[5 August 2007]
In his classic 1976 work on evolutionary biology, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins writes, “One gene may be regarded as a unit that survives through a large number of successive individual bodies.” Our genes, he concludes, continue to exist after this casing of flesh expires. Compare this to Chapter Two of the classic Indian text, The Bhagavad Gita: “As a man abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.”
While India of yore did have an advanced systematic understanding of the body in Ayurveda, the concept of genes was still a few thousand years away. And while Dawkins, in his conceit, believes all knowledge of the human body and its relationship to nature prior to 1859 is useless, students willing to look into the sentiment of these like philosophies uncover a richer, deeper tale. Perhaps Gottfried Leibniz put it best in his concept of the monad, which is a force that remains the same as continual generations engage in constant change.
Philosophy is important, though if it remains speculation, it means little to the seeker. Hence, the need of applying these ideas to real, tangible examples of life, not by theorizing on what could be or once was. To gaze into the underlying themes of the present is to develop a sense of presence about what’s going on. If we need a concrete example of this evolutionary process, we need look no further than African music.
At their best, all forms of music are poetic and tell stories—even instrumentals cause images and words to form, for it is all based on feeling to begin with. To adorn this with modern musings: it is the difference between performing a song because it speaks something of your situation in the world, something elemental and primal in your emotions and intellect, something that you wish to extend to your community, and making music in order to be popular. It really is that simple. For the rest of the article, we’ll be discussing the first example, for the latter needs no introduction and resides in the uncertain and underdeveloped work ethos of many.
African culture is the foundation of numerous genres today, and, quite literally, nearly every American music form. The equation is quite simple: folk musics are often the result of an inner yearning, and little compares to the heart-wrenching cry of oppressive and demeaning social standings. Apply that to spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, rock, funk, and reggae—the same underlying mythology resides in all of them. Then extend it from the toasting of reggae emcees to hip-hop, and a clear line can be traced from African griots to American emcees, those that speak of community healing, rebel against unjust prosecution, and use tongues as swords to cut corporate vultures and racist snakes.
Few hip-hop records accurately display this evolutionary mythology, so finding those that do makes them that much more rewarding. Public Enemy did it on numerous occasions. Mos Def has made a career out of the experimentation of black music forms, much to the bafflement of a fickle audience. And now, to continue this persuasive and important trend, Pharoahe Monch drops Desire (SRC). It is well rounded, perfectly executed, and a primary example of a man willing to move his ego out of the way for the greater good. His success is monumental.
For any emcee to hold down an entire record is challenging. Monch doesn’t do it by inviting an endless array of guests aboard, although a great spot by Erykah Badu and a funky-as-hell lick by Tower of Power and MeLa Machinko makes “Push” the album’s highlight. Instead, he creates a musical landscape so varied and interesting that it sounds as much a great mix tape of many artists as what it is: a powerful, stimulating juggernaut of a record. The one-word title is completely befitting—his desire is to leave something important behind, to rock out to, to float by on. This he has accomplished.
As much as he pulls from a host of styles—shades of jazz, rock, barbershop quartet, and soul mingle and mesh—the attempt would be futile without a great appreciation for lyrics. Monch comes with an encyclopedia of experience. While there are numerous classic lines, the most memorable is in his reworking of Public Enemy’s legendary “Welcome to the Terrordome”, an inventive cover with a new verse to update our political situation nearly two decades later: “Seven years later it’s the year of the gods / The United States government is just a façade / The Catholic church got ties with the mob / I see it all like the Wizard of Oz.”
Whereas Chuck D was nearly crucified for his timely lyric on crucifixion, Monch shows fearlessness in discussing something that the aforementioned Dawkins would approvingly agree with—religion, like politics, is at root concerned with the self-preservation of a select group. As one unpopular figure expressed (to the pleasure of more than would admit): you’re either with us, or against us. Our national psychology has devolved to the emotional and intellectual reaction of a kindergartner. Monch, like the griot, is the storyteller reminding us not to fall for the illusion.
Philosophy and diligence aside, Desire is simply a great album. It’s that endless-summer, car speaker-thumping banger that turns heads and upturns lips with hard head nods and positive affirmations that yes, this is what you should be listening to. It hits you on the head and in the heart simultaneously; it’s a complete surround-sense experience. And it reminds us that as much as our technologies have improved, as instantly as communications systems have become, what we are communicating is not necessarily the most righteous of information.
Racism still abounds, and even with everyone talking of Green issues, the amount of people exploiting the environment is as great as ever. What Monch is looking for, and what he expresses in every gorgeous minute of Desire, is a bit of space from the hustle and grind—something to dance to, kick back and smile and laugh with another with. The invitation is open-ended, and requires little more than a pair of ears and a beating heart. And if it’s not beating, take a listen—Monch is all heart, and that extends across generations, continents, and genes. It bubbles from the inside out, and our cups overflow.