Recently I started helping two local DJ’s with their weekly (or semi weekly) radio programs here in Albuquerque. One of the shows is a kind of free form “outsiders” music program (called Other Voices, Other Sounds) and one is focuses on music on the Metal side of the spectrum (called Tombstone Rock). And in the few weeks that I have done this, I have come to realize that being a radio DJ, which is a lost art, is more than just making mix tapes and playing them for the tens of twenties of listeners that tune in weeknights during the midnight hours. The Dj is supposed to be THE connoisseur of music during those three hours over everyone else in broadcast range. In my humble opinion I’d say my friends Derek and Greg are these people for the state of New Mexico, population 2 Million. It’s since forced me to dig deeper into the worlds of music that I love, quickly learning about entire sub-scenes and genres of music I’ve never heard before. Because of Tombstone specifically, I spent most of my weekend on blogs downloading long out of print, forgotten and impossible to find albums by grind, crust, thrash and d-beat bands to both become more familiar with the music and to contribute more eclectic sounds to the playlists that Greg so generously shares. There is still Death Metal, Black, Blacken Crust and all sorts of other heavy sounds I need to explore further since my knowledge and collection of these genres is super limited. I got the heavy hitters like Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary in my death metal collection, but nothing of the hundreds of bands that never quite ascended to those unbelievable heights. My black metal collection is so tiny I don’t even own any Mayhem. It’s mostly just Burzum and some other odds and ends that people have recommended me. But at 35, I am learning, using the skills and tools to my best advantage to hunt down and learn about music and what makes it great.
NPR, in it’s sacrifice of interns has once again let another victim out to slaughter. Austin Cooper just wrote this piece on Hearing Public Enemy’s so-called classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. On one friend’s Facebook feed, the kid got his ears stomped in a bit. And since then I have been trying to figure out if this Cooper kid is an idiot or if perhaps we old folks are being to harsh, or if we have failed the younger generation. It’s hard to believe that an album that changed my perspective on the world in the context of race, politics and economics could leave someone feeling cold. From the “Countdown to Armageddon” to “Party for Your Right to Fight” the album is a scary, visceral, unkept piece of art that leaves me still wanting to hide under the bed. “The Armageddon will not be televised”. This is the bedrock of what hip-hop should have been and never really was. In my mind the underground peeps did more with the music and message of Public Enemy then any other mainstream act (aside from some NAS and Dead Prez). The thunder, the delivery, the anger and rage never really fell out of the radio. Most Hip Hop always left me cold and confused, but Public Enemy turned me over when I was a sophomore in highschool. And I took a lot of shit from a lot of people when I started rocking Fear of a Black Planet, from all sides of the race divide that existed in my 1992 Northern Virginia suburbs.
But for a generation that did welcome in the first black President without much fanfare, it’s not that impossible to see how “She Watch Channel Zero?” doesn’t shake their foundation. No, race relations are not awesome here in 2012, twenty years after Ice Cube, Ice-T, Public Enemy, and so many other so-called “urban” artists started invading white suburban airwaves. But the conversations are different, progress has been made and been made more complicated with a more global dialog taking over. So how important is a Public Enemy of twenty years ago, when everything has moved so fast since then. Most kids knowledge of Flavor-Flav is a reality show that turned him into the minstrel he was always accused of being. How can we expect them to get past that view and take this album seriously? It’s not just the politics that have changed (though there is enough on It Takes A Nation that is still pertinent to today) but music and production have changed. Hip-Hop is one of the genres of music that has vastly improved in expanding its possibilities as technology has gotten better. I can’t and don’t blame Cooper for feeling like this album is light on the surface. Of course it would have done him some good to have at least read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop to get a minimal perspective on HOW hip-hop records were made. Listening back to it now after having sautéed my brain in the latest offerings from Aesop Rock and El-P, the production on It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is lacking. I’m sure Chuck D would say the same. But in a time when break beats were seconds long and looped for minutes and shit was cut to tape like this, the collage art of Public Enemy’s hip-hop was terrifying. Run DMC’s Raising Hell (sadly left off Cooper’s list and the first album I ever bought) is little more than three guys rhyme singing over the most base beats. But that album rips souls too, and acted as a foundation for everything Public Enemy was doing in the early 90’s with their first few albums.
So part of me really can’t blame Cooper. He reminds me of all these kids I keep seeing play music at this all ages center here in Albuquerque. They are terribly talented kids who can play rings around me, but they make the most boring music, have an ego to them that is undeserved and expect to be loved without actually doing any work. They don’t flyer shows, poles, electricity boxes, alternative weeklies or go to each other’s shows. But no-one handed them Get in the Van or Book Your Own Life or any interview with Ian Mackaye. This is a YouTube generation who has access to all this information but has to weed through so much more paid promoted content that how the fuck are they even supposed to find out about Fugazi? How are they supposed to know that the grey haired Rollins was once a trailblazer, creating a network with his band Black Flag, especially when he looks more like their dad then the painted willies (see what I did there) that Tony Victory is paying to get in front of them? This doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule, there are, even in tiny Albuquerque. But they seem fewer and farther between. We have kids more worried about their hair, clothes and make up and how many noodly scales they can play or guttural growls they can maintain, rather than actually taking the technique and making it their own.
On the other end of this, I’ve never heard Drake. It’s not that I am not listening to modern hip-hop, it’s just I’ve given up on pop music as a vehicle for radical ideas and interesting music. I check in every now and then when something seems amiss (Tyler the Creator) or odd (Die Antwood) but other wise the mainstream doesn’t hold much appeal to me. Whatever Cooper thinks is modern hip-hop is not what I think of. He’s from a generation that worships at the feet of an Auto-Tuned Kanye West, mentioning an album so disgusting and unlistenable I’m still having problems understanding how it sold so much. But I’ve heard it, I gave Kanye an honest shot, spending precious time on that piece of shit when I could have been listening to Spazz or Krallice or Mr. Lif or any of the other thousands of hours of music in my library. Why can’t the kids spend the same amount of time?
The comments thread includes insight from The Roots ?uestlove, hip-hops current ambassador of cool. ?uestlove straddles the line of mainstream hype and underground cool. He is universally respected not just in hip-hop circles but in all music circles. When this man speaks, people listen. And I think Cooper and all these snot nosed interns should listen to him when he says you can’t just listen and suddenly get it. Everything needs context. Everything. History is all about understanding the context of the times before yours. This is not an easy task and it takes time. Aesthetics even in music of the past may not appeal to current ears and technological advances do make old albums sound dated. But some work rises above that and a deep read is part of the path to understanding and appreciating the past.
Cooper is being failed by not being given context, though I am sure, much like his colleague Emily White, he’s getting more information thrown at him then he could have ever wanted. And while music is important on a personal level, this approach of his worries me. How does he see history? Does he have a context for it? Does he know how history put him where he is now? Is he one of those kids who tweeted #whosrodneyking? I am terrified for this new twenty-something generation and the whippersnappers coming up behind them, because they are expected to, but not being taught how to learn.