5:5:5: VIII: Readsy
Game Changers & the 5 Boroughs
Readsy brings us his own 5-way selection, cueing up a personalised theme and passionately pouring through a quintet of influential artists with this, his take on heavy influencers around the 5 New York City divisions.
LL Cool J - I Need Love (1986)
Still in his teens, LL had already established himself as the ultimate solo artist ambassador for hardcore Hip-Hop. His sole intention to escape the sinking quicksand of inner city life, unleashing a hungry, ferocious battle eat em' up, emcee style.
Previously LL was discovered by the Beastie Boys, sifting through mountains of demo tapes at the Def Jam Records HQ... Ad Rock was like, seriously Rick you need to hear this one..... Getting over the amusement of LLs "Let me clear my throat" intro (later adopted for the Beasties own recording), Rubin and the boys' jaws hit the floor after hearing the mind blowing skills.
Rock The Bells was the track that gave LL legend status. The term 'rock the bells' was coined when block party DJs would cut up 2 copies of Bob James' Take Me To The Mardi Gras break. If Run DMC hadn't laid claim to that break for Peter Piper, the track would have sounded somewhat different; maybe not quite as tough.
By the time of I Need Love, LL had already changed the game, inspiring a new generation of MCs with his ferocious style. I recall as a young teen some anticipation towards the 2nd LL album having already been won over with his debut Radio. It was originally expected to be named Bad after the first single, however the one and only Michael Jackson had already laid claim to that title (Damn! Why does this keep happening?). Anyhow it ends up as Bigger and Deffer (see what they did there) and I rush off to the nearest Our Price store with my paper boy wages, eager to make the purchase on the day of release.
I whack it on and I'm instantly hooked. LL has broadened his style as far as production is concerned and it's immediately more varied than its predecessor. His battle style was hitting a new peak, though his ego felt like it was at the point of exploding and I couldn't help questioning his arrogance and slightly sexist slurs on certain tracks (bearing in mind NWA hadn't happened yet) ....... That is until we get to track 9!
I Need Love.
All of a sudden the script's flipped, we hear a soft slow instantly catchy keyboard melody, then LL as we never heard before, actually demonstrating a soft side. The 808 beat drops in, reminding us that this a hip hop track, yet I'm gobsmacked and initially not sure what to make of it. Not only had the mood changed dramatically on the album, musically for a Hip Hop LP, but for the first time I related to LL and absorbed the sensitivity. At the time I was going through the first time motions of a school boy crush and all of a sudden LL is talking to me.
When I'm alone in my room sometimes I stare at wall
And at the back of my mind I hear my conscience call
Telling me I need a girl who's as sweet as a dove
For the first time in my life
I see I need love
Apparently LL wrote the track in half an hour while meditating about his loneliness in his grandmothers flat. So, it unravels that this is actually the most honest track on this album, with all the ladies throwing themselves at the rap pin-up; true love and one woman is what he really needs.
What was initially a brave move for such an artist ended up paying off for LL... It ended up being his biggest hit to date, and it became the norm for Hip-Hop albums to have the token rap ballad / sensitive track, although none of them came close (not even MC Hammer, Have You Seen Her lol).
Then years down the line, and look who is the biggest rap artist of the moment? ... Drake! I'm sure we can all agree there's an influence there, considering the majority of Drake's catalogue is built on his emotions and sensitivities. Even Eminem usually insists on having at least one sensitive track on his albums.
This gem from Queens most definitely changed the game.
LCD Soundsystem - Losing My Edge (2002)
We fast-forward to 2002 for our next track at a time where I felt music was getting interesting again. Many scenes had emerged such as electro-clash with the likes of Fischerspooner and Soulwax leading that parade. Meanwhile in NYC, Brooklyn had become the scenester melting pot destination, with James Murphy spinning records at the forefront.
Rallying through Disco, Electro, Post Punk, underground NY bands such as ESG and not forgetting Daft Punk (apparently nobody else had played them in this style).
Being a passionate crate digger myself, I was instantly moved when I first heard Losing My Edge, pretty much a record about records and I was instantly hooked by the groove. It was also a smart idea for a first track, James Murphy was making the transition from DJ to recording artist, apparently he chose his love of music over the opportunity to be a writer for Seinfield... Guess we can say it worked out for pretty well for him. Anyway back to the track and to the point of this!
From this point on, a sound developed. DFA had become the leaders with many following. The idea of merging the influences of Mr Murphy's record collection to create something fresh and exciting, and a new sound in it's own right. Wiping clean the division between Electronic Dance Music and a guitar-based live band; this had become a revolution for the live experience having a huge influence on other artists from Hot Chip to Justin Timberlake... Yes seriously! In my opinion SexyBack has LCD written all over it!
Ironically, judging by the lyrical content of Losing My Edge, JM isn't a fan of his style being imitated, voicing his frustration with the internet generation.
However, I'd argue that Murphy's LCD Soundsystem made a significant contribution to changing the game. On how music evolved in the last decade and maybe we are still waiting for something as exciting as LCD to reincarnate .... Oh wait a minute there's a new album!! Yes!!!
STATEN ISLAND /
Joan Baez - Silver Dagger (1960)
Joan Baez has probably contributed more to music than she gets credit for: still, for Joan it was not all about music. Music was to her a natural gift and a perfect way to tell a story, and deliver a message of peace and promote unity. Born to a Scottish mother and a Mexican father in Staten Island, she grew up with an open mind and sense of cultural understanding. Her parents were Quakers and along with her sisters the family spent many years on the move from town to town. Joan discovered her love of music at a young age, enjoying the likes of Woody Guthrie, Harry Belafonte and Peter Seger and (to her parents dismay) Rhythm & Blues artists such as Little Richard and James Brown - such music was considered unsuitable for the household record player.
It was only a matter of time until she got herself a guitar and naturally started singing the folk songs she loved, and importantly, approved of by her parents. Before long Joan's natural blossoming talent started coming through and as well as her beautiful vocals she developed a unique guitar picking style that would become her trademark. However, with all this talent Joan suffered the worst stage fright imaginable, something she never truly recovered from, although it never shows.
After gaining interest and a growing following on the intimate NY Folk circuit, Joan lands herself a huge gig at the Newport Folk Festival to play in front of 14,000 people, still only aged 18 and having not even released a single record... and not to mention the stage fright! Virtually overnight, Joan Baez was crowned the queen of folk and shortly afterwards she snapped up by Vanguard Records to release her debut album. A collection of Joan's interpretations of folk songs, many dating back centuries, the self titled debut is very well received.
The opening track Silver Dagger goes back so far that the origin is unclear - some thought it was an English folk song and has had various interpretations over the years, although up until this point the 'murder ballad' had not crossed over to a younger audience. A change in the music world was imminent after the release of this album and Silver Dagger was the beginning of the journey ahead.
Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here, right by my side
And in her right hand, a silver dagger
She says that I, can't be your bride
All men are false, says my mother
They'll tell you wicked, lovin' lies
The very next evening, they'll court another
Leave you alone, to pine and sigh
Following on from the release of this album a chain of events occur. In 1961 a very young and raggedy Bob Dylan crosses paths with Joan Baez on the circuit. At this point Dylan is completely unknown, spending the majority of his time busking. Baez wholeheartedly recognises the talent and invites Dylan to gig with her, with Dylan snapping up the offer. Initially Dylan wasn't welcomed with loving arms; the audience were there to see their queen of folk. However much like Baez, Dylan had his own spin on his music and it wasn't long before the audience started to get it, as times were a changing (see what I did there) and we all know the outcome of that scenario.
So Baez & Dylan become a huge success performing together, blossoming a genuine relationship that lasted a few years. Since her late teens Baez had spent much of her time actively fighting for civil rights at a time when African Americans were stripped of theirs.
She humbly stated herself a pacifist and a human being over a recording artist and continued her activist ventures throughout with music taking second place. Over the years she dedicated herself towards many causes, be it protesting with Martin Luther King at Selma, getting arrested for pulling out would be soldiers from army drafts, flying out to Vietnam, literally dodging bombs putting her own life at huge risk or later on helping the situation in Sarajevo, and not forgetting her insistence for a contract change to ensure a gospel choir could perform with her in a segregated area in 1964. These are just a few examples.
"I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war."
Interview with Pop Chronicles, 1967.
“You go into jail as a pacifist, you come out a stronger pacifist.”
Joan Baez on returning from jail.
Meanwhile in the world of music Dylan had progressed to becoming a voice of a generation, touring worldwide and whilst performing in the UK refusing Joan's request to join him on stage for a number or two. Heartbroken and horrified, Joan suffered a rapid decline as the relationship disintegrated. She felt hurt, embarrassment and betrayal; she had given Dylan the much needed boost he needed to kickstart his career, and while Joan's sole intention was to enjoy and be a part of the experience without agenda, Dylan would likely argue it interfered with his artistic vision. Remaining quiet about the situation for 44 years, Dylan eventually offered a public apology and stressed his regret, and the love he had for Joan.
Joan Baez then, a game changer in many ways...
Using her position to make the world a better place... Perhaps Mr Dylan might still have been busking on the streets today, looking somewhat more raggedy, if they had not met.
the BRONX /
Grandmaster Flash - The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel (1981)
As an established label, Sugar Hill Records were the first to release a rap only Hip-Hop track and the first label to release a cassette single with Rappers Delight. By the end of the seventies the Hip-Hop movement was one of the most dominant underground scenes at a thriving time for music in a somewhat broken New York. Label manager Sylvia Robinson failed to convince the pioneering MCs and DJs on the NY scene to be the first to release a rap record; the general vibe seemed to be, there isn't a market in the main steam for Hip-Hop so keep it on the street at the block parties. So instead, Robinson compile a rap group to emulate what was happening, hence The Sugarhill Gang.
Ok so we all know Rappers Delight was massive (selling 2 million in the first few weeks!!) and from that point on it had been proven a rap record can sell and many more followed, although the true essence of the underground scene had not been authenticated on wax.
All the following Sugar Hill singles used the 'in-house' band and repeated the same formular as Rappers Delight; replaying the breaks of records used at block parties.
In 1980 Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5 put out their debut on Sugar Hill. Freedom was a party rap track with Grandmaster Flash barely tapping a cowbell in the studio. Yet Flash was a technical pioneer and the biggest name on the block party scene, he had changed the game for DJs utilising 2 copies of the same record, manipulating the break and inventing the cut n' scratch technique - with a little help from Grand Wizzard Theodore. It was time Flash got his overdue recognition. So this is when another game gets changed in a big way.
Before this point sampling other records meant experimenting with tape loops or using synthesisers like the Fairlight. Between Sylvia Robinson and Flash they come up with the idea to demo what Flash was known for on the block party scene... Cutting up breaks of other artists' records to tell a new story and make something completely fresh and then release it as a record so Flash can finally be heard speaking with his hands.
1981 and Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel was born. The 21 year old Joseph Saddler put together the first of it's kind; a 7 minute collage of Chic, Queen, Incredible Bongo Band and Blondie to name but a few. Flash himself gets a mention in Blondie's Rapture, a track that was inspired by Debbie Harry's encounter with Flash on the block party scene accompanied by Fab 5 Freddy... Flash of course pays back the homage cutting up the first white rapper on record.
Made with just 2 turntables and a mixer in one unedited take, and after just a few attempts at perfecting, The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel charted a modest 55 on the billboard, but hardly surprising considering folks were not used to such a thing, or maybe they thought DJing belonged in the clubs or block parties. Although some may have missed the point, others didn't. NME Magazine placed it at No.2 track of the year. Again history was in the making, yet to be fully realised. To some it was the real introduction to Hip-Hop culture, hearing the Apache breakbeat for this first time, then to others it was a mega mix played at discos to break up the mood a little by jocks who had not yet mastered the craft... and not forgetting the influence it had with the cut n' paste artists that followed such as Steinski, Coldcut and more recently DJs like Shadow, Cut Chemist and Yoda.
Whatever angle you look at it, doors were opened big time. Without this track, would the sampler as we know it even exist? A handful of years later the art-form evolved further, actually sampling the break as the main instrumental, often using an SP-12 sampler to add subtle kicks and hats, enhancing the groove. Eric B & Rakim's I Know You Got Soul springs to mind and a whole catalogue of Marley Marl produced gems. And on the subject of sampling ... It's a good thing the whole clearing of samples wasn't as much of a thing back then because being as successful and innovative as Sugar Hill were, that would have been a legal bill they could of done without, although it all came crashing down with bankruptcy in 1986.
Hip-Hop was now in the hands of a different team of pioneers. Although, the evolution wouldn't have been possible without the first lesson; a record that told a story purely through utilising other records.
Long live Flash.
Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit (1939)
78 years after the release of Strange Fruit and so much in music has changed and evolved.... However, sadly this song still has relevance today.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Even by today's standards, those words are so shocking and harrowing, stirring up the darkest of emotions but as Billie Holliday warned Radio DJ "Daddy-O Daylie" prior to it's debut airplay, 'this is not a June-Moon-Croon-Tune'. Holiday was no stranger to struggle, a victim of the hardest of Harlem upbringings surrounded by violence, prostitution, crime and drugs, with the latter sadly becoming her final downfall.
Naturally she was the perfect messenger for this brutal yet beautiful juxtaposition. Originally written as a poem by a Jewish communist named Abel Meeropol, horrified by a photo of a double hanging he had seen. He devoted much of his life campaigning for human rights.
Billie Holiday chose to perform it as the closing song at her concerts. The house lights would go down and she would be illuminated by a bright white beam, before singing the poem to the reception of a stone cold silence. All of a sudden the easy listening had become anything but easy listening.
Her label at the time were Columbia records, but they refused to release the record, despite it's important message... I guess maybe they were afraid of the truth? Commodore picked it up, a much smaller label and it ends up becoming her biggest selling record!
So for the first time a Black woman had protested on record about some of the cruelest of events in American history. Years down the line we get NWA, Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine still protesting about the murder of human beings because of their skin colour.
Drugs got the better of Lady Day but instead of receiving support, she's treated like a criminal in her final days, even handcuffed to a bed and deprived of hearing her beloved records as a final pleasure.
Frank Sinatra as an artist was the first to tell a personal story on an album of concept. He would often cite Billie Holliday as an inspiration, particularly Strange Fruit, encouraging him to open his own heart on record.
It changed popular music, a voice needed to be heard sharing the experience of struggle. Music wasn't just entertaining the wealthy anymore. It was closing the gap between art and protest. It was thought provoking. It was relating to individuals. It was telling a story.
It was hope.