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November 06, 2009

"Bring the Noise"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Public Enemy's political voice may have obscured the enduring brilliance of their work. It's been 21 years since the release of "It Takes a Nation" and it's hard to believe how fresh, innovative, and emotionally powerful that album still sounds. The raw energy of Chuck D's booming voice, trading rhymes with Flavor Flav, is channeled through a layered mix of swirling scratches, quick beats, and funky James-Brown samplings. It's only when you listen to the old masters like PE and Run-DMC that you realize how much the current generation (Kanye and the rest) are in their debt. And, who knows, perhaps gangsta rap will even prove to be a short-lived commercial aberration.

You may know Chuck D from his Air America radio show and perhaps less from his status as one of rap's great MCs, along with 2Pac, Nas, Jay-Z, etc. The "noise" in the title is what the pop world thought of hip-hop in the early days. Chuck D welcomes the slur. Yes it is "noise," he is rapping, our kind of noise, and if you don't like it, tough. As in much of black music, of course, there is an underground "elitism" there meant to shoo away the white establishment. The "noise" played the same gatekeeping function as the jarring harmonies, forbidding virtuosity, and asymmetric rhythm of bebop did 40 years earlier. It didn't help matters that Seamus Heaney (a poet I admire enormously) praised the poetic power of hip-hop. Heaney was right, of course, but to declare hip-hop safe for the establishment was the last thing hip-hop needed. (Everyone was probably too busy listening to Britney to hear Heaney.)

Some quick historical perspective. In my view, one pop figure dominates, nah, towers over everyone else. Nothing the Brits did comes anywhere close. Same with Elvis. No one can claim his musical breadth, creativity, and influence. That person, of course, is James Brown. And yet there was always something missing. Brown was always so far ahead of everyone else he ended up talking to himself. And you can't formalize a new language when you only talk to yourself. Hip-hop is Brown's legacy as an autonomous musical genre, its culmination if you will. It's a genre that never ceases to amaze me. It's not musical in the traditional sense of the word. But there's an emotional intensity to it, a rhythmic richness, and a verbal brilliance that have no equivalent in pop music. I love it.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at November 6, 2009 06:41 PM

I must confess, I know very little of James Browns' work. What makes you think so highly of him?

Posted by: cemmcs at November 7, 2009 12:57 AM

As one of those white devils created by Yakub on Patmos, I can't say I agree with "Farrakhan's a prophet that you ought to listen to" but other than that I'm with you.

Posted by: dylar at November 7, 2009 02:39 AM

Hey cemmcs, give him a listen! Even Norwegians who don't understand music know James Brown is The Man. But beware, if you listen for more than a few seconds you may start to boogey to all those funks and grooves, because when the godfather of soul tells you to get up offa that thing, you just gotta do it.

Posted by: N E at November 7, 2009 09:42 AM

For me, any mention of PE and Elvis immediately summons this memorable lyric by the former.

Anyway, here is how I remember it:

"Elvis was a hero to most - but never meant shit to me. The sucker was racist, simple and plain.

Mother-Fuck him & John Wayne!"

Posted by: john at November 7, 2009 09:49 AM

A jazz scholar once showed me how to read the whole history of jazz from a single drum set. Very cool and very convincing. Likewise, the history of pop music can be read off the evolution of rhythm. James Brown is behind (often against his will) most of the major developments of the last 40 years: funk/disco/techno/hip hop... Michael Jackson, Prince, George Clinton. That's all James Brown. Even the moonwalk was stolen from James Brown.

JB was a musician's musician. He was not a top-40 kind of guy. But he was the Miles Davis of pop. As I said, no one comes anywhere near in terms of innovation and influence.

Technically, every rhythm figure in pop you can't find in the blues or in gospel you can safely attribute to James Brown. I'll give you just one example. Virtually all of rock music follows the blues pattern of emphasizing the backbeats: in 1&2&3&4, you hit the snare on the 2 and the 4. There's harmonic meaning to this. Simply to say 2-4 instead of 1-3 is not terribly helpful to understand what's going on since in an endless sequence 123412341234... 1-3 and 2-4 should be essentially indistinguishable. The whole point of rock rhythm is that it seeks to play down the chord changes. In classical music when you move to a new chord you often want people to notice, so you time it on the first beat of the measure, the downbeat, where the conductor moves the baton down. In rock and blues it's the opposite. You de-emphasize the chord changes.

James Brown decided the old classical music guys were on to something after all and that you gain a sense of energy by hitting the snare on the downbeat. This confused everybody, for whom 2&4 is carved in DNA. Not to mention his frequent injection of polyrhythms (to my knowledge, the only major pop musician to do that).

As in jazz, in Brown's music, rhythm is a voice; not merely a loud metronome keeping time as in standard rock. Ask yourself: how could Ringo Starr hold his own in a major rock band even though the guy can't drum? You hit the offbeats and throw in a couple of baby fills now and then, and you call that a rhythm section. It works because the beat is background: it's not a voice.

Brown gave hip hop its rhythm, but to give him credit for rapping, too, would be going too far. What makes hip hop remarkable is that it adds two voices to traditional rock (JB style rhythm and rap). By contrast, consider that white rock never added any new voice: it just rearranged the standard ones.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 7, 2009 11:19 AM

Yo, Bernard, MY MAN! Now you're talking. I just introduced my 12 yo to PE (have every one of their CDs, even the Prof. Griff solo) and he immediately recognized the power and superiority over the stuff he's surrounded by. Chuck D truly is the spokesman for his generation. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos still cold sweat every time I hear it. That kickass final refrain: "Death row--what a brother knows." Rage Against the Machine did a cool cover (with Chuck D, no less), also Tricky, both available on the untertube. Worth a listen. Thanks for spreading the WORD.

Posted by: Oarwell at November 7, 2009 07:29 PM

Uh, Last Poets, anyone? Maybe their approach was too simple. But when I heard PE's albums when they first came out that's who I thought of. Still awesome.

I do agree with everything above about PE and JB. I saw JB do a bunch of rap at the Circle Star sometime in the early '90s, but it didn't work for me...

Posted by: Russell L. Carter at November 10, 2009 12:14 PM

Um, it's been 20 years since NWA. So I guess this means gangsta rap isn't a short-lived commercial abberation.

Posted by: Dave E at November 11, 2009 01:05 PM