Radio Gaga

One day in 1978, my dad came home and excitedly told me that Bob Dylan had a great new song out called "Sultans of Swing." He was wrong, as it turned out, about "Sultans of Swing" being by Bob Dylan and about Dire Straits being great. He wasn't, however, alone in his confusion. There's a long, vaguely dishonorable list of pop hits that have been commonly misattributed. Some examples: The Swinging Blue Jeans, "Hippy Hippy Shake" (not the Beatles, whose live and BBC versions of the tune weren't released until decades after the Blue Jeans' hit); Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" (another not-Dylan hit); America's "A Horse with No Name" (not Neil Young); Ready for the World's "Oh Sheila" (not Prince); Juvenile's "Back That Thing Up" (not Sarah McLachlan).

A few weeks ago I enthusiastically told a co-worker that Notorious B.I.G. had a great new song out called "Compton." I knew and know that Notorious B.I.G., by most accounts, is dead. That only made the record more impressive. I was wrong, as it turns out, about the song being by Biggie, and about it being great, though I maintain that it's quite good. "Compton" is, in fact, by portly 27-year-old rapper Guerilla Black, who serves as a kind of jury-rigged Biggie, flowing nonchalantly over one of the better beats to hit the Top 40 this year. Guerilla Black's timbre, phrasing, rhythm, and rhyme schemes are eerily, perhaps even pathetically, Biggie-esque. I'm hesitant to say these studied similarities preclude GB from being a serious artist. Alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt sounded an awful lot like Charlie Parker and still managed to make some great music. In other words, choose your prime influence wisely, and imitation can go a long way.

But as my wife pointed out, B.I.G. would never have written lyrics this dumb. Guerilla's gangsta boasts and threats are indeed hackneyed, though I kind of like the oddly structured couplet, "Keep my enemies on IV, once I toast them/Just like my bagels." (He rhymes "bagels," by the way, with "halo," which is especially lazy when the possessive form of [German philosopher Georg Wilhelm] Hegel is all but biting him in the nose. In the next line GB references Plato, as if to underline the slight.)

Still, if a closer listen revealed that Guerilla's flow is far too secondhand to support my original enthusiasm, he's by no means terrible, certainly not bad enough to ruin the song's rubbery, head-bobbing reggae-soul groove, which samples and deftly incorporates Sister Nancy's dancehall hit "Bam Bam." For the beat we can principally thank producer Carlos Broady, whose credits include...Notorious B.I.G. Perhaps when Guerilla Black was laying down vocals, Broady raised an eyebrow at the line "no one could do it better." But as American philosopher Steve Stills once said, If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.

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