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.

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