The next time somebody says “Young people nowadays are just a bunch of self-entitled do-nothings that think they don’t have to work at anything while everything should be given to them” point them toward A-Trak. Born in 1982, the kid won an international DJ competition at 15. He’s the only person to have won 5 DJ World Championships. While still a teenager he developed a notation system for scratching. At age 22 he joined Kanye West as West’s live performance DJ. He has done production work for Lupe Fiasco among others. In the spring of this year he released two DJ mix CDs, both different and both good.
One of those mixes, Fabriclive 45, was so hot it took over my computer while I was trying to write a review. Infinity+1 isn’t as hot as Fabriclive 45 but it’s still good. Both mixes illustrate A-Trak’s familiarity with the worlds of hip-hop and club-oriented dance music. Of the two, Infinity+1 is the more hip-hop influenced while Fabriclive 45 is more of a straight-up club mix. The generally more sedate tempos of hip-hop may be the reason why Infinity+1 comes across as the less driving of the two mixes. Infinity+1 is also the more consistent mix as it lacks the buzz-kill track that brings Fabriclive 45 to its knees part way through the set.
The only point of connection between the two mixes is A-Traks inclusion of his own “Say Whoa” on both sets. ZZ opens with A-Trak’s version while Infinity+1 includes a remix by DJ Spinna. It takes a good degree of confidence to take the chance that somebody might show you up with a remix of one of your own tracks. Especially somebody who can bring it like DJ Spinna. No worries. Both versions work on their own terms.
The closely timed releases of Infinity+1 and Fabriclive 45 highlight how well A-Trak operates with both hip-hop and house music. Very few DJs could have pulled this off as well as A-Trak has. The two sets also illustrate how adept he is at drawing smooth connections between the two types of music. A-Trak also shows a remarkable subtlety of touch in bridging to dance music from a predominantly hip-hop base on Infinity+1 while doing precisely the opposite on Fabriclive 45.
Both Fabriclive 45 and Infinity+1 are more than worth a listen. If you tend more toward dance music, start with Fabriclive 45; more toward hip-hop, start with Infinity+1. In either case each mix can open the ears of listeners who enjoy one kind of music to the pleasures of a different kind of music and that is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself.
A-Trak’s remix of MSTRCRFT (Feat. N.O.R.E.)’s “Bounce”
It’s been going on forever and it’s been good. In 1943 Maurio Bauza created the first known latin jazz piece by fusing jazz structure and instruments with a clave rhythm. Stan Kenton recorded “Machito” the first latin jazz performance by an American jazz musician in 1946. In 1969 Santana took the rock world by storm by fusing rock with latin rhythms and percussion. Bands like War and Mandrill combined mainly Caribbean rhythms with funk, disco and soul. Cafe Tacvba has combined Mexican musics with just about anything you can imagine. The brilliant band from Barcelona, Ojos de Brujo, melds flamenco, gypsy music, traditional Catalan music, African and Caribbean rhythms, funk and hip hop into a irresistible stew. Now along comes Choc Quib Town who combine hip hop and rap with rhythms of their native area of the Pacific coast of Columbia.
Choc Quib Town are Miguel “Slow” Martinez, Gloria “Goyo” Martinez and Carlos “Tostao” Valencia. They all sing, rap or both and they wrote or co-wrote all of the tunes on Oro. As far as I can tell from the info included with the CD, they don’t play any instruments but there is an army of musicians playing on Oro‘s 16 tracks. Most of the album is in Spanish which I don’t know well enough to understand what they are singing or rapping about. Their website indicates they are interested in bringing the culture, society and music of Pacific Columbia to the wider world through their music. As might be expected with a group composed of vocalists, the vocals in Oro are pushed far forward in the mix. I think embedding the three vocalists more deeply in the band by giving the instruments more space would make Oro an even stronger album.
Fans of Aterciopelados well know that Columbian musicians are producing some superb meldings of traditional Columbian musical forms with North American and European types of popular music. Choc Quib Town are not as polished as Aterciopelados but their combination of hip hop with Columbian and other latin rhythms shows promise. They make solid, visceral music and if you like latin music you might very much enjoy Oro.
De Donde Vengo Yo from Oro
Girl Talk is DJ and remix artist Gregg Gillis. Gillis garnered a good deal of popular media attention a year or so ago for his blatant use of clearly recognizable samples without regard to copyright in his remixes, his frenetic club shows which often involved him stripping to his underwear, and his obvious talent as a sample-based remixer.
Night Ripper unfolds as a nonstop combination of hip-hop and rap vocal samples combined with a wide variety of muscial underpinnings. It’s a markedly mixed bag. On the one hand is Gillis’ musical talent. He is a masterful mash-up artist who is familiar with a fairly wide range of music. The mix on Night Ripper is terrific. Gillis uses samples that are long enough to be clearly recognizable and it’s not only fun hearing segments and riffs you know in unexpected places and combinations, but also enjoyable appreciating how well he puts it all together.
On the other hand is Night Ripper‘s simplistic and often crass vocal content. Many of the vocal samples feature the kind of crude sexual proclamations that are typical of a segment of hip hop but have come to stereotype and stigmatize the genre among people who don’t listen to very much of it. The excuse that will be given is that this is party music so the emphasis on crass sex is appropriate. If your idea of a party is getting down with some guys who chant “Head down, ass up, that’s the way we like to fuck” , you’ll be right at home here. If you’re not still fourteen, it’s likely to come across as unrelentingly juvenile.
If Girl Talk had anything interesting to say, Night Ripper would be a great album. As it is, you have terrific music combined with empty vocals that some listeners will find offensive.
Lyrics Born is a Japanese-American MC out of San Francisco who has made a modest career out of going his own way in the face of hip-hop convention. Rather than team up with a producer who creates beats in the studio, Lyrics Born plays with a band. His tunes also place a heavy emphasis on singing and most of his guest artists are singers rather than rappers.
In some respects Everywhere at Once is the polar opposite of the Roots’ Rising Down reviewed in the previous post. Lyrics Born is deeply into funk and R&B and in terms of musicianship his band is leagues beyond the members of Roots. Everywhere at Once is also better recorded than Rising Down which makes listening to it a more pleasant experience at the basic sonic level. On the other hand, the Roots challenge their listeners with thoughtful observations on American social, political and economic life while Lyrics Born doesn’t have much of interest to say. Most of his raps are about his latest infatuation or how proud he is of overcoming whatever he thinks he’s overcme to be as wonderful as he thinks he is. Everywhere at Once also includes two tedious skits and if you’re really out of shape you can burn some extra calories racing to the CD changer to skip past them whenever they come on.
Everywhere at Once shines musically. First song “Don’t Change” rides on a funk groove that is so solid that it’s almost imposible to sit still while it plays. Lyrics Born also has a deep feel for this music so the rhythm of his rap is tight with the groove. It’s a an outstanding track. The rest of the album presents a survey of ’80s and late ’70s funk and R&B. “Cakewalk” combines a Cameo bassline with an Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson chorus. Another good track and those are only two of many. Lyrics Born has a first-rate funk band with Uriah Duffy a standout on bass.
If you like funk and R&B melded with hip-hop Everywhere at Once is more than worth a listen. In fact, it’s a good album to use to introduce people to hip-hop who don’t know very much about it and say they don’t like it, but who enjoy funk. If you want challenging and thoughful lyrical content you’ll have to look elsewhere but if you want to dance and have a good time, it’s here.
The Roots are a rap group out of Philadelphia with a reputation for ignoring rap cliches and going their own way. Long before it was popular they made music by playing their own instruments instead of relying on samples as was the standard practice in most rap and hip hop. Rising Down, their ninth album, has received a good deal of critical praise as a thoughtful tract on politics, social and economic inequality and, of course, racism.
Whatever its worth as social commentary Rising Down has a significant flaw. It’s unpleasant to listen to. The CD opens with a very bad live recording of two people having an argument that immediately descends into almost unitelligible shouting and screaming. It may be making an important point but it’s so unpleasant that it’s easier to just skip over it and start with track two. The recording quality throughout the album is not very good. “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” is an interesting case in point. Black Thought’s vocal is either so badly recorded or recorded with such extreme effects processing that it sounds like shit on good equipment. Again, the temptation is to just skip the track rather than suffer through the ugly sound. Listening on high quality headphones through a computer is another story. The vocal sounds fine because the system can’t reproduce the unpleasant frequencies that can be heard on a better system. The target audience for this music is more likely to be listening through earbuds so the crappy recording is not likely to be an issue but it’s foolish to send a message you want people to hear in a format that that may lead people to turn you off when the alternative of competent recording is available.
Roots may play their own instruments but they don’t do very much with them. Track after track features an unrelenting and simple drum and bass track with little snippets of embellishment here and there. The tracks are sufficiently different but each one tends to be monotonous.
One of the enjoyable characteristics of rap music is that it can take some time for the lyrics to become clear. Rapid-fire delivery, atypical prosidy and mixing the vocal deep in the music tracks can produce a situation where the message slowly becomes clear over repeated listens. The beats hook interest in the early stages and the track continues to provide a sense of discovery as the meaning comes together. This slow growth can be enhanced when the message asks the listener to think about social and political issues instead of the drivel of self promotion favored by popular hip-hop titans. In order for this to work, however, you have to want to listen to the CD multiple times. The poor recording and bland musical accompanyment on Rising Down don’t encourage further listening which is a shame because Roots have important things to say.
These criticisms are not likely to present problems for the committed rap fan who is practiced at trading musical for lyrical content and patient with the time it may take to draw the lyrics out. People who listen to rap rarely or occasionally are less likely to stick with Rising Down long enough to think about the issues discussed on the CD. This raises a question for Roots and and anyone else who has something important to say that they would like other people to consider. You can preach to the choir and constrain your ideas to the limited audience that’s familiar and comfortable with your means of presentation or you can embed your rap in a musical context that encourages people outside the rap niche to listen to what you have to say.
Electric Circus is a good example of one of hip hop’s problems. The beats and effects layered on the tracks are inventive and often atypical. Common’s rhymes are smart and thoughtful. There’s an uncommonly wide range of music contained in the CD’s 13 tracks. So, what’s the problem? Well, that is the problem. Electric Circus realizes some of the vast potential in hip hop at the expense of failing to fall into the tired old ruts that characterize the more popular sub genres of this type of music. Common doesn’t give you phony gangsta posturing, ostentatious displays of slavery to the brand name, ludicrous self aggrandizement, or tawdry hedonism. The result was that many hip hop aficionados who are weded to the commercial forms of the music rejected Electric Circus as not street enough.
“New Wave” nails the problem perfectly. Produced by ?ueslove and James Poyser it calls out the hip hop performers who play the thug stereotype for money and juxtaposes a powerful syncopated hip hop beat with an airy, melodic segment sung by Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and asks “How could a nigger be so scared of change?” Apparently the answer to that question is very easily as a segment of the hip hop audience ridiculed the track for Sadier’s contribution because she’s like, you know, white. And French. And it’s different. “New Wave” is a terrific track and the melding of Sadier and hip hop is exquisite but it’s too far beyond the pale for the 50 Cent audience. Closed ears are deaf.
Electric Circus has also been criticized for having too many guest artists which some think dilutes Common’s contribution. In addition to Sadier, ?uestlove and Poyser the guests include Mary J. Blige, the Neptunes, Bilal, Sonny of P.O.D., Pharrell Williams, Cee-Lo and more. I don’t know if all of these guests are a problem or not. They contribute to the wide variety of music heard on Electric Circus and the album’s variety is one of the things I like about it.
Electric Circus is the kind of album you can listen to a hundred times and still discover bits and pieces you didn’t notice before. It takes a long time to get old. It also stands as a good example of how inventive and interesting hip hop can be. In one sense hip hop is like just about every other kind of popular music. Beneath the unimaginative and commercially successful crap there’s a wealth of exciting music. Electric Circus is a good album to play for your friends who say they don’t like hip hop but who are capable of listening with open ears.
Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler (QRS) explores the relationship between the violent and often out-of-control drug scene of the 1980s and the increasingly popular and influential hip-hop scene of the 1990s in southeast Queens. The book is based extensively on court and government documents and interviews with many people involved in the story including most of the major players and Brown comes to conclusions that are largely at odds with the urban-heroic mythology promoted in the hip-hop world.
Brown begins his analysis with a brief description of the socio-economic differences among the neighborhoods in southeast Queens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Around this time a fractured drug scene mainly made up of independent, small time hustlers began to coalesce into several large scale, more-or-less-organized drug gangs. Among the major players in these gangs were Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols and his lieutenant Howard “Pappy” Mason, Kenneth “Supreme” or “‘Preme”, McGriff and his nephew Gerald “Prince” Miller and Thomas “Tony Montana” Mickens. Through the 1980s, and more so after the introduction of crack in mid decade, the gangs became increasingly violent, ostentatious and arrogant culminating in the assassination of NYC policeman Edward Byrne who was sitting in a patrol car as part of NYPD’s round the clock surveillance of the home of a local resident whose house had been unsuccessfully fire bombed by drug hustlers unhappy with his frequent complaints to police about his block having become an open air crack market.
The killing attracted national attention, the police cracked down, and both the leaders and many of the low-level hustlers in the large drug organizations ended up dead or in jail. While all of this was going on a number of kids who were either too young, too smart, too soft or too fearful to live the deadly life of the street were growing up and idolizing the drug hustlers who dominated their neighborhoods. Some of these kids got into hip-hop which, at the time, was more about kids dancing and having a good time than it was about making money and selling image. As the ’80s moved into the ’90s, the hip-hop players who desperately wanted the street cred that their lives had not earned found common cause with the hustlers who had the cred and who were retreating from a street life which had become too costly to pursue because of the increased likelihood of arrest and conviction, or of becoming the victim of random, senseless violence. Association with hustlers who ruled the streets back in the day gave the hip-hoppers what they pretended was real street cred while the hustlers found a new and safer way to make money.
Some of the hip-hop people that Brown brings into the story are Def Jam impressario Russell Simmons, RUN-DMC’s Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, Murder Inc.’s Irv Lorenzo and his brother Chris, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent. Virtually all of these people had little or no real life experience as the gangsta hustlers they portray in their public roles in the music world. Those few who did, such as 50 Cent, are much too young to have been important participants in the ’80s drug-lord world that is celebrated in their music. These guys are seen as image mongers nostalgic for a world they were never part of and trying to gain credibility by associating with the street hustlers who were.
Brown tells a convincing story in part because his narrative is so well documented and in part because he does not take sides and has no interest in judging the hustlers, the rappers or the police. So much writing about hip-hop is drenched with the kind of bombastic self-mythologizing that characterizes a large part of the music that it is both a pleasure and a relief to read an author who clearly enjoys the music but who also takes a clear-eyed view of the business.
The hustlers revered by the rappers killed people for money and control of the lucrative drug trade. The people in the music business shoot each other over juvenile spats of the kind you’re likely to find on junior high Facebook pages in an attempt to enhance their image as tough guys. It’s hard to read about this without thinking that many of the icons of the hip-hop world are almost as sad, small and pathetic as the suburban kids who idolize them and make them rich. If you’re a hip-hop fanboy who thinks Tupac Shakur is a cultural hero, you’re probably not going to enjoy QRS. However, if you like hip-hop and are interested more in the way it is than in the way they like to pretend it is, QRS is likely to be an enjoyable and informative read.
Seamless is a UK label that specializes in compilation CDs. Their Vintage Grooves series focuses on rhythm-oriented music from the ’70s to the ’90s. Each two disc volume is compliled by Ian Dewhirst who made a name for himself by putting together the Mastercuts series of compilations in the ’90s. “Old School Hip-Hop Vol. 1” collects early hip-hop, no surprise there. All of the currently released volumes in the Vintage Groove series (there are collections devoted to dance, funk and disco) are labeled Vol. 1 with no Vol. 2’s released thus far.
“Old School Hip-Hop” opens with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” which is an incredible recording and almost worth the price of the collection alone. Nowadays many of the stars of hip hop are producers who construct intricate beats and mixes using hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of studio and compter technology that automates things like pitch correction and beat synchronization. Grandmaster Flash was one of the pioneers of the genre and he did it with a couple of turntables. Untold hours of practice combined with a highly refined ear for pitch and rhythm and an almost inhuman degree of physical dexterity and control allowed him to seamlessly mix recordings live with a smoothness and precision that most people would be hard pressed to imitate with the aid of software. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” was not constructed one piece at a time at the mixing board but was cut live to vinyl. It displays an ability that’s so refined it’s beyond belief.
Along with ” . . . Wheels of Steel”, Grandmaster Flash is represented by “It’s Nasty”, “The Message”, and “Scorpio” on “Old School Hip-Hop”. His monumental talent is indicated by the fact that he’s the only artist on the collection who gets more than one track. The set includes other well known names from the early days of hip-hop including The Sugarhill Gang (“8th Wonder”), Whodini (“Freaks Come Out At Night”), Run-D.M.C. (“It’s Like That”), De La Soul (“Say No Go”), Boogie Down Productions (“My Philosophy”), Kool Mo Dee (“How Ya Like Me Now”), NWA (“Express Yourself”), Digital Underground (“The Humpty Dance”), and House of Pain (“Jump Around”). Seamless being a UK label some of the tracks on the collection such as King Bee’s “Back By Dope Demand” and Mantronix’s “King of the Beats” played larger in the UK than the US.
“Old School Hip-Hop” has two weaknesses that may be problematic for serious collectors. First, a number of the versions included in the collection are labeled as the “Original U.S. 12″ Mix”. In at least some cases (“The Message” for example) this means you get a truncated version of the song. The second problem is that some of the tracks have language beeped out (while others don’t). This is a real shame because it devalues the set as an archival collection. If labels are going to put out these compilations I wish they would bite the bullet and put out unedited versions of the tracks they include.
I’m not familiar enough with hip-hop in general or this period of the genre in particular to know whether”Old School Hip-Hop” has value for listeners with a serious interest in this type of music. I’ve enjoyed the set immensly. If you don’t know much about early hip-hop and think the music is boring and uninteresting because of uniform beats and vocal stylings this collection will surprise you. There’s so much going on here that you hear more the more you listen. It’s also refreshing to hear hip-hop from the days when the music was all about having a good time. When so much current hip-hop is mired in celebrations of the thug life, miscogeny, cartoonish posturing, greed, blind self absorption, and product placement it can be hard to remember that the genre began as party music played in community centers and on steet corners that was designed to get people up and dancing. This was a time when hip-hop was about music, not market share in the recording business, street cred, or public displays of bad behavior. By going back to the music’s early days “Old School Hip-Hop” is like a breath of fresh air that clears out the stink.
If you spend any time reading about current popular music on the net, in music magazines or in the general press, it would have been hard to avoid coming across a review of M.I.A.’s second album, “Kala”. People have been raving about it and with good reason. In many ways it’s a terrific album and nothing else sounds quite like it.
M.I.A. attracted a lot of favorable attention with her debut CD “Arular” released in 2005 and plans were in place for her to record “Kala” in the US with the same old tired list of US Record Industry approved guest producers (you know who they are) for one track or another. Didn’t work out that way. Yay! For a variety of reasons the US recording sessions never happened and M.I.A. put “Kala” together using styles of music and musical instruments she came across while traveling around the world on tour. The result is a stunning, exhilarating amalgam of music, sound and energy that takes off like a rocket with lead track “Bamboo Banga” and never comes back to earth. M.I.A is like a musical magpie picking up shinys wherever she finds them and sticking them anyplace they’ll fit. The key word here is “fit”. Almost anyone else banging African chants and drums, southeast Asian musical styles, Aboriginal instruments, disco, a children’s rap choir, hip hop, Bollywood soundtracks and Jonathan Richman’s (yeah, the Modern Lovers guy) “Roadrunner” into one set of songs would make a mess but M.I.A. is masterful at combining endlessly disparate pieces into seamless and compelling wholes. This is exciting and inventive music that stands in sharp contrast to the by-the-numbers, mass produced rap and hip hop drivel that the US record industry churns out with numbing regularity. Not being able to do the planned US recording sessions may have been the single most important factor that led to “Kala” being the excellent album that it is.
The weak point of the album is the lyrics. Often they are gibberish that are mainly functioning as a vehicle for M.I.A.’s voice to play the role of a rhythm instrument. In this respect her vocals are very successful, as a musical instrument, M.I.A.’s voice is perfect for these songs. When the lyrics come through as carrying some meaningful content they are often display the overwhelming self-absorption that makes so much rap and hip hop shallow and empty. Future generations will likely wonder what environmental toxins resulted in so many people of a certain age being born with their heads buried so far up their own asses that they believed anyone, anywhere would have any interest whatsoever in hearing them blather on and on about how cool they are.
M.I.A. incorporates a good deal of imagery and vocal sound bytes in her music that vaguely suggest solidarity with rebellious political movements around the world. The more you pay attention to this aspect of “Kala” the more ridiculous it becomes. It’s like an ostentatious display of self-identification with “The People” as a fashion statement. There’s nothing remotely like a coherent political position that M.I.A. has spent more than two minutes thinking about here. And the idea that a 30 year old music star with electric blue hair jet setting around the world recording her latest album has much in common with downtrodden peoples in third-world countries is ludicrous. It’s like the worst of ’70s radical chic all over again. If M.I.A. was pointedly bringing bad situations from around the world to people’s attention it would be one thing but this is shouting unconnected slogans mindlessly because they make you look cool and fit the rhythm of the song. It’s playing dress up in other people’s tragedies in order to move product.
Lyrics aside, “Kala” is one of the most exciting albums to come out so far this year. If you have friends who point to mass market hip hop and say “See? It sucks.” turn them on to this. In terms of pure music, “Kala” is killer.