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 (1973) 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.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
HIP HOP ON HILOBROW: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM series (25 posts about old-school hip hop) | DJ Kool Herc | Gil Scott-Heron | Slick Rick | Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels | Afrika Bambaataa | Biz Markie | U-God | Slug | Adam Yauch | Ghostface Killah | DJ Run | Flavor Flav | Scott La Rock | GZA | Schoolly D | Aesop Rock | Terminator X | Notorious B.I.G. | Melle Mel | Rick Rubin | Rakim | Ol’ Dirty Bastard | Madlib | Talib Kweli | Danger Mouse | Kool Moe Dee | Chuck D | Dizzee Rascal | RZA | Cee-Lo Green | Best Ever Clean Hip Hop
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (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 | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker