Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bart Simpson, Not Yet Free

So I was listening to one of the audio commentaries on the latest Simpsons blu-ray: season sixteen, the episode where Bart becomes a rapper (why not? he'd already released a hit record with DJ Jazzy Jeff in 1990). 50 Cent has a great cameo where he tells Bart to stay in school, then turns to his agent and asks if that counted as community service. Anyway, I was pretty surprised to learn from that commentary that the hip-hop music of that episode was composed by pretty much the last person you'd ever guess to be producing Simpsons rap: Boots Riley of The Coup.

The Coup are one of hip-hop's strongest and most sociopolitical groups in the genre. They were from California but still somehow managed to wind up signed to Wild Pitch for their debut (although strictly speaking, they had an underground indie EP release two years earlier... but Kill My Landlord is the album that really introduced them to the world at large), and really knocked audiences out in a way only Public Enemy, Paris and X-Clan had managed to before. At least since "The Message."

But the problem I've always had with The Coup is that none of their later work quite lived up to their first initial single, "Not Yet Free," "Dig It" was a decent follow-up; it had a great instrumental, in fact better than "Not Yet," but overall the song didn't have nearly the same power. And "Funk" should probably have just remained an album track. I still followed them to their second album and all, and really appreciated "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish," with its clever misdirection and funky track; but they still never reached the heights of this debut.*

It's an interesting, non-coastal kind of song, with a very pure, New York "dusty jazz" horn sample ...though the sax, along with the bass and keyboards are actually played live by original musicians for this record. So you've got this rich, Roots-like music and scratches by their DJ, Pam the Funkstress all it's over a dark, serious yet funky bassline. But the beat's rhythmic slowness and the MCs Oakland voices clearly betray their west coast origins. Finally, add to the mix the backing vocals (credited to a Vilisa Johnson) and ever-shifting instrumental - the song gets a whole second life when it switches as Boots says, "capitalism is like a spider." It gives the Coup a sense of being more important than regionalism or the classical division of hip-hop styles.

And over twenty years later, I can still recite that one verse from memory. You remember when the beat stops dead, and a lone, tapping snare comes back too bring in these new, rudimentary bass notes. Boots says,

"Niggas, thugs, dope dealers and pimps;
Basketball players, rap stars, and simps.
...That's what little black boys are made of.

Sluts, hoes, and press the naps around your neck;
Broads pop that coochie, bitches stay in check.
...That's what little black girls are made of.

But if we're made of that who made us,
And what can we do to change us?
The oppressor tries to tame us,
Here's a foot for his anus.
Well, since the days when I was shittin' in diapers
It was evident the president didn't like us.
Assassination attempts? I'd root for the snipers.
My teacher told me that I didn't know what right was.

Well, she was wrong, 'cause I knew what a right was.
And a left, and an uppercut, too.
I had a hunch a sucker punch is what my people got,
That's why I was constantly red, black, and blue."

Fuck, "root for the snipers?" This was not a group hung up on being PC or what might upset listeners. But it was earnest and serious; not being extreme for the sake of shock value or media attention. You related to the sentiment, even you weren't quite bold enough to say it first. ...I played this single to death back in '93.

The B-side, "I Ain't the Nigga," is a cool, serious twist on the beat used for Masta Ace's crazily fake duet with Biz Markie, "Me and the Biz." It's a rejection of the popularization of the word "nigga" and its adoption in contemporary American and hip-hop culture, ironically using an NWA (since they're the group that effectively blew it up) vocal sample of Cube declaring, "I ain't the nigga."  Also, keeping the Juice Crew connection, they use Big Daddy Kane saying, "if I'm a slave, I'm a slave to the rhythm" from Kool G Rap's equally topical, but more uplifting "Erase Racism." In fact, "I Ain't the Nigga" has been carried over from their 1991 EP, but remixed with a completely new instrumental. Instead of the smooth and funky bass-driven track here, the original much rawer, drum and funk guitar-driven track. I could see preferring either version (that chunky "Gasface Refill" piano underneath the hook puts this Wild Pitch version over the top for me), but both are solid and worth having; this was definitely a successful remix.

...Again, not exactly the kind of artists you'd think would be crafting Simpsons raps. I can't imagine Rupert Murdoch had any idea what kind of anti-establishment polemicists he was hiring. I'm sure The Simpsons' writing team loved that.

By the way, be sure to check out the "Instrumental" version of "Not Yet Free." Beyond being the instrumental track, the vocals aren't just removed but replaced with some big sax soloing that's pretty hot.

*I've also listened to bits and pieces of their more contemporary work after E-Roc left the group, and I've got "My Favorite Mutiny" on 12"; but never really got into it. Maybe it's time for a revisit?

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