� Political Victory & The Rules of Engagement | Main | The Other Side of Memin �

July 01, 2005

A Buppie Rejoinder on the Death of R&B

I'm reading Mark Anthony Neal's three parter and I've run over the rumblestrips of the term 'organic' once too many. So I'd like to run some commentary in parallel from the bap & buppie perspective.

This is already inside poker, but I'm not too stingy to offer a few hints. Baps are black American princes/princesses and buppies are like yuppies, just black. These are the people I partied with in from the Dons, back in the days of which Neal speaks, and there are just some things I gotta speak on. He paints a nicely complicated history but one that doesn't shy away from dropping a conspiracy theory nor painting over-glowing portraits of pre-dirty south gutbucket blues in that way that academics chasing 'authentic voices of the people' do. I, for one, have never heard of Denise LaSalle or Archie Brownlee. The one thing that could have made his series more awesome than it is would have been some quotes from the artists and managers themselves. His presumptions about the way recording artists dealt with the forces of the industry are just that, presumptions. What we cannot see are the motivations of those other than the putatively culture stealing kingpins at the top of the heap. He wants to follow the money, I want to follow the music and the musicians.

Let's pick-up somewhere between Wilson Pickett and Whodini.

Out here in LA at the foot of Baldwin Hills and the edge of Culver City were the sons and daughters of first, second and third generation college graduates. During the 70s we were the bleeding edge of integration, attending private schools with the sons and daughters of white privilege. We brought our Bar Kays and Mother's Finest they brought their Foghat and Led Zep. Some of their stuff wasn't bad, and some of them thought the same. So despite their tendency to steal the basketball straight off the brothers' court and run and ours to initiate stomps without telling them the rules, our musical tastes rubbed off on each other.

So by 1980 lots of brothers and sisters like me were not only diggin' on easy stuff like Steely Dan and Toto, but harder stuff like Pat Benetar. Our parents may not have liked Rick James' Funk & Roll but we were responding to the hard rock guitar licks not only of the Stone City Band and the Isleys, but of the original Walk This Way and AC/DC too. I have yet find a brother (not that I do surveys) who didn't feel the Doobie's China Grove or Stanley Clarke's hardest rock fusion.

But that wasn't the only distraction from the monopoly of R&B. It was the synthesizer. Starting deep in the bowls of funk was the magnificence that was George Duke, but let us not forget the king prototype black geek: Larry Dunn of Earth Wind & Fire surrounded by keyboards and synthesizers. What would hiphop be without Kraftwerk and Bambataa? What was Donna Summer without Giorgio Moroder? It can be reasonably said in retrospect that the vibe established by Herbie Hancock's Rockit has never been eclipsed in hiphop, but the love for systhesizer music had been a long time coming and took black kids out into David Bowie territory along with a lot of the New Wave acts of the 80s.

So between 1978 and 1988 my cohort was doing a hell of a lot of partying and hiphop was just a part of that. With the rhythm it took to live through what we had to dance to, you could dance to new wave and not get white. We were the ones who suffered through the bad old days of Midnight Star and Newcleus but broke out with the Family, The Time, Orbit, ABC and Thomas Dolby. We survived on Roger Troutman in the days when hiphop was still half-witted and half-baked. Unless you lived in the South Bronx, there was no sophistication to hiphop, nor a reason to expect much from it. And it wasn't until the debut of groups like Loose Ends, Tone Toni Tony [sic, I know], Guy that it was worth turning back to black radio stations which had developed a serious aversion to the music that worth listening and dancing to. Nothing quite said it like the two underground hits that had my crew on fire 'Irresistable Bitch' and 'Tricky'.

The early 80s was a hectic time of transition for the tastes of black college students. We had, on one hand, Paul Hardcastle, Art of Noise, Arif Mardin and Scritti Politti with the leading edge stuff and 'commercial' hiphop idiocy like Egyptian Lover, Rockberry, Full Force and 'The Cars that Go Boom'. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Evans had suddenly been cast to the dirt - how did that happen? But still, we got 'Lets Dance'. But it was a bit too much when we had to deal with The Powerstation as an example of the new Rock. New Wave was cool but it only rarely had the slammin' beat we needed. The only consistency we had was Prince, and you couldn't love Prince if you couldn't hang with Rock. It was frustrating - made a brother want to scratch Steely Dan's 'Hey Nineteen' and so we did.

There was a lot to love about early hiphop that wasn't getting the love it needed on the air. Since we were all supposed to be black back then it was a great deal harder to express this frustration at black radio without hearing a lot of flack. So a lot of us went underground, and underground clubs in LA were where the action was. That took us into Ska, Rap, Reggae, Punk, Funk & New Wave all blended together culminating in the scene which became 'Funky Reggae & White Trash' at the legendary Oskos disco in Beverly Hills. It was here where I danced on top of the speakers with Rosie Perez to 'Dopeman'. By then it was all about the mix. We had no patience for any musical genre. There would be no hero but the DJ, no act worthy, no genre to which we owed our allegiance. It was a new kind of freedom.

It was costly though, especially for those like me, who put on the white shirt and yellow power tie during the day, the black tank top, boots and fingerless gloves at night.

Hiphop in the era of the megamix just before the breakout of the New Jack Swing was interesting enough. Suddenly it wasn't all about who was the real Roxanne or whether or not 'Milk was chillin', but Salt & Pepa and Heavy D and the Boyz delivered some anti-idiot flavor into the mix. Guy was fly enough to swing with, even though Bell, Biv & Devoe were a bit too downscale for anybody's taste. Still, a taste for the underground gave them a pass. The only one worthy of superstardom was Bobby Brown. When 'New Jack City' broke, it was primetime.

Thereafter, from my perspective, black music was no longer R&B. There were four directions for the music to take and everything else was derivative. Tracy Chapman / Soul II Soul / Public Enemy / De La Soul. I, like millions of others, was surprised by Gangsta naively thinking that there could be more like Michael Jackson's 'Remember the Time' and Arrested Development's 'Tennessee'. But I think it's also fair to say that my patience with black popular culture pretty much ended when they stopped making movies like 'Boomerang' and 'Strictly Business'.

By the time dancing in suits had trickled down to the masses, the inevitable song played to death was 'Before I Let Go' with some clown named Woody Wood. This was the death knell and initiated a clear point in time that locked all that was great about R&B, even Frankie Beverly behind a door marked 'back in the day'. Behind that door were Anita Baker, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton the only divas the 80s produced to these ears. We would have liked Zhane and En Vogue to have survived, but they seemed to be like Robin Givens - talented but not realizing that having layed down with hiphop brutality, that there was no escape, and poor Caron Wheeler...

As for the brahs.. well, Eddie Levert? Keith Sweat? No self-respecting brother with a college degree could let these jokers stand in for a romantic Cyrano. For me, it fell back to jazz instrumentals. I let Clifford Brown do the talking. Luther would do in a pinch, but there were always questions about his weight and preferences. Teddy Pendergrass was a safer bet. More likely to be sophisticated in the day and let Prince do the talking in the night.

When I found recognizing that Peabo Bryson was doing duets for Disney movies, I began to worry for the whole of society itself. Janet's album took the last gasp out of the corpse of R&B sealing its commercial fate.

Posted by mbowen at July 1, 2005 12:17 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


The epitome of late 80s hip-hop, for me, was Digital Underground. I can (and do) still listen to those guys. Gangsta initially blew the top of my head off, but then it blew my fuse. Hell, I was white and 30-something and on threshold of slipping back to Americana / Outlaw.

Still waiting for a 21st century Isley Brothers guitar-pumping R&B, but I'll never hear it even if there is one, I'm sure. Not that I could go and DO anything even if I did.

OK, that's two music posts I commented on...dang.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 2, 2005 02:26 PM


Posted by: badar at July 12, 2005 10:47 PM