Chilly B, Honey B and Jay Z…..Holla!
Response to A Friend’s Comment on Hip Hop
The first thing I saw when I switched on my Facebook page this morning, which has now become a daily ritual, was a post from my friend Eric Wattree, a learned scribe from the left coast who is also an accomplished jazz musician. The post was a video clip of Quincy Jones presenting Emily Bear, a young white female of rare musical gifts – Quincy pointed out that she has composed several pieces for symphony orchestras – but since this was the Montreux Jazz Festival she was performing jazz piano on this occasion.
The clip was accompanied by the comment “Are we going to become the first culture in the history of mankind who are incapable of playing what we created?” I thought it a curious comment, since I did not find her particularly impressive as a Jazz pianist. She reminded me more of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the daughter of Afro-American writer and the blond Texas heiress and artist Josephine Cogdell, who had been selected as a coveted Sennett Bathing Beauty. Phillippa was not only performing the masterworks for piano in European classical music as a child, but showed such promise as a composer by nine years old she was seriously compared to Mozart at her age by American professors of music.
And had it not been for the racism and snobbery that characterized the attitude of the European Classical music community toward Jazz – An Afro-American complex instrumental Music that is now regarded as classic American art – I have no doubt that Phillippa would have mastered Jazz piano too. After all, she lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem, which was home to many great black jazz musicians, including Duke Ellingon and Andy Kirk, whose wife was a great pianist that gave Charlie Parker his first gig when they lived in Kansas City. Mrs. Kirk was a fabulous piano teacher who taught generations of Harlem kids to play.
Phillippa Duke Schuyler
A Musical Prodigy Performing her Compositions
Phillippa Schuyler around Emily Bear’s Age
When he went on to observe that “scatching a record is not art,” it became obvious that Eric is alarmed by the wholesale intoxication with Hip Hop beats by young folks – you hear them everywhere, even in the cadences of black marching bands – and he is responding to the sad possibility that there will come a time when young black musicians will be unable to perform the complex art of Jazz, a genre of instrumental music which in order to perfom properly requires virtuosity from everybody in the band.
The possibility that this grand achievement of Afro-American culture could be lost to future generations of black musicians is cause for alarm….but how real is this fear? After giving his comments a moment’s reflection I thought: My man needs to chill out; things are not nearly so dire regarding the supply of outstanding young black Jazz musicians. I wondered if his pessimism comes from the fact that he lives in LA, because here in the Big Apple there is no paucity of great young black Jazz musicians.
It’s not the absence of black musicians that’s the problem in New York, it’s finding a black audience! By virtue of the heroic efforts of Wynton Marsalis and the magnificent Jazz at Lincoln Center program, there is now a curriculum to guide music teachers in formally teaching the essential techniques of jazz performance available upon request: And its free!
Before Jazz at Lincoln Center got off the ground the great singer/bandleader Betty Carter hosted conferences that brought gifted young jazz virtuosi from all over the country to study and perform at her Jazz workshop at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, under the sponsorship of the Brookly Academy of Music. I covered one of these conferences for the Sunday Times of London, and it was published under the title “School For Cats,” which can now be read on this blog.
One of the revelations in this essay is that all of the most gifted young jazz musicians also loved HipHop. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut liked playing on rap tracks and Adonis Rose, who was the drummer with the brilliant Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, told me he had just finished playing behind some rappers and he loved it as mush as playing with Roberts! Hence I concluded that young Afro-americans musicians love both Jazz and Hip Hop equally….its a generational thing.
A Young Master keeping the tradition alive!
Eric is right that scratching records is not making music in the traditional sense of playing an instrument, but scratching records is only a part of what hip hop MC’s do -there is the art of sampling records and creating unique beats, often creating entirely new songs. And some of them can rap! Many outstanding old school jazz masters not only recognize, but admire, the achievements of Hip Hop artists. A couple ot years ago I heard Grady Tate – the most widely recorded drummer in history – being interviewed at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which is creating a priceless audio-video museum of jazz history.
When asked about hip hop in a room full of jazz heads, mostly middle aged and older, Tate had this to say: “I think the most innovative thing happening in recorded music today is hip hop.” A collective gasp of shock and disbelief went up in the room, but he continued: “I believe that certain people are genetically programmed to play music.”
He explained how he became a musician because he went to a high school with a great music program which even supplied the instruments – like the school I went to – then he pointed out how many inner-city kids were robbed of that opportunity because the philistine businessman and accountants that control school boards that fund education cut out formal musical instruction, school marching bands and orchestras. In response to this bleak musical predicament they created a new way of making music: HIP HOP
Grady Tate: Master Percussionist and Jazz Virtuoso
He became a musician because of his high school music program
As a drummer he loves their beats, and as a Shakespearian actor with a degree in English literature he loves many of their clever rhymes and free verse poetry set to those beats. Tate went on to further explain that these young black and Hispanic kids in New York – the real home of Hip Hop – have not only created an art form which is now practiced around the world, but when he is touring he makes a point of checking them out, and he has discovered that the themes in their rhymes address local realities and concerns.
For instance, when I interviewed the Editor of Cuba’s first Hip hop magazine and radio programmer, he told me: “Hip hop is the true voice of young Afro-Cubans!” Then he proceeded to show me how young Afro-Cubans were setting the poems of Nicholas Guillen, the great Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate of Cuba, to rumba beats and reciting them over the beats. In other words, it is the specific lyrical content that determines the character of a particular rap.
Like Ragtime music, which is now universally recognized as a great art form, but in Scott Joplin’s time was regarded as “Whore house music.” And that, as Scott Joplin complained at the time, was due to “the bawdy lyrics” that so often accompanied the music. That’s why Joplin wrote Treemonisha, a full scale grand opera set to ragtime music, in order to demonstrate the nobility of the form. Hip hop is a very versatile form and has the power to affect human sensibility in myriad ways….it depends upon the artist!
Composed a Ragtime Opera to prove nobility of the music
And contrary to conventional wisdom about all rap lyrics celebrating murder, mayhem and debauchery, Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons never tires of pointing out: the “positive poets” have found the greater success. For instance Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool Jay, Puffy, et al. I started writing about hip hop from its inception here in New York.
I was friends with Joe Robinson, the owner of Sugar Hill Records, who recorded the first Hip Hop group, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” before anybody had made a rap record. When I first met Joe, the epitome of an old school gentleman gangster, he was in the Rhythm and Blues business but was an avid Jazz fan. However he was in business to make money; so he let the market dictate his business decisions – which is to say he was always looking for the big hit….and that was not going to happen recording jazz acts. Alas, the jazz acts that made money i.e. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Jazz Crusaders, et al were already signed to major labels.
Joe was indifferent to what these young people were inventing – it was just a “product” to him – but I, like Grady Tate, Max Roach and Quincy Jones, dug what these kids were doing from the git go. And I wrote about the virtues and vices of this new popular art form in: The Village Voice, New York Daily News, Sunday Times of London, Guardian Observor of London, Source Magazine: “The Bible of Hip Hop,” Spin Magazine, etc. Grady Tate made one more important point about Hip hop artists in comparison to some of the greatest figures in modern Jazz: The jazzmen were so high on dope they didn’t know where their money went! While hip hop artists smoke Wisdom Weed and control millions!!!!All True!!!
With President Obama; you’ve come a long way baby!
Russell Simmon’s house on Long Island is the biggest mansion on the East coast – including those of the 19th century Robber Barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on the famed Fifth Ave “Millionaire’s Row.” and among his guests are Bill and Hillary Clinton. According to a CBS 60 minutes report Jay Z heads a billion dollar business conglomerate; which means has made more money than Mitt Romney, and Mitt started life in a Michigan Mansion while Jay Z started in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. See: Is Jay Z a Better Businessman than Mitt?”at: http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=jay+z.
Will Smith turned down a scholarship to MIT to pursue a hip hop career, and he has gone from rap music star, to television star, to movie super star. He and his wife Jada were replaced as the number one power couple in Show business by Jay Z and Beyonce. Ice Cube is a for real movie mogul who has the wherewithal to greenlight his own movie productions, and Sean P Ditty Combs has gone from a local producer of rap concerts in New York City to a businessman with a fortune estimated to exceed 500 million dollars!
Playing it to the MaX
He owns apartment buildings on the posh upper side of Manhattan, is an award winning designer of formal men’s evening wear, and played the complex starring role in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, to critical acclaim from both professional critics and the seasoned actors in the cast. Jay Z and Beyonce, next to their Friends Barack and Michelle, are America’s most popular power Couple and also talented performers. And they replaced Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in that role. In hip hop the rappers come from all stations in life and what they share in common is their love of bustin a rhyme over dope beats while they tell a story about the gritty realities of life.
Will and Jada
Hollywood Power Couple
Jay Z and Beyonce
America.s most popular power couple
Hip Hop is the first truly Afro-American popular musical form that manages to speak straight-up to all of the issues that concern them personally and Afro-Americans in general. The blues, for all of its profound insights into the human condition, developed in the deep-south where a black man could lose his life for telling the truth as he knew it, especially if he did so with the irreverence and total disregard for white sentiment as these rappers.
Hence the blues is replete with complex metaphors and allusions, while the rappers “keep it real.” The range of beats, vocal “flows,” technical innovation in the recording studio, and the lyrical content range from the trite and vulgar to the profound – the entire range of human personality and experience. One need only listen to the raps of Oakland’s “Too Short” and compare them to the lyrics – and superb studio work – of Ohene of Philadelphia.
Too Short is a specialist from the ghetto who tells tawdry tales his fans call “straight gutter,” while transcendent poetry that profoundly addresses the complexities of global black experience in the 21st century are the stock in trade of Ohene – and both do what they do with high style and panache. I am including clips of both these artists so the reader can hear for themselves what I mean.
Livin his Short Guy Dreams?
In Too Short and Ohene with see a sharp contrast in Hip Hop styles i.e. the purposes to which this performance vehicle is put: the images and values it projects. And we can see how much musical talent and general intelligence shapes the character and complexity of their product. As in all things talent, character and intelligence will distinguish one performer from another and in the case of Too Short and Ohene the difference could hardly be more dramatic.
The two performances I have attached below will demonstrate the polar opposites of their concerns and musical skills, yet both are legitimate representations of the Hip Hop genre. In two Short’s “I’m a Player” we get yet another tour through the twisted life of a wannabe ghetto pimp. His descriptions of a desirable relationship with women are bizarre; a third rate Mack’s rap – I’ve heard much better from real Macks I’ve known – that sounds more like war than love.
Too Short brazenly puts all of his pathologies on display: There is no shame in his game. It does not take a psychiatrist to recognize these lyrics as the creation of a man with a strong Napoleonic Complex – aka Short guy inadequacy syndrome – and a deep fear of being dominated by women. After all, he looks like a chocolate version of Mr. Peanut and was grew up poor to boot.
We can be sure that he was not the ideal lady’s man, but he became one by persistence and astute observation of female character and desire. Among the things that he no doubt discovered is that seduction is a game, and persistence, self-confidence, a quick wit – i.e. knowing what to say outta yo mouth at the right time – are more powerful weapons than good looks in this game. When you add the elements of fame, money and the ability to back up your boasts in bed to the mix, you have the makings of a formidable ladies man.
It seems to me that despite his successes this fear of being “chumped” by women remains, and it is the source of his super macho pimp daddy demeanor; his stone cold Playa attitude. Yet every time I see one of these rappers coming on all hard I wonder if it’s real or they have swiped somebody else’s story.
Is this guy for Real?
……..Or just another Perpetrator?
Inevitably, when I am wondering if somebody’s street cred is real, that chilling video by Eazy E, “Real Motherfuckin G’s!” always comes to mind. In this video they call out Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and the whole “Death Row Records” crowd – a label that everybody in the record business thought of as cold blooded killers, especially the 300 pound giant who ran the company, Suge Knight. But Eazy E and his crew called them “Studio Gangstas,” i.e. great pretenders, “actors,” perpetrators with no respect on the streets, and dared them to “step to some real motherfuckin G’s!”
The sincerity of the challenge is clear in the video; it is the sonic equivalent of a drive by shooting….a point that they visually portray at the end of the video. Gangsta Rap is California’s contribution to Hip Hop, and when murder and mayhem is your theme…”keepin it real” is an invitation to disaster.
A Real Cool Killer? Or Avatar of US Gun Culture
That’s the tradition which spawned Too Short…except his raps wisely concentrate on fuckin more than fightin….the war between the sheets rather than the war in the streets. Yet the lessons to the youth are just as destructive….if not more so. It is from fucked up relationships such as those portrayed in Too Short’s raps that produce the psychologically damaged kids who grow into the monsters that wreak havoc on our communities and put all young black males in American under suspicion.
A lot of people who promote this music because of its enormous popularity among teens and young adults of all races and classes, try to deny that this is the consequence of these compelling narratives set to hypnotic beats and seductively spouted by ghetto speakcians, skilled motor mouths who prize the spoken word over the written word.
Ohene: Artistic King of Hip Hop!
His words are sonic balm that heal the spirit
While being no less committed to the spoken word recited over funky beats dance oriented beats, Ohene – whose name is the traditional title of Ashanti warrior Kings – has completely different concerns and is an accomplished musician who loves jazz. One need only listen to this track below “Big Things, Y’all Can’t Stop this Music!” to hear this.
The record comes on swinging hard and Ohene’s voice replaces the traditional horn improvising over the rhythm section rapping in the phrase that suggest instruments “I’m the undisputed rap coach!” he declares, throwing out the traditional challenge to sucka MC’s who might be feeling froggish and contemplating stepping to him lyrically by flowing over weak beats.
He quickly warns “My chat is in sync with the syncopation of Max Roach / Imagine Bird with his sax folks / Theolonius Monk with his third hand…..” Ohene continues to extol the prowess of black Jazz greats until he reaches a point where he announces “Playing piano like my dad.” At this point the performance goes from brilliant to sublime as he begins to play the piano.
To accompany yourself on piano while singing is difficult even if the song is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but to play rhythmically complex Be-bop riffs on the piano while singing lyrics you have written to it is off the charts of measurable difficulty. It is a spiritual communion expressed as musical artistry.
The aesthetic achievement of this performance ranks with the very best that has been achieved with voice, lyrics and instrumental composition. Lyrically Ohene’s raps reveal him to be a man of vision and gravitas who, like Richard Wagner, seeks to elevate a nation of people with his songs. While the track attached below celebrates the heroism of Afro-American jazz musicians, Ohene has written poignant narratives about all phases of life in contemporary American society.
As a serious researcher into Hip Hop’s roots, Ohene, who teaches a course on the art of Hip Hop at Temple University, employs all the beats in the evolution of the genre and he uses them like an alchemist constructing foundations of rhythmic sounds upon which to build edifices of thought in words like “love is the ultimate truth in any culture.” In raps like “Nobody is Fighting…I just Don’t Understand,” which is a call for Pan-African resistance to the forces that would destroy us, and is also appended to this text below.
Hence to sum up the difference in the Hip hop styles of Ohene and Too Short, who represent polar opposites in rap music, suffice it to say that the former presents an enlightened vision of human possibility designed to inspire “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln once put it, thus providing the kind of hope and inspiration that can elevate a nation, while Too Short appeals to the worst in us….and preaches a gospel of decadence and debauchery that can only lead to tragedy. As in Hip Hop – So in Life!
Hip Hop Ladies: All Hail the Queen!!
Her Sharp Tongue and Regal Presence Empowred Girls of all Ages!
Like Jazz, Hip Hop is a predominantly black male art, but there are some outstanding female stars. And none shines brighter than Queen Latifah. While some female rappers seek to answer the males with raps that are just as down and dirty – like Roxanne Shante, Foxy Brown and L’il Kim – the Queen mostly kept her rhymes clean.
With a keen intellect and razor sharp wit she sassily took on the misguided macho misogynistic posturing that characterized so much of male rap. A physically imposing woman with a fearless demeanor, she “represented” for women with Raps like “Ladies First.” She was a culture hero to many girls of all backgrounds, my daughter included, and she went on to become one of Hip Hop’s biggest stars bar none.
The Queen as Glamour Girl
Tall, Tan, Thick and Fine
While Foxy Brown and L’il Kim are big stars in the Hip Hop world they have never been able to break through to a more general audience because of the raunchy image they chose. Hence while there is no question that L’il Kim’s “Don’t Want Dick Tonight” is a wonderfully composed and performed rap, it is too risqué for general audiences.
Latifah’s style on the other hand will play everywhere; that’s why she went on to become a bonafide star in television and movies. She made big women fashionable when she was selected as a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics. As I write she is hosting her own syndicated daytime television talk show. Queen Latifah, a Rapper from New Jersey, has marketed her brand world-wide. Eve, a rapper from Phily, rose from being a hair dresser to stardom and was the first female rapper to have her on television sitcom. But she has not shown the staying power of the Queen.
Some Final Observations
Hip Hop is the closest that Afro-Americans have come to producing a song poetry that approaches the profundity that is common fare in the art of Calypso. see http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=long+live+calypso. As to whether or not Hip Hop is art, I would say that its record of success in speaking to the hearts and minds of people around the globe, by virtue of the product Hip Hop producers and performers create in the studio, there can be no question that it is great commercial popular art at its best.
I however do believe that there is a distinction between fine art and commercial art, and that its merit on the scale of artistic achievement and cultural importance can be graded. But it is an objective that is exceedingly hard to achieve, for to succeed at this one must be broadly learned in the art forms under discussion, and objective enough in one’s approach to privilege an unpleasant truth over confirming one’s prejudices.
Many smart and sincere people have failed this test – like the musicians in the high German church who were convinced that Bach was ruining sacred music. Given the volatile emotions surrounding hip hop we will certainly not resolve the question as to what constitutes fine art here – so profound a question is clearly beyond the scope and ambition of this essay….Hence we will simply let our statement stand as is….