Art Neville was a recognized genius, but not a well-compensated one A founder of both the Meters and the Neville Brothers, he brought the funk to New Orleans

It’s an all-too-common story: A fabulous black musician redefines a genre of music. He’s adored and emulated by other musicians, including famous white acts. But the financial rewards, for complicated reasons, don’t match up.

This week, we lost a real one: Singer and keyboardist Arthur Neville of New Orleans died Monday at 81. A principal founder of both the Meters and the Neville Brothers, his sound and singular coolness were central to the worlds of jazz, funk and soul music.

“Everyone in the industry digs us. … [But] I wanna go to the bank.”

Neville’s genius is forever attached to the city he loved. He was born on Dec. 17, 1937, and grew up in the Calliope Projects that would later raise another musical giant from the Crescent City in Master P. His career technically began as a 17-year-old in 1954, when he was a member of a school band called the Hawketts that recorded a cover of “Mardi Gras Mambo.” To this day, Neville’s fingerprints are all over Mardi Gras, and it’s impossible to fully embrace Fat Tuesday without his sound.

From there, Neville would help elevate New Orleans funk to an entirely new level. In an eight-year stretch between 1969 and 1977, Neville and the Meters (formerly known as Art Neville & the Neville Sounds) dropped eight albums. Their best known songs were “Cissy Strut,” “Fire on the Bayou” and “Hey Pocky A-Way.” Their 1974 album Rejuvenation was listed at No. 138 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The Meters toured with the Rolling Stones and won the adoration and respect of Paul McCartney — the band recorded a live album, Uptown Rulers, in 1975 from a performance at a release party for the former Beatle’s Venus and Mars album.

Art Neville’s genius is forever attached to New Orleans, the city he loved.

Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images

But the Meters grew frustrated with their lack of mainstream success. And like so many acts before and after them, that frustration (and drug usage) led the group to disband. It didn’t take long, though, for Neville to begin the next chapter of his career. Along with his three brothers, Aaron, Charles and Cyril, and their uncle George “Jolly” Landry, they formed the Neville Brothers in 1977. And like the Meters before them, they were beloved both in New Orleans and across the industry, although the financial reciprocation wasn’t always present.

“Everyone in the industry digs us. Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Huey Lewis — those cats was onstage watching us every night. The Stones was watching us. [But] I wanna go to the bank. For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.”

Between 1987 and 1990, the Neville Brothers released three albums that would ultimately cement their status as authentic sound leaders of their city and of their time. Uptown (1987) featured the likes of Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and others. Yellow Moon (1989) earned the group its first Grammy, best pop instrumental performance for “Healing Chant.” And the aptly titled Brother’s Keeper became a cultural touchstone for a city that has no shortage of them.

Neither Art nor the Meters or the Neville Brothers found runaway success, but the sound he created for his city won over the world. He’d tour and reunite with the Meters and Neville Brothers throughout his life. Neville even captured another Grammy in 1996 for his contributions to “SRV Shuffle,” found on A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Art Neville of the Funky Meters performs at Tipitina’s in New Orleans on Jan. 23, 2015.

Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

For as long as he could, Neville placed mind over matter and continued to perform despite mounting health issues. There were complications from back surgery and the effects of a stroke. Neville, though, would come to embody what Bob Marley and The Wailers once dubbed the medicine of music: One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. The stage was Neville’s sanctuary, where he felt safest and where fans felt most at peace.

“You can bring me there in the ambulance, roll me onto the stage, give me a microphone and mirror where I can see the people,” Neville said in 2013. “Man, look. I’ve been doing this all my life. I enjoy it. Even the bad part of it, the parts I didn’t like … I found out that’s the way things go sometimes. You’ve got to go along with them.”

The music industry didn’t always give him the flowers he deserved. It never does to most. Last year, the Meters received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles, although Neville wasn’t well enough to attend.

Still, he created art that has no expiration date. Neville earned his chops performing at establishments that may never be famous outside of NOLA, like Nite Cap in Uptown or Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street. But that’s the beauty about planting roots even if the world only gets to see what blossoms.

The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


2Pac’s birthday, GOATs and how we get hip-hop wrong Tupac’s place in hip-hop history was never about being the best rapper. It was always about his artistry.

June 16 would have been Tupac Shakur’s 48th birthday, and the iconic rapper’s legacy is still one of music’s most lauded — and one of its most contested.

Recently, author/commentator Marc Lamont Hill stirred a semi-hornets nest by declaring 2Pac “the most overrated rapper in the universe” on BET’s Black Coffee. “2Pac is overrated” sits alongside “the Beatles are overrated” as one of those “unpopular opinions” that have actually been quite pervasive for quite a long time. And, almost every time this conversation plays out, it reveals more about how we appraise greatness than it says about the uber-popular artist being slammed. 2Pac’s mythologized status makes him an easy target, and Hill’s co-hosts’ cries of outrage and disgust let him know they did not agree with his take.

“I know you love what Pac stands for!” Hill acknowledges to the others. “But actually rapping?!”

Tupac, seen here onstage at the Palladium in New York on July 23, 1993, is one of hip-hop’s most revered artists.

Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That’s almost always where the “2Pac is overrated” opinion starts. To be sure, 2Pac has never been the kind of lyricist that Jay-Z, Rakim, Biggie, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought, Big Pun and lots of other upper-echelon rhymers are. His early rhymes are almost alarmingly stiff and basic, and his later flow, while much more nimble and fluid, relies more on his melodicism than verbal agility. But 2Pac’s place in hip-hop history was never about him being the best at rapping, it was always about his artistry. And at some point in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

“Greatest of all time” (“GOAT”) conversations can be both fun and tiresome, the kind of barbershop debate that can go on for hours but has become the de facto way for too many actual platforms to appraise greatness. Disseminators are supposed to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, but even the most celebrated of rap commentators can sometimes have a reductive lens when it comes to canonizing the genre as a genre. To be certain, hip-hop has never been just a genre, but the ways in which we’ve underserved it as a genre specifically speak to how oversimplified our view of it has remained. And it’s apparent in how we see “greatest rapper” conversations.

At some point, in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

In the 1980s and ’90s, rap groups were among the biggest acts in hip-hop, so any “greatest hip-hop artists” lists would have included Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, etc. But because we’ve oversimplified the conversation as “greatest rappers,” it’s led to further muddying. “Greatest rapper” suggests a ranking/appraising of individuals. Can you extract individual members even if they’ve never released a solo album? That’s fine if you’re focused on rhyming ability — you can tell if someone can rap regardless of whether they’re solo or in a group. But if you’re appraising legacy/discography, you can’t give the entirety of that legacy to someone who was just one facet of what was a collective.

When discussing the “GOAT,” so many people don’t seem to consider that “greatest rapper” is an insufficient and cloudy distinction. Is that the artist you feel was greatest at rapping or is it the artist you feel has the greatest artistic legacy in hip-hop? Because greatness in hip-hop, like every genre, isn’t limited to a specific skill set. There are lots of people who can rap better than Gucci Mane, but Gucci Mane’s artistic legacy (quality of discography, the impact of that discography and scope of creative influence) is fairly untenable. If 2Pac was never rated so highly because people thought he was a supreme lyricist, that shouldn’t be grounds for calling him “overrated.” He was never “rated” so highly because of that in the first place.

The constant conversation around 2Pac as lyricist also seems to suggest that Pac is the only legendary figure in hip-hop who isn’t a top-tier rhymer. Artists like Too $hort and the late Pimp C are widely respected, but it’s not necessarily because they spit Black Thought-level bars. DMC has one of the most iconic hip-hop voices ever, but it’s apparent that Run was always much more dexterous on the microphone. The entirety of No Limit’s late-’90s roster (excluding Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X) was stacked with rappers of questionable ability. Chuck D is no slouch on the mic, but is he what you think of when you think of the most skilled lyricists? If we recognize that these legends’ skill as rhymers isn’t what totally defines their respective legacies, it’s hard for me to understand why 2Pac doesn’t get such allowances.

Appraising hip-hop greatness should not be about ranking who can rap the best; if you want to have that conversation, a “greatest MCs/lyricists” list works just fine. But just as there’s a difference between “greatest rhythm and blues singers” and “greatest R&B artists” (see also “greatest rock guitarists” and “greatest rock artists”), there is a difference between “greatest MCs” and “greatest hip-hop artists.” Critiquing the artists focuses more on their body of work and impact, less on specified skill proficiency. We should embrace that mindset more in hip-hop.

In the late 1990s, The Source published a “100 Greatest Albums” list that recognized the classic albums from the previous 20 years of hip-hop history. It was a great issue, with one of the all-time great covers: a pic of a brazen LL Cool J holding five mics. I remember picking up that issue eagerly and feeling like hip-hop had achieved a certain place; it was now a mature genre, old enough to go back through its history with a long lens and start canonizing that history. But as media moved from print to the web and as our attention spans got shorter, such lists started to change. I saw less “100 Greatest” and more “Top 5” and “Top 10.” I saw less that emphasized history and lineage and more that focused on “hottest rapper in the game” and “richest rappers.”

2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential.

There was definitely canonization of the artistic merits of artists and music, but it seemed to take a back seat to easy rankings designed to spark debate or just to stroke our fetish for vicariously basking in the luxuries of celebrities. That condensed canonization led to a dumbing down of our conversations around this genre as a genre. As a result, nuances like “great rapper or great hip-hop artist” fell by the wayside as we rushed to name an easy “G.O.A.T.” without ever distinguishing between technical prowess and creative legacy.

As an artist, 2Pac is one of hip-hop’s most revered, as Hill himself acknowledged. His artistic legacy deserves that reverence: 2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential. His brief career yielded a three-album run that still stands alongside the best in hip-hop (Me Against the World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati) and one “group” effort that should be mentioned way more (1994’s Thug Life: Volume 1).

He’s also been overly sanitized for the sake of easy martyrdom and hypermythologized to the point of caricature. But in this age of “I said what I said” hyperbole and overstatement, it’s easy to hurl gigantic rocks at our most popular figures. Is 2Pac overrated? Yes, but not uniquely so. And, as these things often do, the backlash against his legacy is leading to him becoming underrated by those eager to dismiss him as a mediocre artist just because he couldn’t rap as well as some others. If that’s not what your legacy is in the first place, then it sounds like building a straw man, offering an arbitrary dismissal. Hip-hop warrants more nuance than that.