“Eric Benet Said WHAT About Hip Hop?!” A Curmudgeon’s Perspective

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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?

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Black AND White: Healing for the Racial Divide?

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I am not a preacher (yet). I’m sure I curse too much for that position, but my words are passionate and heartfelt. That said, America is fuckin’ up. And when I say the country, I actually mean the people contained within the borders of this great social experiment that presently seems to be going awry.

Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream. I tend to lean more toward other teachings, but I understand why he was so willing to give his life for that dream. Though looked at as rather docile when compared to Malcolm X, the man had come full circle before his assassination.

But I’m not here to speak on the teachings of X or MLK. I am writing to say that I attended an awesome concert of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago. Both bands are bad as hell and attracted a crowd of almost 20,000 music lovers to the same venue. As I looked toward the stage over people of every stripe, I realized something: we were united there with no fighting, no drama, and no bullshit. We were just there to watch a great show. And of course, the crowd went wild when both bands converged on the stage to do the last third of the concert together. Did I mention those cats were bad as hell?

A friend of mine recently asked if I believed a race war was inevitable. I told him that I hoped it was not. I know a bunch of clowns are trying to make it so. That white kid who slaughtered the black parishioners in that Carolina church was trying to kick off a race war. In retaliation, the black (ex-)reporter murdered two of his former white colleagues. Amazing and sad how racists love to target innocent, unarmed targets…

If there’s a God in the heavens (and I assure you, there is), I guarantee He didn’t create us to divide us. That’s a mankind thing that has been perpetuated from one generation to the next. If you peeled our skins back (and trust me, I could easily pen a horror story in which something like that happens), you’ll see we’re all pink beneath the epidermis. We all bleed when you cut us and everyone has to sit to take a shit. Oh, and none of us are immortal, meaning none of us are God.

I’m not saying we should ignore stupidity and accept assault. NO! I am saying that there should be more that unites us than divides us. It’s sad that, with all our technological advancements and accomplishments, we can’t seem to work this basic issue out. I’ll tell you one thing: if we don’t, we’re fucked. We’re already doomed to fall like all other great empires that preceded and will eventually follow. Why rush it? What if we were able to make this great social experiment actually WORK?!

Be proud of what you are and from whence your forefathers came. If you showed up to see Earth, Wind & Fire, cool. If you bought tickets to enjoy Chicago, good. However, realize that the last part of the concert, where both bands, one black, one white, take the stage, is the BEST part of the entire thing. You see, even though we may look a little different, we can still make beautiful music together.

‘Nuf said.