THE RAPPER'S DEBT TO MISSISSIPPI BLUES

by Brent Staples

New York

The rap impresario Sean Combs, known as P. Diddy, had a huge hit this fall as the lead producer of the soundtrack for the movie "Bad Boys II," which included the hot party tune "Shake Ya Tailfeather."

Rap fans would be surprised to know that the title dates back to the Mississippi juke joints of the early 20th century, where black field hands gathered to hear blues music after long days in the cotton fields.

Northern rap artists pride themselves on being urban sophisticates, but they are playing a version of the music enjoyed by black field workers in the Deep South more than 50 years ago. Stripped to its essentials, "Shake Ya Tailfeather" is a dead ringer for any number of blues tunes by Mississippians, including "Shake Your Moneymaker," by Elmore James, and "Wang Dang Doodle," by the legendary Willie Dixon.

The alchemy that transformed the blues music into jazz, then rock 'n' roll - and later on into rock music and rap - did its work in the speakeasies, brothels, juke joints and churches that sat cheek by jowl on the South Side of Chicago in the early 20th century.

Among the millions of black people who fled the South in the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands came to Chicago, including the talismanic blues stars Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and the bass man and songwriter Willie Dixon, all of whom recorded for Chess Records.

Depending on who tells the story, Phil and Leonard Chess, the founders, were either benevolent patrons or rip-off artists who created the paradigm for how to fleece musicians.

The blues music that began in the Mississippi Delta was a distinctly black art form enjoyed by black people all over the South.

Visit a blues concert in the North today, however, and you will find that the audience is almost entirely white. On a current PBS television series about the history of blues, B.B. King, now one of the world's most famous blues musicians, painfully recalled being booed by a young black audience in Baltimore in what appears to be the late 1950's, when Little Richard was packing them in with his patented scream and hard-driving piano rock 'n' roll.

The Northern black community's rejection of blues music was partly a matter of aesthetic evolution. But by turning their back on the blues, black urban audiences were also distancing themselves from a rural Southern past that had come to seem backward and shameful.

B.B. King describes the rejection he experiences as "being black twice." He persevered, crisscrossing the country year after year, until blues came back into fashion - but this time for a white audience that discovered it during the folk revolution.

The real money came into play when British rock bands - like the Rolling Stones and Cream - began to re-record blues standards, paying out millions in royalties that should have gone to the blues artists who wrote the songs. Many bluesmen found that the rights to their work belonged to publishers associated with their record companies.

The lawsuits flew hot and heavy in Chicago, where the big artists associated with Chess Records filed nasty claims charging that the publishing firm owned partly by the Chess brothers had swindled them.

Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon received undisclosed settlements and eventually regained ownership of the disputed songs. Howlin' Wolf died while his case was still tied up in litigation - a lesson to other musicians to settle while they could.

Even rappers fresh off the street who couldn't name a blues song if you paid them know that many of the musicians who came before them were cheated. These rappers show up at the record company door demanding deals that allow them to own their works, which allows them to get rich - and to sing about getting rich. These songs, too, are a legacy of the blues.

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