Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I happened to watch a somewhat dated documentary about rap music. One of the people interviewed was Quincy Jones. This is a man I truly repect and admire. His contributions to serious popular music are unequaled. From working with Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Sinatra, Helen Merrill (one of my favorites) and so many others he has a legacy that will endure far beyond his years.

But one of the things he said about rap bothered me. "Rap is the music of the streets."

I don't think that's true and if you'll allow me my usual cynicism I think that at seventy-plus he says such things in order to try stay relevant.

The only convincing segment in the piece was of an early rap group in LA. No bling; no tough guy. Moving songs about the streets.

Rap to me isn't music as I understand the word. But that doesn't matter. I'm probably wrong, as tin-earred as elders in the Fifties were when they heard the "jungle music" of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

What I object to is the idea that it's the music of the streets. The hell it is. I've heard enough of it to know that it's mostly about accumulating money and power. It's an inner city fantasy--what too many youngsters apparently aspire to.

Let me recommend reggae. THAT's the music of the streets. The kind of reggae I listen to isn't about showing off buff bodies ("street cred" translates to selling records to white kids driving their daddy's cars); or talking about bling; or selling the most CDs.

There is a lot of reggae that is violent, to be sure. And some of it that is repellent.

But when you listen to Bob Marley and the singers he inspired, you hear the sorrow of the streets, the yearning not for things but for some kind of salvation. You hear about children and families and poverty. In other words, you hear about the things that concern real artists.

There's a great Leonard Cohen line I've always remembered. "You are locked into your suffering/and your pleasures are the seal." There is innate sorrow in rap music but it is obscured by all the commercial silliness of bling bling.

The pleasures of big cars and street cred are the pleasures that cheat the suffering and keep rap false and empty.


Anonymous said...

Well, when Gil Scott-Heron was recording "No Knock" and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in 1969-1971, rap wasn't about bling or contracts, nor when the Last Poets recorded THIS IS MADNESS around then. And Jones, I hope, was thinking of people such as the Disposible Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose Michael Franti is now the sparkplug of Spearhead and making documentaries, rather than the unintentional clowns.

There's plenty of humanistic music and lyrics in rap, even if the bitchers ain't the ones who make it.

Ed Gorman said...

Yes the all-too-brief segment I referred to was about The Last Poets.

Anonymous said...

...and Quincy Jones's collaboration with Peggy Lipton, Rashida Jones, ia another notable contribution, and she continues to makes her own contributions...

Juri said...

Also Public Enemy, at least the early records, full of sound and fury. "Fight the Power" bling?

I also recommend Grandmaster Flash ("White Lines" - that sure is street), Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul, Boo-Yaa Tribe and The Disposable etc. from the older groups that are not all bling. The later gangsta stuff and the like makes us blind and prevents us from noticing the rich heritage rap has.