Thanks to more legal troubles than he has nicknames, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (or is it Big Baby Jesus?) is restricted to a single track on this third official Wu-Tang Clan release The W (Loud/Sony). But the corporeal absence of the most intensely spastic rapper since Flavor Flav (Joe C, R.I.P.) has only upped the weirdness quotient for the Strong Island crew.
From the opening chop-socky-flavored doo-wop, to the offhand sampled mutterings that litter the disc, this is one old-and-dirty-sounding album. Subtracting the troubles of O.D.B., it’s been a very good year for the Wu-Tang Clan, what with the glorious Ghostface Killah album, RZA’s soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s instant classic Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (seek out that Japanese import all-instrumental CD) and the Wu-Tang turn in James Toback’s ludicrous but celebratory Black and White .
The W -a title that should perk up the ears of the legal department of Starwood Hotels, which owns The W chain-could have been a commercial consolidation of those successes, a unifying commercial foray after a period of idiosyncratic side projects, but the album is all the stronger for rejecting this path.
The hip-hop hit machine may have scaled back its money and fashion obsessions over the past couple of years-after Lil’ Kim’s stink bomb, Notorious K.I.M. , Sean (Puffy) Combs seems to have thankfully dropped out of sight-but there is still a sense of epic seamlessness to recent works produced by Dr. Dre, Organized Noize and Jay Dee.
Wu-Tang mastermind RZA pushed that approach about as far as he could go on the Clan’s last release, 1997’s two-disc Wu-Tang Forever , an album much underrated because of its excesses. But when RZA embraced overflow, he embraced it entirely.
On The W , as he did on his misunderstood Bobby Digital project, RZA ranges entirely in the other direction. It’s an album that’s elaborately and lovingly raw. The Clan’s raps, always Joycean to the point of opacity in their multi-layered constructions, are bathed in weird sonic logic with complex orchestrations that are nonetheless stripped down. The samples were punched in, not mixed down, and the vocals recorded as if on a freestyle radio program. The O.D.B. track, “Conditioner,” sounds as if he’s rapping through a Frigidaire.
“I Can’t Go To Sleep,” based around Isaac Hayes’ take on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” would seem like the perfect opportunity to build the song into a massive, arm-waving goose-stepper, but RZA screws with the loop, stopping and starting it at odd intervals, and the Clan serves up their raps in bizarre, crying cadences. Mr. Hayes himself appears on the track, but RZA phases it out of key and buries him in the mix so that he sounds as inchoate as the rest of the crew.
RZA, who produces all but one track on The W , has created what might be called an anti- Stankonia : an album as rough, difficult and angular as the OutKast bestseller is seamless and accessible.
And where Stankonia attempts to be the aural equivalent of pheromone cologne, The W successfully gives off the dry-mouthed stink of disassociative street paranoia. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a millennial Beatles versus Stones conflict. Headz, it’s time to choose your poison.
Rhapsodies in Black : Harlem’s Hot Again
The Harlem Renaissance, that flourishing of black intellectual life in New York between 1915 and 1933, was primarily a literary and political movement. Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes and political activists such as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois self-consciously styled an aesthetic and a politics that celebrated black folk-roots and promoted a new black nationalism that was disseminated in journals with names like Fire! , The Crisis and The Messenger . It was a period of the “New Negro,” a movement of young people who rejected the conciliatory politics of Booker T. Washington, whose death in 1915 in many ways marked the beginning of the renaissance.
Though the early rumblings of jazz being played in Harlem clubs by Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson influenced other artists of the time (in particular, Langston Hughes), the new black movement underway did not catch fire with the musicians or the music of that period. Black musicians operated pretty much independently of other artists, partly because, in many cases, the clubs they were playing (such as the Cotton Club) were whites-only, or else too expensive for most blacks to afford.
Yet, even though the Harlem Renaissance may not have been a conscious influence on the scales and charts that were created then, the era nevertheless bore witness to a number of significant developments that were to have a profound impact on the music that followed. And these innovations can be heard, more or less, on Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance , a four-CD boxed set recently issued by Rhino.
The first of these advancements crystallized around the Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson, whose “The Harlem Strut” is included in this collection. Among pianists, Johnson was one of the first-if not the first-to assign different harmonic roles to the left and right hands, and as a result, he served as a bridge between the rather stiff, European playing of the ragtime pianists and the linear playing of modern pianists like Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Art Tatum.
That Johnson is now hardly known outside a small coterie of jazz pianists and aficionados has to do, I think, with the lack of emotion in his playing. Johnson’s style depended on elaborate left-hand passages of chords contrasted with wild, technically perfect right-hand flourishes. Johnson, who was classically trained, exhibits a technical formality here that can put off the casual listener, and at his worst it sounds like he’s just showing off. Indeed, it was his delirious “Carolina Shout” that became the standard by which young pianists would measure their technical ability and endurance (i.e., chops) during all-night cutting contests.
Johnson’s contemporary and disciple, Fats Waller, is represented by two selections, “Harlem Fuss” and “Smashing Thirds,” both of which show Waller implementing a two-handed technique in which the right hand echoes what the left is playing and vice versa, a style that Johnson ultimately superseded. Waller, the pianist (as opposed to Waller, the composer of the cute standards “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”), served mostly as a transitional figure between ragtime and modern jazz pianists.
Like Johnson, a number of Harlem musicians, most notably Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, came to full realization of their powers during the 20’s and never recaptured the same inventiveness and urgency in their work. Armstrong’s recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “I’m in the Mood for Love” are included on this collection, and on both tracks you can hear Armstrong’s masterful solo style, the elegant, airy, completely swinging way with which he attacks a tune and his sublime control of tone. Armstrong would go on to make more money and gain greater fame recording popular songs and becoming “Satchmo,” but by the mid-30’s he had pretty much exhausted his bag of tricks. The breaks in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” where Armstrong begins with an upward slur followed by a series of staccato arpeggios-both motifs particular to his playing-were, by the next decade, already clichés.
There are also a few selections in the collection by Duke Ellington-“Cotton Club Stomp” and “East St. Louis Toodle-O”-but the 20’s found Ellington just beginning to craft the full orchestral sound. It wasn’t until the mid-30’s that Ellington assembled the core of musicians and arrangers that would become an institution for the next 30 years. Still, “The Cotton Club Stomp” recording is remarkable, more for social reasons than musical ones. Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager and booking agent, introduced the bandleader to the all-white live audience as the prime purveyor of “jungle music.” But what the white folks got, even at this early stage in Ellington’s career, was an orchestral complexity comparable to any classical composer working at the time.
The music on Rhapsodies in Black is interspersed with readings mostly addressing race and identity. Quincy Jones reads Langston Hughes; Wally (Famous) Amos, a letter from Aaron Douglas to Hughes; and Angela Bassett, a poem by Helene Johnson. The best spoken-word performances are by two rap artists, Chuck D reading Sterling Brown’s “Odyssey of Big Boy,” and Ice-T reading Claude McKay’s famous poem, “If We Must Die.” Both rappers read with an aggressive tone that perfectly captures the stridency and passion of those works and underscores how the concerns of race and politics espoused during the hip-hop movement of the 80’s paralleled, in many ways, the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance.
But if you’re looking for revelations of the musical kind, go straight to the two tracks by blues singer Bessie Smith. To listen to Smith for the first time is to hear the blues for the first time and to know what a human voice can do to a song. On “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” you can discern Smith’s masterful pitch control, which enabled her to hit a note dead on or slightly off and effortlessly slide up or down. This ability to slide between microtones gave Smith’s blues a plaintive quality that no other singer in any genre has ever been able to match. It’s what made this 5-foot-9-inch, 200-pound woman, who could command a dance hall without a microphone-and who died too young- sound at once so powerful and so intimate.
Broadside, Arhoolie: Folk, Roots Revivals
For all the impassioned hip-hop hand gestures, melismatic yodelling and screw-faced projections of popular music, an emotion that rarely comes across is empathy. Frankly, most performers-whether or not they possess an honest passion for music-exist to take, not give. Even when that’s not the case, our current celebrity culture dictates that consumers prefer their favorite pop stars’ lyrics to be personal rather than universal.
But is it any better when the artists are attempting, through their art, to make the world a better place? If we look at the American folk boom of the early 60’s, probably not. I’m certainly not going to argue against the role that songs like “Tom Dooley” played in our civil evolution. But if we cast a look back on the Peters, the Pauls and the Marys-as well as the rougher-hewn types like that rebellious trust-fund kid Pete Seeger-we’ll find that, aesthetically anyway, folk was more of a doorway than a destination. The music generally stunk, but it did lead the way to both 70’s soft rock and the roots revival. The folk movement also launched Bob Dylan, but, as history quickly showed, his commitment was pretty tentative.
Truth is, the term “folk” itself remains a meaningless one; an early 60’s stab at authenticity before television had cemented its hold upon our idea of objectivity. Gordon Lightfoot was considered folk, but the former sharecropper Muddy Waters wasn’t until he put away his electric guitar, which was considered decadent by the collegiate-bourgeois Bolshies. Folkies fetishized the “real,” but usually it was a sanitized version. Joan Baez singing the blues smacks of interior decorating, though certainly it was an honest start at something deeper.
So it’s no surprise that Smithsonian Folkways’ insanely elaborate five-CD The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 boxed set comes across like an Ikea catalogue of social protest. Certainly, the packaging-a spiral-bound book with cardboard dividers that hold the discs-contradicts the anti-consumerist social message of most of these songs, especially given that the CD holders do not bode well for the long life of the discs.
Broadside was the mimeographed report from the front lines of Greenwich Village that was put out between 1962 and 1988 by the husband-and-wife team of Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, who had experienced first-hand the persecution of the left in the 40’s and 50’s. Broadside was produced under conditions of near- poverty, and if it wasn’t quite an antidote to the totalitarian impulse that rose throughout America’s consolidation (after all, the Rosenbergs were executed, the Hollywood Ten was blacklisted and United Fruit got its coup in Guatemala), it did do its share to fight the good fight, even if, by the time of the left’s greatest victory-the end of the Vietnam War-it was pretty much a relic, ignored by hippie and beatnik alike.
Unfortunately, in 2000, the hectoring topicality of many of these songs-as well as the forced humor of their working-man bonhomie-will just seem silly to modern listeners. (“El Picket Sign”? “The Civil Defense Sign”? “The Aeberfan Coal Tip Tragedy”?) Furthermore, the Broadside Singers, a Mitch Miller Singers for the hammer-and-sickle crowd, are just fatuous, even when they back up the great Phil Ochs on inferior versions of some of his most famous protest songs. Rap music, famously called the CNN of the black community by Chuck D, may serve a similar social purpose today, but at least until the last few years it embraced progressive aesthetics as well.
Stuff like this probably seemed ridiculous to hipsters back then, too, although it didn’t deter the Fugs from contributing their brilliant “Kill for Peace,” which appears on disc two here, to the cause. There’s other fine stuff on The Best of Broadside : early, otherwise unreleased tracks from Mr. Dylan (“Ballad of Donald White,” “John Brown”); Peter LaFarge’s original version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (later a hit for Johnny Cash); Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and Charlie Brown’s “The Ballad of Earl Durand,” an honest piece of populism that would appear to immortalize a homicidal lunatic. Early Lucinda Williams is here, if the Adult Album format floats your boat. And Mr. Seeger’s Kurt Weill parody, “Mack the Bomb,” should attract the attention of the Broadway-loving Swizz Beatz.
As for Broadside ‘s politics, I’m 90 percent there. The reductionism of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s litany of hypocrisy, “Legal-Illegal,” renders it no less true. But if politics is what you do, not what you say, there’s something unsettling about how, for all the talk of integration, African-American artists don’t start bunching up until the final disc on this package.
But the larger question is this: Are any of the anti–World Trade Organization protesters going to be listening to music this corny anyway?
Of course, 10 years from now, Rage Against the Machine will sound just as embarrassing. If this were 1962, no doubt Pete Seeger would be strumming away about butterfly ballots. He’s probably writing a song right now. And thankfully, we won’t hear it.
For a more listenable overview of the social movements of the 60’s, one would do better to pick up the five-CD Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection 1960-2000 . Of course, the politics here are only implicit, and mitigated by the subtitle of the box: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz . Certainly, we should all thank Mr. Strachwitz, a German immigrant, for moving to America and obsessively documenting all of its roots music. We should also squeeze his box for making a star of Zydeco king Clifton Chenier, who’s represented on this set by “Ay, Ai Ai” and “Allons a Grand Coteau.” But the appeal of this boxed set is not Mr. Strachwitz; it’s the endangered and unconventional music that his label ferreted out and brought to the bourgeoisie. There aren’t many other labels that would record lunatics like Bongo Joe (represented here by “I Wish I Could Sing”), whose album of bizarre rhetoric over the banging of cut oil drums was actually an underground hit during the late 60’s. Although Bongo Joe’s track on this set is fairly conventional compared to much of his work, it’s weird and un-self-conscious enough to take you to a musical place you’d never think of going on your own.
The idea of a “roots” label is always problematic, with its bunching together of disparate genres into a general category of “music by those people.” But those concerns are minor compared to the opportunity to partake of all the cobweb-covered weirdos here, as well as the more established folk such as the ubiquitous Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscom (another discovery by Mr. Strachwitz) and free-ish jazzbos John Handy and Sonny Simmons. (Mr. Handy and Mr. Simmons represent the label’s Bay Area roots, as does the overabundance of wanky blues.) The only startling omission I can think of is a pretty big one-the absence of anything the visionary, imprisoned acoustic guitarist Robert Pete Williams recorded for Mr. Strachwitz’s label.
The Arhoolie box is at its best when modernity bashes up against simplicity and tradition, as on the Bongo Joe cut or Bill Neely’s evocatively titled “Satan’s Burning Hell.” With just vocals and a single guitar, Mr. Neely attacks the “smart men in Washington who think they always right,” who want to get up on the moon “and put out its great light,” even though the song was recorded in 1973, four years after Apollo 11. “If the Lord had wanted us up there, he’d a built a ladder to the moon,” Mr. Neely concludes. Now that’s the voice of the people.