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

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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 #62 : 4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll) – Gustav Mahler played by Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

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4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll)  –   Gustav Mahler

I know next to nothing about classical music, but I’ve been steadily educating myself for the last 30 or so years in a hit-and-miss fashion.   I treat it like any other form of music – in other words, I either like it, or I don’t.   I’ll always give it a chance though.   This piece was a very early discovery for me, at some point in my mid-twenties I bought a cassette of Mahler’s 4th symphony – it has a 4th movement song and the singer was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa whom I found both attractive and recognisable.  Call me shallow, but decisions are formed from such primal simplicities.

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Furthermore, the conductor was Georg Solti whom I had also heard of, and have since discovered to be one of the great dependable elements, especially when purchasing Wagner.   I’m sure he’ll forgive me if I don’t call him Sir Georg.    In fact there are better versions, but it’s all taste so go and hunt down your own.   There are three different conductors below this piece.   So there I was aged twenty-something, with a small handful of classical LPs and an even tinier selection of cassettes – useful for car journeys of course in those days.   I’m particularly fond of long car journeys – if I’m driving especially.   And this cassette got plenty of plays because it is a very sweet-sounding and romantic piece of work.  My favourite part is the 3rd movement – so yearning and pleading and tragic that I used it on my first ever showreel – an actor’s ‘greatest hits’ – shouldn’t be too long, in and impress them and out.  If you can.

I had only played one lead part by then (I have permanent supportyitis) which was a Channel 4 drama called Say Hello To The Real Dr Snide.  I played an alcoholic who thought he turned into a black cat when he was drunk.  My wife was the incomparable Celia Imrie and my therapist the equally brilliant Linda Bassett.  Lucky me.  Directing was the young Peter Cattaneo who would go on to direct The Full Monty, go to Hollywood, come back and the last time I met him he was directing Rev, a BBC series about a vicar.  Such is showbiz.   Ups and downs, swings and roundabouts, ripples, waves and all that.  And there we were in London 1990 filming this drama, and I enjoyed most of it and did all right I thought.   Mostly.   Celia Imrie was a total delight.   Linda Bassett was wonderful.   Not sure how great I was though, in retrospect.    I distinctly remember one scene where I was lying against a wall in some derelict area, drinking from a whisky bottle and talking to myself, in denial, in crisis.   Looking back, I really didn’t do the scene that well.   I didn’t melt – I couldn’t melt – as Paul Schrader would say years later about de Niro (he’s wrong by the way {Awakenings?} but it was interesting that he would say that about such a great actor in front of other actors).   I was too tightly wound to be able to collapse my personality on camera and the scene ends up being too tight and forced.   I watched it while making the showreel.   I may have even included it, I can’t actually remember, but if I did I would have plastered Mahler 4 all over it to try and make it more acceptable hahaha.  The music alone makes me melt these days.   Music can do this to me without warning, tears in the eyes.   When I was young – no, I liked it, but no tears.  I have no trouble melting now that I’m older and more vulnerable than I ever was when I was a young man : “the survivor”.   Now that I’ve apparently survived, I am unpeeling gently, unwinding, slowly, and letting the world in.   I was screwed up tight because I’ve always been terrified of having a nervous breakdown – due to my Mum’s particular affliction, whatever label is currently in vogue for her vulnerability.   So I compacted myself inside when I was young, and kept it there.  No ambush could unlock it.  Weird now I think about it that I could even have a career as an actor.  My own feelings were hardly available to me.  I was forced to ACT.   And sometimes I just didn’t get there.  I can say that now, looking back.  I have got better since then, but I still have limitations.  (Everyone does).

And sometimes if you put great music under a limitation, people don’t notice.

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Gustav Mahler was a jewish Bohemian by birth who converted to Catholicism to secure the directorship of the Vienna Hofoper (now State Opera) due to the anti-semitism of the era.   I don’t believe he was religious at all in fact, but spent his life having to deal with anti-semitism.   He conducted for the early part of his life, famously Wagner, and wrote in the summer holidays.   The 4th Symphony was completed in 1900, thus Mahler’s work bestrides both the Romantic era and the modern.  I’m not going to discuss Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a series of German folk poems which inspired the first 4 symphonies because I’m well out of my depth there.   Don’t panic.   I like all of his symphonies now that I’ve heard them all.   I’ve watched my father singing with Huddersfield Choral in the 8th Symphony, performed with up to one thousand voices (Symphony of a Thousand);  the 2nd Symphony (Resurrection) is powerful and exciting;  the 5th is famous for its use in the film Death In Venice, and a vocal symphony (8 and a half?) called Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song Of The Earth) is probably my favourite work.  This – the 4th – was my first, and is the most familiar to me.  The yearning, tragic 3rd movement is utterly fantastic and is below this piece of writing if you have a spare twenty minutes.  It is astoundingly beautiful.

Kiri Te Kanawa sings the 4th movement of the 4th Symphony

the entire 4th symphony conducted by Claudio Abbado

the romantic doomed magnificent 3rd movement of the 4th symphony (George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra)