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Archive for March, 2008

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Tupac Shakur

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More than any of those definitive images of 2Pac, strutting down the street in a hospital gown, ‘Mad Max’-ed out in the ‘California Love’ video, or the entire ‘Me Against the World’ album- it’s the video he directed for Mac Mall’s ‘Ghetto Theme’ that gets closest to unpacking Tupac Shakur.

The video’s the kind of thing that hip-hop outsiders- the people that always break the biggest and least deserving rappers- would see and approve of because of its cloying anti-violence message. Basically, Mall gets shot over a dice game, his spirit leaves his body and accompanies his now wracked-with-guilt shooter, watches his mourning friends and family, and in the final moments, stops a mourning friend (played by Tupac) from retaliating and shooting Mall’s shooter, who still wracked with guilt, is crying at Mall’s grave. It’s quintessential Tupac, this uncomfortable mix of ghetto realness, embarrassingly sincere sentimentality, and cloying manipulation. It’s also pretty good and very affecting.

But it’s primarily good for contrast because it’s Tupac interpreting and ultimately, misreading the work of another, better, actual West Coast artist, Mac Mall. ‘Ghetto Theme’, the song, is the second to last track on ‘Illegal Business?’- that question mark at the end of the title is more political than anything Tupac ever dropped- and is the realistic but heartfelt plea to you know, “stop the violence” after an album that properly mixes street and pimp talk with frustrated indictments of violence and government corruption. Mall’s annoyed with guys like Tupac (or who Tupac would become) when he says stuff like, “Damn, I thought we were smarter than that”. I’d add, Mall reaches into the reality of reckless youth and blah blah blah in his brief shit-talking performance at the beginning of the video in a way that Tupac only performed in ‘Juice’. You feel it in the video and all over ‘Illegal Business?’; Put in a Tupac movie or a Tupac album and you feel Tupac trying to make you feel it.

Of course, people love a performance and not a performance, and Tupac gave complacent thugs, overzealous Marley/Dylan worshipping rock critics looking for the next rockist or pseudo-rockist poet to write about, sad white kids with slutty moms in middle school, and everyone else someone to embrace. And he courted these fans significantly more than actual rap fans. His apparent disinterest in the quality of beats he rapped on is an example, but more important and rarely discussed is the way Tupac mixed his vocal ridiculously high- an obvious concession to non-rap listener’s ears, making it easier to hear his convoluted and contradictory (not complex) message songs.

Tupac’s intelligence was about average and this is why he’s so appealing to the average person; he makes them feel good about themselves but rarely challenges them. His songs suck out the gray area in which hip-hop thrived and replaced it with the much easier to digest black (angry, “I don’t give a fuck” songs) or white- saccharine songs of regret and outrage that feel less like introspection and more like admitting flaws enough to cover one’s ass. ‘Me Against the World’ is essential listening; ‘Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z’ has its charms, it’s like diet, caffeine free West Coast rap.

Written by Brandon

March 20th, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Remember 2004?: The Continued Relevance of ‘Block Party’

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One of the few recurring but hardly frequent “bits” on this blog is something I’ve called “Remember 2004?”. Basically, I look at some of the- in my opinion- many great rap albums or singles that came out in 2004. Why 2004? Well, because for reasons I know are barely half-valid but still believe, there seemed to be something going on in 2004; big dumb pop rap and conscious, backpacker type stuff seemed vaguely conflated on the radio and BET and MTV and even non-music television, as something like ‘Chappelle’s Show’ or Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s 2005-released, but shot in 2004 film ‘Block Party’ might attest…

I work part-time at a big bookstore that isn’t Barnes & Noble (but has a blogging policy that won’t allow me to mention them by name) and the other day, as I passed by the MUSIC section, a Jewish woman in her 40s, in exercise spandex, and a pretty Botox’d out face- in short, she could’ve been one of the weirdos Chappelle offers concert tickets to in ‘Block Party’- was politely but loudly requesting help.

She was trying to scan Black Star’s debut- or ‘Mos Def and Talib Kweli…are Black Star’ as nobody in the world ever calls it- into one of the store’s listening stations but it wasn’t working; I explained to her that it was programmed not to play because of its ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker. Because of who she was, I assumed she didn’t know what she had or it was for her son or something and I condescendingly said, “It’s good. It’s good but you know, it’s a rap album”.

She knew. She told me she was public school English teacher and wanted to use Black Star’s ‘Born & Raised’ which she heard on the ‘Block Party OST’ for a poetry lesson and excitedly rattled off all of the poetic terms the song employed. As I tried to help her find the soundtrack, we had a brief discussion about teaching, then Mos Def’s solo albums (“they’re good to work-out to” she said), and just the overall greatness of ‘Block Party’. She introduced me to her high-school aged son, a top triathlete in the county with some kind of learning disorder, and informed me that they often stop at the bookstore after nightly visits to the Maryland Athletic Club. I talked to her son about Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘Minimum/Maximum’- his work-out music.

Ordering the soundtrack to ‘Block Party’ would’ve taken about a week, so I told her to keep it quiet but I’d just burn her a copy and she could stop in and pick it up tomorrow. She also said if I knew of any “Good electronica, like Thievery Corporation” to give her a list. So, two CD-Rs, one of the ‘Block Party’ soundtrack and one of Manuel Gottsching’s ‘E2-E4′ sit in my locker if she ever actually comes back.

Now, the asshole part of me could get real cynical and mocking about some older Jewish lady who likes to work-out to hip-hop (and uh, “electronica”) and uses the embarrassingly sincere “rap’s poetry too” angle to 10th grade students, but her sincerity and our brief bonding over ‘Block Party’, made me think “What Would Chappelle Do?”: He’d take her seriously, on her own terms, and offer her a ticket to his block party!

Dave Chappelle’s ‘Block Party’ is a purposefully inclusive, near-utopian concert movie, intended to invoke the thematic qualities of earlier concert movies like ‘Wattstax’ and to some extent, the 1970 documentary of ‘Woodstock’. The movie’s heavy on 70s cinema signifiers like grainy-as fuck hand-held cinematography, ‘Easy Rider’-like lens flares, and shaky manual zooms, but the movie’s hardly a throwback, it just shows proper respect for the past. Erykah Badu playfully pays respect with an over-the-top afro wig, the appearance of Fred Hampton Jr. rightfully reminds concert-goers (and viewers) of the importance of late 60s/early 70s institutions like the Black Panthers, and the use of buses for transport subtly invokes the Civil Rights era, but ‘Block Party’s main theme is inclusion. Chappelle’s trots through the Ohio town he lives in, looking for a proper mix of people that do and don’t give a shit about rap and get them to come to his “block party”; All- even some pretty batshit crazy white people- are given the proper dose of respect.

‘Block Party’s sense of inclusion is perhaps, most easily represented by the DVD packaging. The front of the DVD is the same as the theatrical poster, a brilliantly-designed 70s throwback poster, with Chappelle in the foreground and all of the performers scattered behind in collage. When you flip the DVD case around, you get a similar collage, but it’s all of the real people we’ve encountered throughout the film. One gets the sense that if DVD or poster designs weren’t made solely to advertise and sell the film, Chappelle would’ve stuck crazy hippie lady who co-owns the “Broken Angel” home or effeminate weirdo marching band director aka according to Dave “first black man named Milsap”, next to dead prez or ?uestlove…

One of the more interesting aspects of ‘Block Party’ is how it really does seem to be a touchstone for many people that wouldn’t necessarily embrace a hip-hop concert film. What you see in the movie seems to have had a similar effect in real-life. Obviously, there’s my new Jewish Black Star fan friend, but it’s also become something similar for another person for whom ‘Block Party’ should be off their radar. I saw the movie in the theaters with one of my college professors, a white Literature professor in his sixties born in Atlanta, GA. Our interests intersect on many things- especially politics- but rap (or “hip-hop” as older people seem to call it) was not one. Yet, this professor’s mind was open enough to have a social interest in rap and pointed out that although it wasn’t his thing, the energy and rawness of it was something he certainly preferred over say, Coldplay (his example). He recounted being a guy in College and Grad school during the sixties and finding more solace in the 50s music of his youth, like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters than everyone’s fucking favorite in 1967, the Beatles.

Out of interest, he accompanied me to ‘Block Party’ and was engaged by the music, the film making, but most of all, the film’s message. It’s nearly three years later and ‘Block Party’s still rattling around in old dude’s mind. A recent e-mail about his excitement over Obama connected his message to Wyclef’s scene in ‘Block Party’ where ‘Clef belts-out the darkly cynical ‘President’ and then, follows it up with a purposefully too-perfect speech about not blaming “the white man”. It’s the film in a nutshell: a sincere acknowledgment of the negative but a good-intentioned, maybe even a little too idealistic attempt to move beyond those negatives.

‘Block Party’ is a success outside of its immediate audience because it’s a movie about doing rather than saying. We witness Chappelle organizing the event, interacting with actual people that may come to the event (with no hint of condescension), and then, legitimately enjoying being a part of it all. There’s none of the cool distance so many other politically-minded celebrities have, because Chappelle’s message isn’t distant or theoretical and his decision to presumably remove any parts that might be disturbing or negative, isn’t some “I’m a hero” spin control but to maintain the ideal nature of the event for its intended audience. There must have been some cranky people who responded angrily to Chappelle’s question of “You like rap music?” and I’m sure organizing the thing was hell-ish but it’s smart not to waste running time on martyr-like scenes of organization; I’d much rather see a visit to Biggie’s daycare center or the scene where the joyful screams of Central State University’s band blow-out the microphones or the brief history of the Broken Angel Home or the birdman-like waiter dude dropping a freestyle…

Written by Brandon

March 17th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

David Banner at University of Delaware 2/26/08

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The Black American Studies Participatory Action Research Team presents ‘Cope, Conform, or Resist?: A Lecture on Double Consciousness of Young African-Americans’. Lecturer: David Banner. February 26, 2008, Clayton Hall, University of Delaware.

-Opening Remarks by Carl Suddler & Introduction by Yassar Arafat Payne (13:06)
-Banner’s Lecture (57:42)
-Question & Answer After the Lecture(58:49)

Right after saying something genuinely controversial, David Banner would punctuate his speech to students and faculty of University of Delaware with references to how a lot of people at the school didn’t want him there. He probably employed some rapper-like hyperbole about university opposition, but the mildly nervous looks professors and participating students would shoot to one another when he’d veer off his “Lecture on the Double Consciousness of Young African-Americans” and directly engage the crowd, were pretty real. That’s not to say all involved didn’t want him there- otherwise you know, he wouldn’t have been- but there was a sense that some faculty and students weren’t into the idea and those that were, wanted him there enough to kinda sorta put their asses on the line.

Opening remarks by student Carl Suddler mentioned the way many, especially in the academic world, develop “patchwork theories” based on pieces of information and rarely the entire thing: “Just because you’ve heard one or two lyrics and watched the Youtube clip, doesn’t mean you understand the man speaking tonight.” It was a polite but firm attack on the all-theory aspect of academia from a member of PARS- the Participatory Action Team- and presumably, a comment on those who don’t know shit about dick when it comes to hip-hop, but critique it anyway.

There’s no point in giving you a bunch of quotables because the (decent but not great) audio’s above, but without visuals, something’s lost. Not only because Banner was a lively speaker who took over UD’s Clayton Hall and directly engaged his audience–direct engagement is an academic no-no–but because it was more like a performance than a lecture. That performative tone was set by Suddler when he walked up to the podium in a button-up, sweater, and a fresh baseball cap, and it was continued when Banner approached the podium in a suit and bowtie and sunglasses even though it was 7:30 in the evening; The audience witnessed double-consciousness instead of simply hearing about it.

Throughout his lecture, Banner would bounce between an eloquent and easy-to-follow speech and a seemingly on-the-fly improvisational discussion. A word or phrase would send him away from his podium and towards the crowd to speak from the heart instead of his paper. The lecture and performance would always complement and occasionally contrast one another and what many saw as a lack of discipline or organization was in fact, double-consciousness made manifest, which is appropriate for a guy that is, at least equal parts action and words.

Banner’s controlled chaos was effective in making no member of the audience complicit and as he gained momentum, the context of the event itself seemed to change. Clayton Hall’s muted colors and high ceilings began to recall a bizarro late-night TV mega-church with David Banner speaking the Truth and not your usual nonsense-spitting waxy-looking pastor. When Banner removed his suit jacket for questions and revealed some monster pit-stains, it had the same overly dramatic effect of say, 50 Cent revealing a bullet-proof vest but Banner wasn’t saying anything about being hard, it was his way of showing the audience how hard he was working. And during the Q & A, a busted-looking white girl in some lame boots who sorta missed the point of Banner’s half-facetious advice to the fairer sex, ended up representing some minor but awful form of white privilege when she ignored the line of others yet to ask a question and asked her third leading question in a row…

I left invigorated, but a little depressed because I knew a lot of people in attendance really didn’t get it and would cite Banner’s constant deviations from his lecture as an example of it being “sloppy” or “ineffective” without realizing that was Banner’s desired effect. His lecture was a performance of double-consciousness and in that sense, way more effective than a well-researched lecture.

*Photos by Monique Rivera

Written by Brandon

March 8th, 2008 at 8:57 am

Posted in David Banner

How Big Is Your World? Good, Kinda New Rap Songs


-DJ Booman featuring Ray Lugar, Lic Shots, and Mullyman ‘Move Over’
Click here to download ‘Move Over’.
I got this song from Al Shipley’s indispensable Baltimore music blog Government Names. This laid-back soul beat is pretty much the antithesis of what Booman is commonly known for, batshit crazy Baltimore Club (check out his Unruly Records work in particular). Similar to what I said about Mullyman’s ‘Oh Baltimore’, ‘Move Over’s an anti-anthem in the sense that it quietly asserts itself rather than screaming its many quotable threats but that’s more appropriate for a Baltimore “we’re takin’ over” type song anyway, because Baltimore isn’t New York or some other rap mecca. This is a modest and leisurely posse cut that quietly tells you how it’s going to kick your ass. In 2008, when every fucking rap song has squelchy party synths and shout-outs from do-nothing DJs and a bunch of rappers talking shit, ‘Move Over’ is the real-thing because it dares not to have any of those things. The song kinda plods along, the samples breathe, and the urgency is found only in the verses, especially Booman and Mullyman’s. I’m reminded of Scarface’s ‘The Fix’ more than anything else, which is pretty impressive from a guy whose career is based on making “bangers” and so, he easily could’ve made something that sounds closer to what a song titled ‘Move Over’ should sound like.

-Pete Rock featuring Jim Jones and Max B ‘We Roll’
Click here to download ‘We Roll’
Another song that’s sort of this weird exercise in contradictions or seemingly irreconcilable musical differences: A pretty-classic sounding Pete Rock beat with two Dipset goons rapping over it. The vaguely buzzy pulses that move in and out of each speaker recall the classic pings that punctuate the ‘Mass Appeal’ beat and there’s a rubbery, flanged-out bassline that makes me think of ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ but then it also has the stuff that most Pete Rock fans presumably think is wrong with New York Rap…typically terrible but entertaining verses from Jim Jones and Max B and a disturbingly 50 Cent-ish hook. Soul Brother #1 reconciles the best and worse of New York rap pretty perfectly and that’s sort of the thesis of the ‘NY’s Finest’ record: Stop complaining about the bad music and make good music any way you can.

-Z-Ro and Trae ‘Who’s Tha Man’
Click here to download ‘Who’s Tha Man’
Is this the most chilled-out beat ever? That warm synth line glows throughout and anchors the Lil Keke chopped-and-screwed chorus and snap drums. Another Southern rap song that sounds like opiates; at one point Z-Ro says “full of novacaine”, a good descriptor for the beat as well as whatever he’s talking about at that point in the song. I’m sure its blasphemous, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Trae and his gruff enunciation kinda messes this song up a bit, but maybe that’s because I’m too into that synth line to have any real perspective. Z-Ro (who is apparently huge in DC!) on the other hand, can do no wrong. Most rappers spend all their time talking about their money and stuff with occasional forays into depressive reality, but it’s the opposite with Z-Ro and his success at the beginning of the first verse here feels palpable and earned but before you know it, he’s back to worrying about who’s out to get him and going back to jail…it’s sad how many S.U.C guys are mentioned by Z-Ro as “never comin’ back”. I can’t wait for this Z-Ro/Trae album to come out.

-Pastor Troy ‘My Box Chevy’
Click here to download ‘My Box Chevy’
This song is upfront and honest, best exemplified by the fact that it’s a literal celebration of Pastor’s first box Chevy. When he’s talking about his car, he’s really talking about his car, it’s not another car-as-metaphor car song. The tinny kinda metal, kinda Michael McDonald guitars add to the looking-back glory of Pastor’s down to earth reminiscing. The verses outline the progress of his car and how it goes from the car he bought from “an old white couple” that rode “kinda slow” to in the final verse, the car everybody around him wants. There’s a genuine sense of like, youthful waiting and joy in the way he delays getting the nicest rims and wheels out of indecision and perhaps, the economic reality of having to make his car nice, one piece at a time. You keep waiting for him to finally get the rims: In the first verse, he says “With all leather seats/It just needed feet”, in the second, “purple paint, with purple seats/All it need is some feet” and a reference to how he “still don’t know what rims” to get and then, the third verse is the reward of having a car that’s the envy of everyone around him, for better and worse- “…Told them niggas/Don’t fuck with me…”

-Ocrilim ‘Part 1′
Click here to download ‘Part 1′
A track from ‘AWWN’ the first, great album of 2008. It’s just guitarist Mick Barr shredding over layers of him shredding and it takes on a kind of hypnotic times-running-out-in-Zelda feeling. There’s the lead guitar shred with occasional change-ups and the sheer speed and volume of the music adds these kind of Merzbow-ian blasts of noise as well as what I assume are strings-hitting-fret plinks that sound like Pinball sound effects or something equally nerdy and from a time when like, Jason Becker ruled the world. Around the four and a half minute mark, Barr does this stop-the-riff-for-a-quarter-second thing and the sheer speed and insanity of the music makes that quarter second feel like that long-ass pause at the end of a cassette or something…incredible. Buy this album, its 79 minutes of this!

Click here to download a zipfile of all five tracks. They make for a decent, brief mix.

Written by Brandon

March 3rd, 2008 at 6:54 am