Tuesday, July 13, 2021
Friday, July 09, 2021
|Knox Family's 2009 EP|
Single-Minded, “In These Streets”
Maybe it’s because the percolating bass and percussive claps at the beginning of this record call to mind the funk that would prefigure hip hop, but it’s not a hip hop record I first think of when the Knox Family’s “In These Streets” comes on. It’s not a funk record either, although the band I’m thinking of was certainly influenced by both funk and early hip hop. The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered” wells up out of my subconscious the moment MC Jerm raps “Yo man, I don’t think they heard you” and a voice cries out in the dark, “a murder!”
And that makes sense. A big part of the Clash’s appeal was a bracing honesty that confronted the walls that keep us apart. Seattle’s The Knox Family takes us from behind any four walls we might like to think protect us and out into the darkness to confront reality. Toni Hill’s beautiful vocal is key to the intimacy of that journey as she reminds us, “Somebody’s praying in these streets/somebody’s dying in these streets/somebody’s hustling in these streets” and then takes it all in her immediate embrace with, “Somebody’s singing for you and me.”
|Toni Hill's 2008 "Only Love"|
The rest of the record goes further into the muck and mire that’s the current human condition. Most important? The light it shines.
In verse one, Julie C’s sassy and knowing rhymestyle catalogues a mind-numbing list of offensives in the “all out war against poor populations,” including intimidation tactics carried out by everyone from the FCC to the beat cop, gang legislation, privatized prisons and deaths caused by “non-lethal” weapons. This verse and the second are rapped against sirens that spiral between the left and right channels of the speakers and another voice in the night, making an unclear sound but plainly in distress…. Somebody hustling or somebody dying.
And then Hill sings again, backed by a 5 note key progression that mines the same territory Timbaland’s been working lately but suggests a bigger, explicit dream— hope for every voice that currently goes unheard and faith in those voices to change the world.
C’s second verse starts at the heights of Wall Street and follows the “global economic
collapse.” She somehow hits on all of
it, from the political stakes that lead to bank bailouts to the foreclosure of
the homes of those small enough to fail. Before she’s finished, Julie C describes a globalized war between the
rich and the poor.
Julie C's 2011 "Sliding Scale"
With the stakes this high, Hill begins to tic off more of what “singing for you and me” means—“we gotta get together/’cause we need/ to heal the sick and hopeless/yes, indeed/to strive for peace and justice/equality/love for you and me.” With keys washing in behind her, Hill’s voice grows more reassuring and inspiring as she touches on each key to the future.
The third and final verse starts after the record’s turned the corner toward a fade out. Julie C raps a sign off and then, like James Brown throwing off his cape, she launches into, “Yo, violence is a symptom not the disease.” The dissonant sirens are gone now, replaced by flute-like keys and more percussion including high hat and snappy wood block beats. Something’s different about this last highly charged verse, though the signs stay grim, “Why is the city of Seattle dropping another 110 million to open a new jail we don’t need, while the district can’t even find a measly 3.6 to keep our schools from closing?”
And this cape-dropping allows for a new intimacy. This last verse feels like an urgent whisper being passed on a streetcorner. “Want to know what’s really going on?” Julie C asks. “Just follow the paper trail to downtown Olympia, Wall Street, D.C./As long as poverty pimps keep profiting from our problems/We can’t wait for change/We gotta create our own solutions/Straight from the peoples’ movement.”And with that, the Knox Family’s debut Ep is out. It’s the end of a rich record, though only 7 full tracks long. From the opening “Make Love,” DJ B-Girl has produced a great party record with a laid back, minimalist style that always manages to use its playful, frenetic beats in fresh, surprising ways— part West Coast gangsta, part crunk and part old school hip hop. But it’s also, consistently, a series of statements of strength, unity and solidarity. “In These Streets” is the perfect ending, justifying all the bold claims that come before.
But it’s more than that. It’s a singular piece of revolutionary art unlike anything else. It’s the blues of “The Message” wedded to a concrete basis for political unity. And it’s a spiritual, with Toni Hill’s refrains insisting that the human spirit was made to fulfill our dreams. It’s a song to suggest a new genre—not protest music so much as revolution rock—good for dancing, crying, shouting and even (especially?) blueprinting our dreams into reality.
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Learn more about the effort here: https://poorpeoplesarmy.com/
Thursday, April 22, 2021
April 21st, 2016
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Anyway, it led me through my email sends to find a eulogy I wrote upon his death in 2013, something I assumed had been lost. It was written the night after the news to the early hours of the next day.
Lou Reed’s death is a shock. It’s the loss of a very dear old friend, a close friend. Of course, I never met him, and the one time I wrote a short feature about him (for KC’s Pitchweekly, on the eve of his New York tour stop), his press packet convinced me the world didn’t need one more Lou Reed interview. I had a gut-deep sense of what motivated Lester Bangs to famously (and lovingly) antagonize him. With the press at least, Reed’s ego always seemed to get in the way.
Trying to describe the sound of that voice, I jump forward two years to one of Lou’s most emotionally naked songs, “My Old Man.” He has a quaver from the start as he recalls being lined up on the public school playground—“Regan, Reed and Russo, I still remember the names.” It’s a song about a boy who grows to hate his father for his abusiveness, and throughout the song, the singer sounds like the boy he once was, wiping tears from his eyes and bracing for a fight. That song is followed by “Growing Up in Public,” a meditation on manhood over a comic bass line. He calls himself “a Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct…with [his] pants down again.” That tortured boy from the schoolyard is never far out of view.
When I think of the vulnerability
Lou Reed laced through walls of fuzz guitar, the only fitting corollary that
comes to mind is John Lennon’s Plastic
Ono Band. You couldn’t be fooled by the distanced cool of “Walk on the Wild
Side”—a primal scream side-winded and coiled just out of sight. If a hostile
offense was his best defense, Reed’s gift to fans was music that allowed us
both sources of refuge.
But Reed didn’t build strongholds so much as vantage points, like that guy standing on the corner thinking about Jack and Jane, he most often contemplated what went unobserved—a little girl, an amputee (figuratively or literally) dancing to the A.M. radio in her room, a father wondering over the bed where his wife cut her wrists, and that junkie answering “the dead bodies piled up in mounds” with the only thing that makes him feel like a man. Along with the other Velvets, later guitarists Robert Hunter, Dick Wagner, Robert Quine and Mike Rathke, and longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, Reed found musical hooks that both reminded us of the artifice and pulled us in close to everyday hopes and everyday tragedy. And, sometimes, he took us to moments of peace, on the set of a night shoot for a cola commercial in “Tell It to Your Heart,” in a genial country restaurant on “New Sensations” or in his late night conversation with a beloved ghost on “My House.”
But I have to go back to the album Growing Up in Public for the moment that, for me, best illustrates how the vulnerable boy Lou Reed fights his way forward. It’s the album opener, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” in its own way as weird (and somehow also plainspoken) a record as he ever made. Over Ellard “Moose” Boles’ bass glissandos and Michael Fonfara’s faux harpsichord keys, the singer describes a boy who has no clue how to talk to a girl he likes—a childhood commonplace delivered as a matter for serious consideration. By the second verse, he’s talking about an adult with the same concerns, and when he sings “how do ya/speak to a,” the bass doubles down, Michael Suchorsky’s drums rage at the problem, the keys escalate, Stuart Heinrich kicks in with metal guitar and everything builds to a break—“How do ya/Speak to a,” voice and handclaps, part opera, part gospel. This is no longer simply a serious matter; it’s THE serious matter.
“Baby! Angel” he shouts as the band plays on, and as the backing vocals swell and the band rages, he says, “Aaaanggell, Aaaaanngggelll,” and the roar is primal. When I played this record on Sunday, that cry brought tears to my eyes. It still does now. I’m already missing this man who found that boy’s voice. They both helped me find mine.