Colors: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various Artists (Warners)
The new Dennis Hopper film Colors, which has just opened in Australia, is a scarifying look at the world of the teenage gangs that rule the streets of East Los Angeles, a world of closed-doors, drugs and deadly violence.
The film created controversy even before it hit the screens in America – either it was too hard or too soft; either way it would incite even more violence.
But whether or not Colors was successful as a work of art, it’s some achievement that the film’s musical soundtrack is in itself a significant insight into the situation, not to mention one of the best albums to have been released so far in 1988.
“My homeboy’s got jack/My mother’s on crack/My sister can’t work/Cos her arms show tracks,” booms Ice-T in the album’s chilling title-track: “Death is my sect/Guess my religion… Colors, colors.”
This is the music of the modern American black ghetto, hip-hop. After the Death of Rock in the early Eighties, black American music regained pop’s innovative initiative, and came up with hip-hop, the perfect post-modern form almost.
Hip-hop is an anything-goes approach to music. Traditional musicianly skills are not necessarily required, and in this sense it approaches a true new folk art, in that anyone can do it. At the very least all it takes is a couple of turntables, a drum-machine, and a little imagination. A DJ ‘plays’ the turntables, mixing and cutting records together to create an all-new soundscape (the records could be anything), while the MC delivers a rap over the top. The whoosha-whoosha sound that’s so prevalent is called scratching, which is done by manipulating a record backwards with your hand.
At its highest-tech, hip-hop uses the most sophisticated music computers to generate rhythm-beds, and to sample other sounds and breaks. Sampling – when it’s snippets of other pieces of music, like a James Brown screech, or a heavy metal guitar riff – is the subject of much legal debate, but still it goes on.
It’s not hard to see where hip-hop’s come from. More closely related to collage or montage than the literary cut-up, its antecedents stretch all the way back to the beginnings of black American music, in field hollers and talkin’ blues, through hellfire preaching and beat poetry to Gil Scott-Heron and reggae toasting.
It’s an irony, however, that even though hip-hop has barely penetrated the mainstream – apart from the breakthrough crossover of Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” – it’s already being exploited by advertising, alert to its ability to communicate simply and powerfully.
Fiercely territorial, hip-hop was born in New York, but Colors serves as a warning to the likes of LL Cool J and Public Enemy on the East Coast that they aren’t only ones who be illin’ (hip-hop terminology for being, say, hot).
Hip=hop’s also fiercely macho, and while this is certainly at root of its worst misogynist tendencies, it’s difficult to blame the music itself – as it has been – for the violence that seems to surround it.
Hip-hop exists only on its own terms, and so, for example, on Colors, the Decadent Dub Team will declare, in front of a murderous rhythm and sampled pistol shots: “I was born with a six-gun in my mind/If you want to understand, just put a six-gun in my hand.” Now, to an LA gang-banger, or any wanting kid, that would no doubt come across as a call to arms; but from the outside looking in, it’s a telling part of the cautionary picture the artist is avowedly trying to paint. So where does the responsibility begin?
Either way, it’s a disturbing missive, and indeed Colors isn’t meant to be easy listening. But it is exhilarating listening, in its sheer physical force – hip-hop is first and foremost dance music – and in its willingness to confront the issues, which comes as a welcome counterbalance to the genre’s otherwise penchant for self-aggrandisement.
After opening with the double body-blow of the ominous title-track and the aforementioned, incendiary “Six Gun,” the album pauses for breath with the relative lighter-weight “Raw,” by Big Daddy Kane and “Let the Rhythm Run” by Salt-N-Peppa (a dynamite female duo – the girls’ answer to the boys’ misogyny is simply to get up and do it themselves), before the side closes with Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” a hit in its own right, as def (another bit of hip-hopspeak, for definitive) a cut as there is, whose inclusion here is just a bonus.
Side Two also alternates the lighter-weight – Kool G Rap’s “Butcher Shop” and Roxanne Shante’s “Go on Girl” – with the trenchant – 7A3’s “Mad, Mad World” and MC Shan’s “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” – although they all burn up the grooves. Then it closes with what is in fact the album’s only non-hip-hop track, and sadly it’s a real dud. Old 70s’ funkster Rick ‘Superfreak’ James’s “Everywhere I Go” is merely a pallid attempt to rewrite Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times.”
It’s hypothetical to be sure, but had, say, “Sign O’ the Times” itself been there instead, Colors could well have been about the best movie soundtrack album – of original songs – ever produced. As it is, it’s still one of the best; although what’s the bet, because it’s black and it’s too hard, it won’t go anywhere near an Oscar?