A short look at the long relationship between the underworld and music world in the years before hip hop

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Nelson George

7 min ago

During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol sales were banded in the United States, the “speakeasy” was a code word for locations where illegal booze was available for purchase often accompanied by music, dancing, other recreation drugs and sex, both consensual and mercenary. Often the purveyors of the booze, known as bootleggers, were recent immigrant groups who were locked out mainstream American businesses. While that thirteen year experiment in behavior control failed as government policy, it had the unintended consequence of cementing a marriage of the criminal underworld and the music industry.


Celebrations of What’s Goin’ On’s 50th anniversary lead me back to an crucial era of black media expansion

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Nelson George

This month I’ve done a number of interviews about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ album, which turns fifty this year. In a poll Rolling Stone magazine named it the number album of the rock era. It’s been cited by activists and social commentators as a recording that speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement like few contemporary albums do. …


Kenny Gamble’s Philly International Records just turned 50, but another endeavor wasn’t as enduring. A look back at a unique moment in the culture of R&B

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Nelson George

15 min ago

In the late ’70s Philadelphia was a tough town to be a righteous black person in. The Mayor, Frank Rizzo, who’d been a reactionary police commissioner in the late ’60s, ruled with an implicit mandate — keep the city controlled by the same (white) ethnic forces that had run Philadelphia for decades. That meant a heavy handed, often brutal brand of policing. Under Rizzo’s authority the Philadelphia Police Department raided the local Black Panther headquarters in 1970 and had its members strip searched on the sidewalk, in full view of passersby and photographers. A photo…


Revisiting my interview with the superstar just a few months before his death

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Photo: Rob Verhorst/Getty Images

In the back room corner of my old Fort Greene apartment was an old plastic file cabinet. Inside, buried beneath some college newspaper clippings, promotional photos of old Stax stars (Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs), and datebooks from the 1980s, was a ticket stub I should have kept in a place of honor. It was from Madison Square Garden, Saturday, September 20, 1980. The show started at 8:00 p.m. The ticket price for an orchestra seat was $12.50, but mine had “Guest” stamped on it since it was complimentary. …


Remembering New York’s first Black mayor, who steered the city through racial unrest and the late crack era

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David Dinkins in his office in New York, New York in November 1986. Photo: Karjean Levine/Getty Images

Stuck between the bombastic personalities of Edward Koch and Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins’ one term as Mayor of New York City sometimes gets lost. But the 1989 election of Dinkins, who died this week at age 93, as the Big Apple’s first (and so far only) non-white Mayor was both the culmination of and the beginning of two very significant threads in the city’s history.

The soft spoken, almost grandfatherly politician (think Morgan Freeman in one of his many mentor movie roles), born in New Jersey and a product of Howard University, was a member of a group of Harlem-based…


Simple-minded dichotomies have replaced ideas of progress with those of domination

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Americans of all ages see the world in terms of Hollywood genre movie narratives. Good versus evil. The Rebels versus the Empire. The Avengers versus Thanos. These simpleminded dichotomies, ingrained in our nation’s thinking by decades of big-screen storytelling, where “us” versus “them” ends it, the triumph of “us” has polluted our social and civil discourse to the point that we can’t think straight — only right and left. This way of viewing the world is not just ahistorical but leaves precious little room for the nuances and complexity of real life.

It’s very obvious how this reductive view pollutes…


As with so many other men, the quest for personal style charts a long and twisting path through my life

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Isaach De Bankolé at the 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival in 2018. Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

I’ve watched the movie Limits of Control maybe 15 times since it premiered in 2009. In Jim Jarmusch’s zen-meets-travelogue-meets-hit-man feature, Isaach De Bankolé strolls through Spain in sharply tailored earth-tone suits and shirts that mirror the dusty elegance of Madrid and Seville. In Jarmusch’s own words, the film is “an action movie with no action.” De Bankolé spends the movie’s 116 minutes listening to a crew of international stars (and one naked temptress) spew stories and philosophy over cups of espresso.

As its 42% rating on Rotten Tomato suggests, Limits of Control is not a film for most folks. …


In the late ’70s Funk was in transition from a music created with live horns, Latin percussion, and a tight rhythm section to a music created with synthesizers and drum machines that required fewer musicians and were the producer, not band, was dominant. Still self-contained musical ensembles, many of who peaked artistically in the mid-‘70s, sold lots of vinyl and cassettes, whether they were based on the West Coast (Ray Parker & Raydio, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, the Brothers Johnson, Con Funk Shun), New York/New Jersey (Fatback Band, Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, Change), down South (the Barkays, Cameo…

Nelson George

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific) www.pacificpacific.pub.

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