Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Revolution in the streets

I've never been much of a TV watcher. Outside of a couple regular programs (Game of Thrones, obviously, and Mad Men), I tend to only turn it on when I'm eating, provided that I'm not already reading something. In doing so yesterday, I came across a documentary on VH1 called Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots. It's a decent effort for a piece that runs all of 65 minutes and attempts to cover a very broad social topic and juxtapose it with the relevant music of the period. While I remember the events like they were yesterday (I was living in a house on North State Street in Ann Arbor and was transfixed in front of the images of the riots on the oak cabinet TV that my housemate, Wendy, had inherited from her grandmother), I hadn't thought about them in years and failed to remember how chilling and infuriating some of the depictions of the violence to both Rodney King and various bystanders in the subsequent riots really are:

As the documentary attempts to explain how the beating and the riots were direct inspirations for things like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, especially the track, "The Day the Niggaz Took Over":

which actually includes soundbites from an amateur cameraman's depiction of the outrage of the crowd following the verdict; and Ice Cube's The Predator, especially the track "We Had to Tear This Motherfucker Up":

which contains soundbites from the news coverage of the ridiculous verdict and the riots; and, of course, Ice-T's "Cop Killer":

which Ice-T has repeatedly stated was directly inspired by the beating of King.

The fascinating thing for me was, while watching it, I felt some pangs of memory from events that had occurred 20 years ago (and the associated "I wonder what happened to..." or "I remember that!" moments) but I had an even stronger reaction to the music being played with the depiction of events. That era of hip hop has always been my favorite and I've found very little since then to be as good (exceptions being Mos Def, The Fugees, Nappy Roots, and all subsequent releases by Public Enemy.) Certainly the textural appeal of much of it being about resistance to the hegemonic system is part of it. No one who knows me could be surprised at my finding public revolt to be an enthralling topic. But, of course, much of NWA's output was in that same vein and I found both Dre and Cube to be far better on their own, both having found their rhythm, literally and figuratively, when they were out from under Eazy-E's thumb. Certainly, accumulated wisdom and experience has something to do with it, but so does their turn toward the archly political and the broader social contexts of that experience, rather than the often more narrow-minded themes of NWA.

Those feelings aren't limited to just thematic subtext. It's really about the music, man! There's a general approach to the sounds and rhythms of that era of hip hop that are really appealing on a visceral level. Looking at my list of exceptions above: Public Enemy was clearly a part of it. Mos Def, while fascinating on a more introspective and often musical level, is much more layered than the basic beats of the time. The Fugees' limited output was also more developed on much of the groundwork that Dre had laid. And Nappy Roots is a whole different social level. The following video, one of the first that I remember replaying repeatedly on Youtube, is a perfect example of that:

(For some reason, the idea of three guys, completely stoned, being totally distracted by the Atlanta Hawk on a scooter while listening to Nappy Roots' "Aw Naw" is endlessly entertaining...) So, while the concepts behind the songs of that time from Dre and Cube and PE are necessarily complex, the music that drives them often isn't. Mos Def can get me to think along those same lines

but I spend more time thinking about the texture of his musical approach than what he's saying, whereas with Ice Cube's Predator, his lyrics are what are foremost in my mind while the music is a primeval undercurrent; a gut feeling, as it were.

So, what is inspirational about all of this? Should one normally be inspired by what was a catastrophe for much of the community (as Jello Biafra used to say: "Tomorrow you're homeless! Tonight it's a blast!")? The underlying problems that built much of the anger that was ignited that day have not been resolved. Ice-T's "economic prison" still exists in the form of unemployment and the often extreme disadvantages in the area for anyone who doesn't happen to be white. In short, the riots lived up to the age-old adage: violence solves nothing (other than providing a short-term wake-up call for the rest of the nation.) But the music continues to move, propel, and inspire. The pragmatist would suggest that redirecting said violence toward the proper targets would produce better results. Given the still-simmering anger evident in the documentary, all it will take is another spark. Will I have the same gut feeling when it begins again?


  1. Did you ever catch Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy? It was a one-album Michael Franti project that I think you'd find engaging, even now 15 or so years after it came out.

  2. Oh, yes. I'm a huge Franti fan. I have that and everything he's done with Spearhead (the best of which is the first album.)