Just when you thought it had come to an end, Mr. George ,once again, does not disappoint as he continues his series on the demise of legendary Black bands. This  series chronicles an important portion of music history that any true music connoisseur must have in their reference library!

KOOL BELLOne of my most significant memories of hip hop’s ‘80s rise was the sense I was existing simultaneously two time periods. The musical references points of my childhood, from James Brown’s screams to James Gadson’s drumming to Robert Kool Bell’s bass lines, flowed from speakers, sending me back to the ‘60s or ‘70s. Mostly it was music made by black bands, tightly arranged ensembles that existed to support singers or showcase the skills of its members. The strengths and even the weaknesses of the collected players created a SOUND as distinctive as a signature.

But then that familiar riff would loop back on itself in an unnatural way and I’d know this was a new recording that had hi-jacked that organic sound, given it a new context, pitched it higher or lower or wedded it to a drum machine. These were no longer notes that could be annotated, but sound that discarded traditional notation like dead skin. Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis,  BRANFORD Mwho dabbled in hip hop with his band Buckshot Le Fonque, once described the difference this way: “Jazz musicians heard music as notes on a scale and hip hop producers heard them as sounds stacked atop of sounds.”

Whatever obvious samples I’d heard were being augmented by other sounds — other samples, drum machines or keyboard pads etc. The pleasures of the past were complicated by producers like J Dilla or the Bomb Squad posse. The familiar echoes I heard were now ghosts in the mix. I’d hear sounds floating through the hip hop ether but could no longer call its name. It was as if abstract painters took Rembrandts, cut out their favorite parts with scissors and plastered them on a newly painted canvas. You could label it a remix, post-modern or simply “a bomb ass beat from Dre.”

The deepest musicologist I’ve encountered were not scholars at universities or nerds like me writing record reviews. The true scholars were the early DJs and producers, the “diggers” of hip-hop culture, who obsessed over break beats, breathing in thousands of dust particles in mold filled basements from dusty LP covers. Their sonic erudition is sometimes frightening in its completeness. This global search for new gold in old vinyl put these DJs on par with the connoisseurs of wine who tasted mouthfuls of vino for a living or searched out the rarest teas in Tibet. I admired their dedication and worried about their mental health.

GM FLASHMy issue with these seekers was how this break beat/sample mania devalued other musical elements, that the focus on “beats” warped how non-DJs, heard “music.” Once the ruling aesthetic of hip-hop production became creating repetitive loops, much of what made America’s black music innovative, organic, or even romantic, was minimized. In an episode of the Netflix series ‘The Get Down’ the Grandmaster Flash character complains about records that had “too much music” in the ‘70s and that “the good part” were sections with the naked beats trap drum, bass, percussion or other instruments played, unaccompanied by strings, electric keyboards, pianos, saxophones or other melodic instrumentation. I was a producer/writer on the show and can testify that this wasn’t just a bit of made up dialog. Those words came from a talk I recorded between Flash and show creator Baz Luhrmann. It perfectly summed up the aural aesthetics of the early DJs that would carry over well into the ‘90s and influence music production to this day.

gamble huffAs a result of this mentality DJs prized certain past innovators at the expense of others. So, 60’s Stax records and funky James Brown jams were elevated in into a sonic pantheon that excluded classic “Motown sound recordings” which consisted of thick layers of instrumentation. Hip hop cherished Parliament-Funkadelic’s “naked beats” but had very little use for Earth, Wind & Fire’s sophisticated, heavily arranged mix of elements. The magnificent work of Gamble & Huff’s Philly Sound and of the Solar Records aesthetic, created by in house producer-writer Leon Sylvers, suffered a similar fate. Each of those R&B movements were noteworthy for meticulously arranged recordings that rarely featured naked beats. You could, of course, sample elements from these records, but they would never be foundational beats like Brown, P-Funk etc.

MIDNIGHT STARRA generation weaned on hip hop had little use for the instrumental embellishments and pretty chords that had been an R&B staple. It’s a huge reason why so many ‘80s R&B artists, who sang smoothly and had glittering sonic backdrops, became increasingly irrelevant as the decade wore on. I’m thinking of hit making artists like Freddy Jackson, Natalie Cole, Jeffrey Osborne, Midnight Starr whose careers declined as the palate of black popular music grew more limited.

As Flash’s comment suggested the core of hip hop has always been rhythm. The instrumental beds created by finding break beats and extending them was perfect for MCs rhyming in a park, playing in a nightclub, and on vinyl. What would be the radical development was that R&B singers, the majority of whom came from the passionate, vocally dynamic world of gospel music, found themselves bending to the will of the beat, instead of riding atop instrumental grooves created to showcase them. Literally the sounds heard on R&B records from the early ‘90s onward would be defined, not by highlighting a singer’s voice, but accommodating stripped down rhythms better suited to MCs. Entering the ‘80s singers were the undisputed stars of black music. By the end of that decade a huge shift was underway.

hip_hop_musicI’ve always thought that the hip hop movement had an uneasy relationship to the larger black musical culture, because it is so selective in what it celebrates. It that way it has a reductive, self-centered vision of our musical history. Hip hop acolytes see history through the prism that everything in black music history either leads to or helps create hip hop. In short hip hop doesn’t center itself in black music. It views itself as THE center. While previous evolutions of black musical culture seemed radical at the time (hard bop to free jazz, soul to funk) there was never a question that they were steeped in a very specific tradition.

MotownUntil hip hop virtually all idioms of black American music had roots in the blues and/or it’s more musically sophisticated offspring jazz. They were essential to the creation of all popular forms of black music. Scratch a Motown session cat and you’d find a bebop musician. Find a midwestern funkateer and they could play Mississippi blues licks with closed eyes. Because the creators of hip hop didn’t (and often still don’t) play instruments they collect sounds and lay them atop beats. Harmony, counterpoint, sharp notes, flatted notes, and other elemental musical techniques are arrived at accidentally, if at all.

STETSASONICPopularizing such a limited musical palate has made hip hop easy to make, imitate and cultivate. I would never say that there haven’t been innovators in that space, but I would argue the rudimentary nature of hip-hop musical production, a kind of democratic amateurism, has lowered the bar for a culture that has prided itself on being progressive.

On a Sunday morning radio show on KISS-FM radio in 1988 Mtume made just that point, charging that “this is the first generation of African-Americans not to be extending the range of the music” and the resulting recordings “were nothing but Memorex music.” I was a guest on that broadcast with Mtume and was both defending sampling but sympathetic to his views.

MTUME At one point he asserted that sampling James Brown’s drumbeats was like me sticking chapters from James Baldwin in my books and claiming the words as mine. Mtume was no Luddite. It wasn’t against sampling as a tool. What worried him was that sampling was becoming a substitute for musical composition and that a generation of music makers had no understanding of musical theory and played no instruments. As a man who’d played in one of Miles Davis’ most radical bands, the hard funk ensemble heard on ‘On the Corner,’ knew risk taking was part of the tradition, but this trend worried him.

Listening to KISS-FM that day was Glenn Bolton aka Daddy-O of Brooklyn’s Stetsasonic, a six-member crew of rappers, a DJ and a live drummer who responded like true hip hop warriors: when challenged Mtume with a dis track. They made an “answer record” called “Talkin’ All That Jazz” built around a loop from Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions,” which made the valid argument “Rap brings back old R&B and if we would not/ people would have forgot.” What Mtume truly didn’t appreciate was the line “You said its wasn’t art/So now we’re gonna rip you apart.”

Yet, many decades later, it is hard not to admit that Mtume was right. Post Teddy Riley’s new jack swing the melodic vocabulary of popular vocal black music grew narrower and harmonically thinner. The lush, romantic, elegant, sweeping sounds that defined much of R&B from the ‘70s on has given way to drum loops, keyboard pads, and songs a without instrumental bridge. Maybe this is progress to some folks but, to me, it reflects a dumbed down version of music in the public space. The coarse lyrics of 21st century R&B are well matched by the rudimentary sounds that support those words. Some record executives and music makers decided that bridges were unnecessary, deeming that space could be better used for a guest appearance by an MC to make it “commercial.” Once singers needed MC’s to be get on the radio R&B became all R with the blues reserved for folks who craved better sound.

See the source imageHip hop hasn’t produced a Stevie Wonder or Prince because the music, as created and consumed, hasn’t demand that level of artistry. The Bomb Squad made amazing sonic collages. Dr. Dre’s ear for sonic texture is magical. Kanye West has a gift for both collage and texture, but it is hard for me to label someone a genius whose melodies are cherry picked from the work of other composers. Hip hop has spawned many gifted sonic architects, people who have created dense, powerful, and joyous sounds. No question about that.

The truth is the only movement in hip hop that’s been created since the early ‘80s without heavy reliance on samples has been trap music. While not as musically advanced as Mtume would have liked, trap is not a sample dependent form.

© 2020 Nelson George

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