I am going to preamble this post by stating that, with more gray in my beard than black, I am a proponent of the Old School. It was bound to happen, me being relegated to one of the cranky old villains from an episode of Scooby Doo (“I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!”) or the more mature fellow who is constantly making comparisons to more dated styles of music over the current ones.
Even before I was born (yes, there was actually a time), R&B stood as the bastion of expression to let the world know how black people felt. It took some time but, with much resistance from Motown, Marvin Gaye unleashed songs like “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and “What’s Going On.” Sam Cooke had preceded him by seven years with the haunting “A Change is Gonna Come.” You see, up until then, the smoother, more palatable R&B had replaced the rawer, more candid Blues.
Eric Benet falls into the tradition of modern-day troubadours. Like Gaye and Cooke before him, and Maxwell being a contemporary, are primarily known for proliferating the world with songs of lust, longing, and, of course, love. But, no matter how much I enjoy the music of “love men” like Benet, Barry White, and Isaac Hayes, their songs generally didn’t venture into the realm of protest or give the lowdown of the black experience in America.
Something happened in the late ’70s: Hip Hop. Like most folks outside the planet of New York City, the first time I’d ever gotten a taste of the genre was with “Rapper’s Delight.” Oh, there had been the conscious and controversial salvo of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets to precede the Sugar Hill Gang’s seemingly inescapable single, but Gil and the Poets had never been accepted on a wide scale. Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee followed up “Delight” with “Apache” and other singles aimed at the partying crowd. As if hit by a one-two punch, Kurtis Blow blew everybody’s mind with “The Breaks.”
The consciousness came when Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five dropped “The Message.” Still one of the most though-provoking offerings of the burgeoning genre, the song turned an unblinking eye on rough and tough inner city living.
Fast-forwarding the the last couple of years of the next decade and the world was introduced to two groups that would shake the musical landscape: Public Enemy and N.W.A.
I was just a few months into my first enlistment with the United States Navy and was using my paycheck to build a music collection. I wondered, unsuspectingly, into the Navy Exchange and purchased Eazy E’s Eazy-Duz-It album on cassette. Along with his fellow members of Niggaz Wit Attitudes, the squeaky-voiced MC regaled street violence by weaving a profanity-laden tapestry. I had never heard anyone curse like that–not even in the Navy!
While Chuck D’s militant rhymes from Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back awakened one half of my conscience, N.W.A’s single, “Fuck tha Police” fried what was left of my mind. I enjoyed the outrage of it, which would catch the ire of the FBI; the group was famously issued a letter from that government agency, denouncing glorification of violence toward police.
Not long after, I was stationed in Long Beach, which was the next city over from Compton, nestled right in Los Angeles County. In horror, we watched the footage of LAPD officers beating the brakes off Rodney King. N.W.A’s song had been spot-on with its anger, especially when the policemen were acquitted. The captain of my ship had us pull out to sea when the LA Riots jumped off.
As the riots were happening, Dr. Dre, who’d left N.W.A to form a new record label, was laying tracks for his magnum opus, The Chronic. He made sure he incorporated sound bites of angry Los Angelenos from ground zero.
In the mid-’90s, Benet entered the music scene at a time when the baton was being passed from R&B’s last stand in the form of Neo Soul, to Gangsta Rap. Barry White was back and young artists like Boyz II Men and Jodeci had set the stage for the likes of Benet, Maxwell, and D’Angelo. Many hit singles had to have a popular rapper spitting a verse to ensure radio play.
Hitting the fast-forward button again and, in 2018, Benet makes headlines with a statement comparing the glorification of violence, drugs, and booty-shaking in Hip Hop has not declared independence, but has pushed the white supremacy agenda. I straddle the line between enjoying tales of romance on wax and classic rap that made people stop and think. In a sense, Benet has a valid point: there’s only so much of the same negativity that can be put forth over and over without offering a solution. It’s kind of like a pig reveling in its own shit.
However, as a counterpoint, in 2018, black men are still being subjected to police brutality and incarcerated at an alarming rate. That in mind, I can understand N.W.A’s rant a lot better than the stuff that is currently getting airplay.
But then, the Hip Hop on the radio is not necessarily aimed at a 49-year-old, now is it? Am I supposed to completely understand and be down with every new trend in music? Or have I finally, like Eric Benet, been relegated to the ranks next to that crotchety old bastard at the end of a Scooby Doo episode?