Remembering my friend Seth Boyd, aka Cadence

 

From my musicology thesis, University of Edinburgh, Summer 2011:

III. PERSONAL HISTORY

 

“People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”

– title of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut record (Zomba, 1990)

 

“Hadn’t I just been a special white boy?”

– William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs[1]

 

My interest in sample-based hip hop’s use of older music started, as many musical fascinations do, in a bedroom, though not my own.

 

In 1985 I was 15 years old, well into my sophomore year of high school and entering a friendship with Seth Boyd, a boy in the year before me. We had found common ground in a love for hip hop, and since we lived in neighboring towns—he in Cambridge and I in Somerville—we started hanging out and listening to music together.

 

Seth and I attended the Cambridge School of Weston, whose ponderous name charted its origins, 100 years ago, in Cambridge to its current location in Weston, an affluent suburb about 45 minutes outside of Boston. CSW sat high on the list of expensive high schools in the United States, and far left on the continuum of educational and political philosophies. Our athletic teams were comic, our dance and theatre programs epic, and we cleaned up in the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards every year. Teachers and headmasters were known by their first names, and most campus rules were debated in weekly schoolwide assemblies, presided over by a Student Moderator.

 

Though Seth and I played on the school basketball team’s starting lineup all four years, this had nothing to do with our heavily subsidized status at CSW. Teachers certainly encouraged our efforts at writing fiction and essays—we were each told we were gifted at points—but I don’t imagine that our funding had to do with outstanding academic brilliance (or mine certainly didn’t). We simply needed help if we wanted to continue at the school. Seth’s mother was a technical writer, mine a graphic designer; his dad was a Harvard researcher and mine was a Boston public high school teacher. Many of our classmates’ parents seemed to have had similar jobs, but many others were high-tech entrepreneurs, architects or bankers, and a few were old rock stars, or psychic healers and such.

 

I quickly realized that my familiarity with hip hop was thoroughly pedestrian compared with Seth’s. His explorations in the genre were fearless and omnivorous, and his record collection dwarfed mine. While I was still dismissing artists on the basis of un-serious stage names—the Fat Boys were about as far as I would tolerate in what I considered a sternly cutting-edge musical phenomenon—Seth would bring home records by artists who called themselves things like Ice-T, the Fresh Prince, and Son of Bazerk, or had suspiciously electro-oriented names like Mantronix. Stuff you’d play in a dance club, I reckoned, not the b-boy battlegrounds I fantasized about breakdancing in. I admired his faith in the genre’s resilience, though it appeared to me that in the new rap marketplace, buffoonery was rapidly overtaking quality.

 

 

Two years later I was still in search of the pan-racial dance party roller-skating promised and sometimes delivered, but felt further from it in ways I was barely able to name. I’d left Somerville public schools for the shaded quadrangle and teachers-on-a-first-name-basis arcadia of the Cambridge School. I began to spend less time with my old friends in Somerville, and most of the rules I’d hoarded in order to pass for normal there faded away too.

 

Increasingly, Seth and I would spend weekend afternoons in his bedroom, listening to his latest finds before heading out to Harvard Square to play video games, eat pizza, and eventually look at more records. The swoony noir of Roxy Music, Prince’s horny funk-rock, and Kate Bush’s art-pop operas held no appeal for my friend, but I realized I was getting the best exposure I could to music I would likely never buy for myself, so I listened hard and didn’t push for reciprocal consideration for New Order.

 

One afternoon Seth did something that made me realize I was not listening to rap records nearly as hard as he was.

 

“So check this out.” Seth pulled out a black LP with yellow circles scattered across it, each framing a cut-out of different singers’ heads. Blocky capitals read “James Brown’s Funky People.” The design looked crappy as a supermarket-sale banner (the cover, I told myself yet again—another sure gauge of a record’s quality) and the Godfather of Soul’s involvement appeared to be nominal. I was as ready to believe James Brown liked this record as I was to accept that the British legislative body smoked Parliament cigarettes, or Roy Rogers ate fast food at truck stops. This was the kind of record my Dad made me listen to—just what I’d escaped from before coming over!

 

“OK. What’s this?” I asked. He took the vinyl disk out and handed me the sleeve. A crackle came over the speakers, then; horns, the hiss-hush-crack of high hat and snare, and a delicious bass lick. “James Brown, right. Cool. Why am I listening to this?” I asked.

 

Was there supposed to be some kind of revelation here? Metalheads worshipped guitar solos, punks hated acoustic instruments, hippies loved them, and rappers sampled James Brown; these were truisms of the tribes.

 

“Nope, the J.B.s. You don’t recognize that?”

 

“The J.B.s? Is that a James Brown cover band? ‘Cause they sound like wanna be one. This song is OK. What else ya got?”

 

“No—the beat. Here.” Seth was the only person I know who touched records as much as he did. Or record players. The tone arm, the platter, the needle, even the belt drive underneath, which I didn’t know existed before he told me he had dismantled and reconfigured his. Now he lifted the tone arm and placed it back toward the beginning of the record; again, the tight, clean rhythm and bassline. “It’s from Eric B. and Rakim. ‘I Ain’t No Joke.’ You know this one. Here.”

 

Seth pulled Eric B. and Rakim’s classic debut from a nearby milk crate (glimpse of ludicrous Gucci tracksuits, “dookie” gold chains, reams of dollar bills, ice grills), whipped it out and dropped it on the platter.

 

For the tenth or twentieth time, that peculiar shift occurred when the musical vestige overtook its source, and the association between the two pieces of music came clear. There it was, of course; slightly obscured, but clearly legible. A meaty James Brown-style break, perfectly chopped and looped, motivating the rhymes.

 

It was a fun kind of audio prestidigitation, nothing wildly significant. But what struck me then, for the first time, was that Seth had picked out and identified music neither one of us could’ve been expected to know anything about.

 

James Brown was then (as now) an acknowledged titan, though by the early 80s he was drifting into ridiculousness; he made a cameo in Rocky IV (itself a dogged revival of a spent franchise) reminding us he was indeed still “Living in America,” and Eddie Murphy played Brown as an addled, incomprehensible loon in Saturday Night Live skits. But you would still hear “I Got You (I Feel Good)” on the radio and so JB remained a presence. Like the portrait of long-dead President Jackson on the 10-dollar bill, he was part of the blur of significant cultural personages, someone you knew of but hardly knew anything about. You felt he was probably important, but that he didn’t really matter.

 

And though the J.B.s were plausible—their affiliation with Brown was musically obvious, and there was Soul Brother Number 1’s titular co-sign, and they definitely got the initials right—no one really thought about James Brown’s band, they thought about James Brown. And no one had heard this music since what, 1973? The J.B.s were a hidden treasure to us, and if by pursuing their work we were vicariously shuffling through DJ Eric B.’s record crates (and perhaps even his earliest inspirations; his parents’ record collection), that felt like a worthy quest—what Eric B. knew was clearly worth knowing. Finding music like this was an act of will, creativity, resourcefulness, and, crucially, recovered memory, made more exciting if the memories happened not to be our own.

 

Discovering James Brown’s Funky People was a small but significant turning point in my relationship with Seth. As I drifted further into more predictable waters of the pop music ocean, on to romantic sad-boys like the Smiths and the Cure and yacht-rockers Steely Dan and Sade, Seth kept blindsiding me with feats of sample-spotting. His subsequent purchases took in jazz, musicals, novelty records, children’s music, film soundtracks, and many arcane tributaries of soul and funk.

 

In the last few years I’ve started thinking about those afternoons; two white kids, friends from a suburban private school, holed up in a bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts— hometown, of course, to Harvard, Radcliffe, and MIT— listening to generation-old Black music that our parents may have heard although it wasn’t marketed to them, or to anyone our parents really knew. Some of this music scarcely registered within its intended market. How did we develop an interest in these B-sides, chart also-rans, and nearly-forgotten songs from 15 or 20 years ago? Why did we mythologize the artists, hunt their records down, scrutinize liner notes, album-core text and grill record-store clerks to glean clues for further searching?

 

When we considered it intellectually, our love for rap music and its stories of sex, violence, and deprivation sounded bizarre, but it felt just right; rap voiced some of our unexpressed fantasies, it was music which no one before us could claim because it hadn’t existed before us. This was our rebel music; and within the microclimate of the Cambridge School of Weston, punk and hippie rock were default options, but hip hop worked better for us not only because it felt more “authentic” but also because we felt it was never intended for us.

 

Even as hip hop expounded on experiences we couldn’t relate to at first hand, the crack-fuelled fires raging within the inner cities smouldered at the edges of our own neighborhoods and its residual effects were never very far. We felt some of that heat, the swelling power of the new cocaine derivatives poisoning the neighborhoods we skirted. Some of it was reflected in the impossibly glamorous clothing, cars, and jewelry the rappers we loved wore—thrilled but guilty, we knew this. But also, we lived in the city. Few of our classmates did, and as city kids on scholarship we often felt like outsiders around them.

 

But claiming old soul as one’s own would have been a lame, conservative move in our estimation. Krush Groove and Wild Style were cool movies whose soundtracks announced them as hip hop to the core; The Big Chill, with its cherry-picked roster of Motown hits, was not cool. Not that the music wasn’t good, it was—but nostalgia? No. Plus Motown didn’t really belong to you. Michael Jackson wasn’t even on Motown anymore. Motown belonged to our parents.

 

At around the same time Seth started hitting me with vinyl obscurities, I started seeing breaks compilations appearing in stores; Ultimate Breaks and Beats, unlicensed collections of songs recently sampled by hip hop producers, were put out on vinyl by New York DJ Lenny Roberts’ Street Beat Records, and marketed, to the degree they were marketed at all (as he was distributing illegal bootlegs, Roberts understandably kept their existence at a fairly low profile[2]), to other hip hop DJs and producers. Then came sampled artists’ responses to their work being used in hip hop; collaborations and/or musical admonishments, as in Jimmy Castor’s “Tellin’ On the Devil,” and James Brown’s “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses).”

 

The genesis comes full circle with hip hop DJs like DJ Shadow forming Cali-Tex Records and Eothen “Egon” Alapatt with his Now-Again imprint on the hip hop label Stone’s Throw, re-releasing sampled artists’ records packaged the same as when initially released, but in deluxe editions which might include extensive liner notes, new interviews with the artists, new photos, outtakes, B-sides and additional rarities. These efforts, though exceptional and which the compilers can’t expect to sell in volume, are clearly carried out by virtue of love for the artistry, and in the spirit of homage.

 

The instigating force for the bizarre scene in Cambridge, and in hundreds of other bedrooms, basement recreation rooms, and record stores in the US and abroad, was hip hop. It’s not that no other force in our lives would have brought that music to our attention—we were reasonably broad-minded musically, and where I wasn’t I had my Dad to insist I give due diligence to an even broader musical range—but nothing else would have made us as intensely interested in older music in those genres, or challenged us to discover, analyze, and decipher it.

 

I dropped out of touch with most of my high school friends after my first or second year of college, and Seth was one of them. With leaving home and entering college we were entering a new stage in our lives, but we also happened to choose schools that created, and by virtue of their geographic isolation almost enforced, an intensely insular social environment.

 


[1] William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs (Chicago: Subway and Elevated 1994) pg. 30

[2] Brewster and Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, 245

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So misunderstood / but what’s the world without enigma?

Wayne and Mr. Gunz, killing it!

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Don’t Write Record Reviews

But if you must, here’s some advice I once gave a friend (here‘s some generally terrific advice about writing for magazines, btw, from my old (though much younger, and more experienced) colleague Noah Callahan-Bever, current E-i-C of Complex):

Here are a few of what I feel are the essential elements to writing a good music review (specifically a recorded music review — live performance and genre surveys are a wholly different kettle of fish):
1) Bear in mind from the beginning that it doesn’t matter what you, or anyone else, thinks about music. Of course you’ve got great taste, etc., but everyone who bothers to read a music review thinks they do, also. If you trash the latest Phish record, Phish-heads will still buy it in their millions. And if you declare the new Clay Aiken record a sublime work of art which earns a place alongside the timeless compositions of Mozart and Bob Dylan, this praise can’t save that record from obscurity. I think some people — DJs like Alan Freed and John Peel, and critics like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Nat Hentoff, and Jon Landau, critics from the 1960s and ’70s who held a Clement Greenburg-level sway over the pop and jazz worlds — once had this power to get ears listening to specific records on a national level, but this was in a pre-Long Tail era of big media companies and big labels, with information sources, distribution systems, and recording technology at once scarce and physically-bound. Contrast this with the ease of global access to information and its distribution we currently enjoy, not to mention how dramatically the barriers to entry in music-creation and production have fallen.
Humbling, or depressing, as this realization may be, it should also liberate you — you have nothing to lose! But the reader must never, ever feel that way about your subject. If they do, they won’t bother to read another syllable beyond the moment they reach that realization. So you’ll need to make a case for why your perspective on this work is important, and the best place to begin is with the record’s context.
2) If your opinion about a record is going to matter, you have something to say besides “This is a good record” or “This is a bad record”. (Or worse, “This would be a good record if it had better songs on it” — advice from my least favorite editor of all time which, I grudgingly admit, was excellent counsel).  In fact, I’m not even sure it is useful to describe the way the record sounds. If it is useful to describe the sound, it sure isn’t useful to do so in isolation, without reference to something larger about the band (and also, of course it’s fun trying, but fundamentally impossible, to use language to replicate the experience of hearing music).
So where it might be interesting to mention that Mos Def uses a sample of the Doors’ “5 to 1” on his song “The Rapeover” because that is, arguably, a considerable stretch of the pop music spectrum to traverse within one song, it’s much more interesting to note that it not only employs the same sample used on Jay-Z’s “The Takeover”, but that both songs were produced by Kanye West. And for West of course, Jay-Z is an important mentor while Mos Def surely represents a road not taken. Similarly, the UK version of the Strokes’ debut record included a song called “New York City Cops”. It’s a catchy power-pop-punk-ish tune; so is every other song on that record. However, “New York City Cops”, whose refrain goes “New York City cops, you know they’re not too smart”, was not included on the US version. Why? Probably because it was released in 2001, two weeks after September 11. The latter observation gives the reader much, much more to work with, and insight into the process of the record’s creation. Some critics like to say certain works are timeless, especially if they use older styles or idioms (a kinder way of saying they’re derivative). Nothing is timeless, everything is a product of its era. So include more era.
3) What I’m trying to say above is that it’s not worth taking the music on its own terms (of course it is, actually, but that’s a slightly different discussion), not if you want what you’re saying to matter in a broader way, or to be rewarding to the reader for some reason beyond conveying that a given record is good or bad. Again, as  above, it doesn’t matter what you say about quality — people are going to listen to what they’re going to listen to. When I read record reviews, it’s to learn facts, not opinion — who produced the record, who else appears on it, are there any cover songs on it (I adore cover songs), what are some of the song titles, subjects, themes, unexpected instruments. I’m basically reading them like liner notes, not for an assessment of quality).
So while it’s true that “Billie Jean” is a terrifically atmospheric dance song which uses Michael Jackson’s vocal flourishes to exquisite effect, fused to a great synth hook and subtle reverb, it’s more interesting to consider the story Jackson is asking us to believe; that he was hanging out at a nightclub, and that a woman approached him and accused him of fathering her child. Within the song’s narrative, only Jackson’s anxiety over sexual temptation, and his internal conflict over succumbing to it, is plausible (Michael Jackson hanging out in a nightclub? Maybe Studio 54, when he was a teenager, but after that?). But the song works spectacularly nevertheless, perhaps entirely on the strength of his palpably tormented sexual yearning and guilt (this is surely way more interesting than simply noting what it sounds like; that is, suspiciously similar to Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”). It’s slightly interesting that Miley Cyrus kind of raps on her song “Liberty Walk”; it’s mind-blowingly weird that she’s dedicated it to the Occupy Wall Street movement. And so on.
And context doesn’t have to be very broad. It’s more than possible that Young Jeezy’s “The Recession” dropped just as the mortgage collapse began and caused the Great Recession, but that he wasn’t thinking about that at all — if so, definitely make it clear what exactly he was thinking about, because most readers who are aware of what is happening in the world right now will wonder if there’s any connection.
But one must also contextualize a record with the artist’s (or band’s, etc) previous work — that’s  one rule worth following (for debuts, something about the band’s cultural or geographic roots, former careers, etc., should do for context). New personnel, new producer, the return of an old one, a return to themes, sounds, instrumentation, cultural touchstones, etc., are also important aspects to cover.
If you ask me, in terms of a given artist’s sound, there is nothing interesting about record labels. Not when artists leave or return to them, not the formation of new ones, not the revival of old ones, nothing. If there is ever anything to say about label movements, editors always seem to want to include it, but that’s because they’re the kind of music nerds that pay attention to that appallingly boring nonsense. No one else cares, and I advise you to skip that stuff entirely.
4) Of course, Essay Writing 101: Take a strong stance and defend it vigorously. In each and every other respect, and profoundly so, I counsel exactly the opposite, but with review-writing I say; drop the even-keeled reflection and Zen equanimity. If your publication uses a 5-star rating system and you allow reviewers to use half-stars in their reviews, I guarantee you that over time the vast majority of your reviewers will give records 2.5 stars. This is bullshit. Also, statistically impossible. I advise you to excise the word “middling” (and associated symbols and synonyms) from your review vocabulary.
Inevitably, most art is bad, or at least not good. If one is employing an honest and appropriately broad scale, most art simply cannot reach the middle range of quality because at one end of that scale is the worst crap ever foisted upon the human race (for argument’s sake, let’s say that’s Rebecca Black) and at the other end is — well, whatever happens to be your very favorite work of art. Probability forbids the natural occurrence of a majority of music falling exactly halfway between Rebecca Black and, for instance, “Kind of Blue”. Most stuff isn’t even close to “Kind of Blue”, it’s closer to Nickelback.
So giving out 2.5-star reviews is tempting, but essentially over-charitable (if I were to use an uncharitable term, I’d say it’s cowardly, but as one who’s doled out plenty of 2.5 star reviews, I perfectly understand the temptation). So make a firm, forthright declaration, and stick with it.
5) Never make a comparison like this; “This artist is like Ethel Merman meets Emerson Lake & Palmer!”, or similar. It’s tired, old, hackneyed, and moreover, a perfect example of an insular, lifeless metaphor. This is because (again) the context is all within the pop music universe (and worse, within the sonic arena alone); comparisons like that don’t reach further out to the larger world. It may help the reader to understand what the music sounds like (possibly, but certainly not inevitably — to take just one well-worn example, describing a song as “Bowie-esque” could mean it sounds like “Let’s Dance”, “Young Americans”, “Diamond Dogs”, or “Space Oddity”), but as I’ve said, I think you want to place the work within its time and the artist’s own life and oeuvre, more than you want to edify your readers by attempting to describe a record’s  sound.
6) I think the hardest part of criticizing is determining what criteria you can use, and what you ultimately must use.
For myself, having not a lick of musical ability makes this a ticklish issue, even an ethical one. This total absence of musical skill is one of the reasons music has fascinated me for so long — it’s still basically sorcery, as far as I’m concerned.
Again, catchy-ness can’t be the spectrum on which value and crappiness are found; neither can complexity, novelty, cultural reverence, avant-garde-ness, lyrical sophistication, dance-ability, holiness, diabolicalness, nor of course such impossibly slippery notions as authenticity, or even simplicity or sophistication.
For me, the quality whose presence or absence determines the greatest part of how I judge a record is this: effort. I feel that lazy records are bad records. It’s isolating the qualities wherein lazy lives that’s tricky.
Even records which are lazy in that the artist is doing something which they already know they are good at, and are following tropes and techniques and legacies which they’ve steeped themselves in and have come to be identified with (thinking Keith Richards here, or even Jay-Z, or Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) can be great via the artists’ investment in the material, their commitment and total devotion to it. And of course, they can also thrill by practicing a mode of art which they have refined to its highest degree — which by definition isn’t easy, and therefore is not lazy. Records which are sloppy are not necessarily lazy and can indeed be brilliant (many, many live records fall into this category, plus the Sex Pistols, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Exile on Main Street, and anything by the Fugs).
But when an artist is lazy and produces lazy work it not only makes them look bad but it insults the listener — after all, they thought we would be dumb enough to fall for it. And they couldn’t be bothered to do their best, in which case they fail to honor their own gifts and my enthusiasm for their work at the same time.
Lastly, writing with verve, pizzaz, etc. helps a lot. I recommend Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs to start with, esp. Christgau. Chuck Klosterman is supposed to be good, too. But also check out Vice magazine’s reviews, which are often quite funny. And yeah, so do your thing.
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Destroyer’s “From Oakland to Warsaw”

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Song of the Day: Glasgow, the Theme Song

Dunno why, but the genre most symbiotic with Glasgow (and Edinburgh in fact) is ’70s soul. That’s my take anyway. ExhibitD: The Dramatics’ “In the Rain” (ignore silly video accompanying)

(this one is for you Charles)

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The kids are alright. Even the screamo-loving ones.

A letter to this guy Dave Lazer, who in a bizarrely day-late rant in of all places the Saatchi Gallery’s boutique magazine, got all grumpy-pants about screamo fans and their tattoos. Taking issue with his tone-deafness — from his choice of venue (a corporate gallery mag?!) to the cranky-old-man posturing to the bullying (not just for deriding screamo fans for possibly self-harming or, more sinisterly, for being ‘poofs’, but for spitting on pop culture from the towers of high-concept art) — I dashed off a letter:

“Dear Mr. Lazer,

Why have a go at the kids, their crappy little music scene and perhaps-unwise adornments in this fancy art mag? Why so cranky about the youth and their ‘low-culture’ hijinks?

Can’t stand the stuff myself, but the fact is that screamo isn’t actually much of a posh-boy thing — too girl-alienating, too sweaty, too ASBO. But mostly just unfashionably earnest. Like metal, that other unfashionably serious genre, it’s really more of a working-class thing. Not to knock your reporting — although you didn’t mention talking with any of the concertgoers — but screamo doesn’t pull a middle-class crowd, meaning it won’t ever present a threat to the fine art world.  (and if not, was it a compliment to say its fans look like ‘walking works of contemporary art’?)

So why all the fuss in Art & Music The Saatchi Gallery Magazine? Screamo is pop culture, and its fans use that shared artistic language to express themselves. The music is loud and aggressive. The fans look odd on purpose. Some of them may live to regret their choices. And heaven knows what all that loud music is doing to their ears!

Sounds almost as ridiculous as taking 10 years to draw an imaginary town, or reducing a jet engine to powder. It may not be high art, but screamo is as important to its fans as irreverent vases are to Grayson Perry’s, and probably as hardcore punk still is to upwardly-mobile (and A&MTSGM coverboy) Raymond Pettibon.

Surely you have sported some affectation you later regretted — you mentioned a colourful watch — and of course these young people will, or unwittingly already have, as well. That’s what young people do. Wouldn’t a more charitable approach be to simply let these ones do what they want until, inevitably, they’re reduced to working at a Carphone Warehouse (or at any old warehouse), or until they come round to ‘boring’, respectable Radiohead?

Or could it be that getting a profoundly unadvisable tattoo that pre-empts the possibility of working at a Carphone Warehouse is the very point?

Honestly, seems silly to brag about rebelliously wasting £4000 on office supplies as a Rupert Murdoch employee, then pour contempt on allegedly posh punks in the pages of a major art gallery’s brand extension. Punching beneath your (cultural) weight, no? But calling boys ‘poofs’, suggesting they’ll wind up working at a gay phone sex line or sauntering through an office in bondage trousers with their cocks out — all while strenuously signaling the appropriateness of one’s own sexual object choices? Yikes.

Moving on to new villains, what about ‘The Archers’? And that dreary Adele girl? Those endless Harry Potter movies? Bit rubbish really, aren’t they?

Or perhaps more worthy (and proportionate) targets loom out there, ones who need a good kicking, and much more badly?”

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Wayne White

I just love this guy (he’s the artist whose work is, unfortunately, brutally  cropped above in the header — blast WordPress’s constrictions!):http://waynewhiteart.com/

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