This post originally took the form of a couple of Twitter threads, which I’ve collected and edited here for easier reading.
Greg Sandow asks two very interesting and provocative questions of classical music:
When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?
My answer: Probably not.
This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.
Let’s just get Vanilla Ice out of the way first. White people and hip-hop, oy.
“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is a testament to the power of a great bass groove. The song itself is pretty weak sauce–it emerged out of studio jam sessions and it doesn’t sound like it was ever really finished. But what a bass groove!
If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:
Hearing the news of Bowie’s death made me go listen to Blackstar, which is excellent, his best work in I don’t know how long. His voice aged exquisitely well. So did his restless sonic adventurism: the man never settled in a style for very long. This particular one suits him.
Here’s an explanation for why I’m gathering these things.
Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries”
I’m no great fan of Wagner, but there’s no denying that this is a killer hook. You don’t have much occasion to play in 9/8 time these days, but this melody can be adapted to fit 4/4 pretty easily. Also, because I’m a lowbrow goofball:
If you had to name the most influential drummer in contemporary music, who would you pick? If you’re a rock fan, you might go with Ringo Starr, John Bonham, or Keith Moon. A jazz fan might choose Max Roach, Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams. You probably wouldn’t think to name Gregory Cylvester Coleman. But he’s as strong a candidate as anyone.
Coleman was the drummer in a sixties soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” That doesn’t sound like much of a case for Coleman’s importance. But his short drum break is widely considered to be the most-sampled recording in history, ahead of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache” and “Cold Sweat” and all the rest of the classic breakbeats.
Here’s “Amen, Brother.” The famous drum break comes at 1:27.
Here’s a visualization I made of the famous break:
Meet guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, one of my favorite musicians in the world. He founded Chic along with the late bassist Bernard Edwards, and he’s on Twitter.
Nile Rodgers has led an action-packed life. As a teenager, he played with the Sesame Street band, and then with the Apollo Theater house band, where he backed such luminaries as Aretha Franklin and P-Funk. He was an active Black Panther. His Allmusic bio lists various NYC bands he played in before forming Chic, including a new wave rock outfit called Allah & The Knife Wielding Punks. He later went on to write most of the disco songs and eighties pop hits that I like, and helped lay the cornerstone of hip-hop. He deserves a blog post and then some.