Ise Lyfe: Spread The Word

You know what they say, "Ain't no party like a Black Panther Party 'cause a Black Panther Party don't stop." Okay, nobody says that. But when you hear this poet/emcee's debut, you just might.

Ise Lyfe

Spread the Word

Label: Hard Knock
US Release Date: 2006-06-27
UK Release Date: Available as import
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner

Because the revolution will not be televised, brother

-- Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

I make party music -- Black Panther Party

-- Ise Lyfe, "Black Panther Party Skit"

You're the poetry man, you make things all rhyme

-- Phoebe Snow, "The Poetry Man"

After watching Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in The Lake House, I've experienced a renewed interest in time travel. I've been thinking, "What if our favorite entertainers could reappear, young and vibrant, in today's market?" But, then again, maybe those reappearances are already occurring, like when Erykah Badu seems to be channeling Billie Holiday. Here's another one: spoken word artist and emcee Ise Lyfe, on his debut album Spread the Word, reminds me of Gil Scott-Heron.

Geographically, they are quite different, with Ise Lyfe stationed squarely in Oakland, California, while Gil Scott-Heron moved around a lot (he was born in Chicago, Illinois, moved to Tennessee as a youngster, spent his adolescence in New York, and did a year in college in Pennsylvania). Ise Lyfe's allegiance to Oakland runs deep, as evidenced by his song "City of Oakland":

I'm knockin' on the door,

They gotta shoot me a chance,

Oakland ain't been on the map since Hammer had on them pants

And then there's the song's revealing hook:

I'm from the city of Oakland where the barrels stay smokin'

Where the pigs done killed the Panthers and a gang of my folks, man

Spell it out for ya like they did on Soul Train

O-A-K-L-A-N-D, man.

Ise Lyfe represents his home the way hip-hop crowds used to say, "Brooklyn's in the house!" But, more than that, he knows where he's at -- as an individual and as part of a community, geographically as well as metaphorically -- and he funnels that awareness to tell us, through music, where he'd like us all to go.

Musically and lyrically, Ise Lyfe and Gil Scott-Heron are chips from the same block of marble. They both love going straight for the jugular with bitingly political poetry. Ise Lyfe's spoken word pieces mainly resemble Gil Scott-Heron's song-poem "Whitey On the Moon". At the same time, both artists can be smooth and subtle, making their points through descriptive parables and wordplays. Although Gil Scott-Heron's discography weighs more heavily in the R&B and jazz classifications, Ise Lyfe's album is good for a riff or two. And, for what it's worth, I'd love to hear Ise Lyfe do an updated version of Gil Scott-Heron's "B-Movie", an extended critique of the Reagan Administration set to jazz.

Spoken word poetry has been around for decades, of course. But these days, blame the films Poetic Justice (1993), Slam! (1998), and Love Jones (1997) for the current spoken word explosion.

In Poetic Justice, Janet Jackson's "Justice" uses poetry to connect with her emotions and resolve her inner conflicts. Writing helps her cope with the death of her boyfriend, played by Q-tip. The story was shaky as Jell-o, despite some scene-stealing moments from the late Tupac Shakur, but at least we got some poetry from Dr. Maya Angelou.

In Slam!, writing and reciting poetry helped Ray Joshua (played by Saul Williams) rehabilitate himself and rejoin society after doing time in prison. Poet Saul Williams wrote verses for the film.

But those movies are nothing compared to Love Jones. That's because Love Jones, starring Lorenz Tate and Nia Long, made poetry seem sexy. I'm not talking about "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" (Robert Frost); I'm talking about "I'm the blues in your left thigh / tryin to become the funk in your right" (Love Jones). It's one thing for poetry to keep you on the right side of the tracks (Slam!) or for you to find solace in your journal (Poetic Justice), but it's another thing for your lines to exude sex appeal. When Darius Lovehall (Lorenz Tate) went onstage and recited his flirtatious and risqué poem "Brother to the Night (A Blues For Nina)" for Nina Moseley (Nia Long), we were like, "Hell to the yeah," when we saw how the movie audience responded. Ladies were suddenly bombarded with new age pick-up lines patterned after Love Jones poetry. Quicker than you could say, "Oh, snap!", Love Jones paved the way for the '90s revival of coffeehouses, spoken word and open mic nights, and a flurry of neo-jazzy-soul-sexy-love poetry.

That's basically where Ise Lyfe entered the picture, with appearances at poetry slams and battles, as well as Def Poetry Jam, the Russell Simmons production hosted by rapper and actor Mos Def. But unlike Darius Lovehall, the young urban Shakespeare of Love Jones, Ise Lyfe has a more activist, community-oriented agenda. The first track, "Can He Do It?", explains Lyfe's methodology, through lines like, "This ain't the typical rhyme gimmick, I'm here to move spirits, hopin' that you feel it" and "Sincerely, you've got to feel me / this is the real me / not 'cause it's trendy".

About poetry and rhyming, he says, "It's all the same target". Still, he manages to keep the two separate -- there are spoken word tracks and rap tracks, but not a mixture of the two. Sometimes, like with "beautiful poem" its position preceding the rap song "beautiful", the poetry stands alone while also acting as an interlude or prelude. Although this approach would seem disruptive to the album's continuity, it actually benefits the cohesion, providing listeners with slices of Ise Lyfe's complete worldview. Plus, Ise Lyfe's philosophy is expressed through a dialectic, a tension between opposites -- of community progress versus individual survival, of "revolutionaries" versus "the power structure", of "the Black Panthers" versus "corrupt cops" or, in Panther vernacular, "the pigs". This amalgam of sounds and ideas fuels Lyfe's manifesto.

Consequently, just listening to one track won't provide the full picture; you have to listen to everything -- all 24 tracks (running time is about an hour and fifteen minutes). That's not to say there aren't any standouts, there are plenty ("Respect My Culture" featuring Panama, "Retro", "City of Oakland", "The Way We Are", "Fast Then Slow", and "Woman" are all heavyweights). But given the variety on this LP, a single song isn't indicative, lyrically or musically, of the whole.

Take, for instance, "Case to the Masses", a spoken word piece where Ise Lyfe assumes the role of prosecutor, arguing to convict "the system" for "murder, rape, imprisonment of the mind" and a "long list of heinous crimes". Certainly, not everyone is going to agree with the indictment, although, as a certified conspiracy theorist, I wouldn't mind serving on that jury. What's important, though, is that Ise Lyfe's musical agenda advocates socio-political and economic change. Similarly, "Will We Ever Get It Right?" points out contradictions of behavior, among the black community in particular, like this line, "Watch us make a hundred dollars and spend ninety nine on a chain". Likewise, on "Murder", Ise Lyfe champions independent thinking and taking steps to reverse one's "victimization".

But there's another side to the rapping poet. He's also a keen observer and storyteller who is interested in understanding human nature as much as he wants to show us its faults. For that, there's the storyline in "Beautiful", a song about a man and a woman who are traveling down desperate paths. The first verse concerns her psychosis; the second describes his. What do you think will happen in the third verse when the dude from the second verse "meets the sista from the first verse"? That's right, Dr. Phil -- all trouble breaks loose. Then there's "Love With You Anymore", a first person narrative that explores the dimensions and processes of love -- of being in love and falling out of love -- over a swaggering bassline. Another high note is "Woman", which Ise Lyfe dedicates to all women, but smartly delivers as a series of stories about real women in real situations. It's powerful because, as the cliché goes in poetry writing, he shows us his message instead of merely telling us.

Seamlessly, Ise Lyfe merges all of these stories, feelings, and poems without losing focus or giving us filler. Even when he shares space with another poet, as with Alicia Zaikon's "Make Up Make Down", it all seems to fit into his overall vision. The main nitpick is that the story-oriented tracks are so effective at illustrating Lyfe's perspective, they make the overtly political tracks -- usually the spoken word joints -- sound a bit preachy. Yet, even when he's preaching, he can hold his listener's attention. And that's what the best parties are all about.

Ise Lyfe - Hardknock TV Promo


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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