Why Is there No Good Music on The Radio? Miles Davis, Donald Byrd and Norman Jay explain why

Posted: April 14, 2012 in Blogs
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“People are just so brainwashed I don’t think they know what’s good and what’s not good anymore. Anything popular, even if its wack, is what sets the pace for music. 98% of what you hear on the radio is wack. 98% of musicians are wack. Cos there’s no bar anymore. It used to be that the bar was so high, people had a greater appreciation of the music.”

This quote is taken from a skit on the excellent new album from jazz artist Robert Glasper, and is reflective of the attitude of many older music fans, namely that the high water mark for Black music was sometime in the past and all modern music is rubbish.

The same topic was debated in an article in American website The Atlantic. (Is R&B Having an Identity Crisis? – The Atlantic).

What arrogance to suggest that today’s kids can’t tell a good song from a bad one, and are just mindless sheep blindly swallowing whatever they are fed by the evil corporations/record labels/radio stations.

When you compare some of the genius’ of the ‘golden era’ with some of the dross that clogs up the airwaves today, it is easy to see their point.  But before you fall into that mind trap of lazy thinking you should ask yourself two questions.

1)      Didn’t your parents say exactly the same thing about the music you were listening to when you were a kid?

2)      How does it profit a record label to promote bad music over good?  Surely it is more in their interest to cultivate more talented artists who will have longer careers, rather than having to waste time finding the next one-hit-wonder every year.

For all you music snobs out there, let me tell you what qualifies as good music.  Good music is whatever makes you feel good. It doesn’t matter if the person who created it is a classically trained musician who graduated from Julliard, or a kid who made the music in his bedroom on equipment he looted during the riots.  If it makes you feel good then its good music.

They say that anything that is invented between your birth and the age of 14 you see as perfectly natural, something that is invented between 14 and 21 you see as revolutionary and exciting and you want to dedicate your life to, but anything that is invented after you’re 40 you think is an abomination that  will ultimately lead us all to hell!

This is nicely illustrated when you look at the difference in attitude between your parents’ generation and your kid’s generation to new technology like mobile phones, or games consoles or Facebook! This difference in attitude is little to do with the product itself and everything to do with your age when you first encountered it.

Being part of the baby boom generation my mother was a ‘soul sister’.  Her favourite artists were and still are Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Al Green.  This is the music that I grew up listening to, and also love.  But the music that really speaks to me is the music that I discovered in my teens – the hip-hop of artists like Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Gangstarr, KRS-1, and Ice Cube.

Mother’s favourite – The Temptations

My favourite - Public Enemy

When my mother heard me playing this music in my bedroom, she dismissed it as rubbish, (probably much like my grandfather had dismissed the music of the 60’s that she loved, and is now looked on as the golden era of soul). Her dismissive attitude did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the genre, and I did indeed go onto to dedicate most of my 20’s to the music, becoming a rap journalists in the 90s.

It was in this capacity that I was lucky enough to interview rapper Guru and jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd when they came to the UK to promote Gurus’ Jazzmattaz project.

Donald Byrd

When discussing attitudes to music, Byrd related to me the story of when he took a James Brown record into the offices of Blue Note Records back in the 1960’s.  They literally threw the record out of the window, dismissing it as garbage.  James Brown, the godfather of soul, garbage!?  Such was the attitude of the jazz snobs at Blue Note Records.  Sounds very much like the attitude of the musicians on the current Robert Glasper album doesn’t it?

A similar argument is made about the cinema.  Why are the movieplex screens clogged up with this dross aimed at teenagers, like the Twilight sage, or the Harry Potter franchise or the never ending stream of comic book superheroes, rather than the artistically credible and intellectually challenging stuff that they prefer?  The answer is simple – teenagers and young adults go to the cinema more often than older adults.  Teenagers will go every week if they can afford it, just to get out the house and away from their parents.  They are not looking for any deep and profound meaning from their films, they just want a reason to go out.

For older adults/parents, going out is a bigger deal.  They have to arrange a babysitter if they have young kids, or worry about what their kids are getting upto at home whilst they are out, if they’re older.  So they end up staying at home and watching a DVD or something on the telly instead.

Being a parent of two teenage sons I know the struggle to get kids to watch intelligent films that will require them to exercise some thought. But movie companies and cinemas are not concerned parents – they are businesses who are just giving their core audience what they want.  For us older movie go-ers – that’s what DVD players and Turner Classic Movies are for.

During my journalistic career,  I also had the pleasure of interviewing legendary DJ Norman Jay.

DJ Norman Jay

When discussing his eclectic musical taste , he revealed to me that when he was spotted at a house music club or a rock concert, people would look at him funny and ask him what he was doing there. He explained that he never dismissed any musical genre, because even if you think that you hate it, one song or one artist will come along that ‘clicks’, and then the whole genre will make sense to you.

I’ve tried to live by that advice.  I’ve kept up with all the new musical manifestations of Black British culture.  The Roots Reggae samples made it easy for me to get into  Jungle in the 90s, and in the 00s I got into Drum and Bass thanks to Roni Size.

Roni Size - drum & bass champion

I even dabbled in UK Garage with its sexy champagne swilling club scene, (even though I never made it to Aya Napa).  But when I heard Grime I thought that I would have to part company with the ‘yoots dem’. But then I heard Kano, and later Skepta and now enjoy these artists that are closer to my son’s age than to mine.

Tim Westwood embraces the UK's Grime scene with Wiley & Skepta

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not immune to musical fogey-ism.  I thought I would spend Friday and Saturday nights for the rest of my life listening to Tim Westwood’s rap show, just as I did throughout the 90s.  I never dreamed that there would come a time like now when I tune in and find it unlistenable.

The musical snobs kid themselves that they still like new music if its good, but what they really like is any new music that’s sounds like old music.  The Robert Glasper album is a case in point.  Its released in 2012 but features guest vocals from the Nu Classic Soul genre (Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway) who were all at the peak of their careers over a decade ago.

Erykah Badu - Nu Classical Soul veteran

One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time is Miles Davis. He rose to dominance in the 1960s with his style of cool blues jazz, but he fell out of favour with the jazz purists when he turned his back on trad jazz traditions and began experimenting with funk in the 70s (like Donald Byrd) and doing covers of Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tracks in the 80s.  Miles explained that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life playing the same old songs.  Those ‘jazz standards’; were the pop tunes of their day, but he wanted to play the pop tunes of the present. He even stopped wearing suits saying that that was hip in the 50’s and 60’s but its not hip anymore.  (Typically of Miles, his last album Doo Wop in the 90’s was a collaboration with hip-hop artists).

Miles Davis in the 1950's

So if the music on the radio no longer sounds good, its not because of any real drop in quality (how could you possibly measure that anyway?).  Its because you’ve gotten older.  Music is predominantly made for and by young people – let them have their fun and stop dissing them.  If you want to hear what you regard as ‘good music’, then you’ve still got an old record collection haven’t you?  And Spotify is a brilliant resource to expanding your back catalogue.

  1. Justin Onyeka says:

    I hear what you’re saying Lee. When we became intoxicated with hip-hop and began blazing through the world of media our tastes of ‘good music’ were heavily frowned on. The question nobody can ever seem to answer is when exactly was this golden era when all music was good? True, Miles, Marvin and the like – often cited by musical idealists as never putting a foot wrong – were castigated by critics when they tried to push the boundaries. My whole thing now is ‘perspective and context’ for my sons and students alike – encouraging them to cast a more critical eye over the artists they like while investigating artists they may be unfamiliar with. What you end up with is discovery and debate (from Stevie to Gang Starr) rather than the casual derision us old fogeys can so easily fall victim to.

  2. Scottish-Lady says:

    “The Golden Age”, “Golden Oldies” “Eldorado” – all myths.
    The best music is from tomorrow.

    • leepinkerton says:

      Anne. I think you may just have revealed the secret to eternal youth. You can’t buy it in a jar, or get in from the surgeons knife – its a state of mind. Its all about attitude. Stay curious : stay young!

      • Scottish-Lady says:

        Thanks Lee.
        To quote myself – I keep the past on my iTunes and the present on my iPod.
        On the subject of eternal youth…thank goodness the optician phoned. Off to fetch my new specs & the ability to read again!
        This evening I may write my “answer song”.

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