Great Stories From Hip-Hop

I recently finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop , Jeff Chang‘s history of hip-hop music. The writing is of variable quality, but the book’s a phenomenal read because the stories are just so damn strong.

I’m not going to review the book here (Amazon does a great job) – and hey, you should read it yourself – rather, I thought I’d share two of the many great anecdotes from the book.

The first regards The Clash and their NYC tour of 1981 (NYC was good to them; the legendary cover of London Calling came from the ’79 tour). The Clash always sought influences outside of rock ‘n roll (half their hits are reggae covers) and here’s what they did on that tour:

[The Clash] were set to play eight nights in June 1981 at an aging Times Square disco, the Bonds International, and they announced their stand with a dramatic unfurling of a magnificent banner painted by FUTURA. But on the eve of their opening, the fire department threatened to shut down the club for overselling the shows, and the fans finally had their white riot when mounted police stormed down Broadway to meet the punks in the street.

The Clash compromised by agreeing to perform eleven additional gigs, and hurried to find opening acts. In yet another naive act of solidarity, they booked Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But, as Michael Hill wrote in The Village Voice, “Rather than achieve a cultural crossover, it threatened to widen the gap.”

When Flash and the Furious Five stepped onstage on The Clash’s opening night, the white punks stood bewildered as Flash began his “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” routine on three turntables. Then the Furious Five, dressed in fly leather suits, jumped onstage and started rapping and dancing. Some in the crowd began shouting in disgust. They hadn’t come to see no disco. When Flash paused so that the Five could try to regain the crowd, the crew found themselves ducking a hail of beer cups and spit. The next night, dressed down this time in street clothes, they suffered the same reception. They left the stage angrily with Melle Mel admonishing, “Some of you-not all of you, but some of you-are stupid”, never to return.

Most music fans I know would give their eye teeth to see The Clash and Grandmaster Flash on the same bill, but the world wasn’t ready for it in ’81. Some things are just ahead of their time.

The other great story regards why hip-hop was able to become an unstoppable cultural force. It started out as a NYC local sound and was actually competing against other regional sounds – notably Washington D.C.’s go-go. Go-go is basically party music and so was a lot of early hip-hop (Rapper’s Delight and The Breaks anyone?) so why was hip-hop able to pop while you’ve never heard of go-go?

Despite the best efforts of Chuck [Brown], E.U., Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, go-go never crossed over. When the ’90s came, New York execs rushed to sign hip-hop acts and stopped returning D.C. artists’ phone calls. Go-go survived as one of the last independent, indigenous Black youth cultures.

It was an industrial-era music for a postindustrial era. Just as it was when Chuck Brown walked out of Lorton, bands’ fierce competition to remain atop the club scene remained the primary engine of go-go music. Making records with three-minute hit singles, the thing the music industry was most concerned with, was an afterthought. Economics partly explains why, after the 1980s, hip-hop went global and go-go remained local.

But there was also something else, something which Reo Edwards put like this: “I was talking to a go-go songwriter one time. I said, ‘Man, you need a verse here.’ The guy said, ‘The rototom‘s talking! Hear the rototom?’ there, the rototom telling the story.’ Okay. Alright. You know what the rototom is saying. Maybe the people in the audience know what the rototom saying. But the people in Baltimore don’t know what the hell that dang rototom is saying!”

He shakes his head. “Go-go’s got the same problem today as it did back then. You don’t have no good storylines. Hip-hop,” he pauses for emphasis, “tells stories.”

I’ve always loved the stories told by great hip-hop song (I’m thinking The Message, C.R.E.A.M., One Love, Hate It or Love It) and think they’re some of the most powerful narratives ever in song. Hip-hop’s domination is, in part, due to the power of storytelling.

Finally, A Great 21st Century Hip Hop Song

I love hip hop. Actually, let me qualify that – I like hip hop that tells a story, preferably with a heavy slice of social commentary. The best hip hop songs let us into a world that we otherwise would never see or provide some social commentary that let us see society in a different way.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, these sort of songs abounded: The Message. Fight The Power.  C.R.E.A.M. It Was A Good Day. And one of the best written and most ambitious concepts ever: Nas’ One Love.

Unfortunately, in the mid-90’s, hip hop became really commercially successful and instead we got mindless drivel like It’s All About The Benjamins and more recently Roll Call. These songs might get people on the dance floor, but you won’t be listening to them five years after they’re written.

In fact, the only song with any soul that might have come out this century was probably Hate It Or Love It.  What’s more, is I’ve found myself wondering how we could have just gone through the worst economic crisis in generations and there hasn’t been one hip hopper who’s written a song about it. After all, this was originally protest music, and there’s a lot to protest these days!

Thankfully, there’s finally a hip hop song that captures all the confusion of these past few years. Unfortunately, the original version is almost unlistenable – despite it’s great lyrics – but a few weeks ago it was repackaged in a fantastic form.

What song am I talking about? Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Cash performed as a mash-up with Florence + The Machine’s You’ve Got The Love at the 2010 Brit Awards:

The lyrics to this song are awesome. Dizzee spits them so fast that you might not notice them at first, so give them a read here – especially verse 3 – and reflect on why no one else is singing about this today:

[Dizzee Rascal]
Let’s go
Everybody wants to be famous,
Nobody wants to be nameless, aimless,
People act shameless
Tryna live like entertainers,
Want a fat crib with the acres,
So they spend money that they ain’t made yet,
Got a Benz on tik that they ain’t paid yet,
Spend their pay cheque
In the West End on the weekend
Got no money by the end of the weekend.
But they don’t care cause their life is a movie,
Starring Louis V, paid for by yours truly,
Truthfully, it’s a joke, like a bad episode of Hollyoaks,
Can’t keep up with the cover notes,
So they got bad credit livin’ on direct debit in debt
they still don’t get
Cause they too busy livin’ the high life, the night life
Huggin’ the high when livin’ it large
And they all say

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough
And things go wrong no matter what I do
Now and then it seems that life is just too much
But you’ve got the love I need to see me through

[Dizzee Rascal – Verse 2]
Let me take you down to London city
Where the attitude’s bad and the weather is shitty
Everybody’s on a paper chase
It’s one big rat race
Everybody’s got a screw face
So many 2 face,
Checkin their high just like their ready to ride
I’m on the inside looking at the outside
So it’s an accurate reflection
City wide, north, east, west and the southside
Everywhere I go there’s a goon on the corner
Guns and drugs cause the city’s like a sauna
And it’s getting warmer, and out of order
Tryna put a struggling mother to a mourner
Mr politician can you tell me the solution
What’s the answer, what’s the conclusion
Is it an illusion, is it a mirage
I see young’n’s die because they tryna live large
And they all say

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on all of you
Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care”
But you’ve got the love I need to see me through
(Check it, check it, come on, come on)

You got the love
(Who’s got the love)
You got the love
(Who’s got the love)
You got the love
(That’s right, thats right, thats right)
You got the love
You got the love
You got the love

[Dizzee Rascal – Verse 3]
We are living in the days of the credit crunch
Give me the dough
I’m tryna have a bunch
But I cant have rice for lunch
Its not there ain’t enough to share
It ain’t fair never dreamed that he could be rare
Who cares who dares to make a change
Everybody in the club trying to make it rain
But not for famine just for the sake of having
15 minutes of fame and everywhere’s the same
Again and again I see the same thing
Everybody acting like they their plane sailin’
I see rough seas ahead maybe a recession
And then a depression in whatever professon
This is my confession I can’t front I’m in the forefront
Living for money ready to start like a bungee jump
With no rope but I ain’t trying to see the bottom
Because thats where I came from, I ain’t forgotten,

Note: lyrics grabbed from KillerHipHop.

Off the Hook in Red Hook

DJ Premier.  DJ Scratch.  They’re two of the biggest hip hop dj’s of all time (Note: if you have no interest in this, skip this post).  Between them they’ve over forty years of experience (in an art form that’s maybe 30 years old) and have produced more hit records and created more unique beats than just about anyone else.  So imagine my glee when I heard that they were performing a free concert tonight at the Red Hook ball fields.

DJ Scratch and DJ Premier in Red Hook

The show was insane – easily one of the best hip hops shows I’ve ever seen.  They started off by playing some pre-hip hop tunes: the originals that were sampled by early hip hop pioneers (think Steve Miller Band and the O’Jays).  This was followed by them playing some early hip hop and then on to some recent favourites.  And all the while, they’d alternate songs in a classic battle.

The battle wasn’t really a battle; in the end it was Premier playing straight man to Scratch.  Scratch started off by living up to his name with this rework of Herb Alpert’s Rise.  The man would not be stopped: Sex Machine was double-timed to make James Brown even wilder while LL Cool J developed a stutter on Rock the Bells.  He slowed down Tribe’s Scenario by looping “Change your little drawers ’cause your pants are saggin'” to a crawl and then stood in front of the decks – still mixing – and started pulling down his pants to reveal his Superman drawers.

Don’t just take it from me: listen.  Here’s Scratch working over Run DMC‘s Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse).  Note the point where he starts looping “So kick off your shoes” again and again.  What you can see is that he’s taken his shoes off while DJing and used on to stop the turntable.

Here’s the outro from the night (apologies for the yell at the start); again, it’s some Run DMC, but this time Peter Piper.  Listen for the end when all you hear is “there it is” looped again and again.  The man’s hands were on fire and I thought he’d melt the max.  Then he had DJ Evil Dee come up on stage and the two took turns scratching, each doing one cut after the other.  They would literally walk around each other every second to do so.  Then at one point, Dee used his gut to stop the record (I can’t make this stuff up; you really just have to see it).

An unreal night.

The other comment I’d make is that the crowd lived their hip hop.  I’ve never been to a hip hop show where the crowd knew every word to every single song.  I like hip hop, but these guys (and girls) love their hip hop.  The definition of true fans.