Friday, January 20, 2012

Brian Cross - It's Not About a Salary



I've got all these half-finished posts, including the Best TV of 2011 post, which I said I'd be posting soon but is maybe 1/3 done. This always makes me nervous, because whenever a blogger starts saying he's gonna post something and then it never happens, it's a sign that the blog is about to go dead. So anyway, I'm going ahead with this book review, just to get something out there. There will be more of these coming. And I will get to the TV post, eventually.



As a young hip hop fan, I broke more than one turntable attempting to scratch. When one considers that most records that I have scratched are hip hop vinyl, and that scratching actually damages the vinyl, it becomes clear that Grandwizard Theodore taught us to abuse our most highly prized possessions. He taught us the real possibilities of the commodity (its eventual unplayability/destruction) and made us appreciate its ephemerality.

-Brian Cross (B+)

I heard about this book when the author, Brian Cross, was on Oliver Wang's podcast--a great listen that I highly recommend. It's Not About a Salary is out of print, but I easily picked up a copy from the LAPL. Brian Cross presents a unique take on the history of hip hop in L.A., citing precursors in Central Avenue bebop, scat singers like Slim Galliard, The Watts Prophets, and the vein of spoken word folklore and rhyming that runs through African American culture in the form of toasts, signifying and the dozens. Toasts like "The Signifying Monkey" can be heard in dozens of different forms through the years, and surely informed developing rap.



Toasts come from "the life," which is understood as the occupation of hustlers - people (generally men) who make their living and live a lifestyle related to illegal and semi-legal activities, prostitution, gambling and narcotics...The subjects of toasts are the con, the profession of "turning out" whores, and tales of "the life." These stories are often related to the truth, but more often they are signifying. It seems ironic that the vernacular poetry of an oppressed people should be so concerned with the attributes of the wealthy--clothes, jewelry, cars and a sense of diminished necessity. Today the comic art of the dispossessed outrages with a show of being consumed by the signs of possessions, distinguishing a new generation of popular culture with a frank acknowledgment of the importance of the commodity.



You can see from that paragraph how he's building these connections. Hip hop is rather different from other musical forms (say, bebop or punk or even rock-n-roll--at what exact point do blues or swing become rock?) in that it can be traced to a very specific time and place, but at the same time, it doesn't come out of nowhere. So INAaS attempts to establish a lineage here. It's a very personal, subjective history, but those are always the most interesting kind.

In May 1988 approximately 150 of us were lucky enough to be present for an amazing show at McGonagles, a tiny sweatbox in Dublin. By some amazing chance a small-time local promoter had secured the largely unknown Public Enemy. Both Chuck and Flav offered insight on the similarities of our situations (read Irish and African American) and said things on stage that night that no Irish group would have attempted. Chuck's heavy rhetoric was offset by Flav's jester behaviour: Flav gave a talk on Irish Spring soap and Lucky Charms, two products I personally wasn't aware of until much later.



Cross has a long essay up front where he talks about the history of hip hop and related music in Los Angeles, followed by an alternate take by Ruben Guevara on the Latino culture and its relation to hip hop. Then come the oral histories: some 30 interviews, beginning with bebop drummer Roy Porter, The Watts Prophets, Horace Tapscott, continuing through the early West Coast rap scene (Toddy T, KDAY music director Greg Mack, etc.), Ice-T, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, The Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and on and on, each giving an account of the music scene in L.A. (and lots of industry rule #4,080) up to the time of the interviews (shortly before the L.A. riots).



A lot of anglo kids copied not only the styles (hair, dress) but the dances, the most popular of which were the Pachuco Hop, Hully Gully and the Corrido Rock...the Corrido was the wildest, sort of an early form of slam dancing. Two or three lines would form, people arm in arm, each line consisting of 150 to 200 people. With the band blasting away at breakneck rocking tempo, the lines took 4 steps forward adn 4 steps back, eventually slamming into each other (but making sure that no one got hurt).

-Ruben Guevara

Of course, the true test of a good music book is how many records it sets you on. And INAaS set me on quite a few. For instance, I had no idea that Slim Galliard had recorded a track with Dream Warriors (the Canuck rappers most famous for "My Definition (of a Boombastic Jazz Style)"):



At one point, Cross references "Was (Not Was)'s "The Freaks Come Out at Night" (also covered by Whodini)," and I got very excited. "Freaks Come Out" is a cover? Of a Was (Not Was) song? No way! Well, he got it not exactly right. It's a different song, but it's pretty nice:



Here's a funky Roy Porter jam. I'd actually heard this song before, but man, dig that guitar solo!:



Cross also mentions Charles Mingus' album A Modern Symposium on Jazz and Poetry. Here's a cool track from that album:

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