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Next To The Hood: Wu Tang’s 8 Diagrams

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In that ‘Time’ magazine cover-story on Kanye West a few years ago, comedian Chris Rock described Kanye’s appeal through his connections to an earlier, less Jeezy-friendly era of hip-hop: “In the early days, the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C was from Hollis. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood.” This quote rumbles around in my head a lot, because it’s a great, to-the-point piece of rap criticism that describes rap’s appeal: Rap’s ability to both be rooted in the reality of an experience and step outside of it and provide commentary, at the same time. Rock’s one-liner is a little problematic because it implicitly connects hood to bad but what he’s basically saying, if you stretch it to a generality, is that the best artists are connected to their environment but also a little outside of it all. This allows artists, and especially rappers to adopt the first-person or engage in a very sympathetic understanding of others, while never being tied completely down by the closed-mindedness of whatever subculture one belongs to and that extends beyond “the hood”.

Henry James is “next to the hood” in the sense that he’s both of the upper-class his novels document, but also beyond it: he doesn’t simply justify the upper-class, nor is he a knee-jerk, self-loathing critic of it all…he falls somewhere in between. “Next to the hood” however, makes the most sense for rap because well, there’s really no other artform like it, where it occupies this pretty-much-inexplicable space between “truth” and story and real and fiction and morality and immorality (to continue my douchey high-brow references, rap is amoral in the way that Oscar Wilde meant it in the Preface to ‘Dorian Gray’…). I said it before, but Chuck D’s assertion that rap was “the black CNN” may have worked for certain rappers, but even message-oriented raps suggest a familiarity with that which they critique that extends beyond third-person reportage.

For example, Andre 3000 is “next to the hood” on ‘Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1′ when he asks Sasha, the girl he’s “chillin’ like a villian” with, what she wants to be when she grows up and she says “alive’” and it totally blows his mind. One could say Eminem is “next to the hood”- or “next to the trailer park”- on ‘Kim’ as he both performs the actions of jealous, angry, cracker boyfriend but also critiques them: “You can’t run from me Kim, it’s us, nobody else/You’re only making this harder on yourself”. Rock’s “next to the hood” point keeps coming up in relation the new Wu Tang album, in part because of many disappointed fans and even members’ assertions that what the RZA did on ‘8 Diagrams’ was not “street” or “hood” enough but also because it, in effect, defines “next to the hood”.

On ‘The Heart Gently Weeps’- the album’s most successful and rewarding track- Ghostface drops a particularly winning “next to the hood” verse as he describes walking through Pathmark and being confronted with an angry Nephew who “wants revenge” because Ghost “murdered [the nephew's] Uncle Tim” by selling “him a bag of dope”. It’s already “next to the hood” in the sense that it breaks-down the conventional tough-guy hood stuff (he’s in Pathmark, spills milk on his Clarks/He regrets drinking/Saying “murder” is just great writing and very, very moral) but that’s just what we expect from Ghost. What really makes the verse great and indeed, “next to the hood”, is how it goes from the description of the Uncle to telling the listener that after the Uncle’s death, “his wife came and copped again” and then, he croons “that bitch is craaazzyyyy/She brought her baaabbbyyyy…”. In those two lines, you get the image of Ghostface the dealer and Ghostface the human being who sells her the drugs but in his head is thinking “whatthefuckthisbitchbroughtherbaby??!!”…this isn’t some oh-so-conflicted dealer cliche, it’s so much more than that. Not quite the same, but it recalls my own “next to the hood” moment, when I once drove this dealer-kid from school home only to discover his house was like, straight out of ‘Gummo’ and his like, 8 year-old, already-brain damaged kid brother was getting high…I still put on the act of non-chalance and “oh, that’s funny your kid brother smokes up” but inside I was like, “holy shit” (to reference ‘Fishscale’s ‘Shakey Dog’, another Ghostface “next to the hood” moment…).

Most of ‘8 Diagrams’ almost reaches this “next to the hood”-ness lyrically, the Wu are fairly on-point but seem a little guarded and uncomfortable, but that’s more age and their own fault, it’s got nothing to do with RZA’s beats which are wonderfully weird and yes, next to the hood. RZA tells his fans as much with that explanatory Kung Fu sample intro demanding “patience” and “honesty”, an honesty that even members Raekwon and Ghostface couldn’t subscribe to when they began bitching the album out before it even dropped. It is only the Wu’s impossible past reputation that makes this album a “disappointment”. When you hear these songs outside of the context of “I’m listening to the new Wu Tang album” they’re really good. When ‘Take It Back’ pops-up on Sirius’ SHADE45 or on your favorite college rap radio show or as one of 3000 songs on your iPod SuperShuffle, it’s up-there with the best rap of the year. Those sorta-Gothenburg Metal guitars on ‘Unpredictable’ don’t conflict with the Wu’s energy at all, nor do those drunken crooned choruses, ‘Sunlight’ is an evil clusterfuck that’s supposed to be an evil clusterfuck. The problems with ‘8 Diagrams’ are not the choruses but that the choruses show-up a little too-often on certain songs and that there’s no sense of control or balance…songs either don’t have hooks at all, or the song is chopped-up and the energy slowed-down by a way-too typical verse-chorus-verse structure.

Even that rigid structure succeeds on certain tracks, it builds tension on ‘The Heart Gently Weeps’ and keeps ‘Life Changes’ afloat because no one brings much of anything to this supposed ODB tribute. If there is one song that defines the limits of ‘8 Diagrams’, it’s ‘Life Changes’ which highlights pretty much of all latter-day Wu’s flaws. Ghostface doesn’t even show up and the rest of the guys drop super-short verses that just feel underwhelming and dishonest; hardly “half-short and twice strong”. They fumble through cliches of being emotionally honest instead of actually being emotionally honest and for the most part, never go beyond generalities. Exceptions are Method Man’s image of pouring out some Vodka and drinking the rest, which is compact, poetic, and an appropriate homage that never elevates or lowers his image (what’s with U-God’s “fall from greatness” line?), Inspectah Deck’s real-life emotions of loss- grief and blaming one’s self- and the GZA, when he points out that he’s recording his verse ten feet from where ODB died. The rest of the Wu act about as “hood” (in the negative sense) as they can, dropping short, hard-ass verses that perform emotions and never show any actual vulnerability. It’s all the more frustrating and symbolic of the Wu’s fragmentation that they can’t even come together or get-real in a tribute to a dead member.

I saw Wu Tang in New Jersey the night before ODB died. ODB was a no-show and towards the end of the show, Method Man acknowledged this reality to the crowd and was briefly interrupted by U-God who rambled off something about kicking Dirty’s ass for not showing and telling the crowd that if they see Dirty, tell them how mad they are and then, Method Man took the stage back and as a corrective to U-God’s lack of sympathy, he said that if we saw ODB, “tell Dirty we love ‘em”; that was a “next to the hood” moment.

Written by Brandon

December 12th, 2007 at 12:11 am


In Defense of Uffie.
For those who don’t know (or don’t care), Uffie is the 18 year-old, white, female, pretty-much universally disliked “rapper” for the infamous Ed Banger records. I put “rapper” in quotation marks not to demean Uffie’s rapping skills (although they are almost non-existent) but because Ed Banger records is a French electronic music label with little to no connection to mainstream or even underground rap. It specializes in wonderfully aggressive and contrarian dance music. So yeah, this is some goofy-ass uber-white person shit but I promise, it does still relate to the rap music I generally talk about…

On the track ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, from Justice’s album ‘†’, Uffie raps in a light, girlish but aggressive attempt at the Roxanne Shante style. The topic is well, partying and she drops such polarizing lines as “Out on the streets all the taxis are showing me love/Cause I’m shinin’ like a princess, in the middle of thugs”. The song seems to interrupt just about every critic’s enjoyment of the album and the consensus seems to be that Uffie is a complete idiot. I could explain why she’s an idiot (if you haven’t already figured it out), but this Pitchfork review of Uffie’s single ‘Pop the Glock’ does it pretty succinctly.

Let the hipster-hating polemic begin, right?

Nope, sorry. I think Uffie is much more interesting than anyone is giving her credit for. She complicates knee-jerk responses to hipster-ism by developing a persona that is almost too-easy to goof-on. Nearly everyone who encounters her, especially as the annoying chick on Justice’s album (Personally, I find ‘DVNO’ way more annoying) seems to take her bait. The same people who celebrate Ed Banger’s contrarian dance music miss the contrarianism of Uffie’s chick-rap-hipster persona.

She baits and confronts anti-ironists like myself and that is quite different than if she were just a plain old hipster ironist. In certain ways, her persona is constructed similarly to the “gangsta” rappers she ironically mimics and finds inspiration in. She fully understands the weird dialectic of rapper; one that moves between a self-created, semi-sincere persona and a detail-oriented reporter of their lifestyle. Recall that oft-quoted line that rap is (or was…) “the black CNN”. Just, Uffie documents the realities of Parisian club-going hipsters instead of inner-city plight and violence…

The “black CNN” metaphor is inaccurate. Originally used to explain the social importance of rap music, it simplifies the rapper’s complex stance to their environment. The rappers documenting the “reality” of their lives were almost always involved in that “reality” (or fronting like they were involved), so they were more like the black Truman Capotes or Hunter S. Thompsons or something. Most were not “reporting” in a conventional, objective sense but doing a strange, hyper-complicated mix of first-person, subjective storytelling and a brutally honest, few-steps-back-from-it-all-but-still-rich-in-detail objectivity. Even N.W.A at their most cartoonishly over-the-top, do not completely vindicate the violence they enact in song. The dirty, hilarious, gross, messed-up, ecstatic details still seep through and any thinking listener won’t leave the song only wanting to jack a cop. The compulsive need to tell the truth among even the most “ignorant” of rappers outweighs attempts at idealization and justification. This chick, Uffie does that too. She too is profiling a “scene” and its attitudes, but she renders that scene realistically, almost anthropologically.

On the song ‘‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, in her purposefully-wack rhyming style, Uffie describes the night’s partying as it moves out of the club: “You and me, c’mon lets take it to the next level/Let’s all go to the hotel pool as we finish the bottle/Maybe kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here/You must have put me under a spell, I lose control when you’re near”. The first line, where she asks some kind of male suitor (probably with an ironic moustache, no?) to “take it to the next level” is undercut by the second line, where the “next level” is partying at a fucking hotel pool! Finishing the bottle, hotel pool, and her little-girl delivery of these attempts at sexual provocation add a sort of gross, realistic feeling to it all. It’s decadent in the worst sense of the word. R. Kelly songs have a similar feeling. ‘Ignition Remix’ or that ‘Make It Rain Remix’ where he compares his taking-of-women to his room to a cavemen dragging a woman to a cave…Not exactly glamorous!

Adding to this lame-ish decadence (because its 2007, so her decadence is passé), she adds the come-on of making-out, but with an unsexy qualifier (“maybe”) and explicitly referring her actions as basically, predictable: “Kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here.” There are rules to her decadence! The making-out is also empty because it is “kiss and don’t tell”, temporary; something kept-quiet. Then, at the end, either complicating or conflicting with her assertions that this is just some kind of brief fling, she tells the guy “I lose control when you’re near”. That line, along with the “next level” line seem like the meaningless ideal dialogue Uffie and friends engage in to get what they want and sandwiched between it, the reality (we’re just going to a pool.this means nothing.don’t tell anybody). When it comes to sexual behavior, “hipster” and intellectual types have a way of presenting their sexual irresponsibility as “with-it” or “open-minded” but here, Uffie presents it in a way that does not represent freedom or open-mindedness, it’s just the norm. She deals with sex like a rapper; doing whatever she can to get a nut.

Hipsters’ strange embrace of hip-hop culture as ironic performance only applies to Uffie in part. While Uffie more than indulges, adopting hip-hop slang and clothing (see above) it is rooted in appreciation. Naïve, delusional, retarded, misdirected ,WHATEVER- it is developed into something more than ironic appropriation.

She’s stolen a lot from the image-creation of rappers. Like a rapper, she has a distinct and polarizing personality, part-real and part contrived, which is used to portrayal the realities of her life. Check-out this interview; the difference between her musician persona and real-life personality is clear. She is not the goofy, obnoxious brat she plays on ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’ but an articulate, aware, unpretentious artist. It was jarring when I saw this interview, the same way it is jarring when the scary “gangsta rappers” revealed themselves as really fucking smart, “articulate” dudes.

Also, ironic hipster or not, Uffie knows her music history. She is well-aware and indeed, in her own way, sensitive to that which she quotes, copies, parodies, and steals. On ‘Pop the Glock’ (the most immediately egregious of her songs) she swipes her flow from Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin’ and paraphrases when she punctuates her verse with “and if you understood, would you?”. There are also references to Miami Bass, Crunk and Grime, all of which share a lot of sonic similarities. Her being from Miami does give her some regional “credit” if indeed, that’s your litmus test for whether someone is bullshit or not…

While it is her most problematic song, ‘Pop the Glock’ also shows the extent of Uffie’s relationship with rap and hip-hop culture. The song is exactly the kind of retarded hipster-ism so many of us are chomping at the bit to rip-apart, but the actual song isn’t what you think. Yes, the chorus is “pop the glock” repeated over-and-over and the song is punctuated with gunshots, but the topic of the song isn’t anything about popping glocks or any thug referencing, parodied nor appropriated. Uffie just raps loosely connected braggadocio that always loops back to her sing-talk “pop the glock” rendering the titular line, the one you’re just waiting to get pissed about, into nonsense. Did I mention she raps this song and only this song in a faux-British accent?

So… she’s a white chick who has lived all over the world, born in the American South, currently residing in Paris, making music that is a mix of old-school rap music and electronic music (itself rooted as much in the sounds of Mantronix as Aphex Twin), rapping in an unabashed girlish voice (no contrived rapper drawl) in a British accent! So yeah, I mean the levels of irony are mind-boggling and for that, I could criticize her but I think the weird, double-binded irony mixed with explicit inauthenticity ends up sincere.

Maybe it’s the British accent but I immediately thought of Mick Jagger, another white musician who flirted with levels of racial and cultural irony. Jagger often falls into a near-Minstrel black affectation and is equally willing to drop an over-the-top redneck voice, but it’s done in some weird over-the-top way that is ultimately, homage. It’s complicated, but in his 33 1/3 book on ‘Exile on Main St.’ Bill Janowitz makes a pretty good attempt at articulating Jagger’s complex stance in relation to his influences:

“The narrative voice operates on multiple levels. Some critics might have considered the Rolling Stones’ history of copping African-American music as a kind of cultural exploitation, similar to that practiced by all-white minstrels companies. But Jagger is in on the joke; the Stones themselves could be misconstrued as an updated minstrel show …[but] Jagger would certainly have been sensitive to such matters [of minstrelsy]. He does not let any self-consciousness impede on ‘Sweet Black Angel,’ though; rather, he displays a solid confidence in his own motives.” (113)

Uffie too, subtly informs her listeners of her motives by wrapping it in a great deal of sub-text and history. Like Jagger, the confidence comes through because she isn’t afraid of misinterpretation. No one would mistake her for a “real rapper”. Her voice contains no rapper-like affectation of either “hardness” or “blackness” and on ‘Pop the Glock’ she tries to get even whiter with that British accent. Her rhyme style too, is purposefully poor, avoiding any attempts at being “lyrical”. The electro and IDM-sounding production avoids condescending attempts at actual rap beat-making. The aggressively avant-garde “beats” of the Anti-Con guys or even El-P, especially in his blasphemous invocation of the Bomb Squad is waaaaaaayyy more offensive than Uffie.

This is all really-fun to break-down and analyze, but is Uffie any good? Well, no. Other than her track on the Justice album, which works because of its sequencing on the album, Uffie would probably best work as some kind of like, weird, Undergraduate thesis or independent project for a ‘Women’s Studies’ class or something. Pretty fun and engaging to talk about, but not music that will last. However, that too fits with Uffie’s persona of making music for parties and clubs. It is only her connection to the indie and experimental world that somehow “demands” her music be significant. Most of do not ask Cassie or Rihanna or even “rappers” like Jim Jones to be relevant, why must Uffie? Just as we praise the best mainstream artists, especially rappers, for injecting the cold, cold world of mainstream music with some heart and honesty, we should praise Uffie (and the Ed Banger crew) for injecting the “hipster” world with “meaningless” music. Be it the pseudo-literary world of the Decemberists or the intertextual, faux-clever mash-ups of Girl Talk, hipster music needs to stop trying so hard or try hard at not trying hard.

-Janowitz, Bill. ‘The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.’ Continuum: New York, 2005.

Written by Brandon

July 16th, 2007 at 8:13 am

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How To Save Old Rap Music Without Declaring Hip-Hop Dead
In Byron Crawford’s post ‘The Day the Music Died’, about the Notorious B.I.G, Crawford discusses the fact that although he considers ‘Ready to Die’ one of his favorite albums, he “barely listen[s] to it anymore”. He goes on to describe the fact that due to the nature of his job “it’s just plain not [his] m.o to listen to old music” and that when he does, it is rarely a rap album and for “whatever reason” he does not “experience hip-hop the same way [he] experience[s] other genres of music”. Now, I’m troubled by this because the dude writes for ‘XXL’ but I’m also not troubled because it is an incredibly brave thing to say/admit and Crawford also uses this statement to implore his readers to respond. He ends his post with “I wonder why [it] is” that he and others will return to old rock albums but not to old rap albums. Now, I promise, this is not the post where some non-existent blogger goes after a popular blogger, but there’s a lot of shit worth unpacking here.

There are basic factual answers to Crawford’s “I wonder…” like the lack of radio support for old rap while classic rock may be more popular than recent rock. There is also the fact that the world is now run by baby-boomers who have a pathetic obsession with their own youth and so, they fill movies and commercials with the music they like, which is obviously not rap. There is also the fact that it is really only in the late-80s that one can begin to look at rap in terms of “albums” as it was primarily a singles game before then. So, there’s not the same kind of history there. To compare the consistent purchasing of albums from the 60s and 70s with albums that are, at the oldest, from like, 1986, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Also, there’s availability or lack thereof. Old rap albums, in part because of little support, in part because they are in this weird middle-ground between “sort-of old” and “classic”, are just not available everywhere the way say, ‘Who’s Next’ might be. It may be kind of hard to find ‘Mecca & the Soul Brother’ or even ‘Raising Hell’ in a Best Buy. This may be changing slightly as re-releases of Run DMC or ‘Road to the Riches’ have come out recently and are making those albums slightly more available. The recent induction of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five into the Rock n’Roll Hall of Fame also “proves” some interest in rap history is building. The eventually-to-be-released UGK album features Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap on a song, at least it did the last track listing I saw. The release of a Biggie ‘Greatest Hits’ is another good move because when you first get into old music, you almost inevitably go for the safe choice of a ‘Greatest Hits’; full albums by artists you’re not totally familiar with is a bit scary. Eventually, you grow wiser and realize ‘Greatest Hits’ albums are for housewives and little girls but they do function as excellent primers for introductory listeners. Without them, the process of getting into older music would be a lot more daunting. So, the more compilations, greatest hits packages, and re-releases that come out, the greater interest in older music.

Even if these things are available it doesn’t mean a thing unless people are buying them so there is plenty of blame to be placed on the rap “culture”, particularly the younger generations of fans and artists, but I find that placement of guilt too simplistic and over-discussed. Older rappers show about as much interest and support to the new guys as the new guys do to the older rappers. Think of when Chuck D. went after Kanye West, certainly one of the more “positive” rappers to enter mainstream rap in many years. Even more absurd is the article ‘Respect’ in this month’s XXL in which Nas can only muster up praise for Lupe Fiasco and The Game, two incredibly predictable MCs. When older rappers do praise the new generation, they generally support clones of themselves or rappers that are obsessive in their “respect” of the old school. Rap music is incredibly criticism-free in the sense that no actual debate or discussion ever really goes on; everyone just sort of follows the script.

I know this script is part of the tradition of rap and to bemoan other rappers as not knowing their shit has been going on since the beginning but that just makes “it’s like the game ain’t same”-style complaints meaningless. The Was Good/Is Now Bad division has always existed and always been practiced, so who even knows what to think when a rapper says it one more time. This kind of battling or beefing is fine and good for a little while, but it goes from swagger when the rapper is on top to being just plain sad when that rapper is on the way down. KRS-One is saying the same bullshit about rappers that he said in 1988 so, at this point, it sounds like nothing but a knee-jerk reaction. Meanwhile, Rakim says he fucks with G-Unit and Dipset, Chuck D. hates on Kanye West, Nas holds up The Game as an exemplary rapper…these guys are digging their own graves by being so unreliable. How can they be trusted as sources on rap history?

However, (spoken like a true music writer) you can rarely trust musicians to lead you in the direction of good music outside of their own, so that is hardly a surprise. The most damaging aspect to older rap staying relevant comes from outdated and downright idiotic perceptions as to what rap music is or can be. Rap is either treated as party music or as “the black CNN” and this is by everyone from most casual listener to a hardcore fan. The dance music perception does not lend anyone to think of it as lasting or worth actual consideration, so that is a clear dead-end but the “black CNN” understanding also has its limits. The most limiting effect of seeing rap music as only the window into “ghetto” realities is that it distances listeners from the music. I think it distances white listeners because they feel as though they are able to appreciate rap, understand it, and maybe learn from it, but they cannot really relate to it and often, they do not feel as though they are allowed to comment upon it. For black listeners, the “black CNN” interpretation pushes who is saying what and how they are saying it to the background because what is being sought out is “real” talk about “the streets”. If that’s the perspective, then there’s no need to go back and listen to Biggie or Rakim or Melle Mel because there’s enough “reality” being “exposed” in Young Jeezy’s songs.

Regardless of race, class, or whatever, what makes music lasting is something a listener can connect and relate to on a number of levels. Rap music does not fail in this regard but the way it is discussed and treated makes it seem as though it has failed. I’ve talked about this at least three other times on this stupid blog, so I’m not saying anything I haven’t said already, but it’s sort of my specific, interpretive focus, so bear with me. Music listeners, white and black and everything else, follow the previously mentioned rules about how to listen to and embrace rap music. Even many rappers themselves follow these rules. It’s why Jay-Z feels like he needs to put the guy from Coldplay on a track for it to be emotional or why Kanye hires Jon Brion or why Andre 3000 started dicking around with other genres. They too have bought into the belief that rap music is not the place that actual emotions are expressed even though each of those artists have plenty of emotionally resonant songs that don’t have some white dude playing piano under them. Furthermore, rap is inarguably a primarily black art form but too many black writers, listeners, and musicians, even if they have good reason, are vehement protectors of the music. This protection discourages non-black listeners from feeling like they even have the right to connect to the music on their own terms even though, at the very same time, these same protectors bemoan the fact that rap isn’t more respected within and outside of the rap culture. It’s a pretty fucked-up loop if you think about.

The myth that one cannot relate to rap music or can only relate to rap music if you have experienced exactly what the rappers discuss gives the music nowhere to go. The music needs to breathe and expand beyond its initial release but this will only happen if people can find something about it to embrace. If you’re just dancing to it, it will get old pretty quick and if all there is to it is reporting, then once you have heard the lyrics, the reported information has been presented and the transfer is complete. Rap music is music to dance to and it is music that reveals truths that you may not hear anywhere else but it is also humanistic and it is all those things and a lot more, that is why I really do think it’s the most complicated form of music to exist. There’s so much shit going on in it that you’d think anybody could pull something from it to enjoy and perhaps they could if long-established rules on how to listen to rap music were broken down.

Written by Brandon

March 14th, 2007 at 7:26 am

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Geto Boys – Mind Playing Tricks On Me 12’ Single

I wrote this early last week, before my friend Mike killed himself. The last thing I talked about with him was making a video for this metal song he was working on and the ‘Mac 10 Handle’ video. We both related to it. Sometime after that, between Monday night and Tuesday night, he pushed his couch against his apartment door, watched the movie ‘Thief’ (or just put it on), and put a shotgun in his mouth. That is all I know right now. I love you Mike.

I found the greatest thing ever this weekend: An original ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ Single! (See above images of the ‘No Trivia’ “staff” posing with it…). Obviously, the song is great, one of the rap songs that could be considered “perfect” but what really puts this over the edge is the design of the sleeve. A cheap-looking font outlined in black, the name of the group at the top, song title at the bottom, and in between, the boys in front of an ambulance looking awesome but definitely not “cool” and not even particularly “gangsta”. Their clothes in particular, are worth noting: Scarface wears a lime dress-shirt without a tie with the top button buttoned, Bushwick is in hospital scrubs, sitting in a lawn chair, gripping a mobile phone, with an almost-regal look on his face and Willie D. is rocking this really incredible empire-collar jean-jacket with the arms and front shredded. It’s the same stuff they are wearing on the cover of ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’ and the whole design is just a variation on that design but without the shock-value of that album cover. This single does not expose Bushwick’s missing eye, it is tastefully covered, so you just get Scarface, Willie D., and Bushwick not looking tough, not even necessarily sad, just kind of worn-out. It’s like, day-after the tragedy.

Over and over, rappers reference ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ when they create a particularly honest or confessional song or album. Think of Biggie’s ‘One More Chance’, essentially a song of sexual conquest, interrupted for a few moments by the very-real paranoia most of ‘Ready To Die’s other songs are obsessed with: “Is my mind playin’ tricks? Like Scarface and Bushwick/Willie D havin’ nightmares of girls killin’ me.” Although that’s the only explicit reference (I think), the influence of Geto Boys permeates ‘Ready to Die’. Recently, there’s Clipse album-closer ‘Nightmares’ with Pusha-T’s verse beginning with a direct quotation from Willie D: “I make big money, I drive big cars/Everybody knows me, it’s like I’m a movie star”. And very recently, there’s ‘Mac 10 Handle’ by Prodigy which begins “I sit alone in my dirty-ass room/Staring at candles, high on drugs” but my favorite ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ intertextual reference is Beanie Sigel’s ‘Feel It In the Air’ from 2005’s ‘The B.Coming’.

‘Feel It In the Air’ is the only ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’-referencing song that even comes close to having the emotional weight of the original. It’s pretty much impossible to explain something without ruining it (which I think I do with this entry) but I’ll try. Let’s start with the beat, which I always forget is produced by Heavy D. It’s pretty much a conventional “sad” beat (slow tempo, mournful sax) but the “I can feel it in the air” singing adds something strange to it and Sigel’s rapping fits perfectly. Beanie’s slow-rapping is not to indicate that the song is “poignant” (ala’ “introspective” Jay-Z) it’s because he’s just sort of resigned to feeling shitty. Sigel alters the Scarface line, changing it to: “I sit alone in my four cornered room starin’ at hammers/Ready to go bananas” changing the lyrics in a way that makes them even more disturbing and adding a kinda-corny line like “ready to go bananas” that actually works better than thinking of something clever. It’s like those that hating-on Prodigy’s ‘Mac 10 Handle’ because arguably, it is not “lyrically” up to par with the best Mobb Deep tracks. Sometimes, being clever or articulate isn’t necessary and I’ll certainly take honesty over “lyricism” if it makes me actually feel something. Following up his Scarface-quoting, Beans makes the Scarface connection explicit in the next line when he says: “Two vests on me, two techs, extra clips on me/I know my mind ain’t playin’ tricks on me.” The reality/paranoid-hallucination division is broken, his voice in the song is so out-of-it he’s adamant that his hallucinations are real and maybe they are? Those lines also remind listeners that the rhyming words with the same word has been a Beanie trick since ‘The Truth’ so don’t blame that shit on Dipset! Beanie however, uses the rhyming the same word trick for maximum effect, as his rhyme scheme deteriorates the same way that his mind seems to be going away. The song does a good job of reflecting Beanie’s state of mind, he goes from conventional rapping, to same-word rapping, and finally allows his verse to devolve into non-rhyming lines: “Read they body language/85% communication non-verbal, 85% swear they know you/10% you know they soft, man, the other five…time to show you, just know you.” When he trails off at the end, it’s hard to even know what the hell he is talking about. The song stops being about paranoia and mental instability because the song really does, temporarily, not make sense, it actually becomes unstable.

Like many other rappers, Sigel returns to the original lament ‘My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me’ to illustrate his feelings of self-destruction. These feelings of self-destruction that remind me of unstable relatives, friends of friends that offed themselves, or my own problems and so, the songs do work on some level that is closer to being “universal” or humanistic, not specific to the plight of the crack-dealer or gang-banger. I think that’s significant because the fundamental flaw in discussing rap music seriously comes from the moronic perspective that it is only worth discussing from the “black CNN” perspective and not the same way in which one may listen to a sad rock or a elegiac jazz composition. If I’m feeling “emo”, I’d be as likely to listen to certain dark or depressing rap songs as I would Joy Division or Charlie Parker.

Brandon’s Ten Sad Rap Songs

1. Da Summa – Triple Six Mafia (from ‘Mystic Stylez’)
2. Mind Playing Tricks On Me – Geto Boys (from ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’)
3. Tha Crossroads – Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (from ‘E. Eternal 1999’)
4. Reunion – Slum Village featuring J. Dilla – (from ‘Detroit Deli’)
5. C.R.E.A.M – Wu Tang Clan (from ‘Enter the Wu Tang’)
6. Runnin’ – Pharcyde (from ‘Labcabincalifornia’)
7. Feel It In The Air – Beanie Sigel – (from ‘The B.Coming’)
8. T.R.O.Y – Pete Rock & C.L Smooth – (from ‘Mecca & The Soul Brother’)
9. All That I Got Is You – Ghostface Killah (from ‘Ironman’)
10. Family Business – Kanye West – (from ‘College Dropout’)


-Beanie Sigel – ‘Feel It In the Air’ Video.

-Bushwick Bill – ‘Ever So Clear’:The song that describes in amazing clarity and sanity, how Bushwick lost his eye. No “cry for me” bullshit in this one, no melodrama, just how it happened. From his underrated ‘Little Big Man’ solo album.

‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ Video:Probably the best rap video ever made.

-‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ Star Wars Video: Someone made a really amazing remake of the video with Star Wars figures. It’s ridiculously well-done and it manages to be really funny without being ironic or mocking the song or video.

By the way, I found that single here, ‘The True Vine’; this really great record store that just got-in a shitload of 80s and 90s rap singles. If you’re in Baltimore it’s worth going over there.

Written by Brandon

February 7th, 2007 at 11:01 pm

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The Ruse of Rock Music

The front-page of the ‘Sunday Style’ section of ‘New York Times’ has an article by Jessica Pressler titled ‘Truly Indie Fans’, with the subheading: “Some black music lovers prefer hipster styles and the rock scene, even if it makes them outsiders.”
The whole article is pretty weird, but let’s begin with the title which sort-of suggests that black people who like indie rock are “truly” independent because they have chosen music that they are not supposed to enjoy. They are therefore, more “independent” thinkers than blacks who like rap music.

There is a weird thing where stuff like ‘The New York Times’ associates anything black with authenticity. In any article about rap music, the infamous “black CNN” critical lens is pulled-out and rap music is associated with “ghetto” realities. At the same time, this article argues that blacks who listen to indie rock are “truly indie”, presumably meaning, truly real. How can both of these things be true? The black interest in white music is immediately celebrated while eight years ago, even as ‘Times’ writers like Janet Maslin might celebrate Eminem in a way that they would never praise Biggie or Tupac, they would rarely write about white interest in rap music or rap fashion as being anything but “problematic”. Now, we have the inversion of those articles and I feel an uncomfortably condescending tone, celebrating black people for “finally” embracing rock music or somehow “returning” to their rock roots.

The article maintains the unfortunate ruse pushed by baby-boomers that rock but particularly, 60s rock, is the music to associate with integrity and purity. Look at this strange sentence, particularly the way it states sheer speculation as fact: “Black musicians gravitated towards genres in which they were more likely to find acceptance and lucre, such as disco, R & B and hip hop, which have also been popular among whites” (2). While I see what Pressler is saying, primarily that, generally, in the 70s, black rock musicians weren’t very popular, to imply that black musicians involved in disco, R & B, or rap are in some way less brave than black rock musicians is simply absurd. Furthermore, to suggest that black musicians not playing rock were doing so because there wasn’t any money in it is simply offensive. Pressler invokes Jimi Hendrix, the end-all in arguments on blacks and rock n’roll for uninformed people and quotes Paul Friedlander, author of ‘Rock and Roll: A Social History’ who says: “To the black community [Jimi Hendrix] was not playing wholly African-American music” (2). This sentence simply is a simple statement of fact and should not be used to somehow suggest the bias of black listeners when it comes to rock music. Black music fans weren’t being unfair or even critical to Hendrix if they said his music was not “black” because it wasn’t. Although he was influenced by Chuck Berry and the blues, Hendrix’s music has a closer connection to 60s rock, acid rock, hippie music; white music. Many British and American rock groups that played “acid rock” would probably cite the Beatles as their main influence and there’s hardly any explicit black influence on a Beatles record while, the Rolling Stones, particularly in the 60s, were quite good at acknowleding, adapting, and paying homage to their black music influences.

The main reason why so few black musicians explicitly make rock is because by the early 60s, conventional rock music was already becoming a bit played-out. Many black musicians quickly digested rock’s influences into their music. Listen to certain tracks by the Temptations or Bloodstone, who maintain a semi-heavy sound even as they make prototypical 70s soul like ‘Natural High’ or musicians like Arthur Lee & LOVE or Hendrix’s once-drummer Buddy Miles, who were a bit closer to rock but never fully rejected R & B influences the way Hendrix basically rejected them. To imply that it was somehow out of fear of acceptance that led black musicians to embrace (and even create!) genres like doo-wop, soul, funk, or rap is incorrect and moronically maintains boomer ideals about the transformative power of good ol’ rock n’roll. Remember, these are the same boomers that would later sue De La Soul and the Biz leading to bullshit sampling laws. As Chuck D once said: “Beware of the hand when it’s coming from the left.”

The most infuriating aspect of this article is a quote from Bahr Brown, owner of an “East Harlem skateboard shop” called ‘Everything Must Go’ who says: “Hip-hop has lost a lot of its originality…this [indie rock] is the new thing.” Where do I even start with that one? I don’t subscribe for a minute to the idea of rap music being dead. It’s very alive (I seriously mean this), it keeps getting better and more interesting. Nas has a problem with contemporary rap because it doesn’t sound like 1988. Well, I think that it’s a good thing, not because I don’t like rap from 1988 but because I’d hope something isn’t completely rehashing ideas that were mastered twenty years ago. Oddly enough, that is exactly what is happening in the indie rock world. There are very few indie rock groups doing anything innovative. Every dance-rock band does a crappy impression of New Order or Joy Division and every cutesy “twee pop” group rips whole pages from the Beach Boys catalog (that is, if they aren’t stealing from groups as recent as Belle & Sebastian). Not to mention, the ever-looming influence of the Velvet Underground. When Joanna Newsome makes a Van Dyke Parks rip-off album, it is for a bunch of people who don’t know or care about Van Dyke Parks (go cop ‘Song Cycle’ or ‘Discover America’, seriously.) so it’s praised by a bunch of critics with short memories and fans with even shorter ones. There isn’t anything wrong with this but please, don’t say that rap music is the place where originality is lacking.

-Pressler, Jessica. “Truly Indie Fans.” ‘New York Times’ 28 Jan. 2007: St1-2.

Here’s an online version of the article. Go here for a username and password if you aren’t registered.

Written by Brandon

January 30th, 2007 at 2:00 am

Posted in "black CNN", Indie