It’s no secret by now that today’s rock cats are still doing steroid-laden blues-guitar riffs spawned from the Mississippi Delta, but what might still be tucked away, what people don’t realize, is that much of the timing and rhythm of rap hearkens back to those elements as well.
As original American music, both blues and rap are laced with attitude and coded double entendre. One can easily find comparisons in the lives of both Tupac Shakur and Little Walter; a turntablist like DJ Babou of the Dilated Peoples and the behind-the-head playing styles of Texas great T-Bone Walker; the throaty rawness of DMX and Howlin’ Wolf — even in the way record companies then and now hustle the sounds from “the hood” back to the hood, and even abroad. Labels like Chess, Sun, Cobra to Sugarhill, Tommy Boy and Def Jam. The similarities are baffling.
Brenda’s Got a Baby – 2Pac
The fact that most of today’s MTV crowd cannot draw the comparisons because they don’t even know the legendary artists’ and labels’ names — eventually this affects all music today and tomorrow. The seemingly mass rejection of the blues by the black community in the 1960s came on top of an academic and media agenda that detached blacks from their contributions in the past and in the present. It was no surprise that in a music so connected to that “cat” Jim Crow, folks looked ahead to the future of music, called R&B, and its more favored cousin, rock n’ roll.
Who We Be – DMX
The real story of the blues carried the history of black people alongside it by default. Their migration into northern cities offered this soundtrack of life to the world played through these musicians. Brothers carried their guitars and riffs with them, sketching a picture of the roads traveled up and down the land. Some cats claimed it was the antithesis of the black gospel movement — God and the devil squaring off.
Things Done Changed – Notorious B.I.G.
A look back tells us it was just a difference of some words, ideologies, and the opinions of the time, running on the same tracks — one dealing with getting to the heaven of the unknown, the other dealing with the hell of now. Still, some brothers continued the tradition of taking the music alongside the road of a troubled and traveled past. Jimi Hendrix was that aberration, mixing religion in his lyrics and putting his blues on a modern primal scream path to heavy metal.
Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix
The blues is as much a story about the meshing of people as it is a tale of their mass movement. Marshall Chess has often said that the immigrants from Europe (like his father and uncle, who founded Chess Records) and the migrants from the South (like many Chess recording artists) were of similar breed, servicing each others’ needs by arranging and adapting culture to the recorded twentieth century: to escape the brutal hard-working conditions of before by aligning new duties alongside new stories sung, played, and spoken on new technology.
Good as Gone – Dilated Peoples
This was major, and it rang volumes, transmitting new blues across the world as the first massive doses did in the 1920s. The creation of the transistor radio helped jump the blues into faster tempos, ushering in the era of rhythm & blues as named by Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler — and thus ushering in rock n’ roll in the process.
All to say that everything has its starting point and we must find ways to draw that line to its origins.
Electric Mud (Full Album)– Muddy Waters
I was sparked about the blues as a beat digger coming across an album of immense layers and well-played sounds. This record was Electric Mud by Muddy Waters, recorded in 1968 and produced by Marshall Chess. Myself and my co-producer Gary G-Whiz fell in love with the record, a psychedelic trip replaying and singing Muddy’s classics of the past. Who knew he’d recorded these songs before? Not me. This record made me understand the concept of the blues. It was no surprise why I couldn’t find a decent review of the album. It wasn’t meant for the purists who panned it; it was for the people who got turned on by being introduced to a whole new world. Thus the line leading to the blues was drawn for a cat like me, showing there’s ways that it can be drawn to and from the oft-sampled and riff duped sounds of blues recordings.
Fight the Power (Full Version)– Public Enemy
The great blues writer and producer Willie Dixon was an ambassador for all of us to follow. He helped us to explain whatever music we might be a part of, simply by making understanding the blues so easy. By understanding the blues, you’re understanding life. You are spitting everything that’s been built up in your soul and mind out into the world for ears and souls to attach themselves to, as simple as that. That’s the essence of making records for yourself and the people as opposed to merely a contractual agreement to a company, sponsored and co-signed by “the hood” as a reminder of where we came from.
The seed sprouted into the modern financial backbone of corporate entities overseeing various music styles presently bought and downloaded. One could’ve never guessed that a porch riff strummed on a sleepy Mississippi fall afternoon would be America’s main signature to the world of music as we know it today. The footprint of where sound walks tomorrow.
– Chuck D
[Excerpts taken from The Footprint of Popular Music by Chuck D, Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues]