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Best of Times, Worst of Times

Rap has always been a competitive art form. That’s what makes it great, competition pushes boundaries and catalyzes innovation. Guess I never realized how well rap coincides with conservative ideology. Just kidding, but in a way competition in the genre has made it mirror America in a lot of ways, bigger, better, more. Fresher clothes, faster cars, this competitive nature spreads to the consumer as well. One must always be up on one’s hip-hop or risk the chance of falling behind and falling off. Oh, you’re still listening to that album. As Billy Madison would say, “You ain’t cool unless you pee your pants, and know every single and loosie at midnight when it drops.” Kids who don’t just aren’t getting invited to the house parties, or if they are they’re left in the corner mumbling along and pretending to know the words. Embarrassing. This puts pressure on the artists as well to keep supplying a constant stream of the goods, in the internet age staying relevant is a mystery. Frank Ocean can disappear for three years and return like nothing happened, 50? I have a hard time believing he could move more than 100,000 units in a week. On the other hand, we now have a larger variety and abundance of music then ever, with dizzying amounts still being churned out weekly. My complaint though, is that this hyper-culture is going to cause the ultimate decline of conscious rap. When our ears are bombarded constantly we rarely have time to dissect anything, very few albums get played on rotation over and over. For conscious rap it only gets better with replays, the more we hear it the more we get the message. My fear is that the message will get drowned out.

Think about it in the past two months, Drake released More Life, not that its conscious rap but its certainly taking a lot of ears away from the conscious side of things (and I’m a huge Drake fan), Rick Ross and Raekwon both released albums, Joey Bada$$ released All Amerikkkan Bada$$ (a history lesson in American oppression) and Kendrick set fire to the entire universe with Damn. When Damn came out I was still grappling with many of the questions of how race operates in American society that Joey Bada$$ had raised. I still have no answers, but I no longer have time to ponder, there’s new music to be dissected. Building on top of one another the message of Lamar and Bada$$ is potent and clear, but they are both multi-faceted and have subtleties to be explored through repeated listens. Even critics can’t keep up with the pace, if Kendrick dropped anything comparable to what he’s doing now in the early 2000’s books would have been written on it. Heck, there are college courses on some of his music now, you practically need a degree to truly understand what it is he’s trying to say. Joey Bada$$ educated me as well on what it means to be black in America, but people want to hear trap and whatever else the machinations of the music industry roll out. Its all part of the play to make rap a message-less art form, to keep the message party harder so that Fox News can bash the culture more as Kendrick points out throughout his album. 

Now more than ever we need music that says something about the world we live in. Escapism is not an option. Where is Nasty Nas, the one who delivered knowledge to the masses. Where are the Wu, what happened to their twenty year plan. In the end, all that I propose is for people to recognize the good stuff when they hear it. Once you do that you can really sit down and listen to it, the best kind of music is an indictment. What are you doing? How are you going to fix the problem, or help your neighbor? How are you going to be a force for change, I think the best art makes us think that way, and I don’t want it to go over looked.

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Progress

I always wondered about music if there was not a finite amount that could be made. How many rhythms, melodies, grooves, whatever you call them, could possibly be made, doesn’t there have to be a logical limit? Only so many combinations can exist in the bounds of our imaginations. I’m not sure that the question can be answered though without many millennia’s worth of sonic output and creativity to test the hypothesis. Humanity would have to make it that far first, but I do know one thing, that in the short term our societal obsession with intellectual property rights and ownership is jeopardizing the output of some amazing music. The golden age of rap is called the golden age for a reason: because the genre was so regional and overlooked at the time that the R&B an funk it so heavily relied upon could be sampled with immunity. Look at the results. The Geto Boy’s “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” practically created the template for the psychology of gangster rap, it also unabashedly samples Isaac Hayes “Hung Up On My Baby”. Does that make the beat any less the product of Scarface’s mind? His reimagining of Isaac Hayes’ work creates something totally new and refreshing, indebted to the original song but hardly plagiarized. 

One of the main artist’s that this accusation is leveled against by the industry seems to be none other than their favorite target of ire, Kanye West. Whatever your thoughts on the man, and I have many conflicting ones, his true genius lies in sampling. His early reworking’s of classic soul changed the face of rap permanently, and he hasn’t stopped evolving since. Who in the world ever would have thought that a Daft Punk song would be reworked into one of the most recognizable songs of the 2000’s? Or a James Bond theme song into a pointed social commentary on the state of wealth and imperialistic exploitation? How about a Ray Charles song into a genre defining mega hit known the world over? None of these were considered to be too derivative at the time, so why now the question of intellectual property and accusations of unoriginality or even worse theft? Credit is given where credit is due, so let the art flow. Learning occurs when we connect the new with what we already know, together they form something entirely separate, a third independent and revolutionary category.

In the case of Drake borrowing I do highlight a difference. That distinction comes from cultural borrowing versus borrowing from within. Borrowing from one’s own culture and building upon it seems to be one thing, while borrowing from another and making it your own seems to be another. To this I say it is the utmost and highest form of hypocrisy. Drake’s use of a variety of international soundscapes I applaud, tomatoes weren’t native to Italy, rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues were black art forms. There cultural appropriation was morally fuzzy and perhaps wrong, but it also gave us The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The collision of old and new is what constitutes progress, without the old foundation what is the new to built upon? Without the new what keeps the old from becoming stale and oppressive? Drake and Kanye are at the forefront of an old way of thinking that needs new support, borrowing. If we borrow from older generations our music supply will never run dry, and it will always be new and refreshing.

Long Beach Strikes Back

We have the misogyny, homophobia, and horrorcore of Odd Future to thank for the revenge of Long Beach. Vince Staples felicitous, or random meeting with Syd the Kid (Odd Future’s DJ) sealed the deal, him and Earl would go on to record “epaR”, a pretty horrifying song about rape and somehow become the internets favorite new rappers. Earl and Vince both have disavowed the song by now but its ironic that that’s the song that gave Vince the opportunity to project his voice into the world. You wouldn’t think he would have that opportunity if you knew him a year or two prior sleeping on his friends couch in North Long Beach.

The story of how Staples found himself there is an entirely different one. He was a good student, in his raps you can feel out his intelligence, and he has a photographic memory. Some people are still living in the 1950’s though. At Mayfair High School, a majority white school Staples mom chose to keep him out of trouble, he was kicked out after being caught with a stolen phone. Funny thing is the kid whose phone it was said that Staples didn’t steal it, as well as multiple other witnesses. The school also alleged that he was an active gang leader, thats’s their language not mine, a thirteen year old gang leader. That’s even more comical. From there Staples bright future as a basketball playing college kid went dark. He moved to Atlanta for a year or two, and came back to find that his mother who had been battling cancer was in an even worse condition. That’s how he ended up sleeping on his friend’s couch in North Long Beach.

Drugs, gangs, friends dying, a mother sick with cancer, and a father in jail. That’s when Vince’s friend Dijon Sambo took him over to meet Syd the Kid. They were instantly cool, and Earl had a safe place to sleep, the Odd Future Studio. That’s when he started to make music as a form of catharsis. Vince had and has all the source material to really comment on our fucked up society, its blind eye toward the inner cities and denial that the hell lived out there is a result of governmental policy and institutional racism. Vince knows this, he’s lived it, and he’s in a position to have his voice heard now. He won’t squander the opportunity. On “Like It Is” he raps, “No matter what we grow into, we never gon’ escape our past,” speaking both about individual growth and the growth of our nation. His rhymes bring a realism to rap that has been missing for years, a cold and hard reality is presented. There’s no more gin n’ juice left at the party, only a few people deep in conversation. Vince Staples is one of them.

Musical Beginnings

For this week’s blog post I interviewed one of my good friends Dave who is an amateur producer. He is currently working on a few tracks which he hopes to upload to SoundCloud by next month as an extended play. Below is our interview:

Me: So Dave, tell us a little about how you first got in to making music, what inspired you?

Dave: Its funny, I’ve really never been musically inclined. In fifth grade I begged my mom to let me quit chorus (she didn’t), and I played the trumpet for a year as well in elementary school but could never really learn to read the sheet music so that was the end of that. I was always enthralled by music though, especially rap, and when I was 16 my older sister’s boyfriend introduced me to Fruity Loops. He showed me some of the basics but it took me another two years to really figure it out. I really love 40, Drake’s day one producer, he’s the real mastermind behind the Drake sound, and old Kanye is the shit. He’s a sampling genius. I guess their music is really what inspired me to keep toying around with production software.

Me: Production software confuses me. Any tips for beginners?

Dave: YouTube hahaha. I watched hours of YouTube videos, if you know anyone who knows how to use production software that’s definitely your best bet. GarageBand and free software is usually pretty self explanatory as well if you play around with it long enough. I think it really depends how much you want to make music, you’ll figure it out if you’re really passionate about it.

Me: So where can we hear some of your music? You mentioned to me before that you were planning on sharing it in the near future, which you’ve never done before. Why the secretiveness?

Dave: Not secretiveness, I just haven’t really been ready to share in the past. My music is really personal to me which makes me nervous I guess, I think it can be a cathartic experience though to open up like that. I’m also really picky and kind of a perfectionist, the music I’m working on now I’ve been fine tuning for about seven months, every time I hear it I hear something new that needs to be tweaked or something missing that I want to add, when I finally share it I want it to be the final product. I haven’t had a SoundCloud account up to this point, still trying to think of some good names actually… Dave is taken by Dave the rapper haha I don’t know if you know him. Not that I was planning on using Dave, the name is definitely important though if you want to get your music out there. I really only do this on the side though as more of a creative outlet/hobby/passion, I’m not anticipating this to take off or anything, although that would be crazy. Wouldn’t mind being a famous DJ or selling some beats to Drizzy.

Big thanks to Dave for taking the time to let me interview him. Hopefully I can mention his new SoundCloud name in a future post when he decides on one! Dave’s beats are spaced out and textured and great for vibing out.

 

Basement Beats

It all started in a Staten Island BasementThe hostile chart takeover of underground rap, grimy, lo-fi, horrorcore, the brainchild of Robert Diggs, better known to anyone that knows anything about rap as the RZA. The story goes that he assembled the best rapper’s from the five boroughs that he knew… two of them coincidentally being his cousins, one being his roommate, and a couple of other cats he had heard. They would converge in his long island basement, watch kung-fu films, smoke until they couldn’t see a foot in front of their faces, and rhyme, rhyme, and then rhyme some more. It was more than just music though, with the RZA as the mastermind The Wu-Tang Clan would create their very own music scene based out of New York, bringing the underground to the masses and laying the blueprint for gangsta rap to pervade the mainstream.

What was unique about the Wu-Tang was that they were a music scene in and of themselves. The RZA’s vision was to bring their style to people of every class and background, and he had a plan to do just that. He negotiated a record deal for the Clan with Loud, the deal was unique though because it allowed each individual member of the group to sign to the label of their choosing while still  being marketed as a member of the Wu-Tang. This meant that the Wu-Tang wasn’t just a group but was actually made up of nine individual solo artists. This allowed the Wu-Tang to release an unprecedented string of albums both as a group (Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Forever) and as individuals. Out of these solo albums came the classics, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Liquid Swords by the GZA, Return to the 36 Chambers by the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Iron Man from Ghostface Killah, and Method Man’s Tical. Almost all of the material for this initial slew of solo albums was recorded in the RZA’s basement studio and taken to other studios around Manhattan for mastering. The RZA made all of the beats himself.

The Wu-Tang defined the sound of New York hip-hop, and as a result of most hip-hop being made in the world at the time. They were a cultural force to be reckoned with after having infiltrated every major record label they could find, ensuring the widest possible distribution of their music. With 90’s nostalgia running high in hip-hop today the Wu-Tang sound can be heard making a comeback with acts like Joey Bada$$ and the Flatbush Zombies to name just a couple. and it all started in a Staten Island basement studio.

Conflict

Earl Sweatshirt’s Sunday” brings you down low, the kind of way you feel on a Sunday night with a tight stomach, you’re head turning over and over the fast approaching morning. Earl’s monotonously monotone grumble pervades the organ’s slow crawling soundscape with portraits of despair at the dead week ahead. That is, until Frank Ocean cuts through the haze with a sharp clarity, contributing a gleaming verse that stands toe to toe with the lyrical wizardry of Earl. The two present differing visions of the week after Sunday, for Frank something new, for Earl something repetitive. This is all juxtaposed symbolically by the sharp beat change that accompanies the shift into Frank’s vocals. The soundscape becomes soft and dreamy with a progression that gives it the sense of building toward something, while Earl’s portion is stilted and looped. 

“All my dreams got dimmer when I stopped smokin pot / Nightmares got more vivid when I stopped smokin pot,” Earl raps on the chorus. He is trapped in his own mind it seems, without substances to ease his cyclical thoughts. The beat is three organ notes with strong drums for emphasis. They pound on the listener’s ears mercilessly in sync with Earl’s scratchy vocals, inescapably infecting one’s head. This is the stuff depression is made of, excess of thought. Earl cannot stop thinking of his girlfriend and their arguing, but Frank’s portion of the beat comes in to soothe him. Better than pot is the music.

It starts with a brief pause. The three note progression carries on but with echo so that the sounds seem to lazily and blissfully drift off, like thoughts coming and going, finally freed from their long captivity. The drums are still there but somehow their heaviness seems to make the floating music even lighter in contrast. “Give me Bali beach, no molly, please/ Palm, no marijuana, trees”  Frank raps, lyrically a stark contrast to Earl’s sober laments. Frank chooses to live drug free, and for it his mind is more free. The beat change seems to free Earl from his worries as well, if only for a short time as the initial beat crashes back down upon its airy counterpart for one final chorus sung by Frank. 

The conflict between the two beats makes for an interesting and enlightening aural experience. It’s like a tug of war between two alternating visions, played out in the sounds as well as the lyrical expression. Frank and Earl’s contrasting flows ass another layer of conflict to that aural experience. It’s an effective technique used to great affect by many musical innovators before, my personal favorite being “What is and What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin. The resolution of the conflict is open ended, and I think that Frank and Earl want to keep it that way. 

When G.O.O.D. Music Was Good

The year 2004 marked a sharp turn in the trajectory of hip-hop with the highly anticipated release of Kanye West’s The College Dropout. It was on this album that Kanye introduced the world to his, “creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns.” The unique brand of lyricism catalyzed a shift in the content of a large proportion of popular rap, and its effects are still visible today. Of course, this young,  idealistic, and socially oriented Kanye would later be eclipsed by the infamous and perhaps mentally ill man who once posed as Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone. So what happened, and is J. Cole justified in calling Kanye out for hypocrisy on his recent release “False Prophets”To determine that it is necessary to delve deep into Kanye’s legendary catalog using the, “When G.O.O.D. Music Was Good” playlist. The playlist focuses on songs from Kanye West’s first two albums, The College Dropout, and Late Registration.

“All Falls Down” introduced the world to Kanye’s philosophy which can be summed up with a few choice lines from the song, “It seem we livin’ the American Dream/ But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem/ The prettiest people do the ugliest things/ For the road to riches and diamond rings.” In the beginning the philosophy was one of character, to never sacrifice one self in order to move up in the world, but to do it the right way, to be good on the inside regardless of appearance and wealth. Somewhere along the lines though it seems that the money corrupted the man.

Kanye continues on “Family Business”, “Keep your nose out the sky, keep your heart to God/ And keep your face to the risin’ sun/ All my niggas from the Chi, that’s my family, dog/ And my niggas ain’t my guys, they my family, dog/ I feel like one day you’ll understand me, dog/ You can still love your man and be manly, dog.” The theme established earlier continues here with an emphasis on community, and what it means to be a good family member and neighbor. Kanye advocates for one love, giving back, and loving your home the same way that he loves Chicago. 

By far the most politically charged song on The College Dropout is “Jesus Walks”. Kanye has choice bars for those listening carefully, “I ain’t here to argue about his facial features/
Or here to convert atheists into believers/ I’m just tryna say the way school need teachers/ The way Kathie Lee needed Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus/ So here go my single dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?,” he raps. On this record Kanye shamelessly professes his faith and challenges others to come to their faith and serve their communities as well. Needless to say, this was before Mr. West came to the belief that he himself is, or is somehow comparable, to Jesus. Kanye believes himself to be a sort of prophet, something that J. Cole clearly takes issue with given his recent erratic behavior and slide into totally uninspired lyrics. 

But before the slide Kanye managed to become even more socially conscious and touching on his second album Late Registration, with songs like “Heard ‘Em Say”, and the heartfelt “Hey Mama”. “Heard ‘Em Say” features Kanye confronting serious issues such as the minimum wage, the AIDS epidemic, the war on drugs, and the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the US. “Hey Mama” gives the listener a glimpse into the inner workings of Kanye through a heartfelt and tear jerking tribute to his late mother Donda West. This song speaks to anyone who knows what it is like to grow up in a single parent household, and Kanye confides in his listeners that his mom is his rock and the person whom he loves most in the world, and owes the most to. Its amazing to see Kanye so humble and grateful for the sacrifices his mother made for him. It’s apparent that since her death he has never been quite the same. Maybe that could explain Kanye’s fall into the dark place he seems to be in now, nonetheless the good G.O.O.D. music playlist will remind listeners of a time when Kanye asked the right questions and set the right example. When people hate on Yeezy point them in this direction, lest we forget to mourn the loss of the truly genius Kanye West who produced  those early masterpieces of modern music.