Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Was The Rake Really Wack?

So I just read a kinda weird article and felt compelled to respond... Apparently AV Club has a running series where they get celebrities to trash pop songs they hate. I somehow landed on one where Steve Coogan was bashing "Lady In Red," and while pop music is really not my thing, it was fun. It's a strong and easy premise... a stand up comic will dish on a Katy Perry song, someone else does a light piece on how annoying "The 12 Days of Christmas" is, David Lynch rants about the "It's a Small World" song. You get the drift. But today they tackled one of their first hip-hop songs. And you'd think, okay, somebody's gonna make fun of Vanilla Ice or point out how bad the rapping was in "The Superbowl Shuffle." But instead they landed on The Rake's "Street Justice" as "the one song they hate most in the world."

Wait. What?

To be fair, this week's celebrity (a cartoonist named Ed Piskor) opened up by stating he doesn't really hate any song, so this was just as close as he got. And hey, everyone's entitled to their opinion and hate whatever they hate. This post is not a "listen, that guy is some kind of jerk for not liking X" retort. I'm not going in on the guy. He seems to know his shit, and I can certainly see why younger listeners would find "Street Justice"'s style super old school and corny. I mean, I did stop reading about a halfway through when he stopped talking about the subject of his article and went on promoting his comics (come on, Lynch didn't go, "but enough about that silly song, let's talk about some DVDs I have for sale!"). But no it's actually a fine, quick read I recommend (at least the first third of) because how often do you find substantive posts about hip-hop records from 1983 these days?

But I wanted to write this after reading that because it really sells this record short and there's just more to be said about it. I mean, he does specifically say the song didn't have any impact on the culture because he can't point to anyone trying to replicate The Rake, which is... a little bit crazy.

So, for those that don't know, The Rake is a one record act, and this is it. It came out on Profile Records in 1983, well after "The Message" and right on the heals of "It's Like That" (which also on Profile, of course). And the first thing you'll notice about it is that it's really dark. It's a narrative about rape and murder in a tone on that wouldn't really come around again until The Geto Boys. Or at least Ice-T. I mean, you want to talk about the replication of The Rake? There it is. Ice-T and all the earliest roots of gangsta rap - from the violent street life tales to the slow, cold style of delivery - owe quite a lot to this record. This is like "6 In the Mornin'" three years before "6 In the Mornin'."

And really, think 1983. Run DMC was just gaining a foothold in its move to push hip-hop out of the Sugarhill disco era. And what's The Rake talking about? He runs home after getting a phone call telling him that his wife was raped by three teens in the course of a brutal home invasion:

"I was not prepared for the things I saw,
When I opened up the apartment door.
The TV was in pieces; the furniture was scattered,
Mirrors were all busted up and window panes were shattered.
My kids were in the bedroom, they were beat up bad.
With tears in his eyes, my little boy said,
'We did all we could; we put up a fight;'
And I took him in my arms and told him he did right."

Yeah, this is some serious shit. It's followed by an entire verse about how his wife looked like a corpse as he watched the medics carry her out of their apartment. Nobody was writing shit like this back in 1983. Hell, you'd have a bard time finding songs written on this level in 1993.

And yeah, this song has a serious message, too, as the second part of the song invokes a "brother cop" pulling him aside at the scene of the crime and saying,

"'Brother, I'm sorry,' and he looks real sincere,
'Now dig what I'm saying; make sure you read me clear.
For all you can see is something that's terrible and cruel,
But it ain't no exception, it's more like the rule.
Go to the precinct and you know what they;ll say:
This happens here twenty-four hours a day.
No one was killed; ain't no big deal.
Some lady was raped, but her scars will heal.'"

Other classic message songs like Kurtis Blow's "8 Million Stories" or Toddy Tee's "Batterram" would never have a gut-punching line like that, even though it's obvious they're taking direct inspiration from this. Especially the west coast artists, who also borrowed the marriage of a smooth vocal vocalist with a funky-basslined electro track.

Now if you paid attention to the title of the song, you can guess how the song ends. Our narrator takes the law into his own hands and murders the three teens. I"ll acknowledge that the song leans on the heavy0handed side and it's not all as personally written as the parts I quoted. It's a great concept song, but The Rake would've really needed some additional aid from a real rhyme-smith like Spoonie Gee to file this 'masterpiece.' And the AV Club smartly compares the song's plot to a Charles Bronson movie, which does manage to suck some of the gravitas out of the proceedings when you think of it that way.

But damn, I mean, just look at that cover! Newspaper headlines about rape and murder, plus a creepy Bible quote spayed over in red graffiti. It would be a long time before you saw a hip-hop cover as heavy as that from anybody on any label, period.

The Source magazine listed this as one of the biggest '25 Turning Points In Hip-Hop' in their 50th issue special. They didn't really break-down why (with 24 other songs to squeeze onto a 2-page spread with a big photo, each song wound up with about one sentence apiece), but hopefully this post helps make it clear at least why I think it's so pivotal.

One final point. The AV Club article makes a big deal about how this song was co-written by two white guys. The label actually credits three, who also all produced, so I'm not sure which one they're leaving out. But okay, anyway. First, I'm a little suspicious of those credits, since it was often the case where the rappers who wrote the actual raps wouldn't get writing credit alongside whoever the producers (and again, that would be themselves in this case) wanted to credit, back in the 80s... As if, for example, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were actually responsible for The Fat Boys' rhymes on their remake of "Baby I';m a Rich Man." Unfortunately, it wasn't the exception but more like the rule to screw these young, black artists out of their publishing back then. And as it happens, The Rake was actually a fairly well established song writer himself, having a hand in a number of credible Soul records in the 70s and earlier 80s, under his real name Keith Rose. So it seems unlikely he would've had no creative input himself.

And it's also worth noting that those "[three] white guys" have got several Grammy, Academy and Tony Awards between them. So I think it might be a little unfair to write them off so dismissively. That fact might have something to do with why The Rake never had a follow-up record, though, as some- or every-body involved might've seen the endeavor as a sort of one-off experiment. And that's kind of a shame, because okay, it's dated and some of the lines sound corny now. Enough so that the AV Club just dedicated a whole article to mocking it as wack. But honestly, more smooth, dark proto-gangsta NY rap records like this would've been pretty cool to have back in the 80s.


  1. Coincidently, I just picked up the Street Justice 12" a few weeks ago; I absolutely love it. In my mind, it's almost (but not quite) on a par with The Message. Even more coincidently, I also picked up my copy of the fantastic Hip Hop Family Tree comic book by Ed Piskor at the same time. I find it really odd that Ed would pick this particular song to single out, as his book is a beautifully put together documentation of the founding years of hip hop culture, and the dude really knows his hip hop. If I remember correctly (although I'd have to double check), Street Justice is even mentioned in the book! Either way, in my my humble opinion, both Street Justice and the Hip Hop Family Tree comic book are stone cold hip hop classics in their own right, so respect to both The Rake and Ed Piskor. Each to their own, I guess.

  2. You did this record justice here Werner, street justice I guess...

    Chriz The Wiz