Ghetto Rock ...or... Death by Def
The rediscovery of the band Death earlier in the year has proven something of a revelation. Years before Bad Brains, years anyone was using the word "punk" to describe to a mass musical movement, three black kids from Detroit were rocking manic, aggro tunes that made the Buzzcocks sound like Tiny Tim. Despite never really finding a widespread audience, their music and very existence has forced a few to tweak their conceptions of punk's apparently lily-white roots.
So significant is the discovery that their story has now been taken up by one of hip-hop's finest: Mos Def. Last Friday Mos announced he is in the process of working on a rock-doc about the band's short career with Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash. "It's going to be great," Mos told Filter. "These dudes were pre-Sex Pistols, pre-Bad Brains, pre-all that shit and nobody knows them. I don't understand how the whole world could forget them."
Death, comprised of brothers Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney, were together for only a few short years in the early-to-mid '70s. They released a handful of singles, but their ferocious, unyielding electric sound might still be forgotten today if not for Bobby unearthing a demo recorded in 1974 that had been hiding in his attic. The demo was released earlier this year under the title ...For the Whole World to See by Drag City Records. The vitriolic rage and raw power of songs like "Politicians in My Eyes" and "Freakin' Out" provide a missing link between early proto-punks like the MC5 and the "year zero" punk explosion in 1977.
Still, one might ask why Mos Def, a hip-hop artist, should care. On the surface the notion of a rapper exhibiting creative passion over a punk band might seem odd. Even Pitchfork approached the story as something of a novelty, pointing out that Mos and Dash have collaborated on rock-based projects before, and snickering that "pretty soon, these guys will be rocking matching tie-dye. Just watch."
Pitchfork's signature snarkiness notwithstanding, it's a comment that really reflects the stagnant, withdrawn way that both punk and hip-hop are presented today. Namely, that they have little or nothing to do with one another. It's an outlook that's frustratingly backward--especially when one realizes that the sway that each continue to have over young people thirty years on. Loosely translated, it's something along the lines of "hip-hop is black music, and punk is white music, period."
Perhaps that's one of the reasons that Death have become such an eye-opener since their unearthing earlier in the year. Their very existence dislodges Bad Brains as an oddity. Furthermore, they show, three decades later that the lines drawn between races and genres are a lot more fluid than we might think. Mos' taking of the helm in relaying Death's story to the world is actually one of countless examples of punk and hip-hop taking inspiration from and challenging each other--from the Clash to the Beastie Boys to Rage Against the Machine.
The era that Death existed just about says it all. Those couple of years, '73 and '74 were ones when the post-war boom collapsed and placed working-class living standards--white and black--on the chopping block. That punk and hip-hop both gestated during these harsh months says a lot about the roots of the youthful rebellion that would explode powder-keg style as each broke out of isolation. That this group of young black kids from Motor City were some of the first to channel this energy says a lot about the common struggle that hip-hop and punk held in common.
It also says a lot that Death are finally getting their due in this specific day and age. Of course, whether Mos Def's doc effectively contributes to this new swell of attention won't be clear until it comes out. To the artists' credit, however, Mos has always (correctly) insisted that African Americans have never really received fair recognition for their contribution to popular music. If this doc can play a role in reversing the trend, it will have already been successful. At a time when artists are increasingly suspicious of the segregation of our music, it might hold the potential to do a lot more than that.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for The Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn Magazine.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.