Before I really knew that I liked A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Can I Kick It?‘, I liked Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. The twin interlocking bass lines, core to the former, had been borrowed from the latter in one of the most blatant examples of riff appropriation in contemporary music history. The more common route is for rap artists to lean on lyrical excerpts from other artists that preceded them (although Nas’ eighth album ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ made quite a show of adapting Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable‘) or to chop things up to such an extent that the original is barely recognisable in the transformed product (see: Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique‘). The less frequent occurrence is when a rap artist takes something that was obviously popular in the not too distant past and repurposes it for their uses. My initial attraction to ‘Can I Kick It?’ came not from the rhetorical refrain that punctuates the song (the obscured meaning of which was probably too hip to be fully comprehended on first listen) but from the sample that lay under Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s rhymes.
This is not a post about hip-hop. I utilise that opening anecdote only in order to acknowledge how I came to Lou Reed and ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. Regardless of its ills and prejudices, hip-hop remains one of the most important gateway genres out there; it helps open the ears of those who might otherwise be deaf to particular sounds. Such was the case with Reed who, as frontman of The Velvet Underground – a band I know little, but am constantly aware that I should know more, about – was, according to many, one of the formative figures of music in the 1960s. The critical/commercial mismatch story is a common one and The Velvet Underground, while going on to sell only 30,000 copies of their debut LP, made significant waves in the industry. The famous quote is one from Brian Eno who suggested that even with numbers that low, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” With immediate cultural impact as significant as that, it’s little wonder that Reed, in his solo artist manifestation, went on to influence one of the formative hip-hop groups of the 1990s all those years later.
What I really like about ‘Walk On The Wildside’ is that, as much as its use by ATCQ 20 years down the track on their debut record ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’ is slightly contextually incongruous, the song itself throws up some intriguing contrasts. Chief among those is the way that slinky bass line (David Bowie produced, no less) lulls the listener into a false sense of security. Released in 1972 as part of his second solo album after returning to music from working as a typist at an accounting firm, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ sounds nothing like the content contained within. As that omnipresent, astoundingly distinct bass riff rolls on, assisted by saccharine strings in parts, Reed casually saunters across what were taboo themes at the time (transsexualism, oral sex, male prostitution), never really moving up out of first gear in terms of his delivery. For me, it is this nonchalance towards the havoc he must have been wreaking in the minds of concerned parents of kids listening to his sophomore effort, ‘Transformer’, that really excites the piece. Assisted by the doowop backing vocals of a girl group called Thunderthighs (for real), Reed displays a measured confidence – not arrogant and not bravado but comfortable – that makes me think I could listen to a spoken word ‘Walk On The Wildside’ that went for 8′ rather than 4′ quite easily. Effortlessly hip, Lou Reed can kick it.
Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side