Music/Popular Culture

Left behind: black music by white musicians

vanice.gif“Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century?”

Sasha Frere Jones poses this provocative question in a recent New Yorker article entitled “A Paler Shade of White.”

The term indie rock, like the word “blog,” is too cozy for comfort. But for convenience’s sake, we’ll agree to its use. Meanwhile, I can’t personally confirm the author’s thesis. For some reason, I drifted away from indie rock in the nineties.

Oh wait, I just remembered why: It got too white. In other words, I agree with Jones.

For instance, I found the increased posing and archness of indie rock musicians distancing. In contrast, black music has traditionally sought to make a direct connection with the listener through the emotions.

Worse, for a rhythm freak like myself, the drumming had become too boring. In the past, good white drumming (John Bonham, Keith Moon, Bev Bevan) was the exception to the rule. Indie rock demonstrated little interest in upgrading the situation. It was as if, at peril of being rejected from the genre, a drummer had to promise to keep his use of the 4/4 beat unimaginative.

If one can be said to “outgrow” indie, as well as rock in general, it’s less because of the musicians’ youthful lyrical concerns (at least in my case) than their failure to keep pace with the listener’s expanding rhythm tastes.

Jones suggests that omitting black influences was, in part, a conscious decision by indie rock artists. While mainstream white pop is only too happy to assimilate rap, indie rock musicians shy away from it. The “potential for embarrassment,” he writes, “had become a sufficient deterrent for white musicians tempted to emulate their black heroes.”

Also, he maintains, they’re more conscious of leaving themselves open to charges of minstrelsy. (Jagger has always been kind of Jolson-esque, hasn’t he?) This, of course, is to their credit.

But there are three other reasons for the whitewashing to which indie rock has subjected itself.

Musicians who broke out in the sixties, seventies and even eighties listened to blues, soul and jazz. Succeeding generations, however, were less likely to listen to those genres than they were to the wave of indie rock artists immediately preceding theirs. Each decade, black influences thinned out.

Also, after punk and new wave, the art school mentality prevailed and, with it, a taste for the exotic, which is where indie rock musicians turned to assimilate outside influences. Leapfrogging over it to world music, including Africa, was a slap in the face to American black music.

Neither should we forget how disco, which began as black music, left a bad taste in the mouths of many whites. It’s odd, though, that the branch of rock that, at first listen, seems the whitest — electronica — is actually more steeped in black music than indie rock.

Industrial dance and goa psychedelic trance, both of which I personally favor, are sub-genres of electronica. They derive from disco — if channeled through a white guy, Giorgio Moroder, who, you may recall, first gained fame producing Donna Summer.

Moroder later became the godfather of techno and electronica by pioneering the use of sequencers. They enabled musicians to generate a trance-like repetition that has become the drug of choice — even beyond ecstasy and hallucinogens — for its listeners ever since.

Jones asks: “How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities?”

I’d like to see his question and raise him. Try replacing his words “art form that” with “black music, which.” In other words, his thesis holds equally true for black music as well as white music.

The most popular form of black music today, rap, began life rooted in rhythm. For example, the musicians of the Sugar Hill Gang — bassist Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip McDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc — were one of the best black bands ever. (They later played with, among others, English producer Adrian Sherwood, the exception to indie rock’s bleached bones rule.)

But then came Run-DMC, with their first LP, named after themselves, and its follow-up, “King of Rock.” To great crossover success, they incorporated white rock, with its dumbed-down drumming, into their music and rap hasn’t been the same since.

This, not the — attach obligatory “misogynistic” label here — lyrics is where the root of rap’s problem lies. With the bass often as brain-dead as the drum machine programming, rap rhythms tend to be as boring for the serious listener as for the musicians forced to play it. (Commenters: Feel free to contradict.)

In the end, we’re left with two questions. . .

Blacks: Why, outside of the neo-soul movement, don’t you care about rhythms anymore?

Whites: Why don’t you listen to twentieth-century black music anymore?

6 replies »

  1. <>

    You rang?

    Rap’s rhythms were–at least in the golden age of the 80’s and early 90s’–more than just bombin’ bass. Listen to the densely layered audio pastiche of sound that came from Public Enemy’s early work, or the haunting menace of Dr. Dre’s seemingly lazy grooves. A lot of the best producers took samples and rebuilt them into entirely new entities, that could move your ass and free your mind all at once.

    Now, though, I largely agree with you–white rock is still mostly skinny kids gazing at their shoes to a 4/4 beat, and rap is robotic, repetitive, resequenced drum machines over which so-called “MCs” spit a lot of stupid shit.

    But there was a time… (Heh. I sound like you. 🙂 )

  2. As a completely uninformed and ignorant entity, I thought I’d add my inane two cents to this discussion. Why not? It’s the American way. Right Bonesparkle?

    In general, I think the businesspeople who run the business side of all the arts are looking for a formula to guarantee large profits. They have a number of examples at their fingertips of inferior products that drove superior products from the market because of better marketing and/or more marketing muscle. To many of them, the issue is not the quality of the product, but the quality of the way that product is marketed.

    Let’s face it. To some degree, they’re right. Marketers have always been able to (within limits) make stars out of mediocre talents. Once upon a time, those mediocre talents had names like Bobby Sherman, Donny Osmond, Marie Osmond, the Monkees, and the like. More recently, they have names like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

    What the marketers are unable to see clearly is that superior talent (as long as it’s not TOO far outside the mainstream) is easier to market than mediocre talent. Of course, they have no idea how to recognize superior talent, so they’re kind of stuck with their business model.

    What made the so-called Golden Age of rock so powerful that my children still enjoy those songs today were the following (remember that this is my ignorant opinion).

    1. It borrowed the appeal to the emotions from blues riffs and beats, so it was emotioanlly powerful, really CHARGED stuff

    2. It melded catchy chord progressions, melodies, and riffs from tried and true pop music that preceded it (or even from classical music in some cases)

    3. The lyrics were socially relevant and produced a counter-culture perspective on things, and that was sheer dynamite

    4. There was a stunning amount of experimentation. I had a high schooll music teacher tell me that she uses the Beatles to demonstrate practically every form of music. There were mega-bands in pop, acid rock, folk rock, heavy metal, hillbilly rock (rockabilly), Southern rock, classical rock, operatic rock, syntho-rock and what have you.

    It was very difficult for distributors and marketers to find the right sound to market in those days. Some bands would soar to the top of the charts to the absolute amazement of just about everyone. As a result, it seems to me that there was a lot more trial and error in the marketplace, allowing all kinds of music to rise to the top and, in the process, influence other types of music.

    Naturally, this situation made the distrubutors crazy, and it must have been an enormous relief when the BeeGees, a one-time, semi-acoustic, easy listening rock type of band started producing disco albums. Disco is easy to make, follows a set formula, depends little on artistry, and is easy to dance to (I’d give it a ten, Dick). Lyrics and melody count for little, so artistry is not all that important. Disco songs can be cranked out like widgets from a factory.

    Then came MTV, and it was a marketers dream. Audio-visual is a much more powerful medium than audio, alone, so music could be marketed based on what it LOOKED like instead of how it sounded. And the marketers knew exactly how to do that. They’d had many years of practice.

    Rap/hip-hop basically has the same characteristics as disco in that it can be fairly easily duplicated and, with a few exceptions, the poetry is just awful (my opinion only, of course). But these styles lend themselves to a formula, and music formulae tend to generate schlock.

    Like I said, it’s just my uninformed opinion. Fire away.

  3. I’m a classic rocker with a fondness for southern rock while still enjoying other types of music. I rarely listen to new music anymore. I try and check in, but starting with the music from the the nineties, it sounds pretty much the same. Insipid.

    Funny that this subject came up, I just posted a performance by the Lemon Pipers. Who knew they had that kind of imagination back then? And why don’t we have it now? Oh yeah, you have to listen to world music.

  4. I don’t listen to black music today because it is terrible. I can’t stand rap. Yes it has funky rhythms but always looped repetitively, not like a real band, inane and disgusting lyrics, no singing (I don’t care for your stupid soul background girl singers), and very little melody in the voice. Not enough melody for me.

    I agree indie rock can often be boring but I prioritize melody over rhythm though I would definitely like to hear innovation in both and consider that to be the highest accomplishment. Many great artists both black and white have accomplished this in the past, but only white ones in the past 20 years since the rap or modern r&b/soul plague absorbed all black talent IMO.

  5. Is rock dead, or does it just smell funny? I would heartily agree with the commenter, J.S. OBrian, about the influence of MTV. I am of the original MTV generation, i.e. i was a teenager and saw the first broadcast. My family was VW microbus, classic rocking. I think of the J. Geils Band. Those guys were smokin’, but after they had to adjust to the ways of MTV things went downhill. By conforming their music to the demands of the new, poppier media, it was watered down (gone was the heavy blues influence). But that didn’t matter because they would never have the image required of video stars. Let’s face it, the Gods of Rock are a pretty homely bunch.

    MTV, or at least its influence, has watered everything down. The early years of rap and gangsta rap were amazing; the progression from the blues to that is obvious: the details changed, and how the stories were told was different, but the story itself was the same. Ice Cube was a poet…thankfully dead and red are rhyming words. And Too Short laid down beats and grooves (with real musicians) that have never been equaled.

    I also blame Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and that whole Seattle scene. Whiney and self-absorbed was what i got from it. So self-absorbed that it felt like they thought music started with punk, which is as simplistic as pop…only turned upside down and made angry. From what i’ve heard of modern indie ‘rock’, i get the feeling they are adding stories to the house that Cobain built. No thank you.

    But rock is not dead, at least not quite. Clutch still has it all. Their early stuff got called neu-metal, but especially after their self-titled album, the earthiness of the blues and the down beat of funk shine through. MTV hasn’t ruined them.

    I hear the word “rock” a lot. I’ve come to the conclusion that we must differentiate between using it as a verb and using it as a noun. Mozart rocks if you’re into him. Rock as a noun, however, indicates lineage to the Gods of Rock and hence their gods. I would be willing to bet that few in the indie rock crowd know-or care-who McKinley Morgenfield was. He didn’t understand real pain, the kind of pain inflicted by being born white, affluent, and suburban.

  6. Thanks, both JS’s especially.

    Rock’s first big mistake was when some of rock ‘n roll began to take itself seriously and called itself “Rock.”

    Yes, early rap was great. Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Ice Cube. A personal favorite of mine was Schooly D.

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