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Archive for July, 2008

How Big Is Your World? Good Rap Songs.

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-Common featuring Pharrell ‘Announcement’
Click here to download ‘Announcement’
First, there was the ‘Planet Rock’/electro homage ‘Universal Mind Control’ and now there’s the Biggie-aping ‘Announcement’. That rubbery, back-and-forth guitar, Common switching up some lines but totally mimicking Biggie’s flow on ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’, as well as a quick reference to ‘Me & My Bitch’ (and a Puffy reference by Pharrell), it seems like maybe this new Common album will be some kind of hip-hop history lesson or something? The beat does a better job of sounding like an old, classic beat while retaining producer signature than Kanye’s weirdo Dilla attempts. The female “Uh!”, the guitar-sound approximation of ‘Just Playing’s bassline sound close enough to connect to the Biggie rarity, but there’s also some crazy cornball fluttering synths, and crazy marching band booms that every half-perfect, half-annoying Neptunes production has.

The rap history thing’s half cool because it’s not like Common’s saying anything interesting anymore (and he’s out-rapped by Pharrell here), but it’s annoying because this is the dude that in ‘94 was half-shitting on dudes like Biggie for ruining hip-hop, but uh, ultimately it’s sort of exciting. Still, it’s important to remember that the past two Common albums had these great singles and then were an album of boring, meandering turds, so, we’ll see, but so far, this hip-hop history concept is a good look. As usual though, ‘Invincible Summer’s already conceptually muddled because you know, it’s release date is in the fall?

-B.O.M.B ‘Over Here’
Click here to download ‘Over Here’
This song’s just no bullshit. Under three-minutes, these really tight drums, and justB.O.M.B–”Baltimore On My Back”–rapping straight-forward stuff that’s spare and direct and descriptive and nothing more or less. There’s a good mix of influences here as well. Like so many smart thugs, he owes a great deal to ‘Pac, but there’s some golden-age New York influence in his delivery and the beat–especially those Primo-ish drums–but it’s aware and internalizes more recent rap trends. The all-keyboard aspect of the beat, the purposefully simple and immediate lyrics, and the filling it all-out with ad-libs, show a relatively traditionalist rapper that didn’t turn the radio off in 1998.

This is from B.O.M.B’s ‘Testers’ EP which came out in May and sounds like what a lot of good rapper’s albums would sound like if the just cut-out all the crap and only gave you good songs. More rappers need to release EPs. For awhile, mixtapes had the casual, tossed-off effect of EPs but they got bloated or just terrible quick. The EP is an ideal introduction to a new rapper and B.O.M.B’s smart to take advantage of it as a way to release music. The other really-great song ‘Sunday’ from the EP can be found on Al Shipley’s Government Names blog. I met B.O.M.B and talked to him for a few minutes a few months ago and he just gave me a copy of his CD which you’d think is the kind of thing more rappers would do but they uh, don’t.

-Flying Lotus ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Click here to download ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Is this song based on the cowbell breakdown from New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’? I even sent Flying Lotus a fucking MySpace message about it because it was bugging me so much. He didn’t answer. There’s a noisy, weird side of Flying Lotus’ work that should get more attention than post-Dilla/Madlib knob twiddling. The best electronic music’s all about feeling and atmosphere. It’s silly to listen to mid-tempo beats when there’s not someone rapping on them. The big joke of Lotus’ ‘Robo Tussin’ remix of ‘A Milli’ was that his weirdo synth-fart bliss-out still wasn’t as weird as Bangladesh’s original. Maybe that wasn’t the intention and Lotus is just unfairly categorized with think they’re next-level “producers” like Madlib or Prefuse 73 because ‘Parisian Goldfish’ is pretty amped-up and ready for a party. No contemplation or head-nodding to this song necessary.

Everything’s sort of maxed-out and a little full of static and squelchy and anchored by this cowbell workout break that Lotus puts every production trick over. It gets chopped-up, it awkwardly repeats, he adds more sounds over top of it, and he piles the break atop itself into a mechanical CD-skip-like repetition and then takes it away to just play the loop to glorious effect a minute and fifty second or so in.

-ABN (Z-Ro & Trae) ‘Still Throwed’
Click here to download ‘Still Throwed’
Imagine ‘Get Throwed’ from Bun B’s ‘Trill’ but with Z-Ro doing more than the hook and Trae rapping instead of Pimp C, Jay-Z, and Jeezy and then some Linkin Park-ish keyboards all over it. Between this and the Linkin Park-ish ‘Shoot Me Down’ from ‘Tha Carter 3′–but pretending Busta’s ‘We Made It’ never existed–maybe Linkin Park are sort of good? Don’t front on that ‘Numb/Encore’ “song” either. This song’s interesting in contrast with the ‘Trill’ version in the sense that everything’s just down a few notches.

The chugging guitars are mixed lower, and the stoned, bubbling electronics of the original no longer flutter in the background, they’re slowed-down but louder and darker. ‘Get Throwed’ was a party song about getting high, ‘Still Throwed’ is a few years later, doing the same thing and it not being fun anymore…which is pretty much what every Z-Ro and Trae song’s about. The key lyric here is Z-Ro’s list of “same old”s, especially “strippers at the club dancing on the same old poles”. It’s not a surprise coming from Z-Ro, but this sense of being just as bored and disinterested by those three big, stupid hip-hop ideals of cool and power (drug dealers, girl, strip clubs) is really smart and honest. It’s like when he raps about treating lesbians and gay dudes properly on ‘T.H.U.G’. I’ve never been that into Trae and next to Z-Ro especially, Trae’s gruff voice sounds jarring.

-Ratatat ‘Black Heroes’
Click here to download ‘Black Heroes’
Ratatat’s schtick is pretty simple: Make every instrument sound like a synth or just be a synth, harmonize that shit, and make it sound like the music in a sad part of a video game. The closer of their latest album ‘LP3′ is the particularly affecting ‘Black Heroes’ and it really does bring up the feeling of like, a film-strip you’d watch in history class about the contributions of African-Americans. Imagine poorly-pencilled sketches of Marcus Garvey and Rosa Parks moving past to the tune of this song. This YouTuber had the right idea accompanying the song to an image of the Tuskegee Airmen. I think ‘Black Heroes’ is trying to get at like the pure immediate sense of the triumph of history and victory that you can get into when you’re in like 3rd grade and Howard Zinn doesn’t mean anything yet.

Because of their Brooklyn roots and love of all things electronic and video gamey, Ratatat are often seeen as ironists but there’s really nothing ironic or funny about their music. They use all those sounds to move towards some weird, off-kilter sense of warmth and sincerity. These are kids who cried at the ending to Adventures of Lolo 2 and just took the beauty of electronics for granted. They’re way beyond the played-out Kraftwerk-ian sense of “we’re all mechanical and without emotions” and electronics will comment on that trope; it’s sort of the same thing T-Pain’s trying to do or Kanye does on Jeezy’s ‘Put On’.

Written by Brandon

July 29th, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Clipse Live at Artscape in Baltimore 7/20/08

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When say, Rick Ross wanders across the stage, out-of-breath, and fumbling over his basic-ass raps, it’s really hard to believe this dude ever had his shit together enough to deal a million-trillion dollars in coke. If he can’t even organize a like, brief set at Summer Jam or some shit, how’d he run a drug cartel?! When Clipse bounced up to the moderately-sized Artscape stage, it’s way easier to believe them when they say shit like “Same hustle/’cept my hustle’s now flows…”, because the hyper-focused, distant but technically precise approach a dealer takes to dealing, Clipse take to performing.

Pusha T especially, would bob his head in conjunction with his cadence and his eyes would grow furious and wide on a particular punchline–especially when the crowd screamed them along with him–but then the beat stopped, you got that glass-breaking or plane sound effect from the ‘We Got It 4 Cheap’ tapes, everyone would clap and Pusha and Malice would take a break from the intensity and smile, but then, back to hustling, but remember that hustle’s now flow.

They were scheduled for 7:30 and got on a few minutes late and ended about seven minutes early–maybe in part, because stuff like Artscape must end on-time–and I could’ve taken fifteen more minutes or so, but the in and out, all business approach is good given the nature of most rap shows, especially free ones. The only show-offy, hip-hop show cliche was on show opener ‘Grindin’ where the beat dropped out numerous times and they rapped the song beat-less but totally stayed-on enough for the audience to follow right along. It turned out to be a P.A system problem, but the way Clipse did it, it seemed less like technical difficulties and more like this bad-ass way to open the show. But it was still more an example of their calculated professionalism–they can stay that on-beat without the help of a beat–than any attempt at showing-off for the crowd..

That’s not to suggest Clipse don’t care about rap or rapping–they care a lot and that’s obvious–but they see it as something to master and do really well and they’re pretty much there right now. This explains the lackluster third volume of ‘We Got It 4 Cheap’ and ‘Hell Hath No Fury’s half-hedging-its-bets sequencing, but it also explains why they can rush onto a stage at a free festival in Baltimore at 7:30 in like, 90 degree weather on Sunday, and go right into ‘Grindin’, never miss a line or rhythm when the shopping-carts crashing beat continually drops out, give one another annoyed/frustrated looks but never get all pissy about it, totally destroy the whole song, laugh about the sound problems, move on to ‘Momma, I’m So Sorry’, ‘What Happened To That Boy?’, ‘Cot Damn’, ‘Ride Around Shining’, and ‘Mr. Me Too’, thank the crowd, politely apologize for “the technical difficulties” and exit.
For all this talk of calculation though, there’s a hard-edged immediacy to a live Clipse performance as well. All those punchlines that smug rap fans take a shit on and even fans admit are getting pretty played-out feel alive again when spit, like actually spit–Clipse rap fierce–from Pusha and Malice’s mouths. There’s a strange paradox of an entire, diverse group of hip-hop heads, pop-radio rap fans, weirdos who wandered over, and Whartscape gawkers knowing every word to every song so much that they fill-in the curse-words Clipse tried hard to avoid (because it’s a public event) and it still felt new and real, like the first time you heard: “Ech! Another soul lost/Had to make a shirt match my blood colored Porsche”. And those beats! When the speakers worked, those beats blasting out of some outdoor P.A, surrounded by way too many hardcore fans doubly amped on seeing this shit for free, as these two dudes with basically, these beautiful speaking/rapping voices launch enthusiastic threats around for twenty minutes, was pretty intense. Of course, you’ve read all this hyperbole before, but it’s easy to forget or grow tired of it in this internet-insane rap world where shit blows-up and then goes away before it ever really got the chance to stick around.

Of course, Clipse aren’t that interested in sticking around, they were in and out in twenty minutes and left everyone in a daze. Nerds and thugs and everybody in between sheepishly hovered near the stage in denial that it was all over. Would it be in bad taste to compare all of us, kind of moving away from the stage, kind of looking back hoping it was over/wanting more, to zombified addicts? It seemed once again Clipse, rooted in lessons from their dope days, did that pusher bait and switch of giving just enough to satisfy but not enough that we don’t immediately want more.
-Photos by Monique Rivera.

-Also, Metal Lungies was there, and they posted a performance of ‘Cot Damn’: Clipse Tidbits. I guess that’s something I forgot to mention. Ab-Liva was there. He’s a great hypeman, kinda even crooned some of the Pharrell hooks, did his two verses with confidence equal to Clipse’s but in a very different way, and looks like if Larry Blackmon of Cameo and Baseball Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield had a kid.

-I spotted and briefly talked to Baltimore’s E-Major, whose album ‘Majority Rules, I’m still really into. DJ Face also of the group We & Us did a DJ set before Clipse–and in lieu of Wizz Khalifa’s absence–and between ‘Stronger’ and ‘Roc Boys’, he dropped E’s ‘Know That’, which is pretty awesome. *Also, in that E Major link, note that We & Us is just the name of the group, not the members as I previously thought.

-And finally, some really sad news is K-Swift, a Club legend and performer at Artscape this weekend, died at 28. She was a ubiquitous Baltimore DJ, hosted 92.3 Club nights, released indispensible compilations–responsible for breaking say, Blaq Starr’s ‘Hands Up Thumbs Down’ which some readers might know–and was just really awesome. Especially sad for something like Baltimore where club DJs hold as much weight as club producers. She wasn’t just some Baltimore DJ as I fear, some outsiders might think (not that there’s anything wrong with being just a DJ…).

Written by Brandon

July 21st, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Baltimore, Clipse

Metal Lungies: Neptunes Beat Drop

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Once again, I was asked to contribute to Metal Lungies “beatdrop” series and this one’s even better than the last, with tons of great bloggers contributing and Mad Skillz, whose ‘From Where???’ Monique and I have been listening to a lot recently. It was also fun because I like the Neptunes but I’m not this super-fan, so I felt no need to span their career; I just went with gut-reactions beat I like from their later career when all their beats are either like minimalist noise or these like Vangelis-beautiful warm synth workouts. Anyways, my beats were: ‘Locked Away’ by NERD, ‘Frontin’, ‘Allure’ by Jay Z, ‘Lavish’ by Twista, and ‘Wamp Wamp’ from Clipse:

“It’s no surprise that The Neptunes dudes are basically these band nerds, especially on “Locked Away”, which starts off with what sounds like the cool kids in your high school jazz band goofily jamming before the winter concert, but eventually turns into a real song and a melody stumbles out. The entire thing feels almost tossed-off, which is sort of The Neptunes’ appeal. It’s hard to explain why or how the minimalist clap of a track by Chad and Pharrell gets in your head but it does and slowly, all of its complexities and weirdnesses pop up but never become clear. There’s not the club-ready resound of Timbaland in The Neptunes and from the outside, they’ve got none of Kanye West’s pop appeal, but they have it too — it’s weird. N*E*R*D’s a great example of how out-there The Neptunes are without even knowing it. It could’ve been a rock concession but instead it’s this weird funk-rock vanity project. The songs still have those Neptunes signifiers like heavy drums, lots of bass — it’s still totally rhythm-based — and best of all, this Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on-speed synth-line.”

Written by Brandon

July 21st, 2008 at 4:26 pm

The Difference Between Snark & Satire: Obama & ‘The New Yorker’


The slowly-becoming “infamous” ‘New Yorker’ image of the right wing’s insinuations about the Obamas reduced to absurdity, says more about the left than the right. The most reactionary side of the left bounces claims of racism–which are half-right–with incredibly condescending concerns about how a significant amount of the country isn’t going to “get it” and therefore, it will damage Obama’s reputation. This goes beyond issues of the image being problematic, or not funny, or offensive, and cuts to the core of the left’s on-going problem, one that Obama’s been fighting even as he’s used as its poster-boy: left-wing elitism.

The hypocrisy and endlessly frustrating aspects of the mainstream left become clearer with Obama’s campaign and so, even if the dude loses to McCain, wins and ends up being a total schlockmeister, simply wins, or even gets murked, Obama’s impact beyond making the borders of who can run for president a little more porous, are solidified. By simply running, Obama’s exposed the fundamental racism of the left, a racism they masquerade as tough-minded cultural “realism” about the world and how people just won’t vote for Obama–the same regional “realism” that’s got them up in arms about how the wrong people won’t get this ‘New Yorker’ cover–but is the exact same fear of veering from the status quo more honestly expressed by the right.

By simply running, Obama’s upset the long-standing belief–really, paranoia–that all black leaders and blacks in power will stick together no matter what. Those recent off-camera comments by Jesse Jackson shouldn’t have been a controversy at all because if you support or like Obama, it just makes sense that Jesse Jackson would be upset with the guy! There’s no place in Obama’s politics for Jesse Jackson types. If anybody was thinking hard, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama should’ve both come out of that mini-controversy looking pretty good. Both of them stood their ground. The same stands for this ‘New Yorker’ cover, where their sense of smug humor and over-the-top imagery simply don’t jibe with Obama’s campaign or message and for the first time in a couple of decades, the Democratic candidate doesn’t have a lot in common with the mainstream left (except for a terrible plan to get out of Iraq and a refusal to see how despite cooked-up Saddam/Al Qaeda links, Iraq and Afghanistan are inextricably connected).

‘The New Yorker’ and its cover typify this very rarified and relatively new brand of liberal elitism. While there’s plenty of talk about the right’s new-found, incredibly insular but pseudo-populist bastardization of Neo-Conservatism, or even recent talks of downright silly concepts like pro-life Libertarians, there’s less talk of left-wing equivalents. ‘The New Yorker’ as it currently stands, represents this left-wing hypocrisy. It’s a magazine read by plenty of people, all across the country, yet it tries to retain its former exclusivity. Pockets of smug assholes in big cities and small towns can take comfort in ‘The New Yorker’s attempt at cultural and political groupthink. It’s the same as the false right-wing reconcilliation of populism and elitism: The “I’m a regular, good ol’ boy but I’m also the father of a former president and a millionaire myself” argument put on by President Bush.

What’s disturbing about this cover is just how explicit it makes ‘The New Yorker’s percieved exclusivity, almost flaunting the “controversial” rather than controversial nature of it all. There’s little to no interest in this cover for anyone not in on the joke. That’s fine or it would’ve been fine if ‘The New Yorker’ was still as New York and hip as it once was, but as I said, you can stumble into any Borders or Barnes & Noble in any bumfuck town and find a copy. Additionally, there’s such a sense of purpose and grabbing for that iconic cover that’ll define this election, that the whole thing feels contrived and self-involved. Making this “controversial” cover is based on the assumption that anyone outside of its readers and political-types give a single shit about ‘The New Yorker’.

The cover wants to be iconic and lasting, but the magazine and the art make no attempt to appeal to anyone but the converted. It’s based on the assumption that you get and agree with cartoonist. It’s over-the-top portrayal isn’t a problem because people may not get it but because there’s no room for disagreement in the cartoon. That’s why it isn’t satire. It pokes fun of nothing in general or towards any human truths outside of “the right’s real dumb and they think or like to present the Obamas as this anti-American couple”. It’s snark rather than satire because it feeds off inclusivity, it doesn’t start there and spiral out, like the best satire does and even say, ‘The Colbert Report’ can do at times. It’s like the obvious ironic T-shirt sold at Urban Outfitters versus like finding the ‘Corona’ shirt from Wal-Mart with the two half-limes in the bottle and then the third bottle has an entire lime on it and it says “Greedy” and rocking it to the point where people may not realize you’re joking and just think you’re this Corona/party dude. Both are stupid, but at least one’s going all the way with it.Not that there should’ve been, but it is interesting that this image from ‘The Weekly Standard’ a few weeks ago didn’t generate any controversy because it’s the perfect analogue to the Obama ‘New Yorker’ cover. It’s a reduction to absurdity of the big, giant fears of the left: poor whites. Interestingly, ‘The Weekly Standard’s a Conservative magazine and so, its a similar weird, uncomfortable thing of them attempting satire by joshing something they think they understand or sympathize with but for the most part, don’t get and even if they do, take their comfort and humor too close for comfort. If anything ‘When Bubba Meets Obama is significantly more offensive than the ‘New Yorker’ cover. At least, ‘The New Yorker’ got the offensive stereotypes right, ‘The Weekly Standard’ uses your typical American “redneck” as a stand-in for the quite different Appalachian…

Written by Brandon

July 15th, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Barack Obama

Favorite Album From Each Year of My Life

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Don’t sleep on my throwback Cardinals (???) long-sleeve T. I was this total baseball history nerd in second grade, so maybe I got this for like the Stan Musial factor but my guess is it was more like, on clearance at ‘The Sports Authority’ and my dumb-assed grandma knew I liked old baseball and picked the shit up. Oh yeah- this “Favorite Album From Each Year of My Life” thing…everybody’s doing it, so here’s mine. With a bonus rap-only list.

1984: Husker Du ‘Zen Arcade’
1985: New Order ‘Low Life’
1986: Arthur Russell ‘World of Echo’
1987: Saint Vitus ‘Born Too Late’
1988: My Bloody Valentine ‘Isn’t Anything’
1989: Beastie Boys ‘Paul’s Boutique’
1990: Bathory ‘Hammer Heart’
1991: Talk Talk ‘Laughing Stock’
1992: Pharcyde ‘Bizarre Ride II’
1993: Sleep ‘Holy Mountain’
1994: Common ‘Resurrection’
1995: Goodie Mob ‘Soul Food’
1996: UGK ‘Ridin Dirty’
1997: Wu Tang Clan ‘Forever’
1998: Outkast ‘Aquemini’
1999: Jim O’Rourke ‘Eureka’
2000: D’Angelo ‘Voodoo’
2001: The Microphones ‘The Glow Pt. 2′
2002: Cody Chesnutt ‘The Headphone Masterpiece’
2003: Kevin Drumm ‘Land of Lurches’
2004: Kanye West ‘The College Dropout’
2005: Horse the Band ‘The Mechanical Hand’
2006: J Dilla ‘Donuts’
2007: Jesu ‘Conqueror’

1984: Run DMC ‘Self-Titled’
1985: Mantronix ‘The Album’
1986: 2 Live Crew ‘Is What We Are’
1987: Eric B & Rakim ‘Paid In Full’
1988: Slick Rick ‘The Great Adventures Of…’
1989: Beastie Boys ‘Paul’s Boutique’
1990: King Tee ‘At Your Own Risk’
1991: Nice & Smooth ‘Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed’
1992: Pharcyde ‘Bizarre Ride II’
1993: De La Soul ‘Buhloone Mindstate’
1994: Common ‘Resurrection’
1995: Goodie Mob ‘Soul Food’
1996: UGK ‘Ridin Dirty’
1997: Wu Tang Clan ‘Forever’
1998: Outkast ‘Aquemini’
1999: MF Doom ‘Operation Doomsday’
2000: 8ball & MJG ‘Space Age 4 Eva’
2001: Dungeon Family ‘Even in Darkness’
2002: GZA ‘Legend of the Liquid Sword’
2003: Jay-Z ‘The Black Album’
2004: Kanye West ‘The College Dropout’
2005: Three-Six Mafia ‘Most Known Unknowns’
2006: J Dilla ‘Donuts’
2007: Kanye West ‘Graduation’

Written by Brandon

July 12th, 2008 at 8:22 am

Posted in Lists, lazy post

Music Video Round-Up: A Milli, Killer Mike, Nappy Roots

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Lil Wayne: ‘A Mill’ (directed by Gil Green)

Like the song, the video for ‘A Milli’ feels half-complete and tossed-off. Also like the song, the video also grows more fascinating the more you come back to it. Director Gil Green has long been a fan of the single-take that’s not really a single-take but feels like one–see ‘Stay Fly’ or ‘Hell Yeah’—but those other videos gained energy or chaos through the immediacy of shaky cameras and long, loosely orchestrated action, ‘A Milli’ just casually walks through and never picks up or goes anywhere. It’s moment-to-moment, just like Wayne’s free-associative raps.

While no rapper’s gotten more hype in the past couple of years than Wayne, ‘A Milli’ as a song and video is the first thing he’s done that doesn’t feel at all compromised. Ultimately, ‘Tha Carter 3’ itself is a compromise, but everything about ‘A Milli’ highlights Wayne’s insularity. Like the best rap songs, it’s just a dive into the rapper’s head and the video matches it by giving us a kind of “Wayne uncut”. It’s a mini-documentary like those old Hollywood so-and-so “On the Set” things that sometimes run between films on Turner Classic. In the space between his trailer and the actual video shoot—for the next single that is—we get this really raw and complicated portrait of Lil Wayne. He only occasionally decides to rap along with the song, he takes a shit, he changes his clothes, he does a Leprechaun kick, he puts on a Presidential smile for fans who want a picture, he drinks two styrofoams cups of purple, and he munches on some food. Nothing cool, nothing bad-ass, just Wayne. Tom Breihan’s spoken about the way Wayne “challeng[es] ideas of rap stardom” and this video’s a perfect example. ‘A Milli’ is this weirdo freestyle that’s inexplicably turned into the song everybody loves but that doesn’t make it less of a weirdo freestyle. I would be perverse to try to turn this hit song into anything resembling a conventional video, so Green and Wayne don’t.

Killer Mike featuring Ice Cube: ‘Pressure’ (directed by Giovanni Hidalgo)

The ‘Pressure’ video exudes the anger of the song and gets its mix of fuck everybody for this bullshit anger and tough-minded, this is what we can about it fervor perfectly. It never even tries to be conventionally coherent and constantly works with point and counter-point. It operates on like conventional, classic film grammar something movie directors rarely do and music video directors even less so. When you cut between our Jesus-loving President, any number of black church leaders, and Jim Jones, there’s an overt but not obvious connection between all three of these schlockmeisters, topped off with Godardian text across the screen: “Churchs Make 20,000 Annually”. The constant thread is only hypocrisy and corruption, not relegated to certain races or political persuasions.

The text, either hard facts or hard-ass sloganeering really is Godardian—it has the sloppy chaos of his 70s work and 90s video work only Mike actually believes what he’s saying—and is also closely connected to the anarchic strands of graffiti writing. All that “medium is the message” type junk…when an image of Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres comes across the screen, what are we do to with it? OJ trying on the infamous black glove? It’s reducing these moments to the image themselves and also all their hundreds of contexts and none of them at the same time.

Images bounce off one another and rhyme and conflict and complement and sometimes even just stand on their own. Killer Mike rapping to a wide-angled, dirty security camera, the mélange of famous political footage, celebrity gossip trash, and the kind of footage people post on message boards and SpaceGhetto because it’s sick and violent, all placed into an almost end-of-days context. This is the same mix of sincere political activism, asshole hubris, and the understanding that you gotta entertain, that made Christopher Hitchens get his ass water-boarded. If ‘Pressure’ came out a month later, you could expect to see chubby, drowning Hitch drop those iron bars somewhere in there…

Nappy Roots featuring Greg Street: ‘Good Day’ (directed by Lenny Bass)

Rather than placing Nappy Roots and friends on a street corner or even in like a public park or something, this video places them in front of a low-lit black background that’s then filled-in with the appropriate props (a bed, basketball hoop, cars, street signs). It anchors the video, moves it away from every other “hanging-out” Southern rap video, and makes the all-kids chorus part even more joyful. The hand-held work moving through the classrooms as the kids clap and sing is even more exciting because it looks and feels full of life compared to the minimalism of the performance parts.

Not that those parts don’t have their own sense of energy and fun. There’s plenty of fun and naturalism on the set as well, kids clapping with adults, the guy goofily leaping onto the bed, kids and adults making funny faces towards the end, but there’s a sense that the performance part is the Nappy Roots talking about it and the chorus/classroom part is their dream of a day where “nobody gonna die” come true.

Unabashedly fun and communal, with absolutely no interest in conventional rap signifiers of cool—as I said, even the sexy girl in the bed just gets playfully jumped-on—‘Good Day’ celebrates the minor victories of a new fresh shirt, a barbeque, or a basketball game and makes them palpable. When member Fish Scales grabs a plate and happily chomps down on a burger at the end of his verse and right before the chorus, it’s perfect.

Written by Brandon

July 11th, 2008 at 11:45 pm

Beyond ‘The Wackness’: Hip-Hop & Whiteness At the Movies

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Armond White’s review of Adam Yauch’s ‘Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot’ and Jonathan Levine’s ‘The Wackness’ focuses on each film’s rap fueled soundtrack and how it connects to each film’s “human dimension[s]” and “artful expression”. What’s interesting is how neither movie uses rap music as a “hood” signifier (characters enter the city=play rap) or a big dumb joke (see the work of Judd Apatow, or ‘Bringing Down the House’ and all that falls between), but for emotional and visceral pull. Especially interesting is ‘The Wackness’, which scores the white main character’s life to the sounds of classic, 1994 hip-hop without irony.

Rap music is hard to pull-off in a movie because it’s very distracting music that demands attention; it rarely blends into the background. Additionally, most of the viewing public’s stuck in incredibly out-dated (or never made sense) concepts of what rap music is, what it means, and how it can be used. So, when a rap song comes-in at a point that’s emotionally powerful well, it just doesn’t resonate, it’s just distracting. The music’s ability to work or resonate in films is further complicated by the sheer lack of black films that even get made each year. Still stuck in a conventional sense of who does and doesn’t look absurd listening to rap, it’s hard for films made by whites about whites to engage hip-hop in a way that doesn’t come-off as one big joke or incredibly cloying. Given the obsession with irony and juxtaposition in everything from Hollywood to high-minded indies, even when a movie does use rap seriously, it’s still often taken as a joke.
2003’s ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’ didn’t exactly light-up the box office but it’s the kind of movie that everyone around my age has seen, pretended to dislike, and then ended up laughing their asses off for it’s blissfully short running time. Bakari Kitwana’s book ‘Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop’ devotes ten whole pages to the Jamie Kennedy vehicle/debacle and sets it up as yes, a smarter, more complex film than other more “serious” rap and race-baiting movies like James Toback’s ‘Black & White’ and Warren Beatty’s ‘Bulworth’. The movie’s a big, willfully retarded comedy that’s also really smart and complicated. For those wanting to laugh at white kids “acting black” it’s there, but anyone watching–or listening to the fairly eclectic soundtrack– will get much more out of the movie.

The casting of Ryan O’Neal as the father of Jamie Kennedy’s Brad character (or B-Rad, his rap name) is Kubrickian in the sense of playing-off past roles. Recontextualizing the sad-bastard WASP of ‘Love Story’ as a schlockmeister politician with a son he’s embarrassed by, is smart and you know, probably exactly what would’ve happened if Ali McGraw hadn’t kicked the bucket (spoiler alert!), and the two got married and lived “happily” ever after. Other clever casting is B-Rad’s mother played by Bo Derek and the use of Blair Underwood–best known to hip-hop fans as Russell in ‘Krush Groove’–as O’Neal’s square, hip-hop-phobic political advisor. Although hardly groundbreaking, this type of casting with movie history in mind undeniably proves intentionality in ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’.

‘Malibu’ is basically a movie about hip-hop’s complexity and universal appeal masquerading as one big “wigger” joke. B-Rad’s rap “origin” is not shown to be a trend-hopping interest in hip-hop but something that’s been a part of his life almost since he was born. He’s shown as a child reaching for his maid’s headphones, putting them on, and being engulfed by the sounds of RUN DMC. His affected hip-hop mannerisms and attempts to remake ‘Boyz N the Hood’ in his honky suburbs are as much the result of the corporate misrepresentation of hip-hop and forced lowered expectations as they are B-Rad’s whiteboy idiocy. The movie destroys the under-the-breath chuckles of people over forty about white kids “acting black”. Underwood hires two black actors to play the roles of “thugs” that scare B-Rad out of his rap-love and into the real world, but their forays into actual gang life take them out of their comfort zone as well. B-Rad ends up being significantly more “hip-hop” than many of the black characters in the movie.

At the same time, the movie wisely avoids that weird sense of “I’m white and I’m persecuted for my love of rap” tone that a lot of white rappers and well, just white people stumble into. By making B-Rad incredibly rich, the “class not race” or “we’re all in the struggle” arguments that hold weight but get simplified by too many people are also avoided and the only thing left is sincere interest or disinterest, not separated from racial and social politics, but a degree removed.
Austin, Texas based writer/director Mike Judge sets his corporate satire ‘Office Space’ to an all hip-hip soundtrack, most famously, the Geto Boys’ ‘Still’ during a now-classic printer destruction scene. ‘No Tears’ by Scarface shows-up as does ‘Damn It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta’, which scores Peter and friends’ computer virus-based money skim. Judge clearly knows the Geto Boys and their politics and rises above simple-minded concepts of race or movie-music convention when choosing to score his movie with rap and set key scenes to arguably the biggest and most important rap group from the state he calls home.

This could easily have devolved into some unfortunate appropriation or good-intentioned but downright wrong way of relating to rap, but Judge finds a good mix of sincere use and ironic juxtaposition. Like ‘Malibu’, ‘Office Space’ couches some complicated comments on rap and culture through comedy but sells the comedy and the politics way better. Indeed, it’s funny to see a bunch of office nerds driving around to rap, but it’s a reality of the world–office nerds do listen to rap– and by the movie’s end, Judge taps into early 90s gangsta rap’s subversive and at times, almost anarchist politics and connects it to everybody’s overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and anger and general sense of being forever fucked over.
‘Boiler Room’ is another movie that sends hip-hop the the world of corporate culture and comes out looking pretty good. The movie begins with a narration from Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth, quoting Biggie (“Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”) and reading Biggie’s cry of frustration as an application to his own life (Seth hard-sells stock on the phone, opens a gambling ring in his apartment, etc.). That sense of “get money by any means” put in the hands of a well-to-do Jewish kid. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack’s maybe the best hip-hop soundtrack out-there. If I remember correctly, all the hip-hop in the music plays more like “score” than “source” music making it more like Biggie’s ‘hood platitudes continually echoing in the background.

Ultimately, Seth realizes that the company he’s working for is doing some fucked-up shit and goes along with the FBI to bring them down. Seth grows up and realizes the difference between himself and Biggie and when, where, and how this “get money by any means” concept should be applied. ‘Boiler Room’ ends-up as something of a comment on “Stop Snitching” before “Stop Snitching” was turned into everything from not ratting on your friends if you all commit a crime to you know, not telling the police you saw the dude who mugged that grandma. In a corporate world that grows even more problematic and a generation of corporate fucks raised on Young Jeezy and not Biggie, the “Stop Snitching” concept’s applied to everything including whistle-blowing. It’s fundamentally a movie about misinterpretation. Seth misreads Biggie at first (but figures it out by the end) and his fuckface co-workers quote anti-greed movies like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘Wall Street’ like their message is to be taken literally.Rap and crime movies are inextricably tied. Most rappers weave cinematic or pseudo-cinematic tales of crime, albums are littered with samples and references to ‘Scarface’ or Scorsese movies, and there’s the oft-quoted comparison between realistic crime movies and hip-hop, made in defense of reality rap. Still, most directors for reasons outlined at the beginning of this post, won’t score their movies to rap. Instead, they continue to swipe the Kenneth-Anger by way of Scorsese sense of old rock and pop.

Abel Ferrara is one of the few exceptions. His film ‘King of New York’ is the source of Biggie’s claim to be “the black Frank White”–Frank White is Christopher Walken’s character in the film–and Lawrence Fishburne plays Walken’s right-hand man, Jimmy Jump, highly-influenced by rapper Schooly D. Some Schooly songs show up on the soundtrack, but Walken’s character is a sort of philanthropist drug-dealer who employs only black guys for his crew and so, a party scene set to ‘Am I Black Enough?’ is “explained”. Working with Schooly D and tossing hip-hop into his movie did seem to rub-off on Ferrara and give him the confidence to use rap in his movies in slightly less conventional ways.His next film ‘The Bad Lieutenant’, originally used Schooly’s ‘Signifying Rapper’ throughout–a lawsuit by Jimmy Page forced the song out of DVD versions, so pick up a VHS–to emotional effect and something of a comment on how rap is seen in movies. Each time we hear ‘Signifying Rapper’, it’s context changes. It first plays early in the movie as the Lieutenant hops out of his car and walks into a sketchy apartment. We hear that Led Zeppelin riff and it sounds like some post-Scorsese use of rock music to show how bad-ass these white guys can be but then, Schooly starts rapping and the scene plays like something out of every early 90s movie that uses rap for short-hand that we’re in the “ghetto”. The Lt. chases a black kid into the apartment building and doesn’t yell at him, he buys and smokes crack with him instead. It’s the merging of “ghetto” signifier and hard-ass Scorses-style scoring in one song and scene.

The next time the song is heard, it plays over the film’s inciting incident: the rape of a Nun. Again, we’re back to “rap music plays over something bad” logic but the scene’s immediacy and violence do match the song quite well. From there, the riff and Schooly’s voice echo in the background of a few other scenes, slowly turning the song into the Lt.’s theme song. It plays one last time over the end credits, after the Lt’s been shot in his car. The return of of ‘Signifying Rapper’ temporarily resurrects the Lieutenant or seems to pay final homage to him. The song’s forward lurch, along with Schooly’s swagger just feels like it would be the theme of a coked-out, fuck-crazy, crooked-cop Harvey Keitel.Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is more of the same from the director and the soundtrack is the now-predictable mix of 60s and 70s rock, except for a scene set to ‘Thief’s Theme’ by Nas. The song plays during a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Costigan drives around with his drug-dealing cousin. It’s simple source music, the kind of thing a dopey drug dealer from Boston would be listening to, but it conceptually fits within the movie, and could be read as Scorsese re-paying homage to the many rappers in love with his films.

‘Thief’s Theme’ 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’s 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: next to the hood. 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!

While the focus on rap-centric movies and movie soundtracks is interesting, often the best uses of rap fall into a single scene or event. Julian Goldberger’s low-budget ‘Trans’ is the story of a trouble white kid named Ryan who escapes from a juvenile detention center and wanders around the Everglades. In one scene, after being beat-up by some beer-drinking rednecks, he comes-to as the voices of some black peers (presumably friends from high-school) yell his name and try to awake him.

He hangs out with them, sits in on a freestyling session by the guys, dances around, and then goes on his way. It’s one of the few scenes where someone’s nice to Ryan and it’s hardly a coincidence that it’s from a bunch of hip-hop kids. The scene represents the inclusive nature of hip-hop culture and in certain ways, black culture, which as a whole, is a great deal more inviting and familial to all than the white, middle-class culture from which Ryan comes. He is immediately brought along with them, they recognize his dire situation, and it’s even suggested that this isn’t the first time Ryan’s been found like this.

The kids are generally kind, offering Ryan help, but they also mock him, in part because of the hilarious situation of getting his ass beat and also, because well, I bet he’s the goofy white boy they know that’s always getting in trouble. Their looking for girls and their freestyles (or attempts) about weed and pussy are realistic and used to complicate their character. For a rap outsider, the contradictory nature of being so kind and rapping about weed and girls would be hard to resolve but Goldberg wisely moves beyond racial or cultural presentation and just lets all of the character be themselves. The failed attempts at freestyling are particularly good because often in movies, scenes of battles are often used as shorthand for authenticity or being hip to the culture. Here, it’s more like the freestyle competitions you see in your high school science class or at a party, where it’s just a bunch of people fucking around. No one sitting there thinks they are the next Nassir Jones, they’re just having fun.In Goldberger’s follow-up, ‘The Hawk Is Dying’–one of most underrated movies of this decade by the way– there’s less of a connection to rap, but the sense of communty transcending race is all through the movie. Most interesting however, is the scene where we meet Michelle Williams’ Betty, “a doctor’s daughter” who chooses to live in a shitty squat-house, smoke pot out of a Confederate flag bong, and dress like a fat lady with a black eye that you’d see at Wal-Mart. When we first see her, she’s in her bed in her room in this flop-house listening to Splack Pack’s ‘Shake That Ass Bitch’ as some fuck-up in another room listens to bass-heavy electro. The two songs mix around in the background until finally she turns Splack Pack off. Goldberger attended school in Florida–where this movie, like ‘Trans’ is set– and just as he deals with race is a way that’s attuned to the complexity of our interactions, he does the same to the music. To him and to anyone with hip-hop knowledge, Miami Bass and hipster electro have a whole lot in common but that’s not as much of a given to outsiders and he subtly makes the connection. Gus Van Sant’s experimental, skate-boarding murder anti-mystery ‘Paranoid Park’ is ostensibly about a kid who may have accidentally killed a security guard, but it’s more of a realistically drab dive into the head of the average, vaguely hip fifteen year-old. It’s clear a great deal of research and understanding of 2008 youth-culture was employed and Van Sant applies it on all fronts. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is an all-over-the-place soundtrack: ambient electronics, Elliot Smith, fifties rock, Nino Rota’s score for ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ etc.

In one scene, the main character Alex takes his Mom’s car and drives around Portland before stopping at infamous skate-park “Paranoid Park”. Camera mounted on the hood, through a series of cuts, we see Alex driving around listening to an eclectic mix of music from the radio-his mood changing depending on the music. At one point, ‘I Heard That’ by Portland rapper Cool Nutz plays. Alex leans further into his seat, grips the wheel from an angle, and bobs his head back and forth. It lasts about ten seconds, but it says a great deal about how ill-informed white teenagers respond to hip-hop, the porous borders between genre and style for any kid growing up in the iPod/internet age, and something about regional music as well.

Pre-internet, it would seem absurd for a teenager to listen to such an out-there variety of music and Van Sant maybe takes it a little too far, but one can easily imagine Alex going over some hipster Portland-ian’s house, seeing ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ and doing a GOOGLE blog-search for the score. An iPod on Super-Shuffle creates all kinds of weird transitions from classical to hip-hop and back again or whatever. As for Cool Nutz, a fairly-obscure rapper to most of the world, he’s probably known by most or everyone in Portland. It makes an interesting comment on regional music, especially rap. Now, it’s accepted, but think of a crazy amount of people in Houston buying screw tapes–the rap equal for doom music–or how kids of any age or race in Baltimore simply grow up with the spastic, A.D.D insanity of Baltimore club. The use of rap is also a brief nod to the ways that hip-hop and skateboarding culture continue to mix. There are plenty of black skateboarders in many of the skateboarding scenes in ‘Paranoid Park’ and the issue’s not acknowledged, just taken as a simple reality of the world.

And finally, Rip Torn in ‘Freddie Got Fingered’ shaking his bare-ass to ‘Microphone Fiend’?

Written by Brandon

July 8th, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Posted in films, movies, the South

City Paper Article: Old New Hope (Dennis Wilson & Droids)

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I was sitting around the past few days thinking about what kind of image would accompany a pretty weird article on the re-issues of Dennis Wilson’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ and Droids’ ‘Star Peace’ and had images of Dennis Wilson’s face with a Star Destroyer flying above bouncing around in my head and then this like, bearded C-3PO floating around on space-beach drops and it’s better than anything I could’ve imagined! It’s by Alex Fine for those interested.

“THREE DECADES AFTER THEIR original releases, both Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s 1977 stoner-pop album Pacific Ocean Blue (Epic/Legacy) and the Droids’ 1978 space-disco relic Star Peace (Repressed) are receiving the re-release treatment, and the coincidence is plenty apt. In the late ’70s, both these albums were wonders of displacement–either too far behind or ahead of the time to achieve much more than a ripple.

If getting Brian Wilson out of the sandbox, onto the stage, and into the studio for 1976’s 15 Big Ones and 1977’s Love You failed to pique interest, Dennis Wilson’s even hazier mix of nostalgia and over-the-hill ennui wasn’t going to top the charts. And the disco novelty appeal of Droids is only superficial: Star Peace is fully-realized electronic music light years ahead of Studio 54, all wrapped around a utopian, sci-fi conceit…”

Written by Brandon

July 2nd, 2008 at 10:34 am