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Rick Rubin: The King of Rap

In 1964, Tom Wolfe wrote “The First Tycoon of Teen” about the 23-year-old Phil Spector. The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” was on its way to number one and Spector’s label, Philles, was in its hit-making prime. Wolfe described Spector as a jittery, Jewish, misunderstood boy-genius — the first youth to cre­ate a multimillion-dollar music em­pire for the pop of it.

In 1964, Frederick Jay Rubin was one year old. Now 23 himself, rock’s hot­test producer, and an owner of his own record company, Def Jam, Rick Rubin is the closest pop music has come this de­cade to producing a conceptualist who can compare to Spector in studio wizardry, business acumen, and steam-rolling ego. Both are eccentric, Jewish, intimi­dating. If he hasn’t yet charted as many times as Spector — Rubin has been be­hind the sales of about three million rec­ords, including a top 10 single (Run­ D.M.C.’s summer hit, “Walk This Way”), a double-platinum album (Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell), one gold album (L.L. Cool J’s Radio), and more on the way (new releases by the Beastie Boys and Slay­er) — the comparison holds. Both have an overpowering studio style: Spector with his wall-of-sound and Rubin with his fas­tidious b-boy blast, a lean, ornery orches­tration of rap and heavy metal — his two favorite forms of rock ‘n’ roll.

And like Spector, Rubin started out as an adolescent prodigy and almost imme­diately went on to gain wealth and be­hind-the-scenes power. Using the tech­nology of their times, they both have made music for and often by teens. That sort of currency has inspired Mick Jagger to ask Rubin to produce songs for his next solo LP, an invitation Rubin says he’ll accept if he can find the time. He has other ambitions. Foremost is the writing, directing, and producing of Def Pictures’ first feature, Tougher Than Leather, a spaghetti-western/film noir/blaxpoitation movie starring Run-D.M.C. Casting himself and his dad as father-­and-son racist gangsters, Rubin relishes his status as a young white man traveling in black circles who can do no wrong.

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“Rick’s a dick,” says Adrock a white rapper in the Beastie Boys and son of playwright Israel Horovitz. “He knows how to get what he wants. It’s almost a spiritual thing.”

Russell Simmons, Rubin’s 28-year-old black partner in Def Jam and the rap impresario whose life the movie Krush Groove was based on, puts it this way: “I’m sure Rick would like me to tell you what a bastard he is.”

This is peculiar praise for a wealthy, straight-A suburbanite who borrowed money from his father to start his record company while still living in a NYU dorm. Two weeks after he graduated from college last year, he and Simmons signed a multi-album deal with CBS, which each party claims is the largest arrangement of its kind — “in the mil­lions,” according to Rubin who won’t be any more specific. Quite an achievement for someone who still sleeps past noon.

Rubin doesn’t look like a millionaire. He looks like Arthur Baker, another beefy white producer responsible for a number of influential dance records  (Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” the Cyndi Lauper remixes, among others) by manipulating black street sounds in a pop context. At the height of his success in 1984, Baker released Rubin’s first rap single, “It’s Yours” by rapper T LA Rock and scratcher Jazzy Jay. Unlike Baker, Rubin’s weight seems relative to his suc­cess. And he really is big now. With his long brown hair, trim beard, pale skin, and biker’s clothing — black jeans and rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt — Rubin is the arche­typal heavy metal kid from Long Island. Unlike the image, Rubin doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t do drugs. He eats.

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“I like Rick because he eats like I eat,” says Darryl McDaniels, the “D.M.C.” of Run-D.M.C. “We met Rick in 1984 back when he was the DJ for the Beastie Boys. DJ Double R they used to call him. His room was packed tighter than Afrika Bambaataa’s — records all over the place, posters everywhere, and it was kinda b-boy. For a white person, it was really hip. He had every rap record and beat jam that you could possibly have. We started asking his opinion on our stuff ’cause he has the feeling like we have the feeling. Our first producer, Larry Smith went on to bigger and better things with Cameo, so we needed some­one to help us with Raising Hell.

“Rick isn’t the kind of person to lay out a plan. He let us put our own two cents in. If we did something he didn’t like, he’d say [imitating Rick’s low voice], ‘I don’t think that is cool’ — that’s the way he talks. Or ‘That’s really soft. Get busy or get lost.’ Our record, ‘Proud to Be Black’ — Rick pushed that so hard. When we first started off, it was real, real corny. But he said, ‘Get ill and make it forceful.’ You don’t have to be no certain race, creed, color, or age to give the people what they want.”

L.L. Cool J, born James Todd Smith, liked “It’s Yours,” so he sent a demo to the NYU address Rubin had listed on the jacket. Rubin gave L.L. a call. “I thought Rick was black,” L.L. says, “cause when he talks on the phone, he sounds black. But black or white, it makes no difference to me. Rick gave me my break when I deserved one. Things haven’t changed since I met Rick except that back then I wouldn’t buy as many things. My grand­mother would buy them for me.”

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Rubin’s studio apartment, like his old dorm room, doubles as the Def Jam of­fice. Success hasn’t changed his taste in interior decoration; he’s still a slob. (Def Jam recently bought a five-story Noho building, now being gutted for offices, a recording studio, and home for Rubin.) What little furniture he has looks as if it were found in an alley. Throughout sev­eral conversations, phones ring, answer­ing machines click. Run-D.M.C promo­tions, a black light AC/DC poster, and a big picture of Led Zeppelin decorate the walls as well as a Beastie Boys graffiti mural. Rubin sleeps in a loft bed that faces a TV and VCR. The stove is a table.

“It was difficult at first, but now I’m a fixture,” Rubin says in describing what it was like being a white college student with a lot of b-boy friends. “I lived in a dorm, and I had all these black guys visit­ing me all the time. People thought it was weird. There was something exciting and dangerous about it, I suppose, but that’s what I like.”

No one around Def Jam, black or white, offers to probe racial relationships beyond banalities and generalizations. But by talking black and being white, Rubin has brought together the intem­perance of heavy metal and the bragga­docio of rap — a lucrative marriage. If he were black, it’s hard to imagine record executives admiring the aggression that first endeared him to rappers. Being able to go both ways is one reason why he is Simmons’s perfect business partner. It’s also how Rubin, along with his white friends the Beastie Boys, can get away with playing so fast and loose with black­-white taboos. Rubin’s nimble duplicity is a big reason why Def Jam’s organization generates a lot of cold cash.

Chung King House of Metal is the unassuming studio, with state-of­-the-art rhythm machines, where Rubin produced most of L.L. Cool J’s Radio and Run-D.M.C.’s Rais­ing Hell. Late on a summmer night the Beastie Boys, whom Rubin met when they were in a punk band called the Young and the Useless, are recording. CBS executive Steve Ralbovsky is on hand to inspect the progress of their year-in-the-making Licensed to Ill, which the trio wanted to call Don’t Be a Faggot (CBS talked the group out of it). Ralbovsky proposed the deal between CBS and Def Jam, an exclusive promo­tion, marketing, and distribution ar­rangement that calls for a minimum of five album artists and a dozen 12-inch singles a year. This has given Def Jam the resources to expand its roster to 20 acts, some of which have given CBS problems.

For example, another rapper claiming to be the real L.L. Cool J, has come forth claiming his songs and stage name were stolen by James Todd Smith and put on Radio. L.L. denies it (“ridiculous”), as does Rubin. CBS lawyers are considering a crossclaim against Def Jam in the event a suit is filed. To protect himself, Rubin refuses to record Radio‘s follow-up until the matter is settled.

The Beastie Boys also have been giving the parent company headaches. Their lewd, rowdy behavior (as well as the accu­sation of stealing a camera at a party) first got them banned from the CBS pre­mises. Then they were persuaded by CBS not to release “Scenario,” a proposed B­side that includes the lyric “Homeboy shot him in the mother-fuckin’ face.” Mi­chael Jackson, a CBS act himself and owner of the publishing rights to the Bea­tles catalogue, refused permission to let their rewritten version of Lennon/Mc­Cartney’s “I’m Down” appear on Li­censed to Ill. Not that Jackson has any­thing against rap; he and Run-D.M.C. are discussing a possible collaboration on an anticrack song for his next album.

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But the rest of the Beastie product is still welcome, unlike another Rubin proj­ect, Slayer’s Reign in Blood. CBS was initially behind the project by these L.A. Satanic speed metallists. The company, already facing lawsuits concerning the psychological effects of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, got cold feet after an advance review mentioned a song about Nazi Joseph Mengele. “They want the [ed. note: illegible]” Rubin says, “but they’re afraid to get cut.” He took the finished tape to Geffen Records, which had no such qualms. Geffen shipped 100,000 copies of Reign in Blood this week.

After Ralbovsky leaves the studio, the Beasties start doing Whippets, small metal cylinders of laughing gas. Placing these into a cannister used to pressurize whipped cream, they release the gas into a balloon, suck on it, and get silly. This is how they prepare to work. Rubin reacts to the pandemonium coolly and doesn’t partake. Nor does he disapprove.

In the mood, the Beastie Boys are now ready to rap over the backing tracks for what Rubin calls “the reality song of the album” — “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right To Party.” It’s AC/DC all the way, a solid 4/4 with Rubin on guitar playing distorted power chords. Adrock (who now prefers to be called “The King Adrock”) steps to the mike and his voice cracks on the first line. Each Beastie moves as if MTV had its cameras rolling: arms flail, neck veins bulge, hands pull at crotches. Being a Beastie Boy is a nonstop perfor­mance piece.

In the outer room is Steve Ett, Chung King’s resident engineer, who has worked with Rubin on most Def Jam recordings. Over the last year, Rubin learned to engi­neer by watching Ett at the control board. He has been in studios for 10 years, apprenticing on Steely Dan and Ricky Lee Jones albums, but just as sig­nificant is his experience as a drummer, for Rick’s productions are mostly voices and drums. Because it’s the way those drums — whether created from digital samplers, scratched in from other rec­ords, or from real percussion — reverber­ate around the rappers that forms the nonmelodic, but aggressively rhythmic aural space on Rubin’s tracks. “What Ar­thur Baker does I consider disco,” Rubin explains, “because it’s based on pulse beats: boom-cha-boom-cha-boom-cha. What I do is b-boy, which I consider rock ‘n’ roll because it’s based on rock ‘n’ roll beats: boom-boom-cha boom-boom-­boom-cha.”

Often these beats are improvised at Chung King. Since Ett knows the techni­cal end, Rubin’s contribution, besides playing bass and guitar, comes by ear. “Rick knows right away when something doesn’t sound right,” Ett explains. “If I play him a tape, within the first 30 sec­onds, he’ll love it or hate it. Maybe he’ll help write the beat. Or if someone has a rap written and a particular lyric doesn’t work, Rick will come up with a different way of saying what they wanted to say. But mostly he lets the artist have his own way.”

Back in the control room, Rubin gives diction lessons and pushes buttons. All his rappers enunciate clearly, especially L.L. Cool J, and deliver their rhymes with enough emotion to make them felt. The rhymes grab attention, because Ru­bin arranges them into verse-chorus structures. His rappers don’t ramble. A phrase like “rock the bells” breaks the flow and pounds home the title, so buyers know what to request. On the Beastie Boys’ “Hold It, Now Hit It,” the title chorus itself is borrowed and mixed in from two sources — the “Hold it now” from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” and “Hit it” from Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di.”

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The Beastie song that Rubin’s working on now, “It’s the New Style,” is one of the few without a chanted chorus, but the song has peaks and breaks of tension cre­ated by the way Rubin and Ett work the mixing board. Each of the board’s 24 tracks contains a separately recorded percussion element, which repeats a phrase dozens of times. Rubin and Ett press buttons to make each cowbell, high hat, snare, and bass-drum track pop in and out at the precise moment. The mix­ing board itself acts as polymorphic drumset, which allows an enormous amount of freedom to alter a song. That, combined with Rubin’s instrumental con­tributions, adds up to control over the content of his records. Thus, he can encourage his performers to “get ill” be­cause he’s at the board doctoring them. In a fly-by-night business, what other producer takes a year to complete a rap album?

After they finish for the night, around three in the morning, Adrock, Beastie Mike D, and Rubin go to the Palladium. Nothing is going on in the Michael Todd Room, ditto for the Cat Club. The action is at the Cozy Soup and Burger. Oh no, they’re out of the best item on the menu, split-pea soup.

The only lull in the table’s conversa­tion occurs when I ask why didn’t Adrock share writer’s credits for “I Need a Beat” on the Radio LP when he was credited on the original 12-inch. “I can’t believe you asked that!” says Adrock. Rubin keeps mum. Song-writing and production cred­its are sore subjects around Def Jam, because Rubin likes to see his name in print.

In his Lido Beach home, Mickey Ru­bin, once a furniture store owner and now a children’s shoe wholesaler, brags about his son: “He never once opened up a book at NYU and still got great marks.”

“Don’t say that!” admonishes his wife, Linda Rubin, sitting across the kitchen table.

Mr. Rubin continues, “He has a photo­graphic memory. He didn’t have to study. He’d sit in class and absorb everything. He borrowed money from me so that he could start his record label. It wasn’t much, but he never paid me back. I don’t want it back. He was a fantastic organiz­er, like Al Capone, even as a child. When he was little, he would buy shells, paint them, and then resell them.”

“He slept right in between us until he was, how old, 12?” Mr. Rubin asks his wife, who says, “He thought a green boo­gie man hid in his closet.” She says they finally got him to sleep in his own room by buying him a bunk bed that looks like a stagecoach. Mr. Rubin confides, “When he comes home without a girl, he still sometimes sleeps with us.”

“I’ve given Ricky a lot of freedom,” Mr. Rubin says, “but I’ve insisted that he follow two rules: Don’t use drugs and never lie to me. I told him, ‘Ricky, you’ve got me and you need nobody else on this earth. But if you lie, you’ll fuck up the best deal a son ever had.’ He doesn’t need to lie to anybody because if somebody doesn’t like the truth, fuck ’em. He doesn’t take shit from anybody.”

He takes me to Rick’s bedroom. Piles of yellowed Village Voices are stacked in a corner. Posters of Devo, the Dead Ken­nedys, and others line the walls. Car re­pair manuals fill the shelves. “Ricky has such a mechanical mind. He can pick up a how-to book and do anything.” Rick has owned three automobiles, all new: a Bradley GT II, a Fiat, and an MG con­vertible, which now sits in the garage. “He put a $1000 radio in the car,” Mr. Rubin says. “Jazzy Jay helped him weld the speakers in.”

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Back in the kitchen Mrs. Rubin offers a chocolate bundt cake and says, “He was in kindergarten when I hired a magician for my birthday party, and he loved it. We bought him some magic tricks. Then we became friendly with someone in Long Beach named Irv Tannen, who owned what was probably the biggest magic store in the world, Tannen’s. And we started going there all the time. Ricky met people who were interested in magic, like Orson Welles, mingled with adults, and used to talk to them like one. Then he got called to do a Christmas show for a firehouse. They gave Ricky $50 for his half-hour show and he appeared in front of about 500 people, not at all nervous. His presence and the way he spoke gave him complete control over the audience even then.”

Mr. Rubin says, “He’ll be in the studio recording with Run-D.M.C., and she’ll call him anyway. Just to say hello.”

He shows me the rest of the house. In the master bedroom there’s a video pro­jector and a large screen at the foot of the bed. To the right of it hangs a framed poster of a woman in jodhpurs drinking from a brandy snifter, one leg leaning on the fender of her Rolls. It’s captioned, “Poverty Sucks.” Then on to the fur­nished basement to see the room Rubin stays in “when he brings home a girl.” There’s a large mattress in front of two TVs and two monstrous speakers. Mrs. Rubin puts a song on the stereo that she’s mentioned several times during my visit, Helen Reddy’s mom and son anthem, “You and Me Against the World.” Mrs. Rubin says, eyes full of tears, “It’s me and Ricky.”

Mr. Rubin escorts me outside. He points in the distance at a massive mod­ern building. “That’s Long Beach City High School where Ricky went.”

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“Lido Beach,” Rick says of where he grew up, “is wealthy, mostly Jewish, with some Italians. The east end of Long Beach is upper-middle-class Jewish and Italian. Center town is a black ghetto. The west end is a white ghetto, mostly Irish with some Italians. And there’s Atlantic Beach, which is rich and WASPy. It was incredible that in such a small strip of land, there were these hard cut territories. And all the kids went to the same high school — mine.

“Long Beach High School is about 70 per cent white and 30 per cent black, and it used to close because of race riots. The white scene in my high school was into Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones — all of those groups were com­pletely over. Whereas the black kids were waiting for the latest rap record. I re­member asking a black kid what his fa­vorite rap group was and he said the Crash Crew because their record came out last week. And the week before that it was the Funky Four, but now it’s the Crash Crew. It was so exciting that peo­ple could be so progressive musically that they’d want the newest thing, love it, and it would make them forget everything else.”

Radio set these racial parameters. Turn on stations that play primarily black music, you’ll hear today’s hits. Maybe one song an hour will be more than a few months old. Tune in three months later, it’s a different playlist. There isn’t much room for variety within this demographic-conscious format, but it occasionally makes concessions to rene­gade sensibilities that never have a chance on rock radio. When enough kids are listening to any underground record, no matter how weird, like Strafe’s “Set It Off,” they force it onto the air because they’ve dominated the request lines.

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This happens less frequently on AOR stations that have been programming for the baby boomers, who get older each year along with their playlists. Rubin says, “White radio stations will publish lists of the most requested songs of that year, and ‘Freebird’ will be in the top 10. STILL! And ‘Stairway to Heaven’! Rock stations play such bullshit, such nonpro­gressive music.”

The music industry treats white music as an ongoing history, and black music as just the latest thing. Many record compa­nies will keep in print the entire cata­logue of white acts that don’t sell big numbers and delete product by all but the biggest-selling black acts. Go into Tower Records, and you might find five Spandau Ballet titles, but only the latest by Jean Carne, who has had around five herself. In other words, black kids are “progressive” because they’ve got no choice.

Conditions like these encourage small businessmen to keep an eye on what’s hip in black music. Independent releases by new American rock bands may get on to college radio and, if the group is really lucky, get snatched up by a major label. Until then, commercial white radio is usually hands off, whereas black inde­pendent records that achieve heavy rota­tion on commercial black radio are com­monplace. Because of recent changes in radio promotion, the odds have improved for the black indie to crossover. There are now more black records, indie and major, on the pop charts since the late ’70 disco boom. This atmosphere has allowed for the pop success of Simmons’s pet Def Jam project, Oran “Juice” Jones and bis hit single “The Rain,” and more signifi­cantly, Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.”

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When Rubin first picked up the Lucite guitar his mother bought him when he was a high school freshman, it wasn’t to play like George Benson. He was into Johnny Ramone. The person who taught him how to play guitar was Steve Free­man, his high school audio-visual instruc­tor. Freeman, who describes himself as a hippie, recalls: “Even back in high school, Rick was always Mr. Self-Promotion who could get anything he wanted. He was listening mostly to AC/DC and punk rock when he found out that groups like the Clash had learned how to play their in­struments something like a month before they formed a group. So Rick thought, ‘Why not me?’ ”

Rubin practiced to early Ramones LPs and after three months, he could play just as fast. After another three, he could play faster, which meant better. Around his sophomore year, he formed the Pricks. In addition to speed, Rubin ad­mired punk’s ability to swindle record companies. The Plasmatics’ television demolition publicity stunts appealed to the magician in him, and for a while he hung out with their mohawked guitar player Ritchie Stotts. With the school’s four-track recorder, Rubin made Pricks cassettes. His goal was to play CBGB, upset people, start fights, and get thrown out. It worked.

Freeman may say harsh things about Rubin, but as with most others, it’s spo­ken not with resentment, but with awe. “His father once had an easy-credit fur­niture store. Like his father, Rick knows how to get poor people to buy things. When he was in high school, Rick didn’t hang out in browntown [Long Beach’s black neighborhood], But he’s imitative and knows how to change people, He’s made the Beastie Boys into his alter ego — they never cursed or got high before they met Rick. He had more friends than many kids, but he looked down on a lot of people, too. Some resented him because of his car, others because he could get A’s without studying. Even back then, he knew how to use the system.”

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Moving to an NYU Village dorm in 1981 gave him the autonomy he wanted. His parents no longer had to sit in their car while he was inside downtown clubs watching favorites like the Gang of Four and the Bad Brains. He enrolled as a philosophy major with the intention of going to law school but ended up study­ing film production. And living at NYU brought him closer to the rap scene, which by 1981 had spread downtown to clubs like Negril. He formed another band, Hose, who were (and still are, occa­sionally) a slow hardcore/metal/noise band in the Flipper mode. With the help of record store owner Ed Bahlman, whose 99 Records label released classic under­ground club records by Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid, Rubin released two Hose EPs. They included metal interpretations of top 40 r&b: Rick James’s “Super Freak,” the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thang.” One original reflected Rick’s vicarious in­terest in drugs, “Dope Fiend.” Rubin sold all his copies and took Hose to tour the West Coast. “It was really underground. We didn’t know enough people to make the tour work out right.”

By the time he entered the rap scene Rubin learned the necessity of proper contacts and quickly met all the right people. DJ Jazzy Jay, who spun at many of the downtown clubs that had rap nights like Negril, the Underground, and the Roxy, became an early friend. Rubin regularly sought his advice on which rec­ords to buy, and the pair soon decided to make their own record. They wanted Special K of the Treacherous Three but he wasn’t available, so they got his broth­er, T LA Rock, to rap “It’s Yours.”

Rubin intended to put out the cut him­self as he did the Hose records. Instead he played “It’s Yours” for Profile, which proposed to release it without cover art. He turned Profile down. Rubin then played the song for Arthur Baker, who offered him more money and a sleeve with Rubin’s artwork, but it was almost a year before it came out, in 1984, and sev­eral more months before it hit radio big. Rubin claims Baker never paid up.

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“That just isn’t true,” says Baker. “And besides, I never got paid for MCA and Burzootie’s ‘Drum Machine,’ which he put out on his label without my per­mission even though I wrote the first 16 lines of the rap. But all that is water under the bridge, as far as I’m concerned. Rick has a spoiled-brat mentality that he can get away with anything as long as his records do well. He and most of the peo­ple he works with have grown up in wealthy families and they want every­thing their way. Since I first met Rick, I could tell he had a good street sense. He’s able to capture the sound of live rap shows, which was something no one else was able to do. He picked up on what Run-D.M.C. were doing already and sold it back to them.”

By this time, college had become an annoyance to Rubin. Health authorities deemed his room, which was littered with newspapers and burger-to-go wrapp­ings,”unfit for living.” Dorm residents complained about the club-level volume of his stereo, and one neighbor took him before a student court. He won the case by arguing that the noise was necessary for his career. Academics were the least of his problems; he claims he didn’t at­tend classes for his last 20 months. For­mer roommate Adam Dubin says, “As long as I knew him, he was paying people to write papers for him.”

Soon after the release of “It’s Yours,” Rubin met Russell Simmons, whose rec­ords he admired, especially Run­-D.M.C.’s. The feeling was mutual. ” ‘It’s Yours,’ ” Simmons recalls, “was such a hardcore hiphop record, but it had a chorus, an arrangement, and all the things that no one had thought to put in those songs. I met Rick at Danceteria and I couldn’t believe it. He liked all the same records I did and they all weren’t sell­ing — crazy break records that wouldn’t get airplay. He understood the music the way most people making it didn’t. He told me he wanted to start an indepen­dent record company and wanted me to be his partner. Well, I wanted to make a deal with a major label. Then he brought me L.L. Cool J and said this guy should make our first release. He was really insistent.”

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Rubin says, “Russell had made maybe 20 records that I thought were tremen­dous, but he wasn’t wealthy. By then, I had dealt with a lot of people in rap music, none of whom understood it. Still to this day don’t, except Russell, Jam Master Jay, and a few others. So I said, ‘I want you to be my partner. I’ll run the company, I’ll do everything there is to do, and you’ll get half.’ ”

In late ’84 Def Jam’s first release, a 12- inch single of L.L. Cool J’s “I Need A Beat,” sold 120,000 copies. But its suc­cess didn’t come without some work on what was to be an essential Def Jam ele­ment: image. “When I heard L.L.’s tape,” Simmons recalls, “I thought this guy is great. And Rick said, ‘He’s kinda fucked up, Russell,’ and I said ‘What do you mean?’ and Rick said ‘You’ll see.’ So L.L. came into my office wearing fuckin’ Fearless Four [lace up] boots and straps around his legs like some breakdancer. And I said, ‘Where you from?’ He said ‘Hollis.’ I said ‘Where the fuck did you get those pants?’ L.L. came from the same neighborhood I and Run [Russell’s brother, ‘Run’ of Run-D.M.C.] grew up in and kids don’t dress like that except in breakdance movies. He said, ‘I want to make records like Run,’ and I said, ‘Do you like ’em?’ He said, ‘They’re selling, man.’ L.L. Cool J learned how to be L.L. Cool J because Rick taught him. When L.L. came into the studio to do his vocals, Rick and he would argue a lot. He wanted to sing.”

L.L. denies this: “I never wanted to sing. Like my song says, I just don’t do that.”

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Though only 23, Rubin has devel­oped a relaxed, philosophical de­meanor. “Cool” is his highest and most common compliment — the ideal he aspires to. Because of his ever-increasing bulk, he has an aura that one might call heavy-metal Buddha. But give him something to disagree with, something he feels challenged by, and he becomes an extroverted performer who loves shock tactics. Syllables explode, hands pound the air, and he becomes Ricky the Rockin’ Wrestlin’ Coach. The validity of his ideas gives way to their entertainment value, and it’s hard not to be swayed by him. His audacity is so excessive that it becomes a charming, dis­arming eccentricity, even when he’s bullshitting.

“Def Jam is a unique label in that we’re in the music business,” he says, “whereas all the other record companies are in the banking business. They loan money, you make a record, you pay it back with your sales, and they take a piece from then on. They look at it as selling something. It’s really disgusting. Then there are a lot of people in the music industry w}io are just users like Profile. I don’t think that the people at Profile are that much into rap music. I think that’s what they use to make money.

“Show business, record business, enter­tainment business — it’s all bullshit,” he says. “No one knows anything. I was a little scared about making this movie [Tougher Than Leather], but there isn’t anybody who knows more than I do. I’m sure about that. I was on the set of Krush Groove watching Michael Schultz direct a scene between Run and his brother Russell. And everything he was saying was wrong. It really made me mad. I read the script. I understood how to get those emotions. It’s the same thing when you’re making a record. So I stepped in front of him and I said, ‘NO! That’s NOT how it goes! THIS is how it goes!’ And I directed the scene. Then Schultz said, ‘Excuse me, Rick. Come with me for a minute.’

“Now this was taking place on the cor­ner of a theater stage. He put his arm around me, walked me all the way across the theater really far before he said any­thing. Like you take someone really far away because something bad’s gonna happen. So he said, ‘Rick, I appreciate your enthusiasm. But there can only be one director and I’m the director and don’t ever do that. And I said, ‘I’m really sorry but it was really making me mad. Because once you put it on film, that’s the way it’s gonna be, and it’s gonna be wrong.’

“So we walked back. And the guys who were doing the scene said, ‘What should we do?’ Schultz told them, ‘Do what Rick said.’ And they did, and it was good.” ■

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RICK RUBIN’S 10 BEST 

“It’s Yours” — T LA Rock and Jazzy Jay (Partytime, 1984)
Here’s the first def jam that made the others possible. Rock’s catchy rap en­courages consumers to make his record theirs, while Jay’s scratching blasts like Miles Davis on crack.

“Rock Hard”/”Party’s Gettin’ Rough”/”Beastie Groove” — Beastie Boys (Def Jam, 1985)
AC/DC’s “Back in Black” riff gets overhauled on the A-side, with a old­fashioned speed rap on the B. Dig how Rubin — or DJ Double R as he was known then — reveals his roots by scratching in Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” Inspirational rhyme: “I’m the man who needs no introduction/I’ve got a big tool of reproduction,”

Radio — L. L. Cool J (Def Jam/CBS, 1985)
Setting a Rubin precedent for sus­tained quality that improves with each production, Radio masters the basics, The beats are hard, the rhymes inven­tive, and L, Lis hyper voice is in your face from word one. There isn’t much else, but that’s the secret to this al­bum’s effectiveness. Like all great rap­pers, L, L.’s mouth puts over his myth.

“She’s On It” — The Beastie Boys video (Def Jam Visuals, 1985)
The Beasties practice their Monkees moves at Bimbo Beach for a possible MTV sitcom. Beata David Lee Roth at his own girl-watching game.

“Bad”/”The Bottom Line” — Big Audio Dynamite (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Dull tunes invigorated by Rick’s mix. Whereas most remixers make a record theirs by adding overdubbed layers, Ru­bin takes chunks away, leaving go-go and gunshots.

Raising Hell — Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1986)
By involving the trio more directly, Rubin captures their caiaaraderie. The best tracks have warmth and spontane­ity, making for a great party record. Second to Thriller, the crossover album of the ’80s, with thanks to Aerosmith and the ’70s,

“The Word”/”Sardines” — The Junk­yard Band (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Rubin’s most political record and first commercial flop. These Washing­ton, D.C., go-go teens want to eat and see their sisters go to college, but Rea­gan’s making bombs with their food stamps.

Reign In Blood — Slayer (Def Jam/Gef­fen, 1986)
What gives this major label debut by L.A.’s foremost satan-tripping heavy metal speedsters an edge — even over Metallica’s Master of Puppets — is that sculpted noise this extreme has never before been recorded so immaculately. When I asked for a lyric sheet, Rubin replied, “You don’t want it. The lyrics are really dumb_>’ As well he knows, words are secondary, it’s the exclama­tion points that count.

Licensed to Ill — Beastie Boys (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Here in abundance is every one of the PMRC’s fears about rap and metal, which Rubin expertly gene-splices. White rich young adults fantasize on what it means to be black: they get dusted and shoot one another in the back, while women are there to get vio­lated (by Whiffle ball bats and what-not). Humorously offensive on every level, this is Rubin’s finest yet

Tougher Than Leather — a screenplay written by Rick Menello and Rick Ru­bin (Def Pictures)
“Rick said we’re gonna make the best movie ever,” D.M.C, says about the film that costars him, Run, and Jam Master Jay. “We’re gonna shoot people in the head and make it like Rambo or 48 Hours.” The script indulges more movie homages than a Brian De Palma film festival. As fast, fierce, and funny as Rubin’s records, this is certai11 cult fare, possible blockbuster, and maybe a riot­inducer. Shooting begins November 3. — B.W.

Categories
From The Archives Living NYC ARCHIVES

Travel ’86: What’s Your Trip?

What’s Your Trip?
May 27, 1986
Survey by Lois Draegin

RICHARD HELL
Poet, actor, musician
The best I’ve ever had were when I took some money up to Grand Central Station, got a train going up the Hudson, and just got off in an arbitrary town and went and stayed at a motel. Alone. For a day. Then I just wan­der around the town a little bit, have a few bucks in my pocket so I can buy a nice book. All the sightseeing spots, like a big puddle in a vacant lot, are revelations to me ’cause I’ve never seen them before and I’m a total stranger and I’m alone. Whenever I’ve gone on a vacation with anyone else where the idea was to go and have fun, get out of the tension and rat race of New York, it’s been utter horror and tedium and viciousness. I hate taking vacations because I’m out of my element. I’m only really on vacation when I’m alone in my apartment.

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RUDOLF
New York nightlife czar
I haven’t gone out of Manhattan in years.
The Hamptons? Yeah, okay, but that’s for work, so you can mention that, sure.
I don’t know the last time I took a vacation. I don’t remember. My business is the kind that you just have to do night and day. I can’t travel. Can’t you hear the telephones ringing?

KEITH HARING
Artist
Bahia, Brazil, is my favorite place in my world. It has the cleanest, most beautiful water. The food is incredible, and the people are really beautiful. It’s far enough away from New York.
I go there every year for a month or two — as long as possible. My friend Kenny Scharf has a house there, so I usually stay there half the time, then go to other cities the rest of the time. Most of the time I just swim and lay in the sun; and eat; and paint.
Travel Tips: Learn to speak Portuguese, be­cause no one speaks En­glish. Stay away from sharks. Don’t drink the water. Never trust the taxi drivers.

CHARLES BUSCH
Actor and playwright, currently starring in his own Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
Ooo, I just had a fabulous vacation. I needed to find a place to go for five days. I told the travel agent I wanted a place that was tropical, where you could lie in the sun, but that had like a triplex movie theater or something you could do at night. He came up with Key West.
So we went there and had a fabulous time. We stayed in a guest house. It was great because you sat by the pool — actually, the beaches are where all the tacky hoi polloi hang out — but the pool is so lovely. And we met all sorts of people: we met a Spanish marquis and a hair dresser from Washington, D.C. At night we went to marvelous restaurants. We saw a horrible production of As Is, which was sort of amusing, and we went to see the singing group Gotham. We toured Hemingway’s house, then we visited the cemetery in Key West, which is real fascinating.
Travel Tip: I use sunscreen 15, so I spent five days in Key West and ended up lighter than when I left. It bleached me. So that’s my travel tip — it’s also a beauty tip.

LL COOl J
Rapper extraordinaire (his name says it all: Ladies Love Cool James)
In March I went to Hawaii. We went to Honolulu, then we went to Maui, then back to Honolulu, so it was very cool. I’ve never been to such a tropical place. It was my first vacation that I paid for and went on. I’ve been on vacations before, but only in the States, like down South, the usual. But that was the first time I had went over to a place like that and chilled.
I chose Hawaii because I knew the weather would be nice. I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice. They were. It was an incredible experi­ence. Plus the view in Maui — you see the ocean and the mountains and the cliffs.
I was there a whole week, so it was cool. I took one of my friends with me, E Love — he’s in my group. We laid on the beach, got a little darker, and just cooled out. Didn’t touch the Maui Wowie, but I was coolin’. Runnin’ around, havin’ fun, wasting money. Just going to different places, like Pearl Harbor and all up in the mountains, things like that; buying clothes, buying people gifts.
The best thing about Hawaii  was not having to get up early in the morning and just hangin’. Just being able to do what I want.

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MEREDITH MONK
Transcategorical choreographer/composer/performer
If I ever go on vacation I try to go to New Mexico. Usually I’ve sung a concert as a way of getting there, then I’ll stay for a while. Just being there is like a vacation, even if I’m working.
I like the expansiveness of  the land­scape, and I like the dry heat very much. I like the kind of danger that sort of terrain has. It’s a very powerful kind of thing, and you do feel that you’re slightly in danger all the time: rattlesnakes, what­ever. You feel a certain power of the landscape, and it’s a very interesting per­spective to have, coming from New York. It does interesting things for my work, too.
One of the things that’s amazing is how the terrain changes very quickly: it goes from mountainous, pine-tree sort of ter­rain to desert within half an hour. So there’s a lot of different kinds of terrain in that space. There are canyons that are beautiful and pine trees, but my favorite is the desert, those dry hills of sagebrush, where you really get that expansive sky and the quiet.

RICHARD PRICE
Author (The Wanderers, The Breaks, Ladies Man)
I go to Italy, anywhere, from Sicily to the Italian border in the north. Italy’s main produce is style. It’s a very warm, stylish, artful country. They say France knows how to cook, Italy knows how to eat: it sounds like a cliché, but that’s the nut of it for me. When I’m in Italy, I don’t feel like I’m traveling, I feel like I’m liv­ing. But there is one place in France I would mention, the Périgord region, where all the foie gras comes from. If you go there in season, you pass all these farms where 400-pound geese waddle after your car with these desperate looks in their faces — like “Save me, save me.” Still, I’d go to the shittiest part of Italy before I’d go almost any­where else.

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VIVA
Writer
In the summer I almost always go to the Thousand Islands, which I hate to publicize because more people will come. I’ve been going there since I was 12. We. have a big family, 20 acres, and woods and boats and tennis courts, a big house, guest houses. We were big on water ski­ing, treacherous feats — 12 behind a boat going through a narrow pass type of thing. We also did a lot of exploring by boat, finding islands we didn’t know ex­isted. The river is now polluted. We still swim in it, but when I was 12 we used to dip in a glass and drink.
Now, in my old age, I sit in a former ice house at a typewriter and occasionally look out the window at the ducks and the great blue heron. I do play a little tennis, but I’ve now developed exercise-induced asthma. Five minutes on the court and I’m huffing and puffing. I’m deciding to take up golf — the geriatric delight.
In the winter I concentrate on South America and Mexico. I have family in Argentina; they live on a ranch across from La Perla, which was one of the big­gest concentration camps during the 1970s, so that’s a little, ahem, psychologi­cally tough when you realize you’re en­sconced in the nest of the oligarchy. It’s like being across the highway from Da­chau and having everybody telling you this isn’t happening.
My travels are now political. In Argen­tina I interviewed the mothers of the dis­appeared. Then I went to Uruguay and taped the Tupamaros as they exited from jails after 15 years. Then I went to Bue­nos Aires to a military trial and took notes. My basic aim in this trip was to gather details for a novel I’ve been writ­ing for five years. Then I went to Rio for that facelift I wrote about.
Travel Tips: I never follow it, but never bring any clothes. Never take a charter flight. This is the greatest travel tip I could give anybody: Stay away from plans altogether.

TAYLOR MEAD
Sui generis… poet/filmmaker
I go to Port Jervis, New York, about twice a month. I have a friend with a nice estate there. He has four dogs and six cats. I adore animals and I take all the dogs for walks three times a day. They sleep with me and everything.
I suppose Port Jervis was thriv­ing up till 1942, or something like that, when all the young men went away to war. Now the city is sort of suspended in time. It has an other­world quality, like a twilight zone. It’s kind of dairy country, with low gentle rolling hills, woods, a great pond, old stone walls. The Delaware River is not far away, and we go rafting on that, which is a terrific pastime. It’s amazingly beautiful and only 75 miles away. In fact, people are finding it out now, and my friend’s getting worried.
Of course, I could spend the rest of my life living six months in Greece and six months in Manhattan. I’m waiting for Brian McNally, who owns Indochine, to buy a restaurant in Greece. He’s promised I could have the apartment over the restaurant. Then I could come down and dance with the local Greeks.

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PATRICIA FIELD
Fashion designer
The last place I went on vacation was Italy. I took an Italian holiday for 10 days. Shopping. That’s what I did. It was for the act of it: go to Rome, go shopping.
Usually when you travel you’re sup­posed to bring the least amount neces­sary to drag. Well, this was the opposite. I went with the idea of getting dressed and turning it out on the streets of Rome. I had my whole wardrobe there, turned it out, brought hats, suits, coats. It was like theater. So I slept, got up, hung out, called room service, went out for lunch, went shopping. It was one of these mov­ies kind of trips. It was good, especially in Italy — the Italians like all that stuff. They’re very overdone, so they really re­sponded to it.

GRACE PALEY
Writer of short story collections Later the Same Day, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and The Little Distur­bances of Man; political activist
I never think about vacations. That makes me sound like a workhorse, whereas I’m the exact opposite. I live in Vermont half the time, and New York. Either of those two places is wonderful. If I think of a vacation, I’d like to be in either one of those two places without any other work than my writing.
I haven’t been near an ocean enough in my life. Here I am in New York, right next to an ocean, and I don’t even know it, right? So I’d like to live near an ocean and know that I live there, with full knowledge of where I am. It wouldn’t be a vacation, but it would be living some­where else, which is my idea of a vacation.
And I like to go someplace I haven’t been — wherever that is. Most of the world, I guess. I like everywhere I’ve been — how could you not? But being on my own street is often nice, too. Today the ginkgo leaves are sticking out their pinkies.

DAVID MURRAY
Jazz musician-saxophonist and com­poser
I go to the Caribbean, St. Croix, once a year. I like it because it’s hot and the people down there look like me.
Travel Tip: Take some time off.

MARTHA ClARKE
Choreographer/director of the imagistic hit theater piece, Vienna Lusthaus
Whenever I think, where would I most like to be in this horrible mo­ment, the answer is usually someplace in Italy, gorging my face with pasta.
There’s a wonderful town called Ra­vello. It’s on the Amalfi coast in the mountains, and it’s where Wagner wrote Parsifal. One wants to whisper there, it’s so awesome, so beautiful; you know, lem­on groves, terraced hills, a beautiful little Romanesque town square with an old church. I also adore Venice. It’s like being in a fairy tale: the light, the smell, the gondolas, the whole business.
Travel Tip: I used to be very fearful of going to a major city without a hotel res­ervation, but now I always worm my way into someplace.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Hiphop Nation: It’s Like This Y’all

Where will rap end up? Where most postmodern American products end up: highly packaged, regu­lated, distributed, circulated and con­sumed. Upper–middle-class white stu­dents at Yale consume a lot of Run-D.M.C.
—CORNEL WEST

Fuck hiphop. I don’t define that shit. I define this, man: It’s music. Let’s not call it hiphop no more, Fred. We ain’t writing graffiti on walls, we’re trying to get paid.
—L.L. COOL J

Radio stations I question their blackness/They call themselves black/But we’ll see if they’ll play this.
—PUBLIC ENEMY, “Bring the Noise”

We begin this bene­diction by sending out a message of love to the ancestors Kool Herc, Taki 183, and the Nigger Twins.

We know from her secretary that the Billie Holiday first wore gardenias to mask a bald spot made by an overzealous hot comb. Tell us, old muse, about the beauties bred from black disgrace. Had there never been discos, B-boys might have never become so engaged in class struggle, fashion rebels risen up to defy the Saturday night dress code, economi­cally shamed into aggression. But hiphop in its manifold forms — rapping, scratch DJing, break dancing, graffiti — also emerges, in the twilight of ’70s gang war­fare, as a nonfratricidal channel for the B-boy’s competitive, creative, and martial urges. All the aforementioned expressions flowered, like swing-era saxophone play­ing, specifically, in the hothouse of the cutting contest.

Hiphop is the most modern example, after capoeira and basketball, of African culture’s bent towards aesthetic com­bat — what the graffiti movement itself long ago defined as “style wars.” We are reminded of an exchange between Ram­mellzee and Nicolas A. Moufarrege.

Moufarrege: Do you call your work to­tal realism. Is this poster total realism? [Note: the images in Rammellzee’s draw­ings do not resemble what is habitually referred to in art as realism; the drawing is cartoon, comic strip, pop, and science fiction related.]

Rammellzee: There’s about 50,000 kids walking out the street who look just like that: Pumas, bell-bottom jeans — they have their pants hanging off their ass showing their underwear — shades and doo-rags.

What are doo-rags?… You say that this is real and that Picasso is abstract?

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Yes.… The human body is abstracted; why do you want to abstract it even further?… Man, on the street they’ll burn it, they’ll break it down. They’ll say what is this shit? Are we your future too? No!

The battle flows in two directions — ­against the technique of rival virtuosos and against the city. The city fathers strike back, like that’s their job. Ghetto blasters and bombed trains, might, as Jean Baudrillard proclaims, territorialize the urban bush, but they also invoke noise ordinances, razored barbed wire, and the patrolling of train yards by guard dogs. Rammellzee speaks of this as a war of symbols, but the execution of Michael Stewart was no symbolic gesture. His death was status quo: another mar­ginal man pushed into the marginality of the grave by the powerful for crimes sur­real or imagined. Were Goetz’s victims B-­fashion victims too? Do clothes make the black man a target?

When the black-on-black crime that occurs before, during, and after (often blocks away) rap concerts is reported as “rap violence,” the aging pontificators forget that hiphop is the flipside of being young, black, and urban-situated: the fun side, the funkyfresh side. Take out rap and one could go crying for a belly laugh in modern black pop. If drum sound is this music’s heartthrob, humor is its blood vessels. The urge to snap, crack, jone, boast, toast, to stay forever anal, adolescent, and absurdist — to talk much shit, in other words, and create new slan­guage in the process — is what keeps the oral tradition’s chuckle juices flowing through the rap pipeline. (If we have to, we can invoke holy tradition; the preach­er goes “Huh!,” James Brown goes “Unnhh!,” George Clinton goes “Ho!,” Bob Marley goes “Oh-oh-wo-oh-oh,” and the DJs scratch their ecstatic ejaculations.)

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Rap keeps alive the lineage of juke­joint jive novelty records that began with the first recorded black music — so-called classic blues. Here, too, we’re talking your citified country Negro’s mongrel sound, part jazz, part coonfoolery, part bawdy response to the man-woman question. Black vaudeville tent-show entertain­ment was best put to wax by heavy-duty womanists Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Bringing us to the position of the sistuhs in rap. No, Stokely, not prone, but com­ing into their own, going beyond the first flurry of lubricated lip answer records to go stone careerist. Roxanne Shante’s jockin’ and clockin’.

The minds behind the music’s muscle are its DJs and producers — Russell Sim­mons, Eric B., Larry Smith, Teddy Riley, Rick Rubin, Dennis Bell, Hank Shocklee, Hurby Azor, Mantronik, Marley Marl, Terminator X. We continually marvel at this fraternal order of rhythm tacticians, this consortium of beat boppers, mega­mix researchers, sound-collage techni­cians, and rare-groove clerics. They think about electronic percussion orchestral­ly — voicings and shit — like any jazz drummer worth his African roots. We understand that analogies between hip­hop and jazz rankle the jazz police who believe harmonic improvisation on West­ern concert instruments is the measure of black genius. Partly because the beat­boppers’ axes (save the wheels of steel) originate in the digital age — drum ma­chines, sequencers, and samplers — the ears of the jazz police fly off the handle.

The suckers have yet to figure out the prototype — Miles Davis’s 1972 On the Corner — so we can’t expect them to listen to Eric B. & Rakim as Wynton Marsalis listens to Ornette Coleman, for his fi­nesse with rhythmic changes. And it goes without saying that New Music America­-type festivals don’t consider these per­cussive melodists composers. Probably because the beatboppers audience dances to the music.

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The coordinated chaos of hiphop’s dance component holds clues to the ori­gin of the universe. You want to under­stand why the subatomic realm is so full of strange behavior? Look to the body language of the black teens. Their cultur­ally acquired fluidity are new dance forms waiting to happen. Who can lament break dancing’s faddish decline knowing such energy is never destroyed but transformed, in this case, into the Wopp, the Snake, the Cabbage Patch, and other spasms yet to be named.

For some, hiphop will always be “that chain-snatching music.” We are remind­ed of a buppie party in Brooklyn where the hostess denied a request for Run-D.M.C. “This isn’t a Run-D.M.C. kind of party.” A Doritos and disco dipshit party is what it was. What can we expect from Philistines? Hiphop, Russell Simmons informs us, is an artform. To which we add, it’s the only avant-garde around, still delivering the shock of the new (over recycled James Brown compost modern-ism like a bitch), and it’s got a shockable bourgeoisie, to boot. Hiphop is not just Def Jam shipping platinum, but the at­traction/repulsion of commodification to the black working class and po’-ass class. The music that makes like a saccharine pop ditty with a dopebeat today could be the soundtrack to a Five Per Cent Nation jihad tomorrow. Hiphop might be bought and sold like gold, but the miners of its rich ore still represent a sleeping-giant constituency. Hiphop locates their mar­ket potential and their potential militancy.

Public Enemy pointman Chuckie D wants to raise consciousness though his manifesto serves dreamers and schemers alike: “This jam may hit or miss the charts/But the style gets wild as state of the art/Dazzling in science/Bold in nerve/But giving my house what it de­serves.” Later for the revolution. For the here and now, hiphop’s stance of populist-futurism is progressive enough. Is there any creative endeavor outside of recombinant gene technology whose shape to come is more unpredictable? Latter-day prophets predicting hiphop’s imminent demise have already become extinct. Afrika Bambaataa sez rap will be around as long as people keep talking. You think we’re gonna let ’em shut us up now? Sheee.

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Hurby Azor & Hank Shocklee: The Ballot or the Bullet

The success of supa def dope produsa Hurby Azor is based primarily in the effortlessness with which he produces a new music unencumbered by its own newness. In his world view — one most clearly exemplified by his work with Salt ’n Pepa, Kid ’n Play, and Dana Dane­ — hiphop is not new music, but simply pop music. He’s the first producer in the new school to regularly make hip-hop records that you can not only hum, but that you want to hum. It’s top 40 rap, in every sense of the word, and answers directly to nothing — race, class, sex. The irony of this, however, is how the work hotbeds as easily under Dana Dane’s ugly black creaturisms, as it does under Salt ’n Pepa’s parafeminism. In the context of hip-hop, both remain strangely correct, expedient, and political.

On the 180 degree tip, Hank Shocklee’s work, especially as refracted through the telescopic sights of Public Enemy, takes those same subjects (the role of Blackfrican off-pissedness as the fulcrum between white gimme-gimme and First World gate-crashing; the B-boy, not as creature feature, but as hyperresonant icon; sex and the single white liberal music critic) but, as opposed to dismissing or diminishing them, correctly rereads them as overriding concerns and concepts, letting the bodies fall where they may in the best bum-rush hip­hop’s ever seen. As part of the madness behind P.E.’s (rhythm) method, hip-­hop’s Clintonmeister puts the Thin-Line Theory in effect, raising the roof, the marquee, the sound levels, and the ante, not always in that order. This ain’t the future of hip-hop — this is just a nagging reminder of a past imperfect. ‘Tawana, get Uruzi, and, when you do, don’t forget to bring some noise. —Harry Allen

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

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

The night Voice music editor Joe Levy and I began tabulating the 17th (or 18th) Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, the war had been on for more than a week, and my CNN habit was in remission. So we played music uninterrupted as we counted from 8:30 till 4 and 9:30 till 1. Though Public Enemy led for the first quarter (wouldn’t that piss people off?) before giving way to Sinéad O’Connor (who dominated straighter, smaller polls), by bedtime Neil Young looked like the shoo-in we’d figured. We were having fun, sampling dark horses (matched Replacements surrogates Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls) and cracking wise about other people’s tastes (today Tim Buckley, tomorrow Essra Mohawk). Glimpsing the top of the mountain (289 voters, 34 more than the 1989 record), we broke for lunch, picked up a paper, and there it was: oil slick all over the front page, for me an even worse nightmare than the bombing of Tel Aviv. Suddenly fun was beyond us. Back upstairs, after a brief TV fix, I felt compelled to hear music that was painful and familiar: Wild Gift, Exile on Main Street.

As it happened, our return-mail date was January 17, so that many out-of-towners found themselves trying to say something clever about their fave albums as the UN deadline passed and the countdown began. Geopolitics put our little world in perspective — or so it seemed in late January. But one reason the gulf war is the most disastrous event of my conscious lifetime is that it tempts us to obsess on it at a time when so much else desperately requires our attention. Culture vulture though I am, I wouldn’t put the death of rock and roll up there with nationwide bank robbery, semitropical winters, the future of excommunism, or even the budgetary suicide every public school parent is up against — especially since I suspect the obituaries are premature yet again. But there they were, set off by Billboard chart-watcher Paul Grein’s observation that 1990 was the first year since 1963 that not a single guitar band had a number one album. And as I pored over the mountain, I realized that for many critics, especially sharp young ones and bitter old ones, 1990 seemed like a turning point. Something is happening, and nobody really knows what it is — me included, so don’t get your hopes up.

Poll results reflect this uneasiness only insofar as they represent small departure from recent trends — fail to provide so-called trendmakers the breakthrough they crave. Never have albums seemed more irrelevant. As Mike Rubin notes in the “Yesterday’s Papers” section — and I recommend you read the conversations I’ve constructed from the ballots before winding through my inescapably inconclusive comments, which I’ve held down to make room — 1990 was a year in which press coverage of the usual profusion of product gave way to larger thematic concerns. Or maybe smaller. Hard news, maybe. Or maybe just what hard-news hardheads (the guys who churned out videogame criticism and called it military analysis) dis as “back-of-the-book copy” — reported, even investigated, “stories” instead of celeb profiles or (ugh) reviews.

Censorship was the heavy deal all year, and don’t tell me it’s a red herring, not with retail chains prescreening sex ’n’ violence and so-called parental warning stickers keeping tapes out of Saudi Arabia. Though metal took its licks, rap obsessed the watchdogs, generating racial controversy and racist hysteria even as the Oreo and the Sno-Cone topped the charts, and rock/rap sexism (though not, fancy that, homophobia) ballooned from boring old left-lib plaint into national nightmare. Everywhere, Public Enemy and Madonna angled for the ink Sinéad O’Connor dove into. Predictably, all these headline-stealing issues and personages inspired mucho respondent analysis — especially rap, which remains “the new punk” on formal and cultural momentum alone. But to my surprise, it was Silli Vanilli that really stirred the critics up. I assume you know how dumb the shit was — John Leland found ghostsingers behind Frank Farian’s video-friendly concoction a year before Rob and Fab confessed their sins. And the voters were hip, only rarely bemoaning the shame and scandal of it all. But among many conservatives, as I’ll label them — the Clubrats described toward the top of the long section called “Mass Culture Theory,” or professionals like Geoffrey Himes, who spends his life reviewing the “news events” hardheads demand (the reason concerts rather than records dominate daily rock coverage) — the story struck a spark.

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So suddenly I get eight or 10 letters hyping live over Memorex, and with common sense on their side. After all, which came first — the juke joint or Sun Studios? But even if Sam and Elvis did recreate a roadhouse music, which is highly debatable, so what? The medium may not be the message, but the medium sure changes the message, and Stayathomes like different kinds of messages than Clubrats. Or vice versa. Himes’s “unmasked emotion” is cant — it happens once in a while, usually when the sound man fucks up, but the most you can expect from someone who’s singing the same song for the 200th or 2000th time is the variation on authenticity quote-unquote that the forgotten popular culture theorist Reuel Denney termed “self-stimulation.” David Sprague’s “wild abandon,” on the other hand, is more subject to performance discipline and its obverses, though it sure gets faked a lot. And the question of who can “really” play or sing isn’t altogether meaningless — while technical skill obviously doesn’t guarantee artistic innovation or listening pleasure, it does help sometimes, even on record. But the main thing that happens at shows is that you see other people there. The artiste first of all, with all the extra inflections that fabricated intimacy, physical detail, and interpretive variation can afford. Even more important, listening to music live puts you in contact with other listeners. Instead of imagining a pop community, you encounter one.

This isn’t the main thing the conservatives care about, of course. That would be art in all its truth and beauty — especially truth, a truth associated with unmediated perception and “human” scale, though some wise guy might wonder why it so often comes in a four-four box. Relatively speaking, their opposite numbers, who I’ll call the couch potatoes, are relativists, skeptics, pop intellectuals. Truth and beauty aren’t their game. One reason they stay at home so much (almost as much as the average fan!) is that they like to read and watch television, which ain’t so easy when you hang out in bars three-four nights a week. Whether this makes them smarter or stupider is beside the point — either way they feed on secondhand information. I say civilized human beings have always shown this sort of bent for abstraction, though not to the extent of fashioning pomo theories out of it. And although that doesn’t end the discussion — people who like rock and roll have always had their problems with the way civilization quote-unquote defines the civilized (as non-Islamic, say), not to mention the human  it’s why I side with the couch potatoes even as I dream of getting out more.

So say it loud — what all our deliberations and computations add up to is a bunch of ABSTRACTIONS. The points are abstractions, the results are abstractions, and, oh fuck, in many ways the albums are abstractions too. Sure they have physical reality, even in the digital form so few critics resist any more. And sure our judgments proceed (can proceed, should proceed) from our aural experiences. But not only are these experiences intangible in themselves, they generate intangibilities of a greater order of magnitude. We have the presumption to construct imaginary communities around them even though we can’t swear our significant others went to the same heaven we did last night. And we assume they can stand in for barely expressible ideas — certainly when we write about them, and too often when we vote for them as well (many critics feel obliged to augment their favorite records with representative black/white/female/male/indie/pop/disco/metal/jazz/worldbeat mentions, a piety I deplore). One reason voters are forever discovering that they prefer singles to albums is that singles aren’t so burdened with abstraction. They’re usually experienced publicly, on the radio or the street or the dance floor, and — in the famous guilty pleasure effect — less subject to superego review (although I confess to leaving Bell Biv Devoe’s jack-swinging “Poison” off my list solely because I found its sexism intolerable). Albums are still supposed to resonate like Great Works even though we suspect the concept of the Great Work is an oppressive fiction.

Statistically, that fiction held this year. As music has factionalized and consensus softened, the top Pazz & Jop albums haven’t been getting such Great numbers — in recent years only Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times has won big. So it’s no surprise that the 1990 triumph of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory was less than sweeping — its points-per-voter quotient fell about midway between that of 1988’s controversial It Takes a Nation of Millions and 1989’s flukey 3 Feet High and Rising, which had the shallowest support of any winner in poll history. Although the point strength of the top 10 albums was respectable, the wan kudos volunteered on The Rhythm of the Saints and Interiors and Graffiti Bridge and even Time’s Up made you wonder how much the critics raved about their faves after their reviews were in. But I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and Fear of a Black Planet were powerful second- and third-place finishers in both votes and corroborating commentary. Different as the top three records were — the Young an atavistic garage stomp, the O’Connor a singer-songwriter effusion bursting with rock/rap/worldbeat juice, the PE the impossible followup to a revolutionary LP — they obviously entered many different voters’ lives (61 named at least two, 10 all three). And most of us can take comfort in the one overarching value all three artists share: they don’t have much use for the American flag as it’s currently displayed. Ragged glory indeed.

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In general, though, the album list was inconclusive if not stagnant if not meaningless. Though rap is said to be hurting artistically, it landed exactly as many albums in 1989 as in 1990 — six, with Queen Latifah placing the same record twice, 3rd Bass a late-’89 release, and the other full-fledged debuts by unreconstructed middle-classniks Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest in a year when street Afrocentrism was the power move. More debut albums charted in 1990 (10 counting Ice Cube and the Texas Tornados) than in 1989 (eight counting Bob Mould), but only sophomore-in-disguise Cube made top 10, whereas last year De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A–Soul II Soul placed 1-5-6-9. Thanks partly to inspired poaching by Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, and 3rd Bass, the top 40’s black-artist total dipped from 14 to 11, but once again half the top 10 was black. There were seven albums by women in 1989, six (counting Deee-Lite) in 1990. Dance heroes Soul II Soul broke in a little higher in 1989 than dance heroes Deee-Lite did in 1990. Non-English-speaking Caetano Veloso finished 27th in 1989, non-English-speaking Youssou N’Dour 25th in 1990.

In fact, the only album “trend” I see is, of all things, white rock and roll. Early in the decade new indie groups bum-rushed Pazz & Jop every year, but not lately. In 1989, the only indie-style poll debuts came from NRBQ, who are older than Gavin Edwards, and Galaxie 500 (who plunged to an astonishing one mention in 1990); in 1988 the Cowboy Junkies (who plunged to a less astonishing zero mentions in 1990) were the new kids on the block, though art-rockers Jane’s Addiction and metalists Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also made their dents; in 1987 it was two more sad stories, 10,000 Maniacs and That Petrol Emotion. This year five newish bands charted for the first time: the Black Crowes were 31st, Faith No More 27th, Yo La Tengo 19th, and World Party 15th, while the Chills scored our cult record of the year, finishing 12th even though they made 11 fewer ballots than 13th-place Deee-Lite. Precedent suggests that some of these artists will never darken our poll again; except for the smart, sublime jangle-pop of the Chills’ Submarine Bells, I found all their music slightly annoying myself. But flashes in the pan they’re not — only the flashy Black Crowes placed a debut album. With the junk syncretism (kitchen-sink eclecticism? styleless mish-mash?) of Jane’s Addiction up from 34th to 24th, it’s my reluctant conviction that Faith No More will be around. And World Party might just turn into a Squeeze for our time — Beatles fans (also Tim Buckley fans) with their fun-filled conscience on Karl Wallinger’s sleeve. Hold the obits, please. Critics can be so stubborn.

On the singles list, meanwhile, things changed plenty, and in the opposite direction. Women sang lead on only four of our 1989 top 25; in 1990, the figure was 12. And for all the rap-dance futurism of last year’s comments, 12 rock/pop singles underwhelmed seven rap and six dance singles on the list itself; this year, rock/pop singles were down to eight and dance up to 11. For all you category-haters out there, I’ll hasten to emphasize that mine are dubious. People obviously dance to rap, especially the likes of “Bust a Move” and “Humpty Dance,” while dance records like “Buffalo Stance” and “Poison” get half their shit from rap (to make matters worse, I counted Snap’s “The Power” as dance and Chill Rob G’s as rap even though the tracks are identical). “Tom’s Diner” is a dance record that owes an immense debt to rock (or folk, or whatever); “Epic” is a rock record that owes a medium-sized debt to rap. In fact, though dance singles obviously achieved some critical hegemony in 1990, with the crucial side effect of a surge in female voices (a bow to Martha Wash, who belongs on MTV no matter what you think of authenticity as concept and construct), this category-hopping is the story. For all their syncretic dreams and cute little experiments, the Pazz & Jop albums categorize pretty easy. The singles, which in the top 12 or so all got airplay in a dismal year for pop radio, ignore genre boundaries the way Neil Harris planned it.

I don’t think rock and roll is dying, even in its square old guitar-defined form. Not because Warners signed the Chills, or because the Black Crowes are younger than the Rolling Stones, or because Yo La Tengo is the most shameless critics’ band since the Pet Shop Boys. The poll has never had that kind of precise predictive value. It’s just that after 17 (or 18) years I know years are funny things — they’re all atypical. Grein didn’t count Sinéad or Bonnie Raitt because girls who play rock and roll ruin neat theses. Two rappers, one worse than the other, topped the pop charts for more than half of 1990, and though rap isn’t dying by a long shot, I bet that never happens again. Springsteen takes over the racks in April. And so forth. But though it hit a blank with the commercial shortfall of Amerindie (a hardy cottage industry in any case), the poll has always had general predictive value. What it predicts is that’s something’s gonna happen and we don’t know what it is. What I’m hoping is that eventually we’ll figure it out.

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For years young critics have been pointing toward the rock-dance fusion Billboard has been bruiting lately — maybe not in the form of one famous professional (Phil Collins, say) jiving up his schlock by hiring another (Shep Pettibone), but that’s biz for you. Critics rarely understand biz — they just sense what people need to hear a little quicker than bizzers do. So for a neat thesis we can posit rock-dance fusion as if no such thing had ever happened before — though in fact it was a fad (and a Pazz & Jop theme) 12 years ago, and what Brit New Pop was about, and also, from another angle, what rap was, is, and will be about. This thesis carries with it the usual unexceptionable abstractions — serious fun on the mind-body continuum. And not only is it all over the singles chart, it’s revitalized the EP chart, which is topped by some postpunk guitar heroes’ dance record (because they’re reserving the real stuff for a new label?), a gangsta rapper moving on indie-rock turf (or getting paid more per song), and guitar uglies gone New Romantic (really new age). Extry, extry: Amerindie redoubt goes DOR.

But the thesis doesn’t explain the out-of-nowhere showing of pop pigfuckers Pavement, who finished fourth (surrounded by Two Nice Girls and major-label product of wildly disparate quality) on one of the tiny labels the EP list is supposed to give a crack to. It doesn’t explain a reissue chart dominated by Brobdingnagian CD reclamations of music that safely predates postmodern fuss. It doesn’t explain the top three albums, each of which honors the great god beat in its own cerebrally undanceable way. It doesn’t explain Sonic Youth even if their drumming’s better, much less Living Colour, whose jagged, pretentious art-rock qualifies as DOR only if you subscribe to the theory of natural rhythm. It doesn’t explain Rosanne Cash, whose songs sang clear when she toured without a drummer. It doesn’t explain Los Lobos or the Texas Tornados, roadhouse-rooted though each may be. It doesn’t explain Jane’s Addiction or the Black Crowes, Iggy Pop or Eno/Cale, Reed/Cale or Robin Holcomb, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, the Pixies or the Replacements. It doesn’t even explain the Pet Shop Boys.

All right, we’ve been here before. Electoral processes are rarely unanimous, trends are never monolithic, and different critics like different kinds of music. Big deal. Radical pluralism or a thousand points of light, it’s an old story, and as such a long way from the divine rupture of something-is-happening-and-we-don’t-know-what-it-is. Indeed, I’m almost as sick of the metaphor as you must be. Like any concept, pluralism risks turning into a shibboleth unless it absorbs new data — it’s losing its explanatory aura. But what can I do? According to many respondents, 1990 was the latest in the endless line of worst years ever, yet having freed myself to seek out only good records, I put together my longest Dean’s List ever. And as usual my picks were all over the place, including 13 and counting representatives of a black Africa that from Ladysmith to the Oriental Brothers has far more to offer than the estimable Youssou N’Dour. Internationalism is built into the dance-rock thesis — I don’t just mean Hull’s own Beats International, I mean Snap — but as the term is usually understood it remains a far-future projection of indeterminate shape. Even for this radical pluralist, whose list was dominated by what we jokingly call rock and roll — 17 guitarslingers as far-flung as Ministry and the Flatlanders and the Beautiful South, as differently same-old as Sonic Youth and Living Colour and the Chills and the Pixies and, well, Neil Young.

As Elena Oumano says somewhere hereabouts, we dance to Armageddon to the beat of our own drummer. And as Joe Levy says somewhere else hereabouts, there’s no reason to think guitar rock won’t be a viable residual subgenre for a long time to come. It would be tasteless to make any grand claims for its ability to save or even improve the world at this horrible moment, but it certainly speaks to a little group of paras and professionals who’d like to see the world save or improve itself, and who take hope in the best of popular culture — “people’s” culture, to and/or from as the case may be, generously accessible in both its renegade-seeker and utopian-hedonist forms. Looking over my own list, I was struck by all the high-ranking faves I’d classify as pop rather than rock, pop with historical perspective — Red Hot and Blue and The Civil War, and also Evan Lurie’s all faux, all true tango and Madonna’s blindly underappreciated camp. They reminded me of Jason Weisbard’s modestly visionary suggestion — a grander version of whatever inspired a vocal minority to campaign for the return of the video ballot — that our interest group comprises not just rock critics but all popular culture fanatics. And what are our interests? How about free expression for those human X-factors Victorians referred to as the dangerous classes? Spiritual growth from the ass up? Pop history as art history? The old ideal of art as community? Trial by disco for Allan Bloom? Like that.

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Reclaiming mass culture is a couch potato’s dream. Insofar as live-over-Memorex partisans hope to encounter a community instead of imagining one, it’s a community fixated on difference — a community of people who already agree with them. There’s admittedly something very abstract about the commonality couch potatoes posit as an alternative — real human beings are far more unpredictable than any work of art, however “complex,” “vital,” and so forth it may be, which bothers aesthetes no end. But there’s something even more abstract about the Clubrat-Stayathome polarity itself — most of us fall somewhere in between. So let me tell you a story and turn the speculation over to my colleagues.

Like most of the voters in this pluralistic interest group, I didn’t put Ragged Glory in my top 10 — thought it dragged, basically. But though those who don’t get Young may dismiss his victory as pure reaction, I like the record, which makes good on several potent fantasies — eternal renewal, the garage as underground, the guitar as shibboleth and idea. And I wasn’t going to miss his gig, especially not with Sonic Youth opening. When’s the last time two such Pazz & Jop eminences shared a bill anywhere, much less Madison Square Garden? (Answer: in Chicago a month before, when Chuck & Flav and Kim & Thurston occasioned a police riot you may have read about.) But between the display ad and the event fell the bombs, which transformed the concert as they have everything else. Ordinarily the kid from the cheap seats wearing an American-flag T-shirt with the legend TRY BURNING THIS ONE…ASSHOLE would have served as a neat symbol of mass culture and its contradictions. Now he brought to mind Toby Goldstein critiquing Madonna’s morality one minute and nuking the barbarians the next.

Young has made some exceptionally asinine political comments in his time, so I didn’t know quite what to think when he skronked out an invisible Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” after Sonic Youth went on and off. Wasn’t so sure about the giant yellow ribbon hung around the giant microphone prop, either. Sure was nice to see that peace symbol up there, even if it was Freedom’s logo. But though I’ve heard complaints about the predictability of his set list and the automatism of his abandon, I don’t think he’s ever exalted me like that. I admit his every-word-counts claim on “Blowin’ in the Wind” — as if to say, “This is my song now, Bob, but I’d love for you to try and take it back” — put me in a receptive mood, especially after the huzzahs for “Before they are forever banned.” But though he didn’t utter a nonlyric for two hours, that painful and familiar beat provided respite from Armageddon, with warhorses like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer” and for that matter “Rockin’ in the Free World” ideologically focused for once. And when during a delirious encore of “Welfare Mothers,” he kept yelling “Day care, day care,” I felt he understood. I didn’t especially deserve the respite, of course — not the way they do over in the gulf. But we haven’t figured out how to effect the transfer. All we can do is contest symbols and abstractions — rhythms and sonorities, flags and ribbons — as we mourn and marvel at the incursions they make on our physical lives. Ain’t much, is it?

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

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Top 10 Albums of 1990

1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Ragged Glory (Reprise)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

6. Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority)

7. Paul Simon: The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros.)

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

9. L.L. Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam)

10. Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1990

1. Deee-Lite: “Groove Is in the Heart”/”What Is Love” (Elektra)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Digital Underground: “The Humpty Dance” (Tommy Boy)

4. Madonna: “Vogue” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

5. (Tie) Faith No More: “Epic” (Slash/Reprise)
Lisa Stansfield: “All Around the World” (Arista)

7. Black Box: “Everybody Everybody” (RCA)

8. Madonna: “Justify My Love” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

10. Public Enemy: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam)

—From the March 5, 1991, 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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LL Cool J

Overlooking the Hollywood careers of each of tonight’s performers, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy are indeed the Kings of the Mic. And LL is a fitting headliner, since he emerged from Hollis in 1985 as a boombox-booming, be-Kangoled 18-year-old and just this year reaffirmed his role as a firebrand with a little help from Brad Paisley. Cube is responsible for some of gangsta rap’s best verses (including Eazy-E’s), and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Public Enemy, with their dancing S1W’s and backing band, are undeniably rap’s best live experience. Today will be a good day.

Thu., June 20, 6:30 p.m., 2013

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ODD PRESENT

Earl Sweatshirt wasn’t the first rapper to blow minds before being able to cast a ballot—nearly 30 years ago LL Cool J was rocking bells at 17, and even he was far from the first—but few of any age have written songs as remarkable as “Earl,” a two-minute-and-thirty-second mission statement dense with internal rhymes and high school vulgarity. Three years later, Sweatshirt can vote but not drink, and the rest of the world continues waiting for his sure-to-be-hype second album. Tonight he headlines a Downtown Music Festival show featuring sets from Ryan Hemsworth, the Main Attrakionz producer who has been remixing everyone from the Backstreet Boys to spaced-out dance producer Monolithium, and Antwon, a rapper with a strong voice and an ear for beats.

Fri., May 10, 8 p.m., 2013

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LET’S DUET

Unexpected cross-genre collaborations can result in both head-banging brilliance (take Skrillex and A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night” or Public Enemy and Anthrax’s “Bring the Noise,” for instance) and head-shaking disappointment (surely you’ve by now heard Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist”). Expect a little bit of each tonight, when a roster of musicians including ?uestlove, Kim Gordon, Andrew Bird, Andrew W.K., Julia Holter, Vijay Iyer, and DJ Spinna takes over the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, mashing together rock, rap, noise, jazz, folk, and who knows what else, one duet at a time.

Wed., May 1, 8 p.m., 2013

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How to Spot Hollywood’s Nonthreatening Black Man (NTBM)

Last week, America received two embarrassing reminders of its doting but asexual love for the Nonthreatening Black Man (NTBM). First, professional cowboy-hat-wearer Brad Paisley and Kangol connoisseur LL Cool J unintentionally trolled the entire Internet with “Accidental Racist,” a country song that argues that access to necklaces today totally makes up for centuries of slavery. Then came the release of the new Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, a film about racial progress à la The Help, in which the emotional fulcrum is white people learning important lessons about becoming less awful.

Often, the “nonthreatening” label is a cultural-studies-savvy bomb hurled at certain black male celebs and characters who are deemed at best too wholesome, and at worst examples of racial incorrectness. In his least offensive iteration (hi, Donald Glover!), the NTBM deserves a defense, as black men shouldn’t have to carry the burden of having to frighten everyone around them at all times, like the world is their haunted house. (That sounds exhausting, actually.)

Unfortunately, the persistence of the NTBM in the media isn’t due to a generation of black men who grew up idolizing Steve Urkel. Rather, it’s because the trope serves as a subtle code that signals how entertainment conglomerates believe mainstream white audiences want black and other minority groups to behave. Instructions from white men to black men form the core of both “Accidental Racist” and 42. When Paisley croons, “I hope you understand/When I put on that T-shirt [with the Dixie flag]/The only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan,” he’s pleading for the emergence of a new kind of black man, one who isn’t nauseated by the symbols of white supremacy.

42 is similarly obsessed with controlling black behavior, going so far as to make a virtue of Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) passivity. Though the film hints that Robinson instinctively understood the need to turn the other check to (literally) survive the ordeal of being Major League Baseball’s first black player, most of the credit behind the slugger’s nonconfrontational PR strategy goes to Dodgers’ manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Robinson is the film’s hero, but his heroism is entirely dependent on his willingness to follow his (white) boss’s orders.

The irony at the heart of the NTBM phenomenon is that, while black actors and characters tagged as “nonthreatening” are frequent targets of jeers and snark, they constitute, or are played by, Hollywood’s most successful stars of color: Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy. Given the paucity of roles for black actors in mainstream movies, NTBM characters — and the opportunities to work with name-brand directors like Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Robert Redford (The Legend of Bagger Vance) – may even serve as rewards for black actors who toe the line. (Jamie Foxx somehow avoided this fate, partly because Quentin Tarantino is one of the rare white “prestige” directors who consistently create fascinating, fully fleshed-out roles for threatening black actors like Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson.)

Since the NTBM is here to stay, here are some guidelines for identifying him, usually in his natural habitat of movies, TV shows, and advertisements for and by white people:

1. He’s young, usually in his twenties.

Youth is inherently innocuous, so the NTBM tends to be few in years and display markers of inexperience like slimness and clean-shavenness. As the host of America’s Got Talent, Nick Cannon has successfully remade himself from a self-described “gigolo” to the black Ryan Seacrest.

2. He’s surrounded by white people.

Being the token black guy generally comes with expectations of group conformity, even feelings of inadequacy. That may explain why LL Cool J is so eager to overcompensate for his blackness in the mayo-white world of country by granting listeners of “Accidental Racist” approval to wave the Stars and Bars.

3. He’s apolitical.

In his autobiography, Jackie Robinson, the most famous figure in America’s pastime, wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.” Neither this ambivalence toward his country nor his Communist sympathies made it into 42, because the NTBM is designed to evade questions of social and economic justice. In historical films like 42, the NTBM does what he does best: provide relief that the bad things from the past have no bearing on the world today.

4. He’s affluent, or affluent enough.

The active avoidance of white guilt is often a sufficient qualifier for nonthreateningness. Since guilt evaporates in the presence of envy (just ask Abigail Fisher), the quickest way to make a black man less scary is to give him a job, or indicators that he has one. This isn’t just true of the Cosbys, but also pretty much any diversity-minded advertisement illustrated by a smiling office drone.

5. He’s neutered, especially around white women.

Nothing makes someone invisible more quickly than realizing he isn’t sexual competition or a viable romantic partner. That line of thinking is how Morgan Freeman, with his old-man pipes and barnacled face, has been helping out white folks in movies as disparate as Bruce Almighty, Batman Begins, and Million Dollar Baby without missing a paycheck. If the NTBM must have a romantic interest (probably because he’s played by Will Smith, as in Hitch), she’s probably black, or Eva Mendes.

6. He’s relentlessly cheerful.

It’s no surprise that while local TV news is notoriously stacked with stories of violent black men, the commercials between those scare segments feature black spokesmen shilling Coke and Old Spice with big, toothy grins. This image of corporate-friendly masculinity — amiably parodied by Kenan Thompson on SNL as Corey, “the one black guy in every commercial” back in February — cements the NTBM as a vaguely aspirational figure and a likable helper-buddy to all white folk.

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Brother Ali

If Sarah Palin is really interested in someone inspirational who’s overcome adversity, she should profile this Midwest rapper. On top of his albinism and legally-blind status, he’s also gone through divorce and fought with major corporations over sponsorship, ultimately persevering to make one fine album after another. Since he’s vehemently anti-war, Palin would probably drop him quicker than LL Cool J, but it would be her loss. Anyway, Ali doesn’t need her—he’d prefer the Koran to her bible-thumping. With Fashawn and BK One.

Thu., April 15, 9 p.m., 2010

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

LL Cool J, satanist: Studies in Crap presents Dancing With Demons

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

Dancing With Demons: The Music’s Real Master

Author: Jeff Godwin
Date: 1988
Publisher: Chick Publications

The Cover Promises: Best Burning Man ever!

Representative Quotes:

  • “Homosexuality and Satanism are the two main reasons you should burn any Hall & Oates records and tapes you might own.” (page 90)
  • “Notice the lyrics from LL Cool J’s song ‘Dangerous.’ The word ‘hail’ (come forth) is used. LL Cool J is calling for demons. Are demons the ‘new concept’ he’s injecting ‘into your ears?'” (page 132)

By the late 1980s, evangelicals had perfected an unlikely method of winning young people to Christ.

Step One. Loudly damn everything that young people might enjoy, ever.

Step Two: Watch the kids flock to you.

Of course, denouncing youth culture meant some dedicated evangelicals had to swallow hard and experience youth culture. Jeff Godwin dared to, and the Lord revealed horrors unto him, such as the obvious fact that LL Cool J cavorts with demons. (Lucifer must have a big ol’ butt.)

Turns out, all of kids’ musical heroes perform in the service of demons, devils, and “a Greek deity named Pan.” Godwin proves this on the book’s first page when he points out that Paul McCartney holds a pan pipe on the sleeve of his Pipes of Peace record, a well-known favorite of cultists everywhere. As a cabernet sauvignon is to fine steak, so is the light funk of “Say, Say, Say” to human sacrifice.

You can see Pan for yourself on the cover of Dancing With Demons. There he tootles his flute in front of the enraptured masses, some of whom boogie on as the lake of fire swallows them. Godwin writes, “Multiplied millions of young people are being sacrificed to this master demon as they pass through the fires of rock.”

Closer inspection confirms that Pan’s hellbound throng is made up of everyday people just like you and me!

See, there’s the feather-duster punks, a guy shoplifting a basketball, Princess Leia as a schoolgirl, and way up front, third in line for the inferno, poor Ralphie from A Christmas Story.

Godwin assails everyone you would expect in a book like this. There’s Stevie Nicks, of course, who apparently aspires to pharaoh-hood:

“Some other facts which tie Stevie to her master, Satan, include: Halloween is her favorite night of the year. She would like to build her own pyramid, and someday retire to a ‘little witch house’ by the sea.”

And suck-rock heroes Poison.

And the mightiest of all:

Yes, “Stairway to Heaven” is exactly like the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Both:

  • Are found in basements.
  • Haven’t been consulted in 20 years.
  • Were once sold door-to-door.
  • Are so big they must be purchased in installments.

Like most Satan-spotters of the ’80s, Godwin hates metal.

His distaste also ranges to hip hop:

“Rap is street slang for a long winded, loud mouthed, lotta talk about nothing, set to rhyme.”

In rap, which is full of “ear infiltration and dust-headed death,” Godwin sees not community but conspiracy.

“On the inner sleeve of ‘Licensed to Ill,’ the following words are stuck between pictures of the in-concert Beastie Boys taking a booze bath: ‘SPECIAL KNOWLEDGE TO RUN DMC & JAM-MASTER JAY.’ Why did they use the word ‘knowledge’ instead of ‘acknowledgement?’ What secrets passed between the groups, and why be so mysterious about it?”

On another page, he answers his own question.

“Run-DMC are role models, all right, but for whom? The answer is obvious – LUCIFER.”

And then there’s this.

It goes on and on like this.

Rolling Stones: “The most infamous band of doped-up Black Magic monsters of all time.”
David Bowie: “Bisexual coke head”
Paul McCartney: “Pro-homo dopehead”
Tina Turner: “The inner sleeve of ‘Break Every Rule’ features a full length photo of Tina wearing a slitted mini-dress which barely covers her backside. The entire picture is bathed in red, the color of harlotry.”
Amy Grant:”She and a friend sunbathed naked on the beach”

David Lee Roth: “While still a young child, I bet he never dreamed he’d one day spend his vacations watching satanic high priests stuffing live chickens into their mouths and tearing them to pieces.”
Heart: “On stage, burly Ann bellowed out tunes like a rampaging bull elephant while her kid sister Nancy stood motionless like a frozen telephone pole.”

All throughout the 80s, kids dared each other to stick their tongues to Nancy Wilson.

Highlight:
Godwin quotes innocous lyrics from Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” and then lamely concludes, “Put Satan in those words instead of just boy/girl ‘love’ and you’ll get the true meaning behind the message.”

But if adding “Satan” to a song’s lyrics proves that song is satanic, than every song ever written is a secret paen to evil! Let’s try!

  • “Abide With Me, Satan”
  • “My Favorite Things (Include Satan)”
  • “(Satan’s Coming Over for a) White Christmas”
  • “I Am Satan’s Little Teapot”

[The Crap Archivist lives in Kansas City, where he originates his on-line Studies for the Voice‘s sister paper, The Pitch.]