Boogie Down Productions

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In terms of his style, K.R.S. is probably the most percussive MC since Melle Mel. He raps in

hard bursts of rhythm, creating rhyme patterns out of whole chunks of words. He’s less

concerned with the way individual words or syllables sound



Boogie Down Productions

Rhythms, Rhymes, & Other Theories

Music Commentary by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam


A couple weeks ago, I said hip-hop was all about beats and rhymes. Kalamu responded, in part, that the type of hip-hop I was talking about—the kind that’s all about hard beats and hard rhymes—died out back in the late Eighties. He thought I was talking about cats like L.L. Cool J and Run-D.M.C. In a way I was, but then again, I wasn’t. He also said my comments were more about my personal beliefs about what hip-hop ‘should’ be, rather than a definition of what hip-hop actually is. The fact is, I wasn’t talking about my personal beliefs at all. The comments I made about the emphasis of lyrics and beats over everything else are the same ones that you’ll find in just about any serious article or book about hip-hop. It is the accepted definition of the essence of this genre of music. The truth is, all good hip-hop is about the beats and the rhymes first. Not just the kind of hip-hop I like, but all of it. That’s what makes hip-hop hip-hop. In the same way that you might say jazz is all about swing and improvisation, hip-hop is all about beats and rhymes. That doesn’t mean jazz isn’t also about composition, harmonic development and the group dynamic. And that doesn’t mean hip-hop isn’t also about storytelling, social commentary or cutting it up on the ones and twos. By making the comment I did, I wasn’t fetishizing a particular era of hip-hop. I was simply pointing out the essential difference between the genre of music we call hip-hop and every other genre of music. Similarly, I remember reading this book about jazz where the author attempting to define what jazz is. He eventually said that he couldn’t actually define jazz, but he did know this: not all jazz swings and not all jazz is improvised, but if it doesn’t swing and there’s no improvisation, then it isn’t jazz. That same phrasing is applicable to hip-hop. Not all hip-hop has hard beats and not all hip-hop has vocals at all, let alone hard, rhythmic vocals. But, if it doesn’t have a beat that knocks and the MC isn’t rhyming to the beat, then I’m sorry, you can keep on calling it whatever you want, but it just isn’t hip-hop.

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In this post, I’m going to take you on a little tour. But keep in mind, it’s just an overview. If I could take you back with me to New Orleans for a couple of days, I could show you some of the highlights of the city, and I could show you some of the hip places that the tourists don’t go. You’d leave with a much better understanding of New Orleans than before you came, but you still wouldn’t know the city the way you would if you lived there for a year or two, let alone a lifetime. In the same way, we’re going to spend a couple of moments together touring a place we call ‘Great MCs of Hip-Hop.’ Throughout the tour, I’m going to point out examples of what I mean when I talk about ‘beats and rhymes.’ And I’ll try to give y’all an idea of what hip-hop fans are hearing when they listen to the music.

Nas – “Get Down” from God’s Son (Columbia/Sony, 2002) I’ve been listening to Nas rap for almost fifteen years now, and to this day, when he’s flowing at his best, I think the same thing – pure liquid. I won’t say Nas is the best M.C. of all-time, but I do think he has the best flow of anyone who ever touched a mic. He’s so clean, so precise, so smooth. Even his mistakes are elegant. Some MCs have particular rhyme patterns that they use repeatedly. Nas, on the other hand, tends to almost constantly shift patterns as he works his way through his verses. Like Rakim, Nas also occasionally raps straight through his end rhymes while simultaneously over-emphasizing his internal rhymes. At the end of a rhyming line, when you naturally expect a pause, Nas keeps going. And when Nas uses an internal rhyme, you just as naturally expect him to just flow on, but it’s then that he pauses. All of this throws off your ability to predict where his rhyme pattern is going. You’re forced to just lay back and follow his flow where it leads you. Pay particular attention to the way this track begins. Even before Nas starts rapping, you can hear him setting up the vocal rhythm he’s about to drop. Those three ‘uh’s come just behind the ‘one’ beat (they’re spaced four counts apart, right at the beginning), creating a simple syncopation. And when Nas does come in rapping, after one bar of letting the beat play, he comes in at the exact same moment: just behind the one drop. It’s an interesting moment (although almost certainly unintentional) because it gives you an idea of what an MC is doing when he’s rapping. His syllables are like individual drum licks that he drops onto the primary beat, creating these complex patterns of rhythmic sound. Phrases are like drum patterns – memorize the words and you can even drum along to the words instead of humming. It’s not melody. It’s rhythm. In any event, you don’t have to be a hip-hop fan to know this is a James Brown beat, something that you’ll hear over and over in classic hip-hop. In fact, Nas goes out of his way to make sure you know, going so far as to name the song after one of James’ most recognizable catch phrases. The thing is, this was 2002, not 1987. By the early Nineties, sampling J.B. had already become outdated. By ’02 though, it’d become sufficiently outdated that Nas bringing back those old beats was an intentional statement that he was going back to a classic style. You might even call this a ‘throwback’ beat. The acoustic guitar loop keeps the groove mellow, but the throbbing bass and hard snare is where the heart of the record is. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that Nas is always conscious of where that snare drops. If he has a word he really wants the listener to catch, he plays it off of the dominant rhythmic element of the track, that being the snare.

GZA/Genius featuring Killah Priest – “Beneath The Surface” from Beneath the Surface (MCA, 1999)

The dominant element of this track is the strings. Every four counts, the strings are looped; every couple of bars, the string loop is extended to a crescendo. Given the dominance of the strings, you’d think “Beneath The Surface” might be an exception to the ‘beats and rhymes’ style of hip-hop, but not so, because the other significant element of this beat is, of course, the drum track. Like almost all hip-hop tracks, the bass drum and snare drum are mixed loud and up front, giving you the head-nodding 4/4 effect for which rap music is known. And the rapper, whether you call him Genius or GZA (pronounced ‘jizz-uh’), is one of the most rhythmic MCs around. GZA is a highly precise rapper, even moreso than Nas, although he doesn’t flow nearly as smoothly. Then again, GZA’s style doesn’t depend on a smooth flow, so the comparison isn’t necessarily a fair one. In fact, GZA consistently breaks up his own flow in order to draw attention to not only phrases or rhymes, but also to individual words. (“I swing [pause] on you fake [pause] radio personalities.”) I’m convinced that GZA is obsessed with the way words sound – the sound pattern of a particular word seems as important to him as what that word might actually mean. He’s also one of the few MCs to consistently use adverbs (“Swarming unpredictably,” “Increase the force significantly,” “practically marred,” etc.), which lends his verses a conversational, almost instructive feel. There is an exception here, and it’s the use of metaphor instead of simile. At the beginning of his verse, GZA talks about “a man-made lake” covered by “a sheet of thin ice where unskilled skaters cut figures eights twice.” The sibilance is beautiful: even if you don’t know what ‘sibilance’ means, it’s fun to repeat something like “unskilled skaters cut,” because of the way GZA makes three syllables in a row start with the same ‘sk’ sound. But the metaphor is just as beautiful. GZA isn’t really talking about ice or skaters. The lake is hip-hop. The thin ice is the rhyme page. The skaters, unskilled as they are, are unworthy MCs. And the ‘figure eights twice’ represents 16 bars, the (somewhat) standard length of an MC’s verse.

Rakim – “The 18th Letter (Always And Forever)” from The 18th Letter (MCA/Universal, 1997) In terms of the structure of the beat, this track is a virtual twin of the GZA’s “Beneath The Surface.” Here again is the dominant string sample that lasts one brief four-count, only extending to eight counts every other bar. Here also is the throbbing 4/4 drum beat with the snares rolled off to deemphasize the individual drum licks and instead give the listener an overall soothing feeling. Again, though this record depends on a melodic sample for its overall effect, there is no attempt to build on the melody – there is nothing to ‘sing along’ to. Instead, the melodic sound is a signifier of smoothness, mellowness and sophistication. The use of the very recognizably (perhaps even stereotypically) melodic sample serves to establish a certain mood. That mood is one of calm, disciplined reflection, something that Rakim is a master at conveying. This record was the title track of Rakim’s first comeback album, his first album without his long-time partner Eric B. I remember the album being generally considered a bit of a let-down, but I disagreed. I was fascinated by every word. Echoing the sibilant style used by GZA, Rakim talked about how he was trained to MC, while lesser rappers “strained to sling slang.” Rakim was always a master of imagery and here he continues that legacy, talking about how he “split seas for Moses” and “made waves for Noah.” Then he takes it from the Biblical realm to the outerstellar, claiming that “some of [his] rhyme patterns still surround Saturn.” And when Rakim boasts, “I roam through battlezones with chrome for chaperone,” he could be talking about ghetto streets and pistols or, just as easily, rhyme ciphers and microphones. It’s this sort of verbal facility and memorable imagery that pushed Rakim to the top of the list of all-time greats. And, of course, you can’t forget that powerful flow. Rakim’s flow combines the smoothness of Nas, the vocal command of GZA and the relentlessness of Melle Mel. He’s an MC without a weakness, and with apologies to L.L. Cool J, the true G.O.A.T., Greatest Of All Time.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five featuring Melle Mel – “Pump Me Up” from More of the Best  (Rhino, 1996) (Originally released in 1985 as a 12″ single on the Sugarhill label.)

Even though this is just a quick overview, nothing definitive, I wouldn’t have felt right without including at least one representative of the true Old School. (And I say that because I’ve seen references to artists as recent as Wu-Tang Clan being called Old School. That’s just silly.) Melle Mel was there at the very beginning. Some even say that Mel was the first MC to rap to the beat, that is, the first to go from repeating random, non-rhythmic phrases to actually reciting extended vocals to the rhythm of the accompanying music. I don’t know if that’s true or isn’t and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to know. Suffice it to say, Mel was at least one of the first. He’s also a monster of an MC, even by today’s standards. This track dates back to 1985, but the quasi go-go beat could still work today. It’s hype, but smooth, with the predominant sound being the non-stop tom-toms. That sound is a good audible metaphor for Melle Mel’s style of MCing – he’s not as tricky or scientific as later rappers, it’s just that he never, ever stops rapping. The biggest difference between Mel’s style and the more modern styles of MCs like Rakim, GZA or Nas is in the smoothness of the delivery and style of rhyming. Mel’s lyrics aren’t as technically complex as his successors and, partially for that reason, his words are much easier to understand. Mel comes from an era when almost all lyrics were recited live, not in the studio. The crowd could be distracted, high, dancing or oblivious. It was the MC’s job to not only attract the audience’s attention, but also to hold it. A lot of Mel’s skills – things like his authoritative voice, excellent breath control, percussive delivery and clear diction – are rendered less important once in the studio as opposed to live at a club or in a park. Melle Mel’s most significant strengths though were his relentless flow and his story rhymes (a development in MCing that he is said to have invented himself), and even on wax, both survive intact. Listening to Mel spit his park-hardened battle rhymes, you feel sorry for any MC that might fool himself into thinking he could step to Mel. The ‘biting shark’ routine is a good example. Melle Mel talks about a shark named Jaws who “was biting my rhymes like y’all bite yours.” With each stolen rhyme, it seems, the shark grew bigger and bigger. But as the rhyme goes, Mel kept writing new raps until finally the shark ate so many of them, that the shark got sick, exploded, and was blown back to the sea, and, as Mel says, “The whole universe knew the king was me.”

Boogie Down Productions – “My Philosophy” from By All Means Necessary (Jive, 1990)

In recent years, K.R.S. has done a lot to cause hip-hop fans to question not only his musical legacy but his sanity as well, but drop one of his classic records like “My Philosophy” and all debate has to cease. More than any other MC, K.R.S. is the rapper who took his work most seriously as an art-form. A self-educated man who spent part of his teenage years living on the streets, K.R.S. regards knowledge and learning as the supreme goals of an evolved individual. Of course, that philosophy of his is tempered by his quick temper and brutal about-faces, those the result of the education he received not in the libraries where he spent many of his days reading history and philosophy tomes, but on the streets, where he was simply trying to stay alive. “My Philosophy,” the lead single from BDP’s second album, is anchored by a long, bluesy sax line. But like the string samples we’ve previously discussed, the melodic sample is merely a foil, lending the buoyant, hyperactive beat a slightly smoother feel than it would otherwise have. The sample, like the Malcolm-inspired cover art, is also intended to impart a vibe of seriousness or intelligence. In 1988, jazz samples in hip-hop were unusual, therefore, the sound of a jazzy saxophone would communicate something other than, “Hey, check out this cool sample.” In this case, it probably means, “I’m about to drop some high-level thinking on you.” In terms of his style, K.R.S. is probably the most percussive MC since Melle Mel. He raps in hard bursts of rhythm, creating rhyme patterns out of whole chunks of words. He’s less concerned with the way individual words or syllables sound (like the GZA) or with how seamless or smooth his flow is (like Nas or Rakim) and more concerned with the power of his delivery and the sound of whole phrases. K.R.S. is also a brilliant wordsmith. By defining and redefining his own words, he constantly gives the listener knew ways to think about words and concepts. On the subject of the then-burgeoning pro-Black movement in hip-hop: “I’m not white or red or black, I’m brown.” On rappers selling out: “The way some act in rap is kind of wack and it lacks creativity and intelligence / But they don’t care, ‘cause their company’s selling it.” On health: “[I’m a] vegetarian / No goat or ham or chicken or hamburger / ‘Cause to me, that’s suicide – self-murder.” For me, “My Philosophy” was aptly named, because listening to K.R.S. rap was like listening to a philosopher philosophize. Of course suicide is ‘self-murder,’ but had I ever thought about it in quite that way? Probably not.

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For the uninitiated, I hope this brief overview of classic hip-hop tracks, styles and MCs helps to illustrate how and why hip-hop is rhythm-focused music. For the rest of us, it’ll be nothing more than a nice trip down memory lane. These tracks span nearly twenty years and at least three distinct eras. The elemental nature of beats and rhymes in hip-hop has nothing to do with a particular style, era or preference. It’s simply the essence of the manner in which the music is created and enjoyed. A couple of notes though. If you’re into hip-hop, you’ll notice that all of these MCs are from New York, the birthplace of the music. I’ll be back next week with a batch of very different hip-hop tracks, these from places South and West of NYC. Again, I’ll be pointing out the emphasis on beats and rhymes and attempting to show how and why that emphasis is central to the music. However, I’ll also point out how MCs from other areas of the country tend to create hip-hop that is less ‘pure’ in style. (Although I see that as neither a plus nor a minus – just a difference.) A second thing that you may have noticed is that all of these tracks—to one extent or another—include elements of smoothness or melodicism. I did that intentionally in order to show some of the ways that hip-hop uses melody as a spice, signifier or additive, but almost never as a central theme.—Mtume ya Salaam

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I Heard ThatI took notes. Maybe I’ll get a “C” on the exam, that is, as long as they got some old skool questions. Rakim is, of course, the pinnacle of lyrical wordsmithing. I remember when Nas first hit the scene, I thought his debut album was the bomb; really like his narrative drive—how Nas could tell a story in rhyme but I have not been so impressed by his subsequent material. In accessing the body of Nas’ work I hear a rapper focusing on material way below his abilities, not to mention his potential. GZA flies below my radar, even after checking this track, I’m not compelled to want to hear more. KRS is both a philosopher and a fool, sometimes both at once but still there’s no doubt he was the most serious rapper ever—remember his lecture tour? And, of course, “Mr. Don’t Push Me” Melle Mel was the first rapper I consciously listened to, moreover, I’m convinced that Melle Mel is the stylistic model for megaphone thorat himself, Chuck D. Mtume, you’ve dropped a brief but brilliant overview.

Now check “Homesick” (from Holy Terror) by the Last Poets (this particular version of the Poets is Umar and Abiodun). “Homesick” features Umar and guest artist Melle Mel. This is the track I use to help my peers hear the difference between what is popularly called spoken word and rap. Umar is up first and then Melle Mel follows and they alternate verses. No sooner Mel starts you can tell he’s doing something completely different from Umar. Looking forward to next week. Hopefully, I can graduate. Anyway, I’m listening, taking notes and learning a whole lot.—Kalamu ya Salaam


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Devin The Dude / “What A Job”   

The two artists Kalamu specifically mentioned as being not representative of my definition of hip-hop were A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. The irony is, the albums I wrote about from those groups—ATCQ’s Instinctive Travels and Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb—are two of the most rhythm-focused albums in the history of the music. Neither album ever had a chance to cross over to the mainstream pop audience precisely because they are too beat-oriented. If you think about it, the two albums have a quite similar drum sound: muted, very thick and full, syncopated, highly repetitive. And the MCs, as well, are very rhythmic. There’s virtually none of the sing-song-ish MCing you’ll hear a lot of if you turn on the radio today. It’s dense lyricism — straight MCing. So if all of this is true, why are these albums seen as something other (or something ‘more’…whatever that’s supposed to mean) than hardcore hip-hop? I think it’s because both groups also excel at using jazzy and/or soulful samples to augment their beats and rhymes. The rhythms may be the bones, the structure, the essence of both ATCQ and the DPs, but the jazzy hooks are what a lot of people remember (particularly more casual fans of hip-hop). To understand what I mean, listen to some DPs or ATCQ and instead of listening to the song as a whole, focus in on just those jazzy samples. What you’ll hear are loops, and often, those loops will last only a few seconds each. The melodies are never developed. Contrast that with the way the rhythms are treated. Every syllable uttered by the MCs are like a counter-rhythm that interacts with the main drum track. And those drum tracks are always very upfront and forceful. They are impossible to miss. They are the essence of the music. I could make similar points about just about every hip-hop group I’ve ever posted. M.C. Lyte, the Roots, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, Boogie Down Productions, etc. I’ve talked about all of these artists on Breath of Life, and all of them are highly focused on beats and rhymes. (And this goes double for Public Enemy! P.E. is probably the most complex and serious rhythm-focused group in the history of electronic-based music. I’m amazed that Kalamu could hear P.E.’s music as being about something other than beats and rhymes. When it comes to beats and rhymes, P.E. (re)wrote the book.) If you look back at the hip-hop artists Kalamu’s posted vs. the ones I’ve posted, the biggest difference you’ll see is that Kalamu tends to post music from artists with one foot in hip-hop (usually vocally) and the other foot in a different style of music. Meaning, the hip-hop artists Kalamu usually posts feature musical accompaniment that is focused more on melody and harmony than rhythm. Either that, or the artists use vocal styles that are closer to spoken word or singing than actual MCing. Note that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these types of artists. It’s just not usually to my taste, because when it comes to hip-hop, I like mine straight with no chaser. You can probably see this divide more clearly if you think about some of the jazz tracks I’ve posted. I enjoy jazz, but I’m certainly no jazzhead. I dig stuff like Lonnie Liston Smith, Bobbi Humphrey and Lou Donaldson just as much as I dig ‘Trane or Miles. To a hardcore jazz fan, that’s sacrilege. Intellectually, I can understand that swing and improvisation (two things that Lonnie, Bobbi and Lou don’t do much of) are essential to jazz, but I don’t feel the importance, the centrality, of it. If I hear a catchy jazz tune that barely swings and has only basic improvisation, I may well like it anyway while Kalamu will almost certainly dislike it. In the same way, I almost never dig a hip-hop track that doesn’t have either hard beats, hard rhymes or both.

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All of that said, Kalamu was right about one thing. I do carefully pick what type of hip-hop I post here Breath of Life. I know that many of our listeners are fans of R&B or jazz first, so I try to focus on hip-hop that may be palatable to non-fans. Most of this comes down to lyrical content. I try to focus on hip-hop with generally agreeable (or indecipherable) subject matter.  Hip-hop isn’t what it used to be, but there are still a lot of beautiful sounds out there. You just have to know where to look and you have to know what you’re listening to. I talked about all of this with Kalamu, and he told me, “Son, do what you want. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. That’s what the skip button is for.” So let’s do it. Here are some of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the last year or so, in no particular order and without the intention of doing anything comprehensive. It’s just a few rap records that have ended up with a high play-count on my iTunes and iPod. One more thing. There’s this school of thought that sees current mainstream hip-hop as having broken with tradition because hip-hop was originally very positive, socially conscious and even political. That’s a load of crap. Hip-hop was originally about how great you and your crew and your DJ were; and about how paid you were (even though you were most likely dead-broke); and about how many women you were pulling (even though you were most likely 19 years old and still living in the projects with your Mama). The positivity came from the fact that hip-hop was an outlet for creativity and artistic expression. It gave young people something to do besides hanging on the streets, getting into trouble. So anyhow, let’s start with the South, ‘cause that’s where I’m from and because that’s where the MCs maintain the most sense of the original fun of hip-hop: just getting on the mic and talking big shit. From there, we’ll move on to a couple of tracks from international artists, and we’ll close out with two tracks from MCs who were at the height of their popularity during rap’s Golden Age, but who are still recording some twenty years later.UGK – “The Game Belongs To Me” from UGK: Underground Kingz (Jive – 2007) UGK has been around since before God made dirt. In fact, to hear Bun B and Pimp C tell it, they’re probably the ones who helped God spread that dirt all over Port Arthur, Texas, which, in case you were wondering, is the “P.A.T.” they’re always referring to. Since 1987 and until the day they finally hang up their mics, Bun and C have had only one subject and that’s street hustling. What’s kept me listening all these years is Pimp C’s hilariously over-the-top Texas drawl and Bun B’s dark molasses flow. They’re also two very funny individuals – check the chorus. (If you need help: ‘Bobby’ is weed, ‘Whitney’ is crack and ‘Screw’ is codeine syrup.)

Devin is a cat out of Houston who’s been operating just outside of the mainstream for more than a decade. Aside from his obsession with weed, Devin is virtually the opposite of Pimp C and Bun B. They’re big, loud and brash. He’s terminally laidback and self-avowedly ‘average.’ This track — in which Devin breaks down the behind-the-scenes mechanics of rap non-superstardom — is a good example of Devin’s style. It’s also notable for containing one of the most touching verses I’ve heard in a long time. It’s guest rapper Andre 3000 explaining why he raps not for fortune or fame but for “that boy who graduated” and “his baby mama Kee-Kee.” I’m feeling that.La Mala Rodríguez – “Lo Fácil Cae Ligero” from Alevosia (Universal Latino – 2003) After all my talk about how I only like it hardcore, here’s a crossover track that I can’t get enough. This young lady is an MC from Spain with a very interesting background. Her vocal technique is interesting too, mixing the lazy-tongued style of a T.I. or 50 Cent with something that reminds me of the stop-and-start feel of Ladybug from the Digable Planets. The track sounds like something Dr. Dre might’ve done back in 1990, including the wah-wah guitar, which was probably recorded live. (Dre used to do a lot of that too.) Of course, I haven’t a clue as to what La Mala (which means, ‘The Bad Girl,” I think) is rapping about, but that hasn’t stopped me from listening to this song something like eleventy-billion times. Tolcha featuring Rider Shafique and RQM – “Rising Tides” from Testalt (Meta Polyp – 2006).      I know virtually nothing about these cats except that the production crew is from Berlin and the MCs are from the UK and Germany, respectively, but I dig their track because of how they’re mixing two of my favorite styles of beat-driven music: reggae dub and hip-hop MCing. Usually, mixes like this compromise one or the other element. Either it’s a good dub with weak MCing, or it’s real MCing over a fake-sounding dub. In this case, the dub is good enough to stand on its own, and the MCing, while not great, is good enough to hold its own with those pulsing bass drops. Like one of the MCs says, “I got this need to speak over drums.” I hear that.

After sixteen albums, I find it amazing that Too Short is still around. At one time in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I picked up every new Too Short album the moment it dropped. I won’t lie and say there’s any reason to still do that now, but on occasion, Short does still come up with something worth hearing. Like Bun B, Short excels at locking into the groove and just keeping it there. His flow never changes and he never gets complicated, but for Too Short fans like me, listening to him is like going back home. Comfortable. M.C. Lyte – “The Wonder Years” from Promo Only (2006) My girl, Lyte. The original hard-rhyming female MC. Before her (and truthfully, after her as well), most women who rapped didn’t attempt to compete directly with male MCs. But Lyte never backed down from anyone. Over the years, Lyte’s style has mellowed a lot. She’s not the young firebrand she was twenty years ago, but then, who is? What she’s lost in intensity, she’s gained in maturity, dropping lines like, “Some of us need to be doing a bid / Spitting lyrics that’s worse than Ritalin for kids.” Speak on it, Lyte. … And yes, folks, Premier is on the break.—Mtume ya Salaam

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I Have a Theory

Back in the day there was a big, big, ugly, vicious split within the Black Panther Party between founder Huey Newton and the charismatic Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver was a strong advocate of the lumpen proletariat—the street folk, the under-employed and unemployed, folks who survived on the hustle. What the lumpen had in spades was “heart” and “soul.” They had no desire whatsoever to conform to mainstream values. Sort of a permanent opposition to the status quo. And they had the courage and cojones to live their convictions. Plus, there was an unquenchable get-it-while-(& when)-you-can approach to life.

In a similar way, our popular music bumps with the hardest joy of any music in the world today. Regardless of the overt message, there is an interior message of enjoying life—it’s in the beat. The hard hooks. The hummable melodies or the witty phrases you can’t help repeating. That’s the upside. The downside is amorality, violence and a cold-hearted all-for-me/fuck-everybody-else attitude. A lot of what passes for keeping it real today is really keeping it lumpen. Hence, the ascendancy of what has been called gangsta rap and bling, bling. My theory is that the lumpen mentality is actually nothing but street level capitalism, hence all the emphasis on getting paid, getting laid, getting, getting… consumerism at its most primal, pleasure principle level. The lumpen hierarchy is simple: the powerful on top, the strong just below, and everybody else underfoot. A major corollary to the lumpen hierarchy is an embrace of patriarchal power and privilege, which necessarily includes the demeaning and dominating of women. All of this operates within a dominate system that is capitalist to the core and sexist through and through. In effect, the street merely reflects the larger society. That’s where I think a lot of popular rap is coming from. Although I’m no Christian, the Bible has pointedly pinpointed one of the major questions facing us today: what does it profit to gain the world and lose our souls? The main message of popular culture (and I don’t just mean rap) is that profit is more important than principles or, more accurately, profit is the highest principle. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad famously preached that we are what we eat. I believe that’s true not just on the physical level but also on the cultural level… I’m sure you can see where this viewpoint is headed. Mtume, I believe some of the music you’ve selected for the contemporary category has minimal nutritional value. One of the arguments I frequently hear in response to my position is that everything doesn’t have to be politically correct, can’t it just be fun. Is fun by definition backward and “incorrect”? I don’t think so. I think you can have fun without advocating fucking over (profiting off) others. The problem is that we are at a social crisis crossroads. The quality of life in general is diminished and/or deformed. We turn to consumerism to satiate our hungry souls but “things” can’t and don’t replace the nourishment of positive social relationships. These songs exemplify lumpen strengths and weaknesses. But you know what—and here is where the issue gets really, really complex. I prefer to struggle with the lumpen than join the status quo. I am against censorship and against the majority of the self-serving capitalist laws on the books today used to legalize and justify our continued exploitation and oppression. At the same time I know that no society can continue to exist without laws or social norms to regulate behavior and one of the main functions of culture is to teach and reinforce social beliefs and behavior. What may simply seem like entertainment, i.e. “fun,” is actually an advocacy of specific viewpoints. For example, running all through the selected contemporary songs is an emphasis on marijuana use (whether as a product to sell or a drug to consume). I believe marijuana ought to be decriminalized. I believe America is one big drug culture and drug dependency and abuse ought to be directly addressed at the consumer level. Freddy’s dead. Getting high is a crutch to enable the individual to put up with modern life and does little to encourage individuals to get together and change the negative conditions. What I would like to see is music that consciously opposes the status quo and not simply revels in outlaw behavior and living large-ism. I think MC Lyte is obviously headed in a direction I dig but she’s no longer at the epicenter of rap culture. Nor for that matter is Lupe Fiasco a major mover, but he is a young rapper on the rise and I believe his work ought to be encouraged.

Lupe Fiasco’s “Coulda Been” is a track I like a lot. He catalogues life possibilities for most of today’s lumpen and working class youth. It’s an unsentimental portrait that even includes beautiful references to suicide and to mental illness, not that either condition is beautiful in itself but the way Lupe describes the situations is extremely artful. No, “Coulda Been” is not overtly revolutionary, but in this era it’s a strong, leftward blowing wind that pushes us to think critically about who we are and what our conditions are. Mtume, I think you are wrong in thinking that the early rap was just about having fun. It was about having fun in spite of and despite everyday oppression and exploitation, despite miseducation and no education, despite the lack of social services such as cultural centers and youth programs, despite war (Vietnam) and despite economic hard times. One of the hallmarks of black culture is that we have always found a way to squeeze drops of joy out of tons of sorrow. Not only have we sung in a strange land, we have made the world join in our song. I think we just need to be clear about the strengths (and weaknesses) of our musical culture and our people. After all we don’t have to be who this society shapes us to be. We can be something else, something beautiful, something upful, full of life, righteous and wonderful. If we are willing to fight for it, we could be healthy and happy human beings. Our popular music can advocate change, urge us to keep on keeping on, to move on up a little higher. Historically, that’s just what our music has done and that’s the kind of popular music we need today.—Kalamu ya Salaam


Source: Breath of Life 


posted 14 August 2007

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For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 27 December 2011




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