Sound of the City’s search for the quintessential New York City musician enters Round Two this week, with battles in the Round of 32 daily. Keep up with all the action here.
In round one of Sound Of The City’s March Madness, jazzmaster Miles Davis dispatched Cyndi Lauper with tonally perfect blow, and Strong Island rabblerousers Public Enemy fought the power of Mariah Carey and came out on top. Both of these icons of American music helped push their genres into artistic maturity and wildly explorative places. It is not overstatement to say these people were the rock on which the rest of their art forms were built. So have fun choosing this one.
Public Enemy: “Fight The Power”
Look, I’d love to show my true fan bona fides and go with “By The Time I Get To Arizona” or “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” but there’s just no way it’s not “Fight The Power.” (Hey, it was good enough to top the ’89 Pazz and Jop singles polls.) Over The Bomb Squad’s mauling of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” beat and fire-alarm snatches of Sly and Marley, Chuck D serves notice to Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Bobby McFerrin, the 1980s, self-satisfied ignorance and anyone who would rather die on the knees than defy on their feet.
Miles Davis: “So What”
Davis started out Kind Of Blue by demonstrating how little he cared about standard ideas of key changes, or what was currently popular in jazz. But the great thing is that even if you don’t care to read a bunch of essays about modular theory or the use of empty space in order to understand what “What” is doing, Davis is still happy to drown you in grace.
Longevity: Davis kept busy right up until his death in 1991, but is best loved for the series of classics he recorded from 1959 (Blue) up through his bold, acid-rock game changer, 1972’s On The Corner. Drug addiction and… well, let’s just call it “interpersonal problems” largely overshadowed his work afterwards, but he had already made his mark, and history has been kind. (Perhaps too kind, but an argument for another day.) History will be kind to Public Enemy as well; when they finally break up there will be much gushing about how the importance It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet was not diminished because they called an album New Whirl Odor in 2005.
Innovations: Every time you hear a jazz song that makes you feel like you should be contemplatively watching it rain, you can thank Miles. Public Enemy helped confirm, once and for all, that hip-hop was a lasting art form and forum for social critique. They brought hip-hop around the world and made a noise so heavy that even the metal kids had no choice but to love it. Against anyone else, Public Enemy would take it. But against Davis it’s a toss-up.
Starpower: To a generation of fans that views Dr. Dre’s The Chronic as Day One for hip-hop, Public Enemy cut a Chuck Berry figure. Which is to say someone young fans know they should appreciate the group in theory, but have a hard time reconciling such a weird, raw sound with current trends. Even people who don’t listen to jazz realize they need to own a copy of Kind Of Blue.
Intangibles: No one really likes to point this out, but it’s hard to overstate the extent to which Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments, Flavor Flav’s reality-show buffoonery and an endless string of forgettable albums has damaged Public Enemy’s legacy. It’s hard to think of another revered group with such baggage. These guys made “Don’t Believe The Hype” and should be Coachella headliners, but they’re lucky to be on the fourth line of a festival poster. For Davis’ part, he’s lucky that he’s such a revered icon that people rarely point out that he played a pimp on Miami Vice or covered “Time After Time” and generally spent the ’80s looking lost and shaken. Then again, the man made fucking Sketches Of Spain.
Likely Winner: This will be tough. To people of a certain age and inclination, Public Enemy are hip-hop and Miles Davis is jazz. Davis probably has more cross-generational, worldwide appeal, but I would never count out Public Enemy in their home turf.