Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”

August 15, 1989

On the rap report card Kool Moe Dee stuck into How Ya Like Me Now back in ’87, the old-schooler proved an easy marker — only two of the 25 pupils fell below Public Enemy at 80 B. The token nonentity Boogie Boys got 7 or 8 in teach’s 10 categories for a 77 C+, and way below that were the perpetrators of history’s best-selling rap album, the Beastie Boys, with a 10 in sticking to themes, an 8 in records and stage presence, and a 6 or 7 in vocabulary, voice, versatility, articulation, creativity, originality, and innovating rhythms. Total: 70, barely a C.

You can laugh off these grades, but with Moe Dee’s archival L.L. Cool J tied for fifth at 90 A, they did represent his sincere attempt to formalize the values of his fading artistic generation — values upended by Public Enemy and the Beasties. A career nondropout who earned a communications B.A. while leading the Treacherous Three, Moe Dee idealized upright manliness; having come up in a vital performance community, he didn’t consider records important enough to mark for hooks, mixing, sampling, pacing, innovating textures, and what have you. Like most rock pioneers, he couldn’t comprehend the upheaval he’d helped instigate: a music composed in the studio by copycats so in love with rap that they thought nothing of stretching it, mocking it, wrecking it, exploiting it — going too far, taking it up and over and out and around, making it better.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721450″ /]

If Public Enemy was a threat — collegians with a radical program, arrogantly burying their pleasures deep — the Beasties were an insult; they dissed everything Moe Dee stood for. Sons of the artistic upper-middle class (architect, art dealer, playwright), they laughed at the education Chuck D made something of and Moe Dee strove for (two years at Bard, a term at Vassar, two hours at Manhattan Community). Like millions of bohos before them, they were anything but upright, boys not men for as long as they could get away with it. As born aesthetes, they grabbed onto rap’s musical quality and potential; as reflexive rebels, they celebrated its unacceptability in the punk subculture and the world outside. And of course, they were white in a genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large.

The way the Beasties tapped the hip-hop audience says plenty for the smarts and openness of their black manager and the black kids he steered them toward, but also testifies to their own instinct and flair. From Anthrax to Maroon, those few white imitators who aren’t merely horrendous don’t come close to the Beasties’ street credibility. We were probably right to credit Rick Rubin with all the what-have-you that as of late 1986 made Licensed To Ill history’s greatest rap album, but in retrospect one recalls the once-fashionable fallacy that George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Certainly the Beasties’ unduplicable personas and perfect timing were what Rubin’s expansive metal-rap was selling, and most likely a fair share of the music was their idea. We didn’t think they could top themselves not because they were stupid or untalented — except for a few cretins in the Brit tabloids, nobody really believed that — but because their achievement was untoppable by definition. Outrage gets old fast, and rap eats its kings like no pop subgenre ever.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722337″ /]

Lots of things have changed since late 1986. The Beasties’ street credibility dimmed as “Fight for Your Right” went pop and Public Enemy turned hip-hop to black nationalism. Due partly to the Beasties and mostly to how good the shit was, Yo! MTV Raps brought black rap to a white audience. History’s biggest-selling rap single (and first number-one black rap album) was recorded in L.A. by a former repo man. After feuding with his black partner, Rick Rubin transmuted into a metal producer, and after feuding with their black manager, the Beasties became Capitol’s first East Coast rap signing since the Boogie Boys. Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee undertook to mix up a since-aborted album of the Beasties’ Def Jam outtakes. And if the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique doesn’t top Licensed To Ill, though in some ways it does, it’s up there with De La Soul in a year when L.L. Cool J is holding his crown and Kool Moe Dee is showing his age.

Avant-garde rap, Licensed To Ill was pop metal, foregrounding riffs and attitude any hedonist could love while eliminating wack solos and dumb-ass posturing (just like Kool Moe Dee, metal fans think David Coverdale has more “voice” than Johnny Thunders). Paul’s Boutique isn’t user-friendly — I don’t hear a rock anthem like “Fight for Your Right,” or street beats like “Hold It, Now Hit It”’s either. But give it three plays and a half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere. It’s a generous tour de force — an absolutely unpretentious and unsententious affirmation of cultural diversity, of where they came from and where they went from there.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

For versatility, or at least variety, they drop names: check out the names they drop: Cezanne, Houdini, Newton, Salinger, Ponce de Leon, Sadaharu Oh, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Blow, Bob Dylan, Jelly Roll Morton, Jerry Lee Swaggart, Jerry Lee Falwell. Or the samples they exploit less as hooks than as tags: Funky Four Plus One (twice), Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Public Enemy, Wailers, Eek-a-Mouse (I think), Jean Knight, Ricky Skaggs (I think). For innovating rhythms, there are countless funk and metal artists I can’t ID even when I recognize them. For vocabulary, start with “I’m Adam and I’m adamant about living large,” or maybe “Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words” (rhymes with curse words), then ponder these pairings: snifter-shoplifter, selfish-shellfish, homeless-phoneless, cellular-hell you were, fuck this-Butkus. Not what Moe Dee had in mind, of course. But definitely what all avatars of information overload have in mind, or some of it: “If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.”

These Beasties aren’t as stoopid or stupid as the ones Rick Rubin gave the world (or as Rick Rubin). In fact, one of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil. Crack and cocaine and woman-beaters and stickup kids get theirs; one song goes out to a homeless rockabilly wino, another ends, “Racism is schism on the serious tip.” For violence in the street we have the amazing “Egg Man,” in which they pelt various straights, fall guys, and miscreants with “a symbol of life”: “Not like the crack that you put in a pipe/But the crack on your forehead here’s/A towel now wipe.” Hostile? Why not? Destructive? Not if they can help it without trying too hard. They’re not buying.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723458″ /]

Just to dis Def Jam — check “Car Thief,” which also takes on the presidency — the Beasties couldn’t have picked more apposite collaborators than L.A.’s Dust Brothers, one of whom co-produced the aforementioned number-one rap album. But where Loc-ed After Dark is simplistic, its beats and hooks marched out one at a time, Paul’s Boutique is jam-packed, frenetic, stark. It doesn’t groove with the affirmative swagger of Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, and its catholicity is very much in-your-face — as is its unspoken avowal that the music of a nascent Afrocentrism can still be stretched (mocked? wrecked?) by sons of the white artistic upper-middle class. Having gotten rich off rap, the Beasties now presume to adapt it to their roots, to make Paul’s Boutique a triumph of postmodern “art.” Their sampling comes down on the side of dissociation, not synthesis — of a subculture happily at the end of its tether rather than nascent anything. It impolitely demonstrates that privileged wise guys can repossess the media options Moe Dee was battling for back when they were still punks in prep school. After all, this deliberately difficult piece of product will outsell Knowledge Is King. One can only hope Moe Dee is race man enough to take satisfaction in its failure to overtake Walking With a Panther, or Loc-ed After Dark.


1980-1989: The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee

A Brother Doin’ 90 Into the ’90s

“I joke with my friends a lot and say I’m responsible for 50 per cent of the rap style that goes on now,” says Harlem-­native Mohandas Dewese.

Idle boast? Mohandas, a/k/a Kool Moe Dee, has the longest continuous ca­reer in hip-hop, has released hit records every year of the decade, and puts out platinum albums today — something no other artist in the genre can claim. His work stretches back before records to hip­-hop’s era of live NY clubs, where he made a name for his use of polysyllabic, esoter­ic, yet soulfully enunciated English. It’s been 10 years since the release of “The New Rap Language,” his recording debut on the B-side of Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap.” Featuring the Treacherous Three — Kool Moe Dee, Special K., L.A. Sunshine — “The New Rap Language” was just that — a futuristic record that shoved the lyrical and percussive possibil­ities of hip-hop right up your auditory canal

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

Years later, after Go See the Doctor, around How Ya Like Me Now, before Knowledge Is King and his work on Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block, I real­ized that people over the age of thirty-so­methin’ were giving hip-hop an ear. Kool Moe Dee was the reason most often for­warded. “He’s so articulate,” these Es­sence women would gush.

Well, rappers make their livings being articulate, and there’s no one better to articulate the ’80s from an Afrikan, youthful, working hip-hop perspective than Kool Moe Dee. During our conversa­tion, he gave his opinions on a variety of topics: Reagan (“He had a big hate-ap­peal in the Black community”), animal rights (“I have an army of leather… pro­bably 30, 35 suits. It’s definitely begun to mess with me on a value level”), crime (“Engineered, manipulated, and guaran­teed to be here; capitalism is the seed to feed the greed”), Japan (“They have nev­er lost a creative edge”) and AIDS (“Controlled and created… a genocide type of thing”).

I asked why more Afrikan people weren’t forwarding these issues. “You’re talking about African-Americans, right? I think most are concerned with getting themselves in economic power, and everything else is basically secondary.”

And he just talked.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721420″ /]

THE WORST TREND of the ’80s was when, maybe around ’85, drug dealers became idols again. I don’t know how it happened, but I definitely felt the vibe where the drug dealer was seen as in. It got to a point where everybody was into having new cars, new kits, things like that.

In the ’70s, there was a big boom, and it didn’t ever really, really die out, but it was not so popular around ’79, ’80, ’81.

And that was the worst trend, because I started to see a whole lot of deaths and shootings and things like that, just on a local, close level. Not the kind you just read about. The kind you hear about from your friend who knew such-and-such, or such-and-such that you knew.

What made this happen? It’s the alter ego of rap. Run-D.M.C.’s explosion in ’85 and ’86, plus the fact that they were wearing gold chains and things, that ev­erybody knew about how much money they were makin’, and that the public followed them.

I mean, I would remember hearing drug dealers say, “Psh. I make more money than them rappin’ m.f.’s.” So, it was almost like a competition type of vibe. And then to be in concert and say to the crowd, “How many homeboys got money in their pockets?” “Ah! Yeah, yeah! I got some money!” It’s that type of focus-on-the-money type of thing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721349″ /]

THE GREATEST NEED for Black people in the next decade is focus. We need to have an agenda on a big level, where everybody knows where they wanna go, and it’s a matter of getting there, as opposed to just being scattered and thinking about what’s going on. Everybody needs to defi­nitely get focused on what it is that he or she wants to be doing, and just apply yourself that way, and work together.

If you know that your brother just bought a clothes store somewhere, even if it’s clothes that you don’t like, you make suggestions. He should then hire people that are in tune with what the kids are doing. So it’s that type of hand-in-hand thing: Giving each other the dollars so it’s a round-robin kind of self-sufficiency.

Look at Black radio, for example. On one hand you have a lot of radio stations that are supporting Black artists. Then on the other hand, you have another 50 per cent of them that are basically Uncle Tom–type of things that won’t play a rap record unless it breaks on a pop station first. There’s a lot of that going on, where we have to feel the politics from our own people, because of their lack of respect. So why be a Black station if you’re going to wait for the Pop to do something with your own people?

Controlling the youth and uplifting the youth is the key to uplifting the race, because the youth controls the system. They are the thought that’s coming. Let them know that, “No, you don’t only have to focus on being a singer or a basketball player. You have a bigger role in this society.” Let them know that there’s more money behind the scenes. You’re not gonna hear a Black guy say, “I wanna grow up and own the Nets.” He wants to grow up and play for the Nets.

I know brothers that coach Riverside Church, and they’re Black coaches and good. They don’t even think, “Why don’t I go to a Big 10 college and apply for the job?” Get the youth thinking on those levels. Broaden their minds to a point where they’re thinking from a 360° level.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

THE GREATEST NEED for white people in the next decade is to be more open to the flaws of the system. A lot of white people are, I would say, blindly racist. They don’t know that they’re acting on racism. The system works against Blacks, and it just happens to work for them, they don’t see the flaws.

They’ve never felt the pressure of going to college, getting a degree, and then coming out and still not being able to get a job. I’m talking about on a mass level. They honestly feel this is the way it is: You go to school you get your degree you come out you have a job — and that’s not necessarily the case. A white person might meet an employer, and just not know that this employer is a bigot, and the reason you’re getting this job as op­posed to the Black man is because you’re white. Once you see the relevance of the flaws, then you can relate to a lot of the problems, and a lot of the tension.

WHAT AFFECTED me personally the most in the ’80s were the learning experiences that I’ve gone through with females. My outlook on women is more focused. It’s not cynical or demeaning, and it’s not like a lot of guys feel: “everything is doomed to fail,” “a woman’ll be a wom­an.” I basically learned to take relation­ships in stride, and realized that pain is a part of life. The threat of pain also has implications for the promise of joy.

I’m making a record for Black History Month called “African Queen.” I think the Black woman, in general, doesn’t re­alize her potential power, and how much influence she has over the Black man. The sooner they come to the realization of their royalty, the better off for the race in general. The stronger the Black wom­an makes herself, the stronger that makes the Black man. If it gets to a point where you know a Black woman definite­ly will not deal with a drug dealer because of what he stands for, you will see dra­matic changes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720908″ /]

If Woman gets deep, as deep as they can, and use their power, and sexuality­ — you can use your sexuality in a way with­out cheapening yourself as a woman — ­they can capitalize on the weaker man’s lust for them and get into certain posi­tions. Just like, for example, a Black woman can catch a Yellow Cab down­town before a Black man can. It’s a lot of advantages they have that they need to apply, because together they are more powerful than anything. So women have to basically find themselves, realize their power, not settle for less, and demand more from their men.

Black men have to start respecting Black women for what they are. Stop looking at them as objects for releases of tension, and basically just realize that you are also souls of kings, and you are not supposed to be living the way you are. If you’re dealing with the system like that, you have to find a way to deal with it and use it to your advantage.

If you feel you’re worth a million dol­lars, but the employer only gives you $10,000, you as a Black man, take that $10,000 and turn it into the million that you’re worth. Let’s take our position that we have attained, and turn it into the position that we want. If Arsenio wants to take it to the level and own the station, then focus on that. Work at it. Get your agenda, and figure out a way to get around what you have to do.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

THE ARSENIO HALL Show was a perfect forum for more exposure and a perfect chance to expose both of my sides. The fact that I can perform a record shows that I can entertain pretty well, and then to sit on the couch and speak shows that I can articulate and give rap another look, as opposed to the stereotype that they’re used to seeing or perceiving. Which, like I said, there’s nothing really wrong with. But I’m glad to have the opportunity to supply an alternative for all of those brothers and sisters that have pride and want some type of representa­tion on an intellectual level.

THE TAWANA BRAWLEY case affected me deeply. Number one, I believe, definitely, that she was raped. A lot of people let the media dictate the way they think, and a lot of people can’t read between the lines. People don’t remember that, once they’d painted the picture that she was lying, made her the defendant, and started cross-examining her, they put every Black person that didn’t believe it on TV. You had never seen more Blacks on the news. Every single time I turned the TV on, you saw another Black saying, “Well, if she’s telling the truth, why don’t she just tell who did it and get it over with?”

She was not gonna accomplish any­thing. So her power move was not to say anything at all, and basically reverse it to where it had to be public. But I personal­ly feel that because of the people in­volved, there had to be a cover-up, because once you have high-visibility people in the community involved in a case like that, that creates more racial tension, and you have a situation where it’s al­most civil war. And then to go back and admit that they were wrong shows you that you can’t have faith in your judicial system any more. So it’s almost like they can’t let her win, no matter what.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721427″ /]

They give information like, “We found carpet fibers on her, and feces on her glove.” Who’s to say she didn’t get raped and taken to her house? Take it to the next level. Who’s to say? What about the fact that the doctor’s report has been lost, that documented she couldn’t re­spond to the most powerful stimuli? What about the fact that that doctor is no longer at that hospital, and nobody knows where he is? What about all of these elements that lead you to suspi­cion? Nobody takes a chance to even think about all o’ that. How fake can you be? How much fakin’ is that? You can’t fake a coma.

I don’t think it’s gonna be put to rest, although they will put it off as long as they can, and keep it out of the media as much as they can. But you know, things are still going on. What they’re also try­ing to do now is discredit her lawyers, so that they have no validity. Whoever comes in and replaces them… who knows? He might be some type of sellout. I think they should just keep going with the case and go ahead with their plan. They’re trying to put her back as the plaintiff, trying to take it to the next level, and go through the appellate court.

NOW WITH Yusuf Hawkins… it’s to the point now where I’m hearing Blacks on the street level say, if they continue to kill Blacks in situations like that, then they’re gonna start randomly doing it to whites. Once you have that happen, you have anarchy. Then nobody’s safe.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719876″ /]

HARLEM IS VERY important to me. That’s where I was born, raised, and it has a lot of history in it. In the ’70s, the Loews closed down, and the West End turned into a supermarket, and then a church, or something like that. The Apol­lo closed. And everything just started happening in terms of just letting Harlem deteriorate.

Now, it seems like there’s an interest in rebuilding. The Loews is back open, and the Apollo is back open, and there’s a Black store on that street… I forgot the name of it… right next to the Apollo. (Note: It’s a clothing store called Heaven on Earth, and it is!) There are at least talks of making moves, of buying more businesses in Harlem. The effort is not full-scale yet, but it’s just a matter of getting more of the right, key people­ — with enough dollars to buy it back — to start buying it back. That mentality will definitely be there going into the ’90s.

A lot of people don’t understand how we wound up there, and why they’re try­ing to take it back. They put us in that area and it backfired: they realized it’s easy to get to anywhere in the city from Harlem; it’s much better than driving a car in from Long Island, which was the ideal thing to do. When the mass produc­tion of cars got overwhelming and traffic backed up, Blacks had access to trains that get you downtown in 20 minutes. So it’s like, “Let’s get this place back! This is an ideal place to live, ya know?”

So, a lot of people just don’t under­stand how we got into this situation, and why it deteriorated. Or, should I say, how it was left to be deteriorated.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

GOING INTO THE ’80s, I was a little disil­lusioned. I was ignorant to the politics of the system, in terms of the musical realm. I still knew that I definitely want­ed to go to college. I knew that I wanted rap to be more than what it was, and I had faith in it. So, I was more of an idealistic type of person.

Going into the ’90s, I’m much more focused, much more aware, definitely more in tune, and extremely racially con­scious, in terms of the business. I under­stand the politics of life in general much more. I’m awake. I’ve been combusted. ■


Moscow on the Hudson: The Decline and Fall of the New York Empire
By Nicholas Von Hoffman


Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”610603″ /]

“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”610583″ /]


“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.


Bee Kind, Rewind

That grinding sound in your ears is the gears of nostalgia down-shifting into a golden backspin. Forty may be the new 30, but 2007 is not the new and improved 1977, our Twin Towers still intact. This Scared New World has us anxiously coveting the lost continent known as Before. Before the echo of a modern Pleistocene Epoch—the New Ice Age—sent peals of Bling! Bling!
ricocheting around the world; before Jay-Z became not only Jigganational but hip-hop’s Magna Carter; before 9-7-96 and 3-9-97 bodied the innocence of “Rapper’s Delight”; before nine bullets and a hot mix tape parlayed itself into a blue-chip stock portfolio at Goldman Sachs. Before all that, there was the Boogie Down, there was the Black Door, the Furious Five, the Cold Crush, the L Brothers, the Mercedes Ladies, the Zulu Nation. There was Herc, Flash, Bam, Theodore, and Caz. There was Lee and Phase II turning the subway yard into a third-railed Sistine Chapel. There was the Alps Hotel. There was 123 Park. There was two turntables.

And there was Busy Bee, among the stars of Charlie Ahearn’s landmark 1982 film Wild Style. Now honored with a 25th-anniversary DVD re-release, it’s the movie that really established hip-hop not only in the mainstream, but around the world. But Busy still remembers where it started. “I lived across the street from those abandoned buildings that you see in Wild Style,” he told me one afternoon as we sat in the Starbucks in Pikesville, a suburb of his adopted hometown of Baltimore. “I grew up on Holmes Street. I fell in love with hip-hop from the time I used to see Kool Herc rocking the community center on Sedgwick Avenue around 1975.” Busy grew up the oldest of four children, to two hardworking parents. “I had a solid family life, but I also knew all of the scramblin’ guys in the streets, the dudes who were getting money,” he recalls. “I wanted to be fly, too—dress nice, get the girls, drink champagne-—and I felt hip-hop could be the avenue to those things.”

Busy’s true epiphany came when he watched Grandmaster Flash perform one day with his three MCs, pre–Furious Five. “It was Kid Creole, Melle Mel, and Keith Cowboy. They gave me inspiration. Flash used to play this jam called ‘Seven Minutes of Funk,’ and Melle Mel and Kid Creole had a routine to that song that was amazing. Watching them, I was like, ‘Yo, that’s what I want to do!’ ” From there, Busy hooked up with a DJ by the name of Disco King Mario, who helped the rapper develop his unique, booming, singsong voice. “Disco King Mario had the system to understand my voice,” Busy says. “He used to tell me, ‘Yo, Busy Bee, I’m-a make you a star! You’ll sound so vee-shus! You’ll sound so vee-shus!’ That was my man.”

MCs—from Grandmaster Caz to the Cold Crush Brothers to the L Brothers to the Funky Four +1—were true icons at the dawn of hip-hop, and they all had one thing in common: They were all part of a group. But Busy Bee was a man apart. “My thing was just rapping on the mic,” he says. “All I wanted to do was get on the mic and knock out all bums.” As a personality, though, Busy prefers exuberance to menace. When he smiled, grabbed the mic, and yelled, “Now where’s that place we work it out?”, and the crowd screamed back, “At the Alps!”, Busy not only put that East Bronx motel on the map, but kept the crowd moving and kept everyone’s minds off their problems waiting back home. And as the nirvana of gangster rap enters its death cycle, people are looking for hip-hop’s bliss once again—even 30 years later, Busy’s bubbly enthusiasm is the closest thing to euphoria we’ve got in this age of crack-house sympathies recast as street-corner symphonies.

Folks are tired of mourning; Busy is a cause worth celebrating. His march to the title of No. 1 MC was an exciting one, shutting down shows from the Bronx’s Crotona Park to the Black Door (where he could melt the ice-grilled silence of the Casanova Crew—the most fearsome stickup kids around—and goad them into a humid call-and-response of “I got sperm/That jingle-jangle- jingles”), the Audubon Ballroom, and, of course, Harlem World, the site of the infamous 1981 show where some say the Treacherous Three’s Kool Moe Dee sabotaged Busy’s career in a scathing rap battle.

“It’s a widely held belief that Moe Dee beat me that night, but that’s not true,” Busy says now. “You can only beat somebody if they are prepared for battle—anything else is a sneak attack. I had done my set at Harlem World that night and had gone downstairs to celebrate and drink some champagne. Moe Dee, who was still with the Treacherous Three, told his crew, L.A. Sunshine and Special K, to fall back. Then Moe Dee took the stage by himself. He did his thing, unawares to me. When I got upstairs, the place was buzzing with, ‘Oh shit, you know what just happened?’ I was like, ‘No,’ and when they told me, it was: ‘Whatever.’ I look at it like this: Moe Dee made that move because I was so powerful; he used that as a jump-off for his career. And in hindsight, he actually made the both of our names ring even louder and longer. I respect him, because he made my name ring that much louder.”


That scandalous night only cemented Busy’s mythos, helping to land his role in Wild Style. Who can forget him rocking the mic with Funky Four’s Rodney C, or fashioning the letter “B” from a sprawl of cash on a hotel bed as he, Fab Five Freddy, and graffiti marvel Lee Quinones are about to have a love-in with three groupies from the club? “Busy remains the most magnetic performer in hip-hop,” Ahearn says. “Guaranteed to warm up any crowd, no matter. Busy kicks that old-school party style because that’s who he is. In this age of bling, people need to reconnect to what this culture was about. The chief rocker Busy Bee gives people that glimpse at that legendary golden age of hip-hop, with its genuine innocence and creativity.”

Fab Five Freddy concurs that Busy is a true original. “The scene where Busy asks the audience gathered at the band shell on the Lower East Side, tells them to clap their hands like whoever was murdering all of the little kids in Atlanta was between their palms, that speaks volumes,” he says. “Busy Bee weaving that bit of social consciousness into a party rhyme—at the height of the Atlanta child murders in the early ’80s—was nothing short of brilliant. He is a true MC in every sense of that word: master of ceremonies, mic controller. A few weeks ago, at the 25th-anniversary celebration of Wild Style in Central Park, there were a lot of incredible performances, but in my opinion, Busy Bee stole the show.”

The last few years haven’t been all roses for the rapper, however. His beloved parents passed away in the late ’80s, just when he was blowing up with his hit album Running Thangs and its hit single, “Suicide.” Then came the arrest on the Nitro Tour—headlined by LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and NWA—where Busy was accused, along with two other suspects, of sexually assaulting a woman in Minnesota. It took six months to clear his name. “I could’ve been bitter,” Busy says now. “But I knew God was protecting me the whole time. And I found out who my true friends were. To this day, Russell Simmons and Ice-T are two of the most stand-up dudes I ever met in my whole life. They put money on my commissary, sent me clothes, took my calls, kept my spirits up. They never once doubted my innocence.”

Out of jail but now uncomfortable in New York, Busy and his wife, Michelle (one part of Kool Herc’s Herculords crew), relocated to Baltimore. In a panic to make ends meet, he hustled weed—potent weed. He laughs at the memory. “People in New York thought I was getting shows, because I was still dressing fly and I had money in my pocket. It was crazy. I had firemen, bus drivers, even cops as my customers. I had an uninterrupted run from 1989 all the way to 1996, when one of my customers who was a detective told me I was about to get pinched. And that was the last day of me being the Branson of B-more. Thing is, none of my customers knew me as Busy Bee. They knew me as Scorpio. Scorpio with that fire ‘dro and skunk.”

The doting father of two daughters, Busy works with his manager, Roland Russell, and records for the Urban Gold label in addition to doing shows around the world. Mos Def is rumored to be interested in portraying him in a feature film that hip-hop and soul impresario Andre Harrell is producing. In October, Busy will be one of the performers at VH1’s Hip Hop Honors 2007 awards show, as part of their Wild Style tribute. He’s also a judge on The Next, an online hip-hop version of American Idol, sitting alongside his junior look-alike, Lil Wayne. Vintage concert clips available on YouTube have only broadened his folklore; he also recently guested on KRS-One and Marley Marl’s Hip Hop Lives, a backward-looking CD that’s nonetheless one of the best hip-hop albums in several years. But the most resonant praise that Busy gets comes straight from his wife. “Busy lives and breathes hip-hop,” Michelle says. “It’s not a game or a passing fad to him. Busy is a great MC, but more than anything else, my husband is a true survivor.”


Livin’ for the City

The least thing a critic can do is complain about how this summer’s songs are just like last summer’s, or some summer 35 years ago when the world sparkled and we all lived in a utopia of the new. It’s not just that there are new songs (there are). Or that you should mistrust anyone whose code reduces to “the world was better when my body was younger” (you should). It’s that originality is overrated. The way a song can point at another and another in an endless chain is one of the essential things that makes songs great. Let 99 and 44/100ths of everything be a rip-off, a cover, a mechanical reproduction. Radio can still do its trick of pouring out a half-remembered, half-invented landscape in which we live.

Will Smith is exactly enough the auteur to impose his personality on any track the producers jack, but it’s a boring personality. Even in the wild, wild west he’s tame and hard-to-place; representing anything but huggability would cut into his crossover appeal. Still, “Wild, Wild West” puts me four places at once: in the here and now, and there in Kool Moe Dee’s 1987; thrown back to 1976 with Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” and sideways to Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City.” That’s not even counting Once Upon a Time in the West or Escape Club. But the Fresh Prince’s waxploitation can’t escape L-Boogie’s look back in funkiness; she puts his pale Hollywood nostalgia trip to shame. “Every Ghetto” is not just New Jersey’s finest’s finest; it’s the best Stevie song since he was swapped out for a Hallmark Card.

Smashmouth’s “All Star” opens in Joe Jackson’s 1979, its bassline promenaded by pretty women and gorillas; suddenly the song veers
into the New York summer of my old roommate Nina Harris, who I believe to be the inventor of the L-on-the-brow “loser” gesture. “All Star” is awesomely unoriginal, but it’s
infectious—like a parasite latching onto my life story. And then it turns reggae, two little birds mixing up Marley quoting Shakespeare against Spirit of ’76 riffology and last year’s basketball sloganeering, everything all the time until it ignites, as if musicology were a form of self- immolation. And the clock face is melting.

Natalie Merchant’s “Life Is Sweet” promises folk-song politics, sweetly raging against “your daddy the war machine.” Maybe she’s pointing at Papa Ike’s military-industrial complex, or Mario Savio’s speech about laying your body on the gears. Or maybe Maria McKee’s bittersweeter 1996 “Life Is Sweet.” But mostly she’s pointing at the halcyon days which, in their ending, made her irrelevant before she could even begin her career as the belle dame of La Vie En RoseColored Glasses. She’s not melancholy about suffering, but about how the world can’t support a “Hard Rain” or an “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” anymore. That kind of folk song died in 1970, when the Guess Who institutionalized “the war machine” as an empty wank-rock cliché.

Wouldn’t you know it, retro wank-rocker Len Kravitz just rerecorded “American Woman”; this pointing isn’t going to stop any time soon. Walter Benjamin dreamed of a city made entirely of quotation, which would not just contain the history of the 19th century, but be its capital. And radio is in turn a city made of mnemonic devices, referential mania and pet sounds—the capital of a certain part of the 20th century.

Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss” covers the 1964 hit for J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers. It turns out that, led by Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” car-crash songs were a fad that year—replacing all the twist songs, I suppose. Let’s Crash Again. Peppermint Crash. Crashin’ the Night Away. Maybe there was never a utopia of the new after all. 1964’s followers were all picking up on the trail from “Teen Angel,” Mark Dinning’s 1960 weeper. It’s a trail that leads all over the map; you can find an anthology called Dead Man’s Curve and another called Doo-Wop Car & Angel Songs.

My friend Darcey says “Last Kiss” reminds her of the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma”: an ode to low maintenance. Dying in his arms, she’s an easy lay. One perfect kiss and no commitment whatsoever! For a boy, that’s just like heaven. Don’t you know, itdifferent for girls. For one thing, the fantasy of a bizarre love triangle with God just isn’t as popular. For another, screw that beautiful-corpse nonsense. In The Avengers’ punk-era “Car Crash,” true teen Penelope Houston takes the tradition and rips it up: “Dreamed you had a car crash, now you’re dead in the road with your head smashed!” And she just screams (you can hear it on the new compilation The Avengers Died for Your Sins). No crying out to the angelic orders for her. Maybe that’s the difference between 1964 and 1978: the life’n’death urgency didn’t change, but suddenly it had to live in a world without heaven to follow.

Watching Eddie Vedder sift through history and choose the moment when his operatic voice and Johnny Overwroughten melodrama made sense is poignant. It’s like watching a guy wandering around a dream city which has stopped dreaming of him, trying to find a house that can be a home, trying to make sense of signs that point every which way.