Innervisions: Stevie Wonder & The Modern Hip Hop Album Skit
With a pre-cursor to the modern album skit, Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" contains the DNA and the spirit of a classic Rap album.
Hip Hop fans worldwide are celebrating this month of August for the 40th anniversary of our beloved culture’s inception. Before the creation of Rap records in the late 1970s, DJ Kool Herc and other pioneering deejays such as DJ Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash sonically painted with “breakbeat” drum bridge sections of Disco, Funk, R&B and Soul records that were a narrative soundtrack to reflect the reality of life in their respective New York City neighborhoods. The city landscape was rife with poverty, drugs, street hustlers and stick-up kids, violent gang warfare and political disenfranchisement of the working class poor. For many, positivity came from the visceral reactions of the local youth who had little hope living just enough to get by in the city, but sought refuge in great music by attending these parties that would become the cornerstone for Hip Hop culture.
Just eight days before to Kool Herc threw Hip Hop’s first documented party, music titan Stevie Wonder released one of the most important albums of his 50-year career. Wonder would release Innervisions on August 3, 1973 via Tamla Records (a subsidiary of Motown). To me, Innervisions was equivalent to a twin brother born from the same womb and was a seed for the blueprint for classic Rap albums in the decades to come. Wonder’s nine-track masterpiece is a 45-minute social commentary that lived up to its title as “theatre of the mind” supplanted by experimental sounds of eclectic Funk, R&B, Soul, Gospel, Salsa and Fusion Jazz composed almost entirely by Wonder himself. I think each of these genres inspired Hip Hop’s forefathers for the foundation of the culture’s sound. I’d argue that Innervisions contains the DNA and the spirit of a classic Rap album. It displays Wonder’s poetical genius in for its lyrical content, melancholic self-reflection, nonsensical humor, desires for romance (and descriptions of the ensuing heartbreak) and political commentary—all with a cohesion of each song in consecutive order like a exciting, theatrical rollercoaster party ride to urban America’s fun, yet horrific dark side.
Reaching For Higher Ground: The ‘70s Soul Influence
Vinyl was the communication tool that taught the youth of the 1970s about music, and it would later serve as part of the tapestry for the production work that would become Rap music. Brother J of the seminal 1990s Brooklyn Rap collective X-Clan stated the following in an August 2012 interview on the WMBR 88.1FM “Musenomix” Hip Hop show:
“Rap was once, and still should be, an educational music history lesson when making records. X-Clan and other groups from our era were influenced by our own family’s record collection, and we took from those sounds deliver our messages to our audience.”
As Hip Hop music continues to evolve in its fifth decade of existence, some albums such as Parliament’s Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, Grover Washington Jr.’s Mister Magic and Bob James’ One will likely remain shrines for crate-diggers and producers alike in the Hip Hop’s pantheon. But Innervisions is arguably the most influential blueprint of the modern classic Rap album, hearkening back to both the creativity and appeal of mainstream success during Rap’s Golden Era and its emergence as the one of the most influential and commercially successful genres in the late 1990s. I think the mixing of the tracks on Innervisions can be easily connected to the influence on the production on Rap classics such as Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, both of Dr. Dre’s Chronic albums, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Nas’ Illmatic and NWA’s Niggaz4life. All of the above each had visceral elements that matched their audibility in a storybook fashion.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Rap bounced back from an eight-year market share low of 6.7% of all domestic, physical sales in 1995 to its all-time high of 10.1% in 1997. Statistically, this meant Hip Hop surpassed Pop as the fourth best-selling genre in America. And as Hip Hop began its explosion into the pop charts with best-selling albums such as The Fugees The Score, Outkast’s Aquemini and Dr. Dre’s 2001, each album offered thematic structures giving listeners the understanding of a grand narrative of life, a party within the artist’s respective neighborhood, and a vision of the artist's varied emotions, accompanied by a movie on wax.
Living For The City: Audio Cinema Via The Interlude
At the time of Innervisions’ release, Stevie Wonder already had 15 albums under his belt and had shed the “Little Stevie” teenage image that propelled both he and Motown to the top of the pop charts. He had eclipsed Motown’s mission to be “the sound of Young America” and taken the license to speak on the plight of urban America with his sixteenth album. Wonder focused on multiple elements of urban politics with songs discussing nihilism and drug addiction (“Too High,” “Jesus Children of America”), conniving hustlers (“He’s Mistra Know-It-All”), desires of love (“Golden Lady”) and hardships in romantic relationships (“All Is Fair In Love”). “Living For The City” was arguably the album’s most famous and incendiary track. This song details a Mississippi boy’s humble upbringings in a family which each member lacks of education and money, deeply affecting their chances at socioeconomic advancement. The exploitation of the young boy’s parents give song’s protagonist motivation towards hope of staking his claim in the world by taking a trip to New York City. As the Mississippi-born out-of-towner arrives, he states, “Wow, New York, just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers...and everythang!”
After he arrives, the out-of-towner becomes a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a drug dealer accosts him to make “a quick five bucks.” This leads to New York City police officers booking him as he is framed in an unintended “guilty by association” scenario, and a judge thereafter sentencing him to 10 years in prison. As the song interlude progresses, the music breaks with an awkward synthesizer sound to give the listener a feeling of confusion parallel to the boy that has been put in prison and told, “Get into that cell, nigger!” by the prison guard. As the interlude ends and gives way for the song to continue, Wonder’s voice and background vocals become more aggressive singing the lyrics to match song's crescendo and the climactic sentiment of the boy’s life—now damaged from the perils of life in the city. In an unaccredited interview, Stevie Wonder reflected on his classic single, saying, “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors of many; she's still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That's still happening.”
Hip Hop’s Adoption Of The Modern Album Skit
I think the skit’s purpose on an album is to serve as an exposition to the story, a body that gives way to the narrative arc with rhythmic climax, denouement after the song takes off, and conclusive bang to end of the album. Before the release of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation... and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising albums in 1988 and 1989 respectively, I feel most Rap albums were merely just a collection of songs stacked together. Public Enemy had used recorded snippets of their progression as a group touring the world on 1987’s legendary Def Jam artist tour, legendary New York WBLS radio deejay Mr. Magic speaking out against PE’s music, and a sample clip of “Living for the City,” with the white police officer yelling at the Mississippi-born young man, “Get into that cell, nigger!” during the intro to their song “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos.” Although the sonic themes and lyrical content to 3 Feet High And Rising and Late Registration are not as hardcore as the other aforementioned classic Rap LPs, they offer the listener a smorgasbord of musical experimentation very similar to Innervisions, with clever skits and interludes as a guide along the journey through the album.
A great example of narrative arcs by way of album interludes and skits is the introduction of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die. The listener is able to instantly tap into the psyche of Biggie Smalls, similarly to that of Wonder’s “Living For The City.” Ironically, the introduction to the album similarly embodies a boy who is born to the same social ills of the New York City ghettoes when and where Hip Hop had burgeoned and that Wonder muses and dramatizes within his Living For The City interlude. Throughout the skit, Biggie grows into a roguish young boy misunderstood by his parents who are confused to find a way to move ahead and find it hard to live with each other while raising their son. Just like Stevie Wonder’s increasingly angered voice singing on “Living For The City,” you can hear a confusion and anger in Biggie’s voice. B.I.G. discusses feeling slighted by his hard-working, ever-absent mother that doesn’t “give him shit” to live beyond his poor means, and he plots to rob a train with his partner in crime. The introduction skit ends with Biggie exiting a jail cell, and it gives an introduction to the street opera of personal highs of partying with economic gain (“Big Poppa”), the lows of depression (“Everyday Struggle,” “Suicidal Thoughts”) along with morbid and sexual exhibitionist humor (“Fuck Me,” “One More Chance”) that ensues throughout the album.
By and large, pioneering Hip Hop producer Prince Paul is credited for the birth of the Rap album skit as a narrative tool for his production work on De La Soul’s iconic debut 3 Feet High And Rising. The album features a game show at the beginning with the group showcasing their style—they are serious about not being serious—and the music follows suit. Prince Paul discussed his inspiration from Wonder's “Living For The City” to create skits for albums in a 2012 interview with Ego Trip, saying the following:
“You feel like it’s his soul he’s letting you in on. The writing is super genius and the production is out of this world. A lot of people obviously tie my work into the concept of ‘skits’ but this was the first time I heard a skit on a record within the actual song. The words on ‘Living For The City’ about a guy being in the big city, all the shit he sees, cops chasing after him and all that stuff—all that can be seen in your head.”
The Enduring Influence Of Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”
Hip Hop music is dance-oriented at base, and Innervisions songs such as “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing” and “Higher Ground” are dance tracks that gives a partygoer an uptempo presence of mind upon hearing its percussion-driven rhythms. I think the commonality amongst each of these Rap classics are that they don’t pigeonhole themselves in the serial nature of the material given on most of the album. Yet like most dance records, the artist is singing to a woman. During the intro to “Don’t You Worry About A Thing,” Wonder humorously makes fun of himself by attempting to speak Spanish as he tries to kick his game to a Hispanic woman about his worldly travels to European and African countries. Wonder is clearly delivering nothing but gibberish, and she admits in response to his diatribe to having no clue to what he is talking about.
I think this is undeniably influential for Hip Hop artists. During the ‘70s, I think few artists of any music genres had hardly ever considered doing such as thing on record. At the time of Innervisions release, comedy was only designated for records from stand-up performers such as Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. But since Hip Hop has always been a genre in which its artists showcase their humor, I think you can see how the production process lends itself to giving the artist license to show a full range of their personality rather than just delivering their songs about a certain topic and nothing more.
Album skits and interludes can either contribute to the brilliance or depletion of Rap albums as mere filler tracks if they lack much cohesion and effort from those who produce them. I think an offering such as Lil Wayne’s 2008 skit “Dr. Carter,” which features Wayne as a surgeon in a hospital saving Hip Hop emcees with no style, serves as a perfect example.
The “Living For The City” interlude and other songs from Innervisions served as a communication exchange between artist and audience. I think Wonder and some of the great emcees he inspired—directly or indirectly—use their material challenge us to delve into the visions of each other’s minds to be entertained, to stand up for what we believe in, and reach a higher ground for our personal aspirations in how we interpret everyday occurrences that happen to us.
Dana Scott is a historian from Boston covering hip hop and pop culture. He is the former host of the weekly mixshow MUSENOMIX on WMBR 88.1FM MIT radio, where he interviewed rap legends, record executives, actors, university professors, poets, comedians, veteran hip hop journalists from The Source Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Grammy Award-winning authors. Follow him on Twitter @MUSENOMIX.