Years before hip-hop’s old-school talked about ciphers, young cats stood on street corners perfecting the intricate harmonies that would be later be called doo-wop. Some of these cats could have been the sons and grandsons of black men who sang in gospel groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, and Mighty Clouds of Joy. Today, those groups, like the sounds of Doo-wop and Be-Bop before it, are nothing more than old names and old-time music for so many black youth (and more than a few 30-somethings). And this is why Robert Randolph is such a special figure. We ain’t got to pretend that bruh came up “keeping it real in the ‘hood”. He just a church boy who got grown in a little spot between Orange and Newark called Irvington, New Jersey. Doesn’t mean the cat wasn’t rolling dice on the corner or seriously nodding his head when Biggie or ‘Pac was banging from the car. But at age 25, Randolph is on the cutting edge of a Black Roots Renaissance, on the strength of his mastery of the pedal steel guitar, or the “Sacred Steel” as the folks refer to it. Playing an instrument with a long history, Robert Randolph is taking black music back to its roots.
Robert Randolph’s story is at once unique and classic. The Sacred Steel has a history that goes back to the 1930s when two brothers, Troman and Willie, learned how to flow on the pedal steel and then brought the instrument—and that twangy sound—into the House of God, an off-shoot of the Holiness-Pentecostal church. Old-time music, as old as Thomas Dorsey’s innovations in what we now simply refer to as “gospel music”. Bruh Randolph came up churching at the House of God church in Orange, New Jersey—pops is a deacon and mom a minister—so he had been exposed to the sounds of the Sacred Steel since he was a real shortie. But like any young cat coming up for real in Any-hood, America, he was trying to roll hard with his boys. “When I was young, everybody knew I always went to church,” Randolph says, but “even when I got home from church, I went out, hung out in the streets, I even went through my phase of selling drugs and all that, was a bad kid in high school.”
Randolph says he gave up the street scene around the time he turned 15 or 16, mainly because his pops slid him a six-string lap-steel. Randolph, like so many of his peers who have survived to reach age 25, can point to the shooting death of one of his running partners as a literal turning point in his life. After that, he spent much of his time in the house, learning his craft. According to Randolph, “‘Cause I was like one of the leaders of the pack, so it was nothing for me to say I’m gonna stay in the house,” adding that, “I can’t see myself 25 and still hanging out on the street corner.” And of course he ain’t on the corner—he’s opened for folks like the Dave Matthews Band, jammed with the legendary Five Blind Boys of Alabama, toured (on behalf of Sprite) with the Roots, N.E.R.D., and Talib Kweli, and performed at the 2004 Grammy Awards.
Opening for the Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden is very different from accompanying Mr. Preacher Man back in Jersey, and in that regard Randolph gives another spin on the classic church-boy-gone-astray story that has defined the careers of so many legends of black music, including Sam Cooke, Al Green, and even R. Kelly. Randolph’s situation is even more complicated because he is playing an instrument that is so integral to his family’s religious practices. Despite the obvious references to the Black Church tradition, Robert Randolph and the Family has been referred to as a “jam band”, which means that the audiences that they play to are, more often than not, largely white and, more often than not, a little lit. Obviously this isn’t something that Randolph’s parents or the national elders of House of God necessarily approve of.
Reflecting on some of the criticism he’s faced, Randolph says, “A lot of them didn’t like it at first, but when they go out and see—we been boxed in… playing to our own folks.” He adds that, “Somebody has to get it out… We’ve got thousands of e-mails already from people saying the lives have been changed… and that’s kind of what it’s been about, especially today, when so much music is so negative and people looking for that fresh sense, that fresh music, something to give them some uplift, some joy about life, and that’s kind of what I’ve been about.”
With the release of his major label debut, Unclassified, perhaps the biggest challenge that Randolph faces is making his music relevant to those cats who came up just as he did—who look just as he does. As so many classic styles of black music are becoming passing memories in black communities, Robert Randolph stands as a link across generations and it’s a opportunity that he embraces: “Actually I’m looking at it as that’s my responsibility now, to kind of get the music—get word out to all the people my age and from my whole background.” Randolph adds, “Now it seems like all the kids our age don’t want to have a good time and do nothing positive, when years ago, all the artists who they look up to, like Stevie Wonder and Al Green, Aretha Franklin—those are people who sang about all the good things of life, positive stuff. Now everybody want to be THUGS for some reason, it’s like we went way back in time… I just won’t use my god-given talent to promote anything like that. So that my job now to try and get it out to the kids and say “Look, I was out there doing what ya’ll was doin’‘.” When pressed again about whether he can really reach the folks regularly tuned to 106th and Park or TRL, Randolph doesn’t hesitate, “I know I will.”