A record of high school music heroes of mine who have died in 2016. To be updated as relevant.
The first David Bowie album I heard was “Heroes.” I’m not sure exactly why I picked that one ahead of Ziggy Stardust or Low or Hunky Dory; something about the cover and the title just felt authoritative to me. Bowie’s weird black-and-white pose and the sneer that comes with putting that word in quotation marks. Some person on a forum I frequented said I should look forward to my “Bowie phase” when I announced I was going to start exploring his discography. How presumptuous, I remember thinking at the time. Maybe I won’t even like him at all.
And I won’t pretend it wasn’t something of a struggle at first. Side A of “Heroes” starts with the murderously funky “Beauty and the Beast” and “Joe the Lion” and then segues into the title track, which is David Bowie’s best song. No trouble so far. But the latter half of the album is largely composed of placid, gurgling ambient numbers, which can feel like an intolerable bait-and-switch to a 16 year old who’s still getting used to the idea that not every song needs a verse-chorus-verse structure to be considered music. On Pitchfork’s recommendation I head Low next and I remember having a very similar reaction: loving Side A, being baffled and vaguely infuriated by Side B. This low-key synth stuff is all well and good for one-offs and interludes, but half the album? Shouldn’t albums that are considered the best of all time mostly be, uh…songs?
Things didn’t really snap into place with me and Bowie until Ziggy Stardust. “Five Years.” “Starman.” “Hang On to Yourself.” The title track. Beautiful, understated, inexpressible “Lady Stardust.” That’s the one I hung on; that’s the one my teeth stayed clamped around. That’s a song about being everything you want to be, luxuriating in your newfound identity while an implied crucifixion looms just outside your peripheral vision. That shit is like crack for a teenage boy in need of validation. My grades suck, I’ve never kissed a girl, not even my friends seem to like me much anymore…but I am who I am.
Things weren’t so difficult to understand after that, even with albums I’d found myself struggling with like the aforementioned Low and “Heroes.” I didn’t feel so much need to understand and appreciate the accolades these albums got nor to shoehorn their compositions into my own understanding of music. Each Bowie album is its own little galaxy of moods and ideas; saying Low is the greatest album of the 1970s is a bit like saying the apricot is the Earth’s greatest tree-borne fruit. It probably isn’t, and even if it is you’re qualifying something in a way that benefits neither the object nor the participant’s experience of it. David Bowie is too big for numbers.
Bowie was a great comfort to me whether I had fucked up a chemistry test or couldn’t work up the nerve to ask someone out, “Queen Bitch” or “Word on a Wing.” We talk a lot about his image, but his music just as equally posits that there’s inherent honor in individuality. And aside from its meaning, just taking it as sounds coming out of a man’s face and some instruments, it could work just as well for a pick-me-up as for when you needed a rest. We speak of David Bowie almost purely in mythical and thematic terms now, but he was still a rock star: versatile, pliable, inspiring, distant and bold. To quote Achewood, “a main good guy of kids.” And he’ll never not be where he’s needed most.
I’m writing this after listening to Slime Season 3 by Young Thug, and in many ways the only reason there exists a universe in which I listen to Young Thug is because of Phife Dawg’s influence. Without his art, hip-hop would not be a part of my world.
My father was a dyed-in-the-wool rockist, the type of man who could talk about Jane’s Addiction for longer than two sentences. Being a failed pop songwriter, anything outside of straightforward rock music with consistent melodies and catchy hooks was seen by him as inferior and broken. Needless to say, I did not listen to hip-hop growing up. I wouldn’t have been able to get “that crap” into the house even if I had wanted to.
As I grew older, though, I naturally started forming tastes of my own, and once my dad kicked the bucket I gained new license to start exploring new identities, new interests and new passions. The Low End Theory was introduced to me by an internet friend I had (and have) a lot of esteem for. It was highly placed on his list of Top 100 albums, and being one of the only rap LPs among a plurality of classic rock, metal and jazz naturally piqued my curiosity. I ordered a copy off Amazon and the rest, as they say, is history; but this entry isn’t about A Tribe Called Quest. This is about Phife.
All of Tribe’s music was centering and transcendent to me, but Phife was their-and my own-core of confidence. There was a time where I could (and did) recite the entire first verse of “Bugging Out” on command. Tribe has a reputation for being relaxed and cerebral, and they are, but that song is pure locomotion, and Phife’s boisterous delivery has as much or more to do with the track’s enduring power as its pounding, minimal beat.
That was mostly how it was when I listened to A Tribe Called Quest: even before I had any vocabulary for the technical aspects of hip-hop I understood that Q-Tip was the “better” rapper, but Phife’s verses were the ones that stuck in my head, and when I evangelized this music to friends and family it would be his words that I recalled and recited. A lot of you don’t need a primer on his classic lines- “now you got Seaman’s Furniture,” “when was the last time you saw a funky diabetic,” etc. But I don’t think a lot of us really realized how central Phife was to Tribe’s appeal until we started reflecting on his passing.
Something interesting I noticed on social media when the mourning for Phife was at its peak: fans, including myself, tended to speak of A Tribe Called Quest in its entirety when speaking about what Phife meant to them: “Tribe was my favorite hip-hop group,” “Tribe means so much to me,” etc. Part of this has to do with the fact that Phife was relatively reclusive and never had a proper solo career, so what little most of us knew of him came from his music within the group. But it’s also an indicator of how inextricable he was from their sound. Tribe without Phife is like The Who without Keith Moon: not exactly “useless,” but unmemorable, inessential, incomplete, incorrect. Q-Tip might have been the heart of the group, but Phife was the muscle, veins and tendon.
Phife was always the dude you wanted to be: vivid, poised, heavy-but-agile. Smooth like butter. He gave us some of hip-hop’s most enduring lyrics and made the perfect blunt foil for Q-Tip’s loquacious wordplay, the earthen weight to hold down Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s airy, psychedelic production. He was an irreplaceable part of one of the most influential music groups of the past quarter century, an immortal hip-hop touchstone, and one dweeby teen’s entrance into the world of rap. He made you feel, above all, welcome.
There are certain genres of music that, when you first discover and appreciate them, are difficult not explore in a way that is not obnoxiously identitarian. Those genres of music for me (and I suspect lots of others) were metal, punk, hip-hop and prog rock. Though its from the poshest origins of the lot and is the least aggressive, prog is probably the genre that makes you most defensive: most teens already like rap music, and every high school has a strong underclass of extreme music enthusiasts, but if you’re lucky you’ll run into 5 prog lovers under 40 a year, and as a teen they’re almost impossible to find among your peers. Though no one ever really challenged me on it, seeing a genre of music I loved lampooned in everything from That ’70s Show to The Venture Bros. made me feel like I had to put up my dukes every time the subject came up (the subject, incidentally, was only brought up by myself most of the time).
Still, I was a teenager, and that meant I needed baroque and arbitrary measures for what I thought was cool and what wasn’t. At the time, by criteria I don’t remember nor can possibly fathom in the present day, Gabriel-era Genesis, Yes and King Crimson made the cut, but Emerson, Lake and Palmer were on the “lame” end of the prog spectrum. I still liked them of course, but you’d never pull that out of me.
In an era where guitar playing became cartoonishly bombastic, ELP was the almost-unheard of rock band with no lead guitar, leaving Keith Emerson and his mountains of keyboards to pull the melodic weight of the group. Considering bandmate Carl Palmer’s drum kit was effectively a stage decoration in and of itself, it’s saying something to note that Emerson was without question the band’s most flamboyant performer. Some of the best concert photography of the era is of Keith Emerson smashing a machete into a keyboard with one hand and playing an entirely separate keyboard with his other one, or of him lying underneath a toppled organ, still playing away at it with the frenzied grace of a PCP-addled Mozart. Just as the Doors disproved the necessity of the bass guitar a few years before, Keith Emerson singlehandedly demonstrated how much fun a rock band could be onstage was not incumbent on how flashy its guitar solos were.
It’s been widely speculated that Emerson committed suicide out of despairing for his inability to keep playing to the best of his ability, and to listen to this music is to believe this hypothesis unquestioningly. This music is what Trying sounds like. There are so many jazz and classical interpolations in this music that some critics (perhaps erroneously, if not understandably) have cited their compositions as the spiritual precursor to the art of sampling. The racket it was possible for just these three dudes to make is a testament to their discipline; none moreso than Emerson, whose stacks of keyboards had him pulling double or triple duty where there would normally be two or three other band members playing.
None other than Koji Kondo, composer of the preternaturally iconic music of Nintendo’s Mario and Legend of Zelda games, will cite Keith Emerson as a big formative influence. From his Romantic-era ballads to his robopocalyptic epics to his goofy ragtime interludes, Emerson’s melodies had a driving, adventurous quality that exemplified prog rock at its finest. Every song was its own journey, every album its own Zelda dungeon waiting to be explored.
It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as cultural detritus, but Keith Emerson took it so seriously that he literally died for lack of it. That was a rare thing to find in rock music then, and it’s basically unheard of in rock music now. Everything worth doing deserves passion.