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Splice Today: Your Guide to Blaqstarr’s Contributions to /\/\/\Y/\

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Until recently, Blaqstarr’s been pretty quiet–save for “Choke Hold” and “Temperature’s Rising”, two dusted kinda-Club tracks that only popped up on YouTube (one has since been removed) and the only interesting thing on Talib Kweli’s tight-pants rap attempt, Idle Warship. Then this Spring, now signed to M.I.A’s NEET label (also home to Baltimore’s Rye Rye), Blaqstarr released “Oh My Darling”, a strange, brooding dance song with Club music informing it rather than acting as its be-all and end-all.

And for those worried he’d gone relatively “pop”, they should be reminded that there wasn’t even necessarily a father to his Club sound—along with Say Wut, he completely shifted the style of Baltimore Club—but still, he also dropped a brilliant “raw version” of “Oh My Darling” that sends Frank Ski’s “Doo Doo Brown” through distorted guitar and grabs liberally from Scottie B’s classic “Niggaz Fightin” before it becomes a fog of echoing vocals and shuffling drums. It was par for the course for Blaqstarr, taking a weird R & B record and turning it into a stuttering Club epic—the only difference was, the weird R & B record was his too.

And he produced the best songs on the new M.I.A record. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest Blaq’s influence on /\/\/\Y/\ goes beyond the songs he had a clear hand in. The whole record sounds like Blaqstarr’s weird insular dance music–I think it’s why some people say the record’s “half-baked” or whatever.

Perhaps, the only genuinely lasting byproduct of the early to mid-2000s out-of-town embrace of Baltimore Club music is Blaqstarr’s slow-growing success outside his city. Though it’s not the leap from local hero to the next Timbaland so many Club producers seem to seek—it’s not even DJ Class’ temporarily raised profile with last year’s “I’m the Shit”–Blaqstarr is the best example of Baltimore Club producer leaving the city and doing something. I took a look at his contributions to the new M.I.A over at Splice Today:

On M.I.A’s last album Kala, Baltimore’s Blaqstarr produced “The Turn” and allowed producer Switch to turn Club classic “Hands Up Thumbs Down” into “World Town”. Now, Blaqstarr’s behind the two best tracks on /\/\/\Y/\ (“XXXO” and “It Iz What It Iz”) as well as every bonus track on the “deluxe edition.” While the 1000th think piece on M.I.A’s latest shows up in your RSS feed, I thought I’d narrow the focus a bit and look at the contributions of a Baltimore Club game-changer.

Written by Brandon

July 15th, 2010 at 8:52 pm

GRAMMY Thoughts: Hip-Hop Matures Without Getting All "Mature"*


Like some weird, natural version of “bling”—mind the quotes—M.I.A moved through the stage subtly flaunting her in-stomach child…something universal and oddly, also way more jarring and discomforting to most than a diamond Jesus piece. M.I.A created a wonderful too-real moment, invoking body issues, TV standards and practices (recall when Lucille Ball was pregnant, the word couldn’t be uttered), and the right kind of fuck-it-all “this is my child!” pride all at once. It was “hip-hop” in that stupid nebulous sense of the word meaning “awesome” or “not giving a shit” and whatever else you want it to mean.

Like so much of hip-hop, it was about aggressively flipping the expected and making a salient–if easy to misinterpret and kinda confusing–point. And Kanye, Jay-Z, Wayne, and T.I upended expectations by waddling out like the forever cynical Rat Pack, dressed nicely, moving politely, but spitting out a song that good or bad, is sonically, a sick slow burn posse cut.

I called the beat “Unicron on his last legs”. Live, it was more some acid-trip Vegas shit, with a synth-line turned into a guitar-line ripped from Kanye’s hard-edged beats like “Two Words” but no less a little terrifying, especially when it was still being rapped with a casual effrontery, an “I’m in a dirty ass rap club not the Grammy’s” attitude that was still reverent enough of the whole spectacle.

We’re used to this and way weirder stuff but remember, this is the Grammy’s we’re talking about and so, pleasantly and politely performing a song like this, as an art-pop (versus Kanye’s Pop Art) indie star nine months pregnant wanders across the stage is pretty fucking subversive. And like, Erykah Badu twitter-ing her pregnancy, the performative aspect of the M.I.A made it more beautiful, more real, less contrived. A group of black rappers rhyme atop a pregnant London/Sri-Lankan bleating out a hook; that’s something a little more real and a little less showbiz. Coming not long after that inexplicably bizarre Katie Couric interview with Lil Wayne, it’s fun to see the unfortunate clichés and exorbitancies of hip-hop so finely fucked around with. The disconnect between what’s being said about rap and what rap is grows wider.

Wasn’t it absurd to see Ms. Katie wheeling out the cringe-inducing “He’s got the teeth and the tattoos” spiel for a rapper like Wayne? As her awful set-up before the humanizing punchline began, we see images of Wayne and he’s not looking “gangsta” at all. He’s rocking brightly colored BAPE or he’s pacing around the stage sheepishly smiling in V-neck wearing a tiny backpack. Couric’s conceit–I’m going to humanize this horrible in your eyes rapper—seems no longer absurd just to rap fans. With Wayne, there’s not that much to “get over” even if you are an outsider, as he’s not hoodied or mean-mugging or anything. The interview confirms your expectations, it doesn’t negate them.

Similarly weird (and even more relevatory) than “Swagger” was Wayne’s performance of “Tie My Hands”. It’s tough to make a song clearly about Katrina as images of Katrina project in the background and not seem really obvious, but Wayne did it. The light jazz re-interpretation of the already light Carter III version works in hooking non hip-hop listeners and also, acts as brilliant counter-point to the explosion of New Orleans music history that makes the history Katrina wiped away more palpable. He’s starts with the pained devastation of his own Katrina yelp and ends with the pleasures of the past by resurrecting them live. That’s some Dungeon Family, Ralph Ellison “that same pleasure and pain” type shit.

Even as T.I yelped out his verse before he’s going to jail for some real dumb shit and Lil Wayne’s still pushing purple like it’s not dangerous drug that’ll stop your heart and uh Kanye’s rocking a , hip-hop’s maturing without losing its plurality.

*It’s important to note that the most maturing though, was going on in the “indie” world as back when Kanye was annoying because he thought his soul beats needed Jon Brion’s unfortunate strings and mellotrons and chamberlains and shit, not annoying because he thought it next-level to sample Urban Outfitters in-store music staples, he was just as interested in people like M.I.A. Then though, M.I.A wasn’t interested in him. M.I.A rejected Kanye West’s invite to appear on Late Registration.

This is a fascinating end-note to Noz’s A Labyrinth, A Maze (2) in the sense that it muddles the whole “issue” further and further. One thing’s clear—the choice is yours whether it’s good or bad or anything—shit is reversed or flipped or some shit. Usually you know, it’s the mainstream artists that are behind on the times, no?

What’s changed other than it’s way more acceptable—because of Kanye’s fervent pushing of genre, borders, style the whole deal—to be a so-called indie artist and appear on-stage with Kanye West is now, there’s a lot more money in it. Or Diplo told her it was cool or Nylon magazine. Or maybe the whole “I’ll be preggers while I do it” was her London-born, third-world affected version of bucking the system? Intentions don’t matter much when it works and on the Grammy’s Sunday night, M.I.A—and the “Swagger” crew—made it work.

Written by Brandon

February 11th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

"Swagger Like Us" Is Good But Not Very Fun

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The boner-kill feeling that’s spread across the internet when “Swagger Like Us” wasn’t the event record of the year–or really an event record at all–isn’t a surprise, but it’s unfortunate because it’s closed too many ears to one of the weirder and rewind-able songs in quite some time. “Swagger’s not ready for the club and it won’t get the real head’s heads’ bopping either; it’s a truly out-there song from really, the only four rappers that still sell records and even sort of give a shit about rapping or artistry. They just also happen to four of the most delusional, navel-gazing performers around; stuff is complicated like that.

“Swagger Like Us” is exactly what comes out when two really creative rappers who’ve been spoiled their entire lives collaborate with two pretty-smart rappers who weren’t spoiled but think they worked harder than they really did to get where they’ve gotten, meet on tape. If there’s a problem with the song, it’s that the whole thing just feels disconnected from what fans of these superstar rappers would want to hear. Again though, that’s exactly why it’s a really good song. It’s a dissapointment but it’s still fascinating and good. This is not a calculated “banger” and it’s not a super-star collabo that’ll sell ringtones or iTunes downloads or anything. This is a great album cut that’s also a victim of the Internet hype and obsessive-ness where a song that’s yet to be played on the radio for an album that doesn’t come out for a few weeks, is already being discussed as a disappointment.

Both Tom Breihan and Sasha Frere-Jones tellingly invoked the ‘Oceans’ movies but a more apt movie comparison would be those weird times when Hollywood lets some art-film director make a blockbuster–say, Alfonso Cuaron directing Harry Potter–or those even weirder times when a big, Hollywood director does a small movie (like when the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ director made ‘The Weather Man’).

“Swagger’s a fucked-up, inverted version of one of those DJ Khaled type songs. It’s not trying to be one. This song is not a failed “banger”. The synths don’t bounce around playfully or sound fake-menacing, they stumble in with enough fuzz and buzz to rival a Burzum record. Instead of an annoying Akon or T-Pain hook, there’s an awkwardly chopped M.I.A sample (it’s still annoying though). While the drums are defiant, they aren’t club-ready at all. The drums are all about production tricks like the strange hi-hat, an occasional addition to the drum pattern that’s got some insane low-end (basically his ‘Takeover’ drums), and really artful removal of those drums for extended periods of time. Kanye’s beat sounds like Unicron on his last legs: grumbling electronics, weirdo sound effects, and just an overall messy muddle of sound. According to this T.I interview, the beat for “Swagger” is “[Kanye's] first beat…since the untimely passing of his mom.” Put in that context, maybe “Swagger Like Us” is the sound of someone devastated, trying to drum-up the enthusiasm to make a DJ Khaled-style jam and just not having it. Most people don’t seem to like it, but the sloppy immediacy of “Swagger Like Us” and “Jockin’ Jay-Z” makes for Kanye’s most engaging and humane beats since ‘The College Dropout’ or at least, ‘Be’.

But then, there’s the verses, which sound fun and enthusiastic, but particularly vapid as well. In a sense, the contrast works. A beat this brooding with brooding rapswould fit together in a music-critic-friendly way, but the bigger offense isn’t that nothing’s being said, but that those nothings aren’t being said in particularly creative ways. Creativity wise, Kanye tries the hardest but his attempt at humor or weirdness or whatever just doesn’t work. That Kanye, who presumably set the tone with the beat, would decide to go really goofball on his verse is strange. If there’s validity to that ‘Oceans’ comparison–or rather, where that comparison gets really strong–it’s Kanye doing the rap equivalent of Clooney and company’s insular goof-offs at the beginning of this song. The feeling is that Kanye’s trying out his most gleefully groan-inducing lines (“shit and the urine”, “thousand-trillion”, Columbus and Pilgrims) in an attempt to match Lil Wayne’s most retarded punchlines, so the two can laugh about it later on. Jay-Z and Wayne bring it back by doing what they do and doing it well. They act as the perfect build-up for T.I’s song-ending fury and negate Kanye’s low-energy, pranksterism. Each rapper rises above the previous rapper’s intensity and even though none of them really say anything (and it sure would be nice if they did), there’s a palpable level of excitement to the track. Who knows how or even who decides the order in which they appear on the song, but it would seem, that falls under the umbrella of producing and so, Kanye was wise to start the song off and hand it over to the others.

The song “Swagger Like Us” seems closest to another weirdo multi-rapper jam from this year, “You’re Everything” by Bun B (featuring Rick Ross, David Banner, and MJG) and produced by Mr. Lee. That song too, is a kind of inverted posse cut and features a decidedly weird and sophisticated beat, but unlike “Swagger”, there’s no dropping-the-ball content-wise. “You’re Everything”, a song about the South and Pimp C–it’s also subtle, unlike “Swagger”–sounds like a bunch of like-minded rappers getting together and being real with one another and expressing emotion. “Swagger” sounds like a group of friends getting together and all being too-cool to do anything but talk some shit.

Written by Brandon

September 4th, 2008 at 4:39 am

M.I.A Just Want To Take Your Money: Scottie B’s ‘Paper Planes’ Remix


-‘Paper Planes’ (Scottie B Remix) off Homeland Security Remixes.

-‘Bmore Club Slam’ by Scottie B and Wale off Wale’s Mixtape About Nothing.

On her own type of cultural imperialism, M.I.A’s grabbed this and that from the Baltimore Club scene recently. Blaq Starr provided some production on ‘Kala’, has gone on tour with her, and Starr’s protégé Rye-Rye, a teenage girl from Baltimore has joined her on-stage and appears on another ‘Paper Planes’ remix. With all that in mind, it’s hard not to read Baltimore Club legend Scottie B’s remix of M.I.A’s ‘Paper Planes’ as a little contemptuous. He speeds her vocals up into an even more annoying nag or slows them down into a blurry drag, and punctuates it all with a persistent vocal chopped and reorganized to say “…why can’t you see?/M.I.A just want to take your money.”

Scottie B’s been a DJ since the late 80s, involved in Baltimore Club since its inception and still co-owns/runs ‘Unruly Records’. His style is decidedly throwback, almost all classic club-breaks and tons of House and Hip-House signifiers which he consistently finds new ways to flip and fuck around with; he’s both a hardcore protector of the scene and open-minded celebrator of out-of-town “BMore club” love. He’s bitter enough—see that shirt above—but he always goes out of his way to state that support for the music is important no matter what or where it comes from.

And so, he’s rightly jumped on the Baltimore Club remix trend, sending out remixes for hipster darlings like M.I.A, Santogold, and Wale, but sending them out as uncompromising all-out Baltimore Club jams. There’s no compromise here. Only the real thing. ‘Paper Planes’ gets the same destruction and then, rehabilitation as any other song ripe with samples would receive on its way through the Scottie B, Baltimore Club assembly line. When even people from Baltimore call Spank Rock or Diplo “Baltimore Club” and tell you how “crazy” it was when M.I.A brought out “this little black girl Rye-Rye”, this is important.

Rather than outwardly complain, Scottie takes the opportunity to do the music he’s known for more than two decades right. One of the best aspects of the remix is the way he grabs the original ‘Paper Planes’ gun-shots and uses them for rat-a-tat percussion- the way it’s used on a song like say, ‘Safe’ by KW Griff (which can be found, amongst other places, on Rod Lee ‘Vol. 5’, a nationally distributed Baltimore Club mix/album). Scottie B spins samples from ‘Paper Planes in all directions, speeding them up and slowing them down and sticking a layer a classic house kick-drum and rumbling bass under it all. Loud enough, it makes you feel kind of woozy and sorta makes the original version feel like a waste of time.

And of course, there’s those vocal edits, “all I wanna do is take your money” and “MIA just want to take your money”. It could just be Scottie B doing what he does or it’s some not-too subtle address of the London/Sri-Lankan’s questionable interest in Baltimore music and this whole half-contemptible (not totally contemptible, mind you) hipster trend that’s got everybody upset or at least, thinking.

Contrast it with ‘Bmore Club Slam’ off Wale’s new mixtape. It’s a song that Wale said he commissioned from Scottie, a symbolic connection between the DC rapper and Baltimore Clubbers. It’s not a remix so it’s a little different, but it’s interesting that Wale’s basically allowed to run circles around Scottie’s beat and do whatever he wants

Written by Brandon

June 5th, 2008 at 9:46 pm

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