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Rakim and Eric B: Hyper as a Heart Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side

Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side
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?

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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 Hellin 1987: Together Forever.

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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.

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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.

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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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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 Pazz & Jop

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

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

 

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

1994 Pazz & Jop: Hegemony Sez Who? Does ‘Alternative Rock’ Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who’ve declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole’s Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair’s status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock’s sexual politics that renders Courtney Love’s status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal — at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it’s no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian — totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage — before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don’t really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife’s breakout at number one, his group’s exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle’s tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle’s Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle’s Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved “alternative” albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole’s gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana’s major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn’t just rool, it rules; it’s mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question “Alternative to what?” but the brand-new conundrum “Hegemonic sez who?”

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop ’94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation — the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early ’80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics’ bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic — limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there — doesn’t nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop’s politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they’re the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole “world music” finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That’s also a record, and at least Ry’s only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil “Forever” Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny “Hard” Cash, whose Rick Rubin–masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a “real” gangsta might beat them up. As in the “real” world, where people buy their records, Cash’s support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don’t let my dismay mislead you — as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn’t in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn’t put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People’s Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command — how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana — as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys — who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

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Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I’ve always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie – ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it’s held out hope for bohemia — for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippieville’s insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I’ve been wont to ask, “Why so glum, chum?” The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it’s given credit for — in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive — as with Nirvana above all, or Beck — it’s hard for anyone who’s spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. Duh.

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn’t without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain’s genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind’s and In Utero’s as well — thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn’t just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don’t believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn’t mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won’t be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn’t mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill — not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll — won’t now take out after more genuinely marginal types, “alternative” rock (and “alternative” newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers’ April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn’t be a religion — that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn’t only you don’t know it yet. Kurt’s suicide distressed me, but it didn’t surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America’s corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994’s best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them — and for most of today’s rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical — discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics’ lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying — at least any meaning or need that interests them.

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I don’t want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters — although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus — would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition — cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer — that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there’s variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one’s as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one’s as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I’m being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12 — Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you’ve lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe) — somehow seems too uniform. It’s exclusionary, myopic; it can’t last, it won’t last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who’ve been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don’t want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that’

s all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren’t just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there’s the critics’ hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he’s almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who’ll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There’s the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history — the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There’s a 41-50 list where “alternative” continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there’s the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This’s punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don’t know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn’t “sell out,” children, but she sure did “freak out,” as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney’s far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they’re her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I’m not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she’s smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one — a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don’t entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it’s OK, really — since one proof of Nirvana’s greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it’s only natural that girls in Nirvana’s wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal — I’ve never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I’m positive there’s not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they’re being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something — which I find inaudible, and isn’t it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

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Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you’d think had more important things to argue about, I’m relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select “Seether” their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck’s “Loser.” And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health — of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from “alternative” albums in the top 15 and only two didn’t score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records — Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” — could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren’t permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ’s medium that hits no longer cross over automatically — you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré’s unapology (headed “Skills, Son”) speaks for itself. I’m enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I’m reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas’s music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn’t the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren’t all that hard to come by.

It’s true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it’s undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders — if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru’s subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won’t waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism — deliberate or de facto, power play or default position — becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists — because we don’t like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It’s not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes — hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It’s that there’s no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop’s alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What’s more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility — pop hooks, pop success — and that’s as it should be. Of course it’s about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don’t endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics’ choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it’s a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation’s hip hop succés d’estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they’re lucky.

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Generalizing about blocs is tricky — most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don’t credit our vote any more than the government’s). Still, I’m struck by the third-place reissue — Bar/None’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by ’60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational — over-40s won’t give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo’s weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None’s mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn’t just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages — it’s because many voters receive only “alternative” product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it’s damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom ’zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don’t care if they make things worse — specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I’d like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that’s assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can’t be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers’ landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that — like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see “Fun Matters”), who’s probably too openhearted to be typical — alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can’t last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn’t any — especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney’s flawed feminism, who’s really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let’s hope the twain never meet, because we’ve now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we’re not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything “the ’60s” are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill’n’Hill are out of the way — that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril — left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it’s wrong. It isn’t just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn’t fall into their laps — by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it’s rejected or reconfigured. It’s also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I’m Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I’ve been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi — the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole’s guitar sound — Courtney’s singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt’s every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of stupidly embracing it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they’ve been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck’s best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced — construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I’d heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation’s ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California’s Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like “alternative rock,” that ain’t all it is.

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Top 10 Albums of 1994

1. Hole: Live Through This (DGC)

2. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.)

4. Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC)

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

6. Liz Phair: Whip-Smart (Matador)

7. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American)

8. Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat)

9. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

10. Beck: Mellow Gold (DGC)

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Top 10 Singles of 1994

1. Beck: “Loser” (DGC)

2. Veruca Salt: “Seether” (DGC)

3. Coolio: “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)

4. Warren G: “Regulate” (Violator/RAL)

5. Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (Grand Royal/Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Warner Bros.)

7. Pavement: “Cut Your Hair” (Matador)

8. (Tie) Hole: “Doll Parts” (DGC)
Liz Phair: “Supernova” (Matador)

10. Offspring: “Come Out and Play” (Epitaph)

—From the February 28, 1995, issue

 

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

 

 

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

1992 Pazz & Jop: Between Rock and a Hard Place

Back in November, nobody knew who would win the 19th or 20th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. By January, everybody did — everybody but me. “It’s not good enough, Joe,” I protested earnestly to Crown Poobah Joe Levy, and of that I felt certain. The kvelling about Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… — the first winning album ever named after how long the band shopped for a contract, but not the first to begin with the numeral 3 — started the moment it was released last March. Pumped by a cover that looked as if Dwayne and Freddie had hustled a spinoff from A Different World, I home-taped it, confident that sooner or later one of those juicy titles — “Raining Revolution,” “Blues Happy,” “Dawn of the Dreads” — would grab my mind-ass continuum. But a boring thing happened on the way to the pleasure dome. First, Levy-the-editor found himself unable to land a review — one, two, three fine writers eagerly signed on, then came up dry. And having run the record through my head a dozen times, so did I. Not horrible by any means. Interesting. But too often the beats shambled and the raps meandered, and though I certainly enjoyed “People Everyday” ’s gangsta dis, the rhymes vagued out as well — or, worse still, preached. So I declared the album a Consumer Guide Dud forthwith.

P.S. — Then I moved my car. And one night in May, something relaxed and mysterious punctuated the new jack schwing thwocking out of my Blaupunkt. It was Arrested Development! On “urban” radio! “Tennessee,” great song, how did I miss it? Well, it was the 14th cut on a 57-minute album, and I don’t even know which “Tennessee” I heard — the commercial 12-inch featured four mixes, a subsequent promo three more. But right, I blew it — should have named “Tennessee” a Choice Cut and split. Goofy, deeply downcast, aglow with tragic hope, Pazz & Jop’s overwhelming number-one single is an adamantly spiritual but humbly unpreachy meditation on black pain that stands as a far more startling radio novelty than the number-three “Jump.” If I prefer “Jump,” that’s because popcraft is sacred and “Jump” is an act of God — and because “Tennessee” does meander, even if it seems miraculous as a sunshower after too much slick dance music or hardcore rap.

I’m trying to be nice here. It’s churlish to put down a progressively conceived popular and critical favorite that sounds good on the radio. And compared with Elvis Costello’s Imperial Boredom, the only other Pazz & Jop winner I wished had stood in bed, 3 Years… is a funfest. But those three aborted critical paeans stick in my mind, as do all the wan-to-belittling poll comments, not to mention the interested parties who professed themselves as delighted with its electoral prospects as they had been with Our President’s. “Do you ever listen to it?” I’d ask. Somewhat sheepishly, every one allowed as how he or she didn’t. And this unenthusiasm is reflected in our results. The support for 3 Years… just about duplicated that of our 1989 winner, which was not only a soft-edged rap debut, but a soft-edged rap debut beginning with the numeral 3: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got 1050 points from 255 voters, 3 Years… 1050 from 253. De La Soul, however, attracted only 89 voters, Arrested Development 97, so that Arrested Development averaged only 10.8 points per supporter, the lowest ever for a winner; in recent years Nirvana got 12.7, Neil Young 12.3, De La Soul 11.8. Clearly, a lot of people voted for this album because they felt they should, not necessarily as a racial or genre token but simply to reward the band for taking on the thankless burden of rap reform. Tonya Pendleton of The Philadelphia Tribune sums up the feeling: “A welcome relief from the excesses of gangster rap — it’s moving, intelligent music that you can groove to.”

Ah yes, gangster rap. It was a terrible year for gangster rap, whatever that means anymore — street, hardcore, I don’t know. The defamation of Ice-T’s dead-eyed metal sendup Body Count (which finished a hard-earned 31st despite cop-out and antimusicality charges) was only one symptom of a dilemma wracking the rap community, whatever that means anymore — constituency, market, I don’t know. Rap is undergoing a crisis of authenticity that makes Philly teen dreams, Hollywood hippies, punk versus new wave, and who’s got the funk look like style wars. Hooked on sexism, blamed for the violence they prophesied, threatened musically by formal quandaries and brute property rights, the talking heads of black CNN found themselves between rock and a hard place. Over in the middle distance was the white crossover audience for four of the five 1992 rap albums to sell a million: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Wreckx-N-Effect, House of Pain, and triple-platinum Kris Kross. And in their face was the spiritual source of the music, the fast-changing core audience of fucked-over young black males, making an unreasonable demand it was hard for any rapper to gainsay: that rap be for them.

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Inside the rap world — where artists as diverse as EPMD, Black Sheep, Da Lench Mob, M.C. Brains, and Too Short went gold with barely a pop ripple or critical notice — there were two acceptable responses to this ghettocentric demand, both of which courted up-and-coming hards by rejecting the prevailing orthodoxy of jagged, densely explosive, Bomb Squad mixes. Progressives favored the jazzy swing of Gang Starr (Brooklyn, old jack, 43rd) and the Pharcyde (California, crazee, tied for 100th), while a new neotraditionalist faction stuck to the straight-up funk of 105th-place EPMD (who also produced 106th-place Redman and the trippier 78th-place Das EFX), with the so-called soul grooves of 49th-place Pete Rock & CL Smooth splitting the difference. These artists are also diverse — anyone who believes rap is monolithic has never listened to two decent albums back to back — but while none are gangstas, only Gang Starr and Rock & Smooth try any positive messages; the EPMD crew in particular is in de facto rebellion against the calls to self-improvement that trip so readily from the self-appointed race men of the old and new schools, and also against what rappers loosely refer to as “critics,” which means anyone who puts them down. What else can you expect when entertainers barely out of high school become point men in the struggle against a system of oppression that defeated Malcolm and Martin? But it also reminds me of the ’70s, when waves of metal bands led a young, angry, male, working-class audience into its own unreconstructed market niche.

As with metal, I understand in theory and can’t connect in practice — of the 10 albums just cited, only the Pharcyde’s gets me going for more than a cut or two. The same goes for the electorate, where our sizable little contingent of rap specialists — which would be larger if we’d managed to get out the vote in our precinct at the hip hop nationalist Source, where a ghettocentric response to the crisis has long been in full effect — gave the above-named most of what support they received. Raised on college radio, rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream has its own program — the alternative rap of Arrested Development, Basehead (10th place), and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (19th).

Arrested Development pursues this program consciously, aggressively. AD headman Speech has attacked the sexism of Cube, Quik, and N.W.A in “20th Century African,” a column he cowrites for his parents’ community newspaper in Milwaukee, and was happy to tell an interviewer: “There are a lot of people who look up to rappers, and I want people to be aware that sometimes what artists are saying isn’t always right.” Talking revolution soon-come rather than violence now — “So this government needs to be overthrown/Brothers wit their A.K.’s and their 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution” — Speech typifies the rarely acknowledged class divisions of a music that seems doomed to romanticize the street even when that’s where it comes from; he’s the kind of young progressive whose parents own a small newspaper. Yet unlike Basehead and the Disposable Heroes, Arrested Development at least squeezed into The Source’s five-page spread of 1993 “Noizemakers” (though they didn’t make any of the 45 EFX-and-Rock-dominated year-end top fives the mag printed). Their Afrocentric rhetoric, and off in the middle distance their multicultural pop reach, should keep them in some kind of contact with the hip hop community. But it would be easier to believe that Speech is strong enough to negotiate the tricky internal politics any grander reform scheme will require if his music packed more firepower.

As for Basehead and the Disposable Heroes — and my own alternative rappers of choice, Philadelphia’s street-leftist Goats (five mentions) — they’d better settle for college radio. And that’s sad — sad for the hip hop community, but also sad for rock critics. To an extent the almost complete absence of non-alternative rap in our top 40 is a statistical blip, but I’m struck nevertheless by the bare 40th-place finish of Ice Cube’s The Predator, which stormed Billboard’s pop charts at number one and went platinum in January. (I’ll take this opportunity to run down 41-50 — Ministry, Klaatu doing business as XTC, Gang Starr, Skeletons, Suzanne Vega, Sade, jazz champ Randy Weston, Lemonheads, Pete Rock, and pomo diva Annie Lennox — and mention that when I totted up the record-breaking pile of 54 late ballots for my own amusement, I didn’t find an Ice Cube in the bunch. In an expanded 307-voter poll, Cube comes in 49th, Gang Starr 55th, Pete Rock 56th. Tori Amos and the Roches also fall off, while Annie Lennox leapfrogs ecstatically to 32nd.) With nothing more epochal than Arrested Development on the horizon, it bodes ill that the Prophet Cube is losing his crit cred, that Ice-T blinked, that Public Enemy’s avowed nonalbum got only one mention, that the nearest thing to another Cypress Hill coming out of left field was AD itself. It means the critics — and the demanding if faddish consumers they don’t so much speak for as provide a clue to — are rejecting rap’s core audience in much the same way the core audience is rejecting them. And though I hate to say it, I can hear why.

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Rap is far too juicy to dry up and go away, and it contributed a respectable quota of albums to this year’s Dean’s List. So of course I recommend Eric B. and Yo Yo and FU-Schnickens and BDP, Kris Kross too. I just won’t claim that any of them was as momentous as PE and Ice-T and Cypress Hill in 1991 — or as the Goats and the Disposable Heroes in 1992. Whether because the sampler has lost its power to surprise, as the easily bored Ann Marlowe believes, or because the copyright wars have squelched creativity, as I’ll argue until there’s a revolution in capitalist concepts of intellectual property, or just because the wrong artists sat out the year, rap felt a little tired. Moreover, the canard that the alternative pretenders lacked beats is hip hop chauvinism of no relevance to the omniverous listener. For me the musical failure is Arrested Development’s rootsy post-Daisy Age, which softens established rap parameters, not the pulse of the Goats and the Disposables, who meld hip hop usages into a longer, steadier rock groove (not so different from the swing and straight-up funk strategies, after all), or the wiggy indeterminacy of the private joke on rap that is Michael Ivey’s Basehead. Supposedly, critics flock to alternative rap because they can relate to its corny “liberal” lyrics, and no doubt some do. Me, I don’t think the lyrics are as clichéd as they’re made out to be, and I go to these records for music first.

Like the listenability test I threw at AD, music-first is one of those criteria that seems so incontrovertibly self-evident it becomes necessary to point out that it’s not. Even the most enjoyable records don’t suit all occasions, difficult and painful ones can reward your labor tenfold when you’re motivated, and sometimes the keenest artistic pleasure is conceptual, which can mean anything from overall structure to formal frisson to the historical or political or ethical or just plain mental excitement of hearing a stranger choose the right moment to do the right thing — assume the right stance, forge the right synthesis, make the right statement. As you stop looking to music for the meaning of life you discover that music per se endures much better than moments do, and so, although the concept album per se is associated with old fartdom, it’s the excitable young who tend to overlook the messy details of what’s actually in the bytes that underlie somebody’s cool move. But that’s neither reason to deny their concepts nor proof that it’s impossible to share them from a distance.

For me, PJ Harvey’s Dry is a prime example. By yoking rock-not-pop late-’60s virtuosity to postpunk neoprimitivism and staking a strong-not-macho female claim on the rockist pose, it’s conceptually powerful two ways, and the music-lover in me would add that the sheer sound is arresting no matter what it means. Unfortunately, I see scant evidence of the profound poet or witchy prankster some also perceive in Polly Jean Harvey, which bothers me more because too often the sound isn’t shaped into fully realized songs (a pop demand, I know — sue me, I want it all). And while I admire her womanism and root for the uprising it spearheads, it’s not my dream come true. So I ended up with Dry midway down my A list. But I’m not surprised that it came in fourth, nor that only one voter was so smitten that he or she (he, actually; Dry’s 23 per cent female support was barely higher than women’s 17 per cent share of the electorate) gave it even 20 points. With something to give now and plenty of promise for later, this is the kind of record that always inspires broad-based critical favor. The cult item was Pavement’s second-place Slanted and Enchanted, which averaged almost 15 points per mention — and which to my ears not only packs the conceptual punch Joe Levy describes but stands up to heavy rotation.

That’s the idea, of course — concept that “works,” to use the subjective critical shorthand of artistic gatekeepers everywhere. To my ears, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… doesn’t work, and neither does a rap album I somehow forgot to mention, the Beastie Boys’ fifth-place Check Your Head. Great concept — arty posthardcore band turned world-class rappers address their whiteskin marginality by picking up their instruments again. Problem is, the execution is halfway there at best, and since they’re into New Orleans funk rather than fast garage-rock, it matters — the pleasure and meaning of that style isn’t an idea, it’s the physical reality of the cross-rhythms. But as I know because I’ve asked around, many fans so enjoy the Beasties’ “spirit of playing (and playing with) the grooves” that they listen to Check Your Head all the time. And whatever the limits of the listenability test, I guess I believe the voters also literally enjoy all the other failed concepts to march to the head of the class this year.

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Not counting Lindsey Buckingham (and believe me, we were tempted), these failures were all top-20: Los Lobos’s Kiko (sixth, third including the more middle-American late vote), Tom Waits’s Bone Machine (ninth and seventh), K. D. Lang’s Ingénue (12th), Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss (16th), and maybe Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town (18th, though raw critical loyalty certainly helped this ponderous, well-crafted disappointment, a shorter and by most accounts lighter piece of work than its more songful corelease Human Touch, which finished way down at 80). Tastes — and judgments — differ. Others would add or substitute R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (third) or Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew (13th), albums I say “work” despite their seriousness, or perhaps Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World (11th) — maybe even, such is progress, Sonic Youth’s Dirty (eighth). But with Arrested Development setting the tone, few would deny that 1992 was lousy with serious works of art, and not many would declare themselves improved in wisdom by all of them.

More than R.E.M. or Cherry (both high B plusses) or Williams or Sonic Youth (both in my top 10), all my designated failures progressed, took chances, and so forth with their music, the better to frame their words. But their words don’t justify the effort, or the notice. K. D. Lang casts herself as a cabaret singer and reminds us why cabaret singers dig Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim — hell, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Lou Reed writes about Andy Warhol, I listen; when he writes about death, I try to listen, really I do, but soon my thoughts turn to Michael Stipe, to Michael Hurley, to what’s in the fridge. Set on balancing their Hispanic identity and their American prerogatives at a higher level of expressive fluency, Los Lobos prove their command of folk/rock sonics with lovely settings like “Wake Up Dolores” and “Arizona Skies” and their subjection to folk-rock corn with portentous titles like “That Train Don’t Stop Here” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” And on Bone Machine Waits is an ace arranger under the thumb of a four-flushing singer-songwriter. When he’s got the cards — “Goin’ Out West” ’s petty delusions, “All Stripped Down” ’s final judgment, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” ’s parting shot — the Weillian bite of the junkshop music cuts through his plug-ugly vocal shtick and his fondness for literary subjects like hangings and unsolved murders. But he’s always been a beatnik manqué who got away with shit because it impressed pop pygmies, and he always will be.

These are the kind of records rock critics are always accused of falling for — the kind of records Sting makes, you know? But not since 1987 (U2, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson, and the indefatigable Waits, not to mention Tunnel of Love and Skylarking, which worked) have we put up with so much bigthink. Voters noticed the trend, and their explanations make sense: AIDS, the economy, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what I mostly see is people getting older — young adults fending off intimations of mortality by rejecting the evanescent jollies of stance and synthesis for something more substantial, more verbal, more middlebrow. And if AIDS and the economy obviously fed their sense of rampaging limits, I think it’s possible Nirvana had something to do with it too.

In the wake of Nevermind, critics braced themselves for an “alternative” onslaught of unknown dimensions, and if you like you can find one here. Hard-touring perennial also-rans Soul Asylum sold out and broke out; the Jayhawks relocated their Gram Parsons memorial to a major and soared. Play With Toys started out on Berkeley’s Emigré, the Disposable Heroes as San Francisco’s Beatnigs. Rykodisc’s three charting albums put it in a league with every major except WEA, and three archetypally impecunious indies also made their mark — TeenBeat with Sassy pinups Unrest, who actually would have risen to 30 if late ballots had counted; Bar/None with transplanted Kansan Freedy Johnston, who would have gone all the way to 19 if his Midwestern backers had mailed early; and Matador with shockeroo runner-up Pavement, whose disjointly tuneful, perversely unreadable noise/sound collage would have been our biggest indie album since X’s Wild Gift even if the stragglers had pushed it down to fourth where it belonged. On the other hand, Amerindie product disappeared from the singles chart and didn’t even dominate EPs. Seattle’s only album finisher got most of its points in 1991 and inspired the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for Madonna — Pearl Jam was the grunge band scoffers warned us about. And though 1992’s indie albums aren’t as folky as last year’s, Rykodisc gave us one old-timer, one dead person, and one 46-year-old new Dylan, while Freedy Johnston’s uncannily self-assured piece of singer-songwriter neotraditionalism achieves a, well, maturity that most of the conceptualizers on the chart would be lucky to imagine.

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Yeah yeah yeah — maturity, what a drag. But like the man said, it’s only castles burning. And now, in the wake of Lollapalooza and techno and accrued professional responsibility and Nirvana’s dream-come-true-and-then-what and the shift of boomer power from biz to gov (and, oh right, more birthdays than one could once conceive), rock criticism’s thirtyish mainstream is wondering what’s next while various collegiate-on-down cults — fanzine separatists, ravers, trancers, riot grrrls, overly self-conscious pop postironists, maybe even alternative rappers, all sniping and crowing and splitting off and dropping out and climbing back in again — are cordoning off whatever turf their immediate elders will cede them and claiming they’re owed more. This dispute defines itself above all in terms of meaning it — of trying to say something even if it makes you middlebrow, because in the face of death and deprivation, irony don’t cut it — and Pavement sets up on its cusp. ’Tudewise they stand between Sonic Youth, clearly old-guard as of this verbally direct, musically achieved, inexplicably unexciting release, and Unrest, who get over on more stance and less music than any finisher in Pazz & Jop history. Since Unrest don’t lack IQ, they may follow in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and add music gradually, but for now the reaction against their smart-ass pomo irony — not theirs specifically, they’re not that important, but the whole structure of feeling that culminates inWayne’s World, Achtung Baby, and, er, Malcolm X Park — generates high-concept new sincerity as surely as any underemployment epidemic or killer virus.

We’ve seen this split before, of course — middlebrow concept versus pomo irony is a new one, but the poll often pits meaning against pleasure, which usually reduces to albums versus singles. So it’s fitting that another trend to spark comment was the concept album’s obverse, the novelty record — an analysis that reflects the healthy awareness that a good laugh can help you cope every bit as much a profound insight. Still, even though our singles chart featured two songs about butts and two more about jumping around, I’m not sure I buy the theory that 1992 was a big novelty year, especially if we honor Greil Marcus’s strict definition and insist that they be funny — “Jump” and “Jump Around” are delightful (especially “Jump”), “Rump Shaker” and “Baby Got Back” bodacious (especially “Rump Shaker”), but only the KLF’s delicious Tammy Wynette tribute/exploitation “Justified and Ancient” makes me guffaw. Anyway, in the broader sense rap is always a novelty on pop radio, and all that makes this year different is that out of its identity crisis it’s produced more Pazz & Jop chart singles than ever — six of the top seven and 10 of the top 19, including entries from Source faves Das EFX and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. What cheers me most about the singles chart is that that’s what it is. Of the 28 songs in our jam-packed top 25, only eight are from any of this year’s top 40 albums — and just as impressive in an era when MTV and such have replaced radio as a song machine, only three are also on our video list. Although this could also prove a blip, it’s the way things ought to be.

I wish they could be that way for me, but working with your ears is time-consuming. So shortly after discovering “Tennessee” on my Blaupunkt, I bought a newer car with a removable entertainment console, and while this upgrade enriched my music life, it rendered my singles experience more arbitrary than ever. As for albums, well, after you try fending mortality off with meaning for a while you discover why they invented irony, and also why they banned pleasure — men and women who deny themselves Madonna on what are at bottom niggling moral grounds bewilder me. I want it all — meaning and irony and pleasure, in the concept and in the bytes. So I pick and choose — Pavement not Unrest, Freedy Johnston not David Hildalgo, Eric B. not Pete Rock, Wayne’s World not Achtung Baby. Those who know my quiddities may snort at the jewel that crowns my list, although in fact I enjoyed less contemporary Afropop than at any time since the stuff found its U.S. market niche. Nevertheless, the one 1992 release I could always count on for wisdom and fun and pure musical gratification was South African poet-singer Mzwakhe Mbuli’s Resistance Is Defence (87th). Resistance Is Defence is alternative rap at its best. I wonder what Mbuli could do with a sampler.

Get on college radio? If we’re lucky. As you know, Pazz & Jop wasn’t the only place where rock critics’ votes counted this year. The U.S. has a new president, and I’m for him, albeit less passionately than some think meet. But though culture responds as much to image, mood, zeitgeist as to the economic realities not many claim Bill Clinton will change much, I’m not the kind of corny liberal (or convoluted radical) who’s persuaded the musical playing field is about to undergo drastic change. I’m not even certain that the year’s happiest development, an upsurge in self-determined women that I trust will continue until such time as the fascists win, is totally momentous — not with women generating almost half my top 10 but less than a tenth of what follows. Sometimes it’s salutory to make a point of music’s ultimate dependence on substructure, but with all the kvelling going on I feel more inclined this year to insist on its relative independence — even to agree that sometimes it leads the way. So I’ll just pray that rap gets through its identity crisis, that public housing is erected where those castles used to be, and that my mind and ass remain a continuum long enough for me to get my sustenance from whatever happens next — and what happens after that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1992

1. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… (Chrysalis)

2. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.)

4. PJ Harvey: Dry (Indigo)

5. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head (Capitol)

6. Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros.)

7. Sugar: Copper Blue (Rykodisc)

8. Sonic Youth: Dirty (DGC)

9. Tom Waits: Bone Machine (Island)

10. Basehead: Play With Toys (Imago)

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Top 10 Singles of 1992

1. Arrested Development: “Tennessee” (Chrysalis)

2. House of Pain: “Jump Around” (Tommy Boy)

3. Kris Kross: “Jump” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

4. En Vogue: “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” (EastWest)

5. (Tie) Arrested Development: “People Everyday” (Chrysalis)
Cypress Hill: “How I Could Just Kill a Man”/”The Phuncky Feel One” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

7. Sir Mix-a-Lot: “Baby Got Back” (Def American)

8. U2: “One” (Island)

9. The KLF: “Justified and Ancient” (Arista)

10. Sophie B. Hawkins: “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” (Columbia)

—From the March 2, 1993, issue

 

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

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

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.

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SWEET TOOTH

Hip-hop heads perusing the liner notes to the Roots’ recent Undun might have wondered about Questlove’s co-producer on the track “Sleep.” Known professionally as Hot Sugar, he’s Nick Koenig, a self-described “associative music” maker who uses the ambient sounds of New York City to create whimsical yet propulsive beats that feel like an updated version of mid-’90s stuff by the Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark. In May, Hot Sugar released a likable little EP, Moon Money, and tonight, he and a crew of promised “special guests” headline the latest installment of Last.fm’s Live in NYC series.

Fri., Aug. 17, 9 p.m., 2012

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FREAKS & GEEKS

Naked talk-show hosts, surprise celebrity guests, smut peddlers, extreme political activists, and church choirs are just some of the enticing promises from TV Party: A Panorama of Public Access Television in New York City, the latest exhibit at the newly reopened Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. The wild and free New York that once was is typified through the eyes of public-access television, which is being celebrated with a 10-day span of four decades of film screenings, all free with museum admission. This was TV uncensored and uncontrolled—a new medium declared an “electronic democracy,” which, fittingly, happened to have some of the most theatrically outrageous performances and stunts on television. The series kicks things off with a special live reunion show, consisting of a screening coupled with appearances by public-access personalities from shows you may remember such as The Scott and Gary Show (where the Beastie Boys performed in 1984) and Wild Record Collection.

Fri., Feb. 11, 7 p.m., 2011

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MUSIC TO MY EYES

The Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Sonic Youth—if you missed living in the city in the ’80s and ’90s (or were too young to apprecaite it), Looking at Music 3.0 takes you back to New York’s glory days, when art thrived on city walls, underground clubs, and alternative space. This show, the third in a series that explores the influence of music on contemporary art practices, features about 70 pieces that center around the birth of “remix culture” and the activism that arose in response to the AIDS crisis, the city’s financial problems, and the rampant drug use destroying neighborhoods. Artists included are Public Enemy, Kathleen Hanna and Le Tigre, Keith Haring, Christian Marclay, Lee Quinones, and Miranda July, who founded “Joanie 4 Jackie,” a video chain letter.

Feb. 16-June 6, 2011