[26 April 2006]
Once upon a time in the ‘80s, a British producer and keyboardist named Paul Hardcastle released “19”, a single about the Vietnam War and its young hearty soldiers. Hardcastle, the international wizard of electronic dance mixes, brought the agony of Saigon directly to the ears of music lovers everywhere through clever sound effects and samples from news reports. In World War II, the song pointed out, the average age of a combat soldier was 26; in Vietnam, it was 19. “None of them,” the song said of the soldiers, “received a hero’s welcome”. With thousands of soldiers currently stationed overseas, particularly in Iraq, Hardcastle’s song still resonates.
I wonder if Joel Spielman, executive producer of Voices from the Frontline, thought of Paul Hardcastle when he decided to produce a record about military life. Although both projects confront the plight of soldiers in wartime, Voices takes the concept and ups the ante. For Voices, the war is in Iraq, not Vietnam, and it’s ongoing. In fact, it was going on before Marine Josh Gracin auditioned for American Idol, and nearly four idols later (Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie, and whoever wins in ‘06), United States troops are still there. That means Voices from the Frontline, unlike Hardcastle’s single, is an entire album featuring real officers in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines. These musicians hail from various parts of the United States—Delaware, Texas, California, and Tennessee, to name a few—and the ensemble crosses gender and racial lines as well. Add in the fact that this is basically a hardcore rap album, and Voices turns into one freaky trip of a CD.
Soldiers? Rapping? That’s right, I said rapping. This ain’t no collection of protest tunes by Dylan, or Guthrie, or Edwin Starr. And don’t go having visions of those Civil War drummer boys either, who, in the movies, keep on drumming even when explosions are producing cannonball-sized divots all around them.
According to the liner notes, Spielman got the project idea on Veteran’s Day while watching a documentary about Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the film, family members were reading final letters from fallen troops. Inspired by the letters, but also wanting to offer more than financial contributions, Spielman invested in the resources of the troops themselves, searching for musicians who could delve into their wartime experiences and express their feelings to audiophiles. He discovered soldiers who relied on hip-hop for solace and inspiration. Some, like Sgt. Chris Tomlinson of Fort Riley (musically known as “Prophet”), had won talent shows and free-styling competitions in Iraq. After that, the challenge was figuring out how to capture the audio. In addition to “precious studio time”, recorders and Xboxes were used to capture “live audio from battles and firefights”, as well as free-style ciphers and commentary.
For his time and effort, Spielman scored a gem. Voices from the Frontline works so well on so many levels, music collections that don’t include it should be considered violators of international law. Of course, Crosscheck Records and non-profit organization Operation AC will use a portion of the sales to aid the troops, but another benefit is the chance to get the ground level account of the war straight from the eyewitnesses. Judging from the album, the soldiers aren’t convinced you’ll get the real scoop if they leave it to the media. Listen to Miss Flame and Mischelle’s comments on a “skit” called “When You’re There”.
Make no mistake about it; this album is focused on music. Hip-hop, that is. Black gold, Texas tea. The concept here has nothing to do with making political or partisan statements. If you’re looking to debate the merits of war in general, or a war in Iraq in particular, then set your VCR or TiVo for Meet The Press because you’re in the wrong camp. In this musical diary of military life, the song titles act as entries in a table of contents. Titles like “First Time”, “Girl at War”, “Ain’t the Same”, “Don’t Understand”, “Family”, and “When I Get Home” let you know exactly what the album’s about. And rightly so—there’s no use trying to hide the theme here. These are soldiers and Marines in the midst of combat, and they rhyme about what they know and see on a daily basis—stress, confusion, isolation, losing new friends and missing old ones, violence, and the desire to be home.
When you first open the CD booklet and get the stats on the performers, it almost seems like you’re reading the notes to a G.I. Joe soundtrack. There’s the aforementioned Prophet, along with Sgt. Devon Perrymon (a.k.a. “Deacon”), Cpl. Michael Watts, Jr. (a.k.a. “Pyro”), Cpl. Kisha Pollard (a.k.a. “Miss Flame”), Quentin Givens (a.k.a. “Q”), Cpl. Anthony Hodge (a.k.a. “Amp”), Pfc. Jared Poor (a.k.a. “Machine”), MM3 La Quan Tullis (a.k.a. “Truck”), and Cpl. Mischelle Johnston. You almost expect to see Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander. But musically, there’s nothing cutesy or cartoonish about it; it’s a passionate love for hip-hop these soldiers have, and the stress and tension of their circumstances allows them to create a compelling docudrama over a series of well-produced beats. Beats like the ones in “Do the Damn Thing”, “3 Letters”, “One Hour Before Daylight”, and “When I Get Home” are topnotch.
It’s their authenticity that propels the project. On one level, this release embraces themes that are familiar in hip-hop, specifically the “gangsta” variety. Yet, when a soldier raps, “I’ma do what the f*** I gotta do to stay alive / I’ma ride in this motherf***er ‘til the day I die” (see “First Time”), it just seems more hardcore than a lot of albums produced in this style. When Miss Flame describes being shot at by Iraqis and how her squad has to shoot back (“Girl at War”), this is the real deal, not a song by a “studio gangsta”. And we all know there are some “studio gangstas” out there. Internet gangstas too. That doesn’t mean every rap has to be autobiographical. Despite what we say about “keeping it real”, music in general should give its artists the freedom to grow, wonder, and experiment. My point is, if Voices catches on and winds up in the spotlight, how will it be perceived? Shouldn’t it be an expression of creative freedom? Shouldn’t it be applauded for providing an outlet to those members of our society who are unable to give voice to their daily struggles and frustrations? Well, if so, hip-hop as a genre deserves to be viewed in the same light.
Keep in mind also that this type of album might not have been produced during, say, World War I. Aside from the obvious technological problems, the social climate was different. For instance, in 1918, the Sedition Act—the Patriot Act of its day—punished people who interfered with the war effort. You were a goner if you uttered, printed, wrote, or published any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States.” (Read a portion of it at Brigham Young University, Sedition Act of 1918 or at The Wilson Administration: Sedition Act of 1918). Punishment was a fine of up to $10,000 and/or prison time for up to 20 years. That’s right, you could get both!
The next year, the Supreme Court in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919), ruled that distributing pamphlets criticizing the government for sending troops to Russia was a violation of that Act. Along those lines, would Pyro’s rap on “Ain’t the Same”—illustrating how war has changed him—been a violation? Or check out Mischelle’s “Desert Vacation”, an ingenious combination of a cappella-styled R&B and spoken word, when she sings, “This place is workin’ my last nerve” and then adds, “A bird in a cage / Here I sing / Waitin’ for my ticket out”. How about the skit “5 Days in the Wakeup”, where a soldier compares the emotional safety valve hip-hop provided for those stationed in Iraq to how American slaves benefited from having music in their lives? I don’t know about you, but I’m suddenly having visions of Jack Nicholson in In A Few Good Men. But that’s why this compilation is such a treasure, because people like me walk around with Saving Private Ryan and The Tuskegee Airmen in our minds, and we think we know something about war. We don’t know a damn thing about it.
But forget going all the way back to 1918. What if we went back to 1987, a year before DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince won the first hip-hop Grammy? Or we could go to the ‘90s, when then-candidate William Jefferson Clinton started a campaign beef with Jesse Jackson over comments made by Sistah Souljah in the Washington Post? Better yet, could Voices have a gotten a hero’s welcome from the old school Bush Administration, with grammatically-challenged Vice-President Dan Quayle calling for a ban of 2pac’s debut record 2pacalypse Now? To me, it says a lot about the power and importance of hip-hop and its culture when the defenders of a nation express not only their love for the art but also their need for it to help get into “the zone” (see also “Ways to Cope [skit]”). And in the same year Three 6 Mafia wins an Oscar and performs the winning rhyme onstage? Hip-hop, you’ve come a long way, baby.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few flaws amongst these battle rhymes but, overall, the mission is completed with poise and skill. Overall, the effort manages to satisfy the urge to listen to good songs, while also offering a platform for these officers to share, let off some steam, and be creative. When the networks had the bright idea to imbed reporters in the midst of the conflict, I was skeptical. I really didn’t want to see Ted Koppel in his African safari outfit. I’d rather hear what the soldiers have to say.