Thursday, April 26, 2012

Slow Jamming The News - A Non-Political Analysis

Edited by Azizi Powell

Definition of "slow jamming" - a form of spoken word poetry in which social, political, and/or religious commentary is performed to the accompaniment of slow tempo or moderately tempo instrumental music.
-Azizi Powell

I first became aware of the term "slow jam the news" as a result of President Obama appearance on April 24, 2012 on a "slow jamming the news" segment of the American NBC television comedy/talk show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon".

As an African American with an interest in slang, I confess that I had no knowledge of the term "slow jam the news" before reading about that segment with President Obama. I knew that in African American vernacular, one meaning of "jam" is "a record" or "a song". And I knew that "slow jams" were R&B songs that have a slow or moderate tempo. But when did "slow jam" become a verb?

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia page for the phrase "slow jam" agrees with my definition of that term:

"A slow jam is an umbrella term for music with R&B and Soul influences. Slow jams are commonly R&B ballads or downtempo songs. The term is most commonly reserved for soft-sounding songs with heavily emotional or romantic lyrical content.... The common use and possible origin of this term traces back to 1983 when Solar Records group Midnight Star recorded the song "Slow Jam" on their album No Parking on the Dance Floor."

I'm uncertain who coined the phrase "slow jam the news". Maybe it was Jimmy Fallon, or maybe it was Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter who leads the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band The Roots. That Hip Hop musician appears to be an integral part of that late night American show's slow jam the news" segment. Or maybe the phrase "slow jam the news" was coined by someone else who is associated with that show. It's also possible that the phrase "slow jam the news" originated elsewhere and was picked up by Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. However, if a person or persons associated with the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show didn't actually coin the phrase "slow jam the news", that show certainly is responsible for popularizing that term.

The earliest online references that I've found for "slow jam the news" is March 2, 2009, the debut date for the NBC talk/comedy show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.


"The debut episode received mixed to negative reviews across the board and was considered to have "arrived needing plenty of work".... However, interaction with the show's house band, The Roots, was applauded and it was noted that "a bit in which Fallon sang a "slow jam" version of the news succeeded, in large part, thanks to Roots' typically taut playing and singer Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter's impeccable voice and surprisingly good comic timing."
Special guest Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News appears to be closely associated with the "slow jam the news" segment on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Here's a link to a video of a Dec 16, 2010 "slow jam the news" segment that features Jimmy Fallon, Tariq Trotter, and Brian Williams: "Late Nights:Obama's Tax Plan Gets Slow Jammed; Steele To Run For Second Term"

uploaded by NationalJournal on Dec 16, 2010

"Pres. Obama's deal with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts is too much for Jimmy Fallon to handle. Fortunately NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams steps in to help Fallon slow jam the news. Fallon, in slow jam: "Democrats say Obama can't satisfy their legislative desires 'cause he's gone soft. Is he cheating on them with the Republicans?" "
[embedding disabled by request]

Jimmy Fallon and President Obama Slow Jams the News with The Roots

ABC News Published on Apr 25, 2012

President Barack Obama appears on the late night show to "slow jam" with host Jimmy Fallon.
*This video was embedded on June 10, 2016 as another example of this video that I had embedded in this post is no longer available.

Since Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is a comedy/talk show, it's not surprising that "the slow jam the news" segments has comedic content & delivery. Those segments also has canned? audience laughter. But those segments also contain pointed political commentary.

The slow jam the news segments begin with this scripted introduction:
“I was going to make a joke about this news, but I don’t think it needs a joke. You know what I’m talking about, Tariq,” Fallon asks The Roots singer.

I think you’re saying you want to slow jam this news,” says Tariq.

“That’s right I want to slow jam the news. And I’m not the only one!”
That comment serves as introduction for the main speaker (usually Brian Williams, anchor for the NBC Nightly News). Brian Williams is a very respected reporter, and participating in a comedy skit is definitely a departure from how he usually is seen on television.

The news focuses on a specific hot topic. That topic is "slow jammed" with accompaning instrumental music, and a call & response format that includes not only the lead speaker, but also two alternating respondents. Jimmy Fallon gives comedic spoken comments & interjections and Tariq Trotter sings his comments. The content is scripted and includes "in jokes" that refer to current social news as well as current political news.

Throughout the segment, the Roots band plays moderately slow instrumental music. The music sounds kinda jazzy to me.

At the end of the segment, the microphones are purposely dropped to the floor. This adds to the comic nature of that segment. It occurs to me that the great R&B singer James Brown used to drop his micropone like that. I wonder if that's where the idea for dropping the mike came from.

Without question, the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon segment of "slow jam the news" that has received the most attention to date is the April 24, 2012 appearance by United States President Barack Obama. (I'm sure that the April 24, 2012 date wasn't coincidental as it was a primary election day in a number of USA states. Reports about President Obama "slow jamming the news" surely took some of the focus away from Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican contender for the November Presidental election.)

Here's a news report and a transcript of that segment:

Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 04/25/2012
Jimmy Fallon and President Obama slow jam the news
By Lisa de Moraes

"President Obama made his first appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s NBC late night show at UNC-Chapel Hill Tuesday night to slow-jam the news with Fallon and The Roots.

“You guys might have seen this in the news, but President Obama has asked Congress to stop the interest rate on Stafford student loans from going up this summer,” Fallon says early in the show.

“I was going to make a joke about this news, but I don’t think it needs a joke. You know what I’m talking about, Tariq,” Fallon asks The Roots singer.

I think you’re saying you want to slow jam this news,” says Tariq.

“That’s right I want to slow jam the news. And I’m not the only one!”

Curtain opens. Out walks Obama.

“I’m President Barack Obama. And I too want to slow jam the news!” says Obama.

Obama, taking the Brian Williams role, begins

PRESIDENT OBAMA: On July first of this year the interest rate on Stafford student loans, the same loans many of you use to help pay for college, are set to double. That means some hard working students will be paying about a thousand dollars extra just to get their education. So I’ve called on Congress to prevent this from happening. What we’ve said is simple: now is not the time to make school more expensive for our young people.

JIMMY FALLON: Oh yeah. You should listen to the President – or, as I like to call him, the Preezy of the United Steezy…Things are heating up inside of Congress’s chambers, behind all those closed doors. So the president made a few discreet calls across the aisle. He said ‘Hey, let’s get together on this one.” With college getting more expensive, is it enough by itself to satisfy all your collegiate needs? Ah, Pell no!

“If Congress doesn’t act it’s the student who pay. The right and left should join on this, like Kim and Kanye,” sings Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now there’s some in Congress who disagree. They say keeping the interest rate low isn’t the way to help our students. They say we should be doing everything we can to pay down the national debt. Well, so long as it doesn’t include taxing billionaires. But their position is that students just have to make this rate increase work. Frankly I don’t buy it.

JIMMY FALLON: Mmm-mmm-mmm! The Barackness Monster ain’t buying it. We all know our legislative bodies in the House, tossing and turning late into the night, but still Republicans disagree and could even filibuster. But, if they do, the president said, they’re gonna feel it, buster.

“The GOP is steady saying ‘No, no no!’ They should find something new to do like Tom Tebow,” sings Tariq."

I'll leave the discussion about the content of President Obama's slow jam the news segment to political commenters, except to say that "Yes, our President is cool" (in the most complimentary sense of the word "cool".)

As a self-professed community folklorist, my focus here is to document what certainly appears to me the contextual change in the term "slow jam" from a noun to a verb. "Slow jams" are still certain slow to moderate tempo songs, but people "slow jamming" can now mean more than playing, singing, dancing, or listening to slow songs. And apparently, other things besides the news can be "slow jammed".

Here's a comedic video of "slow jamming the announcements":

Miami HEAT Fan Conduct Announcement Slow Jammed

Uploaded by HEATGirlWonder on Nov 30, 2009

Jason Jackson and Dangerflow slow jam the NBA Fan Conduct Announcement. Ahhhhh yeahhhhhh.....
I consider this video to be quite creative. The content was given in a call & response format with two participants- the lead speaker (caller) and a respondent (singer). The topic of the "slow jam announcement" was in a comedic/serious manner. I believe that thhe main speaker taking off his jacket towards the beginning of that segment was (another) nod to the Godfather of Soul James Brown. I don't know what ratings Miami Heats fans gave that video, but I'd give it five stars (the highest rating in the YouTube video rating system that has been retired for at least a year now).

And "slow jamming the news" isn't just limited to the United States. I've found several YouTube videos of a Dutch program with a "slow jam the news segment. (The only way I knew that people were speaking Dutch is that I googled the acronymn for those videos). Here's one example of those segments (re-posted with fingers crossed (in a manner of speaking) in hopes that the people aren't saying anything profane or rude (in the British sense of that word):

Slow Jam The News, DWDD, 16-02-2011

uploaded by nicodijkshoornnet on Feb 17, 2011

Onder muzikale begeleiding van Nico Dijkshoorn en zijn band Hankfive, bespreekt Joop van Zijl op ludieke wijze het nieuws.
There appeared to be just two participants in that DWDD "slow jam the news" segment - the main speaker, and a second person who sang while playing the guitar. Unlike the Jimmy Fallon show, apart from introducing that segment, that progran's host doesn't appear to actively participate in the "slow jam the news" segment.

The Dutch segment appeared to contain some comedy as a small amount of audience laughter could be heard from time to time. Unfortunately, the only words that aren't in Dutch during those segments are the words "slow jam the news" and "the internet". I wonder how to say "slow jam the news" in in Dutch & I wonder why those words weren't said in Dutch. Btw, I recognized references to the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but I didn't know what was said about him.

I believe that "slow jamming the news" and alternative examples such as "slow jamming the announcements" are forms of the performance art known as "spoken word".

Spoken word is a form of poetry that often uses alliterated prose or verse and occasionally uses metered verse to express social commentary. Traditionally it is in the first person, is from the poet’s point of view and is themed in current events...

Spoken word poetry originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and blues music.

Modern day spoken word poetry became popular in the underground African-American community in the 1960s with the Last Poets. The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group that was birthed from the African-American Civil Rights movement.

Spoken word poetry came more towards the mainstream in popularity a short time later when Gil Scott Heron released his spoken word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.

In the late 1970s Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman brought modern spoken word poetry into written form with the release of her poetry collection, Mad Dog, Black Lady in 1979 on Black Sparrow Press.
With regard to spoken word originating in the Blues, here's an excerpt from about "Talking Blues":
A talking blues typically consists of a repetitive guitar line utilizing a three chord progression which, although it is called a "blues", is not actually a twelve bar blues. The vocals are sung in a rhythmic, flat tone, very near to a speaking voice, and take the form of rhyming couplets. At the end of each verse, consisting of two couplets, the singer continues to talk, adding a fifth line consisting of an irregular, generally unrhymed, and unspecified number of bars, often with a pause in the middle of the line, before resuming the strict chordal structure.
Spoken word with musical accompaniment can be traced to the jelis/griot cultures of West Africa and elsewhere. In the United States & the Caribbean, spoken word also has its contemporary expression in Rap & Dancehall Reggae. Many Rap & Reggae recordings feature more than one speaker (rappers), a featured singer, and background music. It also seems to me that the call & response interaction of the Black minister, the congregation, the organist, pianist, and choir particularly toward the conclusion of the minister's sermon are expressions of the same group performance that is found in "spoken word" in general & "slow jamming the news" in particular. It's not just Black folks whose music and spoken words are performed in call & response patterns. But I don't think it's coincidental that that television show which features the "slow jam the news" segment has a young, hip African American musical group as its house band. That the house band's name is The Roots is an extra special nod from the Cosmos.*

My conclusion is that “slow jamming the news” is a form of spoken word poetry in which social and/or political commentary is performed to the accompaniment of slow tempo or moderately tempo instrumental music (usually jazz). At present, slow jamming the news appears to be performed with at least two people - a main speaker & a respondent who sings and/or makes pithy comments or jokes about what the main speaker said. And at present, slow jamming the news appears to always include comedic elements. It'll be interesting to see if "slow jamming the news" is ever done on television without comedic content & delivery. Too much comedic content & comedic delivery - including the use of certain accents & word pronounciations can be reminisent of minstrelsy.

Yes, we can move beyond minstrelsy in our performance art. More power to that idea. Let's get that jam on, slow or otherwise!

"The Roots is an American hip hop/neo soul band formed in 1987 by Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They are known for a jazzy, eclectic approach to hip hop which includes live instrumentals."

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