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Rick Rubin: The King of Rap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RICK RUBIN’S 10 BEST 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rappin’ With Russell Simmons

Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

The offices of Rush Productions are two cramped little rooms on Broadway in the 20s, which on any given afternoon are filled by the loud voices of black men and women. They are mostly young, real street and real anxious. On this day in January a graffiti artist sits in one corner of the outer room with hopes of painting an album cover. Over on a beat-up couch is a girl in striped pants and Run-D.M.C. T-shirt waiting for her old man, one of the 22 street-oriented acts managed by Russell Simmons’s Rush Productions, to find out when his next gig is. Three young dudes dressed in the B-boy style­ — untied Adidas sneakers, jeans, sheepskin coats, and Gazelles — are leaning against a wall joking and eyeing the girl waiting on the rapper. The token white is Bill Adler, a former Daily News reporter who is the company’s full-time PR man. Behind him, shifting through papers and cradling a phone on her shoulder, is Heidi Smith, once Russell’s lone overworked office staffer and now one of several over­worked office staffers.

I stick my head in the other room, seeking Russell. Instead, sitting behind Russell’s desk and in front of the bright orange-and-red mural that says “RUSH” the size of a subway car graffiti, I find the king of rap himself, Kurtis Blow. I con­gratulate him on his recent marriage and the birth of his son, known affectionately around Rush as “Joe Blow.” I also praise his production of the Fat Boys’ album, which will soon go gold. I tell him that I’m writing a piece on Russell, he tells me that’s all right but I really should be do­ing his life story. I say I’ll think about it and ask where Russell is. I’m supposed to be accompanying Russell and Kurtis Blow’s producer, Robert “Rocky” Ford, to a meeting with Cannon Films about a rap movie. After urging me again to con­sider writing his life story, Kurtis tells me they are over at this putrid Chinese res­taurant that Russell loves because they make screwdrivers strong, the way he likes them. I run into them in the street. “Yo home piss,” says Russell. “You ready to serve these Israelis or what?” Rocky and I laugh and just look at him. This is the man The Wall Street Journal calls “the mogul of rap”?

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At 27, an age when most of his black business contemporaries have designer suit tags branded into their breastbones, Russell promotes street music and makes no apologies. The staccato, crashing drums, the gritty, uncompromised words about life in Kochtown, and the down-­playing of melody that mark the music of Blow, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Kool J, and the other acts he manages are his lifeblood. He loves all this loud, obnox­ious aural graffiti. As far as I can tell — ­and I’ve known Russell about six years worth of headaches, triumphs, and late­-night phone calls — he never intends to do anything else but make street records, chain smoke, talk fast, and uninhibit the inhibited.

Russell is hyped for the meeting. He’s puffing on a Kool, bouncing around in shiny black penny loafers, and rubbing his bald spot in comic gestures for me. Russell’s about five-10 and 165 pounds, with the complexion of a ripe squash and a generally sunny disposition. He’s the kind you can tell your worst jokes to and get a laugh. I wish I could do justice to the rapid-fire monologue he delivered in the cab up to Cannon’s East Side offices but without a tape recorder it’s hopeless. The gist of it was that we were about to see Russell act like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. That’s why he asked us along. We’re gonna be the reasonable Negroes and he’s gonna be the bad nig­ger, sort of a mercenary ’80s version of mau-mauing the flak catchers. Russell wants to make a point: he’s not some dancer shuffling for a (pardon the ex­pression) break. He wants respect and Cannon has already showed a lack of it. Cannon sent a writer uptown to hang out and get a feel for the scene. The writer listened to Russell’s ruminations on rap and shook his head affirmatively when Russell emphasized that he wanted no part of another Beat Street — all fake dia­logue, gospel singers at the Roxy, and other disagreeable Hollywoodisms. The writer, a white Californian who told Rus­sell he sees blacks about once every three months in his neighborhood, said, “Yeah,” “Uh huh,” and “I understand your concern.” And still wrote a jive treatment as much about a white girl trying to break into the music business as the uptown scene. In addition, Cannon, in a full-page Variety ad, announced that their rap movie would be shot in, of all places, Pittsburgh! Thickening the plot, a black production company from Los An­geles had approached Russell, guarantee­ing him considerable creative input and serious profit participation. “All the VCR money. You hear me Nelson,” he shouted in the cab. Unfortunately, the brothers had a shaky reputation and short bread. We knew Cannon wasn’t the classiest studio in the world — the bulk of its films were substandard 42nd Street fodder (one upcoming project is called Godzilla Vs. Cleveland). Cannon had, however, committed several million to the project and would undoubtedly make a profit­able, chintzy flick.

But Cannon’s minions had already lost Russell’s good will and in the meeting he truly Eddie Murphyed them. He talked loud and fast and was contemptuous of the film’s portly producer, a man who bragged “I dined with Hepburn last night” and then called Kurtis Blow Cur­tis Brown. Russell responded by emphasizing how important his acts were in the music business, and, basically, with just slightly more subtlety, that he really didn’t need them. “I’ve been working for 10 years to make this music mean something,” Russell said at one point. “You can come in with one film and ruin everything I’m trying to build.” To say the least, ye olde film producer was surprised at Russell’s impertinence. So was I. From my pragmatic post as “reasonable Negro” Russell was alienating folks who’d defi­nitely make a rap film, if not the one he wanted made, in exchange for a maybe situation. Russell calmed down after a while — even listened to them a little bit. However, the spirit of Murphy had seized Russell’s soul and, with a gleeful smile, he chortled later with Andre Harrell a/k/a Dr. Jeckyll about serving them at the meeting, then complained that Rocky and I had been too good at our assign­ment. We almost stopped him from hav­ing fun.

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The next day Russell signed a deal with the black production company and was rewarded with the wooing of Michael Schultz, the black director who handled Cooley High, one of Russell’s favorite films, to supervise the project. In turn he delivered Run-D.M.C., Blow, Whodini, and the Fat Boys, whom he doesn’t man­age. By denying all that top rap talent to Cannon he would certainly hurt their project and, as blaxploitation films used to advertise, “stick it to the man.”

Russell is a product of that generation of blacks who spent early ’70s Saturdays enthralled by the white-bashing activities of Shaft, Super Fly, Trouble Man, Cof­fey, etc. At times he seems to fantasize about being as cold-blooded promoting rap as they were kicking ass. And if you think about it, Eddie Murphy, another product of the blaxploitation generation (remember Murphy’s film critic Adbul Rahiem championing the virtues of Isaac Hayes’s Truck Turner?), is nothing but an intentionally funny version of those bad-ass heroes in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop.

Unfortunately, for Russell being bad ass isn’t enough anymore. Since that meeting rap has exploded yet again. Run-­D.M.C., the Fat Boys, and Whodini have all sold over 500,000 albums and Blow’s Ego Trip is in the ballpark. Their videos are on MTV. Russell’s acts are being swamped with endorsement and film offers. And, perhaps most profitably, the record industry itself is finally giving up the only kind of respect it can under­stand — money offers.

But therein lies the rub. You could call Russell a “mogul.” It is to some degree an apt description, since he certainly has a deep economic stake in rap’s present and future. But “mogul” also suggests some­one who dominates an industry, and Rus­sell, for all his influence, is at the mercy of many elements he does not control. Unlike the big tickets of pop culture­ — your George Lucas, Michael Jackson, Grant Tinker level mogul — Russell doesn’t have the financial clout or emo­tional distance to manipulate. You see, Russell really is his audience. He lives the B-boy life, and the values are found in his records. Unlike Afrika Bambaataa or Russell’s brother Joey, a/k/a Run of Run-­D.M.C., who are part of a vanguard of rap innovators, Russell is one of the few products of the rap generation to become an important businessman. He doesn’t battle other rappers or spinners for rec­ord sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival. Russell’s not going bald ’cause it’s been easy.

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At least the business side hasn’t. Life for Russell has never been that rough. His background belies the stereotype that rap music is the pure product of ghetto life. Both he and his brother grew up in the middle-class Queens neighbor­hood of Hollis, an area of home-owning, upwardly mobile dreams that has flourished since the 1950s on the premise that life in two-story dwellings with furnished basements was superior to that in the tenements and projects of Brooklyn and Harlem. The parents of Hollis (and St. Albans and Ozone Park and Jamaica) were products of the post–World War II striving for integration and beneficiaries of the opening of civil service jobs to minorities. Russell’s father, Daniel, su­pervises a Queens school district and teaches black history at night. His moth­er, Evelyn, works for the Parks Depart­ment. Back in 1976, when Russell en­rolled at City College’s Harlem campus, where he’d earn 112 credits toward a so­ciology degree, he seemed headed in the same direction.

What’s always been surprising — at least to me when I attended St. John’s University in the late ’70s — is how fascinated with street culture the children of Hollis were. I came from Brownsville, an area that could easily have been Melle Mel’s model for “The Message”; I knew “the ghetto” was nothing to romanticize. Yet here were kids like Russell who grew up in their own houses, with access to cars, furnished basements, both parents, and more cash than my friends ever knew, acting (or trying to) as cool as any street kid. Russell’s embrace of street life and, ultimately, his movement into it as a businessman occurred in the CCNY lounge. There he fell in with a group of aspiring party promoters, including a brash Music & Arts senior named Curtis Walker who used to sneak over to CCNY when he should have been in school. Calling themselves “The Force,” throughout 1976–77 they gave parties in Harlem at Small’s Paradise and the now defunct Charles Gallery. Walker, assum­ing the streetwise persona of Kurtis Blow, began rapping over records, influ­enced by the work of an older man, Pete “DJ” Jones, whose style was similar to that of boasting radio jocks like Frankie Crocker, and by D.J. Hollywood, a young rapper who gigged regularly at a Bronx club called 371 and encouraged call-and­-response interaction with partygoers. It is Hollywood who originated the “hip hop de hippy hop the body rock” that led to the rap-breaking-graffiti scene being labeled hip hop.

In New York in the mid-’70s, rappers and their deejays were the nightclub equivalent of synthesizers in the record­ing studios. While synthesizers began re­placing musicians in the studio, effective­ly cutting production costs, black discos with teen and young adult audiences used rap acts to replace bands. “They were a lot cheaper and they drew the same kinds of crowds,” says Russell. “Lots of times we’d give shows with rap­pers and get bigger crowds than if we had a guy with just records. The more expo­sure you got it seemed like the bigger your name got. The more fliers and stick­ers and posters that you could get your name on, the more popular you’d become as a rapper.” “There was so much compe­tition by then [1977] in rapping and dee-jaying uptown, Russell and I went out to Queens, the boondocks, and started pro­moting there,” remembers Kurtis Blow. Moving to Queens broadened rap’s base in the city, reaching teens like Russell, who were removed from ghetto life but not immune to the flamboyance and invention of its style.

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Still, rap and Russell didn’t hit their stride until he started promoting rap shows at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street in 1977. The Times Square location meant that the shows could attract black teens from the outer boroughs as well as Harlem. Coinciding with this move was the brief mating of Blow and Grandmaster Flash with Kurtis on the mike and Flash on the turntables. To promote this superstar hip hop duo 15,000 fliers were distributed and anoth­er couple of thousand stickers plastered in subways by Russell. “We had 2000 kids come see them that first night at the Diplomat,” Russell recalls. “You know, people were standing outside Xenon’s waiting to be picked to go in like Studio 54. And down the block you had B-boys coming down the street to go to the Dip­lomat two doors away.” The Diplomat’s shows truly helped widen rap’s audience, (people like Hollywood, Eddie Cheba, and the Furious Five all eventually ap­peared there). Yet there was danger sur­rounding these shows. “We went through a lot of security companies,” Russell says. “They worked one show and then the next security company would come. They’d work one show and that was it. It was like that rough. The Diplomat had bulletproof box offices. We stayed back there for most of the night. And Kurtis,” Russell starts to laugh, “would always come in the box office and stand around. When it was time to go on stage, he’d run up there and perform and come right back in.”

The insular, occasionally violent world of rap was changed forever in the sum­mer of 1979 when first the Fatback Band with “King Tim III” and, most profound­ly, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s De­light” hit the streets. The success of “Rapper’s Delight,” by three kids with only a tenuous connection to the original rap scene, shocked the established rap­pers. “There was a show in October or November in the Armory in Queens,” Blow remembers. “We had like 4000 kids. All the original rappers were there and ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was a big hit. Starski said on the mike, ‘Yeah, y’all know we started this shit. Don’t you worry we’re still gonna be on the moon.’ We all re­sented it. Everybody hated it. Now I see that they opened the doors for us and I’m grateful now. But at that time I was so furious.”

I first met Russell and Kurtis in the offices of Billboard in the summer of 1979. Billboard staffers Rocky Ford and J.B. Moore had brought them up to the ­office to talk about making a rap record. Rocky had written the first piece in the established media about rap, a funny lit­tle story in Billboard prior to “Rapper’s Delight,” and, with help from me, then a St. John’s University student working part-time at the Amsterdam News and free-lancing for Billboard, had been re­searching the rap scene. He and Moore had decided to work with Kurtis because compared to Grandmaster Flash, Starski, and the other original rappers he was the most clean-cut and articulate. And he had Russell, someone who knew the rap scene and was itching to learn the record business. Looking back on it now I know that Russell’s presence was as important as Kurtis’s talent in getting them to in­vest their then meager resources in a record about Santa Claus in Harlem. “Christmas Rappin’ ” would eventually sell nearly a million copies.

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Six years ago Russell was even more frantic than he is now, partly because he was doing a lot of drugs (he says solemnly that those days are over) and partly be­cause he was just one overactive, anxious young man. Every meeting with him was like being injected with a thousand cc’s of adrenaline. His energy fascinated me, though our friendship had its rough spots. One night he left me stranded in Long Island following a Kurtis Blow gig at some Hempstead dump. Another time he took me to the Disco Fever in the days before it became a musical tourist trap and left me in a room full of coked-up stickup kids and rappers.

What redeemed our friendship was that despite his occasional lapses, Russell was the only young guy on the rap scene who seemed to have any long-term goals. He was serious where his contemporaries just wanted to party. Everybody wanted to make records. But did everybody real­ize what promotion and marketing to the nonrap audience would entail? Did they realize that if rap was successful they’d be approached by record industry pros, people who didn’t give a fuck about any­thing except their ability to make a quick buck? Russell did. In fact, it used to drive him crazy. He’d call me or Rocky at any time of the day or night to complain about how someone was trying to serve him or his artists. In his early twenties Russell was trying to woo finicky reporters, get his money from small-time con­cert promoters, and make the major la­bels pay attention to him. His paperwork was sloppy. He slept in recording studios. He told his skeptical parents he’d made the right decision in leaving school. He was happiest when he talked about the music he wanted to make: Not the “pop-­rap” Ford & Moore were making for Kur­tis, but “beat” records that captured the feel of clubs like the Fever.

It wasn’t until Russell teamed with ex-­jazz bassist Larry Smith, creator of “The Breaks” ’s bass line and Ford’s childhood chum, that he had someone who could translate his beat fanaticism into music. Together they made two recordings that would change New York street music: Jimmy Spicer’s humorous, Jimmy Cas­tor-influenced rap “The Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action,” which fea­tured Allyson Williams’s sensual shout­ing. The key to both was the “bubba bubba tap” rhythm of drummer Trevor Gale, a chucky bass drum stomp that has become standard for rap music (e.g., “It’s Like That”).

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Another child of “Action” and “Bubble Bunch” is LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” the first record on Def Jam Records, an indie label started by the record’s pro­ducer, Rick Rubin, that Russell is now a partner in. The drum machine is slow and, as Russell says, “sleazy,” the cymbal is hot, and the other instruments serve to intensify the rhythm. It’s a record for dancers who know that the spaces be­tween the beats aren’t really spaces, but seconds of pleasure where your body­ — suspended in action, chilly in motion­ — awaits its guidance to slide over a few soul-satisfying inches. It is a statement of principle that says Russell and Rubin are going right for the core B-boy audience.

Def Jam is also very much a product of Russell’s economic frustrations. Execu­tives at the major companies have re­fused to believe in rap or the long-term creativity of its makers. When Blow signed with Mercury in 1979, I assumed every label would have at least one rap act within two years. Instead, rap acts have come and gone from the rosters of the corporate music machines because these organizations, very often advised by their black executives, have shown no interest in or outright contempt for the music.

Epic’s rap history is illustrative. Back in 1980 the company released a seven-­inch (seven-inch!) single on D.J. Holly­wood featuring a cooing girl chorus, then didn’t promote it. Hollywood is a legend in this city, yet rap’s pioneer was quickly forgotten at Black Rock. When Epic briefly distributed Aaron Fuchs’s Tuff City rap label in 1983, they had Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble,” a beat-box record by an ex-Kurtis Blow spinner and prolific hip hop songwriter-musician. It was an instant B-boy classic, as fresh as Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” Yet “One for the Treble” sold about 80,000 copies for Tuff City while “It’s Like That” did approximately 250,000 for Profile. The difference? Epic didn’t see the potential in the music and couldn’t be bothered with what it saw as an experiment: Subsequently Run-D.M.C.’s debut album sold over 500,000, a genuine RIAA gold record, because Profile president Cory Robbins and Russell worked the 12-inches “It’s Like That”/“Sucker M.C.’s,” “Hard Times”/“Jam Master Jay,” “Rock Box,” and “30 Days” with the zeal of a major label; promoted Run-D.M.C.’s black hats and leather to give them an iconic image (cf. Jackson’s glove and Cyndi Lauper’s hair); and reached out to the substantial hip white audience that —  very much like reggae’s white aficiona­dos — identify with its raw, outlaw atti­tude. Arista did (eventually) get behind the English label Jive and its efforts to win a U.S. audience for the rap duo Whodini. As a result, Whodini’s Larry Smith-produced Escape went gold. Representative of Jive’s commitment is that Whodini has had four videos in support of two albums while Blow, with five al­bums at PolyGram and a steady seller of 100,000 to 300,000 units, just got his first for his current single “Basketball.”

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Russell’s dream has been for all his acts to be signed to one label that he controlled. Under the aegis of Poly­Gram’s late black music vice-president, Bill Haywood, it almost happened. But after Haywood’s death in 1983, the re­maining executives, white and black, didn’t understand the music or the deal. Jimmy Spicer’s “Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action” were released on Mercury. The failure of both commercial­ly outside the New York area definitely hastened Russell’s hair loss. After those records, the arrangement died of corpo­rate malnutrition. As a result, Rush’s acts are now strung across the rosters of sev­eral, mostly independent, labels: Profile, Jive, Mercury, Disco Fever, Nia, and now Def Jam. As a result, most of the acts live from record to record. When Russell brags “None of our records have ever lost money,” he doesn’t mention just how essential that situation has been to his eco­nomic well-being.

Ex-indie Sugarhill Records, now dis­tributed by MCA, once dominated the rap market with an enviable in-house set­up: a two-story building in Englewood, New Jersey, contacts to record distribu­tors going over a decade (Sugarhill own­ers Joe and Sylvia Robinson once owned All-Platinum and control the Chess catalogue), and a brilliant house band that will one day be regarded as the Booker T. & the MG’s of the early ’80s. While Rus­sell was still building his roster of rappers Sugarhill Records, with the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee, and Sequence, de­fined the music’s cutting edge. The grooves were varied and, except for a streak of unabashed sexism, the raps were always clever. But the across-the­-board acceptance of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” in 1983 ended up hurting the label. In its wake Grandmaster Flash exited to Elek­tra Records after a lawsuit over money and creative control. So did many key musicians, such as “Message” co-writer Duke Bootee, who signed with PolyGram, and Reggie Griffin, who signed with Qwest Records and arranged Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.” Only the bril­liant Melle Mel, with his caustic, Biblical attacks on racism and corruption, and commanding delivery, remains a vital sales and creative force for Sugarhill.

Sugarhill’s loss was Russell’s gain as young rappers who might have gravitated to the Jersey label instead turned to Rush Productions. For a time it looked as if Afrika Bambaataa’s space-rap sound, through his liaison with Tom Silverman’s aggressive Tommy Boy label, would suc­ceed Sugarhill’s. But after “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” in­novative recordings co-produced by Ar­thur Baker and Jon Robie and heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Bambaataa’s been a commercial bust. His collabora­tions with Material, Johnny Rotten, and other “new music” types have given him a high media profile, but his terrible misuse of James Brown on “Unity” illustrat­ed why Bambaataa hasn’t tapped the hip hop soul in almost two years. As a result, the most significant rap hits of the past two years have been in some way con­nected to Rush Productions. He and Smith coproduced both Run-D.M.C. al­bums; Smith produced Whodini, and Blow the Fat Boys. The hottest rap 12-inch of 1985, UTFO’s “Roxanne, Rox­anne,” was produced by the Brooklyn band Full Force, who’ve written for and played on the last two Kurtis Blow al­bums and whose manager, Steven Salem, once shared office space with Rush.

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It’s an incestuous little world that Rus­sell works in, one he feels has values and attitudes that aren’t understood by out­siders. To him that’s the reason rap and New York street music in general hasn’t yet been embraced by the music industry mainstream. Significantly, Russell doesn’t call his music “rap” or “street” but “black teenage music.” He sees his records not as part of a genre but a state­ment from a new generation — a genera­tion, coincidentally, that puts great stock in machismo.

To Russell, for example, the reason there are so few female rappers “is that the most progressive forms of this music are too hard-edged for women. What do heavy metal and wrestling say about women? I ask that because rap has the same kind of audience and feeling to it. But you’ll never hear any of our artists rapping about getting over on a woman in a vulgar way. You can listen to all the records I’ve been involved in and not hear that stuff about busting out young girls in them. We already have this bad image with black program directors about the country, so I’m very careful about what I say. I’d do a record like ‘No Sell Out’ [a rap record on Tommy Boy using excerpts from Malcolm X speeches] if I could make it work. A good track could support any idea. But I’m not gonna lecture the audience. I’m not a teacher. I make music based on the ideas my artists give me. If Run wants to do ‘Hard Times’ or ‘It’s Like That’ I’m gonna help them make it work. The only thing I ask is that it have an edge. Teen­age music is rebellious.”

To his taste, most mainstream black pop is “too polished, too slick.” “I like real sounding music, real sounding in­struments — even our drum machines sound hard, and I like loud music. Music feels good loud” he says, explaining why on “Rock Box” and most of the King of Rock he employed black rock guitarist Eddie Martinez to such crunching effect. “I can’t help it if it’s called rock ’n’ roll. It’s still B-boy music. It still has breaks, it still has def beats. The difference be­tween white teenage music like Quiet Riot or AC/DC and black teenage music right now isn’t that big.”

Russell has been very open-minded about building bridges between the up­town scene and the more progressive white rock clubs. Before it was fashionable he was hanging out at Disco Fever and Danceteria, rapping with Melle Mel at 1 a.m. and Malcom McLaren at 4 a.m. So when he looks you in the eye and says excitedly “I want to produce Devo,” you don’t bust out laughing, but ask, quite respectfully, why? “I believe I could make Devo def. Hear me, I’d make Devo def. I love all those sounds they make. Don’t like the songs. But I could fix them and make them def.”

Looking ahead five years Russell hopes he’ll “be able to pay for this loft I want and have made four or five major stars. I’ll be involved in black teenage music if I still understand it. I might not be able to still make it. I at least hope I’ll under­stand what’s good about it enough to hire someone who does.” Russell stops, pauses a minute, then adds, “I want to make successful black heroes, like what I’ve tried to do with Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis. I didn’t say ‘positive’ because that’s a trap. It’s got to be real.”

“Russell Simmons is a bloodsucker,” a prominent record producer tells me in late February. “That’s the feedback I’m getting on him, man. They say he’s unor­ganized and that his artists would be bet­ter off somewhere else.” Then the pro­ducer laughs. “You know what that means, man. It’s character assassination. They are after him. He has a thing going. When it was on that street level, selling 12-inches on indie labels, they left him alone. But now rap is selling LPs; Run-­D.M.C. and Whodini have broken in the rock and black markets. The Fat Boys are a novelty act that works. So now the industry is coming after him just like they did to George Clinton, Gamble & Huff, and every black music entrepreneur. If his shit isn’t together they’ll take everything that isn’t nailed down.”

By March my friend has proved pro­phetic. Larry Smith, another Queens na­tive who has explored the darkest corners of the South Bronx with Russell, has signed his publishing to Jive’s Zomba Music, for a large advance. Unfortunate­ly, Russell has promised that publishing to another company as part of another deal, putting Russell in an embarrassing, potentially litigable position. Aggravating the tension is that Larry agreed to pro­duce the soundtrack for Cannon’s rap film. The two are still friends and outside the Beacon Theater where Run-D.M.C. recently headlined they could be seen embracing. For Larry they were good business moves, which didn’t prevent them from taking the smile off Russell’s face. They were a signal to him that his rap kingdom was hardly secure.

There were more lessons to come. While negotiating with a major record label for a production deal he made the tactical error of including a group in his proposal he has a business relationship with but no papers on. The company does some checking and the next thing Russell knows that group is cutting its own deal. In the world of rap ’n’ roll neither the record label nor the group were wrong. They were trying to do the best they could for themselves. Russell left a loophole, the kind he can’t afford anymore.

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Given his demeanor, Russell is taking all this with surprising calm. He under­stands his mistakes and is trying to tight­en his operation. In the last six months he’s added a number of administrative staffers and he’s seeking larger offices. Andre Harrell has quit his day job as a time salesman at WINS to become vice-president of Rush with an eye toward nailing down some of the endorsements the company is being offered. Russell may be a bit shaken by the wheeling and dealing swirling around him, but that only brings out the Eddie Murphy in him. I mention one of the people in the industry who questions Russell’s business acumen.

“That guy can only suck my dick when he sees me,” he tells me with a conspiratorial chuckle. “I’m invaluable to the suc­cess of his company. He never says that to my face. I’d serve him.” We laugh, and I tell him to save that crap for the next Run-D.M.C. album.

As Billboard’s black music editor, I in­teract daily with sleaze, stars, star­fuckers, and a few honest businessmen and musicians. All of them are out to make money. So is Russell. But in Russell there is a love of music, at least his particular brand of it, that is real. Like another middle-class hustler with good ears, Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons is trying to build something that will last. I’m not totally convinced it will happen. So much rests on the durability and con­tinued evolution of a decidedly radical musical style. One of Russell’s favorite sayings comes from Dr. Jeckyll: “Inside of every suppressed black man is an an­gry nigger.” I suspect that as long as Rus­sell believes that and promotes music that sounds like it, homeboy will be all right. Even if he is from Queens. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Run-D.M.C.: They’re Gonna Smash Their Brains In

Riding Amtrak between Baltimore and Wilmington the train passes a factory with this insignia inscribed on its side: “Goetze’s Caramel Creams.” Being in the black humor line I immediately grasp the commodity value of this chance sighting. Metaphor is my business, an overweened sense of irony my stock in trade.

Just the other day I was thinking Michael Stewart could’ve been Jean Michel Basquiat in his dread period. Certainly he was lynched for committing the same “criminal act” which put both Basquiat and Keith Haring on the map and in the money. Some guys really do have all the luck. The other night a colleague looks out her Lower East Side window and sees a black guy and a white guy about to rumble; squad car pulls up, two cops jump out, throw the brother up against the wall, jam the nightstick to his throat and let the white guy go along his merry way. And this black guy was so preppy looking she told me. Reminding me of Stevie Wonder’s line about how you might have the cash but you can’t cash in your face. But black folk take themselves at face value too. The other night on the D train I got an Asian couple sitting across from me who seem to be romantically involved. Seated next to them is one very unpreppy B-boy prototype. Couldn’t tell you whether his emotional life was seething or somnolent. You know, one brand of racist mythology speaks of the inscrutable Oriental, another of the evil nigger, but homeboy’s mug is more illegible to this black brother than any foreign face I’ve ever seen. Deadpan? No, home’s visage in a black hole, light may pour in but none shines out. To these eyes he’s a cipher begging for decoding, a signifier crying out for deconstruction and like Bernhard Goetz I’m free to ascribe any negative cast I choose to his character: violent nigger, stupid nigger, evil nigger. The difference and social distance I presume between his blank categories and my powers of categorization, between his presumed unintelligence and my arrogance of intellect grant me this privilege. Forget that given another set of eyes the target for such prejudices could be me or Basquiat, Melle Mel or, for the sake of reportorial relevance here, Run-D.M.C.

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Before we go on, consider for a moment that if hiphop does nothing else, it at least draws a few black youth out of the firing line; forces folk to see some young black men as something other than thugs, as possibly possessing a little intelligence, even if only for the duration of an MTV video. Let’s call this the liberal position. For a less tolerant view, cut to the Run-D.M.C. show I walked out on at the Beacon last Saturday (the late show, not the 7 p.m. which went smoothly) not because I walked in on the sight of several hundred black teenagers standing on their seats screaming “do that shit, do that shit” in a game of call and response with a deejay, but because, when people started running out of the orchestra doors yelling about a rumble in the balcony my partner-in-crime and I decided that given the vibes, it was time for our bourgeois black bohemian behinds to get the fuck out of Dodge. Passing, on the way, three cracked plate glass doors and several billy-club swinging gendarmes commanding the scene in front. From a photographer friend trapped backstage I heard somebody was stabbed later that night, that after Run-D.M.C. left the stage pandemonium erupted when somebody said they heard a gun go off, that when she left the theater she hadn’t seen as many cops since the Detroit riots and for the first time in her life she was afraid to be around her own people. Waiting to catch the train she witnessed some of those let out from the show launching Coke bottles at passing trains and applauding themselves as passengers ducked for cover.

From the gitgo, black music of one kind or another, jazz, blues, rock n’ roll, has been charged with promoting sexual promiscuity and perversion, drug abuse, devil worship, crime and violence. Charges which are only as true as they are half the story. Black musical forms have always been born in dangerous milieus, which they sometimes promulgated and sometimes transcended, and hiphop continues the genealogical imperative. Don’t think I didn’t get depressed like a mother-fer-ya (yeah, literally) when homegirl told me about the bottle-throwing episode, but I still believe hiphop can become more the cure of the condition of black underclass youth than a symptom of it. If for no other reason than that they listen to it like they listen to nothing and nobody else. This doesn’t mean it’s a panacea (sorry, I aint that naive), but it can maybe make a few stop and think — especially if they’re taking notes from sources as credible as Run-D.M.C.

Always dug Run-D.M.C. because they dressed like they weren’t ashamed to be identified with the stone B-boys. Like, Melle Mel once said the reason the Furious Five took to the chains and leather look was to match for visual aggression the rock and funk groups they began touring with after “The Message.” Which is funny, considering that the aggression some folk already perceive in less flashy black fashion is tantamount to asking for a couple bullets in the back. Under the circumstances Run-D.M.C.’s stance as raphappy fashion risks could be mistaken for a mere stab at intimidation — except remember that hiphop began as a subculture of resistance to, among other things, the Saturday Night Fever school of leisure wear, and that Run-D.M.C. were dressing down by law long before they made it on MTV. The trashing of a rock museum they do in the new “King of Rock” video proves they can cross over without compromising, and with a vengeance at that. What’s even hipper about them than their remarkable ability to adapt to market demands and maintain their authenticity is their other way of eating their cake and having it too: taking license to crack incisively on white and black culture alike without missing a beat. One minute they’re class-leveling Calvin Klein in language both Marxes would appreciate (Karl and Groucho) the next they’re giving Fs in English to all the other sucker MCs. Shades of Booker T. Washington’s bootstrap philosophy of black economics turn up often enough to make the point they believe in black self-help; invocations of Murphy’s Law as criminal deterrent pop out enough to convince they don’t believe crime pays. In their best raps they use braggadocio to taunt and inspire their audience; their best interviews find them hammering the message home to their peers to stay in school and get that piece of paper. Certainly nobody on the scene, outside of Ramm-El-Zee and Melle Mel, delivers more literate and thought-provoking lines than the duo.

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The question is whether, intellectual types and MTV vidkids aside, Run-D.M.C.’s message is getting through to the other (if not their primary one) target audience, namely the hardrocks in the Beacon crowd. The funk-metal truncheons on their new King of Rock have secured their hold on the MTV crew, the dazzling dithyrambic invention of tips like “You’re Blind” will keep the eggheads occupied with their exegeses for days. But penetrating the mentalities of the hardrocks is going to take more of a headcharge than Run-D.M.C. got the voltage to supply. Now, you could say that since nobody else is reaching the hardrock posse, reaching out to them even, that making the attempt is the most that can be asked of the brothers. But in the wake of the Beacon and shit like the bottle throwing, that leaves me thinking the rest of us best jump on the bandwagon and quick. Maybe at least try telling Michael, Lionel, Diana, and Ray that charity begins at home.

[Ed. Note: As a bonus, here’s the Voice’s first mention of Run-D.M.C., courtesy of Gary Jardim]

John Who?
June 21, 1983

Hip-hop’s hook of the season is “It’s Like That,” by Run-D.M.C. and Orange Krush. Producers Larry Smith and Russell Simmons (half the credits on Kurtis Blow’s “Tough”) have cut a “stiff and nervous” beat/sound dominated by a mechanical web of bass bams and snare wacks aimed in part at the new wave club market. Its elemental starkness has an eerie European existential alienation all over it and it’s a hit on (black) radio. Stiff and nervous Babylon ’83. The question haunting rap is, what lies beyond the “it’s bullshit” motif? Alienation? “Money is the key to end all your woes.… Whatever happened to unity?… Disillusion is the word/I just go through life with my glasses blurred/It’s like that/And that’s the way it is.… If you really think about it, times aren’t that bad.”

Anyway, the mix of battering-ram percussion and rough vocals succeeds as polyrhythmic dance and hard-rock compulsion. The real breaks come in the syncopated interplay of drum and electronic shakere rhythms set against corrosive lyrics in “Sucker M.C.’s” (“You don’t even know your English/Your verbs or nouns/ You’re just a sucker M.C./You sad face clown”). Too bad this percussive clamor’s so far from the melodic heart behind John Henry’s hammer. But the lack of real emotion in Run-D.M.C.’s recent show at the Roxy was completely overshadowed by the dark brilliance of Bambaattaa and Islam swinging this new Shango thing and jamming rhythm and sound textures as so many subtexts pointing at “One Nation Under a Groove.”

– Gary Jardim

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

1986 Pazz & Jop: Township Jive Conquers the World

Over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where an accounting firm more reputable than Dean & Poobah is totting up the Grammies even as I write, the year ends October 1, to give the electoral machinery time to rumble into action. Here at the Voice, where small is still sometimes beautiful, the year begins whenever the voters tell us it did and ends the natural way, on December 31. Yet by October 1 I knew damn well who was going to take the 13th or 14th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and though I suffered a few doubts when Peter Gabriel snuck in first at the L.A. Times, my confidence returned as I glanced over the early returns. Graceland for sure — in a small landslide, actually. And if Simon & Phiri — to let Simon’s guitarist and bandleader, Ray Phiri, stand in for the black South African backing musicians whose beat is the backbone of the star’s triumph — take the Grammies as well, which I predict they will, they earned it.

Many indicators fed my hunch, small competition and instant buzz prominent among them, but what convinced me was my direct experience of the music: opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its bicultural synthesis is striking, engaging, and unprecedented — sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so plainly beautiful. Not that I expected the universe to agree — tastes differ, many dissent from Simon’s refined literary liberalism, wimpophobes have hated his guts for years, and the electorate now includes a smattering of convinced pigfuckers who think Hüsker Dü is Julio Iglesias in disguise. Yet even sworn enemies were stopped short at least momentarily by the drive and lilt and sway of Simon’s South African band, and many neutrals were won over to his Manhattan lyrics. Graceland’s victory didn’t approach the dimensions of Born in the U.S.A.’s, or Thriller’s, or London Calling’s. But by Pazz & Jop as well as NARAS standards — by the standards of any respecters of critical consensus outside the Elvis Costello Fan Club — Simon had made what sounded like the album of the year. This was certifiable township jive, to use one of the Soweto beat’s many overlapping nicknames. But it was cosmopolitan in a New York way.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I ransacked the ballots in search of quotable tributes to this ear food and found almost nothing but dim political disputation. Not that this was altogether surprising. The fact of apartheid is intrinsic to Graceland’s aesthetic interest, especially for the P&J electorate, which leans more precipitously to the left than any comparable sampling of film or book or dance or art or (God knows) classical music reviewers. Yet at the same time rock critics are almost pathologically impatient with political orthodoxy. So maybe the recent flurry of controversy — in which Simon was blitzed by hostile questions at Howard University and criticized by the chairman of the UN’s apartheid subcommittee — got their goat. Or maybe it was just Dave Marsh, who declared Simon an opponent of the South African revolution in Rock & Roll Confidential. Maybe it was even yours truly the Dean, whose more moderate censure of Simon’s political performance has come under fire from universalist humanists. Still, I’d hoped for a higher level of discussion. Certainly the music that occasioned all the hot air would get its due. And just maybe the political horror that the music was too fucking transcendent to illuminate directly would gain new resonances as a result.

No way. You can bet the outnumbered naysayers proved somewhat smarter than Simon’s aggressively defensive champions, but you can also bet that a bilious “beneath contempt” isn’t going to get us much further than a blithe “Simon’s intentions seem to have been noble”: if it’s true that nobility is too rare a thing to waste on intentions, it’s also true that you can’t get much lower than some people’s contempt. What I missed on both sides was some rudimentary grasp of the South African reality Graceland is supposed to trivialize and exploit or extend and enrich. Musically, the old bridge-between-cultures line is supported by the 10th-place finish of what has now been my own favorite current record for about a year, the Earthworks-via-Shanachie mbaqanga compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. In 1985, with Graceland yet unborn, Indestructible was showing up on UK critics polls, and it would certainly have placed here as well, but without Simon’s album — and the accompanying press coverage, a phenomenon in itself — it sure wouldn’t have gone neck-and-neck to the finish line with R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel. (Only with the last ballot did Blood and Chocolate sneak into a virtual tie with Indestructible — and Springsteen overtake Run-D.M.C. Craig Zeller has broken my heart before. He may not vote next year unless he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.)

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Nevertheless, I’d be more inclined to see in the pleasing anomaly of Indestructible’s showing irrefutable evidence of the universal language in action, of a link to black South Africa stronger than mere analysis could ever achieve, if just one of the indignant defenses of Paul Simon’s virtue had indicated that apartheid isn’t just the Afrikaans word for segregation. It’s a system, damn it, a political system; like the bicultural music that nobody pro or con described very satisfactorily either (though once again the cons made their points more cleverly), it has specific attributes. Its strategy is to reserve for whites the economic and psychological advantages of segregation while fobbing itself off with a rhetoric of racial equality and cooperation. As far as Pretoria is concerned, Graceland is for the most part quite consonant with such rhetoric. Which is why, Bruce McClelland, it’s naïve at best to claim that “Graceland is inherently political and inherently anti-apartheid.” Right now, nobody can know that — not me, not you, not Botha, not Simon. God don’t love no ignorant, boy.

Okay, I’ll stop. I’m writing about a poll, and though Simon is emblematic enough to warrant all this attention and more, it’s context time. Perhaps I’ve procrastinated because 1986 didn’t seem to add much news value to the critics’ by now traditional dour view of popular music’s immediate past and uncharted future. Wrap-up pieces made much of the nostalgia factor in a year when MTV engineered a Monkees revival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a reissue boom, and numerous same old songs returned to the hit parade, most spectacularly “Stand by Me,” back among the living in Ben E. King’s quarter-century-old version. In fact, several respondents thought it amusing to point out the aptness of the late-night typo in which I neglected to change the “1985” of our previous letter of invitation to the “1986” of this year’s model. But both poll and biz showed 365 days worth of historical movement by me, and while the nostalgia thesis has the look of a desperate stab at a headline — it’s a rare year when the pop merchants aren’t systematically sentimentalizing the past — it might be adapted to our purposes.

Lefty that I am, I often focus these ruminations on how the pop of the present relates to past and future, and in general my conclusions are fairly clear-cut: future good, past bad. Thus I’ve always been suspicious (right, Rob Tannenbaum, with exceptions) of roots moves and critical (also with exceptions) of rock conservatism from Springsteen to Fogerty and Stones to Smithereens. Middle-aged professional that I am, I’m also a respecter of history — I love the old stuff going back way before 1955, and believe absolutely that aging (and even young) rockers can do exciting work in styles that are no longer modish or commercial. But in general I’ve reserved my sharpest enthusiasms for music that breaks new ground within the aforementioned bounds of democratic accessibility, a parameter I interpret more liberally than the most progressive bizzer and nowhere near radically enough to suit your average pigfucker. And what strikes me as I ponder both my list and the critics’ choices is that such distinctions seem to be falling apart. In fact, I descry only four unequivocally “progressive” artists in the P&J top 40, three of whom I don’t like much. There’s old prog Peter Gabriel, who broke pop with an Otis Redding rip, young progs Throwing Muses, whose singularity is indistinguishable from their awfulness, and two artists whose explorations are rhythmic, as so many of the most significant rock and roll explorations always have been: Janet Jackson a/k/a Janet Jam-Lewis (whom I’m developing a taste for, actually) and young reliables Run-D.M.C.

Everywhere else, either the past is a live issue or the future a quiescent one. Among the half dozen or so artists doing strong work in established personal styles (including Elvis C., Hüsker Dü, Ornette, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock), only the Minutemen’s album holds out any vivid promise of significant future movement, and they’re now gone forever. Anyway, Elvis C. scored higher with a roots move, and in addition he produced the Pogues, the most coruscating of an unprecedented explosion of folkies — at least two of whom, Billy Bragg and Timbuk 3, chafe conspicuously at folk’s musical limitations. In addition we have a new wave band going folkloric (and downhill) (Talking Heads), a nuevo folk-rock band going pop (R.E.M.), and a new wave band going nuevo folk-rock (the Feelies). We have the biggest and best blues album in the history of the poll. We have mbaqanga, a folk-based style, and mbaqanga-rock, a roots move in cunning progressive disguise. We have two or three country neotraditionalists. We have unabashed homages to torch singing (Anita Baker), Sgt. Pepper (XTC), Sgt. Pepper plus Sly Stone (Prince), metal (Bad Brains), AOR (David & David), Spector/Ramones (Jesus and Mary), roots-era Clash (Screaming Blue Messiahs), and Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen). We have an overrated record by a New Zealander from El Lay and a sloppy record by some North Country anarchists who love American music and not America. We have the impressively eclectic unestablished punk-rock of That Petrol Emotion (barely beating out the avant-gone-neoclassicist Ellington homage of the World Saxophone Quartet). We have debuts by the nuevo retro Bodeans and the nuevo retro Smithereens. And we have debuts by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.

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I trust you understand that I’m having fun with these swift characterizations — a few of the artists I’ve summed up so cavalierly, like Simon and Prince and Bad Brains, are recombining at such a furious clip that their homages qualify as syntheses if not something altogether new, and many of the others are self-starters perfectly capable of counting their winnings and moving on. Nevertheless, only Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, both spawned around the corner from Dean & Poobah on the Lower East Side, would seem blatant exceptions to the prevailing future’s-so-dull-I-gotta-look-back mood — and in typically blatant fashion, both spit in the eye of any such historical or personal consistency. I’m accused of mistreating Sonic Youth, the old farts of pigfuckerdom, who made their surprisingly belated (and at 29, modest) P&J debut with a third (fifth?) album that certainly deserved to finish higher than True Stories or Peter Case, while overpraising the sixth-ranked Beasties, the white motherfuckers of metal-rap, as rock and roll future. Actually, I don’t see where the Beasties can go from here and do see that Sonic Youth could wind up almost anywhere. But what I’m almost certain of is this — that any future progress either achieves will partake of that annoying Lower East Side sensibility known as postmodernism.

Like you, I hope, I’ve made a principle of resisting this hotsy-totsy and all but meaningless term, only recently settling on a definition that tickles my rock and roll chauvinism. My postmodern has not much use for the decrepit modernist edifice that is high art, but that goes without saying. What’s crucial is the way it simultaneously undercuts its own seriousness and reconstitutes history by taking as primary material every piece of pop junk that ever existed. This tactic will recall for rock and rollers of a certain age the pop irony we perceived in the way the Beatles dragged “Please Mr. Postman” through the guitars until it hollered uncle, as well as the multifarious recontextualizations of the New York Dolls or the Ramones’ and Blondie’s congruent visual and aural images. My postmodern is the same only more so, often too much more so — too campy, too junky, too pop. Like rock and roll three decades on, it finds history inescapable, so inescapable that its only recourse is to seize and twist it into some shape that can pass for “new.” When Sonic/Ciccone Youth tops “Papa Don’t Preach” et al. on our singles chart by sampling bits of the Madonna “original” right onto “Into the Groovey,” when the Beasties and Rick Rubin (especially Rick Rubin) hook up their def-forever electrobeats with literal Jimmy Page and Angus Wilson licks as well as a line stolen from sucker-ass Schoolly-D, ordinary notions of retro and progressive and their reassuring Hegelian synthesis, historically conscious, seem, well, dated. If these two bands represent the wave of whatever usable future the 1986 poll points to, most likely as precursors, roots will presently shrivel up and history start stretching back from when it had oughter, about 15 minutes ago. And that can’t be all bad, can it?

Needless to say, this somewhat narrow and abstract speculation won’t add much glow to most voters’ memories of 1986, and I understand why — I found the year depressing myself. The barrenness of the ordinary flush fall release climaxed a series of alarming flops from old hands and young hopefuls alike. Get Close was 82nd, and while Chrissie Hynde has come back from follow-up jinx before, this time I have more faith in Cyndi Lauper, who made just one ballot after finishing 11th in 1984. George Clinton was 121st, and neither Tina Turner, fifth in 1984, nor Aretha Franklin, ninth last year, garnered a mention. Astonishingly, neither did John Fogerty, though I suspect Eye of the Zombie would have done respectably if 1985’s 10th-place Centerfield hadn’t already taken the edge off the cosmic Creedence craving. After three straight albums in the top 10, Lou Reed was fortunate to place 106th, while Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced “comeback” finished an even more generous 102nd. The Golden Palominos got five mentions, Jason and the Scorchers four, Lone Justice two, Let’s Active one. Sade added five points to the 56th-place 1985 finish of her late-release follow-up Promise.

And though by now my trusty A/A minus total has risen comfortably above 1985’s bare 49, I did have to sweat my top 10 once infatuations with King of America and Psychocandy flagged. Last year like most years, I would have been happy to give some points to my number 13, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s live double (a December release that topped 1986 reggae albums at 51); this year 10th-ranked New Order (relegated to a fickle 92nd by their doom and/or novelty-hooked support group) would have been more at home around 13. But in the end the self-censorship movement — the warning stickers, interviews lauding “subtlety” that sounded like farina, and craven, faux-hip condemnations of psychotropic indulgences that faux-hip lifestyles had once cravenly endorsed — sharpened my hunger for the deliberately offensive, preferably within the aforementioned parameters and especially after those three jerks from Stuyvesant rubbed my face in it. Thus I found that the Rolling Stones’ hardass farewell, which earned notes of censure from PMRC bluenoses and finished a fickle 52nd with the voters, and Motorhead’s 55th-place return to the front, in which Bill Laswell added craft and speed to the old Edward Shils nightmare of “brutal culture,” hung tougher as the countdown approached. I can live with my final selection, and I will.

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Many voters complained of top-10 dearth, but then, some always do, and the statistics were ambiguous. Prorated, the top 10’s cumulative point support was slightly stronger than in 1985. And when I let my calculator do the walking down to Timbuk 3 at 34, where the pattern reverses, I find points running almost 10 per cent ahead of 1985. Now, this could indicate intense critical enthusiasm for the top records. But it could also indicate that down below 34 the voters found bubkes, at least bubkes in common, and that’s how the also-rans make it look. After WSQ Plays Duke, 42–50 went Big Black (young farts of pigfuckerdom), Madonna (whose frontlash failed to materialize), Phil Alvin, Bangles, Christmas, Van Morrison, the Woodentops’ Giant, the 3 Johns’ The World by Storm (Live in Chicago was 92nd), and Marti Jones — which I’d break down as three pros (Bangles included), two biz hopefuls (Alvin included), two marginal Brits, two Amerindies, and one jazz. After that Brits fade and Amerindies come on for a 41st to 100th place total that goes something like: pros 14, hopefuls 9, marginal Brits 6, jazz 3, black 3, country 1, miscellaneous 3 (LKJ, John Zorn, and Astor Piazzola), Australindies 3, and Amerindies — get this — 19.

That’s right — about a third of the also-rans were by American bands on independent labels (Georgia Satellites and Rainmakers counted as hopefuls): Big Black, Christmas, Bottle Caps, Leaving Trains, Violent Femmes (on Warner/ Slash, but they operate like an indie and four of their five votes came from Wisconsin), Lyres, Camper Van Beethoven (II and III), Cramps, Camper Van again, Dumptruck (30 points from co-leader Seth Tiven’s cheaty big brother Jon), Soul Asylum (Made to Be Broken), R&B Cadets, Swans, Golden Palominos, Fire Train (14 points from co-leader Phil Davis’s proud alter ego Phil Davis), Mofungo, Moving Targets, Butthole Surfers, Die Kreuzen. Now, this is a varied bunch of records; four made my top 58, several more please me, and others could yet do either. But while Robert Palmer and your nearby college-radio PD may see our result as some sort of consummation, I see it as localism and special interest out of control. In 1985, there was a healthier breakdown: pros and hopefuls about the same, Amerindies down to 13, Brits up to 10, and black — meaning anything from Kid Creole to Whitney Houston — way up to 11.

U.S.-versus-UK-wise, I think the critics have fallen into lazy habits — Amerindie boosterism is as rife now as Anglophilia was as the decade began. Counting the Go-Betweens as Australian, I put three Brits on my 1985 list. This year I have 11, not just world-citizen Stones and mid-Atlantic Elvis C. and old pro Motorhead, but marginals and eccentrics from Jon Langford’s two best bands (with a third on my EP list) to the leftish punk of New Model Army to the lefty pop of the Housemartins to the studio pop of XTC to the studio miscellaneous of the Art of Noise. And while it would be overexcitable to read a trend into every blip, I think this apparently anomalous upswing makes sense.

With all exceptions and amalgams granted, let’s divide the Amerindies into subgroups labeled pop, roots, and pigfucker. Now, I’m not sure why the best roots band extant hails from Leeds, England, rather than the good old U.S.A., though geographical distance — good for a measure of (shall we call it?) postmodernist irony, and thus covering the inevitable chops shortfall just as it did in the Beatles’ day — isn’t hurting one bit. The pigfuckers could wind up mucking about anywhere, and they’re welcome to their wallow as long as they don’t blame the universe for not joining in. But if you’re going to truck with pop values — which often means no longer modish/commercial biz values, with many roots types and by now some pigfuckers feeling the urge — you’re better off doing it right. Because commercial corruption was the great Brit disease a few years ago, its biz is now generating marginalia by the carload. It’s also providing a context in which young bands can cop a little attitude from garagelands on both sides of the Atlantic, then bring it into the studio for the processing increasingly refined musical concepts demand.

In its sorry way the EP situation illustrates the Amerindie dilemma. For the second straight year, Alex Chilton strode like a colossus over this godforsaken category, which was infiltrated as usual by album artists on holiday and major-label turkeys — Echoless Bunnyman, crumbled colossus Tommy Keene. (Keene’s debut album got two mentions. He gained undisputed possession of 10th place — breaking a glorious tie with Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Mekons — after receiving the sole EP vote of Craig Zeller, who claimed the catchy title number made him “deliriously happy after 101 consecutive spins.”) As a source of Amerindie bands, which was how the competition was conceived back when that was still a worthy cause, this list is stronger than 1985’s: Uzi dead, but Scruffy the Cat (Dollsy Boston pop) and Balancing Act (artful L.A. folk-rock) have evident talent, and pigfuckersymps insist I’ll understand Das Damen when I catch their act. Perked up by Brits once again (though the Shop Assistants’ debut album is already out in the hall), I’m actively enthusiastic about my own list as well. The tough verve of Land of Sugar’s white Dayton funk almost equals that of DFX2’s Emotion, one of my most played records of the ’80s — by San Diego Stonesers you never heard of who were never heard from again, possibly because they deserved no better. Which is the problem with EPs — they’re marginal by nature. Who outside of northwest Pennsylvania will make anything of the New Dylans’ copious if callow songwriting skills? Is Mimi Schneider’s Iowa folk trio the Stouthearted going to interest a general audience in rural displacement? Does the world want Berkeley’s Fearless Iranians From Hell to scrawl another Khomeini cartoon? These days, Amerindie bands of potential potential cut albums when the B-sides of their singles still suck. EPs are sports and hybrids, signs of surprising life rarely capable of procreation.

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If I can accuse the voters of stroking the Amerindies, though, I can’t accuse them of unfairness to that catchall called black. Pace Ron Wynn as usual, it was a terrible year for black popular music. Granted, my critical perspective — which is very much a white critical perspective, despite what a few pophead and pigfucker ignorami believe — biases this judgment. Granted too that Pazz & Jop’s black turnout — 13 out of a carefully updated invite of 34 (approximately, since I haven’t color-coded all of our 380 names) — was the most embarrassing of the decade. As Nelson George tells me, this must in part reflect the alienation of black music writers from the Pazz & Jop consensus — rock critics’ weakness for the rough, grotesque, and outrageous offends many of them. But George himself returned to 1985 for Sade and L. L. Cool J, and not a single voter strolled out to left field with him to shake hands with Alexander O’Neal, Paul Laurence, or Full Force. I mean, what would the black caucus have settled on? James Brown’s Dan Hartman job, catapulted to 89th by Jeffrey Morgan’s 30 points? Irma Thomas’s folk-indie Gladys Knight homage, which got the same points and two more mentions? Doug E. Fresh, tied for 100th with the third-place rap album? Bobby Womack, Steve Arrington, the misguided youth of Fishbone, all also-rans last year?

I don’t think this is a blip, either. Sure Stevie Wonder and Al Green and (let us not forget) Michael Jackson will get their share of votes next time they show their voices. Sure the electorate hears black artists even more passively and trendily than it does white artists (if five voters go for Iggy Pop, the sorely underrated Tina Turner merits equal consideration). And sure crossover will continue to throw up the occasional divertissement. But for all their overstatement, Wynn’s annual anti-crossover diatribes did come true this year, with great lover Whitney Houston leading the not-here-nor-there-nor-anywhere LaBelle-Khan-Osborne-DeBarge parade (which totalled one mention, LaBelle’s). Only thing is, Wynn’s roots futurism isn’t the solution — it’s not hostile enough to the past, encouraging the kind of up-to-date tip of the hat to the verities that has turned the respectable AOR of Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton into a morass. I prefer the more radical thesis of the Black Rock Coalition, which includes old P&J hand Greg Tate and multithreat newcomer Vernon Reid (the first voter since Lenny Kaye to have played on a charting album, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Mandance in 1982). I also agree that with crossover’s somewhat exaggerated critical disrepute having no effect on its profitability, bankrolling some mix of Clinton, Hendrix, Ornette, and the Clash isn’t going to be easy — especially if it’s rough, grotesque, or outrageous.

What can it mean, do you think, that the one place black artists made out was in the newly instituted reissue category? This was the love child of Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons, and I warned him it would be a mess, favoring the majors-come-lately who’ve discovered a cheap way to feel virtuous over the importers and indies who have kept archival music alive, pitting the Police best-of against review-copies-by-written-request-if-you’re-lucky anthologies against music that comes shrink-wrapped by the carton instead of the disc. We sandbagged best-ofs by specifying a pre-1970 cutoff date, which given the defiant support for Gumbo and The Modern Lovers and Terminal Tower — not one a best-of — probably wasn’t fair. But indeed, the 14-disc Atlantic r&b box came in third, and I suppose it would have won if the average more rock critic could afford to buy the sucker. Only two indies placed, one with a box by the romantically dead Nick Drake, the sole white finisher. And I like the results anyway.

I like the way the indie Nevilles beat out RCA’s overdue, well-publicized, and slightly disappointing Sam Cooke set. I like the beginner’s guide to MCA’s daunting Chess reissue. I like seeing Duke Ellington’s name somewhere on our charts even though my personal rule against straight jazz records prevented me from placing Money Jungle right behind It Will Stand. I like knowing that PolyGram’s complete Hank Williams series would have come in second if we’d added the votes for all four extant volumes together. And maybe most of all I like James Brown up there at number four, where he can remind a few popheads and pigfuckers that obituaries for black music are invariably premature. No comparable electorate would have acknowledged the existence of Brown’s dance groove in 1970. So if some equivalent happened in 1986, it’s still waiting for the critics to find it.

Not that I’m about to lead you there. You’d never suspect black music was in trouble to look at the first three singles on our list, crossover moves so daring and astute that without a hint of wimp-out they obliterated the competition both commercially and critically. “Walk This Way” broke Run-D.M.C. CHR (though not AOR, further proof that the format refuses to challenge its market’s presumed racism). “Word Up” was the most undeniable funk single ever, and “Kiss” reestablished Prince’s repute as a powerhouse innovator — at year’s end it was one of two gold singles released in 1986. But after that we have Janet Jam-Lewis, James Brown-Hartman, and a rap novelty by a now broken group. And though I was rooting for Gwen Guthrie (early-year releases are always forgotten by some voters) and recommend Mixmaster Gee’s metal manipulation, I can’t claim to have heard tell of much else — go go went went, house is a local disco revival, and while I’ve written down the titles of some word-of-mouth rap obscurities, the great ones rarely remain that obscure.

By acclamation and any normal standard, the oft-maligned (and oft-wrong) Chuck Eddy was on the one when he charged in November that CHR had deliquesced into pap, mulch, and worse. My own singles choices are partial because it’s been years since I had ear time for radio and I no longer club much. I would have been delighted to vote for Motorhead’s “Deaf Forever,” Simply Red’s “Money’$ Too Tight (To Mention),” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” or God knows Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” each of which meant more to me than anything below “Word Up” on my list, if I’d experienced them as singles. I doubt radio would have been much help, though — I discovered both AC/DC and Karen Finley in 45 ’tween-set minutes at the Beasties’ Ritz show, but in three weeks of vacation came across nothing more compelling on my car radio than Jermaine Stewart and “On My Own,” the year’s other gold single. Which remarkable statistic may point to what’s wrong, so let me emphasize: nobody buys singles anymore. Just because albums are now designed to contain two or more CHR-compatible hits, those hits aren’t singles as we’ve traditionally understood the concept. They’re not objects to be consumed, aural fetishes we can cherish into the ground and then call back to life in a day or a decade. They’re promotional devices, not all that different from, well, videos.

Our poll is intended to resist such promotional function, and in both categories the critics did their bit. Gabriel & Johnson earned their video landslide, and though I dislike the song so much I could never get properly worked up about the ad for it, the aural “Sledgehammer” did well enough to indicate no inconsistency. The voters generously acknowledged Madonna’s overarching cinematic métier and David Byrne’s only cinematic gift. And the political foretexts that become permissible as Reaganism’s media clout deteriorates are hailed with Bruce’s shamelessly (and instructively didactic) “War,” and, more tellingly, with the nasty anti-Reaganism of a band mentioned on one album and zero singles ballots — Genesis, whose all-powerful leader took a vague “protest” and turned it into near slander and deliberate offense. The singles chart, meanwhile, singles out misleading promotional devices. In addition to Madonna and the Pretenders, beware of Stevie Winwood (eighth, album 57th), P.I.L. (ninth, album tied for 87th), two CHR-compatible Bangles tunes they didn’t write, the most tossed-off and convincing thing Talking Heads did all year, and de facto one-offs by the Pet Shop Boys (who deserve better), the Robert Palmer who sings (who deserves worse), and Bruce Hornsby (who’s just deserving enough).

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In the comments headed “Alternative Formats,” you’ll find a dissenting and indeed abnormal standard applied to these issues — that of rock criticism’s great dissenter, proud crank, and undeconstructed postmodernist Greil Marcus. My friend in California and I disagree more than we agree, at least about music, and I somehow doubt that his daily dose of kilohertz would convert me to his philosophy of art — if I spent that much time in my car I’d install a tape deck. But where my slightly kooky and definitely doomed attempt to give every halfway promising record a fair hearing submits to the modernist assumption that music is created and perceived by individuals, Marcus’s dial-spinning honors music as social fact, and especially given his elitist tendencies I admire how persistently he subjects himself to other people’s musical will. It’s one more variation on a theme of his criticism, which often focuses on moments when intense individual expression is so difficult to distinguish from random outpouring that it comes across as the world calling — that is, when what some call the bourgeois subject approaches the verge of realization and/or disintegration.

I’m aware that such talk strikes many as bullshit; it often strikes me as bullshit, too. But only orthodox know-nothings think it’s completely off the wall, and I bring it up partly to remind everyone that there are far more abstruse and radical ways to conceive rock and roll than anything hinted at in this year-in-review. The fun I had with postmodernism, for instance, was an easy way out of a thorny, multifaceted problem, one rock and rollers are stuck with as surely as legit artistic types — what to do with your tradition of the new when it gets old. In fact, Simon Frith, who chooses his words quietly and with care, described none other than Paul Simon as “a lonely, rich American in the fragmented world of postmodernity” just a few months ago in these pages. And while that may make our pollwinner sound a little hipper than he is, it’s accurate. In fact, substitute “loquacious, embittered Englishman” and “urbane black neotraditionalist” and you’d be describing our two runners-up, each of whom confronts the paradoxes of progress at least as stalwartly as the champ.

Each pulled off a coup as big as a landslide, too. After years of humdrum domination and a slight slip, Elvis Costello fell right off the chart with the aptly titled Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, so his double return to the top 10 (with more total points than Graceland) turns a comeback into a triumph. And Robert Cray’s Strong Persuader is the poll’s all-time sleeper. I mean, blues is for aging hippies who drink too much, right? Yet despite Chuck Eddy’s paternalistic surmise that Cray is a “white-man-in-disguise,” he attracted half our black critics as well as 48 of our white boys (though only four of our 30 women) to pile up just two fewer mentions than King of America and nine more than Springsteen. Talk about exciting work in supposedly outmoded styles — this record had to knock down a lot of preconceptions to break through so huge.

Of course, the preconceptions weren’t formal — that is, what the critics already knew prepared them for Cray’s steady beat and terse eloquence. With Costello abandoning his band for the T-Bone Crew on the bigger of his two entries (which in the end I find softer, a chronic weakness of roots moves), they’re as different as two Costello records can be, but both also fall comfortably within those old pop parameters. And yet Costello — who ranks with the Mekons, John Rotten-Lydon, Lora Logic, and Rosanne Cash in Marcus’s postpunk pantheon — has always strained at assumed limits. His wordplay is so obsessive that Costello-the-subject disappears into it, and the juggled readymades of his music — Blood and Chocolate makes “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sound as primal as “Honky Tonk” — work the same kind of nasty deconstructive pranks on linear notions of history. Personally, I pay him back for his cold cool by remaining an admiring nonfan, but there’s no question that he confounds past and future and expressed and found as defiantly as any pigfucker. Cray doesn’t deal consciously with such issues, but within soul-blues’s parameters he achieves a cool so unprecedented it’s beyond modern — which isn’t to say he ain’t hot. I was dismayed at first to learn that Dave Marsh dismissed his album as not-blues and Ron Wynn preferred Anita Baker and James Brown-Hartman, but upon reflection I’m encouraged that Cray makes conservatives uneasy — in a world where the young can do exciting work in unmodish forms, I wouldn’t want to except postmodern blues.

No matter what he or she thinks of hotsy-totsy terminology, anyone who reads rock criticism lives “in the fragmented world of postmodernity.” Compulsively novel yet yoked to its roots, rock and roll is a good match for this world, and in their useful if ultimately unsatisfying ways, Elvis C. and Robert Cray and Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (and Janet Jam-Lewis and the Pogues, but not, I’ll warrant, Steve Winwood or the Smithereens) try to help us live in that world. What attracted me to Graceland from the start was that in its details and its defining bifurcation and its significant groove it tackled this problem in a rock and roll way. As Dave Marsh has pointed out, Graceland’s limitations are summed up in its final line, “That’s why we must learn to live alone” — because there’s no must about it. Simon has said that one reason Graceland never confronts politics directly is that political art doesn’t last. Putting aside the always dubious equation of durability and quality, that’s a hoary modernist myth, proof of modernism’s submission to what some call the bourgeois subject. However dim their analysis, the way our critics intersperse the personal and the political in their annual choices reflects not trendiness but an inevitable evolution of sensibility, because the truth of this myth is drying up before our collective ears. Although ultimate satisfaction may be a dying myth itself and is certainly too much to expect of this fragmented world, today’s partial solutions are promises. They leave room to hope that the divisions Graceland adduces and arouses and fails to address can someday be part of our past — but not that the transcendent power of music alone can make them history.

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Top 10 Albums of 1986

1. Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros.)

2. The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello): King of America (Columbia)

3. The Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury)

4. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live/1975–85 (Columbia)

5. Run-D.M.C.: Raising Hell (Profile)

6. Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam)

7. Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen)

8. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S.)

9. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Blood and Chocolate (Columbia)

10. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie)

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Top 10 Singles of 1986

1. Run-D.M.C.: “Walk This Way” (Profile)

2. Cameo: “Word Up” (Atlanta Arists)

3. Prince and the Revolution: “Kiss”/”Love or Money” (Paisley Park)

4. Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer” (Geffen)

5. (Tie) Billy Bragg: “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” (Go! Discs import)
R.E.M.: “Fall On Me” (I.R.S.)
Timbuk 3: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (I.R.S.)

8. Steve Winwood: “Higher Love” (Warner Bros.)

9. (Tie) Public Image Ltd.: “Rise” (Elektra)
Talking Heads: “Wild Wild Life” (Sire)

— From the March 3, 1987, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a “sound” out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag’s label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three “black” albums in the top 10 and six “girls” who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let’s reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let’s hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren’t young turks like Minneapolis’s Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC’s Run-D.M.C. (now running for “kings of rock”) or Britain’s Smiths (cut ’em off at JFK). In fact, they’re boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984 — not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate — to nobody’s surprise, since they’re old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls — they dominated artistically as well.

The critics’ runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, “When Doves Cry,” won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City,” finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen’s last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic “Pink Cadillac” (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling “Dancing in the Dark” to number two on the singles list, though “Born in the U.S.A.” made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard’s too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976 — not counting This Year’s Model in 1978, they’re the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year’s Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling’s 6.7, Imperial Bedroom’s 6.6, and Thriller’s 6.3 trailing).

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Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen’s baldly anti-pop Nebraska, and it’s also my problem with Prince’s quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic — but that’s only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a “meta-Byronic auteur” who’s “callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions.” What’s someone who doesn’t trust Bruce’s romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn’t even promise to abide — that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis’s pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the “When Doves Cry” mandate: “Life is death…,” he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, “…without adventure.” Whew — another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there’s no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he’s no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he’s the first black to appropriate “rockstar traditions” and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won’t be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate — who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters? — I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist’s marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen’s victory isn’t any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince’s would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It’s more instructive to see both as the stars of this year’s big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we’re not just talking gold albums; about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We’re talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz’s 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That’s the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we’re talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango’s Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash’s Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü’s outrageous “Eight Miles High” an amazing fourth.

There’s no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that’s right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop’s rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime “coffee table hardcore,” but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they’re slick or well-made. It’s because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations — which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers’ heyday, back around ’77 or ’80 or ’82 or whenever. You’re aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you’re like a third of the voting critics, they’re where you make your stand.

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I don’t want to be reductive — tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus to the Replacements’ Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü’s dense rush or the Minutemen’s jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it’s those beliefs I’m trying to pin down. I’m a fan of the SST albums myself — “Turn on the News,” the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I’m also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll’s most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984’s real action — its excitement, believe it or not — was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio — specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly, as the biz intends. Such a trend can’t show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it’s not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite’s “Missing You” (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome “Like a Virgin” came damn close) and the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and especially the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and Barry Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” and the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and Elton John’s “Sad Songs Say So Much” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Once again I don’t mean to be reductive; it’s not as if the manipulation I’m describing doesn’t interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of “Missing You” and its soul siblings. It’s just that at their best they put the same surefire elements — which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion — to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful — better — than at any time since the early ’70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-’60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation ’77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn’t make us barf. And now, since we’re rock and rollers, we’re wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn’t a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn’t limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn’t going to make us give up United States Live or “World Destruction,” as long as they’re still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force — not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it’s created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing — I do remember the Beatles, really — I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince’s band, I dare you to tell me who’s in it, and while you’re scratching your head swear you don’t picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn’t quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she’s a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That’s why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She’s So Unusual out of my top 10 — wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

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Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they’re largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983’s three and 1981’s two but not as impressive as 1982’s nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it’s been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST’s list than on CBS’s). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he’ll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they’re in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists’ crimped dreams and audiences’ crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even — ick — Let’s Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas — I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen — and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let’s Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let’s Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the ’80s, and I don’t see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn’t spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren’t English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner’s white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th! — lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course — watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The — and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

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I’ll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crüe) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they’ll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of “Ghostbusters” or the pathological deceit of “Like a Virgin” (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil), I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll’s hegemony to the president’s. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I’ll just applaud the return to “normal” 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don’t go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go’s, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I’m more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn’t share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don’t be sure you’ll like it — or hate it — when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Rubén Blades, who’s reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile — not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde’s nasty “I’ve got a kid I’m 33” was one of the year’s great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are — our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that’s explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement ’60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Rubén Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop ’84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I’ve spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean’s List at 50 and climbing — which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January — I’ve looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn’t get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A’s to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous — in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single — a year when the quaint notion of the album as “artistic unit” lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness — most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I’ll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year’s poll, from the Smiths and Let’s Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters’ top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They’ve — we’ve — arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I’m concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War Is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they’re sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don’t believe they see the whole picture. I’m very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don’t believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I’m delighted to see co-workers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through — and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that’s very far — we still have the stuff.

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

1. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

2. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

3. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash)

4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.)

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

10. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (Profile)

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

1. Prince: “When Doves Cry”/”17 Days” (Warner Bros.)

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”/”Pink Cadillac” (Columbia)

3. Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Capitol)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Eight Miles High” (SST)

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

6. Prince: “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City” (Warner Bros.)

7. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & The Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Unity” (Tommy Boy)
Run-D.M.C.: “Rock Box” (Profile)

9. Chaka Khan: “I Feel for You” (Warner Bros.)

10. (Tie) Cyndi Lauper: “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (Portrait)
Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time” (Portrait)

— From the February 19, 1985, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1983 Pazz & Jop: Who Else? A Goddamn Critics’ Band, That’s Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.’s Murmur — known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble — might actually outdistance Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: “There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).”

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it’s becoming extinct. And since “matter” is as subjective a concept as “boring,” for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I’ve cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of — how shall we say it? — intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening — it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I’d reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I’d followed Lester Bangs’s dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn’t sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth — epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you — contributes to this problem. But have a heart — so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they’re lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and the Local Boys’ Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he’d take to those and not to the Blasters’ Non Fiction or Hilary’s Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy’s pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

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And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody’s business — cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the ’60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream — hence what I like to call semi-popular music. But it’s been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop’s oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums — the ones that don’t matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn’t end up making our voters feel good. It didn’t instill in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity — that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom (“If I never hear ‘Beat It’ again it’ll be too soon”), some voters aren’t fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren’t sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 per cent response is phenomenal anyway — only “The Message” has ever equaled it — one doesn’t expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization — Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson’s achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he’s being subjected doesn’t have a lot of kneejerk in it — if it doesn’t signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I’d claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself — it’s uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a “late-breaking” 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule — which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year’s total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running — had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979’s Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparison with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn’t planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for “The Lady in My Life.” But for me every Thriller hit except “P.Y.T.” has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including “The Girl Is Mine” (which I’ll take over “Michelle,” Rubber Soul fans) and “Thriller” itself. In fact, “Thriller” is the rare song that’s improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of “the funk of 40,000 years” for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked — a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

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While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson’s explication de texte), I’m with the Jacksonites — choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters’ amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A “consistent and enjoyable” record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter’s deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe’s deceptively inarticulate soul. But what it has to say (assuming Carson’s not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics’ record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur’s subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless — even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma’s obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn’t spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year’s rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis’s import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle’s Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I’ve already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts — the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What’s more, MTV’s effect on the rest of the poll was negligible — the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn’t forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that’s a plus — I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a minus — just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work’s Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don’t blame the poll’s conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol’ Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40’s 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club’s Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn’t made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies — not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of the arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone — home of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll — and Richard Thompson’s Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982’s fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I’m worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres’ good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported “mini-LPs” by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let’s Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speed-rock’s natural medium, I’m also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I’d only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J ’83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X’s John Doe and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and the Blasters’ Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it’s known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they’re still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that’s musical before it’s either collective or public. I wouldn’t sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists — longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won’t keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it’ll help a little.

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Top 10 Albums of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)

3. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)

4. X: More Fun in the New World (Elektra)

5. The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)

6. U2: War (Island)

7. Lou Reed: Legendary Hearts (RCA Victor)

8. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire)

9. Richard Thompson: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal)

10. Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia)

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Top 10 Singles of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (Epic)

2. The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (A&M)

3. The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

4. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy)
Prince: “Little Red Corvette” (Warner Bros.)

6. Eddy Grant: “Electric Avenue” (Epic)

7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic)

8. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill)

9. Run-D.M.C.: “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.s” (Profile)

10. Talking Heads: “Burning Down the House” (Sire)

— From the February 28, 1984, issue

 

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

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New York’s Finest: Paying Tribute to the Beastie Boys in the Pages of the Voice

Though we may never again be treated to new music from the Beastie Boys — those three impish young New Yorkers, Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock), and Michael Diamond (Mike D), who went on to become one of the most original and longest-lasting groups in the history of rap — fans this week were treated to some new material from the group with the release of its Beastie Boys Book. A Beasties-style oral history, the book features the Boys’ two remaining members, Ad Rock and Mike D, swapping written reminiscences that span their pre-Beastie days growing up in New York to MCA’s death in 2012, at the age of 47, from cancer. Interspersed are a mini-cookbook, a graphic novella, and essays from numerous famous writers and artists, including several Voice contributors, such as Colson Whitehead, Luc Sante, and Ada Calhoun.

The Voice itself also features in the book’s 590 pages, having played an important part in the group’s formation, with Mike D describing their early days as a hardcore band:

We also read everything we could find about punk and hardcore, which wasn’t much: The Face magazine and the NYC free weeklies SoHo Weekly News and the Village Voice. The last two were particularly useful because in addition to articles, they contained concert calendars, and in the back pages were ads for all the upcoming shows. It was in one or both of those weekly papers that, sometime in late 1980, we found an ad announcing a Bad Brains show at Botany Talk House, a tiny dive bar in Chelsea. By this time, I’d already spent countless afternoons alone in my bedroom dancing like an idiot to “Pay to Cum.” We were in. 

But at the heart of the book is the Beasties’ transformation from three boys fighting for their right to party — boys whose stage personas, however ironic, championed homophobia and misogyny — to enlightened elder statesmen of rap who spent years atoning for their past sins. And in the yellowed pages of the Voice, we can see that growth as well.

The Beasties first appear in the Voice in the April 15, 1986, issue, in an preview for their opening slot for Run-D.M.C at the Apollo Theater. (It’s interesting to note that their famous gig opening for Madonna on her 1985 Virgin Tour did not appear in our pages; apparently, Madonna’s New York City shows were so completely sold out that her management didn’t even bother taking out a token ad.) The writer, R.J. Smith, has little of worth to say about the nascent group, which at the time had yet to release more than some singles, merely saying that its current radio hit, “Hold It, Now Hit It,” “doesn’t suck eggs.”

Almost a year later, the Beasties’ standing had changed; by the time Doug Simmons tackled them in a short item in the March 31, 1987, issue, their album Licensed to Ill, released in November 1986, had already become the fastest-selling debut in the history of Columbia Records. The Voice’s opinion of them, however, remained the same. The Beasties were making a name for themselves not just with their rapid-fire rhymes, but also with their fratty stage personas — always explained away as “ironic” and “satirical.” Simmons notes the group’s “chronicled excesses” — being banned for life from Holiday Inns, for instance — calling them “road warrior clichés.” But, he writes, “sometimes the persona slips in front of a notebook, and the fiction gives way to something dangerously earnest and reactionary.” Calling out some homophobic comments made by Ad Rock in an NME interview — “[Greenwich Village] is the gay area and I’ve lived here all my life and I hate faggots” — and MCA’s clumsy attempt to explain away his bandmate’s words, Simmons writes, “This is wack. The Beastie Boys have always tempered their studied disgustingness with the justification that they’re only three jerks in search of a good time. It’s just a goof. As MCA assured the Los Angeles Times, ‘Kids know we’re joking.’ Not anymore.”

In June of that same year, the Beasties appear in our pages again, this time in Simon Frith’s Brit Beat column. The English music journalist reported from overseas on the Beasties’ “welcome” by the British tabloids, which had detailed all manner of nasty behavior on the part of the boys — some of which turned out to have been “fake news,” or at least misreported. As Frith writes, “The Boys themselves…had discovered what’s bred in the bone of British pop stars, that when it comes to bad taste, there’s no one as irredeemably sleazy as the tabloid British journalist.” He goes on to review their performance in Birmingham, where they were once again opening for Run-D.M.C., on the groups’ Together Forever Tour, saying of their specific brand of rap: “I realised it isn’t a rip-off of black culture but something more locally familiar, a boys’ takeover of the girls’ skipping rhymes, dirtying them up because that’s what boys are supposed to do.”

Jump ahead to 1989, and we see that the Voice is starting to come around, thanks to the Beasties’ second release, the now-legendary Paul’s Boutique. Fans of the group, or even of the genre in general, may enjoy reading this real-time review of an album now universally described as seminal, groundbreaking, and a masterpiece. While critics today will stress the heretofore unseen sampling genius the Beasties and their producers, the Dust Brothers, employed on Paul’s Boutique, Christgau notes the samples almost in passing, saying they’re exploited “less as hooks than as tags.” Instead, he chronicles the Beasties’ unexpected success as obnoxious white boys in a “genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large,” and explores how the Beasties are, even here, beginning to grow away from that frat-boy persona: “One of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil.”

As for the album itself, Christgau declares that Paul’s Boutique isn’t as “user-friendly” as Licensed to Ill’s pop metal: “I don’t hear a rock anthem like ‘Fight for Your Right,’ or street beats like ‘Hold It, Now Hit It’’s either. But give it three plays and half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere.”

By the time they appeared in our pages again, five years later, the Beasties had released 1992’s live instrument–heavy Check Your Head, along with 1994’s Some Old Bullshit, a collection of early independent releases; they had formed their record label/lifestyle magazine Grand Royal; and, particularly in the case of MCA, they had undergone some serious soul searching and repudiation of their old misogynist and homophobic ways. In the June 14, 1994, issue, in which Joe Levy reviews the band’s fourth album, Ill Communication, we see the Voice treating the Beasties as Serious Artists, with Levy describing the group circa Paul’s Boutique as “prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention.” In his write-up, Levy describes the Boys’ growth and transformation, both personally and musically: “Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, ‘Sure Shot,’ boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: ‘I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.’ ” “You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids,” he continues, “but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication,” he says, further theorizing that the album’s more complicated story is one of “balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time.”

Levy closes out his review with a description of the Beasties as the influential rap icons they had become. “For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today they make culture. In the ’90s…no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community.… You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.”

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”
By Robert Christgau, August 15, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Portable Lower East Side: Beastie Boys”
By Joe Levy, June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hell in 1987: Together Forever.

Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.

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HOMETOWN HEROES

Music factors prominently into Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, in which the central, superhero-obesessed best buds-in-the-face-of-rampant-gentrification Dylan and Mingus jam to The Sugarhill Gang, Lou Reed, N.W.A., and Run DMC. So it’s no wonder that this, of all Lethem’s locally-set work, has been made into a musical for the stage. The project of director Daniel Aukin (Bad Jews, 4000 Miles), it features a score by composer/lyricist Michael Friedman, who previously worked on the Pub’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and bookwriter Itamar Moses of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. With the source material’s focus on race relations, New York City’s turbulent 1970s, and the beginning of Brooklyn’s turn toward its eventual Williamsburgian outcome, the story makes for an especially relevant adaptation.

Oct. 23-Nov. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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Our 5 Favorite Christmas Samples

While it’s often frowned upon to “re-gift” something this time of year (although I swear my preschool-aged cousins will love the copy of Jock Jams Volume 2 and VHS of Darrin’s Dance Grooves I “got” them) sometimes the rules of hip-hop allow us to get these gifts paid forward with a twist that makes their “present” incarnation as unique as a snowflake. Yes, sampling a Christmas song to make a new song is a tradition that’s kept many seasonal classics alive for generations to come. It’s in the spirit of re-giving that we bring to you our five favorite Christmas song samples.


Run-DMC – “Christmas in Hollis”1987
For those of us who can remember a time when hip-hop wasn’t remotely mainstreamed, Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” stands out as the one song our parents would allow us to play from there stereo system around the holidays. Along with being an absolute seasonal classic, “Christmas in Hollis” allows itself to be shuffled into any holiday playlist thanks to sampling the smooth favorite Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” It’s precisely this link that connect Die Hard to Jingle All the Way.

De La Soul – “Simply” 2001
Among the most dated and hated holiday regulars is Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” I’d like to point out that we at the Voice still feel like children when we hear those warmly familiar, albeit primitive synths that start it up. Yet, even the most jaded holiday hater would still nod their head to the late-era non-denominational De La Soul cut “Simply.” Also worth hearing that samples it is the highlight of the first Dipset Christmas album “Dipset X-mas Time.”


Ras Kass – “Jack Frost”1995
Ever heard Ras Kass’ underground rap standard “Nature of the Threat” and wanted something as conspiracy-laden and paranoid for the holidays? You’re in luck as jolly ol’ Saint Kass gave us “Jack Frost.” The Christmas Carol surrounding its origin tells of Kass allegedly being upset with his label’s ability to clear samples and thus masterfully jacking Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” over the Audio Two “Top Billin” break for a slightly more dour bit of holiday cheer.


Princess Superstar – “I Hope I Sell a Lot of Records at Christmastime” 2000
Princess Superstar’s expressed her love for the holidays over the years, most recently with “XMas Swagger.” But her first expression of seasonal sentimentality came from her 2000 track “I Hope I Sell a Lot of Records at Christmastime.” Produced by Prince Paul, the tracks use of the  Bill Pursell instrumental “Our Winter Love” captures that Christmas ambiance perfectly as Superstar laments over what it was like moving Christmas units in the days of physical media.


Metermaids – “Santa Panned Our Album On His Blog” 2011
Updating us to the internet age is Brooklyn rap duo the Metermaids’ “Santa Panned Our Album on His Blog.” The cracked chopping of Stevie Wonder’s “The Christmas Song” makes for a perfect backdrop for joyfully sprinkling sour grapes into a self-deprecating Christmas. While it paints Jolly Ol St. Nick’s taste in hip-hop as leaving something to be desired, we like to think his choices that year were due to coming down with a case of 2011’s most contagious illness, Bieber Fever.

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Diggy+OMG Girlz+Jawan Harris

This fresh-faced pop-rap MC called his 2012 debut Unexpected Arrival. But given Simmons’ status as the son of Rev Run—of Run-DMC and, um, Run’s House—there’s nothing particularly surprising about the album’s appearance (or its music). He headlines the latest edition of the Scream Tour with support from OMG Girlz, Jawan Harris, and more.

Sat., Aug. 25, 7 p.m., 2012