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Archive for April, 2010

Village Voice: “Little Brother’s Retirement Party”


This week’s Village Voice has a piece I did on Little Brother and their excellent new (and last) album, Leftback. I hope I did the group justice and unfortunately, I totally didn’t get to explain all the mini-reasons why Leftback rules, but well, go listen to it if you haven’t already. There was also a special kind of thrill getting to hear the album early in Phonte’s car and also, sitting down with Phonte and Pooh and just talking about rap. Also, thanks to Eric Tullis for helping me get in touch with Little Brother.

One thing, that’s much too “bloggy” to discuss in an article though, is how I find the music of Little Brother (and also, Slum Village) to be much more edifying than their supposedly better, certainly more influential rap 90’s rap influences. And this isn’t a case of what I heard or was intimate with first–Pete Rock and Tribe, is the earliest rap shit that got me into this rap shit–but there’s just something kinder, wizened, and more free in Little Brother or Slum, you hear age and wear and confusion in their raps and at 25, that grabs me more. Anyways–here’s the article:

It’s near midnight on an early April weekday, and as Little Brother emcee Phonte Coleman navigates North Carolina’s I-540 between Raleigh and Durham, the group’s latest (and unfortunately last) album, Leftback, jumps from the speakers. He nods his head to the syrupy beats, mouths the words to his and partner Big Pooh’s raps, and occasionally swings his fingers across the dashboard, playing along to a particularly immaculate keyboard line. “Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be this kind of an event,” he notes, casually, when it’s over, reflecting on the weirdly formal, strangely mature end to the underground hip-hop institution his group became.

A big, dumb thesis on Little Brother’s break-up marking the end of “conscious rap” could be drummed up pretty easily, but that lofty label never meant much to the group. With 2003’s The Listening, then-trio Phonte, Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder were handed the responsibility of resurrecting rap simply because that satisfied debut housed sensitive, working-class rhymes and vaguely throwback production. Ignored was the fact that they were just as likely to clown “next-level” vegan nonsense-spouters as they were radio-rap knuckleheads.

Written by Brandon

April 28th, 2010 at 4:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

Dillwave? J Dilla’s Influence on that Subgenre


“Imprint After”, the third track on Toro Y Moi’s bafflingly great Causers of This begins with some party-time piano, then, sorta morphs into an indie version of 80s-era Genesis (drums lead the melody, a stupid “I Can’t Dance”-like use of jagged falsetto trick) and finally, vocally, gives in to the twitching disembodied vocal samples, which get to ride-out into the next track, “Lissoms”. “Lissoms” skitters back and forth, glitch-like, but it’s really just a production nerd exercise in stretching-out a cathartic horn line for as long as possible and then, doing it a couple more times.

The next track, “Fax Shadow” is a crunched-up, warm, weird loop of a bunch of stuff (an R & B singer going “feels so good”, some twinkling piano, like maybe part of a drum) and despite the previous two tracks’ trajectory toward this sound, I wouldn’t blame you if you picked up your iTouch to see if somehow you hit “Shuffle” by accident and now playing is some random J Dilla instrumental. But that’s not what happened–and you realize much of Causers of This reveals the kind of Dilla fetish you’d expect to find on the latest Black Milk or Khrysis production, but not on a Chillwave album.

Among the many reasons this is fascinating is because it’s quite clear that Chillwave, that very much maligned, embarrassingly named indie subgenre (I still prefer “Wave-wave”), derided for being insular and non-commital and lots of other bad stuff, very much has its ears open. That it isn’t simply swiping goofball sounds of 80s via some synth presets, but finding weird, awesome indirect ways to conjure up very specific, nostalgia-soaked emotions.

“Talamak”, THA CHILLWAVE ANTHEM FOR 2010 BRO, might be the first stand-alone successful attempt at singing/rapping over one of those insular, not-made-for-singing/rapping Donuts-style Dilla beats songs compositions. Along with “24″, the Khrysis beat that ends Little Brother’s excellent Leftback, and has these weird near-subliminal coughs and whoop-whoops beneath it, “Talamak” is the most fascinating piece of production this year. There’s rap and R & B and nods to hip-hop production in Toro Y Moi’s music and it’s as natural as any other sound healthily mucking up his indie pop; A sideways answer to Sasha Frere-Jones’ “A Paler Shade of White”.

Toro Y Moi’s production has less to do with say, Kid Cudi rapping over Ratatat, jj covering fucking “Birthday Sex”, or B.O.B’s weird radio career, and more to do with, Swizz Beatz slicing and dicing “D.A.N.C.E” into a Jay-Z hit, Trae rapping over an Electric Wizard sample, WAVVES possessing some Dipset swagger, Ratatat being clearly in love with The Neptunes, and yeah, Solange covering The Dirty Projectors.

It’s probably worth noting that Chaz Bundick aka Toro Y Moi is of mixed heritage (Black and Filipino), but that doesn’t negate Chillwave’s casual affront to the very white indie of the aughties, it’s one more way that the subgenre’s weirder and more open than people want to realize. Chillwave’s also a scene of mostly provincials (Southerners at that) and that’s still kinda scary to New York-centric critics…it’s also just confusing. There’s a great deal more mixing and merging of sounds, ideas, and cultures in the South than East Coast types can really comprehend. And because it doesn’t manifest itself as proper fusion or like, minority-tinged indie outta Brooklyn, it’s easy to dismiss or just not even connect the dots.

Plenty of critics hear the Dilla connection, but very few know what to do with it. Donuts is a confusing piece of music and that’s exactly what allows its influence to spread in so many directions. Released on Stones Throw, an indie label with a lot of visibility and a fan-base beyond just hip-hop heads, Donuts appealed to more than just beat freaks. To rockist and indie ears, who probably don’t even understand the medium of the beat-tape, Donuts was a weird piece of turntablism or a DJ mix (even though it isn’t) or walking along side that Prefuse 73 album everyone liked in 2003. To enjoy its sound, to ingest it and poop it out as one’s own music too, doesn’t necessarily mean you are making hip-hop–except you are.

Friend of Toro Y Moi and fellow Southerner, Ernest Greene aka Washed Out also grabs a great deal from hip-hop. Though his Life of Leisure EP is stoner dance music, smoothed out and warm–no place for digital crackles and skips–it’s full of warbly, weirdly-tweaked samples, that not only turn old songs into new ones, but drastically moderate the overall feeling of the originals. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson in his “Resonant Frequency” column, discussed Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around”, and how it came from Gary Low’s “I Want You” and also, more importantly, how it totally diverges from the Italo sample source:

Around the time Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” first hit last year, the sample source from the track was revealed to be the 1983 Italo song “I Want You” from Gary Low. The bouncy keyboard and twinkly starburst synth of the Low track had already served as the basis for a couple of songs, but Ernest Greene of Washed Out slipped it some downers, cutting the tempo and the pitch and giving it a crackly warble of distortion. That the loop from the original track was, speed aside, relatively untouched did nothing to take away from Greene’s re-contextualization: in his hands, with the addition of his voice, it became something else entirely, and something pretty great.

Richardson’s description of Washed Out’s production wizardry reads a lot like the hundreds of rap nerds (myself included) writing about Donuts like it contains the key to all mythologies: “Something’s going on here and dude made this sound like this and technically, this is what he did, but there’s still some never-get-to-the-center something else to it and oh shit, one night that change-up brought me to tears.”

If you read my defense of Chillwave, you’ll notice I said “Feel It All Around” was “basically this Style Council song” and some wiseguy in the comments section said “the Washed Out song is actually a song by a guy named Gary Low, just slowed down.” It’s worth noting this comment was posted four days after Mark Richardson’s article, but the point I was making, and where Chillwave becomes Dilla (if that makes any sense) is that indeed, a slightly-changed Gary Low song, in the hands of Washed Out, sounds more like another song altogether. Weird.

That’s the thing about Donuts too–it’s Dilla’s best work, but it’s not his most technically great or most artful. Indeed, what he did to those songs can seem underwhelming once you hear the originals, but something else is going on. Washed Out and Toro Y Moi get that something. And it’s more than glitching up or messing around with some random-ass samples, but glitching/messing them up towards some emotional end. Washed Out’s follow-up, High Times is more explicitly Dilla/hip-hop influenced than Life of Leisure which just kinda does the same tricks Dilla does. Save for the Men At Work-ish single “Belong”, the EP is wandering, very short Donuts-esque instrumentals. Ernest Greene tries his hand at Ruff Draft muthafucka. The last four tracks, “Last”, “It’s Kate’s Birthday”, “You Will Be Sad”, and “Yeah” are even in Petestrumental territory, which is just crazy.

“Hip-hop”, like “punk rock” was and still is an adjective to a lot of people and when you know, Producer A takes Song X, turns it into Song Y, and plays it for Producer B and Producer B goes, “Oh shit, Song Y is dope! You took Song X and made it fuckin’ sound like Song Z! That’s hip-hop!”, a producer’s done something right. Dilla’s maybe the king of this and now, years after his death, and thanks to Stones Throw, a label equal parts devoted to keeping his legacy alive and draining every last cent out of it, Dilla’s even got some indie/electronic nerds from the South making some shit that is indeed, hip-hop. It’s no coincidence that the two guys that get this, who are deserving of the adjective “hip-hop”, are the most promising of this odd, burgeoning, Chillwave scene.

further reading/viewing:
-Google Results for “Toro Y Moi Dilla”
-“Resonant Frequency” #68 by Mark Richardson for Pitchfork
-“In Defense of Chillwave” by ME for Sound of the City
-“Swedish Twee-&-B Duo jj Cover “Birthday Sex.” Why?” by Rob Harvilla for Sound of the City
-“A Paler Shade of White” by Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker

Written by Brandon

April 22nd, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Dilla

Tagged with ,

Yelawolf live @ Cat’s Cradle 4/6/10


Yelawolf, all arms and long-ass tank-top, slinks onto the stage, says “What the fuck is up?!” to an audience he’s gotta win over and promptly wins them over, song by song, double-time flow after double-time flow. The closest Yela gets to conventionally bigging himself up is getting the crowd to joyfully chant “Fuck you Yelawolf” before and after “F.U”, a clever, self-deprecating way of reminding new listeners who the fuck he is. All that matters it seems, is the show he’s performing, there’s no pimping Trunk Muzik and no mentions of being signed to Interscope. Just raps.

“Trunk Muzik” starts the set, introducing everybody to Yela’s weird combination of deep South, when-you’re-twisted-it’s-really-awesome bass-wobble production and insanely proficient, super-technical rapping. The performance is remarkably similar to what you hear on record, which seals the deal for those already aware of him and off-sets the “who/whatthefuckisthisguy?” feelings anyone not already hip to his masterful Trunk Muzik might have. There’s some confusing mystery about the guy and he uses it to his advantage: Tall, white, tattooed, insanely talented in the art of rapping, a pretty good dancer, what?

And seeing a guy rap really well, this well, never gets old. A machine-gun fire of words–Yelawolf probably rapped more syllables in his 8 song set than all the other performers that night combined–and a blur of limbs and tattoos (John Wayne? A big-ass catfish?) and defiant enthusiasm. He dashes around the stage so quickly and elegantly, it’s almost like he disappeared stage-right and re-emerged stage-left. Everything’s physical with Yelawolf. Lots of moving around. The brief between-songs heaves from rapping alot and rapping fast. The girls Yela brings on-stage to dance with him during “My Box Chevy Pt. 3″. When he climbs into the crowd and all the rest of us can see is his red hat bobbing up and down.

“Pop the Trunk”, Yelawolf’s “hit” in the sense that even people not rapping along to his other songs perk-up, turn on their FlipCams, and rap along to this one, is all urgency. On his mixtape, the song’s a detail-obsessed, story-rap, lots of simmer and slowburn, but live, it’s as big and booming as “Good to Go” or “Mixin’ Up the Medicine”. It doesn’t take the crowd down a few notches, it kidnaps their attention, takes them away, and drop them in the middle of his backwoods Alabama rap tale. Shoulders lunge forward when he says “What the fuck man, I can never get sleep” and there’s an eerie, calm, like the shit described in song is actually playing out in front of the crowd. The thrill of the songs gets magnified, which is the point of a good live performance.

further reading/viewing:
-Yelawolf at Cat’s Cradle by beckles1321
-Yelawolf performing live at Cat’s Cradle from ULTRASOUND
-“Yelawolf’s Redneck Manifesto” by ME
-“How Big Is Your World? Good Rap from January” by ME
-Interview with Yelawolf at the Levi’s FADER Fort

Written by Brandon

April 7th, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Posted in Yelawolf

How Big Is Your World? New rap.


-DJ Paul “Buy My Old Shit”

The best song on DJ Paul’s Too Kill Again–but one more release in the of brutal avalanche of Three-Six mixtapes since their Grammy win, weird reality show, and not-so-good album Da Last 2 Walk–is “Buy My Old Shit”. Turning Jay-Z’s sneering response to old-head fans mad that his albums don’t sound like they did before into a hook–rap’s worst trend as of late–Paul pragmatically responds to cries of “sell-out” and the more general, more biting “this doesn’t sound like the old stuff” whines. Thing is, “Buy My Old Shit” does sound like their old shit. All of Too Kill Again sounds like their old shit. It’s rough and catchy and scary and depressing. Paul’s on his “old shit” when he stops the tape to basically do a Rudy Ray Moore routine (“Funny Shit Interlude”) or mentions that he’s “sitting in [his] Cutlass down by the river” smoking weed (“I’m High Right Now”). Too Kill Again doesn’t let-up and it’s got that weird, crunching, crushing sound that’s somehow damned catchy–and most importantly, you buy every angry, depressed threat Paul throws out there. If veteran Three-Six fans can’t get behind this release, they’re hopeless.

-Method Man & Ghostface “It’s That Wu Shit”

Rumor has it, when Raekwon heard this spacey, flanged-out beat, his NYC-hard ears started bleeding and his penis split in half and folded back into a vagina and that’s why he’s not on the final track of Wu-Massacre (Theodore Unit’s 718 > Wu-Massacre). Then he felt real silly when producer Scram Jones was all like, “Dude this is a sample of “It’s Your Rock” by Fantasy Three!” Jones is more than capable of producing what people buying Wu-Massacre perceive as “fire” (check out “Youngstown Heist”), so this modern-sounding beat, with drums that poke around instead of knock, with a bed of intergalactic-synths under it all, seems like a sick joke. Why’s this on this album? Ghostface has an energized moment and a half of The Warriors-style imagery in the first verse and Method Man just sounds awesome, but this is a cool, bat-shit corny beat that should’ve gone to I dunno, Rhymefest instead.

-Keys “Nicki Minaj Diss (Studio Version)”

The “studio” version of Baltimore rapper Keys’ Nicki Minaj video “diss”. This is pure Baltimore hip-hop, which means its angry, almost scary, more lyrical than it really needs to be, and has a beat that’s minimal and hard as fuck. Hooks are of no interest–it’s all bundled-up, ready-to-explode anger and pain. Often, it’s really, really funny too though. Also, battle-rapping’s still a big thing in Baltimore and so, as schticky as this “diss” is, there’s a context for it. It’s also just an artfully done diss. There’s a narrative in Keys’ rap, the whole thing about her nephew and YouTube is kept up throughout (Nicki’s so bad, Keys assumes her computer has some sort of virus) and all the lines about Minaj being kiddie stuff at best, and pure retarded nonsense at worst, funnel back to that line that references Blue’s Clues. Tight, clever, chaotic writing here: “Fuck five stars, Keys is a galaxy”, “leave they brains more gelatinous than banana pudding”, “that shit sound faker than that ass you got”.

-J Dilla “Safety Dance”

Is this “hypnagogic pop”? Dilla “covers” an 80s song and makes it more 80s–all rigid electronics and a drum-beat made for lame coke party boogieing. The more this goes on though, the fact that it secretly jams becomes clear–that as usual, it’s all about the drums. Each drum-smack or snare that drops out is palpable. You forget it’s a sorta ironic cover and it becomes a mid-tempo, floor-filling dance song. Some Dilla fans have said “Safety Dance” would’ve never been released if Dilla hadn’t died, but I disagree, it totally would’ve because Dilla wisely, stopped giving a fuck. In the narrative of Dilla’s brief, weird, tragic life, there’s a point after his MCA album was shelved, along with Frank and Dank’s 48 Hours, where it seems like Dilla didn’t care anymore. The angry bitter, classic Ruff Draft was made during this presumably frustrating time of waiting. It’s also around the same time that Dilla’s health problems first became apparent. Label bullshit, the reality that he was sick, probably made bets-hedging, diplomatic music-making way less appealing. And that’s why there’s stuff like a weird, stoned cover of a Men Without Hats song in the Dilla catalog.

-DJ Pierre “Watch How I Do It”

On DJ Pierre’s “Watch How I Do It”, from his latest release Volume 8: Spring Fling, you can hear Club music mutating right before your very ears. A tangle of Pierre crooning, chanting, and singing, underneath some elaborate drums patterns and about nineteen other effect-laden sounds–it feels like it was created on the spot. At the same time though, it’s perfectly, artfully structured, rising and falling, building up tension, breaking down at just the right moments, and grounded in a squeak of classic Club, referencing DJ Equalizer and Scottie B’s “Much Too Much” and Scottie’s “Niggaz Fightin”. The last minute is especially epic, clattering drums battling some really syrupy synth tones (appropriately, it’s the synths that win), leaving the still-vital patterns and structure of Baltimore Club in the dust.

-Future Islands “An Apology (Live at Night Light)”

Here’s the thing about the internet in 2010: Some of the best music is not only unavailable in physical form, but even digitally, it doesn’t exist. Many of the most lasting, thrilling sounds are live performances: “Exclusives” on fancy-pants music magazine blogs, uploads from ass-quality cell phones, weird WSH-bait freestyles, and even the occasional, nicely-shot amateur footage like this performance from Future Islands. The video’s great because you get up-close and personal with lead singer Sam Herring’s possessed, spazzy Otis Redding performance but “An Apology” deserves to be separated from the visuals and reduced back to just song. There’s a band behind Herring here and that fact kinda sneaks up on you, as each sliver of “An Apology” (quiet glowing keyboards, waves of feedback, drums and guitar sort of) perks up in the mix until Herring’s wounded, growling, knowing “so far away” hook repeats and repeats, eventually sending the song into a cathartic, defeated finale.

further reading/viewing:
-“Ice My Strofoam” from Nation of Thizzlam
-“It’s Your Rock” by Fantasy Three
-“Sulu Dance” by Kidd Chris
-Z-Share for “Watch How I Do It”
-“The Club Beat with DJ Equalizer” by Al Shipley for City Paper Noise
-“Listening With…Future Islands” by Spencer Griffith for The Independent Weekly
-Benjamin Marra

Written by Brandon

April 5th, 2010 at 4:50 am