Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reverend Tyson, Take it Away!

I have a fairly significant audition tomorrow, so I'm going to hit the sack early tonight. So I'll let my homie Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson take the reins until tomorrow.

This is my absolute favorite youtube video of Dr. Tyson. He not only speaks about the intricacies of disseminating scientific curiosity, but also a bit of the sociopolitical consequences of choosing astrophysics as a profession.



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Rhymes of Our Lives

The plates in Omarr's kitchen cabinets used to rattle when we played this at his crib.

GZA feat. Method Man "Shadowboxin'"

Along with Mobb Deep, The Fugees, and OutKast, various Wu-Tang projects stayed in rotation in the years I lived in the same neighborhood with my friends Omarr and Andre. I can't begin to tell you how many times we must have listened to "C.R.E.A.M.," "Bring the Pain," "Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Cold World," "For Heavens Sake," and countless other tracks from the various Wu-related albums. However, for me this particular cut seemed to embody everything that was essential to the Wu-Tang aesthetic. There's something about the incredibly ragged and muddy feel of RZA's production and the faint distortion of GZA and Method Man's vocal track that captured the purity of the Wu-Tang sound during this era.

Listening to this track in 2011 has illuminated something about RZA's work that I've barely noticed before now, his approach to sampling. The sample he used for this particular tune is from one of hip hop's favorite soul artists, Anne Peebles. Her song "Trouble, Heartache, and Sadness" is the foundational element of RZA's composition, providing the skeleton upon which he layers the drums and baseline. When I hear how Anne's voice becomes such a prime element of the instrumental, I recognize the artistic inspiration RZA provided for today big-budget producers such as Just Blaze, Kanye West, and the late J Dilla. Along with cats like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Timbaland, and Dr. Dre, RZA should certainly be considered one of the pillars of hip hop production.

This track is the realest.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas (Post-Hurricane Wrap-Up)

Allow me to briefly finish what I started.

As a fan of his work, I'll be the first to say Nas hasn't always secured the best production for his albums. He certainly has substantial highlights ("N.Y. State of Mind", "The Message", "Nas Is Like" to name a few), but there have definitely been moments of his career which suffered due to substandard instrumentation.

"Purple" is not one of those moments.

For me, the most unique element of this track is it's lack of a hook (or chorus to some). Hooks are the staple of hip hop songs, usually because they are the only words anyone can remember after a first listen. They are also the lyrics to which people outside of the culture tend to gravitate. I'll never forget a stroll I took on the campus of Louisiana State University through the tailgating festivities before a football games. I walked past one group of fans who were flying a purple and gold Confederate flag and listening to OutKast's Stankonia album. I watched with slacked jaw as they flailed and gyrated while singing along, chanting "I'm sorry Ms. Jackson!" Surreal.

I think it's actually quite daring for Nas to forego adding a hook on this track. The urge to "catchify" a hip hop song is significant, and many otherwise decent songs have been weakened with the addition of weak or unnecessary "hookage". With "Purple" Nas recognized the obvious density of what he's written and decided it was enough to carry the song. That type of commitment to one's message is difficult to play; ask any actor who has moments alone on stage. But because Nas has chosen to simplify this composition, his words become much clearer and more expressive.

I dig it.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

I better throw something up here before the power goes out.

I'm not going to write a whole lot on this one right now. Due to the shenanigans of Hurricane Irene, I'm not quite sure how much longer the electricity will be on. Have a listen if you can, and I'll be back to talk about it tomorrow (or whenever the juice is back).


Saturday, August 27, 2011

My Lauryn Hill Rant: A Quick Thought

Alright. I'll make this brief.

For context of this post, see here.

Let me begin by stating that I am an absolute fan of Lauryn Hill's music, work, and energy. She moves with more honesty and passion than just about any other artist in my catalog.

Lauryn's withdraw from visible performance and recording soon after the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a well documented event. The clamor for a sophomore solo effort was deafening, especially after her record-breaking five Grammy wins back in 1999 (the most in a single ceremony for a female artist). Much to her distaste, she was quickly becoming an incredibly valued musical commodity and in 2000 retracted from the public eye in self-imposed exile.

Since her resurfacing in 2001 on MTV: Unplugged and the short-lived Fugees reunion soon after their performance on Dave Chappelle's Block Party in 2004, Lauryn has taken the stage in a number of venues across the globe to begin the rediscovery of her life as a performer. However, there have been several accounts of bizzare and unprofessional behavior from Ms. Hill that have begun to alienate even her most die-hard supporters.

A close friend of mine attended one of her shows in Michigan shortly after the release of her Unplugged album. Apparently, she appeared on stage 90 minutes late and played her guitar as if she wanted to strangle it while belting the lyrics of her set for about 40 minutes. When she was done, she tossed the instrument away from her and snorted, "There!" as she plodded off stage. The crowd was left with a feeling of complete befuddlement. This type of instability and inconsistency has been Lauryn's modus operandi for the last decade of her musical career (see the San Francisco Chronicle here, and this article from and there doesn't seem to be any sign of change on the horizon.

Furthermore, let's consider the new interpretations we've witnessed of her established work, namely the Miseducation... playlist. Now, I'm all for artistic experimentation. There would be no truly good art if we didn't continuously dance on the boundary of what's brilliant and what's utter cow dung. In fact, many times when I see Lauryn do these funk/rock/soul re-imaginings of her work, I really do get down with some of it. But at best they feel like fleeting strokes brilliance; stars burning brightly with short lifespan. They have nowhere near the sense of spine, grounding, and stability of her late 1990s stuff.

And no, she should definitely not be performing "Ex-Factor" in 2011 the same way she did in 1999. She's a different person now, and the music should be different. However, there is a very acute and palpable abrasive/combative quality to her performances now that seems to have no balance; no converse. So I can understand why people sometimes boo her at shows nowadays. They feel they're being attacked, and I would venture to say they are.

As I've watched and listened to Lauryn these past eight or nine years, I can't help but believe that she doesn't really want to be performing anymore. It's difficult for me to find an instance in which I can be certain Lauryn is having fun on stage. She still seems like a person in exile, as if exile could be a public experience. If that's true, and Lauryn isn't really enjoying her career as a performer, she should simply stop doing it immediately. Seriously. I know I wouldn't be upset, nor would any of her fans who actually cared about her psychological and spiritual health. Before everything else, she should consider exactly what she needs to take care of herself.

Of course we would miss her and talk about where we were when we first heard Miseducation... and how it changed our lives. But our memories would last a lifetime, and there's nothing anyone could say or do to taint our love for Lauryn. I hope she knows that.


Friday, August 26, 2011

A Deep Soul Story

Have a listen.

"Bad Girl Pt. 1 & 2." by Lee Moses

Almost two years ago now I was living in Toronto and training to be a voice teacher at York University. In October, all the students are given a week off for Canadian Thanksgiving. (For real, Canada!?) So I thought to myself, "Hey, I might as well get out of town and see some sights!" So I made arrangements for my cat, packed a bag, and hopped a train to New York to hang with my homie Mark in Brooklyn. I was looking forward to catching up with him.

He meets me at Penn Station and hits me with the obligatory bear hug. Even though the guy probably weighs about the same at a six-foot pile of feathers, you better be in shape when he decides to show you some love. We took the L train back to his spot in Bushwick and stayed up way too late making cynical and ironic jokes about music and politics. At the time he was living with both his girlfriend and another one of our LSU buddies, and I'm sure we kept them awake far too long.

Over the next week, we explored a variety of interesting New York things. The stand-out day was seeing the American Museum of Natural History. For many years I've seen pictures of the exhibits in that building and it was an incredible experience to actually stand next to them. Dinosaurs are effin' cool, especially those giant T-Rex skulls. It was also around this time when I began my interest in the work of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is the head of the museum's astrophysics wing the Hayden Planetarium. That was a really good day.

Nevertheless, some where along the course of the week Mark says to me, "You've got to hear this guy I just found." Now, usually when Mark says something like this to me I don't take the suggestion lightly. I can only remember two or three times during the course of our seven-year friendship when he's made musical or artistic recommendations; he's a critical cat. The time before this, we ended up seeing these guys. (Be sure to turn you speakers up all the way!)

I believe the first Lee Moses track Mark played for me was "Free At Last", and it was immediately apparent to me I would rest very little before I found every bit of his music I possibly could. He soared over the track with discordant radiance and inspired abrasion, erupting with soul. I simply could take my ears off his music. Next, we heard his immense version "Hey Joe", (by far the best version I know other than Hendrix) then took off into "Bad Girl Pt. 1 & 2". I believe the first impulses I had were feelings of jealousy and frustration, because I could remember very few of my theatrical performances in which I embodied that much need and urgency. This guy was putting everything he was on these records.

I eventually found a link to download his album which is about the only way anyone can get it. It's apparently out of print, so buying a hard copy is going to be difficult and expensive. If you'd like to know more about Lee Moses, this is always a good place to start. If you're interested in exploring other deep soul artists, I've found no better site than Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven. Although Lee isn't on there (He should be!) there's plenty there to discover.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mother Load

Whoever thought it was a good idea for me not to know about the Red Bull Music Academy and its archive of artists' lectures had their head on straight, because now that I've discovered it, my productivity is headed in the crapper.

Here's a Questlove lecture from around five years ago.

This lecture/interview seems to have been recorded around the time The Roots were finishing up their first Def Jam project Game Theory. Quest gives us a very in-depth narrative describing the emergence of the Soulquarians, the inspiration of De La Soul on his decision to pursue making hip hop as a career, J Dilla's works and influence on his thoughts about drumming, and a number of other events and moments that have defined or shaped his music. Quest is the first to admit he is the unofficial the mouthpiece of The Legendary Roots Crew, and with this clip it seems he also serves to translate the energies of a large conglomerate of hip hop and soul artists, including folks like Jay-Z, D'angelo, Cody Chesnutt, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, and James Poyser.

As for the Red Bull lecture archives (here's the link), the line-up is nothing short of stellar. I could sit here and drop names all night (over 270 clips) but I'll leave it to you to explore them further. I'm off to the Madlib video.

This paper is never going to get done...


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Lauryn Hill Rant: The Set-Up

So, you know Lauryn Hill is one of the headliners for Rock the Bells this year, right? Here's a quick video of her discussing her defining solo effort The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

About a year ago I was watching videos of live Lauryn shows that have occurred in the last three or four years. What I saw wasn't adding up, so I tracked down some word-of-mouth from people who had seen her live recently for some context. Everything I saw and heard led me to a conclusion about Lauryn's work that was incredibly difficult. While we take in this video, I'll compose my conclusion for your reading pleasure over the next couple of days.

Some of you won't like what I have to say.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Time With Dilla

An interview with J Dilla while on tour in The Netherlands

It's in four parts, so make sure to check them all.

I've heard snippets of this interview here and there, and it's apparent that this conversation with J Dilla is of vast importance to the hip hop community. He speaks extensively about his relationship with Slum Village, his encounter and subsequent collaboration with Madlib, and the issues of intellectual and artistic ownership in hip hop.

I'm not writing much because I'm watching it myself! Check ya'll tomorrow...


Monday, August 22, 2011

I'm Awkward, and So Can You!

I think this may be the best thing I've seen on youtube in an entire year.

Welcome to The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl.

I think I was talking with someone recently about how I haven't seen any programming on B.E.T. for about 10 years now. Ever since Bob Johnson sold the network to Viacom, the caricatures of black folks on that channel have been nothing short of toxic and destructive. This deterioration has caused an inevitable ripple throughout mainstream media, making it okay for radio and television to perpetuate and exaggerate these images across the cultural landscape.

The brilliance of this web series is the levels of complexity and sincerity with which the life of a black women is explored. I feel the general perception is that black women are perpetually confident and assertive in all environments. Sometimes I wonder if black women even allow themselves to take advantage of this. (I know I would!)

But the idea of black women feeling nervousness, or insecurity, or inadequacy is probably a relatively new concept for a lot of people in this society. I know I've met many people in my travels who've grown up with very little multicultural interaction outside of images in the media. Much of our initial conversations have frequently involved tackling a backlog of stereotypical information they've received from third and forth-hand sources, and inviting them into a more complete understanding of my experience as an American of African decent.

I watched all seven of these videos and they keep getting better and better. Go check 'em all out here. (It's a link to the playlist. Just let it roll.) You will be hooked!


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

"One Mic" by Nas

For me, this is one of the handful of tracks that embodies everything that makes hip hop such a brilliant and transcendent musical art form. There are so many fantastic things about this song, I could go on all day. Instead, allow me to tackle the one element I feel is one of the main facets that makes this song great.

Over the course of his career Nas has experimented with his voice, both textually and aurally, with amazing specificity and courage. Like any performer he's had success and struggles, but has continued on a path of exploration in a way very few artists can sustain. With this particular track, I feel he put a lot of really good things together. Nas begins his first two verses playing a sort of sotto voce, gradually increasing his vocal energy through the 16 measures of rhyme. In the third verse he reverses this pattern, making the shift from a full voice experience back to the initial semi-stage whisper than began the first two verses. It's actually a very simply but highly effective way to move through this kind of text.

The wonderful thing about this movement is that, from what I can tell, Nas exhibits few of the traps or challenges with which so many speakers and performers grapple. Many times when actors or speakers attempt these kinds of shifts in vocal energy, a variety of learned habitual patterns may impede the release of freer vocal discoveries. Often these impediments are revealed through loss of breath, vocal stridency, and even physical pain. The popular course of action is usually formal voice training designed to bring awareness to these patterns in service of allowing their release. However, Nas doesn't seem to have any of this stuff going on here. The constant reinvestment of his vocal energy throughout the song seems incredibly progressive, and he follows the impulses of his voice with remarkable clarity. And there isn't one moment in the four minutes that feels forced or insincere. We are witness to an emcee who has discovered the resonant intricacies of his own voice, and has found a firm, well-defined, yet flexible sense of grounding. And like most emcees, he's done it without any formal performance training.

This is an extraordinary track.


Friday, August 19, 2011

The Rhymes of Our Lives

Find some unobstructed space before you listen to this.

"Jump Around" by House of Pain

In 1992 there were two hip hop hits that emphasized an unrelenting urge to rhythmically jump whenever they were played. One was "Jump" by Atlanta duo Kris Kross; I owned the single, probably because I was in the sixth grade. The other was this incredibly dope track by House of Pain which, if I'm honest, has enjoyed a longevity of which the other jumping song could only dream.

For me, the most exciting incarnation of this song's influence occurs at every University of Wisconsin-Madison home football game. Between the third and fourth quarters, the first verse of the song is played over the sound system prompting the entire student section of the stadium (some 15-20,000 people) to jump with the music. I've never seen it in person, but I can only imagine the relentlessness of that kind of energy pulsing through the stands. One of these days, I'll have to go check it out.

One day, UW should invite House of Pain there to do it live.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Therein Lies the Rub

I hope this conversation leads to something substantial.

Dylan Ratigan and Co. are drafting a constitutional amendment to regulate campaign finance. Whoa nelly.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This one, too.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I actually need to sleep tonight, so I'll be very brief.

Corruption in campaign financing is the single most debilitating problem facing United States politics. Nearly every major government impasse or injustice during the past 30 to 35 years has roots in the flow of money in and out of the legislative system. If anything can be done to regulate the way politicians fund their campaigns, then many of the problems America faces will be solved pretty quickly. I wish Dylan and his folks the best of luck with this.

I'll sign the thing as soon as it gets to me.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chin Check

After spending a considerable amount of editorial capital on Jay-Z and Kanye in the past week or so, a close friend reminded me of a few recent events that may have not received their fair exposure. I couldn't agree with her more.

This is a clip from BBC Newsnight involving a discussion between British historian David Starkey, British author and broadcaster Dreda Say Mitchell, and British author Owen Jones. In all the coverage I've seen and heard about the London riots, this may have been one of the most frustrating.

For more information on Mr. Starkey, see here.

I'll make this quick, because I have a research paper to continue.

It turns out David Starkey is gay, a fact I didn't know until I read more about him. I can't help but to consider what he would make of a commentator questioning the influence of "gay culture" on straight people, with some outlandish claim that stereotypes, denigrates, and marginalizes the community of Old Compton Street.

Then again after seeing this, he would probably just lick the guy's shoes.

Besides, racism in a British dialect doesn't quite do it for me. It needs that go ol' American edge for me to feel all warm and fuzzy inside.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whistle While You Turk

After spending a few hours on yesterday's Watch The Throne review, I've decided to take it light today. I'm dedicating some hard time to my research project for the next couple of days. (Would you be interested in some excerpts?)

Last week I posted a video of MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan fervently proclaiming his dissatisfaction with the corporate control of Washington politics and the American economy. (See here.) Today, I'd like to offer a video by Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur, otherwise known as The Young Turks. Ana and Cenk do a wonderful job of peeling the layers of Ratigan's epic tirade, offering clear and simple explanations of Dylan's thoughts and ideas. Here, have a look.


I wonder how "bought" President Obama really is?


Monday, August 15, 2011

Watch The Throne: Not For Beginners

I was supposed to write this review two nights ago, but I had to decompress for a couple days after watching this. Go see it and you'll understand.

I've read comments and reviews from all over the map about this album. Some praise Jay and 'Ye's chemistry, some claim there is none. Half say Jay's lyrics were better, the other half claim Kanye got the nod. The Monday-morning quarterbacking goes on and on with no real consensus as to what we actually have on our hands here. After listening to this album for pretty much an entire week, all I have left to offer is one question and one observation. Let's take them in turn.

Question: What did you expect?

Did you expect Kanye's ear for production and composition to be anything less than stellar? If you did, then I'm very sorry to disappoint you. Because the production on this album is, quite simply, some of the best I've heard since OutKast released Stankonia. Given what I've been able to gather about their respective creatives processes, I have to assume Kanye took the reigns with most of the instrumental/accompaniment aspects of the project. And yes there was input from a laundry-list of great hip hop sound men like Q-Tip, Swizz Beats, The Neptunes, 88-Keys, RZA, and Pete Rock. But ultimately, the orchestration of this album's luscious and dense sonic landscapes feels much more like a continuation of Kanye's trajectory on "...Dark Fantasy" than Jay's on "Blueprint 3". There is a clear sense of experimentation on many of the tunes on the album, but that's to be expected. What's not experimental about two powerhouses of hip hop attempting to building cohesion from substantially dichotomous individual aesthetics?

Did you expect Jay not to rhyme about being rich? Did you expect 'Ye not to rhyme about being a genius? Have you been listening at all?

Jay's been rhyming about being rich since he was broke in 1995. The name of the record label he helped begin is called Roc-A-Fella Records. Like he said on "Jockin Jay-Z":

Haters like, "Hov, why you still talkin' money sh*t?"
'Cause I like money, b*tch!

And Kanye's had a high opinion of his brilliance since the beginning, even before his career firmly began. One of the emcees at the epicenter of Kanye's birth as a full-fledged artist is Talib Kweli. Last summer, Kweli was interviewed by discussing the early stages of Kanye's thrust into hip hop stardom. Have a look here. This pretty much sums it up.

Having said that, the lyrical diversity on this album is much more than I expected. With tracks like "New Day", "Murder to Excellence", and "Made in America" Jay and 'Ye are exploring parts of their thoughts and experiences that could only be revealed with exceptional attention paid to their personal ethics and journeys through life. And it's not like these are throw away tracks. They embody all the energy, commitment, and engagement heard throughout the entire record.

'Ye is rhyming like the government is about to cut off his oxygen.
Jay is rhyming like he's speaking to the United Nations.

These cats are writing as boldly and aggressively as they ever have.

Did you expect a ton of guest artists? I know I did. I'm happy their were few, and employed for specific effect. Kudos to them for not going overboard here.

Did you expect this to instantly be a classic record? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. I'm not quite sure yet. While I certainly believe ...Throne to be a wonderful work, I'm still having trouble putting all the pieces together. Right now the album feels to me like a collection of two or three brilliant individual projects, like Jay and 'Ye could have released three EPs over the course of a year rather than one LP all at once. And as I mentioned earlier, this is most certainly an experimental album. However, I will say this; I expect many great things to be born from their efforts; videos, tour dates, follow up albums. The more these two work, the more refined their focus. This is certainly a good beginning.

As for my observation...

I've been walking and riding around listening to this album for almost a week now. It's been a gorgeous summer in Philadelphia, beautiful people are jogging along the river, and the general feeling of August is quite palpable. However, as I've experienced this past week with ...Throne as my soundtrack, something simply didn't feel right.

At first I couldn't put my finger on it. I mean, beautiful summer weather and good hip hop music have always seemed to fit hand in hand. But somehow, this particular album struggled to fit the pace and rhythms of the season. It was as if I was driving on the interstate all alone in perfect comfort, but with some jackass riding in my blind spot. It must have taken me four days to figure it out, but I think I finally have a fix on it.

Summertime hip hop releases are usually reserved for the party rockin', licence plate-rattlin' mega-hit singles that pulsate through the community. Fat Joe had one with "Lean Back". Sean Paul sneaked up on us with "Gimme the Light". And do you remember Lumidee? I'll bet you don't. But do you remember this? I'll bet you do.

And that's just it. Summertime hip hop has always been pleasantly youthful and, honestly, a tad bit disposable. It's supposed to be. It's designed to expire in September, making room for the more controversial and introspective releases of the fall, winter, and spring. It's the parts of the year between summers where I feel classic albums best work their magic.

To illustrate this, I randomly picked 20 albums that have all been considered some of the best music to emerge from hip hop culture. Then I looked up the release date of each album, ignoring the year. I will list them all here.

The Fugees The Score - February 13
Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded - March 3
The Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death - March 25
Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - April 14
Nas Illmatic - April 19
Ice Cube AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted - May 16
Pete Rock and CL Smooth Mecca and the Soul Brother - June 9
Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt - June 25
Eric B and Rakim Paid in Full - July 7
N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton - August 8
Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - August 25
Black Star Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star - August 26
The Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die - September 13
A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory - September 24
Common Resurrection - October 25
OutKast Stankonia - October 31
Wu-Tang Clan 36 Chambers (Enter the Wu-Tang) - November 9
Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill - November 15
Snoop Dogg Doggystyle - November 23
Dr. Dre The Chronic - December 15

Out of 20 albums, only four of them were truly released during the summer. I'm not counting Miseducation and ...Black Star due to being released so late into August. Those are really autumn albums; that's the season in which they made their greatest impact.

Of course, I felt as if this could have been a fluke. How could it be that so few of the albums hip hop considers timeless are released in the summer? Additionally, the number of summer albums on this list equals 20%. So am I just fooling myself because the year can be equally divided into four parts? Would the next count add up to 25% and debunk my finding? So I picked twenty more classic albums, but I won't bother posting the list because my findings were exactly the same. Four out of 20 were summer releases, with the other 16 heavily weighted in the late fall and early spring. And yes, they were random. You're just gonna have to trust me.

Why am I saying all of this? Well, I believe Jay and 'Ye could have done themselves a favor and waited to release this album later in the year, perhaps mid-November or so. It's just not a summer album. Their risks are too large, the orchestration too rich, and the lyrics are too well crafted for the simple-minded feeling of summer. Watch The Throne is not an album for beginners, dummies, or folks with no sense of humor. Textually and aurally, there's simply too much to digest while the sun's out. No one's really going to turn on their brains until kids go back to school and the first blast of Arctic air comes rolling in from our neighbors to the north. And I feel the disparity and conflict seen in the various responses and reviews reflects this. No one knows what to make of it because they're all just thinking about getting out to the beach (including me!).

Personally, I'm just going to put this one away for a while and come back to it after I bleed my radiator. It's too dope for me right now.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

This is "Book of Rhymes" from Nas' 2002 album God's Son.

For me, this has been one of Nas' most intriguing and curious tracks.

For starters it's an impressively simple concept, one that I haven't encountered before. And I may be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time an emcee has recorded a song that explicitly highlights aspects of his or her creative process. Considering most rappers obsession with their images of personal strength, worth, and infallibility, this cut is rather revolutionary. Nas risks exposing imperfections in his work (Imperfections are occupational hazards for emcees.) to offer the listener an insiders look into how the music takes shape.

And it's quite a look. The spectrum of topics and imagery is unexpectedly dizzying, covering thoughts on aging, conflicts with the philosophies of Gandhi, disconnections between images of luxury and realities of poverty, and even jealousy towards his own infant daughter. Many times I find it difficult to keep up with this track due to the distance Nas travels in such a short space of time. He's able to reveal a remarkable amount of thoughtfulness and complexity without ever seeming sporadic or contradictory.

This cat is nice, homie. Enjoy.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Jay and 'Ye Body Shop

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't post this tonight.

I was going to do a quick thought on the imaginations of hip hop fans. But as soon as I saw this, I had to throw it up here.

My two favorite things about this video are 1) Jay and 'Ye seem to be having a ton 'o fun desecrating Mercedes' ultra-upscale, ultra-luxury Maybach sedan and 2) I can only imagine how the Germans must feel that two rappers absolutely defiled their stuffy, handmade, ├╝ber-exclusive work of automotive art. I think it's fantastic.

I wonder what the starting bid on the Maybach's gonna be?

I'll be back tomorrow with my full Watch The Throne review.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Rhymes of Our Lives

Yes. This track came out 15 years ago. If this song were a child, it'd be taking driver's education this year.

The Fugees album The Score, along with OutKast's ATLiens album, was one of the gateways through which I discovered a modern sense of my taste in hip hop. I've told the story here before a few times now.

This track was almost magical for me. The rhymes sounded like nothing I'd heard before. The instrumental sounded like nothing I'd heard before. And everyone was talking about this chick named Lauryn and how they thought she was so much better than the other two cats. Personally, I felt they complemented each other remarkably well. Even Pras (whose sense of rhyme could be best described as unorthodox, even for The Fugees) seemed to fit comfortably within the overall aesthetic. It really is a shame, at least for us humble fans, that Clef and Co. decided to go their separate ways in the late 1990s.

They were super-dope.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

As my mom would say...

This right here is the stone cold truth. If any of you are perplexed as to why the American political landscape is so toxic and congested, Dylan Ratigan has laid it on the line.

Be sure to stick with it until the end. Most in the 24-hour media are only running the beginning of the clip, but there's important stuff going down all the way through.

This is the type of anger and attention needed by the entire American electorate. Sure, there's a problem with the Republicans. Sure, there's a problem with the Democrats. But more than anything else, the problem is with the corporate control of United States policymaking. And it's about time someone told this to the people, loudly.

If we can only get the President to say it...


Watch The Throne: Re-view Preview

I'll get you primed with this:

from The Huffington Post:

I'm absolutely not a music critic. Absolutely not. I'm a film person who loves music. I've directed four music docs, two about hip hop. Still I have no real appropriate skills for what I'm about to do, which is write about an album. With that said, I'm inspired by this beautiful thing entitled Watch the Throne and I must jot something down. However amateur.

It's past 1 a.m. and I've now listened to Watch the Throne four full times, with very necessary repeats of my new personal anthem "Murder to Excellence." Actually, "listened" might not be the right word. Bumped. Bumped is a word that'll be appreciated by patrons of the new Huffington Post Black Voices, right? We can speak freely here, right?

So if I submit that this thing -- Watch the Throne -- is a Black Nationalist Masterpiece for the New Millenium. Too Much? Because that's how I feel right now. That's what I hear. I hear Black Rich Militance, in the best definition of such a term. I hear the audacity of black gazillionaires saying wonderfully black things like, "I arrived/When Fred Hampton died." Whaa-at?! You did? Okay. Damn.

Catch the rest of the article here.

Without a doubt this is the most anticipated hip hop album of the year, and for good reason. Everyone has been wondering what Jay and 'Ye cooked up in their self-imposed recording exile. Many reports put them in Hawaii and Australia for large chunks of the recording process, cutting themselves off from much of the world. That level of obsessive dedication to secrecy and isolation always leads to intrigue and speculation, especially with artists at this level of visibility.

One thing I can give you for certain: I think they should have waited until the fall to release this record. It simply doesn't work as a summertime album for me.

But I will expand on that in the full review later in the week.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Winter's Tale Plankage

So I've sat on these pictures long enough. It's time to let them breathe.

These are planking pictures taken during intermission and post-show of the last performance of Delaware Shakespeare Festival's The Winter's Tale. Many may be a bit grainy and/or dark because I was toying with the settings on my camera and the light was fading fast. I didn't want pictures that would keep spilling off the page of my blog!

In the photos, you'll see epic planks by Janice Rowland, Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, Sean Bradley, and myself.

Check 'em out.

The illusive Double-Overhead Compartment Plank

The Under-The-Bus Plank in Workout Clothes

The tricky Double-Across the Headrests Plank

The technically difficult Roadie Box Plank

The Radiant Hermione Plank

The Great Depression Plank

The Tailgater's Plank

The "Papa was a Rolling Stone" Plank

The flamboyant Handrail Plank

Apparently, Janice and Griffin had no idea what plank was until Sean and I began goofing around. Nevertheless, this planking session has sparked conversations about a day of planking in and around the greater Philadelphia area. So if you're a fan of plankage, stay tuned.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Necessary Vices

Imagine the year is 1984. You're sitting down in your living room, you turn on your brand new 30" floor model color television, you've just made some popcorn on the stove, and you see this.

You would have never seen anything like this. Guaranteed.

I stumbled upon this video a couple of years ago while perusing live performance videos of Phil Collins. I was three years old when Miami Vice aired, so it's safe to say I've never known a world in which the musical and cinematic elements of film and television haven't been so meticulously integrated. Unbeknownst to me, the Miami Vice series was the first time these elements had been as intimately connected and choreographed for each other. From this moment spawned completely new ideas about the audio/visual relationship in television and film.

As a theatre artist, I'm incredibly jealous. I wish more of what we did could be this precise and defiant. We're getting safe and sloppy in our old age.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

I fell off the map these past couple of days. Sorry about that. I'll be sure to warn ya next time.

Anyway, where were we?

Other than the Scott-Heron specials, Nas is by far the most prolific and established artist I've highlighted on this blog. His resume spans some 17 years and includes nine studio albums, three compilation albums, countless notable guest appearances, and nine Grammy nominations. He is considered by most to be one of hip hop's most influential artists, providing inspiration for many emcees that have followed. For a more complete view of Nas' career and accomplishments, have a look here.

So this month will be a little different. Instead of interview or performance videos, I will spend this month musing upon some of my favorite Nas tracks in the hopes of illuminating elements that interest me and/or finding things I may not have noticed before. This cat has quite an extensive catalog, so we'll most certainly not be at a loss for material. And we'll begin with this:

"Nas Is Like" from I Am...

By far, this is my absolute favorite Nas track.

Nas' strength lies in his immense lyrical and textual prowess. To be honest, he's never really performed with much vocal variety; you'll always get that dependable hint of raspiness and a range of only a few notes. Unlike emcees such as Chubb Rock, Tupac, or Cee Lo (That's right! Cee Lo can rap!) Nas has never really played the full potential of his voice. Rather, he transports listeners with his mastery of poetic expression, navigating text with as much effort as removing his hat. He is particularly adept at phrasing each thought of the verse. He's keenly aware of which thoughts are best strung together for optimal effect, which need to be separate so as not to cause confusion, and the overall trajectory of the verse.

For example, he says this at the beginning of the track:

Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby's being born/
Same time my man is murdered, the beginning and end/
As far as rap go it's only natural I explain/
My plateau and also what defines my name.

Listen carefully and you'll hear that he really drives through the first two lines here with very little indication of where the separate ideas begin and end. I feel that Nas is establishing not so much a set of individual thoughts in the first two lines, but rather a landscape of imagery that will build the foundational sense of the record. Hence, the highlighted bit of the two lines becomes "...the beginning and end"; a thesis for the rest of the piece.

In the second two lines, Nas plays a bit more with differentiating thoughts (for the sake of playing the rhyme pattern) even though this is really all one sentence. He starts by playing up "rap go" and "natural", setting them apart from "explain". Then he repeats the pattern with "plateau" and "also", once again making a pivot on "my name" to match the feel of the previous line. And with the syllabic emphasis and variety present in these two lines, it's almost as if he's creating a stylistic antithesis to the previous two; first many thoughts become one then one thought becomes many. It's a brilliant way to begin a verse.

Have a listen to the track. I hope you enjoy!


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Joyful Pain

I just had the privilege of hearing the most incredible guitar player I've ever physically witnessed. His name is Gary Clark Jr.

Here he is live at the Crossroads Guitar Festival of 2010 in Bridgeview, Illinois.

A few years ago I discovered and procured the complete recordings of Robert Johnson and subsequently went on to explore the work of Son House, Johnnie Shines, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and other titans of blues. I've often wondered how it must have been growing up in Mississippi during the birth of this music. Additionally, I've frequently fantasized about the experience of attending legendary concerts like the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock to see Jimi play. What could that have possibly been like?

When I saw this guy play, I had an idea. If you get a chance to see him, you'll know what I mean. This cat throws down.

Check his website here.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Challenger Deep

I offer you Richard Hammond's Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean. This is the first of four parts.

I discovered these videos today while search for an old Top Gear segment. I think they're marvelous; Hamster is an appropriate and entertaining guide in journeys of the world. Be sure to check out his other special "...Center of the Planet."


Monday, August 1, 2011

Interrupted Service

Hello All,

In the coming months you may notice a substantial truncation of my blog posts. I'm redirecting my nightly writing in the service of my research project that will complete the voice teacher curriculum at York University. My project, appropriately enough, will involve my exploring the voices of emcees and their affect on hip hop audiences. I'm hoping to write at least a paragraph every night, if not more, until my due date on February 1st. If I finish before then (which is likely if I'm disciplined), BONUS!

I will still attempt to post something every night, although it's likely they'll be simply a video or an article that's caught my attention. I'll write a brief comment about whatever it is that's posted, because I feel it's important for me to express my thoughts and opinions. I'll also still do full-on Emcee of the Month write-ups every Saturday night, since that's the idea of this whole thing. Those posts also help inspire me to continue the work on my project.

I want to thank all of you for your views and support so far. I hope you've found these writings as entertaining and stimulating to read as I have to write.