The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

JCHRants

Why Can’t I Get Next To Rap?

If a white man doesn’t enjoy hip hop is there racism involved or just old age? The Atlantic hates Progressive Rock. Narcissism. Eating yer veg and broadening our minds. Beyoncé. Sugar Hill Gang. Grandmaster Flash. Sir Mixalot. Hamilton. Kendrick. The Guest Rapper Killed The Guitar Solo. Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Journalists and music criticism. Rap, vegetables, Reagan and ketchup. Glenn Miller.

Roger CortonOK, there was a recent article in The Atlantic which is just damning of Progressive Rock. The author calls it ‘the whitest music ever’. So to respond you think it’s a good idea to talk about ‘rap’ music. Possibly the least prog-friendly music (if I can call it that) on this here planet. Why, Oh why?

JCHWell, first of all, I generally love The Atlantic. It’s probably my fave print mag ever. But they have this whole other group of people who blog for them; maybe they’re the minor league team. They tend to do narcissistic pieces like that.

I think music journalists kinda dig rap for the same reason fans do, because, frankly, it takes less effort to write about. In other words, in days of yore you had to actually be a musician to write about music. If you couldn’t play, if you hadn’t had training, you couldn’t really appreciate music enough to critique it. Now, since rap is mainly about ‘the flow’, ie. the lyrics, a journalist feels right at home because their training is in words.

RCYoung people.

JCHThose young people (laughs). Anyhoo, I’ve been thinking a lot over the years about why I dislike ‘rap’ so intensely. I mean I HATE it. And the more it becomes the central part of our culture, the more I can’t take it.

RCWhy? I mean I get that it’s taken over. But why does it bug you so much? Speaking of narcissism, aren’t we (and by ‘we’ I mean -you-) in danger of doing exactly what The Atlantic article is doing?

JCHTouché! But bear with me. As we’ve discussed many times, I feel an obligation to not only try, but like musics that I come across.

RCRight. The ‘try just a bite’ theory of parenting. You’ve been lecturing me since the day we met to ‘broaden our minds’.

JCHExactly. And I practice what I preach. I do live by that. And almost always? I succeed. I usually learn to respect, but also to appreciate other forms of art. But look, there’s more to it than just ‘try yer veg’. One of the most essential parts of Miles Davis’ greatness was how he was able to embrace new generations of music. At every turn of the road, he re-invented himself by incorporating new styles of music. So Miles embraced hip hop and electronica. And if he can do it, I wonder: why can’t I?

RCCorrect me if I’m wrong, but uh… you’re not exactly Miles, right?

JCHWhat’s the giveaway? The lack of hair plugs?

RCAnd I haven’t noticed a Ferrari or any Grammys® in any of your photos.

JCHDouble touché. But at the beginning? I looooved it. The first generation? Sugar Hill Gang? Grandmaster Flash? Sir Mixalot? Public Enemy? Love that stuff.

RCMaybe it’s because most of those guys had a comic edge?

JCHWell, that’s part of it. But I really did like the early ‘message’ stuff as well. But at some point, I just got sick of it. I just think most of it is awful music with repetitious lyrics. It doesn’t value melody or harmony and after a while the novelty wore off and the same-iness just started getting on my last nerve.

RCYou won’t get any argument from me (laughs). But I’m not the one who feels a need to like it. And what about other music that isn’t about those things? You like (east) Indian music. And The Blues is the same twelve bars over and over, right? Same guy lost his woman. Rotting in jail?

JCH(laughs) You’re right. Indian musics tend to focus on very complex rhythms. But I gotta say–I couldn’t exist on a steady diet of Ragas. Or The Blues for that matter. Even when I was playing that stuff for a living–as much as I respect those guys–I couldn’t do it for more than a year at a time. That’s why I started doing what I do. I needed variety! And maybe you’ve hit on it: Rap has become the lingua franca of music. It is pop music now.

RCI really like that thing Steve Earle said, “New country is basically hip hop for people who are afraid of black people.”

JCHThat is a wonderful quote. And it’s true. Young Country is rap. With guitars. And white people with big hats. Even when I go into a truck stop, I can’t get away from rap (laughs).

RCI get what you’re saying about ‘same-i-ness’. I’m not sure Progressive Rock fans feel that way. As you often rant about, a lot of Prog is very same-y. It’s just that our crowd likes this version of same-y. For me is a question of values. Progressive Rock was almost always a positive music–except for the newer stuff which is more like heavy metal. Anyway, I don’t know much about rap, but a lot of it always seems to be about bragging, shooting people and disrespecting women. Maybe that’s a generalization. I’m not even sure that’s a ‘PC’ thing to say.

JCHRight. PC or not, it’s just a fact. The misogyny and narcissism is as intrinsic to hip hop as skulls and 666 is to metal. I try not to judge the music in that way because fans of both will tell me that it’s like pro wrestling–it’s just theater. I’m not sure I buy it, but I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. What I keep trying to do is listen to stuff that so many people think is ‘important’, like Beyoncé and ‘Formation’ or ‘Hamilton’. Both are cultural phenoms, right?

RCRight. So… how’s that workin’ for ya?

JCHIt’s just not. I still can’t stand it. Because the music is so simplistic, all I can do is focus on the words (which is the point, I think) and then I’m forced to confront the themes and…

RCYou’re back to the ‘values’ thing.

JCH(laughs). Right and I just don’t hear the fabulous poetry or the ’empowerment’ in Kendrick Lamar or Kanye. To the point where I have to ask myself: is there a race element in my disdain?

RCI don’t know how you can say that given your career; playing with so many black bands.

JCHYeah, but that was a loong time ago. I’ve been thinking that racism may be generational. I may be totally cool with people of my own generation, but not comfortable with people of the next generation who are more ‘evolved’ in some way.

RCWhat?

JCHThe argument of younger people might be that my resentment of hip hop has something to do with ’empowerment’–the music of Motown is less threatening. But rap? It’s taken over the world! So my disdain for Beyoncé has something to do with ‘power’. Intellectuals may say that I feel threatened. Now that rap controls the charts, I’m in the minority and that’s threatening. The theory goes that I was OK with it so long as it was a fad or a minor genre. But what is eating at me (still goes the theory) is that ‘they’ somehow took over and I feel threatened.

RCLike you always say to me, “Butch you think too much.” I think fans of Prog have been in the minority for a loooooong time, buddy. If I were buying into your ‘eat your veg’ argument I think our question should be, “What, if anything, does hip hop have to offer to Progressive Rock?

JCHTRUE DAT! (laughs). The only reason for me to stress about it is, because you’re right, there should be a way to incorporate hip hop into ‘prog’. Hell, if that guy can make Alexander Hamilton rap, why the hell can’t I?

RCThis is a circular argument. The answer is: because you don’t like rap. Duuuuh. We started with “Why JC doesn’t like rap.” And I think we dance around it.

I think the answer is a whole lot simpler. I don’t find much of that stuff ’empowering’. I think a lot of it just sends a horrible message and I avoid it for the same reason I avoid the ‘djent’ styles of Prog or Metal–they don’t feel positive. I don’t go for music that glorifies bad behavior. We’ve talked about it before. There’s a line between fun drinking and ‘outlaw’ and songs that really talk up the virtue of whatever. It’s like that quote about ‘porn’: I can’t give you a hard and fast rule, but I think I know it when I see it.

JCHPreach, brother! (laughs).

RCYou always say that every type of music can be incorporated into Progressive Rock. Well, now you’ve met your match! Do you think rap can ever be a part of ‘Prog’?

JCHWell not for me, mate (laughs). I’m not sure, but I don’t think so, if only because, it doesn’t seem to do well with musical complexity. I mean, I can’t think of any rap that works well with complex harmonies or melodies.

RCWell there are lots of songs where there is a ‘rap break’, right? You’ve done voiceovers in several of your songs, like in Progress.

JCHRight, but I guess when I do it, it’s like a little skit. That’s an illustrious tradition. Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City and so on. The ‘rap’ is not the main course. The voice over isn’t carrying the weight of the song. It’s a side show. A commentary. Like a guitar solo.

RCSpeaking of which, there’s that other video you sent me (laughs).

JCHGod, it’s so cheesy, but yet so true (laughs). I’m having a tough time visualising a rap break in the middle of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

RCI can’t either. But then… I’m not the one who worries about that.

JCHWhat do you mean?

RCI don’t feel like I need to like hip hop. And I’m not worried that I’m a racist just because I don’t like it. You seem to be worried that you should like it because so many people do. There are lots of times where the majority is wrong. And besides, Prog is already a niche concept. It’s never going to break out again, right? You’ve said so yourself many times.

JCHTriple touché. OK, then I’ll wind down with two other theories about this. First, that rap is just an extension of an ongoing trend where music is getting more and more ‘lizard brain’.

RCLizard brain?

JCHYeah. There’s this big theory in musicology that music is getting less complex because it’s getting back to a visceral appeal. The mixes are getting more pounding, the lyrics more direct so that they go directly to the primal nature.

RCI’ll buy that. Mixes are getting more compressed. Everything has to make an instant impact. And the other theory?

JCHThis is my idea. I think music journalists kinda dig rap for the same reason fans do, because, frankly, it takes less effort to write about. In other words, in days of yore you had to actually be a musician to write about music. If you couldn’t play, if you hadn’t had training, you couldn’t really appreciate music enough to critique it. Now, since rap is mainly about ‘the flow’, ie. the lyrics, a journalist feels right at home because their training is in words. They don’t have to have a technical sophistication about music in order to review it; they’re largely reviewing poetry, with a musical backdrop, if that makes sense.

RCInteresting. You could extend that to Progressive Rock. Maybe one reason old-time music critics preferred technically more simple music–like Dylan or country is because it didn’t require any music knowledge to appreciate. All it took was a love of the poetry. So they made ‘simple’ into a plus.

JCHI do there’s some truth to that. It’s why so many people who like classical or jazz are players. I’ve always said that it’s very unlikely that someone will really appreciate classical music without learning how to play a little bit. If you can’t play at least a little, it’s like enjoying baseball or chess without understanding the rules.

RCOK, sum it up in ten seconds, why is this rant any less narcissistic than that Atlantic article?

JCHBecause I’m trying to eat me veg (laughs). Except that in this case, I’m not sure hip hop music is a ‘veg’.

RCMaybe like a Reagan vegetable.

JCH(laughs) I love it. Rap: the ketchup of the vegetable family! But I have to throw in one last thing that an old musician told me one time when I visited his home for the first time after we’d been on tour together. So I go into his den and I start looking through his record collection. And it’s like an absolute treasure trove of every super cool jazz record you could ever imagine starting in the forties. All mint condition. Priceless! But then I noticed something. There were absolutely no new albums. Nothing current. I mean at all. And I mentioned it to him. And he said, “Yeah that’s right. Music just sort of stopped for me around 1965. I didn’t plan it; it just happened. You’ll see. It’ll happen to you, too.”

RCI don’t take it that far, but I get what he was saying.

JCHI have tried so hard to not be that guy. But I have to admit: the pull in that direction is almost like gravitational. As you get older, you have to will yourself to be open to new ideas. And it just gnaws at me. I hate being one of those old farts, like, “You brats don’t know good music. Glenn Miller. Now that was good music!” So I can never be 100% sure that it’s the rap that stinks or it’s me getting old. 99% sure, but not 100% sure. Can entire culture be wrong?

RCOf course they can, my friend (laughs). That doesn’t answer your question, though. We need to go.

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