Sunday, February 8, 2009
I became Misstra Knowitall in the den of my uncle's Cosby dream house. At the time I was an adolescent who had lived in many homes. My mother and I left Minneapolis when I was two-and-a-half to pursue my mother's pursuit of her destiny in Chicago. After she finished up at the University of Chicago, we moved to Los Angeles, where my father lived. Then we moved to Berkeley. And then Richmond. And then Berkeley. And Oakland. So, a large portion of my childhood was lived on the road.
But it was a different story when I visited my uncle back in Minneapolis. They had the nice house, the beautiful kids, the close family, the large den with the butter-soft leather couch. And my uncle had all this music. He had a library of music I had never heard, except in small doses from my father. This music was heady and funky and genius. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Funkadelic, the Temptations. I plugged in my uncle's headphones and made mixtap after mixtape for myself and my father. It was here that I discovered Stevie Wonder's Innervisions.
Innervisions is about the closest to a short story cycle you ever going to hear on record. The songs are a fractured narrative of a people searching for a hope that they can feel, but never touch. There are ruminations on the distance between political fantasy and reality. The measures that individuals take to escape their own perceptions (and doubts.) Moral tales about dreams deferred. Calls to prayer, and song. All of these stories build on each other to create a landscape, at once painful and beautiful.
And than there's "Misstra Know-it-all". The song, which details the misdeeds of a lying, cheating, huckster, is an attack on President Tricky Dick Nixon. Nixon, who was just a year into his second term when the album was released, was the prototypical Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, a la Parliament Funkadelic. Nixon was spying and stealing and lying and killing and just generally trying to destroy the producers of Funk, all in a vain attempt to escape the reality that if you have an ass it is gunna want to shake. No matter how tight it is.
On the song, Wonder reimagines Tricky Dick as Misstra Know-it-all. The character passes counterfeit money, is always cool, lies with a smile, and “is the kind of dude that won’t pay his debt.” In a few strokes, Wonder brings Nixon down to the level of a small-time crook. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to associate Misstra Know-It-All with the snake-like voice that tricks the protagonist from “Living for the City” to get arrested by the police. By representing what he considered the immoral ethos of a character like Nixon, Wonder makes a powerful political statement not only about the President, but all the Misstra Know-It-Alls of the world.
And that song, and album, was a large part of my funkucation. I was forever changed within the plush folds of my uncle's carpet. A part of me opened up and I took on the Misstra Knowitall moniker so as to never forgett: with great funk comes great responsibility. From then on, I swore allegiance to the funk. The whole funk, and nothing but the funk. Or so help me, funk.