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Chuck D: All Over the Map

THE DAY BEFORE PUBLIC ENEMY’S monthlong tour with Anthrax began, we drove out to the nondescript Hempstead office building that Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, and their crew have occupied since they were running Long Island’s first hiphop sound system back in 1982. S1W’s PE merchandisers, Media Assassin Harry Allen, and other employees contributed to the general hubbub. On the walls of the front office were samples of PE fashion: Spike Lee-style baseball shirts and hats, tour jackets, T-shirts, the whole nine. Chuck corralled us into a cramped conference room whose dominant feature was a map of the United States complete with zip codes. As he lectured us on the vagaries of hiphop as a national phenomenon, Chuck often rose from his chair and pointed to regions on the map to make himself clearer. The conversation began with Chuck in­terrogating Christgau about how he became a writer and ended with him apologizing to Tate for once branding him a Village Voice porch nigger. It lasted close to three hours, and for the most part Chuck didn’t duck our questions, although he did forestall them with his ver­bosity — as John Leland has said, Chuck may be louder than a bomb, but he’s a lot less succinct. Needless to say, what follows is an edited version

1. WHO HAS SPARE TIME?

CHRISTGAU: How much input did the old crew have into Apoca­lypse 91? Hank, Keith, Eric­—

CHUCK D: Hank is the master­mind of all.

CHRISTGAU: Was he on this re­cord now?

CHUCK D: Yeah, that was Hank.

TATE: Y’all work like Miles now, it’s just like, you come to the stu­dio, you do your part, and it’s al­ready there?

CHUCK D: No, it’s not like that. The Bomb Squad is still the Bomb Squad.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think here’s any musical evolution on the new record? Do you see it as being different musically as op­posed to lyrically?

CHUCK D: The difference lyrical­ly and difference musically is it’s more focused — it’s more hard. It’s sort of like Bum Rush the Show. Each album we do differently. I think I got real creative on the last one. Less creative on this one. You know, you venture off into different sounds and techniques and —

CHRISTGAU: The mix isn’t as dense, would you say?

CHUCK D: Of course. That was intentional. We hope to be trendsettters and not followers. The main difference on this is just tempo. We like to think of things as tempo first and not sound. Other people would probably say sonics before tempo. No. We’re in tune to tem­po — we was the first rap group to really tempo it up, on “Bring the Noise.” That was 109 beats per minute. These tempos basically give you a Midwest, middle-of-the-country feel, with a little bit of east-west hard edge.

CHRISTGAU: How do the BPMs range?

CHUCK D: A lot of them are in the 96 to 102 range, which people will say is slow for PE, but then again, these are people that — what’s danceable here [points at East Coast on map] don’t mean shit. I just come from Kansas City.

CHRISTGAU: So, the music is getting hard.

CHUCK D: On this album. I might just bug out on the next one. But when I bug out, it’s going to hit 85 to 90 per cent of the places. It might not hit here [points to New York] at all. But give me the rest, I’ll take it. Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had — not because of all of the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had, I can do it — get the same feeling [more pointing] here, here, here, here, you know what I’m saying? Just in L.A., a kid is breaking down the rappers from different areas and he says, Public Enemy, man, ain’t even like y’all from New York, it’s like y’all from somefuckingwhere, like, you’re fucking everywhere. I say, well, we are from everywhere, and it reflects in our music, and it reflects in our lyrics, you know. I’m a person — I ride on Grey­hound through the middle. I ride Greyhound through Arkansas and Arizona. I’ll sit on Greyhound for hours just listening to my music, look out the window and write, you know. Yo, I just drove — went down to Disneyworld. I could drive like — see, there’s always a job in the business. Let’s say they say, Chuck, you out of the busi­ness, man, I’ll be a bus driver. I know the fucking roads, man.

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CHRISTGAU: What do you do with your spare time?

CHUCK D: Who has spare time?

CHRISTGAU: Everybody has some spare time, man.

CHUCK D: Well, my business and my thing I like to do is more fun than anybody else’s —

CHRISTGAU: I live the same way, but nevertheless, I got leisure, you’ve got —

CHUCK D: Well, sometimes I just like to go in my fucking basement and just fucking watch fucking TV or videotapes. I can’t really watch too many movies. I usually like watching sports. I watch sports, you know —

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to music much?

CHUCK D: I listen to Motown, I listen to a lot of tapes — usually when I’m on the road, when I’m on the airplane. When I’m home, I don’t really listen to music as much as I like to watch videos.

TATE: Music videos, or just —

CHUCK D: Music videos and sports. Music and sports. I can’t watch movies, really, except for black movies. I just seen Livin’ Large yesterday and you know, to the average person it might be like a three­-cent movie, but I had a good time watching it. You know, me and a couple of the brothers’ families went out. I said, yeah, that’s some kind of dope.

CHRISTGAU: You listen to any jazz or blues?

CHUCK D: I wasn’t a jazz fanatic. My pops, like, was a jazz person — all that abstract shit. I was like, nah.

CHRISTGAU: Not for you?

CHUCK D: Not for me at all. I like blues more than jazz. ‘Cause blues deals with lyrics — more feeling, you know what I’m saying? And it has so much ironic twist in it — it’s usually about the slightest shit that black people talk about, you know, day by day. And I do a lot of hanging in places like down South, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Atlanta.

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to any metal or white rock?

CHUCK D: Yeah, once in a while. I like watching the videos more than I like lis­tening to it.

TATE: When you hang out down South, do you hang out in music clubs, or do you just hang?

CHUCK D: Music clubs, Beale Street, the whole nine. I always liked the blues. But I’ve liked it more since I’ve been able to go to these places.

CHRISTGAU: It would be great to sample some of that shit. You hear very little in the way of blues samples.

CHUCK D: Well, you know, musically it moves me, but lyrically, man, I’ll be like saying, Goddamn. And that’s why I try to move a lot of rapping and rap music the same. At the end of the day, I don’t know what the fuck you write about, just make somebody just say, Damn, you know. That is a good point of view, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look at N.W.A — you might not agree with what the fuck they’re saying, but you at least know at the end of the song, like, yo, these motherfuckers meant this, that’s what they’re saying, you know?

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2. HARDCORE RESPONSIBILITY

TATE: People talk about positive and neg­ative images of rap, and then there’s a whole other line of thought that says the music is important no matter what it’s talking about ’cause it’s creating a forum for discussion.

CHUCK D: It’s important to be positive because you got to understand, the only time that the structure wants to put any­body black up there in the spotlight is if we are athletes or entertainers. If all the athletes and the musicians are going to get projected like that, we’ve got to say, damn, we’ve got a little bit more responsi­bility than the average white musician that comes along and just wants to talk about his dick. ‘Cause we’ve got to say, all right, yeah, this is a story to tell, but at the same time, this is probably going to be the result of it. I mean, I talk about a drive­-by, I might start drive-bys in St. Louis. That’s a tight line, and we’ve got to deal with it, ’cause we’re going to be listened, watched, and followed a lot closer than a lot of white kids.

CHRISTGAU: But you just said N.W.A at least had their own point of view­ —

CHUCK D: They’ve got their own point of view, that’s coming from an artistic point of view, but socially —

CHRISTGAU: You’ve got your doubts about that sort of representation?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause I see the fucking re­sults of it. And you got to have a structure in the society, in the school system, that’s able to say well, this is the right, and this is the wrong. We could say that families are supposed to do it, but we ain’t got family the way it’s supposed to be. So I mean, we’ve got to go to a school or structure that can teach us family.

CHRISTGAU: You got kids yourself?

CHUCK D: I got a daughter.

CHRISTGAU: How old is she?

CHUCK D: She’s going to be three next week. And you know, that shit is a moth­erfucking task. [Laughter.]

CHRISTGAU: I know. I got a daughter, Greg’s got a daughter.

CHUCK D: I’m saying, you know, people have to be taught how to do certain things. And then, let’s go back to the music, the positive and the negative. A guy’s going to talk negative shit because that’s what he sees. Rappers only talk what they know. I mean, sometimes you’ve got people going off into the fantasy world, like the Geto Boys when they talk about mind playing tricks on me, Chuckie and stuff like that, and make analogies saying, well, you can’t talk about me because, hey, all these fucking crazy movies coming out and nobody’s getting any heat for that. But we have a double-edged sword hang­ing over our head, a guillotine, that’s say­ing, well, we do this, we’re going to be followed — you know, people going to do this shit in reality. And I believe that.

‘Cause I mean, everywhere I go, I mean, I go to prisons and, you know, brothers — if they get no guidance from zero to 16, they’re going to follow something that can relate to them best. And if something can relate to them best that they really, really like, they’re going to follow it. They’re going to say, I got to kick this mother­fucker tonight. Boom, boom, boom. And later on, they’ll be like, damn, damn. Like that brother that got to go to the fucking joint now for killing that Jewish guy. And ain’t nobody fucking behind him now. He gotta go to the fucking joint. He gonna get fried. Somebody didn’t tell him to put his brain in gear. Now he’s gotta suffer the consequences. I feel sorry for him. Be­cause I’ve talked to a lot of brothers in jail, and usually brothers in jail are in for impulse. Boom!

That’s why I start talking about the 1 million bottle bags. Because I tell you a lot of shit be starting off because of distorted thinking like, damn, usually broth­ers that know each other, be like drinking. They be like, “What you say?” “I ain’t say shit, man.” “Your fucking mother.” And then somebody got a fucking nine or Uzi in the territory, and the shit escalate to even a higher pitch, couple of people in there going, “Yo, just, chill, chill, chill.” And sometimes you get, you know, “Fuck that, motherfucker.” And it all be starting because motherfuckers is fucked up.

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CHRISTGAU: Do you drink at all?

CHUCK D: I don’t drink. My crew don’t even touch meat. Me, I eat it, if my wife cooks it at the crib.

TATE: Did you talk with Ice Cube about the St. Ides thing?

CHUCK D: Yeah, I mean I briefed it on him. You know, he said, “Yo, man, just trying to get out of it.” Trying to stop it, but he’s contracted. I said, “Yo, Cube, hey, there ain’t nothing against you, I mean, it’s your thing, your guilt thing, but you should have had quality control.” The people at St. Ides said, “Well, we really respect you Chuck D, you know.” I told ’em I don’t respect y’all, fuck y’all. I see the results. I’m not just fucking read­ing stats. You’re in the black community, you can run, you can’t hide. There ain’t nowhere you can go and live and say, well, I’m going to be far away from it. Nowhere.

I’m seeing results whether it be Mem­phis, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, De­troit — it could be the smaller fucking cit­ies. I’ll take you right in the ‘Velt, Roosevelt — one square mile. Got 14 delis in there, and every single deli got Ice Cube’s poster. The people say, well, why do you give so much of a damn? Well, because I’ve got to live in this mother­fucker. And I’m grown. Once you’re over 18, fun and games got to be put to num­ber three. Responsibility and business got to be one and two and you can have fun and games and shit, but once you under­stand those number one and two things, you understand that fun and games are being played on your ass. I tell mother­fuckers in a minute, you can be hardcore and be positive. Thieves and pimps and murderers, man, motherfuckers got to pay a penalty. The problem is that some white boy coming in and trying to remedy the situation and we need to start doing it ourselves. The more grown people you have that understand they’re adults and take control of their community, the less bullshit you have coming in. And you used to have something like that until quote unquote so-called integration.

TATE: Desegregation.

CHUCK D: Yeah, right.

TATE: That’s what all the older folks used to talk about. If you were doing any kind of crime, you just knew not to do it in nobody’s face. If you were drinking, you didn’t drink in public, you didn’t fall down in the street.

CHUCK D: It was a time, right. It was hardcore. Hardcore will never die and need to come back. You can be positive in the hardcore. Hardcore got this connota­tion that other people put on it of saying that it’s negative and no, no — hardcore, it’s like you taking control. I tell brothers, you say you hard, but your life harder than you. How hard can you be? Your life kicking you in the ass. Fucking world is harder than any motherfucker.

This stuff should be coming to people when they’re three, four. Especially young black males, three, four, seven, eight. And it gotta come every day. That’s what the father does, is supposed to do. I mean, my pops had to work, but my pops was able to give it to me at the right time. And I think the key is in the black structure in society. We have to rebuild the black man, young black males got to be built to be men. And I think with that, then you will start seeing a clearer picture, you know. It’s — a lot more simple than it is complex.

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And I think that’s something that’s defi­nitely got to be taught through the school systems. I mean a lot of things have to be taught to us. Once again, I go back to slavery. Slavery has done a lot of fucking detriment, where it’s almost irreparable unless we’re going to fucking eight-hour-a­ day training sessions that satisfy our intel­lect but also satisfy our wants and needs, you know. I mean, mentally and physical­ly. School’s got to be school. And a school for black people, black kids, definitely it got to be different from white kids.

The remedies and how it can get done is all in the government’s hands. We talk about reparations, I’m not talking about, sending everybody a fucking $10,000 check. If you went outside and gave moth­erfuckers $10,000 each, those mother­fuckers wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I’m saying, you got to have a fucking training programming medium so people will be able to say, well, damn, now I’m being taught how to think.

TATE: That kind of begs the question of whether the government wouldn’t just as soon black people stay where they are.

CHUCK D: I don’t think the government wants to see that happen. First of all, they’re saying we’re only 10 per cent, so we have to submit to whatever goes down. But we’re a growing quote unquote 10 per cent. And in order for them to satisfy black people in the year 2000 they better come up with some shit. They already came up with a result of genocide that got us fucking each other up. I’m saying, we need to come out of that dead zone. We come out of that dead zone then we can talk about plan two, three, or four. It’s either got to be this way or it’s going to be fucked up, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I said, “Welcome to the Terror­dome.” I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the 1990s. It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for us. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.

CHRISTGAU: I buy that.

CHUCK D: Outta here. Over with.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that PE or rap in general is doing anything to stop this from happening from a practical point of view?

CHUCK D: I don’t know how much effect it has — I’m not here to judge effect or results. A lot of times, the weight that a lot of people put on Public Enemy is because they don’t see these other things. When I first did Public Enemy my role was bringing information, saying, well, bro, there’s a Karenga, there’s a Farrak­han, there’s people out there that have been studying in whatever field. There’s a Dr. Welsing. Check these people out. We need to get into it, ’cause these people have put in 40 or 50 years of unacknowl­edged time, for the benefit of where we should go.

But Public Enemy’s just one fucking thing. I’m only one motherfucking person. And I’m saying to each and every black person, you look in your family—it might not be your immediate family — you’re gonna find either murder, drugs, alcohol abuse, and disease, or jail, somebody get­ting jailed. I’m saying you can run but you can’t hide. Which means that everybody gotta be able to at least work forward or try to remedy the situation.

TATE: You’re really talking about person­al accountability. You’re not in this neces­sarily believing you’re going to change the world.

CHUCK D: No, no, of course not. There’s no one motherfucker that can change the world. I’m saying that my fucking job as an adult is just to make sure that my community is all right for me — or whoev­er, a child or adult— to live in.

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3. TCB

TATE: When I saw you down at the con­ference in D.C., on one of the panels you said, Yeah, a lot of people think I spend a lot of time reading this, that, and the other thing. The one thing that I really study is the music business. How did you become so fanatical about the business?

CHUCK D: I approached Hank back when he was a monster DJ out here — I used to be a fan of theirs [Spectrum City, Hank’s sound system]. I just saw that one of the gigs I went to there wasn’t enough people there, and I came up to Hank out of nowhere and tried to explain that it was presented wrong. I thought, you know, in order to catch people’s attention, you know, fliers should be done in the same way most black people buy things. And later on, I was just toying around on the mike at Adelphi. They had never really allowed MCs, and I guess I was the one. Hank liked me because of the way I sound. So we became partners in ’79, and we would wait for people to hire us. But that begun to be a dead end road because you always dealt with somebody that wanted to just rip you off. So that’s when you say, Yo, man, we rocking the house, but somebody’s always leaving out the back door with the money. So I say, Yo, man, look, we going to do this. I keep the people busy and you keep that person at that door.

TATE: The both of your families are businesspeople?

CHUCK D: My father had his own busi­ness at 40 after he went through the same bullshit in the white corporation, and he was working in the corporation for 20-some-odd years and all of a sudden they had a fucking attitude of, you know, well, maybe he could go somewhere else.

TATE: What kind of a corporation was it?

CHUCK D: The fabric business — 979 Third Avenue, the D&D building. He worked in a couple of companies in the fabric business. Jack-of-all-trades. But his official title was really shipping and receiving manager, you know, warehouse manager. He knew all about the business.

CHRISTGAU: And then what’d he start to do at 40?

CHUCK D: He just dropped it and what he did, all his contacts and all his friends, he started a trucking company that dealt with undercutting the other trucking com­panies. It was rocky for about two years and then it coasted. Still was a battle, because it was a lone one-man thing, bat­tling the structure. But I learned a lot from my father. He just said, you know, if I’m making less, fuck it. Eventually, you know, what it gives you in peace of mind is more important. My moms couldn’t understand it, you know, but then later on she did. But that move taught me a lot. It just showed me that business is the only way to go. I don’t care if I’m making $10 on my own, it’s better than getting $100 from somewhere and you don’t know when, it’s coming from.

CHRISTGAU: What were you doing be­tween ’79 and ’84?

CHUCK D: ’79 and ’84 we was what you’d call the hiphop movement in Long Island, Queens.

CHRISTGAU: And you were making money off of hiphop?

CHUCK D: Yeah, we was making money. Paying bills. Wasn’t making profit, but we was paying bills. And what drove us is, like, yo, you’ve got to pay these bills. Lighting and rent and shit like that.

CHRISTGAU: So you weren’t making a profit. How were you eating?

CHUCK D: I was in college just like you.

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4. OUT OF ONE PEOPLE, MANY AFROCENTRISMS

TATE: One of the things that you read all the time about all the rappers that come from the suburbs — there’s this idea ’cause you’re in the suburbs, you don’t know any­thing about racism, discrimination.

CHUCK D: That’s bullshit. There’s apar­theid out here like a motherfucker. There’s a lot of black people out here but it’s in pockets. Roosevelt is one square mile but in Merrick it’s like no blacks there. You know, they ask for ID — how is that different from a pass?

TATE: I have a friend that grew up in Elmont. Right next to her neighborhood is this huge high school. And they rezoned her neighborhood out of that, so it’s still like a predominantly white high school.

CHUCK D: If you look into cities, cities are just places that say, come on up from down there so we can put y’all in one area, stack y’all on top of each other, we’ll make it easy for you to get you a job. And that’s why we’re catching so much hell in cities today. People are saying, what about the Crown Heights thing, the Brooklyn situation? I say, Brooklyn’s a fucked up place to be. The shit ain’t right for you. The place is getting packed and packed, more and more, they stacking people on top, and there’s no way to fuck­ing have a clear fucking type of thinking there, you know, when you’re all tight with everybody. And then when you’ve got two fucking communities just getting bigger and bigger, forcing into each other, shit’s going to break wild if everybody don’t get no explanations on how to take care of themselves. The city ain’t never been right for us, you know what I’m saying? I always look back, like in Africa, we were always nomadic people. You know, shit get crazy — go, move, you know what I’m saying? Get the fuck on out of town.

TATE: You were in a program that was run by the Panthers, right?

CHUCK D: It was two years, summer school. At their house. Panthers, Islamic brothers, just brothers in the neighborhood, students, you know. And it was the thing that turned me around, turned a lot of us around. It wasn’t like what it gave us then — we noticed it years later. You know, “Hey, remember African American Experience?” At this time in America around ’77 and ’78, motherfuckers was like laughing at dashikis, and we said, Damn, that shit was sort of fly back then. We’re not saying that we would wear them, but, you know, we had a respect for that, whereas a lot of kids in other areas was like, what? And it came up the roots that that supplementary education gave us. These guys and these sisters weren’t saying don’t go to school, which a lot of people were using as an excuse: Oh, man, school ain’t teaching me what I need to know. Yeah, but you got to know that because right now we have a lot of people in America, we have potential and talent for a lot of different things but we’re unskilled.

CHRISTGAU: So you’re in favor of an Afrocentric curriculum, obviously.

CHUCK D: It’s the only key to our surviv­al —

CHRISTGAU: Can you tell me what Afro­centric thinkers you especially relate to? Do you read a lot of this stuff?

CHUCK D: I read a lot of it. But you know, basically, it’s the same story interrelated.

CHRISTGAU: Wait — give me a couple of names. Asante, Williams.

CHUCK D: Ah, man, come on. Asante’s cool, you know, Karenga. I mean, every­body — I think a lot of brothers, I mean, going back to Marcus, got concrete plans. A lot of brothers had concrete plans for the time, but then again, we have to real­ize, times, they’ve really changed.

I think all the black philosophers have something in line. Like people talk about Stanley Crouch, how much of an asshole he is. I think, deep down, he wants to see something better for black people even though he might sound like an asshole. It’s just that a lot of brothers that fight for the struggle, they fight for the struggle so long that they get beat down by white supremacy and don’t realize it. So their views become so radical that every time you hear their mouth they sound like, “This nigger antiblack or what?”

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CHRISTGAU: Do you think the aspect of Afrocentric theory that’s about the great­ness of ancient black civilizations is as important as it’s made out to be? Or are you more interested in contemporary his­tory, all the aftereffects of the slave trade?

CHUCK D: Contemporary stuff. I think that’s important. But I’m really dealing with, you know, everything. And history is everything. White capitalism, white su­premacy, slave trade, movement of blacks, and black people catching hell all over. That takes studying. And a mother­fucker in the eighth grade should have that down. Those are the basics. You don’t understand that shit from fourth to eighth grade and it doesn’t get drilled into you and it doesn’t make you feel good. Learning should be feeling good like a motherfucker. Learning should be some­thing like, Damn, man, I’m learning a lot today.

You know, you walk into a fourth and fifth grade, in a black school — quote un­quote black school — today, I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and now kids is like, Yo, fuck this motherfuck, you know what I’m saying? School, I’m telling you, the educational system from here to here is at war, I’m telling you. In the ’90s, by 1995, it’s gone. I’ll tell you, I do speaking engagements, I went to fuck­ing Evansville. White high school. Eighty per cent white. And every one of the white kids is number one like this, What’s up man, uh, yo. [Laughs.] Yo, thanks a lot man, y’all teaching us a different perspec­tive, because I only can take so much of this Patrick Henry bullshit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, now that you’ve set up this expectation, and you’ve got this fucked up school system, do you think this school system is so fucked up that it’s just as well that they ain’t listening? Or don’t you think it might be a good idea for them to learn how to do their addition and read and write?

CHUCK D: It don’t take mothers long to take skills down. They spread it, they try to make it interesting, you know what I’m saying? Skills is skills. To get those basic skills down — they spread it so fucking far apart, 12 years, and you’re taking 12 years of skills. There’s some of them are unnec­essary skills, know what I’m saying? If you had kids saying, well, damn, I want to, like, put Nintendo computers together, it might be advantageous for you to — well, you better do good in calculus or trig or some shit like that.

So I don’t make some statement like, yeah, I hope to make some money to send my daughter to college. I hope to make some businesses that she can run. And that’s the fucking thing about capital­ism — we as black people keep looking for fucking jobs, we ain’t getting no jobs ’cause there’s a tight rope on white busi­ness, and they definitely ain’t giving a black face a fucking job because business is family.

CHRISTGAU: It’s Farrakhan’s orienta­tion to that kind of thing that you like best about his program.

CHUCK D: A lot of things I like best, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say it’s just that one thing, it’s a lot of things. But, yes, self-sufficiency is the best program.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think he’s actually achieved that?

CHUCK D: Farrakhan’s one man.

CHRISTGAU: I know that. I’m talking about the NOI [Nation of Islam]. Do you think the NOI is actually —

CHUCK D: NOI is full of individuals that treat it like an organization and many brothers in the NOI have small businesses. It’s not just some big fucking corpora­tion juggernaut. It’s not that. Basically, it’s an organization of united brothers and sisters around the country that say, Yo, now, we’re going to do for ourselves.

CHRISTGAU: Do you buy the notion that some sort of an African-centered religion might be very useful in making this hap­pen, in giving this sense of community? Not necessarily the NOI, but say the kind of thing Asante talks about.

CHUCK D: No. I just think that we could still have the various different philoso­phies and different viewpoints of life. Everybody ain’t made out of a cookie cutter. Everybody got different opinions — every­body got different tastes and different feelings on how they want to look at life. It’s only, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, you know what I’m saying? The wrong way is getting in somebody’s path and disrespecting nature, which is God’s plan — we only got one place we know we and other human beings can live. And the white structure and the Eu­ropean structure has proven contrary to both. It’s fucked up other human beings, and it’s fucked up the planet.

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5. CARLTON RIDENHOUR AS CHUCK D

CHRISTGAU: Visually, how do you pro­ject your own persona? Do you think about how you look?

CHUCK D: Do I look in the mirror and bust pimples?

CHRISTGAU: No, I’m just talking about how you present yourself visually, how you think about that.

CHUCK D: Well, out of strength. Back in the day, I was like the first to put on a black Raiders hat, because it was a black hat. One of the few black hats you could find. The Raiders had kind of silver and black, and I said, Well why not, kind of dope. They didn’t make Raiders hats, I would have been in trouble.

CHRISTGAU: So you do think about this. Now broaden it out a little bit. How was Chuck D different from Carlton Ridenhour?

CHUCK D: Because he is on the wall. Ain’t no different. Maybe it’s a little dif­ferent five years later, because I know that I’m older and I got more responsibility, but shit, it’s not that much different.

CHRISTGAU: You set yourself up as a teacher, right?

CHUCK D: I set myself up as not only a teacher, but an older brother. ‘Cause when I was working the hiphop, you know, people was saying, Why y’all fuck­ing with them kids? When me and Hank first got involved, we said, Yo, man, we into the music, we’re going to give our communities something, some kind of outlet — 15-, 16-, 17-year-old brothers. ‘Cause older brothers was what? Either being locked up, going off into the work­ing world, and saying, well, fuck it, I got my thing. Or, they were going in the fuck­ing army, especially the army. But what they would leave is a whole bunch of brothers, 16, 15, 14, 13, with no direction. And they wasn’t really listening to their parents. Once again, there’s a lot of single parents and then the parents that was there — there’s such a gap, you know what I’m saying? Brother come home, bring home his Run-D.M.C., and the father, he only into his fucking Anita, you know what I’m saying? And never the two would communicate.

Other people came and said, Damn, saying you’re older in rap is like taboo. I started making records when I was 26, know what I’m saying? So I just threw all that shit out the window. ‘Cause when I was growing up, I liked the Tempts. You didn’t look at them as being old mother­fucking men. O’Jays — bad as a mother­fucker. So I said, well, basically your older brother can communicate to younger brothers ’cause younger brothers want to get to where their older brothers are. I got a car, I ain’t got to go to school no more, and I’m working, I got a little bit of mon­ey with me. Somebody 14 saying, Hey, it ain’t bad, I can relate to some of that.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that your fans think you’re wiser, more knowledge­able than you actually are?

CHUCK D: I’m using age as a weapon. Me and Ice-T probably talk to more brothers than anyone. And Ice-T got a couple of years on me. I say, look man, I been through what you did and some. And they’re, “Bro, fuck it, man, you got this and you got that.” I say, “How you know? Still black in America. I know exactly where you heading to.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

6. WHO TO SOCK IT TO

TATE: There was an article, long time ago, where you were quoted as saying, there’s no way a homosexual could be a black leader. And there’s also that whole charge that you’re homophobic —

CHUCK D: I’m not afraid of them. I’m just not one. I’m not on that side. I’m just not on their side.

TATE: Yeah, but what does that mean about how you feel about people who are on that side?

CHUCK D: That’s their thing. Do what they want to do. I can’t tell them who to sock it to. I mean, that’s their thing. Would I let a homosexual in my kitchen to eat dinner? Yeah, why not? Would I let him into my room while I’m sleeping­ —

CHRISTGAU: Well, but I’m sure no ho­mosexual is interested.

CHUCK D: How could I be afraid of a homosexual? Can’t be afraid of them.

TATE: A lot of people are afraid of them. Afraid of what they represent.

CHRISTGAU: Or they’re afraid of what might be inside themselves, too.

CHUCK D: I think they’re a little con­fused. That’s my personal viewpoint. Love got a distorted fucking viewpoint on it. Who gives anybody a badge to say what love is? Love — homosexuals can come from lack of love as well. From somebody not really knowing what true love is. Heterosexuality — a lot of people think it’s love is not love either, you know what I’m saying? Love can be a concern, it can even not be sexual.

CHRISTGAU: You’re not saying that ho­mosexuals who love other men don’t really love them?

CHUCK D: No. I’m not saying that at all. They can love them all they want. I won’t love them. Not in that way.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there could be a —

CHUCK D: A homosexual leader?

CHRISTGAU: Black leader? Bayard Rus­tin, for instance?

CHUCK D: Leader — why would sexuality have something to do with it?

CHRISTGAU: Don’t ask me.

CHUCK D: I don’t come out and say, Yo, man, I’m a heterosexual, so why does your sexuality have to do with anything? What business is it —

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that, Chuck. That’s the way I feel about it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729080″ /]

CHUCK D: But no, this is what I’m say­ing. A lot of homosexuals, they call it out of the closet. They use it as a badge. That ain’t no badge, It’s like somebody going and saying, Yeah, well I fucked nine bitches three weeks ago.

CHRISTGAU: It’s a badge because it’s a source of oppression, that’s why.

CHUCK D: They use it as a badge, I’m telling you. What the fuck does your sexu­ality got to do with anything?

CHRISTGAU: It can have a lot to do with whether you’re free to live your life the way you want to live it.

TATE: It wouldn’t be an issue if people weren’t kicking people’s asses.

CHUCK D: No, no, no. Number one, I think — this is number one — it’s like this. If sexuality becomes an issue, then the fucking society, twisted as it is, it’s going to come out like it’s going to come out. I’m like saying, what’s the fucking whole point of pushing it — all right, yeah, I’m fucking these motherfuckers, but accept me anyway. I don’t give a fuck who you’re fucking.

CHRISTGAU: A lot of people do, Chuck.

CHUCK D: It’s a waste of time.

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that but it worries me when homosexuals or perceived homosexuals get beaten up by straights, for whatever reason.

CHUCK D: But why would anybody wear sexuality as a badge?

CHRISTGAU: Because they’re oppressed as a result of it.

CHUCK D: You think they’re oppressed ’cause of them wearing it as a badge.

CHRISTGAU: I think they’re oppressed ’cause they’re gay.  

TATE: It’s like, historically what happens is somebody says, That motherfucker’s a faggot, I’m going to kick his ass. It’s not like this person’s going around wearing a placard, but it’s because of the prejudice that exists towards this person’s sexuality. They get oppressed.

CHUCK D: My whole point is like no­body — you know, this is an average thing in the neighborhoods, like, homeboy was just with a girl, right? And usually in the neighborhoods, it’s like, motherfucker’s got to tell a story. Like, all right, that you getting that pussy. I don’t want to hear that. You know, I’m bored with you, let’s talk about something that’s constructive, but you getting that ass, you know what I’m saying? That’s the same thing, it’s like, that’s bullshit talk.

TATE: It’s like if you espouse black nationalist philosophy you’re going to get your ass kicked in this society. But nine times out of 10, if you believe in it, you’re going to put that shit out there, ’cause that’s what you believe.

CHUCK D: That ain’t got nothing to do with my sexuality. Somebody come over and say — suppose my point of view is like this — I’m Chuck D, I ain’t fucking no white bitches. What’s the point of that? I say, Yo, I don’t like white women, black women is what I like. You know what I’m saying? That’s not even a point. That’s not even the issue. A lot of things is be­hind the closet. A lot of things should remain behind the closet, you know what I’m saying? A lot of things should remain behind closed doors. True or false?

CHRISTGAU: Not necessarily, Chuck.

TATE: It’s like, your sex life is probably behind closed doors. But somebody sees you in the street and decides they’re going to kick your ass ’cause —

CHRISTGAU: Or if you’re told you can’t teach elementary school because you’re gay, which happens, that’s bullshit. And gay people have to protect themselves against that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

CHUCK D: This is what I’m saying. A motherfucker goes out, and he’s effemi­nate or whatever, and the mother going to beat him up, that’s a stupid motherfucker. But if that causes people to come out and say, Yeah, fuck it, I’m gay: I’m like say­ing, All right, OK.

TATE: But that’s usually why people do become militant — because somebody’s try­ing to destroy them because of their identity.

CHUCK D: But there’s still some things that — I don’t know — that’s just a personal point of view. I think more gays, you know — their business is their business. That’s my whole thing. Do the job. Why should the sexuality be a fucking post­card? This is who I like fucking, this who I’m in love with. If I came out and said, This is what I like fucking and this is my fucking agenda, I’m not really getting the job done.

CHRISTGAU: I just want to see if l can get a straight answer. Do you think that there’s prejudice against gay people in this society?

CHUCK D: Of course there’s prejudice, but at the same time I understand that a lot of it — I don’t want to say that it’s brought on themselves. I say a lot of it should remain behind closed doors.

CHRISTGAU: All right. Circle again.

CHUCK D: That’s my feeling. Because, if it comes out it really is —

CHRISTGAU: Do you think it’s right to contribute to that prejudice?

CHUCK D: No.

CHRISTGAU: When Flav says Cagney beat up a fag in the New York Post song­ —

CHUCK D: Flavor doesn’t like homos. And a lot of people say, Yo, man, fuck them. Look, you’re asking me, you’re talking to me —

CHRISTGAU: I mean, if we’re all human beings, and all the rest of that nice talk, so are homosexuals, and they ought to be treated like human beings.

CHUCK D: Well, treat them like human beings. I’m saying that’s cool. I mean, I ride a train with one, ride a bus with one. I’ll even do business with one. I do busi­ness with them all the time. I’ve been doing business since I was fucking 12 — in the D&D building — got nothing but ho­mosexuals in it. That was one of my first jobs. My father always said, those are the people, this is what they do. You do what you do, they do what they do and call it a day. My whole thing is — it doesn’t be­come an issue with me. It’s a waste of my fucking time. Talking about homosexual­ity is almost like talking about Jews, you know, it’s a waste of my fucking time. I don’t spend much of my day talking about either.

CHRISTGAU: Or thinking, I’m sure.

CHUCK D: Like, yo, their thing is their thing, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is usually black people. And to anybody whoever might do whatever they want to do, it’s like, Yo, that’s your program, you know what I’m saying? And when people ask me questions about it, sometimes, it gets difficult, because I’m like, you know, I haven’t studied other people’s religions to tell them this and that. You know a lot of times when you talk about Jewish people, I would like to say, I don’t know. Here in America I look at things in black and white, I’m not breaking down nobody’s classification.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720871″ /]

7. HARD AND SOFT

CHRISTGAU: On the new record, there’s an anti-Quiet Storm song [“How To Kill A Radio Consultant”].

CHUCK D: I hate Quiet Storm. My wife loves that shit. I don’t understand it.

TATE: Boy-girl thing.

CHUCK D: All you fucking do is go to sleep to that shit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, no, there’s other things you can do. But that’s behind closed doors, Chuck. Many would say it’s good fucking music.

CHUCK D: I think a beat is better.

CHRISTGAU: But do you think romantic music is like escapist bullshit? Is that how you feel about it?

CHUCK D: To me personally, I think it was better r&b in the ’60s. It ain’t because I’m trying to sound like an old mother­fucker, but I just think that more heart and soul went into the concern over the lyrics and the lyrics led somewhere. The brothers back then and sisters back then sang a tune and the lyrics was kicking, and the music was felt. I mean, you know, today, I mean I love the fuck about of BBD [Bell Biv Devoe] and shit, ’cause it’s something I can relate to, I like Keith Sweat, and I like a lot of new guys. But I can’t go too much past them.

CHRISTGAU: Not even Luther?

CHUCK D: I respect Luther as a skilled artist. Whether he’s my skilled artist? I brought Power of Love to the crib, I have doubts I’ll be cracking it, though. Not my cup of tea.

CHRISTGAU: I know the feeling. But there’s a sense in which PE’s music is very much boys’ music.

CHUCK D: Right.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that those hard beats express everything that you want to be, spiritually? I like hard beats a lot. But I also want to be compassionate, sensitive, as well as angry. PE’s music­ — it’s so militantly unromantic.

CHUCK D: But it romanticizes certain things that we tend to ignore. I mean — I wrote a love song, “98” [“You’re Gonna Get Yours”]. That was my love song, man. It wasn’t that that 98 was all there — ­barely had four wheels. man. But that was my motherfucking shit, you know.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do a song like that about women, about love and women? ‘Cause you don’t do it at all.

CHUCK D: Why should I write that song? I’ll leave that up to Luther.

CHRISTGAU: Because if creating strong young black men is what your central thing is about, and you’re deep into the family, then it seems to be that there’s a place where hard beats stop, spiritually. It can get you so far.

CHUCK D: There’s a place where hard beats stop. And it stops at the end of my record. You want to listen to something that’s mellow, then you want to listen to somebody else. L.L. might give you that song; Bobby Brown might give it to you.

CHRISTGAU: And you hope somebody does.

CHUCK D: Somebody does, anyway. I tell you what I think, though, I just feel like cursing is kind of played. The Geto Boys took it as far as you could take it. When I went down South, the album that I could play that met the medium of everybody in the car — my sister-in-law, and my other sister-in-law, she’s 14, my daughter, my niece, they’re like three and four, my wife — so you know, I was surrounded by Apaches, I can’t be playing Boyz N the Hood soundtrack now. I got my tapes here — can’t play Robin Harris. You know who we ended up playing six times? L.L. Mama Said Knock You Out. It was hard enough for me, nice enough for the wife. It’s like the hardest pop record ever made. I had to give it to him. He made a fucking hard album without cursing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722337″ /]

8. IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU GOT TO UNDERSTAND  

CHRISTGAU: You just toured with the Sisters of Mercy and you’re touring with Anthrax now too? Would you say you’re targeting the white audience, or it’s just what happened?

CHUCK D: It’s just what happened.

CHRISTGAU: You said that the 1990s were a crucial time for black people in this country. At your most optimistic, how would you envision race relations in this country shaking our, say, 25 years from now? At your most optimistic.

CHUCK D: That’s when it’ll start.

CHRISTGAU: What do you mean?

CHUCK D: It’s going to take 25 years of hard work amongst ourselves to even get to that point. For us having an under­standing of ourselves and our community, saying, well, we do well with you or without you. That’s the only time you respect somebody, when they say, I can do with you or without you. We got to get it going on. Usually, we’re just, Help me, can you help me, sympathize with me, ’cause we ain’t got it going on. I mean, be realistic. What we really need white people to do is just support us in our theories — just stay the fuck out of the way for a little while and if you’re going to do anything, just throw money and don’t ask for it back. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but, you know, you’ve got to understand. I’m in the middle of a tornado just as well as Greg. This is a mess that we didn’t start and we’re trying to find our way out of, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: Do you think white people can help at all in this? Do you think that nothing we have to say —

CHUCK D: Throw some money.

CHRISTGAU: No ideas.

CHUCK D: No ideas, money talks.

CHRISTGAU: So you’ve got no interest in reaching white people? It’s just incidental?

CHUCK D: My interest is reaching black people and whites who are good enough to listen and they want to fucking listen, fine.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do them any good that’ll end up doing you good?

CHUCK D: They’ll at least know our side and our perspective. Whether it’s the truth or not —

CHRISTGAU: It’s your perspective. And is that an important part of what you have to achieve here? ‘Cause after all, I mean — in your most optimistic projection, you see that it’ll take 25 years. And that’s assum­ing —

CHUCK D: Minimum.

CHRISTGAU: I understand. That seems realistic to me, at a minimum. But that’s assuming that the white people who still run this country and probably still will, certainly still will —

CHUCK D: Or their sons and daughters.

CHRISTGAU: Or their sons and daughters — will let you do it, won’t get in your way. And of course, they will get in your way, no question about that. The only question is how much.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

CHUCK D: They can only get in one per­son’s way. They can’t get into fucking millions of people’s way. I’m a realist. I’m saying, we don’t get our act together this decade, it’s over. I’m not going to wait for that 25: I’m not going to wait for race relations. What’s going to happen, it’s go­ing to be utter chaos 25 years from now. White people are going to be killed just like black people are getting killed. Sense­less. Without mercy. It’s going to be like — it’s going to run rampant. You’re going to see more white mass murderers, more motherfuckers that qualify to be in asylums on the streets. You’re just going to see more madness. You can’t pile mad­ness on top of madness, then it gets to a height where it gets totally crazy.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there’s any way in which the success or failure of this project depends on what happens economi­cally in this country? I mean is it more likely to happen if some economic exploitation stops that doesn’t just apply to black people, it applies to white people as well? Do you have an economic vision that exists alongside the racial vision?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist, so­ —

CHRISTGAU: You’re not a historian either.

CHUCK D: I’m not a historian and I’m not an expert on racial theory either. I think Dr. Welsing and the other people’ll tell you a lot better than myself about what my feelings … Of course it’s got to get better economically in order for this thing to come about. If it doesn’t get bet­ter economically, we have to figure out what we can do with what we got.

CHRISTGAU: Well, a certain portion of white racism comes out of economic resentment and fear.

CHUCK D: A great portion of it. But after everybody’s economically satisfied who knows what other racism —

CHRISTGAU: Damn right. No question.

CHUCK D: You’ll see shit coming out­ — motherfuckers want to be that way just ’cause, fuck it, I just want to be this way. You know, it’s like with a lawn, right? You can have crabgrass, right? Cutting it ain’t going to do a damn thing — going to just grow back. It’s got a fucking deep root, that motherfucker, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: And how do you do that?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist. I know I’ve given a lot of ideas but you gotta say but this whole interview has just been my ideas. I could be right, I could be wrong.

TATE: I know what you’re getting to in terms of — you’re moving towards the whole idea of some kind of alliance, I guess, between —

CHRISTGAU: Obviously it’s what I think. But I really wasn’t moving towards any­thing — I really wanted to know what he thought.

CHUCK D: Economically between blacks and whites the only alliance that will hap­pen will be black businesses and white businesses. That’s just like I do. I work with anybody, like the Mafia, man. Now, for — I’m not working for no one again. I tell companies right now, I’m in a busi­ness dispute with this particular company that I’m working, and I might say, no exclusivity on this end, I’m giving you exclusivity on this end — none. I know too much about slavery to be a slave again. I don’t care how much money you throw on the table. It’s just like — I’m not working for no one again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

9. P.S.

CHRISTGAU: OK. Enough. As far as I’m concerned. Is there anything else you want to ask?

TATE: Nothing.

CHUCK D: [To Greg.] I want to just apol­ogize for that porch-nigger statement. I was mad. I can take criticism from any­body. But at that time, it was like I couldn’t see just getting criticized while I think I’m trying to do the right job, you know, in a white paper. I can get criti­cized all day long in the Sun, or Amster­dam News, or even on the block. I’m like, all right, I take my licks. But I felt like, damn, at least if I had talked face to face with homeboy, I could have explained it, being that he’s a brother.

CHRISTGAU: Think the Voice is after your ass? Do you still think that?

CHUCK D: No. I break it down to people, just like the Voice. RJ Smith — I don’t like that motherfucker. I just don’t like him. Why? ‘Cause I just feel I don’t like him.

CHRISTGAU: You think he shouldn’t have reported that stuff that Griff said?

CHUCK D: Yeah. But as far — RJ Smith, it’s not so much that, it’s just, damn, we got a chance to get this nigger’s —

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

CHUCK D: It’s a big story for me.

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

TATE: I mean, if he didn’t, listen, some­body else at the paper —

CHRISTGAU: I would’ve. Damn right I would’ve. What Griff said to David Mills was intolerable. Intolerable. And you gotta deal with it.

CHUCK D: I know, I deal with it. That was a situation where, you know, you have a nice guy running the ship, and expects everybody to do their fucking job correctly, no mistakes. And when the shit happens — you know, for different rea­sons, you’re like, damn, can’t a mother­fucker do a job right? And that was that. I’m not going to do that ever again. I’m cutting the motherfucker off and watching the blood drip if they make a mistake. Look man, I built this house for every­body, the least thing you do is live in it and don’t fucking burn it down because you on some old tip, because you ain’t feeling love for a minute. That’s one thing I learned from that shit. Lead the ship and rule with a fucking firm grip. I told Flavor, man — they offered Flavor a St. Ides commercial. I said, Flavor, man, you take that shit, I’ll cut you off publicly so fucking bad.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713650″ /]

CHRISTGAU: What’d Flav say?

CHUCK D: Flav still considered it. Said, ­Come on, you know me. I got a check and balance before any of that shit goes out.

TATE: Speaking of your responsibility, what about the Dee Barnes situation?

CHUCK D: That shit was foul. So I went out there not too long after that and I know Dre’s crew and all, ’cause they worked with us on tour, and I was like, How the fuck can y’all let this happen? They was like, Yo, Chuck, you know, he was drunk. I said, y’all fucking dumb. That shit was foul, man. But my whole thing is like, I won’t get another brother in print, I won’t attack black people in print — unless they come out in the media, or in the same print, and attack me.

CHRISTGAU: All right. There’s one other question. Along with the Dee Barnes thing, seems to me I gotta also ask about the New York Post song and the incident with Flav. Do you think —

CHUCK D: They printed his address. That’s why I was mad. I tried to sue the Post. Tried to sue them. My lawyer told —

­CHRISTGAU: Do you think that the inci­dent itself wasn’t worthy of reporting?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause you don’t know the incident.

CHRISTGAU: Was he brought to jail?

CHUCK D: She kicked his ass. Look, his girl kicked his ass, he smacked her back, right? She didn’t call the police, she called the news station. From Channel 12 out here in Long Island, the Post took it.

CHRISTGAU: That’s your version of what happened with Flav?

CHUCK D: Yo, I wasn’t there.

CHRISTGAU: Flav’s version of what hap­pened with Flav?

CHUCK D: That’s people’s version that was there. He’s not big enough. She was beating his ass, you know what I’m say­ing? I mean, my whole thing is like this­ — there’s bigger and better news to be put­ting on there. Many of us rappers’ posi­tions are being closely watched. And there’s people out there that realize that our words are meaning a lot, no matter who we might be. If I do the slightest thing — that’s why I say, all right, I’m grown and responsible. And adults make mistakes. But when you’re spotlighted — ­especially if you’re black — they’ll take that mistake and they’ll fucking run with it. Just like, you know, a brother was telling me, it was this major-league sports team. This brother was a future perennial all-star, you know. They pinned drugs on him — and he never even took drugs in his life. But they pinned drugs on him so he couldn’t renegotiate his salary. They pinned drugs on him and then he was eventually just run right on out of the league. So it was like, OK, we’re spotlighting you, but the smallest amount of salt in the game will fuck you up. You know? They’re just waiting for Chuck D­ —

CHRISTGAU: I don’t deny that.

CHUCK D: Chuck D arrested for rape with a white woman, Public Enemy’s over with. It’s over with. It’s gone. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black Metropolis: Strangers in Paradise

Of Homeboys, Homelands, and the Island

I guess it made odd sense that my talk with Hank didn’t occur while we walked about the side streets of Freeport (where I live), or Roo­sevelt (where he lives), or Hemp­stead (a focal point for both of our towns), reminiscing about our lives in these places. It occurred inside of his brother Keith’s (a/k/a Wizard K-Jee) new Datsun 200ZX, on the Southern State Parkway jetting east, going to reg­ister for the New Music Seminar. K-Jee had been driving for the last sever­al hours, as both had just gotten back from the Annual Greek Picnic in Phila, and K’s usually Newport-kicked voice was hoarser than a dog. “I was scream­in’,” he admitted. “Screamin’ and getting my dick sucked.” “Man,” Hank added, “I feel like I’ve been living in this car.” While few Manhattan Islanders use cars to get around, life on the L.I. would be close to Twilight Zonian without them. To this day, Long Island keeps its beach­front mystique mostly intact, and the myths of its car culture are numerous. So it seemed strangely correct that denizens of the land away-from-it-all would set up discussion about the away-from-it-all while going away from away-from-it-all back to it-all. Ya dig?

Of Hank Shocklee: He’s a bespectacled brother of intense intensity in his late twenties, long of limb and levity, and like the album he coproduced for Public Ene­my, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, given to subtle wordplay and noisy pontification. I can remember infinite twenty-to-three-­in-the-morning mornings where, along with Chuck D, Mr. Bill, K-Jee, and M.C. Flavor-Flave, he would elaborate on mi­nute points of hip-hop music theory, such as the emotional resonance of bass-line tonalities, or how to tell which bonus beat records the other hip-hop record produc­ers were using. Then, with an easy fade, he’d delve into an “I Looked Inside Your Mother’s Pussy and Saw …” snapping contest with Flavor; two grown men rev­eling in the formal elegance of Black swing-&-slide-side culture. Then, as they continued the discourse, we would leave their rented studio in Hempstead and go to the 7-Eleven in Uniondale, where Hank would bait “Jim,” the East Indian store­keeper, on the prices of his goods, Flavor would continue to be loud, Bill would move silently through the aisles and get exactly what he wanted, and Chuck would slowly and deliberately unroll one dirty, rolled-up, ain’t-never-seen-the-in­side-of-a-Gucci-wallet dollar bill, take out some change, and buy a macaroni-in-a-­can-something-or-other and call it din­ner. Those were indeed the best of times.

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A recent reviewer of P.E.’s album said that the crew “speaks for an embattled black underclass.” This assessment is white liberal myth-math. The fact is that Hank Shocklee, the members of Public Enemy, and I are all products of Long Island’s Black middle class, the brothers and sisters of the two boojie mannequins gracing the cover of the August Ebony, the beneficiaries of super-oxygenated lei­sure time. When I first told my friend that the Voice wanted a look at L.I. life through his eyes, he said, “Great! I’ll take ’em to Wyandanch!”, a middle-class, pre­dominantly Black town in Suffolk Coun­ty. Then, dropping into a gun-in-your­-face crouch, he mouthed, “We’re the ones that escaped from New York!” His jab was aimed at one, the failure of white Long Island to make any social or emo­tional space for the Black side of the family and two, the resulting resonance of the gangster-ethic fantasy, as it creeps into Black suburban life. The so-called gangster response in Black L.I. life is partly an updated version of what whities used to call cowboys-and-Indians, dis ful­fillment, a stylee balance of the need to dominate and the need to pay back. As I told a friend, every one of those hundreds of bullets that killed hundreds of Detroit youths was meant for a white person. As with most middle-class life, there is a dichotomy present here that escapes lib­eral platitudes, rhetoric, or Voice section concepts.

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Speeding (67 m.p.h.) down the Grand Central: “You don’t even really under­stand living in Long Island until you grow up. Living in Long Island is like …” Hank searched for a word.

Paradise,” said K-Jee, his rubbed-raw vocal timbre giving an appropriately dreamy quality to his utterance.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s like a fantasy. You’re talking about moving from Harlem into a place where you have your own house that you can own. That’s like, a monu­mental achievement for a people, espe­cially back in the ’60s. If you moved to Queens, you were considered middle-­class. If you moved to Long Island, they’re thinking that, well, you must be rich. That’s why I had to go back to saying that you don’t really understand Long Island until you grow up, because you’ll find out that you’re not rich, you’re not middle-class, you’re working-class.”

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Along with the reality of new, unfound wealth comes the knowledge that L.I.’s integrationist scheme is also carefully packaged. “You’ll find out later on that there were traps, or … I shouldn’t say ‘traps’ … there were things written or set up for you to move into certain areas of Long Island. They’ll set up low-income housing just so Black people can live in a cluster. And if they can get them in a cluster, and subsidize their living expenses, they can keep them together, in a controlled environment. Black home­lands. That goes on all over Long Island. Massapequa Park, for example, is a square mile, and it’s actually just a hous­ing complex. But it’s called Massapequa Park because it’s low-income; low-income is a nice way of saying that they’re all Blacks. Garden City Park, same thing. These things are subsidized by the rich white communites.

“The integration results in, ‘Yes, Black people can spend their money at the same stores that the white people spend their money at. Black people can have a home just like their white counterparts, and feel like they’ve made advancement.’ But the underlying factor is that the whites are just creating ghettoes all over again. They actually want to keep things separate, or there wouldn’t be a Massape­qua Park. There wouldn’t be a Roosevelt, which is a mile long. Which can easily be called Freeport, or Uniondale, or Bal­dwin. It’s not, because the whites wouldn’t go for that. ‘Um, that’s too close. That means you can attend our schools. That means you can now walk in my town, and I cannot harass you, be­cause you live in the same township.’ If I say, ‘Harold you live in Roosevelt,’ and Roosevelt is on one side of the street, and I see you walking in Baldwin, which is on the other side of the street, I can now harass you. ‘What are you doing in Bal­dwin, when most of your people live in Roosevelt?‘ It’s just another way of segregating. But then again, they’re not going to do it overtly, like they did in the South. They’re not gonna say, ‘Well, yes, Black people can only be such-and-such,’ because Black people will revolt against that.”

Other Blacks who’ve settled in Long Island — after our more incendiary broth­ers and sisters made their points in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem — ­might agree. Mrs. Mildred Clayton is a native of Hawkinsville, Georgia, who moved to the Village of Westbury in 1969. As interpreter for the African-American Museum in Hempstead, she’s a person professionally concerned with Black life on Long Island, especially in terms of the sometimes-strange pieces that make up the puzzle called its history. Like how Freeport got its name (it was a duty free p.o.e. for slaves and other cargo; same thing in Texas, Maine, and the Baha­mas), or what percentage of New York’s supposedly-slave-free population were slaves on 18th-century Long Island (15 per cent, higher than the average for any Southern state during the pre-Revolu­tionary period).

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Like the rest of the Black population in Westbury, Mrs. Clayton lives in a neigh­borhood called New Cassel. “But,” speak­ing of her neighbors, “they always say, ‘Westbury,’ she says, adding a laugh. “Since the ‘white flight,’ if you will, you have a lot of African-Americans living in the village part of Westbury. So the re­maining whites sort of migrated to Old Westbury. I think there may be three African-Americans living in Old West­bury. Like you say, Massapequa, Massa­pequa Park; you have Garden City, and you have Garden City Park. And I do know that the majority of the African­-American population in that town lives in Garden City Park.”

In the morass of racism and living, though, the really unbelievable often pops up, and shows the demarcation between Black and wack to be more than meta­phorical. In April, as part of a series on Long Beach’s increasing gentrification, Newsday ran an article titled, “Putting Blacks Behind ‘The Wall’.” It told of North Park, the oldest Black neighbor­hood in Rick Rubin’s hometown, and through text, diagram, and photographs, gave the old news: how Blacks had been isolated from the rest of Long Beach by zoning policies, traffic guidelines, and a wall. The wall is the back of the block­-long Long Beach Plaza Shopping Center, and it effectively divides Long Beach into two towns: one Black, one the other thing. On the white hand side: the shop­ping center, new storefronts, new resi­dential development. On the Black side: old frame houses. Blacks do not even have direct access to the shopping center from their side. Instead of window dis­plays or store entrances, they see locked metal doors, a wide alley, and garbage bins. And a very white, two-story high, concrete wall.

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“Racism had or has nothing to do with it,” said City Manager Edwin Eaton of the gentrification. “It’s very funny, people tend to forget that when they lived in those rundown buildings it was because the city did not go after them.” Gee, Ed, thanks for letting them stay until you saw a way to make more money out of the space they took up. The problem that he and a lot of white folk have has to do with their second-hand definitions of rac­ism. Racism is not an attitude; racism is not a belief. Racism is numbers. Racism is a result. Racism is what happens. For example, whether or not Mr. Eaton planned to move the sambos and reach out so the gentry could inherit the beach is irrelevant. What has actually hap­pened? The result is racist. Or, digressing only slightly, guys, whether or not Ward ‘n Koch planned for the N.Y.C. Schutz­staffel to kill 250-plus Blacks and Latinos without convicting the cops for murder is not important. Stephen Sullivan gets a good night’s sleep every night; Eleanor Bumpurs just sleeps.

Ironically enough for me, though, the same issue of Newsday reported that a federal jury had found Garden City police not guilty of following a racially discrimi­natory policy in its handling of Blacks, despite the under-oath testimony of Lieutenant Charles Ryan that possession of Black skin would be reason enough to question a person in the area under “certain circumstances.”

Circumstances like walking. Mrs. Clayton told me about what happened to her brothers. Think First Blood: “I have a brother who, in 1977 or ’78, was just walking through the town of Garden City. I guess it was after 11 o’clock — and he just had to go through there, walking to wherever it was he was going. He said a police car came up to him, and they asked him why he was walking through there, and he told them where he was going. So they escorted him out. They gave him a free ride to the edge of Garden City. They gave him a lift. That was the first time. I have another brother who lives in Ohio and, in 1979 or ’80, he came to visit my sister and me. He was coming through Garden City at about two or three in the morning, and they detained him overnight. I had to go pick him up the next morning. They just let him go. No charge, nothing — just that he could go. They didn’t give any explanation as to why they had detained him or what. It did happen.”

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Bizarre as these particular examples of civic courtesy may be, they aren’t new, and if you’re Black, you don’t escape it. Money, it has been said, cannot buy one love, and sometimes the trappings of upward mobility lend themselves to particu­larly sour situation comedies. Bury The Cosby Show. Dr. Jesse Pone Jr., David Dinkins’s former college classmate, has lived on Long Island since 1955, and is presently one of those three African­-Americans living in Old Westbury. “I think we may be up to eight now,” he says. Like his neighbors, but unlike Hank, Mrs. Clayton, or me, he’s part of Long Island’s upper class, albeit the Black one composed of small groupings of determined professionals and the like. Dr. Pone has a big, big house with a swimming pool, with a tennis court, with one of those lawns you break out a John Deere for. He’s got a really long driveway, and owns or has owned a Lincoln, Cadil­lac, and a Rolls-Royce. He has also been stopped in all of them by police. Once, in his spanking-new Caddy, he found him­self at a Carvel, surrounded by three members of the Oceanside Five-O and their wheels. Another time, while driving the Lincoln in what was then his home town of Westbury, he was asked to pull over and produce his license-and-registration. He did, but not before noticing one of the cops had his hand on a gun in an open holster.

“As far as Garden City is concerned, that’s an area that you just don’t travel through,” says Pone. “You avoid. You cir­cumvent, which is a statement of fact. I will go down Franklin Avenue; I will go down Seventh Avenue; I will go down Cathedral Avenue. But in terms of those other streets and stuff, fine! I go through those streets on business days. Otherwise, you will end up getting pulled over, and you don’t know what the disposition of the person’s going to end up being. I think that one of the things that hap­pened to me — and it may sound funny — ­was that even though this guy had me in discomfiture, he was not the ass that so many of the police officers are.”

Which is debatable, because what hap­pened was this: About four or five years ago in Old Westbury, the good doctor got out of his ’69 Firebird and heard this sound: “STOP WHERE YOU ARE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE CAR! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” He started to look around, then heard this sound: “DON’T TURN AROUND! PUT YOU HANDS OF TOP OF THE CAR!” He did, while turning to see from where this voice was coming. What he saw was a police car with Nassau County insignia, a policeman standing in a no-miss crouch, and the working end of a .38.

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“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” he repeated.

The doctor replied as calmly as was possible under the circumstances: “I pay the mortgage here.”

No joke. They were 150 feet into his driveway.

“Well, show me some identification.”

“Then,” said the doctor, “I did the Richard Pryor thing: ‘I Don’t Have It In My Pocket. It’s In The Glove Compartment Of My Car. Will You Kindly Take A Look To Make Sure That You Don’t See Anything That You Can Mistake As Be­ing A Shining Object, Or As Me Reaching For Something.’ We went through that dance.”

Eventually, the question was popped: “Why did you stop me?”

“Well, I saw you coming through West­bury and you were taking some shortcuts driving all through the neighborhood and things there and I didn’t know what you were in the process of doing or where you were going and you just looked suspicious and I just followed the car and when you pulled in here I had to know what you were doing here. We’re having so much trouble in the neighborhod, and I just couldn’t identify you as coming into this particular situation here. [Of course, Pone did not recall hearing of any distur­bances, and at the time, he had been living at that address for about a decade.] Anyway, probably, this won’t happen again.” And he left.

“I came on in the house and I said, ‘Well, fine, at least maybe he was protect­ing my property in term’s of who’s suspi­cious and stuff by coming around here,’ and I thought I was fairly cool, until I woke up about three o’clock in the morn­ing in a cold sweat.”

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“When they ask me why did I move to Old Westbury,” Pone adds, “I say, ‘Because I couldn’t afford Muttontown or Upper Brookville.’ O.K.? Now, if I’d had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have bought this house. But I’d have bought one of those up the way there.

“I want to make one thing clear: that even though I had that unfortunate incident, and that there have been others, by and large, the overwhelming amount of my experience has been positive. If a person can afford not to live in traditionally Black areas, there is no reason why they should not purchase a home and live wherever they choose to. Anybody that’s able to move and to buy are entitled to anything that they wish, and they should do it, ’cause they need to show them that we will. We need to do that.

“Roosevelt is one square mile, but it has two of the nicest parks in Long Is­land, Roosevelt and Centennial Park,” Hank said to me on the phone. “Why?” It’s a few days after our first conversa­tion, on one of those Freeport nights that I’ve learned to love — slightly misty, cool, dark, a wind blowing up from the ocean. “I mean, have you ever been to parks in Nassau County? Roosevelt has the nicest parks in Nassau County. Very beautiful! Spacious! Lots of basketball courts!” An edge crept into his voice. “What are they trying to say? You go into East Meadow, you’ll find Eisenhower Park. You go into Levittown, you won’t even find a park. You’ll find a lot of schools, though. You go into Huntington, you’ll find a lot of schools. What are they saying? Are they saying they want our education to be in the parks? That they want us to play ball? That they want to keep us pacified, happy? It goes back to the white ‘Knee­-grow’ joke — If you wanna stop five Black guys from raping a white girl, throw ’em a basketball.”

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Hank’s leaving for California the next day. Up to that point, we’d been talking about P.E. and the refraction of suburban angst, WLIR’s chicken white-man musi­cal parochialism, and Metro 700 (its un­official farm club, and just as stink). Mostly, though, we’re going over the time about three years ago that the posse (he, Bill, Chuck, I) and others were standing outside of White Castle’s in West Hemp­stead, and a cop from nearby Warden City came by and asked for some I.D.

“Why did that cop come over to us that night?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. We were too close to West Hempstead.”

“At White Castle’s? There are always a lot of Black people there.”

“Yeah, but we were outside for a while, it was a lot of us together, and anytime there’s a lot of Black people together at one o’clock in the morning, they wanna find out why.”

“Black people not going anywhere, but just standing?”

“Right. White people can do it all day long, and a cop’ll ride by and say, ‘How ya doin’,’ and ‘Everything’s O.K.,’ and ‘Ev­erything’s cool,’ but when Black people get together, they must be trying to incite a riot. Cops are community servants in white communities, and in Black commu­nities they’re like deterrents. Crowd control.”

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“How did that make you feel that night, when that occurred?”

“I felt … I dunno … I felt … I felt like they wanted me to feel. Like tearin’ up shit. So they can have a reason to say, ‘See. Can’t let ’em get together.’ ” Again, Hank’s voice became just a touch more agitated. “I was very pissed off. ‘Cause, here we are, everybody’s college-educated, and they’re treatin’ us like we had rec­ords. Like we bad a history of starting trouble. And like I said, these people are probably not ‘racist,’ but in order for us to prove that we’re not the stereotype that they think we are, we gotta prove to them five times that we’re not. When we deal with a white person, we gotta deal with the fact that we gotta prove some­thing to them. We always gotta show them that we are not what they think we are.”

“There are some Black people who’d say, ‘I’m not interested in proving any­thing to a white person.’ Are you com­fortable ‘proving,’ or what’s your attitude in general?”

“Well, my attitude is, I play them how they play themselves in a particular situ­ation. I don’t deal with white people on a whole; I deal with a situation. I know that the stereotype is always there. I’m not here to prove them wrong or anything. I’m just there for them to respect me and what I do. I don’t want them to like me, or anything. I just want them to respect me.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

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

Politically Incorrect: Guns N’ Roses and Public Enemy Sound Off

Busted Axl

Forty-eight hours in the feeding-cycle of New York City. There were Uzis, Public Enemy re­grouping, and a clique of blond babes orbiting Axl Rose at the Cat Club. All of this connects. How was your week?

Start the clock August 8, last Tuesday, when Public Enemy’s vox pop Chuck D faxed all over town the word that PE was back together. The rap group disbanded late June in the wake of an anti-Semitic interview Min­ister of Information Professor Griff gave to The Wash­ington Times (portions of which were reprinted here, fanning the fire). That’s when Chuck D began saying Griff had “sabotaged” the group’s values, and kicked Griff out. Next day, he said Public Enemy was folding up. Last week Chuck announced that Griff apologized to him, if not to the rest of the world. PE is now ready for a comeback album, and, according to the press release, a new title for Griff: “Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations,” who “will not be available for interviews.” Griff will work in the black community, says Chuck, particularly with youth programs. This is like a white­-collar criminal evading hard time. Who would you rather have teaching the kids, Ollie “1200-hours-of-community service” North or Professor “Why do you think they call it Jew-elry” Griff?

Some will now think PE never planned on cutting Griff out for good, that the breakup was a fake (they were performing even after they “split”), that everything was a face-saving half-step. I don’t think so. Chuck D’s running around in circles, saying things his actions contradict a day later, then saying something the next day that nobody expected. Contrary to D’s say-so, Griff has been answering questions at least as recently as August 3. (“What I said was 100 per cent pure,” he told the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. No impurities for Griff.) And fellow group members Flavor-Flav and DJ Terminator X are working on the convenient escape route, the solo project. Steady Public Enemy are not. Griff can always phone Armond White at The City Sun if he wants to talk.

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At the end of Chuck D’s statement, he says, “Please direct any further questions to Axl Rose.” That’s be­cause by any standard, the Guns n’ Roses singer and stereo-destroyer gave an interview to Rolling Stone (Au­gust 10) that should have set off something like the Griff aftershock. GNR’s minister of information has a way with words, like those on the song “One in a Million”: “Police and niggers, that’s right/Get outta my way/ Don’t need to buy none/Of your gold chains today,” and “Immigrants and faggots/They make no sense to me/They come to our country/And think they’ll do as they please/Like start some mini-Iran or spread some fuckin’ disease.”

He uses nigger, he told Stone interviewer Del James, because blacks have been known to use the word, so why can’t he? “I don’t like boundaries of any kind.” (Wonder what GNR guitarist Slash, the child of an interracial marriage, thinks about that.) Axl justifies the immigrant line because people from “Iran, Pakistan, China and Japan” give him bad service at store counters. I’m not kidding. He says he was once chased out of a 7 -Eleven by an Iranian, and so he’s got a right to sing the National Front blues.

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As for faggots, Rose says, he’s not antigay. “I’m pro­heterosexual. I can’t get enough of women, and I don’t see the same thing that other men can see in men. I’m not into gay or bisexual experiences. But that’s hypo­critical of me, because I’d rather see two women together than just about anything else. That happens to be my personal, favorite thing.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says about homosexuality. “Antihomosexual? I’m not against them doing what they want to do as long as it’s not hurting anybody else and they’re not forcing it upon me. I don’t need them in my face or, pardon the pun, up my ass about it.”

This platinum punster’s remarks, one should think, would have ignited some response from a press (includ­ing Rolling Stone) willing to cover Professor Griff’s outburst. Rose’s status as a star and Rolling Stone’s status as a well-circulated starfucker mean the interview reached scads more people than Griff ever did. There have been no outbursts, no statements of explanation, and very little coverage.

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Edgy observers from Public Enemy’s label, CBS, and MCA, with whom Chuck’s negotiating, attended the June 21 press conference where Chuck kicked Griff out. A CBS spokesman said PE “made the right decision” in ousting Griff, and Newsday had MCA muckamucks troubled by Griff’s remarks and PE’s connections to Louis Farrakhan. But Guns n’ Roses’ label, Geffen Records, still loves its white supremacist. I called the company hoping to talk with Axl, saying I wanted to ask him about the Stone interview. “We’ve gotten a whole bunch of requests about this, and management is saying no to all interviews,” said Geffen’s Bryn Bridenthal. She said Geffen felt no need to issue a statement about Rose’s rap. “I wouldn’t have anything else to add in addition to it. I don’t think there’s anything left unspoken,” she explained. Axl stupid question, get an Axl answer.

Please direct any further questions to Axl Rose.

August 10, two days after Chuck D said that, Dave Herndon, the Voice’s former managing editor (currently an editor at Newsday), bumped into Axl at the Cat Club. Identifying himself as a journalist, Herndon asked if there’d been any fallout from the interview. Naw, Rose said. But it had been, he divulged, quite a struggle getting the interview in the magazine. Rose said he’d bargained for months with Rolling Stone, refusing interviews unless he got the cover, unless his “best friend” and RIP Magazine editor Del James got to do the interview, and unless another pal, Robert John, got to take the photos. While it appears that Rolling Stone fellated Rose on all counts, a spokesperson denied cav­ing in to his demands, saying access determined their decision. Here’s a magazine, which reported Public Ene­my’s comments as news, running an interview packed with racism/homophobia/immigrant-bashing. Nope, no news story here, just wisdom from a superstar.

Stone’s silence illustrates what kinds of hate are widely acceptable right now — racism and homophobia and immigrant-bashing, though not anti-Semitism. More­over, if you’re white and sell enough records, they’ll overlook anything. Long as they get a slice. Geffen’s Bridenthal wanted me to know “how hard [Rose] worked on that interview.” Maybe Rolling Stone should have given him a byline.

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In the time between Rose’s scene at the Cat Club and Chuck D’s press release, Mordechai Levy got hyped. He’s the head of the Jewish Defense Organization, a group for whom maybe one follower put it, in Newsday, for all the rest: “This is Judaism, not that humanitarian crap.” Levy was arrested after firing wildly onto a Greenwich Village street. The man who said of Public Enemy, “We’re gonna bring these people to their knees,” managed only to bring 69-year-old, air conditioner re­pairman Dominick Spinelli to his knees, by firing bullets into Spinelli’s van, one lodging in his left leg. Levy was shooting wildly from the rooftop of his building on Bleecker Street, firing at two visitors who had come, he has said, to kill him. He missed, hitting Spinelli, parked nearby. When police arrested Levy last Thursday after­noon, they found a Ruger mini-14, and in his apartment and car, an impressive cache (an Uzi, AR-15 assault rifle, .22 rifles, and pump-action riot shotguns, tear gas, etc.).

Levy has mounted a war against Public Enemy since June. He claims to have organized record store boycotts, has leafletted against the group, put scary-sounding anti-PE messages on his phone machine, and paid at least one visit to their management offices.

There’s a Biblical injunction to the effect that you need not worry about staying close to your friends, but better cling to your enemies — they are your enemies, after all. Levy stayed close to his. An underhand grenade toss from his home is the office of Rush Productions, Public Enemy’s management. The rap group’s private publicist, Layla Turkkan, said, “Maybe I’m listening to too much PE, but it’s the most extraordinary coinci­dence that he should live there, like, three doors down.”

Levy, it turns out, has resided there longer than PE has been around. But go tell that to anybody from Rush and see if they look any more relaxed. Maybe Levy’ll run into Public Enemy next time they play a free concert at Rikers. Rolling Stone can send Axl Rose to cover it.

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

1991 Pazz & Jop: Reality Used to Be a Friend of Ours

An unprecedented 300 voters made the 18th or 19th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll the most colossal ever. So even though Nirvana’s Nevermind finished one shy of an almost unprecedented 1700 points, Seattle’s reluctant teen spirits, whose 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach was actually plucked from the Amerindie swamp by three Pazz & Jop respondents (Jem Aswad, Pat Blashill, and Jim Maylo, we salute you), aren’t anything like the biggest winner in poll history. Proportionally, many albums — from London Calling and Born in the U.S.A. to Sign “O” the Times and, hell, Never Mind the Bollocks — have excited more sweeping support. But that was earlier in the never-ending story of rock fragmentation. Since 1984, only Sign “O” the Times has posted heftier numbers. Only in 1983, the year of Thriller, “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It,” has any artist scored an album-single-video hat trick. And nobody but nobody has ever won by a wider margin — although runners-up rarely amass less than 70 per cent of a winner’s points, Public Enemy got 54 per cent. Nor does the timing of Nirvana’s late-year surge explain the size of the victory. Come on — this is a classic critics’ band. As a modest pop surprise they might have scored a modest victory, like De La Soul in 1990. Instead their multiplatinum takeover constituted the first full-scale public validation of the Amerindie values — the noise, the toons, the ’tude — the radder half of the electorate came up on. Poof, they’re a landslide.

In early September, Nirvana entered my major/indie-neutral world — where David Geffen’s DGC label has more credibility than RCA or Relativity, as much as Virgin or SST, and less than Sire or Shanachie — as the latest scruffy rumor. Where a single play serves to peg most well-buzzed postindie bands as interesting, spotty, generic, or worse, Nevermind stood out from the first sarcastically magnificent bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Strong throughout, I reported. But I didn’t hear a distinct sound — just distinct songs/hooks/riffs, which the way “alternative” aesthetics go is aces in a band loud enough to rouse the pissed and vex the complacent. Just like a million teenagers, I listened compulsively only after Nirvana sandbagged the Sisyphean Michael Jackson as the hit of a dicey Christmas and then overwhelmed our poll — at which point what I’d taken for Amerindie pop-by-accident emerged as an inspired, if accidental, synthesis.

In varying sonic and philosophic proportions, Nirvana recalls an honor roll of bands who’ve rooled our charts while barely grazing Billboard’s: Flipper, the Pixies, their fans and labelmates Sonic Youth, and especially those standard-bearers of the eternally unmarketable “Minneapolis sound,” Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Hundreds of scruffy rumors — Dinosaur Jr. (whose confused major-label debut finished 37th after two near-misses on SST), Volcano Suns, the Fluid, Soul Asylum, Superchunk, Mudhoney, Run Westy Run, Das Damen, and onward to China — have put out thousands of albums that don’t come within ass-sniffing distance of this one. But like the Beastie Boys, whose rap slapstick made them the Nirvana of an earlier pop moment, all the above-named Pazz & Jop heroes have topped Nevermind by at least a hair: with Album: Generic Flipper and Bossanova (most would say Doolittle) and Sister and Daydream Nation and New Day Rising and Candy Apple Grey and Let It Be and Licensed To Ill.

You’ll note that except for Licensed To Ill, which may outsell Nevermind yet (the septuple platinum bandied about is “projected,” as bizzers say), the sole nonindie releases in this list are Candy Apple Grey, Hüsker Dü’s fifth (and next-to-last) album, and the most recent, Bossanova. Not that any of them would have gone ballistic on a major (though I wished we’d watched Let It Be try). But Nirvana reflects an adjustment in the way the majors exploit their indie farm teams — instead of waiting until some kid hits 70 home runs, the bosses are trying to snag the comers on the way up. As Chief Operating Poobah Joe Levy pointed out to me shortly after the results were in, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth were already world-weary by the time they seized the main chance. Nirvana aren’t — not if you allow for their anomie addiction — and Nevermind is where they shot their wad. Geffen picked them just as they were getting ripe, and you can bet their next album, assuming it materializes, won’t jam as hard as this one. Like the Beasties in 1986, they’re still kids, which helps kids relate to them — and also appeals to grownup critics, whose yearning for the authentic often overwhelms even their weakness for the specific.

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Artistically, what distinguishes all this historic Amerindie vinyl is artiness first of all: Flipper’s art-damaged minimalism, the Pixies’ art-school surrealism, the Beasties’ downtown street cred, Sonic Youth’s downtown tunings, Hüsker Dü’s virtuosic barrage, Paul Westerberg’s songs and sound and sense and unsense. But I prefer to say that what distinguishes them is their distinctiveness: the stylistic particularity aesthetes savor so. Nirvana’s breakthrough achieves a generalization level that in a perverse way reminds me of such transrepellent new rich as Nelson and Michael Bolton. In terms of its own tradition, this is a band without qualities. So are many scruffy rumors, of course — without the hook riffs, or Kurt Cobain’s power yowl, or the motorvation of their ultimate drummer, Dan Grohl. And it’s worth noting that many older pop folk — the radio programmers who blackballed “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for instance — find Nirvana’s tradition as offensive per se as good bohemians find Nelson’s glamourpuss homilies. I love our heroes’ noise and toons and ’tude. But from their incomprehensible lyrics — and before you blame the mall rats for not paying attention, try and make out a third of them yourself — to their covertly eclectic three-chord punk/pop/metal, their only signature is Kurt’s voiceprint. Thank God he’s got more soul than Michael Bolton.

The Nirvana phenomenon is Amerindie’s pop culmination, dwarfing such overreported critical-commercial convergences as Faith No More’s asshole-rock or Soundgarden’s Zep worship, which was supposed to turn Seattle into rock ’n’ roll heaven two-three years ago and instead finished 41st and 42nd in our poll on two A&M releases that have yet to go that high in Billboard. Nor is there all that much parallel with perennial poll faves R.E.M., who have now sold three million copies of the third-ranked Out of Time after building their audience the old-fashioned way — gradually. Critics and clubrats may view Nevermind as an Amerindie success story, sellout, or whatever. But as far as bizzers and buyers are concerned, it’s simply the hype of the season, another Dangerous or Lose Your Illusion or Niggaz4life or Unforgettable or To the Extreme rather than another Out of Time — or Let It Be. Sometimes these hypes are meticulously orchestrated, like Michael J.’s (which finished a hype-deafened 52nd while ranking in singles and videos) or Axl R.’s (11th and 20th). But sometimes they take the wise guys by surprise. Sure Elektra and SBK had fond hopes for Natalie Cole (tied for 96th) and Vanilla Ice (a 1990 release, how could you ask), but nobody figured they’d pay out on such a scale. Except with a presold superstar and not always then, bizzers never figure that. They just tell themselves something will turn up.

So though I’ve barely scratched the surface of Nirvana’s music, and remain fascinated by what their success says or doesn’t say about adolescent alienation, sheeplike spectatorism, etc., my deepest insight into the band came from the Times business reporter who — after revealing that Nevermind had been, wink wink, promoted — added an odd little fact: “DGC initially risked only about $550,000 on the group.” A keen aperçu, slyly voiced. The “only” kills me every time, and that mischievous “initially” adds ambiguity — are DGC’s followup investments literally “risk”-y, or is “risk” just capitalist jargon for “spend”? Taking those septuple-platinum projections without salt, DGC will bring in $50 million on its first Nirvana album, a tidy 9000 per cent return. And they say there’s no magic left in the music business!

I cite these absurd numbers not to illustrate bohemia’s continuing market function, or to pump/prick Nirvana’s honor, significance, or aesthetic achievement, but as a poem about hype. Weird as it is to imagine an “alternative” band grossing 50 mill, which would keep 500 scruffy rumors in food and drugs for a year, it’s weirder still to conceive $550,000 as “only.” For something like three years, after all, this nation and this planet have suffered through what is called a “recession.” A scarier word might seem appropriate by now, but no, another Times business reporter predicts the long-promised upturn by summer, and since there’ll be some dismal presidential campaign on by then, he could be right. Whether it will last is another question. Americans are coping with the devastations of a decade in which the rich stole $500 billion — that’s 1000 Neverminds, rock and rollers — from ordinary citizens in FDIC guarantees and bullshit loans alone, in which Pentagon greedheads cruelly inflated the national debt and then destroyed their new death machines in a cruel, entertaining war. One consequence of this massive flimflam is the inexorable shrinkage of ordinary citizens’ leisure time and/or discretionary dollars. So far the music business seems to have survived this structural threat, unless you happen to be a laid-off worker or dropped act. But the future doesn’t look bright — and I’m speaking as someone whose capacity for optimism in this space has amused bohos and Marxists for years.

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None of the warning signs is conclusive, and some are so obvious they bore know-it-alls who should know better. There’s consumer resistance to exorbitant CD prices, which has lately inspired much ban-home-taping-style blather about controlling the brazen traffic in used product. (Recycle, recycle, it ain’t illegal yet.) There’s the inevitable exhaustion of the catalogues from which labels now reap so much surplus value. (The boxed-set scam has gotten so out of hand that in 1991 our 10 reissue titles, which comprised 24 CDs the year before, were up to 50, partly because we decided not to penalize Rhino for making the 15 volumes of its late-soul collection available separately when you have to buy all nine Stax-Volts at once. This can’t go on.) There’s the increasing dependence on intellectual property rights — sponsorships, advertising jingles, atmospheric snatches in movies and TV shows, rationalized and hence oversimplified sampling, SST crushed by Island for taking U2’s name in vain. (The thought police have yet to recall my Negativland CD, which as proof against court orders I’m home-taping like crazy.) There’s the death of Rough Trade; the fiscal ills not just of SST but of Enigma, Twin/Tone, and — until its recent windfall — Sub Pop; and Tower’s purchase of its own indie distributor, which at best will cost the others a major account. (How autonomous are little labels when they can’t survive without giant retailers? Youth — or at least K Records — wants to know.)

But though none of this is good, all of it is bizness as usual — the short-sighted ineptitude and dumb cupidity rock and roll has been surviving for years. What’s really got me down is stuff that looks suspiciously like ’80s-a-go-go five years late, after sensible capitalists have moved on to subtler crimes against the polity. Corporate takeovers, for instance — the purchase of behemoths like Columbia or MCA or major indies like Island or Geffen at prices that guarantee crippling profit demands and/or debt service. Often as a corollary — Richard Branson is said to have overbid on the Stones and Janet J. primarily to increase Virgin’s market value — mammoth advances to cynosures and dinosaurs have become the rule, and just as you’ll soon pay ticket prices you can’t afford at Yankee Stadium so you can watch Danny Tartabull on television (if you get cable), you’ll soon pay for Tommy Mottola’s faith in his Mariah by forking over more extra bucks for CDs that cost the companies the same as cassettes (if they still make them). This in turn assures endless hypes of the season, inordinate future spending (by which I mean risking) on the promotion not just of Aerosmith and Madonna, not just of Prince and Bruce and U2 and the like, but of, who knows, Phil Collins, Elton John, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat, Depeche Mode, Poison, Mannheim Steamroller — anybody whose smart manager can convert a track record into visions of sugarplums. Which in turn assures parsimonious investments in guess what. That’s right — music.

Just as my optimism amuses my dour contemporaries, I’m always amused by the optimism of the young seekers who dismiss all cavils about clubland’s scruffy rumors with the same rhetorical question: “Where’s the new music supposed to come from, then?” The assumption being not just that new music is the special province of young, English-speaking white people with funny hairdos, but that new music is a fact of nature, as ineluctable as the tides. To me the ozone layer seems a richer analogy. It’s the old substructure/superstructure metaphor — the music (superstructure) can affect the cultural economy/ecology (substructure), but is finally dependent on it. When money shifts or dries up, when leisure is imperiled, the music will probably change, though not in a precisely or predictably corresponding way. It may even dry up itself — all bets are off. So while I never boast about my crystal ball, I have less confidence than usual in poll-based prognostications. I see more blips than trends, and even the trends seem subject to forces beyond the control of such evanescent variables as critical judgment and public taste.

The most striking oddities of this year’s Pazz & Jop are the poor showing of female artists, by which I mean solo lead voices, and the apparent resurgence of indie labels, by which I mean nondance outfits without major-label distribution or established pop outreach. There were three women on the album chart (Bonnie Raitt was high at 24, with younger postfolkies Sam Phillips and Kirsty MacColl below) and a pitiful two on the singles list, down from six and 11. The five indie albums in the top 40 (including the first import ever to make the top 10, The Curse of the Mekons) are the most since Amerindie’s salad days (six in ’85 and ’86), and the three indie-rock singles in our top 25 the most since “O Superman!,” “Homosapien,” and “Ceremony” in 1981 and the first time even one has placed since Ciccone Youth’s “Into the Groovy” in 1986. Also notable were the falloff in the dance music that bumrushed 11 singles onto our chart in 1990 (of this year’s six dance-pop smashes, only one, Crystal Waters’s “Gypsy Woman,” broke out of the clubs), the ever-increasing congruences between the video and single charts, and the highest-ranking metal album ever. Unlike Chuck Eddy, whose Stairway to Hell provoked much cranky critcrit approbation by ranking Jimmy Castor and Teena Marie in a top 10 for the metal ages, I don’t think the Sex Pistols or Hüsker Dü count. Metallica definitely do.

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Rock and roll has proven a recalcitrantly male chauvinist genre (see the comments section headed “Lose Your Illusion I”), and no woman has topped this poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. Women’s showings haven’t just varied, they’ve fluctuated wildly, and not with the moon (or the economy: never bought the saw that in times of trouble we gravitate to women singers because we miss our mamas). In 1988, in 1989, and again in 1990, women put six or seven records in the top 40 and one or two in the top 10. Before you mourn thwarted progress and free-associate to sex criminals with expensive lawyers, however, note that way back in 1981 there were nine in the top 40 and way back in 1984 there were six in the top 20 — and then tally up the two intervening years, when a miserable six combined made the top 40 and zero the top 20. As some jerk is forever pointing out, years are arbitrary divisions. I like to think women will eventually get more respect in pop music. But the background presence of female instrumentalists in such bands as My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, 47th-place Eleventh Dream Day, EP-charting Blake Babies, and singles-charting Unrest may not be as epochal as Ann Powers hopes (remember Sara Lee? how ’bout Tina Weymouth? Susie Honeyman?), and Scrawl and Babes in Toyland, the two all-woman bands on our blipping EP chart, promise considerably less than the Slits and the Raincoats. It’ll get better for sure. How much, how permanently, and how fast we can’t tell.

The indie surge is more significant, though not the way partisans hope. Only one of the albums is by a newish or youngish artist — with their fifth release, American Music Club follows in the path of somewhat fresher Amerindie picks-to-click Yo La Tengo in 1990 and Galaxie 500 in 1989. The others — the Mekons, John Prine, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and ex-Blaster Dave Alvin — have sold their souls to the majors and lived to say goodbye, and only the oldest, 1971 new-Dylan pick-to-click Prine, is a Pazz & Jop rookie. Except for the Mekons, these artists record for (and in Prine’s case comprise) labels modeled on the folk-oriented pre-Amerindie Amerindies Rounder and Alligator, geared to discerning adults rather than the disaffected young. Their capitalism is quietly marginal, rather unlike the rhetorical rebellion of new wave entrepreneurs who’ve been signing distribution deals since Slash joined Warners. In a year when six of the eight Pazz & Jop newcomers in our top 15 — Sonny Sharrock, My Bloody Valentine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ice-T, Matthew Sweet, and last but most Nirvana — didn’t do it with debuts (Chris Whitley and P.M. Dawn were the rookies), the indies’ farm-system function is self-evident. Here’s hoping SST, or Alias, or at least Rhino turns into the HighTone or Shanachie of aging “alternative” rockers.

On the single and of course EP charts, we have more traditional indie action, in EPs because the majors don’t mess with them, in singles because…well, we’ll see. Primed just slightly by Joe Levy’s habit of taping 45-rpm discoveries for critic friends (he voted for Nirvana’s “Sliver” last year), vinyl revanchism is part of the story — where in this era a single’s place is in the air rather than on your shelves, the tiny, stubborn seven-inch movement typified by Unrest’s/K Records’s fuck-crazy “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl” is nothing less than rhetorically rebellious commodity fetishism, and possibly something more. Together with Negativland, which has followed John Prine into DIYland after a sad dispute with SST over who pays for their now-banned single’s supposed copyright infringements, and Pavement, whose forthcoming Matador debut is a certain Amerindie pick-to-click for 1992 (the demo tape finished 56th), it wants to promise that there will always be enough money and/or passion around to assure some sort of hearing to the portion of unmarketable music that manages to survive its gauntlet of cliquish subjectivity.

Because dancers are pop’s proudest trendhoppers, this was a transitional year for them. The house/rap/pop syntheses of 1990 were already pure pop by 1991 — even the mixmaster-conceived C + C Music Factory broke on the radio, while industrial, techno, rave, and dancehall rocked the discos, which will certainly launch new crossovers in 1992. The video/single overlap (only Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” didn’t also chart as a single after five videos scored on their own last year) says less about videos than about singles — and CHR, which no longer programs as hip a pop mix as MTV. As for metal, that’s generational, and there’ll be more. Even critics who aren’t full-fledged fans, as many are, harbor vestigial hankerings for the stuff if they grew up on ’70s AOR. And though maybe us graybeards should educate ourselves, I think it’s like Balkan girl groups — internationalist/cross-generational imperative or no, I’d be a doofus to try and like everything. I still believe a fondness for metal is cousin to a fondness for the symphony, a relationship that honors neither, and enjoy it mostly as “hard rock,” which wasn’t always a metal-aligned category. Thus I prefer the kneejerk sexism of GN’R I to the asshole existentialism of GN’R II and took James Hetfield out of his misery inside of five plays — not only was life too short, I could feel it getting shorter with every song. I should also mention that I haven’t finished Stairway to Hell after eight months of effort — my choice for most overlooked rockbook of the year is Donna Gaines’s burnout ethnography Teenage Wasteland.

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Another generalization worth drawing is that for all the brouhaha over Ice Cube (whose points-to-voters ratio makes him a shoo-in for cult artist of the year), rap is now clearly a fixture in the rockcrit mix. Let the old farts who never vote for anybody who isn’t an elder or a respecter of same retire, and stop the young farts who never vote for anybody outside their bubble from going pro. But note that of the 127 respondents who didn’t name a single rap album, including many genuine specialists (folk/worldbeat/dance/metal/whatever aficionados) and more than a few early rap fans, 43 listed a rap single (and of the 17 who named only P.M. Dawn, 10 listed somebody else’s rap single). My own view of the new punk is that nice guys finished last this year. Daisy-age from A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the boombastic Dream Warriors, and especially Queen Latifah (three mentions) lacked the conviction of what I’ll call hybrid hard: Ice-T, Cypress Hill, Naughty by Nature and Yo-Yo (tied for 54th), and the felonious Slick Rick (whose album is strange, and not in any way you’d expect). The voters, however, picked a little of this and a little of that; tag the small tolerance for Five Percenters signaled by Brand Nubian’s 67th place and Poor Righteous Teachers’ one mention as the only ideological trend, and praise Allah that 79th-ranked N.W.A proved a fad.

The rest of the poll is self-explanatory with a helping of deja vu — Seal is Terence Trent D’Arby only not as good, Massive Attack is Soul II Soul only not as good, Rumour and Sigh is Amnesia only not as good, The Bootleg Series is Biograph combined with The Basement Tapes only nowhere near as good, Storyville is Robbie Robertson only worse, Van Morrison is eternal. Sonny Sharrock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and John Prine and Ice-T got their belated props. Matthew Sweet’s guitarists staged a triumphant return. The Pixies, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, A Tribe Called Quest, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, and Marshall Crenshaw made records marginally more or less worthy than their last charting effort. Chris Whitley was a trad wet dream. Unlikely rap groups and British posers came up with singles they think they can top and we don’t. De La Soul didn’t fall off the chart; Prince almost fell off the chart; Elvis C. did fall off the chart; Sting and J. C. Mellencamp fell off the edge of the earth. (That would be 88th and 99th, respectively; 41-50 went Graham Fucking Parker, Soundgarden, Son of Bazerk, Costello, Pooh Sticks, Robert Ward, Eleventh Dream Day, Julian Cope, Aaron Neville, La’s.)

As always, the critics supported high craft, from the be-here-now syntheses of Nirvana and Public Enemy and R.E.M. to such retronuevo variations as Phillips’s jazz-tinged electrofolk and Alvin’s blues-rock electrofolk and MacColl’s new wave electrofolk. But neither PE nor R.E.M. — nor such striking but less than unprecedented rookies as Sweet and Sharrock — inspired comments worth sharing. In fact, the only also-rans whose music seemed new enough to cry out for description and explanation were fifth-place P.M. Dawn and 14th-place My Bloody Valentine, and significantly, both were far from any kind of hard, including hard rock along the GN’R/Nirvana model. P.M. Dawn loves rap the way the original rappers loved disco — as sonic source and kinetic playground. They’re from rap but not of it, intertwined with the feminine principle even though they mean to escape a reality they conceive as “she,” and rappers may never forgive them for it. On both Loveless and the underpublicized, tied-for-seventh Tremolo EP, My Bloody Valentine brings downtown minimalism and its schlocky new age offspring to rock if not rock and roll. Simultaneously ambient and abrasive, its oceanic discord is mysticism that computes in a stressed-to-the-max world. Although others found more compatible spiritual havens in U2, Chris Whitley, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to me even Gilmore seemed corny by comparison.

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In short, the most suggestive musicians of the year were escapist and proud — with some reason, they hate the reality that used to be a friend of theirs, and they’re coping with a visionary audacity that signifies. Personally, I think Nevermind is more fun and possibly more realistic than Loveless if not Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross, and when art is no fun anymore I’m getting out. But the dubious equation of loud/fast/smart with tough-minded activism/realism — a casual (and ultimately insupportable) assumption that shores up a lot of Amerindie’s (and my) musical pleasure — is absurd on the face of it in this year of dazed here-we-are-now-entertain-us. With all respect to PE and LKJ, the political voices on our chart have shrunk in both number and spirit. Beyond a few protests, part-of-the-problem Ice Cube and searching-for-a-solution Ice-T, red diaper baby Kirsty MacColl and red flag waver Billy Bragg, fucked-up Mekons and God-fearing Sam Phillips all carom from rage to confusion to defeat to utter hopelessness. Almost like, of all people, Nirvana. Talk about no future.

Really, who out there believes our reluctant teen spirits have the stuff to survive not underground obscurity — there are models for that — but hype-of-the-season megasuccess? More honest than that poor schmuck Vanilla Ice, which should count for something, but less ambitious, which counts for plenty whether it should or not, they’re certainly nothing to hang your hopes on. And though I enjoy the vulgar glee of the post-“alternative” skeptics who can’t wait for the talented mall rats Nirvana will inspire to go for the gold with scruffy guitars, I don’t put much stock in that scenario either. Rich-and-famous is a rock paradigm, I accept that, but the democrat in me has never much liked it. And as we watch the whole rich-and-famous nexus — the market warfare now making the world safe for belts tightened to zero, Islamic fundamentalism, and of course freedom — drain the life not just from rock and roll but from the world as we know it, I don’t look forward to watching Mitsubishi-backed ex-burnouts the Maul — three guys and a gurl who deciphered or misprised every lyric on Nevermind and went on from there — turn into the hype of Christmas 1995. The same goes for the “alternative” escape-rock/pop-rap synthesis of End of the Night, which formed after an Ian Curtis lip-synch contest.

It’s worth remembering that in the early years of what was called the Great Depression record sales did literally dry up — volume on a typical hit plummeted almost 900 per cent, from 350,000 to 40,000. It won’t happen again on so grand a scale — the information age, bread and circuses, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean the bizness isn’t setting itself up for a fall. Commercial still means something like popular, and indie insularity is the rock equivalent of left sectarianism, but if I have to choose between people who are in it for money and people who are in it for love (or righteousness, or pride, or even vanity), I know where I’ll stand. The only hope I’ll permit myself in this bleak season is that it never comes down to that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1991

1. Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC)

2. Public Enemy: Apocalypse 91…The Empire Strikes Black (Def Jam/Columbia)

3. R.E.M.: Out of Time (Warner Bros.)

4. U2: Achtung Baby (Island)

5. P.M. Dawn: Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (Gee Street/Island)

6. Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh (Capitol)

7. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo)

8. Metallica: Metallica (Elektra)

9. Chris Whitley: Living With the Law (Columbia)

10. Mekons: The Curse of the Mekons (Blast First import)

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Top 10 Singles of 1991

1. Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (DGC)

2. R.E.M.: “Losing My Religion” (Warner Bros.)

3. Naughty by Nature: “O.P.P.” (Tommy Boy)

4. Geto Boys: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (Rap-a-Lot/Priority)

5. Metallica: “Enter Sandman” (Elektra)

6. (Tie) P.M. Dawn: “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (Gee Street/Island)
Crystal Waters: “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” (Mercury)

8. (Tie) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (Def Jam/Columbia)
Seal: “Crazy” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

10. EMF: “Unbelievable” (EMI)

—From the March 3, 1992, 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.

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.)

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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.

 

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

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

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Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

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None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

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I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

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But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

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But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, 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.

 

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

1988 Pazz & Jop: Dancing on a Logjam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1988

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

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

3. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)

4. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (Columbia)

5. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury)

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

7. Pere Ubu: The Tenement Year (Enigma)

8. Keith Richards: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin)

9. Traveling Wilburys: Volume One (Wilbury)

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

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Top 10 Singles of 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—From the February 28, 1989, issue

 

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

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Lives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

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

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

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

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“Call Me”

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

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

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

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

“Rock Steady”

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

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

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

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

“I Get High”

https://youtu.be/R29XGl2WZQo

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

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

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“Respect”

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

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

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

“Young, Gifted and Black”

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

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

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