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Just a year shy of a quarter of a century ago, Sly Stone, the funk poet steeped in the stew of blues, race, and riot, produced the second and gentlest of his blithe singles. Wars rocked the cities and the consciousness of his listeners, Richard Nixon had just been elected president, and voices for change were regularly shot down. But Stone took a stand against hate:
There is a blue one who can’t accept the green one
For living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one . . .
He sang derisively. He continued:
Makes no difference what group I’m in . . .
I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do.
With its oh sha shas and scooby dooby doo-bees, “Everyday People” looked at dissension and division and tried to cast a line that would keep things together. Sly wasn’t pointing fingers, wasn’t trying to find a “them” to blame; indeed, he underlined his point with friendly fire (“There is a long hair that doesn’t like the short hair / For bein’ such a rich one that will not help the poor one”). The song, like his band, like the philosophy of almost all of his 60s predecessors and 70s progeny, was about tolerance and, most of all, unity in the face of adversity.
Now, more than 20 years later, “Everyday People” is on the charts again: but in an upside down, inside out, and backwards version called “People Everyday.” The song, by the rap group Arrested Development, is an unlikely top-ten hit: It’s a groovy sing-along, just like Sly’s, but with a roiling tide of pop flotsam and jetsam tossed into the mix: reggae blabber at the beginning, percolating scratching, a goofy, off-kilter horn line, an irresistible sidelong beat, and singsongy, call-and-response vocals. Over this chaotic but somehow sparkling mix, the band’s leader Speech tells a story: he’s in a park with his girlfriend when he’s confronted with “Brothers . . . drinkin’ the 40 oz. going the nigga route / Disrespecting my black queen / Holding their crotches & being obscene.” A black artist taking shots at other blacks in a song isn’t quite as daring as it sounds, though you wouldn’t know it from the way rap is written about in the mainstream media. In fact, there’s a strong component of black self-criticism in even the most notoriously antisocial rap these days.
When I first heard the song, I thought that Speech was joining Sly in a plea for harmony, a call for black unity. Until the last verse:
And like I said before I was mad by then
It took three or four cops to take me off of him.
But that’s the story y’all
Of a black man
Acting like a nigga and get stomped by an African!
You don’t have to be too much of a rap insider to know that “nigga” is a term of pride in the gangster rap community. Speech is obviously laying down quite a gauntlet, using the situation in the song as a metaphor for the state of black music. Groups like N.W.A. or 2 Live Crew are the local toughs; Speech is the new guy in town, and, with Sly Stone’s classic “Everyday People” in his holster, he’s ready to make a stand.
But wait: where does beating the shit out of people who offend you fit in? Sly tried to coax us to unity; Speech has had it up to here with coaxing and is willing to put his fists–or his band–where his beliefs are.
On Arrested Development’s radical, shimmery kaleidoscope of a debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . , Speech shows that he can outwrite, outsing, outplay, and outperform all comers: he’s got impeccable beats, a polyethnic set of musical roots, some tough politics, and a nonpedantic, utterly genuine philosophy that focuses on moral rectitude, family values, and work. He’s also in favor of sex, fun, and guns if the job is going to take guns. He can pull out conceptual coups like “People Everyday” when he needs to, and he never forgets that the music comes first, politics second.
The band has arrived at a weird moment when even the most aggressive and outspoken rappers seem discombobulated. (When the nation and Ice-T went eye to eye on “Cop Killer,” Ice-T blinked.) Black music’s greatest figures have been those who, while embodying a certain earthiness, to be sure, at the same radiated a glowing, enveloping aura of peace and togetherness. The most beautiful songs on earth, the most morally centered, hopeful, and uplifting, came out of the sort of secular gospel that filled the pop charts in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet in the 80s, tested on one side by the polymorphously perverse Prince, and on the other by the furiously evolving world of rap, we could only watch as the music abandoned its traditional role and sought darker and darker effects. Beginning with the early disturbing work of Schoolly D, and eventually spreading to include mini music empires in Miami (2 Live Crew and Luke Records), Houston (Geto Boys and Rap-a-Lot Records), and of course LA (N.W.A. and Ruthless Records, Ice-T), the messages got uglier. At the same time, the music itself grew harsher and darker, reaching its conceptual apogee in the work of the production team called the Bomb Squad, who worked with Public Enemy and later Ice Cube, and in the spare, cold, jittery beats of the LA rappers.
While the negative aspects of some of this music have unquestionably been distorted and exploited by the white mainstream media, those negative aspects had to be there in the music to be exploited. The utopianism and faith that fueled black music’s force for decades was now pretty much gone in a very large section of the music. In other words, one of the most distinctive and valuable cultural ties that existed in America suddenly vaporized and blew away in an ominous wind. Left in its wake was a debilitating, polarizing debate. Time and time again, public, governmental, and corporate pressure has pushed these performers into corners, where their rhetoric only becomes more reckless.
But over the last few years, a new wave of rap has developed with a force that derives from opposition to such flirtations: a new generation of bands with their philosophical foundations in the 1960s but with a clear-eyed 90s view of what it really takes to get by. These bands have their roots in the cultural and musical mixmaster known as De La Soul; more recently, besides Arrested Development, there’s been the psychedelic and flowing P.M. Dawn, the creatively polemical Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, post-neo-retro-funk-rock-rappers A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, the restless, spaced-out Basehead, and many more. I don’t know what to call these bands–post rap?–but they share a thematically complex foundation of black culture, radical but morally centered politics, and futuristic rather than atavistic instincts, all set to a technologically advanced musical stew of world beats, R & B, dance music, soul, and, in some cases, old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. These bands are what happened when rap music espoused hatred and nihilism, and lost its center in the process.
From the height of the soul era in the mid-60s to the time in the 1970s when disco and later punk rock helped shatter the polyethnic balance, we who fashioned our world through the radio knew nothing but what the Top 40 gave us: the pop-soul utopia whose foundation was laid down both by the geniuses of soul (Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin) and by the familiarity and respect proffered by the leading white musicians, almost all of whom had their roots in black music. And the laws laid down were those embodied by “Everyday People”: love, hope, and understanding, with the implicit underlying premise of common bonds.
Listening to a remarkable assemblage, Rhino Records’ 15-volume “Didn’t It Blow Your Mind!” set, is accordingly uplifting. This extraordinary collection is basically the history of post-Motown ‘n’ Sly soul from the late 1960s, from songs like “Oh Happy Day” and “Grazing in the Grass” to some of the last hits of the predisco era, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Let’s Do It Again.” It’s significant that the first and last of these, bracketing this period, are by gospel groups; over these 15 CDs, over close to 200 songs, you’re struck by something: that in this, the dominant pop movement of the day, which produced dozens of the most tuneful, honest, moving, and beautiful pop songs ever recorded–including “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” “Precious, Precious,” “Lean on Me,” “Back Stabbers,” “I’ve Found Someone of My Own,” “Have You Seen Her,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Why Can’t We Live Together,” and on and on and on–there was no room for negativity or confrontation.
There was of course a vibrant and growing political consciousness: any soul music created after Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” had to reflect this, and the times produced stuff like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly sound track, latter-day Motown works like Edwin Starr’s “War,” and the group War’s “The World Is a Ghetto.” Among the pop songs of the day–on both the white and black charts–the zeitgeist was ruled by the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” To the extent that it appears, this era’s sharpest political comment was social: it took the form of essays on the seven deadly sins (“For the Love of Money”) and relatively vague commentary (“[For God’s Sake] Give More Power to the People”).
Until the 1980s, that is, and the rise of hardcore rap.
Rap wasn’t always this way; its first goofy hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” was a novelty song through and through, only slightly more complex than, say, “The Hustle.” Even rap’s early landmarks–Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” or Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”–are rather less gritty than we might remember: Blow, among other things, was bummed about high phone bills; and one of the things pushing Melle Mel closer to the edge was his mother hogging the TV.
How exactly rap has evolved from “The Message” to the swirling olio that now includes artists as diverse as Vanilla Ice and Ice-T is the complex story of how two competing strains of the music–one crossover-driven and pop-styled, the other less compromising–developed and ultimately nourished each other. This distinction isn’t always appreciated: when Newsweek’s now infamous “Rap Rage” issue came out, on the cover was a photo not of Chuck D, not of gangster rappers N.W.A., not of the genuinely raging Ice-T, but of genial pothead Tone-Loc, then blowing out the charts with the barely irritated “Wild Thing.” (Imagine a “rock rage” Newsweek in 1965 with, oh, I don’t know, Freddie and the Dreamers on the cover.)
Still, that Newsweek cover is part of a pattern of analysis that seeks to belittle the sources of the music’s anger. One of the more off-kilter theories being tossed about these days is the one that says rap music was actually created for whites or it lost whatever credibility it had among blacks as it evolved to meet the market demands of its white audience. The highest-profile article on this subject, “The Real Face of Rap,” by David Samuels, appeared in the New Republic about a year ago. Briefly, Samuels contends that rap was originally a musically interesting form of disco, until it turned into overly sampled constructions about black desperadoes designed to appeal to whites’ stereotypes of blacks, and now blacks don’t really like it. “What’s significant here are not so much the intentions of artist and audience as a dynamic in which anti-Semitic slurs and black criminality correspond to ‘authenticity,’ and ‘authenticity’ sells records,” Samuels writes in a key sentence. Only in a mental universe where the intentions of both the artists and the audience are dismissed can the prejudices of a nut like Samuels reach full flower. In a very long article he was able to produce not one instance of anti-Semitism in a rap song. (We’re apparently free to take his use of the word “anti-Semitic” in its typical New Republic meaning, as a negative intensifier roughly equivalent to “double-plus-ungood.”) A few paragraphs later, he continues:
“Whatever its continuing significance in the realm of racial politics, rap’s hour as innovative popular music has come and gone. Rap forfeited whatever claim it may have had to particularity by acquiring a mainstream white audience whose tastes increasingly determined the nature of the form. What whites wanted was not music, but black music, which as a result stopped really being either.”
The article, from November 11, 1991, is probably worth clipping and dating; the “rap’s hour has come and gone” line might be fun to pull out in a few years. Of course, the sneering last line is merely a rerun of establishment critiques of Elvis in 1956, the Beatles in 1964, disco in 1975, and punk in 1977. But the problem anyone would have with Samuels’s analysis is that it accounts for neither (a) the consistent and overwhelming popularity of bubblegum rap, which has nothing to do with criminality, nor (b) the increasingly musical harshness of the concurrently evolving hardcore rap. Samuels’s scenario requires that rap’s creators looked at both the history of black music over its previous two decades and the black music that was selling at the time, yet then concluded, No, what white America actually wants is bitter confrontational songs married to the harshest rock music the world has ever heard. (These hotdogging cultural curve riders must also have envisioned the rise of MTV and the breaking of its color barrier by Michael Jackson, an unspeakably popular black artist who–whoops!–didn’t perform rap.) This is counterintuitive to say the least, and at the same time it conveniently understates the sea change in American listening tastes that rap music actually brought about.
What actually happened over rap’s first six or seven years was an extremely long and hard-fought battle for acceptance: a battle that eventually changed the way a generation of kids thought about music. The creators of this sound had to fight against not only the usual industry disregard for independent labels but the even worse treatment of black independent labels. Then they were free to deal with narrow radio playlists and conservative retail outlets, as well as the usual prejudices against everything from the color of the skins of the performers to electronic music generally, and the usual American resistance to anything new or different.
One segment of rap took the commercial route. Many early rap stars were cartoony–Whodini, the Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh, even, to some extent, Run D.M.C.. Samuels makes a big deal about the members of these groups–by and large products of middle-class homes–adopting the gestures and fashion accoutrements of an urban street style, but how this is any different from millionaires in ripped jeans I’m not sure.
As the goofier stuff, over time, began to start selling records–began selling records in the face of approximately zero radio support–the harder stuff percolated underneath. My explanation for this harsh music’s rise is aesthetic, pure and simple: it was the same source that produced punk music and, in the 1980s, thrash and speed metal. The kids who played it liked it, believed in it, and kept at it even when no one else did. And the music eventually took hold because there was indeed something there to believe in. The hardest of the underground rap–which eventually blossomed with the Bomb Squad’s work with Public Enemy–shared an essential philosophical foundation with punk rock (a music that, incidentally, never did much in the way of business): a simple dedication to the cathartic power of extremely rough music. There are some conceptual differences between the two. Punk’s attempts to wrench rock back to its garage-band roots and cheerfully defenestrate cherished concepts like musicianship had their roots in politics, not aesthetics (the punks contended that this was how rock music should sound) and therefore led to all the usual philosophical complications that accompany self-conscious primitivism. Rap, by contrast, was never so calculated or extreme: the music simply went slowly into reverse, creating jarring, unpleasant mosaics over rougher and rougher beats. This experimentation, which was extremely successful artistically, now can boast the ultimate artistic triumph: it changed the world. Even the most bubblegummy of the new rap is affected–on novelty songs like Kris Kross’s “Jump,” or TLC’s marvelous “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” what we used to think of as riffs or hooks are little more than strange noises.
It’s difficult for me to write about this music for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s hard for a product of a homogeneous white middle-class upbringing to read this music correctly. Not only is it hard to comprehend the singers’ slang, it’s also hard to understand the songs’ deeper, intuitive levels. I’m sure that I–and most Reader readers–could give a pretty good explanation of just about any lyric from the Beatles oeuvre. Not just what the lines “mean,” but also how a particular line fits into a particular song–whether it’s a throwaway, a goof, an inside joke. When, for example, John Lennon quotes Chuck Berry–“Here come old flattop”–we recognize the homage and move on. But what does N.W.A.’s cop–on “Niggaz 4 Life”–of the riff from George Clinton’s “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” mean? It could be a sample, could be an homage, could be a subconscious accident, and even if I knew which of these it was, I wouldn’t know what the group was trying to convey by it, because I haven’t the faintest idea of what “Sir Nose” is about either. On that same N.W.A. record, there’s a song called “Automobile,” a thoroughly repellent fuck-me-or-walk tune. Yet a week or so ago, before a show at the Riveria, the sound system blared another version of the song–it sounded like an older, folkier, and nonobscene original. But N.W.A.’s Eazy-E says he wrote the tune on the record. Is this theft? A studio goof on a song the group’s intended listenership is supposed to be familiar with? I sure don’t know.
Similarly, we can’t trust most of the bad press rap has gotten over the last few years. Not only do most of its critics not understand it, most of them seem to be either unfamiliar with it or deliberately suppressing what they know to be true. The work of the most important rap groups is, on balance, overwhelmingly positive and genuinely challenging to–rather than indulgent of–its listeners. On any of the last three Public Enemy albums, for example, raps that an objective person would deem wholesome or raps that are critical of the intended black audience outnumber the political or controversial stuff by a ratio of between five and ten to one. This stuff is almost never mentioned in the national media. Consider these lines:
You know us poor niggers
Nappy hair and big lips
Four or five babies on your couch
And still you expect Uncle Sam to help us out
We ain’t nothing but porch monkeys
To the average bigot redneck honky
You say coming up is a must
But before we can come up
Take a look at
That’s not Clarence Thomas: that’s Ice Cube, on the most powerful and inventive track on his last album, Death Certificate. Rap artists have always been extremely realistic about the problems in the black community. (Chuck D: “Not many black males are men. We have boys who are 60 years old.”) These sorts of constructions are much more indicative of the state of rap today than the blown-out-of-proportion and taken-out-of-context lines that the newsmagazines and TV news throw at you. Whatever you think about rap, however difficult you find its very sound, and however offended you are by some artists’ antics, rap remains the most challenging and progressive music rock has seen since the mid-1960s.
At the same time, some of those antics strain tolerance. My biggest problem with certain rap artists is how comfortable they are with not just antisocietal but antihuman conventions. I personally don’t have any problem at all with Ice-T’s “Cop Killer”–I don’t have a problem with it as an exercise in dramatics or even as a political prescription, to tell you the truth. But I do have a problem with methodical, sadistic misogyny, images of thrill killing, antigay rhetoric, hatemongering, and stupidity. On “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” on Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, the former N.W.A. rapper sings, “Once again, the motherfucking psycho / Ice Cube the bitch killer, the cop killer.” It’s one thing to glorify cop killing as a specific response to brutality, the war on drugs, or whatever. It’s another to brag about it generically: that is psychotic. What does it mean that Public Enemy’s Chuck D, probably the most gifted American pop figure since Dylan, finds himself defending an anti-Semitic bandmate, or flacking for disturbed imaginary-rape victim Tawana Brawley, or publicly condemning the woman who charged Mike Tyson with rape? How does Ice Cube, a brilliant rapper and sometimes brave writer, find himself again and again on the wrong side when it comes to prejudice against women, gays, or Jews? And what exactly is jut-jawed cause celebre Ice-T talking about when he raps, “I fucked the bitch with a flashlight”? Worse, from the point of view of growth, is plain old dumbness: too many of the rappers are excessively uncritical of free-lance wacko Louis Farrakhan. Also, their political analysis sometimes fails them: When Public Enemy came under fire for the remarks of Professor Griff, Chuck D lashed back out at Jews themselves, as if they were the only ones offended by Griff’s remarks. Ice Cube, trashing his former bandmates in N.W.A., raps, “You let a Jew / Break up my crew.” Though he contends he wasn’t using the word as an insult, plainly he was.
Put in context, some of this stuff is to be expected. Some of these stars were simply never exposed to the sort of societal pressures that mitigate against such things as public expressions of bigotry. At the same time, rap’s lack of progress on these issues–indeed, its regression in some cases–is worrisome: a music simply can’t sustain itself on such skewed moral ground.
Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . is the most heartening signal yet that rap can advance. Speech and his cohorts aren’t the only ones trying to restore rap’s moral center, of course. De La Soul nicely reamed gangsters on its “Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)” several years ago:
I hold my crotch ’cause I’m top notch
I run amok like Sasquatch . . .
I got five beepers
And a number of other groups have made their feelings clear simply in their choice of subject matter and musical backings. But there hasn’t been as energized and sweeping an album as 3 Years, 5 Months in a long time. It’s a timeless, swirling classic, filled with fecund melodies, jaunty beats, and incessant hooks. Most of all, it’s amazing how scintillating and friendly, how surprisingly attractive and downright fun a radical revolutionary political perspective can be. It’s entirely possible, listening to 3 Years, 5 Months, to find yourself bopping around the house, singing: “So this government needs to be overthrown / Brothers with their AKs and their 9 millimeters / Need to learn how to correctly shoot them / Save those rounds for a revolution.” Speech performs similar magic in other places: On paper, the words to “Mama’s Always on Stage” sound a bit cloying: “We’ll be there just give us a ring / We will help U to raise that king / Word to the mother cause it’s a black thang / I respect you in a strong way.” But matched to the sparkling harmonica, some furious scratching, and Speech’s head-over-heels rapping, it’s all just fine.
The title of the album is the band’s nod to the time it took them to get a record contract; the album has the smorgasbord feel of one of those works whose creator has been cooped up too long with too many things to say. On “Fishin’ 4 Religion,” another wild, soaring dance number, Speech takes a good clean shot at a fairly untouched social target, the black churches, and the churches take it full on the chest: “The reason I’m fishin’ 4 a new religion / Is my church makes me fall to sleep / They’re praising a god that watches you weep / And doesn’t want you to do a damn thing about it.” Yet the record sounds exactly the opposite of strident or polemical. Mostly it sounds like the group is having a party. Here’s Speech bashfully introducing himself after the second song: “I’m the leader! [giggle] My nose is stuffed up some.” Also, the record’s leavened by several submissions from Speech the heavy love man: On “Natural” and “Dawn of the Dreads,” he does a passable job crafting the image of the man of the 90s looking for love. Better is the machine-gun, irresistible “U,” which bursts with clever tropes (“Me holdin’ the 21st letter of the alphabet”) and a crackling piano sample even as the nervous singer, his mind awhirl, concocts one of the most elaborately punning, politically correct, and searchingly emotional marriage proposals ever committed to record.
3 Years, 5 Months ends with two quiet hymns. The first, “Tennessee,” the unlikely single that broke the record, begins with the death of Speech’s brother and continues as a search for understanding in a trip back to childhood. It ends emotionally when the singer begins to realize that there are certain things he will never understand: “[God] was there to quench my thirst / But I am still thirsty.” But the song goes a lot deeper than that, too, touching on both the raw nerves of history (“Walk the roads my forefathers walked / Climb the trees my forefathers hung from”) and the present (“Brothers on the corner playin’ ghetto games”).
The record concludes with the dense metaphysical morality play “Washed Away,” a lulling, almost abstractly electronic song. It takes a while for the lyrics to emerge:
Some believe there is no lord.
The serpent uses this knowledge to help him
Wash away more of the shore.
Serpent knows once shores are gone
There’s nothing left but ocean and sea.
The song and the record end with this statement:
My one purpose is to swim the seas
Find the truth & spread it around
Give it to the children that know how to listen
So they can pass it after I drown
We can stop being washed away.
This is one of those records that changes how you see the world; after absorbing it you’ll never look at rap music, any popular music, the same way again. Why are they writing songs like that, you think, when Speech is writing songs like this? It doesn’t so much challenge the work of its gangster contemporaries (though it does do that) as render them impotent. It wrenches back a valuable musical heritage and restores it to its rightful position. I’ve been listening to Ice Cube’s new record the last few days, and I’m mostly struck by how small Arrested Development makes him seem. Rap, Speech says, can be political without being ugly, destructive, or filled with hate. The best defense of the most pungent rap music–that it mirrors a life certain people are living–is acknowledged by Speech but dismissed. “The word cope and the word change,” he sings, “[are] directly opposite, not the same.”
Two years after “Everyday People” came out, Sly Stone would return with an album called There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In heady contrast to the Sly the world knew, the new record was dark and complex, an exhalation of optimism and inhalation of pessimism. In an essay on the album, in Mystery Train, Greil Marcus writes, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On was an exploration of and a pronouncement on the state of the nation, Sly’s career, his audience, black music, black politics, and a white world. Emerging out of a pervasive sense, at once both public and personal, that the good ideas of the 60s had gone to their limits, turned back upon themselves, and produced evil where only good was expected, the album began where ‘Everybody Is a Star’ left off, and it asked: So what?”
There’s a Riot Goin’ On was unquestionably a bleak forerunner of the current era. But bleak isn’t the word for a music that, despite its strengths, its powers and intelligence, far too often traffics in self-destruction and hate, with words that demean the singers more than their targets. “Everyday People” was a last blast of hope before Stone turned inward. Arrested Development’s “People Everyday,” in keeping with its backward title, may be the most heartening sign yet of a gate out of a similar darkness. Speech seems to realize that, black problems being what they are, one luxury black people might not have is nihilism. Right now, there’s no one in popular music who understands this problem as well as Speech.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Mitchell, Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.