Musings On Music History: In Which We Welcome A Hip-Hip Icon, Greet A Rock God, and Say Goodbye To A Musical Chameleon

02.18: A very prominent figure in the L.A. gangsta rap scene joined us this week, on this day in 1965, when Andre “Dr. Dre” Young took his first breaths. Dre didn’t begin his musical life with aspirations of being one of the biggest, most prescient hip-hop producers of all time, but that’s what happened. His first taste of the music business came as a DJ and producer with World Class Wreckin’ Cru, an electro group who, like other electro outfits, melded ’70s funk with pronounced synthesizers and hip-hop beats (think Afrikaa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” or Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”), unleashing a mini electro storm on L.A. in the mid-’80s, scoring a few local hits. At the same time, Dre began to make friends in the local hip-hop scene, most notably a rapper by the name of Ice Cube, with whom Dre started to write and record songs for Ruthless Records, a label owned by Eazy E. When one of the label’s groups refused to record a Cube/Dre song, Eazy formed a group, called N.W.A., with the guys and they put out the song under that moniker. Yeah, that song was “Boyz ‘N The Hood” and it forever changed the way middle America saw not only Southern California, but, for better or worse, hip-hop. From the album Straight Outta Compton, which received no radio play to the incendiary song “F— Tha Police,” N.W.A. courted controversy, sold millions of albums, and shone a spotlight on the streets of South Central. After the dissolution of N.W.A., Dre didn’t sit around crying, he set about honing a sound he’d spent years creating. With the release of his first solo album, The Chronic, at the end of 1992, Dre’s “g-funk” sound melded unhurried electro with gangsta rap with Parliament-Funkadelic funk and topped it all off with some of the best production ever heard in hip-hop. For real, listen to “Nuthin’ But A G Thing.” So smooth and sonically amazing, it still gives us chills, and a broad smile, listening today. For years after The Chronic came out, from Snoop Dogg to Warren G to 2 Pac, the g-funk sound would rule the charts, and Dr. Dre would be king of the roost. That he’s also responsible for bringing Eminem and, by proxy, 50 Cent to the world is a testament to Dre’s superb tastes and his forward-thinking ways. This is a very long way of showing our appreciation and intense admiration for all aspects of Dr. Dre’s career, and we just want to wish him a very happy birthday.

02.19: You may not know this, but the current lead singer for AC/DC, Brian Johnson, wasn’t the group’s first. Before Brian, Bon Scott fronted the band, leading them on a journey, alongside Angus Young’s monster chords and Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar and behind-the-scenes stewardship, toward hard rock nirvana. Through six albums, Bon and the Brothers Young, accompanied by bass and drums, of course, tore up the hard rock world, never taking themselves seriously, always finding the fun and good times in life, continually sprinkling their songs with a healthy dose of juvenile sexual references and bar-fight reminiscences. From their debut, High Voltage to the breathtakingly loud and awesome Highway To Hell, AC/DC never let up, never stopped to take a breath, putting their heart and soul into their music, critics be damned. (Critics didn’t really cotton to the sound, believe it or not.) In 1980, however, the ride came to a grinding halt when Bon Scott died on this day, at the much-too-young age of 33, choking on his vomit after a night of heavy drinking. Or as the coroner wrote as the official cause, “death by misadventure.” Misadventure?! We’re not sure exactly what that is, but we think Scott would’ve liked it. Not pretty, by any means, but it certainly fit in with the group’s hard rock and hard ways. That the band emerged from this dark day, found a new lead singer in Brian Johnson, and put out Back In Black, one of the most iconic rock albums ever and a tribute, of sorts, to the dearly departed Bon, is a testament to exactly how resilient they are. Brian and the Brothers Young didn’t lament Bon’s passing with Back In Black (as much as some might have you believe), instead embracing his passion for life, rock, and shakin’ it all night long. R.I.P., Bon. Thanks for “Highway To Hell“. [more]

02.20: Kurt Cobain. That’s it. Kurt Cobain. Born on this day in 1967. The face of “grunge.” The man. The myth. The legend. If you weren’t there or weren’t paying attention at the time or were too old or too young to care, grunge came like a tornado, destroying the ’80s L.A. hair metal scene (Poison, L.A. Guns, Ratt, etc.) in a single pass, showing the L.A. poseurs for the rock wannabes they really were, their music for the insipidness it belched out on a regular basis. Cobain’s band, Nirvana, tore out of Seattle, along with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Temple Of The Dog, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Alice In Chains, in 1991, taking the music world to task, ruling rock radio for a few short years, showing the world what’s up. Actually, all the Seattle bands really wanted to do was make music, to channel their creative energies into something meaningful to themselves and a few other people. That the entire country (kind of) got what they were doing attests not only to their prescience, but to the universality, at the time, of what they were doing. Namely, as in Cobain’s music, melding elements of luscious ’60s pop with punk with alternative rock, writing lyrics based on his life, his hard and disassociated life, his disenfranchised “Generation-X” attitude, and, generally, just being genuine. This isn’t to say that all Seattle music espoused this thinking or that every “grunge” band adhered to anything even remotely like this definition, but the label stuck to many bands that couldn’t make it past the times and is still heavily associated with Seattle. That Cobain took his own life just two months after his 27th birthday, following years of depression and heroin addiction, doesn’t take away what he did for music, giving us a bevy of incredible and heartfelt songs with his band Nirvana, such as the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the aching “All Apologies,” and the incredible “Come As You Are,” and spearheading the foray of intelligent, alternative, and heady rock into the mainstream. Happy birthday, Kurt. We miss ya, kid.

02.22: On this day in 1968, one Mr. Brad Nowell joined this world, a scant twenty years before he would form one of the most popular, and remembered, bands of the ’90s, the gloriously catchy and beautifully derivative Sublime. That Sublime gathered influences from punk, funk, hardcore, dub, reggae, hip-hop, and ska didn’t, however, detract from their sound, but, instead, added layer upon layer to their grooves, helping them stand out from the pack of SoCal bands barreling into the national scene (No Doubt, Offspring, Green Day). Brad wasn’t the most gifted lyricist, by any stretch of the imagination, but he was sincere and passionate about his influences and his own songs. He knew when to hit the accelerator and when to hit the breaks, when to get a pit going and when to get the dirty hippies dancing. Two self-released albums, 40 Oz. To Freedom and Robbin The Hood, and a relentless tour schedule, including a spot on the inaugural Warped Tour, helped land the band their first major label disc, on MCA. Unfortunately, Brad wouldn’t live to see its release, as he overdosed on heroin, at all of 28 years old, in a San Francisco hotel room two months before it was set to hit stores. What an album, and what a waste that Brad was not able to enjoy its success. That eponymous album, Sublime, is still remembered fondly to this day by those who knew it back in the day, still being discovered by a new group of kids and music lovers today. From the rolling “What I Got” to the laid-back “Santeria” to the furious surf-punk of “Paddle Out“, Sublime showcased a band that’d practiced relentlessly and found their groove, that was confident in who they were and what they wanted to do. It sucks that Brad couldn’t enjoy that success. The album has sold over 5 million albums to date, but that doesn’t bring Brad back. We know he would’ve done even more amazing things in the ensuing years, but there’s really no use speculating and getting depressed. We just want to celebrate his life and, today, his birthday. Happy birthday, Brad! We miss you, kid.

Comments are closed.