2010: Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

For my requisite year-end wrap-up I ganked the title from Louis CK’s recent appearance on Conan. This was a year of reassessing our relationship with technology, and that’s part of Louis’ aim in the clip (embedded below[runtime: 4:12]; with thanks to Linda Stone). I rounded up most of the books on the topic for 21C Magazine, and I don’t feel any closer to figuring it out (It’s really not something to figure out).

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Anyway, here’s my list:

Record of the year: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. As pedestrian as it might seem, I have to give it to Mr. West. He may be a douchebag, but if he is, he’s the most talented, honest douchebag ever, and this record proves it over and over again. It’s not flawless, but it’s easily the best of 2010.

Runners up: High on Fire Snakes for the Divine, The Sword Warp Riders, Camu Tao King of Hearts, Deftones Diamond Eyes, Brian Eno Small Craft on a Milk Sea, School of Seven Bells Disconnect from Desire, Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back, Blonde Redhead Penny Sparkle, Antipop Consortium Fluorescent Black, Black Milk Album of the Year, and 65daysofstatic We Were Exploding Anyway.

Verse of the year: Nicky Minaj on “Monster.” This seven-minute posse jam includes Jay-Z, Kanye, Rick Ross, and Bon Iver (for whatever reason), but Nicky’s sixteen makes them all look straight silly. As good as this album is, hers here is easily the best verse on the whole thing.

Live show of the year: Atari Teenage Riot. I was supposed to see Atari Teenage Riot in Seattle at a club called DV8 on December 15th, 1997, but broke up with my girlfriend of six years and just drank with friends instead. I remember the date also because it was my birthday.

I finally got to see them in Austin at Red 7 on September 27th, 2010. the show was well worth the thirteen-year wait. I lost my freshly-purchased ATR t-shirt attempting to delete myself in the pit, but I got it back thanks to ATR’s nice fans. Start the riot!

Finds of the year: Cloaks and Yelawolf. The noisiest dubstep out (Thanks to Justin Broadrick for the tip) and another Alabama boy does good. Enough said (Thanks to El-P for the tip). Hollerrrrr!

Event of the year: Geekend 2010. Yeah, SXSW was fun (thanks to Dave Allen, Ume, Frosty, Jah Furry, and Bruce Sterling), but Geekend was better.

Movie of the year: Inception. You all know nothing else came close.

Book of the year: Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. Ignore it at your peril.

Site of the year: 900 Bats. Aesop Rock, Alex Pardee, Alexander Tarrant, Chrissy Piper, Colin Evoy Sebestyen, Coro, DJ Big Wiz, Jeremy Fish, Justin Metros, Kimya Dawson, Nick Flanagan, and Rob Sonic, among others are behind this rogue burst of creative energy. Jeremy Fish did the illustrations for the site, and Alex Pardee supplied the logo. The site was named for the 900 bats that were killed by renovation workers at Bala Fort in Alwar district who put them on fire to avoid disruption in work. Boooo…

Speaking of, mad thanks to my mans Aesop Rock, dälek, and Aaron Berkowitz for helping me coordinate what would have been the party of the century. Sorry it all fell apart at the last minute. Instead, I spent the end of my fortieth trip around the sun with the fam. It’s all good.

Video of the Year: “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse. The clip that spawned a thousand “think” pieces, leave it to ICP to remind us that we all need to take pause and realize how amazing our world is. As Violent J puts it, “Magic everywhere in this bitch.” Belie’e dat [runtime: 4:23].

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Rappin’ is My Radio: New Books on Rap Poetics

One of my favorite Hip-hop studio tales is from the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The story goes that Jay-Z and Biggie were sitting in legendary D&D studios in New York City listening to Clark Kent’s beat, a pen and a pad on the table between them. “They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it,” says Roc-A-Fella co-founder Biggs, “That’s when they found out that both of them don’t write.” That is, neither of these emcees write any of their rhymes down. They write, edit, and recite straight off the dome. Their method isn’t freestyling per se, but it’s still quite amazing.

Insight like this into the creative processes of Hip-hop is rare, but becoming more prevalent as the culture is recognized for what it is: the last salient, significant musical and cultural movement in history — and one that is now global in scale (Omoniyi, 2009). A few years back, Brian Coleman‘s book Check the Technique (Villard, 2007; née Rakim Told Me, WaxFacts, 2005) set out to fix this by providing liner notes to classic albums. “…it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators.” he explains. “It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.” No question.

The books assembled here focus on language use, a tack that is often taken for granted in studies of Hip-hop (Alim, 2009), but one that is central to the culture and the music. Michael Eric Dyson (2004) puts it thusly:

Rap is a profound musical, cultural, and social creativity. It expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community. Besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously (p. 67-68).

Enter How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009) by Paul Edwards. This book is a collection of discussions with hundreds of emcees of all stripes about inspiration, techniques, writing, freestyling, flow, content, style, subject matter, etc. More specific topics like rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythm, delivery, and collaboration are covered, and with a chapter each on working in the studio and performing live, contextual considerations are given due time as well. Comments, advice, and insight on all of the above from nearly everyone in Hip-hop who matters (including our dude Cage Kennylz) from every school and era that matters. Is your favorite emcee in here? Mine is. Here’s Sean Price on the art of flow:

Like Bruce Lee said, if the water is in the jug, it becomes that jug. If the water is in that bowl, it becomes that bowl. That’s how I approach it (p. 64).

It’s not all koans and riddles though. For instance, here’s Clipse’s Pusha-T on Jay-Z and writing in your head:

Anything that you’ve ever heard of anybody saying about seeing Jay-Z in the studio, what does he do? He mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, then he’s like OK, I got it. It’s not like, stroll into the booth and [record immediately]–he plays with the idea. Paper and pen is nothing but comfort, to me it’s nothing but being comfortable and being able to look at it, digest it, and say OK, this is how it’s supposed to [go]. But if you can train your mind to do it without that, that’s dope (p. 144).

The next few pages go on to explain the reasons one might want to learn to write in one’s head, and techniques for doing so. How to Rap covers every technique in this way. Weighing in at over 300 pages and introduced by a Kool G. Rap-penned foreword, this is seriously the handbook emcees have been waiting for.

Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop (Basic Civitas, 2008) breaks down emceeing in a different, but just as useful and intriguing manner. He digs deep into the meter, rhyme, and rhythm of rap in search of its poetics. “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCs alike,” writes Bradley, “rhyme can be an impediment, and awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings. But rhyme well used makes for powerful expression; it at once taps into the most primal pleasure centers of the human brain, those of sound patterning, and maintains an elevated, ceremonial distance from regular speech” (p. 57). Emcees must stay elevated, maintain that distance, but not drift too far away.

Since rap is a battle-borne art form, emcees must continually add on with their contributions while maintaining the culture’s heritage. That is, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the rules. Thomas Kuhn (1977) described an essential tension in science between innovation and tradition: Too innovative and the theory is untestable, too traditional and it’s not useful. The same tension can be said to exist in Hip-hop, as if one “innovates” without regard to “tradition,” one is no longer doing Hip-hop. Where lyrical interpolations are concerned, one must not adhere too closely to the original source lest one be accused of biting. “What separates ‘biting’ and ‘enlightening’ is the difference between repetition and repetition with a difference,” Bradley writes (2008, p. 150) It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but one of which a violation is not difficult to discern.

Bradley, along with Andrew DuBois, continues his exploration of rap’s poetics with The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010). This giant tome compiles over three hundred lyrics from over thirty years of Hip-hop. The editors shot here for diversity rather than inclusion, thereby showing rap’s poetic and stylistic breadth rather than just its sheer quantity, though the book does weigh in at just under 900 pages. It also sports an foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., afterwords by Chuck D and Common, and essays that contextualize each major era of rap music. The four eras according to the editors are The Old School (1978-1984), The Golden Age (1985-1992), Rap Goes Mainstream (1993-1999), and New Millennium Rap (2000-2010). Among the undisputed legends and usual suspects, other monsters on the mic include Jay Electronica, Ras Kass, Edan, Eyedea (R.I.P., Mikey), O.C., Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Black Sheep, Brother Ali, and the homies Aesop Rock and Chino XL, among many, many others. Bradley points out in Book of Rhymes that lyrics are to be taken and judged differently when spoken as when on the page, and The Anthology of Rap gives one a chance to do the latter. It is comprehensive, definitive, and essential to be sure.

And if you don’t think people care about lyrics anymore, these are Sean Price‘s final words in Paul Edward’s How to Rap book:

I think it’s going to get back to lyrics, man, and that’s good. I’m ready for that, I can rhyme. Redman, he can rhyme, Jadakiss, he can rhyme–it’s going to get back to them [MCs] who can spit real hard-body lyrics, lyrics that count—Talib Kweli and all of them, they spit bodies. I like those dudes (p. 312).

Word is bond.

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Here’s the book trailer for The Anthology of Rap [runtime: 3:12]:

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References:

Alim, H. S. (2009). Straight outta Compton, straight aus Munchen: Global linguistic flows, and the politics of language in a global hip-hop nation. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.

Bradley, A. (2008). Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Bradley, A. & DuBois, A. (2010). The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, B. (2007). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard.

Dyson, M. E. (2004). The culture of hip-hop. In M. Forman & M. A. Neal (Eds.),That’s the joint: The hip-hop studies reader (pp. 61-68). New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. (2009). How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Erwin, J., Malcolm, S. A., Duncan-Mao, A., Matthews, A., Monroe, J., Samuel, A., & Satten, V. (2006, August). “Told You So: The Making of Reasonable Doubt.XXL Magazine, 10, 7, pp. 89-102.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Onimiyi, T. (2009). “So I choose to do Am Naija style” Hip-hop, language, and postcolonial identities. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 113-138). New York: Routledge.

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Apologies to Aesop Rock for ganking his “No Jumper Cables” lyric for the title of this piece (“Rappin’ is my radio, graffiti is my TV, B-boys keep them windmills breezy”).

[Top photo of Ras Kass by B+. Photocopy treatment by royc.]

It’s Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away.

GermsDarby Crash had the perfect punk-rock plan: takeover the L.A. punk scene in five years, commit suicide, and become immortalized as a legend. Little did he know that Mark David Chapman would derail that plan very shortly after Darby followed through.

Biggie Smalls never had such a plan, but after a five-year ascent to the top of the rap game, unknown gunmen burned his name into music history forever.

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. — Woody Allen

Darby Crash (born Paul Beahm and briefly known as Bobby Pyn) had a rough upbringing, but somehow ended up an intelligent, charismatic iconoclast in early adulthood. His sloppy but visionary leadership is exactly what made the Germs the incendiary and legendary act that they’re remembered as.

Biggie Smalls (born Christopher Wallace and also known as the Notorious B.I.G.) had a rough but loving upbringing and ended up an intelligent, charismatic poet in early adulthood. His street-influenced but hopeful rhymes put him deservedly in the running as one of the best emcees ever in the eyes of millions.

Darby Crash’s five-year plan included writing songs, putting together a band, booking gigs, and learning to play — in that order. Germs shows were so notorious for their violence, drug use, and insanity that by the time their first and only full-length record came out (the Joan-Jett produced (GI); Slash, 1979), the Germs weren’t allowed to play anywhere in L.A. Their perfrmance in Penelope Spheeris’s punk-rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Part I (Spheeris Films, 1981) was shot in a space rented especially for the film.

Shane West as Darby Crash

Though his first full-length record didn’t surface until 1994, Biggie Smalls’ career was already in full effect. He’d signed with Puffy in 1992 and had dropped sixteens on several records. Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994) spawned three major chart hits and went on to become a certified Hip-hop classic. It was to be the only record he would see released in his short lifetime.

What We Do is SecretWhat We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2008), Roger Grossman’s biographical film depicting the unlikely rise, loud and bright burn, and inevitable fall of Darby Crash and the Germs truly captures the spirit, if not of the times, of Crash’s presence. Shane West is mesmerizing. One reviewer wrote that West seems to be channeling Crash, and I’m inclined to agree. His performance reminds me of higher profile iconic nails being hit on their heads, such as Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X and Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman. Though West’s Crash tends to overshadow everyone else in the movie (as one imagines Crash did in real life), Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Phillips are also brilliant as Pat Smear and Lorna Doom.

NotoriousNotorious (Fox Searchlight, 2009) does a serviceable job of telling Biggie’s story from a fan’s perspective. To be fair, Voletta Wallace (Biggie’s moms) and Sean Combs (his A&R rep, mentor, and friend) are executive producers, so investigative reporting this isn’t. Also serviceable is Jamal Woolard’s depiction of Biggie. It’d be dead-on if it were based on mannerisms alone (everyone in this movie nails the nonverbals), and if Anthony Mackie’s performance as Tupac Shakur wasn’t so fresh (though it is jumped off by a “dear stupid viewer” scene in which he’s unnecessarily introduced by name several times). The studio scene that started the so-called coastal feud between Biggie and Tupac, Bad Boy and Death Row records — in which Tupac is shot several times and in the confusion blames Biggie and the Bad Boy crew — is written and filmed in a perfectly chaotic manner. You feel like a witness to the jumbled madness. Biggie’s coincidentally tying up all of his personal loose ends on the eve of his death on the other hand…

Jamal Woolard as Biggie Smalls

Following his coup d’etat of the L. A. punk scene (done) and in the spirit of the Neil Young quotation above, Darby Crash planned on killing himself via a lethal dose of heroin, thus becoming a punk rock legend. After one last Germs reunion show, he followed through on December 7th, 1980. Unfortunately, John Lennon was shot and killed the very next day, overshadowing the death of Darby Crash and one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.

Though Biggie’s debut record was titled “Ready to Die,” he had no such plans of becoming a martyred legend, but the first-person theatrics of Hip-hop storytelling were lost somewhere in the mix of “keeping it real.” Poetic first person doesn’t always mean the man on the mic. The space between that person and the one on the street are walls closing in, and on March 9th, 1997, those walls closed for Christopher Wallace.

If Notorious let its dynamic characters stand on their own like What We Do Is Secret does, it’d be a better movie and a more fitting tribute for it. Both Darby Crash and Biggie Smalls deserve the attention and these movies though. They both rebelled, rose above, and rocked shit. People with their abundant talent, unyielding drive, and unfettered commitment don’t come around very often.

Though some may see the comparison as forced, the parallels between these two men and these two movies are myriad. Even their mode of rebellion and the related conspicuous consumption are integral to their similarities. Biggie’s Hip-hop (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 90s) and Darby’s punk rock (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 70s) used consumerism to stake their positions relative to mainstream America. Though they do it in different ways, both speak for the frustrations and aspirations of marginalized, working-class youth. Both are undeniably angry, but both are ultimately hopeful.

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Shot live at The Whisky in L.A. circa 1979, here is “Lexicon Devil” by the Germs — a glimpse of the captivating chaos that was Darby Crash (runtime: 2:02).

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And to keep it rugged and raw, here’s a clip of a seventeen-year-old Biggie Smalls battling on the street in Brooklyn (runtime: 1:05). Listen as he deftly switches his pitch to follow the break of the beat. Fresh.

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Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Head Against a Rock: dälek’s Gutter Tactics

dälek 'Gutter Tactics'As elated as many of us are that we elected Barack Obama our next president, dälek is here to remind us that it ain’t all good. Opening with a minute-plus excerpt from a Reverend Wright sermon, Gutter Tactics (Ipecac, 2009) lets you know from jump that dälek isn’t caught up in the hoopla of hope. But don’t get it twisted. This record’s not a downer. It’s a get-the-fuck-up-er. Are you ready to make change for real? Are you ready for the realest, hardest Hip-hop there is? Your answer’s kind of odd for a kid who loves to nod. Continue reading “Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Head Against a Rock: dälek’s Gutter Tactics”

WU: The History of the Wu-Tang Clan DVD

Watching the studio clips from the making of The Black Album on Jay-Z’s Fade to Black DVD is so inspiring. Watching the energy of the creative process as it unfolds and bears fruit is rarely captured so vividly. It reminds me of watching BMX and skateboard “buddy” videos and how they depict just how much fun it is to be so good at something. Continue reading “WU: The History of the Wu-Tang Clan DVD”