Lately I've been feeling an acute sense of nostalgia and of time passing. Perhaps some of this is leftover from the holidays, which is understandable, but there's more to it- or in it. As I sit on the couch looking at the blue sky, I have the windows open and I can hear music coming from a party taking place in the Tenderloin National Forest across the street. I'm enjoying it- but it's fueling that nostalgia something fierce. It's mostly 80's R and B- Teena Marie, the SOS Band, stuff I used to listen to on KJLH in L.A. during that era.
Tonight I'm going to Yoshi's to see Public Enemy. Talk about seemingly inappropriate venues. When P.E. first exploded on the music scene in 1987 a place like Yoshi's would have been terrified to host a gig of theirs. Their first album came out amid a lot hype, but it wasn't until "Rebel Without a Pause" was put on the B-side of their first single it became clear this was a group to be reckoned with. "Rebel Without a Pause" was like a bomb going off in the world of rap music. It sounded like something completely new and it sounded dangerous. The only other songs I knew of with comparable impacts were NWA's "Dopeman," which came out at around the same time, and Run-DMC's "It's Like That," from 1983. Hearing these songs the first time you knew they were game-changers and this proved true. Rap was never the same after "Dopeman," which ushered in the whole "gangsta" era, and not long after that rap became the music of choice among white kids in the burbs who wanted to listen to music that would annoy their parents. One thing that made these songs sound so ominous back then was they were pretty much only heard on KDAY- an AM radio station. So not only was the music raw by design, but hearing it in the low-fi frequency of AM greatly magnified its impact.
I lost interest in the genre somewhere around 1990. What to me had been incredibly creative and fun music was evolving into a repetitive, increasingly negative bore. Of course there were exceptions, but the landscape had irrevocably shifted with NWA and I moved on. So did rap. I was told last night it's entering a more positive phase, but it's unlikely at this point I'll ever catch up the current state of the genre, even though I think Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" is one of the most brilliant songs I've heard in years.
P.E.'s 1990 release Fear of Black Planet was probably the last contemporary rap album I liked and paid attention to until I heard Outkast's incredible Speakerboxx/The Love Below. That's a thirteen year gap, during which the complex, hypnotic samples and beats of masters like The Bomb Squad, Marley Marl and the Dust Brothers gave way to the slower synth beats of Dr. Dre- a sound which dominated the genre for at least a decade. I found "gangsta" rap boring. The music seemed to take a backseat to the image of the rappers, who seemed intent on playing a game of one-upmanship that had more to do with guns than rhymes. The violence that came to be associated with hip-hop was always in the audience, but now the performers were getting in on the game. The negativity of it all outweighed great songs I'd hear occasionally like Eminem's "Without Me" (though perhaps I liked it because of it's reference/resemblance to Malcolm McClaren's "Buffalo Gals") The appeal of a song like Tupac's "Hit 'em Up," which has undeniably great beat (lifted straight from Erik B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full") was lost on me due to the ugly coarseness of the lyrics. Besides, a lot of it seemed inauthentic- a prime example being Ice-T's transformation from a guest rapper on silly, lame party tunes to self-proclaimed O.G.. I have no idea if Ice was a gangster or not. What I do know is the skinny guy who was opened a Run-DMC show at a club called the Mixx in L.A. in 1984 was hard to see in the pumped-up guy pictured on the cover of 1991's O.G..
Speaking of gangsters and Run-DMC shows, I was in the audience at the notorious Long Beach show in 1986. That was it for me as far as hip-hop shows went. Riots aren't fun, and though fights were something to be expected at the shows, that night took it to an entirely different level I never, ever wanted to experience again. Do you have any idea how terrifying it is to be in a crowd of 14,000 people as it erupts into a riot? The lights had been on for awhile at the point when it became an actual nightmare. I don't think they even came down when Whodini took the stage, so you could see what people were doing. Usually it calmed down after awhile, but on this night it just grew and grew and then it became something else- you couldn't tell where it coming from anymore- then people started breaking the legs off the seats and using them as weapons to hit other people. We were trapped- a blond Valley Boy and his Filipina girlfriend- and there wasn't a path to leave without having to wade through people beating one another with metal sticks. The security guards and the cops completely bailed. By the time we made it out there wasn't a single one to be seen inside- just bloody people lying on the ground of the arena's perimeter. The bullshit violence at Uncle Jamm's Army gigs at the LA Sports Arena in the mid 80's was nothing compared to this. I haven't been to rap show since.
So why am I, now a middle-aged white guy, going to see P.E. tonight at Yoshi's? The music of course, and the fact that Yoshi's is a pretty sedate, small club. Rap has an extremely short shelf-life. A lot of the music by groups like Whodini or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five hasn't aged well. Sure, there many classics from the earlier days of hip-hop- but for every great tune by the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Young MC, Erik B and Rakim, etc., there's a lot of stuff like the Egyptian Lover and UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" - fun to watch on YouTube if you were there at the time, but hard to understand how popular it was in retrospect (much less inspire countless copy-cat/ repsonse tunes).
Public Enemy is different. Even though it's cringe-inducing to acknowledge that Flava Flav is now more famous as a reality TV star instead of as his role as the Greek chorus/joker to Chuck D.'s raps, the music has retained its power, and, importantly, its relevance. Even in 2010- with a Black President in the White House, songs like "Night of the Living Baseheads," "Can't Truss It," "By the Time I Get to Arizona," "911 is a Joke," and of course "Fight the Power" still pack a punch. A message band that never lost sight of the original message. By the way- here's to MLK day.