Friday, April 30, 2010

The Black Gladiator

Before him, there was none. After him, none will be. We give you the great Bo Diddley.

When I first heard “I’m a Man” and other early Bo Diddley songs as a little kid, there was something about him that set him apart from folks like Chuck Berry. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly that was until years later. Then it hit me that, unlike Chuck Berry, Bo never really attempted to write songs that were palatable to typical white kids. Since we weren’t really the typical whitebread family, there was little chance of my relating to songs about being at school or riding around in my automobile with no particular place to go. I never learned how to goddamn drive anyway. Although I respect Chuck Berry’s influence and place in rock ‘n’ roll history; his approach has always been too whitewashed for me. In that respect, Bo Diddley was far more honest. He was unapologetically black at a time when being so would prevent airplay. The music had a primitive quality that most well-known rock bands of the time would probably prefer to avoid, lest the critics refer to them as “jungle music.” Many of the stories told in songs depicted his varying larger than life personas. Bo Diddley was the Gunslinger. The Lumberjack. He was 500% More Man. To me, he was the True King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, far more than Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and everyone else you could think of.

By the late ‘60s, it must have seemed like the ol’ Gunslinger’s time was passing by. Rock music was going psychedelic and it seemed like the whitebread teenagers who had grown up into hippies no longer had room on their radio for Bo’s primitive rhythms. So four years after his previous album, Bo Diddley entered the studio and reinvented himself for the a-changing times. The result was The Black Gladiator, in which the legendary guitarist adapted his patented “shave and a haircut, two bits” brand of blues to the funky grooves of newer bands like Sly & the Family Stone. Despite the idea that this album was merely following the trend of the time, I think The Black Gladiator is a musical example of an artist expanding one’s repertoire. Just to see what happens. For a true artist would not try to paint the same picture for the rest of a lifetime…and why not see if you can do it better than the rest?

Does Bo feel the funk better than Sly or P-Funk? Honestly? No, in the sense that he doesn’t deliver as many memorable musical moments as they have. Yet it is quite interesting to hear him catching up to artists that he obviously influenced. Unless you’re some snobby rock critic asshole, The Black Gladiator is fine residing in the second tier of funk albums. Don’t be one of those dudes here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Black Man in the Cosmos

Sun Ra is responsible for some of the strangest music I’ve ever heard. To me, this avant garde jazz artist was from another planet with some of the stuff he came up with. And if you asked him, he was. According to Ra, his music was the product of a visionary experience during prayer, in which his non-human form was whisked away to Saturn. The planet’s inhabitants apparently instructed young Sonny Blount to quit school and concentrate on music to educate people. Nearly twenty years later, the vision was realized when Sun Ra and his Arkestra began donning costumes with either an Egyptian or sci-fi theme. This guy was out of this world for sure.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Sun Ra was making regular trips to the Bay Area and eventually taught a course at UC Berkeley called The Black Man in the Cosmos. This led to the production of the film Space is the Place, somewhat based on the Berkeley lectures and starring Sun Ra and His Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. Filmed in Oakland and San Francisco, Space is the Place is a bizarre, confusing piece of cinema that ought to be seen at least once. It is a vision of black salvation and white apocalypse. The righteous Sun Ra returns to planet Earth to battle it out against The Overseer, an evil pimp, for the future of the black race. Ra intends to collect his black brothers and sisters to whisk them to a faraway planet that he has deemed suitable for the resuscitation of the community, with no interference from honky devils. But he must first win the tarot card game that decides their fate.

Cosmic Hearse uploaded the film’s soundtrack, which was recorded in 1972 and went unreleased until 1993. But we’re looking through The Evil Eye at the actual album that was recorded earlier that same year. The title track is a real endurance test, clocking in at over twenty minutes long. When I first got this album some years back, I brought it to Gilman and made the sound girl put it on between bands at a Locust show. Just to say “fuck you” to the hipsters. My friends at the show thought it was pretty funny, and so did I. But other people were getting visibly irritated, so the sound girl turned it off after a few minutes of “spaaaaaace is the plaaaaaace” repeated like a mantra. If they’d waited it out, perhaps they would have enjoyed the rest of the album. The rest of the songs are at a more conventional length and are quite excellent. Sun Ra’s discography is vast and wide, but it’s generally recommended that you start with either version of Space is the Place when delving into his work. You can do that here, or here for the soundtrack.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Today's Special: Geto Dope

If you think about it, the Geto Boys were like gangsta rap’s answer to Slayer at one point. After all, their lyrical content sort of covered the same subjects—rape, murder, necrophilia, and extreme violence in general. Going with that comparison, it’s safe to say that the Geto Boys’ self-titled LP is their Reign in Blood—their loudest and most sonically satisfying effort. This album battles it out with Ice-T’s The Iceberg for personal favorite hardcore rap record status, and probably wins in the long run. It’s one thing to be black in Los Angeles—and likely another to be black in the ghettos of Houston, Texas.

Released in 1990 on Def American, The Geto Boys was the Texas rappers’ big-label debut. However, it was actually a compilation that remixed ten songs from their previous album Grip It! On That Other Level plus one from Making Trouble (their first album as the Ghetto Boys) and two new songs. But the previously recorded songs benefited greatly from the remix. “Fuck ‘Em” explodes out of your stereo speakers as a perfect song to get you out of bed and ready to take on the goddamned world two fists at a time. In fact, the entire A-side to this album (the first seven songs, for the iPod generation) is the reason why it’s probably my favorite hardcore rap album of all-time.

A lot of the recordings we look at through The Evil Eye are old favorites of mine from a time when life was a little bit harder. But I was armed with a boom box, and The Geto Boys is another tape that enjoyed constant rotation to pass the time. When punk and metal got boring, that’s when I’d break out the gangsta rap tapes and not give a fuck what anybody else said about it. The Geto Boys were perfect for these occasions, calming the sense of desperation that comes with little food or sleep and not showering regularly. Some people got a kick out of the filthy white punk kid listening to gangsta rap. Others just cringed. Later, it became my favorite record to listen to before going to work.

Before you get up in arms about lyrical content, remember the Slayer comparison I made above and ask yourself if you would do the same about theirs. If not, feel free to enjoy this album for what it is—a loud, angry, nasty, offensive affair courtesy of America’s worst nightmare. It’s the least painful response.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say

I recently realized that we haven’t looked at any rap music through The Evil Eye. To make up for lost time, we’re going to do just that for the next couple of weeks. And what better record to start with than one of our all-time favorites?

It’s cool if you want to simply look at Ice-T as the mainstream celebrity that he is today. But you’d be forgetting that twenty years ago, he was releasing some classic records that deserve the same status afforded to that of Public Enemy and NWA. Although the O.G. Original Gangster album captures Ice at his creative peak, The Iceberg is my personal favorite due to its raw and unfocused nature. It’s a more violent-sounding album; a brutal rap attack that compelled Trouser Press to call it “a great-sounding but disturbingly confused mixture of right-on politics and repulsive vulgarity.” Obviously, they’re missing the point. The Iceberg was released after Ice had faced problems with censorship groups on tour, particularly in the South. The PMRC was also waging their obscenity war on a variety of bands during this time. As a response to the censors, Ice-T appeared to have decided to do the most punk rock thing possible—give them something to REALLY complain about. What’s so confusing about that?

The tone is set with “Shut Up, Be Happy”—a spoken word performance delivered by none other than Jello Biafra, and rendered over a sample of the “Black Sabbath” intro. And from there, it’s on. If you’re a concerned parent looking for something to complain about, it’s dished out in spades here. Sex and violence is abound in these tunes and taken to ludicrous levels for 1989. But the high-rolling gangsters go to jail or die in the end. Or they’re chased out of the house by an angry husband after banging his dominatrix wife. And then there’s other times when you just have to fuck with people because it’s fun, so you and the homies theorize over what it’d sound like to take a drill to a motherfucker’s skull. Finally, the album is gift-wrapped and sent to Tipper Gore and company by focusing on the First Amendment and extending a hale and hearty “fuck you” to the PMRC.

Don’t play yourself, kid. Get on the Iceberg.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Weird World

Blowfly was scheduled to play tonight at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, but the show is no longer happening for whatever reason. Too bad, because I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share his first LP, titled The Weird World of Blowfly. After listening to it, be sure to go check out his act in person when you have a chance. It’s a good creepy time.

Most of what we have to say about Blowfly’s background and place in music was already covered when we decided to look through The Evil Eye in print form, which wound up being the only issue thus far due to economics. So there. Compared to future records like Blowfly Disco and Porno Freak, this 1970 debut is a bit on the rudimentary side. The songs are stripped down versions, but the Fly carries it off with a great voice—and a flair for creating the funniest damned parodies of familiar R&B classics. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown are just a few of the artists whose work is thoroughly desecrated by Blowfly’s bawdy approach.

Most of Blowfly’s albums are still in print. And they’re cheap. If there’s a good record store near you, there’s a good chance they’ll have some. Start with this one and keep going.

Yesterday was my birthday, and that’s no April Fool. Now send me presents. And money. Especially money. Or you could…