Friday Five: 1988

This weekend is my 25th high school reunion!!  25 years!!

I can’t be there because I’m in Tampa at a conference, a commitment I made before the date was set.  So what better way to celebrate than a selection of tunes from 1988.

5. “Hands to Heaven” (Breathe)
There were a lot of ballads that topped the charts in 1988. This song, by the British group Breathe, was one of them. My sister once walked in on me singing along to it at the top of my lungs. I was not embarrassed.

4. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince)
We first met Will Smith back in 1988, but we didn’t know it yet.

3. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (Tracy Chapman)
Maybe the best thing musically about 1988 was the self-titled, debut album of Tracy Chapman. It included her hit single “Fast Car“––which remains a favorite song of mine to this day––and this song, the lead-off track on the album. In this video Chapman performs the song at Wembley Stadium as part of the festival concert in June 1988 to commemorate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Younger audiences should note, Mandela was still imprisoned in 1988, with the support of much of the West.

2. “A Little Respect” (Erasure)
I love this song so much. I have sung along with it, laughed with friends while it played, and gotten as sweaty as a person can get while dancing to it. It is one of my top 20 sons of all-time, solely for the the memories and many meanings it has had for me. A classic. Here’s the original video, along with a 2014 live performance that shows it means a lot to others, too.

1. “Push-It” (Salt-N-Pepa)
It’s more than a catchy tune that can be used for commercials in 2015, and make my kids laugh. Put it in context: In 1988, the idea of women rappers was revolutionary. They were trailblazers. And they did it well.

“The Chronic” turns 20

On December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre released his solo debut album “The Chronic.” Dre was already a well-known figure in rap and hip-hop from his days as part of the LA group N.W.A. The success of his 1992 solo endeavor (which featured multiple other rappers, including Dre protégé Snoop Dog) made him a legend.

I don’t have much to say about the significance of the album or the creative impact it had on the future of hip hop. That’s been done for the last twenty years by critics far more skilled than me. For me, as a Gen X Chicano living in southern California at the time, the album held some personal significance.

the-chronic-4ea687eb81068

I’ve never been a huge rap fan. (At least I’ve never put the music first on my list of musical loves.) But it’s always been a part of my musical life. As a young person of color coming of age in the 80s, a person who felt like he came from a world that was not recognized (or even known) by the mainstream, early hip hop represented that “subjectivity” authentically. Songs by N.W.A. (and everybody from Grandmaster Flash to L.L. Cool J to Doug E. Fresh to Run DMC) and others connected my Chicano-dominated, multiracial cultural world to the Black American cultural world. As it did, it also kind of legitimated it.  The music became the soundtrack of  large part of my social life.

But for me, “The Chronic” wasn’t just another album that provided background to life, it also exists in my mind as something more. The album felt like it ended the specific comfort that genre of music gave me. I remember it as an album that moved the entire world of hip hop firmly into the mainstream. I’m sure this is an overstatement that has a lot to do where I was in my life at the time (in a “white” college struggling to find my place in the world). But I remember feeling that “The Chronic” made rap part of “American music.”

Maybe it was me that was changing more than hip hop. “The Chronic” was the soundtrack to a particular time in my life, a time of transition, a time of crossing into a mainstream and hybrid world.

Twenty years ago I was 20 years old. I send and received my first emails. I had long hair, and wore a leather jacket. I spent countless precious evenings with dear friends, all of us growing up in a cloud of Camel cigarettes and a mix of Bud Light and Henry Weinhard’s. And I remember this like it was yesterday:

Rappers, ‘Bling,’ and the Economy

From today’s Wall Street Journal comes this story of the recession/depression and its reflection in the everyday world of rap music.

In “Culture of Bling Clangs to Earth as the Recession Melts Rappers’ Ice” reporter Migue Bustillo tells us:

The recession is cramping the style of hip-hop artists and wannabes — many of whom are finding it difficult to afford the diamond-encrusted pendants and heavy gold chains they have long used to project an aura of outsized wealth.

In an attempt to keep up appearances, celebrity jewelers say rappers are asking them to make medallions with less-precious stones and metals. Some even whisper that the artists have begun requesting cubic zirconia, the synthetic diamond stand-in and QVC staple.

Hip-hop luminaries with the cash to keep it real are appalled. Bling aficionados fret that the art of “ice” is being watered down.

The article quotes 50 cent who, reflective of the culture equating flashy jewelry and wealth with power, essentially “outed” a rival rapper for his fake image (and talent). Real jewelry, in this instance, became shorthand for authentic rap.

You can read the whole story here, but the WSJ will probably make you pay for it by the end of the week.

This is an interesting story, but a strange one to find in the WSJ.  I was a bit hesitant to read it, expecting to find  something akin to the attitude expressed in one of the comments: “Nice, they actually look more foolish now than they did before.”  But, after reading the piece, I foud another reason why a bsiness-mined news daily would run such a story: rappers are a lot like everyone else actively participating in a fantasy capitalist motivated world.

So much of the mainstream (non-rap) culture is tied up in apperances and image.  Uncertain economic times means, first, people can’t often pretend to be more wealthy than they are with the same amount of ease as they could before.  Not being able to afford real flashy jewelry–or the newest BMW, or piece of technology, or whatever–is tantamount to advertising your non-exceptionalness.  And who wants to be regular?

The commodified and commercialized version of hip-hop culture is trapped in a masculinist contest that says alot about both how people value wealth and power as well as how frighteningly impotent they feel (or fear feeling).

Bustillo reports: “You gotta understand, it is every rapper’s fear to be exposed as a fraud,” said Gregory Lewis of Brooklyn, who posts conversations with artists on the Internet under the alias “Doggie Diamonds, the interview king.” “If you admit you wear fake jewelry, it is over for you. It’s like bragging you drive a Lamborghini when you really drive a Toyota.”

Gwenny Paltrow’s advice to Joaquin Phoenix

Ethics compels me to disclose I subscribe to Gwenyth Paltrow’s weekly email newsletter, GOOP.  Why you may ask?  Why does a gen-X, Chicano Studies professor subscribe to a newsletter filled with uninterrogated, class-based advice from the NY-London elite?  Well, if you tasted her turkey meatballs you wouldn’t be asking.

That said, Gwenny recently offered some advice for her former co-star Joaquin Phoenix, free-of-charge and off the GOOP trail.  If you don’t know what he’s been up to, then, well, really, you’ve been missing out on most of the comedic references in mainstream popular culture for two months now, haven’t you?  Short story is the man has quit acting to become a rap star–a bearded, drug-induced, rap star.  Is he for reals or just putting on an act?  Nobody seems to know.

Said Paltrow of her gruffy friend, “What advice would I give to Joaquin? Hmmm…maybe to go live in the projects for a few years to get some authenticity, maybe.”

Again, she turned me on to some super tasty turkey meatballs, so I hesitate to encourage the closing of the trap lest it inadvertently halt some other tasty advice in the future, but, Gwenny, we have enough problems in poor communities of color without having to teach eccentric, Hollywood stars how to be “authentic” rappers.

So you can keep him.

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Tasty Turkey Meatballs (from Paltrow’s friend “Julie”)

I made some improvements to it but the heart of her recipe is below.

Ingredients:

  • olive oil
  • 1-2 large onions, finely diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • coarse sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1-28 oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand or by toes
  • 3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 pound ground turkey (preferably dark meat)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, roughly torn

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion ( about 1.5 to 2 cups) and “sweat” it (soften it without giving it too much color).  When it’s soft, add the garlic and fennel seeds and season generously with salt and pepper.  Sauté while stirring constantly (you don’t want to brown or burn the garlic).  Remove and reserve half of this onion mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the remaining mixture in the pot, turn the heat to low and simmer while you make the meatballs.

In the mixing bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, parsley, thyme and rosemary with the reserved onion mixture.  Add the turkey and egg and mix by hand.  Add about 2 teaspoons of salt and a bit more pepper.  You might add some more breadcrumbs, too, just enough to keep it all together.

Shape the mixture into jawbreaker-sized meatballs.  Round them as best as you can.  Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and brown the meatballs.  I kind of shake and roll them as they cook, being sure not to let them settle flat onto the skillet.  Put the browned meatballs into the simmering tomato sauce and let them cook for at least 20 minutes and up to an hour and a half.

Serve with pasta or as is, topped with torn basil.

100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs

According to reports, VH1 has finished compiling their list of the “100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” has come out on top.

Number 2 is the song many call the “first rap song,” the legendary “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang.

All “best of” lists are selective and debatable, but damn their fun.  I don’t know where my favorites ended up on the final tally (I suppose I’ll have to watch the countdown show premiering next month) but here they are for your pleasure: