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

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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.

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The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

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Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for lute by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?

The Kingsmen, Louie Louie (1963)

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Artist: The Kingsmen
Title: Louie Louie
Description: single
Label: Jerden
Release date: 1963
First heard: 1979

The most recorded song all time, thought to have been covered over 1,500 times since its composer Richard Berry’s original recording in 1957, there really is no topping the Kingsmen’s drawling blueprint. The oldest record currently in The 143 at time of writing*, I can pinpoint my first exposure to its near-narcotic singalong catchiness to 1979, as that was the year I turned 14 and became eligible to see a “AA” at the cinema. Ceremonially, this was National Lampoon’s Animal House, which felt to me like forbidden fruit, with its gross-out larks, bare breasts, rude words, equine heart attacks and anarchic tendencies. But beyond all the adolescent rites of passage, it introduced me to Louie Louie.

In the film, it’s playing on a Rock-Ola jukebox in Delta House during the ritualised “hazing” of Kent Dorfman and Larry Kroger. The collective frat boys sing boozily along to the Berry original. It caught my ear at the time. I must have filed it away. (It never crossed my radar but John Belushi recorded a version for the soundtrack and released it as a single.) Animal House is set in 1962, a year before the Kingsmen’s version was released, but this will have gone over the head of the 14-year-old me; I didn’t know that contemporaneous family favourites Grease and Happy Days were set in the past, either. I just assumed life in 1970s America was just like that – milkshakes, college jackets, convertibles, jukeboxes – and to a degree, for all my provincial naivete, I think I was right.

Historically, the America portrayed in Animal House is one of sharp racial divisions; there are no black students, but the white kids are hip to black music, hiring Otis Day & The Knights for a frat party, and subsequently falling foul of unofficial segregation when they enter a night club to see the band play and find themselves in a conspicuous white minority and run out of the parking lot. It will not be lost on historians that in 1962, Louie Louie by the black Richard Berry might not have even been on the jukebox, as it was only a regional hit in Los Angeles. It took a white group, the preppy Kingsmen from Portland (by way of a prior cover by Tacoma’s Wailers), to have a smash hit with it.

My eventual appreciation of “garage rock”, the movement of which the Kingsmen were an unknowing part – not even called “garage rock” until after it had faded away – came about in the early 21st century during that whirlwind romance with ancient music at the infant 6 Music, where my magpie producer Frank would constantly shove spicy compilations under my nose: ska, reggae, blues and all points inbetween. The Wailers, the Sonics, the Kingsmen, the Seeds, proto-garage kingpin Link Wray – it was at this point that I made the eureka musical link back to the psychobilly I’d dabbled in as an art student in the mid-80s. (I felt sure that one of the Klub Foot compilations I taped at college had a version of Louie Louie on it, but I can find no record of this. I was, however, getting into the dirty early years of the Kinks at the same time, and one of their recordings may have found its way onto a TDK cassette.) It floods the heart when synaptic connections like these are retrospectively made. It’s why I feel sad for youngsters growing up today when all music is available, and thus all music is potentially worthless.

The song itself is a copper-bottomed, no-arguments classic. (Berry sold the rights to it in 1959 and didn’t become the millionaire he had every right to be until the 80s when the Artists’ Rights society tracked him down for a signature to allow its use in a wine cooler advert. He died in 1993, apparently not even in the least bit bitter.) What’s to add? From that seductive organ intro, offset by the warning-sign of a single offbeat on the snare, the arrangement crashes through the wall, fully formed, driven by a rhythm that must have sounded deeply satanic, even played by middle-class white boys. It was recorded in one take, of course. But not in a garage.

Jack Ely’s mewling vocal is so unaffected and so felt, ranging from fired up to disinterested in a beat and perhaps thus encapsulating the confusion of the American teenager at a time of George Wallace and John F Kennedy, Clemson University and Betty Friedan, the Space Race and the Cold War, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. What I love about the vocal is that it’s so comprehensively buried among the racket of drums, keyboard and guitar, it barely qualifies as a lead until Ely shrieks, “OK, let’s give it to them, right now!”

The guitar solo is squeaky and humorous, and Ely comes back in too early – one of the great recorded mistakes in all of rock – whereupon he pauses and drummer Lynn Easton covers with an improvised fill. Let’s do the show right here. All is well wherever your ear alights within these two minutes and 42 seconds of history. Rarely has so little variation or virtuosity given so much reward. And all captured for $50, the cost of the session. Two years later, I was born into a post-Louie Louie world.

And there’s no comma. Richard Berry said so. And he, as they say in Portland, the man.

*Subsequently preceded by Woody Guthrie, Dave Brubeck, Patsy Cline and the Shirelles.

Wu-Tang Clan, Let My N****s Live (2000)

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Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Title: Let My Niggas Live
Description: album track, The W
Label: Loud/Columbia
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

OK, let’s get this done. While I recognise and laud the pioneering importance of Public Enemy and could listen to them any day of the week, and appreciate the ways in which Dr Dre, Kanye West and Jay-Z progressed the narrative of hip-hop, if forced to choose, I would have to name the Wu-Tang Clan as my all-time favourite rap group. Sometimes I think they are my favourite group, full stop. I have time for all five of their albums, including the later ones, which I realise makes me way too forgiving, but the self-proclaimed “Beatles of hip-hop” never fail to ignite my imagination and worry my feet. Like all the best white rap fans, I shamefully forgive them indiscretions I would not forgive a non-black artist. Sometimes great art comes from difficult places. Sometimes the struggle manifests itself in ways that are not totally palatable.

I wholeheartedly salute Danny Kelly for turning me onto the Wu-Tang Clan in the mid-90s when he was my boss at Q magazine. So enamoured was he by their martial-arts stylings and cinematic sample beds, I checked them out in turn and found treasures untold in their 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which seemed to have no peers. (It’s since been stamped as a “landmark”, its influence felt everywhere.)

Sampling soul, funk, jazz and dubbed dialogue from Kung Fu movies, the Wu-Tang sound remains fairly constant across their recorded output (and of course spills into the innumerable solo spin-offs, some great, some not so great), but this magnificent track, from Millennial third album The W, continues to sum up what makes, or made, them masters of the universe. I’d been drawn into the fold by Bring Da Ruckus, C.R.E.A.M., Protect Ya Neck and – from the too-sprawling double Wu-Tang ForeverBells Of War, but I still unfashionably hold The W from “the year Two-G” above both predecessors, as there’s not a duff track on it. From such august company as Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)/Chamber Music, Careful (Click, Click) and their only Top 40 hit in the UK, Gravel Pit, rises Let My Niggas Live, featuring Nas.

I enjoy unearthing the obscure samples in hip-hop and dance records, and cursory research tells me that the arresting opening dialogue comes from the 1977 prison movie Short Eyes (“Someday I’m gon’ be walking down the street, minding my own business, and BANG!, I’m gon’ be shot by some pig who’s gon’ swear it was a mistake”), and that the track itself is constructed around a riff from Roy Budd’s soundtrack to Diamonds, a 1975 heist thriller with Richard Roundtree. Little wonder, then, that it has a grimy 70s New York state-of-mind feel. If you seek out the two-minute, jazzy Budd cue (The Thief) you’ll find that it’s been slowed right down, hence the low-riding boom of the bass, like a ship’s horn.

Over a typically blunt-languid, RZA-laid, tambourine-rattling beat, the Chef Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and guest star Nas respond in verse to a repeated chorus that’s so simple you can actually learn it (as I have done, for singing along to when I’m in the car alone) and an insistent chant of “Let my niggas live”. You will want to let them live by the end of it. Strange that a track of theirs that does not feature Method Man on vocals should lodge itself in my pantheon, as his drooling baritone is my favourite among the tag-team rapping, followed by Ghostface Killah’s. But I think it’s the vocal rhythm that grabs me.

Let my niggas live
We show and prove, get paper, catch me in the caper on ’shrooms yo
Let my niggas live
We real niggas that’s God-body, challenge anything, make major moves
Let my niggas live
We giants, live off the land lions, post with iron, no pryin’ rules
Let my niggas live
Let my niggas live
Handle your bid and kill no kids

I love the strict morality of the code: kill no kids. As ever with the densest of rap lyrics, it’s a mining job to glean the full meaning. But what fun to have a crack at it. There’s braggadocio here – of course there is, they’re a clan, they’re a crew, they’re Staten Island, they’re Shaolin, they’re devout Five Percenters, they have something to prove – but it’s backed by philosophy and religion. There’s violence here (Glocks that are “spittin'”, Barettas “poppin'” and “slugs in the wall”), as there is violence in their early lives (“the streets raised us … I obey hood laws”) and in their lives as stars, what with all those rap feuds and everything, but for me, it does not rule their oeuvre. There is sexual aggression too (“pee on bitches that famous”), which I can’t in all honesty condone, other that to say it’s part of their worldview and you either take it or leave it. I take it as part of the semi-fiction that they have built around them: a show. They use words I would never use. They are not me. I am not them. Also, many religions, for all I know including the Islamic-based Nation of Gods and Earths, theirs, enshrine patriarchy. Such problems run deep.

Let My Niggas Live – and I don’t believe I’ve ever typed “that word” so many times in the space of one hour, I certainly wouldn’t say the title out loud – lacks the impish humour for which I also hold the Clan dear, but its “rigorous moves” glower, rumble and stalk to create a soundtrack to a film about a world I do not know, and that, I guess, is the allure.

Oh, and if you’re listening on CD there’s a brief “skit” at the end of it that heralds the next track, the grief-driven I Can’t Go To Sleep. Never could get into the skits, but they come with the territory.

Public Enemy, Rebel Without A Pause (1987)

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Artist: Public Enemy
Title: Rebel Without A Pause
Description: single; album track from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam
Release date: 1987; 1988
First heard: 1988

From a rebel, it’s final on black vinyl
Soul, rock’n’roll comin’ like a rhino
Tables turn, suckers burn to learn
They can’t disable the power of my label

Though the writers and editors of the NME have historically been white and male, the paper I read in its early-to-mid 80s pomp and which helped define my politics and my aesthetic – and which I subsequently helped produce during the late-80s/early-90s economic reality check when social action morphed into “sitting around in smoking jackets making jokes about pop music” – saw no colour. A deep appreciation of funk and soul cut through the rock reliance, and when its face was at its most pale circa Danny Kelly doctoring the Top 40 to give cover stars The Weather Prophets a hit they never had, Go-Go and hip-hop provided more than a counterweight.

Without the NME, as a reader, I might never have walked into Our Price and purchased Licensed To Ill or Yo! Bum Rush The Show without having heard a note of either. (The latter was the paper’s Album Of 1987.) While the Beastie Boys had provided a bridge from white rock culture to music of black origin and back again, with Public Enemy, you were across the border, and It Takes A Nation Of Millions, if not perhaps an equal to the debut in shock value, contained their finest hour, or finest four minutes 18 seconds at any rate. PE’s pioneering “Strong Island sound” – and its Shocklee value – has been endlessly dissected and disseminated in the decades since, and its sampled glissando and extra BPMs have been identified as the group’s secret weapons. But on first hearing, when I had little to compare this sound to beyond the Sugarhill Gang, its sonic appeal was like alchemy or Pearl Harbour. Life would never be the same again. Millions consolidated Bum Rush’s promise.

The opening sample of Rebel Without A Pause – that of the Reverend Jesse Jackson giving the invocation at 1972’s “Afro-American Woodstock”, Wattstax (“Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to”) – couldn’t be clearer. This is black power, pure and simple, its urgency communicated by the unusual 109bpm velocity (I looked that up) and the JBs’ hornsqueal, which were signatures of a hip hop crew with their own agenda. Violence simmers beneath Chuck D’s own yapping invocations (“Panther power on the hour … Scatter a line of suckers … I’m like a laser, I won’t just graze ya”), but he’s careful to declare, “No gun, and still never on the run.” This is pre-gangsta rap, driven by righteous anger and pointed ire, the sound of frustration being taken out on a punchbag not a police officer.

I never thought “disco sucked” in my youth, but music of white origin had helped me get through my exams, so I wasn’t expecting hip hop to hit me so hard. I never forsook my Smiths or my Wedding Present, but I took my hat off to bands like Age of Chance and Pop Will Eat Itself for acknowledging the rap influence and giving it a crack. Public Enemy cleared a very big space for themselves at my top table in 1987, the year before I walked into the NME office, which is when the levee broke, and I stocked up on Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Run-DMC, Salt N Pepa and the rest with my own money.

Though I discovered hip hop before I became a beneficiary of record company largesse, I’d arrived at NME and landed guest tickets to witness Public Enemy headline Brixton Academy and experienced my first night in an ethnic minority, albeit not once did I actually feel intimidated, as much as my inner liberal probably felt I should do, out of missionary guilt. (Actually: once. When Pop Will Eat Itself were coined offstage, but it passed.)

There were funkier tunes on Yo! Bum Rush The ShowSophisticated Bitch (whose early use of the B-word challenged my best-laid principles), Miuzi Weighs a Ton – and on It Takes A Nation Of MillionsBlack Steel, Don’t Believe The Hype. And both LPs bore more descriptive, specific lyrics, too. But there remains something so primal about Rebel Without A Pause, even if its content doesn’t bear up to much cross-examination (“Voice my opinion with volume” announces Chuck, but his opinions lie elsewhere). And you’d have to wait until Do The Right Thing in 1989 for Chuck to come right out and say Elvis was a racist, “simple and plain”.

But hey, it’s not always about the essay. Sometimes it just the sound and the fury, a previously inarticulated, bottled-up anger from all the way down the years. And what a sound. Such a beautiful noise, coming up from the streets. I bought a baseball cap. I bought a whistle at Brixton Academy.