Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Underrated Saga of Jean Grae


Of all the insults slung at hip-hop nowadays, none seems to be so prevalent as the accusation of mysoginy and sexism. Critics who otherwise couldn't care less about women's position in music are eager like Opie to point to videos on MTV and BET, the scantily-clad women and gyrating buttocks, as proof that hip-hop is a music of depravity and exploitation. It's a thinly veiled code for saying that blacks are a few steps closer to the jungle than "respectable" white America.

Which is what makes the case of Jean Grae so doubly frustrating. It's unfair to call Jean a great woman MC. She's simply a great MC! On the long awaited The Evil Jeanius, her collaboration with Blue Sky Black Death released last month, she proves to be a master of everything from pants-wetting battle rap to deep introspection and vulnerability. Though she has undoubtedly become a well-known fixture in the underground and has won respect in most hip-hop circles, her insane ability on the mic makes even the most cynical of listeners ask why she hasn't torn up the mainstream yet.

The reasoning behind that is at once complex and quite simple. The industry that is content giving us a minstrel's view of hip-hop also suffers from, as Pitchfork's Neal Patrin puts it, an "inability to properly market a female artist who operates more as a superhuman MC than as a sex symbol."

It's unsurprising that the same industry that presents hip-hop as minstrelsy gives short shrift to female artists. Women in general are prohibited from any real position of artistic power, and the pedestals of "popularity" are mostly reserved for the frail nightingales who can easily fit into a bikini.

Jean doesn't squeeze into that mold so snugly. The rhymes on Evil Jeanius are her par for the course: fully formed, multi-dimensional, unapologetically human. Like all great MCs, Jean is absolutely uncompromising in her confidence, unafraid to openly deal with the slings and arrows of life.

In the album's highlight "Strikes," BSBD create an intense atmosphere of foreboding as Jean hides in a diner from the cops after killing a man in self-defense. Her imagery is vivid, the kind of unflinching portrait of desperation that buys into not one cliche or over-embellishment. Jean's greatest talent is taking you with her, putting you right in the middle of the most frightening aspects of daily reality (which is why "Taco Day," her nine-minute portrait of a school-shooting, has become one of the few tracks I've resolved to never listen to again).

Being such a fierce artist in an industry as mealy-mouthed as this one is bound to take its toll, especially on women. Jean Grae's own career has been something of an erratic enigma at times. Rumors have swirled more than once that she is hanging it up. Her previous Jeanius, released this past July, was expected to be released four years ago, yet for one reason after another, it's taken until this past summer for it to drop. One can only wonder about the relationship between this and the industry's clueless handling of good female artists, but it's easy to speculate.

The Evil Jeanius is close to a flawless album. It's unfortunate that its long, touch-and-go background sullies its content. Nonetheless, Jean Grae is the kind of artist who has never been afraid to announce hip-hop's future. Given the right circumstances, she is an MC that could easily break-through the inertia of the biz and play a role in changing the face of rap forever. Word is she's working on another upcoming with 9th Wonder. If the cards fall right, this could be the realease we've all been waiting for; the release that both she and the heads out there deserve.

*****

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Enemy Ground: The Clash Live at Shea Stadium


With the sheer over-saturation of Clash related material out there, Sony's release of Live at Shea Stadium is most definitely a last-ditch effort to squeeze every last drop out of modern-day Clash nostalgia. Coming not too far behind Julien Temple's The Future is Unwritten, Chris Salewicz's Redemption Song, and a veritable mountain of reissues and remasters, it's hard to think that Live at Shea isn't just a textbook example of a major record label behaving, well, like a major record label.

Normally such a move would provoke all the derision this writer can muster. Live at Shea is an exception, however, for two reasons. One: this is the Clash! This is the band that politicized punk rock from its very inception, and brought rebellion back to rock 'n' roll in a way that still inspires to this very day.

Two: the album is a glimpse into a period in the band's history that was simultaneously exhalting and tragic--between things begun and ended, between the power of great music and ideas and the power of right-wing fear and reaction.

The Clash's decision to open up for the Who on the mega-stars' "farewell" tour of American stadiums in the fall of '82 was itself an ideological quandary. The Clash were the biggest they had ever been, and were arguably one of the biggest groups in the world. Combat Rock was proving to be their most successful release to date, and was fast on its way to platinum status.

It seemed that the band's incendiary message was reaching more people than ever before. For a group poised to take over the world, a stadium tour seemed the logical next step. For a group that had always taken an unflinching radical stance, though, stadium tours represented all that was wrong with rock 'n' roll. Everything from the flashy stage-shows to the overpriced tickets smacked of how capitalism was ruining music.

Furthermore, as biographer Pat Gilbert puts it, "The group had always preferred the intimacy of medium-size venues. It was this philosophy of being able to see and communicate with their audience that lay behind their week-long residencies at modest venues..." In other words, stadiums were where all the democracy and solidarity of music was crushed by piles of cash and elitism.

The Clash justified the move by figuring (and rightly so) that the tour was a way to reach even more people. Sound logic, no doubt. The America that the Clash were returning to had entered a new and scary era. The rightward drift of official politics in the US mirrored the same in Britain. A year and a half into Reagan's presidency, he had already crushed the air traffic controllers' strike, and signaled that he had more of the same in store for women, Blacks, and anyone who dared defy the new Washington consensus.

Combat Rock was filled with impassioned calls-to-arms, urging young people to dig their heels in and resist the upcoming onslaught. In an interview years later, Joe Strummer would recall his thoughts on the advent of Reagan/Thatcher: "[When] Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of England and Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S....it was hard to tell who would be worse, but we knew that a tremendous struggle was ahead...their tendencies leaned to the far-right if not fascism."

When the Clash took the stage at Shea on October 13th, rain was coming down in sheets. The prospect of playing in front of 50,000 screaming fans was indeed daunting. Bass player Paul Simonon recalls that "it felt a bit like miming because there were so many people there."

Yet listening to the album today, one would never guess that the group was so nervous. Footage of the gig shot by documentarian Don Letts shows the four members throwing themselves around the massive stage with the same swagger and confidence that they brought to the countless club dates they had performed in previous years. Strummer even jokes with the audience at one point: "Will you stop talking at the back, please? It's too loud. It's putting us off the song, here! We're trying to concentrate so stop yakking!"

The moments of raw power and vitality are numerous on Live at Shea. The opening notes of "London Calling" are punched out so forcefully they could shatter concrete. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" possesses a rolling raucousness that can't even be heard in the studio recording. And "Career Opportunities"—the only song from their first album played that night—carries all the immediacy it had when it was first performed by four unemployed punks in North London five years previously.

By the time the group finish off their set with a blistering version of "I Fought the Law," they are holding the audience in the palm of their hand.

And yet, it's also apparent that this is a band not too far from disintegration. Just prior to the tour the group had sacked drummer Topper Headon due to his growing heroin addiction, thus putting an end to the "classic" Clash lineup. Terry Chimes, drummer for the Clash on their first album, had been brought in as a last minute replacement.

The sudden change in personnel is evident on some tracks. While Headon had a background in myriad musical styles, Chimes was much more of a straight rock drummer. While he pulls-off the rap and dub beats in during the group's medley of "Magnificent Seven" and "Amagideon Time," his playing is hollow and often sluggish.

Other more prominent schisms within the group are evident too. Those familiar with the group's version of Eddy Grant's "Police On My Back" will notice a section of the song when Mick Jones' lead guitar part is strangely missing. The story here is that Strummer had walked up to Jones and physically grabbed the neck of his guitar to prevent him from playing.

The rift between Jones and the rest of the group had been growing for quite some time. He had disagreed with bringing original manager Bernie Rhodes back on board. He claims to have merely "gone along" with Topper's sacking. And his original mix of Combat Rock had been shelved in favor of bringing Glynn Johns in to produce the final version.

Chimes was privy to how this bitterness was affecting the daily workings of the Clash: "By then Joe and Mick obviously had a difference of opinions on a range of things… They had devised a system where they didn't have to confront each other all the time—there was an avoidance going on, which covered up the fact there were deeper issues there."

Less than a year after the concert at Shea, Jones was kicked out of the Clash. That a founding member whose songwriting and virtuosity on the guitar had been an indispensable part of the group could be kicked out was evidence that their existence had become increasingly rudderless.

Combat Rock's defiant protest hadn't been enough to stave off the consolidation of Reagan/Thatcherism. As the heated struggles of the 70s were pushed into bitter defeat, anyone with the Clash's firebrand left-wing politics was forced into either abject obscurity or milquetoast compromise.

Compromise was never something the Clash were good at, and they continued to soldier on sans-Jones. But with the movements that had long inspired the Clash—from the anti-racist forces to the Sandinistas—fighting for their very survival, the ground on which they stood became shakier by the day. It didn't take long for one of rock's most relevant groups to become a caricature, a music industry parody of what a "left-wing" band is supposed to look like.

"The worst moment was realizing that there was no way forward," said Strummer some years later, "like the gap between rhetoric and the actuality. For example, talking about all the issues that the Clash raised and what your daily life would have been like if we'd have stayed together... You know, you'd never really have a life that would be real and yet you'd be expected to say something real about life to real people and make some real sense."

Not long after the release of their universally panned followup to Combat Rock, the group would call it a day. The concert at Shea would simultaneously be their apex and the beginning of the end for the Clash.

One can't help but listen to Live at Shea Stadium without remembering Strummer's quip that "rock 'n' roll is played on enemy ground." If a group like the Clash can walk into the belly of the beast and bring the same verve and immediacy that they delivered to anyone who ever listened to them is a testament to the power of truly great music. Knowing that they would be among the many brilliant political acts that imploded in the Reagan 80s makes these fleeting and final moments of greatness all the more prescient.

This article originally appeared on SleptOn.com

*****

Monday, October 27, 2008

Attention Must Be Paid

The papers here in Chicago have been filled with news regarding the death of Jennifer Hudson's family members. The Oscar-winning actress and singer's mother and brother were found shot dead in the Englewood neighborhood on Friday, and her nephew is still missing as of this writing.

It's a tragedy nobody ever hopes to go through. It's not the first of its kind in Englewood, though. The media commonly treat murders in poor and black communities like footnotes on the evening news. Only when the victims are family members of those who have "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" do the Tribune and Sun-Times seem to care.

The same can be said for the entire corrupt establishment here in Chicago--from the mayor's office to the notoriously violent police department. As the economic crisis is guaranteed to bring even more violence and deprivation to Englewood, Humboldt Park and Cabrini Green, Daley's only response is to bring the Olympics. His police force may be acting the compassionate guardians now, but this is the same PD that allowed 200 suspects, mostly black, to be tortured on the watch of Commander Jon Burge.

The deaths of Hudson's family members are indescribably horrifying, and her grief is all-too-real. The Chicago authorities, are shedding crocodile tears. To them, this is nothing more than a cynical PR stunt.

*****

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Hugh Masekela - The Promise of a Future
Today, "Grazin' in the Grass" is one of those iconic jazz songs that appears frequently in movies and TV shows, and most of those who hear it will have no idea who performs it, no matter how infectious or recognizable it might be. Even I had to be reminded of who the artist was. The tragedy is that Masekela's compositions are much more than just great songs. Their incorporation of music from his native South Africa represented a proud protest against the Apartheid state he was living in. That he isn't more appreciated as a musician and activist now in his twilight years is more a reflection of the amnesia that the industry imposes on music rather than Masekela's immense talent.

2. Tom Robinson Band - Rising Free
The opening chords of "Up Against the Wall" set the tone for the song incredibly well: gutsy, swaggering, righteous and a bit sneering. The TRB burned out way too quickly, but perhaps that's because the events they were seeking to throw themselves into were so fleeting and volatile, and the lyrics of "Wall" seem to exemplify that: "fascists marching on the high street, carving up the welfare state" is unmistakably cut right from the mid-to-late-seventies. The uncompromising radicalism of Robinson himself became more and more tempered, as did those of many on the left as struggle turned into defeat after bitter defeat. Still, one wonders with the economy going the way it is whether sounds and images like these might make a comeback.

3. Dusty Springfield - Dusty in Memphis
This was Springfield's first album of all R&B songs. It's easy for many soul fans to be dismissive of "blue-eyed soul." Indeed, Dusty attributed her own anxiety in the studio to feat of being compared to the American originators. But artists like her prove that the Brits weren't inept at all in communicating the music's most universal elements. Aside from her obvious influence on artists like Amy Winehouse today, Springfield's music attains its own timelessness. One need only listen to "Son of a Preacher Man" to hear that. The 1969 review in Rolling Stone sums up how iconic this album would become: "Most white female singers in today's music are still searching for music they can call their own. Dusty is not searching—she just shows up, and she, and we, are better for it."

4. Suicide Machines - War Profiteering is Killing Us All
On the ska-punk front, the Suicide Machines were no Op Ivy. The group would veer from blistering hardcore and fast-paced ska beats to their attempt to make a "big hit" with each album, and their fan-base suffered for it. Still, when they were good, they were good. War Profiteering is them toward the end of their career, after the 90s punk boom had ended and they were playing just what they wanted to play, musically and politically. The lyrics are simplistic (sometimes laughably so), but the adrenaline they pump out on minute-long hardcore rants like the title track, and standard calls to arms like the ska-punk standard "Capitalist Suicide" both satisfy that primal urge that one craves when listening to a band like this.

5. The Cool Kids - When Fish Ride Bicycles
From Masekela to one of hip-hop's rising stars, the music industry's method of cheapening music itself is pervasive indeed (hmmmm... might this have to do with the race of the artists? I wonder). Mountain Dew has attempted to appropriate "Delivery Man," yet the relevancy of the Cool Kids goes well beyond. Their sound and flow are reminiscent of Golden Age, yet it isn't nostalgia they're peddling. As has been said before on this blog, the embrace that the Cool Kids and other artists might signify a grappling with what sounds might be the best for hip-hop's next stage; a stage where greater relevancy is going to be well-needed for rap and indeed all music.

*****

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Real Music For Real People

Yet more evidence that a real fightback to protect our music and our culture is really needed. This short report was on the website of the UK's Socialist Worker:

"The fascists were humiliated in Leeds last weekend after hundreds of young people turned out to block their attempts to whip up race hatred in the city.

A Nazi sect had wanted to hand out leaflets outside the HMV music shop calling for 'white music for white people'.

But a militant demonstration scuppered their plans. Activists from Love Music Hate Racism and Unite Against Fascism broke through police lines to hold a counter demonstration outside the store.

The police ended up clearing the street of shoppers to allow a small group of Nazis to gather for a token protest. But they were drowned out by angry chants."


With economic recession bearing down on working people globally, there will almost definitely be those willing to scapegoat, to point the blame at immigrants and people of color. The seeds of this are already here with the attacks on hip-hop and other kinds of "ethnic" music in this country. Love Music Hate Racism has been an essential part of the fight against this kind of bigotry in Britain. We urgently need it here too!

*****

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Artists of the World Unite!

The image of the pampered pop-star is an insidious one. But for every artist living the high-life, for every Madonna, U2 and Metallica out there, there are hundreds, if not thousands living hand-to-mouth, paying their touring expenses out of pocket, and in debt to their record label even after their second album.

Which is why a union for featured artists has been a long time coming, indeed. Founded in the UK this past April, the Featured Artists Coalition's mission is simple and straightforward: "We want all artists to have more control of their music and a much fairer share of the profits it generates in the digital age. We speak with one voice to help artists strike a new bargain with record companies, digital distributors and others, and are campaigning for specific changes."

Ever since Napster hit the scene in the late 90s, digital distribution has been hailed as "the wave of the future" for music. Well, now the future is here and while labels are making a killing off the new market, artists are all too often completely cut out. "The digital landscape is changing fast," says Brian Message, manager of acts like Kate Nash and Radiohead, "new deals are being struck all the time, but all too often without reference to the people who actually make the music."

Message's words aren't just hot air. In recent months, major labels have cut deals with everyone from MySpace to Nokia in getting a big slice of the online pie. While the profits reaped from these deals are immense on both sides, neither of these deals involved the actual artist whose music was being bought and sold, and most will barely see a dime. This from the same industry that waxes sanctimonious about "music piracy!"

Shady deals like these abound in the music business. Most record contracts are specifically designed to give artists as little control over their own music as possible. In fact, artists will most commonly be given no legal ownership of their music at all. End result? Labels and distributors make bank, artists get screwed. Sound familiar?

This is something that the Featured Artists Coalition seeks to change. "We want artists to own their copyrights," insists Jon Webster, media contact for FAC. In other words, they want artists to have final say over when and where their music is used, and on what terms. "We think they [the artists] want transparency and to be consulted about the use of their work." Webster also stipulates, however, that ultimately, "the artists will have to decide that when they first meet."

This is, at its core, FAC's reason for being: to give artists in today's music business a sorely needed voice. Since their founding six months ago, the FAC has grown from 60 musical acts to over 650, 500 of which have joined since the Coalition's public debut at the In The City music conference in Manchester earlier this month.

Artists that have affiliated come from across the board. Groups that have made a name for themselves in recent years like the Kaiser Chiefs and Futureheads have signed the FAC's artists' charter, yet so have longtime veterans like Annie Lennox. Nobody should be surprised to find that stalwart leftists like Billy Bragg or Gang of Four are vocal supporters. Radiohead, who gave record execs a small case of hemorrhoids last year when they released In Rainbows in online "pay what you can" format, were one of the first acts to sign up.

Kate Nash, one of the more recently successful acts in the FAC ranks, expressed the reason behind her support for the Coalition: "I've joined the artists' charter because I think that artists should take control of and responsibility for their own art. And they should be at the forefront of protecting and not just coasting along and being led by people who might not have your best interests at heart."

It would be easy to think membership as little more than a who's who of hot popular artists. But the Coalition also includes more than a handful of relative unknowns. Webster asserts that "95% of songwriters in the UK make less than £5000 per year from their songs. Sure there are some very successful ones who make a lot of money. This is not just about them, it's about all artists." Like any union worth its salt (the group does receive support from the British Trades Union Congress after all), the FAC seeks to organize all performance artists, big or small.

It's clear that both new and old groups have a lot to gain by joining the Coalition. As the industry scrambles to make new profits in new markets (not to mention shrinking economies), the interests of those who actually write and perform the music itself will be guaranteed nothing unless they demand it.

There is a bigger issue at play, though. With financial control comes artistic control; a fact that is sad but true in today's music industry. As long as record labels hold all the strings, then they will be more than happy to pull them away from what's good and toward what's "marketable." If the Featured Artists Coalition can wrest even a little control away from the slick suits and ties, then our music will be all the better for it.

This article originally appeared on SleptOn.com and Znet

*****

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Sigur Ros - Takk
When all that defines a genre is negation, then it leaves a wide open space for musical possibilities. So, whatever "post-rock" is, Sigur Ros do it right. Atmospheric, vulnerable, calculating yet precision played, no two recordings are the same from these Icelandic virtuosos. The opener "Glosoli" sounds like your heart slowly filling with myriad emotions before bursting forth with all the cathartic power of a supernova. Perhaps it's trite to speak of the emotions this album invokes in such an open way, but for all the cynicism in music criticism (Christgau called the album a "bomb" for crying out loud), one has to say that having a group like Sigur Ros around makes music in general a lot more personally relevant.

2. De La Soul - 3 Feet High and Rising
What can possibly be said about this album that hasn't been said already? Few rap artists had been so eclectic in their mixing, so creative in their rhymes, that it's little wonder that 3 Feet High is guaranteed to be in the mix of any self-respecting head. In 24 tracks (that's right, 24) De La invite you to have fun, to enjoy the never-ending amount of "oh, snap" moments. And yet their ability to make you think, their gravitas if you will, never really lets up. Highlights: "The Magic Number," "Ghetto Thang," "Eye Know," and "Me Myself and I."

3. Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
A friend of mine remarked earlier this week that the Flaming Lips have a unique ability to communicate comedy and tragedy in the same breath. Listening to this album, those "tragicomic" (to use the Beckett term) elements are full front. The way in which Wayne Coyne relates the seemingly stoned-out subject matter is riven with so much open-heartedness you start to wonder if a martial arts master taking on evil robots is actually symbolic for something very real. In any case, that ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time is all-too-rare in a music industry that relies on carbon copy cliches of emotion.

4. Asian Dub Foundation - Enemy of the Enemy
ADF are one of the many groups who deserve much more attention on this side of the pond. In the UK they are rightfully recognized as a groundbreaking musical act. At a time when economic recession will be leading to all kinds of scapegoating, ADF's unapologetic anti-racism is well-needed. Their blend of rap, punk and dance might be rather run of the mill, except that they also splice in everything from Panjabi rhythms to samples of Brazillian prison uprisings. As if their militancy couldn't be any more clear, their guitarist has been known to use knives against his fret-board. Needless to say, the result is searing!

5. Big Brother and the Holding Company - Cheap Thrills
In an age when female artists are more-or-less required to be frail little nightingales to make it in pop music, it's worth listening to Janis just to remind yourself how much women can really rock when they have the room to do so. Actually, it might be better to say that artists like Janis didn't "have" the room so much as kicked it open. Joplin's heart-wrenching gravel is truly one of a kind in either folk, rock or blues. And there is no disagreement (do you hear me? None!) that she was at her best with Big Brother, who could play with just as much soul and passion as she could sing.

*****

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ya Heard Me? (Pt. 2)

Following up on Wednesday's post regarding Obama, the election, and hip-hop. Binh over at Prisoner of Starvation makes an excellent observation regarding the recently released "Obama Mixtape":

"Judging by the lyrics, it seems that most of the artists on the mixtape fell in love with the Obama that won the primaries using anti-war, anti-free trade, pro-movement rhetoric. This fits well with Obama's description of himself as a 'blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.'"

In that same vein, Obama has a letter in the new issue of Vibe (there's a head-trip; when was the last time a frontrunning presidential candidate made an effort to reach out to the hip-hop community?) where he makes himself out to be the candidate of the have-nots. He boldly asserts that "[w]e can't wait any longer for universal healthcare," despite his recent ads that make perfectly clear that he is not in favor of such a thing.

Obama is making massive promises. They are promises that most young people, be they hip-hop heads, punks, indie-kids or "others," have been waiting to hear for a long time. Maybe this is why everyone from Vampire Weekend to Joe Budden to the Beastie Boys are playing shows and writing material for the candidate. Not because they are ass over heels for the man himself, but because they genuinely want (if you'll pardon the now cliched term) change. To think this will end after November 4th is to underestimate the depth of anger in society among workers, students, and yes, even musicians.

*****

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ya Heard Me?

In the past week, Jeff Chang has done two interviews that reveal two very different takes on Obama's all-but-inevitable victory within the hip-hop community. It's hardly surprising. Past all of the half-baked media portrayal of the music genre as some kind of monolithic entity, hip-hop has never been, nor will it ever be, one single thing.

The interview with De La Soul, a group whose unstoppably optimistic beats and Afro-centric rhymes changed the face of rap fifteen years ago, shows a real enthusiasm for the idea of electing this country's first Black president. They're hopeful he'll end the war, give us decent healthcare and keep young people involved, even if they do show some worry that he'll "pop" not long after he blows up.

Immortal Technique, who has made a name by spitting intensely firebrand lyrics hell-bent on nothing less than revolution, calls Obama "black Caesar." He's doubtful of Obama's ability to address the war, is put-off by his lack of stance on immigrant rights, and is overall mistrusting of the system no matter what color the president is.

Is it mere coincidence that the election that will see the US elect its first African-American president is also the one where hip-hop has played it largest and most outspoken role yet? I think readers are well aware that when it comes to music and politics, there are no coincidences. Different as these two views might be, they share a common sentiment that has run through all the best hip-hop since its inception: "we can do better." That's a sentiment way beyond what any one president can handle. If that dream can be put on a stage even in the narrow confines of an election, imagine what it can do with the floodgates pushed all the way open!

*****

Monday, October 13, 2008

They'd Need Fiber Optics to Get the Laces Out...

Some recent comment at Brooklyn Vegan in response to M.I.A.'s pregnancy:

"i'd still hit it"

"Damn immigrants. All they wanna do is *boom* *boom* *boom* *boom* and *kaching* and pop out babies."

"I wonder which kid will grow up more fucked up -- M.I.A.'s or Bristol Palin's."

"I'd totally hit it as well."

I'm well aware that sarcasm and irony are unavoidably intertwined with modern hipster-ism (no matter how irritating they might be), but there's a difference between that and this. The commenters no doubt think they're the funniest thing online since they searched for "hit head shovel" on YouTube. The fact is that in the context of immigrant scapegoating and constant roll-backs on women's right, these comments are neither ironic nor sarcastic. They're sexist. They're racist. And they're very unfunny.

The only humor in these posts comes when one thinks of how M.I.A.--an outspoken feminist and radical with links to guerilla groups--would probably put her tennis shoe firmly up the rectum of these smug frat-wannabes if any of them said these things to her face.

And people wonder why I insist so loudly that we need a return of Rock Against Racism in this country.

*Note that this post is not directed at the good folks at BV, but rather the idiots who left the comments. Just to avoid confusion.

*****

Friday, October 10, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. The Beastie Boys - Ill Communication
If one only listens to their big hits (and there are a lot, especially on this album) then it becomes easy to forget how musically expansive the Beastie Boys are! Though their creativity in utilizing their influences has always been unique, Ill Communication seems to be that perfect point where it all melds together perfectly. "Root Down" is about as perfect as they get. Dynamic, rich, in your face, and yet incredibly chill and fun at the same time.

2. Kanye West - Late Registration
Having discussions recently about how relevant Kanye is in his current state. The consensus seems to be "not very." So much of the honesty and power of Late Registration was simply missing on Graduation. Between the depth of songs like "Drive Slow" and the lyrical prowess of "Diamonds of Sierra Leone," it's little wonder that this album became a modern classic so soon. It would be nice to reasonably hope that 808s & Heartbreak will be an improvement, but his presence has become so synonymous with the industry now that it's doubtful.

3. Cat Power - The Greatest
Lately, I've been convinced that Cat Power is the latter half of this decade's Jeff Buckley. She relies so heavily on the empty space surrounding her guitars, pianos and voice that it becomes all the harder to ignore what she's actually doing musically. Plus, the blues and jazz influence are prominently and uniquely placed on The Greatest. Very few modern singer-songwriters can utilize these two genres to their full effect without completely crossing into lounge-lizard cliche. Cat Power pulls it off, and damn it is poignant!

4. The Beatles - Revolver
Placing this album in the Beatles' history is an interesting exercise in musicology. One can recognize their early experimentations with dissonant chords on "Taxman," full string sections on "Eleanor Rigby," and their drift into sitar, backward tape-loops and trippy subject matter on "Tomorrow Never Knows," but still hear them clinging to their Help days on "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Good Day Sunshine." Then you remind yourself that it's simply fantastic music that was incredibly well-placed in its era no matter where the group itself was.

5. The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Live EP
It's a shame that this live album is only five songs long. By the end, the group has you craving for more. The sound on Armed Love, forceful and overdriven, works amazing live. Their versions of "Smash it Up" and "Capitalism Stole My Virginity," which are both very lo-fi on their original albums, are powerful as hell on this recording. Plus, Dennis Lyxzen's speech right before "A Small Demand" is incredibly poignant: "we don't just want the crumbs from the rich man's table; we want the whole fuckin' dinner!"

*****

Violins, Timpanis, and Picket Lines

Yet another hole poked in the notion that musicians aren't workers. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is on strike. It's typical for most people to think of high-class snobbery when they think of professional orchestras. But that myth hides the fact that commonly these very musicians--most of whom have spent years honing their skills and talents--are very much exploited.

From Socialist Worker:

"At stake in the strike is the WCO musicians' right to supplement their incomes from WCO performances--which is between $10,000 and $15,000 a year--with other jobs, including teaching music and performing in other orchestras. The board is demanding that musicians make 90 percent of performances and practices. Typically, a part-time orchestra like the WCO requires only a 50 percent attendance rate, a necessary condition of the musicians having multiple jobs, often in more than one city."

The board of directors' intransigence on this is only highlighted by their employment of a lawyer from a well-known union-busting firm to represent them during negotiations. It seems the BoD is so adamant about bringing quality classical music to the people of Wisconsin that they are willing to ignore their musicians' right to make a living.

Like any other employer in the music business, they're willing to put a price tag on good art. The musicians think differently, though:

"After the picket [in front of the Overture Center in Madison on October 3rd], musicians treated their supporters to a free performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 at the nearby Bethel Lutheran church, and received a standing ovation from the audience."

*****

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Why Mr. Billet... What a Nice New Layout You Have!"

Thank you.

No, seriously, I've gotten a few comments on the blog and elsewhere that folks dig it, and I'm glad it goes over well.

The old layout was boring and failed to convey the dynamism of modern music as I try to capture in my articles. Black and gray? Really? I had been meaning to revamp it for quite some time. I think readers will agree this current incarnation is much better.

Don't get too attached, though. Our good friend Billy Buntin at SleptOn is creating graphics that will further streamline the look!

The times are indeed changing, and as music evolves and reflects the constantly raising stakes, I hope to continue conveying this at RF. A new layout is hopefully just the beginning.

*****

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Shape of Rap to Come...

There is a debate raging on the Democracy & Hip-Hop Project that brings up some key themes in how the music is being affected by the rapidly shifting political terrain. The term "hipster rap" rightfully leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There is a lot of reverence for the early 90s sound in artists like Lupe, Kidz in the Hall and the rest, but some commentators have stopped at calling these MCs and groups poseurs. If you put it in the context of what's going on politically right now, it's evident that it represents a positive shift that encapsulates both the hopes and contradictions in Black America.

Here's what I wrote. A bit long-winded for a blog comment, but I stand by it:

I think these are all really valid comments. I am also in agreement with Krisna about the evolution of hip-hop, and music in general, never being a finite thing. Much as I have respect for Mos, Talib, and other artists in that vein, I am inclined to agree that their time has past. The political limitations of "conscious" hip-hop have been borne out in many ways because the shift in the political and musical climate has exposed the separation between "conscious" and "mainstream" as utterly false.

An MC friend of mine and I were recently discussing the evolution of NYC hip-hop in the late 80s and the 90s. He pointed out that Native Tongues (Tribe, De La, et al) were very much imbued with the hope and uplift that came with the Dinkins administration ("Mr. Dinkins will you be my mayor?"). Dinkins ended up being a completely ineffective mayor (as anyone tied to the Democratic party will be), but the first African American mayor of NYC instilled a lot of hope in the Black community in New York.

When the Giuliani years began, NYC hip-hop got darker and darker. Wu-Tang started it on a path that rightfully reflected the anger and frustration that came with the "Mussolini of Manhattan."

This is an insightful observation, and one that I think applies to today very well. Whatever we want to call this new wave ("backpacker," "hipster," blah blah blah), the music, lyrics, and aesthetic are really influenced by that same sense of hope--hence the comparisons to Native Tongues. They are reaching back, and yet building on it at the same time. It isn't the only trend in hip-hop, nor are they the final word on its development.

Whatever Barack Obama is and is not--and he most definitely is a part of the same corporate party that has sold out Black America time and again--the idea of electing the first Black president in a country founded on slavery rightfully inspires a lot of encouragement in the wake of Katrina, Jena and Sean Bell.

Like all new movements, this new wave has different wings. Kanye is the wing very much enamored with the industry and happy to play the game. Lupe's content takes a political turn frequently, and he does it with relative ease. The Cool Kids... well, they're about fun! They've said so themselves. They've made it clear that they're aware of all the shit going on in the world, that's not what they want to rhyme about. As is their right.

The point is that taken as a whole, hip-hop is heading in a trajectory that very much mirrors the ideal of change. Ultimately, this is a change that Obama and the Democrats can't deliver. When that becomes apparent, one can only guess where this hope will go. If there is a movement to hold the powers that be accountable, then it's reasonable to think that this hope will keep going up, up, up.


*****

Monday, October 6, 2008

Never Mind the Butter

It was bad enough when John Lydon played the Queen's Golden Jubilee. It was even worse when he started ripping on global justice protesters and telling Kele Okereke his problem was his "black attitude."

But now the former Rotten has reached a new low: scab.

Lydon has lent his image to the new ad campaign for Country Life Butter. He has rebuked the possibility of being called a "sell-out" by claiming "I only do things that I want to or that I believe in and I have to do it my way."

Faux-punk contrarianism can only go so far, though. Country Life's parent company, Dairy Crest, just announced the layoff of 200 workers. This comes on the heels of another 200 laid off last year at their Devon site. The Transport and General Workers union has been attempting to fight these layoffs and the possibility of a boycott has been raised.

None of this seems to concern Lydon, though. It's a far cry from the Johnny Rotten that played benefits for the children of striking fire-fighters in the 70s. Lydon can talk all he wants about only doing things that he wants to do. The fact is, though, that aiding a company in the midst of lay-offs doesn't make you an independent artist. It just makes you a sell-out.

*****

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"I'm a Human Being, Y'all!"

On their new release All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti and Spearhead have done their best to channel the insurgent spirit of that most insurgent style of music: reggae. To be sure, Franti has always let the inspiration of Marley, Brown and Toots shine through in his eclectic mix of influences. But this time around he lays it on thick: recording the album in Jamaica with the legendary production team of Sly and Robbie and borrowing heavily from the country’s sultry beats for good measure.

Franti pulls it off too. Maybe it’s the way he does it with a flair all his own, singeing the edges of each song with flavors of hip-hop, soul, or electro-funk. Maybe it’s that guests like Zap Mama and dancehall mainstay Cherine Anderson bring a spirit of fun and collaboration to the album. Or maybe it’s because the sound of proud rebellion in the face of Heavy Manners is exactly what we need right now.

In a recent interview, Franti laid out the intent behind All Rebel Rockers:"The war and the dangerous place our economy is in right now have been in the minds of everybody and sometimes we get frustrated with how things are going…

“This record is one that is just to help people stay inspired and not get down and not feel so discouraged about their lives or the world around them that they don't want to participate anymore."

From the looks of it, a good amount of people are looking for just that kind of encouragement. All Rebel Rockers debuted in mid-September at number 39 on the Billboard charts, Franti and Spearhead’s best showing yet.

The defiant uplift of reggae—its bouncy, unbending confidence in the face of adversity and injustice—are front and center on All Rebel Rockers. “Rude Boys Back In Town” kicks it off in this vein with Franti launching not into a firebrand rant, but a story of stumbling into a house party. The Desmond Dekker influence is so palpable you can almost hear Franti drift into a patois here. “Rude Boys” is most definitely a textbook reggae joint, telling a simple story of unity and camaraderie replete with gritty street-wit.

With that, he sets the stage for “A Little Bit of Riddim,” a fast-paced, sweaty anthem of injustice and resistance. Cherine Anderson’s toasting brings a great deal of hip-swinging swagger and attitude to this track as Franti freely speaks his mind on… well, just about everything:

“Remember the time before
Every day wasn’t news of a holy war
When the people wasn’t ‘fraid to tell you what they want
Ev’rybody in the city always had a home
When a bomb wasn’t goin’ off ev’ryday
When the rain didn’t have to mean a hurricane
When the government wasn’t list’nin to ya calls
When a border didn’t have to mean a concrete wall”


Franti and Anderson’s frequent refrain of “I’m a human being y’all” simply caps off that head-held-high, fist-in-the-air spirit and makes this song a highlight of the album.

The same can be said punk inflected bounce of “Hey World (Remote Control Version),” where distorted guitars pump forward a steady riff while Franti urges the listener to “put up a fight.”

The album stumbles at times. Franti takes a break halfway through with three lover’s rock tracks that come up just a bit short in bringing anything original to the clich├ęd forum of love songs. This goes to show that Franti is at his best when he’s either tackling the world’s ills or reminding us what we’re fighting for. These tracks could have been an example of the latter, but the placement as three in a row means they serve more as a detour.

He gets right back on track, though. “Soundsystem” is thumping and bass-driven, with almost a hint of menace to it. The soft acoustics of “Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong,” and “Have a Little Faith,” are a nice close to an album whose theme seems to revolve around the things that make being human so worthwhile.

Ultimately, All Rebel Rockers delivers something that so few other recordings can right now. At a time when everything from bad debt to war to outright bigotry can make so many of us feel less than human, Franti has culled the depths of music that has always been unapologetic about its own humanity. Reggae doesn’t need Michael Franti to keep its soul alive, but there are probably a lot of souls in this country who do.

This article originally appeared on ZNet.

*****

Friday, October 3, 2008

What I'm listening to this week...

1. Air - Talkie Walkie
Much of electonica is hard to take in right now. Perhaps that's because all the chaos of the past several weeks are so foreign to the more chill, laid back sounds. Apart from Massive Attack and Tricky, much of electronica is hard to relate to (though those two artists' ability to connect probably has just much more to do with the influence of hip-hop and reggae as anything else). Air's album is a notable exception. The soundscapes bring are infused with the feel of the urban underground. Like Thievery Corporation, they also have a definitively global sound that isn't as consciously internationalist as Thievery's, but is effective nonetheless.

2. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman - The Fabled City
If so much of music fails to capture the time we live in, Tom Morello has gone above and beyond in encapsulating the chaos and hope of modern life. This is a flat-out stunning followup to One Man Revolution. The legacy of Guthrie, Baez, Dylan, Cash and Earle are all felt here and built upon dramatically with steel guitar, violin, percussion and keys. Highlights: the simple and steady militancy of "Whatever It Takes," the harrowing drift of "King of Hell," and the quiet melancholy of "Midnight in the City of Destruction.

3. Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible
This is one album I keep coming back to over and over and over. The Manics' socialist politics are blatantly obvious throughout, yet are communicated in a way that is so personally vulnerable that it gets in your head. Like so many of the other great post-punk groups, they took their own despondency and alienation and politicized them, explained the reason we all feel it. Knowing this was the last album released before Richey James' mysterious and tragic disappearance only highlights what this system can do to people emotionally. This album puts a name on all of that personal hell.

4. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock
Sometimes, you can't help but go back to the source! It's amazing listening to the electronicized funk and bumping-bapping beats and realizing that this is where hip-hop all started (or one of the places it did, anyway). The self-titled opener really does jar you and challenge you to get used to these strange new sounds even today. And then there's the fact that no track is shorter than five minutes, really displaying how this was at its core music that wanted you to dance, to get down, to feel the beat, to get hit in your soul and create beauty out of the horrifying neglect of your surroundings. Planet Rock, with everything it was and wasn't, with all that it promised (and still promises) to be, really is a whole other planet!

5. Jedi Mind Tricks - The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological, and Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness
Stoupe's beats and Vinnie's lyrics are both pretty out there on this, their debut full-length. More than anything else, the album's dominant themes of conspiracy theories and Middle Eastern mysticism create a lot of moments of "What the hell did he just say?" Images of cyborgs and pharaohs next to each other paint a picture that is fascinating in its "what if" factor. Quasi-apocalyptic, almost. Stoupe's production is chill, but it never lets you completely relax. Together, it's rich, intricate, and hard to sift through sometimes. But it never stops being interesting. And then it occurs to you: "holy crap! Maybe they are really manipulating my mind! Get out of my head!!!"

*****

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What They Won't Say About Amy Winehouse

Readers may remember an article I wrote a little over a year ago on the rise of Amy Winehouse. Her talent, her ability, her simple willingness to be open and honest in her music and life, were--and still are--a breath of fresh air in an industry overwhelmed with flavor-of-the-week shallowness.

She has won Grammys, continued to play for sell-out crowds, and Back to Black still sells strong a year and a half after her release. Despite all this, it has all been so tragically downhill for her.

A recent gossip article on MSN.com found a disheveled and intoxicated Winehouse admitting "I'm a mess. Look at me... Look at where I am now. Look at what happened to my dreams... I can't believe what has happened to me, I'm so sad."

Anyone with a basic sense of decency can't help but see how tragic the singer's meltdown is. And sure enough, the tabloids and newspapers will give lip service to this. They'll also point the finger at anyone who might be to blame. Family, friends, her equally screwed-up husband, etc.

What they won't do is take her seriously, because that might mean admitting that her own demons are hardly unique.

Depression and addiction aren't aberrations. Indeed, perhaps the reason Winehouse's music sells so well is because she communicates heartache, alienation and dispossession in such an effective way--a way so many of us can relate to.

The way she is repeatedly characterized, however, is as "the other." A woman who is uniquely screwed-up, a freak.

She's treated that way because taking her illnesses seriously might involve a serious discussion about mental illness and addiction that goes beyond commercials for Paxil and Ambilify. It might have to look at the mental toll of living in a society that deliberately keeps people unemployed, underpaid and hungry and then blames them for it. And it might have to ask why we don't have the resources for people to get real help, but there are plenty of means to plaster pictures of an unstable celebrity across our television screens.

Amy Winehouse is not a freak. The way she's portrayed by the media makes not only her out to be one, but anyone else who has struggled with feelings of hopelessness, depression, or that desire to pick up a bottle so we don't have to face our pain anymore.

Winehouse deserves better. We all deserve better.

*****