How funky does a beat have to be before we call it a classic? Let's find out.
How do you know if an R&B or hip-hop song is a classic? It's a puzzling question. Many people feel the word "classic" has become overused and that albums, songs, and artists are being called "classic" simply because their time in the limelight was "back in the day."
Well, I have a theory for distinguishing a "classic" from "just another old album". Using a modified version of the scientific method, I've developed a simple test, using the rap trio Whodini and their "Best of" compilation as a model. This hip-hop group -- made up of John Fletcher (known as "Ecstasy"), Jalil Hutchins, and Drew Carter (known as "Grandmaster Dee") -- serves as an excellent case study. Not only did Whodini help hip-hop reach a worldwide audience, liner notes author Steve Knutson credits the group with being among the first in hip-hop to incorporate R&B into their tunes and the first to make a video. Moreover, they scored big hits with "Freaks Come Out at Night" and "Friends".
This presents us with the "classic" dilemma: do you confer "classic" status upon the band simply because the band pioneered a particular style or sound? Do you call a song a "classic" because it reaches a certain point on the charts or because we remember where we were when we first heard it? Obviously, it's subjective. But, in an attempt to objective about an aesthetic that defies objectivity, I've outlined my theory below.
The problem is, "How do you identify a classic?"
I have two hypotheses. First, if a song is more than 10 years old and you'd be willing, without hesitation, to call your radio station to request that it be played, then that song is a classic. Second, Whodini is a classic group, and exactly six songs -- out of the 14 full songs on their "Best of" compilation -- qualify as classics.
Here's how the experiment works. Late in the evening, at 10 or 11 at night, a radio station in my area airs a segment called The Quiet Storm. Seconds before it begins, the airwaves get silent (or "calm", I suppose), except for the transmission static, and then comes the studio sound effects that mimic a light thundershower. This is followed by the low rumble of the deejay saying, in a tone that might've made Barry White proud, "You're entering The Quiet Storm." With that, it's a steady stream of classic soul that shuffles through tunes like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On", Maxwell's "A Woman's Work", and the Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets".
For our purposes, the The Quiet Storm's key portions are the dedications and shout-outs. At the end of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire", for instance, the deejay will break in with something like, "This next song is dedicated to Rachel, from Derrick. He says, 'I'm sorry I kissed your cousin' and 'Happy Birthday, Baby'." The next song is "Stay" by Jodeci, as Devante Swing half-whispers, "Don't talk. Just listen. I lied... when I said I never wanted to see you again…"
Now. Suppose you were listening to a program like this and the radio station invited you to request any R&B or hip-hop song you wanted. Would you request a song by Whodini? If all goes well, my plan is to isolate a sample of the population, pose this question, and then tally the results, controlling for oddball situations in which callers would request a song for reasons other than love for the music (like, if the caller committed the unforgivable hip-hop sin of getting Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" mixed up with Whodini's "Friends").
But, so far, I only have a population of myself. Based solely on me, I can tell you that there are some Whodini songs I'd definitely request and there are some songs I wouldn't disguise my voice to request, even though I can appreciate them for the times that produced them or the sheer willingness to experiment that earns them a spot on a "Best of" compilation.
The first "classic" jam I want to discuss is "Five Minutes of Funk", although it clocks in with a healthy five minutes and 24 seconds. Although the actual verbal flow is slightly off-beat, the music is undeniably tight, with a futuristic sound that rivals Herbie Hancock's Rock It, and those robotic, Battlestar Galactica vocals that also appeared prominently in Midnight Star's work in the '80s (remember "No Parking on the Dance Floor"?). The influence of "Five Minutes of Funk" is easy to find, from the similarity of LL Cool J's title "6 Minutes of Pleasure" from his Mama Said Knock You Out album to the Firm's Dr. Dre-produced remake, "Five Minutes to Flush", which transformed Whodini's party song into a drug dealer's scramble to destroy his contraband during a raid. Hey, nobody said a "remake" had to be wholesome. (And, in case you blinked during that moment in hip-hop history, the Firm was originally designed as a '90s super-group of Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega; Nature took Cormega's place).
"Freaks Come Out at Night" and "Friends" are Whodini's second and third classics. If there's ever a hip-hop Hall of Fame, these two songs will earn Whodini a place in it. "Freaks" and "Friends" feature obese basslines, creative instrumentals, and clever lyrics. "Freaks" plays on nightmarish imagery, painting a similar picture of the nightlife scene as Michael Jackson's "Thriller". No doubt Rick James' "Super Freak" also informs the mythos and persona behind Whodini's song. "Friends", for its part, is a timeless example of from-the-gut songwriting. It presents a theme we can all relate to; that is, how to figure out if your "friends" are bona fide I've-got-your-back, ride-or-die friends. The song tackles two variations of the theme -- "friends" who are buddies (the "fake friends" variation) as opposed to two people who try to form a relationship without being friends first (the "lovers-too-quick" variation). You'll hear the "fake friend" variation in songs by artists who benefited from Whodini's wisdom -- TLC's "What About Your Friends" quickly comes to mind ("What about your friends / Will they stand their ground / Will they let you down again"). The "lovers-too-quick" variation abounds, with Shai's "If I Ever Fall In Love" serving as a worthy example ("And if I / ever fall / in love again / I will be sure that / the lady is a friend"). (And, in case you blinked and missed that moment in R&B history, Shai was a quartet that scored a big hit in the early '90s with their a cappella version of "If I Ever Fall In Love").
Whodini's fourth and fifth classics: "Big Mouth" and "I'm a Ho". These percussion-driven tracks are perfect for radio dedications, the former being a rant against people who talk too much while the latter combines self-deprecating humor with a dash of bravado. "Big Mouth", the song you'd request in honor of your class gossip, deserves its place in hip-hop's canon of categorical "dis" records (songs that poke fun at silly behavior), alongside Run DMC's "You Talk Too Much", "You Be Illin'", and "Dumb Girl" or even Young MC's "Bust a Move". Meanwhile, "I'm a Ho", with its high-end keyboard twinkles, sounds like it influenced the instrumental for Eazy-E's "Boyz-N-the-Hood (remix)". Lyrically, it was definitely the inspiration for Ice Cube and Master P's Player's Club soundtrack song, "You Know I'm a Hoe". Interestingly, the male persona/performer of Whodini's song is being labeled the "ho" rather than the groupies who chase them. This admission of promiscuity would appear again in songs like Tupac's "I Get Around" and it arguably morphed into the "men can be bitches too" theme in hip-hop songs of the '90s.
Lastly, there's "Magic's Wand", produced by Thomas Dolby (of "She Blinded Me With Science" fame) and recorded in England. The song gave props to the legendary deejay, Mr. Magic, in true "up-jump-the-boogie-to-the-bang-to-the-boogie-the-beat" fashion while also referencing the forever-lauded "Rapper's Delight". Without a chorus, the track's instrumental alone is enough to crank a party. The synth groove also reminds me of Wham's "Everything She Wants" (remember George Michael singing, "Somebody tell me / why I work so hard / for youuuuuuuuuu"). "Incidentally, "Magic's Wand" was also selected for the old school radio playlist in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City videogame, along with "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow, and "Looking For the Perfect Beat" by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. Mr. Magic himself lent his voice to the project as the radio deejay. There's nothing better in GTA than running from the cops on a motorcycle with "Magic's Wand" on full volume. That's the kind of influence that probably makes the members of Whodini shake their heads and go, "That's not exactly what we had in mind." But, hey, that's what you get for letting them license your gargantuan basslines in awesomely crazy games.
I've selected the aforementioned six as Whodini's "classics". That doesn't mean, however, that the trio's other tracks are without merit, although I'll never understand why "Best Of" compilations bother to add "Mega Mix" songs. Those "Mega Mix" tracks always combine several songs that already appear on the album into a weird collage. I can't stand them! They blend songs together the way Michael Jackson's "Black Or White" video mixed and morphed people's faces in and out of each other. In Whodini's case, the mix appeared on a previous release, but that's no excuse. It's still seven minutes of torture. Why not a non-album track, a demo, a snippet of an interview, or enhanced video content? Isn't there a Junior Vasquez remix out there somewhere? A blooper reel? Almost anything else would work.
But when it comes to Whodini's true discography, the group was consistently entertaining. Tracks like "Escape (I Need a Break)", "One Love", and "Be Yourself" (featuring Millie Jackson) come close to "Friends" in terms of message, but fall slightly short of "classic" status. Likewise, "Rock You Again (Again & Again)", boasting as much rock as its title suggests, gets props for its cross-genre experimentation, while "Haunted House Rock", a house party for monsters, paved the way for later monster mashers like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Nightmare on My Street" and MC Hammer's Addams Family soundtrack single. The legacy of "Haunted House Rock" was carried on in songs like MC Lyte's "Cappucino", Special Ed's "On a Mission", and Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina", which are illustrative of the sonic flights of fantasy that have been mostly omitted from recent hip-hop.
So there we have it: simple test for figuring out when a song is a true classic and a disc of historically relevant material. More importantly, we have the opportunity to revisit Whodini as a classic band whose influence widened the scope and flavor of hip-hop.