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Singer, Actor Vernel Bagneris on Katrina Damage

Currently in New York, Obie-winning singer and actor Vernel Bagneris recently sold his apartment in order to move to New Orleans, where he was born. He tells us what he's heard from friends and family, and what he expects for the future. The Library of Congress has described Bagneris as "a master of the American vernacular." He wrote, directed and starred in the hit shows One Mo' Time, Further Mo', Staggerlee and Jelly Roll!


Other segments from the episode on September 2, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 2, 2005: Commentary on Hurricane Katrina news coverage; Interview with RZA; Interview with Mos Def; Interview with Ahmir Thompson; Interview with Vernel Bagniers.


DATE September 2, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Commentary: News coverage of Hurricane Katrina

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today we conclude our special hip-hop week and revisit Terry's interviews with
The RZA and ?uestlove of The Roots. But while those are proceeding as
scheduled, I'd like to start today's show by saying something about the TV
coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

As a TV critic, I've been watching it pretty much non-stop since landfall, and
watching it on a dozen television sets at once, comparing coverage and images
and commentary. My conclusion, after watching so much devastation and
repetition, is this: If a natural disaster of this scope brings out the best
and sometimes the worst in people, and, clearly, it does both, it does the
same thing to television. The worst of the television coverage came early, as
Hurricane Katrina gained strength as it approached the Gulf Coast.
Meteorologists were predicting a Category 5 hurricane, the first to hit the
continental United States since Camille in 1969. And TV networks and local
news outlets dispatched their troops accordingly.

By landfall, it was downgraded to Category 4, and by midafternoon, it was down
to a 1. Virtually every TV news outlet reported that New Orleans, in
particular, had dodged a serious bullet. Meanwhile, most of the on-air
reporters, from local crews in Mississippi and Louisiana to Anderson Cooper on
CNN, treated the hurricane-force winds like some sort of weather-related
extreme sport. As reporting goes, it's reckless, showy and often very stupid.
You can lock down a camera and take pictures of the increasing winds without
having to stand in harm's way yourself.

One guy ran from place to place, huddling behind available cover like a kid
playing war. It was satisfying in a perverse way when a wind gust knocked him
right on his face as he was cavalierly signing off. That night, things began
to change quickly, and drastically. ABC's Robin Roberts, who grew up in the
area, fought back tears when asked whether her family members were safe. They
were, but the reality suddenly hit her, and we saw a rare moment of emotional
honesty. For a while, pictures were scarce. With all the flooding and power
outages, technology was failing the TV crews just as it was failing everyone
and everything else.

But soon we began to see the true extent of the devastation. Mother Nature
was bad enough. The more you watch TV, though, the more you felt that certain
aspects of human nature were even worse. First there was looting, then there
was shooting. Despite the heroic efforts of rescue and health workers, the
human suffering and the dramatic footage of rising waters and falling
highways, bridges and buildings, the most indelible images from this disaster,
for me, are turning out, for the moment, to be images of anarchy and

In the past few days, TV has gotten better and better at identifying and
exploring the real problems. CBS, NBC and ABC all ran informative prime-time
specials by midweek. And Ted Koppel on "Nightline" has acted almost as an
advocate for those in New Orleans and elsewhere still without government
assistance. Cable news has stayed with the story. And FOX News, with an
especially aggressive string of local affiliates from the region, managed time
and time again to get fresh footage of affected areas before either CNN or
MSNBC. They also showed that footage ad infinitum but so did every other news

Television at these times brings people together and gives them a chance not
only to learn, but to grieve. Sometimes gleaning new information isn't as
important as just devoting attention to it. That goes for the networks and it
also goes for the audience. When the hurricane hit, the coverage was
superficial and maddening. By the end of the week, just like the waters in
New Orleans, it was much, much deeper.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Ahmir Thompson discusses his hip-hop group The Roots,
his musical experiences and the current hip-hop environment

We'll end today's show with a new interview Terry recorded with singer and
actor Vernel Bagneris, who has lifelong roots in New Orleans. But, for now,
here's our final day of hip-hop week.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) What's up?

BIANCULLI: Our guest, ?uestlove, is the co-founder and drummer of The Roots.
In the world of hip-hop, where most music is sampled, The Roots stand out for
playing instruments. In GQ, rock critic Tom Moon wrote, quote, "The Roots'
vision for black music tears out in radical directions, encompassing jazz,
trance, rock and Brazilian pop. From the beginning, this group of jazz heads
and rhyme warriors has done things differently. They're a band, for starters,
working in a genre in which musicians were once thought irrelevant. Their
orbit has included activist rappers and rock stars, anyone grappling with what
it means to be black and alternative," unquote.

Here's a track from their CD "Phrenology." This is "The Seed (2.0)" with
guest vocalist Cody Chesnutt.

(Soundbite of "The Seed (2.0)")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Knocked up nine months ago, and what she's gonna have,
she don't know. She want neo soul 'cause hip-hop is old. She don't want no
rock 'n' roll. She want platinum or ice and gold. She want a whole lot of
somethin' to fold. If you're an obstacle, she'll just drop you cold 'cause
one monkey don't stop the show. Little Mary's bad. In these streets, she
done ran e'r since when the heat began. I told the girl, `Look here, calm
down. I'm gonna hold you hand to enable you to peep the plan because you was
quick to learn and we can make money to burn. If you allow me to lay this
game, I don't ask for much, but enough room to spread my wings and the world
fittin' to know my name.'

Mr. CODY CHESNUTT: (Singing) I don't ask for much these days, and I don't
bitch and whine if I don't get my way. I only wanna fertilize another behind
my lover's back. I sit and watch it grow standin' where I'm at. Fertilize
another behind my lover's back, and I'm keeping my secrets mine. I push my
seed in her bush for life. It's gonna work because I'm pushin' it right. If
Mary dropped my baby girl tonight, I would name her rock 'n' roll.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to ?uestlove in 2003. Also known as Ahmir Thompson,
?uestlove founded The Roots in 1987 when he was a student at the Philadelphia
High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Mr. AHMIR THOMPSON (?uestlove, The Roots): When The Roots first started, you
know, hip-hop really wasn't that elaborate an arrangement. I'm talking about
hip-hop circa 1984, '85, '86. I mean, it was pretty much just a simple
drumbeat and a stab would be sort of like the exclamation point at the end of
a sentence. Bap! You know? It could be scratched in or just like some sort
of noise, an enforcement noise. And, you know, so in high school pretty much
Black Thought, or Tariq Trotter, would, you know, come up to me and just name
any popular song of that time and point and just say, `Yo, yo, play "Top
Billin',"' and, you know, because it was a drum arrangement, I knew how to
play it. And that was like the most amazing thing to him, `Oh, he can play
"Top Billin'," he can play, you know, "The Bridge Is Over," he can play'--you
know, just naming all these songs, and I could play them. I kind of thought
it was natural.


OK. Well, I'm going to stop you right there because that's kind of
interesting. Since you came up in the era of sampling, as an actual musician
your friends expected you to basically play the samples.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: You're still expected to play, like, other people's music.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Well, I mean, that's--hip-hop is audio pop art really
and it's just a collage of other ideas. And even at the time I didn't know
that, OK, sampling's the proper term for it. For the hip-hop nation pretty
much the first introduction to real sampling that we've ever seen was this
episode of "The Cosby Show" when Stevie Wonder runs over the Huxtables' car
with his limousine. Well, not that violent, but, you know, he invites them to
a studio session, and for the first time America got to see the process of
sampling in which you say something and it's repeated back to you. And after
me and my friends saw that episode, we were begging for whatever that machine
was called. We didn't know what it was called. You know, like, in our heads
it was sort of like the "Flintstone" episode where, you know, like, the little
bird is inside of the machine and re-creating the noise. And we didn't know
how in the world that happened.

So just during Christmas, Casio happened to make a product called an SK-1
machine, which allowed you about maybe three or four seconds' worth of
sampling time. And, you know, me and all my friends got this little toy
keyboard for Christmas. And, you know, you mess around with it a little
while, you do, like, all the curse words, you know, and all that stuff. And
then you start getting serious about it. And that's when I would, like, run
to the basement where my drum set was and try and cram in eight bars' worth of
drum breaks within three seconds, which, you know, you have to be pretty fast
to do it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: And then I just, you know, realized the endless possibilities
of a sampler.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about musicianship and sampling, I thought
this would be a good time to play "Rock You" from your new CD, "Phrenology"...

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: ...because you're actually playing on this, but you're playing more or
less a rhythm line from Queen's "We Will Rock You." But again, you're not
sampling here, you're playing it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it's inspired by--yeah, we're not...

GROSS: You're reinterpreting it, too.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's inspired by it, but yeah, we--yeah, some artists are a
little iffy about sample clearances, so...

GROSS: Got it. That's right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"
before we hear it?

Mr. THOMPSON: In case their lawyers are listening.

GROSS: Right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"?

Mr. THOMPSON: "Rock You" is just our mission statement. You know, The Roots
is so associated with just a mellow atmosphere and I thought it was real
important to start off the album with an exclamation point, you know. So
"Rock You" is our mission statement for the album.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.


(Soundbite of "Rock You")

THE ROOTS: Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you.
Come on, come on. Aiyyo y'all rappers less play, what I'm about to say will
probably hit y'all niggas in a real strange way. Shmucks, ducks and
half-hearted prankster crews Willie dank Langston Hughes, put shanks in crews.
I debut to make the news and I've been killing it since. Still in the trench,
buzzin' off the killer suspense. I want my niggas out that barb wire still in
the fence. Verbal assassin I'm a killer still in a sense. Rhymes is graphic,
aimin' straight at your minds and blast that weak (censored). The pieces and
particles of fragments mad vocabulist. Yes, I must confess I'm like Diddy
trying to sink a slug in Elliot's chest. Just taste on that, it's black you
can tally up that. You never...

GROSS: That's The Roots from their new CD, "Phrenology." My guest is
?uestlove, the drummer of the group and one of the founders.

The word `niggas' is used on the track that we just heard.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: When is it OK with you and when is it not OK with you to use the word?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, I could play the politically correct term and say,
you know, `OK, we know it's wrong,' I mean, but basically I think with black
people, we pretty much will turn any tragedy into a term of endearment. So,
you know, is it right? You know, I don't know if it's right or if it's wrong,
you know, personally. I don't think that black people haven't made up that
term, but I think that we've turned it around and it's just another, I guess,
like, colloquialism for `brother' to us, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: `What's up, my nigga? How you doin'?' you know?

GROSS: Did you grow up with it that way?

Mr. THOMPSON: Pretty much. I mean, it was natural. I mean, there are--you
know the difference between if you're being referred to as, you know, `my
brother' or if it's used in a condescending term, you know?

GROSS: You started playing drums when you were in high school, yes?


GROSS: Earlier than that?

Mr. THOMPSON: Actually I started when I was two.


Mr. THOMPSON: I was two years old. I started The Roots when I was in high
school. My father is an oldies doo-wop singer from the Philadelphia area.

GROSS: Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Lee Andrews & The Hearts. So pretty much--my childhood
is pretty much based just backstage at doo-wop extravaganza shows, you know,
like "Dick Clark Presents," you know, and it would be like 10 groups, Don &
Juan, Harvey and The Moonglows, The Tokens, you name it. If they were from
the '50s or the '60s, it would just be a big show at either, like, Madison
Square Garden or The Spectrum or out in The Forum in LA. So pretty much I
grew up backstage...

GROSS: Now Lee Andrews...

Mr. THOMPSON: ...watching all these groups.

GROSS: Lee Andrews' biggest hit, I think, was "Tear Drops" in 1957?

Mr. THOMPSON: "Tear Drops," yeah, '57. Yeah, yeah, '57.

GROSS: Would you be willing to sing a few lines from it just to refresh
listeners' memories?

Mr. THOMPSON: I wouldn't want to scare your listeners. (Laughs)

GROSS: OK. Well, how about this? How about we play a little bit of it?

Mr. THOMPSON: We can do that, yeah.

(Soundbite of "Tear Drops" by Lee Andrews & The Hearts)

LEE ANDREWS & THE HEARTS: (Singing) I sit in my room looking out at the rain.
My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I'm thinking of our
lost romance and how it should have been. Oh, if we only could start over
again. I know you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you. I was
wrong to take the chance with somebody new. I sit in my room looking out at
the rain. My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I know
you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you.

GROSS: OK, so that's Lee Andrews & The Hearts.

So you grew up, you know, backstage and watching your father perform. What
sense did it give you of what the music life was like? And then you probably
watched your father kind of drop out of sight after the doo-wop era was over,
so you also knew what it was like to no longer be in the limelight after
having been in it as a young man.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I was born in the '70s, so pretty much I came
along when...

GROSS: Oh, you came along, right, in the oldies show era. Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it really wasn't about it. Yeah.

GROSS: Don't you often wonder if there's going to be, like, old-school rap
shows like...

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, there is right now.

GROSS: Is there already?

Mr. THOMPSON: Totally. And the thing with hip-hop is the model for hip-hop
is definitely here today and gone today. So...

GROSS: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...anything under five years is pretty much considered
old-school. This weekend I was listening to a popular New York radio station.
And they were like, `Now back in the day, Wu-Tang Clan, da-da-da-da-da,
old-school.' I was like, `Wait a minute! Wu-Tang--six years ago!'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: It was like six, seven years ago. You know, old-school to me
is, OK, maybe we can say, like, Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," like a song
that's definitely over 20 years old or something, you know, near 30 years old.
But yeah, pretty much in the hip-hop, it's here today and it's gone today.

BIANCULLI: ?uestlove, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: It's hip-hop week on FRESH AIR. Our guest is ?uestlove,
co-founder and drummer of The Roots.

GROSS: The Roots are from Philly, and for...


GROSS: ...a lot of rappers, the place they're from becomes, like,
mythologized through their raps.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: What do you think you've done, like, to create a Philadelphia in your

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, Philadelphia had sort of a bad/nondescript reputation

GROSS: In hip-hop, you mean, because there...

Mr. THOMPSON: In hip-hop.

GROSS: ...was the Philly sound before that that...


GROSS: ...began in the '70s--Gamble & Huff.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm just talking about in terms of hip-hop.

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: Even though I'll say two of the major important factors of
hip-hop history have originated in Philadelphia. Number one, gangsta
rap--pretty much, there's debate as to whether Ice-T, who's from LA, or
Schooly D, who's from 52nd and Parkside, was the first, quote, unquote,
"gangsta rapper." And pretty much anybody that's familiar with Schooly D can
give you pretty much an account of where they were the first time they ever
heard his classic, "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" you know, because we'd just
never heard a rap that explicit. You know, pretty much hip-hop before then
was about partying and, you know, there were some reality rhymes here and
there, you know, "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and maybe "It's Like That"
by Run-DMC. But, you know, pretty much everyone's been like politically
correct. You didn't hear that much profanity, that much cursing and that much
honesty. You know, Schooly D talked like your older cousin on the corner, you
know, or the guys that you knew down the street on the corner. And, you know,
he was very influential to a lot of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...people, The Beastie Boys and the list goes on. And also...

GROSS: Yeah. So what's your image of Philly in your music?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we had to take that and--well, let me just quickly say
that the other important element was the art of deejaying. Philadelphia has
four very important pioneers in deejaying: Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, DJ Miz
and DJ Chief, all from the tristate area. And they're pretty much the
standard for which deejays today are basing their skills on, when you talk
about deejays doing the `look, ma, no hand' tricks and whatnot.

GROSS: OK. And one final question.


GROSS: How come you wear an Afro?

Mr. THOMPSON: Because I'm secretly a Chia Pet.

GROSS: I won't sing the theme.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right, right. Chi-Chi-Chi-Chia.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: My hair just grows. I come from a family that--you know, I
don't have the patience, nor the time to go to a barbershop and get it cut
every three seconds, so my hair just grows. It's always been problematic for
me. Just thank God it's in style now. Imagine me trying to get through this
hairstyle in the late '80s and the early '90s, you know. Back then, I could
do a flat-top thing, but, no, I keep it. It's my crown, you know. It's sort
of symbolic now, but, yeah, it was a problem back in the day, you know, people
staring at me, like, `Oh, my God.' You know, now it's no thing because
everyone has it.

GROSS: Besides you're you, so...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: can do it now.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm an individual.

GROSS: That's right. Thank you so much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Or one of the missing Jacksons.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. THOMPSON: All right, thank you.

GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you. I appreciate it, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Our interview with ?uestlove was recorded in 2003. I'm David
Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, New Orleans native Vernel Bagneris reflects on what's
going on in his city in the aftermath of Katrina. He's dedicated much of his
performing career to keeping the musical traditions of that city alive. And
hip-hop week continues with The RZA. He co-founded the martial-arts
influenced rap group the Wu-Tang Clan.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: The RZA discusses his musical career with the Wu Tang
Clan and composing music for films

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our hip-hop week concludes now with The RZA. He's the chief composer and
producer of the Wu Tang Clan, which he co-founded in 1992 with his cousin
known as GZA the Genius and several of their friends, including Method Man and
Ol' Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004. The Wu Tang Clan's name was taken from a
mythical martial arts sword style said to be exceptionally difficult to master
but unbeatable in battle. "The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll" says,
quote, "The Wu Tang Clan established a hip-hop empire with street poetics,
kung fu mythology, ingenious production and entrepreneurial savvy. The
outfit's rugged beats and top-notch emceeing have taken the
two-turntables-and-a-mike foundations to its grimiest and arguably most
artistic extreme," unquote. The RZA has appeared in the Jim Jarmusch film
"Coffee and Cigarettes." He's composed music for several films, including
Jarmusch's film "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" and Quentin Tarantino's
"Kill Bill" and its sequel. Terry spoke to The RZA in 2005. They started
with a track from the Wu Tang Clan.

(Soundbite of "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I grew up on the crime side, The New York Times side.
Staying alive was no jive. At secondhands moms bounced on old men. So then
we moved to Shaolin land. A young youth, yo rockin' the gold tooth, 'Lo
goose. Only way, I begin to gee off was drug loot. And let's start it like
this son, rollin' with this one and that one, pullin' out gats for fun. But
it was just a dream for the teen who was a fiend, started smoking woolies at
16 and running up in gates and doing hits for high stakes, making my way on
fire escapes. No question, I would speed for cracks and weed. The
combination made my eyes bleed. No question, I would flow off and try to get
the dough all...


That's the Wu-Tang Clan. My guest is The RZA. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

THE RZA: Well, thanks for having me on the show, y'all.

GROSS: Now, you know, in addition to being, you know, an emcee and to being
one of the rappers with Wu-Tang Clan, you were also the chief producer and
arranger. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, composing and sampling
the music backing for the records, like what your approach is to that?

THE RZA: Well, my musical knowledge really came from being a deejay. You
know, at the age of 11, I got my first pair of turntables, straight-arm
Technics, you know what I mean? The hardest ones that you could scratch on.
And I was building up an extensive record collection. Even as a deejay with a
four-track, my production style was similar to the style, you know, of 36
Chambers which was taking something from old soul music to something from a
funky drum, you know, whether James Brown or a Willie Mitchwood(ph) type drum
pattern and then come with maybe a Woody Woodpecker record, you know what I

GROSS: Yeah.

THE RZA: And then mix that in with some kind of classical. So I was the kind
of deejay that would do that. When I would deejay at parties, you know, when
I would interloop between records, I might throw on a "Peter Pan" quote or
something and then throw on a crazy hip-hop gutter beat that makes the crowd
go crazy. So when I started producing, I had that same approach.

GROSS: You know, you do something on some of your music that I think you call
a detuned piano. And listening to it, I never knew whether it was an electric
piano or what, but it has this really distinctive sound. And, in fact, I want
to play something from the Jim Jarmusch movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the
Samurai." And you did the score for this movie, and it's really...

THE RZA: Yeah, that's my first score.

GROSS: Yeah, and it's really wonderful. Let me play the theme from it.

(Soundbite of theme from "Ghost Dog")

GROSS: That's music from the Jim Jarmusch music, "Ghost Dog: The Way..."

THE RZA: Ghost Dog!

GROSS: "...of the Samurai," composed by my guest, The RZA.

What are you doing on that? What's the keyboard that we're hearing?

THE RZA: The keyboard that I used for "Ghost Dog," I used a combination, but
I used mostly--it's a keyboard called the Kurzweil 2500. And there's another
keyboard called the Ensoniq ASR-10.

And the "Ghost Dog" theme, the `doo-doo,' it sounds like--this actually was a
partial of a flute sample that's tooken out, just that one frequency of it,
and then played, of course, the piano. So that was how I came up with that
right there, mixed in with some muddy string pads and a muddy string guitar
sample, `da-na-na-na.'

So it was a pretty awful combination, but the sound of it--it's funny, when I
made that particular song, the sound of it was--to go along with "Ghost Dog,"
had a lot of birds in this movie, you know. And being studying music, I read
about "Peter and the Wolf" and how the composer used an instrument to reflect
each animal. For instance, when the wolf came, he threw in the trombones.
When the bird came, he threw in the flute. So this is why, on the "Ghost Dog"
theme, you hear that flute in there, because he had a lot of birds in. When
the movie first came on, a bird was flying, so I started with that flute sound
so you could feel that joyfulness. But it's also put into a RZA context that
was joy mixed with sorrow and morbidity.

GROSS: Morbidity, did you say? Yeah.


GROSS: Well, there's something very eerie about the theme.

THE RZA: Right. I wanted to be, like, to catch, you know, the spirituality
of the bird but also to capture, like, the internal of Ghost Dog.

GROSS: Yeah.

THE RZA: You know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

THE RZA: He's a very troubled individual, really.

GROSS: See, you used the word `detuned.' What do you mean by detuned, and
what is detuned in the music we just heard?

THE RZA: Well, you know, when a piano gets old--Right?--and it sits in your
studio for a long time, it becomes detuned, meaning, you know, all the notes
are maybe not a half step, but maybe one-eighth of a step, just out of tune in
the proper chromatic order. And I like that sound. You know, most people
come in and go, `I need to tune the keyboard,' or `I need to tune the piano'
or `tune your guitar.' I like it when it's detuned, because that means it's
not in the musical harmony according to the theory of music, but yet it has a
harmony of its own. And that's something I use a lot throughout my--whether I
sampled the sound or whether I played it, that's a sound I use a lot.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's interview with The RZA. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're concluding hip-hop week with Terry's 2005 interview with The
RZA, co-founder of the Wu Tang Clan. Let's get back to it.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, you know, like, your influences--you have so
many influences musically but conceptually, too, you know? Like, one of the
really big influences in your life is martial arts movies...


GROSS: ...and samurai stories. And what would you say has been the influence
of martial arts movies on you as a performer or as an artist?

THE RZA: Oh, man, I think martial arts movies have given me a tremendous
amount of influence and inspiration. I mean, not only from the beautiful
fight scenes and the beautiful art they display, but even the story lines and
the heroic ways that martial art films pit their characters. You know,
you'll see one man fighting 10 men, you know what I mean? Or you'll see three
men up against an army, and each one will die for each other no matter what.
It's, like, `No, I got it.' `No, I got it. I got it, brother. You leave.
No, brother, you leave.' You see? It's that kind of loyalty in a film--that
inspired me. And also the music and the stings and the stabs that used to
come out of nowhere 'cause the, you know, fight scene has to be edited and so,
therefore, the music had to be edited to match the fight scenes. And they had
a very abstract flow of music in these movies. So I had a lot of inspiration
on that.

GROSS: What were the movie theaters that you went to when you were a kid to
see the martial art films?

THE RZA: Oh, 42nd Street was flooded with kung fu movies during--maybe from
the year 1979 to the year 1984. I mean, you could go on 42nd Street and there
was maybe a dozen theaters on that one strip, showing, you know--with two or
three screens inside these theaters, you could bet that there was at least 15
martial art films on the strip at any given moment. And I'm the kind of kid
that would go to the movies and watch three martial art films at one screen,
come back the next day, go across the street and watch the three that they
had, you know what I mean? And so I was a fan. And 42nd Street was, like,
the capital of that.

GROSS: How old were you? You were living in one of the boroughs, either
Brooklyn or...

THE RZA: Yeah. Brooklyn and Staten Island, back and forth.

GROSS: Yeah. So how old were you when you could go by yourself or with
friends on the subway to get to Manhattan?

THE RZA: Well, I'm a street kid. I was riding the subways by myself by the
age of nine. New York is like that. You know, growing up with a single
parent in a house where there are brothers and sisters--I come from a family
of 11 brothers and sisters. So you could imagine the kind of independency
that fell on some of us as children, you know what I mean? By the time I was
11 years old, I was taking myself and my little seven-year-old brother with me
and my six-year-old brother all they way from Brownsville, Brooklyn, to 42nd
Street, Manhattan. That's, like, a 45-minute train ride.

And we'd get off and go to the movies. And the movies actually had signs on
it, `17 and older only.' And I would have to ask a stranger on the street to
buy my tickets and all that just to get inside the theater and sit there and
watch some kung fu films.

It's strange how the urges of it is like almost as strong as the urge of sex,
you know what I mean? Because, you know, a sex urge leads men to all kind of
foul-mouth practices from rape to suicide if a man get his heart broke like
that. So imagine that same kind of drive and urge for martial arts and for
the study of knowledge and for music and hip-hop. It's, like, that's the kind
of urges I had. And, man, you know, it was kind of a blind urge, too, because
I really didn't understand it until now. I see that, wow, what a path that
was chosen for me.

GROSS: OK, so you just had this instinctive urge to hear music, to go
wherever you had to to hear the music you wanted to hear and to go as far as
you needed to to see the movies you wanted to see. And that was an incredible
education for you, particularly in the field that you are in, which is

THE RZA: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ...and movies, 'cause you write scores for movies. What was actual
school like for you where you were officially supposed to be getting your

THE RZA: Well, in school, I made--a lot of teachers, they was very impressed
with me, but I wasn't a very attendant student. You know what I mean? I
mean, any given year, whether it was--even when living with my mother from
poverty and from the times we suffered, you know, with so many brothers and
sisters, and it was, like, I mean, I would miss 40 days out of any given
school year.

When I became a high school student, I basically--you know, the first year, I
kind of tried to stay focused, and it was hard. I mean, it was times when I
didn't have a nickel to catch the bus to go to school, and the school was
maybe, like, a 45-minute-to-an-hour walk. And you know, going through all
that the first year, I struggled and struggled, and I made the honor roll, and
they offered me a scholarship to write, and, you know, I was on the school
newspaper and all of them things.

But by the time my sophomore year, I was a hookey-playing, 40-ounce-drinking,
girl-chasing, give-up-on-school, trying to find a way to make a dollar, trying
to find a way to hustle. But what saved me, I think, in the long run, was
whether I went to school or not, I would always study. So I may wake up at
9:00 in the morning and go, `I'm not going to school,' but still sit there for
two hours and read and study first before I go outside.

GROSS: You were writing rhymes--you started writing rhymes when you were
about nine, I think?

THE RZA: Yeah, I wrote my first lyric--I stole them from the age of eight to
nine, but at nine, I wrote my first lyric, yeah.

GROSS: So do you remember what your first lyric was?

THE RZA: I kind of remember. It was something like, `You see the girl with
the biggest breasts,' you know what I mean, (rapping) `I would like to get my
hands under her dress.' It was definitely straight-up, you know, the wrong
thing to think about, but you know, it was sex, sex, sex, sex fantasy.

GROSS: Even when you were nine?

THE RZA: Oh, man. You could imagine growing up in the hood. I mean, nine
years old, you know, you tried things at nine years old, you know. I don't
want to get too, you know, into my personal life and get psychological, but I
mean, I tried at the age of nine, and I know at the age of 11, I was
successful at doing what I wanted to do. By the time I got to 11, I knew many
things about women already.

So that's just--you know, that's just--I think that's just growing up poor.
Somebody told me that. I think--yeah, I was talking to Quentin Tarantino. We
had a long talk about this, right. And he said--I was talking about how my
children don't seem to be like me. Like, you know, at the age of nine, I
already had marijuana in my system, drinking 40 ounces--I mean 30--I mean,
there was only quarts back then--drinking 32 ounces of Old English, and I was
only nine years old, smoking joints and stuff like that. So it's, like, I
look at my son. I have a nine-year-old son right now. He don't know nothing
about nothing. And it seems like his life is totally oblivious to where I was
at at that age.

And I was talking to Quentin about that, like, you know, trying to, like,
ponder, understand it. He basically kind of gave me some insight. He said
that when you are poor, you don't get a chance to truly live your childhood
out. There's so many things on your mind, so many things that's pulling you.
And sex is probably one of the best, you know, ...(unintelligible) regression,
you know, sex and drugs, from the problems of the world. So he pointed that
out to me. And I was, like, `You might be right,' because now that my
children--you know, they have everything they want, and, you know, they're
basically the children of a millionaire. And so they play with Godzilla all
day. They're playing with toys right now when, by the time we was nine or 10
when I grew up, you've seen a gun in your hand already, you know.

GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you so much for talking with us. I
really appreciate it.

THE RZA: Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: The RZA spoke with Terry in 2005.

This concludes our hip-hop week series.


BIANCULLI: You can find many of these interviews as well as some hip-hop
interviews that we didn't have time for this week on our Web site,

(Soundbite of "Rapper's Delight")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) ...and you don't stop the rocking...

BIANCULLI: Coming...

(Soundbite of "Rapper's Delight")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) boogie say up jumps the boogie to the
rhythm of the boogie to beat...

BIANCULLI: Coming up, a reflection on New Orleans from Vernel Bagneris, a
performer who's devoted much of his work do the music and traditions of the
city. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Vernel Bagneris discusses the current situation in New
Orleans and what he expects for the future

In thinking about New Orleans this week, we thought about one of FRESH AIR's
longtime friends, Vernel Bagneris. He's a singer and actor who's dedicated
much of his life to studying and keeping alive musical traditions of New
Orleans, his hometown. His show "One Mo' Time" was an evening of black
vaudeville set in New Orleans. He's also done a Jelly Roll Morton revue and
written a book about New Orleans funerals. You may know his work from the
movie "Ray." He was the choreographer. Vernel now lives much of the time in
Manhattan. We wanted to know what he was thinking. Terry spoke to him


Vernel, what have you heard so far from friends and family in New Orleans?

Mr. VERNEL BAGNERIS (Performer): My younger sister and my brother are doing
well. They left early on Sunday, and they're in Houston, and my older sister
and her son were held up in Atlanta. She's coming to my apartment today in
New York to stay for a while and wait on word from her husband and son, who
opted to stay. And we got a text message from them days ago that they were
doing OK. So we're just hoping that we hear from them very, very soon.

GROSS: I feel like we're in mourning for the people who have died in the
flood and also for the places that have been virtually washed away. Do you
feel like you're in mourning for New Orleans as you've known it?

Mr. BAGNERIS: I'm in mourning in the real sense of the word that I have
grief, but I also have a lot of anger. I have anger that 44 percent of the
budget to correct the levees was taken away, and I think a lot of people in
New Orleans were left unprotected knowingly. Secondly, there's this whole
thing now about looting. Well, when you have 10,000 people held up in the
Superdome, a building that's giving away in the middle of a hurricane, and you
have a shortage of food and water for 10,000 people two days later in the
richest country in the world, so many things are inexplicable to me as far as
judgment calls that were made.

GROSS: From a musical point of view, are there parts of this city or parts of
its music legacy that you're most worried about, that they might have been
destroyed in the flood?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Legacywise, yes. There's the William Russell research center
in The Quarter. I don't know how well protected that was. The Tulane
University Jazz Archives. I mean, just things that hold centuries, not
decades, but centuries of history for New Orleans, and I just hope that all
that's protected.

As far as the music is concerned, the music goes on. And music wasn't born
out of people having spent the day in the shopping mall. It was born from
poor people--excuse me a sec. The music was born from poor people's
expression of the pain that they were feeling and the lives that they were
trying to improve. And like P. Ron(ph), who was an uncle of mine, in the '20s
was making the music happen, luckily the generations that have come around
since and grown into normal society, as they call it.

I have two cousins, first cousins, that are judges, and my nephew is in the
state Senate. My brother is the mayor's consultant. He's in charge of the
human relations committee in New Orleans. My sister's a medical doctor. My
older sister is a 35-year schoolteacher, a veteran in the school teaching
system. And people have improved their lives remembering their past. And
that will go on, but the music itself has such a base. In other words, it
wasn't born to support a dance or to support a happy moment. It was born out
of emotional stress that was put into song, and I'm sure it will have a lot to
say in the next decade through the music.

GROSS: You did a book on New Orleans funerals and on the music that is such a
big part of the funeral tradition in New Orleans. How did music become such a
big part of that tradition?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, originally, for the funerals themselves, it was strictly
drums that were there to keep the crowd in hand and keep a cadence going so
that people could march properly to the funeral site. Then once the burial
was done, it was a tradition that you shook as much as you could down the
street and wobbled so that the spirit of the dead ancestor wouldn't try to
come into you and resume life. So they played a more upbeat sort of beat.
And after a while, they started adding in musical instruments to it, and with
the idea being to celebrate the release from the miseries of the earth, and
that you would finally have this green pastures you were looking for.

GROSS: Have you been thinking about that tradition all this week, faced with
so much death in Louisiana and in Mississippi, or does that seem like just
totally a different kind of death than...

Mr. BAGNERIS: It's a different kind of death. Death from age, illness,
it's--you can celebrate that release. I know with my mother, after
Parkinson's for five years, we saw that it was time for her to go, and you
understand those sort of things. When young people and children are taken
from a natural disaster, it's very difficult to find a reason to say, `Well,
let's celebrate their departure.'

GROSS: Do you still have an apartment in New Orleans?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, I do. I have an apartment in the French Quarter, which
stayed miraculously dry, and--for the most part, maybe, like, just up to the
knees on the first floor, but I'm on the second floor. And actually, I just
sold my apartment in New York...


Mr. BAGNERIS: move to New Orleans.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And I was going to spend my full time there. So I just moved,
like, half of my stuff down there about three weeks ago, and--but stuff is
stuff, you know. If I could just hear from my nephew and my brother-in-law.
I don't give a damn about stuff.

GROSS: Oh, I'd love to end our show today with some music from New Orleans.
Is there anything that you've been particularly thinking about this week

Mr. BAGNERIS: "When The Saints Go Marching In," 'cause there'll be a lot of
saints marching in when the death toll comes in.

GROSS: Vernel, I hope you get good news from...

Mr. BAGNERIS: I do, too, Terry.

GROSS: ...the people you love.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Vernel Bagneris speaking with Terry yesterday. On Labor Day,
we'll devote our program to the musicians and music of New Orleans. Here's
the song Vernel suggested, performed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival by
Mahalia Jackson. She was born and grew up in New Orleans. For Terry Gross,
I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of "When The Saints Go Marching In")

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Oh, when the saints go marching in, when the
saints go marching in, well, well, I want, I want to be part of that number,
oh yeah, when the saints go marching in. Well, well, when the saints go
marching in, well, well, when the saints go marching in, yes, I want to be
part of that number, oh yeah, when the saints go marching in. Well, when they
march all around God's throne, well, when they march all around his throne,
yes, I want to be part of that number, Lord, when the saints go marching in.
Yes, I used to have some playmates. Oh, they used to play with me. Oh, but
since I've been converted, you know, they turned their backs on me. Well,
well, when the saints go marching in, well, well, when the saints go marching
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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