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Leaf: A Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record

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The best record store in Baltimore, True Vine sends out a weekly sometimes more than weekly e-mail “digest” that lists all the great new releases and new, old LPs they got in and is often, accompanied by some engaging and exciting descriptions or anecdotes about those LPs, from co-owner Ian Nagoski. In the latest digest, he wrote about the discovery of a break from an obscure Baltimore artist and how it went from some weird record in his store to just recently showing up on a Breaks compilation. It’s an interesting and affecting read and because I don’t think its available to anybody not on their digest, I thought I’d copy and paste it here. If you are or know Mr. Nagoski and would like it removed, please contact me and I will do so. Oh yeah, just for the sake of clarity- when he mentions “The Golden West”, he means this restaurant a few stores down from True Vine.

If you’re ever in Baltimore or the area, I’d highly suggest checking out the store.-brandon

‘LEAF: A Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record’ by Ian Nagoski of True Vine

On a sweltering afternoon two summers back, a guy – white, about 50, with several gaudy rings and one ear superglued to an expensive cel – walked in with a box of records for sale. There were a dozen more boxes in his car, and I helped him load them into the shop while he told me that his uncle had died and this had been his collection. I flipped though them, found the stuff we could sell, and made an offer, based largely on the presence of a stack of local 45s that looked good. The man got his money, and I started sorting the stuff in the boxes. Most of it was shot – just in lousy shape -and a lot of it was junk, but the first thing I noticed was that the earliest stuff was hard rock, dating to the early 70s and the last of it was pop-r&b piffle from the mid-90s. No way this was the collection of an older family member of Mr. Fancy Cel. Whoever owned this stuff was about 15 in about 1972, making him not yet 50 years old in 2006 – about the Verizonmeister’s same age. But it wasn’t HIS collection, since he didn’t watch me go through it. Everyone who sells their entire life’s record collection wants to see what the Record Store Guy pulls out of the boxes. Even if the decision has been made to sell everything, it still matters whether the collector’s taste is being affirmed by the buyer. This is always always always true. This guy’s body language gave away that he probably didn’t know or care what was in the boxes. So, it registered that I had been lied to, but whaddaya-whaddaya. People have millions of reasons for lying to strangers. You think I’m the monk in Rashomon, agonizing over the morality of mankind? Nope. I buy records, and I sell records, plain and simple, and I just notice when things are weird, and I file it aways for future reference.

One wierd thing about the collection was the profound predominance of two personalities: George Clinton and John Lennon. Over and over, the visionaries of P-Funk and the Fab Four looked out from the stacks. Whoever had collected these things worshiped those two to a discomforting level for an adult. But again, healthy or not, wacky hero-worship is just part of the job in the record biz. So, with the first level of sorting done, I got to the good part of any big buy: listening to the stuff I didn’t recognize. And in this case, it was a couple local 45s by a band called Leaf. Right off the bat, it’s a good name for a band, cause it’s clearly the name of a band that smokes weed, right? And aesthetics aside, just in terms of sheer market-demand, stoned records are salable records, because anything “psyche” is in demand, because serious record-heads are, generally speaking, serious doobie monsters, or at least guy with a lot nostalgia for their days under the old smoke tree.

So, in one hand I had a stack of about twenty copies of one 7″ by Leaf and in the other hand, I had half a dozen of another of their releases plus a 1/4″ mastertape reel with their name scrawled on it. Clearly, I was dealing with the collection of one of the band members. (Musicians always have odd and interesting record collections.) The title that was only the half-dozen copies strong was a four-song EP, released as a Christmas record in 1982 here in Baltimore and dedicated to John Lennon, according to its title. The music was goofy power-pop, notable only for an out-of-nowhere lyric instructing the listener to “throw your tits up and down” during one track. (Whut thuh?) The other record, however, issued earlier the same year felt immeadiately like something special. Each copy was sealed across to the top of the white paper sleeve with one sticker and had another sticker on the front, orange with a picture of a cleaver in a slab of meat that said “PRIME CUTS,” clearly taken from the meat section of a supermarket. Inside, there was a xeroxed sheet printed with info in an awkward/awesome combination of type-writer and handwriting. Side A was labeled “Funk” (good sign!) and was titled “Food Stamps” (‘nother good sign!) I put the needle on it and smiled at the first sound of a wah-wah guitar comping. The recording was a crude basement affair, but the damn thing swung hard like too-fast Go-Go with some seriously funky in-the-pocket drums. The singing was inept, but the vibe was fun and loose. After a harmonica solo that sounded like it must have been performed after the player had first picked the instrument up about two weeks earlier, all of the instruments dropped out except for that funky drummer. This, in record parlance is what they call an “open break,” and on a scarce, locally-produced independent record, for hip-hop heads, producers and diggers, it is pay dirt for hundreds of hours of listening. Before the track was over, my tounge was hanging out as I starting hitting all the big web sites for rare records and drum breaks looking for a trace of “Food Stamps.” And I got nada. Nothing. So, then I flip the record to the side labeled “Rock” and lo-and-behold, it started with another giant, heavy open, mid-tempo drum break before decending into some oozing fuzz-guitar riffing nearly worthy of Jungle Rot-era George Brigman and what one friend described as “glazed, sub-Ozzy basement vocals.” A closer look at the credits showed that both songs were penned by a certain Billy Senger and that he played all the instruments except for the drums, which were played by Joe Senger – Billy’s brother, I guessed. I kept listening to both sides and started to really dig the good-times-in-the-basement party vibe – boys having fun, playing at being rock stars and cranking out some wicked-sounding stuff.

Within 20 minutes, I had called every psyche and funk 45 collector I knew and asked them what they knew about Leaf. Again, nothing. In a few hours, several collectors and arrived to hear it. Almost everyone agreed – it was the real thing, a monster. Several people called everyone THEY knew. But no one had heard of it, and no copy that anyone knew of had ever sold, so there was no established price – an unknown commodity. So, over the next few weeks, I started playing it for collectors and beat diggers, and I sold about a half-dozen copies for about the cost of a dinner at the Golden West or the cost of a new CD. A few months later, I started getting phone calls saying that those copies were already changing hands for a hundred bucks a throw. We consigned a couple copies to an ebayer who posted them with soundclips of the drum breaks and sold them for more than $100 each. Here’s one of them:

Around that time, we had a visit from Joe Vaccarino, the author a Baltimore Sounds, a beautiful, labor-of-love discography of local bands from the 50s to the early 80s. I asked him about the Leaf record, of course, and since he didn’t know it, offered him the mastertapes (which turned out to be for the inferior EP, rather than the killer “Food Stamps” single) as a gift for his archive and asked whether he wanted to buy copies of the records. He listened carefully to the records but left quietly without even taking the the tape. A month later, though, he emailed me and asked if I had seen that month’s issue of the free local music rag – Maryland Musician or something, I forget the name. I hadn’t. He said there was a letter to the editor from the Leaf’s drummer, saying that his brother had recently died and that his landlord had absconded with his posessions, including the only tapes of their old band, and would anyone with information on the whereabouts of documents of the band please contact him. So, I sent Billy Senger an email and said I had a master reel and copies of the two 7″s, and he was welcome to them. He wrote back, very gratefully, and said that he’d be in Baltimore in a couple weeks and he’d meet me at the shop then.

Sure enough, a two weeks later Joe Senger and his sister arrived mid-afternoon in business clothes. They had come to Baltimore for a court date in an attempt to sue Billy’s landlord for theft of Billy’s possessions. They’d lost the case. I gave Joe a copy of each of the 7″s and the mastertape, and in exchange he told me a little about his brother, the author of the records. Billy had worked for years at the Mondawmin branch of Bernie Schwartz’s 25-year record shop/institution Music Liberated. Over the course of the 90s, he lived down by the Enoch Pratt and kept getting himself into trouble while he dealt – and failed to deal – with some serious mental health problems and pretty well alienated everyone in the family with cockamamie middle-of-the-night calls to bail him out of some bullshit or other. So, when he finally succumbed to his demons, his family didn’t hear about it for some time afterward, in which time the landlord – appearantly Mr. Celphone – had grabbed Billy’s earthly posessions and started selling them off, partially to recoup backrent I would guess, and partially cause the landlord was a louse. Joe lives in Florida and continues to play drums and plans to reissue what he’s been able to salvage of his old brother’s life’s work. Joe has a myspace page, which includes a tune called “Guardrails in Heaven,” which I take to be a tribute to Billy:

A bittersweet story, ending in resolution for the talented kid brother and the gratified record dealer who was still sitting on about ten copies of a record that he was selling periodically for $100 a throw. Until last week, when I got a call from a well-known DJ and record dealer in England. He asked if I was still in touch with the fella from Leaf. I said I was, why did he ask? Because “Food Stamps” had been reissued on a breaks comp. Turns out the copies we ebayed had gone to a DJ named Mr. Thing who had included the “Funk” side on a comp called Strange Breaks & Mr. Thing. The first of two discs had a bunch of profoundly obscure tracks; the second disc was a continuous mix using the breaks from those same tracks. He said that Joe Senger ought to contact the label and collect his royalties on the release. “Gee, I feel really loyal to Joe Senger, but BBE has done a lot of great stuff, too. I hate to cause trouble for them,” I said. “No trouble,” he replied, “he writes to them, and they’ll have money for him. Simple as that.” So, I wrote to Joe, and he wrote to BBE, and he should be seing a check from Jolly Old England in the near future.

So, the music lives on. And we got in copies of the Strange Breaks 2CD set, now available for $17 – the cost of dinner at the Golden West – and it’s got a bunch of nice stuff on it. They did a great job cleaning up the sound of the Leaf record. Or, for $100 you can still buy a sealed copy of the real thing and get that shitty xerox insert and that “glazed sub-Ozzy” basement sound on the B-side.

Cyrus Alexander’s ‘Black Terminator’ Trailer
And while I’m pushing other people’s great shit. Producer Cyrus the Great, who I wrote about a bit on this entry Some Ol’ Terminator Shit, made a movie based on his song ‘Black Terminator’! Cyrus somehow found my entry and contacted me and told me that indeed, my dream of a cheap, blaxploitation-esque movie to match his song was already in the works! Here it is:

This just looks really, really incredible. I like how it’s funny, even hilarious at times (“270 with the coat”) but never winks at the audience too much. I’m very excited about the finished product of this…the camera work looks really good, there’s lots of quotables just in this trailer and the acting is the perfect for the project, and the music, which I’m assuming Cyrus made is fucking amazing, these warm, fuzzy synths and gurgles that emulate the original ‘Terminator’ score really well and kinda ups it because it more on some John Carpenter ‘Escape from New York’ shit…

Written by Brandon

February 27th, 2008 at 7:02 am

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Geto Boys – Mind Playing Tricks On Me 12’ Single

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon’s Ten Sad Rap Songs

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


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

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

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

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

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

Written by Brandon

February 7th, 2007 at 11:01 pm

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So…I had one of these over the summer. I posted a two-part review of Common live at Baltimore’s Artscape but felt like it was a waste of time and gave up because no one fucking reads these things. I think I’ve now faced the reality that no one fucking reads these things and feel okay about that. So yeah, I’ll begin with something easy: An End-of-Year List.

The biggest problem with best-of lists is their predictability. Certain artists release albums and those albums are generally guaranteed to make the list. Perhaps, every album Wilco or Jay-Z or Radiohead releases deserves a place on year-end lists but I think it’s a little lazy on the part of critics. Of course, real writers for real websites and magazines must create these lists, so they are under pressure, but I always come away from them thinking “was that album really that great?” I’m not a real writer for a real website or magazine, so I have no obligations and I would like to take advantage of that: Here is my murderer’s row version of the best albums of 2006.

1. J Dilla – Donuts – I can’t even explain this one. This guy that runs this great record store in Hampden The True Vine and is like, the only guy I’ve ever met that runs a record store who isn’t a prick, but is also the kind of guy that will tell you that the CD you just bought is “beautiful…really beautiful” told my friend that ‘Donuts’ is “[J-Dilla’s] love-letter to the world” and that isn’t far-off. What makes it so great is how it never tries to be clever or cool and totally avoids all of the pitfalls of other “sample-based” albums. It’s not douchey and trip-hoppy like DJ Shadow and it isn’t creating totally “new” songs out of samples like RJD2, who ends up being kind of a bore. ‘Workinonit’ is really the only track on that album that isn’t perfect because it sort of falls into the RJD2 style, it is song length (2:52), so you get a vivid feeling for its structure, and it just feels off-balance precisely because it is so ordered. When the twangy guitars come in you kind of get the feeling “it was time for those twangy guitars” which is quite different from when Jadakiss’s laugh randomly pops up or a track bleeds into the other and you’ve totally lost track of where you are in the album. Basically, its the only song on the album that actually sounds like someone should be rapping over it. There are so many things going on and so many subtle production details (that never try hard to be subtle or smart!) that are too amazing to try to describe. The way, for 30 seconds “Wake up world! Give peace a chance” slowly bubbles in the background of ‘Glazed’ before it becomes clear a minute into the track. Does that announcer at the beginning of ‘The Twister (Huh, What)’ say “Would you join me please in welcome-in-ing“? And then, it sounds like he says “The Temptations” but Dilla has chopped his words up to not actually say a word, so it sounds like “Tempting” and then we hear a live version of ‘For Once in My Life’ by Stevie Wonder’ and I feel like I could have totally misheard all of what I just described…and don’t forget that “I give to you” vocal sample on ‘Last Donut of the Night’…and it is called ‘Donuts’ which could mean a million different things and which is probably better place to begin any attempt at unpacking ‘Donuts’.

Dilla made it as he was dying and calling it ‘Donuts’ fits Dilla’s unpretentious and modest style. There’s obviously some circle-of-life stuff going on with that image of a donut; calling it ‘Donuts’ is a way of bringing the circle-of-life stuff down-to-earth. The title addresses issues of death and (possibly) asserts comfort with death as a part of this cycle without being all My Chemical Romance about it…(or all Pink Floyd/Lou Reed ‘Magic & Loss’/'American Recordings’ Johnny Cash about it…)

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:‘Time: Donut of the Heart’ I found this on Youtube. It’s some band from Korea called Bullssazo and they cover ‘Time: Donut of the Heart’ and turn it into this (more) stoned, blissed-out track. Their other songs seem more conventional and punk-rockish and they call themselves a “punk-rock” band but that doesn’t really describe this cover at all. Unless there’s some weird definition of punk in Korea because this is some really amazing mix of doom metal, psychedelic stuff, and post-rock or something.

Written by Brandon

December 22nd, 2006 at 5:51 am

Posted in 2006, Donuts, J-Dilla, True Vine