The REAL History of Today’s Rap-Singer: A Rebuttal of The New York Times

November 26, 2019 2 comments

drake

By Matthew Allen

This morning, I was awoken out of my sleep by a barrage of Twitter notifications. It seems that some of my followers were a bit shaken by something on the internet. Not surprising; such occurrences of finger-tip outrage are ubiquitous. After reading some tweets, it dawned on me that I, too, was about to polish my pitchfork, grab my kerosene and matches, and join the mob.

With 2019 drawing down the curtain, year-end and decade-end related best-of lists and think pieces are popping up. Not terribly unusual. Many of the takes have been trash. Also not terribly unusual. This morning, The New York Times had published an article entitled, “Rappers Are Singers Now. Thank Drake,” for their “Decade in Culture” series. The piece, written by long time NYT writer John Caramanica, gave Grammy-winner Drake sole credit for the wave of rappers who also sing that dominated the charts for the past 10 years. He stated that Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape and later his major label debut LP, Thank Me Later, ushered in a slew of artists from Future, Young Thug, Post Malone and Fetty Wap or Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, or at least allowed them to get mainstream attention and acceptance.

“[Drake] will be remembered for how casually and effectively he rebuilt hip-hop — the genre as it is today is indelibly in his image.”

This assertion of Drake’s singular influence on a genre, and as the writer indicated, also was not limited to other inspirations. Caramanica wrote, “[Drake]’s been a significant driving force behind the increased conversation between emergent hip-hop-adjacent music scenes around the world — Nigeria, England, the Caribbean and beyond.”

So, after reading the piece a few times, I concluded that my initial vitriol that I first felt after merely seeing the headline, was confirmed and justified. This article is dangerous. This article grossly misrepresents the true backstory of the melding of rapping and singing.

It’s the worst kept secret that Drake had been inspired by North Carolina rapper/singer Phonte Coleman. Phonte’s lyrical mastery, and keening, emotive singing voice can be traced back to his early 2000 releases with the group Little Brother on albums like The Listening and The Minstrel Show. Phonte even established an all-singing alter ego with Percy Miracles. His pension for double duty only intensified with his Foreign Exchange duo projects with Danish producer Nicolay. They were Grammy-nominated for such escapades with 2008’s “Daykeeper.” Drake has collabotared with Little Brother, and himself can even be seen appearing with Phonte’s LB group member 9th Wonder on the documentary, “The Wonder Years.” Drake himself stated he emulated rapping like Little Brother.


(Drake can be seen speaking about wanting to rhyme like Little Brother at the 31:16 mark)

The obvious Phonte inspiration aside, Caramanica and the NYT aggressively neglected to make mention of nearly EVERY artist before Drake who were duel threats as rappers and singers. Outside of passively mentioning Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T-Pain (who LITERALLY had an album entitled Rappa Ternt Sanga in 2005), the writer makes no attempt to trace the phenomenon before the late 2000’s. Doing so would’ve given the reader proper and accurate context for Drake’ s popularity and influence, especially given the short-term memory of a younger record buying/streaming public who need to be educated about history prior to 2010. The writer do not do this, unfortunately.

Moreover, when Caramanica posted his article to Twitter, he introduced the post with, “wrote about how Drake turned rapping into singing which no one thought would work and is now the utter and total norm.” Sure, Drake’ s presence helped normalize rappers singer, but to say no one thought it would work is hyperbolic at best. Rap artists Bone Thugs N Harmony, Arrested Development, PM Dawn and Ms. Lauryn Hill all went platinum, topped Billboard charts and/or won Grammys as rapper/singers two decades prior. Although Drake has more longevity than these artists by far in terms of success and output, the public clearly already accepted the idea of the singing rapper.

Before things get too deep, I just want to say that I’m not in the condemning Drake business. So, this is no disrespect to him as an artist. I just want to set the record straight. Drake is the most successful artist to rap and sing. But he’s far from the first. 

***

There are two kinds of ways that rapping and singing have been utilized in Black Music. First, there’s what Drake mostly does, which is effectively switching back and forth between the two. He’s done straight-up rap tracks with all the braggadocio and swagger an MC can muster, with songs such as “Over,” “0-100,” “Diplomatic Immunity,” “Nice for What” and “Worst Behavior.” Then, there’s the crooning Drake, in which he’s solely singing, pouring out his emotions on tracks like “(Hold On) We’re Going Home,” “Don’t Matter to Me,” “No Guidance” with Chris Brown, and “Hotline Bling.” Of course, there’s the songs that he incorporates both attributes, like “Marvin’s Room,” “Aston Martin Music,” with Rick Ross, and “Best I Ever Had.” Again, while Drake is the most successful and most commercially polished of rapper/singers, he didn’t invent it.

As Caramanica only briefly mentioned, Kanye West preceded Drake in terms of rappers dabbling in singing. West’s influence on Drake is, in real life, far more dramatic than the article would lead you to believe. West’s 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak found the Chicago artist abandoning rapping himself in order to properly express the depression and sorrow of his mother’s death and the break-up with his relationship, via singing through auto-tune. On the album, he was able to walk the fine line between vulnerability, cynicism and masculinity; something that Drake attempts to do with his music. West and 808s was a linchpin for Drake’s breakthrough success into the mainstream. His now classic 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone, included “Say What’s Real,” Drake rhyming over the instrumental of 808’s opening track “Say You Will.” The following year, Drake had a singing hit with “Find Your Love” from Thank Me Later, a song co-written and co-produced by West and his team during the 808s sessions, originally intended for Rihanna, according to Complex Magazine.

outkast

Atlanta rap duo Outkast’s 2003 double album, Speakerboxxx/The Lover Below, won Album of the Year Grammy, thanks to Andre 3000 combining singing with rapping.

Although Kanye West’s influence on the so-called wave of rapper/singers is more severe than Drake’s, West himself was preceded by another MC who decided to sing out of nowhere, Andre 3000. After nearly a decade of establishing himself as an esoteric, high thinking rapper as a member of Outkast, he flipped the switch on their 2003 double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Each MC in affect did a solo venture per CD. While Big Boi’s half expanded on the Atlanta, Organized Noize sound they were famous for, he still spit that raw on each track. 3 Stacks, on the other hand, went all the way left, electing to sing on nearly every song on his side. In fact, his rapping can only be heard on two of the 20 tracks on The Love Below. Despite the shock to the system, Dre hit pay dirt with songs like “Hey Ya!,” “Roses,” and “Prototype,” and was a catalyst for the duo winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2004. West may not have had the courage to sing all over a whole album had it not been for Andre 3000.

Look at Cee-Lo Green. In the mid-1990s, Green was one fourth of Atlanta group Goodie Mob. He displayed considerable skill as an MC on Goodie Mob tracks like 1995’s “Cell Therapy,” but in 1998, displayed that he could sing and rap with equal ability during collaborations with Outkast, include “In Due Time” and “Liberation.” When he went solo, albums like 2002’s Cee-Lo Green and His Perfection Imperfections all the way to 2010’s breakout The Lady Killer, found Cee-Lo navigating between the two quite fluidly. His collaboration with producer Danger Mouse as Gnarls Barkley yielded platinum success with Cee-Lo singing on songs like 2006’s “Crazy” and 2008’s “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” 

There’s also female hip-hop royalty from the 1990s. Queen Latifah was vicious in her lyrics and delivery on songs like “Ladies First,” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” She was also able to switch it up and melodically float on tracks like “Weekend Love” and “Just Another Day,” this was all before she was Grammy-nominated for recording a full on Jazz album. Speaking of Grammys, Lauryn Hill won five in 1999 for arguably the most fully realized combination of rapping and singing, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. And this was all after  proving she could do both as a member of The Fugees in the mid 1990s. Her ruthless, intellectual wordplay can be heard on “Lost Ones,” “How Many Mics” and “Zealots.” Her gorgeous alto expressed joy and pain with equal measure on songs like “Killing Me Softly,” “Nothing Even Matters” and “Tell Him.” She also was able to fit both onto a single song. Just listen to “Fu-Gee-La, ” “Ready or Not,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Forgive Them Father,” “Everything is Everything” and “Mystery of Iniquity (All Falls Down).” It’s no accident that one of Drake’s biggest recent hits, “Nice For What,” samples Ms. Hill (“Ex-Factor”).

Missy Elliott built her legendary career on singing and rapping since 1996. While not as technical skilled as Hill, Elliott’s flow and songwriting makes her rhymes sound fresh and original with songs like “The Rain,” “Work It” and “Get Your Freak On.” She can also switch things up and sing with sexy funk on tracks like “One Minute Man,” “All in My Grill” and “Beep Me 911.”

new edition

R&B group New Edition were pioneers of mixing rap and singing in the 1980s.

You can’t have this conversation without mentioning New Edition. As this NYT piece tries to make claim about Drake, the platinum selling group were true pioneers when it came to combining the flair of R&B and pop with the grit and slickness of Hip-Hop. Their earliest hits, 1983’s “Candy Girl” and “Popcorn Love” featured the then quintet incorporating raps with their singing. An idea that wasn’t altogether foreign in the culture in the early 1980s, with groups like The Sequence (featuring future soul mainstay Angie Stone), The Force MDs, and Cold Crush Brothers, but New Edition were the ones who put rap on a certain pedestal in the context of radio friendly R&B, something they continued through all of their albums. Out of that collective came Bobby Brown, one the first artists to be referred to in the press as a rap-singer (ugh!, I can’t stand that! See Nate Dogg and Akon). Brown took the template of his group and personified it with massive hits like 1988’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Every Little Step,” 1989’s “Own Our Own,” and 1992’s “Humpin’ Around” and “Get Away.” Brown also wrote raps for his bandmate Ralph Tresvant on his 1990 self-titled solo album, namely “Rated R” – which is 100% rapping – and “Stone Cold Gentleman.” Brown even appeared as a feature rapper on Glenn Medeiros’ 1990 single, “She Ain’t Worth It.” In addition to Brown, New Edition’s splinter cell Bell Biv DeVoe doubled down on the rapper/singer bad boy persona with their 1990 album Poison. Songs that combined both like the title track, “Do Me, Baby!,” 1991’s “Word to the Mutha remix” and 1992’s “Above the Rim,” saw the group going multi-platinum. So, the image of the hardened bad boy with a soft side who could sing and spit (and also had ghostwriters; wink) was first introduced by members of New Edition, not Drake.

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Then, there’s the second kind of rapping and singing. The kind that marbleizes the two such that you can scarcely tell the difference.  You approach the vocal with a minimal amount of note progression, that mimics atonal vocals, and with a rapid style cadence that resembles rhyming and counterbalances well with the beat. Drake has achieved hits with this style, most recently last year with Billboard 100 chart toppers “In My Feelings” and “God’s Plan.” However, he did not pioneer this approach. Simply go back to the turn of the century with rappers like Ja Rule and Nelly. Hits like “Put it On Me,” and “Country Grammar” respectively, both from 2000, employed this style of melody rapping. One of the fans of “Country Grammar” was the late Michael Jackson, who according to Nelly, called the St. Louis rapper to praise his album of the same name. Kanye West also stated during an interview with Hot 97, that Jackson was the one who inspired him to sing every song on 808s, after Jackson had praised his singing on 2007’s “Good Life” with T-Pain. The late singer/songwriter/dancer, who had been quoted in a 2007 Ebony interview, that rap would not reach it’s fullest commercial potential until more raps fused melody, also experimented with this aforementioned method of vocals. On his 1991 single “Jam,” Jackson employed the minimalist, rapid staccato singing that preceded acts like Drake, Nelly and Ja Rule. Is he singing, is he rapping? The fact that you can’t tell is the point. 

In 2016, I was fortunate to interview Grammy-winning musician Anderson .Paak for Ebony Magazine, and spoke to him about his distinct vocal style that incorporates this troupe. He expounded on the looping technique that came from church pastors of the early 20th century, a way of singing and talking simultaneous, all while staying in key with the instruments and in rhythm of the drums. A technique perfected by one Mr. James Brown. “I always feel like I’m utilizing melody and I see myself as a vocalist/songwriter.  James Brown and Curtis Mayfield were the same way,” Paak explained. “When looping, you’re in key, you’re in a rhythm, you’re in a pocket and that’s where James Brown was pulling from, and so that’s where I’m pulling from. The only difference is I’m coming at it under hip-hop.” Mr. Brown made the rhythm of the song the key of all aspects of its recording, from the reed instruments to the voice. He was able to seem like he was talking his lyrics, singing his lyrics and going back and forth without breaking the continuity. This is evident in legendary songs like “Sex Machine,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing,” “Mother Popcorn,” and “It’s a New Day.” In fact, Brown’s vocal innovation, as well as his duality as a confident, enterprising Black man with uncompromising virility on songs like “Super Bad,” and “Funky President,” but with a pension for sensitivity and lamenting love like “Please, Please, Please,” “Try Me,” “Lost Someone,” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” make him the Rosetta Stone for Drake’s entire artistic existence.

***

There are many more examples I can make, like Millie Jackson, Dr. Dre, Grand Puba, TLC, Mos Def, and more, but I think I’ve made my main point: Drake is not the only reason why rappers are singers today and vice versa (see Chris Brown and Trey Songz). And now that that’s done, I’d like to end by briefly making another point; a point that made that New York Time article even possible. And that point is that with very little exception, white writers should not write about Black music culture. 

Caramanica, a white (yes, it’s relevant to mention that he’s white, and you’ll read why soon), Brooklyn-native, Harvard Graduate, retrieving a PhD from University of London, previously held court as a senior writer at XXL and was a music editor at Vibe. So, there’s two things. Number one, his erasure of Phonte alone, who was such a obvious and blatant influence on Drake, was exceptionally lazy and reckless. It would’ve taken a light amount of research to figure that out and include it. Number two, as a writer who had written for Black institutions like Vibe and XXL, he had virtually zero excuse for so many blaring omissions. Either the writer is out of touch or he’s doing what many publications have been attempting to do: rewrite history and establish an alternative narrative about Black music or music that was pioneered by Black artists. Just ask Solange Knowles about Caramanica. It’s this kind of writing and rhetoric that allows publications like GQ to create pieces that name Sam Smith the new face of soul music. It’s this kind of writing and rhetoric that allowed Post Malone to win a 2019 American Music Award for Best Rap Album for an album that he doesn’t rap on. It’s this kind of writing and rhetoric that makes people think that Black artists who do pop, country or rock are sellouts, and why there’re elderly white men filling an audience in a jazz club when the men on the bandstand are Black men and women younger than 30 and wearing t-shirts and Jordans.

Sometimes, I think white commentators are trolling us. They know they have the best reach, the best resources and backing, and so they’re laughing in our faces knowing what they’re writing isn’t totally true, as if to say, “what you are gonna do about it?” This is blatant Black erasure via gentrified journalism. Don’t let pieces like this be the last word. Do something that Jon Caramanica didn’t do today: Do your research, find the truth and whole truth, and spread the word to those who wouldn’t know any better to not take this and other pieces like it at face value. 

Kanye V 50: A Timeline of The Great Hip-Hop Paradigm Shift

September 6, 2019 Leave a comment
kanye 50

Rappers Kanye West & 50 Cent standing toe-to-toe as presenters at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, days before their albums were released.

*Originally published in Mass Appeal as Can’t Tell Me Nothing: Kanye West’s “Graduation” vs. 50 Cent’s “Curtis” 10 Years Later; in September 2017*

September 11, 2007. It was the match-up made in rap stan/hypebeasts/marketing exec heaven. Kanye West versus 50 Cent in a contest for album sales supremacy. Who’s would come out on top; Kanye’s Graduation or 50’s Curtis? When you analyze a competition, you look at the match-ups, and the most compelling and exciting outcomes occur when there’s a clear contrast in styles. In one corner, from Queens, NY, you have 50 Cent: the rugged, ex-drug dealer-turned-MC; a rap crossover machine with over 18 million albums sold to that point. In the other corner, from Chicago, IL, you had Kanye West: the eclectic, art college dropout-turned-producer-turned-rapper; a critics darling who had earned six Grammy Awards (18 nominations) to that point.

When you look at stats, the odds should’ve clearly been in 50’s favor. Because Kanye has been on top for so long, it’s easy to forget just how much 50 had the rap game in a chokehold. By 2007, he achieved 14 top 15 singles on Billboard Hot 100 as either a lead or featured artist. He was the architype rapper; a perfect melding of rugged New York swag and sinister, melodic California beats; aggressive vocal delivery; typical rap attire, with du-rags, bullet-proof vests and baggy jeans; lyrics glorifying drugs, sex and violence via “In da Club,” “Many Men,” “Wanksta” and “Candy Shop.”

When West came on the scene, he wasn’t even respected as a rapper. It was his production chops for Jay-Z, Scarface, Ludacris and Talib Kweli that put him on the map. His image as a pink polo, Louis Vuitton backpack wearing ex-art student didn’t sit well with folks who saw MCs in one limited outer scope. While Kanye had success with his first two albums, College Dropout and Late Registration, each with a number one single (“Slow Jams” and “Gold Digger” respectively) he’d still sold nearly 10 million less albums than 50. In the years leading up to that fateful face-off, Hip-Hop was being dominated by southern acts. Outkast, UGK and T.I. were ruling the charts more, yet clearly benefited from the influence of music that sounded more like 50 Cent and Dr. Dre. However, Kanye’s cache as a producer continued to grow after he became a solo star and began closing the gap between him and 50 in the eyes of the public.

With all their differences, the two had a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both came up slowly with false starts – 50 was mentored by Jam Master Jay, yet his 1999 debut “How to Rob” went nowhere. Kanye tooled away as a ghost producer for years to get his clothes off layaway before landing a beat for Beanie Siegal with “The Truth” in 2000. Each experienced near-fatal episodes right before they hit big – 50 was shot nine times and Kanye was in a devastating car wreck. The two were both co-signed and backed by artist made labels – 50 on Dr. Dre and Eminem’s Shady Aftermath subsidiary (Innerscope) and Kanye on Jay-Z’s Rockafella Records (Def Jam).

When the final bell rang, Kanye was the victor, selling 970,000 copies in the first week, compared to 691,000 from 50. Scene as a great day for Hip-Hop and a victory for both, who clearly benefited from the highly publized battle. However, the results proved catastrophic for both the two MCs and for the genre at large. The paradigm had shifted and any remnants of subwoofer bustin’ gangsta rap superstar was abandoned by the public, for a new, emotional, thoughtful, genre-less rap superstar. Artists like Drake, J.Cole and Kid Cudi became the new rap elite, with their introspective and worldly records. 50 would never again go platinum and Kanye turned into the biggest music act on the planet.

That day is considered where the shift happened, and understandable so. However, it actually began some years before that day. Slowing building from events and releases that put the handwriting on the wall for the monumental corner-turn. Here’s a timeline of said events:

September 11, 2001. Kanye’s “Takeover”
After producing two standout tracks for Rockafella Records in 2000, Siegal’s “The Truth” and Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life,” the stars aligned for Kanye West with Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Released six years to day of his battle with 50, Kanye set the tone for what many consider Jigga’s finest work. West produced four of the 13 tracks, and his unique manipulation of soul samples laid the framework for the album’s overall grown-man feel. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” was his first top 10 single and “Takeover” birthed one of the most high profile rap beefs of all time between Jay-Z and Nas. From there, Kanye became a go-to beatmaker and tracks like Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back,” Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” and Talib Kweli’s “Get By” were becoming hits and classics.

 

November 6, 2002. 50 Exposes the “Wanksta”
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was literally a survivor, after getting riddled with gun fire. When rap’s biggest name, Eminem caught wind of him and his G-Unit crew and signing them to his Shady Aftermath label, not only did he lend his voice to their 2002 mixtape No Mercy No Fear (featuring a remix of Kanye’s beat for “Guess Who’s Back”), but plucked a song from their mixtape, the 50 solo track “Wanksta” with called out wanna-be gangstas, for the soundtrack of his film 8 Mile. Following Em’s single “Lose Yourself” propelled him to the biggest music star on the planet at the time, the momentum helped pushed “Wanksta” to the top 20, introducing 50 to the world. With a pre-existing beef with fellow Queens MC and current crossover rap star Ja Rule, fans were yearning for more from 50.

February 3, 2003. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ Pays Off for 50
With the success of “Wanksta” and five time platinum selling 8 Mile soundtrack, anticipation for 50’s debut with Aftermath was unprecedented. When he dropped the Dr. Dre produced single “In da Club” that January, it was clear that 50 was about to grab the brass ring. The track went to the top of Billboard 100 and his album Get Rich or Die Tryin‘ exploded out of record stores. The album was a gritty and grim manifesto of Jackson’s rap persona and hustler past. In a year when tracks like Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” and Fabolous’ “Can’t Let You Go” hitting big, Fiddy dominated 2003. He had four top 10 singles (“In da Club,” “21 Questions,” “P.I.M.P.” and Lil’ Kim’s “Magic Stick”), was nominated for Best New Artist Grammy, founded G-Unit Records and Get Rich or Die Tryin‘ sold eight million albums.

 

September 30, 2003. Kanye Spits His Soul “Through the Wire”
While 50 is becoming Hip-Hop’s newest superstar, Kanye hit streak as a producer continues, creating smash singles like Ludacris’ “Stand Up” and Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.” This was all while he was plotting his eventual world premiere as a rapper. After several labels refused to sign him as an artist, including Capital Records who pulled out of a proposed deal in the 11th hour, he’d found a home with Roc-A-Fella. No one knew, not even Kanye, that nearly dying in an automobile crash in October 2002 would set the tone for his coming-out party. “Through the Wire,” was a clever play on the song’s sample source, Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” and the fact that he recorded the song with his jaw wired shut just two weeks post-surgery. The song showcased how West “turned tragedy to triumph” following the accident. First appearing on two of his mixtapes I’m Good and Get Well Soon, Kanye and Roc-A-Fella decided to have it launch his rapping career. For that moment, Kanye get his first sense of vindication as an artist.

 

November 14, 2003. Jay-Z “Fades to Black” with Retirement
In a shocking move, one of the most popular MCs on the globe announced that his then eight LP, The Black Album, would be his last. Jigga was heralded not only as arguably the best rapper in the game at the time, but also its most consistently successful ones. Although it was ultimately short-lived, at the time, his absence from music was going to leave a huge void; a void he arguably filled after the death of Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. And with Eminem a year away from a creative descend with Encore, Rap was going to need a new pace-setter. Although Nelly would drop a multi-platinum double album the following year, he would venture outside of Hip-Hop on Sweat & Suit. Therefore, 50’s persona, hot streak and tie’s with Em and Dre made him the logical choice. Kanye only had one prominent example of his solo skills with “Through the Wire,” but after producing two stand-out songs for The Black Album – “Encore” and “Lucifer” – anticipation for his self-produced debut began to grow. After getting a number single with “Slow Jamz” featuring Twista, anticipation went from bubbling to boiling.

 

February 10, 2004. The College Dropout Takes Everyone to School
After pushing the album back from an initial August 2003 release, Kanye finally unleashes his debut The College Dropout. Fans were ready for a record full of his signature sped-up soul sample production, but they were not prepared for lyrics that were self-effacing, spiritual, cynical, comical and brass, sometimes all in one song. Tracks like “All Falls Down,” and “Jesus Walks” earned critical and commercial success. One of the most significant aspects of the album was West’s ability to place hardcore and mainstream rappers like Jay-Z and Freeway with underground and conscious MCs like Mos Def and J.Ivy. 2004 was ruled by Terror Squad’s massive “Lean Back,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and the phenomenon that was Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album. College Dropout’s versatility, however, made it fit right in.

 

March 3, 2005. 50 Cent Massacres the Competition
It may seem as if 50 Cent took 2004 off before his next album, but turns out he was as busy as ever. With G-Unit Records, his artists Young Buck, Lloyd Banks and The Game all achieved platinum or multi-platinum album sales on their debuts. For his sophomore effort, wanted to lay waste to his competition. After getting into high profile feuds with Fat Joe and Jadakiss continuing to beef with Ja Rule, Jackson was set to drop St. Valentines’ Day Massacre on February 14th. However, it was bumped a few weeks and was changed to simply The Massacre, but it was no less destructive. He became only the second rapper ever to sell over a million albums in the first week of sales (Eminem did it twice before). He maintained his dark ghetto imagery, but amped up the crossover appeal another notch with more sexual songs and club anthems from Dr. Dre, Cool & Dre and Scott Storch. All four of the LP’s singles went top 10, including “Disco Inferno,” “Candy Shop” and “Just a Little Bit.” In a year when the record industry sold a record low CDs, The Massacre moved five million units, and with the soundtrack to his film Get Rich or Die Tryin‘ selling three million more it was evident that 50 was asserting himself to being The One in Rap and Music.

 

August 30, 2005. Kanye Touches the Sky with Late Registration
In late March 2005, rapper Common dropped Be, a comeback from the lukewarm reception of his album Electric Circus. With production chiefly helmed by Kanye West, Common emerged back to relevence and raised more anticipation for West’s next solo album. But once again, Kanye gave fans what they didn’t know they wanted with Late Registration. By this time, his now vintage production style was being copied and seemed tired to him. He enlisted Portishead producer/arranger Jon Brion to co-produce his entire sophomore album with him. Expanding on obscure soul samples with live orchestration, Kanye was now also getting political with tracks like “Crack Music,” “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and “Heard ‘Em Say.” Late Registration sold 886,000 copies in week one, and went triple platinum, only second behind, well, 50 Cent.

 

December 14, 2005. Kanye’s U2utledge
The biggest act in music, rock band U2, was nearly 14 months into their Vertigo Tour, supporting their latest platinum seller, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Over the course of that tour, they’d employ numerous opening acts, such as Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire and Patti Smith. A curious choice turned out to be Kanye West. The rapper/producer supported U2 for four shows in five days, including stops in St. Louis and Portland. It was on this stretch that West got to witness how Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam put on a massive show and hold a crowd in the palm of their hands for two hours or more. Watching them perform hits like “Vertigo,” “Elevation” that Kanye figured out how valuable and important it was to craft music that works for a crowd of 16,000 to 19,000 people, rather than just in the club. This lesson would prove crucial later on his future projects.

February 8, 2006. 48th Annual Grammys
This evening is the real turning point between the Kanye West/50 Cent race for the rap crown.  On music’s biggest award evening, both West and Jackson had six nominations. Of the six awards each were up for, they went head to head in three categories: Best Rap Song, Best Rap Solo Performance and Best Rap Album. The Massacre was far in a way the biggest selling rap album of the year and Late Registration was the most critically acclaimed. By the end of the evening, 50 went home empty handed while Kanye grabbed three trophies…all of them against 50. This raised West’s Grammy total to six while Fiddy had come up short 10 times thus far, including Get Rich or Die Tryin‘ losing Best Rap Album to College Dropout. That award show proved to be the foreshadowing of Kanye’s ascension to 50’s tier of commercial viablity.

 

May 15, 2007. Kanye Gets His Money Right
With Grammy wins and a new audience exposure, thanks to touring with U2, Kanye West’s outside production credits in 2006 into 2007 was dwindling as he focused more on being a rapper. His next masterstroke came from the most unlikeliest of sources: 50 Cent. West had an admiration for 50’s music and swagger aesthetic. While in the studio as West is wrapping up recording his third album, Jackson expressed his favor for a particular song that Kanye co-produced with DJ Toomp. Entitled “Can Tell Me Nothing,” the song addressed the growing backlash that was coming from Kanye’s increasingly brash public rants and statements (2005 American Music Awards and 2006’s “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”).  It was an anthemic, defiant and brooding track built both for the streets and the arenas. It was Kanye’s first success “street” single, reaching number eight on Billboard’s Rap Chart. Perhaps 50 wanted someone to push him.

 

June 26, 2007. 50 Fails to Amuse at the BET Awards
BET’s annual Award show had grown to be one of the biggest nights in Black entertainment since its inaugural telecast in 2001. That year, fans were looking forward to seeing 50 Cent perform a new song from his upcoming album, Curtis, which had originally been scheduled to be released that day. 50 was beginning to feel pressure to continue his winning streak (the OG album title was Curtis SSK, for Soundscan Killer). After earning a 100 million dollar deal with Coca Cola and Vitamin Water, and appearances in numerous films, his attention was going beyond music. At the sixth BET Awards, Fiddy performed the album’s brand new single, the bouncy, erotic “Amusement Park.” Using female aerialists on stage, 50 just out and proceeded to stalk the auditorium aisles, completely disregarding the song’s first verse. The crowd wasn’t feeling it and neither were listeners. The next single, the Dr. Dre produced “Straight to the Bank” faired a little better, but didn’t connect either, failing to reach the Top 30 of Billboard 100. Finally, “I Get Money” got the reaction he was looking for, but was it too late?

 

September 11, 2007. The Final Showdown
Once “I Get Money” hit Billboard’s Rap Top 10, a September 11th release date for his third album, Curtis, was put in place. Meanwhile, Kanye West’s third album, Graduation, was originally slated for September 18th. However, once it was decided to drop it a week earlier, the showdown was set. Fans and media alike milked this for all it was worth. Rolling Stone wrote a cover story about the topic mere days before. Both artists got into the act as well, with 50 going so far as to saying he’d retire if he sold less than Kanye the first week. The two appeared together as Award show presenters, at photo shoots, joint magazine interviews and on BET’s 106 & Park. 50’s last single before the LP release was “AYO Technology” with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. A clear reach for crossover success, the song propelled 50 back to the Billboard 100, peaking at number 5. Kanye’s “Stronger” on the other hand, built on a futuristic sample of Daft Punk reached the top spot on Billboard 100. Now all there was left to do was listen and wait.

Graduation was a sharp left turn for Kanye, relying far more on synthesizers and keyboards and going for a “stadium status” sound. Curtis was more a microwaved version of The Massacre, with the same old themes and far less captivating performances. Kanye figured out the art of reinvention, the element that was the key to the longevity of artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and David Bowie. The pull of outside business ventures was pulling 50 into a new life and his focus on music, a battle with writer’s block arguably led to Curtis’ weaknesses. With Graduation selling nearly a million week one and 50 selling nearly 700,000, both succeeded, but the people had spoken. It was time for a change.

EPILOGUE

In 2008, rap had three certified street anthems, Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” DJ Khaled’s “Go Hard” and T.I.’s “Swagger Like Us.” As Hip-Hop had become a feature crazed genre, it was important to choose the right artist to carry the weight of such substantial songs. An MC like 50 Cent, with his charisma, authentic street cred and bankable pop cache, would’ve been perfect choices for any of those three tracks. Instead, all of them featured Kanye West. After earning another four Grammys for Graduation and going double platinum, West put 50 in his rear view once and for all by proving he belonged among the rap elite and could be as grimy as those tracks as he was emotional, playful and thoughtful on tracks like “Big Brother,” “Good Life,” and “Everything I Am.” He bodied all three of those verses and for a guy who nobody believed was anything but a producer with wack rhymes, held his own or stole the show adjacent to MCs like Jay-Z, Jeezy, T.I. and Lil’ Wayne.  This well-rounded approach helped elevate him to GOD MC and each album has gone number one and went platinum ever since.

Later in 2008, an artist on his G.O.O.D. Music label dropped a weird song called “Day & Nite.” That artist was Kid Cudi and his debut album Man on the Moon was built with the same eclectic spirit that West possessed on albums like Graduation and Late Registration. Together, the two would collaborate on Kanye’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. With West opting to sing every track through auto-tune over icy synth-pop with an R&B tinge, thanks to super hits like “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown,” it birthed so much of what was to be popular R&B thereafter. In fact, an MC out of Toronto named Drake, who had crushed the game with his mixtape 2009 So Far Gone, got a smash single on his major label debut in “Find Your Love,” which was an outtake from Kanye’s 808s sessions. Lil’ Wayne was so impressed with “Love Lockdown,” he decided to sing most of his next album, the rock influenced Rebirth. Artists like Cudi, Drake, Bryson Tiller, Tyler, The Creator and Childish Gambino owe a lot to Kanye.

50’s music career never recovered. Curtis was his last platinum album, he departed Aftermath by the end of the decade, and went bankrupt in 2015. Even with career turmoil, Jackson’s business acumen only got bigger and more flexible. Since 2007, he’s appeared in 23 films, including 2008’s Righteous Kill with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro and 2015’s Southpaw with Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker. He’s currently executive producer and co-start of Starz’s smash crime drama “Power,” which has just been greenlit for its fifth season. He’s doing just fine in life, and will release his new album Street King Immortal latest this year.

Remember earlier this year when Kendrick Lamar released DAMN one month after Drake’s More Life? The public was buzzing over how Kendrick, the people’s champion and thinking man’s MC outsold the pop juggernaut that is Drake. Imagine if they both dropped on the same day. It still wouldn’t compare to how much Kanye besting 50 changed rap history to this point. Although Kanye may be more polarizing today than 50 was in 2007, we still anxiously await his new music, whenever he’s ready.

 

 

What “Black Panther” Means To Black People

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Black-Panther

It’s 1994, in Richmond, CA. An eight-year-old Black boy picks up a comic book for the first time. Granted, he’d seen other comics before, most likely The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, X-Men or some other incarnation of Marvel Comics. Only this time, he read one that was different. The hero on the front didn’t look like the others. The hero had a complexion that resembled the child holding him in his hand. The hero was Black Panther. From then on, the kid was transfixed on the series about the African prince T’Challa, dressed inside a bulletproof suit, defending the secrets of his native country, the fantastical Wakanda. Fitting that boy had only recently moved from Oakland, the birthplace of the real Black Panthers, the African-American social group assembled to protect neighborhoods, feed and educate youngsters who needed it the most. Little did this kid know that this encounter with another kind of Black Panther was setting him up for the opportunity and responsibility of a lifetime.
That kid’s name was Ryan Coogler. ryan cooglerNearly 19 years later, he, a young filmmaker, would direct a critically acclaimed film Fruitville Station, which found praise at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. This led him to Creed, a new take on the Rocky film saga; a fresh, gritty look at the life of Adonis, son of Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed. With adoration and box office success, Coogler had options and several knocks on his door. When he opened one, it led him back to a world he’d been to already; Wakanda. Coogler has been tasked to direct, co-write and produce a film adaptation of the African hero he once idolized as a child as part of the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was now his turn to provide that sense of discovery, wonder, magic and pride to another eight-year-old Black man-child.

Black Panther is a unique phenomenon. It’s a movie with a mostly Black or African cast, led by a combination of appealing contemporary performers such as Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar winner Lupita N’Yongo, with seasoned, respected actors like Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett. And it has the rare distinction of being created by mostly Black minds. Coogler as director, screenwriter and producer, Rachel Morrison as cinematographer, Ruth E. Carter as costume designer and Hannan Bleacher as production/set designer. In the comic and film, T’Challa’s is guided and guarded by African women, be it his mother, his scientist sister Shuri, or the guard detail the Dora Milage, so it’s fitting that Coogler has also surrounded himself with intelligent, able-bodied Black females. The imagery of Black Panther to a movie going patron is without question a watershed moment in the life of a Black American, especially given the times we are living in. However, it most not be lost on the viewer how much the presence of Black women’s roles in the creation of such a regal occurence is crucial to the pride and moral of millions who need it. The sight of Black citizens dressing up in regal, native attire just to see a movie in a theater is only one indication of what this film will mean to so many people. Not to mention the fact that the film will tackle morale and political subject matter that is relatable in real life, going far beyond just a super hero flick that’s there for you to scarf down popcorn and forget about your problems for two hours. This is a movement that we’re witnessing.

Now, we must keep perspective that this film is a part of the MCU and it’s ultimate goal is to entertain audiences and further serve the larger narrative of the Marvel characters and story at large. But the fact that the world is going to gravitate to see a movie in which dark skin Africans, led by a young king with principles, fighting for the greater good, but acknowledging those who are helping him along the way can be a seed planted for folks who are looking for more positive representations of themselves in the field of entertainment. We are constantly bombarded with stereotypical archtypes of overtly sexualized women who are drawn to drama and easily succeptible to manipulation and degregation, and misogynistic, violent and deceitful men who are driven by the pursuit of outlandish materialism and insatible libidinous satisfaction. Black Panther is a large scale example that such storylines and caracatures are not neccessary to include Black people to the party. Hopefully, this will open a door to a new era of Black film and television, a door that’s already been cracked slightly thanks to Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta; Melinated folks creating smart, insightful and wildly enjoyable content for and by other Black people. Let’s hear it for a new dawn. Let’s hear it for the eight-year-old who will watch this and become an innovative filmmaker or maker of any sort, in 19 years. Wakanda Forever!

Categories: Uncategorized

Roots Picnic 2016: A Photo Recap

On Saturday, June 4, 2016, I was blessed enough to cover the ninth annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, PA. It was 11 hours of 24 acts ranging from experiment electro pop to dab-tastic trap rap to the epic mashup that was The Roots and Usher! My written review was featured in EBONY Magazine, but I was fortunate to collect a few personal photos with my trusty Sony CyberShot. Here are the 12 best pictures from that day:

 

 

Categories: Big Picture

Until The 12th of Never: Maurice White (WDHA Uncut Tribute)

maurice white

Prelude

Some of the best memories I have is riding in the car with my dad. The sight of my dad driving down the highway, using his knees to steer the car while his playing air drums when the groove gets good during a song on the tape deck always made me smile (if a little nervous). Much of the music that I hold so dear to my soul today was introduced to me while in the car with my dad; Black Ivory, Slave, Stevie Wonder, and on and on. One of the groups that was introduced to me was Earth, Wind and Fire. When my dad popped in a Maxwell tape of his favorite EWF tracks, I had no idea what to expect, but once I heard the opening horns from “Time Is On Your Side,” nothing would be the same. I found myself singing it to my then infant nephew Lamar at the kitchen table. From there, I moved on to Gratitude and wore out “Can’t Hide Love (it permanently skips on that CD now. Sorry mom).” After hearing “Fantasy” in that same car, there was really no going back. They were my favorite band ever, and remain so to this day. Maurice White, the master of the band, instantly became a hero to me for the way he sang, the way he played the kalimba, the way he led that massive band and got them all to fall in line. In 2016, Black bands are all but extinct, so this loss hits particularly hard, signifying a death knell of Black musicianship, leadership and spirituality. The following is my unedited obituary of Maurice White. A shorter version appeared in EBONY Magazine, but this is what I really wrote…

***

Maurice White, founder and lead singer of legendary band Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF) died Wednesday night, February 3rd, in Los Angeles, CA, at the age of 74. According to a statement from his younger brother, EWF bassist Verdine White, Maurice “passed away peacefully last night in his sleep.” EWF was one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, winning six Grammy Awards and garnering hits like “Shining Star,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “After the Love Has Gone.” The band blazed a trail of spiritual celebration and afro-futurism that was far ahead of its time. As the their bandleader, percussionist, principle songwriter, lead singer and producer, White’s guidance manifested a sound and imagery that reflected Black excellence and innovation, but also possessed the foresight to craft songs and albums that could find their way into the hearts of all the hues of humanity.

Yearnin’, Learnin’…

Maurice White was born on December 19, 1941, in Memphis, TN. Memphis – an American musical junction point that merged down home soul, the fiery sounds of the Baptist Church, lamenting country and blues – proved to be a fateful breeding ground for White’s formative years, along with neighborhood friends and fellow future legends Booker T. Jones, David Porter and Isaac Hayes. “There was a wide range of music that I would listen to,” White stated in the band’s documentary, “Shining Stars.” “We kind of fused together jazz and blues and all the different types of music that was available to us.” White learned drums as a teenager in a local Drum and Bugle Corp before going to Chicago, IL, to study medicine at Crane Junior College. Fate once again intervened when he filled in on drums for a band playing at the school. This sparked an undying flame of musical passion that change the course of his life and, unbeknownst to him, generations of Black music. He went on to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and soon became a session drummer for Chess Records. His steady hands can be heard on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” as well as countless recordings by The Impressions, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy and Etta James.

At 24, White achieved his first sense of public notoriety when he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio. From 1966 to 1969, White played on nine Lewis Trio albums, and won his first Grammy for “Hold It Right There,” which showcased the brilliant fusion of jazz and pop that would define Lewis’ career and inform White’s crossover prowess later. Toward the end of his tenure in the trio, White discovered the kalimba, a melodic African percussion instrument described as a thumb piano, which served as yet another seismic turning point in White’s life. He began to incorporate the instrument into Lewis recordings. On 1969’s “Uhuru,” the origin of White’s signature sound can be heard with spry kalimba countering a funk bass and danceable drumming.

Sing a Message to You…

That year, White struck out on his own. “I started having visions of this group that would create music that would have emotional gravity to it; spiritual overtones.” He assembled a band with Chicago jazz cohorts Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead to formed The Salty Peppers and gained a contract with Capitol Records. Success alluded them and they left Chicago for Los Angeles. One day, while looking at his astrological chart, White saw the elements of Earth, Fire and Air. He alerted it slightly and Earth, Wind and Fire was born. Younger brother Verdine joined the 10 member ensemble and they released they’re first two albums, Earth, Wind and Fire and The Need of Love in 1971 on Warner Brothers. But after 18 months, White recognized that the band wasn’t connecting to an audience that yearned to be entertained more so than enlightened. He made a crucial decision to re-create the band in order to reach the college crowds he wanted to move. Retaining only his brother on bass, White assembled a new Earth, Wind and Fire that collectively had what White called a “younger, more commercial approach.”

This new band included singer/percussionist Philip Bailey, keyboardist Larry Dunn, drummer Ralph Johnson and rhythm guitarist Al McKay. With the new members being 10 years his junior, White asserted his place as the leading voice of the nine man group. It was during recording their Columbia Record’s debut, 1972’s Last Days and Time, when White reached an uncomfortable epiphany: He had to sing. Originally, Bailey, who possessed a falsetto singing style, was pegged to be the group’s lone lead vocalist, but White recognized that someone had to sing “the man stuff” and balanced Bailey’s high pitched acrobatics with a mature, smooth baritone. Along with an emphatic horn section, songs like “Time is On Your Side” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky” revealed White’s idea of music that carried emotional weight and exuded highly spiritual messages.

Moment Of Truth…

By 1974, EWF hit a creative wall, and enlisted arranger Charles Stepney to collaborate. Known for his operatic arrangements for The Rotary Connection, Stepney expanded on White’s vision and became the “coach” to his “quarterback,” which proved profitable on their album Open Our Eyes. Their singles “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion,” each co-written by White, reached the Top 30 on the Billboard charts, and the latter became the lyrical manifesto of the band: “So our mission is to bring a melody/ringing voices/sing sweet harmony…You need devotion/bless the children/deliverance from the fruits of evil.”

In 1975, with Stepney and White now as production partners, EWF had a commercial breakthrough with That’s the Way of the World. Riding the wave of the pop chart topper “Shining Star,” the album sold two million copies in America. This was a moment of affirmation for White, who co-wrote all the album’s songs, including the iconic title track and fan favorite ballad “Reasons.” This began a streak of six consecutive double platinum LPs for the band. White then began to influence all aspects of the band’s image. He conceived an unrivaled stage show with Doug Henning magic tricks, spinning drums sets and Verdine levitating during bass solos! Their Africanized wardrobe also mirrored their sound, giving the audience a deeper sense of where the music originated from. At a time when show bands like Ohio Players, Cameo and Kool and The Gang dominated Black radio, EWF’s emergence and crossover appeal was a testament to their greatness and White’s vision.

In the middle of production of 1976’s Spirit, Stepney died suddenly of a heart attack. This tragedy forced White to take further charge of the group he founded, becoming the sole producer going forward. Their next album, 1977’s All N All, remains their biggest studi success, selling three million copies. With All N All, followed by The Best of, I Am, Faces and Raise!, White pushed harder for the imagery to reflected his sound; the album sleeve was adorned with Egyptian architecture such as pyramids and sphinx’s, mixed with Christian images and futuristic buildings. Like counterpart George Clinton was doing with Parliament/Funkadelic, White went beyond mere funk to create a heightened sense of social and transcendent consciousness for the audience to ingest.

I’ll Write A Song For You…

Although EWF could easily crank out infectious pop hits like “Sing A Song” and “September,” the majority of their music – majestically regal horns, well-placed thumping bass, kinetic poly-rhythms and a groove-drenched double guitar attack – added depth to White’s allegoric, mystical lyricism of “Serpentine Fire” “Fantasy,” and “Jupiter,” juxtaposed with divine inspiration of “Burning Bush,” “In the Stone” and “See the Light.” However, White also had the ability to connect with songs of pure love and desire, especially with his voice. Songs like “Love’s Holiday,” “Be Ever Wonderful,” and “After the Love Has Gone” found White crooning, brooding and emoting a sensual, sincere masculinity that not many other singers could have for those compositions.

For the remainder of the 1970’s, White became a go-to producer and songwriter in the industry. He founded American Recording Company (ARC) and became the hit-making force behind several different artists, including Deniece Williams (“Free”), The Emotions (“The Best of My Love,” “Don’t Ask My Neighbor”) and ex-employer Ramsey Lewis (“Sun Goddess”). The 1980’s began strongly for EWF and White, co-writing dance staple “Let’s Groove” and winning a Grammy for “Wanna Be With You” in 1981, but with Columbia Records pushing him for more crossover hits, the pressure began to affect his and the band’s creative process, which beforehand had hinged on the perfect balance of improvisation and calculation. The 1983 album Electric Universe was a commercial flop, and a burnt out White temporarily disbanded EWF.

Heritage…

White regrouped shortly thereafter, releasing his critically acclaimed self-titled solo debut in 1985 and remained in-demand as a  producer for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Atlantic Starr and Jennifer Holiday. In 1987, he pulled EWF out of hiatus and they released Touch the World, which included their comeback hit, “System of Survival.” At this point and beyond, EWF’s line-up would be in constant change, but White, brother Verdine, Bailey and Johnson remained as the core. In hindsight, it cannot be overstated that his ability to manage nine personalities (13 when you include the horn section) to conform to a greater good, while still allowing their individual forms to shine, during an eight year period, was nothing short of miraculous and speaks to the level of respect he commanded.

In 1992, White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and following the release of Grammy-nominated 1993 album Millennium, White retired from touring with EWF in 1994. His last official concert was chronicled on the 1996 CD Greatest Hits Live. Although no longer well enough to tour, White continued as producer and co-lead singer on albums In the Name of Love (1997) and The Promise (2003) while Bailey, Verdine and Johnson soldiered on the road without him. One of White’s last on-stage appearances with EWF came in 2000, when all nine original members were on hand to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In their speech, Bailey conceded the band’s success to White’s genius and leadership. One more time, they performed “Shining Star.” In 2005, EWF released Illumination, the first time outsiders produced EWF music. It also proved to be Maurice’s last time as an active member of the band. On the Grammy-nominated, Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis produced “Pure Gold,” White’s voice noticeably lacked the manly density of his prime, but still possessed his signature timbre and passion. White retreated from the studio altogether as his illness began to worsen. In 2010, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but was too sick to attend.

To this day, Earth, Wind and Fire continues to sell out venues all over a globe that have purchased over 90 million copies of their albums. The band’s enduring dedication to Maurice White’s dream is a testament to their continued reverence after five decades. White’s death is a grand loss because it is the physical omission of another of Black music’s purest originals. There are many stars, less geniuses, and even fewer visionaries. Maurice White turned the future into the present, and hopefully artists will look to his past to preserve their future.

Epilogue

I was sitting on the L train in Brooklyn on my way home from work when I got a text message right before I went underground. It was from my then editor at EBONY. Usually when I would get texts from him, it was because he had a time sensitive writing gig for me. Being the money starved man that I am, I lit up…until I noticed the content of the text: “matt, can you write a maurice white obit by 7, 8pm?” What? WHAT???? Granted, I knew Maurice was old, and I knew he was sick, nearly unable to even speak, but I was nowhere near prepared to hear that news, especially the way I received it. My gut instinct was to say no, but soon, I knew it was meant to come to my lap, as I knew NO ONE at EBONY.com, no matter how much older than I, would write an obituary on Maurice White better than me. I started writing on the train on  loose papers, the quick memo app on my phone so I could get a head start once I got in front of my computer. It took me an extra hour and 40 minutes to complete it, but I was shocked, angry and determined to get it right. Maurice White deserved my best.

Two weeks later, I’m on my lunch break at Brooklyn Free Speech TV. Leading up to this moment, I’d been listening to EWF extensively, watching concert footage and documentaries to reminisce and give private tribute to Maurice. I even listening to an old interview with Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson I did for a piece I wrote in Elmore Magazine about Black bands in 2013. One of the last things I told them was please tell Maurice I’m praying for him and I hope he’s well. It seemed I was handling his passing well, just as I had when my biggest musical hero Michael Jackson passed away.

So, back to the lunch break. I’m sitting in the studio green room in front of a vanity mirror after devouring contents from McDonald’s Dollar Menu. With my iPod and headphones in toe, I played “Be Ever Wonderful,” the last track on what I believe to be EWF’s finest album, All ‘N All. I remember the first time I heard it; the opening horns were so fast I thought it was going to be a bombastic funk ending, but it slowed down and became a slow flowing, do-wop inspired ballad. “Be Ever…Wonderful! Stay as you are.” Those words to a kid like me, who didn’t fit in with anyone, were so poignant and important. Don’t change; embrace who you are, no matter what. I was alone in the green room, which was good, seeing as I like singing along with my iPod. Everything was fine, until I got to the bridge of the song and Maurice let out his OOOOOOOOOOooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOaaaaaaHHHH! A lump in my throat formed, a tightness in my chest and my chin was getting heavy. Something was about to happen that I thought I’d luckily avoided. Once the ending came, and that hulking baritone sang, “What I want to do, and what I’d like to tell you may not be as you see; as we live today, what I wanna say is be ever wonderful in your own sweet way.” That counterbalanced with Ralph’s strikes on the crash cymbols and Philip’s syrupy sweet background vocals, I knew it was too late…I was going to cry. I looked in the mirror, unable to sing along anymore, watching the tears drip down my cheeks, my face contorted to this wretched sight and goosebumps stinging every pore in my limbs. “Don’t let the world change your mind,” he sang, and I put my head in my hands let the sadness extract from my soul. This voice, this power, this heart that eased me, inspired me, saved me, was forever silent. I always feel as long as any artist is alive, no matter how past their prime they are, they still have a chance to give you that feeling you got as a kid when you heard something beautiful and different; a feeling you chase whenever you turn your radio on. Now, that chance was gone, I couldn’t take it.

It bothers me that a singer can affect me to this point more than a relative or a close friend’s passing, but it is what it is. Yes, there are more important things in life than music, but I’m not going to apologize for allowing a man like Maurice White to give me life the way he did and being greatly enriched as a result of it. What he created meant the world to me and I am heartbroken. So, what I will say, goodbye Maurice. Thank you for leaving the world better than how you found it.

*An edited version was first published by EBONY.com.* 

Categories: Uncategorized

When It Hits The Fan, Should We Still Be Fans?

April 30, 2016 1 comment

As Afrika Bambaataa and Bill Cosby face allegations of sexual abuse, we ask should a celebrity’s beautiful legacy be cast aside after being tied to egregious crimes?

 

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*DISCLAIMER: THE WELL-DRESSED HEADPHONE ADDICT IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM, CONDONES SEXUAL ABUSE OF ANY SORT.*

Before 2015, when someone said the name Bill Cosby, people would think of a prolific comedian and a dedicated philanthropist. Today, after over a year of allegations of drugging and sexually assaulting no less than 50 women over decades, his name evokes the thoughts of a rapist and a monster to many. More than three weeks ago, Afrika Bambaataa was a revered pillar of American hip-hop community. But now, when Bronx politician Ronald Savage claimed the musician sexually abused him in the 1980s as a teenager, all that began to change as well. Last week, three more men have come forward with the same claim, and while Bambaataa has stated the allegations are “baseless and cowardly,” his legacy may soon suffer the same explosion that Cosby’s has. It remains to be seen whether or not the courts will prove that either Cosby or Bambaataa are guilty of these crimes, but in the court of public opinion has already convicted them, serving as judge, jury and executioner. We live in a country with a criminal justice edict that reads “innocence until proven guilty.” Why is it that outside of courthouse walls, it has been the opposite? Moreover, should all that these men done to uplift Black culture over the years be omitted in light of this accusations?

Two things must be examined here. First, there’s the issue of a man being convicted by the court of public opinion regardless of the outcome in a court of law. For additional context, let’s go back to two other prominent occurrences. Two decades ago, both R. Kelly and Michael Jackson were accused of similar charges. Kelly’s reputation was originally marred when news got out that he’d married former protege Aaliyah at age 15 (he was 27 at the time). He has put out one chart topping album after another and it was all but forgotten, until allegations of statutory rape came after a sex tape allegedly of him and another underage girl surfaced in 2000. Jackson was accused of child molestation in 1993 and the public immediately turned on him. Both R. Kelly and Michael Jackson were exonerated of their respective charges. However, the stench of allegations is so potent that neither of them has been able to remove them completely. This ideal is intensified with Cosby’s and Bambaataa’s cases. Regardless of what any of us may believe, it is dangerous to target and see people as guilty, particularly from afar, before a judge has said anything. We are in a time when circumstances, hearsay and volume superseded evidence, and that’s a slippery slope.

Perhap it’s because the act of sexual abuse is so heinous. Fact about it, the public has often forgiven other prominent celebrities of brutal crimes. It’s been well documented that both Miles Davis and Richard Pryor were drug addicts and spousal abusers. However, history has been far kinder to them and their legacies than that of Bambaataa, Cosby, Kelly and Jackson. Is one crime worse than another? And is it fair why should we castigate people who aren’t found guilty in court while we lift up those are factually guilty?

More importantly, should we erase all the good that a person has done in light of bad things they “most likely” did – it cannot be overstated that these men were not convicted, or have yet to be. But let’s just say for the sake of the discourse that each is actually guilty. Let’s consider what each has contributed to the enrichment of Black culture:

Cosby’s revolutionized stand-up comedy; used the television platform via The Cosby Show and A Different World to promote Black familial assimilation and aspiration, and advocate for historically black colleges and universities respectively. Bambaataa, a reformed gang member, founded the Zulu Nation, deterring Black youth from street violence to more constructive and creative outlets; his 1982 hit “Planet Rock” caused a dramatic shift in the international musical direction of rap music. Jackson broke music and television color barriers, influenced multiple generations of pop and R&B stars to this day, completely revolutionized profitability and marketability of the modern recording artists, and is the most charitable celebrity in history, donating over $250 million dollars to charity in his lifetime. Kelly drastically inspired two generations of R&B singers and songwriters and created a new sound in contemporary Black music at the turn of the 21st century. All of these are feats that have provide Black men and women for over 60 years of being uplifted, enlightening and enriched.

Now, let’s look at what’s happened after each was accused:

Cosby’s legacy has been tarnished, arguably, beyond repair. Numerous colleges rescinded all his honorary doctorates, The Cosby Show was removed from syndication, and a man who made a fortune making people laugh is now the butt of every joke and meme. Jackson has labeled a child molester nearly everywhere he went, losing endorsements, investments and public approval. Kelly shares the same stigma of sexual deviancy, as he’s grilled in interviews with Huffington Post and GQ about his perceived preoccupation with sex in his work. As far as Bambaataa, according to the New York Daily News, Cornell University, where Bambaataa frequently lectures, is under scrutiny for housing his music collection and a Charge.org petition to remove him has been started.

Are we able to condemn the acts of evil while still commending all the good they did? In our society, it seems to be Black or White; either/or. There’s a possibility that some of us conclude that by watching The Cosby Show, singing along to “I Believe I Can Fly,” dancing to “Planet Rock” at a party or watching Jackson moonwalk during “Billie Jean” that we support and advocate rape, deviance and violence.

There is also the notion the public feels a deep sense of betrayal. When preachers are caught cheating, abusing young boys or stealing money, their flocks’ sense of trust, love and loyalty to men has been compromised, as these men are held in higher standards than others. We hold our entertainers more sacredly than politicians and dignitaries. We quote singers, rappers and comedians like scriptures and fables. Therefore, when they can’t live up to a standard or they are tied to – not even necessarily guilty of – an unforgivable crime, i.e. sexual assault, we tend to cast them to the wind and leave them behind for the most part. Well, it’s not quite that simple. We benefit from the good they’ve done whether we want to or not, because we’ve applied their essence to our lives subliminally every day, but it doesn’t make us rapist sympathizers. At the end of the day, none of us are perfect, and the faster we realize that people who are gifted at entertaining and educating us are any less flawed that those who watch, listen or subscribe to them. Acts should be praised before people. Acts should be judged before people.

Categories: Big Picture

Why Chris Brown’s “Loyal” Is His Latest Homage to Michael Jackson

October 11, 2014 3 comments
Single cover of Chris Brown's "Loyal," from his 2014 album "X"

Single cover of Chris Brown’s “Loyal,” from his 2014 album “X”

One of the worst kept secrets in show business is that Chris Brown is a big fan of Michael Jackson. Since his first years of teenage success, Brown has pledged his loyalty to the departed singer/songwriter by singing his songs on stage, wear his iconic jackets during concerts and, of course, let’s not forget his tear-jerking tribute to Jackson at the BET Awards. On wax, on the other hand, you can’t find too many similarities between the two. This changed in the summer of 2013 with the release of “Fine China,” the lead single to his 2014 album X, which finds the Grammy-winning singer crooning over a Jackson-esque funk/pop track and exclaiming the gloved one’s signature vocal ad-libs (i.e. Whoo-Hoo’s and syncopated scatting). “Fine China” is a homage to MJ in a stylistic sense and sticks out among X‘s other hip-hop infused songs like “Love More” and “New Flame,” but it isn’t the only time Jackson’s influence rear’s it’s head on the album. “Loyal,” the fourth single from X, is a mid-tempo club banging anthem featuring Lil’ Wayne all about gold digger women. No one would ever mistake a song that has a hook that expresses, “These ho’s ain’t loyal,” and includes phrases such as “I don’t fuck with broke bitches” as being inspired by anything associated with Michael Jackson, but they should and here’s why.

Aside from being revered by millions as the greatest entertainer in music history, Michael Jackson was a singular songwriter who wrote vivid, brooding material culled from his very unusual life. Jackson was able to write songs of various subject matter, from love, injustice, and unity. However, one topic constantly came up: the deceptive female . Since the late 1970”s, MJ repeated the pattern in song many times:

1979 – “Working Day and Night,” Off the Wall – MJ’s girlfriend makes him work extensively to keep him from noticing her cheating ways.

1980 – “This Place Hotel (fka Heartbreak Hotel),” Triumph (with The Jacksons) – Mysterious women claim a false relationship with MJ, causing his
“baby” to leave him.

1982 – “Billie Jean,” Thriller – A woman falsely accuses MJ of fathering her child.

1987 – “Dirty Diana,” Bad – A notorious groupie pressures MJ to trade sex for stardom.

1991 – “Dangerous,” Dangerous – Same plot as “This Place Hotel,” only this time, MJ succumbs to temptation.

1995 – “Blood on the Dance Floor,” – Blood on the Dance Floor – A mysterious woman seduces, then kills, a man.

When these songs were released, Jackson fell under minimal, if any at all, criticism for portraying women in this hawking fashion. This is clearly evident by the public’s response to the songs; “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” both rose to number one on the Billboard charts, “This Place Hotel,” was an R&B Top ten hit, “Working Day and Night” was a live staple on every tour Jackson had since 1981, and “Dangerous” is among his most well known dance routines, performing it no less than five times on television between 1992 and 2001. Jackson explained his rationale behind these songs in his autobiography, Moon Walk: “If [“This Place Hotel’], and later “Billie Jean,” seemed to cast women in an unfavorable light, it was not meant to be taken as a personal statement,” Jackson wrote. “I just think that when sex is used as a form or blackmail or power, it’s a repugnant use of one of God’s gifts.”

Most people wouldn’t dare to compare Brown’s “Loyal” to anything Jackson’s recorded in his career. In fairness, this may be due to the lyrics. The chorus is frank and harsh, “When I rich nigga wants you/And your nigga can’t do nothing for you/These Ho’s ain’t loyal.” Also, Brown’s contribution to the song’s creation is minimal. In the liner notes, “Loyal” lists no less than eight people having writing credits for the song, whereas Jackson wrote all the lyrics of the six aforementioned songs and composed all but two (“Dangerous” and “Blood on the Dance Floor” were both composed by Teddy Riley). Lastly, some would say Brown has a bitter and skewed view of women in light of his tumultuous relationship with pop singer Rihanna, while some would argue that Jackson’s point of view came from a more observational point of view and is much more objective. With all that said, the issue that Brown addresses in “Loyal” of being women being unfaithful (“I Betcha bottom dollar she gonna cheat”), disposing of men that can’t give them a certain lifestyle (see chorus) and will go to great lengths to trap stars (“She wanna see a nigga trapped/she wanna fuck all the rappers”) touches on numerous points that Jackson has made in several songs. The supposed misogyny attached to this material is understandable, but it doesn’t negate the fact that women like these do exist. As Jackson stated again in his book, “There were so many sharks in this business looking for blood in the water.” We mustn’t dismiss that ideal that there are females who use sex as a weapon for dishonorable gains just because the language on “Loyal” is crass. Given that fact that the song reached number nine on the Billboard 100, it’s safe to assume that many others co-sign with the song’s message. Brown still has a long way to go before he can be considered near the accomplishments of his hero, but like it or not, a song like “Loyal” is a step in the right direction to expanding ability to express via his music.

Categories: Big Picture