Black Eyed Peas: Elephunk

Terry Sawyer

Black Eyed Peas


Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2003-06-24
UK Release Date: 2003-06-30

A lot of hip-hop stars, as much as I love them, aren't really cheapened by their involvement with commercial interests. Some of my favorite pop rap is little more than a tacky advertisement for heartless upward mobility. This is partly why the Black Eyed Peas' ad for a soft drink was so disappointing to me. In some ways, it's none of my damn business, they should be able to pay their bills anyway they can. But when the music is actually something meaningful, one can't help but look at the artist sideways when they shill for multi-national shit machines in their spare time. Tom Waits wrote somewhere once (and I badly paraphrase) that businesses want to use music because they know the power of association and memory that it harnesses, tying sentiments to moments in time by siphoning the spirituality of creativity. For people like Britney Spears, this should be a no-brainer, her music is already corporate Satanism, pure fabricated demographic gruel, and she should sell as many products as she can before we collectively vomit her up like too much Easter candy. But for the Black Eyed Peas, I hate to see their vibe tied anything other than their essence: relentlessly funky upliftment.

Now that I've left the pulpit, let me tell you why this is one of the essential hip-hop records of the year. In a world where talent was the only currency recognized, Black Eyed Peas would be dominating every chart, airwave and house party on earth. Elephunk drops non-stop hook and hump, an album with almost no missteps and more than its share of undeniable, thumping joy.

Black Eyed Peas might not be the most complex lyricists in hip-hop, but their flow has an electrifying tactility to it, like someone tapping out the track with their hands on your body. The undergirding backgrounds themselves are marvels of complexity, lush with beats built on a variety of musical slants and instruments. Both the speaker slamming intro "Hands Up" and "Labor" have incredibly tight trumpet parts providing the primary cadence. "Smells Like Funk" comes off slightly silly because it revolves around the conceit of their metaphysical funkeration pervading the air like a fart. But the rhythm, the background noises, the snippets of "Putting on the Ritz", the drunk New Orleans horns, all of it creates a song where the groove is flawlessly terraced. Most of the tracks are chasmic in their roominess; it takes several listens just to walk around the perimeter before the lyrics begin to soak in. That's assuming that you can get over the basslines that barrel through the songs like feral commandments for ass shaking.

Elephunk successfully incorporates sounds from across the hip-hop spectrum. The well-populated backdrops aren't just a spare beat phoned in from a turntable. At times, their rhythm section sounds like a jook joint orchestra. "Hands Up", "Sexy" and "Latin Girls" import beautiful Latin piano, percussion, horns and whispered female harmonies. "Hey Mama" takes on dancehall, putting Sean Paul to shame with bass that drops into the song like a B-52 payload. Leaving no innovation unsampled, they bring sitar, flute, and an Indian vocalist in to serve it up Bhangra style on "The Elephunk Theme". To accuse them of opportunistic skimming is to ignore the history of a band that has always seen hip-hop as open-ended party without arbitrary categorical bounds. If anything, they seem to be showing up other artists (cough, Jay-Z) who stitch in new sounds like bad skin grafts.

"Shut Up" with Fergie's slick twist of a voice, reprises the boy-girl argument song, with a hilarious back and forth built on top of a bassline that sounds wildly lobbed across the track. In fact BEP newcomer, Fergie, sways in out of several songs, most stunningly adding her deep-piped growl to the slinky grooves of the bewitched, bothered and bewildered "Sexy". Black Eyed Peas prove many times over that you can celebrate women ("Hey Mama", Latin Girls" and "Sexy") without smacking them in the head and making them squat over while you drink Henny in a lawn chair. It's especially refreshing because they so clearly illustrate what a weak-ass cop out sexism is. I think misogyny and homophobia are basically just violent forms of repression doled out by chickenshit oppression suck-ups; consequently I always interpret Eminem's "Without Me" video to be unconsciously homoerotic (c'mon, Batman and Robin?).

After 12 solid, hands-in-the-air classics, I suppose it's only fair that they be excused for sputtering out at the finish line. "Anxiety" is just ill conceived. No offense, but Papa Roach are not ideal collaborators, for anyone good at what they do. The metal-rap hybrid isn't as bad as it could be, but still manages to insert that Creed-esque quality of limp, melodramatic power chords blanched by over production. Although I appreciate the heartfelt sentiment of "Where is the Love?", it sounds totally hokey, just this shy of "We Are the World"-level platitudes. I know I'm a jaded shitheel, but painting pamphlets of the perfect world isn't always the best way to change this one. Justin Timberlake doing his best prison shower falsetto on the chorus doesn't help either. Unlike virtually every other track on this record, "Where is the Love?" has no driving force beneath it; instead it lurches aimlessly in a swampish mid-tempo drift.

The organizing principle of this band seems to be that you have a good time and that no one gets hurt in the process. If Elephunk doesn't move you, if you don't end up with a massive grin slapped across your face, if you don't heed the built-in dance demands, then check your pockets; there should be a receipt for your soul in there somewhere.

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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