Wednesday, March 30, 2005

they call it murder

happy to be here

That spine-tingling thrill… when something bobs to the surface and breaks through the flotsam and jetsam… floating out of the muck… for a moment you can picture it’s trajectory… launching over the churning sea of Whogivesashit. There are all sorts of lovely creatures below the surface… but dem waters run deep… ankles wet in hip-hop brackish. But there it is… some perfect whale song echoing dub-like just past the breakers… beckoning wave from deep dark seas… damn if it ain’t saying “Welcome to Jamrock!”

This Damien Marley tune has been causing waves since W was re-upped in ’04. The reggaerati and apparantly some in Sucka Free territory have been riding it for a while…. but it’s just about to hit my shore…

Speaking from outside of the culture it can be quite refreshing to hear a reggae or dancehall joint on pop radio but when was the last time I heard a ‘roots’ sound and when did that sound seem to be perfectly crafted to cut through it all, stand tall and point a finger and declare it’s imminent crossover. ‘Jamrock’ did it somehow and, unexpectedly, on the deservedly maligned hip-pop station Hot 97. It sounds revolutionary in that context. And yet nothing is particularly new about it. The track and vocal sample (“Out in the streets, they call it murder!”) are from Ini Kamoze and the title is sampled from Bounty Killa (extra special credit to Forward Ever for schooling my fresh ears). The content seems to parallel the hip-hop reportage I’m more familiar with but with a more critical and definitely heavy-lidded eye. The video also uses the familiar hip-hop structure of showing ‘REAL folk’ in the ‘REAL hood’ going on about their ‘business’ or staring directly into the camera only to join in on the ironic greeting of the title. The slow slide camera pans of ‘Jamrock’ residents and reverse dolly shots of the reporter Marley are clichés for a reason. Effective for every hood we have been (re)introduced to by young representatives… from Compton to Marcy, Brixton to the ‘Nolia… it’s imagery that we’ve seen countless times but it’s ‘authenticity’ (yes… I said it) never gets old. The ambitions of crossover are apparent in a video that shows a street gambling beef settled with a shank and young bwoys with bright green plastic TOY guns. But the words make it very clear what is concerning Mr. Marley…

Come on let’s face it, a ghetto education’s basic,
Most a di yutes, dem waste it
And when dem waste it, dat’s when they tek di guns replace it
Then dem don’t stand a chance at all
And dat’s why enough likkle yute have up some fat ‘matic

Damien has shown up on my radar in the past via the Dead Prez ‘Turn Off the Radio’ mixtape which led me to the source but THIS… the straight from the plastic-radio samples sent into the outer space dub echo chamber over a dusty but bubbly bounce sliced by the declarative unrelenting steady jabs of Marley’s multi-line rhymes…these familiar pieces recombined… at the right time… right NOW… this sounds like something new. Ya heard?

Damien “Jr. Gong" Marley - Welcome to Jamrock
Damien “Jr. Gong" Marley, Capleton – It was Written

Friday, March 25, 2005

forget the 'speak softly' part...

I didnt know before now my role's defined: Take hold and control what's mine COME AND GIT MEEEEEEE

(photo and text from and The Associated Press)

…It was unclear where (Kyrgyzstan President Askar ) Akayev was speaking a day after he fled the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek as thousands of protesters stormed his offices and the opposition began setting up a new government…

…Lawmakers met early Friday to consider the country's new leadership but were interrupted by youths throwing stones at the Parliament building. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an opposition leader, then emerged and told about 1,000 demonstrators in the central square that he had been appointed "acting prime minister and acting president" and would seek to form a Cabinet.
"Freedom has finally come to us," Bakiyev told the crowd in the capital, Bishkek. The crowd shouted his name in support…

… Bakiyev urged opposition supporters not to allow looting, and he called on people who had come to Bishkek from the provinces to go home, go to work and take care of their families.
Bakiyev said he would fight corruption -- a major complaint against Akayev's regime -- and the clan mentality that roughly splits the country between north and south.
"I will not allow the division of the people into north and south," he said. "We are a united nation."
Bakiyev said there would be no major changes in foreign policy.
The square was the scene of swift political change Thursday, when opposition protesters seized control of the presidential and government headquarters. The takeover followed weeks of protests over disputed parliamentary elections the opposition said were aimed at keeping Akayev in power…

… Kyrgyzstan has been a conduit for drugs and a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism. There was no indication, however, that the opposition would be more amenable to Islamic fundamentalist influence than Akayev's government has been…

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"real talk"

creepin up slow was a blue El Dorado...

Nicole Wray:
Knew this girl from the hood, comin' up. She was young. For her sake I won't mention no names 'cause she was headed for trouble. Only child, runnin wild. Seventeen. In the midst of the fiends and the gangstas. Like a fool she fell in love with a hustler. Not afraid. Played the game. It was sold never told... so she played anyway that she could 'cause all she knew was the struggle. Ain't no doubt, baby girl was too lost and turned out but she prayed anyway.... everynight wonderin' where did the love go. She says can't get out of the game. She playin all the time and she can't stop but she don't know what else to do.

Got me a date with a concrete cutie at seven PM on the dot. He said he's bringin' me a brand new 'Louis' cause he's diggin' me alot. He said that all the niggas wanna control me 'cause they don't wanna see me shine. But Tennesse Slim is the bomb, ya heard me nigga? She keep it pimpin' all the time.... Say say, lil fine ass nigga, come out and play with me.... and bring a sack of treats... Zig-zags please, not Phillies. I bet you wanna slide down my rainbow... want me to fuck you like a whore. Well we can fall in love or we can just fake it and be like this forever more.

Bun B:
That shit is soundin' like a plan, shorty. It's time to roll with the trill and I'm the man, shorty. You tired o' fuckin' wit' dem lames in the game and I understand, shorty. Now take my hand, shorty. Jump in my syrup-colored slab and take a ride through my southern candyland, shorty. Lay back on the leather. Now fire up the good sh-... while we come down on the buttons that you ain't gotta push. Sexy-ass Tennessee Slim outta the 'Ville! You rollin with Bun B. now how does it feel for real?

Nicole Wray:
One night baby girl took a ride with this dude that she thought was her man but didn't understand that he didn't love her. You could tell by the look in his eyes that this guy, he was colder than ice, had drama in the hood but never let her know. So they stopped at the light. They were smokin' and drinkin'... Never noticing that creepin up slow was a blue El Dorado. Within a blink of an eye through the passenger side of his ride shots fired and she cried. All you could see was the blood flow.
She's in trouble.

Pastor Troy:
Baby, have you ever (Uhh) in a car? (Uhh) In a pool? On the bar? In the rain? In the snow? On the ceiling? On the flo'? In the ocean? On the lake? Ever been ate with yo ass on a plate? Tennessee Slim, that Georgia Boy is holla'in' at ya and I can't wait until I catch ya. It's real!

Beanie Sigel:
Same hood, same mind frame. Am I to blame... shorty's caught up in the struggle? Addicted to my hustle? It's fair game. I ain't have to strain. The thought of her strappin them thangs to her frame, main... she did it from a muscle. I explained, "After the rain, the sun'll shine again. After difficulty come ease. You gotta feel the pain." The 'devil's advocate', leadin' her to the flame. She's no different from all of the Lauras and Tiffany Lanes. Like a moth she was drawn to the light of my chain. Stood tall in the storm, late nights in the rain, not knowing the flipside of the game: Dem boys drawn to the same plus the law put shit in the game. And once addicted to the game it's hard to maintain... Like a smoker when he first take a pull of the 'caine. Plus the game bring the name... and the change and the fame. Once again, main, I ask who am I to blame?

Nicole Wray, Beanie Sigel – Can't Get Out of the Game
Joi, Bun B, Pastor Troy – Say Say Lil Fine Ass Nigga

Monday, March 21, 2005

nothing and then…

we missed you too

Whole lotta 'minimalism' kept me focused this past weekend...

FIRST there was the Slint show at Irving Plaza…
Dem Slint boys kept the between-banter to nearly nil. I almost hoped for crickets. Instead I got folk shushing the shushers as loud as they could and the self-satisfied ‘real’ fans yelling out obscure references. I’m all for peace but the next time someone yells out the safely ironic song request at a show (“Freebird!”) please smash a bottle over their head…. Or at least throw a ‘bow.
The songs themselves brought that Lynchian twang-and-dread over the off-kilter precision thunder-pops of Britt Walford. Walford and David Pajo linked up like Wonder Twins but the whole group brought the drone (I can’t call it groove), the build and the explosions in astounding synchronicity. It would be a feat to spot the band on stage that broke up a decade ago (but continues in separate entities). One would also think that such ‘minimal’ songs could be handled by a smaller group of musicians (as when Brian McMahan handed guitar duties to brother Michael when he grabbed the mic) but the focus required for each song element became apparent as each ‘piece’ was revealed and having each 'sound' delivered by a separate musician added to the intense mood. Bassist Tony Cook refreshingly ice-grilled the audience while the rest of the band either checked for Walford’s cues or made sure their shoelaces were tied (I kid!).

And who knew that the staging would be equally precise, simple and dramatic. ‘Noir’ lights rake across the stage to highlight a player. Red spotlights eerily blaze on faces. At the end of the tune with Walford on guitar and vocals, Michael McMahan is revealed under a spotlight. The light brightens and dims along with the final buzzing guitar crescendo and fade.

Slint was the first (and maybe only) band I ever described as ‘sublime’. They channeled simple, aching beauty with the spine-tingling unknown; staring into an abyss and seeing the chaos that can spill out of it.

I jacked the photo from ‘Good Morning, Captain’ which also has a great account of the show (and the rest of the tour).

THEN there was the Greater New York show at PS1 and although the artists wouldn't necessariy fall into the 'minimalist' school of work I'm obviously drawn to their work for similar reasons: maximum impact through minimal and/or humble means and/or materials. Someone give these people some money...

Yuken Teruya
Corey McCorkle
Tobias Putrih
Dasha Shishkin
Daniel Zeller
Leo Villareal
Marco Breuer

Friday, March 18, 2005

baltimore love thing

streets will be watching...

The fiends need me, I ain't around it, bones ache
Detox, rehab, cold sweat, watch 'em shake

Alright, chill and hit some of this....


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

new season of the Vic

return of the Mack

Neither ‘Most Brutal Show on TV’ nor ‘Best Exploration of Urban Conflict’, ‘The Shield’ DOES take silver in both categories. And from the looks of the Season-4 primo it should continue it’s run for the gold.
Last nights ep brought in ‘The Barn’-burner Monica Rawling aka The Closer, old-schooling Vic Mackey on how to reap respect from the set-reppers and the thin blue line. Witness: Tough white lady cop jacks shank, ID and swagger from a young IX-man who claims never knowing his pops… Close (without a beat missed): ‘I probably knew him…’ (OOOOOh! No she di’n’t!) I imagine homey left throwing up a Paul-Hardcastle-stammered “N-N-N-Nineteen…”
Shane Vendrell’s straight white smile (just talking teeth) makes him look like an ‘extra’ at a Hollywood casting…(oh, you thought cops weren’t in on the call backs? Fall back!) but his grill was on chill as he stepped up the path both crooked and dark with even more abandon than last season. The typically un-shook Vic was left snarl-less.
The Closer even flipped the switch to ‘survival mode’ on The Dutch Master Chiller, Wagenbach. Dutch was still wobbly from Vic’s ‘free kittens’ jokes last season.
The AA meeting with some 19th Street residents had Spike-ish overblown overtones (Wake Up!) but I loved how the new probation-free post-pimping ‘preacher’ Antwon Mitchell took the ‘chuuch’ straight to the badges. The news of the death of his arresting officer brought a mild chuckle.
Officer J. Lowe (no typo) (once waiting for the ‘right man’ before realizing the ‘right man’ was Christ) tries to convert three kids on two wheelers into one ‘hood watch group’. The trio’s not singing but upon eyeing stepping-up Sofer their rap game draws on O’Shea’s ol’ ways…

without a gun they can't get none
But don't let it be a black and a white one
Cause they'll slam ya down to the street top
Black police showin out for the white cop

Now, I suppose it’s more realistic than quoting SOME contemporaries but are the Shield scriptwriters enforcing the folk tradition for boyz in the hood… or are they just showing their age? I’m curious what the young’ns are really quoting these days?
Uptown they might shout “they better take me in cuffs” but what’s REALLY ‘Hood’? (L.A.? Holler if you hear me..)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Act II:... like ya know!

The ‘Who’s Next?’ wheel never stops spinning. A few years ago I would have bet the house on a couple of odds on favorites. Regular Joe and Bubba K stared superstardom in the grill. But all grills that glitter could be just gold (at best). Both parlayed the “I’m just a regular dude” line and without irony. But both would-be kings followed different suits.

not your average joe
Mr. Jump Off: Potential heir-apparent to the mixtape throne vacated by the Jackson 50. The underground quotable ‘Focus’ introed his odd flow and tone, freestyles like ‘I Wish’ kept the streets buzzing but Kool and The Gang carried him on ‘Pump It Up’ which Just Blazed into heavy rotation. His singles emphasized punch-lines, vocal play and the odd interjection when he could have easily leaned on his drug history. Filler weakened his album but it was mostly filled with personal stories told in his distinct percolating low tones. The LPs stalled sales could be put on Def Jam’s back for not playing up the everyman status but quite honestly even his biggest supporters knew the album didn’t have a ‘Pump It Up’ follow-up and his introspective rhymes didn’t fit into a radio format (“Just give me ten minutes”? Probably not…) He tried a return to mixtapes and even had some potential media interest with the G-Unit ‘beef’… but he lost momentum… and then seemed to show up on too many R&B remixes for anybody’s good.

not just another bubba
Bubba Sparxxx: The NEXT Great White Hope. Ties: Exploding NEW South, Timmy’s Beat Club, Rico’s Organized Noise. The ‘Ugly’ success was beautiful and ‘Dark Days Bright Nights’ showed him to be not only an honest and adept MC but something of a ‘Southern gentleman.’ Balancing raunch with heart, street toughness and familiarity with average guy empathy and humility. ‘Deliverance’ was the rare sophomore surge of quality songs in production and character. Critics agreed but reframing ‘O Brother’ in video and Timbaland’s ‘country’ samples didn’t catch the music buyers.

Joe and Bubba mad strategic moves last year that were a bit surprising. Joe, recognized for going SOLO on his debut album and only marginally related to fellow mixtape MCs, developed ties to the final phase of Rocafella through the State Prop ‘gang.’ Although the connection to Beanie Sigel’s straightforward style is apparent the environment of ‘gun and drug’ talk closes a distance from those subjects that Joe seemed to be maintaining. Bubba raised a few eyebrows after the Beat Club relationship dissolved and he showed up on the ‘Southern Smoke’ series edging closer to crunk than one would have predicted. His relationship with Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon makes sense especially after one of his best appearances on the Dungeon Family’s ‘White Gutz’.
Although being affiliated with the Roc and the ‘Kast seems like money in the bank so did Def Jam and Beat Club. And to see talented MCs like Peedi Crakk and Killer Mike handled improperly by the same groups reinforces the idea that nothing is a sure bet.

Joe Budden, Coke, Newz – I Wish
Beanie Sigel, Peedi Crakk, Joe Buddens, Young Chris – Flatline Remix (from Roc Royalty)
Bubba Sparxxx – New South (from Deliverance)
Bubba Sparxxx – Pocket Full of Midz (from Got That Purp)

Monday, March 07, 2005

never thought that hip-hop would take it this far

It’s been eight years since the death of the Notorious B.I.G. on March 9th 1997 and almost 11 years since my only (very brief) personal interaction with him. The morning of March 9th 1997 I had returned to my old apartment on St. James to pick some things up from a friend that still lived there. The reporters outside of the building tipped me off that something was up but I had no idea. When I heard the news I left a message with Max Glazer of ‘On The Go Magazine.’ I said ‘I want to write something about Biggie…’ This is the piece from March 13th 1997…


The urge to draw comparisons to the current beef between 50-Cent and The Game are forgiven... but mistaken. BIG didn’t feed the fire the way the Aftermathematicians have. Biggie actually seemed honestly baffled by the allegations from former-friend Tupac. Biggie’s death was related to the beef that had developed around him but since he was clearly a non-participant (meaning no dis records directed at Pac) his death was TRULY senseless and doubly tragic. It would be a stretch to call him an 'innocent' bystander but I am always baffled and frustrated by the way history has framed the Biggie and Tupac 'beef.' What if you had a war and only one person showed up? In this case, apparantly, both sides still have to die.

When the video for 'Hypnotize' hit MTV it was his SMILE that was more disarming than any gun talk or special effect could have been. Biggie looked happy! Not to say that he NEVER was happy before but to emphasize how rare it is to associate JOY with a rappers chosen image… especially on such a highly anticipated sophomore album by the 'East Coast gangsta' revivalist.

As his neighbor I heard him practice (over and over) the verses that would become ‘Come On’ from the posthumous ‘Born Again’ LP but more famously known from the live freestyle with Tupac preserved by Mister C.

Notorious BIG, Sadat X – Come On

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

making a record HAPPEN

fuck 'music'

The Bomb Squad concept was so much more than ‘making beats.’ Hank Shocklee is unimpressed by producers who simply ‘make beats.’ At the Producers Panel of the NYU seminar celebrating “It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” he challenged them: “Can you make a record HAPPEN?!?”
Whether or not Shocklee can do that in today’s market does not deter me from thinking that every rapper and producer would benefit from his description of ‘pre-production’ for the ‘Nation’ LP. Sadly only a few artists (Outkast, Kanye…) understand the idea behind ‘an album of songs’ or having a consistent producer/artist vision. And before ‘Rappers Against Rockism’ gets up in arms about the ‘singular vision thing’ Shocklee made it very clear why ‘Nation’ is a pinnacle of ‘post-rock production.’
First of all, the idea of the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy is always about EVERYONE involved (Griff had a role, Flav had a role, Eric Sadler etc…). The Producers Panel was an indication of this SHARED effort. Although it was Shocklee that spoke the most he noted that there is a REASON that the owner of Greene Street Studios is on the panel. There’s a REASON that the engineers were there. His detailed history of his experiences at other studios made it clear how important the atmosphere of the studio was to the creation of ‘Nation.’ For example, two recording sessions were almost always happening simultaneously. He said that Sadler, Chuck, his brother Keith or himself or any of the studio personnel could have worked on any part of any song… Although he or Chuck would be the final ‘filter,’ it is impossible to assign specific credit for song elements. He shares the credit and glory with the GROUP.
Part of the legend of ‘Nation’ are the ‘happy accidents’ that produced sonic dissonance, offbeat rhythms and in-the-red track bleed. The panel’s stories confirmed the legends and added a few more.
‘Black Steel’ is a recording not only of Chuck’s voice when he had a cold (which Shocklee felt added the emotion to the rap) but also a behind-the-scenes snippet of Flav telling Hank not to stop the ad-libs on an in-studio phone. The intent of the session was to record Flav answering the phone with “Yo Chuck…” etc. but Flav couldn’t help clowning… Every time the phone rang he would answer “Hello! Greene Street Studios…”
Engineer Chris Shaw recalled the time he was asked to identify a distorted bass sample. He couldn’t... so some of the distortion was taken out and he was asked again… and so on… until he could finally recognize the bass-line from a popular English foursome (two of the members are now dead). As Shaw warned, “You can’t do…”, some of the distortion was reapplied and the bass-line’s identity remains a secret to this day. Shaw also revealed that the beeping rhythm of ‘Security of the First World’ was a sample of his digital watch alarm. When that track was sampled (without permission) by Lenny Kravitz and Madonna, Shocklee contemplated going after some compensation... but decided he better not get near that slippery-slope of sampling rights.
When a sample sounded too ‘clean’ Shocklee would throw the source recording on the floor, stomp on it and re-sample it.
‘Nation’ is a 24-track recording. One of those tracks was always the ‘time code.’ Three or four of the tracks were used for all of the various samples. One or two were used for vocals. One track was used to buffer the ‘time code’ from the bleed of the next track. The remaining sixteen or so tracks were used for drums! Four for kicks, four for snares, four for highs etc.
Some of the samples used were from recordings of Bomb Squad jam sessions that were held at their own studio. These free form improvisations, often with Chuck on turntables and the Shocklees on grooves, would often go for five hours which would yield, maybe, a snippet that could be used to create a track.
As much as Hank Shocklee loved the “wall of mess” sound, the ‘dirt’ and the off kilter rhythms, he understood that a pop record needs clear vocals, drums and low end. He always controlled the chaos, never letting it overtake the groove, rap or song concept.
He described an elaborate set-up designed to transfer a ‘pause tape’ beat (that Chuck had chopped together) to the board. It involved stretching quarter-inch tape around the room and setting up a mic in the middle…well, honestly, I didn’t understand what he was describing but it was clear that there was nothing that would stop him from preserving the raw quality for the final recording. Shocklee says he is not a technical musician and relied on the engineers to achieve PE’s vision but he loved being the arranger, assembling the myriad pieces into a cohesive whole, being loose and disciplined as necessary.
The Bomb Squad took that discipline to every level of creating the album. Shocklee demanded "pre-production" or ‘preparation, strategy and direction’ so that when they hit the studio money was not spent on writing rhymes or conceptualizing. The studio was used for ‘execution.’ They stepped into the studio, not only with beats and raps but an arrangement of samples, song titles (created during the ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ days) and solid song concepts. They even had song lengths written down. These allowed them to record two album sides of exactly the same length that would fill the sides of a cassette. They left almost no gap of silence when the car’s tape deck hit auto-reverse. This created a near-continuous stream of music when pumping it in your Oldsmobile or Bronco. And I got the feeling that song sequence was almost as important as the songs themselves.
All of this was implemented to minimize spending Def Jam’s money. ‘Yo!’ was recorded for $12,000 and ‘Nation’ for $40,000. With a budget of $250,000, this immediately put PE on the very short list of artists making money for the corporate heads… before the albums were even released. PE knew this would facilitate green lights for marketing efforts… and money. Check that out: To the corporate heads, Public Enemy was a SAFE BET!
PE considered the logo, graphics and photography as PART of the album, not an afterthought. Shocklee even name-checked Glen Friedman with as much reverence as he did the studio crew. Back then, “the album cover WAS the video” (at least before they ventured into ‘Night of the Living Bass-Heads’…).
Again, all of this focus on the album might set ‘Nation’ up for ‘Rockist’ superiority issues… but the Bomb Squad understood the dynamic of 12”-singles as well. The mind-blowing ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ was a bonus cut on the ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’ single from ‘Yo!’ ‘Bring the Noise’ was half of a double-sided single from the ‘Less Than Zero’ soundtrack. And the cut that was bumped from the soundtrack, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype,’ was released as ‘Nation’s official first single. Shocklee clarified that there were THREE singles out promoting the album at the SAME time!
This may seem like overemphasis on ‘packaging’ and none of it would be discussed today if the music wasn’t genius. But the vision of the BIG picture is consistent with PE’s political/musical message as well. Thinking about all aspects of an album would definitely improve new artists chances of breaking from the pack instead of just banking on a hot beat.
Engineer Chris Shaw recalled the time he told the Squad that two clashing samples would NOT work together as musical elements. Hank replied, surely armed with irony and attitude, “Fuck ‘music’!”

(photo via Murderdog)