Babyface: Tender Lover; NWA: Straight Outta Compton; Various artists: Grind Crusher; Saw Throats: Indestroy

Conventional Black

LOVE SONGS rarely contain references to leading credit cards but when Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds tells his lover he has “a stack” she knows it is no idle boast. Babyface and his partner, Antonio “LA” Reid, sometimes seem to occupy the entire playlist of black radio in the United States with the dazzling burnish of their pop-soul productions for such artists as Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, Karyn White and Pebbles. Their credit rating is sky-high.

To the traditional soul music buff, LA and Babyface are a final puff of dust in the steady artistic collapse of American black music. The despairing voices of Sixties soul have been displaced by confections about plastic money. Yet how could it be otherwise? Civil rights struggles may not have created much tangible advancement for a black underclass struggling to survive the ravages of drugs and poverty in the cities; the black middle class, however, has begun to enjoy the American dream.

Music obviously mirrors the social shifts and Tender Lover, Babyface’s first solo album, is as good a reflection of up-scale, optimistic black America as anything else on the market. The songs are gloriously addictive in their structural perfection, full of straight-to-the-point melodies and the bare minimum of textural ornamentation. Heard on a car radio they were found sublime.

At a remote end of the spectrum to Babyface, though almost as spectacular in its sales performance, is Straight Outta Compton, by NWA, a group of young rappers from Los Angeles. NWA have attracted considerable controversy, partly through their name, which, in its full version, is Niggers With Attitude, and partly through their chosen subject matter.

Straight Outta Compton, being full of foul-mouthed depictions of violent life in the Compton district of Los Angeles, has upset community leaders and the media in the US. Other rappers are writing the kind of lyrics that the US terms “pro-responsibility messages”, condemning violence, gang murders and drug abuse, and have shown some displeasure at NWA’s refusal to join their initiative.

NWA are probably correct in thinking that popular music is an ineffective vehicle for criticizing the young or altering deeply rooted social ills. They have decided to document the disturbing events that are a regular occurrence in their neighbourhood. The full-pelt excitement of the music gives an occasional air of glorification to the exercise but in the main this is a nightmarish record, its sound effects of police sirens, gun-shots and screeching tyres depicting a generation virtually in the throes of war.

There are white musicians from the British Midlands who have an equally abrasive response to life as they experience it. Nottingham’s Earache Records supply a free one-second single with their Grind Crusher compilation. Without the sophisticated technology of the athletics track I find it difficult to test their claims that Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’ is, indeed, 0.01 seconds long but it’s an impressive roar anyway.

This esoteric branch of the British heavy metal scene, called hardcore, thrash metal or grind core, is perhaps the ultimate in anti-commercialism. Today, however, extremes are attractive, and Earache’s followers are an almost suicidally devoted bunch. Their music could be seen as a cataclysmic antidote to the perky formula of Kylie Minogue, full of political despair, lyrics growled with deliberate disregard for communication, conveyed with tortuous song construction and squalling guitar solos oh the brink of incoherence.

The effect is a bracing reminder of just how rebarbative rock needs to be these days in order to escape respectability.

There is a purpose to the outer limits of Earache’s apocalyptic din, though. Saw Throats’ Indestroy has the potential to be an unlikely contributor to the Green Party campaign, its opening track a doomy mood piece about a toxic, uninhabitable world. As with the Earache bands, Saw Throats’ music is pretty toxic and uninhabitable for general tastes, though none the worse for that.

© David ToopThe Times, 26 August 1989

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