Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bigger Than Hip-Hop... Bigger Than Elections

This article in the Final Call reports on a recent panel that included the voices of insightful writers and activists involved in the hip-hop community.

The panel included author and scholar Michael Eric Dyson, Tonja Styles of Politicalswagger.com, Pamela Woodson of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, and BET's Jeff Johnson.

One would think that this was a a panel assembled by independent grassroots activists; folks with a long history in the base of hip-hop itself. But no, this was a forum sponsored by the Democratic Party during its convention in Denver! Sponsored by College Democrats of America, the forum was entitled "Hip-Hop: Be the Change."

The forum represented all the contradictory aspects of the time we are in right now. Hip-hop's potential to play a role in real social change was hit upon repeatedly during the night. Dyson commented that between Will.I.Am and Nas, hip-hop's "radical political potential" was being unleashed. Yet the heavy atmosphere of "Vote" seemed to loom the entire night. Johnson spent time flashing back to "Vote or Die" during the 2004 elections.

The contradiction was perhaps best represented in the words of actress Tatyana Ali, daughter of the legendary Muhammad Ali, who spoke about what had motivated this flocking of heads into the Obama campaign: “I think young people have showed up in great numbers during the primary and I think they are going to do it again because the issues that are really important in this election are really important to young people—like bringing our friends and loved ones back home from Iraq and taking care of them once they are back. Like education and making sure it is affordable health care and the environment.”

Therein lies the crux. Barack Obama's recent words and actions seem to raise serious questions about whether he will do any of those things. From his sabre-rattling against Pakistan to his insistence on targeting Black fathers as "irresponsible," Obama has shown a willingness to be part and parcel of the same Democratic Party that has betrayed us time and again.

There's no doubt that the Obama campaign has inspired young people and artists to become involved in not just the election, but activism in general. The idea of "hope" is a lot more palpable now than it has been for a long time. Yet one thing that seemed make itself known during the night was that hip-hop itself has a much bigger potential than just elections. In many ways, that potential bucks everything that the Democrats, and Obama, ultimately stand for.

Even in Nas' "Black President," talked about throughout the night, the rapper questions whether Obama is for real or not. Many other artists who have thrown themselves into the campaign have still tempered their gusto with a healthy dose of skepticism. That's a skepticism clearly rooted in the long history of disappointments from the Democrats.

Which is where hip-hop's true soul shows its face. Later in the night, Dyson made clear that there have been plenty of politicians who sought to use the music for their own gain. Yet ultimately, the music holds a "political energy that cannot be controlled."

That's an energy--and indeed a power--that will explode forth with the rise of a real movement for social change that goes well beyond the scope of any election. The question isn't whether Obama will win, but whether this enthusiasm will be nurtured and fostered past November by our own activism.

Ironically, the best statement quoted in the article came from a representative of BET: "I’m more concerned about these young people rallying tomorrow about police brutality, and lack of resources in their communities than I am about them voting in the November. Because if they’re not willing to fight for the issues in their communities now, it doesn’t matter if Barack Obama, John McCain or Jesus is in the White House, because at the end of the day, if we aren’t fighting for our own communities nobody is going to do it.”

Bob Johnson must be shaking his head right now.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Big Easy Represent!

I'm compelled to send a shout-out to some new comrades in New Orleans. The Democracy & Hip-Hop Project is dedicated to looking at hip-hop in a way that cuts through the rhetoric of its detractors in the corporate media and those who seek to put it on some kind of unattainable pedestal. Heavily influenced by the social thought of Marxist scholar and activist CLR James, they describe their mission as this:

"The Democracy and Hip-Hop Project (est. 2006) is a site that takes up the strivings and culture of everyday working folks who constitute the hip-hop generation; young women, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, and Arabs."

The posting at D&HHP that really got me excited about their project was this one, an article about hip-hop's relationship to everyday work. In particular, they look at how the frustration and alienation of wage slavery reads in music. Hip-hop can't liberate people on its own, but it damn sure can tell us a few things about how we live and what's wrong with it!

Big up to Krisna and LBoogie!


Friday, September 26, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
The original. Bring the Ruckus? Yup, you could say they do that. This album shook up the whole world of NYC hip-hop, and helped rap transition into a hardcore, unapologetic direction during the decline of Native Tongues. In fact, it's easy to hear the heavy jazz influence here that was also a big part of that previous era. Still, between the subject matter and the brash delivery, it was clear we were entering a new, darker era that reflected the unspoken side of the Giuliani years. Hell, even the sketches have a bit of foreboding to them.

2. Radiohead - In Rainbows
Something about an imminent financial collapse makes this album so apropos. Its collision of sparseness and grinding guitar work make it the music equivalent of Children of Men: dystopian yet eminently possible. Furthermore, Thom Yorke's own ability to get inside the most intimate aspects of personal alienation give the songs even more power. Plus, as folks become more strapped for cash in the coming months, albums available for free online will look more and more attractive.

3. Alice In Chains - Jar of Flies
When a hard-edged band starts experimenting with softer sounds, the results can be mixed. Not here. AIC simply found a way to get at the heart of the vulnerability that had always been at the center of grunge. Jerry Cantrell's guitar work--the seamless blending of rich acoustics with distorted solos--is brilliant. Knowing that Layne Staley would die of an overdose eight years after the record's release makes the vocals here that much more heartrending, especially on tracks like "Nutshell" and "No Excuses."

4. Rage Against the Machine - Evil Empire
Have been on something of a Rage kick since the convention protests. Folks can debate endlessly about which is the best Rage album and get nowhere. Each one is brilliant on its own in its ability to effectively respond to whatever is going on in the world. When "People of the Sun" hit, it was in the upshot from the Zapatista uprising. "Without A Face" tore down the pretensions of NAFTA in a harrowing way, and the drill-ring of "Down Rodeo" is one of the best tributes to the Black Panther Party made in recent years.

5. Jean Grae - Hurricane Jean the Mixtape
Apart from including "Black Girl Pain," which was arguably the best track off Kweli's The Beautiful Struggle, this mixtape is Jean at her undisputed best. Jean Grae brings an introspective, often vulnerable side to her rhymes without losing the slightest iota of guts or grit. That's a rare talent that even some of the best MCs can't pull off. "A Alikes" is also a highlight where she takes the state of lyricism to task without completely trashing it or sounding elitist. Rumors still circulate about whether Evil Jeanius will be her last. Hopefully not.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sonic Age

Many thanks to my friend and comrade Scott McLemee at Quick Study for finding this video.

Fred "Sonic" Smith is probably one of the most overlooked guitar players in rock history. He was a member of the MC5, and was every bit a monster on the six strings as Wayne Kramer. After they broke up he formed Sonic's Rendevouz Band, which took the radically high-octane sound of the 5 that was so deliciously Detroit and built on it.

The band had a lineup not to be fucked with: former members of some of the quintessential rock bands in Detroit's radical counter-culture like Scott Morgan of the Rationals on vocals, Gary Rasmussen of the Up on bass, and Scott Asheton of the Stooges on drums. But the band was short lived, and during their time they only released one single, "Slang City." Sonic died in '94 of a heart attack. Ironically, right after his death a rekindled interest in the group helped spark the garage rock revival.

It wasn't until '06, though that Easy Action out of England released anything tangible for fans to lay their hands on with a six disc box set including live tracks, basement sessions and unreleased studio material.

Isn't that how it is? One of the most influential guitar players of rock has his legacy ignored, meanwhile Creed get nominated for Grammys.

Once again, extra thanks to Scott for this recording of "Slang City."


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Militant Entertainment: What the RNC and DNC Protests Tell Us About Where Music is Headed

Watching the Democratic and Republican National Conventions each election year is a lot like sitting through a festival of Elvis impersonators. There is guaranteed to be plenty of flash, plenty of slick moves and smooth voices, plenty of nostalgia for some fictional “better times,” but ultimately you’re served nothing you can really relate to in the here and now. Put aside the rhetorical flare of Barack Obama and the lipstick-laden metaphors of Sarah Palin, and the conventions of the two most powerful political parties in the world have all the immediacy a sequined jumpsuit.

The choice of music and entertainment at these conventions speaks volumes. The Democrats had Kanye West, a significant choice considering this is a party that still seeks to keep rap’s more controversial elements at arms’ length. But West’s own limitations mirror those of the Democratic Party all too well: too star-struck by the system to really do anything about it.

As for the Republican Convention, they were entertained by Styx. That’s right… Styx! The power-ballad dinosaurs who have never been afraid to inhabit music’s lowest brow for the sake of making money. For the Republicans, a better choice could not have been made!

Compare these artists to those who played for the unwashed masses outside. While politicians hob-nobbed with corporate executives and turned the dreams of the American electorate into so much political chum, students, workers, artists and musicians were raising their voices to bring real immediacy to the issues of war, racism, poverty and inequality.

The sheer diversity and dynamism of these musical acts make the “official” entertainment look like a yawn-fest. Punk, hip-hop, soul, reggae, folk, indie-rock—the multitude of genres was almost too much to keep track of. From the indie reggae-rock of State Radio to the jazz-funk inflected rap of the Flobots, to the ubiquitous presence of Rage Against the Machine.

The large amount of varying acts at these protests shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The past several years have seen an increase in political music from artists both established and up-and-coming; musicians who, like most in this country, think the world is heading down an increasingly unequal and dangerous path. If the protests are any indication, then there may well be many more artists to come who are willing to give new meaning to the term “popular music.”

Recreate ’68?

Convention season opened with the certainty that the Democrats would nominate their first African-American presidential candidate—a historic announcement that has inspired a lot of hope past the mere personality of Obama. And so, protesters were of all different mindsets about a candidate whose rightward shift flies in the face of his slogans for “change.”

Veteran rocker and radical Wayne Kramer, who remembers when his own group the MC5 were caught up in the police riot at the ’68 convention in Chicago, said in an interview that plans to vote for Obama, but wants to hold his feet to the fire: “I do this [protest] out of a sense of participating in democracy,” Kramer proclaimed. “Democracy requires participation, it’s not just a theory.”

Kramer’s presence wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of those heady days forty years ago. Organizers were aware of the deliberate resonance with the ’68 protests. Indeed, one of the slogans thrown around the most at the protests was “Recreate ’68.”

In that vein, there was an effort to recreate that same spirit of resistance that reached into every aspect of culture during that red letter year. Throughout the convention activists participated in the “Tent State Music Festival,” which treated attendees to an eclectic lineup: Kramer, State Radio, Son of Nun, radical folk stalwart David Rovics, the genre-bending Michelle Shocked, Jill Sobule, The Coup and Jello Biafra were just a sampling of the artists who participated during Tent State.

Certainly not all these performers were of the same mind about voting Obama, however. One of the most recognized radical hip-hop acts of our time, dead prez performed in front of the Colorado state capitol in downtown Denver right in the thick of the protests, where both stic.man and M1 made their thoughts on the elections very straightforward in a freestyle later posted on YouTube:

“You expect me to vote for the lesser of two evils? Never!
It’s more the evil of two lessers
That’s like saying to M[1] choose your oppressor
Pick one: Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter
You want crack or coke, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper?
They’re all fucked up and neither one of them better!”

Whether those marching and bobbing their heads were planning to vote Obama or not, the one thing unifying every voice on the streets was the idea that no matter who is in office, they must be held accountable by pressure from below. That was made very clear on the final night of protests as Tent State was given a send-off by Rage Against the Machine.

Thanks to a lot of overblown hype from the mainstream media, its feasible that Rage were the most high-profile aspect of the DNC protests. It was a frustrating development considering that their show, which also featured the Flobots and other artists, was intended as merely a prelude to the march lead by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Nonetheless, RATM was willing to put actions behind their words when they brought members of IVAW onstage with them before beginning their set.

By all accounts, the show was electrifying. More importantly, the IVAW march perfectly displayed the kind of strength that veterans can have in this movement. Directly defying orders not to approach the Pepsi Center, the vets and the thousands following them simply walked right through the line of police, who stepped aside rather than risk the embarrassment of having to beat up a former soldier.

Police On My Back

It was in St. Paul, however, that the police showed their true colors. Given the amount of physical repression doled out to activists at the RNC, there’s a certain amount of irony in activists’ application of the “Recreate ‘68” slogan to the Democratic convention.

A doubly sick irony was that the Republicans kicked their soiree off on Labor Day. Given the eight-year onslaught on workers’ living standards overseen by the Bush White House, choosing this date seemed to be rubbing it in the face of those anyone who has worked hard for so little.

Protest organizers saw very little humor in this. That same night the “Take Back Labor Day” concert took place on the south bank of the Mississippi River. Once again, the night brought a varied bunch of highlights. Billy Bragg lead the crowd in “There is Power in a Union.” Tom Morello, in his Nightwatchman alter-ego, brought anti-war vets onstage to sing “This Land is Your Land” (including the much more explicit “lost verses”). Mos Def dedicated “Undeniable” to New Orleans, possibly besieged once again by the specter of Hurricane Gustav. A recently reunited Pharcyde performed all their classics.

Even as attendees departed this relatively calm event, cops were still waiting to hassle them, even shutting off bridges to the mainland until finally and inexplicably letting people pass. This kind of craven intimidation characterized the whole convention. Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman was arrested along with her crew while covering the protests. Innocent bystanders were often brutalized and arrested as cops and protesters clashed. And of course, there were the ridiculous charges of “terrorism” leveled against activists arrested the night before the events even began!

Sure enough, musicians were also caught up in this atmosphere of heavy manners. At the IVAW conference held in the days running up to the RNC, Baltimore political MC Son of Nun was among many activists harassed, and was even singled out by police himself after being tailed by a hotel manager. As it played out, eight officers held him for a half-hour before letting him go, but it was a blatant example of racial profiling and police repression that smacked more of the Jim Crow south. As SON himself put it, “I’ve never been kicked out of a hotel before.”

The crackdowns extended throughout the whole weekend. At a rally/festival that Tuesday, as Anti-Flag finished their set, the rumors that RATM would also be playing at this demonstration were quickly dashed by the police, who fallaciously claimed that the permit for the park had expired. The entire crowd erupted into a defiant chant of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Not to be deterred, Zack De la Rocha and Tom Morello took the stage nonetheless to perform an a-capella version of “Bulls on Parade” that humorously featured Morello mouthing his iconic guitar part into a megaphone before joining the march to the convention center.

The Sound of Rebellion

When asked by Rolling Stone why he participated in the march, Morello simply stated “I think it’s important to call out the economic crimes at home and the war crimes abroad while they’re [the Republicans] are here… Not to let them get away with it while the media is focused here. It’s important to get that message out… to have that amplified alongside the B.S. messages being spouted from the podium”

In the days of and directly following the RNC, newspapers were filled with all manner of B.S. Those arrested were written off as “anarchists,” “violent.” Mainstream media treated protesters and musicians with either indifference or contempt. To some, the large amount of radical music acts was simply proof that these activists weren’t “serious,” and were only there to “cause mischief.”

It wasn’t only a slander against the already bruised and battered protesters, but a slight against the role music can play in movements. More than a hundred years ago, Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill famously explained that “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”

In the thick of protests, with the urgency of injustice passionately felt by all the participants, and the threat of violence and repression looming overhead, the strength and inspiration that can be gleaned from these songs can be almost as important as the ideology and tactics.

By now, it’s obvious to all but the most cynical of commentators that people are fed up with the direction of this country, and growing numbers are willing to put real action behind this frustration and anger.

Where this goes past the election is anyone’s guess, but one can hope that these protests are only the early rumblings of something bigger. If that’s the case, then popular rebellion can’t help but bring large sections of the artist and musician communities with it.

Truly popular music. What a concept.

Originally appeared on SleptOn.com


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

T(I)NC: "Cross of My Calling" release date announced!

The long-awaited followup to The (International) Noise Conspiracy's brilliant and revolutionary Armed Love is set to be released on November 25th.

Cross of My Calling is their second effort in a row with the legendary Rick Rubin. Its sound builds on their particular flavor of righteous stripped down garage rock, while integrating elements of late-60s, Doors-style grooviness.

With the garage rock resurgence arguably at its height, and with the growing dissatisfaction among young people with the state of this dangerous and unequal planet, it will be interesting to see if this album will take T(I)NC to new plateaus.

For those who can't wait to hear a sampling, check out their myspace page for a listen to "The Assassination of Myself," or go here to hear "I am the Dynomite."


Monday, September 22, 2008

Hip-Hop: Still Not the Enemy!

A judge in Riviera Beach, a Florida city of around 30,000 residents, recently ruled that the town's "saggy pants law" is unconstitutional after 17-year old Julius Hart was arrested and spent the night in jail for the heinous offense of "exposing too much underwear."

The law was passed by voters in March, and threatens a $150 fine and jail time for repeat "offenders." The ridiculous nature of this law was made clear by the young man's public defender, Carol Bickerstaff, when she said "your honor, we now have the fashion police." Bickerstaff continued: "the first time I saw this particular fashion, I disliked it... then I realized I'm getting old."

The "age divide" apart, there is something a lot more insidious about a ban on baggy pants, a style most readily associated with hip-hop culture. Riviera Beach is a majority Black city. Its median income is below the poverty line. Because of its prime location on the Lake Worth Lagoon, it is being heavily targeted for gentrification, with elected officials frequently using eminent domain as an excuse to kick poor Blacks out of their housing.

The author of the law is Riviera Beach's mayor, Thomas Masters. Masters has been a strong proponent of this "redevelopment," and had campaigned vigorously to allow development companies to use city property. Those who have spent any time in a neighborhood under the shadow of gentrification can attest to how over-zealous cops can get in these areas.

The targeting of baggy pants, in essence the targeting of hip-hop culture, is yet another flimsy way of criminalizing young Blacks. It is backdoor racial profiling, a way to keep people of color divided and scared while their very right to a roof over their heads is stolen from them. It's a convenient tool when trying make way for condos and Starbucks.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
"Kill the Poor" pretty much embodies what made this album so outrageous to established music norms. It is snarky, nasty, sarcastic and irreverent. Biafra's voice has all the sneering vitriol he became famous for. Despite the massive amount of comedy the group uses, it's always clear who the target is. Folks forget that Biafra was also a student of theatre, so he was incredibly adept at fitting a song's subject to its sound. Of course, there's no better example than "Holiday in Cambodia," whose maniacal menace seems to encapsulate the depraved tyranny he has spent his life sending up.

2. One Day as a Lion - One Day as a Lion EP
John Theodore and Zack De la Rocha have created a stellar piece of work here. For those who might be concerned that this project might be a Rage rehash, rest assured, it is something entirely unique. Theodore's virtuosity on the drums is a perfect compliment to Zack's uncompromising vocals, and help show how versatile the latter's lyrics can be (often sung as well as rapped). Between these two and the harsh buzz of the keyboards (the only other instrument used on ODAAL), this EP is an magnificent start for a group with all the incendiary power that these two rebellious masters have behind them.

3. Orbital - Works 1989-2002
Orbital created some of the most intricate tracks to come out of the UK rave scene during the 1990s. This retrospective sums up the trajectory taken by that entire movement during its rise to prominence. The atmospheres that the Hartnoll brothers were able to craft vary from the menacing to the exalting, much the same way that scene would on any given night, during any given hour. Thought it may be cliche to site their best-known song, their highlight was without a doubt "Halcyon + on + on." You can practically feel the late night London wind on your face if you close your eyes and listen to it.

4. Mos Def - The New Danger
Mos has that rare talent for keeping his samples rather simple, yet the resulting product always sounds deep and eclectic. His melding of blues, soul and rock are effective. Much like Jello Biafra, he is skilled at meeting lyrical content with musical feel. He is also a lyricist with a flare for the thematic. Throughout this album, the rootsy moods are used to effectively connect with the legacy of great black music, and he frequently returns to the theme of the bastardization of rap (see "The Rapeover," which was removed from the second printing of The New Danger for lines like "some tall Israeli is running this rap shit").

5. Music From the Motion Picture Frida
Julie Taymor's film did justice in communicating how Frida Kahlo poured every inch of what she went through as a human being into her art. The soundtrack is similarly rich, soulful and diverse. Eliot Goldenthal's compositions tie together tracks in a seamless way and create a soundscape that is part earthy, part mystical. In short, this is a magico-realist album with deep folk roots. Lila Downs features prominently on this soundtrack, who brings all of her theatrical flare to songs like "Alcoba Azul" and "Estrella Oscura." The final track "Burn in Blue" is simply gorgeous, bringing in both Downs and Nuevo Cancion icon Caetano Veloso. Taymor and Goldenthal took great pains for this soundtrack to stay true to the beauty of often overlooked Latin American music.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

To Smear a King

Below is an article that comes courtesy of left-wing music blogger span style="font-weight:bold;">David Larson. It is an article that tackles a question that is still quite controversial in progressive music circles: "was Elvis Presley a racist?"

Readers may remember my obituary for Bo Diddley, where I quote Diddley's words about Elvis copying Diddley's work. This much I stand by, though it does not mean Presley was a talentless plagiarist, or anything less than a great musician and performer. It certainly doesn't mean he was a bigot.

Despite some rather right-wing views he developed later in life (supporting the Vietnam War, dismissing the 60s counter-culture), calling the man a racist misses the point. At its core, the article that Larson has penned gets at a deeper and much more fundamental question: "is it possible for music to reach across racial boundaries, even segregated ones?"

Larson answers that question definitively.


To Smear a King:
Crossing swords with the power of myth

by DC Larson

It has become something of a tradition, albeit a regrettable one. As the August anniversary of Elvis Presley's 1977 death approaches, self-righteous hectors villify him as "racist."

It is a false claim, though for some one not requiring that examinable evidence ever be produced. But putting one's hands on contrary testimony is easily done.

The myth-debunking website Snopes.com (on its "Urban Legends Reference Page") details the origin of the counterfeit claim. The site cites Michael T. Bertrand's book "Race, Rock, and Elvis."

Bertrand had found that the April 1957 issue of the white-owned Sepia magazine contained the article, "How Negroes Feel About Elvis." The piece noted that, "colored opinion about the hydromatically-hipped hillbilly from Mississippi runs the gamut from caustic condemnation to ardent admiration." It offered views allegedly collected from both celebrities and "people in the street."

Snopes writes, "Presumably from the 'people in the street' came the infamous and uncredited quotation, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."

Sepia sought input from African-American Minister Milton Perry. "I feel," Perry told the magazine, "that an overwhelming majority of people who know him speak of this boy who practices humility and a love for racial harmony. I learned that he is not too proud or important to speak to anyone and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, wherever and whenever they approach him."

It was not long, though, before the anonymous, 'people in the street' comment was being falsely attributed to the singer, himself. Again, Snopes. "The rumor grew and spread throughout 1957. It mattered not that the story came cloaked in impossible details, such as Elvis supposedly making the statement in Boston (a city he had never visited) or on Edward R. Murrow's Person To Person television program (on which Elvis never appeared)."

Unable to source the rumored comment, the website records, Jet magazine sent reporter Louie Robinson to interview Presley on the "Jailhouse Rock" set. ("The 'Pelvis' Gives His Views On Vicious anti-Negro slur" Jet, August 1, 1957)

"I never said anything like that," Presley told Robinson. "And people who know me know I wouldn't have said that."

A number of fellow musicians, whites and blacks, came to Presley's defense at the time. Notable among them was R&B singer Darlene Love, who had backed Presley with vocal group the Blossoms. "I would never think that Elvis Presley was a racist," Love was later quoted as saying in a 2002 article. "He was born in the South, and he probably grew up with that, but that doesn't mean he stayed that way." ("False Rumor Taints Elvis," Cox News Service, August 16, 2002)

(Other contradictory direct evidence exists on Charly Records's 2006 "The Million Dollar Quartet, 50th Anniversary Special Edition." In 1956, Sun Records alum Elvis joined Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at the Memphis studio for an impromptu session. Prior to a loose, collective retelling of his then-chart hit, "Don't Be Cruel," Elvis related seeing Billy Ward and the Dominoes's recent cover performance of it. "Much better than that record of mine," Presley concedes. He describes Ward's onstage energy: "He was hittin' it, boy!" Jerry Lee responds, "Oh man, that's classic!" Performers naturally admiring a fellow performer; not a hint of color consciousness to be found.)

Myths, though, are of a seductive quality -- often for cultural reasons other than themselves. This popular legend-based anti-Elvis sentiment persists, with recent illustrations including Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" (1989) and Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead" (1990).

(To his credit, Public Enemy's Chuck D. later expressed a more complex and nuanced opinion. He told a reporter, "As a musicologist -- and I consider myself one -- there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As black people, we all knew that...My whole thing was the one-sidedness -- like, Elvis's status in America made it seem like nobody else counted. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes..."Chuck D. Speaks on Elvis's Legacy," Associated Press, 8/12/02.)

As noted in an 8/11/07 New York Times op-ed ("How did Elvis get turned into a racist? ") by author Peter Guralnick, singer Mary J. Blige also cited the scurrilous myth as if it were at all based in fact.

Of course rock'n'roll existed prior to Presley's 1954 recording debut at Sun Records in Memphis. It was in some cases electrifying and wondrous in ways known only to audiences and subsequent vinyl collectors.

But the national stage appearance of Crown Electric Co. truck driver Elvis marked -- not an example of white culture appropriating something blacks had already developed but for which they were denied credit -- but the emergence of the hitherto-unrepresented working class into popular culture visibility.

In early years, Elvis did perform for segregated audiences in the pre-Civil Rights-era South. But for critics highlighting that to be fair, they need to note that segregation of public facilities was then a matter of civil law and not of performers's choosing.

Some might hold that, that being the case, performers had a moral duty to refrain entirely from public performance. But that would have made performing impossible for all musicians, black as well as white. And for many, it's as much a calling as a profession.

A Memphis, Tennessee contemporary of Presley's, Paul Burlison first earned renown as lead guitarist for Johnny Burnette and the Rock'n'Roll Trio. I interviewed him for a 2000 Goldmine article. He shared something of what the situation was like for working musicians in that time and place.

Paul was in a country band in 1951, when he caught the attention of blues man Howlin' Wolf. He began backing Wolf on the latter's radio program, though due to racial codes, Burlison's name could not be cited in group introductions.

"The reason I didn't play in the clubs with him was because of the racial thing back then," Paul told me. He recalled having to enter black clubs through back doors and said of Wolf, "It was the same with him if he came up to where we were playing. We would have liked to have [played clubs together], of course. It just wasn't permitted in those days. Not in Memphis, anyhow."

(Before his death in 2003, Paul's credits included not only rockabilly genre pioneering giants the Rock'n'Roll Trio, but international solo work and a 1990s showcase at the Smithsonian Institution.)

The "Elvis was racist" article-of-faith mantra is an offshoot of the larger fiction holding against evidence that rock'n'roll is exclusively black in origin. But Tennessee rockabilly guitar man Carl Perkins did not sound like venerated shouter Big Joe Turner, nor did the frantic storms of Jerry Lee Lewis recall the risible and urbane stylings of Fats Waller -- though all helped develop the music.

In his invaluable volume, "Unsung Heroes of Rock'n'Roll," veteran music writer Nick Tosches noted that the burgeoning sound which spread across 1950s America began in regional pockets and was of mixed parentage.

"Rock'n'roll was not created solely by blacks or whites," wrote Tosches. Earlier, after dispatching mono-racial rock'n'roll creation arguments, the author observed, "One could make just as strong a case for Jews being the central ethnic group in rock'n'roll's early history; for it was they who produced many of the best songs, cultivated much of the greatest talent, and operated the majority of the pioneering record companies."

Difficult as it would be to construct an exhaustive review of early rock'n'roll without citing Doc Pomus, Mort Schuman, Les Bihari, or Sid Nathan, it is telling that many of today's race-as-creative-qualification theorists might not even be able to identify those men, significant to the style's germination though they were.

Rock'n'roll was more than just music, it acted as a socially-unifying wing of the growing civil rights movement, uniting people on the dance floor just as others would come together in polling places. (Not to paint an overly-rosy portrait. It was not the entire solution. But it did help immeasurably to spur the phenomenon.)

It is flatly anti-creative to argue as some do that an individual or community can "steal" art from another, and that instances of blended creation be discouraged and reviled. That's how art is created. One artist inspires another, an idea is raised up, turned around, and new art is born.

Concepts like ownership, territoriality and separatism are wholly foreign to the phenomenon. (Which is not to argue that these invalid notions are still not useful for some; indeed, Mos Def founds the narrative of his 2002 "Rock and Roll" upon that very sand.)

Too, this involves a fundamental issue, that of reason versus emotion. There is evidence -- which merits intellectual regard and can convert the unsympathetic -- and there is self-righteously uncritical passion. It is the latter that animates the "Elvis was racist" lie.

That untruth is comfortable within a cultural posture that pronounces it acceptable and proper for genuine histories of oppression and appropriation to be universally assigned so as to include any specific instance or individual the speaker might select.

It is a model in which an argument's merit turns not on soundness, on actual provability, but merely on the identity and cause of the arguer; in which unfounded partisan sentiment assumes all the legitimacy of objective fact and demands respect as such.

There is a long and reprehensible history of struggling artists being denied rightful due. And both black and white musicians were so victimized, indicating that the matter is one perhaps more of business predation and of class than racial prejudice.

Critics are correct to point out that elements of white-dominated mass popular culture have at times assumed and reinvented black culture-born idioms, while paying neither due acknowledgment nor recompense. Deserving artists went unnoticed -- and that was criminal.

But such critics expose themselves as intellectually illegitimate and unethical when they seek to superimpose that tragic broad reality upon every specific target that might be tactically magnetic, without benefit of evidence. (And yes, it is ironic that while Presley's 1950's white racist detractors despised his music's multi-racial sensibility, many of his contemporary ones castigate him for the identical reason.)

Elvis was one of many talented men and women whose music helped American popular culture become representative of all the country's people. To ignore that today and instead proffer slanderous myths is an affront not only to his contributions and the prize of racial unity but to the intellectual ideals of honesty and reason.

DC Larson is the CD Review Editor for Rockabilly Magazine. His freelance pieces on music and politics have appeared in Goldmine, Rock & Rap Confidential, No Depression, and Blue Suede News. Adapted from an article that ran in Counterpunch in 2007, this piece first appeared on the author's blog, http://www.dclarson.blogspot.com.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Peter Camejo, Presente!

Peter Camejo, a lifelong socialist, activist in the Green Party and Ralph Nader's running mate in 2004, died on Saturday of lymphoma. He was 68.

Camejo was part of the uprisings of the 1960s. As a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Berkeley, he was an integral part of the most revolutionary sections of the young counter-culture. Hack historians love to look at the 60s--especially in Berkeley--as nothing more than a bunch of naive middle-class hippies smoking dope and swaying to Jefferson Airplane. In reality, that side of the decade would never have existed if not for the very serious challenge being presented to the repression of the established order.

Camejo and others like him represented the most serious embodiment of that revolutionary challenge. He marched with Dr. King. He was put on Governor Ronald Reagan's list of the ten most dangerous Californians for his high visibility in the anti-war and civil rights movements. In 1976, he was the SWP's presidential candidate.

As the 60s gave way to the 80s, as Reagan himself replaced the calls for revolution in the United States, the party he was a member of regressed into confusion, infighting and political obscurity. Camejo, however, remained a true believer in the cause of a better world.

His activism in the Green Party was part and parcel of this. He was never cowed by the accusations of "spoiler" so often leveled at the Greens. Even as the party itself was split in 2004, he always made the case for a principled alternative party that would fight for peace, justice and equality. His last appearance was at the Peace and Freedom Party's convention in California where he urged an endorsement of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign this election year.

In an interview given to Socialist Worker in 2005, he talked of the new challenges facing the possibilities of a new left in California, Camejo retained a real optimism:

"The last wave of radicalization, in the 1960s, started in Japan and other countries, with mass demonstrations and then began to slowly sweep the world. In America, it started with the civil rights struggle, and then expanded into the antiwar movement--producing what became known as the '60s, with the revival of the women's movement and gay liberation. These waves have come in America every 30 to 40 years. We had one at the turn of the century, which was known as the progressive movement. We had it in the 1930s in what was known as the labor movement. We had it in the 1960s. I suspect that we may be very close to the beginning of another massive wave."

Camejo knew better than most what those kinds of massive waves can look like, and there is plenty of reason to believe he was onto something. From the mass dissatisfaction with the war, to the urgency people feel about their very livelihoods, to the musicians and activists who linked arms at this year's convention protests, the processes that Camejo knew so well in the 60s could very well be underway right now.

Peter Camejo knew that a culture of repression can only exist for so long without being countered by one of equity and justice. He also knew that ordinary people, given the right resources, are the only ones who can create that alternative.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Soulless Ad Agencies Strike Again!

Perhaps folks have by now heard that a specially-commissioned song written by Jack White for the new James Bond movie recently popped up in a Bond themed advertisement for Coke Zero. Turns out that the song was used without his knowledge or permission. His managers released a statement recently:

"Jack White was commissioned by Sony Pictures to write a theme song for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, not for Coca-Cola. Any other use of the song is based on decisions made by others, not by Jack White. We are disappointed that you first heard the song in a co-promotion for Coke Zero, rather than in its entirety."

Maybe the ad execs thought that because the White Stripes like to dress up in the same colors as the Coke can, it would be all cool. It wasn't.


Friday, September 12, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Michael Franti and Spearhead - All Rebel Rockers
This album sounds exactly how you might expect a reggae record to sound if it were made by Michael Franti, and there is not a damned thing wrong with that. Franti is doing his best to channel the rebellious sounds of Jamaica into this, his newest, even relocating to Kingston and working with Zap Mama and Cherine Anderson on certain tracks. What's striking is the amazingly sharp acumen he had in recognizing how much the sound of the pressure drop relates perfectly to our times. If this era isn't one of heavy manners, then I don't know what is.

2. Anything by Dennis Brown
This man, the man Marley called the "crown prince of reggae," the practical founder of lover's rock, recorded over 75 albums over the course of the thirty year career. So I ask, how do you pick a favorite? Frankly, I've been just skipping through my collection of his stuff. On the whole, his earlier material is more preferable for its rootsiness, and the clarity of his voice, which wore on with time. It's a sound possibly best identified with his early single "Brothers," released at the height of the fighting between the Michael Manley's Jamaican National Party and Edward Seaga's Labour Party, a fight that brought the country to the brink of civil war. Heavy manners indeed.

3. Son Volt - Okemah and the Melody of Riot
Where do you stand in the Jeff Tweedy/Jay Farrar split? If you were to look at sheer number of records sold and awards won, you would gather most prefer Tweedy and Wilco. Not me. I take Farrar's Son Volt hands down. This record is the reason why. The recreation of the hard, twangy trad-rock styling is almost impeccable here, giving you a vision of that American heartland we don't hear about too much these days. Set against Farrar's own cries against war and loneliness, you get the impression that maybe it's a heartland very much in danger.

4. The Clash - Give 'Em Enough Rope
This album is frequently derided simultaneously as over-produced (read: too mainstream) and too static (read: too punk). I wonder if these critics have even listened to the album. There is that classic freneticism of looming social struggle in "Tommy Gun," "Guns on the Roof," and the menacing classic "English Civil War." There is that tip of the hat to rock 'n' roll's glory in "Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad." And who can not love the tongue-in-cheek-ness of the opener "Safe European Home?" If this is a below-standard Clash album, then it's only a testament to their genius.

5. Papoose - A Bootlegger's Nightmare
Pap has an ability to hype himself without making it sound like the empty bravado of studio-gangsterism. Perhaps that's because his skills are flat-out sick, perhaps it's because he allows ample time for self-reflection, it's hard to say. In Bootlegger his versatility is on display as he works with no less than eleven producers and holds his own next to guest-stars like Ghostface, Bun-B, and his fiancee Remy Martin. He's one of those quickly rising MCs whose sheer artistry defies either label of "gangster" or "conscious," and that bodes well for the direction of rap in general.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Guthrie Lives!

Sheryl Crow, the Black Keys and Son Volt are among the artists slated to play at “This Land is Your Land: A Tribute to John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie and the American Spirit,” which will take place in Concord, California on Saturday, September 20th.

According to the press release, “Themes depicted by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie more than half a century ago still resonate with Americans concerned about climate change, income disparity, and home foreclosures.”

Indeed, with jobs running thin while money is spent on war and corporate bailouts, with union power the lowest it's been in a century, and with the very air we breathe becoming more toxic by the day, it's hard to argue that we don't desperately need artists with that same fighting spirit that Guthrie helped shape so well.

The show will also feature Cat Power, Mike Ness, and a spoken word performance by Henry Rollins. Perfomers were specifically chosen for their history of social activism and advocacy.

Tickets can be purchased at LiveNation.com.


Monday, September 8, 2008

A Different Brand of Humor at the VMAs

If MTV is the massive, monolithic bastion of music's lowest common denominator, then their yearly Video Music Awards are the hulking, empty-headed sentinel standing outside the gates. This year's show was, for the most part, no exception. Between Britney Spears' umpteenth comeback to the litany of unremarkable sounding presenters, nominees and musical guests (Kid Rock? Really?), MTV delivered the same sanitized uninspired material that has had viewers reaching for the remote the past few years.

To many music devotees, it's no news that the network is out of touch, and has been for some time. Which is precisely why the controversy surrounding Russell Brand's comments are so refreshing. Whether Brand is funny or not is a point of debate and ultimately a matter of taste. What can't be denied, however, is that Brand's opening monologue brought a much needed dose of reality to a show that has long had its head shoved up its own... well, you know.

Right off the bat, Brand openly called for a vote for Obama:

"Now, as a representative of the global community and a visitor from abroad, I don’t want to come across a little bit biased, but could I please ask of you people of America, to please elect Barack Obama! Please! On behalf of the world. Some people, I think they’re called racists, say that America is not ready for a black president. But I know America to be a forward-thinking country, right. Because, otherwise, you know, would you have let that retarded cowboy fellow be president for eight years? We were very impressed. It was nice of you to let him have a go. Because in England, George Bush wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors."

He went on to rip into Sarah Palin and the Republican Party:

"And I feel most sorry for that poor teenaged father. Boy! One minute, he’s just a teenaged lad in Alaska having joyful, unprotected sex, and the next minute, 'Get to the Republican convention!' I think that is the best safe sex message of all time: use a condom or become Republican!"

Though the straight politics more or less stopped there, Brand continued throughout the night to push the sex button by mocking the Jonas Brothers' chastity vows, at one point brandishing a "promise ring" as if he has won it from the Brothers.

Brand's s performance set off a flurry of right-wing angst. Almost immediately, MTV's message boards were filled with comments denouncing Brand as "anti-American," with many demanding he be deported. Michelle Malkin called Brand's monologue a "screed." And of course, there were predictable comments demanding that the FCC intervene. Of all the blog-o-riffic outrage, though, the most commonly heard was that the VMA's are "about music, not politics."

That Brand provoked such anger among the right wing isn't too surprising. Most of them are fine with the VMAs being their normal, vapid selves. Most of these same people don't have a problem when artists spout on about patriotism and supporting the troops, let alone the countless times that MTV runs recruiting ads for the US Army.

For its part, MTV has historically gone out of its way to keep any politics that even vaguely counter the status quo as far away from its viewership as possible. This is the same network that refused to play any videos from groups that opposed the invasion of Iraq and banned MIA's "Sunshowers" for references to the PLO.

To this day MTV buries any video of even moderate social conscience in the wasteland of late night and early morning programming, if they decide to run it at all. That Brand's comments actually made it onto the program comes sheerly from the fact that it was being broadcast live.

In short, Malkin and company aren't upset that the VMAs suddenly got political; they're upset because Brand represents the direction in which this country is shifting. The polls speak for themselves: 80 percent think the US is headed in the "wrong direction." Most think that America is indeed ready for a Black president. Bush's approval rating is now slightly lower than that of Nixon's corpse. No matter what Obama may or may not be, it's clear that people in the US and the entire world are pretty sick of business as usual in Washington.

As for the Brand's ribald mocking of the Jonas Brothers' rings, the furor it has provoked is as equally out of touch as those raising the hue and cry of a "politics free zone." Later in the night, "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks defended the rings: ""I just wanna say, it's not bad to wear a promise ring because not every guy and girl wants to be a slut, OK?"

Sparks completely missed the point, and in many ways fed into the kind of misinformation and sexism behind the Republican right's "abstinence only" stance. The Jonas Brothers, a group of home-schooled Evangelical Christians posing as rock stars, are merely the face of a wider agenda that doesn't deter teen pregnancy, does nothing to stop the spread of STDs and ultimately leaves young women dangerously vulnerable. It's an agenda that has hopefully been even more discredited after the Bristol Palin scandal.

This is what Malkin and right-wing America are so uppity about--that the leaks in the hull have become too numerous, and sticking their fingers in the cracks simply isn't cutting it anymore. It almost was enough to make the VMAs watchable, if only for a few minutes.


Friday, September 5, 2008

What I'm Listening To This Week...

1. The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Survival Sickness
This is sort of the halfway point between the stripped down, mid-60s lo-fi of The First Conspiracy and the rough-edged in-your-face-ness of Armed Love. "Smash it Up" is one of the closest things you'll hear to a modern rock 'n' roll communist manifesto. Folks who don't think rock can be a revolutionary tool haven't heard what T(I)NC can do.

2. Joell Ortiz - Joell Ortiz Time
Many thanks to Pham Binh at Prisoner of Starvation for getting me into this MC. Joell's lyrics are immensely intelligent and gritty, with plenty of those "oh snap" moments. And the beats on this particular mix are deep yet far from overwhelming. Joell has a lot of soul, and a lot more substance than much of what passes for gangsta rap nowadays. "Hip Hop Remix," a collaboration with Jadakiss and Saigon, sets an excellent tone for this mixtape.

3. New Order - Singles
I normally stay away from "collections" like this, especially with groups that produced as much great material on each album. However, this two disc set contains pretty close to all the hits... and New Order not only had a lot of hits, every one of them were spectacular. In particular, Singles is noteworthy for having some great songs that never appeared on any album, including the revelatory "Ceremony," and the irresistible "Temptation."

4. Stevie Wonder - Talking Book
They call this a "crossover" album, but at its core this is 70s soul at its most potent! Perhaps the reason this is Stevie's best effort is because it's the first one where he actually wrenched a significant degree of artistic freedom from the control freakery of Gordie and company. Stevie even took the apex of the Black Power movement to heart in the simple yet poignant, life-in-the-ghetto track "Big Brother."

5. Tom Waits - Small Change
If the Beat movement still lives, it does so in the songs and very existence of Tom Waits. I have no particular preference between his early work and later albums simply because each one is so uniquely eccentric and honest. This early one contains classics that still run the gamut between the heart-wrenching "Tom Traubert's Blues" and the fun, bouncy sendup of the advertising industry "Step Right Up."


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Since I've been gone

Since Rebel Frequencies' official "return," posts have been thin. Obviously, other tasks have preoccupied. However, more posts and articles are most definitely on the way. Chicago is a town with much to write about musically, and the coming months are guaranteed to be fruitful for real rebel music.

Here are some thoughts on many of the events that have taken place since posts let up:

The Gustav Blues

There's no doubt that plenty are wiping their brows after Hurricane Gustav. The media and government are patting themselves on the back, however the reality is that if the storm would have hit at the strength it was anticipated, it would have been Katrina all over again. Three years after the disaster, New Orleans remains completely unprepared for a storm of this magnitude.

The levees can't take more than a level 2 hurricane. Evacuation services were in reality unorganized and far less thorough than the news reported. The city's 12,000 homeless weren't even considered in the efforts. The Superdome has been padlocked, but evacuees are still being kept in substandard housing. And then there's the fact that a large swath of the Big Easy will be without power indefinitely during the hottest time of the year in the Gulf!

It's a stark reminder of what was lost three years ago and what remains lost today. As a music journalist, I still mourn the loss of one of the most important cities in American music history. A place where the Southern blues gestated, where Jazz was essentially born--the home of Louis Armstrong, zydeco and swamp boogie.

Along with the thousands left to drown like rats in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the culture of this great city has all but washed away. Jazz clubs are still shut down, longtime musicians have lost everything, and though there are some great charities out there looking to rebuild all of this, the real estate developers and city council couldn't care less.

Recreating '68

As the Republican Party kicked off its convention with the shadow of their failure in New Orleans looming over them, protesters clashed with police outside. The role that music has played in the protests at both the DNC and RNC has been noteworthy and very exciting this year.

The DNC protests included performances by everyone from Jello Biafra to the Coup, Jill Sobule to Son of Nun. Public Enemy apparently brought the house down on Wednesday night. Entertaining protesters currently engaging in St. Paul have been Michael Franti, Anti-Flag, Matisyahu, Steve Earle. Dead Prez have played for the protesters at both conventions. Then, of course, there is Rage Against the Machine, who have arguably been the most publicized aspect in both cities.

The alliance between musicians and activists this election cycle, as well of course the size of the protests, is a seldom-talked-about testament to where both music and politics in general are going right now. People want a change bigger than anything the mainstream politicians are willing to deliver. The urgency, the excitement, and yes, the hope, are palpable right now.

Are we on the verge of a new '68, musically or socially? Only time will tell. But these protests and performances are proof that both aspects go hand in hand.

Elect me, Baby, One More Time

The RNC hasn't only been overtaken by the attention on New Orleans and Gustav, but by, of all things, the controversy over the news of Bristol Palin's teenage, unmarried pregnancy.

Here's one of those moments when the line between the tabloids and "respectable" media become so blurred you can't tell the difference. Predictably, comparisons have been made to the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears.

In a way, this is the "family values" furor coming back to bite the Republicans in the ass. The vitriolic denunciations flung at Spears are strangely absent when it comes to a conservative vice-presidential candidate who has spent her short political career attacking sex education, condoms in schools, and our "sex obsessed culture."

It's two sides of the same coin: a culture that oversexualizes and objectifies women in television, movies and music (producing people like Spears, and of course, her sister), yet expects them to be absolutely perfect and virginal without society's help.

And just for the record: no, Sarah Palin's family situation doesn't have any bearing on her ability to do the job. It also doesn't affect her ability to look out for the interests of big oil, scapegoat gays, or chip away at a woman's right to choose.

It Takes a Lot of Soul

Isaac Hayes has died. Though I don't know anything about the man's personal politics, the era he represented in music was decisive, even groundbreaking.

The iconic theme to Shaft featured the funky, bass-driven bottom, can't-stop-me-now guitar, and rousing keys and strings that were part and parcel of the early seventies soul and funk that rose out of the Black Power movement. It was an intense, empowered sound that dripped with the feel of the streets, insisted on the powerful humanity of African Americans, and has influenced every genre of music since.

Hayes' place in that movement was crucial. He was a major architect of the STAX sound, possibly the most authoritative label in that movement. Not only did he win Oscars and Grammys for his compositions, but they have been sampled on countless hip-hop tracks, the real testament of far reaching influence.

Chuck D, a friend of Hayes and author of the liner notes to his 2 CD set, called Hayes his "musical godfather." There are few artists today who can deny him that role.


Young Jeezy's The Recession is an attempt to straightforwardly tackle the economic woes of ordinary people, but both his production and rhymes are unremarkable, and pretty standard club tracks. The future of hip-hop this ain't.

Bloc Party released a new album online two weeks ago with only a few days notice. A hard copy will be released later in the fall with different tracks. It's a method of release that definitely builds on the trend of artists putting out music online on their own terms. It's a great compliment to a group who have always played a fiercely independent sound.

Brian Wilson has put out his first album since Smile's long-long-long-awaited completion. It's a portrait of Los Angeles, and all the reviews point to what a surprise it is that the old boy can still craft something this intricate and beautiful. Wilson's genius has been overshadowed by his personal struggles for a long time. That time may have finally ended.

Metallica are releasing Death Magnetic soon. They deserve credit for returning to their raw, fast-as-a-train, pre-Load days... but ultimately, the whole group still need to shut their money-grubbing mouths.

And, of course, there is at long-last buzz over Zack De le Rocha's solo debut A Day as a Lion, an album that very well may end up being a high point in the music of 2008.