D.L. Chandler's frequent thoughts on the world of hip hop and beyond

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Music with a Message ...

Growing up and slowly becoming socially aware in 1980s, I didn’t realize how powerful music with a message could be until I reached high school in the mid 80s. I watched the news and read the paper with the requisite pre-teen and teenager’s wavering interest. News items and names stuck to you here and there, especially President Ronald Reagan . One of my boyhood heroes, Chuck D of Public Enemy, often took Reagan (and eventually the senior George Bush) to task for what he felt was a series of ploys by the government to derail the progression of his people and misinforming the public. Discovering Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-1 at a young age really influenced a thirst for not only the music but a need to find out why the messages were so strong. Radical thoughts and politics aside, you heard their music often and the messages, when present, were branded into your mind. With Reagan’s recent passing, it made me recall how many songs in my youth attacked the man’s character, or at least his administration.

Ironically, my first Hip Hop CD purchase was Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut. There was nothing, as far as I can recall, socially uplifting on that release. I can admit I missed many of the messages in some of my favorite Hip Hop artist’s songs and I didn’t return to seeking them through music until the early 1990s – when Afro-centric themes were still relevant and prominent. Even then, I missed out on a lot of messages because, like most people, I was impressed more by dogmatic rhetoric than I was by action.

Go-Go, a form of percussion-heavy music that relies on chants and borrows heavily from funk, soul and, much later in its development, Hip Hop, is a Washington, D.C. musical phenomenon. It is one of the rare forms of music you have to experience live to fully understand its power. Sadly enough, success in Go-Go has been sporadic at best and it has never latched on anywhere else in the country as it does in its own backyard. In his June 8th column about Ronald Reagan’s legacy, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher revealed a tidbit I was totally unaware of. He wrote: “In this city, Experience Unlimited, the great go-go band, sang of Reaganomics, "No matter what they cut back, we're going to say, 'Ooh la la la' to that," and a generation that saw no way out other than the foolish dreams of hustling and pro sports was lost to crack, music videos and a deepening disconnect from the ideals of work and family. This is the same Experience Unlimited (better known as E.U.) that is in sole possession of Go-Go’s biggest hit, “Da Butt."

Who knew they were paying attention to the political and social landscape?

In D.C., one of the most popular bands of the 1980s was the Southeast Washington-based Junkyard Band . Their first nationally available single through Def Jam Records, “The Word," was backed by a more popular b-side, “Sardines." I didn’t pay attention to the words back then and not until quite recently did I realize that they were railing against President Reagan in a similar fashion as E.U. did. The refrain in the song, “Reagan made the bomb, Reagan made the bomb" meant nothing to me when I was 14-15 years old – all I cared about was the beat and having a good time. How ironic is it that Marc Fisher, a man I have little in common with aside from the fact we’re both writers, has brought everything from my past full circle. Go-Go, a form of music nobody confuses with being socially conscious had folks really pushing some ideas to the youth. It’s too bad that current Go-Go bands could care less about the issues; it’s all about the honeys shaking their butts and “going hard" as the kids say.

As time goes on and they reach that age of settling down, how far are will the young people of the day be willing to reach back and recollect when the music became less about the party and more about the message? As it stands now, every current popular song on the radio in Washington, D.C. share the common theme of partying, chasing women, sexual prowess and conquest and who has the shiniest trinkets. I’m honest in saying that I enjoy a good, old-fashioned song that may display a little ignorance – especially if the beat is enjoyable. But I won’t ever stop pining for the days of old when there was at least a decent amount of balance between the banal and the bold.

With Peace,
D.L. Chandler

For more information, visit the sites below:
Washington Post's MP3 Go-Go Page
Interesting piece about Public Enemy
Washingtonian Magazine's take on Go-Go music


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