A letter to Zack O’Malley Greenberg, author of ‘Empire State of Mind’

Here’s a letter I wrote to a friend, Zack O’Malley Greenberg, whose business-focussed biography of Jay-Z, ‘Empire State of Mind’ (http://jayzbook.com, Penguin, about $15) was released last month.

Zack, whom I met one night in summer 2009, when he came to pick up a some stuff we were selling on Craigslist in preparation for moving here to Glasgow, knew I had spent time in the hip hop journalism trenches and looked me up somewhat out of the blue. He basically asked me to proofread the book and flag anything which seemed like it might not check out. After gaining assurances he wouldn’t need me to do the fine-tooth fact-check, I went ahead and read it thru. The letter below is what I wrote back (slightly edited, and with a section on Beyonce added)

‘Empire’ is a great read, stuffed with characters you may have read about but never thought you’d  read an interview with (Jay’s early musical partner Jaz-O; Jay’s sommelier; and Jay’s mentor from his exhaustively-referenced pre-rap career) and the back-story to episodes you’re likely to have have only heard about in brief (a great investigation of how Cristal was jettisoned in favor of Armadale which leads Greenberg to an interview at a vineyard in southern France) if at all (the near-deal for a Jay-Z SUV in… Jay-Z blue (i.e. navy blue) a color he even went to the trouble of having trademarked)

I’ll outline the reasons for my profound dislike for Jay-Z in another post (in a nutshell; like the NY Yankees, whose cap Jay has made his signature, it’s hard to root for a perpetual overdog and a somewhat soul-less triumphalist to boot, shrewdly and unfalteringly proceeding from victory to victory. Plus he’s rap’s Bob Dylan–arguably in the best way, but definitely in the worst way. We have to hear about the man’s illustrious gifts and pioneering blah-blah-blah on a constant basis–much as anyone trying to write a song (or even listen to one) has to hear about Rock’s Great Laureate, the endlessly authentic, poetic, and protean Dylan. What must the shadow of Hova be like for young rappers today? Cold, I’d imagine, and stunting in the worst sense), but I’ll say this; I respected Hov a bit after reading ‘Empire’, and that’s saying something. Anyway, my thoughts:

“Hey Zack,

Great job, I enjoyed reading this. I am turning this in a bit ahead-of-sched but only b/c I read for almost 8 hours straight last night—the book was that engaging. I haven’t been a Jay-Z fan in the past, but this made me like him somewhat—which surprised me.

Even-handed and thorough, and I liked very much the investigative portions. With so much already out there about the man, was great to read something truly new and meet some characters in his story I didn’t know about before.

A few things circled in my mind while reading which I’m gonna throw out there, for what they’re worth, take’em or leave’em obviously.

I kept thinking about the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ tour with R. Kelly. I didn’t follow the ticket sales figures or anything like that, mostly watched the thing fall apart and then back together again via MTVNews.com (hardly an impartial source), but that near-debacle and swift recovery struck me as an impressive piece of showmanship, sharp business acumen, and steel nerves. In a nutshell, as you of course know, Jay and Kelly come up with their super-friends hip hop / R&B megatour and album. Both are at or near the top of their game (Kelly’s underage girls video scandal, astonishingly, notwithstanding).

The album drops, tour starts, then Kelly sort of freaks and starts cancelling appearances. Then the he-said / he-said thing. Then Kelly just leaves the tour.

But Jay keeps going, mustering his friends to appear on the remaining tour dates, turning it into a triumph. Whatever the real story (Kelly says people in Jay’s camp were threatening him, a gun was brandished at him from a concert crowd, etc), Jay controls the terms of the dispute, puts forward the (quite-plausible-sounding) story that Kelly couldn’t handle co-star status w/ Jay and so took his ball and went home.

And so–Jay’s not going out like that (so goes the rhetoric, borne out by his continuing on, and not canceling the tour), Jay doesn’t let his fans down, the party’s not over, Jay’s gonna keep it moving and let that weird prima dona guy mope back to Chicago.

To my mind, a deft display of PR judo, and in view of the emotional investment and loyalty that R&B singers enjoy from their audiences compared to rappers (look at the average singer’s career longevity vs. the average rapper’s right?), seems more remarkable that Jay won the day against a man (apparently) beyond any lasting condemnation by Black audiences. Talk about lemonade out of lemons—or champagne out of sour grapes, or something.

I also found myself thinking about Kanye West in relation to Jay. I wonder if there could be something about Jay-Z and visionary sidemen with loose-cannon tendencies? Damon Dash was clearly one, but Dash is a creative person by a method which contrasts to Jay’s; Dash is willing to take risks on truly risky stuff. I mean, The Woodsman is a sympathetic portrait of a child molester. He signed Samantha Ronson to Roc-a-Fella in 2003 (http://www.samantharonson.com/content/musician/bio.html), when she was just some club DJ, way before LiLo, etc. (the name on the promo CD, which I still have somewhere – Challah!). Paid in Full is, I think, an amazing film, and all Dame’s production as far as I know. Death of Dynasty, trying to make a reality show out of ODB’s return to civilian life after jail, trying to make Beanie a movie star, and hiring Cam’Ron to do anything at all were clearly missteps, but bold ones and not total failures (except for the ODB thing).

Kanye’s excesses are well-known, of course. But his visionary daring, while far surpassing Dash’s, is similar if only in contrast to Jay’s strategies. I wonder if figures like Dash and West serve as cautionary figures for him, but also ballast to the cautious nature which you illustrate he follows closely. Maybe there’s a kind of yin/yang thing there, I dunno. But Kanye, as a spectacularly gifted (I can admit; I’m an unapologetic Kanye fan), ambitious, and successful artist with a gimlet eye trained equally on how he is perceived as on how he will succeed, is by far Jay’s biggest and most interesting discovery (Rihannah is big but is she interesting?).

 

That Jay-Z’s greatest protegee would turn out to be a figure like West seems, to me, fascinatingly unlikely. (what could they possibly be like when they’re together? Kanye’s such an unfiltered, emotional wingnut and Jay apparently plays it so close to the vest, outwardly cocky, inwardly contemplative, watching all the angles. Are they the Mick n’ Keith of rap? And that Kanye song ‘Big Brother’? I’ll say it—there is no document in the history of hip hop anything like that song—utterly bizarre)

One other thing I think is interesting about Jay was that unlike many other celebrities and rich people generally, he seems to have become more race-conscious as he ascends into a social and economic strata in which race (only to a certain degree, but still a considerable one) matters less and less.

Jay’s being Black was always the tacit underlying fact which made his cold, canny financial success so remarkable to most Americans (unlike Eminem’s whiteness, which was obvious and “analyzed” endlessly). Even when Jay mentioned being Black he was really talking about himself exclusively, not Black folk collectively. When Jay says, “I’m the Black Sinatra,” it feels like it’s less interesting that he’s the BLACK Sinatra, but that he’s SINATRA you know? The drama and boldness come more from saying he, Jay-Z, is Sinatra—cause who would/ could make such a claim?

As he has gotten older, he’s addressed political issues and issues specific to Black America, as with the Cristal boycott, or his endorsement of Obama, sending money to aid Katrina survivors and to Haiti after the earthquake there, going to Africa and raising awareness about clean water, the Carol’s Daughter investment, and so forth. Could be my own obsession (OK, it’s totally my own obsession) but interesting that thru some (mostly charitable) projects he’s foregrounded race more than ever. Wasn’t Jay the first so -called “post-Black” rapper?

And there’s Beyoncé. The puzzle of that union seems to me not just how different she and Jay are—no surprise that opposites attract, I suppose—but the total difference between their creation myths as artists, and how they have used them.

Jay’s story is so classic it’s almost hackneyed; rags to riches, local boy made good, ashy to classy, the gangster who goes legit, etc etc—a gritty, somewhat cynical iteration of American Dream story. His success is surprising but not at all inevitable; as he once hinted, he was a rapper purely for ease of opportunity (and of course by virtue of the gift of rhyme). He could always do… something else. That oft-cited alternate option, which we all knew was a criminal one, has always buoyed his credibility by casting him almost as an accidental entertainer (and ‘real’ hip hop, as African-America’s most prominent post-Black Power art form, never deigns merely to entertain–realness extends from closeness to the source, not the performer’s distance from it).

Beyoncé’s success on the other hand was inevitable and therefore not at all surprising (not to forget, an early version of Destiny’s Child was called, amazingly, Cliché). As a friend of mine said last night, if Beyoncé hadn’t achieved success by now, she would have had to kill herself. What would have been the point of going on?

The only incident that you could say didn’t follow the Knowles family’s plan for their daughter to become a successful entertainer was when two original members of Destiny’s Child rebelled, forcing her to jettison them. But of course jettisoning every member of Destiny’s Child not named Beyoncé was always part of the long-range plan. Tina Knowles designed Destiny’s Child’s (amazingly gaudy) stage outfits and everything they wore for public appearances. Stardom was preordained; nothing was left to chance.

And yet Jay and Beyoncé’s disparate origins and backgrounds led them in opposed directions artistically. Jay has more or less been telling, and building off of, his life story for his entire career. Beyoncé on the other hand has been telling less plausible stories (‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ as she was a newly successful musician living at her middle-class home in Texas? ‘Crazy in Love’ as if one could imagine her acting anything but serenely focused, ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),’ in which she disses an ex- and takes a new lover, a song which peaked on the charts just as she was getting married?).

And yet, as you make clear, together the two are dazzlingly, almost unfairly symbiotic in terms of brand synergy. Interesting that their art excels by such wildly differing methods. And they seem to function, to all appearances, as a union of equals; you don’t really get the sense that either is purely the other’s accessory.

Also the “God MC” thing Jay poses; how does that work? As you discuss, Beyoncé was brought up in a very observant Methodist family, which makes me wonder how her parents could possibly tolerate a potential son-in-law referring to himself, obliquely and via wordplay, as Jehovah. Baffling. Unless Tina and Mathew Knowles are as calculating as their son-in-law. But that’s probably too cynical to assume. Probably.

The book renders Jay’s somewhat bloodlessly competitive approach to life quite well. But I did wonder a little bit about his allegiance to Memphis Bleek. He’s like Timbaland’s perennial cameo-buddy Magoo—every time he turns up on an album people are asking what the hell this also-ran is doing on here you know? Bleek is such an unlikely prospect for an unsentimental gambler like Jay to (continue to) bet on. I wonder what’s up with that. Could he be the one exception to Jay’s learn’em-and-leave’em pattern? Probably reaching, but had to say it.

A thought about retiring, probably obvious; the “I couldn’t stay away / the game needs me” explanation is plausible but unlikely as the complete story. Sinatra of course, but also Prince, Bowie, and others have fake-retired when they sensed their relevance was about to expire, and it turned out to be good show business sense—and regular business sense—to close the narrative they’d built as artists, and then re-open it again at a more favorable moment.

Lastly, my theory about Jay’s first post-9/11 show; in my eyes, an odd, epic fail. Jay was one of maybe 5 people in hip hop and R&B who could have addressed that tragedy on behalf of urban music generally, and probably the only rapper at a time when hip hop seemed to be, for a while, pop’s most visible and successful genre. To fail to offer some kind of tribute or express a substantive reaction while performing in hip hop’s birthplace felt like a grave omission. Also, it opened the door for the likes of Toby Keith and multifarious forms of jingoistic schtick, probably a worse sin.

So that’s what I got. Sorry for this long-ass email, it’s a bad/good habit. Wishing you the best of luck with the book and the next phase—release parties, signings, readings, all kinds of cool stuff. Should be awesome. As Jay would say, Stay focused man!

damien”

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Ts & Cs; Kanye and Gambino and ‘Good Taste’

An email reply to my Dad, sent June 14th 2018.

This is a long one, so you might want to print it out, or just read this, which is basically saying the same thing.

Coates’ essay is terrific – just so good. He’s a vital cultural critic.

Coates’ insight about how West’s self-consciousness (“We all self-conscious / I’m just the first to admit it” — KW, “All Falls Down“) is acute: as he notes, it must have been excruciating if it compelled him to risk undergoing plastic surgery to alter his appearance (West’s Mom died from complications following plastic surgery).

But another obvious trope in Kanye’s work that I don’t hear (though I try not to follow events in the ‘Ye-niverse too closely these days) is West’s ambivalence about higher education, being “smart”, and what being smart means.

Not sure if West didn’t graduate from college or just never went, but he named his first three records after events associated with higher education; The College DropoutLate Registration, and Graduation. The Graduation record came out in September 2007, and Kanye’s mother Donda West, an English professor in Chicago, died two months later. Her son’s career took a sharp turn towards the ill-advised shortly thereafter.

Not that you’d need to be a scholar to notice, but I noticed a change in West as I was starting my musicology studies. Though by that time “Kanye West” had become Esperanto for “asshole,” I was still defending him to the baffled, even as he baffled me more and more.

He adopted his frustrated-genius front while doing truly dumb things in the most public way possible (most notably, insisting on the relevance and value of music awards shows). He hectored listeners to “get on his level” in all things — not just music and being Jay-Z’s friend. Now he had shit to say about the Future of Media and whatnot. Telling (and occasionally showing) us that yes, he was that good. He was so good, so smart, we could barely understand.

I think that alienated a good chunk of his audience, his telling them that he’s smarter than they are. Like, profoundly smarter, and also very profound. Suddenly he was smart about art and clothes and some stuff happening in Europe or whatever. And it seemed very important to him to convey this.

As he slid into his rant-y “you people need to wake up!!” mode,  I remember thinking, “There’s no way Kanye West is that much smarter than me, or anyone else I know, really”. Surely not about much besides music, anyway. Still, he would definitely have contempt for what I’m doing right now (going to college twice, this time to study hip hop, in Scotland, etc). He’d probably deem this an illegitimate kind of “smart” to pursue. Not enough Dragon Energy or something.

And that seemed just silly — to claim visionary status but also hold education in contempt — be it formal, higher, niche, or otherwise. It exposed an unforced error in his perception. I mean, how badly must a person have been shamed about not graduating from college to reference that disappointment in three consecutive album titles?

West’s terrific record 808s & Heartbreak followed those first three releases, and it got Shelley and I through our first Glasgow winter — we played it all Christmas Eve as we decorated our tree.

It’s mournful and haunted, and while West sings more than he raps on it, the AutoTune he applies to his raw voice makes it more affecting. Following West’s mother’s passing and breaking up with his fiancée, it’s an alienated and alienating record, and very, very good.

His next record, rumored to be harder and more indulgent than earlier work, opened with a verse that fused a Pan-African motif to a slang entendre implying sexual violence, and I haven’t listened to anything he’s put out since then. Some people say My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (origin of the aforementioned verse) is the album of the decade, and I’ll probably listen to it someday, but I also might not.

Question is, is he really that good? If I forge ahead through this grime, will my efforts pay off? I don’t want to do all that for mostly-clever boasts and not-actually-that-profound insights. Do I owe it to myself to immerse myself in West’s vision like I used to?

West’s work has always tossed off caustic verses, cynical takes, lowbrow gags, and sometimes real venom. Almost all hip hop does, certainly most of the good stuff. I give it a pass — I’m “from” hip hop, but I’m not “of” hip hop. Maybe it’s the other way around. Point is, who am I to protest?

I protest anyway because I want the genre to be better. Look, members of every music tribe eventually fancy themselves gatekeepers, right? So I wanted hip hop to be smart, just, and kind — all the time. That, of course, is ridiculous, and arguably antithetical to the genre.

But it’s hard to wish for anything less from West because he is smart, hugely gifted, truly awake, and aware of what other people are going through (or he used to be) — there’s a lot to the guy!

What if he could be gigantic, big as Jay-Z but righteous as Marley, tender as Marvin, fierce as Fela, willing to take on the mantle like James Brown, to be the Michael Jackson-type ‘God of his people’ Coates talks about, and still be hip hop? How great would that be? Well then sure, I could stand to roll my eyes at some dick jokes and just move on.

But again; is West that good? Do I owe it to myself to enter his vision?

My late, dearly missed friend George Pitts would have told me to take it all in, don’t let coarse expression or “poor taste” rob you of what art (and life!) have to offer. Whatever the opposite of a snob is, be that. An omnivore. A slut for art. Profligate, promiscuous, polyglot, porous, filthy if you wish. The cultural world is before you on a plate — sup, homes! Go out there and contain multitudes. Like the English language, like Black communities, like pirates, like hip hop, like America at her best.

This may well be Kanye West’s ethos, and if it is, I respect that. He’ll take it all, thanks (or rather, “I’ll take it all, you’re welcome”). I mean, he was the first rapper to say people (i.e. his audience, and the hip hop massif, broadly) need to stop harassing gay folks. Bit later he went off to Paris to apprentice at a leading fashion house. Then he made a rap song about Jesus and it became a hit. Then sampled Rush, and made another hit. Named a song “Niggas in Paris,” another hit.

That’s a broad palette. An inclusive plate. Maybe what we have a problem with isn’t West’s discrimination, but his indiscrimination. Not so much bad taste as living taste-free — unbound by the shibboleths that constrict other musicians. After all, who wants to be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of hip hop? West is playing disrespectability politics. Like de Sade, Lenny Bruce, Roseanne Barr, or Zappa, embodying the Disrespected Impolitic.

That brings me to something more interesting than Kanye West by himself, but MUCH more interesting when factoring West into the picture.

It’s Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video. Have you seen this? It’s not easy watching, but it’s vital. A critical artwork. Here it is:

https://youtu.be/VYOjWnS4cMY

A friend told me he had reservations about the video because, speaking spoiler-free, it includes a sequence that references an actual atrocity without proper framing or context. My counter-argument was, basically, I’ll grant you that the video could be seen as “in bad taste”, but that good taste is no friend of art.

And why does Gambino owe more to good taste than to incisive insights? If his reference to mass murder appears in a debased form — a video promoting a single off his new album — and if he doesn’t take enough care to declare “mass murder is very bad, no one should do it,” is he making bad art? It might be bad in some other form (a political platform, a carnival ride, a legal decision) but is it de facto bad art? By virtue of format and absent disclaimers? I say let Childish Gambino do what he wants, he doesn’t have to respect anyone’s ideas about propriety, especially if his art is that good.

And yet I don’t give West a pass under those terms. With West, I insist that he should show some respect, heed the lessons of history, respect women, stop rapping about cars and clothes, not marry a Kardashian, etc etc.

It’s cultural respectability politics, right? Gambino (real name, Donald Glover, a truly terrific actor and producer. His nom du rap is taken from a random-name-generating website; how’s that for disrespecting a genre’s terms & conditions?!) makes protest art and gets compared favorably in contrast to West. But is that based partly on that white audiences love their Black artists earnest and down-for-the-struggle? Do fantasies of pleasure and power look unseemly, raucous riffing leave us feeling unstable? Is that dick joke fighting oppression? I remain, guilty as charged.

West could have saved himself, probably. One of the lingering questions about his career is, basically, Where the hell you been? From Mike Brown to Charlottesville to “shithole countries” to #metoo? This guy’s father-in-law is Caitlin Jenner! His wife and her sisters are the most famous miscegenation-ists on Earth! He’s from a city plagued by murder, police “black sites,” and Rahm Emmanuel! …and Kanye’s been doing what, now?

He spent the Bush 2 and Obama administrations pissing off presidents over nonsense. When shit got real, he married the Ass That Broke the Internet, moved to LA, started having babies, and getting stupid in earnest. He really hasn’t shown up. Until now.

OK, that’s what I got. Good night, sir!

Posted in A.R.T., Oh this just pisses me off!, This is Musicology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Have I ever owned a pair of Michael Jordan-brand Nike basketball sneakers, you ask? I can answer that question.

Never owned a pair. Unlike wearing a black leather jacket (mid-30s), and a dignified vest (this year), I just never felt like I could carry off a pair of Jordans. The shoe made too strong a statement, or too many statements — my athletic drive is like Jordan’s / my basketball acuity is like Jordan’s / my swagger is like Jordan’s / my devotion to sneaker culture is such that I can legitimately rock the apex shoe. Wearing Jordans would assume too much, and lead others to make implausible, likely comic, assumptions about me. Jordans would out-do me, and hinder my ability to just do me. Also, they were expensive AF. I followed sneaker culture, trawled Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall every weekend and watched all the new shoe commercials, but stuck with modest classics (Pumas and Adidas Superstars), or weird second-tier models; Rodmans with the side-lacing, Converse AeroJam for the court. Bit of an I’m-not-worthy thing going on I guess. There is your answer.

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George Pitts, RIP

photo by Mike McGregor

For George Pitts, RIP

I wanted to be George Pitts’ most special student forever.

My eagerness to serve as his acolyte must have annoyed hell out of the man, but I was willing to risk it; as anyone who met him understood, one was never going to meet a person like George Pitts again. You wanted to grab up as much of him as he was willing to offer. Astoundingly, despite his eminent reputation as a photo editor, photographer, teacher, poet, and painter, he was (as Hyun Kim has noted) a great listener; he truly wanted to know what you had to say, whoever you were.

Before I began working at Vibe in 1998 (fulfilling one of the only professional goals I’ve ever come up with), someone told me, “You know, he’s friends with Bowie. Like, they hang out.”

Then I met George — dignified, inscrutable, splendidly turned out, a totally unfamiliar type — and the claim appeared entirely plausible. (The Bowie story made George giggle. George had an enchanting giggle.) He could be intimidating at first, but the impression quickly dissipated — in Vibe’s corridors George could seem slightly otherworldly, but very much of the place, as captivating and daunting to watch as a beating heart.

George was also the coolest person I’ve ever met, by a country mile. He represented for me the best I could hope for, if I lived my life in New York properly. I knew that bar was far too high for me, but it was thrilling to know someone who might teach me a few steps along the way.   

Elegant but earthy, a gentleman and a rake, an upstart dandy and a Buddha monk, George could carry off a flightsuit topped with a cravat, jumpboots with a sharkskin suit, big bronze jewelry and good sideburns. He repped for Hans Bellmer and Renee Cox, Bowie and Biggie, Didion and Genet, McGinley and LaChapelle — but the duality that struck me most about George was that he was both a stone aesthete and totally unconcerned with purity.

The man had the courage to make himself available to new work. With him, I never got away with dismissing an artist out of hand. His generosity toward art schooled me all the time (still does). Though his observations were sometimes astringent, I always welcomed more.

Late nights in the hallways at Vibe, he stood up for Dylan and the Doors; in Life’s offices he declared for Ice Cube’s most scorched-earth recordings. These were brave stances to take in those environments. George delighted in polymorphous perversities, and I knew no one who embodied and fastened juxtapositions as brilliantly.

At the same time, George listened patiently to all my rants. How we should never put Jay Z on the cover of Life (or inside it), how Ol’ Dirty Bastard deserved better than to be portrayed as a debased buffoon in Vibe, and how all these bling rappers ought to make more socially conscious music.

And then he would gently spin my head completely around with a penetrating insight that revealed what I hadn’t considered — and the fact that, too often, defensive structures filter out the light. In other words, quit being such a hater.

At one point I thought this was a lesson in staying hip — never reject what the kids are into, you’ll just look old and out of touch. But later I realized I wasn’t giving him enough credit.

George simply wasn’t willing to limit himself. He wanted to see and know more, not less, of this world and what the people in it create. He abided in a willingness to offer himself to anything new. I was always embarrassed that, at half his age, I remained so stingy.

An artist and intellectual, George was never willing to dismiss expression on the grounds it was inauthentic, unserious, not Black enough, too white, too unkind, too gynocentric, too dirty, too clean, too macho, too naked, too coy. George respected very few cultural pieties. He would, as we would have said at Vibe, fuck with just about anything.

For a man devoted to the erotic (it always felt a little sexy when George was in the room), he didn’t carry any driving will to possess or control women. On the contrary, he loved fierce women — not “strong women,” but uncompromising, bracing, visionary, sui generis women — Grace Jones, Peaches, Louise Bourgeoise, PJ Harvey, Lil’ Kim, Stevie Nicks, Bjork, Diamanda Galas, Madonna, Kate Bush, Vanessa del Rio, Josephine Baker. He loved women who were not to be fucked with.

Even in his love for dominant male archetypes — louche playboys, thin white dukes and Satanic majesties, lovermen and swaggering playas — George recognized the respect even a strutting cock-of-the-walk afforded a powerful woman.  

At Vibe, I went down a guttering wreck, under a cloud. If we ever met again, I didn’t know how enthusiastic George would be to see me.

Then, in 2004, the legendary Life magazine gamely returned in its third and final printed form, and George signed on as photo director. A position opened in their research department, and I landed it.

Suddenly, miraculously, I found myself working with him again. I wondered how he would take to the more orthodox culture at Time Inc, but George, his bonafides long established, seemed more comfortable at Life than confined — Dali at Disneyland. I was just happy to get a second chance to see him every day. So I made sure I did that, for the next two and a half years.

The last contact I had with George was in 2008, a few years after Life folded, when I asked him to endorse me. I was applying to graduate school, and I needed a recommendation.

I knew it was just an excuse to re-connect; fearing imposition, I had rarely made overtures in the intervening years. Still, as the first music scholar I’d ever known, it seemed right to ask for his co-sign as I started a course in musicology. I knew many, many people demanded George’s time, and that I’d better make this request really good.

So I emailed George to ask him, and he declined.

He wasn’t unkind, just truthful: Over the years we’d worked together, at two different magazines, he had never been my supervisor, and he had never been my professor. As he explained, we had worked side by side, but never directly on a project together.

And he said that he had known me as a friend, not as a student. As always, he was warmly polite, sensitive to my feelings, and absolutely right. I understood, it made sense immediately. And it was gratifying just to know that he had thought of me in that way.

I mostly thought of George as teacher, inspiration, and guide, so it was startling to hear him call me a friend. I regretted pushing him to that declaration, a bit. Selfishly, I savored the status anyway.

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Hip hop, grown-ups, and growin’ up

If you ever claimed hip hop as your own, or tried to, you’ve felt some anxiety, probably unspoken, that the music would not grow up with you. That maybe it just wasn’t meant to. Your favorite artists would age with you, but the genre would bind them to themes and affectations that would diminish their dignity and wisdom — baggy jeans, paradoxically too constricting. Also, not a good look. What would be worse than hip hop remaining youthful, which of course it always ought? If the artists you knew to be geniuses were thwarted by the modal notions that rule a music that sprung you both. Just because they grew up and learned some stuff. How would hip hop contend with the guiding stars of adulthood; keeping your word, loving helplessly with core exposed, knowing what one must not do or have, sustaining dialog in the face of indifference or contempt, and all these even when there’s no glory in it — especially then? Would all your heroes give up on the art form as a “young person’s game”? Or cling to it, thirsty and unseemly? Would you then have to let hip hop go and get into like, jazz or something? This is the answer. God bless De La Soul.

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Letter to my Dad, in re: J Dilla’s “Donuts”, a record I gave him for Christmas 2015

Hi Dad,

In re: Jay Dilla (James Yancey), and his Donuts, I’ll offer a few entry points. As you surely suspected, this question has inspired an endless disquisition. Here’s the highlights;
– He did the music for that Common song “The Light” that we both love so much. Also, a bunch of other terrific songs, from pop to avante gard and in-between.
– He’s seen as a hip hop producer’s hip hop producer — not quite underground but faithful to it, and very much the connoisseur’s pick, a name to drop if you ever want to gain credibility with deep hip hop heads.
– And I think his music is three things fundamentally; psychedelic, postmodern, and utterly hip hop.
But it’s not for everyone, it could be it just doesn’t quite resonate. The music definitely flouts a lot of expectations, and  seems to fulfill others — some good and some bad (whatever those categories may mean!). I’m probably about to fall into a classic music geek (or snob) conundrum here — the claim that “Actually [difficult, obscure, possibly overrated music] is great, it’s much better than it sounds“, but here I go anyway.
J Dilla’s music, like all sample-based music, is allusive, and a big part of his virtuosity is his command of his materials — not just the sampler and turntables, but the vast sonic fund he draws from which, as you can hear, is immense. Wolfman Jack to decades-old advertisements, live on-stage patter, records no one’s ever heard of, terrible crap and undisputed classics.
I’d call that postmodern. I don’t even really know what postmodern is or does, but my sense is that (in part) it’s a way of seeing the entirety of culture as up for grabs, scrambling ideas about “high” art and “low”, and it favors subjectivity over grand narratives and canons. I don’t really know, but that’s my guess. Not quite “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”, but definitely a perspective that proceeds on the idea that culture is never innocent or ahistorical, so we don’t really need to revere it the way we’re told. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, e.e. cummings, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Woodhull, Gil Scott-Heron, and John Lennon would, I think, agree.
And the subjectivity can be radical, in a more-familiar, modernist way. In a lot of ways, it takes its cues from Joyce, Woolf, Picasso, Hannah Hoch, Burroughs, and Warhol. When I listen to Dilla, I am always hearing other voices, other rooms, a sonic cut-up technique narrating his stream of consciousness.
For me, listening to Dilla is like walking through Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall; a thousand reflective surfaces, miles of the latest styles, box-fresh gear, athletic shoes for infants, wig set on a thousand sightless and serene styrofoam busts , stores stocked with BEEPERS GOLD FRONTS SNEAKERS PERFUME, astounding headgear, Black history books on a card table next to essential oils.
And wildly dense with sound — slick talk, hollers, fragmentary music, laughter, chatter, come-ons, sermons, bus brakes, oldies, chart-climbers and underground joints.
Just above it, floating at the second stories, is the story of what came before; the incised stonework, painted advertisements, traces of the swooping letters once affixed to facades, gilt-lettered windows for since-departed law offices, notaries public, fortune tellers, department stores, beauty parlors. Off the glittering, encrusted main drag, the parallel streets play counterpoint with buttons, notions, fish and fabric. There’s layers happening; edifices, residues, history, a lot of different times happening, all the time.
Dilla’s songs incorporate all that, and I think that puts him within a lineage that takes in “Revolution #9”, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buchanan & Goodman, Jamaican “versioning“, and the ancient folk music practice of taking music and embellishing it with one’s own contributions (Eric Lott’s major book on minstrelsy is titled Love & Theft a title Bob Dylan later used for one of his own records).
If earlier sample-based hip hop musicians were, basically, taking you on a tour through their parents’ record collections, Dilla is taking you on a tour of his entire mind.
That’s one way, I think, that the music is psychedelic. It’s headphone music, but also, as they used to say, head music. It definitely rewards close listening on a good pair of headphones but, I suspect, especially while one’s head is itself in an altered state (truth — I’ve never tried it!). Basically, Donuts is surely a great record to listen to stoned. I assume the drifting vocals, woozily un-synced beats, and out-of-phase passages gain a lot of richness that way.
And it’s hip hop, in sensibility, in trope, in standards of achievement (its aims, its proof of concept, or whatever). In its very modality (a word you hipped me to), Donuts is ineluctably hip hop music. Hip hop’s overall aesthetic — definition, traditions, formal properties and formal problems, etc. —  is a much larger discussion. But, for what it’s worth, while the work (songs?) may feel loose, unfocused, and irreverent, Dilla’s tunes are uncompromising in their allegiance to form.
Most “turntablism”, or purely sample-based hip hop music, is leavened (or leadened, depending on your perspective) by heavy doses of juvenelia. It is, after all, a form primarily created by young men in their bedrooms and basements, often in isolation, manipulating artifacts of commercial mass media. And the form usually resists the customs of song structure; it forgoes bridges, choruses, codas, reprises, narrative arc, and, of course, lyrics. None of this makes the music easy listening!
One last detail, to bring it down to Earth again; a lot of the compositions on the record were first used, in whole or in part, on other records. So, in a way, for all its revered status, Donuts is in significant part a beat tape, the kind of musical calling card a DJ/producer might create as a “sample of wares”, just to show what s/he can do. The record was a labor of deep love for sure (Yancey died, of a rare blood disorder, three days after its release), but it was also, in some ways, a practical creation. Like Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, it’s a tremendous work, but it only hints at what he might have done later on in life.
OK, that’s it. Talk to you tonight!
 Love,
 d
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Hip Hop and Africa, Letter to Hugo Burnham 3/29/2015

Hugo, I’ve been thinking about the issue you’ve brought up, and I have to admit; because I can’t play music, I really don’t know anything about compositional or technical motifs common to African music and hip hop. Considering the beat’s essential role in the genre tho, I suppose I would ask a drummer about that aspect… 🙂

From what I can recall, and my recollection isn’t crystal clear, hip hop scholarship emphasizes three currents running through the music which have their origins in African culture(s); the drum, favoring spontaneous improvisation on form, and communal participation in cultural expressions. Amiri Baraka (as Leroi Jones) discusses the centrality of the drum in Africa at length in his great “Blues People“. A lesser-known but still good book is Joe Schloss’s “Making Beats“, which goes into all these aspects in specific relation to hip hop (I think the introduction is best on this). And I am sure Tricia Rose, whom Schloss (and everyone else) cites reverently, goes deep on these themes.

So, in a thumbnail, the hip hop/African culture through-line is evidenced in the rhyme cypher and the dance circle in which everybody takes a turn, the musics which favored taking on a recognized format or standard as a starting point and taking flight within (or from) it on the spot, and ways in which, in many expressions, style stood as a verb, a victory, and an end unto itself.

That’s what I got for overt links — sorry wish I could be more concrete and complete!

This may be a bit far afield of your interest, but I wonder if it might be interesting at all to look at the fascination with Afrocentrism that overtook hip hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Interestingly, I hear that era referred to as “the Golden Age” by hip hop heads a lot younger than myself).

Basically, the idea is that the links from Africa to hip hop are fascinating, but so also are the links to Africa made by African Americans, the forms they took and devotions performed in recognition of what young Black men and women believed was inherently African about their culture, and cultural expressions.

That late-’80s/early ’90s era wasn’t always worried about delineating the direct links between Africa and African American art forms, but if Black Power is hip hop’s ideological parent, then I suppose it makes sense that this music reaches back toward Africa both culturally and politically, in the pan-African sense.

I guess what I really mean is, that Afrocentric era is the one I get most nerdy about, and so I think you should, too.   😛

I mean, I’ve no doubt you know all this, but the Black nationalist fervor that seemed like it was everywhere at that time (including many unlikely places) produced some amazing music, but I’m fascinated by the ways that rap artists attempted to link hip hop culture directly to Africa. I would never argue against that connection of course, but it made for some interesting manifestations and creative ideologies.

One of them produced a weirdly conservative streak, evident in East Coast hip hop’s moving under influence of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths (basically an ultra Orthodox branch of the Nation of Islam’s already-deep-end Islam — on that subject, Brand Nubian’s virtuosic “Reprise in the Sunshine” is worth a listen, especially beside Felicia Miyakawa’s exposition on the song, from her book on the Five Percent Nation) that fostered a lot of poisonous bile (misogyny, anti-Jewish cant, boring-ass lazy gender essentialism, general paranoiac narrowness and contempt). Brand Nubian’s record All For One, from 1992, and Ice Cube’s staggeringly angry, eloquent records with the Lench Mob from the early ’90s are a (albeit, NoI, not 5%) case in point (“Send me a subpoena/ Cause I’m killing more crackers than Bosnia/Herzegovina”! Tune!).

If Pubic Enemy is the canonical righteous hip hop godhead, the apotheosis of high camp Afrocentrism was surely X Clan, a group whose whole presentation (leather kufis to 19th century race theory) shows how the effort to link hip hop culturally with African folkways could get quite strenuous. Even Mr. West, our current Esperanto epithet for Asshole, has made some overtures to that look.

(Another nugget of head-nod-able seriousness from this era is the final track on the 1992 debut record of Zimbabwe Legit, the first rap group I’m aware of whose members were actually raised in Africa, “Doin’ Damage in My Native Language (Shadow’s Legitimate Mix)“, an all-sample tone poem of African allusions put together by my abiding darling, DJ Shadow — a white guy!)

But the connections were (and are) deeply felt, and if the overtures toward a pan-African aesthetic matrix were flawed, they were also beautiful, vital, both difficult and necessary, and (IMHO) made hip hop one of the most important cultural expressions in the world for a while.

The scholars of the form discuss sampling as a form of cultural adaptation and rejuvenation, evident also in jazz’s re-working of standards, Jamaican “versioning”, the blues’ infinitely adaptable 12 bars, and so on, and cite as all characteristically African. But for me, the jury’s still out on that.

I mean, all sorts of cultures re-work their fundamentals, and their most refined products, all the time — in good faith, through parody, through mind-bogglingly bold adaptations, and sometimes by accident (i.e. the myriad variations on “Louie Louie“).

At the time, we heard a lot about how rappers were actually griots, the Roland 808 was merely a digital talking drum, the freestyle cypher was that old African American insult-trading game called the dozens, now broader in subject matter and hypertrophied in hyperbole. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to those derivations, but the number and power of the exceptions challenge those rules, if that’s what we’re going to call them. Chuck D, Queen Latifah (yeah I said that), Rakim, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica? Griots, no doubt. E40, Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Nicki Minaj? Not really a bunch of griots, I’d say (I wonder if they might even agree!). Nevertheless, all of them are devoted experts of the form, widely respected by hip hop heads — non-griot status doesn’t make them less legit.

The 808 is capable of making music so numbingly unfunky (Run-DMC’s first couple records, anyone?) that I think you’d be hard-pressed to get Africa to take any credit for it. And rapping itself has shown itself under such a wild array of forms and styles that it’s hard to believe it all developed out of tall tales and shit-talkin’ (tho I’ve got plenty reverence for shittalkin’).

Seems to me there’s some technological determinism at work in hip hop’s origins (the old saw about Reagan’s budget cuts eliminating school music pgm.s, so the youth resort to using Dad’s stereo as a musical instrument — see Chang’s “Can’t Stop” for a balanced take on that).

But probably also a bit of folks adapting to a post-modern, culturally flat world in which all forms and eras rest on the same level, ready to be appropriated, by we alienated modernaires. Sort of like the blues sped up and turned into R&B when it left the farm for the city, etc, I reckon hip hop’s development had as much to do with zeitgeist as ancient cultural tropes.

The other open secret about hip hop, of course, (and I feel like in this respect, in the UK, you were WAY ahead of us here) is its very, very deep roots in Jamaican sound system culture and toasting. It’s a whole other vast subject, and the sociology of the Caribbean is way past my ken, but truly — there’s an awful lot there.

Anyways, I could not and would never try to make the argument that hip hop’s origins are anything but African, or that there’s anything like hip hop without African American cultural forms and adaptations, or that African American people realize those forms to their highest levels (Shadow, Eminem, and the striking prevalence of Filipino scratch DJ champions notwithstanding).

That said, I think some of the three essential characteristics ascribed to African culture in re: hip hop are found in many other places. Adapting and refining and parodying the standards, citing via sample, signifyin(g), communal participation, styling and profiling as an end in itself — you see that around for sure. In very specific expressions, you see how these are manifested, and they’re glorious. But they are, of course, present elsewhere.

Just saying, may be wise to give a little bit of measured regard for direct cause-and-effect with the three characteristic and the vaunted 4 and/or 5 Elements of Hip Hop. Tricky territory, but it does give me an opportunity to shoehorn this in, which I would add to the list of things that really mess with the purity of hip hop’s origin story (also on the list; Blossom Dearie, “Johnny B. Goode”, prog rock album cover illustrative type, and these guys)

I’m sorry I can’t send along evidence of undeniable links between Africa and hip hop, but maybe this endless note will be helpful for finding sources. I shouldn’t have left HL Gates for last, I think his thesis in “Signifying Monkey” is pretty crucial.

On another note, I own Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Blues People, and Rap Attack, you’re free to borrow any and all, just say the word.

Apologies for length — I was not gifted with brevity (hey, who said “fucking blowhard”? I heard that! 🙂  )

Cheers,

dmc

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Coming With the Insights!

A letter written in response to a student paper. The student was not my own, but that of a professor here at NEiA, where I’m the librarian.

Hi,

Nice work on the literature review! It was an easy read (which, when it comes to academic writing, is really saying something) and you covered the territory well. I agree with Hugo in that you don’t let yourself draw from empirical sources as much as you could, though Macklemore and Lewis (just watched the video, uproarious) as the opening example is good.

 

I have a few thoughts. Looking at this now, maybe better to print this out…

 

First, on page 3 you state that “major players in the music industry have always balked at technological advancements”, while “smaller labels embraced these technological advances more quickly”. I am pretty  sure this is true in re: share-able digital files. My question is, was this also true for CDs and cassettes? I don’t know the facts, but perhaps some investigation to do there?

 

From what I understand, the majors unwittingly sowed the seeds of their own destruction in developing the digital file formats they housed on CDs, and were then adapted to the web-share-able MP3 format. But between the advent of CDs and the emergence of MP3s and file-sharing sites, I had thought that the major labels basically got a license to mint money throughout most of the 90s. This would indicate an enthusiastic embrace of that new form of technology right? Wonder if the same was true for cassettes, wherein they gave consumers a reason to replace a chunk of their extant music collections?

 

I would also be interested in smaller labels’ feelings about the advent of new physical formats, esp the CD. Was this format as easily accessible and sale-able for indie labels? Were CDs more expensive to manufacture? Were indie music fans as open to buying CDs initially? Did smaller labels have to wait until prices on players and discs dipped into range of the less-affluent consumer before it was cost-effective to take their product to market on the new format (as labels carrying many colloquial genres, folk and rural music, did in the 20s)?

 

Same for cassettes — smaller, independent companies must have had feelings about shifting their product’s holding vessel from one format to another, and I wonder how expensive the barrier to entry into that market was.

 

Another consideration — tho this is a bit further afield into culture, not markets — is indie fidelity to analog formats which complicates the market-based rationale to go whole-hog for digital. Seems like there’s a bit of an emotional attachment, maybe only in certain genres but certainly a lot of them, to vinyl, no? Something along the logic of “vinyl = analog = more gritty = more ‘real’ = less corporate = more indie”. Hip hop, tho utterly transformed by digital formats and distribution, holds a fierce loyalty to vinyl that’s entirely cultural (as opposed to practical).

 

Punk has a lot of that as well, possibly based on a similar high status accorded to “real-ness”. And of course many, many audiophiles will tell you vinyl carries superior sound, which covers your classical and jazz cohort. And plenty of mainstream groups bundle digital files with the vinyl editions of the records they release (Jack White’s Third Man Records, for instance, has gone deep into collectible vinyl editions), but this does seem to apply in genres where the artists are either trying for a status as somehow “serious” (Radiohead, Coldplay) or in which the recordings will be played by a DJ (hip hop, dance music, reggae). Maybe something to look at there? But again, that’s probably pretty wide of the main topic of your paper.

 

On page 4 you say “pre-digital technology helped maintain the distance between musical artists and their fans”. This is true to some extent, but it seems worth mentioning that the mass media forms used by record labels (not just manufacturing and distributing tons of records but increasing artist exposure via radio, print, film, and television) helped create larger music fan communities than any previously known. Without those technologies to form a bridge to listeners, all artists would essentially remain merely local acts.

 

I think that’s where you might consider looking more at live performance as a pre-cursor to what we’re seeing now with ease of use and broadcast that’s native to digital files. It’s distant, but I think it’s direct. As you point out, the material expense and hardware involved in recording, pressing, and distributing music was so high, artists could not reasonably make and sell their own recordings in profitable quantities. Unable to connect through recordings alone, they had to rely on label promotion to reach fans.

 

But touring enabled artists to not only to make more money than most were likely to on record sales alone, but to make that direct connection with their audience at the same time. The example of James Brown and his war of attrition with King Records in the ‘60s is a good one (Peter Guralnick’s excellent Sweet Soul Music<http://www.amazon.com/Sweet-Soul-Music-Southern-Freedom/dp/0316332739/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363290896&sr=1-1&keywords=sweet+soul+music> would be a good source for this, and much else), tho it could also be another illustration of James Brown being a bad-ass force of nature the like of which we shan’t see again.

 

But live performance, seen as a marketing activity (little as we might like to call it that) made possible by mass media technology (print and radio advertising, even electric amplification) was one way artists could establish direct fan contact which their labels overcame by other, more efficient means. So Web 2.0 is perhaps worth looking at in light of that (again, radically less efficient) model of fan connection.

 

In my own academic work I looked at hip hop sampling a lot, and that genre seems worth a look, too, because digital creation and distribution has made it so much easier to get a hold of samples to use but also to find (by, for instance, ASCAP and the like, seeking infringing uses of their content) and contact their users. Sampling also complicates the issue of artist control over the copyright to their work — some of those self-made DIY artists can get killed on fees to rights-holders if their work gains success and they haven’t done their homework on sample clearance.

 

Also seems that online mixtapes and the sites that distribute them need a mention somewhere too. Also Youtube (Lana Del Ray, Owl City, maybe OK Go?).

 

Lastly, I might look at some of the folks who have offered refutations of Anderson’s Long Tail model. I also relied heavily on The Long Tail, so it was great to go back and look at it again in your paper, but I believe some have claimed that it works less comprehensively than Anderson proposes. I might look at the book’s blog<http://www.thelongtail.com/about.html> for more, or the academic journals you’ve already been looking at.

 

And interestingly, if indie labels (in the popular narrative) served as a counter-force to a soul-less, sold-out, impersonal corporate regime focused on maximizing profits from lowest-common-denominator music, and aided by media monopolies which pushed its every product, the digital music revolution has wrought a similarly cold arbiter of what we hear.

 

Music recommendation algorithms are the new soul-less, impersonal force which often (and increasingly) decides what we hear next, at least on streaming music services like Pandora and Last.fm. We’re supposed to believe that these algorithms select music impartially (how could a math formula “sell out”?), but who really knows? Or, if they are impartial, how could we know how long they’ll remain so?

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