(Editor’s note: In honor of Black Music Month, we devoted last week’s “Please JAM” to black music spanning the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. This week, Vince digs in his ‘80s crates for a few gems (‘90s and ‘00s coming later this month). However, instead of sticking to just five songs, we’re going with four topics. Class is in session, James.)
MICHAEL VS. PRINCE
Michael Jackson, “Human Nature” off of 1983’s Thriller
Prince, “Pop Life” off of 1985’s Around The World In A Day
VINCE: “Michael vs. Prince” is one of the enduring music debates of the last 50 years. It’s up there with “Beatles or Stones?” “Jay-Z or Nas?” “Stevie or Marvin?” Personally, I’m a Prince dude, mostly because Prince’s grooves were so mean…and he could shred on that axe. But if someone tells me they’re in the MJ camp, all I’d do is nod and give them a pound. No real wrong answer. Although, if there were ever a sociology/psychology study done on the differences between the Prince and MJ camps, I bet some interesting themes would appear.
I picked these two tunes because they are among my favorite, but they weren’t chart-toppers for either artist. They are popular enough to elicit reactions if they shuffled onto a playlist at a hangout, but under the radar enough to take on a connoisseur-like quality for both artists’ fans. “Human Nature” has that identifiable MJ/Quincy Jones sheen. The production and MJ’s falsetto are immaculate. It’s one of the prettiest songs you’ll ever hear. Meanwhile Prince hits you with some gutter bass guitar and some of that Linn Lm-1 drum machine he made famous. Prince’s Linn snare might be my favorite snare (Havoc’s snares on The Infamous, Primo’s snares on Livin’ Proof and Dilla’s snares on both volumes of Fantastic are in the discussion). And, of course, Prince gave you the social commentary. “What’s the matter with yo’ life?” “Life. It ain’t that funky, unless you got that pop. Dig it.” MJ’s “Human Nature” is majestic, “Pop Life” is rather melancholy. My favorite MJ is Majestic MJ, like “Can’t Help It”-MJ. And one of Prince’s greatest artistic feats was his way of, uh, conspicuously disguising these melancholy, morose themes inside all that funk (“Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Anotherloverholeinyohead,” Sign o’ the Times).
Michael had a headstart on Prince when it comes to pop superstardom — and not just because he was a mega star as a child with The Jackson 5. Off The Wall (my favorite MJ album and probably one of my 25 favorite albums ever, any genre) dropped in 1979. It featured “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You,” which were both No. 1 singles. Prince’s first two albums of the ‘80s — Dirty Mind and Controversy — were groundbreaking in hindsight, but Prince was still considered, more than anything else, an androgynous, subversive funk artist. In some ways, he was still aping Rick James a little. Michael, on the other hand released a duo with Paul McCartney (“Girl Is Mine”) almost a year before Thriller dropped at the very end of ‘83. But when Prince dropped 1999, he leveled the playing field. No one was a bigger star than Michael in the mid-’80s — not Prince, not Madonna, not Springsteen, not Whitney…nobody. But when you combined Prince’s superstardom with his counter-culture persona and his hyper-artistry, I feel like that made him MJ’s peer in every way. I don’t think we’ll ever see two super-duperstars clicking on all cylinders, at the same time, for two to three albums a piece, like MJ and Prince again.
JAMES: Of the two, I’m definitely in the MJ camp and this is one of my favorite songs of his. I went to school with some hardcore MJ fans who rubbed off on me (though sadly the once reasonable supply of songs I took from them has gone missing. Perhaps the NSA can find it for me). Plus, “Human Nature” is sampled on one of my favorite Nas tracks.
It’s interesting that you point out the melancholy nature of “Pop Life” compared to the “pretty” and “majestic” descriptors for MJ. Prince’s lyrics ask you to look at yourself, which can be a somewhat melancholy experience, whereas “Human Nature” allows you to float away with the music. MJ is the distraction, the better version of your life that brings pause to the everyday problems. Prince is taking it head on.
Best thing to do is take a dose of both.
BUFFALO’S OWN RICK JAMES
Rick James, “Moonchild” off of 1985’s Glow
VINCE: My great Aunt Roe is buried a few plots over from Rick. His tombstone is the coldest, I’ve ever seen. I remember when were at the cemetery, walking to Aunt Roe’s plot, we passed Rick’s tombstone and it was virtually impossible for me to maintain the proper, somber mood. It was this shiny, black granite with an image of Rick and his guit-box, like, silk-screened onto it…or something. And the caption? “I’ve Had It All. I’ve Done It All. I’ve Seen It All. It’s All About Love. God Is Love.” I can hear dude saying that now. And, apparently, I wasn’t the only mourner briefly distracted by the tombstone. A few weeks ago, my little cousin Melonie texted us all a pic of the tombstone and, in response, my little bro Adam said that he remembered there being strobe lights shining down on it. Ha. He was exaggerating, but it speaks to the stunning optics.
But, word, Rick. I had to get him in here because his music was so steadfastly black. Last week, I talked about Earth Wind & Fire in this context. Rick is another. I mean…chitlin-level funk. Some of his hits have a universal appeal. You could hear “Give It To Me Baby” at any wedding, no matter the dominant ethnicity or culture. And “Super Freak” is ubiquitous. I’m not sure, but I’d imagine there’s a heavy-rotation commercial that uses it, right now. “Cold Blooded” is a classic (Ol’ Dirty and The Neptunes updated it in the dopest way on Nigga Please). And, James, if you haven’t added “Mary Jane” to one of your “activity” playlists, then you are sleepy-time for real, my bruh.
“Moonchild,” however, is my favorite Rick by a wide margin. That bassline is so mean. It hurts my feelings. “Moonchild” has been heavily sampled, too. Mary J (via Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) basically lifted the whole thing for “Love Is All We Need.” I love how Rick’s singing so smooth and then, heading into the chorus, flips into that gut-bucket tenor that sounds like he just got done eating an order of ribs from Lee’s on Jefferson Ave. The best way to listen to this is while drinking Wild Irish Rose out of a champagne flute.
JAMES: Paying it forward is one of my favorite aspects of hip-hop. Jay-Z sampled this on one of my favorite tracks on the Sean Carter mixtape, “You’re Only A Customer,” which I see has some other roots down below.
However, Rick James means much more to me as a persona on the Dave Chappelle show, which will probably never change for me since you Rick James’d my futon last year. I believe it was on my birthday. So although you couldn’t appreciate his grave as you might have thought appropriate, I bet you’re still in his good graces.
Anita Baker, “Priceless” off of 1988’s Giving You The Best That I Got
Bobby Brown, “Don’t Be Cruel” off of 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel
VINCE: Anita Baker is the queen of the “You Know Your Black” club of music. If I walked into a white friend’s spot or a Hispanic family’s home and heard them bumpin’ ‘Nita…well, I’d do a quadruple take. There’s a sub-genre of R&B that’s usually referred to as “adult contemporary R&B” or something like that. ‘Nita, to me, did that better than anyone else. I typically don’t have much patience for that music. Will Downing, Freddie Jackson, Peabo Bryson, Regina Bell — I respect it all, but too much of it is/was fuddy-duddy. And, as I near the halfway mark of my 30s, my appetite hasn’t grown for it, either. “Priceless” actually sounds a lot like one of those adult contemporary songs that I usually don’t dig. If you end up digging it, James, it will floor me. But it happens to be a favorite of mine and my family’s (Anita Baker got played to death at the Thomas crib). It’s not my all-time favorite Anita joint. That would be “Sweet Love.” But, for Black Music Month, I wanted to pick a joint that was exceedingly black, a deep cut.
Meanwhile, while Anita was going multi-platinum thanks largely to an overwhelmingly adult black audience, Whitney Houston was skyrocketing to, through and beyond pop superstardom. By the end of the ‘80s, she probably passed Prince and maybe even Madonna and nestled herself right under MJ on the pop stardom hierarchy. But Whitney’s music, while R&B, had serious pop leanings. To me, the ‘80s’ biggest R&B star — strictly R&B — was her future husband Bobby Brown, even if he was more of a shooting star. Don’t Be Cruel was a seriously cold album. It combined that Minneapolis funk from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis with Teddy Riley’s burgeoning New Jack Swing. The grooves on that album (and here on the title track) are either so infectious you start doing the hardest whop or paralyzingly filthy. “Roni” might be a top-5 ballad of the decade, too. Real talk.
And, ultimately, I’m a B. Brown champion. Dude gets a bad rap. Or, I guess I should say that his shenanigans these past few decades have tricked folks into dismissing his bona fides. Whitney used to call him the King of R&B. By the time she started shouting him out on that level, she was more so just trying to stroke her husband’s ego, since R. Kelly had most definitely taken over. But Bobby was a prototype for Kells, just like Bobby took elements from Prince or, as Q-Tip alluded to on “Excursions,” Bobby amped like Michael. At his peak, there were very few R&B stars that could ever claim to be as charismatic as B. Brown, man. And he did it all while maintaining a very pro-jitterbug disposition.
JAMES: You were right. These weren’t my favorite jams, and R&B as a whole isn’t really in my realm very often. But I’m curious as to what makes this “an exceedingly black cut” though. What exactly does that mean? What is the quality about a these two songs that so lend themselves to black culture?
VINCE: Let’s save that for a separate piece.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
Whodini, “One Love” off of 1986’s Back In Black
LL Cool J, “I’m Bad” off of 1987’s Bigger and Deffer
EPMD, “You’re A Customer” off of 1988’s Strictly Business
VINCE: My serious note-taking on ‘80s hop didn’t occur until midway through the ‘90s, when I was I was afforded the freedom of high school. That freedom came in the form of a walkman and public transportation. I grew up in a smallish three bedroom flat and had four siblings. You were never alone at 71 Butler Ave. EVER. We moved to a much bigger crib in ‘95 — aka “The Summer of The Purple Tape” — but for the last eight years at the original Thomas abode, I shared a small room with my two little brothers. You know those scenes in movies or TV shows where a kid goes in his room, closes his/her door, puts on their earphones and floats off into their own world? Ha. That was a seriously foreign concept for Thomas kids. In fact, I can’t even remember ever being in that room with the door closed.
So, yeah, no privacy. No walkman, too. And I grew up in a home that wasn’t too keen on hip-hop, so it’s not like I could just blast “The Symphony” on the boombox. It’s understandable. The themes of KRS-One, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane and other ‘80s hop legends probably weren’t well suited for a kid in grade school and junior high. My Pops bought me one rap record, a 45 of “Run’s House” (yep, I’m old enough to have purchased 45s). Other than that, no rap. So, as opposed to listening to albums, I got my hop fix through music videos on The Box, Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. But then high school arrived in ‘93. That meant instead of the oppressive rules of the yellow buses (the cheese bus) — like no walkmans — I was taking public transpo’ to school everyday and able to bump that real ish through my headphones. I also had a later curfew and more freedom, so I spent all my time over my homeboys Nisan and Najib’s crib hooping in their backyard. And, without fail, before I left for the evening, I’d head upstairs where I’d give them a cassette tape and they’d dub me some ‘80s classic I missed. This is how I was properly introduced to Criminal Minded, Follow The Leader, Long Live The Kane and other classic albums.
Not everything is represented here with the four songs selected. I included “The Message,” because it would be negligent to not include the hop song that is usually identified as the first example of hip-hop’s potential to be an artform used for anything other rocking parties. “One Love” has always been my joint because of that nasty groove (as a kid, I couldn’t appreciate the song’s sentiment, which is quite poignant). But I wanted you to check it, James, because it’s an example of how many hop artists in the ‘80s still had one foot in the overall vibe of disco and funk artists, both sonically and aesthetically. It took Run DMC and Rakim a while to change this. By the time EPMD bopped onto the scene, the era of refashioning James Brown into boom-bap beats and rocking shell-toe adidas and Kangols was in full effect. It took hip-hop ‘til the end of the decade to really become something that resembles the modern music and culture we’re familiar with today.
And I couldn’t get out of the ‘80s without an ode to LL Cool J. We went in on dude for “Accidental Racist” and he’s become a punchline to some. But at the peak of his powers — and, with all due respect to Mama Said Knock You Out, “I’m Bad” is that peak — he was a young man of legendary performance chops. Did you watch that video??? That right there is boundless energy. It is also one of the best choreographed videos of the ‘80s — up there with “Smooth Criminal,” “Pleasure Principle,” “Every Little Step” and “If It Isn’t Love.” I’m dead serious. And one final shout out to L.A. Posse, which produced this track. That bassline is sinister. So sinister I can remember my Pops popping in on us watching this video and, instead of telling us to turn it off, he started grimacing (the universal reaction to a nasty bassline) and said, “Man, some of these rap dudes can get down.”
JAMES: Guess it’s true that as things change they stay the same way, because we don’t have privacy or Walkmans either… but the only thing I know about 45s is a beverage.
Anyway, here’s my ranking in order of these songs.
1. Grandmaster Flash — That beat is dope, immediately recognizable and guarantees someone gives you a side-eye if you don’t immediately start grooving.
2. EPMD — Feels like a more modern bassline with some quick lines and good flow. More up my alley. Respect the Steve Miller sample, too.
3. LL Cool J — Just not really my thing, man, though I can get down. And I do enjoy the video. Those moves are lethal.
4. Whodini — This represents most of what I don’t like (or appreciate) about some ‘80s tunes. Unlike you, the message was the most obvious to me. It’s so straightforward and such a beautiful universal message that’s been taken, passed on and, sadly, even distorted over the years. It’s interesting that few people feel they can return to a place of that direct honesty in today’s era.
With that said, I probably won’t play this song very often in the future because of the drums. It matches the simplicity of the message but it almost cheapens it, making the overall product seem less artistic or creative or off the cuff or something that I can’t seem to identify about ‘80s music that just makes me want to hit fast forward. Probably the ADD we all have these days. But today’s production also has the ability to mask wannabes, so it is what it is.