Today was a historic day – The SCOTUS ruled that love is actually more powerful than hate, and gave equal rights to our LGBT brothers and sisters. I’m so overcome with joy that I feel like shouting about my happiness from every rooftop. And then I remembered that I have been resurrecting my old #BreakbeatTuesday columns and so though that this is a perfect time for me to revisit this piece that I wrote about Carl Bean for the Fool’s Gold #CosmosCrates series, originally posted on January 11th, 2011 courtesy of my Fool’s Gold friends … Enjoy!
What’s good, Fool’s Gold massive? Your favorite record nerd is back again to drop some gems on you, and when I say “gems” I really mean useless shit from the treasure trove that is La Cabeza De Cosmo. Now it’s fucking crazy to me that, here in the 21st Century, there still isn’t equal rights for the LGBT community in America. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that 2 people who love each other and devote their lives to one another, that are gay, do not share the same rights as those who are straight. One day, people will look back at this time and just be ashamed of themselves. Another thing that drives me absolutely batshit crazy are those people in the DJ and dance music community who are completely (consciously or not) homophobic. Don’t you know, if it weren’t for the gay community, none of this shit would even be here in the way it is? But that all might be another discussion for another time, and my time is so very precious, so let me get right to the music this week with “I Was Born This Way.”
To frame how good this song is, last summer me and Eli Escobar were doing an outdoor party and we were playing all vinyl. We thought the crowd was going to be mostly people that came to hear really good dance music, you know, house and disco. But it ended up being more of a “weekend warrior” type of crowd that closely resembled an all Asian prom. Because we only had vinyl we were pretty much locked into what we could play, so we just had to take the brunt of all the requests for Rihanna or Biggie. But, being the dudes that we were, we stuck to our guns and made the most of it, turning the party out. The highlight of the night to me was when Eli played Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” and the dancefloor was packed with what seemed to be a group of South Philly Cambodian thugs, all of them just losing their shit, hands in the air to the song. Eli and I just looked at each other, speechless… Power of the groove, I guess.
This disco anthem and gay liberation touchstone was written by Chris Spierer and Bunny Jones. Jones, a straight, Christian, Black woman from Harlem decided to pen the song in tribute to the gay employees who worked at her hair salon. She realized they were experiencing terrible oppression both in everyday life as well as internally, with a society that wouldn’t allow these folks to express themselves for who they really were. And with that, a protest song was born in 1971. 4 years later it was recorded by a little known singer named Valentino and pressed up by Jones and sold out of the back of her trunk, Too $hort style. It was a stripped down version utilizing a schaffel beat that sounds more like a Partridge Family ’70s pop record than a disco tune, but the song began to pick up steam and started getting a lot of play, even going to #1 in the UK. Sensing a hit, Berry Gordy decided to option distribution rights for Motown, but decided to wait 2 years and rerecord the song with established (though not large by any means) singer Carl Bean. Bean was openly gay but the folks over at Motown were completely ignorant to that fact, merely choosing him because of his powerful, gospel infused vocals. Having matched that with impeccable TSOP production by Norman Harris, they were golden with a silky and sublime groover of a tune – a tune that was the first true gay anthem to come from within the community itself. The song still packs the floors from Christopher Street to the Castro. Bean himself never really had another hit as big, but he did fine with himself, eventually becoming an Archbishop of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement.
By the late 70s disco had transformed from an extension of soul music to a bland pop formula that anyone (and Ethel Merman) wanted to cash in on. Mark Ronson speaks a little bit about that in this fantastic interview. And then the “Disco Sucks” movement was born, a backlash that not so subtly masked it’s latent racism and homophobia in the guise of being “shocking,” dictating that something that was just so much fun just wasn’t cool anymore. It was around this time there was a shift in public taste back towards a more hetero, testosterone infused frat boy rock sound. All good, and I love “My Sharona” as much as the next man, but come on… can’t you let the people live? But of course disco never really died, it just went underground, to places like The Paradise Gagage, and places like The Warehouse in Chicago. And this shift helped give birth to a brand new sound – House Music.
Now OBVIOUSLY if you’re reading the Fool’s Gold blog then you’re no stranger to house and dance music in general. But it has a long and rich history, dating back to the bathhouses of NYC to the Mecca of Chicago through the one and only Frankie Knuckles. House music IS soul music though, in the truest sense of the term. It’s something that gets within you and doesn’t let you go. Shit, in a lot of ways early Techno music is soul music as well. It was a bunch of Black guys from Detroit that wanted to be P-Funk but instead of getting instruments they got drum machines. Anyway, Chicago is arguably the Mecca but New York was still the epicenter of dance culture, and by the late ’80s and early ’90s it had birthed it’s own crop of homegrown artists and producers. And one of these guys is Pal Joey.
You know Pal Joey’s records even if you don’t know who he is. He’s the man behind the all time dance classic by Soho, “Hot Music,” which is perhaps the strangest, funkiest, most progressive dance record of all time. I don’t know how he thought of that but I picture him in the studio saying “Okay, let me loop up this random jazz piano vamp, play some hard as fuck drums on top – but not a four on the floor style, let me play this house beat like a hip-hop breakbeat…” But that’s probably because he comes from the school of DJs – AND LISTENERS / DANCERS – that would fuck with rap music, classics, reggae and house at the same time. That real New York shit you know, where in the ’80s and ’90s rap and dance music all shared the same shelf space. And for the record, Joey has done plenty of hip-hop productions for KRS-One, MC Lyte and more.
But back to “Hot Music,” it’s like he has an uncanny knack for hearing a short segment of music, a small piece that the average listener wouldn’t even catch, and he’ll say “THAT’S THE ONE.” (And be advised, yes, I do know what the “Hot Music” loop is but I’m no snitch.) Another example of Pal Joey’s golden ear is his other group Earth People and their all-time classic house crate staple, “Dance.” This is another one of those songs that you just know. I see Joey on some shit: “Yo, let me peep this Carl Bean record, flip that shit over to the instrumental side… OH SHIT what was that really cool sounding break right in there? Lemme loop that shit up, speed that shit up and put some of the hardest drums known to man on it.” And just like that, another classic is born… Ahahh, I see what you did there.
We’re all out there looking for our perfect beat, but sometimes we don’t even know it’s there right under our noses the entire time.
Back in late 2010 I started writing a column for my friends at Fool’s Gold Records for their blog entitled “Cosmo’s Crates” – which became some sort of internet validation of my lifetime of record nerdery. It was always fun to write about songs that I cared about (even if nobody else did) and to try and do the math and connect the dots between some of these forgotten gems and how they impacted music and pop culture that we know it today. The Fool’s Gold blog soon gave way to Cosmo’s Crates taking a different more visual form, and that’s something that we’re still looking to have happen come early 2015 (more on that later so stay tuned to YouTube) but recently I was reminded that there was this whole facet of my record game that I don’t always share with my people.
Cue up Steve Masson, or Mister Masson as his students call him. Steve is a teacher of AP Language classes at Highland High School, Highland NY. The good teacher hit me up this week to let me know he’s reading a piece that I wrote about Run–D.M.C.’s “Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse)” as an example of a well written analysis. As Steve told me, “Students struggle with criticism. It’s hard to articulate emotional and intellectual responses to art. But a good piece of criticism can open the reader up to looking at art and the world differently. I’ve heard “Here We Go” 100’s of times, know it by heart. But I never noticed the flaw… I will now, every time. And finally, good criticism is about more than just the object. We’ll talk about the song/flaw/your interpretation as a metaphor for hip hop culture itself.”
I’m honored to be a part of Mr. Masson’s curriculum and it makes me proud to play a part in expanding young minds. So thanks Steve, and a really big shout out to all the kids in Mr. Masson’s AP Language classes at Highland High School!
Here in their entirety are the two pieces I wrote about Run-D.M.C.’s seminal “Here We Go” originally published in January 2011 on Fool’s Gold and in August 2013 on HiLoBrow. Hope you enjoy!
Whattup, folk? After a whirlwind mini-tour this past weekend, I’m back in Brook-Nam and ready to drop some jewels for you – albeit a little late. So you know, when it comes to my crates, I have a gang of shit in the arsenal, don’t get it twisted. I could imagine that this week might be looked at a little bit as somewhat of a softball. But truthfully I don’t give a fuck because even though these records might not be totally obscure, they are without question VERY IMPORTANT RECORDINGS within the pantheon of American music. So sit back and listen…
Now I don’t like to celebrate death dates. I would rather celebrate the life of those that have passed, acknowledging what they gave to us while they were here with us. The only case where I give daps to an artist on the date of their demise is on Christmas Day, which will forever be James Brown Day to me. (In essence, every day is James Brown Day, it’s just that falling of his death on that day actually gives us the official day off.) But yes, I do remember birthdays, and today marks the birthday of the late great Jason Mizell AKA Jam Master Jay.
If you want to talk about DJs that changed the game, this dude was it. As the musical foundation of the legendary Run-DMC, Jay became the first real global superstar of the hip-hop DJ world. He was THE BAND, using routines that he picked up in the parks and bars of his native Hollis, Queens. Armed with 2 turntables, Jay helped guide his band members’ distinctive sound, ushering the group into worldwide fame and technically starting a new era of rap (take note – TECHNICALLY, the difference between “old school” and “new school” rappers all comes down to Run-DMC. They were truly the first “new school” rap group.) Jay’s influence transcended the music, as he was the man behind the scenes crafting their trademark fashion sense, which at this point has become iconic and is aped by people who haven’t ever heard any Run-DMC records.
But let’s talk about records, or to be specific, a record. “Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse)” is for my money the greatest singular live performance of a rap group on wax ever. EVER. Recorded in 1983 (but not pressed up and released until ’85) this 4 minute masterpiece truly captures the spirit and soul of hip-hop. This record was a live record, recorded at New York City’s legendary Funhouse club. 4,500 kids in attendance, with nothing but 2 emcees, and the one Jay rocking like a band. And man does he rock so well. I can only imagine the electricity in the air that night, as the city prepared to watch their new hometown heroes. At the very beginning you hear him cutting up the quickly syncopated kick/snare from the “Big Beat” record (more on that in a few) with Run and D engaging the crowd on the mic. And in those words you will hear phrases that you’ve heard a thousand times in too many songs to count – phrases that have ingrained themselves in our collective consciousness. “How you feel out there” – and you know it. “And it goes a little something like this” – and you KNOW IT. And “Aahh yeah” – which we all know, and to this day I can’t listen to without thinking of another one of our dear friends that has left us, the late great Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein. And then “it goes a one, two, three, and…” And here we go. Run and D attack the mic and the crowd and the routine with a ferociousness and fluidity that is unparalleled. Fresh rhymes and word play, back and forth, in complete unison with each other and the band, Jam Master Jay, rocking like a fucking machine. The “Big Beat” drums rain down on your ears and set the perfect tone for the aggressiveness that is the routine. And it’s just drums, that’s it. There’s no need for any more music than that. And there’s a complexity in the sparseness when it all comes together with the way Jay goes back and forth on the 2 records behind the fellas. And case in point, to show how in tandem they are, at the 1:10 mark the record skips a beat just slightly, but Jay is able to catch it perfectly and get back on the beat, with Run and D making the slight adjustment and they all continue on, not missing a step. Listen for it. It’s the perfection in the imperfection, and in my opinion one of the greatest “mistakes” in recorded history.
This routine is perfect. This record. It is PERFECT.
And to me one of the facets of the perfection is the source of the drums, Billy Squier’s “Big Beat.” Nowhere in the world will you find more thunderous drums, so absolutely unique. The drum pattern is simple, but calling them effective just doesn’t do it justice. They knock to fucking holy hell. Squier was nowhere at the peak of his career as arena rock demigod when the 1980 “Tale Of The Tape” came out. But it definitely set the tone cause this shit rocks hard. And I’ve often thought about whether or not these artists that are so often sampled knew how tight the parts that become recycled were at the time. Of course this dude knew. He named the damn song after the drums in it. To this day I still think of “Big Beat” as being top 5 easily when it comes to hard hitting drum breaks. Jay knew it. Jay-Z knew it 20 years later. And 20 years later, they still have the same effect. RAW POWER. It still sounds as bad, and as fresh, as it did when it was recorded 31 years ago. And that’s something else…So yeah, call this a softball if you want. I’m only talking about one of the greatest songs of all time, using one of the greatest snippets of recorded music of all time, performed by one of the greatest hip-hop figures of all time. If you don’t see that, then I have a strange micro-genre of music to sell to you. Would you be interested in some mosquito house?
Happy birthday Jam Master Jay. May you rest in power and shelltoes. (Originally published by Fool’s Gold, January 21st, 2011)
HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM 21: Twenty-first in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating old-school hip hop.
RUN-D.M.C. “HERE WE GO (LIVE AT THE FUNHOUSE)” 1983 by Cosmo Baker
Let’s get one thing straight before we proceed – I know this record was released as a single in 1985. But “Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse)” was actually recorded in February 1983, and it’s a rare example of a single that’s sourced from a live performance (Run-DMC were keen on using turntable wizardry to create songs, “Beats To The Rhyme” for example.) And yes, I know technically Run-DMC as a group in itself is the actual dividing line between the true “Old School” that was disco-rapping and the “New School” Larry Smith-inspired sound that would usher in rap’s first Golden Age. But this song to me is the ultimate testament of the true essence of the DJ/MC dynamic that is hip-hop. And it’s a perfect peek through the window to see the well-oiled machine that was Run-DMC.
Picture this: You’re packed in the sweatbox that’s The Funhouse, one of Manhattan’s most wild and notorious nightclubs of the era. It’s a cold February night but the condensation of everyone’s breath inside is making the walls sweat, the ceiling drip. DJ Run is on stage and asks the crowd “How y’all feel out there” to which you and the rest of the room hoot and whistle as a reply. DMC says “Ah yeah” and then you hear Jam Master Jay start to scratch a powerful kick and snare as he spins the record back and forth, getting ready for launch. After a few more words THE BAND rushes forth into a brand new routine, two turntables and two microphones, powered by the BIG BEAT that is Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.” On time, locked in tandem, as one, three artists delivering a performance like they’ve done it countless times before.
And then everything gets fucked up.
You didn’t hear it. Nobody did at first, it was only just a split second that nobody would have even picked up on. But it was there, at 1 minute and 10 seconds into the performance. Jay’s hand slipped. Or perhaps the sweat from the room got on the record and made it hard to cue. Or maybe he just wasn’t fast enough (doubtful). Whatever the reason, he missed his cue on the doubles routine. He didn’t bring “Big Beat” back fast enough. It came off beat. Part of Billy Squier’s “Iiiii” seeped through. It could have thrown the entire routine off.
But it didn’t. Jay caught it and went back on beat. I picture Run and D looking at each other and at Jay, aware of the mistake, and they bennnnnnd their words and allow everything to snap back into place as Jay rushes the one turntable back into position. The danger was real, the cataclysm was right there, and it was avoided. And they rocked their way into history.
I believe that one finds perfection in the cracks, in the imperfections. That one moment defines this song to me. A perfect hip-hop song, defined by a flaw. Now picture that. (Originally published by HiLoBrow, August 26th, 2013)
Okay, so do you see the above picture? This was taken at an undisclosed swap meet about 45 minutes outside of Philly. It’s a picture of me (with the “Cosmo” hat on, duh) and super-dude RJD2 after going to said swap meet at like 5 in the morning. But something happened between the taking of the photo and the way it came out. Apparently some really frightening doll heads had been superimposed onto our faces. This deviant work was done by the man behind the camera, Wes Pentz aka Diplo. He also convincingly added an image representing himself – the manatee – in the picture frame top right.
And that’s says a lot about the homie – he really has been on some other shit for life. And even though he’s killing shit right now as a super top-dog dance DJ and producer, Diplo has always been running in his own lane. And that’s just one of the things you got to love about him. So this week’s edition of Cosmo’s Crates on the Fool’s Gold blog speaks about him and his crate-digging past.
In lieu of today’s Breakbeat Tuesday jumpoff, I am heading out into the cold cold cold hard black earth that is Manhattan so a brother can get his head cut. Got to prep for this weekend, where I will be hitting up some shows in Canada (Thursday at Hi Fi in Calgary & Friday at Fortune Sound in Vancouver) and Seattle (Saturday at HG Lodge.) Peep the events page for more details. Anyway, you know how we do – got to stay fresh to death, No Delilah.
However to satisfy my loyal reader’s never ending thirst for useless knowledge and WMDs, and my never ending hunger to keep on talking, a brand new Cosmo’s Crates went up today over at the Fool’s Gold site. Big shout out to Carl Bean.
DJ Stuart "Re-Work V2"
Wet "All The Ways" (Branchez Remix)
De La Soul "Beautiful Night"
With You "Ghost" feat. Vince Staples (Major Lazer Remix)
Tall Black Guy "The Heart Of The Town"
KRNE "I'll Be Good"
Drake "With You" Feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR
Christopher Cross "Ride Like The Wind" (Joey Negro Dub Disco Mix)
BAKERS DOZEN BONUS
Club Cheval "Discipline"
Mura Masa "What If I Go"
Kate Bush "Why Should I Love You?"