In Part I of our look at Horror in Black American Music, we took a look at how the Blues, Rock & Roll and American Psychedelia were influenced by the ruin and roiling of history. But terror always finds a new way to take shape for new generations. And not surprisingly, it took a death to issue a sea change… That death?: Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 ended the Age of Aquarius before it started, making him, along with Robert Johnson, a member of the now infamously legendary 27 Club. In the decades after his death, the sound of Black America went from the mind expanding psychedelic music of the 1960s to the angry boom and thud of Hip Hop and Rap during Reagan‘s 1980s.
But between those years, things got a little out of this world… Someone just had to land the Mothership and reclaim the Pyramids. And that someone (several someones actually) was the earthly identity of George Clinton and his cohorts in Parliament-Funkadelic.
Now, terrestrial narratives say George was a Washington D.C. native who made his way to Detroit at the height of Motown to basically poach the legendary session musicians the Funk Brothers. That didn’t work out as planned, but after finding an amazing collection of other musicians, Clinton’s futuristic, psychedelic, funkalistic vision came to pass.
However, we know while that’s a nice story… The truth is that George and P-Funk are the Extraterrestrial Brothers and Sisters, sent to unleash the cosmos’ most devastating force: Uncut Funk. The Bomb, indeed, was dropped on 1974’s “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” and the Clones were never happier. In fact, Clinton may give the most polite Mad-Scientist declaration of all time on the album’s intro (“May I Frighten You?”)
Despite P-Funk Putting Everything on the One, the years after the 1970’s brought political anger, racial confrontation and soaring disenfranchisement to the Black urban communities of America. Many of the Nation of Millions, whose grandfathers and grandmothers heard Charley Patton howl and scream, now had different horrors to consider. But even the mega-cities and sprawling ghettos of the North and South could not divorce themselves from the terrors of the past. The evil things of days past changed and morphed, emerging again into the light altered like some new Frankenstein’s Monster.
No greater example of this musical mutation between old and new is found than in the 1987 song “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Houston based rap group, The Geto Boys. In the song, each member of the group, caught up in some form of street crime, describes being chased by a relentless evil, which in turn could be either supernatural or psychological in nature.
The final verse of the song, rapped by Bushwick Bill, sums up the fear and paranoia of the theme as he describes a Halloween weekend spent bag robbing and terrorizing the neighborhood. Suddenly, a terrifying figure of the night appears behind them, causing Bill and his companions to attack in self-defense. The following violence ends up with Bill coming to realization that the whole incident had been a hallucination, and in reality, he had been pounding his hands to bloody shreds on the concrete by himself.
This new reality of crime, unjust policing and poverty changed the sounds of fear again by the 1990s. Tupac Shakur, between his prison terms and diss-raps, oft described being driven and pursued by demons in his music. Shakur’s great rhetorical rival, The Notorious B.I.G., reminded his fans that “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You,” before being shot dead himself in the streets of Los Angeles. NYC rap duo Mobb Deep entitled their third album “Hell on Earth,” as a reflection of the concrete inferno of their native Queensbridge neighborhood. Wu-Tang Clan‘s RZA started and then rejected a rap school of expression some dubbed “Horrorcore.”
The turn of the calendar to the 21st Century brought with it even more terrors and madness. The Twin Towers fell and the Orwellian reality of the Deep Security State emerged. The horrors of the day also took a more pleasing shape as artists began exploring the Faustian bargain of obtaining fame and wealth by all means, perhaps even at the cost of one’s eternal spirit.
Whether it be metaphor or Magik, Bahamian pop sensation Rihanna explores this topic in depth on her 2016 video-album offering, “ANTI.” Where some see the alchemical triumph of a descendant of slaves becoming a trans-humanist superwoman, others see the mark of a Crowley-ite Luciferian pact, literally mapping out for her viewers an occult game plan on how to sell one’s soul to the forces of the Abyss.
Maybe she met Robert Johnson on the way there…
Regardless, music has served as a mirror to the souls of Black Folk in this land far away for nearly four centuries. In it, good or ill, we see the concerns of the day and our fears for the future. Whether we are mastered by these terrors or we rise above them depends on how we respond to what we see in that aforementioned image.
If we do not find they way to that higher path, the howl and scream of history may just be the beginning…