Ghetto Love: Talking About Dave Hollister and Jaheim

Yvonne Bynoe
Dave Hollister, Chicago '85 The Movie

What makes singers Dave Hollister and Jaheim so refreshing is that while they are street-slick they are also vulnerable and accessible.

It's no secret that some women love bad boys. Whether we care to admit it or not, most women want to believe that their man will protect them in the face of danger. Depending on the situation, a man can be expected to do anything from stopping an unwarranted advance being made toward his woman to shielding her from actual physical harm.

The appeal of the bad boy is further heightened by sex appeal and abundant cash flow. Aside from having the qualities already mentioned, the optimal bad boy also has personal integrity. This man is not perfect but he is straightforward about who he is at the start of a relationship. Most important, when he slips up he admits his transgression to his woman instead of justifying it or, worse, blaming her for it.

Bad boys are not a new phenomenon in black culture. In the '70s, film characters like Shaft, Hammer, and Slaughter resurrected the image of a sexy black man who could kick ass and hold it down for himself and his people. Although these men were rarely law-abiding or faithful, they nonetheless had their own code of honor that guided their lives.

Today, just as then, bad boys counter the mainstream portraits of black men as either wide-eyed buffoons in comedies or infantile louts in 'hood dramas. For a generation of blacks who grew up watching Good Times and Sanford and Son on television, it's understandable that many young black men found movie characters like Iceberg Slim, Superfly and Black Caesar more attractive role models than J.J. Evans or Lamont Sanford. Just as in the early '70s, rap music and hip-hop culture continue to be influenced by depictions of powerful, street-educated black men who beat the system.

It should be, then, no shock that a new generation of R&B singers raised on hip-hop culture has adopted its "Keep It Real" ethos. While Aaron Hall of the group Guy, with his bald head and bare chest, may be the prototype of the street balladeer, it was R. Kelly who took ghetto love to new heights. Since his days with Public Announcement, R. Kelly has made a career of singing earnestly about love and lust within the context of the 'hood. Although R. Kelly may make opulent videos like more traditional R&B artists, the language and tone of songs like "Homie, Lover, Friend", "You Remind Me of Something", "Half on a Baby" and "I Wish" distinguish him from artists like Luther Vandross, Brian McKnight or even Carl Thomas who concentrate on the sublime aspects of romance.

Without downplaying the material deprivation of ghetto communities, it's still safe to say that it's the richness of this segment of American society that fuels popular culture. Pop artists of every hue are imitating the style and persona of the so-called underclass and are being handsomely compensated for their mimicking. This occurrence is no surprise to people who read history.

Seventy-five years ago, in his classic essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", poet Langston Hughes said, "[t]here are the low-down folks, the so-called common element and they are the majority -- may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed or too learned to watch the lazy world go round... They furnish a wealth of colorful distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization."

The ghetto remains fertile creative ground precisely because circumstances have forced its inhabitants to make rules and choices that conform to their own reality. Furthermore, these lifestyle decisions rarely follow the dictates of the bourgeoisie, who often make similar choices but have more invested in maintaining a facade of propriety.

Although love, loss and deceit are universal experiences, the new breed of R&B singers uses a shorthand that is understood by black Americans nationwide who populate a world still under the mainstream radar. As these singers croon about love, their discourse in many instances is centered on topics like hustling, babies' mamas, the club scene and prison. While smooth R&B songs accompanied by stylized videos detail the idealized version of romance, ghetto love depictions are earthier and more realistic. Of the scads of new ghetto love singers, the standouts are former Blackstreet member Dave Hollister and newcomer Jaheim.

Hollister has a wonderful, strong voice. Moreover, like R. Kelly, he combines secular content with the inflections of a singer trained in the Black church. Hollister's 1999 solo debut effort was the raw Ghetto Hymns. Ghetto Hymns is most remembered for the single "Babymamadrama", about warring, unmarried parents. His sophomore album, Chicago '85... the Movie, is more polished and does a better job of showcasing his excellent voice than the previous release.

On his latest album Hollister is clearly a man who has matured, checked in his player card and is now intent on loving his woman and keeping his family together. On the first single, "Taking Care of Home", Hollister preaches to men that, rather than being selfish and egotistical, they should make their women the priority. According to Hollister, a man should consider himself lucky if he has got a good woman who will love him and stand by his side. The hook, "If you take care of home, you don't have to worry about yours", means that if you and your woman are simpatico then the rest of your life will also fall into place.

Monogamy is one of those issues that male singers either avoid altogether or approach in a cloying, worshipful fashion that sounds disingenuous. On the cut "One Woman Man", Hollister sees an old flame and admits that, while she is still tempting, he is now totally committed to his woman who is waiting for him at home. Hollister, however, is not perfect, as is evident in "On the Side", where he tells his mistress to stop broadcasting their affair because he is not leaving his girlfriend. Furthermore on "We've Come Too Far", Hollister alludes to infidelity when he implores his lover not to give up on the relationship despite his missteps. Hollister's songs represent a man whose main mission, despite his flaws, is to treasure his woman and his family.

Made more in the image of a rap artist than an R&B singer, Jaheim is the roughneck with a heart of gold. Like Hollister, Jaheim, on his debut album Ghetto Love, is searching for true love and is hitting some bumps along the way. With a voice reminiscent of Teddy Pendergrass, Jaheim is masterful at expressing his sincere need to have a woman in his life -- although the songs on the album are sometimes pedestrian. On numerous tracks like "Looking for Love", "Ghetto Love" and the lush "Forever", Jaheim croons about committed relationships and the importance of pleasing his woman.

While Hollister chooses to discuss hustling toward the end of Chicago '85...the Movie, Jaheim establishes his street credentials from the door in the intro about his release from jail. Moreover, on the moving yet up-tempo "Just In Case", Jaheim is a hustler who vows everlasting love to his woman in the event that he meets death on the street. Jaheim also shows that women's treachery is in full effect on "Could It Be", a tale about gold diggers, and "Lil Nigga Ain't Mine", about a fraudulent paternity claim. Like Hollister, Jaheim also steps out on his woman on "Happiness" but good sex is not enough for him to leave his baby's mama for the "second string" player.

What makes singers Hollister and Jaheim so refreshing is that while they are street-slick they are also vulnerable and accessible. While iced-out rap artists stack women like chips but eschew closeness, most R&B superstars romance models in exotic locales free from everyday concerns. In contrast, Dave Hollister and Jaheim have the personas of guys from around the way who made good telling stories for and about average black folks.

The term "ghetto love", more than a description of the interactions between déclassé thugs and hoochies, is really a euphemism for the daily trials and tribulations of trying to find and maintain an intimate relationship. At every socio-economic stratum, many of today's unions include exes, children, scheming friends and less than perfect partners. Ghetto love songs simply discuss the joy and the drama of love straight -- with no chaser.

In light of the cynicism and fear that exist among many young black Americans about relationships, ghetto love singers like Hollister and Jaheim are making it hip to pursue love and commitment. According to these bad boys, love is not just for suckers, anymore.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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