Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mr. Manic presents Boot/Sneaka Vol. 2: Post-Gangsta

          This volume was one of the earliest concepts that I had for a themed mix and discussion when conceiving this mix series.  It shows a major turning point in the rap music industry during its integration process in the 90's as the whole genre took a new form in lieu of unforeseen tragedies.  I call it Post-Gangsta because it immediately follows the Gangsta Rap era that scared the hell out of middle America in the late 80's and early 90's.  The style and themes of the genre suddenly shifted because of the so-called Gangsta Rap movement, a term heavily promoted by the media.  Sadly, some of the tragic elements of the black urban experience played out very publicly throughout this period of time, eventually bringing a close to the second generation.  This period was sent off with a number of repentant songs, commemorating the deceased, begging forgiveness, and petitioning for peace.  These themes have roots back to the earliest days of hip-hop and definitely throughout most of the second generation, but the highest concentration of these themes was from 94-97, coinciding with a few very specific tragedies.

Tracklist and sources:
Ice Cube - It Was A Good Day
     The Predator | Priority Records | 1992

Kool G Rap - For Da Brothaz
     4, 5, 6 | Epic Street | 1995

Master P - Is There a Heaven 4 a Gangsta?
     Rhymes & Reason Soundtrack | Priority Records | 1997

Scarface - Smile (featuring 2pac)
     The Untouchable | Rap-A-Lot Records | 1997

Coolio - Gangsta's Paradise (featuring LV)
     Gangsta's Paradise | Tommy Boy | 1995

South Central Cartel - G's Game
     All Day, Everyday | Rush Associated Labels | 1997

Richie Rich - Do G's Get to Go to Heaven?
     Seasoned Veteran | Def Jam Music Group | 1996

Havoc & Prodeje - The Hood's Got Me Feelin' the Pain (Southern Slick Mix)
     The Hood's Got Me Feelin' the Pain 12" | MCA Records | 1995

B.G. Knocc Out & Dresta - 50/50 Luv
     Real Brothas | Outburst Records | 1995

Mac Mall - Ghetto Theme (featuring Eboni Foster)
     Illegal Business? | Young Black Brotha Records | 1993

Onyx - Thangz Changed
     Sunset Park (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) | EastWest Records | 1996

Naughty By Nature - Mourn You Til I Join You
     Ride (Music From The Dimension Picture Soundtrack | Tommy Boy Records | 1997

M.O.P. - Dead & Gone
     Firing Squad | Relativity Records | 1996

Dirty Red - West Side Story
     DJ Yella - One Mo Nigga Ta Go: Dedicated To The Memory of Eazy-E | Street Life Records | 1996

Eazy-E - Tha Muthaphuckkin Real (featuring MC Ren)
     Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton | Ruthless Records | 1996

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony - Crossroad
     East 1999 Eternal | Ruthless Records |1995

Kokane - No Pain, No gain      
     Funk Upon A Rhyme | Ruthless Records | 1994

          The 90's were particularly tragic for popular music and many young stars were struck down by vices that eerily resembled many socioeconomic issues of the day.  Rock music fans saw the loss of many stars in their prime including Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone - 90 - heroin OD), Bradley Nowell (Sublime - 96 - heroin OD),  Stefanie Sargent (7 Year Bitch - 92 - heroin OD), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana - 94 - suicide), Dwayne Goettel (Skinny Puppy - 95 - heroin OD), effectively decimating the presence of that era's biggest players from our current time.  The biggest names of the era in hip-hop, Eazy-E, 2pac, and Notorious B.I.G. all passed away within 24 months of each other effectively erasing their presence as well.  What a bitter disappointment.
          The hip-hop world played a quick game of catch up, literally exploding onto the scene after successful ventures in the late 80's.  It's influence on the market became undeniable, opening up a renaissance period where the genre's diversity was celebrated as new artists emerged.  New York no longer held the monopoly that it enjoyed during the preceding decade, and the music soon became a launchpad for showcasing black urban culture from all over the country.  Criminal elements have always been present in the hip hop business, but usually very secretly, and typically known only to the rappers and DJ's network (most notably the back of Eric B. & Rakim's Paid In Full, which featured a number of well known area hustlers).  Hardcore hip-hop started to emerge by the mid 80's with artists like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Geto Boys, and Ice-T, but it was N.W.A. who sparked the change in the market with their controversial image, message, and sound.  Most importantly, it sold, even without airplay.
          At the turn of the decade, the aural cues of the rough edged, hardcore sound became more prevalent in hip-hop and R&B (with the New Jack Swing era), as did the image.  If the golden era of hip-hop served to establish the fun-loving, colorful, liberated expression of urban youth culture in the face of systematic oppression, then the early 90's landscape ushered in by N.W.A. fortified those values with a ruthless armed guard.  The powerful impact of their first statement with Straight Outta Compton was certainly diminished with Efil4zaggin, where the hype of their revolutionary nature was contradicted by the nihilistic, morally vacant content of this sophomore effort.  In retrospect, Straight Outta Compton itself has few revolutionary moments that stand the test of time.  "Fuck the Police" is the only protest song and the tracks "Straight Outta Compton", "Gangsta Gangsta", and "Dopeman" delivered the provocative street tales that would earn them their reputation, but the rest of the album is typical late 80's hip-hop fare of testosterone-filled youthful exploits and tough talking MC bravado.  At the time, the shock of hearing so much profanity or this subject matter at all definitely increased the effect of the whole product.
          N.W.A. suffered major losses when Ice Cube parted ways over financial disputes, taking most of the intellectual talent with him.  Dre bounced soon after, taking the production and musical innovation with him.  What was left was not enough to sustain the world's formerly most dangerous group.  Ice Cube became a star in his own right, shifting his focus from mere street tales to all out resistance, no longer stifled by N.W.A.'s limited vision.  Dre helped usher in a more musically savvy era with his classic, The Chronic.  With both artists selling in the millions, and introducing fresh talent along, major labels had no choice but to embrace this hardcore style and the game quickly shifted.  Second generation newcomers like 2pac, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Naughty By Nature combined skilled flow, lyrical content and ability, and sleek production, raising the bar significantly.  This generation of artists gave you greater detail than ever in their relation of hood experiences, where summarizing and paraphrasing turned into microscopic dissections of street scenes as never heard before.  We didn't just hear about drug sales, we got measurements, quantities, street corner names, some times entire songs to express what might have been a couple of lines in the earliest hardcore rap songs.  This generation of artists also further humanized these experiences and the emotions that accompany them, and no artist of the 90's did a better job of this than 2pac.  His debut album, 2pacalypse Now included highly thoughtful songs like "Trapped", "Words of Wisdom", "Brenda's Got A Baby", and "Part Time Mutha".  Even its most violent material like "Wicked", "Crooked Ass Nigga", "Soulja's Story" gives logical breakdowns of the situations described giving the listener the tension of the character living the tale.  This included the grief and emotional trauma of the scenes described in a way that N.W.A. never managed to acknowledge, except weakly on the final track of Efil4zaggin, "Dayz of Wayback".  
      Ice Cube had already released the song "Dead Homies" on his 1990 EP Kill At Will by then, one of the earliest examples of reflection on mortality in hardcore hip-hop.  His song "It Was A Good Day" however was a major game changer in its portrayal of the relief of an inner city black male that there could be a positive day.  He shares simple pleasures like his favorite team winning, getting a burger late at night, and picking up a girl whom he had been pursuing since high school.  Who couldn't relate to those subjects?  This demonstrates the ability of Ice Cube to create crossover appeal without compromising his culture or the image he presented as an artist.  Being able to articulate ideas this way is major part of why he was able to become integrated into multicultural and family programming later on, but why his one time contemporary MC Ren never managed to make an impact as a solo artists outside of franchise devotees.  Ice Cube's involvement in movies like Boyz-N-The Hood and Higher Learning expanded his influence in establishing a presence of black urban youth culture in mass media, a mission much larger than hip-hop itself, but not possible without it.  2pac followed suit, appearing in films like Juice and Poetic Justice, further humanizing the black urban experience.
          The Gangsta Rap bubble really began to burst in 94 after the high profile murder case of Snoop Doggy Dogg and 2pac's ongoing legal troubles including a rape case and his eventual first shooting, which he survived.  The artform began to strangely resemble the life that it illustrated, mirroring the perpetual image of black men being hauled away in handcuffs, glaring in monochromatic mugshots, or lying in pools of blood, riddled with bullets from the gun of another black man.  Where was peace if our superstars could become rich and famous and still be facing these same struggles?  This can be accurately measured in the difference between 2pac's second album Strictly 4 My Niggaz (1993) and his third album Me Against the World (1995), which included "Dear Mama", "So Many Tears", "Death Around the Corner", and "Lord Knows".  Strictly 4 My Niggaz definitely had its fair share of introspective content, but was primarily hardcore and aggressive.  Snoop Doggy Dogg's sophomore release The Doggfather (1996) was considerably less aggressive than Doggystyle (1993).
          Eazy-E never fully regained his credibility and his beef with Dre became a moot point in the face of Snoop's murder case and Dre's own issues at Death Row.  He retreated from the forefront for a while focusing on putting out different groups trying to find the next hit for Ruthless Records.  This finally came with the discovery of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony whose unique and exotic sound catapulted them to the top of the charts in 94.  This would be Eazy-E's last summer.  Their success gave him a brief resurgence as prepared for the release of his come back double LP, Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton.  It is well known that Eazy was still scarred by the N.W.A. breakup and he went to his grave trying to put the group back together.  He never managed to move beyond the image and subject matter that carried him to his initial super stardom.  The only evidence of an emotional response to his experience could be found on his posthumous release, a truncated version of Str8 Off tha Streetz... with the song "Tha Muthaphuckkin Real" featuring MC Ren.  While MC Ren delivers more of the same profanity-laced antagonism, Eazy-E not only acknowledges his mortality and hopes that he has somehow left a positive legacy.  This is the only look at this side of Eazy-E, as a rapper, that we'll ever have.
          An interesting byproduct of Eazy-E's death was the further success of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony with their tribute song "Tha Crossroads".  They had done huge numbers with their first singles and EP and were gearing up for their first full-length release East 1999 Eternal when Eazy died.  He was gone and already being paid tribute in the videos for East 1999's singles "1st of tha Month" and "East 1999", and dedications were all over the album when it was released.  Also present was a song called "Crossroad", most likely recorded before Eazy-E's passing.  It was a tribute to their deceased friend Wallace "Wally" Laird III, who was mentioned by name in the liner notes of their first EP Creepin' on ah Come Up.  This version condemns resolving conflict with handguns (though the majority of the rest of the album speaks of doing just that) and laments his absence, assuring that they will one day meet again.  This version is much more somber than the well known remix version that would become a massive hit for them and launch them to the top of the game for years to come.  This is a poetic chain of events given how terrifying it must have been for them to lose their mention not one year after coming under his tutelage.   Songs like "Do G's Get to Go to Heaven?" and "Is There a Heaven 4 a Gangsta?" express remorse for previous actions, wondering if there is a chance for salvation.  This was the tone of a lot of artists who after 2pac and Biggie's passing.  
          What soon followed was a much less aggressive era and a return to upbeat, positive content as Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records began to dominate the airwaves.  Debut albums from East Coast artists like Nas, Jay-Z, and Notorious B.I.G. helped New York regain its prominence as the Gangsta Rap buzz began to fade before rapidly disintegrating.  By the end of the second generation, even Ice Cube was releasing singles like "We Be Clubbin".  Rap music continued to incorporate elements from Gangsta Rap for years to come.  In fact, criminal glorification was the dominant theme of a lot of mainstream hip hop throughout the 2000's, though typically in the context of an "entrepreneur" enjoying the wealth resulting from his illicit activities.
          Gangstas in the late 80's and early 90's were still broke and at the street level, perhaps with a bit of personal wealth due to successful hustling, but the fancy cars and big houses were still a ways away.  At the end of the second generation, many rappers had achieved these goals and materialism became much more dominant in subject matter as well.  Thus, in the second generation, the seeds of the Bling Rap era were sewn. It's major pioneers were struck down: Eazy-E by AIDS; 2pac and Biggie both by bullets, and there was a time of reflection on the sacrifices and hard choices made to build the rap industry into the what it is now.  It was only after this brief period of soul searching that rap was able to evolve to its next phase.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mr. Manic presents Boot/Sneaka Vol. 1: Love & Hip-Hop


This is a companion article to accompany volume one of my new Boot/Sneaka mix tape series.  Boot/Sneaka references the name of an unreleased song by Bell Biv Devoe, one of my favorite products of the clever union between R&B and Hip-Hop that comprised the New Jack Swing movement (1988/9 - 1993/4).  It is intended to archive, analyze, and share my favorite music from Hip-Hop music’s second generation, which I consider to be from the years of 1986/7 to 1996/7, with 1997 being a transitional period into the third generation that would carry through the first decade of the 2000’s.  The second generation is my favorite mainly for nostalgic purposes but also because it seemed to be a period of cultural refinement within Hip-Hop culture as it integrated into mainstream popular music.  During this era, we witnessed the gradual distancing from the more experimental elements of the Golden Era (1978 - 1986/7).  The first and early second generation’s instrumentals were almost entirely dominated by the use of breaks and samples, free form sound collages, and less emphasis on a verse/chorus structure.  While the latter point definitely came into form at the end of the Golden Era, it wasn't until well into the second generation that live instrumentation took the lead.
In the early 90’s, most notably with albums like The Chronic by Dr. Dre, we saw a beautiful period of transition where the experimental elements of hip-hop meshed impeccably with the emerging live music form.  I use Dr. Dre as an example as he was very active during the experimental years as can be heard in his earlier work with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records.  In analyzing his work during this period, you can see his increasing reliance on melody and clean transitions between movements of each track and more strategic sample placement.  The California based G-Funk style that dominated the early and mid 90’s also gave way to the over saturation of a certain sounds as the capitalistic model of music distribution reared its ugly head. As with all good things, the American pop machine exploited the most successful elements, however momentary, to squeeze as much profit out of the genre as possible.
For this mix, I wanted to capture the diversity of expressions of love and sexuality during this era for Valentine’s Day.  While romance has been the primary enduring theme in music for most of the corporate music industry era, hip-hop’s earliest artist tended to focus on themes of partying or self-aggrandizing their lyrical or speaking about the difficulties of the African American experience.  While romantic themes made noteworthy appearance in the early years (consider World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s 1986 album Rapped In Romance and its biggest hit, "Turn Off the Lights"), LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” from 1987’s Bigger and Deffer marked the first commercially successful love themed rap song and made clear the strong marketability of this approach.  This was also an early example of the perfect contrast of the bad boy image showing a soft spot that would be a common theme of hip hop for the rest of its existence.  Shortly thereafter we saw a greater presence of romantic themes in rap from Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator” to Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend”.  

Tracklist and sources:
Mary J. Blige ft. Smif-N-Wessun - I Love You (Part 2)
The Remix EP | Uptown Records | 1995

Naughty By Nature - Written On Ya Kitten
19 Naughty III | Tommy Boy Records | 23 Feb 1993

Queen Latifah - Mood Is Right
Black Reign | Motown | 16 Nov 1993

Bell Biv Devoe -  The Situation
Hootie Mack | MCA Records | 6 Jun 1993

The Pharcyde - Passin’ Me By
  Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde | Delicious Vinyl | 24 Nov 1992

Tribe Called Quest - Bonita Applebum (Hootie Mix)
Revised Question for the Seasoned Traveler | Jive | 1992

Mokenstef ft. Grand Puba - He’s Mine (Remix)
Music video only | Outburst Records | 1995

2pac - Temptations
Me Against the World | Interscope Records | 14 Mar 1995

Da Youngsta’s - Put Me On
No Mercy | EastWest | 20 Sep 1994

Vanilla Ice - I Go Down
Mind Blowin | SBK | 22 Mar 1994

MC Lyte - I Go On
Ain't No Other | First Priority Music | 22 Jun 1993

New Edition - Hit Me Off
Home Again | MCA Records | 10 Sep 1996

DJ Quik - Itz Your Fantasy
Safe + Sound | Profile Records | 21 Feb 1995

Lil ½ Dead - Southern Girl
Steel On A Mission | Priority Records | 21 May 1996

Redman - Soopaman Luva 3
Muddy Waters | Def Jam | 10 Dec 1996

In the early 90’s, most notably with albums like The Chronic (1992) by Dr. Dre, we saw a beautiful period of transition where the experimental elements of hip-hop meshed impeccably with the emerging live music form.  I use Dr. Dre as an example as he was very active during the experimental years as can be heard in his earlier work with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records.  In analyzing his work during this period, you can see his increasing reliance on melody and clean transitions between movements of each track and more strategic sample placement.  The California based G-Funk sound, which became the preferred Hip-hop style of the early and mid 90’s, also gave way to the oversaturation of a certain sounds as the capitalistic model of music distribution reared its ugly head, and as with all good things, exploited the momentary successful elements to squeeze as much profit out of the genre as possible.  
From 92 - 96, we saw the most diverse landscape that rap music ever had in the mainstream.  I hypothesize that this was something of a grace period where the major labels tested the waters, signing anything they could that had a buzz and throwing it out there to see what would stick. There was a lot more leniency and a lot more creative control during this period and rap music did not seem so homogenized.  We had the full spectrum of expression and emotion, from PM Dawn and A Tribe Called Quest to Wu Tang Clan and 2pac.  Individuality was respected and encouraged with emphasis always being placed on maintaining a unique style; where “biting” in any form, lyrics, fashion, or flow was a mortal sin.  You could actually tell artists apart by appearance and sound!  Meanwhile label executives and other profit minded opportunists quickly distinguished the sounds that worked best.  By the third generation - which I perceive to have emerged in mid-96 and was in full force by spring ‘97 - rap began to adhere to the standards that resulted from the findings of this “research period".  This era also marked the emergence of more radio friendly hip hop revolving around memorable hooks with the innovations of the second generation becoming cliches and motifs.
By the turn of the decade, we were seeing the emergence of a the “gangsta rap” subgenre.  Here, the only place for women in Hip-hop became bitches and hoes, sex objects, baby mamas and/or gold diggers, or as bereaved mothers having lost sons.  You will be hard pressed to find any ballads or love song in the discography of N.W.A., South Central Cartel, or the earliest Death Row Releases (not counting their R&B artists).  In fact, the closing song on The Chronic is “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, a phrase that was passionately declared by Eazy-E in a woman-hating speech at the end of the song “One Less Bitch” on N.W.A.’s final album, 1991’s Niggaz4life.  Concurrently and in contrast New Jack Swing emerged, which saw the fusion of the hip-hop styled production and R&B.  Here we saw, at the same time, the creation of a greater market for romantic themes within Hip-hop.  When these opposing markets converged, we saw some interesting output as even some of the hardest rappers were making appearances on R&B records, dropping romantic verses that still carried the hard edge that defined the era.
The songs that appear on this collection are from 1992 - 1996, withthe early end of this time bracket being the peak of creative freedom for hip-hop and the subsequent years marking a steady decline in artistic integrity offset by an increase in production value.  As such, the songs from the latter end of this time bracket show off a very polished sound compared to earlier tunes from the second generation.  Examples of this more refined hip-hop sound can be heard in the songs “Itz Your Fantasy” by DJ Quik (1995)  and “Southern Girl” by Lil ½ Dead  (1996).  For some of the more hardcore artists, romantic songs tended to focus on sexual prowess and how quickly or easily one could bed a female.  More often than not, the rapper made it clear that by no means was he intending to be faithful or interested in a long term relationship.  Most of these songs take a crass approach to describing the sex in general, as heard on Redman’s “Soopaman Luva 3” (1996), Naughty By Nature’s “Written On Ya Kitten” (1993), and also on the aforementioned “Itz Your Fantasy” by DJ Quik.
It was important to me to not only include this perspective, but also the female point of view.  The female rappers on this collection are Queen Latifah with “In the Mood” from 93's Black Reign and MC Lyte with “I Go On” from Ain't No Other, also in 1993.  One song I almost included was MC Lyte’s song “Ruffneck” also on Ain't No Other but more on that later.  While Queen Latifah’s song takes a more poetic approach to sex, insinuating a possible long term relationship with her partner and all the romantic accoutrement that go along with a healthy relationship, MC Lyte adopts the male attitude and boasts of chauvinistic promiscuity, lack of desire to create a strong connection with said sexual partner, and reminding the hypothetical partner that he can be replaced by more desirable subjects.  While both are very melodic and show of a softer side of hip hop, the former song creates a more cohesive message that is much intellectual and relatable, especially in terms of the subject matter: romance and sex.  Unfortunately, instead of a greater presence of female rappers who displayed strong character, confident in her ability to state was she desires out of a lover, and most importantly, commanding respect, the industry turned over to the Lil Kim archetype.  The third generation’s more sexually charged female rappers became the norm, including Foxy Brown, Trina, and Remy Ma, and it is to be noted that most of their content seems to depict any kind of respectable status being in relation to having sex, having a man take them shopping, and bragging about their voluptuousness with relation to non-romantic sexual attraction.
Also included here were a couple of R&B songs to show how the fusion of Hip-hop and R&B evolved and how rappers handled being on songs that completely contrast with their own image and subject matter.  The opening song, a remix of Mary J. Blige’s “I Love You”, which has a beautiful chorus, features verses from Duck Down Records artists Smif-N-Wessun, whose verses entirely depart from the topic of the song to talk about their own lifestyles and experience as rappers and militant minded men.  A remix of MoKenStef’s “He’s Mine” (sample of the classic “You Remind Me” by Patrice Rushen) was included because the original version is one of my favorite R&B songs from the 90’s despite its questionable message. The melody of the hook, “He’s mine, you may have had him once but I got him all the time” as always been the most attracting elements of the original track to me.  The remix features Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, whose lyrics are generally not within the realm of R&B subject matter, but here he very simplistically plays the role of the male subject described in the song. The climactic line of his short verse is “You can be my part… time… lover cause all I got is part time / I got a baby at home that gets full time.” Here we see an MC assimilating to the subject matter.
The other two R&B songs on this mix are by New Edition and their spin off group Bell Biv Devoe.  Bell Biv Devoe’s song is interesting because it seems to revolve around having had an unplanned baby though they are not only accepting responsibility for their actions, but are adamant about raising the child themselves.  While their well known promiscuity is hinted at in the song, the overall point seems to be that they would push that side in order to have a wholesome relationship with someone as result of the love child.  This is definitely a departure from the typical hip-hop mindset, but it is to be noted that the rappers in question built their careers first as R&B singers and started to adopt characteristics of hip-hop sexuality by the time BBD came about, while remaining fundamentally R&B.  The beginning of this transition can be seen in the rap verses Mike Biv and Ron Devoe spit on the single version of New Edition’s “N.E. Heartbreak”, released in the summer of 89 (the album version, released in 1988 did not include rap verses, but contained many Hip-hop cues).
New Edition’s “Hit Me Off” came after both Bobby Brown and BBD had successful forays into Hip-hop, when New Edition reunited as a six piece in 1996’s Home Again after an 8 year hiatus.  Again, Mike Biv and Ron Devoe provide the rap verses.  You can observe that the song focuses on raw sexuality in different degrees, with the rap verses being the least romantic compared to the singers’ verses.  This shows that the appearance of rap verses within a song that is otherwise R&B had to keep somewhat of a harder edge, as by this time, the archetype of the hip hop gangsta was well in place and the masses did not seem to be interested in anything softer than this. Most “romantic” songs in hip-hop’s third generation are entirely dependent on understanding that the rapper is not interested in a meaningful relationship and contact with a woman is a component of the rapper’s promiscuity and carnal desires, with few exceptions.  I also have observed that within the third generation, if a rapper had a song that more respectfully romantic, it was often offset by declarations of the rapper’s criminality and the female subject’s complacency and complicity with such lifestyle despite her greater respectability.  Many times, the woman in these songs was described as being educated and having a career.  Despite this, she is somehow interested in a lower class thug for a boyfriend rather than male whose academic and professional accomplishments parallel or exceed her own.
This point brings me to two of my honorable mentions, which I had included in this track list up until the very last minute.  The first was 1993’s “Gangsta Bitch” by Apache (RIP).  This song is super catchy and though the lyrics are pretty comical. In retrospect it comes off as kind of a gimmicky response to surge in popularity of hardcore hip hop.  This takes yet another approach and shows a gangsta character who yearns for a female to share his criminality with.  Rather than being passively complicit as seen in a lot of later hip-hop, this song shows an actively criminal female counterpart in a African American Bonnie & Clyde scenario.  The music video depicts this to a tee.  Because of the use of the word 'bitch' in the title and the objectification of the love interest in the song as per the typical expressions of sexuality in hardcore hip-hop, I wanted to offset it with the aforementioned “Ruffneck” by MC Lyte. It’s pretty much the same song from a female point of view.  In listening to the lyrics, I was actually appalled by the horrible message that it sent to young black males.  The most concerning lyrics to me was “Doin' whatever it takes to make ends meet / But never meetin' the end 'cause he knows the street / Eat sleep shit fuck,eat sleep shit / Then it's back to the streets to make a buck quick”.  The rest of the lyrics of the song are in this vain and pretty much sends the message that criminal, disrespectful, and sociopathic behavior are desirable traits.  I feel like rap music has traditionally been marketed to teenagers and young adults, at ages when they are most vulnerable to the complex emotions of developing sexuality.  Not that I think music is a sole influence, but it is a major part of human development in the context of our capitalistic American society since the arts are often presented in way that recommends to the audience how to live.  The idealism with which we observed entertainers in the prior decades definitely made us more vulnerable to taking some of their words as gospel.  I think this has been a highly damaging feature of 90’s Hip-hop's effect on African American youth culture and the public's perception of it.  As such, I could not include “Gangsta Bitch” or “Ruffneck” in this mix in good conscience.
I tried to avoid songs that are well known, but couldn’t escape The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By”.  Though it’s by no means a favorite of mine, this is a hip-hop essential in my book in both composition and lyrical content.  With school as the backdrop for this narrative, the lyrics portray realistic, human responses to sexual attraction with no qualms appearing vulnerable.  “Now let me tell you about the feelings I have for you / When I try or make some sort of attempt, I symp / Damn I wish I wasn't such a wimp / Cause then I would let you know that I love you so / And if I was your man then I would be true / The only lying I would do is in the bed with you…”  Lyrics like these were entirely absent from mainstream hip-hop by the end of the second generation and certainly throughout the third generation.  “Bonita Applebum” was also included for the same reason, though I chose a remix to keep things fresh.  It presents the narration of a nuanced experience in attraction that is more wholesome and realistic.  Though overt sexuality is not absent from these songs, they are not the dominant themes expressed and the result is a more respectful portrayal of women compared to a lot of what was coming out at the time.  2pac’s “Temptations” (1995) did not stray from the expected outlook of a rapper with regards to sex, but featured a more poetic portrayal of sexual contact:  “Open the gates to your waterfall up in Heaven / and don’t worry, I’ll let myself in…”  I must also make mention of “Nuttin’ But Love”, a 1994 single by Heavy D (RIP) which was left off in order to focus on more obscure material.
As part of what I have termed “Hip hop De-programming”, this and future discussions are meant to reconcile the conflict between my current convictions, morals, and philosophies and the characteristics of most of mainstream hip-hop from the 90’s, which has had a major influence on me.  Having adamantly denounced the subject matter present in mainstream hip-hop today, I have come to the terms with the fact that I must also take a more careful look at the older material that I love that bare the same characteristics. I have also come to terms with the fact that some of my favorite artists from the second generation are directly responsible for many of the elements of third generation that I dislike.  Analyzing these songs now helps me to build a greater intellectual understanding of an art form that should be regarded with more care by its practitioners and its audience.  It is more pressing than ever for an academic understanding of this era of Hip-hop to be promoted before it fades away in the face of the current (fourth) generation of Hip-hop, which is almost entirely based on the exploitative capitalist model of the American pop music industry. Also, the seeming exclusivity of Hip-hop, no doubt a bi-product of the wider cultural at the time between "White" and "Black" America has all but dissolved as members of all ethnic groups across the globe have accepted and emulated Hip-hop. Thus, the marketing of it is vastly different from what we grew up on in the 90's. Evolution, I suppose. I should depart by making clear that there are many incredible contributors to Hip-hop that made it big without adhering while maintaining a positive message and creative uniqueness, so I guess I should relax my harshly critical tone a bit when speaking of the third generation. It's just that the negative elements of it were more pervasive and ever so vexing! More to come!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Featured releases: IndustrialDeath, Speaker for the Dead, and Denzer

IndustrialDeath - B4 the ArtParty [Out in the Woods Records]
IndustrialDeath, is a legend in the Philadelphia art and music scene as the founder of Panadelphia, a project that has endured for over a decade capturing the creativity of strangers and friends alike throughout the region.  In short, Panadelphia travels to different events and festivals with empty canvases and art supplies, encourages any passers-by-standers to contribute sommething big or small to the project.  Dozens of these canvases exist and are fixtures in many homes, businesses, and venues.  IndustrialDeath is also a prolific electronic music producer who mainly composes in Reason.  He released this full length album with Out in the Woods Records, entitled "B4 the ArtParty" (Art Party being a term coined by Paul early on in his Panadelphia mission) on April 21st.  IndustrialDeath's sound is marked by sophisticated song structures that evolve into entirely different beasts by the end of each track, with dense layering, rapid fire arpeggios, and pounding beats.  If one had to use an easy-to-digest, general term to describe the sound, it could be dubstep, but this is much more than that with varying styles of composition, rhythm, and sound design.  "B4 the ArtParty" is available in streaming format and can be downloaded for $7.
Denzer - Abductive Response [18+ Recordings]

The Denzer is a Koudekerke, Netherlands based producer who has delivered an experimental electronic release that can be classified as IDM, ambient, and minimal with drum-n-bass, breakcore, and trip-hop tendencies strewn throughout.  "Abductive Response", a free LP release on the Dutch internet label 18+ Recordings is an atmospheric experience that plays like a science fiction story of a UFO sighting, abduction, and hypnosis using many UFO and Alien documentary samples to drive this concept home.  These soundscapes create an emotional backdrop to the story, encouraging the listener to contemplate the possible realities proposed by the samples.  "Abductive Response" is a relaxing journey through electronic composition whose strengths are the unexpected rhythmic structures, a staple of the IDM genre, with particular attention paid to the manipulation of tones through synthesis.  Where a lot of electronic music nowadays is so focused on making a dancefloor react, this is the more intellectual end of the electronic music spectrum (not to say that dance music isn't intellectual, but much of the current day fodder is) where the focus is more about utilizing technology to step outside of the boundaries of organic instrumentation.   
Speaker for the Dead - Earth Eyes EP [Independent Release]

Returning to American producers, we have Philadelphia's multi-talented, electronic music mastermind Speaker for the Dead with a new two song EP called "Earth Eyes ".  He was featured in a recent article on Interdimensional Galactic about his monthly event Real Time.  "Earth Eyes" possesses all of the trappings of a Speaker for the Dead production - variation, strong dynamics, and suspenseful progression in the songs' arrangements.  Both songs are marked by powerful lead synth tones with equivalent, powerchord-like riffs. which could easily be identified as the "hooks" of the tracks.  The eponymous opening song thrusts the listener head first into the aural action with little relent and the B-side Escape Velocity (nice, alliterative song titling) follows suit with all the more fury of bass, drums, and synths.  Mastered by Starkey, every frequency is crystal clear and undoubtedly flourishes on subwoofer-heavy sound systems with little or no distortion or clipping.  It's a nice quick listen and surely fits into any electronic dance music (EDM) playlist or DJ set.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Featured artist: Get Up [Painting at the Electric Factory Part 1]

This is the first part of an ongoing series that has no projected end, because the subject lacks a dead line and is based around an artist's free will and a canvas that is larger than many artists will ever have chance to work.  The artist is Get Up (@GetUpArt) and the canvas is the entire Electric Factory, one of the largest venues in Philadelphia. I've seen the likes of The Prodigy, Skinny Puppy, Shpongle, Insane Clown Posse, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, to give you an idea of the kind of venue it is.  If you have been to Philly at all within the last few years, and especially if you live here, you have seen Get Up's work.  His most popular piece is an image of Ben Franklin holding a boombox.  Other images like the Philly Phanatic spray-painting a Philly's P, two swing era dancers with bandanas masking their faces, and more deliver an impeccable juxtaposition of Philadelphia's historical culture and its modern, urban culture, heavily informed and influenced by hip hop.  The street art scene in Philly is thriving with eye catching artists whose bodies of work play out like sagas with character development, plot twists, and topical content that serve as an explanation of the city's social, economic, philosophical, and spiritual climate.  Get Up has been on the frontier of this movement for some time, as his work has come into high demand for its witty representation of Philadelphia culture.

He is in the process of doing extensive renovations to the Electric Factory with his signature pieces as well as some new ones created just for this project.  His work is on both levels of the venue, in the bathrooms, corridors, and even back stage.  This is a long running project that is developing nicely and will silently add to the euphoria of the live concert atmosphere for generations to come.

Here are few shots of the work in progress and so far.
Entrance to downstairs restrooms
Skyline + speakers stencil
Upstairs area

Upstairs bar
Upstairs bar [detail]
Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes stencil in progress [Women's bathroom]
Questlove, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince [Men's bathroom]
Downstairs men's bathroom
Tammi Terrell [Backstage entrance to stage]

Entrance to downstairs's men's bathroom

Future parts of this series will include a more in depth look at the personalities captured in this project.  In the mean time, here is a video of the process of creating, cutting, then painting a stencil of the late Philly-born Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes:

Stay tuned for more.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Featured event: PIFA Street Fair, April 27, 2013

The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia hosted their second Festival of the Arts this year, which is a month long, city wide program that showcases exciting, forward thinking creativity from around the world.  For this year, the theme was "If I Had a Time Machine..." where artists engineered installations to take the public through different points in planetary and human history.  In their lobby, the Kimmel Center had a "time tunnel" installed that was a full walkthrough exhibit.  This was held in various places in Philadelphia from March 28th to April 27th.  On the final day, they held a street fair on south Broad Street from Chestnut to South Street, including installations, performances,  rides, food, and tons more.  Here are some of things that I happened upon while visiting the street fair.

Eric Geoffrey (Philadelphia School of Circus Arts) juggling fire
ZO Prod Konstructors: Time Machine Welders

Dinosaur Petting Zoo

Rock-It The Robot

PIFA Ferris Wheel

Monday, April 22, 2013

Featured releases: Tom Charles, Kotic Couture, Holocaust as Robot Tank

Here are a few recent releases that I recommend.  Enjoy!

Tom Charles - A Week in Cali
Philly rapper Tom Charles collaborated with producer Casey Joe of Digital Keyz Productions for this impressive mixtape.  As indicated by the title, the project was recorded during a visit to Sacramento, CA for a performance last October.  "Goodbye" is a strong opener with a soothing sax sample and a provocative string melody that recalls a down town bar at close time.  This song, like many on the this release, display Tom Charles's knack for creating memorable hooks, which are as thoughtful as they are catchy.  Lyrically, the album is very introspective, focusing on the artist's experience of trying to find his place in a world full of characters confused by the same dilemma.  There is a confidence in his vulnerability as lyrics like "...but you ain't no king / but you pay for it though, cause money buys anything / had too much, asked him what he wants, he didn't have no dreams" question the value of material excess.  That very song, called "Merry Go" boasts a radio friendly hook whose laid back simplicity reminds me of the complacent mood of alternative rock in the mid nineties.  This style works perfectly throughout the mix.  The instrumentals have interesting dynamics as well as break downs and variation.  Casey Joe's production focuses on strong melodies and harmonies rather than the bass driven minimalism that dominates radio rap.  His style meshes perfectly with Tom Charles's relaxed delivery.  Tom Charles succeeds in establishing himself as an interesting personality with a story worth telling that's worth listening to.

Kotic Couture - Hey Hello Hi EP
Based in Baltimore, rapper Kotic Couture released his 'Hey Hello Hi EP' for free last week on his birthday.  Collaborating with producer and Unknowne Landes blogger Tha 1 Who Trevs, this EP covers charted and uncharted territory as a fine example of the future direction of hip hop as its culture becomes more tolerant and subsequently more diversified.  The result is a powerful mix of electronic dance music and hip hop with a punk edge.  Throughout, Kotic's delivery is robust and confident stating his case for industry supremacy quite clearly.  The title track has a future-retro style that sounds like a modern approach to the mid-late eighties hip hop sound.  "Shades" and "FTBS" have a strong club appeal with a potential for anthem status, especially "FTBS", which has a beat appropriate for the Baltimore club culture with ongoing variation.  "Do what you want, go get your life" repeats as the bass kicks increase dramatically halfway through while a high pass filtered square wave lead jumps around behind it, a sound that gets even more playful in the following chant of "middle finger in the air."  "Don't Give Up" deals with more personal issues.  "Straight Edge", a Minority Threat cover, is a unique addition, given the high priority that hip hop tends to give to intoxication.  The instrumental has elements of hip hop, drum and bass, and punk rock.  Kotic Couture touts his preference for sobriety, referencing Trinidad James with the line "Never popped a molly, woo!"  This song also demonstrates his willingness to incorporate influences from seemingly foreign areas of the musical spectrum.  There is a remix by Vitamin K of the title track that falls somewhere between dubstep and UK grime, giving the song a harder edge that is fit for large dance parties.  With 'Hey Hello Hi', Kotic Couture makes it clear that he will not be deterred from being himself and dares anyone to challenge that.

Holocaust as Robot Tank - The Sign of Hell's Winter
The Holocaust has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard him in '98 on "Holocaust (Silkworm)" from RZA's first solo album.  He appeared on two songs on Killarmy's sophomore album, 'Dirty Weaponry'.  He also appeared on Wu Tang's Swarm compilations, random Wu affiliate member's releases, and on several radio freestyles.  Over time, his verses became more abstract.  In the early 2000's, he dropped two underground albums under the name Warcloud, which received mixed reviews.  His appearances remained sporadic until 2006, when he released 'Blue Sky Black Death presents The Holocaust', and incredible album that organized his chaotic thoughts into a cohesive, well produced product.  He has had an ongoing collaboration with American Poets 2099, but he eventually vanished once again.  He resurfaced with 'The Sign of Hell's Winter' in June of 2012 (though I just discovered its existence a couple of days ago).  I cannot find anything identifying the producers, but the sounds here are familiar, using samples from obscure old rock songs, movie scores, or world music with minimal beats on top of them.  This sound was popularized by Wu Tang in the mid nineties.  The style of production is also ery similar to Blue Sky Black Death's work.  Holocaust's delivery is more focused here with less of the slurring and off-beat rhyming of his Warcloud albums and even 'Blue Sky Black Death presents'.  However, the production quality has declined, though it is still very listenable.  Convention has taken a back seat here, even more so than previously as hooks/choruses (which some times are absent) are oddly placed, long winded, and often difficult to distinguish from verses.  The lyrics are full of references to literature, history, old movies, and folklore, though usually in the context of boasting about his rhyming talents.  Small spoken word pieces and introductory segments are precede some of the songs, including samples of dialogue from films, another mainstay of the Wu Tang sound.  This release is very strong, and as much as any fan of Holocaust could ask for, though his deeper exploration of abstract lyricism makes it difficult to single out memorable moments.  In that regard, this album is a bit of a step down from 'Blue Sky Black Death presents', but otherwise, Holocaust delivers another strong release that I will definitely be revisiting frequently.  If you're into interesting rhyme schemes, maze-like flows, and lyrical content that has you opening up Wikipedia or the dictionary, then definitely check this one out.