The Popstream: Lou Reed, "Original Rapper"

The Popstream: Lou Reed, "Original Rapper"

If anyone from ye olden days of proto-punk rock could've done a half-decent hip hop track twenty years after becoming famous, you'd think Lou "Hey White Boy, What You Doing Uptown" Reed would be a good candidate. He's New York as fuck, he's got a voice that works great as non-melodic, semi-conversational banter, and he wore aviators before every Southern rap artist to hit the top 40 did. Besides, the Clash and Blondie and Tom Tom Club did a decent-enough job with their rap crossovers back in the early '80s -- why not Lou?

Well, here's why not: "Original Rapper" came out in 1986, which for contextual purposes is both chronologically and stylistically miles away from the White Punks on Dope (Beats) groundswell of '80/'81. We're talking about the year of Raising Hell and Licensed to Ill, of "9mm Goes Bang" and "6 in the Mornin'" and "Eric B Is President", the year which ended with Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show getting prepped for release. '86 proved once and for all that rap wasn't just some fad you could use to sell breakfast cereal or fire safety PSAs -- or, if you were a rock musician, half-assedly build a gimmick song out of. That didn't stop people from trying, though.

Lou gives it his best, or at least what passed for his best in his mid '80s lean years, before he got his shit back together with New York at the end of the decade. But he makes a few crucial mistakes:

1) Calling attention to the fact that he is doing a rap track with a title and refrain that incorporates a hey-see-what-I-did-there pun.

2) Getting all his sociopolitically-charged subject matter from print media. Yeah, the first verse is all about how he's watching news of all this mid '80s malaise ("Herpes, AIDS, the Middle East at full throttle") on cable, but I'm banking on him only invoking pay-for-use television as a social statement in itself and getting all his actual news from the papers -- why else would he not know how to pronounce Louis Farrakhan's name?

3) Half-assed rhyming. The mispronunciation of Farrakhan's name is pretty laughable, but at least it's in the service of an actual rhyme, coupling his name with the phrase "brotherhood of man". Elsewhere we get pairings like "While Dad guzzles beer with his favorite sport/Only to find his heroes are all coked up," a stretch of horrific, self-aware fancypants verbiage ("Don't mean to come on sanctimonious/But life's got me nervous and little pugnacious/Lugubrious so I give a salutation/And rock on out to a beat really fabulous"), and the trainwreck refrain: "[something something something] at full throttle/Better check that sausage 'fore you put it in the waffle/And while you're at it, check what's in the batter/Make sure that candy's in the Original Wrapper". Way to make Debbie Harry's car-eating Martian rambling in "Rapture" sound like Jean Grae there, Lou.

4) Putting together a beat that sounds like public-domain music you'd hear at the beginning of an infomercial for exercise equipment.

5) Setting it all to a really dopey video. Despite being directed by Zbigniew Rybczynski, who was also responsible for the video for b-boy crossover favorite "Close (To the Edit)" by the Art of Noise, the clip for "Original Rapper" comes off like some weird performance-art Benny Hill sketch, with people getting stuffed into cardboard boxes, dachshunds running around causing mayhem and lots of athlete/consumer/policeman/businessman/rollerskater (?) archetypes bumbling around in some sort of post-new wave vaudeville schtick.

I don't wanna pick on Lou too much, though -- he could've done a lot worse.

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