Saturday, December 12, 2009

Super Fly

My man Mike Gonzales put his goon hand down fo sho in this months Wax Poetics. His article about Curtis Mayfield and the the making of the Super Fly soundtrack bought back alot of memories for me.

First, my moms is in theatre so she kinda turned her nose up at flicks like Super Fly, The Mack, Trick Baby - you know all of the movies I would later love.

It was at the Jamaica Alden where I first saw Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier's "A Piece of the Action". Out of all of the blaxploitation flicks, the pairing of Cosby and Poitier were the funniest.

I didn't get to see Super Fly until I was in the 9th grade. My home boy John's dad had all of them joints on Betamax. "Super Fly" was the ultimate shit. I loved the ending:

Priest raises his cross containing his secret sniff stash and inhales a lil somethin...(sniff, sniff)
"Yeah, you see that envelope, in that envelope I got names, baby!
Places. Your daughter. Your faggot son.
Yeah, if you touch one hair on my pretty head that envelope goes everywhere..."

I don't know what they had in those envelopes in all of those films, they used the envelope trick in "A Piece of the Action" and a bunch of other films as well. Had to be some powerful shit in them envelopes I can only imagine what they had in there that was so incriminating (pics of the boss blowin' a dude, pics of pay offs, pics of the boss gettin' raped by a horse - and lovin it) that these big powerful "Outfit hitters" would back the fuck up...

Anyway, my two favorite tracks from the "Super Fly" soundtrack are "Little Child Runnin Wild" and 'Freddie's Dead".

"Little Child Runnin' Wild" was used some years back in an episode of "New York Undercover" where a young girl who was raped by a gang member and HIV positive was on the run. Nothing captures the desperation of the moment like those violins at the end of the song. The sadness, the despair are all encapsulated in that recording.

Oh yeah, big shout out to Patrick Sisson, his story "Night Life" is bonkers too! Love the pics can't wait to pick up the album "Pepper's Jukebox". Cop the issue and you'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Iceberg Slim in Wax Poetics

 last Mark Skillz is back in the place. Okay true believers, haters, students, teachers and bored web surfers, here it is: BAM! And ya say 'Gotdamn"

After three years it's finally here. And I ain't mad. They say God sends you your blessings when you need it, not when you want it. Well, I'm not God, but I'm blessing ya'll with my long awaited, hard fought, tenaciously researched feature article about the life of Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck.

Just so ya know, I originally entitled the article "The Pimp Chronicles", my editor Brian DiGenti came up with a new title, one that I ain't mad at, it's called "The Next Hustle". I'm feeling that.

My man Michael A Gonzales put his mutha funkin goon hand down on the Curtis Mayfield cover story. And Ronnie Reese is no joke either!

Beck to me is like Louis Jordan to James Brown, or Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, he's my favorite favorite writer in the world - and I have alot of favorite writers, its just that Beck stands head, shoulders, knees and toes above everyone else for me. This article is the beginning of my monument to the man. He hasn't been given his just due props on any kind of major level. No one - Dr. Pete Muckley excluded, has given him the respect of say Baldwin, Hughes, Steinbeck, Wright and Claude McKay. He deserves it.

There are all kinds of biographies about Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin but nothing about Bob Beck. And its ashamed. Hell, even Donald Goines has had two books written about him.

Anyway, you can get Wax Poetics at Barnes and Noble, Border Books or any used record store, if you can't find the issue order it here:

I'll be posting it up in a few months, but please go and buy a copy so that you can see the pics and the great layout we did.

Aiiiight then two fingers...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Summary of what's on the site

At the height of the “Roxanne, Roxanne” era in early 80’s rap Doreen Broadnax was a much feared battle rapper named Sparky D – and then she discovered crack cocaine…

In the 70’s and 80’s when Harlem’s smooth style of R&B dominated the New York hip-hop scene DJ Reggie Wells was the master of the mix.

In 1977 two titans of the New York party scene met for a sound clash at the Executive Playhouse. One of them would fall into obscurity, the other would become a legend and a kid named Grandmaster Flash emerged as a rising star…

One day in 1982 five guys from the Bronx River projects recorded a song that would forever change the direction of modern music. The record: “Planet Rock.”

A generation ago at hot nightclubbing spots like Captain Nemos and the Hotel Diplomat a man would chant into the mic: “Who makes it sweeter?” And a crowd of thousands would shout back in response: “Cheba! Cheba! Cheba!” His name was Eddie Cheba…

Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim wrote novel after novel detailing the pain and suffering of lost and lonely souls in the ghetto. Spoonie Gee’s urban sermon “Street Girl” was the first rap record to capture that spirit…

In the beginning hip-hop clubs had no style, but that all changed when Sal Abbatiello bought the glitz and glamour of midtown clubs to the South Bronx…

Before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt and Pepa; three girls from the Dirty South rocked mics alongside hip-hop heavyweights of the first era…

Before they were Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Bronx group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had a long climb to the top. And then a song that none of them liked made them stars…

In 1975 there was only one King of Rap: DJ Hollywood was the royalty of rhyme and a star before there was any such thing as a rap record.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why Grandmaster Mele Mel is a Genius

Recently there was a small ruckus in the world of rap when mixtape soldier Joe Budden stuck his foot in his mouth, or should I say some other unmentionable orifice. Budden, upset with his ranking in VIBE magazines list of greatest rappers of all time, took exception to being ranked lower than old school great Mele Mel.

“Mele Mel?” The rapper asked, “what has he done recently?”

Mel’s response caught many off guard. It was to the point and funny. Mel ran off a short list of his accomplishments. He has so many “firsts” that it is literally impossible to leave him off of anyone’s greatest of all time list.

The first rapper to have his song added to the Library of Congress.

The first rapper (his group included) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The first rapper to use the title MC.

The first rapper to make a real video.

The first rapper to win an Emmy.

And there are other firsts that I just can’t name off right now. Let’s just put it this way: This dude has so many “firsts” that if you erased his name from the history of the rap game…there would be no rap game!

With his usual hubris Mel created his own chart of great rappers using a body chart. As to be expected he ranked himself number five (in the throat area), he then ranked Joe at around number thirty-two – which so happened to fall around the ass crack or ball sack area of the body.

Everybody knows the words to “The Message” so I’m not about to take up any space here reciting those words. Now if your looking for a hidden gem in the rap game, might I suggest you check out one of Mel’s least celebrated recordings: “World War III”.

Let me give you a little background about this song and its impact before I go into it.

In 1984 the world was on edge. This was before the threat of Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda friends. At that time, believe it or not, Bin Laden and his friends (the mujahdeen) were on our side.

For forty years two great nuclear powers had been on the verge of literally blowing up the world. There was fear on both sides. The fear of a nuclear war and the spread of communism gave fuel to the rise of the right wing of the Republican Party.

But Republicans be damned. The possibility of nuclear war was damn frightening to everybody. After we dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima we had a deep seated fear of the karma awaiting us.

In 1984 anti-war forces were out in mass protesting anything and everyone connected to the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

There have been many movies that have dealt with the fallout from nuclear war. First among them: “The Planet of the Apes”. The premise of the story was that after mankind had literally blown itself back into the Stone Age, a weird kind of reverse evolution took place, the planet became the dominion of the gorillas! To hell with the “missing link” we were at the bottom of the food chain ya’ll!

Another movie that comes to mind is the “Terminator”. No, it had nothing to do with nuclear war, but it depicted a world run by machines. Mankind living in fear of machines.

Science fiction has always told stories of the planet self-destructing due to man’s greed and propensity for violence. Our worlds future is depicted as cold, dangerous, sterile, bleak and we’re either at the mercy of machines or other evil forces, who have no choice but to dominate us due to our violent nature.

So with all of that as a backdrop enter: the message raps of the eighties. Before so-called “conscious rappers” there was Kurtis Blow, Mele Mel, Divine Sounds, CD III, Twilight 22, RUN-DMC, Fearless Four and dozens of other groups back then that all kicked rhymes about hard times, unemployment, drugs and how scary the city was becoming.

Maybe this is a good time to have this conversation. I don’t know how many rap songs get released every year in this country, but with myspace music, mixtapes, and so many other avenues to release music, fuggeaboutit , it’s too goddamn many to mention. But lets just say that a large portion of it – lyrically, is irrelevant.

Why do I say that?

Ok, maybe songs about dudes flossin’ and girls strippin’ and endless nights in clubs sippin’ Henny and poppin’ E pills is relevant to how some people are livin’. I ain’t about to sit here and argue that. Uh uh. But what does all that have to do with the current state of our country?

Let’s be clear we are in the midst of the worse recession since 1929. We are fighting two wars and are on the verge of maybe fighting a third and a fourth (Iraq, Pakistan, Korea you pick one). More people have lost homes and jobs in the past year than at anytime ever.

So let’s get back to being relevant.

What does being relevant mean? According to the dictionary: “pertaining to or connected with the matter at hand or under discussion”

So like I say, songs about sippin’ this and that; and trippin’ off of this and that; may in fact be relevant to some. I know, I know no one wants to hear about the problems of the world, they listen to music because they want to escape all of that. And that’s why they pop this and that and sip this and that. But understand, you can’t run from your problems forever. You can’t drink your life away (at least you shouldn’t), you can’t fuck your life away (you can – but you shouldn’t) because your problems aren’t going anywhere.

With that said, the 60’s and ‘70’s were the era of some of the great songwriters ever. Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Gamble and Huff, Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield and dozens and dozens of others, all of whom could write songs that not only talked about good times, love and drugs, but and this is important, they talked about what was going on in the world around them.

During the 60’s John Lennon said that American music was irrelevant because none of the songs were talking about Vietnam. He said that the only song that was in anyway relevant was Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street” which was a metaphor for the riots taking place at the time.

So here we are in the 21st century in the midst of a depression, two wars and an uncertain future and what are popular artists today singing about? Well, let’s see…ego driven nights in clubs, sexual fantasy’s and other mindless dribble.

Let’s get back to 1984 the year that a lot of these artists claim they were born.

Four or five hundred years ago, if someone would’ve read Mele Mel’s lyrics to ‘World War III’ he would’ve been called a prophet, a mystic, a poet, messianic preacher, a visionary and a genius. There are moments in the song when, I swear, Mel could’ve been Confucius or I dare say a messenger like Jesus or Moses. With lines like…

Man is in conflict with nature,

And that is why there is so much sin.

But mother natures delicate balance

Will fix it so nobody wins in World War III.”

Now let’s examine that. At the time Mel was twenty two years old. He was a young father with children trying to feed his family in hip-hop’s infancy. Hip-hop in the 80’s was the “champagne and cocaine era.” When you mix that in with the fact that Mel was in the hottest group of that time, well, let’s just say its difficult to believe that he would be able to write something as profound as the following lyrics.

There’s been a talk of a fiery tomb,

Prophesized since the dawn of time.

In a world of bloodshed

Mass confusion

Killer diseases

Pollution and crime.

Man is conflict with nature

And that is why there is so much sin.

But mother natures delicate balance

Will fix it so nobody wins

In World War III

And then he got poetic

Between the boundaries of time and space,

Was the planet Earth and the human race.

A world alive,

And centuries old,

With veins of diamonds, silver and gold.

Snow capped mountains overlooked the land

And the deep blue sea made love with the sand.

Full grown strands of evergreen hair

Kissed the sky with the breath of air.

Where exotic fish once swam in the sea,

And the eagles soared in the sky so free

But the foolish clan that walked the land

Was the creature that they called man.

They’re cannibalistic paranoid fools

Tricking each other with games and rules.

Training their men to kill and fight

Movin’ and steering with mechanized might.

The only thought that man had in mind,

Was to conquer the world and the rest of mankind…

This was before songwriters and producers established the tired, trite and overly formulaic song structure of the sixteen bar verse and the eight bar chorus that is now mandatory on every record.

A thousand miles away from home

A mortally wounded soldier dies.

And on the blood stained battlefield

His life flashes before his eyes.

Before he died the man saw Jesus

And Jesus Christ took his hand

And on the soldiers dying breath

The Good Lord took him to the Promised Land.

But there’s no more pain,

Everybody disappears after World War III

The silver moon the midnight stars

Jupiter collides with Mars

And out of the darkness spirits roar,

To cast revenge on the Earth once more

The leaders of the world are hypnotized,

By wizards dark and in disguise

Bought to Earth by an evil hand

To devour souls in the brand new land.

They make the leaders think that war brings peace

And out comes the one with the Mark of the Beast.

There’s evil behind closed doors in the year of 1984.

The first time I interviewed Mel I asked him about the origin of the lyrics, my assumption was that Sylvia Robinson had probably introduced him to the songs of Lennon and McCartney or Bob Dylan, or maybe he had a nightmare about the end of the world. His response: “I was just trying to beat other MC’s.”

Go figure that: deeply profound lyrics with searing insight and poetic prophesy; at the heart, were written out of the fear of competition!

Conscious Rappers vs Message Rappers

On the surface it sounds like there should be no difference, right? Let's look at the artists and compare some notes.

In 1982 Sugar Hill Records released the ground breaking classic "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This was a song written by an obscure session musician named Ed Fletcher. At first Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson wanted the song to be recorded by the Sugar Hill Gang. Thank God for Sylvia's ears cause that wouldn't have sounded right.

In fact, none of the Sugar Hill artists wanted to record it. Neither the Crash Crew or the Treacherous Three wanted to do it. I seriously doubt that she offered it to Sequence. I've been told by both Rahiem and Mele Mel that Sylvia Robinson
insisted that the band record that song or else.

After much hemming and hawing and leg and teeth pulling, the Furious Five as a unit recorded "The Message". But Sylvia didn't like it. She insisted that Mel and Ed Fletcher record the song together. The song became a classic. It is the first rap recording to be added tothe Library of Congress.

It was the impact of the record that I'm talking about right here though.

After "The Message" came out group after group made "message" type records that talked about unemployment, drugs, the insanity of ghetto life etc. It can be argued that the ripple effects of "The Message" were felt all the way up until 1989 when NWA released "Fuck tha Police".

However, there is a difference between "Message" rap and "gangsta rap".

Who are some of the artists that recorded "Message raps?"

Twilight 22
Divine Sounds
Kurtis Blow
Fearless Four
Lovebug Starsky
Jeckyll and Hyde

There were others I just don't feel like writing out all of them. This ain't a library ya know.

Okay, 1987 the conscious era begins. For me it starts with Public Enemy. BDP didn't get "conscious" until the release of their second album "By Any Means Necessary". After that came X Clan, Paris, Def Jeff and so many other groups if they weren't wearing red, black and green then they were singing about red, black and green.

But they were doing "Message Rap". Somewhere, somehow, someone came along and made a difference between the two. When there wasn't. The only difference between the two was the use of Black Nationalist imagery.

All those groups did "The Message" over harder beats.

Why today aren't Kurtis Blow and Mele Mel called "conscious rappers?"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Toasts, Boasts and Street Stories

Back…caught you lookin’ for the same thing!

Okay true believers, history buffs, hip-hop aficionados and people who are just bored out of their skulls, Hip-Hop 101A is back. Dig it, before I go any further special shout to my man Mike G for supplying me with the information for this piece and o-dub over at soul-sides for the inspiring sounds.

Let us move on…

In the years immediately following the release of ‘Rappers Delight’ and ‘The Message’, newspaper reports and magazine features briefly mentioned raps origins being connected with toasts.

For the record: I didn’t know what in the hell they were talking about.

The first toast I ever heard was Hustlers Convention by Lightning Rod (aka Jalal of the Last Poets). At one time the toast Sport” on the Hustlers Convention album was a staple on the b-boy scene because it opened with a bass and drum break that flowed into some horns. The opening lines went something like this…

“It was a full moon in the middle of June,

In the summer of ‘59

I was young and cool and shot a bad game of pool,

And hustled all the chumps I could find.

Now they call me Sport,

Cause I push the ball short,

And loved all the women to death.

I partied hard and packed a mean rod,

That could knock you out from the right or the left.”

Hustlers Convention contained a full album with tracks by Kool and the Gang along with Eric Gale and Buddy Miles. It was a gangsta ass album when Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were still potty training. Jalal as Lightning Rod, ran down the adventures of he and his ace boon coon Spoon, as they prepared to take on all winners at the ultimate street extravaganza, a one night winner-takes-all in craps, pool and cards at a place called Ham hocks Hall. The event is so high powered that hustlers from every part of the country attend: Finger Poppin Teddy and his call girl Betty, Grit, Big Bill Wheeler (international drug dealer), Stingy Brim Slim and many others.

Lightning Rod must’ve had an eye for cinematography, listening to him will make you think of Madame Zenobia’s in the Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier flick “Uptown Saturday Night.”

Hustlers Convention ends with Sport sentenced to the chair and then shipped to Sing Sing from there, where he kept on coppin’ a plea. The best line of the whole album is where the Black Nationalist Jalal steps in and unveils the stupidity of thug life with the lines

‘The real hustlers steal billions,

From the unsuspecting millions,

Who are programmed to think they can win…

In my solitude I found out what’s really goin’ down you see…

I learned the whole truth when I was there.”

In all honesty the first place I heard Hustlers Convention was on the album “Grandmaster Mele Mel and the Furious Five”. Mele Mel did a remake of the toast “Sport” and totally reworked the scene at Hamhocks Hall. At the time, I thought Mel was a genius because I had never heard anyone rap like that before.

Little did I know back then, that that was the original style street hustlers rapped in back in the 50’s and 60’s. There are hundreds of toasts – why they are called toasts is beyond me, but, they deal with street life. They apparently originated on street corners and penitentiaries all over the country. The poems a lot of them sad, tragic, some funny, some remorseful talk about the blows a pimp takes in the game, the lost love of a pimp (Doriella DuFontaine) and the penalty one must take for participating in the game.

Iceberg Slim (a/k/a Robert Beck) a man who was no stranger to jail cells or street corners, recorded his own collections of toasts for an album called Reflections, Slim wrote his own toast to his deceased mother Mary Brown Beck, it’s title? Momma Debt.

One of the most popular toasts is attributed to the late comedian Rudy Ray Moore b/k/a Dolemite, Moore popularized the toast the “Signifying Monkey”, to this day, at 40 years of age, I still don’t know what signifyin’ is, but the monkey, a bad mother fuckin monkey at that, talked shit to any and every one in the jungle.

“Way down in the jungle deep,

The signifyin’ monkey stepped on the lions feet…”

Listening to the toasts I can see where someone could get the inspiration perhaps to say them to the beat, especially when you consider that it was the funk and soul era, it would only be natural to marry street poetry with funky beats.