Inner city tantrums: what Kanye West learned (or didn’t learn) from Gil Scott-Heron

Like a lot of people, for the last few days I’ve been getting to grips with Kanye West’s megalomaniacal opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve written on the Guardian website about the avalanche of praise that it has received thus far, why I think it reveals a hankering for a modern masterpiece which is not just a good record but a significant cultural event, and why I’m not convinced that this fits the bill, brilliant though it often is.

What I find interesting is that Kanye himself is so clearly reaching for that significance, and never more clearly than on the last song, Who Will Survive in America, where he turns to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 recording Comment #1 for some climactic gravitas.

As I wrote in a recent blog, circa 2005 I thought Kanye might be undergoing a potentially fruitful process of politicisation. I gave up on that notion pretty quickly — Kanye’s favourite subject, to the exclusion of almost everything else, is Kanye — and that’s fine. Lots of artists dabble in politics, realise it’s not their strong suit and then move on. Better to do that than to make bad music out of bad politics. He’s even backed down from his seminal attack on George W Bush, in a rant crass enough to draw parallels with his feud with Taylor Swift. It’s depressing but, if he’s sincere, then, well, OK. So be it.

But it feels like he can’t bring himself to let go of the extra cultural clout that a political dimension brings, or to give up on the idea that he might tangentially belong to the tradition of Gil and Marvin and Stevie. In Gorgeous, an early track on the record, he makes a pitch for his music as “inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums” and hip hop as “the soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing”. When he compares his situation to “when they tried to have Ali enlisted,” the yearning for persecuted-hero status is palpable. That’s a delusion I can live with, but the Gil sample bothers me more each time I hear it.

Scott-Heron, like Chuck D, possessess one of black music’s great voices of righteous authority — he could read out a Facebook status update and make it sound like the “I have a dream” speech. Kanye sampled his Home Is Where the Hatred Is to good effect under Common’s ghetto-conscious rap on 2005’s My Way Home, giving a respectful nod to black music’s tradition of protest. As Public Enemy demonstrated, a historically resonant sample can work like a web page hyperlink: you click on Rebel Without a Pause in 1988 and it takes you to Jesse Jackson at Wattstax in 1972, and maybe you decide to find out more. In his book on PE’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Christopher R Weingarten talks about the band “dropping clues that their music was bigger than hip hop”. It’s a history lesson in disguise, there for those who are interested.

But if you follow the clue in Who Will Survive in America to Comment #1 you realize how bizarrely ahistorical Kanye’s sample is, thrilling and moving though he makes it sound. Even the heavily edited portion he uses is puzzling in 2010. “The new word to have is revolution”? No it isn’t. “Build a new route to China if they’ll have you?” Why? And then you hear the bits Kanye left out.

In 1970, Scott-Heron was a hungry, cocky 21-year-old novelist and poet. The cover of his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox breathlessly announced, “Gil Scott-Heron takes you Inside Black… His is the voice of the new black man, rebellious and proud, demanding to be heard, announcing his destiny: ‘I AM COMING!’” (That’s the kind of pitch Kanye can endorse.) He had a flinty, darting intellect and little tolerance for voguish revolutionary rhetoric. While the Last Poets were talking about confrontation, Scott-Heron tracks like Brother and Whitey on the Moon emphasised brass tacks: food, shelter, education and medicine.

Comment #1 was his dig at the informal alliance between the Black Panthers and the white radicals of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (or rather ex-members: the SDS had split into feuding factions in 1969). Not a great fan of the Panthers, he had nothing but contempt for the “teenybopping, revolt-on-weekends young” who “vomit up slogans to stay out of Vietnam”. As the rant climaxes he tells a “paleface SDS motherfucker” to “find his own revolution”. When he suggests a “route to China” he’s talking about the SDS’s enthusiasm for Chairman Mao. The whole track only makes sense in the very specific political circumstances of 1970 and if Kanye is using it to draw an analogy with a period in which a black man is actually president (unthinkable when Scott-Heron recorded Comment #1) then I can’t for the life of me work out what it might be.

I don’t want to be pedantic — this is a pop record, not a school textbook — but Who Will Survive in America is fundamentally bogus. Scott-Heron always had immense curiosity about, and compassion for, the wider community. West used to, on songs like We Don’t Care and Jesus Walks, but he’s long since faded out we to concentrate on I. There are many people on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (42 performers on All of the Lights alone) but very few in it — it’s world begins and ends with Kanye West. After an hour of wall-to-wall narcissism, psychologically interesting though it may be, he fastens Scott-Heron’s words to his album like he’s slapping a Greenpeace bumper sticker onto a gas-guzzler. It’s not protest, it’s branding.

I wonder what Scott-Heron makes of the track. He must be accustomed to his carefully chosen, historically precise words being mangled and wrenched out of context (witness Snoop Dogg’s half-assed misquote on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album) and he likes Kanye enough to sample him on his own I’m New Here album. So maybe he’ll shrug it off. Or maybe, with justification, he’ll tell Kanye to go and find his own revolution.

Bonus beats: at the risk of Kanye-esque narcissism, here’s my 2005 interview with him and a recent interview with Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets talking about the febrile politics of 1970. Also, an excellent Rob Fitzpatrick interview with Gil-Scott Heron.

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1981 revisited

You don’t want to get too cute with historical parallels – the differences are usually more important than the similarities – but in 1981 we had high unemployment, civil unrest, a Tory government and a royal wedding, all of which seem to be on the cards for the 30th anniversary next year. This was the most popular single in Britain on the day Charles and Diana tied the knot.

This 2002 piece by Alexis Petridis is pretty much the definitive account of what the Specials’ Jerry Dammers, in a moment of high emotion, called “the greatest record that’s ever been made in the history of anything”. He wasn’t exaggerating that much.

The rage of Common People

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So, Pulp are back and with them comes Common People: arguably the defining British single of the 90s (“a song that was in the right place at the right time,” reflected Jarvis Cocker), and probably the most oversimplified. One critic recently described it, in passing, as “a freak call-to-arms”, but that’s true of Mis-Shapes, not Common People. It sounds like an anthem to be sure, with its krautrock/Roxy rush and mounting intensity, but anthems are meant to unite, and Common People, on every level, is about division. It is desperate, vengeful, bitter, and brutal. The vast majority of Pulp fans planning to sing along to it at Hyde Park next year are excluded from a song which speaks for such a specific stratum of the class system that, if it is a call-to-arms, then the only person it’s calling to arms is Jarvis himself, and even he’s not entirely sure.

It starts as an old-fashioned Kinksian character study of the kind that Damon Albarn was producing at the time (Albarn, of course, being the songwriter most often accused of class tourism), but one that’s clearly about specific individuals rather than archetypes. Why “She came from Greece”? If Jarvis simply wanted to skewer what he called a mood of “patronising social voyeurism” he would have constructed a type: posh, English and instantly recognisable. Instead, he based it on fellow St Martin’s College student (who didn’t actually study sculpture) who aspired to live in down-at-heel Hackney “like the common people”. She’s a slumming hipster, belonging to a line which runs from Norman Mailer’s “white negro” to trucker-cap-wearers in Williamsburg. She’s a little gauche and condescending but Jarvis’s initial response is amusement: the rinky-dink keyboard line, the rakish wink in his voice. “I said I’ll… I’ll see what I can do.”

Who’s getting hurt in these first two verses? He’s happy to exploit her taste for a bit of rough (a milder version of I Spy’s sex-as-class-war theme, which directly follows Common People on Different Class; in reality, Jarvis hardly knew the girl) and he’s the one who tricks her into looking foolish in the supermarket (“I said pretend you’ve got no money”). In this scenario, Jarvis has the power and if the song continued in this vein it would be just a wittier, less misogynistic version of “silly little rich girl” Stones songs like Stupid Girl and Out of Time. But then she smiles and holds his hand and the whole song shockingly, brilliantly snaps in half.

Suddenly we’ve left the supermarket and the Greek girl behind, along with any sense of social comedy. It’s as if a trap door has opened up under Jarvis and his sudden sense of big-picture powerlessness wipes the smirk from his face. The rage that consumes the rest of the song is way out of proportion to anything the girl said: she’s the trigger, not the cause. His voice becomes ever more ragged and desperate, and his anger shreds his coherence. His hysteria reminds me of Ian Curtis in Transmission, his contempt of Jello Biafra in Holiday in Cambodia and his careening violence of John Lydon (Common People’s producer, Chris Thomas, also produced the Sex Pistols album).

So where does this rage come from? In a word: failure. Jarvis, in this song, has no safety net, no plan B. He’s done OK for now, getting to St Martin’s, but if he flunks it then he’s back where he started. She can call her dad to rescue her if it all goes pear-shaped, but he can’t (and couldn’t even if his dad hadn’t walked out when he was seven). Jarvis was already 25 when he enrolled at St Martin’s in 1988, by which time Pulp had been unsuccessful for so long that they were on hiatus. The band’s career didn’t begin to turn around until 1990’s My Legendary Girlfriend single. So within the song he’s between worlds, riddled with anxiety. “I didn’t believe in the concept of class at all when I was in Sheffield,” he told Q in 1996. “Then when I moved to London, I couldn’t deny it existed. That’s where the class obsession on this album started.” (In 80s Sheffield, Jarvis studiously avoided politics; guitarist/Russell Senior was the one who wanted Pulp to be “more political” and less “frivolous”. Jarvis told BBC3: “It was a shock to me to find myself writing a song like this.”)

This helps to explain the song’s problematic view of working-class culture. Unlike the Manic Street Preachers in A Design for Life, the other great class-based single of the Britpop era, Jarvis doesn’t contradict the Greek girl’s reductive view — he actually makes it even more reductive. She meets him at St Martin’s, not at the dog track, so obviously she doesn’t think all he can do is “dance and drink and screw”. And we know from songs like Mis-Shapes that he’s done his damnedest to escape mainstream working-class culture: “You could end up with a smash in the mouth just for standing out.” And yet, goaded by the Greek girl, he finds himself lionising (“they burn so bright”) a culture he never really liked. Stuck between worlds, he enjoys neither working-class community nor middle-class financial security, so when she says “I want to sleep with common people like you”, she both wounds him (I’m not like them at all) and worries him (what if, despite every effort, I am?).

Insecurity breeds viciousness. The pathos of “watch[ing] your life slide out of view” and having “nothing else to do” gives way to blistering fury at those who “think that poor is cool” and that, in turn, to violence. In a verse cut from the single edit, Jarvis compares the “common people” to a dog lying in the corner who, without warning, will “tear your insides out”, a line so savage that it seems impossible that just two minutes ago we were still smirking in the supermarket. In the BBC3 documentary, Jarvis calls another section missing from the single edit (“You will never understand…”) the “punchline” to the whole song, and winces at the intensity of his own vocal. Did he intend the song to contain so much discomfiting ambiguity, or did it get away from him, as great songs often do?

Common People offers a voice that was prevalent in punk (John Lydon) and post-punk (Mark E. Smith), survived into the 90s (Nicky Wire), and is now almost inaudible in an age when pop seems as dominated by a single class as television or publishing: that of the spiky working-class intellectual. And because of its musical power, and its cute video, and its moment in time, and Jarvis’s peculiar charm, it managed to fool people into taking its rage and pain for something simple and stirring. Common People is like that dog lying in the corner. You think it’s cuddly but it will tear your insides out.

Note: Wikipedia identifies the Greek girl as Greek Cypriot St Martin’s student Ambrosia Sakkadas but supplies no evidence to support this. Jarvis himself says he can’t remember the girl’s name.

Note 2: Some of the ideas in this blog were prompted by a fascinating discussion on the I Love Music messageboard, which made me think afresh about a song I thought I knew inside out. One contributor suggested that Jarvis’s choice of drink was a reference to Rum and Coca Cola, a 1940s Trinidadian calypso about cultural imperialism, which adds an interesting wrinkle. Or maybe Jarvis just really likes rum and coke. I wholeheartedly recommend the BBC3 documentary linked above.

George Bush doesn’t care about black people

Five years ago, Kanye West’s blurting denunciation of George Bush’s handling of the Katrina crisis seemed unimprovable. It was a spontaneous, emotional reaction to a wrenching disaster and an inadequate official response. It coincided with the first year of YouTube, which meant it could be watched around the world instead of just reported. And it did what no protest song was able to do during the Bush years, by condensing widespread frustration and ire into a single, pungent, viral phrase — a perfect two-years-on companion piece to the Dixie Chicks’ “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” But now Bush himself has planted the cherry on the top by calling it “the worst moment of [my] presidency.”

First off, this makes Bush seem like a callous narcissist who is more hurt by a rapper’s outburst than, oh, 9/11, the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bank crisis or indeed Katrina itself. It also does Kanye a huge favour by reminding people of a time before he mutated into a hybrid of Tracy Jordan and Patrick Bateman. This was during the same vaguely political period when he recorded Diamonds from Sierra Leone and spoke up for gay rights, and there he was accusing the president of failing in his duty of care to the poor of New Orleans. Four years later, he was accusing one pop singer of having an inferior music video to another pop singer, leading the new president, one Kanye actually liked, to call him a “jackass”. This might be considered a step down.

Whether Bush deliberately misread Kanye’s point or genuinely doesn’t get it, he now defends himself on the safe grounds that he is not “racist”. Look, he implies, some of my best cabinet members were black. Well yes, but given the demographics of New Orleans, it’s obvious that Kanye’s point was more about class than race. A few months after the incident I interviewed will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who summed it up nicely: “I’m sure George Bush has a lot of black friends. He loves black people with a fuck of a lot of money. He doesn’t care about people that don’t have money. It just so happens that those people are black.” The phrase owed its resonance to timing more than inaccuracy. This was the tipping point for anti-Bush sentiment. Another interviewee, Michael Franti, told me: “After Katrina happened, people in the South saw people starving to death because of ineptitude by the government. And Bush came down and made a bunch of bullshit speeches and everybody was like, What the fuck? And that really changed the attitude of the country overnight.”

Kanye, who seemed as startled as anybody by his outburst, never followed up his moment of accidental glory. This may be for the best — he’s much more articulate on the subject of Kanye West than of politics. But he did inadvertently spur the likes of Lil Wayne and Jay-Z into recording songs about Katrina, and directly inspired one of the decade’s more intriguing protest records, by the Legendary KO:

Protest songs have borrowed popular melodies since the days of topical ballads, because before recorded sound the quickest way to get your message across to the masses was to piggyback on an existing tune. This habit was revived during the civil rights movement, when everything from 19th century spirituals to brand-new soul hits were remade as freedom songs. The Legendary KO, two Houston rappers who worked at shelters housing evacuees from New Orleans, were so wowed by Kanye’s statement that they quickly wrote a song around his hit Gold Digger and sent it to a friend who ran a hip hop website. The borrowing is witty and brazen, and clarifies the class aspect (George Bush “ain’t messing with no broke niggas”), while the new lyrics are pithy and defiant. It was an overnight viral sensation. “Unfortunately a lot of people don’t take to serious songs too easily,” the Legendary KO’s Damien Randle told me. “You almost have to sugar coat it in order to trick people into listening to it.” (A nice chain of coincidence: Gold Digger samples Ray Charles’s I Got a Woman; Charles’s Georgia on My Mind formed the basis of Lil Wayne’s Georgia… Bush; and back in 1961, jailed Freedom Riders turned Charles’s Hit the Road Jack into Get Your Rights Jack.)

It was an exciting moment for political music. Greil Marcus wrily voted the Legendary KO his third favourite single of 2005 and “Kanye West featuring Mike Myers” his first. At the time I thought this could be a way forward for protest songs: the topical ballad reborn in the age of YouTube, social media and a cavalier approach to copyright. But it didn’t really happen, notwithstanding a glut of novelty pro-Obama clips during the 2008 election. This, I think, is the real disappointment of recent years. Never mind record label jitters or airplay bans — anyone can stick a memorable protest song on YouTube. I’d like to see more people take the opportunity.

I am governor Jerry Brown

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Obama supporters have to take whatever crumbs of comfort they can find this morning. The defeat of Tea Party favourites Sharron Angle and Christine “I am you” O’Donnell, in Nevada and Delaware respectively, kept Democrats from ceding control of the Senate and showed that even disillusioned voters think twice before pulling the lever for the conservative fringe. In California, Barbara Boxer saw off Carly Fiorina in the Senate race and – here comes the protest-song link – Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s mansion he vacated in 1983.

I first heard of Jerry Brown through the Dead Kennedys’ 1979 single California Uber Alles and, understandably, I thought he was an asshole. Jello Biafra portrayed him as a “zen fascist” on his way to the White House and a kind of new age dictatorship. Only years later did I learn that Brown was a textbook progressive who opposed the Vietnam war and the death penalty, appointed liberal judges and locked horns with the oil industry over environmental regulations. He even dated Linda Ronstadt and was named Groupie of the Year by Rolling Stone. OK, you can see why his boomer smugness didn’t endear him to the punks, but he was hardly the scariest politician on the scene on the verge of the 80s. While writing my chapter on the Dead Kennedys I asked Biafra about this disconnect between the man and the song and this is what he said:

Keep in mind that I had just escaped from Boulder, Colorado where every other person was searching for a guru to tell them what to do. Any wacky cult or new age movement can find very fertile ground in Boulder and I was really scared by this and thought it was dishonest and evil and so I thought, ‘Oh my god after all this rebellion I expected more out of the 70s than people wandering in the mental darkness looking for someone with all the answers to tell them what to do.’ And one powerful politician alone seemed to be able to tap into that and thus Jerry Brown is the focus of California Uber Alles. But when Reagan stormed in and I realised what was at stake with the religious right claiming they owned the country and people more extreme even than the supporters of Richard Nixon, I realised that was a much bigger threat, thus California Uber Alles evolving into We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now. It also set it up as kind of a folk song because now anybody can update it.

The year after the song came out, author and punk singer Jim Carroll saw Brown in the street and dashed over to give him a copy of the single. “Brown is probably the kind of guy who’ll take it home and give it a listen,” remarked Biafra.

Bonus beats: by popular demand, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s 1992 cover version about Republican governor Pete Wilson (1991-99), a much more deserving candidate.

A scary John Birchers soundtrack playing in the background

A month ago, my gut feeling was that the Republican hierarchy and conservative punditocracy would pander to Tea Party sentiment until the midterms and then steer a more moderate path. This excellent piece by Ron Rosenbaum suggests otherwise. We know there’s going to be a Republican takeover today but exactly what kind of Republicans will be taking over? And where are the level-headed conservatives who will point out that rage is an emotion, not a political strategy?

Here’s Rachel Maddow on how William F Buckley and the Republican leadership sensibly rejected the John Birch Society in 1965 versus current conservatives’ willingness to embrace the lunatic fringe.

And here’s the Dylan song it’s named after, complete with strange picture of penguins: