Monday, October 31, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

I've said quite a bit about this month's emcee, so with this post I'll try to keep it simple.

I can only think of two or three emcees ever that so thoroughly and consistently attack the art of rapping with the energy, hunger, and ambition of Black Thought. And absolutely none of them are 40. This guy is an utter phenom. There's no other way to put it.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

And there you have it.

(The track starts at :33. I have no idea why.)

I'll be back with a few quick thoughts tomorrow. For now, I think Thought is fairly capable of stating his own case.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Going Geek

Back in the early Aughts, my nightly web surfing guided me toward this wonderfully cool video.

The Ho Brothers have quite possibly made one of the best fan film inspired by a big budget movie, right up there with Batman vs Predator vs Alien. Tonight I find myself fondly revisiting this clip, remembering the awe I felt knowing we were entering an age where us everyday folks would be capable of creating fun and imaginative works of mass-consumed art with very little money. For me, this video was the beginning of the viral web culture.


Friday, October 28, 2011

World Premier

Hip hop never ceases to amaze.

from Vibe Magazine:

DJ Premier was given Classical and began his immersion into the genre with Bruce Adolphe, a former classical music professor at Juilliard. They met at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music not far from DJ Premier’s home in NY. After learning about classical music theory, the inspirations of some of the genre’s most profound composers and how traditional pieces are structured, DJ Premier went out and bought tons of classical symphonies on vinyl to mash up his own creation. We then took that mash-up and orchestrated it for sheet music.

In the first step of the actual recording process, DJ Premier partnered with Stephen Webber, a professor and conductor at the Berklee College of Music. Stephen taught Premier how to conduct and helped him in studio with the 58-piece Berklee Symphony Orchestra you hear on the track. Of all the takes, the one you hear is the “wild” version (which means they recorded it without the metronome in their headphones) DJ Premier conducted himself. Then DJ Premier brought that instrumental track back home to NY and Nas laid down his rhyme on top of it.

Here is the link to the actual story.

It's absolutely true that DJ Premier is one of the most well recognized and established creators of hip hop music. However, it's also true that after a long and successful career, many artists sometimes lose a sense of exploration and discovery of the new. That's what makes this track so fantastic. During the process, Premo allows himself to be a student of Classical music theory and approaches the piece like a journey into uncharted territory. Though he is certainly armed with the knowledge and experience of his well documented music history, he must still navigate this track with a beginner's mind. That's the only way for something like this to work.

Quite dope, indeed.

Here's the link to the documentary website. I hope I'll have an opportunity to check it out soon.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swingin' Sammy

I never knew how absolutely amazing this cat was until last night.

I went to see my friend James in a play happening about town, and as I was giving him a ride home he says to me, "I gotta play something for ya'." So we turned off the 808s and Heartbreaks (I can't get away from it.) and he cued up the Sammy Davis, Jr.

I had no idea!

I've listened to some Sinatra every now and then and, honestly, I've never really been impressed. The musicians accompanying him were always stellar, but I always thought his stuff was a bit bland and lacked purpose. He always struck me as whimsical. Therefore, I mistakenly assumed everyone else in the Rat Pack pretty much played the same shtick. But Sammy has a sophistication and resonance I never imagined. There are few instances in which I've watched someone move through a performance with such an easy precision.

Tonight, I'm pretty sure I'll be spending some time checking out more Sammy material. This stuff is magnificent.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Student Body Politic

So here's the plan.

from CBS News:

Seeking to shore up support among cash-strapped college graduates and students struggling with rising tuition costs, President Barack Obama is outlining a plan to allow millions of student loan recipients to lower their payments and consolidate their loans.
Outside of mortgages, student loans are the No. 1 source of household debt. Young voters were an important bloc in Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign, and student loan debt is a common concern among Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Mr. Obama's announcement, to take place Wednesday in Denver, comes the same day a new report is being released by the College Board. It shows average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose $631 this fall, or 8.3 percent, compared with a year ago. Nationally, the cost of a full credit load has passed $8,000, an all-time high.

Read more here.

I'm not going to go into all of my thoughts about this tonight. However, as someone who will be affected by this, I am paying very close attention to how this is all going down.

Okay Barry. Make it work.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gift of Gabba

This is the best thing I think I've seen in a week.

I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to grow up with cable television at home, and I spent many, many hours watching Nickelodeon in my youth. I was especially taken by shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains it All, and You Can't Do That on Television. I have to say, everything about the Nickelodeon tv show Yo Gabba Gabba reminds me of the fun and imaginative days of the station's early years. I'm incredibly happy kids today are able to have fun watching something thoughtful and creative on television.

DJ Lance knows how to rock the party.


Monday, October 24, 2011

What The...

If any of you are able to make sense of this, you're IQ must be up towards the 200 mark.

I'm trying to figure out if this guy is a total genius or a complete idiot. Because despite the utter ridiculousness of stuff like this, he's near the top of the Republican polls.



Sunday, October 23, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

I thought I'd post an interview tonight. I haven't done one of these for some time.

Black Thought is one of hip hop's more private artists, which is what makes this interview so wonderful. Here he discusses what keeps him inspired to write and perform, possible writing projects other than rap lyrics (c'mon Thought!), and the synergy between he and Questlove. It's a wonderful seven minutes allowing a glimpse behind the curtain of one of hip hop's greatest emcees and showmen. Check it out.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Rhymes of Our Lives

Out of the cauldron of mid-nineties hip hop arose this dark, brooding, and timeless track by Method Man and Mary J. Blige. This song was released in 1995 during the height of Wu-Tang's influence on hip hop and in the middle of Mary's more tumultuous times as a recording artist. From this combination, however, was born one of the most memorable cuts of that era of rap.



Friday, October 21, 2011

The Best Medicine

Here's the prequel to this post.

So, I've been preoccupied with laughter recently. I'm gearing up for a show with 1812 Productions, a theatre company here in Philadelphia that does nothing but comedic work. It's a frighteningly exciting prospect, especially because this show will be conceived and constructed by the company of actors who will also be performing.

I've never done this type of work before, and I'm incredibly eager to get started. Of course, I've watched stuff like The Daily Show or The Chapelle Show and laughed until I was blue in the face (which is especially difficult for me). And as I take it in, I'm constantly reminding myself of the levels of brilliance, awareness, and humility is takes to convert dense and weighty sociopolitical concepts into workable, repeatable humor. Jon Stewart describes it as "articulating an intangible". To witness someone grapple with these essential ideas of the human condition, observe the irony or absurdity in these ideas, and connect those aspects to almost non sequitur but oddly congruent bit of digestible and unexpected storytelling is a truly awe-inspiring experience.

Awe-inspiring, and infectious. In fact, try watching this without laughing. It ain't easy.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I have to say. It's a wonderful thing when this kind of stuff makes up my evening study.

I'll have more on this soon.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

Did you have a listen?

While I was in graduate school, I got really into the blues; specifically the works of Robert Johnson, Son House, and John Lee Hooker. There was something primal and tangible about their music. My response to their recordings was much more about the feeling I experienced than my intellectual understanding of the words they sang. That's the attraction of blues, isn't it? It's the musical exploration of both immense joy and undeniable pain in a very foundational and visceral way.

For me, Black Thought's sense of hip hop performance does much of the same.

You see, I feel Thought is an emcee who has an acute understanding of the primal impulses that make hip hop what it is. At its core, hip hop music is a celebration of a society's ability to retain its confidence and sense of self worth in spite of the seemingly insurmountable conditions it faces. It is the flower growing from the concrete; the unmistakable feeling of painful, aggressive jubilation that can only live down in the bowels of a culture successfully resisting the oppression of the ruling class.

Black Thought deliberately, and quite artfully, accesses these sensations in his lyrics and performances with a clarity and abandon few emcees can duplicate. Every time he performs, it's as if he was at a block party or playground cipher; he moves his listeners with a provocative optimism that is so incredibly of-the-people. Truthfully, I know of no other rapper (including most of my favorites) who consistently evokes such a fundamental sense of what it means to be an emcee.



Sunday, October 16, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

As is the protocol for this month, I'll be back on the next post to discuss this a bit further. For now, enjoy the talents of Black Thought: specialist in microphone incineration.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thoughts on Speech Sounds: Part 1(?)

Okay, so I've been thinking about this speech sounds post for a while now (see here for the preview). I've had quite a few discussions with friends and colleagues about this stuff, and I feel the best way to communicate my thoughts on the whole thing is to share some words and ideas from respected theatre artists and practitioners with whom I have similar aesthetic or pedagogical interests. I could rant and rave for pages with how I feel about the this stuff, but I don't think I've quite reached the diplomatic proficiency to be of use to the conversation. Because honestly, the conventional thoughts on speech sounds in the theatre make me quite angry.

The first thought is from a gentleman named Phil Thompson, who currently serves as the head of acting at the University of California in Irvine (check the stats). He and another gentleman called Eric Armstrong, who is on the theatre faculty at York University in Toronto, Ontario, (once again, the stats) jointly record a podcast called Glossonomia which covers the history, evolution, and usages of speech sounds in the English language. On August 14th while attending the annual conference of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association in Chicago, IL they recorded a live question-and-answer episode. (Check it out here!)

About half-way through the show, someone brought up the topic of "General American Dialect". This was Phil's response.

So, I've been thinking about that topic a lot lately because I'm endeavoring to write an accent book, and I feel that non-Americans need good information about how to do an American accent so they can come over and steal our jobs...So I think that it's a very important topic. It is a topic that's very loaded. I've been, as I've been writing about it, always referring to it as SCGA: "So-Called General American". So that we never forget what the problems are with the idea. That said, it's a very important idea, and I think maybe we've made mention of it in a couple of episodes...

I really, really, really don't want to present to a group of American acting students a model of American speech that is canonical. I'm perfectly happy to teach and Australian student a canonical American accent because it's much easier to understand that as something 'other' that's [an exploration] you're trying so you can get your pilot and move on. Then you can detail from there...If I say to, let's say, an African-American student from Detroit, "I'm going to teach you General American," what I'm really saying is, "Your American isn't general enough or isn't American enough." So I'm really cautious about that. But as long as I explain about that every time then yes, it's something worth teaching.

There is no standard. There's no uniformity. Standard means "the same". But standard is also what you carry into battle. So there are plenty of people holding up "the standard" of accent purity, but I don't think any of them can agree on what those sounds ought to be.

There's no morality in speech [sounds]. Sounds are not 'good', they are good for us...The problem to me is that people get incredibly confused because the teacher is confused about what their agenda is. They think they are simply trying to teach the student what the sounds are, but they're trying to teach propriety, phonology, and phonetics simultaneously and that's just a train wreck.

The other thought is an excerpt from the book The Empty Space by Peter Brook, a book I've been trying to read for about five years now. In it, Mr. Brook attempts to examine the challenges of creating appropriate and engaging theatrical work for a given audience, culture, or current social condition. In it, he writes of four "kinds" of theatre; Deadly, Holy, Rough, and Immediate. As of now, I've only gotten through the Deadly chapter. Nevertheless, he writes a striking passage in this first section that I had to present to this discussion.

During a talk to a group at a university I once tried to illustrate how an audience affects actors by the quality of its attention. I asked for a volunteer. A man came forward, and I gave him a sheet of paper on which was typed a speech from Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz, The Investigation. The section was a description of bodies inside a gas chamber. As the volunteer took the paper and read it over to himself the audience tittered in the way an audience always does when it sees one of its kind on the way to making a fool of himself.

But the volunteer was too struck and too appalled by what he was reading to react with the sheepish grins that are also customary. Something of his seriousness and concentration reached the audience and it fell silent. Then at my request he began to read out loud. The very first words were loaded with their own ghastly sense and the reader's response to them.

Immediately the audience understood. It became on with him, with the speech - the lecture room and the volunteer who had come on to the platform vanished from sight - the naked evidence from Auschwitz was so powerful that it took over completely. Not only did the reader continue to speak in a shocked attentive silence, but his reading, technically speaking, was perfect - it had neither grace nor lack of grace, skill nor lack of skill - it was perfect because the had no attention to spare for self-consciousness, for wondering whether he was using the right intonation. He knew the audience wanted to hear, and he wanted to let them hear: the images found their own level and guided his voice unconsciously to the appropriate volume and pitch.

For me right now, these two ideas cover much of the feelings I have about how an actor's voice and speech are perceived. I would be very grateful to hear or read your responses to any of this.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Reverend Tyson For The Win

Tonight I'm hanging back. I had a great day meeting with the cast of a play in which I'll be performing around the holidays. So, I think I'll allow myself some time to slow down and sit with the resonance of the day.

So while I goof off, I offer to you another Neil deGrasse Tyson video that I've recently discovered. He's in exceptionally fine form with this one.



Thursday, October 13, 2011

Open Mics

Complex Magazine has compiled the 50 best hip hop radio freestyles.

While some might argue that radio is now a dying medium, it's undeniable that the AM/FM dial was the first outlet to bring hip-hop to the masses. Starting in the early 1980s, pioneering DJs like Mr. Magic, Red Alert, the Awesome Two, and Lady B gave a voiceless community the chance to be heard, and inspired future generations to pursue rapping as their full-time occupation.

Since that time, many legendary hip-hop radio shows have sprung up around the world, and during those late-night or early-morning time slots a new art form was born: the radio freestyle.

Many of hip-hop's greatest beefs were spawned live and direct over the airwaves. In the pre-MP3 era, cassette copies of these one-of-a-kind performances passed hand to hand, cementing reputations, and becoming the stuff of legend. Nowadays it's all done digitally, but the objective remains the same-total domination, no mistakes allowed.

Read more here.

I'm usually not a fan of these lists ranking artists or performances, but this one seems uniquely appropriate. During the years when I began to discover my place within hip hop culture, the music was moving through an period of creative and cultural uncertainty. We were a few years removed from the golden era, caught in the spectacle of East Coast vs. West Coast, and witnessing a surge of material emerging from southern artists like OutKast and Goodie Mob. As I explored hip hop more and more, these freestyle sessions served to maintain hip hop's artistic underpinnings; freestyles are the roots that fend off the erosion of rap music's relevance.

There are plenty of stand out performances on this list. However, for me the most impressive clip is #47, Q-Tip and Black Thought's "Dilla Dedication" freestyles. Perhaps it due to this month's featured emcee, but I was especially taken by this performance. Additionally, Black Thought freestyles are less frequent than you may think, so it's great to hear him rhyme in this forum. And on that day, Tariq went absolutely berserk!


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Plant the Flag

Wooo man...

To put it simply, this is probably the most consistently talented group of emcees I have ever seen in one clip. Every single one of these rappers has been recognized by the hip hop community as nothing less than stellar at what they do. To see them now all unified under the singular umbrella of Shady Records is evidence of how vital it is for Eminem to preserve a very specific sense of hip hop composition and performance.

There is aggression and irony to their rhymes, suggesting an impatience and dissatisfaction with what they observe in the world. However, their respect for each other's work allows them to enjoy the communal experience of performing together, despite how they see things crumbling around them.

Slaughterhouse is the truth.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

Did you have a listen?

Yes, that is Black Thought rhyming at 15 years old.

What's fascinating about this track is that the foundations of Thought's vocal and poetic sensibilities are so clearly evident. Here we witness the beginnings of how he perceived writing hip hop verse, creating rhyme patterns, used vocal inflection and variety, and developed his aesthetic.

Twenty-five years later, we get stuff like this.



Sunday, October 9, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

There are thirty-year-old rappers who wish they could throw down like this.

"@ 15" from The Roots' Rising Down album

I'll be back with some thoughts about this tomorrow. Enjoy!


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thanks Steve

We will certainly be a bit worse off without you.

To be honest, I've always been a pc guy. I tend to enjoy their complexity and hands-on sensibility. To be even more honest, I've consistently been frustrated with the exclusivity of Apple products. They've become more of a trend than a tool these days, which would be okay if they weren't substantially overpriced. (Apple, you want to really impress me? Make an elegant iPhone for $50 retail.)

However, Steve Jobs' influence on the way we communicate to each other is immeasurable and simply can't be overstated. I remember buying my first iPod in 2006, a purchase that completely revolutionized the way I keep and listen to my music. The ability to have virtually my entire music catalog (along with pictures, videos, documents, and whatever else I can get on that thing) with me at all times is quite powerful. For all intents and purposes, I have a computer in my pocket.

Seriously. Think about that; a computer in my pocket.

In my lifetime, Apple took us from this:

to what basically amounts to this:

(For the uninitiated, that is a prop from Star Trek: The Next Generation called a tricorder.)

Steve brought the future to us, and for that I am truly thankful to have lived during his time.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Common's Sky Writing

Here's Common's new single "Blue Sky" from his forthcoming album of the same name. And yes, it's hot.

And if you're wondering, it's produced by No I.D.(!)


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Rhymes of Our Lives

Allow me to share with you the default song-in-my-head since 1999. It's the track that comes to mind after all others have faded away.

Black Star "Definition"

Where Brooklyn? (See that?)


Monday, October 3, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

If the parameters of illest emcee alive involved pure skill, engagement, diversity, and consistency, it would be very difficult to argue against this guy being at or near the top of the list.

Many of hip hop most well-known and well respected artists have consistently mentioned Black Thought when discussing their favorite emcees. He's worked and performed alongside a staggering list of high profile individuals (Big Pun, Common, Eminem, Big Daddy Kane just to name a few). Not to mention, he's been the lead vocalist for arguably one of the hardest working, most well traveled, and most prolific bands in the history of music, The Roots.

But all of that kind of info could be regurgitated until the cows come home. Instead, I would like to tell a quick story that I feel sums up my respect and admiration for Thought's work and commitment to this art.

My friend Mark and I were in our fifth semester of graduate school at Louisiana State University. I go by his crib one day and he excitedly mentions The Roots would be playing a few weeks later at the House of Blues in New Orleans. There was no way we were missing the show. So we bought our tickets...

We arrive in New Orleans incredibly early to a.) find a decent parking place b.) see some of the French Quarter and get a bite to eat and c.) make sure we were at the front of the line to get in the show. The plan was to be as close to the stage as possible so as not to miss a single second of the action. After parking, eating, and a bit of sightseeing, we made our way to the venue and sure enough we were in the first 20 people waiting to go inside. Our design was taking shape.

So there we are, one row of people from the edge of the stage within spitting distance of the performers. The first opening act was The Soul Rebels, and of course they lit the place up. Their set, however, was really no longer than 30 or 40 minutes, which didn't really do justice to their musical excellence. As I've mentioned before, they were robbed. Oh well...

Next up was this fly emcee chick named Jean Grae, who tends to figuratively devour microphones for fun. Needless to say, she was super-fresh and probably had every dude in the room falling in love with her, including me.

Then came The Roots, the main event. They started their set from the small balcony at the back of the venue. They had recruited a tuba player to join the band, (probably the same cat that's with them now on Jimmy Fallon's show) and as the sound of the tuba permeated the space they marched across the balcony, down the stairs, through the audience and onto the stage. People were going absolutely crazy. Once the band had taken their place, the music began, and Black Thought held hip hop court for what seemed a solid two hours of non-stop funkiness. Meanwhile, Mark and I are dancing and shouting Thoughts rhymes to each other like we had just won the SuperBowl. I honestly don't remember a point in which we stopped moving until The Roots left the stage, with a sonorous tuba leading the way.

But here's the good part.

When the show was over and everyone was leaving, Thought came back out on stage to shake hand with people. I said to Mark, "Hey man, let's go see if we can holla at Thought." So we go back down towards the stage and patiently wait to show Tariq some love. We get to the lip of the stage and as I extend my hand to Thought, he looks down at the two of us and a huge smile comes across his face. "I saw you man! I saw you!" he says to us, and gives us the super-extra-humble-excited handshake.

We were floored! He saw us!? Did the two tall skinny actor dudes with too much hair dancing like maniacs actually contribute to Thought's experience of emceeing in New Orleans!? That's the dopest thing ever!

It was at that moment when my admiration for Black Thought's skill and energy rose to gargantuan proportions. I would tend to think Mark's did as well. Tariq is truly about this hip hop thing. He recognizes he is of the community, not simply making music for it.

Oh, and TODAY IS HIS BIRTHDAY! (At least, that's what wikipedia says.) GO WISH HIM A HAPPY ONE OF FACEBOOK AND TWITTER!

Here's "Don't Feel Right" from Game Theory.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Black Thought

Emcee of the Month for October 2011: Black Thought

Yup. It's getting real.

I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts.


Saturday, October 1, 2011


A few days ago my good friend Mark published a thought on his facebook wall expressing his disillusion with the progressive protests that have been ongoing on Wall St. It prompted quite a few spirited and thoughtful responses. I threw something in there as well. Many had challenged Mark, claiming that the protests serve to at least bring media attention the group's efforts. But after a few ideas back and forth, Mark posted his final reply to the discussion.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm outside flying a high fist when they roll by my building chanting. They have all my support when they're DOING something.

They're not interrupting my commute in the least bit and maybe that's the problem. Walking by and seeing something so lifeless is depressing. Nathan, you would be in the fierce minority down there, with your ability to articulate such a vision. There is a soul-sucking lack of passion and connection. I want to walk by and feel compelled--I want to feel the urge to stop and stay and not go to work that day.

That Chomsky quote (‎"The courageous and honorable protests underway in Wall Street should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.") smacks of obligation and inspires nothing. Media attention is indeed the least we can hope to come of it and it's the most we will get when the focus is so much on the people claiming to shed light on the calamity and not on the calamity itself. The intention is misguided and therefore misdirecting the attention. “There are people who wouldn't normally spend time in the Financial District spending a lot of time in privately-owned Zuccotti park,” says the news. “Who cares?” says everybody. I appreciate the symbolism but to call it direct action is quite a stretch. Horizontal, process-based and leaderless is how virtually every project I’m involved in operates but it only works when it is actively in service of something. I don’t see that service.

Call me a corporatist (again) but where's the takeaway? There is someone in Omaha who sees it on the news and would love nothing more than to be there, but has to stay home and work the job they probably feel lucky to have. What can they do? I’ve walked by it or through it a dozen times and never once been engaged or really even looked at in the eye. Just being there isn’t enough. Really. I want a little more “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” and a little less hacky-sack.

I’m certainly knocking it a little too hard. I’m on the same team and I care. But it’s not a heroic feat and I think maybe it’s doing more harm than good. Also, routinely invoking the Arab spring is a corporate-minded kind of co-opting of the cheapest and most self-aggrandizing kind. That was probably the thing that pissed me off in the first place.

From what I can tell, Mark's disappointment with these protests is that they do nothing to give Wall St. anything to fear. The people in those buildings absolutely know that a bunch of Kumbaya-singing progressive pacifists have no means by which to inspire real change in either the financial or legislative arenas. No one's afraid of hippies anymore, and I would argue no one really was. Real social change requires something a lot more aggressive and dangerous; it always has. Progressive thought without active, vocal, and immediate engagement breeds a message that is misshapen and non-committal.

And that ain't doin' no good.

I may be wrong and if I am, Mark will certainly correct me. If so, this will be updated accordingly.