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.