Racism in Rap

[Note: This article uses language which some readers might find particularly offensive. Please be advised that the sensitive nature of the content is not being published with the intent to offend.]

“Hip hop’s vitality is directly related to its rebelliousness. You can tame it if you like (or try to), but whatever the result, it won’t be hip hop.” This statement comes from Hip Hop America author Nelson George in a 2007 Salon article titled “Is rap racist?” While that particular roundtable feature examined the core values that were tested during the Don Imus fallout, of any musical genre none has been so perpetually caught up in racial conflict as rap and hip hop. This isn’t to negate issues surrounding sexism and homophobia and their well documented places within the genre’s history, but race continues to be one of the leading topics which lends rap this “rebellious” connotation.

Everyone’s starting point in terms of this discussion is different, which is why everyone will have a unique perspective on the matter. Depending what effect racism has had on your life, that will leave you with a different starting point than I have. Racism isn’t foreign to me, but my history is limited to that of an outsider. I’ve never been the target of hate-speech, nor violence or physical harm based on the color of my skin. The starting point for Nashville MC Classic Williams is however very different, and he is releasing a new album tomorrow which tells his story. This past February the young MC first revealed his plans for The Soul of Nigger Charlie to me in an interview, however the album title carries with it connotation far beyond the simple words which comprise its title and lyrics.

Through one of our various email exchanges over the past couple of weeks Williams revealed why he felt it was appropriate to dive into such rough waters. “Me using the word ‘nigger’ in the title is obviously controversial, but it’s more than just that. It’s me freeing myself from the bonds the word placed me under growing up in the circumstances that I did. It’s one thing to look at the word and to fear it, but to actually experience being called the word on a regular basis for several years makes it a realer experience. As an artist, authenticity is everything — especially being a hip hop artist — and that’s about as real is it gets.”

The album itself bulges with bravado, opening with a female voice-over ripe with Blaxploitation-era reference. Adding to the idea that the album is in fact a soundtrack to his story, Williams offered note on the significance of the skits, “Honey Simmons is a character I created to narrate the progression of the album. I based her character off of the movie The Warriors. There was a women in the movie who announced what was happening in the street, in a sultry voice; extremely ’70s inspired. I felt like her presence on the project was necessary in order to make it sound more like a soundtrack rather than just a mixtape.” Despite using such methods to help relate his story however, during the album Williams wisely resisted stepping into the role of satirist. This isn’t to say that Charlie isn’t likely to become the source of misinterpretation, however.

One of the most challenging portions of the album comes in the form of recurring segments featuring another character, Lame Dodges. The recorded phone messages seem at first to be poorly guided skits featuring a stereotypical redneck aggressively tossing out slurs. But Williams explained that they are not as they might first appear. “Lame Dodges is not a fictional character. He is a real person, and these are actual calls that he left on my voice mail. I changed his name and turned him into a caricature. By turning him and all people who say racists things into a character that people can laugh at I negate the negative energy. People will find it funny, but really it’s sad.” They are, however, not funny in the slightest.

The backwoods drawl of Dodges lashing out at Williams is sad, the repeated taunts of “stupid nigger” reinforcing the hatred that lurks behind the words themselves. This is where intent and execution begin to blur. Even when given context the clips are unforgivable in their crass nature. While they project a mindset which I simply don’t understand, they do raise an issue which stands at the heart of why the discussion of race remains relevant in the genre (and in our society): the problems that persist don’t begin with the music or an artist’s volatile lyrics, but in the actual issues that remain prevalent in real life. In “Changes,” 2Pac once rhymed, “Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.” It’s such misplaced hatred as these Lame Dodges clips which beg the question which follows: Do these bouts of realist interjection detract from the album’s success?

In attempting to put personal ghosts from his past to rest Classic Williams has created an album which is sonically endearing while it also challenges personal comfort levels. Musically the production by Klassix Jones helps to further establish Williams as one of the most promising young voices in Nashville, but for every bit of good that can be gained from the album, its subject matter points to a focus which might potentially be misinterpreted or overlooked in the process. Perhaps The Soul of Nigger Charlie will leave an impression on people, perhaps it might simply go unnoticed. Regardless, the album suggests a willingness to approach a daunting subject matter in a serious way which many would immediately back down from. Is art at its best when it genuinely reflects the world around us? For better or worse, I feel that it is. Throughout his new album Classic Williams might be projecting a sample of the ugliness that remains in our world, but in doing so he’s reminding us that the word nigger isn’t simply a weightless term, but one which still carries with it a very serious impact, and one which cannot be taken lightly.

Record Store Day at Third Man Records (Nashville, TN)

Photos taken April 16, 2011 at Third Man Records in Nashville, TN.

Coolio Está Demasiado Caliente

A few weeks after “Wonderwall” had captivated listeners in the UK, Coolio returned with a flow back in your ear. One of Coolio’s greatest assets was that you didn’t have to be a rap connoisseur to get down with the man’s music back in the ’90s; much like the Spin Doctors, I think that some of Coolio’s songs still hold a place in hearts of music fans everywhere, regardless of whether or not they’d ever bother listening to them again. Seriously, when can “Fantastic Voyage” or “1, 2, 3, 4” hit the speakers without a party breaking out (in your pants)? But aside from those two tracks and “Gangsta’s Paradise” (which ended up as the highest selling single of 1995) there really isn’t much else to get too worked up over in the rest of his catalog; a fact made that much more unfortunate considering that he’s still making music. There are, of course, a few tracks along the way that garnered some heat: 1997′s “I’ll C U When U Get There” (back when using letters instead of full words was legit… and about a million miles away from the questionable taste of Ke$ha’s “C U Next Tuesday”) wasn’t bad, the awesome all-star cypher on the Space Jam soundtrack was a beast, there was a tight track from a godawful Whoopi Goldberg movie… Oh, and a commentary-heavy record about promiscuity and the necessity for contraception awareness. Which one of these things is not like the others?

“Too Hot” wasn’t exactly the peak of Coolio’s career, but it was hardly a low point either, eventually peaking at the #9 position in the UK while rising to the #24 position on the Billboard singles chart. The song has a good-enough bounce and a bit of a message, which was apparently enough to help it ride as the third most successful single from the MC’s landmark release. That’s all great and everything, but if anyone actually listened to the lyrics of the song, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have topped charts and broken sales records around the entire world. Allow me to indulge myself in the first five bars alone and you’ll see what I mean:
"Everybody listen up ’cause I’m about to get my speak on
Fools be trippin’ when it’s time to get their freak on
Runnin’ ’round town, puttin’ it down
Without no protection, funny erection
When it’s time for selection, what’s your direction?"
This isn’t even including the yeah-it’s-still-pretty-relevant-given-the-year-it-was-released shout out to Magic Johnson. Nor is it taking into account the brilliance of the music video’s B-movie special effects and questionable storyline (You get AIDS = you turn into colored sand, unless you’re a white dude, then you turn into marbles. Oh, and Coolio might actually be Satan). All I ask is that next time you think about Coolio, which might be days away, or it might be decades away, you reconsider this gem and ask yourself: “Without no protection, funny erection, when it’s time for selection, what’s your direction?” Simply put, “Too Hot” was, and is, nothing short of a masterpiece.

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]

Ryan Adams Ain’t Got Shit on the Pops

Q: What did you think about Ryan Adams’ version of “Wonderwall”?

A: It’s shit to me, man. I like Ryan Adams and I like some of his songs. But I hated what he did with “Wonderwall.”

That quote comes from a recent interview Liam Gallagher did with MTV, largely discussing his new band Beady Eye before conversation inevitably turned toward the cultural landmark that is Oasis. Looking back, it’s a bit telling of how big Oasis truly was that we’re still intrigued by songs that have long since become overused, overplayed and overly dissected. “Wonderwall” peaked at #2 on the UK singles chart back in November of 1995, but what still resonates as one of the most significant moments in the song’s history ultimately had less to do with Oasis and more to do with a band that had formed a mere two years earlier on the platform of reinterpreting “universally popular songs.”

While the Mike Flowers Pops’ cover of “Wonderwall” still stands as one of the most bizarre versions of the song, it achieved such shocking success that it nonetheless solidified its place in pop culture history. On December 30, 1995, while Oasis’ version of “Wonderwall” sat firmly at the #7 position on the UK’s singles chart, the Mike Flowers Pops’ rendition of the track debuted at the exact same position that the original had peaked at mere seven weeks earlier. Just let that settle in for a moment: while “Wonderwall” failed to top the singles charts in either the US or UK, it was so widely adored that even while the original remained a relevant single, a cover was initially able to match its commercial success. For two weeks “Wonderwall” locked down two top 10 positions on the singles chart, a feat which seems unbelievable in retrospect. That being said, the story of the Mike Flowers Pops’ “Wonderwall” runs a little bit deeper than simply being a timely cover of a wildly acclaimed single.

Earlier in the year Flowers (born Mike Roberts) was recruited by BBC Radio 1′s Kevin Greening to cover modern singles for the DJ’s show. The project was set to feature a new cover every week and for the first installment in the new series the collective decided that there’d be no better bet than to stick with “Wonderwall,” as it was still near the peak of its popularity. After recording and releasing the song on Greening’s radio show, English radio host and personality Chris Evans caught wind of it, falsely believing it to be an uncredited original released decades before Oasis had even formed as a band. That week Evans dubbed the track the “single of the week” on his Radio 1 breakfast show, wrongly informing listeners that it was indeed the original version and that the brothers Gallagher were artistic squatters. Once the dust settled and controversy was put to rest, the Gallaghers eventually gave permission for the cover’s release and, as they say, the rest is history.

Though the Mike Flowers Pops never matched the success of that first single, the group found scattered achievements following its release including a groovy version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” which cracked the top 40 in August of 1996.

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]

Sun Soakin’ Bulges in the Shade

Yesterday’s glance back at “Big Me” from the Foo Fighters triggered a thought about another music video that was released right around the same time as it; that being the clip for “Peaches” by the Presidents of the United States of America. Actually, after scouring the the web for some information I was able to find a site that is in the process of archiving a number of old lists from Much Music’s weekly Countdown show, and not only were these two videos released around the same time but there were a number of other standout clips that were current during the spring of 1996. The Countdown list from April 12 includes a variety of examples which continue to serve as some of the best representations of music videos from the era: everything from “1979” from the Smashing Pumpkins to “High and Dry” by Radiohead to 2Pac & Dre’s “California Love” to Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova.” Perhaps it wasn’t The Golden Age of Music Videos, but there was a glut of great clips at the time that have aged remarkably well. I think I’m going to have some (more) fun looking back through these old lists and reintroducing myself to some forgotten classics. In the meantime (which was also a high charting video that week) check out one of the videos that set an early precedent for the cheeky humor which has run throughout PUSA’s entire career (a career which, after a two-year hiatus, surprisingly continues to this very day).

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]

The Fresh Fighter

With the new Foo Fighters album becoming available online during the past 24 hours it felt appropriate to continue this journey back into the ’90s with a look at the group’s first crossover hit: “Big Me.” With other standouts from the Foo’s debut album including such hard-hitting tracks as “I’ll Stick Around” and “This is a Call,” “Big Me” was definitely an unexpected outlier in terms of the LP’s sound. Additionally, the release of the song as a single, and more importantly a music video, marked a significant turn in the way the group promoted itself. Not only did the track reveal a softer musical side of the band to listeners, but in spoofing a series of notorious Mentos commercials, the music video became the band’s first to reflect the group’s charming sense of humor; a trend that has continued through the years, most recently showing up in the clip for “White Limo.”

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]