Looking for the Perfect Off-Beat

by Mark Reynolds

21 November 2006

This one is for the Afro-punks and black rockers and everyone else who doesn't see their hearts and minds reflected in what passes for mainstream black music nowadays.
The Busboys 

The NFL Network’s commercial hawking rebroadcasts of just-played games seemed innocuous enough.  Warren Sapp, Chad Johnson, and Tony Gonzalez gave catchy, half-sung renditions of perky ad copy, and the stop-time beat in the background evoked a feel-good oldies soundtrack.  But after the 40,000th or so time I saw the spot, that very beat, plus that semi-eerie, semi-campy keyboard lick down beneath the voiceover towards the end, triggered an out-of-the-blue recognition: somewhere in the genesis of this commercial lies a BusBoys fan!

The tune of that ad closely mirrors “Did You See Me”, from the BusBoys’ debut album Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980). The BusBoys, led by Brian O’Neal, were a black band playing straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll with a satirical, lyrical twist on various songs, and reveled in the irony of being black and playing rock—“white people’s music”, if you will—as opposed to R&B or something more commonly accepted as “black people’s music”.  Elsewhere on the album is a ditty called “There Goes the Neighborhood” (the chorus declared, “the whites are moving in / they’ll bring their next of kin / oh boy”),  a Chuck Berry-esque rocker entitled “Johnny Souled Out” (“he’s into rock ‘n’ roll / and he’s given up the rhythm and blues”), and the breathless “KKK” (“I wanna join the Ku Klux Klan / and play in a rock & roll band”).  But it’s on “Did You See Me” that their twisted wit cuts sharpest.

Our hero starts out lamenting that he needed something to do after a long day of shining shoes.  His friends scoop him up to some club, and he can’t believe his eyes at all the strange goings-on.  He’s at some New Wave club (remember, this song is happening in 1979-80, right around the time the world is catching up to punk just as the scene starts morphing and getting mainstream play), and the folks there are dancing the multi-colored hair right off their heads.  In no time our hero is down as well, leading to the bodacious stop-time announcement:

You think it was hot in the shade
  I betcha never heard music like this by spades

I discovered the BusBoys on Fridays, ABC’s short-lived attempt to coast on NBC’s Saturday Night Live zeitgeist, and was completely blown away.  They performed “Did You See Me”, and when they got to the end I damn near fell out of my seat howling, first in shock and then with laughter, all from the same reaction: “Oh no these wigged-out black people dinn’t say ‘spades’ live on national TV!”  Oh yes they did, and I was hooked.

See, back then I was attracted to—and actively sought out—black music that didn’t resemble black music.  Like many others of my age and time, I venerated Stevie Wonder, waded not just knee deep into P-Funk’s cosmic slop, and nodded approvingly to Gil Scott-Heron’s pronouncements on the perils of the day.  But none of that music, however wonderful or glorious, spoke to me on the personal tip, the point where you scribble down Pink Floyd lyrics during a boring lecture in class, when Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile” is the soundtrack to your first heartbreak, when you can envision the flawed outlaws and lovers in Steely Dan songs.  None of that emotional complexity was available in disco, and little lyrical complexity could be found in your average R&B love song—great music for slow dancing, but life for me was more than that, and even the funkiest funk couldn’t scratch that itch.

In retrospect, I was hardly alone.  One of the untold secrets of black life in the post-civil rights years is that the soundtrack to those years, for more of us than one might imagine, is not mostly composed of mainstream black pop.  Ever since “rock” departed from its blues and R&B roots far enough to connote “white music” for most people, there’s been a handful of black folks who liked rock anyway—for its beat, its aggression, its own sense of style, the possibilities for reinvention that weren’t as evident in the black pop of the day—and not just because of Jimi Hendrix .  By the late ‘80s, the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) would emerge from this community of fellow travelers as a support system for artists who broke the racial paradigms that had barricaded “rock” from “black music” and their free-thinking fans.  Guitarist Vernon Reid, a BRC co-founder, also led the band Living Colour, modern black rock’s great shining moment.  But there were and are lots of other bands under the BRC umbrella, and they don’t all attempt to crank it to 11.  What they do share is a desire to push the black pop envelope, to embrace their cultural roots but to resist being defined by any narrow interpretation of them. 

Further afield, more than a few of us found ourselves rocking out at punk shows like that BusBoys protagonist, and not only when the Bad Brains or Fishbone came to town (it’s cool for black folk to like Hendrix, finally, now that he’s acknowledged as a genius with black musical roots and all that, but no such love awaits those two best-known black alterna-punk bands, no matter how prodigious their chops and smarts).  Eventually, this tribe got a name too, thanks to James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afro-Punk.  Like the BRC, Afro-Punk is a community, a state of mind, and judging by the recently released companion CD (Image Entertainment), as much a varied sub-genre as the BRC represents.

And yes, black folk also listen to country music.  Always have, in fact, and vice versa.  Go back into the roots of country music in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and you’ll hear music deeply informed by the rural blues being made by black folk not far down the road from the country fans.  Hank Williams, Bob Willis, Jimmie Rodgers and numerous others brought black idioms and riffs into their music; years later, Charley Pride, Ray Charles, Arthur Alexander and even Al Green would repay the favor. For evidence, seek out the definitive box set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Brothers, 1998), or check out Tyina L. Steptoe’s account of fronting an all-black Dixie Chicks cover band, and the tale of Louis Armstrong’s late-career Nashville session, in the current Oxford American Music Issue.

Over the years, I’ve cycled through all manner of rock (all black folk who love Pet Sounds, holla!) and punk/new wave (Clive Pig and the Hopeful Chinamen, anyone?), and I’ve made my peace with mainstream black pop enough to sit through an occasional dose of those overplayed, shopworn “quiet storm” oldies that others of my age and time still cherish.  But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart, and I suspect I always will, for those black acts that strayed from the path of the straight and narrow, who worked in the fringes of “black” and /or “white” pop.  Perhaps I was trying to find myself, perhaps I was trying to find a way to be myself, perhaps I just liked their idiosyncratic way with words, melody and rhythm.  And perhaps they made the roster of possible definitions of “black” just broad enough that a kid with a jones for both the Ohio Players and Todd Rundgren could feel at home.  And now, some personal favorites from my sojourn off black music’s beaten path:

Hot Chocolate
They aren’t really that obscure, seeing as how their big hit “You Sexy Thing” (1975) gets lots of disco-oldies airplay and has been used in commercials more than once.  But this interracial UK sextet, led by rubber-throated lead singer Errol Brown, amassed several albums’ worth of often-biting work.  Cicero Park (1974) featured an unsanitized version of “Brother Louie”, the ballad of a doomed interracial love affair that was a big American hit for some band named Stories.  By decade’s end, the band’s supple pop-funk and given way to keyboard-driven beats, but they hadn’t lost their edge:  “Mindless Boogie” (1980) pounded away for nine minutes, part throbbing disco beat, part lampooning of those who chased after throbbing disco beats.

Nona Hendrix
When LaBelle, the world’s greatest R&B/glam girl group, broke up in the mid-70’s, Patti Labelle retreated to their R&B roots, and Sarah Dash continued to hang in the clubs.  The third member of the “Lady Marmalade” trinity, Nona Hendrix was not related to Jimi, but proceeded to fly her freak flag high nonetheless.  She’s pictured on the cover of her first solo album (Epic, 1977) in leather jacket, rolled-up jeans, short ‘fro, and swinging an electric guitar.  Not a common image for sistas to adopt, then or now.  The taut little songs didn’t rock quite as hard as the black-and-white cover art, although Carlos Santana would cover “Winning” for some radio love in 1978.

August Darnell
Like Hot Chocolate, Darnell had his 15 minutes of disco fame, with “Cherchez La Femme”, the 1976 classic by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, the retro-leaning band co-led by Darnell and his half-brother Stony Browder.  After three Dr. Buzzard albums, Browder fell disenchanted with the industry and left the band.  Darnell was already soldiering on, producing side projects Gichy Dan’s Beachwood #9, a semi-tropical mélange of Afro-Cuban, doo-wop and show music, the left-field semi-camp disco of Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band, and Machine, a disco-rock hybrid (“There But For the Grace of God Go I”).  But Darnell’s primary claim to fame was Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a revue-styled ensemble with three white back-up singers (one of whom was his wife) and manic vibes player Coati Mundi, the re-christened “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez from Dr. Buzzard.  Darnell’s lyrics were full of cosmopolitan wit, multiple racial and sexual entendres, and the occasional social commentary, while the underrated band mashed up rhumbas, rock and whatever else into a frothy musical concoction.  That they were able to do this over the course of seven albums on Sire and Columbia back in the day with only the barest hint of airplay (“I’m a Wonderful Thing”, 1982), let alone name recognition anywhere west of Manhattan (besides, of course, my record collection), is all but unfathomable today.

PM Dawn
PM Dawn never really was a rap band, although that’s how they got classified when “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” recycled Spandau Ballet in 1991.  Prince Be’s dreamy lyrics were indeed spoken, and they were adept enough at sampling and beat-making, but there was none of rap’s boastfulness or confrontation in their mix.  Their songs were gentle and dreamy with a subtle sense of swing, and some of the ballads on Jesus Wept (Island, 1995) were as achingly beautiful as can be.  If anything, they presaged emo.  No wonder legend has it that KRS-One beat down Prince Be on stage for being wack.

AR Kane
While PM Dawn was pre-emo, AR Kane was pre-TV on the Radio.  The UK duo of Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala were closer in sound and spirit to 4AD labelmates the Cocteau Twins than, say, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (production work on “Pump Up the Volume” notwithstanding). Their 1988 album 69 (Rough Trade) is a masterpiece of swirling electronics, deep bass, and strange aural mysteries.  They more or less were history by the mid-‘90s, but one song title from the 1994 comp Americana (Luaka Bop) captures their overall vibe: “A Love from Outer Space.”

Michael Ivey is hip-hop’s greatest slacker ever.  His band Basehead (basically him on guitar and vocals, and whoever else was around at the time), surfaced in the early ‘90s with an offhand groove and offhand lyrics, all delivered in a stoner deadpan that stands far, far apart from your typical rap boombastics.  Play with Toys (Imago, 1991) is book-ended by skits featuring a bad country band (again, Ivey and crew) doing bad James Brown covers.  The album proper is ostensibly about a breakup, but a weird sideplot emerges that ends up with one of his fellow slackers taking a bullet.  Go figure.  Meantime, the slinky beat of “2000 B.C.” sounded appropriately warped and slinkier when I played my 15-year-old advance cassette the other day. 

This five-guy vocal group was a year or two ahead of its time in 1995.  Their Take 6-ish jazz harmonizing and mellow lyrical vibe would have found some neo-soul love, but record companies weren’t up to throwing money at alternative R&B acts just yet, so their one and only CD (Warner Brothers) ended up in obscurity shortly after release.  But “#@?in Wit’ Me” has always stuck in my mind somewhere: many a band has felt like singing “you keep fucking with me” as a hook to a song about memories that won’t let go, but few could ever have made it sound so damned smooth.

So what does the side project of an A-list production duo have to do with the aforementioned oddballs and departures from normality?  Simply put, Fly or Die (Virgin, 2004) is the one CD above all others that picks up where the BusBoys left off.  Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo went digging through their roots as music-addled kids in the ‘80s, and fashioned a story of modern-day teenage ennui, from the title track, which catches a kid about to make a life-altering decision (I’ll say – the song’s about death), to “She Wants to Move”, a kid who sees a woman he yearns to treat better than her current companion is doing.  There aren’t really any minimalist Neptunes-sounding beats here, but its sharp musicianship, shamelessly retro sound, and celebration of the social misfit was comfort food for my inner oddball. 

All of which brings me to Lupe Fiasco, the young Chicago rapper whose sparkling Food and Liquor(Atlantic) has finally seen the legit light of day after being leaked online.  “Kick, Push” is about escape from ghetto realities.  Countless folks have taken that subject on, but he’s the only one I know of who did it not through fantasy, chemicals, sex, conspicuous consumption, or God, but through skateboarding.  Yes, that’s right, a rap ode to skateboarding.  Of course there are black sk8ter boys and girls, but like listening to punk or country, somehow that notion falls outside the typical idea of what black people do.  News flash: there are also black skiers, scuba divers, hang gliders, extreme sport athletes, hockey players and NASCAR drivers.  Rumor has it that there’s even a pretty good golfer nowadays whose dad was black.

If “Kick, Push” gives aid and comfort to some misfit of color somewhere, somebody whose passion isn’t pre-stereotyped as suitably black enough, that’s great.  And the same goes for the Afro-punks and black rockers and everyone else who doesn’t see their hearts and minds reflected in what passes for mainstream black music nowadays.  It took me a long time to learn this, but just because you’re a fan of some black act so far removed from R&B or hip-hop that they couldn’t get arrested while robbing a bank, or some white act playing the same kind of music, doesn’t make you any less black.  It simply means that lots of other folk have never heard music like that by spades.

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