Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

BornInTheUSAsinglecover

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Description: single; track, Born in the U.S.A.
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

When, in Springsteen on Broadway, the man who wrote Born To Run and Thunder Road and Racing in the Street reveals to his invited theatre audience that in fact he did not run (“I currently live ten minutes from my home town”) and couldn’t even put his bandmate’s car’s stick-shift into first gear when they drove cross-country to do their first out-of-town gig. Grinning at his own self-image, after a pause, he adds, “That’s how good I am.” You’re in the palm of his hand.

Against the bare-brick facade of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York – the Big Apple a faraway emerald city that nobody Springsteen knew growing up in the boondocks of Freehold Borough in New Jersey had ever visited – he does something he also confesses that he never did before: work for five days a week.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he smiles. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” And again: “That’s how good I am.”

I’ve been immune to the Boss for as long as I can remember. I never actively disliked him. I just didn’t feel any pressing need to have him in my record collection. A friend at college with more catholic taste turned me on to I’m On Fire, but it was mostly the “freight train running through the middle of my head” that grabbed me in my own wilderness of self-mythology. I’m pretty sure I intuited that the song Born in the U.S.A. wasn’t anything other than an anti-war anthem when I heard Max Weinberg’s artillery-fire retorts on the snare and sensed fists being clenched and air being punched, but they weren’t really my style. (I’d seen enough Vietnam War movies to know what the tough guy in denim and axle grease meant when he sang, or hollered, of being sent off to a foreign land to “kill the yellow man”.)

Over the years, Bruce and I have largely crossed paths only tenuously. I loved Streets of Philadelphia. I read the reviews of The Ghost of Tom Joad and wondered if it was time yet? The Rising, his rapid response to 9/11, ought to have been up my street and was, theoretically. But whatever it was I was listening to in 2002, it wasn’t him. (I looked it up: my Top 5 albums of 2002 were Where The Wild Things Are by Karen O and the Kids, Born Like This by Doom, My Way by Ian Brown, Goffam by Jim Bob and Forget The Night Ahead by The Twilight Sad. So.)

Then I saw him own Glastonbury in 2009, a pit-stop on his year-round Working on a Dream Tour. The Pyramid Stage was headlined for old folks: Neil Young on the Friday, Bruce on the Saturday and token 40-year-olds Blur on the Sunday. He played 25 songs that warm June night, five of which I knew well enough to mouth the chorus to (plus two of the covers), but a more important thing happened during that magic hour: I got him. Seeing an artist of world renown along with thousands of other people who haven’t necessarily paid to see him or her (the headliners were announced after the tickets had sold) is a great place to do so. Bruce knew he had to work hard for his money. Many of the audience couldn’t sing along and didn’t cheer the first note of every tune. The amazing thing was that I felt I knew the songs I didn’t know. That’s how good he is.

He did Born to Run and The River and Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark, so I wasn’t exactly locked out of the love-in, but he omitted Born in the U.S.A., which I found myself yearning for in the dark and wondering if it might close the show. Here was a pasture where his hymn to the fallen and his reclamation of the flag would not be misinterpreted, and what would those drums sound like?

In its from-the-womb guise for the parent album, recorded at the Power Station in New York in April 1982, produced by Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, it opens proceedings at such a high, keening pitch of ambition, as raw as a jug of eggs and pushing against the ceiling from the first blah of Roy Bittan’s synth riff and the inaugural crack of Weinberg’s tree-trunk stick on snare, surely it will have nowhere to go for the remaining four and a bit minutes? It’s peaked too early. Bruce is shouting at the top of his voice from the first stanza:

Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

If not a lucky town (although nowhere in particular packs its own punch and dead men do wear plaid), Springsteen was born in a lucky country, a lucky panorama, a lucky landscape. He’s a lucky songwriter and storyteller to have been by accident of gene born in the United States of America and with an innate understanding of what that means. (His father, he tells us on Broadway, still regarded a nursed “morning beer” as “the breakfast of champions,” before passing on in 1998, aged 74. One pictures a Schlitz?)

It takes a few hours to drive from one coast the United Kingdom of Whatever to the other, and aside from towns turning into hills then hills back into towns, it’s little wonder our inspiration tends towards introspection, nostalgia and terms and conditions. It is glorious that our island would produce Half Man Half Biscuit and Dusty Springfield, William Shakespeare and EL James, Alfred Hitchcock and Banksy, but you still ultimately have to make your own entertainment here. When Bruce broke out of his youth and discovered what lay beyond the walls of New Jersey (almost literally – he speaks in his memoir of being “walled in by God” ie. the Catholic school, the church), he was filled to the brim with ideas and wasted not one of them as they were road-tested into legend.

At around the four-minute mark of the definitive recording, a strange, immutable thing happens: Weinberg seems to submit to the gods of drumming and allows his hands and sticks to be puppeteered by some higher force, as if this song, its intent, its power and its glory are circuited into a higher realm. This songs begins at a sociopolitical and actual pitch that lesser men after the same affect might build up to. Result: it’s impossible to disentangle the actually iconic pose of Bruce – with his guitar arm in the air, that ripped knee-slit in his work trousers and the stars and stripes rendered in duct-tape strips behind him – from the art it promises. Same goes for the concert promo clip, assembled and shot through with footage of working men coming and going to work by John Sayles, although the black headband hasn’t worn as well.

Born in the U.S.A. was just one among seven top 10 hits mercenarily taken from the album, which changed the Springsteen optics for life; the new Boss was not the same as the old Boss. He was Michael Jackson now. Madonna. Aretha. Elvis. Bono. Prince. Bowie. Sinatra. Crosby. Doris Day. When I interviewed the impressively self-aware Jon Bon Jovi for the NME in 1989, he knew that Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2 were bigger than he was, and accepted it with grace. He didn’t mention Bruce, who came from the same neck of the woods. I suspect of the two New Jerseyites, Bruce spent less time doing the Forbes arithmetic, although both he and Jon had written songs that were bigger than they were.

Back at the boards of Walter Kerr a decade after my Glastronautical epiphany, in much more intimate surroundings with not a single casual bystander in the house, and Springsteen almost apologises for the “long and noisy prayer” he’s been reciting. He explains, “I wanted to rock your very soul. I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”

He has, not least on his best song, and without moving more than a few feet. That’s how good he is.

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Miles Davis, So What (1959)

Artist: Miles Davis
Title: So What
Description: track, Kind of Blue
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1994

Is this cool? Is this cool? Is this cool? Is this cool? Is that cool? All these people: are they cool?

I’m not qualified to take apart instrumental music, which jazz often is, but this analytical deficit has never stopped me losing myself in its syncopated currents. Jazz means different things to different hipsters: heroin, polo-necks, Gauloises, waistcoats, Prohibition, washboards, jugs, Chicago, New Orleans, Hitchin, nodding students, Afro-Cuban, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, fusion, brushes, inflatable cheeks, “sitting in”, Louis Armstrong’s hanky. To me, it means purity. It’s music that speaks for itself.

The blessing and the curse with Miles Davis is cool. As with many innovators who bottled the breeze, he gets cooler in posthumous legend. Even people whose coffee tables aren’t artfully arranged underneath a vinyl copy of Kind of Blue know that his very name spells cool. He was cool because he appeared not to have to try too hard to remain one step ahead of history, when in fact it took a lot of work, which is in itself cool. (The functioning heroin addict must find income – his arrests and court appearances only made that trickier, and as well as transcribing scores for money, he also pimped as often as he scrimped. Is that cool?) He remained fashionable as new wave after new wave crashed against his arty shore. His genius became a commodity. But neither commodification nor self-medication could erase or diminish his innate cultural chill, which was in the music.

Miles Dewey Davis III from Alton, Illinois, lived longer than he should have: to the not-inconsiderable age of 65 in ’91, when he was felled by a stroke, pneumonia and something respiratory (an especially cruel route for a man who blew). He was cool in his first bebop flush in the late 40s, in the pomp of his mid-50s comeback, with his sextet and collaborators in the early 60s, duly stirring up his Bitches Brew fusion in 1970, then again in rehabilitation in the 80s, style-magazine ready.

De-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum bah-bap

Let’s get into it, man. Let’s ignore the terminology – modal; voicing; tertial; major third interval; interjecting the head; a perfect fourth; a bar-line shift – these are just some of the things that go over my head. Let’s instead describe what I hear.

Warming up: notes gently teased out of the piano by Bill Evans (the only other co-writer credited on Kind of Blue), then a questioning riff played with the double bass of Paul Chambers in echo. The bass and the piano will be our guides throughout the next historic nine minutes and 22 seconds, allowing Miles to get into his space and if not blow the doors off, certainly create plumes of interesting smoke, which I imagine animated like a Pink Panther title sequence.

Much is spoken of jazz music’s improvisation, but rather than truly free-form, the most memorable pieces stick to a basic through-line and circle adroitly around it, making little clearings in which to solo. In the case of So What – note the missing question mark? – it’s the bass and the brass, with the piano sometimes dropping underneath to mimic the bass and trumpet notes. By default, the bass sounds like it’s walking around Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. Davis’s trumpet doodles over his own sketches, ricocheting off hither and exploring thither, the star attraction, without a doubt, but generous, too. The lightest beat is maintained on snare and ride cymbal by Jimmy Cobb – no room for showing off at the stool.

It’s the whole that matters. I’m a drummer; I’ll always follow the rhythm, but when the horns of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley parp in sets of two towards the denouement, it’s like they’re calling you over, after which Chambers, Cobb and Evans finish up, almost imperceptibly faded in the final few seconds by producers Ted Macero and Irving Townsend.

There’s a myth that the entire LP was recorded in one take. It wasn’t – although I’ve read that Side Two’s Flamenco Sketches was – but it was put to bed in two sessions in March and April 1959. And it’s certainly free of overdubs.

As is the greedy modern way, Kind of Blue now comes complete with alternate takes, false starts and studio offcuts, but who needs them? Davis, his band and producers have already bottled magic and created an album that is the sound of the 20th Century pivoting on its axis.

Are they cool? Yes they are cool.

 

Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

SonicYouthSister

Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.

Indeep, Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life (1982)

lastnightadjsavedmylife

Artist: Indeep
Title: Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life
Description: single; track, Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life!
Label: Sound of New York
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get down, girl

As with glam-rock thruster Blockbuster, the exclamation mark seems to be optional. But you’d be right to exclaim. The parent album of this curricular early-80s, post-boom disco mainstay bears the punctuation stroke, as if to make its claim of jockey-induced resuscitation even more exclamatory! But we’re not here to talk about its parent album. Or indeed any album. This, as so often with dance music, is not about albums. But it is about a long-player, for Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life(!) gets better with length, and when it comes in at five minutes, 40 seconds, you’ll still want it to go on for longer and never stop.

There was an album from Indeep. There was even a follow-up album a year later, called Pajama Party Time. And a Collection in 1991. But what can it have possibly collected? Indeep are, or is, or were, one record. A record that, in the mix, could remedy any ill.

Dance acts are often fronts; their two-step symphonies recorded indoors in lab conditions, then dressed in the casual finery of polite society before being released into the social network. With due care, dance acts can scrub up nicely actually. Think of Black Box in the early 90s: amazing record made by DJs and studio-tanned producers, mimed to by model Katrin Quinol, vocal actually sampled from a 1980 Loleatta Holloway single. It was a piece of theatre, accompanied by the sound of lawyers rubbing their hands in time to the funky Italo-house beat.

Dance records made by DJs and sung by ghosts were a new thing to get your head around, even in New York, a scene where disc-spinners had begun to forge a reputation in the late 1970s for being more than mere record players – a readjustment forced by the manifest destiny of rap. Pre-Sugarhill, dance records were made by artists and musicians, who as often as not stood in a line and wore identical outfits. Meanwhile, DJs had headphones and turntables and acted as conduits. But a boom in any sector creates jobs, and the rise of club culture engendered residencies and brand-loyalties, and the “name” disc jockey suddenly didn’t need to get a job on the radio to pull a crowd any more. I can’t pretend I was prominent on the New York bathhouse scene in 1977, but it must have been like Weimar Berlin for anyone “in” or “out”. I want to go to there.

If it wasn’t for the music, I don’t know what I’d do

That a DJ could save your life “with a song” is intrinsic to the cross-fade mythology surrounding the spinner that grew when people in clubs and discos started to genuflect towards the booth and wait for instructions, as if at a traditional us-and-them gig. The concept of a superstar DJ was still in the future, but the tide was turntabling. But Indeep were, or was, a musician and producer, not a DJ: New Jersey’s Michael Cleveland, then in his mid-20s, and prone to wearing a skinny tie pulled halfway down his chest. He is flanked – literally, in publicity shots – by singers Rose Marie Ramsey and Réjaine (“Reggie”) Magloire, who look much better.

Indeep nail it like this, and it’s not complicated: a basic boom-clap-boom-clap rhythm, encouraged by a just-as-prosaic hi-hat substitute (although I wouldn’t rule out it being the click-track work of an actual drummer), then we’re joined by a conversational bassline that mutters intriguingly away to itself before an auto-fill unleashes the Chic-influenced ostinato guitar vamp; at this point the framework is sound. As if to prove that this exquisitely understated sum of parts can look after itself, the 12-inch runs on for 25 seconds before anything vocal happens. Then Rose and Reggie start to testify in seductive marshmallow about last night and resistance is futile.

There’s a proper chorus (“Last night a DJ saved my life from a broken heart”) for the karaoke-inclined as well as funky asides to have fun with (“check it out”, “dub time!”) and the historic, sandpaper testimony of the unnamed DJ himself in the suddenly fashionable rap style.

There’s not a problem that I can’t fix, I can do it in the mix …

Extra value comes on what we used to call the B-side of the 12-inch with DJ Delight options, including an instrumental and an a capella version, plus free sound effects, thrown in by Cleveland as a gift to amateur mixologists in this brave new world of style-sharing: a toilet flushes (“away goes trouble down the drain”), a phone rings (“called you on the phone”), a whistle is blown, a car screeches. It’s like an afternoon play on Radio 4.

In its prescribed form, Last Night a DJ comes in at a tight 4.44 for daytime radio play, and a protracted 5.39 for the clubs. Put it on repeat and you’ll become convinced that you don’t need any other early-80s disco classic to get you through the night. I have it on a compilation of 12-inch mixes that also boasts IOU by Freez, Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk, and Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell, but it still rises to the top of its class.

Having spun a few discs in a club situation in my time, I take my hat off to actual DJs, who do this for a living, and have CPR skills.

… in the mix … in the mix … in the mix

 

Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1983)

Herbie_Hancock_-_Rockit

Artist: Herbie Hancock
Title: Rockit
Description: single; album track, Future Shock
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

Herbie Hancock may not even have been previously known by the generation that learned his name anew from Rockit, an out-of-the-blue instrumental hit that was so of its time, so cutting edge, so future-shocking, it would have seemed inconceivable that its creator had his roots in 1960s jazz. But Hancock – classically trained, something of a prodigy, but one who “learned” jazz with his ears – was no stranger to changing the game. As a pianist, he’d been sought out by Miles Davis for his egalitarian Second Great Quintet in 1963, where he was able to fuse elements of free jazz into something more structured.

It’s perhaps ironic that Davis’s interest in other music – soul, funk, even rock – led to the dissolution of the Quintet in the late 60s, because Hancock would prove just as open to other forms, expanding into soundtracks and experimentation with electronic instruments. Like a freeform shark, he kept moving – and still does. These days, aged 74, he’s indentured at UCLA and Harvard, lecturing on “the ethics of jazz”. Nice. And here, in the early 80s, when hip hop and electro ripped up the road map out of the ghetto, he was, Zelig-like, nailing a whole new hybrid sound to the gatepost along with fellow explorers bassist Bill Laswell and synth scientist Michael Beinhorn.

Scholars usually cite Rockit as the first hit to feature “scratching”, although Malcolm McLaren’s seminal Duck Rock album landed the same year, preceded by its early-adopting Buffalo Gals single, which as well as popularising synchronised skipping and South African sounds, also prominently showcased turntablism – a new, tactile artform unpacked by McLaren in the album’s sleeve notes as “a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar with the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record.”

No matter who beat whom to the North Pole of the patent office, Rockit was a hit in over a dozen countries, exploding like a rocket. There was no rapping or singing on it, just a galloping robot beat injected with sampled brass bursts, a side order of extraneous bongo, an almost atonal riff on bold, squelchy synthesiser and – dig it – a needle being moved manually across the surface of a gramophone record. Actually, to be pedantic, it’s the surface of a gramophone record being moved manually under a needle by New York’s Grandmixer DXT, the Bert Weedon of groove-wristing. It was science fiction that announced: greet the new dawn. The moreish Godley & Creme video, which featured android legs and torsos created by artist Jim Whiting, helped to make Rockit an event.

I remember hearing Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock for the first time and recognising a tectonic shift happening before my very ears, but Rockit was universally bought and loved. It crossed over, without, to my mind, losing a gram of its avant-gardist, underground veracity. Pretty soon, graffiti and baseball hats and rapping would be used to sell yogurts, but the subculture remained thrilling for a number of years. And Rockit does not lose its shine with the passage of time. The breaks where it’s just scratching and a vestige of the beat are pure circus.

There’s no lyric to unpack, beyond a punctuation-mark “Come on, y’all” towards the close. The music does the talking.

If it were just historic, it would be something. But to still induce dancing 30 years later is something else.

I know one thing: all this scratching is making me itch.

 

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.