Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Roots of Rap

My first six months I lived in England was in a military barracks, a drafty World War II relic. The thin walls did nothing to the stop the constant DJ action going on next door, where my friend DeWayne Calhoun was spinning vinyl in every spare moment on his twin turntables - the first person I ever heard scratching.

At first I hated the thumping syncopation and the pulse-pounding from the 12-inch woofers, but, well, I adapted. Now I realize that I had a historic opportunity to listen as rap and hip-hop broke out into the mainstream. This was early in the 1980s. DeWayne spun some of the earliest recordings of mostly New York based ensembles like Afrikaa Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash. DeWayne bought these records in Los Angeles, at booths at swap meets. These MCs, in turn, started out as block party DJs in Brooklyn and Hollis, Queens. A very roundabout way to the military barracks, but the journey didn't stop there. DeWayne, and other GIs, were instrumental in importing the MC/DJ ethos into the vibrant Brit club scene, which we are now witnessing returning to us through Lady Sovereign and Mike Skinner, aka The Streets.

On one early occasion, before I realized that DeWayne was a talented guy with a golden ear, I politely asked him to quit with the rapping, "Too Much, Too Many People" carved a deep groove into my brain that has yet to be filled in. He, polite in turn, but with great enthusiasm, said he had something I would be guaranteed to like. How he knew that when he barely knew me puzzles me to this day, but he was spot-on right.

That was my introduction to Gil Scott Heron, this spoken-word poet, proto-rapper and jazz-singing maestro, most famous for his prophetic song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Gil Scott Heron, sounding like the street-corner prophet that he is, grabbed me by the lapels and hasn't let go since. He is the conscience of a troubled nation.

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