line–a fleet supposed to reestablish Africa as an economic power base for black people around the world. Everything said and done on the new Black Star album is aimed at getting all the hip-hop factions to unite around a morally refined Garveyite perspective.


What helps them preach to the unconverted is one of the tightest and most polished live shows around. Their frequent appearances on the open mike at Manhattan’s Lyricist Lounge keep their freestyle skills sharp, and this year alone they’ve played Japan and Cuba as well as bouncing from coast to coast in the U.S. promoting a spiraling number of solo and collaborative projects (Kweli teams again with Deejay Hi Tek to become Reflection Eternal on a separate Rawkus album due in April, while Mos Def has a solo deal through MCA). Last Wednesday at Irving Plaza, the group, arriving late from the airport, was forced to open for N’Dea Davenport without the backing instrumentals from their new album. Unruffled, they rhymed freestyle for a few minutes with topical information about the audience; their recent trips; McGwire and Sosa; Clinton and Lewinsky. Over Deejay Hi-Tek’s quick-mix mastery their voices were a rugged blend of textures, with Talib’s urgently staccato tenor spiking Mos Def’s rolling, oratorial midrange. They updated early underground singles like ”Universal Magnetic” and ”Body Rock,” then to the delight of some Lyricist Lounge regulars, guest stars Jeru tha Damaja, Black Thought, Afua, and Common–who cameos on the Black Star track ”Respiration”–joined the duo onstage to further dazzle the crowd.


Black Star exist largely to oppose the coon show aesthetics purveyed by a horde of self-proclaimed players and gangstas. Because the duo won’t tap dance the Big Willie lifestyle for Babylon they have to find a way to replace the entertainment value of such glossy Hollywood fantasies. The ”Definition” video colorizes the ordinary scenery of the inner city with a surreal overlay of red, gold, and green. Sometimes the colors are really there, and sometimes they are superimposed, as if Brooklyn had been captured in a Rastafarian snow globe. A cerebral little mind-fuck to be sure, but this simple device gives every scene the hallucinatory quality of a vision-quest, precisely the trip Black Star wants people to take.