Posts Tagged ‘Coolio’

Crossing Into Unknown Territory

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Okay, I’m a fifty-six-year-old white guy (soon to be fifty-seven). The territories of rap and hip-hop are alien lands for me. I don’t know where the line is between the two, and when I do tentatively cross the border into one or the other of those genres, I have no idea where the neighborhoods of the various subgenres lie.

It’s not that I disdain the two. I respect both rap and hip-hop as vital expressions of subcultures I can never, ever truly know. I am aware that hip-hop, especially, is now one of the world’s major and most vibrant musical genres. And the fact that I know so little about it and its cousin, rap, dismays me.

(As I write, I think about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote some of the classic R&B songs of the 1950s [“Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Youngblood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “There Goes My Baby” and many, many more]. The two of them, I’ve read in numerous places, immersed themselves in southern California’s black culture of the time, which is why – as I’ve also read many times – they were able to tap into the streams of that culture for their songwriting and production. That was remarkable then, and I think it would be remarkable now. A current performer who comes to mind in that context is Eminem. I can’t make the judgment, not knowing enough about the man’s work, but from my distant view, he seems to have also bridged the gap between white and black cultures as a writer and performer. Those readers who know these genres better than I are invited to respond and tell me if I’m right or wrong about that.)

The barrier facing me is more than racial and cultural, of course. Those, in fact, might not be the greatest barriers between me and an understanding of rap and hip-hop. In understanding popular music of any genre, it seems to me that the larger barrier is always age. The musical styles and genres we hear during our formative years are the ones that stay most dear to us and most ingrained in us. Somewhere along the line – after high school, after college, after graduate school, after marriage – we join the adult world, and that world (unless we work in the music business or an area closely related to it, like radio) pulls us away from the culture of youth and the immersion into current music that is such a large part of that culture. As we age, we can learn about and listen to current and new genres and styles, of course, and many of us do, but I doubt that most of us can ever immerse ourselves into new music the way we did when we were younger and the tablet of our tastes and experiences was mostly blank.

So how, then, does Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” show up as one of the records in my Ultimate Jukebox? Because it’s an incredibly compelling piece of music, reflecting an experience I can never know. I first came across the record – as did many folks with my skin tones, I imagine – when it was used in the soundtrack to Dangerous Minds, a 1995 film that Wikipedia describes as “based on the autobiography My Posse Don’t Do Homework by former U.S. Marine LouAnne Johnson, who took up a teaching position at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California, where most of her students were African-American and Hispanic teenagers from East Palo Alto.”

When I saw the film – years after it came out, unfortunately – the soundtrack intrigued me as much as the story. After a few listens, some of it grabbed me and some didn’t, but “Gangsta’s Paradise” was one of the keepers, chilling, haunting and beautiful. All-Music Guide notes that after Coolio and rapper L.V. crafted the song, which sampled the chorus and music of the Stevie Wonder song “Pastime Paradise,” Coolio’s label, Tommy Boy, “discouraged him from putting it on an album” and placed it instead on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was also released as a single and spent thirty-six weeks in the Top 40, including three weeks at No. 1. The record became the title track for Coolio’s next album, released toward the end of 1995; that album went to No. 9 on the pop chart and to No. 14 on the R&B chart.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 30
“Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton from Brook Benton Today [1970]
“I Saw Her Standing There” by Little Richard from The Rill Thing [1970]
“Let It Ride” by Bachman Turner Overdrive from Bachman-Turner Overdrive II [1974]
“Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees [1976]
“Dancing Queen” by ABBA, Atlantic 3372 [1977]
“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio from the soundtrack to Desperate Minds [1995]

The quiet organ wash and guitar licks that open Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night In Georgia” are among the most powerful of the sounds that can pull me back to my room during the early months of 1970. I spent a fair amount of time there that winter, finding a refuge in the sounds that came from my old RCA radio, and “Rainy Night In Georgia” is one of my most-loved songs from that time. I heard it a lot, too, as it went to No. 4 and gave Benton his first Top 40 hit in almost six years, which is an eternity in pop music. And the record is kind of an anomaly: It’s closer to traditional pop than to anything else (though no one should try to deny the soulfulness of the vocal), and although traditional pop wasn’t entirely banished from the Top 40 at the time, it was getting more and more rare. (As is the case with a few of these tunes, the video I’ve linked to offers the longer album track instead of the single edit, which was labeled as shorter; as I do not have the 45, I can’t say how much shorter it actually is, given that running times on 45 labels are notoriously untrustworthy.)

When I make a CD of assorted music for friends, one of the things I like to do is include covers of Beatles records by the folks who inspired the Beatles to begin with. One of the least likely of those – and one that will not show up in this project, though maybe it should have – is Fats Domino’s 1969 cover of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.” There are a few other good coverbacks of Beatles records, as I call them, but my favorite is Little Richard’s cover of “I Saw Her Standing There.” It was released on The Rill Thing, one of four albums – one unreleased until it came to light a few years ago in a limited box set – that the flamboyant genius recorded for Reprise in the early 1970s. The three released albums didn’t do so well: According to AMG, two singles from The Rill Thing made it into the Billboard Hot 100: “Freedom Blues” went to No. 47 (No. 28 on the R&B chart) and “Greenwood, Mississippi” got to No. 85, although the album did not chart. The follow-up album, 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, got to No. 193 on the album chart but didn’t chart any singles, and the third of the released Reprise albums, 1972’s The Second Coming, made no dent on any chart at all that I can find. I sometimes wonder if those albums would have done better if Reprise had issued “I Saw Her Standing There” as the A-side of a single instead of as the B-side to “Greenwood, Mississippi.”

Little Richard – “I Saw Her Standing There” [1970]

With its irrepressible “Ride, ride, ride, let it ride!” hook and its churning instrumental backing, Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s first charting single pounded out of the radio in early 1974 on its way to No. 23. And for a few years, Randy Bachman (formerly of the Guess Who) and his brother Robbie joined up with C. Fred Turner and Blair Thornton to provide decent radio fare and a few pretty good albums. And I learned something new while glancing at the band’s entry in the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: On BTO’s final charting single, 1976’s “Take It Like A Man (No. 33), backing vocals were provided by Little Richard. (The video I’ve linked to again provides the album track. The charting single was labeled with a shorter running time, though again I have no idea how much shorter it actually was.)

Boz Scaggs’ only Top Ten hit, “Lowdown,” seemed inescapable in the late summer and early autumn of 1976. Actually, for me, it was inescapable; I was living with three guys in a decrepit house on St. Cloud’s North Side, and one of the guys owned Silk Degrees, the album from which Scaggs’ single was pulled., So I heard the album at least three times a week for the four months that Kevin and I shared living quarters. Well, it could have been worse. Silk Degrees is a hell of an album, and “Lowdown”  is a great track. As well as being omnipresent on the North Side, it was all over the charts: It went to No. 3 on the pop chart, No. 5 on both the R&B chart and the disco singles chart, and to No. 4 – listed as “Lowdown/What Can I Say” – on the dance music/club play singles chart. (Once more, the video I’ve linked to offers the album track; similarly, the single was labeled as being shorter, though once more I have no idea how much shorter it was.)

I wrote once that the piano glissando that kicks off ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is one of the greatest musical moments of the 1970s. Well, there were a lot of good moments in that decade, so that was likely overstatement. But there’s no doubt that it’s a great start to a great pop record. There is a temptation to call ABBA’s music – and I also like several of the group’s other singles, “Waterloo” and “SOS” to name two – a guilty pleasure. But that’s inaccurate, as I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about enjoying brilliantly produced pop music. And that includes “Dancing Queen,” which went to No. 1 and was the seventh of ABBA’s fourteen Top 40 hits.