Killah Priest, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (1995)

GZALiquid-Swords

Artist: Killah Priest
Title: B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
Description: album track, Liquid Swords (credited to Genius/GZA); album track, Heavy Mental (credited to Killah Priest)
Label: Geffen/MCA
Release date: 1995; 1998
First heard: 2000

The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
And, uh, the second son of Pope Alexand-uh
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome

A curious case. Liquid Swords is the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan key man and co-founder GZA (aka The Genius), recorded and released in the hiatus between the first and second Wu-Tang albums in 1995. Like most Wu solo projects, it involves the majority of the Clan and numerous satellites in at least a guest capacity: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God and Masta Killa. It was recorded and produced by RZA.

So what’s the 13th and final track, B.I.B.L.E., all about? Despite a performance credit to GZA/The Genius “featuring” Killah Priest, it is, to all intents and purposes, a solo piece by Priest, then a Wu affiliate but not a full, card-carrying member. The artist born Walter Reed is best known for his group Sunz Of Man, who released two albums in 1998 and 2002. He has since severed ties with the Wu. If this isn’t interesting to you, I hope it at least goes some way to illuminating the complex, internecine, cross-hatched nature of the Wu-Tang family.

Having enrolled the Wu-Tang Clan’s Let My Niggas Live into The 143 – for me, a supreme example of teamwork – I’m left with a well twice as deep filled with Wu-Tang solo records. A number are registered classics among the rapuscenti: Tical by Method Man, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is where, as they say, we at.

As a long-player, it run on samples from a 1980 marital arts film I have never seen, and am unlikely ever to see, Shogun Assassin. Such snippets of dialogue, usually dubbed into English and badly, are a thread that runs through the entire Wu canon. But no such find a place on B.I.B.L.E., the album’s final track, left off certain formats. Why? Perhaps because it appears to have very little to do with GZA, whose name does not even appear in the song’s credits. Quite what it’s doing on the LP is a mystery to me.

And yet, it makes sense, as it’s nothing like the rest of the album, and it comes at the very end, like the bonus it appears to be. It’s produced by 4th Disciple, an enduring Wu knobsman with prod and co-prod credits on the output of most principal members and the Clan themselves on Wu-Tang Forever (he also turntabled on Enter The Wu-Tang). So, B.I.B.L.E. is canon, but not. Run on a looped rhythm from the final track (apt!) of 1972 Ohio Players LP Pleasure – the eerie, hiccuping, childlike cry is presumably singer Robert Ward, hamming it up – it moves at an unhurried pace, creating a lowdown, smoky vibe, entirely suited to the earnest sermon thereupon.

Not a single curse-word passes its lips. You can play it on the radio. I did play it on the radio. (I think the first time I did I credited it to GZA and was quickly pulled up on my mistake.) As verbose as many a core Wu-Tang piece, its chorus is a soothing repeat of the “basic instructions before leaving earth” refrain and the lyric actually bears examination. That this investigation into Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and imagery is not tossed off quickly becomes clear. “Life is a test,” he testifies, referring to “research”, which involved feeling “joy an’ the hurt.”

He spools back to when he was 12 years old in Bedford-Stuyvesant and presumably still called Walter (“I loved doin’ right, but I was trapped in Hell”). It’s a moving stanza about “mad ideas, sad eyes an’ tears” and “years of fears.” This church-going, juvenile “search for truth” ended when Priest found his own priest wanting: “souped up with lies,” he recalls.

Durin’ the service, he swallowed up the poor
An’ after they heard this, they wallowed on the floor
But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold
An’ watched mysteries unfold

He returns to this theme of the unreliable preacher later in the song:

See, look into my eyes, brethren, that’s the lies of a Reverend

There are references here to Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, Hebrew, Job, the Bible, “hocus pocus”, space, sin and abortion. This is not a lyric you’ll get on first listen, nor one you hear every day. It, too, requires “research.” (“I studied ’til my eyes was swollen.”) But it’s eloquent, fluid, personal, questioning and complex, replete with surprising rhymes and twist, “abyss” twinned with “hiss”, “turban” with “urban”, “beanie” and “genie.”

An’ from the caves he crept from behind
An’ what he gave was the sect of the swine

You don’t need to sign up with the Nation of Islam – or indeed the Black Hebrew Israelites – to find the theological rigour intoxicating. It certainly makes a change from rap’s incessant braggadocio and gun-slingin’. As a longtime white fan of this deeply black music (one of the devils, I guess, who “tricked his dome”), I have long since made peace with the fact that I am a geographical and cultural outsider listening in, with issues, and accredit the best of the genre to its raw power, archaeological originality and lyrical dexterity. When Priest raps, “For years religion did nothing but divide,” you sense a man of peace not war.

Why should you die to go to Heaven?
The Earth is already in space

You can’t help but feel warmth when our father speaks of teaching his son “as he kneels on the stoop.” He augers, “Son, life is a pool of sin,” and then appears to warn of “wicked” women who “build picket signs to legalise abortion.” We’re in murky waters here, but to listen is not to condone. Think of it as reading a novel. You don’t have to vote for him.

This tune’s instructions are not basic at all, but a resplendent, fabulously interwoven crown of thorny issues. It’s one of my favourite Wu-Tang Clan tracks and yet occupies its own pitch on the outer limits. It’s not even really on the album it says it’s on. But it makes you think and nod your head, even if you don’t agree with every sentiment.

And it rhymes “And, uh,” with “Pope Alexand-uh,” which ought to win a poetry prize.

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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.

Lionrock, Fire Up The Shoesaw (Original Album Mix) (1996)

lionrock-fire_up_the_shoesaw

Artist: Lionrock
Title: Fire Up The Shoesaw (Original Album Mix)
Description: single; album track, An Instinct For Detection
Label: Deconstruction
Release date: 1996
First heard: 1996

It is through no sense of willful obscurity or self-love that I put forward a song that I suspect few outside of the dance cognoscenti will recognise from its title. I’m no expert. I just took receipt of this single from a friendly PR, presumably at Q or just after, spotted that “Lionrock” was essentially producer and DJ of note Justin Robertson, was intrigued by the name (largely because Stuart Maconie, David Quantick and I had self-regardingly attempted to launch our own musical genre at the NME circa 1992 and christened it, without much depth, Lion Pop) and gave it a spin. I believe we are calling it Big Beat, though I didn’t really care what generic pigeonhole it went into, or who it was aimed at, or why Justin Robertson had cooked it up in the first place; I just knew that it was a preposterously infectious piece of construction work.

Built, like the more saleable 45s of Fatboy Slim (who will find his way into The 143 twice over, I suspect), from flotsam and jetsam which, if I went under the bonnet, I could probably catalogue sample for sample, right here, right now, but part of me wishes not to let light in upon magic. If you’ve never heard this wondrous tune, seek it out; in the meantime, I’ll describe it, just to see if I’ve still got the old magic, as it’s more than the sum of its Frankenstein’s monster-style parts.

The CD single contains five versions of subtle variation, but it’s the Original Album Mix that strikes the optimum note of upper-case melodrama and comes in at an executive five minutes 45 seconds in length. It begins, as these things so often do, with a disembodied, echoey sample of an American announcer, seemingly reacting to a primary election result of some kind and the establishment of “a new candidate” and, less conventionally, a “new favourite vegetable which is … asparagus” and then we’re off: into the one building block that a child could identify: the double bass intro from These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (a classic single we’ll be hearing from again, I promise). It is artfully distorted by Robertson and mixed in with the squelching sound of water, until another disembodied American voice asks, “What is rock and roll?”

A second guitar and a big beat join the looped Lee Hazelwood riff and we hit our first groove. If it just did this, it would be a serviceable slice of white man’s dance music. But there’s more. At one minute in, a guess-which-nationality voice asks, “Where’d you learn how to shake that booty?”, heralding the next movement – and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to use the terminology of classical music with a piece as intricately composed as this – in which a fuzz guitar and some brass stabs seems to conjure that Jabberwockian “shoesaw” (and that’s not nearly as pretentious a description as it sounds). Think you’ve got the measure of it? Wait until one minute 53.

One of America’s great pranksters …

Here’s the wow factor, which possesses my body and my fingers on public transport every time it explodes into brilliance in my headphones: a skyscraping brass reveille from one of John Barry’s Bond soundtracks, instantly familiar and yet ingeniously punched up with some sampled jazz drums that coolly operate at the apex of Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich levels of technical skill (hey, they could be Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich). Paradiddling across the kit, this drum fill, repeated, takes Shoesaw to another level of synchronicity. It is akin to the skin-and-timber drumming sampled so adoringly by DJ Shadow. We’re so used to drum samples that either underpin with timekeeping or punctuate with a roll; these speak.

It’s actually a sad moment when the Bond section is over, and back to the fuzz guitar section, but stick around, we’re into a cycle now and only halfway through.

A disembodied American voice pleads “What are we doing here?”, and at one stage, the squelching is back, foregrounded, as if we are marching home from the trenches, at which Boots is our trusty companion back into a welcome rerun of Bond. Can it just be the drummer in me that so takes this record to heart? I don’t care. We all have our reasons. We all have our ways in. The snarework of a jazz sticksman is my way into Fire Up The Shoesaw. The title bespeaks superheroes, comic book action, maybe even the threat of violence in a megalomaniac’s underground lair, but what cinematic drama! What spatial awareness! And what generosity of length!

I’m sure Justin Robertson does not dine out on lobster too often on the royalties of a song made from other songs that only reached number 43 in the charts in 1996 when Fatboy Slim was winning superstar status, but I hope he is still in full and enriching self-employment, and held in appropriate regard by his peers and those who dance before his decks in superclubs in Russia, as he only went and created one of the best 143 songs of all time and he may not even know it.

The Orb, Little Fluffy Clouds (7″ Edit) (1990)

OrbsAdventuresBeyondUltraworld

Artist: The Orb
Title: Little Fluffy Clouds
Description: single; album track, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
Label: Big Life
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1991

What were the skies like when you were young?
They went on forever

I’ve wanted to start a novel with that couplet for 20 years. Just printed, in italics, as a sort of philosophical frontispiece. It’s only the formality of nobody wanting to pay me to write a novel that stands in the way of this burning ambition. (I used it as the lead-off to a piece I wrote for Word magazine on nostalgia in 2011 – that’ll have to do.) The question and answer come from the defining spoken sample of what is the greatest single ever made. (I know. The 143 is not about quantifying individual tracks, but if I am ever forced to choose my favourite song of all time, I never later regret saying Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb. It’s my Apocalypse Now or Slaughterhouse Five of songs.)

I think I always knew, or knew early on in my ardent relationship with this insistently lilting four and a half minutes of ambient pop, that the woman answering the question was Rickie Lee Jones. I didn’t initially know that the interview was essentially a promotional one – hence the vanilla questions – conducted for an extra disc included by Geffen in the box set edition of her 1989 Flying Cowboys album, as A Conversation With Rickie Lee Jones. You must admit, it’s a fantastic question. I wish I’d asked it of someone I’d interviewed in my time as an interviewer. What were the skies like when you were young? It’s not even the first utterance on the single, whose 7″ Mix I select amid a welter of longer, more luxurious and tangential remixes; that, following a crowing cock, and a buzzing biplane, is a Radio 4-style voice saying:

“Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of a English summer, the drone of a lawnmower, the smack of leather on willow, comes a new sound …”

And we’re off, into a remarkably disciplined sonic creation, whose voices drift across the production’s blue sky like clouds (I always see them as perfect, white, Simpsons-credits clouds – you’re with me?), and from a heartbreaking harmonica wail emerges that hypnotic keyboard signature which bubbles away beneath, quickly joined by a hard bass drum and a Tight Fit-styled Afro-beat and, at one minute 13 seconds, a supplementary synth noodle provides the nagging riff: we have lift-off. Rickie waxes hippy about “purples and reds and yellows” and how these colours are “on fire”, and eventually wonders if you still see such psychedelic Arizona skies “in the desert.” The deft combination of boho guff and ultramodern techno groove is just perfect, and what might have initially been a mischievous glint in the eye of Dr Alex Patterson is ultimately rendered sincere and moving. You’re with her! You want to see those skies! Those little fluffy clouds!

I will have been more than aware of The Orb’s significance in the post-rave world as I was playing out my third act at the NME in 1991-92, but I was not a raver. I was too scared to take the relevant drugs. Which is not to say that the moment did not regularly get into my bloodstream. I was dispatched to Sheffield by the live desk to review a benefit for miners’ families in November 1992 staged by Primal Scream, with The Orb supporting. (Documented evidence tells us that the Orb played longer than the Scream, and gave phenomenal stage show, despite there only being three of them onstage at Sheffield Arena: the good Doctor, “Thrash” and Steve Hillage.) I remember having a couple of beers in the VIP paddock during the interval, but this was not a night of intoxication. I watched The Orb from the seated area near the front and remember Little Fluffy Clouds doing everything in its cosmic, thumping power to get me out of that stupid plastic fold-up chair. (Arena dance: not one of the modern word’s great ideas.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to get up and dance more in all my life. But such encroachment into walkways was discouraged by security and, surreally, we had to nod and bounce in our seats and be happy with that. I’ve had more fun subsequently dancing to it in my house, or secretly, on public transport. Little Fluffy Clouds is a form of transport. It takes me places, and not just to an imagined Arizona when Rickie Lee Jones was young. I’m sticking with it as best single ever made, as it epotomises the lure of nostalgia on many levels, it works its alchemy on me every single time, and I play it a lot.

We walked all the way from the Arena back to the hotel in central Sheffield after the gig, but the Orb, not Primal Scream, were ringing in my happy ears.

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

TheW

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.

Beastie Boys, An Open Letter To NYC (2004)

BeastiesOpenLetter

Artist: Beastie Boys
Title: An Open Letter To NYC
Description: single; track from To The 5 Boroughs
Label: Capitol
Release date: 2004; 2005
First heard: 2004

Dear New York, I know a lot has changed
Two towers down, but you’re still in the game

It may seem obscure to go off-doctrine and overlook those cultural-landscaping early Beastie Boys singles like (You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), No Sleep ’Till Brooklyn and The New Style, or even the more mature, accomplished bells/whistles direction personified by the likes of Sabotage and Intergalactic, but what’s not even the lead-off but the third single from their sixth album, To The 5 Boroughs, strikes me as one of their most important. This time it’s personal.

The album as a whole, self-produced and recorded between 2002 and 2004 while the cosmic and actual dust was still settling after the September 11 attacks, acts as a love letter to their home city. By definition, this track amplifies that sentiment, a fluent and heartfelt lyrical adventure around the landmarks of their misspent youth and a moving tribute to the diverse populations that make New York the melting pot it has always been (“Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/Black, white, New York, you make it happen”). Aside from Bleecker Bob’s and Battery Park, I don’t even recognise all the local namechecks, but this just makes them more evocative: the Deuce, Blimpies, Fulton Street Mall, the L.I.E., the B.Q.E., I could look them up but that would let light in on magic.

I remember going nuts for this the moment I heard it, and playing it excitedly on Roundtable on 6 Music, whereby guest Stewart Lee remained unmoved as he felt that much of its appeal lay in the driving guitar riff appropriated from The Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer. He really is a curmudgeon. The use of that riff is part of its genius; likewise the opening stab of New York’s My Home by Broadway star Robert Goulet (“Listen, all you New Yorkers”). The construction of the song around the Dead Boys lick, with a clicky beat and the Beasties’ trademark drawling three-way rap, is simplicity itself, and allows for close examination of the lyric, which is the heart of the tune: “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan …”

It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring. And their sixth album is way better than it probably has any right to be (Rolling Stone awarded it five stars). Michael Gillette’s stark line drawing of a New York skyline that includes the Twin Towers is poignant, too. (His artwork was followed through to related sleeves – including the one pictured – and promos.)

The list of American songs written and released in response to 9/11 is unsurprisingly long; everyone from Sheryl Crow and Living Colour to Neil Young and Sleater-Kinney. Springsteen wrote a whole album. But I would nominate An Open Letter as the finest, funkiest and least mawkish I’ve heard from the locals.

Colourbox, Just Give ’Em Whiskey (1985)

Colourobox

Artist: Colourbox
Title: Just Give ’em Whiskey
Description: album track from Colourbox
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

My friend Rob Mills and I were 4AD groupies at college, that is, “fans” of an independent record label. On the same Graphic Design and Illustration degree course at Chelsea School Of Art, we were also record collectors, and keen students of sleeve design. We were head over heels with 4AD’s in-house designer, Vaughan Oliver, who traded as 23 Envelope, and wrapped the releases of Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Wolfgang Press, Pixies and Throwing Muses in 12-inch cardboard masterpieces whose attention to aesthetic detail sang of the music within: often ethereal, often operatic, sometimes awkward, always uncompromising. Of the label’s roster, the Cocteaus were our main focus, but we spent our grants on pretty much everything 4AD put out, and handled each purchase with care.

Once onboard, we started gradually working our way backwards through the catalogue whenever funds would allow. (I can also safely say that I bought the first Pixies release Come On Pilgrim without even knowing who the group were; if 4AD had signed ’em, we were in.) Neither of us had heard a note of Colourbox when in 1985 I purchased the 12-inch of Breakdown, released in 1983, whose austere, brutalist sleeve was something of a disappointment, but the music within was a surprise: a languid slice of Depeche Mode-like electronica except with a female soul vocal. Next, I bought Punch, a stuttering explosion of funk, whose typographical sleeve was far more up our street. When the group’s first and only LP arrived in 1985, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. At least this time it wouldn’t be on spec.

Mostly self-produced by brothers Martyn and Steve Young, Colourbox was eclectic stuff, running its own gamut from studio-propelled covers (You Keep Me Hanging On, U-Roy’s Say You) to crooning pop (The Moon Is Blue, Suspicion), piano elegy (Sleepwalker) and curious, sample-led Frankenstein’s monsters, one of which was a 25-second clip of Hale and Pace over a dystopian backing; the other Just Give ’Em Whiskey, a true milestone of sampled invention.

That the Youngs would presently form M/A/R/R/S and go to number one with watershed demonstration disc Pump Up The Volume is the perfect ending to their story. History was theirs. But Whiskey is one for the cinephiles, a rattling, guitar-led sprint through sci-fi thrillers Westworld and The Andromeda Strain, via dialogue lifted wholesale from videotapes and set to modern rock, ricocheting gunshots and soundtrack stings. Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner calls out, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” while a cooing female announcer from future amusement park Delos promises “an unforgettable vacation,” “lifelike robot men and women,” and “the lusty decadent delights of imperial Pompeii.”

For me, the killer punch comes when possibly Richard Benjamin and James Brolin say, “Dinner at seven, breakfast at six thirty. Eat lunch on your own.” “Don’t look like much here, but we have everything.”

I love that line. And it makes me think about Colourbox, whose most pioneering work didn’t look like much – some clips from some old movies, some synthesiser riffs and a bit of guitar and drums – but they had everything. I found this partial catalogue of Colourbox’s samples. It’s worth a look, as I had erroneously thought my favourite piece of dialogue was from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Of course, all this talk of buying records for their sleeves will seem quaint and possibly laughable to younger readers. But art used to matter to everybody.