My Year in Lists: Volume II
"What is hip hop if it don't have violence? Chill for a minute, Doug E. Fresh said "˜silence'"¦""”Q-Tip, "What?"
"I remember Afrika [Baby Bam] called me that night, like, two in the morning. "˜Yo these kids, De La Soul, you gotta meet 'em! I swear we're just alike!" I went there, met them, and it was just fuckin' love at first sight. It was disgusting. In hip hop, it praises individualism. I think that's the main achievement of the Native Tongues. It just showed people could come together."-Q-Tip, on the Native Tongues Movement.
"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, if the women don't get you, the whiskey must."-Jelly Roll Morton, "Oh, Didn't He Ramble?"
If you read a fair amount about music, as I do, you are almost certain to have come across roughly one hundred million different think pieces about how rock and roll is dead. This has been the pet theory of a large swath of the music criticism community for years now, to the point that mourning the death of rock and roll has become its own clichÃ©, like claiming that cinema is dead or the Second Golden Age of Television is over. While I disagree with the fundamental premise that rock and roll has died (and am happy to furnish you with an argument for its continued vitality as an art form), its hard not to see where these people are coming from. Rock and Roll as a genre is still kicking, but rock and roll as the central cultural force in our musical landscape is no more.
From the late "˜60s through (arguably) the late "˜80s, Rock and Roll was King of the Jungle in music. It sold the most, it generated the most discussion, it was the most beloved. Fans of other genres had their recourse, had their bands, had their subgenres, but were pretenders to the throne in terms of sonic supremacy. You just couldn't beat rock and roll. But then something happened. What you consider the catalyst may depend in some respects on your point of view (or even possibly your age), but at some point, mainstream rock calcified in a cloud of hairspray, and hip hop, smelling blood in the water, pounced.
There have been many great and important evolutions in music over the past two-plus decades, ranging from grunge to the indie rock explosion, but I would argue that perhaps the most important culturally has been hip hop's rise to the top of the totem pole. If rock and roll was the sound that shaped society in the latter half of the twentieth century, then I think hip hop will be seen as the driving force of the early twenty-first. The genre has attained a cultural dominance that is surprising considered the increasing fractiousness of the way we experience culture. It's impossible to say hip hop now is as omnipresent as rock and roll in, say, 1973, but also, the entire music industry has changed. The landscape has shifted, the potential audience has diminished, and the easy availability of a virtually endless range of bands from a near-infinite list of subgenres has made captivating an entire nation the way rock and roll did next to impossible. But if forced to name a successor to the throne that Rock and Roll abdicated, I think the strongest argument that can be made is one for hip hop.
So far in this feature, we have largely been tracking the early years of hip hop. Hip hop's beginnings were inauspicious. This was a genre created not (in the early days at least) through its omnipresence on radios, but through its burgeoning popularity in the streets. Hip hop's infancy took place not in recording studios, but in basements, and not on stages, but at Friday night parties. To some extent this is true of every genre that eventually gained mass appeal, but I think much of the early hip hop we heard in this feature reflected that origin quite plainly. A lot of the genre's earliest songs are a combination of clever clowning and egomania, and while there was diversity in the ranks, the tropes were similar. In a genre's early days, there's a sameness to the proceedings, almost by necessity. The contours of a sound are being discovered, slowly, over time, and developing as a result.
If that's the case, then a genre's adolescence arrives when its sound starts to deviate, to rebel against itself. The creation of subgenres can only really be accomplished once the genre itself has fully formed, and experiments within that genre are easier to conceive of. That isn't to say there isn't boldly experimental music from the early years of hip hop; if anything, my point is the opposite. But only once those trails had been blazed could hip hop artists go off the beaten path. The Golden Age of Hip Hop, then, was the time that the genre began to stretch further than ever before sonically, to encompass the politically minded, like Public Enemy, the class clowns like Biz Markie, the storytellers like Slick Rick and the gangster rappers like N.W.A..
Out of this confluence of sounds and styles emerged the Native Tongues movement. Organized around the idea of taking hip hop in a more positive-minded, good-natured direction, and known for pioneering a more eclectic sampling style (that was heavily influenced by jazz), the Native Tongues were the alternative-music of hip hop (readers of the first volume of this feature will understand how loaded that term is, and how under-descriptive). The subjects that could be broached in the movement were not limited, but the focus was on being more open-minded than much of what was going on in hip hop at the time. This week, we will look first at two of the movement's seminal albums, De La Soul's De La Soul is Dead and A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory.
De La Soul formed in Long Island in 1987, and quickly became known for their witty wordplay, groundbreaking sampling, and playful skits. They released their sophomore album, De La Soul is Dead in 1991. Their debut 3 Feet High and Rising was already a classic in hip hop circles, but had also lead the group to be labeled hippies by many of their contemporaries. This album was consciously edgier as a result, its cover showing an upturned pot of daisies to communicate that the D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound, Y'all) age was over. The album's intro parodies children's book read along sets, with a teenager named Jeff finding a cassette recording in his garage of the new De La Soul album. Bullies come along, beat Jeff up, and steal the tape. The album is then punctuated throughout with Skits, in which the bullies criticize and demean the songs they are hearing. Finally, as the album ends, the bullies throw the cassette away, claiming "De La Soul is dead."
There is an undercurrent of bitterness to the album, as if De La assumed they would never top their debut (and in terms of sales, they were right. Every release of theirs sold less than its predecessor throughout their career), and criticisms of gangster rap creep into both the songs and the skits (their album is thrown out by the bullies for lacking the requisite number of pimps, guns, and curse words). Yet De La Soul is Dead retains the skit-heavy structure, surreal sense of humor, and innovative sampling that had garnered the group such acclaim. The songs that stick with me the most throughout the album are the ones that retain that light-hearted sense of fun. "A Roller Skating Jam Named "˜Saturdays'" for example is a scratch-heavy, disco-influenced romp that combines a distinctly modern verse-structure with a more throwback chorus. This song is a synergy, showing the skewed viewpoint that drew people to De La in the first place. Its wholly unique, and comes from a completely different place than anything else the genre was doing at the time.
Similarly, "Bitties in the BK Lounge" is a constantly transmogrifying epic of silliness. Nearly six minutes long, the song changes tone, rhythm, and even point of view several times, as it tells the story of a battle of wits and shifting power dynamics within a Burger King. The song has its tongue firmly placed in cheek ("aren't you that guy, aren't you that girl, De La Soul? No, Tracy Chapman"), and displays the strong wit that underlies the group's sonic innovations. The song devolves at one point into a series of exchanged barbs between a customer and the cashier, and the music mostly drops out to give way to the dense, well-developed, quickly-delivered quips between the two.
Other parts of the album, though, take on more serious subject-matter. "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" (which begins with the undeniably excellent come on, "if you will suck my soul, I will lick your funky emotions.") is the tragic tale of a girl who is sexually molested by her father. Millie tells people about the abuse, but no one believer her. So she procures a gun, heads for the Macy's where her father works as a department store Santa Clause, and shoots him. The song gets a sequel later in the album on "Keepin' the Faith," where Millie, on the run, considers turning herself in, but ends up fleeing from police into an abandoned warehouse and dying falling off a ladder. These tracks (along with "My Brother's a Basehead") are doubtlessly in part a response to the darker themes of gangster rap, but they don't lose the distinct De La Soul touches. They feel less like De La selling out and more like a revelation of increased sonic range and emotional depth.
De La Soul is Dead is clearly the work of a group experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. Some of the lighthearted antics of their debut remain, but they exist alongside dark discursions and bitter parodies of gangster rap like "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)" and hostile diatribes like "Who Do U Worship" (which almost seems constructed to undercut expectations, opening with a quiet, catchy beat that quickly devolves into sonic chaos). This diversity makes the album a bit muddled, but it also makes De La Soul is Dead all the more fascinating as a result. It's a product of a group struggling with its own identity, and with the state of hip hop as a whole, and it if isn't fully successful, it's often more fascinating for its flaws.
Formed in Queens in 1985, A Tribe Called Quest have been called "the most intelligent, artistic rap group during the 1990s" by Allmusic's John Bush, and its easy to see where their reputation comes from on their sophomore release, The Low End Theory. Pioneering the synthesis of hip hop and a laid-back jazz sound, the album is a wall-to-wall masterpiece: innovative, experimental, and ultimately essential.
The jazzy opener "Excursions," establishes a brand new sound with such verve, it is immediately engrossing. The lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, tossing off casual references to the circular nature of popular culture, discussing Afrocentricity, and generally just establishing A Tribe Called Quest as the smoothest rappers in the business. Q-Tip and Phife trade rhymes and verses so fluidly, they almost feel like extensions of one another, and the beat is less a sample than an organic extension of the mood they hope to create. "Excursions" sets a tone and a feeling that the rest of The Low End Theory lives up to, but even had it fallen short, the opener would be a masterful tone-setter.
The group also does a lot towards examining hip hop's so called "woman problem." I have spilled a lot of words so far in this feature on the blatant and usually thoughtless misogyny that soured my views on N.W.A. and
Slick Rick, so I can't tell you how refreshing it was to hear "The Infamous Date Rape." The song is openly dedicated to explicating on a topic I haven't heard nearly enough about of yet in this feature: consent. Not only does the track discuss (realistically) the attitude of many men that a woman not wanting to have sex is either lying or in need of persuasion, it also gives women an agency that many of the albums we have looked at seek to deprive them of. Sure, the song implies that women who don't want to have sex are probably just on their period, but it also says things like "I respect that" to the idea that a woman would decline to have sex and reasons that "one head ain't better than two," so its heart is clearly in the right place.
The album closes with the phenomenal one-two punch that is "What?" and "Scenario." The former is a series of clever and thought-provoking queries that mostly display the lyrical deftness and thoughtfulness of A Tribe Called Quest. It asks questions both deep and lighthearted (ranging from "what are laws if they ain't fair and equal?" to "what is a liquor if it ain't 80-proof?") and also includes the quote that opened this feature, which almost seems like a dare to gangster rap to step up. "Scenario" is considered one of hip hops greatest posse cuts, and is considered a breakout moment for Leaders of the New School member Busta Rhymes. The song ends the album on a high note, a classic combination of hip hop and jazz that sacrifices the mood of neither.
The album captures the social consciousness of great hip hop with the late-nights-in-smoky-rooms feeling of great jazz. I've liked The Low End Theory more every time I've listened to it, and A Tribe Called Quest are absolutely one of the groups who will get a long second look from me once this feature has wrapped. As it stands, the album perfectly mixes brilliant, smooth raps with complex, groovy productions to create one of the best experiences I've yet had in this feature.
Loretta Lynn was born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, and suffuses her 1970 album Coal Miner's Daughter with well-realized, lived-in biographical details that mark her as one of country music's great storytellers. She married Oliver Vannetta Lynn Jr. at only 15, and their marriage was a tumultuous one. He had multiple affairs, and she was resolute in her opposition to them, but the two remained married from 1948 until his death in 1996. Its clear Lynn didn't have the perfect marriage, but it was her husband that bought her first guitar and encouraged her to become a singer. She repaid the favor by using him as an inspiration in much of her music (both his good and bad traits), and over her career focused on blue collar issues, often showing a willingness to push boundaries in the conservative genre of country, singing about birth control, double standards between men and women, and the Vietnam War.
Coal Miner's Daughter features three original compositions by Lynn, the rest being comprised of covers of popular country songs at the time. The title track is Lynn's signature track, and one of country music's best known songs (inspiring Lynn's autobiography of the same name, and the 1980 film based on it, which won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn). Listening to it, there is no question this is a stone cold classic of the genre, a humble song of a poor but happy childhood filled with perfectly realized biographical details. Its clear Lynn is baring her soul on the track, speaking of a childhood spent in poverty but never in despair, discussing how hard her father worked to support his eight children, and how he and her mother endeavored to ensure the house was always full of love. "Coal Miner's Daughter" is catchy, emotive, and filled with biographical color.
"Anyone, Any Worse, Any Where," another Lynn original, is a somewhat mournful crooner, exhibiting Lynn's vocal range and emotive power. "Less of Me," originally written by Glen Campbell, is reminiscent of the Serenity Prayer, a plea to a higher power to allow the singer to think more of others and less of herself. "It'll Be Open Season on You," originally written by Charlie Aldridge, hearkens back to Lynn's standard reputation as a quick, witty woman willing to broach subjects such as infidelity. The song is a tell-off to a mistress, a fun, catchy, and clever ditty that wears its subversion openly and proudly.
Coal Miner's Daughter helped to cement Lynn's reputation as The First Lady of Country Music (a title that is also held by Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton), though it was only the middle of a career that has spanned decades, and never really diminished in influence. We will return to Loretta Lynn as this feature winds down, and look at one of her late career triumphs, but for now, we can leave it at this: Coal Miner's Daughter is a classic country album, and it showcases one of the genre's finest at the top of her game.
Ferdinanc Joseph LaMothe, known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an early jazz pianist, known as jazz's first arranger. He is remembered for single-handedly proving that a genre known for improvisation could retain its vitality when transcribed. "Jelly Roll Blues" was the first published jazz composition in 1915, and Morton claimed to have invented jazz outright in 1902, a claim that has been disputed, but never disproved.
This week, we're breaking from Ryan's program for a brief visit to the earliest years of jazz, to see that, even at its inception, the genre had a free-spiritedness and a vitality that explains its popularity over the century since Morton published his first composition. "Wolverine Blues," is a propulsive ditty, a jazz standard that sounds great in its original incarnation. "Black Bottom Stomp" exemplifies many features of the New York style of jazz, including a frontline trumpet, ragtime structure, and percussive bass.
Morton's style was formed out of early ragtime music, and was also instrumental in the creation of boogie woogie music. His swing rhythm, encouraged improvisation, and eclectic musical accompaniment all became central to early jazz. Jelly Roll Morton is, if not the man who single-handedly invented jazz, surely one of its founding fathers, and a vital force in the genre whose compositions still sound fresh today.
This week, we have witnessed the prime of the Native Tongues movement, the solidification of Loretta Lynn from country singer to country icon, and the inception of jazz as we conceive of it. We've also created the longest installment of this feature yet, so for now, revel in the accomplishments of these artists, and in the possibilities they each displayed through their skill, wit, and innovative spirit. And let's do this again next week, shall we?
Next week on My Year in Lists: Volume II:
Dolly Parton has a Coat of Many Colors, Dr. Dre tries The Chronic, and Cannonball Adderley gives us Something Else.
Read more My Year in Lists here