It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Though their music and their politics would grow more effective as they grew more nuanced, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled 1992 debut still packs a certain bratty rush. That gleefully inchoate — and occasionally just plain boneheaded — rebellious streak is best captured by the utterly shameless, profanity-heavy, eighth-grade-level agit-prop delivered at the end of "Killing in the Name." A beyond-blunt kiss-off to any and all authority figures, it remains Rage's most iconic nine-word statement, for better or worse.
But if Zach De La Rocha is still a little too comfortable complaining about a generic "system" this early in the band's career, his three bandmates help him sell the vague admonishments to big government (and bigger business) with fusions both of-their-time and prophetic. The slap-bass and pogo-stick grooves of "Take the Power Back" and "Bullet in the Head" are closer to peppy, turn-of-the-'90s California party-metal than the brawny, funk-informed heaviness of the band's later albums. But guitarist Tom Morello had already happened upon his classic mix of hip-hop-informed texture (the sonar-esque squeals on "Bullet in the Head") and straight-up hard rock raunch (the near-southern rock riff that boogies lead-footed through "Bombtrack").
Some of the lesser-known tracks actually contain some of the album's best music, and Morello's most forceful playing: the chunky metallic twang of "Fistful of Steel"; the near-psychedelic, reverb-glazed dirge "Township Rebellion"; and the surprisingly atmospheric "Settle for Nothing," which merges the "extended psychotic breakdown" howling of Rollins-era Black Flag over a leaden groove squalling with feedback. It's the invention of the deep cuts that gives RATM a life beyond the historically weighted tracks that made the band's name.
The Fellow Politicos
London Calling pushes the Clash beyond the boundaries of punk rock. The music stretches out in a number of directions, with lyrics that make politics and anger factors rather than focus. "Koka Kola," "Death or Glory," "Clampdown" and Simonon's violence-threatening reggae rumble, "Guns of Brixton," hit reassuringly familiar marks, but songs about actor Montgomery Clift ("The Right Profile") and lonely youth ("Lost in the Supermarket"), plus the surprise hit single "Train in Vain," don't encourage blood-boiling or fist-pumping. Few groups have redefined themselves so adroitly: Taken on its own terms, London Calling is nearly flawless.
The Stunning Psychedelists
From George Clinton's own mouth, I was told Eddie Hazel dropped that traumatic solo on "Maggot Brain" in one take after George told mama's boy Eddie to imagine he'd been told his mother was dead and then found out it wasn't true. Now that's what we call record producing! Bob Rock, take note — instead of spending one year in therapy with your uninspired band, just say some shit that will send them into therapy and run the tape.
The title track is your brain on LSD buried alive in a coffin and resurrected on the third day. There's a handful of guitar players who stand up to comparison to long-form Coltrane and Dolphy, not to mention Stravinsky and James Brown. There may in fact only be three fingers on that hand, and their names are Hendrix, Hazel and Pete Cosey (see Miles Davis 'Agharta if you haven't already been-there-done-that).
Most great rock guitar solos last only a few bars longer than the average male orgasm. As Hendrix had tapped into the big O's infinite feminine side on "Machine Gun," so Hazel did likewise on "Maggot," and left us with a symphony's worth of memorable acid-torched ideas and transcendental catharsis. Like jazz when it's really happening, you want to drown in and dissect the notes at the same time. You also come to know every note, because every one blows a wide-ass hole in your solar plexus.
The rest of the album has its psychedelic-soul charms — Eddie sings on the snorted-heroin ode "Super Stupid" (think of it as an outtake from the Black Zeppelin-type album he coulda-shoulda-didn't make, likely because of one toot too many), and "Wars of Armageddon" is electric Miles without Miles and before Miles even got so wildly electric. But my favorite of the batch is the acoustic guitar-sweetened mid-tempo ballad "Can You Get to That," which has always brought to mind the Eagles singing about karmic redemption with guns at their heads in a south side Chicago Pentecostal church.
The Would-Have-Been Tourmates
Enter The Wu-Tang is the Velvet Underground & Nico of '90s hip-hop a glorious muddle that made it safe not to merely color outside the lines but to scribble in the margins. Like a punk-rock response to Dr. Dre's baroque gangsta-pop arrangements, the raw-no-trivia Wu-Tang Clan emerged from out of nowhere at the tail end of 1993 or seemingly out of nowhere, as their home borough of Staten Island hadn't contributed much to rap beyond the pillow-soft Force M.D.'s. Hip-hop was becoming lush enough to sample the THX woosh, but Wu-Tang producer Robert "RZA" Diggs was dead-set on keeping it ugly, borrowing dust-worn VHS clips of kung-fu flicks. The Wu was equal parts cinema and free-association mind-bending poetry and skits that detailed drug sales, crime narratives and blood on the hot concrete so the sonics had to be grimy, lo-fi, flickering, grim, real. The sound of their drums alone, rusty thwomps mutated by distortion, would push once-popular rollicking James Brown breaks into the old school, setting the gnarled tone for a half-decade of New York rap. And, oh yeah, there were nine nine! phenomenal MC's without a bit of deadweight in the bunch, each one with style as unique and realized as the comic book characters they worshipped: Method Man's hissing drool-suck, Raekwon's effortless word-tumble, Ghostface's nasal scattershot, GZA's musky matter-of-factness and the screeching, atonal dementia of class cut-up Ol' Dirty Bastard. Not to mention RZA, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa thorny wordsmiths, each strong enough to be stars in their own right, though quickly overshadowed by the crew's more oversized personalities. Raised mostly in the Park Hill and Stapleton projects of Staten Island, the Wu-Tang Clan were isolated from Manhattan by a 90-minute ferry-and-subway trek. In response, they created their own universe. They redubbed their borough "Shaolin," and by the time they released their debut, the crew had built an entire mythology: a swirl of kung fu flicks and mobster lore, Five Percent Nation teachings and Eastern philosophy, dozens of colorful nicknames, slang so impenetrable that even the most classic tracks need annotated notes (see RZA's book The Wu-Tang Manual). And, of course, there's a hazy blend of samples taken from records RZA pillaged from East Village record store Beat Street and sidewalk sales. Classic soul, funk, jazz, even the Underdog theme, were dragged across his smudged-microscope slides. RZA's ear for the moody and unprocessed created an ethereal vibe that turned hardcore street narratives into film noir.
The Blueprint Writer
There are no words too hyperbolic, no expressions too excited to describe the tectonic impact Public Enemy's second album had on the world. It is that vital and that infecting. Nominally a rap album, It Takes A Nation... is more like a sound grenade, thanks to the Bomb Squad's quadruple-stacked sampling, hypeman par excellence Flavor Flav's sonorous squeal, and leader Chuck D's stentorian flow — dependent not so much on meter, like most rappers, but instead a kind of confident, formless roar.
"Chuck's a powerful rapper. We wanted to make something that could sonically stand up to him," The Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee told the Daily News when the album was released. So drum maniacs Hank and his brother, Keith, along with the musical heart of P.E., Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, seized the challenge, creating songs, if you can call them that, that whinny and snarl and ping and clash, incorporating screeching saxophones, cross-cutting vocal samples, hissing teapots, hard-nosed breakbeats, and empty hallway pianos lines. It's a fast and new kind of electric blues — or, in places, a broken, discordant jazz — they stumbled upon. Chuck takes the music and uses its harshness to deliver unrepentant political jeremiads. "The follower of Farrakhan/ Don't tell me that you understand/ Until you hear the man/ The book of the new school rap game," he raps on "Don't Believe The Hype," the totemic single. Chuck's politics are confusing beyond calls for righteous Black Panther and Nation of Islam-inspired unity. But as The New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote at the time of the album's release, P.E. refracted the notion of "individualism" in rap, demanding a new "community," encouraging activism and cynicism in equal measure. Whether denouncing a rotting, rotten prison system and governmental authority on "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos," or the locally debilitating crack epidemic on "Night Of the Living Baseheads," Chuck's fury is so persuasive, you may find yourself punching the sky during these songs without regret. It Takes A Nation... has aged remarkably well, as sonically arresting, and socially unforgiving as any album you're likely to hear. No one made being uncompromising so inspiring.
The Quiet Defiance
A genuinely experimental record, with Springsteen playing all the (sparse) instruments, recording on a lo-fi 8-track, and peering deep into the lives of those for whom there's no escape, certainly not any of the sort hoped for in earlier songs such as "Born to Run," "Promised Land," and so many others. Its characters are pursued by demons — both inner and outer — of the kind that can turn the American dream into a nightmare. The stories are bleak, but also complex and compelling — the events described in "Highway Patrolman" in fact inspired the Sean-Penn-directed film The Indian Runner.