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

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692586″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

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

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

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

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

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

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

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

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

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

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

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

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

—From the February 27, 1990, issue

 

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

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Slags and Hags Invade NYC!

Best way to pimp a book to the young’uns? Pile a bunch of hot British babes—including newly svelte designer Alexander McQueen—into the dusty old National Arts Club for Mick Rock‘s fete for his David Bowie photo tome Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust. Among the stateside scenesters: party promoter-Blahnik addict Patrick Duffy; couture quartet As Four; silicone valley girl Amanda Lepore; transy Interview fashion director Joanna Jacovini with Heatherette designers Richie Rich and Traver Rains; ever-dandy dandy Patrick McDonald; upstart designers Liz Collins and Gary Graham; electro bandwagon chaser turned L’Uomo-Vogue model Phiiliip; and Chloë Sevigny, decked out in an interesting choice of lederhosen, giggling with comedian Jimmy Fallon.

Sashaying past the literary hall’s chiding signs (“Do not lean against the walls!” and “Smokers, please use ashtrays”) were models Shalom Harlow and Sophie Dahl. While not nearly as mutated as the sepulchral Christina Ricci, the faster, sleeker Dahl has gotten her share of attention from her new bod, and she’s sick of it.

The British tabs practically use Dahl for toilet paper—the 3AM girls refer to the doll-faced mannequin as a “slag,” ” ‘super’ model,” and “loser.” “It’s gotten to a stage where it’s really tiresome,” said Dahl. “I was 18 when I started modeling. [My body] was going to change.”

The granddaughter of Willy Wonka creator Roald Dahl just wrote a book, The Man With the Dancing Eyes.

“It’s not a Barbara Cartland novel,” said Dahl, referring to the sappy British romance queen who makes Danielle Steele look like Jane Austen. A relief. But for her sake it better be a halfway decent read or they’ll start calling her The Little Pretender.


Notorious for not performing in the U.S., West London broken-beat impresario and 4HERO frontman Dego played for a relatively small crowd of future-soul heads at Shine on July 24, including Triple 5 Soul founder Camella Ehlke and fellow dance producer King Britt.

The man behind the Winter Music Conference hit “Hold It Down” is a close contemporary of the Philly-based cabal of neo-soul artists. His name can be found in the album liner notes of everyone from Jill Scott to the Roots to Ursula Rucker. Although he’s still an underground dance music phenomenon, Dego doesn’t seem to be bothered that major labels and critics can’t get their heads around broken beat.

“It’s disappointing and to be expected,” he told Fly Life. “I mean, Americans often think the world starts in New York and ends in L.A. It’s them that are missing out, or just waiting for Timbaland to sample it!”


All these British celebs bring me back to the life of early-’90s London r&b posse Soul II Soul, and its bevy of erstwhile street divas—but damn, how hard some of them fell! Caron Wheeler, Victoria Wilson-James, and Kym Mazelle have all faded in and out of the music scene, and Doreen Waddell was tragically killed in a car accident this past March while running away from security guards who caught her shoplifting from a West End supermarket.

Lamya is vowing not to go the route of her less fortunate Soul II Soul sisters. Ever since the Omani-descended singer’s Learning From Falling dropped, she’s been securing her popularity with all of New York fagdom, first by performing at Victor Calderone‘s Masquerade party over Gay Pride weekend, and most recently at Trace magazine’s July 30 party for their fall issue—stylist Patti Wilson gave the songstress a Donna Summer-esque look for the cover.

Will the critics hold the S2S curse against her? “I’m sure they’ll all hate me next year,” she lamented. “I’ll have fun while it lasts!”



SPOTTED: Loony photog Dah Len hanging with model Selita Ebanks at the Trace party at Angel Orensanz Foundation . . . singer N’dea Davenport, appearing incog-negro in a bowler hat at the one-year anniversary party for Sistahs Harlem NY designers Carmen Webber and Shawna McBean at Negril . . . Nicky Hilton noshing on a burger while reading Toby Young‘s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People at the Union Square Cosí . . . and—more Brits!—Vivienne Westwood at the after-party for the final performance of Alan Cumming‘s ELLE at the Hudson Library Bar, along with Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey, writer Brian Keith Jackson, designers John Bartlett and Cynthia Rowley, and Monica Lewinsky (looking good!).


jgermosen@villagevoice.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

2Step’s Ticket to Paradise

A year ago, someone I work with at the record store played me what was then the latest dance song to take over the U.K. charts: “Sweet Like Chocolate” by a mysterious entity known as Shanks & Bigfoot. “Sweeter Than Chocolate” would’ve been more appropriate, as the song had more glucose in it than just about anything ever, the Archies included. “Oh, it’s freestyle,scoffed another coworker, except that it wasn’t—not exactly. “Sweet Like Chocolate” was part of a more recent development, the dance genre alternately known (depending on whom you ask) as “2step” or “U.K. garage.” And though you’d never know it on this side of the Atlantic—unless, like me, you’re easily sucked into following new dance trends, especially when said trends involve people of mixed races from England wearing sharp clothing—2step/garage ruled Britannia in the year 2000, as both an underground and overground phenomenon, splashing down hard on the club scene, pirate radio, Top 40, and of course, the pop—though not, significantly, rock—press, where it was boasted (in The Face) that “it could only have happened here.”

If you ask me, this genre should be called 2step, and not just because it rolls off the tongue easier, but because U.K. garage is not a British version of “Louie, Louie” and the Chocolate Watchband (it’s sweeter than the Watchband). It is interesting, though, how British dance genres absorb U.S. dance sounds and U.S. punk words. When I recently interviewed MJ Cole, one of 2step’s chief instigators, he kept referring to “hardcore” as one of the styles that led him down the musical path into “garage,” and I thought, how odd to go backwards from Minor Threat to the Kingsmen. I’ve never understood the dance definition of “hardcore,” especially as it applies to 2step: Sometimes the snare drums sound clangy or militaristic, but overall this music’s about as hard as a rubber duckie.




Overall this music’s about as hard as a rubber duckie.


Of course, “garage,” in its dance definition, comes from the Paradise Garage, the legendary late-’70s New York club that spawned the high-pitched, diva-fied sound that would eventually evolve into house music. 2step, on the other hand, has existed for more than 150 years in the form of actual dances, from salon-era waltzes to Texas line shuffles. The two-step waltz, more popularly known as valse a deux temps (two-beat waltz), was, according to Victor Eijkhout on his Web page (www.eijkhout.net/rad/), rejected by many dancers because it was “jerky in its movement.”

The new British 2step does not denote any specific bodily gyrations on the dancefloor, but its rhythm is also rather “jerky in its movement.” Mathematically speaking, 2step is the mean average of house and jungle, meaning tempo-wise it’s house (120 beats per minute) plus jungle (140 bpm+) divided by two. The analogy goes deeper than mere mathematics, though: 2step’s beat is more complex than house (flittier hi-hat patterns, off-center kick drums), though not as cluttered as jungle (which is cluttered primarily by its speed).

There’s also a strong dosage of Timbaland’s and She’kspere’s edgy rhythmic experiments and Miami bass’s bouncy bounce-bounce, and though American producers have yet to jump into the 2step ring, Jill Scott, Destiny’s Child, and Sisqó have recently had makeovers from Brit remixers MJ Cole, the Dreem Teem, and Artful Dodger, respectively. So maybe what we’re starting to witness in dance music is something that occurred frequently in the rock world of the ’60s: what Roger McGuinn called secret messages back and forth between the Brits and Americans, like the Beatles hearing the Byrds’ use of 12-string guitars and responding with “Ticket to Ride.”

Still, I don’t think The Face was inaccurate in saying that 2step could only have happened in the U.K., for the “secret” card that British dance kids have stacked in their decks is the reggae and dancehall DJ: the free-floating, patois-based toasting style, exported from Jamaica, sure, but a seminal part of Britain’s interracial stew, and positively crucial to the 2step sound. Following rudeboy culture, there hasn’t actually been a lot of dance music indigenous to England. The U.K.’s biggest post-disco development came from Soul II Soul, who evolutionized house music in 1989 by slowing it down 20 bpm. Jungle grew out of this environment as well, but went in the opposite direction, upping the tempo 20+ bpm. In case you were lucky enough to miss that boat, not to fear: Most jungle musicians forgot about the music part—you know, songs, melodies, and hooks.

Thankfully, most of 2step’s better-known producers have ears for pop craft, as proven by recent CD releases from MJ Cole, True Steppers, and Artful Dodger. There are 24 vocalists scattered across these three albums, plus occasional interludes between songs, making them feel less like digital artifacts and more like instantaneous, indeterminate flips of the radio dial. “MJ FM Interlude” on MJ Cole’s Sincere (Talkin’ Loud) features a bit of pirate-banter between DJ and listener (“Yo, MJ FM—caller, you’re on the air!”), kind of like those old Malcolm McLaren and the Supreme Team skits. Cole is being touted as 2step’s first “serious” musician because he holds a degree from the Royal College of Music, and on Sincere he fine-tunes his arrangements to both ill and skilled effect. The pizzicato strings on “Crazy Love,” for instance, are superb, but there’s a tendency to wallow in minor-key Jean Michel-Jarre soundscapes. Cole does ride a pretty sharp groove, though, and his hypnotic and sparsely arranged title track makes disco sound like the dance of doom. Just try erasing this triplet from your head: “Don’t do it/Be sincere/I’m crazy.” Don’t do what?

If MJ Cole manages to keep his pop instincts intact, True Steppers, a duo featuring former junglist Jonny L and his partner, Andy Lysandrou, positively bathe in cheap, for-the-moment gimmickry. If robotic disco puts a smile on your face, check out the group’s debut, True Stepping (BMG import), which has vocoders on almost every track, used to greatest effect on the Posh Spice-guested “Out of Your Mind,” and in the melodic “Sunshine,” which may be the warmest, funniest tribute Roger Troutman will ever get. Fans of “real” music will hate these guys.

Apparently Mark Hill and Pete Devereux, a/k/a Artful Dodger UK, have more than their fair share of haters (the adjectives “limp” and “candy floss” show up in a couple reviews), but as 2step’s most chart-proven act, that’s probably inevitable. All last year, while this movement was still a mystery to me, I kept seeing “Artful Dodger Remix” plastered on various dance comps, and now I know why. Their album, Its All About the Stragglers (London import), contains three of the genre’s best singles. “Movin’ Too Fast” has the same nimble touch (thanks to some pitched-up church bells) occasionally heard in freestyle; “Woman Trouble” and “Re-rewind” (both also included on AD’s U.S. DJ-mix album Rewind) are showcases for Robbie Craig and 2step’s first pinup boy, Craig David, two classic r&b-style vocalists. (David’s solo album, Born to Do It—set for a U.S. summer release on Atlantic—is excellent when the 2step rhythms nudge out the mid-tempo, streamlined r&b flavors. Otherwise, he comes across as a less libidinous R. Kelly.)

Thankfully, AD’s album isn’t all about the singles, though—almost every track is expertly arranged and written. Like Madonna on Music, Artful Dodger pretend that disco was something someone invented yesterday, and in the process bypass “genre” altogether. (I suspect we’ll see “Artful Dodger Remix” stamped over a Madonna single before the year’s over.)

I haven’t touched on 2step’s fashion/lifestyle/drugs element (designer suits, “posing,” and a lot of Baby Duck-sipping, I’m told), or on any number of cool one-shots by people like Sweet Female Attitude (“Flowers”) and Neesha (“What’s It Gonna Be”), names that won’t likely survive, even as footnotes to Shanks & Bigfootnotes. At the same time, I’m not all that partial to some of the genre’s more earnest strains. Wookie, a protégé of Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B, has been called the scene’s “saviour” in the Britpress, but most of his self-titled release (Soul II Soul import) is basically Seal with a perkier beat (though to be fair, Wookie does do a dynamite cut-and-paste job of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” in “What’s Going On”).

2step is also enduring an inevitable swing toward a “deeper, darker” aesthetic. Sound of the Pirates (Locked Out import), a compilation mixed by Zed Bias, pushes this angle: The basslines aren’t as warm, the rhythms have less sparkly Detroit funk finesse, and the whole sound verges on the premise that dissonance equals “more challenging” (and is thus superior). And yet the poppiest 2step’s challenging enough, certainly if you’re the type who pays close attention to how beats are structured. A friend of mine, who hears rhythms better than anyone I know, finally heard an Artful Dodger tune the other day and remarked, “It’s hardly 2step at all. The kick drum’s all over the place, and everything else seems really off.” He couldn’t even believe it was in 4/4.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Softcore Techno

Sex in American music videos is limited to jokey or “social commentary” snippets. But some Brits at Palm
Pictures have just put out a
real porno, Suck It and See, complete with soundtrack CD on Pussyfoot Records. Oddly enough, there’s not much suck (i.e., oral), and palms aren’t
focused on.


Palm calls the film an “homage to 1970’s softcore porn classics,” probably due to its semblances of plot—nowhere to be found in ’90s porn, which uses more
advanced concepts such as
Internet cameras in toilets.
The Girl with cute flippety hair arrives at airport, is leered at by The Sleazy Businessman, who looks like a cross between Kraftwerk’s uncles and nuclear power mogul Mr. Burns. TG is met by a squirrelly Backstreet Boy lookalike. The Boy has a chauffeur so he can fornicate The Girl in the car, saving
valuable time. The Boy swims naked in a pool while The Girl and The Blond Girl have sex in a sauna—hey, as non sequiturs go it beats The Magical Mystery Tour. TB, TG, and TBG go to a motel so sleazy that the pages of their Gideons are stuck together. We soon see they’re constructing integrated circuits. No, they’re doing
volunteer work for the Red Cross…okay, okay, they’re bonking and filming it. The
sexiness deteriorates from here. I don’t mean to sound shallow and horny, but it is porn, right?


Most of the film’s music is
on the second disc of the soundtrack CD, but the first disc’s straightforward house jacking is better. Daddy longlegs’s “Atomic Fuck Machine” sounds like a party with some annoying robot host stopping the music to shout “blleeee-ee-ee, brprprprpr, whir-rr-rr-rr, ee-EEEE.” Fantastic Plastic Machine’s “Green Door” has an ethereal white–Soul II Soul quality. But “Only If It Hurts”
by Howie B. is the track I’ve
listened to most, thanks to freaky-assed jerky computer barks and clanky percussion. And it’s on during the steamy all-girl sex scene.