Nonfiction | June 01, 1990
“The schools in a portion of Boston stretching from just south of South Boston through Roxbury and into Dorchester are districted with a similar effect: the predominantly black areas are cut away from the predominantly white areas.”
Morgan v. Hennigan, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, 1974
THE SEEK BUTTON on the Ford’s radio is working. The downtown recedes. Miles of neighborhoods fill the windshield. The SEEK function locks on someplace in stereo, college FM probably. “Yeah,” a new friend says, “Whas up. Whas goin on.” The radio has another button, VOL, which gets jacked repeatedly while the Ford hurtles, happily, to the source of the noise. Not to the station’s broadcast booth on a campus across the river, nor to its transmission towers in the suburbs, but rather to RJam Productions in North Dorchester, where black kids from Boston’s now-integrated high schools-Latin, Madison Park, Jeremiah Burke, Mattapan-cut demos and dream of being bigger than even the radio’s new friend, a young man named Schoolly D who right now, at speaker-damaging volume, sounds darn big. “Before we start this next record…,” Schooly’s saying. The record in question is called “Signifying Rapper,” a brief, bloody tale of ghetto retribution from Side 2 of Schoolly’s Smoke Some Kill.
The black areas are cut away from the white areas a federal judge ruled in ’74, and evidence is everywhere that nothing’s changed since then. On the southbound left of the Fitzgerald Expressway pass 20 blocks of grim Irish-Catholic housing projects, the western border of Belfast, complete with Sinn Fein graffiti and murals depicting a glorious United Ireland, a neighborhood where the gadfly will get his fibula busted for praising the ’74 court order that bused “Them” from wherever it is “They” live-the Third World fer crissakes–into 97-percent-white South Boston. On the Expressway’s right is the place the fibula-busters are talking about: the simultaneous northern border of Haiti, Jamaica and Georgia; a territory that maps of Boston call North Dorchester.
Uniting the two sides of the Expressway is just about nothing. Both neighborhoods are tough and poor. Both hate the college world across the river, which, because of Boston’s rotten public schools, they will never see as freshmen. And kids from both neighborhoods can do this hating to the beat of undergraduate radio, which this fine morning features suburban kids with student debt broadcasting the art of a ghetto Philadelphian roughly their age, once much poorer than they, but now, on royalties from Smoke Some Kill, very much richer.
Not that the shared digging of black street music is news, or even new: twenty years ago, when Morgan v. Hennigan, Boston’s ownBrown v. Board of Education, was inching through the courts, and even dark-complected Italians were sometimes unwelcome in the Irish precincts east of the Expressway, kids in Boston’s Little Belfast sang along with James Brown over the radio
“Say it loud
I’m black and I’m proud
Say it loud
I’m black and I’m proud!”
Except that halfway through the infectious funk, the crewcuts realize what they’re saying: Jesus christ, “I’m proud to be black” fer chrissakes, like when you’re in the porno store, you know, and you get lost or something and you find yourself in the men’s part, you know? not the part for men in the part that’s about men, Jesus, and you get the hell outta there. And so they hum/mumble the suppressed parts
“Say it loud
I’m mmm hum proud
Say it loud
Mum hum hum proud!”
But rap isn’t funk, rock or jazz, and the vast crossover move, broadcasting “ghetto” music over college radios to ghettos of a different color, is no simple reenactment of past crossovers. How, for example, does the sing-along fan of Smoke Some Kill mumble his way through these lines:
“Black is beautiful
Brown is sick? slick? stiff?
But white ain’t shit.”
Rjam Productions, modestly headquartered in a mixed black/Hispanic Field, Corner section of North Dorchester, is as follows:
* One (1) four-car garage fitted with dubbing and remastering gear worth more than most of the rest of the real estate on the block;
* One (1) touch-tone telephone (leased);
* Two (2) Chevy Blazers, vanity-plated RJAM1 and RJAM2, each equipped with cellular phones and slick tape decks (also leased);
* One (1) VCR with Kathleen Turner’s Body Heat cued up on the morning in question;
* Most importantly, eight (8) promising acts under binding contract.
If, as has happened to many local labels, Rjam were liquidated to satisfy creditors, these would be the pieces. But there are stores of value in the converted garage beyond the reach of the auctioneer’s gavel. Schoolly D, the original Signifying Rapper, looms irresistibly from the pages of rap “fanzines” Hip-Hop and The Source; and Rjam’s prime, unauctionable asset is the consuming ambition of the artists in its stable to be the next Schoolly D. Or the next Ice T, or Kool Moe Dee, or L. L. Cool J., or whoever’s the special hero of the kid cutting the demo. On this particular morning, the dream is to be the next MC Lyte–a hard-rapping woman known for jams like “MC Lyte vs. Vanna Whyte” and “10% Dis”–since today is Tam-Tam’s day and Tam-Tam is, at 16, a tough girl in the MC Lyte mold who, like MC Lyte, can dance, look good, and tell men to beat it, all at once.
Or so claims Tam-Tam’s producer, promoter, and dutch uncle, Gary Smith, who opened RJam on Martin Luther King’s birthday, ’89, with his older brother Nate. Nate, the elder statesman, is 25. Gary, 22, runs the company while Nate travels with his boyhood-friend-turned-boss, quadruple-platinum, Prince-derived rapper/singer, Bobby Brown. RJam was founded in part with an investment from the 23-year-old multi-millionaire Brown, a native of Roxbury. Brown now lives in Los Angeles.
Nate and Gary Smith turn a healthy profit making demos at $500/tape, but the brothers aren’t in the health business. Their aim: to follow in the corporate footsteps of Def Jam, a once similarly tiny production company run from a basement in Hollis, Queens, which since its basement days, has given America Public Enemy, L. L. Cool J., the Beastie Boys, and much of the rest of that culture-quake called rap. Gary Smith doesn’t compare RJam to Def Jam, and, unlike Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, Gary produces pop, soul, and R&B as well as straight rap, and actually prefers R&B. But how many sophomores at nearby Jeremiah Burke can afford to dream in R&B, to front music lessons and $500 for an nth-hand sound set-up, find three friends to learn drums, bass and keyboards, and then raise another $500 to make a demo at RJam? Anybody with a larynx can rap, however, and Rjam’s brisk business in rap demos pays the taxman, Boston Edison and the Chevrolet Motor Credit Corp.
Twenty minutes farther south on the Fitzgerald Expressway, across the Neponset River and into the pricey suburbs, is the scene of John Cheever’s boyhood, more recently celebrated as Massachusetts Miracle country, where technology ventures are started at the rate of five per week, four of which will fail within 12 months. RJam’s Gary Smith is secret brother to the men of the suburban Chambers of Commerce, sharing their worries about cash flow, overhead, and the enforceability of his contracts; but Gary’s world and theirs are as far apart as those of Ward and Eldridge Cleaver. Worriers in suburbia fear that ballooning property values will hike taxes on computer executives’ seaside homes. In Gary’s neighborhood, property values are actually falling.
Waiting less than patiently for Tam-Tam, Gary honks twice. A tall, grave girl with an angel’s heart-shaped face crosses the ghetto street and climbs into the back seat of RJAM1. She has, apparently, at least two voices, the cynical, sexy rant heard on tape this morning telling Pebbles men ain’t worth it, and the whisper in which she now says hello.
As RJAM1 re-crosses North Dorchester, heading back to the soundproof studios to get the day’s work started, Gary and DJ Reese hash out production details. Tam-Tam’s a dignified island in the back seat, and a shiver accompanies the thought that this could be the Motor City in ’63 with Berry Gordy and an eighty-pound teenage Diana Ross, just voted Best Dressed at Cass Technical High School, driving crosstown to record a little number called “Where Did Our Love Go.”
Ask Tam-Tam about Diana Ross, and she gives a beatific smile. She’s 16; she can remember only with difficulty the first rap she ever listened to, when rap was new and she was 8; Run-DMC or somebody, she mumbles in response to what suddenly seems a foolish question about her influences. Like most of rap’s black audience (as distinct from rap’s white audience, which is usually a decade older), Tam-Tam has no first-hand recollection of James Brown except as a source for rap. She is too young to have attended segregated schools. She was in diapers during the violent first few months of desegregation in Boston and can’t remember the awful day in ’74 when “pro-neighborhood” marchers from Irish South Boston came upon a black pedestrian at City Hall and beat him with pole-mounted American flags.
Tam-Tam has star presence, and like many who do, she seems to see very little of what goes on around her, the price of the star’s intense focus on self. She reminds you of Senator Gary Hart. He, too, had star presence. In front of a crowd, Hart was riveting; in the elevator riding up to the auditorium, he was barely there. Being barely there in the neighborhood Tam-Tam calls home is probably not such a bad thing, and perhaps her drive to be star someday is an elaborate way to wall out the now and here. Ambition is, finally, a form of hope, a scarce commodity in North Dorchester.
Back in Rjam’s control booth, Dj Reese and producer Ralph Stacey are programming the rhythm track for what will be “Ho, You’re Guilty.” Drum parts are taken from a Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer, a synth which electronically reproduces programmed beats on the user’s choice of drum-matrix. The TR-909’s keys, on a console designed to resemble, vaguely, the familiar piano, are named after the sound each creates-bass, snare, mid-tom, hi-tom–and the sounds are named after the actual drums which, until the TR-909, were required to make those sounds. The TR-909 even sports a key named HAND CLAP, making it possible for the first time ever to clap hands with a single finger, rendering obsolete the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping. The finished “Ho, You’re Guilty” will sound lush with percussion, melody, and instrumental breaks. Not one human musician will be employed in the recording process.
Each percussion line is programmed onto the mixing board as a separate track: a snare track, a bass track, a clap track, etc. Reese has been studying the classics lately, too, viz: James Brown’s Dead on the Heavy Funk from ’75ish, including the ageless groove, “Funky President,” in which James announces his third-party candidacy. Some of Bobby Byrd’s Dead guitar, and a holy moment when James exhales rhythmically, have been isolated from a store-bought cassette of Dead, re-recorded on clean tape, then re-re-recorded onto a computer-readable memory diskette from which the sample is retrieved and altered by Ralph Stacey using a Roland D-50 linear synth. The guitar and the exhalation then go, as altered, from the synth to yet another of the 24 tracks on the big mixing board. Reese, the DJ, will weave a seamless rhythm track out of these 24 strands.
As Reese and Ralph Stacey mix the 24 tracks onto one master tape, Tam-Tam sips lemonade in the corner of the booth. You ask her if she is interested someday in learning about the obscure digital technology the two men manipulate on her behalf. She doesn’t seem to register the question. “The other career besides rap I’d like to pursue is modelling,” she says. “I’m five-seven. That’s the perfect height for a model.”
Mixing takes the rest of the day. Producer Ralph Stacey at one late point corners you with a flinty stare and an uncomfortable question: “Why do you want to write about rap, anyway?” It is lucky that at that minute Reese is done mixing. Tomorrow the RJam staff will tape Tam-Tam’s vocal track and lay this over Reese’s rhythm track. Then the sound will be “fattened” with stacks of horns, guitar hooks, bells, canned applause, and whatever else they decide to take from other tapes or work up on the Rolands. The final demo tape of “Ho, You’re Guilty” will then be shopped to the 20 major, minor, and tiny labels who might release the demo as a 12-inch single.
Everyone’s ready to call it a day. Gary Smith’s already huddled with some new wanna-be stars in RJam’s reception area. Reese plays the mixed rhythm track once through over the big speakers in the control booth, and Tam-Tam immediately stands, modelling forgotten, utterly alert. Reese gestures to her with maestro hands. She raps at an absent Antoinette in the hard, sexy voice you haven’t heard since this morning, extemporaneous but on beat:
“I’m a female
You’re just a fairytale.”
The small-w we here are two white Boston males: one native, one oft-transplanted; both residing in Somerbridge, a dim, ethnic-Portuguese neighborhood whose gentrification we abet. M. is an attorney with a taste for jazz, Blues, funk; D. a grad student and would-be drifter who watches TV instead of sleeping. Our cultural tastes and interests are day and night. They converged only lately, when D’s stereo arrived UPS and we discovered we shared an uncomfortable, somewhat furtive, and distinctively white enthusiasm for a certain music called rap/hip-hop.* About our passions and discomforts we could determine only that they were vague & distinct contexts and cathexes brought to bear across the same ethnic distance on the same thing. For instance, we agreed that real or serious rap is not JJ FAD or Tone Loc or Beasties, Egyptian Lover or Fat Boys, not experiments or freakshows or current commercial crossover slush. “Serious” rap–a unique U.S. inner-city fusion of funk, technified reggae, teen-to-teen “hardcore” rock, and the early 70s “poetry of the black experience” of Nikki Giavonni, the Last Poets, etc.–has, since its late-70s delivery at the record-scratching hands of Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation, Sugarhill Gang, Kool Herc and his automated Herculords, and Grandmaster Flash, always had its real roots in the Neighborhood, the black gang-banger Underground. Black music, of and for blacks.
We concurred as to the wheres and whens of rap’s begetting–mid-to-late 70s’ South Bronx house parties; then, by decade’s end, block parties, with municipal electric lights tapped for a power source, literal dancing in the streets; by ’82, regular rap-houses and then “floating clubs”–the Roxy every Sunday, The Bronx’s Disco Fever TWTh–everybody Breaking to a new musical antimusic being fashioned from records and turntables and an amateur DJs ad-lib banter; a very heavy reggae influence at the beginning; the more rhythmic pure rap an offshoot, its brisker, sparer, backbeat designed for Breakdance, and the smooth-rapping partygoer who just didn’t want to shut up when others’ music was on. We agreed, too, on rough chronology: amateur house-partiers giving way to professional DJs, pioneers; they, too, then overshadowed by new art-entrepreneurs, former Breakers, failed singers, gag-majorettes; then the rise of “Indies,” the tiny independent labels that keep most new music on life-support–Sugar Hill, Jive, Tommy Boy, Wild Pitch, Profile Records, Enjoy–then, after King Tim III’s “Personality Jock” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” an entree into urban black radio; then to underground “Mix” radio; then corporate levels, digital technology, very big money, the early-80s talent that became an early Scene’s cream–Spoonie G. and Sequence, Eric Fresh, Unknown DJ, Egyptian Lover and Run-DMC. Then, Spring ’84, the extraordinary Midas touch of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam label (now under contract to CBS) from which sprang a mid-80s stable of true stars, in the Underground–Public Enemy, L. L. Cool J, Slick Rick, the still-unparalleled Eric B. and Rakim–and L.A.’s alternatives: Kool Moe Dee, L.A. Dream Team, and others. And now, at decade’s end, an absolute explosion of rap-as-pop, big business, MTV, special fashions, posters, merchandise, with only a few big, new, cutting-edge acts–L.A.’s N.W.A., Philadelphia’s Schoolly D, Miami’s 2 Live Crew, De La Soul’s House-blend of rap/funk/jazz–remaining too esoteric or threatening or downright obscene to cross all the way over and cash in with big labels. By ’89 rap is finally proving as “important” (read also lucrative) to an anemic shock-and rebellion-music industry as Punk was an exact decade ago. This was all just data. We agreed on it, and on how it was curious that we both had such strange, distant facts down cold.
Our point of departure, essay-wise, was always less what we know than what we felt, listening: less what we liked than why. For this attempt at an outside sampler we plunked down and listened to thousands of hours of rap, trying to summon a kind of objective, critical, purely “aesthetic” passion that the music itself made impossible. For outsiders, rap’s easy to move to, hard to dissect. The more we listened and thought and drank beers and argued, the more we felt that the stuff’s appeal for two highbrow, upscale whites was just plain incongruous. Because serious rap has, right from the start, presented itself as a closed show. Usually critical questions of culture, context, background and audience reduce quickly to vexed questions about prepositions. Not here. No question that serious rap is, and is very self-consciously, music by urban blacks about same toand for same. To mainstream whites it’s a tight cohesion that can’t but look, from outside the cultural window, like occlusion, clannishness (sic) and inbreeding, a kind of reverse snobbery about what’s “def” and “fresh” and in-the-Scene that eerily recalls the exclusionary codes of college Societies and WASP-only country clubs. Serious rap is a musical movement that seems to revile whites as a group or Establishment, and simply to ignore their possibility as distinct individuals–the Great White Male is rap’s Grand Inquisitor, its idiot questioner–its Alien Other no less than Reds were for McCarthy. The music’s paranoia, together with its hermetic racial context, helps explain why from the outside it appears to us just as vibrant and impassioned as it does alien and scary.
Other incongruities. Rap is a “music” essentially without melody, built instead around a digitally synthesized drum- and back-beat often about as complex as five idle fingers on a waiting-room table, enhanced by “sampled” (pirated) “krush grooves” (licks or repetitive chord-series) conceived and recorded by pre-rap rock icons, the whole affair characterized by a distinctive, spare, noisy, clattering “style” whose obsessive if limited thematics revolve with the speed of low-I amperage around the performative circuit of the MC/rapper and his record-scratching, sound-mixing Sancho Panza, the DJ.
The rapper (the guy in the cameo cut or Kangol hat, pricey warm-up, unlaced Adidas, extra thick gold chain or oversized medallion) offers lyrics that are spoken or bellowed in straight, stressed, rhymed verse, the verse’s syntax and meter often tortured for rhythmic gain or the kind of limboing-for-rhyme we tend to associate with doggerel about men from Nantucket. The lyrics, nearly always self-referential, tend to be variations on about half a dozen basic themes, themes that at first listen can seem less alien or shocking than downright dull. Eg: just how bad/cool/fresh/def the rapper and his lyrics are; just how equally un-all-these his music rivals are; how troublesome, vacuous and acquisitive women are; how wonderful it is to be “paid in full” for rapping instead of stealing or dealing; how gangs are really families, ‘caine’s constant bad news. And, in particular, how sex and violence and yuppie toys represent perfectly the urban black lifedrive to late-80s American glory.
The masks are many, too many for anything really but direct aural inspection: rap personae can change frequently even within single albums, the rapper delivering Hard, violent Black Nationalist communique on one cut, dubbing against Trinidadian steel drums on another, basking in big label eclat on a third, cracking a head and then defly outwitting someone muscled and dumb, cooing to his “bitch” and then on the flip side, threatening to go get his gun again if she can’t learn who’s boss. Though any crew naturally wants its own distinctive game and face, the quintessential rap group is unquintessential, chameleonesque. This is either by weird design, or it’s a symptom and symbol of 80s facelessness…or most likely, it’s just a good old venerable synecdoche of rap’s genre itself, one that’s now moving so fast it can’t quite fix on its own identity — much less hold still for anything like cool, critical classification or assessment, from outside.
The MC’s Alice Toklas-esque DJ hovers ever nearby over his buffet of connected turntables and the black Germanness of a whole lot of digital editing & playback equipment. His responsibility is the song behind and around the rap — the backbeat, krush groove, and the “sound carpet,” i.e. a kind of electric aural environment, a chaos behind the rapper’s rhymed order, a digitalized blend of snippets, squeaks, screams, sirens, snatches from pop media, all mixed and splattered so that the listener cannot really listen but only feel the resultant mash of “samples” that results. The most recognizable of these samples range from staccato record-scratches to James Brown and Funkadelic licks, to M.L.K.’s public Dream, to quotidian pop pap like “The Theme from Shaft,” Brady Bunch dialogue, and ’50s detergent commercials.
We have now read every review and essay to do with serious underground hip-hop available in every single on-line periodical … xcept for one or two underground newsletters (viz. The City Sun, Fresh-Est) circulated in parts of the Bronx demimonde where learning about rap is as hard for white outsiders as scoring fine China White or AKs. From the kind of sedulous bibliomaniacal research to be expected of conscientious lawyers and PhDs, the following has become clear. Outside England, where the Punk-weaned audience has developed a taste for spectacle-through-windows, for vicarious Rage and Protest against circumstances that have exactly 0% to do with them, most of what Rolling Stone calls “devoted rock consumers” (meaning we post-baby-boomers), plus almost all established rock critics, tend to regard non-crossover rap as essentially boring and simplistic, or swaggering and bellicose and dangerous–at all events, basically vapid and empty because of its obsessive self-referentiality…in short, as closed to them, to us, as a music. Unrecognizable as what we’ve been trained and adverted to buy as pop…. Great to dance to, of course, but then what might the white audience for today’s mainstream expect? Rap, whether fecund or sterile, is today’s pop music’s lone cutting edge, the new, the unfamiliar, the brain-resisted-while-body-boogies. And that resisted, alien, exhilarating cutting edge has always been black.
“What have you left me? what have I got?
Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot
My homey got jacked
My mother’s on crack
My sister can’t work ’cause her arms show tracks
Live in profanity
Then some punk claim that they understandin’ me?
Give me a break–what world do you live in?
Death is my sex–guess my religion.”**
What makes this stuff so much more disturbing, more real to outsiders than the Punk Rock even those of us who remember it could never quite take seriously? Maybe even a closed music has to have some kind of detente with received custom: I always found it tough to listen straight-faced to a nihilist lecture from someone with a chartreuse mohawk and an earring in his eyelid who punctuates his delivery with vomit and spit. All doctrine and pronouncement, exclusively anti-, this Punk of a decade past afforded even willing mainstream listeners no easement across cultural void, nothing human to grab onto. I have no idea what a Punk performer thinks, feels, is, day-to-day… in fact I always suspected he had no day, but just retreated to his plush coffin at cockcrow. Can you imagine a Punk with four-foot hair and spiked jacket and nose-ring, say, eating a bologna sandwich? Replacing a light bulb? Putting a quarter in a meter? Not me, boy. And even Barnum, who knew fear sells, also knew that freakshows aren’t frightening when the freakishness supplants all resemblance. 0% affinity = 0% empathy. And fear requires empathy as much as it does menace or threat.
Public Enemy and N.W.A., Ice T and Schoolly D discomfit us, our friends, the critics we read and cornered, because the Hard rappers’ lyrics are conscientious about being of/for the real lives and attitudes of recognizable, if alien, persons. Here’s where it’s a level up from mere spectacle: ideology in Hard rap is always informed by incident or named condition. This makes rap not only better than Punk, but way scarier. Serious Hard raps afford white listeners genuine, horse’s-mouth access to the life-and-death plight and mood of an American community on the genuine edge of im-/explosion, an ugly new sub-nation we’ve been heretofore conditioned to avoid, remand to the margins, not even see except through certain carefully abstract, attenuating filters.
For outsiders, rap is hard to dissect, easy to move to. The command is: dance, don’t understand; participate, don’t manipulate. Rap is a fortress protected by the twin moats of talk and technology. The first is that nu style of speak–the “dialect drug,” De La Soul calls it–that rappers fashion from jive and disseminate through record stores to all of us. Some in-words, like “fly,” meaning “finelooking,” have been in coin since the beginning, now venerable as Old English because they turn up on Grandmaster Flash cuts from ’82. Others, like “dead presidents,” rap for $$, are either coming into or going out of currency, depending on when you read this. Rap, a club language, has myriad ways to describe one’s own or others’ looks. “Fly” is how a man digs a woman. One would never describe oneself as “fly,” even when cataloguing one’s own attractions (done more in rap than anyplace except perhaps Village Voice personals). “Fresh” means irresistibly stylish, oft-modified by “funky,” “crazy,” or “stoopid,” predominantly used to convey the fly-ness of things other than women, including oneself or one’s rap, which two concepts rappers, like schizophrenics, can’t always keep separate in their heads. “Dope” means “def,” and “def” means crazy funky stoopid fresh. Synonyms include: the shit, the It, the cool, the thang, the word, the grooviest, the categorical imperative, die weltanschung, the that-which-Potter-Stewart-would-know-if-he-saw. A def rapper is so style-defining as to make the stylish mere copycats. To be def is to rap to the beat of a different drum machine–not seeking solitude, but rather confident that others will follow. The def rapper MC’s a def rap, which rap def-ly tells of its own (and the rapper’s) def-ness–so def, as MC/manager, entrepreneur Russell Rush Simmons brags, that it had to be on a label called Def Jam.
Rap celebrates power, equating strength with style, and style with the “I” in “Individuality.” Rappers “dis”–dismiss–the styleless, faceless. To “ill” is to be weak or wrong; to “bite” is to thieve another’s dope beat. And only the ill would bite.
Early remastered pop was the first fake music ever, since what the record buyer of ’63 experienced as Aural Event on his turntable couldn’t happen live. Rock began to become an Illusion of Event which technology made possible; rock became more like the movies, starting down a long road at the end of which was MTV.
Not that this kept Phil Spector up nights. The gurus of the studio had fatter fish to clean, for the new freedom to shape sound had come at a price. With each magnetic jump from live, as tape was made of tapes which were themselves tapes of tapes, the hiss and crackle of interference multiplied. Dual high-bias media with 2 units each of sonic garbage per 10,000 units of Elvis Presley, retaped on similar 2-units-per-10,000 tape, became 4 units of hiss; retaped, 8; then 16; then 32. As the sound got fuller, it decayed.
The solution was a breakthrough called multi-tracking–using recorders that could capture and play back on 2 (as in stereo), 4 (as in ’67’s then-ear-shattering Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band), 12, 16, and today 24 parallel tracks, eliminating the hiss of transference from one machine to the next. Rhythms, melodies, harmonies could all be captured on separate tracks, allowing the performer or producer to mix and listen and re-mix, adding vocals or lead instrument on yet another track. Rap Edisons like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa began as party DJs, not musicians. Their wiring of twin turntables to a mixer, allowing them to “stack” the sound of two different records while rapping into a mike, was a kind of crude, extemporaneous multitracking. Technological loops like those in the NASA-esque studios of CBS and Polygram were now in the hands of the homeboys. Carter was President. The Bee Gees, with five Top-Ten hits in twelve months, were king.
Digital recording, the science dividing Rjam’s Tam-Tam on tape from Tam-Tam as heard “live” is a technology that converts music to codes or “digits.” The codes are “read” by a computer, one combining sophisticated sound-to-code translation hardware with a number-crunching COS and a high-response synthesizer, at speeds of 40,000 digits per second and up. The recorded sounds, reduced to numbers, can be shaped, mangled, muffled, amplified, and even canonized.*** Hardware then translates the digits, as read and altered, back into sound, which can itself be recorded on multitrack and combined with yet more sounds. The result: hiss-free reproduction on an infinity of tracks, each of which can itself be manipulated infinitely.
Digital recording, part of the 80s sea-change in how pop gets made, divides the responsibility for the final song more or less equally between the performer, the engineer at the mixing board, the producer who coordinates the multi-tracking and mixing process, and the electronic hardware that actually “makes” the music we buy. The latest synthesizers**** produce notes from pure electric current instead of electronically amplified vibrations, with voltage-meters rather than hands or feet determining everything from key to pitch to timbre to “attack-delay envelope” (another non-rap term, denoting the microtimed, counterpoised quality of a note’s duration, how a note’s sound/quaver-structure as it builds is different from its sound and structure as it fades–the manipulation of a piano’s foot-pedals, for example, affects the delay component of each note and chord’s envelope). The Kurzweil 250, a state-of-the-art system, is a 1-?track/12,018-note synthesizer linked by software to an Apple MacIntosh Plus, which serves as an exhaustive library of digitized sound. The Kurzweil could put all of culture in a blender–take Janet Leigh’s Cremora-curdling scream from Psycho, store it in the Mac, program the synth such that an F# will be reproduced as Janet Leigh’s F# scream, then play “We Shall Overcome” as if screamed by Janet Leigh; store this; treat similarly Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, except with vast choruses of screaming Janet Leighs, then “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” then “Twist and Shout” (by the Isleys, not the Beatles), all as screams; then replay the four as one horrific jumble, or select amidst the jumble; and then whatever you came up with in the final, painstakingly re-mixed mix you could play backwards. And call that “finished.” Or never finish. It’s like holding music at gunpoint. You can make it do–or do to you –whatever you can think of. Whim is the only limit.
Basically we decided we were into rap because, even media-hype aside, this music had some kind of hard edge to it. Date of composition here is July ’89. Think back. This last has been a fiscal year in which Madonna’s “back on top,” in which covers of classic covers of classic tunes are themselves covered and then climb corporate charts, in which Rod Stewart’s out of cryogenics and back on top…. MTV’s ceased to be anything but a long commercial for itself and the interests of corporate labels; Bobby McFerrin makes a platinum mint and then several commercial jingles out of a burbled synth-reggae invitation to “Be Happy,” a song that has the same verbal-pre-packaging feel as “Where’s the Beef?”
This last year heavy metal’s fake-Satanist male models accounted for 1/2 of total U.S. record sales; U2 filmed a $20,000,000 homage to their own self-righteousness and Bono’s ever more ill-disguised megalomania. A year when even good old REM finally went corporate-pop with Green, when good old Springsteen trashed his bride, when as modest and nascent a talent as Tracy Chapman earned cymbal-crashing critical raves for her competent, updated frappe of Baez and Armatrading, so desperate were pop critics and consumers for any voice at once comprehensible and even remotely fresh. Just not a notable pop year at all. Except in rap. Rap appears in the famished late 80s as potentially a genuine musical Scene the way early jazz, rock, the Summer of Love, folk/protest, god even the way New Wave and Punk were “Scenes”–the S-word here simultaneously meaning: something new to look at; something loud and upsetting (“Oh please, Veronica, let’s not have a Scene!”); and, best, an identifiable set of places in time where large forces meet, marry and beget. Whether by virtue or default, rap is pretty much what there is to like right now, if you want to regard today’s pop as anything more than covert jingles in 4/4-time. In our opinion.
But so the point is we enjoy it. Plus we’ve developed some theses about why serious rap is important, both as art-for-own-sake and as a kind of metaphor-with-larynx for a subbed-culture unique in its distillation of the energy and horror of the American present.
Rap is expanding gas-like through the 80s’ dry time, growing from house party schtick, gang anthem, a small-label fad with the sort of pop lifespan you measure with eggtimers–then somehow, when we weren’t looking, into Scene, movement, On The Air–finally, in the last 24 months, assuming the fecund role of genuine Genre. Exploding into subspecies now faster than you can track. There’s now Dub’s mix of rap and reggae, House’s mix of rap and 70s-, huge-afro’d funk, Acid House’s psychedelic hip-hop. There is black rap for white mass-consumption (Tone Loc, Run?DMC), black rap for local set and -house consumption (countless local stars and wanna-be’s in every large city), ultra-black rap superstars for the whole marginal Nation inside (Heavy D, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane), white rap for white masses (the execrable Beastie Boys). There is Hispanic, Salsa-influenced rap out of different West Coast barrios, rap fused with West Indian or Islamic traditional music in Digital Underground, Eric B. and Rakim, and others, or fused with oh-so-danceable R&B in the new “jack swing” offshoot (Bobby Brown, MC Hammer); even gay and bohemian young urban Bs have their trendsetters in Teddy Riley and Guy, De La Soul, Kwabe. Etc. etc.***** A major impediment to sampling this Scene is the kaleidoscopic fury with which the Scene itself is changing. If you’re reading this in print it’s already dated.
And the rap world’s vitality is one of replacement as well as variety, allowing the genre to remain fresh, as band after band is seduced into the “real” music biz. This Scene is hydra-like. Almost the moment a rap artist like Run-DMC or L. L. Cool J “breaks through” into major-market mix appeal, MTV’s land of corporate bankability, certain reactions within the urban underground that spawned them can almost always be observed. The breakthrough band’s B-boys themselves are without qualms about the pop bigtime: after all, they’ve been rapping all along about their entitlement to money and status, about the inevitable rewards of their freshness and unbiteable voice. Their postbreakthrough raps tend all often to become celebrations of their new wealth and fame, of the now-enhanced authority of their “Message”–though it’s hard to feature Public Enemy rapping about a Black-Militant renaissance, about revolution and American apocalypse, while lily-white CBS Records pays them millions for the distribution rights to just such exhortations to cut corporate throats.
Nevertheless, back in the underground Scene, the breakthrough band’s tight set of original fans tends to hang loyal, to await feverishly “their” crew’s spots on the same music TV they love to dis. In short, there are comparatively few of the accusations of selling out that accompanied a similarly oxymoronic coopting phenomenon in late-60s protest rock. Which if you think about it, is passing strange. The white mainstream Other against which serious rap aligns and defines itself makes the 60s “Establishment” too look downright benign.
Our opinion, then, from a distance: not only is a serious rap serious poetry, but, in terms of the size of its audience, its potency in the Great 80s Market, its power to spur and to authorize the artistic endeavor of a discouraged and malschooled young urban culture we’ve been encouraged sadly to write off,6 it’s quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today. “Real” (viz. academic) U.S. poetry, a world no less insular than rap, no less strange or stringent about vocab, manner, and the contexts it works off, has today become so inbred and (against its professed wishes) inaccessible that it just doesn’t get to share its creative products with more than a couple thousand fanatical, sandal-shod readers, doesn’t get to move or inform more than a fraction of that readership (most of the moved being poets themselves), doesn’t generate revenue for much of anyone save the universities to whom the best PhD-poets rent their names and time … and especially does not inspire a whole culture’s youth to try to follow in their Connecticut-catalogue brogans’ prints. Because of rap’s meteoric rise, though, you’ve got poor kids, tough kids, “underachievers,” a “lost generation”… more young people–ostensibly forever turned off “language” by TV, video games and low U.S.D.E. budgets–more of these kids hunched over notebooks on their own time, trying to put words together in striking and creative ways, than the U.S.A. has probably ever had at one time. That few of these will become “stars” matters far less than the grim stats about, say, the tiny percentage of playground basketball phenoms who actually ride sports out and up from subclass status: the same verbal skills and enthusiasms rap values (and values enough to let rap-dissing stand symbolically for fighting or killing) can obviously be applied in mainstream-approved, “productive” ways–G.E.D.’s college, Standard Written English …perhaps someday even ad-copywriting!
But is this wildfire of urban rap ambition raging around converted four-car garages like North Dorchester’s RJam’s in spite of the genre’s near-disciplinary prosodic restrictions, or because of them? Can’t really tell. Probably doesn’t matter. The fact remains that, were “important poetry” presently defined in terms of what makes important art important in a Supply-Side democracy (popularity, effect, the separation of fan from his cash), staid journals like Poetry and American Poetry Review would be featuring some number of fade-cut, multiple-earring’d authors’ photos in each issue; and highbrow public readings would always carry their back row fraction of bangers ready to “listen rude” to Wilbur and Levertov and Ashbery, just as e.g Rimbaud and Pound did to their own contemporaries … to the delight and invigoration of a time’s poetry…
… And even just the prospected fantasy of seeing Public Enemy’s be-clocked Flavor Fav and like a Jorie Graham or Amy Clampitt sitting down over beer and Celestial Seasonings to hash out the debate over line-breaks in dactylic pentameter, a very serious young homeboy in Italian silk and pentagonal shades serving as interpreter is enough to make us hereby officially lobby for the admission of rhyme’s renaissance–at least under the stringent rhythmic demands rap has forced on rhyme-as-form–to the cold corridors of Serious Appreciation.
Unlike the mostly docile poetry and fiction of the late 80s, though, rap’s own quality, the def freshness of the MC’s bit, is set up to be judged primarily in the context of what it is against. In case you thought we forgot, rap is first of all a movement in rock music, and thus the time-honored requirement is that the rap Scene set itself very consciously athwart those circumstances and forces whose enormity is required by all rock ‘n roll to justify one of its essential roles, rebellion-against. Except now watch the objects of the rebellion alter, spread, grow in urgency–from the 50s’ parents and principals, homework, hot rods, the sweet hurt of teen love, to the urban 80s, police, violent death, homelessness, the lure of ecstatic drugs that dehumanize weaponry, fatherlessness, the animal emptiness of sex w/o love, the almost Trilaterally sinister White Establishment (“THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSIBLE THE GOVERNMENT’S. . . “), Everyone Else: life as a series of interruptions from an angry slumber about what the electric voices say you must have and the human voices say you may not, about the betrayal of the past, of the promises exacted by Carmichael, X, and the now-formal martyrdom of King.
Segregation may affect their hearts and minds, Earl Warren warned, as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, both alumni of Boston’s old separate-but-awful schools, bear loud witness. Now, 40 years after X disgustedly quit a racist high school and began a career as a kind of be-bop gang-banger, 35 years after Brown v. Board of Education invented integration, 15 years after Morgan v. Hennigan brought Brown to Boston, North Dorchester is worse and its schools aren’t better. A former United States Secretary of Education converts to Drug Czar, symbolizing a national change of mind: now drugs, not poor schools (and certainly not the American apartheid of which segregated schools were but one facet), is our root “innercity” problem. Tam-Tam’s Boston is strangely less hopeful than the notoriously segregated pre-Hennigan city, perhaps because before Hennigan reformers could promise that segregation was why things were so bad. Segregation was blame’s bullseye: abolish the bullseye, and blame for the estrangement of the races flies everywhere, hitting the cops, or the courts, or the teachers, or the taught, or what’s taught. There’s even a rap–B.D.P.’s “Why is That?”–blaming our miseries on the failure of the schools to “teach black kids to be black.”
But everything the white rock listener pays to enjoy is black-begotten. If today’s Top?40 environment seems bleak or befouled, imagine the present mainstream without its sweetest sourcewaters, without the King-Waters-King Blues trinity, the Brownian soul, the backbeat, cut time, blue notes, funky French curves of sax and brass, the guitar solo, call-and-response, the Cold Medina or Lucky Powder, those lithely syncopated quintets in pomade and linen suits, the single hand in the white glove holding Pepsi aloft in the shadow of accidental flames…. Black music is American pop’s breath and bread; and we, as both born audience and born salesmen, know it.
So maybe it’s them. Them. Maybe we’re approaching an enforced fork in the musical road where the white-run entertainment industry will have to pack up what it’s taken and go seek its fortune on the backs of new minorities. Maybe, in serious rap, the extreme new insulation of the black sound is not only intentional but preplanned, part of a neo-Nationalist agenda, the hermetic new Scene’s tight circle more like something large and coiled than something small and flat.
You may now be getting some hazy idea of the sorts of really quite scary possibilities with which the rap we like is replete. And, hazier, of how complicated this stuff of sampler-from-outside can be. What’s remained passing strange, for use, is the vague threat’s appeal. The unease and ambivalence with which the rare white at the window loves rap renders that love no less love. Whence the fear, though, is really no matter. For look at the world, at the masses we’re part of. At what you look at closest. The plain 80s data is that, whereas love, devotion, passion seem only to divide, it’s fear and strangeness that bind crowds, fill halls, unite Us, somehow, as audience, under the great tent.
*’Hip-hop’ is an older synonym, coined by Rap pioneer, Kool Herc, to describe the heavily danceable Jamaican scatting he introduced between records at the huge South Bronx block parties he and other new-Scene celebrities, like Jazzy Five and former Black Spades leader, Afrika Bambaataa, could turn into late-70s frenzies of Breakdance (both music and dance a self-conscious reaction against the glittered unreality of downtown Disco).
**Except but now hey kids! thanks to AT&T you can now speak directly to Ice T and hear his philosophy of life by phone! 1-900-907-9111. “Chill out with Ice T,” the rapper adrape in military hardware and ammunition says on MTV, “I’m just waiting on you to call me,” pointing at the camera and then himself lest the audience get at all confused. “Don’t forget to ask your parent’s permission first” (white corporate voice-over)–$2.00 first minute, etc. etc.
***”Canon” being another non-jive rap term, meaning the division of a single sequence of sound into two or more repeating sound-sequences, like a vocal round.
**** … themselves the heirs of a long, 20th-century evolutionary process, from the playe-?piano to the 20s Oncles Martenot and Theremin and Trautonium (crude electronic instruments big in France), to Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete in ’48, to the first Electronic Music Synthesizer invented by engineers at RCA in the 50s to the inauguration of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in ’59, to Robert Moog’s ’64 development of the Moog 55, the first emitter of amplified “blurps, fwipps, simps, twings, and schlonks” to be commercially produceable. Walter/Wendy Carlos used a Moog 55 for his/her ’68 Switched-On Bach, an album that did more than anything to popularize synthesized sound.
***** Note how the ecstatic force’s movement extends beyond sound into dance-Chicago-based house-dancing is very different from Coast-based rap-dancing, while both are distinct from the Quaalude sway a De La Soul’s lazy complexity invites–and beyond dance into urban haute couture itself. The “cameo” or “fade,” that troubling cyberpunk flat-top haircut favored by Carl Lewis and Grace Jones but popularized by the group Cameo’s rapping Larry Blackmon, has now become less a haircut than a sculptural statement: words, logos, slogans and complex signs razored into the rigid anvil of hair that is, according to the Voice, “the most culturally conscious unisex hairstyle since the afro.” The standard 80s-rap uniform–sideways baseball cap or Kangol, ropey chains, acetate warmup and unlaced hightops–“…now symbolizes a cruder, more casual era,” and is diffracting into a rap-House-gay-jackswing look replete with polka-dot ties, loose pleated twills, and expensive dance-loafers or British “moon boots,” a combination Ricky Ricardo-Frank Sinatra dapper that now befits a Scene with the dignity, silliness and pull of real Genre. Plus don’t forget that just one big change in street and school fashions means millions and millions in garment revenue–even more $$ once the white mainstream, as is its wont, follows in the cutting edge’s media-delayed wake.
****** “We’ve lost a whole generation to their own culture out here,” rues an LAPD Assistant Commissioner in a 14 May ’89 Boston TV news special on the national Wa-?On gangs, drugs, crime, Others…
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
13.2 (Summer 1990)
Featuring the work of Marck Beggs-Uema, Stephen Berg, Robin Behn, Christopher Buckley, Kathryn Chetkovich, Gillian Conoley, Carl Dennis, Wayne Dodd, Ken Fifer, Norman Finkelstein, Diana Hume George, James Harms, Jane Hirshfield, Brooke Horvath, Edward Kleinschmidt, Scott Lasser, Lucile Lichtblau, Bill Meissner, Josip Novakovich, Max Phillips, Tracy Philpot, Bin Ramke, David Ray, Eugene
Editors' Prize Winner
Apr 23 2019
My assistant, Boris, came flapping through my front door like an injured raven, one arm clasped to his side, the other flailing widely. He was dressed all in black, head
Jan 24 2019
The Day the King Died
On the day we lost Elvis Presley, I had to consider—even just for a moment—the fact that the king of rock and roll had collapsed off the toilet while attempting
Jan 24 2019
Awakening to Jake
Jake’s nest is always askew and is covered in dog hair and dirt from his bare feet and the nights he forced the new puppy to sleep beside him. Jake