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Gambit Weekly Rhythm & News

Sweet Return
The Sugarhill Gang throws a party Tuesday at the House of Blues.

by Mark Lee Damian

JULY 28, 1997:  Anyone clocking the history of rap and hip-hop music can't go very far before stumbling over the genre's giant (15-minute), classic, "Rapper's Delight," by a pioneering group called the Sugarhill Gang. The song, recorded in 1979, has been sampled by countless bands over the years and has been a primary influence on modern rap music. Its elements have shown up in the work of artists ranging from Blondie (whose derivative 1980 hit "Rapture" brought rap to white audiences) to Tone Loc, Snoop Doggy Dog, L.L. Cool J, Queen Latifah, De La Soul and N.W.A.

Thanks to "Rapper's Delight" and other tunes, the Sugarhill Gang was one of the first groups to take rap from the streets of New York City and bring it to the masses. Along with Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, Super-Wolf and the Sequence, SG was a star of the era's premiere rap label, Sugarhill Records, which was co-founded in 1979 by Sylvia and Joey Robinson.

"We broke the rap barrier," says Joey Robinson, now a member of the group. "People didn't want rap to keep coming, but we kept coming out with hit after hit after hit and made rap much more than a fad. We created a whole genre."

Robinson says that it didn't take long for the major studios to stop ignoring the small rap indies -- especially after rap artists were outselling major label dreck from the likes of Olivia Newton-John. Soon, the majors were signing rap acts, and this development coincided with rap's turn toward more serious subject matter.

With the release of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" in 1982, rap began to paint a picture of violence and drugs in inner-city life for the mainstream. And, some critics believe, it's this reality-based content that has helped rap stay relevant for years. But while gangsta rap has superseded the party spirit of the scene that pervaded back in the day, modern rap stars still pay respect to "Rapper's Delight" as the song that set the ball rolling. Lately, in fact, there has been a revival of the less violent, funkier spirit of old school rap, and the new interest had led to a Rhino Records' release of a Sugarhill Gang greatest hits compilation and a comprehensive 5-CD box set retrospective of Sugarhill artists.

Robinson, for one, is happy to see the new school paying respect to the older generation.

"Rap has changed dramatically," he says. "It's all about gangsta rap now. But old school rap wasn't about violence. I think one of the reasons why there's such a resurgence is because people don't want to go to clubs and concerts anymore where there's going to be violence, where somebody's child's going to get killed or hurt over somebody rapping about cop-killing gangsta stuff."

Robinson says the Sugarhill Gang has been enjoying more and more recognition from the next generation of rappers, not to mention rap fans. Catching this wave of renewed appreciation, the group -- which split up in the mid-80s -- re-formed earlier this year and now finds itself in demand across the country. The band is planning to record a new album, which Robinson describes as a return to the original Sugarhill sound and a turn away from the violence associated with today's rap scene.

"We're not going to try to imitate the newer rap," he says. "We're just going to be Sugarhill. With the whole gangsta rap thing, a lot of people made a lot of money, but then there's the violence that goes along with it, and recently two of the greatest rappers of all time got killed. You have to stop and think: is it worth the money to produce that kind of music?"

The Gang's current show includes performances of all the original SG material, including "Apache," "Showdown," "Kick It Live From 9 to 5" and many other classics.

Showtime 9:15 p.m. Tuesday at the House of Blues. Cover $12.


Michael Penn
Resigned (57 Records/Epic)

Despite a couple of moderately successful alternative singles, Penn has labored more or less in obscurity since the release of his debut album, March. But just as his better-known brother, actor Sean Penn, has risen above his early success as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, there's still time for Mikey to become a household name -- especially since the guy is so darn good. Penn has crafted a persistently listenable record (with the help of Pearl Jam/Stone Temple Pilots producer Brendan O'Brien, who handles the bass chores as well) that positions him alongside such talents as Freedy Johnston for the gold medal in the male singer-songwriter competition. Fusing indelible melodies with observant, often arch lyrics, Penn mines pure pop gold as the frustrated lover of "Try," the zealous suitor of "Me Around" and the unapologetic, self-centered paramour of the insistent sing-along "Selfish." A tune like "All That That Implies" explores familiar relationship territory, but with an ultra-catchy chorus that could raise the dead, and the passionate "Out of My Hands" packs 10 times the tearjerking capacity of your average Celine Dion power ballad. The second half of the album loses a little steam, but only the puzzling "Small Black Box," ostensibly a ballad about plane crashes, threatens to derail the momentum. If there's any justice, this record will elevate Penn from his status as critics' darling to bona fide pop star, and you could do much worse than to "resign" yourself to a listen. -- K.M. Rating: Highly Recommended (or higher)


XTC
Upsy Daisy Assortment (Geffen)

British egghead-pop group XTC has made a living out of confounding expectations. To begin with, it has surprised most critics simply by continuing to thrive in a constantly shifting marketplace with an evolving-yet-consistent blend of Beatlesque melody and Jam-like urgency. And as Upsy Daisy shows, XTC has mined the more album-friendly territory of the dreaded "art rock" genre while remaining, first and foremost, a singles band. Powered by leader Andy Partridge's skewed pop sensibilities, the group has charted a singular course over the years, and the new "assortment" checks off most of the points along the way. From the McCartney references of XTC's early work to the distinctive imagery of latter-day gems like "The Mayor of Simpleton," this compilation manages to showcase the band's better-known staples while also introducing the casual listener to such hidden gems as the intensely hummable "Earn Enough for Us" and the Tears-for-Fearsish "King for a Day." In short, your senses will be working overtime sampling the many sweets this assortment has to offer. -- K.M. Rating: Highly Recommended


James Taylor
Hourglass (Columbia)

Taylor's first studio release in six years stands tall thanks to a combination of eternal optimism and pure craftsmanship. On the opening cut, "Line 'Em Up," Taylor takes a sympathetic look at Nixon's departure from the White House, and on "Enough to Be on Your Way," he uses a funeral as a pretext to discuss the circle of life. Elsewhere, the songs sparkle with a precision honed by years of experience, demonstrated by the soft glowing of Taylor's voice on "Gaia" and the effortless fretwork on "Jump Up Behind Me." Not content with pure balladeering, Taylor tackles pop with the bouncy "Little More Time With You" (featuring Stevie Wonder) and country on "Yellow and Rose." Taylor says Hourglass is about beauty and time, and there's no denying that the disc is a beautiful body of work. After six years and too much disposable pop, isn't it about time? -- K.S. (Highly Recommended)


Tuesday

Aquarium Rescue Unit at Howlin' Wolf

Followers of this ever-changing H.O.R.D.E. Festival favorite have gracefully endured a number of personnel changes, including the defection of guitar anti-hero Colonel Bruce Hampton (whose name had to be removed from the title) and bassist Oteil Burbridge (who was hired by the Allman Brothers). The group has rewarded the loyalists by staying as tight, jazzy and unpredictable as ever. Swinging with deceptive ease from jazz to funk to Southern-fried boogie and all points in between, ARU continues to net new fans wherever it travels and reels in large crowds by opening for such acts as Phish and Bruce Hornsby. Local jam devotees will likely be snagged when ARU comes to the rescue with an ever-expanding and hard-to-pigeonhole sound. Showtime 10 p.m. Cover $8. -- K.M.

Thursday

Chris Ardoin CD release at Mid City Lanes

When an over-50 Mick Jagger preens onstage, or the members of Silverchair churn out platinum-selling adolescent angst, the nattering naybobs of negativism shake their heads in disapproval. But the rules of age that apply to rock don't carry as much weight with fans of other genres, and that's why a natural zydeco talent like 15-year-old Chris Ardoin can flourish. Ardoin, at the head of Cajun-twist combo Double Clutchin', has just released Gon' Be Jus' Fine, an album of ardently danceable rave-ups on the respected Rounder label. And just as the young brass-hop innovators of Coolbone have brought something new to the ancient tradition of brass, so has Ardoin managed a similar feat with the inclusion of "We Are the Boys," possibly the funkiest zydeco song ever recorded -- and it's a dance mix, no less! Ardoin (and his crew) will be celebrating the disc's release in the zydeco-friendly environs of Mid City Lanes tonight, where the young lion will undoubtedly show off the talent and chops that should serve him in good stead for the rest of his promising career. Showtime 10 p.m. Cover $5. -- K.M.

Saturday

Continental Drifters at Dream Palace

Local seismologists have been feeling the Earth move at this supergroup's shows for a number of years, but there are some places on the map, believe it or not, still immune to its charms. The crying shame about this is that the Drifters are the Dream Team of American roots rock, boasting, as you probably know, Peter Holsapple of the dBs as well as former members of the Cowsills and the Bangles, to name a few. In fact, the group once named "best unsigned band in America" by Rolling Stone packs more punch per song than the Jayhawks, Wilco and other "Americana" acts who've been tearing pages out of the CCR and Sweethearts of the Rodeo songbooks with considerably more commercial success. With such talent at its disposal, the deserving group should get its break any time now. But while fans wait for everyone else to get the Drift, they can enjoy Holsapple and company in intimate settings and wait for the days when they can say they "knew them when. ..." Showtime 10 p.m. -- K.M.


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