Sunday, June 25, 2006

Jimmy Spicer & the economic bottom line

BGP Records' recent compilation The New York Sound is a nice history lesson and a bit of nostalgia: "pioneering Early 80's Dance Sounds From The Big Apple," as it says. You get pre-rap building blocks like King Tim III and Fatback Band not to mention a very weird, contradictory piece of music history.

Though he's known as an old school rap legend, Jimmy Spicer's career doesn't hold up well to scrutiny. One of his later (mid 80's) hits "Adventures of Super Rhymes" now sounds like boring embarrassment, where he goes through a number of corny imitations (he's no Rich Little). It would take visionaries like Flash, Run-DMC, Bambaataa to take rap to next level as opposed to a novelty act like Spicer.

But he does claim credit to at least one single for the ages, despite some of his own input there. Just as on "Adventures," Spicer's rapping on 1983's "Money (Dollar Bill Y'all)"is pretty wack- his timing was lame, he had no flow and his personality wasn't there either. Here, he sounds like he's about to flunk an audition for Mr. Big in a crappy blaxploitation movie.

But his rapping isn't the point on that song- it's the words themselves and the music that made it a tune for the ages. The backing is an minimal synth-beat plus skeletal rhythm guitar, making it not just an electronica precursor but also Prince's sound before Prince himself found it. And then there's that ghostly, distance voice that repeats the chorus: "dollar bill y'all, dollar bill y'all, dollar, dollar, dollar, dollar bill y'all." Just in case, you don't catch Spicer's drift, he spells it out as "cash money money to the B, I, double LL bill!" to his talk about bill collectors, living through 9-to-5 jobs, the I.R.S., lawyers you can't pay and other fun things that haunt you in a land where cash is a be-all and end-all.

The same stark financial realism was later taken up in some of Rakim's best work with Eric B, in phrases like "dead presidents" and "paid in full" or in Gwen Guthrie's mid-80's hit "Ain't Nothing Goin' On But the Rent." Even Limp Bizkit would tap it for an album title much later on. The phrase "dollar bill y'all" became such currency that those pithy three words summed up not just bleak economic realism but also a whole mindset (the whole idea of "getting paid"). All of which means that while Spicer might have been something of a joke, "Money" was and is as serious as your life.

Listen to and buy the New York Sound at Barnes & Noble.


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