I bypassed last week’s Old School Friday because I had Record Store Day fish to fry. You’ll forgive me. I have faith. I also have some Me Phi Me in the CD player.
I mentioned in my original entry in the Old School Fridays series that I at one time owned every rap album in the BMG monthly music catalog. No exaggeration, really. As a result of that obsession to discover this totally new (to me) arena of music, I had a lot of bad CDs… but for every three truly terrible rap records I bought, I discovered something spectacular, something that I probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
Me Phi Me’s ONE came out in 1992 as a rebuttal to the gangster rap that had just begun to gain some crossover attraction. For this album, I have no particular story of discovery or happenstance, but it’s always stuck with me and grounds me in that Detroit-era time period. Best classified as “folk rap,” Me Phi Me (born La-Ron K. Wilburn) hailed from Flint, Michigan and he conceived the name Me Phi Me as an homage to the historically black fraternities Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi.
He gained some notoriety for appearing on the Reality Bites soundtrack, but beyond that and some buzz bin play on BET and MTV, Me Phi Me never gained much widespread popularity. Snippets of lyrics always stayed with me, especially this second verse from “Keep It Goin”:
You heard the rhythm
Saw the mechanism, what a funky system
Coming from the capital P, the H… I am a new age warrior
Fighting the battle for joy and euphoria
I march to the beat of a different drummer
Spring, winter, fall and summer
To show them what happens when you’re proud and strong
You keep going all night long
Braggadocio used to be the impetus for 90% of all rap songs. This number is thoroughly researched, I assure you. Just listen to some of the cuts from the Queens/South Bronx rap rivalry between Marley Marl and the Juice Crew (chiefly MC Shan) and KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions. If you don’t care to revisit the lyrical jabs, the following is a summary of the “Bridge Wars”:
Juice Crew: We’re great. We’re from Queens.
KRS-One: Not only are we better, but South Bronx is the real birthplace of hip-hip.
Juice Crew: Idiot, that’s not what we meant. Sidenote: we’re still better.
KRS-One: I told you the Bronx created hip-hop.
Juice Crew: Your name sounds like a wack radio station. Now go away.
KRS-One: Um… you suck and no.
Juice Crew: Fine. But we’re still better.
Like some old fashioned WWF, both sides played up the feud in the name of self-promotion. Later, it would be revealed the whole thing began because a Juice Crew-affiliated producer (Mr. Magic) called an early KRS-One track “wack.” And to that we now must intone “Oooh. Burn,” (with the appropriate amount of sarcasm) because, well, it all seems so childish. But this is about “rep” and “cred” and many other things with which we most likely don’t have to concern ourselves. When KRS went on to form Boogie Down Productions he took out his frustrations on the more popular Juice Crew by fueling the rap rivalry to sell BDP records.
Early rap wasn’t primarily about guns, drugs, hustlers, pimps and hoes (though there was certainly a smattering of all that). Old school rappers were more concerned about their stage reputation as innovators and entertainers. While BDP and the Juice Crew played out their public rivalry in call and response lyric banter, another early pioneer of the genre soldiered on, proclaiming himself to be the greatest without significant recourse. I am now speaking of the original human beatbox – Doug E. Fresh.
From Doug E. Fresh’s 1988 album The World’s Greatest Entertainer, “Greatest Entertainer” opens with the lyrics:
Got more juice than you get in your container
But to say fresh, as we are fresh
And leave everyone with a smile
I thought the proper thing for me to do is to come back doin’ the beatbox
Harmonica Style… Bust it…
Shortly thereafter, Doug E. Fresh fell out of favor. His 1992 effort Doin What I Gotta Do became a commercial failure despite being a solid record with moderate critical success. The hip-hop world had left the human beatbox and his unique skillz in the 80s. It wasn’t that Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew had lost their game or their desire to proclaim themselves to be the best; it was that 1992 marked a demonstrable shift in the rap universe. Gangsta Rap had appeared in the mid-80s under Ice-T and NWA but had never succeeded in crossing over into the mainstream until Dr. Dre’s The Chronic flipped the entire industry on its head with “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” Braggadocio just wasn’t enough to sell records any more. The old-school pioneers had to change their game or get left in the 80s… like Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew.
It just so happens that the same day I received my vinyl copy of The World’s Greatest Entertainer (which sadly isn’t a particularly easy record to track down), Radiohead finally delivered their Limited Edition Vinyl “Newspaper” package for The King of Limbs to my doorstep. And after sifting through the swag contained within I’ve come to the conclusion that Thom Yorke also believes himself to be the world’s greatest entertainer.
the world’s greatest entertainer cannot be capitalized or italicized. Thom Yorke would never proclaim himself to be the world’s greatest anything. The rules aren’t the same for indie rock bands as they were for classic hip hop. Modesty, ambivalence and obscurity rule the day. Doug E. Fresh could get up on a chair and challenge anyone to a beatbox-off right then and right there. And clearly he’d be the greatest. He’s Doug E. Fresh. And he had the Get Fresh Crew to back him up on that incontrovertible fact. Thom Yorke doesn’t have that luxury. Radiohead must assert their greatness through alternative venues. Like selling their “Newspaper Album” package for The King of Limbs or offering In Rainbows for whatever you wanted to pay.
Contained within the package I found The King of Limbs newspaper. The Early Edition, if you were wondering. I don’t know if it’s meant to make me feel like I’m living in a George Orwell novel or not; but I’m concerned someone’s monitoring my thoughts, scanning my most guarded and secret opinions. I’ll be exposed as a fraud, a false proponent of music that is good and worthwhile. As I’ve already confessed to finding a certain illogical appeal in Captain & Tennille, I presume I have nothing more to fear from the thought/speak police. Clearly, I can be trusted with brutal honesty. Therefore, I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m not sure about the new Radiohead record and I don’t get the point of the swag: the newspaper, the artwork, the sheet of hundreds of tiny little perforated pictures.
Doug E. Fresh on the other hand I understood. He asserted his greatness in his lyrics. He just came out and told me. And he said it in a way that I totally believed. In the good old days I’d listen to The Bends or Kid A and Radiohead used to bring the same kind of Doug E. Fresh confidence. Even In Rainbows reached out, took me by the throat and told me it was the best goddamn record of the year. The music spoke for itself. Now, however, we’re subjected to The King of Limbs. Still a great record. But it’s not taking me by the throat; it’s showering me with reverb and inexplicable artwork. The newspaper tells me “Sell Your House and Buy Gold” among many other things. As a collector the two clear vinyl 45s tickle me in all the right places, but the rest of the package is trying to impress me with its inaccessibility, like modern art or Thomas Pynchon novels. With this release Thom Yorke just got up on the chair, referred to himself in the third person and challenged the world to an indie-rock off… or not, you know, because he doesn’t really care either way. He then played The King of Limbs vinyl on a turntable shaped like a narwhal while reading aloud the pages of his newspaper in falsetto. After he’d flipped or changed the record for the third time, he kicked over the narwhal to a stunned silent crowd and exited the room. No Q&A necessary. Before leaving Jonny Greenwood proclaimed Abingdon, Oxfordshire to be the birthplace of glitch/ambient/intelligent dance/orchestral/post-modern/new-wave/guitar rock. And all those other phony glitch/ambient/intelligence dance/orchestral/post-modern/new-save/guitar rockers can suck his nuts… or not, you know, because he doesn’t really care either way.
And it was all done in the name of self-promotion. The less I understand, the more I’m supposed to admire it, the more I’m supposed to talk about it, the less Radiohead has to call attention to themselves because we’re doing it for them.
So after a full day with my two greatest entertainers, I just have one final thing to say: I’ve got more words in my little finger than you’ve got in your senior thesis. Thirty Hertz Rumble is the birthplace of the bl-g and all you arbitrary bloggers are just jealous of my frequency (though probably at least as qualified and able to bl-g). Word to your female parental figure. Also sign up for my mailing list to await the official announcement of my Canasta Chicken Limited Edition Vinyl Collection: a 5 LP set of unpublished short stories on yellow vinyl (read by a really cool guy named Vernon who does a great Foghorn Legorn impersonation), accompanied by a sheet of sixty pinhead stickers depicting me in the various stages of a Canasta game and instructions on how to turn a $1 bill into an origami chicken with George Washington’s face. Consider the gauntlet thrown… or not, because either way I really don’t care.