From the First to the Last of It, Delivery is Passionate
Hip-hop is so gross, isn’t it? I mean, whatever - these people can rhyme and so on, but when you think about it, aren’t these homophobic rapists responsible for pretty much every gun crime in America? Think about it. Yes, they are. It makes so much sense.
Rawkus was founded exactly around the time that the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur, and their posses, were busy killing each other and the reputation of hip-hop. Initially intended to be a drum ‘n’ bass label, Rawkus soon went down a different direction by signing the insanely brilliant Company Flow. In 1995, the rap group had self-released their EP Funcrusher, which sold an astounding 300,000 copies. Courted by every label in town, Company Flow signed to the newly formed Rawkus because of their absurdly easy-going terms: the group were to pocket 50% of all net gains and not be committed to releasing many albums. This shows the independent spirit behind Rawkus, who seem always to have given their artists the leeway to produce themselves in the way they deem best. Company Flow then dropped their first album, the mightily influential Funcrusher Plus, in 1997. To listen to it now, it seems to be going counter to so much in hip-hop at the time: think in particular how Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Jay-Z were working to change the complexion of hip-hop, with big production, break-beats and a slicker sort of flow. In Company Flow you can hear the influence of A Tribe Called Quest most of all - but their harsh minimalism and left-wing politics are all their own: the production sounds stark and disturbing, emphasizing the pure rapping, but still encasing the extraordinary flow (witness, for instance, “89.9 Detrimental” for a real rap hectoring with a minor-key, gloomy beat in the background) in something bold and new: dark synths and weird squawks predominate. It’s a thrilling, difficult listen.
Rawkus’s other huge coup was signing Mos Def and Talib Kweli - together, known as Black Star - and releasing their debut album in 1998. What can I say about Black Star, the record? It’s perfect - absolute perfection. Def and Kweli’s easy flow and friendship make this an incredibly pleasant listen, but behind the smoothness there’s real substance. Mos Def and Kweli reference Marcus Garvey and Toni Morrison; much of the album is a paean to black identity (“Astronomy”), to black beauty (“Brown Skin Lady”). Once again, the sound coming out of the Rawkus stables is in a minor mode: the concentration is on DJ Hi-Tek’s sharp beats and on the rappers’ flow - which isn’t to say these songs aren’t complex: look to the banging “Definition”, for instance, for an idea of everything they can do. It’s a touching record, and one that lays down a gauntlet to other artists - to Common, for instance; to Nas. It says: this is what engaged, thoughtful, funny, rap can do. What can you do?
Rawkus’s glories, at the time, were also based on a couple of influential mixtapes they put out - Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing. Of the two series, Soundbombing is more of a blast, featuring some state-of-the-art, banging rap; Lyricist Lounge tends to be more ambient, with contributions from artists like Saul Williams. Eminem, Common, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli and Mos Def and many others grace the Soundbombing series; check out Vol. 2 especially for Common’s “1999”, Pharoahe’s hard-hitting “Mayor”, and “Chaos” by Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek (as Reflection Eternal).
Rawkus’s achievements in the late 90s are too many to list. Chief amongst them, of course, is the release of Mos Def’s brilliant, already stone-cold classic, Black On Both Sides. You don’t need me to tell you how good that is, for god’s sake. Go to your room and listen to “Ms Fat Booty”, or “Umi Says”, or “Hip Hop”. WOW! It’s an extraordinary, ground-breaking album, full of thought and ambition - all perfectly executed. None too shabby either, were Kweli’s collaboration with Hi-Tek (as Reflection Eternal) on Train of Thought, or his solo material on Quality - and Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs is too stupendously good for me to go into in any sort of detail.
I get so excited when I think about Rawkus: it feels to me like a real, home label - a sanctuary for these incredible artists, and a place bubbling with ideas, with drive, with integrity, vision and energy. Truth to tell, Rawkus has never captured that apogee again. Looking at them now, they have a good roster of artists, and they obviously have preserved intact their artistic integrity - but I think maybe their brand of honest, raw hip-hop has gone out of favor of late: with 2000, along came Eminem with his bullshit, his swagger and that big production, and then Kanye West, who nicked many of Rawkus’s concerns and added them to a Jay-Z sound. All this left Rawkus feeling like a concern of the past. But we owe them a lot of the excellent rap that’s around now - not just the stuff that their ex-artists continue to produce, but even Kanye West (who roped in both Mos Def and Talib Kweli as guests on his debut), Jean Grae and Lupe Fiasco.
Often, a record label is a reflection of its owner - think of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, for instance, or Berry Gordy’s Motown - and Verve Records is just one such label. Ruled in its heyday by the superb, the wonderful, the glorious Norman Granz, Verve was absolutely pioneering in about a million and one ways. Granz’s main achievement was in fighting for, and gaining, racial equality in the concerts his label put on. He was such a terrific proponent of integration that his most cherished label, Verve, couldn’t help but mirror that stance: so we see superb collaborations between men and women, old and young, black and white, in the splendid records Verve put out. Most importantly of all, in Ella Fitzgerald’s trailblazing recordings of the Great American Songbook, music found perhaps its greatest social crossover act: here (as I am in no way the first person to observe) was a black woman singing songs by predominantly Jewish (and often gay) immigrants, to appeal to a chiefly white listenership. Norman Granz did that. Verve did that.
So let’s get that Ella Fitzgerald series out of the way. Granz set up Verve practically for Ella Fitzgerald alone, and it became a great home to her. In the mid to late 50s, she recorded albums devoted respectively to Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, amongst others. Of those, her Cole Porter one is the best - with spry, saucy, beautiful versions of such songs as ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, ‘Let’s Do It’ and ‘Begin The Beguine’ - but the others are unblemished masterpieces too. In an inspired move, Ella Fitzgerald recorded a Duke Ellington songbook in Ellington’s lifetime, which he played on: this was a way of championing his oeuvre and giving him his rightful place in the American canon. Touchingly, Ellington and Fitzgerald went on to perform several times together afterwards. It’s hard to understate the importance of these songs, and the political importance of popularizing them for a major audience. Also for Verve, Ella recorded her two marvelous albums with Louis Armstrong, on which her honeyed tones coat his crackle: their version of ‘Tenderly’ on Ella and Louis, for instance, is sheer perfection.
I think chief amongst Verve’s characteristics is a certain elegance of sound - a crispness, perhaps; a smoothness and a wryness - which you also find on two albums by Blossom Dearie that I love: her self-titled debut and Give Him The Ooh-La-La. She is without equal in jazz for her strange, girlish voice and the idiosyncrasy of her delivery - but her piano playing is also outstanding. In a similar vein, perhaps Verve’s biggest hit came with the suaver-than-thou Getz/Gilberto in 1963: during a time when bossa nova was the new thing in town, Getz roped in Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim for a sensual, lazy, smooth-as-hell collection of songs that still sounds ultra-sophisticated. I love ‘Desafinado’ in particular from that record. Verve somehow had brains and finesse more than other jazz labels.
One of the great pleasures of this music label series Pajiba is running, is that I get to research and discover so much wonderful music. So in the case of Verve, I knew that I wanted to write about Ella Fitzgerald’s American Songbook series, and about Blossom Dearie and Stan Getz - but I didn’t know much about, for instance, Oscar Peterson or Dizzy Gillespie. Oscar Peterson had a very distinguished and brilliant career as a pianist at Verve, not only on his own albums but also playing back-up on other people’s recordings (and I love the way a label does that; think of Marvin Gaye writing for Martha Reeves at Motown, or the Mar-Kays being the rhythm section for Stax as well as band in their own right. There’s something familial and deeply in the spirit of music in that aspect of the best record labels). You can hear him on the storming Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz collaboration Diz and Getz, or have a listen to his own, fantastic Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One, with a free-flowing rendition of ‘Mack The Knife’ amongst other gems and On The Town, with its great cover of ‘Pennies From Heaven’. Dizzy Gillespie’s run of albums for Verve is just one chapter in his fascinating career, but I discovered the aforementioned Diz and Getz, which is like a jazz rap-battle, and Dizzy Gillespie At Newport, which opens with a mad version of “Cool Breeze” and keeps things pretty demented.
These days, Verve still exists and still puts out some decent, if slightly staid, jazz - along the lines of Diana Krall and Lizz Wright. I suppose Verve was never the most cutting edge or the rawest of jazz labels. But what it did do, superbly and nobly, was popularize a multi-ethnic brand of jazz and help build a canon for the 20th Century.
Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as “enigmatic.” Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.
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