The Hustle Is Out and the Break Is In: Transmission 24, 2013 April 6


backintheday.jpegBombast commemorates the opening of the "Now Scream" exhibit at Cornell's Kroch library with a selection of old-school tunes for the hip-hop / breakdance crowd. I don't think many people were listening, as it was a dazzling sunny day, much more suitable for outdoor diversions. This was appropriate enough; my memories of this music always involve sunshine, and there almost literally always was.

What is interesting to me about these old recordings is that seldom, perhaps never, has such playful, innocuous music inspired a cultural firestorm like the one we witnessed in the early days of hip-hop and electronic dance music. I suppose the injection of Rastafari into reggae in the early 1970s must have troubled the "barber" contingent in Jamaica, and somewhere there must be an East Indian pensioner in England who wishes that bhangra had never come to be. But I struggle to recall anything else along these lines.

Looking back [he said, as if all this were not clear at the time it was happening], there were three crucialelectrofront.jpgmajor reasons for this "controversy," all of which revealed significant blind spots and biases on the part of the people doing the complaining. The first, and most easily dismissed, was the popularization of drum machines, which were widely thought capable of killing music. In fact Tom Petty said pretty much this exact thing to Roger Linn in the 1970s, as if the Traveling Wilburys would not prove more toxic than anything the engineers at Roland could ever dream up.

The second was the issue of "talent." "These guys," the argument went [and, save for Roxanne Shanté, Sha Rock, and a couple of other ladies, it was mostly guys], "aren't even singing." As if the world needed more Michael McDonalds and fewer Melle Mels. Let's not forget that the demographic that wanted to hear singing instead of rapping, and "real instruments" instead of 808s and turntables, was busy making Styx a chart-topping act, as well as certifying the creatively-titled Asia by Asia as the album of the year. Choices don't get much more stark, and even in the trivial context of popular music there is plenty of standing room on the wrong side of history.

crucialelectrorear.jpgFinally, and of course, there was the affinity between rap and disco, helped along by the session-hack knockoffs of Chic, Blondie, et. al., which served as the backing for many an early rap single. In fairness to the cultural Luddites, the disco era had not even ended when rap, the newest hedonistic club music made by African-Americans, began to make its commercial breakthrough--so it was easy to swap the common refrain, "disco sucks," for "rap sucks." What was "wrong" about disco, however--its formulae, functionality, and generic anonymity--was completely turned inside out by rap.* The new music was grassroots, multi-purposed [should we dance to it or focus on the lyrics? the answer: YES], and intensely personal. Sadly, it is similarly easy to swap "they all look the same to me" for "all these songs sound the same." We are talking about American culture, where nothing is ever not about race. Events like "Disco Demolition Night" require more than aesthetic revulsion to get off the ground.

It's easy to forget how segregated the experience of pop music was 30 years ago. Columbia / Epic had to threaten to withdraw Culture Club videos in order to force MTV to play Michael Jackson. This has to be one of the strangest things that have ever happened--how could it not have been the other way around?--except, that, oh yeah, it was the United States in the early 1980s, and the "Midwestern" audience MTV targeted apparently really did want "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" and not "Billie Jean."

The sort of arguments in which one could engage back then were scary, in that they tended to reveal more about the people doing the arguing than about the subject of the argument, and also fun, in the way that arguments always are when one side is always comically, haplessly wrong. Ironically, the very technologies that were making hip-hop and electro possible, and moving them forward, would later help ensure that this was the last time anyone would feel so strongly about music. As much as I love these records, I feel like we have lost something, but when I say things like this I am probably just channeling Ned Ludd myself.

BOMBAST playlist, 2013 April 6, 3:00 - 5:00 p.m.

  1. Grandmaster Flash: "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" [Mojo Magazine]
  2. Jimmy Spicer: "Money (Dollar Bill Y'all)" [BGP] / "Physical Evidence"
  3. Mr. Magic: "Magic's Message (There Has To Be a Better Way)" [BGP] / "Physical Evidence"
  4. The Art of Noise: "battle" / "Beat Box" [ZTT]
  5. Funky Four Plus One More: "Rapping and Rocking the House" [BGP] / "Physical Evidence"
  6. Trickeration: "Rap, Bounce, Rockskate" [BGP] / "Physical Evidence"
  7. Time Zone: "World Destruction (Industrial Remix)" [Celluloid]
  8. The Egyptian Lover: "Egypt, Egypt" [Egyptian Empire]
  9. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five: "Super Rappin' No 1" [BGP] / "Physical Evidence"
  10. Twilight 22: "Electric Kingdom" [Street Sounds]
  11. Cybotron: "Clear" [Street Sounds]
  12. Hashim: "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" [Street Sounds]
  13. Captain Rock: "Return of Captain Rock" [Street Sounds]
  14. Time Zone: "Wild Style" [Street Sounds]
  15. The Incredible Body Mechanix: "B Boy Your Best" / "Bonus Beat" [Mirage]
  16. Herbie Hancock: "Mega-Mix" [Columbia]

next week: a "stampede" of freshly reissued rock songs, and other stuff. Enjoy the music! --kid catharsis

* Chic were tremendous, and I will not debate this with anyone.

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