The Afterlife of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady:” A Case Study in DJ Scholarship

We knew what time it was. Aretha’s voice glided under our doors, weaved its way through our blankets, and settled on our faces —Saturday morning. My sisters and I grew up with Aretha Franklin, she was part of the soundtrack that shaped our collective ear. Mother introduced us to Aretha as a royal staple in Black church poetics.

By the time I met Aretha, she was already two generations deep into my family’s weekly cleaning practices. In my mother’s home, and in her mother’s home, Aretha Franklin set the stage for high soul domestic order. For the rest of my life I would associate “Chain of Fools” with scrubbing the tiles and “Dr. Feelgood” with cleaning the kitchen. While mama bounced to the demand of R.E.S.P.E.C.T.—barely lit cigarette held with confidence between thick lips—we held imaginary microphones and bumped hips. We sang into the brooms we used to sweep the floor with.

My personal relationship with Aretha Franklin, the one that took shape without mother’s hand, began with a song penned by rap-duo from Long Island, New York named EPMD (Eric and Parish Making Dollars). The song, “I’m Housin’,” was the third single from Strictly Business, the group’s 1988 debut album. For years, I’d listened without knowledge of the fact that DJs and producers were using the recordings of Black women to build this emerging genre called rap music. Through samples, rap music had become a repository for neglected histories, multiple genres of music, and usable ideas.

Many of us knew that James Brown was the most sampled artist of all time,2 but few of us understood how intricately the music of Black women was being used to shape the art of sampling. Eventually, I understood sampling to be a useful device for decoding cultural information; who recorded what, when, why, and where.

My loyalty to the idea of James Brown and other patriarchs like George Clinton and Isaac Hayes as the sonic godfathers of early rap music changed during my freshmen year at Fisk University in 1993. I had a ritual following Friday classes: I would return to Jubilee Hall—my place of residence, burn incense, and convince the hyper-Christian girls on my floor that it was smoke from myrrh, not weed. I would power my stereo, select three artists from my stack of CDs, and listen to music for hours at a time.

I was impressed with my music collection. It was peopled with a range of artists—famous and unsung— and cultivated by working at record stores throughout high school. Working those stores, one of which was the legendary Tower Records, provided me with two skills that support my now professional love for music today. First, it gave me the ability to catalog and categorize music with the attentiveness of a librarian; second, it taught me how to search for music in record stores all over the world. The latter led me to a bootleg3 collection of Aretha’s “greatest hits” I discovered at a mom-andpop record store called Phonoluxe in Nashville, Tennessee.

Phonoluxe was typical in its layout. It smelled of old dust and new releases. CDs and cassettes were on one side of the store, vinyl and videos on the other. Above the music were vintage posters boasting concerts and photos taken of live performances from the 1950s to the 1980s. Beneath each genre of music sat a discount bin; and right under “SOUL” is where I found Aretha. I entered record stores knowing that employees paid less attention to the organization of these bins. Few managers were willing to get on their knees to search for efficiency. This explains why I found Aretha filed between Kenny Loggins and Gerado’s one-hit single “Rico Suave.”

Aretha’s CD had a plain yellow cover that felt like construction paper with digital looking letters typed on the sleeve. The title was simple: “The Queen of Soul’s Greatest Hits”; and although the name Aretha Franklin was nowhere to be found (a brilliant way to avoid copyright issues!), this selection of songs was put together by people who knew her beyond the hits—the hits considered to be her greatest.

I wrapped up my shopping, proudly paid for the music with my $10 budget, and scored two additional discounted albums; Pink Floyd’s Animals and Soul II Soul’s Vol II: 1990—A New Decade. My private British invasion.

Listening to Aretha’s unofficial greatest hits was an experience. The compilation taught me that “greatest hits” could be subjective. Greatest to whom? It became obvious that this hits album was not based on album sales or industry standards. I was floored by the bombshell that followed “Soul Serenade.” The introduction to this number ricocheted off the walls in my four-cornered room and pinned me to my twin-size dorm bed. In the first nine seconds, I heard the organ, possibly the Hammond B-3, and a high hat that issued a warning—the funk was coming—a cowbell-driven and rhythm guitar-syncopated funk was on its way.

DJ Lynnée Denise
133K GSRs

Martin Luther King and the Philosophy of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his achievements in civil rights and for the methods he used to get there — namely, nonviolence. More than just a catchphrase, more than just the “absence of violence,” and more than just a tactic, nonviolence was a philosophy that King honed over the course of his adult life. It has had a profound, lasting influence on social justice movements at home and abroad.

In September 1962, King convened a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the main organizational force behind his civil rights activism, in Birmingham, Alabama. King was giving a talk on the need for nonviolent action in the face of violent white racism when a white man jumped on stage and, without a word, punched him in the face repeatedly

King naturally put up his hands to deflect the blows. But after a few punches, he let his hands fall to his side. The man, who turned out to be an American Nazi Party member, continued to flail.

The integrated audience at first thought the whole thing was staged, a mock demonstration of King’s nonviolent philosophy in action. But as King reeled, and real blood spurted from his face, they began to realize it was no act. Finally, several SCLC members rushed the stage to stop the attack.

Constitutional Rights Foundation
1.09M GSRs