Monday, September 23, 2013

Pop that brefnish: Time to look at hip-hop and R&B's immense love for the Taxi theme

What Latka doesn't know about his country's national drink is that it's actually Nyquil.
The effects of brefnish

Nah Right posted last week a lengthy and interesting interview with jazz pianist Bob James, one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop. What started out as a contentious relationship between James and beatmakers because of their tendency in the late '80s and early '90s to sample music without permission (James sued DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince over the unauthorized use of "Westchester Lady") has mellowed into something less hostile and gone in some unexpected directions. James started collaborating with former X-Ecutioners DJ Rob Swift and has now assembled the new release Rhodes Scholar: Jazz-Funk Classics 1974-1982, a compilation of his own most sampled instrumentals that's being marketed to newer fans who were first exposed to James through hip-hop.

James' 1975 cover of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," which the late Jam Master Jay flipped in Run-DMC's 1986 classic "Peter Piper," is included on Rhodes Scholar. So are "Nautilus," a 1974 tune James originally thought of as filler but has become one of his most frequently sampled compositions (it's looped in "Daytona 500," one of my favorite Ghostface Killah joints), and 1981's "Sign of the Times," which opens with a calliope solo by James that provided Prince Paul with a catchy hook for "Keepin' the Faith," a highlight of 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, my favorite De La Soul album. Of course, Rhodes Scholar would have been incomplete without the first James tune I ever heard, "Angela (Theme from Taxi)," which also has been frequently sampled by beatmakers.

Both "Angela" and "Groove for Julie," another theme James wrote for the still-hilarious sitcom about loser cabbies in Manhattan (a show that premiered 35 years ago on September 12, 1978--I didn't need Marilu Henner's highly superior autobiographical memory to verify that), are currently in rotation on "AFOS Prime" on AFOS. Why? Is it because I'm a smooth jazz softie? No, I'm hardly a smooth jazz softie, and who cares that it's smooth jazz? James' Taxi score music is just damn good.

The stack of phone books Louie is standing on in this illustration is hella taller than Louie himself.
"Sunshine Cab Company" by Noelle McClanahan

When the original Law & Order was filmed on location in New York City, TV reviewers would often say the city itself was like a seventh main character on L&O. Even though Taxi also took place in the Big Apple, you see very little of the actual city during Taxi.

That's because this studio-bound show was never filmed on location and never had any scenes outdoors due to the limitations enforced by three things: 1) the multi-camera sitcom format, 2) a modest budget ($260,000 per episode, much lower than the $1.5 million it cost to shoot each episode of the low-cost-by-today's-standards It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2010) and 3) the Taxi producers' insistence on a realistic look (which was achieved by having all the cab scenes occur at night and shooting them on a pitch-black stage with remarkably convincing, stage play-style lighting effects to simulate passing lights, rather than shooting them against a cheesy-looking blue screen). So instead of New York, James' score music is the eighth character on this seven-member ensemble sitcom, and it does the job of establishing the troubled but oddly alluring late '70s/early '80s New York setting that the city itself couldn't do (outside of stock footage) because like many sitcoms at the time, Taxi was filmed in front of a live studio audience in Hollywood.

That's how integral James' music is to Taxi, even though you hear only 10 or 15 seconds of it during the zoom lens-reliant establishing shots that co-creator/showrunner James L. Brooks carried over from his previous sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. James' groovetastic and mostly melancholy instrumentals--the sort of themes you'd encounter while watching a gritty poliziotto from Italy but not a multi-camera '70s sitcom--helped define and distinguish Taxi, its character-based humor and its distinctively bleak tone in the same way Henry Mancini's West Coast jazz sounds defined Peter Gunn, Angelo Badalamenti's ethereal and sometimes kitschy motifs defined Twin Peaks and Yoko Kanno's brassy, J-pop-meets-the-Knitting-Factory jams defined Cowboy Bebop.

The bleak tone was why both Taxi and the equally sophisticated and gritty Barney Miller stuck out like sore thumbs on the late '70s/early '80s ABC sitcom schedule, surrounded by much broader and more dumbed-down sitcoms like Happy Days, its gazillion spinoffs and Three's Company. It's also why Taxi continues to stick out like a sore thumb in reruns (good luck finding Taxi on cable, although I hear Me-TV network affiliates are rerunning it again) and continues to have a reputation as a slept-on classic, even though it influenced Taxi staff writers Glen and Les Charles' hit creation Cheers; the earlier seasons of The Simpsons, Brooks' biggest hit as a TV producer; the original Office; Party Down; and Community--and even though the animalistic asshole persona of Danny DeVito's Louie De Palma paved the way for misanthropic Larry David creations like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and even DeVito's own It's Always Sunny.

If Taxi were made today, viewers would be 'squeeing' online about how much they 'ship' Alex and Elaine. Squeeing and shipping are words that a grown person should not be using to describe how much they like fictional characters. Squeeing and shipping sound more like bodily functions.
(Photo source: A.V. Club)

I abhor most older sitcoms with studio audience laughter or laugh tracks, a.k.a. canned laughter. But Taxi is one of the few I still revisit either on the CBS streaming service or in bootlegged form on YouTube (screw Paramount's DVDs of the show, which are disappointingly bare-bones and slightly butchered due to music rights issues) because the writing and acting on Taxi were always tops (even during that occasionally bumpy first season where the writers had trouble figuring out what to do with Randall Carver's John Burns, a proto-Woody Boyd who was written out of the show in the second season and replaced in the cast by a guest star from the previous season, the much more funny Christopher Lloyd as drug-addled Reverend Jim Ignatowski). It remains one of my favorite shows.

You read about--or if you're a masochist, you watch--a racist piece of shit like the Seth MacFarlane production Dads, and its lame-ass punchlines bum you out about many things, like the shabby state of multi-camera sitcoms today. None of these newer multi-cams--even with frequent Taxi director James Burrows at the helm of many of their pilots--measure up to Taxi. Quality writing and genuine laughs elude these multi-cams like the meaning of a yellow light during Reverend Jim's driver's license exam.

Taxi's more low-key and realistic side was represented by the characters of world-weary pragmatist Alex Rieger, ambitious single mom Elaine Nardo, aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler and thick-headed prizefighter Tony Banta and what current Dissolve writer Noel Murray referred to in a 2004 A.V. Club piece as "building small stories out of the cabbies' money troubles or their offbeat passengers while dealing more honestly and humorously with the indignity of a service economy." Some critics and even some Taxi fans felt that low-key and realistic side meshed awkwardly with the show's Simpsons-y, outlandish side. That other side consisted of Ignatowski's confused wordplay shtick and stoned hijinks; Latka Gravas and his split personality issues; the strange customs and brefnish-fueled pastimes of the unnamed Eastern European country Latka and his girlfriend/wife Simka emigrated from; and of course, tyrannical Louie and his various schemes. I never agreed that it was an awkward juxtaposition. I always thought the way Taxi juggled both sides was perfect. Speaking of perfection...

"And then there's that Bob James theme song, so pretty and forlorn, playing in the opening credits over an endless shot of a cab crossing a bridge and never getting anywhere," wrote Murray. "It's the whole mood and meaning of the show, established in less than a minute."

True. There are several interesting bits of trivia about that opening credits footage. Who's the driver inside that cab on the Queensboro Bridge (which, by the way, was renamed in 2010, in honor of former NYC mayor Ed Koch, an enemy of hip-hop culture who was famously put on blast by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing)? He's none other than Tony Danza, and the Taxi producers culled the footage from the same shoot where they filmed the only scene shot on location in NYC in the show's history: Tony's amusingly brief "Memories of Cab 804" flashback to the moment when he stopped a passenger from jumping off the Queensboro Bridge. The problem with the footage that was chosen for the intro was that it was only 15 seconds long, which wasn't enough time to flash the credits of Taxi's sizable cast, so the editor looped the footage. It resulted in a clever and dark-humored encapsulation of the show's premise of working-class dreamers struggling to succeed. It also made the bridge as long as that airport runway in the climax of Furious 6.

The choice of "Angela" was another happy accident, and like the bridge footage, the tune wasn't originally intended for the opening credits. It was a theme James wrote for a character named Angela Matusa (Suzanne Kent), an obese and lonely phone operator Alex befriends in "Blind Date," one of the show's earliest episodes.

"I intended it to establish the mood as Judd Hirsch walked down the hall to her apartment door getting ready to meet her for the first time," said James in a post he wrote in 2007 at an old-school hip-hop message board. "On the same session I recorded what I intended to be the main theme....a much faster, more high energy piece, assuming that they would want something that reflected the pace of NYC. At that time I hadn't seen the opening footage of the taxi going across the bridge. The producers heard my Angela piece and thought that mood captured the atmosphere of the opening credits. So they asked me if it was OK to use it instead. Who was I to argue??"

If Gene Roddenberry was in charge of Taxi instead of James L. Brooks, he would have pulled a jack move like he did with Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme and added dumb lyrics to the Taxi theme to profit from it, like 'My love is wand'ring in cab flight' or some shit.

That rejected Taxi theme ended up as the title track on James' 1978 album Touchdown.

Ditching the upbeat tune for "Angela" was a good call. We know why the Taxi producers fell in love with "Angela." Now why are rappers and beatmakers so enraptured with the Taxi theme? Lil B has already sampled it twice.

Good thing Talib Kweli didn't tweet the Enterprise theme. Because then I would have disowned him as one of my favorite conscious rappers.

Wow, Monie Love came out of hiding just to say that?

Maybe it's because the Taxi theme sounds so black (as a kid, I thought a black musician wrote all the Taxi score cues). "Angela" is great blue-eyed soul--just like the "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" beat, which gets asses moving or heads nodding, no matter where you are and no matter what form it's in, whether it's the Hall & Oates original, the hook during De La Soul's "Say No Go" or the hook during that one Simply Red song you like.

"Angela" may not get asses moving, but it certainly gets heads nodding, such as my own--as well as Souls of Mischief member A-Plus'. The first hip-hop joint to sample "Angela" was the A-Plus-produced "Cab Fare," an outtake from Souls of Mischief's 1995 album No Man's Land. "Cab Fare" is about the difficulties the Souls of Mischief members face as taxi customers, whether it's being unable to hail a cab because of racist cabbies--an ugly aspect of the New York cab industry that the Taxi writers oddly ignored--or being scammed by cabbies who take longer routes to overcharge them. I wonder if Louie was one of those scam artists behind the wheel.

Adrian Younge's other eagerly awaited 2013 hip-hop project is the album he's producing for Souls of Mischief. As long as Arsenio Hall doesn't ask Younge to help him bring back Chunky A, I think 2013 is going to end awesomely for Younge.

At one point in "Cab Fare," A-Plus raps about taking a side job as a cabbie, much like what Elaine, Bobby and Tony had done while pursuing their dream careers. "Cab Fare" was left off No Man's Land because the Oakland group wasn't able to clear the sample. James actually approved of their loop of "Angela," despite initially disliking it.

"Well, at first I rejected it because they sent me a copy of it and they'd speeded it up so much that it sounded like Mickey Mouse. It made my tune sound silly," said James in a 2000 interview. "Eventually they convinced me that it was not disrespectful and that from their point of view, they were kind of doing a tribute to me."

In 2004's "Sit Back Relax," Bone Thugs-N-Harmony member Bizzy Bone used a newly recorded version of "Angela" (as opposed to a sample) not to spit verses about taxi-related experiences but to establish a soothing vibe for three minutes, and what else is more soothing than the Taxi theme? "Sit Back Relax" is a track Reverend Jim would definitely love ("Sit back, relax and have a puff or two/'Cause all we really tryin' to do is get high with you").

Before "tweet" was a verb in social media, it was an R&B singer/songwriter best known for the steamy 2002 female masturbation song "Oops (Oh My)." Instead of sampling "Angela," producers Nisan Stewart and Craig Brockman re-recorded a small portion of James' tune and Tweet added lyrics to the melody for "Cab Ride," a slow jam off her 2005 album It's Me Again. ("Cab Ride" isn't the only TV theme on It's Me Again. The album's bonus track is "When I Need a Man," the opening theme Tweet sung for Ving Rhames' 2005 Kojak reboot on the USA network.) Adding vocals to a classic instrumental that never needed vocals to begin with shouldn't have worked, yet it does in "Cab Ride."

Even though he got into trouble with James over his unauthorized sample of "Westchester Lady," the legal skirmish didn't sour DJ Jazzy Jeff's love for James' grooves. In 2007, Jazzy Jeff sampled the Touchdown version of "Angela" for "The Garden," a collabo with Big Daddy Kane, but instead of looping the more recognizable parts of "Angela," he cleverly opted for a snippet of the extended guitar solo by Eric Gale.

The Touchdown version of "Angela" continues to receive airplay from smooth jazz stations, but I like it slightly less than the TV version, which is also the version that concludes James' 1983 album The Genie, a collection of re-recordings of his Taxi score cues, and is currently in rotation on AFOS. The Touchdown version is glossier-sounding, slightly more upbeat and therefore more pop radio-friendly, due to an additional drum section (that's Idris Muhammad on the skins).

When rap radio host Sway challenged the tremendous Kendrick Lamar to freestyle to the oddest of beats during the "5 Fingers of Death" freestyle segment of his program on SiriusXM Radio's Shade 45 channel, he attempted to flummox Kendrick by putting on "Angela" from Touchdown. Remember what I said about how the Taxi theme has a certain power over the hip-hop crowd? At 3:33, I love how the other people in the studio gasp over hearing "Angela."

Kendrick's first bar while processing the Taxi theme is funny: "This beat makes me feel very, very depressed," which ABC network execs must have also said during the opening credits when they first screened the Taxi pilot. He continues with "Very depressed/But nonetheless/I still kick it like Mr. Miyagi/I'm probably the best." Nah, you are the best, K.Dot.

The Touchdown version of the Taxi theme surfaces again in "Angela's Sister," a 2012 track by South Bronx rapper The Kid Daytona. The title is most likely a reference to Run's House reality show star Vanessa Simmons, one of Reverend Run's daughters and older sister to Angela Simmons. "Angela's Sister" chronicles a typical day in the life of The Kid Daytona, whose day begins with his arduous attempt to hail a cab. Seventeen years after the racist drivers in "Cab Fare," nothing's changed.

The late Jerry Goldsmith once said, "If our music survives, which I have no doubt it will, then it will because it is good." Hip-hop and R&B musicians keep that music alive and spread the word about how good it is by sampling or covering it like they've done with the Taxi theme. A great result of those samples of "Angela" is when they get new generations of listeners to discover the rest of James' musicography, which is entertainingly summarized by Rhodes Scholar. An even greater result is when those samples get them to seek out and appreciate the overlooked TV classic that is Taxi.

Here we see Marilu Henner cosplaying as Zatanna.

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