[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]
SPEAK FOR YOURSELF
POWER TO THE PEOPLE AND THE BEATS
THE MUSIC INDUSTRY is at war. Not literally, of course. One look at your typical band member or record exec, and any self-respecting military recruiter would cashier himself on the spot.
But if you think of the major labels as precarious empires - retreating, consolidating, trying first to crush and then co-opt the nimble guerrilla forces of downloaders and podcasters - you're not far off.
What's at stake is control: not just over how music is sold but, crucially, how the public becomes aware of it. Particularly in America, where the biggest radio stations are rigorously restricted by the same small playlist. There, something odd (although not unprecedented) has happened. For an “alternative” rock act seeking an audience, there are few bigger breaks then getting airtime on classy, glossy, soapy TV series The O.C. Its creators are preeminent tastemakers in the genre.
The latest beneficiary of these hipster Medici is a sort of mechanical Dido by the name of Imogen Heap, now on the up here in her native Britain too. Her single, Hide and Seek, took pride of place in The O.C.'s season finale, and has since been clutched to the underwired bosom of Radio 1. It's an atmospheric, heavily treated a cappella vocal, deeply in hock to Laurie Anderson's O Superman and Joni Mitchell's avant-garde self-orchestration, Shadows And Light.
It's also by far the best thing on Speak For Yourself - which doesn't, much. This sort-of-decent collection of songs has been dolled up with all manner of electronica and rendered undeniably striking; a Saturday shopgirl in a convincing fembot costume.
But that's no more relevant than the footballing ability of Jean-Marc Bosman. What matters is that the music has been - by choice, so we're told - independently recorded, released and licensed by Heap herself, publicised by a (presumably sincere) act of patronage, and boosted by the single's consequent success as a legitimate download. It has a good chance of becoming a substantial hit entirely outside of the traditional industry process. And far from being an anomaly, it represents a trend. It may be utterly unlike The Crazy Frog in both strategy and purpose, but its implications for the business could be just as broad.
If the music industry were actually at war, you'd want Public Enemy on your side. For a start, they look good in a uniform, after an amusingly camp fashion. But mainly, you'd want them to handle your propaganda. They stand in the foremost rank of exhilarating pop polemicists. That their messages have been highly dubious a goodly portion of the time is no longer the point. Their best work is insurrection made music. Never mind the rationale - bring the noise.
Public Enemy's first three albums make up one of rock'n'roll's greatest runs of form, a feat unmatched by any other rap act. Their sound was once likened to the voice of God addressing you from a thunderstorm. God being Chuck D, a peerless MC and lyrical giant of absolute authority; while the thunderstorm was conjured by production team The Bomb Squad from the clamour of urban chaos.
Power To The People And The Beats is a long overdue best of, compiled without vanity to favour their early, strongest records (a second excellent disc might easily have been drawn from what's omitted.) This was music devised to shake foundations. Now that they're shaking on their own, it remains the ideal soundtrack.
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