No Trivia

Archive for November, 2007

Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Common

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No matter what kind of rap fan I’m talking to, I end up having to qualify my thoughts on Common. See, if they are my kind of rap fan, the knee-jerk haters of the so-called “conscious” set that make jokes about Common eating granola, then I gotta remind them of just how fucking good early Common could be. If they are a conscious rap fan who really thinks its cool that Common eats granola, out comes my protracted rant about how everything from his persona to his politics is muddled beyond comprehension and he’s made himself nothing more than the go-to for everyone from “heads” to kinda fat Jewish girls that like “some” hip-hop.

Resurrection is an absolute masterpiece, one of the five or so best rap albums ever. Way better than Illmatic, which came out the same year and in my head, the albums forever linked and just like Illmatic (and so many other rap debuts), it’s an album that gives off the feeling of totally being inside the head of the rapper; you know, them saying the shit they wanted to say and before labels or their own fucking “creativity” screwed everything up. The “sometimes, sometimes…” break on ‘Thisisme’ makes me cry every time I hear it. Resurrection is a portrait of Common, warts and all, bad punchlines and on-point rapping and all, and features plenty of insight into one thing and one thing only: Common. He drops great confessions that are decidedly un-hip-hop without being purposefully un-hip-hop, just real: “I didn’t grow up po’ po’/but once you get grown and out on your own/Bills upon bills upon bills is what you have.” Resurrection is pretty much the bougie rap album Common would claim to be making from Like Water For Choclate to the present time. His problems, not enough money, too much fast-food and beer, have as much to do with those kinda fat “some hip-hop”-liking girls I mentioned earlier as they do with someone deep “in the struggle”.

There’s also something incredibly male and even masculine about Resurrection; the easy place to start is ‘I Used to Love H.E.R’ which is oft-cited as being you know a little closed-minded about what girls (metaphor or not) can do with their vaginas. Common comes through in that the album feels and sounds alienated in a way that girls just never really are; it’s a remarkable literature-caliber portrayal of a slightly educated twentysomething (Nirvana who?). On the album, Common’s aware of his problems and wants to fix them but is half-scared and half-lazy and half-enjoying being a fuckup so it’s all a messy loop of living rapped over messy-but-clean jazz and keyboard loops. He’s also weirdly un-ironic and not self-aware like a lot of confused twentysomething dudes (yes face it, Common is basically a dude); only a rapper with little irony or little interest in proofreading would not only rap a line like “and you could tell/By the way her titties hung” but end the verse with it!

At the same time, the album is a jarring transition from Can I Borrow a Dollar? (a great title by the way). No I.D went from pretty ill slightly wiser boom-bap to beats that move and gel together through the subtlest of keyboard touches and other genius sonic detail. Meanwhile, Common calms it down a little and makes the perfect use of his perpetually stuffed-up-like-he’s-got-a-cold flow. Many look back and like to joke or at least reference stuff like ‘Heidi Hoe’ to describe just how different he was when he first spit, but Common is the same dumbass he’s always been. His most winning aspect is a penchant for emotionally honest details that never seem cloying and his worst aspect is the one he’s been totally working-on for more than a decade: his political and social observations (if they can even be called that). It doesn’t surprise me that he dropped out of college because he’s exactly the kind of guy that would go and then drop out and then talk about how he didn’t need it and how (as he says on Resurrection) “I went to school for fourteen years and my best teacher was experience”; Common’s something of a dullard, really.

It’s fun to make fun of Electric Circus’ or the so clichéd they literally mean nothing stuff on Finding Forever (love is not a mystery…it’s everything?) but they are already there on Resurrection when he says junk like “I hope you wake up in time for the revolution/Or you gonna be like/I can’t believe it, I got shot!” and it works on that album because the whole concept behind it is a confused young guy just being real. It’s the same joyful ignorance found on the first N.W.A record (no really, it is); a decade later however, you realize he hasn’t learned much of anything about anything but he thinks he’s got the world figured out…his supposed resurgence with the help of Kanye West is highly overrated and Be and Finding Forever being celebrated shows just how far the Lonnie Lyn has fallen.

Written by Brandon

November 30th, 2007 at 11:55 am

Mullyman ‘Got It’/'Oh Baltimore’ (Major League Unlimited, 2004)

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A-Side: ‘Got It’ featuring Clipse & Famlay
B-Side: ‘Oh Baltimore’

No Baltimore Club today but here’s some Baltimore rap. Mullyman is one of Baltimore’s best and most well-known rappers. I had heard his name tossed around here or there for awhile, but I first saw him open for Vast Aire and the GZA in the summer of 2004 and was surprised when he put on a better show than either of those rap legends. It felt good to see the guy’s name pop-up more and more, not only because a local rapper with some success is always great, but because it sorta validated my ear…no one was telling me to like or not like this guy, I experienced his music on a pretty pure level; if anything, he had a lot going against him because I just wanted to see the fucking Genius but Mullyman captivated me: A kinda short dude who came out like he wanted- no, needed- to be there and spit for 45 minutes, walking into the crowd and everything…

The tracks above are from his release ‘Mullymania’ and are ripped from a single that preceded the album’s release. ‘Got It’ was (I think) produced by Rod Lee and is a fairly eccentric rap-club single track but it’s hard to ignore the Neptunes derivations, especially due to the appearance of Star Trak’s Clipse and Famlay but still a good song and as interesting as anything the Neptunes have released in the past few years. ‘Oh Baltimore’ on the other hand, is a perfect rap song. ‘Got It’ was obviously intended as the introductory, club-friendly single, further buttressed by some big-name guests, but ‘Oh Baltimore’ stands on its own as just a great song and definitive Baltimore hip-hop. It should get extra points for being a song from 2004 that didn’t chipmunk-ize the soul sample even as it comes from the Roc-A-Fella production style of lots of horns, baroque-but-sorta-subtle-too strings, and ill soul samples. The Nina Simone hook for the chorus is really interesting for the way that it actually brings the song down a few notches instead of exploding triumphant, like say, Just Blaze’s ‘What We Do’ (Mully’s cadence in the first verse pays homage to Beanie Sigel’s verse from that song).

Most soul-rap beats tease the listener with a shorter version of the sample somewhere in the verses but here, it comes in understated and low, replacing the thick drums and regal horns with Mullyman’s ad-libs nearly taking it over. This is more appropriate for a song about Baltimore because well, for better and worse, Baltimore isn’t New York or any other super-famous rap town, so an out-and-out anthem of triumph wouldn’t make a lot of sense, especially because the song is a realistic portrayal of Baltimore tempered by the minor victory: “But somehow, a chicken box makes it all good”. There’s plenty of other lines worth quoting and discussing, I really like the stuff about the former hustler now being homeless and it’s all delivered in a style that sort of sounds like the T.I heard on ‘King’ and the better parts of ‘T.I vs. T.I.P’ but of course, ‘Oh Baltimore’ predates both of those albums.

Mullyman’s feature for ‘Show & Prove’ from May 2005’s XXL; click to read it:

Written by Brandon

November 27th, 2007 at 8:53 am

Posted in Clipse, Mullyman, Rod Lee

Technics vs. Rod Lee (Knucklehead/Phat KIdz Records)

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‘War Niggaz’
‘Poke Ya Ass’
Breakitdown 99′

‘Luv My Niggaz’
‘Don’t Waste My Time’ featuring Lucky
‘Where Ya At?’ featuring Mz. Thang

I like the A-Side/B-Side concept of this, with a song called ‘War Niggaz’ on one side and then an answer to that with, ‘Luv My Niggaz’ on the B-Side. The tracks also feature samples of the two of the most overly-sampled artists of Baltimore club: Mystikal and DMX. ‘War Niggaz’, I think is sampling ‘It Ain’t My Fault’ by Silkk the Shocker which featured Mystikal and ‘Luv My Niggaz’ grabs DMX’s guest verse on Jay-Z’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’; there’s some Jay-Z thrown in there too.

The progress of most Baltimore Club songs and well, all post-Disco dance music is that you start out with a sound or two and just keep fuckin’ adding shit on top of shit until it’s just this like, glorious danceable chaos. These songs follow that structure but feel even more chaotic and stumbling, especially ‘War Niggaz’ because it begins with the chopped-up vocal sample of Mystikal, sampled right from the song, no ‘Acappela’ version or clever stereo mixing to highlight the vocal, so under it you get this awkwardly chopped part of the music as well. When the song finally breaks out, the sample’s cut even shorter and more sounds are added- I especially like that high-pitched beep- and finally, the club break you expect drops. On ‘Luv My Niggaz’, it’s really cool that Rod Lee or Technics heard the Swizz Beat production and grabbed those weird descending keyboard sounds which not only sound cool but would fit right-in on any song made by either of these guys. That’s one of the more interesting aspects of Baltimore Club in relation to sampling, the way they pretty much sample stuff that totally fits their aesthetic, hence yell-rappers like Mystikal and DMX or dinky-sound keyboards from Swizz Beatz.

Written by Brandon

November 23rd, 2007 at 9:58 pm

Rod Lee Vol.2 (knucklehead records 1999)

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Rod Lee is generally considered the “club king of Baltimore” and for good reason, as he’s maybe the most prolific and charismatic of the Baltimore Clubbers. He’s also responsible for the first nationally distributed club release ‘Volume 5: The Official’ which you should buy like, immediately. It’s primarily music from Rod but also features tracks from Technics, KW Griff, Blaq Starr, and Lil Jay, so it’s a pretty good sampler. I find it to be one of the most consistently rewarding mixes and it features two summers ago’s local hit ‘Dance My Pain Away’. I’m not usually the kind of person that demands lyrical significance or relevance- especially in fucking club music- but ‘Dance My Pain Away’ manages to be as affecting as it is fun. If you think of dance music history, some of the best dance singles have something else going on, something political or personal or cultural or something and this song fits right into that. Whether it’s the “best” club song or not, it should probably be the like, representative Baltimore Club song especially for cynics or intellectual types who need some invocation of the struggle for music to be “important”. Again, Al Shipley on ‘Volume 5′.

Rod’s 2007 release ‘The Producer’ features a sort of sequel or something to ‘Dance My Pain Away’ called ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and it’s just about as good and follows the same concept of you know, having fucking fun despite the world pretty much sucking ass (it could be worse, it could be worse!).

Below is some older stuff from Rod that sounds even more lo-fi and homemade…there are about a million little details I could highlight about these tracks (the bouncy humming on ‘Nuttin But a Hoe’, the crazy looping of ‘Double Dutch Bus’ on ‘Gimmie Hoe’, the perfect amount of reverb on ‘Where Da Weed At?’…) but you should probably just listen.

-Nuttin But a Ho!
-Bang Dat Thang 3
-Don’t Bring featuring Relly Rel & Mr. Redz

-Word Up!
-Gimmie Hoe
-Where Da Weed At?

Written by Brandon

November 21st, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

DJ Blaqstarr’s King of Roq

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There’s a lot of talk about DJ Blaqstarr lately, especially amongst people not in the Baltimore area. Because of the fairly recent interest in Baltimore club amongst so-called hipsters and other music afficianados, I’ve heard one can stumble into places in Philadelphia or New York and hear Baltimore Club mixes and that’s sort of great and a little surreal to think about because the music so many people are treating as new and interesting is something I’ve heard ever since I started listening to 92.3 “the Q” in like 3rd grade! The weird beats, filthy lyrics and samples, the high BPMs, the A.D.D of it all just kinda of makes sense to me but yeah…it’s weird, regional music that people are finally latching onto and that’s pretty exciting. For awhile, the Baltimore club semi-craze kinda irked me because it felt more like co-opting, with Diplo and friends taking it or making B-more club-ish tracks and then hearing people in fucking Baltimore referring to Spank Rock as “Baltimore Club” but what are you gonna do? That’s what it takes for music to become popular and more easily available and all that junk so yeah…don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s Baltimore Club week at No Trivia.

Blaqstarr’s reputation is growing even faster than other real Baltimore Club producers because of his interest in going outside of Baltimore- he recently produced ‘The Turn’ on M.I.A’s ‘Kala’- and his tendency to be a little more experimental than his B-More club peers and influences. I don’t say this to disregard his creativity and artistry but I think a part of Blaqstarr’s interest in stuff other than classic club breaks and super-fast beats is his age (22). Most of the Baltimore Club legends (Rod Lee, Scottie B, KW Griff, Technics) are significantly older and come from a more purist generation, one that sees their music as theirs and is more interested in finding freedom- or apparent freedom- in super-regulated patterns of music-making, while Blaqstarr, especially on ‘King of Roq’ his release from this summer (now unavailable, sorry) pretty much breaks from the Baltimore Club traditions…kind of. Okay, it totally does but it’s not completely successful, Baltimore City Paper’s Al Shipley (who runs Baltimore Rap & Club blog Government Names) called ‘King of Roq’ “invigoratingly weird” in his review and that’s pretty fucking accurate because the album is genuinely bizarre, not bizarre when compared to other Baltimore Club records but just ‘Stankonia’ weird. I think it will end up being the album that inspires Baltimore Club experiments and not you know, the experimental Baltimore Club album.

Starting with the first track, uh, ‘Intro’, full of space-sounds and wheezes and bloops and Blaq Starr announcing in a drop that pops-up a little too often (“I’m the king of rock…”), you get an appropriate introduction to the weirder aspects of the disc and to Blaqstarr’s voice, which is kinda high-pitched and more modern R & B than hip-hop and it often sounds flanged or reverbed a bit; it’s the sort of idiosyncracy that I guess Akon or T-Pain were going for when they starting using vocoder and auto-tune on their tracks but Blaqstarr just sounds weird because that’s his voice and also, it hasn’t become ubiquitous like those T-Pain isms. That Lil Wayne track on ‘Da Drought is Over 4′- the one that samples YES- sounds a lot like Blaqstarr and I’d venture to guess that Wayne, who seems to be ingesting every fucking sound and genre out there, has stumbled upon some tracks by Blaqstarr at some point in the past six months and ran with it. On ‘Allday’, Blaqstarr croons “and I will love you all day” and he’s not saying anything more than T-Pain and maybe even less, he’s hardly the crooner everyman T-Pain has evolved into, but he’s not this super-distant R & B perfectionist robot either. He takes the repetitive aspects of Baltimore Club and then sings instead of screams the hooks and because his voice is just plain bizarre, the repetition doesn’t as much gain energy as it does get increasingly obsessive-sounding and creepy and by the time you’re halfway through the album you’re sort of in this weird drunken trance of mid-paced B-More club weirdness that throws in lots of super-clean heavy metal-ish guitars, descending keyboard riffs, and only the occasional super-obvious club break.

-‘Yea I’ Track 2 off ‘King of Roq’: Like most Baltimore Club, there’s plenty of graphic sex lyrics on ‘King of Roq’, but Blaqstarr starts the album off with this light-rap full of well-worn Southern rap-ish threats (“I’ma blow this whole fuckin’ place to the ground”) and some classic bragging in a delivery that sort of sounds like the stuff you hear on popular rap radio but it’s just a bit more strange and homemade. His flow has a little of say, MIMs or Yung Joc in it, but way more interesting. The last few songs on the album are pretty much explicitly from this Southern kid-rap mold, ‘Swagga Back’ could be a Yung Joc track and ‘I’m So Fly’ owes a lot to ‘This Is Why I’m Hot’ but it also has these Pharrell-ian drums and waaayyy more personality…

-‘Rock Wit Me’ Track 6 off ‘King of Roq’: I can’t imagine ‘King of Roq’ was made as some kind of actual reaction to the fun-but-ultimately retarded concept behind ‘Party Like a Rockstar’ but it certainly took some of that strange rock/rap crossover-ness to a way more interesting end. The references and shouts to being a “rock star” are the right kind of nonsense but 53 seconds in, these really bad-ass guitars come in and are later accompanied by some programmed drums that approximate live rock drumming- especially the sort of epic 80s metal the song tries to invoke- and still puts this looped hook of “rock” and stuff under it, so it’s still basically a club song. Those sound-like-they-were-played drums segue into the next track ‘Let’s Play’ and just become that song’s drums too!

-Shake It To The Ground’ off ‘King of Roq’ & ‘Supastarr EP’ which is available on iTunes:

This song falls onto ‘King of Roq’ at a kind of perfect place, exactly when the creepy-obsessive sound of it all first starts to get a little boring, the girl-rap greatness of ‘Shake It To The Ground’ shows up. I really like the tinny sorta-regal horns in the background and the double-tracking of her vocals for the lengthy chorus. The reverse of typical tough-girl rap swagger is interesting as well, where action is almost irrelevant: “Real girls talk/Fake girls walk”. This song’s been making it’s way around the blogs, especially because of the video which is really just a great video…the horror movie posters on the wall, the live club footage…the Biggie-Shortie dance in front of the water fountains…the television static that interrupts…the fountains happen to be one of my favorite things in Baltimore ever since I was a little kid and would visit the Inner Harbor with my grandparents. The cemetary that you see in the background of the bike stunts, the rowhouses, a cameo by Scottie B, it’s all pretty exciting on a nerdy local level…

-D.O.G’s ‘Ryda Gyrl’: I don’t have an mp3 of this song on my new laptop and my old computer is busted so I had to settle for this link, but you can still hear the song. It was all over local radio a few years ago, produced by Blaq Starr and Blaq Starr on the chorus. Still my favorite Blaq Starr production.

Written by Brandon

November 20th, 2007 at 12:06 am

Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ on DVD


I started a new job and it’s from 8pm-5am, so I’m a little short on time as I get my shit readjusted…I’ll have a new blog up for Friday but until then…dig this re-post about ‘Killer of Sheep’. The movie gets a DVD release next Tuesday and should sorta be mandatory viewing…-brandon

Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’, completed in 1973, sort-of released in 1977, has since then, been an unavailable film-dork rarity. The movie’s legend grew as it won a few awards and was declared a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress, yet there were still major obstacles preventing a commercial release. A black-made film about working-class blacks and absent of guns, gangs, and violence and equally absent of overt politicizing is not very marketable. Furthermore, because Burnett made the movie for film school and not for public consumption, he developed an idiosyncratic soundtrack without the consideration of legal music rights issues.

A few years ago, Milestone Films stepped-in and began the campaign to for ‘Killer of Sheep’s official release. They obtained most of the music rights and restored the movie. A few weeks ago, I was able to see ‘Killer of Sheep’ at the Maryland Film Festival, with the heads of Milestone presenting along with the lead actor Henry Saunders.

‘Killer of Sheep’ takes the rawness of the era’s blaxploitation films but leaves behind their violent stereotypes. The movie is without plot, instead providing loosely connected vignettes and scenes in early 70s Compton/Watts. It is framed around Stan, who works at a slaughterhouse, and his wife and children. Nothing big happens, no one dies, no big secrets revealed. As a lazy writer, I want to drop a grotesque cliché about how the film is about “regular people” and move on, but that’s not accurate. Burnett’s movie is about people one might actually meet but the implication of “regular people” is a romanticization or idealization of the regular, which it is not.

Nothing is idealized in Burnett’s movie. Children do not play peacefully or even, wildly organized as they do in other movies, they run around and kick up dust and throw rocks and yell things that you can barely understand. One of my favorite moments is one where Burnett, during a scene of children playing, holds on a little boy standing on a roof, hit by a rock, just standing there crying. Burnett holds on the boy, who grips his arm as he tears up but we do not hear his crying or the continued playing of the indifferent children we only hear the soundtrack playing (I think) Faye Adams’ ‘Shake a Hand’. Another scene shows Stan’s daughter singing along to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘Reasons’, her voice mixed as high as the song’s.

I fear that even these scenes denote sentimentality that isn’t present in the film. Maybe it’s the black and white film, and Burnett’s tentative hand-held camera, and the naturalistic acting, and the perfect mix of irony, sympathy, and empathy but ‘Killer of Sheep’ never feels cheap or sentimental. A scene early in the movie presents two characters approaching Stan in front of his house, asking if he would like to help them kill somebody for money. He angrily dismisses them and they respond first to him and then to Stan’s wife with the “I’m just getting’ mine” speech that stands in contrast to everything Stan works for and believes. The interaction is played-out in a realistic manner and so, the thugs’ speech is never too articulate or overtly evil and Stan is both proudly proclaiming his not being a criminal and growing angry/insecure because he sees why it would be easier to be a pimp or hired gun. The movie is a series of reversals and then re-reversals like this, confounding and frustrating viewers.

When I saw the movie, the inevitably uncomfortable after-movie discussion briefly devolved into a white woman suggesting that the movie enforced certain stereotypes and generally dismal “ghetto” living. She cited a scene where Stan and a friend purchase a car engine for Stan’s truck from a Pimp. He barters with the Pimp, eventually buying it for 15 dollars. Stan and friend carry the engine to the truck and as they place the engine on the bed of the truck, it smashes Stan’s friend’s finger. Stan is left humorously trying to balance it on the edge of the bed as his friend shakes his hand, bouncing up and down in pain. The friend, having just dropped an engine on his finger, is sort of done with carrying and tries to tell Stan it will be okay on the end of the bed which it obviously will not. Against his better judgment Stan does not argue, and they jump into the truck. A wide-shot reveals the engine teetering off the edge of the truck-bed and just as the truck begins moving, the engine falls and smashes in the street.

This woman cited this as portraying the stereotypical lack of intelligence of black people, which is what she wanted the scene to be about. A “knowing” viewer will find what looks like stereotypes all through the film. What the scene is really about is Stan’s kindness, his sympathy for his hurt-fingered friend extending so far that he doesn’t want to force the friend to move the engine even though he risks breaking the engine. Burnett plays with the audience as the scene is set-up like those unfortunate Little Rascals ‘Our Gang’ episodes (something like Stymie continually throwing a rock in a tree and it hitting him in the head), echoing these racist comedies but ultimately, having nothing to do with them. This outraged woman can only perceive black movies in terms of their supporting or negating a stereotype; she refuses to see the humanity and psychology of black characters.

The title ‘Killer of Sheep’ explicitly refers to Stan’s occupation in a slaughterhouse but I believe it also points towards Stan’s opposition to a sheep-like mentality. The first scene of the movie is Stan yelling at his older son for misbehaving. The son is something of a specter of trouble in the movie, fooling around, harassing his sister, not coming when his mother calls him; there’s a sense that this child, when he grows older, might become one of the unsavory pimps we see in the movie. Often those pimp characters are given startling close-ups and we see their eyes, eyes disinterested in care or hard work; dead eyes. After the movie Henry Saunders, who played Stan, discussed the visual parallels between the sheep’s eyes in the slaughterhouse scenes and the eyes of certain characters throughout the film. The pimps and criminals of the movie are the sheep, blind followers of a code, believing they are individuals because they don’t work a conventional job.

Of course, Burnett is also a killer of sheep, destroying the audience’s sheep-like gravitation towards simple answers and interpretations in regards to black movie-making. As I was watching, I thought about what I’ve read about the movie, the way it is said to be one of the most well-wrought portrayals of black people on film but about halfway through, it occurred to me that I don’t think there’s a movie about “average” white people this well-rendered either.

Written by Brandon

November 15th, 2007 at 9:20 am

Some Ol’ Terminator Shit

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“This is my baby. This is one of those joints I’ve heard in my head from time to time, (crazy right?), but could never duplicate. Until now. Done with hi-hat from a 909, an oscillator, a metronome click for a kick drum and the magnificent Triton keyboard and there u have it. Reminds me of some ol’ Terminator shit.”-J Dilla on ‘B.B.E (Big Booty Express)’

Brad Fiedel’s score for ‘The Terminator’ is one of the most identifiable scores in modern movies, which is really weird when you think about it, because it’s a sorta super-minimal electronic score that if not accompanied by great action scenes, normal people would never give a second thought. This is one of the most interesting things about movie scores; because they act as “background music”, they can do some really weird and experimental stuff and totally get away with it. In that way, it is similar to rap music which to so many, is still either only pop music or silly party music and as a result, Timbaland can drop baby sounds and blah blah blah and they get away with it because no one is listening for it to be “weird” or whatever. If you call it “minimalist electronic”, people won’t listen; if you call it “the score to ‘The Terminator”, it’s a modern Hollywood classic!

I’ve picked my two favorite tracks from ‘The Terminator’ score, the highly-identifiable ‘Main Theme’ and ‘Tunnel Chase’, which has this sounds-like-ass percussion, this super-cheesy but great ‘Owner of Lonely Heart’-ish synth stabs, and gurgling synths…they seemed to have a big influence on Dilla…

-‘Main Theme’ by Brad Fiedel off ‘Terminator OST’
-‘Tunnel Chase’ by Brad Fiedel off ‘Terminator OST’.

-‘Go Hard’ by Q-Tip off ‘Amplified’ (Produced by Dilla): When I recently re-discovered this album, I was struck by how weird it is and how my perception of it when it came out, as some kind of sell-out album was really knee-jerk. Just the prevalance of electronics probably made me blow it off- just as now the same is done to so many Southern producers- but I feel even dumber about myself because this album is kinda overtly bizarre and electronic. On the first track, you get about 18 seconds of electronic pulse (the same length sustained on ‘Go Hard’) and a couple of other tracks go pretty deep into this style. It’s great the way ‘Go Hard’ begins with these very ‘Terminator’ pulses and then the beat drops and Q Tip starts rapping and it sounds like every other track on ‘Amplified’ but Dilla does a cool thing of bringing the pulses back for the chorus and you begin to hear them hiding in the background of the rest of the beat…really great.

-‘B.B.E (Big Booty Express)’ by J Dilla off ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’: This song is presented as a kind of rework of Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ but ‘B.B.E’, like Dungeon Family’s ‘Trans DF Express’ (I never understood why it wasn’t Trans Dungeon Express, but oh well), is a slight homage to the Electronic classic turned early hip-hop sampling staple but more just an excuse to do some serious electronic shit on a hip-hop album. It also touches on Dilla’s Detroit influences, especially 80s Detroit techno, which has some of its roots in Kraftwerk and like that subgenre, Dilla grabs electronic throbs and robotic rhythms but makes them a little warmer and danceable. Kraftwerk were purposefully calculated and intellectual, in part as a parody of Germanic coldness, but they really did seem to occupy a weird contempt/love of dance music (see: ‘Showroom Dummies’) that Americans who gleaned their influence don’t have. It’s interesting that while ‘B.B.E’ is Kraftwerk “in spirit”, the only part it outright swipes is the delivery of the chorus…those brief pauses between words. In that sense, it’s right in-line with most rap sampling, grabbing the melody from a past classic and taking it somewhere newer and weirder…It’s telling that in Dilla’s discussion of the song (quoted earlier in the post) he doesn’t reference Kraftwerk but does mention its connections to ‘The Terminator’ theme; Maybe because the ‘Trans Europe Express’ connection is super-obvious but also because the song has the tangible menace and arpeggiated lines of the music from ‘The Terminator’.

-‘Black Terminator’ by Cyrus tha Great off ‘A Kite to Dilla’: This indie producer crafted a pretty nice beat-tape in the style of Dilla and manages an appropriate homage. ‘Black Terminator’ has less to do with the side of Dilla that conjures up images of head-wraps and poetry readings than the side that made stuff that sounded like “that ol’ Terminator shit”. The title ‘Black Terminator’, conjures up images of some kind of bizarro world, lower-budget exploitation version of ‘Terminator’, starring like Carl Weathers or something, in the vein of 70s blaxploitation stuff like ‘Black Caesar’, ‘Blackenstein’, or ‘Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde.’ and that sort of works, as the song is a little less rigid and rhythmic than the Terminator theme. Cyrus’ sorta off-beat beat and some really simple synth-lines that play over and over and manage to capture some of the hypnotic qualities of Dilla’s sparer beats and still resemble the Fiedel score.

Written by Brandon

November 12th, 2007 at 5:04 am

Posted in J-Dilla, films

That Same Pleasure and Pain: Witchdoctor’s ‘God Is Good’

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-Click here to listen to ‘God Is Good’ by Witchdoctor.

Witchdoctor’s latest album, ‘Diary of an American Witchdoctor’ is a compilation of Witchdoctor tracks from his self-released albums of the past few years, released through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Unlike the gimmicky personae-rap associated with that channel, Witchdoctor’s disc lacks obnoxious distance. I recall hearing ‘A.S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual’ and being sorta freaked-out by Witchdoctor’s image. He had always been sort of mysterious on those Dungeon Family records and with that “Mrs. Rogers are you theeerree? I got word that you wanted to see me” intro (which he half-parodies on ‘Suicide Bomber’) and his whole well, witch doctor persona, I thought of him as the Colonel Kurtz of rap or something. I mean, it worked, but I never felt the same kind of close-ness to this DF family member as I did listening to Outkast or Goodie Mob, who sounded very human. I never bothered getting Witchdoctor’s mail-order albums, so all of the songs on ‘Diary…’ are new to me.

On this compilation, Witchdoctor sounds more direct and sincere and did within seconds of putting in the disc; I didn’t need to adjust or “get” anything about the music, it just grabbed me right away. Maybe it was because it was so unexpected, but the intro track ‘God Is Good’, a lo-fi acoustic song that sounds recorded on a four-track and has more in common with early Animal Collective or Sebadoh than Southern rap, has got me obsessed. Maybe you recall ‘A.S.W.A.T’ closer ‘Lil Mama’s Gone’, an out-and-out acoustic soul number; ‘God Is Good’ sound similar. That track though, never worked for me and for awhile, I even drummed up some revisionist history as it being the first scary step that led to ‘The Love Below’ but what this newer singer-songwriter track reveals for me is, Witchdoctor could’ve pulled off a ‘Love Below’. There are plenty of interesting beats on this album and Witchdoctor can still only sort of rap (and can’t write a hook) and still manages to engage, but the few voice and guitar-driven tracks peppered throughout ‘Diary’ (‘DezOnly1′, ‘Prayer Call’,'Wonderful God’) are some of the best non-rap music I’ve heard in a long time.

Don’t listen to ‘God Is Good’ if you want a track representative of the album in terms of style, but it is an excellent introduction (or re-introduction) into the world of Witchdoctor and a reminder of just how smart the Dungeon Family collective once were (and could still be?). Their wise sense of contradiction and complement and a wonderfully complex understanding of the musical miscegenation Sasha Frere-Jones babbled about a few weeks ago (Indeed, ‘B.O.B’ was one of SFJ’s key examples) are all there in the one minute and forty-five second ‘God Is Good’.

The track begins with a high-quality recording of Witchdoctor beautifully humming what sounds like the beginning of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and then, a tape splice interrupts the Doctor; the sound quality lowers and gets that really-great tape hiss that four-tracks recordings get, and there’s some acoustic strumming, a “Thank you”, then a subtler, tape splice and the songs begins with faster strumming and a sing-song “My God is your God and I said he is goo-oo-odd/My God is your God and he’s damn sure good to me/And he’s good to you…”. The Americana, followed by recording fidelity that drums-up everything from proto-emo Lou Barlow to Woody Guthrie to Skip James to Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, and then, a solidified blues connection with a sincere invocation of God’s greatness, is all in the vein of the best Dungeon Family material. Towards the end of the track, Witchdoctor begins chanting “Stay tuned for more, Stay tuned for more…”, which might be a joke plea to keep listening to this wonderful album, but is one more Dungeon Family-like exercise in contradiction, throwing in that television viewing cliche amongst inclusive declarations of spirituality. As the songs fumbles to an end, the humming of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is heard again, followed by a double-tracked voice asking “Did you enjoy that?”. Nationalism, God, the blues, mass media, entertainment, and performance are all mixed together. Racist America of the Star Spangled Banner and the actual home of the free, the blues that has been appropriated and destroyed for decades but kept alive at the same time, television and performance which gives us hours and hours of trash and also allows guys like Witchdoctor to get their message across, religion that causes wars and brings people together…what Ralph Ellison called “that same pain [and] that same pleasure”…it’s all a big appropriately fuzzy-sounding song that introduces Witchdoctor’s latest album.

Thanks to EarleyBird, for hooking me up with a free copy of ‘Diary…’. Earleybird appears on track two ‘Just Like You’. Also, a note to many of the rappers that’ve sent me their CDs, I’m working on something, I promise.-brandon

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2007 at 5:01 am

Indie Disrespect Goes Beyond Hip-Hop…

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Something I stumbled upon over the weekend tangentially got me thinking about the ever-present debate of relatively uninformed white writers and their connection to rap music. For the most part, I haven’t gotten too much of this kind of criticism myself, I’m more apt to recieve moronic accusations of disrespect from “Veteran” bloggers- which means guys blogging for three years as opposed to me, blogging for one year- but I’m keenly aware of the debate and if the pussy veteran types and pussier commenters didn’t take so many cheap-shots, I might even side with them…

It was this Pitchfork review of some new EP by Battles, wherein the reviewer made an uninformed generalization about progressive rock, that got me thinking about the typical “indie”-type fan, respectably entering out of his area of comfort, and talking straight-out of their ass because well, they don’t know much about what they have chosen to discuss. I want to look at the example and see where this writer went wrong and also to tell my readers- most of whom are rap fans- that they need to drop the rap-martyr complex a little bit and realize that white, indie kids show the same amount of disrespect to any number of marginalized, musical subgenres…

How I even got to a review of Battles I don’t know, I’ve only heard the song that had a video on MTV2 and don’t have the slightest interest in their music. They really only pop-up on my radar when some sorta-informed music fan friend of mine tells me they “think” I’d like them because their music is “proggy”. Battles are not “proggy”, nor are Wolfmother or Lightning Bolt, although The Decemberists actually sort of are, but rarely is that adjective ascribed to them…anyways, it was the first paragraph of this Battles review that really killed me:

“No band has marked indie’s prog revival more definitively than Battles: Their debut, Mirrored, took rock for a set of puzzle pieces, but was ultimately defined by its pictorial sensibility– each song felt like a cartoon soundtrack– and the incorporation of jokes into the most historically humorless music in the known world.”

This struck me as frustrating because prog rock is not one of the most “historically humorless” sub-genres of music and only a total fucking outsider who listened with nothing but irony and third-hand knowledge would say that because see, Prog is the well-known musical genre of nerds, like real nerds, like what nerds used to be, before being a “nerd” became a way to get pussy. They were into Tolkien and Dune and Dungeons and Dragons and Vaughan Bode and all kinds of other truly nerdy shit. As a result, the sense of humor on progressive rock albums is more the kind of stuff Dwight Shrute might find funny or super-conceptual (like everything with prog) humor that you gotta kinda be within the prog-culture to understand or “get”.

When YES called an album ‘Tormato’ and it has a cover of a windstorm of tomatoes, they know that is retarded and it’s funny to prog fans and musicians to make tedious music with loosely conceptual themes and so many prog-albums have a few throway joke songs (personal favorite: ‘Are You Ready Eddie?’ by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer). Of course, prog isn’t all a big ironic wank, it’s just, in-part, nerdy and self-deprecating, and outsiders, especially modern rock critics who hate pomp and theatrics, don’t dig that too much, so they assume there’s no joking going on; one can take one’s shit very seriously and very un-seriously at the same time, you know. The guy who wrote that Pitchfork review and a lot of Battles fans (and maybe even the group themselves), are much too cool and boring to get into Camel because there’s nothing overtly cool about first and second-wave prog. People who invoke Battles’ “proggy” aspects are people who like dumber, less engaging versions of a genre, the same way people like ‘Grindhouse’ but don’t know about and wouldn’t enjoy the films of Larry Cohen. It’s not that they aren’t allowed to like Battles or ‘Grindhouse’ it’s just that they feel an obnoxious need to connect it to an older genre or tradition it has very little to do with anymore. The embrace of certain aspects of prog without going full-speed ahead, of course, connects to the ongoing nerd-chic in the culture; people want to be un-nerdy nerds, just as they like edgeless controversy and teethless satire like ‘The Daily Show’…

What this does in connection with rap is show the tendency for indie types to condescend to any number of genres and not just rap, proving we rap fans need to chill a little bit; it’s not so much a race issue as it is an issue of co-opting anything obscure or outside their culture. Rap fans only notice when writers provide their genre with “disrespect” but the fact of the matter is, this disrespect is commonplace for almost any genre that isn’t rock, punk, or “indie rock”. It also goes the other way, as most rap fans and rappers are equally stupid and closed-minded and makes equally fucking retarded judgments on rock music. See Chuck D’s mixed-up history of 60s rock in his joke of a book ‘Fight the Power’ or listen to Kanye West talk about Franz Ferdinand like they weren’t third-generation rip-offs of Joy Division or Wire.

My point is, the same uninformed white boys writing bullshit about rap are writing about prog and other genres and subgenres of which they know little beyond a superficial history. It is more symptomatic of a growing lack of passion amongst music writers, mixed with increased availability of music due to the internet, than it is a racial or cultural issue. It is this lack of passion that is mentioned by Carl Wilson in this Slate article (which I found through Richard), which it seems Wilson, like so many others, gleaned from SFJ’s kinda sorta infamous indie rock and rhythm tirade. Wilson’s main point, to remove any nuance and to conflate it with my own, is indie fans and indie rockers themselves, increasingly come from privleged backgrounds and so their disinterest in musical miscegenation is more because of “class” than “race”. The musicians and the fans of the music have very little to lose and play it safe, so they could never get really into rap or even really into prog…This moves toward explaining my connection between indie disrespect of prog and indie-type disrespect of rap; it’s more of an elitist thing, as prog is percieved as arty and pretentious and therefore, “falsely intellectual” and well, shit, rap is just dumb and funny, right? The same level of fun, sincerity, and the right kind of irony is going on whether it’s a rap cover designed by Pen N’ Pixel or a dragon-filled cover painted by Roger Dean…

In terms of indie and class, I might have been better to have chosen indie’s recent embrace of metal, a typically working-class, wonderfully aggressive, non-mannered genre, but that seems a little too easy and obvious. See, what indie types take-up in their embrace or prog, metal, rap, or whatever, is any and all types of “the other”. As indie types are generally white and upper-middle class (the fact that an “upper middle class” was created, proves the point about the wealthy’s increased interest in elitism and anti-elitism, at the same time) or plain ol’ upper-class, pretty much everyone becomes “the other” to them. Long-haired metal nerds, corpse-painted black metal dorks, dark-skinned hip-hop heads, and even hyper-intellectual D & D players, they are all exotic and fun to pick and choose cultural aspects to temporarily adopt. Rap fans need not get it twisted, the white working class has long been condescended to by indie types as well. The only difference is at some point in kinda recent history, the culture of complaint skipped-out on white people and so, even working class whites themselves feel self-concious about complaining about being fucked over, for they are not darker-skinned (although often equally poor and disenfranchised). The indie embrace of Pabst Blue Ribbon and faux-interest in sports, be it fake-fan or fashion and even moustaches, comes from a irony and reverse idealization of blue-collar, white culture. If indie types were sincere or real about this appropriation, they might even go deer hunting. There even seems to be a weird level of redneck co-opting going on, as rat-tails and other “bad” haircuts pop-up at hipster bars…when I saw Daft Punk’s ‘Electroma’, a guy in front of me had a redneck-ish ‘do and actually smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in awhile! Now that is a weirdly sincere devotion to being ironic…

So, what is really going on in music is just the upper-class by way of indie rock, ironically embracing another variation on “the other” which you know, as economic disparity widens, slowly becomes everybody that isn’t them. To get too worried about the simple co-opting of other cultures is a waste of time, for it has always been the case the wealthy who have the time, lack of worries, and obnoxious sense of privelege to condescend. Any history of the upper-class or aristocracy in any country (including ones led by brown people) will show the same level of elitism. A favorite example of mine is the Hellfire Club, a group of English Aristocrats who, in the mid-1700s got together to have mock-religious orgies! Now, I know liberals arts college now teach us that religion is horrible and therefore, we’re allowed to mock the religious for being so stupid and blah blah blah, but this is pretty much the same kind of mock appropriation of a sub-culture now found when some jerkoff ironically wears a Pittsburgh Pirates hat and sports a moustache. So, rap fans, don’t hog all the indie kid hate, plenty of other people deserve to be pissed off just as much.

Written by Brandon

November 5th, 2007 at 5:04 am

Posted in Indie, Irony, Prog Rock

How Big Is Your World? Good, Recent Rap Songs

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-8 Ball & Devius ‘Jus’ Ridin’
Click here to download ‘Jus Ridin’.
Nielsen of A Little DMX Under a Full Moon wrote about this song already, but letting me go crazy over it for a bit…this song’s off of the recently-released ‘The Vet & The Rookie’ album by 8 Ball and some new guy who isn’t great but gets the job done, named Devius. ‘The Vet & the Rookie’ is a pretty solid album and a lot of that has to do with the really great beats, many provided by Tennessee’s Montana Trax. ‘Jus’ Ridin’ is probably one of the greatest songs ever made, the sort of song that makes sense the first time you hear it. These super-clean kinda hard-ass guitars that play under the chorus, complemented by some typical Southern rap drums and an even cleaner sounding acoustic sound, with 8 Ball and Devius trading a few verses back and forth, it’s really simple and straightforward and great. The drums slightly change during each verse or an instrument is dropped-out, especially during Devius’ last verse, when its just drums and a slightly different acoustic part, it all makes the return of that riff even more exciting.

Plenty of straight rapping on this too. 8 Ball’s voice just gets deeper as he grows older and fatter, sounding like Baron Harkonnen should sound like or something, this angry, smart, decadent fat guy dropping classic lines. Devius is a good counterpoint as he raps with a youthful but still self-aware voice but he has more enthusiasm (“You know today look good”) and sounds like he’s having fun. I like Devius’ line about laughing at the chick he and his friends “ran a train on”. Also, Devius refers to himself as “Ted Deviase” or something like that, in reference to Ted “Million Dollar Man” Dibiase.

-Cam’ron ‘Glitter’
Click here to hear ‘Glitter’.
I already talked about this song on Wednesday but it fits with the general sound of the other songs here and I didn’t really discuss the beat on any level other than it being kind of downbeat and depressive (which is good). Every once in a while, a song will get this really great, warm, organic, ambient kind of sound that is like the sound equivalent of painkillers. ‘Glitter’s drums are sort of stiff and dull, they certainly don’t knock but they have a near-Primo tightness to them that anchors the song and allows for all those crazy synth stabs and chimey sounds to sort of fumble around in the background.

I really like how both of the new Cam leaked tracks are not statements on any level. They ignore all of those manic, banger-type beats we’ve come to expect from the Dips which, if you go along with the bullshit I said on Wednesday, makes sense because Cam is sort of mining this dark, depressed, over-the-hill territory. Instead of trying to remake ‘Dipset Anthem’ and ‘Get Em’ Girls’ he’s going for the sound on ‘Harlem Streets’ or ‘I.B.S’, this will disappoint a lot of fans but I like it a lot.

-Young Buck featuring Outlawz ‘Driving Down the Freeway’
Click here to download ‘Driving Down The Freeway’.
This song gets a lot of play on Sirius rap stations and Morgan State’s rap show ‘Strictly Hip-Hop’ but it’s too legitimately soulful and laid-back to become a real hit. See, people like fake chilled-out music they don’t want stuff that is like this song. What it celebrates is too minimal (just driving) and it’s energy-level too complacent to really make it in this current, utterly moronic rap radio climate. The song is produced by Hi-Tek and has the same weary but uplifting sound last heard on ‘So Tired’ from ‘Hi-Teknology 2′.

Young Buck seems to often fall-back or downplay aspects of his persona- no doubt in deference to his G-Unit goons- but here, his voice seems even more Southern than usual, as if he stopped trying to vaguely hide his accent. It also seems even more strained and booming, listen to that part where he says “Holla back baby”; he’s tapping into like, Willie D territory here, if not in content, at least in vocal performance. Of course, the real star here is that great chorus which sounds like D’Angelo if his influences were Willie Hutch and Al Green instead of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. That chorus conjures up images of magic hour drives down the interstate; it’s careless but not empty as it is palpably soulful, even beautiful.

-Lil Wayne ‘Too Comfortable’
Click here to download ‘Too Comfortable’.
Lil Wayne does Yoga or some shit to this song. Kanye’s must’ve dug into his archives for those kinda shitty and flat ‘College Dropout’ era drums that everyone pisses on but I totally love. Putting these like “Pure Moods” new-agey strings and this fuzzy Babyface sample under it, makes it probably terrible in everybody’s mind but mine. If ‘Jus Ridin’ is the sound of painkillers, this song is what heroin sounds like or at least, painkillers with too many shots of liquor…blissed-out, hazy, and about to fall apart at any moment.

Wayne’s weirdo raps are what most people get excited about, because it’s easy to get excited about weirdo raps, but I like when he sort of gets dorky and sensitive and addresses the issues that a like, thinking twentysomething worries about. Taking his cue from that sampled chorus, he raps about the thing that I think any guy concerned about commitment with a girl worries about: That awful point where it turns from fun and perpetually new to predictable, the point where the chick gets well, too comfortable. His signature croak, works for the track, as he’s yelping out his lines of urgency, but instead of them being about eating rappers, he’s yelping about near-emo fears of a chick getting emotionally lazy. I love the part of the first verse where all the lines are questions that begin with “Don’t?”, like his reputation as a decent guy is on the line. At the same time, it’s not this pussy “baby don’t go” thing but this like real warning that if shit goes wrong, she can get the fuck out and he’ll find some other girl pretty easily. The chorus and verses become as much a threat as a declaration.

-Oren Ambarchi ‘Inamorata’
Click here to download ‘Inamorata’.
My obligatory non-rap song that I plan to toss-in for these “good rap songs” lists. From Electronic musician and guitarist Oren Ambarchi’s recent album, the pretentiously-titled ‘In the Pendulum’s Embrace’. If ‘Jus’ Ridin’ was painkillers and ‘Too Comfortable’ heroin, well this is your dead, drugged-up body in that moment where you can’t move but your heart is still beating and you’ll probably die. It starts out with some light, electronic pops and resonating buzzes that sort of slowly come together, held for longer amounts of time, and subtly increase in volume. The best thing about electronic music like this is that it’s all production, so you can sort of bliss-out on it and really focus on the details. About four minutes in, some longer drone-ish tones enter as do some metallic rumbles that move the song half out of intellectual abstract artiness because it sounds genuinely creepy. A minute or so later, strings come in, sort of swelling (as strings are wont to do) and underscored by what sounds like an organ and it becomes a pretty overwhelming listen. It’s pretty stupid when those go away and there’s still two minutes of the song left, but what are you gonna do? Hardly perfect and as I said, it’s instrumental, avant-garde-ish music that never totally breaks free of its intellectual restraints but still a moving piece.

Written by Brandon

November 2nd, 2007 at 5:20 am