What is the blues? To me the blues is a way of throwing off the destructive mantle of inhumanity that we see all around us every day.
The Blues is at times a cry of desperation, written in the dark. But when you’re depressed and say “I got the Blues”, that ain’t exactly it. The Blues has always been a language of people who have transcended themselves. They might be dirt poor or hungry but they are still singing. It’s a bittersweet song, no doubt, but it’s also a coping mechanism. A means of saying. Life’s shit but I know, I just know I ain’t alone. Am I? Well am I.?
For Black Americans, the answer has ultimately been no. Perhaps because of slavery, I can’t say for sure really, or rather it’s not my place to say. Maybe it’s for another reason, but the answer has always resoundingly been NO! There’s a self belief there and a strong insistence on the commonality of humanity. It’s the kinship that you also often see in Gospel music. Martin Luther King singing, “We Shall Overcome”.
For Howling Wolf, the blues is when a brother can’t eat or pay the rent – he got the Blues.
The Blues, as I interpret it, is a coping mechanism for the trials and tribulations that confront us all. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that stab us right through the heart when we are at our most vulnerable. The Blues is in some sense a shield against those devilish arrows and stones, a shield that boldly states, “I am a Man”. I am not alone, and whatever you launch at me, you can’t ever take away my humanity. I know that there are others like me. What’s more, I’m powerful enough to shout it: to take my most woeful hour and turn it into a song. It’s a jungle telegraph, which says it’s possible to survive, and I can prove it with my tune.
When Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley together sing the simple cry, “I’m a Man” it is a rebel yell: “Emancipation!” for Black men in America had always been called ‘boy’.
Here in England we took to the blues late. English players like the Bluesbreakers, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton took the structure of the blues: 12- bar, weeping guitars etc. and turned it into a bastard son of itself. It must have been totally weird for Black Blues artists coming over to the UK in the 60’s, and hearing these white boys, who had always had food on their plate, subverting their raw sound. The point is that to me at least, this new music wasn’t the Blues. In time it became something new: rock. Not the Blues.
To me, anyone can sing the Blues, but that Blues is a story that can’t be faked. It’s a story that you might find in the city or in the country. It’s not site-specific. It’s just your story. The story of the trials you have encountered in your own life. Nothing more, nothing less. A story of adversity, except that the blues is a brave challenge and a raw trust in humanity that you ain’t alone when disaster strikes.
Musically, the Blues takes the idiom of the moment to tell it’s story. The chord or bar structure is largely irrelevant, although there is no doubt that the players really know their stuff.
I’m going to take a turn here and talk about Gangstarr. At the heart of this collective crew were DJ Premier and rapper Guru. In 90’s New York, Dj Premier was sampling Jean-Jacques Perrey, an outré composer from France and turning an abstract electronic noodle into a repetitive mantra for Guru’s raps. Somehow, Jean-Jacques Perrey’s breakbeat and bassline riff was the right template for Guru’s inner city tale of that moment. Premier was using two turntables much in the same way as, for example, John Lee Hooker used guitar to musically evoke inner city Blues, the plight of the ghetto.
When you hear Guru’s lyrics (written out below), in “Just to Get a Rep” for the first time, it’s easy to just dismiss it as gangster rap. There’s a hint though in the crew’s name: Gangstarr, an understanding that the new idiom of rap was already in some senses a lost cause, bought out by the record industry, The Gangster would become the star.
Guru, however has faith in his own words, he uses the words of the street to tells his story with clear and straightforward lyrics. He presents the desperate story of the repetition and tragedy of gun crime in the ghetto with insight. There’s no glamour here. When the two shots are fired in the video, they are simply a finger pointed at his fellow black man and the story is a diatribe against street robbery and gun crime. For me, Guru & DJ Premier are essentially telling the same story as Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. They are using intelligence and wit to rise above their adversity and to lead others away from the same predicament. The Blues at it’s finest.
I would argue that artists such as Boogie Down Productions, Gangstarr and Geto Boys were the true inheritors of the Blues. They took on the mantle of the Blues and strode forward, boldly telling new stories of adversity, no longer in the cornfields but now on the streets of the inner city. Once again their stories were not stories of defeat. Just sad songs from the ghetto:
Gangstarr – “Just To Get a Rep”
Brothers are amused by others brother’s reps,
but the thing they know best is where the gun is kept.
‘Cause in the night, you’ll feel fright,
and at the sight of a 4-5th, I guess you just might,
wanna do a dance or two,
’cause they could maybe bust you for self or with a crew.
No matter if you or your brother’s a star,
he could pop you and jet without a getaway car.
Some might say that he’s a dummy,
but he’s sticking you, and taking all of your money?
It’s a daily operation,
he might be loose in the park, or lurking at the train station.
Mad brothers know his name,
so he thinks he got a little fame – From the stick-up game.
While we’re blaming society,
he’s at a party with his man, they got their eye on the gold chain,
that the next man’s wearing,
it looks big but they ain’t staring.
Just thinking of a way and when to get the brother,
they’ll be long gone before the kid recovers.
Back around the way, he’ll have the chain on his neck,
Claimin’ respect, just to get a rep.
Ten brothers in a circle, Had the kid trapped,
the one with the hood, he said, “We’ll hurt you,
If you don’t run out your dues and pay,
Give up the Rolex watch or you won’t see another day.”
See, they were on the attack,
And one said, “Yo, you wanna make this to a homicide rap?
Make it fast so we can be on our way,
Kick in the rings and everything, ok?”
The kid was nervous and flinching,
And little Shorty with the 3-8, yo, he was inchin’,
Closer and closer, put the gun to his head,
Shorty was down to catch a body instead.
Money was scared, so he panicked,
Took off his link and his rings and ran frantic,
But shorty said, “Now”,
pulled the trigger instead,
It was nothing.
He did it just to get a rep.
The rep grows bigger, and now he’s known for his trigger finger,
rolling with troops of the sons like a gangster figure.
He’s near the peak of his crazy career,
his posse’s a nightmare macking jewels and crazy gear.
But as we know, the things we do come back,
and Shortys now peeping others are scheming that kind of act.
Cuz the kid that got shot didnt perish so,
he pulls up in a jeep with tinted windows.
Too late Shorty was caught in the mix,
His time ran out, his number came up, and thats it.
Ya know the rest so don’t front, the plan has been upset,
some brothers gotta go out, just to get a rep.