Music

Various Artists: 10 Years of Bling

Somewhere in the world of Platonic Ideals, there's a fantastic Cash Money retrospective -- this just isn't it.


Various Artists

10 Years of Bling, Vol. 2

Label: Cash Money
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Nigh on ten years ago, in the summer of 1999, Somethun Good went down on the Chef Menteur Bridge in New Orleans, Lousiana. Specifically, the six rappers of Cash Money Records walked out into the Pontchartrain sunlight to shoot a music video, each of them armed and enamored with all the ritziest, glitziest props their outsized budget could rent: Hummers! Diamond-studded Rolexes! Actual helicopters! Boats, candlesticks, briefcases, a Rolls-Royce... cars with multiple TVs inside! Their gleeful, almost childlike stupefaction with such worldly goods washed like a floodlight through the purgatory shadows where, for nearly a decade, rap’s nihilistic older generation had maintained with money the sort of joyless and compulsive relationship that a nymphomaniac maintains with sex. Master “ugggh” P, Tupac “Bury Me a G” Shakur, all the disillusioned soldiers in No Limit's army, and the hardened convicts on Suge Knight's label -- these jaded existentialists obsessed and hoarded over money with all the sad devotion of a daytrader or a coupon clipper, yet they envied death too much to ever fully appreciate the plethora of features on the dashboard of a C5 Corvette. So when the Cash Money crew arrived on set, entranced, liberated, rejuvenated by such shiny gewgaws, they couldn’t help but launch a bright new era in hip-hop worldliness. You can look it up in the dictionary. The video they filmed that day was called “Bling Bling”, and it has become the defining onomatopoeia of our time.

Outside of a few great essays, including Tim O'Neil's PopMatters review of Lil Wayne’s The Carter, Cash Money Records may never reap the critical acclaim they surely deserve for making rap cheery, playful, and relatively innocent again. Many critics who pine terminally for the heydays of late '80s hip-hop may never fully appreciate the obvious parallels between the vivacious materialism of Run DMC’s “My Adidas” and B.G.’s “Bling Bling”. Critics rightly concerned about the moral tone of New Orleans hip-hop might never note what an improvement Cash Money’s mostly-drug-free shopping lists were on Master P’s “Time to Check My Crack House”. But, with a retrospective compilation like the 10 Years of Bling series, there’s only so much we can blame on the chattering classes. Inadvertently, 10 Years of Bling, Vol. 2 sounds more like ten slow years of publishing problems and nitpicking squabbles over songwriting rights, topped off with an end product that poorly reflects what the label has to offer. It reminds us why we go through the trouble of downloading and organizing our own mixtapes, and just leave the legal footwork for the stuffed suits who make Now That's What I Call Music! possible.

In fact, 10 Years of Bling, Vol. 2 is so bad that it suggests another title for the multi-volume series. How about The Decline and Fall of Cash Money Records -- an incremental process of elimination somewhat concealed by the splendiferous success of Lil Wayne, the label’s brightest, youngest, and as of today, only star. In 2001, after putting in six records for the label, B.G. took his hazy, somnambulant flow elsewhere, claiming the CEO Bryan “Baby” Williams was jerking him around on royalties. Months later, Juvenile, the hitmaker who gave us the ubiquitous “Back That Azz Up”, left for the same reason. Young Turk walked off in handcuffs, then ended up on Koch Records, and in 2005, the house producer who made it all possible, the magnificently fun-centric Manny Fresh, moved to Atlantic. By the time Katrina came, Cash Money Records was nothing but the Lil Wayne show, and even the most cursory glance through this record’s tracklist confirms how shallow the label’s bench has become: Six tracks from Baby (“Birdman”), Lil Wayne’s oafish, slow-rappin’ surrogate daddy; three from Big Tymers, his duo with Mannie Fresh; plus some Lil Wayne solo act change, and a few undistinguished newcomers. This isn’t a greatest hits collection. This is a con.

Actually, it’s something worse: A hip-hop crew record. Under the guise of a retrospective comp, the Cash Money bean counters are trying to spring their two latest draft picks on ya, namely Teena Marie and Currency. A word about them both. With his emasculated nasally wheeze, Currency recalls the heyday of Cash Money Records, back when the label was home to some of the most distinctive drawls in late '90s hip-hop. That was back when South Coast hip-hop was major label flyover country, and with T-Pain's autotune craze enveloping the nation, it's refreshing to hear a voice with some unique, natural character. But the praise stops with his vocal instrument: "Where the Cash At", his one and only single (even his MySpace page doesn't offer another track), is nothing to write home about, just a synth-heavy, snare-chopping track with a pitch-lowered screw loop for a chorus. You could lose it in a haystack and find the needle first. Teena Marie, the other breaking star, fairs even worse on "I'm Still In Love". It's less a single than a qualifying lap, on which she proves she can approximate all the melisma of late '90s R&B without giving us any reason why. Then there's "Stuntin Like My Daddy", a rock remix with chunky guitars, and a completely perfunctory way to close out the album.

The rest is all recycled material you might have missed, but probably haven't. For every genuine moment in Cash Money history -- the sublime Clipse duet "What Happened to That Boy", or Lil Wayne's theatrical "Shooter" -- there's a couple or four third-tier hits of the likes of "This is How We Do" (think elevator jazz rap) or "Leather So Soft" (think soap opera interlude rap). Somewhere in the world of Platonic Ideals, there's a fantastic Cash Money retrospective that the lawyers will never let us hear: something that charts Lil Wayne's evolution from the junior Hot Boy responsible for the "Bling Bling" hook and the fetching first verse on "Rich Niggas", to his meteoric rise as the Only Rapper That Matters. Something that reminds us why New Orleans matters, why regional labels would be a terrible thing to lose, and why, say what you will about the woes of materialism, a C5 corvette is a terribly fun car to drive.

3

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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