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The 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers’ The Slow Twilight

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Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence is a movie that starts with an image and recollection of birth and is yet completely suffused from beginning to end with the inevitability of death. As the whiskey-and-nicotine-soaked voice of the narrator tells Frankie Bono, the film’s hitman protagonist, he was “born out of the cold, black silence” and to the cold black silence he will return. Perhaps this is what is meant by the “Slow Twilight”: life is nothing but a slow, inevitable journey back into the darkness.

This sense of an almost pining for death is evident in tracks such as “High Noon” in which it rains “all year round from June to June” and the emcee laments that “high noon can’t come any sooner.” But lest you get the sense that either the film or the album is pessimistic, it’s important to understand that Frankie’s death is his ultimate gesture of freedom. More importantly, the film itself was an act of creative freedom made at a time when technology made such free creative gestures very difficult. Made in 1960 with a self-financed budget of $20,000, Blast of Silence was a one-time comic book illustrator’s demonstration to the world that he could make a tightly structured, almost brilliant feature film. Baron’s herculean struggle to see his film made is the mid-twentieth century equivalent to riding “from dark to light like a mariachi band in an unmarked van . . . to play in front of maybe ten heads.” If “Eric Lindros” questions the wisdom of throwing away the future for present glory, Blast of Silence shows that sometimes such a gambit can pay off—although Baron’s lackluster career subsequent to this film may argue to the contrary.

The narration in Blast of Silence is memorable not only for blacklisted actor Lionel Stander’s Tom-Waits-with-throat-cancer voice, but also for the fact that these second-person diatribes serve repeatedly to beat Frankie down. In that sense, it serves a similar function to the blistering attacks such as this one from “Rabbit Season”: “When I walk in the park there’s you eatin’ crumbs from the old man’s cart.”

Even more brilliant is the use of the clip at the end of “Stay Clean,” in which the girl’s voice says to Frankie, “what you need is a girl, someone you could feel good with, someone who could make you feel like you’re at home.” As we’ve already learned, Frankie’s only home is the cold, black darkness of death. The irony of this advice is complicated by the fact that Frankie misinterprets this advice as an indication that the girl that he needs is the one speaking to him, failing to see the husband attached to her arm. This clip is nicely juxtaposed between “Stay Clean” and “Dead Queens,” two tracks devoted to calling out the girls that have done the emcee wrong.

The album’s outro includes a line that references T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”: “The world ends with a whimper, not a bang.” When Eliot wrote this poem, he was crawling out of the war-weary pessimism of “The Waste Land” and about to enter the brighter, devoutly Christian latter portion of his career. Thus a poem that at first glance appears to be a pessimistic meditation on death proves instead to have an ironic optimism, which sorta sums up what’s going on with Blast of Silence and The Slow Twilight. Death becomes rebirth, or at least relief and in the end we have one of the best albums to hit in a long time.

-David Ford

David Ford is a contributor to Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?.


“No Resolution”

Sampling the hyper-recognizable or the unexpected is a welcome trend returning to hip-hop as of late and Shadowboxers’ Blurry Drones (Douglas Martin) is particularly artful at finding something simultaneously new and traditional in the debauched whine of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. Neither intimidated by such a legendary song nor interested in destroying it beyond recognition, Martin keeps enough of the Velvets’ musical DNA in there to make it a sort of jazz-like riff on the original (like say, Charlie Parker doing “White Christmas”) and something wholly different. And Zilla extends the inscrutable paranoia of the original (named after a Austrian S & M novel) to the very current, the very modern day–the universal.

Besides the hopeless hook, the key line here is Zilla’s Orwellian pre-rap list of absurd shifts in sensibility: “Soul on ice/Ice replace gold, statistics replace lives/In my zip code”. That “in my zipcode”, personalizes dystopian rhymes. And because Zilla’s rhymes so often tumble into wistful memories from childhood (“Four Speed Interlude”) and a kind of “what happened?” sense of growing-up (“Weak Stomach”), he’s fighting shit going wrong on a global and local scale…then quietly ties the political and personal together. The Slow Twilight never gets this explicit about politics because he spends the rest of the album with the dirty details of living in the world of “No Resolution”.


The title really steered me into a direction of paranoia and angst. I remember getting the beat at the beginning of the housing crisis and the high price of gasoline. Plus the beat was a simple loop with the classic “Impeach the President” drums that made me wanna spit. It’s really a look into the eyes of America in a pre-Obama stage, when there was no hope in site and everyone was freaking the geek out.


“No Resolution” was probably the only sample on the entire album that I knew I wanted to flip beforehand, instead of the sparks of inspiration that were most of the other beats on the album. I remember sitting around years ago, listening to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” come up on my friend’s record player and distinctly thinking aloud, “Why the fuck has noone turned this into a beat?” (Note: When that Blue Sky Black Death song with Jean Grae came out, “No Resolution” was already cut) So, I took the drums from “Impeach the President” well before “I Love College” came out, sped up the “Venus in Furs” sample a little bit, and proceeded to flip it according to how I wanted the bassline to sound. The bassline totally carries this song, because without it, it would just be a mess of droning guitars and screeching violins.



“Eric Lindros”

Rap’s always been about how the rest of rap’s bullshit, but at some point around the second-third generation of smart-guy rappers, it’s was all about telling instead of showing. The entire Slow Twilight project is an affront to what’s going on in rap, be it radio or college radio or whatever, but a song that’s essentially a diss on rap’s obsession with next-big-things that doesn’t make you want to punch the MC in the face is quite a feat. Wrapped around an awesomely apt and incredibly nerdy sports metaphor (Hockey’s next big thing of 1991 Eric Lindros), Zilla playfully clowns other rappers and himself with the same aplomb. A kind of concession to his self-righteous anger, Zilla begins the second verse “Don’t listen to Steven’s lecture/Who the hell am I?” and provides a warts and all illustration of being an actually “independent” rapper in the third verse, that suggests paid dues or current dues being paid without ever using the phrase “paid dues”.

The hook here, Zilla belting-out “And that’s when the phone calls/Chill-see who else hot” just as the Cat Power guitars spin around one another like a phone-ringing, hints at the paranoia of “No Resolution”, and keeps up the cinematics of Zilla’s song-writing (keep thinking of the phones-ringing forever in Once Upon a Time In America or Aronosky’s Pi). The tiny details of Zilla’s writing are complemented especially well here by Douglas Martin’s production, which rearranges Cat Power’s guitars and drums, and the fills in the empty space with snaps and pop and a flutter of electronics. On a song about how most rappers (and implicitly producers) just ain’t trying right now, it’s important to be at the top of your game, which the 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers most certainly are.


I just remember that Mos Def line floating around in my head for weeks “Then the phone calls….CHILL for a minute let’s see who else hot”. That happens sometimes where I just repeat a lyric from a song until I do something with it later on. So when I was making up the hook, and since the beat was already titled, “Lindros” just happened to rhyme with “hot” a little bit. It ended up becoming a concept of how the hottest rappers today are disposable next year, and being a Philadelphian, I saw how quickly Eric Lindros fell out of favor with hockey fans here. The first verse, I was touching on that MTV list of the top 10 “Hottest” MC’s in the game cause that was making waves at the time. Shoutout to Brett Lindros though!


“Eric Lindros,” like most of the beats on this album, came from me sitting around and listening to music (a practice which can lasts for days at a time with me only leaving my bedroom to use the bathroom), and having somewhat of a beatmaker epiphany. At first, I was sort of leery of sampling something as obvious as Cat Power’s “He War,” so I just chopped some drums and threw them on top of the guitar lick at the beginning just to hear what it would sound like, and that’s what led me to actually finish it, augmenting the chopped drums with the toms and snaps from the beginning of Feist’s “Brandy Alexander.” When Zilla sent it back with the vocals, I was like, “Okay. This beat is legit.”



“Weak Stomach”

This song’s hard to write about and honestly, it got lopped of off more than one of my “How Big Is Your World?” because I couldn’t really narrow it down to a concise couple hundred words. Let’s try again…no disservice to Martin’s production, maybe at its best here, there’s just a sea of sounds and production flourishes spinning in the background then stepping up for a few moments to shine and sliding into the soundscape, but Zilla’s songwriting/rapping own this song. 

Essentially, a song about stuff not working out on a very personal but all-too relatable scale, “Weak Stomach” jumps from the what sometimes sounds like autobiography, sometimes sounds like the voice of a character a little less wizened than Zilla himself, and sometimes sounds like he found out some secret about the listener himself or herself and put it in a song. There’s a raw but protected vulnerablity here (“I lost so many people this year” he says, without diving deeper, he doesn’t have to) and it mixes with hard-ass couplets of shit fucking up: “Not the perfect picture yet but it’s getting there/The big picture is revealed at the cematarrree–”, “Left the Holiday Inn stealing some soap/Left some condoms in the toilet and that’s all she wrote”. Really. What the fuck?.


This and “Rabbit Season” are probably my favorites on the album. Typically, I would’ve made this just some MC shit, a live crowd pleaser if this beat would’ve popped in my inbox. But keeping up with the concept of the album and the character I was forming, it wouldn’t have fit the album to just step out and spit some braggadocio raps. It ended up as a random collage of thoughts and images that shot out of my brain when I heard the beat. Weirdly enough,the “Blast of Silence” interlude that introduces the song at the end of “Rabbit Season” gave the song a dual meaning: a killer getting nervous before the big hit, something he’s good at and has done many times. Even he can get tense and nauseous.


“Weak Stomach” was a beat I knew was going to bang as soon as I heard the sample. From the first piano stab of Shearwater’s “Johnny Viola,” I knew I had to make this into a beat for Zilla. My first idea was to take the drums from Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby,” but I thought the drums sounded a little too “live,” if that makes any sense. So, I referred to Nas’ “No Idea’s Original,” which samples the Barry White track, but Alchemist found a way to make the sample sound better. I took those drums– which is why you can hear Nas warming up in every bar– and tried speeding it up, but it didn’t sound right. In turn, I slowed down the sample (which I never do, because I generally don’t like the way slowed samples sound), and the track sounded even more sinister than the sample played at original speed. I played a couple of xylophone notes on my keyboard to layer over the piano, and who would have thought that a xylophone would make it sound even darker?



“Stay Clean”

Both Douglas Martin and Zilla Rocca are musicians but they’re serious music fans and music writers too. This project’s A & R is Jeff Weiss. This shit’s important because The Slow Twilight is a brilliantly crafted album, straight hip-hop when it needs to be, but taking every opportunity to go weird or stretch boundaries too. Towards the end, in a good way, I wouldn’t even call it “hip-hop” anymore and that starts with “Stay Clean”–chipmunk soul by way of Elliott Smith. This song too has what I might just start calling “the Douglas Martin electronic flutter” as a slice of sound wanders through the beat punctuating the emotion and then going away. Using Smith’s chorus the way he does is really daring because it’s just plain weird and even a little jarring, but the album’s earned it and Zilla riffs on it, neither keeping the song too thematically connected to it or just sort of ignoring it–which is a weird thing rappers do sometimes.

And that’s what I mean! You can just imagine Zilla being challenged by chipmunk-Elliott and then thinking of all the weird guest spots and remixes where a totally disconnected verse is slapped onto the song and well, knowing he just can’t or won’t do that. A kind of contrast to “Weak Stomach” where Zilla teases you with his life’s tragedies, he’s pretty explicit here, detailing a very personal but again all-too relateable tale of a break-up. Especially touching is the line “I’m in the gym trying to get rid of husky”, not because I think that’s my story and the story of a lot of people around my age and Zilla’s age–our age–but because it’s another like, cinematic flash-cut forward, when the drama’s all farted-out and you’re left with people wanting/trying to progress and do better. Damn..


I realllllllly struggled with this one. Sometimes I overthink when I get beats, and this was one of those cases. There was no set path or concept. The hook made no sense to me. Luckily, I happened to get a call from my ex. Then a call from her ex-fiance afterwards. Yup–that pretty much wrote the record instantly, probably 3-4 months after working on it here and there and getting pissed off and frustrated. Lyrically, I borrowed HEAVILY from my man Halfcast from the glitch hop group Aunt Jessica from Philly, who are on Rope-a-dope Digital. There’s bars in there that are direct bites from his shit. He’s one of my favorite cats ever and knowing his sound and style helped me craft my own work to “Stay Clean”. Plus, not enough break-up songs reference Capone-N-Noreage lol.


“Stay Clean” came about because I really wanted to sample that part of Elliott Smith’s “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” because it sounded almost like something from a blaxploitation flick, so I put it over the drums of Al Green’s “I’m So Glad You’re Mine,” because I thought those drums would go well with the sample. But it sounded incomplete. So, I decided to sample Smith’s voice on the record, as well, and that totally made the song. The “Distorted Reality” sample is what gets talked about the most, but I also sampled Smith twice on that track. The guitar that sounds kinda like a train? That’s from “Pretty (Ugly Before),” one of my favorite latter-day Elliott Smith songs. This was the track I was most iffy about, but Zilla’s lyrics made it a must-have for the album. However, if I could go back, I’d EQ those drums better, because they sound really weak as-is.



A Few Questions for Blurry Drones/Douglas Martin, Producer of 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers:

Where’d the titles for the songs come from. Was it a sort of pre-planned concept that you’d think of titles that Zilla would then use a springboard for rhymes?

From various writing projects and my work as Fresh Cherries from Yakima (my experimental folk-pop project), I’ve gotten quite accustomed to titling my work. A lot of the titles came from what I felt the beat I was making evoked in terms of imagery. There are others, like “Dead Queens,” which came directly from the title of the sample. But “Dead Queens” sounded like the perfect title for the song anyway, so I just pluralized the title that Espers gave their song.

Everything was sent to Zilla merely under a working title, but after sending him “High Noon” and “Bottomfeeders,” titles and all, Zilla imparted to me that the titles sort of steer him in a certain creative direction. Out of the twelve songs on The Slow Twilight, Zilla only changed the title of the interlude. I never expected Zilla to keep the titles, but it’s deeply flattering to myself as a writer that he did.

You treat these “indie” samples no differently than you would an old soul sample or something. This is key to the project because it’s why the thing is NEVER a gimmick and why it works so well. Especially as someone who listens to a lot of music–that’s to say you’re not pilfering Microphones albums because indie rock is cool right now–did you concern yourself with treating the songs properly/respectfully?

As someone who listens to more “indie-rock” than he does hip-hop, it was important to me to deliver these songs in a different context than I had been listening to them, not only out of respect for the artists I’m sampling, but for hip-hop as an art form, as well. But being as though I do listen to a bunch of hip-hop as well, I wanted to deliver these beats as Hip-Hop Beats, and not some half-hearted mashup of a Sufjan Stevens song. It was very important to me to impress Zilla, who is an ill beatmaker in his own right. I wanted to give him, a person who is not as well-versed in the genre as I am, a bunch of shit to where he’d take the beats at face value as “really good beats,” instead of thinking about the cultural context of sampling “indie” music.

Talk about gear, programs, etc. This is the first sample-based rap album where I totally imagine cut-up mp3 files on a monitor, like I can’t even pretend you were sampling from records here, but that doesn’t matter, because the whole thing’s oddly traditionalist too. This goes back to the whole treat it like ANY other sample thing.

All I’ll say about the programs I make beats with is that it’s a lot simpler than I would like to admit. I would love for people to think I was using a beat pad and that I owned the vinyl for every record I sampled, but I think a lot of “legitimate” producers would be furious if they knew how easily I made these beats. Which is not to say that I didn’t spend a lot of work on them, but it took me a lot less time than if I had an SP1200 or something. Haha.

What was the role of chance here for you? Naming the songs, sending them to Zilla, getting them back. Did you sit down like “an album of indie samples!”, or did it just happen and start to make sense?

This project started completely by accident, by me sending Zilla beats because I was greedy for more Zilla Rocca songs. Once it was decided upon that 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers would be a real group, then I started thinking about cohesion between the beats I sent him. I had a couple of good friends who were let in the process very early, and would get in my ear, like, “It would be cool if you used all indie-rock samples for this album.” I didn’t want to get myself trapped in a gimmick, but as the project progressed, the idea started making a little more sense.

I definitely don’t want to get categorized as a one-trick pony, so I’m working on an instrumental album with a much broader pallette of source material. No artist wants their audience to know what to expect from their work; I don’t want anyone to expect me to sample The Futureheads or anything, as much as I love listening to them as a fan.

Were the beats sent to Zilla as is or relatively full? Were they more like skeletons that you added to, post-verse? There’s a great sense of production here beyond the making of beats, the way a piece of sound will wander through the background or like some electronic sound’ll flutter up and disappear, the Pimp C sample on “Weak Stomach”–as someone who’s most certainly not boxed-in to hip hop production only, were there non-hip hop records you thought of or served as a blueprint?

All of the vocal samples, including the Blast of Silence clips and the Pimp C sample, were brought in by Zilla, and I thought that was a great idea, being as though his words are what is buoying the album. As far as the musical additives, I’ve been experimenting with self-recorded samples for a long time, as a lot of my work under Fresh Cherries from Yakima is based upon noise as a compositional tool, which is basically me tinkering with effects pedals, or recording something and then rendering it unrecognizable from sampling. As far as influences in this realm, I refer to the same sources as I do when recording my folk-pop stuff; there are a lot of bands that use self-recorded samples in their work, My Bloody Valentine and No Age being my favorite bands that practice this. Although, a lot of my Fresh Cherries stuff is looped throughout, so I thought it would be cool to have sounds float in and out and never come back. Sometimes, even after hundreds of listens to the album, I listen to something and exclaim, “Oh shit! I forgot I put that in there!”


A Few Questions for Zilla Rocca, Emcee of 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers:

The first CD I got from you was the Clean Guns tape with Michael Caine in ‘Get Carter’ on the cover. A year and half or so later, there’s ‘Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca’, and now there’s ‘Slow Twilight’, punctuated by clips from ‘Blast of Silence’. Hip-hop and crime movies are interwined, but in short, you just seem to uh, get it a lot more. Weaving it as a concept on ‘Slow’ but just sort of using a certain kind of rougher, rawer, crime film. Is this just mixing two interests, where do the two, rap and movies, intersect for you?

I like crime movies, specficially any crime movie from the 70s. I like the idea of gangsters being very dapper and sophisticated on the surface, and evil and violent and cold blooded at their core. Most guys are still stuck on “Scarface” or Scorsese’s more popular movies, and that’s cool. But there’s sooo many other great mob movies to watch and have fun with in hip hop, so that’s been my goal early on. I’m personally tired of the homages to Tony Montana and Corleone, you know? I like mixing rap and movies together because the best rap albums have clips of dialogue in them. It makes those albums feel bigger and sound a cut above everyone else. And it gives the listeners a chance to maybe create another storyline in their head opposed to JUST watching that movie or JUST listening to the music separately.

There’s also a sense of balancing it between the movie clips or even film iconography not being sort of random and dashed-off but conceptual, but not TOO conceptual either. Is this something you’re thinking of or really, how much are you thinking of it?

I don’t have the patience to make a flat-out concept record, front to back, like Prince Paul or 88 Keys. God bless those guys–they’ve set the bar really high for this kind of hip hop album. With The Slow Twilight, Douglas, Jeff and I all agreed that there should be film dialogue to piece it all together, we just didn’t know what film. I watched Blast of Silence by chance during the winter and it felt like we had already written the soundtrack to it with our album. Then it became a matter of taking the right pieces of dialogue to match the themes or concepts of some of the songs. Then it became a question of “how much” or “how little” should we put in there–that’s where GZA’s Liquid Swords comes in handy. I listened to how RZA paced the album and followed suite. Wu-Tang will make you great at hip hop if you pay attention closely lol!

Cinematic is the super-obvious cliche to describe music in general, especially rap, which has especially poetic qualities, but you have an especially “cinematic” rapping style, even more so on this project. There’s the film clips, certain crime movies or Western–really genre–movie references, and just a way of reducing a scene to images that are both individual and “classic” somehow. Where’s this come from? Were these rhymes consciously more “poetic”?

Lyrically, I was all over the place with this thing lol. The beats are mostly to blame, or praise. They didn’t sound or feel bright, or funny, or clever. I had two methods when writing though: one was to just let the pen move and whatever came out, came out. Only later did I realize how dark my subconcious was at the time lol. I would send out the songs to Douglas or Jeff and no one said it was wack or needed to be changed, so I felt like I had slipped one past the goalie. The second method I used was something I do more regularly, which is just jotting down phrases or ideas I hear or read. Then when it’s time to write, I go through that list and pick out lines that sound right for that beat. The “action figure” line in “High Noon” was me jogging around Riverton, NJ and literally seeing an action figure on the ground lol. I try to write lyrics that you can see, and the more specific you are, the easier it is to paint the picture.

Which rappers are you thinking of? Any writers or poets? It has this sort of terse brevity like American writing or even like pulp crime novels or something. You have the line in “Rabbit Season”, “you don’t turn me on like the authors I quote”–you’re either referencing formal “authors” or you’re calling rappers “authors” which is dope because they….are.

I love David Simon, creator of “The Wire”, “Homicide: Life on the Streets”, and “The Corner”. I was reading “Homicide” and “The Corner” when we started this album and the last season of The Wire was ending mid-way through the record. I like James Elroy–I got about halfway through “The Cold Six Thousand” and just grasped his style completely. I’ve studied Ghostface for years, and that’s why he’s my favorite MC ever–he puts you right in the middle of a situation and the words and inflections he uses guide you either into a tragedy or a comedy. I studied GZA in terms of just stating facts like a detective, you know, setting the scene. I love El-P and Aesop Rock because even though it’s challenging to listen to them rap, if you read their writing on paper it’s incredible. You have to trust all of these guys that in the end you will be rewarded because it’s not all neat and pretty at the start.

What’s the role of chance in your music? You seem both grounded and unhinged. If I’m not mistaken, Douglas named a lot of these songs as beats and you rapped ideas around that word or phrase, right? It makes it all the more crazy how cohesive the thing is. In regards to chance as well–you discuss in the liner notes about there being songs written quickly, slowly, right under the deadline. How did you guys establish a deadline for the project? Was it there just because or was it a sense of like, limits make you more creative?

As an MC, I write better over other people’s beats because it lets me just react to the music. And when producers send beats with great titles or concepts in place, it just helps me zero in on one central theme to bring everything back to. So I might take 6 bars off and say random fly shit, but I make sure to reel it in before the hook so it’s still coherent. You said it best: it’s grounded and unhinged simultatneously, like a little kid coloring a beautiful lion and then making one leg purple lol.

In regards to how chance played a part, I mean I just worked on these songs when I had a rush of inspiration or a clear idea. Douglas sent me “Weak Stomach” on a Saturday afternoon and I banged it out in an hour. “Dead Queens” took 3-4 months and it got done because Nico the Beast came up with the concept. “Four Speed Interlude” was written in a half hour, “Stay Clean” was probably written 2-3 different times, then edited, then scrapped, then re-written during a very interesting few months. There was no invidual deadline for songs or anything, just the usual “we need to wrap this up so we can get artwork, press, mixing done” that we do for any project in Beat Garden. And setting limits is the key to creativity–you need an anchor otherwise you just float around aimlessly.

Click here to download The Slow Twilight and read Zilla’s “liner notes”.

Written by Brandon

June 30th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

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