My Pop Life #197 : My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas
walked through concert doors
& roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave & the poor got paid
And out of speakers I did speak
I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak
My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me, close as can be
we make a mean team, my Adidas and me
we get around together, rhyme forever
& we won’t be mad when worn in bad weather
My Adidas.
My Adidas.
My Adidas
*

It was September 1986.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf and I had gone on holiday to San Francisco together, and stayed with her friends Lisa & Bryan alongside Alamo Park, picturesque wooden houses around a green square with a view of downtown off to the north.  We were both in our late 20s, working actors, no kids.

Alamo Park, San Fransisco

The plan was to enjoy the city a bit, then hire a car and drive out to Lake Tahoe – I think we’d both been to San Fran before, and explored Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley and Golden Gate Park, so fancied a trip in a car, one of my favourite things to do in the world.  Hire a car and D R I V E.  I’ve written about a few of these trips before : Lost Highway, America, two songs about travelling through this nation, by Hank Williams and Simon & Garfunkel (My Pop Life #148  and #130 ).

This trip took us east across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and up Highway 80 past El Cerrito.  Terrible memories of Simon Korner and I being trapped with a weird Vietnam vet back in 1976 – a guy with a head so full of shit that he wouldn’t stop sharing with the two teenagers he picked up hitch-hiking.  As the road stretched on and the miles fell away, the memories faded.  Sacramento.  Then Highway 50 to the lake.  Took about 5 hours I reckon.  What a beautiful place Lake Tahoe is.  Fringed by pine and fir trees, it’s at a high elevation and has a number of top ski resorts in the winter months.  We drove around the California side of the lake to the address on the piece of paper (pre-internet or mobile!!) which read

Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, U.S. 50, Stateline, NV

which meant that we were just inside Nevada and that our hotel was also a casino.  We checked in and looked out of the window, which was like this :

and since it was early evening by then, descended to the restaurant to eat.  Imagine our surprise dear reader when it became clear at some point after sitting down and perusing the menus that we were sitting by a stage and that in 15 minutes, the great Donna Summer was going to come on and sing us a few songs.  Extraordinary.  But that is the thing with these casinos – the whole Nevada experience – a show, then gamble gamble gamble.  We’d gone there for the trip, for the lake, the desert, but Donna was a completely delightful shock.  She had a mini-orchestra with the band and performed all the great disco-era songs – or almost all anyway : Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, On The Radio, I Feel Love, She Works Hard For The Money, Love To Love You Baby… she was amazing and in a normal blog, she would be the point of the story.  This is her in that era, singing with Joe Esposito in Sahara, Lake Tahoe :

Amazing right?  It would only be right and fair to remember that around this time, Donna had made a born-again Christian mistake regarding gays and AIDS/HIV, a statement which she regretted for the rest of her life.  She apologised for it in 1989 – apologised to her significantly gay fans, such as my brother Paul, who felt betrayed after lifting her up in the disco years only to be brushed aside as the terrible disease struck in the mid-80s.  The whole Vegas part of a career is odd I think – like a bubble which exists off from reality, where people go to hide and make money, protected by the Mob.  I’m thinking Elvis, Frank, Louis.  Names so big they don’t need a second name.  Donna wasn’t in that bracket, but she was making somebody serious money and had been for over 10 years.

We were very happy to see her.  One of my favourite artists, regardless of her religious shallows.  The following day Rita and I drove around the lake and visited Carson City the state capital, then on to Virginia City, an old Wild West style town in the Nevada desert.

Great.  So far, so travelogue, with the open goal of a live gig by Donna Summer spurned by the blog.  Ye cannot top that young man surely.

Maybe not, but the point of this chapter is hip hop.  By 1986 we’d all heard The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the former lifting Chic‘s ‘Good Times‘ note-for-note with a bippity-boppity rap over the top, the latter painting a vivid picture of New York’s urban decay with the memorable punchline :

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”

which Rita and I had altered slightly in our childish schtick to –

“it makes me mumble how I keep from going crumble”

I was bumbling along in 1986 at 29 years of age, done my youth cults, been a hippie, a skinhead, a mod, a punk, a glam rocker.  I dabbled in a fashionista sense in the new romantics style without really embracing the music much – Culture Club, yeah, Duran Duran, nah.  I just didn’t like half of the songs of that cult.  I was into Madness & Elvis Costello, Crowded House & Talking Heads, Kate Bush & The Pogues & The Style Council.  A smattering of african pop – Sound D’Afrique LPs and Fela Kuti, some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour, some soul music courtesy of Randy Crawford, Prince & Sade, bit of Dr John, bit of Laurie Anderson.  Y’know.

Then I heard it.

Barrelling along Interstate 80 coming back into Oakland we’d picked up a local radio station.  A local BLACK radio station.  Sadly segregation in the USA is still practised widely even now in 2017, and certainly was in 1986.  Even today there are very VERY few radio stations that play black AND white music in the same programme.  The fact that it is possible for me to write “black music” and assume that everyone knows what is meant by that is actually pretty depressing to be honest.  Like : google ‘Darius Rucker’ for example.  I’ll tackle it on another blog – but I live in this big stupid segregated world with my black family. I’m white.  We’re humans.  But that’s a whole other subject.  At this point in my short sweet life I was going out with an English Bengali woman,  “whatever” – right ?

tic ta tic tic – a dumbadumdum

A bass-line which came from below the car, below the street, and a hi-hat which was a metallic scratch from a distant satellite dish.  Stretched between these two extremes of sound, a scrunchy crunch like a door slamming & a car crashing – the whip-scratch of a vinyl record being dragged back under a stylus on a turntable, all overlaid with a man’s voice talking about his trainers – in rhythm. That’s it.  A drum-kit & a voice – and a deep deep bass that you could hardly hear, but was inside your bones.  If you listen to this track on a computer, it sounds tinny & trivial, although the rap itself is till tougher than leather – heh heh see what I did there…No,  you have to have the bass, on speakers or headphones.  In a car you get all that top & bottom, and to have this crunching space-age noise with all the clear blue sky in-between each element was perfect, my perfect introduction to hip hop, the new sound of America.

Obviously I was late.

Hip hop had been developing very nicely thank you since The Message, especially in the South South Bronx, Brooklyn and the other boroughs of New York City.  Run-D.M.C. were on their 3rd LP by the time this Pauline conversion hit me & the shining light came down from above and converted me to the five elements of hip hop (9 or 4?  5 for me) which I would immerse myself in over the following years.  I was hooked after one song.  This was like the legend of heroin or crack – one puff and you’re hooked For Life Mate!  It was true after all.

Graffiti is one of the five elements of hip hop – 5Pointz, Long Island City

I bought the album Raising Hell within days, with Peter Piper, It’s Tricky, You Be Illin’, the mighty Walk This Way.  It is no exaggeration at all to say that this LP changed my life completely.  If you were mean you might say that I appropriated this black culture and made it mine, stole it, used it, colonised it.  If you were me you might say that this was my culture too, because all the culture I receive and have always received is mine to have and to hold.  It comes from somewhere of course, but where it goes is everywhere.  We’re sharing, aren’t we?

Yes, I was late late late- but what had I missed ?  The first Run-D.M.C. album called simply Run-D.M.C. (above) had been released two years earlier in 1984 and had a tighter, sparser, punchier sound than the hip hop of that era which was still decidedly funky and rolled along with melodic hooks (Kurtis Blow).  They followed that with King Of Rock in 1985.  But even before the 1st album they’d released the seminal single It’s Like That (That’s The Way It IS) with Jason Nevins in 1983 – and this is the groundbreaker sonically.  Those spaces I’d heard on My Adidas were carved out of thin air back in 82-83.

Rev Run, DMC, Jam Master Jay in 1985

Run-D.M.C. come from Hollis in Queens, which is way out past Jamaica, Queens on the Long Island Rail Road (on the way to Long Island where Public Enemy emanate from).   Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) used to rap in the park together, although Simmons had already DJ’d for rapper Kurtis Blow who was managed by his brother Russell Simmons of DefJam Records.  Run and DMC rapped in front of DeeJay Jason Mizell one day in the park – Jazzy Jase he was known at the time – and they all hooked up.  They wouldn’t record anything until they left high school, and Russell Simmons oversaw their first single It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.s at the end of 1983, with Jam Master Jay on the decks as Jason was now known.

The first album broke the mould of hip hop – not only with its sound, but with the style of the band which had come from Jay – Kangol hats, one-colour track suits and sneakers with the laces taken out.  This was “street” and cool, because it came, like later fashion tropes, from prison garb.   But it was the music, the stripped-down, rhythmic interplay between DMC and Reverend Run (who became ordained as an actual minister in 2004), set against the crisp turntabled beats, rockin’ bells & occasional rock guitars produced by Jam Master Jay and producers Russell SimmonsRick Rubin which became an integral part of the bedrock of old-skool hip hop.  I went on to see them live three times in the 1980s, all in London, they were always immense.

hip hop block party in New York City, late 70s

The great tidal wave of hip hop that crashed into my life was partly me doing catch-up on these early days of Run-D.M.C. along with Afrika BambaataKurtis Blow, Boogie Down Productions, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy, Salt’n’Pepa, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, Schooly D, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, The Juice Crew, EPMD and Doug E. Fresh.  A great surge of creativity from the streets.  It was extremely exciting.  And then it was all about keeping up with what was coming out right then in the late 80s – 7A3, N.W.A., De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, The Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, Queen Latifah, Young M.C., Spoonie Gee, through to Tupac, Ice-T, De La Soul and Master Ace.  I should also mention the British hip hop scene – Richie Rich, Demon Boyz, London Possee, Cookie Crew, Derek B et al.  Rapping even then in an English accent. I would go off a lot of the hip hop in the early 90s after the gold came back, the social comment of PE and KRS-1 got drowned out by the gangsta rap and macho rubbish that followed.  But until 1991 I bought pretty much every single and album that came out, all on vinyl.  Always been an old skool head.

So obsessed did I become with this new music that it occurred to me that it was going to change the world.  A few of us felt the same way – but it must be recorded that the vast majority of people (that I knew at least) :

a) didn’t like hip hop or rap, or whatever it was

b) thought it wouldn’t last longer than a couple of years, and then

c) real music would come back

In contrast to this I was deep in the flow, going forward.  I felt that this was new, like rock ‘n’  roll was new in the 1950s – a new form – and it wasn’t going anywhere.  It was pregnant with possibilities:  musically, as a dance form, in graffiti, in poetry and, I felt very strongly, in my own arena – drama.  It felt inherently dramatic – it felt as if whole dramas could be constructed out of this new speech.  It was thrilling.  My diary for 1986 records a meeting that I had with Paulette Randall in the latter part of this year.  We talked about creating a play about the hippie convoy (my idea) and urban homelessness (Paulette’s idea) using raps between the scenes or maybe even in the scenes (like a musical).  Soon we would take the project to Joint Stock, where I had worked (with Simon Curtis directing) on Deadlines in 1984/85 (see My Pop Life #185 ). Using the same working method, Paulette & I created Sanctuary, a hip-hop musical which would later transfer to Washington D.C.   See My Pop Life #86, My Pop Life #137 for further adventures.

Little did I know that almost 30 years later I’d be watching “Hamilton” at the Public Theatre in New York, before its Broadway run, using all these ideas and more –  like an opera where all the dialogue is rapped.  Brilliant game-changing show. This was my inchoate dream in 1986 – but it had taken this long to become a commercial reality.  It was truly inevitable given the power and dynamism of the form, but perhaps it needed an audience born after 1990 to appreciate it, to allow it to flourish and grow.  Some things change slowly.

I changed quickly though.  I’ve always been a faddist, and I embraced this new fad with an irritating born-again fashion victim’s zeal & passion.  Money would be spent on vinyl.  Gigs would be attended.  Plays would be written.  This LP in particular was hugely influential on my style of rap writing, which would win me writing awards in two years time. Meanwhile Rita & I enjoyed the remainder of our trip to California and got back to London to find that she was expected for work in Manchester the night before.  One bowl of grape nuts later & we were driving up the M6 in my spangled blue Vauxhall Wyvern ‘Eddie’ to Chester Zoo and the set of ‘One By One’.   Rita was in front of the cameras within 20 minutes of arrival as I changed a flat tyre.

As for those Adidas, well, talk about a signpost to the future.  I still have my pair of Adidas Sambas.  It’s impossible now to speak in a generalised way about “hip hop” as you could in the 1980s, it is so diverse and has so many branches & flowers & languages.  Not only do we now live in hip-hop wallpaper, we now live in sneaker ubiquity.  The idea of the label.  Logo as clothing as status.  Never mind beats in a rhyme. The song is a damn commercial for Adidas & Lee denim!!

standin on 2 Fifth St.
funky fresh & yes cold on my feet
with no shoe string in em, I did not win em
I bought em off the Ave with the black Lee denim
I like to sport em that’s why I bought em
a sucker tried to steal em so I caught ’em and I fought ’em
& I walk down the street & I bop to the beat
with Lee on my legs & Adidas on my feet
& now I just standin here shooting the gif
me and D & my Adidas standing on 2 Fifth
My Adidas.
My Adidas.

Tick ta tick tick ~ Badumbadumdum.

The space inside this song is ridiculous.

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My Pop Life #163 : Early (ft BOOTS) – Run the Jewels

Early (ft BOOTS)   –   Run the Jewels

And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk
And hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound

*

When we moved to New York City in February 2014 we felt positive, optimistic and excited.  As a mixed-race couple (I am ‘white’, my wife is ‘black’) we were looking forward to living in a multi-racial city of immigrants where the old blocks of black/ white/ jewish/ korean/ italian/ hispanic /chinese had at least been partly broken down.  Brooklyn was mixed and thriving and beautiful.  The last time we’d been here (apart from the Julius Caesar run in late 2013 see My Pop Life #143) had been the late 80s when we’d stayed in Alphabet City and been shocked by the homelessness, the filth everywhere, and felt at street level the racial tension in the city.  The block mentality appeared to be based on racial origin depressingly.   It was 1989 just after the Central Park incident when five black and hispanic teens were arrested and indicted on robbery and sexual assault charges against a white middle-class female jogger.

White fury 1989 believing in the rape narrative of the Central Park 5

The city prickled with palpable suspicion and anger.   In June 2014  the five men – who were between 14 and 16 when they were arrested – settled for $40 million in compensation after many years of jail, followed by negotiations with the city.  They were all innocent.  The perpetrator, Matias Reyes, had acted alone and confessed in 2002, some 12 years earlier.

On July 17th 2014 Eric Garner was selling cigarettes outside a store on Staten Island.  Bystander footage shot on mobile phones showed five policemen forcing him to the floor, one with a chokehold as Garner said on numerous occasions “I can’t breathe“.  He died on the street, on camera.  The Black Lives Matter Movement had been born in the wake of the murder acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot 17-yr old Trayvon Martin in Florida the previous year.   A protest group coined the phrase and it stuck.  It doesn’t have an “Only” in front of it, but it might have a “Too” after it.  It’s not offensive, or divisive, in the context of the regular dehumanisation of black life in America.

Ferguson, Missouri 2014

Between these two murders was the shooting of 18-yr old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri which had ignited the nation – a black man shot multiple times by a white policeman and left dead on the street for over five hours – a white officer also later to be acquitted by a white Grand Jury, in a secret hearing.

Since then we have had a rising tide of unacceptable black death at the hands of the police, often captured on camera : Tamir Rice, 12 years old from Cleveland (no indictment of the officer), Eric Harris from Tulsa was shot in the back while lying on the ground (this case resulted in a manslaughter conviction), Walter Scott from North Carolina, shot in the back while running away (a murder charge has resulted from the camera phone footage) Sandra Bland in Texas who apparently committed suicide in her prison cell after being arrested for ‘not signalling when she pulled over’.  And Freddie Gray in Baltimore whose spine was broken while he was handcuffed in the back of a van driven at deliberately high speeds around corners after his arrest.  He died.  All the Freddie Gray cases have resulted in acquittals for the group of officers involved, dripping through the news bulletins one a week in 2016.

Then two weeks ago Baton Rouge had another cop shooting a black man – Alton Sterling – outside a store, and on the same day in Minnesota we had a live Facebook feed from the girlfriend of Philando Castile, shot in his car by an officer as he was handing the cop his legal gun licence.

moments after the shooting of Philando Castile

All this exploded further 14 days ago when – at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas against these last two shootings – a sniper shot and killed five police officers and was himself killed by a police robot bomb.  Then 4 days ago another (black) sniper who was also ex-military shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, which has been extremely tense ever since the killing of Alton Sterling.

I am aware of my white privilege, especially in newly-gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of gentrification here because it is quite complex and more to do with money than race – and there are good points, and bad points – but walking down the streets and avenues of Brooklyn, I never feel threatened by the police.  That’s just my reality.   I’m not in the matrix that says – young black men commit most of the crime, so target them, shake them down, stop and frisk.  We know the NYPD profile young black men.  We know they have quotas and monthly targets.  And whatever irrational fear I may have of groups of young black men with hoodies on the street – the reality is that they have a far more rational fear of me as a white man.  Historically and actually.  White people run things.  It’s not a black problem all this.  It’s a white problem.

My white privilege allowed me to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles in 2015 while I was shooting Agent Carter at Disney, a rally then a walk along Hollywood Boulevard with a few hundred protestors past the 101 Freeway entrance blocked by LAPD thence to Hollywood & Vine where we were invited to sit down on the intersection and block the road, to actually lie down as if we were dead on the street.  It felt vulnerable and brave, there were LAPD all around us, but I never felt in danger.  I was a white middle-class English protestor after all.

How ironic, how tragic indeed that all of this is kicking off at the end of the second term of the USA’s first black President.   Barack Obama did speak up about the Trayvon Martin murder saying “he could have been my son” – and NRA membership shot up, as did gun purchases and registrations.  Obama backed off after that, thinking clearly not to stir the hornet’s nest, but it stirred itself anyway.  One of the things I didn’t realise before moving here was how little command & control the President has over the police.  Police Departments are run on a state-by-state basis and controlled by the State Governments.  The Federal Justice Department can however intervene in high-profile cases and seek an indictment, they have done so in the Alton Sterling case.   But Obama often feels side-lined by this issue.  Some, like Cornel West, and I would fall into this category too, feel that Obama has not done enough as a black President to reform a racist police culture.

El-P and Killer Mike : Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels was formed by black rapper Killer Mike and white rapper/producer El-P in 2012 after they had toured together.  Killer Mike debuted on Outkast‘s Stankonia LP in 2000 before releasing 5 full-length independent political trap/hip hop albums out of Atlanta.  El-P is outta Brooklyn, original member of Company Flow and owner of Def Jux records where he produced Cannibal Ox‘ The Cold Vein among other independent hip hop albums.  A well-respected hip-hop producer he has also released 5 LPs, two as Company Flow and three as El-P.

Run The Jewels first LP was a free download in 2013, self-titled with the strange logo that has got me into a few odd situations – severed, bandanged hands holding onto a gold chain – what ?  But it has been hugely effective in establishing them as a force – political uncompromising, old skool, with a political angry content to match a punchy noisy style -they remind me of Public Enemy, committed hip hop from the underground, sent to upset the apple cart.  Run The Jewels 2 was released in October 2014, was again free, and included this track Early, featuring a new face BOOTS aka Jordan Asher who had risen to glory from nowhere in 2013, writing three and producing no less than NINE of the tracks on Beyoncé‘s self-titled 5th LP ‘BEYONCÉ‘ along with a roster of up-to-the-minute talent.  His contribution to this song ‘Early’ is quite stunning.

Killer Mike rapping live in 2015

The first verse, partly quoted above is delivered by Killer Mike, reminiscent in rhythm to Young M.C.’s ‘Know How‘ and in rhyme pattern to Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ : a black male under arrest for weed “could it be that my medicine’s the evidence”   while his partner and child protest and are held by the police

‘cos I respect the badge and the gun,

and I pray today ain’t the day when you drag me away, right in front of my beautiful son

His queen gets shot at the end of that verse “and my life changed with that sound“.

The chorus is devastating, eerie, other-worldly from BOOTS –

Get out get out get out feelin this feelin this too early…”

and appears to be in a different song altogether.  A startling moment where everything you know suddenly floats untethered and the sky is falling in.

Then El-P’s verse – the white verse – starts with the same couplet

It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ I don’t control
Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul

– he agrees with Killer Mike that his life ain’t his own, but he talks about the system – there’s a they – and how things are rigged but it ain’t a game if it don’t pause with the sound of Pacman dying in the mix behind him.   He sees the street cameras watch the birdie but it doesn’t record the cop shooting the woman… he finishes with hearing the sound of gunshots maybe two blocks away but he’s going to bed he’s going to sleep, getting up early, unfazed.  White privilege.

This song is both the darkness and the light.  As it should be.

I had tickets to see Run The Jewels in late 2014 and couldn’t go – I had to be in Los Angeles for work on Agent Carter.   I gave to tickets to my Brooklyn friend and gig buddy Tony Gerber, also a white man, also married to a black woman Lynn Nottage, and he went to the gig with Aaron Nottage, his wife’s brother.  I was glad the tickets were used, and glad they were a gift.  I spent that Christmas alone (sob) in Brooklyn with the cats, as Jenny flew back to London to be with her family.  Tony and Lynne invited me round to their house for Christmas Day which was extremely kind of them, and I had a wonderful day.  Presents were exchanged, and Tony had bought me the Run The Jewels T-shirt complete with bandaged severed hand holding the gold chain.

Suzan-Lori Parks wasn’t sure about this T.  I couldn’t explain it

One of my friends here in NYC is a police officer.  We drink.  We argue.  We laugh a lot.   But she tells me things about things.  The gang mentality.  The win mentality.  The shoot-to-kill training.   Social media has heightened the issue a great deal and given us all access to Sandra Bland’s aggressive arresting officer, the shooting of Walter Scott or the shocking view of Philando Castile dying in front of our eyes.  We are not inured to these incidents, rather we are woken by them, they are brought into our homes, our phones, our lives.  What can we do ?  We can join Black Lives Matter, go out onto the streets and show our anger.  We do.  What else ?

Well I think one critically important step we can take is to acknowledge that we all live in a world built on white supremacy, and still operating through it.  White lives matter more, count more, than black lives.  Cops see a black face and see a) guilt and b) danger.  The fear count goes UP.  Each terrorist atrocity in Europe is lamented, people paste the flag of France or Belgium onto their Facebook profile and express sorrow and defiance.  But terrorist atrocities in Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Iraq scarcely get a mention, let alone a flag of sympathy.  Not our tribe.  “A plane came down in Kenya yesterday. Two Britons were on board. ”  Oh.   So what kind of message does that send ??  Our kids are running off to Syria in their hundreds to join ISIL.  Why might that be ?  We live in an increasingly polarised world at the moment. Capitalism is wobbling seriously once again, the 2008 crash did not adjust our system in any meaningful way, and there is less money going round.  We all feel it.  But the banks were bailed out, over and over again.  Was Greece ?

Divide and rule, the old tactic is still taking our eyes off the ball.  These are dangerous times.  Reminiscent of the 1930s.  It feels like we need to pick sides, and people are very ready to do that.  I chose my side many years ago when I married my beautiful black wife.   My family is black.  Although I think I had been on this side for at least fifteen years before that.  And I’ve always felt like an internationalist.

If I had a child and I lived here in Brooklyn they would be mixed-race, or black – and I would feel the fear more keenly, the fear this nation always feels built on.  Across the USA, parents of black children raise them to simply get home alive.  If a police officer stops you, be polite, be respectful, do not move your hands, obey, don’t argue, don’t raise your voice, get home alive.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his book Between The World and Me as a letter to his son about coming home alive and it was a best-seller in 2015.  The ABCtv show Blackish felt compelled to address the Black Lives Matter issues in one episode of their sitcom, now in its third series, and the Oscars were dominated by the issue of racism, and brilliantly helmed by Chris Rock on the night.  We are undoubtedly going through another major civil rights movement – but what will change ?   The root is deep, as deep and dark as slavery, and that went on for hundreds of years and made black skin into a commodity, dehumanised, valuable but like the pelt of an animal.  Even after the civil war – fought over the South’s refusal to free their slaves – Reconstruction meant that there was no price to be paid for losing the war.  Robert E. Lee kept his rifle and his Dixie flag and was sent home by Ullysses Grant and no black family got 40 acres and a mule.  The slave-hunters who had profited from bounty turned into the  Sheriffs, Deputies and then Police Officers of the Jim Crow South.  Lynchings, Strange Fruit.

Racism – the great white problem – has never gone away because the root has not been dug out.  The skin grows over it, and it lies there festering until the next breakout.

Charleston, South Carolina  July 2015 – a young white racist shoots 9 black people dead in a church as they pray, and when the police find him hours later they give him a bullet-proof vest and get him a burger.  South Carolina in the weeks that followed finally took the Confederate Flag off the State buildings – to much hostility from white supremacists, for it is their flag.  Quite why it ever became the flag of rock’n’rollers like Lemmy or Mick Jones from the Clash is beyond my comprehension.

And on we go.   In the end compassion is the only way.  Kindness.  We’re in a bit of a finger-pointing era though right now, picking sides, othering.  This song for me shows another way – a white man and a black man working together and seeing the world through each others eyes.  This is the way forward.  I realise too, that this has all been very male, and another great step for me, and for us all, is for MAN to see the world through WOMAN eyes.

Stay safe.

My Pop Life #86 : I Know You Got Soul – Eric B & Rakim

Featured image

I Know You Got Soul   –   Eric B & Rakim

…I got soul – that’s why I came, to teach those who can’t say my name

first of all I’m the soloist the soul controller Rakim get stronger as I get older…

The first rap I could recite all the way through, so hooked was I on its combination of beats rhymes and lyrical wisdom.  Rakim remains my favourite rapper as a technician and for his flow – second to none.  I’m very fond of Chuck D and Busta Rhymes and Eminem, people keep telling me about Big Pun but Rakim is the man in the end.  For me.   He almost always raps about one fairly narrow topic : ie what a great rapper he is : “Ego to M.C. is my theme”.  He manages to explore this potentially barren subject matter in ways that indicate major creative talent.  The subject of how great he is at rapping appears to be an inexhaustible source of words and rhymes, quite extraordinary.   In another song he states “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it, now it’s a daily word.”   

Eric Barrier and William Griffin are from Long Island, New York City.  They came together in the mid-80s and hooked up with Marley Marl who they paid to produce their first single Eric B Is President.  In 1987 they recorded their first LP “Paid In Full” also with Marley Marl and MC Shan.  Reportedly, Rakim was writing the rhymes on pieces of paper in the studio and then reading them in the booth when he was recording.  The result was dynamite and possibly the greatest hip-hop album ever made, certainly one of the most influential.  “I Know You Got Soul” samples Bobby Byrd, James Brown and Original P on a dry tough rhythm bed laid down by Eric B.  Rakim’s delivery of the lyrics remains unmatched in hip hop history except perhaps by himself on “Follow The Leader” – there’s no shouting, no threats, no guns, no wasted energy, just a beautiful display of lyrical talent and finesse.

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I was obsessed with this song and this LP in 1987 when it was released.  Along with Raisin’ Hell by Run DMC and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy it remains one of the three cornerstones of the golden age of hip hop.  The sides of the pyramid are filled with great singles by KRS-One, EPMD, Kool Moe Dee, Salt-n-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane and Roxanne Shanté.

These songs became the essential research materials for the play I was writing for Joint Stock Theatre Company, which was to be a rap musical.  I’d pitched it to the Joint Stock steering committee with Paulette Randall my friend and director and after Caryl Churchill had asked me “wasn’t I nervous about writing my first play?” and I’d answered “not really, I just want to do it…” they’d given us the thumbs up.   This meant we had a three week workshop to research the play, I had a ten-week gap to write it, we then had a six-week rehearsal period to mount the finished product.  It remains for me the best way to create new work which is based around a community, which the community then hopefully get to come and see.  In this case the community was homeless teenagers around London and the South West, including the hippie convoy people who became the 1990s squatting movement.  We cast my girlfriend Rita Wolf (she was the best candidate frankly), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Carl Procter, Gaylie Runciman & Pamela Nomvete.  Jenny Tiramani was our designer and joined Paulette and I on the workshop.  The rehearsal/workshop room in Bethnal Green had a permanent hot-seat at the end of the room where people would sit and testify, about who they’d met and talked to (real people living rough, in bed and breakfast, cardboard city etc) and about their own experience of housing, and often we all had homeless moments (particularly Paulette and I).  I was busy at the other end of the room writing furious notes on these encounters, research for the play I was about to produce.  And then we went en masse to see Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys in Brixton, and I saw LL Cool J & Eric B & Rakim (and someone else?) in Hammersmith.  Marvellous times.

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Paulette Randall

I was convinced that rap was inherently dramatic as a form, and totally suited to drama and plays.  We called the result “Sanctuary” and it was a kind of rap musical, with raps instead of songs.  We didn’t have the money for a DJ or to sample tunes, but the crowds came, it was deemed a hit, we toured the UK, and the following year the play won the Samuel Beckett Award for best first play.  I should publicly thank Karen Mistry for that, Joint Stock administrator at the time, since she insisted on sending in the manuscript to the judges (C4, Royal Court, Faber & Faber).  I had lunch with a C4 who asked me what I wanted to do.  I said “direct a film”, and she snorted in derision.  The Royal Court shunned me completely, and Faber & Faber didn’t publish the play.

Very little rap drama was forthcoming after Sanctuary.  I did the play in Washington D.C., and wrote a new one which was all verse, like a rap opera, but the BBC rejected that and it has never been performed.  There have been the odd moments – Ragamuffin in London, but little else until “Hamilton” which Jenny and I saw this year at The Public Theatre, NYC.  It was a bio-play about Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father of the USA, written entirely in verse and rapped and spat by a multi-ethnic company where George Washington was played by a black man and the lead was a Puerto Rican American Manuel Lin Miranda who also wrote the play and the music.   It’s opening on Broadway in July.  I was smiling all the way through it.  I was right.  Rap is inherently dramatic.  Only took everyone 25 years to work that out.

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you

Without a strong rhyme to step to

Think of how many weak shows you slept through ?

Time’s up – sorry I kept you

Thinking of this you keep repeating your miss

The rhymes from the microphone soloist

So you sit by the radio hand on the dial soon – as you hear it

Pump up the volume…

Sampled of course by M/A/R/R/S for their number one hit single of the same name.  I Know You Got Soul is a massive massive tune which I could never do justice to in a single 1000-word blog.  It’s still my all-time favourite hip-hop tune.  Thanks for reading.

My Pop Life #74 : We Major – Kanye West ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

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We Major   –   Kanye West  ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

*

you mu-fuckers better do your job and roll up, and watch how we roll up

An’ I can’t control it, I can’t hold it, it’s so nuts –

I take a sip of that gnac I wanna fuck

I take a hit of that chronic I wanna fuck  – But really what’s amazin’

is how I keep blazing, towel under the door, we smoke until the days end

puff puff and pass don’t fuck up rotation, Hypnotiq for Henny ?

now nigga that’s a chaser, turn nuttin to somethin now pimpin that’s a saviour

Best things are green now pimpin’ get your paper

High off the ground from stair to skyscraper

cool out thinkin’ we local – c’mon homie we major

We Major…

Kanye West restored my faith in hip hop.  Being an old-skool purist for years, disillusioned with gangsta rap and the 90s scene I turned away and only paid cursory attention – to Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, PE and little bits and smatterings that escaped.   But Kanye West was something else.

Featured imageHe has now made (May 2015) six LPs on the bounce starting in 2003 which have individually been astoundingly good, and collectively represent the most important artist of the 21st century.  Kanye comes with original ideas, smooth flows, comedy, orchestration, samples, pop, raps, and pretty much paved the way for a number of 21st century musical innovations and trends.  His last LP Yeezus (2013) was monumental in its sound design and another game-changer – but this track I’ve chosen right here is a personal favourite from the second album Late Registration.  Not an obvious pick, not a single, but somehow this is the one that got under our skin chez Brown/Jules.   Already you can hear the music straining on the first few bars – the sound of a sound trying to escape from its boundaries, pushing against the barriers, smooth, powerful, strong and melodic.  Good chords.   The hook chorus is written above, rapped by old Chicago buddy Really Doe.    I always thought the last line was “too low thinkin’ we local“…  Rap Genius website has it as “cool out, thinkin’ we local…“.   I prefer my version because of the word-play on low and local.   Oh well.    Kanye employed Jon Brion – multi-instrumentalist and orchestrator – to help him on this LP.   Brion had produced Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright and written the music for the films Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before co-producing Late Registration in 2005.   He did a splendid job.

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Summer 2005 I was in Bude, North Cornwall making series 2 of Julia DavisNighty Night.  We had the run of this gorgeous clifftop house which became The Trees Therapy Centre.  I was Jacques, the main therapist and counsellor, a kind of abusive self-centred hippy twerp.  Really enjoyed this part very much.   Jenny and I had watched the first series and howled with laughter – we thoroughly enjoyed the dark humour and the character of Jill in particular.   At the audition on Tottenham Court Road Julia Davis had put me through my paces, and when I appeared to be a possible choice, called in Rebecca Front from a nearby room (surely I’m mis-remembering this?) and they proceeded to improvise scenarios with me, both of them in character with Julia as narcissistic sociopath Jill and Rebecca as zero-self-esteem fusspot Cathy, constantly undermined and manipulated by Jill.   It was as much as I could do not to burst out loud laughing (lol) as they created mini-scenes for me to exist in with them.   I stayed manfully in character as not-recovering sex-addict Jacques – a kind of po-faced ultra-serious egotist who nodded sagely at other’s suggestions while not really listening to them at all.   And got the job.

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Georgie, Ruth, Ralph, Julia, Miranda, Bude 2005

We were all in a little B&B in Bude – the main cast were all either massively successful, or about to be massively successful.  Angus Deayton, always slightly bemused that you’re actually talking to him, Rebecca Front, genuinely lovely and funny lady, Ruth Jones, busy writing her masterpiece in her spare time which turned out to be Gavin & Stacey, Miranda Hart who turned out to be Miranda!, and Mark Gatiss who turned out to be Mark Gatiss.   Nighty Night also starred my old friend Felicity Montagu, Georgie Glen and Llewella Gideon.  We had an absolute blast.

Featured imageOn the first morning there, Julia took me to lunch in Bude where she established that I was married with no cats.   She is a completely unpretentious, funny, sweet and lovely lady and bright as a button.   We almost all worked every day.   I had extensions put into my hair for Jacques and tended to wear floppy hippyish clothes.   The summer was glorious, the views spectacular, I had worked with half the crew before and we had a laugh.  Not really my world the TV comedy scene -it’s pretty competitive – but I’m terribly happy that I’ve been invited into it on a few occasions – (Him & Her, PramFace) – being funny is hard work and I love the challenge.    I have total respect for Julia – I think she is one of the most original and talented people working in the UK, and I thank her for letting me be a part of Nighty Night.

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Regarding Kanye, I could have chosen any number of his songs to feature in my patchwork quilt of a musical auto-biography:  Gold Digger, Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Flashing Lights, No Church In The Wild, Black Skinhead, Blood On The Leaves, Jesus Walks, Through The Wire….   He’s attracted a lot of hate recently and over the years mainly because of his antics, but sometimes simply because he is a successful black man.   Obama called him a jackass “off-mic” and Kanye enjoys stunts which can backfire.   He has been banging his head on the glass ceiling for a few years now, documented on Yeezus, indeed all his music is like a kind of running commentary on his achievements, desires and obstacles.   I always swing in and defend him on social media, not because he needs me, but because the mob mentality really bothers me, I like to poke a stick into its spokes.   All I know is that when the history of 21st Century music is written Kanye West will be Chapter One.   And when the history of 21st century TV comedy is written, Julia Davis will feature.  They’ve both been hugely influential.   My Pop Life introduces them to each other.   Big up!

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The final verse on We Major is penned by Nas – who changed the world of hip-hop with his debut album Illmatic in 1994.   These are the final few lines on the Kanye track :

I’m Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got shot

I survived the livest niggas around, last longer than more than half of you clowns

Look, I used to cook before I had the game took,

Either way my change came like Sam Cooke

After five minutes and twenty seconds the song fades and silence hovers for a beat.  Then :

can I talk my shit again?

And the song busts back into multi-platform day-glo life again with Tony Williams singing the outro.  “he sings quite beautifully don’t you agree?”   It’s a glorious sound.  ‘Why d’you call it Late Registration Ye?  Cos we taking these motherfuckers back to school!!”  Feel free to sing along….   

My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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*

In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

*

Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :

My Pop Life #40 : I Ain’t Mad At Cha – Tupac Shakur

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I Ain’t Mad At Cha   –   Tupac Shakur

Heard you might be comin’ home, just got bail
Wanna go to the mosque, don’t wanna chase tail
I seems I lost my little homie he’s a changed man
Hit the pen and now no sinnin’ is the game plan

Tupac raps about how times have changed since he was a child, how friends have left him, how people have turned on him since his success, how things can’t ever be the same.   In the first verse an old school friend who became a muslim doesn’t want to join him in his new life making rhymes & money:  but they go back a long way together, and 2pac is not angry.  Second verse is about an old girlfriend, third verse concerns his success.   It’s a lovely lazy funky reminiscence, thoughtful and lyrical, wise and compassionate, one of the best tracks from his best LP All Eyes On Me.  The sly slinky bass line and piano figure is a direct lift  from 1983’s A Dream by Michigan Motown act DeBarge, not sampled but re-played faster and funkier.  But it makes the track one of 2pac’s finest moments, dance-floor filler, late-nite groove, take your partner and slowdance.  Not many rap tunes you can do that with.

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It was recorded the day that Tupac was released from prison – Oct 12 1995, along with another track Ambitionz az A Ridah – both produced by Daz Dillinger.   The soul singer Danny Boy sings the chorus hook.  The track was released 2 days after Tupac was shot dead on Sept 13th 1996 in Las Vegas, probably by the Crips gang whom he had attacked hours earlier.   I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what happened and much print and film has been spent on the attempt, with no clear conclusions.   I personally find the East Coast/West Coast beef unlikely to be the cause of death.

Tupac was an educated man whose parents were both Black Panthers.  He was raised in East Harlem and among his close friends from school were Jada Pinkett.  But it was on the West Coast that he made his mark as a rapper, first with San Fransisco’s Digital Underground, then as himself.   He was a charismatic actor too, clearly in demand and successful but appeared to enjoy flirting with the thug life which eventually killed him as a young man at the age of 25.

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We were getting used to living in Brighton when this LP came out.  All Eyez On Me was a blast of G-funk hip hop from the Dre stabled Death Row Records.  It has 14 producers, including Suge Knight, boss of the label, Dr Dre, and Tupac himself.  Apart from this one track it is an unapologetic glamourisation of gang-banging and thug life, not at all like his previous 2 LPs both of which feature more conscious raps.  We moved to Brighton because it reminded us vaguely of Venice Beach in Los Angeles, one of the few ‘neighbor”-hoods where we’d considered buying a house, but eventually didn’t.  You could hear gunshots there on some evenings as Anita Lewton could testify.  You could buy weed from shady types on Pacific Ave.  The whole LP reminded me of Los Angeles, Snoop Dog, California Love, all that bollocks, there I was on Brighton Beach reading the Argus with headphones on listening to gun this nigga and hoe that.  The grooves are sensationally good, but the content is frankly embarrassing – apart from this one tune.  And this one tune is a tune.   Things were changing…

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                                    Then he got shot.   The video was filmed with a new re-recorded version of the track played live, it features Tupac in heaven alongside other dead musicians Jimi Hendrix, Nat King Cole, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr.  Danny Boy is also present as an angel.

Change, shit
I guess change is good for any of us…

My Pop Life #33 : We Got Our Own Thang – Heavy D & The Boyz

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We Got Our Own Thang   –   Heavy D & The Boyz

…you’re a chicken mcnugget and I’m a Big Mac…

This is the end of a long story, and the beginning of an even longer one.   From way back “when I was a writer”… I’d been invited over to Washington D.C. by the No-Neck Monsters Theatre Company who’d happened to see my play Sanctuary performed by Joint Stock at the Drill Hall in 1987, and wanted me to write an american version of it.  At first I said no, then they said they would re-write it, then I said NO even more, then I decided to go over and plunge in.

Featured imageThat’s for another story;  the workshop on the streets of Washington (the play is about homeless teens) and so is the writing period, up in Mount Pleasant having an affair with the woman next door who worked at The Pentagon, and yet another tale is show opening in the Unitarian Church in Adams Morgan in late ’88 and the epic empty road trip that followed.

But now, here, I’m flying back to America with my brand new girlfriend one Jenny Jules because my play has been nominated for best musical in the Helen Hayes Awards, and actress Deidra Johnson has a best supporting actress nod too.   We fly to New York and stay in Jim’s mini walk-through apartment in the Lower East Side at 7th St and Avenue A – Alphabet City.  This part of Manhattan is scuzzy, broken down, graffiti’d and druggy and has a very definite edge.  You gotta remember this is 1989 and there are homeless people with mounds of belongings in tow, dealers hustling in Tompkins Square Park, squeegee merchants at every corner squirting grey water onto your windscreen if you’re unlucky enough to be driving in the Lower East Side and get caught on a red light.  There’s a racial whiff in the air too and it’s unpleasant.  Jenny is my first black girlfriend, and here we are getting chups and spat at on the sidewalk by angry black men, the Nation Of Islam in Times Square berating Jenny for selling out to the devil and miscegenating with the white man (all this from the lips of a mixed race brother).  And then the Central Park rape case exploded.

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 In this atmosphere we took the Amtrak train 4 hours south to the nation’s capital and a nice hotel in leafy Georgetown.    I had to show Jenny around since I’d spent four months in D.C. the previous year – we went to the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, up to Dupont Circle which figured in the play, the Adams Morgan district, walked along the Potomac River, explored the Smithsonian Institute and we met Herbert again, a social worker who’d been a great resource while I was re-writing the piece.  Herbert invited us a to a barbecue in his yard where everyone sang the Temptations “My Girl” and told us about The Mack Man, Herbert later escorted us down to Anacostia Park in South East D.C. to an almost 100% black event at which Jesse Jackson spoke thrillingly, and we heard the famous I Am (“I Am”) *pause* Somebody (“Somebody”) speech.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that as well as appropriating a black woman, I had also appropriated black culture and written a hip-hop musical, called Sanctuary D.C.  I’d been wrestling with this particular dilemma since the first incarnation of the show in London and found most of the barriers to be inside my own head.   But here in Washington D.C. which is 80% black, where people work side by side all day but then socialise in distinct racial groups in the evenings, where there are white areas, and black areas, and somehow we were in a mixed gang forging a middle path and to be honest, I was on a pretty steep learning curve regarding black culture, particularly black american culture.   But it’s a curve I am still happy to be on.

It was good to see director Gwen again, and the cast who’d worked so hard but with whom I’d largely fallen out (another story).   We all got dolled up to the nines in black tie and ear-rings and attended the Helen Hayes Awards in the Kennedy Centre.  What a lovely glamourous evening.  We didn’t win, and Gwen invited us all back to her apartment in Georgetown afterwards and we drank and laughed.

Sanctuary D.C. was a rap musical and was largely inspired by a handful of old-skool rappers, notably Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne Shanté, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and KRS One (Boogie Down Productions).    All started (for me) by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.  By 1989 we’d heard from NWA, Ice T and the stirrings of Gangsta rap which would put me off following hip hop in the same way that I had in the 80s.   In the late 80s I bought everything that came out from a vinyl shop in Soho on 12″ – EPMD, Stezo, 7A3, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Schoolly D, Biz Markie, and I still have all those singles, and albums.  I couldn’t sustain that level of purchasing, the huge volume of bands that suddenly appeared, the genres went in all directions at once and it became impossible – and expensive – to follow.  Although I wrote a second rap musical, based on my Washington D.C. experiences, it has never been produced.   Hip Hop was splintering into factions, East Coast and West Coast, conscious rap and gangsta rap, and yet ! here was Heavy D with his own Thang.

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Heavy D

Mixed by Teddy Riley this was New Jack Swing with a rap and it was a great funky bouncy pop soul mix.   It reminded me of the joy of rap, the delivery of the words being their own reward, the syncopation of those tumbling syllables on the beat giving such major satisfaction.   There is some creative disrespecting inside this song.   This is the jam.

“It started with a POW and I’m a end it with a BANG”

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And 20 years later Jenny Jules returned to Washington D.C. and the Helen Hayes Awards with a production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”, and won “best production”.  Happy endings.

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…Be your own guy, follow your own movement…

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