THE RAW POWER OF CHEAP TECH CRASHES HEAD-ON INTO INNER-CITY DEFIANCE AND DESPAIR
AMERICAN POP music is in bad shape. Stagnant, strangled by commercialism, it has fattened itself at the table of mediocrity, while the public feeds on scraps left over from distant eras of musical plenty. With more and more stars warbling sweetly in praise of soft drinks, with more and more college radio darlings dishing up folksy gruel, with more and more doddering prog rockers back from the grave to haunt them, kids all over America are itching for something loud and rude and ragged. Something like early Elvis. Something like Hendrix or the Sex Pistols.
Rap has what rock and roll desperately needs. It has sauce, strut, and soul. It has a big beat, and a message. It also has an image that many consumers can’t abide. Tell ten white suburbanites you think rap is def, and nine will check to make sure their wallet is still there. (The tenth will smile sweetly and say, “What a pity. How long have you been hard of hearing?”)
This is unfortunate on many levels. In addition to the raising of old racial spectres, mainstream ignorance also deprives mainstream culture of the energy of rap, and of the broader stimulus of the hiphop culture to which rap is tied. For roughly ten years, even as such English acts as M/A/R/R/S and Wee Papa Girls have dipped freely into the wells of contemporary black music, white America has been tuning itself out from the passionate eloquence of Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, L.L. Cool J, and the latest wave of innovators – Masters Of Ceremony, D.J. Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince, Stetsasonic.
Perhaps this will change. Perhaps the Beastie Boys will prove to be the Elvises of rap – the inevitable white catalysts necessary for exploding black music innovations into Anglo ears. But it has certainly taken long enough to put rap on the map. Rap has been around a long time. Longer than the six years since Grandmaster Flash recorded ‘The Message’. Or the ten years since the Sugar Hill Gang set New York street rhymes to rhythm on vinyl.
Arguably, rap is as old as black music itself.
The African tribesman singing his ‘Song Of Self Praise’ on Bulu Songs From the Cameroon and the emcee puffing his chest out in Stetsasonic’s ‘In Full Gear’ have one thing in common: They’re both rappers. Rap music, with its heavily accented drum patterns, its syncopated handclaps, and, most important, its vocals – chanted rather than sung, usually in rhymed couplets – is among the oldest of black musics. These underlying ideas of singsong, sometimes extemporaneous storytelling, sparse percussion, and stamping meters have survived the journey from the African savanna to the grafitti-scrawled projects of New York’s South Bronx.
Afrika Bambaataa: “You gotta remember that rap goes all the way back to Africa. There have always been different styles of rappin’, from the African chants to James Brown to Shirley Ellis in the ’60s doin’ ‘The Clapping Song’. There’s Isaac Hayes, there’s Barry White, there’s Millie Jackson, that love-type rappin’, and there’s the Last Poets. And then there’s your ‘dozens,’ that black people used to play in the ’30s and ’40s. The dozens is when you tryin’ to put the other guy down, talkin’ about his mama, his sister, his brother, sayin’ it in rhyme. These days, rap is made up of funk, heavy metal, soca [soul calypso], African music, jazz, and other elements. You can do anything with rap music; you can go from the past to the future to what’s happenin’ now.”
The instrumentation has changed over the years, naturally. Where the hereditary minstrels of Morocco, Tunisia, and western Sudan accompanied themselves with stringed instruments, modern emcees are backed by drum machines, samplers, and turntable manipulation, or “scratching.” But the hums, grunts, and glottal attacks of central Africa’s pygmies, the tongue clicks, throat gurgles, and suction stops of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, and the yodeling, whistling vocal effects of Zimbabwe’s m’bira players all survive in the mouth percussion of “human beatbox” rappers like Doug E. Fresh and Darren Robinson of the Fat Boys. On Fresh’s ‘The Original Human Beat Box’, the Fat Boys’ ‘Human Beatbox’, Run-D.M.C’s ‘Hit It Run’, the intro to Stetsasonic’s ‘Stet Troop ’88’, the fadeout of Biz Markie’s ‘Make The Music With Your Mouth Biz’, and dozens of other records, emcees use their mouths to emulate scratching, Simmons toms, gated snares, and sampled sounds. Lip farts, mouth pops, fricatives, and hubba-hubba noises explode in a percussive symphony for tongue, cheeks, lips, larynx, and vocal cords.
Darren “Human Beatbox” Robinson, Fat Boys: “That’s still the best part of our concerts, when I do a ‘human beatbox’ solo. It lasts for about a minute, and our sound man beefs it up with delay so that it keeps going, doubles it. I used to live in Brooklyn, and my family didn’t have much money. I wanted deejaying equipment like the other kids had, but I couldn’t get it, so I just started playing the beat with my mouth. It just came naturally; I’d be standin’ outside and I’d hear a record on the radio or somethin’ like that, and I’d just try to play the beat with my mouth. People started likin’ it. Then we won a rapping contest at Radio City Music Hall.”
Not only did rap play a vital role in African tribal life, but it appears in nearly every aspect of the Afro-American musical experience as well. The same emphatic rhymes, stuttering rhythms, and ribald, often downright raunchy, sense of humor that characterize today’s rap records crop up in the work songs of the antebellum South, driven by the rhythms of a chopping axe, a pounding pestle, or the sad chink of prison chains. And the same responsorial vocalizing and “handclapping with offbeat syncopation” in the games of slave children that ethnomusicologist Ashenafi Kebede described in Roots of Black Music, would be right at home on Salt-N-Pepa’s A Salt With A Deadly Pepa, Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud’s Girls I Got ‘Em Locked, D.J. Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince’s He’s The D.J., I’m The Rapper, and any number of rap records. Early echoes of the genre can be heard in the moans and groans of gospel vocalists, the hoarse whoops of blues shouters, the expressionistic scatting of such jazz singers as Betty Carter, Eddie Jefferson, and Louis Armstrong, in doo-wop routines on streetcorners, in Bo Diddley belting ‘I’m A Man’, in Chuck Berry wisecracking ‘No Money Down’, in the jazz-backed recitations of Gil Scott-Heron.
Not only that, but rap appears in non-musical contexts as well. Rap is the exhortations of tent show evangelists, put-down battles in Harlem pool halls, the slangy, scatological monologues of Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, the sharp-tongued, tightly-rhymed speeches of Jesse Jackson, who, appropriately enough, is himself the subject of a 12″ – ‘Run Jesse Run’, sung by Lou Rawls, Phyllis Hyman, and the Reverend James Cleveland. Rap is Muhammed Ali reeling off rhymes about his opponents, Martin Luther King moving thousands to tears, Malcom X pounding his fist in righteous fury. Rap even existed behind bars, in the poetic stories, or “toasts,” that circulated among black prisoners. The practically unbroken line that leads from cellblock toasting to contemporary rapping is underscored dramatically by Schooly D’s ‘Signifying Rapper’, a cut from 1988’s Smoke Some Kill that gives a nod to one of the oldest and best-known toasts, ‘The Signifying Monkey’.
Two of the most obvious precedents for modern rappers are the hipsters of the ’30s and ’40s and the “personality jocks” of ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s radio. The image of swing-era bandleader Cab Calloway decked out in a flapping zoot suit, whipping his long greasy forelock around and trading hepcat licks – “Look out, now…skipndigipipndibobopakoodoot!” – with his clarinet player speaks volumes about the connections between jive and rap. Calloway’s best-known routine, ‘Minnie The Moocher’, uses call-and-response “hi-de-hi-de-ho”s similar to the singer-audience interaction one hears at rap concerts. As British music writer David Toop notes in The Rap Attack, “Bandleaders like Cab Calloway occupied a role somewhere between the piano-playing leaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and the masters of ceremonies who used jive talk and rhyming couplets to introduce the acts – one of the strongest links with hiphop, which started out with rappers talking on the microphone about the skill of the disc jockey.” Toop offers a tongue-tangling monologue from one of those swing-era emcees, Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman, as evidence:
“Yessirree, send me that ballad from Dallas.
I’m floating on a swoonbeam.
And now to keep the beat bouncing right along.
Here’s a zootful snootful called ‘Mr. Chips,’
As it is fleeced and released by Billy Eckstine
And his trilly tune-tossers. Toss it, Billy, toss it!”
It’s easy to see why rappers are still called emcees – “masters of ceremonies.” Nearly every hiphop group has an “M.C.” somebody. One group – Masters Of Ceremony – even took its name from the genre that gave birth to bantering, back-talking word-spinners like Whitman. And it’s probably no accident that one of Stetsasonic’s three emcees goes by the handle Daddy-O, also the name of a Chicago deejay – Daddy-O Daylie – whose on-the-air patter rolled jive talk, jazz vocables, the jittery rhythms of bebop and the Mad Hatter humor of the reefer smoker into a House of Mirrors reflection of the English language. Daylie and disc jockeys like him – Al Benson (“The Midnight Gambler”), also out of Chicago, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert out of Memphis, Dr. Hep Cat out of Austin, Dr. Daddy-O out of New Orleans, Douglas “Jocko” Henderson (“The Ace From Space”) out of New York, and countless others – bridged the gaps between platters with machine-gunned syllables that came spitting through the static and into black living rooms across the States. It was greasier than ribs soaking through a brown paper bag, slicker than a snap-down fedora, hipper than a diamond stickpin in a handpainted necktie. It was black. It was raw. It was rap. And although payola scandals and changing tastes eventually brought down the jive jocks, their rat-a-tat rhymes, bawdy jokes, and onomatopoeic slang live on in the records of L.L. Cool J, M.C. Lyte, Dana Dane, Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, M.C. Shan, and many, many more.
Suliaman El-Hadi, The Last Poets: “‘Rap,’ in our vernacular, just meant ‘talk,’ like ‘Dig this, man. I wanna slide past your crib and rap with you’.”
Bambaataa: “Rap will always go on. As long as people talk, there will be rappin’.”
Oral traditions are living, changing traditions. Rap music, while its roots stretch deep into the loam of Afro-American pop culture and African prehistory, is at the same time one of the most – if not the most – modern of modern musics.
In fact, it’s post-modern. This buzzword refers to the practice of cultural cross-pollination – some would say piracy – in which certain avant-garde composers indulge. But even the most daring works by these artists seem parochial compared to rap music. Where John Zorn, for instance, might rip off ideas from highbrow, lowbrow, and ethnic traditions, rap shoplifts the music itself, sampling whole passages with high-handed bravado. Video game laser zaps, James Brown’s growls, Bootsy Collins’ bass pops, snatches of movie dialog, synth squiggles from fusion records, orchestra hits – everything is grist for rap’s mill. It’s the ultimate in post-modern rag-picking, an art form stitched almost entirely from scavenged scraps.
Current rap hits often consist of little more than a drum fill from a badly-scratched James Brown LP, sampled and looped, punctuated from time to time by TV voices, cartoon sound effects, and synth chirps and burbles. The originality of these songs lies not in the shreds and strands that make them up, but in how those snippets are juxtaposed.
Richard Gehr, music critic and frequent contributor to the The Village Voice, Digital Audio, Musk & Sound Output, and Artforum: “It’s ironic, it’s postmodern, it’s all of that. There’s a British group called Bomb The Bass and they have a big hit called ‘Beat Dis’. They do this cutting-and-pasting stuff, and not only do they rip off James Brown and Chic and the usual things, but they also rip off cartoon music, weird BBC transmissions, and other marginal pop culture stuff. It all goes back to John Cage and even further, to surrealism and dada and all that. Basically, it’s just collage music with a beat. At the same time, it’s very modern. Rap is to the ’80s what punk was to the ’70s and acid rock was to the ’60s.”
Bill Adler, director of publicity for the rap super-agency Rush Artist Management: “If you used the word ‘post-modern’ around them, none of these artists would know what you were talking about. They have no idea; this is just the way they’ve always done it.”
Tom Silverman, chairman of Tommy Boy Records, co-owner of New Music Seminar, publisher of Dance Music Report: “These kids get their musical ideas by finding bits from records; they speak through old records, through little snippets of rhythms. This isn’t the first time stuff like this has been considered music; there’s the whole musique concrete movement, where people used little pieces of tape. That was considered music, even though it was avant-garde, fringe stuff. And this is a lot more polished and competitive. Rap artists look at sampling as an art form. As a matter of fact, Stetsasonic’s new single is called ‘Talking All That Jazz’, and it’s a rebuttal to musicians who have gone on record to say that they like rap but they don’t like sampling, the stealing of the sounds – ‘Why can’t the rappers make music the way we make music? We studied long and hard and we resent the fact they just steal our art.’ Daddy-O says that’s bullshit. One of the lines in the song is ‘Tell the truth/James Brown was old until Eric B. And Rakim came out with “You Got Soul”.’ It’s true! James Brown and many other artists – Aerosmith, for example – have had their careers boosted by having their samples used on rap records and associating themselves with rap music.”
Grandmaster Flash: “You gotta realize this: We don’t want to sound like R&B or pop or jazz or calypso or opera; we wanna sound like us. And if that means taking an opera ‘hit’ with a funk foot and a jazz melody line and puttin’ the whole ball of wax together with some rap on top of it, then that’s what we’ve gotta do! And we’re the only ones who can do it as blatantly as we do it. We might use a Roland bass drum with a James Brown snare and a Sly And The Family Stone melody line with an orchestra hit from an opera record, you know?”
Since its beginnings in the early ’70s, rap has been bootleg art. It is significant that the first rap record – ‘King Tim III (Personality Jock)’, released on the Spring label in 1979 by a Brooklyn-based funk outfit called the Fatback Band, probably lifted its hooky chorus and tuneful bassline from Roy Ayres’ ‘Running Away’. And it is only fitting that a current rap hit like ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass amounts to a witty string of stolen sounds bouncing off an infectious bass riff and a pulverizing drumbeat. Gehr, in a May ’88 Artforum article, tallies some of the song’s quotes: “The Dragnet theme, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Hugo Montenegro playing Ennio Morricone’s themes from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, the Bar-Kays’ wah-wah guitar riff from Son Of Shaft…a Russian voice inviting the listener to play roulette…and a takeoff on BBC-style how-to records (swiped from a previous Coldcut disc).”
Matt Black, Coldcut: “It’s like the whole history of recorded sound is waiting there for us to murder.”
Like the Sex Pistols’ scabrous deconstruction of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, or Jimi Hendrix’ splattery, spinart rendering of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, Bomb The Bass’ cut-up of funk, TV voice-overs, movie music, instructional records, and Prince questions all of our assumptions about music in specific and art in general. Is swiping other artists’ riffs and recontextualizing them a stroke of dadaistic genius or a sign of conceptual bankruptcy? Is sampling, as Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O suggests, a form of art in itself, or just a polite name for stealing? How you define “art,” or whether you bother to define it, depends on whether you live in SoHo or the South Bronx.
THE SOUTH BRONX has a rat problem. Dubbed “super rats” by the media, these hearty rodents have developed a hereditary resistance to pesticides. According to one official, they can consume approximately ten times the amount of poison required to kill an ordinary rat. “They eat the back of the sofas, they eat the curtains,” laments one interviewee in a recent television documentary. “They’re as big as cats. Some of ’em are as big as dogs.” The camera eye follows a procession of big-bellied, long-tailed somethings squeaking and scuttling through the rubbish.
Rats aren’t the borough’s only problem. Riding the Number 6 or Number 2 IRT subway lines north past 149th Street, one flashes along elevated track, past cratered pavement, dilapidated roofs, and fire-gutted buildings whose broken windows stare blankly, the eyeless sockets of concrete skulls. A seemingly endless vista of projects, tenements, and potholed avenues littered with rusting car carcasses, this is the apocalyptic landscape that inspired Fort Apache: The Bronx. These are the rubble-strewn streets where Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan stopped and made long speeches about urban blight. And this is the birthplace of rap music.
“Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs.
You know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise.
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Because the man from Prudential repossessed my car.
Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.
It’s like a jungle.
Sometimes it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.”
– Grandmaster Flash
And The Furious Five, ‘The Message’.
In the ’70s, when disco held sway and gold-neckchained nighclubbers packed Manhattan’s Studio 54 and New York, New York, Grandmaster Flash – then Joseph Saddler – couldn’t get past the doormen. Neither could fellow Bronx resident Afrika Bambaataa, Harlemite Kurtis Blow (born Curtis Walker), or hundreds of uptown teenagers like them. The glitterati had no desire to rub elbows with scruffy, streetwise youth.
Bill Adler: “The reason that Public Enemy called their first album Yo! Bum Rush The Show is because that’s what they were forced to do – bum rush. See, the buppies are guarding the door to the disco. [Public Enemy emcee and main mouthpiece] Chuck D. and his crew roll up in sneakers and they’re not going to be allowed to get in. Chuck says, ‘Fuck it. We bum-rushin’! Meaning, ‘We’re coming in anyway!'”
D.M.C. [Darryl McDaniels]: “When rap was startin’ with Grandmaster Flash and them, it was just before disco was dyin’, around ’73,’74. Us kids in the streets couldn’t get into those places and everybody wanted to be a disc jockey, so we took our turntables to the streets. They had their discotheques and we had our disco-parks.”
Kids headed for spinning parties in Harlem and the Bronx. There, in bars, community centers, after-hours clubs, gyms, old ballrooms, and public parks, mobile deejays, hired by promoters, worked the crowd with a bandleader’s sense of pacing, slowing the mood with sultry ballads or revving things up with 120-beats-per-minute sizzlers.
Individual stars began to shine – jocks like Maboya, Eddie Cheeba, and Club 371 regular D.J. Hollywood, whose call-and-response exhortations and scat-style talk-overs [“Hip, hop, de hip be de hop, de hiphop, hip de hop, on and on and on and on…”] made him an audience favorite.
Kurtis Blow, then a student at New York’s Music And Art High School, was a fan of Pete “D.J.” Jones, a disco-style spinner who wowed crowds – not to mention fellow deejays – with his seamless segues. Jones, he recalls, was his “first role model,” a smooth talker who “rocked the house better than anyone I ever saw.” Meanwhile, Flash, ex-Black Spades gang member Bambaataa, and most of the teenage population of the South Bronx had fallen under the spell of a Jamaican-born jock who styled himself Kool D.J. Herc.
Herc, whose given name was Clive Campbell, blew other deejays out of the dance hall with his megawatt McIntosh amplifier and gargantuan Shure speakers – towering cabinets he dubbed “the Herculords.” Surrounded by gyrating dancers he tagged “B-boys” – a term that has come to refer to any black youth from the Big Apple who knows enough to wear his Puma laces untied and his Kangol hat at the right angle – Herc paved the way for rap. Eschewing the disco-derived practice of “blending,” or fading smoothly from one 12″ to another, Herc kept the dance floor at a sticky-sweaty peak by playing only the “breaks” – the timbale figures, conga or bongo triplets, cowbell accents and butt-funky howls that boomed across the mix when the other instruments dropped out. By slapping the same record on two turntables, re-cueing one while the other played, he was able to turn instrumental passages that were only a few bars in length into sweat-drizzled, hour-long workouts. The audience loved it.
Grandmaster Flash: “The deejay, in rap, takes the best part of the record and just keeps cutting it back and forth, back and forth, until he decides to change the record. The deejays who were popular in the streets were the ones who knew how to read a crowd. All you have is records and two turntables to play with, so you gotta consider what records you should start with, what records you should use to slowly build, which ones will take them to the orgasmic state, and then how you can bring ’em back down.”
Sadly, Herc has faded into obscurity. His career went into a tailspin after he was stabbed by an audience member during a gig at The Executive Playhouse. Nonetheless, his hiphop style of spinning and “dub”-inspired monologues left a lasting imprint on rap.
Bambaataa: “Rap started with Kool D.J. Here; he’s the man who brought it into the nation, from Jamaica. Our style of rappin’ is close to the toasters of reggae, although Herc wasn’t a toaster. Basically, the main three who helped pioneer this – Kool Herc, myself, and Grandmaster Flash – are all of West Indian background. What we did was take what was happenin’ in the West Indies, put it to American disco and funk music, and then start rappin’ on top of the beats.”
The rap-reggae connection is affirmed by Masters Of Ceremony tracks like ‘Sexy’, ‘Rock With The Master’, ‘Redder Posse’, and ‘Master Move’, from Dynamite, all of which feature a Bronx-born but Jamaican-descended toaster named Don Barron. McDaniels, who cut a skanked-up rap tune himself with Run-D.M.C. [‘Roots, Rap, Reggae’, from King of Rock], states, “Them dub boys is incredible, the way they rhyme, the way their lyrics flow, how they use echoes, the bass lines and the drumbeats. Them boys is no joke; I know we owe a lot to them.” Silverman seconds the motion: “Historically, the big influence on the New York-based hiphop movement has been Caribbean and Jamaican music. I think Bambaataa’s mother is Jamaican, Flash has Caribbean roots, Stetsasonic has a reggae number on every record, even the Fat Boys have done a reggae rap [‘Hard Core Reggae’, from Fat Boys Are Back]. We just signed a girl named Latifah, and she has a record out called ‘Princess of the Posse’ that has a very heavy reggae groove in it.”
The void left by Kool Herc’s disappearance was soon filled by Blow, Flash, Bambaataa, and other young deejays. Of the three, Flash soon emerged as the scene’s technical wizard. A graduate of Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the Bronx, Flash began deejaying in ’75. He soon realized that Kool Herc’s act had one flaw: Although his mixer had a headphone input jack, he never used it, dropping the needle into the grooves by eye.
Flash: “The early hiphop jocks, when things first started, were hittin’ and missin’, droppin’ the needle and just hopin’ that the break was there. It wasn’t a perfectly synced thing. I learned about cueing when I met Pete ‘D.J.’ Jones, who was the hottest deejay of that time. We became friends, and when he would play, I would say to myself, ‘How the hell is he mixing his records on time? He’s not missin’ a beat!’ So once, when he was taking a break, he let me take over. He says, ‘Here’s the headset,’ and I’m thinking, ‘The headset? Why is he giving me a headset?’ But then, when I switched [the cue switches for the right and left turntables] back and forth, I says, ‘You can hear the record before it comes on!’ After I realized that you could pre-hear what you were doing, it was time to go out into the parks and do it!”
Another brainstorm followed: “punch phrasing,” or “cutting,” the rhythmic inter-cutting of sonic bursts from a manually manipulated disc on one turntable while a second record was spinning on another. In a low-tech premonition of sampling, it allowed Flash and other deejays to drop brass blasts, orchestra hits, and James Brown “Good God!”s into dance tracks, effectively creating new compositions. Shortly thereafter, an idea popped into Flash’s head that can only be described as a – pun intended – flash of brilliance: scratching.
Flash: “Scratching is just cueing the record. A deejay has to back-cue the record, but he only hears that sound himself. We felt, ‘Why just let us hear it? Let’s pull the fader halfway up while the other record’s still playing and make this scratching noise, back and forth, to the beat!’ At first, nobody else was doin’ this except me and Grand Wizard Theodore, who also helped with the evolution of scratching. After I popularized it in my area, I started playing at Bronx clubs like Club 371. It worked so well that, slowly but surely, it caught on like the plague.”
The abrasive, grainy whukka-whukka of a stylus whipping back and forth – heard for the first time by much of white America on Herbie Hancock’s gold single, ‘Rockit’, from Future Shock – has become rap’s trademark, as emblematic of the genre as whammy bar orgasms and two-handed tapping are of mainstream metal. Almost any rap track can be stripped down to the bare-bones essentials of a declaiming emcee and the swishing, swooshing sound of a deejay scratching. As McDaniels puts it, “Live, Run-D.M.C. is just two turntables, a mixer, a stage, a crowd, and a microphone. Nothing’s on tape; all of it is done by records. It started with deejays and emcees, and Run-D.M.C is gonna make it end with deejays and emcees.”
As individual deejays gathered followings, they began recruiting their own emcees to sling slang and keep the crowd dancing. As Flash recalls in Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, And Graffiti, “When people first came to the park, they’d start dancing. But then everyone would gather around and watch the deejay. A block party could turn into a seminar. That was dangerous. You needed vocal entertainment to keep everyone dancing. I used to leave the mike on the other side of the table so anybody who wanted could pick it up.”
Early rappers patterned their staccato ejaculations after – who else? – the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. A quick listen to ‘(Get Up, I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, and ‘My Thang’, from James Brown/Solid Gold 30 Golden Hits, offers a crash course in rap cliches. It’s no mistake that such Bambaataa efforts as Unity and The Light feature Brown. Nor is it mere coincidence that Full Force, the production crew behind Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, the Real Roxanne, and other hiphop-flavored pop acts, recently jumped at the opportunity to work with Brown on his latest album, I’m Real. Lyrically and musically, Brown is in many ways the founding father of hiphop. His bass lines, drum licks, and trademark sobs, yips, grunts, and groans have found their way into innumerable rap numbers, from Spoonie Gee’s ‘The Godfather’ to Sweet T’s ‘I Got Da Feelin” to Kool Moe Dee’s ‘How Ya Like Me Now’, and on and on. Kurtis Blow surely speaks for all of hiphop when he says, “James has that anticipated swing beat that’s called soul. No one else in music history has captured it like he has.”
A subtler, but equally pervasive, influence on rap emcees has been the Last Poets, a raw-talking, fiercely political combo founded in 1968 by Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin. Mindblowing Poets cuts like ‘Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution’ and ‘When The Revolution Comes’, both from The Last Poets, cut the die for the current crop of in-your-face rappers like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and Schooly-D. Although their spare, bongo-powered arrangements were a little too jazzy to catch on with the hard-funkin’ hiphoppers, landmark numbers like ‘Hustler’s Convention’, released in 1973 on Douglas, influenced a generation of rappers. As Kool Herc himself once noted, “The inspiration for rap is James Brown and Hustler’s Convention.”
Originally a quartet, the group has thinned to a core duo of Nuriddin and Suliaman El-Hadi, who joined in 1971. Asked to give advice to the movement he helped spark, El-Hadi observed, “You know, a lot of this is a fad, and if you add ‘e’ to ‘fad,’ it becomes ‘fade.’ Fads fade, but our thing is not a trend that comes to an end, you know what I mean? I can appreciate all of the young brothers and sisters tryin’ to do somethin’. My problem is with the content; most of them are not givin’ up no message, you know what I mean? They’re hung up on a real heavy ego trip. Everything travels in cycles, and I think rap’s gotta get back to basics; people are becoming fed up with the nonsense. They’re becoming disillusioned, so I think it’s only a matter of time before they get to basics. I believe that they wanna slap their feet to the beat but I think they wanna sing somethin’ that means somethin’, too.”
While early rappers were busy cutting their eyeteeth on James Brown and Last Poets monologues, deejays were mining Manhattan’s cut-out bins for obscure nuggets that would make them stand apart from the competition. Afrika Bambaataa, more than any other jock, made a name for himself as “Master Of Records,” quoting from The Munsters, The Andy Griffith Show, James Brown rarities, and Sly Stone freakouts all in the space of a few minutes. Audiences, in hiphop parlance, “bugged out.”
Tom Silverman: “Bambaataa was spinning at this rap club called the T-Connection up in the Bronx. He had a business card at that time that said, ‘Afrika Bambaataa : Master Of Records.’ That was his real claim to fame. If Bambaataa knows anything, he knows every record that was ever released – rock, jazz, whatever. He’ll use a little lick from Bob James’ ‘Mardi Gras’, he’ll use a piece of the Eagles’ The Long Run, the Monkees, Billy Squier’s Big Beat, and so on. He used to tape over the labels of his records so that nobody could tell what they were. The kids would gather around the deejay to watch because they wanted to get the records.
“I used to go to a store called Downstairs Records, in New York. They had a ‘beats’ room, where they would play old records, cut-outs that they had originally gotten for 50 cents or a dollar each and were selling for 15 or 20 dollars to little kids from the Bronx who would pool their money together to buy them. These kids would buy the Eagles’ Long Run just for the three seconds at the top of a record, just for that little piece with the beat on it! These records weren’t readily available, and this was the place you went that had all the beats. They’d sell them that way too. They’d put a sign on The Long Run that would say ‘Boogie Beat’ or something, and everybody would know what that meant. Every little kid in the Bronx had two turntables; they were all imitating Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.”
Flash: “The ultimate goal of a deejay, before hiphop became a recorded form, was to go out and find records that had danceable drum solos, regardless of how long they were. A lot of the records that I used to play, my audience probably would never have known that they were by white rock groups. But with a lot of the white pop songs, they gave the drummer a serious solo, and if you knew your beats-per-minute, you could mix ’em back and forth with the old funk and R&B things and make the marriage work!”
To this day, deejays on the lookout for def breaks can still be found pawing through the vinyl or jawing with day manager Stanley Platzer at New York’s Music Factory [1476 Broadway, between 42nd and 43rd, (212) 221-1488]. There, in neat rows along one wall, are volumes one through 19 of Ultimate Breaks And Beats, a legit series of compilation LPs that cram the best beats onto a single disc. One volume, for example, includes ‘Granny’s Funky Rolls Royce’, ‘Funky Drummer’, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Johnny The Fox’, ‘Ashley’s Roachclip’, and three other cuts. There are no artist listings, and volume numbers are given only on the handlettered cards rubber-banded to each record. As Stanley says, it’s the breaks – “the bells, man, the bells” – that matter, and nothing else.
THROUGHOUT THE ’70s, recorded rap existed solely in the form of live shows taped on cassette, duped on double decks, and passed from fan to fan. Then, in 1979, with the release of the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, everything changed. Although ‘King Tim III (Personality Jock)’, the B-side of the Fatback Band’s ‘You’re My Candy Sweet’, hit the charts earlier that year, it didn’t cause quite the stir ‘Rapper’s Delight’ did. For one thing, more than a few of the uptown emcees recognized their own rhymes in ‘Delight’. It wasn’t long before the record, with its infectious hook “borrowed” from Chic’s ‘Good Times’, went gold, selling more than two million copies and slapping the tag “rap” on the genre forever. Emcees and deejays scrambled to sign with Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s New Jersey-based indie, Sugar Hill.
Later that same year, Kurtis Blow’s novelty single ‘Christmas Rappin” joined the parade of gold rap records. Its 1980 follow-up, ‘The Breaks’, went gold as well, putting rap on the musical map and establishing Blow as a major label presence on an otherwise indie-dominated scene.
Blow: “The whole society of hiphop was really new when I did ‘The Breaks’. I was sort of putting ideas together, trying to keep the whole fad true to its roots. What I tried to do was make the kind of music that I would hear in the clubs, and that’s how I came up with ‘The Breaks’. The break was the most important part of the record in discos; people would go crazy when they would get to the break. We wanted to make a record symbolizing that, with a lot of different breaks. Lyrically, I got into the connotations of a ‘good break’ or a ‘bad break,’ philosophically speaking – the breaks in the record and also the breaks one can get in one’s life. We had an all-star band back then; real hot musicians. Jimmy Bralower was the drummer. The bassist was Larry Smith, who later became a big producer; he produced the first two Run-D.M.C. albums and the first four Whodini albums. He also became my bandleader, with a band that I started in ’81 called the Orange Crush band. John Tropea played guitar, and Denzil Miller, who produced two songs on my new album, Back By Popular Demand, played keyboards.”
In ’82, Bambaataa and Flash grabbed for the brass ring and caught it. Bambaataa and his Soul Sonic Force got lucky first with ‘Planet Rock’, an unlikely fusion of bleeping, fizzing techno-rock, Zulu surrealism and deep-fried funk.
Tom Silverman: “The kids were really getting into Kraftwerk. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was big in the ghettoes. Nobody at Capitol Records, Kraftwerk’s label, knew anything about it, but Bambaataa used to spin it in his clubs. I thought it would be a great idea to use those rhythms and that kind of a sound in a black record, so Bambaataa and I went into the studio with Arthur Baker as the producer. We needed a guy to put synthesizers down, and somebody recommended John Robie, who had a danceable rock record out on this disco deejay service. He came over and we went into Intergalactic Studio, which, for $35 an hour, included a Neve board, a Fairlight, a Memorymoog, and a Roland TR-808. That was pretty much all we used. We had these giant orchestra hits in the tune, played in polyphony to make them sound even bigger. They were stock sounds from one of the Fairlight disks. Today, those chords are still the basis for samples on about 50 other records! ‘Planet Rock’ sold over 600,000 12” singles; it was one of the first four or five gold 12-inches ever.”
In sharp contrast to ‘Planet Rock’s’ glacial strings, zapping synths, and quick-stepping beatbox, Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ seemed like a step backwards. Inspired in part by Tom Tom Club’s 1981 single ‘Genius Of Love’, it is a slow, almost plodding tune, prodded along by a chicken-picked guitar figure, handclaps on the backbeat, burping synth bass and a descending melody line that seems to echo into a foggy infinity. Its lyrics, by contrast, are crystal clear, a sharp-focus image of inner city ugliness. To this day, it remains one of rap’s most intelligent, scathing looks at black life in a white-run world.
’83 ushered in ‘Sucker M.C.s’, by Run-D.M.C., and with it, a new brand of “gangster rap” that scrapped the sixteenth-note hi-hats, ringing 9th and 6th chords, and slick vocal inflections that hiphop had carried over from disco. Driven by a booming 808 kick that ripples through the seat of your pants, power chords that crisp your face, and hollered lyrics that richochet around your skull, Run-D.M.C.’s tunes are headbanging rap at its hardest. Taut as coiled whipsteel, tracks like ‘King Of Rock’ and their lashing, smashing cover of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ opened the door for L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and other “hardcore B-boys.”
Producer, guitarist, and Def Jam owner Rick Rubin, who handled production chores on L.L. Cool J’s Radio, the Beastie Boys’ License To Ill, and other chart-busters, has played an important role in hammering out the metal/rap sound that has been largely responsible for crossing rap over to a broader, whiter demographic.
Rubin: “Rap records are really black rock and roll records, the antithesis of disco. The rap records which were being made in the beginning, like the ones on the Sugar Hill label, were disco records with a guy rappin’ on ’em. That’s because these were companies who, before rap became popular, were making disco records. What I tried to do was make records that had more to do with what the rap scene was about in the clubs, where the kind of beats they were rapping over weren’t disco beats; they were Billy Squier and Aerosmith – rock and roll beats! So I thought what needed to happen was to make the beats on these records more oriented toward rock.”
Adler: “Rappers make rock and roll. My notion of rock and roll isn’t pegged to a big, noisy guitar. I think rock and roll has always been about attitude and rhythm; it’s about aggression, rebellion, sex, and a big beat. It’s also about intelligence and wit. And if those are the qualities that you look for in rock and roll, you’re gonna come to rap.”
Silverman: “Rap music is the only place white kids can find music that’s genuine, that’s from the soul, that says ‘fuck you’ to society. I think that there’s very little new and exciting happening in rock and roll. There’s a sense of danger in rap music, a real edge that rock and roll had when it was new and no longer has anymore. Rock and roll is safe music now.”
Rubin: “A Run-D.M.C. concert, which, two or three years ago, would draw maybe a 70 or 80 percent black audience, is now drawing a 70 or 80 percent white audience. I’d say that’s a crossover. Things are definitely changing in rap.”
McDaniels: “When we did ‘Rock Box’ and ‘King Of Rock’, these headbangers couldn’t believe the tracks we made. They like, ‘Yo, man, that’s really bad!’ It definitely brought them in, and now, they still with it. Even if Run-D.M.C. don’t put a metal track, they gonna buy the album and they’ll wind up liking a hiphop jam, they’ll end up liking a cut like ‘Run’s House’ or ‘Beats To The Rhyme’. Now they understand it. They followed the guitar in there, and then they found out there was a whole other side to it.”
Adler: “Can I tell you why this music wins? Because it is intrinsically powerful. This is some of the most exciting popular music being made by anyone anywhere on the planet. I’ve always said, ‘Please let us play on a bill with Bruce Springsteen or whoever most white people think is an exciting rock and roller. We’ll go on first!’ Let me put Public Enemy on before Bruce Springsteen; that would be it for brother Brucie; he’d be finished! He’d have to go and take an early shower! Public Enemy would get off the stage and the crowd would head for the exits!”
Silverman: “Is rap rock and roll? Rap is what rock and roll should be. When rock went to sleep, rap rose from its ashes.”
THE CHAPTER ON rap in the late ’80s will have to be written when historical distance affords a little objectivity. It’s safe to make several predictions, though, based on the words and music of some of the more innovative rappers. For example, it seems clear that we’ll be seeing a return to the use of live musicians in the studio and onstage.
Silverman: “Stetsasonic is the first rap group to tour with a live drummer. It’s sort of a retro movement, because all the sampling that’s done is James Brown stuff, which was live drums to begin with. Stetsasonic have three emcees, two deejays, a guy named D.B.C. [‘Dynamic Beat Creator’] who plays synthesizers, a live drummer, and a guy who makes scratch sounds and beats with his mouth. It’s sort of like a hiphop orchestra.”
McDaniels: “People are startin’ to put basslines in it, and pianos and horns. A lot of the records you hear on the radio now got good tracks behind ’em. The music is maturing, progressing, and as it does, the rap scene does. The rappers and the deejays go into the studio and put a beat down and rap over it and then they say, ‘Hey, I know a bass line that would go great with that!’ So I would say the scene is getting more musical. Or at least, people are utilizing more musical sounds. Musicians play an important role; they add the flavor to the beats. We always have a lot of real instruments on our tracks. But people are still sampling. We’re still dropping in beats from James Brown or Billy Squier or the Meters.”
The tug of war over the ethical and legal aspects of sampling will continue as rappers go on painting remarkable pastiches in sound.
Gehr: “So far, the big case involves the Beastie Boys, and the group they ripped off for their tune ‘Brass Monkey’, off of License To Ill. I suspect that will be settled out of court, because everyone’s afraid of setting a legal precedent for this stuff. If record companies were smarter, they’d say, ‘Sure, anybody can do it,’ because people from their record companies are going to want to rip off people from other companies. But they’re so concerned with keeping their turf that that’s probably not going to happen. There will probably be these dippy little court cases that get settled out of court without setting any legal precedent. I don’t think it’s going to be etched in stone.”
Robinson: “We’ve never really used bits and pieces of other peoples’ stuff too much, because a lot of groups are getting involved in lawsuits over that. We just take ordinary sounds, like if I hear a noisy car outside, I’ll grab the little sampler and sample that. Or if I hear people talking, I’ll sample that too. Or if I’m watchin’ TV and I hear somethin’ from a commerical, like where they say, ‘Parkay…Butter!,’ I’ll sample that.”
Daddy-O, from Stetsasonic: “Our latest single and video, ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’, is pro-sampling. It’s almost like an anti-James Brown nowadays record, now that he’s coming back with this static about sampling. I’m just establishing what we intend to do with sampling. We sometimes use the words ‘recontextualization’ or ‘revivification,’ but it means the same thing, which is to take something old and make it new again. The strong point of what sampling does for us, as a music form, is to establish some soul groove and some old funk that’s lost with today’s R&B in the name of crossover, in the name of pop charts, in the name of Whitney Houston, whatever. You know what I’m saying?”
Steve Ett, engineer and co-owner, Chung King House Of Metal studios: “I’m with everybody who steals stuff to make new stuff, because in my book, one plus one equals three. If you take one thing and add it to something else, you get two in mathematics. But in the real world, when you take one sound and add it to a second sound, you create a third sound. By stealing a bass line from one old record and sticking it into a drumbeat, you create a whole new song.”
McDaniels: “If you use somebody’s material, just give ’em their royalties and everybody will be happy and merry. That’s something you should do right away instead of waitin’ until your records sell, because if your record does good, the person will be like, ‘Yo, I want mine.’ Then you can’t put the album out ’cause you be goin’ to court and then you sittin’ there mad, you know?”
Daddy-O: “There’s this attitude established that we’re thieves, that we’re just looking to rip people off, that we’re not doing any work. I want people to understand that for most of what they say, it’s not true. Sometimes we get ripped off. For instance, in ‘Talking All That Jazz’, we used a riff from Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansion’. It’s our song, but we got charged $3,000 for that. When we recreated ‘Float On’, which the Floaters put out on ABC in 1977, we rewrote it, made it fresh, made it new again. Most of the people I speak with like our version better than the original, but the Floaters got all the rights and publishing. So when somebody complains about rappers ripping off their music, sometimes it’s the reverse.
“In a way, when we do what we do with sampling, we’re actually admitting that we are not able to make these grooves yet. We’re going to the point where we’ll be able to make our own funk grooves, just like the Meters, without using a sampling machine for that. I’m not saying we won’t use samplers. You give me a machine that samples at 16 bits, and I’m not saying I won’t use it. But I may not use it in the same way.”
Perhaps we are also witness in the late ’80s to the birth of acid rap, a budding movement that could include Island’s Gettovetts, Eric B. And Rakim’s ‘Chinese Arithmetic’, with its squirting, dribbling liquid sounds, cheesy, kung fu movie melody and skittering scratch track, or Tommy Boy’s De La Soul, whose act includes two women who hold up cue cards explaining what certain words are, throw daisies from the stage, then take Polaroids of the audience.
Female rappers are also growing more prominent, led by founding mother Millie Jackson. Recent torchbearers include M. C. Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante, Yvette Money, Sparky D, Sweet Tee, Peaches, Ms. Melodie, and Synquis.
Rap is travelling beyond its old neighborhoods, and adapting to diverse climates throughout the world. In the U.S. strong growth pockets in Los Angeles and Miami are creating new sub-styles of rap.
Silverman: “There’s a Miami sound called ‘base music,’ with modulating bass and a heavy 808 sound. And there’s a California sound, which is totally different, typified by artists such as Ice-T, people who are selling a quarter of a million or more records in L.A. and don’t ever get played in New York. All of the California stuff and a lot of the Miami music is high-speed rap of 120 beats per minute or more. It all sounds like ‘Planet Rock’. There’s rap coming out of San Francisco, this guy named M.C. Hammer; there’s a guy named Sir Mixalot on the West Coast somewhere; there’s this guy Raheem, from Houston, who’s on A&M; there’s a guy from Cleveland named Bango, a B-boy outlaw who came in second in the New Music Seminar rap contest this year.”
Bambaataa: “It’s spreadin’ from country to country. You have Jovanotti, this white Italian guy who had a Number One rap album in Italy. You have rappers in Holland. You have a couple of groups comin’ out of Belgium and Germany. A lot of the European rappin’ is mixed, where you have blacks and whites doin’ it together. I’d say France, besides England, has the funkiest acts. France is the only place that had a syndicated TV show called Hip Hop that was on for two to three years.”
Silverman: “A British school of rap is beginning to rear its head. Derek B., Cookie Crew, and a whole new level of rappers are starting to emerge from there, with very strong Jamaican roots. If anything, they’re a lot more knowledgeable about reggae, which sells a lot more in that country per capita than it does here. So I think that they’re going to have a leg up on us when they do get into rap.”
Rubin: “I think the British scene might be the future of rap. Much like Led Zeppelin taking the American blues and doing a white boy bastardized version of it, the British might do the same thing with rap. I don’t necessarily like what they’ve done to it, but I think that’s the only chance it has.”
Gehr: “The interesting thing about the British rap phenomenon is that what most hipsters seem to be into in England isn’t rap at all; it’s hiphop. They’re not into rap as an American derivative of Jamaican toasting, so much as they’re into the idea of hiphop being a larcenous kind of music that borrows from a lot of other sources, reorganizing them in interesting ways. They’re into rap more as radical music than as social commentary.”
McDaniels: “I like them English guys. They seem to be with it. They’re just as enthusiastic as the people over here in the States; I think they want it more, even, ’cause they’re not from here, you know what I’m sayin’? A lot of rappers do good over there, get a lot of radio play, do successful tours. It’s very, very easy to get on TV over there, they got so many music shows. The scene over there is very good for this music, and I like the rappers that are comin’ outta there. I think, right now, they just wanna see who’s the best rapper, who got the best beats and stuff like that. But eventually, you’ll have some of ’em comin’ out, discussin’ what’s goin’ on in the streets, givin’ a message, making a strong social statement.”
RAP, IT SEEMS, is everywhere. But despite its escalating sales, and despite the push given it by respected critics in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications, it continues to receive little or no airplay on white or black radio. The reason, as Adler and others will tell you, is racism.
Adler: “There’s a kind of a paradox built into our success. At the same time that we’ve achieved enormous critical and commercial recognition, we’ve also had to face an awful lot of resistance in the form of bans on radio. If Public Enemy got airplay commensurate with their true popularity, they’d sell ten times as many records as they’re already selling. They’ve already sold 750,000 records in six weeks without any airplay! Everybody in the music industry understands that radio is the chief sales medium and yet we find ourselves banned. Why is this happening? Because rock radio doesn’t play rap. There’s a more or less blanket ban on music by artists of color. They don’t think that black musicians play rock and roll. That’s why we think AOR means ‘Apartheid-Oriented Radio.’
“The thing to understand is the difference in the cultural climate today vis a vis the ’60s. Take Woodstock, for example: There was an even balance of white and black artists there. Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone were the heroes of that event in a lot of ways, but there was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for people who liked folk rock, Joan Baez was on the bill, the Who were there, and they were all mixed up together. And that wasn’t unusual because that’s the way radio was at that time. When Sly Stone had a hit and the Beatles had a hit, you heard them back-to-back on the radio. What happened, in the early ’70s, was that the once-monolithic rock audience was demographied by radio programmers. Now, there’s so-called ‘rock radio’ for white kids in the suburbs and so-called ‘urban radio’ for black kids in the cities and there’s very little actual crossover in terms of day-to-day programming. So rock radio plays virtually no black artists, even though there are musicological links between the staple music of AOR and our music. An artful programmer could program Run-D.M.C, Public Enemy, and Eric B., along with Van Halen and the rest of those bands. Why aren’t they doing it? It’s racism! They’re afraid of black people! It’s all-white staffs and all-white deejays playing all-white artists for an all-white audience.
“Now, black radio is fucked up on the basis, not of racism, but of class. To put it in current cultural terms, it’s a war between the buppies and the B-boys; buppies are black yuppies and the B-boys are our guys. Black radio is run by upwardly mobile black men who, even if they come from a background like Chuck’s, don’t want anybody to know about it. Rap music pulls them right back to the streetcorner, which is distasteful to them, even terrorizing. It’s black, aggressive, loud, sexual music and it has very little to do with Luther Vandross, who’s a staple of black radio at this point.”
Rap, according to Adler and others, has also been virtually ignored by technically oriented music magazines, including the one you’re holding in your hands. The bitter irony of asking rappers to sit at the back of the bus, journalistically speaking, is that few musical genres – with the exception of prog rock and fusion jazz both dearly beloved of tech mags – rely as heavily as rap on synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, and all the other doo-dads that pump advertising dollars into magazine coffers. Capitol artists Mantronix, for instance, are hiphop’s answer to Eurythmics, a hi-tech duo with a soulful take on the digital aesthetic.
The problem, it seems, is that hip-hoppers simply don’t fit the white, middle-class definition of a musician. A musician, according to that definition, is someone who toils over manuscript paper in an age where the studio has become the standard notational tool. A musician is someone who values manual dexterity above all else, in an age where computers may soon circumvent that aspect of music-making altogether. A musician – the subtext reads – is a lanky-limbed Briton with a mid-’70s shag haircut playing florid, high-register arpeggios that are equal parts Liszt and Liberace. What a musician is not, and could never be, is a black kid from the Bronx making whukka-whukka sounds with a record needle.
Silverman: “To me, hiphop deejays are musicians. The technique that’s necessary to be one is at a level of sophistication similar to what it would take to play an instrument. It’s really difficult to do what they do, playing three seconds of a beat, in rhythm, and locking it so that it loops and they can play it back and forth without missing a beat. They’re taking platters, throwing them on, cueing them up, and going back and forth between two turntables so that it sounds like it was recorded that way. Making new music from seven or eight other records is an incredibly difficult thing to do. I’ve heard people cut as little as one beat back and forth, from one turntable to the other, left, right, left, right, without headphones or anything!
“Current hiphop represents the use of synthesizers and drum machines and sequencers by people who are musically illiterate but could be musical geniuses. I believe that there could be Beethovens and Mozarts in the ghettoes of the United States who never surface because they can’t get access to the tools of music. As the prices have come down on synthesizers and drum machines, they now have access to instruments which they don’t need manual dexterity to be able to play, because of sequencing. They’re able to put down musical ideas which they can’t express on an instrument that takes some type of musical articulation.
“Most technically oriented music magazines wear blinders and see the music industry the way the major labels want them to see it. Keyboard, judging by its covers and features, prefers people with big names who stand behind giant synthesizer racks because it has to sell ad space to synthesizer manufacturers. But rock and roll is in such a stagnant place; these people in the Discoveries column are all quoting the same influences – a classical name for image, followed by Keith Emerson and other people who could be my father, people who have no new ideas, who are just doing the same shit. Their contributions were made more than a decade ago – two decades ago in many instances – and they’re still getting coverage in magazines like Keyboard. Who is Thomas Dolby? The guy had one hit record in his life, but he’s a white guy who wears a lab suit, so he gets covers in Keyboard. That’s what pisses me off! It’s not racism, it’s ignorance.
“Without any airplay, rap sells more concert tickets and more records than any of this. Anything that can sell more than 30 million albums a year without any airplay – more than Marillion or most of these groups that you read about in technical music magazines – is a legitimate art form that people are appreciating. Rap music is real. Rap isn’t a bunch of middle-class guys with money going out and putting on makeup and talking about throwing their parents out the window. It’s about people who are living in ghettoes and have no way out. And it’s also a mega-business, practically an industry unto itself. I mean, how long can you ignore it?”
D.B.C. [“Dynamic Beat Creator”], sampler/synthesist for Stetsasonic: “Who’s to say what music is? As we move further toward the future, music is gonna change even more drastically, and then what you gonna say?”
© Mark Dery, Keyboard, November 1988