Sunday, February 24, 2013

Stretch and Bobbito Reunite on WKCR

On Thursday nights from 1990-1998, the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show on New York City’s WKCR-FM was the heart of the city’s hip hop underground. The show aired once a week, and in spite of its 1-5am airtime, heads across the city would stay up late with multiple cassette tapes ready each episode to make sure they got the whole thing recorded. Rappers both established (Nas, Q-Tip, Method Man) and so far underground that almost no one knew who they were (Tony Bones, Dark Skinned Assassin, Paula Perry) made sure not to miss an invite to appear on the show. At such a late hour, FCC regulations were all but ignored, and unedited versions of songs were played in between freestyles and interviews from the guests. Stretch and especially Bobbito’s influence carried on beyond the show, and Bobbito’s Fondle ‘Em Records was the premier independent hip hop label of the late 90s and early 2000s, along with Rawkus and Definitive Jux. Fondle ‘Em released classic records by Kool Keith, the Juggaknots, and MHz, along with MF Doom’s legendary debut Operation Doomsday (the label’s second and last full-length LP).

The show went off the air in 1998, but the duo has occasionally reunited to host concert showcases and other events. In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the show’s end, Stretch and Bobbito finally made their return to WKCR for a one-time special in their original Thursday night 1-5am timeslot. Original episodes of the show had to circulate through copies of cassettes among serious hip hop heads, but thankfully it’s 2013, so this reunion show was almost immediately posted on Soundcloud.

Also, an incomplete archive of the show’s original run can be found here. A show featuring the Roots and Masta Ace Inc. has been a particular favorite of mine, but there isn’t a dud to be found in this entire archive.

Duppy Gun & I Jahbar - "Spy"

In my list of the best albums of 2012, the Congos’ collaboration with young psychedelic trailblazers Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras came in at number 9. In my little write-up about the record, I made the perhaps too lofty claim that the record represents dub’s future and said that “if dubstep is one direction of dub’s inevitable progression, then Icon Give Thank will hopefully inspire a legion of likeminded artists who will forge an alternate path into dub’s future.” Araw and Gengras had no desire to wait for other artists to pick up where they left off with the Congos, so they formed a production team called Duppy Gun and returned to Jamaica where they allegedly recorded a ton of material with unknown local talents. Upon their return to the states, Stones Throw Records head Peanut Butter Wolf got wise to the sounds emanating from the Duppy Gun and signed a deal to distribute 12” singles by the group. The first, released in late December of last year, was pretty much exactly what I hoped would follow Icon Give Thank. The a-side, “Multiply” featuring Dayone, is the highlight, and sounds like the evil cousin of the material on the album with the Congos, trading out the upbeat harmonies for a lone pained voice echoing above the brilliant instrumental bed. The b-side “Earth” takes its cues from the DJ-led dub of U-Roy and other legendary toasters, and features some great toasting from the all but unknown Early One. Almost no information is given on either of these vocalists, and it is unclear how Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras found them.

The second bullet from the Duppy Gun is shaping up to be similarly mysterious. The a-side, “Spy” featuring I Jahbar, is the duo’s take on dancehall. When they take on a form of reggae that had its genesis several years after the roots and dub that they’ve previously worked with, their songs sound even more futuristic, and the end product sound like ragga hip hop recorded on whatever planet Shabazz Palaces hails from. I Jahbar’s lyrics are pretty much impossible to understand in full, and they are frequently drowned out by the electronic beat. It strikes me as the weakest song that’s come out of the Duppy Gun camp so far, but I’m honestly probably not in the proper chemical mind state to judge this song. The b-side, “Up Wit U Baby!” features Lukani and is a reversioned take on “Multiply.” This would seem lazy were it not for the long history of versioning in dub and dancehall and the stuttered vocals and chopped up beat that set it apart from the original just enough to make owning both absolutely worth it. The members of Duppy Gun know what they’re doing, and future 12”s should be similarly indispensable to fans of future reggae.

Monday, February 18, 2013

(Dawning of A) New Era: The Current State of The Specials' Reunion

Every month, I write a handful of concert previews for Chicago INNERVIEW. The goal is to promote the concert scene in the city and to help support local venues. The one downside to this is that I occasionally have to write positively about a band that I’m not too excited about. This time around, it was the Specials.

Don’t get me wrong, the Specials were an amazing band. Their self-titled debut album is the best LP document of the second wave of ska in the UK at the turn of the eighties (sorry Madness). In particular, Elvis Costello’s production managed to capture a live feeling that was so far removed from most of the post-punk bands that were supplying the most vibrant English music of the day. It was as if he just happened upon the band in a hip little Coventry bar, set up his recording equipment, and captured the start of a new sound. Album highlights like “Concrete Jungle,” “Too Much Too Young,” “Nite Klub,” and “Blank Expression” showed a band that was especially adept at mixing witty, socially conscious lyrics with dance floor ready ska beats (Elvis Costello’s predilection for depressing lyrics over upbeat melodies made him perhaps the perfect producer for this record).

Their second album, More Specials, was released in 1980, almost a year exactly after their debut, and it’s unfortunately the work of a band in transition. Several second-rate 2 Tone copycats popped up almost immediately after the Specials, Madness, the Selecter, and the Beat (the four great original second wave ska bands) began getting serious attention from the UK music press, and the Specials wanted to expand their original sound in order to stay distinct. Unfortunately, most of their experiments didn’t quite hit the highs of their first record, so they returned to studio, and not without some dissent over primary songwriter Jerry Dammers’ increasing control over the band’s musical direction, returned the next year with not only the best song of the band’s career, but also the best song to come out of any of ska’s three waves. 

“Ghost Town” does a better job of creating an atmosphere than nearly any song before or since. From the opening wind sound effects, through the spooky horns and the low-key Neville Staple vocals describing the desolation of Thatcher-era industrial towns (like the Specials’ native Coventry), everything about the song conjures an image of formerly hip and exciting places turned empty and run-down. The brief Terry Hall aside on how great things were before these towns became ghost towns is startlingly different from the rest of the song, but only heightens the feeling of resigned emptiness that arrived alongside the upheavals created by Margaret Thatcher’s policies. The video, which was produced almost simultaneously with the launch of MTV (and in the middle of an already vibrant music video culture in Great Britain), pulls you right back into those days of deteriorating England.

Unfortunately, the dissent within the band eclipsed their incredible new sound, and singers Terry Hall and Neville Staple, along with several of the band’s instrumentalists, left the group, leaving a shell of the Specials (now performing under the name The Special AKA), to put out the subpar In the Studio in 1984. The Special AKA broke up almost immediately afterward. A terrible reunion in the nineties, led by Neville Staple without Hall or Dammers, released four awful albums that were immediately forgotten. In 2008, however, Staple and Hall had apparently reconciled, and amid claims from Dammers that he was muscled out of the band, the Specials returned to the stage with both of its original lead singers. Since the band wasn’t recording new music, the loss of their principal songwriter was unfortunate, but Hall and Staple were clearly excited to be playing together again, and it showed in their concerts.

Their upcoming tour is disheartening for two reasons. First, Neville Staple is no longer with the band, apparently due to health issues, so now they either have no toaster and no one to sing “Ghost Town” or he will be replaced by someone inferior. Also, in his statement about Staple’s departure, Terry Hall seemed to imply that there will be new Specials music on the way. Without Staple or Dammers, all songwriting will fall on Hall and rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding (who wrote the great “Ghost Town” b-side “Why?”). The band currently touring under the name ‘The Specials’ is half of the great band that is rightfully legendary for their work over thirty years ago. If this current incarnation puts out new music under the Specials name, it will necessarily feel incomplete. It is hard to imagine any way that it won’t tarnish a legacy that’s already been sullied by the existence of more subpar music made by half-assed reunions than there is great music that they made in their original incarnation. They were a great nostalgia touring act. They should leave it at that.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Joey Bada$$, Smoke DZA & Big K.R.I.T. - "Underground Airplay"

Smoke DZA and Joey Bada$$ are both talented if generally unimpressive rappers. They’re great at filling a verse between better rappers without dragging a song down. Joey’s flow has been getting more distinct since his 1999 mixtape, with a new style that’s marked by stretched out syllables and shitty enunciation. He’s gone from being a talented guy repurposing old styles to someone with an identity of his own, but a Joey Bada$$ credit on a song still isn’t something to get super excited about, although he’s getting there. Likewise, a “(feat. Smoke DZA)” label on a song is nothing to complain about, but DZA’s verse is probably not going to be the one on the song you remember. His verse on “Underground Airplay” is better than his standard weed raps, which is unfortunate because he’s immediately followed by Big K.R.I.T., who is rapidly becoming one of those rappers who comes up last on posse cuts and makes you forget about everyone else on the song (see also A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” and Phonte’s “Life of Kings”). That he sounds just as comfortable over post-UGK Southern funk beats as gutter New York boom bap throwbacks is just another reason why he’s one of the best young rappers out today. His King Remembered in Time mixtape can’t come soon enough.

Also worth mentioning: 90s New York rap music videos are endlessly watchable, even when they consist solely of people walking around in alleys and tunnels rapping and mugging for the camera. It’s great to see some of the people in this new New York underground bringing that visual aesthetic back.

AK (of the Underachievers) - "Times Change"

I’m still working on a review of the Underachievers’ debut mixtape Indigoism (which is great by the way), but in the meantime the duo has announced a series of tour dates with their Beast Coast brethren the Flatbush Zombies and Joey Bada$$, and AK has released his second solo track “Times Change” to celebrate the success that he’s been having with his group. AK and Issa Dash have released two solo tracks each since they started putting out music as the Underachievers, and they’ve made it very clear that they’re just as capable of holding down tracks by themselves as they are of working as a team. Really the only place these guys have ever come close to failing is in their beat selection. And while some of the weaker tracks on Indigoism (“New New York,” “Root of All Evil”) are dragged down by slightly low-grade beats, “Times Change,” with its low-key electric piano beat and AK’s impressive flow, sounds like it would fit nicely about two thirds of the way through the tape, around highlights like “6th Sense” and “The Mahdi,” without dragging down the flow of the tape. It seems really unlikely that the group’s debut album on Brainfeeder and the inevitable solo mixtapes will not impress just as much if not more than Indigoism.