Archive: The music writing of David Mills
By Chris Richards
Even though he was one of the greatest music journalists to ever work at the Washington Post, music journalism wasn't even David Mills's full-time gig. He was a wildly talented culture reporter who wrote about film, comedy, politics, race -- even movie piracy. Mills was ahead of his time and would eventually go on to become an executive producer and writer for HBO's lauded drama series "The Wire."
Tragically, David Mills died of an aneurysm on Tuesday. He was 48.
In his memory, Click Track has compiled some of the man's best music writing during his time at the Post. He wrote about hip-hop, funk, go-go and house. He wrote about gangsta rappers, women rappers, white rappers and his favorite rappers. In 1992, he penned his famous Sister Souljah profile and the best Kriss Kross feature you could ever hope to read.
(Read some of David Mills's best music writing for the Washington Post, after the jump.)
Below, a sampling of David Mills's best music writing for the Washington Post, (in reverse chronological order).
There's a Riot Going On
December 26, 1993
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
It's a full-page ad in Billboard magazine. It's hyping a young artist who, "like a lot of people before him, has written ... about prison. Gut-wringing songs of desolation, stench and woe behind a ton of steel bars and concrete walls. Only [he] knows first-hand the lyrics he sings -- 20 of his 29-year stretch on earth have been spent behind those bars." The advertisement includes a list of the man's 11 periods of incarceration, from a reform school at age 9 to one of America's toughest federal prisons by his mid-twenties. This performer, then, "knows what the hell he's singing about."
Some new "gangsta" rapper trying to profit off his criminal past? No. It is blues singer (now country star) David Allan Coe. The ad appeared in 1970.
Lesson No. 1: Americans have a long-standing fascination with violence and criminality, and the entertainment industry knows how to exploit this.
Sen. Edward Kennedy is lecturing a group of broadcasters on "the avalanche of murder and violence served up to children" on television, and he calls the networks' efforts at self-restraint "a timid step" in the right direction.
Ripped from yesterday's news columns? Wrong again. This was almost 18 years ago -- before "Miami Vice" and "The A-Team," even.
Lesson No. 2: Some citizens will always worry that we've gone too far with our violent entertainments, and politicians know how to exploit this.
Fictionalized violence -- especially on TV and in rap music -- became one of the biggest cultural issues of 1993. Social critics as polar as George Will and Jesse Jackson now declare it to be a crisis for our time. And with each new real-life child snatcher and drive-by shooter and random splurge murderer who commands public attention, it seems ever more sensible that we examine what we're feeding our imaginations -- that we wonder whether, in the name of unfettered entertainment, we have countenanced the widespread poisoning of souls.
But a close consideration of the latest spell of hand-wringing will confirm the immutable pair of lessons cited above. More importantly, it will illustrate a whole new entertainment landscape for the 1990s.
America is different than it was in 1976, when The Washington Post editorialized about "the diet of blood and sadism that is offered so readily to our children these days." The Post declared: "Violence for the sake of violence has become much too pervasive on the screens, both motion picture and television." Mind you, this was years before serial slashers Jason and Freddy Krueger were cultivated as multi-million-dollar film properties. In 1976, concern over movie violence was focused on the shoot-'em-up "action" genre, with Chicago's mayor proposing to bar children under 18 from too-violent films, and The Post endorsing this attempt "to protect young people from the trash that tries to pass for art or entertainment."
Today, few blood-spattered low-budget action pictures make it to the big screen, though Hollywood keeps churning them out like crazy. Today, these flicks go straight to videocassette, whereby viewers in the comfort of their own sofas can arrange for themselves a cavalcade of fistfights, stabbings and bullet hits. How can the government presume to protect youngsters from "trash" when 80 percent of U.S. households own VCRs?
Lesson No. 3: Hardware changes the culture.
The VCR, the Walkman, the boombox and the coaxial cable have brought about a profound decentralization of popular entertainment. The old mass-media common grounds -- Top 40 radio and prime-time network television -- are less and less relevant. MTV's Beavis and Butt-head, with their vulgar language and antisocial behavior, could only have achieved superstardom in this new entertainment landscape. And though a few fortunate rappers get heavy FM exposure (notwithstanding recent pledges by some stations to ban violent and misogynistic lyrics), hip-hop thrives not because of radio but because of the audiocassette -- the preferred medium of the fan in the street.
One of the year's most notable reactions to violent entertainment seems more apropos for 1976. Attorney General Janet Reno sat before a Senate committee in October and said legislative action would be "imperative" if the entertainment industry didn't straighten up. Indeed, Congress is considering a number of bills to restrict or label violent TV programming. But its regulatory power extends only to broadcasters. There isn't a damn thing the government can do about R-rated movies entering at least 17 million U.S. homes nightly via pay-cable movie channels.
What we have here is a free marketplace of entertainment, more huge and robust than ever in history. With that freedom, many Americans are happily indulging their fascination with violence and criminality, while others continue to worry that we've gone too far.
The Post interviewed three men who contribute (more or less unashamedly) to our violent popular culture, and who embody the new entertainment landscape. Two of them are performers you've probably never heard of, though they've had considerable careers. The other can be described as a semiprofessional consumer of violent entertainment: a fanzine publisher who exposes himself regularly to some of the most shocking and grotesque products of the human mind, and who uses another piece of life-altering hardware -- the desktop computer -- to document it all. Here is where you'll find the rough stuff, not on prime-time TV.
So don't bother writing your congressman.
One of the first rappers ever to mention a gun or a gang was Philadelphia's Schoolly D (Jesse Weaver). On 1987's "Saturday Night -- The Album," he referred explicitly to his old crew, the Parkside Killers: "Parkside, my place and home/ The P.S.K. gangsters like to roam/ Cheeba in the hand, .32 in the socks/ Protecting our turf like it was Fort Knox."
This sounds almost quaint compared with the kill-crazy gangsta rap of today -- including Schoolly's own new album, "Welcome to America," with songs such as "I Shot da Bitch."
In 1989, when the media began to take note of pistol-packin', woman-smackin' rappers, Schoolly D explained that he was "an artist" whose sole responsibility was to express "the inner me," not to deliver pro-social preachments. "Artists, whether they're painting, sculpting or doing music, they just do exactly what they feel, and that's it," he said.
Today, with plenty of gangsta-come-latelies more famous than he, 29-year-old Schoolly D insists that "it's still about art" and that his own escalation of violent imagery isn't some kind of pimp move. He argues, in fact, that the escalation of violence in real life makes the subject all the more valid to rap about. "This album ain't got [nothing] to do with ghetto life. This is the feelings of America," he proclaims. "Everybody is scared, everybody is paranoid, everybody is thieving, everybody is carjacking. Everybody has broken homes now. Everybody's wives are getting their ass kicked. White people are strung out on crack... .
"If every rapper decided tomorrow to sing happy dance music," he asks, "would the violence stop?"
Maybe that's worth a try, his questioner suggests.
"Then you have to stop rap, you have to stop movies, you have to stop magazines, you have to stop TV, you have to stop books," he says. "If there's 20 boulders rolling down a hill, and you say, 'I'm gonna save you by pulling out one of them,' is that going to help? No."
What, then, about Schoolly's sense of personal responsibility? Does he ever ask himself whether he's making things better or making things worse?
He takes a moment before answering. "Sometimes I do get scared, because you have to really be thinking to get my message. And the message might get misconstrued." Schoolly had arguments with his record company over one new track, "I Wanna Get Dusted," in which his character, high on angel dust, shoots a "crack bitch" in the head after having sex with her. The song is not an endorsement of smoking dope, he says, but "if I double-guess myself, I say I did the wrong thing. And sometimes I do think I contribute to some of this madness that goes on.
"But it's like a game of football, it's back and forth and back and forth," he says earnestly of his self-examination. "You're going to have doubts sometimes. Then I convince myself, 'You're doing what you felt.' ... All I can do is talk about how I felt when I was that high." If Schoolly D had written "I Wanna Get Dusted" as a calculated effort to appear "hard" just to sell records or to encourage actual drug use, he says, "then I would be wrong."
He does take the power of lyrics seriously, he says, in part because of the new entertainment landscape. Whereas he grew up listening to Funkadelic, Santana, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Miles, soul singers -- a spectrum of styles -- nowadays "you got these hard-core hip-hop junkies, and they live and die that [stuff], and that's their whole lives," he says. "That's why they're taking that [stuff] to heart. They don't listen to anything else."
Sounds of Death
David Horn, editor of a fanzine called Sounds of Death, spends about two hours a day listening mainly to "death metal" -- an underground rock-and-roll genre whose lyrics and album-cover art are devoted to "violence, Satanism, hatred, various imagery like that," he explains. At 34, he places himself at 10 to 20 years older than the average death metal fan. But he has been involved in the scene for the past decade, and he's less worried than Schoolly D about any possible ill effects.
"This is fantasy material for 99.9 percent of the people who listen to the music," Horn says. "I can't vouch for the people who make the music," he adds, some of whom he says are genuine Satan-worshipers. (He mentions one Scandinavian death-metal singer who stabbed a rival musician "50 times.") The bands have names like Atrocity, Deceased, Autopsy, Necrophiliac, Ritual Sacrifice and Malevolent Creation. The albums have titles like "Epidemic of Violence," "As Blood Flows," "Longing for Death" and "Visceral Devourment."
The fantastical nature of such generic themes, Horn says, "is probably the reason why death metal will not grow as much as rap music. People cannot relate to death metal in their own lives the way people can relate to gangsta rap. It's designed not to be popular, basically. And that's what makes it so desirable to the people who are into it. It's controversial, and it's their music." A handful of death metal acts can sell perhaps 50,000 albums. But there are hundreds of bands across the globe that can sell several thousand copies of their "demo tapes" to the hard-core.
This music, Horn insists, is "soothing to me. It's pounding and frantic and howling, but it doesn't bother me. If I was capable of listening to happy music, it might make me happier," he admits with a chuckle. "But I'm incapable of it on a regular basis. It's grating." Which doesn't mean that he hates people, Horn says. "Not at all."
A professional cartoonist living in Kirkwood, Mo., Horn launched Sounds of Death in 1992. His third and latest issue has 72 pages, with a glossy cover and plenty of ads from death-metal labels. His press run was 10,000. He has also broadened the magazine's scope to include reviews of gory movies on video. "I am spreading the disease," he says merrily. "We're not afraid of reaction from the government and the general population against our magazine, because it's not for them."
Is David Horn making society better or making it worse?
"I don't believe that the media is responsible for the violence in this country," he says. "I believe the government is responsible for the violence in this country." He asserts that U.S. policies on drugs and guns are "propagating more violence than anything in the history of mankind except war."
Even if a couple of hundred people die each year because media imagery does play some part in leading "impressionable" folks to act violently (which Horn himself actually supposes: "You can't control what is going to set people off"), that's minuscule compared with what he calls government "genocide," and it is outweighed by the hundreds of thousands of death metal fans who are, he says, "entertained and unaffected" by this "fantasy music."
Actor Wings Hauser got his start on a soap opera and spent some time in the cast of "Roseanne." Today he's an above-the-title movie star, except his movies aren't shown in theaters. You must browse the "action" shelves at your neighborhood video store to survey his cinematic corpus. Hauser is the beefy, jut-jawed leading man of such direct-to-video features as "Reason to Die," "Living to Die" and "The Art of Dying" -- films in which, one may safely generalize, a good number of people die. And not from heart disease.
Hauser says he has made about 40 low-budget thrillers. Someone once told him "my audience was the microwave-burrito guys at 2 a.m. with a beer in their hands," he says cheerfully from a Southern California studio. "The white people in Beverly Hills don't know who I am. But in the streets and the bars across America, it really happens for me," he says.
"I guess there's just a lot of frustration out there. And you rent one of my movies and you kill the bad guys." In your imagination, that is. He has just finished directing "Skins," in which racist skinheads are the antagonists.
Hauser, 46, the father of two grown kids, has no qualms about violent entertainment. "I don't feel a movie is going to change somebody's life. My personal feeling is that [real-life violence] has all got to do with drugs, not with television. When we don't have coke in the streets, it's going to be a completely different world.
"That's the real war," he goes on. "And use some violence to [win] it. I say we bomb Colombia." Politicians, on the other hand, would rather score easy points talking about violence on TV, he says.
"Now is the time to make violent films: when they tell you not to," Hauser says robustly. "Tell me not to do something, and I'll be glad to. I refuse to be dictated to by the norm."
And besides, "violence does sell. It's supply and demand. The public is in charge," he says. "Congress sure isn't going to tell me what I can shoot. They're temporary. We're the people. We're here forever."
The Last Poets; Their Radical Past, Their Hopeful Future, Their Broken Voice
December 12, 1993
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
A fat vein, throbbing, rises from his T-shirt collar and disappears into a graying underbrush of beard. His wet brow bulges like an angry knuckle under his brimless leather hat. Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets is hemorrhaging language. "When the revolution comes, guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays ..."
The conga player's hands are speaking in a ceremonial staccato of pops and booms. And Oyewole's vocal partner across the stage, Umar Bin Hassan, is laying down a third layer of sound: When the revolution comes ... when the revolution comes ...
"When the revolution comes," Oyewole's deep, smooth voice continues, "white death will fall off the walls of museums and churches, breaking the lie that enslaved our mothers, when the revolution comes... ." These words were cut into black vinyl more than two decades ago. They're being recited this night before hundreds of wide-open ears inside a Howard University ballroom in honor of Malcolm X's birthday.
"... But until then, you know and I know, niggers will party and bull[ -- ]..." The poet's pace slumps as he repeats the last three words, again and again, a mantra of frustration. A well-dressed woman in the audience smiles with recognition, then mouths it along with him. "Some might even die," Oyewole pronounces, "before the revolution comes."
Precisely 25 years earlier at another Malcolm X celebration, this one in Harlem, the Last Poets came into being. They were products of a 1960s cultural explosion, a big bang of capital-B Blackness and worldwide radicalism. They would become, in turn, one of the most influential underground recording groups of the '70s, combining the romantic rhetoric of armed struggle, the profane vernacular of the streets and the flamboyant performance standards of jazz. Plus a solid dose of African American machismo.
Hailed today as forefathers of rap, the Last Poets may be pop culture legends, but their story is largely unknown, even among their admirers. Perhaps because it is such a tangled story. Seven men in all have recorded as the Last Poets, though never at the same moment. They have feuded among themselves almost from the beginning, their rifts resulting in two competing sets of Last Poets, a court fight, street fights and a lingering rancor over who can legitimately claim the name.
So ... beyond the still-rousing preachments, beyond their standing as elders in "the struggle," the Last Poets can be seen as a classic rock-and-roll tragedy: friendships complicated by ego, ambitions complicated by fame, and the deep desire to come back, years after their time, and do it all again.
"Niggers do a lot of shooting. Niggers do a lot of shooting... ." It is Bin Hassan's turn to take the Howard crowd back to the days. He's doing it with "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution," one of the most famous pieces in the Last Poets canon, and one that epitomizes their use of the word "nigger" -- frequent and damning -- as a symbol for all they see wrong in black people.
"Niggers shoot off at the mouth. Niggers shoot pool. Niggers shoot craps." Bin Hassan stands there in sneakers and well-worn jeans, microphone pressed to mouth. Words fly fast from the loudspeakers -- big, hard shards of sound. "Niggers cut around the corners and shoot down the street. Niggers shoot sharp glances at white women. ... But where are niggers when the revolution needs some shots? ..."
His murky eyes fall slowly shut. His cheeks draw up taut and round. His voice turns hoarse while the percussion simmers and Oyewole bobs and grins, chanting only that word. By the time Bin Hassan rolls into "This Is Madness" some minutes later, his keen, soaring voice is reduced to a rasp, a roar of static in a revivalist's cadence.
The people give the Last Poets a standing ovation.
Birth Up close, Abiodun Oyewole's overgrown beard and booming, embracing voice are even more dramatic. Umar Bin Hassan's opaque eyes and smoky-voiced reticence are more mysterious.
These two men, now in their mid-forties, have done a world of living since they recorded the first Last Poets album in 1969. Oyewole has been a convict and a schoolteacher. Bin Hassan is a produced playwright and a recovering cocaine addict. They count three marriages and five children apiece.
They sit here in a downtown Washington health food store not as relics of the "black power" movement but as active street poets once again, applying a more worldly-wise black consciousness to the crises of a new generation.
They sit here, too, as recording artists with fresh product on the market. Bin Hassan's first solo album, "Be Bop or Be Dead," came out this summer to critical acclaim, and a new Last Poets project, "Holy Terror," is on the way. So when they revisit their past, it's with a mind to learn from the mistakes, to make this comeback thing work. "It's not like shooting hoops," Oyewole says. "It's serious."
Let us return, then, to Harlem, 1968. America was sending men to the moon while tearing itself apart over Vietnam. In big cities, black people were challenging as never before the "white power structure," as Bin Hassan calls it -- the police, the public education system. Art and radical politics had already been forged into a heavy blade by writers such as Amiri Baraka ("We want 'poems that kill.' Assassin poems ...") and Larry Neal. These were, says Bin Hassan, "fellows who made us aspire to a certain standard."
But before that, Oyewole confesses, "I was writing love poetry in French." David Nelson, with whom he worked in an anti-poverty program, was sweetening his own verse with Spanish. "We were trying to woo the ladies," Oyewole says with his generous grin.
Invited to share some culturally correct poetry at a Malcolm X commemoration in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), Oyewole and Nelson and a third poet, Gylan Kain, decided to take the stage as a group. "But nobody had any idea what to do," Oyewole recalls. "So I said, 'Let's try to sing. "Ooo Baby Baby" or something.' But they couldn't sing, so that was out." Then he remembered a chant sung by Howard University student protesters during their campus takeover of March '68: Are you ready, niggas? You've got to be ready! Are you ready, niggas? You've got to be ready!
"And I thought that was so hip," Oyewole says, grinning again. "I mean, I never heard nothing like that on television. So we sang that as we went onstage. Had the entire park singing that." Oyewole, Nelson and Kain then proceeded to kick their political poems.
"From that moment on" -- May 19, 1968 -- "we got gigs."
They didn't have the name, though. Nelson came up with that, inspired by a poem by South African-born K. William Kgositsile that concludes: "When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain ..." "Therefore," amended Nelson, "we are the last poets of the world."
David Nelson, ironically, would be the first of the Last Poets to leave. Now a minister near Siler City, N.C., he recalls an early disagreement over the group's direction: Should the Last Poets be a fixed trio or, as he preferred, a "free-flowing" collective of writers? Essentially, though, Nelson believes the falling-out was a matter of "black men just learning to work together."
Nelson was replaced by Felipe Luciano, a Puerto Rican ex-con and aspiring writer to whom Kain had taken a liking. It was this lineup of Last Poets -- Oyewole, Kain and Luciano -- that changed the life of a young man in Ohio named Umar Bin Hassan.
The group was performing at Antioch College, and Bin Hassan, "into my black militancy thing" at the time, was working security. "It just blew my head," he remembers. "I guess I understand what people be gettin' from us [because of] what I got from them. It's that feeling, that very spiritual thing that comes out and just pulls you in and makes you become part of the pain, the diaspora... . That was it. I wanted to become a Last Poet."
Oyewole invited him to stop by the East Wind, the 125th Street loft where the group was headquartered, the next time he was in Harlem. "I left about six months later," Bin Hassan says, "with a book of poetry and a little raggedy country suitcase."
Fissure The East Wind became a cultural epicenter, a space for political workshops and art happenings, where you might find H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael dropping knowledge or see a yet-unknown comic named Jimmie Walker doing his thing. Or witness the Last Poets giving motion to the spoken word.
The father figure of the group, according to the lilting reminiscences of Felipe Luciano, was Gylan Kain, now living as an expatriate in Amsterdam. "If ever there was a Christ, it was Kain," says Luciano, now a TV reporter for New York City's Fox affiliate. "He had an aura around him. Satin blue-black, intense probing eyes, Semitic features, a resigned smile. Humility, compassion. The ultimate poet. And he suffered. His brow exuded that kind of pain."
To illustrate Kain's demanding "honesty," Luciano tells of a poem that Kain wouldn't allow him to read. "Pig Woman" described Luciano's hatred of white women, though he happened to be deeply in love with one. "You must never, ever get onstage and lie," Kain told him.
In 1969, Kain's desire to bring David Nelson back into the group led to a bitter fight with Oyewole. And so the two remaining original Last Poets split apart, with profound consequences. Oyewole took two writers who were hanging around the East Wind -- Umar Bin Hassan and Jalaludin Mansur Nuriddin (then Alafia Pudim) -- and continued as the Last Poets, with the East Wind as their base. Kain and Luciano joined with Nelson, and they performed as the Last Poets as well.
The animosity between the two camps got so intense, it actually came to blows. By the accounts of Nelson and Luciano, Bin Hassan and Nuriddin "jumped" Nelson on the street and double-teamed Kain at the East Wind. According to Bin Hassan, the fights were "one-on-one." "We were young, man," he explains. "It was like a turf war. We didn't see the big picture."
Kain was beaten so badly that his prote'ge' Luciano proposed the maximum retaliation. He was, by then, leader of the Young Lords -- New York's Puerto Rican equivalent of the Black Panthers -- so "there were revolutionaries, black and brown, ready to take them out," Luciano says. But Kain wouldn't allow it. He told Luciano, "The moment we take our brothers' heads, we're perpetrating the evil."
Fame Flash forward to 1990. Something remarkable is going on. Gylan Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson and Felipe Luciano are seated abreast in a lounge of some sort, thinking back two decades and trying to make sense of what happened. A video camera is taking it all in. A planned "resurrection tour" has brought the founding Last Poets together for the first time since '69, but this isn't a joyful scene. A brotherly bond is evident between them, but the air is weird with tension.
Oyewole, surprisingly, turns a finger on himself. You see, back when Kain was leading the original Last Poets, he'd declared: "We're not going to do a recording." As Kain himself recalls, with his head hanging heavily and a cigarette smoldering in his grip, "I didn't want any white person being the business behind [us]."
"I understood that," Oyewole says, frowning. "I breached that entire thing when we broke up as the original members of the group and I went on to hook up the other brothers [Bin Hassan and Nuriddin] ... and did an album. Because the white man waved some dollar bills ... and evidently I lost my mind for one minute.
"I didn't get into the Last Poets to become wealthy," he says, stabbing the air. "I didn't do none of this for no fame and glory."
Of course, without the white man's dollar bills -- specifically those of record producer Alan Douglas -- poems such as "When the Revolution Comes" and "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" wouldn't have been put on wax (and now on compact disc), and rappers wouldn't be sampling them, and folks in 1993 wouldn't fill a Howard University ballroom to hear the Last Poets, and no one would care about these middle-aged men and their bickering.
"The Last Poets" was released in early 1970. Radio stations wouldn't touch it, but it created such an underground buzz in the black community that the Poets were booked into the Apollo Theatre on a bill with Jerry Butler and the O'Jays. The album exploded above ground that summer, catching on with radical-chic whites. "All the razzy, jazzy, sassy sounds of black culture meet and mingle in the chants of these uptown medicine men," opined Albert Goldman in the pages of Life magazine. (He and other commentators tended to ignore the group's less-than-progressive references to homosexuals and Jews.) "The Last Poets" sold more than 300,000 copies.
Oyewole, who brought all this about, wasn't in a position to savor any of it. After cutting the record, he left the group. "I thought I was a fake revolutionary" is what he says now. "I wanted to be a real revolutionary." Instead of rapping about that distant day when guns and rifles would replace poems and essays, Oyewole went down South and ripped off hardware stores for weapons and cash.
Sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery (though he wound up serving less than four), Oyewole was behind bars in North Carolina in 1970, just as his voice was booming from record players across the country. "People coming in the joint talking about the Last Poets, and I couldn't even tell them who I was," he says. He already stood out as a militant from up North. If word got out he was one of them fire-breathing Last Poets, it wouldn't exactly endear him to the guardians of North Carolina's penal system.
Kain, Nelson and Luciano earned their own piece of the media spotlight. They'd shot a movie titled "Right On!" in 1969, but it didn't get much attention until the other Last Poets got hot. It was hailed at European film festivals and by the group's artistic forebear Amiri Baraka. The New Yorker gave it a rave.
Of course, the movie and its soundtrack LP were bankrolled by white people. "Can it be said we went against our principle?" Luciano asks today. "Possibly." Again, though, it allowed these "Original Last Poets" to survive in the mass memory. A lawsuit by the rival group's manager eventually forced "Right On!" off record store racks, but Nelson's "Die Nigga!!!" remains a Last Poets classic. "Niggas know how to die. ... Niggas plan beautiful lives for when they're dead. ... Die niggas! Die niggas! So black folks can take over!"
Recrimination Use of the name Last Poets remains a source of conflict 20 years later. Oddly, the last two men even to become Last Poets -- Jalal Nuriddin and Suliaman El-Hadi -- are the most vociferous in claiming the name for themselves.
Through the 1980s, long after the others had gone their separate ways, Nuriddin and El-Hadi continued to perform as the Last Poets. In 1985 they put out a book of their writings, "Vibes From the Scribes," as the Last Poets. As recently as this year, they gigged at European music festivals. And they've persisted in spite of what Nuriddin has called a "covert conspiracy" to keep them from getting a record deal. "We don't know exactly which federal agency was behind it," he told a reporter in 1986, "but we do know it was a federal agency."
Suliaman El-Hadi, oldest of them all at 57, speaks disdainfully of the 1990 "resurrection tour" by the founding members, which lasted only four dates. "They put in the papers that the Last Poets are being 'resurrected,' when we've been working all this time," he says from his Brooklyn home. "My vibe is, 'Why didn't you jump on board when it was hard times?' They wasn't there to raise money for [imprisoned '70s activists] JoAnne Chesimard or Reverend Ben Chavis, or the Black Panther Party. They ain't been there for none of that... .
"I have nothing to gain by reaching back to 1968 to grab David Nelson," El-Hadi goes on. "Nobody asks me about him when we're onstage." To which Nelson, the minister, responds: "God on high put the words 'Last Poets' in my mouth and nobody else's. Suliaman is not in a position to define who the Last Poets are."
Nuriddin and El-Hadi's beef with Umar Bin Hassan is another story. Record producer Bill Laswell, a longtime fan, had revived the Last Poets' recording career in 1985 with an EP called "Oh My People," featuring Nuriddin and El-Hadi. He maintained a working friendship with Nuriddin, now living in London, ever since.
Last year, as Laswell tells it, he invited Nuriddin, El-Hadi and Bin Hassan to his Brooklyn recording studio after the trio filmed a brief scene for John Singleton's movie "Poetic Justice." The session wasn't fruitful, he says, but Bin Hassan returned the next day, alone, wanting to do better. This, along with his soaring vocal chops, impressed Laswell. Bin Hassan kept dropping by the studio, and thus evolved his solo album, "Be Bop or Be Dead."
"It was like a stab in the back, man," El-Hadi says. "Umar didn't say to me, 'I'm going back over to the studio.' When we heard about it, it was a done deal." This feeling of betrayal is compounded by the fact that Nuriddin and El-Hadi had reenlisted Bin Hassan for "Poetic Justice" as he was rebounding from drug problems. "We reached out for Umar," he says. "We tracked him down."
To Laswell, the solo deal was simply a matter of Bin Hassan's determination and talent. Bin Hassan says it was all about "who was a little more ready to do the album." And it's hard to argue with the finished product. "Be Bop or Be Dead," released on Laswell's own Axiom label, includes remakes of "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" and "This Is Madness," but its most moving pieces offer mature reflections on life, love and the deadly seductions of the street.
Bin Hassan doesn't write directly about his addiction to crack cocaine, but in person he's straight about it. "I had come out of the streets. And when I got frustrated, when I quit the group [in the mid-'70s], I went back out into the street, man. Dibbling and dabbling, a little selling here, a little smuggling here. I was dancing to the piper, I had to pay the price... .
"I thank Allah for allowing me to get back to this point," Bin Hassan says, "to be able to express myself and share some of my experiences."
Already Bill Laswell has built a second project around Umar Bin Hassan, the upcoming "Holy Terror" album, which includes Abiodun Oyewole and the veteran rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel. They will be called the Last Poets. For this, El-Hadi calls the white producer a "cultural bandit." "God willing, he's going to have a lawsuit on his hands," he says.
"Who is Laswell to come and make a recomposition of our group? ... I'm beginning to believe he's hooked up with the CIA and FBI or something like that," El-Hadi says. "It looks like an organized attempt by the government to destroy the group, to destroy our credibility."
"Being real about it," Bin Hassan says sharply, "the division is based on silliness and pettiness. We're talking about getting black people together. How are we going to do that when we can't come together amongst ourselves?"
Dreams Onstage at Howard University for Malcolm X's birthday, Oyewole spoke of the once and future Last Poets as "a fraternity of brothers." He gave respect to each of the seven by name. This wasn't so much a false public face as a defining bit of wishful thinking.
The next day, he and Bin Hassan met at Oyewole's home with David Nelson and Felipe Luciano to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the birth of the Last Poets. It was "momentous," says Nelson. "We met as men who are living our lives, surviving, respecting one another."
Painful as their past has been, these men still talk hopefully of bringing all seven Last Poets together, for the first time ever -- though Jalal Nuriddin and Suliaman El-Hadi want nothing to do with it. "One of our goals," Oyewole says, "would be to recapture the East Wind, the place we once had as our home base."
David Nelson's dream is for a black philanthropist to come forward and fly all seven poets off to a Caribbean island, or maybe Africa, for a "retreat." There they would settle all their differences, and return a unified group.
"I think what we need," says Felipe Luciano, "is a 'word-chestra,' in which the seven of us, with seven different experiences, get together and lead our folk. Especially our young people... .
"There is nothing -- other than ego, fear, mistrust and pure bull[ -- ] -- that keeps us from making money," Luciano adds. "A word-chestra! With a video... .
"If it can be done with rock groups, why can't we?"
Review: 'Sounds of Southeast'
December 7, 1993
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
In an America where "white rap group" is a more commercially viable concept than "black rock band," District resident Knowledge Shabazz deserves credit for creative financing in striking a blow for African American guitar molesters. With a $ 2,000 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Shabazz produced "Sounds of Southeast," an eight-song cassette by a local fellowship of aspiring rock bands. During a free showcase Sunday night, these bands displayed a variety of styles before a sparse audience at the Black Cat club downtown.
Congregation of One -- whose "Gentleman Hymn" is the best-written song on the tape -- is actually a mixed-race group whose set was driven by the chugging rhythm guitar work of David Boris, a white guy. Lead singer Bryon Joyner had a hard time asserting himself through the mix, but Congregation of One proved itself to be a tight little ensemble that can rock in funky tempos. Its members were also the most gracious and professional in dealing with the challenging circumstance of a tiny crowd.
Chucky Sluggo, built around the bludgeoning punk-thrash guitar attack and scowling vocals of David Byers, couldn't manage much of a set without a roomful of folks thrusting energy back at it. But later, as one of two guitarists in Shabazz's band Pando, Byers revealed a more endearing facility for tasteful melodic licks. The evening's flashiest solos were unleashed by Preston Marsh of the promising Living-Colouresque band Upfrunt.
Shabazz himself isn't an instrumentalist, but a vocalist and conceptualist. Pando's loosely structured set consisted of extended funk-style jamming with Shabazz dropping a few race-conscious lyrics on top, then tromping around the stage shirtless like a rock star. Which he'll never become if he continues his bizarre habit of insulting the audience. On two occasions, when the club's handful of patrons failed to respond enthusiastically enough to his presence, Shabazz announced with disgust: "We gotta get out of this town, man!"
The P-Funk Powerhouse
May 29, 1993
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
There's nostalgia, and then there's time travel. The Ohio Players and the Last Poets served up the rhythms and politics of the 1970s to a warmly receptive, clearly mature audience last night at the Washington Convention Center. But it was the headliners -- George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars -- who caused grown folks to stand on their chairs all night (flimsy plastic folding chairs at that) or to party in the aisles like they were high-schoolers again.
Clinton and his P-Funk mob, squeezed by the opening acts and a 12:30 a.m. time limit, wound up playing for only two hours; D.C. fans are used to at least three. But their focus on sprawling versions of their most danceable hits, such as "Flashlight," "Atomic Dog" and "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker," kept the crowd's energy level way up, even though there was a surprising abundance of empty seats in the 10,000-capacity center.
Clinton, in a bright orange jumpsuit, did his usual ringleader type thing, leaving the hard work to his overpopulated though well-polished band. The P-Funk Horns, reliably airtight, provided punchy and sometimes whimsical flourishes throughout the set; guitarist Michael Hampton and bass player Jeff Bunn got to show off (though there wasn't time for Hampton's signature piece, "Maggot Brain"); and a welcome new drummer, who went without introduction, did a Herculean job of driving the beat.
The Ohio Players, who played for about an hour, likewise kept to their best-known oldies, from funk classics such as "Skin Tight" and "Funky Worm" to ballads such as "Heaven Must Be Like This" to off-speed grooves like "Sweet Sticky Thing." They did all that was expected of them, with skill and verve. Even their vocal harmonies were razor-sharp. But at a stripped-down six pieces, the Players are sorely missing a horn section. A synthesizer chord simply cannot replace a blast of brass.
Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole -- two of the seven men who've been part of the Last Poets over the last 25 years -- have been making frequents stops in Washington recently, dusting off the fiery and often profane revolutionary poetry of their youth. (Tonight they'll be at the University of the District of Columbia's Miner Auditorium.)
The Last Poets are legends of the black-power movement, and they've influenced the rap generation, but their 20-minute opening set last night didn't live up to their reputation. Part of the problem was that many spectators were still filing in as Oyewole and Hassan recited their rhythmic verse to conga accompaniment. But also, Hassan's voice quickly went scratchy.
Morris Day, Passing the Time;
The Meandering Solo Career of the Former Funk Star
November 29, 1992
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
Morris Day may not be hot anymore, but he's still sure enough cool.
He rolls up in a white stretch. His small, thin frame -- set off by the bulk of his bodyguard -- is a work of meticulous flash, from the shades to the diamond-studded pinkie ring, from the black tuxedo jacket with its violet floral lapels to the socks that announce their maker (Dior).
You would've expected nothing less from the tongue-in-cheek gigolo who fronted the Time, the Prince-directed funk band that helped make Minneapolis famous, rocking the early '80s with hits like "Get It Up," "The Walk" and "Jungle Love."
Back then, Day was known for his pampered pompadour, archly arched eyebrows and ridiculous squawk of a laugh. In full swagger, he stole the movie "Purple Rain" out from under Prince in 1984, with esteemed critic Pauline Kael declaring: "he does his vain, lecherous routines with the ease of the top vaudeville artists of decades past."
In reality, he used to be a shy teenager deep into learning the drums, and he's now an affable fellow who'll sit and chat about his colorful career without affectation or star-tripping. But it's the Morris Day of song, stage and screen -- the rogue -- who endures in the pop memory. Accent, alas, on "memory."
Now comes his third solo album, "Guaranteed," and we find the peacock persona toned down. The bright, bouncy Minneapolis grooves of the '80s have given way to a harder, post-hip-hop swing (complete with a guest rapper, Big Daddy Kane, a new-school gigolo who takes his strut seriously). The big hair is gone too; Day now wears it short and slicked down.
"If you want to stay competitive, and if you want to sell records," he explains, cooling in the lounge of a downtown hotel, "you have to change with the music."
Upon this occasion, one must wonder about Day's run of bad luck since leaving the Prince camp back in '84 -- with some hard feelings -- to make his own mark as a recording artist and actor.
Nearly five years have passed since his last solo album, "Daydreaming," which sold fewer than half a million copies despite the Top-40 single "Fishnet" (courtesy of Jimmy "Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis, the former Time sidemen turned superstar producers). It's the only album showcasing Morris Day that has failed to go gold.
"Pandemonium" underscored the point. That 1990 Time reunion album, overseen by Prince, recaptured some of the old heat and sold almost 800,000 copies. Yet Day says he was the most reluctant of the original Time to reenlist. "I refused the project a few times. I really felt like there was more ground I wanted to break personally before I started thinking about looking back."
The Hollywood career that seemed so promising after "Purple Rain" has faltered too. Day's only other movie role, besides joining the Time in Prince's "Graffiti Bridge," was as a record producer in "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," the Andrew Dice Clay flop.
"I think the problem for me is, I have to have things specifically designed for me," Day says. "People have to call with me in mind, because I don't go out and read for parts, because I'm not trained that way. There's a lot of people who do that for a living, every day. So I tend to sit back. ... I figure I'll just take my time and get my own situation happening," by which he means developing ideas through his own production company.
He had a supporting role in the 1990 ABC sitcom "New Attitude," playing a hairdresser with show-business dreams. The show lasted less than a month. Then, in the spring of '91, the Fox network ordered a few episodes of a comedy built around Day and his mirror-toting sidekick from the Time, Jerome Benton. They were to play hotel detectives. The title: "Hotel Dicks." Two episodes were taped, then Fox pulled the plug.
Day still doesn't know what went wrong. "I just know it wasn't me," he says with a sassy smile. (The network, according to a spokeswoman, won't comment on shows that die in development.) "We were off to a great start. Any other network, we wouldn't have even been able to name the show 'Hotel Dicks.' "
Plain bad luck.
Then there was Day's attempt a couple of years ago to launch his own girl group, the Day Zs. He brought together five good-looking white chicks, got them a deal at Warner Bros. Records, and co-wrote and co-produced their album, giving it that old Prince-style sex vibe. ("Cheri, do you think I should wear the pink teddy or the red one?") Sales were minuscule. The girls went their separate ways. Day's optimistic post-mortem: "I think it was a great name, a great concept. I plan on doing it again."
So, you see, it can be harder to stay there than to get there.
Can it happen again for Morris Day? Karen Jones, a Warner Bros. black-music executive who worked closely with him on the new album, says, "It takes a while when you leave a group to find your niche as a solo artist. Sometimes it takes a couple of shots to find what works." She also says, "It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to make that happen."
Day himself admits, "It takes me a minute just to be motivated to go back in [the studio]. I'm not necessarily a workaholic. I mean, when I do work, I get it done, but -- " The sentence just ends there.
'Those Were the Best Times'
Morris Day was about 8 when his family moved to Minneapolis from Springfield, Ill. A few years later, his mother bought him a department-store drum set. And by 13, he was playing with a young Jimi Hendrix fanatic whom history has since forgot. "We gigged at people's houses, house parties, nothing serious," Day recalls.
The band actually had two drummers, the other being Jellybean Johnson, who would eventually share the stage with Day in the Time. "Morris is a world-class drummer. A lot of people don't know that," says Johnson, now a staff producer at Flyte Tyme Productions, the Jam & Lewis hit factory. While other kids were outside goofing around, he says, "me and him used to line our drum sets up in his house and play. And then we'd come over to my basement and line them up and play. That was fun for us." And serious too. They were heavy into Tower of Power's David Garibaldi.
Later, while attending North High, Day became friends with Andre Anderson, known today as R&B producer Andre Cymone. It was a life-altering association.
"I think we were probably skipping school one day and went over to my house," Day remembers, "and I fired up a few grooves, you know? And he's like, 'Damn, I knew you played, but I didn't know you could play like that.' So he was like, 'We're having problems with our drummer.' " Anderson, it turned out, was the bass player in a band called Grand Central. A band that included a guitar player named Prince Roger Nelson.
Day auditioned and got the gig. "We played a lot of high school dances," he says. "My mom started managing the group, and she got some kind of court document saying she could be our guardian ... so we played a few small night spots around town. ...
"Those were the best times. That was when I really found a circle," Day says with a simple, genuine smile. "Prior to that in high school, I wasn't very popular. It was hard to get the girls. I didn't play sports." Lapsing into playful narcissism, he says, "I wasn't bad-looking, as far as I's concerned. But I just wasn't very popular.
"So once I finally got into the band situation, things picked up immensely."
Grand Central wasn't the only black teenage band in Minneapolis making noise. Its chief competition was a group called Flyte Tyme, led by bass player Terry Lewis, with Jellybean Johnson on drums. From time to time, they would face each other in battles of the bands.
"We were all friends. But the rivalry was there," Day says. "It was like, we'd smile at them -- 'How you doin'?' -- and then, soon as they got out of our faces, 'We [messed] 'em up tonight, man!' Or else, 'We need to go back and rehearse.' "
It was a remarkable concentration of nascent talent. But Prince was the one who set out on his own, leaving Grand Central around 1976 to seek his fortune. Which, of course, he eventually found with Warner Bros. Meanwhile, his old mates, including Day, kept searching for their own recording contract.
When Prince became a hot property, he put together a touring band, bringing Cymone along but not Day. (Instead Prince hired the brother of one of his recording engineers to play drums.) "I eventually got in the mix because Prince would let me come over and work in his [basement] studio," Day says. "So I was trying to get my grooves on tape, and the first thing I was really able to cut there, he wanted it."
That track became "Partyup" on Prince's 1980 "Dirty Mind" album. "[Prince] said, 'Do you want money for the song, or do you want me to help you get a record deal?' " And Day told him, "I'll take the deal." Which meant, he thought, putting together a band that he would control.
But first, Day went on the road with Prince for his raunchy "Dirty Mind" tour. Not as a musician, though. "I wasn't doing roadie work," he says with a touch of mock pride. "But I was doing the odds and ends. I would videotape the shows."
Then, for the 1981 Time debut album, Prince and Day laid down all the music tracks themselves. For the band, they recruited most of the members of Flyte Tyme, including lead singer Alexander O'Neal. Day actually wanted to run the Time from behind his drum kit. "I was not interested in being the front man at all."
As fate would have it, O'Neal and Prince didn't get along, and suddenly the Time was without a lead singer. "When Grand Central was together," Day says, "I would come from behind the drums and sing a song or two. So the other guys were like, 'Why don't you do it, man?' "
He was understandably reluctant. Johnson recalls that Day hadn't been a very confident singer in school. "I think what inspired him," Johnson says, "was that he hung out with Prince on the 'Dirty Mind' tour, and he got a firsthand look at what was out there, the whole music scene. That really changed his whole attitude. And that's what made the [band] get over."
Day recalls one of the early Time gigs, at a Detroit nightclub: "That was the first time that women, like, rushed the stage. Whether management paid for it or not, I don't know. But we were doing a show, and all of a sudden, about 20 women just hopped up ... and were at the bottom [of the stage] partying. And I was like, 'Yeah, that was cool.' But when I think back, you know, these 20 women just kind of came out of nowhere -- " His voice reveals suspicion, even as he smiles. Then, what the hell. "We made it happen on our own merit after that anyway."
Although the Time was conceived as Day's band, and he got producer's credit on the albums, the enterprise was rigorously controlled by Prince. When Jam and Lewis missed a gig because they were snowbound in Atlanta (where they'd been doing some freelance production work), Prince fired them. And he made the rest of the Time go on with the show, despite Day's objections. "If we didn't, the fine was like $ 20,000," Day remembers. "Prince kept threatening me, saying, 'And you're gonna have to pay it. So y'all better just put something together and go onstage.' ...
"I knew that what [Jam and Lewis] did wasn't necessarily cool, because they left us hanging," he says. But "I really didn't want to see them put out of the group, because they were friends of mine. So I took that kind of hard."
But he stayed around, through the filming of "Purple Rain" and the recording of the third Time album, "Ice Cream Castle." "I was like a company man," he says. "And I was going to stick with it," provided Prince and his then-managers let him write and produce a solo album.
And here's where Day ultimately fell out with Prince.
Day says he met with Prince's managers, played them some of his material, and they told him a solo album was workable -- as long as it was "executive-produced by Prince." "I knew what that meant," Day says. "So I was like, 'No, that's not what I want. Either I do it myself, or I don't hang out.' They called me on that."
The last straw was when "Ice Cream Castle" came out. According to Day, it was supposed to have been labeled "Morris Day and the Time." "When it was printed up 'The Time,' I said it's time for me to go.
"See, it's not that I was getting the big head," he explains. "But the band was no longer in its original form. It had turned into a rock-and-roll motel. We had these kids coming in [to replace Jam and Lewis]. So I said, 'There has to be room for me to rise above this and grow into my own thing.' And that wasn't happening."
Day says Prince's managers even gave him a hard time when he decided, around Christmas of '83, to move from snowy Minneapolis to warm, beachy L.A., where he still lives with his wife, Judi -- a back-up singer -- and his four kids. (A spokeswoman for Paisley Park Enterprises, Prince's current business entity, declined to comment about Day's history with him.)
Of Prince, Day says: "You know, he's a good friend, and he's a real talented musician. One of the best. But the control factor was definitely an overpowering factor. When you feel like your wings have grown to the point where you can fly on your own, you're definitely going to get the hell out of Dodge."
"Gimme Whatcha Got," the first single off Day's new album, was written and produced by Bernard Belle, a 26-year-old comer recruited late in the game by Warner Bros. executive Karen Jones to give the project "a street edge and a more hip appeal." It died within weeks.
But just when you're figuring that time has indeed passed him by, Day turns up on "The Tonight Show." "The epitome of show biz," Jay Leno said of him -- twice -- in affectionate overstatement. The performance itself wasn't any big knockout, with Day in a sharp white suit, talking the new talk ("M.D.'s in the house!"), a pair of miniskirted lovelies flanking him (and later obliging his famous demand: "Somebody bring me a mirror") and three fist-pumping young brothers singing out the chorus.
The finale, however, was vintage "Maw-iss":
The band was stretching out its last note as Day walked over to Leno's desk, a portable phone in hand. As the applause died down, Day placed a call and took a seat. Cut to the keyboard player, who picked up his phone and said, real businesslike, "Yeah, whassup?"
With legs crossed and lips pursed, Day told him: "Hit me."
Then -- WHAM! -- the band came in with one more extended blast of end music.
The P-Funk Flashback;
George Clinton Lands His Spaceship Here in C.C.
October 22, 1992
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
"Chocolate City is no dream," George Clinton declared on wax back in 1975 for the whole world to heed. "It's my piece of the rock, and I dig you, C.C."
He wasn't joking either. And on the flip side, the people of Washington, D.C. (that is, C.C.), have had a special vibe going on with George and his traveling musical madhouse -- Parliament-Funkadelic -- since far ago in the '70s, back before the band could've even dreamed about the gold records and big-buck arena shows to come, back when they were playing homecoming gigs at places like P.G. Community College and Bowie State and the old Federal City College (now part of UDC).
This is the week to groove on that symbiosis, because the "funk mob" is back in town. And the people are ready.
"You'd be surprised how much electricity it's created around the city," said Robert Taylor of Forestville, standing on the steps of Constitution Hall before Tuesday night's show as folks streamed toward the doors (damn near none of them under 30), and as brothers came up to him grinning from deep inside and slapping his hand, and as old P-Funk jams exploded out of the raised hatch of a Chevy parked nearby.
Taylor, 31, is a pharmaceuticals salesman for Smith-Kline Beecham and, more apropos of this here, a "funkateer from way back," a man for whom this music is attached to specific memories of childhood. "Everybody we looked up to on the court, this is what they played," he said.
But it's deeper than a nostalgia thing (although, yes, many of these people definitely came to hear the party classics like "Flashlight," "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" and "Knee Deep"). The vibe was acknowledged from the stage by the inimitable Bootsy Collins, a brief guest with his star-shaped bass and knee-high white leather stack-heeled boots. "We ain't had fun like this since I don't know when," he said. "Y'all know this is our home. Chocolate City -- home of the P-Funk."
The band rocked from 8 till almost midnight, and fans were thrusting up the P-Funk hand sign from start to finish while Clinton prowled around in a floral bed sheet (presumably fresh off a Howard Inn mattress) and singer Garry Shider bounced around in his trademark diaper. The only thing missing from the '70s was a haze of reefer over the crowd, but hey, a lot of these people are professionals now, people not only willing but able to handle the no-funkin'-around price of $ 25 apiece (plus assorted ticket-service jack-ups).
Check it out: When tickets for tomorrow's concert went on sale earlier this month, the 3,700-seat hall was sold out in two days. A second show was added for tonight, and that one sold out, so they added Tuesday night's as well. Only a few empty seats. Multiply it out, and you're talking about a quarter-million dollars straight out of D.C. pockets. For a band that ain't had a hit record in 10 years.
Even the main beneficiary of this windfall -- local promoter Bill Washington -- can hardly believe it. He'd brought Clinton and the mob to Howard University's 1,500-seat Cramton Auditorium for two nights in 1989, their most recent visitation, so he knew he could sell out one show at Constitution Hall. "But I didn't know it would be this strong," Washington says. "I mean, everybody's calling."
Armen Boladian, the Detroit record executive who launched Funkadelic in 1969, will tell you that during its earliest days, the band was hotter in the Washington-Baltimore area than even in Detroit. Clinton and his original singing partners, the Parliaments, had transplanted themselves from Plainfield, N.J., to Detroit with the goal of becoming a well-groomed, same-suit-and-tie-wearing Motown act. And then they got psychedelicized.
Old local P-Funk heads tend to speak with great vividness about the shows they've witnessed, tend to compare the relationship of the band and its fans to the mystical marriage of the Grateful Dead and its Deadheads. And they all seem to realize the spiritual nexus of D.C. and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Take a taste of the oral history.
'Stunned and Agape'
Tom Terrell, a former Washington deejay and music writer now living in New York, remembers what he calls Funkadelic's first area appearance: 1970 at Morgan State University in Baltimore, on a bill with Kool & the Gang and the Moments. Terrell was a student at Howard, and Funkadelic's first blues-drenched singles were quite popular among "the drinking, partying, drug-smoking, chemical-dropping contingent of Howard, which was quite substantial at the time."
Alas, as he remembers it, "the audience at Morgan was totally stunned ... stunned and agape." The full house that had enjoyed the soulful harmonies of the Moments and the classy, jazzy R&B of Kool & the Gang wasn't ready for guys who got on stage wearing anything from crotchless long johns to an Indian headdress to crushed-velvet Edwardian garb. Not to mention George Clinton in diapers and a purple tie-dyed shirt, with stars and crescents carved in his hair.
There were probably all of 25 people left in the place by the time it was over. Clinton stood on top of two seats and said something like, "What? You don't dig this? Well, dig this!" And then, according to Terrell, Clinton put his diapers on his head, then removed the briefs he was wearing underneath, waved them over his head like a cowboy, "and stood there butt naked."
Funkadelic played Howard's homecoming the next two years.
Kenneth Williams likewise remembers seeing Funkadelic in 1970 at a little "chitlin circuit" nightclub in Louisville. A lot of people walked out. Those who remained, including Williams, were invited to come up front "so they could pee in our Afros." (Don't worry. It was just something wild to say.) "I became an instant fan," says Williams, then a college freshman. "They were like the ultimate anti-Establishment band. They weren't trying to make pop music."
He moved to Washington in 1973, and "to my great joy," he says, "I could see the Funk three or four times a year," between the band's college gigs and its work as an opening act in bigger venues. Williams, 40, a TV technician living in Capitol Heights, recalls the first time Funkadelic played Capital Centre; Clinton emerged from a coffin while lead guitarist Eddie Hazel did "Maggot Brain," his mind-expanding signature solo.
Williams says he'll be at Constitution Hall tonight.
Poet Kenneth Carroll of Northeast Washington was but a teenager when his uncle took him to a Baltimore Civic Center Funkadelic show in the mid-'70s. He remembers Clinton asking the crowd for a joint, then seeing a rain of marijuana cigarettes onstage. "My uncle kept saying, 'He's not going to smoke that. He don't know what that is.' But he grabbed a joint from off the stage and started smoking it," Carroll says.
To this day, he says, some friends of his insist that the roof of Capital Centre opened up and that Clinton's now-famous "Mothership" stage prop actually descended from the sky. "These are brothers, man, who've got these responsible jobs," including one with the Air Force, Carroll says, laughing. "I'm saying, 'You know you can't land no spaceship in the Capital Centre.' They swear that happened."
Carroll, 33, grew up in the Montana Terrace housing project and says P-Funk was a profound influence on him, right down to the highly conceptual album-cover art and liner notes. "Guys who literally could not read would be interpreting the pictures, the artwork, and they would come over my crib. We'd be in my room going over what it meant." Kids played hooky from school to line up in front of a downtown record store the day Parliament's "Mothership Connection" LP came out, he says. A crew of older kids carried P-Funk albums from party to party, and invented dances, and became a self-styled "funk mob."
"Part of the thing was that, for a lot of us in the inner city, they literally kind of opened the world up," Carroll says. "In the framework of their music, there's still questions of racism and economic exploitation, but also this idea that there's a possibility of being beyond. That you can literally exist as a child of the universe somewhere, where color and class and none of that really matters. That people could be something else besides, you know, po' niggas."
"I think D.C. connected early on with the message of Funkadelic and was able to get beyond the absurd costumes that George and the band would wear," says Charles Stephenson, an aide to Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.). "That didn't intimidate this audience." What was so special about Washington? "D.C. has always had a strong pocket of musicians, and it always had these live bands," says Stephenson, also a veteran of the local music scene. "When I moved here from New York City [in 1970], people were carrying guitars instead of carrying basketballs."
No less a local luminary than Gregory "Sugar Bear" Elliot, front man of the veteran go-go band E.U., acknowledges the influence of Parliament-Funkadelic. In fact, as a 16-year-old he auditioned to fill a bass player opening in Clinton's band. That was in '74. After that, "I started dressing like them and everything. I started wearing diapers," he says. "And it worked. It added to our show, and people liked that. We had screaming guitars and that Funkadelic look, and we could do all their songs probably better than them."
Back to the Underground
Tuesday night's P-Funk show might not go down in history, but it was a remarkable demonstration of George Clinton's aesthetic consistency. Without the hit records to generate the capital to invest in any elaborate stage setup (despite repeated promises that the Mothership will fly again in 1993), the Funk Mob nowadays cavorts around stage like the underground band it used to be. And when new-breed guitarist Andre Williams came out with his face hidden behind a Japanese mask and his genitals visible through black lace panties, he was being true to the oldest notion of what Funkadelic is.
It was long-form jamming, call-and-response, and a steady breakdown of the boundaries (physical and psychic) between performer and audience. Clinton a couple of times walked up the center aisle so folks could touch the hem of his Wamsutta, but you never sensed that he was tripping off it personally, or that his fans were giving up anything of their identity or their power. In fact, when Clinton works a crowd, he'll put the microphone in front of the mouths of fans bold enough to send their voices roaring out of the PA. It's not a cult of personality, it's more like an energy loop -- each side taking as it gives.
Another Round of White Rappers in Search of 'Black Authenticity'
August 30, 1992
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
Remember that flash flood of white rappers last year? When record companies (and a few black producers), covetous of Vanilla Ice's multi-platinum success, foisted upon the pop market such wannabe mike-wreckers as Jesse Jaymes, Icy Blu, J.T. and Young Black Teenagers? The only one to hit was Marky Mark, whose rhyming skills would've gotten a black man nowhere, but who benefited greatly from exposing his sculpted torso in videos. Today, even Vanilla Ice himself is but a bad memory, a one-man joke.
Apparently, some conception of "black authenticity" is deeply important to hip-hop's many white fans. As it seems to be, also, to a few white vocalists and musicians currently making a place for themselves in the rap game.
'House of Pain'
Upon first watching the video for "Jump Around," packed as it is with Irish iconography (Celtics T-shirt, St. Paddy's Day parade, a leprechaun even), but with a hard-edged funk beat, I thought immediately of Public Enemy. Could it be that the pioneers of Afrocentric hip-hop have set the terms by which any group now asserts its ethnic pride in song? (I'm told there's a Polynesian "posse" in New Zealand kicking strong, PE-style, anti-assimilationist lyrics.)
Come to find out that House of Pain's lead rapper, Everlast, actually debuted in 1988 as part of Ice-T's Rhyme Syndicate. And back then he wasn't rapping with a brogue or flaunting the shamrock. What's more, a survey of House of Pain's self-titled album (on Tommy Boy) reveals not an ounce of serious cultural politics. To Everlast, D.J. Lethal and Danny Boy O'Connor, Irishness is purely a gimmick. Which is fascinating in a different way.
Lyrically, "House of Pain" is a mulligan stew of Irish stereotypes and black street slang, which happen to converge fittingly when it comes to tales of drunkenness, debauchery and two-fisted hooliganism. The rappers are selling their act squarely to the hard-core hip-hop crowd -- blacks, and whites who want to be down with blacks -- which means they shout "peace to the nations of Zulu and Islam" but not "Erin go bragh."
For a while, the juxtaposition is amusing. The catalogue of Irish Americana runs from Mickey's malt liquor to corned beef and cabbage, from "Danny Boy" to the Sean Penn movie "State of Grace," from the drone of bagpipes to the salutation "top o' the morning to ya." Typical boast: "I run my lyrics like the Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen." On the ghetto side, there's plenty of talk about puffing "blunts" (marijuana cigarettes), rocking "stunts" (women) and kicking in "fronts" (teeth).
But there's a dark side to the rappers' rampant machismo. They brag about "smacking up girls," threaten to "smack you up like a queer," and repeatedly target women and homosexuals for hostile words, as if this were essential to establishing their badass bona fides. Also, House of Pain (the name derives from the old-time underworld slang for "prison") contributes shamelessly to hip-hop's glamorization of gun violence.
Alas, in a familiar dilemma for hip-hop fans with a social conscience, "House of Pain" features some must-hear beats, particularly those provided by Cypress Hill producer D.J. Muggs (an Italian American). It is he who hooked up that mesmerizing, bluesy piano loop that's sending "Jump Around" straight up the Top 40. (The single is already gold.) "Guess Who's Back" samples a tasty, down-home Albert King groove, complete with the pops and crackles of well-worn vinyl. And "Put On Your [Expletive] Kickers" has an extraordinary, unforgettable rhythm track. The stutter of its snare demonstrates, more so than even "Jump Around," the butt-moving potential of four bars in constant repetition.
Everlast handles the main rapping duties with self-assured flair. But with his redundant tough talk, you could consider it a waste of the gift of gab. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
MC Serch: 'Return of the Product'
As the funky-dancing, hightop-fade-wearing, slang-talking, yet undeniably dorky-looking one in 3rd Bass, MC Serch always seemed to be trying too hard. Pete Nice, his rhyme partner, had that laid-back Italian gangster vibe happening. But as early as January 1990, in an influential Village Voice cover story heralding 3rd Bass as genuine "funky white boys," not perpetrators or appropriators, Serch was coming on a tad strong, listing the black housing projects where he'd "hang out with my boys" despite being a stockbroker's son from an orthodox Jewish neighborhood.
Under the aegis of a black man -- hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons -- 3rd Bass became the most street-credible white rap group of all time (though you'll find alternative-rock types who call the Beastie Boys geniuses). Then, rather presumptuously, Serch and Pete started acting as hip-hop's authenticity police, dissing Hammer in particular as a crossover sellout. On Simmons's short-lived syndicated TV show, "New Music Report," Serch even felt comfortable enough in the black milieu to engage in a bit of "signifying," making fun of co-host Doug E. Doug's dark skin.
Trying too hard.
Now Serch comes solo with "Return of the Product" (Def Jam). And it's quite a pleasant surprise.
Okay, he does declare, "I'm the baddest white boy to ever touch a mike." (Yeah, he could smush Marky Mark real easy, but how about battling Everlast and that funky Italian Tony D?) And he does hurl another gratuitous insult at Hammer: "He'd be my bitch if we was in the slammer." (Which is possibly even a foolhardy insult, given Hammer's practice of hiring ex-cons.)
But for the most part, Serch is relaxed and confident, like he's got nothing to prove. Notwithstanding the examples above, he delivers some hearty boasts and clever disses that'll sustain his reputation as a rhymer to respect. And when he trots out his old-school credentials in the title song, telling of his teenage travels in black neighborhoods, there's a touch of pathos in it (unlike the Village Voice story) as we realize the cost. "Caught beatdown after beatdown," he says, "but it paid off when it came to the street sound."
By personalizing his denunciation of racism in "Hard but True" and Eurocentric education in "Social Narcotics" ("Taught me that I was superior, others are inferior, but what's important is the interior"), Serch is more effective than in earlier, generalized social critiques such as "Gas Face."
Throughout the album, Serch's fluent lyrics are shored up by catchy funk beats enhanced by live musicians, most impressively on "Hard but True," which features liquid lines from Reggie McBride's upright bass. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)
The Brand New Heavies: 'Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1'
Speaking of live musicians, here's the concept album of the year: Round up some of the best young rappers in the business, such as Grand Puba, Gang Starr and Ed O.G., and let 'em flow over the roiling drums, bouncing bass and jingling guitar of a live band! And what better band than the Brand New Heavies, who've slowly but steadily built an enthusiastic following in the States with their faithful evocation of '70s black music styles, especially funk and fusion.
Sounds better on paper than it does on the box.
White Brits Simon Bartholomew and Jan Kincaid and black Brit Andrew Levy -- the heart of the Heavies -- lay down some tight little grooves on "Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1" (Delicious Vinyl). Perhaps they wanted to keep the rhythm beds simple so listeners would focus on the guest vocalists. Unfortunately, the Heavies wind up playing the equivalent of four-bar and eight-bar sampled loops, strangely diminishing the advantage of having real musicians involved in the first place. There's a tiresome similarity to most of the 10 tracks here. And the rappers don't seem to deliver anything special either.
There are two notable exceptions. Grand Puba, former leader of Brand Nubian, has a unique way of slipping into his own secret rhythmic patterns within a basic beat, as he shows with ease on "Who Makes the Loot?," a slow groove that seems straight out of a blaxploitation movie. (Especially them flutes.) And Jamalski, an American who flawlessly affects the Jamaican dancehall style, sprints merrily atop the breakneck beat of "Jump n' Move."
Krossing Over to Success; Seventh-Grade Rappers With a Quotient of Cute
May 3, 1992, Sunday, Final Edition
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
Smash hit or no smash hit, they are a ridiculous sight, two 13-year-old boys in oversize jeans (men's sizes 36 and 34) with the crotch at knee level, belts around their thighs, vast amounts of denim crumpled around their ankles. And they're wearing them back to front! With huge T-shirts and baggy quilted jackets covering their zippered behinds.
And what are two well-raised youngsters from the Atlanta suburbs doing calling themselves "Mack Daddy" and "Daddy Mack," which used to mean "pimp" when you were their age?
You watch them, Christopher "Mack Daddy" Kelly and Christopher "Daddy Mack" Smith, together called Kris Kross, and you suddenly feel as old as your own parents.
But not too old to resist a strong pop hook, as you realize when the beat bursts forth and Kelly and Smith strut across the floor, mikes in their faces, rapping for a sound check at Black Entertainment Television in Northeast. The Mack Dad'll make ya -- jump, jump! Daddy Mack'll make ya -- jump, jump! Kris Kross'll make ya -- jump, jump!
What's happening to Kris Kross is unlike anything the record industry has seen in a long, long time. It's like an act of God, a mind-boggling explosion of fame. "Jump" became America's No. 1 single in only four weeks. The video is one of MTV's most requested. The album "Totally Krossed Out," already platinum, was called "the fastest-breaking debut album [in] 25 years" by Billboard magazine.
Kelly and Smith made their national TV debut March 29 on "In Living Color." Last week, they did "Good Morning America." That's how fast they've gone from cutting-edge hip to Middle American celebrity.
How to explain it?
Well, they're cute.
While Kris Kross did a couple of tunes on BET's "Teen Summit" last weekend -- hair artfully cornrowed, smooth little faces trying to be hip-hop hard -- a few grown women watched and smiled and bobbed their heads and said, "They're cute!" And afterward fidgety teenage girls bunched together with free posters, hoping for autographs. And one cool young fellow looked at his poster and said out loud to nobody, "I'm a dude. I still want an autograph."
So it's more than cute. It's major-label hype plus packaging plus novelty plus hooks on top of cute. Peel away all that and you've got air.
But then, why do that? Why fight the universe? When something works, it works. Uh-huh, uh-huh -- jump, jump ...
Meet Kris Kross
These are hectic days for two kids who'd otherwise be sitting in a seventh-grade classroom. They're on a barnstorming promotional tour (with a tutor). They haven't even had a chance to hang out with their friends back in Atlanta since "Jump" blew up.
After BET last Saturday, they went to Richmond for a gig sponsored by a radio station. Reportedly, so many fans came out that the show was almost canceled for reasons of safety. Then Sunday night they were in Washington again to tape another TV show, this time at an Adams-Morgan dance club called Opera.
Are they tired? "No, but there's a lot of clowns out there saying we are." That's Christopher Kelly, to whom one fan referred handily as "the dark-skinned one." Sitting in a back room at Opera, Kelly seems more concerned than his lighter, slightly younger partner with affecting a hip-hop attitude, responding to an innocent question like his status was being challenged. He grips your hand with a firmness that is conscious of itself. He sometimes smirks. And when he raps over a prerecorded track of "Jump," you can hear that his voice has changed since he made the song.
Christopher Smith seems less playful. There's a seriousness in his face, a contrast to Kelly's cocksure grin.
They've known each other since first grade. Show business "was something that we wanted to do, but we ain't really think we was ever going to do it," Smith says.
"We used to rap to other people's records," Kelly says. Run-DMC, Eric B. & Rakim. "But we never made up our own raps or nothing like that."
"I wouldn't even say we was rapping," Smith interjects. "It was just like we were talking. Just saying lyrics that rhymed."
Then came the day in Atlanta's Greenbriar mall when their lives changed. They were there to buy new sneakers, but they ran into a rap group called Silk Tymes Leather and a teenage record producer named Jermaine Dupri.
"We went over to get an autograph," Kelly says. "[Dupri] asked us if we rap or dance. We told him dance a little bit, we ain't really too much rap. But he got our phone numbers anyway. We got his phone number. And he called us." Kelly was 12, Smith 11.
Dupri, now 19, is here with them. He wrote and produced every track on "Totally Krossed Out," he helped develop the whole concept, and the success of Kris Kross may do more for his fortunes than Kelly and Smith's. The man has a golden eye. Or a platinum ear. Or something.
As soon as he saw them, he thought: "Stars."
"I had never seen no little kids look like me. That's what it was," Dupri says. "They had on almost better gear than me. Almost. Fresh new sneakers. I was like, 'Wait a minute. How old are these kids?'
"From the start, they had the attitude already. They came to me with that attitude -- little kids that's got themselves together. It just needed to be polished," he says. "People might say, 'Okay, Kris Kross, they cute.' But it took like two years to get these kids together. Their rapping skills went from terrible to excellent. In four years, they should be terrors."
When the three of them are together, Kelly and Smith seem to orbit around Dupri as they would around a really cool big brother. And with his charmingly awkward smile, billy-goat beard and gift of gab, he proves to be Kris Kross's most effective spokesman.
Like a few minutes ago, when all three were being interviewed on camera by the jaunty, flirtatious "Downtown" Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, now with "Inside Edition." Kelly and Smith were kind of shy. Dupri, wearing big, sagging, backward jeans too, drew the camera right on in. "Who said [frontward] is the right way you're supposed to wear your pants in the first place?" he asked. "So now y'all know who told y'all to wear these. Fifty years, everybody'll say, 'Kris Kross said wear your pants backwards.' "
Low-hanging jeans were a fad already. Kris Kross just saw a way to give it a twist and reinforce its "totally krossed out" identity. But even in this, the kids aren't exactly original. A popular and well-packaged teenage R&B group of 1991, Another Bad Creation, employed the gimmick of wearing clothes inside-out.
Funny, then, that Kris Kross, on its album, comes out dissing ABC by name. "Don't try to compare us to another bad little fad," Kelly raps in "Jump." "Inside-out is wiggity-wiggity-wiggity-wack!"
Presumably, Dupri didn't think he had quite enough high-concept selling points to get Kris Kross over. So hey, nothing like a little trash-talking to draw attention to a new group.
"We're taking no shorts," Dupri says, explaining his swipes at ABC. But then he quickly changes the subject. When you're on top, what's the point?
"Kris Kross filled up a gap that needed to be filled," he says. "Everybody needed a modern-day Run-DMC, and here they are. They don't dance when they get on stage. People dis that walking back and forth, but we sell 100,000 records every time they do it. Just straight-up get onstage and it's about rocking the mike. No 500 people onstage, no singers."
Kelly and Smith seem to be handling the whole thing well. The toughest part? "Sound checks," Smith says after a little thought. "It's hard because you can't get that same feeling. It ain't no crowd out there so you don't know how you're gonna react to the crowd or nothing. But it's something you gotta deal with."
"The coolest thing that happened to us," Kelly says casually, "is our platinums." Their single is a million-seller, as well as the album. The trophies are on the way. "We got our golds, but we ain't get our platinums yet."
And the future? "After hanging around Jermaine," Smith says, "we came to the conclusion that we want to produce records."
Check One ...
"This one keeps punching me," Julie Brown says playfully, Christopher Kelly close at her side, as the video camera captures a group interview.
She asks the boys to describe their "dream girl."
Kelly says bashfully, "You."
Smooooth, Mack Daddy!
"Maybe that's why he keeps punching me," Brown says.
Daddy Mack's Daddy
Lunnie Smith is the man a million other parents might want to throttle if this ass-backward jeans thing catches on. He's the proud father of Christopher "Daddy Mack" Smith.
In a well-fitting suit and an unbuttoned shirt collar, Smith stands with arms folded, well out of the way, and watches the sound check at Opera. He works for the Georgia corrections department, his wife, Angela, is a bank manager, and both were "hesitant" when they heard of Dupri's interest in their son.
"You've got a small child," Smith says in a friendly but deliberate tone, "you already know what you want your child to do, you already have your plans laid out, and you're going by your plan step-by-step." And that plan is for Christopher to go to college and become a successful professional or businessman.
"At the same time, Christopher at an early age had expressed to us a desire to be in the entertainment industry. And because of that, we felt compelled to check it out."
Impressed that Dupri was a "clean-cut young man" who's "strictly focused on creating music," the Smiths gave their blessing to the fabrication of Kris Kross. In fact, Angela Smith came up with the name, remembering that when Christopher Kelly was younger, "one of his teachers called him 'Chrissy Crossy Apple Saucy' because all he would eat was apple sauce," Lunnie Smith says.
(Chrissy Crossy Apple Saucy? Id'n dat cuuute? You sure won't find that in the rapper's press bio.)
At least one of the kids' parents will be on the road with them at all times, Smith says. "We certainly feel that both have the personality, the background and the foundation to be able to handle it. At the same time, we're not naive," he says. "We understand that if you don't stay on top of it, they could easily lose that by being with individuals who don't necessarily see things the way that we see it. They're still children, they're very impressionable at this age, and we know that we have to stay on top of it."
If Christopher Smith's rap career doesn't last, maybe he can become a professional negotiator, because even before Kris Kross was created, he'd persuaded his father to allow him to wear his jeans low and baggy, despite the first "shocked" reactions of dad and school officials.
"As adults, we all had problems with it," Smith says. "[But Christopher's] main focus was that he was doing well in school, he was making good grades, and that should be what's important."
Now he declares, "We have to allow for self-expression and individuality in children. To stifle it, I think, does more harm than it does good." Which is a whole lot easier to say when your son has the No. 1 single in the country.
Smith is similarly accepting of the young Christophers calling themselves "macks," which was Kelly's idea. "It was just something boys used to use in school and stuff," Kelly explains. "Whoever gets a lot of girls and stuff, called macks."
"I believe that sometimes we as adults complicate issues more than they should be," Smith says. "These boys are having fun. As far as they're concerned, it's only a hip-hop name. While there may be another definition for a mack, they're keeping a positive outlook, so we don't see any harm."
Check Two ...
Kelly and Smith are inside a white stretch limousine in front of Opera, attracting a few black teenage boys who chill along the sidewalk.
An older white guy passes by. "Who's in the limo?"
Kris Kross, a reporter tells him.
"Christopher Cross?" the man asks, surprised and credulous.
One of the teens overhears this. "Yeah, Christopher Cross," he says. And his buddies have a long chuckle.
The Geto Boys, Beating the Murder Rap; How Did Blood and Guts Get From the Streets to the Top 40?
December 15, 1991
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
You're about to enter a nightmare world of brute criminality, unrelenting bloodshed and African American self-loathing.
And it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Loadin' up my weapons, gettin' ready for
another street-sweepin' neighborhood drug war.
Police come around in a meat wagon,
knowin' that tonight they'll be draggin'
off [suckers] to a six-foot ditch.
I hope ya insurance paid up, bitch ...
This song is titled "Another Nigger in the Morgue," and it's delivered with exuberance -- glee even -- by Scarface, one of three Houston rappers getting famous right now as the Geto Boys. It's off the group's gold album, "We Can't Be Stopped."
The funk is moving. Scarface stands proudly in his "run-down neighborhood cemetery," counting bodies:
Fifty-seven, 58, 59,
All layin' down in the same line.
You sorry [suckers] couldn't handle me.
I d'n [messed] up 17 families ...
Scarface, in a gunfight, pulls out an automatic shotgun known as a Streetsweeper:
Hit three or four in the head.
That's three or four niggers left for dead ...
This is "gangsta rap" at its finest. A muscular groove. A muscular voice. And a very, very disturbing view of life in which killing equals fun, coldbloodedness equals manliness.
The price you pay, the listener, for a few minutes of vicarious thrills is the nagging worry that, damn, maybe songs like these are turning this into a world where a teenager can shoot into a stranger's car because he feels like "bustin' somebody," then grin when he's arrested for murder.
To 21-year-old Brad "Scarface" Jordan, this is a moral puzzle easily disregarded.
"I don't want people to follow Scarface. I want people to follow Brad Jordan, man." That's what he says backstage at Capital Centre, with the Geto Boys about to step in front of 10,000 rap fans as the headlined act. "See, Brad Jordan ain't have [a thing]. But he came up and got something. Scarface is just a character. He's just something to look at. He's not nothing to be."
A few minutes earlier, Jordan was smiling and moving through the backstage hangers-on with a beer in hand, half swaggering and half staggering, a bandanna pulled over his face bandit-style.
"Nobody can go out and kill 30 or 40 different people and not go to jail," Jordan says. "You know? That's stupid if you believe that. You gotta draw that line, man. There's a line over here for fiction" -- his arm splits the air -- "and there's a line over here for nonfiction."
Except that when you talk to the Geto Boys, the line seems to blur.
Just look at Richard Shaw, a k a "Bushwick Bill," who is unique enough as the only dwarf in rap music, but now he's got a glass eye too. His girlfriend shot him in the head last May. Drunk and suicidal, Shaw had insisted on it.
Today he explains it with a chuckle: "I brought my work home with me."
What does fantasy violence have to do with real-life violence? What does pathology have to do with entertainment? And while we're asking questions, what the heck are the Geto Boys doing in the Top 40?
This story begins in the rough Fifth Ward section of Houston around 1985. James Smith, who grew up there, was working as a bank teller when he decided to encourage three neighborhood teenagers -- one of them his stepbrother, none still in the group -- to rap. "Every day I would come home and catch them playing hooky," he says. Smith told them that if they stayed in school, he'd help them break into the music business. He named them the Ghetto Boys.
In 1986, Smith bought a used car lot and went into business for himself. And in a "rickety" old two-story building on the property, the rappers would practice. Cliff Blodget, a white fellow with a computer science degree, came along one day, said he'd heard about the group, and he and Smith launched Rap-A-LotRecords.
To up-to-date ears, one early GhettoBoys recording -- the 1987 single "You Ain't Nothin'," backed with "I Run This" -- serves as a startling curiosity. The performers went by such corny, grandiose, old-style hip-hop names as Sire Juke Box, Prince Johny "C" and Grand Wizard DJ Ready Red. Their delivery owed much to the tag-team style of Run-DMC, once cutting-edge but now so mannered as to be amusing.
"The Run-DMC type of style, that's what was real popular back then," Smith says. "That's the style they knew." And it was an attempt at "commercial" rap. No cussing, no murdering. Just typical MC braggadocio about being "def on the hip-hop scene."
But all along, Smith says, he wanted the Ghetto Boys to have a street edge. So on "Making Trouble," their first album in 1988, the rappers boldly declared themselves "trouble-makers, cold common thugs, tearin' down the neighborhood." Interspersed among the lyrics were snippets of Al Pacino from the movie "Scarface," an underground classic. ("Say hello to my little friend" -- BOOM!)
And in one song, "Assassins," the Ghetto Boys pioneered the "slasher" style of storytelling that would later bring three other Geto Boys national notoriety. One woman is chopped up with a machete, another with a chain saw. Although homage is paid to Freddy Krueger, the psycho-killer of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, Smith says, "We were thinking about the 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' " Working that Texas angle a little bit.
As it turned out, "that was the hottest song on that album."
In 1989, the West Coast rap group N.W.A. raised the stakes on criminal violence and impolite language with "Straight Outta Compton," a million-selling album that has been disturbingly influential.
In late '89, with a new lineup of Bushwick Bill, Willie Dee and Scarface (then known as DJ Akshen), Rap-A-Lot released the second Ghetto Boys album, "Grip It on That Other Level." And it was an underground sensation, with song titles such as "Trigga Happy Nigga."
"Gangster movies sell," Smith says. " 'Scarface,' 'Bonnie and Clyde.' " At the same time, he insists the group's violent lyrics reflect the cold realities of inner-city life. "It's just regular talk with the Geto Boys. It's everyday conversation."
Most Americans never heard of the group until the summer of 1990, when record producer Rick Rubin picked up the (rechristened) Geto Boys for his Def American label. Rubin had the distribution muscle of Geffen Records behind him, which he had used successfully to push such controversial acts as comedian Andrew Dice Clay and Slayer, a satanically inclined heavy metal band.
But Geffen balked at the Geto Boys, refusing to distribute their self-titled album (even though it contained much of the material from "Grip It on That Other Level," a proven success). Music writers across the country jumped on the story. It was, after all, a season in which the popularity of a raunchy rap group called 2 Live Crew had scandalized the mass media.
So newspapers were titillating their readers with reports of "Mind of a Lunatic," in which the Geto Boys spun a tale of rape, throat-slitting and necrophilia. One pop critic declared the album's lyrics "the moral equivalent of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater." And Rubin was quoted saying things like: "I don't think the group actually hates women any more than I think they're going to go out and kill somebody. We're dealing with horror and entertainment here. ... These guys are just having fun."
Rubin finally found a distributor for "Geto Boys" -- Warner Bros. -- and on the album cover he tried to position himself as a champion of the First Amendment: "Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist and indecent."
Despite all the free publicity, "Geto Boys" didn't approach the platinum-level sales of N.W.A. or 2 Live Crew.
"A lot of the hype that came from the last album catered to the rock-and-roll fans," says William Dennis, a k a "Willie Dee." "A lot of the stuff you saw published was in, like, Rolling Stone -- magazines that our audience didn't necessarily read. So it really didn't do much for our sales."
Rubin isn't involved with the latest Geto Boys album. Rap-A-Lot now has a distribution deal with Priority Records, which introduced the world to N.W.A.
With a Bullet
During their recent Capital Centre show, the Geto Boys got a lukewarm reaction from the crowd for much of the set. At one point, Willie Dee said, "Somebody must've died that all y'all in here knew!"
Bushwick Bill did get people on their feet when he stripped to his drawers and engaged in mock sex acts with two scantily clad female dancers.
But for their last song -- "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" -- everyone in the house rose and rapped along, word for word, joyfully, transcendently.
There's nothing like a hit single.
An expurgated version of "Mind Playing Tricks" is currently No. 32 on Billboard's chart of the 100 hottest songs in America. That's without Top 40 radio support. (Popular video, though.) And the song has earned the Geto Boys much respect from serious rap fans; readers of the Source, a well-regarded hip-hop magazine, voted it the best rap single of 1991.
The thing is, "Mind Playing Tricks" isn't a blood-spattered death farce. In fact, it's the inverse -- a genuinely touching trip inside the tormented mind and soul of a dope dealer, told over a melancholy soul groove. Scarface, who merrily piles up bodies in "Another Nigger in the Morgue," is plaintive here, delving into such feelings as remorse, fear, depression, paranoia, even love for his woman and child:
Can't keep a steady hand because I'm nervous.
Every Sunday morning I'm in service,
praying for forgiveness
and trying to find an exit out the business.
But even in this, the line between art and reality is fuzzy. Backstage, Scarface declares that he is actually clinically manic-depressive. That he takes lithium. "I've been hospitalized for manic-depression, you know, suicide attempts and overdoses," he says casually. He offers a too-fleeting glimpse of his wrists. "That's real [stuff]. That's why I wrote the jam. The [stuff] I write is like poetry to me."
Scarface also hints that he's done things on the streets worth feeling guilty about. "But I'll never tell." He smiles.
Yeah, okay. By the way, Scarface has a solo project out. Sample song titles: "Born Killer," "Murder by Reason of Insanity," "Diary of a Madman." (Lithium, huh?)
But then, there's no denying what happened to Bushwick Bill last May. His picture is right there on the cover of "We Can't Be Stopped." He's sitting on a hospital gurney, the bloody remains of his right eye bulging from its socket.
"All the things I thought I should have that I didn't have. ... I got into a depressed state of mind where suicide was my only escape," Bushwick says. "But I didn't want to do it myself. So I set my girl up to do it, which was unfair to her, and which was unfair to myself. Because I should have thought about my mom, you know, and what she put up with to help me get as far as I've got."
He doesn't see the irony, given his brush with death, in prowling around on stage with a machete and a cleaver, doing his gross-out "Chuckie" song (the new Geto Boys single). Inspired by the "Child's Play" horror movies about a maniacal killer doll, he raps: "A murder contest, you know I'll win it, 'cause in every mailbox, there'll be a head with a knife in it."
"I kept watching all the different 'Child's Play' sagas, right?" Bushwick says. "Then all of a sudden I decided, 'He's short, I'm short. What a better concept?' It fits. If I can't make the song, why make the movies?"
Bushwick Bill is into horror movies. Mention the real-life serial killer and do-it-yourself butcher Jeffrey Dahmer, and Bushwick says, "That movie came out already. It's called 'Pieces.' And think about the movie 'Maniac.' Remember when he peeled this one girl's scalp off and glued it to a mannequin?"
In a strange twist, Bushwick Bill has now found religion. He promises that his own solo album will draw largely upon the Bible. How does he reconcile his new devotion with his taste for horror?
"They have horror stuff in the Bible," he says. "Like if you were to read Deuteronomy 28, that talks about the blessings and curses of God. Talks about if you don't pay attention to God and [you're] disobedient, that your life will bear a child and eat it in secret." Bushwick chuckles. "That's in the Bible."
His album will contain a rap about Deuteronomy 28.
There's no telling how fast gangsta rap will play out. But for now Willie Dee, who seems to picture the Geto Boys as courageous social commentators, can confidently state: "As long as there's drugs, sex, war" -- the current album contains a foaming denunciation of the Persian Gulf dust-up -- "as long as politicians are dirty, are scum of the Earth, we'll always have something to talk about."
Go-Go: Still Grooving and Moving; The Live Sound Lives On the 'PA Tapes'
July 8, 1990
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
As a recorded music, Washington's proud, percussive funk style called "go-go" has never quite come to grips with its own rawness. The issue arises now with the success of something called the "PA tape," which has boosted the local recording industry.
In 1985, the go-go community was electrified by the prospect of breaking out nationally. Island Records gets a lot of blame for botching its movie "Good to Go" -- the would-be showcase for the D.C. groove -- and for watering down the music of the one band it really pushed, Trouble Funk. But Island wasn't the only company to blow it. Around the same time, Mercury/PolyGram signed one of the city's most esteemed bands, Rare Essence, and came out with a tired 12-inch single ("Flip Side") whose machine-driven groove can in no way be called go-go.
The most irresistible feature of go-go -- its loping, primal, nonstop rhythm, dense with congas, cowbells and timbales -- is exactly what frightened the big-time record companies. How could they get this stuff played on the radio in the age of slick, high-tech R&B?
Today, the market for go-go is pretty much confined to the District, Maryland and Virginia, as it was when it developed more than a decade ago. The nationwide popularity of E.U.'s "Da Butt" in 1988, as it turns out, had as little impact on go-go's fortunes as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers' 1984 hit "We Need Some Money." Once in a while, a go-go record can go national. Just don't count on it.
Even London has cooled. London was so crazy for go-go music during the mid-'80s that the BBC did a documentary on it. Nowadays, "the odd record comes over," says David Lubich, editor of Soul Underground, a British magazine devoted to black music. "But there's not really a strong scene. In clubs, it's house music that's getting played totally. And rap is beginning to make quite a strong comeback. People have been saying go-go is going to come back in London for years."
During the fertile days of the early '80s, the 12-inch single was the essential medium of recorded go-go. It provided enough wax to contain the extended jams of bands like Trouble and E.U. But vinyl is on its deathbed. And car stereos with titanic speakers are all the rage.
Enter the PA tape.
"Most of the kids ride around and play the tapes from their Jeeps," says Tom Goldfogle, co-owner of Liaison Records, a local distributor of go-go cassettes. He says a popular tape can sell up to 30,000 copies.
Reo Edwards, who produced some of go-go's classic recordings, including most of the hits by Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown, put out the first PA tapes a couple of years ago. He was motivated by the drug-related violence that led to the shutting down of some go-go venues. "Go-go music was beginning to disappear," he says.
He also noticed that Rare Essence, during its live shows, would make cassette recordings straight off the sound-mixing board, then sell copies to fans. "A hot Rare Essence tape would sell for $ 50," Edwards says.
With a couple of 16-track tape recorders in his Landover studio, Edwards would invite bands to "just come in and cut it like it was live," he says. "Bring your own crowds, put it out and call it a PA tape" -- as in public address. With up to 30 minutes of uninterrupted music on each side (no song titles, even), a PA tape can capture the energy of a live go-go show, without the danger of a fight breaking out in the parking lot.
Usually, though, for long stretches of time these tapes are nothing but rhythm. Pure, unadorned percussion, with maybe somebody running off at the mouth about nothing in particular. This might be hypnotic in a crowded nightclub, but it's tedious on your home stereo.
The early go-go 12-inches may not have been intricately constructed songs, but they always had something melodic or harmonic happening on top of the groove. It could be as simple as the spacey synthesizer line in "Trouble Funk Express" or the chunky rock guitar in "E.U. Freeze." It could be as beautifully arranged as the jazzy horns in Chuck Brown's "Go-Go Swing." The beat was muscular, yes, but you had something else to hook onto. And that something else is what made a record memorable.
Edwards is encouraging young bands to focus on musicianship, on song crafting, so they can expand go-go's audience. "The young can deal with non-structured go-go music, but the adults can't," he says. "The young can deal with lyrics that don't say anything, but the adults can't. I have to train and teach these kids that they're going to have to go back to song structure, but not lose the go-go thing.
"The first PA tapes that I did were for Hot, Cold Sweat and Ayre Rayde," he says, "and the structure wasn't as good as what I'm doing now."
How raw is too raw? That is a question musicians and fans will work out among themselves. And they'll do it without the meddling of outside record companies, Edwards says. "We won't let that happen again. Like the rappers did in New York, we're going to have to stick together, get our own little independent labels. And if the majors want to deal with us, they're going to have to take us as we are.
"If the world don't want this," he says, "fine. We'll just keep it in D.C."
C.J.'s Uptown Crew: 'Get Real' Go-go for adults. That's the best way to describe "Get Real" by C.J.'s Uptown Crew (Washington Hit Makers Records). Carl "C.J." Jones himself calls it "cabaret"-style. The focus is on melodies, horn arrangements and actual singing. "We're older guys, so we can't be talking 'Wh-wh-wh-where y'all from?' " like the young bands, says Jones, a saxophonist who began nine years ago with E.U.
Jones tried shopping this LP around to the major labels, but found no takers, despite the involvement of Earth, Wind and Fire's horn arranger Tom Tom 99 and a bunch of go-go all-stars (William "JuJu" House, Li'l Benny and Rick Wellman, for example). "Get Real" is performed and produced with savvy, but it contains only three superior jams -- "Doc and C.J.'s Groove," "Get Real" and "The Go-Go Way," the last being a heartfelt salute to the D.C. sound, mentioning Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Redds and the Boys and E.U.
The album includes a pair of forgettable ballads and two mediocre R&B numbers. But the biggest disappointment is a remake of Smokey Robinson's "Going to a Go-Go," presumably a natural for funkified reinterpretation. C.J.'s version suffers from an overly slick production and an affected lead vocal by Lisa "Sylver" Logan. You can appreciate C.J.'s wanting to get radio play, but even adult go-go fans want to hear some grit.
Physical Wundors: 'Hype With the Go-Go' The latest PA tape recorded and mixed by Reo Edwards, "Hype With the Go-Go" (Future Records and Tapes), is typical of the stuff being put out by young bands these days. The members of Physical Wundors demonstrate that they can lay down a solid go-go beat and get a few sounds out of keyboards, but that's about all. This tape is for fans who demand nothing more.
Lyrical and melodic borrowing is also a distressingly common feature of today's go-go. Physical Wundors takes a riff from the Average White Band's "Schoolboy Crush" and recites lyrics from Rick James's "Mary Jane" and KRS-One's criminal-minded rap "9mm Goes Bang."
When Trouble Funk chanted "pump pump pump pump me up" eight years ago, it was by no means profound. It was, however, original.
Go-Go Lorenzo: 'Go-Go Lorenzo Live' "Go-Go Lorenzo Live" (Goff Records) isn't labeled a PA tape. And unlike the packaging of most PA tapes, some money and imagination went into the cover for this project; there's a nice color photo of Lorenzo at the Hains Point statue "The Awakening." (The Physical Wundors cover doesn't even list the musicians.)
There's also more to listen to here than percussion. Produced by veteran keyboard player Ivan Goff, "Go-Go Lorenzo Live" employs a tasty rhythm guitar and a pair of horns (mixed way down, but welcome nevertheless). To keep things interesting, Lorenzo slips into a lively reggae groove from time to time, borrowing from J.C. Lodge's "Telephone Love" and from rapper Slick Rick. In fact, the most amusing portion of this tape is when Lorenzo adopts a vague island accent to say repeatedly, "We be jammin' out to the max. We might act crazy but we don't smoke crack."
Pleasure: 'Party Tape -- Boom Box Edition' Pleasure, the all-girl go-go band, came out with a PA tape last year. It was unpolished, but provided a reason to get excited about this young sextet, whose members were recruited from area high schools. As often as they perform around town, their chops should be improving fast.
Unfortunately, we don't get a chance to find out on the new "Party Tape -- Boom Box Edition" (Sound by Charlie Music). This tape relies on drum machines, keyboard sequencers and digital samplers. It is a startling disappointment. As raw as go-go can be sometimes, the music does have the virtue of being generated by live human beings, not by microchips. Why weren't the girls allowed to play?
This tape also wastes Pleasure's strongest asset, lead singer-rapper Michelle Peterson, whose husky voice could be heard from start to finish on last year's tape. She isn't allowed to say much of anything this time out.
Pleasure is on the rise, however. The word is that it'll probably go out on the road this fall as the backing band for rappers Salt-N-Pepa, whose producer, Hurby Luv Bug, has long been infatuated with the go-go sound. Let's hope the young ladies are up to the task.
Hip-Hop's Rap: Getting Funky and More Feminine
November 18, 1990
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
"Rappin' and Rocking the House," a little-known 1979 single by the Funky Four Plus One, contains probably the first-ever female rapper on wax. She went by the name of Shy-Rock (she was the "Plus One") and dropped a few verses in the quaint and elemental style of hip-hop's so-called "old school."
In 1980, fast on the heels of its stunning success with the Sugarhill Gang, Sugarhill Records concocted a female trio, Sequence, with minor results. Hip-hop's first female star, teenager Roxanne Shante, arose in 1985 amid a bunch of answer records to the UTFO hit "Roxanne, Roxanne."
Only in the past few years have women stepped up to take a real share of the rap market. Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah are among the top names in the business today.
The move toward gender parity hasn't been altogether noble. Since the 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. sold a million albums and got loads of publicity with their filthy talk about sex and the streets, two female rap crews -- H.W.A. (Hoes Wit Attitude) and B.W.P. (Bitches With Problems) -- have come along with some ear-scorching raunch of their own.
But that's the fringe. Most members of the emerging hip-hop sisterhood are grappling with serious themes, often with as much muscular grace as the best of the brothers.
Monie Love: 'Down to Earth' One of the most exciting debut releases of the year, "Down to Earth" (Warner Bros.), is bound to push Britain's Monie Love to the front of the line. From the first swirling track, "Monie in the Middle," a lighthearted tale of high school romantic intrigue, Love's personality pours through the speakers.
Commanding as a lyricist and a vocalist, Love covers a lot of thematic ground. "Just Don't Give a Damn" is a surprisingly genuine story about walking away from an abusive boyfriend. "Bruises heal, feelings don't. And when you wish to see your daughter, best believe that you won't."
"Don't Funk Wid the Mo' " is a densely worded, apparently autobiographical show biz success story, taking us from the stoop of her family home and into, then out of, the hands of a sleazy independent producer. "Pups Lickin' Bone" is a comically nasty warning to any flirty girls who would dare to make a move on her man. Even during this hard-core dis, Love's positive nature shines through as she tells her promiscuous rivals to respect their bodies and watch out for AIDS.
One of her least imaginative rhymes, "Swiney Swiney," is at least admirable for slamming pork. Not as didactic as KRS-One's attack on red meat in "Beef," Love's song indicates a welcome and growing health consciousness in hip-hop. Now if only someone would go after the tobacco industry.
Shazzy: 'Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody' More a producer's showcase than a rapper's, "Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody" (Elektra) is a state-of-the-art funk collage, a thousand snippets of sound on a vast magnetic canvas. In fact, it speaks well of rapper Shazzy that she doesn't get buried under all the busyness.
In this age of digital sampling, the best hip-hop mixologists distinguish themselves by their taste in selecting and deploying old riffs. Producers J. Gamble, Dante Ross and Geebee Dijani have excellent taste, drawing from Gwen McCrae, the Horny Horns, some way early Kool & the Gang and such oddball sources as radio serials. At times, they consciously evoke De La Soul and Public Enemy. And instead of simply appropriating, Shazzy and friends honor their funky forebears by name in "Do You Remember," a CD bonus track.
As a rapper, Shazzy succeeds more on her agile, strong-throated delivery than on her writing. "I'll Talk" is a speedy, "crazy ill" showoff piece. "Giggahoe," in which she cuts a Lothario down to size, contains some elaborately strung together put-downs. She comments on such community problems as teen pregnancy and drug dealing in "That's the Way It Is" and "Get a Job, Kid," and her attitude is refreshingly pro-social -- sometimes even preachy. But she doesn't seem as passionate in these songs as when she's simply cutting loose with words.
Harmony: 'Let There Be Harmony' You would expect "Let There Be Harmony" (Virgin), as the latest project from the Boogie Down Productions collective, to be driven by the fast-evolving political aggressiveness of BDP's leader, KRS-One. But it's more complicated than that.
Yes, the album is interspersed with bits of a lecture by revolutionary pan-Africanist Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael), as is BDP's latest, "Edutainment." And in the one song on which Harmony is obviously a mouthpiece for her producer's lyrics -- "The Art of War" -- KRS-One makes his most direct endorsement to date of worldwide armed struggle, including a recitation of the square mileage of Africa and Europe, meant as some strange kind of encouragement to unite and kick butt because Africa's bigger.
But most of the album is loftily spiritual, reflecting Harmony's own brand of Christianity. (The liner notes give praise to "Jesus the African.") "I'm not a slut who sells records with her butt," she says proudly. One of the album's best tracks is a remake of "I Want to Thank You," an R&B hymn recorded in 1982 by Alicia Myers.
Oh yeah, Harmony sings. And sings and sings. BDP fans expecting a straight-up rap album are in for a shock. Harmony's singing voice is rich and worthy of showing off, and it's used to fine advantage in a rap such as "Poundcake," when she livens things up with a freestyle warble.
But in a corny ballad such as "Take My Breath Away," regardless of her godliness, Harmony and co-producer-keyboardist Sidney Mills demonstrate, ironically, why rappers so proudly rejected the melodic conventions of R&B in the first place. Just because a song has chord progressions and a lilting sax and a singer hitting notes, that doesn't necessarily make it more soulful.
"Let There Be Harmony" is such a jumble of performing styles and messages that it has very little cumulative impact.
Isis: 'Rebel Soul' The first voice you hear on "Rebel Soul" (4th & B'way/Island) belongs not to Isis but to Lumumba Carson, a k a Professor X the Overseer of X-Clan. As the godfather of a cryptic social movement called Blackwatch, Carson is famous for his attitude of untouchable grandiosity. "We have come!" he declares on X-Clan's album, and on this one. His annoying "vaaaan-glorious" incantation, familiar to any X-Clan listener, shows up on every track of "Rebel Soul."
Isis, then, is nothing but a female front for Carson and his X-Clan brethren, who produced this project. "I'm a pathfinder, not a dope rhymer," she proclaims, letting you know that this is much more important than simple rapping. But aside from Egyptian symbolism and Afrocentric name-dropping (Marcus, Malcolm ...), she doesn't say why. I recently came across a young Muslim who said disapprovingly that X-Clan seems to be exalting only itself. That vibe continues here with song titles such as "Hail the Words of Isis."
The Blackwatch groups speak in such esoteric language that their songs are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Isis is always saying something about scrolls, pyramids, the light, the key, the star from the East, or gold. Or else she and Carson are directing coded insults at the white race. Envisioning her own queendom, Isis says, "May Wonder Bread shudder under her reign." If Carson and his confederates are on a divine mission to rescue black people, as they suggest, maybe it's time to talk about how.
Otherwise, the beats are tired, including several house tracks. And Isis, true to her own words, is no "dope rhymer."
House Music: Thumping Hit; Underground Genre May Follow Rap Onto Top 40 Radio
March 4, 1990
By David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM ...
That's "house music" at its essence -- a mechanized bass drum, pounding incessantly at 120 beats per minute, amplified to gut-shaking volume in a disco. It's the groove of choice for the hard-core dance crowd.
Now, thanks to the runaway success of Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam," some folks expect that Top 40 radio will open up to house the way it opened up to rap after another unlikely superhit, Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing."
"That's what everybody is telling me, and I'm very happy about that," says Jo (pronounced "Yo") Bogaert, the man behind Technotronic. "House music has been around so long, but it's been underground."
The 33-year-old Belgian producer says that when he recorded "Pump Up the Jam" last year, "I knew, yeah, this was a good track, but my farthest expectation was that it would be a club hit." Bogaert doesn't dare guess why the single became a million-seller and rose as high as No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100. "You should go to Tibet and ask the wise man living in the Himalayan mountains," he joshes.
It might take such a trip to find meaning in the song's central lyric: "Ow-ah. A place to stay. Get your booty on the floor tonight. Make my day." But as sung by Zairean-born teenager Manuela Kamosi, alias Ya Kid K, the lines have proven to be captivating.
And as if to show that "Pump Up the Jam" wasn't a fluke, Technotronic's follow-up single, "Get Up! (Before the Night Is Over)" -- with virtually the same rhythm track -- is now shooting up the Top 40. Last weekend, the group even performed both songs on "Saturday Night Live."
(Technotronic will open for the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince tomorrow night at the 9:30 club. Bogaert doesn't perform with the group. And don't expect to see Felly either, the energetic ex-model with the blue lipstick who lip-synced "Pump Up the Jam" for Technotronic's video. She left the group to pursue a solo career. Technotronic will be fronted by Ya Kid K.)
House music was created in the black discos of Chicago during the mid-1980s. Its name, in fact, is derived from the Warehouse, where disc jockey Frankie Knuckles pioneered the sound.
Farley "Jackmaster" Funk remembers those early days. As a DJ in a South Side disco, he would repeat the same few bars of a disco record -- preferably an old Philly-style groove with a driving bass, such as "Bad Luck" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes -- thereby reducing it to a beat and a bass line. Then he'd add a "big kick drum" from an electronic drum machine, a device that became plentiful and inexpensive during the '80s. "It would hit so hard that people would go crazy when they heard that," Funk says.
From this creative mixing, DJs realized "it didn't take much to make our own music," Funk says. The competition was on. Chicago DJs began recording their own tapes from scratch, primarily featuring a pounding electronic beat, a repetitive synthesizer bass line and such embellishments as a digitally sampled human voice exhorting you to "j-j-jack your body."
The raw early records made by DJs like Knuckles, Funk and Steve "Silk" Hurley became hits in England -- the British music press "hyped the hell out it," Funk recalls -- and by 1986 Rolling Stone magazine was wondering whether house music would be the next big thing. But house only took hold in the cutting-edge dance clubs of Europe and New York, particularly in gay-oriented clubs.
"It's almost comparable to the way punk rock was," Hurley says. "It's a club thing, and the people love this music so much that when they hear it, they're in a different world."
"There's a certain aesthetic to it," says Bogaert, who started out as a rock guitarist. "It's very minimal, but it sounds dirty. There's an edge to it." The best house music, he says, "blows out of the speakers like a good rock record. It has that sort of a feel.
"The essence of it, I think, is you're there in a club for hours, and the only thing that matters is the groove -- 120 beats and that's it," he says. "Maybe you should not exaggerate it," he amends, "because it's not only the bass drum that counts. You need the right [synthesizer] lines, the right sounds."
Just as house music seems ready to rise from the underground, some in the dance-music community are "getting tired of the word 'house' and what it connotes," says Stephanie Shepherd, managing editor of the New York-based Dance Music Report. "A record without many vocals, without much melody, too much sampling. It sounds very redundant."
British producer Malcolm McLaren has been moved to say, "I'm sick and tired of it simply because it's so bloody apocalyptic. I'll be so pleased if we invent a dance music without any drums."
Even Chicago's original architects of house are branching out. Funk says he's producing R&B songs as well as "hip-house," the hot new style combining rap and house. And Marshall Jefferson, now leader of the group Ten City, says he's concentrating on meaningful lyrics, sophisticated melodies and the nuances of instrumental arrangements. "I want to create moods and I want to create great songs," Jefferson says. "That's something I miss in dance music -- the forming of moods and really stimulating somebody's imagination."
For the past few years, the pop establishment has looked upon house-music producers mainly as "remixers" -- give them a Top 40 record, let them house it up, and you've got a version that can be played in dance clubs, as well as another selling point for a 12-inch single. When Hurley did a house mix of Roberta Flack's "Uh-Uh 0oh-Ooh Look Out" in '88, the only element he kept from the original production was Flack's singing. He has also remixed tracks by Debbie Gibson and the British electro-pop band New Order.
Now Hurley figures he can cut out the middleman and produce a pop hit, though he believes that a house record, to cross over, needs a song on top of the steady thump. (He produced the current house-style remake of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" by a woman called Risse.)
"When people listen to the radio, they want to hear something to sing along to," Hurley says. As simple as "Pump Up the Jam" is lyrically -- an eight-line rap followed by a four-line melodic verse -- "there is something to sing along to," he says. "And that song certainly sticks with you."
If house music continues to penetrate the Top 40, it will demonstrate how far the popular culture has come since the vehement and effective "Disco Sucks" shout-down campaign of a decade ago.
Now one house booster says, only half kidding, "I'm sure there'll be a house music award at the Grammys next year."
April 1, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
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