Twenty-five years ago Public Enemy brought hip-hop into the mainstream. Before the bling-and-ho silliness of more recent hip-hop, Public Enemy was delivering dispatches from the front. If you want to see the trajectory of the concern for social justice in youth culture over the last few decades, Public Enemy is a good place to gain some perspective. If you wonder why white suburban kids listen to hip-hop, it starts right here.
It’s impossible to convey here the cultural significance of hip-hop. But it is worth emphasizing that its roots run very deep into the oppressive conditions of poverty, and hip-hop, like gospel, blues, and jazz before it, is the musical response to the temptations of despair. The sampling that most characterizes hip-hop is suggestive of the necessity to pull together whatever spare materials are available in the rubble of urban life; in this case, primarily old vinyl records and still-functioning turntables in a world that had already gone digital. In the early days, the samples were primarily from 1970s funk, which made it easy to pick up the beat as a thread through otherwise unfamiliar territory.
Public Enemy, unfortunately, made cumbersome videos that got in the way of the music, so I’ve excluded them here in favor of audio tracks. The track up top, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” is probably not the one most people think of when they remember Public Enemy: it would more likely be “Fight the Power” or “911 Is a Joke,” both included after the jump. But I’ve posted it first because it may be their best work. The album from which it and the other two tracks are taken, Fear of a Black Planet, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2005. When I was searching YouTube for the version with the best sound quality, I noticed that a lot of the comments from various postings of it said something along the lines of, “the best hip-hop recording ever.”
Tom Waits released a new album a couple of weeks ago, Bad as Me. A friend recently described his music as “a circus cabaret — or an animal burlesque show.” Above is the cold open of the best indie movie set in New Orleans you’ve probably never seen, Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. Waits is singing “Jockey Full of Bourbon” on the soundtrack, and that’s him appearing as a drunken hipster crawling into bed at 6 am. (You can listen to the entire song here to experience uninterrupted Marc Ribot’s hard-luck guitar — not to mention that voodoo wood block .) If you hit the play button on this clip, be sure to watch all four minutes and four seconds of it to get the full effect.
After the jump, another scene from Down By Law featuring Waits. Roberto Begnini plays Bob, a displaced Italian felon who can recite long passages from Walt Whitman by heart and in Italian. After that, Waits reading Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart.” After that, the first video from Bad as Me, “Satisfied.” Review of the album in the Guardian here
I posted on riot grrrl a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t want to push my luck, but I only heard this week that Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex died of cancer in April at the age of 53. Poly was one of the few women who were part of the English punk offensive when it hit North America in the mid-1970s like a blast of hot, sour air from an unventilated pub.
Above is an excellent segment about Poly from the British documentary, The Punk Years. If you don’t know her, it is a pleasant and insightful four minutes of video.
After the jump is a do-it-yourself, live-in-someone’s-basement performance of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” from 1977, when Poly was 19. (This single was followed a year later by the band’s debut album with the inspired title, Germ Free Adolescents, the best cut from which, “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” is also after the jump.) Poly had a classical vocal training, but she used her voice to be noisily and cheerfully insolent about a world of mindless consumption and the human and environmental waste it produces.
(Executing a lateral move in pertinence, here’s Joe Fasler in The Atlantic on the horizontal transfer between “high” and “low” culture.)
I haven’t been posting video of police violence against the protesters because it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. However, if you want to see clips, you can find them at YouTube easily enough. What’s striking is that not only are the crowds peaceful and refusing to respond to police provocation, they are duly recording everything, which is why so much of this video exists. It’s worth recalling that what sparked this protest to become the international event it is today was viral video three weeks ago of a number of young women who were kettled and then pepper sprayed in the face at close range by a senior New York City police officer.
Raw footage out of Toronto this afternoon.
This movement no longer belongs just to the young people whose determination got it going. As this footage makes clear, it is now a middle class affair, including young families and retirees.
Compiling this selection of video, it became apparent that it is impossible not to feature prominently the videos from Hole‘s first wide-release album, Live Through This. Three of them are here, and they’re all worth seeing, especially Violet, which may be the most powerfully realized video riot grrrl at its height produced. But there’s also music, video, and live footage from highly regarded cult bands that never broke into the mainstream on anywhere near the same scale: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, 7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney, and Tribe 8.
If I can advocate for must-see work here besides Hole: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear (although not for the faint of heart), 7 Year Bitch, and Babes in Toyland.
Two recent retrospective articles on riot grrrl in The Guardianhere and here. Tobi Vail‘s fanzine Jigsaw, appearing regularly since 1989, here.
R.E.M. called it quits this week after 31 years, and today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
I’ve posted it before, but the R.E.M. video above is worth posting again, partly because it’s a humbling reminder of how unmerciful changing fashions can be (poor Michael Stipe: look at that hat), but mostly because it’s a joyful song and because Kate Pierson of the B52s is the other half of the duet.
Nirvana’s Nevermind was the grunge movement’s equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In other words, take your pick of songs, any one will do. But I can’t resist going with the most obvious choice, below. Seeing that the kids in the video look the way kids still do today is a pleasant surprise. The extensive tattooing was still new then.
We can’t post the whole thing, but this extended interview with Elizabeth Warren is worth seeing on its own. Warren is running for a Senate seat in Massachusetts in ’12. If she gets the seat, it will make her one of the very few grownups in that chamber.
An earlier post on Warren’s lecture, “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class,” here.
Yes, the title is a play on Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a “cool medium.” Medium Cool is a souvenir of McLuhan’s association with the radical mood of the 1960s, depicted here by events surrounding the riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. The movie was controversial when it was released in 1969 — it received an X rating, which, according to the lore, was not for violence or sex, but for political content. People loved and hated it, sometimes simultaneously. An excerpt from Vincent Canby’s New York Times review:
The shock of “Medium Cool” comes not from the fiction, but from the facts provided Wexler by Mayor Daley, the Illinois National Guard and the Chicago police. In his use of these events and others, however, Wexler does seem to be somewhat presumptuous, attempting to surpass the devastating live show that television—Marshall McLuhan’s “cool medium” — presented as the Chicago riots actually were taking place.
With the recent centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, it’s worth noting his presence in popular culture, a sustained example of which is David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Brian O’Blivion, the film’s mad guru of physical transformation by way of electronic media, was inspired by McLuhan.