Twentieth in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating old-school hip hop.
GRANDMASTER & MELLE MEL | “WHITE LINES (DON’T DO IT)” | 1983
The introduction is deceptive: a spectral voice intoning “fun baby,” followed by whispers and electronic bleating. Ghost timbales enter, “Freeze! Rock!” echoes, four-part harmony teases “higher” unto a feral growl: it’s Melle Mel — the most powerful voice in rap — and a nine beat riff so hot he declaims “Bass!” before it comes again and the funky drummer locks in. The groove is irresistible, addictive, and after the vocal play of “Something like a phenomenon (baby!)”, Melle Mel — also rap’s sharpest lyricist — explodes. Cautionary, celebratory, both? Whatever “White Lines” means, poet Charles Olson’s dictum nailed it: “He who controls rhythm, controls.”
Manufactured since the 1860s, cocaine entered popular American discourse in 1885, when it became known Ulysses S. Grant was taking it to ease the pain of terminal throat cancer. Even after the drug’s early 20th century regulation, it remained subject of numerous songs, including Luke Jordan’s rambling “Cocaine Blues” (1927); the Memphis Jug Band’s admonitory “Cocaine Habit Blues” (1930); Slumber Nichols and His Western Aces murderous “Cocaine Blues” (1947). More recently, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1974) was suffused with cocaine psychosis and one well-timed sneeze in Annie Hall (1977) mocked the drug’s common banality. Richard Pryor — nearly immolated while smoking cocaine in 1980 — came back with “Freebase,” from Live on the Sunset Strip: “And when I first did it, I knew it was gonna fuck me up. Stud just had to be hip…”
In October 1983, if someone said they’d heard “White Lines” before, they weren’t lying: though credited to Sugar Hill co-owner Sylvia Robinson and Melvin Glover (Melle Mel), musically, it was largely a cover of funk/dub band Liquid Liquid’s recent club favorite “Cavern.” Sylvia Robinson, not for the first time — in 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” jacked Chic’s “Good Times” wholesale before the band’s lawyers stepped up — was a thief. It was Richard McGuire’s bass line Doug Wimbish of Sugar Hill’s uncredited house band played; likewise Scott Hartley’s drum pattern as appropriated by Keith LeBlanc. Lest this be thought coincidence, “Something like a phenomenon” and other parts were lifted from Liquid Liquid vocalist Sal Principato. When Sugar Hill aggressively refused settlement, Ed Bahlman, owner of Liquid Liquid’s label, 99 Records, filed suit.
Only Melle Mel would triumph, with “Beat Street” and “Vice,” from the #1 hit Miami Vice soundtrack, though even there Sylvia Robinson stole songwriting credit from… Doug Wimbish. (“That’s when I had to get a lawyer and a gun,” he’d later recall.) Its mob-brokered distribution deal with MCA gone predictably awry, Sugar Hill Records declared bankruptcy in 1985 and Liquid Liquid, since dissolved, got nothing.
In 1995, everything changed. Hearing of Duran Duran’s forthcoming “White Lines” cover, Richard McGuire — now a successful artist and illustrator — hired a lawyer and afterwards, Liquid Liquid had one-third of “White Lines” publishing. In 2002 another twist came when Spike Lee — who made a “White Lines” video on spec back in 1983 — included both “Cavern” and “White Lines” in his film 25th Hour.
ALL POSTS IN THIS SERIES: LUC SANTE on Spoonie Gee’s “Spoonin’ Rap” (1979) | DALLAS PENN on Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) | WERNER VON WALLENROD on Kurtis Blow’s “Rappin’ Blow” (1979) | DJ FRANE on Blowfly’s “The Incredible Fulk” (1980) | PAUL DEVLIN on Jimmy Spicer’s “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” (1980) | PHIL DYESS-NUGENT on Funky 4 + 1′s “That’s the Joint” (1980) | ADAM McGOVERN on Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5′s “Freedom” (1980) | DAVID ABRAMS on Blondie’s “Rapture” (1980) | ANDREW HULTKRANS on Treacherous Three & Spoonie Gee’s “The New Rap Language” (1980) | TIM CARMODY on Afrika Bambaataa & The Jazzy 5′s “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” (1981) | DREW HUGE on Grand Wizard Theodore & The Fantastic Five’s “Can I Get a Soul Clap” (1981) | OLIVER WANG on Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | DOUGLAS WOLK on Busy Bee’s “Making Cash Money” (1982) | ADRIENNE CREW on Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 (featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee)’s “The Message” (1982) | DART ADAMS on The Jonzun Crew’s “Pak Jam” (1982) | ALEX BELTH on Malcolm McLaren & The World’s Famous Supreme Team’s “Buffalo Gals” (1982) | JOSHUA GLENN on Wuf Ticket’s “Ya Mama” (1982) | PHIL FREEMAN on Malcolm X with Keith LeBlanc’s “No Sell Out” (1983) | NATE PATRIN on Afrika Bambaataa’s “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2″ (1980/1983) | BRIAN BERGER on Grandmaster & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983) | COSMO BAKER on Run DMC’s “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” (1983/1985) | COLLEEN WERTHMANN on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (1983) | ROY CHRISTOPHER on Ice-T’s “The Coldest Rap” (1983) | DAN REINES on L.A. Dream Team’s “The Dream Team is in the House” (1985) | FRANKLIN BRUNO on hip hop’s dance crew The Lockers.
HIP HOP ON HILOBROW: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM series (25 posts about old-school hip hop) | DJ Kool Herc as HiLo Hero | Gil Scott-Heron as HiLo Hero | Slick Rick as HiLo Hero | Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels as HiLo Hero | Afrika Bambaataa as HiLo Hero | Biz Markie as HiLo Hero | Eric B as HiLo Hero (forthcoming in November) | U-God as HiLo Hero | Slug as HiLo Hero | Adam Yauch as HiLo Hero | Ghostface Killah as HiLo Hero | DJ Run as HiLo Hero | Flavor Flav as HiLo Hero | Scott La Rock as HiLo Hero | GZA as HiLo Hero | Schoolly D as HiLo Hero | Aesop Rock as HiLo Hero | Notorious B.I.G. as HiLo Hero | Melle Mel as HiLo Hero | Rick Rubin as HiLo Hero | Rakim as HiLo Hero | Ol’ Dirty Bastard as HiLo Hero | Madlib as HiLo Hero | Talib Kweli as HiLo Hero | Danger Mouse as HiLo Hero | Kool Moe Dee as HiLo Hero | Chuck D as HiLo Hero | Dizzee Rascal as HiLo Hero | RZA as HiLo Hero | Cee-Lo Green as HiLo Hero | Best Ever Clean Hip Hop
KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011 series on Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing |
KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012 series on Captain Kirk scenes): Justice or vengeance? by DAFNA PLEBAN | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss by MARK KINGWELL | “KHAAAAAN!” by NICK ABADZIS | “No kill I” by STEPHEN BURT | Kirk browbeats NOMAD by GREG ROWLAND | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock by ZACK HANDLEN | The joke is on Kirk by PEGGY NELSON | Kirk vs. Decker by KEVIN CHURCH | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk by ENRIQUE RAMIREZ | Captain Camelot by ADAM MCGOVERN | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee by FLOURISH KLINK | Federation exceptionalism by DAVID SMAY | Wizard fight by AMANDA LAPERGOLA | A million things you can’t have by STEVE SCHNEIDER | Debating in a vacuum by JOSHUA GLENN | Klingon diplomacy by KELLY JEAN FITZSIMMONS | “We… the PEOPLE” by TRAV S.D. | Brinksmanship on the brink by MATTHEW BATTLES | Captain Smirk by ANNIE NOCENTI | Sisko meets Kirk by IAN W. HILL | Noninterference policy by GABBY NICASIO | Kirk’s countdown by PETER BEBERGAL | Kirk’s ghost by MATT GLASER | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn by JOE ALTERIO | How Spock wins by ANNALEE NEWITZ