In the opening scene of Scarface, 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.
To my ears, there’s a deliberate disruptiveness in Destiny’s Child’s music—that’s their solution to the “problem”: Let the top and the bottom disrupt each other a bit, pull the beats away from the groove, and have them follow the singers, or have the singing go chase the bottom beats. Or (e.g., in their follow-up hit, “Bug a Boo”) place “orchestral” stabs in the background and have the voices run in front as if trying to outrace these stabs. What seems “challenging” is that the bottom and top aren’t quite integrated, so you can marvel at the dexterity with which the singing dives after the rhythm or outruns the beats or fends off the accompaniment. Which makes this something of an upscale music (in my mind; I don’t know how it plays out with its prime audience), like jazz: young black sophisticates putting forth pseudo-wisdom about male-female relationships, tied to sophisticated rhythms. I don’t intend any of this as criticism, except that I hear fun but no warmth in Destiny’s Child. In a way, these women play with the “problem” rather than trying to solve it, in that they don’t put full funk and full song together but instead have each disarrange the other somewhat.
Unlike Destiny’s Child, the performers who record for Ruff Ryders Records (such as DMX and Eve) seem more interested in presenting themselves as people who can fuck you or kill you than in showing off their musical dexterity. Fact is, though, that the music is some of the richest around, a lot of the richness due to frequent producer Swizz Beatz. The background music he creates—long developing riffs, usually taking up several measures—really is a foreground; the riffs are the drama in the music. (Or maybe they’re just more comforting for me to attend to; they help me avert my ears from the ugly sounds and thoughts coming out of the rappers’ mouths. “I hope you ain’t tongue-kissing your spouse, because I be fuckin’ her in the mouth.” I don’t dismiss or necessarily dislike such lyrics, by the way. I’m just ambivalent about them.) Since he’s working with rappers rather than singers, Swizz Beatz has extra leeway, because sometimes rapping can be the steadying element, can be the one-two-three-four or hit hard on the backbeat, freeing up the drums to play around with offbeats. But when Swizz Beatz goes to a melody song like “What Ya Want,” using a rapper, Eve, who emphasizes offbeats, the music still sounds effortless and at ease, even while it refuses to honor the measure bars and the main beats. The background melody seems to be going off on its own dance, but then when the chorus comes around, the singers jump right on top of the melody and it becomes their dance too. And, as I said, this song has been all over the radio.
In my Spin review I mentioned the paradox of James Brown’s being the out-front star of the show and his being radically dependent on his surrounding musicians. If they fluff their notes, the whole structure unravels. Of course, the way I’ve written this assumes a live performance, or at least a group situation—whereas, in fact, most music is heard prerecorded (over the radio, through a home stereo system, in a car, at a dance club, in a supermarket, etc.), and many beats these days are programmed, not played by a group. But I don’t think that this is a problem for my argument. It just makes my argument frankly metaphoric, the live model being a metaphor for how (some) people take in the music psychologically, feel it at home, use it at a dance club, sing along with siblings in the car, wherever; for the way society takes in the music. Whatever.
About 50 years ago, Robert Warshow wrote an essay that I’ve found unendingly useful, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” about crime movies. “The initial contact between the film and its audience is an agreed conception of human life: that man is a being with the possibilities of success or failure. This principle, too, belongs to the city; one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing.” I’ll suggest by analogy—real tentatively—that the musical paradox in modern black music may be a social one as well. The music is one of group interaction, with no role inherently more central than another; yet it needs a star, an out-front center of attention to focus the music. But the emergence of a star, a dominant lead singer, potentially violates the form (and there are those pesky note clusters in the rhythm instruments to unmoor the star and pull him down, if he takes up too much space). James Brown bowled over these contradictions through the force of his personality, but his musical legacy is that a lot of people live in a world where the star has to adjust to his supporting players, the song has to adjust to the accompaniment.
In his essay, Warshow wrote, “Modern equalitarian societies . . . whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier.” And so public displays of unhappiness and failure are seen as disloyal. (I’d say, that is, that public displays of unhappiness and failure that are not reducible to supposedly solvable social problems, to some category like “poverty” or “mental illness,” are considered disloyal—or at least incomprehensible.) The appeal of the gangster movie is that it allows the audience to experience failure vicariously, because in such movies success leads inevitably to failure. To succeed is to be alone—but to be alone is to get shot, “for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in whom it automatically arouses hatred.” I’ll ask (and I doubt that there is a simple answer) whether any of this is relevant to hip-hop—you know, where rappers emerged as the stars in a form invented by DJs; where rappers and producers share or compete for credit (which is it? share? compete? both?). I’m thinking of the Eve album, where she’s proclaimed Ruff Ryders’ First Lady, but the rest of the posse comes along and supports her/drowns her out half the time. There is probably a lot to say here about the death and violence that permeate Ruff Ryders lyrics, but someone who feels the music more deeply than I should be the one to say it. I’ll suggest the following: The lyrics don’t just convey “I’m strong, I’m going to fuck you, I’m going to kill you,” but also “We (the Ruff Ryders) need to stick together or we’ll die.” And rapper DMX adds, without negating the first part, that he’s weak, he’s sliding, he’s going to die anyway. He’s on the Ruff Ryders Ryde Or Die compilation; for him the title could be Ryde AND Die. I don’t know if these personas correspond to the rappers’ actual lives. In “The Convo,” DMX says that he has the God-given ability to rhyme, he has the choice to rhyme or to shoot, and with God’s help he’ll rhyme not shoot. But his death is part of his persona in a way that death wasn’t part of the pre-posthumous persona of, say, Johnny Ace or Sam Cooke or Frankie Lymon or Marvin Gaye. In decades past, death personas—at least in popular music (jazz is another story)—have been more a rock thing, a white thing.
The Stones took call-and-response form and turned it on its head. A brief description of call-and-response: A preacher says or sings (calls) something, the choir and often the rest of the congregation sing out a standard response, the preacher says/sings something else, the choir/congregation sings out the standard response again, etc. The audience is part of the form of the music, the structure; no audience, and the call gets no response. On record, the backup singers substitute for the audience; James Brown calls, “Say it loud!” and the singers respond, “I’m black and I’m proud!” In general, this form permeates black music, even when there’s no congregation or backup singers. Chuck Berry says, “Go Johnny go, go,” and his guitar plays a riff in response. Or Robert Johnson sings a phrase and his guitar finishes it for him. To speak loosely: Even when the music isn’t precisely a call and a response, it is musical elements in conversation, voices and instruments playing off of each other, leaving space for each other.
Call-and-response is premised on a shared psychological space between singer and responders, between performers and audience. The Stones somewhat shattered that unity, set the relation between performers and audience as one of potential unresolvable conflict. And that’s what attracted them their audience. “Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd” attracted a crowd. The Stones were two mints in one, a come-here mint and a fuck-off mint, and the combination was involving, irresistible. (I think it was irresistible because it mirrored a split in the listener’s [e.g., my own] psyche.) (And, well, probably 1000 different things attracted them their audience; different fans liked different things. But this was one.)
I’m talking metaphorically here, since I’m not claiming that the song—”Get Off of My Cloud,” 1965, the same year as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—created any predetermined response in the listener. Probably most listeners, when they got to the call-and-response part, “Hey (hey) you (you) get off of my cloud,” simply identified with the singer and believed they were addressing the same “you” as the Stones. As it happens, the metaphor captures what I felt when I first heard the song, performed by a rock band at a junior-high-school dance, my nemesis and ex-friend Jeff playing drums and screaming out the words. And what I felt was that the band were a bunch of scary cool creeps who were yelling at people like me, and that maybe I—teacher’s pet, emotional weakling—deserved to be yelled at. So part of me was up there with the band yelling, and part of me was the “you” that was being yelled at. But the thing is, people like me weren’t the outsiders; we became the Stones’ primary audience, or a big hunk of it. And the kids up there in that junior-high rock band were probably as conflicted as I was, as unsure as I where they were in relation to the “heys” and the “yous.” The lead guitarist hanged himself several years later—I know nothing about it. And Jeff—probably the most charismatic guy I’ve met in my life—turned himself off, at least in public, took himself down to zero for the rest of high school.
In 1969 I got my first Stones album, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass). Shortly afterwards I heard that Brian Jones had died. I didn’t know any of the Stones’ names except for Jagger. I didn’t know which one Brian was. I looked at the pictures on Big Hits. One of the band members, the one with blond hair, had a flat, cool, blank kind of face. It reminded me of my friend the drummer. I hoped that this one, the blond one, would be Brian, the dead one, because he scared me the most.
Here’s the schema: (1) “Hey (hey) you (you)” is a call–and–response; this means that the audience is participating in its own rejection, if it wants, when told “don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd.” (2) So the sing-along isn’t merely an “Us vs. Them” chant; it can be an “Us vs. Us vs. Them,” an audience dividing against itself, trying to overcome and deny itself, being empowered and unified in self-division and self-destruction. And I think that this catches the Stonesiness of the era, the punk tendency within ’60s rock, the audience (some of it) needing to feel rejected (in part) or attacked (in part) as a sign of the superstar’s integrity (and feeling a common bond with and distance from the other listeners who felt the same way, and with the band that was doing this to them, maybe).
Mick Jagger liked to participate in his own rejection. “Heart of Stone” is apparently obvious irony, the singer claiming he’s going to make the girl cry when you know that it’s the girl who’s making him cry. Except, the way Jagger sings it, the guy really is as tough and scary as the words say he’s pretending to be. “Back Street Girl” does it the other way around: The words say it’s about ownership, the rich married man laying down the rules to his mistress like she’s property, telling her he wants to fuck her but doesn’t want her to enter into and dirty up his tidy upper-class life; but in the music it’s the most beautiful love song the Stones ever recorded. Another example: the live “Midnight Rambler” in which the swaggering Rambler-sociopath-narrator-killer is boasting, “Honey, it’s no rock’n’roll show,” thereby denigrating the actual rock’n’roller who wrote and is singing the song and the mere rock’n’roll show at which he’s singing it.
In Stanley Booth’s great book on the Stones (called alternately Dance With the Devil and The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones) Alexis Korner and Ian Stewart recalled the Stones’ early days.
Korner: “[Brian] used to jump forward with the tambourine and smash it in your face and sneer at you at the same time . . . Brian achieved what he wanted to achieve by his extreme aggression, and it was extreme, it was incitement, when Brian was onstage playing he was inciting every male in the room to hit him . . . It was Brian who made the blokes want to thump him. He would deliberately play at someone’s chick, and when the bloke got stroppy, he’d slap a tambourine in his face.”
Stewart: “Brian could have been killed a few times.”
Of course the Stooges and Sex Pistols and scores of other punks elaborated on this call-and-response, bands and audiences flouting each other’s authority, spitting, cutting, hitting, making noise, and presumably at times getting a kick out of the whole process. At Stooges shows, instead of the fans mobbing the band—like in the Beatles’ teenybopper days—you had Iggy going after the audience. He would dive into the crowd, smash his body down onto the floor, flop around like a spastic, jab the mic into people’s faces and demand they sing into it, lie down on broken glass, pour hot candle wax over himself, provoke people into hitting him. So this is the call-and-response turnaround: Instead of black audiences prepared to be part of the music, you have white audiences forced into being part of the show whether they want to or not. “I am the audience,” Iggy claimed in one of his interviews. The guy behind me at the Stooges and Blue Öyster Cult New Year’s Eve show, December 31, 1973, kept yelling over and over, “Come back here Iggy and I’ll kill you, come back here Iggy and I’ll kill you.” Lester Bangs, musing back on a particularly violent Stooges show: “Jungle war with bike gangs is one thing, but it gets a little more complicated when those of us who love being around that war (at least vicariously) have to stop to consider why and what we’re loving. Because one of the things we’re loving is self-hate, and another may well be a human being committing suicide.” But anyway, I want to consider the social environment of this death thing, in which the we splits up, the psyche divides.
Brian, Keith, Dylan, another Keith, Lou, Iggy, Johnny Thunders, Peter Laughner, Sid Vicious, Axl, Kurt, Courtney, plus scores of lesser knowns and probably a bunch of goth chicks and industrial guys I’ve never listened to. Though some of these people realized that failure was no success at all and so decided to live, or perhaps secretly led a life of blissful mental health, self-destruction was nonetheless part of their image and part of their appeal.
Leaning again on that Warshow essay, I’d say that though this music may emerge in urban bohemia, it has its emotional roots in the suburbs from which the bohemians come. Warshow was writing from the point of view of second-generation immigrant Jews whose world of success or failure was the garment district, drugstores, the move into academia and the professions. I’m third generation, and the world of success or failure is high school, college, the business job or professional/academic career that’s expected (rather than a sought-after achievement). And the agreed conception of human life—at least among would-be bohemians, freaks, goths, and probably a lot of the normals, too—is that human beings have the potential to be compromised, contaminated, that you don’t succeed unless you kiss the teacher’s ass or the boss’s ass; but if you do so you haven’t really emerged from the crowd, you’ve just become a teacher’s pet. Becoming a “rock star” is maybe a way out of this, since it’s not the teacher or boss who’s judging you anymore (supposedly). But you have to please the audience—and so, to emerge from that crowd, you have to attack your audience. And as I’m suggesting, certain audiences will want you to attack them, to assert your independence from them (and in so doing you act out for them their long-lost integrity). But then you’ve just pleased them anyway, and if you’re a real punk like the Stooges and the Sex Pistols, you want fans to resist, to hit back. But either the fans kill you or (this is what audiences really do) they walk out on you. Then you’re nothing, you’re an obscurity. Or they don’t resist you, they continue to appreciate you. So the only way to really resist their appreciation, to emerge from that crowd, is to die. And I (the fan) want you to, because otherwise you’re still kissing my ass. (I’m not saying this is true, mind you; I’m just explaining the logic of its appeal.)
Anyway, I don’t know if this Stones dynamic (and by the Stones I mean the Stooges-Pistols-GN’R as well) will remain a central tension for music in the 21st century, since punk nihilism-insanity-despair needs a social context of optimism to react against, an irrational sense that we’re heading toward utopia and can break through all limits. I hope the world retains this optimism, as its legacy from America and Western Europe, but the real legacy might be economic collapse and ecological disaster, and Iggy & the Stooges just might not make any more sense. That would be sad.
I’ve been listening a lot to Turbonegro’s Apocalypse Dudes, which is in competition with Kid Rock’s for my rock album of 1999. And on the surface and in the sound it’s part of the Stones-Stooges tradition. “Selfdestructobust”—yeah, they’re going to kill themselves or die trying. But really, they’re just unreconstructed layabouts, sitting at home with their Dolls and Stooges records, imagining that the world has stopped. So they’re on their own cloud all right, but there’s no call out to the world, no reason to respond, certainly no challenge to the would-be layabouts and pseudo-seven-day weekenders in their primary audience, or to anyone. And actually I’m baffled that this album is so good, given its insularity.
I don’t know how overwhelmingly relevant this “two’s-a-crowd” dynamic is at the moment, with Cobain laid to rest as a total denial and Courtney maybe having found her equilibrium. Eminem seems to be the guy now. “This guy at White Castle asked for my autograph so I signed it ‘Dear Dave, thanks for the support asshole.’ ” I think Eminem’s voice—a slow talk, unlike “real” rap not heavily into rhythm and rhyme—is perfect for what he’s trying to do, for laying out his social pathology flat before us. (He’s criticized for not being a good rapper, which is just stupid. I remember Tupac getting criticized for analogous reasons, as if he didn’t have the right to be emotionally effective since he wasn’t dancing his tongue with the technique of a Rakim.) His lyrics are hyperbolic: “Since age 12 I felt like I’m someone else ’cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt. Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off and smacked her so hard I knocked her clothes backwards like Kris Kross.” On the one hand Eminem detaches himself from his narrator Slim Shady, which means that my emotional feelings towards Slim Shady’s conspicuous dysfunction are tempered by my knowledge that there’s a probably nondysfunctional guy (or at least one not completely owning to Shady’s dysfunctions) pulling the strings of this puppet. But nonetheless I recognize that Eminem gets some poetic-intellectual-funny effects that he couldn’t have gotten out of a more believable narrator. As for Slim Shady, there’s a generational cool here—I’m young, I’m sharp, I’m slim, I’m a mess, isn’t that cool?—with the last question very nonrhetorical, since Slim Shady is cool but simultaneously way too massively fucked-up to be cool, any possible self-control and grace under pressure long since thrown out the window. I’m your mirror. He straps himself into bed, with a bulletproof vest on, and shoots himself in the head. One’s a crowd on his cloud.
Making note of the fact that Eminem’s a white guy in the border country between hip-hop and rock, I’m thinking that in the future a Stones-like “Get Off of My Cloud” dynamic might become more relevant to blacks, to hip-hop, to r&b, since maybe in these genres the dynamic won’t yet have been played through to its impossibility. I just bought the Kelis “I Hate You” song (which is really “Caught Out There” but I don’t know anyone who calls it that). As the lyrics per se go, it’s a standard r&b war-between-woman-and-man thing that doesn’t enter the Stones’ two’s-a-crowd dynamic. Too much of a shout-along, an us vs. whomever we happen to hate. That’s the lyrics per se. But the listening experience is a whole other thing: The I-HATE-YOU-SO-MUCH-RIGHT-NOW jumps right out and away from r&b, from black culture, from music. It’s not about empowerment, getting even, taking control—it’s not cool, not grace under pressure, not wit and wisdom of wronged sisterhood. It’s just plain a scream of hate. She’s losing it. Just completely losing it. Out of control. And that’s where the song seems more white than black—not that whites lose control more than blacks, but that whites in music lose control more than blacks, because, for some whites, losing control is freedom, breaking out of oneself and one’s world, from the inner contamination that binds one to the world. At the extreme this losing control isn’t just going wild to the beat, it’s Iggy Pop half bragging and half hating himself for being the most fucked-up guy on the block, the one who’s going to die. It’s about taking oneself out. Whereas for blacks, in general, freedom is about gaining control, not losing it. (BTW, I think that Kelis sounds great when she’s breaking down, breaking out—far beyond most riot grrrls [most of whom just sound mannered or ugly and self-righteous].)
I’d say that DMX more than Kelis is self-consciously fucked and making an issue of it. “You know he hurt before he died/And you wonder if he lost his shirt before he died/Only two knew the answer, and one of us is dead/So anyone who seeks the truth can get it straight to the head/Then you and him can discuss what I did/Yeah, it was wrong dog but I slid/I will pay one day, just not right now.” He certainly doesn’t take it into Stones-Stooges territory, where the audience participates in its own rejection. But with DMX, like Kelis, it’s not so much that in the words he’s portraying himself as out of control, it’s the sound, his voice; and sounding out of control is what, maybe, is relatively new to black music.
In older gangsta rap, no matter what was going on in the lyrics, the rappers tended to hang back, sound cool. For instance, Dre and Dogg sounded cool and controlled in “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” But DMX, when he wants to emphasize a lyric, moves his voice from smooth to clumsy. He doesn’t, of course, get to white land, where losing control is a kind of letting loose, a break into freedom. For DMX it’s more like he’s breaking down—he can be a danger, he can be in danger. And this is why, no matter what the shit he’s saying, there’s a vulnera-bility to him. Which I guess lets me onto his cloud (unless he shoots me or something).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 11, 2000