Jigga Should be Rapping about Public-Private Investment Funds

…after all, it would be fitting for someone who once said, quite cleverly I might add, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business man.”

I believe it’s time for hip hop to engage the financial and economic meltdown of our time, because it has done so brilliantly in the past (see Grandmaster Flash – “The Message,” all of Public Enemey’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, both of which cannot be fully understood without understanding the socio-political consequences of the Reagan years). So why not now, when the nation is facing its greatest economic crisis since the Big One?

You can easily construct a narrative around this: say an enterprising street hustler deals on the corner, amasses a small fortune, a crew, women, and cars. Now what? Instead of dying an early, if glorious, death, said street enterpreneuer could invest the money in one of many Public-Private Investment Funds (PPIFs) created by Treasury’s plan. And why would this street hustler invest? It’s a perfect opportunity: the FDIC is willing to go as high as 6-to-1 debt-to-equity ratio, while Treasury is willing to put up half of the equity. So at the most, an investor would only have to be 25% of the value of the asset, or at the least, an investor would only have to put up 7% of the value. If the asset makes money, the investor will win big, and even if it loses, the government is subsidizing the majority of the losses. Best of all, it is completely legal.

So for a rapper and a businessman of Jay-Z’s skill and acumen would be retarded NOT to invest in PPIFs. And maybe we can even get a semi-decent to great rap song out of this as well.

Advertisements

Cat Power at the 9:30 Club, 2/8/09

Let me just say this: Cat Power is so sexy (in a boho kind of way) that it’s not even funny. Plus, it definitely helps that she’s got a voice that smolders with soul.

So last night I went to the 9:30 Club to see Cat Power. I have to admit, I had my doubts before the show: after all, Chan Marshall is a woman known for her (sometimes) notorious stage fright and performance breakdowns. But on the other hand: my god, what a voice! But from what I’ve gathered on the Intar-webs, Chan Marshall has cleaned up her act after becoming sober, and now delivers shows that are at least professional.

Well, I’m glad to say that the show last night was a very good one. No, Cat Power does not have “stage presence” as traditionally defined: she doesn’t really banter, doesn’t do outsized, bigger-than-life gestures, or send the audience into a frenzy. In fact, Cat Power spent most of the show singing indirectly at the audience, either at her band or to the side of the stage. Her movement on the stage can aptly be described as a kind of cat-like (pun fully intended) prowling, complete with hand gestures not particuarly aimed at anyone in general. Suffice to say, Cat Power is not a traditional “rock star” showman.

But whatever showmanship she lacked, she made up more than enough for it in sheer ability and skill. I mean, I knew she possessed an incredible voice, but hearing it live, coming from an actual human being, is definitely something else. I experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance: how could a woman of Cat Power’s age sing with a voice that bespeaks of a lifetime worth of living–good and bad? Suffice to say, she had me at the first note.

Cat Power performed materials mostly from her last two studio release: Jukebox and Dark End of the Street (which came from the same session as Jukebox). Some highlights:

1) “Lord, Help The Poor and Needy:” The album version of this song features a pretty spare arrangement, with only Chan Marshall’s vocals backed up by bass and guitar. Live, Cat Power almost does this one solo, with the guitar and bass turned down fairly low in the mix. At one point, it’s just her vocals, accompanied by claps from the audience. But the next thing I knew, the band comes in full force and just fucking jams. The sudden change in dynamics is jarring, but in a good way, as it reveals the raw power of the blues and gospel music.

2) “Fortunate Son:” An interesting choice to cover Creedence, and the song itself is alll but unrecognizable from the Creedence original. Cat Power’s phrasing is completely different and much flatter, but the band, on the other hand, plays it fast and furious, with a kick-ass organ (synthesized) solo. At the end, Chan Marshall’s vocals are completely buried in the mix amidst the squall of guitar feedback. So yes, her cover conveys the aggressive essence of the original, but in a totally different manner.

Those are the two songs that really stood out in her set, not that the rest of it was bad by any means. Overall, it was a good show, and made me appreciate her band much better, because let’s face it, the studio albums highlight Cat Power’s vocals. After all, why wouldn’t they? It is the money-maker after all. But seeing her as a part of a band gave me a new dimension of appreciation for her music.

Overlooked Records of 2008

This is a highly unscientific, highly subjective look at some records which, in my opinion, were overlooked. This is not to say that they did not receive critical praise: it’s just that these records somehow were not talked about as much at the annual “end of the year” retrospective pieces.

1) Sigur Ros – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

I don’t know why album is not talked about more in critical circles. Sigur Ros changed their sound on this album, especially in the first half, to a more accessible, poppier sound, while the second half of the album retained the epic/cosmological/prog/spiritual aspect of their older albums. This album sounds great, as it mixes both the new and the old, and usually critics fall over themselves praising Sigur Ros. Nevertheless, this is an excellent album.

2) Aimee Mann – @#%&*! Smilers

There are not many other people working in the industry today that can write a song better than Aimee Mann, not to mention her impeccable voice, which, in this album, has acquired a deeper tone that complements her usual lilting phrasing. Plus, no one can write concise but insightful character studies of people in various stages of defeat and resignation quite like Aimee Mann. Also, this album has a different sound, as it heavily focuses on keyboards and rhythm, with almost no electric guitar. I guess this album was overlooked because consistency does not wow, but these songs stay with you. Is it her best album? No, that title belongs to Bachelor No. 2, but this album has some very strong songs.

3) Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun

I think no one will disagree with me that Fleet Foxes are the critical darlings of this year, but ask yourselves this: would there even be Fleet Foxes if not for Brian Wilson? The answer is a definite no, because Fleet Foxes’ sound is the direct progeny of Brian Wilson, and pretty much all indie pop albums in general. Therefore, I find it ironic that Brian Wilson’s album this year did not receive a lot of attention. Sure, it’s not as monumental as Smile, but then again, what can possibly be? Nevertheless, Brian Wilson remains a genius of melody, and he shows the youngsters a thing or two about musical arrangement.

4) David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

What do you get when you put two eccentric musical mavens together? A secular gospel record, that’s what! While not as radical as their earlier collaboration, this record possesses a self-assured grace. And of course, with David Byrne, the lyrics are never what they seem. And Brian Eno can still twist knobs like it’s nobody’s business. Plus, applause for both of them to embrace the new distribution model by allowing fans to pay a small fee for the digital copy of the album while the hard copy is being pressed.

5) Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

This is Conor Oberst’s “mature” album, as it finds himself settling nicely into his niche: that is, writing lyrically smart, melodically engaging songs about heartbreak, personal liberation, and social commentary. And hey, his singing voice even improves compared to before. It’s not an opus, but it is a very well executed record.

6) Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV and The Slip

Getting clean and sober has done wonderful things for Trent Reznor’s productivity, as he released two albums’ worth of material in a single year, a feat that in the old days would take at least a decade. I lump these two together not only because of their chronological proximity, but also because they are experiments for Reznor to test out his distribution model. Freed from his major’s contract, Reznor decided to pull a Radiohead and release Ghosts for free with an option to purchase the hard copy, and he released The Slip for a very small fee. Ghosts show that Trent Reznor has tremendous skills in the studio, while The Slip remains solidly enjoyable. They won’t match The Downward Spiral, but these two albums should definitely satisfy your noise cravings.

7) Spiritualized – Songs in A&E

This album isn’t quite as expansive and epic as Ladies and Gentlemen, but its more stripped down sound better reflects its creator’s near death experience. So if you feel like contemplating Life, Love, and God, and if you prefer to contemplate these things at the same time, listen to this album. This is the spiritual cousin to the David Byrne album, as both deal in large, spiritual themes. Another secular gospel record, if you will.

Again, all of these albums received pretty good critical appraisals, but somehow they are overlooked at the year-end retrospectives. And sometimes, the only way these records are heard is through those retrospectives. While none of these albums is a masterpiece, they are nevertheless highly enjoyable. And if you like music, you should check them out.

At Last, At Last!

Although it seems heaven sent, we ARE ready for a black president

I couldn’t really grasp the sheer enormity of last night’s election results, because for one thing, I was drunk. But as I walked through the chilly, damp DC night, breathing the air cleansed by the rain, I sobered up. And by the time I got home, I was just beginning to realize, but not yet understand (and perhaps it will take me a very long time) what had just happened.

I can’t claim to understand what this means for African Americans, but as a minority US citizen, I am goddamn fucking proud of this country right about now. And while listening to my iPod on shuffle this morning at work, this particular 2Pac song comes up, and as soon as I heard the first drum beats and the piano riff, I suddenly just “got it,” seen the light so to speak.

And before you know it, I suddenly found myself choking up, eyes moist, nose sniffly, and vision blurring. I know, a very delayed reaction, seeing how people wept with joy in the streets last night. But somehow, listening to this song, at this particular moment in human history, suddenly made sense—-a moment of epiphany.

In a way, the circle is complete, because I heard “Changes” in 1998 at a time when my grasp of English was just getting somewhat proficient, and this is the first “popular” song I heard on the radio that really blew my fucking mind. I may not agree with all of 2Pac’s politics, and I may not even think he has a coherent and/or normatively correct ideology, but I will always, always, ALWAYS be grateful to 2Pac for instilling the first seeds of my social consciousness. And to think, a scant 10 years after the song was released, we’ve elected the first African American president in overwhelming numbers—-wow, my 13 year old self would not have been able to conceive of what that might mean. Could 2Pac? Could anyone?

Thus, for the first time that I can remember, for as long as I have been following politics (which is to say, as long as I have been able to think), I am genuinely, sincerely, and unironically happy with an outcome of the political process. This is the first time I’ve been able to willingly let myself participate emotionally, because every other time, I treat the process with a critical, skeptical indifference and/or disdain; either that or a kind of flip, ironic, post-modernist amusement.

Of course, those sentiments will return with time, as no human being is perfect. But for now, I am genuinely touched.

Never Misunderestimate

The raw power of multiple guitars playing really loudly, fed through a shit ton of distortion.

Which was what happened last night when Mogwai played at the 9:30 Club in DC.

Brandon Wu did a really good write-up over at the Washington CityPaper on the show, so I’m not going to get into details: read his post for some pretty decent pictures:

“But last night they also proved that they can still rock. The set closed with the staple “Like Herod”—the song singlehandedly responsible for getting a decade of critics to lazily refer to Mogwai as “that soft-loud-soft band” – which then merged seamlessly into “Batcat,” the token loud rock song from Mogwai’s forthcoming new album, The Hawk is Howling (which you can hear in full on their MySpace page). It was an explosive ending that left the crowd cheering for more. More, of course, is what we got, and it came in the form of an encore that consisted of two more deliriously satisfying loud numbers—”Christmas Steps” and, of course, the noisy closer “My Father My King.” It’s as if the band structured their setlist to lull casual fans to sleep before blowing their eardrums out.”

What I want to talk about is the opening band, Fuck Buttons. I really, really, really dug their set, and have already ordered their album. To use the old crit-cliche of X +Y = Z, I will say that Fuck Buttons sound like Brian Eno (ambient period) + Merzbow. Their formula is really very simple: lay down some minimalist but pretty synth lines, repeat them, while adding a wall of noise on top, and insert tribal-sounding drums. All this adds up to a hypnotic sea of pretty noises that flow in and out of each other.

However, it does take an acquired taste to appreciate, so if you don’t like noise-based experimental music, then Fuck Buttons isn’t for you. In fact, their set was not visually interesting, because it’s just two guys twiddling nobs and looking at their Macbooks. On the other hand, their music is very entrancing, and now it becomes clear why Pitchfork gave them such a good review.

In fact, the whole show consisted of very little, if any, dancing at all: after all, you can’t dance to epic-length post-rock, purely instrumental jams. But if it makes any sense, music made by Fuck Buttons and Mogwai are both arresting.

Besides, we all know that hipsters don’t dance: it’s a scientific fact.

Richard Wright is Playing the Great Gig in the Sky

RIP Richard Wright, the keyboard player for Pink Floyd. Robin Hilton writes:

“Pink Floyd fans have long argued over which band member was the most important. Some say it was Syd Barrett, the founding member who gave the group its name and guided the then-unknown band in maniacally imaginative directions. Others argue that it’s Roger Waters, the bassist who took over as lead songwriter after Barrett left the band in 1968; Waters led Pink Floyd through its most successful period. Then there are the David Gilmour fans, who say that the lead guitarist was most responsible for Pink Floyd’s widely influential and groundbreaking sound. But for me, the heart and soul of Pink Floyd was always keyboardist Richard Wright, who died today at age 65.”

Hilton goes on to give a pretty good appraisal of Richard Wright’s keyboard sound and his overall influence in one of the most influential musical acts of all time.

So in that honor, I busted out my copy of DSOTM, which I haven’t touched in years, because let’s face it: when something as monumental (in objective, historical terms) and as influential (in very personal terms), you can only listen it for so many times. I reached that point two years ago, when I realized that I could pretty much pick out any given sonic element in that album, and without taking away anything artistically from that album, I decided that certain monuments should only be appreciated once in a while

But because Richard Wright died today, I’m busting out the old warhorse, and in his honor, I am playing “The Great Gig in the Sky,” which, out of all the songs on the track, really blew my mind the first time I played the album. Considering how mind-blowing the album was on first listen, the fact that I singled out that particular song means a lot to me. When I first Clare Torry reaching for the stratosphere with that voice of hers, I just about fucking lost my mind: this song expressed so much anguish–it is literally agony and yearning articulated in the wailing and howling of human voice.

Yet what begins the song? That’s right: Richard Wright’s gentle, calm piano line, playing a theme that repeats itself after the crescendo. The piano theme serves as a dramatic contrast to Torry’s anguished voice, like a soothing touch that grounds the voice that is striving toward something higher (transcendence, freedom from suffering, redemption?). And as the voice becomes softer and softer, dying almost, Richard Wright gently pounds that last note home.

And the rest, as The Bard once said through Hamlet, is silence.

This isn’t even to mention Wright’s Hammond playing in the section of the song that leads up to the crescendo.

So Rest in Peace, Richard Wright: hopefully you are re-united with Syd Barrett, and the both of you are playing the great gig in the sky.

Posted in music. Tags: . 1 Comment »

Why the New York Times Should Not Write about Hip Hop

“Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles”

-“Excursions”, from The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest

Jon Caramanica has apparently discovered the fact that hip hop artists sometimes make explicit references to canonical works in the tradition and capitalizes on them. Like, woah. The way he sees it:

“Increasingly, the Cool Kids are not alone. They are part of a small but newly influential hip-hop subculture — call it meta-rap — created by a generation of artists raised wholly within hip-hop culture, making music that is a commentary on what came before it. In hip-hop, which can be ruthlessly forward-looking, this is a novel development, and it has made for compelling and diverse music from acts like the Cool Kids, Pacific Division, the Knux, Kidz in the Hall and Plastic Little.”

So first, we have a sociological claim about hip hop. But then Caramanica goes on to make an aesthetic claim about this supposedly “new” genre:

“But while intragenre nostalgia figures regularly in other styles of pop — rock has a long history of sifting through its past for new inspiration — it has never had a place in hip-hop. It’s not that rap never looks backward. Thanks to its innovations in sampling, it has helped keep various other styles prominent in the collective pop memory. But borrowing from other rappers has traditionally been considered taboo. And largely it still is, so many of these artists use elements of the past as building blocks, which they then reconfigure to their own ends. Though the music shares many characteristics with hip-hop from decades past, “in the climate of the industry right now, it’s considered experimental,” said Be Young, 22, of Southern California’s Pacific Division.”

How does one respond to these two different kind of claims? With facts, that’s how! Surely, this piece is so ignorant of hip hop’s history that it deserves to be spanked a bit. In fact, when I read the piece tonight, I had a strong feeling of deja vu: it turns out that I had already written a post, from the earliest days of my blogging, on the inter- and intra-texual qualities of hip hop. And I’ll be quoting from it, and also modifying some of it to update my thoughts a bit.

I. The Sociological Claim:

Caramanica makes it seem like the rise of a sub-genre niche movement is a new movement when in fact hip hop has a long and storied history of intra- and inter-textual references, a quality that would make it “meta” by Caramanica’s definition. In my original post, I write:

“What do I mean by that? Hip hop is intra-textual in that it is constantly self-referencing, whether it’s referencing a previous verse, the rapper’s previous albums, or even a concept that was employed in a previous work (see Dr. Dre’s update on “Next Episode” in 2001, referencing back to “The Chronic”).

Hip hop is also inter-textual in that it is not a self-contained, hermetically sealed work: it constantly makes allusions to other hip hop. For example, just listen to any dis-rap: it is all about referencing and putting down other people’s work. Hip hop artists are also obsessed with the legacy of hip hop: their place within the pantheon, their relative worth compared to the legends, etc. Finally, hip hop is known to reference pop-culture extensively, like movies, cartoons, musicians, etc.

Finally, hip hop is a self-mythologizing art: great hip hop artists have always constructed their own meticulous life story. For an extreme example of hip hop mythologizing, one only needs to look at the Wu Tang Clan. A whole back-story was created, intact with its own self-referencing iconology and symbols, known only to people who are already familiar with the mythos.”

The substantive claims, I think, are still valid. Hip hop artists reference their own works all the time, thus making them “meta,” in the sense that they are constantly self-referential and commentaries on themselves. If I were to offer a somewhat Heideggerian account of this quality, I might say that hip hop is constantly engaged in hermeneutics: it is self-interpretation through commentaries on previous works which help listeners to interpret both the subject of the reference and the work making the reference.

To include some additional relevant examples that counters Caramanica’s claims: hip hop has commented on the music industry (“Labels” from GZA’s debut solo album, Liquid Swords), hip hop itself (“I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common), one’s own position within the canon (“Til I Collapse” by Eminem, “What More can I Say” by Jay-Z), the influence of the canon on one’s own hip hop career (“Juicy” by Biggie, “Old School” by 2Pac), and so on and so forth. In fact, just see Nas’s Hip Hop is Dead is an entire album dedicated to the commentary on hip hop tradition and its state in the contemporary hip hop space.

So I find it quite absurd when Caramanica makes the sociological claim that somehow “meta” rap is a new genre movement, when in fact what makes hip hop “meta”–namely, its self-referential and inter-textuality–has a long tradition in hip hop. In fact, it would not be implausible to argue that this is the very essence of hip hop’s aesthetics.

II. The Aesthetic Claim:

As to Caramanica’s claim that finding inspiration from older sounds “has never had a place in hip-hop,” I find the claim so absurd as to reject it prima facie. After all, has Caramanica never heard of a little thing called “influence?”

But just to be sure: hip hop is filled with instances in which individual actors and sounds have influenced subsequent actors and sounds. If this does not constitute instances of finding inspiration from the past in hip hop, then I wonder what does?

The examples are so many as to be countless, but I’ll just give a salient few. Dr. Dre created that classic g-funk sound which became the foundation upon which west coast hardcore rap became popular. Similarly, the body of work created by the Native Tongues Posse cemented the role of jazz in hip hop. Another example would be RZA’s production styles on the first Wu-Tang created and influenced that dirty/gritty, spare East Coast hardcore rap sound. The Beastie Boys alone were responsible two kind of subsequent sounds: its rock-rap sound (with Rick Rubin’s help) had an indelible influence on the develop of nu-metal; its innovative sampling work (with the help of The Dust Brothers) changed the role of sampling and led to DJ Shadow. And to use a very contemporary example: just look at how producers like Kanye West, Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Lil Jon put their sonic fingerprints on subsequent works in contemporary mainstream hip hop.

Thus, to suggest that somehow hip hop does not take inspiration (or, to put it more bluntly, lift) from the past is patently absurd. One need not be an expert or have extensive knowledge of hip hop’s branching genealogy and paths of influence to know this very simple fact. Of course it is true that some sounds become hot while others fade depend on a number of factors, but this, as the lyrics quoted at the beginning suggests, is probably just another phase of the cycle.

III. Conclusion:

Therefore, Caramanica’s major narrative in the NYT article is contradicted by the history of hip hop: “meta” rap, as exemplified by the artists he refers, does not represent a distinctly new sociological phenomenon in hip hop’s development, and neither is it a real meaningful break from hip hop’s aesthetic. Or, if such a movement really does represent a genuine break, Caramanica does not really make it clear why this is the case.

One might object that I’m taking this way too seriously, and that I am demanding too much: after all, this is a story that ran in a mainstream newspaper that is not particularly devoted to hip hop and thus not targeted towards people like me who are already very much invested in hip hop and its history. Sure, on a certain level, I concede the point: if I really wanted to read detailed/insightful analysis on hip hop, I’d hop on over to OhWord instead to the pages of the New York Times.

But I believe that one can write a general, survey-level story on hip hop without showing glaring evidence of the author’s blatant ignorance. This to me is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually going on in hip hop, and since I am very passionate about hip hop, I get pissed off when someone tries to pass off this ignorant shit to millions of readers who are probably not as knowledgable and thus rely on mainstream publications like the NYT. That the article seems to make a number of sophisticated claims about hip hop (both its aesthetics and its history) can only be more deceptive to people who don’t know.

Yet, is anyone harmed by this misinformation? I don’t know, but I know that I’d be equally pissed if someone wrote a general story about the history of Philosophy and made the claim that the problem of the mind-body duality represents a new branch of inquiry in the history of philosophy.