I was born in 1957. When I was young, I lived only in the musical present. I had no choice. And it separated me from my parents, who owned an old LP record player with one speaker and about six albums. My Fair Lady. Sinatra. When it came to music, there was simply nothing for us to talk about. They listened to On the Street Where You Live and I listened to Purple Haze. And I have to wonder if the generation gap of the 1960s might have dissolved had parents and children shared music as they can today.
Now it’s 2012 and rock music is dead. What do I think of its successor? Well I actually like rap music. And one of the reasons I like rap music is that my children love rap music, and because rap is so creatively open and generous, I’ve learned a lot about all kinds of music from listening to them listen to rap. But my children don’t only listen to rap, and it also pleases me enormously that the music they turn to then is the music of the 1970s, the music I grew up with. Ask any kid who knows about music. Their fallback band is Earth Wind & Fire.
My own children like music from the 1960s. They appreciate rock. They love Hendrix, like Zeppelin, respect Dylan, enjoy the Allman Brothers, and are curious about the Grateful Dead. But both rock and rap are “hot”. Their rhythms are pounding and invasive. And when my kids don’t listen to rap, they like to chill. And when the like to chill, they listen to music from the 1970s. Especially R&B. Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind & Fire, and The Isley Brothers. Especially reggae. Bob Marley, of course, but also Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Clif, and Third World. And also early funk banks such as Kool and the Gang , Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Parliament and Funkadelic. They’ll recognize the Average White Band (and assume they’re black, not Scottish). They’ll recognize and relish tunes like Love on a Two Way Street.
One of the reasons my kids know these bands is rap artists have freely sampled their music. For example, the Average White Band is the 15th most sampled band in history. But the sampling begs the question – why sample this music? And the answer is not only interesting, it reflects back on my own teenage years, and my ability to connect with my children musically in ways I could not with my parents.
Let’s put some facts on the table. Almost every one of these artists from the 1970s is black, which creates continuity with the dominant racial identity of the most popular American musicians today – Kanye West, Nas, and Jay-Z. But these artists in the 1970s all operated in a space free for innovation that makes their music timeless and allows it to transcend its racial roots.
By the middle of the 1970s, Motown’s grip on black musicians had disappeared; allowing a period of creativity to emerge based on non-formulaic experimentation. This experimentation laid the foundations for the continued evolution of creative African-American musical genres based on fusion concepts well into the 21st century (consider the collaboration between Nas and Damian Marley).
At the same time, the war in Vietnam had essentially ended and with the resignation of Richard Nixon from his presidency, the cultural connection with the 1960s broke. Not only did this herald the death of rock music, which had for a decade been defined by anger and rebellion, it also created an open space in which different kinds of music could flourish. When you listen to Earth Wind & Fire or The Isley Brothers or even reggae in the 1970s, you don’t hear the thumping drums and bass of Jefferson Airplane or The Who or Cream. You hear melodic music emphasizing crooning vocals, lush horns, and rhythmic guitar.
The music of the 1970s does not communicate alienation. Even Bruce Springsteen, whose career began in the early 1970s, changed rock by building his career around performances that celebrated the music and altogether lacked the alienation or anger of the 1960s. Springsteen never used drugs. He did not die at 27.
I heard this music as a teenager when it was new and fresh, before it was sampled. I heard it on radios or on 8-track players in cars filled with friends driving down country roads on summer evenings with windows down and warm breezes washing faces wide with wonder. It was music ripe for a period, not of innocence, but of relief. We were at peace. We had hope. We could laugh.
That it is this music which my children turn to when they do not listen to contemporary music is telling. They could listen to music from other decades. But this music is still fresh. Listen to just about anything by Earth Wind & Fire (That’s the Way of the World, September, Sing a Song), The Isley Brothers (Who’s That Lady, Summer Breeze, Caravan of Love), Bob Marley (Buffalo Soldier, Jammin, No Woman No Cry), Third World (Now That We’ve Found Love), or Love on a Two-Way Street. You’ll experience great music that celebrates life and has shed the anger and confusion of the previous decade.
Music in the 1970s was also a period of invention. Funk drove musical innovation in this decade and poetry over funk and hard funk loops laid the foundations for the emergence of hip-hop in the 1980s. We could not have anticipated this evolution in the 1970s, but we clearly appreciated the ingenuity and humor of Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang, and anything involving George Clinton.
What my children appreciate – and what provides the basis for easy conversation about popular music that crosses decades – is that modern music is so freely derivative and generous in its incorporation of other music from distinct genres and other periods of time. Hip-hop is all about fusion, and fusion with music that is itself so open and innovative and eternally fresh comes naturally. So when I hear my kids playing Earth Wind & Fire, my heart opens because what they communicate to me is priceless: the feeling I share with them of being forever young.