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The phone rang, and an old friend and fellow Knicks fan wanted to know if I was watching Thursday night’s game. I was finishing up some reading, so I wasn’t. Because of his prompting, I turned on the TV set to ESPN. And there it was… the unthinkable, security for the World’s Most Famous Arena had former Knicks all time great, Charles Oakley surrounded at his seat – three rows back from court-side – and manhandling him. Then, they forced him to the nearest exit, and along with a few cops, cuffed him and arrested him on national TV. 

In the aftermath of  his arrest, Maadison Sqaure Garden management hastily decided to ban Charles Oakley from the building.

We called him Oak during his playing days. Oak was feisty and he resisted. He staved of the inevitable humiliation as long as he could. The proud old Knicks captain slapped every hand that the half dozen or so, mostly white, security guards and cops put on him. Just like he used to when Chicago Bulls Bill Wennington and Horace Grant tried to keep him from snaring another missed shot by Greg Anthony or John Starks, in one of those epic Knicks/Bulls wars from the ’90s. 

New York caught the business end of most of those battles, but they played hard and made us all proud to be members of the Knicks fan base and community. Proud to be New Yorkers, and proud to be black, and part of the Big Apple business community. Charles Oakley was the heart and soul of those teams.

Those Knicks were part of the early ’90s, New York Hip Hop community. And no one was more visible than Charles Oakley. Back then, you’d see members of those teams in the clubs and restaurants. You’d see them at concerts. You could easily run into them at Nell’s, at Kilimanjaro’s East or at the latest Spike Lee premiere. Oak would often be seen hanging out with the late Anthony Mason at the hot comedy clubs, or with his good friend Michael Jordan. Oak was in the mix, and for those of us involved in Black entertainment and nightlife circles, he was the face of the New York Knicks organization.  

The ’93 Knicks won sixty regular season games for the first time in twenty years. They went into the playoffs marked as serious contenders to knock off Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan’s defending World Champion Bulls. Pat Riley was in his second year as head coach, and the team played a rough and tumble brand of hard nosed defensive minded ball that spread fear throughout the league. I had tickets to every home playoff game.

On the way to eventually losing to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks knocked off Reggie Miller and his Indiana Pacers. They played Charlotte in the second round, and the Hornets featured Alonzo Mourning at center, Larry Johnson at small forward, the league’s best shooter, Dell Curry coming off the bench and a lightening quick running attack led by Mugsy Bogues.

My mother was alive then, and living in Charlotte. She was a retired New York City school teacher with a basketball jones that she passed on to her only son. The Hornets were her team. Imagine her surprise when the captain of the New York Knicks called her to tell her that a pair of tickets would be left for her at the box office. I was proud that she could go as Oak’s guest.

Oak was entrepreneurial, and he had a yearning to be in the record business, so when I was an A&R man at EMI records, he used to bring acts for me to hear. He wanted a label deal but he never brought me anything that we could agree on. But he was humble, charming, gracious and serious. The buzz would spread throughout my building whenever he would come by for a meeting. The chairman of my label group (who was a diehard Knicks fan) came out of a meeting with a senior exec from the home office in London just to shake Oak’s hand once. 

I’m just getting over the anger that has kept me from writing. The anger that comes from having invested nearly a lifetime of support in a team that hasn’t given me much in return lately. In the last fifteen seasons, they’ve won one playoff round, and have missed the playoffs altogether for eleven of the seasons in that same period.

I’ve just moved back to the area where I was raised, and I have had cable installed for the first time in nearly three years so I can watch the Knicks. Previously, I watched them on my NBA League Pass app on my iPads. Now that I’m living in the New York Metro area, games are blacked out on the Pass, but I keep rooting. 

You see the Knicks mean something to men my age. They were more than a sports franchise, they were a cultural institution that served as a vehicle for change. They won it all when I was a kid, and they represented the integrationist’s dream; Black Southerners were scouted by the team, they played, won titles and became Hall of Famers. A future US Senator who had progressive leanings played with them, and he began to pursue serious presidential aspirations while he held the small forward position down. The most accomplished coaching mind the game has produced was a reserve on those teams. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford sat court side during those years, and rooted just as hard as I did at home.

In my day, I’ve seen over 400 live NBA games in Madison Square Garden. I’ve seen many a musical great play the World’s Most Famous Arena; Sly Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic, Run/DMC, the Beastie Boys, U2, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, New Edition, Bobby Brown, George Michael, Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Prince. I grew up in that building. 

To see a guy who gave the Knicks the better part of his career hauled off like a common criminal is seriously bad optics. At a time when the formerly great coaching mind is trying to run the team’s most talented player out of town, and the very real questions of the value of Black life, of women’s rights, of religious discrimination, and other issues of oppressive behavior are being raised in the culture at large, I can’t imagine how a poorer choice could have been made by Garden management.

Oak and the managing owner met with NBA Commisioner Adam Silver in the League office yesterday. Michael Jordan – who now owns the Hornets – sat in via conference call. The Knicks are celebrating their 70th year of existence, and they’ve excluded Oak from all team observances. Reportedly, Oak has been estranged from the team for some time. Yesterday’s sit down yielded some sort of compromise that has allowed Oak to return to the building. I hope he can eventually return to the fold. His number should be retired and hanging from the Garden rafters. 

This current Knicks crew sucks, and could use as many examples as possible of how one wears the orange and blue with pride. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, we all need as many examples of professional integrity that we can find. 
insideplaya

Now available in the Abstract Radio Archives. Exclusively on Beats 1!

Tonight


The insideplaya takes over Abstract Radio on Apple Music’s Beats 1 tonight at 10 ET, along with Lady Chellez on the 1 &2s. Mad love to Q-Tip who makes it all possible for us.  C ya on the radio. 

Because of technical difficulties beyond our control, the anticipated Soul City Takeover will not be heard on Abstract Radio this evening. Instead, a replay of a tribute to the great Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, mixed by Q-Tip himself will air. The Soul City Takeover will play at a future date.

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It’s late in the evening here, and I’m up thinking. Given the fact that I am a long time nocturnal creature this is not an unusual occurrence. I picked up my unusual sleeping habits during my time as a New York club kid. As I write this, these are what would have been prime time club going hours from another era. Back in the day when New York was a seething cauldron of cutting edge street fashion, all night dancing, and young girls with long legs in short skirts, I was on the guest list of every club in town.

Some of this reminiscing has been prompted by my decision to return to the Soul City area after having been away for nearly 20 years. Soul City was the place where I was born and raised. It’s the place where Clyde Otis, the first black A&R man to work for a major record label lived and raised his children. It’s the place where “Wicked” Wilson Pickett, the great midnight shouter lived while he recorded a string of history making hits for Atlanctic Records. It’s the place where The Isley Brothers lived, and where I began my career in the music business at the legendary Sugar Hill Records.

A wise man said that it’s better to have good groove and no money than to have plenty of money and no groove. I concur. Obviously, music has played an enormous role in my life, and it has sustained me when nothing else could. The path that was paved with hits has led to a gig with Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio, and for the past year and a half, I have served as an announcer on Q-Tip’s Abstract Radio Show. On Tip’s Friday night mix show, my voice is the first one you hear. Apple is the dominant music and technology firm of the current moment, and I am honored to be a part of their team. 

Normally I introduce Q-Tip or a guest DJ with a bit of copy that I have written for the purpose of providing the drama of aural theater. Later tonight, at our usual starting time of 10:00 PM EST, I will be the in studio host for a Soul City Takeover of Abstract Radio. In a moment of sheer lunacy, Q-Tip has decided to let me both choose the music and narrate the mix. Our esteemed producer Lady Chellz, will be on the 1 and 2’s spinning Soul City classics with new music liberally sprinkled throughout. Chellz and I will endeavor to keep it funky for you for two hours, and of course, we can be heard on better devices everywhere exclusively on Beats 1. C ya on the radio.

insideplaya 

I got a text from a friend yesterday morning. She’s young, beautiful and talented, so young that she was really a baby when George Michael rose to prominence. She wanted me to know that she thought he was corny in a New Kids On The Block kinda way. She had no idea how hurtful she was being. When a true Soul Man dies all of us in the community feel the loss. She knows a lot about music so her opinions are usually informed, but in this case, she just hasn’t been around long enough to know that George Michael was one of the most special artists who broke through during the MTV era. Michael benefitted from the star making power of MTV and along with Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club and a few others, he became a poster boy for the music channel’s ability to make household names out of pop stars.

My friends Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson and Q-Tip all shared their condolences and shock over the superstar’s loss through social media. My old collaborators from the New Jack Swing days, Al B.Sure! and Keith Sweat paid tribute on their Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. Because you see, George Michael was a Black Thing.

I first heard George Michael’s music in 1984. Well, truthfully, I’d heard him just a bit before, but I started to pay attention in 1984 when Michael was fronting kiddie pop duo Wham. At that time, his appearance was more important than his sound, but Wham’s second album featured an anthemic slice of slick working class pop funk called “Everything She Wants”. Michael’s gruff pleading with a girlfriend who wanted more than the narrator could give had an appeal to a twenty something kid on the hustle with, two jobs, a demanding girlfriend, and an ambition to rise to the heights of the music industry. I loved that track.

Soul Music had taken a hit that year. In the spring, Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed, and I was walking around in a daze, but I kept pushing on. I was working in a small but important independent record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinyl Mania was the name of the store, and it did a brisk business in imported, independent and domestic major label dance music that was driven, mostly, by what underground overlord Larry Levan was spinning at The Garage, the Village hotspot that influenced two subsequent generations of dance club culture around the world. That was my part time job. For a day job, I worked at ASCAP identifying songs and their uses. The import 12″ single on “Everything She Wants” was a hot seller for us. On WBLS, the heritage Black FM outlet owned and controlled by the Inner City Broadcasting Group, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had a grip on progressive Black listeners, but a threat arose to his dominance as 98.7 Kiss FM began to reach out for Frankie’s younger listeners by playing early hits from the fledgling Hip Hop industry. Frankie rocked “Everything She Wants”.

Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC, and he’d let the police run amok; they’d killed an unarmed Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, and a Black grandmother named Elanor Bumpers was shotgunned to death in her own apartment. Ronald Regan was in the White House, and he oversaw sinful deregulation of the financial and banking sectors that resulted in the Savings and Loan industry being gutted, and he ignored the rising body count from AIDS until it was almost too late. Funding for programs to help the poor, the vulnerable and the victims of AIDS was slowing to a trickle that never quite made it as far down as it had been advertised to reach.

It was with all of this as a backdrop that young George Michael – a working class kid from Margaret Thatcher’s England and a proud son of disco – began his assent in the game. Yes, disco: the derivative of funk and soul that sprouted up out of New York’s Black, Latin and Gay underground and became the music of the outsider looking for a way in. This often derided music was perfect for Michael’s worldview, because he was an unabashed celebrant of Black Music and his funkiness was obscured by his looks, his glibness and a uniquely potent gift for pop song craft.

While Michael was experiencing the peak of his success he was never fully appreciated. Much like the early Beatles – Wham/Michael was dismissed as a disposable pop group for young girls, but “Everything She Wants” sent a signal to the R&B and Black Pop markets that this kid was coming to get his and that he would be disruptive while doing it. Later, when his song writing became more introspective, he ran afoul of corporate politics, and he rebelled against the big money string pullers who would have had him release the same formulaic ditties that made him a phenomenon. Michael was thought to be too pretty and too slick with his writing to be taken seriously and his deep connection to the Black Music tradition was overlooked.

Before the tabloid headlines, the police entrapment, the forced outing, the near death accidents and trials with addiction, George Michael suffered the burden of the beautiful when he split with Andrew Ridgeley, his Wham bandmate, and embarked on an historic run as a solo artist with the release of the title track from “Faith” a rockabilly workout that smashed around the globe. If you only saw the video or didn’t get the album you may have missed “Monkey” or “Hard Day” the two funk joints on the album, or the subtle and soulful begging on “Father Figure”.

But I was in the Black Music business that George Michael was a factor in, and I witnessed this: Grandmaster Flash destroying a dance floor at the original location for The China Club – when it was a hangout for the best session players in The City – by cutting up the bass line from “Freedom 90” back and forth. Regional representatives from two major labels (one of whom had gotten Madonna’s “Material Girl” added to rotation) arguing with the PD from Kiss FM on the merits of adding Jam and Lewis’ remix of Michael’s “Monkey” to the station’s playlist, and the PD ignoring their objections to put the fifth or sixth single from “Faith” on the Urban powerhouse’s airwaves. The dance floor of The Garage packed and getting busy to Wham’s “Everything She Wants”. Stevie Wonder crooning a duet with Michael from the stage of the “World Famous” Apollo Theater. George Michael performing all covers including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” backed by The Sounds of Blackness at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, George Michael with the Patrice Rushen loops, the Gap Band interpolations, the James Brown samples, the Aretha Franklin duet, the Mary J. Bilge duet, the Stevie Wonder covers and big churchy choruses that screamed freedom out of radios and televisions was a Black Thing. The older he got the blacker he sounded. He became an avatar for Gay Pride and a vessel for those who remembered when Soul Music was a means for protest. He used the fashion business to promote his sound by casting Christy Turlington, Eva Herzigova, Tatijana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Beverly Peele, and Hip Hop’s favorite dinner date, Naomi Campbell in his videos. He shone a bright light on the AIDS crisis and gave away tons of money to charitable causes. He kept it funky while doing it all and reminded us to listen without prejudice. I loved his music. I do not think that his dying exactly ten years to the day that we lost James Brown was coincidental. He’s probably somewhere trying to show James how to rock one of those slick Italian suits that he used to wear. He made a mighty contribution to this thing of ours. For this I am grateful.

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