Pop Plural: How ’80s Music Bent the Color Line
January 2, 1990
In the ’80s, the racial divisions which made necessary a “pop chart” and a “black chart” in Billboard were challenged in increasingly aggressive ways; to the point that the decade’s most provocative innovations — rap, two-tone ska, World Beat, house, and Latin “freestyle” — defied placement in either category. Independent of industry marketing strategy, we are moving towards an era when such categories will be dysfunctional, if not obsolete.
During 10 years of writing for this and other publications I’ve had the privilege of hearing a hell of a lot of music. The bands who forever changed the way I appreciated vinyl — not CDs — were a diverse and brilliant bunch. I can testify to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Egypt ’80 at Pizza-a-Go-Go, Madness at Tier 3, and Bob Marley and the Wailers at the World Famous Apollo Theater. DJ Afrika Bambaataa at the Mudd Club, Justin Strauss at the Ritz, Gail King at the Red Parrot, and Larry Levan at Paradise Garage were men and women who helped found and support entire musical movements from a humble hillock of turntables.
If a single band could embody the decade, it would be Kid Creole and the Coconuts — the first live ensemble to blend rap, reggae, swing, salsa, and funk into a truly original and danceable format. UK critic Simon Frith credited Kid Creole with inspiring a whole school of British pop, from Wham! to Sade, which boomeranged to America and reshaped styles here once again.
In 1980, Tom Silverman, Mark Josephson, and Joel Webber held the first of their rap- and no wave-centered New Music Seminars. This annual event, initially fueled by profits from “Planet Rock” and other early hip-hop hits, quickly grew beyond its rap origins in industry impact. Although it served to bring races together in celebration of various musical subcultures, as the money poured in, the NMS was accused of turning “richer” and “whiter” into synonyms.
In ’81 multiethnic pop suffered a major setback: the death of Bob Marley. Later that year, England’s Clash challenged the color line by bringing rap, punk, and funk acts together on the disco stage of Bonds International in Times Square. Their white American fans didn’t quite get it. Cursing the opening acts, these kids weren’t ready for the mixed society the Clash were suggesting. This residual bigotry found its clearest expression in the emerging music video industry.
MTV demonstrated in 1981 that music could be seen as well as heard. It launched lucrative careers for dozens of unknown British and Australian acts, but refused to put black or “r&b” acts in rotation for years. Pressure from CBS in ’84 forced the inclusion of Michael Jackson’s Thriller clips — with 36 million sold, Thriller became the first r&b project to benefit from the selling power of MTV.
But MTV never really warmed to traditional r&b. When the channel finally began to program videos featuring black performers, it was because white listeners requested rap. Meanwhile, alternative outlets like Video Music Box and Black Entertainment Television had arisen to support black product. By 1989 MTV, feeling the competition, was programming a half-hour of prime-time black videos per day via Yo! MTV Raps.
THROUGHOUT THE ’80s music reinvented itself because — and in spite — of technological change. The conversion of many club sound systems from support of live bands to cheaper backing-tape performances (often with the lead vocals also on tape!), reduced audience expectations of live music. Radio stagnated when follow-the-leader formats made flipping the dial as common (and dull) an exercise as aerobics.
On the up side, portable cassette systems allowed more progressive consumers to program their own daily soundtracks (“C30-C60-C90 Go!” urged a belligerent Bow Wow Wow). Taping from live, radio, and vinyl sources proved not enough: As the rap and underground disco scenes flourished far from the commercial mainstream, drum machines, reel to reels, and primitive four-track home studios proliferated to serve the imagination of a teen underclass suddenly gifted with the means of production.
No change was more radical than the elevation of disc jockeys to the ranks of songwriters and producers. High-tech jocks behind recording consoles made being able to remember (and dismember) music more important than reading it. “Mastermixes,” used by urban radio to extend the life of hit singles, created a demand for DJ-created versions of these same songs with altered rhythm tracks and arrangements. Soon no producer unfamiliar with club audio trends could compete with his DJ-peers.
This new breed of producer had a choice: to give his best ideas to second-stage remix projects, or produce and release records of his own. Chicago jocks were among the first to make their own dance tracks from reworked Philly International basslines and Eurodisco synth pads. House music was born. Raw 8-track recordings from Chicago, like Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body,” cut in ’86, were topping the British pop charts as early as ’87, while being all but ignored back home.
REGGAE WAS THE first large-scale crossover experiment of the ’80s. Since many first-generation rap and turntable artists were of West Indian descent, it’s no wonder that Jamaican inventions, such as instrumental “dubs” and impromptu rhyming over rhythm tracks, became staples of early hip-hop. Whites who acquired a taste for rap from hybrids like the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven,” and for reggae from the Police’s Regatta de Blanc, flocked to places where they could dance to the stuff. Downtown venues like Negril and One’s catered to the hunger for original Jamaican imports; while spots like the Roxy and the Mudd Club allowed spike- and skinheads to mingle with Kangol-capped B-boys.
At the same time, Cachaça on the Upper East Side catered to more obscure tastes in what would later be called World Beat. Brazilian expatriates gigging at Cachaça offered samba, maculelê, choro, and bossa nova, long before New Artists and Joseph Papp sponsored Brazilian pop stars. Larry Gold’s Sounds of Brazil was exclusively Brazilian when it set up shop on Varick Street in ’82. But by ’86, a spectrum of Third World ethnopoppers had graced its stage. Another early supporter of world music was promoter Verna Gillis, whose midtown Soundscape series did much in the mid-’80s to expose the uninitiated to Caribbean and African musics.
Even Ron Delsener couldn’t resist the cross-cultural bug. His booking policy at the late Savoy theater was wildly eclectic: You might have seen reggae crooner Gregory Issacs there one week with a roomful of Brooklyn dreads, followed by Zaire’s M’bilia Bel the next.
In shepherding Bob Marley’s global travels, Island/Mango realized that an entire world of pop music based on PanAfrican rhythms awaited dissemination. While Chris Blackwell groomed the apocalyptic trio Black Uhuru for the Marley slot, and the Rolling Stones toured with Peter Tosh, there was no reason some of the African music already catching on in Europe couldn’t be promoted stateside.
There were felicitous “crossover” precedents. Ginger Baker of Cream had recorded an entire album with Fela Kuti in the ’70s; Peter Gabriel, inspired by African politics as well as pop, composed the elegiac “Biko,” and in ’82 sponsored a seminal Third World pop music festival in England; The Talking Heads flaunted the African sources which informed their 1980 effort Remain in Light; and Malcolm McLaren filled half his solo LP, Duck Rock, with Soweto township music in ’83.
By the time Mango released their two-volume Sounds D’Afrique compilation of central African tunes, they had every reason to expect a certain level of avant-garde acceptance. These discs were followed in ’83 by Mango’s first African pop star: King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. The stage show — sung entirely in Yoruba — was ambitiously presented in many American cities. Adé’s orchestra and male dancers could command a stage for two hours and never repeat a move.
The massive breakthrough Blackwell sought through two albums never happened. But Adé’s partial success in the college and alternative markets laid the groundwork for the World Beat circuit that now serves everyone from Islamic Africa’s Cheb Khaled to Israel’s Ofra Haza.
Language and image were still the biggest obstacles between foreign artists and Madonnaland. One by one the idols of other nations visited us, but those without a Yankee sponsor barely registered as blips on the scale of mass appeal. When Paul Simon won his Grammies for Graceland it was very much his victory, in spite of the solicitous inclusion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba on the Graceland tours.
The pure Brazilian pop and samba compilations David Byrne has assembled on Fly/Sire, and his current Rei Moma album (which deploys New York salsa circuit veterans), are wonderful projects, but of questionable benefit to the non-Anglo musician. Salsa innovator Willie Colén wrote in a Billboard editorial earlier this year that the Best Latin Recording category could soon be filled with the experiments of well-meaning Yankee dabblers elbowing out the genuine article. This is not an unfounded fear.
The same decisions that kept MTV safe so long — for the benefit of Brit pop, dinosaur rock, and heavy metal — are now those that prevent most salsa, reggae, rai (Algerian teen pop), zouk, and yes, even rap, from being played on black radio. In a remarkable turnabout, one local black station is fighting against the tide. Back on WBLS after a long absence, DJ Frankie Crocker is attempting a multigenre format for the ’90s-gospel, blues, folk, jazz, salsa, rap, reggae, and classic r&b. He hopes to keep root musics alive, and in the process prevent a glut of trendy, perfunctory fluff. He’s got his work cut out for him.
ECONOMIC PROTECTIONISM operates in music just as it does with other consumer goods. It is cultural imperialism that dictates that other countries know who Madonna is before any American hears a tune by Cheb Khaled. The conspiracy to SELL THIS, NOT THAT! is eroding because record buyers are not as passive and parochial as they used to be. If anything destroyed the myth that white features matter more than great music, the major label breakthrough of Tracy Chapman did.
So the pivotal question for the pluralistic ’90s is: How long? How long before the conglomerates are forced to share their wealth? Every stronghold of the record business now has its own little Trojan horse of independents chomping away at market infrastructure. Major labels began to buy into entire rap companies because they didn’t have a clue as to how to package and exploit hip-hop. They may have to fund existing blues, reggae, and foreign import labels for the same reason. The more the industry tries to homogenize and reduce artistic standards, the more music itself rises up to defy it. ■
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