Chic, Le Freak (1978)

chic-le-freak

Artist: Chic
Title: Le Freak
Description: single; album track, C’est Chic
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed …

Though my formative dancing years were complicated by hormones and punk rock, I was no wallflower, as romantic as that may autobiographically be. Once the school disco had established itself as a pre-sexual playground where manoeuvres could be rehearsed in the dark in civilian clothes, to not dance was to not participate in the social whirl. You couldn’t haltingly approach a girl you fancied for a slow dance at the end if you’d spent the previous couple of Fanta-sipping hours glued to a plastic seat. You had to spin it to be in it, and you had to be in it to win it.

I consulted my childhood diaries in order to assess the vivacity of the discotheque culture at Abington Vale Middle School, and am able to confirm that there were two discos on the French trip in 1978 (although I didn’t go to the second one, which I decreed to be “chronic”), and another which I called a disco but was actually a house party at Nina Thadani’s. I hadn’t really started dancing yet. After graduating to Weston Favell Upper School in September, things hotted up. There was a disco that Christmas, held in the sixth form common room but for third years only, at which, I chronicled, “everyone freaked out.” This was the year of Le Freak, aptly French-inflected in the cross-channel circumstances. At this milestone social event, I smooched with Liz Carr. I also did a pogo with John Lewis and a “footsie” with John, Bill, Lee, Si and George, who were the cool kids. (Even though a footsie would be imminently besmirched by Shakin’ Stevens.)

By March 1979, I had thrown my lot in with punk and would only dance – or effect the Doc Martened version of a violent can-can – to approved tunes, which remained in the minority. It is recorded that a disco in March 1980 boasted tunes by the Sex Pistols and the Skids; come December, we high-kicked to the Undertones, Sham 69 and, generously, the Tourists. But as my circle approached full adolescence, we occasioned to go to organised discos in clubs or booked rooms, and, post-enlightenment and keener to move closer to the other gender, we’d dance to a wider range of music: the Whispers, say, followed by the Jam, followed by Diana Ross. Which takes us back to Chic.

There remains no limited company as likely to make me dance than the Chic Organisation, especially in my older bones. Any one of their five consecutive UK Top 10 hits from 1977 to 1978 will do the trick, but there’s something alchemical about Le Freak’s siren call – that “one-two aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” – which yanks you onto the dancefloor. I’m right, aren’t I? You simply do not want to miss another second of its one-two-three-and-a-half-minutes of aerobic bliss. This song is like a form of conscription. Resistance is futile. (I hate being urged by others to get up on the dancefloor, and petulantly pull back, but when Chic are asking, I’m dancing.)

Sometimes it’s best not to lift the bonnet on perfection, although producer Steve Levine did just that with the mastertapes on his Radio 2 show The Record Producers and to hear the individual engine parts of Le Freak did not rob it of its mystery. So efficiently are Nile Rodgers’ forensic guitar, Bernard Edwards’ intricate bass and Tony Thompson’s surgical drums entwined in that intro, you wonder why Mount Rushmore wasn’t re-chiselled as a result and all those dead presidents replaced. As with a lot of monumental music, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in, and in the case of the intro, it’s a bass drum beat where that beat ought to go. Listen to it now. That’s mostly just Rodgers, a hi-hat and a snare. It’s the feeling you get when you ride a bike without holding the handlebars.

Had I owned the parent album – and who realistically owned disco albums? – I would have had the five-and-a-half-minute 12-inch mix, but there’s something pure about doing what has to be done to the seven-inch. There’s no fat on the record, and there can be no fat on your bodily expression. I don’t know if it’s Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson who sings the line, “Le Freak, c’est Chic,” – it could be both – but its a clarion to anyone yet to fully appreciate the international sexiness of this musical form, rooted in the warmth and sorrow of soul, schooled in the double-jointedness of funk, and smoothed of all rough edges in the studio by, in Chic’s case, the sages who wrote and played it (and engineer Bob Clearmountain). Songs like Le Freak were such staples of the disco, and remain so, you didn’t need to own them. They were being-out records, not staying-in records. They were in fact “being out, out” records.

I may have fancied myself a 14-year-old punk, but even at the height of my commitment to anarchy, I knew that disco didn’t suck. (What kind of a philistine would think that, even for a pose?) There was only so much jumping up and down you could do before your head hurt. I was never the greatest dancer, but I knew the primal power of fancy footwork’s release, even before I boast bum-fluff.

Chic wrote, produced and sometimes played some of the most significant dance music of my teens. I have hymned Diana Ross’s Diana album elsewhere. The canon of Sister Sledge twirls for itself. I even have room for Let’s Dance, which Rodgers underpinned like a master craftsman. In 2013, with Edwards and Thompson gone but never forgotten, Get Lucky reinstated Rodgers in the firmament.

Though for many of us there will always a hint of the Proustian about hearing Le Freak, this is a rush that never loses its momentum.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –

The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

ShirellesBabyIt'sYou3

Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

Bob Marley & The Wailers, No Woman, No Cry (Live) (1975)

BobMarleyLive

Artist: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Title: No Woman, No Cry (Live)
Description: album track, Live!
Label: Island
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1980

Just as we learned about the United States of America from the movies, we learned about Jamaica from reggae. Just as musically hungry residents of the fifth largest island country in the Caribbean got their jazz and R&B from US forces radio in the 50s, which helped fertilize the birth of ska and rocksteady, here in the UK we relied heavily on the likes of Island and Trojan for our understanding of reggae, which first infiltrated the charts through Eric Clapton before demand for the real thing took over. Cloaked in the smoke of myth and misinformation, reggae and Rastafari seemed exotic and aspirational: the big hats, the dope, the dub plates, the low-speed patois, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, the uprising against colonial thumb. Punk embraced it. We embraced it.

It is a simple fact that Bob Marley was the first rock star of reggae. The leonine, dressed-down, kickabout messiah looked and sounded like he could lead an exodus anywhere, any time he liked. He and the original Wailers toured the UK’s clubs, polytechnics and Top Ranks in ’73 and ’74, but it was the two nights at London’s Lyceum ballroom in ’75 after a long tour of the States in support of Natty Dread that gave us the monumental Live! album, and with it the definitive version of No Woman, No Cry. It does not strike me as perverse to enter the concert recording of what is, for me, their greatest song, into The 143. I am hardly the first to favour it over the 1974 studio original.

Arranged on the album by Hammond organist Jean Roussel, the keyboardist who sets the live rendition sail is new member Tyrone Downie, basically playing the vocal line, which causes sections of the ecstatic London audience to sing along even before the I Threes start mellifluously wailing. There’s a full minute of this somnolent, take-your-time intro and no showmanship intrudes on the vibe; new drummer Carlton Barrett and his bassist brother Aston “Family Man” keep the patient, confident beat, Alvan Patterson skims in a bit of bongo, while guitarist Al Anderson largely keeps his powder dry, content to simply catch the downbeat. (He’ll have his Eagles-style solo about four minutes in.) Bob’s first croak is not even that loud in the mix, and he sounds like he’s done every one of the previous 34 American shows, but it’s all the more plaintive for that. Sore throats and a touch of feedback remind us it’s live. Even the feedback is cool.

That first verse is so evocative of a home turf Marley and the Wailers haven’t even seen for six weeks, you can feel the pang of what the Welsh call hiraeth as Bob remembers sitting in the Government Yard in Trench Town, “observing the ’ypocrites” as they “mingle with the good people we meet.” There’s emptiness and longing in the talk of “good friends we’ve lost along the way”, not to mention a hint of Jamaica’s mortality rate, but optimism and pragmatism in the command to “dry your tears, I say.” Everything, after all, is gonna be alright.

The best reggae lyrics – in common, perhaps, with country’s – do not mince words. While not everything is literally spelt out, it’s unlikely to be obfuscated by metaphor. We hear, again nostalgically, that “Georgie would make the fire lights”, upon which “cornmeal porridge” was cooked and then shared. Never bothering to look it up, I always heard Bob sing, “My faith is my only carriage” – metaphor alert! – but the Internet tells me it’s the more terrestrial “feet“. With the Jamaican pronunciation (“fait‘”), you can empathise with my mishearing, but in the final analysis both versions work for me.

The advantage of a live recording, aside from the satisfying verité of hearing musicians ply their trade without overdubs, is the context. The reaction of the audience becomes part of the performance. Literally so, when what we may assume is a multi-ethnic throng joins in and preempts (producing a haunting pre-echo on the chorus). But this speaks of communality and where better to join hands with your fellow man than at a Bob Marley gig? In the mid-70s! Nobody in that ballroom is going to enunciate the words like Bob does, but it’s sweet hearing them try.

It’s seven minutes long. Another plus. Let’s be brutally frank, there is noodling, including some dextrous but surplus Hammond detail in the finish, but nobody in the room wants this one to end and that sense of gratitude seeps from the sum of its parts. Loose-limbed and lazy-sounding might be the modus operandi, but the Wailers’ command over the occasion is calculated and precise, and the rousing “everything’s gonna be alright” section takes off and lands right on schedule.

Marley wrote more political songs in his foreshortened lifetime and poppier ones. He proved himself a formidable albums artist, and yet the first posthumous compilation Legend sealed his reputation as one of the century’s master singles artists.

I never owned the big albums at the time – I always had a friend who did – so it was always the hits for me. I saw the Sisters Of Mercy at the Lyceum, my only pilgrimage to this seat of musical learning. There was a lot of smoke then, too.

Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z), Crazy In Love (2003)

Beyonce_-_Crazy_In_Love_single_cover

Artist: Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z)
Title: Crazy In Love
Description: single; album track, Dangerously In Love
Label: Columbia
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

We all know that lightning-bolt feeling of satisfaction when, by hook or by crook (and it was way more of an achievement in the latter 20th century), you idnentify the original source of a sample used in a modern record. Eureka! It is the musical equivalent of Poirot’s reveal in the drawing room. Whodunit, or who-originally-dunit, has been the sport of nerds since the late 80s, when a combination of available technology and a legal Wild West combined to create a plundertopia. Even when audio-recycling was reigned in by m’learned friends and samples had to be – yawn! – cleared and credited, with all the residual paperwork entailed by this musical-industrial complex, the creativity bubbled on.

In 1994, I let light in upon the magic of Portishead’s haunting Sour Times in the old-school way. I actually had a Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible album (I think I was on a soundtrack label’s mailing list), which contained Danube Incident, a jangling, melancholy theme he’d composed for the show, and once I’d heard it, I reached for my copy of Dummy. Eureka! Ingeniously lifted by Geoff Barrow, it forms the basis of Sour Times. Just as The Last Time by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra formed the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve a couple of years later. Having only applied to use a five-note sample, this proved actionable. But there’s no denying the drama and the brilliance of the pilfer. Which brings us to Crazy In Love.

Like millions of others, I was knocked sideways by the stomping pizzazz of this, Beyoncé’s debut single as a solo artist. The rattlingly funky beat, those blaring horns – what a fanfare it was for this newly-minted superstar, and so perfectly calibrated for her tottering, arse-shaking warrior dance. The fact that both the beat and the horns are cut and pasted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 single Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) diminishes the song’s pop alchemy not one jot. Certainly, it was a shock when I first discovered how much of the original had been borrowed, and how little producers Knowles and Rich Harrison had adapted it, but once you’re over that, you can go back to shimmying and trying to replicate Beyoncé’s vocal aerobics.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no-no

Even that‘s tricky to sing along to. Unless you’re actually doing karaoke, it’s fine to skip the verse and belt out the chorus, but you’ll need to do some serious breathing exercises first. And some treadmill. She obviously has.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love’s
Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)
Got me looking so crazy right now, your touch
Got me looking so crazy right now (your touch)
Got me hoping you’ll page me right now, your kiss
Got me hoping you’ll save me right now
Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love

It feels so good when you nail it. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot, but she sells it so hard. Both your love and your touch haven’t actually got her crazy right now, they’ve got her looking crazy. Which is as much of an imposition, if poise is your thing. Additionally, your touch has got her hoping you’ll page her right now, which is a) technologically quaint, and b) borderline submissive. Why doesn’t she page you? Because she looks crazy? She also wants saving, like some fallen woman, and all because of your kiss. Good lord, has she been sectioned? It’s torrid stuff. And not for one moment do you disbelieve it.

Beyoncé and Mr Carter (her now-husband Jay-Z) have remodelled themselves as some sort of power couple, and it can cloy. From an Independent Woman to Mrs Carter? Really? But herein, they’re in harmony.

He’s there from the start – unless, like Smooth Radio, you actually favour the Jay-Z-free version – bigging her up (“ya girl, Bee”), and it really does feel like “history in the making.” Duets, we’ve had a few. But the dynamic here is so much more, well, dynamic. She’s in charge, but he gets a verse. And they complement each other: she the operatic street diva, he the cunning linguist, banging on (“y’all know when the flow is loco, Young B and the R-O-C, uh oh, Ol’ G, big homie, the one and only, stick bony, but the pocket is fat like Tony, Soprano”). It’s a bold, redolent explosion in the English language factory.

Back to the verse, and Beyoncé’s back on the tiller, explaining that she’s not herself lately (“I’m foolish, I don’t do this“) and that your love’s got the best of her (“And baby you’re making a fool of me”). You got her “sprung”, which I like, and she “don’t care who sees.” Beyoncé’s strapping voice ascends like a lark and diffuses like an exploded pyrotechnic.

None of this was on the Chi-Lites.

I made the fatal mistake of buying the parent LP, Dangerously In Love, off the back of my love for Crazy In Love and discovered, to my cost, that it followed the pattern of all R&B albums in the modern style: three good songs, all of them singles, one with Missy Elliott, and the other tracks. It’s the way. Even – to pluck a more recent example – Pharrell Williams’ GIRL, which is in the same vertiginous league, has filler. None of it’s bad, but not all of it is Happy. This need not detain us. Outside of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder’s six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From, even Motown never really traded in classic albums, and maybe that’s where this neo-R&B orthodoxy grew from. (Both Marvin and Stevie had to wrest control to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.)

Beyoncé used the string sequence from Bitter Sweet Symphony on her 2013 world tour. Eureka!

Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix), 1987

Eric B & Rakim Paid In Full (4th & Broadway) 1987

Artist: Eric B & Rakim
Title: Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix)
Description: single
Label: 4th & B’way
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

This is a journey into sound …

Christmas, 2005. Amid the more expected and doable selections on the first Pop edition of the karaoke videogame SingStarLove Machine by Girls Aloud, It’s Not Unusual by Tom Jones, Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams – sits Paid In Full by Eric B & Rakim, unloved and literally unsung. In a doomed attempt to gain some middle-aged cred with the kids at a seasonal family gathering when the PS2 was warmed up, I selected it and sang, or rapped, along with what will always be one of my most beloved and best known hip-hop tracks, right to the bitter end. In my own mind, in that magic moment, or moments, I was Rakim, thinking of a masterplan with nothing but sweat inside my hand.

Rapping along with rappers ain’t easy. But we all do it, don’t we? And by “we” I mean we who find the rhythm and metre of predominantly black American men slotting idioms and street argot into beat-poetic couplets as if off the tops of their heads but usually read and memorised like any other lyric utterly intoxicating. It’s a fool’s errand. The best raps cannot be reproduced, even by another rapper. Like poetry and jazz – and it is like both – hip-hop is not a karaoke form.

Those lyrics oozed by the artist formerly known as William Michael Griffin Jr. before he joined the Nation Of Gods and Men and was reborn as Rakim Allah were actually not that complex during he and Eric Barrier’s first flush of dual-control genius. The Long Island rhymer leans on childlike constructions and throughout his and Eric B’s curricular first and second albums Paid In Full and Follow The Leader, he sidesteps cuss words, lewd allusions and armed threat. (On the second LP’S rampantly self-descriptive Lyrics Of Fury, he warns of being “rated R”, but this refers to his name and certainly not to scenes of a sexual nature; even when calls himself an “MC-murderer … servin’ a death wish,” he’s talking about, well, talking.) Rolling Stone noted his “novelist’s eye for detail.”

The first Eric B & Rakim tune to which I bore awestruck witness was the definitively James Brown-indebted I Know You Got Soul during my late-80s studio-flat exile when I taped almost everything off John Peel and Tackhead would hand-segue on the same TDK cassette into the Pastels then the Very Things then Scott La Rock then The Wedding Present. A golden age of enlightenment for the mind-broadening constituency. I feel certain I paid for the hundred-dollar 12-inch Paid In Full on an educated whim. Even if I had heard the album version, Coldcut’s Seven Minutes Of Madness remix was a ticket to another world. A journey into sound, indeed.

Eric B and Rakim are, one gathers, divided on the merits of the remix, but it was a club and chart hit, and for many defines the song. It showcases not just the innate, unforced chemistry of B and Rakim, but the knob-twiddling intuition of our very own desk jockeys Matt Black and Jonathan Moore (whose incredible work with The Fall on Telephone Thing gave focus to the first ever NME cover story I was commissioned to write in 1990 but that’s another tale).

New colour, new dimensions, new values …

That unerring sampled beat thunks and hissssssses from the Soul Searchers’ Ashley’s Roachclip. You should seek out the original online – but you have to listen about three and a half minutes in before you hear the clean break that supplied it, and that’s an example of the sixth sense of sublime sampling, a facet of musical arrangement every bit as legitimate as writing or creating a rhythm or riff of your own when it’s done this well. Meanwhile a dismembered bongo rattles around in the loop, not to mention that tiny bit of mid-70s flute also mined from Ashley’s Roachclip. However, these are but entrées to the main course: the inspired combination of the swaggering bass from Dennis Edwards’ Don’t Look Any Further and Ofra Haza’s aromatic Yemenite aria Im Nin’alu. Other ephemeral delights flit in and out of Coldcut’s cut – Humphrey Bogart, a JB count-in – but what I particularly love is the cheeky way they transplant in bits of I Know You Got Soul, notably the instruction “pump up the volume”, which mere months later led off another pioneering act of British plunderphonia from M|A|R|R|S. There was a lot of transatlantic grooveshare going on during this period of detente and all benefited.)

A lot of great hip-hop is about the infrastructure, but without that beat poetry, it’s simply world-class mechanics. In these verses is the skilled communication of Rakim confirmed.

Search for a nine to five, if I strive
Then maybe I’ll stay alive
So I walk up the street whistlin’ this
Feelin’ out of place ’cuz, man, do I miss

A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and Eric B, and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish …

A nice big plate of fish, which is my favourite dish? He’s the Edward Lear of hip-hop. At the end of these seven minutes of madness – which evolve through as many movements as a classical symphony and whose introduction of new colours and new dimensions is, ironically, as controlled as the safe landing of a 747 – you’re left with the frankly endearing image from the five-minute mark of Eric B and Rakim agreeing to go back to their respective girlfriends to beg forgiveness for working such long hours.

You go to your girl house and I’ll go to mine
’Cause my girl is definitely mad
’Cause it took us too long to do this album

And they outta here. As were the kids I tried to impress at the Christmas family gathering with my mad verbal skills. They wanted Blink-182 putting back on.

DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice, South Bronx (1986)

ScottLaRockBDP_south-bronx

Artist: DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice
Title: South Bronx
Description: single; album track, Criminal Minded
Label: B-Boy
Release date: 1986; 1987
First heard: 1987

Many people tell me this style is terrific …

I vividly remember back in 1982, a friend who was a couple of years older and had left school to work in Our Price in the town centre, Alan, brandished an import 12-inch by somebody called Afrika Bambaata. As he excitedly placed it on the spindle of my record player, he confirmed it to be the future of all recorded music. Planet Rock certainly sounded big, bold and different, albeit a bit fuzzy and not entirely to my taste at the time. (I was only just getting my head around Kraftwerk.) I must say though, Alan was a prophet.

It took me until 1986-87 for my own tectonic plates to shift. It was in this tumultuous period that I really went apeshit for hip-hop, a new-to-me genre that had been shaped by Afrika Bambaata when I was still at school. A graduate now, I wasn’t exactly flush, but I was living in a flat, eating boil-in-the-bag meals-for-one and spending my spare cash on Street Sounds Electro compilations, each of which, clearly numbered, acted as a vital, hit-and-miss primer into, well, street sounds. Catching up with this vast series which, thanks to the import acumen of label boss Morgan Khan, had been paving the UK dance scene since 1982, gave me a sense of purpose. John Peel played hip-hop, too, as questing as any of us schooled in rock about this vibrant, politically-charged American block party music (whatever block parties were).

I first heard South Bronx on Peel. Because I was carefully taping anything that sounded promising, I was able to play this tune until the magnetic layer wore off – although I never actually purchased it, and it wasn’t on any of the Street Sounds LPs I bought during that spree. I’d cut off the intro, in which Scott La Rock, KRS One and D-Nice politely introduce each other (“What’s up Blastmaster?” “Yo, what up, D-Nice?” etc.), so I had no real idea who was rapping and who was DJ-ing or if either of them was MC-ing or perhaps even toasting. Indeed, I had Scott La Rock down as the main rapper, as his name came first. And I didn’t really know where Boogie Down Productions came into it. I’ll tell you what I did know, though: South Bronx was as riveting a piece of music I’d heard in years.

A disarmingly simple staccato horn signature (da-da-da-da-da) announces a primitive, spidery beat with a drum-fill so Teutonically synthetic it’s almost comical, the sparse arrangement punctuated with single sampled notes, over which our three unidentified cheerleaders chant, “South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx!” It is where you’re from and where you’re at. I had no context for this bulletin from what I didn’t know were the “Bridge Wars”, a fairly typical internecine hip-hop feud between the South Bronx and Queensbridge. Verbal border skirmishes were described in the rap, although this is an “answer song”, so I was coming in long after it had started (with Marley Marl and MC Shan’s The Bridge), to whit: “So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge? If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.” Drum fill. Chant.

My reaction then was my reaction to much subsequent hip-hop: it was like watching an exciting film set in an urban part of the world I would be unlikely ever to visit. It was laced with threat, danger and deprivation (“Instead of trying to take out LL, you need to take your homeboys off the crack”), and seemed to tell a potted history of the musical form, name-checking Afrika and Flash, whom I already knew. I used my imagination to fill in the blanks.

B-boys gettin’ blown away, but coming outside anyway …

My planet was rocked. I subsequently learned that Scott La Rock was in fact the supple-wristed DJ of the outfit when I read of his death by gunshot, aged 25, in the NME. (The NME was all over hip-hop, and I remain grateful for the education.) The rapper whose rhymes I had so righteously and whiteously learned and parroted was KRS One (“the holder of a boulder, money folder”). The habit of rappers to rap about themselves in the first person made it a minefield without a Brodie’s Notes. Their braggadocio was new to me. None of the singers I’d admired sang about how great they were at singing, or threatening to kill singers from other bands. Call me shallow, call me a colonial, but I was electrified by the whole thing. La Rock and KRS wielded firearms on the album sleeve – an unhappy landmark for the genre, apparently – but I never had the album.

I arrived at the NME in 1988, wearing a baseball cap, but one with the Age Of Chance logo on it, as I’d welcomed the white, British indie rappers into my life with arms flung wide, and would witness Pop Will Eat Itself being coined offstage by a predominantly black audience at Brixton Academy before that year was out. It was a vexing time, but never dull.

Not all old-skool hip-hop stands the test of time. I retain a soft spot for the comedy of Doug E Fresh and the lack of self-consciousness about those early samples of Bugs Bunny, and I sometimes hanker after the sheer pioneering simplicity of much of what was on the Street Sounds LPs in the prelapsarian pre-Gangsta years: Whodini, Mantronik, Kid Frost, Roxanne Shanté, Newcleus, UTFO, early Run-DMC … so much treasure, but none more valuable than South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx, the South, South Bronx.

Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973)

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Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Help me sing it …

Bobby Womack and I share a birthday: March 4. I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.

A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.

Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson  and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,”  drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”

Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.

As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.

Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.