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Salem, and Why It’s Never Been About Authenticity.


Salem make a gothic, syrupy kind of electronic music and the touchstones of their sound are the slowed-down, choppy drums and vocals of Houston screw music. On some songs, such as “Trapdoor” (the title itself, a play on the horror movie elements of their music and their love of coke-slanging “trap-rap”), the rapped vocals of the all-white, Midwestern group creep along, slurred, heavy with bass–like a DJ Screw freestyle. These quasi-raps are punctuated by the word “bitch,” threats of rape, and some clear pronunciation nods to Southern rap. Streets is “skreets” for example. A lot of people, like Christopher Weingarten think this is pretty offensive. A lot of other people, like Larry Fitzmaurice are just like, “nope.” Others, including the group itself—defend the vocals as simple, vocal manipulation.

Well, it’s not. The slowed down vocals do not only have the effect of bringing the vocalist’s voice down to stoned crawl, they make the white performer sound black. This, coupled with lyrics that are content-wise, what my grandmother thinks rap’s about (murder, rape, misogyny, repeat) and the problematic, conscious “hip-hop” pronunciations underneath that vocal effect, makes Salem’s music pretty egregious. This is a group of white kids who’ve screwed their vocals down to “sound black,” and then use that screwing-down of vocals to say things they wouldn’t–and couldn’t–say otherwise. Employing the word “minstrelsy” is controversy-baiting, but it also isn’t that far off.

Songs like “Trapdoor” also do a disservice to screw music and southern rap by reducing it to aggro-violence and tough-guy sexuality. There’s a communal joy in those DJ Screw freestyles. There’s a sense of humor and word-obsessive fun on Gucci Mane songs. And the production isn’t relentlessly dark. You don’t screw Junior’s “Mama Used To Say” if you’re trying to be all tough and scary.

When the “this shit’s offensive” discussion really started to pick up, it turned into a debate about “authenticity” when that was ultimately besides the point. Ignoring the musical issue (that King Night is much less sonically sophisticated than the stuff it’s ripping off), which has nothing to do with “authenticity,” there isn’t really any degree of “authenticity” that could justify these dopey kids changing their voices to sound like Project Pat and then, saying “bitch” a whole lot.

Plus, Salem are plenty authentic. If the game here is “authenticity=struggle” etc. well a group of midwest fuck-ups who had or have drug problems should be awarded some major points. My guess is that they feel like they relate to the “fuck the world” feeling of DJ Screw freestyles and Waka Flocka’s fight rap just like they relate to black metal’s nihilism. And that’s interesting! And awesome. Good to see artists reaching into music beyond what they’re “supposed” to reach into and also, it’s the internet era, age of information, etc. so really, why wouldn’t these Salem kids who clearly like Gucci Mane or Chicago Footwork cram it into their music? Fusion! Yes! For extra “authenticity” points, Salem hail from Chicago and Detroit and so, they have something resembling a direct connection and understanding of this stuff.

Only they don’t. The group really show their asses in this XLR8R interview. Salem’s Jack Donoghue calls footwork wunderkind DJ Nate’s music “smart,” but adds, “but I don’t think he’s trying to be clever.” DJ Nate is most certainly trying to be clever. That’s what sample-based dance music like footwork is all about: consciously flipping the weirdest, funniest, most dope sample in the coolest, smartest way possible. Heather Marlatt, photographed for the magazine in cornrows, describes her interest in “Juggalos” but not the Insane Clown Posse’s music, which seems the inverse of Salem’s interest in black music: who cares about the people, it’s all about the sounds, man.

Later in the same interview, John Holland dismisses the whole “hey, it’s fucking weird that these kids are making themselves sound like black guys” argument with this: “It’s not like we’re Elvis Presley…what are we robbing the music from a different race? Give me a break!.” That’s of course, exactly what these guys are doing. But that isn’t what’s troubling people about the group. It’s that inexcusable and naïve employment of the screw vocals for something far beyond a sonic effect.

Notice, that despite Salem’s “authentic” pedigree (ex-junkies and troubled youths, from the birthplace of at least some of their sounds, etc.) the group’s defenders rarely take the “authenticity” approach to justify the group’s music. Instead, they play the “post-authenticity” game, which steps around “there’s some racially problematic stuff about these kids” altogether. It says: none of that stuff matters anymore. The floodgates are open bro, get with the program! “Post-authenticity” starts to sounds a lot like “post-racial” explain-aways.

When the argument doesn’t go with the “authenticity is dead” narrative, it reaches for “authenticity never existed.” There will be references to “fakers” like Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, either to deflect (as Holland did with XLR8R) or as some weird, precedent: music was never authentic and the rock n’roll from decades ago (and a very different America) straight-jacked a lot of music, so it’s acceptable for people in 2010 to do whatever they hell they want as well.

Brandon Ivers, who wrote the XLR8R piece, articulates that “post-authenticity” angle well: “Salem embodies a generation that doesn’t care about race, sexual orientation, authenticity, and a lot of other stuff that used to be a big deal.” There’s some irony in Ivers’ statement but he’s completely on the nose when it comes to Salem: they don’t care. And the music fans and critics embracing these clowns don’t care either.

Written by Brandon

October 12th, 2010 at 8:56 am

Village Voice, Sound of the City: “Free Gucci, Fuck Diplo, & The History of “Free ___”

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So there’s a pretty nutty thing I wrote about Diplo’s loathsome “Free Gucci” T-shirt and upcoming mixtape up on the Voice’s “Sound of the City” blog. Word to Zach Baron for sculpting it all into something that sorta makes sense:

“Gucci Mane’s new album, The State vs. Radric Davis is in stores today, but the insanely prolific, remarkably consistent Atlanta rapper has been in jail since November 12th. This is Gucci’s second stint in jail for a parole violation this year. Both sentences stem from a 2005 incident in which Gucci attacked a promoter, served six months for the attack, and was released under the agreement that he would take rehabilitation classes and do some community service–which he’s now failed to do, and gone to jail for failing to do…twice.

And though this recent return to jail brought about another wave of “Free Gucci” T-shirts, mixtapes, and Facebook groups, there’s an equal amount of healthy, hands-up-in-the-air frustration with the guy. It’s impossible to turn Gucci Mane into any kind of victim of “the system” because the system’s given him second, third, and fourth chances to get his shit right…”

Written by Brandon

December 8th, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Why Hip-Hop Won’t Suck More in 2009 Than Any Other Year…

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Dukes over at The Full Clip posted a pretty muddled and ultimately sorta safe but still worth discussing entry on XXL’s latest batch of “Freshman” and how it’s evidence of the negative influence of blogging on hip-hop. His biggest conflict is one that nearly anybody could agree with, at least at first: Very few of these guys have proven themselves and only a couple of them seem all that spectacular.

Dukes’ point is one about a frustration with the immediacy of the internet and shortening attention spans and lots of other stuff. It’s best defined by a concern he expresses when he implicitly compares these guys to rappers of the past. All the rappers on XXL’s latest cover are not spectacular–except, his totally subjective support of Kid Cudi, Blu, and Wale–and that their (relative) fame “seems more hustle than art…”, as if the 1991-equivalent of internet hustle wasn’t being employed by every rapper that blew up in the next couple years after that. It’s verging on nostalgia without coming out and saying it or maybe, not really knowing it?

The quickest rebuttal to Dukes’ blog blame is this: Look at last year’s cover. It’s certainly less “blog rap”-oriented and even though the number of artists on each list that I like is about the same, this year’s is a way more promising list. Simply put: You’ll have to defend this year’s list to less rap fans. It’s harder to dislike say, Charles Hamilton than Lil Boosie (even though Boosie’s way better in every way really). Interestingly, last year’s group is actually more representative of varying tastes in rap and a wider spectrum, but that’s another point, we’re apparently talking about rap music as a whole. So, if this year’s list is what the blogs created and last year’s list was something else, then blogs are not going to destroy hip-hop next year.

How or who or what led to last year’s choices is unknown and while this year’s list is a bit more on the side of the kind of dudes bloggers have been bigging-up than last year’s, that seems more of a sign of how rappers use media outlets to get their names out there than anything else. These are not a bunch of rappers who got a song posted on some sorta-popular blog like this one or anything, these were guys with enough press or pull or clout or whatever to get their music to a bunch of powerful “bloggers” and rap websites and from there, it trickled down and then back up.

These guys all maintained a hype and were able to capitalize on the rap blog world’s obsessive quest for the newest leak, freestyle, or whatever, but every one of them were “established” in the sense of having a solid team of people blowing them up before they actually blew-up.

It still seems baffling how a semi-talented turd with a white people-baiting bit as deep-rooted as Sarah Palin’s “Joe Sixpack” routine like Asher Roth went from being nobody to being hyped by XXL, sucked-off by NahRight, and on this cover, but it didn’t have a whole lot to do with bloggers, it had to do with the same fucking connections and superficial “hustle” that’s broken your favorite and least favorite rappers. If there’s something to blame the bloggers for, it’s not really questioning or analyzing any of these up and comers and just sort of accepting them and instead, dropping 75 words on how this song samples ‘Adventures of Dizzy’ for NES or how this guy performed at that one FADER after-party and rapped on old-ass Franco Battiato tracks or how this guy’s really taking it back to 1994 or whatever else.

Dukes’ piece is giving the blogs way too much credit. Unless of course by “blogs” you just mean the frequently updated section of every print magazine’s website or NahRight which really isn’t a simple blog anymore (and has always had tight industry connections). And if that is what Dukes means by “blogs”, then his frustration’s misdirected because these “blogs” and semi-corporate websites have picked up where lagging magazines sales dropped off. It has very little do with this blog or most of the blogs I read…

Written by Brandon

October 24th, 2008 at 2:28 am

Posted in Wale, XXL, hipster, the internets

Indie Rock, Whiteness, and Influences

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The October 22nd issue of ‘The New Yorker’, features a provocative think-piece by Sasha Frere-Jones entitled ‘A Paler Shade of White’. SFJ (as everyone seems to call him) bemoans the fact that rock n’roll, his definitive example of musical miscegenation, is now pretty much absent of “a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies- in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.” He pulls from a convenient but still telling list of “indie rock” acts of past and present to exemplify an increased shift into what he calls “whiteness”. The short of it: indie rock is really stiff and mannered and boring because it’s no longer interested in, what SFJ calls in an accompanying pod-cast “American rhythm”. Although the exact details and specific examples he employs may be a bit problematic, it is hard to disagree with his overall thesis.

Some of the problems of the article might also be excused on the basis that the article is a purposeful provocation- at one point he calls Hall & Oates as “equally gifted” as Michael Jackson! For me however, its aggressive means justify its end, as it is properly targeting people that, just as modern hip-hop fans are asked reconsider what and why they listen, those who take their current music interests from the oppressively mannered ‘New Yorker’ or NPR or the soundtrack to ‘Garden State’ should be forced reconsider as well. The article is hardly without flaws and one gets the sense that SFJ himself would be the first to admit that (he calls his article “reductive” in the aforementioned podcast). Only in the absurdly polite and mannered ‘New Yorker’ would his article seem like a throwing down of the gauntlet…

As a whole, the article succeeds and has spanned other writers to delve deeper. The Village Voice’s Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla debate the article on Breihan’s Status Ain’t Hood blog and while the discussion can easily be dismissed as masturbatory music-critic talk, it touches on issues of music and race that sort of makes everybody uncomfortable, and that’s always good.

One of the more poignant comparisons is between the current crop of indie types and those from which they glean influence. The Clash become a continued point of return for SFJ; they exemplify a group who respectfully but aggressively took-on music beyond their initial punk-rock range: “dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations”. When the Clash performed in New York, their opening act was Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. Of course, the story goes that the Clash’s fans threw bottles at the rap legends but still- the artists knew where music was going and were quite fair to at least “cite” one of their influences, even if the audience was too stupid to get it.

SFJ cites the fact that apparently Devendra Banhart has spoken highly of R. Kelly’s latest, but would never ingest Kells’ influence but “thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s…soul.” I do not know what lies in the heart of hearts of the Arcade Fire but their music and persona imply an utter disinterest in black musical forms. Not that there is necessarily something wrong with that, but it does seem strange that indie groups flaunt their insularity, while their fans’ interests continue to spread, their IPODS filled with everything from the weirdo Top 40 of Timbaland, the Michael Jackson house music of Justice, to classic 60s Stones albums, and back again to say, the Decemberists. Nowadays, rock groups give me the impression that they (if these guys had any balls, another of SFJ’s implicit points) would be the ones more apt to throw bottles at a rap act than the fans. This is a pretty depressing reversal.

The reversal however, is only half-true as it’s not that musicians don’t listen to many different genres, but that they are unwilling to use it as a part of their music and worse, flaunt their rarified persona. It’s the musical equivalent of feigning ignorance or disinterest, which of course, reflects the too-good-for-it-all attitudes of so many indie rockers. Somehow, it has become cooler or more respectable to appear completely influenced by the Beatles or the Beach Boys or Springsteen than to grab from as many sources as possible…

But what about the numerous dancey indie groups that have indeed, rediscovered rhythm? They are cited by Harvilla in that ‘Status Ain’t Hood’ discussion as obvious counterpoints to rhythm-less indie rock SFJ conveniently cites. I would first say that these groups are still exceptions to the rule, and that even these groups actually take very little from African-American influences. So much of the “dance-punk” or whatever else is going on that embraces rhythm seems to take it from groups, performers, and composers that were influenced by black music; these new artists never look back to that original source. So much of what goes on in indie rock, that constitutes dance music, is rooted in late 70s/early 80s New York stuff, New/No Wave, Avant-Jazz, etc. etc. As I already said on the Status Ain’t Hood blog’s comments, I’d like to cite the example of the group James White & The Blacks. I’ll talk about them because they are one of the few groups of that era that I find genuinely interesting and engaging for more than a few songs and, they have a very explicit black influence.

-Listen to ‘Contort Yourself’ by the Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions and later, James White and the Blacks, are maybe best described as punk rock meets Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz” meets James Brown. Those are the simplest and most palpable influences on the group. On the Youtube video found at the bottom of this post, a commenter refers to the playing of the Contortions as “a noise band, yet they are completely tight” which you know, if you open your ears a tiny bit further, would be a pretty accurate explanation of the JBs! Chance, especially when dubbing himself “James White”, a jokey homage to the Godfather of Soul- didn’t just go to Brown’s compositions simply because they sounded cool or danceable but fully internalized them. He took on the theatrics and gutteral screams of J.B and danced around as goofily and freely as well. He put himself on the line in a way that newer dance groups (excluding !!!) never do. Chance makes an ass of himself, he goes all-out for the sake of entertainment and if you want to give it some higher meaning “catharsis”…the reason so many indie rockers don’t embrace or seemingly eschew black influences is because that music about feeling and expression, the opposite direction, according to SFJ’s thesis, indie rock has moved since the 90s.

When you listen to The Contortions in light of groups like Liars, The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, etc. you hear the way these groups have totally lifted guitar noise, attitude and overall danceable skronk from dudes like James Chance while internalizing very little of the James Brown. Again, it’s not a capitol offense or anything, but it’s sorta messed-up and it’s why none of those groups are very interesting. It seems far worse that these overt dance groups still make an end-run around black music by being influenced by the guys that black musicians influenced and not really checking into the original source. It’s one thing that The Arcade Fire are boring as fuck, it’s another thing that LCD Soundsystem can’t really get it up either.

Written by Brandon

October 18th, 2007 at 4:18 am

Posted in Indie, hipster

Notes on Otherness, Part Two: M.I.A


Click here to download MIA’s ‘Paper Planes Remix’ featuring Bun B and Rich Boy.

I’ve held a strong dislike for M.I.A since the annoying ‘Pull Up The People’ and that mixtape that allowed kewl kids to listen to Ciara without really listening to Ciara (Jazze Pha > Diplo). It was mainly her smug politics, particularly her obnoxious tendency to claim third-world status and half-assed political sloganeering that passed for insight among back-patting progressive types. Then, a few weeks ago I saw her perform ‘Paper Planes’ on Letterman and really liked the song. It’s an easy song to like- looping the ridiculously great Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’- and it works, including M.I.A’s crappy “rapping” and the conflation of gunshots and cash register sounds with ‘Rump Shaker’ is clever and post-modern and really does say a lot…although it begs the question: Why is Uffie the most hated hipster rapper out there and M.I.A, a critical darling? Don’t answer that, I don’t care.

A little while later on one of Tom Breihan’s podcasts, he played a remix of ‘Paper Planes’ featuring actual rappers Bun B and Rich Boy. The song is really, really great, as Bun and Rich Boy destroy M.I.A on a technical level but also content-wise. Between this song, his really smart verse about out-sourcing on Devin the Dude’s ‘Lil Girl Gon’, and countless lines on ‘Underground Kingz’, Bun’s probably the smartest political rapper out there. Rich Boy’s verse is some particularly clever gun-talk delivered with socio-political anger that M.I.A is too cool to express. Breihan, on his podcast, talks about how M.I.A and Bun drop these sort of general verses about violence while Rich Boy is like, in it- which is half-right. The best that can be said about M.I.A is her verse is so general and her sloganeering so simple, it’s not too annoying. To suggest that she’s doing anything close to what Bun B does is a little offensive. I’m not sure who orchestrated this song but as a song, especially if you don’t think too much about it, is really great.

But on the topic of “the other”, ‘Paper Planes Remix’ reeks of exploitation. This is particularly fun to pick apart because it hints at some things that have always bothered me about M.I.A, namely, a certain hypocrisy when it comes to her discussions of colonialism, imperialism, and issues of the third-world. It’s cool that she took the time to pick out two smart, politically-engaged and still entertaining southern rappers, but another aspect of it just feels off. M.I.A, starting with ‘Piracy Funds Terrorism’ has shown a tendency to avoid more conventionally accepted “smart” American rap for Southern rappers. Recall that she declined working with Kanye on ‘Late Registration’ but has since collaborated with Timbaland, Three-Six Mafia, and others. Part of me think it’s wonderfully contrarian, a way to validate much-maligned Southern rap but another part sees it as similar to the moans about hipster celebration of crack rap over “smart” rap. Many blame this Southern rap fixation on collaborator Diplo and indeed, that makes some sense, but recall this moronic blow-up with with Pitchfork, where she minimizes Diplo’s influence on her music:”[It is] insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed [meaning Diplo].” To me, the situation reads more like M.I.A using Diplo. Indeed, many might credit Diplo for the southern rap influences but one another level, he will act as a shield for exploitation criticisms. The white dude will get the shit and not the British/Sri Lankan female. It’s convenient for M.I.A to lash-out against those who credit Diplo for her success after the fact; if what Miss Arulpragasam says is true, she used the white boy’s whiteness to gain acceptance: M.I.A is more successful and well-known than Diplo.

The weird issues of exploitation go further as her problems with the pretty much accepted producer/rapper relationship is just one of many examples of taking American rap and pop on her terms. The accurate and much-discussed conflict with European Americans in regards to their treatment of the other, be it individuals or a whole culture, is the expectation that the other should come to them or meet them half-way. In the case of M.I.A, it is she who expects the rap culture to accept her. Is there any rapper out there who does not suffer a little bit of credit due to collaboration? M.I.A just happened to choose a white collaborator, so she can invoke her gender or race when proper credit is not given; she doesn’t just accept it. In this Status Ain’t Hood interview, she complains about Timbaland’s interest in (gasp!) making hits and surprise, surprise…Three-Six Mafia suck at collaborating with women! Did she expect these production legends to bend over backwards because M.I.A showed up? She also sounds incredibly British (not Sri Lankan) when she condescendingly speaks of Three-Six’s limited travel experience and carrying around their Oscar (as if DJ Paul and Juicy J aren’t aware of why that is funny…).

In the same interview, she has a similar tone discussing Baltimore Club producer Blaq Star (“He’s really really soulful”) which brings us back to Diplo. Diplo has, rightfully, caught a lot of shit for what many in Baltimore see as an exploitation of the city’s music. I guess it’s cool that now M.I.A is going straight to the source but I don’t see how that’s any different from vaguely uncomfortable genre-hopping experiments from Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. On the topic of that ‘Graceland’-level of exploitation, there’s M.I.A’s use of a Nigerian refugee named Afrikan Boy. When she describes the part of England from which Afrikan Boy comes, she sounds like some Long Island Jew who ended up in the wrong part of New York: “He’s this Nigerian kid, and he’s a refugee who lived in Woolwich, which is the worst neighborhood in London. I went there once in my life accidentally when I fell asleep on a night bus, and it was like the worst day of my life.” Besides the uncomfortable aspects of her description, it’s weird the way she uses conventional appeals to essentially “street cred” when describing the rapper. There’s also her use of Aborigine Kids on another track and the off-handed comment that now two of them are “in a young offenders’ institute.” I get the icky feeling that if M.I.A weren’t exploiting her own Sri Lankan heritage, she would be called-out for exploiting these kids and you know, not helping them out for anything beyond sticking them on her album.

What seems to excuse M.I.A’s cultural exploitation is her own minority status which, if she didn’t seem to constantly flaunt and address it, would be a little more acceptable. She was born in England and went with her family to Sri Lanka; her father was some kind of revolutionary. I would not disagree that her life was tough, but she was never as “third-world” as the people she speaks-up for. She eventually came back to England thanks to Western programs that aid refugees, got an education, became an artist and musician. Ultimately, her rather questionable connection to the third-world is fine but since it is she who plays games of “I gotcha” identity politics, she deserves to be called-out. She subscribes to and/or takes advantage of the rather weak assumption that all “oppressed” peoples share some kind of weird connection; Stanley Fish called this “boutique multiculturalism” meaning,: People weave in and out of differing “foreign” cultures, picking and choosing which aspects to embrace and which to ignore (like shopping in a boutique).

There’s a wonderful anecdote Fish uses to exemplify this kind of thinking and it comes from (I think) a Paul Theroux travel essay. In the essay, Theroux recounts traveling through a Muslim country and chatting it up with a cab driver who happened to have a Literature degree (this is off the top of my head, so the exact details may be off). Theroux and the cab driver waxed poetically about classics of literature and then Theroux, thinking he with a completely like-minded liberal-arts type, asked the driver his opinion on the Rushdie fatwa. Much to Theroux’s surprise, the driver slammed on his breaks and angrily ranted murderous threats against Rushdie. The point being, this moronic assumption that people all over the world who share certain qualities, be it oppression or education- are “just like us”, is wrong! One can imagine M.I.A in the foolish spot of Theroux and not the Muslim cabbie, as she sat in Three-Six Mafia’s studio and heard them preach “backwards” expectations of female rappers or stand in shock when Timbaland drops “baby girl, go to your teepee”…

Written by Brandon

October 4th, 2007 at 9:19 pm


Support Your Local, Prick Independent Music Store Pt. 2: Indie vs. Mom & PopCommenting on yesterday’s rant, Noz rightfully pointed out that I “should draw a distinction between ‘Mom & Pop,’ as in the general interest, privately owned community catering record store, and ‘Indie,’ the cooler than thou underground/specialty spot” adding that it is “the former is what suffers the most from the mega stores.”. I would certainly agree that the indie-ish stores have more of a core audience but I’d also add that I have an equal lack of sympathy for the Mom and Pops. The illusion that something non-corporate or “underground” is automatically better or worth supporting on principle alone, is something I grew out of by the time I got to college. Most Mom and Pops are run with the same degree of ruthlessness and disinterest in music as a Best Buy or Wal-Mart. I was recently at a Mom and Pop I frequent and heard the owner, pushing around the employees before telling them “Put that Taleeb Kwalee display out” and walking out the door.

The Mom and Pop can rip you off or fuck you over because they don’t have to answers to higher-ups. They are corporate stores with a martyr complex (they’re being run into the ground, you know) so they justify their shady tactics. For five years, I worked at a Mom and Pop video store and in that time, never missed a day of work that I didn’t find a replacement for, worked just about every Holiday (because the owner would never schedule herself or her daughter to work on such days), and when I got a real job, which significantly cut-down my hours, they let me go.

On Christmas, the only holiday they closed up for, they would sometimes leave a note on the door claiming that they would be open on Christmas. On December 26th, the manager would tell you to charge the customers for not returning the movie on Christmas day unless they tell you they came up yesterday to find the store closed. I simply didn’t do this because I felt more of a connection to the customers than the store but the fact those tactics, forcing employees to lie and manipulate, remind me of the complaints regularly mentioned about big-name stores.

At first, I was idealistic about working in a Mom and Pop (and used the non-corporate cred. to get girls, just mention some anti-corporate signifiers and the panties drop!) but events like the Great Christmas Hustle of 2004 made me realize this wasn’t any different than working for a corporation. I stuck around because I was too scared to find another job and you could do shit like smoke weed behind the building or play softball in the parking lot but even those fun times, I would’ve traded for a Thanksgiving off and a decent pay raise.

In retrospect, I realize that had I worked at a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, as diligently and for that length of time, I probably would have rose to some kind of managerial position and maybe even gained some kind of health benefits. At this Mom and Pop (and many I’d imagine), the possibility to move-up is non-existent because the owners function as the workers as well and while idealistic types see that as somehow warm or human, it really just means you interact with the person that fucks you in the ass instead of never seeing them because they sit behind a desk hundreds of miles away.

I was at a friend’s house a few weeks ago and flipping through the channels, the friend’s roommate asked to stop on a channel showing some super-obvious documentary against Wal-Mart. Wanting to spare the room an anti-Wal-Mart rant, Monique blurted out “I love Wal-Mart” and I smugly concurred (because a real discussion of Wal-Mart’s good and bad qualities wasn’t going to develop). The smug roommate (No disrespect to you P.K, but you gots to chill) responded in a voice suggesting a more relevant counter-point than the one he had, said “Oh, you’ll eat at Holy Frijoles and shop at Wal-Mart?!” (I’ll explain Holy Frijoles in a moment). He thought he was somehow finding a discrepancy between us happening to eat at some hipster restaurant earlier in the evening and shopping at Wal-Mart. I seriously forgot that anyone around my age still held such simplistic, black and white opinions on independent and corporate entities which, as I said yesterday, are really easy to have when you’re young, well-off, and single and therefore, don’t have to shop at a place like Wal-Mart.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Holy Frijoles. Holy Frijoles is a sort of hipster Mexican restaurant located in one of Maryland’s most popular bastions of both coolness and Balda’more-ness, Hampden, MD. Hampden has the unique population of young, decent-minded hipsters and lower-middle class White trash (“Dude, there’s so many ugly people around here”-JJ), somehow living nearly together, mostly peacefully, primarily due to their united negrophobia. Seriously, black people just don’t live in the surrounding area known as Hampden. My father at the ripe old age of 18, somehow managed numerous Royal Farms Stores in Baltimore (dude’s a go-getta but was raising me along with my 17 year old mom, so he had to be) including one in Hampden and from a very young age, spoke of the hypocrisy of “bohemian” places like Hampden which uses the lower-middle class whites to appear anti-elitist, all the while scoffing at the occasional black customer and/or refusing to hold the door for black truck drivers carting in their cigarettes and donuts (Dad also voted for George Bush; The world is complicated.).

One of the most striking things about Holy Frijoles is the way one can see back into the kitchen, revealing a cramped, dirty room totally out of ‘Das Boot’ full of black people making my 8 dollar burrito! Wonderful! You will never see these guys out of the kitchen and in the restaurant, the closet you’ll get to an ethnicity “on the floor” is those indie guys that look like Fez from ‘That 70s Show’- it’s like God created this specific indie type for the indie chick who won’t date black dudes but needs to rep her liberal arts education open-mindedness and goes for some American Apparel-wearing Beaner…but I’ve digressed now haven’t I? The point is, if the jerkoff who runs Holy fucking Frijoles ran a big business it seems like it’d be a lot like a Wal-Mart.

Written by Brandon

August 22nd, 2007 at 9:23 pm

Posted in Indie, Wal-Mart, hipster


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