“Take off that Onyx T-shirt”

This is a screen cap of Eminem during his interview in the forthcoming HBO documentary The Defiant Ones. When I saw it, I thought about two things:

*In 1994, I witnessed KRS-One give an incredible performance in San Francisco. This was when he was at the height of his powers, and often mentioned as one of the best rappers alive, if not ever. But what I remember most is how he’d frequently stop mid-song and dive right into off-the-dome freestyles, riffing extemporaneously and lodging random disses. One of his unexpected targets was Onyx; he turned to one of his hypemen and said, “You should take off that Onyx T-shirt.”

I don’t know whether he had “beef” with Onyx, or if he just didn’t like their music at the time. Much like the subliminals at rival rappers that Kool Keith lodged during his Ultramagnetic years, Kris’ remark may have been the kind of unfiltered opinion you can rarely get away with nowadays, not with Complex and other trendspotting sites ready to pump up any lyrical remark into a controversial “stray shot,” and not with audiences filming every performance with their phones for social media dispersal.

Having said that, when I saw Chance the Rapper perform at the Greek Theatre last year, he said something to the effect of, “Are you ready for the blessings? Not the fake blessings you hear about…but the real blessings.” It was clearly aimed at Big Sean’s “Blessed,” and how the Detroit rapper equated material success with being in God’s grace. However, Chance’s critique went unmentioned on the Internets.

*Did you notice that Eminem is developing a bit of a widow’s peak in the photo? It looks like he’s starting to lose his hair.

Spotlight On: 2Pac

(Note: These pieces were originally written in July 2011.)

This year, 2Pac would have turned 40 years old if he were alive. But his birthday did not go unnoticed. Members of the Shakur family, event promoters and fans held honorary parties across the country on June 16. Meanwhile, Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back,” the lead single from Ross’ Maybach Music Group compilation Self-Made, briefly lit up the Internet. A day before 2Pac’s birthday, a man serving life in prison, Dexter Isaac, told allhiphop.com he was paid by former record executive Jimmy “The Henchman” Rosemond to rob 2Pac at the infamous 1994 Quad Studios shooting. Taken together, it all amounted to the most discussion about 2Pac in years.

Perhaps that prompted Universal Music Group to digitally re-release 2Pac’s early Interscope recordings in June. There isn’t much left to say about a virtually mythological figure that generates conspiracy theories, academic books, and a cottage industry of bootlegs. But his first three albums, along with the Thug Life compilation and the post-mortem collection R U Still Down? (Remember Me?), deserve new scrutiny. This era is often summarized as 2Pac’s “conscious” period before he “signed a deal with devil” at Death Row (as his mother Afeni Shakur once put it), but the recordings themselves aren’t as straightforward.

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Spotlight On: Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire was the biggest black rock band of the 1970s. But today, it’s among the era’s most misunderstood platinum acts. The group’s discography nearly mirrors black music’s evolution, from the Afrocentric jazz of the Black Panther years to the quiet storm balladry and slick corporate funk that marked the end of that tumultuous decade with a merciful whimper. Its visionary leader, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Maurice White sought to encapsulate it all, and he succeeded remarkably. When you hear an Earth, Wind & Fire record, you know it. The soaring brass section led by Andrew Woolfolk and the Phenix Horns, the marvelous interplay between White’s cool spoken-sung vocals and Philip Bailey’s lush falsetto, and White’s kalimba (an African finger piano) gave them a unique, oft-copied sound. However, their capacity for hit singles has sometimes reduced them to pop culture clichés, whether it was 1979’s wildly over-the-top disco nugget “Boogie Wonderland” or Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing the funky white-girl dance to “Shining Star” on Seinfeld.

Then there’s that other black rock juggernaut of the Seventies, Parliament-Funkadelic. The two organizations were rivals, and P-Funk figurehead George Clinton claimed that EWF was “earth, all wind, and no fire.” They celebrated the African-American experience in markedly different ways. P-Funk adopted a cryptic language based on street slang, black popular culture and authors like Ishmael Reed. Their music was often intentionally cryptic, which not only protected them from homogenization (or “the placebo syndrome”) but also created a cult of believers dedicated to propagating Clinton’s message of funk epiphany.

White designed EWF as a mainstream rock experience that would introduce his ideas to a mass audience. He began his career in 1960s Chicago as a session drummer for Chess Records, and spent time gigging with contemporary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. By the time White moved out to Los Angeles with several friends to form EWF in 1970, he had begun developing a complex philosophy of cosmology, Afro-Christian spirituality, and New Age karma. As the group’s success grew, White’s use of Egyptian symbols like pyramids and hieroglyphs increased. Many critics blanched at his koan-like lyrics on songs like “All About Love” (from That’s The Way Of The World) and “Be Ever Wonderful” (from All ‘N All). He was aware of his detractors. On the latter, he sang, “What I’d like to tell you may not be what you see.” Another All ‘N All track, “Runnin’,” juxtaposed chants of “You want to get down, you got to take it on up” with White’s edict that “If you don’t understand, it’s your fault.” Although not all of EWF’s millions of fans (or even some of its members) dig as deep as this cheat sheet or understand the Egyptology references, they love the band for its life-affirming music.

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