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Billy Jones: The Urbanization of Delta Blues

By Published: April 30, 2009

AAJ: Presently a number of Black artists are working to merge Blues music with hip-hop. This would include artists such as Billy Branch

Billy Branch
Billy Branch
, Russ Greene, Chris Thomas King, among others. In fact, R.L. Burnside
R.L. Burnside
1926 - 2005
even did his take on this cross-infusion of the blues, which was met with mixed reviews. Do you see your music going in this direction?

BJ: What these artists understand ... and the reviewers and "experts" probably don't, is this: hip-hop has evolved from blues and is very much a part of it. Hip-hop is the blues of today.

If you analyze the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, like "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, or "How Do You Want It?" by Tupac Shakur (which is based on the hook from "Body Heat" by Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
), it's easy to hear that these songs are pure blues with African/Jamaican bass lines and drum beats. Of course, the stories that these songs tell are undeniable blues themes that reach deep into the heart of the African American experience. I love a little "gangsta" in my blues.

AAJ: Do you agree with the assertion that the white artist has been more closely bound by tradition, whereas the Black artist has always been more progressive in their approach to the music, looking for the "next big thing"? This, perhaps, can be seen more in jazz than in the blues. Are these attempts at cross-infusion done more for the music, or is it being done for the rewards that the urban artist seems to be enjoying, the "bling"?

BJ: Definitely for the music. I don't think that it has very much to do with the "bling" ... little if anything. Of course, any artist wants to be well compensated for their work. I certainly do.

But the battle between the blues purist and the blues artist has gone on long before now. The artist wants to be artistic and create and innovate ... the purist doesn't want anything to change. No new instruments, no synthesizers, no drum machines, no new nothing. If Muddy didn't do it—it's wrong.

But when Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters switched from acoustic to electric guitar, the purists said that they were ruining the art-form. Look at all the great classics that were created because they ignored the "experts." I have concluded that the purists are just a handful old guys whose opinions don't really matter.

What the artist is trying to do is stretch the boundaries of the music and infuse elements that will appeal to a contemporary audience and to bring something new and relevant to the table.

However, if the "experts" want to tell the artist what the song should sound like before it is written, there probably won't be much "bling" forthcoming. They won't sell many to people who buy CDs today. If an artist can reach the public and they love the music, then the "bling" will be just a pleasant side-effect.

As far as the musicians that are bound by tradition, I don't think that they are so much bound by tradition as maybe lacking in imagination and a working knowledge of modern beats and rhythmic patterns.

In order to compete effectively in the music business you have to stay on top of current events. That means that you have to have an understanding of contemporary musical styles and trends. I remember reading in a biography of Elvis that no matter where he was, he was always listening to the radio in order to monitor musical trends and to hear what his competitors were doing. And he was Elvis!

Music is about constantly learning. Some guys don't like to put out that extra effort to stay on top of it. They want to play the same old stuff that they already know and pass it off as "keeping the music alive." Many of them are taking the safe road of mimicking artist of the past and sticking to a pre-determined formula or constantly re-recording old songs for an old audience instead of reaching out to draw in a new audience.

Kinda like a boxer "laying on the ropes" and making easy money and waiting for the bell.

There's nothing wrong with that, I know many who make a decent living doing it ... for a long time, I did it. But now I think have something that I want to say, and I want my music to appeal to a mass audience.

AAJ: Regarding these rewards, is this image a creation of the "corporate entertainment business"?

BJ: No, it is not ... it's a creation of the hip-hop industry and the age of music video. It is an expression of what the young black audiences wants to see. What they want to be.

One of the biggest obstacles to selling blues music to young blacks is that the blues industry projects the images of poverty and ignorance and servitude as part of its selling points, and young black people overwhelmingly reject that picture. There is an overseer mentality to the whole scene.

The blues industry is dominated by white males who would have us return to the days when life was good and the Negroes were happy and knew their place; the cotton was high as an elephant's eye and all was right with the world. But that's the story from their perspective.

In reality, the Negroes were not happy. They were desperately poor and suffering in the shadow of the overseer ... who had all of the "bling," by the way. If you have ever had to be poor, then you probably wouldn't want to buy products that imply poverty.

Billy Jones Young black people want their heroes to be successful, tech savvy, dress well, and have money and nice cars. Not so much "workin' for the man" and "moseyin' on down da road." The blues industry needs a major image make-over in order to connect with young black America.

When I used to perform on Beale Street, besides meeting B.B. King, the thing that stuck out most in my mind is that the primary theme/motif of every club on Beale Street was that of an old raggedy shack or juke joint. Those clubs look like poverty. That's the way the white tourist loved them because they are reminded of when they went to some poor "colored" guy's house or juke joint. The black tourist would see it as unpleasant memories of a miserable childhood and say "Thank the Lord that we don't have to live like that anymore."

I was surprised that Morgan Freeman's "Ground Zero" club in Clarksdale, Miss., has that "old raggedy shack" theme also. You would think that a rich, powerful—and successful—black man who opened a club in his hometown would want to have something that his people could be proud of and aspire to. But then, what do I know about what Morgan Freeman is thinking? He's a legend and a genius ... I'm just some guy with a guitar.

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