British music magazine NME has named Death Grips as artist of the year for 2012. They are brash, untrusting, anarchist and musically cacophonous. Their music is the mixture of nicotine, a case of red bulls crushed together with the latest bi-polar medication dispensed at a free clinic. The experimental Rap act from Sacramento contains an axis of influences- Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, Andy “Flatlander” Morin and Zach Hill. They formed their alliance in the California capitol in December of 2010.
Sacramento was the same city that former Manson follower, “Squeaky” Fromme, a Death Grip influence, pulled a gun on then President Gerald Ford and was taken into custody by the secret service. She was later sentenced to life in a West Virginia penitentiary. In 1987 she escaped the prison to go back to California to meet up with Manson. She was found two days later and transferred to a maximum security penitentiary in Ft. Worth, TX.. Fromme had a compulsion to meet Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and warn him of “negative energy” that surrounded him and that his life was in imminent danger. Death Grips were briefly signed to Epic Records and due to their insubordination were later dropped from the label that had also signed Michael Jackson and Shakira. The axis of Death Grips was welcomed within the art world of N.Y.C. and Los Angeles because of their malevolence and their stellar press presence.
Music success is frequently predicated by actions versus talent. This is something that has always persisted in our society; music has always been the most powerful forum that this “phenom” has occurred. Let’s start with “bluesoligist” Gil Scott- Heron you would detect his unsubtle references to the Black Rights Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. His recordings didn’t receive much acclaim due to its radical posture and pre-rap vocal cadence. However, his epic piece was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” influenced every socially conscious post hip hop/rapper for many generations thereafter. His poetic brashness intertwined the culture of black anarchy with the normalcy of a political controlling white society. Heron died in May of 2001 due to pneumonia complications from being tested HIV Positive.
Hip hop masters, Public Enemy, grasped the black anarchist baton in the late 80’s and added a strong dose of militancy to the movement. Their political mantra was within the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims agenda; in particular the spokesmen of Bobby Seale and Malcom X. Like those in the movement’s foundation they continued the cause of social anarchy within the Black community. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBKT_hnYk24
Their lyrics of black revolution were directed to an entire new generation of African Americans who internalized them as did those of the late 60’s and 70’s. Because their beats were louder and stronger they were able to enlist the hip-hop fan base. Let’s just say it was the same message of decades earlier but was put to a more relatable package. Public Enemy was the self-proclaimed generals of the hip hop army! As they matured musically their temperance never deviated much from their original anarchist manifesto. Their appearances also had the presence of the S.1.W’s (Security of the First World) as a cadre of followers.
As Public Enemy aged they released their most commercial song, “He Got Game,” which used basketball as the metaphor of the continuation of the Black Movement. The song masterfully featured Steven Stills and sampled Buffalo Springfield’s classic ode of protest, “For What It’s Worth.” Public Enemy will be inducted this coming April into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s a surprise!
The social anarchy of music wasn’t solely driven by the Black Movement. The war in Viet Nam was also a cause that musicians gravitated to. Famed San Francisco musical icons, Jefferson Airplane were highly vociferous in ending the Viet Nam war and their disdain for President Richard Nixon . Their song “Volunteers” bellowed of a shift in group consciousness to participate in a massive political alternative. The song’s power was its ability to include all members of society regardless of race, creed or religion. Interestingly, “The Airplane” chose in their lyrics a more violent street revolutionary route while they cavaliered for political change!
The revolution of music and anarchy was not solely based in California. In the motor city, Detroit, the movement brought a new player to solicit an audience to the cause, MC5! MC5’s far left political ties and anti-establishment lyrics positioned them as emerging innovators of the punk movement in the United States. Their loud, energetic style of back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll included elements of garage rock, hard rock, blues rock, and psychedelic rock. Their run was short lived but they had the reputation for being energetic and polemic during their performances. The track, “Kick Out the Jams,” became a punk rock anthem and it earned MC5 a place on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in January 1969. The core of the band consisted of Rob Tyner on vocals, Wayne Kramer, guitarist and Fred “Sonic” Smith on bass. Both Tyner and “Sonic”Smith died in their early 40’s due to heart attacks.
MC5 of this period were politically influenced by the Marxism of the Black Panther Party and poets of the Beat Generation such as Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, or Modernist’s poets like Charles Olson. Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton prompted the band to be the political apex of the White Panthers, a militant leftist organization of white people working to assist the Black Panthers. In their early career they were known for their provocative stage antics by toting unloaded rifles at their show and at the concert’s climax, with a near evangelistic zeal, an unseen sniper would shoot down singer Rob Tyner. From what I’ve read this stunt was common with each performance. It sounds like a stunt that Jim Morrison of the Doors would’ve concocted while performing the track, “The Unknown Soldier”.
MC5 played at Grants Park adjacent to the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 to show their solidarity against the Viet Nam War. The frenzy they created caused the police to send out the riot squad and The National Guard to quell the demonstration. Other artists like Neil Young were scheduled to perform but the pandemonious reaction that MC5 caused made this impossible. The chant of “the whole world is watching” was heard throughout the world due to the amount of T.V. coverage the riots received. Not soon after the convention the Justice Department meted out conspiracy and incitement to riot charges in connection with the violence at Chicago and gave birth to the Chicago Eight, which consisted of Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The following video montage is long but it’s relevance required the entire inclusion. Watch it and you will see American Democracy at it’s lowest point.
Political anarchy in music didn’t stop at the American shores. A band of young snot nosed kids started a band in 1975 that would forever change musical history, The Sex Pistols! The Sex Pistols were an English punk rock band that formed in London in 1975. They were responsible for initiating the punk movement in the United Kingdom and inspiring many later punk and alternative rock musicians. Although their initial career lasted just two-and-a-half years and produced only four singles and one studio album,” Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”, they are regarded as one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music . In February 2006, the Sex Pistols—the four original members plus Sid Vicious—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; but they refused to attend the ceremony, calling the museum “a piss stain”! Their anti-establishment credo also had a great influence in fashion and self-desecration by kids wearing safety pins in their cheeks and lips. They toured America just once and I had the opportunity to see them perform in San Francisco at the world famous Winterland. Their performance was marred by chaos and atonal vocals by Johnny Rotten; however… Steve Jones was amazing at guitar and supplied the musical integrity of the band.
The cries of anarchy in music became fainter after the Sex Pistols, but causes for environmental consciousness started to bellow, but never really had the mass traction of the Black Movement or the Viet Nam War. Australian band Midnight Oil spearheaded notoriety and education for “Save the Planet”. They also were purveyors of the treatment of the indigenous tribes of Australia. The band was galvanized by the experiences and made them the basis of Diesel and Dust, released in 1987 and produced by Warne Livesey.. The album focused on the need for recognition by white Australia of past injustices involving the Aboriginal nation and the need for reconciliation.
As the the 90’s approached there became the music for the jilted generation and the messenger was the band Prodigy. Brain child of Liam Howlett, Prodigy brought its own brand of anarchy. Their lyrics howled of the British class system and directed their fan base to the proletariat. Their album, “The Fat of The Land” released in 1997, debuted on the American charts at #1 and sold over 220,000 copies its first week! Their polemic video of “Smack My Bitch” was banned from MTV because of its indulgent drugs and sex references. Regardless the track garnered tremendous airplay at Alternative and Rock Radio stations. The National Organization for Women (NOW) criticized the song and its music video. The song’s lyrics consist entirely of the repeated phrase “Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up”, which NOW stated are a “dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women” Howlett responded to the criticism by stating that the meaning of the song and its lyrics were being misinterpreted, and the phrase meant “doing anything intensely, like being on stage – going for extreme manic energy”. The band did not actually write the lyric, but rather, sampled it from the hip hop Ultramagnetic MCs’ track “Give the Drummer Some.” I went and saw Prodigy at their first appearance in Los Angeles and for the first time in my life I felt my life was in danger! They created a frenetic reaction within the crowd. This was probably one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen; and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it! Absolutely amazing live performance! Because of my uncompromising perseverance to break this groundbreaking band I was awarded by their record company a Gold Record; which is my most coveted trophy.
It was 1993 while in San Francisco I had attended the Lollapalooza festival and witnessed a band that was at the practical bottom on the bill, Rage Against the Machine. I observed a definite “change in the wind”. Their performance was as compelling as any band I had seen in many years. Their message resonated to over 30,000 people and created a frenzy. The air was still but the message of social injustice was being rekindled by an American band from Los Angeles. In 1991 guitarist Tom Morello and vocalist Zack de la Rocha spearheaded a blend of heavy metal meets free-style rap. Their appeal was practically viral! The voracity of de la Rocha was connecting with a mass audience and it spread across the world. “Killing in The Name of” became an anthem with the disenchanted. It didn’t evolve from class struggle, rather it utilized the center piece of “Us against Them” and the band’s opposition to the “right wing purgatory”; plus the U.S. ‘s political slide due to the George Bush administration’s and the military build up in the Mideast War.
My most unforgettable memory of “Rage” was when they performed at the Democratic Convention in August of 2000 and despite the controversy over getting a permit for their performance the band played in front of over 10,000 political dissidents. The L.A.P.D. showed up 2,000 strong in riot gear and on horseback. When the police determined that the assembly was unlawful and was to be shut down. De la Rocha continued to sing through a megaphone and basically incited a riot! There were bottles thrown, beer cans filled with urine were pitched at the police on horseback. These actions gave the green light to proceed and instill justice, as was directed by the chief of the L.A.police and the Sheriff’s Dept. I witnessed people being beat up, handcuffed and taken into custody let alone tear gas being shot . Those police on horseback started to club protesters to clear the streets. Still de la Rocha continued to speak and tell the crowd that the revolution had officially started in the streets of Los Angeles; which in fact was the title of their new album just released! Was it a scheme to promote the new album or was there a sincere intention to spread the word to the people? Their political message beyond questioning authority became convoluted as time went on and the band fell into a tail spin over their artist development and ego issues. As a journalist I hope this piece conveyed the history of anarchy in music. Obviously, I missed many artists and their causes. Plus and most important I told the truth and if I offended you I apologize but I told my story the best I could. Jefferson A. Laufer