The Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 2

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History should have the force to slap you smack in the face, seeing your body hit the pavement hard, and then it spits in your eye just when you thought it was safe to look. In my history classes I try to teach history as a full on onslaught onto my student’s senses. History losses some of its brute force when put down to paper, where the writing is so think and dense that any student could get lost. However, there have been new methods of presenting history to the masses which holds both the education quality as well as entertainment value. In the realm of Hip-Hop it is even more pressing to show these new methods of history writing, and even presenting history. Hip-Hop is so tightly bound to our veins at this point that its origins have reached a critical mass of mythology. These stories of the early generation of Hip-Hop innovators are so far fetched, amazing, indecipherable (try to read Russell Simmons or Alonzo Williams’ words), that they can only be shown in a particular form. Many blog posts ago I reviewed the comic/history book written, researched, and illustrated by the great Ed Piskor. The first volume took us back, via the Deloreun’s boost from the flux capacitor, to the late 1970’s and ending in early 1981. For the details please refer back to that review, but for now it’s time to sink our teeth into volume 2!!!

Like the first volume our humble director of traffic, in the guise of Ed Piskor, leads us through these amazingly colorful corridors. He recounst many key events in the history of Hip-Hop, as well as the many fascinating side comments, far-out factoids, and some comedic side notes, as well as one or two tragic. It all begins with the story of Doug E. Fresh and how he was discovered in his native Harlem neighborhood by the one and only rapper by the name of Spoonie Gee. Spoonie, who was Doug E.’s neighbor, according to the story presented shows him his talents, as his beatboxing skills are reinterpreted through the wizardry of comic book wordings. With larger than life lettering you see the “BOOM BOMP, BA-CLICK OOMP!” coming out of Doug E.’s mouth. The entire pages, and its panels, show the skills as they waift through the crowd and eventually get to Spoonie’s uncle, and owner of Enjoy Records, Bobby Robinson.

The book continues to overemphasize the lyrics, by making them loom large over the rest of the cell that is trying to contain these words. Another fine example, displaying the sheer energy of the words, is see through the eyes of Malcolm McLaren being introduced to the Zulu nation in the Bronx River Projects. The words “Zulu Gestapo” loom large, as the cell provides the feel being somewhat askew and distorted. The cells on the page are shaky, which is probably how you felt in the midst of the chaos of dancing and fighting while the speakers are on full blast, shaking your kidneys from side to side. Piskor is trying to show us the energy of these jams, and the magnetically beautiful chaos surrounding these parties.

There are many more references he uses, as well as overlying themes about the music and its culture, as he fills in details of known stories. One theme he uses, through the connection with Rick Rubin and the very young Beastie Boys, is the connection between Rap music and Punk music in the early days. This volume spans from the years 1981 to 1983 where both genres had the same connective tissue of do-it-yourself, while eschewing the conventional sounds. It was Rick Rubin who brought that idea to rap, which would forever change the way artists recorded rap music after Def Jam came into existence. The Punk aesthetic isn’t lost on the readers as Piskor shows us how these worlds collided at times into one.

The Punk aesthetic isn’t lost on the readers as Piskor shows us how these worlds collided at times into one. Other examples of this include the clubs themselves in the downtown Manhattan scene, which included the Hip-Hop heads and the Punks.

 

Piskor is also very aware of the earliest days of Hip-Hop and how DJ’s who would play records would have to play breakbeats as rap wasn’t being recorded yet. Early rap recordings had live instrumentation, akin to the Disco sound, where the performance became obscured by an older form of recording songs. One of the very crucial elemenst to the brith of Hip-Hop is the emphasis on the DJ, and how famous DJ’s like Kool Herc, Flash, and Bambaata dug deep for obscure up tempo songs, or at least a small section of the song that people can dance to. Piskor, being an amazing researcher as well as illustrator, shows this with a quick backstory to one of the most popular songs equated with the era, the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” He traces the origins of the song to its creation by Jerry Lordon of the Shadows,

to its later incarnation by the Bongo Band,

how it went into obscurity and remained there until DJ Kool Herc began to play it at his parties. Many groups sampled it for their songs including an instrumental track Grandmaster Flash concocted and released by Sugar Hill Records. This is another example of Hip-Hop culture’s far reach into the past, and not necessarily an exclusively black past, but rather a shared musical past.

He also attempt to show how raw some of these rap groups performances were as opposed to their recorded material. One of the best live performaces of the past, and a dear personal favorite of mine, is Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s live rendition of “Flash to the Beat.” Interestingly enough Piskor shows that they were invited to perform live at the Bronx River Projects by Afrika Bambatta, with the help of a new gizmo Flash recently acquired he called a beat box, but was actually a drum machine. In the book Piskor notes a cloud over Bambaata as he says to himself that he was, “glad I’m recording this…” Here’s a version to listen to,

This is a perfect time capsule showing us how great these guys were when performing live. Apparently, according to Piskor’s account, the tape was leaked (either through theft, commerce, or trading) and circulated throughout New York City. It’s a treasure of a primary source because you hear the call and response between the members of the crew, capturing this moment of time that was lost for good. Piskor wrote it best saying that, “The bootleg (talking about this recording) is a multi-generation duplicate. It’s gritty. You can hear all sorts of residual noise. It’s far from perfect, but it might be one of the greatest snapshots of Hip Hop Before  the music became bis business.” (Page. 34).

I will not recount the stories, cause you should check them out on your own, but Piskor also has a gift in showing many things through these images. Not only are we seeing a story unfold, we’re also seeing other themes and trends that Hip Hop both created, destroyed, or compromised. One of these themes is the generational divide within the African-American community when it came to rap music, both recording and playing it on the radio airwaves. There are many telling scenes speaking of this divide, and even negative attitudes held by the older black generation towards this new music. He cites one of the most popular DJ’s, Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker (Note that DJ Hollywood took his name from Crocker), saying that there was no money in it due to the kids being broke. Another example is the exchange between the Furious Five and a disgruntled baseball player, Willie Stargell, and how he berated them for using nasty language while grabbing themselves onstage.

First the great, and Piskor makes sure to show his immense presence, Melle Mel chimes in saying that that is exactly what they are, while the group all chime in saying (with bold letters) “We Nasty!”

Hip-Hop history has short arcs as well as long arcs spanning years, even decades. The book is very well balanced showing the specific stories happening at that specific time frame, like the creation of the first Hip-Hop film, Wild Style. These little stories form the details about the history of the early years of Hip-Hop, and recorded rap music. However, Piskor also foreshadows stories or begins them and then stops in order to keep the avid fan waiting for the rest of the story. He does this with groups like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys and how they evolved from scrappy youngsters meeting the people ( or in the case of Run-DMC being related to) who would jump start their careers. Piskor is also not fixated on the east coast as he does the same with up and coming artists, who are just getting their first taste of success, like young Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and Ice-T. Interestingly enough the end of this volume show us the start of what we know as the group Run-DMC and the start of Dre’s push to the limelight.

Also, speaking of Dre and Run-DMC, Piskor shows us how Run-DMC’s performance in 1983 at the Cali club Eve After Dark influenced Dre immensly. They only performed for ten minutes, but those ten minutes were hard, raw, and packed with stripped down rage. Piskor writes that Dre says that, “I wanna make some street level shit like them dudes.” While Dre was being influenced by Run-DMC, Chuck D. and his mobile DJ group called Spectrum City pop up from time to time. He was briefly featured in volume one, and in volume two we get a sense of the type of music influencing his ears. He was far more politically inclined, as most rap music was far from political, so he gravitated towards these songs. There are not many but Piskor points them out beginning with Brother D with the Collective’s song “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise,” and of course “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and in this volume the reworking of a Malcolm X speech by the session musicians at Sugar Hill Records. Keith Leblanc, along with Doug Wimbish played over the words of the late Malcolm X. The song faded quickly from the radio, but certain ears heard it. One pair was that of Chuck D.’s, and after seeing how black youth have forgotten Malcolm X he decided to step in and make sure that brothers are gonna work it out.

For all us Hip-Hop history lovers we all know what will happen next. However, I can’t wait for Piskor to guide my vision in that realm.

Peace

#EdPiskor #HipHopFamilyTree2 #HipHopFamilyTree #Apache

 

 

Hip-Hop History 101

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During my research for my last blog post, about the immortal Gangstarr album Hard to Earn,  I happened to come upon some interesting classics. When I wrote on the scene making song “THe Planet” off the Gangstarr album I saw that they sampled “Holy War (Live)” by the rap group called Divine Force. The fact that their name, Divine Force, and the title of the song, “Holy War,” are together is of no coincidence. Once I saw these titles, as well as the label name my biblical alarm bells began to ring and jingle, LL Cool J style. The group was signed to an independent record label owned by the Funky President Melquan, and the name of the label is Yamak-ka Records Inc. It might be a play on certain words, or a reference to an ancient code, or an in-joke that no one will know unless we ask the owner. However, to a simple Jew like myself it was clear that it looked like the yiddish word for Jewish headgear, or as well call it in Hebrew a Kippah.

The song is a live recording of the MC ripping through his routine, with sheer raw energy. However, what caught my ear is what he says by the 1minute and 20 second mark where he rhymes, “Let me snap your fingers all wiggle, scream shout or laugh or just giggle, Shake that body, body, that body, don’t f#%k with me you’ll feel sorry, that’s word, I’m not the herb, understand what I’m saying.” The Wu flag rose high as I realized that this was a line used by Ghostface Killah on the song “Mighty Healthy” from his masterpiece of an album Supreme Clientele. Just take a listen and the words coincide……

Ghostface glides through his words with such skill and razor-sharp precision. Remarkably he drops the same line from the Divine Force track at the 1 minute and 20 second mark, gotta love the spread of history from a track recorded in 1987 to a track recorded in 2000.

Another great record made in the 1980’s is the classic, and heavily sampled, “Buffalo Girls” by Malcolm McLaren. This British ginger Jew had quite an extensive history including managing the New York Dolls in their last throes (that;s their last two weeks to be exact), and would later assemble the iconic English Punk outfit The Sex Pistols. After all of that he remained on the pulse, and close to the newest music and fashions coming out of New York City. He immersed himself in the scene and like most of the other young Jews he felt at ease working with young African-American DJ’s and artists like Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation. The track is a pastiche of early hip-hop beats and sounds, that would be duplicated throughout the decade. The track made by him and the World Famous Supreme Team combines the fresh sounds with this video to the song, which was released in 1982.

The interesting part is the catchy introduction where McLaren hollers out “Buffalo girl go around the outside, around the outside, around the outside…..two buffalo girls go around the outside, around the outside, around the outside.” This line would be used two years later by the World Famous Supreme Team on their hit “Hey DJ,”

where they use the same holler “First Buffalo girl, go around the outside.” However, the words rang very clear when I heard. or rather saw, this by Eminem.

Eminem pays homage to the McLaren line when he holler out in the beginning of the song, “Two trailer park girls go round the outside, round the outside, round the outside.” We just made a historical leap showing that it not only the snippets of music sampled that convey the deep historical roots of Hip-Hop. This is no coincidence as these artists and producers are extremely aware of their musical history. So much so that the great, and production wise criminally underrated, group The Beatnuts dropped on their first EP an intro as an ode to the World Famous Supreme Team.

I also recall the use of specific choruses as a throwback to past artists. One of the most underrated albums, and mastermind producers, that I hold near and dear to this day is Prince Paul’s concept album from back in 1999. It’s an amazing day in the life of a young cat trying to rise up in the game, yet only to be done in by his so-called best friend. The album has many great guest spots, spanning from the heavy Chubb Rock to Biz Markie, and from Kool Keith to Mr. X to the Z Xzibit. One of the best songs is an early phone call to his girlfriend by the name of “The Other Line.”

It’s a great narrative where his girl is caught up again in the repetition of calling out for him from work. As each rapper goes back and forth you feel the stress of the girlfriend as she relents once again. When I first heard it my ear caught the last section where a chorus is sung out by a few guys saying “someone is calling my phone, someone is ringing my bell, someone is ringing my bell, etc.” The past slapped me square in the face as I went searching for that snippet I knew I heard before. It was only after listening to one of my favorite stations, Beatles Radio, where the divine gave me the answer.

Thank you Wings, or Paul McCartney for that matter, just listen to the track and you can draw comparisons.

As I noted earlier, Ghostface Killah brought us back to the Divine Force lyrics, and Ghostdini has a talent in fashioning his songs as a current blast from the past. Very few rappers out there cannot even fathom to feed our eras with both talent and wisdom. The last one I want to focus on is KRS-One, who is one of these grand purveyors of the culture. I want to point to a lesson of his, meaning a track that replicates these lyrics in such a great style. Hear is “Hip Hop vs. Rap.”

KRS starts out by giving us, the listeners some time to feel the beat, sway our heads, and drop a rhyme if we have the time. He then raps about the differences between Hip Hop and Rap, basically Rap being a style and Hip Hop being a true way of life. He then starts flipping beats, but mostly lyrics of classic rap songs of days past. He even cites his own classic “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” and even dropped some mad obscure references that even this historian couldn’t get. He dropped the line “Frisco Disco, the disc is like Nabisco, Chocolate chip cookie, don’t fuck with me rookie,” where he’s speaking of the 1970’s single “Frisco Disco” by the group Eastside Connection. No one might remember how it sounds like, but it’s most famous for being sampled by Slick Rick for his song “Mona Lisa.” By the second half of his lyrics each stance is a replicated series of words, or sayings, by many popular rappers and musicians. If you look down the list he begins with…

“So this DJ, he gets down, Mixing records while they go…” is from Jimmy Spicer’s magnum opus “Adventures of Super Rhyme” from 1980.

“Round and round, round we go…” is from Tupac’s “I Get Around.”

“Two Years ago a friend of mine…” is from Run-DMC’s “Sucker MC’s.”

“And Flash is gonna rock your mind…” is from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “Freedom.”

“Welcome to the terror dome, the terror dome…” is from Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.”

“I wonder if I take you home…..” is from Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take you Home.”

“E-F-F-E-C-T, A cool operator operating correctly….” is from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend.”

And on and on it goes until he finishes off with “You ain’t fresh, you ain’t fresh, you ain’t,” thanks to the line from The Boogie Boys song “You Ain’t Fresh.”

 

The point made is that for all of its detractors, Hip Hop is the only music where you can literally hear the past come alive, either through a sample or through words. The spoken word is just as powerful, and sampling aside this is another direct line to the griots of Africa. These stories told and retold through repetition, and later reinterpretation, help us listeners, or at least invigorate us, understand the true depth of history in Hip-Hop.

Peace

 

 

 

Twenty Years Ago…Anotha Classic

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Reaching the ripe ol’ age of 33 makes a Hip-Hop scholar nostalgic for the beats of lyrics from the days of yore. As I asserted on my last post, twenty years ago many classic albums in the realm of rap music were unleashed onto the masses. I remember it very well-being an astute listener, thanks to my parents giving me a deep appreciation for music, constantly digging for the great sounds permeating from the various genres that popped off in the 1990’s. Many classic Hip-Hop masterpieces came out in 1994, but this is my journey down memory lane. That’s why I’m bringing you down to my block where we only bang the classic beats laced with the fiery lyrics that used to mean something. One of these classics was the fourth album dropped by the group Gangstarr titled Hard To Earn.

The first time my eyes caught site of the album cover I was mesmerized by the overt redness with the solid chain link surrounding their logo reading GangStarr. The red is so blaring, but I was still fascinated by these two guys, MC Guru and DJ Premier. Once I flipped over the back I knew that this was the crew that no one wanted to fuck with. The menacing look of Jeru, Group Home’s Melachi the Nutcracker and Lil’ Dap, Premier, Guru and the ever-present Big Shug were all staring right at me, and I couldn’t stop staring back. For nostalgia’s sake I made sure to show the cassette version of the fold-out art cause who the fuck was buying CD’s, or afford them for that matter, back in High School? Not me. Once I popped in the tape the sound matched the cover perfectly, like Michael Jackson putting on his rhinestone uni-glove. The title screamed it all in fine print. This is some hard shit, and these guys didn’t play around, but were extremely serious about the music, and the state of affairs. It all starts with that fuzzy background you can only envisage coming from a Brooklyn basement, where the crew is writing rhymes, talking shit, drinking, rolling blunts, as Premier mans the turntables for that next sample to pop off. You then hear the “intro (The First Step)” with an overlying cool, slow, but fierce guitar lick, thanks to the sample from the Weather Report (The group not the news segment), as Guru in his monotone voice tells us what’s in store….

Guru tells it plain, saying that the rap game is not for everyone, and that his demeanor was always true and authentic from his heart. Unfortunately, in the present day everyone thinks they can be rap stars while overloaded with the bullshit. And then we embark on our voyage on the Gangstarr foundation’s charter boat to soulsville. It all begins with Phife Dog’s voice, as they sampled A Tribe Called Quest’s classic song “Check the Rhyme” to let you know that these guys are hard, and extra funky..

It’s all laid down from the start with Guru’s words saying “It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re doing, you don’t know where you’re going when you’re lost.” The words are so solemn and true to the path of all people on this green earth. His words penetrate due to his voice and certainty as he kills the track, while Premier cuts each time as a chorus the words of Q-Tip from the same Tribe song. He also laces it up with samples of Melvin Bliss, Quincy Jones, and Richard Pryor. When I first heard the album this song prepared me for the ensuing onslaught of sheer talent and rugged energy.

The album touches on many themes and ideas as the Guru weaves through various subjects while riding the wave of Premier’s beats. It should be said that DJ Premier should be given credit for embellishing on the Rick Rubin rap song formula of a verse chorus scheme. Primo was tune with this and he sonically added to the songs by making his choruses in line with the great Greek tragedies of the past. On almost every track Guru rhymes and then Premier chides in with his signature scratches and cuts, making his style unique, which has been duplicated since he began doing this back in their first album. He was also in such high demand by the mid-1990’s that they even constructed a skit with the likes of MC Eiht and Nas calling Premier and leaving messages on his answering machine…..of course accompanied by a sick beat….

Another great example of Premier’s skills is the last single off the album titled “Code of the Streets.”

The song, and it’s video, speaks of the evolution of street crime, especially the art of car-jacking. Guru laments, while delivering the story like a news anchor, on the life of black youth in the poverty-stricken ghettos of New York City. The pace is set beautifully with the sturdy beat that reminded me of a James Bond theme throwback. The beat, provided with the samples by Melvin Bliss and Monk Higgins, punctures and the mundane tempo of street life and the street report is made more penetrating with Premier’s cuts with the ping noise.

The album holds a lot of weight where Guru can delve into the more serious and general problems plaguing society twenty years ago, and arguably to this very day, like Gun control. One such song to deal with this is the great ode to guns titled “Tonz O’ Gunz.”

It all begins with the spoken words of Malcolm X decrying American violence, while criticizing the fact that African-Americans were being drafted during the Vietnam War in order to kill people on the other side of the globe. Along with his words you hear a menacing beat resembling a scream as Guru spits that “The state of Affairs is in mad chaos.” He is decrying the proliferation of guns in his inner-city neighborhood, while also decrying the culture of violence in America. It’s prophetic when he says that more gums will come and more will cry.

We all know that this is the album that gave us the engrained classic that are deeply embedded into our childhoods and inner souls….and these are “Mass Appeal”

With its perfect beat, keeping the time as Guru tells us why these guys are the cream of the rap crop,

and the energy-laden “DWYCK” with the helping hand of guests (Greg) Nice and Smooth (B),

…..displaying the far more playful side of this overall heavy album.

There are many more tracks on the album, but I want to point to two of my close and personal favorites, and the first one being the crew laden “Speak Ya Clout” where Guru shares the mic with Group Home’s Lil’ Dap and the amazing Jeru Da Damaja.

To put this track into context we have to realize that it’s sequel to the song off of their previous album Daily Operation titled “I’m the Man.” Unlike the earlier track, where Guru starts it off, Jeru begins with the first verse, and then each gets a specific beat to rhyme on top in tune with each rapper’s personality. It all starts with Jeru, as his words are cut up from his verse from “I’m the Man” as he glides over a hard beat backed by a Weather Repost sample. We then slow down with Lil’ Dap as he gets a funked up beat with the help of mysterious sounds thanks to the Quincy Jones sample. We then glide to the end as Guru wraps it up nicely over a Caesar Frazier sample. They all work well together as Premier waves his magic wand while cutting it all up perfectly for the ear to catch the mashup of samples making this masterpiece of a track.

The last song, and another personal favorite, is a theme that comes up on every Gangstarr album, the beautiful borough of Brooklyn!!!

Even though Guru hailed from Boston, and Premier from Texas, they both focused on Brooklyn as the Gangstarr homestead. It was actually Guru who came first, and then hooked up with Premier, as Gangstarr was originally formed in Boston under Guru’s mantle. It was when he moved to Brooklyn and later hooked up with Premier where we get the official Gangstarr roster. On every Gangstarr album Guru gives us his ode to Brooklyn, and on this album he gives us his most personal and from the heart account of his history in Brooklyn, A/K/A “The Planet.”

It all starts off with a quick snippet of soul thanks to a sample of Taj Mahal’s “The Cuckoo,” and then we go into the serious sounds of the track thanks to some old school samples by the Divine Force and MC Lyte. The song is Guru’s story of leaving home, maturing on his maiden voyage, and always confident that he’ll make it out in B-R-double O – Klyn – The Planet. As he rhymes we follow Guru’s evolution from life in East New York, to the dead-end job, and the journey to become one of the best MC’s of all time. This song is his testament, which spoke volumes to me as I banged this track living in New Haven, CT while dreaming of life in the big city, in Brooklyn, in the Planet. This never left me as I made sure to move to Brooklyn, and make it the only Borough I ever wanted to call home. Many faded nights, lost dreams, happy highs, and shitty lows all came to me in Brooklyn. As his voice fades out with the words “The Planet” I feel that we both experienced our unique life in Brooklyn.

Rest in Peace to one of the greatest of all times….GURU.

Peace

 

 

 

Twenty Years Ago in Hip-Hop Classics

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There have been much, and plenty, of coverage of the twenty-year anniversary of the many triumphant works of art. These classic pieces of music remain timeless as they reach to the next generation, like certain types of music. The year 1994 saw the release of many hip-hop classics that solidified the year as the peak of the golden age of rap. Yes, that might sound naive, but in a way we, readers in their late 20’s spanning to the early 40 year olds, are the generation that saw some of the most multi-faceted releases from the various rappers and rap groups of the day.

For example, 1994 will be immortalized as the debut of the hardest hitting, and still legendary MC by the name of the Notorious BIG….

His name still resonates, but there were other debut albums by the hungry freshman of the class of 1994.

 

Nas, dropped his first and best album the same year, after two famous guest appearances, linking up with some of the most talented producers in order to feed us this…

The album was a sordid journey through the eyes of the many street dwellers expounding the street scenes.

The swath of talent looms large with many other rappers and crews heralding from many parts of the country like Atlanta’s extra-ordinary….

Outkast, who dropped their debut in 1994 titled Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik…..

Chi-Town’s Common, dropping the sense due to the threat of a copyright lawsuit, dropped his second classic album Resurrection

 with its Blue Note record label album cover inspiration the album is a tour-de-force thanks to its producer No.ID and its many great songs, including the hip-hop ode, “I Used to Love H.E.R.”

Many other albums were dropped into our hands, and consumed in large bites like a fine slice of New Haven pizza. But, there is one that fell through the cracks into relative obscurity. In 1994 the Gangsta rap fad was still looming large over the rap world, but there were other genres in hip-hop that provided an alternative. This alternative, which unfortunately has been eaten alive by the corporate hydra of formulaic rap music, provided us with an abundance of differences. One of the sub-rap genres that became popular was the jazz-rap phenomenon, embodied by the use of obscure jazz samples, along with the use of live instrumentation from the classic players themselves, along with a modern approach by using modern day slang. Certain groups like Gangstarr, Guru’s Jazzmatazz albums, A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, De Las Soul, The Roots, and of course the kitschy hit spawned by the group US3, all used these qualities in order to link the past (jazz) with the present and future (hip-hop). To me, and many music scholars, these artists’ albums embodied a timeless quality that was far more connected to the traditional black music than Gangsta or hardcore rap. All these artists have been amazing releasing classic and timeless rap albums, but there is one album that I personally cherish to this day.

However, one of the best albums to come out in 1994, and arguably a classic rap album in the history of the music, is Digable Planets’ sophomore album titled Blowout Comb.

The blissful sounding trio of Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug are the epitome of the cool Jazz throwback, with that street grime rap music from the early decade of the 1990’s. As many music critics, historians, and ethnomusicologists agree, this is a perfect example of melding Jazz and Hip-Hop music into a perfect product. The traditions lost on most rap music, except for the great sounds of Gangstarr, Guru’s solo albums, A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and US3, can be found on this magnum opus. It provides the listener with the connection of the old and the new, using legendary jazz musicians while focusing on the contemporary issues of inner city life. This all starts with track 1!!!

The quiet is pierced with the horns, followed by the beats of a small drum, and then it hits you with the cool wave under your wings with the opening track titled “The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug.” Doodlebug lays down the vibe as we skid into the graces of Brooklyn.

I don’t want to make this a track-by-track analysis, but the next track penetrates the light-hearted mood with a poignant telling of a black man being pulled over by the police.

The song “Black Ego” starts with a mellow sounding vibe, and a complementary vibe thanks to the samples of the Meters “Here Comes the Meterman” and Grant Green’s “Luanna’s Theme.” The start of the song’s smoothness is punctured when Butterfly is pulled over and in a faint speaking sound the officer reads him his right. During the reading of his Miranda rights the officer asks if he understands his rights, then Butterfly stings back with “When did I ever have rights?” Lastly the officer asks if he’ll give up the right to remain silent, and then Butterfly retorts coolly with two words, “Hell Yes.” We then stream into the consciousness of the crew, and their commentary on the fucked up state of affairs with regards to the abuse wielded on black men by this fair land’s law enforcement agencies.

We then ease to the next two tracks that work so well hand in hand that they compliment like bread to butter, peanut butter to jelly, and Jews to Jerusalem!!!

The first track titled “Dog It” starts off with horns as the beat hits with the glow of a sample by Herbie Hancock’s group the Headhunters’ titled “God Make Me Funky.” Each one of the MC’s play off each other and play with the slow drum beat conjuring the connections to past black music as Ladybug conjures Marvin (Gaye), Sly (Stone), and Cube (Ice that is) folding time and black music into the track. Once it ends it drops right into…….”Jettin”

It continues the party vibe, as we transport into the fairy tale land of Brooklyn, and you can feel the movement as Ladybug’s vocals go from ear-to-ear in your headphones. We ease back and keep our eyes set on the sunset as the track fades into a freestyle…

This is that Brooklyn shit…Block party, Corner Store, Barber shops, this freestyle and the follow-up song are testaments to the aura and mystery of Brooklyn. Of course what made the track titled “Borough Check” even more authentic is the guest appearance of MC Guru (RIP – Z’L) from the legendary group Gangstarr. This is poignant as he is another great source of the Jazz and Hip-Hop merger, and being a Brooklyn-phile he always had a few tracks on his albums that tell his stories of Brooklyn living.

We next get a small vignette of sounds and smoothness in “Highing Fly,” which has a spread of mystical wording flying 30,000 miles above the earth……crazy commentary.

We then get an intro beat sounding like a murder mystery introduction along with the ominous beats and piano licks. This piano lick and slow and steady beat comes from the group Tavares; song titled “Bad Times” and complimented funkily with the use of a sample from Eddie Harris’s classic “Get On Up and Dance.”

The song, bizarrely, titled “Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies/NY 21 Theme” is as smooth as they come due to the low octave chorus that starts off the singing part of the track.

The next track flies us out to India with the great sitar licks accompanying the slow and steady Jazz beats.

The Sitar plays over a smooth sample of Bobbi Humphrey’s “Black & Blues,” which was also used on two great tracks from the pre-MF Doom group KMD titled “Plumskinzz. (Loose Hoe, God & Cupid)” where Doom (or Zev Love X as he was called then) took the mic, and then on the reprise of the track titled “Plumskinzz. (Oh No I Don’t Believe IT!)” where his brother Subroc (RIP – Z’L) took the mic. It should also be noted that on the Digable Planets version Guru returns with his call for meditations in a classic call-and response format.

We then get a small snippet of the later track titled “9th Wonder,” but with a more instrumental flair. The track, “K.B.’s Alley (Mood Dudes Groove),” incorporates some of these legendary jazz players along a steady back beat along with a sample of things to come.

We then troop back to the elements of Hip-Hop, this one being “Graffiti.”

Along with two of their Brooklyn peers, the amazing Jeru the Damaja and his disciple Afu Ra, the group troops over a faster beat backed by a sample of Roy Ayers’s “Slow Motion.”

We then reach the magnum opus titled “9th Wonder (Blackitolism),” which had a companion video made, and take note of the cool orange ten-shekels note where the great Golda Meir graces its front facade.

This song is packed with the messages espoused throughout the album ranging widely from the 7 and a Crescent, and allusion to the Five Percent Nation (an offshoot of the NOI), Nation of Islam preaching, Brooklyn street life, the block party vibe, and chuck full of hip-hop history thanks to the sign, seal, and delivery made at the end with DJ Jazzy Joyce. The historical use of early rap samples is evident in their use of samples by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, The JB’s, and James Brown. These samples span the history of hip-hop from one of the original rap groups to two of the major sources for sampling drum breaks (at least in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.)

We then end on the corner, “For Corners” that is…

This is the supreme comedown, as you look over the sun rising and the LSD tab you ingested twelve hours earlier is finally wearing off, as you awake in a third floor Brooklyn apartment and ready to walk the day out, as we take stock of this fine masterpiece, Blowout Comb.

Much Love to you, Brooklyn and to my brothers in Israel, Peace!!!

 

#DigablePlanets #BlowoutComb

 

 

 

From Paris with Love, and Hip-Hop

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Oh the beauty of the Paris landscape runs through the mind when thinking of romance. France, being the cultural capital of the world beginning centuries ago, has still retained its love and joy through its amazing culture and people. I know that as a Jew France has suffered in the hands of the extremists, with the killings of Jews, including children, by vile creatures rising from the muck of anger and hatred. Still, France has many unearthed treasures, and one of these treasures is the amazingly talented, and beautiful Sophie Bramly.

Born in Tunisia, a lavish North African country that has maintained its Jewish population, she was whisked away by her parents to the land of France by the age of one. At the time of her parent’s move France was far more hostile to visible Jews, so her parents hid their traditions. However, like the pull that keeps us grounded to our roots she currently lives in the heart of the Jewish section of Paris. She told me that it was these amazing sounds of black music that fascinated her from a very young age. She was influenced by her older brother’s record collection of funk, soul and r&b, as well as attending concerts in order to make her brother look a bit cooler to the girlies. However, the music gave her a wave of sensation that made her interested in hearing more. This led her to the land of New York City in 1981, with a camera in hand.

She was amazed by these poor kids who were having fun while creating new ways to enjoy the older music. The influence wasn’t lost as she rode the iron horse all through the banging boroughs of New York City, and sniffing out the many venues pumping this new style of music.

She took many photos of the era, which have been displayed in museums across the world, chronicling the culture in it’s every day walk….

Showing the people who were involved, yet are buried in the annals of hip-hop history with no clear rhyme or reason…

She befriended some of the pioneers from Flash to Bam, from Zephyr to Futura, from Grandmaster DST to Fab Five Freddy, and beyond. Fab Five Freddy was championing the culture through the art as the murals on trains ended up in galleries. He also wanted to help spread the culture visually to the masses through the new medium we all know very well to this day, MTV.

From its beginning MTV was very white, refusing to show any videos by black artists. If you did (meaning Michael Jackson or Prince) they would be buried in hours and hours of Wang Chung, Duran Duran, and other modern love fodder of the 1980’s. Rap videos have been made since the late 1970’s (think Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s video for “The Message”), yet they were all shown locally within their neighborhoods, and communities. One example was the Video Music Box where you would order your favorite videos. However, most of the teens in everyday suburb USA never saw these videos. This all led to the creation of Yo! MTV Raps, not in the US but in Europe. And, who would host such a show? Ms. Bramly.

Due to her many connections and relationships she was tapped to host a rap video show, based out of MTV Europe in their London studios. Her, and an American Jewish producer by the name of Joel Klein, hashed out the details of the show together. She told me that at that particular time Public Enemy’s first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was huge and they couldn’t stop listening to Mr. Chuck and company’s debut effort.

As a play on the title her and Klein would address each other every day by one shouting “Yo!” and the other replying “Bum Rush the Show.” Naturally the word stuck and before you knew it the first rap video show was called Yo! The MTV raps part was added by their American counterpart when they began a year later in the summer of 1988. Bramly was the first to coin the phrase for MTV, but she was also the first to host this type of show.

When she first began hosting the show her friends would call from the US in astonishment that MTV started this, and in Europe. Meanwhile MTV America was playing it safe, until Ted Demme pushed it on them by 1988. However, there were some glaring differences between the two shows. Sophie’s show was far more international bringing rappers and crews from the United States, as well as from other parts of the world. She interviewed French, English, and many other rappers from across the globe, who were never exposed to an American audience. The American version of Yo! MTV Raps was very American-centric eschewing most of the European artists.

Unfortunately the European show did not last as long, being cancelled by the early 1990’s, as MTV didn’t want any inner competition. By consolidating their shows they cut off the European link. Still, they survived and Bramly persevered. This was the untold story where Bramly deserves credit as the first real host of Yo! MTV Raps. This lovely Jewish lady was inclined to push the culture, and its amazing music. She also has amazing photos that are classic and timeless hip-hop masterpieces.

Enjoy the show and much respect for Sophie Bramly!!!

Peace

The Jewish Songster

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Carole King and Gerry Goffin

One of the legendary Jewish songwriters has faded out, his light has dimmed, yet his impact along with his other Jewish songwriting partners cannot be emphasized enough. Gerry Goffin was the wordsmith weaving these narratives of teenage love, highlighting the ubiquitous elements in every American teenager’s life. Along with his wife Carole King, another Jewish songwriter and artist, he crafted these stories of an American life. This was the American life that his parents wanted so bad for him, yet he still felt out-of-place. Many of these songwriters from the Brill Building, the building that housed the Aldon Music Publishing Company headed by another Jew Don Kirshner, were Jews from the city. They came of age in the post-war period, seeing many new avenues open to Jews, especially when it came to housing. However, these Jewish performers still felt alienated, out-of-place, and uncomfortable with the standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant normality. Certain artists veered far away from the norm due to their inner inclinations of rebellion and alienation, such as the formidable Lou Reed. The Brill Building writers were fully aware of the fact that they were different, yet they wanted so much to identify, or at least their audience, with mainstream America.

The list of songs written by Goffin is long, yet in the decade of the 1960’s he mostly wrote along with his wife at the time, Carole King. One of their first compositions, and all around success reaching Billboard’s Top 100, was the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by the black girl group The Shirelles.

The song tells, from the woman’s perspective, of that intimate moment during the splendor of the night breeze. However, it’s punctuated with the serious question of whether this is true love or just another fling. These questions, especially with the dawning of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, rang louder at that point. King and Goffin were touring the mind of an infatuated teenage girl. The theme is a bit more risqué, as the blanching of Rock n Roll was in full swing bringing tameness to the music. These lyrics incited thought that was a far cry from the popular tunes of the day by singers like Frankie Vally and Fabian.

Another example is the following single that charted sung by Bobby Vee titled “How Many Tears.”

It speaks of the broken-hearted, lonely, and love-lorn boys experiencing their first heartbreak. Unlike the previous hit, this is geared toward the boys in school who have suffered this hardship. Still, he leaves the silver lining for love in the future. However, bobby Vee used that frequent theme of lost loves as shown in the next single they wrote for him titled “Take Good Care of My Baby.”

It should also be pointed out that Bobby Vee was a white heart-throb, while the Shirelles were black. Gerry Goffin, along with all the other Jews of the period didn’t distinguish between the color of the artists. That’s why we have Bobby Vee’s singles along with a song like “Some Kind of Wonderful” as performed by the amazing all black male group The Drifters (Who made many great songs including the much covered “This Magic Moment,” which was written by the Jewish songwriter Doc Pomus).

It could be safely said that every Jewish songwriter had that same sensibility of the Brill Building writers to Leiber and Stoller, to the rest of the boutique record label owners.

Throughout the early part of the decade of the 1960’s almost all of his songs, written with his various partners, focused mostly on love, love found, love lost, and the lamenting on the love that was either lost, found, or never existed. However, they were still the regular standard party songs that also went up the charts. One example is Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.”

A kin to the plea for everyone to dance in the streets, these were trying times in the United States. This type of song can be read as a racially inclusive song for everyone, all American teens get down and do this dance. It’s even more poignant due to the fact that Little Eva is black, and most of the record purchasers were white.

Another interesting feat is this sense of escape, due to their Jewish skin being visible. Although, this is nothing compared to the oppression of dark-skinned populations in the US and across the world historically. African-Americans have never been able to have due process under the white law, due to the excess of white exceptionalism. However, Jews are also outliers in their own so they could try to empathize with African-Americans. Certain songs written by Goffin mirrored this attempt of feeling the pain of the black man’s plight. One example is the song “Up On the Roof” by the majestic group The Drifters.

The song tells about this man’s frustrations with the world, seeking any escape route, hence you reach up on top of the roof. He tells of the drudgery of life, the hustle and bustle, and the rat race personified by the cramped and chaotic New york City living. However, if you dig deeper it might also be a plea for a black man to escape the injustice, frustration, and stifling life of white America. Conveying through music the song tells of that fresh air up on the roof were the few hang, leaving it open for the few.

There are plenty of these examples of that love, or the love shared by two individuals until the monkey wrench is thrown. Here’s to the lost boyfriend, thanks to the Jewish vocal group The Tokens (famous for their rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and their version of Goffin’s song “He’s in Town.”

Here’s to another great tune by Goffin and King about letting it all hang out “At the Club” by the Drifters.

It has that spice with the Spanish sounding influence, along with the same concept of inclusion.

There’s the great tune pleading for the singer’s lady to not bring him down……the song is aptly titled “Don’t Bring Me Down” as interpreted by the Animals.

These themes ran through the decades of his art, yet this feeling of the outsider was never lost, like most of his Jewish contemporaries. One of my favorite’s was a song done by the Byrds, and featured in the classic film Easy Rider, titled “I Wasn’t Born to Follow.”

This could be sung as the Jewish anthem through the centuries. We as a people were never born to follow any divergence from the true path. We have been mixed and matched, thrown around, tossed in the closets of lost empires, and have treaded on the dirt of toppled kingdoms. It could be said that Jews really only follow that one entity, and through song I hope that Gerry Goffin has found solace and peace.

Z’L, and Peace

 

The Bronx Keeps Creating It

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In the immortal words of the Hip-Hop prophet, KRS-ONE, chides the boroughs claiming that, “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, Bronx keeps creating it, and Queens keeps on faking it!!”

He belts this out in the end of his first verse as a shot back at MC Shan’s song “The Bridge.” Although KRS-ONE, performing under the name of his group BDP (Boogie Down Productions), is chiding Shan for proclaiming that Hip-Hop began in Queens, Shan was actually mentioning the Hip-Hop scene in Queens, which had been overlooked (as well as the other boroughs) due to the myth making breeding grounds of the Bronx. The Bronx is an interesting place, and to this day it still feels like a place stuck in suspended animation. The borough had been a haven for working class and middle class families, not to mention its rich history going back to the 16th century. Unfortunately, the great urban planner, and as Robert Caro labeled him the “Pawn Broker,” Robert Moses got his way and carved up the borough beginning in the 1950’s. By the end of the decade of the 1960’s the Cross Bronx Expressway cut right through residential neighborhoods, tearing asunder the cohesiveness of these homogenous communities. The many Jewish, Italian, and Irish families fled to the suburbs, yet some of the poorer families were forced to stay behind. The divestment process began at the same time in reaction to the riots in the 1960’s. Many businesses left the Bronx, creating a glut and blight that rendered the area lawless and un-salvageable. The squalor would lead the neighborhoods to band into gangs, usually with gangs like the Black Spades, which was all black, and the Young Lords, which was mostly Latino. Many positive things came out of this period of stagnation like the birth pangs of Hip-Hop culture. However, popular culture, as it does so proficiently to this day, jumped onto the myth making band wagon by churning out these outer worldly commentaries and pieces on the devastation of the Bronx. The media and Hollywood took a close look at the scene in the Bronx, and then produced these popular films to the backdrop of Hell, A/K/A The Bronx. Movies like Fort Apache: The Bronx,

Portray this area as a desolate island of crime ridden filth, where the cops (mostly depicted in the film as corrupt low lives) patrol through this lawless area where no answer is in sight. You can see in the trailer how all the major newspapers and popular press saw this as a compelling film that all eyes should gaze upon. However, activists and residents of the Bronx protested the making of the film from the very beginning, seeing it as overtly exploitative, racist, and stereotypical of the ghetto porn Hollywood was churning out at this point. Other films made at this time also portrayed the Bronx, as well as the entire New York City area as crime ridden, lawless, and a powder keg of anarchy waiting to explode. Another example is the infamous film The Warriors,
This is a glorification of gang life, as well as their potential to overthrow the city. Although the main characters, The Warriors, hail from Coney Island, Brooklyn, the main attraction is the opening scene where the meetings of the gangs takes place in ground zero, The Bronx. These films came out in the 1970s and 1980s. They kept churning these films out, and all had one common factor; They all portrayed the Bronx as the shit hole where people go to kill or be killed. Just reading the caption of this film you can sense the feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!!! An Italian perspective, By the 1990’s the films expanded into far-reaching historical territory, but they still felt tense as with the racial tension felt throughout the film. And of course we have the silly, and in actuality the entire film was not filmed in the Bronx, but in neighboring Queens. However, it seems far more sexy calling it Rumble in the Bronx! Who cares about a rumble in Brooklyn, and Rumble in Queens? Let us now take those blinder off and see what the Bronx is really made of. Parts of the Bronx are still in decline, but what we need is a combined campaign of reality. We need to see things for what they really are, grey and complicated. It’s unfair to call the Bronx dangerous, due to the many locations in the borough that create great products, ideas, and innovations. One fine example is a born and bred Bronxite, who’s also a very close friend of mine and just had a Birthday!!! Paul Ramirez. Paul, (pictured on the left) along with his brother Anthony have begun years ago to label the Bronx as a new innovative product for the world. They knew, as well as constantly cheer-led the idea of the many cultural facets and ideas coming from the richness that is the Bronx. Through their company Mainline Entertainment, they inspired others in the borough into creating new visuals and reformulation of the old formula, which is the Bronx. They also heralded a great project through the borough and the city by opening the magnificently tasting Bronx Beer Hall…

http://thebronxbeerhall.com/

In their very words that I want to quote they write that, “Nestled in the heart of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, The Bronx Beer Hall is the place to be. We offer the complete selection of Jonas Bronck’s Beer Co.’s original craft beers, as well as an original menu curated by Chef David Greco of Mike’s Deli notoriety. Whether shopping for groceries or perusing the bustling streets of the Bronx’s Little Italy, The Bronx Beer Hall is the perfect place to kick back, grab a bite and enjoy a cold one. Come on by, you are always welcome.” I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is one of the many ventures my man Paul has partook in so that he can revitalize the Bronx in a new fashion. We should all check it out, plan gatherings and give him props for the genius of looking beyond the stereotypes and rather amusing movies and seeing the Bronx for what it really is, a beautiful spot that I always felt comfortable in and glad to call it one of the best borough in New York City. Happy Be-Lated Birthday, and thanks for being my honorary Jewish brother, and for your amazing family who have shown me nothing but love, patience and compassion. Much love man, Peace