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?

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