Friday, June 26, 2015

Malcolm's Theme



From Ossie Davis's eulogy for Malcolm X, 1965:




Thursday, June 25, 2015

What I'm Digging: Krieg and Inquisition

I've been listening to two bands a lot lately on my noisy commute to and from work.

Inquisition is a duo of Portland-based Columbians who play an interesting take on black metal. The singer has the same croaked vocals as Immortal's Abbath, and the lyrics are all about worshipping Satan. What I like about the band is the warped guitar sound he has. There's almost an experimental edge to them. So even though their politics suck (they have a Nazi-themed side project, their early albums were put out on a label that distributes racist metal, etc.)and they are Satan-worshippers, I still really like this. I think the fact that they are Columbian makes their shitty politics a bit easier to take.



So on to a band that aren't Nazi-flirting Satanists....Krieg. (Well, shit, except their name is German for "war").  I really enjoy their 2014 album Transient, which to me sounds like a hardcore record with growled vocals. It's brutal and pummeling and all in the red, and then there will be moments of melody. A really powerful, melancholy record.



I've also been listening to a lot of jazz, so it isn't all latently racist white dude rage music for me, fyi.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kamasi Washington Review

Kamasi Washington
The Epic 
Brainfeeder, 2015

According to a 2014 Nielsen report, jazz is the least popular genre in America. Jazz made up just 1.4% of all albums sold in 2014, compared with 17% for hip-hop, 30% for rock, and 14% for pop. To put that in perspective, the 5.2 million jazz albums sold in the U.S. in 2014 is only a little more than the total sales of the “Frozen” soundtrack alone. To most people, jazz is background music that all sounds the same, music you might hear at a reception or cafe, but certainly wouldn’t pay to listen to. From my own perspective as a jazz fan who doesn’t listen to contemporary jazz, I think there are a few reasons for this. Jazz has struggled with finding a broader voice in the past twenty years. Unlike metal, another genre that has faded from mainstream favor, there isn’t a robust jazz underground. The jazz that is out there is either avant-garde noise, easy listening smooth jazz, or fiercely traditionalist. It hasn’t found a way to connect with younger audiences, or audiences beyond dedicated jazz heads. Music tastemaker Pitchfork covers experimental music, modern classical music, but almost no jazz. Myself, I am a huge jazz fan, but I almost never listen to anything contemporary. I have hundreds of jazz albums, but only two of them were recorded within the last thirty years. 

And yet jazz has the potential to speak to current audiences. People still have an appetite for instrumental music, as the success of EDM in recent years proves. People also have an appetite for music that challenges traditional song structures, whether it be in the form of composers like Max Richter, electronic artists like Oneohtrix Never, or extreme metal artists like Liturgy. There is also still an audience for music that swings and grooves, both from the jam band end of the spectrum and the funk and R&B end.

Enter Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down. They are a group of 10 L.A.-based jazz performers who all grew up together playing in high school. Many of them had parents or music teachers who were session musicians in funk and R&B bands, so grew up surrounded by music. I heard of Kamasi for the same reason most people heard of him: he played on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and his album came out on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. (It’s no coincidence that Kamasi is co-signed by Flying Lotus; “You’re Dead!” was basically a jazz album).  From that background, I was expecting “The Epic” to have a heavy hip-hop or electronica influence. It doesn’t. What it does have is a scope and power that is beyond almost any jazz album I’ve heard since John Coltrane’s later work or MIles Davis’s fusion albums in the 70s. In short, it is one of the best jazz albums I’ve ever heard.

The music on “Epic” was recorded in December 2011. Kamasi and the other musicians did a month of recording sessions, focusing on different band leaders, which resulted in 190 songs. 45 of these were Kamasi’s, which he in turn pared down to the 17 that appear on the three-disc and aptly named “The Epic.” This is a long, intense album. Many of the songs are over ten minutes long, and none of them are under six minutes. The band excels at building to climactic crescendos, and the longer songs often have multiple builds and releases. It is a dense, layered album. There’s a 32-piece orchestra. There’s a choir. Vocalist Patrice Quinn sings on several songs. It’s a huge album, and a lot of music to try to digest at once. 

Musically, “The Epic” has almost nothing to do with electronica or hip-hop, and a lot to do with funk, 70s jazz fusion, and late 60s jazz by the likes of Pharoah Sanders. It has the audacity and grandness of jazz at the turn of the 70s, when Miles was doing “Bitches Brew” and 30-minute long songs about the nature of the universe were de rigeur, only without the acid-damaged sloppiness of that period. “The Epic” is long, but it is also focused. It rarely devolves into noise, although Kamasi’s tenor saxophone occasionally screeches or squawks during solos. There is a strong melodic imprint throughout the album, and even at its most chaotic it never goes into free jazz territory. It’s at times reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” only in its unrelenting intensity.  

Kamasi has played with Chaka Khan and Raphael Saadiq, and there is a heavy funk and R&B swing to “The Epic.” This grounds the album and makes it more accessible for a non-jazz audience, while still being jazz. “The Epic” is funky, it’s groovy, and it has a solid rhythm section. There’s a rock aggression to to the drums, although they maintain the swing of jazz. There’s also a playfulness to the music that makes it constantly inviting. “The Epic” is in many ways a protest album, but it maintains a sense of joy and hope that keeps the listener rooting for it.  “Leroy and Lanisha,” for example, has a nice easy groove that is contrasted by Kamasi’s almost angry solos. “Re Run Home” has a latin feel, with some funky bass thrown in for good measure. Then they fall back into the nice easy swing of the standard “Cherokee.” 

The size of the album, while daunting, is also to its advantage. With two drummers, two bassists (including Thundercat), and a whole mess of other musicians and singers, “The Epic” has an incredibly full and rich sound. The band is under no pressure to truncate their solos, or trim down their ideas. Remarkably, there is very little fat or filler on the three discs. None of the songs feel like they could have been left off, and the songs don’t drag on, even when they are approaching the fourteen-minute mark. 

As I mentioned before, “The Epic” is to some extent a protest album. It feels part of a thematic, sonic, and aesthetic whole with D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and Kendrick’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” from the references to 70s African-American culture to the black-and-white album covers. The music is often angry and sad, but always maintains a sense of hope and celebration. The few songs with lyrics on “The Epic” are celebratory. “Cherokee” is about a Native American warrior. “Henrietta Our Hero,” possibly about Henrietta Lacks, celebrates “our hero, shining fearless and bright.” “Malcom’s Theme” turns Ozzie Davis’s eulogy for Malcom X into a song, and ends it with a quote from Malcolm himself calling for religious and racial tolerance. On “The Rhythm Changes,” Quinn sings:

Our love, our beauty, our genius
Our work, our triumph, our glory
Won't worry what happened before me
I'm here”

What I love about “The Epic” is how successfully it builds on the history of jazz music while making it contemporary. It is an album that pushes boundaries and yet is always listenable and relatable, even at its most intricate and complex. It never feels too smooth, too noisy, too noodly, or too traditional. It takes chances and succeeds at every attempt. It’s a jazz album for people that think they don’t like jazz albums, and one that I hope will help revitalize the genre.






Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thoughts on Charleston

9 people, all African-American, were murdered in a historic African-American church on Wednesday by a white supremacist trying to start a race war. The right and right-wing media seem to be bending over backward to leave race out of the equation. The killer is already being given the 'crazy weird kid' card.

Fuck that.

This wasn't the act of a crazy kid. This was us. We did this. By playing into tribalism, us vs. them bullshit thinking. By framing political arguments as "taking back our country." By pretending the 1st commandment has exceptions, and the 2nd amendment has none. By othering and demonizing the people we call our opponents. By ignoring racism. By ignoring discrimination. By looking away from our painful history. By constantly arguing that the only answer to gun violence is more guns. By being too cowardly to call the gun lobby on their shit. By being cowards. By not taking responsibility for our situations and our actions. By not learning from the hundreds of other mass murders that happened this year. By assuming the perps are lone wolves.

This is not a politically popular message, but there is no them, there is only us. Everything we do, we do to ourselves. We are inextricably interconnected, and all of our actions have an effect. The killer wasn't a weirdo or a lone wolf. He was one of us, who was following a script that was written for him, who was following the ideology of the right-wing to its logical conclusion.

I'd love to say that this will lead to something, but if 20 white children getting killed didn't do shit, then 9 blacks being killed will do even less. Because the right secretly agrees with at least part of the killers message, ie there is a them and they are taking our country and we (by which they mean white people) need to take it back.  We are already resorting to the same arguments, the same bad thinking, the same bullshit that got us where we are.

But I think something is changing. I think that things are getting so bad that maybe we will do something. I think america is like an addict, who has been sleeping in his own shit for years, and has woken up covered in shit for the hundredth time, and is starting to think that maybe he has a problem. Only half of his brain is saying that his problem is he isn't doing ENOUGH drugs, or the right drugs.

My thoughts and prayers are with those killed, and their families, and with the victims and families of the Muslim students killed earlier in the year, and the other hundreds of victims of senseless killings in this country every year.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Rant

(I wrote this a few months ago in the wake of the Trevor Noah brouhaha, and forgot to post it.)

I’ve always had a deep distrust of organized religion. I think there are few things more dangerous than someone who thinks they are righteous and that their righteousness allows them to judge and lord over others. Islamic extremists are the most active group using religion justify doing terrible things, but they by no means have a monopoly on using the church as a tool of oppression. Europe has engaged in bloody wars over the centuries both within and without its borders over issues of faith. There are still terrorist attacks linked to the IRA happening in the UK, which is at least nominally a religious dispute. Name me a faith based on peace, love, and understanding, and I’ll show you examples of how its adherents had used that faith to justify acts of brutality, terror, oppression, and violence. (I don't mean to be anti-religion. I think in the majority of cases, it has a positive impact on people's lives, but I also I think that religion can be easily misused as a tool of oppression.)

We on the left tend to think that this is a religious thing, that it is the belief in a supernatural God that drives this hypocritical orthodoxy. Certainly the life-and-death nature of religious belief adds fuels to the flames, but religion isn’t the only vehicle by which humans gain a self-righteous understanding of the correct way of the universe and how things should be done. The Trevor Noah Twttter debacle was a reminder to me of this.

To sum up for those who missed it: South African comedian Trevor Noah was recently named John Stewards successor as host of the Daily Show. Immediately following this announcement, it came to light that twelve or fifteen of his 9,000 tweets had been of an either anti-Semitic or sexist nature, depending on how sensitive you are and how hard you squint. He certainly made some off-color jokes about Jews, overweight women, and female athletes. To the extent they were racist and or sexist is open to interpretation.

The internet exploded over this, and demanded an apology. Instead, he tweeted a non-apology, saying basically don’t judge me on the basis of a handful of jokes that didn’t land. This made the internet even more upset, causing some to call for his job, on the basis that if he’s making fun of fat women and celebrity nudes, he can’t be trusted as the Daily Show host.

However offensive his jokes may have been, the reaction was a thousand times more concerning to me. While I saw some commenters on NPR.org blame conservatives for creating this controversy, the outrage actually came mostly from the left. It was the self-righteous PC crowd that got the most irate over the alleged acts of sexism and racism. And that is what I find really worrying.

There is a narrative on the right that a cabal of PC “social justice warriors” is taking over the world. Maybe they are working with the Elders of Zion, maybe it is done via the UN, I don’t know how the logistics are supposed to work. But the idea is something to the effect that Obama is in league with the lame stream(TM) media to promote the gay agenda, force women to become feminists, and force children to learn that white people are terrible in school. Or something. 90% of this is right-wing paranoia about the changing demographics of the country and planet, and a not misplaced fear that people that look like them and/or share their mindset are becoming a minority.

The other 10% is based on shit like the Trevor Noah debacle.

What we liberals forget is that, like the Christians conservatives we love to mock, we also are tribal beings who want deeply to belong. We also have that ingrained American pathology towards celebrating The Individual and rooting for the underdog. And we are also prone to succumbing to a mob mentality and going along with the herd. There is a puritanism in some strains of the left-wing that rivals the Focus on the Family crowd.

Anytime you think that your understanding of the facts and how the universe works gives you a license to judge others and tell them how to live, you need to check yourself. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak out against injustice, defend those who don’t have voices, and stand up for what is right. But it means that you have to be open to the fact that you might be wrong, and even if you are right it doesn’t mean you get to tell everyone else how to live. And then there is my favorite Kathleen Hannah quote: if we wait for everyone to be perfect, nothing is ever gonna get done.

I really need to stop paying attention to the internet.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Half Time

It’s June, so that means it is time to talk about my favorite albums of 2015 so far, in alphabetical order:

A$AP Rocky, At. Long. Last. A$AP.
Bell Witch, Four Phantoms
Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Liturgy, The Ark Work
Oddisee, The Good Fight
Salva, Peacemaker
Tree, Trap Genius
Kamasi Washington, Epic

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

P.M Dawn Review

P.M. Dawn,
Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience
Island/Gee Street, 1990
Originally posted on RapReviews


For a time in the late eighties and early nineties, many people involved in hip-hop thought that the number one threat to the culture was hip-hop going pop. Hip-hop was first and foremost from the streets and for the streets, and the idea of a rapper trying appeal to (white) mainstream pop culture was deeply offensive to many people in hip-hop. The fear was that this vibrant culture, which represented the voice of young black America, would be co-opted, defanged, and watered down by the mainstream. White people were going to steal and mess up hip-hop just like they did jazz and rock n’ roll. 

As a result, rappers that had crossover success into the pop mainstream were scrutinized, ridiculed, and cast out of hip-hop by its gatekeepers. There was no regaining cred once you went pop. That’s part of the reason why Vanilla Ice is doing reality shows and robbing houses, and why MC Hammer hasn’t had a top 10 hit since parachute pants went out of style. Tribe Called Quest, 3rd Base, NWA, Ice Cube, and even the Beastie Boys called out rappers’ attempts to go pop in song. The best way to lose your cred as a rapper circa 1990 was to appear to be courting the mainstream. 

People took this seriously. Serious enough to fight over it, and not just on record. Ask Prince Be of psychedelic hip-hop group P.M. Dawn, who was punched by no less than the teacher himself, KRS-One. In an infamous event, KRS-One and his crew stormed the stage while P.M. Dawn were performing at the Sound Factory in New York in 1992, punched Prince Be and threw him off the stage. KRS-One was allegedly reacting to feeling disrespected by Prince Be in an interview, but to many hip-hop fans, it seemed like he was defending real hip-hop against interlopers. But did hip-hop need protection against P.M. Dawn? Were they a lame attempt at pop crossover, or a group trying to do their own thing that got unfairly targeted? At the time, I thought that KRS-One was being a bit of a bully coming after Be. Let’s revisit P.M. Dawn’s debut and see if history is on their side.

P.M. Dawn started in the late 80s by brothers Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, aka Prince Be and DJ Minutemix. They were signed to now-defunct British label Gee Street, home to other leftfield hip-hop acts like Stereo MCs, Jungle Brothers, and Gravediggaz. In some ways you can credit (or blame) De La Soul for P.M. Dawn’s success. “Of The Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience,” came out two years after De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising.” It feels inspired by “3 Feet High,” not only in De La Soul’s hippie vibe, but their use of nontraditional samples. De La Soul proved that rappers could work outside the confines of soul and funk. They sampled Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, and Johnny Cash, and turned those samples into solid rap songs.

P.M. Dawn took this one step further by sampling New Wavers Spandau Ballet’s ultra-white, ultra-wimpy ballad “True.” They flipped that sample into gold on “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” combining it with the drums from Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” to keep things hip-hop. The song was a #1 hit, helped  “The Utopian Experience” sell over 500,000 copies. 
As you can probably tell from its title, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was not your typical rap song. It took a psychedelic approach to hip-hop, turning what could have been a standard love rap into something weirder:

“A careless whisper from a careless man
A neutron dance for a neutron fan
Marionette strings are dangerous things
I thought of all the trouble they bring
An eye for an eye, a spy for a spy
Rubber bands expand in a frustrating sigh
Tell me that she's not dreaming
She's got an ace in the hole, it doesn't have meaning”

There’s another major influence on P.M. Dawn, beyond De La Soul and the Beatles’ during their Magic Mystery Tour period: the hip-house sound of Soul II Soul. P.M. Dawn used similar drums on their songs, and also combined R&B and dance music with hip-hop. A song like “Paper Doll” has as much in common with “Back to Life” as it does with anything De La was putting out. In fact, when I was looking for this album to review, I found it shelved in the R&B section of Amoeba Records  rather than the hip-hop section. It is just as much an R&B album as it is a rap album.

One of the selling points of P.M. Dawn when they came out was their new age hippie schtick; it certainly set them apart from any other rap group out in 1990. Just look at the video for “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” They are fully decked out in African-print t-shirts, headbands, John Lennon glasses, and have bracelets for days. They took the Afrocentrism of the Native Tongues crew and gave it a sixties twist. Even today, their sound and lyrics set them apart from most other hip-hop. 

While “The Utopian Experience” has psychedelic elements, P.M. Dawn weren’t eating mushrooms and dropping acid as much as they were new age mystics. As a result,  “The Utopian Experience” feels more new agey than trippy, and the lyrics are sometimes a little goofy. The album certainly isn’t as drug damaged as Redman’s “Dare Iz A Darkside,” or as trippy as Edan’s “Beauty and the Beat” or Quasimoto’s “The Further Adventures of Lord Quas.” On “Even After I Die,” Be is talking to God, with lines that are alternately deep and silly:

“The thought of You just reeks with divinity
A spark by my heart is the symbol of the Trinity
I can understand that the stakes are high
But I'd really like to know what I've done and why
I'm floating in a sea of doubt when it comes to that
It seems as though all of my thoughts are now acrobats
I am you, now that's a thought to renege
But in the thought that stops it seems to get big
I wonder why Father, why it is? What it is?
Because I am what I am, what gives?”

One of the legacies of “The Utopian Experience” is how it predicted hip-hop’s shift towards embracing R&B, embracing pretty production, and embracing psychedelics. Listening to the album today, it’s hard to imagine a rapper getting mad at how pop it is. Nowadays, even the toughest rappers sing their hooks and rap over pretty beats, A$AP Rocky is rapping about dropping acid, and there are multiple sub-genres of alternative hip-hop. 

That wasn’t true in 1991, when I first bought this album. I was looking for hip-hop that was less nihilistic than the West Coast gangsta rap that was all around me. At the time, I was excited by the idea of someone taking hip-hop in a different direction and making music that was more concerned with spiritual questions rather than macho posturing. As much as I wanted to love “The Utopian Experience” as a sixteen-year-old hip-hop fan, I had a hard time getting into it. Listening to it twenty-four years later, it holds up better than I remembered, although some of the problems I had with it at 16 still hold true.

For one thing, the lyrics aren’t always great. As I mentioned before, there is some goofiness to Be’s attempts at being deep and metaphysical. His drippy, “what is reality, man?” gets old, and his mystic pacifist vibe doesn’t make him the most engaging rapper.  Also, their attempts to mash up hip-hop, house, and R&B don’t always work. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Paper Doll” both sound really cheesy to my ears now, and their dance song “Shake” downright bad. It is also dated in the way that all old hip-hop is dated: Be has a 90s flow and Megamixx is using 90s tech to make 90s beats, all while wearing some serious 90s fashion and rapping about 90s things. The datedness works in its favor at times: “To Serenade A Rainbow” and “Reality Used to Be A Friend of Mine” reminded me of early De La Soul and “Comatose” sounds like an Ice Cube beat. If you are a fan of early 90s hip-hop production, there are some gems on “The Utopian Experience.”

Beyond the 90s production, what makes “The Utopian Experience” worth re-visiting (if you can find a copy - it’s out of print, possibly because of sampling issues) is the way in which Be and Megamixx pushed hip-hop out of its comfort zone. It was gutsy for Be and Megamixx to be as wimpy as they were on this album. It took courage to make a song that sampled a new wave ballad, or was built around a Beatles sample. They made music with none of the posturing, either lyrical or musical, that was the basis of most hip-hop in 1990. Be’s lyrics aren’t about bragging, cutting down sucker MCs, or partying. They are about talking to God, questioning the nature of reality, and talking about love in metaphysical terms. True, they were following on the heels of De La Soul, who had started the whole hippie rap thing (and just as quickly vehemently disowned it), but P.M. Dawn took it further than any other group. Even in 2015, most hip-hop is confined to themes of urban America. Very few artists use rap music to explore other realms of thought and realities the way P.M. Dawn attempted to. If anything, rap post-1990 became even more obsessed with “keeping it real,” even when that meant fantasies of violence and wealth that bore as little resemblance to day-to-day life as what Be was rapping about. 

Be’s altercation with KRS-One happened in 1992, a year after De La Soul disowned the D.A.I.S.Y. Age on “De La Soul Is Dead,” and a few months before Dr. Dre’s “Chronic” came out and changed the sound, subject matter, and coastal epicenter of hip-hop. P.M. Dawn’s 1993 follow-up “The Bliss Album…?” went gold, so neither “The Chronic” nor KRS-One’s public rebuking of them seemed to have hurt the duo’s prospects. The two albums they released after that failed to chart, and since then Be has had multiple strokes and amputations; his cousin Dr. G tours under the P.M. Dawn brand, but without either founding member. A quarter century later, “The Utopian Experience” doesn’t feel like a lame crossover grab, but rather an attempt to somewhere totally different with hip-hop. It’s unfortunate that so few artists followed the trail that P.M. Dawn made; hip-hop could use more weirdos and outcasts.




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