Friday, June 19, 2020

Willie D On Juneteenth

You'd think there would be considerably more Hip-Hop songs about Juneteenth, or at least mentioning it.  But outside of stuff released in the last few years, say before 2017, it's surprisingly rare.  I've been racking my brains, and have come up with one: Willie D's "U Still a aggiN" from 1992 of his second solo album, I'm Goin' Out Lika Soldier.  Rap-A-Lot was pretty stingy with singles in those days, but this did make it out on 12", too, as the B-side to the album's sole single "Clean Up Man."  There it's spelled "You Still a Zaggin," but if you think about it, I'm sure the album spelling is correct.

Looking at the cover suggests this was meant as more of a split single for "Clean Up Man" and "Rodney K," as in Rodney King.  Both titles are on the cover and you've got a sexy lady's hand with a cigarette holder and a hand-written letter on the left, while there's a black man screaming as police cars descend on him on the right.  Apparently, there was a 7" single with the full "Clean Up Man" imagery released in full by itself.  But whether you consider it a "double A-side" or whatever, "You Still a Zaggin," which isn't even hinted at on the cover, is a B-side.

"Clean Up Man" is a fun, gender-flip of the classic 70s record "Clean Up Woman" by Betty WrightJhiame (here spelled Jiame) sings roughly the same hook with reverse pronouns, and they both loop the same funky guitar riff.  It's the quasi-radio friendly joint about stealing girlfriends they made the video for and everything.

Then "Rodney K" was more the real lead single for the streets.  Besides going considerably harder musically, with a killer track, "Do It Like It G.O." energy and cuts by DJ Blaster, it was super controversial.  Because the hook repeats "fuck Rodney King," not "fuck the Rodney King incident" or "fuck the police who beat Rodney King," but actually Rodney King himself.  I remember having to explain that one to my mother back when I wanted to buy this single in the store as a kid.

Of course, the reason he's saying this is because the song didn't come out in 1991, when he was attacked by police; but in 1992, right after he spoke out against the protestors who had taken to the streets following the police officers' acquittals.  I mean, it's not fair to say he spoke out against them, but his famous "can't we all just get along" call for non-violence was understandably taken by many, including apparently Willie D, as asking black people to simmer down in the face of this terrible injustice.  Of course, he explains it better himself in his song, "I'm tired of you good little niggas saying 'increase the peace and let the violence cease,' when the black man built this country, but can't get his for the prejudiced honky.  Rodney King, god damn sell out, on TV crying for a cop?  The same motherfuckas who beat the hell out ya!  Now I wish they would've shot ya.  'Cause this shit is deeper than Vietnam; and ain't no room for the Uncle Tom.  Let the white man dress you up, and mess you up; I wouldn't be surprised if he sexed you up.  'Cause you look like a gay, letting them white folks tell you what to say."  I'm pretty sure I didn't even attempt to tackle the homophobic angle to my parents.

But I'm here to talk about the third song.  Sorry, it's easy to get distracted by a number like "Rodney K."  It's actually interesting, I was just writing about how the message of one of Chubb Rock's songs was essentially neutered in its clean edit by the removal its critical, repeated line "you're still a nigga."  Now here's Willie D making the same point with the same line five years earlier.  That point being, the systematic racism built into our country is still going to mistreat minorities with racism no matter what they say or do in terms of appeasement, playing along, etc.  Of course, Willie D puts it a little less gently, "Now even if you're light, and damn near white, you'll get smoked because you're in the same boat.  Surroundin' yourself with white folks in your video; like Paula Abdul, she's a silly ho. Although you might only be one percent black, troop, they still consider you a mook. But she says she ain't black. Now how the fuck she figure? Yo bitch, you still a nigga." 

There's a common theme here of laying blame on victims of racism, not just the perpetrators.  Willie D didn't title his debut album Controversy for nothin'.  But didn't I start out this post by saying this was a Juneteenth song?  Yep!  In fact, this is where I first learned about Juneteenth as a kid.  So say what you want about the negative aspects of his music, but Willie was demonstrably successful in communicating positive messages with his music - I'm living proof.

So, let's set the scene.  This is a slower song, especially coming after "Rodney K," with Willie in his smoother mode.  He's rhyming over a classic Sly Dunbar sample, and we've got that reggae element amplified by K-Rino delivering a tough ragga chorus (a style I was disappointed he didn't continue with on his own albums).  Willie lays it down, "mama's outside, barbecuing ribs and links. It's Juneteenth, but to me it don't mean stink. It's a date of emancipation, but everybody wonder why Willie ain't celebrating. But things ain't perfect. I'm looking beyond the surface. So instead of drinking beer and playing dominoes, I'm sitting in the room with my eyes closed."  Again, I can't think of another Hip-Hop song that ever named Juneteenth once [please, leave them in the comments if you guys can], let alone make it the topic.

Actually, I called K-Rino's part the chorus, which they sort of act as in that they come between each of Willie D's verses with a more sung vibe.  But he's actually dropping full complex verses himself, which differ each time, going off on those he considers to be "white man in the middle yet them black outside" and imploring, "black man, get the government's dick out your eyes."  So overall, the point is that he can't bring himself to celebrate Juneteenth when things are still so unfair; and unfortunately, that message reverberates as strongly now as it did twenty years ago.

I was surprised when Rap-A-Lot wound up releasing a video for this song, too (though not surprised that they didn't attempt one for "Rodney K").  It's a strong, black & white representation with the slightly scrubbed title "Still Black" and some re-recorded cleaner vocals.  There were even promo 12"s of "Still Black," which I've never heard, but apparently have a radio friendly version of "Rodney K" on 'em, too.  The main retail single of "Clean Up Man" b/w "Rodney K" and "You Still a Zaggin" features the explicit, album versions of all three songs though, plus their instrumentals.  They're retitled "Fuck Rodney King" and "You Still a Nigga" on the vinyl single, but I believe this cassette is the only one with the picture cover.