“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I can’t sum up 1990 in a single post without being hopelessly self-indulgent. I’d much rather spread my self-indulgence over the course of a few shorter posts because I’m a purist. So, today I’m concentrating on the politics of 1990 as viewed through its music. Well, that’s not quite right. These songs are technically less about politics than about how the business of politics affects everyday people.
That said, 1990 was heavily charged politically. Granted, I was 20-21 and deeply enmeshed in the left-leaning underground radio station (KCSC Chico). Given that environment, a political consciousness would be par for the course. But, I’d say a conflict in the Persian Gulf deservedly rates a notch or two higher on the passionate rhetoric scale. The war was the central issue around which the politics of the day were framed and, in retrospect, the tipping point between Reagan/Bush and Clinton/Bush. And if you think the issues of that era have no bearing on 2011, Jello Biafra has a counterargument.
Jello B-Enemy – Die For Oil Love Jam
Spoken word: Jello Biafra – Die For Oil, Sucker
Bed music: Public Enemy – Contract On The World Love Jam
Fear Of A Black Planet
“Die For Oil, Sucker” was released as a single in 1991, but it was recorded in November 1990 as a regular part of Biafra’s lecture series, which I saw in Chico that October. The piece was his response to the beginning of the Gulf War, a conflict that was then a mere snafu and not the fubar jihad we’ve come to know and love.
Biafra’s strident leftism sounded great to this 21 year old, but his vibrato hysterics are probably best heard in small doses. Don’t get me wrong, “Die For Oil, Sucker” is eerily prescient. The content itself has more or less aged well in that he touches upon uncomfortable, but fundamental political truths. But, I’m not putting you through a 9:30 rant, no matter how much of it I agree with. So, I carved out a 2-minute excerpt and married it to the opening track on Public Enemy‘s Fear Of A Black Planet, the real polemical masterpiece of 1990 (more below).
On a sidenote, can I just say that I’m proud of myself for coming up with “Jello B-Enemy”? Because long before he was Jello Biafra, Bay Area godfather of punk, he was Eric Boucher from Boulder, Colorado. I mention this because in 1990, Eric Bieniemy was an all-American running back for the co-national champion, Colorado Buffaloes, who play their home games in Boulder. When you read a football junkie, you’re gonna get football references. And I don’t need five downs to make them.
See what I did there?
Mark Arm – Masters Of War
Sub Pop single
“Masters” is the epic third song on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and remains one of his all-time “fingerpointing” classics. It was semi-famously covered by Eddie Vedder for the Bob Dylan: 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1992, but no one bothered to mention that Vedder blatantly ripped off this obscure Mark Arm single released in the summer of ’90. I love how Arm’s version slowly builds from a folk song to a dissonant, feedback-laden rock anthem that actually anticipates some of his later efforts in Mudhoney. I’m not sure if Arm is the only musician, but I am sure that producer Jack Endino was an inspired choice to bring out the song’s inherent bloodletting rawness.
Public Enemy – War At 33 1/3
Fear Of A Black Planet
It’s hard to overstate Public Enemy’s importance in 1990, but from the perspective of 2011, they may as well have been brothers from another planet. They posited themselves as political revolutionaries, but their revolutionary spirit was most fully realized in their musical consciousness.
“Can I live my life without ‘em treatin’
Every brother like me like I’m holdin’
A knife alright time to smack Uncle Sam
Don’t give a damn, look at the flag
My blood’s a flood without credit
Black and close to the edit
I fed it, you read it, just remember who said it”
“War at 33 1/3” is Fear Of A Black Planet writ small, the perfect marriage of Black Panther political rhetoric (Chuck D) and a violent production ethic (the vastly underrated Bomb Squad) that turned the tables (Terminator X) on rap’s previous minimalism with an experimental cacophony of awesome. Add to this hints of blaxploitation comedy (Flavor Flav), agitprop musical theater (the S1Ws, PE’s videos and live shows), and brilliant, ahead of its time marketing savvy. When it comes to the Public Enemy legacy, believe the hype.
NWA put gangsta rap on the map with Straight Outta Compton (1988), but when Ice Cube went solo in 1990, releasing both the AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted LP (co-produced by the Bomb Squad) and Kill At Will EP, he established himself as the lyrical genius behind the South Central attitude. It didn’t help NWA’s cause that they released the tepid 100 Miles And Runnin’ EP in ’90, which had its moments, but paled next to Cube’s level-jumping efforts.
Ice Cube – Endangered Species (w/Chuck D)
Amerikkka’s Most Wanted
If you’re putting together a list of post-Chuck Berry songwriters who have the strongest 5-year peak, don’t overlook Cube’s 1987-92. He didn’t have a weakness. Commanding vocal delivery, dope beats, clever samples, and complex narratives that are vulgar, repugnant, and violent, yet articulated with a wit and intelligence that’s virtually unmatched.
Uncle Tupelo – Factory Belt
Uncle Tupelo‘s debut album, No Depression, was cut in January and released later that June. It’s a flawed record, but also strangely perfect in how it fucking rocks and twangs in ideal amounts. Uncle Tupelo was like Creedence if the Fogertys grew up with Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr. instead of Stax and Motown.
“Factory Belt” is one of Jay Farrar‘s high points in the Tupelo catalog, let alone one of the best songs on No Depression. It wasn’t about working in the factory so much as finding an alternative to the factory and the Hüsker Dü-esque machine gun outro — props to drummer Mike Heidorn — should be a clue. What do you think Jay’s referencing when he sings, “Don’t want to go to the grave without a sound/Give the soul a place to rest?” Zombie cinema? Leftist propaganda? I think not. In fact, a comparison to Ice Cube is in order. Yeah, I said Cube.
Well, it’s funny how it all works out
Madmen in suits walking about
Like to change their point of view someday
But I feel my patience slipping away
I’m a nigga, gotta live by the trigger
How the fuck do you figure
That I can say “Peace” and the gunshots won’t cease?
Well, you do what you can just to get by
With poison all around
It needs no disguise
You can see it on faces
From the barstool to the door
With no equal chance all respect is no more
You wanna free Africa, I stare at ya
Cuz we ain’t got it too good in America
I can’t fuck with ‘em overseas
My homeboy died over keys of cocaine
It was plain and simple
“Factory Belt” and “Endangered Species” are snapshots from America’s/AmeriKKKa’s underclass, where liquor, guns, and white powder are seen as options (or supplements) to factory drudgery. Sure, it might result in a “9mm to the temple,” but for some it beats the slow rot of the factory belt.