Thursday, May 17, 2007

Things that aren't underrated: New Wave and Disco

Hold on a sec there, Chuck. You say that New Wave is "underrated"? It gets played everywhere in bars as "'80s Night" and is currently having a huge resurgence. Exactly which part of it is underrated?

New Wave has its place, but come on, was it really more than simply a segue between one good era of music and another?

While I will agree with you that certain New Wave songs are awesome and have stood the test of time ("Take On Me," "I Melt With You," both of which you included are good examples), I really feel like this music was simply a transition. You mentioned how awesome the basslines were in disco -- which I agree with. You also just glossed over Punk, calling New Wave an offshoot of it.

I think you're totally wrong about that. And some other things, especially when you say that Hip-Hop came from disco, like when you said:

"in the beginnin, rap was all about the DJ and the rapper was secondary."

In "rap" the "rapper" was secondary? What?

Am I misinterpreting this? Yes, a rapper needs a good beat, and the DJ (or, now, the producer) provides that, but "Rap" as an art form grew from its lyricists. It couldn't possibly have gone anywhere without MCs; DJs could lay down a great beat, but then what? Artists who could rhyme led to the explosion of Hip-Hop, starting with the Sugar Hill Gang, leading to Grandmaster Flash and Curtis Blow and all the early-'80s rappers. Very soon, Rakim appeared -- and taught everyone what you could do with words and a beat. After him, a slew of great rappers emerged -- all of them building on Rakim -- and when combined with the right DJ/producer/beatmaker, eventually Hip-Hip took over.

But anyway, one thing New Wave never really did was confront any issues. "99 Red Balloons" and "Addicted to Love" are great songs, and you could be white and dance to them without regret, but none of the New Wave songs really talked about what was going on in the world. And perhaps we have New Wave to thank for the fact that not too soon after, two wildly different genres took over. Enough people from all over were pissed off, and they needed an outlet.

Artistically, at least, Rap rebelled against this bullshit. Public Enemy came out with a no-holds-barred assault against society and music. Their early albums are full of rage against both the music industry and the Reagan-esque society at the time. Albums like Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back not only directly confronted serious social issues of the time, they still sound amazing and fresh right now. Chuck D basically gave a big "Fuck You" to anyone who thought things were going well, because to him -- and the people he grew up with -- they clearly weren't.

That led to this rise of Hip-Hop. Rock took a little longer to find its voice against the bullshit music being put out by the likes of Warrant and Slaughter.

Nirvana saw to that. Whether Kurt Cobain wanted it or not, Nirvana cut the cord of crappy '80s rock and gave people something new to think about. Initially, Cobain was cornered by the media when they labeled him "angst-ridden" and then his music "grunge rock." But even after his initial success, he wrote a song -- which used the same riff as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- called "Rape Me," on his next album.

Unlike "New Wave," people like Kurt Cobain and Chuck D were upset, and they were unapologetic in letting people know.

Unfortunately, Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, which ended the return of good rock music that he reluctantly led.

What Public Enemy started for Hip-Hop, very few followed.

What Public Enemy and Nirvana did was to give the music-listening audience a good slap in the face. "New Wave" never did this -- this was never the goal. Making pleasing songs that people can dance to is what New Wave was good at -- and they were matched by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and NSync in the late '90s.

Right now, if you have it, put in an early album by Public Enemy or Nirvana. The energy that they put into each song completely outclasses most recent music in general, but certainly embarrasses any New Wave album. "New Wave" had some good singles ("Karma Chameleon," anyone?); what followed it led to much, much better shit.

However good certain New Wave songs are, I challenge you to play a full album by any of the artists that made those "classic" songs, and then play Fear of a Black Planet or Nevermind. Afterwards, tell me which one really matters.

New Wave is not underrated. If anything, it's overrated. The music that came before it -- Punk and early Rap -- and the music that came after it -- Grunge and Hip-Hop -- are far better. Good for New Wave to provide that bridge, but to give it any more credit denies how it compares to its forefathers and what came after.


Joseph said...

If you're really interested in the early history of hip-hop, I highly recommend "Can't Stop, Won't Stop". It's a great book, that starts in the early 70's.

ChuckJerry said...

Early, early rap was definitely all about the DJ. That is why DJs got top billing in their groups. "Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five" and "DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince" and even "Eric B. and Rakim" are some early examples.

It used to be about playing funk music to get people dancing, then it evolved into playing the funk music while scratching on the break beat. The rapper was just a hype man to get the crowd involved. It soon evolved into the rapper being the front man, with the introduction of more clever lyricists and such, but it was born from DJs doing their thing.

ChuckJerry said...

In a sense, I think we're in agreement about what New Wave represents. Punk, rap, grunge, all are more *important* music. But new wave is, at its base level, great music. And I thought I was clear in saying that what I loved about it was the melodrama and its inherent triviality.

Interesting that you would choose 99 Red Balloons as an example of a trivial new wave song, because it might be the only new wave song that's actually about something. The original German version is about a guy who starts WWIII by shooting at a bunch of helium balloons. It's some sort of social statement.

The Notorious LJT said...

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we've got
Set them free at the break of dawn
'Til one by one they were gone
Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message, something's out there
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine decisions treat
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call out the troops now in a hurry
This is what we've waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The President is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
And every one a red balloon
It's all over, and I'm standing pretty
In the dust that was a city
I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
Here it is, a red balloon
I think of you and let it go

ChuckJerry said...

And the more I think about it, rap still is not about the rapper, per se. It is no longer DJ driven, but today is definitely producer driven. Guys will buy rap albums today because it was produced by Timbaland or Pharrell, without really caring about who was doing the rapping.

How many rap songs today have terrible rappers who are not actually rapping about anything other than their car or having sex, but are good songs because of a clever beat? I would say probably most of them. For every Rakim, Jay-Z, Chuck D, and Eminem, there are a thousand guys like TI, Nelly, Mike Jones, Fabolous, The Ying Yang Twins, and whomever else who really are just terrible.

Take a look at the Ice-T clip I posted a couple weeks ago. He talks about what got him back into rapping for his new album was hearing dope beats with weak rhymes and knowing that he could do it better. I think the dentiment there is about right, even though Ice-t isn't all that great a rapper.