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Feedback with Lizi von Teig: The Most American Album of the 20th Century

 

 

On August 9th, 2018, Noisey writer Paul Thompson published an article titled “Straight Outta Compton Is The Most American Album Of The 20th Century.” (https://noisey.vice.com/en_au/article/43pbyq/straight-outta-compton-is-the-most-american-album-of-the-20th-century) The piece was an interesting look into how N.W.A. influenced hip hop and Los Angeles, but failed to support the assertion it’s title boasted. It did not connect N.W.A.’s lyrics and music to the greater American experience between 1900 and 1999. Thus, I would like to write a response piece more adequately addressing the question “what is the most American album of the 20th century.”

Well, first we must answer a prerequisite question, what does it mean to be American? I would say, for this context, it has to reflect the social and political philosophy of America, and that I would define as based in what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “the American assumption,” the essential belief that, if they work hard enough, anyone can become successful. The shift from the near caste system of the 18th century towards this belief was the social journey of the 19th century. Beginning with Andrew Jackson’s campaign for socioeconomic mobility, followed by the rise of capitalism and fall of mercantilism in the north, and lastly the emancipation of and suffrage for African Americans. But in the 20th century, this assumption began to be challenged. Beginning with the rise of the International Workers of the World, continuing into Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, and climaxing in the Johnson-era Great Society reforms (with an epilogue of Jessie Jackson’s political success), America over the course of this time questioned if the American assumption was possible without assistance from the State.

With this criteria, I assert that Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 LP Nebraska was the most American album of the 20th century. It’s musical roots are deep in American tradition, it’s lyrics address distinctly American motifs, and it’s attitude towards them reflects the conscious of America in the 1900s. It shares a certain distrust for authority (“State Trooper,” “Highway Patrolman”) and sympathy with the criminal element of society (“Nebraska,” “Johnny 99”) with Straight Outta Compton but expresses it with a more distinctly 20th century American musical arrangement and outlook than the N.W.A. album.

I want to start with that musical element, as I feel it is key. While Straight Outta Compton is no doubt more influential over American music than Nebraska, it is also definitely not as representative of American culture in that century as Nebraska. Rap is conventionally thought of to only go back to 1979 with Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (tho I would argue for Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as an alternative start point for rap, and some scholars point to Pigmeat Markam’s 1968 novelty record “Here Comes The Judge” was the first rap record). Beyond that, the style of sampling N.W.A. uses is largely a post-Run DMC style, so really it’s roots are mostly traced back to 1985, representing only the last 15 years of the century. Springsteen, on the other hand, is rooted in the deep American tradition of one person with a guitar. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Memphis Minnie. The list could go on forever but this article needs to end eventually. This style and aesthetic defined American music for the bulk of the 20th century. Jimmy Rodgers, grandfather of country music, which sits alongside it’s brother the blues as the first truly American genre of music, played this way.

Lyrical analysis of Nebraska reveals a few patterns in motifs. There’s a lot of themes of criminals in Nebraska. Starting with the title track, about the real life murder spree by Charles Starkweather, told from the perspective of Starkweather waiting on death row, but also including “Johnny 99,” a sympathetic portrait of a man who kills a bank teller after he loses his job, and “State Trooper,” a look inside the mind of someone deeply afraid of law enforcement for some unspecified reason (as an aside, I think it would be a beautiful change in meaning of the song for a black artist to cover this song). Considering the 20th century saw a rise in the incarceration rate in America starting in the 1970s, representing criminals and depicting the justice system is an essential part of the most American album, one recently neglected outside the black dominated genres. More on the justice system comes in the song “Highway Patrolman,” a depiction of a corrupt police officer whose brother murders a man but simply shrugs it off because “when it’s your brother you look the other way.” This is a good representation of the loss in faith in law enforcement that came to prevalence in the 1960s.

Nebraska also deals with poverty and desperation. “Atlantic City,” which would also become a hit for The Band, is a portrait of a man given no more options but to turn to less than legitimate work. Opening with a description of gang violence, blowing up the chicken man in Philly and stress for the District Attorney, it continues into a chorus of optimism making for a powerful juxtaposition as he sings that “everything that dies some day comes back.” The narrator flees town, taking out his meager savings and running away from his debts, only to find that he can’t find a job in the new town and has to work for the mob. Another depiction of desperation comes in “Open All Night,” a song deeply influenced by Chuck Berry about racing through the Garden State in the late night. While it is perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, it includes exploitation of labor in a small way (“the boss don’t dig me so he put me on the night shift”) and evasion of law enforcement again (“underneath the overpass trooper hits a light switch/good night good luck 1, 2, power shift”). A last depiction of poverty can be heard in” Used Cars,” as a poor boy reminisces about the difficulty it takes for his family to get even just a used car, with his only hope of anything better being the lottery. These depict the very real poverty and struggle of most of America, especially in the Great Depression and in the years preceding Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These have little hope, existing in a world where late capitalism doesn’t give a lot of breaks (“down here it’s just winners and losers don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line”) and I think that ties things back to that American assumption. These men work hard and still get nowhere. They’re beginning to challenge that belief that hard work will always reward that American culture pushed so hard for all of the 19th century, and which lingers today.

But Nebraska isn’t all downers. It ends with a uniquely American note of hope. “Reason To Believe” is a powerful meditation on the resilience of the American ability to believe that, like Sam Cooke told us, a change is gonna come. Touching on theology, both with its refrain and with the verse about baptism, Springsteen wisely never directly states what it is people find a reason to believe in, but it seemingly always does. Perhaps it’s the fact that, unlike most other nations, America considers its moment of conception as a nation as being one of revolution. Perhaps it is because we have pretty much only witnessed the 19th and 20th centuries, which were the most rapidly progressing centuries in human history, and perhaps I’m just off the mark and haven’t lived anywhere else, but somehow it seems America is most resilient in its ability to find some reason to believe.

Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, et al did not set out to make “the most American album of the 20th century,” which is why they didn’t. They made a game changing album, capturing the soul of black America in the 1980s, perhaps doing so better than Springsteen captures America as a whole across the 20th century on Nebraska. However, the narrowness of that vision makes it difficult to name Straight Outta Compton “the most American album of the 20th century.” Springsteen’s Nebraska captures the broader spirit of America more successfully, and lives more deeply in that questioning of the American assumption that defined our nation in the 20th century.

 

Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.

 

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A Twist of JP Lime: Rap Flashback – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted

 

May 15th, 1990 marks the release of Ice Cube’s first solo album, a landmark Hip Hop social commentary known as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. When the album title alone doubles as a political statement, you know you’re in for a heavy record, and that’s exactly what Cube delivered. After management and financial disputes drove Cube’s split from N.W.A., he teamed up with New York based production team, The Bomb Squad, who were best known for their work with Public Enemy, introduced his own rap crew, Da Lynch Mob, and dropped this ferocious album. At this point in Hip Hop’s timeline, with both Ice T and N.W.A. well established, the Hip Hop sub-genre known as ‘gangsta rap’ was hitting the mainstream.

That said, Cube’s raw socio-political edge gave AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted more punch than its gangsta rap predecessors. It also helped establish Ice Cube, the solo act, as a major force in Hip Hop going forward. The album peaked at #19 on the Billboard charts with the title track reaching #1 on the U.S. rap singles charts. The success of this album proved to everyone, including his former N.W.A. posse, that Ice Cube had the talent and mass appeal to make it on his own.

I remember loving this record as a 10 year old way back when, even though I was probably too young to have been listening to it. My favorite cut on the album on the time was “A Gangsta’s Fairytale” which was less a political track and more an inner-city play on some of our favorite childhood fairytale characters such as Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty. Lyrics about Cinderella and Snow White fighting over the Seven Dwarves cracked me up then and still do today.

Other notable tracks include the politically charged “The Ni**a Ya Love to Hate”, the smoothed out and brutally honest “Once Upon in the Projects”, and the Yo-yo assisted gender wars commentary, “It’s a Man World”, where Yo-yo poignantly points out that “it wouldn’t be a damn thing without a woman’s touch.” I couldn’t agree more.

Shout outs to Ice Cube for turning what was potentially a career threatening situation in leaving N.W.A. into the best decision he could’ve possibly made. And to any new school and old school cats alike not hip to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, do yourself a favor and give it a spin. It’s a great listen and many of its messages are still relevant today. The word classic gets tossed around a lot these days within Hip Hop circles, but this album is certainly one befitting of the title, in my humble opinion.

CLICK HERE FOR ARCHIVAL ICE CUBE CONTENT

Kicking sh*t called street knowledge

Why more ni**as in the pen than in college?

Now cause of that line I might be your cellmate

That’s from the ni**a ya love to hate

 

For more takes on music, culture, politics and more, visit JP Lime Productions.

 

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A Twist of JP Lime: By Any Means Necessary

 

May 31, 1988 marks the release date of By All Means Necessary – Boogie Down Productions’ second album. The record took its name from the famous Malcom X declaration of “By Any Means Necessary.” The album was released despite the 1987 murder of BDP Producer and KRS One’s partner in crime, DJ Scott La Rock. On this album, KRS One moved away from the violent undertones of their first release Criminal Minded (a classic in its own right, and mild by today’s standards as this was before NWA and Ice T introduced Gangsta Rap to the masses), and focused on delivering socially conscious tunes under the moniker of “The Teacha.” Tracks such as “My Philosophy”, “Stop The Violence”, and “Illegal Business” gave the records a strong political presence while bangers such as “I’m Still #1” and the safe sex anthem “Jimmy” rounded out the album content. By All Means Necessary peaked at #18 on the Billboard Hip Hop/R&B charts.

Personally, at 8 years old at the time, I remember this being one of the first albums I would jam hard to back in the day. “My Philosophy” has always been my favorite BDP/KRS One song. I’ve always loved that memorable, “fresh for 88, you suckaz!” line that concludes the track. For creating a classic Old School album with a positive political and socially conscious edge, and for their inspiration as a truly groundbreaking Hip Hop group, Boogie Down Productions, we at JP Lime Productions salute you!

“Who gets weaker? The king or the teacher
It’s not about a salary it’s all about reality
Teachers teach and do the world good
Kings just rule and most are never understood”

 

For more takes on music, culture, politics and more, visit JP Lime Productions.

 

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A Twist of JP Lime: Rap Flashback 2015 Year End Review

 

2015 was a great year for The Rap Flashback. Here’s a look back at all the fun we had, knowledge we dropped, and behind the scenes shenanigans. Thank you Lime Nation for a fantastic year, and we look forward to an exciting 2016. Remember, at the Rap Flashback, we are your Old School Hip Hop fix. Enjoy!

 

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Rap Flashback – October 2015 Halloween Edition

 

frank with headphones @ JPLimeProductions.comLadies and Werewolves, Guys and Ghouls, it’s time for another journey into Rap’s fabled past with the one-of-a-kind Rap Flashback, Halloween edition! This month’s dose of Hip Hop History features a couple Old School tracks centered around Freddy Krueger, delusions from the Geto Boys, and two diss tracks from within the NWA camp. No Tricks, just Beats and Treats, here on the Rap Flashback.