Friday, April 27, 2007

Check The Fine Print AKA What Us Old Hip Hop Heads Learned (And Never Forgot) From Reading Liner Notes

Like most other 70’s and early 80’s babies, I grew up listening to my parents’ records (No! Not another one!). I marvelled at the fact that adults seemed to read and memorize the liner notes to damn near every important record they owned and retain every detail contained therein (to which seemed like all of them). It was bugged out to watch old drunk brown people with varying accents at every family reunion or house party get into arguments about what seemed like trivial shit to us kids. For instance, who accompanied David T. Walker on his “Goin’ Up” LP? Or what group recorded some obscure ass soul song or who did it first or better. “So and so never recorded for Invictus Records!” “He was on Volt, fool!” "That girl never recorded no albums on Chess!" etc.

We used to laugh our asses off at our parents, cousins, uncles and their friends from the back room with the TV (this was where the kids were always remanded to while the adults “partied” was the 70’s, y’all)...that is, until we were trotted out to settle an argument or perform some talent for the assembled partygoers to gawk at. Then they’d pull out old Blues or Soul records to play. I noticed that the most serious debates came in regards to Jazz albums, cats would start calling around to their friends to see if they had the album that was being argued about...sometimes it took weeks to settle. What is it about this music that they feel the need to argue over it so intensely? I thought to myself...I don’t ask that question anymore.

I was always amused that on the Cosby Show when Cliff and Clair Huxtable had a dispute over who recorded what tune on what label...They always managed to be calm and civil and nary a drop of alcohol was involved (I know it was TV but, seriously). I didn’t get how that was possible that two people can argue over details of an old Blues/Jazz/Soul/R & B record and not raise their voices at all. Even after it was found out that Claire was right (was that chick EVER wrong about anything ever?) she didn't feel the need to rub it in Cliff face either. Nothing like the "I TOLD your stupid ass you was wrong!" I was used to hearing when people usually won a music bet.

People felt such an attachment to the music they loved that they knew everything about who was involved in the creation of it, where it was recorded and when. This love of music and the drive to learn everything about the creation of the music I loved was passed on to me through my family. By the time I was 6, I knew more about Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, The Intruders, The Delfonics, Etta James, Brooke Benton, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Chairmen Of The Board, and the Ohio Players then any other kid onmy block. The other kids on my block, however didn’t give a fuck and were largely unimpressed with my encyclopedic knowledge of Buddha, Stax or Strata East Records releases, they just wanted me to play some kickball...and shut the hell up about Archie Bell and The Drells and kick the goddamn ball hard as I could when it was rolled to me by the kid with the Battlestar Galactica iron-on on his shirt and karate shoes.

By the time Hip Hop albums started actually coming out regularly, my focus solely on old records had come to an end. I was more interested in the new Rap records that my big brother and his friends were buying and listening to. Everytime someone showed up with a new record I remember reading the sleeve and flipping it over to read every damn word printed on it. It was as close to the cats on the record that I’d get as a 9 year old. Now I had to listen to the record back and forth trying to catch every little thing that happened and soak it all in. It used to kill me that I started hearing parts of the old records I grew up listening to (that the adults still argued about) on these new rap records. I began learning all of the names of people and places that constantly appeared on these LP’s and cassettes and CD’s over the years until they filled my head along with the names and dates and places that were in my own textbooks at school:

Noun- Refers to a person, place or thing. Examples: Suekwon, Cheif Groovey Lew, Herb Powers, Paul McKasty, Eddie Sancho, Pumpkin “The King Of Beats”, Kurtis Mantronik, Dave “Funken” Klein, Bill Adler, Cey “Cey City” Adams, Daniel Hastings, Mr. Dave, Andre “The Record Lord” DeBourg, Sylvia Rhone, Omega The Heart Breaker, Geeby Dajani, Skeff Anslem, Faith Newman and Ivan “DJ Doc” Rodriguez are all people. Studio 1212, Frankford/Wayne, MasterDisk, Chung King House Of Metal, Libra Digital Studios, Battery Studios, House Of Hiits, Power Play Studios, Rampant Recording Studios, Calliope Studios, Unique Studios, and D & D Studios are all places. The Linn Drum, Fairlight CMI, Roland TR 808, Technics SL 1200 MKII, Akai MPC 60, E- Mu SP12, E-Mu SP1200, Ensoniq EPS 16, Ensoniq ASR 10, Alesis SR16 and Akai MPC 2000 are all things. All of the above are considered nouns. By the end of the first Golden Era of Hip Hop I had enough people, places, things and dates committed to memory that I needed an outlet to use it.

The problem was that I couldn’t share it with any kids my own age. I had to talk Hip Hop with the older kids, namely my big brother’s friends...thing was that they were usually between 4-6 years older than me. Apparently, there were a lot of things that happened in these songs that flew right over my head as a kid...for instance, what the hell is this “cheeba” that Schooly D kept going on about? What beef does the Hilltop Hustlers have with the Juice Crew? This was all information that the average 11 or 12 year old just wasn’t privy to. I got put on the all of the adult subject matter, nuances, metaphors, similes and double entendres my young ass couldn’t fully grasp at the time. My understanding began to grow by leaps and bounds. I stayed reading those liner notes in my tapes for any extra information I could find.

I began having my first in depth critical Hip Hop/Rap discussions/debates with these sameolder kids. There weren’t many magazines that seriously tackled the subject of Hip Hop or Rap music at the time, either. Occasionally, Right On! or Black Beat would have a vanity or puff piece that was only good for a color poster for your wall as no real information could be gleaned from them. All of that came from the occasional rap review that was printed in mainstream publications (that rarely, if ever understood the music they were reviewing). It wasn’t until years later that any publications were created that covered and wrote critically about Rap music or Hip Hop culture.

By that time my classmates had caught up to where my head was at and we started having heated debates about stuff like how “Critical Beatdown” influenced the sound of “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” , Finesse & Synquis were better than Salt N’ Pepa and which emcee was the greatest? Rakim, KRS One, Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap? Discussions such as these involved a lot of reciting lyrics, breaking down album tracks, and doing detailed autopsies of every element involved in the creation of said tracks (a la I beagn to slowly understand why my relatives and their friends would have these marathon debates about 20 year old records...these albums were new and look at me!

Once the activity of sampling became an issue and they had to be cleared, get permission and then print any interpolations aor usage of other original compostions in the albums liner notes circa 1990/1. In other words, once the sample sources got revealed the game got real once again. People would rush out to get those records whose names were printed in those hip hop album liner notes. Songs like Cymande’s “Bra”, The Emotions “Blind Alley” and Bob James’ “Nautilus” were now sought out by casual music fans and people began searching for recordings by artists like Dyke & The Blazers, Brass Construction, Galt McDermot, The Winstons, 9th Creation, John Klemmer and Bob James all because their favorite hip hop producers/groups used them in songs. The copyright laws and rigid sampling and clearance rules did affect the music, but producers just had to improvise and create new production techniques. Readers of liner notes now had a new element added to the ritual of buying an album and poring over the text contained in the panels of the tapes packaging.

I have random shoutouts from obscure albums made 15 years old ago committed to memory to this day but I can’t find stuff I used yesterday in my own kitchen. I remember looking forward to each BDP album to figure out who was officially down the BDP crew according to Kris this year. I miss seeing the names of my favorite emcees publishing companies so much of the years that I memorized them. Names of people that did the art direction for the albums and took the pictures, names of various A & R’s and record excecutives through the years at different labels are all part of my collection of esoteric wisdom. If it wasn’t for my jobs at records store in the past or books like Ego Trip’s Big Book Of Rap Lists I’d feel like all of this knowledge was for naught and I’d have no hope of using it ever. The closest I came to that feeling I used to have then now is reading a new article on (chock full of the names I learned from years of reading liner notes). Besides, the digital age has made the whole liner notes experience moot now.

Now I’m an adult and I’m one of those sad bastards arguing with someone else about Prime Minister Pete Nice & Daddy Rich’s “Dust To Dust” LP being damn near classic and that Cage was the guest on “Rich, Bring ‘Em Back” but his name was Benz back then. Then I break out the CD and bring up an old Cage interview from the depths of the internet to further hammer home the point that I’m right...Now just if there could be a Hip Hop Edition of Jeopardy (or if I could get a job writing questions for it) so I could make some money off of knowing any of this shit!. One

This blog was written and posted TODAY by me for my blog series Poisonous Paragraphs.


Crooklyn said...

LOL @ Hip Hop Jeopardy. Im sure you would be "Rakin In The Doe" like Zhigge... Once again great read Dart. Those days are gone but they will forever live on, in the hearts of true hip hop headz. Most of these fools today don't even know what the damn album COVER looks like...let alone it's liner notes.....

Anonymous said...

"I remember looking forward to each BDP album to figure out who was officially down the BDP crew according to Kris this year"

I hear that. That's how I got hip to Stetsasonic.

PYL. said...

I was just the same... Except I was born in 87 and didn't have an older brother. My "elder brother" actually turned out to be the internet, but yeah I love those liner notes. Apart from supporting artists, they're one of the reasons I still buy albums.
The first CD I ever got was Nas's Illmatic, in 96, right when I moved back to France and my access to hip hop got real limited. That's the only album I had till 2001 when I got Dre's 2001 (yup, I got both albums 2 years after their release). But during that time, man did I bump that album. And all that time I was reading the liner notes and trying to understand the lyrics and the slang...

alley al said...

nice wrtie up dart. thanks.

yeah i always liked inside jokes and trying to comprehend them.. and figuring out so-n-so's real name.. i remember always staring at the midnight marauders sleeves and figuring out who i didn't know.. the digital underground comics in the later albums were always great..