The mad flow and the boom-bap, for beginners

I don’t mean to pile onto Gerry Benjamin, who has gotten himself into an embarrassing and possibly career-ending mess with his comments about rap “music” — quotes his — in that New York Times story about John Faso straight-up dissing Antonio Delgado’s hip-hop album of some 10 years ago. But some points I would like to make, and suggestions I would like to make too.

While the racial undertones of the attacks on Delgado are quite clear — “Look! It’s a black man in a hoodie! He wants to be OUR congressman!” — one thinks Republicans would be down with rap music. After all, much of the genre celebrates the making of money, the crushing of one’s enemies and the self-inflation of one’s own status.

(Let’s be honest, though — for whatever reason, and I think we all can guess what that reason might be, rappers are very often held personally responsible for the contents of their lyrics in a way performers in other genres almost always aren’t. When Johnny Cash sang about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, people didn’t call the Reno PD to report a possible homicide. Or when Hall & Oates sang about a woman being a “maneater,” they weren’t denounced for promoting cannibalism.)

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This is not a card I really like to play all that much, the “More Hudson Valley-y Than Thou” card, but I will note that I have been living up in here since I was not even 2. I would have been born in Poughkeepsie and not Kentucky had my dad, who was born in Beacon and grew up next to the Schatz Federal plant in Fairview, not been in the Army at the time.

Both Benjamin and Faso came here from downstate much later in their lives, well after their formative experiences were in fact formed. So maybe Johnny-come-lately and Gerry-come-lately will believe me when I say, yes, Hudson Valley people do really respond to rap music, and a lot of us, as deeply Caucasian as some of us inescapably are, respond to it very positively indeed.

Like me! I have been listening to hip-hop since I was in 11th grade (the 1983-84 school year, to be precise) and let me tell you, admitting that while being a white kid at Roosevelt High School made me liable to get my ass kicked. (Well, being a non-conformist in any perceivable way — like, for instance, showing insufficient love for Van Halen — at that school back then made one liable to have one’s ass kicked, but I digress.) Things have changed in that sense, I think; and the racist and homophobic undertones of the “Death to Disco/Rap Music Sucks” movement are a subject for a whole ’nother editorial entirely.

 

So, here’s some of the rap music that’s had an influence on me over the years, offered in a spirit of wanting share some really excellent music with my neighbors.

A Tribe Called Quest: I have said for 20-plus years my favorite rap album is their 1993 release “Midnight Marauders,” but honestly, trying to choose between that and “The Low End Theory” (1991) and their 1990 debut “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” is a little like a parent trying to choose their favorite child. All three of these are the very best the genre has to offer in both lyrical excellence and “production” — the music the MCs rap to. The depth and richness of these records puts them in a league of timeless awesomeness with J.S. Bach and The Beatles — for real. And their final release, from 2016, “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” is just a half-step behind  their best. Phife Dog, RIP.

Public Enemy: While I think 1990’s “Fear of a Black Planet” has held up a bit better, 1988’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” expanded my consciousness, frankly, more than any other album, even the Pink Floyd ones. Like many well-meaning white people who didn’t have much in the way of actual experience in talking to black people, back in ’88 I thought racism, while a huge problem once upon a time, was essentially ended by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. But “A Nation of Millions” was a very powerful statement of the oppression and unfairness African-Americans were suffering in the late Reagan age, and still suffer today. This might be a good one for Faso and Benjamin to start with and then, as I did, read (or re-read) “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

The Roots: Before they became the house band for that dude from Saugerties’ talk show, they were a really great rap band, combining intelligent, insightful and skillfully worded lyrics with first-rate music. Their 1998 “Things Fall Apart” is the second-best rap album of all time on my list.

Beastie Boys: “Licensed to Ill” from 1986 was groundbreaking and perhaps the ultimate valediction of fighting for one’s right to party, but my favorite from these guys is their 1989 release, “Paul’s Boutique.” On no other album is the art of sampling — taking sonic snippets and bits and pieces of other songs to make an audial collage — so elevated; I remember at the time calling it “The Sgt. Pepper of rap.” (It did actually sample “Sgt. Pepper.) You can score some local points too, as one of their members, the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, went to Bard College, one of the 19th’s leading educational institutions.

That’s certainly enough to get started. But if this campaign continues to focus on this stuff at the expense of, oh, I don’t know, actually talking about the problems the people of the district face and could use the federal government’s help with, I’ll write a follow-up talking about Run-DMC, Kendrick Lamar, KRS-One, MC Lyte, Mos Def, Talib Kweli (as both Black Star and as solo artists), Digital Underground, Wu-Tang Clan, Big Boi and Andre 3000 (as both Outkast and as solo artists), De La Soul, Digable Planets, Missy Elliott, Eric B. and Rakim, Run the Jewels, etc.

 

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