Soul Train and the '80s babies

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What the late, great Don Cornelius did for the world of hip hop, and what he didn't do.

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Marty McSorley | February 2, 2012

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With the passing of Don Cornelius yesterday, I found my Facebook feed flooded with links to James Brown, The Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder, combined with talk about how important the man and Soul Train were to the '70s Black experience. That's all true, but isn’t this post. I’ll leave that for Questlove, who talks about it perfectly.

I am not black, but I did watch a lot of Soul Train as a kid, and some of Don's style rubbed off on me. But the Pope of Soul himself once said, “There is no white or black,” and proved it with his bookings of Elton John, and David Bowie. Once, Don asked the Yellow Magic Orchestra if they were into punk.

I have YouTubed the hell out of Soul Train clips in my time, and I loved the Soul Train reruns that would come on late at night, but I was born in 1982. For me and my '80s babies to sit here and talk about Soul Train’s golden area would be a bit bogus. I wasn’t there. I didn’t feel it. What I was there for was Soul Train’s transition times, the era when the programming moved from funk and soul to hip hop and R&B, and the times after Don was no longer Soul Train’s host.

Soul Train was always about transition for me, coming on right after all my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. When this train was coming down the track, I knew the morning was over and it was time to take off my Batman PJs and lace-up my LA Gears (or BK Knights depending on the year) and hit the basketball court. The sounds of King Curtisoriginal opening, filled with organ, upfront bass and soulful bends, had long been abandoned for George Duke’s slick synth boogie, and hip hop was starting to become the dominant force in black American music.

There is no way I remember catching it live, because I must have been, at best, five years old, and needed my mom to pour my Cheerios for me, but I do know some of my first hip hop experiences were seeing LL Cool J let me know he couldn’t live with out his radio and Eric B & Rakim telling me how they got soul. What strikes me now, looking back at these clips, is the slight unease in Don’s interaction with these pioneers of hip hop. He asks both groups “Why don’t you smile?”

Cornelius was no stranger to hip hop. He had first showcased the new movement in 1980, when Kurtis Blow rocked the party with now-classic track “The Breaks”, and later that year with the Sugar Hill Gang. But that was party music based in long disco breaks. As hip hop became more popular there was a clear reluctance to program the new genre on the show, while giving air time to whiter-than-white Hall & Oats and Herb Alpert. In almost four years we see only one other hip hop performance, from Grandmaster Flash. Hip hop was moving away from its disco and electro breaks, and losing the fur boots and jumpsuits that were not a far cry for the outfits the funk and boogie groups on the program were donning at the time. Groups started to favor a much harder look and sound, and we don’t see much more hip hop until the 1983-84 season, when they showcase the New York City Breakers and Run DMC. In a mildly awkward moment, Cornelius asks Run to “explain the success of rapping as an art form.”

I don’t mean to be dissing Don at all. I just don’t think he quite got where these kids were coming from. In fact, it makes me respect him even more that he was willing to take any kind of chance at all. Soul Train was strong in the early '80s. MTV had already hit the air, but most people didn’t have cable and even if they did they did, there was a pronounced lack of color in MTV’s programming. With the exception of the lighter-skinned pop gods Michael Jackson and Prince, there was no one of color to be found, maybe with the exception of rock groups that just happened to feature darker musicians. The Specials actually broke MTV's color barrier very early on, before Mystical Youth or The Gloved One.

My point is that Soul Train were on top of what they were doing. They could have very easily stayed with in their already successful programming and not taken risks on a new genre. That willingness to try something new on a national level gets mad respect, Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other great things happening on Soul Train at the time. But, unless you are Dam-Funk, you kinda have to admit overall that the '80s boogie area was a pretty corny low point for funk and soul.

That said. It wasn’t a totally easy transition for Soul Train to come to terms with the fact that hip hop was here to stay. Yo MTV Raps premieres in 1988, and Soul Train suddenly jumps from showcasing one or two hip hop acts a year to six (seven if you count Whodini). Most notably, out of this jump they continued to push it and booked their first female MCs with Salt 'n' Pepa doing it real good. At this point, despite being filmed in LA, there has still never been a West Coast rapper on the program, even the more electro-funk styles, like the LA Dream Team, Egyptian Lover, and World Class Wrecking Crew, which would have fit more with the overall sound of the show. Then Tone Loc showed up, doing “Wild Thing” on an almost identical beat to “Push It”. But this was 1989, and N.W.A.’s “Straight Out of Compton” was well on its way to changing the face and attitude of hip hop for ever.

N.W.A. was clearly not Saturday morning Soul Train material, but Yo MTV Raps was on it! They headed straight to CPT and threw Eazy and the posse in the back of a flatbed truck and turned around to Venice. Meanwhile, Cornelius was lining up with Tipper Gore and testifying before Congress to slap “Parental Advisory” on albums, or “X rated,” as he puts it. So there's no surprise when Cube starts calling the program “Old Train” and tries to call Don out for starting to have more white folks on the program and neglecting what is going on in hip hop. As much as I love Ice Cube I am going to have to call his bullshit on this one. If D-Corn is guilty of anything, it's just an East Coast bias. That same year he had EPMD, who uses many the same low-riding head-banging beats that Dre was pulling from, and you can’t say they weren’t gangsta. One of them was arrested in connection with the armed robbery of the other! Cornelius struggles to get their name right in the interview, deciding to “keep a secret” of the fact that it stands for Eric Parish Makin' Dollars. These common slip-ups did not help with the reputation of Soul Train being “Old Train”, and the notion was popular enough to be made into a sketch on In Living Color. I don’t know how on his game or not he was at this time, but I think we begin to see a man torn over where black pop music was headed, wondering whether its new permutations were something he wanted on his showcase.

I was growing older, and for my first year in Jr. High, I was now rockin' Reebok Pumps on the court and lacing them up to Cornelius’ final season behind the mic on Soul Train. By now, hip hop acts were accounting for about a quarter of the acts on the program. Shows without a rapper on them were in the minority. But I would guess Don wasn’t thrilled about it, especially when Treach from Naughty By Nature starts flashing around a knife that would put Crocodile Dundee’s to shame. Don’s final episode as host was an all-soul morning: The Commodores, II D ExTreme, and Mahogany Blue.

In 1993, Soul Train was faced with its first season in history with out Don C at the helm. He was still producing the show but was no longer the face, and they went on with a rotating cast of hosts, the first of which was Kim Wayans. This is an important note because of her time on In Living Color. Don could have taken the sketch personally, but instead he choose to bring on Keenan’s sister. Keenan himself had even appeared on an episode of Soul Train five years prior. The show also had another first in 1993 – a show with nothing but hip hop guest artists. Snoop, was joined fellow LBC rapper Domino and a sexed-up Color Me Badd. If you don’t want to count Color Me Badd, the next week LL Cool J and Kris Kross were there on stage.

That’s the Don Cornelius I knew. I could sit here and speculate as to why such an influential man would take his own life 20 years after he stopped hosting his show. But we have all seen MTV Spring Break take his format and treat the live music as little more than filler between ass or tittie shots. Don may have come off to me at the time as a host that put up with and even dismissed hip hop, instead of embracing it, especially after they stopped awarding “Best Album – Rap” at the Soul Train Music Awards following the armed stand-off between Bad Boy and Death Row outside the 1996 awards show in LA. However, now that I have grown a bit and I'm not looking to piss off my parents with my album selections (as much), I see Don as a well-spoken, well-dressed, OG man, full of class, sitting by and watching the next generation take the stage that he built, without giving him much respect for what he used to build it. That shit would make me grumpy, too. I think in the beginnng, he was probably really intrigued by hip hop. Something like “What are these kids talking about over these old records?” His attitude was not that of a hater, and I think ths is most apparent in this exchange with Rick James, where James is clowning him. (Interview at 5:35.)

When asked “What are you into these days? Nobody knows.” Cornelius comes back with a killer sarcastic snip “Actually Rick, the problem I have with this whole music thing is . . . I hate all music . . . except punk funk.”

I guess I could have chose to remember Don Cornelius as the aging man I saw on TV as a kid introducing groups I loved, who he was clearly much less enthusiastic about, but that’s not fair. He built it, owned it and then bowed at when it was his time, all while keeping a sense of humor about it. Would you rather remember him like Dick Clark struggling though a post-stroke New Year's Eve? I sure as hell wouldn’t! I’m gonna remember the man whose wardrobe I’d kill for strutting down the Soul Train line, and who’s cameos on The Fresh Prince made me laugh.

Don Cornelius and Soul Train will live forever. If the legacy and tapes aren’t enough, they are in Magic’s hands now.

So Don: Here’s wishing you love, peace, and soul.Thanks for everything.

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