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LEARNING DAY

Learning Day: Is We Is, Or Is We Isn’t? 🌭

1987. Flora, Illinois did not have a lot going for it. It was a farming town of about 5,000 people, where you spent your life getting drunk atop a thresher and your retirement plan was getting too drunk atop a thresher. Flora needed help, and there was only one solution: have the entire town execute escalating publicity stunts to appease a power-mad governor who gifts prisons.

You know, that old chestnut. A tale as old as this country, practically Americana. “Gonna start me, HUH / a hot air balloon raaace / just to get a prison / put up in this place, rock on” sang John Cougar Mellencamp, in the original draft of “Jack & Diane.”

Today we think of American prisons as a maelstrom of societal failure, but to 1980s Flora it just meant jobs where you didn’t dry-drown in a corn silo. So when mad emperor Governor Jim Thompson started distributing prisons to his favorite jesters, Flora petitioned him through official channels. Twice. It didn’t work. If you want a new castle from Nero you don’t write the motherfucker a proposal, you paint his name on a cow, slaughter it in front of him, and hope he claps.

The next time the prison raffle came up, they knew it required a grand gesture, so the civic leaders of Flora, Illinois got together and came up with an idea: Serenade Governor Jim Thompson with a pleading country song in the style of a whiny toddler.

A sound plan, but you need an insane mogul to appease another insane mogul. It’s like how you can only get rid of a monkey infestation by unleashing more vicious monkeys. They enlisted the help of oil tycoon Bill Snyder, who wanted to get into country music the same way Elon Musk wants to get into the public zeitgeist: unwanted, but willing to spend a fortune to find that out. He paired up with the town’s former police chief, Ed Guyott, why the fuck not, and together they formed Chief Ed Guyott and the Long Arm of the Law Band. They cut a single called “All We Want’sa Prison.”

It sucked in ways you can never expect, a country dirge sung by a fussy baby, with prideless lyrics utterly debasing themselves before the Ra-like might of an Illinois governor.

It’s exactly what a power-mad narcissist would love. It should have worked. Instead, the prison went to a town that painted their football field for Thompson and sent his secretary flowers.

Flora had to be ready for the next prison raffle. Jack Thatcher, owner of the local newspaper, gathered the Flora braintrust and started planning. They needed novelty. Attention. Something not just praising Governor Jim Thompson, but also prostrating themselves. Something stupid, embarrassing, and very public.

It was 1987. They were white people with no rhythm. You know exactly what they were going to do.

They were going to rap.

It wasn’t a fun, impromptu thing. They strategized every detail of this, they had the entire marketing plan locked down before they even wrote the song. It had to be bite-sized so it could fit into desperate ‘local color’ news segments. They’d exploit Jack Thatcher’s news contacts to get it off the ground. They studied the media landscape daily to ensure their release date wouldn’t go up against some major breaking news.

Bill Snyder, still the area’s foremost oil maniac, wanted to get into the rap scene in the same way Elon Musk wants to be respected by his father: Unwanted, but willing to spend a fortune to find that out. He formed all the civic heads of Flora, Illinois, into a kind of boy band. Snyder carefully crafted their lyrics to match their personas: Mike Springstein, newspaper editor, would be the young buck. Jack Thatcher, newspaper publisher, would be the wild card. Former police chief Ed Guyott was the sensitive one. Mayor Charlie Overstreet would be the streetwise hustler. Probation officer Bill Ridgeway would be the wild card. Current police chief Willie Thompson would be the sexual powerhouse. And railroad man Frank “Meatball” Zimmerman? Pure wild card.

There was just one problem: Bill Snyder knew nothing about hip hop. There was just one more problem: Each rapper would only have a single rhyming couplet. There were just several more problems, we’ll get into them.

It was enough to start, anyway: They roped a local TV station in to shoot the video, the entire town was given an unofficial day off, school was canceled. Its name was Flora and it was here to say, it likes to hip and hop in a very cool way.

They were called The Barbed Wire Choir, and their single was “Is We Is Or Is We Isn’t (Gonna Get Ourselves A Prison?)” Maybe there are racial problems with that phrasing. Maybe Flora should have been petitioning for a school instead. But that’s not important in the face of moves like this:

That’s Mike Springstein, newspaper editor and youngest member of the choir by an order of decades. He’s here to bring that youthful energy as he croons-

It’s desperate, it’s soulful, it’s how the least popular BTS boy would ask for your panties, understanding a “gross” is inevitable. It’s followed by the kind of saxophone solo that has to pay child support. This is the right way to kick off a rapping plea to a power-mad governor for prison construction.

HONK!

You better hide your girls and your 36 oz. steaks.

Rollin’ up Boss Hogg style, complete with hat whomp, it’s Mayor Charlie Overstreet. You know it’s the mayor by the stunning white Cadillac, the enormous steer horns, and also the tiny “MAYOR” sign handwritten by a corn-hooch drunk silo orphan.

Wearing an all-white suit is a power move when you drink this much barbecue sauce. Drop your verse, high-roller.

There’s a sick synth breakdown, whoever’s rocking these beats is doing it like it might be their last act on earth. I can’t wait to meet the DJ spinning this shit.

It’s a fitting intro for wild card Jack Thatcher, who spits his words with peak Beastie Boys attitude, by which I mean daring the camera to question his hat choice.

Next up is-

Next up is the whole choir rapping that funky chorus. They’re collectively older than a redwood and their flow is downright laminar.

Let’s take it down a notch with the sensitive one, former police chief Ed Guyott.

Even in a novelty prison rap openly begging for state scraps, it’s still Ed’s job to be the embarrassing one. Somebody has to lay on that sword, and Ed has the unshakeable confidence of a man who wears transition lenses.

Damn, there’s another nasty synth breakdown here, some cutting guitars burst through it like a Miami Vice chase scene. A speedboat one. We need to meet this DJ-

-before he passes beyond this earthly realm.

Yeah, DJ Walter’s got an AARP card: Ass Assaulting Rap Punisha. Yeah, he’s also got a normal AARP card, there are some good deals in there.

Those ancient beats break and scatter like the ladies of Shady Pines’ hipbones after Walter finishes his set. Because here comes the new hotboy in town – I’m talking about Flora’s chief willie, Chief Willie Thompson.

Chief Willie knows he’s packing 260 pounds of love in a 253 pound body. He moves like the Bee Gees were stung by many bees, and he’s got the kind of saucy jaunt you only learn from a lifetime of busting truck stop prostitutes.

You’d better check your melanin levels, because here comes some police brutality:

Oh shit, he went for the latina headwobble! Chief Willie Thompson is an ethnic changeling, absorbing the powers of any minority he busts.

He tagteams with Bill Ridgeway, rapping probation officer, who brings to mind the filthy slyness of an Eazy-E.

Okay, maybe a Flavor Flav. But he knows how to work a crowd. The whole jury chimes in-

Before voting to unanimously indict Bill Ridgeway for improper use of courtroom resources.

Throw it to the choir.

Hell yeah, I haven’t seen that much broken joyless hopping since I accidentally stepped on a frog as a child. It haunts me to this day, much like Jack Thatcher’s hip hop hands.

It looks like we’re pulling out-

Something Frank “Meatball” Zimmerman never does! He didn’t wring 9 children out of a Protestant wife by respecting the pullout. Distorted sicko effects warp his voice for one final-

I lied. The final words of the video go to a cow.

Who gently whispers the title on our way out, as a mother would to a beloved child she just rocked to sleep.

If art is the act of debasing yourself before clueless, unappreciative wealthy patrons – and it is – this is art. All that’s left was to give it to the world. The Barbed Wire Choir called TV stations, using Jack Thatcher’s savvy media contacts to… get repeatedly and instantly rejected. Only WGN Chicago knew they had history on their hands. They ran it as local color, ABC brought it national, and before they knew it Flora was being invited on Good Morning, America. They decided to send Mayor Charlie Overstreet and Chief Willie Thompson, because a plantation cosplayer and an authoritarian sexual tyrannosaurus were their most relatable members.

The story blew up. America went crazy for rural white men in their ‘60s rapping. It was the Northern Boys without the irony or talent. The town of Flora itself landed a manager and a record deal. They cut an album.

They sold T-Shirts. They wrote a cookbook! It has been lost to time and I will eat what surely must be the whitest taco recipe ever penned if somebody can find it for me. I bet there’s gelatin in it.

Flora, Illinois fucked up. People wanted to exploit these hicks, not negotiate with them. I mean that literally, People Magazine wanted to run a profile piece on the town but ghosted as soon as they heard a manager was involved. Flora went bigtime and it took all the charm out of their story.

But the real question, one asked a thousand times and never once coherently:

Is we is?

Governor Jim Thompson loved the idea, he loved the execution, he especially loved how embarrassing it was. But he did not love that Flora got more attention than he’d get in his entire career, and they did it almost overnight. He couldn’t say no, he’d look like the bad guy. So he just suspended the entire contest, awarded nobody the prison, and waited for fifteen minutes to count down.

Which they absolutely did. There was an “Is We Is?” parade, which has been lost to time, and I will dance what surely must be the whitest choreography ever staged atop a tractor if somebody finds it for me. They made a mini documentary. Good Morning, America did a brief followup piece, but the magic was gone. Fame faded quickly, and Governor Jim Thompson gave the prison to another town. Maybe one that put on a small stageplay for him. They could have written a Prison Mambo. Bought his maid an electric trimmer. Who knows? We don’t know what works on Governor Jim Thompson, we only know what doesn’t, and that’s making the concept of institutional injustice fucking rock.

This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Benjamin Sairanen, who likes to think of himself as the Frank “Meatball” Zimmerman of Professional Speedboat Racing.

14 replies on “Learning Day: Is We Is, Or Is We Isn’t? 🌭”

even after growing up in an evangelical church populated mostly by white people over 60, i failed to fully appreciate how off beat this would be until i listened for myself. it’s like their cue surprises every single one of them every single time

As soon as I saw that their single got re-released on the old Rhino Records novelty label, I already knew they wasn’t.

> If art is the act of debasing yourself before clueless, unappreciative wealthy patrons – and it is – this is art.

Yeah thanks Brock.

Hey, by the way, your white-guy-rapping-in-the-80s gag is exactly Alf’s smash hit single “Stuck on Earth”.

For some reason, I remember the chorus being “Is we isn’t or is we is / Gonna be where the next prison is”. Either some other small town saw this and thought “we need to get in on the ground floor of what is definitely going to be a cornerstone of pop culture” or this song is a mind virus and has already started to liquify my long-term memory.

One fateful night at karaoke, I unfortunately learned the already awful “Jack & Diane” includes the lyrics, “sucking on chili dogs,” and I will never be the same. My friend spent the rest of the song singing “sucking on chili dogs” at the top of his lungs, and our whole table joined in, which hopefully embarrassed the singer enough to never sing that song ever again. Fuck that song.

I’m glad you highlighted this because it is really kinda not that different than the minstrelsy that could be attached to lynchings.

As a listener of the podcast, I can’t thank you enough for the wildcard reference. That ending made me laugh every single time it was on.

Brockway: Ed has the unshakeable confidence of a man who wears transition lenses.

Me (wearing transition lenses, confidence visibly shaken): …

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