Sunday, December 31, 2006
From Socialist Worker (UK)
A group of anti-war musicians has released a cover version of Edwin Starr’s classic War (What Is It Good For?) as a download-only single – with the aim of taking their message to the top of the charts in the new year.
The group, called Ugly Rumours – the same name as Tony Blair’s old college band – will donate 20p to Stop the War from every single sold.
Respect MP George Galloway makes an appearance in the single’s video. You can download it from his website at www.georgegalloway.com
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
By Alexander Billet
What can possibly be said about the loss of James Brown? A career spanning half a century, and an influence without which pop music would not be what it is today. Soul, R&B, rock, disco, hip-hop, all feel the void that Mr. Brown left. His contribution to music was iconic and revolutionary.
His songs represented something pivotal in music. While the civil rights movement gathered steam on the streets of Birmingham and Montgomery, a very new and youthful record industry was giving birth to legendary artists (both black and white) who pulled heavily from black music. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, all became household names in segregated America. It was significant that Sam Phillips once said during this era that if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man he would be worth a million dollars (Phillips later found that performer in Elvis).
But Brown was the real deal. His music and performances were drenched with raw passion. Jonathan Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone: "For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body... is not to see: It is to behold."
And it was these passionate screams that would resonate through all music to come. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West described his massive influence as such: "Mr. Brown, as he likes to be known, rapped and crooned before his time, used vibrant horn, raunchy rock and roll guitar, and driving bass overlaid with a grunting, familiar voice like the sound of a moving train." And he was one of the first, too; imitated but never duplicated. Elvis studied his choreography on film. Jagger and Prince imitated his moves and attitude in their music and performances, and hip-hop acts from Ice-T to Public Enemy would sample his beats for years to come.
His was exactly the kind of acts that the bible beaters tried to censor when they spoke of rock n' roll as degenerate music. Of course, it was also no coincidence that they were all white, while the music was proudly black. Mr. Brown's music carried that kind of iconoclastic pride throughout his whole life. How incendiary was it to see a black man do the things he did in those days? To Sing about love, sex, and passion, to admit that he, a black man, was a whole human being. To entertain without denigrating himself. Mr. Brown was no Bojangles. That is what made his music profoundlly influential. And it was fitting that "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud," would serve as an anthem of the civil rights movement.
And now he's gone, but the music is still here. And while newspapers can write all they want about the contradiction that was James Brown, there is little question that he revolutionized the way we look at music and popular culture. Farewell, Mr. Brown. You shall be missed.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Also published on MRZine
“I’d like to say that people… people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. Show me any country… and there’ll be people in it just trying to take their humanity back into the center of the ring… And follow that for a time. Y’know, think on that. Without people you’re nothing.” –Joe Strummer
Is anything left in music that is vaguely redeeming? In the face of all the soulless pabulum being fed to us in the MTV-strangled airwaves, I often wonder if the industry has won. When rock n’ roll is so full of the cynical, the snide, the intentionally ironic, it seems like record companies are signing bands that not only won’t say anything, but won’t feel anything. Not caring is the fad of the day, and righteousness is passé, naïve and stupid.
Antonino D’Ambrosio agrees. As we sit in a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City, we talk about the sense of collective amnesia much of the bands seem to suffer from. As the head of La Lutta New Media Collective, D’Ambrosio is aware of how most of today’s artists seem to have little bark and even less bite. He is also the editor of Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, a book devoted to the Clash front-man, now in its fifth printing in two years. Almost four years after Strummer’s death in December of 2002, it is amazing how few remember the seismic effect the Clash had on music. “Every band out there is a Clash imitator,” the author tells me, “but half of them don’t know who the Clash were.”
Indeed, when “Rock the Casbah” can be claimed by the National Review as a top “conservative rock song,” something does appear to be askew. “When the right wing can start moving in on rock n’ roll, it’s scary,” he says. As the son of Italian immigrants growing up in Philadelphia, D’Ambrosio saw much of what it looks like when the right wing can have its grip over a whole city. In the early eighties, around the same time the Philly police were throwing the members of MOVE in jail, he was being introduced to the sounds of the Clash’s music, an experience he recalls in his book: “When I heard, really heard the Clash’s music for the first time, it came by way of the song ‘Clampdown.’ I related to it as it seemed written for me. It became more than a song: ‘Clampdown’ was my own personal anthem. The Clash promised rebellion. And I was certain that they could deliver it and liberate me from a sense of hopelessness and a life of ‘wearing blue and brown.’”
D’Ambrosio isn’t alone. A common thing to hear from Clash fans is “that band changed my life.” And it is easy to see why. “Some might say the Clash were the greatest punk band of all time,” he thinks aloud. “If you’d ask me who the greatest punk band of all time were, I’d say Bad Brains. But the Clash were without a doubt the greatest Rebel Rock band of all time.” What they were rebelling against was clear, too. In 1970s London, where newspaper headlines screamed of unemployment, race riots and police brutality, rebellion seemed the only sane thing to do. When Strummer got together with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Terry Chimes (later replaced by Topper Headon), they knew which side they wanted to stand on. And it is no exaggeration that their musical rebellion would change rock n’ roll forever.
Since Strummer’s untimely death, a whole crop of books has sprung up paying homage to the Clash, each claiming to be the definitive story of the band. Some are better than others. But none highlight the importance of Strummer’s own politics in his life and work like Fury does. In a little under 350 pages, the editor compiles works from writers, iconic music journalists like Lester Bangs, and political musicians as diverse as Billy Bragg and Chuck D. D’Ambrosio also includes his own words on Strummer, who he met and talked to not too long before his death. Each piece is unique, but all of them make it very clear who Strummer was: an artist who looked at the world around him and did what he could to change it for the better. “Joe always said his politics were Marxist,” Antonino tells me, “but I always thought they were humanist before anything else.” Marxist or not, it is undeniable that Strummer had a deep sense of compassion and solidarity with his fellow human beings that was reflected in his life and music.
Today there are both detractors and so-called “fans” of Strummer who say that political stances can only do disservice to music, and that musicians have no role in social change. But whether they like it or not, people listen to what artists have to say. Back at the bar, Antonino relates a story to me, obscure but poignant. In the late seventies, with far right groups on the rise along with unemployment, fellow punkers the Jam (known for dressing in mod-style suits) announced they were voting Conservative in the UK elections. While this would dog the Jam throughout their career, it is barely known to most how this influenced Strummer to pen one of the Clash’s greatest songs, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” as a response:
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway
This isn’t only one of punk’s quintessential anthems, it’s a piece of political dialogue, and a brilliant one at that! To the nay-sayers, a sin against music itself. But to the kids in 1970s London looking for a way out, it was a crucial warning and a call to arms.
It was moves like these that would make the Clash more than mere entertainers, and raise them to participants in the world at large. The band would headline the Rock Against Racism shows in 1978, openly support political prisoners in Northern Ireland, and speak out against the crushing of the British miners’ strike in the mid-eighties. Naturally, any major record exec cringes at this very thought. In his mind, artists shouldn’t think; they should sing, dance, and rake in the dough. In Fury, this couldn’t be clearer as D’Ambrosio chronicles the band’s constant fight with CBS Records. The company refused to release their first album in the States (though it would go on to become the biggest selling import in US history). When they insisted on selling double and triple albums for single album prices, the label would force them to cover the difference out of their own pockets. And when they would name their fourth record Sandinista! the execs would panic. “The label heads said our music would not sell—too political,” says Joe, “especially in America where the Reagan administration was conspiring to destroy the Sandinistas.”
Despite this, the band, and Joe, would never back down. After the Clash’s demise halfway through the hellish eighties, he would reemerge a few years later as a solo artist and sometime actor, appearing in films like Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. These films would reflect Joe’s rebel outlook, as would his music. The three albums he released with the Mescaleros, the band he played with until his death, would end up being essential Joe Strummer. They are musically eclectic, dance-ably catchy, and thoroughly human. Now signed to independent label Hellcat, Joe would embrace any musical style that struck him, from rock to worldbeat, from rocksteady to folk. Songs like “Bhindi Bhagee” would promote ethnic tolerance, “Johnny Appleseed” would be a send-up of corporate globalization, and his cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” would prove as relevant sung by Joe as it was by Marley twenty years before.
It was during this last era in Joe’s work that D’Ambrosio had the chance to meet him. And the picture he conveys in his book gives the reader a good sense of how Joe had evolved in his later years. He was older and wiser, yes. But he never sold out, never compromised, and never stopped believing that the world is worth fighting for. It’s this idea that prompted the author to compile this book after Joe’s death.
I talk to Antonino about the video for “Redemption Song” (the only one off Streetcore, released after his death), a sublime piece of NYC filmmaking that documents the painting of a mural dedicated to Joe not long after his death. As it turns out, the mural is close to the bar we are drinking at. It’s suggested we walk to it. No way in my right mind I could turn this down. While we walk through the cold winter night, I look around New York and think of Joe’s own connection with the city. “He’s a god here on the Lower East side,” I’m told. No surprise.
At 7th and A, the vibrant mural is visible from down the street. It is painted the Rastafarian colors: red, yellow and green; and bears an image of Joe, his leather jacket slung over his shoulder. “The future is unwritten” is scrawled next to his spray-painted image, the words “Know your rights” below him. Since Joe’s death, the high-ups in the music industry have taken advantage. We can now hear the Clash’s songs used to sell cars and cell phones. It’s the sound of their legacy made safe for consumption. When this is the case, this mural is especially poignant.
When Joe died of heart failure at the age of fifty, he had been working on a song dedicated to the life of Nelson Mandela. There were the perfunctory “tributes” in the mainstream music press. But for fans whose lives were touched by his music, the sense of loss was greater than any article could express. Newspapers would gloss over his passion for social justice, but with the US rattling its saber to go into Iraq, the void Joe left was most definitely felt. Four years later, it still is.
Perhaps the real danger is that when people forget the legacy of the Clash, then they forget the truly incendiary power that music has. Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to inspire, to help make sense of a frightening world; to remind us that we’re not alone, and that we can change anything if we want to. Perhaps this is why Joe’s music changed our lives. Perhaps this is why a book like Fury is so important. And perhaps this is why the best way to remember Joe Strummer is to build the kind of world he fought for. “You know,” Antonino mentions to me as the night winds down, “if anyone were to ask Joe ‘who is the next Clash?’ he’d say ‘you are.’”
Let’s prove Joe right.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
By David B. Caruso
NEW YORK (AP) - When police arrested Ronell Wilson, his pockets were stuffed with the type of violent poetry that boys have been scribbling in notebooks since the advent of gangsta rap.
In his lyrics, Wilson called himself "Rated R," warned any challengers to wear a bulletproof vest, and boasted of leaving .45-caliber slugs in the heads of his enemies.
The clumsy verses may never land Wilson a record deal, but to prosecutors, they were solid gold.
Wilson went on trial in federal court in Brooklyn this month on charges he murdered two undercover police officers, and the government presented the lyrics to a jury as evidence that the 23-year-old is a remorseless killer.
Prosecutor Morris J. Fodeman asked jurors to take special note of one stanza: "Ain't goin' stop to I'm dead."
The jury convicted Wilson on Wednesday, and he now faces a possible death sentence.
The use of rap lyrics at trial is a tactic that has been embraced by prosecutors across the country in recent years.
In cases ranging from small-time robberies to high-profile murders, investigators have discovered that the lead suspects are also wannabe rappers who have written ultra-violent fantasies about murdering and raping their way through life.
Introducing such writings into evidence is not always easy. But in many instances, there is enough of a resemblance between art and life to persuade a judge to say yes.
The result can be disaster for defendants.
In October, a jury convicted a reputed gang member of murdering a 17-year-old boy in Chico, Calif., after hearing two tracks from a rap CD he had co-written under the street name "Young Saint." The recording warned that rivals would die "looking at my barrel with your very last breath."
In February, an 18-year-old was convicted of a murder near Staunton, Va., after the prosecution brought up a rap he composed in jail that referred to the killing.
Last year, a jury in Alabama sentenced a man named Nathaniel Woods to death for his role in the murder of three Birmingham police officers after prosecutors showed the jury rap lyrics and drawings he kept in jail that glorified the slayings.
"In our case, they gave him the death penalty because he had such a terrible mouth," said Rita Briles, one of Woods' attorneys.
The growing use of lyrics in court has predictably bothered some defense attorneys, who worry about prosecutors introducing violent, curse-filled verses simply to make a defendant look bad in front of a middle-class jury.
"The fallacy of it is that it confuses art with fact," said Bruce Rogow, who defended the Florida rap group 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges in the 1990s. "What you see are prosecutors reaching for anything they can to try to paint bad character."
Philadelphia defense attorney Michael Coard, who also teaches a class on hip hop at Temple University, said attempting to use rap as a window into a defendant's mind is especially problematic, given rap's tradition of overtly ridiculous braggadocio.
"It's about boasting. It's about exaggerating. ... It's about acting," he said. "If Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino or Marlon Brando are charged with shooting somebody, are they going to be playing clips from `The Godfather' in court?"
Judges occasionally agree.
When rap star Beanie Sigel was sentenced on gun charges in Philadelphia in 2004, a federal prosecutor quoted Sigel lyrics about pouring acid on children and raping pregnant women.
The judge was dismissive, saying that Sigel was simply playing a character for his fans. (Sigel, who has a long rap sheet, was later acquitted of attempted murder in an unrelated case).
The rapper's attorney, Fortunato Perri Jr., said he has had a tougher time downplaying the significance of rap lyrics written by other, less-famous clients.
"If we have to deal with it at trial, the argument in front of a jury is that it is just kids goofing off, imitating things that they hear from world renowned artists," Perri said.
In September, a prosecutor in Richmond, Calif., held up cardboard signs bearing rap lyrics as he made his closing argument against a teenager accused of murdering a high school football player. The teen, Darren Pratcher, had written a rap in which he had warned: "If you ain't from our part of town, you're a (expletive) target."
Prosecutor David Brown told jurors Pratcher was simply acting out that philosophy when he gunned down his victim, who was not from the neighborhood.
The jury voted to convict.
"They were words of his soul," Brown said of the teen's writings. "It was my understanding from his lyrics that he knew exactly who he was shooting."
Pratcher, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, could get life in prison.
Monday, December 18, 2006
published at MRZine
There is something about the death of a ninety-one year old dictator that reminds you of the adage "only the good die young." And yet, only days after his death, some are already trying to forgive Augusto Pinochet. For those who think he was an invaluable bulwark against "communism" or he made Chile's economy what it is today, the 30,000 tortured and killed on his watch are the price well worth his service.
Tell that to the thousands herded into the Estadio Chile, a soccer stadium turned concentration camp, as soon as Pinochet's coup began in 1973. The thousands of dissidents and activists who were raped, tortured, or killed as Pinochet consolidated his rule. Among those thousands was Victor Jara, the songwriter and revolutionary.
Over the course of a little less than a decade, Jara had become one of Chile's most popular folksingers. He was an integral part of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement, a movement of Latin American musicians who blended Spanish and indigenous folk music to create a genuine music of the people. With the folk boom in full swing in the United States, markets around the world were being flooded with commercialized versions of "protest music." Nueva Canción was a conscious alternative, folk in the truest sense. Among people increasingly angry about their country's rising poverty and subjugation to US interests, Nueva Canción found home. Jara himself summed it up the best: "US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. . . . The term 'protest song' is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term 'revolutionary song'."
It was this revolutionary spirit that set Nueva Canción apart. Jara's own songs were brutally honest, yet hopeful. He didn't just sing about poverty, exploitation, and imperialism -- he sang about the power of ordinary people's resistance. His song "Manifiesto" made this clear:
So my song has found a purpose
As Violeta Parra would say
Yes, my guitar is a worker
Shining and smelling of spring
My guitar is not for killers
Greedy for money and power
But for the people who labor
So that the future may flower
As Jara's popularity increased, Chile's working people rallied around the presidential campaign of socialist Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition. Jara, as well as many other Nueva Canción artists, threw himself wholeheartedly behind Allende. Their songs became a vital essence of Unidad Popular. In fact, a concert held by Jara and other artists in the Estadio Chile would become a highlight of the campaign.
After Allende's victory, Jara's commitment only deepened. As Chilean and American businesses did everything in their power to crush Allende's government, workers mobilized in defense of their own interests. Jara was with the people every step of the way, till September 11th, 1973, when Jara became one of the dissidents, radicals, and trade unionists herded into the Estadio Chile, where he had played in support of Allende just three years before.
The guards singled him out for his songs. They beat Jara brutally. They broke all the bones in his hands and wrists. Then, as the story goes, they mockingly handed him a guitar. "Play now," they said. With his hands crushed and tears streaming down his face, he began to sing the anthem of Unidad Popular. The crowd in the stands spontaneously joined in, as they had in the same stadium three years. Afterwards, the guards shot Jara and threw him into a mass grave along with the rest of those killed in the stadium that day.
Pinochet had all copies of Jara's recordings, the sheet music and master tapes, burned. His songs might have died with him if not for Joan, his widow, who smuggled them out as she escaped Chile. Pinochet would try to rid the country of any trace of the revolutionary Nueva Canción, even going so far as to ban many traditional indigenous instruments.
But the dictator failed. As the world, in horror, watched Pinochet's tanks roll through Santiago, the story of Victor Jara spread like wildfire. Nueva Canción would influence songwriters and poets around the world. In one of the best-known tributes to Jara, British writer Adrian Mitchell composed a poem dedicated to him, later set to music and performed by Arlo Guthrie:
Victor stood in the stadium,
His voice was brave and strong.
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song.
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong.
What was so dangerous about Jara was that his songs were integral part of a struggle of millions who were fighting to win their basic human dignity -- the very same people over whom Pinochet ruled with an iron fist until his deposition in 1990. Scottish folk musician Dick Gaughan said it very frankly: those who say that "music and politics should not be mixed . . . [should] tell that to the CIA and their thugs who murdered Jara because his repertoire didn't suit their interests."
Jara's music was truly the music of the people, and that is why it has inspired every generation even after his death. He has been remembered not only in Latin America's folk tradition, but by artists the world over. The Clash, U2, and even 80s popsters Simple Minds have paid tribute to Jara in their songs. The stadium where he was killed was renamed after him in 2003.
Pinochet is to be cremated for fear of his grave becoming vandalized. With his remains, the notion of Pinochet as anything other than a ruthless tyrant should be scattered to the wind.
Pinochet's legacy is that of a brutal dictator; Jara's, that of a people's troubadour. Pinochet ground thousands into poverty; Jara sought to lift them up. Pinochet's record reminds us of just how vicious the force of reaction can be; Victor Jara's life and music has and will continue to inspire us to fight against it.
Friday, December 15, 2006
From RRC mailing list
Jada Pinkett Smith reached deep into the pocket of her charity
organization and pulled out a $1 million check for her high school alma
mater, The Baltimore School for the Arts.
According to AP, the money from the Will and Jada Smith Family
Foundation will go toward the renovation and expansion of the facility,
which saw the actress graduate in 1989. The building's expansion program
will cost $30 million and is scheduled to be completed by the fall of
2007. As a result, enrollment is expected to increase from 316 to 375
"It means a lot when you're a teacher and your most famous alumnus
comes back to give a donation," said Donald Hicken, head of the school's
theater department since its founding in 1980 and Pinkett Smith's former
theater teacher. "It really says a lot to the community that the school
matters in people's lives."
The Baltimore School for the Arts also announced Monday that it
will name its new theater after Pinket Smith. The former "A Different
World" star, however, wanted the theater named for her former classmate,
the late Tupac Shakur, because of the friendship they developed at the
Monday, December 11, 2006
View it here.
Long life the Bataka Revoution!
Saturday, December 9, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
we got on the bus after doing a show at The House of Blues San Diego as part of The Coup/Mr. Lif tour. As the bus took off, I thought that I would go lay in my bunk, listen to my Ipod, and write. But then Zhara, Mr. Lif's friend and the tour's merchandise seller, announced that she had "Anchorman" on DVD. Oh Shit. Will Ferrell or writing? Hot 16s would have to wait tonight...Good Night San Diego! So I stayed up in the front lounge of the bus and, even though I've seen this movie twice, commenced to laugh my ass off. Almost literally, because of what happened next. Shortly after the acapella singing of "Afternoon Delight" by Ferrell et al., a big bump, then another, then plummeting down as we tipped over to the left. I was sitting in the diner-like booth that many of these buses have in the front. I held on to the table with one hand and tried to guard my head with the other, all the while thinking that I was probably about to die. I don't remember seeing everyone flying and flipping around me as it was happening, but Carter's (the road manager) and Wiz's face were covered in blood, and everybody seemed to be laying around hurt. The bus was on it's side, with the entrance door up. I called for people to say there names so we could get a head count of who was conscious or not. Silk E, Q (drums), Riccol (bass), and Metro (Lif's hype man) were trapped in the back lounge because the doors connecting the front and back lounges to the bunks were electrically powered and didn't move with no power on. They ended up ripping and squeezing their way out of a tiny little window and jumped down off the bus as the rest of us got out the front. I was the third person to jump off the front of the bus, as I hung down to make the jump shorter, I saw that the front of the bus was on fire. I yelled to everyone, saying to get off the bus immediately because the bus was on fire and it could blow up. We all did. No one was killed. The bus was totally engulfed in flames. For a while no one stopped to help, supposedly because the thought we were "illegal aliens" crossing the border. Eventually some great folks stopped and helped. Silk E has two broken ribs and a punctured lung. Wiz has a broken nose, two deep lacerations to the head, and a shattered knee. Zhara has injuries to her hand and had to undergo surgery. Carter had to get stitches to his head and lip. The driver, Glenn, has a broken jaw. All the first three will be in need of follow-up treatments. We all have aching backs, legs, heads etc. Many of us are on pain killers.
We lost everything in that crash and fire. We were packed to live and do shows on that bus for a month. Most of us had every stitch of clothing we owned on there. We lost clothes, computers, recording equipment, cameras, IDs, phones, keys to cars and homes. We lost cash.We lost all our damn instruments and equipment to perform with. We were and are happy to walk away with our lives. But now we're home. Most of the band touring with The Coup has kids, rent that won't quit, bills, and holiday expenses coming. We need money, because like I said the band doesn't have the tools that they make a living with. Not only did we lose cash and material things on the bus, but we also were depending on this tour for money to make it through. It may take a year for us to see any money from the insurance company.
I have set up a Paypal account so people can make donations for The Coup. The money will be split between Me (Boots Riley), Silk E, Q, Steve Wyreman (guitar), and Riccol. Mr. Lif is setting one up on his site and when I have that info, we'll let you know.
There should be a button right below this that allows you to donate even without a paypal account.
If you have an account, ours is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you in advance to anyone who does this, this is a really crazy situation. I never thought I would would be doing something like this. I also never thought that we would almost die like like that.
We're grateful for anything you can do.
P.S. Thank you for the messages of love and warmth we've been receiving. It makes a difference.
4:25 PM "
There's a Pay Pal button to make a donation at The Coup's MySpace page (under: 'About The Coup'):
Friday, December 8, 2006
The Grammy nominations were announced yesterday. Beyond most news outlets amazement with Mary J Blige gathering eight nods (did they see the Billboards?) there actually seems to be a trend worth noting in this year's show. There are of course plenty of the recording industry's flavor du jour there (James Blunt, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood and of course, Christina), but up against them are a handful of artists who represent a great deal of hope for those of us disheartened by the state of music.
Just a few highlights:
The Dixie Chicks, after being predictably snubbed at the CMAs, are up for album of the year, record (single) of the year, and song of the year. Three years after trashing Bush, that the Chicks stuck to their guns and can still maintain popularity, despite being shunned by almost every country music outlet, is a testament to how many people want to hear someone speak out against the war.
In that same vein, the legendary Neil Young's "Living With War" is up for rock album of the year. Once again, an album that obviously said some things that a lot of industry reps didn't want to hear. It would be hard for the industry to ingore a staple like Young, but that he was nominated at all says something potent.
On the hip hop front, it is noticeable that two artists consciously bucking the mainstream materialism of most rap are nominated: The Roots, arguably the leaders in "alternative hip-hop," are nominated for their album "Game Theory," and dark horse Lupe Fiasco's debut is also up for best album.
This year's show might be worth watching for one major reason: it might start actually rewarding music that says something about the way we live our lives.
Read the whole list on the Grammys website: http://www.grammy.com
Thursday, December 7, 2006
From the website of Spin Magazine December 5, 2006
Nationwide tour plans for the group and Mr. Lif are now in limbo, those injured doing okay, except the bus.
In a truly terrifying reminder that anything can happen on the road, the tour bus for hip-hop outfit the Coup (on tour with rapper Mr. Lif) crashed this past Saturday (Dec. 2) near Imperial, CA, flipping over and eventually catching on fire. The accident happened just following a performance at San Diego's House of Blues. Everyone on board managed to escape the wreck before fire overtook it, but artists Silk-E and DJ Wiz, merchandise person Zhana, and the tour's bus driver sustained serious injuries and were either flown or driven to hospitals in nearby San Diego and Palm Springs. Plenty of the tour participants' possessions were lost in the fire, but everyone is doing fine. The Coup was touring behind their latest album, Pick A Bigger Weapon. With the injuries sustained and the financial blow of the accident, the tour is now in doubt, and while the bands involved have not officially canceled the tour, the dates below have been scrapped.
These dates have been officially canceled:
12/5, Boulder, CO (Fox Theatre & Cafe)
12/6, Denver, CO (Quixotes)
12/9, Chicago, IL (The Abbey)
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Originally Published at MRZine
The massive grief for Tower Records is staggering. Since the announcement that it would be liquidating and selling to Los Angeles-based Great American Group, music fans and journalists alike have been dreading the moment when the super-chain will be closing its doors; a moment which will arrive any day now. Anyone who passes by a location can see the huge signs of impending doom: "Going Out of Business," "Everything Must Go," "Up to 30% off."
Ever since the news broke early last month, newspapers have painted a picture of Tower as a trailblazer, and its owners pack of rock n' roll rebels with deep pocket books and an even deeper catalog who wanted nothing more than to provide music fans with a great experience, to hell with the consequences. And at the head of this pack was Russ Solomon, the quintessential music lover who started out selling records out of his father's drug store, and ended up building an empire dedicated to bringing the waiting masses their musical fix.
The supposed culprits for Tower's demise have been numerous; peer-to-peer file sharing has predictably been a scapegoat, as have big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, electronics stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, and online sources like iTunes and Amazon.
Of course, with the blame falling on so many, the last notion anyone would bring up is the possibility that Tower itself may be to blame. But in the end, that is exactly the case. Beneath the sugarcoated rags-to-riches story, the real Tower Records is no different than any other bankrupt corporation; an edifice willing to cut any corner to get to the top that eventually fell under the weight of its own greed.
Though Tower has long carried the mantle of "hip capitalism," Rock n' Rap Confidential's Lee Ballinger points out that this was little more than a fig leaf for what were at their core the ruthless values of big business. Young music fans would search out jobs at Tower in droves, hoping to get a chance to work around the records they loved so much. It seemed an ideal job for them.
Of course, their bubbles were quickly burst after a few months. Tower rarely paid its cashiers and stock-people more than minimum wage. Christian, a college student who used to work part-time at the Washington DC Tower, told me he was paid $6.15 an hour during his time there (the DC minimum wage has since been raised to $7). No one who works for a living in today's America needs to be reminded how little that is. "Let me tell you, when you work part-time as a student and you get that check and then you figure out how much one [semester-long] class is costing you . . . and you figure that you spend more on that one class than you get in a semester of working part-time there, well that is just fucked up."
The story that Christian tells me is a typical one in globalized, twenty-first century America. Low wages, hostile treatment from management, no paid breaks, and few (if any) benefits. "I was just working there as a student part-time, but for a lot of people it was a full-time job, or even a second job. One guy who started when I did was a teacher during the day, and here he was working 6 pm till midnight to pay the bills and feed his kids."
The picture is familiar to anyone who has worked retail. Asinine rules that seemed to have no purpose save to belittle workers abounded at Tower. Christian and his co-workers were to stand at their post for hours on end, waiting for customers, with no chairs to sit in, and weren't even allowed to lean on the counter! Hardly the picture of a company trying to create a laid-back, "rock n' roll" environment, this sounds like an experience that The Jungle's Jurgis would sympathize with. The only real difference is that Jurgis didn't have Beyonce's latest single playing in the background.
In an economy we are told is prospering, the average wage is its lowest since the 1960s, inflation adjusted. Most corporations pay so dismally low that that the average family works a full 660 hours more every year than they did in 1979, just to keep their heads above water. "[F]rom 1979 to 2002," According to Alan Maass, "when median household income essentially stagnated, the income of the richest 1 percent of the U.S. population more than tripled." Russ Solomon knew which side he wanted to be on.
With wages for so many of Tower's loyal customers at a forty-year low, one would think that the store's products would come to reflect this and provide music fans with something a bit more affordable. Not the case. Though record companies are quick to blame free downloads for the dip in music sales, the price of a current full-length release at Tower would remain somewhere between 14 and 19 dollars, more than twice the hourly wage for a Tower employee.
While people like Solomon and Richard Branson were toasting their own good fortune, ordinary music lovers were getting the shaft. So it should come as no surprise that the very workers at Tower would search out cheaper access to music. "They charge way too much," says Christian. "I wanted to buy a DVD from them but they were charging thirty dollars for it! I couldn't afford that on 6 dollars an hour, even with an employee discount, so I just went and found the DVD on eBay." If iTunes and Wal-Mart are indeed outselling Tower, then Solomon has nobody to blame but himself.
The same diktat of the bottom line, not a love for music, is the key to understanding everything Tower has done in its forty-year history. While 1979 was the year when workers' wages started to grind to a halt, it was also the year when the independent label, the "DIY" ethic, the movement to buck everything the music industry stood for, started to take hold. Over the past thirty years, some of the most exciting music has come from these types of labels. In many ways, the flowering of interest in bands outside the influence of the traditional music industry, and Tower's willingness to carry such artists, was what gave the chain the capital to spread its wings across the globe. Mexico, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Ireland, Philippines, Ecuador, all have seen stores open over the past twenty years using the millions that should have been paid back to indie labels and distributors long ago. And now that Tower is going under, these labels will most likely never see that money again.
Solomon was so willing to go along with what is "profitable" that he even jumped on the censorship bandwagon in the late 80s and early 90s. During the campaigns against "explicit content," led by Tipper Gore's Parental Music Resource Center, congress conducted nothing less than a witch hunt against artists as varied as Madonna, Judas Priest, and even Cyndi Lauper! In a particularly bigoted move, the hearings would go out of their way to single out hip-hop as particularly violent and offensive. Even some of the most "wholesome" figures in music, such as John Denver, were disgusted by the hearings.
But not Solomon. Tower was one of the first major music chains to start carrying the infamous Parental Advisory sticker, now known (rightfully so) as the Tipper sticker. According to Ballinger, "Solomon made Tower one of the chains that most avidly championed Tipper stickers and record label lyric screening committees. Combined with the equally crazy campaign to condemn fair use of copyrighted material to the dustbin of history, this shrewd maneuver choked the most exciting record-making climate since the dawn of rock n' roll." Perhaps it was Solomon's willingness to trade in his "music lover" image for one of a narc that led to flagging profits.
While the execs at Tower were busy reaching for the sky, they had not realized that they no longer had a floor to stand on. While the prices of albums would climb, their own workers would be more and more unable to buy a CD from their stores. While they expanded their empire across the globe with money that wasn't theirs, their customers were shying away from a store that was going to ID them any time they bought a Slayer album.
Solomon and the rest at Tower thought they were riding a wave of cool that would keep the money rolling in till kingdom come. In reality, music fans had stopped thinking them cool a long time ago. And in the music business, when the cool dries up, so does the money.
The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once said "your order is built on sand." She may as well have been talking to Russ Solomon. As Tower steadily sinks into the ground, we have a question to ask: do we want our music to be dragged down with it?