Listen to this track by New York new wave darlings and CBGB graduates Blondie. It’s “Rapture”, their 1981 hit single as taken from their sixth record, Autoamerican. This song and the album off of which it comes would continue to prove the band to be a supple and versatile musical unit.
Their achievements up to and including this song certainly rested on a few very important factors. First, they wrote great songs, reflected by their success in the charts during a time when great writing equaled lots of records sold. Second, in frontwoman Debbie Harry they had a presence defined by undeniable charisma and visual appeal. Of course, this made their ironic name based on a common catcall (“Hey! Blondie!”) even more ironic, given that the press and fans alike often referred overtly to Harry’s (admittedly considerable) sex appeal first, often making the music she helped to create to be a secondary consideration.
But, third; despite all of the attention Debbie Harry was getting as a new wave pin-up, Blondie was still a risk-taking band that had no problem reaching outside of their comfort zone even at the height of their powers when they had the most to lose. They were musically curious, and very aware of their surroundings when it came to the music being made by their contemporaries at other points along the pop music spectrum. And that’s where this song comes in as perhaps their greatest leap outside of their musical wheelhouse. Read more
It should be said that I’m not really a hip hop fan very generally speaking, although I think there’s a lot of potential in the form. My main obstacle with it, besides a lot of thematic material which I frankly find a bit dull, is the fact that I find the musical content to be pretty monochromatic. There’s a synth line, there’s a beat, there’s a voice. But, I find there is largely nothing much else in most examples of the genre that I’ve heard to date. As such, this tune always stood out for me as being something of a refreshing exception to the rule.
For me, this track has all kinds of surprising textures to it. The beats are there, but so are the strings (courtesy of the New York Philharmonic, no less) , and there are some interesting chord changes here too. Coupled with the fact that this song hits an emotional center, with the theme of separation being pretty universal, I find it hard to resist. It is one of my favourite tracks of the 1990s, which was a brilliant decade for music besides in all genres.
Another great thing about this tune of course is Wycelf Jean’s delivery. A lot of rap and hip hop to me strikes an equally monochromatic tone in terms of emotional content too. But here, we’re getting a range of emotions coming out of Jean’s voice; a hint of regret, plenty of sorrow, and some determination too. Jean would of course be noted later on in the decade as having some fairly ecelectic tastes which go beyond the scope of those of his contemporaries. His range not only as a performer, but also as a writer, arranger, and re-mixer of songs for other artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Sinéad O’Connor set him apart as well with someone who is engaged with the work, and not as overtly engaged in their own self-promotion.
Jean worked, for instance, with Mick Jagger on Jagger’s Goddess in the Doorway album. As a bonus, he appeared in the Being Mick BBC TV documentary broadcast a number of years ago, which included footage of the recording of that album. I found that the guy was pretty charming, and with a much-needed sense of perspective too. Jean’s demeanour was like that of an excited child, a kid in a candy store, clearly gifted with an ear for music production, but also very aware of how fortunate he is to be working with one of his heroes. “Before this,” he said of working with Jagger and being a professional musician in general, “I was working a Burger King.”
It’s clear that Jean is a big music fan, is still wonderstruck by it, and is willing to utilize any musical tidbit to feed his own work. This tune is one of the best examples of how that attitude can translate into great music that hits an emotional core, as well as one that remains to be interesting to the ear. It helps that his interest in hip hop is equalled to his interest in R&B, reggae, rock music, and any number of other genres in between.