Finding the Doo-Wop in Hip Hop
The most important part of any record is the vocal. No instrument can hope to compare to the sound of the human voice. Sam Cooke casually tossing off long "I" sounds on "Wonderful World" can take me places that classical symphonies, jazz solos and post-rock soundscapes never will. Maybe that's why most of my favorite records date back to a decade before my birth in 1973.Even though I still can find plenty of reasons to get my kicks on Route 66, rock 'n' roll these days just doesn't sing like it once did. Judging from Rhino's Doo Wop Box series (whose second four-disc volume was released in October, with more to come), rock 'n' roll may never have sung like it did on urban American street corners and in recording studios throughout the '50s and early '60s. A subgenre of vocal-group R&B, doo-wop stood apart from its contemporaries for reasons both tangible and intangible.More Northern, amateurish and youthful than other vocal-group music, doo-wop had more than its famous nonsense syllables to mark it. Like, say, film noir, doo-wop seems less a combination of technical and stylistic elements than a mood or state of mind -- a magical alternate universe populated by "Earth Angels" and a Greek chorus whose commentary was imparted through such harmonized sounds as "Rama Lama Ding Dong," a place where "Church Bells May Ring" for teenagers, and it's always the "Still of the Nite."Listening to this music 40 years later, without nostalgia to ground me, I'm struck by how utterly alive it is, both aesthetically and culturally. If I were to choose one song from Vol. 2, one rush of sound with which to make a case for doo-wop's greatness as pure music, it would be "The ABCs of Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. What on paper is a series of perfunctory verses about puppy love is transformed by Lymon, who was 13 at the time, into a moment of transcendence. (He died of a heroin overdose at 25.) Teenager Sherman Gaines starts the record, as he often did, with a great bass introduction, "doo bop see doo boom de boom boom," and the rest of the group joins in to lay a foundation for Lymon, who begins singing restrained verses, the first letter of each verse following the alphabet.By the time he gets past "I," he's too excited to follow the conceit and erupts into a startling shout of "J, K, L, M, N-O-P, Q." After speeding through the rest of the alphabet, he leaves this world behind, giving himself over to an eternal series of wordless uh-oh-ohs that may be the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. Never has one minute and 54 seconds been so close to forever. But, far from just a brilliant blast of sound or a lost chapter of rock 'n' roll history, the music on the Doo Wop Box reveals interesting links to today. Conventional history supposes that doo-wop as a genre died somewhere around 1963. But did it? While other types of traditional music -- blues, rockabilly and so on -- have continued in the same vein, only with less fanfare, doo-wop seems to have disappeared, only to be reincarnated years later in a new form: hip-hop.The two genres have more in common than it might appear. The cultural and economic forces that created doo-wop in the late '40s exerted themselves again in the late '70s to create hip-hop with instructive cultural differences. Perhaps the only two forms of American popular music to develop in the North, both genres are entirely urban (mainly New York) and mostly the domain of young black working-class males. Products of street-corner ennui, both genres are the result of passing time and creating community through music.The same New York City neighborhoods that saw teenage boys harmonizing in the '50s now see their grandsons trading rhymes in a post-doo-wop style. As true urban folk art, neither requires much money or formal training. In each genre's basic, pre-studio form, there are no expensive instruments to buy and learn to play -- just voices performing their own original styles of sonic magic, or, in the case of hip-hop, two turntables and a microphone. The differences, of course, are striking. Doo-wop's tone of guarded optimism sometimes spilling into outright joy mirrored the landscape of its times. It emerged in a period of postwar prosperity and integrationist promise. Surrounded by such events as Truman's executive order integrating the military, Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the early years of the Civil Rights movement, doo-wop promised a freedom that seemed attainable.Current hip-hop's tone of fatalistic dread, by contrast, fits a post-Civil Rights era of increasing economic stratification along racial lines, social breakdown and racial scapegoating -- a time when the promises of the doo-wop era have long been abandoned.An even more striking difference between doo-wop and its spiritual offspring lies in the conception of gender and sexuality. While both genres are dominated by heterosexual men, doo-wop created a space for heterosexual men to explore their femininity, to admit and embrace a vulnerability that carried no traces of smugness or narcissism. This amazingly romantic music most often stars teenage boys singing with incomparable passion of marriage and everlasting love. Even if the love described was entirely heterosexual, those soaring falsettos at least hinted that the concepts of gender and sexuality were far from cut-and-dried binaries.These days, however, the new doo-wop enforces a strict code of masculinity that often includes homophobia and misogyny. Hip-hop brooks no sexual ambiguity or androgyny, and heterosexual sensitivity is allowed only if foregrounded as pimply primping or a necessary path to the bedroom. The emotional nakedness and touchingly awkward neediness and vulnerability of doo-wop have been repressed. If Frankie Lymon, the greatest of the doo-wop singers and probably the grandest prepubescent singer ever, were of this generation, would he be rapping about his guns with the same vigor that he once sang to his girls?