SOUNDTRACK: SCHOOLLY D-Smoke Some Kill (1988).
Since this disc is featured so prominently in Signifying Rappers (and the book is named after the best track on this disc) I thought I’d dust it off and listen to it again. I got this disc probably in 1989 at the suggestion of my friend Al. He recommended “No More Rock N’ Roll,” I think.
I haven’t listened to the disc in years, probably a decade. The last time I listened, I think I wasn’t all that impressed by it, which is why it’s funny to me how much significance the book gives this disc/track. In listening again, I felt more or less the way I did last time, although interestingly, after reading the book, I agreed that some of the tracks are pretty good.
“Signifying Rapper” in particular, seemed better after DFW’s analysis of it (he discusses it in the tradition of the trickster narrator, and I agree it’s a good one). Although, at one point in the book DFW decries the misogyny in a lot of rap, but he doesn’t mention the homophobia. And, despite the trickster style in this song, the homophobia is pretty outrageous (even if, in a surprising twist, the “faggot” kicks the “pimp’s” ass). But really, the thing that upsets the pimp so much, that he went off to fight the faggot about is this rather absurdly childish set of insults: your dad’s a faggot, your mom’s a whore, your granny’s a dyke and your brother’s a faggot too. Now, homophobia aside, would these insults really get anyone so angry? Hard to say. But regardless of the whole thing, the song is set to the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” so, that’s pretty fun.
The rest of the disc is a mix of kind of lame tracks and a few good ones. “Here We Go Again” has some great scratching on it (in fact the scratching throughout the disc is quite good), and there’s some really good background samples on “Gangster Boogie II.” Although I think the best tracks come near the end: “Treacherous” (which samples or reinterprets Gil Scot-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Televised”) and “Black Man” which features the cool shout-out “What’s the Word? Johannesburg!).
A few tracks are kind of flat. “Mr Big Dick,” is, at best, silly and even the title track “Smoke Some Kill” is sort of uninspired. What’s interesting about somewhat flat style is that this disc has come out after Public Enemy’s wall of sound changed the face of rap. But Schoolly is sticking with the very sparse Run D.M.C. style. The difference is that with Run, you had two vocalists, but Schoolly is by himself. It’s just not quite as exciting.
And, then there’s the aforementioned “No More Rock N’ Roll” which is a companion to “We Don’t Rock, We Rap”. The whole anti-rock trope rings hollow especially since he samples from it so freely.
It was still early days, but rap has progressed pretty far from this CD. It also turns out that this disc is really hard to find. It’s discontinued and lists on Amazon for $50. How lucky for me!
[READ: October 2, 2009] Signifying Rappers
I wasn’t planning on reading this book this soon. (I’m not turning into a DFW addict, I swear). But this showed up all because of the whims of the interlibrary loan system. I put holds on books for people all the time, and usually it’s for new, popular books, so it’s often several weeks, sometimes months before the books come in. I tend to forget that a 19 year old book that nobody is clamoring to read will show up in about 3 days.
So, those of you thinking about reading this book because you want to complete the DFW ouvre were probably wondering if this co-authored book should really count. And, like, how would you know what he wrote? Well, I didn’t immediately figure out the patently obvious system that they used in the book: When Mark Costello writes a section it is introduced with a large M. When DFW gets a section it starts with a large D (see, obvious). You can also tell because DFW’s section are laden with footnotes and very large words (no, really?)
I think for all readers, the main question is what are these two white, educated, twentysomethings doing writing about rap. And, they both answer in their own way that, well, they like rap. A lot. In fact, DFW goes on to say that rap circa 1989 is the only musical genre that is interesting after some five years of commercial pap (and he’s pretty accurate with that, actually). He also notes that as of their writing of the book there had been no real in-depth treatises written on rap. Oh, and lastly, in the spirit of rap itself, they did it because they wanted to do it.
The book opens with a look into RJam Records in Boston. I’d never heard of the place, and it appears to be out of business now. MC takes us into the studio where we hear about an artist whose song was basically stolen by another artist (for another label). It’s all good drama, even if it happened 20 years ago and the artists in question never went on to become anything.
There’s also a fairly detailed look at racial tensions in Boston from early segregation to today’s gang warfare. In fact, there is quite a lot of insight into historical racial tensions in Boston and the burbs.
DFW jumps in to say that being white “yuppies” made it nearly impossible for them to get into any inner sanctum of rap studios. They tried all over the country in every major city, but it was right there in their own hometown of Boston (DFW’s current, adopted hometown) where they were able to get a foot in the door. They played themselves up to be the whitest, dorkiest men imaginable, to fit the stereotype of geeks who were beyond mocking. And that got them inside the culture (and they were (barely) accepted.
DFW then waxes philosophical about all things rap related. The authors particularly enjoy Hard Rap (Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Schoolly D–a rapper whom the authors love but who, retrospectively, seems to be largely dismissed as not very talented). They don’t care for Soft Rap (L.L. Cool J, The Fat Boys and late-period Run D.M.C.). The terms Hard Rap and Soft Rap are pretty self explanatory although I don’t think I’ve ever heard them used since.
DFW’s sections of the book are quite intellectual, taking everything that he was studying at Harvard (Derrida, postmodernism, etc) and applying it to rap. And his arguments are quite compelling. Rap as a pastiche works almost to the letter of the definition of postmodernism: absorbing things and pasting then together into something new.
I also really enjoyed his later section about rappers and Reaganism. His idea is that rappers are embracing the “me generation” of the 80s but they are eschewing utterly the trickle-down aspect of it. They want it all, but they want it now. It’s also interesting to see inner city rappers embrace Reaganism when trickle-down almost by definition was designed to suck money away from everything the inner city needed most: schools, libraries, social programs, etc.
MC does a lot of the more technical arguments: discussing the technologies from early synthesizers, to the new beautiful Kurtzweill sampler that allows people to sample anything at will. They especially like the DJ Jazzy Jeff song “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble” because of its sample of I Dream of Jeannie. (This leads to a bizarre and wholly interesting re-imagination of an I Dream of Jeannie episode that features a race riot. Jeannie nods MLK into the scene to calm things down).
Which leads to a discussion about how rappers originally sampled because they didn’t have the materials to make the music themselves. But now they brag about how rich they are and yet they still sample. (The lengthy discussion about the merits vs. legality of sampling was quite interesting, especially since there had been no legal decision regarding sampling at the time of this writing).
There’s a lot more in it, but I don’t want to get carried away with every argument presented. They’re twenty years old after all.
Overall, the book is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s full of humor (often self deprecating) and genuine enjoyment about what they’re investigating. And for the DFW fan, he flourishes his dexterous writing style at every opportunity. And, of course, he then quotes from the lyrics themselves. Leading to a fascinating mix like:
Public Enemy’s Chuck D. evinces complete seriousness in explaining that, in the opening lyrics to Yo! Bum Rush the Show‘s third cut:
I show you my gun
My uzi weighs a ton
the ‘Uzi’ actually means the machine gun of Public Enemy’s music, of Chuck’s own voice and message.
Now, if Chuck’s cheek is tongueless, here, he’s effected a weird (also brilliant, and scary) flip-flop of metonymy’s enabling lyric-function in the traditional war of rock/rebellion vs. censor/order.
With that, it’s unclear just who the audience is for this book. Certainly not the rappers themselves, as they would have no time for the opinions of two white boys. Academics? Maybe. The tone is certainly written with academics in mind. They purposefully state that intellectuals dismiss rap as Not Very Good. So maybe they are trying to convince academics of the worth of rap? Or, again, they’re just writing for themselves, which seems to be the case.
The Howling Fantods point to this one review of the book from Robert Christgau in the Village Voice (which is funny since the book likes the Voice so much) which I’ll quote in full:
With its Basquiat cover and footnoted text, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present might tempt the browser to lay down cash money for (ahem) “the first serious consideration of rap and its position as a vital force in our American cultural consciousness.” Don’t do it. The analysis is adequate to ignorant to barmy, and whenever the authors–Mark Costello an attorney and jazz fan, David Foster Wallace a philosophy grad student and writer of highbrow pomo “fictions”–get near a fact, it hangs its head in shame. Their revelation that “almost all established rock critics . . . tend to regard serious, ever new, non-crossover rap as essentially boring and simplistic, or as swaggering and bellicose and dangerous” will astonish the voters who made Public Enemy and De La Soul winners of the 1988 and 1989 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Polls (and high finishers in Rolling Stone‘s more conservative tallies). I presume both acts qualify as serious and ever new because both appear in the pencil-necked discography (which proceeds directly from Run-D.M.C.to Raising Hell–there was one called King of Rock in between there, fellas). Costello says his “favorite rap ever” is an “untraceable 5-minute cut” he taped off the radio with an “inscrutable chorus” about a “Honeychild.” Er, that wouldn’t be Ice-T’s “The Hunted Child,” would it? B side of “High Rollers,” later on Freedom of Speech? Nah, it’s his favorite. Surely he cares too much to have missed anything so obvious. Village Voice, 1990.
Ouch. That’s pretty harsh. Christgau makes a couple of valid points. Especially in that there are a lot of “factual errors” in the book. A couple glaring ones: They hate the Beastie Boys (understandably in 1989) but they go into a lengthy discussion of their use of the “Yo Leroy” sample in “Hold It Now, Hit It” which they call “Mold It Now, Hit It” (!?).
But in MC’s defense for the “Hunted Child” trope which Christgau mocks so harshly. The track (which is pretty fantastic) hadn’t come out on a disc as of that writing. And, in pre-internet days they couldn’t simply log in and track down a song. I have a ton of cassettes from the late 80s labeled with song titles that are totally wrong, because it wasn’t easy to know what a track was called (especially from a staticky radio station). So back off Mr Critic.
The internet also lets me fill in a lyric that they present as the “That I [unintelligble]” from “Signifying Rapper.” It’s “That I don’t see.” Oh and it also made me laugh that when discussing De La Soul, they mention a lot of the samples they used, but not the biggest and most egregious: Steely Dan. Either they didn’t recognize Steely Dan (possible) or they weren’t aware of the sample (possible?).
And also, back to Mr hipper-than-thou-Christgau, who the hell ever heard of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Polls (although we’ve all heard of Rolling Stone)? The point is, he say almost all. Citing two polls, one obscure and the other from an alternative music magazine almost proves their point.
Although he is right that it is rather egregious to have missed Run D.M.C.’s King of Rock in their discography. And, in another weird error, they go on and on about sampling and how the rappers don’t use any of their own music. And as a frame of reference they mention Schoolly D’s “Signifying Rapper” which samples the main riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” And yet, the notes of the disc tell you that there is an additional drummer and bassist on the song. This doesn’t distill the fact that they’re playing the riffs from “Kashmir,” but there are actual musicians playing the notes (in some parts anyhow).
So, yeah, they’re definitely not perfect in their fact checking.
But in the end, these guys did something interesting and fun, and they are the (presumably) first people to investigate rap in these terms and to give it the mad props (or whatever the late 80s phrase would have been) that it deserves. They’re not steeped in the culture (although they did do research), but they also are very much aware they that are outsiders, and they even play that up a bit.
They also make some predictions about music that have come true (and one crazy one about people mixing TV shows in their home, so that you can interact with an I Love Lucy rerun, that’s pretty far off the mark (at least in my house)).
Finally, there’s also a jokey reference to Ocean Records, which I am quite certain was MC and DFW’s own address/answering machine (as they reference the address of the company as well). They discuss a phone number for Ocean Records which has a hilarious answering machine message: 617-787-0457. It being twenty years old, I did not call. But I wonder who owns it now and if they have any idea of the legacy of this phone number.
And so, in sum, if you’re interested in the history of rap, even twenty year old history, check this out. If you’re interested in DFW and his essay stylings, check it out. And, if you’re just curious, check it out. It’s only 140 pages and the print is HUGE. I finished it in like 3 hours.
It also took a bit of work to find out Who Mark Costello actually is. He is the author of two books of fiction Bag Men (1997) and Big If (2002). But it seems curious that he didn’t do anything in print for 7 years. Weird.