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Eric B. & Rakim: Titty Boom-A-Rooney

The levitation of our dreams confirms the gravity of our wakefulness.
— 
Hollis Frampton, filmmaker and theorist

Demonic is the first word that the title track on Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader (Uni) brings to mind. Before the jam inspires dance, prance, or make-romance, it says call the exorcist. An appre­hension birthed of the fact that where most raps go off in your face, this mono­logue aims at your interior. The music on “Follow the Leader” is spooky, a science-­fiction score that sounds straight out of the Tangerine Dream songbook. Rakim’s on an elocutionary speed-trip, a black bullet train slitting through hyperspace. The rhymes are telemetric, tracking sucker-soft targets with a monomania more relentless than anybody’s Terminator. In rap’s ongoing war for poetic su­premacy, Rakim has metaphoric space he can call his own, though for others it’s a danger zone.

While Public Enemy shakes the shit out of white people, Rakim is the rapper who makes my blood run cold. Listen to “Microphone Fiend” and you say, Gött­dam this is the dope jam (mainly because the lyrics seem to mock PE’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”).

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Like Boogie Down Productions’ rapper KRS One and PE’s Chuck D, Rakim brings his own worldview into rap, his own philosophy. These brothers are hip-­hop’s major thinkers. Somebody once ex­plained the difference between the minds of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as Powell being more likely to drop a heavy insight on you about the state of the world and Monk being more likely to lay something deep on you about Monk. Chuck D’s forte is the overview, Rakim’s is the innerview. KRS One’s homilies are more down to earth, more streetwise, than either of them. He makes the most conversational records in the idiom. Think of him as hiphop’s Sonny Rollins to Chuck D’s insane Coltrane.

“If you’ve ever picked cotton,” says the Rev. Al Green, “you will appreciate a cool drink of water.” Rakim’s persona is that of a sagacious gangster, like Miles Da­vis’s. The rapper, too, works an aesthetic steeped in the sort of cool that can’t be bought off the rack, not even at Yoji Yamamoto prices. We’re talking about that school of self-confirmed bad-assed-ness, where you don’t need spectators to know you’re looking sugarshit sharp. Drop Miles or Rakim on the moon, they’d still be chilly-most. This is less about profiling cool than about putting that iconic presence to work (yes, in the diva sense of the word, chile.)

Rakim’s work on last year’s “I Know You Got Soul” comes closer than anything ever heard in rap for matching the incisiveness of a Miles statement. Seeing Miles at Pier 84 a few weeks back — best show I’ve heard since ’75 — made me real­ize once again where these hiphop/jazz comparisons fall to pieces: tonality. I’ve yet to hear a rapper with a sound like Miles, that sonorous simulation of sex when it’s too good, killer ecstasy slipping across pain’s Cambodian border.

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Still the Miles comparisons mount with Rakim. He’s the one rapper with a mystique as devastating as his rhymes. As with Miles again, what you hear in Rakim is black cultural difference exem­plified in ways so high-handed it makes negritude or nationalist countersupre­macy sound crude. “I Know You Got Soul” is race-championing by aristocratic example, not ideology. Rakim does his ennobling African ancestry proud through the finesse and poetry of his performance alone.

Picture a mike: the stage is empty
A beat like this might tempt me
To cold show my rings and my five gold chains
Grab the mike like I’m on Soul Train
But I wait, ’cause I master this
Let the others go first, so the brothers don’t miss
Eric B. break [brake?] the sticks

The LP those lines came from, Paid in Full, is a confirmed hiphop masterwork. Masterful because like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, it shows how color­-struck the hiphop palette has become. I tend to be big on records, like Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, where each composi­tion is a microcosm, painted with signa­ture strokes even when the artist is work­ing in revived forms. Paid in Full is avante-garde and formally prodigious in that way. But it’s an avante-gardism whose rhythms and textures speak from an intimacy with the communalism black pop conveyed in the ’70s.

Eric B.’s rare groove choices take me back to the proletarian house parties my grandmother, a hip barber, dragged me to in Ohio. These were folk for whom party­ing hardy was synonymous to partying with family. Eric B. once told Harry Al­len that he and Rakim make records that their parents can listen to and under­stand. I can hear that, especially on the new LP’s “Put Your Hands Together.” The mix-construction on Follow the Leader is different from that on Paid in Full. It’s harsher, more jagged, jarring and less sensually inviting. On Paid in Full, Eric B.’s mixes match Rakim’s rhymes for contemplated restraint, in­vention, and lyricism. There Eric B. rocked us with more orchestral detail than anybody outside of PE in late ’80s hiphop. He also brought understatement to hiphop drum programming — almost as if he’d taken to heart Lester Young’s soft-­shell admonition to drummers, “No bombs, just titty-boom.”

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This is just a hunch, but I think Eric B. and Rakim have been taking lessons in the art of noise from Public Enemy, like PE has been going to Eric B. & Rakim’s work, among others, to study up on melo­dy. I’ve heard complaints that there are no classics on Follow The Leader like “I Know You Got Soul” or “Move the Crowd.” But those who been bitchin’ just need to listen. I said it, I meant it, and I even represent it.

On that note: Inquiring minds want to know what I think of Chuck D (the Living Messiah) branding yo’ reporter The Village Voice‘s porch nigger and a sell-out in the current Spin — os­tensibly behind doing the right thing and busting PE’s monkey-asses on charges of homophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. What I think is grits ain’t groceries, and the Mona Lisa was a man. ❖

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Rakim and Eric B: Hyper as a Heart Attack

It is my contention that William Griffin, better known as Eric B.’s rapper, Rakim, a 19-year-old resi­dent of Wyandanch, Long Island, with an interest in Islam, is the deffest rapper around. But before prais­ing Rakim a digression is in order. Too many people who profess to like rap don’t distinguish among its many historic and stylistic differences. Only by placing Ra­kim in context do you appreciate his mastery. Here it is:

The Old School: Either contemporaries of, or originally inspired by, the first hip hopper, D.J. Hollywood, they include Eddie Cheeba, Love Bug Star-ski, Grand­master Caz, and Kurtis Blow. This gener­ation popularized the party clichés­ — “Throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care” and “Somebody/Everybody/Anybody scream!” With the exception of Blow none of these pioneers made the transi­tion to record, because so much of their style was based on interplay with a live audience. A lot of old-school technique came from glib radio jocks (particularly the early ’70s WWRL crew of Gerry Bled­soe, Gary Byrd, and Hank “The Dixie Drifter” Spann). The only survivor who still has juice is WBLS’s Mr. Magic, whose Rap Attack is a B-boy version of r&b radio.

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The Rockers: This approach is defined by bombastic Hollis crew members Run of Run-D.M.C. and L .L. Cool J. Like most good middle-class music makers, these guys traffic in overblown rebellion for the legions who buy attitude as much as mu­sic. Run and L. L. are loud, nervous, kinetic; both sound freshest over minimal­ist rhythms occasionally spiked with guitars. Larger than life, almost cartoons really, they are rappers as arena rock stars.

Velvet Voices: If they were singers, Heavy Dee, Public Enemy’s Chucky D, Who­dini’s Ecstacy, Kool Moe D, Melle Mel, and D.M.C. would be labeled baritones or low tenors. They are authority figures who lecture (Chucky D, Melle Mel), in­struct (D.M.C., Kool Moe D), and seduce (Ecstacy). The heightened masculinity of their timbres can make a limp rhyme hard. The most underrated is Ecstacy, who has the widest emotional range in this crew, and the most promising is Heavy Dee, whose “Mr. Big Stuff” made fat-rap fly again.

Clown Princes: Given the right rhyme any rapper can be funny, but Slick Rick, Dana Dane, and Beastie Boys King Adrock and Mike D. specialize in yucks. Slick and Dane started in the Kangol Crew, an unrecorded rap quartet in which they perfected upper-class British ac­cents, slurred pronunciation, and female impersonations of “The Show” (Slick) and “Nightmares” (Dane) done over tracks rife with references to TV themes and nursery rhymes. They’re amusing in a Redd Foxx-like way, though charges of sexism are well-founded. Same thing can be said of MCA and Adrock, though the laughter usually tempers the cringing. Adrock’s mousey voice is the illest instru­ment in rap.

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The Showmen: Biz Markie, with his dance, skull, throat-beatboxability, and goofy glow, must be seen to be appreciat­ed; his Apollo performance of his new single, “Pickin’ Boogers,” was a nose­opener. The wholesome Doug E. Fresh is still more human beatbox than rapper, yet when you combine his rhymes, sound F/X, harmonica, dancing, and Cheshire cat smile, it’s clear Fresh is one of the music’s most versatile live performers. No question, Doug E. Fresh is the Sam­my Davis Jr. of hip hop. Give him anoth­er great record, and he’ll house all these m.f.’s

Cutting Edges: Rather than loud and boastful, these voices are cool, conversa­tional, and threatening. The overrated Schoolly D, the quick-witted King Sun (“Hey Love”), and the vet Spoonie Gee (“Godfather,” a rare comeback) all have casually incisive deliveries. But the real edge, the master rapper of 1987 (damn near ’86), is Rakim, a man qualified to narrate the cassette versions of Donald Goines’s Daddy Cool, Chester Himes’s Real Kool Killers, and the collected works of Iceberg Slim.

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Rakim’s intonation itself conjures wintry images of cold-blooded kill­ers, chilly ghetto streets, and steelly eyed hustlers. There’s a knowing re­straint in his voice that injects danger into even harmless phrases. Eric B. and Rakim’s debut single last summer, “Eric B. Is President”/”My Melody,” on Har­lem-based Zakia records, was as stunning a first statement as Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.’s.” The groove of “President” was gritty wop fodder while Rakim’s rap (including the sandpa­pery comment “You thought I was a doughnut/You tried to glaze me”) pre­sented his credentials. Better still was “My Melody,” in which, riding over a sleazy rhythm Rakim devastated the mike with a boast equal parts vinegar, bullshit, and Islamic allusions.

I take seven MCs, put them in a line
Add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme
It’ll take seven more before I go for mine
Twenty-one MCs ate up at the same time

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On the strength of that 12-inch Rakim was a challenger for the rap king title. Now Paid in Full (4th & B’Way), Rakim and Eric B.’s first album, certifies that Rakim (“Taking no prisoners/Taking no shorts”) uses his deadpan tone and quiet fire to dis the old school, cut the clowns, make the velvets sound velour, and cold rock the rockers. Throughout Paid in Full there are moments when Rakim’s voice and words, complemented by Eric B.’s dictionary of James Brown beats, make mesmerizing hip hop. For example, the opening of “I Know You Got Soul” is an apology, challenge, critique, and invi­tation: “I shouldna left you/Without a strong rhyme to step to/Think of how many weak shows you slept through/ Time’s up! I’m sorry I kept you.”

Paid in Full contains no rock ‘n’ roll or overt comedy cuts. On “I Ain’t No Joke” Rakim slides between long sentences (“I hold the microphone like a grudge”) and terse rhymes (“You’re right to exagger­ate/Dream and imaginate”), a strategy that speeds up and slows down his synco­pation, much like a saxophonist working through a long solo. On “Move the Crowd” the choppy snare drum and funky horn sample inspire Rakim to use short phrases that suggest a rhythm gui­tar. Over the “Don’t Look Any Further” bassline Eric B., establishing once and for all that he’s a DJ and not an MC, intro­duces himself on mike before leaving Ra­kim to talk about money or, as he puts it, wonder “How I can get some dead presi­dents.” Unlike most current rap albums, where all five rap styles appear, Rakim undermines all the distinctions with a sinister vitality. It’s such a strong person­ality that over the course of, say, three albums he may find himself becoming a parody. But for now when he asks, “Who can keep the average dancer hyper as a heart attack?” you know the answer. ■

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Hiphop Nation: What It Is

A gift to be swift
f
ollow the leader
the rhyme will go…

Everybody has an opinion.

MARLEY MARL: I think Eric B. went over the board, I think he went outra­geous with “You Gotta Have Soul.” He took the name of the record, the drum sounds, everything. I mean, he should have just given them publishing.

Def with the record
T
hat was mixed a long time ago

JAZZY JAY: It’s put together good, but if you ask me, it’s nothing more than just what we were doing back in ’78 and ’79: taking two records and spinning them back and forth. But that’s the raw, raw essence of the way it started.

It can be done
B
ut only I can do it

SCOTT LA ROCK: Some people base their whole careers on James Brown. Af­ter James Brown, what are some people gonna do?

For those that can dance

And, of course, ERIC B.: James Brown is the thing. It’s just like why did everybody buy pink Cadillacs. It’s the thing to do. It’s been James Brown for years and years.

Then clap your hands to it.

“I Know You Got Soul,” Eric B. & Rakim

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It is a hot Friday af­ternoon, and inside the Music Factory, 1476 Broadway, an undistinguished look­ing record store just above 42nd Street, the DJ spins high-energy disco to a room full of B-boys. Late Friday afternoon, and this week’s paychecks avail themselves as generously as the time and the critical declaratives.

“This shit is dope.”

“This is a good record; you should buy it.”

“I should buy it? Your mother should buy it.” Blastmaster KRS One stands by the wall of rap records, not shopping, content to spend the day before his wedding watching his record — Boogie Down Pro­ductions’ Criminal Minded — sell. And pronouncing dicta. “This is garbage. This is garbage. This,” he says, tapping a new single by Public Enemy, “and us are stomping. And this.” He touches Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. “Stomping.” On the strength of its two singles, Paid in Full has for the past week left the Music Factory’s wall at a rate of one copy every five minutes, outselling even L.L. Cool J. The first single, “Eric B. Is President,” takes its title and beat from a digital sample off James Brown’s “Funky Presi­dent,” and uses snatches of Mountain’s “Long Red” (live) and the Mohawks’ “Champ”; the second, “I Know You Got Soul,” owes an even greater debt to Brown’s production of the same name for Bobby Byrd, and to Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too.” James Brown is indeed the thing.

A B-boy grabs two copies of Paid in Full, and the count is straight for the next 10 minutes. In between the DJ and the 12-inch singles on the wall, another B-boy animatedly describes a record to Stanley Platzer, a Buddah-like 57-year­-old white man with thick tinted glasses. “It has a very good break on it,” Stanley growls. “It’s a distinguished break.” He points to a display of 13 albums, most of them untitled and in generic white sleeves. The record labels list song titles but no performers. “Funky President” is on volume 10; “I Know You Got Soul,” impossibly rare in its original version, is on volume four. “Long Red” (live), “Champ,” and “You’ll Like It Tho” are on — volumes nine, 12 and two. The B-boy pauses to pick two copies of one, then another. A battered hand-lettered card­board sign fastened with a rubber band to the front of each album reads ULTIMATE BREAKS AND BEATS.

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Break music is that certain part of the record that you just be waiting for to come up and when that certain part comes, that percussion part with all those drums, congas, it makes you dance real wild. You just let all your feeling go, but that break is so short in the record, you get mad because the break was not long enough for you to really get down to do your thing. As soon as the break part comes in, boom, the singing or music part comes right back and the break part is gone.
— from The Beginning of Break Beat (Hip Hop) Music, by Afrika Bambaataa

ERIC B.: I’d say just about 100 per cent of all rap music, if not 99 per cent of all rap music, uses some kind of idea or something from those break records.

STANLEY PLATZER: Well, the Salt-n­-Pepa girls were in, and then they went into the studio, they bought every one. Volume one to I think 12, at the time, and then they made the LP, they had them all on there. Jam-Master Jay bought four each, about three weeks ago.

On another after­noon in the Music Factory, Biz Markie stops in to ask Stanley about a mambo record that he says has a good break. Stanley doesn’t know the record. He pulls a battered blue loose-leaf binder, decorat­ed with tags reading UPTOWN MUSIC and OLD SCHOOL BEATS, from behind the counter, and adds Biz’s description to a list of breaks he’s kept for seven years. Later, he’ll call Lenny Roberts.

Lenny Roberts was working in the garment district when he moved to the Le­land House apartments in the southeast Bronx in 1976. A record collector and closet DJ, he joined the Sound on Sound record pool; his son joined Afrika Bam­baataa’s budding Zulu Nation, an uptown social club.

“When I first moved here,” says Rob­erts, a soft-spoken 45-year-old chauffeur, “we had a party in the building and somebody asked me to DJ. It was a young crowd, and I couldn’t understand why nobody was dancing. I was playing what­ever was hot at the time. And my son, during the party, he came and asked, did I have certain records. And when the party was over, we came upstairs, and he started telling me about these various records: [The Herman Kelly Band’s] ‘Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,’ ‘Apache,’ all of them.’ ”

One of Kool Herc’s B-Beat discoveries, which became the Bronx National Anthem for over eight years, is a record called “Apache” by the lncredible Bongo Band, who also gave us the hit, “Bongo Rock.” “Apache” came out in 1973 and is still considered the top beat record of all time. If you are a B-Beat (Hip Hop) deejay and you don’t have “Apache,” then you’re not a B-Beat deejay.
from The Beginning of Break Beat (Hip Hop) Music.

Years later — and here possible legal problems make the history a little fuzzy — Lenny included “Apache,” “Bongo Rock,” and the Her­man Kelly Band’s “Dance to the Drum­mer’s Beat” on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats records.

GRAND WIZARD THEODORE: That’s a million-dollar com­pany. They making a million dollars off those records. I don’t know how, but…

STANLEY PLATZER: Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” that’s the only time [the store] ever got threatened. We sold, of the boot­leg, maybe about 5,000. Billy Squier’s rep­resentative threatened us with a letter that we should stop. We were buying the regular record and selling the regular rec­ord, then the stupid record company de­cided to discontinue the record cause it’s not selling. Well, what right have they got to cut out this record? It was the only thing that ever sold in our store by Billy Squier. These are the brains up at these major companies.

After the house par­ty, Lenny was hooked. “So I went to Downstairs Records,” he says, referring to another Times Square shop, “because at the time there was nobody else selling those records but them. I think the first time I spent $155.

“All during the summer there’d be jams all over the place. I used to go to all of them. I even bought a box just for that purpose. I would go to the jams and plug into the system, and tape the whole show. ’Cause I knew all the guys, Bam, Jazzy, and all them. This was long before any­body thought about putting anything on wax.”

JAZZY JAY: We’d find these beats, these heavy percussive beats, that would drive the hip hop people on the dance floor to breakdance. A lot of times it would be a two-second spot, a drum beat, a drum break, and we’d mix that back and forth, extend it, make it 20 minutes long. If you weren’t in the hip hop industry or around it, you wouldn’t ever have heard a lot of these records. Records like “Apache,” [The Magic Disco Machine’s] “Scratch­in’,” Funkadelics, I’m talking about rec­ords like [Perez Prado’s] “Mambo No. 5″ — you could forget about it. That was the whole thing, the element of surprise, coming out with something new. Find a record nobody else has got, do a routine nobody else can do. That was what kept it going. I grew up under Bam, and basi­cally, I got first shot at all those records that nobody else had, ’cause Bam had ’em. I was his DJ, so he’d pass me the records. Bam used to soak the labels off. I’d throw ’em on, a lot of times I wouldn’t even know what I was playing.

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The Bronx River Senior Center, the hub of a large housing project complex sandwiched between East 174th Street and the Cross Bronx Expressway, is quiet on a summer after­noon. A few mothers air their babies, a workman pounds on some scrap metal, and two cops sit in their parked car. Amid a flurry of elaborate, colorful graffi­ti tags, a homely black scrawl on the wall. of the Center reads, ZULU NATION LIVES. In front of the center, a group of teenagers congregates around Afrika Bambaataa. They were all probably about five years old when Bam started giving parties here.

“A lot of people always think it started in the South Bronx,” he says, “but offi­cially it came from the West Bronx, ’cause Kool Herc was from that area. Then it came over here to the South Bronx with myself and [Grandmaster] Flash. I was always following a DJ named Kool D., who used to play heavy disco. When I heard Herc, I heard music that he had that I had already in my house. So I said, I got the same thing he got, ain’t nothing he hiding from me, so when I graduated out of school, I got my system. I started playing in the street. I already had a large following from the gang era, so once I gave a party it was automatical­ly packed.

“At that time, it was just called break music or wild style music or bebop music.

“A lot of people came to these parties to hear certain records that each DJ would have. Kool Herc might have his certain cuts that he would play. Bambaa­taa would have his. Flash would have his. Flash and everybody used to tape up their records; you tape over everything, all you can see is the color of the label. People would do their best to send their inform­ers into each other’s camp. A lot of times I could walk up to the turntable and see the color of the record, know what label it was, then all I had to do was find all the records at that time that was on that label, and just look for certain words or something that they was cutting. ’Cause at that time, DJs didn’t tell each other, ’cause that was your power, and it was your what you call making your money.”

LENNY ROBERTS: Most of these kids’ parents had a lot of the records in their collection. The parents didn’t know noth­ing for a break or what the hell the kid was talking about.

JAZZY JAY: Maybe those records were ahead of their time. Maybe they were made specifically for the rap era; these people didn’t even know what they were making at that time. They thought, “Oh, we want to make a jazz record.”

STANLEY PLATZER: People come in, they think Break Beats are dance records, but they’re not exactly what you call dance records. You can dance to some, but they’re not.

ERIC B.: Every rec­ord has some kind of break. You can’t say there’s not one record that anybody’s made that doesn’t have a breakdown.

STANLEY PLATZER: No, Sinatra we haven’t found, but we got a Fausto Pep­petti from Italy that has a break. Also the Mickey Mouse Club [Theme], and there’s the Cookie [“C is for Cookie”], a Sesame Street record. It’s one of the earlier ones.

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The rear bedroom in Lenny Roberts’s apartment is dedicated to rows and rows of records: 45s, 12-inch singles, and thousands of albums, all in pairs, all in plastic sleeves. A half-dozen dusty yellow legal pads list, in painstak­ingly neat manuscript, as many records as Lenny has catalogued so far. The re­cords, like the entries in the notebooks, are arranged alphabetically, according to record company.

In the living room, under a giant sunset mural, thousands more records are in cabinets, two rows deep. A flannel dust­cover drapes over two turntables, a mix­er, and the rest of Lenny’s stereo. “I had all the equipment,” he says, “But it was basically for my own personal taste. I would sit here and practice, and tape it, and then play it back, and see how it sounded, backspinning and all that. I could catch the shortest of breaks. And it was fun.

“I stayed in the garment center for about 14, 15 years. And I just got tired of it. I was in Downstairs once, and I was fascinated. The guy was cleaning up on this shit. You’d be surprised at the money that was paid for these things, just for what, 10 seconds, 20 seconds of a record. Just on a Saturday alone, just off these records, they were pulling fifteen hun­dred, two thousand dollars.”

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: I bought the In­credible Bongo Band for a dollar. I made a fortune off that. I had so many of those albums, I just walked down the street, “22 dollars,” sell ’em right off, no prob­lem. A lot of cab drivers, like OJ’s, Godfa­ther, Luxury Cabs, would buy the tapes of what we was playing for their custom­ers. They would buy Grandmaster Flash music or Afrika Bambaataa music or Kool Herc music. This was our first thing of getting our music spread around. You could sell the cassettes for up to $10 to $20.

GRAND WIZARD THEODORE: In like 1975, I used to be a record boy. I used to be in charge of going downtown and buy­ing records for Flash. I used to buy a lot of the white-boy records, like Aerosmith and the Steve Miller Band. Everybody wanted the records and knew I could get them. And I would tell them that I would go buy them a copy and they would pay me for the copy.

ERIC B.: There wasn’t no break records that couldn’t be found. Downstairs Rec­ords used to provide all of them. Now Stanley is the king of the beats.

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Back at the Music Factory, Mantronik, the musical half of Mantronix, eyes the painting of a shat­tered skull on the cover of volume 12 of the Ultimate Breaks and Beats. He flips the jacket, new since his last visit, to look at the track listings. “What!?” Then, “Oh shit.” Then he realizes that the “Johnny the Fox” title he sees isn’t the Tricky Tee record he produced, but the Thin Lizzy original from which they took the title and beat.

On a pillar opposite the Ultimate Breaks and Beats is a column of albums in green or black jackets that bear the legend, SUPER DISCO BRAKE’S. Mantronik sneers, “Those pressings suck.” As the DJ cues up Anita Baker’s “Same Ole LLove (365 Days a Year)” for the fourth straight time, Stanley returns the book of breaks to its place. Anyone Stanley trusts can take it around the corner to the pho­tocopy shop.

“This is a funny story,” Stanley says. “Bob James’s ‘Mardi Gras’ was cut out, discontinued by the label. And then when Paul Winley put it out on his Super Disco Brake’s, he recorded it from a used copy, and when they tried to scratch it, it wouldn’t work.”

LENNY ROBERTS: I used to buy from all the cutout houses, all of them. I would buy maybe 500 at a time. I’d pay any­where from 25 cents to three dollars for a record. As far as the record being worth anything, it wasn’t worth nothing to no­body, other than the kids. They had sold as much as they were going to sell. They didn’t mean nothing to the guy that had the records. I only sold to what you call your specialty shops. At one point I had like 4,000 copies of the Jimmy Castor Bunch, “It’s Just Begun.” I did this until I just tapped everybody, just tapped ’em out.

STANLEY PLATZER: He’d get them for 35 cents, we’d sell them for $1.99 or $2.99, and after he ran out of them, it was either press ’em or forget about ’em. So he’d put ’em on his Break Beats.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: A lot of times, certain records that I knew nobody would get, I would keep for a year before I let it get out. Lenny was still checking with us first to see if it was okay to put this out. And we would say, “Oh man, don’t be putting out stuff.” Then after a while, we said, “Yeah, okay, go ahead.”

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One flight up from an industrial, cobblestone street in the Westchester Square section of the Bronx, a dozen B-boys are dancing to the beat of their demo tape in Jazzy Jay’s home stu­dio. When the telephone rings, Jazzy picks up the receiver, throws it on the bed, and continues with what he’d been saying. “How important were Lenny’s re­cords? Very important. Because it gave everybody in the industry, everybody who was down in this era…” He picks up the telephone.

STANLEY PLATZER: You get 50, a hundred new DJs every week, so they’re always buying. They gotta have them all.

Jazzy Jay yells “Yeah?” into the receiver, listens, takes another lick from his Popsicle, and hangs up. “It took a little bit of that mystery about out of it, ’cause it was hard to find these records. You didn’t find them every day of the week. When Lenny made them available, it was like, anybody can have them now.”

ERIC B.: I’ll be in the studio, and I’ll have records that I carry at all times. And I just go through them, and I’ll throw on something, then I’ll get an idea. It gets away from the drum machine and back to the drummer.

DOUG WIMBISH: The reason you hear tunes [on Sugar Hill raps] and say, “Damn, I heard that tune before” is that you did hear it before…

KEITH LEBLANC: …Sylvia [Robinson, Sugar Hill president and producer] would be at Harlem World or Disco Fever, and she’d watch who was mixing what four bars off of what record. She’d get that record, and then she’d play us those four bars and have us go in and cut it better.

LENNY ROBERTS: What it is now, you got a new breed of kids who are buyin’ these records. The ones who bought then then are older now, and they got into other things.

HURBY LUY BUG: Flash is in his late thirties. He was around when these records came out. I’m 22. I don’t remember these records.

MARLEY MARL: Rap died last summer [’86] if you ask me. Everybody stopped cutting up old breaks and everything, and they was going into the drum machine sound, straight up drum machine. You can’t polish rap too much. If it wasn’t for two good records like “Eric B. Is President” and “The Bridge” [by M.C. Sham, both records produced by Marley] to get people really into sampling, I think would have been doing very bad right now. The music today is too complicated for the youth. That’s why they can really get into the older records. They still have those authentic beat finders. Now they’ all producers. There’s not much of a difference, making a record and being a DJ cutting up beats and stuff.

MANTRONIK: Kids that are doing hip hop records nowadays don’t have the smarts to go one step ahead. They know how to sample a sound and do that, and copy someone’s idea. They don’t know how to create on their own. That’s why it’s coming back.

LENNY ROBERTS: There’s 17 volumes of Street Beat Records. That’s how many more I could do. Stanley gave me a list of about 10 records a couple weeks ago, he’d say. “Lenny, they’re using this on such and such. When is your next one coming out?”

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In the basement of the McDaniels home in Hollis, Queens, D.M.C. removes Yellowman’s Bad Boy Shanking from the stereo and puts on a record very similar to volume five of the Ultimate Breaks and Beats, except it doesn’t have publishing credits or the logo of Street Beat Records, Lenny Rob­erts’s label. He sits down, and Run begins to cut up Freedom’s “Get Up and Dance.” The record has a cartoon of an octopus on the label. “Remember this?” D.M.C. asks.

LENNY ROBERTS: The octopus rec­ords have been around for a long time. Even prior to that, there was 12-inches. These records go back to ’80. They were put out by some guy in the Bronx. Street Beats is about a year or two old. I wrote away for all the licensing. I sell them in three stores. Every volume is in its sec­ond pressing.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: They’re getting bold now. Some people started putting the whole records on. Something’s gonna happen I know in the industry with that, cause I guess a lot of people getting mad. Some artists, they don’t pay it no mind, they feel great to see somebody bringing their stuff forward. There’s other artists who don’t play around. I hear James [Brown] is soon gonna come after people.

JAZZY JAY: The laws on taking samples are, you take ’em until you get caught.

SCOTT LA ROCK: Every day I devote some time to looking for music. If you wanna get paid, you gotta work for it. Rap music, a lot of people say rappers can’t do nothing. You do rap records, all rap is is the message you give it and borrowing beats and music from other records. That’s what makes rap records. I don’t worry about the law…

BLASTMASTER KRS ONE: …’cause even if they sue you it don’t matter, ’cause by the time they get their money, you’ll be rich.

SCOTT LA ROCK: You can’t stop what is. You can’t tell me, “Oh, you’re gonna go to down the block is gonna do it. That’s it.

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MOST KINGINGEST KICKS: Avidas

In the same way the B-boy splash was once marked by a certain conformity in kicks, it now seems to hail diversity as the ruling dynamic.- Despite the exclamations of a certain well-heeled duo, Adidas is no longer the only game in town, nor has it been for quite some time. Nike, for one, has ·made considerable inroads into their market (Delta Force & Trainers are the move). Troop, Wilson, Converse, Diadora, New Balance, SpotBilt, Puma, and Etonic, are all creating popular,  wild-styled, hi-top boots. Ellesse, British Knights, Fila, Bally, L.A. Gear are Cali. Though still worn in certain comers of softness, Reeboks are weak. Wearing them is a compromising compromise in a world of far more efficient, interplanetary gear. That is to say, thy kicks should keep you locked down inter the planet as coldly as possible.

Avia (uh-VEE-uh) has been gaining wider acceptance with certain posses. The kicks look dope when you’re just chillin’, like they should. I’m championing the 870-”Those shits are bad! Stoopid ankle support!” says Kenny Brown, Ath­lete’s Foot salesman/business student/forward in the Rucker League. With its nylon web straps, Pivotal Flex Joint, and other stuff only mothers and ballers would care about, these sneakers could be a new letter man standard. Only problem is Adidas has gone beyond the shell-top, and still makes some of the dopest, funky-fresh footwear known to man (Run-D.M.C.’s three models: Eldor­ado, Fleetwood, Brougham; and the very silly Conductor and Instinct). So, a merger is definitely in order. See the top of this article for the new corporate name.
—Harry Allen

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HIP-HOP VIDEO: What Video?

Who was it that said that filmmaking could never be an art until cameras were as cheap as pencils? You might think I’m buggin’, but I don’t think there are any hip-hop videos. By that I mean either a filmic equivalent (doing the same thing contextually to mainstream filmmaking that hip-hop does to mainstream music) or counterpoint (that resonates with the existing sensibilities of the core audience) to hip-hop music. The medium has not really opened up yet, with far too few videos being made, and far too many white art students making the ones that are, for a hip-hop aesthetic to develop. What you often end up with are moments that might reflect a hip-hop attitude, but which are not sustained.

Bright spots can be found in the work of the Hudlin Bros. (Heavy D’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Uptown Crew’s “Uptown Is Kickin’ It “) and Atlantis Productions (Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now?,” L.L. Cool J’s “I’m Bad”) as far as the sustenance of a politically correct counterpoint is concerned Vivien Gold­man & Mick SaWYer’s video for Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” is, like its subject, totally unpretentious. The emergence of the Beastie Boys might hold film possibilities for some sort of temporary “reverse crossover.” And while Velore & Double- O’s “Your Ugly,” directed by Drew Carolan, is def, I’m not really sure it’s hip-hop. I hope it is. What I’m saying is that not enough Black films in any genre are being made for a resonant Black mix to become obvious (whadd’ya think, A.J.?), and not enough hip-­ hop videos are being made within this body for a hip-hop aesthetic to be made equally clear. So until this happens, I’d like to suggest that Salt ‘n Pepa’s “‘Iramp,” by Atlantis, is hip-hop’s best music video, with Anita Baker’s ”No One in the World” by Spike Lee, trailing a very distant second
—Harry Allen

 

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

1988 Pazz & Jop: Dancing on a Logjam

When last we sat down for a serious chat, it was the end of the world as we knew it, and I felt fine. The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, conceived as a goof and evolved willy-nilly into a barometer, was plainly in a jam — a “logjam.” On the album chart, which dated back to posthippie 1971 or 1974, a plethora of well-crafted yet ultimately inconsequential records by postpunk post-Amerindies confounded electorate and dean alike; on the singles chart, instituted in 1979 after the twin ’70s movements of punk and disco jolted rock and roll back toward its original format and function, late-released songs from charting albums crowded out the striking yet ultimately arbitrary moments of passion that emerged on individual ballots. A crisis of consensus had moved the Poobahs to dispense with the EP chart and was also evident in sparse video voting. There were lots of great reissues, most of which nobody had heard.

Yet I really did feel fine, if only because I had just written something moderately cogent and entertaining about this mess, and obsessed the way I usually am in February, I made grand plans to bring Pazz & Jop into the present, or future — plans cut to fit the moderately cogent and very entertaining objective correlative of my good cheer. By which I mean the inevitable internationalization of a world-pop hegemony that’s been American since the end of World War I — new vistas, fresh blood. Baboon Dooley notwithstanding, I didn’t expect the impending flood of U.S.-released “world-beat” to show up on the voters’ 1988 chart: when I say internationalization is inevitable, I’m talking decades or generations rather than years, and I’m also talking a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification — more different kinds of good music than any sensibility can make sense of, created for the most part in blissful disregard of crippling late-capitalist doctrines of artistic decorum (though embracing, I’ll bet, crippling late-capitalist chimeras of superstar glory). Solution: a plethora of minipolls, panels of specialists reporting on African music, Hispanic music, Caribbean music, Amerindies, Europop, jazz, disco, whatever — even videos! Sounded pretty snazzy, assuming the cash cow you hold in your hands would allot personnel to the project — since I maim my marriage every winter with computation, analysis, and shitwork, I wasn’t about to devote the fall to beseeching specialists.

So instead I spent it pondering my future in journalism, just like my [colleagues at said cash cow, which on January] 4 came under its eighth editor since 1974, too late to budget any grand plans. And quite a decent chap he seems to be, cough cough, but there was less than no way to know that then, and — more to the point — no way to budget any grand plans. Hence I was doomed to pore over the same old graph paper and dot-matrix screeds in a year that would make the 1987 logjam look like Beatlemania. I couldn’t even figure a winner until a college student I know transformed Tracy Chapman into an instant favorite by dropping her name. I didn’t look forward to enumerating the shortcomings of this young black female lefty, the first alumna of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival ever to go double platinum. But at least she was all those worthy things, and something new to boot, and thus better copy than Talking Heads, R.E.M., or U2, whose well-crafted but ultimately inconsequential albums would presumably vie for place and show with the sonic youths of yesteryear, 1987’s 14th- and 12th-ranked Public Enemy and Sonic Youth. As for the other front-runners, maybe some legends — plenty of them out there shaking their bones. But all the contenders felt like 11-to-20 material to me.

As it turned out, my confusion was a premonition; statistically, the 15th (or 16th) annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the strangest ever. The album chart was completely dominated by three candidates: Tracy Chapman, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, and the overwhelming victor, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Not that victory was overwhelming in absolute terms — though Public Enemy did break 1000, only the Clash in 1981 and Talking Heads in 1985 won with fewer prorated points, and several second- and third-place finishers have bested 1988’s number one, not to mention 1988’s numbers two and three. What’s more, Sandinista! and Little Creatures were winners by default, perched uneasily atop a neatly graded heap of less-equal works of art. This year, Public Enemy is an actively controversial positive choice: its 295-point margin is just 13 shy of the total accorded fourth-ranked Midnight Oil.

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Which brings us to the nut, because Midnight Oil would have been 12th or 13th in a normal year. In other words, the collective judgment is that 1988 produced only three major albums — the lesser contenders felt like 11-to-20 material because that’s exactly what they were. The 212 voters divided albums four through 29 by a mere 128 points, from 308 down to 180, a differential negligible enough to be bollixed utterly by a couple of partisans; indeed, perennial ballot stuffer Greil Marcus upped Randy Newman two places and Keith Richards three with his strategic 30s, and if the next two days’ submissions had made our deadline, Brian Wilson would have finished not 12th but sixth. Strangest of all is that U2’s underrated if grandiose Rattle and Hum squeezed in at 21st, with two fewer points than the sophomoric October got in 1981; Talking Heads accrued 193 points for Naked, an honest if unsustaining internationalist gesture hailed as a leap forward from 1986’s quasi-roots-rock True Stories, which got 187; and R.E.M., top 10 with all five previous albums, tied for 35th with their Warner Bros. debut, Green. Executive Poobah Doug Simmons, whose heart has never bled for the Georgia obscurantists, was appalled by this rank injustice. “But they’ve done nothing wrong,” he cried.

Except maybe living too long, but let’s put that on hold, because the evolution of one album logjam into another is only half our strange story. The bigger half takes place on the singles chart, which a year ago seemed at an impasse. The old Pazz & Jop plaint that singles matter more than albums seldom shows up in the results; just as there’s too much “world-beat” to absorb much less agree on, singles fans have so many options that rarely do they unite to overcome the casual nod vouchsafed the album cuts respondents remember from their hours with the car radio — their autumn hours, usually. I should note that in a classic Pazz & Jop fuckup, our original invitation requested five rather than 10 singles, which may have skewed our results a little. We rushed out a correction, but one in 10 ballots didn’t comply, a dozen of them from out-of-town, where the car-radio vote is strongest. An unfuckedup invite might have helped U2’s “Desire,” Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” Prince’s “I Wish U Heaven,” and either of two Pet Shop Boys singles (though they’re hardly an out-of-town-type band), all of which received 10 votes along with Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It,” and the Godfathers’ “Birth, School, Work, Death.” But album samples weren’t the trend. For the first time in years, even critics who don’t have much use for dance/rap chose real singles instead, so that “Roll With It” (one album mention) and “Birth, School, Work, Death” (three) and Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (two) and Pursuit of Happiness’s “I’m an Adult Now” (three) and Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” (well, nine) all beat out, for example, Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” and Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That Matters.”

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” an unrelenting, unbombastic escape-to-nowhere so pithy and sisterly that several respondents claimed the long-player rides its coattails, got its landslide, one of just 10 top-25 singles from top-40 albums. That compares to 15 in 1987, 11 (all in the top 14) in 1986, and 13 in 1985, while in contrast last year’s singles chart made room for just two rap and two dance records, with only “Pump Up the Volume” from a non-album-chart group (and Eric B. begging to differ). This year, as AOR thrashed about and top 40 sunk deeper into a pap cycle, Teddy Riley’s versions of Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown and Spike Lee’s version of E.U. all placed, as did Ofra Haza’s sabra-cum-Yemenite stomp “Im Nin’alu”/”Galbi,” the sole “world-beat” finisher anywhere, which as it happens could also be heard in bits and pieces on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” remix. And get this — “Paid in Full” was one of nine raps selected.

That’s nine — nine! — when the previous high, reached once, was four. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s nagging, whooping James Brown rip-out “It Takes Two” was beyond question the rap single of the year; anywhere reachable by boombox, it was in the world’s face louder than “Don’t Believe the Hype” from March to October, and it ended up an easy second. The other eight finishers leaned toward crossover while showing off the genre’s range. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is a shameless bid to suburban wannabees, “Colors” a shameless bid to inner-city moralists, and “Wild Thing” just shameless. But both Salt-n-Pepa entries feminize an intrinsically male-chauvinist genre with spunk, soul, and imagination, “Follow the Leader” sums up a virtuosic, underrated album, “Paid in Full” is the big payback, and “Don’t Believe the Hype” is the slogan of the year.

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Anyone who knows much about the business of music may suspect a con here — how can the single be an augury when as a consumer item it’s staggering to its grave faster than vinyl? But don’t, don’t, don’t you-know-the-rest. The death-of-the-single line is self-fulfilling paranoia in a biz that’s forever scoping stillborn trends and a visceral response to the rack-space crisis created by its frantic promotion of two new formats. Which in their CD-single and cassingle minivariants are getting to second base with the convenience seekers who’ve made cassettes America’s musical long-form and CDs its measure of aural luxury. The 45 may be a promotional fiction and the gold 45 a relic, but in 1988 the single maintained the dollar volume bizzers live by, with a little help from the above-mentioned miniformats and a lot from the 12-inch, a high-profit item that happens to be the basis of the entire contemporary dance scene and its attendant promotional alternatives. D.J. CD and even cassette manipulation will no doubt come into their own (though they’ll be hell on scratching), but for the nonce an industry greedy for avenues of exposure isn’t gonna kill off disco.

So in effect the single, like vinyl itself, is turning into a specialist medium. It took the crash of 1929 to finish the cylinder, which had been a dodo for decades, and though vinyl will get harder to find, it won’t disappear for a long while even if it dips well below its current 20 per cent market share; maybe soon almost no one will sell little records with big holes in them, but 12-inch singles will persist for as long as the D.J. is a cultural hero, and like vinyl-only oldie and indie LPs, they’ll be sought by seekers, critics’ meat for sure. Fact is, as many locals as out-of-towners listed only five singles, and for the same reason — they didn’t give a shit. New York is a 12-inch stronghold, but the New Yorkers who failed to amend their ballots favored promotional fliers like “Slow Turning” and “It’s Money That Matters” and obviously didn’t figure good citizenship required them to rerack their brains for another five. In fact, more than one old new waver suggested changing to a song-of-the-year category to avoid vexing questions of commercial availability, but I like the way things came out.

This may also look like a con, especially to the dance-sucks brigade. “Very aesthetic, a little short on black music,” I wrote of the first or second poll back in 1974, and ever since I’ve been climbing on my soapbox preaching punk-disco fusion, funkentelechy, world-beat, etc. But if I sometimes seem a little repetitive, that’s because history doesn’t change direction annually no matter what the trendmongers want. Sure it was a Year of the Woman/Year of the Protest Song, sorta; we’ll get to that. But the numbers put something else first. To oversimplify for clarity’s sake, they divide 1988’s popular music into a meaning function, reflected in all its weary (and compromised) ambiguity by the album chart, and a pleasure function, reflected in all its subliminal (and cooptable) subversion by the singles chart. If the split were absolute, of course, the end would be at hand — the whole idea of rock criticism is that if pleasure and meaning aren’t made one then meaning will fail, not just as persuasion but as meaning. So say this dichotomy is close enough for rock and roll. Although Chapman’s single does pick up speed, it’s one of the most meaning-laden in poll history, while her album, if far from party-girl whoop-de-doo, proffers more simple enjoyment than Anthony Davis, Dick Hebdige, Jean Baudrillard, Kathy Acker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Z magazine, or 7 Days. Several of our rap singles make social statements, and several of our rock albums turn hanging loose into a middle-aged manifesto. Yet in general, the singles are about the future of fun, and the albums aren’t.

So even though only rap/dance inspired widespread optimism among our respondents, the meaning-laden winner was the sole rap album in the top 40 (last year there were three). What’s more, Womack & Womack are the only black finishers who could be said to play to a black audience, much less the black dancers who put new beats in action: we’re talking women’s music, fusion-with-brains, metal-with-brains, crossover blues, and, well, Prince, his official album a major dink after last year’s poll-sweeping Sign “O” the Times, his “black album” (clandestine copies of which finished eight points, five mentions, and three places behind 17th-ranked Lovesexy) withheld from public scrutiny out of fear it was well-named. And while over the past few polls not many black pop albums have deserved much better than the nothing they got, this time I’m not so sure.

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With hip-hop preoccupying a growing minority of young critics, rap albums did flourish twixt 41 and 100: meaning-laden Big Daddy Kane and Boogie Down Productions 45th and 47th, party-smarty formalists Eric B. and EPMD 54th and 68th, and girl-group-and-proud Salt-n-Pepa 73rd. But significantly, only Kane and EPMD were supported by even one of our 19 black voters, who preferred the street-sweet new jack swing of Teddy Riley (“same old crossover-cowardice in [a] brand-new suit,” saith white Schoolly D fan Chuck Eddy), giving 75th-place Keith Sweat four out of five mentions, 91st-place Al B. Sure! five out of seven, and Riley’s own 83rd-place Guy three out of six. For those closest to the heat, the producer’s cool, rapwise elaboration of Jam-Lewis signified, and what it signified was something like “B-Boys Can’t B Boys Forever.” In the grand tradition of unreconstructed adolescence, rock critics consider this defeatist. My bet goes with the wisdom of the ages.

Opting for Women and/or Protest, meanwhile, was an altogether different subset of critics, with not a single one of the 31 who backed fifth-place Michelle Shocked, for instance, naming any of the rap also-rans (and vice versa). Leaving out pornotopian egalitarians Sonic Youth (who this year as last did much worse with women voters than with men) and including Björk’s Sugarcubes and Linda’s Womack & Womack, eight women finished top-40, as many as in 1986 and 1987 combined, but what I find especially significant is that five of them — Chapman, Shocked, self-determined white blueswoman Lucinda Williams, neotrad outsider K. D. Lang, and pristine depressive Margo Timmins — can be described without stretching as folkies, five more than in 1986 and 1987 combined; all-singing all-songwriting Sam “Talk About Born Again, My Christian Name Used To Be Leslie” Phillips (69th) also fits the category. Respondent Roger Moore is right: they’re not all alike in the dark. From rock and roll to new-age world-music (and from good to bad, which isn’t the same thing), Etta James (62nd) and Voice of the Beehive (96th) and Toni Childs (44th) and Edie Brickell (60th) and the Primitives (72nd) and the Bangles (87th) and Sade (71st) and even the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir (50th) aren’t folkies. (Maybe the Miriam Makeba of 87th-place Sangoma is, or the Ofra Haza of 88th-place Seven Gates of Wisdom, but not to Americans — and not in the American sense.) Nevertheless, folk music, in all its respects for truths that we hold self-evident, was what Year-of-the-Woman coverage was really about.

None of our five folkie finishers projects a Baez/Collins-style purity, or comes on like one’s sainted mother — often punky or dykey, always autonomous, sometimes even funny, they’re very post-Joni (two mentions), and not just because they write their own. But men liked them a lot. The only female finishers afforded disproportionate support by our 39 female voters were rock and roll heroine Patti Smith and new wave pretenders the Sugarcubes; Michelle Shocked and Lucinda Williams did significantly worse with their own gender, and neither Womack & Womack (I blame Cecil) nor the Cowboy Junkies (I blame Margo) was named by a single woman. To an extent this may reflect new wave origins and loyalties — punk opened the music to some-not-enough female critics as well as some-not-enough female musicians. But beyond liberal guilt and headline lust, male journalists were happy to make 1988 the Year of the Woman because the folkie madonna, wise and soulful whether calm or passionate, once again seems a comforting idea to the kind of white former boy disquieted by rap and disco.

One reason for all the Protest play is that an equally reassuring aura surrounds folk music’s straightforward literary-political aesthetic, epitomized by 42nd-place Folkways: A Vision Shared, in which stars and legends underwrote the Smithsonian’s (i.e., the federal government’s) Folkways purchase by interpreting predominantly political titles from the label’s most trenchant fellow travelers, Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie. Although politics are heaviest among the leaders — of our top five, only Sonic Youth, whose anarchism laughs at ideology, aren’t staunch lefties in art and life — this was a year in which Richard Thompson and Patti Smith and R.E.M. essayed more or less conventional protest songs, in which Living Colour and Metallica aimed to focus metal’s antisocial tendencies, in which all but maybe half a dozen charting album artists imagined an audience that resented or despised the suicidal inequities of late capitalism.

This is nothing new in Pazz & Jop, but it keeps intensifying, and from Midnight Oil nurturing their muse in the outback to U2 preaching roots they hardly knew they had (not to mention Van Morrison taking up with Irish folk ambassadors), folkie notions of tradition and solidarity have come to constitute a collective vision of sorts. To an extent I share it myself — unlike, say, Greil Marcus, an enemy of capital who hears sanctimony dripping from almost every artist I’ve named and says a pox on them all. But straightforwardness has serious limits, and even Michelle Shocked, easily the most wordwise of the latest crew of singer-songwriters, gets tired pretty quick by me. There’s not enough fun or adventure in them — not enough pleasure function, not enough music.

Rap/dance singles weren’t the only quality product to address this familiar problem in 1988. Glance again at the top of the album chart and note an accidental but entertaining trio of groupings. The top five is fresh meat, young or at least new (if Peter Garrett isn’t pushing 35 he either suffers too much or does drugs on the sly). Then we have Pere Ubu and Was (Not Was), first- and second-generation new wavers who avoided the sweepstakes so long it looked like forever. And after that there’s the most incredible procession of old farts in Pazz & Jop history: seven artists who predate punk by at least nine or 10 years, their mean age 46, the youngest 39-year-old Richard Thompson. They got it up, too — except for poor simple Brian Wilson, every one deserved to beat U2, R.E.M., and Talking Heads. Ornette is as ageless as any jazz or pop musician in history, and this year like never before he was both. Richard Thompson finally recovered from walking out on Linda, and while I’m Your Man was only a half-step up from 1985’s unnoticed Various Positions, Leonard Cohen never got old because he was never young and thus remained ripe for rediscovery by the eight under-30s who selected him Dutch uncle. Randy Newman supposedly got more personal and certainly got more pissed, moving the old-sourpuss faction to shower him with points. And Keith Richards and the Traveling Wilburys boogied.

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Both Talk Is Cheap and Volume One smelled bad out of the box, and bigots will claim they stink forever. But if you think you’re gonna hate them too, you may be in for a surprise. Though I don’t know what place Talk Is Cheap deserves in my life, I’m happy to attest that somehow Richards has created generic classics — the kind of stuff you always forget until you hear it again and figure for collectorama covers until you check the copyright notice. As for the Wilburys, what could be more obscene than five overrated “superstars” getting together for some “fun” and then trying to foist it off on the suckers who made them rich and famous in the first place? Yet what we have here is not only Bob Dylan’s best record since Blood on the Tracks but a group that does as much for George Harrison as the Beatles, and even without Roy Orbison (who despite the gush is pretty much a fifth wheel) I sometimes find myself wishing they’d make a career of it — keep them out of harm’s way. Keith and the Wilburys address the future of fun. They make flesh Mick Jagger’s insulting contention that if Howlin’ Wolf could do it till he dropped, so could the Stones. They assume that great grooves need not surrender all pleasure function just because their novelty no longer tickles your fancy, and prove it with a spirit that renews one’s faith in humankind, for if it becomes possible to share a laugh with Jeff Lynne, then fellow feeling can know no bounds.

Professionals so entrenched they’re beyond careerism, our exemplary boogie-men stuck to their guns with nothing up their sleeves, while former untouchables R.E.M. and Talking Heads were worn and torn by the biz. R.E.M. experimented with verbal and rhythmic specificity, a gutty move for a band whose sizable cult was built on murmur and airy flow, but the holes in their songwriting showed, and it cost them; David Byrne concealed the ricketiness of his current compositional practice by riding in on soukous’s jetstream, but the trick didn’t stick, and a record that looked sure top-10 in March finished 24th. Both bands were rejected by new wave stalwarts fighting midlife crisis. I refuse to write off proven artists of any era, but the thirties are a scary age in rock and roll, and I sense a changing of the guard. The dyed-in-the-wool rockers who cheered Richards and the Wilburys will plump for the same beat in perpetuity, but punks manqué are trapped in the tradition of the new — hard for bohemians who defined their own mission in contradistinction to hippie conservatism to sit tight in a logjam, settling for the same old well-crafted, revitalized shit. Such are the long-term perils of new wave commerce. Interesting, isn’t it, that rather than getting rusty during their long layoffs on the biz’s fringe, Was (Not Was) and Pere Ubu jes grew?

And with a few omissions, that’s how rock’s meaning function breaks down in 1988 — the old kicked ass, the new got old. Of course, as the ambiguously entitled “Hit List” attests, some would call the omissions the story — ironic pop hedonists the Pet Shop Boys, unironic pop hedonist George Michael, lying sons of bitches Guns N’ Roses. No consensus doesn’t mean no passion — to recall a church-library title that revealed the errors of Unitarians, Swedenborgians, Roman Catholics, and other misguided souls to a 10-year-old Poobah-in-the-making, it’s a “chaos of cults” out there, and some claim to want nothing better. At a tiny London symposium celebrating the literary event of the rock year, Simon Frith’s Music for Pleasure, the delegate from Rough Trade, this year’s only album-charting indie except Capitol-distributed Enigma, indignantly denied that music had anything to do with movements — The Disparate Cognoscenti, her label’s new compilation is called, and though I’d rather buy a bridge myself, embattled individualism is what holds the latest generation of diehard bohemians together and tears it apart. Punk-cum-Amerindie Gerard Cosloy, who signaled his disdain for consensus by joining a record 41 late voters and dubbed his own label comp, harrumph, Human Music, comes clean in “Future (No Future)”: to hell with “the music’s potential impact on the rest of popular culture.”

Out of respect for Amerindieland’s subcultural ideals, we brought back EP voting, and though boho hero Bruce Springsteen won with the worst record he’s ever made, deserving young indies did get free publicity — New York’s Caroline, Boston’s Taang!, and Seattle’s Sub Pop joined the eternal SST with two finishers apiece. Embattled individual artists Mudhoney and Bullet LaVolta turn out to be better-than-average garage bands who may go somewhere and may fall off the edge of the earth, Poi Dog Pondering’s word-of-mouth is better than its distribution, Pussy Galore and Live Skull are easy to spell, and let’s do this again soon. After all, even with seven votes good for fourth place, EP results were more meaningful than in reissues, which more than ever rewarded size: three of the top four were multi-CDs whose exhaustiveness could not but bowl over young crits filling out their collections and middle-aged audiophiles-come-lately seeking permanence in a troubled world. Far be it from me to put down Chuck Berry — given the chance I would have named a son after him. But let it be noted that MCA has both the most generous review-copy policy of any label doing serious catalogue exploitation and four of our 10 winners. I admire The Chess Box, but I miss the briefly available Great Twenty-Eight and 1964’s St. Louis to Liverpool, my (second) copy of which is badly worn. When the dubious Chess original-reissue program gets around to the latter, which like most original Chess LPs runs well under 30 minutes, I hope I get one free.

For most voters, internationalization will arrive late if at all, but unless this is just an abnormal year, which is possible (will they still yawn after the Replacements go pop and Lou goes political?), a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification may already be upon us. The Poobahs’ uncouth requests for demographic detail met with somewhat wittier resistance this year (see both “The Personals” and “I Gotta Be Me”), most of which I blame on the refusal of would-be autonomous subjects to recognize the determinations we’re all subject to (plus perhaps fear of math) (and, oh yeah, ressentiment). Ira Robbins has always been obtuse if not defensive on this issue, and — racist? moi? — Armond White isn’t much better, but note the japes of my cranky pal Greil, who complains that he could have listed many additional categories that impinge on his musical proclivities.

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No doubt. But unlike blacks and women, doowop fans aren’t systematically oppressed in this society, nor excluded from journalistic discourse, and though I’m sure some diddy-bopping anarchist out there thinks market-researched reissues exemplify consumer-capitalist exploitation, I trust he or she doesn’t find math so scary that distinctions of degree lose all meaning. Of the additional categories White sarcastically proposes, only “Greeks” wouldn’t produce interesting results, although I must note that until I can get critics to admit they’re bigots that one isn’t practicable. In fact, the main reason we don’t do a separate poll of gays is that homosexuals’ right to privacy comes first. Acknowledging oppression — and in the case of blacks, a fundamental artistic debt — is obviously the main idea.

So though we skipped the whippersnapper-graybeard breakdowns this year, our much-maligned all-black and all-female polls appear once again under the wiseass headings “No Whites Allowed” and “Boys Keep Out.” Wonder whether Robbins will think it’s, er, superficial for black voters to get behind 15 black acts (though three did give it up to Iceland’s musical ambassadors, for five points each, and many other white artists got one or two mentions). I mean, come on — do I have to keep restating the obvious? Speaking generally, demographically, quantitatively, African-American’s musical culture fosters shared “personal values,” values that whites, acculturated to believe their shared values are “objective,” are forever adapting after a decade or so has safely passed. That’s reason enough to find out what records our statistically unreliable sample of black critics has fastened on. Womens’ musical culture is far more indistinct no matter what the Michigan Women’s Music Festival thinks, and female cognoscenti are even more disparate than black, but with two of rock and roll’s most sexist subgenres in critical ascendancy, it’s worth knowing that our 39 women voters put the rap group behind the feminist and awarded double points to the unmacho metal band cited by one as a male chauvinist scam. Panels of experts or at least fans will be necessary if pluralism continues to reproduce itself, but it’ll take a lot to convince me that minority minipolls aren’t a better one.

As for your faithful Dean and Poobah, well — I, too, gotta be me. Once upon a time my ballot was a bellwether, but in 1988 I was a weirdo, an isolated internationalist — only four other voters put as many as four non-AmerBrit albums in their top 10s, never mind black African. About a quarter of my 60 or so gooduns were African, so many I can break them down by region — eight southern (Graceland fallout), five central (give me the chance and I’ll make it a dozen), two west (can’t fathom the groove); several are quite obscure, and one — my favorite, which I never heard of till last January — came out three or four years ago. I also named records from Brazil, Argentina, the French Caribbean, good old English-speaking Jamaica, and an English-born Indian who sings in Urdu, and if Amerindies are irrelevant, I am too — in addition to the above exotica I went for 10 rock albums, three rap albums, two jazz-rock albums, and a blues album from independent entrepreneurs, while maybe a dozen of my recommendeds qualify as straight major-label product and maybe half of those were hits. Yet for all my weirdness I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions.

What sustained and exhilarated me in 1988 was the slick, deep, joyously cosmopolitan body music of the Paris-Kinshasa connection — except maybe for Lucinda Williams’s joyously uncountrypolitan blues, no domestic alternative approached the sheer playability of Omona Wapi and Zaire Choc. But there was nothing like the Pazz & Jop top two for pondering Michael Dukakis or one’s future in journalism — they stiffened the backbone, toned the blood, unlocked the pelvis, exercised the gall bladder, and gave the mind something to shout about. If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s, but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade — no matter how the music looks written down (ha ha), Hank Shocklee and Terminator X have translated Blood Ulmer’s harmolodic visions into a street fact that’s no less edutaining (if different) in the dwellings of monkey spawn and brothers alike (and different). Nor was Sonic Youth’s nation holding them back. For one thing, it ain’t big enough. Even though their commitment to chaos has outgrown the imitative fallacy, they show no signs of relinquishing their antistar status in commercial fact, and given the contradictions of consensus these days, there’s something reassuring in that. No way their marginality seems slight. I eagerly await their transmutations of George Ade, George Clinton, and Marxism-Leninism.

Had I located a physical copy of the thing, my single of the year would have been more esoterica — “N’Sel Fik,” a funkadelic love pledge by Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui said to have been the biggest record in the Arab world in 1985. Never having taken my Africanism across the Sahara, I’ve been known to dismiss rai as a Gallic fad, but when Rai Rebels arrived, the internationalist professional in me put it on and had a mystical experience exemplary in its intensity and serendipity. People complain when I call their singles arbitrary, and I certainly don’t mean they pick them out of a hat. But tastes are so undetermined, especially tastes that last two to eight repetitive pop minutes, that on a collective level they are arbitrary. No matter how acutely an autonomous subject rationalizes some special passion, it’s unlikely that even half of his or her readers — parties to the aesthetic consensus that distinguishes the most mutually contemptuous rock critics from Allan Bloom or Michael Dukakis — will be induced to share it, and there’s always the chance that nobody will know what he or she is talking about. So if on the one hand street and radio and dance floor make singles seem very communal and all, if “Fast Car” is a social fact and “It Takes Two” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” are inescapable in the land of the boombox, on the other hand singles typify our, harrumph, existential solitude, and hence all the contradictions inherent in, harrumph, our social, subcultural, and political alliances.

So if despite my isolation I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions, that’s fine with me. The eight rap records in my top 10 constituted a personal high, and though four made the big list, others were off the wall — wrong Bobby Brown (could be), wrong EPMD (baloney), otherwise unmentioned 12-inch by the ordinarily ordinary Chubb Rock. I regret that I don’t hear more of them, especially on the dance floor — “father of three-year-old” and “wife needs sleep” are near the top of my list of impingements. But that would only make my list weirder, just like everybody else’s. In a crisis of consensus, everything is up for grabs. Chuck Eddy said that. The party’s not over yet. Guy said that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1988

1. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam)

2. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Blast First/Enigma)

3. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)

4. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (Columbia)

5. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury)

6. Was (Not Was): What Up, Dog? (Chrysalis)

7. Pere Ubu: The Tenement Year (Enigma)

8. Keith Richards: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin)

9. Traveling Wilburys: Volume One (Wilbury)

10. Randy Newman: Land of Dreams (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1988

1. Tracy Chapman: “Fast Car” (Elektra)

2. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile)

3. Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Geffen)

4. Prince: “Alphabet St.” (Paisley Park)

5. Midnight Oil: “Beds Are Burning”/”The Dead Heart” (Columbia)

6. (Tie) Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype”/”Prophets of Rage” (Def Jam)
Traveling Wilburys: “Handle With Care” (Wilbury)

8. Bobby Brown: “My Prerogative” (MCA)

9. (Tie) Eric B. & Rakim: “Follow the Leader” (Uni)
D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince: “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (Jive)
The Primitives: “Crash” (RCA)

—From the February 28, 1989, 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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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rakim’s Second Coming

The greatest rapper of all time? It used to be an easy call. A prodigiously gifted rhymer from way out in Wyandanch, Long Island, Rakim introduced himself in 1986 alongside DJ Eric B with the double-sided “Eric B Is President/My Melody” 12-inch and helped inaugurate hip-hop’s ballyhooed Golden Era. Decked out in custom-made Dapper Dan suits scored from 125th Street, he hung with the original 50 Cent (a/k/a Kelvin Martin, a stick-up kid who terrorized Fort Greene) and befriended Mike Tyson, yet he also flaunted lyrics that made him sound philosophically deeper than any rapper who dared to pick up a mic before or after him. Each syllable sounded preordained—there’s barely a line from Eric B and Rakim’s 1987 classic Paid in Full that hasn’t since been quoted, paraphrased, or appropriated as the basis for a completely different song by another rapper. He nominated himself the “God MC,” and we all agreed.

But by the time Eric B and Rakim signed off on their fourth classic album (Don’t Sweat the Technique) in 1992, hip-hop had become increasingly comfortable with its mass-commercial potential, and style began to overshadow substance. Dr. Dre helped Snoop Dogg bring gangsta rap’s menace to the suburbs. 2Pac showed that cult of personality and a reckless rock star attitude could be as intoxicating as the music. And in 1996, Jay-Z, on the rebound after initially faltering in the days when Rakim was still king, synthesized the idea of the rapper not as artist, but as a business-minded man who just so happened to rap: a mindset followed by almost every breakout rapper since.

Suddenly, Rakim’s use of drug imagery to describe his addiction to rhyming (“I fiend for a mic like heroin/Soon as the bass kicks, I need another hit”) sounded quaint cast against Jay’s corporate repositioning of rap as merely a living analogy of the crack game. And so the criteria for hip-hop greatness morphed: Now, message-board squabbles are as likely to focus on a rapper’s ability to coin hooks, stay relevant, run a clothing line, and move units on the anniversaries of national terrorist disasters as on their pure ability to rhyme.

It is into this alien arena that Rakim is attempting to reassert his mastery with The Seventh Seal, an album seven years in the making and his first since 1999’s The Master. He’s aware of the mammoth challenge he faces: “I definitely had to keep in mind there’s a world out there that don’t know me, so I need to let people know that I’m new and improved,” he notes, chatting on the phone while driving to Manhattan from his Connecticut refuge. “But if you do too much reintroducing, you get away from the statement you want to make. I had to stick to my guns and write what my heart was telling me, not what I thought would be perceived as ‘hot.’ “

The album’s production credits back up that idea. Having endured an unproductive spell shackled to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint (“We had two different ideas of what the album should be”), Rakim has forgone the usual procession of super-producers drafted to secure him a pop radio hit. Instead, it’s a thoroughly underground—and, at times, unknown—roster, with Seattle’s Jake One and early-era Common cohort Y-Not the most recognizable names. “That was a conscious decision,” he says proudly. “I had to find producers that fit my normal form. There are a lot of hot producers that are out right now, but a lot of times, a track that’s good for Snoop Dogg or Lil Wayne is not good for Rakim.”

But The Seventh Seal only gets the musical formula half-right, bending to modernity by incorporating a slew of sung hooks. At his regal peak, Rakim’s songs were all about the verses—any concession to a chorus was an idle afterthought. “I’ve never been a big hook-oriented rapper—when I was doing my thing, you’d just sample a word or something,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll write three verses before the hook is even considered. I know I can always go out and hire someone to sing a hook.” But while 50 Cent (the other one) and Jay-Z have long since mastered the chorus as an art form, many of the refrains on The Seventh Seal are uninspiring. The 2009 incarnation of Rakim might be sermonizing about hidden Biblical secrets about to kick into effect any day now, but after three Tracey Horton refrains—plus more warbling from Destiny Griffin and Samuel Christian—you wonder how much of his faithful congregation will still be listening.

That’s not to suggest he has lost his lyrical touch. When recording the first single “Holy Are You,” Rakim surrounded himself with a range of religious tomes, all full of annotations and notes scribbled in the margins, to ensure his message was factually accurate. And on the rugged “How to Emcee,” he sounds magisterial as he reminds the world, “I wrote some of the illest rhymes ever put together/Soon as I make ’em, rappers take ’em/Analyze ’em for days and paraphrase ’em.” He’s right. And, tellingly, the far superior chorus consists primarily of more rapping.

Rakim says he wanted to “speak about the problems in the world today.” But you suspect those who need to hear his message most are happy guffawing along to Gucci Mane, while those who remember his peak will balk at Seventh Seal‘s attempts to sweeten the sentiment. Still, he vows that there’s another album coming next year, and that it will mark “a return to what raw hip-hop is.” Drop the coterie of crooners on chorus duties, and he might already be there.

Rakim plays B.B. King’s November 19

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Teletubbies: The Album

I’d been hearing so much about the connection between Teletubbies and drugs that I had to find out for myself, despite being the biggest teetotaler you can imagine. So I take a swig of some legal GHB analogue a friend bought on the Internet, pop on Teletubbies: The Album, and sit down to write.


As the back of my head starts to tingle and the twee chortles of Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, La-La, and Po fill the room, I can understand why a TV pro gram targeted for one-year-olds would be the choice of substance abusers with a jones for cuteness. Like most English pop culture, Teletubbies are all about dropping inhibitions—feeling free to fall down a lot, share Ecstasy-esque “big hugs” at every opportune moment, and do the dumbest line dances imaginable. The music’s mix of cornball synth twaddle and near-constant farty/bubbly buzzes is pure kiddie-techno psychedelia: bouncy and narcotizing. I feel torn between polishing my own ‘tubby disco moves and crawling into bed.


As with most drug music, Teletubby tunes favor groove over narrative: befitting a TV program where the key phrase is “again, again,” there’s repetition aplenty. A typical Teletubby track like “Jump for Fun” features synthetic banjo pickin’, twanging Jew’s harp, militaristic drum rolls, and more twittering bird chirps than your favorite Timbaland jam. “Follow the Leader” (not the Eric B & Rakim classic) brings funky Latin flava with even more maniacal giggling than usual. “Dirty Knees” undercuts the obvious sexual innuendo with frantic whimsy. But it’s the final chill-out cuts, “Clouds” and “Lullaby,” that my own fuzzy body craves ,Music-box tinkles first dance a jig, then a lazy waltz, as ambient New Age doodles coo and moan. Our Americanized narrator croons, “Go to sleep/Teletubbies/Go /To/Sleep.” Don’t mind if I do.