[4 February 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“I’m glad that people like what I do, but I’d like to get paid,” Marva Whitney is quoted as saying in an interview in Wax Poetics Anthology: Volume 1, a sharp-looking, hardcover collection of articles from the first five issues of Wax Poetics magazine, the self-proclaimed “crate-digger’s bible”. The sentiment expressed by Whitney is echoed in the book’s other interviews with musicians who have been heavily sampled by the hip-hop generation, without necessarily receiving financial compensation.
The interviewees include Idris Muhammad, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, Jab’O Starks, Sweet Charles and Marva Whitney. None are truly household names, which is part of the point. These musicians were the foundation, not just of classic soul and funk music, but of the hip-hop it spawned. The first four were James Brown’s drummers, the fifth his bassist, the sixth one of the key vocalists for his band.
The interview subjects include more than just Brown’s band, and these six each did much more in their careers than just perform with him, but it’s an appropriate starting point for the book. Brown is the godfather of hip-hop as much as soul, and it isn’t just his voice that gets sampled from his music. These interviews also make clear that playing in Brown’s band was a collaborative affair, that he wasn’t the sole songwriter, even when his name is the only one listed in the songwriting credits.
Brown’s collaborators represent just a small fraction of the many unseen faces behind hip-hop, the still-young, American-invented form of music that is by now a global, cultural juggernaut. The first section of this anthology, “Music Is the Message”, contains 14 articles that focus on non-hip-hop music beloved by DJs, from Latin music to jazz to dub reggae. YetWax Poetics covers hip-hop musicians themselves as capably as it does their forbearers.
This anthology has an excellent “Hip-Hop and It Don’t Stop” chapter, with insightful interviews with producers famous and underrated, graffiti artists, and the documenters of early hip-hop culture. “The Memoirs of Prince Paul” uses an oral-history approach to get that enigmatic figure’s story on paper, clear as day. “Diamond D Taps Into the Past” shines a welcome spotlight on an often-overlooked innovator of hip-hop’s so-called golden era.
But though Wax Poetics‘s coverage of hip-hop culture is smart, the magazine’s ultimate significance lies in the attention it pays to the myriad elements that go into hip-hop. Most current hip-hop magazines, and certainly some of the music’s fans and musicians, show nearly little or no interest in the past, especially not beyond a handful of canonized legends from the ‘80s. Every writer for Wax Poetics displays a true understanding of what all went into hip-hop, of all of the music that is a part of its fabric. Wax Poetics gives worthy celebration to the faces behind the breaks, to all of the people whose work in other musical genres made hip-hop possible.
Getting back to Marva Whitney, her sentiment on sampling is echoed through the interviews with other musicians who paved the way for hip-hop. There’s a recurring surprised enthusiasm that their music was rediscovered by younger artists, but along with that a frustration about the years they spent struggling in poverty, while the singers with their names on the marquees and album covers got richer and richer. That sense of anonymity brings with it the fact that these musicians haven’t been interviewed that often.
One way Wax Poetics has earned every iota of its reputation as a “must-read” for hip-hop fans is by getting talented interviewers access to musicians who the spotlight has flickered past. Each interview is fascinating for that very reason. Send a knowledgeable music fan to interview a musician who hardly gets interviewed, and the musician will be gracious, cordial, and enthusiastic to talk. That is the case with the best-known musicians here and the least known, like Dallas funkster Timothy McNealy or Manzel Bush, heavily sampled by hip-hop DJs but obscure to most others.
Andre Mason introduces Dante Carfagna’s interview with Manzel Bush like this: “Manzel. The word is akin to a secret incantation among those obsessed with drum breaks: pronouncing it with understanding means one has graduated to an inner sanctum of beat lore and arcane knowledge.” Throughout Wax Poetics there is the sense that hip-hop was built on secret, sacred knowledge. DJs digging for records joined together as a sort of secret society, trading and guarding what they know. This is especially evident in the anthology’s last section, “Check Your Bucket”, which is attuned to records and record collectors.
There’s even one example of the magazine’s ongoing feature “12 x 12”, where an artist – in this case Louie Vega – picks out 12 of his favorite pieces of vinyl and uses them to tell stories. Vegas discusses the music and what it means to him, in the process tripping through memories: memories of other DJs, of parties where he first heard something, of records that one DJ heard from another and started playing, until its popularity steamrolled enough to make each copy of the original vinyl rarer and more expensive.
That’s one story of hip-hop’s history: secrets come together until the whole world wants to party. Wax Poetics Anthology: Volume 1 deftly outlines the world of those secrets while also pulling the shades away by focusing on the real people behind each journey and path. And it only represents the first five issues of a magazine that’s now 26 issues strong, with no sign of stopping, or decreasing in quality, anytime soon.