Can we Wiki together a timeline that breaks down just how much hip-hop culture is derived from, or at the very least, was heavily influenced by gay culture? How Tupac Shakur grew up in house music-obsessed Baltimore (hometown of queer-cinema godfather John Waters and transgender DJ/vocalist Miss Tony), attended a performing arts high school, sported the most perfectly plucked eyebrows on a man ever, and rocked a banjee realness style? How Lil Wayne, from New Orleans, home of bounce — raucous dance music that has no need for heteronormative values — looks like a working-class drag king? How there is simply no way that the early days of hip-hop, in conversation with disco and punk, and enacting constant cultural exchange between uptown and downtown, does not bear the influence of the city's gay-affirmative history? Perhaps if any of these angles were allowed to bubble up to the surface, the tone of recent gay-rapper thinkpieces would be less "woah isn't this like, so weird?!" and more like "fucking finally, dude."
Mykki Blanco is the rapping, female persona of Micheal David Quattlebaum Jr., a young African-American male with a Farley Granger-like handsomeness that sharply contrasts with Mykki's more knotty gorgeousness. Mykki's a rail-thin menacing model MC who can move from sexy to vulnerable to grotesque in a matter of moments; she is, like many complex, sexual humans. Blanco's new mixtape, Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss, provides the same simple, rewarding slaps as most rap music, even if the beat floats from pleasant proggy bliss-outs to demonic screw moans, and even goes gabber a few times. The raps are aggressive yet inclusive. From “Kingpinnin' (Ice Cold)”: "I roll with all types / Real niggas, real dykes / White boys with them yarmulkes / Model chicks with a million followers." The production, from bleeding-edge dance dudes like Sinden, Brenmar, and Gatekeeper, mine the sounds of 2000s hip-hop — crunk, snap, Timbaland-ish synth vamps, trap-rap — while accentuating their avant-garde qualities. I demand a Waka Flocka cover of "Haze.Boogie.Life," like, yesterday.
Imagine New York rap as uptown, downtown, and all-around Internet hodgepodge, and you've got Cosmic Angel. Tape highlight "Riot" is a mishmash of Mash Out Posse's kick-your-ass, Tunnel-catering hook-writing and the melodic bounce of Nelly's "Ride Wit' Me," while unhinged raps keep going and going and going, getting more and more absurdist, bringing to mind Da Drought 3-era Lil Wayne: "Do you take mushrooms?/ Okay bitch, because I do / I also smoke hydro/ And fuck like a rhino / And drink like a wino / And have you hit high notes." For realz: Blanco has that same kind of Wayn-ian energy and dada lyricism, even a similar ear for off-kilter beats that don't sound pop, but mostly certainly crack and clack and jump out of your speakers in all the right ways and end up pop. Mykki, though, is also that brain-fried weirdo you ran into on the subway last weekend. Your worst hedonistic nightmare.
Comparisons to everything but rap happen frequently with Mykki, mostly because a female alter-ego is supposedly incompatible with hip-hop's compulsory heterosexuality. But the persona-shifting nature of rap caters to transgender remaking and remodeling. The same thick-headed types who joke that transvestites "aint fooling nobody" will tell you how all rap listeners are from the suburbs, as if any of that has to do with anything. It isn't about "tricking" Captain Obvious. In fact, it isn't for Captain Obvious much at all. Really, I should just be able to type “Nicki Minaj” and end it there, though one would be advised to also think of Blanco and Quattlebaum Jr. as not all that different from, say, Rick Ross and William Roberts.
Not that Blanco is singularly focused on penetrating hip-hop's mainstream and fucking up the system from the inside. Frequently, she plays up her difference, framing herself as a monster taking over. The menacing strings at the start of "Kingpinning (Ice Cold)" invoke Godzilla, and woven throughout are clips related to X-Men (always a pop-culture expression of solidarity for outsiders), echoing out-of-the-closet director Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, or even the 1982 X-Men graphic novel, "God Loves, Man Kills," featuring a genocidal, mutant-fearing preacher. The final six tracks make good on that threat to radically rewrite rap by knocking it all down Godzilla-style. The songs are more fragmented and lo-fi, partially knocking over my argument that this is hip-hop like any other, while also proving how easy it is for Mykki to crack the rappin'-ass rapper code. She did that, already. Now, there are more interesting things to explore.
It's been a sad week in electronic music. On Monday, London's Martin Dawson died, 10 days after suffering an aneurysm in his studio. And yesterday, the ambient pioneer Pete Namlook (Peter Kuhlmann) was reported to have died "peacefully from as-yet-unspecified causes on 8th November," according to a statement his daughter Fabia made to Resident Advisor.
It would be hard to overstate Namlook's impact on the last 20 years of electronic music. While, in many ways, he existed apart — as Allmusic's Sean Cooper wrote, "If most artists in contemporary electronica are like islands unto themselves…Pete 'Namlook' Kuhlmann is a whole continent" — his influence continually fed back into the techno, trance, and ambient scenes. Namlook's career predates the techno revolution of 1989; after studying composition, the Frankfurt musician began playing new-agey synth pop in the trio Romantic Warrior in the mid 1980s. By the early 1990s, he was making rippling trance under a variety of aliases — Syn, Escape, Deltraxx — both solo and in collaboration with colleagues like Dr. Atmo and Atom Heart. But Namlook became best known as a tireless proponent of ambient music, setting aside trance's pile-driving beats and taking up a semi-permanent residence in the chillout rooms of the rave world (back when such things still existed). His label, Fax +49-69/450464 (generally shortened to simply Fax — the full name was identical with his actual fax number) kept up a ridiculously prolific release schedule, racking up more than 400 releases between 1993 and 2012, and it bridged styles and generations. Bill Laswell, Klaus Schulze, Tetsu Inoue, Uwe Schmidt (a.k.a. Atom Heart), Charles Uzzell-Edwards, David Moufang (a.k.a., Move D), Richie Hawtin, Geir Jenssen (a.k.a. Biosphere), Dandy Jack, Pascal F.E.O.S., Jonah Sharp (a.k.a., Spacetime Continuum), Mixmaster Morris, Steve Stoll, Jochem Paap (a.k.a., Speedy J), and Anthony Rother all recorded for the label, often in collaboration with Namlook himself.
I'm not deeply versed in the Fax catalog — the label's hyper-prolific output always slightly intimidated me, to be honest — but several of the label's releases have made a strong impact on me over the years. Thus, as a small tribute to Namlook, here's a selection of my favorites.
Pete Namlook & Tetsu Inoue Shades of Orion 2 (Fax, 1995) Somewhere between Brian Eno at his most ethereal and new age at its most abstracted, this 71-minute recording feels like a snapshot of infinity. Pipe organs, cathedral reverb, water sounds, and occasional electronic squiggles envelop drifting tones that sound like pitched-down whale song; spelled out, the list of elements may look hackneyed, but the effect is sublime. Music for an isolation tank.
The Fires of Ork "Gebirge" (Fax, 1993) Namlook and Geir Jenssen (a.k.a., Biosphere) got together in 1993 to record The Fires of Ork, titled in reference to Blade Runner. The album's heavier cuts recall a time when dance music and ambient weren't mutually exclusive: "Talk to the Stars" begins with plangent pads and slowly gathers strength with a nervous acid burble before unfurling 4/4 kicks and trance arpeggios; both versions of "The Fires of Ork" play bleepy, atonal synths off reverb-soaked breakbeats, anticipating Biosphere's classic 1995 track "Novelty Waves." But the highlight here is "Gebirge" ("Mountains"), a 21-minute expanse of heavy pedal tones, measured pulses, and soft, eerie electronic chirps that peel off like birds darting through your peripheral vision.
Move D & Namlook "Drop Kick" (Fax, 1996) Dave Moufang (a.k.a., Move D) and Namlook recorded more than 20 albums together; theirs was a particularly fruitful meeting of minds and styles, with Moufang's sinewy, house-inspired drum programming rippling through Namlook's aquatic sound-worlds. "Drop Kick," from 1996's Exploring the Psychedelic Landscape, is among their more rhythmically-oriented collaborations; its slinky, morphing beats and rubbery incidentals sound uncannily like the kind of music Ricardo Villalobos would begin making a few years later. A stunning example of truly psychedelic dance music.
Move D & Namlook "The Art of Love" The title cut from 2005's Move D / Namlook VIII – The Art of Love sounds like a response to Pole's crackling ambient dub. But their synths are fuller and more tuneful; a horn line that sounds like Jon Hassell slinks through the upper reaches of the track while languid guitar tremolo nods to David Lynch.
Jochem Paap "Un-Klkkn" (Fax, 1999) This isn't a Namlook production, but I have to include it if only because Jochem Paap's albums Vrs-Mbnt-Pcs 9598 I and Vrs-Mbnt-Pcs 9598 II, from 1999, served as one of my first introductions to the Fax label. I was a fan of the blistering techno Paap had recorded as Speedy J for Warp and Mute, but nothing prepared me for the beatless bliss and psychedelic drones of these two albums, which are right up there with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II. (The similarity is probably no coincidence — just read Paap's titles aloud, and you'll see the implicit homage there.) For years, the last thing I did before bed was to cue up both discs in the CD changer. Whatever fantastic dreams I experienced in that period, I owe them to Namlook.
Hi fashion friends! It’s been too long since my last post, but not to worry, I'm as clothes-obsessed as ever. In fact, when I was recently in Katowice, Poland for Off Festival, I met two lovely Russian ladies, both named Katya, and made a point of talking to them about clothes. Not even a broken nose could stop me! You see, Katya S. (left) and Katya V. (right) are two enthusiastic and fun young women who work as photo editors for fashion magazines in Russia, at least when they aren’t traveling Eastern Europe to experience all of its beautiful architecture, cheap food and wild music festivals. Even though I don’t think they had showered for like three days when I met them (it’s the festival lifestyle!), I greatly admired their style and figured I’d learn more about where they come from and the things that inspire them. I gotta go to Russia!
How did you get into photo editing? Was it something you wanted to do, or did the job just sort of happen? Katya S.: Well, at first I was working for one financial weekly magazine as an editorial assistant, but one day the art-director suggested I join the photo department. I was looking for faces of politics, pics like "what damn inflation now!" and "the share price of petroleum companies go to the dogs," and helped to organize the shoots in the "luxurious restaurants" and the dull shoots of "well-known in the narrow circles" people. Despite the not-so-exciting content, the process was quite interesting and the team was wonderful. Then I moved to the weekly fashion magazine, where everything was in another stream — and , yes, I can say without any doubts, I like this job. You are rummaging in great photo-banks and through the internet and can finally find something awesome.
Katya V.:In the spring of 2011, I felt incredibly tired and mentally exhausted thanks to my previous job. I spent five years as director's assistant in one business, then I braced up and quit! The whole summer I mostly did nothing, taking all the advantages of unemployment: watched a good amount of movies, read books that were waiting for so long, started drawing again and playing accordion just for my own pleasure. But time passed by, savings came to an end, something had to be done. Right at that moment Katya needed someone to help her with picture editing and of course I couldn't refuse, that was the best job offer ever!
What type of shoots are your favorite to work on? Katya V.: Street-style images are my favorite. Some years ago, my friend send me a link to hel-looks.com and I must admit it is still my number one blog about street-style. During the workday I monitor a lot of fashion shootings, mostly by Grazia photographers from all over the world. I think this is the most pleasant part of work besides drinking coffee and chatting with Katya. I don’t like the word "inspiration," but this is a proper word; no one can stay calm admiring so much beauty during the day. Though, to tell the truth, for me an ideal shoot is the one where beauty and humor can live together.
Katya S.: As there are many rubrics in our magazine, we can give reign to our imagination and taste — we can find the most freaky catwalks in unconceivable colors. Then, of course, all the images are sorted by fashion-editors and designers, but we at least have fun during the process. The most unfavorite theme is "celebrity fashion news," but sometimes the pictures are so awesome, especially paparazzi shoots, that you can hardly suppress the laughter. The funniest and most awesome we join to collages and upload to our idiotic blog, brodermordet.tumblr.com. But seriously, it is very interesting to deal with material connected with the past; for instance, recently we have been looking for some Ozzy Clark shoots from the '60s, Dior and Emilio Pucci collections from the '70s, David Hicks prints and even pictures from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — their psychedelic prints became the trend of this season.
Are there any Russian designers you have really been enjoying lately? Katya V: Not long ago I saw the last male collection created by Tatiana Parfionova. The young men were reciting poetry right on the catwalk: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Unusual idea, bi-sexual, tender looks, various voice timbres and well-cut clothes. Some looks from Konstantin Gayday’s FW 11/12 collection are something that I would like to wear. And if I find a wallet one day, Alexandre Arngoldt’s collection FW12/13 with it's long sleeves and fake blind eyes.
Katya S.: I think Alena Akhmadullina is the best. Maybe you know her — she is quite well-known and took part in the fashion weeks. Her collections are full of femininity, so I can say she is very pretty.
In her fresh collection she is inspired by “Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, and I think she has made a go of such a “tale into reality” transformation. I like everything here: colors, shapes, combination of psychedelic prints and military coat details. I have never heard about Natasha Drigant till I started rummaging the archive of last year's Moscow fashion week for one article, so I was really surprised by her collection. Androgyny, сolor pallette, asymmetry of сut — it is the perfect harmony of everything.
Do you have any fashion advice to offer the guys out there? Anything they should or shouldn't do? Katya V.: I think people should wear anything they like. A sparkling evening dress or a trash bag. Or a trash dress and a sparkling evening bag. It depends. What I know for sure — money will never save your look if you have no idea how you want to look.
Katya S.: Not any special advice, but I think it is quite stupid idea to follow the trends madly, and be a fashion victim. It is more interesting when a person has his or her own style and considers their outfit with a sense of humor. I like freaks dressed in vintage clothes, people who wear second hand things. It can be just fun, nothing more.
Damon Krukowski's sobering analysis of how little recording artists make from streaming their music under current royalty rates — to wit, he says that his former band, Galaxie 500, would need to rack up 13 million streams to make the same profit they did selling just 1,000 7-inches, back in 1988 — has generated plenty of reactions, both positive and negative. Among the critical responses is the hoary argument that musicians need to suck it up and adapt with the times — specifically, by taking their show on the road. If the only money left on the table is to go to touring acts, then musicians just need to get off the couch and go play some shows, right?
Former Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston has written a cogent takedown of this attitude, but one point in particular sticks out: "Playing live only really 'works' as a revenue model (let alone a constant one) for certain types of acts."
I'm so glad she brought that point up, because it crystallizes a lot of what's wrong with electronic dance music in 2012.
Setting aside the audience, there are two fundamental roles in dance music: The producer and the performer (whether DJ, live act, or some hybrid of the two). Many electronic-music artists, certainly most working ones, occupy both roles. There are notable exceptions — particularly DJs like Ben UFO and Jackmaster, who have made a point of focusing their efforts solely on DJing — but DJs who don't also produce original music are few and far between. (On the local level, of course, it's possible to find many talented DJs who don't put out records, but they rarely become known outside of their city or region, and they rarely end up making a career of it.) There must also be some electronic-music producers who never play in public, whether as DJs or live performers, but I'm having trouble coming up with any current names. As a rule, artists who want to have careers in electronic music have to do double duty as producers and performers. But that's a recent development, and it has had deleterious effects on electronic dance music as a whole.
Many recording artists simply aren't born performers, and vice versa. Some producers would be content to stay in their studios making music — whether that's for listeners to buy, or other DJs to play out. (Electronic dance music's economics are complicated by the fact that much of its output isn't really meant to be purchased by home listeners; its main market is DJs.) They may not have the skills or interest to be DJs themselves, or to develop a dynamic, compelling live set. Production and performance entail totally different skill sets, and it sucks that a producer who is fantastically talented at one thing — turning out amazing productions — has to stretch her/himself thin by also taking up DJing or live performance.
But an artist who only makes records is increasingly unlikely to be able to make a living at it. Without even wading into the debate over streaming royalties, it is commonly accepted that the bottom has dropped out of the market for dance-music recordings. Labels that used to be able to count on selling 10,000 or more copies of a new single or EP may now sell 1,000 copies; labels that used to sell in the low thousands are now selling in the low hundreds.
There are many reasons that dance-music records sell less now than they used to. Piracy is a big one. Another is the "unbundling" of EP tracks. With digital music, consumers no longer have to fork over $10 for a two-track single; they may buy just one MP3. And while digital music might seem cheaper to distribute than vinyl — after all, there's no physical pressing, no sleeves to print, no postage costs — it's still not free; labels still have to cover graphic design, promotion, mastering of the digital file, and their own overhead. So once the digital retailer has taken its cut (as high as 40%) and the label has recouped its costs, the amount that's left over for the artist is very small indeed, when we're talking about single MP3s priced at $1.99.
So musicians who want to make a living need to tour. But here's where the Catch-22 kicks in.
For producer/DJs to get consistent bookings, they need to keep up a steady flood of new productions in order to keep their name circulating in the public. So they end up releasing tons of mediocre shit, just as talented producers deliver sub-standard DJ sets. And, since they're gigging every weekend and then recovering from jetlag and hangovers from Monday through Wednesday, there's precious little time to actually sit down in the studio and get real work done. Making good music takes time, and time is an increasingly scarce resource for touring DJs and live performers.
Meanwhile, the market clogs up with mediocre, sound-alike productions. If people want to buy them, of course, that's their prerogative. But the marketplace gets cluttered. Listeners burn out. It gets harder and harder to find original, exciting music in the big online retailers. Purchasers' dollars get divided up between an increasingly larger pool of releases, and labels and artists sell even fewer recordings. So Johnston is right: The admonition to "just go out on tour," a red herring for the indie scene, is an even less adequate solution for electronic dance music. The tightening loop between the studio and the stage is a vicious circle, and it's strangling dance music's creative potential.
<p>Yesterday, Memphis rapper <a href="http://citiesaviv.tumblr.com/post/35628107400" target="_blank">Cities Aviv posted a self-serious note</a> about his new album <i>Black Pleasure</i>. The letter thanked fans and celebrated the "listener…capable of acknowledging [their] own feelings and not those that have so easily slipped in the back[s] of [their] skull." It was posted as a screenshot of a word document, Frank Ocean-style. Someone with a master's degree can pen a piece that wrestles with the way that Ocean turned the Text Edit screenshot into short-hand for sincere, direct artist-to-fan contact, because the note worked on me. It gives the arch, mysterious rapper a little more context, and affords his confrontational rhymes some heart. The album is called <i>Black Pleasure</i>, though Cities is really declaring his freedom here: A black dude into noise and metal from Memphis, the birthplace of crunk, rapping his way out of categorization.</p>
<p>But "Black Freedom" sounds pretty corny, right? Cities is quite good at drumming up new ways to express rap cliches. His haters song on last year's <i>Digital Lows</i> was titled "Voyeurs," and here, the equivalent of his "Bitches Ain't Shit" track is called "Escorts." An expanding and contracting sample declares, "All I want to do / Is make sweet love to you," implicating the rapper's desires in the contempt he throws out for "boppers" in his hometown. "Simulation" expresses disgust with the Internet and if that seems a little obnoxious, well, he tempers the hubris later on with a cathartic, motorik album-closer titled "Not That I'm Anywhere." This is a less childish version of Childish Gambino's black-nerd self-flagellation. More about the way that being black and young in this country puts you into a box, and when you climb out of that box, a new set of people, supposedly more open-minded, will put you in another box.</p>
<p><i>Black Pleasure</i> is also, maybe, a record about falling in love? "Visions Of Us," stuttering chipmunk-soul on 70 RPMs, details touring life and the desire to get back home to hang out with your girl. "Express Your Love," produced by Silkky Johnson, is an unabashed song about fucking, tempered by a series of quirky asides and pointed post-punk references: "I give you pleasure, my power's a sex position / We fucking for hours to Joy Division, Psychic Television / Rapping never was my mission but I grind it to submission / I hope you kill me if you catch me wearing True Religion / But girl it's your decision if you decide to stay / I'm not impressed by banjee bitches and their sheisty ways / Cause since our genesis I've loved you like my Lady Jaye / So when you miss me know I'm somewhere and I feel the same." Weird, witty, heartwarming stuff.</p>
<p>Some of you may not even consider <i>Black Pleasure</i> a rap album. If you liked Cities' debut, <i>Digital Lows</i>, which mixed a southern-yet-traditional approach to lyricism with an iPod-shuffle generation sense of genre-hopping, then <i>Black Pleasure</i> will be a shock. It's noisy and confidently one-note. While <i>Digital Lows</i> was lovingly curated, this is more interested in jagged, jarring transitions. On "Forever," Cities rides a cheap drum-machine kick like Ian Curtis on "Ceremony," and Cities even throws in a J.D. joke when he says he's "hanging like Ian Curtis." Oneohetrix Point Never's searching, slowly molting loops seems to be an influence on many of these hiccuping beats, mostly produced by Cities himself. He connects Memphis buck-music cassette culture to '80s Rick Rubin super-reducer drum and synth beats to pissed-off, apocalyptic No Wave. Mishka put this thing out, but it would be a better fit over at Sacred Bones.</p>
<p>The mythos of the creative struggle adds another layer to a pop-music classic: Brian Wilson in the sandbox; the Stones arguing over everything holed up in a chateau; Bowie coked-out in Berlin; Rick Rubin making rap history from his NYU dorm; Dilla, dying in a hospital bed. The story behind Kendrick Lamar's <i>good kid, m.A.A.D. city</i> is a very special, though quite different, against-all-odds tale: Young Compton MC transcends the blog-rap bubble, avoids every pitfall of the major-label rap album, and comes up with an unabashed, uncompromising concept album that sold 240,000 copies its first week out. How did this happen? <i>good kid, m.A.A.D city</i> builds on the past 20 or so years of deeply personal and personality-driven capital-A albums. Without the 10 records listed below, it is hard to imagine Kendrick's instant classic arriving unscathed.</p>
<p><strong>Dr. Dre, <em>The Chronic</em> (1992)</strong><br>
O.C.D. studio production techniques killed rock music in the '80s. But those same, super-clean, studio-rat, session-musician impulses changed hip-hop by way of <i>The Chronic</i>. Dr. Dre's ear for catchy hooks — he may be the only songwriter to actually improve upon the choruses he sampled — grabbed mainstream listeners' ears, but the confident professionalism of <i>The Chronic</i> kept people engaged. It was lively yet considered, and had none of hip-hop's often oppressive grit and grime. On <i>good kid</i>, Dre is responsible for mixing and gets an "executive producer" credit, bringing that same production flourish-obsessed ear to Kendrick's concept album, calling attention to resonant rolling bass lines, and making sure every snare is impeccably crisp. The participation of Dre also enables Kendrick to reject the more base and violent aspects of gangsta rap and get away with it. He has the creator of <i>The Chronic</i>'s approval to flip the Compton rap script.</p>
<p><strong>Coolio, <em>It Takes a Thief</em> (1994)</strong><br>
Ignore what you pops into your mind when Coolio's name comes up in 2012, and consider how much of a shock-of-the-new he was when 1994's "Fantastic Voyage" arrived. It was a splashy utopian party song from a guy who didn't take himself too seriously, and also made sure to include a sense that gang violence was hovering around the periphery of the party. His single was mindful escapism instead of mindless escapism. "There ain't no Bloodin' / There ain't no Crippin' / Ain't no punk-ass set trippin'" is like an inverted version of "m.A.A.d city"s rallying cry, "If Pirus and Crips all got along / They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song.” SPIN's Christopher Weingarten told me this: "People seem to forget that Kendrick's whole 'from-the-L.A.-streets-but-not-<i>of</i>-the-L.A.-streets' was basically Coolio's lane in the 90s." Not to mention, Coolio was a member of WC & the Maad Circle, which Kendrick's album title references.</p>
<p><strong>Project Blowed, <em>Project Blowed</em> (1994)</strong><br>
The other half of '90s Los Angeles hip-hop history, its roots in after-hours, health-food-store get-togethers rather than the scary streets of Compton. That's not to say Project Blowed were oppositional like the "backpack rap" that came later in the decade, because their oily, Ornette Coleman lyricism is also worlds away from Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, and other po-faced East Coast revolutionary rappers. The goal of Project Blowed — a collective that included Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, Freestyle Fellowship, and many others — was ambitious: Push rap lyricism past its breaking point. When Kendrick swallows his own voice and spits it back up as squawk, gives his conscience the timbre of an autistic space alien, or just plain locates new ways to say the same ol' shit ("With dreams of being a lawyer or a doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper, holding the cul de sac hostage"), he bears the influence of Project Blowed. The collective's 1994 compilation is evidence that Los Angeles wasn't <i>only</i> ground-zero for gangsta rap. <i>good kid, m.A.A.d city</i> cleverly mashes-up the free spirit of Blowed and the down-to-earth street reportage of Compton hip-hop.</p>
<p><strong>OutKast, <em>Aquemini</em> (1998)</strong><br>
The sensitive, street-enough persona Kendrick Lamar exhibits was already perfected on <i>Aquemini</i> stand-out "Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 1." Andre 3000 details an evening of summer fun as a teen with a girl named Sasha, who interrupts the idyllic hanging out with a little too much reality: "We're on our back staring at the stars above / Talking about what we gonna be when we grow up / I said, 'What you wanna be?,' she said, 'Alive' / It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes / I could've died." A few years later, Three Stacks hears of Sasha's overdose. What Kendrick does is follow in this tradition of off-setting hood lectures with well-wrought empathy, and bravely allows himself to appear in over his head. Bravely, he bends his Andre influence on itself, challenging the however-well-intentioned decision to turn a person from his youth into a character in one of his songs. The second verse of "Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst" is from the perspective of Keisha's sister — Keisha was the topic of <i>Section.80</i> track “Keisha's Song (Her Pain)” — taking Kendrick to task for subjectivizing and editorializing her sister's life. It's Sasha's from-the-grave revenge.</p>
<p><strong>Prince Paul, <em>A Prince Among Thieves</em> (1999)</strong><br>
<i>good kid</i> obsessives a too caught up in the details of the album's day-in-the-life narrative are missing the point — every rap album is a concept album. Meanwhile, anybody who wishes the skits on <i>good kid</i> weren't there at all is just very very dense. Skit-haters will surely find <i>A Prince Among Thieves</i> nothing but an endurance test, but hell, they should have to listen to this one at least once, because there isn't a better case for skit-as-song/song-as-skit album-sequencing than this one. Prince Paul's rap opera arrived at about the time that the rap skit had become bastardized and was just another part of the way-too-long, hip-hop album formula. <i>good kid</i> looks back to Paul's vision of the rap skit as dramatic tool and occasional mood-lightener. And the select few guest appearances from those outside Kendrick's circle (Pharrell sounding like a Bond villain on "Good Kid"; MC Eiht as a blast from the gangsta rap past on "M.a.a.d City"; Dre as the god of West Coast rap looking down at everybody else on "Compton") have that same cameo quality as <i>A Prince Among Thieves</i> when Big Daddy Kane or Kid Creole suddenly appear for a few bars.</p>
<p><strong>Kanye West, <em>College Dropout</em> (2004)</strong><br>
Both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar use skits in a knowing, post-'90s rap way, locating their initial Prince Paul, Wu-Tang, etc. power and charm. While skits on <i>The College Dropout</i> hold the album together and justify some of its indulgences — there is a moment when two skits play back-to-back on Kanye's album and it shouldn't work, but somehow it does — Kendrick uses skits to slow down the flow of his album. Seeing as how the Internet has compared <i>good kid</i> to <i>The Great Gatsby</i> (for serious!), here goes another pretentious comparison. <i>good kid</i>'s skits are like the footnotes in David Foster Wallace's <i>Infinite Jest</i>: Seemingly unnecessary indulgences there to reflect the interruption-prone reality of day-to-day life, especially when you come from somewhere like crime-ravaged Compton. The skits mess with <i>good kid</i>'s momentum, and delay simple, song-followed-by-song rewards. They remind you that this thing's <i>important</i>. Another similarity: 2004 Kanye and 2012 Kendrick avoid loud, cloying hooks. Easy-to-sing simple melodies, like the ones on "Spaceship" and "Slow Jamz," are similar to "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Swimming Pool (Drank)." Those songs feel like homemade pop, thought up at 2 A.M. on a long car ride, not cobbled together by committee. Even casual listeners, I think, can sense and appreciate the difference.</p>
<p><strong>Young Jeezy, <i>Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101</i> (2005)</strong><br>
At the end of "Art of Peer Pressure," Kendrick's buddies quote Young Jeezy's "Trap Or Die" ("Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets!"). It's a novelistic detail that dates the events of <i>good k.i.d</i> (2004/2005-ish), along with a reference to Ciara playing when he meets Sherane, and Usher's "Let It Burn" being mentioned on "Money Trees." Popular music is often soundtracking Kendrick's exploits, and the Jeezy quote speaks to one of the album's themes: The transformative potential of hip-hop. "Money Trees" also finds Kendrick admiring E-40 ("Earl Stevens had us thinking rational") and on the final track, "Compton," he explains how rap, even of the "gangsta" variety, can change minds for the better: "Now we can all celebrate / We can all harvest the rap artists of N.W.A / America target our rap market, it's controversy and hate / Harsh realities we in made our music translate / To the coke dealers, the hood rich, and the broke niggas that play." The point here is that hip-hop's shabby, lawless roots have nonetheless led to lasting, inspirational music. Isn't that what Jeezy's whole motivational-speaker-of-rap persona is all about?</p>
<p><strong>G-Side, <em>Starshipz & Rocketz</em> (2008)</strong><br>
Kendrick Lamar comes out of a rap scene that's spent the past half-a-decade or so kicking against clueless major labels, doing things on its own terms, and obsessively working rap blogs. We've had some groaner major-label debuts (Wale's <i>Attention Deficit</i>, Yelawolf's <i>Radioactive</i>), and albums that felt like victories because they sounded enough like mixtapes (Curren$y's Warner Brothers releases, Big K.R.I.T.'s <i>Live From the Underground</i>), and, of course, too many excellent mixtapes to count. Kendrick's major-label debut happened because of those albums, and promotes the values of what I've called "the New Underground," best represented by groups that never touched a major label, like G-Side. When Kendrick's mom and dad — who, over the course of the album, move from from comic figures to flawed, caring people — espouse local utopian ideals at the end of "Real," it's the same as G-Side's boot-straps-meets-revolution-baiting hip-hop pronouncements. And <i>good kid</i>'s spaced-out production, just a few steps removed from radio rap, has a great deal in common with that of G-Side's in-house beatmakers the Block Beattaz — cinematic, off-kilter samples, ornately hazy bangers, and somehow not-awkward for-the-ladies, slow-enough slow jams.</p>
<p><strong>Drake <em>Take Care</em> (2011)</strong><br>
Drake's <i>Take Care</i> formally introduced Kendrick Lamar to the mainstream, though it was almost entirely on Kendrick's terms. "Buried Alive (Interlude)" was a helium-voiced yammer investigating fame's trappings, casually castigating Drake for getting wrapped up in that fame, while sticking out because of the sheer rapping ability and obnoxious WTF-ness of its delivery. So, Drake returns the favor by not being too much of a creep on "Poetic Justice," and probably giving Kendrick a radio single in a few months. More importantly, <i>good kid</i> piggybacks on <i>Take Care</i>'s basic sound: Hip-hop signifiers glued together by globs of moody synthesizers and a hipster-savvy sense of experimental production. When a doomy bass riff slices "The Art of Peer Pressure" in two, or an endlessly echoed Weeknd-esque voice wordlessly coos on "Sherane," it is because of the quasi-footwork intro of "Crew Love" or the rainy-day sounds ringing through the title track, "Take Care." This album prepped young peoples' ears for <i>good kid</i>. And though trauma from smoking a PCP-laced joint isn't as obnoxious as complaining about having too much sex, Kendrick has more than enough of Drizzy's ability to puff minor problems into life-altering tragedies, as well.</p>
<p><strong>The Roots, <em>undun</em> (2011)</strong><br>
Last year, thanks to the warts-and-all vision of the rap game and the crack game from groups like G-Side and Main Attrakionz, the folksy values of Big K.R.I.T., Stalley, and others, it seemed as though street rap was being challenged and contorted; it's visceral power rejected, or at least adjusted. It was an interesting quasi-trend that you could extend to more above-ground art like ultraviolent, anti-tough guy flick <i>Drive</i> and the Roots' tenth studio album, <i>undun</i>, a kind-hearted, but nevertheless no-nonsense re-evaluation of a life-of-crime concept album, one year before <i>good k.i.d</i>. <i>undun</i>'s major flaw may be that it's not a very fun listen, that it's a piece of art-rap-soul, like Donny Hathaway's <i>Extension of a Man</i> meets Common's <i>Like Water for Chocolate</i>. Kendrick says the same thing as the Roots, with less NPR-ready sophistication, more hooks (though the Roots "Lighthouse" should've been a radio single), and a happy ending, which always broadens the appeal. I mean, <a href="http://www.spin.com/reviews/kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-interscope... Noz pointed out in SPIN's review</a>, <i>good kid</i> all but turns into a Roots album during it's third act, with "Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst" and "Real" doing the sprawling neo-soul uplifting-spirit rap jams the Roots have done so well for two decades now.</p>
"Some of you will be surprised, but yes, like you I'm a House head," confesses Pedro Winter, a.k.a. Busy P, explaining the unexpectedly rootsy turn that his Ed Banger label has taken with its latest release. Ed Banger is best known, of course, for the louche, super-charged electro mayhem favored by label mainstays Justice and their Parisian pals. But with the debut EP from Paris' Boston Bun (Thibaud Noyer), a 25-year-old producer who shares a studio with Winter, the label pays tribute to timeless house aesthetics. If you couldn't guess from the title, "Housecall" is a love letter to the skeletal, synthetic bass lines and choppy vocal samples of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's not retro, exactly, but it's certainly classically minded, with an ear for the same kind of stripped-down machine funk that has recently infected club music from Los Angeles to Berlin — and, it's worth noting, with nary a trace of the filter-disco legacy of the "French touch." For the first time in a long time for Ed Banger, it's as though Daft Punk never happened.
Things have been quiet on the Ed Banger front of late; the label's last release was Breakbot's album By Your Side, in September. A disco-infused homage to Prince and Steely Dan, it didn't sound much like the distorted, pogo-friendly overload we've come to expect from the camp. And Justice themselves have been veering away from the dance floor towards gatefold prog excess — that is, when they're not writing music for the new King Kong flick, a gig that their famous collab with Simian pretty much foreordained.
Listen to a megamix preview of the Housecall EP below; it comes out on November 26.
After last year's Hater of the Year, a collection of Silkky Johnson's instrumentals for Main Attrakionz, Western Tink, and others, the producer set out to "make a project that's more fun to listen to than a traditional beat tape." The result is Debauched Legend, which he describes as "a psychedelic rap album," a purposeful hip-hop oddity: "I wanted it to sound like something you might find in a bargain bin and have no idea when it's from or who made it."
There is definitely a "where'd this come from?" hot mess quality to Debauched Legend. Beats are loaded up with noisy effects and car stereo-ready bass, and a multitude of rap personalities make appearances, from Internet star A$AP Rocky to Tumblr-ready types like Khalil Nova and Metro Zu, and even art-damaged Spanish-language rappers like High Kiks and Himself the Majestic, and Japanese MC, Sneeeze. Pay special attention to a particularly delirious Western Tink, who shows up on "Ain't No Future" doing an Eazy E charming-scumbag routine and shouting out Last of the Mohicans on "Very Rare."
Other highlights: The space funk remix of French Montana's "Shot Caller," and a sparkling 9th Wonder-esque take on Drake's "Best I Ever Had." If this is psychedelic hip-hop, then it is of the bad vibes, the world's-smooshing-my-brain sort.
Silkky Johnson's Debauched Legend will be available for free download on Friday over at the producer's SoundCloud, but you can listen to it now exclusively at SPIN.
The British house producer Martin Dawson — a.k.a. King Roc and one-half of the duo Two Armadillos, with Secretsundaze's Giles Smith — has died, reports Resident Advisor. Dawson had been hospitalized since November 1, when he was found unconscious in his studio after suffering a brain aneurysm.
In what has become a contemporary mourning ritual, fellow musicians and fans expressed their shock and sadness on Twitter and Facebook. Glimpse (Christopher Spero), who collaborated with Dawson on records for Leftroom, Crosstown Rebels, and Hypercolour, wrote, "Martin was without doubt one of the most remarkable people I have ever met." In tribute, many mourners included links to Dawson's 2011 track "Is This Goodbye" — a melancholic deep-house anthem that now takes on a particularly poignant cast. So, too, do Two Armadillos' heartbreaking remixes of Lana Del Rey's "Born to Die," one of which was included in Control Voltage's Top 50 tracks of the first half of 2012.
When I spoke to Roc Marciano about his career — from Flipmode Squad to Pete Rock's Petestrumentals with the U.N. to his 2010 debut, Marcberg — he replied by saying, "I got my first deal in 2000, I think." That he isn't entirely sure when he signed to a record label, and that he has to specify that he's talking about his first record deal, is a pretty good indication of his circuitous route to underground success. It's also representative of his rarefied stance in the New York hip-hop scene: Hardly a rookie, not quite a veteran. The benefit of being a little outside the confines of the most rigid rap scene around, though, is that he was able to take his time quietly moving headknock hip-hop in the direction of something quieter and more introspective.
It's appropriate, then, that a sample from the 1981 crime flick and character study Thief begins "Wee III," a track from Marciano's new album Reloaded — Michael Mann's subtle slow-burn fits the New York rapper/producer's boom-bap quite well. Marciano's production style is to chop samples until they're nothing more than an eerie pulse, and to edit his raps until they're just a series of seething asides and punch-you-in-the-gut poetic descriptors. The only other MC doing boom-bap this meticulously is frequent Marciano collaborator Ka, who appears on "Not Told" and "Nine Spray," and whose album, Grief Pedigree, is one of the year's best (though it might take some time to creep up on you and reveal itself). On Reloaded, Marciano stretches out a bit, accepting beats from the Alchemist ("Flash Gordon"), and Q-Tip ("Thead Count"). He even deigns to sample 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" on the track "76." It might seem like something of a quirky Action Bronson move, until you hear the way Marciano steals the piano of that soft-rock lark and turns it into a Mobb Deep-like minor-key mood-setter. Marciano's Reloaded is out on Decon tomorrow, but you can hear it below, exclusively at SPIN.