Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Talking Heads In Flightt

In 1989, Yo! MTV Raps was in love with a sample. An unknown rapper named KC Flightt had sampled a pop, new wave 80's group that was already a long time MTV favorite, The Talking Heads. And unquestionably, the combination of "Once In a Lifetime"'s drums and bassline, plus the loop of bells that sometimes went with it, made an ideal hip-hop break. It had this soft, funky origin, but sounded undeniably tough as a hip-hop beat. The song also had a spacey theme, which suited itself perfectly for a music video, and major label RCA Records was prepared to cough up enough dough to get Talking Heads' lead vocalist David Byrne himself to appear in the video, and give the whole thing a cross-genre co-sign. You could just see the network executives' minds connecting all the dots for "Planet E" to become "Walk This Way part 2."

Well, it didn't turn into a phenomenon like that, but it was successful enough. I liked it enough as a kid that I wanted it, and when I couldn't find the single, wound up buying the whole album [pictured, right]. It turned out not to be very good... for reasons which would've been obvious right from the single if I'd be a more astute listener back then. But I was young, so I wound up just listening to "Planet E," which was wisely positioned as the first track, and never really venturing into the rest of the tape again.

So, this had an appealing track And the song had a very clear sociopolitical message to ward off the critics... although frankly, a little more subtlety would've gone a very long way. So what wasn't to like about this record? Well, this is a house track, for one; so even with a perfect sample like this (which gets billing as big as the guest artists on the album's liner notes), it really lacks the delicious, crunchy percussion of a real hip-hop track.

And what's up with the MCing? He's not even rhyming.  Well, okay, sometimes he rhymes, but it's inconsistent and very strained. Even the lyrics on the back cover are printed in paragraph form, as opposed to line by line. So while he sort of has a hip-hop flow, this song has to be considered at least a partial cross between spoken word and rap. His delivery actually winds up being pretty similar to the Talking Heads' own spoken verses. Perhaps that was intentional, but then it begs the question... why do we need this second version if he's duplicating the original so closely?

And for "spoken word," it's not even compelling poetry - while again it's a good, timely message, it's far too heavy-handed and simplistic. It's a little narrative about a planet where the people are divided "we'll call one Group A, and the other.... Group B"). They're separated by culture and class, and SPOILERS: racism is bad. I will give him credit for one small detail, though - he at least never comes out on the last line and says, "and the 'E' stands for 'Earth.' I'm talking about Planet Earth!"

So it's all just about The Talking Heads, but just how original was this sample selection even? This could almost be another Chill Rob G Vs. Snap situation. Because most heads today who treasure "Same As It Ever Was" as a break aren't going back fondly to this KC Flightt 12"... they're replaying DJ Chuck Chillout & Kool Chip's killer "Rhythm Is the Master," which transforms the same break into a killer "fuck that house shit" hip-hop jam with real tough MCing and some really fun and creative samples on the chorus. It was on a major, too (Polygram), so they also had a video and managed to score their own hit. And historically, it's pretty much the version that won out. The only thing is, neither of these artists actually had it first.

In 1988, the year before "Planet E" and "Rhythm Is the Master," somebody else had this sample. Long Island's Sugar Bear only released one 12" in his career, a single on the obscure label Coslit Records (later picked up and reissued by Next Plateau, which still wasn't really a major). And like Chuck and Chip, his version trounces all over the KC Flightt version, while using the same loop in the same way. It never really got the love back in the day, though, because it was independent. There was no music video, and so never got to duke it out on MTV with the others. RCA could stick David Byrne in their video like there never had been a "Same As It Ever Was" rap before, and the overwhelming majority of their audience were none the wiser. And that's a shame, because it may actually be the best version of all (though it's a close call).

But let's not write off KC Flightt entirely; he was a legit house guy. He's not just the vocalist; he produced and wrote his whole album. Today he's mostly known (again, because of that video) for being the guy who rapped with The Talking Heads; but his earlier single "Let's Get Jazzy" was an important, early record in establishing the subgenre of hip-house (and what got him signed to RCA in the first place). And while In Flightt was his only album on his own terms, he's stayed in the music business, recording with other jazz fusion/club whatever acts and is still around to this day.

And perhaps best of all, the 12" has a Hip Hop Mix of "Planet E" (also by Flightt) that's hip-hop purists will surely prefer. It's got a real breakbeat (I think from the same Bobby Byrd joint "Raw" came from) and a little bass riff from "White Lines." It doesn't have the mainstream appeal, since the original House Mix takes so liberally from "Once In a Lifetime." I mean, even the chorus and breakdown consist of vocal samples from there. Byrne might be lip-syncing to them in the music video, but make no mistake, it's all just lifted off that one record. So mainstream audiences will prefer the House mix just for essentially being a Talking Heads song; but the Hip Hop version has to at least get more respectability points for being original. If the rhyming was better, it could stand up alongside the Chuck Chillout record.

So, both the House and Hip Hop versions are on this 12". There's an Acid Drop Mix as well, which goes in the opposite direction, making the song more awful and clubby. And finally, there's another song on the B-side, "Dancin' Machine (Acid House Mix)." The original version of "Dancin' Machine" isn't from his album; it's an exclusive B-side to one of his other singles, "She's Sexxxy." Anyway, some of the production elements (by remixer Hudson "Hot Mix" Beauday) are interesting, but the MCing is just terrible, and turning it into acid house sure doesn't help.

Today, you're more likely to sell this to a Talking Heads fan than anybody. And I'll take Sugar Bear and Chuck Chillout over this any day - I think Byrne picked the wrong rapper guys to co-sign. If he was in the other guys' video, he could've been an animated superhero. But I can't front, every couple of years I still get the urge to put this one on the turntables and revisit "Planet E."

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