Don’t sweat the technique, America

Armin Rosen
Armin Rosen
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Bob James is a white man born in central Missouri in the late 1930s. He was discovered by Quincy Jones at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in the early 1960s, and also played piano alongside the great classic jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Jones went on to produce Michael Jackson and create much of the sound of modern pop music. Meanwhile, James wrote the theme song to the otherwise-forgotten 1970s TV show “Taxi” and composed synth-heavy smooth jazz instrumentals that became among the most sampled songs of hip-hop’s golden age.

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I saw Bob James recently on stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note, the legendary club where the rapper Talib Kweli was playing a run of shows with the backing of a live jazz combo. Kweli has had some moderate commercial success this century but is best known among hip-hop fans as half of Black Star, a group responsible for bringing the elevated lyricism and social perspective of underground rap into the mainstream in the late 90s. In a time when most popular hip-hop is constructed out of synth beats instead of soul samples and prizes melody over language, the 48-year-old Kweli can look like a standard-bearer for an earlier era’s aesthetic priorities. As if to remind us that it wasn’t always this way, James was his guest on keyboard for the evening.

Kweli’s other special guest for the night was Rakim, master of assonance and internal rhyme and pioneer of the very concept of microphone presence, the hot-spitting mystic from lower-middle class Long Island who changed the face of rap music and American culture and reality in general over the course of the four albums he made with DJ Eric B between 1988 and 1992. Now something of a reclusive figure, Rakim wore a heavy black jacket, black pants, a blank black baseball cap, and a look of cool dispassion that matched his outfit. He clutched the mic, hunched over slightly, and spit the title track from 1992’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” as if time had been rendered irrelevant and it was still the closing days of the first Bush administration.

It was on “Guess Who’s Back,” from Rakim’s highly regarded 1997 comeback record “The 18th Letter,” that Kweli connected this gathering of greats, notable for the very different kinds of contributions they made to hip-hop in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, with the present artistic moment. The night’s third special guest was Black Thought, the lyricist for the band The Roots, who is old enough to have bristles of white on his beard but who went viral on social media for a 10-minute freestyle a couple years ago and recently put out a celebrated album with the popular producer Danger Mouse that cracked the Billboard top 50. Black Thought is a linguistic whirlwind whose success proves the present-day resonance of the revolutions in sound, style, and method that James, Rakim, and Kweli once personified.

Earlier in the show, Kweli joked that it had been his dream to rap in front of people sitting down having dinner. The highbrow trappings of a jazz club couldn’t keep the 200-odd fans packed into that cramped, rectangular room in their seats during “Guess Who’s Back.” The sheer breadth of the musical history crowding that stage—all of it American, all of it alive, none of it finished by any means—was so daunting that it made it difficult to concentrate on what I was seeing and hearing in the moment. But the one thing I did clearly register was Rakim’s repeated insistence that the real star of the night, the real legend up onstage, was Bob James. He shouted out to James every few seconds, and commanded that the crowd chant his name.

Americans are mired in an age of cultural pessimism, and with good reason. We produce little interesting literature, movie theaters are closing across the country, our visual arts have been hijacked by academics and the ultra-wealthy, classical music and theatrical audiences are shrinking, popular music is balkanized, rock is dead, and magazines barely exist anymore. The last vestige of a common mass culture is the National Football League, which is only in session for half the year, and whose season ended with last Sunday’s Super Bowl. It is a bleak, dispiriting picture.

But is it an accurate one? Declinist instincts should never automatically be trusted—declinism is a soothing emotional default and a suspiciously comfortable defensive crouch against a changing world. An excessive pessimist has exempted themselves from the hard work of having to engage with the present, since it is easier to scorn your immediate conditions, or imagine yourself superior to them, than it is to try to understand them. And only a truly orthodox cynic can ignore those moments when the thick fog of Marvel movies, TikTok dances, and Human Resources jargon lifts long enough to reveal the higher and truer reality it obscures: that our artistic impulse is un-killable, and that America’s particular history, values, and sensibilities have fed a unique creative life that no amount of shared stupidity has fully destroyed yet.

That James has had the life and career he’s had—joining together eras and genres and uniting cultural highs and lows—and that he became such a creative lodestar to someone like Rakim, is proof of a strength that America hasn’t lost yet. Anything is possible in our culture, and there are no limits to what even the most unlikely sources of connection and inspiration can become here. As long as that’s true, there’s at least a chance that we’ll turn out fine.

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