Music

Ghostpoet: Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam

This is a crucial rap album that deals with, at least in part, the fall-out of the global markets and what that means to both the person on the street and the average suburban dweller.


Ghostpoet

Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam

Label: Brownswood Recordings
US Release Date: 2011-02-15
UK Release Date: 2011-02-07
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I’ll be brutally frank and honest with you, dear reader: rap and hip-hop aren’t exactly my forté. What I don’t want to do is write off an entire genre of music that is always metamorphing and has various facets of expression, but personally, I’m not much into dark twisted fantasies. I tend to gravitate towards rap that is fun, vibrant, and perhaps soulful. A little old-school De La Soul. Some A Tribe Called Quest. A bit of early Digital Underground. That kind of stuff. It’s not that I don’t think that words directly from the street and about a certain lifestyle aren’t vital and important. However, there are some things just doesn’t speak to me personally. The boasting. The glorification of violence and drug-use. The latent misogyny. The gratuitous use of profanity (though I should admit I can curse like a sailor with the best of them, so maybe I’m one to talk). These things tend to turn me off the genre, and I don’t think it’s an issue of not connecting with the music due to race, because I really gravitate towards old soul music and ‘70s R&B, and all of the things I’ve previously mentioned are things that I dislike in what I’ve heard of the work of one Marshall Mathers.

I was going to say that I tend to like music that is positive and uplifting, but that would be wrong, because there’s certainly a forlorn quality to some of those old soul chestnuts that can certainly be spirit crushing. However, with rap, to me, it seems that you have to do a bit of digging to find stuff that doesn’t glorify dope, guns, and running amok in the streets, and there just isn’t time enough in the day for me to really parse the stuff that I’m going to like and the stuff that isn’t going to sit well. (To wit, let me put on the record that I’m not the biggest fan of Public Enemy, either, but I will concede that I appreciate what they were trying to do back in the late ‘80s from both a political perspective and a genre-hopping one, and think they’re very important in the evolution of the rap genre.) Maybe that makes me a curmudgeonly middle-aged white guy with a fear of a certain type of music, but there it is.

Still, I’m all for trying to expand my musical horizons, and that is why I’m putting words onto a computer screen right now about the debut album from London-based MC Ghostpoet (real name: Obaro Ejimiwe), who has arguably delivered one of the most topical LPs of 2011 with Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam. This is a record that just about anyone can relate to, rap fan or no. It’s an album, at least in part, about the fall-out of the global markets and what that means to both the person on the street and the average suburban dweller. As one line from the album puts it: “Round and round we go / When’s it gonna stop? / I ain’t been paid and I ain’t got a lot / But it’s us against whatever, babe”.

More bluntly, this is simply an album about the ordinary person trying to, to crib a title from the record, “Survive It”, which offers “When you got no cash, got no cheque, got no credit card / Life is pretty hard”. It’s a sometimes grubby collection of snapshots of a particular time and place, and it is generally compelling in its own audacity about the general futility of punching the clock in modern society. (“Gaaasp”, which advises the listener to “Take a deep breath / And live life a little bit”, offers the following: “Working in the job, right? / Is all lies, lies, lies / All day old age pensioners whose stories and white lies / Who moan, moan, moan, moan about all the points they haven’t got / ... Wasting my life away or is this a stepping stone? / I plan to find to find out / Some folk will never know”.) The record doesn’t glorify a particular way of life, either, and, more often than not, the tracks here have a sense of just telling things as they are. Ghostpoet himself raps the following himself in the song “I Just Don’t Know”: “Other MCs want to talk about crime / But that ain’t me / Let’s talk about life”. That’s something I can definitely get down with.

Ghostpoet has been gradually making a name for himself in the UK rap scene. He appeared as a guest on the 2009 Kwesachu Mixtape Vol.1 by musician Micachu, and, a year later, dropped his first EP, The Sound of Strangers, which The Guardian felt compelled to write about and, in doing so, named Ghostpoet a Best Band of the Day (“band” being a relative term, I guess), comparing him to Dizzee Rascal “on mogadon, or a half-asleep Streets” (mogadon being a drug used in the treatment of insomnia.) It’s a fairly apt comparison, as there is a hazy, dream-like quality to Ghostpoet’s rhymes, and there are times on Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam where the vocals have a slurred quality, as though the rapper were nodding off in the studio as he was laying down some tracks. There is also a soulful and jazzy backbone to the record, making it destined to be played in chill-out rooms in dance clubs as a downbeat soundtrack to coming down.

However, in the rap genre, Ghostpoet is a little hard to pigeon-hole. Being from Great Britain, one would be tempted to throw the grime tag at him, except that he doesn’t talk about violence and criminality as those rappers do. There’s also the trip-hop label, but Ghostpoet often doesn’t utilize the bass-heavy drumbeat or the female vocalists of said genre, save in the latter’s case on “Survive It”. And in terms of rapping skills, Ghostpoet comes across more as a slam poet than someone who has been influenced by American hip-hop acts. In that sense, I guess you could tap the “experimental” or “underground” label on him, but even that doesn’t seem to do him any justice. At the best of times, Ghostpoet seems to occupy a sound that is unique and distinct from a lot of what little I know of the genre. I could go as far as saying that the triumphant final track, “Liiines”, isn’t even hip-hop at all. With its use of backing band sounding a little like something out of the ‘80s (Simple Minds comes to, ha, mind), the song could pass for rock if you ignored the rhymes throughout the verses. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that sometimes final songs show the way forward to what to expect on the next album, which leads me to affirm that the future looks very bright for Ghostpoet in that he’s trying to break down some conventions, notably in eschewing the use of sampled music, though I know he isn’t the only one.)

Despite some of the dark themes of the record -- for instance, the lead single “Cash and Carry Me Home” is about the powerful and addicting effects of alcohol -- there is a refreshing sense of hopefulness that permeates throughout. On “Survive It”, Ejimiwe offers that “I know / That that times are hard / You’re against the wall / And your head is down / ... Just have a little faith, mate / It’ll all turn out great”. Though it might sound like a platitude, there’s “Life is too short to store our grudges / Life is too long to make no plans” on “Liiines”. Elsewhere, there’s a sense of self-reliance (“I ain’t coming here to change your life / You can if you choose to”) and an overcoming of obstacles thrown into one’s path. There’s also a refreshing sense of questioning the hyper-masculinity of rap in the track “Runrunrun”: “Run away / Be a real man and fight another day / I heard that in a TV program / So it must right / Right?”

There are a few tiny flaws with Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, and the most egregious thing that can be said about it is that it is consistent -- a little too consistent. Particularly, there is an overuse of glacial beats and jazzy vibes, and the album could use a little bit of musical variation to liven things up a little bit. The intro mic-check and mid-album pause, though brief, seems more like filler than any association with the standards of the hip-hop genre. That said, this is a strong statement from an MC who definitely has an individual voice that those who have turned against rap, for the reasons outlined above, should really check out. I would even go so far as to note that, with the harshest word on the record either being “damn” or a garbled use of “shit”, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable giving this album to a mature young adult who is curious about rap music.

Overall, Ghostpoet is talking about a way of life that the average, common person living a middle-class lifestyle can relate to. That is, perhaps, the genius of this recording. This isn’t a record about the fantastic, of pretending to be a pimp or a ‘ho, this is simply a testament to those who just want to settle down, start a family, and lead a law-abiding life. Again, that’s not to write off an entire culture or genre of music, but if rap music is a little like the old saw that gets trotted out about pornography (“I know what it is when I see it”), I can paraphrase from it by saying that I know what I like when I hear it. And I happen to like Ghostpoet’s values, perspective, and general way of living a lot. Check that. An awful lot.

8

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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