Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's Too Late to Stop Now--Killer Mike in the Context of the Bottle Rockets, the Clash, Van Morrison and Lester Bangs

Back in the first year or two of my music writing, standing on a downtown street at about 2:00 a.m., one of my favorite music writers (and the best of friends) castigated me for being fuzzy in a piece for our then newsletter, A Sign of the Times. "It's music, man," he said. "If you can't say what you feel about that then what's the point!?" That same friend essentially gave up writing about music not too many years later for a number of reasons, not least of which the way the newspaper he wrote for hobbled his ability to speak his passions. The reason I keep coming back to this damn blog has everything to do with his words--we write about music because music speaks in ways no other medium can, and its call demands our responses hit as hard and reach as far and wide as the music itself. Sadly, I see almost none of this in mainstream music journalism. It's not part of the detached (and oh-so-ironic and safe) consumer guide mentality that took over the form about the time "alternative" actually became passable as a term for a genre.

For my very first time, I'm teaching a lit class based around music, and, believe me, the concept of dealing with such a hot passion in the sterile atmosphere of the classroom (particularly in the contemporary academic climate) terrifies me.  My friend's words still guide me, and I hear them echoed in a handful of writers. Just this week in class, reading Lester Bangs' beautiful Stranded tribute to Astral Weeks along with my students, I felt that old call grow more urgent. "It's too late to stop now," Morrison shouts before dropping his microphone and leaving the stage at the end of the 1970 Fillmore East "Cypress Avenue," and Bangs finds in it the key to understanding both the promise and the failure of the rock era's cultural revolution. Music matters for many reasons, but what Bangs is getting at is the heart of it--music offers a means for artist and audience--for community--to fight through our ugliest truths in search of our greatest potential. At least for those us who see music this way, giving up on that fight is giving up on each other and ourselves.

I suppose that's why I didn't mind the ridiculous claim The Clash had stickered on the cover of London Calling--"The Only Band That Matters." For five albums (actually eight LPs, several singles and an EP), the band embraced that mantle and responsibility.  They not only sold a revolutionary vision in explicit punk agitprop, Strummer playing like busting blood vessels may be the key to victory, but they more importantly pushed for that punk energy to embrace the wide world of musical genres that gave birth and carried forth such a vision. They made reggae tracks, rockabilly tracks, "Motown" tracks, hip hop tracks and some of their greatest anthems and calls to arms were, in fact, disco records. They even hooked many American ears working with the producer for Blue Oyster Cult. For their brief history, they insisted that we were all in this together, and together, we could overcome.

That's also why I love the Bottle Rockets' tag line--"The Best Band on the Planet." I always loved them, but twenty years down the road, every show I see, I'm convinced that they're simply stating some kind of fact. They're certainly stating their own righteous goal--with that sense of humor that sets them apart just as certainly as their depth of compassion.

"Kid Next Door," a reflection on the cost of war off of their most recent studio record is every bit the gut punch of "Kerosene," a reflection on a poor family killed in their trailer home. And they rock harder than ever--whether laying 20 years of increased muscle and dexterity on their first, most pointed joke of a song, "Radar Gun" or brushing off setbacks with their recent "Hard Times"--an anthem both funky infectious and blistering explosive.

Seeing them play Kansas City's great Austin-style roadhouse, Knuckleheads, Friday night, I was struck by how much the empathy and good humor in their art is modeled by the way they work together. You don't have the Bottle Rockets without the rhythm section of Mark Ortmann on drums and Keith Voegele on bass, both subtle enough to all-but-disappear when necessary and powerful enough to beat back the sound of the freight trains shaking the bar from about 15 yards away. You also don't have the Bottle Rockets without the tight interplay of rhythm and lead being tossed back and forth between John Horton and Brian Henneman, sometimes both tearing through interlocking runs like hellfire bluegrass racing a lit fuse. And, in the end, you don't have the Bottle Rockets without not only Brian Henneman's heartbreaking and hilarious songwriting but also his voice--as intimate and expressive as a late night conversation with a dear friend.

The Bottle Rockets rank high on my list of reasons to believe.

But I sat down this morning to write about another act altogether--Killer Mike--and his new album R.A.P. Music. Though the Clash made a point of embracing rap and hip hop in numerous ways--most obviously on tracks like Sandanista's "The Magnificent Seven" or the single "This Is Radio Clash"--the miserable history of race and class in this society all but guarantees the remaining audience for the Clash doesn't overlap with the audience for an equally socially conscious artist like Killer Mike.  On the other hand, Clash fans may well know the Bottle Rockets. The irony increases when we look at the fact that both Killer Mike and the Bottle Rockets have shared over a decade as Southern acts with a hard rocking sensibility that mixes humor and social commentary.

It's already a tired old saw (that I'll probably never stop working) to complain about the fragmentation of today's music into segregated and narrow markets. What matters is that those who've never heard of Killer Mike know he's made not only one of the year's best albums but a rap album as vital and brave as anything that's come before.

Though Killer Mike is associated with OutKast (and even manages a sort of chopped and screwed tribute to them with the funky "Southern Fried"), R.A.P. Music fits its stark title.  Though the layered, often frenetic, production of this album trades on every baroque hip hop impulse, the unifying emphasis stays on the MC's voice, framed by grumbling bass lines and industrial beats.

On one level, this is an album about rap--the fast-talkin' tale of "JoJo's Chillin" reaching back to the roots of the oral tradition, the title-as-refrain punctuating chapters in an epic escape. The opener, "Big Beast," combines Killer Mike with fellow Atlanta veteran T.I. and Houston legend Bun B on verses while the younger Atlanta rapper Trouble makes a plea of respect for the veterans of the tradition, the piece as a whole demanding "tourists" respect the reality of what they're stepping into. "Go!" makes sure listeners recognize Killer Mike's verbal dexterity as deeply rooted in the gangsta tradition. After an impossibly fast 14 syllable nonsense word, he earns the brag, "Even when I ain't saying shit, I got AK word play/Mike put a pause on your life, just like a comma...." And it's true; over these 12 tracks, not a breath feels wasted.

But the climax of this album comes dead center, with the back-to-back pairing of "Reagan" and "Don't Die." First, Killer Mike confesses gangsta's money-worshipping collateral damage, saying "we should be indicted" before placing the suicidal nature of the street game in a thirty year historical context. He begins with the Reagan era's government sponsored drug running (remember Iran-Contra? Mike does) coupled with a war on America's ghettos in the name of the "War on Drugs." And though the Rolling Stone critic who reviewed this album didn't get it, Killer Mike crucially points out the bi-partisan nature of the war on the poor, calling Reagan, "just an employee of the country's real masters/Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama....taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby."  Refusing to limit his vision to the shell game of electoral choices and both confessing his culpability and objectively describing its roots (better than anyone else I've heard, I might add), Killer Mike articulates the potential for unity between those who've long lived with entrenched poverty and racism and the relatively new class consciousness that has fueled Wisconsin's fight as well as the Occupy movement.

"Don't Die" takes this overview directly to the Trayvon Martin case, telling the story of a cop killing from the rapper's perspective as a police officer's son. Like "JoJo's Chillin'," it's an escape tale, but this time the stakes are much higher and the tone is much darker, even the music more gothic and uncertain.  Though the ending is desperate, the overarching tone is defiant--"I don't give a fuck about a motherfucking Forbes list/As far as I'm concerned that's a motherfucking whore's list." As important as anything that happens in the song itself is a moment before the actual music starts, a speaker asking why we never see news of black cops accidentally killing white kids.  When he reaches the conclusion that society wouldn't tolerate it, a woman's voice in the crowd says "tolerate" first, the response anticipating the call. No doubt a product of the studio mix, that moment says volumes about the role of audience and artist in rap (and all music I love)--ultimately, it's about the unity convened, not the "stars" on stage.

My favorite cut on this remarkable album closes things out. "R.A.P. Music," the song, begins with stuttering beats and big open bass notes on keyboards, every bit as raw-edged as anything that's come before but somehow the very sustain of each note seems to push higher. The song is, essentially, a litany of revolutionary African-American people's (R.A.P.) music, all drawn together by rap itself--"This is jazz. This is funk. This is soul. This is gospel. This is sanctified sex. This is player pentecostal./This is church--front pew--Amen, Pulpit./What my people need is the opposite of bullshit." Killer Mike then begins a litany of artists he looks to ranging from Robert Johnson to James Brown to Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis and Nina Simone. Pledging to those greats and those traditions to "help souls stay out of hell with what I testify....when I grab that microphone and never lie." To my ears, that's not simply Killer Mike's personal pledge, but a challenge to all of us to go for broke with whatever we know we can do. In Van Morrison's performance, the statement may be a fatalist acceptance, but his act, throwing down that microphone, says something more. It's too late to stop fighting, for sure, and we have a whole world to lose...or win.

* * *

So far, only 202 artists (though there are many greats among them) have signed the Art Feeds Us/Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign Artists Against Foreclosure Petition. I just did, and I hope you will too. We need to make use of the cultural network great music creates.

From the website:

Artists Against Foreclosure Statement--

A million families are expected to lose their homes this next year. With the help of a Million Artists these families can be inspired to make history by staying in their homes during this unprecedented time of foreclosures and evictions. This petition was sparked by the case of Rhonda Lancaster who played with Earth Wind and Fire. She is refusing to leave her foreclosed home in Philadelphia. Please support her and other families to stay in their homes by signing this important petition.

See Artists Against Foreclosure on Facebook or at