Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

It Was A Good Day

Today marked 20 years since the LA uprising of 1992. Ignited by the acquittal of the four police officers that had brutally beaten motorist Rodney King, the riot was not surprising given the history of police brutality and misconduct in the under-served community. South Central Los Angeles had been under pressure for at least four decades at the time of the six-day riot: Segregation, lack of services, and poor relations between residents and the law were the usual elements that conspired to combust in urban unrest.

Four years before, the matters of racial profiling, gang violence and more were brought to the world’s attention when in 1988, N.W.A. delivered Straight Outta Compton, a collection of raps concerning life on the street there.  Broadcasting their tales of hard and violent times in South Los Angeles, the group caught the attention of the FBI, which in short order made investigative efforts toward shutting them down. Records were pulled from shelves and stickered with warning labels, though eventually an entire industry grew from similarly styled graphic tales of survival fights and criminal scenarios. Ice-T’s sometimes cautionary crime-rapping tales were also associated with the birth of the west coast gangsta boom and he caught his share of resistance too. As it turned out, there was a gigantic market for this reality-art, and as the insurgent sound of N.W.A. went  on to define the early era of gangsta rap, the group’s tussles with the law began to echo the lifestyles described in their songs.  Here is N.W.A.’s least inflammatory rap, wrapped around the track, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band:

N.W.A. and gangsta rap would forever alter hip hop. The music’s aims remain embroiled in controversy and even conspiracy theory, yet it is undeniably a moneymaker.  In Keep on Pushing, I attempt to untie some of the threads that run through the art of hip hop, commerce, and the dilemma posed by gangsta rap as part of a larger investigation. Shining a light in the corners of music history where the sounds and singers converge with law enforcement, and where incendiary art confronts the force of the market, is part of a larger unfolding exploring the tradition of songs calling for change.  I specifically included the music of the late ‘80s Los Angeles in the text to illustrate how hip hop broadcast the news from America’s urban centers in a way that the mainstream media was not able to manage.  Hip hop, including the earliest examples of gangsta rap,  is a demonstration that there are some songs that go beyond simple entertainment or artistic expression; rather, they have the potential to inspire, record otherwise unwritten histories, deliver the news, and give voice to those who may otherwise go unheard.

“Why get mad at the brother bringing the news?  Get mad at the person making it happen,” said Tupac Shakur in the early ‘90s. Anyone who knew hip hop or the conditions in South Central at the time would not have been surprised to hear there was a riot going on in 1992; an uprising was inevitable given the conditions. N.W.A. were simply reporters, the eyes and ears, that brought the noise from Compton to the world.  They  were not the first, nor will they be the last to bring their experience from South Central to a wider audience through a song.

In the 1920s till the 1950s, Central Avenue was the hub of the LA R&B and jazz scenes, springing such giants as Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus.  These were artists whose commitment to music and the fight for racial equality extended beyond entertainment.  As a one-time member of Hampton’s band, Central Ave. regular, avant garde piano stylist Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra in 1961.  A vocal opponent of racism and advocate for social change, in the ‘60s, Tapscott worked with young artists in coffeehouses and community centers of Watts, the creative center for South LA’s artists and its progressive politics in that decade.  Today the spirit of community action and harmony through art lives in Leimert Park.  Immediately following the ’92 uprising, some of the area’s visionary citizens banded together to create a safe haven for the preservation of jazz, poetry, theater and visual arts, providing community space for the still under-served and post-riot, imperiled community. The independent film, Leimert Park documents the transition and the extraordinary rebirth of arts and culture in South LA (the name currently in rotation for the area formerly known as South Central, as in South of Central Ave.) since 1992. Here’s a clip from the film, featuring the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, with vocalist Dwight Trible.  The group celebrated its 50th anniversary of being last year with a series of concerts.

And so I conclude this entry with a thank you to the artists and advocates, the poets, writers, filmmakers, dancers, actors and musicians of South Los Angeles, for documenting your place, your time and your lives—for extending your art and your hearts—to the world.  I truly hope that this April 29, 20 years on, was a good day in the neighborhood.

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Filed under: Hip Hop, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , ,

When Record Store Day Meets Earth Day, it’s time for The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

In honor of this weekend’s most auspicious collision of Record Store Day and Earth Day,  Saturday and Sunday respectively, I decided to reprise a story about where environmentalism meets record collecting, which as it happens is also the most-read article here at denisesullivan.com.  The Day Van Dyke Parks Went Calypso, originally appeared in the pages of Crawdaddy! in 2009, 40 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and the birth of the environmental movement, and upon the occasion of the  re-reissue of Parks’ long out-of-print productions for calypso artists, the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, and the Mighty Sparrow. Parks had a goal and an idea ahead of its time: To forge environmental healing through music made by instruments made of cast-off oil drums. The story further explains one man’s adventures in art and activism and begins after the clip below: Taken from a documentary on the Esso Trinidad Steel Band,you won’t find the rest of the film on youtube, though you will find it with the reissued Esso, available at your local record store.

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Calypso, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harry Belafonte, Interview, , ,

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