Lamont Dozier wrote a song entitled “Back to my roots” He sings “Zipping up my boots, going back to my roots” Last week I was able to take my family back to Shaker Heights, Ohio. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there and my formative years were spent in Cleveland/ Shaker Heights. We took a family trip to visit friends who have a farm in Ashtabula, in Amish Country. Since I was so close to home, we had to make the trip.
We took the 40 min drive to Cleveland and got off I 271 at Chagrin Blvd. I pointed out all the places that meant something to me along the way as we pulled into Shaker Heights. A family friend named Kenya Woods is renting the house I grew up in presently so we were able to go into the house, take a tour and reminisce. So much was still the same, and I was transported right back to being in Elementary, Middle and High School. It was truly Surreal. Projects I did in Sewing class at “Byron” were still there, my coin collection for “Audio equipment” still there, my mini pac man game that takes 4 D batteries, still there. Kenya and her family were so wonderful, we had really nice visit.
I have always loved the beats. 7th grade project.
This was still on the light switch in my room.
After the house we drove over the Shaker Heights High School. Football Two a days were in session, the Girls tennis team was out practicing. As we drove around the “Oval” I remembered parking there every day, Bone thugs, or Busta Rhymes, or Wu- Tang bumping loud. It was a great place to grow up and I was proud to be a Clevelander.
We left the High School and went to Yours Truly Restaurant, where we got Notso Fries, burgers, ice cream etc. As we were were eating Pilar noticed how many people were wearing Cleveland gear of some sort. She says to me “Wow, people from Cleveland really rep Cleveland” Yes, we do….. hard. WE REP THE LAND. It’s a great City that has shaped me into the man I am today. Having Aaliyah and Lola be in my old room, see where I went to school and be in the city where I grew up was special for me and them.
On the drive home Aaliyah un-promted says to me. “Dad, thanks for taking me to see where you grew up, I liked it.” You know what Aaliyah, I liked it too.
Going back to your roots and keeping in touch with those people that shaped you is important. My crew from High School are still my best friends, and I still love Cleveland. Looking forward to zipping up my boots and going back to my roots next year for my 20th High School reunion.
“It’s roots are in the sound of the African or should I say the mother bringing us back again. From drumming in the Congo we came with a strong flow. For then it landed on American soil, through the blood, sweat and the toil.” A Jazz Thing (Verse 1)
These words from the late great GURU (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) of Gangstarr give a great jumping off point for analyzing the SOUND of Black music. What are its sonic origins? What are its traditional sonic characteristics? Have those sounds transformed or stayed the same throughout our time in America? From Traditional Work Songs, to Gospel and Jazz, all the way to the modern Hip Hop production of today, we can find similarities that run through all styles of Black music. We will also examine the growth Black music has made. From hand claps and stomps to advanced drum programming and sequencing. From one voice wailing repeated chants, to full groups creating rhyme schemes that keep your finger on the rewind button. All of this began with the sound of the African.
Section I- THE POWER OF PERCUSSIVE LAYERING
Picture this. A man is chopping wood with an axe carved out of bone. His nature puts the blade against the bark in a steady rhythm, he can’t help it. He has to do his work to the beat ya’ll. In the midst of his work a very fine tree stump reveals itself, and inspiration hits. He hollows out the stump and lays the hide of his lunch over it. After the skin is on nice and tight he scrapes the fur off, and something magical happens. He strikes his palm against the skin once. BOOM! And again, Bap! Boom, Boom, Bap, Boom ba boom Bap! And just like that the beat was born in Africa.
On a track entitled Can’t Truss It by Public Enemy emcee Chuck D says “I know where I’m from not dumb ditty dumb. From the Bass Motherland the place of the Drum.” What is the significance of this? Chuck with some ill wordplay is giving us insight into the most important element of Black music. The rhythm section (particularly the bass and drums) and a phenomenon I call The Power of Percussive Layering or (Popl)
Africans traditionally used percussive instruments. “Drums big and small. Some were hollowed out trees, some were cut off gourds. On a smaller scale for accompaniment bells, castinets, gongs, rattles, kalimbas and xylophones were employed.” (Southern- The Music of Black Americans)
What did we do with all these different types of percussive instruments? Well think about what a painter does. A painter mixes primary colors together to create original complex shades. A great painter is also able to blend those original shades together on the canvas to form something that expresses how they feel, and often times sends a message. The Power of Percussive Layering (POPL) is no different. Many simple or primary rhythms are played simultaneously, each individual pattern has it’s own little pocket to fill. Once all the parts are combined. 5 or 6 drum parts (or colors) sound like one. All the layers playing their part to add original hues to the rhythmic collage.
The composition below gives a great description of how the beat was birthed.
Jim Ingram- Drumbeat
Traditional European music emphasizes the primary beats of music. 1234 counted very straight ahead with even notes. Africans however, we love to embellish and play with the beat adding perpetual syncopation (accents on beats that you would not expect) The POPL puts emphasis on and uses the in between beats to create a groove. It is this groove that makes hips sway, heads fly backwards and arms flail with joy. These layers created Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Madlib. It is these percussive layers that helped us survive generations of bondage. As far as drums go. We are the beaters, and never beaten (Ingram- Drumbeat)
Here is a chart comparing characteristics of African Music to European Music.
The best way to understand the layering is to listen to it. I have listed some listening points to be aware of
Listen to how different percussion parts enter and exit the beat.
Listen out for a main “Steady rhythm” The part you nod your head to.
3. Listen out for accompanying drums that play in between the main beats of the steady rhythm.
This song is called Tribal Conversations by Jimmy Lopez.
This is a great example of a steady back beat, with lighter percussive parts entering and exiting the rhythm, filling the in between portions of the main beat. The bass drum provides the main pulse, but we hear many different instruments adding color, and different patterns build within the rhythm.
A few more examples of POPL-
Oyin Momo Ado- (Sweet as honey)- By Babatunde Olatunji
A perfect example of a “Staggered Entry” each instrument coming in one at a time allowing you to hear how the beat builds. Each pattern creating its own color. But the space they occupy together creates a whole piece. The composition opens with an incredible Kalimba (Thumb Piano) solo at about 25 seconds we hear some bass enter the groove. With Bass and drums firmly in place the rest of the layers including a repetitive vocal chant come to life.
Savanah Beat– Starts off with wood block holding down the main rhythm. Djembe enters the beat and plays in between the wood block. After a few seconds we hear some shakers come in creating three layers of percussion. The djembe plays various lead patterns in and around the wood block and shakers.
This video is a perfect example of the Power of Percussive Layering and how music and its rhythm is everything for us.
It is called “ There is no movement without rhythm ”As an African cultural practice every part of life has music attached to it. Here we see the people of Baro, Guinea, working and living to the beat. Using percussive layering to get their work done, to speak to each other, and just to have fun.
Did you hear how the rhythms would start very simply with one percussion part. Then after a few measures, another instrument enters the beat, placing itself within the nooks of the main pulse? Each activity has its own place within the structure of the beat allowing the rhythm of life to create the music. We also learned the importance of the Djembe drum. The Djembe is the lead instrument here much like the electric guitar in Rock and Roll.
The drum and percussive instruments birthed the beat, but as technology and access to instruments grew so did the complexity and timbre of the POPL. (Schomburg Library A/V recorded sound research)
Once we got our hands on guitars, and horns, pianos and microphones, the power of percussive layering took on a whole different feel. Listen to a few tracks influenced by ancient traditions of percussive layering. You will hear the same elements but with the timbre of a full band, not just drums.
Check these examples
Memphis Soul Stew- King Curtis Listen out for the Staggered entry of each instrument. King Curtis tells us which instrument is entering and when it will come in. We hear several layers come in and create the sound pallate
Duke Ellington- Didjeridoo – Starts off with a drum break that leaves openings for all kinds of sounds. Piano stabs, staccato horns and whatever came to the minds of these master musicians. The opening 30 seconds are just drums, and Saxophone with the Duke adding pianos stabs in just the right places. When the full band enters all the layers are revealed, with the bass and drums creating a rock solid foundation.
Black Ego by Digable Planets– This is the outro of the song. We hear effected drums with whisper vocals give way to a bass and guitar solo. The drums fall out for a moment, but when they return you hear all the colors at once collaging into a truly original shade of funk.
Section II- THE VOICE AND THE BODY AS AN INSTRUMENT
I am a huge fan of all things Black 80’s and 90’s pop culture. This includes classic film entitled “Coming to America” Starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. The film opens with a South African Acapella group named LadySmith Black Mambazo singing a tune called Mube Wimome Next to Fela Kuti they are probably the most recognizable African musicians within Western culture. LadySmith Black Mambazo sing in a vocal style created by South African Zulu’s known as Isicathamiya (Is-Cot-a-ME-ya). They employ only the human voice as their instruments. This comes from traditional African practices.
Isicathamiya choirs are made up of mostly of basses, joined by a couple tenors, an alto, and a lead voice. Their sound is recognizable by the emphasis of the bass voices.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo employs ancient techniques to make modern music. As slaves we often did not have access to our drums or any instruments at all, especially after Slaves owners realized we used the drums to communitcate. We had to use instruments no one could take away.
The track below is entitled “Bangers” by Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder. The start of the track is 9th Wonder discussing how slaves used the drum to speak to one another.
There are two instruments that every human is born with, voice and body. As Talib Kweli quotes ancient Zimbabwe “If you can talk you can sing if you can walk you can dance” Enslaved Africans used the voice to sing and the body (hands, feet, thighs) to create rhythmic accompaniment.
In his book The Methodist Error John Watson writes; “With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or the other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step. If some in the meantime sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.” (Southern pg. 87) So “Clap ya hands ha, Stomp ya feet ha” -James Brown (Give it up turn it a loose) is a truly ancient African tradition.
Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all these elements we are discussing. The listening example below shows how we use foot stomping and hand clapping through the generations. From the POPL in African drums to James Brown call and response all the way to Hip Hop scratching, with elements of black preaching. All of these characteristics are present below and relate back to using the body and voice as an instrument.
Give it up Turn it a loose – James Brown- DJ Alias cuts the break
James Brown chanting- Clap ya hands HA stomp ya feet Ha. The vocal is reminiscent of Field Hollers and the cadance of black preachers. The drums are djembe like in timbre and feel giving us the rhythm of West African percussion.
DJ Alias scratching- I am employing two separate DJ techniques. One is backspinning, used to keep repeating the same section of music for as long as needed. To back spin you choose a section of music, then on one turntable let that section play out, while that particular section is playing the I manually rewind the record on the other turntable to the starting point of the section and on the next one beat I drop it in on time. The other is known as “Doubling” This technique requires me to start one record half a beat behind the other. I then use the crossfader to go in between both songs augmenting the rhythm as I see fit.
So all in one we have ancient African drumming and chanting blended with Hip Hop Dj techniques and the soul of the black preacher.
_____________________As we continue on…….._______________________________
Envision, a slave woman is working in the fields. The oppressiveness of the heat has saturated her ragged clothes. As sweat weeps from her brow she searches for something, anything to relieve this suffering. Suddenly she exudes an ardent guttural sound that echoes throughout the plantation. Her sound of misery is answered by the call of another, and another. A shirtless man with a flogged back stomps his feet in time with the calls, while the cracked hands of his sister begin to clap. They are not necessarily singing lyrics or playing a specific song, but using the voice and the body communally to heal and build hope amidst the anguish of servitude. These yelps, hollers, whoops, shouts, claps, stomps and hits were improvised daily, becoming the foundational elements of Black music in America. The techniques employed in field hollers have manifested into Negro Spirituals, The Blues, R&B, Funk, Soul, Rock and Hip Hop.
Listen below to some examples of how we have used the voice and body as an instrument throughout the centuries. Notice how each style grows in complexity as time goes on.
Rosie– Prison folk song sung in call and response style. Many voices forming to create one original sound. Only the voice and the heart were used to make this music. This music is built on the foundation of Slave Work songs and Field Hollers.
Nina Simone reinvented the Prison folk song about Rosie we heard above into a song entitled “Be My Husband”. Cultural DNA mix with real originality.
Be My Husband- Nina Simone– Listen to how Nina flips this. She takes a song passed down through generations and creates a version that suits her personal life. Notice that the composition is only voice and drums.
Black preachers have long been known to sing/chant/preach. Using guttural tones reminiscent of field hollers. The style is known as “intoning by some and when taken to the extreme as C.A.W. Clark usually did, it is called whooping” (Rev. Dr. M. McMickle. Phone interview)
One very noticable attribute of this style is the act of emphasizing the end of a phrase with a “HA” or ” Uh” it is extremely common and has made its way all the way to Hip Hop as well, remember James Brown above “Clap ya hands HA”. Below we will hear C..A.W Clark give a portion of a sermon using the voice as an instrument. Whooping the congregation into a frenzy. Followed up by Juvenile borrowing that style to create the Hip Hop classic aptly titled “HA”
Rev. C.A.W Clark
Now listen to how Juvenile employs this same technique, ending each sentence or phrase with “HA” Showing us how the sound of Black music transcends generations.
(The track below is a lot louder than the above. Adjust volume)
Scat singing is a style where the singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as a horn, or piano, or a drum etc. Using the human voice to recreate or emulate an instrument. The example below is the most masterful expression of vocal scat techniques I have ever heard. The real scat begins at about 40 seconds. This style also made it’s way to Hip Hop culture with a group named Das Efx who we will here below.
Cecil Taylor and the Progressive Jazz Quartet- Who Parked the Car? – Masterful Scatting
Song – Who Parked the car?
Mic Checka- by Das Efx-With Das Efx listen to how they add “iggity” or “ziggity” to the end of certain words or phrases. It is not as complicated as what Cecil Taylor was doing above , but the roots of the style are in Scatting.
Bobby McFerrin live improvisation– A viturosic voice and body instrumentalist, uses no instruments besides his own body and voice, creating full compositions as a essentially a one man band. Listen to how he improvises drums, bass, and melody all using one microphone.
We began this piece discussing how Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all the elements of Black Music. Das Efx and James Brown have showed us a few examples. Now listen to Doug E. Fresh show us how the human voice can be a drum machine using a technique called Beat Boxing. Beat boxing is when the mouth, tongue and throat are used create percussive rhythms. In Hip Hop it was first used as a backbeat for freestyle rhymes, then as an addition to Hip Hop songs and eventually entire beatboxing compositions and albums.
Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick – La Di Dadi.
(Doug E. Fresh beatboxes the entire beat, Slick Rick raps and sings throughout) Notice that the whole rhythm section is Doug E Fresh beatboxing and nothing else.
How and why did these characteristics of vocal performance stay so true to form over the centuries? It’s cultural DNA.
Samuel Floyd tells us (Power of black music pg10) “All black music making is driven by and permeated with the memory of things from the cultural past.”
Each artist and subsequent generation from Sharecroppers to Das Efx learned from what was passed down, flipped it on it’s head and made something truly Doug E. Fresh.
The foundation of Black music is THE BEAT. The beat and the rhythm hold all the other parts up. From Chain gangs to gospel choirs, to Mobb Deep a knocking beat is an essential element of any authentic piece of Black music. The Beat of Black music is often made up of short repetitive phrases or sections that are based on a steady, usually polyrhythmic percussion pattern. In Hip Hop we take a short piece of this pattern and loop it indefinitely.
This loop in Hip Hop is known as “The Break” A section of the music where either the record shifts into a new musical direction for a short time, or a section where all other instruments fall out leaving the percussion to shine but any instrument can fill a break. This opening, or break in the music is another element handed down from our ancestors. Black music started out as these open drum patterns that we now call “Breaks”. Remember at first all we had were drums, voices and bodies. Over the centuries Black music has become extremely lush and complex. However the break is still part of the foundation. When we “break open” the flow of a complex composition, stripping it down to its core, our roots are revealed.
Tricia Rose writes in Black Noize (pg67) “Rap Music techniques, particularly the use of sampling technology, involve the repetition and reconfiguration of rhythmic elements in ways that illustrate a heightened attention to rhythmic pattern and movement between such patterns via BREAKS and points of musical rupture.” These breaks and “ruptures” as Rose calls them are the legs of any hip hop beat, they hold the rest of the production up and help it to move from one place to the next.
In its true form Black music and dance are synonymous. When a djembe, tambourine, wood block and bone handled shaker make a pattern together, this is a breakbeat. When dancers move in a circle to these breaks, trading spaces in the middle to get some shine, this is called a Ring Shout. What is the difference between the African tradition of the Ring Shout and a Break Dance cipher? Nothing. Leaving the drums agape has always compelled us to dance and or show off other musical gifts, including virtuosic instrumentation.
In Jazz the break is used for each member of the band to solo, or improvise within the structure of the song. Jazz follows in the African tradition of communal music making, but allows each artist to show off his or her own style and improvise as they feel.
“If there is any one aspect of performance that almost all the contemporary sources agree upon, it is the fact that slaves improvised their songs. “This improvisation goes forward every day….. The rhyme comes as it may, sometimes clumsily, sometimes no rhyme at all, sometimes most wonderfully fresh and perfect. (Southern 201)
The tradition of a solo break made it’s way from early Jazz into the Blues. The Blues expanded into Rock and Roll where the guitar solo became prevalent. Rock and Roll morphed into funk. Funk music took the musical element of vamping to make entire songs. (Christian McBride from- Mr. Dynamite HBO)
A vamp is a repeating musical figure that was normally used at the end of tune to fade out. Funk (most notably James Brown) took that small two to four measure section and had the band play it over and over and over. Looping the section while adding little improvisational hits and varying harmonic techniques. These ceaseless rhythms became the understructure of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop producers took the breaks and vamps of funk music, collaged them with fat kick drums and samples from around the globe to create the latest and most dynamic form of Black music….Hip Hop.
Below are some sonic examples of “The Break” and its growth within Black music.
West African Break–
Kiyakiya- Babtune Olatunji– At the start we hear the full timbre of the piece. At 19 seconds the vocal falls out and we just hear the drums. This is a break, it rocks for about 30 seconds then the vocal comes back in and the song continues. In Hip hop we rap over these breaks.
Mavis Staples- I’ll Fly Away- In this listening example we will hear how Hip Hop techniques create original “breaks” from openings within the song. The full ensemble is present when the recording starts. At 31 seconds I again manipulate the record with a technique called back spinning. Allowing myself to repeat the same portions over and over again, in any pattern I see fit. After I am done using the first part of the break in a Hip Hop format I allow the organ to return and play out a solo until the vocal returns at 1:40 seconds, ending the break. The way I manually repeat the phrase “Oh Yes” is a foundational characteristic Hip Hop built from the breaks and vamps of earlier forms of Black music.
This is Muddy Waters performing “I just wanna make love to you” After the hook we hear a break beginning led by a harmonica solo. About a minute into the piece I addd the Hip Hop element of looping a small portion to create a new rhythm. After the loop I allow the song to start back up and the break finishes with some stop time, then ends.
St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins is one of the most recognizable melodies in Jazz. The song happens to open with a break beat, and courtesy of master drummer Max Roach at 52 seconds we get to hear an extended drum break. How many different rhythms can he play around the main groove? A Seemingly infinite amount.
This is snippet from I Just Want to Celebrate by The Rare Earth. First we hear the chorus/hook, as the instruments fade out you here the drums begin to take the lead at (35 sec). The drummer plays a hypnotic rhythm that ignites the crowd, while the singer ad libs around the groove eventually bringing the full band back in.
I Just Want to Celebrate- The Rare Earth
Bar-kays- Holy Ghost Break begins at 21 secs. I then bring the track back to the start so your hear the full composition, eventually returning to the break section at 1:10.
Melvin Bliss- Synthetic Substitution/ DWYCK by Gangstarr
This break has been sampled over 700 times in Hip Hop, it is an essential part of the Hip Hop sound vernacular. Pay attention to the opening break from Synthetic Substitution then the drums from DWYCK. Dj Premier flips it into a certified classic.
DWYCK encompasses all the elements we have been discussing. DJ Premier provides the POPL with drums from Synthetic Substitution and the break from Hey Jude by Clarence Wheeler and the Enforcers. We can’t forget about the classic Preemo scratches that create another layer of sonic texture. GURU and Nice and Smooth show us how to use the Voice as and instrument, then at 1:19 we have a Break section.
Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all Black Music in America. We improvise with “Freestlye” sessions, Dance in circles like a ring shout, layer our percussion with sample upon sample. We employ call and response, write lyrics with common themes all while using the voice as an instrument. We use the foundations of prior generations to create something fresh. Samuel Floyd wrote
“African American music has the same characteristics as its African counterparts, but also the musical tendencies, the mythological beliefs and assumptions, and the interpretive strategies of African Americans are the same as those that under lie the music of the African homeland, that these tendencies and beliefs continue to exist as African cultural memory, and they continue to inform the continuity and elaboration of African American music.
Louis Armstrong learned from King Oliver, Bessie Smith learned from Ma Rainey, James Brown learned from Little Richard. Our ancestors learned from their parents and griots the ancient musical traditions. What each generation did, was take a portion of what they learned and add their flavor to it, allowing something truly beautiful to be born…. Hip Hop.
I came off the two train with lawn chairs strapped to my back. Sun hat, lunch, water, all packed, ready to be taken on Fantastic Voyage with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I arrived to a truly mellowed out Metrotech vibe. The shady court yard was subdued, but the sousaphone sound- checking to “Take me to the Mardi Gras by Professor Longhair set the tone of what was to be an epic set.
This legendary group is one of the oldest bands in New Orleans history and they paid tribute to those roots through out the show. Setting it off with a gospel infused intro, they raised hands to the most high and proceeded to swing the Brooklyn crowd into a frenzy.
I was the only one dancing at the start. This music courses through my veins, giving life to intense mental and physical emotions. Emotions that eventually made there way to the rest of the audience. By the end second line style drums fused with blaring horns had every body on their feet. Dancing, screaming, whistle blowing, and playing tambourine. There is nothing like being so close to the stage that a trombone slide could hit you right in the nose. In this environment you feel the power the music vibrate every part of you. This is exactly what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band does, they play music that gets inside of you, forcing your feet to move, extorting your legs into a rhythmic fury.
The vibe was simply electric, Congo Square was inside of Metrotech. The history of African American music was pulsating through the atmosphere. Call and Response vocals led into extraordinary improvisations. Blue notes melted into break beats spawning bass grooves that penetrated your chest.
This is timeless music, and an extremely unique experience. Seeing a group of true professionals take the stage as a unit and bring the house down with their love for the music is not something we often anymore. Each member of the band played from what was inside of them, giving NYC a piece of their soul, and we showed that love right back. I would have loved for Aaliyah and Lola to have been there, but it was way to loud for them.
The hollers, yelps, claps, stomps, raised arms and active feet showed what Jazz music used to do…… make people dance. Jazz music used to be popular dance music. We live in a time when Jazz music is known for being heady and artsy, not for dancing and partying. When it comes to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band nothing could be further from the truth. This is music for the hips, heart and the head all in one.
After the show I had to go and meet Ben Jaffe the artistic director Bassist and Tuba player for the band. I explained to him how his grooves inspired me as a musician and I strive to hold the bass down like he does. What I got in reply was a perfect answer. He said with his New Orleans drawl “Oh man, thank you. We need bass playas keep finding that pocket and you can’t go wrong. Duke Ellington, James Brown they laid it out, showed us what pocket was, all we have to do is find it. So I am about to turn on some Ellington and the Godfather, crank up the amp and line some pockets.
Me and Ben Jaffe
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band! Amazing performers, virtuosic instrumentalists, and just good people. Check them out.
The Pharcyde and J Dilla created a song entitled Something That Means Something. They wanted their music and lyrics to get inside of the listener. Their goal was to make you vibe out of course, but also think of your childhood, love your family, reminisce on mistakes and face the social issues of the day head on. They used Hip Hop as tool to uplift but also critique our society.
Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sister Nancy, The Fugees, Raekwon, The Allan Parsons Project, The Clark Sisters and Jacob Miller all helped to create the sonic underpinnings of this album. Jay-Z and NO ID have created a body of work that means something. It touches me politically, makes me appreciate being a father, and gives me hope. The biggest name in Hip Hop is back to making sample based, age appropriate music that oozes soul.
I was critical of Watch the Throne album and Magna Carta, Holy Grail. I thought, “He can do better” ” I do not relate to this” “Really Hov?” However, this morning over Tennis, returning propane tanks, getting a car wash, spinning a set and studying for the GRE I became connected to this album. From discussing family issues on 4;44 and Family Feud, to letting us know what “They” really think of us on Story of O.J, he put his lifetime in between the papers lines, as Prodigy would say. I think he actually has learned to live with Regrets.
Lyrically he is on top his game. Flow is straight up Pocket as usual. But he also raps with a seemingly endless amount of different styles, vocal inflections and rhythm cadences. It’s just top notch music in every way. It feels good, it sounds good, makes you want to hear and see it over an over. With each listen small details are brought to the forefront.
Take Caught Their eyes, first of all The Nina Simone sample is chopped brilliantly. Lyrically Jay shows the apprehension the game has taught him and how he learns from his experiences. (“Memories may sneak down my cheek, but I can see side eye in my sleep“) Learning from experiences and reflecting on it? Yes, that is what a grown man does, and I applaud the vulnerability shown on this album.
Hip Hop has always been full of hyper masculinity and toughness. The hope is that as we age that attitude subsides. I know there is a man out there listening to 4:44 who decides, “you know what, I got to man up as a father” or to fight to make his neighborhood better like Marcy and Me.
Track for track I would say it is his 3rd best album behind Reasonable Doubt and the Black Album. This is a record for the 30 and over crowd for sure. It feels like listening to someone you have grown up with producing beats and writing lyrics with all their newly found maturity, accompanied by decades of practice and performance experience.
Beats, bars, ridiculous sampling, introspection, attacks on our racist society, family struggles, joy of Fatherhood. Dilla and the Pharcyde would proud.
So allow yourself to be reintroduced to a rapper name HOV!
“I put my lifetime in between the papers lines” This line from the late great Prodigy of Mobb Deep says everything about why we connect to and in some cases genuinely love musicians. They put an honest piece of themselves in the music, telling a story we can relate to with vivid imagery. Helping us to navigate life with a bit more clarity. From Phife Dawg, to David Bowie, Prince to Sharon Jones and Maurice White 2016 was a mournful year. Legends just kept dying leaving behind a music industry that values clicks over quality.
Seeing all of these incredible musicians go was a formidable challenge for me. I love Tribe. I listen to Midnight Mauraduers and Low End Theory all the way through weekly. I love Ziggy Stardust. The way Bowie was able to take on multiple characters and kick something that means something simultaneously is what I aspire to as an artist. The soul singing of Sharon Jones brought joy to my life inumeralbe times. Prince and Maurice White…. made some of the greatest music ever recorded. The genius of these artists plus all the others who passed recently will be missed.
Our most recent departure was Prodigy of Mobb Deep. Mobb Deep was the epitome of pretty and profane. The possessed a sound I can only describe as rugged yet euphonic sonics. Havoc conjured dark samples lacing them with neck snapping drums, heavy bass and lot of knocking kicks. Prodigy gave us a birds eye view of the trials black men deal with in the hood. There were so many times as I listened to “Trife Life” or “Up North Trip” or “Hell on Earth” or G.O.D Pt III that I was transported mentally into the story. I could see the park benches, smell the “la”, feel the emotion, see into the mind of a man that was only 19, but his mind was old. The words of my man Ricardo Spicer really say it best when talking about “The Infamous Mobb Deep” album.
“This album is a case study in the psychological effects of disenfranchisement and ghettoization of urban communities. Compare the heavily layered complexities of Hav and P’s Lyrics at 19 years old to what is being put out by artists the same age nowadays. To the untrained ear, their music was merely guns and drugs, but to us, it was equal to that of Edgar Allen Poe.”
So rest in peace Prodigy. Thank you for leaving us with a catalog of amazing art to be inspired by.
A question I always ask when a legend dies and we lament their death as a community is: why don’t we celebrate them while they are here! I am making it a goal of mine to support and actively praise the living legends we still have among us, artists whose music and lives have influenced my own.
Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney are my top elders right now
Listen to Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
Listen to Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock – Also….Wayne Shorter Ron Carter and Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis Second Quintet.
Listen to Summer in the City by Quincy Jones.
Listen to Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
Listen to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.… Really do it, listen to this album. The originality, and melodies…. will make you wonder … How? (Paul McCartney)
Lest we forget about Otis Williams the founder of the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, Al Green and Diana Ross and Little Richard, Dr. Dre, Roger Waters, Kool Herc, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and, George Clinton, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Jimmy Cliff. Oh and Berry Gordy, DJ Premier, Andre 3000, Questlove, Roy Ayers and Tina Turner. They all helped to shape the sound of the music we love and they are all still here with us. Plus so many more, these are just my favorites at this point of today, my love goes so deep it’s hard to pick favorites. Who are your favorite living music legends? Play their music, share it with your family, let it sink into you and move you to higher heights.
Shout to the group “Living Legends” Some ill emcees outta Cali.
s2016/2017 have been tough for music lovers. One legend after another has left this earth. Dealing with death is a part of life we all must face. However it is
So, Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondents dinner! What! Genius. He delivered every punch line with these wide eyes and a bright surprised face. Was the look because he just can’t fathom that “King Joffrey” became president? Or maybe he was just baffled by the current state of affairs in our country, regardless his stage demeanor and delivery made this an enduring performance. He skillfully castigates all the major news networks, gracefully calls Steve Bannon a nazi, blasts MSNBC for its hypocrisy on the prison industrial complex, takes down CNN, lays into Jeff Sessions racism as well as Sean Spicer’s ineptitude. All the while little jokes within jokes that derided various celebrities, U.S. foreign Policy and the media itself.
Minhaj turns the tables on his colleauges when he tells the crowd. “Right now you have to be twice as good” no mistakes, The President does not trust you. So when one of you messes up….. He blames your whole group……. . “Now you know how it feels to be a minority”
This brilliant comparison segued into a portion about the importance of the 1st amendment, the reason they all have a job. Not to mention it is one of this countries most essential principles. He hits on the fact that “Only in America can a 1st generation Indian, Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president” An astute observation that then forces us to consider why we elected a president who does not support the 1st amendment. The man who tweets unfiltered brain refuse whenever he feels like, wouldn’t show up to pay respects to the amendment that allows him to spew hot garbage.
The fact is we do get to say and believe anything we want. This is a very new privilege for humans in the scheme of history, and how we use our words is a big responsibility. The “Choice is Yours. “You can get with this”….. Hasan Minhaj using his talent, knowledge and spirit to make a hilarious statement on the truth about our sanctimonious country. Or “You can get with that….. A president and society that see differing view points as threatening. Threats create fear, and fear keeps us ignorant. What do you do when knowledge, preparation, acceptance and attention to detail are all frowned upon? You speak up for whats right. Use your words for good, language is a dynamic tool. Let’s use it to bring light to the truth, positivity to the world and of course, a bunch of good laughs.
Here is the full set.
“You can get with this….. or you can get with that.”
So Pilar and I watched an episode and a half of the new HBO show Big Little Lies. I had been apprehensive about watching it, I can’t explain why. I’ve only heard good things, but for some reason I didn’t want to see it. Well, last night we dove in, and I liked it. Remember the movie Cruel Intentions? Well I think it’s kind of like that but all the characters are grown up, and Reese Witherspoon is a main character soooo. How is it like Cruel Intentions? You know, malevolent rich people dealing in lies, deceit, murder and such. The plot aside my favorite character and aspect of the show right now Chloe Mackenzie. She is 6 years old, and the daughter of Madeline (played by Witherspoon).
Everywhere she goes (in episode one) she controls the music with her phone. Riding in the car with her parents, while her family eats dinner, while they hang out outside. The kid controls the vibe of the music, and creates a journey well beyond her years. I was blown away by that. Her song choices added tension and complexity to the scenes, plus she was playing some Rock and Roll bangers. I hope I can turn the reigns over to my girls one day, listen to a set, and shed one single tear in pride. Right now…….its all Trolls or Moana! Which I like too.
As we were watching I heard some heavy rock riffs with a burning guitar/keyboard solo over it. That first 10 seconds forced me into having to find out what I was hearing. So today I went back to a point in the show when Chole uses her phone to turn the music down at dinner. As she is adjusting the volume the camera stops on her phone for a split second. I paused it and saw the track info on her screen. King Kong by Babe Ruth. Pretty heavy rock jam that helped me learn more about a group that is truly part of hip hop’s DNA. To hip hop heads Babe Ruth is known for their classic Break record “The Mexican” A break that any b-boy or b-girl could never resist.
King Kong by Babe Ruth
The Mexican by Babe Ruth – A break dance classic. A foundational track of Hip Hop culture.
The next record she chooses is another classic rock record. Her parents are having a moment out in the back yard. They have speakers wired outside, and Chloe plays this song loud, giving depth to the scene and filling her Dad’s heart with pride.
Again the track was by a group I knew, but not a song I recognized. I knew it was Janis Joplin, most likely with Big Brother and the Holding company. So this time I listened to a few lines, googled the lyrics and found.
Call on Me by Big Brother and Holding Company feat Janis Joplin
Would a 6 year old make these kind of selections? We will see, I’ll keep teaching Aaliyah and Lola about quality music of all genres, and how to put sets together. Classic Rock is not a genre taken on by most DJ’s or young kids, so we will see if my girls can mix up Janis with Jimi, and Pink Floyd with the Beatles. Never forgetting that Chuck Berry and Little Richard started the whole thing.
In one scene the family is at dinner arguing, tension is building. At a pause in the argument Chloe asks “Ok, what are we listening to… she chooses Otis Redding. I mean….. that’s a beautiful thing.
Because I work at night, usually only three days a week, I have a lot of time at home. Most of it is spent finding new music, cutting records, playing bass and writing these blog posts. Ok sometimes I watch an entire season of a show in two days! (sorry not sorry) I really try not to watch to much TV though. So my new found love is stand up comedy. Why? because I can put it on, and still clean up the kitchen, prep dinner, straighten up and do other things while it’s on. I just listen and laugh.
Since everyone loves to laugh here are 5 comedy specials that I found hilarious.
Louis C.K. 2017 – (Netflix) Louis C.K. is the best comedian alive today. (my opinion) His jokes have no schtick or gimmick that draw you in or make them funny. He just writes really funny, high quality observational jokes with excellent delivery. No “Black people do this, and white people do this” No lowest common denominator. Sure he does poop jokes sometimes, but in an artistic way, yes artistic poop. He is a polished professional, who can hit on social issues in a way that makes you laugh but also, makes you think. His opening bit about abortion is a classic example. “If you need an abortion……. You better get one, and quick, don’t be fu**ing around, we don’t need more shi*ty people around.” “Some people think abortion is killing a baby. It’s not killing a baby…… Ok it’s a little bit killing a baby, just a little.” He goes into how both sides feel (pro life vs pro choice) but never uses those terms. Just makes hysterical comparisons that will make you laugh. Enjoy it!
2. Dave Chappelle- Deep in the heart of Texas- (Netflix) This is the second special Dave Chappelle released on Netflix this year. After his very long hiatus, one of the kings of comedy is back. A lot of people were offended by these specials, but it’s stand up comedy, I thought it was par for the course. We have to remember he tells “Jokes and Jokes and Jokes and Jokes!” All comedians are just kidding, the entire performance is based on joking.
What I love about this special and his style in general is how he attacks race. He uses stereotypes and current events as fuel to touch on the different ways people live and are treated by society. The opening bit about the 4 white teens that assault him touches on racial hierarchy in an extremely skillful way. He also gets into Ebola and AIDS by saying “Isn’t it funny how all these diseases hate and kill everyone that old white people hate.” He heads right into police killing Black people, Isis decapitating people, Paula Deans racial slurs, and Bill Cosby rapes, making those profane topics so pretty and hilarious. Watch it and laugh, but don’t take yourself too seriously, It’s just jokes.
3. Aziz Ansari- Buried Alive- (Netflix ) He kills this set. So much relatable material delivered with high energy and a lot of great analysis. Millennials, dating, as well as the joys of being and not being a parent are all addressed in extremely remarkable ways. I have seen the act twice and even though I knew what jokes were coming, I still was laughing. Why? Because it’s quality material. He interacts with the audience on topics such as dick pics, meatheads in the club and on line dating. Many times reenacting the scenario while playing two or three different roles. Sorta like Biggie on “Gimmie the Loot“.
The set is on point, highly recommended.
4. Michael Che- Che Matters- (Netflix) Che commands the stage and the audience with ease as he takes on racism, gentrification, catcalling, Donald Trump, terrorism and transgender issues. Che has written these jokes knowing full well his audience and the reactions they will have, and it works to perfection. In one bit on gentrification he asks. “White women, do you know how powerful you are, you are so powerful that the value of land can increase just because of your presence” In his stereotypical white girl voice he says “Brooklyn used to be kind of sketch, but now its pretty chill” a dig a the drastic changes taking place in Brooklyn as we speak.
He continues “You want to stop Isis, send white women. Isis will be the first terrorist group forced out due to rent increase” Funny joke, with a relevant point. As he deftly moves from issue to issue, he repeatedly involves the crowd asking them questions about politics,relationship, religion, porn, not knowing what response he is going to get, then coming up with a joke to fit audience members answer. Either he thought about every answer possible and wrote hundreds of jokes, or he is just an excellent improv comedian, I would say the latter.
My favorite section is about Black lives matter. He starts by saying “Black lives matter, thats a controversial statement, just matters. JUST MATTERS! Not that they are better than you, just matters”It’s a great statement, because it calls out our society in a very raw way. Just saying those three words can bring on a heated argument. Mostly because many people don’t believe that Black live matter. He’s hilarious, watch and laugh.
5. Hannibal Burress- Comedy Comisado- (Nextflix)
We all know who he is now because of his “Bill Cosby is a rapist” set that brought him to fame and Dr. Huxtable’s past into the public eye. As a Ilana Glazer’s ex boyfriend on “Broad City” he plays a laid back dentist, and his stand up comedy is a reflection of that juxtaposition. A Laid back delivery, but a truly professional set. Within this special he gracefully moves from topic to topic with quick hitting punchlines that are written to be the segue to the next joke. This makes the whole act feel totally seamless. I was alone in my apartment laughing out loud as he ripped into the “Maniacs” at Embassy Suites in Downey, California who think he faked his identity to try and check into a 2 star hotel. How Lasik eye surgery may kill or blind you, Unwillingly taking pictures with cops, and don’t judge him for his 70 dollar cleaning service, he tells the audience. “Some of you spend that much on vaporizer accessories easily, so don’t judge me”
He builds jokes with great skill making you wonder, where he is going with this? As it unfolds and tension grows he hits you with a twist. A twist that makes you bust out laughing. The best part about it is you don’t just laugh then. I found myself riding my bike listening to Parliment and thinking back to these jokes…. and laughing again. I think you will too.
Ok its really 7 specials to watch
Wanda Sykes- What happened Ms. Sykes.(Full show is on Youtube) The perspective of the Black female is greatly underrepresented in comedy. Wanda Sykes is on top of her games in this special, using the struggles of People of color and women to make us laugh. She makes great use of the racial dynamics of her own family. She is Black female comedian married to a white French woman and has two “really white” kids. “Sometimes I look around my kitchen table and I get scared. I want to know ……. how did all these white people get in my house”
Wanda gives a woman’s perspective on the latest election, the economy (Nothing good trickles down), women’s rights, equal pay for equal work and gun rights. She is an excellent writer and this set plus POOTIE TANG are excellent examples. Her take on the evolution of Talapia is classic. “I don’t f*** with Talpia, I betcha four years ago talapia had feet. Talapia was walking around, stepped in some gmo’s. His feet shrunk up and he said, I better roll my ass in the ocean”
She is comedy legend and a master of the art form. Be sure to check her out.
Lucas Bros- On Drugs- (Netflix) These twin brothers tell dead pan jokes mostly about the war on drugs and how it has affected them personally. They hate Richard Nixon and they tell you that many times. They drop some great OJ jokes, figure out why Charles Barkley was in Space Jam, and let us know that 77 percent of black happiness comes from white suffering via a pie chart.
The end of the show is kind of like a Ghost of Christmas past cartoon. Richard Nixon takes them back into time and shows what life would I have been like with out the war on drugs. What they found was actually horrifying. With out the war on drugs, money was put into education, healthcare and infrastructure. Poor black and brown people had opportunities and incarceration rates didn’t go through the roof. However with no war on drugs, no crack epidemic, no crack epidemic, no urban decay, no urban decay, no hip hop. No hip hop equals no Biggie! They are presented with Christopher Wallace C.P.A. which I’m sorry to say made me cringe. Biggie brought so much joy to so many. What if Biggie Smalls was the illest….accountant? It is a great show with lots to think about. Watch it and laugh.
I really hope you enjoy these specials as much as I did. There is so much negativity surrounding us right now. It’s nice to sit back and just laugh for an hour.
Jay-Z raps on “Renegade” “You see I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined”
The modern ghetto Jigga raps about is the place where Hip Hop’s stories of gang life, violence, sex, and drug use came from. A ghetto created by policy makers who did not care about poor people of color.
It is important to know this history, so that we can understand the foundations of this culture. If Hip Hop is important to you, and helped to shape you, at some point you will want to share it with your children. As they get older they will be exposed to it anyway. It is up to us as parents to help guide their listening. Unearthing the social context behind the music, and helping them see the lineage of Hip Hop as part the African diaspora. While also giving them the right information to just listen and enjoy the vibes as entertainment.
Hip Hop started out as party music. DJ’s spun break beats (open drum parts of tracks with little instrumentation around them) to get B-Boys and B-Girls to lose themselves in the music and to dance more furiously. From park jams, to the Sugar Hill Gang on to LL.Cool J, The Beastie Boys and RUN DMC, a good time was the main objective.
We then move on to the likes of Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, EPMD and KRS ONE. Party tracks were still filtered in there, however having a message, original style and knocking beats became the objective.
As time moves into the 90’s with N.W.A, Biggie and Pac the street stories became more vivid and more vulgar. Lyrics became highly evolved poems, that painted pictures for the listener. Hip Hop always had a bad rap but, at this point the American government was cracking down on it, trying to censor it and use it as a scapegoat for society’s ills.
Eventually major corporations saw the economic power of hip Hop and began to mass market it. This transition produced the cookie cutter images of gangsters, pimps and hoes we see in hip hop today. These images that reflect almost no diversity within the spectrum of the artists. If you have a message in your music, you will be stuck in the periphery of Hip Hop culture. This should not be the case. We as parents who love Hip Hop should not hide the music we love from our kids. We also should choose wisely how we share this music, and create a foundation for what we think is acceptable.
How do we do this? Well here are 5 steps to sharing hip Hop culture with your kids.
Choose the right artists- You don’t have to jump in with the rawness and try to explain it. Talk about the historical portion a bit and play some fun old school songs like.
Catch The Beat by T-Ski Valley- It samples Heartbeat by Taana Gardner. Start with that, discuss how at first Emcees were rapping over disco records.
King Tim III (personality jock) – By Fatback Band A straight funk jam that shows how early emcees rocked it. I mean it’s a stone groove with old school rapping over it, it’s gonna make you dance, always a good thing with kids.
The Messageby GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five. – This song has an intriguing beat that can capture a young listener from the start. We also hear the first set of lyrics that really dig into social issues experienced by people of color in these ghettos constructed to keep them voiceless. This is a great one to read along with. Lines like
“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”
“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head”
These lyrics are a great starting point for discussing where hip hop came from and why this expression was so important to these incredibly creative individuals.
Hip Hop Hooray by Naughty by Nature- Kids love songs that have dance moves . Once you start the Hip Hop Hooray Hoooooooo, Haaaaaaaay hands in the air dancing around, its going to fun and memorable.
More examples- Eric B and Rakim – Paid in Full (Song and Album) Jungle Brothers- Straight out of the Jungle, (Album) MC Lyte- Cha Cha Cha, RUN DMC- Peter Piper. Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z
Approach the topic of misogyny and sexism and homophobia with care
Hip Hop culture has always been a boys club, a few women have made it, but not many. As Pilar and I raise up two black girls in this sexist society it is important to let Aaliyah and Lola know a few things. They must know that they are powerful, brilliant, creative, independent and capable of being in charge, not just being a prop for someone else. Hip Hop can be detrimental to a young women of color. Mainstream images of females in Hip Hop are less than flattering. Mostly “sex objects”, or a “boss type bitch” no in between or artistic variety. We must present hip hop to our kids that is made by amazing, diverse, strong women. As well as records that women and give inspiration for growth. Here are some selections.
That Thing- Lauryn Hill – Filled with soulful harmonies and L-boogie at her finest, this is a great record. A nice segway into how relationships work, the good the bad, and what to be careful of. (Really the entire Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album, just listen to it)
Latifah’s Had it up 2 here by Queen Latifah- This is the Queen at her best. Dana Owens letting other emcees know Who is in charge. If you say negative things about me, I will let you know. I’m better than you and never step to the mic when I’m around. If you are trying to build strong leaders, play this record. The double entendre of “Some of these commercial entertainers are commercially a pain to my rhyme and my behind TRYING TO DISS DANA. I love it because her name is Dana, but she enunciates the line so it could be saying DANA or Disdain her.
U.N.I.T.Y. by Queen Latifah- All we have to say about this song is “Who you callin a bitch?”
Keep ya Head Up- 2 Pac– This record takes on domestic violence, reproductive rights, single motherhood and black love all in just the first verse.
Flawless by Beyonce- She is out shining Jay-Z! She does not need a man, or marriage. She is living her artistic vision, she’s in charge and everyone knows it. The poem by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackles the question: why we ask women to aspire to marriage, and see other women as competition. Great talking points for raising informed women who are aware of their power.
Total Wreck by Bahamadia- Lyrics of fury is all you can say about Bahamadia. She is not very well known, but rips the mic majorly.
Make it Fun and show the artistic diversity.
I know I can very easily take Hip Hop too seriously. My life is dedicated to all of its beautiful intricacies. However to bring kids in, you have to keep it fun. Here are some fun songs that you can dance to, and just have a good time.
Me, Myself and I- De La Soul- An Uptempo track that samples Parliament. The track opens up with a Hip Hop take on Snow White, then the trio let us know its ok to just be yourself. De La is a perfect way to show how Hip Hop can have diverse sounds, imagery and subject matter. The track just feels good, brings nostalgia for parents and is fun to party to. The whole album (Three Feet High and Rising) is kid friendly and a Hip Hop classic.
Tennessee and People Everyday (remix) by Arrested Development- Tennessee, great beat with lots a quotable lyrics that address dealing with the stresses of life. “I challenge you to a game of horseshoes…..A game of HORESHOOOES!”
People Everyday- The Call and Response at the start will hook any one of any age. Play it, dance. Then maybe play Sly Stone Everyday People to bring it full circle. Arrested Development in general is a positive group with true hip hop aesthetic.
Hey Ya by Outkast- All generations love this song, it just makes everyone happy. Count in with Andre 3000 1,2,3 uh and Get up, get into, get involved.
I Can by Nas- Nas gives us a history lesson while simultaneously uplifting the youth. Hard work and perseverance are the main themes within this record. I really like how he says “Nothing is easy, it takes much practice” A lesson that is hard to teach in an age of instant gratification.
Let me clear my throat by DJ Kool- A classic party record that also has a call and response dance section. Try it out, “when I say freeze you just freeze one time, when I say freeze yall stop on a dime, FREEEEZE!
Alphabet Aerobics by Blackalicious. Kids learning the alphabet and new words? Two measures at a time Gift of Gab raps words that all begin with A then b, then c all the way to Z. This takes some close listening but there is a lot to learn about connecting words, and learning words that begin with each letter of the alphabet.
More music- The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest
Read along with the lyrics as you listen
An excellent way to see how great an emcee is to try to repeat the lyrics in time with the same cadence and rhythm the rapper used. It’s a fun activity that involves reading and musical timing. Whenever I read lyrics of songs I think I know by heart, I realize I don’t really know it exactly. It’s really challenging so the bloopers are fun. You can gain a real appreciation for the rappers delivery and the message of the song as whole by doing this activity.
Who to read along with? Outkast, Black Thought (Emcee from The Roots), Busta Rhymes, Jean Grae. all of these artists present complex rhyme schemes in extremely musical and creative ways. Try to rap along with them, its tough.
Emphasize that Hip Hop is a culture. A culture with it’s own music, art, dance, fashion, speech and customs
Hip Hop culture consists of DJing (the music) Graffiti (the art) Breaking (the dance) and rapping (speech)
These aspects are rarely discussed in mainstream Hip Hop. If you can show you tube videos of DJ’s cutting breaks, while dancers spin on their heads, kids will be into it. A freestyle battle where emcees are improvising lyrics based on their surroundings, with someone beatboxing is a great way to draw them in. Unfortunately the 5 pointz is gone here in NYC but there are plenty of pieces and murals around to show our children. If you are not in a city with graffiti, hit up the internet. You can find great graffiti art to share. Maybe even work on some bubble lettering together. If you can connect those murals to Hip Hop, they will see that this culture was created to give a voice to young people that society threw away.
I Hope this piece helped to give you some ideas on how to share this beautiful art form with your children. Enjoy the music, dance, have fun, talk, share ideas on life and society. Hip Hop can help us learn more about each other. Helping to shape critical thinkers, listeners, and build an informed citizenry.
“ MF’s say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels, but do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” Jay-Z (Renegade, Blueprint album)
Think about this question Jay-Z asks. Do we listen to music? Or do we just skim through, hear what we want to hear, and receive only a partial message.
Hip Hop is a true Black American art form that has influenced music, style and economies all over the globe. However because it has been taken over as a corporate commodity, and used to drive sales, hyper-masculinity and huge profits have pushed artists to create a world that some say is filled with violence, misogyny and homophobia.
Tricia Rose writes in “Hip Hop Wars”
“Hip Hop is in a terrible crises. Although its overall fortunes have risen sharply, the most commercially promoted and financially successful hip hop–what has dominated mass-media outlets such as television, film, radio and recording industry for a dozen years or so- has increasingly become a playground for caricatures of black gangstas, pimps and hoes. Hyper-sexism has increased dramatically, homophobia along with distorted, anti-social, self destructive, and violent portraits of black masculinity have become raps calling cards. Relying on an ever-narrowing range of images and themes, this commercial juggernaut has played a central role in the near-depletion of what was once a vibrant, and complex popular genre, wringing it dry by pandering to America’s racist and sexist lowest common denominator.”
I agree with Dr. Rose, not just because I am nostalgic for the Hip Hop of my youth. I agree because if you have eyes and ears that are open you can hear and see that this culture has been swallowe by a corporate entity where lowest common denominator equates to more sales. So if you want to be signed, you portray these images, leaving all the messages and positivity for the underground rappers.
Dr. Rose uses the term lowest common denominator. I like the use of that term because in order to find the lowest common denominator in mathematics one must understand all of the steps it takes to reach the answer. You must know addition, subtraction, multiplication tables, know what a numerator and denominator are. You need to be able to factor and sometimes solve for numbers that are not present based on the given information. Finding the lowest common denominator can be difficult, and if you skip or mess up a step you are done. Finding the LCD and deciphering hip hop culture can be difficult if you don’t have all the tools to find the answers.
Is there beauty in Hip Hop? Yes Beauty. To me it’s like a private beach with a never ending horizon, but there is Hennessy in my Pina Colada and Slum Village bumping to relieve the stress.
Is there ugliness in Hip Hop? Yes, there is ugliness. The stories of people who have been systematically driven into second class citizenship for generations usually have some vulgar elements. T.I. Explains this perfectly on the Daily Show.
Trevor Noah (host)
In Hip Hop people are talking about guns, people are talking about shooting, saying F*** the police. Critics would say, how is this helping the dialogue.
Hip Hop has traditionally been a reflection of the environment the rapper was in before he made it. So if you want to change the content of hip hop music, try changing the environment of the artist and he won’t have so many negative things to say.
One of the crowning jewels of Hip Hop is it’s ability to juxtapose the beautiful with the crude and the brilliant with the boorish. The Pretty and Profane being weaved together to create a culture that fully represents the struggle and the beauty of Black and Brown Americans.
Knowing that Hip Hop employs the pretty and the profane is what makes it so appealing, and what makes it so complex. But as Jay-Z asked us, do we really listen, or do we just skim through it.? Do we know all the steps it takes to solve X? In some cases the question is can we get past the profane to enjoy the pretty?
In 1991 I went to the now defunct Randall Park Mall with my Dad. We walked Through J.C. Penny, past the video arcade (do those still exist b/c I love them) past foot locker and finally it appeared, Sam Goody or Coconuts I can’t remember.
We walked in and I perused the aisles of CD’s in long cardboard boxes that were more than twice as long as the CD itself. I saw posters of album covers for The New Jack City soundtrack (got that already), Bryan Adams (Nope) Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men, Marky Mark, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.
I liked a lot of those artists and even had some of their albums. However today was my entry into another world. This is would be the first day I heard THE PRETTY AND THE PROFANE in one. This is day Hip Hop shocked me into a love affair. In this world virtuoso wordsmiths were help up by thick 808’s and 12 second of sample time. In this world violence and misogyny live right next door to conscious upliftment, pro-blackness and messages of hope. Filth and elegance top rocking around each other to classic breaks. Completely in tune and on time.
I picked up Apocalypse ‘91 by Public Enemy and O.G. (Original Gangster) by Ice-T.
At this point I was a Hip Hop newbie. I had Raising Hell by RUN DMC and “I’m the rapper he’s the DJ” by The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff”
Not hating on those records.They are both great albums in their own right. But Public Enemy and Ice-T contained two special elements that transformed me.
Beats by the Bomb Squad and the lyrical Shock Value of Chuck D and Ice-T
Beats by the Bomb Squad- The Bomb Squad were a group super producers from Long Island. Hank and Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, Gary “G wiz”, Eric Sadler and Bill Stephney revolutionized the technique of sampling. Before the Bomb Squad Hip Hop producers would use 2-5 samples per song on average. But the Bomb Squad could easily rock out 15-20 samples in one song. Consistently hitting your ears with bits of classic music collaged into a magnificent piece. Bomb Squad beats are a consistent sonic assault. They all employed all the dope melodic and rhythmic elements of black music, right on top of screeches and squeals, sirens and funky scratches- creating a sound palette that forced me to press rewind because they blew my mind. (Redman)
I was in front of my Fischer boombox with the CD player on top. Mouth open, eyes wide, unable to move or fully comprehend what I was hearing. Beats hit so hard, and moved with merciless momentum. So many different sounds and bits of songs I recognized totally reinvented to create something sonically pleasing and dissonant at once. I’m 36 now and still find new things to hear in beats by the Bomb Squad each time I listen. I can’t forget to mention Chuck D dropping the knowledge of the middle passage and cointelpro on me as an 11 year old. A booming voice that demands your full attention. You can listen to beauty of the beats to the lesson or just enjoy the power and grace of the voice over “murderous” beats.
Check out how Chuck helps us visualize the middle passage and slavery. Families being ripped apart, laying in your own feces, being branded, these are all profane actions laid seamlessly with a knocking beat and a powerful delivery. Pretty and Profane.
After I was blown away by the beats next came the Code of the Streets. Ice-T fresh off New Jack City fame gives a brutally honest look at the life of a gangster in Los Angeles. He commits murder, robbery, and kidnapping all within the first 2 songs. On top of Afrika Islam beats that rival the ruggedness of the Bomb Squad. I admired the beauty of the beats and the Lushness of the dark storytelling. The exquisite, trading spaces with the truly offensive. Throughout the album Ice-T delivers hard hitting rhymes about the truth of gang life, while laying the foundations of social constructs that created this reality.
New Jack Hustler verse 3- Ice T – Over a sample of Jasper Country Man by Bobbi Humphrey (Lyrics below)
“I had nothing, and I wanted it,You had everything, and you flaunted it. Turned the needy into the greedy, with cocaine, my success came speedy. Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox. Every dollar I get, another brother drops. Maybe that’s the plan, and I don’t understand,God damn—-you got me sinkin in quicksand. But since I don’t know, and I ain’t never learned, I gotta get paid, I got money to earn. With my posse, out on the ave, Bump my sounds, crack a forty and laugh. Cool out and watch my new Benz gleam, Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream? So think twice if you’re coming down my block, You want to journey through hell? Well shit gets hot. Pregnant teens, children’s screams. Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam. You don’t come here much, and ya better not. Wrong move (bang), ambulance cot. I gotta get more money than you got, So what, if some muthafucka gets shot? That’s how the game is played, Another brother slayed, the wound is deep BUT they’re givin us a Band Aid. My education’s low but I got long dough, Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro.Sleep on silk, lie like a politician, My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician. Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe,
There’ll be another one after me…….a hustler.
In one verse he discusses government involvement in the drug trade, how it has affected the Black community, the “band aids” that don’t fix the problems, materialism and teen pregnancy. We also hear of scared children dealing with the ruthlessness of a place where life is weighed on the scales of triple beam (device used for weighing drugs).
He asks us, is this a nightmare or the American Dream? A valid question since every dollar he make another brother drops.
On the surface this verse contains profanity, murder without regret, and a promotion of gangster lifestyle. However if we listen to the entirety of the verse we see that he is really discussing American social injustice and a fixed system specifically the cycle of poverty leading to crime, and crime to prison. He shows us how even prison doesn’t end the game. “There’ll be another one after me…… a hustler” No matter what, lock up one drug dealer, someone will take their place the next day. A magnificent beat underpinning a lyric that is both polished and polluted. The pretty and profane.
I can’t not give you the original sample. It’s one of my favorites.
Jasper Country Man- Bobbi Humphrey
Now how do we break this down. The pretty and the profane, the gorgeous and the grimey. I remember listening to The Chronic and Doggystyle on my yellow Sony CD player up in my room, on headphones trying to hide it from my parents. Think about Ready to Die. Easy Moe Bee beats bumping, Biggie ripping the track open with so many different rhythmic inflections, adlibs and cadences. Although the album is riddled with profanity, violence and even suicide, I you have the ability to take on the project as a whole , the artistry of the album cannot be denied.
Listen to the opening verse of Unbelievable. Lyrics by Biggie beat by DJ Premier
“Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one
Representing BK to the fullest
Gats I pull it, bastards ducking when Big be bucking
Chickenheads be clucking in my bathroom fucking
It ain’t nothing, they know Big be handling
With the mac in the Ac’ door paneling
Damagin MC’s, oxygen they can’t breathe
Mad tricks up the sleeve, wear boxers so my dick can breathe
Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side, lyrical high
And those that rushes my clutches get put on crutches
Get smoked like dutches from the master
Hate to blast you, but I have to, you see I smoke a lot
Your life is played out like Kwame, and them fucking polka dots
Who rock the spot? Biggie
You know how the weed go, unbelievable.
In this verse Biggie beautifully weaves in and out of pulling guns on people, bathroom sex, Smoking weed, crippling someone and dissing an old school emcee. That is what it seems like on the surface, but when you read along and listen simultaneously to his delivery and the word play, there is a lot more to take in. Biggie masterfully uses the english language to makes it seem like he is just taking part in violent acts and getting high. In reality it’s all metaphor for his UNBELIEVABLE rhyme style. Pretty and profane.
These lyrics are spit over top a super hot beat the the legendary DJ Premier. His rhythmic scratches bring Biggies voice in an out letting us know who is the illest. Not to mention the genius sample of R. Kelly’s “Your body’s calling” Which birthed the title of this track. Speaking of pretty and profane R. Kelly is whole other article. Primo always makes the rawness sound so damn lovely.
So why did I have to hide this music. In retrospect I do not think Ice-T or Biggie would even be considered hardcore today. The lyrics were smart, based in reality, it’s excellent story telling filled with expert use literary device. Why would my parents not want me to hear this? Why would they not want me to hear Snoop or Dre, or Nas, or Jay-Z or Wu- Tang.
Was it the cursing? I don’t think so. I watched movies with cursing in them all time from a young age. Also our parents are the same generation who listened to Richard Pryor records, and Redd Foxx. Talk about saying something foul…. They were the kings.
Was it the Violence? I don’t think so. I saw Robocop when I was 7 years old. Should I have, I don’t know, but I turned out Ok. However it seemed like they were fine with me viewing the material.
Was it the sexual themes and misogyny? Ok even I can admit I didn’t need to hear Biggie have sex in between One more Chance and The What. I just didn’t need to hear that. It was absolutely vulgar, and offensive to many. But the track that follows up the profane interlude (The What feat. Method Man) is so damn pretty. Here we are met with Jay-Z’s question again, do we listen to music or just skim through it. Do we take on projects as a whole, or do we take one part and say this whole album or this whole genre is just trash. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite movies. However if I only saw the rape and murder scenes, without the rest of the movie would I really be qualified to judge it?
The reason I think I hid it was because of a generational gap. When I was growing up Hip Hop had a bad media image. My own family publicly came out in the media against Hip Hop and it’s lyrical content. In the end most of the critics heard one or two songs and labeled an entire genre as “evil” without ever listening to a full album or inquiring about the diverse group of artists Hip Hop had to offer. There used to be all kinds of Hip Hop music, with many different messages and foci. Now ” However in all honesty ask yourself could your mother make it through the entire Chronic album? Most of the Mom’s of that era I know could not.
Here’s an example. I was at my friend’s house back in highschool. We were listening to “Sucka Nigga” from A Tribe Called Quests Album Midnight Marauders. This song delves into the historical roots of the term “nigger”. A word used to cause pain, and how Hip Hop has taken control of the word, using it as term of endearment. However we got in trouble for listening to Tribe because all her Mom heard was Nigga, Nigga, Nigga, Nigga,Nigga. If we would have sat with her mom, broke down the Freddie Hubbard sample used, and deconstructed the lyrical content to bring the pretty and the profane to the surface, she would have gotten it. But these conversations do not happen.
Sucka Nigga – A Tribe Called Quest
My wife Pilar and I bump classic Hip Hop as a “Daily Operation” (Gangstarr) Loud in the house, sub woofer pumping. Should we be hiding it?
We have two daughters Aaliyah (5) Lola (3) They are incredible in every way. I want to be able to share my love of Hip Hop with them. I want to play the albums I grew up listening to for them. Some of my greatest memories are listening to Motown tapes in my Dad’s car. I know every lyric, every drop, and every key change Motown ever wrote from those car rides and talking about music with my Dad.
Will I be able to impart that kind of history on Aaliyah and Lola?
I think it’s my duty to help Aaliyah and Lola understand the social constructs that created all these stories of violence, and misogyny that glorify the dark parts of this life. It is also my duty to help them see music and art as entire pieces. The ability to understand the project as a whole, not just a bunch of curses and violent acts. It is mine and the duty of other Hip Hop parents to nurture a mature listener.
So how do we raise kids who can understand the social constructs that created these very explicit narratives? Kids who can separate art from reality.
Choose the right artists- May not want to jump right in with rawness. Start off with something like
“The Message by Grand- Master Flash and Furious Five
Paid in Full by Eric B & Rakim
Work your way up to N.W.A, Biggie and Kendrick Lamar
N.W.A – Fuck the Police – A blistering take on police violence
Kendrick Lamar- Blacker the Berry- Ingenious look at how America loves Black culture but hates Black people
If sharing your love of Hip Hop with your kids is important to you I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of differences between say, Biggie, Common, The Roots, School- Boy Q, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Jungle Brothers, and Kendrick Lamar. You can pick songs and albums that you feel comfortable with. If they start to ask questions, look for the teachable moments. They can understand more than we think.
I want my kids to listen to Things Fall Apart, Wu-Tang Forever and Aquemini with fond memories. To love these albums and use them to ask just as many questions as I did.
Approach the topic of sexism and misogyny with care.
“Raps stars and the corporations that distribute their songs get away with and have profited handsomely from highly vulgar and explicit forms of sexism specifically targeting black women. A fact that only encourages other up and coming artists to follow in their misogynist footsteps to get famous and rich. For all the recent and past outcry against the ways that hip hop generally depicts black women, this state of affairs has, for the most part (with just a few major challenges here and there), been allowed to expand and diversify mostly unchecked.” Rose (Hip Hop Wars)
Pilar and I are raising two black girls in 2017 America. This country is not really a forward thinking place anymore. Aaliyah and Lola will undoubtedly face challenges as women of color.
I mean look at this twitter feed to see how Black women are treated in the workplace.
They will have some advantages too, but being a woman of color in America is an uphill battle against, racism, sexism, cronyism, nepotism, and many other isms.
How can I make sure that Aaliyah and Lola know that they are not a rented prop for some man? How can I make sure they know to never accept disrespect, and know they can be in control, powerful, creative and influential, without playing into the stereotypical roles of black women in hip hop. How can I show them this when something I love shows so much of the opposite?
Well, I will choose the right artists to share. I will break down MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. I will bump that Jean Grae and Bahamadia. Lauryn Hill stays on repeat.
It’s my job to show them the Hip Hop I love, and find modern artists that share the values and aesthetics I want to foster. To show that Hip Hop is a culture with its own, art, music, dance, fashion, speech, and customs.
Andre 3000 raps on Humble Mumble (Stankonia)
“ I met a critic, I made her sh** her drawers. She thought hip hip was only guns and alcohol. I said oh hell naw, but yet it’s that too. You can’t discrimihate cause you done read a book or two. What if I looked at you through a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms living in your closet would I pause it.”
Andre is saying hip hop is bigger than the stereotypes and negativity. And no need to hit pause on just the dirty parts we are so complex.
I am talking about creating responsible active listeners who do not just skim through. Listeners who can break the music down analytically, but also just chill, vibe and enjoy it as helps them grow. They will be able to hear and enjoy the Pretty and the Profane as one. The Bomb Squad will bring them as much pleasure as Mozart, Duke Ellington and Baldwin.
Why is this important? Because Hip Hop is a music that named an entire generation of people. It was a driving force in our formative years, and helped to shape who we are as people. I truly believe that sharing Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture will help my kids know me better, creating lifelong memories.
The beat will always go on, life will bring joy and pain, but hip hop can help you appreciate the pretty and the profane.