Sunday, July 23, 2006

Learning to Love the Bomb

If you can, try to recall the time, 20-something years ago. Before hip-hop was the dominant pop cultural force. Before Do the Right Thing. Before Yo! MTV Raps! Before the Beastie Boys. Before LL Cool J had a video. Before Run DMC’s Raising Hell. The direction of rap hadn’t been cemented. The Fat Boys and beat boxing were still where it was at. It was a moment, 1984 or so, when black music in America might have taken a drastically different turn. Instead of tough, street-minded, New York-centric MCs. There was an instant when go-go music -- a percussion-heavy, call-and-response party-chant music out of Washington DC -- had a chance at becoming the definining black good-time music. And there was no bigger go-go band than Trouble Funk.

I remember hearing Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb” on WPEG in Charlotte, North Carolina. I must have been in 8th grade or something, and the first line, with the words “Drop the bomb on the white boy crew,” had actually almost frightened me. I didn’t know then about the bomb as metaphor for earth-shaking grooves. I just thought it was a threat of annihilation. But, even then, it sounded pretty damn good. This might be a song about obliterating me and my kind, but it was hard not to like it.

"Drop the bomb on the white boy crew ... White boy crew now whatcha gonna do?"

A few years earlier I had witnessed what you’d have to call a mini race riot on a bus on the way to our elementary school (we were bused across town from our largely white suburb to Marie G. Davis, an elementary school sandwiched between a large public housing project and a textile mill). Racial tensions had been brewing on the bus (#426) for a while. There was a newly opened, mostly black, small housing project not far from our neighborhood, and so our bus was theoretically integrated. But not really. About a third of the bus was black students from the housing project. They sat in the front, near the black bus driver, probably a high school student. And two thirds of the bus was white kids from the neighborhood. I can’t really remember how it got to the boiling point, but tensions basically erupted one morning when the driver told the kids on the bus to “kick that white boy’s ass” over some comment. It was certainly provoked, because we all had been expecting a fight. I had even brought a knife, a dull little jack knife, to school in anticipation of hostilities. But when a crowd, six or seven maybe, of black kids stormed back to our end of the bus and started whooping on the boy, I didn’t have the nerve to do anything with my little knife. And they really did beat his ass. When the little blast of violent energy passed, Tom Flack, that was his name, stood up, and he had a strange grey puncture wound under his eye, the skin around which had begun to puff up. Someone had stabbed him in the face with a pencil. It really was frightening. I think I may have cried when I was called to the principal’s office to recount the incident.

A year earlier, in fifth grade, I remember we used to bring in music for Friday afternoons. For the last 45 minutes of the day we'd play tunes on the dinky, brown, school-issue turntables. My friends and I brough in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa (we had older brothers) and I remember some of the black kids brought in Sugarhill Gang. I think back on it is a valuable cultural exchange.

But when I heard Trouble Funk, it was just irrefutably funky, with laser-beam bass and zapping effects, heavy heavy percussion grooves, with what sound like Remo Roto-toms approximating some timbales, horns kick in, and the crowd is just going ape-shit and you can tell.

Trouble Funk and go-go music were largely subsumed by rap, which was more aggressive, drum-machine driven and boastful. But when I moved to Japan in 1985 I realized that go-go was huge in Tokyo. Soon I was hearing Trouble Funk samples showing up in Beastie Boys tunes.

"Drop the Bomb" is probably TF's pinnacle, but they had some other golden moments, too. "Pump Me Up," "Let's Get Small" and the Kraftwerkian "Trouble Funk Express" all get the party rocking.

For another alternate percussion-based possible universe, here's the confoundingly funky Timbalada from Brazil. They're not Olodum, the samba group that Paul Simon worked with, but Timbalada famously ripped off a Keith Haring-style body paint look for their cover art, and from the group came Carlinhos Brown, the king of Brazilian samba funk. I used to play the sordu in a samba group at Wesleyan and the bottom would always drop out of the party when we'd get to the little chopped-up slow triplet break after the choruses. It's one of those rare songs whose hook is a drum break.

Trouble Funk -- "Drop the Bomb"

Timbalada -- "Toque Do Timbaleiro"


Happy In Bag said...

I recall that on days our gym class teacher didn't let us play dodgeball, she had us fifth-graders do this weird "step"-dance with long sticks intead of jumpropes. She played the hits of the day- Jim Croce, the O'Jays and Grand Funk- as we tried to break each other's ankles. Good times.

Barnadine said...

Thanks for this - I just got a tiny tiny taste of go-go when I moved to DC after college ('93). Fantastic.