His figure emerges from darkness in the hour before sunrise. He's there in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, a backpack tight on his puffy white work shirt. His shoulders hunch forward in mimicry of a purposeful walk. The lunch-money kid. Nice, neat Afro, just like his mother told him. I watch his alert eyes, and it seems no sadder sight could be contrived. Another security guard on the way to work.
In high school I might have sweated him for lunch money. Not that I was a tough guy, but on the rare occasion on which I got taken, it occurred to me afterward to find someone else – someone smaller, someone doofier – to lean on. The lunch-money kid is not someone put on the planet to engage in physical conflict.
Now he's here at the corner mall, where he's the first line of defense. His ass is glad to be doing it, too. Security is a growth industry for black males, the No. 1 employer. That's what you do if you're an unskilled laborer – not waiting on tables or counting money, but protecting businesses from unwanted intruders. No matter your real disposition.
The tension between prescribed roles and the individual mindsets of post-Civil Rights Era blacks is one of the greatest shows in American culture. It's source material for the music of our time.
Me and my friends, we all talk blunt because we all stay blunted.
This country's blunted us – it's stunted trust in our fellow man.
We go for jobs, and then they rob us of our dignity.
If it was up to me, they'd all be tryin' hard to understand:
Me and my friends don't want to come to you to beg and suffer!
I got a lot to offer someone if they thought to ask.
Me and my friends, we tend to send out the wrong kind of image,
but just what kind of image do they think we ought to have?
-Little White Radio
“People walk around us in the streets,” the chorus to “Me and My Friends” begins. This is a rock song played by a San Francisco band that engages the idiom with the alienation and funk that only a black rock band from San Francisco can. If you can dig the music, then you can dig the cats.
For this show, there is no precedent. On the last Friday in January at San Francisco's Transmission Theater, the feeling clumsily reached for on the “alternative remix” of Puff Daddy's “All About the Benjamins” comes to fruition over and over again. It's a simple, slamming sound that's equal parts punk and soul, but played with a precision that's less assuming than jazz. Repetition and groove are its motor, but the emotions the music provokes have more bang than bump.
“It's like they're playing all of our records all at once,” observes a colleague who watches the show in otherwise stunned silence. At the lip of the stage, the hippie-punk half-breeds who'll prove to be one of The City's enduring contributions to American culture groove without question to this melange, as does the black chick in work clothes who's just slipped into the back of the club after working late north of Market.
“I'm wise to testosterone lies about how girls are nas-stay!” screams lead singer The Crack Emcee in a voice whose edge manages to call to mind both Taj Mahal and Axl Rose. “Here She Comes,” a womynist sex rap that first came to my attention as a song from Crack's raw, underground electronic album Newt Hates Me, comes off straight-up pretty in the hands of Little White Radio's two guitarists and astride the cajoling beat of Kevin Carnes, widely acknowleged as the best drummer in San Francisco.
At stage right, Michael Cavaseno dreams up guitar solos that sound like sunspots and heavy blues riffs that contrast sharply with the metallic '80s pop of guitarist Patrick Simms. Almost absurdly buppified in a sweater vest and wire-rim glasses, Simms looks as though he's been dropped down from an outfit practicing above the club – a band that might have been formed in a cyberspace connection of urban professionals who miss Killing Joke. At the heart of the stage, The Crack Emcee and blond bassist Ubi Whitaker form the axis of Little White Radio's onstage energy. As the singer reels from a tiptoe above the crowd to butt-bump with Carnes' drum kit, Ubi threatens to run him through with the neck of his instrument. Repeatedly, serendipity intervenes.
Together just six months, Little White Radio is surging up the totem pole of San Francisco bands. And it's a good guess that somewhere outside the club, someone's asking why these guys aren't doing hip-hop. But the miraculous has a penchant for not being where it's expected, where it ought to be. And there's more than a hint of miracle in how the group invigorates the rock idiom. The irony is completely refreshing.
Little White Radio performs at Jacks Sugar Shack on Friday, February 20, at Bar Deluxe on Saturday, February 21, and at Club Sucker on Sunday, February 22.