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Spin: “Inside the Mind of the Dirty South.”

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Ben Westhoff and I e-mailed back and forth about Southern hip-hop and some of the ideas in his recent book Dirty South which I really can’t recommend enough. Most of the people reading this probably “know” a lot of the stuff Ben’s talking about in the book, but he frames it around some really great, up-close journalist type profiles and asserts a lot of the things we on the blogosphere have been talking about. One really cool thing is how he uses lots of quotes from hip-hop bloggers (including myself, but also Noz a bunch of times, Doc Zeus and others) and well, that’s really ballsy but also necessary I think and well, not a lot of writers would’ve thought to include “us” as sources, you know? Go buy it assholes!

There was indeed a bit of defiance in Luke Campbell’s booty jams; he said that New York hip-hop’s four elements had little to do with folks down in South Florida. “We didn’t write on the walls in Miami, we booty-shaked,” he told me. In fact, the broadest stereotype of Southern rap is that it’s about appealing to your body, instead of your mind. Though I personally believe there’s defiance built into that philosophy, saying it’s political is probably a stretch. But, still, in those early days, I wouldn’t say there was a contrarian impulse — or even an attempt to give the people what they needed, rather than what they wanted. Perhaps that’s another definition of conscious rap…

Written by Brandon

June 25th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Spin, Spin column, the South

Village Voice, Sound of the City: “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States”


Here’s a discussion with Bertolain Elysee, one of the curators of the “Country Rap 2″ film event which kicks-off this weekend at the Maysles Cinema. In addition to all the films, G-Side will be performing this Saturday night. If you’re in the area, I’d strongly encourage you to check it out.

The Maysles Institute’s documentary film series “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States” and its accompanying program “Katrina: Five Years Later”–both opening this weekend–tie the rich spirit and deep history of Southern hip-hop to recent tragedies like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Films about Miami bass (2 Live Crew: Banned in the U.S.A), bounce (Ya Heard Me?), Southern rap (Dirty States Of America, The Carter), Delta blues (The Land Where Blues Began), and New Orleans jazz (Jazz Parades) stand alongside histories of the Black Panther Party (Lowndes County Freedom Party) and the Miami University football team (The U). Alabama up-and-comers G-Side will perform at the venue on Saturday. (And all of this in New York City, a/k/a the town that booed OJ Da Juiceman!) Via e-mail, we spoke to co-curator Bertolain Elysee about the event’s expansive intentions, why libertarians should love 2 Live Crew’s Luke, and Lil Wayne and Lil Boosie’s particular kind of political activism.

Written by Brandon

August 20th, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase Pt. II: How We Got Here.

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The focus on Kanye West and Lil Wayne as “post-lyrical” rappers and for the sake of simplification, the post-lyrical rappers, is due to both their popularity and favorable critical reception. They also transcend or just don’t fuck around with a lot of the cliches of rap (although they’re slowly building a whole new group of cliches for future rappers) and so, the moral quandaries about crime glorification and all that mostly doesn’t apply to either of these guys, while say, a discussion about Young Jeezy (certainly post-lyrical) would be hard to go into without sort of discussing that stuff.

Yes, Wayne might fall into the “crack rap” category but his work, especially as of the past few years, seems less interested in it and drug dealing’s only invoked as some fucked-up foggy memory from his teens or a violent/drug-dealing threat/boast is now used to exemplify his strength and power as a rapper. Like Chuck D. saying his “uzi weighs a ton” or something, it’s a boast about skills transferred onto well-worn rap cliches.

Kanye of course, has never dealt with raps about drugs and violence and has wisely balanced a persona based on his lack of experience/familiarity with “the life” with a persona that doesn’t remind listeners every few minutes that he indeed, does not rap about those things. This doesn’t make these guys “better” than rappers following the “Nas formula”–indeed, Wayne falls back on gun talk when he feels like it and Kanye’s got plenty of clothes and shoe references to keep him afloat–it just makes them different.

Their basic eschewing of violence and/or relative refusal to fall back on well-worn rap cliches is something of a return to the “Native Tongues” stuff. The main focus for Kanye and Wayne is fun and an all-encompassing need to stand-out. Sure, it doesn’t have the hyper-explicit politics of the Tongues who indeed, wanted to stand out in part, to oppose (what we now call) “gangsta rap” but part of critical and popular embrace of my post-lyrical posterboys is that they bring a rarified and individual voice back to hyper-corporatized hip-hop. Whether you like them or not, Kanye and Wayne are very strange and very unpredictable pop stars.

In the first part of this, Noz asked me how De La Soul didn’t engage in the same kind of “weirdo wordplay” that I connected to the post-lyricists or to my super-obvious examples of Kool Keith and Grand Puba. The short answer is, De La Soul do engage in that kind of wordplay (and do it better). The slightly longer answer is, De La Soul are total fucking geniuses and completely transcend whatever era or trend or whatever me or any other dopey rap pseudo-scholar sticks them in. The long answer is, De La Soul do the weirdo wordplay game, but they do it within the frame of conventional, metered, rhyming raps. They are technically proficient, lyrically smart, and purposefully sloppy as well. De La Soul’s wordplay still fits within the expected understanding of “rap” and “rapping” while Kanye and Wayne don’t always do that and it seems, their fans and detractors sometimes have a hard time defining what exactly these guys do on the mic.

This is interesting because when both of them started out, Kanye and Wayne were fairly conventional rappers. Like most trends or slowly-gestating almost-trends, the guys that best exemplify or represent the trend are to some extent, bandwagon jumpers. While snobs and nostalgics will completely dismiss the rapping on The College Dropout and Late Registration as not very good–arguing about technical ability is a waste of time and a task that will never result in full agreement– there’s undoubtedly a significant shift in Kanye’s rapping on the first two albums when compared to Graduation. His flow is significantly slowed-down (something I think, he swiped from post-retirement Jay-Z, which makes this whole thing way more complicated) and his focus went from funny punchlines and rap references to near-nonsense word-association. Example: “They got the CD, then got to see me/Drops gems [pronounced like "Gym"] like/I dropped out of P.E”.

Lil Wayne has always been a very good rapper, even when he was like, fourteen. The critic-created story arc of his rapping career was developed by a bunch of dudes that never heard anything he did before Tha Carter and made jokes about CASH-MONEY, but retroactively bought all those CDs for 6 bucks used and pretend like they’ve been bumping Tha G-Code since 1999. Wayne has always been something of a throwback–or was before his mixtape blitz which radically changed his style–and even in the Hot Boys, he was doing the Nas formula by way of his more immediate Southern influences, while Juvenile (a very good rapper too) is strictly or mostly “Southern”. Wayne’s “mixtape” flow on the other hand, grew increasingly odd and experimental and strayed ever further from the “Nas formula”.

The medium of the mixtape allowed Wayne a place to do whatever he wanted and the availability of these mixtapes, coupled with the hyper-immediacy of the internet allowed direct, non-corporate/non-audience-tested feedback about these “songs”. Listening to the Wayne of “Georgia Bush” now sounds quantifiable when compared to the Wayne of the stuff on Drought 3 or Carter 3 (or at least, the weirder parts of Carter 3). Example: “They cannot see [Nazi] me/Like Hitler”.

There’s also a lot more conventional melody in Kanye’s songs and more than enough singing and crooning in much of Wayne’s work. This too, has always been a part of their work, Dropout in particular, succeeded beyond being a weird, “conscious” rap album (which is what it is) because Kanye’s melodies were all sung and performed by him and we, the listeners could carry a tune just as well. The sing-song feel of the album made it relate-able and memorable. Wayne’s flow has always been more melodic and bouncy. Undoubtedly, this is the result of being a Southern rapper and in Southern rap, conventional musicality is much more pervasive. In that sense, Wayne and Kanye are just bringing to the forefront a key part of their success because they now are famous enough that we’ll even eat up their auto-tune experiments and also because, popular music is way more ready for auto-tune experiments.

Which brings us to the next reason for post-lyricism: the changed pop music climate. The example that’s often referenced–and again, the one that every dumb Popular Music Prof will be using in thirty years–is Timbaland, particularly the baby sample in Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”. In Timbaland and that beat in particular, so many of the trends that now pervade pop, R & B, and rap can be traced: weird merging of experimentalism with straight-forward dance music, electronics over instrumentation and/or sampling, the Southern rap takeover, a weird Futuristic aesthetic, etc. The “Nas formula” just doesn’t work as well over top of skittering synths and rave-ready drums (look no further than “Hero” by Nas as proof) and so, as the sound of the music-makers changed, so did the raps put over that music. That’s not to say auto-tune warbling or half-rhyming raps sound all that good over electronic beats either, but it makes a lot more sense.

Additionally, there’s more music in the beats of Timbaland, the Neptunes, etc. Once again, this has a lot to do with the South’s musical influence on rap. The open spaces in the beats fit the open space of the South’s landscape, the South’s rich musical history coupled with a more laid-back, relative lack of New York hustle and bustle, encourages the playing and mastering of musical instruments, and the importance of the church and church music in Southern communities makes so much of the black Southern population keenly aware of musicality. Singing and melody made their way into the raps and rhymes and slowly, through guys like Timbaland (and many, many, many others that will get lost in the shuffle that simplifies music history for textbooks), this all wormed its way into the pop landscape. Rapping tightly constructed rhymes (with or without nonsense style wordplay) and then getting a crew of dudes to shout a hook just doesn’t work over the sounds constructed by the new guard of rap producers.

Written by Brandon

September 22nd, 2008 at 4:01 am

How Big Is Your World? Good Rap Songs.

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-Common featuring Pharrell ‘Announcement’
Click here to download ‘Announcement’
First, there was the ‘Planet Rock’/electro homage ‘Universal Mind Control’ and now there’s the Biggie-aping ‘Announcement’. That rubbery, back-and-forth guitar, Common switching up some lines but totally mimicking Biggie’s flow on ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’, as well as a quick reference to ‘Me & My Bitch’ (and a Puffy reference by Pharrell), it seems like maybe this new Common album will be some kind of hip-hop history lesson or something? The beat does a better job of sounding like an old, classic beat while retaining producer signature than Kanye’s weirdo Dilla attempts. The female “Uh!”, the guitar-sound approximation of ‘Just Playing’s bassline sound close enough to connect to the Biggie rarity, but there’s also some crazy cornball fluttering synths, and crazy marching band booms that every half-perfect, half-annoying Neptunes production has.

The rap history thing’s half cool because it’s not like Common’s saying anything interesting anymore (and he’s out-rapped by Pharrell here), but it’s annoying because this is the dude that in ‘94 was half-shitting on dudes like Biggie for ruining hip-hop, but uh, ultimately it’s sort of exciting. Still, it’s important to remember that the past two Common albums had these great singles and then were an album of boring, meandering turds, so, we’ll see, but so far, this hip-hop history concept is a good look. As usual though, ‘Invincible Summer’s already conceptually muddled because you know, it’s release date is in the fall?

-B.O.M.B ‘Over Here’
Click here to download ‘Over Here’
This song’s just no bullshit. Under three-minutes, these really tight drums, and justB.O.M.B–”Baltimore On My Back”–rapping straight-forward stuff that’s spare and direct and descriptive and nothing more or less. There’s a good mix of influences here as well. Like so many smart thugs, he owes a great deal to ‘Pac, but there’s some golden-age New York influence in his delivery and the beat–especially those Primo-ish drums–but it’s aware and internalizes more recent rap trends. The all-keyboard aspect of the beat, the purposefully simple and immediate lyrics, and the filling it all-out with ad-libs, show a relatively traditionalist rapper that didn’t turn the radio off in 1998.

This is from B.O.M.B’s ‘Testers’ EP which came out in May and sounds like what a lot of good rapper’s albums would sound like if the just cut-out all the crap and only gave you good songs. More rappers need to release EPs. For awhile, mixtapes had the casual, tossed-off effect of EPs but they got bloated or just terrible quick. The EP is an ideal introduction to a new rapper and B.O.M.B’s smart to take advantage of it as a way to release music. The other really-great song ‘Sunday’ from the EP can be found on Al Shipley’s Government Names blog. I met B.O.M.B and talked to him for a few minutes a few months ago and he just gave me a copy of his CD which you’d think is the kind of thing more rappers would do but they uh, don’t.

-Flying Lotus ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Click here to download ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Is this song based on the cowbell breakdown from New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’? I even sent Flying Lotus a fucking MySpace message about it because it was bugging me so much. He didn’t answer. There’s a noisy, weird side of Flying Lotus’ work that should get more attention than post-Dilla/Madlib knob twiddling. The best electronic music’s all about feeling and atmosphere. It’s silly to listen to mid-tempo beats when there’s not someone rapping on them. The big joke of Lotus’ ‘Robo Tussin’ remix of ‘A Milli’ was that his weirdo synth-fart bliss-out still wasn’t as weird as Bangladesh’s original. Maybe that wasn’t the intention and Lotus is just unfairly categorized with think they’re next-level “producers” like Madlib or Prefuse 73 because ‘Parisian Goldfish’ is pretty amped-up and ready for a party. No contemplation or head-nodding to this song necessary.

Everything’s sort of maxed-out and a little full of static and squelchy and anchored by this cowbell workout break that Lotus puts every production trick over. It gets chopped-up, it awkwardly repeats, he adds more sounds over top of it, and he piles the break atop itself into a mechanical CD-skip-like repetition and then takes it away to just play the loop to glorious effect a minute and fifty second or so in.

-ABN (Z-Ro & Trae) ‘Still Throwed’
Click here to download ‘Still Throwed’
Imagine ‘Get Throwed’ from Bun B’s ‘Trill’ but with Z-Ro doing more than the hook and Trae rapping instead of Pimp C, Jay-Z, and Jeezy and then some Linkin Park-ish keyboards all over it. Between this and the Linkin Park-ish ‘Shoot Me Down’ from ‘Tha Carter 3′–but pretending Busta’s ‘We Made It’ never existed–maybe Linkin Park are sort of good? Don’t front on that ‘Numb/Encore’ “song” either. This song’s interesting in contrast with the ‘Trill’ version in the sense that everything’s just down a few notches.

The chugging guitars are mixed lower, and the stoned, bubbling electronics of the original no longer flutter in the background, they’re slowed-down but louder and darker. ‘Get Throwed’ was a party song about getting high, ‘Still Throwed’ is a few years later, doing the same thing and it not being fun anymore…which is pretty much what every Z-Ro and Trae song’s about. The key lyric here is Z-Ro’s list of “same old”s, especially “strippers at the club dancing on the same old poles”. It’s not a surprise coming from Z-Ro, but this sense of being just as bored and disinterested by those three big, stupid hip-hop ideals of cool and power (drug dealers, girl, strip clubs) is really smart and honest. It’s like when he raps about treating lesbians and gay dudes properly on ‘T.H.U.G’. I’ve never been that into Trae and next to Z-Ro especially, Trae’s gruff voice sounds jarring.

-Ratatat ‘Black Heroes’
Click here to download ‘Black Heroes’
Ratatat’s schtick is pretty simple: Make every instrument sound like a synth or just be a synth, harmonize that shit, and make it sound like the music in a sad part of a video game. The closer of their latest album ‘LP3′ is the particularly affecting ‘Black Heroes’ and it really does bring up the feeling of like, a film-strip you’d watch in history class about the contributions of African-Americans. Imagine poorly-pencilled sketches of Marcus Garvey and Rosa Parks moving past to the tune of this song. This YouTuber had the right idea accompanying the song to an image of the Tuskegee Airmen. I think ‘Black Heroes’ is trying to get at like the pure immediate sense of the triumph of history and victory that you can get into when you’re in like 3rd grade and Howard Zinn doesn’t mean anything yet.

Because of their Brooklyn roots and love of all things electronic and video gamey, Ratatat are often seeen as ironists but there’s really nothing ironic or funny about their music. They use all those sounds to move towards some weird, off-kilter sense of warmth and sincerity. These are kids who cried at the ending to Adventures of Lolo 2 and just took the beauty of electronics for granted. They’re way beyond the played-out Kraftwerk-ian sense of “we’re all mechanical and without emotions” and electronics will comment on that trope; it’s sort of the same thing T-Pain’s trying to do or Kanye does on Jeezy’s ‘Put On’.

Written by Brandon

July 29th, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Metal Lungies: Neptunes Beat Drop

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Once again, I was asked to contribute to Metal Lungies “beatdrop” series and this one’s even better than the last, with tons of great bloggers contributing and Mad Skillz, whose ‘From Where???’ Monique and I have been listening to a lot recently. It was also fun because I like the Neptunes but I’m not this super-fan, so I felt no need to span their career; I just went with gut-reactions beat I like from their later career when all their beats are either like minimalist noise or these like Vangelis-beautiful warm synth workouts. Anyways, my beats were: ‘Locked Away’ by NERD, ‘Frontin’, ‘Allure’ by Jay Z, ‘Lavish’ by Twista, and ‘Wamp Wamp’ from Clipse:

“It’s no surprise that The Neptunes dudes are basically these band nerds, especially on “Locked Away”, which starts off with what sounds like the cool kids in your high school jazz band goofily jamming before the winter concert, but eventually turns into a real song and a melody stumbles out. The entire thing feels almost tossed-off, which is sort of The Neptunes’ appeal. It’s hard to explain why or how the minimalist clap of a track by Chad and Pharrell gets in your head but it does and slowly, all of its complexities and weirdnesses pop up but never become clear. There’s not the club-ready resound of Timbaland in The Neptunes and from the outside, they’ve got none of Kanye West’s pop appeal, but they have it too — it’s weird. N*E*R*D’s a great example of how out-there The Neptunes are without even knowing it. It could’ve been a rock concession but instead it’s this weird funk-rock vanity project. The songs still have those Neptunes signifiers like heavy drums, lots of bass — it’s still totally rhythm-based — and best of all, this Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on-speed synth-line.”

Written by Brandon

July 21st, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Music Video Round-Up: A Milli, Killer Mike, Nappy Roots

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Lil Wayne: ‘A Mill’ (directed by Gil Green)

Like the song, the video for ‘A Milli’ feels half-complete and tossed-off. Also like the song, the video also grows more fascinating the more you come back to it. Director Gil Green has long been a fan of the single-take that’s not really a single-take but feels like one–see ‘Stay Fly’ or ‘Hell Yeah’—but those other videos gained energy or chaos through the immediacy of shaky cameras and long, loosely orchestrated action, ‘A Milli’ just casually walks through and never picks up or goes anywhere. It’s moment-to-moment, just like Wayne’s free-associative raps.

While no rapper’s gotten more hype in the past couple of years than Wayne, ‘A Milli’ as a song and video is the first thing he’s done that doesn’t feel at all compromised. Ultimately, ‘Tha Carter 3’ itself is a compromise, but everything about ‘A Milli’ highlights Wayne’s insularity. Like the best rap songs, it’s just a dive into the rapper’s head and the video matches it by giving us a kind of “Wayne uncut”. It’s a mini-documentary like those old Hollywood so-and-so “On the Set” things that sometimes run between films on Turner Classic. In the space between his trailer and the actual video shoot—for the next single that is—we get this really raw and complicated portrait of Lil Wayne. He only occasionally decides to rap along with the song, he takes a shit, he changes his clothes, he does a Leprechaun kick, he puts on a Presidential smile for fans who want a picture, he drinks two styrofoams cups of purple, and he munches on some food. Nothing cool, nothing bad-ass, just Wayne. Tom Breihan’s spoken about the way Wayne “challeng[es] ideas of rap stardom” and this video’s a perfect example. ‘A Milli’ is this weirdo freestyle that’s inexplicably turned into the song everybody loves but that doesn’t make it less of a weirdo freestyle. I would be perverse to try to turn this hit song into anything resembling a conventional video, so Green and Wayne don’t.

Killer Mike featuring Ice Cube: ‘Pressure’ (directed by Giovanni Hidalgo)

The ‘Pressure’ video exudes the anger of the song and gets its mix of fuck everybody for this bullshit anger and tough-minded, this is what we can about it fervor perfectly. It never even tries to be conventionally coherent and constantly works with point and counter-point. It operates on like conventional, classic film grammar something movie directors rarely do and music video directors even less so. When you cut between our Jesus-loving President, any number of black church leaders, and Jim Jones, there’s an overt but not obvious connection between all three of these schlockmeisters, topped off with Godardian text across the screen: “Churchs Make 20,000 Annually”. The constant thread is only hypocrisy and corruption, not relegated to certain races or political persuasions.

The text, either hard facts or hard-ass sloganeering really is Godardian—it has the sloppy chaos of his 70s work and 90s video work only Mike actually believes what he’s saying—and is also closely connected to the anarchic strands of graffiti writing. All that “medium is the message” type junk…when an image of Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres comes across the screen, what are we do to with it? OJ trying on the infamous black glove? It’s reducing these moments to the image themselves and also all their hundreds of contexts and none of them at the same time.

Images bounce off one another and rhyme and conflict and complement and sometimes even just stand on their own. Killer Mike rapping to a wide-angled, dirty security camera, the mélange of famous political footage, celebrity gossip trash, and the kind of footage people post on message boards and SpaceGhetto because it’s sick and violent, all placed into an almost end-of-days context. This is the same mix of sincere political activism, asshole hubris, and the understanding that you gotta entertain, that made Christopher Hitchens get his ass water-boarded. If ‘Pressure’ came out a month later, you could expect to see chubby, drowning Hitch drop those iron bars somewhere in there…

Nappy Roots featuring Greg Street: ‘Good Day’ (directed by Lenny Bass)

Rather than placing Nappy Roots and friends on a street corner or even in like a public park or something, this video places them in front of a low-lit black background that’s then filled-in with the appropriate props (a bed, basketball hoop, cars, street signs). It anchors the video, moves it away from every other “hanging-out” Southern rap video, and makes the all-kids chorus part even more joyful. The hand-held work moving through the classrooms as the kids clap and sing is even more exciting because it looks and feels full of life compared to the minimalism of the performance parts.

Not that those parts don’t have their own sense of energy and fun. There’s plenty of fun and naturalism on the set as well, kids clapping with adults, the guy goofily leaping onto the bed, kids and adults making funny faces towards the end, but there’s a sense that the performance part is the Nappy Roots talking about it and the chorus/classroom part is their dream of a day where “nobody gonna die” come true.

Unabashedly fun and communal, with absolutely no interest in conventional rap signifiers of cool—as I said, even the sexy girl in the bed just gets playfully jumped-on—‘Good Day’ celebrates the minor victories of a new fresh shirt, a barbeque, or a basketball game and makes them palpable. When member Fish Scales grabs a plate and happily chomps down on a burger at the end of his verse and right before the chorus, it’s perfect.

Written by Brandon

July 11th, 2008 at 11:45 pm

Beyond ‘The Wackness’: Hip-Hop & Whiteness At the Movies

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Armond White’s review of Adam Yauch’s ‘Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot’ and Jonathan Levine’s ‘The Wackness’ focuses on each film’s rap fueled soundtrack and how it connects to each film’s “human dimension[s]” and “artful expression”. What’s interesting is how neither movie uses rap music as a “hood” signifier (characters enter the city=play rap) or a big dumb joke (see the work of Judd Apatow, or ‘Bringing Down the House’ and all that falls between), but for emotional and visceral pull. Especially interesting is ‘The Wackness’, which scores the white main character’s life to the sounds of classic, 1994 hip-hop without irony.

Rap music is hard to pull-off in a movie because it’s very distracting music that demands attention; it rarely blends into the background. Additionally, most of the viewing public’s stuck in incredibly out-dated (or never made sense) concepts of what rap music is, what it means, and how it can be used. So, when a rap song comes-in at a point that’s emotionally powerful well, it just doesn’t resonate, it’s just distracting. The music’s ability to work or resonate in films is further complicated by the sheer lack of black films that even get made each year. Still stuck in a conventional sense of who does and doesn’t look absurd listening to rap, it’s hard for films made by whites about whites to engage hip-hop in a way that doesn’t come-off as one big joke or incredibly cloying. Given the obsession with irony and juxtaposition in everything from Hollywood to high-minded indies, even when a movie does use rap seriously, it’s still often taken as a joke.
2003’s ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’ didn’t exactly light-up the box office but it’s the kind of movie that everyone around my age has seen, pretended to dislike, and then ended up laughing their asses off for it’s blissfully short running time. Bakari Kitwana’s book ‘Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop’ devotes ten whole pages to the Jamie Kennedy vehicle/debacle and sets it up as yes, a smarter, more complex film than other more “serious” rap and race-baiting movies like James Toback’s ‘Black & White’ and Warren Beatty’s ‘Bulworth’. The movie’s a big, willfully retarded comedy that’s also really smart and complicated. For those wanting to laugh at white kids “acting black” it’s there, but anyone watching–or listening to the fairly eclectic soundtrack– will get much more out of the movie.

The casting of Ryan O’Neal as the father of Jamie Kennedy’s Brad character (or B-Rad, his rap name) is Kubrickian in the sense of playing-off past roles. Recontextualizing the sad-bastard WASP of ‘Love Story’ as a schlockmeister politician with a son he’s embarrassed by, is smart and you know, probably exactly what would’ve happened if Ali McGraw hadn’t kicked the bucket (spoiler alert!), and the two got married and lived “happily” ever after. Other clever casting is B-Rad’s mother played by Bo Derek and the use of Blair Underwood–best known to hip-hop fans as Russell in ‘Krush Groove’–as O’Neal’s square, hip-hop-phobic political advisor. Although hardly groundbreaking, this type of casting with movie history in mind undeniably proves intentionality in ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’.

‘Malibu’ is basically a movie about hip-hop’s complexity and universal appeal masquerading as one big “wigger” joke. B-Rad’s rap “origin” is not shown to be a trend-hopping interest in hip-hop but something that’s been a part of his life almost since he was born. He’s shown as a child reaching for his maid’s headphones, putting them on, and being engulfed by the sounds of RUN DMC. His affected hip-hop mannerisms and attempts to remake ‘Boyz N the Hood’ in his honky suburbs are as much the result of the corporate misrepresentation of hip-hop and forced lowered expectations as they are B-Rad’s whiteboy idiocy. The movie destroys the under-the-breath chuckles of people over forty about white kids “acting black”. Underwood hires two black actors to play the roles of “thugs” that scare B-Rad out of his rap-love and into the real world, but their forays into actual gang life take them out of their comfort zone as well. B-Rad ends up being significantly more “hip-hop” than many of the black characters in the movie.

At the same time, the movie wisely avoids that weird sense of “I’m white and I’m persecuted for my love of rap” tone that a lot of white rappers and well, just white people stumble into. By making B-Rad incredibly rich, the “class not race” or “we’re all in the struggle” arguments that hold weight but get simplified by too many people are also avoided and the only thing left is sincere interest or disinterest, not separated from racial and social politics, but a degree removed.
Austin, Texas based writer/director Mike Judge sets his corporate satire ‘Office Space’ to an all hip-hip soundtrack, most famously, the Geto Boys’ ‘Still’ during a now-classic printer destruction scene. ‘No Tears’ by Scarface shows-up as does ‘Damn It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta’, which scores Peter and friends’ computer virus-based money skim. Judge clearly knows the Geto Boys and their politics and rises above simple-minded concepts of race or movie-music convention when choosing to score his movie with rap and set key scenes to arguably the biggest and most important rap group from the state he calls home.

This could easily have devolved into some unfortunate appropriation or good-intentioned but downright wrong way of relating to rap, but Judge finds a good mix of sincere use and ironic juxtaposition. Like ‘Malibu’, ‘Office Space’ couches some complicated comments on rap and culture through comedy but sells the comedy and the politics way better. Indeed, it’s funny to see a bunch of office nerds driving around to rap, but it’s a reality of the world–office nerds do listen to rap– and by the movie’s end, Judge taps into early 90s gangsta rap’s subversive and at times, almost anarchist politics and connects it to everybody’s overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and anger and general sense of being forever fucked over.
‘Boiler Room’ is another movie that sends hip-hop the the world of corporate culture and comes out looking pretty good. The movie begins with a narration from Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth, quoting Biggie (“Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”) and reading Biggie’s cry of frustration as an application to his own life (Seth hard-sells stock on the phone, opens a gambling ring in his apartment, etc.). That sense of “get money by any means” put in the hands of a well-to-do Jewish kid. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack’s maybe the best hip-hop soundtrack out-there. If I remember correctly, all the hip-hop in the music plays more like “score” than “source” music making it more like Biggie’s ‘hood platitudes continually echoing in the background.

Ultimately, Seth realizes that the company he’s working for is doing some fucked-up shit and goes along with the FBI to bring them down. Seth grows up and realizes the difference between himself and Biggie and when, where, and how this “get money by any means” concept should be applied. ‘Boiler Room’ ends-up as something of a comment on “Stop Snitching” before “Stop Snitching” was turned into everything from not ratting on your friends if you all commit a crime to you know, not telling the police you saw the dude who mugged that grandma. In a corporate world that grows even more problematic and a generation of corporate fucks raised on Young Jeezy and not Biggie, the “Stop Snitching” concept’s applied to everything including whistle-blowing. It’s fundamentally a movie about misinterpretation. Seth misreads Biggie at first (but figures it out by the end) and his fuckface co-workers quote anti-greed movies like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘Wall Street’ like their message is to be taken literally.Rap and crime movies are inextricably tied. Most rappers weave cinematic or pseudo-cinematic tales of crime, albums are littered with samples and references to ‘Scarface’ or Scorsese movies, and there’s the oft-quoted comparison between realistic crime movies and hip-hop, made in defense of reality rap. Still, most directors for reasons outlined at the beginning of this post, won’t score their movies to rap. Instead, they continue to swipe the Kenneth-Anger by way of Scorsese sense of old rock and pop.

Abel Ferrara is one of the few exceptions. His film ‘King of New York’ is the source of Biggie’s claim to be “the black Frank White”–Frank White is Christopher Walken’s character in the film–and Lawrence Fishburne plays Walken’s right-hand man, Jimmy Jump, highly-influenced by rapper Schooly D. Some Schooly songs show up on the soundtrack, but Walken’s character is a sort of philanthropist drug-dealer who employs only black guys for his crew and so, a party scene set to ‘Am I Black Enough?’ is “explained”. Working with Schooly D and tossing hip-hop into his movie did seem to rub-off on Ferrara and give him the confidence to use rap in his movies in slightly less conventional ways.His next film ‘The Bad Lieutenant’, originally used Schooly’s ‘Signifying Rapper’ throughout–a lawsuit by Jimmy Page forced the song out of DVD versions, so pick up a VHS–to emotional effect and something of a comment on how rap is seen in movies. Each time we hear ‘Signifying Rapper’, it’s context changes. It first plays early in the movie as the Lieutenant hops out of his car and walks into a sketchy apartment. We hear that Led Zeppelin riff and it sounds like some post-Scorsese use of rock music to show how bad-ass these white guys can be but then, Schooly starts rapping and the scene plays like something out of every early 90s movie that uses rap for short-hand that we’re in the “ghetto”. The Lt. chases a black kid into the apartment building and doesn’t yell at him, he buys and smokes crack with him instead. It’s the merging of “ghetto” signifier and hard-ass Scorses-style scoring in one song and scene.

The next time the song is heard, it plays over the film’s inciting incident: the rape of a Nun. Again, we’re back to “rap music plays over something bad” logic but the scene’s immediacy and violence do match the song quite well. From there, the riff and Schooly’s voice echo in the background of a few other scenes, slowly turning the song into the Lt.’s theme song. It plays one last time over the end credits, after the Lt’s been shot in his car. The return of of ‘Signifying Rapper’ temporarily resurrects the Lieutenant or seems to pay final homage to him. The song’s forward lurch, along with Schooly’s swagger just feels like it would be the theme of a coked-out, fuck-crazy, crooked-cop Harvey Keitel.Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is more of the same from the director and the soundtrack is the now-predictable mix of 60s and 70s rock, except for a scene set to ‘Thief’s Theme’ by Nas. The song plays during a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Costigan drives around with his drug-dealing cousin. It’s simple source music, the kind of thing a dopey drug dealer from Boston would be listening to, but it conceptually fits within the movie, and could be read as Scorsese re-paying homage to the many rappers in love with his films.

‘Thief’s Theme’ makes sense as something that DiCaprio’s character would be listening to and becomes an interesting comment on the background of his character. Early on, we learn that the father’s side of Costigan’s family were all mob-affiliated, while his mother’s side was a bit more upper-class. He’s both in and out of the world of crime, in it enough to have experience but out of it enough that he has a distance. He is like a rapper in this sense, connected to the world of crime but with something of an outsider’s perspective on it because like a rapper, they have chosen to analyze “the life” in addition to live in it. Costigan is not quite a criminal and not quite a cop, navigating somewhere in the middle, pulling from both experiences and observing them all. Think of Nas or Mobb Depp, rappers whose “street cred” has been questioned but who are arguably better able to articulate the life of crime than those who directly live it: next to the hood. This is also true of Costigan, who is a better cop and more of a hard-ass than Sullivan (Matt Damon) because of his connection and distance from “the life”. I also chuckled at the scene where Nicholson breaks Costigan’s cast open to look for a wire, using the ultimate signifier of 90s New-York rap: a Timberland workboot!

While the focus on rap-centric movies and movie soundtracks is interesting, often the best uses of rap fall into a single scene or event. Julian Goldberger’s low-budget ‘Trans’ is the story of a trouble white kid named Ryan who escapes from a juvenile detention center and wanders around the Everglades. In one scene, after being beat-up by some beer-drinking rednecks, he comes-to as the voices of some black peers (presumably friends from high-school) yell his name and try to awake him.

He hangs out with them, sits in on a freestyling session by the guys, dances around, and then goes on his way. It’s one of the few scenes where someone’s nice to Ryan and it’s hardly a coincidence that it’s from a bunch of hip-hop kids. The scene represents the inclusive nature of hip-hop culture and in certain ways, black culture, which as a whole, is a great deal more inviting and familial to all than the white, middle-class culture from which Ryan comes. He is immediately brought along with them, they recognize his dire situation, and it’s even suggested that this isn’t the first time Ryan’s been found like this.

The kids are generally kind, offering Ryan help, but they also mock him, in part because of the hilarious situation of getting his ass beat and also, because well, I bet he’s the goofy white boy they know that’s always getting in trouble. Their looking for girls and their freestyles (or attempts) about weed and pussy are realistic and used to complicate their character. For a rap outsider, the contradictory nature of being so kind and rapping about weed and girls would be hard to resolve but Goldberg wisely moves beyond racial or cultural presentation and just lets all of the character be themselves. The failed attempts at freestyling are particularly good because often in movies, scenes of battles are often used as shorthand for authenticity or being hip to the culture. Here, it’s more like the freestyle competitions you see in your high school science class or at a party, where it’s just a bunch of people fucking around. No one sitting there thinks they are the next Nassir Jones, they’re just having fun.In Goldberger’s follow-up, ‘The Hawk Is Dying’–one of most underrated movies of this decade by the way– there’s less of a connection to rap, but the sense of communty transcending race is all through the movie. Most interesting however, is the scene where we meet Michelle Williams’ Betty, “a doctor’s daughter” who chooses to live in a shitty squat-house, smoke pot out of a Confederate flag bong, and dress like a fat lady with a black eye that you’d see at Wal-Mart. When we first see her, she’s in her bed in her room in this flop-house listening to Splack Pack’s ‘Shake That Ass Bitch’ as some fuck-up in another room listens to bass-heavy electro. The two songs mix around in the background until finally she turns Splack Pack off. Goldberger attended school in Florida–where this movie, like ‘Trans’ is set– and just as he deals with race is a way that’s attuned to the complexity of our interactions, he does the same to the music. To him and to anyone with hip-hop knowledge, Miami Bass and hipster electro have a whole lot in common but that’s not as much of a given to outsiders and he subtly makes the connection. Gus Van Sant’s experimental, skate-boarding murder anti-mystery ‘Paranoid Park’ is ostensibly about a kid who may have accidentally killed a security guard, but it’s more of a realistically drab dive into the head of the average, vaguely hip fifteen year-old. It’s clear a great deal of research and understanding of 2008 youth-culture was employed and Van Sant applies it on all fronts. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is an all-over-the-place soundtrack: ambient electronics, Elliot Smith, fifties rock, Nino Rota’s score for ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ etc.

In one scene, the main character Alex takes his Mom’s car and drives around Portland before stopping at infamous skate-park “Paranoid Park”. Camera mounted on the hood, through a series of cuts, we see Alex driving around listening to an eclectic mix of music from the radio-his mood changing depending on the music. At one point, ‘I Heard That’ by Portland rapper Cool Nutz plays. Alex leans further into his seat, grips the wheel from an angle, and bobs his head back and forth. It lasts about ten seconds, but it says a great deal about how ill-informed white teenagers respond to hip-hop, the porous borders between genre and style for any kid growing up in the iPod/internet age, and something about regional music as well.

Pre-internet, it would seem absurd for a teenager to listen to such an out-there variety of music and Van Sant maybe takes it a little too far, but one can easily imagine Alex going over some hipster Portland-ian’s house, seeing ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ and doing a GOOGLE blog-search for the score. An iPod on Super-Shuffle creates all kinds of weird transitions from classical to hip-hop and back again or whatever. As for Cool Nutz, a fairly-obscure rapper to most of the world, he’s probably known by most or everyone in Portland. It makes an interesting comment on regional music, especially rap. Now, it’s accepted, but think of a crazy amount of people in Houston buying screw tapes–the rap equal for doom music–or how kids of any age or race in Baltimore simply grow up with the spastic, A.D.D insanity of Baltimore club. The use of rap is also a brief nod to the ways that hip-hop and skateboarding culture continue to mix. There are plenty of black skateboarders in many of the skateboarding scenes in ‘Paranoid Park’ and the issue’s not acknowledged, just taken as a simple reality of the world.

And finally, Rip Torn in ‘Freddie Got Fingered’ shaking his bare-ass to ‘Microphone Fiend’?

Written by Brandon

July 8th, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Posted in films, movies, the South

How Big Is Your World? New Rap Songs.


-Nappy Roots ‘Good Day’
Click here to download ‘Good Day’
Driving around North Carolina two weekends ago, this song was on the radio constantly but it hasn’t made its way to Baltimore/DC stations or maybe they just aren’t interested in it, which makes sense because back when they were popular, Nappy Roots seemed pretty second-rate. A few years later, given the insane amount of Southern rap that gets on the radio, these dudes seem a little more interesting. ‘Good Day’ makes absolutely no 2008 rap concessions…it sounds the same as the songs that got Nappy Roots big in the early 2000s or maybe like something of Scarface’s ‘The Fix’ when he’s rapping manic utopianism instead of depressive fuck-it-all threats.

-88-Keys featuring Kid Cudi ‘Wasting My Minutes’
Click here to download ‘Wasting My Minutes’
The thing about this track is that it doesn’t hide its obvious production tricks at all. The sample slowly mutates into chipmunk voice along with some really simple Daryl Nathan-esque keyboard squelches, a subtle drum and then, this really heavy drum drops along with some perfect la-la-las and the song finally begins. The concept’s funny and like knowingly offensive and boiling it all down to the dumb girl’s wasting his cell-phone minutes is extra hilarious. It’s not a surprise that Kanye’s releasing dude’s album; this is the kind of shit Kanye’d still be doing if he wasn’t a megastar.

-E Major ‘Don’t Worry’
Click here to download ‘Don’t Worry’
The thing about this dude E Major is that his music won’t click right away. Of course, it sounds like really solid, 90s-influenced “hip-hop” and that’ll do, but his beat selection and the shit he raps about sort of slowly gels together over a bunch of listens- except for ‘Don’t Worry’, which should grab anybody with ears. A beat by DJ Excel that rides some whirling soul-strings and really weird-sounding drums–it sounds like a drum and a clap hitting at the exact same time– as E essentially raps about his minor victories as a rapper and then changes it up in the final verse that shouts-out a dead friend, drops the bragging for self-reflection, and humble thank-yous, then fades-out…

-Cody Chesnutt ‘Afrobama’
Click here to download ‘Afrobama’
Really topical songs of political hope are always better than hyper-topical songs decrying the government or the president or whoever else. Curtis’ “Nixon sayin’ don’t worry” works and Willie D’s final verse on ‘Point of No Return’ from ‘The Resurrection’ grabs political outrage in a way that’s clear enough whether you know who J Edgar Hoover is or not, but too many songs of the sort just feel knowing and obnoxious. Whether Obama’s the second coming to you, the better of two evils, or the dude you’re plain not voting for, ‘Afrobama’s just unabashedly celebratory and you should relate to that sense of actually caring enough about something to make a song about it. Also, just a really smart song in terms of referencing or trying to ape the political urgency of someone like Fela; also, the song feels like a sly reference to Vampire Weekend’s Afro-pop aping. Will there ever be a follow-up to probably the fourth best album of the 2000s ‘The Headphone Masterpiece’?!

-Mt. Eerie ‘Appetite’
Click here to download ‘Appetite’
The Microphones–now Mt. Eerie– have always been masters of the quiet/loud indie-rock dynamic. They–or really he, it’s just Phil Elverum– took the dynamic to the next level, eschewing the predictable quiet guitar to loud jangle explosion for Phil Spector-sized drums and belted-out vocals and ‘Appetite’s essentially more of the same, but stretched even further. As indie pop essentially becomes the new pop, it’s interesting that Mr. Best Album of 2001 According to Pitchforkmedia keeps moving further away from iPod commericial indie and instead, mines the quiet/loud dynamics of metal, especially black metal here. The drums and guitar pummel even more and pound even faster and there’s some like Sabbath-ish guitar harmonics going on and that Burzum buzz, but there’s still Elverum’s pleasant voice and sincere lyrics, so it’s never genre-hopping as much as it is internalizing the parts of the genre that he can squeeze into his own music.

As usual, here’s a zipfile of all five songs…

Written by Brandon

June 24th, 2008 at 7:47 am

City Paper Review: Pastor Troy’s ‘Attitude Adjuster’

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Attitude Adjuster is more of the same from Atlanta’s Pastor Troy, but that’s a good thing. He’s one of many Southern rap vets to drop low-key classics every other year with little interest in a hit. The production is decidedly Southern but not Soulja Boy Southern. Whether it’s murder rap (“Put Him on the Scope”) or a heartfelt elegy to lost “soldiers” in his hometown and Iraq (“For My Soldiers”), stuttering 808s bounce all around, while depressive chipmunk soul and pained rock guitar wail underneath.

Sonic consistency and a modest length of about 45 minutes aid Pastor’s street rapper-meets-thoughtful dude persona and make even his weirder choices–like, say, a Sting fetish–a success: “Soldiers” samples Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” and “Street Law” grabs its riffs from the Police’s “Message in a Bottle.” Both of Pastor’s Gordon Sumner-swiping tracks avoid Puffy melodrama and reach into the originals to tear out genuine pathos and energy. Longtime fans recall this isn’t his first song inspired by a rock legend: On his 1999 debut, Troy dropped the affecting, Beach Boys-quoting “Help Me Rhonda.”

Brian Wilson and company might again come to mind on Adjustor’s best track, car ode “My Box Chevy,” an affecting reminiscence (“bought my Caprice from an old white couple . . . “) with a chant-chorus simply repeating “my box Chevy” over and over, like Troy wants to will the album’s only uplifting memory back again. Deceptively simple albums like this one rarely win accolades, but they should.”

Written by Brandon

April 9th, 2008 at 5:50 pm

Pimp C (1973-2007)

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“One day you’re here, and the next day you’re gone…”; 2007 is fucked the fuck up. On the personal tip, the year started with the suicide of a best friend and the year sorta kinda ending on the death of Pimp C is uh, a little devastating. I woke up about an hour ago to see a few e-mails from friends (and some readers!) about Pimp’s death and then saw it plastered all over the rap-focused feeds on my iGoogle page. I mention this because this info-age way of learning of the news- not even from a television- did nothing to lessen the weird feelings and shock that fucking Pimp C from UGK is dead.

I recall in high school when Dee Dee Ramone died and how it was when MTV sorta showed videos so they interrupted with ‘MTV News’ to tell their listeners and that death too, really got to me. Never was this super-Ramones fan (the group’s way better in theory), but Dee Dee seemed so great and his crapped-out bridge on ‘53rd & 3rd’ (“then I took out my razor blade…”) and him playing in the shower in that one scene in ‘Rock N’ Roll High School’ both came to mind upon hearing of his death and now, it’s the same with Pimp C, only as an artist, he means a lot more to me…That first verse on the first song of the first disc of ‘Underground Kingz’ with Pimp C coming in, his Southern accent upped to cartoonish extremes: “I got candy in my cup/Candy on my car…”, and it’s him wearing a Nirvana shirt in the ‘Use Me Up’ video, when his voice lowers and he says “I really miss Robert Davis” on ‘Chrome Plated Woman’, and just about everything he does on ‘Ridin’ Dirty’, and his voice wheezing out “Fuck how ya’ feel” on a number of recent songs and it’s him on that UGK Bonus DVD speaking with absolute conviction as if he’s making sure he’s using the right words to make his real-life, lesson-learned points with this hard, prison stare but Pimp himself is only focused on the future because, for all Pimp’s disses and beefs, it was all reactionary, standing up for what he saw necessary; one gets the impression he would’ve rather not had to tell everyone to “quit hatin’ on the South” and done his thing, and given everybody a hug or a pat on the back.

“Real” has totally devolved into another hip-hop cliche but it really does describe Pimp C, and not because he went to jail or gets high a lot, or beats-up his girlfriend or whatever, it’s because he really didn’t give much of a shit what people thought of him; he was sincere. Sincere when he subtly bemoaned the loss of DJ Screw or when he told whole regions to take their fingers out of their bootyhole and even if you’re the type who thought he could have conveyed his message in better ways…dude was pretty much right about everything- and when he rapped, the stuff was tied-up with everything else he was observing so his verses, half-rapped, half-yelled, not always totally rhyming, could bounce from pissed-off observations to emotionally honest stuff and back again. And those beats, don’t forget those beats…instrument-based country rap tunes, palpably funk and soul-based that really were the basis for UGK’s near-two decade significance. We’ll soon see shirts with “R.I.P Pimp C” and they’ll replace those “Free Pimp C” shirts and in-song shout-outs. R.I.P Pimp C.

And, whether or not it turns out Pimp’s death is drug-related, seriously, be careful with that purple stuff kids.“My world’s a trip, you can ask Bun B bitch, I ain’t no liar
My man Bobo just lost his baby in a house fire
And when I got on my knees that night to pray
I ask God why you let these killers live
And take my homeboy’s son away?
Man, if you got kids show ‘em you love ‘em
‘Cuz God might just call ‘em home
‘Cuz one day they here and baby, the next day they gone”

Written by Brandon

December 4th, 2007 at 9:56 pm

Posted in Pimp C, UGK, the South