Jay-Z’s newly premiered ‘Picasso Baby’ video can also be read as a ten-minute riff on art world obsessions (read: star-fucking) and insecurities. Then again, why would you bother? Let Jay-Z voice his nostalgia for ‘that era when art and music were one, when Basquiat was hanging out with Madonna and Fab 5 Freddy and all those worlds were colliding.’ It’s a perfectly nice sentiment (though it’s hard to imagine that the collisions Jay-Z’s referring to were micro-managed in quite the same way, or for the same reasons). Either way, you can’t help noticing: the track itself is garbage.
Better to spend some time at HiLobrow, an online magazine that’s currently running a 25-part series ‘dedicated to the close analysis and eccentric appreciation’ of 25 old-school hip-hop recordings. Luc Sante kicked the series off last Monday with a typically smart take on Spoonie G’s ‘Spoonin’ Rap’ (scroll down the page to see the full line-up). The posts that followed it have all been great. But one song, in particular, would have fit perfectly into the schedule.
‘How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise’ features Brother ‘D’ (a teacher and community activist named Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn) and Collective Effort rapping over Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 disco track, ‘Got to Be Real.’ If you discount the politically-minded proto-rap of Gil Scott-Heron, The Watts Prophets, and The Last Poets, it gets top billing as the first ‘conscious’ rap song:
America was built, understand/By stolen labor on stolen land/Take a second thought as you clap and stamp/Can you rock the house from inside the camp?/As you movin’ to the beat to the early light/The country’s movin’ to, movin to the right/Prepare now or get high and wait/’Cause there ain’t no party in a police state
Issued as a 12″ ‘disco’ single on the Clappers label, in 1980, the song found its British audience a few years later when it appeared, alongside of tracks by Elvis Costello, Ornette Coleman, and Cabaret Voltaire on a mixtape issued by the NME. I first heard it on the ‘Big Apple Rappin” anthology Soul Jazz records put out in 2006 (click here to hear an alternate version that came out on ROIR, in 1984). Listening to it now, I’m reminded of Young Tiger’s ‘Calypso Be’ and other, choice recordings that fit into the sub-genre of songs whose lyrics cut against the grain of their melodies: ‘How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise’ deconstructed itself, and the form it belonged to, and it did this when hip-hop was still in its infancy—which makes it revolutionary on at least a few levels.* It really is that good.
*Clappers was a story in its own right: ‘I got revved up and excited about the possibilities of forming a record company that had a Maoist approach instead of a capitalist approach,’ the label’s founder, Lister Hewan-Lowe, has said. ‘I was obsessed with the fact that the shareholders should be the people who made the music.’