Archive for June, 2012

Look out for the next post…….coming soon.

The next post is not sexy.

It contains no celebrities.

It will almost certainly get less hits than previous posts that have featured Barack Obama and Bob Marley, or Jay Z and Beyonce.

 But it may be the most significant that I have written thus far.

Stay tuned ……….coming soon

The first rap concert I ever went to was L.L. Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1987.  LL didn’t leave much of an impression, Rakim disappointed, but my young 18 year old mind was so blown away by Public Enemy’s righteous anger and they became my favourite group in rap, and favourite live show in any genre.  I made it my business to see them every time they performed in London. Through the references in their lyrics and album sleeve notes, I was turned onto Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the conscious rap of that era shaped my politics and the world view that I hold to this day.

“Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to.”

PE live ‘in their pomp’ in 1987

Now fast forward to 2012.  Rap music has come of age and rap groups now perform in arenas.  The hottest rap concert of the year was Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne tour.  They sold out five nights at London’s O2 Arena, and as a finale they shut the place down with four encores of the track Niggas In Paris.

Jay Z & Kanye West – ‘Watch The Throne’

Good friends of power couple Jay Z and Beyonce are American actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her English husband and lead singer of the band Coldplay, Chris Martin.  Gwyneth took their two children Apple and Moses to see ‘Uncle Jay’s’ shows at the O2.

Jay Z with wifey Beyonce and close friend Gwyneth Paltrow.

She also followed the tour when they performed in France.  At one show after she joined them on stage she reportedly tweeted “Niggas in Paris for real.”  This comment whipped up storm.  Although Jay and Ye use the n-word too many times to count at every show, is white actress Gwyneth allowed to use the word just because she’s down with them?  Members of the hip-hop fraternity weighed into the debate.  Q-Tip took exception.  Nas, who’s no stranger to the word himself, said that Gwyneth ‘gets a pass’.

Nas said ‘Gwyneth gets a pass’.

Much as I love Jay Z and Kanye, as much as I love their album, and as much as I love that track, I’m not comfortable with them going all over the world, performing that song, and using that word in a context where white people who like hip-hop think its now okay for them to use that word too.

The use of the term by Black people amongst themselves is still controversial, but its hard to argue against when comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used it so artfully in their stage shows through the years. But for white people who might be reading this and are feeling conflicted as to when it might be appropriate for them to use the term, let me give you some guidance.  NEVER.

But stepping back from the ‘n-word debate’,  whatever happened to conscious rap? Chuck D was not pleased when Jay and Ye released Otis, the first single from their collaborative album.  He argued that it was insensitive for them to be rapping about their thousand dollar watches and million dollar lifestyles at a time when the world is in recession, and thousands of ordinary folk are struggling just to pay the bills.

Jay and Ye display conspicuous consumption on ‘Otis’.

“ New watch alert, Hublots/ Or the big face Roley I got two of those/                                                                                                                                  “Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?/ Maybach bumper sticker saying ‘What would Hova do’?

Sadly, no one seemed to be listening, because in 2012 Chuck D is no longer the frontman for rap music’s most high profile group, but, like a hip-hop Bill Cosby, has been relegated to the status of a kill-joy uncle grumbling from the side-lines at the family BBQ.  “Ahh shut up complaining Uncle Chuck.  Have another piece of chicken, go sit down with the old folks and let us young kids have some fun”.

But many of my generation agree with Chuck’s viewpoint.  When we cut our musical teeth in the late 80’s and early 90s, rap was music of the revolution, a force for positive change.  Rappers wore Africa pendants and Malcolm X caps, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power provided the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s greatest film Do The Right Thing, and the lyrics of KRS 1, Rakim, and Brand Nubian provided the running commentary to our daily struggles.

Sadly in the 21st century, rap music has become the theme music for conspicuous consumption. No longer quoting from the Qu’ran but instead reading from the pages of GQ and Forbes magazine.  The Golden Era led by Public Enemy gave way to the Bling Era led by Jay Z, and the Dirty South sound that now dominates led by Rick Ross.  As Talib Kweli put it on the Reflection Eternal album….

“These cats drink Champagne, to toast death and pain,/Like slaves on the ship talkin’ bout who got the flyest chain.”

Talib Kweli – one of the few conscious rappers left.

Sadly, looking back on those glory days of the Golden Era, I realise that conscious rap was just an aberration, merely a temporary blip.  Rap was always about ‘flossing’ and bling, or rather bragging and boasting as it was called back in the day.  The very first rap record, Rappers Delight, released in 1979 by the Sugar Hill Gang, was little more than 15 minutes of braggadocio.

For those too young to remember, here’s a quote.

“You see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a tee/ You see I got more clothes than Muhammed Ali and I dress so viciously/ I got body guards I got two big cars,  I definitely ain’t the wack/ I got a Lincoln Continental and, a sun-roof Cadillac.”

The Sugar Hill Gang – original ‘bling bling’.

Remember that EPMD stood for Eric and Parrish Making Dollars, and Eric B and Rakim’s first album was called Paid In Full. Jay and Ye are just carrying on the tradition, only now they are talking about private jets. When people who are used to having nothing, get a little something, they just can’t help showing it off.

A similar thing happened in soul music. That socially conscious music of the 70’s that we love to hark back to, was just a blip disrupting the steady stream of ‘baby I love you’ lyrics that predominated from the 1950s right up to the present day.  Stevie Wonder might have been talking about  Living For the City and Jesus Children of America in 1974, but by the 1980s he was back to singing I Just Called to Say I Love YouMarvin Gaye might have been asking What’s Goin’ On? and Save the Children in 1971, but by 1982 he was back to singing Sexual Healing and Rocking After Midnight .

Soul legends Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

There must have been something in the air in the 70s and the 90s that woke Black people up and prompted them to look around and consider their circumstances.  But that mood was soon lost and we returned to our slumber.

The truth is that Black music is more often something we use to forget our problems rather than address them.  A soothing lullaby rather than a rousing alarm call.  As the saying goes, ‘some people would rather die than think, and sometimes they do’.

POST SCRIPT –  If I’ve gotten  it wrong, and there are contemporary artists out there making conscious music, let me know.  I’d love to check them out.

Lee Pinkerton 

Perry the Upsetter

Although I am a great fan of Bob Marley,  I have been long complaining that all the media attention has been on Bob to the neglect of the legions of other great roots reggae artists.  Yes Bob was great, but what about Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor,  Johnny Clarke,  fellow Wailers Bunny and Peter,  and legendary producers like King Tubby?  In the wake of the recent massive publicity for yet another Marley bio-pic, this documentary on legendary reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry goes some way to help redress the balance.

The documentary starts quite naturally with his early life in Jamaica, cutting his teeth with producers like Coxsone Dodd and Joe Gibbs before breaking out on his own.  Forming his own Upsetter  label in 1968, and building the legendary Black Ark studios in his back yard  he was one of the formative influences in the evolution of Roots reggae and dub music.  The first third of the documentary is on comfortable ground charting his glory days in reggae’s golden era, when he produced tracks with the likes of Marley,  Junior Byles, Junior Murvin, and Max Romeo, that to this day are still considered Reggae classics.

But then the doc takes a darker turn, just as Perry’s own life did.  The Black Ark studio, and so his own house, was colonised by a large numbers of parasites and other hangers-on.  As he explains it, in an attempt to get rid of them, he began behaving increasingly erratically, even driving around Kingston with a severed  pig’s head attached to the bonnet of his car, causing  great offence to the  Rastas, and alienating friends and family.  Eventually he burnt the studio to the ground, in an attempt he claims, to cleanse it of the evil spirits that had infested it.

Now I already know this story, and have seen Perry in interview before, and had always presumed that his eccentricity was part of an act, rather like George Clinton and his Dr Funkenstein persona.  But seeing this documentary, and the lengthy interviews taken with Perry at the time, it is clear that this was no act.  The non-stop work ethic, the long days and nights in the studio, fuelled by a steady diet of white rum and ganga, took their toll, and Perry clearly suffered  some kind of a breakdown.  The middle third of the documentary makes for uncomfortable viewing, with Perry rambling on non-sensically.  Having worked on psychiatric wards in the past myself, I have talked to people in the depths of psychosis.  You wait for their long rambling sentences to come to a sensible conclusion, but they never do, meandering on and on down further intellectual cul-de-sacs.  It is gripping and horrific viewing, to watch someone in the midst of psychosis, and the camera does not shy away.  One of the weaknesses of  this doc, is that so many of his 70s classics, were played only in brief, but lesser known tracks made in this confused period, that are quite frankly rubbish, were played in full.

Thankfully for Perry, he managed to wrestle free from his demons, giving up alcohol and ganga, and, even leaving Jamaica, eventually taking up residence with a new wife and starting a new family in Switzerland.  As shown in the last third of this film, for the last few years he has been back making music and touring the world.  His demeanour  can now best be described as eccentric, rather than stark raving bonkers, but his life story is a salutary lesson for all those who like to start the day with a spliff.

Perry at the controls of ‘The Ark’.

Lee Pinkerton