Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hip-Hop is Not Dead... It Lives in Palestine

Though this film premiered more than two years ago, recent months have seen its popularity skyrocket. Little wonder why. Solidarity with Palestine is at a level we haven't seen in at least a decade. The following review is from Socialist Worker. Ann Coleman puts the film in a historical context; trying times call for movies that ask difficult questions and challenge traditional assumptions. Slingshot Hip-Hop does that, and it's amazing to see attention for it continue two years later.

Two quick notes: look for a review of a recent Gaza solidarity show that includes an interview with DAM's Mahmoud Jreri very soon on this blog, and you will also be able to see the movie (if you haven't seen it yet) at the Chicago Socialism 2009 conference.


The beats of Resistance

By Ann Powers

There are only a handful of movies that resonate with my political consciousness. More times than not, they are more historical, showing a glimpse of the history that has been stripped away or omitted from textbooks.

Through the late 1980s and 1990s, movies like Matewan and Land and Freedom inspired me to put my own political work into a historical context and move forward with an inspirational mantra for the ups and downs of class struggle: someday, we will rebuild that kind of fightback.

What I've noticed recently is that I'm running into more and more movies that resonate with the political questions of the day, or that take historical material and show a way forward for today's struggles. In November, it was Milk, which showed the historical struggle of Harvey Milk and the gay rights struggle of the early 1970s. Its release was timed to show the failure of the campaign to stop anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California and a way forward for overturning the hate legislation and winning gay rights once and for all.

On April 5, I went to a screening of Slingshot Hip Hop in Cambridge, Mass. This documentary is not just your average hip-hop cultural documentary. First-time Palestinian-American filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum spent four-and-a-half years gathering over 700 hours of footage without funding or film crews.

Covering Arab rap artists inside Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Salloum often had to convince friends to get video cameras to the artists since Israeli officials broke or confiscated equipment upon her entry or departure from the country. Most of the footage was shot by the artists themselves.

The documentary follows "48-ers" (Arabs inside Israel) DAM, with MCs Suhell Nafar, Tamer Nafar and Mahmoud Jreri; Palestinian Rapperz (PR) from Gaza with Mohammad Al Farra and Mahmoud Fayad; and West Bank artist Mahmoud Shalabi. Undeniably, DAM broke new ground in the late 1990s by developing rap in Hebrew and Arabic inspired by African American hip hop.

The documentary addresses honestly DAM's early apolitical inspiration and aims--hip hop was cool and allowed them to escape the realities of life under Israeli occupation. In 2000, the second intifada and Israel's response changed everything. Since then, DAM have spearheaded and inspired other artists to create some of the best political hip hop in the world.

The artists included in the documentary, such as female MCs Arapeyat and Sabreena Da Witch (Abeer), cover in their music the daily struggles of the Palestinian people and the violence caused by Israeli occupation. The screening of Slingshot Hip Hop in Cambridge included a question and answer session with filmmaker Salloum and DAM. When asked what would bring peace to the Middle East, DAM said it best, "Our first priority must be to stop the occupation. You can end slavery, but it does not mean you have granted freedom."

The film follows the artists, their lives, and their struggle to connect the struggles of Arabs inside Israel to the struggles in the West Bank and Gaza. It shows the lengths to which Israeli officials go not only to keep the people and land separated and barricaded, but also to prevent artists from performing together on the same stage.

This wasn't the first time Slingshot Hip Hop was screened in the Boston area; it opened the Palestinian Film Festival in the fall of 2008 after its premiere as a selected documentary in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. What has changed since then is Israel's most recent brutal attack on Gaza. The Cambridge screening and sold-out DAM concert by DAM, which were organized as a fundraiser for the Palestinian Film Festival, were packed with both seasoned Palestine solidarity activists and newly radicalizing youth.

In terms of Palestinian resistance, DAM suggests there needs to be an alternative to Hamas. At the same time, DAM also told the audience, "The thing about oppressed people is you cannot tell them how to resist. They have the right to resist. We must all support the resistance." The audience applauded and raised their fists in the air.

It was at that moment that I realized how our own solidarity work for ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid is integral to that resistance.

Slingshot Hip Hop is now available on DVD and the soundtrack has just been released. Get a copy of both.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's gonna take a nitcomb to get rid of me...

A week-long absence. My apologies. Due to illness, I simply wasn't able to maintain Rebel Frequencies' regular posting schedule.

But, as the saying goes, you can't keep a good blog down. RF is back. Stay tuned as you always do for the same radical music journalism and commentary you know it for--including a review of a recent show here in Chicago in solidarity with Gaza!


Monday, April 20, 2009

A Spector is Haunting the Industry

A commonly heard description of Phil Spector among music aficionados is "brilliant but crazy." It may be glib, it may even be callous, but after his conviction in the murder of Lana Clarkson last week, it's hard to disagree with.

This was Spector's second trial in as many years; the first ended in a hung jury, with 10 to 2 in favor of conviction. Throughout the trials, he maintained that Clarkson killed herself in his Pyrenees Castle mansion in Alhambra, California in February, 2003.

It is not this writer's responsibility to comment on whether the verdict delivered was correct. But given Spector's long history of erratic and violent behavior, it's hard to take his assertion of suicide seriously. The mainstream music press treated his trials as circuses, spending more ink commenting on the legendary producer's eccentric dress than the content of what was said in court. This is a real shame, because this entire ordeal should be serving as a wake-up call for the entire music business.

To be sure, Spector's contribution to music is nothing short of historic. The "Wall of Sound" is one of the most enduring recording techniques for artists and producers today. Songs recorded and written by Spector are some of the most recognized in all of popular culture. In 1999, the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'" was named the song with the most radio airplay in the 20th century by Broadcast Music Incorporated. That "Lovin' Feelin'" was written and recorded by Spector is not for nothing, as the man has no doubt helped sell millions of albums around the world.

The lengths that he went to in order to achieve this unprecedented success, however, go beyond the point where one can label him an "eccentric." A better term might be "tyrant." He is a producer known for putting his artists through absurd and grueling experiences in order to get the desired sound. Input from the actual artists has mattered little to him during sessions. And if anyone has dared to challenge him, it has been very likely that they will soon find themselves literally staring down the barrel of a gun.

Leonard Cohen reported having a crossbow leveled at him by Spector during the sessions for Death of a Ladies' Man. The producer also allegedly fired his gun at John Lennon while the two were in the studio. During the recording of the Ramones' classic End of the Century, Spector forced Johnny Ramone to play the opening chord for "Rock 'n' Roll High School" hundreds of times. In a June, 1982 interview with Trouser Press, bass-player Dee Dee recounted an absurd story of Spector sequestering Joey Ramone for a three-hour a private meeting while forcing the rest of the group to wait in his massive home. After tiring of waiting, Dee Dee went looking for the two, only to run head first into one of Spector's violent outbursts:

"The next thing I knew Phil appeared at the top of the staircase, shouting and waving a pistol... 'Phil,' I challenged him, 'I don't know what your fucking problem is, waving that pistol and all that stuff... I've had it. I'm going back to the [Hotel] Tropicana.'...

'You're not going anywhere, Dee Dee,' Phil said.

He leveled the gun at my heart and then motioned for me and the rest of the band to get back in the piano room. He only holstered his pistol when he felt secure that his bodyguards could take over. Then he sat down at his black concert piano and made us listen to him play and sing 'Baby I Love You' until well after 4:30 in the morning."

Nobody understands Spector's history of violent megalomania better than Ronnie Ronette, lead singer of the Ronettes and Spector's ex-wife. In her autobiography, Ronette recounts how her then-husband once showed her a gold coffin with a glass top in his basement, and claimed that if she ever tried to leave him he would kill her and put her body on display. When Spector drifted into recluse in the early '70s, he even hid her shoes to prevent her from walking outside. Ronette escaped in 1972. "I can only say," she said, "that when I left in the early 1970s, I knew that if I didn't leave at that time, I was going to die there."

None of this is to villify Phil Spector. If there is anything this man needs, it is serious psychological help. So why, despite being an obvious danger to himself and others, did nobody else from the music industry intervene? More importantly, why were record companies willing to subject artists to Spector's well-known extreme behavior for more than forty years?

Answers to these questions might lie in the very role played by Spector's Wall of Sound. Nobody can deny the technique has been groundbreaking and influential in music. His innovation was to bring in countless session musicians to play the same part in unison with the artist, letting the sound reverberate and echo into the microphones, and creating a sound that was as broad and sweeping as a tidal wave. The upshot of this, though, is that it gives producers like Spector a greater amount of power over the artist.

Perhaps this is why none of the executives or moguls who have hired and worked with Spector over the years have spoken up. He may have been a violent, unstable control freak. He may have treated artists like commodities to be exploited and discarded, but he got results, and made millions for himself and the entire music industry. In the name of profit, that same industry turned a blind eye to his abusive behavior for four decades. It was only a matter of time until it ended in tragedy. We are all bound to hear endless comments in the coming weeks regarding how "sick" Phil Spector is. What we won't hear is that he is only one symptom of a rotten and diseased system.

This article first appeared at The Society for Cinema and Arts.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Gaza Needs Music Too

In times of war, the importance of music and art may be easy to forget. When the dust finally settles, however, we are reminded that life should be about more than mere survival. This is ultimately why places like the Gaza Music School(GMS) are so important. In the midst of daily degradation, GMS could be a place where kids come to learn and young creativity is allowed to flourish. It's hard to believe, then, that it was almost completely wiped off the map.

Prior to the foundation of the GMS, there were practically no institutions that taught music in Gaza. With resources systematically deprived of the region by the Israeli blockade, even basics like medicine were hard to come by. The arts might seem an unaffordable luxury.

But as the saying goes, "we want bread, and roses too." This was just as true for the children who attend the Qattan Center for the Child (QCC) in Gaza City. According to the Ramallah-based Qattan Foundation (which administers the center), "with each musical activity held at the QCC, whether a performance or a workshop, children were demanding more, including training to play musical instruments."

It was only a matter of time until the QCC decided "who are we to deny them?" Support wasn't hard to come by. International NGOs helped fund the project. The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem provided support too. In July of 2008, a space was rented out in the building of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in the Tel Al-Hawwa area of Gaza.

When the GMS began classes, it had five teachers and 31 students. A modest beginning, but its importance can't possibly be overstated. "Many parents sat in on the theory lessons so they could better support their kids' homework," says Ziad Khalaf, director of the Qattan Foundation.

And even though the picture painted of Hamas might lead one to believe that the School would have faced constant harassment from the Islamic administration, the fact is that the GMS went unhindered by the government in its development. Though several websites denounced it as in violation of Sharia, the School was given free rein to operate as it saw fit. Of the 31 original students, the majority were girls.

On the 23rd of December, the Gaza Music School held its first public performance at the PRCS. Four days later, it was under attack by the Israeli Defense Forces. While it didn't suffer a direct hit, the impact of the bomb across the street took out doors, windows, whole sections of wall, and several instruments.

Thankfully, no children were in the building during the attack. The only person in the building was Ibrahim Annajjar, program coordinator of the GMS, who sustained only minor injuries. Two days later, he returned to the building to store the remaining instruments in what he thought would be a safe place.

On January 14th, the remaining building was reduced to rubble. Almost every musical instrument and resource of the fledgling Gaza Music School was wiped out in Israel's brutal bombardment.

As we know, the leveling of the GMS was barely a fraction of the destruction wrought in Gaza. An estimated 1,400 people were killed in the recent invasion, the majority civilians. Israel has also created a humanitarian crisis. There is infrastructure and healthcare to get up and running, countless homes to rebuild. In the face of all this, the Gaza Music School might seem trivial. But music is as fundamental to human existence as any of these things.

"[P]rojects such as the GMS," says Qattan, "are a vital part of helping to protect Gazan society from collapse and particularly to ensure that children are able to recover from the brutal psychological impact of the invasion."

In this spirit the Qattan Foundation has undertaken the task of rebuilding the GMS, brick by brick, until the kids of Gaza have their music back. And as word spread about the project, the global solidarity it provoked has revealed it to be anything but trivial.

"We've had unprecedented response concerning the reopening effort of the GMS from individuals and organizations from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu and many spots in between," says Khalaf. The list of international groups he gives is impressive. The Edward Said Conservatory pitched in once again by playing concerts in Washington, DC and New York. He also mentions Gunilla Ronnberg, the owner of a small music school in Sweden who embarked on a series of concerts to draw attention to the GMS.

And in the midst of the large marches in response to Israel's bombardment, anti-war groups in the UK still found it important to pitch in. Khalaf points to several events held by the London-based Stop the War Coalition and Palestine Solidarity Campaign in conjunction with Musicians Against Nuclear War.

Progress made on the new school has been quick. Though the original Red Crescent building was damaged beyond repair, the PRCS were quick to donate a new space to the GMS. Though this space was also damaged, its rehabilitation is underway, and according to Khalaf, classes will resume by the end of April!

The Gaza Music School came dangerously close to extinction. Its story could have easily ended up another casualty of Israel's barbaric, decades-long occupation. Instead, it became a testament to the power of solidarity and the importance of music in our daily lives. The GMS inspired people from all over the globe to help out a group of children they had never met. If that can happen, then it's worth asking what else is possible when people bond together.

To learn more about the Gaza Music School go to

This article originally appeared at Socialist Worker and


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"That ever happen to you?" ...or... "You Have Nothing If You Have No Rights"

Ever since my post a few weeks back regarding the Manic Street Preachers, I have been almost completely unable to get this song out of my head. I've known about this song for years, and it has always been among my favorites, and yes, as a music journalist, I get songs stuck in my head all the time. But it's very, very rare that a song remains in my head for weeks on end. It's normally quite annoying, but not really so much with this one.

Given that I've had weeks to ruminate on it, it's become apparent that "If You Tolerate This..." is among a handful of songs that come close to perfectly executing the intersection between art and politics. It's about Welsh farmers signing up to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War, but steers clear from vague slogans or rhetoric. It's an intensely personal song--starting from the grinding isolation of daily life and the desire to break free of it. The video plays at this concept too. Both rely heavily on Situationist imagery and dive deep into what capitalism does to the soul. Copyright bullshit has prevented me from embedding the video, so please view it here.

On the surface, there is an immediate relevancy that this song has for today. In times like these, the rise of the far-right is a very real possibility. Example number one: the anti-tax demonstrations taking place in hundreds of cities today. These are not progressive demonstrations by any means. They may have a sheen of populist outrage to them; the protesters, like most, are undoubtedly angry about the billions of tax dollars being spent on the corporate bailouts. They are also steadfastly against that same money being spent on helping out the struggling millions in this country. They are predominantly white, middle class, and are nowhere near as affected by the foreclosures, the layoffs and the mounting debt that are crushing working-class Americans. They are strongly anti-socialist and anti-immigrant. Many protesters' "I have a problem with this president" rhetoric can be loosely translated to "I have a problem with this black president." Make no mistake, these demonstrations have the seed of fascism in them.

The relevancy of this song runs much deeper, though. Millions of people today are being exposed to the most inhumane and alienating elements of capitalism. The traditional avenues for finding "meaning" in our lives are out of reach for a growing number of people, and thus are revealed to be ultimately unfulfilling. What makes this song so timely is its insistence that we can once and for all banish the emptiness by fighting for a new and better world.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

K'Naan on Somalia, Imperialism and "Piracy"

In this interview with Davey D, Somali-born rapper K'Naan reveals the reality behind the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. Though the mainstream media here in the US have gone to great lengths to label the hijackers "pirates," there is a much bigger picture not being looked at: one of colonialism, US aggression, and environmental destruction.

K'Naan isn't the only one in the Hip-Hop community who feels this way. At a show I attended here in Chicago on Sunday, M1 of Dead Prez asked for a moment of silence for the three hijackers shot and killed by the US Navy. A handful of articles hit the newsstands yesterday that dared to take a more critical look than the blind flag-waving that Obama and company are attempting to whip up after the rescue of the Alabama's crew. Like most of what comes from the White House, the argument against "piracy" is built on sand.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Bank Robbin' Music

Anyone want to go rob a bank?

A couple of years ago this question might not have gotten so many takers. But a lot changes in a couple of years. In the public mind, banks have gone from places where you merely keep your money to places that... well, steal your money. And your house. And--either directly or indirectly--your job. And after all of this, after running the economy into the ground, they're rewarded with billions of tax-payer dollars to fund their own executives' bonus pay.

So, I ask again: anyone want to go rob a bank?

When Woody Guthrie wrote "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" in the late 1930s, there were no doubt plenty of folks who wished they could have done what Pretty Boy had. The joblessness and mass evictions ushered in by the Great Depression were accompanied by an uptick in outlaw gangs barnstorming the country, knocking over banks as they went. And though the presses did their best to villify him, Guthrie's perception of Floyd was that of a folk hero, someone who stuck it to the fat-cats and righted more than a few wrongs along the way.

Guthrie had written several songs about these gangs, but none seemed to be as brazen as his tribute to Floyd. In Woody Guthrie: A Life, biographer Joe Klein dove deep into the folkie's motivations:

"It was a song that was calculated to outrage 'proper' people and to entertain the Okies in the migrant camps... [I]f the police considered Pretty Boy a criminal, he was a hero to the poor farmers who gave him shelter and, in return for their hospitality, often found that their mortgage had been paid off or a thousand-dollar bill left at the dinner table... And if the point still wasn't quite clear, Woody hammered it home with two beautifully simple last verses:

Now as through this world I ramble
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

But as through this life you travel
And as through this world you roam
You will never see an outlaw
Drive a family from its home.

It was one of the first "outlaw anthems," in the truest sense of the word. "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" tapped into a simple story as old as Robin Hood: the rich are corrupt, greedy, and have only gotten to where they are by stepping on the necks of the poor. They deserve to be robbed, their wealth given back to the people it was stolen from in the first place.

The story of Guthrie's noble outlaw told runs deep through every form of popular music. Johnny Cash dared to humanize prisoners in songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," and played several legendary shows for inmates all over the country. Elvis Presley even made the outlaw lifestyle seem fun in "Jailhouse Rock."

When Punk broke out in the late '70s, The Clash consciously re-ignited this tradition with their cover of the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law." Joe Strummer--himself such a massive Guthrie fan that he had spent his art school days calling himself "Woody"--was fascinated with stories of outlaw justice. Several of his lyrics updated the bank robbin' song for Thatcher's Britain, most notably in the aptly-titled dub-step "Bankrobber":

"Daddy was a bankrobber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to steal your money

Some is rich, some is poor
That's the way the world is
But I don't believe in lying back
Sayin' how bad your luck is"

Like Guthrie, Strummer didn't give much credence to the idea of branding someone a criminal in a system that's based on robbing the poor to give to the rich:

"The old man spoke up in a bar
Said I never been in prison
A lifetime serving one machine
Is ten times worse than prison."

This kind of tradition (and yes, it is a tradition) can be found yet again in today's foremost rebel music: Hip-Hop. Politicians have long harped on the genre's "penchant for violence." If any of them bothered to scratch the surface, though, they might find there's a reason for the frequent desire to stick it to the man.

Hip-Hop rose to prominence when America was coming under the grip of Reagan-style conservatism, when social services were slashed and taxes on the rich drastically lowered, Hip-Hop has long channeled the outlaw image. It isn't surprising that the same figures behind the madness would berate the folks demanding to "get their shit back."

The release of the Hughes Brothers' 1995 classic Dead Presidents--climaxing with the main characters robbing an armored car--brought the bank robber story to the forefront of Hip-Hop. The movie was set in the early '70s, and though its soundtrack exclusively contained Soul and R&B, samples of it would show up in albums by Jay-Z and NaS. Dead Prez, who helped bring a new revolutionary outlook to Rap in the late '90s, are reported to have taken their very name from the film.

There's a reason for the long history of bank robbin' music. The stories in these songs are about a lot more than just a handful of outcasts getting away with the loot. At their core, they're about all of us, and our ability to take back what's rightfully ours. If this same theme pops up time again in our music, it's only because we still live in a world of haves and have-nots. But then, that's become a lot more apparent in recent months.

So, who wants to go get their shit back?

This article originally appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.


What I've been listening to this week (another late edition)

A little slow on the draw, I know. Had a lot occupying my time on Sunday evening--such as going to a Hip-Hop show to benefit Gaza featuring Rebel Diaz, DAM, Shadia Mansour and M1 of Dead Prez! Was it worth getting the weekly playlist up late? Damn skippy.

1. Le Tigre - Le Tigre
Is it correct to call Le Tigre "Post-Riot Grrrl?" Maybe. Though the unapologetic attitude and razor-raw sound is still intact here, the album reveals a greater amount of willingness to experiment. That willingness--and the slick electronics they utilize in the experiment--collides and mixes quite well with the Bikini Kill-style guitars. Kathleen Hanna's adventurous spirit definitely helped create the Dance-Punk revival we're still experiencing today. Her outspokenness also reminds us of its radical roots. And though groups like Radio 4 and !!! contribute immensely to the genre's evolution, Le Tigre's originality really makes one long for their hiatus to end already!

2. Rebel Diaz - El Otro Guerrillero Mixtape Vol. 2
Was listening to this in preparation for the show on Sunday. It's trite and perhaps a bit arrogant to simply claim Rebel Diaz as "the future of Hip-Hop." I'm going to do it anyway. There isn't a single issue not taken up on this mixtape--from police brutality to poverty to immigrant rights to American imperialism. While countless groups can take up these causes in their music, few do it with so much style and skill as G1, Lah Tere and RodStarz. The energy and thoughtfulness that they bring to every rhyme, every beat is completely unique, uncompromising. If skillful delivery translates into higher commitment, then Rebel Diaz are no doubt changing the face of Hip-Hop.

3. Massive Attack - Mezzanine
There are a lot of writers who consider this their strongest album. I am one of those writers. This is not to take away from how brilliant works like Blue Lines of 100th Window are, but rather an acknowledgment of how well Mezzanine coheres as a whole. The dark, slightly dangerous sexiness that Massive Attack are so adept at creating pervades throughout this whole album. Evenly distributed out are those moments of beautiful light that catch you off-guard no matter how many times you listen. From "Angel" to the ubiquitous "Teardrop" to the reprise of "Exchange that closes the record out, this is about as deep and intricate as "Trip-Hop" ever gets.

4. Johnny Cash - The Legend, Disc Two: The Great American Songbook
By now it's a well-known fact that Johnny Cash brought something well-beyond original to any song he covered. Most of the covers that today's audience knows him for, though, are more recent--"Hurt," "Personal Jesus," Moby's "Run On," etc. This disc displays how he brought that same spirit to the great classics in American musical history. Most were recorded in the late '50s and early '60s when Rock 'n' Roll was regrouping itself. Cash's take on these songs represents exactly what he did: an honor and tradition that still managed to be radical in itself. In a way, they are exactly what popular music needed at the time.

5. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock
I can hear a few of you saying "dude, keep up." But you can't deny that sometimes there's no substitute for real, genuine Old School (and come on, I just profiled Johnny Cash's traditional work above). The amazing thing about the true classics, though, is that they never really lose their dynamism. Thirty years later, this album still sounds flashy, dangerous and--in a way--groundbreaking. You can still hear the down and dirty house parties erupting in a surging mass of bravado and raw power. It's worth admitting that while a listen to this album might not have revealed something as immediate five years ago, the resurgence of retro-influenced beats in Hip-Hop draws a rather perfect circle today.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Rock the Bells Lineup Announced!

Sick as always! Nas is topping the bill along with Damian Marley; the two are working on a collaborative LP together scheduled for release in June. Also leading the way are The Roots, KRS-One, RZA, Raekwon, Tech N9ne, and though there aren't the the headline-grabbing reunions on par with what we saw last year (Tribe), there is Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek performing as a reunited Reflection Eternal! The tour will also feature Slaugherhouse, the "supergroup" composed of mixtape masters Joe Budden, Crooked I, Joell Ortiz and Royce Da 5'9".

In Pitchfork's announcement of the lineup, they seem a tad dismissive--even while admitting the show will be consummately entertaining: "This year is a whole lot heavier on backpack-rap journeymen like Sage Francis and Eyedea & Abilities. (All of a sudden, Asher Roth doesn't sound so bad)." But this is a rather undynamic way to view the tour. Rock the Bells has always brought together artists from different sub-sects and eras in Rap. With Hip-Hop itself going through a massive shift, even as it regains its crown at the top of American counter-culture, this tour reveals not now much these artists differ, but how much they have in common. Regardless of Guerilla Union's motivation, this tour's lineup represents a convergence that shows these disparate labels--"conscious," "mainstream," "gangsta," "backpacker," etc.--as really nothing more than the result of industry meddling and lazy music journalism.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Upcoming speaking date

I am thrilled to announce that I will be speaking at the Socialism 2009 conference in June. This is the largest annual gathering of the far left in the United States. Given everything that has taken place in the world over the past year, this one promises to be the largest yet, with not one but two locations: June 18th through 21st in Chicago, and July 2nd through 5th in San Francisco.

My session will be titled "You Can't Stop Us Now: Hip-Hop in a New Political Era," and will take place during the weekend in Chicago. Hip-Hop and Rap are without a doubt the rebel music of our time. For three decades, it has kept alive the dreams of equality and freedom, and managed to rankle many an establishment hack. With the global economy in turmoil, and the logic of the free-market rejected by a growing number of people, what will come next in the future of a music and culture that have always rallied people to join together in struggle?

Other speakers that weekend will include radical sportswriter Dave Zirin, GRITtv host Laura Flanders, South African poet laureate and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, and countless others from across the left.

More details (such as the exact date and time of my session) will be available in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can find out more information about this incredible conference, and register for it, here.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Another shout out...

Readers might notice that yesterday's article appeared at an outlet that hasn't been seen here at RF before. I have recently joined the good folks at the Society of Cinema and the Arts as their resident music journalist. SoCiArts, as they are known, is "a grassroots, virtual community dedicated to helping artists from around the world share their work, blog their ideas and spread their message to a broader audience."

They're a lot more than just a website. SoCiArts also sponsors cultural events and distributes books and films that you might not be able to find anywhere else. It's a damn worthwhile mission, and I'm glad to be a part of it. If you want to find out more about them, especially if you're in the LA area, check them out.


Monday, April 6, 2009

All The Rage

It’s surreal to think that it’s already been fifteen years this week. Fifteen years since music lost one of its most gifted and tortured. A decade and a half since thousands of disaffected youth were forced to deal with the initial shock of losing someone they had identified as one of their own. Though Kurt Cobain never set out to do much more than make good music that said something, his death on April 5th, 1994 would end up leaving countless people feeling like they had lost a part of their voice.

Cobain may have never wanted to be an icon, but his music is firmly entrenched in our cultural psyche. Nirvana is rightly recognized as one of the greatest Rock bands in history, alongside acts like The Beatles, Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen. Like so many Rock icons, Cobain’s image has been over-proliferated to the point of triviality. Past the hollow marketing, though, there lies a very good reason that this unassuming man is revered today.

When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in September of 1991, nobody expected it to become such a runaway success. Geffen Records intended it to be a lead-in single for a mid-level album. Top 40 radio and MTV, both completely dismissive of the underground Rock scene, refused to play the single during the day, fearing that its angry sound would alienate listeners. But by the end of the year, Nevermind would be selling 400,000 copies a week.

Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth described it as a time when “the edge moved to the middle,” when the musical elements of the avant-garde would kick down the doors of the mainstream to reveal a deep, seething anger that had long been ignored in American society.

While politicians prattled on about the “opportunity” that awaited young people in post-Cold War, post-Persian Gulf America, a lot of kids just didn’t see it that way. What they did see were dead-end jobs, broken homes, the AIDS crisis, and a system that had little to offer them. The shiny decadence of Pop and Hair Metal just wasn’t going to fly with this crowd the way it had in the ‘80s.

The success of Cobain’s songwriting was its innate ability to simply be honest about all this. Journalist Michael Azerrad wrote that “Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for and about an entire group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.”

Cobain himself clearly shared in the disaffection of “Generation X.” His parents divorced when he was eight, and he spent his teens shuffling between different friends and family members’ homes. As a teenager he was friends with the one openly gay student at his high school, which often made him the target of homophobic bullying himself. In his published journals years later he stated that he “blamed” his parents’ generation “for coming so close to social change, then giving up…”

Like other teen outsiders in the ‘80s, he joined the local Punk scene. When asked about his influences in later interviews he would cite underground mainstays like Black Flag, Flipper, Millions of Dead Cops, and often would place their importance above his own. He was good friends with The Melvins, and it was at their rehearsal space that he first met future Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.

This strident DIY, anti-mainstream ethos would be at constant odds with Nirvana’s monumental success in the early ‘90s. After Nevermind’s success, there came Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam, all of whom would go multi-platinum. “Grunge” became a buzzword, and major labels scrambled to sign any band with a vaguely Indie edge.

Cobain was uncomfortable with all this, but even after becoming the biggest Rock band in the world, he continued to stick to his defiant roots. At a time when it was still risky for groups to stand for political causes, Nirvana openly supported Rock 4 Choice. They also played benefits for the campaign against Oregon’s Proposition 9, which would have made it illegal for public schools to teach about homosexuality. Though he often commented about how “apathetic” his generation was, it seems clear that Cobain thought music was best if it pointed to something better.

That clearly meant getting away from the mainstream. Cobain hoped that Nirvana’s follow-up to Nevermind would separate the group from the “lamestream” as he called it. In Utero did surely represent a departure for the band, even as all the explosive rage remained intact. But as the band got bigger, so did the pressure to live up to major label expectations.

Ultimately, Cobain faced the dilemma that countless talented artists had faced before him. It’s a lot more complicated than what elitist musos call “selling-out.” It’s the contradiction between wanting to reach a mass audience without dumbing yourself down.

That contradiction, that war between what’s good and what sells, may have been what finally killed Kurt Cobain. When his body was found in his Seattle home on April 8th, 1994, his suicide note confessed “I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing… for too many years now.”

We’ll never know if Cobain might have succeeded in figuring out that contradiction. We do know that after he died, the shock and grief were immense. On April 10th, five days after his death, a public vigil was held in Seattle. A man who just a few years before had been playing Punk shows in tiny bars drew 7,000 to the city’s center. Watching footage of it today, it’s amazing to see people mourn for someone they didn’t even know. But then, that’s the affect of great music.

This is Cobain’s great contribution. In playing the kind of ground-breaking music he did, he gave a wide layer of youth a sense of hope and belonging that they hadn’t known before. And though most of the Pop mainstream may have reverted back to its shallow self—with its watered-down, unassuming banality—artists continue to make fascinating and original music that has the potential to resonate with millions, and once again shake the industry to its core. Ask any of them who their influences are, and there’s a good bet they’ll mention Kurt Cobain.

This article originally appeared at


Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Moby - Play: The B Sides
Moby no doubt cut these tracks because they aren't as "marketable" as those that showed up on the final version of Play. That doesn't make them any less painstakingly well-crafted or that the end result would have been any less impressive. B Side albums are always funny like that; you can almost match up each track with its A Side counterpart. The patient tranquility of "Whispering Wind" synchs with "Porcelain," the heavy blues vocal samplings and keyboards of "Flower" make up the alter-ego of "Honey," and so on. It's a fun listen if for no other reason than the fact that it gives the listener a handful of "what if" moments.

2. Papoose - A Bootlegger's Nightmare
Pap is a beast, no doubt about it! He's released well over twenty mixtapes over the past four years (two in 2009 already). When he finally gets around to making an actual album, it's guaranteed to be hot. A Bootlegger's Nightmare, one of his 2005 efforts, tends to be my favorite simply because it's where his versatility takes a front seat. He works with some dynamic producers here, and though the beats vary from bare bones simplicity to lush and intricate, Papoose's flow never fails to match the atmosphere being created for him.

3. Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra - Who Is This America?
Herky-jerky instrumentation, vocals that veer between the strident and playful, and the infectious polyrhythms of Afrobeat. Antibalas bring it all together. It's worth stepping back and recognizing how hard Afrobeat is as a genre to play (which is probably why there are so few well known groups that can really pull it off. The bands are frequently big, and there needs to be a lot happening at exactly the right time every time in order for it to even grasp at believability. Fela may not be around to hear the evolution of the music he essentially birthed, but if he could hear Who Is This America? he would know it's in good hands.

4. Talib Kweli - Quality
It's not for nothing that this album became the iconic Talib Kweli release. When many said that Rap wouldn't survive the aftermath of 9/11, Kweli came out with a collection of songs that was outspoken and made no bones about it. Quality was, above all else, proud. Some forget that Kweli is a member of Native Tongues, but that's evident in his rhymes and beats here. At the same time, Quality was an attempt to break molds and make his sound modern and mainstream without sacrificing... well, quality. I'd say he succeeds, and that's why this album holds up even after the better part of a decade.

5. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
Precisely what happens when you breed Jersey Rock with Punk. It's almost as if--and I'm not the first writer to make this comparison--Springsteen had discovered the hard-driving sounds emanating from New York a lot earlier than he did. Brian Fallon's vocals take a big cue from the boss, and their lo-fi sound is unmistakably in the Punk-Indie vein. But there's a lot more originality than these kinds of glib (and admittedly lazy) comparisons denote. The anthemic uplift that this group brings to a rather cynical sub-genre is beyond refreshing. It's almost as if they take (gasp!) pride in their down-and-out status.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Bragg, Nash and Get Cape member among G20 protesters

The G20 is over. World leaders are celebrating "breakthroughs" in their plan to solve the economic crisis. A large amount of workers, students and activists clearly aren't buying it, though. Nor should they. The G20, along with other international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank are part of the problem, not the solution.

It's estimated that 40,000 people marched the Tuesday before the meetings began in London. As most readers are aware of right now, the following days brought clashes between police and demonstrators.

During the demos on April 1st, the confrontations became especially violent. Police cordoned off the large crowds, making it impossible to get a sound system to the performers who were scheduled that day: Billy Bragg, Kate Nash, and Sam Duckworth of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. All three played truncated sets without any form of amplification.

Not that any of them minded. Solidarity isn't always neat and tidy. Speaking to the NME, Bragg was insistent that protests and bottom up organizing are really the only way to force the world's governments to carry out radical and meaningful change.

Bragg was scheduled to perform "The World Turned Upside Down," a song he made famous in the 80s that was written about the Diggers, a radical group who attempted to transform the English Civil War into a fight for communism in the mid-17th century. No word on whether this ended up in his abridged set.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

They're writing those Depression Songs again...

The following comes to us from DC Larson, reviews editor for Rockabilly magazine and frequent writer on all the variants of American music we simply don't get a chance to hear about. The article below, which also originally appeared at CounterPunch, is a writeup of Wayne "The Train" Hancock's new album The Viper of Melody. Though I admittedly don't know a lot about Hancock's art, the thrust of this article is one worth remembering: that the adversity of working people is woven into the fabric of even the most traditional American sounds.


As credentialed experts strive to gauge national economic condition, they should cast beyond standard criteria like GNP and Wall Street permutations to appreciate popular music's public mood mirroring. They would do well to begin with Viper of Melody (Bloodshot), by Wayne 'The Train' Hancock.

Wayne is widely-regarded as perhaps today's pre-eminent purveyor of the bold and bouncy, steel-guitared, upright bassed-Western Swing popularized in the '40s and '50s by Bob Wills and Speedy West, the sort animated and charged by country-jazz guitar legend Jimmy Bryant.

With dependably solid accompanists Anthony Locke, Huckleberry Johnson, and six-string wizard Izak Zaidman, the leathery-voiced Hancock imbues the at turns jumping and swaying proceedings with a magnetic, Everyman tenor.

But of the disc's 13 winning tracks, it is the sorrowful "Working At Working" that most resonates and best articulates fast-emerging national hardships and despairs.

"Well, the rich folks call it 'recession,' but the poor folks call it 'Depression' / Everybody's hittin' the street, with the low-down blues" observes the song's protagonist. "I ain't makin' no suggestion/ but I'm just 'bout to ask one question: If I can't find work, how the Hell I'm gonna pay my dues?

"Workin' at workin, 'dodgin' my bills/ I wonder if the President knows how I feel / I've stood in every soup line around."

Such sentiments have been sung across America, before.

"They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead / Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?" asked lyricist Yip Harburg, in 1931's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Harburg wrote "Brother" together with Russian-born American composer Jay Gorman. And while its mournful, minor-key melody was reportedly based on a traditional Russian lullaby, the blue travail of which it told was very much of that ongoing, catastrophic American moment.

"When Bing [Crosby] recorded this song in October, 1932," chronicles a San Francisco State University text, "one out of every four Americans who wanted work could not find work. The banking system was near collapse."

In "Working At Working," Hancock portrays our own, unsettlingly similar contemporary calamity:

"Well, it's gettin' awful hard, to keep livin' this way, stayin' on the edge from day to day / And if I don't find somethin' soon, I'll be highway bound."

It is fitting, both musically and spiritually, that Wayne ends "Working At Working" with a blue yodel, ala the Great Depression's 'Singing Brakeman' Jimmy Rodgers.

Yip Harburg, Jimmy Rodgers, Wayne Hancock -- the appropriateness of their fraternity is both wonderful and terrible.