Classic Rap: What People Do For Money

wpdfm-contentIwas into rap about as early as a 12, 13 year old kid in Kalamazoo, Michigan could possibly have been. I don’t mean NWA and Public Enemy; I mean Melle Mel and Newcleus.  Doug E. Fresh and two different Slick Ricks and the differences weren’t between east and west coast but between the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Talk Radio 1360 WKMI went to what we’d now call an “urban music” format sometime around 82 or 84 from the AOR they’d been playing for years, and there was this huge amount of really cool and innovative music coming over the air suddenly, almost exclusively from the boroughs of New York City.  I never got out of rock and roll, but there was period of three or four years there that I was also way into the rap thing.  “What People Do For Money” was a one-hit wonder for a group called Divine Sounds – DJ Mike Music, a street scratcher/DJ going back to the mid-70’s, his brother Disco Ritchie, and a fella named “Shelton D.”

There are some suggestions that the group’s name was inspired by the involvement of a cousin of the Dowlings with the “five percent movement.” (the “five percenters” are an offshoot of the Nation of Islam which believes several things differently from the original NOI, particularly that ten percent of the world is exploiting eighty-five percent, and the remaining five percent are those who know what’s going on and try to inform the rest to end the exploitation.  You can see how some of these lyrics as well as those from another track that had some airplay, “How Fast Money Goes” reflect that strong sense of social conscience in unflinching recitals of the self-destructive tendencies they saw in their local culture.

Teenage girls dating senior citizens
I said tell me girl, what’s happening
She says I’m down on my luck, so what the f…
I’ll see if I can lay him for a couple of bucks

Three cards in my hand, one red, two black
You know red is making money, Black, you make nothing back, huh
You took a try and now I’m sorry
You lost all your money in three card molly

One dollar in your pocket, and now you’re broke
But you’re dying from hunger and you need a smoke, huh
You play a three to win eight to one
You lost your only dollar now you have none

Huh it might sound sad
Or it might sound funny
But that’s what people do for money

It’s sort of funny to hear these lyrics and realize that stripped of their context they sound less like a group of young black men of conscience in the boroughs than a right-wing “blue lives matter” talk radio host.  And it goes on before and after just like that for I think nine or twelve more verses.  This in 1984, on the radio.

But while there’s no escaping the political impact of the genre or the song’s messaging, it’s really the musical structure of the thing that I appreciate.  I remember sitting there in the middle of the night listening to it on my sister’s old orange and blue clock/radio with the lion on the face and just being fascinated by the whole thing. The content of the lyrics, yeah, but also the vocal harmonies, the way everything is layered in by the rhythm from a simple single bass drum stroke to a complex pattern.  Much of my eventual understanding of how to “build” a song came from listening to this repeatedly.  There’s also a little stutter at the end of  the fourth measure in some bars that was instrumental (no pun intended) into attracting my attention to double-bass drumming.  Funny, right?  Instead of Ginger Baker or some early metal band, I actually got really interested in my bass drums because of what amounts to a sonic artifact in an stone-age rap song.

I’m sure there’s a descriptive phrase for it, but the rhythm pattern here is one of its earlier implementations as well.  You would probably recognize it most from “Word Up!” by Cameo:

Someone smarter than I am can track down what that meter is called in poetry, but the song is full of stuff like that, things that quickly became cliches in the genre but weren’t yet at this time, like the orchestra hits and hand claps.  The female background singers were the same group who recorded backing vox for Kool and the Gang during this same period.

Both the orchestration and the melodic vocals are handled in minor keys and have a melancholy, desperate sound to them.  Even setting aside the sociopolitical context of the lyrics they’re all very dark and reflect a lot of sadness and negativity and hard times in the culture from which they rise.  And yet even while hitting some pretty hard subjects like prostitution and drug dealing there’s a sort of earnest innocence to the lyrics as well, a basic-ness to them that makes them seem from the perspective of 2016 more like a public service announcement during an ABC Afterschool Special than a street rap video from NYC in the early 1980’s.

The story of Divine Sounds is surprisingly hard to track down in the Information Age.  All of the biographical information I can find looks centered around this interview in 2005.  DJ Mike Music seems to have passed away in late 2008.  There’s no real information available about Shelton D other than that he wasn’t working with the Dowlings at the time of the interview previously mentioned.  Disco Ritchie mentions in the same interview a claim prominent now among the same three sentences pasted to every Google result about this song:  Mike Music may have been the first DJ to rap on record, that is to have his raps pressed on vinyl.  The five-percenter cousin ended up being known as Huff and Ritchie mentions him working with Dru Hill and Mia in the interview, but I wasn’t able to identify him for sure just from that information.

At well over seven minutes, this epic track contains within it not just echoes but original sources that continue reverberating today through legacies from early east coast rap artists like Run DMC (DS were contemporaries of and often compared to DMC in part because both groups traded lyrics between all three members) and Slick Rick; Cameo and the Commodores; from them to everyone from Kanye to Lil’ Kim.

But it’s not just within rap that these grooves reverberate.  If you listen carefully you can even catch little echoes in the work of a lot of the grunge bands and various depressed-melancholy types of music that has followed.  Or make it stiffer, speed it up, and you’ve got Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistable.”

I think one of the biggest things about this song for me though is just how catchy that hook and beat are.  It pops into my head on a constant basis, to the point it’s almost like a spit-take zoom in cue for a bad sitcom when a character makes a poor moral decision for profit and now it’s ECU on dad’s comically shocked and angry expression as you hear “WHAT. PEOPLE DO.  FOR MONEYYYYYYY.” [cue laugh track and a little descending piccolo riff into the crossfade]

And now it’s in your head too.  You’re welcome!  Let me know how you feel about that, the bad 80’s haircuts, and what you hear going in to and coming out of this obscure but incredibly key musical moment in time in the comments and on favorite social media platform!