Once the most powerful man in show business, and the self-proclaimed King of Pop, Michael Jackson has seen it all (and perhaps done it all, if certain outstanding legal issues are any indication). A star at the age of 11, a boy with his own cartoon on Saturday morning TV, young Michael was cocooned in a thick web of glitz that to this day has not dissipated. Moving from The Jackson Five to a solo career, his single “Ben” became a hit, perhaps the only heartfelt song of love about a killer rat ever to reach #1 on the charts. When his solo career began to waver, Jackson teamed up with Quincy Jones for his album, Off the Wall, which rocketed him to stardom yet again. Then he made the biggest selling album in history, Thriller, achieving near perfect genre crossover with a little help from MTV. No one could gracefully decend from such heights, yet with his ranch full of amusement park rides and his beloved pal, Bubbles the Chimp, Michael was ready for a nose dive. Accusations of child molestation, incoherent public appearances, and a series of ever more baroque surgeries that left his nose in a near-detachable state, all took their toll on his reputation.
In 1935 the Hoboken Four won Major Bowes’ Radio Amateur Hour, and Frank Sinatra could very well be the most successful member of that memorable quartet. He then went on to become a teen idol and the star of Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Soon his performances in minor films lead to an MGM contract and work as a full time celebrity of mixed reputation. By the ‘50s however Sinatra’s career had run out of steam; he needed a boost. “From Here to Eternity” provided exactly that, earning Sinatra an Oscar for best supporting actor. There are speculations, most notably in “The Godfather” as to how Frank landed this role, but no one can deny his star potential. In the ‘50s, with Nelson Riddle’s elegant arrangements, Sinatra rabidly clawed his way back up the pop charts. Rock & Roll became his main competitor, but Frank managed to hold his own, producing one successful album after another with his own lable, Reprise. Known as the leader of the Rat Pack, Frank was on top of the world, and he wouldn’t let anyone forget it. Like the zombie of 20th century music, Sinatra even rose up one last time to record Duets in 1993, with a number of popular vocalists, his best selling album of all time.
In 1980, a new generation of kids were desperately searching for a different sort of sound. For a few years they seemed to think Missing Persons offered it. Ex-Playboy bunny and plexi-glass bra wearing Dale Bozzio earned enough heavy rotation on fledgling MTV to wear down the defences of a listening public unused to the sythesizer-heavy sound of their hits, “Destination Unknown,” and “Words.” Soon, they were ubiquitous. A few short years later they were anti-ubiquitous. By 1984, their star had begun to set, and a brief foray into club-oriented dance music layed the foundation for a truly spectacular lack of success. Never before had the band’s name been so apt. The marriage of Dale Bozzio and her husband Terry quickly went the way of the group, and the rest of the members found session work around Hollywood in one form or another. Then came the innevitable wave of nostalgia and a resurgence in all things 1980. Missing Persons formed, reformed, and reformed yet again in various and sundry warring combinations, as they played their familiar songs for crowds of now paunchy new wavers and retro-chic youngsters with a yen for straight ties and tight white buttoned-down shirts. When last seen, Missing Persons were in search of a missing record deal.
Lead by Jon Bongiovi, who later re-named himself after his own band, Bon Jovi brought teen arena-metal to the masses, becoming the pre-eminent pop-metal group of the late ‘80s. When a demo he recorded became popular in his hometown, Bongiovi quickly formed a band to support it. One quick bidding war later, Bon Jovi’s first album became a minor American hit. When their next seemed to sputter out, the team hunkered down with corporate honchos and devised a winning strategy. They hired a professional writer, and soon Bon Jovi demo’d 30 new songs to a pack of slavering teenaged girls, who collectively determined the songs, the cover, and the order of album. Slippery When Wet became a money-making legend and crowned Bon Jovi kings of pop-metal. They retained their crown for the next few years, using the same formula to release one successful album after another. By the middle ‘90s however, tastes had veered away from anthemic pop balladry, and Bon Jovi seemed destined for the reunion tour racket. But never one to be discouraged, Jon regrouped in 2000 and released Crush, an album that introduced the band to a whole new pack of slavering teens and earned them double platinum success.
Where would the ‘80s be without INXS? Some might say a little closer to heaven, but they’re just spoilers refusing to open their minds to the sugary pop sounds that defined a decade. Taking the promise (and perhaps the threat) of new wave into the mainstream and carrying it to its logical and ultimately unsaleable extreem, INXS managed to record a series of top forty pop hits that were as inescapable in their time as they are invisible on the present day’s radio dial. Combining the rich, white-soulful voice of Michael Hutchence with crystal clear production and tidy funk-like rhythms, INXS became stars down under before breaking into the American “new wave” with their US debut, the annoyingly titled, Shabooh Shoobah. They became international stars with multi-platinum, Kick, and its single, “Need You Tonight.” The release of Kick marked the high point of ‘80s pop and a high point for the band. INXS were regarded as the next rock superstars. Then came the ‘90s and they were suddenly as popular as a Hawaiian shirt at a Morissey convention. INXS still toiled away however, until Hutchence’s death in ’97, which was either suicide or an autoerotic hanging gone awry.
The Kurt Cobain of hip hop, 2Pac is more influential post mortem than he ever was during his troubled life. Considering the number of posthumous releases he’s also more productive. Hooking up with Digital Underground as a dancer, 2Pac made a name with his debut, 2Pacalypse Now. After two successful film roles, his next release, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z, went platinum and 2Pac was a star. Whether the thug life caught up with him or he simply wanted to act out his part, the rapper quickly found himself in legal trouble. Assaulting a director, homicide charges, and a conviction for sexual assault earned him 4 years in jail on the very day 2Pac was shot by a pair of New Yorkers in a botched robbery. In jail, as album three hit number one, 2Pac publicly blamed Notorious B.I.G. and his own friend Randy Walker for the crime. With help from his record lable, Death Row, 2Pac was soon parolled, and Randy Walker was soon shot to death on the anniversary of 2Pac’s robbery. As his next album went platinum, his future still seemed hopeful, until four shots rang out in Vegas while riding with Suge Knight, president of Death Row. Whether Notorious B.I.G ordered the hit, or Knight’s own enemies, 2Pac was immediately raised to the status of legend.
The grandfather of gangsta rap and the G-funk sound, Dr. Dre can be heard in one form or another in every aspect of modern rap. Adequate as a rapper but brilliant as a producer, Andre (the giant) Young became famous with his work in N.W.A. After a trio of best selling albums that virtually invented gangsta rap, he left to form Death Row Records with criminal mastermind, Suge Knight. Elevating his sound to a new funk-heavy extreme with the insinuating vocals of Snoop Doggy Dog, Dre’s first single, “Deep Cover,” was an instant success. The Chronic, his full length album starring Dre and Snoop, went multi-platinum and took hip hop in a new direction, due mostly to Dre’s excellent production skills. Over the next few years, Dr. Dre managed Death Row and served as the svengali behind a number of successful albums, including Doggystyle by Snoop Doggy Dog, and Ice Cube’s solo album, Natural Born Killaz. Eventually, however, by 1996 Dre began to tire of his situation, of gangsta rap, and of his thuggish boss, Suge Knight. Andre’s new lable, Aftermath, wasn’t an immediate success, but thanks to his work with Eminem and others he has regained his status on the top of the charts.
Although claiming the title of Canada’s Best Rapper might seem equivalent to Malaysia’s Best Bowler or Afganistan’s Prettiest Lapdancer, one shouldn’t forget that Toronto is a world class city with world class musicians, including rapper and production whiz, Kardinal Offishall. The eloquent Jamaican-influenced artist behind Eye & I and Quest for Fire: Firestarter Volume 1 started young. Jason Harrow (aka Kardinal Offishall) had a Canadian publishing deal by the age of twenty, mixing a hodgepodge of influences into his hip hop, including dancehall, soul, and reggae. Earning a Juno award for his production work on the Rascalz hit, “Northern Touch,” Kardinal brought a new style to backing beats and a fresh new attitude. Ignoring the usual ‘profanity as spaceholder’ in rap lyrics, Kardinal prefers to steer clear of the American stereotypes so prevalent in gangsta rap. Unlike so many stateside rappers from comfortable, suburban homes, Kardinal prefers to sing about his real life rather than nonexistent drive-by shootings and endless ‘n’-word mantras. All of which isn’t to say that his albums don’t carry a parental warning sticker; sex and the occasional substance abuse are plenty familiar to the denizens of Toronto as well as Los Angeles.
Industrial, German, heavy metal stars Rammstein formed in 1993 around Till Lindemann, an Olympic swimmer with a taste for loud noise and arson. Channeling these urges into a productive vocation, the six humor-challenged metal fans named their band after a town where three Italian jets collided in 1988, killing 80 people. Since this was an American display of aerial acrobatics, it was only fitting that their debut, Herzeleid, landed on our own shores. First rising to common consciousness as the gravel voiced noise band used during the nightmarish climax of David Lynch’s movie, Lost Highway, metal and industrial fans soon picked up the CD in respectable numbers. Back at home, where loud grinding anger is more highly respected, the boys’ follow up album, Sehnsucht (or Longing) was released in 1997 and it became a number one best seller. Eventually Slash Records in the states picked it up, and their next release, Mutter, came out in 2001. After the Columbine massacre in which two disaffected kids shot a number of their classmates, Rammstein was named as an influence. Afterward, the band firmly disavowed slaughter as a means of solving ones personal problems.
Tom Petty has looked the same for the last 20 years of his career, and if he were more attractive it might lead one to assume he’d sold his soul to the devil. But hard work may have had something to do with his creative longevity. By the late ‘70s he‘d already dropped a band, formed another, and released his first album. Petty quickly made a name for himself with such classics as “Renegade,” and “American Girl.” But unlike so many music makers of the period, Tom Petty managed to maintain both critical and audience appeal by focusing on solid songwriting. His trippy music videos during the ‘80s introduced Petty to a new generation of listeners, and with help from the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart on production, Petty expanded his sound on Southern Accents. Introducing psychedelic and even so-called ‘new wave’ influences, his song, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” helped propel him to another platinum success. In 1988 Petty succumbed to the supergroup syndrome and formed the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Inspired by the experience, Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, which went triple platinum. And the records just kept coming…
The first and perhaps most edgy sexually-explicit, female rapper, Lil’ Kim came to public attention with her appearance on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s debut album, Conspiracy. Unlike virtually every other woman in the business, Lil’ Kim took on both the hard edge and the confidant sexuality of her male peers. Within just a few albums of material she has become one of the most eloquent of the hardcore rappers, using her profane wordplay to support a unique brand of what might be called feminism — if feminism could be described as an insistence on oral sex from a man before a night of passion. Perhaps living on the streets of New York as a teen helped Lil’ Kim develop her highly profitable tone of aggressive female sexuality, or perhaps it was the tutelage of her mentor, the late Biggie Smalls. Regardless, Lil’, with her oddly placed apostrophe, took the hip hop world by storm with her first solo album, the apply named Hardcore. Ms. Kim’s duet with Sean “Puff Daddy” “P.Diddy” Combs immediately became a number one single on rap radio. Using her natural beauty and the adornment of nearly nonexistant articles of clothing, she has garnered a wealth of well-earned publicity.