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Archive for February, 2010

It’s All In the Details: Comments on Specific Parts of Rap Hits

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One of the byproducts of radio’s refusal to play more than say, the same eight songs all day, every day, is that you get to really think about and focus on those few they do play a whole bunch of times. It makes the bad ones suddenly interesting and the already good ones really interesting.

-The bassline of “Lemonade”
Gucci Mane, produced by Bangladesh
Like a lot of his Southern synth-rap producer peers, Bangladesh loves some bass, but until “Lemonade”, it was used more as an aggressor, a big booming thing in the background, than a sorta lovely, musical detail. “Lemonade” has got the best bassline in a rap song since the one that tears through the middle of Kanye’s “The Glory” a few years back. Is this sampled from somewhere? Is this a session dude? Was this created on a keyboard or MPC or something? Who knows. Listen to the way it wriggles all around the rest of the beat and Gucci’s flow, a series of patient, pulsing plucks at the start of the song and getting more focused and squirmy as it goes on, kinda chasing the little kid chorus, and then just doing this like focused, Peter Hook rock-out thing and then, back to patient plucking. Note: the bass is the last sound you hear as “Lemonade” ends.

-The way “Say Something” could be looped forever
Timbaland ft. Drake, produced by Timbaland
Yeah yeah yeah, Timbaland’s mostly coasting these days–though he’s improved as rapper, sorta channelling Bun B, late Bun B at least, on his verse here–but there’s a cool, like, chintzy glory to recent Timbo. He isn’t filling his beats with tempo change-ups and batshit production tweaks anymore, he’s dropping an Atari melody, one or two flanger-ed out guitars, making it passably dancey, and that’s a wrap. The byproduct of this relative half-assness though, is that the beats feel like they’re going on forever, like it’s this eternal loop of synths and computer squawks that’s been looping for hours or maybe just a few minutes. This was true of “Venus vs. Mars” on Blueprint 3 as well. This fucks with your circadian rhythms!

-The weird, flat, Go-Go drums on “Exhibit C”
Jay Electronica, produced by Just Blaze
When Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” dropped–was that the last single to show up on the radio and mean something?–there was a Vegas sound to it that just didn’t make a lot of sense for something produced by Just Blaze. The live or live-sounding drums, almost on some Go-Go, bucket-drumming shit, just didn’t you know, knock. Weird how the same type of drums show up on “Exhibit C” and it’s one of the best things about the song. This is some of Jay Electronica’s best and most traditionalist rapping and along with the soul sample, the whole thing would be kinda “backpacker” if it weren’t for the drums. They make it way more interesting and I think it’s part of why the song’s made its way onto regular radio. It rings real for the old heads but it doesn’t thump or plod along to youngsters’ ears.

-The open space on “O Let’s Do It”
Waka Flocka Flame, produced by L-Don Beatz
A producer’s got confidence when he doesn’t fill each and every second of a beat with some kind of sound or sample or something. Plenty of beats drop-out for a moment or two, but “O Let’s Do It” starts and stops, starts and stops…it gives rappers an infinite number of places to hang their cadences. This is why someone like Wacka Flocka Flame made it a hit (his confessional asides, like “Ever since they killed my nigga Trav, start poppin pills and actin crazy” help too) and why every remix of it sounds awesome. As “dumb” as this beat probably sounds to a lot of people, it’s pretty traditionalist, Marley Marl minus the samples. If you listen close, there’s even this weird, almost simple record scratching sound that wobbles under the whole thing.

further reading/viewing:
-”Producer Series Mix #1: Shondrae “Bangladesh” Crawford” by Al Shipley
-”Dilla Donuts Month: “Time: Donut of the Heart” by Me & Thaddeus Clark
-Rare Essence “Hey Young World” 8/12/89
-MySpace Page for L-Don Beatz

Written by Brandon

February 25th, 2010 at 4:48 am

Boutique Poptimism: Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, & the Taylor Swift Backlash

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The sequence of events that moved Taylor Swift from wildly successful, really interesting pop star, to the kind of pop star that the supposedly more discerning, with-it crowd gets to ponder and write thinkpieces about is pretty strange: She gained everybody’s sympathies because Kanye was a dick, only to lose those sympathies when she was given awards by the kind of people that would’ve given her awards whether Kanye grabbed the mic from her or not.

This response is perhaps best represented in this bizarre kinda insane piece, which Rob Harvilla already zinged properly, but there’s still a lot to unpack here. Apparently, Swift’s “average”-ness causes a lot of controversy.

Probably because in 2009/2010, being some kind of meta-commenting, bicurious, genre-bouncing, in-quotes superstar, is way more played-out than being a regular-ass person. And that, simply by doing what she does and doing it very well, Swift and the response she elicits, make clear an unfortunate trend that’s been floating around for a while now–what I call “Boutique Poptimism”.

Namely, that we’re past the point where the idea that “hey maybe unabashed pop music kinda rules” is controversial and what’s happening is a backwards bending, a regression, where a new bunch of new implicit rules are being laid-out for what constitutes “good” pop from “bad” pop. No surprise, they’re ideological. They have a lot to do with what the music “represents” and very little to do with how the music sounds.

Because everyone’s aware that dismissing Pop is closed-minded, the response is not to wholly embrace it, to step out of one’s comfort zone (one of the many values behind Poptimism), but to find the Pop that already suits ones values and co-sign that. This is particularly apparent in the “Indie” embrace of Lady Gaga and to a lesser extent, someone like Ke$ha. You will hear both of them on your town’s hit stations…and at liberals arts school dance parties…and in Urban Outfitters.

These pop musicians are acceptable because of their inauthenticity, because they comment on pop, they aren’t just making pop like Swift. Gaga, who clearly took some classes in Postmodern theory but only kinda paid attention, has made herself critic-proof: If you don’t like her, you don’t “get” her. And with that, a more rarified audience is hooked, beyond such negligible things as monster choruses (but little else, Gaga’s songs are like hair metal in that sense) but “big” ideas.

And Ke$ha–well it’s mind-blowing that anybody but newly-divorced Moms would like her but the cool kids like her too, because it sorta sounds like Peaches or Uffie or that last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. She provides the illusion of being open to new sounds, with dashes of electro, an almost rapping style, and edgy topics like drinking too much. Again–these aren’t songs about “square” stuff like boys and getting married.

That she has a dollar-sign in her name to be “ironic” and that she swipes from the debauchery of Keith Richards for style points, while using the very similar debauchery of Diddy for a punchline, makes her deeply square and rockist is besides the point. If it’s couched in something, anything that appears trangressive, like irony or feminist or postmodern theory, no matter how bastardized, it’s acceptable.

This is really fascinating because it’s both a rejection of Rockism’s absurd demands for authenticity and an embrace of an equally complacent set of values. Ones that don’t open up the world of music (and through that, the world at-large) but open them up on one’s own terms, providing the illusion of porous borders and expansive taste, without any of the hard stuff involved, like stepping out of one’s comfort zone or putting one’s self out there.

It takes a Strong Poptimist to enjoy Taylor Swift. One that sees the inherent value of worker-bee skill and talent bouncing up against simple, but sincere expression, who can also see/hear some of the same stuff in Gaga or Ke$ha and appreciate the differences too–Poptimism is not supposed to be the one or the other game Boutique Poptimists like to play.

further reading/viewing:
-”Boutique multiculturalism, or why liberals are incapable of thinking about hate speech” by Stanley Fish
-”Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos” by Riese for AutoStraddle
-”So Let’s Deal With This “Taylor Swift Is a Feminist’s Nightmare” Thing” by Rob Harvilla for Sound of the City
-Lady Gaga & Rob Fusari (thanks to MFastow for the link)
-Review of Music from the O.C: Mix 4 by Rob Mitchum for Pitchfork

Written by Brandon

February 23rd, 2010 at 3:43 am

Posted in Poptimism

Goines Book Club: Dopefiend

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Holloway House’s decision to delay publication of Donald Goines’ first manuscript Whoreson until after Dopefiend frustrated the just-out-of-prison writer then, but viewing Dopefiend as Goines’ debut is ideal when looking at his oeuvre. Whoreson is best viewed like a popular writer’s early, usually unpublished works: It’s soaked in its influences (Iceberg Slim and presumably, confessional works like Soul on Ice) and is really only of interest for the half-formed ideas that would later come out whole.

The strange thing is, Goines wrote them within a year or so of one another–Whoreson was written in prison, Dopefiend was already outlined by the time of his release—and they were published only a year apart, Dopefiend in 1971, Whoreson (as well as Black Gangster ) in 1972. It’s conceivable that Whoreson got caught up in edits and revisions over at Holloway House. Though it was accepted for publication before Goines was even out of jail—the contract is dated October 19,1970—it was probably in no condition to be sent out to the masses.

Dopefiend was typed-up by Goines’ sister and as Eddie Allen notes, Goines’ sister found “her brother’s spelling and sentence structure [to be] quite the horror” (115). And so, early on Goines essentially had two people drastically reworking his books. One book is really good, one book isn’t that good. The not-so-good one was edited by Holloway House, the good one was edited by sister first and then, Holloway House. You figure it out.

Authorship is a non-issue when it comes to Goines. Primarily because there’s just no specifics out there, no manuscripts, or existing correspondence between Goines and Holloway House. But also because Goines is a means-to-an-end writer, hardly a prose stylist, and the best aspects of his books are apparent in how things occur, in narrative structure and character arcs (or lack thereof) and so, mulling over his syntax—which early on, may not have been his syntax at all—is essentially a waste of time.

Still, there’s something fascinating about the discrepancies in quality between Goines’ first manuscript and second, and it’s an excellent aid in investigating what makes Goines so great. When you take a writer that’s not taken seriously very seriously, it’s an uphill critical battle, and being able to point out their lesser work helps a lot. Whoreson is basically the kind of reckless pulp many associate with Goines, while Dopefiend is something much more.

In terms of publishing order, it’s very possible Holloway House was aware that one book was better than the other and it could explain why Dopefiend came out before Whoreson. Interestingly, a noted author following up a telling, defining debut with an underwhelming sophomore effort puts Goines in the company of many great authors.

It’s also worth pointing out that the differences in quality between his first two books hardly mattered to the buying public: The sales figures for Dopefiend were 88,276 books sold and Whoreson, 80,753 books sold, if a letter circa 1972 quoted in Allen’s book is to be believed (142).

Dopefiend hits the ground running. There isn’t a better introduction to the gritty world of Goines than the first chapter of Dopefiend. It’s all right there, starting with drug-dealer Porky and his dogs and quickly moving to the sensory details of a his apartment—the smell of blood, the mix of garbage and bodily fluids on the floor, Jean’s pus-filled abscess. It’s a gleefully sensationalistic introduction but it also leaves the book nowhere to go, which is a good thing.

Goines will pay-off our more lurid expectations–to paraphrase Chekhov, if you promise dogs that fuck women in the beginning, it better happen by the end of the book—but the ugly details of the next nearly three-hundred pages is essentially more of the same. What’ll change is the context, he’ll introduce us to these characters, they’re all given some kind of backstory and page-by-page their addictions will become both singular and one big lump of dependence.

That the book begins at the bottom introduces the palpable sense of inevitability in every Goines book, but one that’s especially notable in Dopefiend because it defies so many of the “story of addiction” narrative conventions. This is perhaps, Dopefiend’s most impressive feat: That it takes the same trajectory every drug addict novel and memoir takes (because addiction is predictable) but doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel that way because Goines focuses on a group of characters, who are of varying degrees of addiction. There’s Smokey and the many inhabitants of Porky’s heroin house, then there’s Teddy, an addict well on his way to the bottom, and there’s his girlfriend, Terry, an innocent. And there’s also all the regular-ass friends and family that suffer from their loved ones’ addictions.

The structural brilliance of Dopefiend comes in the way these these differing trajectories all interact. There’s no conventional “fall”, there’s no inescapable plunge because that’s where the book begins. Even Teddy and Terry aren’t pure, Teddy’s a full-fledged addict at the book’s beginning and Terry’s imminent addiction will not bring them together, but separate them. Heroin is not fun or cool in Dopefiend.

This point can’t be overstated. Joy doesn’t exist in Dopefiend and Goines, perhaps because he was so close to the drug he was writing about, hardly even dwells on the awesome euphoria of the drug. Nearly everyone in the book is just trying to not get sick. Nearly every interaction is financial: How much money is needed to stave off sickness, how much something can be sold for once its stolen etc. It adds a strange, in-quotes reality even to every “friendly” relationship in the book.

We understand and accept Porky’s motivations for getting Terry strung-out, but every interaction is that cynical. The night after yelling at Terry, Teddy’s regret is phrased this way: “He silently cursed the night he had been so high he’d forgotten how nice it was to have the use of Terry’s car.” (93). One hundred pages later, Terry is finally brought to hooking and the pregnant Minnie can barely “hide the pleasure she felt”–Terry’s good looks would bring in enough money to support both habits (193).

Though it’s doubtful that it was Goines’ intention, Terry’s absurd psychological regression (really, the only problematic thing in the book) at the book’s end is especially silly given the insincerity of everybody in the book. The doctor describes Terry’s “guilt” for playing a part in the suicide of “a friend” (279), but Goines has spent hundreds of pages calling attention to the double and triple talk and backwards bending motivations behind nearly every interaction. One could stretch it into an example of Terry’s innocence, but it seems more like a thread Goines just didn’t weave into the rest of the book.

Still, the final scene with Terry, childlike, her parents devastated, nearly succeeds because Goines totally sells it. And he’s able to sell it because unlike most drug tales, Goines never sets-up a “square”/”hip” dichotomy. There’s a moment, after Terry’s fired from her job for stealing, when her mom even “laugh[s] self-consciously at her own ignorance” about drugs and when the truth’s revealed, it’s rooted in a parental denial (127). This is contrasted by an earlier scene with Teddy’s family, who are well-aware that he’s, in the words of his sister, “nothing but another dopefiend” (61). These are people with a stake in their children’s lives–not clueless, unhip squares.

The other “square” treated not only with respect, but as essentially, the only truthful character in the book, is Terry’s ex-schoolmate Billy. Billy’s almost too perfect, his dialogue’s written like he’s from Leave it to Beaver or something (“That sarcasm doesn’t become you, Terry. You really have changed in the past few months.”) but his perspective’s dead-on and he’s revealed to be hip to addiction because of his own brother’s descent (76). Given the nature of the book, the established nihilism even this early on, one expects Billy to try to molest Terry or something—instead, he’s just disgusted.

Interestingly though, Goines doesn’t entirely let the “squares” off-the-hook. Particularly fascinating is the scene late in the book where Teddy’s sister has him arrested for stealing her check from the mailman (whose naivete is also exploited) and Teddy’s mother gets her to drop the charges. She cries out, with the same “logic” as nearly every mother of an addict/enabler: “Dear God, Jesus. I’d rather see him dead than in here like this. I can’t stand it, Jesus. I just can’t stand it.” (233). Even here though, there’s a kindness to Goines’ implication—she’s only described as “stubborn”–because we see where she’s coming from and because heroin isn’t a bad-ass ride or anything, Teddy’s immediate tumble back into the routine of drugging is pathetic (233).

There’s also a subtle implication of white society throughout Dopefiend as Goines often highlights the small, but notable ways society benefits from the actions of addicts. All the stolen stuff in the book is sold to local businesses or even to one’s neighbors for cheap. When Terry begins hooking, both of her johns are whites, the second of which, is a stereotypical nerd who lies about how much money he has in his wallet (202-203). Teddy and Snake’s lawyer is an aged, white shlockmeister who tries to hustle them out of an extra two-hundred bucks (213). Porky is jumped as he’s delivering his monthly payola to the police and after he’s stabbed, one officer asks if the money’s there before checking on the wailing bloated dealer (258). Goines continues this in many of his books, as often white people are shown to be particularly brutal and lecherous. Unfortunately, too much has been made of this by critics eager to connected Goines to the deeply politicized black literature of the time.

What is much more revolutionary about Goines’ work is his incorporation of a black middle class into a narrative that doesn’t need it. That his investigation into social strata doesn’t stop at “poor blacks” and “rich whites”. Terry exists not only as the cliched “Good girl” necessary in every harrowing account of addiction, but also as a comment on how inextricably tied, due to institutionalized racism, the black middle-class is to the black under-class and underworld. How it is much more conceivable that Terry could easily meet a Teddy because she is black. This is as much Goines injecting autobiography into his book as all of those ugly details of addiction.

But, these tangent are the byproducts of a focused, non-Romanticized drug narrative. Rather than rope in bigger ideas or over-arching comments on this or that, they leak out of a multi-character addiction tale. Nobody’s a symbol and heroin’s never turned into a means to some bigger, end. Of all the patterns to pull out of Dopefiend, the one that occurs the most is references to characters’ bowels and farting and that’s kinda perfect. Early on, the reality that Terry’s hanging out with “that dopefiend-ass bitch” Minnie make the constipated-from-addiction Teddy unable to focus on “trying to have a bowel movement” (56). Terry farts at the sight of heroin on page 118, and Porky’s associate Dave does the same in the middle of a rather tense drug deal on page 186.

This focus on the body is about as down-to-earth and simple as a writer can get. Though it sounds strange, it’s the perfect example of what Dopefiend does so well: Break addiction down to the ugliest, least ideal functions and leave it at that. This ability to turn small details into big ideas while not reducing them to symbols may be specific to Goines and only Goines. Heroin isn’t a symbol for anything, as it so often is in other tales of the drug. It isn’t a metaphor for innocence lost—Terry and Teddy aren’t some urban Adam and Eve—or a way to investigate friendship and it most certainly isn’t transgressive or “hip” as it was and continues to be in so many works of art.

SOURCES CITED:
-Allen Jr, Eddie B. Low Road: The Life & Legacy of Donald Goines. St Martin’s Press: New York, 2004.
-Goines, Donald. Dopefiend. Holloway House: Los Angeles, 2005.

Okay. Finally. Sorry about the delays. Whoreson essay will still go up on Friday, February, 26th. There’s plenty here I missed, so feel free to send the conversation in a direction different than my essay’s…-b

Written by Brandon

February 16th, 2010 at 4:31 am

Locating Goines Pt. 4: Goines & Street Fiction

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Though Goines’ desire to write stems solely from reading Iceberg Slim, and Goines’ and Slim’s names are now mentioned together as the founders of Street Fiction, their work is pretty different. Goines, following Slim, approached crime and the underworld with an unflinching reality that still holds-up in 2010 and combined it with a hard-to-explain, unconditional empathy for the characters. Unlike Chester Himes, who did similar things, the law and order element is all but gone in Slim and Goines’ work and that’s crucial.

But what Goines left behind, when he took up writing (with Slim in the front of his mind), was Slim’s wired subjectivity. Not so much Slim’s frequent use of the first person even though that’s part of it, but more, Slim’s off-the-wall jazzy, slang-filled, kinda impenetrable language. If not for Slim’s dirty old man tendencies (he can be just plain lurid), I don’t see why his work wouldn’t be the mid-point between African-American Literature in the the Harlem Renaissance era and the post-modern era. Slim’s a genius with words–Joycean really–and his stories are thick with slang, tangents, and asides that make him part of the writing-about-writing, joy-of-words, style of Modernism whether he knows it or not.

Goines, not so much. He’s direct and straight-forward, always. But what Goines saw in Slim’s work was a lot of things he’d also seen and experienced put–for the first time as far as Goines was concerned–into a book: Less sentimental, less “square” crime narratives rubbing up against a kinder approach to the criminals. And this made Donald Goines write. He even ended up at publisher Holloway House–the closest to white patronage guys like Slim or Goines could get in the late 60s–because they published Slim’s work.

Slim’s unrelenting bleakness, a worldview as dark and depressive as any more respectable Modernist must’ve also grabbed Goines. This too is why Goines is closer in spirit to McKay than DuBois–there’s no room for the kind of reformist idealism DuBois suggests in Home to Harlem or any of Goines’ novels. Moments of hope, the possibility of change, yes, but it’s kinda there, hovering around out of reach, just to further illustrate how fucked things are. Though institutions and institutionalized racism are a significant part of Goines’ work, there’s always more than a suggestion of free will and choice.

This lack of hope, coupled with a more conventional demand for personal accountability, is what made Goines’ work separate from the politicized literature of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, popular at the time. Despite the progressiveness, despite the radical pragmatism, the goal of Black Power in particular, had its roots in the same puritanical ideas of every organized American group. And that kind of hope and idealism just isn’t something Goines could hold onto.

Even in Goines’ books about the character Kenyatta, a Black Militant out to rid his city and the world of drugs, the character fails. Many like to read this as the ultimate indictment of American racism–that the country would not let change like that happen–but reading through the four books (Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, Kenyatta’s Last Hit), there’s enough milling around to suggest that Goines finds Kenyatta’s ideals more than a little bit absurd. That he had a kind of slanted, deeply suspicious take on everybody and everything–shades of Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. Really, it only makes sense that Goines would not find his work aligned with the political literature of the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

Goines though, who rejected and was rejected by Civil Rights and Black Power artists, developed the next wave of African-American Literature: Street Fiction, now Urban Fiction. His disinterest in radicalism, along with an approach much more low-to-the-ground (big ideas are couched in little ideas, never the other way around), allowed Goines to side-step ideology, and ultimately provide his work with something closer to universality. Other people’s, other group’s ideas never step into the work and derail it from its focus on individuals, their actions, and their surroundings.

On the topic of big ideas, of over-arching statements–you know literary stuff–note that Goines never wrote a conventional autobiography. He has no personal manifesto. No breakdown of his own struggle. He doesn’t have his Pimp: the Story of My Life. Goines’ Whoreson is more an attempt to mimic Slim’s work (almost a work of Juvenilia), and that all his books in one way or another, are autobiographies makes him more like most conventional authors (pulling from life, turning it into fiction that then, resembles life).

A fairly conventional–dare I say, middle-class–sense of morality dominates Goines’ works as well. His books aren’t these odd, sideways street fables/parables like Slim’s books, but novels where what’s “right” and “wrong” is actually pretty clear. Though the “street code” is important to the books, Goines’ constant introduction of regular, working people and the interruption of a narrator who can’t always hide his disgust for the events he’s describing, balance the books out. He’s adroit at sequencing events in a way that makes the reader understand why a character’s doing this or that, but there’s not this nihilism in there that suggests it’s the only way. There’s stability in his books, there’s hope, it just isn’t always that easy to find.

The hope comes through in the obvious moralizing, but also in his sensitivity to the psychology of his characters. What lots of critics think of as inconsistencies in the book–shifting motivations, sudden kindness, etc.–is just reality. The way people shift or change in the moment, the way they don’t make sense, despite the soul-crushing patterns and codes they follow, is what Goines writes about…and all that Goines writes about.

And it’s this doesn’t-totally-work mixing of lurid, ugly “reality” with fairly conventional morality, with detours into street-code pragmatism that’s dominated the Street Fiction market since Goines. Slim is of note for sure, but his connection to what’s now categorized as “Urban Fiction” comes down to his early embrace of slang and influencing Goines.

Most Street Fiction though, misreads Goines. There’s a kind of pat, wrap-around morality or “everyone gets it in the end” that Goines wisely avoided or truly earned in his books. Go find a sex scene in Goines book and realize how cold and disinteresting it is. Notice how the violence pops-up out of nowhere and is over very quickly. They’re in there because the plot needs it, his publishers demanded it, and the audience loves it, but he keeps it moving A lot of contemporary Street Fiction reads more like what a Goines book seems like it’d be like before one actually opens it up and reads it.

This though, speaks more for Goines’ rarefied body of work than it does for Street Fiction in the 2000s, which indeed, must conform to today’s standards of shock, all the while smuggling in as many tougher doses of reality and insight as possible. All the while of course, under an even more watchful, limiting eye of the publisher, because Street Fiction’s big business now. I take what I previously said back–Goines was lucky to write in the early 70s.

Written by Brandon

February 14th, 2010 at 4:49 am

Locating Goines Pt. 3: Goines & The Harlem Renaissance

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Street Fiction author Jihad, in an essay called “The Resurrection of Street Fiction” put it bluntly: “Saying street fiction is dead is like saying poverty is non-existent. [Contemporary] Street fiction is the re-emergence of the Harlem renaissance era.” (par. 2) If that’s the case–and there’d be a case for it if anyone were taking any of the stuff now relegated to the “Urban Fiction” section seriously–then the mid-point between the Street Fiction Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance would be Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. And though Goines’ biggest, maybe only influence is Slim, Goines’ work most closely resembles Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, specifically McKay’s Home to Harlem.

Home to Harlem tells the story of Jake Brown, a black soldier, who returns from WWI to Harlem, takes up with a prostitute and spends the rest of the novel trying to find her once again–the search sends him on a trip through Harlem’s working-class and criminal underbelly. Though much is made of the interaction between McKay’s text and white Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven–a book that despite its title, was appreciated at the time by Renaissance gatekeepers and was certainly not intended as racist–there are a few more notable texts McKay is messing around with in Home to Harlem: Homer’s The Odyssey and W.E.B DuBois’ article “The Talented Tenth”.

Back to er, Nigger Heaven for a moment. Due to its unfortunate title and an increased sensitivity to whites writing about the black experience, McKay’s book is often seen as a “corrective” to Van Vechten’s view of Harlem. And that’s not far off. But it isn’t the big political corrective it’s often presented as and more the publication of a sentiment whispered amongst black writers of the time, about one of their most notable patrons: “Man, he got it wrong!”. That’s to say, the corrective is subtler, more mired in details and specificities. McKay doesn’t avoid the chaotic side of Harlem that Van Vechten portrayed, but he does it with little of the weird, kinda racist interest of Van Vechten, but the same contrarian love of working-class wildness.

This is where Goines’ similarities to McKay begin. This outsider (McKay was born in Jamaica, he was also Communist and homosexual) who’s also an insider portraying a maligned aspect of reality with a sensitivity to detail and character and none of the two problems that usually characterize this kind of work: the condescension or self-justification of the lower-class. Most notably, there’s the strange, tangential chapter in Home to Harlem, “He Also Loved”, Chapter XVII. In short, it tells the tragic story of a pimp named Jerco, and the overwhelming sadness he felt when one of his whores dies. The theme of the chapter and in a way, the book, is summarized by Ray–the other main character of Home to Harlem–when he tells Jake, “And I have been forced down to the level of pimps and found some of them more human” (244).

It’s worth pointing out that none of this stuff I’m discussing is revolutionary, it’s recounted in a ton of scholarly texts, but McKay’s ability to touch on a sentiment–a sympathy, even empathy with the criminal element, the under privileged and under-discussed–that would define Depression-era Hollywood cinema, the crime genre as a whole to this day, Goines and Slim’s work (in a sense, Goines’ Street Players is “He Also Loved” stretched to an entire book), all subsequent Street Fiction, and even most hip-hop is fascinating. You see why rappers reference Goines so much. They should probably read McKay just as well.

Unlike Goines though, McKay had a literary movement backing his aggressively trashy, literary bestseller (though it was still maligned by many) and a conscious sense of literary tradition/literary tradition-bucking in there too. Home to Harlem is essentially a parody of Homer’s The Odyssey. An ugly, perverse re-telling of the soldier, back from war, trying to find his love, only this time, it’s WWI and the soldier returns from fighting for his country to being another “nigger” and his “love” is a whore he shacked-up with his first night back. McKay plays the white literary establishment game–he’s interacting with “the canon”–and totally destroying it by flipping all its ideas around.

McKay’s use of the canon though, is also in response to W.E.B DuBois’ “The Talented Tenth” essay and the assertions that go along with it: That a black elite must form, put its best face forward, that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” (par. 1). This meant a refusal to celebrate or even really, properly consider works that may encourage or verify stereotypes. Langston Hughes’ response to DuBois was an essay called “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain” which politely eschewed DuBois’ assertions: “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.” (par. 14) This debate continues to this day–Tyler Perry, anybody?

In “Donald Goines as an Allegorical Figure”, C. Liegh McInnis uses Eddie Allen’s Low Road as a kind of jumping-off point for an analysis of Goines’ worldview. McInnis interestingly, aligns Goines with McKay, though not entirely:

“Goines never completely rejects Du Bois but moreso embraces the notion of Claude McKay in his Home to Harlem that the truth of humanity is found in how people react to and endure the worst of times and themselves. Neither Goines nor Allen suggests that we must celebrate nihilism, but it must be addressed if we are to ever conquer it.” (par. 1)

It’s important to stress that Home to Harlem stands on its own, free of all this “Talented Tenth” context, the same way the appended context to Goines’ work isn’t important to reading, but McKay was indeed, consciously and aggressively confounding the things DuBois was talking about.

Goines, as McInnis suggests, is doing something similar but different. There’s always some hope or escape in Goines’ work. You will always find characters who, in one way or another, could be part of DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” and they are often used as really obvious contrasts to the criminal main characters. This I think, has a lot to do with Goines’ explicit “choosing” of a life of crime. That’s to say, every criminal at one point or another “chooses” that life, but that it becomes more hulking, less like a choice, when not a whole lot of other options surround you. Goines to some extent, had other options.

That said, “the life” pulled Goines in really early and affected him deeply and those characters, events, and experience were all turned into his books. Though there’s very little humor or joy in Goines’ work, the hope comes through in the obvious moralizing, but also in his sensitivity to the psychology of his characters. What lots of critics think of as inconsistencies in the book–shifting motivations, sudden kindness, etc.–is just reality. Harlem, the working-class, and the underworld, in one way or another, remain symbols in McKay’s book. Goines wasn’t interested in this kind of thing, presumably not even aware of this rarefied but consequential variation on white supremacy that is “the canon”, but it was McKay’s rigorous intellectual approach to something anti-intellectual that laid the groundwork for Goines and others’ similar works.

SOURCES:
-DuBois, W.E.B. “The Talented Tenth”.
-Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain”.
-Jihad. “The Resurrection of Street Fiction”. The Urban Book Source. January 2009.
-McInnis, C. Liegh. “Donald Goines as an Allegorical Figure”. Mississippi Political.
-McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem. Northeastern University Press: Boston. 1987.

Written by Brandon

February 12th, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Locating Goines Pt. 2: Goines & the Literary Tradition

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Some throat-clearing before, we get down to business with Dopefiend. This project’s been slow, my bad. I’m usually obsessive about delivering on “theme” blogs and stuff on time, but real-life got in the way this time around. If you’re participating, I hope you’ve started Whoreson, as I still plan to have the essay/discussion stimulator for that one up by February 26th. Dopefiend discussion on Monday. I promise.-b

On the overall list of tragedies (addiction, jail time, being uh, murdered with his kids in the house) that befell Donald Goines during his way-too-brief life, the lack of support he got for his writing, probably ranks pretty low. This is important to note because too often, critics or just semi-amateur chin-scratching types like myself can get a little too caught up in the creator/artist and forgot about the person behind it all.

Don’t forget that Donald Goines was more than his sixteen books, but frankly, that’s what mostly “matters” in 2010. He was a troubled guy, who all too often resorted to crime, and wrote a bunch of incredible books that were really influential but percieved as “trashy” then, and are only slightly more respected now. That’s a bummer. Tragic from a certain point of view.

Better yet, Urban/Street Fiction–the sub-genre he helped found–is a phenomenon that’s still dismissed or laughed-off as a whole, while the critical discussion of Goines’ work is relegated to a lot of very boring, kinda out-of-it French scholarship (and no matter how bad my online translator is, these essays are clueless), some decent but marginalized American criticism (which I’ll occasionally cite), a terrible book called Donald Writes No More, and Eddie Allen’s Low Road, a book that wobbles but never falls down under the weight of being the only actual biography of Goines as well as the only American book to take the writing seriously.

Goines’ critical reputation could do a lot worse, but it could and should be better. This though, isn’t entirely a bad thing. The continued lack of critical interest, coupled with the unwavering appeal of his books amongst regular-ass people preserves Goines’ work in a good weird way. No matter what happens at this point, he’ll never fall into this armpit of respectability where so many other pulpy writers’ reputations currently reside: Not read by a lot of people, not really canonized, just kinda uh, there. “Cult” in the worst sense of the word.

There are at least a few more decades before Goines’ work becomes of only “ethographic” or pop-cultural value–like books by Horatio Alger or Charlotte Temple or something. In twenty years, Goines still won’t be part of any canon that matters, but more people will pick up his books than whoever’s dominating the bestseller list right now. If that’s the case, and I think it is, it’s the perfect time to look at Goines’ work from something resembling an academic standpoint. No amount of lit-crit nonsense could dessicate Goines’ populist appeal and some long-hard looks into his books could only serve them well.

In the first part of this supposed-to-be quick intro to the “Goines Book Club”, I tried to nail-down Goines very weird place as a writer. I called his perspective “next to the hood”–neither above it all, nor down in it and self-justifying. In a series of essays over the next few days, I would like to show how Goines is equally out-of-place when it comes to literary traditions; constantly straddling stuff from the past and stuff that hadn’t happened quite yet.

Again, hesitant to use the word “tragic” here, but there’s something really unfortunate about Goines’ five-year (would’ve been longer had he not died) literary epiphany: It arrived at an inopportune time for grabbing onto any kind of literary or popular fiction zeitgeist. And popular interest and critical respect were indeed, something Goines was after. Writing wasn’t a hustle for him anymore than it was for any guy, no matter how many fancy awards they got, who decide to sell their fiction to the public.

Part of positioning Goines into literary history involves, unfortunately, labeling him. Right now, he’s “Donald Goines, Street fiction pioneer” and he’ll always be that. But it’s important to find the ways Goines’ work dips into many literary traditions of his time (1950s-1970s) and how he fits into American Literature and African-American Literature overall. Goines the African-American Author, Goines the Sociologist, Goines the Social Realist, Goines the Post-WWII Writer, Goines the Post-Modernist.

Among the many reasons no one’s really connected his work to literary tradition before is because it can so easily be combatted with the cynical point that Goines wasn’t much of a reader. That he didn’t know anything about post-WWII American Literature or even know who the hell say, Claude McKay is. The only author Goines ever cited as an influence was Iceberg Slim–and really, his work only superficially resembles Slim’s.

A lot of this cynicism, or this refusal to connect literary dots, comes from those studying Goines’ work though. There’s a fear in most Goines criticism (again, except Eddie Allen) of being clowned for taking it too seriously, or not going well out of one’s way to discuss Goines’ foibles, how he’s a poor writer (he isn’t) or misogynist (most certainly not) or thug with a pen (no fucking way). This has to stop and part of what I want to do is save Goines from these kinds of caveats.

Critics’ rather low-rent expectations of the author become clear when even an apparent homage to Chester Himes in Goines’ White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief (the main character is named Chester Hines) gets viewed speculatively. Eddie Allen says it would be “an uncanny coincidence” if it weren’t “a literary tribute” and goes on to describe Himes and Goines’ parallel lives in many ways (middle-class blacks who got into crime and took up writing in jail) but doesn’t try to read any intertextual meanings to the homage (152-153). Greg Goode’s essay “From Dopefiend to Kenyatta’s Last Hit: The Angry Black Crime Novels of Donald Goines”, in Melus (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), says “White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief is perhaps a tribute to Chester Himes’ prison novel Cast the First Stone.” (44) Note that “perhaps”–you’ll find qualifiers like that throughout Goode’s tentative essay.

Goines never cited Himes’ work but then again, there’s very few places where a record of Goines speaking-on or citing much of anything exists. With most writers though, this reference would open the doors up for all kinds of inferences and text-to-text analyses and it’s surprising that it hasn’t. It’s also good; precisely what I mean about Goines occupying a good weird place when it comes to criticism. It’s important to consider Himes’ influence on Goines and not lean on it too heavily.

Personally, this kind of critical connect the author-dots is a little boring and lazy anyway, and what’s more important is Goines’ stylistic and thematic connections to authors and literary styles, intentional or not. That kind of “in the air” of the decades thing that makes books of the past strangely connected whether they were all reading one another’s manuscripts or not.

In short, it doesn’t matter if AUTHOR X and AUTHOR Y knew one another or read one another–they were doing similar things during similar times and that can really illuminate the work. With Goines, I’d like to not so much label him as this kind of author or that kind of author, but show how Goines’ work very much aligns with specific literary styles…and how it doesn’t.

This between a lot of things position is what makes Goines’ work interesting and once more, makes him like every great author. How the stuff that makes say, Hemingway a Romantic is as interesting as the stuff that makes him not only a Modernist, but the Modernist. With Goines though, there’s a sense of “what if” to this literary tradition stuff because, had he been writing in nearly any other decade but the 1970s, his work would’ve easily found a more sizable audience and one that could’ve afforded him a more sustainable living and writing career. No amount of criticism in the world can alter that fact, but more serious criticism of Goines’ novels may right that wrong in one way or another. It begins with placing Goines in the American literary timeline, really for the first time.

SOURCES:
-Allen Jr, Eddie B. Low Road: The Life & Legacy of Donald Goines. St Martin’s Press: New York, 2004.
-Goode, Greg. “From Dopefiend to Kenyatta’s Last Hit: The Angry Black Crime Novels of Donald Goines.” MELUS, Vol. 11, No. 3, Ethnic Images in Popular Genres and Media (Autumn, 1984), pp. 41-48.

Written by Brandon

February 11th, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Dilla Donuts Day

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First, picture by the awesome Kelly Connelly. Today is J Dilla’s birthday, which means it is also the day, four years ago that Donuts came out. Below are the links to last year’s Donuts extravaganza. The concern in talking-up an album like Donuts is sucking it of all its wonder and joy; explaining it, solving it. As far as I can tell, that wasn’t the result of “Donuts Month”.

I just got home from a friend of mine’s DJ set and he dropped Pharcyde’s “Runnin” and I use the term “dropped” advisedly–my dude was spinning all vinyl because his hard-drive crashed though he didn’t advertise it–and you had a whole room of people mouthing the lyrics or dancing to it like it was just the next song in an night of songs to dance to…everyone digging into the song on their own personal level, but enjoying it together.

Though certain songs on Donuts may still remind me of the same stuff they did last year, and I may envision say, Dallas Penn’s video when I hear “Anti-American Graffiti”, Dilla’s masterpiece remains as vital and weird and ambiguous and endlessly fascinating as it did when it was released.

1. “Outro”
2. “Workinonit”
3. “Waves”
4. “Light My Fire”
5. “The New”
6. “Stop!”
7. “People”
8. “The Diff’rence”
9. “Mash”
10. “Time: The Donut of the Heart”
11. “Glazed”
12. “Airworks”
13. “Lightworks”
14. “Stepson of the Clapper”
15. “Twister (Huh, What?)
16.“One Eleven”
17. “Two Can Win”
18. “Don’t Cry”
19. “Anti-American Graffiti”
20. “Geek Down”
21. “Thunder”
22. “Gobstopper”
23. “One for Ghost”
24. “Dilla Says Go”
25. “Walkinonit”
26. “The Factory”
27. “U-Love”
28. “Hi.”
29. “Bye.”
30. “Last Donut of the Night”
31. “Intro”

Written by Brandon

February 7th, 2010 at 6:31 am

Posted in Donuts Month, J-Dilla

Village Voice: “On Richard Christy’s Fun-Metal Opus Charred Walls of the Damned”

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So, my article on the first great album of 2010–Charred Walls of the Damned’s self-titled debut–is in the Village Voice this week. CWOTD is drummer Richard Christy’s metal project–you may know Richard Christy as one of the writers on the Howard Stern Show but he’s also a metal veteran, having drummed for bands like Iced Earth and Death. Talking to him was a big deal, as I’m a huge Stern fan and just a big fan of his music and stuff. A lot of things we discussed just didn’t make it into the article due to word-space, but I especially loved a rant he had about how John Carpenter is his favorite songwriter.

After the interview, he was awesome enough to give me a tour of the Stern show studios which is sort of a dream fulfilled since I was eight years old listening to Stern with my dad. In Richard’s office, amongst the metal CDs and porno DVDs was a bunch of Carpenter movie soundtrack LPs. Charred Walls of the Damned came out today. Go get it!

“It’s early in the year, but Richard Christy has already released two masterpieces. First, there’s his epic rearranging of Sarah Palin’s audio book—one of many pre-recorded bits he provides for The Howard Stern Show—wherein the comedian turns Going Rogue into Penthouse Forum, cutting and splicing Palin’s voice so she’s describing an indefatigable orgy that includes, among other things, her inclination to “jerk off a caribou.” But don’t forget Charred Walls of the Damned, the self-titled debut of his new songs-in-the-key-of-Maiden metal supergroup.

The Stern affiliation often outshines Fort Scott, Kansas’s favorite son’s nearly 20 years in the heavy-metal scene—including bygone gigs as drummer for death-metal pioneers Death and the concept-album-obsessed Iced Earth, among many others—but Christy is comfortable with that. “I work on the greatest radio show in the world,” he exclaims. “I get paid to goof around…”

Written by Brandon

February 3rd, 2010 at 2:59 am

Posted in Village Voice

Locating Goines Pt. 1: “Next to the Hood”

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“In the early days, the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C was from Hollis. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood.”-Chris Rock, Time Magazine (57).

For those familiar with this blog, this quote swiped from Chris Rock comes up a lot. Namely because it’s good, smart, and catchy, but also because it touches on issues of “authenticity” and “reality” and all the stuff at the core of nearly every hip-hop discussion, for better and worse.

Rock’s quip though, has legs beyond hip-hop because he’s speaking on a phenomenon that applies to nearly every, interesting, game-changing, creative type. This sense that they stand inside and outside of their respective surroundings and as a result, inject their art with duel insight–familiar and foreign, sympathetic and critical.

Donald Goines is a “next to the hood” author and what makes his work so fascinating. A Goines novel is far from celebratory, it’s not entrenched in the moronic logic of “the life”–the biggest problem with most contemporary Urban fiction–but it isn’t above it all either. Goines has an impressive ability to be both, rooted in the realities of whatever experience he’s documenting and step outside of it and provide sober commentary on it, without tipping the scales towards “jus’ keepin’ it real” or projecting some above-it-all morality to the proceedings.

He isn’t telling first-person, ghetto fables like Iceberg Slim. He’s not making street life literary like Chester Himes. And the black underworld isn’t a transgressive symbol as it was for Claude McKay in Home to Harlem (arguably the earliest blueprint for Street/Urban Fiction), Goines is doing a little bit of all those things–those three authors made Goines’ work possible, though he only read Slim–and something else entirely.

Goines’ work isn’t explicitly literary at all–even Slim’s work is in part, about wordplay and language–and it’s “merit”, as more than just a good story, only arrives to those sensitive to the subtleties of the work. The very reason he’s very popular is why people don’t take his work seriously. You can read it, get your thrills, and close the book, but there’s more there too…but there doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing to “get”.

You don’t read a Goines novel for the themes because they’re kinda obvious, but you do read it for all the characters and asides and details that make that rather obvious theme palpable and new. This is why it’s very easy to toss out backhanded compliments to his novels. You’ll frame it around surprise–that it’s as insightful as it is, that it’s so well-structured, etc.–rather than simple, glowing acclaim. This though, is the unfortunate byproduct of being “next to the hood”. Rap is decades old and still essentially confounding to most people due to a stance that often hovers between unwitting and cognizant. Hell, last week, Vampire Weekend were at the center of an extensive debate amongst music critics precisely because they’re “next to the hood”.

If it isn’t Goines’ rather complex approach to his characters and environment that makes his work so rarefied, it’s the Goines legend that paints him as very much of the hood. As a guy killed at his typewriter (he actually was not at his typewriter when he was killed), who lived a life of crime and addiction and for a few years before his death, who spit out some really influential, autobiographical crime fiction. This legend, which helps sell his books and justifies critics’ disinterest, ignores his black, middle class upbringing. An upbringing that he rejected very early on by running with the wrong crowd, and an upbringing he escaped when he decided to fake his birth certificate and join the Air Force at just fifteen.

Eddie Allen, Goines’ biographer—do check out Allen’s book Low Road–offers an interesting piece of psychology on Goines’ air force decision: “As [Goines] grew older, his cravings for new experiences and adventures exceeded that which his peers in the gang could provide” (33). This analysis by Allen retains the Goines legend—as somebody of “the hood”–but also as someone beyond it, interested in something else. Robbing and stealing and pimping grew old for Donald pretty quickly and he looked beyond his immediate surroundings for escape. Though he’d return—with a heroin habit he picked up in Korea—the weird, meandering narrative of Goines’ life is worth charting out, especially as it applies to his fiction.

Here’s a guy who rejected his middle class upbringing for a life of crime, then joined the Air Force when crime got boring, who returned to the states an “adult” kinda spoiled by his weird decisions (making regular jobs an impossibility), who’d wander around in the underworld up to his death, writing remarkable books about that life for a few years until he was mysteriously killed in his home. Though that isn’t exactly “bohemian”, a word we love to append to slept-on, underappreciated, and self-destructive artists, it kind of is too–and it’s “next to the hood” for sure.

Next Up: Locating Goines Pt. 2: Literary Traditions. A little behind on these posts, my apologies-b

SOURCES:
-Allen Jr, Eddie B. Low Road: The Life & Legacy of Donald Goines. St Martin’s Press: New York, 2004.
-Tyrangiel, Josh. “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.” Time. 29 Aug. 2005: 54-61.

Written by Brandon

February 1st, 2010 at 4:11 am