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From PBS American Experience Collection, Songs of Summer:
By Mark Anthony Neal
His wife was supposed to sing it. George McCrae’s own music career had languished in Palm Beach clubs, in what might be thought of as an upscale chitlin’ circuit. At the time, he was about to go back to school to study law enforcement. But Gwen McCrae was late to the recording session at TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. Tired of waiting, engineer Richard Finch and record store employee Harry Wayne (KC) Casey asked George to stand in. The result was “Rock Your Baby,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Charts in late July of 1974.
For two weeks that summer, McCrae would rule the airwaves, backed by the futuristic rhythms of an affordable drum machine and propelled by two songwriters who would help define the sound of dance music throughout the 1970s and beyond.
To be sure, “Rock Your Baby” was not the first disco hit to top the pop charts. That distinction probably goes to the Hues Corporation and their song “Rock the Boat.” But there was something about McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” that smacked of the new — namely, the Roland TR 77, an early-generation drum machine and harbinger of the future. Good dance music means the beat stays in the pocket; now anybody could catch the beat, paving the way for disco to democratize the dance floor.
Last week, Talib Kweli, a Grammy Award-winning, politically outspoken rapper, and self-proclaimed “Twitter troll killer,” brought his talent and political insights to a week-long residency sponsored by Duke Performances.
Kweli, a Brooklyn-based hip hop legend, who got his start in the underground rap scene and is often labeled a “conscious rapper” for his socially relevant lyrics, participated in two free, public talks, visited two African American Studies classes, and capped off the week with two sold-out performances at Motorco Music Club with opening act Actual Proof.
The events were presented as part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative, made possible, in part, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
The residency began with producer/DJ and Duke professor 9th Wonder interviewing Kweli in front of a standing-room only audience at a lunchtime event, held at the Forum for Scholars & Publics Thursday on Duke’s West Campus.
Later, Kweli visited “The Culture and Politics of Respectability,” a course taught jointly at Duke and Smith College. He also visited “The History of Hip Hop,” a class that is open to the public and co-taught by 9th Wonder and Mark Anthony Neal, co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity. Nearly 200 members of the Duke and Durham community attended.
On Friday, “The Beautiful Struggle: Hip-Hop’s Role in the Trump Era,” held at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham, featured Neal interviewing Kweli about the current political climate and attracted an equally large crowd. The restaurant closed for 90 minutes to accommodate the free community event.
During the talks, Kweli, who has released more than a dozen albums over 20 years, shared his insights on the art of music, the evolution of hip hop, his musical family tree (which includes luminaries such as his partner in rhyme Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, Puff Daddy, 9th Wonder, and Q-Tip) and “The Seven,” his joint project with fellow rapper, Styles P of The Lox. He also discussed his approach to taking on anonymous critics and haters on Twitter, where he maintains an actively political presence.
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Kweli of the mental sparring. “One hundred and forty characters is like two bars. On Twitter you have to be clever and figure out how to make it fit… It trains my brain. It’s like exercise for me.”
Before an interview on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” Kweli spoke about the artistic process and life as a working-class rapper.
On the evolution of his career starting in New York in the ‘90s:
I can’t overemphasize the influence that New York City has had on my career. Because me and my friends, we’d make demo tapes. We’d see the addresses on the back of the albums and see the addresses of the record labels, like, ‘oh that’s on 5th Avenue’ and we would go there. We’d sit in the lobby and meet interns and runners and assistants of assistants. I spent my teenage years doing that. It was a natural process of being a rapper in New York City. I didn’t really appreciate how good we had it to be able to do that until I started traveling more.
There was a lot of rejection but it never was a deterrent.
I would put on Timberlands at 7 or 8 in the morning, go to school, spend all day in school, then go to the park and be in the park until 3 in the morning. And let me wear a pair of Timberlands right now for a half hour and I have to take these shits off.
On his writing process:
My love for hip hop comes out of peer pressure, it comes out of wanting to be accepted by my peers.
It’s really the challenge that drives me. I was challenged by Mos Def and [producer] Hi Tek, now I’m challenged by Styles P and 9th Wonder. As a professional writer of bars, it’s not even comparable how much more efficient I am now.
This album with Styles P, we did it in a month. Wrote and recorded in a month. Sometimes I hear a beat and I’ll write 16 bars or two verses within five or 10 minutes. That’s not every song. Sometimes songs take 6 months to a year or 2 years to finish.
On being a “conscious rapper:”
More often than not, it’s used in a condescending way. I do conscious hip hop proudly. I do it well. So it’s no coincidence that people associate me with conscious hip hop. The only issue I have is when that’s all that they see me as. Because the people who choose to put music into those types of boxes, that’s how they identify it most of the time.
I put entertainer first. I put the song first. And that’s no disrespect or value judgement on what they do. It’s just a choice. A strategy. A tactic. For me, it’s important that I put the song first. Because if the song is not right, no one really cares. My job is to entertain people. I don’t get paid because of my message. I get paid in cultural currency which is in many ways more wealth. Any my career exists because of my cultural currency. When I step on that stage with that contractual agreement I made at that venue, with that promoter, they’re not paying me to say ‘fuck Donald Trump,’ they’re paying me to entertain people, regardless of how I do it.
The way that I do it has been entertaining, but it’s because I put the song first.
I never sacrifice the musicality. And I don’t shirk from my responsibility as an entertainer.
For more information on upcoming Duke Performances events, visit https://dukeperformances.duke.edu.
WUNC’s Frank Stasio talks with Grammy Award-winning producer and Jamla Records label head Patrick Douthit aka 9th Wonder about the pivotal moments in Hip-Hop and how the music shapes other elements of life, from fashion to social activism. This summer Douthit is offering “Hip-Hop in Context,” a 5-part lecture series at North Carolina State University. For the past six years Douthit has co-taught the popular History of Hip-Hop course at Duke University with Mark Anthony Neal.
Rapper GZA, a member of the famed hip hop group Wu Tang Clan, would talk about the business of hip hop with fellow founding member RZA, but often their conversations would take a turn by the end.
“We would end up talking about the weight of an atom,” GZA told an audience of festival attendees hanging on his every word in Durham’s historic Carolina Theater.
The rapper was being interviewed by Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke professor of black popular culture, during Moogfest, a music, art and technology festival, May 19-22, that filled the streets of downtown Durham. Neal is the director of Duke Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship.
During their talk, “Time Traveling Through Hip Hop,” GZA told Neal that he’d been interested in science from an early age. Ever since he saw a cousin survive an electrical shock from a wall outlet.
“They said the rubber from his shoes saved his life,” said GZA who adopted the nickname “The Genius,” competing with other members of his clique to write the “most clever and wittiest rhymes.”
“Obviously you’re reading and you’re self taught and you’re friends with [scientist] Neil DeGrasse Tyson,” Neal said, noting GZA’s use and variation of vocabulary.
“The average rapper doesn’t think about using science for an album,” said the rapper whose seminal album Liquid Swords is a fan favorite. During the talk, GZA interspersed the conversation with a few lines demonstrating his use of scientific references, and promoted a new program, the Science Genius, where science students in New York City public schools battle each other using science in their lyrics.
Neal asked what advice GZA would offer to younger rappers who struggle with the lack of lyricism. He suggested they condense their lyrics to make the message stronger.
“Too many write what they see and not what they thing. They should write half short, twice strong,” he said.
“I can rhyme about anything. Even the brush I brush my hair with — I can probably get 16 bars,” GZA said, encouraging rappers to think about sentence structure and the elements of a good story – plot, characters, action.
For a moment, imagine a little girl in the American South, watching her uncles — mid-20th century blues men, with harmonicas, guitars, bottles, standing in the round, telling their stories. And then suddenly a flash of the spirit, what Robert Farris Thompson, might describe as a rupture in the space, time, rhythm continuum, and that little girl is transported to the Bronx. It’s late 1977, and she stands over a box with levers, with circular devices on each side that remind her of the devices that played records in the houses her mama cleaned.
This little piece of time-traveling science fiction captures the genius of Hip-Hop culture, where young folk accessed the existing technologies at their disposal to create a world that sounded, looked like and felt like the world they wanted to live in–that allowed them to travel to the past and the future. In this conversation between the legendary GZA, a founding member of the Wu Tang Clan, and Professor Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke, they will discuss the role of Hip-Hop in challenging our ideas of what science fiction is, and its connection to futures that Hip-Hop has always imagined.
For more information, and to attend, visit http://sched.moogfest.com/event/6mFa/time-traveling-with-hop-hop