Archive for November, 2009
We can come back to Ready To Die a thousand times here on A Story To Tell and still not run out of things to say. It is simply that great an album. No make that a million times. We all know every nook and cranny of this record, and yet surely we still all get surprising goosebumps when we play it, when the comfort of familiarity momentarily gives way to wonder and awe and a reminder of the brilliance of this unique rapper.
And I had one such moment the other day when listing to the simply sensational “Everyday Struggle”. Now here is a tune that has always been amongst my favourites amongst a glittering selection, but is not often vaunted. And yet it shows off, to my mind, everything that is great about the album itself, and just why Biggie took rap to places no one had yet been, and in many respects no one has been since. Less glitzy than anthems like “Big Poppa”, “Unbelievable” or “Juicy”, much less hardcore than “Warning”, “Ready to Die” or “Gimme The Loot”, it is nonetheless startling.
Lyrically it is immense, an absolute archetype of the story-telling that BIG has become so famed for. Everyday tales of life as a mid-level hustler, dripping with authenticity and yet given an extra depth by its refreshingly stark emotional honesty. Life as a hustler is stressful, paranoid, soul-destroying, and in many ways no life at all. It is racked with self-doubt and self-loathing. And yet those involved in the life are drawn to it again and again, sometimes the only means available to try to improve their lot. A choice yes, but a pre-determined fatalism also. The rewards are few and far between, and soured by the moral emptiness of the process itself. But of course what “Everyday Struggle” also epitomises is the sparse beats of Biggie’s debut, and incredible and unheralded production job on this track from Puff’s team The Bluez Brothers, featuring an inspired jazz sample from Dave Grusin’s “Either Way”. Listen to the original and marvel at how they found it, and then how they thought to even use it. But from start to finish the backing track provides the perfect forum for BIG to spit his tales of life on the street. For me the insistent snap of the snare, especially when it double hits as the chorus begins the song, is the moment that makes the hair stand up on the neck. And it never goes down for the next five minutes.
And then there is the flow. Laced with his trademark doubled and tripled up rhymes coming in quick succession, the faultless delivery intertwined with the beat so seamlessly. I mean seriously, has anyone ever hit it quite so perfectly on the beat? And lyrics that are simply difficult to better. Who in their right mind can effortlessly rhyme Mayor Giuliani with John Gotti and make it sound velvet? Who can switch up the tempo and drop the couplet such as “Heard Tec got murdered in a town I never heard of, by some bitch named Alberta over nickel-plated burners” with perfect pace?
Who can drop so much slang into a rhyme and yet still convey meaning with crystal clarity? It’s Biggie of course, and syllable for syllable this tune simply kills it every time. It has a similar effect on me as the equally brilliant tale told in “Niggas Bleed”, albeit with a different hue in subject matter. But the analysis of that mini-masterpiece will have to wait for now, because on “Everyday Struggle” BIG simply provides the beating heart of his stunning debut.
Let’s not forget the basic ingredients of hip-hop. At its best pure turntablism just can’t be beat. And who better to remind is of this fact than the West Coast’s own DJ Aladdin, killing the DMC’s way back in 1989. This set is priceless, for the skills, but also the selection. Rub the lamp, you’ve got two more wishes left.
Rumours have abounded for a while, but it looks as though it is actually going to happen this winter. I’m talking, of course, about the Wu Massacre, the collaboration between Meth, Rae and Ghostface, that will perhaps continue the Wu renaissance. Touted to drop just before Christmas, and preceded by some “Se7en” inspired trailers already whetting the appetite like a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, the prospect of this album is slightly scary – in a good way.
While Ghostface has never really fallen from his earliest Wu highlights, maintaining a stellar solo output, Raekwon has recently brought all the spotlight back onto himself with Cuban Linx 2, a huge return to form hot on the heels of “8 Diagrams” which is a much better Wu album than perhaps people are giving it credit for. But it is the prospect of perhaps the three brightest Wu emcees on record together, trailed by the outstanding “New Wu” from Rae’s solo cut, that really gets the imagination firing.
If they all bring their A-game this could be one of the truly great records. There is a new Wu movement afott, you can feel it, and they may just be forming like Voltron once more, ready to take the game back. Wu Tang again? Aaaah, again and again….
We don’t have to tell regular readers of these pages how much time we have for Ghostface. Despite him throwing something of a strop and getting all thuggish on us last time he was supposed to put on a show in London town. But let’s let bygones go by, and revel in let another moment of magic from the self-styled Ironman. As if his contributions to best bud Raekwon’s recent and incredible Cuban Linx 2, and reports of stellar performances on the forthcoming “Wu Massacre” are not enough, he’s gone and fully vamped his familiar leaning towards R’n’B on latest long player “Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City”.
Always likely to take it there, this is a record of Ghost and chums having fun, getting their sex on, indulging their love of the smoother sides of classic soul, and just bringing it fully flexed to the table. Massive in parts, over-blown in others, it is still a Ghostface classic. I’ve said it before, the man rarely steps wrong. I just want to know who the cowardly lion in the clan is.
Mos Def said it best on his killer “Black on Both Sides” album. The song was simply entitled “Rock N Roll”, and while it is to my mind one of the weaker musical tracks on an almost universally great record, the sentiments and lyrics are important, reasserting black artists’ legacy and centrality to rock ‘n’ roll music, and updating Chuck D’s infamous “Fight The Power” claim that Elvis isn’t as much as a musical hero to all as we are lead to believe. Because in “Rock N Roll” Mos Def states simply and concisely, amongst other things, that “Chuck Berry is rock and roll”. And rarely has a truer word been spoken.
The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame credits the singer and rhythm guitarist extraordinaire as the closest any one individual gets to being the inventor of the musical style that simply changed the world. An impossible claim in many regards, and yet Berry was the one who brought it all together most coherently in impossibly powerful short bursts of musical genius.
Evident in his mid to late 1950s output is direct linkage to the great Blues traditions of the Mississippi Delta, of folk songs, country and western twang, Spanish strolls, of the evolutionary quantum leap brought about by the emergence of the electric guitar, and of the sheer American Dream embodied in this new sound. Berry’s guitar playing is exceptional, his rhythm and overall instrumental voice the clearest statement yet recorded of where music was about to go.
His lyrics are startlingly complex yet easy on the ear, tales of teenage high jinks mixed with the pure ingredients of American mid-century optimism and shades of emergent black pride and voice. And delivery is aided by the crystal clear and head-shattering diction, a pre-cursor, if ever there was one, of the lyrical flow we all hold so dear in hip-hop today. It all started with Chuck Berry.
And if there is a song that defines the reasons why, then surely it is the jaw-dropping classic “Johnny B Goode”. Released of course on Chess Records in 1958, it is impossible given its ubiquity and influence today to ever understand the impact of this record on first release. Like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in many ways, imagine the sheer thrill of hearing the crackle of needle on vinyl followed by the initial guitar riff, a lick that sets the tone for everything that follows and yet has never been bettered (despite the fact that it is itself a virtually note perfect take off of Louis Jordan’s horns on “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” from as early as 1946). Drum beats stab the rhythm sending jolts of excitement through the listener until Berry explodes over the track with his rhythm guitar take on boogie-woogie piano. And then there is the song itself, a paean to rock’n’roll dreams of stardom that have sustained a million and more wannabes since.
There are many strands to the history of popular music, to the records and artists that we revere today and have done over the years. But trace back any far enough and at some point or another you are going to bump into the music of Chuck Berry, the man who made possible the suggestion that maybe one day your name will be in lights.
I’ve been lucky with some of my early musical discoveries. One of the very first soul songs that I remember falling in love with was Sam Cooke’s “(What A) Wonderful World”, released in 1960. Of course, I didn’t realise at the time quite what a phenomenal discovery this was, and have gone on to discover another wonderful world of his full recorded output. I just recall loving the jauntily uplifting melody, the funky rattle of the drums and simply sensational vocal performance. In particular the moment that Cooke breaks away from the lyrics and cha cha chas and ooh ooh oohs his way into heavenly bliss towards the end. It still sends shivers down my spine now, and remains one of my favourite songs of all time. Sam Cooke’s is a voice that simply transcends genre and age, it is timeless, and one of the greatest ever. What a wonderful world indeed.