No Trivia

Archive for March, 2007

leave a comment

Notorious B.I.G Death Day
On this Biggie death day, many other places can give you better and more fitting retrospectives, BET is running an evening of programming and this month’s ‘XXL’ and ‘The Source’ have commemorative articles, but if you’ve already digested his music, I think the best place to go is Cheo Hodari Coker’s ‘Unbelievable; The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G’. This book does not seem to get enough credit for being a legitimately excellent and intelligent biography. As far as I know, it’s the only Biggie bio so maybe there’s nothing to compare it to or maybe it’s because it’s published by ‘Vibe’ and is big and glossy and therefore taken less seriously. Either way, this is all unfortunate because Coker’s biography provides not only a factual account of Christopher Wallace’s life but makes his death nearly palpable.

I recall sitting in a grocery store parking lot, in the rain, in Dover, DE, waiting for my girlfriend to get off of work, finishing the book and just feeling kind of empty. I had never thought too much about Biggie’s death because I was only 11 when it happened and all I knew of Biggie were his cool videos and my 20 year-old uncle listening to a ‘Hypnotize’ cassette single every time I drove around with him. It was only years after his death that I began to appreciate the music, so Biggie’s death was “a given”. It didn’t feel that different from getting into music from the 60s or 70s where you know there’s only a limited discography to delve into. Paradoxically, it was Biggie’s acknowledgment of death and self-destruction that affected me but somehow, the full emotions of the events didn’t connect to the actual death of the creator of those words until reading ‘Unbelievable’. I knew the “East Coast/West Coast feud” was retarded but Coker’s book really portrays how moronic and disturbing it was. The persistence in which Biggie seemed to dismiss the feud but was still caught up in it are, and I use this word advisedly, tragic.

Coker has apparently written a screenplay about Biggie’s life and he’s certainly the best one to do it; ‘Unbelievable’ is wonderful at dramatizing real events and turning them into “scenes” without sacrificing the real-life feeling of those events. That is to say, one gets the feeling of truth throughout the book but the hand of an author organizing a man’s life into a readable text is invisible. There’s a particularly affecting scene, wonderfully presented by Coker, where Biggie feels the repercussions for insulting (of all people) E-40. Apparently, Biggie, for an interview, “was asked to rate different rappers on a scale of one to ten” and “when asked about the Sacramento rap mogul”, Biggie (probably joking) gave him a big, fat zero (160). Months later, Biggie performed a show in Sacramento and after the show, was confronted with “twenty or thirty riders” on behalf of E-40 (160). Coker describes the scene primarily through quotations from DJ Enuff, but cuts-in with two significant lines of dialogue that highlight Biggie’s subtle form of bravado, the very thing that differentiated him from other rappers:
“My people is here,” E-40 told him.
“Yeah, I see them,” said Big. (161)
Coker’s book is full of well-wrought scenes like this one. Scenes that are based in real events but are elevated to an emotional level through Coker’s organization of quotations, facts, and tight but effective prose. Coker also has a firm grasp on his rap history and maintains an even-handed approach to Biggie’s life, presenting his inconstancies and negative aspects without “exposing” him, while taking a tough, but even-handed approach on the still-loaded East/West beef. I can’t really explain how rewarding this book is and I would encourage anyone that has not read it, to do so, particularly over the weekend that commemorates the man’s death. It would be a more fitting tribute than the questionable ‘Greatest Hits’ just released by Bad Boy.

“Questionable” however, seems to be the norm on anything related to Biggie. There are way too many “incompletes” in the rapper’s life, extending beyond the fact that his life was left incomplete when he was murdered at 24 (24! Think about that!). Obviously, there has been no conclusions related to his murder and whether one is interested in “justice” or not, the inconclusive aspects of the crime are pretty fucked-up. There’s also the legal weirdness with ‘Ready to Die’ which keeps Biggie’s best album and indeed, one of the best albums of all time, out of the hands of interested listeners. Recently, a rather idiotic list called ’The Definitive 200’ was published with the #59 spot belonging to ‘Life After Death’. I won’t complain about these kinds of lists nor will I suggest it as any kind of validation for rap that Biggie made the list, but I must say it is odd to choose ‘Life After Death’ over ‘Ready to Die’. Perhaps it has something to do with the legal limbo or whatever you want to call it, of ‘Ready to Die’ (the list is put out by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers), but it may also have to do with the tendency of music-types to prefer slightly inconsistent albums by artists rather than their truly, consistently great albums (‘Thriller’ over ‘Off the Wall’, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ over ‘Innervisions’, ‘Exile on Main Street’ and ‘Let it Bleed’ as the highest-ranked Stones albums…). This kind of music-critic misinterpretation of an artists’ work is nothing new and it is even less surprising in relation to the rap world but the consistency in which aspects of Biggie’s musical career seems to get the shaft is particularly depressing. Think of that iTunes commercial where all of the musicians cram into a phone booth (Iggy Pop, Snoop, Bootsy Collins, Little Richard etc.) and then just as their all crammed in, we see the back of some guy dressed as Biggie and Madonna in her weird, Britishigan accent cries out “Biggie!” and its very funny because Biggie is fat. Of course, he’s also dead so it’s sort of weird and borderline offensive and would never happen with a dead rock music legend. Not that any of this matters too much, it just sort of stings, you know?

-Coker, Cheo Hodari. ‘Unbelievable.’ Three Rivers Press: New York, 2003.

Written by Brandon

March 9th, 2007 at 7:39 am

leave a comment

The Deadening Effects of Ironic Indie Culture.

“I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally…Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”-from ‘The Audacity of Hope’ (10-11)

Yesterday, while browsing Perez Hilton (no homo), I noticed an advertisement in the right corner that immediately disturbed me. It was an ad for a website that sells numerous t-shirts that purport to be supporting the candidate. They are done in the style of the ever-present “vintage”, hipster T-shirt and say things like: I (heart) Obama, O8ama, Clinton/Obama 2008, Barack N’ Roll, Do You Smell What Barack is Cooking?, He’s a Barack Star!, Barack My World, Obama/Oprah 2008, Obama Baracks My World, Barack the Vote, Kiss Me I’m Voting for Obama, It’ll Take Obama to End the Drama, Barack the Casbah, and my personal favorite, ‘Barack Out with Your Cock Out’… Now, if you’re laughing at these, I forgive you but seriously, what the fuck is this? When the ironic T-shirt has extended to our political statements, I’m not sure what to do. If someone were wearing one of these shirts, I don’t know that I’d immediately know that they were in-support of Obama. The shirts certainly don’t lend themselves to suggesting that one takes the candidate seriously (and I won’t even go into how racist they are…).

These shirts highlight a more problematic aspect of the indie-rock culture, the “genre” so many ill-informed music fans, writers, and bloggers have been supporting since the “death” of hip-hop. Besides the obvious problems with most indie rock, there is the bigger and far more damaging aspect to indie-rock: It is so damned ironic. Whenever I see someone in an ironic t-shirt, I always imagine them in the worst situation possible. At some point, somewhere, some douche in a “Worst Kisser Ever” t-shirt was told that his mother died or something and he broke down in tears. How can you have real emotions wearing that? Now, I know these shirts are just fun and I’m just being humorless, but sometimes it’s important that we don’t laugh at everything. The point of humor is to bring people closer, to reflect some harsh reality we may not be able to confront without laughing…you know, that whole laughing to keep from crying thing…

For many, Indie rock is being used in contrast to rap music. Now, what the two genres have to do with one another or how one is the antidote to the other, I do not know, but this seems to be the case, according to everyone from ‘The New York Times’ to Byron Crawford. Rap music, particularly by those that are still such dinosaurs as to not listen to any rap music, will cite the music as too self-serious or too fake, but I can think of nothing more false than the world of indie rock. Their ironic dance parties, their ironic clothing, even their pseudo-ironic/pseudo-populist embrace of Lil Wayne or Clipse. Go to Facebook and choose a liberal arts college and count the number of indie kids throwing up “gangsta” signs or captioning their pictures with “Crunk!” The ironic T-shirt form of irony does nothing but create an impenetrable barrier of pseudo-coolness, taking nothing seriously. Compare this kind of irony to the dark truth-revealing irony of Notorious B.I.G or even something as willfully goofy as Polow Da Don’s verse on ‘Throw Some D’s. We laugh with these artists, we are not laughing at the world.

At the same time as being impenetrably ironic, most indie music, from the sad-bastard vocals to the uber-pretentious albums full of literary references, are employed to convince misinformed listeners that the music is sincere and yes, significant. The indie world loves to have their cake and eat it too and fuck them for doing so. Think of how many actually legendary rappers appeared on ‘The (White) Rapper Show’! Would their indie equivalents ever take their guard down long enough to show up on say, ‘The (Black) Indie Rocker Show’ if it were to exist? Stephen Malkmus or Sonic Youth would be too worried about an image to ever appear on something as “uncool” as a reality show…meanwhile, someone as self-serious as 50 Cent still shows up on Howard Stern and talks about eating asshole for thirty minutes.

Why must everything in the indie-rock world be pushed through some irony machine? Why must they pervert everything to fit their cause? Isn’t the fact that Barack Obama is the first truly viable, ethnic presidential candidate enough for you? He has to be turned into a bad pun by some art-school fuckface for you to visibly support him? Obama is not hip, he is not cool, this is what is so striking about him as a candidate. He is not a rock star, he expressed embarrassment when pictures like these were released. No matter which way you twist it, there’s nothing cool about a book called ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and that’s great! Do not treat him the way you treat that one black friend you have at college.

-Obama, Barack. ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Crown Publishers: New York, 2006.

Written by Brandon

March 5th, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Barack Obama, Indie, Irony

leave a comment

‘The Departed’ and ‘Thief’s Theme’

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is at best, pretty-good. It is watchable from beginning to end which is more than you can say about most movies, but the only actually daring thing about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the use of Nas’ ‘Thief’s Theme’. The song plays during a scene in which Costigan (DiCaprio) drives with his drug-dealing cousin. The scene is brief; Nas only plays as background music and isn’t afforded the same significance as ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ nor does it act as “scource” (score and source music simultaneously) the way ‘Sail On Sailor’ by the Beach Boys does. ‘Thief’s Theme’ just plays in the background. Even so, the simple incorporation of rap music into a Scorsese movie is notable.

Scorsese’s movies, along with ‘Scarface’ and a few others, have played a significant part in rap music culture. An oft-quoted and very reasonable comparison between Scorsese movies and rap music has been made in defense of rap’s violence: Marty doesn’t get the load of shit that every rapper gets for portraying violence realistically. I’m sure at some point, Scorsese heard this comparison and there’s no way he hasn’t seen Nas’ ‘Casino’ homage video ‘Street Dreams’, so the inclusion of ‘Thief’s Theme’ is Scorsese embracing his relevance to rap culture rather than ignoring or even being embarrassed by it, like so many other directors. Or maybe, Marty somehow feels responsible for this? Just kidding…

‘Thief’s Theme’ also conceptually fits within the movie. The song makes sense as something that DiCaprio’s character would be listening to and becomes an interesting comment on the background of his character. Early-on, we learn that the father’s side of Costigan’s family were all mob-affiliated, while his mother’s side was a bit more upper-class. He is both in and out of the world of crime, in it enough to have experience but out of it enough that he has a distance. He is like a rapper in this sense, connected to the world of crime but with something of an outsider’s perspective on it because like a rapper, they have chosen to analyze “the life” in addition to live in it. Costigan is not quite a criminal and not quite a cop, navigating somewhere in the middle, pulling from both experiences and observing them all. Think of Nas or Mobb Depp, rappers whose “street cred” has been questioned but who are arguably better able to articulate the life of crime than those who directly live it. Chris Rock, in an article on Kanye West from ‘Time Magazine’ made the point that “the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood…they lived next to the hood” (57). This is also true of Costigan, who is a better cop and more of a hard-ass than Sullivan (Matt Damon) because of his connection and distance from “the life”. I also chuckled at the scene where Nicholson breaks Costigan’s cast open to look for a wire, using the ultimate signifier of 90s New-York rap: a Timberland workboot!

The movie is set in and is about Boston, a city infamous for its racism, so using a Nas track, even if it is only briefly, is an interesting way acknowledge blackness in the movie without it becoming cloying. We’re thankfully not presented with a scene where Anthony Anderson’s character spouts off ‘Crash’-like about race, not only because it would be stupid but because we’re in the era of postmodern racists, racist that no longer say “nigger” in front of a nigger. You know? Scorsese is brave enough to use the word “nigger” and not the way a movie like ‘Crash’ uses racial epithets, to shock the audience but to simply reflect the realistic way these people talk. Movies like ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ address race much better but it still shows that Scorsese is still addressing racism.

So much of the time, many hermetically-sealed subcultures like the mafia (or police or unions etc. etc.) spend a great deal of time differentiating themselves from other groups, particularly blacks. Scorsese takes an essentially deconstructive approach, making Nicholson’s introductory speech where he discusses the difference between the Irish and “the niggers” absurd. In a scene where mafia-mole Matt Damon is investigating a crime, he feels the effects of “stop snitching” but it is not a black community where this occurs, it is in an all-white, Irish, working class neighborhood! The entire movie explicitly deconstructs the split between cops and criminal but in subtler ways, addresses issues of race in a similarly deconstructive way. The entire movie is deconstructive and the title, a reference to the dead, points towards the ultimate deconstructive act: death.

The same deconstructive approach is taken when Scorsese chooses a Nas song for the same soundtrack that contains a Dropkick Murphys song. Everything is being cut down to the same level, annoying rock-oriented rules about music are being ignored. It is an interesting step for rap music to be incorporated into movies in realistic or even emotional ways. So often, it is used to only signify danger or the inner-city and when it isn’t being used towards those ends, it plays as simple party music. My very-specific interest in rap music, which is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog, is the “legitimization” of rap music as actual, emotional, humanistic music. When movies like ‘The Departed’ make an attempt, it’s just another reason why I do not understand why arguments like this even exist. No one ever makes the argument that they can’t relate to ‘The Departed’ because they aren’t Irish or from Boston or in the mob or whatever else. There’s still plenty to think about or even relate to in ‘The Departed’ even if you’re some jerk-off music writer for ‘The Onion’, why not the same for rap?

-Tyrangiel, Josh. “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.” ‘Time Magazine’ 29 August 2005: 54-61.

Written by Brandon

March 1st, 2007 at 7:10 am

Posted in Nas, Scorsese, The Departed