What the Fuck Happened to Black Popular Music?
By Kenny Drew, Jr.
April 6, 2006
I've decided to add this section to my website as a vehicle to express my views on various topics, musical and otherwise, that have been on my mind lately. You may wonder why I'm talking about popular music in this first installment, since I am generally thought of as a "jazz" musician. However, anyone who knows me knows that my tastes in music are very eclectic (as are those of most jazz musicians, quiet as it's kept). In fact when I started my career as a professional musician, I was not playing jazz. I started out playing in R&B groups and Top-40 bands. We only played jazz if the club was almost empty!
The 60s - 80s was such an incredible time for all styles of popular music, but for the sake of this discussion I will concentrate specifically on black music (or rhythm-and-blues, or funk, or whatever the hell you want to call it).
Recently, I've been listening to a lot of my favorite music from that time, and to be honest, I am disgusted and sickened at how far our music has declined in the quality of the music and its message. How the hell did we get from Motown to Death Row; from Earth Wind & Fire to Ludacris; from Luther Vandross to 50Cent?
I remember a time in our music when songs had great melodies and chord changes, you actually had to be able to sing or play an instrument to become a musician, and Michael Jackson was black! It's a sad commentary on our culture and society when the biggest thing in popular music is an ex-crack dealer whose claim to fame is being shot nine times, and one of the greatest entertainers in the world was on trial for child molestation. If that's not a sign of the coming Apocalypse, I don't know what is! And if 50Cent was really shot nine times, why couldn't one of those bullets have hit a vital organ? Who the fuck was shooting at him: Stevie Wonder? And as far as all these black rappers getting shot, how about a little equal opportunity violence here? Can't somebody pop a cap in Eminem's white ass?
Another issue in the decline of music today is the stupidity and negativity in the lyrics and the video images that accompany this so-called "music". I recently discovered that there is now a form of rap called "coke rap", in which the lyrics deal mainly with the sale, distribution and use of cocaine and crack. I find it offensive that any record company would try to make a profit from glorifying something that has decimated the black community the way that crack has. I hope that one day while 50Cent is lounging by the pool in his humongous mansion surrounded by beautiful groupies, he might consider how many lives were ruined by the poison he used to sell, and how many more lives will be potentially damaged by the musical poison he's selling now.
"Another issue in the decline of music today is the stupidity and negativity in the lyrics and the video images that accompany this so-called 'music'."
There's a video by Ludacris that I've seen of a song called "Act a Fool". All I can remember about the video is that there were a lot of shots of him and his boys running from the cops. Don't we have enough young black men running around acting like fools without some idiot rapper encouraging it? (But then again, Ludacris probably makes more money in one month than I'll make in my entire life as a jazz musician. So who's the idiot here? Maybe it's me!) Remember when the lyrics in our music spoke of love or the loss of love? Who can forget the uplifting messages of peace, hope and spirituality in the lyrics of Earth Wind & Fire? Or the social consciousness and protest messages in the lyrics of Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye? How the hell did we get from "Just to be Close to You Girl" to "Back That Ass Up Bitch"? How the hell did we get from "What's Goin' On" and "You Haven't Done Nothin' " to "Me So Horny" and "My Hump"?
Last, but not least, it's time to address the musical quality of this bullshit, or more accurately, the lack of it. Way back when, when I first started studying music I was told that music had to consist of three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm. Rap music (an oxymoron similar to "military intelligence" or "jumbo shrimp") has basically discarded the first two elements and is left with nothing but rhythm.
Since only one element of music is present in most of this crap it doesn't even justify being called music. Our culture has been dumbed down to the point where your average dumb-ass American can't tell the difference between a truly great musician and somebody who's been studying their instrument for a week. Playing a musical instrument at a high level is no longer a well-respected skill in our society. (I'm not 100% sure that it ever really was.) In fact, to be honest, I think that most of the students in music schools today who are studying jazz and classical music are wasting their fucking time and their parents' money! (Boy, am I gonna get in trouble for saying this!) Why spend all that time mastering an instrument when you can just get a drum machine and a microphone, write some asinine lyrics about fucking, ho's and pimps and make a ton of money? Sometimes I wonder whether I'm wasting my time in this cesspool called the music industry. These days it seems like the only way to make any serious money in music is to produce some bullshit that doesn't even sound like music!
So what's the solution here? Damned if I know! But I did see an encouraging story on the news recently. A billboard advertising 50Cent's new movie was put up in a black neighborhood not far from a school. In the billboard 50Cent is seen with his heavily tattooed back to the camera with his arms outstretched in a crucifix-like pose with a microphone in one hand and a gun in the other. Understandably, the community was outraged. They held protests, got some media coverage, and eventually succeeded in getting the movie company to remove the billboard. I say that we use this as a model nationwide.
I propose a nationwide boycott of rap music; perhaps by picketing in front of record company offices and major record store chains. Anybody remember the "Disco Sucks" movement in the 70s? Maybe it's time for a "Rap Sucks" movement now. Who's with me here? (Actually, looking back on the disco era, that music sounds like Beethoven in comparison to the rap garbage that's poisoning our airwaves now!) Maybe we could have a big "Rap Sucks" rally somewhere. (As long as it doesn't escalate into a riot like the "Disco Sucks" one did.)
"It isn't where you came from, it's where you're going that counts." ---Ella Fitzgerald
The article pretty much says it all. Some good points were raised. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. I'm anxious to hear what you have to say.