Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Tribe Called Quest's "We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service"

Mea culpa. It should have occurred to me as I watched in real time as police lobbed tear gas grenades into residential neighborhoods in Ferguson (or more recently, turned fire hoses on water protectors in subzero temperatures at Standing Rock) that there were other folks watching who were as terrified by the people on the receiving end of those volleys as I was horrified by law enforcement's actions.

Woke up November 9th to a different America than I went to sleep in. Shit you don't think can happen, can happen. Unlike 2004, when I stayed depressed for a month after the election, I've been staying focused on what I need to stay focused on, but things are hardly "business as usual." I've decided to stop buying records and CDs, using the money I'd have spent there to make monthly donations to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center, and buy a subscription to the NYT (mainly so I can read their content online; my wife still likes to ride her bike to her old neighborhood to pick up the analog paper).

Mea culpa. I've done freelance work for Kushner's rag, and worked in internet advertising -- the tool by which newspapers and other media outlets seek to "monetize" their content. (Not to mention the blogosphere -- right here under your shoes -- where everyone is a journo, and where misinformation and disinformation abound.) The media created Trump as a candidate because he was "good for ratings," and reported the campaign like it was a game show. Is it any wonder the game show host won? (With a little help from Russian intelligence, WikiLeaks, and the FBI.)

So I've gone from being a music geek to being a news geek. After reading reports of harassment of minorities, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT folk, and women -- 701 reported (which begs the question, "How many unreported?") since the election at this writing -- I pinned a safety pin to my Ozzie Nelson sweater, as hollow a gesture at that seems. Sure, triumphalism is as much an American habit in politics as it is in sports, but it doesn't usually come accompanied by Hitlerite posturing. Now I'm just waiting and wondering what other shoes are going to drop after January 20th. Besides the aforementioned groups (basically evabody but white men), it seems free speech, the environment, science, and education, for starters, are about to take it on the chin. (Barbara Kingsolver elucidates it far better than I ever could. Some other constructive ideas are here.)

I've always called the Dems the party that could fuck up a wet dream. Libs have always been better at nitpicking each other over ideology or semantics than organizing for action. Cons just have their "two minute hate" and get down to business. The Reps have been working on rolling back the Voting Rights Act since the Burger court. The Dems made the fatal error of thinking their job was out-fundraising the Reps, rather than coming up with a platform that addresses the needs of common folks. American voters made the mistake of thinking they were choosing a flavor of ice cream, ignoring the fact that the vanilla came topped with a Klan hood and a swastika. Now it'll be open season on natural resources as the profit takers take their profits and the poor bastards who voted for Trump "to send a message to the Establishment" get screwed the way they always do.

Into this highly charged atmosphere drops We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the first album in 18 years from Queens, NYC, hip hop crew A Tribe Called Quest and the last work from rapper/founding member Phife Dawg, who died of diabetes complications in March, aged 45. The first single, "We the People," which carries the refrain, "All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways...," fairly exploded out of the gate with a SNL performance that even a confirmed non-TV watcher like your humble chronicler o' events heard about. (Runner up for best line: "Niggas in the hood living in a fishbowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole.")

Mea culpa. Comparisons and quotes are the laziest way to write a review.

As a piece of politically conscious black pop, We Got It From Here... ranks up there with the first Curtis Mayfield solo LP, What's Going On, and Innervisions, not to mention Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly (whose creator Kendrick Lamar guests on "Conrad Tokyo" here). Having buried some hatchets to make this album, Tribe plan to call it quits after a final tour, but they're going down swinging.

These days I listen to music at home at a volume comparable to when I still lived with my parents, and the way this is mastered, you have to crank it up to be able to hear the lyrics, so today I took advantage of the opportunity afforded by a brief trip out of town to spin it twice at volume. (For others like myself, who are too myopic to read the tee-tiny fonts in CD slicks, you can find the lyrics here.)

"The Space Program" sets the scene, with Q-Tip and Jarobi proposing the same solution posited by George Clinton and Sun Ra (not to mention, closer to home, Doc Strange on this year's Sindrome), only to find they're not invited: "It always seems the poorest persons / Are people forsaken, dawg / No Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jacksons / On the captain's log." (Spot the Gene Wilder sample!) "Solid Wall of Sound" takes its loping pace from an improbable Elton John "Benny and the Jets" sample (elsewhere, Ali Shaheed Muhammad samples Kraut rockers Can and Brit proggers Gentle Giant), with a taste of Busta Rhymes' rapid fire delivery and Jamaican flavor.

On "Dis Generation" and "Kids," the elders in Tribe show empathy for those with a younger point of view. A slippery guitar line propels "Melatonin," in which Q-Tip describes a familiar predicament, elevated at the end by Abbey Smith's sung refrain, "So many thoughts in my mind / Making it very hard to unwind / I guess I should take one / Just one." When Kanye West (!) makes a cameo on "The Killing Season," I misheard his "They sold ya, sold ya, sold ya" as "You sold your soul, soldier." "Lost Somebody" carries the album's most heartbreaking lines, way too familiar in communities of color this goddamn year: "Have you ever loved somebody? / Way before you got to dream? / No more crying, he’s in sunshine / He’s alright now, see his wings."

"Movin Backwards," "Conrad Tokyo," and "Ego" are tied together by a razor sharp dissonant guitar line, framing lyrics like the first's "Po puts braces on my wrist like he was clapping his hands / How demeaning, y'all? Who could be blind to racism?" and the second's "Sayonara tomorrow, it's just blood on the ground." "Ego" equates hucksterism with pimping ("Fool the thirsty people, selling tap water in bottles / Fooled a girl with NYU scholarship and now she models"), while "The Donald" imagines Phife in a rap battle with its title character. (He'd probably clean his clock like Hillary did, but would it matter?) Noted rockumentary talking head Jack White guests on guitar, channeling Eddie Hazel and Ron Asheton the way you'd expect him to.

Tribe's Midnight Marauders got me through the worst year of my life up to that time (the one when I got divorced). I'm counting on We Got It From Here..., along with open eyes and ears, good friends, and lots of small acts of kindness, to get me through the one coming up. Keep your head and your strength up.


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