[2 October 2006]
Recently, I had an epiphany. I’ve discovered a serious and frightening truth—I don’t want to be like Mike. I want to be like P. Diddy!
Yeah, I know. Crazy, right? But who wouldn’t want to roll like Diddy? He’s a walking news event. Like when he changed his name from “Puff Daddy” to “P. Diddy” and it actually made the news! A season-four episode of Gilmore Girls even made reference to the name change, when Lauren Graham’s Lorelai character referred to a friend by his childhood nickname (“Digger”) and when he said he didn’t go by that anymore, she says, “What? You’re going by P. Digger now?” I could get used to that kind of attention. And, oh, for the record—I don’t really watch that Gilmore show, my sister tells me about it, okay?
But what I really dig about P. Diddy is his MTV show, Making the Band. The idea is to hold auditions, pick candidates, and set up dance rehearsals and recording sessions in an effort to create the ultimate super-group. Like America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, someone must be eliminated. And that’s where the excitement is. If I may borrow and twist a phrase or two from the eloquent Donald Rumsfeld, it’s curiously fascinating to watch a show like Making the Band as it attempts to take “unknown unknowns” (people we don’t know that we don’t know) and turn them into “known unknowns” (people we know that we don’t know) and, eventually, into “known knowns” (people we know that we know).
And I’d love to wield Diddy-like power. I’m not talking about the bizarre hurdles the contestants have to go through (“Walk 20 blocks and get me a sugar cookie” was Dave’s Chappelle’s spoof of Diddy), I’m talking about synthesizing an array of elements into something cool. If you ever enjoyed playing with Legos, then you know what I’m talking about.
As for looking for undiscovered talent, we’ve been playing that game a long time, from Ed McMahon and Star Search to Showtime: At the Apollo, and exploding into the seemingly endless American Idol. And let’s not forget the perennial “movies that rock”, to quote VH1’s slogan. These movies show us how “the little people” can make it big, exorcise their personal demons, and spread joy to the world through music.
Prince worked his colorful formula in his 1984 film Purple Rain and, as if to underscore how anonymous and unknown the hero was, the main character was simply called “Kid”. Years later, Eminem’s 8 Mile (2002) followed suit, with Em’s character going by the nickname “Rabbit”, also emphasizing the main character’s lack of identity.
In School of Rock (2003), Jack Black took the name game to another level. Black’s character, named Dewey, sheds his name altogether, opting instead to pose as his roommate Ned (who’s a substitute teacher) so he can earn money for rent. Along the way, he teaches a class of elementary school students to play in a rock band so they can participate in an adult Battle of the Bands rocker contest. Talk about being the underdog. Dewey is a frustrated musician buried beneath the mask of his dorky roommate and he lives out his dreams through a band of 10 year-olds!
In each of these scenarios, the main characters have to go nameless, or at least wear nicknames, so that we, the audience, can substitute ourselves for the blanks. We, the audience, are the ones who win the crowd with the somber and self-effacing “Purple Rain” finale. We’re the ones who triumph, through Eminem’s “Rabbit”, when Papa Doc chokes in 8 Mile‘s final freestyle battle. Those are our inner children taking the stage in School of Rock, screaming, “Kick some ass!” at the packed house.
These films even appeal to those of us who realize real life doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. In Purple Rain, the Kid closes the movie with the upbeat “Baby, I’m a Star”, but we never actually see him become a star. He’s a star in his heart. In 8 mile, Rabbit doesn’t leave the freestyle battle and walk straight into a record deal. He goes right back to work. In School of Rock, Dewey loses the Battle of the Bands, but becomes a music teacher for the private school he hoodwinked. The lure of these movies is the message that it could be us—like Alicia Keys sings in her song Unbreakable: “He / Ain’t no different from you and / She / Ain’t no different from me so / We’ve / Got to live out our dreams / Like the people on TV”.
Still, if you want to track down the influences on our current state of Idol Syndrome, look no further than the 1980 The Idolmaker, which deserves a nomination for the Underdog Music Movie of All Time. Directed by Taylor Hackford, of La Bamba and Ray fame, The Idolmaker starred incredibly talented and charismatic actor Ray Sharkey. Sharkey played Vincent Viccari, a singer/songwriter determined to discover and mold the next teen idol. And so he did, immensely well in fact, finding talented kids from the streets and taking them under his wing. He told ‘em what songs to sing and taught ‘em how to sing ‘em. He taught ‘em how to dance, how to wiggle their hips, how to wear their hair. He showed ‘em how to work the crowd so the girls would love ‘em. He taught ‘em how to play the game.
Trouble was, each of the heartthrobs turned into Frankenstein. After initial success, his scripted idols believed they had learned it all, refusing to listen to his advice. Of course, they all fell off and plummeted into the bottomless pit of obscurity. In the end, poor Vincent realizes the value of what George Benson and, later, Whitney Houston sang about in “The Greatest Love of All” (you’ll notice, too, that Jack Black references the song in School of Rock when discussing his made-up teaching philosophies with his private school cohorts).
Vincent directs his talents inward. His innate sense of showmanship and his knack for songwriting allow him take the stage in his own right. The big picture here, though, is a lesson for all of us who watch reality music shows—scripted glamour and staged pizzazz will only take you so far. Just because you don’t see glitter, that don’t mean it ain’t gold.
And so, with that in mind, I’d like to have the power of appointment bestowed upon P. Diddy, with enough autonomy under the umbrella of one of these super-sized media conglomerates to host my own Making the Band show. I’d call it “Making the Music” or “The Real Thing” or something like that, but rather than taking “nobodies” and turning them into “somebodies”, the quest would be to take musical “somebodies” and create a super-group of the underrated. My team and I (I’ll need a Diddy-like staff and expense account, right?) would assemble a wise band of musicians with experience enough to move the crowd while avoiding the usual industry pitfalls. They’ve seen all the arenas, they’ve signed enough autographs, they’ve had enough drinks, they’ve been chased by all the paparazzi, and they’ve heard all the big talk. You can’t fool ‘em anymore. That way, I don’t have to worry about becoming the next Vincent Viccari.
No, I’m not talking about a music version of The Surreal Life. I’m talking about a dream team, composed exclusively of mostly under-the-radar female musicians. It would be similar to the ‘80s male-collaboration group the Power Station (consisting of Robert Palmer and members of Duran Duran) or like ‘90s one-album wonder Lucy Pearl (composed of Tony Toni Toné‘s Raphael Saadiq, En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad).
The name of the super-band would be Unsung Heroes—I figure it won’t sound too bad alongside Diddy’s Danity Kane creation (I keep thinking that’s “Big Danity Kane”, though). The trick would be finding the right mixture of talent and personality, but absolutely no icons would be allowed. That means no legends—no Diana Rosses, no Aretha Franklins, no Madonnas, and no Chaka Khans. That also means no divas—no Whitneys and no Braxtons. If they garnered some fame back in the day, we can work with that, even if it’s a Grammy nomination, but they can’t be household names. In other words, they aren’t so successful that they’re complacent and unwilling to challenge themselves musically, but they’re too successful to walk 20 blocks to fetch me a sugar cookie. It’s a murky area, I admit, but that’s part of the fun.
It’ll be big. Big, I tell ya. So big that every almost-famous singer and musician in the world will want to work with us. Audiences will love it because we love to cheer for the underdog.
I’ve already considered possibilities for the group. So far, my favorites for inclusion are: Me’shell Ndegeocello (bass and lead vocals), Alana Davis (guitars and lead vocals), Wendy & Lisa (guitars, keyboards, string arrangements, and background vocals), Patrice Rushen (piano and keyboards), Sheila E. and Cindy Blackmon (drums and percussion), and Candy Dulfer (saxophone). I’ve highlighted a few of my picks below, just to give you a taste. Check it out.
Me’Shell Ndegeocello on bass and lead vocals
Ndegeocello has been critically acclaimed, but she’s not a household name. Nevertheless, she’s a multi-talented, multi-faceted multi-instrumentalist. Her deep, soulful voice is arresting, as she mixes genres and styles, jumping from soul to funk to hip-hop, sometimes rapping and sometimes singing. She’s also a visionary, releasing phenomenal concept albums: Plantation Lullabies (1993), Peace Beyond Passion (1996), Bitter (1999), Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002), and Comfort Woman (2003). Plantation Lullabies tackled issues of race, class, and identity. Peace Beyond Passion explored religion and sexual orientation. Bitter, a bitingly personal album, worked Ndegeocello’s magic in the arena of love and heartbreak, while Cookie was an eclectic mix of topics, ranging from economics to appreciating poetry and spoken word.
More importantly (for my band, at least) is her willingness to collaborate. She has performed quite comfortably with the likes of John Mellencamp, Madonna, Redman, and Tweet. In 2005, she completed Dance of the Infidel, a jazz-infused record featuring greats like Cassandra Wilson, Lalah Hathaway, and Oran Coltrane. Strong on bass, vocals, and vision, I’m going to have my people call Ndegeocello’s people so we can get this thing poppin’.
Alana Davis on guitar, bass, and vocals
If a person can have a “music gene”, I’d say Alana Davis was born with it. Her mother, Ann Marie Schofield, was a jazz singer, and her father, Walter Davis, Jr., performed as a jazz pianist alongside giants in the field, namely Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and Donald Byrd.
Her debut, Blame It on Me (1997), garnered critical acclaim, as she covered Ani Difranco’s “32 Flavors”. Her second outing, Fortune Cookies (2001), featuring production from the Neptunes (“Bye Bye”) and offering a cover of Whodini’s “Friends”, was powerful but woefully under-promoted. In 2005, she created the imaginative jewel “Surrender Dorothy”, a 12-track mission statement forecasting the musical direction of her very own label, Tigress Records.
“Surrender Dorothy” spotlights Davis at her best, writing almost all of the album’s words and music, performing all vocals, playing guitars and bass, crafting the arrangements, and handling production. Her sultry, smoldering croon is at once adorable and emotive. Just listen to songs like “Letter”, “The Benefit”, “Vision”, and, my favorite, “Desert Rose (Higher Than a Lover”). You’ll also find brilliant covers of Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and Bob Marley’s “Nice Time”.
Wendy & Lisa on guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals
Most of us know Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman as members of Prince’s Revolution. Lisa was the young lady performing co-lead vocals on “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. Wendy & Lisa were the young ladies in Purple Rain who wanted the band to play the songs they wrote, even though it meant facing Prince’s, er, the Kid’s, stinging refusals (“Can’t you guys get off it? I mean, like, can’t you just leave it alone? I told you already. I’m not going to do your stupid music! Now get off it!”) They also gave us the unforgettable signature opening to “Computer Blue”:
Is the water warm enough?
Shall we begin?
And that’s how the Unsung Heroes album should open right before it launches into whatever song the super-group composes. Wendy & Lisa continued on with Prince through albums Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade: Music From the Motion Picture “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986). Around 1986, the duo’s association with Paisley Park ended, and Wendy & Lisa went solo.
Their 1987 under-the-radar self-titled debut is a classic. It’s packed with solid tunes that deliver almost every facet of the musical rainbow. You’ve got a smooth opener (“Honeymoon Express”), a couple of pop jams (“Sideshow”, “Chance to Grow”), a rocker (“Waterfall”), a lil’ bit o’ that funky stuff (“Blues Away”, “Light”), delightful, though somber, ballads (“Stay”, “Song About”, “The Life”), and a jazz tune (“White”). Revolution fans also enjoyed Bobby Z. on deck as producer and sometimes co-writer. To me, this album proved these musicians weren’t mere hired hands in the studio; their influence definitely impacted the texture of Prince’s music.
Wendy & Lisa later released Fruit at the Bottom (1989), Eroica (1990), and Girl Bros. (1998). The latter was inspired by the death of Wendy’s brother, Jonathan, who played keyboards for the Smashing Pumpkins, and was known as an all-around excellent musician.
What you might not be aware of is Wendy & Lisa’s session work and success with film and television scores. For session work, you can hear them performing on Seal’s first two self-titled albums. They co-wrote “Bring It On” and “I’m Alive” from Seal’s 1994 release. They’ve also worked with Me’shell Ndegeocello on Peace Beyond Passion and Bitter, so it’s not hard to imagine the three of them in a super-group together. Other musicians they’ve worked with (separately and as a team) include: Joni Mitchell, Terrence Trent D’arby (now known as Sananda Maitreya), Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Liz Phair, K.D. Lang. For scores, they composed music for the movies Dangerous Minds, Soul Food, Hav Plenty, Foolish, and Juwanna Mann, and television shows like the short-lived Snoops and the popular Crossing Jordan.
Even better, they’ve already participated in a “super-group” performance. In Before the Music Dies, a rockumentary promoted as “a call to arms to fight for real music”, Wendy and Lisa join Erykah Badu, Doyle Bramhall II, Mike Elizondo, Jr., Questlove, and Wendy’s twin sister Susannah Melvoin.
Wendy & Lisa?
Would y’all like to join Unsung Heroes?
Can we get paid?