Monday, March 30, 2009

The return of Death

Sean Murphy over at Murphy's Law (also a contributor to PopMatters) brought this band to my attention, and I enthusiastically thank him for it.

If you haven't heard of the band Death, then you aren't alone. The band was short-lived, and mostly overlooked in music history until a profile in the New York Times this past month. The tragedy of this is that they had a sound that came close to being straight-up groundbreaking. Formed in Detroit in the mid-70s, their jam-kicking Rock & Roll was, as the NYT piece points out, "Punk before Punk":

If you listen to this song closely enough, you can hear just how fluid music is as an art-form. It makes you re-think the traditional ancestry of a lot of bands. You can hear as much Sly Stone influence here as you can MC5 and Stooges, as much post-R&B breakdown as Proto-Punk fury. It's easy to hear the influence their sound had not only on Bad Brains, but on countless Post-Punk groups and even on quite a bit of early Hip-Hop.

Ironically, their unclassifiable and unique sound might have been the very reason they ended up thrown into the discount rack of obscurity. Another factor might have been that, in the 1970s, when music was still shaking off years of segregation, and five years before Bad Brains would storm onto the scene, Death was a rare case: an all-Black Rock 'n' Roll band. In a recent piece in Time Out Chicago, bassist Bobby Hackney recounted how hard it was for this band to find its niche, despite everything they had going for them:

"We were this Black band signed to Groovesville, a Black Rhythm 'n' Blues label. They had no idea how to promote, sell or market us... At the time there weren't very many white producers or white record companies willing to take a risk on three Black guys from the inner-city playing Rock 'n' Roll."

Their uncompromising attitude toward their art made them even more hard to pin for the industry. When Arista head Clive Davis was handed their tape, he offered to sign the group as long as they changed that name. David Hackney told him to screw off (like I said, "Punk before Punk").

Death were ambitious. At one point there was talk of creating a full rock opera. But with their careers frustrated, they packed it in. They would eventually move to Vermont and continue making music in the gospel-oriented 4th Movement. David moved back to Detroit in 1982, where he would remain until his own death from lung cancer in 2000.

Death's original album has been out of print for decades. But the masters were recently rediscovered, and Drag City is re-releasing it. It's tragic that David Hackney won't be here to see it. Like so many other groups, Death were before their time, cutting-edge and uncompromising to the point that the bumbling music industry had no idea how to handle them. They had the potential to break a lot of boundaries--both musical and racial. Though their recent attention comes about thirty years too late, it's nonetheless encouraging to see them finally get the credit they deserve.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. MURS - MURS For President
For twelve years, MURS has had his groove down! MURS For President may not be his strongest yet, but the large amount of publicity it has received since last September means that more folks are going to be exposed to what a slick MC he is. Call me somewhat obsessive, but the way that "Lookin' Fly" samples the trumpet part of "Flight of the Bumble Bee" is something I can't get out of my head. Chalk it up to Keith Harris' solid skills as a collaborator and producer, but also to MURS' own innate savvy as an artist.

2. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
A simply beautiful album. The kind of delicate mastery that Davis brings to his version of these songs is something rare even in Jazz. The fiftieth anniversary of its release is coming up, which seemed a good excuse to give it yet another listen (though in reality, anything would make a good excuse to listen to this masterpiece. Someone once commented that Miles' style had an erudite quality that really hadn't played a role in Jazz up until then; he isn't rapidly running through the notes and dazzling you with his speed. He's just playing the right notes every time, which makes for an equally fascinating listen.

3. Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Two decades old, and Nation of Millions sounds as intense, thick and radical as it did upon its release. "I got a letter from the government the other day. I opened and read it. It said they were suckas!" Chuck D is so damned cool here that he doesn't even need to rhyme anymore! But of course, PE wouldn't be PE without Terminator X's mind-blowing beats. Every listen reveals a new layer, something else going on deep within the rhythm you hadn't necessarily noticed before. That they can maintain this intricacy and still be forceful and unrelenting make X's beats a perfect compliment to Chuck here.

4. David Bowie - The Buddha of Suburbia
Aside from this being the soundtrack to the mini-series based on my absolute favorite book of all time, there is an undeniably universal appeal to this album--the kind that only a master like Bowie can bring to an album. Youth, alienation, the struggle to find your own place in the world are all themes that Bowie has woven into just about every song here, and despite the book taking place in the 70s, it's all relatable. Bowie has an uncanny ability making our own mundane struggles seem of utmost importance and almost epic in their scope.

5. Royksopp - Junior
Royksopp are displaying their impressively broad versatility on their new album. At times, like on the aptly titled opener "Happy Up Here," it is bright, peppy and upbeat--with all the bright-eyed optimism of a child being handed an ice cream cone. At other moments, such as ***** they create an introspective world that is beautiful, mysterious and even a bit frightening. Junior is expected to be the first of a two-part series of albums in '09. If Senior is along the same lines as this, then Royksopp might end up being one of the most influential artists of the entire year.


Friday, March 27, 2009

There's not enough Black in the Union Jack

Fascists and other variants of far-right knuckle-draggers have always attempted to dress themselves in populist (even radical) clothing. Much of the time, it thankfully doesn't wash.

After it's all over, though, one has to wonder just how thick-headed some of these groups are. The British National Party--heir apparent to the UK neo-fascist National Front--was recently served a cease and desist order by SonyBMG for attempting to use a song in a promotional video for the party. Incidentally, the song was by the Manic Street Preachers.

Anyone who knows the Manics will understand how laughable this could be if it weren't so offensive. The Welsh group--who have considerably more widespread fame in Britain than here in the States--have spent the fifteen years writing their own brand of deconstructed post-punk from a decidedly socialist point of view. They have played shows in Cuba (one of the few British bands to do so), they have been open in their admiration for socialist union leaders like former National Union of Miners' Arthur Scargill, and have written more than a few songs expressing a keen disgust for the kind of racist filth the BNP thrive on.

Even more sickening was the BNP's choice of song, which is entitled "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next," a song about Welsh farmers who volunteered for the International Brigades and fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Though it's easy to roll our eyes at this kind of thing, there's an undercurrent to this story that is a bit disconcerting. The BNP have gained a few seats in recent elections by presenting themselves as a respectable party looking out for the little guy while spreading their venomous anti-immigrant screed. The use of this song is a small part of their attempt to paint themselves as dynamic, hip, and compassionate. But make no mistake, if the BNP were in power, the Manic Street Preachers would be one of the first groups in front of the firing squad for creating "degenerate art."

The Manics are well aware of this, and the video was promptly taken down from the BNP's site after Sony served them the order. This small incident only highlights the need for groups like this to be fought tooth and nail.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The politics of Police Brutality at SXSW

The shooting death of four police officers in Oakland is certainly shocking to many. The outpouring of grief and outrage through the mainstream media over the past few days is rather lopsided, however, when compared to the derisory way in which the New Year's Eve shooting of Oscar Grant--in the very same city--was covered by the same outlets.

Not everyone shares CNN's sense of dismay, however. Davey D reports something shocking in its own right from the SXSW music festival in Austin:

"Not sure what to make of all this..meaning how and why did this happen. What I do know is that here in Austin, Texas at the SxSW Music festival when word came out about the shootings people from Philly to LA expressed feelings that suggested that some sort of justice was served. That was reflected in the loud cheers that were heard at two seperate shows when it was announced what happened."

In this country, to cheer the death of cops is considered tasteless beyond reproach, an act that puts you somewhere in the same ballpark as cheering terrorism. We, of course, aren't asked to revere the lives of the people gunned down by the police in the same way. That same double standard applies in varying degrees to people evicted from their homes or Iraqis killed by the bombs and bullets of the US military.

The difference between what ordinary people think and what we are taught to think, however, is so stark simply because the police aren't actually here to "serve and protect," and that's obvious in communities across the country:

"Yes, some will stop, take a moment and reflect and realize that the officers slain are sons, fathers, husbands and brothers and deserve a prayer. But the mood quickly changes when folks recall the day to day confrontations friends and family have had with the police. Many rationalize that the police have not shown any remorse for the thousand of people victimized by folks on the force. Were their flowers or cards of condolences sent to the families of Oscar Grant? Amadu [sic] Diallo? Sean Bell? etc?"

Davey's commentary is worth listening to in full. As he explains, there is a growing divide between cops and communities for the simple reason that the kind of terror meted out to Grant, Diallo, Bell and others is obviously the rule rather than the exception. And how many incidents do we not hear about? How many folks are harassed on a daily basis by police officers who, typically, don't even live in the city they patrol. As this recession worsens, how many more will be locked up because they fit a description of "Black, male, with baggy pants and backwards ballcap?"

If and when politicians or media pundits get word of the cheers sent up in Austin, they will no doubt raise the kind of ire that we've seen raised at Hip-Hop culture and communities of color in general when this kind of thing goes down. They may even try to direct their venom at the music festival itself. Establishment figures love to point to youth and music culture as a small-yet-vocal minority hellbent on foisting their depravity on "respectable" society. But if so many at an established festival like SXSW have sentiments like this, then it goes to show that it's not quite as isolated as one might think.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

...and they brought it!

This is one of the slickest performances I have ever seen on TV! Readers may remember my conflicted feelings on The Roots' new gig as house band for Jimmy Fallon: "will they be 'neutered' by NBC or will they manage to bring some of their signature flare to late night audiences?"

Which is precisely why this clip is so encouraging, not to mention hot in its own right. Last Tuesday, Public Enemy appeared on the show performing their infamous "Bring the Noise" with The Roots backing them, as well as the horn section of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Apart from some slight sound problems (which you'll hear in the video), the joint lives up to just about everything it could. By the way, I tried to find the video without the Old Navy ad, but couldn't, so just ignore it.

As always, The Roots crew bring all their dynamic energy to the stage--an energy that's a perfect compliment to the twisted beats of Terminator X. Black Thought surprisingly delivers his verse with more ferocity than Chuck D! And hearing the tighter-than-tight brass of Antibalas handle that intense, punchy-Funk horn part verges on the jaw-dropping.

And when was the last time we heard someone say on network TV that "Farrakhan's a prophet who I think you oughta listen to?" Or "Rap is not afraid of you?" When was the last time we saw a group of Black militants like the S1W's striking poses that liken to the Black Panthers? This may be Late Night, but it's also the same network that banned Rage Against the Machine ten years ago for hanging the American flag upside down.

If NBC is planning to sap the Roots' vitality, they aren't doing a very good job. Just about the only thing that puts this at risk is Fallon himself, whose ineptitude as a host may indeed turn a significant moment in Hip-Hop history into little more than a blip on our screens.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Q: "Revolution?" A: "Yes!"

For those unfamiliar with it, Pitchfork's regular "Poptimist" column is by far the most insightful, entertaining, and even educational section of the site. The article from this past Friday touched on the often-forgotten phenomenon of the "answer song." Before the days of MTV and Viacom, before the tentacles of the industry had managed its tightest grip yet (and before copyright lawyers became the overly-gorged parasites we know them to be today), it was a fairly common occurrence for artists to write songs that "replied" to other popular tunes of the day. Author Tom Ewing cites the example of Lydia Murdock's "Superstar," sung from the point of view of a well-known and jilted "Billie Jean," and even went so far as to lift the bass-line of the original Michael Jackson song.

"In their heyday answer records were half cash-in, half empowerment: typically an answer record is recorded from a woman's point of view, expanding and overturning a pop situation to give it perspective."

But there is another layer to the "answer song." They represent a time when music was seen as much more than entertainment, and were a vehicle for the transmission of ideas--songs were part of a dialogue, forums for debate and discussion between different points of view battling for space in society.

At their best, "answer songs" knew no ideological bottom-depth. Case in point: Nina Simone's version of "Revolution." I'm sure folks will recognize the tune--even if she does blues it up quite a bit, and regards the subject matter without any of the hesitancy of the song's original performers:

With the notable exception of Hip-Hop, "answer songs" are incredibly uncommon. Much of that has to do with the industry's attempted separation of music from the daily struggle to make sense of the world. Songs like this, however, show that the current situation is an exception rather than a rule. There is a need for dialogue today, a need to debate ideas about the world and how it works, what's wrong with it and what might be the solution.

Especially today, when the internet has given us unprecedented access, there is room like no other time for music to be part of the debate. After all, humans are naturally social animals, and to regard music as divergent from that is to ignore its very function.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Joe Budden - Padded Room
Urgent, deep, reflective, but hard and defiant as a damn hammer. Joe Budden throws his all into each one of his rhymes, and this album displays that beautifully from the opening track to the closing notes. And he's bloody uncompromising too. There isn't a single line that is sanitized, cliched, or takes the easy way out. The truth Budden spits is often hard to listen to, but by that same token it's impossible to stop. Aptly titled, this is an album that connects with that sinking feeling of insanity that so easily creeps into our psyches in times like these.

2. The Draft - In A Million Pieces
This Florida group--who rose from the ashes of the more-than-notable Hot Water Music--walk a line between so many different sub-genres of punk that it's impossible to classify them. The dissonant lead guitars of hardcore, catchy hooks of pop-punk, and Chris Wollard's gravelly voice is so heart-on-sleeve that it verges on emo without drifting into that turgid territory (thank god). While Hot Water Music were integral in developing the Florida scene's sound, The Draft shows that there's a lot of evolution to be discovered in the midst of the Sunshine State's swampy alienation.

3. Invincible - Shapeshifters
Motor City's been putting out some crazy MCs lately (keep an eye on Finale's upcoming release this April, for example), but Invincible is most definitely one of my favorites. Jeff Chang recently told me he considers her one of his favorites too, and it's easy to see why. Her commitment to resistance is damn admirable, all the more so because it is woven into her flow and her pulsing beats with effortless grace. Invincible starts from the point that so many "conscious" MCs haven't figured out yet--personal honesty before political ideology, truth before ideology. When artists figure that out, there's very little to stop them.

4. Mongrel - Better Than Heavy
Can you say supergroup? This is one of the tightest and most eclectic side-projects I've heard in quite some time. The slick rhymes of UK rapper Lowkey (from the Poisonous Poets), the vocals of John McClure, Joe Moskow on keyboards (both from Reverend and the Makers, and we know how much I love them), Drew McConnel from Babyshambles on bass and the drums of Arctic Monkeys' Matt Helders. A seamless yet often explosive collision between Rap, Rock, Soul and Pop that is as on-point as it is fun to hear.

5. Intifada - 7"
Taking in their set in a dingy Chicago basement this past Friday, I was definitely convinced that this band (as well as several others here in Chi-town) are among a vanguard of groundbreaking artists coming out of this city. Chicago has a thriving hardcore scene, and despite the undeserved misconception of today's hardcore scenes being parochial and insular, this young, radical and infinitely energetic group most definitely have the potential to be remapping the face of music in these dynamic times. Acts like this deserve a lot more attention for the simple fact that we need them now more than ever!


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nonsense on the Horizon

Can a Rock band save the world? Considering the mass amount of hype surrounding No Line on the Horizon, the answer would appear to be a very emphatic “yes.” Since its release late last month, U2’s most recent effort has been promoted to no end, and has already become the highest selling album of 2009. Likewise, most reviewers stubbornly refuse to disappoint, with most mainstream rags giving Horizon reviews that positively glow with adulation for the biggest Rock band in the world.

These reviews, however, don’t seem to be directed at the music as much as they are at Bono—Pop music’s great crusader. It’s a clever sleight of rhetoric—especially when one considers that Horizon is easily U2’s weakest effort to date. In the group’s twenty-five year history they have never released an album so confused, so sloppy, so lacking in artistic or moral center. If the songs themselves are any kind of indicator, then we had better hope and pray that our salvation doesn’t rest in the outstretched hands of Bono, Inc.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly shifting music scene and a world spinning into chaos, U2 promised that No Line on the Horizon would be an “experimental” album. For a band that has consistently defied expectation, who have spent their entire career veering between outlandish deconstruction and glorious returns to form, such a prospect was enticing. Knowing that a production team of Rick Rubin, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would be at the helm only further sweetened the deal.

It starts off promising enough. The opening title track is a buzzy, techno-tripped missive that stretches for the anthemic heights of The Unforgettable Fire, but it’s here that all momentum is lost. What could be a launchpad into an exhilarating collection of songs turns out to be a creative high-point.

Halfway through follow-up “Magnificent,” a couple of questions arise: If No Line on the Horizon is supposed to be “experimental,” why does it sound like the same old U2? What’s worse, why does it sound like a U2 who have been watered down to their lowest possible common denominator? It’s here that The Edge’s scratchy, hypnotic guitar work becomes tedious, the drums and bass of Clayton and Mullen fade into disuse, and Bono’s broad wail becomes its most pompous and indulgent yet.

During the drawn out pseudo-ambience of “Unknown Caller,” one wonders if they’re even trying anymore. By the time it gets to the insulting and hackneyed lead single “Get On Your Boots,” that particular question is answered: they aren’t. The song sees Bono recounting his trip to a French amusement park with his family right before the invasion of Iraq. What could be a fascinating juxtaposition of privilege and violence becomes little more than an homage to the former, as the singer sidetracks us to talk about the virtues of high fashion. With conman-like assuredness he declares “I don’t want to talk about war between the nations.”

What!?!?!? Is he serious? What about all the pious cries for “world peace?” And the countless meetings with world leaders and diplomats? Bono may have painted an image as a man of peace, but when push comes to shove, this track shows him to be little more than a modern-day musical Nero, twiddling his thumbs as entire civilizations burn.

Even “White As Snow,” a song about the last minutes of life for a soldier in Afghanistan, comes across as clich├ęd and empty, and the minimal instrumentation that should tug at the heartstrings just doesn’t have the strength.


If U2 sound like they’re making music in a bubble, that’s probably because they are. Though their sound may have been ground-breaking thirty years ago, the near-unprecedented amount of power and influence they have gained in the music world has necessarily relegated them to the ivory tower. That Interscope has put so much time and money into promoting an album as hollow and uninspiring as Horizon isn’t so much puzzling as it is symptomatic of an industry very much in crisis.

Perhaps the most ironically instructive moment on Horizon comes during “Stand Up Comedy,” where Bono warns listeners to “stand up to rock stars… be careful of small men with big ideas.” Judging from his own behavior, it seems safe to say Bono doesn’t include himself in that category of “small men.” From the Band Aid concerts in the ‘80s to the much-lauded Product Red campaign, Bono has spent the past twenty years making poverty and disease in Africa his own personal cause.

Though few can deny the glaring inequality that exists on the world’s most resource-rich continent, the effectiveness of Bono’s campaigns is dictated by the billionaires, politicians and financiers he has enlisted in his cause:

Microsoft svengali Bill Gates, New Labour architect and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, Apple founder Steve Jobs, Presidential economic advisor Larry Summers, former President-select George W. Bush, and even the thankfully departed bigot Senator Jesse Helms are all just a sampling of the rich and powerful names Bono has hob-nobbed with in the name of “humanitarianism.”

The logic is straight out of Kipling: that the best people to help the poor are an elite few—the ones who drove them into poverty in the first place.

Needless to say Bono’s campaign isn’t designed to confront these people, but to preserve their place in society while throwing a few crumbs to poverty relief and AIDS research. Though Product Red claims that “up to half” of the income generated from products bearing the Red logo will go to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the actual figure has often been revealed to be less than ten percent (all of which can be recouped by the companies in the form of tax write-offs). There is also speculation as to how much of that meager amount ends up in the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies unwilling to give their drugs away for free. Bono has little to say regarding the recent sweatshop revelations that have fallen on Converse, Gap or Apple—all participants in Product Red.

Sweatshops aren’t the only scourge Bono is willing to tolerate. In 2002, well before the Red campaign was formed, the front-man met with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to get her to “see the link” between poverty relief in Africa and the war on terror! The long history of US support for corrupt African dictators and strongmen didn’t make it into the conversation. Neither did the plans to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into neo-liberal chemistry sets.

Bono’s alliance with some of the most unsavory forces in the world isn’t simply a necessary evil. There are myriad other actions U2 could take to fight global poverty. They could play benefits for the World Social Forum, donate money to independent trade unions and activist groups in Africa, or speak out against the IMF and World Bank. But that would contradict the same free market that Bono relies on to support his campaigns.

Indeed, Bono has gone out of his way to make peace with neo-liberalism, going so far as to turn up at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to publicly rail against his critics (that many of these critics also happened to be Africans didn’t seem to phase him) and also get in a few pot-shots against Radiohead for releasing their most recent album online as a “pay what you can” scheme.

All pomp and circumstance aside, the failure of No Line on the Horizon can’t be separated from U2’s complete disconnect from the real world. As Rock & Rap Confidential’s Dave Marsh put it “Bono also carries into each project his off-stage political pronouncements, and his fawning affiliations with war criminals such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush.”


Marsh isn’t the only one who has a problem with the company Bono keeps. Recently, the singer’s crusade among the ruling class has reached such absurd heights that he has provoked criticism from within his own band! In a December, ’08 interview, U2 band-mate Larry Mullen stated that the company Bono keeps makes the drummer “cringe”:

“Tony Blair is a war criminal and should be tried as a war criminal. Then I see Bono and him as pals and I’m going ‘I don’t like that.’ Do I think George Bush is a war criminal? Probably—but the difference between him and Tony Blair is that Blair is intelligent, so he has no excuse.”

Even if Bono has backed out of a public debate with Dave Marsh, an increasing amount of scrutiny is starting to come his way from U2’s native Ireland. The day before the release of No Line on the Horizon, demonstrators rallied outside the Irish Department of Finance, bringing attention to the band’s less-than-admirable financial practices:

Nessa Ni Chasaide, who attended as director of the Debt and Development Coalition, explained that “we wanted to raise our concern that while Bono has championed the cause of fighting poverty and injustice in the impoverished world, the fact is that his band has moved part of its business to a tax shelter in the Netherlands.” Chasaide went on to point out that tax evasion costs poor nations about $160 million every year.

With the Celtic Tiger economy in shambles, and the unemployment rate growing by one percent every month, the richest band in the history of Ireland have opted out of paying a large amount of taxes that actually could be used to help working people in their own country and others.

Though he has presented himself as part of the solution, more and more ordinary people are starting to see Bono as part of the problem. Irish writer Eamonn McCann recalls in a recent article a young man at an anti-government protest in Dublin who carried a sign reading “Make Bono Pay Taxes.”

The stagnant music and bourgeois lyrics on No Line on the Horizon merely underline how intensely out of synch music U2 have become with the needs of their own fans. In a time of global recession, when people are losing their jobs and homes, few want to hear a pampered Pop-star talk about his “sexy boots.” Even fewer want a tax evader pronouncing that we’re the ones who need to pony up to solve poverty. There is a lot of better music out there—music that dodges condescending notions of charity and takes up the mantle of concrete solidarity. Right now, that’s what the people of this planet need.

Special thanks to Shaun Harkin, Eamonn McCann and the folks at Rock & Rap Confidential for providing some of the key source materials.

This article first appeared at Socialist Worker.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

He Still Has a Hammer...

Don't we all wish we could have this guest list for our birthday party? If anyone has earned it, it's Pete Seeger. There would be no rebel music without this man, and he has been lucky enough to watch five generations of artists build on the tradition he practically founded.

Pete turns 90 in May, and his birthday celebration will be at none other than Madison Square Garden. Naturally, it will be a musical event, most likely with other artists singing one of the countless songs he wrote or sang during seven decades as a labor activist, environmentalist, civil rights activist, and socialist.

Check out this lineup: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Eddie Vedder, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Tom Morello, John Mellencamp, Taj Mahal, Dar Williams, Ben Harper, Bela Fleck, Kris Kristopherson, Michael Franti, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, and much more.

Who will play what? Who knows? But anyone on this list would be able to adapt any of Pete's songs; he is just that influential, just that universal, just that much of an architect.

The show will be on May 30th, and proceeds will go to benefit the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Tickets will go on sale March 30th through Ticketmaster (and yes, I am uncomfortable urging my readers to patronize that service, but hey, it's for Pete Seeger).


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

From Fallujah to County Antrim

It's an inescapable truth on March 17th, inevitable as shamrocks and Guinness. Be you Irish or not, you are almost certain to hear the distinct lilt of the Emerald Isle's music at one time or another this St. Patrick's Day.

The affect Irish culture has had on American music is undeniable—from the raucous jolt of Flogging Molly to the bagpipe-tinged blue-collarisms of Dropkick Murphys. But like so many of this country's rich popular traditions, its true character is so often papered over, substituting substance with cheap stereotype.

The tragedy of this is that in a time of war, inequality and economic collapse, a dose of Ireland's insurgent spirit is more needed than ever. The Land of Eire has a long history of strife and struggle, and there is no lack of acts willing to channel the country's proud tradition of true rebel music.

Case in point: Black 47. Named for the worst year of the Irish Potato Famine (1847), this NYC-based group has never in their twenty-year history shied away from its members' radical views.

"The band was formed to be political," says front-man Larry Kirwan, a native of Wexford who emigrated to New York in 1970. "Back in 1989, Bob Marley was dead, The Clash had broken up, the world was still political, but rock music didn't seem to have anything that was saying anything political. And we felt there was a need for it."

At a time when anyone who stood on the side of Irish nationalists was likely branded a "terrorist," Black 47 were unapologetically calling for a 32-county workers' republic. They penned Celtic rock anthems dedicated to figures like socialist icon James Connolly and H-Block hunger striker Bobby Sands. And when the US invaded Iraq six years ago, Black 47's opposition turned them into unlikely targets at their shows:

"Oddly enough, the invasion was set in motion on St. Patrick's Day, 2003," says Kirwan. "And on that night at the Knitting Factory in NYC, we became a lightning rod in the resistance to the war: scuffles erupted, people walked out, CDs were smashed. Forget about green beer, what a way to celebrate St. Patrick!"

With this experience in mind, Black 47 released their album Iraq one year ago, on St. Patrick's Day, 2008—the fifth anniversary of the invasion. Like countless anti-war artists, the group sustained a great amount of criticism for releasing this album—especially on a holiday that is widely regarded as part of American culture.

But Black 47 are largely bulletproof against such criticism for two reasons. One: it wasn't too long ago that a significant portion of Ireland was itself occupied by a foreign army. Two: most of the lyrics on the album are inspired by conversations with Black 47 fans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's on these tracks that Kirwan employs a rich tradition of storytelling that runs deep through Irish music. Many of the stories are hard to listen to. They are filled with IEDs, civilian slaughter and fallen comrades. Some even reflect the virulent brand of Islamophobia that soldiers have drilled into their heads as part of their training—a controversial choice for a band that have stood against racism since their inception. There is no doubt, however, that all these songs are impassioned calls against a senseless and violent war that can't end soon enough.

Just ask the protagonist of "Stars and Stripes," the story of a young soldier watching his friend die in front of his eyes set to a tense guitar riff, pounding drums and driving horns:

"So hoist up your stars and stripes
I'm gonna break out tonight
Johnny, hold on man! Whatever you do don't let go!
Hey President Bush
What are you doing to us?
We've been through hell, man, it's time we went home!"

References to "President Bush" certainly make the album sound a bit dated (it was released a year ago after all). With President Obama's "withdrawal" program falling well short of actual withdrawal, however, the songs like this may only become more urgent.

Black 47's blend of rock, blues and Celtic folk lends itself surprisingly well to these tales. Kirwan's jerky delivery is reminiscent of Elvis Costello having a sudden relapse of give-a-damn. The group's horn section is nothing if not rousing. Ultimately, however, this album is at its best at its most... well, Irish. Tracks like "Downtown Baghdad Blues," "Last One to Die" and "Ramadi" feature prominent use of traditional instruments like uilleann pipes and the pennywhistle, giving each song the unmistakable feeling of literally soldiering on despite impossible odds.

By letting this strong folk tradition run through their songs, Black 47 have effectively lent their voices to telling a story that is still, even after six years, rarely heard: that of ordinary soldiers struggling to hold onto a shred of humanity in extraordinarily inhuman circumstances. That's perhaps its most pronounced when the group pay tribute to one of the best-known Irish-American rebels on "Ballad of Cindy Sheehan":

"I didn't want to be part of history
I was happy enough back home
If only I had my Casey beside me
Instead of hearing his voice forever on heaven's telephone"

The countless green plastic hats and lucky leprechauns that accompany St. Patrick's Day belie Ireland's living legacy of anti-imperialism and working class struggle. It's a legacy that can be seen today in everything from the recent actions against the US military base at Shannon to the current factory occupation at Waterford Crystal and the increasing calls for a national strike at the end of March.

That vibrant legacy can also be heard in the music of Black 47. To hell with the leprechauns. This St. Patty's Day, put on the Iraq album, raise a pint to Connolly and Sands, and join the protests against a war that should have never started in the first place.

This article originally appeared at ZNet.


"Tiocfaidh Ar La" Motherfuckers...

It wouldn't be St. Patrick's Day if I didn't post this video. I recognize that I just mentioned this group in my Weekly Playlist, but nonetheless...

Marxman (yeah, I know, right? You get the pun) are a Hip-Hop group that few know nowadays, and there's a certain tragedy in that--as there is with many groups formed in the UK that Americans simply don't hear about. Their roots lie in the meeting of rapper Hollis Byrne (a.k.a. H) and DJ Oisin Lunny in Dublin. After moving to London in 1989, the duo soon added MC Phrase (a.k.a. Stephen Brown, the son of Bristol-born son of Jamaican immigrants) and second DJ Kay One.

Brought together by their love for Rap and a commitment to the ideas of revolutionary socialism, they formed a group that would be short-lived, but would have a massive (though largely unappreciated) contribution to music. Their repetitive beats that pulled great influence from Reggae and Northern Soul would, along with fellow Bristol groups Massive Attack and Portishead, leave a schematic for the soon-to-be-dubbed Trip-Hop scene. Given that half the group was from Irish, it was only natural that they blend in the native sounds of Ireland like tin whistle and such (as you can hear in the track below), and also stand up to the centuries oppression of the six northern counties by Britain.

And therein may lie the reason we haven't heard of Marxman today. Labeling a group "the Anglo-Irish answer to Public Enemy" may carry with is a great amount of street cred, but the folks at the BBC obviously balked. Their single "Sad Affair" gained a great amount of attention upon release, but was ultimately banned from the airwaves after Hollis uttered the words "tiocfaidh ar la"--the unofficial slogan of Irish Republicanism--in the song. Though it was obviously the move of paranoid producers at a time when the memory of the Troubles was still fresh, it had an adverse affect on the group's career, and after two albums, Marxman went their separate ways.

The video below is from their first album 33 Revolutions Per Minute, released in 1993. Featuring singer Sinead O'Connor (perhaps you've heard of her?), it is an iron-hard rebuke to worldwide oppression, tying together the colonization of Ireland with the entire bloody history of British empire, and in turn with modern wage slavery with effortless rhyme and flow. It is a mesmerizing track that stirs solidarity and militancy within all but the most cynical. Not only further proof that Hip-Hop engulfed the globe long ago, but that its natural instinct is toward freedom and equality, no matter who picks up on it.

Today is a St. Patty's Day unique in recent years. The economy of Ireland is disintegrating, and has already provoked massive protests, as well as talk of a general strike on the 30th of March. The shadow of sectarianism has also recently returned to the North, despite all the mealy-mouthed lip-service towards a "peace process." This track reminds of the militant working-class struggle that is ingrained in the history that small island. The time has come once again, for us to say tiocfaidh ar la--our day will come.


A thousand cultures stolen ships that came sailing
Sighted from the shoreline people stood waiting
But armies came invading and raiding to conquer
Understood nothing of a land that stood longer
But might was much stronger than right could ever be
Took away the land planned a new destiny
Butchery and murder and still I say murder
Butchery and murder and still I say murder

Wait! Hold up 'cause Phrase will break the mould
Culture growing stronger aging never old
Death accelerating, and I don't want to die
Fish hooked by a ship, Lord take me where I lie
Gone were the lucky ones, disease or suicide
The pride of survivors to cry for those that died
To resurrect the status and overcome the ploy
No bells or beads to barter for this young black boy

Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die
Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die

Gone are the days now the ships cease to sail
I don't think so what does a wage entail
Nine of five slavery or a twenty four seven
Most slaves tricked by the promise of a heaven
Controlled by the sound of a whip that goes sack
Mind - forged manacles make sure there's no slack
Think your not a slave, 'cause no whip marks your back
Now a bureaucrat wields the nine tails of the cat

Ain't nothing changed but the weather the song remains the same
Hollis comes left set up upon the Lamebrain
You can't tame the beast, the beast can't be changed
Have to smash the system, wisdom rearranged
Slavery claimed to be histories mystery
Wished it could be....It's still part of we
Search and look around my birthplace is torn
But England has fallen dusk negates dawn

Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die
Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die

Ship ahoy, ship ahoy, now they call it perestroika
Mandela's free but still can't stop the slaughter
Now they call it free trade, free choice for all
But the real freedom is ten per cent small
Freedom is a song which the caged bird sings
They keep the key all we see is the keyring
Fooled by the glisten, but the glisten is not gold
And I will not buy the beads that I'm sold

I stand here stand clear truth be my witness
How many Hitlers before you see the litmus
Test I won't rest, slave who won't behave
And no I want not the freedom of the slave
If the East wants the beast let the beast roam
'Cause in the East the death of the beast was sown
You can fool the people that they're equal
But you won't fool me with a sequel

Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die.
Ship ahoy
Lord take me where I lie, don't let my children die.


Monday, March 16, 2009

New Labour to Musicians: Get Bent!

The Labour Party in the UK hasn't been a party for workers for a long time. Now it's clear that it isn't a party for musicians either.

According to the NME, New Labour has announced its intention to terminate its "New Deal for Musicians" program, which was started in 1999 with support from Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn, Oasis and others. The program was started along the same lines as programs for artists, writers, playwrights and musicians during Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. Under the program, unemployed musicians were given supplemented dole income as well as access to studios, instruments and equipment to cut demos or produce an album.

The program (or "scheme" as it's called on the Isles) was started based on the assertion that forcing musicians into traditional job searches can stifle their creativity--which, as any number of artists who have been chained to rat-race can tell you, is absolutely true. Over the past decade, its has provided a basic living for 4,000 musicians looking to make a career of their talent, including The Zutons, Welsh singer Jem, and Brit Award-nominated songster James Morrison.

According to the Independent newspaper:

"Morrison was given the cash for a guitar when he joined the New Deal for Musicians, and spent all his time writing songs and playing live. Two years later his debut album, Undiscovered, reached number one in Britain and was a massive hit around the world. He told The Independent he was awarded a record deal on the strength of a song he recorded while on the New Deal. 'Going on the scheme helped me out a lot,' he said yesterday. 'I had no money; I was signing on. I got that bit extra to help me through. I got a new guitar. Without the help from the New Deal, I would have struggled to do what I was doing.'"

This writer can personally vouch for the good that programs like this do for artists. During the time I spent living in London, I went to countless theaters and art galleries that receive large amounts of public money. Several shows I went to were essentially staged on the government's dime. The cushion of guaranteed funding allowed artists and writers to create without the demand of "marketability" hanging over their head, and the quality of the art that I took in was markedly more interesting than most you will see in this country, where federal funding for the arts is possibly more anemic than any other Western nation.

With economies plummeting world-wide, with entire industries collapsing under the weight of their own greed, public funding for schools, hospitals and community programs are the first on the chopping block for governments. The tragedy is that the slashing of these programs puts people one step closer to the street. With the crisis in the record industry sharpened by the recession, the labels are going to be taking it out on their artists.

Now, with Labour's approval ratings in the tank, the party is as good as guaranteeing that struggling artists will have to struggle even more. The Party is claiming that they won't be doing away with the program entirely, but rather replacing it with a "Flexible New Deal" in October. "Flexible" is a word to be dreaded. It's nothing more than boss-code for "give it back."

The effective scrapping of this program isn't simply because of the economic crisis, however. The program could easily continue in its present form if Labour would start standing up to British record execs and demand they put their fair share into the pot.

Alas, Gordon Brown and company clearly have no intention of doing just that. Labour hasn't acted like any kind of labor or social democratic party for quite some time. Though they still manage to give a great deal more lip service to the working class than any major party in the States, Brown and Tony Blair have spent the past fifteen years making the party's final peace with British capitalism, in essence transforming it into the British equivalent of the Democratic Party here in the US. The Dems only created the New Deal to head off social revolution, so great was the working class rebellion during that decade. Today, of course, few of those programs exist at all, and public funding for artists is as good as dead.

What's the lesson here? Don't trust politicians with our art, especially in a time of recession. If we want it to thrive, we need for fight for it ourselves.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. K'naan - Troubadour
This MC may hail from the streets of Mogadishu, but he's most definitely got West Coast revivalism on his mind. That doesn't stop him, however, with bringing some real originality to his rhymes and some nice flow too. His beats blend in a good amount of '70s Funk influence, as well as Reggae, Rock, Soul and R&B, but the twist he gives to all of it meshes each of these influences together in a unique way. This is definitely fun, different Hip-Hop with a great amount of gravitas.

2. Jeff Buckley - Sketches of My Sweetheart the Drunk
Not only does this album contain Buckley's legendary version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but provides a unique look at an incredible artist gone way too soon. Buckley drowned while making My Sweetheart the Drunk so it's rough and unfinished on many of the tracks, but none of the songs leave you wanting. He had soul, swagger, and an unbelievable amount of vulnerability in his music. That his short career still echoes in music today is proof of how amazing he was, but it also only adds to the tragedy.

3. The King Blues - Save The World. Get The Girl
The King Blues bring a very off-beat sensibility to their version of Punk and Reggae, mixing in an unusual amount of acoustic instrumentation. Very little of this album smacks of what we think of as "Punk." The attitude, passion and commitment are what make it stand in a tradition. And it is unmistakably part of that tradition. The closing track "What If Punk Never Happened" roots them there, as well as makes clear that we would have almost no rebel music if not for the raucous sound of '77. It's also intensely relevant today and we are in definite need of more of it.

4. Marxman - 33 Revolutions Per Minute
Never heard of these guys? Neither have most on this side of the Atlantic, and that's a damn shame. Formed in 1989 in London, they were called the Anglo-Irish answer to Public Enemy. Revolutionary socialists all, they were banned from the BBC for their hit single "Ship Ahoy" (featuring Sinead O'Connor on vocals during the chorus), which included MC Hollis Byrne uttering the phrase "tiocfaidh ar la"--the motto of the IRA. Though their time was short-lived, their hypnotic, bass-heavy beats were integral in the formation of "the Bristol sound," later known as Trip-Hop.

5. Sonic Boom Six - Arcade Perfect
Punk, Rap and Reggae are all thrown together by this British five-piece. Remember the rise of lame Ska-Punk in the '90s? The "third wave"? Yeah, this isn't it. As a matter of fact, Sonic Boom Six prove that the collision of the two genres can be done in an organic, rebellious way as opposed to becoming easy prey for the industry. In fact, between SB6 and The King Blues, one wonders if Britain might be the location producing a fourth wave of Ska mixed. London hosts a music scene where no genre ever really dies away, and that kind of continuity roots the group's sound profoundly well.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Staying Tuned...

As readers may remember, I recently announced that due to some long-term activist and writing projects, Friday articles--which previously came out every week--would only come out every other week. You may have also noticed that the pace of posts has slowed to a consistent Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Sunday. Though the Friday articles will, with few exceptions, continue coming out every week, I will, starting next week, be posting more frequently.

Here's just a sampling of some upcoming posts and articles you can expect here at Rebel Frequencies:

-A St. Patrick's Day special review of Black 47's most recent album, Iraq.

-My thoughts on Simon Reynolds' intense and fantastic Rip It Up And Start Again. I've been meaning to put up my thoughts on this book for quite some time, and in general, I'm looking to put up more book reviews--most as posts, but a few as full-on articles.

-Thoughts on the increasing return of synth in both Rock and Hip-Hop and what it means for a "post-industrial" society.

-A review of the upcoming Pete Doherty solo album Grace/Wastelands.

-A Marxist look at the past, present and future of Hip-Hop in an era of economic crisis and bottom-up struggle.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The world isn't a vampire, Billy... just you.

Billy Corgan's letter to Congress is beyond infuriating. In the letter, which appeared yesterday on Jim DeRogatis' blog at the Chicago Sun-Times, Corgan spoke in favor of the proposed Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger currently being reviewed by the Congressional Committee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights (Corgan was also on Capitol Hill yesterday to personally stump for the merger).

Let's face it: Corgan hasn't really cared about music over profit for a long time. His Smashing Pumpkins "reunion" was a bald-faced cash-grab that couldn't even rally half the band to the cause. The little fact that Corgan's manager, Jim Azoff, is also the CEO of Ticketmaster obviously has a big affect on the Bald One's position, and strips his testimony of any potential credibility whatsoever.

The ultimate fallacy of Corgan's statement, however, is that it lies on the assumption that artists have something to gain by uniting with the industry. He starts from the correct assumption that the traditional music industry is in a lot of trouble, that they are holding back innovation that make the production and distribution of music a lot easier, and most record labels are suffering for it. And because there is little money to be made by artists on album sales, the way most end up supporting themselves is through touring and shows.

But here is where Corgan goes off track... way off track:

"Artists now find a heavy shift of emphasis to the live performance side, and this is where this merger finds its merit. The combination of these companies creates powerful tools for an independent artist to reach their fans in new and unprecedented ways, all the while restoring the power where it belongs. In today's ever changing world, the ability for artists to connect to their fans and stay connected is critical for the health of our industry. Without sustainable, consistent economic models upon which to make key decisions, it is both the music and the fans that suffer.

"In short, we have a broken system. This is a new model that puts power into the hands of the artist, creating a dynamic synergy that will inspire great works and attract healthy competition. The proposed merger you have before you helps create those opportunities by boldly addressing the complexity of the existing musical and economic landscapes."

This is nothing more than a rhetorical sleight of hand. A private monopoly--which is precisely what is being proposed here--is no way to protect or empower working fans or artists. It's as true now as it was in the days of Standard Oil and the railroad barons.

Ticketmaster and Live Nation have both been implicated for price-gouging. In the '90s, several artists famously brought Ticketmaster to court for the outrageous prices they were demanding from fans. In the most well-known recent example, Bruce Springsteen was livid to find out that those attempting to buy tickets to his show through Live Nation were re-routed to a ticket auction site! Do we really want to be putting more power in these kinds of money-grubbing hands?

Since the beginning of the recession last year, several artists have already reported a significant dip in their ticket sales. High prices have long been looked at as a kind of necessary evil for music fans, but with jobs flying out the window, a lot fewer people are finding themselves able to pay out the nose. Putting more power in the hands of Live Nation and Ticketmaster won't do anything to lower prices, and when push comes to shove, the new monopoly will most likely put pressure on the artists to make up for the loss in profit.

Corgan might be in the small handful of artists who stand something to gain from this merger, but I assure you, the vast majority of artists are not in that category.

If the record companies and ticket promoters are indeed in trouble (and they are), then perhaps it's time we do the exact same thing this country should be doing to the banks: nationalize them. Seize the assets of CEOs and use them to provide artists with a basic standard of living that enables them to create. Put a price cap on tickets and albums, and invest in new technologies that allow artists to reach their fans directly. We don't need the industry. It needs us. It's time we threw this artistic parasite--and the entire system--into the dustbin of history.


Monday, March 9, 2009

It's a lot bigger than Rihanna

The Rihanna/Chris Brown debacle is looking to be the most controversial domestic abuse case since Tina left Ike. Ever since the couple failed to make either of their Grammy night appearances due to Brown's assault on Rihanna, the story has continued to snowball to the point where anchors are merely rattling off catch-phrases to describe the ongoing scandal.

We have seen reporters and anchors go from shock at Brown's outburst and dismay at Rihanna's injuries to villanizing both of them. But as always, all the sound and fury in the world can't substitute for a deeper look at what this horrifying episode reveals about the sick society we live in.

First of all, would the media be stirring up such furor if either of these artists were white? The switcheroo on the media's portrayal of Brown has gone from the happy-go-lucky, charismatic artist from the Double Mint commercials to a brooding, threatening savage. The quickness with which he has gone from "good negro" to "bad negro" is stark enough to show how narrowly this system still views African Americans.

And then there is the way in which reporters are increasingly turning toward blaming Rihanna! When her people announced that the performer had gotten back together with Brown, anchors and pundits pointed the finger at her for "setting a bad example" for women everywhere.

Is it really Rihanna that is setting the bad example? Isn't this kind of reporting, which puts the blame on the shoulders of the victim, a lot more damaging? What about the way the media itself views women? Domestic abuse is a serious, terrifying phenomenon that keeps countless women living in fear, but it doesn't just come out of thin air.

From music videos to Hollywood movies to beer commercials to the nightly news, men and women are both bombarded daily with countless images of women as little more than servants to men. Rihanna herself is a perfect example. The music industry have built her entire career on the image of her as a sexualized, empty-headed hottentot. Little notions like "talent," "intelligence," or "depth" are mere afterthoughts.

This is the daily culture we live in. Empty notions of "tolerance" and "equality" don't stand a chance in the face of all this. The tabloids and talk shows love to place the blame for society's problems on the shoulders of individual people. After all, it's a lot easier than taking a serious look at the fundamental inequities of our world.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Beast - Beast
I was just about ready to throw the towel in on Trip-Hop until I heard this CD. This Montreal duo have created a deep and sultry mix of rock, Hip-Hop, dub and electro that doesn't let itself get bogged down by its own density. There is an immediacy on this record that most of today's downbeat acts seem to have lost somewhere along the way (Portishead, I'm looking in your direction). Part Massive Attack, part Scratch Perry, part RATM, Beast have shown that there's still room for dynamic, dubbed out electronica.

2. Black 47 - Iraq
Anyone else want to get themselves ready for St. Paddy's Day with some real Irish rebel music? Released one year ago, this album has once again proven Black 47 to be one of the cutting edge Celtic rock bands out there. Iraq is straightforward in its mission, recounting the experiences of working-class soldiers being sent to die for a war not in their interest. There's even ballad dedicated to Cindy Sheehan here! Though the days of the Troubles are becoming more of a distant memory, this CD, and the Irish factory occupations show that the insurgent Irish spirit is still alive and kicking.

3. Clann Zu - Rua
Every year or so, I return to this album and think about what a shame it is that this group broke up when they did. With everything shifting so quickly in music three years after Clann Zu's breakup, one wonders what kind of fertile ground they would find today. Though their influences and methods were very different from Beast, they might have had the same potential to innovate electro-based music with their radical blend of folk, punk and ambient music.

4. Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
Genius? Need you ask? This is the classic Mingus album. "Good-bye Mr. Pork Pie Hat" is here. So is "Fables of Faubus." Timeless doesn't begin to describe these compositions. Listening closely enough, it's not hard to hear the influence this unrelenting artist had not only on the free jazz of the '70s, but on Rap, Funk, Soul, even Punk music. That he has yet to be remembered in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is tragic given the immeasurable affect he had on just about every form of popular music after him.

5. The Roots - The Next Movement
Their new gig on "The Late Show" has me going back to examine The Roots through the years. This small, four-song single-EP still hits me with its dynamism and relevancy. They were still in their instrument-based, jazz-hop phase here (it is, after all, circa late-'90s), but you can already hear them starting to reach to bigger heights with their lyrical themes and musical palette. It's something of a double-edged sword, because as the group has evolved to a darker sound, there is still something timelessly stylish about this slice of Illadelph.


Friday, March 6, 2009

A Woman's Place is In The Struggle!

The first International Women's Day on record was celebrated 100 years ago this year by the US Socialist Party. Over the past century it has come to mark several moments in history when women played an integral role in the struggle for a better world. In 1910, the German socialist Clara Zetkin submitted that it be celebrated world-wide. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, it was used to honor the countless women textile workers who died at the hands of their employers in that tragedy. In 1913, on the eve of World War I, peace rallies were held across Europe by woman activists and socialists. IWD demonstrations in 1917 provided the opening bell for the Russian Revolution.

Though it went largely forgotten in the US during subsequent decades, it was revived in the midst of the Women's Liberation Movement in the 1960's. Today, so much mainstream rhetoric says we live in a "post-feminist" society, but there are countless more fights to be taken up. Abortion rights must be defended, affordable health-care and child-care are rights that would benefit men and women, and the ultimate struggle to put women on equal footing as men is far from over.

It's not for nothing that every era of rebel music has had women at the forefront. So, in true High Fidelity fashion here's my top five. This is in chronological order, not preferential, and there were plenty of runners-up (no dis to Joan Baez, Odetta, Erykah Badu or Queen Latifah, not to mention the entire Riot Grrrl movement), but these videos say a lot about what a big role women have played in the struggle.

Billie Holiday

Nina Simone

Ani DiFranco

Lauryn Hill



Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The End of Illadelph?

I'm sure many others had the same reaction when watching the debut of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon": "The Roots gave up touring for this?"

For sure, seeing one of the most vibrant live acts in music give up their legendary shows to be a backup band for the terminally wooden Fallon is puzzling to say the least. Black Thought and ?uestlove know how to get a crowd moving all on their own. Playing vamps for a talk show, becoming simply a part of the set, seems like a waste of that rare talent.

It's easy to balk at the prospect of one of the most stylishly rebellious acts in Hip-Hop to start playing talk shows. Plenty of music bloggers have done just that. But the sheer volume of the hemming and hawing overstates the case. For one, The Roots have not "given up live shows." Written into their contract is the stipulation that they have ten weeks off a year to tour outside of the Philly-New York area. For a group that once played 200 shows a year, it's a big switch, but it's far from giving up tours. The group also continues to work on material for an upcoming new album. Rumors that equate the move to "Late Night" with hanging it all up seem to miss these crucial points.

The decision for them to take on their gig at "Late Night" has to be viewed from the point of view of one of the hardest working bands in the world during a time of economic crisis. When the recession hit last fall, The Roots, like most other acts, saw their tickets sales hit hard. For Black Thought and ?uestlove, who both have families and are pushing forty, such a hectic schedule simply didn't seem tenable.

It would be wrong to not take note the of significance of the first Hip-Hop house band in the history of "Late Night." Hardly earth-shaking, but worth pointing out. In the grand picture, it's part of the overall shift the genre is experiencing right now: towards a greater amount of legitimacy and mainstream acceptance in the wake of the Obama campaign.

By that same token, though, much of the concern for the group becoming watered-down are legit. When ?uesto asked his friend Branford Marsalis about the move, the iconic sax-man advised against it. His own words, in fact, were "you'll be neutered." Marsalis should know. He walked away from his contract as Jay Leno's bandleader in the early 1990s.

The Legendary Roots Crew have made a name for themselves over the past fifteen years because they have pushed the envelope and always culled Hip-Hop's rebel voice the way few others have. One of the last times they showed up on a late night talk show, they were promoting Rising Down--a dense, raw album that was admitted as their most political to date--and wore all black to protest the verdict in the Sean Bell case.

Will they bring that kind of incendiary spirit to the stages of "Late Night?" Hard to imagine when they're only given a few seconds of camera time each night. But of course, time will tell.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Activists Target Bono's Bullshit

This article from the Guardian was sent out via Rock 'n' Rap Confidential. U2 have been at the forefront of the "solve-poverty-by-buying-stuff" crowd for a long time. Nobody has bothered to ask them how their financial choices have been harming poor people. For quite some time, the group have operated their business in a tax haven based in the Netherlands--which has deprived the Irish government of funds that could be used to fight poverty at home and abroad.

Last week a group of protesters, led by the Debt and Development Coalition Ireland, rallied in front of the Irish Department of Finance in Dublin, bringing attention to U2's shady practices:

DDCI's Nessa Ni Chasaide said: "We wanted to raise our concern that while Bono has championed the cause of fighting poverty and injustice in the impoverished world, the fact is that his band has moved part of its business to a tax shelter in the Netherlands."

She added: "Tax avoidance and tax evasion costs the impoverished world at least $160 million (£142.5m) every year. This is money urgently required to bring people out of poverty.

"U2 is just one part of the problem. This is a much wider and systemic problem in our global financial system. Every company and individual has the responsibility to pay the right amount of tax."

The protest fell on the eve of the release of U2's new album No Line on the Horizon.

Update: On the same day as this protest, Irish journalist and socialist Eamonn McCann wrote a scathing rebuke to U2's refusal to pay taxes that can be viewed here at CounterPunch. It should be viewed in the right light: any rich person who refuses to pay taxes that could go to creating jobs and rebuilding infrastructure should be held accountable. That's true in Ireland, and that's true in the United States.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. India.Arie - Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics
India.Arie is definitely one of the most controversial artists in neo-soul. Fans either love her or hate her; there is very little middle ground. But then, this is the risk run by artists who don't compromise. Arie's latest effort has her bolder than ever. Whether she is coyly treating us to an insider's view of sexual desire on "Chocolate High" or railing against money spent on wars while New Orleans crumbles on "There's Got To Be a Better Way," one never doubts that they are listening to the exact album Arie wanted to make. That in itself is a rare treat.

2. The Redskins - Neither Washington Nor Moscow
I've been listening to the Redskins all week--not the football team, but the revolutionary socialist soul band from Britain. Readers would do well to look this group up. They were all socialist skinheads (hence the name) in who played blistering agit-soul in the early '80s. They were incredibly active in anti-Nazi activities and solidarity with the miners' strike against the Thatcher government. Their lyrics were agitational to the point of being almost didactic at times, but their music could get you moving! Just a glimpse of the heights that great radical music can climb to in our times.

3. Mr. Scruff - Keep It Unreal
Sometimes the best way you can pay tribute to your favorite artists is by completely reinventing them. Make no mistake: Mr. Scruff is deliberately quirky and iconoclastic, but he manages to maintain an artistic center. His deconstruction of jazz classics don't represent a lampooning so much as a deep reverence for the greats that came before him. At the same time, he gives himself permission to experiment the way that few would allow themselves when regarding another artists' material. Certainly gives you a different take on "originality," doesn't it?

4. Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line
Six months after I saw this group one of their first gigs at a small house party in Syracuse, they were playing at CMJ. Not long after they had a record deal and being dubbed a "band to look out for" by several outlets. The Rhumb Line showed up on several "best of '08" lists. There is a muscly sensitivity here--a description that might seem paradoxical until you hear their jangling guitars mixed with the swirl of violin and cello. Fans of music that wears its heart on its sleeve without getting calloused will definitely like this album.

5. Roots Manuva - Slime & Reason
Manuva's ability to reinvent himself and his sound several times over has definitely put him on the map as one of the best MCs to come out of England--and is living proof that despite the endless elitism over Hip-Hop's direction, the UK may indeed be showing a way forward. His stripped-down rhymes, his willingness to mash-up funk, dub, reggae and electroclash into his beats, and above all his sense of playfulness make Slime & Reason a strong effort. Not as strong as 2005's Awfully Deep, but strong enough to be classic Manuva, and that's more than sufficient.