Monday, February 12, 2007

Black Music That Matters

Brian and I wanted to do a black music post in honor of Black History Month. It was to be a joint post until we remembered that we differ wildly in our taste in music (and that I tend to mock what he listens to). Our differing tastes are not that suprising. There's a 12 year age difference between us, as well as very different temperments. Brian spent his adolescence listening to swing and funk, and playing trumpet in a funk band. Funk and swing (and doo wop and Johnny Cash) are mostly what he still listens to. And any new artist he encounters has to satisfy his musician's ear. I, on the other hand, spent my young adulthood listening to grunge and gangsta rap and (oddly) a lot of Paul Simon. I am now a professor of English and bring my love of story and language to the music I listen to. I love lyrics. I also tend to love really really loud guitars and drums.

We both agree, though, that, since they were brought here in chains, black people have used music to speak to and for each other. They have used music to interpret and make sense of the world around them. They have used music to make their mark, to assert their humanity, to remind us that they matter ("I know why the caged bird sings" Paul Laurence Dunbar said; "I'm black and I'm proud" shouted James Brown). Sometimes that music has been profound. Other times it has simply been butt-shaking good. It's always mattered.

That said, we decided to divide the music post in two. I'm going first. Of course any list of this nature is bound to be subjective and reflect little more than the musical preferences of the listmaker. It is also bound to be incomplete. I freely acknowledge this and make no claims otherwise. What I offer here is a list of music by black people that matters to me.

I am in love with think-y, smart, complicated hip hop. Not the nonsense put out by Kanye West or Diddy or anybody waving the flag of the "Dirty South." People like this:

The Roots
Hip hop group extraordinaire from Philadelphia. They are renown for their musicianship (they play their own instruments instead of a "two turntables and a microphone") and intelligence. I recommend their latest Game Theory.

De La Soul
My first hip hop love. De La Soul used sampling as an art, broadened the definition of black masculinity and wrote the best ode to circle jerks I've ever heard. I recommend Three Feet High and Rising.

Tribe Called Quest
Jazzy and smart and *tight* lyrics. Recommended: Low End Theory

The group's leader, Michael Franti, went to Iraq and Afghanistan on his own, and came back with a kick ass protest album, Yell Fire!. Also recommended: Home (featuring the infectious "Love is Da Shit")

Hip hop master and record level exec. His genius Black Album was made even more so when DJ Dangermouse mashed it with the Beatles' White Album (resulting, of course, in the Grey Album)

And let us not forget the women:

Soulful, poetic song stylings from Philadelphia. See Who is Jill Scott?
Sure, there's a lot faux-mysticism in her persona, but her blend of introspective lyrics and funky hip hop grooves is amazing. Mama's Gun is my favorite.

MeShell NdegeOcello
What's not to love about bald black woman playing bass? Or this lyric: "I'm digging you like an old soul record." Plantation Lullabies is genius (and features liner notes from the inestimable Greg Tate).

And black music I keep coming back to:
Did you seem him during the half-time show?! He owned that place. In a downpour no less. In addition to being a great musician, Prince is an amazing storyteller. Have you listened to Purple Rain lately?

Marvin Gaye
What can I say about Marvin Gaye? "Trouble Man" "What's Going On?" "Let's Get it On" "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" "Heard it Through the Grapevine" Marvin Gaye embodies what is great about black music--relevant and smart and you can dance to it.

(Wow. This post took me two hours to write. Sheesh.)


matthew said...

Nice entry, though I'm curious why you chose the link you did for Meshell :)

Conseula said...

Mathhew--It was a long night and a long post. Your Meshell link is way better.