Friday, May 17, 2013

Superfly and the Soul of the Streets (Thoughts on Hip Hop: Part 1)

Why can’t we brothers
Protect one another?
No one’s serious
And it makes me furious!
Don’t be misled.

You listened to any rap lately?  There’s some really thoughtful and thought provoking stuff out there but, for the most part, those offerings are few and far between in pop media.  There are far more folks emulating Soulja Boy right now than Talib Kweli.  And if you turn on Hip Hop radio (104.1 in STL), you’re likely to be served a musical diet composed of 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti and Future.  They’re clever, stylish, and, in many ways, innovative, but they rarely say anything of any real weight or depth.

This may be due to the fact that in the past two decades, Hip Hop artists have gone Pop.  And as happens so often when a genre becomes Pop, the subject matter has narrowed and diluted.  But we didn’t end up with some bubble-gum form of Hip Hop (it’s funny that rap had the opposite trajectory of many genres, getting grittier over time.  A genre whose first popular stars were Kurtis Blow and The Sugar Hill Gang has yielded Lil Wayne and Rick Ross while Punk has devolved from the Sex Pistols to Avril Levine).  Instead Hip Pop (yeah that’s mine, coin it) artists kept their subject matter gritty, in an effort to keep their base audience satisfied—attempting to stay real and relevant to the experience of street people.  In fact, Rap, even in its current Pop incarnation, is often seen as a lens into the streets; rap artists bring to the fore the lives, livelihoods, and aspirations of the hood.  But, in the process, pop rap glamorizes a lot of what’s not good in the hood, instead of critiquing it and inspiring us to fix it.

That’s why every, once in a while, it’s good to take a few steps back…way back.  Rap wasn’t the first form of music to report the struggles of street people and broadcast it writ large for the American public.  In fact, before Kurtis Blow riffed the poignant “brakes on a plane, brakes on a train, breaks to make you go insane,” and before the Sugar Hill Gang was making every gangster shake his head in disgust instead of delight, it was the Soul artist that held the title poet laureate of these here streets.  And never was this role played to better effect than when Curtis Mayfield released his masterpiece, Superfly, in 1972.

If you’ve never heard, Superfly, I suggest you go listen to it, in its 37 minute entirety, right now.  I’ll wait here.  (  Is your mind BLOWN right now?  You’re welcome.

The gritty soundtrack for a popular blaxploitation film of the same name, Superfly was Mayfield’s fourth solo album after leaving the Impressions and his most successful album up to that time.  It had two singles that sold over a million copies and was one of a handful of movie soundtracks in film history to out-gross its film.  It was a massive hit, easily on par (proportionally… there were fewer of us in ’72) with the reach of many of today’s Hip Pop releases.

Just like many Rap lyrics today, the film and album dealt with the trials and triumphs of drug dealers in the inner city.  On first glance, the songs on Superfly are replete with the drugs, sex, violence and braggadocio that would be familiar to a 21st century Hip Hop connoisseur.  Nowhere is this clearer than in my personal favorite track from the album Pusherman.

Though never a single, the second track from Superfly, Pusherman, is the song to hear from this album.  You’ve already heard the bass line somewhere and you probably didn’t know it.  The melody and vocal cadence has been sampled or referenced by rappers as diverse as Eminem, Ice-T, and The Clipse.  It’s been selected as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock & Roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of fame.  As soon as you hear those iconic first lyrics, “I’m your mama.  I’m your daddy.  I’m that nigga in the alley,” you’re strapped in for a ride through a day in the life of your local pusher.

We might compare this classic track to the second track off 2 Chainz debut album that dropped last August.  The track is entitled simply, Crack.   The opening lyrics go, “Started from the trap now I rap/ No matter where I’m at, I got CRACK.”  Now, to be fair, part of what 2 Chainz is doing in this track is punning that his music is intoxicating and addictive and, therefore, though he no longer sells literal crack, he has still “got crack.”  But he is also paying homage to the dope boy lifestyle in this and the following track, Dope Peddler, in a way that is anything but critical.  It’s comical, celebratory, clever in places, but not critical.

Upon first listen to Pusherman, you might mistake Curtis Mayfield for endorsing that lifestyle.  The music is irresistibly laid back and cool.  The lyrics speak confidence and control. 

I’m your mama.  I’m your daddy.
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor.  What you need?
Want some coke?  Have some weed.
You know me.  I’m your friend.
Your main boy—thick and thin.
I’m your pusherman.

He goes on to talk about “making money all the time” and having the “baddest bitches in the bed.”  How Hip Pop is that?

Keep listening.  He doesn’t just let the pusher off without a challenge.  Just as the bass line changes and the muted strums of that sublime funk guitar alters the mood, the pusher’s own self-assurance is challenged as we learn he’s been told he could be nothing else but a hustler in spite of himself and how he has a woman he loves desperately and wants to give her something better than himself.  “How long can a good thing last?” he asks.  This pusherman is deeper than Rap allows the dope boy to be.  He has a broader story and he understands the moral complications of what he’s doing.  This draws the whole practice into question in a way that the dope boy folklore in Hip Hop seems unwilling to do.

Mayfield does a similar trick with the violence that is so often portrayed in our music and, then as now, is such a problem in our communities.  Usually when violence is invoked in Rap, the main affect is to illustrate how tough the speaker is.  Not for Curtis.  The first single released from the album, “Freddie’s Dead,” recounts a tale of a junkie who gets caught up and is presumably killed.  He frankly relates in the opening lyrics, “Freddie’s dead/That’s what I said.”  He goes on to do a lyrical one-two punch to both drug dependency/trafficking (Freddie’s on the corner now/If you want to be a junkie, well/ remember Freddie’s dead) and violence (Why can’t we brother’s/ protect one another?).  He manages to be cautionary, without being preachy when he relates the two lines, on an island by themselves in the whole song,

If you don’t try
You’re gonna die.

It’s important that Curtis does all of this without sounding preachy.  He couches the message within the story itself.  He tells a gritty street tale, throws in some wisdom here and there, but never lets the message overpower the method, which is ultimately the art that the listener is seeking to enjoy.  Obviously, no one wants to be preached to in a Pop song.  That’s why subtlety is important; that’s what Mayfield had and what all of us who attempt to write any kind of music can learn from him.

Now, I’m not some good-old-days historophile bent on turning back the clock.  Not all music in the seventies was so conscientious.  This was an age that saw popular music that was every bit as vapid as what’s offered today (Disco Infernoooooo!)  But that music didn’t purport to be REAL the way Hip Pop does.  No, I listen to contemporary Rap music.  I own both 2 Chainz and Future’s albums.  At best, it’s a guilty pleasure; at worst, it’s a weekend anthem.  But I don’t take it seriously.  It is stage craft.  It’s a theatre of the absurd.  I never forget what it is and how harmful listening to only this kind of music—only getting these messages—can be.  It’s like a steady diet of junk food—pizza, French fries, and coke—all day, every day.  It’s just bad for you.  The meat-and-potatoes is the stuff like what Curtis Mayfield put on wax 41 years ago.  It was, and remains today, the very epitome of real.

So, what is real?  We have to take better care of one another.  We have to build one another up.  We have to kick materialism and dependency.  These things are real and they were the very ideas that Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack and other Soul artists tried to bring to light in the early seventies.  They are the ideas that can save and strengthen our communities.  And it’s what we have to find a way back to now.

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