Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let's Talk About Jesse

"Jesse" is a 1984 release by Grandmaster Melle Mel on Sugarhill Records. It wound up being included on their 1985 album, Stepping Off. And it's interesting for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it's good. That's always a nice starting point. Melle's at his best, with the Furious Five providing back-up vocals and the hook, including a little singing and harmonizing. Mel may be a little inconsistent, but as some serious song-writing ability in his bag of tricks when he wants to use it, and the always dependable SugarHill Band provide a quality backdrop for it all.

It's interesting because it's a political anthem for Jesse Jackson, who was running for the presidential spot on the Democratic ticket that year (though it wound up going to Walter Mondale who lost the election to Reagan). You don't see a lot of pro-politician songs in the hip-hop canon - at least until last year, when Obama inspired a ton of old and new school artists to record some nice mp3 tributes - and this is as pure as it gets, with Melle rapping his praises and a chorus that commands, "vote! Vote! Everybody get out and vote!"

And it's interesting because it's a complete retooling of a previously recorded song, called "D.C. Cab." "Cab" was written for the 1983 film D.C. Cab, although it wasn't featured on the soundtrack album and was never released as a single. The movie was a raunchy, screwball comedy about a crazy taxicab company, starring, among others, Bill Maher and Mr. T. And the song's a beat for beat, note for note rewrite (the aforementioned "vote! Vote! Everybody get out and vote!" was originally, "go! Go! Everybody get out and go!"). Most of the changes really just involving swapping out a few key words. For example:

"Hypocrites and Uncle Toms are talkin' trash
(Let's talk about D.C.)
Liberty and justice are a thing of the past
(Just ride with D.C.)
They want a stronger nation at any cost
(He's riding D.C.)
Even if it means that everything will soon be lost
(Then you'll love D.C.)

He started at the bottom,
Ended on the top.
He proved that he can make it;
They don't never stop.
If you think they won't make it, they gon' let you know:
Every time you get pulled down, you've got to get up and GO!"


"Hypocrites and Uncle Toms are talkin' trash
(Let's talk about Jesse)
Liberty and justice are a thing of the past
(Let's talk about Jesse)
They want a stronger nation at any cost
(Let's talk about Jesse)
Even if it means that everything will soon be lost
(Let's talk about Jesse)

He started on the bottom;
Now he's on the top.
He proved that he can make it,
So don't never stop.
Brothers stand together and let the whole world see
Our brother Jesse Jackson go down in history."

All of Melle's rap verses 100% identical, too (it helped that he already took a shot at Reagan in "D.C. Cab"). There are even D.C. references still left in "Jesse." About midway through the song, he goes, "
But don't think that D.C. just did it first... There's a lotta D.C.'s all over this universe!" That's pretty confusing within the context of this ode to Jesse Jackson. Are we supposed to take that as a reference to Washington D.C. maybe? It doesn't really make sense. Maybe he's talking about how people like the characters in the (otherwise unnamed) movie need us to support Jesse Jackson. Again, it doesn't really translate into sense.

The lyrics to "D.C. Cab" are pretty serious and political, though (surprising, considering the movie itself), a la "The Message." And like I said, it's just damn good song-writing. So except for a few awkward bumps in the change-over, it all feels pretty natural and makes for a damn good song. And best of all, where "D.C. Cab" would be fading out to a finish, "Jesse" comes back with
an all new third verse that's completely Jackson-specific:

"The 30th day that's in December
Is a day that everybody's gonna remember.
'Cause on that day a righteous man
Thought about takin' a brand-new stand.
The name of the man is Jesse Jackson,
And his call for peace was louder than action.
'Cause now's the time to change the nation
But not with just another negotiation.
He went to the East for humans' rights,
To free the lieutenant shot down in flight;
Just another statistic, and the government knew it.
They didn't even want the man to go do it.
Before he left, he called the president's home,
And Reagan didn't even answer the phone.
But I'll tell you one thing that's an actual fact:
You can bet he called Jesse when Jesse got back!"

"Jesse" then has an extra chorus and reprisal (including a few new lines, asking us to "join the Rainbow Coalition").

The 12" for "Jesse" follows the standard SugarHill Records layout, with the vocal version on side A and the instrumental on side B. Also like a lot of SugarHill joints, the original 12" version is kinda long (8+ minutes); so you might want to be wary of compilations featuring shorter versions. As for "D.C. Cab," that song went unreleased for ages, until it finally appeared on the 1999 compilation album Adventures On the Wheels Of Steel, released by Sequel Records, which was a nice, exclusive treat from the vaults. Still, in the long run, I've gotta give it up to "Jesse," both for the extra verse and the fact that the subject matter is naturally compelling when it's directed towards genuine hope for a real political candidate rather than a zany ensemble of fictitious Animal House-like cab drivers.

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