Archive for Rappers Delight

How Rap Records First Got Made and Played

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Vingnettes From a Remarkable Life with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by playthell
sylvia-robinson
Sylvia Robinson: Godmother of Hip Hop
 On Political Players, Black Revolutionaries, and the Business of Music

The beautiful, shrewd businesswoman and former recording artist Sylvia Robinson is often referred to as “The Godmother” of Hip Hop.  True enough, but that was made possible because her husband Joe Robinson had been a big-time gangster before settling down as a music mogul! Although soft spoken with a bright smile, and always stylishly dressed with excellent taste, Joe was the kind of fearless tough guy who gave the impression that he would spit in a cracker sheriff’s face in Mississippi and tell him: “Kiss my rich black ass you cracker mother!” While he was in handcuffs and surrounded by a possee.

Joe was good friends with a close friend of mine, Clarence “Mooke” Jackson, who owned the premier black gangster hangout spot in New York during the 1970’s, “MISS LACY’S,” which was right next door to Carnegie Hall! These were for real gangsters: not play play hip hop gangsters. For them being a gangster was not a life style but a business!

Joe and Mookie were gentlemen gangsters, elegant of style and manners who wished a different and better life for the kids –  like the kind described by Drs. St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton in their classic two volume sociological treatise on Chicago “Black Metropolis” – especially the chapter titled “The Upper Shadies,” in which they describe black gangsters who sent their kids to Europe for study.

In his historical masterpiece, When Harlem Was In Vogue,  David Leverling Lewis introduced us to an earlier example of the old school Black Gentleman Gangster, Casper Holstien.  Lewis, a Professor of History at Ruters University and a two times winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for History, paints a poignant portrait of Holstein – a west Indian immigrant who served as the model for the character Dr. Narssice, in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire. ”  

Casper Holstien Circa 1928

casper-holstein

Policy King, Philanthropist, Patron of Harlem Renissance Artists

Professor Lewis recounts the fact that Holstien put up the money for the prizes in the high brow Urban League’s annual Harlem literary  competitions; held under the direction of the highly educated urbane scholar Dr. Charles Johnson, who published the winners in  Opportunity – a nationally distributed magazine he edited – published by the Urban League.

Gus Greenlee of Pittsburg, was another of this fraternity.  An elegant dresser and shrewd businessman, Greenlee was one of the most powerful team owners  in the Negro Baseball League.  He led the ressurrection of the National Negro League in 1933, and his team, the Homestead Greys, was one of the strongest franchises in the league.

Greenlee was a “Policy King;” which means that he ran a successful lottery in the black community based on illegal betting called playing the numbers or “Policy”  – the same business that Joe and Casper Holstien had made their fortunes in.  Greenlee was a prominent and much admired figure in the black community, and commanded respect from everyone, he had spent a few years in college and was a well spoken Gentlemen.  The two black managers of Heavy-Weight Champion, who was at one point the biggest star in the world, were also Policy Kings from Detroit and Chicago.

The classic American memoir “Really The Blues” by the Chi Town Jewish gangster and Al Capone strong arm man Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who became a jazz musician while serving time with black musicians in Illinois’ Joliet prison and got good enough on the clarinet to play with the great Louis Armstrong,we again encounter these black gentlemen gangsters. In Really the Blues Mezz compares the black gangsters he knew, especially in Harlem, with the top white gangsters he associated with – and he knew them all.  Mezz describes the black gangsters as being far superior in intellect and style to the whites. He said that in a racially just society they would have been lawyers, doctors and Captains of industry!

Mezz could have been describing Mookie and Joe. Although I only met Sylvia in passing, always looking stunning, I knew Joe fairly well.  I met him just as he  was completing work on the building that would house the record company. Mookie told me how Joe took a numbers district from the Mafia! The word on the street was that’s how he got the money to start the record company.

Mookie was the founder of the Fair Play Committee, a group of mostly black gangsters who were inspired by the Black Power Movement and RAM.  In fact, it was movement activist like the chemist and SNCC organizer George Ware, who also be a key figure in organizing the Black Music Association in the 1970’s, that advised Mookie on how to organize the FPC.

That’s how I met Mookie, as a result of movement activity.  After some of the leaders of the Revolutionary Action Movement began reading the writings of Dr. Franz Fanon, the French West Indian Psychaitrist who became the central theoritician of the great Algerian Revolution, and then saw the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” where the revolutionaries in the Algerian FLN recruited the Casbar gangsters into the movement, black ghetto gangsters all began to look like potential Malcolm X’s to us.

Thus, we made an effort to convert and recruit gangsters into the movement. We used to call Mookie and his associates “Political Players” because they wanted to do things that would advance eonomic development in the Black Community.  Hence they could relate to our Black Power message and was influenced by it.  We thought of them as “Economic Nationalist.”   Mookie also knew Malcolm X well when he was in the streets, first in Detroit and later in Harlem; he used to say with a chuckle: “It’s a damn good thing he became a political leader cause Malcolm couldn’t hustle his way across the George Washington Bridge!”

When the revolutionary activist H. “Rap” Brown – who along with Stokely Carmichael aka “Kwame Touré, founded the original Black Panther Party in Loundes County Alabama, the Oakland Black Panthers were an offshoot that came along later – and coined the “Black Power” slogan – was running from the FBI as a fugitive on their Top Ten Most Wanted List, remaining at large for years:  It was Mookie and his associates that hid him from the G-Men! Although he had virtually no formal education, coming from racist apartheid Alabama and growing up dirt poor: Mookie was one of the smartest people I ever met! And I have lectured at Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris!

Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown

stokeley-carmichael-h-rap-brown-meet-press1

The True Founders of the Black Panther Party

Mookie and I became dear friends until he died a natural death at 85!  If you read my fictional story “Lush Life” in the seminal anthology “Brotherman,” which includes 66 black male writers – everybody who was anybody –  compiled and edited by Dr. Harris, Senior Editor of the Black Scholar, and the prolific writer and venerable Public intellectual Herb Boyd, who also knew Mookie from Detroit – the black gangsters sitting around the table planning how to break into the record business are based on Mookie and his associates. The character “Boogie Woogie” is based on Mookie and “Beautiful Cody Jones” is based on Joe Robinson.

 Joe and Sylvia Robinson

joe-and-sylvaia-robinson

They Put Rap on Records

Me and Mookie were thick as thieves.  I taught Mookie’s son Michael, and his main enforcer “Tabby” – a former member of the US Marine Corps and a world class boxer who was an inter-service Champion and the most feared “gorilla” in the Apple  – to ride horses!  I was there on the scene, that’s how I know Fair Play were the ones who got independent black music labels like All Platinum Records,  the original company founded by Joe and Sylvia in 1968, played on the air. They also were responsible for getting Bob Law, the great nationally broadcast talk show host, on the radio.

Back in the Day

playthell-horse-2

Tabby’s facination with horses aparked a friendship between us

Joe Robinson and his beautiful brilliant wife Sylvia – who had a big hit when I was in high school during the 1950’s titled “Love is Strange” with a male partner under the stage name “Mickey and Sylvia” – would record the first Rap record ever – “Rappers Delight.” The artists were a local group in Inglewood New Jersey called “The Sugar Hill Gang.”

Joe and Sylvia first heard rap music on a visit to Harlem World as Mookie’s guest, as he was a part owner of the club, which “Puffy” talks about as one of the incubators of Rap.  On the night of Joe and Sylvia’s visit DJ Hollywood and Curtis Blow were controlling the mikes.  They immediately recognized the commercial value of this new black vernacular art form and began taking steps to record it.

I had failed to recognize the commercial value of Rap Music on an earlier visit to the club after Logan Westbrooks, Director of Special Markets for the CBS Records Group, had hooked me up with CBS staff producer Hank Crosby, who had been recruited from the Mo-Town stable.  I was trying to interest him in a demo recorded by Jade, the touring Band for Philadelphia International recording artist Jean Carn – who was distributed by CBS Records and marketed by Logan Westrooks’s department.  I was the leader and manager of Jade, and it was at the height of the disco craze, so we were aiming for that market.  But Disco music was becoming stale; with everybody beginning to sound alike.

Logan Westbrooks: HITMAKER!

Logan Westbrooks, hit maker

Chillin in his CBS Office with a Wall Covered With Gold and Platnam
Me and the Great Songtress Jean Carn circa 1977

Jean Carn

On the terrace of my Manhattan Apartment before performing at Linclon Center

Crosby was looking for the next big thing, and he told me he thought the rhythm section was very funky, and that I was “A clever lyricist.”   But he wasn’t interested in that record, which was titled “Just Keep on Dancing!” Crosby told me “If you write a few more stanzas to the song, then get one of those DJ’s in the clubs to recite them over just the rhythm section, I would be interested in hearing that.”

This was the mid 1970’s and the rap scene was well underway in the South Bronx – the true birthplace of Hip hop poets where newly minted MC’s like Grand Master Caz and Cool Herc, were already spittin def rhymes to the Bongo Band’s break beats,’ which were later incorperated into the  first Rap record.- and Rap was also beginning to make some noise in Harlem, but I had never heard of it.   And despite the fact that future music mogul Russell Simmons was beginning to promote hip hop concerts around town, I didn’t know what tha fuck Hank Crosby was talking about!

But when I mentioned it to Mookie he said “Oh he talking bout them rappers…sheet, we got tha best DJ’s in town doing that rap stuff up at the club!  Although Mookie was a Jazz fan, who dug Charlie Parker so much he once took Bird’s alto-saxophone back from a heroin dealer at gun point so Bird could make a gig.  Bird, who was badly strung out, had pawned his horn for dope and owed the dealer money, so he was keeping the horn as collateral.

But Mookie wanted to hear Bird wail at Minton’s Playhouse, the birth place of that extremely complex modern jazz genre called Bebop, so he strong armed his ax from the dealer.  Yet, despite his bias for jazz, Mookie, posessed an impressive gift for gab and might have become a rapper had he grown up in a Hip hop cultural milieu, could hear that something was happening with this “Rap thing,” by just watching the way it grooved the crowds in Harlem World.   So he told me: “Come on by and check em out; if you like em I’ll git em to do yo record and it won’t cost ya nothin…I’ll take care of it.”

Billboard for Forthcoming Movie on “Mookie” Jackson

mookie-jackson

Founder Of The Fair Play Committee

I went up to Harlem World, checked them out, and couldn’t believe that THIS was what Crosby was so excited about.  I told Mookie, “Man this shit ain’t goin nowhere.  We been reciting them kind of rhymes on street corners for years…why would anybody pay to hear that?”  Just like that I missed the chance to make history and a lot of money because I had a closed mind. The next big thing in popular music was staring me in the face and I slept on it, jussed played pass it.  I didn’t understand at the time that what the rappers were doing was a different art form from the kind of rhyming we had been doing.

We were reciting of verses from folk sagas like “The Signifying Monkey,”  “Shine on the Titanic” and The Dirty Dozens – verse that had been fashioned on the smithy of black folk culture.   These risque rhymes and been handed down for  generations and many black underground bards had contributed to their authorship. But what the Rappers were doing, I would later realize, is real artifice; the same kind of thing that poets do.

The major difference is that Rappers must flow over a preordained beat that is dance friendly; poets have absolute freedom over the rhythm of there verse, which is in the word itself and can become quite complex…it all depends upon the caliber of the poet!  Me and my writing partner Shelman Johnson, pianist and music director of the band, were trying to write clever elegant songs like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed – who wrote songs like “Betcha By Golly wow!”

Joe and Sylvia were not so precious in their taste.  While I was trying to be “an artist” first, believing the business side would take care of itself if we wrote good strong songs, Joe and Sylvia were business people who left the art to the artists but had good ears for a hit sound!  Plus, they had a complete record company, they not only had a studio but a record pressing plant. All they needed was distribution and especially air play. That was what killed independent record companies: They couldn’t get their records on the air, and they couldn’t collect all their money from Independent Distributors: The Fair Play Committee solved both problems!

There was a dramatic event that convinced black DJ’s, who decided what records they wanted to put on the air, to play the products from independent black labels.  Back in the day, before the rise of dictatorial Program Directors who alone decide the play list for the entire station, the “Personality Jocks,” who were larger than life characters, controlled playlist because their audiences were loyal to them.They had dramatic and grandiose radio monikers like: “Georgie Woods, The Guy with the Goods;” “Chatty Hattie;” “Daddyo Daley;” “Sir Lancelot;” “Jocko” “Johnny Shaw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law” et al.

In any instances this made them bigger than the station – especially if they were in a competitive market with more than one station.  These Jocks were represented by a professional organization known as NAFTRA – The National Association of Radio and Television Announcers – and it as at their annual convention held in Miami that their policy toward small independent black labels dramatically changed.

It was the smoldering Dog Days of August in1968, and the city of Miami had experienced a “race riot” just before the convention came to town.   Knowing this Mookie saw a unique opportunity.  Armed with what sociologists called He traveled down to Miami with 15 associates from the Fair Play Committee, all dressed like Wall street investment bankers,  and went straight to the sheriff’s office. Mookie was one of the most charming and persuasive men the God’s ever blew breath in, and he really turned it on with this southern cracker Sheriff.

A master bunko artist, Mookie understood the two basic elements of the con: Make your mark think he is smarter than you, and convince they are going to get something for nothing.  In fact, Mookie once told me: “You can’t con an honest person, because in order to get conned you have to have larceny I your heart.”

In this case the situation was perfect, and Mookie played that Peckerwood Sheriff like Bird played the alto-sax.   He told the sheriff that they were a private security team that came down to police the convention so that there wouldn’t be any more violent racial outbreaks, which was a real possibility with of of the wild show business Negroes coming to town.  And he convinced the Sheriff that if he deputized them they would assure him that there would be no incidents!

By the time Mookie was finished with his rap the Sheriff was convinced that he was getting the deal of the century and deputized these New York Gangsters.  Once they got their badges the Fair Play Committee went over to the convention and systematically terrorized the key players.  They hung some of them out of hotel windows by their feet – in fact, I believe that scene in the movie The five Heartbeats was taken from that incident.

Logan Westbrooks and his wife Jerry were there, although he was a salesman with Mercury Records at the time; he had had yet to become the head of black music markeing at CBS Records.  “I went down to the convention because it was an important event for anybody trying to sell black records,” says Logan.  However when he got there he found out that he was not properly registered,”I was trapped outside and could only attend events open to the public.  But I had a suite in the hotel where the conference was going on and knew all of the big players.  So although I wasn’t in the room when a lot of stuff went down, I heard about what was going on from my contacts”

Suddenly these Jocks began to play independent black labels.  As for the independent distributors, who rumor had it were all Jewish and Italian gangsters, they paid what they wanted when they wanted.   But that also changed after one of the biggest distributors  got thrown out of a four story window into a fireman’s net, held by some stragglers who they paid handsomely to  catch the flying body.  The dude had a heart attack, and everybody else got the message. Thus when Joe and Sylvia released ‘Rappers Delight,’ they got it played on the radio, no problem, and the got their money from the distributors.  And the rest made history.

This record literally came out of nowhere, since the Sugarhill Gang was from New Jersey, and the real artists, the creaters of this new and uniqe genre of Afro-American popular music, had never even heard of them until they dug the record on the radio.  And to make matters worse it was a smash!  Russell Simmons, who would emerge as the premiere Hip Hop producer and impersario, says he was distraigh when he heard the recoed because “I thought there was only going to be one Rap Record made.”

However Russel would go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars from producing Rap records on his Def Jam label.  And in time, all Hip Hop artists and entreprenuers that got rich from rap recognized that the release of “Rapper’s Delight” initiated the growth of the billion dollar Hip Hop industry.  And thus Sylvia Robinson, who produced Rapper’s Delight, well derserves the honorific “God Mother of Hip Hop.”

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Click on Link to hear the original Recording of Rappers Delight

The Record that Started it All!!
Watch the Sugarhill Gang Perform Rappers Delight

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Black History Month
February 27, 2017

Is Hip Hop Art?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by playthell
Barack, Byonce and Jay Z
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

 Phillapa Scuyler III  - editd copy

 A Musical Prodigy Performing her Compositions
 Phillippa Schuyler around Emily Bear’s Age
Phillapa SchuylerA world class virtuoso pianist and composer!

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.

Adonis Rose

Adonis Rose II

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
Grady Tate
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!

Scott Joplin
Ragtime_Piano_SCOTT_JOPLIN__sheet Music
 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!!!

Russell Simmons

Russell and Obama

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:  https://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!

                                                        P Ditty

Sean Puffy coombs (2)

 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
                 Will Smith and Jada IIII                     
Hollywood Power Couple
Jay Z and Beyonce

Byonce and Jay III

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.

Too Short!

Too Short

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?

Too short II

……..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.

Eazy E

eazy E II

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!

Ohene I

 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!!

Queen Latifa II

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

Queen Latifa

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 https://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….

To hear Ohene double click on link below
Too Short
I’m A Player
 
Eazy E

Real Motherfuckin G’s
Queen Latifa: Ladies First

See Emily Bears Performance

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JpACC1_jP8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York and San Francisco
March 2014