Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 13 Non-2013 Albums of the Year

I have regular segment called Fresh Produce on the MusicVox on Vocalo Public Radio in Chicago every Tuesday. I highlight three to five new albums that are out that week. As such, I listen to at least five and usually closer to ten new releases each week, most of which I never listen to a second time. Even with all of this time I spend keeping up with the torrent of new releases, I still find time to listen to great older albums. To honor some of these older albums that dominated my year, I put together this list of my top non-2013 albums of the year in no particular order. Some are albums I’ve been listening to for years, and others are ones I discovered for the first time in the last twelve months. All of them are excellent.

 #1: Mr. Lif - I Phantom (2002)

Mr. Lif was one of my first favorite rappers. Mo’ Mega and the Emergency Rations EP were so important to me in high school, and Mr. Lif was more instrumental than almost any other rapper in getting me to really plunge into the world of hip-hop, but I didn’t hear I Phantom until a couple of years into college. Spurred on by El-P’s phenomenal work last year, 2013 has found me listening to a ton of Def Jux stuff again, and I Phantom has gotten the most plays from me this year out of that crop of exceptional albums. It’s a great album that follows a loose multi-part concept, and Mr. Lif proves that he is a remarkably talented rapper, especially on tracks like the second half of “Return of the B-Boy.” More than anything, revisiting I Phantom reminded me why I got into hip-hop in the first place. And “Live from the Plantation” helped me get through a lot of drives to a shitty job.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Albums of 2013: #10-1

#10: Ty Segall - SLEEPER
Throughout his insanely prolific career, Ty Segall had certainly given the impression that his strengths came from fuzz and noise and general garage rock abandon. So when word came that his first album after his trifecta of amazing albums from 2012 would be largely acoustic, it was cause for some minor concern. Sure, his knack for songwriting could be expected to remain intact when it was ported into an acoustic setting, but what about that power? SLEEPER dashed those fears, finding the power in quietude. Even the most pleasant of dreams often come with a feeling that something isn’t quite right, and the prettiest songs on here are the most unsettling. Songs like “She Don’t Care” are gorgeous, but the lyrics signal the deterioration of an important relationship. It’s a dark, sad, beautiful, catchy record, and it’s possibly the best of his career so far.
#9: DJ Rashad - Double Cup
Electronic music has spawned so many distinct subgenres over the last forty years that it’s hard for a relative outsider such as myself to find a good place to start with most of them. Outside of the recent L.A. beat scene which I have listened to a lot of, my explorations of other vibrant electronic forms, such as house, techno, jungle, drum and bass, dubstep, minimalist/ambient, and others is unfortunately been very limited. As a Chicago native, the sound that I am most disappointed in myself for ignoring is footwork, which was built by local producers from pieces of house, juke, hip-hop, and R&B. It’s a sound that’s gained increasing traction over the past few years, and it’s pushed into prominence through the Bangs & Works compilations, exciting live performances by Traxman and others, and Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, which counts footwork as an important influence. DJ Rashad’s debut album Double Cup proves that the community of footwork artists is ready for and deserving of more attention. It’s about as funky and soulful as electronic music, even sample-based electronic music, gets, and it makes the most of footwork’s sonic parameters. Rashad’s canny use of vocal samples and guest features, which he chops up and uses in the same way he uses the instrumental, is the best part of this record, which situates him as the man to beat among footwork producers in Chicago.

Top Albums of 2013: #20-11

#20: The Delfonics - Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics
Due to his prominence as the bandleader of the Roots, Questlove is in the rare position where he can try to make a record with Bill Withers and end up with Al Green as a consolation prize. With his work revitalizing the Delfonics, Adrian Younge deserves to jump up to that level, allowing him to work with some of the greatest and most prominent artists in the history of soul. Younge absorbs old music with the ear of a great sampler, flipping old film soundtracks and obscure break-filled R&B nuggets into his own compositions. When this instinctive method is paired with an unfairly forgotten soul legend like William Hart, the resulting album sounds like it was made in a world where seventies soul and nineties hip-hop somehow developed simultaneously. Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics sounds completely out of time, a record some future crate digger will be mystified by.
 #19: Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric - Czarface
Insepctah Deck’s verse on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds” remains one of his career best. It was also a tantalizing view into what a member of the Wu-Tang Clan could sound like over more traditionalist New York boom bap as opposed to the groundbreaking RZA sound that the Wu generals mostly stuck to during the group’s best years in the ‘90s. Czarface, Deck’s full length collaboration with 7L & Esoteric, shows how great it could have been if any of the generals had made a more straightforward boom bap record back then. Deck sounds revitalized here, turning in the second best album of his career (for all its detractors and its couple of weaker songs, his first album Uncontrolled Substance remains the most underrated Wu album of the ‘90s). Esoteric remains a very good emcee in spite of his general lack of personality, but the stars here are Deck and 7L’s head-knocking beats. Czarface manages to be both an enticing alternate history and a strong revitalization for one of the best rappers who never quite managed to pull off a satisfying solo career.

Top Albums of 2013: #32-21

In his piece on his own top 10 albums of the year over at Grantland, Steven Hyden made the important distinction between the notion of best albums and of favorite albums. Trying to claim that your own list consists of the best albums of the year (as I did last year) is inherently dishonest, since no one has heard every album that came out in a given year, so every listener or critic’s personal scope is too limited to declare unequivocally that anything is the best. As such, Hyden appropriately labeled his article “My Top 10 Best (Favorite) Albums of 2013.” I’ve tried to take the same approach here. Forcing myself to ignore the impact, buzz, controversy, or acclaim that albums got this year and focusing just on the albums that I liked the most has really helped me put this list together. I’m still constantly reordering the albums on this list, and I’m sure I’ll regret almost everything about how I ranked these the second I put them up (which begs the question of why I bothered ranking them at all, but whatever). So before I keep changing my mind, without further ado here are my top 32 albums of the year.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

20 Years of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

At this point, twenty years to the day after Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out, using the word ‘grimy’ to describe that album or anything that the Wu-Tang Clan has done since has become the hoariest of clichés. Yet watching the video for “Protect Ya Neck,” the group’s first single, it’s clear that no other word so perfectly encapsulates what they were doing. Anything resembling professionalism, like proper lighting or good cameras, is nonexistent, everything looks like a first take, and they apparently couldn’t be bothered to remove the camcorder time stamp from most of the color shots. A bunch of the group members’ names are misspelled (Inspektah Deck, Ghost Face Killer, the Jizah). It’s impossible to really tell, but my guess that there are about forty people in the video seems like a conservative estimate, and all but a few of them are completely unrecognizable.[1] Just how many of them are actually in the group? It isn’t clear from the video. A bunch of them have swords, and there are scary-looking guys lurking in project hallways and alleys in the back of most of the shots. The video is five minutes of menace and a dizzying array of lyrical styles over an intoxicated, haphazardly mixed beat the likes of which had not been heard before.

A few months before the “Protect Ya Neck” video started gaining traction on Rap City, the Wu-Tang Clan got their first break in a way that fits the menace that they projected in that first video perfectly. During an episode of the Stretch & Bobbito Show, which aired every Thursday night on WKCR 89.9FM from one to five in the morning, a few members and affiliates of the Clan either snuck or broke into the WKCR offices, unmarked white label 12” in hand.[2] If threats were made they were no more than implied, but the message was clear: it was in Stretch & Bobbito’s best interest to play the song. “Protect Ya Neck” got its first radio play that night, and it earned the group’s members spots as semi-regular presences on the show until 1998 when it went off the air.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

BYG Actuel 13: Paul Bley - Ramblin'

There have already been a few anomalies in the BYG Actuel catalog so far: the avant classical of Michel Puig, the psychedelic proto-prog of Gong, and the never-issued blues rock of Alan Jack Civilization. Number 13 in the Actuel catalog is also an anomaly, although not primarily on stylistic grounds. Unlike almost all of the fifty-three albums in the label’s catalog, Paul Bley’s Ramblin’ was not recorded in the Actuel summer in 1969. It wasn’t even recorded in France. Instead, it was an unused recording that Paul Bley’s trio made in Rome in 1966 that Bley licensed to Actuel three years later. As such, it is missing that particular adventurous spirit that marks so much of the rest of that catalog.

By the time he recorded Ramblin’, Bley had already been an important figure in boundary-pushing jazz for thirteen years. His debut album as leader, Introducing Paul Bley, was released on Debut in 1953, and he somehow managed to wrangle Charles Mingus and Art Blakey to be his sidemen. He was one of the first respected jazz musicians to really get behind what Ornette Coleman and his band were doing, and he brought Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden to perform with him in California in 1958. After his work with Coleman, he got around quite a bit, performing with Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, and a few prominent members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, among others. By 1964, he was firmly entrenched in the free jazz movement and he was one of the major participants in the October Revolution in Jazz. After the October Revolution he, his wife Carla Bley, and Bill Dixon spearheaded the Jazz Composers Guild, an admirable but flawed attempt to unify out jazz musicians in order to help them get stage time and fair record contracts. Infighting and the individual success of some members (most notably Archie Shepp, who violated Guild bylaws by signing with Impulse! without consulting the others) caused the JCG to splinter quickly. After the JCG ceased to be, Bley traveled to Europe with his trio, which at the time included Mark Levinson on bass and Barry Altschul on drums. While in Rome on July 1, 1966, the group convened at Studio RCA to record one Paul Bley song along with five compositions by Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and Ornette Coleman.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 018: Asia Born/DJ Shadow and the Groove Robbers - "Send Them" b/w "Entropy"

Asia Born/DJ Shadow and the Groove Robbers - "Send Them" b/w "Entropy" (Solesides, 1993)

Latyrx’s The Second Album is due out on Tuesday. Their first album, appropriately titled Latyrx (The Album), came out a long sixteen years ago, and that length of time apart has caused expectations to rise to unmatchable levels. The Second Album will almost certainly disappoint simply because the memory of the first is so overpowering that it makes considering the second on its own merits an almost impossible task. I’m going to make things even harder for myself by taking the time to focus on Latyrx’s early years over the next few days.

First up is “Send Them” the debut single by one half of Latyrx, Asia Born, and the first release on the amazing Solesides label. Solesides, which later morphed into the Quannum Projects, was a rap collective and label that was founded in 1992 around UC Davis and the Bay Area. In many ways the weirder cousin of fellow Bay Area crew Hieroglyphics, Solesides initially comprised of Blackalicious members Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, DJ Shadow, and Latyrx members Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born.[1] These five used Solesides as the mouthpiece for much of their experimentation and general weirdness, finding their own unique voices in the process.

BYG Actuel 12: Alan Silva and His Celestrial Communication Orchestra - Luna Surface

I haven’t gotten a chance to see Gravity yet but from what I’ve heard, the experience of seeing it on an Imax screen in 3D can induce existential terror at the vast emptiness of space and our fragility in the face of the forces of the cosmos. Forty-four years earlier, Alan Silva and His Celestrial Communication Orchestra[1] accomplished that same thing musically with their first album for BYG Actuel, Luna Surface. Recorded less than a month after the Apollo 11 spacecraft touched down on the lunar surface, the album is both an incredibly assured debut as leader for Silva and a chaotic, relentless journey into the horrors of outer space.

Alan Silva was born in Bermuda in 1939 but he migrated with his mother to Harlem before the end of World War II. He picked up the bass at some point in this childhood and he made his first major splash on the instrument as a participant in the landmark October Revolution in Jazz, which trumpeter Bill Dixon put on at the Cellar Door in Manhattan. Around the same time he spent a brief time in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, giving him a taste for larger ensembles that he kept in the back of his mind over the next five years, which he spent in smaller bands led by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Archie Shepp. It was with the latter that Silva travelled to Algiers in July 1969 to perform at the Pan-African Festival which put him at ground zero for the nascent Actuel summer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Remembering Lou Reed

Lou Reed died yesterday. He was 71. I first consciously heard his music not so long ago, when he was 64. A coworker had turned me on to the Velvet Underground near the end of my senior year of high school, and the burned copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico that he gave me became one of my go to CDs for my many aimless drives around town chain smoking. Before I heard “Heroin” for the first time, I’m not sure I knew just how powerful, how beautiful, and how hypnotic noise could be when used in music. There was one night during the summer after high school when I listened to that song on a loop for several hours, and it never got even a little bit old.

I stopped buying CDs when I was eighteen and left for college. I suddenly found myself without an income for the first time since I was old enough to have a job. To make matters worse, I had blown most of my savings on comics and self-medication, and buying CDs, especially when I could get almost any music I wanted for free on the internet, became financially unfeasible so I never ended up getting around to buying any other Velvets CDs. A little over a year later I started picking up LPs so that I could have at least a small collection ready to go when I finally saved up the money for a turntable. When I went to buy my first record Oak Park Records in Oak Park, Illinois didn’t have The Velvet Underground & Nico in stock, so I left with White Light/White Heat tucked under my arm. I got a chance to listen to it for the first time on a friend’s turntable later that day. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Julian Malone Drops a Letter from a King

Outside of all of the name dropping and the resulting furor, the most exciting thing Kendrick’s “Control” verse was his delivery, which was ragged in a way that he hadn’t really reached before. Since the verse got so much attention, it seemed only a matter of time before rappers stopped recording weak comebacks and started adopting similar deliveries instead.

Julian Malone, the young BRKF$T Club member and former Stones Throw rapper, is one of the first to do this with his soulful “Letter from a King.” The beat, built around a gorgeous a guitar sample and a few choice vocal samples, is easily one of the best beats that Malone has ever made. He uses the almost always effective strategy of rapping angrily over a quiet soul beat, and his grittier than normal vocals don’t sound at all like an ill-fitting affectation as Kendrick’s occasionally did on “Control.”

Ju’s career has taken some tough turns over the last year, with his quick rise to prominence above his fellow 2008ighties crew members to his frustrating departure and mini-feud with Stones Throw on through the delays of his upcoming Diff.rnt mixtape. His frustration is palpable throughout the song, confessing that he’s “tired of niggas thinking just cause I keep it low pro that somebody losing the floor/ I’m scared that I ain’t gon’ blow.” It’s a powerful statement of vulnerability, and it shows that he’s poised to do just fine on his own.

Spray Cans Vol. 017: L*Roneous Da'Versifier - "L'Chemy" b/w "Implosion"

L*Roneous Da'Versifier - "L'Chemy" b/w "Implosion" (Ocean Floor Records, 1997)

Endtroducing… was never a big seller in the United States—it peaked at number 37 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart well after its November 1996 release—but it and the singles that led up to it had a seismic impact on hip-hop that is still being felt today. Its greatest effect was kicking off instrumental hip-hop, a subgenre that brewed for a decade before exploding in the wake of J Dilla’s death, but it also set the stage for a production methodology that hadn’t really existed much before DJ Shadow started releasing singles. All of the songs leading up to and on Endtroducing… were not simply loops in the style of the great DJ Premier or Pete Rock. DJ Shadow structured his beats like songs, building and transforming throughout their runtimes and constructed from countless samples from different songs. This production approach can be heard in El-P’s work on The Cold Vein and Fantastic Damage, in Dan the Automator’s work on Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagonecologyst, and in countless other underground rap classics from the late nineties to the present.

DJ Zeph is one of the great unsung producers to take DJ Shadow’s lessons to heart. On L*Roneous Da’Versifier’s first single “L’Chemy” b/w “Implosion,” Zeph worked very much in the lane that DJ Shadow carved out with Endtroducing… Zeph is a master at suggesting mood and environment in his beats. These two songs, and indeed the whole of Imaginarium, L*Roneous’ debut album that Zeph produced, simulate the feel of urban nights, with a bit of futurism thrown in for good measure. If Paul Pope’s 100% is ever adapted into a movie, Zeph should do the score.

Schoolboy Q - "Banger (MOSHPIT)"

Habits & Contradictions was one of the best rap albums of last year, and its replay value hasn’t diminished at all in the twenty-one months since it came out. This is all the more impressive since high-concept introspective songs are almost entirely absent on the album. Unlike fellow Black Hippies Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul, Q doesn’t have much interest in making those kinds of songs. He’s gone on record saying that he only made “Blessed” to keep listeners from thinking that he only rapped about parties and drugs and guns and stealing your girl and being cooler than you. It’s a great song, but it’s far from the best on the album because it finds him straying from his greatest strengths, which are rapping about all of the things I just listed.

With “Banger (MOSHPIT),” the second single from the delayed (due to sample clearance issues) Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q is rapping about basically nothing. The hook is a bunch of boom shaka lakas and shouts of “Figg side!” while the verses aren’t really about anything. But all of this nothing amounts to an enjoyable and compulsively listenable song because Q is one of the best rappers at turning nothing into compelling fodder for songwriting (all due respect to Wale circa 2008). It certainly helps that he’s a great rapper with ever-shifting chameleonic flow and cadence.

BYG Actuel 11: Archie Shepp - Poem for Malcolm

Archie Shepp’s remarkable first full studio album Four for Trane[1] consists mostly of Coltrane covers—unsurprising considering the title—but his follow-up Fire Music, recorded in the wake the assassination of Malcolm X, counts three Shepp compositions alongside tunes by Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The last of these Shepp compositions is “Malcolm Malcolm Semper Malcolm,” a brief poem reflecting on X’s passing, which happened a week before the recording, followed by an expressive, pained solo by Shepp with minimal backing by David Izenzon and J.C. Moses on bass and drums respectively.

Malcolm X is not an explicit presence on any of Shepp’s albums in the four years after Fire Music, although his legacy haunts every sonic, cultural, and personal exploration that Shepp undertook during this time. In August 1969, when Shepp recorded three studio albums for BYG Actuel over the course of five days, he decided to grapple once again with the X’s towering legacy. What’s more, he again chose to use a poem to do this on “Poem for Malcolm,” which closes out the first side of the album of the same name.[2]

Monday, October 21, 2013

Snoop Dogg Returns to His Roots with 7 Days of Funk

The twentieth anniversary of Doggystyle is about a month away, and although it isn’t listed in too many best of lists these days, it’s aged remarkably well. Unlike every album Snoop’s done since, it’s pretty filler-free and Dr. Dre’s guiding hand across the record allowed Snoop to put out a remarkably tight, focused record. The hits still go over at parties, and the deeper cuts still knock as much as they did twenty years ago.

Since Doggystyle, Snoop’s biggest problem is an overarching lack of direction. He’s always been one of those artists who really benefits from a good executive producer helping to shape his projects.[1] Not only that, but he needs to work with someone whose vision complements Snoop’s own. Snoop’s first No Limit album Da Game is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told had Beats by the Pound at the helm, but unlike Mystikal and Fiend, Snoop was never a good fit for their beats, and the bloated twenty-plus songs approach to albums that No Limit favored doesn’t allow for the kind of quality control that Snoop needs. As a result, Da Game is to Be Sold is one of the worst albums in Snoop’s catalog. Major Lazer was also a poor fit for Snoop, as the already rightfully forgotten Snoop Lion album is testament to.[2] Throughout the rest of his catalog, there are some good albums (Tha Doggfather, Paid the Cost to Be the Boss, The Blue Carpet Treatment), but even the best of his post-Doggystyle output has fallen victim to bloating and lack of both quality control and focus.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Revenge 88 Was All Alone

Dig around in the earliest issues of Maximumrocknroll, before that zine became overly dogmatic in its conception of what constitutes acceptable punk, and you’ll find international reports about vibrant punk scenes from around the world. Since those early days, the Bloodstains Over… compilation series has been the primary torchbearer for classic international punk. The first Bloodstains Over Belgium comp is one of the best in the series, with thrilling cuts by Mad Virgins, Spermicide, Onion Dolls, P.I.G.Z., and others. Best of all, tucked near the end of the record is “Neonlights,” the b-side of Revenge 88’s “Alone” 7”.

Revenge 88 started out as Stagebeast, who put out one single, “Belgium (Ain’t Fun No More)” in 1978 after winning a contest for an EMI Belgium record contract. Both “Belgium” and its b-side “Working Man” are jaunty rockabilly-indebted tunes that have just as many saxophone solos as guitar solos. The sax in “Belgium” in particular has a punk unruliness that hasn’t really been heard much on that instrument outside of the Lounge Lizards’ early albums. Both songs are essential, but Stagebeast ended up sabotaging their own career almost immediately. An incident with their record label (they trashed the label’s office) caused them to lose their contract and they broke up soon after.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Isaiah Rashad Finds His Place at TDE

Until very recently, Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster of rappers was identical to the roster of the four man crew Black Hippy: Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Schoolboy Q. When TDE signed R&B singer SZA over the summer, it was an exciting addition to the team but it didn’t really affect the essential makeup of Black Hippy as it has stood since day one.

That changed a month ago when TDE signed relatively unproven Chattanooga rapper Isaiah Rashad. Rashad had made the rounds on the internet with a bunch of loose tracks that positioned him as a good but still developing rapper, but I have to admit I was worried about him being the first non-Black Hippy rapper on the TDE roster. Black Hippy has been such a perfectly balanced and exceptionally talented crew for long enough that bringing in much greener newcomer brought the risk of him being completely overshadowed or worse yet, being a poor fit with the rest of the team.

Les Rallizes Dénudés - December's Black Children

I first heard about Les Rallizes Dénudés last year when I read Julian Cope’s excellent Japrocksampler (which also turned me on to the joys of the Flower Travellin’ Band and Speed, Glue & Shinki, among others). Since then, I’ve had a bunch of Les Rallizes Dénudés bootlegs (nearly the entire catalog consists of bootlegs) floating around on my hard drive, but all of their 2+ hour runtimes kept me from listening to them. Whenever I was thinking about Les Rallizes Dénudés, I never had the time to sit down and really listen to the bootlegs, and when I did have the time I was always more in the mood to listen to Screw tapes or old Stretch & Bobbito shows or what have you.

I finally got around to them today and randomly picked December’s Black Children, which was recorded live in the Yaneura district of Tokyo on December 13, 1980 and is one of the only documents of guitarist Fuijo Yamacauchi’s time with the band. The closest analogue to what the band is doing here is The Velvet Underground Live 1969, but while the Velvet Underground was always New York City to their core, Les Rallizes Dénudés has none of that style. There is no pretense or carefully crafted image on December’s Black Children, just noise and dread.

Monday, October 14, 2013

BYG Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization - Bluesy Mind

The tenth album in the BYG Actuel catalog was never issued on that label. Instead, it was transferred over to a much more suitable home over on BYG proper, where it was ultimately released in 1970. Listening to Bluesy Mind, it makes perfect sense why it didn’t find a home on BYG Actuel. For a label whose hallmark was relentless experimentation, with artists pushing past the established boundaries of their music and intrepidly exploring what lay beyond, it’s amazing that those in charge would ever consider releasing an album of generic blues rock long enough for it to be assigned a catalog number before being pulled at the last minute.

Nothing about Alan Jack Civilization’s Bluesy Mind is bad. It is a very competent record. But that’s precisely the problem. The label’s first outright failure, Michel Puig’s Stigmates (Actuel 07), is at least a document of an artist that went out on a limb and tried something new. Puig’s failure is a noble and memorable one. By being merely competent, the Alan Jack Civilization managed to create an album that isn’t any more memorable on its tenth listen than it is on its first. None of the nine songs, with the exception of the sprawling “Middle Earth,” which is just barely interesting, stick in any way. Any blues rock fan would be much better off reaching for their copies of Projections, East-West, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, or Super Session, to say nothing of albums by superstars like the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Yardbirds, and the Animals.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

BYG Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons - Other Afternoons

It is one of the great misfortunes of BYG Actuel that the label never got the opportunity to record Cecil Taylor. Taylor was present in Paris during the Actuel summer, hanging around the background as the mysterious guru of the scene, but his presence is undocumented as far as records go.

Jimmy Lyons, Alan Silva, and Andrew Cyrille were all crucial components in the BYG Actuel story, but their experiences in Europe did not begin in 1969. These three terrific musicians formed the core of Taylor’s quartet, the Cecil Taylor Unit (which memorably appeared in expanded form on Taylor’s two Blue Note dates, Unit Structures and Conquistador!), had already enjoyed France’s open-arms acceptance of free jazz when the Unit travelled to Paris in 1966.[1] When Taylor returned to Paris three years later, Alan Silva had already moved on to Archie Shepp’s band,[2] but he brought his former Unit bandmates into the fold at the always open Studio Saravah soon after they arrived. All three got their first opportunities to record as leader at Studio Saravah, although none of them could coax Taylor—who didn’t release any albums between 1966 and 1973 and didn’t record any non-live albums again until 1978—into the studio.

Spray Cans Vol. 016: Rammellzee vs. K-Rob - "Beat Bop"

Rammellzee vs. K-Rob - "Beat Bop" (Tartown, 1983)
“Beat Bop” was originally going to be the eighth entry in this series, but I’ve been putting it off for months. It is for my money the best song of the first five year period of hip-hop as a recorded art form, before Run-D.M.C. landed with “Sucker M.C.’s” and changed the entire sound of the genre overnight. In spite of its acclaim, it is still criminally slept on. In fact Rammellzee, as a rapper, producer, and graffiti artist, and post-modern multimedia art titan, is criminally slept on by all but the most dedicated hip-hop heads and gallery dwellers. Writing about “Beat Bop” is a no-brainer.

Yet trying to do Rammellzee and “Beat Bop” justice is a daunting task. “Beat Bop” is a ten minute epic that justifies its length and feels much shorter, rendering the early hip-hop avant-garde at its most accessible. Rammellzee himself was a notoriously mysterious and oblique figure, and K-Rob has nearly been lost to history like so many of his generation of hip-hop. What’s more, Jean-Michel Basquiat is credited as the producer of the song, and his art graces the cover of the original promo-only vinyl pressing of the song that was released by Tartown, but his actual involvement in the recording has long been a point of contention.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

MED & Madlib's Classic Outtakes

MED has always been one of those emcees whose best asset is the people in his circle. His 2005 debut album Push Comes to Shove was mostly produced by Madlib, with J Dilla, Oh No, and Just Blaze handling the rest of the beats. Those beats were the most memorable part of that album. MED was fine as a rapper then, but he wasn’t yet great at constructing albums, and his best verses tended to appear on songs by other artists (Madvillain’s “Raid” being the main example). As early as the late nineties Lootpack days, MED seemed like he would go down as a weed carrier, rapping on his friends' tracks just because he was around the studio during recording sessions.

He took a long six years to release his second album, the hubristically named Classic, but that time did him well. His roster of collaborators, including Georgia Anne Muldrow, Oh No, the Alchemist, Karriem Riggins, Talib Kweli, Aloe Blacc, and of course Madlib, remains amazing, but as Push Comes to Shove made clear, great beats and good features does not a good album make. But those six years between albums were not wasted. MED came back a better emcee than he’s ever been, riding the beat like a pro on “Flying High” and adjusting his delivery to compliment the beat on every track, and he was able to step back and craft a satisfying start-to-finish album experience the second time around.

Monday, October 7, 2013

BYG Actuel 08: Burton Greene Ensemble - Aquariana

Ornette and Trane are the two most towering figures in free jazz, and as such the wildly expressive saxophone has remained the most dominant instrument in the genre for the last fifty years. So while pianist Cecil Taylor is undoubtedly the third member of this trinity of free jazz progenitors, the saxophone has muscled the piano out of the forefront of free jazz.[1] There have been many free piano greats, from Muhal Richard Abrams in Chicago to Alexander von Schlippenbach in Berlin, and on up to recent titans like Matthew Shipp, but their number is dwarfed by those of saxophonists.

BYG Actuel was able to even the playing field a bit by allowing so many musicians the opportunity to record their own albums as leader. So while there are many saxophonists who recorded for the label, Actuel also released records by the pianists Paul Bley, Dave Burrell, Joachim Kuhn, the incomparable Sun Ra, and Burton Greene, who was the first of his comrades to get an album out on the label. Aquariana is not quite the best piano album that the label put out,[2] but it is an excellent showcase for a unique musician and composer.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fucked Up's Chinese Zodiac-Driven Progressive Punk

When punk rose up in England around 1976-78, one of its purposes was to slay the grandiose, out-of-touch, silly beast that progressive rock had become. I’m not so sure that punk killed prog (it was never anywhere near the level of commercial force as prog, especially in the states), but the fact of the matter is that punk endured while prog went into an extended hibernation. A few bands such as Porcupine Tree attempted to revive the disgraced genre in the ‘90s, with mixed success.

Then, around the turn of the century, prog became a little less uncool. Critics started reevaluating bands like Yes and Gentle Giant. The post-hardcore powerhouse At the Drive-In morphed into The Mars Volta,[1] a band that redefined musical excess for the twenty-first century, releasing between one and three great albums in the process, depending on who you ask.[2] Suddenly it was acceptable for punks to admit that they liked King Crimson or Hawkwind.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Return of Organized Konfusion

From the moment their self-titled debut album hit stores in 1992 Organized Konfusion has been, and will always be, one of the best groups in rap history. Conceptually adventurous, casually groundbreaking in their flows, and criminally underrated in their beats, Organized Konfusion came out of the gate fully formed and ready to claim their spot in the hip-hop pantheon. They pushed on through to new heights on their second album Stress: The Extinction Agenda in 1994, and 1997’s The Equinox, while definitely the least of their albums, is still better than what most of their contemporaries were doing that year.

As exciting as it was to hear either Pharoahe Monch or Prince Po rap, knowing that the other was right around the corner made things that much sweeter. So while both have had great solo albums since Organized Konfusion first split up in 1997, most notably Monch’s Internal Affairs from 1999, they haven’t quite reached the level that they did as a group. Unfortunately, the two haven’t appeared on a song together since “God Send” from Internal Affairs.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

BYG Actuel 07: Michel Puig - Stigmates

And now for BYG Actuel’s first serious misstep. Stigmates is not the label’s last foray into contemporary (for the time) classical,[1] but it is certainly its worst. It’s telling that nothing from this record was included on the Jazzactuel compilation and that he’s been basically wiped from the popular (if you can call anything this niche popular) memory of the label.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

BYG Actuel 06: Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones - Africanasia

The trajectory of alto saxophonist Arthur Jones’ career is one of the more disappointing stories in free jazz. The sounds of Ornette and Trane attracted him from his birthplace of Cleveland to New York City, and he made his recorded debut in 1967 on tenor saxophonist Frank Wright’s ESP-Disk Your Prayer. The next year, he traveled to Paris as part of Jacques Coursil’s band and became an integral if underappreciated part of the community of musicians hovering around Studio Saravah.[1] He played on seven Actuel records by Coursil, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Dave Burrell, Clifford Thornton, and Burton Greene, and he recorded two albums, Africanasia and Scorpio, as leader or co-leader. After 1970, when Scorpio was released (it was one of the last records that the label released), Jones disappeared from recorded jazz, save for an appearance on Archie Shepp’s live Bijou album, recorded in Paris in 1975. His name basically disappears from the historical record after that, and he died in 1998 in the midst of a return to performing after a long hiatus.

Had things gone differently, Arthur Jones could have been one of the major figures in the loft scene in New York during the seventies. He was a wonderfully expressive player, infusing a bebop sensibility into his expansive solos. Even if he never recorded again as leader, he would have been a valuable member of any ensemble in both live and recorded settings. As he makes clear repeatedly on Africanasia, he was more than willing to step out of the way of his fellow musicians when it benefitted a composition, but he was consistently capable of being the defining voice during any passage in which he played.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dudley Perkins and Madlib in a State of Emergency

Dudley Perkins is not a great singer by any typical metric of ability, but he has a loose, off-the-cuff informality to the proceedings that makes his singing records, which are released under his birth name, some of his best work. It helps that the two Dudley Perkins records on Stones Throw, A Lil’ Light and Expressions (2012 A.U.), are fully produced by Madlib, who turned in some of his career best beats (check “Falling” if you need some proof). So news today of a new Dudley Perkins/Madlib collaboration was greeted with excitement among the typically fanatical fans of the two artists.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BYG Actuel 05: Gong - Magick Brother

There is a moment halfway through “Mystic Sister/Magick Brother,” the opening track on Gong’s 1969 debut album Magick Brother, in which the band members all seem to forget what they’re doing all at once and drift out of the mix. They take a few seconds to reorganize and remember what they were supposed to be doing, and they all start up again. The moment is both charming and frustrating. Even mid-song, the band wasn’t quite sure what they were going for. At this stage in their career, Gong was a soon-to-be great band stumbling toward a breakthrough and knocking over a lot of stuff on the way. For a fledgling free jazz label like BYG/Actuel, it’s an unfortunate first excursion beyond its established jazz framework.

An Evening at the MCA with Kim Gordon's Body/Head

Kim Gordon and Bill Nace are in the last stretch of their brief tour in support of their debut album as Body/Head, Coming Apart. I saw Thurston Moore’s current band Chelsea Light Moving at the Empty Bottle in March, and caught a thoroughly underwhelming performance by Lee Ranaldo and Dust at the Pritzker Pavilion (admittedly not the best venue) over the summer. Coming Apart has been slowly revealing its charms since its release last month, and I’ve already checked in with Gordon’s former bandmates this year, so I decided to head over the Museum of Contemporary Art last night to see her and Nace perform (now I just need to figure out what Steve Shelley has been doing since he quit Disappears and then I’ll maybe be able to make myself feel a tiny bit better for never going to see Sonic Youth before they split up).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 015: Shyheim - "On & On" b/w "The B Side (Bring the Drama)"

Shyheim - "On & On" b/w "The B Side (Bring the Drama)" (Virgin Records, 1993)

Yesterday Jeff Weiss put up a new entry in his always good weekly series Bizarre Ride over at LA Weekly. This week’s topic? “TeenageRappers Are Experiencing a Renaissance,” which is an argument that’s pretty difficult to refute given the success of Odd Future, Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, and numerous others over the past few years. In the middle of the article, he stated that “in the wake of Kriss Kross, the early ‘90s yielded often-overlooked teenage talents like Illegal, Ahma, Shyheim and Da Youngstas. Even if their albums were often unmemorable, they dropped minor classic singles and rapped impressively.” He neglected to mention the Wascals, who were produced by J-Swift of Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde fame. The quartet worked really hard to sound like a miniature Pharcyde, with intermittent success, and considering how Weiss feels about the Pharcyde (check the name of his column) it’s an odd omission.

He does however mention Shyheim, the youngest and one of the most overlooked of the Wu-Tang Clan’s original crop of Killa Bees. He got signed to Virgin Records and put out his debut single in 1993 at the age of fourteen. The subsequent album AKA the Rugged Child is a bit of a mixed bag, but that first single “On & On” is amazing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Yoko Ono and the RZA Have a Baby

At a Yoko Ono concert back in 2010, the RZA joined her on stage to silently play chess for a few minutes and then perform a new song “Seed of Joy/Life is a Struggle.” It starts out well enough, with the band playing a beat that is kind of like a rockier version of the old Wu-Tang sound and RZA rapping from the perspective of a sperm. It’s better than it sounds. The lyrics actually sound like something that could have been on the second half of Birth of a Prince. Ono doesn’t distract too much with her howling during the verses, and she sounds great during the chorus.

Unfortunately, things go off the rails around the time that RZA, rapping from the perspective of a baby being born, dances in a way that a woman giving birth while standing up would and Ono uses her trademark wail to stand in for the woman in labor that RZA is rapping about. I actually laughed out loud when RZA started yelling “push!” repeatedly. And while RZA’s old yell flow from the Enter the Wu-Tang/6 Feet Deep days is sorely missed, it just kind of sounds forced when he’s using it as a dust-free 41 year old.

BYG Actuel 04: Archie Shepp - Yasmina, a Black Woman

Out of the second wave of free jazz musicians,[1] Archie Shepp is part of the trinity of tremendously influential and important saxophonists that shifted the course of the art form, alongside Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. By the time Shepp travelled to Algiers for the Pan-African Festival in 1969, all three were calling Impulse! Records home, but they had sharply diverged in their aims. Ayler was making some ill-advised moves into jazz/R&B fusion; he would be dead of a presumed suicide a year later. Sanders was crafting his own spiritualist identity in the post-Coltrane wilderness and writing some of his best music (including “The Creator Has a Master Plan”) while he was at it.

Unlike these two contemporaries, Shepp was staying the course by transforming his sound. On his second Impulse! album Fire Music, with its odes to the recently assassinated Malcolm X, Shepp had refracted his musical identity directly through the broader civil rights movement. 1965 was the year of X’s death, the Watts riot, and riots and racial violence in urban centers around the country. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did not completely end de jure segregation, but they did shift attention and tension to the de facto segregation that was the hallmark of Northern urban centers. Anger and fire were the orders of the day. By 1969, however, Shepp’s philosophy, and in turn his music, shifted toward cultural nationalism. In 1968 and 1969 he recorded five songs that would make up his final Impulse! release in 1974. That album was named for the Los Angeles based US organization’s new black holiday Kwanzaa.

Monday, September 9, 2013

R.I.P. No Longer: Holograms at Rock the Bells

I’ll admit that when I first saw the 2Pac hologram from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Coachella performance last year, I thought it was amazing.[1] There had been rumors that there would be a Nate Dogg hologram, but what a hologram of a dead artist would entail was up for conjecture. That the Pac hologram looked eerily real—albeit with not exactly historically accurate abs—and that he said “Coachella” in a voice that sounded exactly like 2Pac, was pretty remarkable, and watching him perform “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” alongside Snoop was great. I thought it was a great tribute to 2Pac.

Yet by the fourth or fifth time I watched the video I started to feel gross. It wasn’t a blatant cash grab like most of his posthumous albums have been, but it wasn’t all that far off. I’m sure it increased sales of his back catalog, but it struck me as more of a publicity stunt than a heartfelt tribute. 2Pac was probably watching that hologram from Cuba and shaking his head.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 014: Mad Lion - "Take it Easy" b/w "Big Box of Blunts"

Mad Lion - "Take it Easy" b/w "Big Box of Blunts" (Weeded Records, 1994)
There is a low-key ragga/dancehall revival happening in hip-hop right now. A$AP Ferg’s great second single from Trap Lord is an ode to Shabba Ranks. The best moment on Yeezus was Assassin hijacking “I’m In It” with his roaring patois. Grime is expanding its borders to include more ragga influences. And Duppy Gun is bringing dancehall into the future.

Musical trends tend to come around again roughly twenty years later, whether it’s Greenwich Village in the late fifties reviving the folk sounds of the Dust Bowl, or early British punk plundering Chuck Berry, or Dr. Dre retrofitting P-Funk into G-funk. This mini ragga resurgence is not too surprising coming about two decades after the ragga boom of the early nineties. Shabba Ranks was at his peak, Phife Dawg, Busta Rhymes, Smif-n-Wessun (who Mad Lion is pictured with above), O.G.C., and Das EFX were all rapping in patois, and Spice 1 was sampling reggae songs and getting regional hits.

Review: Ty Segall - Sleeper

Ty Segall’s father died late last year. Cancer took him. In the aftermath, Ty had some sort of serious disagreement with his mother, and he severed their relationship. In order to maintain some semblance of family, he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where his sister lives. The king of San Francisco garage rock suddenly found himself in a new home away from his kingdom. To make sense of his new surroundings, his irrevocably altered family life, and death, he put down his electric guitar and picked up an acoustic one, on which he wrote exactly ten songs. There were no outtakes.

The result is Sleeper, Segall’s eleventh album in five years. And after ten albums of fuzz and feedback and squalling guitars, it’s a testament to his songwriting that not only did he not lose his identity when he removed all of those factors, he actually strengthened and stretched that sound in some of the most exciting ways of his career so far.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Freddie GIbbs Goes Deeper

Madlib can make magic with three drum beats, some bass, and a string loop. Old soul vocals drift in and out in place of a hook, like the ghost of some pain past. Over this sparse, melancholy canvas, Gibbs weaves a tale of love and heartbreak, of a woman who left him for a sucka and lied about her baby’s parentage. Since it’s Gibbs, he finds room to discuss bagging up heroin in the midst of all of this. Between this and the other five songs we’ve heard from Piñata, MadGibbs is shaping up to be one of the best collaborations of both artists’ careers. I’d list the guests that will be on the record but that list is too long. Piñata will be out in February.