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February 8, 2018

Book Notes - David Peisner "Homey Don't Play That!"

Homey Don't Play That!

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Peisner's Homey Don't Play That! is a compulsively readable and thoroughly researched history of the groundbreaking television show In Living Colour.

James Hannaham wrote of the book in Bookforum:

"It dodges and weaves through the biographies of many people, laying down a cultural history of late-twentieth-century black humor, television, and civil rights, even as its bite-size chapters maintain the brisk, gossipy tone of a celebrity tell-all...Peisner does a wizardly job of turning the potentially dull machinations of backstage Hollywood into intriguing details by highlighting the personalities involved and distilling their aspirations and skirmishes down to their essence."


In his own words, here is David Peisner's Book Notes music playlist for his debut book Homey Don't Play That!:



Music in general (hip-hop specifically) was a massive part of In Living Color and the era from which it sprung. In a very literal sense, when the show first came on in 1990, hip-hop was featured on prime-time network TV in ways it rarely, if ever, had been in the past. A not-quite-yet-famous Rosie Perez hand-picked songs by artists like Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah and 3rd Bass to soundtrack the bumps-and-grinds of the show's dancers, the Fly Girls. When the show began booking live hip-hop—another job that mostly fell to Perez—it was the first opportunity for many of these artists to have their music seen and heard in places like Iowa, Arkansas and Oregon. I could've easily compiled a playlist just drawn from those performances that would be a pretty good primer on early 90s hip-hop: A Tribe Called Quest's "Check The Rhime," Leaders of the New School's "Case of the P.T.A.," Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick," Black Sheep's "The Choice is Yours," Big Daddy Kane's "Ooh, Aah Nah-Nah-Nah," The Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By," among others. I did choose a couple of songs that were performed on the show in the playlist below, but ultimately limiting it to just those seemed to sell short just how important music was to this show and this book.

Hip-hop was part of In Living Color's DNA. It worked its way into sketches, into arguments backstage, into the creative fabric of the production. The show was becoming popular at the same time hip-hop was emerging as a mainstream force. In fact, the book makes the case that they were really part of the same revolution. In Living Color, Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Chuck D, Ice Cube and Tupac were all part of the same wave that was bringing black culture from the fringes to where it is now, at the very center of American popular culture. It wasn't even until I started compiling this list that I realized that I could practically tell Homey Don't Play That's entire story—which really spans from the late 60s until nearly the present day—through music. That might take a little more than the 17 tracks below, but this playlist offers a pretty good outline.

Gil Scott-Heron – "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

On one level, Gil Scott-Heron has very little to do with In Living Color, but he's one of several musical figures that seems to hover around the edges of the book, just out of the picture, but informing it in some important ways. For starters, Scott-Heron actually lived in the same Manhattan projects as the Wayans family, just a couple blocks from their apartment. He was a bit older and I don't think they ever crossed paths with him back then, but he seems to represent a particular energy that the Wayans—particularly Keenen and Damon—were marinating in, growing up in New York City in the late 60s and 70s. This was the golden era of the Black Power movement, and that militancy was in the air. Keenen said that his mother really instilled ideas about civil rights and black pride in him. I could've chosen a few different Scott-Heron tracks—"Who'll Pay Reparations On My Soul" and "Whitey On the Moon" were certainly in the running—but the one thing I really love about "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," is how funny it is while still being deadly serious ("The revolution will not be back right after a message/About White Tornado, White Lightning or white people"). And although the subtitle of my book would seem to imply that Gil and I might have fundamental disagreements about television's role in all this, I'm pretty sure he's talking about a different revolution than I am.

Bobby Womack – "Across 110th Street"

Although the Wayans siblings mostly grew up in Chelsea in Lower Manhattan, Keenen was born in Harlem and lived there until he was six. His mother was raised there during a time when Harlem was the intellectual epicenter of black life in America. She was there in the heyday of the Apollo Theater, when people like Duke Ellington, Frankie Lymon, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall were her neighbors. By the time, Keenen and his siblings came along, the neighborhood had gone to seed. His memories from there are of a rundown tenement apartment and a heroin addict that used to hang out in front of his building. That's also the Harlem of "Across 110th Street," but the grandeur of the song seems to suggest the more exalted vision of the neighborhood is just beneath the surface, which to me, makes it sound all the more devastating. This song is so good that most people don't remember it's also the theme song to a pretty decent movie of the same name. The film co-stars Antonio Fargas, who grew up in Chelsea about ten blocks from the Wayans and who also appeared in Keenen's first film, the Blaxploitation spoof, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

Willie Hutch – "Out There"

Blaxploitation was a big influence on Keenen, but also an important precursor to the wave of black film and TV that In Living Color was a part of. In the 70s, films like Shaft, Super Fly, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Dolemite and Foxy Brown— which this song comes from—were not just an opportunity for black actors and directors to work during an era when the Hollywood mainstream almost completely ignored them, but also a chance to present a defiantly black vision of the world. Coming at the tail end of the civil rights movement, when MLK and Malcolm X were already dead at the hands of assassins, the often hyper-violent tableau that Blaxploitation films presented, where a tough, honest, sexy black hero could take on the white establishment and, sometimes, even win. It undoubtedly held real appeal in African-American communities. And when guys like Keenen, Spike Lee, John Singleton and Robert Townsend first began trying to get their own films made a decade or so later, the successes of Blaxploitation actors Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Rudy Ray Moore were no doubt, inspiring. This song fuses typical Blaxploitation funk with some warped, psychedelic touches. Kind of like if Marvin Gaye tried to record "Trouble Man" and "What's Going On?" simultaneously. The film stars Pam Grier and the aforementioned Antonio Fargas.

Lovebug Starski – "Do the Right Thing"

As a teenager, Keenen occasionally spent summer nights at parties in parks around New York City. The music he heard at these parties was hip-hop in its infancy and it made an impression. He recalls seeing largely forgotten early rap pioneers like Chief Rocker Busy Bee and Lovebug Starski. This song almost certainly wasn't one of the songs Keenen heard. In the late 70s, hardly any hip-hop was ever recorded, and this song wasn't released until 1984, but it was bubbling up from the underground. Damon remembered seeing Grandmaster Flash at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem in late 1978 and being floored. When Keenen first heard "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang on the turntable at a local record store, it was a defining moment for him. As he put it to me, "It was like, 'This is the shit that was in the streets and now it's on a record. This shit is real now.'"

Boogie Down Productions – "Jack of Spades"

When Keenen made I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, he was playing with Blaxploitation's clichés, but also updating them. One of the film's gags is that its old-school hero, played by Bernie Casey, has his own theme music as performed by a small band that follows him around. When the film ends, Keenen's character, Jack Spade, gets his own theme music too, but in what can be viewed as a sort of generational passing of the musical torch, his theme music isn't funk, but hip-hop. Keenen was buddies with BDP's KRS-One and got him to write this song and appear with the rest of the group in the film's final scene. KRS was also a musical guest on In Living Color a few years later.

Living Colour – "What's Your Favorite Color?"

This was not the theme song for In Living Color but it almost was. In fact, it was the opening song on the one-hour In Living Color pilot episode that was never aired. But the band wouldn't license the song to the show, so Keenen ended up enlisting a family friend, Heavy D, who wrote and recorded what became the show's theme. As it turned out, Living Colour, the band, eventually sued In Living Color, the show, for appropriating their name and using a very similar font in its logo, but the suit was settled out of court.

Levert f/Heavy D – "Just Coolin'"

Although Rosie Perez is rightly credited with helping to establish the Fly Girls, she was actually the show's third choreographer. The first was A.J. Johnson, who plucked the original dancers for the show's pilot and some of their streetwise style from the video shoot for this song, a New Jack Swing/hip-hop hybrid. Johnson had a bit of a fling with Keenen, and then left the show before it made it to air after she was offered a part in the film House Party. But two of the dancers, Deidre Lang and Lisa Marie Todd, stuck around and became a core part of the Fly Girls. When Johnson departed, she recommended a dancer and choreographer that she knew to replace her: Rosie Perez.

LL Cool J – "Rock the Bells"

After A.J. Johnson left, Keenen met with Perez and wanted to hire her—or, so he says—but, for whatever reason, the show's line producer never called Perez, so she took a job as a choreographer on LL Cool J's tour. The show instead hired an experienced choreographer named Carla Earle, who helped recruit the rest of the Fly Girls. But after a few weeks, Earle wasn't working out, and Keenen again focused on getting Perez into the fold. When LL's tour hit Los Angeles, Keenen went backstage, found Perez and offered her more than twice what she was making with LL to come work on In Living Color. Perez felt bad about abandoning LL, but when she asked him about it, he shrugged and told her, "Go get that TV money!"

Queen Latifah f/De La Soul – "Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children"

Queen Latifah closed out the first episode of the second season, bouncing around in the DJ booth performing this song while the In Living Color cast, the Fly Girls, and frequent friend-of-the-show Flavor Flav danced along on the stage below her. It was a moment that cemented the show's connection to the hip-hop world, and is often remembered as the show's first live musical performance. But in fact, it was the second. From early on in the show's run, Rosie Perez had been pushing Keenen to start booking live hip-hop. Keenen gave her one chance to prove it would work. She wanted to book Leaders of the New School, but they were still working out the details of their record label contract, so she ended up with a man named Def Jef. His performance toward the end of Season 1 went over like a lead balloon. Almost no one remembers it, at least in part because it was never included in subsequent airings or DVD releases. I've never found it online anywhere either. At any rate, Rosie says she begged Keenen for another shot, and the next time around, she got Latifah.

Public Enemy f/Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane – "Burn Hollywood Burn"

The one time Public Enemy performed on the show, they brought Ice Cube with them, but as a hype man. Cube stood at the back nodding, while PE tore through a three-song medley that didn't actually include this song. However "Burn Hollywood Burn" offers a lot of the context that made In Living Color important. The song rails against Hollywood's historic mistreatment of African-Americans from Stepin Fetchit to Driving Miss Daisy: The majority of roles available to black people up until the early '90s were as gang members, criminals, slaves, domestic help and other demeaning stereotypes. When Keenen first arrived in Hollywood, those were the auditions he was often going on. Hollywood Shuffle, which he wrote with his friend Robert Townsend, pointedly skewered this reality, as did several classic In Living Color sketches including "The Brothers Brothers" and "The Black People's Awards."

Heavy D & The Boyz – "You Can't See What I Can See"

Heavy D wrote and performed the show's theme song, and as great as it is, after spending the better part of 18 months working on this book, watching and re-watching old episodes of the show, the thought of hearing it again makes me a little queasy. But Heavy D & the Boyz's dialed-up take on "You Can't See What I Can See" during season three is probably my favorite live performance in the show's history. The seemingly ubiquitous Flavor Flav performs with them and as the song gets cooking, the stage fills with cast members, crew and friends, bouncing along. Clearly visible among those friends, arm-in-arm, are a young Tupac Shakur and an even younger Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, two guys who would eventually come to be such bitter rivals that Combs was accused by some of having Shakur offed. Ah, simpler times.

Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell – "Dueling Banjos"

In Living Color was a pioneering black TV show, but a majority of the show's writers were white. Needless to say, the white writers had to be comfortable with black culture and unafraid of offending their colleagues, but sometimes they could get, uh, a little too comfortable. When white writers would pitch sketches that crossed the line from outrageous to racially offensive—for example, a sketch advertising "Ghetto Children Action Figures" with a 13-year-old gangbanger and his 12-year-old pregnant sister—Keenen's way of letting them know they'd gone too far was to start humming this song from the classic redneck-sploitation film, Deliverance.

Tupac Shakur – "Keep Ya Head Up"

Tupac was close with Rosie Perez and, in general, a good friend of the show. It wasn't unusual for him to be hanging out backstage, and during Season 5, he made an appearance (as himself) in a sketch with Tommy Davidson and Jamie Foxx. So why was he never a musical guest on the show? Because the one time he was scheduled to perform he got into a brawl with his limo driver in the studio parking lot, and was literally dragged from the backstage area by a retinue of police officers who came and arrested him, while Perez shrieked and the Fly Girls hid in their dressing rooms. Or as David Alan Grier put it to me, "a typical night at In Living Color."

Paula Abdul – "The Promise of a New Day"

Okay, this song kind of sucks, but it reminds me of the somewhat tumultuous relationship Abdul had with In Living Color. Many of the Fly Girls knew Abdul through dance circles, as did Rosie Perez. Which isn't the same thing as saying that they were all friends. Keenen has told a story about when Abdul beat out Perez for an Emmy for Best Choreography, Abdul graciously approached Perez backstage at the ceremony and told her the award should've been hers. Perez responded flatly: "I know." During Season 3, the show did a pretty vicious parody of this song, retitled "Promise of a Thin Me," that dogged Abdul for her weight, her dating life and a rumor that a backup singer had been singing her songs. Several of the Fly Girls appear in the sketch though Perez insists that she refused to choreograph it because it was too mean.

Donny Hathaway – "This Christmas"

Keenen had a pretty contentious relationship with FOX throughout the life of the show, but during Season 4, that relationship completely crumbled and Keenen quit the show. He happened to do this on a day in December when the show was being taped in front of a live studio audience. And as the old saying goes, the show must go on. For the final sketch, Jamie Foxx was set to sing this song as the entire cast gathered onstage around a piano to wish their viewers a "Happy Holidays." It was going to be a moment of rare earnestness on a show that normally didn't abide it. To watch the footage of this today, it looks a bit like a hostage video. Most of the cast is onstage, against their will, stone-faced, wearing dark sunglasses and black hats, refusing to sing along or even so much as smile. As Marlon Wayans put it to me, "All of us that were displeased stood in protest." Marlon left the show at that point, along with Keenen and Damon (Shawn and Kim were contractually obligated to stay and finish out most of the season). In Living Color was never quite the same again.

Notorious B.I.G. – "One More Chance/Stay With Me"

Conspiracy theorists, enjoy: On March 8th, 1997, Keenen and Marlon were at the same party as Biggie Smalls. That night, the rapper asked Marlon if he'd heard the shoutout he gave the Wayans family in this song. Marlon told him he had. Twenty minutes later, Biggie was shot and killed. Six months earlier, Marlon was hanging with the actor Omar Epps outside a Las Vegas hotel, when the two of them spotted their old friend Tupac getting into a car with Suge Knight. They went over, said a quick hello, shook hands, and watched Tupac drive away. Later that night, Tupac was shot and killed.

Bruno Mars f/Cardi B – "Finesse"

In the years since the show went off the air, it has stayed central to hip-hop culture, and has been namechecked in tons of songs by, among others, Ice Cube, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Drake, Vic Mensa and Vince Staples. But Bruno Mars went above and beyond, recreating the show's opening montage and its stage sets for the video for this song. Okay, technically, I was long done with the book by the time this went viral, but it was a nice reminder that I was not the only one who still thought of In Living Color fondly and often.


David Peisner and Homey Don't Play That! links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Bookforum review
Kirkus review

Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile of the author
BET interview with the author
Ebony profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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