Thursday, June 5, 2008

Roots of rap in Bo Diddley, too

When Bo Diddley sings "You can't judge a book by looking at the cover" you know he means it. This is elementary rock AND roll, the drums sweeping it up in true primitive Legba utterance, Diddley a griot delivering the story line in parables, local farmyard observations, homilies ("you can't judge one by looking at the other") but mostly self mythologization, to wit: "I look like a farmer but... Im a lover." Meanwhile his guitar is a rumbling mufferless road hog of a single chord played sideways, insistently. At the climax he hits a truly sick chord, so out of tune as to be monstrous, monumenetal, unmistakable. I AM BO DIDDLEY MOFO I PLAY IT YOU LIKE IT. In the realm of the magician there are no wrong notes. Elsewhere, like in "Say, Man," Bo Diddley tells more stories and holds verbal jousts with his maracas player Jerome. Jerome asks Bo a question, a taunt meant to catch Bo in its trap. Bo answers flatly as the beat drones on: "Whut?" Jerome delivers some grisly insult about Bo or his family. "Whut?" becomes a question followed by a pause followed by the Diddley retort. "I already figured out what you is..." Jerome's voice goes up a half pitch for his almost fearful "whassat?" Bo says, slyly : "You that thing I throw peanuts at."
Many have claimed to have invented rap, men from James Brown to Ike Turner. Bo Diddley didn't have to. There were too many other imitators ahead of the rappers he had to get rid of first. Diddley was always a little pissed off that so many rock bands made a fortune off the beat he believed he invented. Set aside that Bo heard it somewhere else himself, because he codified it in a way that made it easy for everybody from the Rolling Stones and the Animals; the Who and U2; Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen; and the grunge rock bands of the 1990s to use it to create their own music. The Ramones may have launched a million bands with the idea that if they could do it anybody could, but Bo Diddley literally taught the rest of the world how to play rock and roll.
The spontaneous celebrations of Diddley's influence are no doubt going on somewhere even as you read this. Last Monday as news of his death spread The Radiators finished off a show in New York with a lengthy meditation on the Rolling Stones' Diddlified "Not Fade Away" and Bo's "Mona."

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