Thursday, January 29, 2015

Goods Songs X and XI

Good Songs X

The Power – Snap
Crumbs on the Table – D-Nice
Call Me D-Nice – D-Nice
Poison – Bell Biv DeVoe
Do Me! – Bell Biv DeVoe
The Gas Face – 3rd Bass
It Takes 2 – Rob Base and DJ Easy Rock
Joy and Pain – Rob Base and DJ Easy Rock
U Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer
Express Yourself – NWA
The Humpty Dance – Digital Underground
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo – A Tribe Called Quest
Ride the Wind – Poison
Unskinny Bop – Poison
Deeper Shade of Soul – Urban Dance Squad
Love Song – Tesla
Scared – Dangerous Toys
Jackin’ For Beats – Ice Cube
We’re All in the Same Gang – West Coast Rap All-Stars

Good Songs XI

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Over the Hills and Far Away – Led Zeppelin
D’Yer Mak’er – Led Zeppelin
Heroin – Velvet Underground

Sorry for not posting this on Tuesday, but we got a bit of a storm up here in the Northeast. It dumped more than two feet of the white stuff at our house and that meant schools were closed for the day. When the kids are around, it’s difficult to write. Or think.

In fact it’s a lot like this edition of Good Songs, which is completely scattered. In the last entry, I told you that this was part of a troika of Good Songs tapes that I created to keep me occupied to Cooperstown, NY. The first was a rock tape, the second was rap and this one was where all the leftovers went. Two songs are still favorites of mine: “Deeper Shade of Soul” by Urban Dance Squad and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Left My Wallet in El Segundo”. I don’t think that the latter makes any appearances on future Good Songs tapes, but the former is the clubhouse leader for song found on most of these tapes. That means I’ll talk about the UDS a bit later.

I remember borrowing ATCQ’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” tape from a girl in my chemistry class. We both liked “El Sugundo” and “Bonita Applebaum” but for some dumb reason I never dubbed the whole tape, just “El Sugundo”. And that’s incredibly stupid because this is a really, really good tape. In fact, it’s one of the seminal hip-hop CDs from the era. Being “really into rap”, I should have realized this back then, but I think that we disproved that theory a few weeks ago. At the very least I should get partial street cred for realizing that Bonita and Segundo were both awesome songs, right?

This song is great for all the right reasons, Q-Tip’s flow, the beat, the subject matter, the subtle humor. It’s as good today as it was when it was released in 1991. I know ATCQ was popular, but I feel that they’re often overlooked too. They didn’t fall into the gangsta rap category, nor did they fall into the political rap category or the party rap group. They—along with the rest of the Zulu Nation—were about positivity and being intelligence. But it was all understated, they respected their audience enough not to keep smacking them over the head with their message.

As a whole, we like to think of ourselves as smart and not needing guideposts to lead us to answers. And that might be true, for some. But for the majority, they need their hand held. They need to be told over and over and over again that the guy in the black hat is “the wrong motherfucker to fuck with” or that this person in this movie is doing a very bad thing. While this person in this movie is doing a very good thing. The artist who exercises restraint and subtlety and allows the audience to figure things out often is misunderstood. And when something is misunderstood, it is often ignored.

I’m not saying that ATCQ was ignored – they sold millions of albums – but they deserve better.

A New York contemporary of ATCQ was 3rd Bass. You might know them as the white rap guys after the Beastie Boys, but before Vanilla Ice. 3rd Bass was an interesting group in that they tried hard not to offend black hip hop fans. They got into beefs with MCA (I think 3rd Bass felt that they had to defend Def Jam when the Beasties left the label) and Vanilla Ice (mostly because he sucked). It seemed to me that Prime Minister Pete Nice and MC Serch (especially Serch) were bending over backwards to say, “This isn’t the 1950s, we aren’t going to steal your music.”

And that’s awesome. I don’t see anything wrong with that. At all. In fact, I think it’s pretty cool that they kept it real and paid homage to the pioneers that came before them. I just don’t think that there were any charges that white guys were becoming rappers and then coopting the music. I could be wrong though, I was 16 at the time and thought “Ride the Wind” was a good song.

In any event, “The Gas Face” is an awesome song. The beat is made up of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” and “Respect” and it’s just a catchy groove. Both of those samples were made to be rapped over – Prince Paul (who produced this album) did a masterful job with all the samples, but man, this one was especially great. When I bought the tape, I was really bummed that it didn’t include the video version (Flavor Flav makes an appearance and says something about the Gas Face) but that’s life in the big city. It does include Zev Love X’s (later known as MF Doom) verse. X has a much stronger presence on the mic than Serch or Pete Nice, as great as that verse is, I think that 3rd Bass should have opted not to include it. They were served on their first single.

If I was really trying to be clever, I would have put MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” before or after this song. That would have been a nice touch.

The interesting thing about Pete Nice is that under his real name, Pete Nash, he’s one of the leading baseball memorabilia dealers in the country. He has a blog where he writes about the industry and he seems to know his stuff. The last I saw of MC Serch, he was hosting an American Idolesque show on VH1 about hip hop.

Some quick hits:

Poison and Do Me! – Bell Biv DeVoe and that whole new jack swing style of music was really coming along in the early 90s, wasn’t it? “Do Me!” is a ridiculous song. I was listening to it in my house, all alone and I was embarrassed. It was an obvious attempt to change their squeaky clean New Edition image by talking about s-e-x and maybe it worked, but it’s still really dumb. While “Do Me!” might be as fresh as a garbage fire, there’s nothing wrong with “Poison”. That song is still awesome. . There are two things I can’t forget about that song:

1. It was the last week of school and for some reason the halls were clogged with kids, I think that we were being herded somewhere. This dude Andy looks at me and says, “I don’t care what anyone says, I love that song ‘Poison’!” and just kept on walking. Andy and I weren’t what you’d call even remotely close and I never spoke to him a whole lot, so I’m not sure why he decided to share this information with me. But he did and it intrigued me enough into buying the BBD tape. So thank you, Andy. Where ever you are.

2. After college, I lived with a guy named Jamie. He was a great roommate and just a terrific person to be around. I know that he liked to screw around with our other roommate, so it’s no surprise that he liked to screw around with me too. We were watching a football game when former Syracuse wide receiver showed up on our screen (at the time he was playing for the Arizona Cardinals).

Jamie said, “BBD hates this guy. They talk about killing him on ‘Poison’.”
“They do not,” I said.
“They do. There’s a line that says, ‘Rob Moore you’re dead.’”
“No. It’s ‘One move, you’re dead’. Why would anyone want Rob Moore dead?”
“He screwed Biv’s girlfriend. They were telling him they know. And he’s dead.”

When it comes to popular culture, I am hopelessly naïve. My seventh-grade music teacher spent an entire semester (literally an entire semester) telling us that Paul McCartney was dead and that the person we think we know is Paul McCartney is Canadian Paul McCartney lookalike Billy Shears. And it took me years to listen to a Beatles album, I was so freaked out. So when Jamie explained this to me I believed him; hook, line and sinker.

And to be honest, I still kinda do believe it. Though I’m pretty sure that he was kidding. I wish I knew Rob Moore. Or Bell Biv DeVoe. I need to get to the bottom of this mystery.

“We’re All in the Same Gang” – You know what I like the most? Team-ups and cross overs. When I was into comics as a kid, if the X-Men guest starred in the Avengers, I was buying that comic. I love when TV characters leave their show and appear in another. So when I found out that all of the biggest West Coast rappers (except Ice Cube) teamed up to create this song, I thought it was the best thing ever. I know that the East Coast rappers did something similar a few months prior, but the WCRAS was so much better. But when you have people like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice-T, Above the Law telling everyone not to kill people, respect the community, don’t do drugs; it comes across as a bit hypocritical.

I wrote about this in 2005 (2005! What the hell?) 

Finally, I think that Good Songs XI is a tape my brother made. I have zero recollection of this tape and it’s only four songs long. I don’t think that I made it, but I’m keeping it here for posterity.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Good Songs IX

Murder Rap – Above the Law
We Want Eazy – Eazy-E
Radio – Eazy-E
Around the Way Girl – LL Cool J
Mama Said Knock You Out – LL Cool J
Straight Outta Compton – NWA
Fuck tha Police – NWA
8-Ball – NWA
100 Miles and Runnin’ – NWA
Sa Prize (Part 2) – NWA
Bring the Noise – Public Enemy
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
Louder Than A Bomb – Public Enemy
Caught Can We Get A Witness – Public Enemy
Night of the Living Baseheads – Public Enemy
Brothers Gonna Work It Out – Public Enemy
Welcome to the Terrordome – Public Enemy
Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Burn Hollywood, Burn – Public Enemy

When I tell people, “I really used to be into rap and hip hop when I was younger”, that’s not entirely true. What I should say is, “I was really into Public Enemy and NWA when I was younger” because looking at these track lists, that’s the only hip-hop I was really into.

Up until now, I thought that I was REALLY into hip-hop. I considered my late teens as my hip-hop phase. I thought that I was the hip-hop vanguard of Amesbury High School. But I wasn’t. At all. And this realization is like finding out that your mom was Santa Claus because she liked wearing men’s clothes. The image I had of myself as a youth has been shattered.

Shattered illusions aside, when I was listening to this playlist this morning, I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes to remember where in my life I was when I created this mix. And it came to me, I created this mix (as well as the one that I wrote about yesterday and the one that I will write about next Tuesday) because my baseball team was going to Cooperstown to play a game in the Spring of 1991.

What I remember most from that trip was that my team, the junior varsity Amesbury High Fighting Indians, had a perfect game thrown against us by a team from Heightstown, NJ. I don’t know why we played them, but they kicked our butts pretty good. Other than that humiliation, the trip was excellent. It was my first experience on an out-of-state school trip since the unexplained eighth grade Spanish class sojourn to Montreal. Four of my best friends and I were crammed into a tiny, run-down, no-tell motel called the Glimmer Glass Inn, which has been the basis of many jokes since we stayed there. Aside from the shabby rooms, we did everything 30 teenage boys without girls would do: someone snuck a bottle of booze into the motel, we ate like assholes, we ran amuck, we pulled pranks, we didn’t sleep.  

My dad was one of the drivers to the New York hamlet, but I don’t recall seeing him too much. He hung around with the other fathers and gave me my space to act like a fool with the rest of my buddies. In retrospect, that was a pretty cool move on his part.

The Cooperstown trip was a part of a hectic three weekends in a row for me where I made my Confirmation (no big deal, but I got a lot of cash), Cooperstown (where I spent a majority of that cash) and then the Junior Prom (which was an incredibly awful experience and where I spent the rest of that cash). The prom was a perfect encapsulation of my life at that particular time: awkward, mismanaged and disappointing. I asked a girl who I barely know, she agreed, weeks later I discovered this was a mistake (as did she) and we spent the better part of the evening avoiding each other. I did get hammered on a bottle of Super Schnapps, so I had that going for me.

Returning to my original premise of this blog, when I look at this list of songs, I again find that I’m just basically rerecording “Straight Outta Compton” and two Public Enemy tapes. There’s nothing really interesting about this mix. The only songs on this tape that don’t share the same DNA with NWA or Public Enemy are the LL Cool J tracks.

“Around the Way Girl” was the typical song that made Ladies Love Cool James. There’s the typical machismo fronting mixed with the sweet, “baby I’m gonna treat you right” flavor that LL was so fond of dishing – and that women ate up with a spoon.

I haven’t listened to this song in years (aside from the two pair of bamboo earrings, it’s held up well) but when I heard it today there is something in the background that’s hard for me to ever unhear. While LL raps there is a synth sample that stays constant through out his just lyrics. It’s hard to describe, but it sounds like it’s the beginning of run that just stops on one note. And that note is held for a minute, maybe two minutes under the bass. Once the hook kicks in, it stops. Then it starts again. This pattern is repeated through the entirety of the song.

It’s a strange sound texture because once I picked up on, I stopped listening to what LL was saying and I was just waiting for this synth run to pick up or finally end. It became quite, unnerving is the wrong word, but I became anxious for it to stop. I don’t think that LL or his producers had that in mind when they chose the beats for this song, but it was an interesting side effect.

Three quick things before I get into the meat of this extremely long post:

I have Eazy-E’s “Radio” slotted before getting to the LL Cool J stuff. I’m sure that I did that on purpose. I’m quite the Easter egg comedian.

Above the Law is a pale imitation of NWA, but “Murder Rap” is a legitimately good song. It sounds like a combination of Public Enemy (the layer of beats, especially the horn) and NWA (the lyrics).

I have no idea why I didn’t match the two-for-Tuesday format that the rock Good Songs mix follows. I think it would have made for a stronger tape.

I’ve written enough about NWA to fill three books, so I’m not about to write more about the group here other than “Fuck tha Police” gets all the attention (and rightly so), but for my money, “Straight Outta Compton” is a better overall song. The imagery that Ice Cube uses, the beats that Dre and Yella chose, the way the entire group conveys the message, the first time I heard it, I didn’t have goosebumps, my stomach doubled over. It was that type of feeling you get when something important or cool is about to happen.

After 25 years, this song is still on my iPhone and if I haven’t heard it in awhile and it comes on during shuffle, I still get a hint of that excitement. And that brings me back to riding home in my friend’s Honda from the Fox Run Mall in Newington, NH, frantically ripping off the plastic shrink-wrap from the cassette and jamming it into the car’s tape deck, not knowing what we’d hear. It didn’t disappoint.

Speaking of remembering where you were the first time you heard a band, there’s a lot of Public Enemy on this tape. And that’s because Public Enemy was one of the first groups that shaped my world perception. The first time I was aware of Chuck D and Flavor Flav is when they showed up on Living Colour’s track “Funny Vibe”. I had no idea who they were and after reading the linear notes I figured out their names at least.

It was April vacation of 1990* when I first spotted a Public Enemy tape, specifically “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” at a Genovese drug store near my cousin’s apartment in Mt. Vernon, NY. I remember thinking that if Chuck D was good enough for Living Colour, he’s probably good enough for me so I bought that and 3rd Bass’ “Cactus Cassette” to listen to on the long ride back to Massachusetts.

* The only other thing that I remember about this visit was that I woke up early on Saturday April 21 and was shocked that Seattle Mariner pitcher Brian Holman came within one out of throwing a perfect game against the mighty Oakland Athletics – in Oakland! As much as I’ve always loved the Red Sox, during this time in my life, I loved this A’s team. It seemed that every position was stacked, so for Holman to almost throw a perfect game, that was insane. Holman was part of the trade that sent Mark Langston from the M’s to the Expos the year prior. Also included in that trade was Randy Johnson, he wasn’t a bad pitcher at all. And the guy who ended it was a cult hero and former Mariner, Ken Phelps who crushed a first-pitch fastball into the bleachers. At the time Phelps was famous among statheads as the best baseball player who despite his OBP and HR per AB never got a chance to play regularly. He became more famous a few years later when George Steinbrenner (as played by Larry David) defended the Jay Buhner for Phelps swap that Frank Costanza complains about. “Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps! That’s all my scouts kept saying,” said Steinbrenner. In any event, I think that I watched those highlights all morning.

I popped Public Enemy’s tape into my second Sony water resistant (and kids, there’s a difference between water proof and water resistant, which is why I was on number two) yellow Walkman somewhere in Connecticut. I forgot about 3rd Bass and listened to PE over and over and over again, studying the lyrics and notes that came with the tape.

I would love to say that I had some sort of political awaking with this tape, but I had no idea who three-quarters of the people Chuck D was talking about (Garvey? There was a kid named Derek Garvey in my school, but Chuck couldn’t be talking about him, he was the worst. BTW, Chuck D was talking about Marcus Garvey) and there was no internet so the names stuck in my head as questions without answers. No, it was the way Chuck delivered his lines with such purpose, such strength that got me. And add the Bomb Squad’s deft weaving of a loud sonic tapestry and this was like ear crack. I literally couldn’t get enough. I had read somewhere that the follow-up to ITANOMTHUB was recently released (according to Wikipedia, it was April 10, 1990) and within a week of that vacation to New York*, I had purchased that tape too.

* Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t play up that I bought the PE tape in Mt. Vernon, NY to my friends. My cousin lived in a nice enough area, but I made it sound as if I was dodging bullets to buy these tunes. I had an overactive imagination.

For the remainder of that summer, for the remainder of that year, for the remainder of my high school career; I listened to one of these two tapes at least once a day. “Fear of a Black Planet” is the only tape I ever broke from listening to it too much. And I know these songs front and back. I knew the words, I knew the beats, the layers upon layers of different sounds*.  When I was in my room listening to Public Enemy, I didn’t feel like a detached outsider, I felt like I was part of something. I’m not sure what, but it felt different than when I listened to Ice Cube or NWA or Dokken or Motely Crue.

* Well, maybe I didn’t know ALL the sounds. The one thing that I remember most about “Welcome to the Terrordome”, and it’s not the the line “Tell the Rab to get off the rag” which got Chuck D in a lot of trouble, is that at 1:47 into the track there is a high-pitched squeal. The first dozen times I listened to it, I thought that it was my brother calling, “Byron!” So I’d press pause on the tape, scream out “WHAT?” and wait for an answer. After listening to the song over a bunch of times I asked him why does he always call me in the middle of WTTT and he had no idea what I was talking about. I don’t know who this story reflects poorly on: my inability to recognize a sound on a tape from my brother’s voice or just how high and pitchy Jay’s voice was when he was 12-years-old.

From then on, everything in my life revolved around Public Enemy.

I drew the B-Boy in a gun scope logo over all of my book covers (so much so that my parents suspected that I was the Zodiac killer). I painstakingly drew the cover to “Fear of a Black Planet” on the duffle bag that I carried my books in. Every picture of Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X or S1Ws (which were pretty dumb, to be honest) were cut from my school library’s copy of Rolling Stone and taped to the inside of my locker.

I bought a black Oakland A’s Starter-esque jacket because I thought Chuck D might wear this. I bought a pinstriped Chicago Bulls Starter jersey because Flavor Flav DID wear it. I was beyond pissed that my mom wouldn’t let me go to a Gang of Four, Sisters of Mercy, Public Enemy show with some college kids that I worked with. I ate, breathed and slept this group – it’s of no wonder that a vast majority of their songs were on my Good Songs mix tape.

A few years ago, I finally saw Public Enemy in concert and it was great, for a hip hop show. The problem with hip hop shows is that when you see your favorite rapper in concert the stage is just too big. Even with dancers (or in PE’s case the S1W’s) and TV screens and other crap littering the stage, it really boils down to the DJ, the MC(s) and that’s it. There’s not much going on. Despite the intrinsic problems, Public Enemy did a good job live. Sixteen-year-old me would have been happy.

But the thing that 16-year-old me would have lost his mind over was that once I had an honest-to-god interaction with Chuck D over Twitter. I follow him (old habits die hard) and one night I asked him a question. On “Louder Than A Bomb” Flavor says, “The Fed-derals are trying to pull a 226 on you, G.” what is a 226. Chuck explained it and then started following me on Twitter—I’m sure he’s learning so much. I think that I gushed about seeing them in Boston but I went to sleep next to my wife, in the same house that my kids were sleeping in, thinking that was pretty much one of the coolest things that ever happened to me.

You can turn 30. You can turn 40. You can even turn 100, but the heroes that you had when you are 16-years-old will always matter. I wonder what Brian Holman is up to?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Good Songs VIII

Kiss of Death – Dokken
Burning Like a Flame – Dokken
Epic – Faith No More
Falling to Pieces – Faith No More
Up All Night – Slaughter
Fly to the Angels – Slaughter
Never Enough – LA Guns
Ballad of Jayne – LA Guns
Cult of Personality – Living Colour
Glamour Boys – Living Colour
Type – Living Colour
Love Rears Its Ugly Head – Living Colour
Don’t Close Your Eyes – Kix
Cold Blood – Kix
Kickstart My Heart – Motley Crue
Doctor Feelgood – Motley Crue
Don’t Go Away Mad – Motley Crue
Same Old Situation – Motley Crue
Down Boys – Warrant

Currently, I am a marketer. Technically, I’m a product marketer and that can mean a lot of different things at a lot of different companies. However, the bulk of my job is understanding my product, crafting a message for that product and making sure that message gets to the buying public. Unless you have amazing brand recognition (Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonalds) getting that message out there can be difficult.

But that’s what I love about my job. I love determining what the product’s message and value props are going to be and figuring out a way to present it in a way that will make people reach into their wallets and pay my company their hard-earned money. That’s probably a crass way to put it, but that’s basically what my job boils down to.

One of the things that I would love to discover (and this is a discovery, more than an invention, thought I assume it could be argued either way) is an algorithm that will correctly predict the whims of the public. On a macro-level, I’m not sure if you need something like this. Normally, people will gravitate to something that has a ton of hype around it. Hype costs money, ergo if you have a ton of money you can get your hype and your customers. The trick is creating something worthwhile enough so that the hype can die down a bit and people will still actively seek out your product. The bottom line is, money helps.  

The algorithm that I would like to discover would operate  on the micro-level. Why do some towns and cities prefer Pepsi over Coke, Budweiser over Coors Light, Burger King over McDonalds. These hamlets have their regional favorites and there has to be a reason why. If you get enough of these micro-levels together, you get a chunk of the macro-level and start competing with the big guys.

The first two songs on this tape* sorta relate to this micro-level way of thinking.

* The next three Good Songs tapes were all created at the same time. They were broken up into Rock, Rap and Mix. As you might be able to tell from this tape, the first 14 songs are paired – a duo of songs from one tape. Except for some reason I really liked me some Motley Crue at this point, so I doubled the duo of Dr. Feelgood. Anyway, I’m not sure if I like this gimmick, it reminds me of those old “Two for Tuesdays” programs they’d run on the local radio station where you’d get two songs from the same artist. I have a feeling that I was influenced by MTV who was playing video blocks of the same type of music during the summer of 1990 and 91. At this point in my life, MTV was the Pied Piper, I’d pretty much buy anything that was in heavy rotation on MTV.

This micro-level of marketing refers to the band Dokken and my specifically high school. From any objectionable point-of-view there is no difference between Dokken and Ratt and LA Guns and Poison or any other mid-80s, LA heavy metal band. Like those bands, they were an amalgam of Led Zeppelin/Van Halen/Black Sabbath-influenced rock that placed a premium on looking a certain way (PRETTY!) and acting a certain way (obtuse and obnoxious). Also like those bands, Dokken didn’t do anything extraordinary. The lyrics weren’t anything special, the musicianship was mediocre and even the way that the singles were released (rockin’ one first, ballad second, whatever third) was all the same.

They were unoriginal soliders in a time where corporations were pumping out bands who were rockin’ by numbers. They were a disposable band that was an example of a successful musical formula.

For some reason, Dokken took ahold of my high school. Or at least the band took ahold of the cooler guys in my grade, which meant that the band Dokken had a heightened sense of awareness at Amesbury High School. It wasn’t “Dokken or Die” but I seem to remember that there were a lot of cafeteria conversations about whether Dokken guitarist was “Awesome”, “Fucking Awesome” or “Wicked Fucking Awesome”. On days when “Mr. Scary” was extra loud, there were some debates about whether Lynch was legitimately better than Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.

I’m sure that every moderately popular band had an unexplained loyal following at every high school in America, so I don’t mean to single my high school out. I’m sure you could replace Lynch with Rikki Rocket or Richie Sambora or Mick Mars and the same conversations where taking place all throughout America at that time.

As a young person you have no real idea of what came before you but you have an endless amount of time to figure out where you heroes will rank. I thought that Jose Canseco would sail into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, things happen. But what I’m most interested in is how did one high school in the middle of nowhere, Massachusetts have a slavish devotion to a completely forgettable and totally middle-of-the-road rock band? I’ve thought about this question for nigh 20 years and I don’t think that I ever figured out a good answer. Maybe an algorithm for predicting the trends of teenagers is dumb because there is too much randomness, but I don’t believe that. There should be an answer somewhere.

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to Dokken* (actually, I do unironically enjoy the second song on this tape, “Burning Like a Flame”) but it’s interesting how hearing the opening riffs to “Kiss of Death” brings back those old high school memories. I never made a big deal of liking or disliking Dokken (in fact, I know I got “Back For the Attack” from the Columbia House tape club for a penny) but I’m not made of stone. I heard a bunch of people talking about a band, I listened to them a few dozen times, I thought that maybe I could get cool by osmosis, it didn’t work that way and I moved on. High school is a strange time.

* In the late 90s, MTV ran a retrospective Where-Are-They-Now special (this was pre-everyone having the internet and knowing where everyone is) on the heavy metal heroes of the late 80s. An interview with Dokken lead singer Don Dokken was surprising in just how unaware he was about his band’s place in the world was. He said that his band’s managers worked with Metallica at the time and would beg him and his mates not to fall in the trap of the LA scene of too much makeup, too much Aquanet, too much handkerchiefs, basically too much opulence. Be like Metallica they said and don’t follow the trends. The band ignored them and Dokken wistfully said—and I quote, “If we listened to them, we could have been Metallica.” No you wouldn’t, Don. No you wouldn’t.

I will not apologize for the Faith No More double-dip, though. Both of these songs were in heavy rotation on MTV and rock radio in the early 90s though not too many people remember the band itself. They had a modest hit later in the decade with the ironic cover of the Commodore’s “Easy (Like Sunday Morning)” but other than that, you didn’t hear too much about them. It’s easy to understand why because the group was ahead of its time. From the rock/rap melding to the band members’ detached, almost ironic sense of being, FNM had no business showing up in the self-absorbed stratosphere of the early 90s.

If you asked a person to tell you something about FNM, a majority would talk about the video for “Epic”, specifically the slow-motion video of a fish who had fallen out of its bowl and was gasping for breath. It wasn’t a particular shocking image, but for some reason it resonated with a lot of viewers. So much so that MTV News felt it was their duty to ask the band about the video. Lead guitarist Jim Martin glibly said, “Well, the fish deserved to be filmed too.” This answer was interesting on many levels in that a. it was a foolish “controversy” to be overly concerned about b. the visuals don’t matter, it’s supposed to be about the music. And c. the answer itself almost a non sequitor in that the interviewer obviously wasn’t concerned about the fish’s popularity but rather the fish’s well-being. Martin brought a sense of absurdity to the interview by turning an incredibly dumb question’s perception completely askew.

I watched a lot of MTV News and saw a lot of celebrities interviewed and that’s the only one that I remember because frankly, I don’t think that anyone else at that time could have given the same response.

Aside from Motley Crue and Living Colour (who I wrote about a few entries back) the rest of the bands are completely anonymous. A few quick hitters on what I remember from them:

Slaughter: the band that girls really loved, mainly because of Mark Slaughter. I thought that they might be kinda cool because I heard Gene Simmons “discovered” them and Gene let Mark wear his leather jacket in the “Fly to the Angels” video. Here’s a potentially embarrassing fact, if I get drunk and I have access to YouTube, I will probably play “Fly to the Angels” at least a half-dozen times. BTW, the line from "Up All Night", "Oh I wish we could stay up, 24 hours a day!" is perhaps the whiniest line ever song by a band that wanted to look cool or tough. Man, that was terrible. 

Kix: the name sounds like Kiss, but the band sounds like Great White. In fact, I get those two bands confused all the time. I owned the tape these two songs came from and I don’t think that I could name any other song these guys did.

LA Guns: I wonder if the Jayne from the “Ballad of Jayne” is the same Jane from Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” (despite the spelling differences)? Probably not but  that last sentence holds the records for most times I’ve ever written the name Jane in any permutation of the name. I remember hearing that lead guitarist Tracii Guns was in a band with Axl Rose and that’s how the name Guns N Roses came to be. The story goes on to say that Axl kicked Tracii out and replaced him with Slash, but kept the name. Wikipedia says this story checks out, so good work AHS rumor mongers! Anyway, I always felt sorta bad for Guns and thought that he had to be kicking himself that he wasn’t actually in the multi-platinum band that was partly named after him.

Warrant: This band is usually short-hand for being part of the terrible rock scene that is being covered with this cassette. And for good reason, I suppose. I have no idea what a Down Boy is and I don’t remember caring too much. The one thing that I found refreshing about lead singer Jani Lane is that in that same MTV retrospective that I referred to earlier, he talks about going to the band’s record company in 1992 and seeing a huge poster of “Cherry Pie” hanging over the secretary’s desk. A year later, the poster was replaced by Alice In Chains. He then thought, “Crap. We’re probably in big trouble.”

He certainly was.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Good Songs VI and VII

Good Songs VI

Fight the Power  - Public Enemy
Sa Prize (Part 2) – NWA
We Want Eazy – Eazy E
Doowutchyalike – Digital Underground
Contract on the World Love Jam/Brothers Gonna Work It Out – Public Enemy
Fuck tha Police – NWA
Welcome to the Terrordome – Public Enemy
Dopeman – NWA
Loves Gonna Getcha – Boogie Down Productions
Better Off Dead/Nigga Ya Love Ta Hate – Ice Cube
U Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer
Straight Outta Compton – NWA
100 Miles and Runnin’ – NWA
Poison – Bell Biv DeVoe
Bring The Noise – Public Enemy
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy

Good Songs VII

Express Yourself (remix) – NWA
Straight Outta Compton (remix) – NWA
A Bitch Iz a Bitch – NWA
Straight Outta Compton – NWA
Fuck tha Police – NWA
Gangsta Gangsta – NWA
8-Ball – NWA
Express Yourself – NWA
Dopeman – NWA
Bring the Noise – Public Enemy
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
Louder Than A Bomb – Public Enemy
Caught Can We Get A Witness – Public Enemy
She Watch Channel Zero – Public Enemy
Night of the Living Baseheads – Public Enemy
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos – Public Enemy
Party For Your Right to Fight – Public Enemy
The Gas Face – 3rd Bass

* I am not going to discuss Good Songs VII. I just added it here for posterity. All this mix tape is my favorite songs from NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” with 3rd Bass’ “The Gas Face” added to finish out the side. Since I listened to both of those albums twice a day, every day for two years, I must have gotten sick of fast-forwarding over filler songs and created this tape. It’s really not worth writing about.

I’m not sure when, exactly, I taped Good Songs VI, but I can bet that I thought that I was quite a badass. Just look at the track list, its all-rap, all-day. That’s the mean streets, baby. The ‘hood. My home. The place that I’m from.

Only I’m not and I wasn’t. Amesbury, Massachusetts is about as far from “the mean streets” as just about any place in America. It’s a quintessential middle-class Norman Rockwell town where less than 5% of its population is could be classified as a minority. There are no violent crimes, there are no home invasions, burglaries, civil unrest, murder or hard drugs. It was a quiet, sleepy town that had some advantages when it came to raising children (diversity was not one of them, BTW).

And it used to make me mad.

When you’re 16-years-old, being angry and dissatisfied with life is the standard setting. From school to sports to parents to other authority figures, on the whole, everything sucks. People are trying to keep you down, trying to infringe on your fun, won’t give you money, won’t take you seriously. But when you’re white and middle class, it’s pretty dumb outlook on life*.

No one every said that teenagers were smart—and this includes the smart ones.

* For some reason I thought that I had some sort of “street cred” because I was born in one of the worst, most depressed cities in Massachusetts: Lawrence. My grandmother lived in elderly housing there while I was in high school I’d casually mention to my friends that I was “going to the ‘hood to see my Nina.” With the assumption that they thought I was tough.

Though when push came to shove (literally), I was gigantic wuss. On January 1, 1991 my friend Ryan and I woke up at his house in Charlestown, MA and decided to go and grab a slice of pizza from a very safe Italian neighborhood in Boston called the North End. We each had on our high school letterman’s jackets (mine Amesbury, his from Central Catholic in Lawrence) and we stopped for a second to check out a street hockey game. We continued our walk and didn’t notice that the game broke up and moved from the playground to the street. It wasn’t until a few moments later that we realized the game broke up and now the nine kids hockey-stick wielding kids made a semi-circle around Ryan and I pushing us against a brick wall and asking us why we were watching their game, what were we doing on their turf, etc.

Yada, yada, yada, we get our assses beat. Hard. I never threw a punch and neither did Ryan, who unfortunately got a worse beating than me. His head was sliced open by a vicious hockey stick slash and was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital. The only good thing that came out of that ass-kicking was I had an interesting story to tell at school the next day. Looking back, it probably wasn’t worth it.  Maybe it was.

My friends and I were always pissed off about something, not Dylan Klebold –Eric Harris-Columbine pissed off, but that typical teenage angst anger that dissipates after a few years. When we weren’t raging against our “oppressors” (pretty much anyone who didn’t give us carte blanche to act like morons) we were angry that we lived in such a safe vanilla world.

Late 80s, early 90s hip-hop allowed us to escape from the land of banality by picturing ourselves behind the trigger: talking crap, beating fools, not being afraid of girls (yes, no matter how much we fronted, we were all scared of girls), ultimately being in complete control of our lives and perceptions. We wore the black hats because we were bad. The music was empowerment and with artists like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and NWA (especially the seminal album “Straight Outta Compton”) it wasn’t just cursing to be clever, there was a message behind it.

I’m not sure if we actually understood exactly what Chuck D, KRS-One and Ice Cube were really saying (not likely), but we coopted their fears, their frustrations, their aggressions and made them our own. When Ice Cube yelled, “Fuck the Police” because of police brutality; my friends and I were hollering “Fuck the Police” because they broke up a party and took our beer. It’s basically the same thing, right?

Looking through the song list, one thing is abundantly clear; I loved myself some NWA and Public Enemy. Of the 16 songs on that mix, only three have no connection to those two groups—“Doowutchyalike” is an underappreciated gem from this era. When I listened to the tracks today, I think that the Public Enemy songs (mostly) hold up well. The older NWA tracks aren’t too bad either, but the newer tracks are comically bad.

We could all list countless examples of a sequel never living up to the heights of its predecessor. From books to music to movies to TV, the sequel is usually a dumber, lazier carbon copy of the original. This is especially true for NWA’s “Sa Prize! (Part 2)”, which is the follow-up to “Fuck tha Police”. Found on NWA’s “100 Miles and Runnin’” EP, “Sa Prize” has the bombast of the original but none of the social commentary, none of the emotion, none of the heart. It’s a paint-by-numbers recreation of the original.

This is probably due to the departure of NWA’s chief lyricist, Ice Cube*. He quit (or was fired depending on who you believe) sometime after “Straight Outta Compton” was released. During that time, the album was a hit and the record label was demanding a follow-up. NWA responded with this album, and it wasn’t very good.

* When I was a kid, I whole-heartedly believe in something I created called the Compton Conspiracy Theory. My thinking was, NWA was a huge group and was selling millions of albums collectively as a group. What if that group splintered and instead of selling just one million records (to pick a number), each member recorded an album and that a million records? Instead of one million-selling record, you could have up to five million-selling records—assuming that the world was ready for a Yella Boy solo project.

Kiss tried the same thing in the late 70s but what that got wrong was that there was nothing to manipulate a person into buying all four albums. If Ace Frehley wrote a diss track about Gene Simmons, you’d have to buy both to see what Simmons would say back to him. That’s what NWA and Ice Cube were doing a the time.   

It seemed like a genius plan, NWA and Ice Cube get into a beef, they diss each other on their records, people buy the records to hear the diss tracks and both groups profit. Back in the 90s there was no internet, MTV wasn’t going to tell you exactly what the two factions were saying about each other and for the most part, the mainstream media ignored hip hop.  The only way one could follow this feud was through album purchases. Instead of buying one NWA tapes, you have to buy two.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that my conspiracy idea had any legs to stand on. Ice Cube’s anger at NWA is as old as the music business itself, he felt like (and he probably was) getting shafted on money by his manager. He told him so, he quit the group and ultimately made more money. Within three years the other members of NWA also felt they were getting screwed over, so they left and Dr. Dre became a household name and MC Ren released, “Kizz Mah Black Azz”.

“Sa Prize” was a complete mess with crooked cop skits, the DOC not knowing whether to bully cops or be afraid of them and Eazy-E doing a terrible, terrible Spanish accent (“Good thing you don’t speak Ingles, Holmes!”). At the time, I didn’t care, I guarantee I thought that it was awesome and that it spoke to me and my particular lot in life.

Between “Sa Prize” and Ice Cube’s debut, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, it was completely obvious who the lyrical brains were in NWA. After he was expelled from the group, Oshea Jackson was exiled to the East Coast where he hooked up with Public Enemy’s producers, the Bomb Squad. There he seemed to mature a bit from angry front man to angry front man with a message. The bombast was still there, but it was undercut with humility.

On the track “Better Off Dead”, which is the very first on “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, Ice Cube is electrocuted. For what, the listener never finds out. But from that track it kicks into “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” that includes the chorus, “Fuck you, Ice Cube”. It was this dichotomy of arrogance and self-abnegation that really spoke to me and mirrored what it meant to be 16-years-old.

When you’re a teenage boy, you never show a sliver of weakness. Ever. You’re always hard or at the very least you want to give off the perception that you’re tough (and this is why teenage boys are the WORST). But on the inside you’re a mess. You’re hormones are working over time, you like girls but you can’t think of anything to say, your body is changing and you can’t keep up, you think of clever quips to make but they never make it out of your mouth. You’re an alien in your own body and you can never betray this secret to anyone.

One day you figure it out and the next thing you know you’re yelling at a Coors Light can in a beer commercial or you’re taking a bunch of kids on a vacation in an RV.

Fuck you, Ice Cube? No. Fuck me.