Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1981-03-30


Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force: "Zulu Nation Throw Down" (Paul Winley 12-inch, 1981) Half jingly song-chant and half rap, this starts out so flat that even the rap sounds off-key. But soon the harmonies begin to seem natural, as in "ethnic" music tuned to its own scale, or maybe Kleenex/Liliput. And Lisa Lee, resident young lay-dee of this "Funkadelic of the microphone," must have been a tobacco auctioneer in some earlier lifetime, and a Shirelle after that. Virtually irresistible. A-

Free Expression: "Chill-Out!" (Vanguard 12-inch, 1981) Less than five minutes of fusion-vet guitar-and-rhythm, hooked on a nouveau-honk sax part and bass-man lyrics borrowed from jeans ads, with an overblown "Save the Last Dance for Me" on the B, this is as marginal as a decent 12-inch can be. I was all set for get about it, or hit it with a B minus. Then my malfunctioning changer played it three times in a row. B+

Funky 4 + 1: "That's the Joint" (Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981) "Rappin and Rocking the House," this young crew's Enjoy debut, is a real charmer, 16 minutes of fast talk over drum-dominated rhythms. But here's the joint. The instrumental track, carried by Sugarhill bassist Doug Wimbish, is so compelling that for a while I listened to it alone on its B-side version. And the rapping is the peak of the form, not verbally--the debut has funnier words--but rhythmically. Quick tradeoffs and clamorous breaks vary the steady-flow rhyming of the individual MCs, and when it comes to Sha-Rock, Miss Plus One herself, who needs variation? I'm rooting for "Get the point?" to join "Get down!" in the fly lexicon. A

Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat" (West End 12-inch, 1981) This classic one-shot is the hottest r&b record in the city right now for two self-evident reasons. First is the beat, which is like what it says only deeper and more deliberate (in the drums and handclaps) with palpitations (provided by a slow-humping bass). Second is Taana, who'd combine the melodic dislocations of Esther Phillips and the girlish screech of Diana Ross if she had the technical control of either. Because she doesn't, she also recalls another timbre-sister, Shirley Goodman (of & Lee and "Shame, Shame, Shame"). First I played the 6:30-minute "party" version; now I prefer the 9:34-minute "club" version. One-shot, eh? A

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: "The Birthday Party" (Sugarhill 12-inch, 1981) The most spectacular of the Sugarhill crews on stage is also the hookiest on record, thanks to Flash's spinning--he can make his turntables give forth like a horn section of kazoos or electric soprano saxophones. But if "Freedom," their Sugarhill debut, made aural graffiti-writing seem like a political act, here they remind us of its nuisance potential--it's fun to hear the Five's birthdays, and nice that each of us has one, but the idea is thin and so is Flash's hook. Next: "The Rent Party," in which we all get to shout our addresses. B+

The Incredible Fly: "Want the Body"/"The Incredible Fly" (Superfly 12-inch, 1981) Over identical funkified synthesizer drones and syndrum interjections, the I.F. intones in a Marvin Gaye-influenced singsong falsetto on two-key new-r&b themes: The Ineluctable Modality of the Carnal on side one, Makers of the New R&B on side two. B+

The Strikers: "Body Music" (Prelude 12-inch, 1981) If your idea of a good time is heavy-breathing jungle sounds and chants of "Do the punk rock" and "Ashkenazi" (well, that's what it sounds like) over spare disco-funk, rush out and buy this left-field street record. The hard-to-find Cesaree-label original goes lighter on the clavinet and has a real B-side. Hunh! B+

The Treacherous Three: "The Body Rock" (Enjoy 12-inch, 1981) Though the Three's speech rhythms are heavier than I'd like, both their records are hooked inspirationally by Enjoy house band Pumpkin. I prefer the bass (synthesizer?) throb on this obsessive piece of rap minimalism to the keyboard (synthesizer!) squiggle on the more conventional "At the Party," but each sustains seven minutes of newfunk almost automatically. A-

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