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.

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My Pop Life #137 : The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band

The Word/Sardines   –   Junkyard Band

My mother went down to the foodstamp line…

1988 Washington D.C.    I was undecided.  Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances.  Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle.  I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86.   Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s.  An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C.  I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city.    I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company.  We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed.  Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music.  I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace.  Henry Rollins  is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA).  But I didn’t know about that then.  Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.

Chapter III nightclub, 1988

Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene.  Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule.  Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.

Junkyard Band 1986

We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences.  Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat.  They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band.  The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum.  They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam.  The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes JunkyardLittle Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.   This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands.  Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards.  Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.

Bowie T-shirt !

Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day.  People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture.  The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?”   Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers.  Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang:  ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘.   I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from.  The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine.  We were surrounded by it here.  Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills.  Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate.  Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents.  Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City.  But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play,  crack would have to be part of the storyline.

But the other huge issue was race.  Fear.  Oppression.  Hate.  Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars.  You could still feel it around the city.  I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.

One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it.  On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there.  I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness.  “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation.  Yes, I replied, I am English.  He didn’t mean that.  He meant I was white.  One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future.  Why the hell did I say that ?  I probably did feel that way in 1988.  I don’t anymore.  At all.  That will never happen.  I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies.  Resistance.  By all means necessary.  Non-violence ?  The establishment doesn’t respect it.  So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten?  No.  We’re entering a new paradigm I believe.  Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X.  The Panthers.  Enough is enough.

For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away.   Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that.  Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.

1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention.  The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word

Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money

and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.

Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove.  The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.

Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s.   Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s.   Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !

Junkyard Band

Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge.  Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side  The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.

They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.