A COLLOQUY ON MUSIC WITH D. FELTZ, PHYFE DOUG, AND THICK TEE BONE PART I
DF: I've been under attack lately for my lukewarm response to the theatrical mega-hit Hamilton. I have praised it to the hilt for its creativity, the skill of its cast, and the impact it has had on young theatre-goers. That its tickets on the secondary market run into the thousands of dollars doesn't bother me as much as the doubling of the ticket prices on the primary market, but that's just me. I "get" supply and demand. If a show is hot I understand that you can get an extra $20 or $30 for the tickets, but asking nearly $400 for an orchestra seat in Row R? Not so much. Not until at least 2020 anyway! TTB: "Lukewarm response"?!! You said you wanted to blow your brains out ten minutes into the show!!! DF: Well, that might have been an exaggeration. I just wasn't looking forward to three hours of beats with no discernible melodies.... Most songs today lack serious melody. The vocalists, who are often hugely talented, just roam up and down a scale. That might be impressive, but it still doesn't constitute a melody. PD: But this discussion is not about Hamilton. It's not even about the late Malik Taylor, AKA Phyfe Dawg, lyricist and rapper from the seminal 80s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. I can't say I've spent a lot of time listening to ATCQ, but I acknowledge their impact on the next generation of rap artists, from Pharrell to Kanye to Kendrick. When Taylor died last week, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, tweeted: "MICROPHONE CHECK 1 2 WHAT IS THIS..." RIP Phife Dawg, who taught us the only way to rock the mic is to be unapologetically yourself Thanks. TTB: Well, who could complain about being "unapologetically yourself"?!
DF: Exactly! Here is a classic A Tribe Called Quest rap. I would never question the popularity and impact of "Can I Kick It". I wonder, though, if the song would have been quite as successful if it hadn't "sampled" (and by "sampled" I mean "appropriated" or "borrowed" or "paid tribute to" or "ripped off") the riff from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground's "A Walk on the Wild Side"? Would it have had the same impact accompanying some original riff? I think not. What I am suggesting is that much rap falls well short of art much of the time in two key areas: the lyrics and the melody. (Other than that it's fine.) It doesn't deserve to be placed on the same level as that of much of historically popular music because it sets the bar of achievement so low. TTB: Let's focus on the lyrics. Phyfe Dawg was praised for his electrifying rhymes, and I admit that some of them were quite powerful. But whether they actually rhyme is up for debate. Whether they scan as some coherent statement with meaning is also questionable. Let's look at the lyrics Q-Tip and Phyfe came up with for this song: Can I kick it? To my Tribe that flows in layers Right now, Phife is a poem sayer At times, I'm a studio conveyor Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor? You'll be doing us a really big favor Boy this track really has a lot of flavor When it comes to rhythms, Quest is your savior Follow us for the funky behavior Make a note on the rhythm we gave ya Feel free, drop your pants, check your ha-ir Do you like the garments that we wear? I instruct you to be the obeyer A rhythm recipe that you'll savor Doesn't matter if you're minor or major Yes, the Tribe of the game, rhythm player As you inhale like a breath of fresh air PD: To me, these lyrics are often fun and creative. They acknowledge the politics of the time with an allusion to NYC mayor David Dinkins, the city's first African-American mayor. There are actual rhymes in these lyrics. "Favor" and "Flavor" are actual rhymes. So are "Savior" and "Behavior". "Hair", "wear", and "air". But few of the end words actually rhyme with each other, and those that do rhyme come in no discernible pattern. Even "layers" and "sayer" don't technically rhyme. "Sayer" would rhyme with "layer". Singular. But the impression the song gives is that all sixteen lines rhyme with each other. If you pronounce the word "hair" as "hay-ur" and the word "wear" as "way-ur", I guess you could call it rhyme for "sayer"...but I wouldn't. Should I care? Maybe not. But none of the songwriters I grew up listening to would have settled for these "close but no cigar" lyrics. They would fall under the category that Leon Russell alluded to in this blog's very first entry "A Song for You" when he sang "I've made some bad rhymes." As indicated in that entry, many of the pop icons I grew up with "settled" for near rhyme instead of working to find something exact. DF: And that's not even getting into the whole discussion of why you need to create this phrase "poem sayer" instead of using the word "poet" other than you need to make it fit into some sort of aural pattern. When I am asked about Emily Dickinson, I don't usually tell my students that she was a great "poem sayer". That's because we have the perfectly good word "POET"! TTB: Who says that lyrics have to rhyme exactly? No one. Just as poems don't need either rhyme or meter to be effective. Some of my favorite poems are written in free verse. Some of my favorite poems are not restricted to the 14-line form known as the sonnet. DF: But hip-hop artists are continually talking about their "rhymes" as if that's a religious thing. I say don't pretend you are rhyming when you are not. When you are often not even coming close. What these rap artists do have is the repetition of vowel sounds--Assonance. In the lyrics above you have a repeated "long A" sound in every line's penultimate syllable-- the first syllable in "say-er" or "ma-jor" for instance. PD: It takes some talent to do that, right? DF: Sure. But it would take you a lot longer to actually rhyme every line. It's hard work. TTB: Let's listen to a song that does employ rhyme in a creative way. It was written back in the 30s (before my time for those who think I am validating my own time period!). Here is a clip from the movie 42nd Street:
TTB: And here are the lyrics to this popular but not classic tune: Shuffle Off To Buffalo Hit song for the Don Bestor orchestra back in 1933, when it reached #2 on the charts. Written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren for the film 42nd Street, where it was brought to life courtesy of Ruby Keeler, Clarence Nordstrom, and the choreography of Busby Berkeley. The song appears near the end of the film, when chorus girl Peggy (Keeler) finally gets her big break to take over the lead in a musical revue named "Pretty Lady," and this song (and dance) is the first of the musical numbers we get to see from this show. Movie version: Someday I hope we'll be elected to buy a lot of baby clothes We don't know when to expect it but it's a cinch, Winchell knows Verse Now that we have had the rice and flowers, The knot Is tied. I can visu'lize such happy hours, Close by Your side. The honeymoon in store Is one that you'll adore, I'm gonna take you for a ride. Refrain I’ll go home and get my panties*, You go home and get your scanties, And away we’ll go; Mm mm mm! Off we’re gonna shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo. To Niagara in a sleeper, There’s no honeymoon that’s cheaper And the train goes slow, Mm mm mm! Off we’re gonna shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo. Published lyrics: Someday the stork may pay us a visit And leave a little souvenir; Just a little cute "What is it?" But we’ll discuss that later, dear. For a little silver quarter, We can have the Pullman porter Turn the lights down low. Oh oh oh! Off we’re gonna shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo. Keeler and Nordstrom sing to each other on the end of the caboose on the "Niagara Limited," and then the car breaks open and splits down the middle to show all the train compartments within. The camera pulls back to also show the orchestra and the audience (reminding us that we are watching a staged musical)... and the camera cuts to follow the couple as they dance up and down the aisle of the train car. What most of the lyrics sites on the Web reveal is the published lyrics to this song. However, in the song's debut in 42nd Street, two showgirls (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) in an upper berth in the train are watching the happy couple add their own refrain and verse as a counterpoint to the happy couple's version (and these words do not appear in the published lyrics):
Matrimony is baloney She'll be wanting alimony In a year or so Still they go and shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo When she knows as much as we know She'll be on her way to Reno While he still has dough She'll give him the shuffle, when they're back from Buffalo I'll bet that she's the farmer's daughter And he's that well-known traveling man; He once stopped down at the farm house, That's how the whole affair began! He did right by little Nelly with a shotgun at his bel... tummy,** How could he say "No?" He just had to shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Niagara Falls had become a popular tourist destination. With easy railroad access via the New York Central, Niagara Falls was heavily promoted as a honeymoon destination for newlyweds, not only from New York City, but anywhere with railroad access to NYC. Given that "Niagara" is hard to rhyme, and that Buffalo, New York is the urban center nearest to the falls on the United States side, "shuffling off to Buffalo" is a catchy phrase to encapsulate such a honeymoon trip to the "Honeymoon capital of the World."
* In 42nd Street, the husband sings this line. ** In 1933, you couldn't say "belly" on stage, it was too vulgar.
DF: For such a "nothing" song, it sure seems to have a lot of history behind it! TTB: That's for sure, but the popular song was just developing in the thirties. It consisted of intros, verses, and refrains...and invariably the lyrics expressed love and joy. PD: All I can say is that Ruby Keeler was a triple threat--she couldn't act, she couldn't dance, and she couldn't sing! And most of the young women in the film were better looking too! What made her special? DF: Well, it was all those tap lessons she took. But I agree, she dances like a horse. TTB: Back to the lyrics. It does seem that all the rhymes are perfect throughout with one exception. We have ("clothes" and "knows); ( "flowers" and "hours"); ("tide", "side", and "ride"); ("store" and [a]"dore") and on and on. Perfect rhymes all. The exception comes right at the start. You have "expect it" pairing up with "elected". Not a horrible match (certainly the audience won't wince), but not a good one either. DF: Well give some credit for originality, will you? Just like the previous rap song, this song drops an allusion to a celeb, Walter Winchell, the most "in the know" person in popular culture at the time. And it has those great cynical lines sung by Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel about "matrimony" being "baloney". This wasn't your typical "June/moon/spoon" sappy ditty. In a year, these hardened young women say, the bride will be on her way to Reno (back then you had to move to Reno for six weeks in order to procure a divorce). Her real goal should be getting out of a bad marriage while there is still some money to be had (this was the peak of the Depression after all). You even get the whole "traveling salesman" meets the innocent "farmer's daughter" reference. These lyrics suggest that love is all a sham. PD: Did I mention that Ruby Keeler was not easy on the eyes and she couldn't really sing or dance? TTB: Um, yeah. We agree. DF: What is great is that last refrain which intimates that the door-to-door salesman (they were considered very dangerous by men who were off to work while their naive wives and virginal daughters were home and vulnerable) must have had her way with little Nelly (the farmer's daughter) and, to put it crudely, "knocked her up". Thus, a shotgun wedding (dad forces salesman at the end of his shotgun to marry daughter) ensues. "He did right by" Nelly, confirms that he accepted the responsibility for getting Nelly pregnant, and there is only one reasonable option for him--he must marry her. Notice that Ginger starts to sing "belly" as the natural rhyme to "Nelly" but switches midway through to "tummy". Hard to believe, but the word "belly" was way too suggestive back in the 30s and would have been cut by the censors. But we all know what she means to say. It's a rather witty way of getting past the prudish blue-noses. PD: I agree. There is a lot going on in this song. It has been carefully crafted. Yet, it's just a goofy song in a goofy show. TTB: Yeah, those 30s musicals didn't really have much in the way of narrative. They were just excuses to take new songs from the Tin Pan Alley composers, pair them with some dance numbers, throw in a little love story, and start on the next one. If you had a hit, as 42nd Street certainly was, you were rehired! PD: It wasn't until a decade later that the popular song really underwent a sea-change (Shakespeare allusion!). But before we get into that part of the discussion, let's enjoy one of the hits from Hamilton. DF: Oh, great. Anybody got a gun?