L’Auteur du Hip-Hop
Recently while shooting some stuff for a piece on the “Nu-Vinyl” movement, this film is about a guy we all used to use to press our records named Herb Powers. He was a “second generation” plate cutter. After Frankford and Wayne, where Herb worked, you took your plate to the pressing plant. I used to use Sun Plastic over in Newark for all my stuff. The kid I used to laugh and joke with, who went to Brown, had parents who owned the plant and gave me credit when I needed it. People like Vinnie’s father were more than just pressers. They ran a stand up joint, which meant that thousands of records weren’t going out the side door. To small companies like mine a couple thousand sales meant something. They also had to know what was selling on a small time level and what might, with a bit of help, make it to a higher level… that is where credit came in. You could have a hit on the radio and no money to press records, unless you had money or the pressing plant would give you credit.
After you got the wax we would run straight over to Mr. Magic (God rest his soul) to get into the weekend mix. Then if the response was right “Bugsy” (who is still a great New York radio man) might put you into rotation. Rotation in New York radio could set you on a straight money groove. What all this brought to mind is how mega-maniacal I can be.
One of my fantasy lives is that of a writer for the old studio system back in thirties, forties and fifties. Of course there were no writers of color on the back lot in those days. What attracts me to that life is that all you did was sit up in an office and write; everyday you wrote. In other offices there were others writers writing, drinking, doing drugs, having affairs and writing. Having done the same thing as a musician what I can say about those years is that your chops are way up.
What also happens is that the reaction to all the regimentation produced a generation of film makers that started in Europe, Italy, France and Germany who took their cinematic visions from their own imaginations; they wrote the script, directed and often shot the films… and even starred in them if need be. Truffaut, Fellini, Buñuel, Orson Welles and their colleagues wrote about this new cinema they were making. As a young film student I marveled at the completeness of their visions.
Later this came to mind when I was creating the music, writing the rhymes and performing them, producing and eventually pressing and putting them out on my own label. I shouldn’t forget to mention I was recording on my own home “sixteen- trac” Ampeg two-inch recorder with a sixteen-trac board in my professionally built home studio. Right from there in Elizabeth, New Jeruselem I made records that charted all over the world.
What I realized is that I was a member of a group of guys who did mostly the same thing. We wanted control from conception, to design and execution. I can thank Sylvia Robinson for making a rapper out of me; that final part of the puzzle happened much by accident. The fact remains that it happened and you can hear the voice. I never really loved rapping and singing for my supper.
What I came to understand, while doing an interview with a journalist/musician who suggested that I didn’t fit the profile of the young dumb primitive rapper who just somehow found himself in between trips to jail in front of a mike. He said from the first time he heard “The Message” he knew that who ever did that “shit“ knew what he was doing. He suggested that he knew I had to be a musician from my rhythmic cadence in my voice. He said when he found out I had done everything except the guitar it made perfect sense to him. Now many years later, with many other producers who have stepped from the background to the foreground, this phenomenon is far more common. In rap it is still rare that a rapper can make his own beats too, but it does happen.
What is emerging now is a whole assortment of artists as auteurs. People like Pharell Williams, and Missy Elliot come to mind. Artists who write and produce their own songs as well as songs for other people, and also sing and rap themselves. It is the completeness of vision that determines an auteur’s grip of conception, design and execution that truly tests his or her total vision.
The role of the producer and the democratization of technology has become much less behind the scenes. Examine the original school of rappers. I suspect I am the only one that wrote the music, wrote the lyrics, as well as rapped them. The musical skills of most rappers are still mostly suspect. It is one thing to rap over a sample of someone else’s music, it is something else to rap over someone else’s song. It is something completely different to do all that yourself. I often said in interviews that “I was and am a musician, the rest of these rappers can’t play nothing but the radio. That still remains mostly true today though it is changing. I am not one of those people that believes you have to have years of study and practice to play music, but it does help to at least be able to do something on ah instrument.
Here is where things get a bit tricky. A lot of these kids started their musical dabbling on drum machines. The more curious and industrious of them bought little keyboards and began playing by ear. This I believe is better than good. Sometimes the more music you know separates you from making a hit. But I do believe to truly be an auteur you have got to play something. The act of sampling is a marvel and I would be the last one to criticize people for something that has made me so much money, but to compare it to writing a song is just silly.
There have long been producers who did far more than any of us knew about when we were growing up listening to Motown, or “James Brown” or the “Ohio Players”, or “War”, or “Kool and the Gang” or any of the acts from Philly. Often times producers not only wrote the songs but sang all the parts beside the lead for many of the great singing groups of their era. I had the pleasure to work with one of those producers, Bunny Siggler. He produced a lot of the hits we associate with Philly and Gamble and Huff.
I would like to state here that I do not believe you have to be formally trained to be an auteur, but it helps. A couple of people who manage to write music with absolutely no formal training are Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks. Both were true auteur filmmakers and music happened to be a strong part of their vision whether it was “Shaft or “Sweet Sweetback”. The spirit of “auteurism” is completion of a project from concept, to design, and then execution. I feel there is a difference, however slight, between auteurs and simply mega-maniacal self- absorbed fools. The proof is… how they say… “in the pudding”.
In this nu-me…me…me… culture it stands to reason that more producers/artists have arisen. I must also admit that I have a much higher personal respect for artists that at least write some, if not all, of their own songs. The other elements of production can also serve auteurs well; these days the “E-man” who plays all his own tracs is becoming more and more prevalent.
I try not to look back but, with people interviewing me and being interested in my exploits, it is only natural that I examine what was done by me and my cohorts.
What I am struck most by when I am forced to or I go back and listen to some of the many tracs I cut myself and was a part of, I always remark “Damn we cut some good-ass tracs.” Everything is so well conceived, arranged and performed that it usually brings a smile to my face as well as some money for my pocket.
It always seems strange that this isolation and technology took what was a group exercise, because even though there are solo performers I would rather hear alone than with any group (Thelonious Monk immediately comes to mind), music is at best performed with other people. With years behind me and my production activity, one mistake comes to mind. If I have the chance I will never produce all the tracs on myself; it is like being your own lawyer. You know what they say about that… rest assured you have a fool for a client.