Photo by Debra DiPaoloIn the book Sister Outsider, a collection of speeches and essays by the late Audre Lorde, there's an excerpt from an exchange between Lorde and fellow poet Adrienne Rich that first appeared in the magazine Signs. In the conversation, Lorde says she thinks of their dialogue-in-progress as transcending “Audre and Adrienne” and entering the realm of the symbolic, where the iconic black woman and the iconic white woman attempt to negotiate the chasm that separates them and have an honest interplay of words and ideas. She goes on to discuss a specific time when their ways of sharing knowledge and experience differed so greatly that there existed the possibility of communication shutting down altogether.
“I've never forgotten,” she says to Rich, “the impatience in your voice that time on the telephone when you said, 'It's not enough to say to me that you intuit it.' I will never forget that. Though I understood what you meant, I felt a total wipeout of my modus, my way of perceiving and formulating . . . I'm used to associating a request for documentation with a questioning of my perceptions, an attempt to devalue what I'm in the process of discovering . . . But documentation does not help one perceive. At best, it only analyzes perception. At worst, it provides a screen by which to avoid concentrating on the core revelation, following it down to how it feels.”
What Lorde is talking about is knowledge of the spirit, intellect of the heart. It's when you absolutely know something to be true but can't produce reams of dry data to back it up. Her frustration is familiar to anyone who's ever tried to have a soulful conversation with a skeptic, only to have one's experiences and insights witheringly dismissed as paranoia or self-inflicted victimhood. If it happens often enough, it can wear you down; you may just exchange your hard-earned knowledge for the inquisitors' arid facts — and you'll cling to them, because it's easier somehow, and after all, everybody else is.
The Big Lowensky: Crackhouse Hits From the Clinton Era, the latest release from San Franciscobased hip-hop artist the Crack Emcee, is the sound of an alternative survival tactic. It's a screaming out of details, a methodical listing of social ills, a furious recitation of wounds, injuries and injustices. Like most bitter truths, it's also funny as hell.
Samples of speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and the playwright August Wilson slide into clips from classic Beatles and Al Green tracks; snatches of news broadcasts dovetail into funky bass lines; a crack ho's breathy confession drifts over a moody groove; punk thrash is yanked to a pissed-off Niggra crackhead's rant that “Democracy sucks!”; a snippet from the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate is the sly intro to the title track; blues rhythms and cadences percolate beneath the “American Pie” sample and the hip-hop veneer of the Prince-like cut “Two Against One” — a phlegm wad in the face of fucked-up parents. The blues, in fact, are the disc's angry heart, pumping protest and outrage from start to finish.
The thematic thread tying it all together is a wizened, street-corner crack fiend's clear-eyed dissertation on American macro- and micro-politics, macro- and micro-fucking, large-scale and small-scale dope-dealing, racism and classism, all of which, he says, is of a piece, and all of which is mirrored in the multigenre music that backs The Big Lowensky's scathing lyrics and lifted speeches: live instrumentation as well as samples; punk, rap, and '60s R&B and rock & roll; lyrics sweetly crooned, sarcastically drizzled and yelped in fury; quick-change tempos and moods. It's the back-alley drug trip spun through a Cuisinart, with the highs, lows and moments of numbness all shuffled around; philosophical epiphanies and long-buried resentments flare through the same neuron. But unlike the work of the Bay Area's most famous rap-politico — hip-hop's own text-bound tragic mulatto, Michael Franti — the Crack Emcee's shit is truly funky.
The Crack Emcee was born Louis Troy Dixon 37 years ago in Los Angeles. His mom, from a wealthy Negro family in Chicago, broke it off with Charlie Mingus in order to hook up with Troy's dad, Alvin Troy Dixon, a drummer with various L.A. jazz bands in the '50s and '60s. The couple divorced when Troy was 2, and he lived with his father for a few years — with Maya Angelou as his baby sitter and jazz great Eubie Blake as a frequent visitor to the home. Eventually, Troy was taken in by a foster family, and grew up on 78th and Western in South-Central; Ice T lived half a block away. He maintained contact with his dad, though, and the two connected strongly through music; the only “modern” musician the elder Dixon had any time for was Frank Zappa. After graduating from Grant High School in North Hollywood, Dixon fils attended San Francisco City College for a few years before dropping out and settling into the city as a struggling artist and political agitator. He eventually went on to work with industrial agitators Consolidated and Franti's cult band the Beatnigs.
Crucially, the Crack Emcee's work (he also put out the underground tape Newt Hates Me a few years ago) is a product of its geography — pretentious San Francisco — yet speaks to issues far beyond the local. San Francisco has long pimped the lie of its being highly cultured, tolerant, progressive, livable, yet its class and racial lines, its poverty and desperation, are sharply evident. The influx of Silicon Valley wealth has stripped away the city's cool façade, laying bare the San Francisco that lives beyond the city's streetcars, sourdough and shopworn hippie myths. This is the San Francisco you hear in the Crack Emcee's music — the city of shadowy and blatant racism; the city of overcrowded, dirty streets where the have-nots of every hue, accent and sexuality struggle endlessly just to get close enough to the surface of the water to maintain the fantasy of someday raising their heads above it. S.F. = America.
The Crack Emcee doesn't consider himself a great rapper or singer, and is the first to admit that his “flow” is not the stuff legends are made of. Yet he imbues his words with so much bite, wit and shading that a lyric sheet doesn't begin to suggest the depth of what he's conveying. What he does is articulate soul-knowledge, those truths we hide from or can't find the words for. You listen to it with mouth agape, not because it's radical in content but because it's raw and honest, unconcerned with the truth-gagging politics of celebrity — which perhaps makes it radical after all. If Paul Mooney and Nina Simone had a baby, then ignored it, leaving it to raise itself up by its own brilliant and righteously embittered genes, the Crack Emcee would be the result.
I'd like to thank y'all — for stealin' rock 'n' roll
I'd like to thank y'all — for all of y'all bigotry too
I'd like to thank y'all — for how you rob the soul and
I'd like to thank y'all — for everything that white folks do.
I'd like to thank y'all — for inventin' “nigga”
I'd like to thank y'all — for comin' here and stealin' land
I'd like to thank y'all — for becomin' wiggas
I'd like to thank y'all — for all the tribes of Indians
I'd like to thank y'all — for never, ever questionin' yourselves
I'd like to thank y'all — for the information gap
I'd like to thank y'all — for puttin' Dr. King in jail
I'd like to thank y'all — for demonizin' rap
I'd like to thank y'all
Crack Emcee would like to thank y'all (No, really.)
I'd like to thank y'all.
Yes, indeed, I'd like to thank y'all.
–from the Crack Emcee's “Thank You (The Affirmative Action Song)”
The Big Lowensky can be ordered from the Crack Emcee's Web site: www.primeconnection.com/crackhouse.