Stand Up for Something, Or Fall for Anything

“If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I was reading an interview with Chuck D recently and he had an interesting theory.  It was that the powers that be are all too happy with the new status quo of seeing people remain in a state of prolonged adolescence.  Younger people are more progressive and more open to change by nature.  The civil rights movement, the end of the Vietnam War, all would not have happened if young people hadn’t gotten actively involved in politics.  Although we had Occupy Wall Street, that seems to have faded.  I’m not breaking any news when I say that in our culture people remain teenagers long after they stop being one.

Now I’m not saying this is part of any orchestrated effort to keep people in this prolonged state of adolescence.  I think it is a combination of cultural and economic factors.  However, if you want to see the world become different than it is, we need to become involved in it.  I’m as guilty of anyone of getting lost in the woods for long periods of time.  It’s in my nature to fly solo.  But we really need to realize that if we, and especially people younger than myself, don’t get involved, we’re going to end up in a world that we don’t want to live in.

Chuck D Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Interview

The above video is Chuck D’s press conference before the Rock N Roll Hall of fame.  It is a great interview.  It is especially right on the money when he talks about how communities need to support their local artists and why this is important. I know I have been posting a lot about him lately, but I simply wish there were more artists like him.

The Fruits of Racism, Colonialism, and Segregation

I have been thinking lately about the word conciousness in terms of an emerging conciousness coming about because of an issue.  Two big influences on my thinking lately have been Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers and the band Public Enemy. 

Public Enemy is a rap group that often talks about problems facing the black community.  The book The Brothers deals largely with US policy during the Cold War as directed by John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles. 

During the Cold War a lot of third world countries were emerging from the shackles of colonialism.  Many of the resources in these countries were owned by foreign powers and only marginally helped the local economies.  Many of these new countries wanted to nationalize the industries concerning these resources so that their own people could benefit.  Instead of realizing these were nationalistic movements that wanted prosperity after years of hardship, we viewed them as puppets of Moscow.  Because of this we often intervened in these countries and subverted their democracies.  Sometimes we even inspired or directly took a role in violence.  In the case of places like the Congo and Iran we actually helped overthrow their governments, helping to install leaders that were brutally oppressive. 

Meanwhile in this country, in current years after the election of Obama, we like to view ourselves as post-racial.  However, listening to PE I am reminded by the daily indignities that black people still face in this country.  Even if we are not talking about larger issues, there are things that would drive anyone crazy.  Imagine someone crossing the street because of the color of your skin.  Imagine being watched in a store and thought of as a theif, again just because of the color of your skin. 

Last year I was in east Texas and there was a girl who was slightly less drunk than her male friends.  I asked her jokingly if she was the designated driver.  She said, in a way that was full of shame, “If you are the right color, you can get away with anything in this town.”

Over the years, in this country and outside of it, there has simply been a very real effort both explicitly and implicitly to subvert people of color from rising above their station.  Slavery, segregation, and colonialism have shaped the world we live in.  Well on one hand I believe that people do need to be responsible for their own actions, we must also acknowledge the effects that these forms of institutionalized brutality have played upon our world. 

Life in general is not fair.  That is something everyone has to deal with.  However, in understanding the history of our country’s actions both at home and abroad concerning people of color, we can hopefully learn empathy and understanding for different kinds of people.  None of us get to choose the conditions we are born into in life.  There is a hope though that we can help each other get through this life, whatever it is. 

The Evil Empire of Everything

The newest Public Enemy album, The Evil Empire of Everything, is simply one of the best, most powerful albums I have heard in a long time.  It is also the most powerful political statement put on record since Neil Young’s Living with War.  I am a little late to the party.  I say the newest album because this record came out in 2012.  But better late than never, because this record is absolutely essential. 

In the late 80′s Public Enemy put our a trilogy of ground breaking albums.  From It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back they were pretty much perfect.  I kinda lost the thread after that, as some label problems took them out of the public eye, and quite frankly my tastes changed.  Recently, looking for music of substance, I have decided to revisit those albums, and eventually decided I wanted to hear something I hadn’t heard before.  Knowing that I was going on the road this weekend, and that I would have 20 plus hours in the van over four days, I decided to give their newest album a shot.  I am glad I did because this album simply blows my mind.  It is fearless politically and top notch musically.

The sound of Public Enemy is every bit as important as the lyrics.  Even when Chuck D isn’t saying something explicitly politically, the sound of the band conveys revolution.  On their classic run of albums Public Enemy created a dense chaotic wall of sound.  They did this by combining an untold number of samples into something truly original.  Both the sound of the band and the structure of their records was like a collage.  They took little pieces of different music, sound effects, and dialouge, and spliced them together until these different sounds became something greater than the some of their parts.  Because of changes in copy right laws, this approach is really no longer possible.  I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I read that their album Fear of a Black Planet has so many samples on it that each copy sold would have resulted in five dollars they would have had to pay out under existing copyright laws. 

Surprisingly, although being slightly less dense, they have been able to replicate the sonic chaos of their early albums.  There are still drum loops that sound like they came off old funk records, electric guitars, interesting sonic treatments, and thought provoking dialouge. 

The album begins, after a brief bit of treated soul music, with George Zimmerman’s 911 phone call on the night Trayvon Martin was killed.  There is an another song called Beyond Trayvon where members of Public Enemy trade verses with their sons to talk about the fact that it is still dangerous to be black in America, even after electing a black president.  Although this could seem, upon first inspection, as something that will date quickly, this incident is used as a jumping off point to talk about larger questions of race that will unfortunately be relevant for a long time to come. 

One of the things that is so great about the lyrics on this album is that Chuck D and the other MC’s seemed to have widened their nets.  Although the lyrics on this record definitely come from a black perspective, they also spend plenty of time going outside their tribe talking about much larger issues of social and economic justice.  One of the most important things in life is learning empathy for people outside of your tribe.  If this perspective cannot be reached there is no chance for unity and therefor building the coalitions that must be made to tackle the serious problems facing the world.  Chuck D and the rest of Public Enemy find commen cause with illegal immigrants and other members of the economically downtrodden.  This gives their album a much more universal appeal. 

What are other topics talked about on this record?  They touch upon the horrible state of the media as they have done before on Don’t Believe the Hype.  They also talk about war, the way the United States is percieved throughout the world, the housing crisis, problems with fame and materialism in the culture, the war on terror, the decline of meaning in the music business, and the environment among other issues.  Only Flavor Flav’s 31 Flavors provides some comic relief in the storm.  This also unfortunately makes it the one track, however enjoyable it is in and of itself, that doesn’t fit the themes of the record. 

Although their songs take strange detours like their classic run of albums, where songs were often spliced with spoken word or insturmental parts that do not resemble the main tracks, this happens less often.  However this provides the album with a stronger song oriented approach than in the past.  In some ways this actually makes the album more enjoyable on repeated listens.  Although the album lacks some of the mad genius of something like Fear of a Black Planet, in some way this album is actually more listenable because of it.  Many more of these songs have a single quality to them.  There is still enough of mini pieces to give the album a unified feel. 

Another thing that I like about the album from a lyrical perspective is that, although again they touch upon many stories ripped from the headlines, they use these stories to jump off into wider criticisms of modern America.  This album will again, unfortunately, be relevant for years to come. 

Although PE addresses many problems in our country the music still has a take no prisoners approach that is inpiring.  Thematically the record is dark, but the album has a bravado that makes you feel as if there is still hope to change things before it is too late.  It is a magic trick because except for one song this music does not feature uplifting major key melodies.  It is musically a tough record, like most of their work, that gets one ready for battle.  While it does acknowledge the problems of the world head on, it will not be defeated by them. 

If you are looking for music of substance that is gauranteed to be thought provoking, look no further.  This is powerfully passionate stuff.  PE have added another classic album to their cannon.  I can’t reccomend this album highly enough.  It features the trifecta of interesting music and arrangments, thought provoking lyrics, and especially in Chuck D, a voice for the ages.  Although his voice is more ragged than in the past, it still sounds like he is casting thunder from the mountaintop.  Get this album, and get ready for the struggle. 

Interview With Chuck D

I am on the road today, so I thought I would post this interesting interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D.  Worth reading for his ideas on music, culture, and politics. Right now I am obsessed with their absolutely amazing album The Evil Empire of Everything.

Intelligence and Materialism

The person who actually gets an education and is well about themselves, to fit in circles, they kind of take off their intelligence like it’s a suit.  Which is just so harmful.  Like, why would you not show off your intelligence, but rather show off some shit you just bought?  It’s just backwards.  - Chuck D

Public Enemy’s Intellectual Vietnam

I’ve been listening to a lot of Public Enemy recently.  I don’t really listen to rap that often, but when I do it is almost exclusively Public Enemy.  I remember when Public Enemy were in their heyday, and they are still putting out good records now even if they sell less, they had a large crossover white audience despite often singing about black concerns.  Many people wondered why, and I think if I remember the band itself was even a bit confounded by why there were so many white people at many of their shows.  I think the reason that is, is that what they do is just so undeniably great.  When I listen to their records I realize that I am listening to a completely unique artistic statement.  They drew upon black soul, early hip hop, and rock n roll in their music, but the way they put everything together defies categorization.     

I am most familiar with their classic run of albums It’s Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back.  The sound of these records is as dense as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.  However, while Spector’s Wall of Sound was “a teenage symphony to God”, Public Enemy’s sound is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Their music is infused with dread and revolution.  It is music that is meant to provoke.  However, as a musician, I listen to these records and am in awe of the arrangements.  There are so many different levels of sound going on, that shouldn’t work, and yet somehow do.  There are air raid sirens stacked on top of electric guitars, stacked on top of all kinds of drum loops and percussion, stacked upon strange vocal samples.  And that description doesn’t even touch what is going on half the time!  This is really musical stuff that reaches the level of genius. 

The lyrics are also extremely political.  This was at a time when mainstream rock n roll had ceased to be a force for social change.  Public Enemy picked up the baton and ran with it.  Although Public Enemy were often rapping about black concerns, it is not hard to identify with the outsider or underdog.  Plus their lyrics were often batshit crazy in a way that is completely fun if you have a certain sensibility.  I love the term “intellectual Vietnam!”  As Dylan said about Ice-T, who also put out some great stuff, theses guys were, “throwing horses over cliffs.”  They weren’t messing about! 

In Chuck D they not only had a great lyricist, but a great voice.  His baritone is like a cannon going off.  He is a captivating street preacher that demands your attention.  There aren’t that many voices that charismatic in music, let alone in rap.  Also like so much rap out there, and so much country music, and so much mainstream music in general these days, he isn’t selling fake rebellion forged with consumerist ideas.  From the lyrics to Say It Like It Really Is, one of their more recent singles: 

I don’t give a damn about poppin Champaign
Say what y’all wanna say about
Revolution I’m a say what I’m saying

Rather be stuck up than stuck down
Here’s the difference
I picks up the black and brown
Against Mr. Man informants and government
While real people starve and cant pay their rent
They you seriously don’t mean what you meant
I ain’t tricked deceived paid off inagreement
Somebody planned it
Glad y’all understand it
Those that don’t
Headharded like granite
We look out for them too
And don’t take em for granted

All Music is Political

This is post 310 since the beginning of August when I started this blog, so if there are occasions that I repeat myself, I apologize.  Consider it like an artist touching upon one of their favorite themes again, and not the accident of a squirrel memory.  You can guess which one is probably true.

I was thinking today about how all music is political, even music that doesn’t haven’t anything even closely resembling politics at its core.  Of course there are topical folk songs, rock n roll diatribes, the entire career of Public Enemy, and any number of pieces of music that are explicitly political in their intent and design .  That is obvious and I’m not going to talk about them here today.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to declare Neil Young’s Living With War a political album.

However, there is also the kind of music that doesn’t saying anything overtly topical or political that is still highly political in nature.  This is because it challenges existing social norms of the day.  I would put many works by Morrissey, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen in this format.  That’s not to say that those artists didn’t write overtly political songs as well.  (Margaret on the Guillotine, Sex With Your Parents, Democracy)   It’s just that in singing from the position of the outsider, or in commenting that there is not something quite right with the world, even if it’s a sort of spiritual malaise, they are helping you to think against the grain, which is in itself a political act.

There is also work that’s pure passion makes it political.  Think of Levi Stubbs singing Bernadette.  He sings that song with a burning urgency and fire.  Put that on against a modern top 40 song and your mind can’t help but be a little freer than it was.  It’s not necessarily telling you what to do, only to feel strongly and do something.  It breaks the chains of the spirit.

Also think of any female singing with sexual passion.  I’m thinking of someone like Tina Turner.  She may be singing nothing but a pop song.  However, she is expressing female sexual power through sound.  I imagine it would be hard as a female to listen to her music and go back to the kitchen brain dead, barefoot, and pregnant.

So what about bland Top 40 music that has no soul or passion?  That music is political as well.  It is telling you that everything that is going on in the world is ok.  Don’t think, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  In having nothing to say, in having no meaning in thought or sound, it is confirming the legitimacy of the existing social order.

So while I love Neil Young’s Living With War, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and many other overtly political albums, I often feel just as inspired to go against the grain by things that are not.  Once you have heard something like Joni Mitchell’s In France They Kiss On Main Street, how could you go back to normal life with your head in the sand?

Fake Rebellion

I have a very unscientific theory that I would like to throw at you.  Why in the last few decades has there been such a rise in the popularity of rap and Nashville country?  I say that these are two forms of music that are unafraid of the product placement.  Rock N Roll should be in some part about rebellion against the status quo.  In the 60’s it was part of the counter culture.  I would bet as companies learned more and more how to market music and how to control it they didn’t want too many people queering their hustle. 

     Now I am being lazy and lumping in all rap and modern country together.  There are always exceptions to the rules.  I am talking about the kind that gets played on the radio all of the time.  Nor is this to say that if this music helps you get through a day of daily drudgery there is anything wrong with it.  If it floats your boat have at it.  Just realize what you are being sold. 

     These two forms sell what I call fake rebellion.  There may be songs that involve shooting guns, objectifying women, being outlaws, etc.  However, neither of these forms challenges the dominant power structures in our society.  Those would be consumerism and religion.  You can take your drugs, drink your beer, and get laid, but just keep shopping and don’t think too hard about what’s keeping you at your current class status. 

     In rap it’s pretty obvious.  No other form of music has so glorified getting rich and owning things.  There are obvious examples of this not being the case.  From back in my day you had Public Enemy, whose records still ring with righteous anger.  But a lot of this music is egocentric music that while on the surface appears to be dangerous, really just reinforces the current economic model. 

     Nashville country, on the other hand is not far behind in songs featuring product placement.  I bet I could flip on a mainstream country station right now and within the hour hear a song that not only mentions a truck, but what brand.  Country music also often plays upon tribal affiliations.  It might make you feel like a rebel and an outlaw, but you are a certain kind of rebel and outlaw that is exactly like millions of other rebels and outlaws.  So in reality, you are not that much of a rebel or an outlaw.  You are just wearing a costume that helps you belong to a group that you feel comfortable in. 

     I also like to say that Karl Marx, not to be confused with Richard Marx, got it wrong.  Nashville country music is the opiate of the masses.  It let’s people feel a sense of identity and belonging even if they don’t’ have a pot to piss in.  It never questions who is fucking them in the ass. 

     Music doesn’t have to make you think.  But it should at least make you feel something strongly.  Emotions are raw and abstract and powerful things.  But I question the value of anything that makes you feel like a rebel for a night, and a fool for a lifetime.