Lou Reed was not, as some people liked to say, "the original rapper." (The ghost of Gil Scott-Heron should visit anyone who says that he was over the next few days and wash their mouth out with soap.) But Reed, who was 71 when he died yesterday of complications stemming from liver transplant surgery he had in May, leaves behind a legacy to rival that of just about any musical artist of the past 50 years—in the language of today's rankings-obsessive cultural observers, he was in "The Pantheon"—and his sphere of influence definitely reached into rap.
All the "original rapper" stuff (which Reed spoofed/embraced with his 1987 single "The Original Wrapper") stemmed from the biggest hit of his career, "Walk On the Wild Side," from his landmark 1972 album Transformer. "Walk On the Wild Side" detailed the grittier side of New York City street life—drugs, transients, prostitution, blow-jobs—delivered in a cool, breezy form of talk-singing that, sure, you could call an example of proto-rap. (It just wasn't something wholly new to the world.) Besides the subject matter and the vocal style, though, besides the dark humor and clever wordplay (Candy "never lost her head/Even when she was giving head...") the song, with its dance along the line between effortful hipness and blase cool, is just a very hip-hop-friendly thing. Its signature bassline, slow, loping, elastic, made for an attractive sample for producers. A Tribe Called Quest used it elegantly on their 1990 single, "Can I Kick It?" Marky Mark Wahlberg and his Funky Bunch used it, less elegantly, on '91's "Wildside."
More than any single song or easily describable sound, though, Lou Reed can be found in rap music through a wide-angle lens: it's atmospheric, geographic, in a sense. He made New York what is was in the 1970s. New York in the 1970s made rap music what it is forever.
He made New York what is was in the 1970s. New York in the 1970s made rap music what it is forever.
In 2008, in a talk with painter and movie maker Julian Schnabel, Reed talked about some of the ground rules he established for his band, the Velvet Underground, in the 1960s.
"We made city music. We said no R&B licks, no blues licks because we can’t do that. Aggressive steel street action—that’s punk."
That sentiment, taking the blues and R&B out of rock-n-roll, sounds shocking. (And maybe racist! White-washing the blackness out of an art form!) But I think we can trust Reed's intentions were pure. He was just so into the idea of the new, the hard, challenging the mainstream, which, at the time, had rock bands steeping their music in so much blues and R&B that it sometimes sounded like theft. (It often was theft.) Reed was pushing forward, unabashedly avant garde. He was focused on discovery, not anti-tradition. And he wanted to tell the truth, unvarnished.
Listen to his 1975 song "Kicks." (There's a hip-hop song title.) It starts with a tape-loop, found-sound style cocktail-party conversation. But the volume rises and falls, mimicking the way it feels to be in a crowd, the disorienting feeling of being able to hear some, but not all, of what's being said around you. It's paranoic—like the candles in "My Mind Playing Tricks On Me" (Scarface was a big fan), like the piano loop in "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." It's New York to a tee, a dense wall of urban anomie. And soon the creepiness ratchets up. "Hey man, what's your style?" Reed says/sings. "How do you get your adrenaline flowing?" (It turns out that this seemingly charming fellow at our cocktail party gets his adrenaline flowing, gets his kicks, by seducing people and then murdering them. "When the blood come down his neck," he tells us. "Don't you know it's better than sex, now?")
Steely, macabre, unflinching. Shocking, iconoclastic, brutal. It's all Lou Reed, it's all New York. You can hear him every time you walk down the street at night. You can hear him in the beat of the music coming out of third-story windows, the cars passing by. You can hear him in conversation, the way people talk in the city. The way people rap.