Death Rock 2000

In the opening scene ofScarface, we are shown a successful man; we know he is successful because he has just given a party of opulent proportions and because he is called Big Louie. Through some monstrous lack of caution, he permits himself to be alone for a few moments. We understand from this immediately that he is about to be killed. No convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: It is dangerous to be alone.—Robert Warshow, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero"

I once wrote a controversial review for Spin—that no one ever commented on—about James Brown where I claimed, in effect, that rather than being a "root" or a "source" of the present in black music, he was instead—and more interestingly—an indigestible problem for modern r&b and hip-hop. His funk had become the putative format for a lot of black music, but it was a format that no one could quite use. Funk at its invention was really extreme; everything became rhythm, foreground became background and vice versa, nothing simply supported a "lead" instrument or singer. The vocals were drumbeats, the drums punctuated and completed the vocals. The horns and guitars were staccato percussion. The beats were not evenly spaced: Instead, even more than in the rest of rhythm and blues, everything was in complementary note clusters, no instrumental part replicating another, each tumbling over the others in a perpetual-motion machine. Basically anything by James Brown from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" onward (r&b number one, pop number eight, 1965) that wasn't a ballad fits this pattern. And most everything in "funky" black music since then has been something of a compromise or an amalgam—people wanting the funk but also wanting the song on top or the rap on top.

So even the hard funk of Funkadelic and Kool and the Gang had a somewhat straighter groove, and in hip-hop and r&b you always— until recently—had a loud drum nailing down the backbeat, or even a one-two-three-four (the more discofied r&b), with the song or rap back on top and most of the funk relegated to the bass guitar or bass keyboard. With the backbeat/one-two-three-four anchoring whatever was on top, some of JB's propulsive tumble was lost. So I think the tension in much of the world's music in the next century will be: "We don't want to give up song form or the Euromelody tradition, or we don't want to give up an out-front rap, or an out-front guitar solo, or an out-front wall of noise, or an out-front dance collage, or _________ (from whatever music tradition), yet we also want to have the tumbling funk and never-ending groove, so what do we do?" I hope it stays a problem. I can't imagine it being "solved."

I've gotten into e-mail discussions about this with my friend Mark Sinker, a music historian in Britain, who electronically nods his assent ("some conflicts oughtn't to be resolved"). Mark says, "Black music generally (with a very few exceptions, though JB is a key one) is and always has been more casually magpie-ish than a succession of projective fantasies from its white commentators (pro or con) like to imagine." Mark goes on to cite Robert Johnson performing Bing Crosby for his black audiences but only getting his blues songs recorded by the white record company. Probably more to the point are forms like doo-wop and soul and . . . well, almost all African American forms, which seem to be able with no effort to incorporate Euro-American harmonies and chord progressions into what are essentially black syncopation and call-and-response.

I've wondered why James Brown's funk was so accessible, why it charted so high— why it didn't itself sound difficult to a lot of people. I think basically this was because he wasn't putting a "song" on top (except in his ballads, which reverted to a more standard, less funky rhythm) but rather exhortations, chants, and so forth, so that the note clusters bubbling forth from everywhere didn't seem to disrupt a melody or rap that the listener was trying to latch onto.

Anyway, in general, after 1965 Brown's music became much less eclectic from any source, Euro-American or Afro-American, and I doubt this was due to any disinclination to be either magpie-ish or Europeanized, but rather due to his total commitment to funk. In the vocals, guitars, horns, everywhere, everything was rhythm, and really there was nowhere to put much in the way of standard songs, melodies, rock guitar solos, polyphony, and so on. He did actually explore complex European chords; horn blasts and guitar chords tended to be ninths and elevenths, which would not have been possible if he hadn't taken in—probably by way of jazz—the high-art European scale.

Hip-hop and r&b continue to take in anything they can, and I see a never-ending tension in contemporary black music, which wants to keep the funk but also the song and the stream-of-talk on top. But if you've been listening to "urban" radio recently you'll notice that there is much less reliance on the backbeat and that vocalists and melodies are diving into the rhythm much more, crossing measure bars and ending at offbeats and so forth. And this music is breaking out of r&b and onto the pop charts. "What Ya Want" (Ruff Ryders featuring Eve and Nokio) got into the top 30, and "Bills, Bills, Bills" (Destiny's Child) preceded Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" as number one, which means that to many mainstream listeners this stuff is no longer difficult or challenging or radical. And even "Genie" is moving in this direction: yes, a really obviously loud backbeat to hammer everything in place, but also a tumble of fast drumbeats at the end of every other measure to dislodge the rhythm and make the song fall forward into the next measure. You'd never have gotten such prominent offbeats in a number one back in '89.

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