Music

The Old Dominion in Song: Clipse and the Virginia Schism

Though the trappings may be different, the rhetoric layered beneath Lord Willin’ is a borrowed form of dubious justification that reeks of the Virginia slave system.


Clipse

Lord Willin'

Label: Arista
Release date: 2002-04
Amazon
iTunes

Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked

Publisher: Thorn10
Author: Gene Thornton
Year: 2011
Amazon

There is no one Virginia. The state is not a singularity. It's a complex fabric, a multiplicity spanning mountains and maritime, the Ages of Discovery and Information, agriculture and industry. From North Carolina to NOVA and Bristol to Chincoteague, Virginia is a patchwork of contradictions.

Yet the ugly reality is that the Virginia experience -- it’s history, culture and society -- can be divided into one of two categories: white or black.

Awareness of this schism is not necessarily a strongpoint in the Virginia consciousness. For many Virginians of one category, the narrative of the state is the development of available resources into open opportunity trade, which enabled the rise of a patrician landowner class that gave birth to a political/philosophical consciousness that is unrivaled in the western world today.

To probe African-American history in the Commonwealth, however, is an entirely other thing. After all, African slavery was introduced to the future United States in 1619 via Dutch traders who sailed for Jamestown. Lifetime slavery became a formal legal institution in the colony in 1640. Just in time for the tobacco boom. Those bodies that produced Virginia’s cash crop became commodities themselves after the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808 and the future Cotton Kingdom in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas opened up in the early 1800s. The invention of the cotton gin turned Virginia into an unwitting warehouse for Deep South slaves.

Then came the Civil War -- that moment of national reckoning we today like to pretend was the end of slavery. Still, the legacy of oppression did not end with the 1865 Battle of Appomattox Court House.

The Equal Justice Initiative reports that Virginia had the least lynchings of any Southern state in the Jim Crow years. That a “mere” 88 extra-legal slayings qualify as a badge of honor is, of course, a disgrace.

Jim Crow itself did not just poof and disappear into a paradigm of enfranchisement with the arrival of Civil Rights. Virginia political boss Harry F. Byrd, Sr. coined the term “massive resistance” in February 1956 when he called for white Virginians to actively subvert desegregation in state schools. Not until the 1967 Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia decision were state anti-miscegenation laws lifted. From 1983 to 2000, school students across the state celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day to honor two Confederate generals (and a Civil Rights icon).

Today African-Americans comprise only 20 percent of Virginia’s population. Yet, they account for 60 percent of the state’s prison population.

Historical consciousness of ethnicity is, unfortunately, a luxury. In a state built on the metrics of quantifiable mercantilism, the true language of record is power, and power is best expressed through wealth.

***

In 2002, two brothers from Norfolk, Gene and Terrence Thornton-- aka Malice and Pusha-T of Clipse -- dropped their LP debut, Lord Willin’.

Born of Tidewater street culture and nurtured by the now-legendary Neptunes production duo, the album is a stylish love letter to status. Raw, honest and inventive, Lord Willin’ is a creative amalgam of lyrical gymnastics clothed in bouncy beats worthy of a Pharrell Williams Best Of sampler.

There's absolutely no mistaking the album’s through line. In the first moments of the intro, Pusha-T inaugurates a chain of vocational boasting that goes unchecked for the next hour, “playas we ain’t the same, I’m into ‘caine and guns.” The ensuing slew of creative references to “rock,” “cooking” and “sniffles” plumbs new metaphorical depths in its description of the drug trade. This is an unequivocal document of cocaine in Virginia.

On the iconic single “Grindin’,” Pusha-T elaborates on his given profession with boastful discretion, “From ghetto to ghetto to backyard to yard / I sell it whiped un-whipped, it’s soft or hard / Call me subwoofer, cause I pump base like that, Jack.”

Malice follows Pusha-T with a peacocking verse eager to impart a sense of self-importance as a windfall benefit of moving cocaine, “excuse me if my wealth got me full of myself / cocky something that I just cant help / ’specially when them 20’s is spinning like windmills / and the ice 32 below minus the wind chill”.

Though rooted in the practical day-to-day of drug trafficking and distribution, Lord Willin’ is not a grim lament of the toll cocaine takes on communities in the Tidewater and around the world. Far from it. It's a celebration of the material wealth available to those with the capacity for violence and the taste for power necessary for holding turf and pushing weight.

The lyrical dichotomy juxtaposes a simple one-for-one relationship: there's a market for a given commodity that many would do just about anything for, Clipse knows this world well enough to profit from it, and thus they achieve a position of renown and comfort. Though the trappings may be different to an almost unfathomable degree, the rhetoric layered beneath Lord Willin’ is a borrowed form of dubious justification that reeks of the Virginia slave system.

What Clipse built of rhymes and references is mostly undergirded with a sense of guilt-free prosperity. They flaunt their wealth without any regard for the human toll with which it was acquired. Lord Willin’ serves as a sort of plantation house in album form.

***

In a 2002 “Virginia Drug Threat Assessment” from the National Drug Intelligence Center, the terms of the state’s cocaine trade are elucidated in pure bureaucracy-speak:

Cocaine, particularly crack, is the primary drug threat to Virginia. Powdered cocaine and crack cocaine are readily available in most large population centers in the state. Cocaine abuse is associated with more drug-related treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities than is abuse of any other drug. Nearly two-thirds of all drug-related federal sentences in Virginia in FY2000 were cocaine-related. Crack cocaine is the drug most often associated with violent crime in the state. Colombian and Dominican criminal groups based in New York City and Philadelphia and, to a lesser but increasing extent, Mexican criminal groups based in Atlanta and Charlotte, transport wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine into Virginia and distribute the drug at the wholesale level. Virginia-based African American, Caucasian, and Jamaican criminal groups and local independent dealers travel primarily to New York City, and also to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami to purchase wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine and return to Virginia to distribute the drug at the retail level. Cocaine typically is transported into Virginia in private or rental vehicles. Retail distributors usually convert powdered cocaine into crack in Virginia on an as-needed basis. Wholesale crack distribution usually is limited to multiounce quantities. African American criminal groups based in Virginia and African American local independent dealers and street gangs distribute crack at the wholesale and retail levels. Retail distributors typically sell crack at open-air markets in Virginia and at public housing projects in the Central Virginia and Tidewater areas.

Strictly speaking, there are no pharmacological precedents to the crack epidemic in Virginia. The substance is both incredibly potent and incredibly destructive. It immediately interfaces with brain receptors to create resilient dependency structures that irreparably alter cognitive functions and eventually physiology. Individual crack use segues into larger social implications as family and community systems deteriorate with increased use.

The crack economy is in many ways a mirrored phenomenon to Virginia’s historical tobacco trade.

Next Page

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.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image