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Adrian Younge Talks Channeling Marvin Gaye & James Baldwin To Create 'The American Negro'

Adrian Younge

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Adrian Younge Talks Channeling Marvin Gaye & James Baldwin To Create 'The American Negro'

Adrian Younge's moving 26-track album, 'The American Negro,' combines spoken word, classic soul and free jazz sensibilities

GRAMMYs/Feb 27, 2021 - 07:31 pm

"Sadly, this album will never be out of date, but I know the universal language of sound will reverberate beyond my years. Listen closely. Raise your children to love like children; embrace humanity, regardless of hue."

With those words, Adrian Younge closes his latest album, The American Negro. The moving 26-track album, released Feb. 26, combines spoken word, classic soul and free jazz sensibilities. 

Everything the Los Angeles-based multi-hyphenate (He's a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, singer, and label head) does pays tribute to his roots and is filled with heart and soul. Beyond using analog equipment to pay homage to golden era soul records of the '60s and '70s, he's composed T.V. and film scores for "Luke Cage," Black Dynamite and others. On his latest musical project, he crafts a haunting, powerful soundtrack of America and her racist past and present. With it, he shines a light on the harm this country has inflicted on Black people so we can enact change and move forward together.

 

Ahead of its release, GRAMMY.com caught up with Younge over Zoom to learn more about his vision for the project—which also includes a film and a podcast—and how Marvin Gaye and James Baldwin inspired it. The "Revolutionize" artist also explains the magic of analog recording and the power of spoken word.

Your powerful new album, The American Negro, is out now. What is your hope for this project once people get to hear it?

My hope for this project is that people receive the message. And the message about the evolution of racism in America. Most people don't realize how America pioneered the racism that has affected the entire world.

In America, we're a nation that is derivative from a slaveocracy. We didn't just have the enslaved, we're a nation that was formed around the concept of maintaining a slave system. So when our laws are being created, when our constitution is being drafted, when people are making money at the cost of Black lives, it's something that gets fermented into our system. It's become institutionalized and we still feel the vestige of that today.

And most people don't understand the connection to the past. A lot of people say, "Oh, there isn't slavery [anymore]," or "The civil rights laws were passed." But people don't understand that when an institution that you believe in is complacent towards certain people based on their skin color, it has a negative effect on posterity for all. With this album, I really want people to become better educated on what's going on and be able just to disseminate the message. That's what it's really about.

Read: Terence Blanchard On The Music Behind 'Da 5 Bloods,' Working With Spike Lee And The Lasting Impact Of Marvin Gaye

In what ways did James Baldwin and Marvin Gaye inspire the music and the message?

So with Marvin Gaye, he's one of my favorite artists of all time, if not my favorite. My two favorite albums by him are I Want You and What's Going On. I have to put What's Going On on top because it's more important than just my enjoyment of hearing the composition of the melodies.

Not only do I love the composition, the melodies and the recording, but the message resonates on such a higher frequency than everything else. The reason being that he's talking about life. He's not just talking about love and "let's have sex" and "let's get married." He's talking about life sh*t. He's talking about changing the future for our children. He's talking about real change ecologically. He's talking about change in regard to discrimination to how the people coming back from patriotically serving in the war are being perceived. He's talking about so much that resonates with people like myself who want to be as virtuous as possible.

So that, coupled with James Baldwin, who is such an intellectual scholar and poet, talking about the Black consciousness, talking about what it's like to live our lives, even though we're in a place that looks at us as the face of evil, in many cases. His work combined with Marvin Gaye's work is what inspired me to make this. Because I don't really see many musicians trying to create that kind of work at this moment. People talk about certain issues, but not many have invested themselves to this degree of making something for the purpose of change.

Listening to James Baldwin's words and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, it is crazy, how much they could have been written last year or this year.

It could be coming out in two weeks. That's how relevant it is, right?

On your "Black Lives Matter" track, you talk about how America is pretending to be blind. What do you think we, as a country, can do to finally stop pretending to be blind to this system of deeply embedded racial injustice?

There are so many things. First of all, just educate people. My seven-year-old daughter was talking to me last night about who she's learning about right now [in school.] She's learning about Abraham Lincoln. I'm like, "Oh, dope. What do you know? What are you learning?"

"Oh, he was the 16th president and he helped to free the slaves," [she said.] I was like, "Do you know where the slaves came from?" So I'm talking to her about that. I'm not ready to hit her with, well, did you know that Abraham Lincoln actually didn't really care about the disposition of  Black people? And actually, him and Thomas Jefferson at various times were trying to figure out how to send [freed] Black [slaves] people back to Africa. It's not like that's something I want her to learn as she grows. But this is the kind of stuff that we did not learn in school.

I say this all to say that with The American Negro, I want to stimulate thought and help people that don't have malice to act in a way that's not racist. A lot of people that act racist aren't doing it intentionally. They're just following custom and don't realize certain things. It's up to America to help them.

You're right, it's difficult to summarize all the things we need to do. Which is why things like The New York Times' 1619 Project are so powerful because it draws direct links between way back then and, for example, our banking system now. American capitalism was founded on slavery.

Even moreover, American capitalism is based on white imperialism, which is supported under the doctrine of manifest destiny. These white males at the time felt that they had the God-given right and authority to expand their nations throughout the world. Expanding westward in America and killing all the [Native Americans] was manifest destiny. "We're making their life better. They can be civilized." It's a very paternalistic perspective. And this is still happening today.

Can you speak a little bit to your reasoning for using spoken word on the album?

I was a law professor for a few years, and in my teachings I loved to research Jim Crow laws, Black codes, slave codes. These were laws that were created to subjugate the Black person and edify the white male and female.

I wanted to create an album where I'm synthesizing music that speaks to Black excellence. Music that is run underground, but it's so opulent with rich textures and an orchestra that you have to take it seriously. But at the same time, you have somebody speaking to you in a poetic, yet professorial manner. I guess oral pontification is my way of delivering a message to some people that may not otherwise hear it unless they're digesting it with a sweetener, which is the music.

With The American Negro, I also have a film coming out in March on Amazon called T.A.N. and I have a podcast that I started a couple weeks ago on Amazon as well called Invisible Blackness. All these pieces put together really help to further explain the ideology of racism here in America and throughout the world.

"And my real message with all this stuff is that race is a social construct… But you have to realize that and stay in touch with your humanity so you can really live life to the fullest and allow others to live life in a way that they're not ensnared by all this nefarious bullsh*t that the institutions have been promulgating for centuries."

Related: The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55: How Curtis Mayfield Created A Musical Balm For Black America

What's going on in the film T.A.N. and why was it important to you to create that visual counterpart to the project?

So T.A.N. is a film that is like watching the "Twilight Zone." It's a very psychedelic, very cinematic and thoughtful arthouse-type film that deals with a group of individuals in purgatory. They are discovering their own bigotry and really finding themselves through discussion. To me, these characters in the film represent so many types of people in America and around the world. I want people to watch the film and see if they could identify with some of the characteristics of these people. And if so, help them change some of their negative ways.

I've been moved by so many different songs, but there's something specific about spoken word. And I feel it on this album, where the songs are moving you and you feel it, but the spoken word, it feels like you're looking at me. It feels more direct.

It was something that was a real choice for me because I said, "All right, there's a substantive message that I want to get across. Then there's a musical message that I want to get across which is more important?" I said the substantive message is more important because I can make music any day, but I can't bring people in to listen to my thoughts every single day. I really want this to be a timeless piece that inspires people in a way that is not wholly musical, but contextual.

"I can make music any day, but I can't bring people in to listen to my thoughts every single day. I really want this to be a timeless piece that inspires people in a way that is not wholly musical, but contextual."

I've talked to a lot of different artists about the way that music is a medium to get powerful and radical messages across—look at Marvin Gaye's music. It will transcend his life, I think, for a long time.

Absolutely. What's Going On is the most important project he ever did. It's interesting because if you look at the periodicals of the time, in '71, Billboard said this is the greatest work Motown has ever done and it sounds like something derivative of Curtis Mayfield. Curtis Mayfield, in 1970, came out with his first solo album. Before that, he was doing stuff with The Impressions, but in the late-to-mid '60s his music with The Impressions was political. But it was not brazenly political. He had songs like, "If you had a choice of color, which one would you choose, my brother?" He was talking about Black consciousness in a very beautiful, non-offensive way.

And in 1970, Curtis Mayfield has a song called "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to To Go" where he's talking about Nixon, about nis, all that shi*. And then you have Marvin Gaye with What's Going On. And then in '72, you have Curtis Mayfield's Superfly and the Black Power movement is just getting bigger and bigger because we're going from the '60s where we're going from this non-violent protest to Black is Beautiful, Black Power. And it's something that is analogous to the concept of Black Lives Matter now because the white media saw Black consciousness as something that was violent and racist, and it's the same thing that's happening now.

My real message with all this stuff is that race is a social construct. Race is something that's a fallacy. We're actually all the same. And Black ain't better than white, white ain't better than Black. But you have to realize that and stay in touch with your humanity so you can really live life to the fullest and allow others to live life in a way that they're not ensnared by all this nefarious bullsh*t that the institutions have been promulgating for centuries.

You recorded the project fully analog, right?

Everything I do is analog. Everything.

What do you feel like you gain from using tape? Is there a spiritual element to using analog technology?

[Moves camera.] This is my reel-to-reel machine. Over there, there's a whole big live room and that's where I recorded the orchestra [on the album]. I record everything I do. The recording technique is very important to me because my golden era of sound is between '68 to '73. That's everything I'm about.

With this album, I really put myself to work as if I enslaved myself because I played every single instrument for the rhythm section. After that, I wrote for an orchestra and I brought them in. So, I'm playing everything from drums to flute to sax to bass to guitar to keys and then I'm ready for a full orchestra. I can't put myself in it any more than I am. I want people to feel my soul. I want them to feel how organic and real my message is. So sonically, it has to be right.

People make dope digital recordings. But for what I do, if you're trying to have that classic, timeless sound, you cannot do that with a computer. You can't do that by pressing the space bar. You have to have real instruments. And that's why I do that. It means a lot to me.

"I played every single instrument for the rhythm section. After that, I wrote for an orchestra and I brought them in…I can't put myself in it any more than I am. I want people to feel my soul. I want them to feel how organic and real my message is. So sonically, it has to be right."

Do you feel like there are specific textures that come across on tape that don't come across on digital?

Absolutely. With tape, I always explain it like this. When you record digitally, you're pouring water into a bucket with holes in it because digital recording just can't handle certain frequencies. The bass frequencies, all that, it just literally can't. The difference between analog is that you're pouring the same water into a bucket with no holes and it has a sweetener in it. You're getting something back and you're not losing frequency. Digital recording is the emulation of analog recording. So yeah, tape gives you a texture back to it. You can't copy tape.

I want to look a little bit more into the sonic elements on "Revolutionize." I really love how the sounds of it really dance with the repetition of "Black is beautiful."

In that song, I wanted to do something that was very chaotic and organized at the same time. I wanted to also give you the sense of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It's just a reminder that Black people deal with something called double consciousness where you see yourself in the mirror as you are, but you also see yourself through the vantage point of white America—that sees you as a criminal, as somebody that is feebleminded, as the problem of America. You have to synthesize these two perspectives in order to better understand who you are supposed to be. And this song [says], "Revolutionize the way you see yourself. Black is beautiful. You're beautiful."

And what instruments were on the song?

I'm playing drums, bass, piano, guitars, vibraphone, drums and various percussion. Then I wrote for a 30-piece orchestra, for strings and oboes and all that stuff.

For your parts, you had to obviously record them each separately?

Exactly. So I'll record drums first and then I'll record keys, then I'll record bass and guitar, and I just layer it.

Do you have the vision of what it's all going to sound like together or does it come together after?

I always know what the roadmap is. I'll sit there and say, "Okay, we'll make this change here, that change here. We're in this key here, I want this to be funkier, I want this one to be a little more chill. I want to have space so I can have more movement for bass here." I map it all out and I see it my head, and I just go in there and execute.

And did it feel different on this album doing most of the instrumentation yourself versus bringing in a band or collaborating with other people?

Well, it's interesting because most of the music I do I'm playing 90 to 95 percent of the instruments anyway. It's not really anything really new to me. My Midnight Hour album project with Ali Shaheed Muhammad [of A Tribe Called Quest], we both share in what we play, but everything outside of that is pretty much me playing all the instruments I know how to play. I really don't record with a band, per se.

Could talk about some of the specific people you honor on the album—James Mincey Jr., Margaret Garner, George Stinney Jr.? And one of your collaborators, Loren Oden, is related to James, correct?

Yeah, James Mincey Jr. was the uncle of my dear friend and collaborator, Loren Oden. James was somebody that was killed by the police unlawfully. He was choked to death, died by asphyxiation, like Eric Garner. And there was no judicial reprisal. Nothing happened to them.

Margaret Garner, she was enslaved and she ran away for freedom. When she was caught, she killed her child because she did not want them to be in perpetual bondage. America pioneered the concept of perpetual slavery, whereby your offspring is going to be the property of the enslaver in perpetuity.

George Stinney Jr. was the youngest person executed in America, a 14-year-old Black boy that was wrongfully accused of killing two young white girls. And he had a very speedy trial and he was murdered. So, this concept of vigilante justice has been plaguing people of color for centuries. I wanted to bring up certain names in order to inspire people to research the stories and find the connections between what happened back then and what is still happening now.

How Artist Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone Is Helping Black Residents During Tough Times In Austin

Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Doja Cat

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December

GRAMMYs/Oct 2, 2019 - 12:11 am

Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.

This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the RapperLil Uzi VertJuice WRLDYoung Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.

L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.

The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.

Tickets for Rolling Loud L.A. go on sale this Friday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. PST. The complete lineup and more info on this event and their other fests can be found here.

Where Do You Keep Your GRAMMY: Fantastic Negrito

Anthrax's Scott Ian Is Ready To Speak Up
Scott Ian

Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com

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Anthrax's Scott Ian Is Ready To Speak Up

GRAMMY-nominated guitarist on his Speaking Words U.S. tour, hipsters, Meat Loaf, and the status of Anthrax's new studio album

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

A stand-up metal icon? Arguably there was no such thing until GRAMMY-nominated Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian started his Speaking Words tour in Europe in 2013. Up and down the metal highway with Anthrax for more than three decades, Ian has pretty much seen it all, and as you might expect, the straight-talking New Yorker has plenty of stories to share.

Audiences on this side of the Atlantic can get in on the fun with Ian's North American Speaking Words tour, which launches in Chicago on Feb. 20 and is scheduled to wrap in Portland, Maine, on March 8. Those unable to make it out will soon be able to enjoy the show from the comfort of their own home. Ian has launched a PledgeMusic crowd funding campaign for a Speaking Words DVD.

Meanwhile, Ian hasn't quit his day job as Anthrax's blitzkrieg rhythm guitarist. He's currently at work on a new album with the group, who were nominated for Best Metal Performance at the 56th GRAMMY Awards for their hard-slamming cover of AC/DC's classic "T.N.T." from the band's 2013 EP, Anthems.            

On the eve of his Speaking Words tour kickoff, Ian spoke to GRAMMY.com about the genesis of the tour, his crowd funding campaigns and the status of Anthrax's new studio album, among other topics.

Is the title Speaking Words a way of differentiating what you do from the more usual spoken word performance?
Yes. When I think of spoken word I think of sty hipster coffee shops with a guy smoking a sty cigarette reading sty poetry from his sty book that will never get published. I'm not doing that. I just want to be as far away from that image as I can possibly be.

How did the idea to do these shows first arise?
It's just something that fell in my lap. I wasn't really looking for any new ways to leave home. But back in 2012, I got an offer to come over to London and do a solo gig. At first I thought that meant sitting on a stool playing acoustic guitar and singing songs, which I don't do. But my agent said, "No, they want you to come and tell stories. It's this series that this venue wants to do called 'Rock Stars Say The Funniest Things.' They want you, Duff McKagan and Chris Jericho." "All together?" I asked. He said, "No, no, it'll be all your show."

The show was about two months down the road. I thought I would be real professional and prepare and write a script, but I kept putting it off. So the night before the show in London I'm in a hotel room with my wife Pearl and I'm sweating like a pig because I'm so nervous. I'm not afraid of public speaking, but I had no idea how to do a show like this. Yeah, I could tell stories. But would that be good enough? People were paying to come see this. I was freaked out to the point where I was gonna call my agent and say, "Cancel the show. I can't do it. Tell them I have the flu or something." But my wife said, "You know all these stories. You are these stories. All you're gonna do is go to a bar, sit with your friends and tell stories, like you've done a thousand times before." That was enough to get me onstage. Two and a half hours later, I'm standing in the dressing room with my agent asking, "How can I do more of this?" That snowballed into a whole European tour and now these U.S. shows.

When you do the show now, how much is scripted and how much is extemporaneous?
None of it is scripted. I've got 10 or 12 hours-worth of stories stored in my brain, basically. I've got all of that to choose from in a two-hour show. Although there's a Lemmy [Kilmister, Motörhead singer/bassist] story and a Dimebag [Darrell, the late Pantera guitarist] story that I told every night on the last tour. I don't get tired of them. If I did, I'd stop. That's something I learned from putting set lists together with Anthrax. We never want to look or feel bored playing something. If you're bored it's always gonna show. 

What are some of the more interesting and unusual topics that have come out of each performance?
Pretty much every night someone asks me something about having Meat Loaf as a father-in-law. Depending on what kind of mood I'm in or how the room feels to me, that basically dictates what kind of answer they're gonna get, which obviously isn't always gonna be truthful. If I tell the crowd, "Oh dude, he's got the whole Bat Out Of Hell set in his backyard and we fin' jam that s every day," obviously that isn't true. But I'll say that totally seriously and people will believe it.  

There's a DVD of the tour on the way, and you're crowd funding it?
Yes. We all know how things have changed in the music business. For artists, bands … anyone; to make money, you have to find new ways to do things. It was actually my record label, Megaforce, that pointed me in the direction of PledgeMusic, because they had worked together on projects with a couple of other artists and it went really well. So basically I get to own my own content and fund the whole project by selling merch and experiences. You donate $50 and you get a signed DVD; donate $250 and you get to chat with me on the phone — all the way up to a private show, where I would actually show up and hang out with your bros in a bar and shoot the s all night.

What were your feelings on learning that Anthrax had been nominated for a GRAMMY for your recording of "T.N.T."?
I was happy about that. … AC/DC are my favorite band. So maybe the fact that we got nominated kind of validates that we did a good cover version. I was actually pretty nervous about that. I didn't know if we could do it justice. And it really wasn't until [Anthrax vocalist] Joey [Belladonna] sang on it that I realized, "OK, this is f
ing great." He just channels Bon [Scott, the late AC/DC lead singer] on that.

Your version is pretty faithful to the original. But was there anything you wanted to do to interpret it your way?
No! We're doing a cover version because we love the song, so why would we want to change it? It's just that our tones are a little bit bigger and it's a more modern production. So it sounds maybe a bit more muscular [than the original] overall. But as far as changing arrangements or anything like that, no.

Is there a new Anthrax album on the way?
Yes, we're in the thick of writing it now. We started back in October and we've got a lot of material. The vibe has been great. It's pretty much the fastest we've ever written songs, which is awesome and scary at the same time. We're not working to any schedule at this point, but I would like to think it would be out later this year, if not early next year.

Can fans expect more of the classic Anthrax sound?
We're just continuing from where we were at on our last album, [2011's] Worship Music. People all over the planet connected with that one, and we had a two-year run touring on that record. We really couldn't ask for more. There's certainly more of a thrash element in a lot of the material that we've come up with, because it's just really fun to do that. We still love to play fast.

(Veteran music journalist Alan di Perna is a contributing editor for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His liner notes credits include Santana Live At The Fillmore East, the deluxe reissue of AC/DC's The Razor's Edge and Rhino Records' Heavy Metal Hits Of The '80s [Vols. 1 and 3].)

 

ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home.

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

ReImagined At Home: Keedron Bryant Powerfully Interprets John Legend's Love Song "Ordinary People"

 

Poll: From "Dreams" To "The Chain," Which Fleetwood Mac Song Is Your Favorite?

Fleetwood Mac in 1975

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Poll: From "Dreams" To "The Chain," Which Fleetwood Mac Song Is Your Favorite?

"Dreams" experienced a charming viral moment on TikTok after a man posted a video skateboarding to the classic track, and now it's back on the charts, 43 years later

GRAMMYs/Oct 16, 2020 - 04:00 am

In honor of Fleetwood Mac's ethereal '70s rock classic "Dreams," which recently returned to the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to a viral TikTok skateboard video from Nathan Apodaca, we want to know which of the legendary group's songs is your favorite!

Beyond their ubiquitous 1977 No. 1 hit "Dreams," there are so many other gems from the iconic GRAMMY-winning album Rumours, as well as across their entire catalog. There's the oft-covered sentimental ballad "Landslide" from their 1975 self-titled album, the jubilant, sparkling Tango in the Night cut "Everywhere" and Stevie Nicks' triumphant anthem for the people "Gypsy," from 1982's Mirage, among many others.

Vote below in our latest GRAMMY.com poll to let us know which you love most.

Related: Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" Back On Charts Thanks To Viral Skateboard Video On TikTok

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Poll: What's Your Favorite Van Halen Song?