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Archive for May, 2012

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The news of Chuck Brown’s death blew my Twitter feed up today, and wrapped most of my day in a bittersweet nostalgic haze because we’ve lost another innovative figure who had impact greater than his notoriety and never quite got the respect that he was due. Music industry vets Tweeted of their love of Brown and the polyrhythmic funk based music called Go-Go that he was most responsible for creating. Artists wished him a peaceful journey. Fans expressed condolences to his surviving family. And then, someone wanted to know, “Who was Chuck Brown?”

A fair question considering the fact that he never quite broke through on the radio with a string of nationally charting hits. And there was never any heavy rotation on BET for one of his videos. Or that there has never been a Chuck Brown Behind The Music or Unsung episode that detailed his rise from poverty, or his time spent in prison for murder. No 60 Minutes piece that investigated how he and his mother left his native North Carolina for his adopted hometown of DC when he was still a child.

There was no American Masters documentary on PBS that recalled how he played for mayoral inauguration ceremonies and other civic events of importance in the nation’s capitol. And how he played for visiting dignitaries from around the globe. There are few articles to explain how the great Jamaican record man, Chris Blackwell went to DC to sign every Go-Go band that would sit still long enough for him to put a pen in their hands, in his effort to put Go-Go on the map outside of Washington.

He never received any of that recognition or exposure in his lifetime, but his was the sound of Black folks in Washington, and if you knew anything about what was going on in Black America in the 70s, 80s or 90s, you knew that Chuck Brown was a don, and that because of his funky beat, he was connected to a previous and all but forgotten time when the drum was everything to us. A time when the drum was played a certain way, it meant danger, in another, it meant good crops. Played differently, it meant birth. And when Chuck’s crew played it; it meant everybody get on the dance floor and get busy

If you knew how important the drum once was to us, then you understood Brown and the bands that came after him that played his beat; Red Hot, Trouble Funk, EU, Rare Essence, Junkyard. and others. And you may have caught a live Go-Go show with Chuck headlining over some of those other bands. You might also remember how hypnotic the music was and how the room seemed to sway to the sound of those drums.

If you, like me, were in the early Hip Hop industry, you’d remember how both LL Cool J and Run/DMC hit with “Jack The Ripper” and “Run’s House” using the classic break beat from Brown’s Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip”. And if you hung around a little longer, you might remember Pharrell resurrected Chuck’s biggest hit “Bustin’ Loose” to give Nelly the Grammy winning smash “It’s Getting Hot In Here” and how the infectious Go-Go beat gave everyone from Beyonce to Grace Jones to Salt ‘n Peppa a bit of that Chuck Brown flavor, and you’d smile warmly because then, you’d know who he was and you’d be grateful that you did.

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Adam Yauch was an energetic, intelligent and humorous kid of 20 when I met him almost 30 years ago. Along with Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond, his two band mates in the Beastie Boys, I caught him playing the Roxy on 18th Street in Manhattan. He did a laughably bad parody of rap and hip hop while wearing a doo rag and a sweatsuit. It was their first gig at the old headquarters for hip hop and their ridiculous attire made them look like they did part-time security at a Times Square porn shop. At the time, it did not appear that they would have much future as serious players in the hip hop world. It just goes to show you that greatness can come from inauspicious beginnings. History has proven that I could not have been any more wrong. 

I was a young promotion man with access and taste who loved hip hop. I had arrived at that point in my musical journey by using a path that was paved by James Brown, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, Stax, and jazz fusion. Adam Yauch had arrived there byway of the well documented connection between punk and early independent hip hop. That first night we met, Yauch and the other two gave me and their then manager (Russell Simmons) a ride (in a rented limousine) from Manhattan to a party that some successful drug dealers were throwing out in Queens. 
 
At that time, the region in Manhattan south of 23rd Street was an unsettled wilderness of abandoned factories, apartment buildings, lofts and unrented retail space. The sort of barren, desolate wasteland that provided a perfect setting for creativity to flourish without interference. It was also home to a network of clubs where an eclectic menu of alternative, punk, synth pop, new wave, rap and underground records filled dance floors on a nightly basis. Artists, models, actors, musicians, writers, socialites, music execs and anonymous aspirants of all types blended to make up an exciting world where hustle fueled their desire for fame and turned dreams into reality.
 
The Beasties were fortunate to have met Russell and his young partner, Rick Rubin when they did. Simmons and Rubin had hit with a few of their independent productions, but had been stiffed by the labels that they’d released the records through. As a result, Rubin approached Simmons about partnering in a label and together they formed Def Jam Recordings. The Beasties were the first act signed, but the first record released was “I Need A Beat” by LL Cool J. 
 
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A little more than six months after the night I met Yauch, I joined Def Jam as their first head of promotion, and I was given two records that featured the young MC that were virtually impossible to get played; “The Party’s Getting Rough” by The Beasties and “Drum Machine” by Yauch. Let’s just say that they had yet to crystalize their blend of humor, shock and frat boy lewdness that would allow their “License To Ill” project to be the first rap album to grace the top of the Billboard Album chart the following year. And that they were recordings that were still too rooted in the punk aesthetic to connect with the core rap audience. Fortunately, neither he nor his band mates were discouraged. They kept scratching and came up with a real rap record called “Hold It Now Hit It” produced by Rubin. 
 
Simmons was imbued with the spirit of P. T. Barnum, and Rubin was a young mystic who tapped into the deep dark pools of misogyny, sexism and ill male behavior that wrestling and heavy metal depended on to drive sales. He blessed his young charges with the benefit of his knowledge. They took it to heart and went on tour to support their record with chicks who appeared on stage in cages, and danced in leather bikinis with big ’80s style “Working Girl” hair. Their was a good deal of suggestive writhing to the beat and they presaged the booty music and dirty south based videos that would become popular in the next decade. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inflatable penis shaped balloon that they used as a prop.
 
In response to these hijinks, there was tremendous controversy and outrage from just about every responsible adult corner. There were threats to keep the band from performing in England, voices in the Black American music community accused the band of reverse minstrelsy, feminists found their whole act to be reprehensible, but kids dug it. Black ones, white ones, females; all kinds. They represented youthful rebellion like no other band of their era. 
 
The decadence and excess led to a dark period that led to the band nearly breaking up and leaving Def Jam after one album. It is still the biggest seller in the label’s history. Out of that, something more important than sales happened: Led by Yauch, The Beastie Boys became a voice for tolerance, anti-discrimination, religious freedom and progressive causes of all types. They became the conscience of hip hop.
 
The last five times that I saw the formerly raucous college party band perform were all for humanitarian or progressive causes. In ’97 and ’98, I went to the Tibetan Freedom Festivals that were held in New York and DC. At the invitation of The Beasties, the worlds of hip hop, alternative, and cool were brought together in football stadiums to bring attention to the struggle of the Tibetan people to remove the oppressive foot of the People’s Republic Of China from their necks. I ran into Adam while he was skateboarding a block away from the old Roxy and he connected me with a contact to get VIP treatment.
 
The Foo Fighters showed up, Sonic Youth rocked, Radiohead, Tribe, De La, Herbie Hancock, Beck, Wyclef, R.E.M. U2, Gang Star and many, many others did their thing. Backstage was heat; Minnie Driver, Ben Harper, Laura Dern, Guy Oseary and a new couple out for their first public date; Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston all took in the music and good vibes. The former sweat suit wearers were using their power and influence to bring the international creative community together to raise their voices to fight injustice.
 
In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, when outright racist propaganda disguised as patriotism filled the news cycle, the Beasties decided to protest the coming war by throwing a show in New York’s Hammerstein Ball Room that featured a joint performance by Bruce Springsteen, Michael Stipe and Bono. The headliners who’d used an inflatable penis as a prop had raised a middle finger to the unholy alliance of Bush, big oil and the military industrial complex and foresaw the fallacy of the decade long mistake that lay ahead of us all.
 
In 2002, I went to Las Vegas to the House of Blues to see the Boys who became men, perform at a benefit to raise money for the family of their slain mentor and our old friend, Jam Master Jay. I went backstage to say what up to the crew and was received warmly. The jokesters lent their weight to an effort to ease the pain of our extended family members and set an example of how to turn your sorrow into action for the rest of us.
 
In 2008, they came to Charlotte, NC to play for Rock The Vote and help Barack Obama become elected president of the US, and in the process, swing the previously red state into the blue. Oh we had a time that night. I spoke with them all, but had a lengthy private chat with Yauch about his film directing and a potential project that we could work on together. We weren’t able to agree on terms, but if we had, I’m sure it would have been dope. Adam had a totally different take on the project than I did, but his ol skool flava was still apparent.
 
He came a long way from that first night in ’84. And in the wake of his untimely death, it has dawned on me that they became the most successful artists that I have ever worked with and represented the golden age of our thing to all corners of the globe. I am proud to have known them all and especially proud to have known Yauch, he showed us all how you can positively use power, even if at first, it doesn’t seem like you deserve it. RIP
 

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