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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Brandon

March 17th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

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Remember 2004? Mannie Fresh’s ‘The Mind Of…’

I did one of these before, talking about Slum Village’s 2004 release ‘Detroit Deli’. I guess my uh, “thesis” which even only I buy like 25% of, is that 2004 was a really good year for rap music but rap fans are insatiable pricks and in light of rap being supposedly terrible in 2007, I’m saying they should have maybe given a shit about these good and interesting releases of 2004 and supported them. I guess in a way, it’s my own moronic version of nostalgia…

While ‘Detroit Deli’ in my opinion, defined the loose crossover possibilities of the “conscious” set and in effect, the general feeling I was getting from rap in 2004, ‘The Mind Of…’ seems to be an album that for those paying attention, hinted at some of the shit that is currently going on. If you are okay with rap now you’ll probably like this album. If all you talk about are Cassidy mixtapes, Saigon, and how rap sucks in 2007, you won’t like this album.

As some kind of predictor of rap in 2007 ‘The Mind Of…’ seems nearly prophetic. You get Lil Wayne on four tracks, including two solo performances that are presented as Wayne hi-jacking the album (‘Wayne’s Takeover 1 & 2’). This is the same year ‘The Carter’ came out and is the era that most seem to perceive as the beginning of Wayne becoming the “rapper-eater” he is today. There is also the actually sort of prophetic ‘Mayor Song’ in which Mannie calls-out the poor governing of his beloved New Orleans a year before Katrina hit. Then of course, there’s Mannie’s production which is an example of and influence on the Southern rap style everybody likes to hate so damned much…

On ‘The Mind Of..’ the production seems a little more ambitious. ‘Intro’ doesn’t lack any of the Mannie Fresh bounce but it also contains a super-clean acoustic guitar and some really great, precise soul horns and wah-ed out bass and guitar. All of the songs have live instrumentation and real, solid playing on them, but Mannie seems a little more okay with letting that sound really stray from conventions of Southern rap. The playing pops-out a little more on ‘Intro’ and this helps adjust your ear to the mid-album songs which are as much some weird new form of soul as they are rap. ‘Nothing Compares to Love’ has this strange extended chorus that feels as much like ‘Another Brick In the Wall’ as Southern chant-rap.

A few tracks later, you get ‘Not Tonight’ more of an actual soul song than a rap song that also works as a soul parody because Mannie croons stuff like “is you out yo motherfuckin’ mind/Pagin’ me, putting 69/We don’t do that shit”. It works because Mannie’s got the chops to make it actually sound like a Freddie Jackson song and not some lazy parody. Then, after that, he gives you ‘The DJ’ sort of like Mannie’s own version of ‘Terminator X Speaks With His Hands’ and follows it up with a definitive Mannie Fresh production ‘Real Big’. And then…he goes into a particularly hilarious skit, the first of two labeled ‘Great Moments in the Ghetto’ a ‘Chappelle’s Show’ rip-off, complete with sincere delivery of said “great moment”, acoustic guitar strumming, and some harmonizing that signifies/parodies “down-home”. It’s tough to explain, but it’s really this sincere love and understanding of a genre or style, with the love so deep that you’re totally safe laughing your ass off at it. The Pharcyde do that on ‘Bizarre Ride II’ where the guys are likely to break into a parody of Louis Armstrong’s singing or toss in some half-sincere Thelonious Monk-ish piano vamps…

‘Mayor’s Song’ is a brief but effective track that imagines Fresh confronting the politicians that aren’t doing dick to aid his hometown. Mannie travels up the tiers of corruption, starting with the Mayor who blows him off, moving onto the Governor whose aide won’t even let Mannie ask a question and then, we get a quick snapshot of the President who is more concerned with playing golf. It sounds like it comes from experience; it’s more than generalized political anger. If one has ever tried to call even a local politician, what Mannie experiences on the track is exactly what happens, as the complaint is given to an intern and then the responsibility is shirked and passed-on to some other department. He also addresses the way that one’s wealth is used to downplay one’s political passions especially in the black community. When he questions the Governor’s Aide on taxes and the response is “you sound like you think white people are the only people getting by”.

It is the only political song on the album and while that makes one think of it as less sincere a concession to politics, I think it’s just realistic, especially on an album called ‘The Mind Of…Mannie Fresh’. My mind is certainly occupied by political thoughts and concerns but really, my brain spends way more time thinking about banging girls or trying to bang girls; that is why we get more songs like ‘Pussy Power’ and less like ‘Mayor Song’. At the same time, that shouldn’t downplay the significance of ‘Mayor Song’.

The production here is the main appeal, well that and the humor (every skit on the album is funny), and the only reason I spent more time on the ideas than the fucking great production is because a Southern rap album being taken seriously is still a problem. The production is what you’d expect but does seem a little more elastic and fun without losing the BPMs or the aggression. ‘Pussy Power’ jumps from typical bounce to interpolating the ‘Ghostbusters’ theme, and subtly changes up about ten other times throughout. ‘Tell It Like It Is’ has this weird breakdown with this high-pitched scatting and beat-boxing in lieu of an actual chorus and then falls right back into Mannie’s Rudy Ray Moore-esque story of cheating. Of course, Mannie is like the best Southern producers in that he never gets too lost in his own mind and never strays too far from what is expected, so the stranger details are complimented by conventionally “ignorant” beats like ‘Real Big’ and ‘Day In The Life (Cadillac Doors)’.

Written by Brandon

August 6th, 2007 at 6:17 pm

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Remember 2004?: ‘Detroit Deli’ by Slum Village

I picked up Slum Village’s 2004 album ‘Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit)’ the other day and have been listening to it non-stop. I have a vinyl copy of the album but it has these little, nearly-invisible surface scratches on it that make my needle skip everywhere, so it was good to find a CD replacement. Anyway, this is a really underrated album and deserves reevaluation. It’s definitely in my 20 favorite rap albums list.

‘Detroit Deli’ feels like a mixtape in its effortlessness and because Slum Village’s lyrical content is so limited (girls, girls, and more girls) it has an immediate sound to it, as if it were recorded in a few days, like a mixtape. You have the songs about girls they want to get-with and get support on that topic from Ol’ Dirty Bastard on ‘Dirty’ with his appropriately retarded chorus: “If you’re flexible, intellectual, bisexual/Can I get next to you?” Then, you have a song like ‘Selfish’ a mournful ode to the women they’ve gotten-with in every town but with a legitimate sense of respect, particularly when Baatin reveals: “I wish my arms was long enough to hug you all at the same time”. That line is hinting at the emotional reality of all sexual relationships, even mere hook-ups. That line verifies the sad feeling one derives from the Kanye West-produced beat: It almost sounds like you put your finger atop a spinning record and just subtly slowing it down so the sound kind-of wobbles. ‘Selfish’ segues into ‘Closer’, one of the many late-track sex jams that content-wise, makes me feel weird but are also legitimately sweet. ‘Old Girl/Shining Star’ is an ode to single mothers that again, is sincere without becoming maudlin or preachy. There is something to Slum Village’s modesty; they never sound like they are teaching or trying to exemplify treating a girl right, they’re just talking about it and sometimes, on songs like ‘Zoom’, they say more typical rap stuff about spinning rims and “put[ting] dick[s] in your mouth”, so it’s all appropriately conflicted. They never sound like high-minded jerks when they discuss “positive” topics because they’ve also said some “ignorant” shit. When Common raps “I never call you my bitch or even my boo” he’s proudly boasting which is unappealing; lines like that and most of the “conscious” rap community’s “conscious” lyrics often focus on appearance instead of action. They define themselves by what they don’t do, while Slum Village’s lyrics are performative, they are lyrics about what they do. Their Songs don’t tell you to “treat your woman right” they are about how they treat their women right.

Slum Village would connect themselves to “conscious” hip-hop and that wouldn’t be incorrect but more because they have no other place to be pigeonholed. I would argue however, that their form of consciousness, relating to women and sex is significantly more universal and less polarizing than the anger of the Okayplayer types. They also have a sense of humor that is entirely absent or feels forced when it comes from the “conscious” set. ‘Late 80s Skit’ sounds exactly what that title suggests and is an affectionate parody of something like ‘Friends’ by Jody Watley featuring Rakim but with a little more Debarge and a little less New Jack Swing. ‘Detroit Deli’s production has the ability to mimic and incorporate sounds from a variety of rap eras and genres without ever sounding throwback; it always has one foot in contemporary rap; that is what makes it a successful album.

Obviously, these guys learned from former member J-Dilla but I’d say, they are not derivative. The production is a strange mix of mainstream-sounding beats that, thanks to extra-thick drums, really knock, combined with homage to early 90s Native Tongues sounds, then, mixed with this weird air of melancholy. The album begins as an album should begin, with some exciting, easy-to-digest rap tracks and then, with ‘Selfish’, changes to an upbeat melancholy that progresses to the end of the album. Sad, regretful songs about others (primarily women) make way for sad, regretful songs about themselves (‘Keep Holding On’), ending with ‘Reunion’ one of the most emotionally affecting rap songs I’ve ever heard, it has the same as feeling as ‘T.R.O.Y’ and mixes a similar sense of love and outrage at family or friends, but without the “knowingness” of C.L Smooth.

The album reminds me of Kanye West’s ‘College Dropout’ in its equal interest in current, mainstream rap and the rap of the past. I hope I’m not being too nostalgic here, but this seemed to be a consistent theme in 2004. There was a subtle infiltration of mainstream rap that was still informed by the backpacker style. Kanye’s production of the time owes a lot to people like Pete Rock but it is equally influenced by the Puff Daddy production style. It was as if the “best” and “worst” eras of rap came together and by combining them, Kanye really was “the new version of Pete Rock” because if he only tried to sound like Pete Rock, he’d just be 9th Wonder.

‘Detroit Deli’ never blew-up but it was but one of many exemplary rap albums that seemed to be making an appropriate bridge between “mainstream” and “underground”.I can vividly recall watching MTV some day in Spring 04’ and seeing the ‘All Falls Down’ video and a few videos later, ‘Selfish’ and thinking about how exciting that was. 2004 was a good year for rap music and it’s just one more reason why these “bring hip-hop back” idiots kill me; when rap was showing a lot of potential, when a sea change was beginning, no one really appreciated it. They were too busy hating as usual. ’99 Problems’, Kanye West, Dead Prez’s ‘R.B.G’ (don’t forget, the ‘Hell Yeah’ video got some BET air time), Outkast-mania, Just Blaze, Nas’ ‘Streets Disciple’, ‘Breathe’ by Fabolous, and don’t forget Jadakiss’ ‘Why?’, a corny but politically aggressive and legitimately controversial rap song that got major radio and video play. Even the pop-rap and r & b songs were pretty great: R. Kelly’s ‘Happy People’, all those Usher, Ciara, and Destiny’s Child singles, ‘Lean Back’, ‘Tipsy’… where were all the heads then? They should have been yelling about how hip-hop is back or at least supporting some of this shit. Of course, those types can do nothing but complain, so somehow, the music wasn’t political enough or it wasn’t political exactly the way they wanted it to be or a million other justifications. It makes me fucking crazy.

Written by Brandon

January 12th, 2007 at 3:17 am