July 20, 2012
As an American, I’m sometimes left wondering what the fuss is. It’s an issue of scope, I think—Britons used to the relatively cramped quarters of their island are awestruck by the simple, inelegant vastness of the American continent. There is no Texas in England. Plenty of British authors, filmmakers, and musicians have paid tribute to America in their work, but maybe the one that gets it most right out of them all is the KLF’s Chill Out, a forty-five minute ambient DJ set meant to evoke a nighttime road trip through the American South. Sure, there’s not a lot about the “Madrugada Eterna” beat that screams America, but that’s them, the KLF themselves, beat-avatars surrounded by the loneliness and endless space that dwarfs any car on a Nebraska highway.
The KLF didn’t want to be cowboys. What they understood was that in these huge empty spaces, folklore lives. Throughout their brief career as pop pranksters, they relentlessly self-mythologized, and incorporated bits from everything they liked, like magpies. They took from Robert Anton Wilson, from Atlantis mythology, from hip-hop, from ABBA, from Sweet, from ice cream, from the Situationists, from Doctor Who… and on and on. They climbed the Tree of Culture one branch at a time and snapped off twigs where it pleased them. Even their failures became triumphs of self-image: there are exhaustive discographies online that catalogue all the things the KLF didn’t release.
On their second and final studio album, The White Room, the KLF had transitioned into “stadium house”—dance music, long able to cling to the charts in the UK, was sexed up with American mainstay hard rock and its quickly rising competitor, hip-hop. “Justified and Ancient,” the album’s closer, was a reaffirmation of the KLF mythos, a low-key bass line accompanying vocalist Black Steel’s proclamation that “if you don’t like what they’re going to do, you’d better not stop them ‘cause they’re coming through.” It’s a perfectly catchy song in its own right—and then they remixed it for the single.
“Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMS)” is the KLF’s visionary appropriation pushed to its breaking point. Pop-metal riffs compete with bellowing soccer chants. There’s a soulful diva (Maxine Harvey), a rapped middle section (Ricardo da Force), and the crown on top of it all, Miss Tammy Wynette. Wynette, singer of “Stand by Your Man,” is one of the most revered country singers of all time—and here she is, backed by a bit of pedal steel guitar and an absolutely frantic dance track. Even she becomes subsumed by the KLF’s need to expand their story: “They called me up in Tennessee, they said, ‘Tammy, stand by the JAMS’…”
Years before anyone ever used the word ‘mash-up,’ there the KLF were, breaking ground and just doing it for their own sake. Watch the video: Roman architecture, stageplay costume design, Atlantean motifs, African tribal drumming, robed cultists, horned guitar gods, multiscreen information overload—they made a video that looked like their song sounded, and then broke up instead of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to them.
July 20, 2012
Britpop—real or imaginary—was a boys’ club. Sorry, but there you go. There was stoned and sassy Louise Wener, yes. We had Candida Doyle, debauched scientist of the Farfisa. Who else? Kenickie had ladies, if you count Kenickie, but do that at your peril. History may go on to reduce the amount of estrogen to be had in the prim, post-baggy generation to the chemicals found within Elastica.
Elastica’s frontwoman, Justine Frischmann, was Brett (Suede) Anderson’s girlfriend for a while, and then Damon (Blur) Albarn’s. It’s hard to imagine any pop star being able to put aside their ego in favor of a woman who writes songs like “Stutter”—maybe they should have just been thankful that Miss “If I can’t be a big star then I won’t get out of bed” was too lazy to write more of them. (Besides: songs like “Vaseline” speak of darker temptations, and we all know chart-topping music’s stance on those.) As it stands, we still have “Stutter,” which is not just the best thing to come out of Britpop, but an even more withering attack than Pulp’s “Common People.” “Common People” hit the ignorant rich in their wallets, but “Stutter” aims right for the cock.
“Is there something you lack, when I’m flat on my back, is there something that I can do for you?” Frischmann asks, but the question isn’t subservient or docile. She has the power to giveth, and to taketh away from those who aren’t giving back. Meanwhile, the rest of the band—looking in the video like an androgynous girl-gang and their male associate—rocks with brittle, buzzing fury. If a man had fronted this track, it’d be pure penetration. With Frischmann, it’s a wall of heat. The only thing keeping it from dissolving into chaos is her assured smirk, her cadence controlling the melody the same way she’s controlling the bedroom. It’s provocation of the most emasculating sort—Gillette’s “Short Dick Man” could at least be blown off for being annoying, but this is too seductive. A male listener finds no fantasy here, beyond the allure of the woman who is explicitly stating that he is not having her.
It’s possible to live one’s life and ignore class—but then, speaking as an American, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Still: sex is far more universal, far more potent, and far more able to align disparate strands of people and get them to take sides. As other Britpop acts tried to sketch pictures of society around them—imagined or otherwise—Elastica threw out “Stutter” like a Molotov cocktail, winking impishly as the booze fueled the flames. High on smack, done up in black shirts, and gifted with supernatural haircuts, Elastica never looked of a piece with the rest of the scene. Other bands concerned themselves with presenting clubbed-up and blessed-out Albion in various states of coming up and going down; next to that, a “come on and fuck me already” kind of track is kitchen-sink realism.
July 20, 2012
Remember how I said that the difference between a good Ol’ Dirty Bastard song and a great Ol’ Dirty Bastard song is the amount of tension? Well, the Notorious B.I.G. took that principle and, as was his wont, ballooned it to gargantuan proportions. Instead of a rivalry between MC and producer, Biggie generated friction all by himself. There he was: a rotund, lithping, wheezing hulk of a man, who usually looked much older than he was, and always looked much sadder. But his flow! Biggie’s flow had the kind of quick-footed nimbleness that men like Nas—who looked exactly the way he sounded—couldn’t hope to catch up with. When we listen to Biggie patter, “Damn right, if they head right, Biggie there, e’ry night,” we’re not just listening to the way he finesses his way through syllables. We’re listening with the expectation that at any point, he might trip over his own tongue, or gasp for breath. Biggie sounded exactly the way he looked—except when he was rapping. Biggie rapping was like using a ship’s cannon as a surgical instrument, and pulling it off.
“Hypnotize” is the pinnacle of Biggie’s brief career. Puff Daddy—he was Puff Daddy back then, dancing in all the artists’ videos—jacked the rhythm track of an old ’79 Herb Alpert joint and turned it into the backbone of beautiful, slow-rolling menace. The sharp stabs that punctuate things, the monotone Pam Long chorus: these are things that should be in a much scarier song. Likewise, Biggie himself isn’t exactly in full party mode: “At my arraignment, note for the plaintiff, ‘Your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement’—face it, not guilty,” he narrates.
The reason Biggie and Puffy were such a good team was that they understood what people want. Before the Neptunes hit the charts, Sean “Puffy” Combs was the go-to guy—along with his elite cadre, the Hit Men—for high-bounce hooks and grooves that stuck in people’s heads. (And yes, he made songs like “Come With Me”—now try and get the “Kashmir” riff out of your head. See?) With the instinctive human lizard-brain urges covered—the feet tapping, the heads bobbing—Biggie was free to do what he did best: charm people. That’s the secret to his immortality. The tension got us listening, but the suave ease with which Biggie made us want to hear more was what kept us. He relates his Mafia don fantasies with the swagger and bravado of someone who may not believe them, but he can damn sure see every detail in his mind.
“Hypnotize” is the acme of 90s hip-hop because of all that. It had the glitter for the club kids and the grime for the dope dealers. It was a pimp-hand Otherness fantasy for the white suburban kids, a slick dance beat for the 8th-grade girls, and an epic Hype Williams video for MTV. It had something for everyone, and didn’t compromise a bit to provide it.
July 20, 2012
No one should need “Unfinished Sympathy”—Massive Attack’s indelible mark on popular music history—explained to them, ever. They should only need to hear the song, in its entirety, once: if they don’t understand it after one spin, they never will, and they’re probably of intensely weak character. “Unfinished Sympathy” is, despite its title, maybe the most innately complete dance track of the 90s. It’s not about laser-like precision, the way a Madonna and Shep Pettibone collaboration would get off. It’s not about epic peaks and valleys, or constant escalation. “Unfinished Sympathy” is calm enough to make you move, and moving enough to make you calm. It fits any possible space you open up for it, and expands to fill it completely. It’s music for objects in motion and it’s music for sitting still and between those two things it is, in the most comprehensive possible way, music for living.
The Bristol boys in Massive Attack more or less broke trip-hop out of their head like some sort of chilled-out Pallas Athena, and “Unfinished Sympathy” was among their first salvos. It’s the blueprint and the consummation, the alpha and omega when every other work in the genre seemed to be trying to fit somewhere between. Now, with trip-hop only really a concern when Portishead puts out a new album every five years, we continue to come back to “Unfinished Sympathy,” a song that will survive what it caused and do so free of any blemish.
Listen to Shara Nelson sing. Listen to the countervoice—that ethereal “hey, hey, heyyy” sampled from some Mahavishnu Orchestra track. Listen to the strings and keys roll like arctic waves, thickening the song’s pulse but never quickening it. Most of all, listen to the percussion sample—an old blaxploitation relic from the Willie Dynamite soundtrack, the tiniest snatch of clatter looped into the endless, skittish tap of a drug fiend against a nightclub wall. L.A. Reid once said that the reason that Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the hit that it was, was because each individual element of the song could stick in the memory and be its own hook, bass to drums to Michael’s squeezed “ooh!”s. The same thing applies here, and it’s more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t sound like a factory and it doesn’t sound like a bedroom—it sounds like a city, or like a world.
There’s nowhere to go but down from here. “Unfinished Sympathy” doesn’t let you down easily—after five minutes, it simply begins to dissipate, like a dream you forget once you wake up and get your brain in gear. It all but begs to be played again, and again, and again. It’s a haze to get sucked into, or maybe just to suck in. Afterward, no one reached these heights again. Tricky came closest, with Maxinquaye, but spiraled off into cannabinoid torpor. Mush quit, and Daddy G became increasingly irrelevant as 3D took over the group. Shara Nelson went insane on Pete Tong.
July 20, 2012
What separates a good ODB track from a great one is tension: namely, the tension between the beat and ODB himself, as he does his best to send every single song careening off the rails. Look at “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” or “Brooklyn Zoo” – riff riff riff repeat, giving the most elemental structure to Dirty’s rants and vocal fart noises. That sort of cage is the only one expansive enough to hold him, and the Neptunes got this, for the three songs they produced on ODB’s second album.
Back then, the Neptunes were hip-hop’s groove merchants par excellence. They made hip-moving music—unlike some of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s other collaborations, you can always dance to a Neptunes track, even when he’s screaming like a maniac (on “Recognize”) or doing his signature impotent drunk-croon (on “Cold Blooded”). The tension between ODB’s frantic, addled persona and the Neptunes’ steadfast head-noddability doesn’t ever explode: it just produces tremendous electric energy, most especially on “Got Your Money.”
“And then you can call me Dirrrty—and then lift up your skirt,” ODB yowls at one point. Let’s be clear: this is a song about ODB being a pimp and demanding his money from his prostitutes. (The part of the prostitutes is played by Kelis on the hook.) He spends the entire song cajoling and menacing women to pay him his cut of their servitude. “I don’t want no problems ‘cause I’ll put you down in the ground where you will not be found,” he wheezes, and then in the next breath, notes that he’s “just Dirt Dog tryin’a make some money.” C’mon, who could fail to sympathize with that?
The unbelievable gulf between the song’s subject matter and its insistent bass-vamp beat—typified by how, at one point, Ol’ Dirty starts screaming at Kelis’s chorus, demanding she “SING IT RIGHT NOW”—only makes it even more appealing. How does a song like this exist? Looking back, Ol’ Dirty Bastard seems so of his time that it’s almost quaint. Nowadays he’d be a viral Tumblr sensation for a few minutes and flash out and go back to wherever, reduced to trying to get a reality show. (In the last year of his life, Ol’ Dirty Bastard did, in fact, have a reality show in production.) Instead, as the loose cannon of the Wu-Tang Clan, he got to do a guest spot on a Mariah Carey remix.
Sociology students with nothing better to do with their lives could go on and on for pages and pages about the troubling juxtaposition in “Got Your Money.” Most people—me included—will just tap our foot to it. It’s the funkiest mess of the decade, MCed by a psychotic who nonetheless pulls off the greatest coup in hip-hop lyric-writing history: “I don’t have no trouble with you fuckin’ me,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard informs his ho, a theoretical female listener, or both, “but I got a little problem with you not fuckin’ me.”
Alternatively, someone took the care to summarize the song on Wikipedia:
The song is initially dedicated exclusively to the world’s population of attractive females, until ODB seems to have pangs of guilt for not including ladies who might be considered ‘homely’ or ‘ugly,’ so he decides to include them, with the encouraging words, ‘to me, you pretty anyway, baby.’ The artist begins the song by expressing his harsh disdain for women whom he meets, who initially appear to be interested in him, yet later express a reversal of opinion. He then transitions into a discussion about how women sometimes imply they are carrying one’s child, although the DNA tests may not yet have come back conclusively.
ODB then expresses some confusion with respect to the morality of the situation, but he is able to remedy this by presenting his Cristal brand of champagne, and urging the patrons to disarm themselves, because ODB does not approve of such violence. Continuing, it appears at first that there is some mutual attraction between “Dirty” (ODB) and the female patrons in the establishment; however, it soon becomes apparent to Dirty that the females only wish to use him for a shot at music video stardom. Despite his knowledge of their ulterior motives, ODB’s primary interest remains focused on dancing, and he tries to perpetuate his image as one who should not be taken lightly. He acknowledges a lack of intellectualism, although he claims that this is superseded by his natural charisma.
The females in the establishment start admiring Dirty for his assets, which just causes Dirty to return to the situation at hand: his money. Thereafter, ODB proceeds to wax lyrical about his enjoyment of holding the female form and his impending resolution to engage in larceny. He asks for the females’ assistance in rectifying the situation, and subsequently asks them to expose their nether regions. Dirty finishes off the song with some nonsensical lyrics, that clearly imply his rising anger for the missing money.