“It’s funny – I’m often now asked what hip hop’s appeal is to teenage boys. It strikes me as remarkably obvious and the trite answer is that it’s testosterone-fuelled and often features videos of semi-naked women – if you’re a 15 year-old boy, what’s not to like? But another way of looking at it is this – if most western pop music is about love and sex, hip hop tends to be about sex and everything else … and it was the ‘everything else’ that caught my imagination. From Public Enemy and Nas to Biggie, Jay-Z, Common and Eminem – the stuff that’s not about sex is about politics, struggle, friendship, deprivation, hope and all sorts else besides. No other genre of Western pop music could make such a claim.”
I saw Public Enemy at Brixton Academy in the late 80s and I was energised and terrified in equal measure. Art indistinguishable from politics, I’d never seen/ heard anything like it.
Lewis Taylor is the great undiscovered genius of British music. His album ‘Lewis Taylor’, the one I always fall back upon. I wrote a novel called Twelve Bar Blues, which is all about New Orleans jazz and I was repeatedly asked what music I was listening to when writing it. It is true that I listened to a whole lot of jazz, but it was Lewis I turned to in order to capture the emotional substance of what I wanted to write. And ‘Spirit’ always makes me cry …
OK, I know it’s a really cheesy record, but I heard it at a particular age when I needed to know that creativity could be simple and joyful. I kept my love for this tune under wraps for years, but I recently read an interview with Norman Jay where he name-checked it as one of his favourite records of all time. So at least I’m cheesy in good company.
Creativity is about talent and craft, of course; but, above all, it’s about integrity of intention. Nina Simone had a funny voice and was, by all accounts, a bit of a nutcase, but when she wrote and sang, there was no doubting that she meant it. And it is that meaning that gives her music such unquestionable beauty.
I could have chosen almost any tune off ‘Illmatic’ – I just love that record. A key aspect of art is the way it stands the test of time and, frankly, most hip hop doesn’t. But this does. I would maintain that this is still the closest hip hop has ever come to poetry.
(Photo: Patrick Neate performing at the Book Salaam! event during the ‘Sauti za Busara’ music festival in Zanzibar earlier this year.)