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.

Advertisements

My Pop Life #156 : Paid In Full – Eric B & Rakim

Paid In Full   –   Eric B & Rakim

Thinking of a master plan, this ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand, so I dig into my pocket all my money’s spent, dig deeper, I’m still comin’ up with lint

rapper Rakim with his DJ Eric B in 1988

It’s late ’87 and I am flying, and occasionally happy.  My hip-hop musical Sanctuary, a Joint Stock Production directed by dearest friend Paulette Randall has opened in Salisbury to good reviews and relief all round.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf is in the cast, along with Gaylie Runciman, Carl Procter, Kwabena Manso, Pamela Nomvete and David Keys.  It’s been the main purveyor of energy all year – the pitch, the workshop, the writing, the rehearsing.  It has been truly immersive and stretched me magnificently into being a writer.  Not a great one, or even a good one.   But OK.

I wrote about the play in more detail in My Pop Life #86 but I’m sure the subject isn’t exhausted.  By the end of October though as the tour came in to London I needed to get away from it all, and accepted an offer to play Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in a film called Buster starring Phil Collins as Buster Edwards.  Looking at photographs from the early 60s I suppose I did resemble a young Biggs somewhat.  My diary from 1987 records that I wasn’t sure about accepting it at all – it seems that I was pretty fussy in those days.  Probably thought that it would all add up to a narrative of some sort and make sense.  Hahaha.  Now all we have is this random meandering blog with 20-20 hindsight.

In any event I couldn’t prepare for the role very easily since Ronnie was rather famously living it up in Rio, recording songs with the Sex Pistols and generally being an embarrassment to the establishment some 24 years after the robbery which had taken place in August 1963.  Almost all of the gang, including the mastermind Bruce Reynolds (played by Larry Lamb) had served considerable jail terms – double the normal sentences because of the high profile of the case.  Biggs wasn’t a key player in the robbery, but had fame and notoriety because he’d escaped ‘justice’.   Norma Heyman, the producer, arranged for me to have lunch with Reynolds so that I could discuss Ronnie Biggs, and gave me Bruce Reynold’s phone number.  When I called him later that day and explained what the score was, I asked Bruce where he’d like to have lunch.  Bruce’s immediate reaction was “ Who’s paying ?

The Train Robbers : Bruce Reynolds is 4th from the left

I replied that the film company were paying.  “Then we’ll eat at Manzi off Leicester Square” he said, and that’s where we met a few days later.  A tall, bespectacled charming and erudite older man greeted me, and I liked him almost immediately.  Bruce Reynolds was a major criminal, and for five years from 1963-68 was Public Enemy Number One.  He had planned the Train Robbery from start to finish and got the main characters together to pull it off:  Gordon Goody, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy White, Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch and others, including Ronnie Biggs who was an old friend, and roped in because he knew a train driver.

The robbery itself involved switching the signals on the Glasgow to Euston Mail Train in the wee small hours of a dark night, stopping the train, uncoupling the engine and the carriage with the mailbags from the rest of the train, then driving to a Bridge where the gang- all dressed in army fatigues in case they were spotted – would simply roll the cash down the embankment into waiting Land Rovers .  They stole £2.6 million pounds, the equivalent of £50 million in today’s money, the largest haul to that date in Britain.  The robbery had been carried off according to plan, but the establishment had thrown everything into the chase and investigation.  Bruce had evaded capture and eventually gone to Mexico and lived high on the hog for years with his wife and son before a strange scorpion spiral movement found him back in England via Canada and the South Of France and back doing little jobs again before eventually being arrested by Flying Squad chief dog Tommy Butler (“Hello Bruce…   “Cést la vie Tommy”).  Bruce was given 25 years, of which he served 10, in Wandsworth, Durham, and the Isle Of Wight mainly.

Oddly, when I met Bruce Reynolds he was 55 years old, younger than I am now.  I don’t know why this feels odd to me.   Probably because I haven’t been in prison.  We talked about Ronnie Biggs, the robbery, films, books and prison life, and he was charming, well-read and funny.  Manzi was an expensive fish restaurant opposite the Swiss Centre behind Leicester Square and one of the poshest places I’d ever been to in my young life.  We had a slap-up meal with wine on someone else’s tab.  But then Bruce had spent his entire life on someone else’s tab.  My friend Jan lent me his autobiography last time I was in England, and I finished it today.  A scallywag’s journey through burglaries, safe-breaking, fast cars, hanging off gutters and crawling across flat roofs, running through the streets pursued by plod, drinking in bars and clubs with off-duty plod, swanning around Cannes with women, fast cars and the odd robbery accompanied occasionally by his wife and son Nick and then inevitably serving the odd bit of monotonous, violent, and dull time in prison.  Visits to the South Of France, wearing Turnbull & Asser shirts, drinking Dom Perignon, always the best suits and shoes, cars and watches.  He’d made it sound exciting, daring, nail-biting and terribly sad depending on which page you were turning.  I knew nothing of this in 1986 – just a young actor meeting an old master criminal who was happy to eat at one of his favourite restaurants and now pay the bill, and he said marvellous twinkly things like – “Bread before morals, Ralph –  Goethe“.    He didn’t mention me in his book so I clearly didn’t make much of an impression on him. lol

On the press night of Sanctuary at the Drill Hall I was filming the train robbery on a night shoot in Leicestershire with Phil Collins, Larry Lamb (playing Bruce), Michael Atwell (who would later be cast in New Year’s Day), Chris Ellison and John Barrard, all together we were The Firm re-making the biggest robbery in Britain in the 20th Century.  The main prop was a 1960 Diesel train in full working order.  I still have a black and white picture of Phil, Larry, me and Mike in front of the train on the wall in Brighton.  I’ll see if I can find it online.  (I can’t)

Me as Ronnie with Larry Lamb as Bruce in “Buster”

 Collins was reasonably friendly without being warm, I think he thought I was a bit of a cock, and I probably was.  Playing the most famous train robber was also definitely A Thing, and the following year when Terry Wogan had Phil Collins on his show as a guest, one of the Wogan questions was “So, Phil….who’s playing Ronnie Biggs in the movie then ?”  Collins was ready for this curve-ball attempt to take the shine of his moment and answered “Oh some new young actor, can’t remember his name…”

Larry, me, Mike

Back at the Drill Hall where Sanctuary, my hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers was playing, I was making mental notes of other knives hovering over my back – how the business of Show really works, no honour among thieves like in Bruce’s gang, just sharks, peacocks and jealous judgy cats, or even worse I now discovered, people simply not coming.  To see the play.  Not bothering.  Absense.  I found the power of absence to be quite profound, and remembered every person who didn’t come.  Yes, that petty I’m afraid.   But it is a real thing.  And I was absent on Press Night myself, absent from my company, my director, my company manager and the audience.  I called Rita at 2am from a field and she told me it had gone well.  The punters seemed to like it.  Another day of life.

I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid, so I think of all the devious things I did                           I used to roll up, this is a hold-up, ain’t nuttin’  funny, stop smilin’  and still don’t nothing move but the money…

Rakim, Eric B in 1987

It seems incredible to me now, but Sanctuary had been researched, written and presented before Public Enemy‘s 2nd LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back  had been released.  An album I place in the highest esteem.   Fuck knows what I was on.  But I was certainly on Run DMC, Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Salt ‘n’Pepa, Schoolly D, Big Daddy Kane and Sweet Tee with Jazzy Joyce aswell as the mighty Rakim rapping with Eric B,  Eric B & Rakim, fellow New Yorkers on the first wave of hip hop.  This was the title track off their first album.  A landmark moment.  A lazy, loping sample from Dennis Edwards‘ great 1984 tune Don’t Look Any Further featuring Siedah Garrett.  A list of the managers, agents, record company and A&R people involved with Paid In Full.  This is a manifesto.  This is how you get Paid In Full.  You go into the system. Get representation.  Inside the wheels of production.  Here’s our list.  “Who we rolling with then?”  “Rush”  “That’s right Rush Management…”   Then the verse –

Thinkin’ of a master plan, this ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand…

 just one verse, and they’re out.  This classic was remixed somewhat controversially six months later by production crew ColdCut as Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness) and featured Ofra Haza‘s hit Im Nin Alu and plentiful spoken word jokes “This is a journey into sound” and Pump Up The Volume with “I think you’d better speak to my mother”  and so on and so forth.  It was early days of hip hop, and I was up to my neck in it.  The following year I would win an award for Sanctuary then take the show to Washington D.C. to become Sanctuary D.C. (see My Pop Life #136) and soon after that write a new hip-hop play for the BBC (set in D.C.) which remains un-performed to this day.  Definitely not paid in full.  Who we rollin’with  ??

MTV Raps (what’s the haps on the craps)

Coldcut Remix Seven Minutes Of Madness

 

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.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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 #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

Featured image

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.

Featured image

…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.

Featured image

 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.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

*

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.

Featured image

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 :