It’s 2008. George W. Bush is President. The Democratic primaries have just ended, and Barack Obama is the unlikely presumptive nominee. The economy is circling around the drain, and America is about to have its first black Presidential nominee by a major political party.
I don’t know exactly how you might measure and graph a country’s level of plausibly deniable racism or awkward attempts to identify or discount such racism, but if you could, summer 2008 would have to be one of its peaks.
That’s when Jay Smooth posted “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” one of the greatest videoblog entries of all time.
But mostly, he’s still hosting WBAI’s Underground Railroad (since 1991!), keeping up his site HipHopMusic.com (not much lately, but he started it in 1997!) and writing blog posts and making consistently great videos about music, race, politics, and culture at Ill Doctrine.
Watching Ill Doctrine is to feel the power and pleasure of seeing a mind at work. He’s always thinking around seven or eight sides of an issue and following them through all the way to the end. He does what you might call “explainers” but without any of the condescension to the audience or pretense to having settled an issue once and forever endemic to the form. It’s conversation.
He’s the best editor of any weblog I know — every cut is a new thought, a new idea, a new argument to hang on the thought right before it, and the cumulative effect is like a cubist painting.
He’s still experimenting with the format, adding interviews, letting his cat co-host, always oscillating between the public and the personal. Jay’s still the best at what he does.
Update: Jay just launched a Patreon campaign to keep Ill Doctrine going well into the future; if you love his work, please consider supporting it.
Juice might be Tupac Shakur’s signature performance as an actor: he’s charming and frustrating, thoughtful and thoughtless — accelerating through emotions and personalities like an athlete changing speed mid-play — beautiful and wrathful and doomed, like Achilles or James Dean. Or, like Tupac.
Willis-Abdurraqib zeroes in a key part of the story, and of the best art from the era in which the film was made — “what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there.”
Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City,Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it…
A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.
I should add, especially for readers who’ve never seen it, that Juice is beautiful. Dickerson was/is one of the best cinematographers alive before he became a director, and it shows. And the soundtrack is amazing. You could say it was a forgotten movie, but it’s just so unforgettable.
This is fun: an oral history of Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 hit “My Boo.” Did you know that Lil Jon started out in A&R for So So Def? Or that he picked the title “My Boo” over “I Want To Be Your Lady” and pushed to include it on an early label comp? (I did not.)
A video posted by Kevin Sözé ???????? (@11.oo7) on
I was also very late to hear about the Running Man Challenge, which put “My Boo” back into circulation and the sales charts back in April, but in my defense: I am old.
You may also like: this oral history of hyphy and the Bay Area hip-hop scene at the turn of the millennium. It’s a little distended and the photo layout almost feels like Beats By Dre sponsored content, but it’s a loving look at a moment that’s gone.
And who shows up halfway through, helping to break hyphy nationwide? Lil Jon! That guy is everywhere.
At 19 (so, around 1983 or 1984) Rosie Perez moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to help a cousin with her children and go to college for biochemistry. Then she was recruited to be a dancer on Soul Train.
In her line dance solos, you can see early versions of many of the moves that would be immortalized in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing.
You also see a lot of what Perez calls “face dancing.” “Face dance means you don’t know what the hell the rest of your body was doing but your face is fierce. That’s face dancing.”
That fight ended Perez’s time on Soul Train, but she soon had jobs choreographing Bobby Brown, The Fly Girls on In Living Color, and more. Arguably nobody did more to bring hip-hop dance to mainstream attention than Rosie Perez.
We’ve waited too long for a First Lady who can pull this off:
It’s not just that Michelle Obama is the first black First Lady. It’s also that she was born in 1964. She’s sixteen-seventeen years younger than Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. She was in high school when hip-hop broke. Even Barack was already in college. She probably did a few of these dances in a South Shore parking lot when her husband was already thinking about getting into law school. In Joshua Glenn’s generational scheme, Barack is part of Original Generation X, while Michelle’s firmly in the next cohort, alternately titled Generation PC/the Reconstructionists.
Michelle is the first First Lady of the hip-hop generation. And not only does that explain a few things; it’s incredibly awesome.
PS: Here’s the Beyonce dance-as-teen-fitness video the First Lady and DC junior high kids were trying to imitate. (In the mid-late 80s, learning a few of these moves from my sister, I was not unlike the chubby kid in the white hat.)
Drakoulias, George (“Stop That Train” from “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” Paul’s Boutique)
Def Jam A&R man George Drakoulias helped discover the Beastie Boys for Rick Rubin, and later became a producer for Rubin’s American Recordings, working on albums by The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty. There’s no record of him ever working at an Orange Julius.
I obsessed over this stuff as a kid, especially with Paul’s Boutique: I was nine years old, living in Detroit’s 8 Mile-esque suburbs, not New York, hadn’t seen any cult movies from the 70s not titled Star Wars, and had no internet to consult. I was literally pulling down encyclopedias from the shelf and asking my parents (who generally likewise had no clue) obnoxious questions to try to figure out what the heck they were talking about.
But it was definitely the references, too. Whether silly or serious, you couldn’t listen to The Beastie Boys or Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions and not try to sort through these casually dropped names, memes, and places and try to reconstruct the worlds where they came from.