Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Run, Jello, Run!

The Seattle Morning News has a nice piece on Jello Biafra and the politics of punk.

I remember when I first became radicalized and politically active, Biafra was drafted by the New York State Greens to be their presidential candidate. This was in 2000, at the height of the global justice movement and when Ralph Nader would go on to receive 3 million votes, and Nader was more or less a shoe-in at this point, but the prospect of voting for the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys excited me as a punk and as a newly initiated radical.

Time has a way of beating the radicalism out of the earliest voices in the punk movement. Twenty years after they broke up, it remains encouraging to hear Biafra saying this about the presidential race:

"It’s not as though a President ‘Barack-star’ is going to wave his magic wand and suddenly Iraq is all better. My biggest worry about him is that if he wins, he’s just going to turn around, pull off the mask, and be the creature of the corporate establishment that his voting record indicates.”

In a world where elections can be almost as mind-numbing as the radio, it's great to have voices like his still around. I'd still vote for him today.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

All We Need is a Riot...

Questions of race and racism were rather high-profile in the music world last week; in both rock and rap, and on both sides of the pond too.

There was, of course, Nas' appearance at the doors of Fox News, where he delivered a 600,000 signature petition demanding Bill O'Reilly and the network apologize for the "baby-mama" and "terrorist fist-jab" comments.

O'Reilly responded earlier this week on "The O'Reilly Factor," where he refused to apologize, said Nas only participated for the publicity to make up for Untitled's supposed "failure," and that the artist was a hypocrite for using the N-word so much.

O'Reilly must feel that his declining viewership means he doesn't have to hold even to Fox's rather cavalier sense of standards, otherwise he would know that Untitled debuted at number one on Soundscan and has already sold well over 100,000 copies.

----------

Just as troubling is the incident at Barcelona's Summercase Festival, the details of which have been unfolding over the past ten days.

Performing at the festival on the 19th were, among others, both Bloc Party and the Sex Pistols. The accounts differ, but what appears to have happened is that Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke had the temerity to ask if John Lydon's other group Public Image Ltd. were ever getting back together. Okereke, the son of Nigerian immigrants, is a big post-punk fan, and Lydon has, after all, shown he has little regard for letting the past be the past, so it's a reasonable question, right?

Apparently not. Instead of answering a simple yes or no, Lydon and his entourage tore into Okereke, declaring that "your problem is your Black attitude," and engaging in a scuffle that eventually would involve 30 people, festival security, and left Okereke with noticeable facial injuries.

Lydon, of course, denies the whole incident up and down, claiming that the allegations are result of jealousy.

At first, it was hard to know what to make of this. What reason would Lydon have to say such a thing? He has no other racist incidents in his past. His love for ska and reggae are well known.

But several people who witnessed, including members of the Foals and Neon Neon have confirmed that this is exactly how it all went down.

Let's also not forget that this is a very different Lydon than the one of the late 70s. He's already shown his willingness to make peace with the establishment by playing the Queen's Golden Jubilee six years ago.

More details are bound to come out that can shed more light, but Okereke, who over the past year and a half has become very outspoken against racism, sexism and homophobia, is much more credible in this writer's eyes.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Nas, the N-word, and the Changing Face of Hip-Hop

Expectations have run high for Nas' new album Untitled. It seems impossible to read a review of it without references to his previous album Hip-Hop is Dead. Ultimately, the question on people's minds seems to be "If hip-hop is dead, why is Nas still beating the corpse?"

After all, that album made quite a bold assertion. It targeted the hip-hop industry's consolidation into fewer hands, protesting the way it had been marketed to death, its soul sucked out and replaced it with overblown bravado and bling. Nas himself spoke on what he thought the problem was prior to that album's release:

"Hip-hop is dead because we artists no longer have the power... Could you imagine what 50 Cent could be doing, Nas, Jay[-Z], Eminem, if we were the [Interscope Records Chairman] Jimmy Iovines? Could you imagine the power we'd have?"

Nas wasn't the first to raise such criticisms, and for anyone paying attention it was hard to say he didn't have a point. The album, and it's lead single, provoked a lot of controversy. After all, this was one of the biggest rappers in the world declaring his own genre dead!

A lot has happened since Hip-Hop's release, though. Jena, Sean Bell, the Imus debacle, and other high-profile incidents have further exposed the disgusting racism that continues to abound in America. At the same time, the Obama campaign has raised the possibility of electing the first African-American president, and with it a whole host of hopes and expectations.

All of this has greatly affected the trajectory of hip-hop. "Conscious" artists have been gaining more exposure. "Mainstream," seemingly apolitical artists have, sometimes surprisingly, spoken out on a range of issues.

Nas had no intention of keeping his mouth shut either. That was made clear last October when he announced that his next album would be called "Nigger." Less than six months after the Imus fallout, this was a big middle finger to the pundits who insisted that rappers were more bigoted than a shock-jock with a long history of racism.

Nas incurred the wrath of everyone from Wal-Mart to state assemblymen for that decision. Radio stations warned him the album wouldn't be played on air. All the while, his label, Def Jam, refused to come to his defense. In May, he finally relented and announced that his new release would be called Untitled.

Never one to hold back his opinion, Nas lets loose against this underhanded--and racist--form of censorship on the album's lead single, "Hero":

"Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joel
They can't sing what's in their soul
So 'Untitled' it is
I never change nothin'
But people remember this
If Nas can't say it, think about these talented kids
With new ideas being told what they can and can't spit."


This is only the tip of the iceberg on a relentlessly defiant and often radical piece of work. It is clear that Nas has been moved by the shifting winds in both hip-hop and American society in general. Like many other hip-hop artists this year, he has released an album that is described as his "most political yet."

Untitled continues his penchant for working with some of the best producers in the business--from DJ Green Lantern to dead prez's stic.man. Taken in their entirety, the beats on Untitled sound like a smouldering flame that sometimes verges on the brink of full-fledged wildfire, while never taking away from the MC's well-known and vast ability with vivid imagery and spot-on flow.

Good thing too, because Untitled skillfully takes on everything from police brutality to the prison system, the PATRIOT Act and war, poverty in the projects and American sexism. Like other acts, Nas isn't only outraged, he's grappling with possible solutions here.

In fact, there is a big side of this album that consciously reaches back to the height of the Black Power movement. The uncompromising track "Testify" is dedicated to George and Jonathan Jackson. The Last Poets, one of the original Black Pride sould collectives, feature prominently on two tracks--"Project Roach" and "You Can't Stop Us Now"--bringing a delicious element of right-on, old-school funk into the mix.

And yet it is clear that Nas isn't wallowing in nostalgia. The vitriol he spits against the Fox Network on the aptly named "Sly Fox" is guaranteed to be shared by anyone sick of O'Reilly's spewing on about "terrorist fist-bumps" (not coincidentally, Nas has a great deal of beef with O'Reilly for saying the "violent" MC didn't have the right to perform at Virginia Tech after last April's tragic campus shooting).

The album's high-point, though, is the quasi-confessional "America." Nas paints a picture of his own journey from the inner-cities to the Big Time, while struggling with the fact that others like him weren't so lucky. It's a journey that, in the third verse, ends with him recognizing that things need to fundamentally change on so many levels--economically, politically, in terms of racial and sexual relations:

"If I could travel to the 1700s
I'd push a wheelbarrow full of a dynamite through your covenant
Let her sit on the Senate and tell the whole government
Y'all don't treat women fair
She read about herself in the Bible believin' she the reason sin is here
You played her with an apron like 'bring me my dinner dear'
She the nigga here, ain't we in the free world?"


With all of this in mind, these themes of racial justice, revolution and equality, Nas sends us off with his tribute to Barack Obama: "Black President." He is, of course, not the only rapper who has been inspired by the Obama phenomenon (just check out the Russell Simmons/DJ Green Lantern produced "Obama Mixtape" for proof of that).

Indeed, the magnitude of this step forward is highlighted by a sample of Tupac Shakur declaring "we ain't ready to have a Black president." Yet Nas takes time in the track to wonder if electing Obama in itself will be enough: "I'm thinkin' I can trust this brother / But will he keep it way real? / Every innocent nigga in jail gets out on appeal? / When he wins will he really care still?"

In that one line, Nas is articulating that contradiction that so many taken with Obama are now wrestling with; that struggle between hope that we don't have Bush's third term in front of us, yet deep concern that it may end up being business as usual, and the feeling that it may take more than a different face in the White House to gain real change.

There's something bigger at play on this album, though. Nas, like most of the people in this country, is beyond fed up with the way things are going. When one of the most popular rappers in the business can't help but release such an unabashedly outspoken album, it's a sign that things are indeed shifting. It's also a sign that hip-hop, far from being dead, is finding the strength to shake off its own shackles.

Friday, July 25, 2008

What I'm Listening to This Week

1. The Last Poets - The Very Best of the Last Poets
The Last Poets are one of those keystone groups of modern music who don't get nearly enough credit. The amazing thing about listening to their "best of" is that you can literally hear the roots of hip-hop a good ten years before Cool Herc started laying beats! Indeed, "Bird's Song" makes it clear that they see themselves as standing in the tradition of brilliant Black music from Lady Day to Charles Mingus. Rather prophetic.

2. Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible
The Manics' best album by far! These Welsh socialist rockers have never really gotten much attention at all in the US, but in the UK they have been correctly revered as talented and passionate rabble rousers for the better part of two decades. This is their last effort with Richey James Edwards, who disappeared not long after its release, and was a lyricist able uniquely and effectively get inside the head of alienation.

3. Nas - Untitled
See my review for why. If hip-hop keeps up this track, it won't just be part of a growing movement for justice, it will be leading it!

4. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style
The transition between rock and world musics isn't as smooth on this, the first release of the Mescaleros, as it is on Streetcore but between tracks like the bouncy "Tony Adams" and the ethereality of "From Willesden to Cricklewood," there's a confidence and vulnerability from Joe that is touching for anyone who knows something about his Wilderness Years.

5. Thievery Corporation - The Richest Man in Babylon
There's a transition to be heard on this album in between their early "Lebanese Blond" phase and the far much more psychedelic The Cosmic Game. Thievery's own unique version of electronic internationalism can be heard in spades on this release. There are a lot of different possible motivations to electronically mixing dub, Brazillian jazz and Middle Eastern beats, but Garza and Hilton's own political views make it clear they do what they do because ultimately ordinary people of different countries have a lot more in common than they do differences.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stop Police Spying!

The following is a letter I wrote to the Express, the free daily from the Washington Post:

Last week it broke that the Maryland State Police's Homeland Security Department had infiltrated and been spying on peace and anti-death penalty groups in Baltimore and Takoma Park for over a year. Here is a blatant violation of civil liberties and the shredding of the Constitution taking place right our back-yard. The groups spied upon have been vocal in calling this the shameful act it is. But is there even a peep about it in Express' "Local" section? Nope. Instead we get a piece on how clean the shopping carts in Chevy Chase are! With a media like this, who needs state censorship?

They didn't publish it.

The reasons for making as big a racket as possible about this are obvious. Welcome to PATRIOT Act America. These activists were found to be engaged in nothing illegal or conspiratorial, yet the Maryland State Police still found it necessary to keep them under a close watch. On a personal note, two friends and comrades of mine--sportswriter Dave Zirin and Mike Stark, a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty--were named in the report.

Some may be wondering what exactly this has to do with music. The answer is everything. If any activist who speaks out is being spied on, it can be guaranteed that any artist or musician can expect the same. One only needs to watch The US v. John Lennon for proof of this.

In his article Dave Z recounts how actor, singer and Communist Paul Robeson had his life ruined by McCarthy era spying:

"When Robeson's files were opened under the Freedom of Information Act, the results were terrifying.... As his son, Paul Robeson Jr. has written, 'From the files I received, it was obvious that there were agents who did nothing but follow every public event of my father, or even of me.... It took on a life of its own.... Over time, even for someone as powerful and with as many resources as my dad had...the attrition got to him.'"

Anyone who stands up for justice--workers, students, writers, artists, musicians--should not have to keep looking over their shoulder.

Contact Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, to demand a full investigation of the MSP and a release of all documents pertaining to the surveillance, as well as a public assurance it won't happen again:

1-800-811-8336 or submit a comment online at http://www.governor.maryland.gov/mail.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Future is Written... Badly

A few people have emailed asking what my exact beef is with The Future is Unwritten, Julian Temple's much anticipated Joe Strummer doc released late last year. It occurs to me that I have alluded to certain problems with the film in previous articles without elaborating. So, here's a list of my personal likes and dislikes of the film that I've compiled after re-watching it a few days ago:

Like: The Narration
Most of it is done by Joe himself, taken from past interviews and even his BBC radio show. The music is also "introduced" by Joe throughout much of the doc, highlighting some of his favorite songs.

Dislike: Bad Sound Editing
This isn't me being a technophile, nor is it a case of "turn that racket down you damn kids." The speaking on the doc is at a low volume and the music very high. As a result, it makes for a jarring listening experience, it becomes hard to readjust when someone is speaking, and if you're watching on a small television (as I was), forget it.

Like: A Wide Array of Interviewees
Temple has done a great job compiling various people who knew Joe throughout his life. Past girlfriends, schoolmates, relatives, bandmates from Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros, all of whom have some often funny, often touching, often enlightening things to say about a complicated man.

Dislike: You Have No Idea Who the Hell Any of Them Are
Temple doesn't bother to introduce you to them (say, with a blurb down at the bottom of the screen). Unless you're a Strummer-phile like me, you have no idea who many of these people are and how they knew Joe. It sets up a wall between the participants and those looking to learn more about him, and makes it so that only the "in-crowd" can relate. And if you've read so much that you know who all these people are already, what's the point of watching the documentary?

Like: Sufficient Time Spent on Strummer's Politics
They don't mention the Notting Hill Carnival riot in sufficient detail, but Joe's political beliefs and their evolution along with his music are looked at in a satisfactory way. They even mention how left-wing his father was, especially for someone in the British foreign service.

Dislike: Bono
Unfortunately, a lot of the best things said about Joe's politics are articulated by Bono! He says a lot of good things, but Bono's own Kipling-esque, hob-nobbing-with-Bill-Gates-and-Jesse-Helms method is a far cry from the radicalism of Joe and the Clash. The doc makes it seem as if he is the inheritor, when actually it's worth wondering just how much he learned from Joe.

Like: Manager Bernie Rhodes is Depicted in the Right Light
He was manipulative, insecure and for all his rhetoric about Joe wanting to be him, he actually wanted to be Joe! It would have done well, though, for them to show how he tried to keep the Clash going even after Joe's departure, because it would have shown how much of a hand Rhodes played in the breakup of the group.

Dislike: Mick Jones is Depicted as an Egotistical and Pathetic Drunk
Almost all of the modern interviews with Mick are done when he is obviously drunk! In this light, it's easy to mistake him as flaky, self-centered and vainglorious, and that his getting sacked from the group was his own fault, instead of it being a much more complicated internecine conflict that was agitated by Rhodes.

Like: A Large Amount of Influential Artists Affected by Joe's Work
Jim Jarmusch, John Cusack, even folks like Steve Buscemi share how profoundly struck they were by Joe's work and personality. The viewer can pull from this (rightfully) that the man had an effect on popular culture way past what he routinely gets credit for.

Dislike: Paul Simonon is Nowhere to be Found!
And it's the equivalent of a big gaping hole in the side of a Carnival Cruiseliner! Temple was able to get Terry Chimes, the group's original drummer who spent maybe eighteen months with them (and routinely takes a backseat in Clash histories to Topper Headon), but Paul Simonon, the group's bass-player for their entire existence, an important voice in their artistic development: not there. If Temple had trouble convincing Simmo to do it, he should have waited. Stop playing mini-golf, get off the rock-climbing wall, this ship is going down!

It's a damn shame that such an important documentary can be so fundamentally and achingly flawed. We've seen Temple do some great work like The Filth and the Fury. This, however, feels rushed and slapdash. Temple's better than this. But more importantly, Joe deserves better than this.

We can rest assured that Let Fury Have the Hour will do better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rosa Clemente's Stand

"We’ve got to admit to ourselves that it was not the first time that we heard the word 'ho.' Turn on the radio station. There are a whole lot of songs that use the same language and we’ve been permitting it in our homes, in our schools, and on iPods."

These were the words of Barack Obama in the wake of the Don Imus scandal in April of 2007. Obama was indeed unsympathetic to Imus and applauded his firing, but ending his speech with this seemed to blame the racism and sexism of one man on, of all things, hip-hop. They are words, unfortunately, are all too common in an age where politicians can score easy points by scapegoating music and culture.

Which is why the news last week was encouraging: Rosa Clemente, longtime writer and hip-hop activist, became the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party's presidential ticket, joining presidential candidate and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

A statement posted on Clemente's website reads: "I am honored and excited to accept this invitation to run with Cynthia McKinney. Cynthia McKinney is a hero to me and many others across this country and around the world for her courage in standing up to George Bush while the Democratic Party establishment caved."

Clemente herself has a long and proud history of standing against injustice and oppression, no matter which party is responsible. She has spoken out against war, police brutality, sexism, gentrification and a whole host of urgent issues that both Democrat and Republican have failed to address.

She is also someone who has never waivered in her defense of hip-hop, which is at the height of its influence among young people, yet frequently subject to attacks from the political establishment.

She has been unsparing in taking on those who might exploit hip-hop for their own gain. She vocally defended the artform against the post-Imus assault and while seeking to engage artists and MCs politically, she has always had strong words for the industry that seeks to turn them into minstrels.

To Clemente, youth culture isn't just worth defending; it's a potential weapon in the hands of ordinary people. In 2003, she helped organize the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which sought to bring artists and activists together to lay out a political agenda for hip-hop. She has also designed, along with her own Know Thy Self Productions, no less than three concert tours intended to help raise political consciousness in communities and colleges.

Clemente's announcement has energized some of hip-hop's most politically committed acts. M1 of Dead Prez had this to say of the ticket: "I've never voted in the Presidential election; I've never felt strongly enough about a candidate to. Knowing that Rosa Clemente is down with Cynthia McKinney's run, I feel that now is the greatest opportunity for the Hip-Hop community to put our collective strength and power to the test and vote for someone who represents who we are and what we stand for."

Though Clemente and Dead Prez represent the leading edge of radical and progressive hip-hop, they aren't alone in their consciousness. This announcement comes at a time when hip-hop is finding itself increasingly under the gun, but also increasingly politicized. As the racism and inequality of this country becomes more and more apparent, artists have been reconnecting with rap's capacity to speak truth to power (which has been woven into its fabric since its inception in the late 70s Bronx).

The hip-hop generation, that massive bloc of young people who have grown up multicultural, in a world threatened by endless war and declining opportunties, are coming into their own. And, to put it bluntly, they're pissed.

Perhaps because of this, the Obama campaign has garnered an unprecedented amount of support from the hip-hop community, ranging from the Roots to Nas. It's little wonder why. The prospect of the first Black president in a country built on centuries of racism is understandably exciting to all kinds who want real social change in this country. But for plenty of artists, the change they are looking for goes well beyond who is sitting in the White House.

This is evidenced by the recent string of angry postings on his campaign website from his own supporters in the wake of his vote for extensions of wire-tapping. It's clear that these people want an alternative, not Republican Lite.

This is why the McKinney/Clemente campaign is important. There is a need for activists and candidates asking the tough questions. Why did Obama support the shredding of the constitution with the FISA bill? Why, despite being billed as "anti-war" does he want to maintain a troop presence of tens of thousands in Iraq (as well as a military base bigger than the Vatican)? Why is his position on Palestine slightly to the right of Bush? Why is he so slow to speak against racism, but has no problem lecturing Black fathers for their "irresponsibility?"

Why, despite being a fan of Jay-Z, is he willing to play the politician as usual by attacking hip-hop?

There is no doubt that this is going to be a tough year for independent left candidates. The exhaustion of two terms of Bush, the draconian nature of our electoral system, and the expectations that Obama has raised, will make the McKinney/Clemente embattled to say the least. They are also unfortunately competing with another progressive ticket: that of Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzales, which runs the risk of fracturing an already small vote pool.

But after election day, there needs to be a movement willing to hold the new president's feet to the fire, whoever he may be. Hip-hop, much maligned and misunderstood, has a role to play in fanning the flames. Though one can only guess where the McKinney/Clemente ticket will go, Rosa's announcement is a step in that direction.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What I'm Listening to... um... last week

Due to personal engagements I couldn't get to a computer this past weekend. It's a few days late, but better than never!

1. Refused - The Shape of Punk to Come
"I've got a bone to pick with capitalism / and a few to break!" This is one of the most important albums in punk history. Refused broke new ground in music and brilliantly illustrated the connection between aesthetic revolution and political revolution. it was tragic they broke up so soon after its release.

2. Nas - Untitled
A review is forthcoming. Many may trash on Nas for his relative lack of hooks on this album, some have harangued him for it being "too political." Cynics. Untitled actually sheds light on a massive, positive shift taking place in rap right now and its existence should be welcomed for that reason alone.

3. Death Cab for Cutie - Plans
"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" quickly became a favorite of mine soon after hearing it. It's a relief to have groups like Death Cab around, simply because they're a reminder that real vulnerability can still be a part of good pop music.

4. Blonde Redhead - Misery is a Butterfly
What I said about Death Cab? Ditto for this album. This is Blonde Redhead's most ethereal, subtly crafted work; what it might sound like if the outcast angels went Dada and learned how to play instruments.

5. Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Come on, Lauryn! Do that followup already! Plenty of people have commented that there need to be more conscious women artists of color in this day and age, and you ran with the best when this album came out. I mean it's been almost a decade!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Support Professor Griff

The following is a message from Mumia Abu-Jamal that was circulated around the internet. Professor Griff is in a hard place right now, and given how much he has affected that connection between music and militancy, anyone and everyone who can should offer whatever support the can.

*****

Several days ago I received news of a fire which tore through the home and property of the man known as Professor Griff, the more militant member of the legendary hip-hop group, Public Enemy.

While Griff was unharmed (as he wasn't at home at the time), the damage was total. He lost his home, his studio, and everything he owned to the fire, possibly sparked by a gas leak.

As one of the group's most prolific lyricists, Prof. Griff contributed mightily to Public Enemy's sound and messages of black militance, radical resistance and the resurgence of Black history and memory.

Conscious, as ever, he is thankful that is alive.

Millions of people, Black, white, Latino and global, owe their youthful political and social awakening to the throbbing beats, provocative lyrics and moving performances of PE.

In an age when corporate interests have made hip-hop virtually synonymous with mad gangsterism, PE turned on their legions of fans by exhorting them to "Fight the Power!" Their albums, infused with the spirit of Black nationalism and political activism, included works like "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (1988). Today, their works are regarded as modern classics of hip hop's true golden age.

Please donate what you can to help this great contributor to one of the planet's greatest bands, and helping to get Prof. Griff back on his feet.

Please contact:

Kaven Shah

P.O, Box 11902

Atlanta, GA 30355

Or touch him on the web at: www.hdqtrz.com. People can donate via PayPal Account.

Griff has spent his time since PE's heyday by lecturing widely on Black and hip hop history.

He shares his experiences and insights with young people, usually for free, considering it his duty to do so.

He really is a professor, for he teaches and lectures on African history, social and political movements, and the like.

In the 1980's and 1990's, Public Enemy provided a glimpse into another side of Black life, strong, conscious, rich with historic imagery, and trying to project something positive into the psyches of the young. Prof. Griff was a central part of that musical and cultural collective.

In this, his hour of need, please let him know that you appreciated his (and his group's) truly positive contribution.

--(c) '08 maj

Monday, July 14, 2008

Because Fake Plastic Trees is a better song than it is a Reality

According to Pitchfork, Radiohead are sending out a survey via their site to calculate their carbon footprint for the first half of their 2008 tour.

People who attended a Radiohead concert can fill out travel-time, distance, amount consumed, etc. so that the group may better plot out the second half of their tour.

It's an interesting move. Readers my remember that Radiohead--arguably the biggest band in the world--opted not to play the much publicized Live 8 concerts because the group found them hypocritical, ineffective, and, of course, left too big a carbon footprint themselves.

Still, it's worth asking whether simply curbing their own carbon emissions is really going to make that big of a difference. For as large as Radiohead's tour set-up is, they don't emit anywhere near what the largest corporations on the planet do.

The largest polluter on the planet is the US military. Radiohead are well-known opponents of the Iraq war, though they have hardly mentioned the issue in the past couple of years.

It's a poignant symbolic statement, but one wonders if it may be better spent if it simply called out who was really responsible for the Earth's destruction.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What I'm Listening to This Week

1. Rage Against the Machine - Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium
The band enters to creeping, almost ominous background music and a roaring crowd before launching into a concrete-shattering verson of "Bulls on Parade." It's nothing but raw energy from here in! Want to hear why Rage are in the revolutionary vanguard of the music world? Listen to this album!

2. Immortal Technique - The 3rd World
It needs to be said that Tech is pretty weak on women's issues. It's disappointing coming from an otherwise brilliant revolutionary MC. Those moments are thankfully few on a solid mixtape. Listen to the title track and let it boil your blood!

3. Gorillaz - Gorillaz
The cool thing about this album (other than the band members being cartoon characters) is that it's pretty unclassifiable. It's got the chill of trip-hop, the grittiness of punk, often the confident flow of rap, and sometimes it's just flat out weird. One of those albums that you keep coming back to over time and proof of Damon Albarn's versatility.

4. Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come
A civil rights classic, and one of the quintessential soul records of all time! The title track needs no introduction; just a cry for justice that rattles your heart. Over forty years later, it's still worth wondering what would have become of Cooke if he hadn't died so young. With this being his first and only political work, we can only speculate.

5. Massive Attack - Blue Lines
This, one of Massive's first records, is a great listen because it shows how much early "trip-hop" actually owed a lot more to rap than to the rest of the electronica scene. Tricky plays a prominent role on this album, and though he has of course found a niche of his own, listening to Blue Lines you get a good idea of just how good a lyricist he is.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Upcoming works...

It's summer, and while it would be nice if there were less to write about while I'm in the process of moving, alas that is not the case. On the up-side, that means there are some exciting things that will be coming here at Rebel Frequencies. Some articles to look for in the coming weeks:

1. An interview with and review of the new album from Son of Nun
There is an increasing thirst for good, radical hip-hop. It's my prediction, therefore that SON, already a name among the activist crew nationwide, will break wide open with this release! Flat-out stunning stuff. Check it when it drops on August 6th.

2. A review of the new album by Nas
It gets released on July 15th and is an album bringing to a head many of the trends in hip-hop right now. It sends a big middle finger to those who parroted Don Imus' line, is his most political to date, and also seems to disprove his own assertion.

3. A five part series on the effect of the year 1968 on music
The MC5. Phil Ochs. The Last Poets. So many other artists that took up the cause of the very thing that was put on the agenda that year: revolution. Much has been written this year on 1968, a year that had a massive impact on everything in the world around us, and that includes music.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Young Jeezy Recognizes the "Power of Words"

Jeff Chang recently blogged on the website of Vibe magazine about comments made by Young Jeezy regarding McCain and Obama. As always, Chang hits on so many excellent points you wonder where he gets his skills.

After making the comment "No disrespect to my man Barack, but I fucked with John McCain. He greeted me like a god.," Jeezy did an about-face, chalking it up to hip-hop's emphasis on talking smack, and becoming the latest addition to the slew of high-profile rappers openly supporting Obama.

According to Chang, "Jeezy says that the whole episode taught him 'the power of words.' I wish he had thought about that when he was writing his lyrics for 'Love In This Club.'" Too true.

This of course isn't to say that Jeezy speaking out on issues isn't kosher. It's more than welcome! Jeezy continued in a recent MTV interview where he said "my mama is about to have surgery that I gotta pay for out of my pocket because she can't get insurance. I don't really feel McCain. It ain't just because Barack is Black; he can make change. Just like Bush equals recession, Barack equals progression. I really feel that, all bullshit aside. He's gotta come in and keep it right."

Who would have thought that of all rappers, Young Jeezy would be among the growing number speaking out on society's ills? But this isn't happening in a vacuum. The past few years has brought Katrina, Jena, Sean Bell, DeOnte Rawlings and so many other incidents that reveal the racism running through this country.

As rap finds itself at a crossroads, the growing anger against racism, war and inequality is pushing the genre onto the political stage. Can anyone blame so many for wanting change?

Which brings up another point Chang makes "if folks felt free to rap more about what they actually think, rather than what they think they need to in order to get money (to pay for health insurance and other shit), it'd be a different world right now."

In other words, the next few years, the deepening politicization of society, and the amount of MCs showing the bravery to speak up, may finally provide the force needed to push out those who don't have hip-hop's best interests at heart.

If Young Jeezy can realize "the power of words" in such a climate and start using those words for something constructive, then such a thing may very well be possible.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Guyville Reloaded

Listening to Liz Phair's debut Exile in Guyville, recently reissued by ATO Records after years out of print, it's striking how fresh and new the album sounds. It's raw, coarse, cocky and confronational; it fits right in with the kind of rock albums finding exposure right now in the resurgence of garage and indie-rock. Indeed, Guyville is something of a blueprint in that respect.

At the same time, though, it's an album that conjures up a profound sense of longing and nostalgia for days long since past when Phair's brand of personal expression could gain much more of a hearing.

In the early-to-mid 90s, "alternative" actually meant something. It's cliched to talk about what a shift it was when Pearl Jam and Nirvana forced their way into the mainstream because, in many ways, the word "shift" is something of an understatement. After years of pop-dominated airwaves, the rise of grunge and indie was a catharsis of mammoth proportions. Music was allowed to be gritty again: loud and pissed off. And by proxy, so were we.

To young people alienated by the world that sought to put a giant "X" on every single one of us, music gave us permission to experiment with the novel concept of having a voice.

For Liz Phair to release an album like Guyville was an expression of how wide the gates had been opened in modern music, but also how much wider they needed to be. Phair played in a music scene based in Chicago's Wicker Park, a scene that produced great acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill, but like most others was incredibly male-dominated.

When it was released, Guyville (whose name was an obvious takeoff of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Mainstreet) quickly became a staple, a defining moment in alternative music. True enough, it was an album that brought a well-needed woman's voice to the musical milieu, but it did so in a way that fit perfectly into its time and place.

Music journalist Alan Light, in the liner notes of the reissue states that "[o]f course, there had been female rock stars before, but from Janis Joplin's blues mama to mystic shaman Patti Smith, they had always been larger than life in some way. Liz Phair, though, seemed alarmingly normal, utterly real."

The album caused a small-scale frenzy in the media upon release. TV shows and magazines harped on the naughty language--lines like "I want to be your blow-job queen"--to rank Phair among the supposed rise of the "fuck-me feminist."

Such lines were completely taken out of context. If journalists had actually listened to the album, they would have heard something much more complex: Phair's struggle to find a voice as a woman in the "post-feminist" world, and how lyrics like the blow-job line were, to an extent, a skewering of the sexual politics so prevalent at the time.

Phair's defiance against being lumped into any convenient category is evident from the first note on Guyville's opener "6'1," where she takes proudly declares that "I kept standing six-feet-one instead of five-feet-two." It's a statment that just about says it all. Like most of the album, the music is stripped-down, the distorted, loose guitar a nice compliment to Phair's frank, I-see-right-though-your-bullshit delivery.

Her dressing-down is much more pointed on tracks like the sparse, airy "Soap Star Joe." Much later in the album, it's by now become clear that Phair hasn't been taking on the blatant forms of male chauvanism so much as the subtle expectation that women are still willing to play the damsel to a knight in shining armor.

He's just a hero in a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in on the back of a pick-up
And he won't leave town till you remember his name

Check out the thinning hair
Check out the aftershave
Check out America
You're looking at it, babe


At the same time, Phair shows a very different side in songs that like everyone else, in the end she too is looking for love. Or, as she puts it in songs like "Fuck and Run," "the kind of guy who tries to win you over."

The contradictory experiences that Phair expresses on this album--that desire to find someone who loves you but respects your voice, to be accepted for who you are but also to not give a shit what others think--was the very thing that made Guyville such an honestly human piece of work.

In the 90s, a full generation into the backlash against the women's movement, women identified with Phair's emotional quandaries. After all, men had been allowed to express such contradictions in their music, but to hear a woman go through the same was something different for the "slacker generation."

"What Phair and the rest of the world didn't expect," wrote the LA Times' Ann Powers in a recent piece, "was just how many women would hear 'Guyville' and think, 'Hey, I live in a man's world too, and that's a problem.' In situations where equality is assumed but men still dominate, women occupy a strange space between the center and the margins. They can express opinions, but they're not dictating the terms of the conversation."

Phair wasn't the only strong woman artist to force her way into the mainstream in the 90s. From Alanis Morisette to Lauryn Hill, strong women seemed to be gaining a large hearing. The Lillith Fair, the first completely woman-powered music festival, proved that the girls could rock out just as well as the boys. It was a perfect musical backdrop for a new generation of young women seeking to pick up where the movement had left off.

These artists clearly struck a nerve. Guyville would eventually go gold and be counted among Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums. Several other outlets have ranked it as an important and iconic record, and its lo-fi sound and brutal honesty was a schematic for countless indie acts in years to come.

Phair, however, has been unable to recreate the success or emotional connection of Guyville. Her most recent big hit a few years back, "Why Can't I Breathe," though thoroughly listenable and enjoyable, was like a night to Guyville's day, completely lacking the inner turmoil that allowed the album to speak to a generation of young women. "Phair found a way to live with her own psychic disparities," says Powers, "which is what women do when they want to get on with life."

Phair has indeed evolved, both musically and personally. In a recent retrospective on NPR she admitted that the anger she once felt isn't there anymore: "my heart goes out to the person I was."

That doesn't mean, however, that the kind of anger on Guyville isn't still desperately needed. Today, as the backlash against women continues, the same strong female artists that abounded in the mainstream of the 90s increasingly find themselves sidelined in favor of a million Britneys, Christinas and Beyonces. A message is being sent that in order to "make it" in music, women need to aspire to a the frail and sexualized nightingale.

While it's on some level tragic that Exile in Guyville is still relevant today, it's also invaluable to have it back in print to inspire a new generation of women fight for their voice too.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Anti-patriot songs

Instead of the usual weekly playlist that this site includes every Friday, I found it more poignant to post up a list of songs forwarded to me by Comrade Jesse Zarley from Madison, Wisconsin. Listening to the radio, Jesse heard a station taking requests for the Fourth of July. Predictably, someone requested Springsteen's "Born in the USA," the Boss's song about being beaten down and thrown away by "your country," often mistaken as a proud patriot song.

Jesse, rightfully seething after hearing this (he points out that this was in Milwaukee a few days after the near food riot in that city), he sat down to compose his own list of songs that expose the real nature and true stories about this country:

Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) - Marvin Gaye

Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes - Propagandhi

Crushed Again - Son of Nun

Pusherman - Curtis Mayfield

I Should Be Proud - Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (great, fairly obscure antiwar song about a woman who loses her partner in Vietnam)

The Inquisition - The N.O.M.A.D.S. Vs the Philistines (two great Palestinian American hip hop groups. Props for a brilliant sampling of Mel Brooks' History of the World)

Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday

Fortunate Son - Creedence Clearwater Revival

The Bourgeois Blues - Leadbelly

Revolution (feat. Busta Rhymes) - 2pac (The interviews with Pac on this track are DEVASTATING!)

Underdogs - The Coup

The Backlash Blues - Nina Simone

Welcome to the Terrordome - Pharaohe Monch

Living for the City - Stevie Wonder

Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution - Tracy Chapman

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos - Public Enemy

Down in Mississippi - Mavis Staples

Tomorrow's Justice - The Arab Summit (This hip hop act's album is entitled "Fear of an Arab Planet". Nuff said).

Maria - Rage Against the Machine

The River - Bruce Springsteen

*****

Hell of a list, Jesse! I might add to it the version of "Born in the USA" that Springsteen plays live now (he refuses to do the original version precisely because the of the misinterpretation ever since the whole Reagan debacle). It's just Bruce onstage with an acoustic guitar he plays with a slide. It's haunting and gut-wrenching, the way the song is supposed to be.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When a soulless promotional campaign comes along... you must whip it!

It was reported last week that members of Devo are suing McDonald's. The reason? The Happy Meal doll dubbed "New Wave Nigel" (part of the fast-food chain's American Idol line of toys) is wearing the sunglasses, yellow jump-suit and, of course the ubiquitous tiered power-dome hat made famous by the post-punk pioneers, which have been copyrighted by Jerry Casale.

This is one of those moments that perfectly illustrates just how utterly stupid the ruling class of this country is. Do the marketing gurus at McDonald's not know Devo's work at all? Did they bother to familiarize themselves with it? Did they think Casale and company would be okay with the blatant rip-off? Or did they not think the group would catch on?

If they would have stopped and thought about it for one second then they probably would have recognized that Devo's entire existence, their catalogue, performances and music videos, were meant to mock the very system of Orwellian corporate shallowness personified by McDonald's.

Simon Reynolds' brilliant book Rip It Up and Start Again lays out the band's beginnings. Casale was a radical activist at Kent State in the late 60s and early 70s (and was good friends with one of the students shot during the massacre). Their very sound emulates the kind of music that would be created if corporations had absolute, total, unquestioned, and unthreatened air-tight control over everything we consumed.

Listen to "That's Good." Listen to "Freedom of Choice." And the short-but-sweet "Corporate Anthem" just about says it all. This band's entire, creative and prolific career has been dedicated to skewering McDonald's and their ilk.

I certainly hope they win the lawsuit.

*Another considered title for this posting was "Q: Are We But Corporate Shills, A: We Are Devo," but I didn't think folks would get the reference.