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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. ❖

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Wanted for Attitude: The FBI Hates This Band

The Right-Wing Attack on Rock

HOW’S THIS FOR GOVERNMENT intimidation? In early August, a letter arrived on the desk of Priority Records president Brian Turner. Written on Department of Justice stationery, it was just three paragraphs long:

A song recorded by the rap group N.W.A. on their album entitled “Straight Outta Compton” encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention. I understand your company recorded and distributed this album, and I am writing to share my thoughts and concerns with you.

Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.

Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.

[related_posts post_id_1=”33619″ /]

THE LETTER WAS SIGNED by Milt Ahlerich, an FBI assistant director, who describes himself as the bureau’s chief spokesman and who says he reports directly to Director William Sessions. Ahlerich says his letter represents the FBI’s “official position” on the record by N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitude), hip-hop’s most streetwise and politically complex group. But he also says he hasn’t heard the song. Neither he nor the bureau owns a copy. Ahlerich didn’t ask N.W.A. or Priority for the oft-unintelligible lyrics; he got them — or something purporting to be them — from unnamed “concerned officers.” Ahlerich says the FBI has never adopted an official position on a record, book, film, or other artwork in the four years he’s worked there nor, so far as be knows, in its entire history.

Ahlerich claims writing the letter was justified because N.W.A.’s song, “**** Tha Police,” allegedly advocates violence against the police, (The group sings “Fuck the police,” but the album just uses blanks.) “I read those lyrics and those lyrics spoke of violence and murder of police officers. That to me did not seem to be in the public domain at all,” he said, strenuously objecting to implications that the letter was censorious or intimidating,

Ahlerich isn’t the only cop incensed by “**** Tha Police.” An informal police net­work faxes messages to police stations nationwide, urging cops to help cancel concerts by N.W.A., a group based in Compton, California. Since late spring, their shows have been jeopardized or aborted in Detroit (where the group was briefly detained by cops), Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Milwaukee, and Ty­ler, Texas. N.W.A. played Cincinnati only after Bengal linebacker and City Council­man Reggie Williams and several of his teammates spoke up for them. During the summer’s tour, N.W.A. prudently chose not to perform “**** Tha Police” (its best song), and just singing a few lines of it at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena caused the Mo­tor City police to rush the stage. While the cops scuffled with the security staff, N.W.A. escaped to their hotel. Dozens of policemen were waiting for them there, and they detained the group for 15 min­utes, “We just wanted to show the kids,” an officer told The Hollywood Reporter, “that you can’t say ‘fuck the police’ in Detroit … ”

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In Toledo, N.W.A. performed only af­ter Reverend Floyd E. Rose complained publicly about police pressuring local black clergymen, “Rightly or wrongly, the perception in our community is that the ‘police think they have the authority to kill a minority,’ ” he wrote the police chief, quoting the song, “and that [police] think that every black teenager who is wearing a gold bracelet and driving a nice car is ‘selling narcotics.’ … I must say that while I do not like the music and abhor the vulgar language, I will not be used to stifle legitimate anger and understandable resentment.”

Anger and resentment are at the center of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, a two-million seller that slices current r&b fashion to ribbons, then goes on to pretty up the latest in gang-culture bad-mouth­ing. It rocks harder than any other album released this year; if the abusive, profane language didn’t keep N.W.A. off the ra­dio, the sheer assaultive sound probably would, N.W.A. is, above (or below) any­thing else, not nice. But the profanity exists not for shock effect or as a bohemi­an art stance, but as an organic expres­sion of south-central L.A.’s half-hidden gang world. The group wouldn’t be half so politically important, or half so exciting, if they were just rap’s answer to Andrew “Dice” Clay. Much if not most of what the group has to say — especially about women, but also about drugs, guns, and the sanctity of private property — will make any civilized soul squirm. They don’t just épater les bourgeois, they rub its face into its own merde. This is music to make the blood run cold, and if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.

As Reverend Rose and most everyone who has heard the song realizes, “**** ­Tha Police” isn’t about shooting cops. It’s about being bullied and tormented by them. A hip-hop barrage, the song tells of a young black man who loses his temper over brutal police sweeps based on appearance, not actions, like the ones fre­quently performed by the LAPD. In the end, the young man threatens to “smoke” the next flatfoot who fucks with him. The same point is made even more clearly in the “Straight Outta Compton” video, which presents docudrama footage of a gang sweep in which the L.A. police vio­lently round up street kids (played by N.W.A.) just for wearing dookie ropes and beepers. Finally, the kids retaliate — ­or to put it another way, defend them­selves. (Ahlerich isn’t so eager to mention that 339 Americans were gunned down by peace officers last year in “justifiable ho­micides.” Or as Brooklyn rapper KRS­-One puts it, “Who Protects Us From You?”) N.W.A.’s Ice Cube calls his songs “revenge fantasies.”

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

ADVOCACY? “The song does not consti­tute advocacy of violence as that has been interpreted by the courts,” says Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t come close.” As for saying “fuck the police,” attorney Charles Rembar, an obscenity expert, remarks, “It’s far more clearly protected than burning the flag.”

To Lynn, what is legally questionable is Ahlerich’s letter. He cites several court decisions that hold that government com­munications can have an unconstitution­al chilling effect “even if they don’t threaten direct action.” And Ahlerich says that his letter was not personal but an official FBI policy statement, albeit adopted “on my authority” without con­sulting his superior, Sessions.

Lynn says, “It would not violate the First Amendment for an individual working for the FBI to personally write such a letter. But it’s incredible for the FBI to send this kind of official letter to any person in the creative community.”

“Oh, I didn’t know they were buying our records, too!” Ice Cube told his publi­cist when she first told him of the Ahler­ich letter. “People overreact,” he told us. “Getting a letter from the FBI seemed kind of funny to me.” Does he feel threat­ened by what might come next? “No. Money conquers all. There’s a lot of peo­ple that’s making a lot of money off N.W.A. as far as record companies, dis­tributors, and concert promoters.” But by the end of the conversation, he was saying, slightly more seriously, “Maybe they’ll send the CIA after me, arrest me for treason.”

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INTERESTING AS IT is that Milt Ahlerich chose to have the FBI take an official position on a record nobody in the bureau has bothered to buy, it’s even more inter­esting that he can’t explain how word of that record’s existence reached him. Pressed he said only that he received a copy of the purported lyrics from “re­sponsible fellow officers.” He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name them.

Police officials in Toledo and Kansas City say officers in Cincinnati faxed them the information about N.W.A. and “**** Tha Police,” according to Gregory San­dow the Herald Examiner rock critic who tracked the informal anti-N.W.A. cop network. Cops began receiving the anti-N.W.A. warnings in late spring, about the same time an article about the group appeared in the June issue of Rev­erend James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family Citizen under the headline “Rap Group N.W.A. Says ‘Kill Police.’ ” Its readers are urged: “Alert local police to the dangers they may face in the wake of this record release.”

The article was written by Bob De­Moss, Focus on the Family’s “youth cul­ture specialist.” DeMoss formerly headed Pennsylvania-based Teen Vision, which produced Rising to the Challenge, the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s video. This video was recently withdrawn from circulation and re-edited after revelations that it ended with a phony endorsement attributed to Bruce Springsteen. The PMRC contends that they were not aware when the video was made that the Springsteen quote was false.

The Dobson/DeMoss/PMRC connec­tion is instructive and important because, while the Washington wives like to boast of their respectable affiliates (the PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the political board members), they don’t like to admit their role in stirring up the Christian right. In fact, the PMRC’s offi­cial position is that it has no relationship with any group except the PTA and the pediatricians. It does everything it can to deny other ties.

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Since October 1985, when the PMRC coerced the Senate Commerce Commit­tee, composed largely of PMRC’s direc­tors’ husbands, into holding antirock hearings, rock has been attacked from city halls, statehouses, fundamentalist pulpits, and the executive echelons of the FBI. The PMRC has become a key link connecting right-wing Christian groups like Reverend Dobson’s with such theo­retically respectable entities as the PTA, the pediatricians, and PMRC advisory board members like Atlanta mayor An­drew Young.

Tipper Gore has been every rocker’s favorite basher, but the most powerful of the PMRC’s founders is Susan Baker, whose husband, the secretary of State, is now four heart attacks away from the White House. Susan Baker, who incar­nates the stiff-necked, antisexual Born Again, sits on the Focus on the Family board of directors. (Several members of the board come from the investment and banking business that James Baker, as secretary of the Treasury, “regulated.” Secretary and Mrs. Baker refused to comment on their ties to Dobson and his organization.)

Although the PMRC’s ties to the Christian right are numerous, the most crucial of them is Focus on the Family and Dobson. The ACLU’s Lynn says that with the breakup of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Focus on the Family makes Dobson “the most powerful fundamentalist in the country.” Perhaps the flakiest of all the Meese Pornography commissioners, Dobson came to prominence as Ted Bundy’s final confessor, claiming that the mass murderer/con man’s crimes were the result of addiction to pornogra­phy. Dobson campaigns stridently against abortion, and his Citizen maga­zine is a forum for activists like abortion­-center terrorist Randall Terry and Nixon administration felon Charles Colson. His plan for American education calls for get­ting evolution out of the classroom and putting prayer back in. Susan Baker, as a director of this 500-employee, $57-mil­lion-a-year organization, presumably shares those goals. We know that Dobson shares her views on rock ‘n’ roll, because Citizen’s July 1988 issue ran an article on her complaint that record labels were dragging their feet on warning label compliance.

The rest of the PMRC’s ties with Dob­son aren’t so casual, either. In the June 1989 issue of Citizen, which contains DeMoss’s anti-N.W.A. article, PMRC exec­utive director Jennifer Norwood says. “We want music critics and organizations like Focus on the Family to disseminate this information to their constituencies. This is something that needs to be done.” Norwood insists that this call to Chris­tians to crusade against rock is the same as dispensing “consumer information” to moms and dads at the PTA.

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If Dobson is the most important of the PMRC’s Christian cronies, he’s far from the most dubious. None of the groups listed below is an official PMRC affiliate. But all of them use the quasigovernmen­tal clout and the credibility of the PMRC to legitimize their endeavors, and the PMRC shares many of their goals. Whether it also shares money, no one knows. The PMRC refuses to reveal the sources of its funding.

• The Back in Control Center, the Ful­lerton, California, “de-metaling/de-punk­ing” center, is endorsed by Tipper Gore in her book, Raising PG Kids in an X-­Rated Society. Its de-metaling handbook lists a variety of satanic/occult symbols, including the “six-pointed star represent­ing the Jewish Star of David.” Director Greg Bodenhamer, a former probation of­ficer, accused the rock group Kiss of us­ing the Jewish star to worship the devil; on more than one occasion, Bodenhamer has flashed a picture of Kiss members wearing such stars as “proof.”

Back in Control also produced Punk Rock & Heavy Metal: The Problem/One Solution, a 20-page training manual used by several California police departments. Printed over the name Sergeant M. Shel­ton, of the Union City PD’s now-defunct Youth Services Board, the manual likens rock ‘n’ roll to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and makes sure to point out that music can be used as a very effective medium of rebellion against the government. Besides the usual heavy metal targets, it also attacks “Huskerdo,” Rush, and Van Halen, and rock magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem. (Through the press office of her husband, Senator Albert Gore, Mrs. Gore said that Bodenhamer’s misrepresenta­tion of the Jewish star was a “mistake.”)

• Truth About Rock, the St. Paul, Minnesota, ministry of Dan and Steve Peters, pastors of Zion Church. The Peters brothers and their antirock writings have been repeatedly touted in PMRC litera­ture. The brothers specialize in record album burnings; they also condemn Tina Turner, among others, for non-Christian beliefs. (She’s a Buddhist.) The Peters also claim, “The Jewish star is the uni­versal symbol for Satan.” (Jennifer Nor­wood says the Peters brothers book Why Knock Rock? — recommended by the PMRC — doesn’t endorse record burn­ings. However, the book has a photo of the brothers at an LP bonfire.)

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• Missouri Project Rock, which was founded by Shirley Marvin, a lobbyist for Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Marvin cites an Eagle Forum meeting with Tip­per Gore as her inspiration, and an MPR brochure claims that it works in coopera­tion with the PMRC. A Memphis rock-­monitoring group called the Community Aware of Music and Entertainment Co­alition, praised in Gore’s Raising PG Kids, is also listed as an ally in MPR literature. (Norwood denies any PMRC ties with MPR and says she asked Marvin to delete its claim of one in the brochure.) MPR’s “musical director,” Reverend Shane Westhoelter, calls Catholics “cannibals, because they eat wafers which are the body of Christ.” Project Rock’s literature says that Bruce Springsteen has a satanic backwards message in “Dancing in the Dark,” and their infor­mation kit includes tapes from Victory Christian Church in St. Charles, Missou­ri, asserting that Hollywood promotes race-mixing, that the Holocaust never happened, and that Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf. The tapes also refer to “Martin Lucifer King.”

• The American Family Association, best known for Reverend Donald Wildmon’s campaigns against Madonna’s Pepsi com­mercial, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mighty Mouse’s sniffing of flower petals. Wildmon’s anti-Semitism finally led to disavowals by such erstwhile supporters as Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, and the leaders of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and the Mennonite Church.

Wildmon’s National Federation for De­cency magazine reprinted 14 pages of Raising PG Kids with permission, accord­ing to the book’s publisher. Mrs. Gore, through Norwood and her husband’s of­fice, claimed that she never learned of the reprint until we asked about it.

On September 14, Gore’s office said the Gores “have never and would never coop­erate with any effort in any way connect­ed to anti-Semitism … Mrs. Gore had no knowledge whatsoever and did not au­thorize in any way the excerpting of her book in the magazine of the National Federation for Decency. She does not know and has never met Donald Wild­mon.” Does this constitute a repudiation of Wildmon? Gore press officer Narla Romash said, “Yes.” Asked for a com­ment, a Wildmon official hung up.

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AS EVEN THE NEW YORK TIMES recog­nizes, bigotry is rock’s fastest-growing problem. Jennifer Norwood told us the PMRC has taken a firm stand on this topic, corresponding with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Tipper Gore made similar claims on Entertainment Tonight September 22. Norwood says that the PMRC has been vociferous in its condemnation of Guns N’ Roses’ racist, homophobic “One in a Million,” though only after the song became na­tionally notorious did the PMRC attack it (for instance, on the ET broadcast). The PMRC didn’t mention the tune in its summer 1989 newsletter, a peculiar omission in that GNR’s “I Used to Love Her” from the same album was included in a list of objectionable “Top 40 Lyrics.” That song was placed under the heading Murder. The only other headings are Vio­lence, Sadomasochistic and Sexually Explicit.

Meanwhile, the record industry silently but effectively participates in the repression. Contacted about the FBI letter threatening N.W.A., neither the Record­ing Industry Association of America, the record lobbying group that numbers N.W.A.’s Priority label among its mem­bers, nor the National Association of Record Merchandisers, the lobbying group for record sellers, had any com­ment. Nor did Russ Bach, president of CEMA, the Capitol/EMI-owned compa­ny that distributes Priority. Billboard, the industry’s leading trade publication, has rarely taken an editorial stand against censorship. On the odd occasion when it has published anticensorship guest editorials, it has immediately fol­lowed up with articles by the PMRC spreading the same old half-truths.

At the National Record Mart chain’s July convention, a not-so-silent Russ Bach said that he has recommended to the labels CEMA distributes — which in­clude not only Priority, but Southern California Civil Liberties Union chief Danny Goldberg’s Gold Castle and Frank Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin — that they should more carefully scrutinize and sticker their albums. “It’s obvious that there is a wave of conservatism in this country,” Bach said. “If anything, we should err toward the conservative.”

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With a few exceptions (Zappa, Don Henley), rock stars have been equally si­lent. Most prefer to treat censorship as an issue that affects only the music’s vul­gar fringe: rap and heavy metal. Many still believe that the notoriety of a stickered album is good for business.

The PMRC would like to wipe the smirk from their faces. Its recent quarter­ly newsletters carry Red Channels-style lists of “Releases Without Consumer In­formation” (that is, warning labels) and “Releases With Consumer Information.” Norwood says this is legitimate consumer information; she was unable to specify either where her group draws the line in deciding which unlabelled albums to re­port, or why it does not report on records that don’t need labels. The PMRC doesn’t just provide consumers with neu­tral information. On September 22 Nor­wood told radio station KSD-FM in St. Louis that the PMRC “endorses” the Rolling Stones tour.

Aside from proving that even pleading guilty-by-implication with a sticker won’t keep the censors off you, this particular package of “consumer information” has other revealing implications. On the most recent “Releases With Consumer Information” report, every stickered act is black — including N.W.A., Prince (hon­ored for Batman), and L.L. Cool J. According to Norwood, this indicates that rappers are among the most compliant rockers; in reality, it tells you who the record industry most easily pushes around.

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Harsher days are coming, even for art­-rockers, college radio favorites, and main­stream stars. On the “Without Consumer Information” chart are a number of rap and metal records, but also Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow and XTC’s Or­anges and Lemons. The spring edition of the PMRC blacklist includes Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, the Cure’s Standing on a Beach, the The’s Infected, Big Audio Dynamite’s No. 10 Upping Street, Simply Red’s Men and Women, and the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack.

Although the PMRC has failed to get the record companies to comply with its deepest stickering desires, it has had far less trouble with retailers, who are much more vulnerable to picketing and boy­cotts. The 130-store Hastings chain now is refusing to sell certain rap and heavy metal records to minors; Camelot Music told Billboard that it would pull records from stores rather than be picketed. The PMRC says it doesn’t want government legislation against rock, and no wonder — ­look how effectively the marketplace does the job. But as the FBI has shown, legis­lation isn’t the only way for the the gov­ernment to become involved.

The record industry is testing the civil liberties idea that, for every inch the cen­sors are given, they’ll demand a kilome­ter. The major labels and distributors’ November 1985 concession to the PMRC, which created the warning labels, is an implicit guilty plea that gave Susan Bak­er and Tipper Gore the credentials to write a Newsweek column conflating the tabloid connection between rap and the Central Park rape and the need to control what our children hear. (You can be sure that they won’t be contributing a piece on the connections between bel canto and Bensonhurst.)

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Not everyone is so cowardly. In Rapid City, South Dakota, the local PMRC af­filiate tried to get city officials to block a June 16 Metallica/Cult show. Opposed by citizens connected with Music in Action, the music industry’s anticensorship group (the authors of this piece are mem­bers), they lost. The concert produced the most integrated white/Indian audience ever seen in the Black Hills. In Kansas City, where N.W.A. played after the city’s acting mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, tried to stop the show (saying “Take your trash back to L.A.”), Ice Cube concluded the performance by saying, “We just showed your City Council that blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Orientals can get together for a concert without killing each other.”

Nevertheless, rock world opposition to the censors remains small and unfocused. The $6.2 billion record industry has no defense budget at all. The record business has nothing to say about the FBI’s abuse of artistic liberty — maybe because it pro­tects its investment with the FBI’s Special Task Force against record piracy. Li­beled by bullies, liars, reactionaries, and bigger weirdos than rock ever knew in its psychedelic heyday, corporate rock ‘n’ roll can’t even find the strength to whimper. ■

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COPS ‘N’ ROCKERS

Police pressure forced the cancellation of a June 17, 1987, Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys show at the Seattle Center Coliseum, beginning a new cycle of such abuses that trace back to the heyday of Alan Freed. Last May, Ouachita County, Arkansas, sheriff Jack Dews seized rap and heavy metal tapes from a Wal-Mart and from the Heart of the Blues record store in Camden, claiming the music was obscene under state law and couldn’t legally be sold to anyone under 17. In August, the 203,000-member Fraternal Order of Police declared a boycott of any musical group that advocates assaults on police officers, a significant stand since off-duty cops staff most security teams.

Billboard‘s September 9 front page detailed nationwide efforts to repress acts “that swear, engage in erotic posturing, and sing lyrics touting violence.” It reported curtailment or cancellation of shows by Skid Row, Too Short, GWAR, and N.W.A., as well as arrests of Bobby Brown in Columbus, and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Among other towns where local officials censor rock are Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Poughkeepsie and Syracuse, New York. GWAR manager Bill Levine says that in Toledo, “We couldn’t say fuck or shit, but it was OK if we cut the heads off people.” (The decapitation of mannequins and pseudo-dismemberment of each other is a focus of GWAR’s oeuvre.)

The New York area is not immune to governmental shenanigans against rock. Some months ago, Middlesex, New Jersey, district attorney Alan Rockoff formed JUST (Joint Unit To Stop Terrorism), alleging the task force is necessary to stop cemetery vandalism caused by kids listening to rock. “There’s a healthy way to be Big Brother,” says Rockoff, whose unit tracks heavy metal bands and their fans with a computer.

N.W.A has not yet played New York. According to Ice Cube, nobody’s made the multiplatinum hip-hoppers a worthwhile offer.

— D.M.

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RETURN TO SENDERS

In July, I obtained the suspiciously uniform batch of letters that Priority Records received protesting N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. To find out why the letters were so often alike, I called their authors, who came from all over the country. I checked more that 100 letters.

Most of the letters claimed that the authors would “never buy an album from your label again,” but my interviews with their writers indicated that none of them had ever bought any LP, cassette, or CD in the last 18 months excepts two who said they’d purchased a “Christian record.” (How can you boycott product you never buy?) None were aware of a wide range of rap acts, including Run-D.M.C.; several said they’d never heard of N.W.A. Those who were aware of the group said they’d learned about them from Reverend James Dobson’s Citizen magazine. Not one of these anti-N.W.A. letter-writers had listened to their record, although many were quick to respond to questions about the group by saying that “**** Tha Police,” as one put it, “calls on blacks to kill police officers.”

Only a single letter-writer acknowledged living in a household with anyone who buys “rock ‘n’ roll records.” And that respondent was the one who asked for advice on how to organize a rock-bashing group. She said she’d already started working on it.

— P.P.

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Rakim and Eric B: Hyper as a Heart Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

1980-1989: The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee

A Brother Doin’ 90 Into the ’90s

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

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

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

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

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

And he just talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT…

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

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

With His New Album, Joey Bada$$ Proves He’s An All-American Rapper For The Moment

One can’t be a lyrical stick up kid forever. At 22, Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ is already older than those who conceived The Low End Theory, The Infamous, and ATLiens. Like those hallowed sophomore efforts, Bada$$’s second entry, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, is saddled with the hype surrounding an artist who came of age in the public eye, and for whom the goodwill he garnered for simply being precocious has run its course.

The predicament Bada$$ now faces is more complicated than the simple yet enduring cliché of “Will He or Won’t He Fall Victim to the Sophomore Slump?”; for an artist who is both so blatantly talented and conceptually inoffensive, Bada$$ is oddly polarizing. The rapper first came to attention at the age of seventeen, extolled for both his lyrical proficiency and his dedication to mid-Nineties hip-hop. Some deemed his positioning as a young genius with an old soul too precisely calibrated, his devotion to golden-era sensibilities a way to court cheap buzz for values his music ostensibly espoused but didn’t actually supply. Where some saw a defender of the flag, others saw a high schooler dabbling in the milieu of New York Undercover and its made-for-TV hip-hop soundtrack. And the teen-prodigy narrative seemed calculated to gain Joey brownie points afforded to few of his pioneering heroes.

All of which undersells the ambitions of a kid who, by any standard, could rap his badass off. Joey’s 2015 full-length debut, B4.DA.$$, even while relying heavily on performative acrobatics, was so serious in its intent and execution it was a little disorienting. Where his earlier mixtapes offered at least a modicum of youthful nonchalance, a weight hung over B4.DA.$$ like a storm cloud. While his hypertechnical methods bore little immediate resemblance to some of his Brooklyn predecessors, the resultant aesthetic was reminiscent of the Boot Camp Clik: blunted, noir-ish landscapes injected with Jamaican patois, hazily recognizable as Kings County but extraterrestrial in effect, the tour guide mourning lost comrades while still reveling in the anarchy of his broken world.
With little left to prove as a technician, on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ Joey aims to assert his worth as a multidimensional performer, musician, writer, and cultural commentator. If B4.DA.$$ was his ticket to the big leagues, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ makes the case for his franchise tag.

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is split into two acts: the first a breezily engineered suite of politically charged manifestos, the second a succession of dark, crowd-pleasing collaborations. The opening half, with production handled by DJ Khalil, 1-900, Kirk Knight, and Powers Pleasant, sports an upbeat brightness that casts a taut optimism over Bada$$’s unease. Like that of his earlier work, the lush instrumentation — Rhodes keys, clap drums, muted horns — creates a pensive landscape that sounds like April in New York City. The songs are outfitted with infectious hooks and bridges, showcasing Joey’s immense growth as a songwriter. Where a younger Bada$$ might have packed as many syllables as possible into each bar, here he shrewdly perceives that his words have greater impact when afforded room to breathe with the melodies.

“For My People” is a legitimate anthem landing somewhere between 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” and Nas’s “Hero,” the lead single off the rapper’s untitled 2008 album with similarly grandiose yet vague political ambitions. “Everything ain’t what it seem/Wishin’ all these dirty cops would come clean/Still swerving on these city blocks for one thing/My man just copped a thirty shot, protect the team, know what I mean?” he raps on the freshly percolating track, positing himself as the hopeful protector of our doomed Metropolis. The cut is so well-produced and well-performed that it’s an immediate home run. The rallying cry “Temptation” and motivational “Devastated” follow suit, with Joey voicing well-meaning consciousness via a righteous anger that doesn’t overwhelm.

A record that sounds this good hardly needs subject matter so weighty, but as a young man with a mouthpiece in Trump’s America, Joey Bada$$ is no longer content to be just an entertainer. As hard as it is to criticize an artist from one of society’s most disenfranchised sectors voicing his discontent, Joey’s political discourses amount to the record’s most glaring, and maybe its only, shortcoming. His accounts of feeling belittled, shortchanged, pressured, and misunderstood are valid to the point of being bulletproof, but they’re rarely profound. Bada$$ is a competent writer of bars and verses, but his words lack the specificity to form real narratives or arguments.

“Land of the Free” is commendable in its intent, a song for black children in Trump’s America, but the insights here are pablum without a call to action: “Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier/Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure/And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over/Let’s face facts, ’cause we know what’s the real motives.”

To criticize the current president on a rap record in 2017 — “Fuck Donald Trump,” he spits on “Rockabye Baby” — is brave, but Bada$$ is susceptible to hollow signifying in place of actual criticism. If, as he suggests, Trump’s America is indistinguishable from Reagan’s and both Bushes’, spelling America “AmeriKKKa” and noting that the star-spangled banner bears the same colors as the Crips and Bloods isn’t any more trenchant a commentary than when Ice Cube and Spice 1 did it 25 years ago. A suspicious listener might reasonably ask why one should care what the “Curry Chicken” rapper thinks about government; unfortunately, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ doesn’t make much of a case.

That’s a shame, because All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is so earnest and otherwise outstanding a hip-hop album that it hardly warrants such a stretch. Its twelve tracks are impeccably sequenced without a dull moment, and when Bada$$ adopts a ragga patois, it doesn’t reek of Drake’s cynical appropriation — because Joey is actually, you know, a Caribbean American. “Rockabye Baby,” which introduces the album’s second half, shatters the opening tracks’ pleasant languor for good; the song sounds like a Schoolboy Q trunk rattler even before the TDE star clocks in on the second verse. The gleefully dystopian posse cut “Ring the Alarm” also lands among the record’s most unanimously successful tracks. Ironically, Joey’s writing is better when he’s not aiming for sociopolitical relevance, and the pivot to more straightforward rapping doesn’t sacrifice the musicality of the first act.

“Super Predator” — featuring Styles P, still one of the best bar-for-bar guest rappers alive — achieves poignance contrasting the veteran’s “filthy America” with the high risks and heavy burdens Joey experiences a generation later. Bada$$ seamlessly matches the D-Block rapper’s template, their dispatches suggesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Babylon,” a duet with the reggae artist Chronixx, is triumphant in its less on-the-nose commentary. Even the contemptible J. Cole redeems himself on the brilliant Statik Selektah production “Legendary,” a fittingly contemplative deep cut.

The album’s apocalyptic closer, “AmeriKKKan Idol,” is a six-minute epic and, like the most emphatic material here, something of a mixed bag. Bada$$ swings for the fences in an attempt to take an entire culture to task, and while most of the track works — referencing police shootings and fake-news propaganda — it ends with a whimper, an ambiguous call to rebel but also to work together.

To discredit the conceit and content of an album as fantastic sounding as All-Amerikkkan Bada$$  seems beside the point, but the frustrating dissonance lies in the fact that, as great as it is, the record Bada$$ sought to make is even better than the one he ended up with. Joey’s ambition is to be applauded; he’s an intellectual artist who, in the face of surmounting evil, put forth a dazzling record that unequivocally takes a stand.

But ultimately, it’s still something of a low-stakes affair. Joey Bada$$’s listeners span demographics — from nostalgic older heads to technique-obsessed purists to younger fans who see him as an alternative to his self-obsessed contemporaries — but I still can’t imagine many Republicans buying his records. For now, he offers the wisdom of a 22-year-old hip-hop obsessive. With a little more seasoning, it’s entirely conceivable he’ll reach the level of articulate acumen he’s grasping for.

And even if he doesn’t, that’s fine. He’s a lightning-in-a-bottle talent, and All-Amerikkkan Bada$$  is one of the most eminently listenable rap albums you’ll encounter this year, which is more than enough. We’ve already got a Kendrick, but we don’t necessarily have another Joey.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Rakim, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop

Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.”

The club was Disco Fever, and “Sal” is Bronx-bred entrepreneur Sal Abbatiello, whose forty-year love affair with black and Latino club culture has made him a pivotal figure within the overlapping scenes of r&b, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, and salsa. This Saturday, with legendary producer Marley Marl and scratch-master Grand Wizard Theodore on turntables, a who’s-who of hip-hop pioneers, including Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Melle Mel, and Rob Base, will gather at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate hip-hop’s ground zero.

Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in an increasingly nonwhite section of the South Bronx, Abbatiello decided that creating multicultural havens for music and laughter was better than falling prey to the dubious career paths offered by local wiseguys. So, one day in 1977, he persuaded his nightclub-owning father to let him transform their brand new r&b bar on Jerome Avenue into a space where — one night a week — emerging hip-hop DJs and rappers would perform. The overwhelming neighborhood turnout for those first weekly parties quickly transformed his father’s r&b bar into a hip-hop palace, strategically showcasing the most competitive street DJs and emcees seven nights a week.

It’s a world Netflix subscribers may recognize from Baz Luhrmann’s early-hip-hop fantasia, The Get Down. Abbatiello certainly did: Two years ago, when he brought his first Hip-Hop Fever reunion concert to the Lehman Center, The Get Down was not yet turning rap history into a colorful fairy tale, but Luhrmann showed up at the concert looking for inspiration. “He saw me, met Kurtis Blow, met all the rappers, got phone numbers, and I never heard from him again,” Abbatiello recalls, with barely contained frustration. “Now, if you stream the show, you’ll see how he ripped off and changed the image of the Fever to put this imaginary club up there called Les Inferno.” On the show, Les Inferno is run as an organized-crime front, a far cry from the way regulars remember the Fever.

“To me, the Fever was a safe haven for hip-hop,” says Marley Marl. “It was a dope place to go just to see the culture evolving, and to see all the players that were involved in the culture.”

One of the reasons almost every rap star who matters — even those loyal to rival crews, boroughs, and labels — remain supportive of Sal is because Disco Fever never exploited its clientele, routinely gave back to the surrounding community, and was determined to remain neutral ground amid irrational city turmoil. The entrance sported both an airport-grade metal detector and a locked weapons-check area. Departing patrons deemed too drunk or unfamiliar with the neighborhood for their own safety were escorted to cabs or the subway. Nonaggression pacts were negotiated with local gangs and drug lords, as well as with local police.

“My best personal memory of Disco Fever,” recalls battle-rapper and veteran Juice Crew member Shanté, “is being in there at the age of fourteen, in the back room, doing my homework at about three o’clock in the morning because I had to go to school the next day.” Usually escorted by other members of the crew, Shanté — whose life story is set to hit big screens this fall with the Pharrell-produced biopic Roxanne, Roxanne — stresses that Sal never let anyone take advantage of her or any woman in his club. “Sal was that real man of honor among ordinary men,” she says. “And that’s why I love and respect him so much to this day.”

As Marley and Shanté attest, nightly networking at Disco Fever consolidated a dynamic community of hip-hop managers, artists, producers, label owners, radio jocks, and mobile DJs. It was a unique environment with the innate potential to elevate everyone’s game. But this was the Bronx in the Seventies and Eighties, and Disco Fever saw its share of tragedy. Surviving devastating epidemics of drugs like cocaine, angel dust, and crack was no easier for the Fever family than for the patrons of any other New York nightclub. Over the course of a decade, substance abuse, gang activity, disease, and sheer urban misadventure killed several Fever habitués and employees, both on and off the premises. Abbatiello took every loss personally, and continues to raise money for cancer victims, foster kids, and college scholarships in memory of his fallen comrades.

When assessing the historical importance of Disco Fever, Rakim, one half of Eric B. and Rakim, the rap duo famous for landmark singles like “Paid in Full” and “I Know You Got Soul,” speaks of the taste-making gestalt of the club. “If you could make Fever your home, or get some shine for a track there, it was a turning point for an artist,” he says. “Fever was this unique universe where all of the aspects of a culture that was just starting to figure itself out had an open door. It defined New York for me at the time. But looking back, I now see how it helped all these different people come together to also start to define hip-hop.”

Thus Disco Fever’s fortieth anniversary concert will present soul survivors like the Sugarhill Gang, former Furious Five frontman Melle Mel, and the “God MC” Rakim, as living repositories of iconic star power, while also commemorating the contributions of lesser-known lights of hip-hop, less prolific innovators whom Abbatiello believes deserve tribute.

“The significance of these concerts for me is to at least give credit to all the pioneers who paved the way for others but didn’t really get financial gratitude out of it,” says Abbatiello, who could just as well be speaking about himself. “These guys are the ones who broke the ground for hip-hop to be as popular as it is around the world.”

HIP-HOP FEVER!
Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
250 Bedford Park Boulevard, Bronx
lehmancenter.org

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Ruff Ryders Reunion At Barclays: No Glitz, No Gimmicks, Just Rap

Displays of the Double-R emblem engulfed the streets of downtown Brooklyn last Friday night as throngs of fans queued in front of Barclays Center for the sold-out Ruff Ryders and Friends Reunion Tour. It was a far cry from the fantastical first night of the Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour that happened almost a year ago on the same stage, where floor-length mink coats and glistening jewels marked the night. There was no glitz, glam, or gimmicks — just rap.

The Yonkers record label and collective founded by Joaquin “Waah” Dean, Darin “Dee” Dean, and Chivon Dean in 1988 sparked the careers of some of hip-hop’s most prolific forces: DMX, Jadakiss, Styles P, Swizz Beatz, and more. Ruff Ryders produced voices that have resonated through time, positioning their place in the pantheon of rap and in the music catalogs of fans forever.

Friday night, a new roster of Ruff Ryders signees — Lil Waah, Quadir Lateef, Drew James, Brillo — opened the show, offering a peek at a new era for the label. But to the crowd, it seemed they were merely pedestals to raise up the old, familiar stars.

Rapper Drag-On kicked off the main event. Then Cassidy took the opportunity not to wax nostalgic on the Ruff Ryders’ powerhouse days, but instead to appease all the old hip-hop purists in the audience by criticizing the new era of rap. “I never chose to listen to Yachty and Lil Uzi. Let’s take it back to Jeezy, Weezy, and Lil Boosie,” he rapped. “These lil’ newbies make me feel a lil’ woozy. I usually be wanting to hurl, cuz Young M.A. the only one punching, but she still punch like a girl.”

Despite Cassidy’s sentiments, the women were the stars of the show.

Eve, first lady of Ruff Ryders, popped out with a familiar and reassuring fervor. The “Brick House Stallion” was back in full effect. Though it seems she’s been far away from the music scene, living her best life with her continued acting career and millionaire husband — founder of the Gumball 3000 brand, Maximillion Cooper — she didn’t miss a beat onstage. Eve had one of the more solid performances of the night. She ran through her most-recognized singles — “Who’s That Girl,” “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” “What Ya Want,” “Tambourine” — and even recited her verse from Missy Elliott’s “Hot Boyz (Remix).” She followed up with a nostalgic return to her best-known song, “Love Is Blind.” My photographer told me Eve had been preparing backstage for her appearance hours before the show. This wasn’t just a quick stop in from her new life; Eve came to do her job and do it well.

Fat Joe and Remy Ma
Fat Joe and Remy Ma

Swizz Beatz came out as the showman he’s always proven himself to be, with a ringmaster’s energy and a street legend’s swagger. He brought out Fat Joe and Remy Ma — who won the crowd with her a cappella rap battle–esque verse. The LOX glided through their hits. Other brief appearances added excitement to the lulls and hiccups between sets: Akon, French Montana, Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Lil’ Cease, and M.O.P.

Headliner DMX made an entrance that wasn’t as grand as one might expect for the occasion. If you blinked, you might’ve missed him glide onstage in a black leather jacket and shades shortly after an unidentified authority on the mic yelled, “The Dog said everybody get the fuck off the stage! If you are not part of his show, get off the stage!”

DMX
DMX

Concerns for DMX’s health emerged after a clip from his performance circulated on social media. At one point in the clip, DMX breaks into the chorus of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Some found the song choice to be strange and out of context, but it’s not — DMX sampled the song in his 1998 track “I Can Feel It,” off It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.

The comedic outbursts, slurred soliloquies, sweat, prayers, and growls may have perplexed a newer audience, but that unpredictability has been a part of the rapper’s persona for years. Dark Man X is a mercurial presence, quick-witted and intense, with an inveterate rawness matched by no other rap superstar.

The 46-year-old veteran has battled it all: drug addiction, twelve felonies, incarceration, divorce, bankruptcy, conquering the music industry’s highest peaks, and navigating its lowest pits. With seven studio albums spanning three decades, DMX has sold over 74 million albums worldwide. His first and sophomore efforts — which went quadruple platinum — both debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 in 1998, making him the first rapper in history to release two number one albums in the same year. He’s earned three Grammy nominations, five MTV Video Music Award nominations, and two American Music Awards, and launched a successful acting career, appearing in more than fifteen feature films and even more television shows.

Despite the gripes from fellow Ruff Ryder Cassidy and many other hip-hop traditionalists, DMX quelled concerns for the deemed downfall of his era of artists: “There are still some good rappers left, trust me, because I know them.”

Onstage, he went from, “I’ve been around the world. I’ve fucked a lot of bitches. And I don’t say that to brag. I say it to say it. But when I’m onstage with a room full of people who love me, it’s better than the best pussy I’ve ever gotten in my life,” to, minutes later, telling the crowd, “I pray that I can touch one person in the name of Jesus.”

Sometimes he displayed the demeanor of a stand-up comedian. “Who’s fucking with my mic?” he asked the sound guy, who denied any foul play. “ ‘It ain’t me?’ Oh, he’s copping out!” The crowd responded with jeers.

“New York is the best place in the fucking world,” he declared.

But it wasn’t his behavior that was concerning at the reunion tour. His show last year in New York at the B.B. King Blues Club was reminiscent of his glory days (shirt off and all). DMX took it easy this night, granted, but it wasn’t that he put on a terrible show at Barclays; he didn’t. It was the audience who seemed restless after the show started an hour late (which often happens with rap concerts, anyway) and a two-hour-long lineup kept them waiting for DMX. By the time the show’s star hit the stage, the crowd was visibly fatigued. Some cleared out before X even finished his set — an older crowd probably opting out of the parking and traffic frenzy that would ensue after the concert’s end.

He went through his chart toppers — “Get at Me Dog,” “What’s My Name?,” “Where the Hood At,” What These Bitches Want,” “Who We Be,” “Get It On the Floor,” “Money, Power & Respect,” “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” and the timeless club favorite “Party Up.” He walked into the crowd for “How’s It Goin’ Down,” and smiled as women recited his lyrics verbatim.

A ladies’ man who’s paraded his real-life infidelities for the public through his music, DMX shared another reality with the audience. “My best friend is still my best friend,” he said, pointing to his ex-wife, Tashera Simmons, who walked onstage and embraced him. The former partners of more than twenty years exchanged sincerities with a heartfelt hug.

“Don’t expect me to be your fucking role model,” DMX declared. “I’m not who you wanna be, but I’m one you should listen to. You can count on me for the truth. Uncut.”

As he transitioned into his somber hit “Slippin’,” he raised a lighter in the air, and the audience followed suit, illuminating the dark arena. DMX made a request: “Turn the house lights off.” But they remained on. “Aiight,” he said. “Ima find you later.”

You can see more photos from the evening here.

 

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Ruff Ryders Reunion At Barclays Center

Displays of the Double-R emblem engulfed the streets of downtown Brooklyn last Friday night as throngs of fans queued in front of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the sold-out first stop of the Ruff Ryders and Friends Reunion Tour. It was a far cry from the fantastical first night of the Bad Boy Reunion almost a year ago on the same stage, where floor-length mink coats and glistening jewels marked the night. No glitz, glam or gimmicks — just rap.

You can read Ivie Ani’s entire review of the show here.

All photos by Jessica Lehrman for The Village Voice.

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Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN” Is the Soundtrack to the Resistance

Wackiness, lamentation, the gnashing of teeth have become the spiritual condition of America, regardless of whether your candidate won or lost the last presidential election. The man sitting atop the throne seems possessed by dementia or mania or both, and it seems communicable to his most rabid detractors and dissipated supporters. Never has reactionary victory been so bereft of giddy triumphalism or trickle-down whoo-ha.

Amiri Baraka once said that rhythm and blues would always be the accurate reflection of the emotional condition of Black America. Hiphop is but the latest streaking comet in the metamorphic and meteoric continuum of rhythm and blues, the latest measuring stick and black mirror for all of America’s entropy. The truths spoken by hiphop’s prophets are thus democratically applicable to all living under the reign of Mein Trumpf.

Rap has long had a messianic streak running through its ministry’s veins, at least as far back as the days of Melle Mel. Who can the more-woke-than-napping masses call on but a rap-Jesus like Kendrick Lamar when the truth they see marching upon them is that cast with four horsemen? As for those more napping than woke, here on the steep downside of American Exceptionalism (and its long-gone tape measure, the American Century), what other soundtrack but that of a Compton-born rapper suits the moment, since hella white working-class America has become an exurb of Compton, when not a jobless zombie mall pit?

Historically, Black music has always sounded like the charged change in the air and a call to arms. Never had much choice but to do so. Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — released in March of 2015, when Obama was counting down months, not seconds, in office — was instantaneously embraced by the front line of the Black Lives Matter crew, those dark and toothful platoons of Generation Activist feeling the first rush of pushing back against the Empire and winning some minor victories (via citizen reporting), like body-cam requirements, as well as much love in the court of graytoothed left-of-center public opinion.

Two years later, here in the first 100 Days of That Fool Orange Julius and his Wall Street royalist court of saber-rattling robber barons, many of those same BLM frontrunners are living under the gun, at the mercy and the fury of alt-right death threats and spiritual exhaustion with no diminishment of reported incidents of state-sponsored murder of unarmed Black civilians by duly deputized (and duly unprosecuted and unpunished) psychopaths.

The post-Obama wilderness of the citizenry’s prospects for liberty and justice has generated a frenzy of trenchant, meditative writing beyond rap from academically ensconced poets, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, and songwriters of African descent. But only rappers like Lamar, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and Run the Jewels work within a form capable of capturing the soul-fracturing and pervasive paranoia of this American moment in the moment. Welcome to the terrordome.

Let’s be perfectly clear: We don’t really go to rappers for political coherence, clarity, direction, or instruction — rather, for the essence of the psychic pressures creating visible schizophrenic fissures on the bland bubbly surface of everyday American life across the color line. In times like these, even the entertainment stage must occasionally bleed with the passions and roundedness of its best versifying patriots.

Not much sunshine bleeds through the cracks of the house of pain Lamar builds on DAMN. It may be the most manically morose rap album in the genre’s history, a masterful and commanding testament to the nation’s downward spiral in vortexical rhyme. Super heavy is the well-paid, well-pleasured, well-attended, and well-pissed-off head under the crown on DAMN, one equally beset by the fickle flea-buzzing of fans and Fox News apparatchiks alike.

As Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Nas, and 2Pac learned before Kendrick, being anointed the lyrical conscience of your generation ain’t no crystal stair. Staying on your A-game and staying true to the path requires shape-shifting, guile, and soul-plumbing wit. A dip into the wellspring of James Joyce’s version of a spa day — “silence, exile, and cunning” — doesn’t hurt either. Commercially successful rappers with revolutionary political heart and instincts are still makers of hip and trending consumer products for the masses. DAMN is an album full of depressing reveries and memorable self-recriminations that can only come when the radical-within rapper realizes his Ellisonian invisibility and isolation within plain sight of multitudes. Or as Kendrick puts it on “FEAR” (comes before “GOD”), “Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax/Wonderin’ if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.”

DAMN is pluripotent. It contains multitudes of thick, convulsive, complicated lyrical gambits to parse. Hot, young, horny, and full of intentionally overblown hubris, DAMN nimbly, if rageaholically, rides the emotional seesaw that comes as the booby prize when one has become famous, radical, and neurotic in American entertainment.

The mercurial rise and fall of Kendrick’s emotional teeter-totter gets warped and woofered with appropriate degrees of eloquence, grace, angst, and megalomania. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he rants on “FEEL,” reminding us that “I been in the field for you” — though like any nascent, wealthy savior of humanity, he’s still unsure as to whether “it’s real for you, right?” Like all our favorite super-charismatic narcissistic-genius Geminis — Miles, Prince, Ms. Hill, to name but three relevant predecessors — Lamar’s powers of self-dramatization are the true source of his superpowers. Because that war going on in the chat room between his ears is far more distracting and consequential for his multiple role playing muse than anything the clamorous and blank world, virtual or real, could provide. Hey, when your favorite person to listen to is yourself, playa, then run with it — especially if you’re your generation’s musical Second Coming.

So hear DAMN as K-Dot’s version of a full-cast Broadway drama about the party going at full rambunction in his mind between competing character traits. The tracks are as butt nekkid stark as modern trap, but with a twist, replacing the juicy jazz-funk fusion warp drives of TPAB with the kind of cerebral romanticism we revere in Frank Ocean. The holy gates and the lower depths duke it out for emotive dominance all over DAMN — a tension that finally finds tender resolution on the last song, “DUCKWORTH,” which reveals that Kendrick’s manager, Top Dawg, years before they met, once robbed the KFC where Lamar’s father worked and hence made possible the reversal of fortunes that followed for all three men. It could have as easily been called KARMA.

The puckish dramatist in Lamar shows he can still get real cute and aggro when he turns humility into a weapon on “HUMBLE,” a ditty directed at all the bitches of whatever gender who’ve somehow forgotten who the God standing before them is. As is the wont of ripe, rapping saviors, Lamar drops hints of having found salvation in the esoteric side of biblical Black Nationalism: “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’/That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’/My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth/Said know my worth/And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed/I know he walks the Earth/But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah.”

Later, via a phone message, this same preachifying Cousin Carl gets his own chapter and verse to explain why the race will stay cursed until we return to following the ancient commandments. Cousin Carl’s presence reminds us of the Baraka poem that states how a certain breed of holyroller negroes will blame anybody but Capitalism and white supremacy for our woes, and also brings to mind that Frantz Fanon quote that goes, “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”

But Cousin Carl has a historical role to play. Back in the Sixties some of your favorite socially conscious rock stars got gurus when sitting on fat stacks troubled their cash-flushed sybaritic souls. Conscious rappers get Cousin Carl — in theory to assuage guilt, though (like those rock stars) don’t expect any divestment of cheddar or hedonism to follow. Lamar pretty much admits the good life is going to keep on winning the Faustian bargain, least long as, per the vernacular, he’s young dumb full of cum so Lawd know he gonna keep getting himself some. Cousin Carl be damned too.

As an artist who was revealed to most of us as an out-of-body rhyme-saying time traveler on good kid, m.A.A.d city (Lamar’s Off the Wall to TPAB‘s Thriller), he flashes back on “FEAR” to a childlike state with a litany and screed of the cray-cray rationales routinely used to administer and self-absolve the chronic (and epidemic) deployment of corporal punishment that still goes down in many of our homes, impoverished and middle-class alike:

I beat yo ass, you better not run to your
father

I beat yo ass, you know my patience
runnin’ thin

I got beaucoup payments to make

County building’s on my ass

Tryna take my food stamps away

I beat yo ass if you tell them social
workers he live here

I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you
still here

Seven years old, think you run this house
by yourself?

Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear
no one else.

How’d B.B. King put it? Nobody loves me but my mama and she might be jiving too.

All that said, we must of course apprehend (if not assail) DAMN as Kendrick’s extended take on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” the hoary, classic blues that has probably been covered by more nervous multimillionaires than any jawnt in the neurotic gutbucket canon. Consider DAMN an assemblage of buoyant miserablism, K-Dot’s inevitable De La Soul Is Dead moment — the one any socially observant poet who hits it big will foist on his audience-base, family, and enemies list. Beats-wise and warbling-special-guest-wise, this trap-adept tunefest of slow-burning dirges reaches its emotive apex via the interstellar space provided by the moist and avian falsetto of Zacari on the vulnerably smitten “LOVE.” (Count this reporter as one awaiting this young Caruso’s full-length debut.) Rihanna aids and abets Kendrick in dissecting the condition of “LOYALTY” within, without, and beyond his self-obsessed circumference.

The navel-gazing cedes ground to the state of the nation on “XXX,” Lamar’s collab with U2. (Bono is as good a role model as Lamar is going to find in all of pop for sustaining messianic activism, true-to-the-game creative brinksmanship, and domestic sanity over the long haul.) “XXX” offers respite from personal lifestyle anguish and gives us these conspiratorial agitprop jewels:

Barricaded blocks and borders

Look what you taught us!…

Donald Trump’s in office

We lost Barack and promised to never
doubt him again

But is America honest, or do we bask
in sin?…

It’s nasty when you set us up

Then roll the dice, then bet us up

You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox
to be scared of us

Gang members or terrorists, et cetera,
et cetera.

America’s reflections of me, that’s what a
mirror does.

Not so long ago, drive-time radio host Charlamagne Tha God famously chastised Kanye West for bringing rich people’s problems to the public airwaves. But as Jimi Hendrix once told Dick Cavett, “The more money you make, the more blues sometimes you can sing.” Given what happened next in that epic tale
(and epic fail) of Dionysian demiurge turned free-falling Icarus, the problems of gifted and troubled rich folks who earned their iconicity the old-fashioned way — through prolific production — are not so easily pooh-poohed or simply there to provide readymade snap-giggles for the peanut gallery. Lamar is certainly enough of a student of rap if not rock history to know no cocksure and prophetic MC’s bulging coffers have ever saved them from career suicide or the coffin nor from incurring actual frenemies hellbent on your actual annihilation. Midnight sweats this generative of poignant content are certainly worth the verbally dense exploration and exposure for the rest of us. Because end of the day, the fruits of such purgative passions are what boom-bap-driven poetic godheads like Lamar are best at satisfying: the insatiable greed and curiosity of the faithful — all us long-term invested hippity-hopping voyeurs and evangelical lyric-loving
revivalists.

 

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Amir Obè Back With “None of the Clocks Work”

There’s a consensus in hip-hop that you only get one chance before that ephemeral thing called buzz dissipates. But then there’s Amir Obè, who proves there are, in fact, second chances.

It’s a rainy Tuesday at the World of McIntosh on Lafayette Street. The invite-only townhouse — funded by the luxury audio brand — features five sprawling floors that include an indoor pool, gourmet kitchen, and outdoor terrace. Tonight, Def Jam Records executives and staff have gathered media and scenesters to celebrate None of the Clocks Work, Obè’s first EP since signing to the label in December 2016. “I really want to thank Def Jam for supporting the vision and really seeing things that might have seemed far-fetched,” Obè says, introducing his new work.

For the 27-year-old rapper-singer (born Amir Obeid), the pomp and circumstance of the evening must feel like a déjà vu of sorts. Back in 2009, Obè was in New York City, deciding between the Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons School of Design for college, when Atlantic Records signed him based on the MySpace presence he’d created under the moniker Phreshy Duzit. “I got a deal pretty quickly, so that switched my route [away from college],” he explains on the phone a few days after the Def Jam event. But things never really panned out with the label, and Obè retreated to the indie scene for years.

It wasn’t until 2014 that he got his next break, when he dropped his stage name and released the mixtape Detrooklyn. Named for both his native Detroit and his new home of Brooklyn, the tape featured several nods to the five boroughs, such as “Jay Z, Kanye, Esco” and “Drugs & Cam’ron.” It also nabbed the attention of Drake’s manager, Oliver El-Khatib, who linked Obè with the superstar.

Drake’s co-sign came at an opportune time, just when Obè was considering ending what was, at that point, a fledgling career. “We were trying to get over a hump,” he says of himself and Detrooklyn producer NYLZ. “We were a little frustrated, just how we weren’t being received. It could’ve been my last project. . . . It was big for my confidence that Drake reached out at that time, like, ‘I love your project.’ ” Eventually, connecting with Drake brought Obè a higher profile: He coproduced the track “Star67” from Drake’s 2015 release, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and opened for the rapper’s protégé PartyNextDoor on the road.

Two years later, Obè’s finally emerging as his own artist. “It’s all been a growth process,” he says, “as far as, like, learning new things melodically and sonically [and] being in a way more mature state.” Despite his now-sizable Rolodex, Obè decided to rely solely upon original collaborator NYLZ to write, record, and produce his new EP. “We knew exactly what we wanted to create when we went to the studio,” he says.

The seven-song project oozes with dark synths and drowned-out vibes. “Wonder why you ain’t called yet/Borderline alcoholic/I’m trippin’ but I ain’t fall yet,” he moans on the opener “Free”; later on the track, he puffs out his chest: “Privacy, I just need privacy/None of you bitches acknowledge me/I’m still waitin’ on apologies.” “Naturally” is an airy passive-aggressive breakup song: “Tryna find some songs to relate to/Tryna find excuses to hate you/Ain’t no makeup out here gonna make you/And ain’t no breakup with me gonna break you.”

A palpable melancholy courses throughout the EP, but Obè won’t cop to any one thing—or person—having inspired it. Instead, he wants listeners to go on their own emo trips. “I don’t like telling [people] what the songs are about,” he says. “People have their own relationships and the songs can hit so close to home for them. I want them to apply to [them] their own lifestyles and create their own narrative based on what they feel.”