I have been quiet here for a while–but I have been listening diligently, and that diligence has been quite pleasurable. To wit, three aural adventures:
“Mr. O, What’s ‘The Golden Age’ of Rap?'”
This was a question posed to me by a couple of my young Science Olympiad competitors after, as is my year-end ritual, I offered to custom-assemble an MP3 disk of music for each student on the team. Counting graduates who returned for our celebratory banquet, I knocked out 22 disks, but the one that was the most fun to put together was the one that answered that query. My definition of rap’s Golden Age is loose (1988-1994?) and arguable, and I stepped outside of it for a few selections, but I wanted them to taste some stuff that they might well have overlooked in the flood of possible Spotify/YouTube/iTunes choices, and here are my personal favorites of what I fed the kidz:
The Goats: “Typical American”
This Philly trio had one great album in them, and it’s still one of a kind. a) It’s a concept album about the traps of ’90s USA that works; b) the skits are as great as the songs; and c) it delivers an anthem–this song–that still, unfortunately, resonates.
Busta Rhymes with Old Dirty Bastard: “Woo-Hah” (Remix)
The original is just fine, but, to my ear, the remix is outta sight. One might argue that the two MCs’ styles are too close for a great team-up, but the Dirt Dog’s improvs, associations, and even-crazier-than-usual vocal stylizations mean there’s no mistaking who’s who. And ODB just steals the track.
Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya”
Speaking of insane vocal stylizations, what the heck happened to Chip Fu, the only real reason to listen to this group? Yeah, he was fast, but that was far from all: on the Fu-Schnicks’ best tracks, he came closer than anyone to justifying the shaky claim that rap is simply verbal be-bop. That sells be-bop short, but Charlie Parker was grinning in jazz heaven when he heard Chip explode on his mind- and ear-bending verse here.
Ahmad, Ras Kass, and Saafir: “Come Widdit”
My man Alex Fleming from the Windy City tells me this trio was actually a short-lived GROUP called the Golden State Warriors; at the time, I only knew ’em from singles, and Ahmad’s killer debut. Listening to this now, it’s shocking that none of the three ever really blew up: their flows are fresh (especially Saafir’s, lingering just behind the beat), their rhymes and vocab are stunning, their personas as distinct as almost any rapper’s at the time you might want to name. This track’s from the great soundtrack of a horrible movie, Streetfighter. Lend a special ear to Ras Kass’ figurative language!
The Coup: “Dig It”
“Gunned us, gunned us/They raped us and they hung us/I’d like to take a moment to say/’Fuck Columbus!'” Thus The Coup and their mighty-mouthed MC Boots Riley ushered in their career, carried by a killer drums ‘n’ keys track that still sounds freshed. If you had bet on any of the writers featured in this list NOT to make it, you might have put your chips here, not because the skillz aren’t in play, but the confrontational style might have even scared off the hardcore. It’s a tribute to Riley’s commitment, brains, and talent that the best was yet to come, and that they are still in play almost two decades later. Note: if this track appeals to you, please read Ta-nehesi Coates’ recent related piece in The Atlantic.
Diamond D: “Best-Kept Secret”
For a moment, Diamond D was both a rising MC and an assassinatin’ producer. This track from the classic Stunts, Blunts, and Hip Hop demonstrates exactly why.
Showbiz and A.G.: “Fat Pockets”
Another shining Diamond D production moment, but the duo themselves showed every sign of stardom, and this tune was on almost every mix tape I made ’92.
Natural Resource: “Negro League Baseball”
Don’t be fooled by the video image; it’s the uploader’s way around a copyright dispute. However, the group did indeed feature a young woman, here not quite out of her teens, who’s long been my choice for “Queen of Hip Hop”: Ms. Jean Grae. Her verse is the standout, to my ears.
Heavy D and Friends: “Don’t Curse”
My all-time favorite posse cut, a hilarious idea that the gathered MCs actual pull off–barely!!!–and the best use ever of Booker T and the MGs’ classic “Hip Hug Her” outside of the original (and maybe the intro to Barfly). Heavy D, R.I.P.!
Ricky B: “Shake For Ya Hood”
The proof of the brilliance of this NOLA classic is, after a few plays, you’ll adopt it as your own anthem, no matter how pristine your own ‘hood is. And as raw as it is, it’s also innocent in its own special way (as many of the above tracks are): it’s hard to be outraged at a rap track that uses a zylophone (playing a cagey clip from The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”) for its hook, and, for once, an MC other than Chuck D really does live up to the “Black CNN” label. Ricky scans the scene, describes it in mournful detail, reveals his fear, but claims his turf anyway.
On a recent trip to our old stomping grounds in Springfield, Missouri, my wife and I forced one of our favorite artists down the throats of two of our friends. You ever do that? I thought you had! If you see me on the street and you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, whatever you do, DON’T mention Anita O’Day, or you’ll have to drag me wherever you’re going. Graduate of the school of hard knocks, protofeminist in the manly world of jazz, fashion pioneer, author of an unapologetic memoir that earns it title (High Times, Hard Times), survivor of not only an accidental uvula-ectomy and nearly two decades of heroin abuse but also neglect during her senior years, but–most important–a vocal stylist on par with Billie, Sarah, and Ella, she’s a jazz legend and inspirational icon you’re very unlikely to know. In my mind and ear, she has no other peers. Since we’re not on the street, I’m writing, and I do have places to go, here’s my quick attempt to hook you:
From the superb jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day:
From a Sixties appearance in Tokyo:
And the trailer for what we forced down Rex Harris’ and Heather Phipps’ throats (it went down smoothly, they would say–and they will be forcing it down others’ throats all too soon):
OK…you say you’re hooked? I knew you would be. Since YouTube so nicely offers COMPLETE ALBUMS (a development about which I am not sure), here’s my fave Anita album–bend a special ear to her album-long duel with accompanying pianist Oscar Peterson, and ask yourself what other vocalist could keep pace.
Appreciating the latter studio recordings of the Sinatra of Jazz, Sonny Rollins
If you are reading this blog, you no doubt know that Sonny Rollins, one of the last living jazz titans and surely one of three greatest tenor saxophonists ever, has just released the third in a series of live albums, called Road Shows, that document the outstanding playing of his seventh and eighth decade swinging on this mortal coil (I will plug the first as so far the most mind-blowing, but they are all excellent). Also, if you have been reading this blog since its recent inception, you no doubt know it’s mostly dedicated to keeping rekkids that might be destined to be lost in the torrent in your eye- and ear-lines. Well, if you’ve heard or are simply very interested in the Road Shows volumes, I would also encourage you to sample Rollins’ last four studio albums. The proper albums of Rollins’ post-1970 career have often been maligned as 1) too stiff; 2) too clean; 3) too boring; 4) too generous to too-pedestrian sidemen and, perhaps that’s true (Gary Giddins’ Silver City compilation argues very effectively otherwise for 1970-1990), but Sonny Rollins +3 (1995), Global Warming (1998), This Is What I Do (2000), and Sonny, Please (2006), none of which are represented on the Giddins comp, have many, many things to recommend them. Primary is–big surprise!–Rollins’ playing. Though the man’s never been shy of experimenting, and though the complexity and abstration of some of his greatest solos are pretty danged challenging, on these records he lets loose his huge, confident, sly sound on the melodies and just rides them. In a recent NPR, Sonny claimed that it’s impossible for him to think and play at the same time, but you’ll doubt that claim as he bends, twists, savors, exclaims, questions, scolds, and dances with these numbers, many of which are calypsos, which he typically blasts into the upper deck. Another underappreciated aspect of these records are the number of outstanding compositions by Rollins himself. He does have a few pieces of jazz repertory to his credit (“St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” to name a few), and it seems he’s best known for his miraculous interpretations (“I’m An Old Cowhand,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Isn’t She Lovely?”), but he has given future jazzmen and jazzwomen plenty to dig their teeth into with “Biji” (from +3), “Island Lady” (from Global), “Salvador” (from This), and “Nishi” (from Please). There’s a great compilation lurking in just the originals alone. Finally, the players? I am not sure Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, Tommy Flanagan, Idris Muhammad, and Steve Jordan strike you as pedestrian, but I guarantee you they didn’t strike Sonny that way, and, though they mostly stay out of the way and let the man blow, that isn’t all that easy to do well, really. Here’s my main pitch: if you’re familiar with the best of Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise recordings, what you’ll be getting out of Rollins’ horn is equal to what Ol’ Blue Eyes was intoning into the mic: warm, intelligent, intimate sound, created by a brain that knows its material inside and out. I do not proffer that comparison lightly.
Poor ol’ YouTube has very few tracks from these albums up; Spotify, however will help you out. But here’s a live track of Sonny blowing on “Salvador” that, if it speaks to you, should send you on to the rekkids I’ve rekkamended above.