House Music Is My Religion, Says Professor

Author and professor Lester Spence recently spoke to Tell Me More about his book, Stare in the Darkness, which explores the influence of hip-hop music on American politics. But he says his personal playlist is made up of new and classic house tracks. He offers up his favorite cuts.

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We want to end today's program with a feature we call In Your Ear. That's where we ask some of our guests what they're listening to these days. Today we hear from Barbershop regular, political science professor Lester Spence. We spoke with him recently about his new book, "Stare in the Darkness," a book that explores hip-hop's influence on politics. So it seemed fitting to know what music he finds inspiring.


LESTER SPENCE: So, this is Lester Spence, and what I am going to do is talk about some of the tracks that I'm listening to. Now, house music is like my religion. So "Strings of Life" is a track by Rhythm Is Rhythm, one of Derrick May's pseudonyms.


SPENCE: I grew up listening to techno. And "Strings of Life," I love it, because it's really melodic and really anthemic.


SPENCE: It touched me so much, I actually named my dissertation after it. It's really, really, really powerful. And it holds up even 20 years later, just an absolutely brilliant track.


SPENCE: So another track that I really, really like is a Kem remix of "Heaven." Now, the track is about a woman that he's found heaven in, right? But one of the things I love about house music that house music DJs do at their best is they take us outside of ourselves, right? They take us to a magical place that feels like I imagine heaven feels like.


KEM: (Singing) Something's happening to me. The man I used to be, he's gone. He gave up his life...

SPENCE: Every time I hear that track - and if you get the right DJ, they'll loop it, they'll loop it, loop it to build up, to build up the energy. It's like I'm almost in tears, because like yes, heaven's inside of you. Heaven's inside of you.


KEM: (Singing) Where the love of a lifetime resides in you. Girl, there's heaven...

SPENCE: We all need that magic every now and then. And a track like that, it sends me every time - every time, it sends me.


KEM: (Singing) Girl, and it's so meant to be.


ERIK B AND RAKIM: (Rapping) Rakim'll say. Rakim'll say.

SPENCE: Finally, I'm going to give a shout-out to another old classic. So my book is called "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics." Both the title and every chapter comes from "Follow the Leader," by Eric B and Rakim. That track, he is literally revolutionary.


RAKIM: (Rapping) Follow me into a solo, get in the flow, and you could picture, like a photo. Music makes mellow, maintains to make melodies for MCs, motivates the breaks. I'm everlasting...

SPENCE: He's employing the technique of alliteration, right, and he's the first MC to do that.


RAKIM: (Rapping) ... that's rarely heard. Flip it. Now it's a daily word. I can get illin' at normal killin'. Bambino along, Rakim'll remain calm. Self-esteem make me super superb and supreme. Before a microphone, still, I fiend. This was a take I wasn't supposed to break. I was supposed to wait, but let's motivate. I wanna see 'em keep followin' and swallowin'. Takin' the makin', bitin' and borrowin'.

SPENCE: Rap is nothing but a lyric and a beat. But even given that, we had all these ideas about what rap could and could not be about. And with that passage, that passage, where he takes the listener literally through the galaxy, it's like at that passage, a rap becomes like Afro futuristic. And that's a track that's more than 20 years old, but that's a track that really, really still speaks to me today.


RAKIM: (Rapping) ...your knowledge took. So keep starin', soon you suddenly see a star. You better follow it 'cause it's the R. This is a lesson.

MARTIN: That was Barbershop regular and author, political science professor Lester Spence, telling us what's playing in his ear.


RAKIM: (Rapping) Follow the leader. Rakim'll say follow the leader. Rakim'll say...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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