Monday, April 29, 2013

Work: Minimum Wage

The BusBoys: Minimum Wage

It seems that most songs about work portray it as something bad, something demeaning, or simply an impediment to the good parts of life. The question, “do you live to work or work to live,” is one that many of us have had to address in our lives. But, of course, most of us need to work in order to survive, and the scary thing is how many Americans work for minimum wage, which, I understand, does not even allow the worker to live above the poverty line. This, despite the fact that our culture is, to a great degree, based on the theory that hard work will lead to success and that that there is dignity in work. These statements are all too often made by people who don’t know what they are talking about.

This is, however, a music blog, not a politics blog, so I’ll move on to talk about something less weighty—racial stereotyping. Arguably, rock music was created by black musicians. Certainly, much of the early “rock ‘n’ roll” music was recorded by African-Americans such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Ike Turner, who recorded “Rocket 88,” which many consider the first rock song. In those early days, white “rock” was often covers of music previously recorded by blacks, or somewhat watered down imitations of their style. Through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, the umbrella of rock music was broad enough to include diverse sounds including Motown and other similar music, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire. For example, a random show at the Fillmore in 1967 featured headliner Bo Diddley supported by Big Brother and the Holding Company, a white blues-rock band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, a white rock band, Big Joe Williams, a black bluesman and another band, Headlights, who seem to have left no trace on the Internet. But, by the late 1970s, it seemed like the fractionalization of rock music into increasingly narrower slices for marketing purposes had resulted in a split between white music and black music.

Enter The BusBoys, who released their debut album in 1980. The band was made up of five African-Americans and one Hispanic (another group that was long marginalized in rock between the heyday of Santana and the rise of Los Lobos), who made rock music, but incorporated soul and funk influences. This made the band a bit unusual and got them some publicity, but their debut, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll was good enough to live up to the hype. In other words, they were more than a novelty act. The songs on their first album, and its followup, American Worker, addressed issues of race and economic inequality, but it had a beat and you could dance to it. Or pogo to it.

In Ronald Reagan’s America, when society seemed to be turning from civil rights movements and wars on hunger and poverty to a glorification of greed and individual success, it took some guts to include sarcastic songs such as “KKK” and “There Goes the Neighborhood,” and our featured song, “Minimum Wage,” which discusses the plight of people who “work so hard . . . work all day. . . . because we need to stay.”

In 1982, the band reached its highest level of popularity because they were championed by Eddie Murphy, who, at the time, was making blockbuster movies, and not the dreck that he has been mostly turning out recently. The band appeared in his hit 48 Hrs. and had songs on the soundtrack. They also served as Murphy’s opening act on his tours. After having a song in the Ghostbusters soundtrack and a third album, featuring Murphy on background vocals and in a video, the band toured, but never really seemed relevant, and they disappeared until the release of a reunion album a few years ago.

I remember playing this album on the radio, and enjoying it at the time. Revisiting it now after 30 plus years, it sounds OK. It’s not a great album—they were a talented bar band with a gimmick that made solid if unspectacular music. But I give them credit for raising important issues, even if people really weren’t listening. A few years after Minimum Wage Rock & Roll was released, another band, Living Colour, created a similar buzz by playing rock music while black, and again coupled their music with a message.

In the current environment where iPods and streaming services allow everyone to be their own DJ, and where Sirius/XM seems to have a channel for every tiny subgenre, it may no longer matter whether there is a split between black and white music, because you can pretty much find whatever you want, but it seems clear that when artists try to cross or muddle the divide, like The BusBoys, or The Beastie Boys, or Bad Brains, or TV on the Radio, race is still part of the discussion.

blog comments powered by Disqus