Sunday, June 6, 2010
PUBLIC ENEMY AND THE DRIVE BY TRUCKERS: THE CONNECTION
I really, truly believe that one of the most important things music can do is make you see something from someone else's point of view. It doesn't have to do that, of course. It rarely does. But I think it is great when it happens.
When I was in college, I came upon Public Enemy's 1988 classic, It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back. I had already been listening to hip-hop for a while: I was not a hard core fan, but I enjoyed it. I had Run-D.M.C.'s King Of Rock when I was in high school. I didn't really understand where they were coming from, exactly, I just knew I liked the music. I liked LL Cool J and a few other artists. But It Takes A Nation Of Millions just blew my mind. That's an overused phrase, but it was true. I never heard anything like it before (fair to say, neither had anyone else). The lyrics made me think about things that I hadn't thought about before: namely, what it was like to be black in America in the '80s. When you put together all the songs it really tells a story. Not just the "hits" like "Don't Believe The Hype" and "Bring The Noise." I'm talking about "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos," "Rebel Without A Pause," "She Watch Channel Zero" and "Night Of The Living Baseheads." These songs informed me about the lives of people who lived less than 30 miles away from me, but who I never met and wasn't likely to. That's pretty valuable, and very few art forms are able to do this.
Nation saw Chuck D rebelling against the system, as it were: he did this brilliantly in "Black Steel" where the main character goes to jail for refusing to be drafted, and then escapes. But he didn't shy away from pointing the finger at his own community, as he did in “Night Of The Living Baseheads” (about the effects of drugs and dealing drugs). Without having anything to "check" the album against, I felt it was a, uh, fair and balanced album.
Much more recently, I got into The Drive-By Truckers, thanks pretty much to the great SIRIUS XM channel Outlaw Country. I'd heard of them before listening to the channel, but hadn't really paid them much mind. I'd read that 2001's Southern Rock Opera was considered to be a classic. But after hearing the band frequently on the channel, I realized that this is a great American band, so I started getting their albums. I am a big fan, and Southern Rock Opera is straight-up incredible.
I kind of pride myself on being able to get along with people from different cultures and sub-cultures, and I like learning about them. I'm not trying to appropriate or claim anything, I just like learning about different people and what they like and what their lives are like. In the past decade or so, I have been realizing just how different the south is to where I grew up in New Jersey. I've been trying to understand it, but nothing has ever explained it to me as well as Southern Rock Opera. "Ronnie and Neil" - about Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young - says a lot about what Drive By Trucker Patterson Hood called "the duality of the southern thing." Young famously called out some racist stuff that took place in the south in his songs "Alabama" and "Southern Man," and while Van Zant was a fan of Neil's, he sang in "Sweet Home Alabama" that "I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don't need him 'round anyhow." "Ronnie and Neil" touches on the sensitivity that southerners feel when they think they're being judged by someone who isn't from there. But still, Hood concludes, "to my way of thinking, us Southern men need both of them around." He explains a lot in "The Three Great Alabama Icons" (they are Van Zant, Bear Bryant, George Wallace) and later in "Wallace" (sung from the perspective of the devil, waiting for George Wallace). He kind of sums it up in "The Southern Thing" where he sings "Proud of the glory, stare down at the shame, the duality of the southern thing." The album isn't political per se, it's more about how people are affected by the times that they live in. And the album isn't just about that. "Let There Be Rock" (not the AC/DC classic, but it quotes it) is as much a rallying cry for rock and roll as "Bring The Noise" is for hip-hop. They both take great pride, without reservation or cynicism, in their music.
The Truckers started in 1996, and PE about a decade earlier. The Truckers' latest, The Big To-Do, is one of my favorite albums of the year so far. You don't hear much about it: the media is much more occupied with the latest indie rock band with an expensive publicist. PE's latest, How Do You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, was incredibly underrated. The song "Harder Than You Think" is classic, and towers over whatever singles were on the hip-hop charts that year. Again, the media doesn't pay much mind: hey, soulja boy just tweeted something! These are both groups in it for the long haul, who have made several great albums (and have several important contributing members, I don't mean to diminish the importance of Flavor Flav, Mike Cooley, Terminator X, etc. just because I haven't mentioned them here). But if you trust the recommendations that I make here at No Expiration, I urge you to get these albums if you don't already have them. If you do, maybe I've helped you to listen to them in a new light.
Patterson Hood (via Bon Scott): "Let There Be Rock."
Chuck D (via, well, you know...): "Run-D.M.C first said a DJ could be a band, stand on its own feet, get you out your seat."