Kendrick Lamar Plays Us All

December 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Years ago, I bought Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!!  Because of the way iTunes downloaded the album to my MacBook and iPod, the tracks were reversed and I didn’t really notice.  Thus, for me, the album began with the epic ‘More News from Nowhere‘ and ended with the raucous title track.  It probably took me close to a year to realize that the song order was backwards and, really, I didn’t care.  I have since re-ordered the album in my iTunes and the tracks run the way they were supposed to.  But, for me, it doesn’t really sound right, though it is  more sensible to start with the raucous and end with the epic.

Last week, Kendrick Lamar, the second coming of conscious hip hop (or Jesus, take your pick), re-released his most recent album, DAMN.  But, here’s the thing, this is the COLLECTORS EDITION.  So what did Lamar do to make this a collector’s edition? New tracks? Remixes?  Remixes AND new tracks?  Oh, hell no.  Lamar just re-ordered the album, from last to first.  And, the world has confirmed his brilliance.

Now, DAMN was a mighty fine album.  And while I prefer the re-ordering of the tracks to play it back to first, all I can think is, really?!?  This is brilliance?  Lamar is playing us for fools.

The Five Foot Assassin

March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor, died a couple of days ago.  He was only 45.  Phife is a hip hop legend, one of my favourite MCs of all-time.  His music as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and his single solo album from 2000 have long been part of the soundtrack of my life.  The Five-Foot Assassin was a perfect foil to Q-Tip’s smooth delivery, with his guttural growl and ability to drop a patois.  He also wrote wicked rhymes, tougher and more menacing than Tip.

Tip was the unquestioned leader of Tribe.  And eventually, egos got in the way of old friends.  Phife always said that he felt especially excluded because both Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, had both converted to Islam and he had not.  And he was largely absent from the 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life as Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was featured (why, I have no idea, he couldn’t hold a flame to Phife’s abilities).  I remember buying Midnight Marauders in the fall of 1993 at Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  I was with my friend, Tanya.  It was one of the first CDs I ever bought.  I still have it.  The fall of 1993 was when I moved back to Vancouver from Ottawa, transferring to the University of British Columbia.  I lived in the Mötördöme, with three other guys I didn’t know all that well. I worked with Steve at the Cactus Club (or the Carcass Club, as we called it) on Robson St.  We also lived with Skippy, who had a law degree, but preferred to play in punk bands, and J., who was also in a punk band.  That was the fall when I took the #22 bus to work on weekend mornings, I rode with Chi-Pig, legendary front-man of SNFU.  Punk was the regular soundtrack at the Mötördöme; Fugazi and Jesus Lizard were our favourites.  But we also played a lot of Fishbone and Faith No More.  And when we were in reflective moods, we dropped some Tom Waits on.  Skip, Steve, and J. were not fans of hip hop.  But I insisted on playing Midnight Marauders as well.  And when me and my main man Mike rode around Vancouver and its environs in the Mikemobile, a 1982 Mercury Lynx, Midnight Marauders was amongst the albums we rotated.  I listened to the album on my long bus ride to UBC on the #9 Broadway bus.

Everytime I listen to that album, I am immediately dropped back into Vancouver in 1993.  Similarly, their last album, 1998’s The Love Movement came out the year Christine and I moved to Ottawa, so she could begin law school.  I had just graduated from Simon Fraser with my MA in History and would soon begin a long run at Public History Inc., which launched me back into academia.  I got to Ottawa a month earlier than her.  And in a small flat, in a very hot Ottawa summer, I listened to The Love Movement almost obsessively.  It’s generally not regarded as Tribe’s best, but Phife’s rhymes, especially on “Find A Way” and “Da Booty,” made the album.

I got backstage at a couple of Tribe shows back in the day.  I got to meet them.  Phife was unfailingly the nicest, most polite dude you could imagine.  He was just a genuinely nice guy.  He was always humble, he also seemed kind of surprised he was a big deal.

I am listening to Midnight Marauders right now.  Hip hop has lost one of the greatest MCs of all-time.  And he was too young to go.

Nostalgia and Memory: The Long View

July 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

I was listening to Deltron 3030‘s recent album, Event II, the other day.  Deltron is a project between producer Dan the Automator, rapper Del The Funky Homosapien and the turntablist, Kid Koala.  Their first album, Deltron 3030, came out in 2000 and was a futuristic romp, whereas the new album is more of a dystopian view of the future.  But.  What struck me whilst listening to this and writing about nostalgia in Griffintown was, well, nostalgia.  There is a funny skit in the midst of the album by the American comedy troupe, The Lonely Island, called “Back in the Day.”  In it, two old men, “sitting on the stoop of the future” reminisce about how it was back in the day, a day that has yet to happen, I might add.

Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I am also in the midst of reading Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.  In it, she discusses the Ummayad founder of the Muslim state in Iberia in the 8th century, Abd al-Rahman.  He was a rather singular figure, he was the sole survivor of the massacre of the Ummayad’s by the Abbasids in Syria when he was 20.  He escaped across Northern Africa, eventually making it to Spain, where he settled in Córdoba.  He was overtaken by nostalgia in his exile, however, and even the Great Mosque of Córdoba is an homage to his lost homeland.  As he got older, he got more forlorn, writing poetry evoking Syria and he pined for his homeland, even going so far as to re-create his family’s Syrian estate outside Córdoba.

That Abd al-Rahman should be nostalgic for his homeland is not surprising, as any immigrant knows.   But I always find it interesting to think of nostalgia and remembrances in ancient times.  Nostalgic yearnings run all through the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Persian works that we have today.  Carthage was the site of great museums and libraries before the Romans destroyed it in the 2nd century of the Common Era.

Sometimes it feels like we in Western Europe and North America in the late 20th/early 21st centuries invented nostalgia and yearning for an imagined past.  Clearly, we did not.

The Suburbanisation of Punk and Hip Hop

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Questlove, the drummer and musical director of the hip hop band, The Roots (and frankly, if you don’t know just who in the hell The Roots are by now, I’m not sure there’s any hope for you), is writing a six-part series of essays on hip hop, its past, present, and future at Vulture.  Not surprisingly, Questlove makes an eloquent argument in part one about the ubiquity of hip hop culture and the dangers that poses to Black America in the sense that if the powers that be wish to quash it, the ubiquity of it is all-encompassing and a quashing would be similarly so.  But he also points out the dangers of the all-encompassing nature of hip hop culture.

I like Questlove’s point about the ubiquity of hip hop culture, which means that it’s no longer visible, it’s just everywhere.  He also notes that it’s really the only music form that is seen to have this massive cultural phenomenon attached to it: food, fashion, etc.  He says that this applies to pretty much anything black people in America do (he also wonders what the hell “hip hop architecture” is, as do I).  But I think this goes beyond black America, such is the power of hip hop and the culture that follows it.

There is a relatively long tradition of white rappers, from 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys up to Eminem and others, and the vast majority of white rappers have deeply respected the culture.  More than that, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs in the late 80s, I was totally into hip hop, as were all my friends.  This could get stupid, as when guys I knew pretended that life in Port Moody was akin to Compton, but, still.  My point is that hip hop music, fashion, and culture has permeated the wider culture of North America entirely (something I don’t think Questlove would disagree with, but it’s irrelevant to his argument).

The only other form of music that has an ethos and culture that follows it, really, is punk.  Punk and hip hop are spiritual brother movements, both arise from dispossessed working class cultures.  Both originally emerged in anger (think of the spitting anger of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message” or the Sex Pistols in “Anarchy in the UK”) and were heavily political and/or documented life on the downside.  But, both also went viral, both exploded out of their original confines and went suburban and affluent.

Punk and hip hop are the two musical forms that informed me as a young man, they continue to do so as I hit middle age.  But punk and hip hop are both deeply compromised by sinking into the affluent culture of middle class suburbia.  The anger is blunted, the social message is reduced, and it becomes about “bitches and bling,” whether in hip hop (pretty much any song by Jay-Z) or punk (pretty much any song by The Offspring, Avril Lavigne, Blink-182, or any pop-punk band you hear on the radio).  And then these counter-culture voices become the culture, and, as Questlove notes, they become invisible in their ubiquity.  But more than that, the ethos they bring is divorced from their origins.

Questlove talks about the social contract we all subscribe to. He references three quotes that guide his series (and, I would guess, his life in general).  The first comes from 16th century English religious reformer, John Bradford, who upon seeing another prisoner led to the gallows, commented, “There but for the graces of God goes John Bradford.”  The second comes from Albert Einstein, “who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.'”  Finally, Ice Cube, the main lyricist of N.W.A. (yes, there was once a time, kids, when Cube wasn’t a cartoon character), who, in the 1988 track “Gangsta Gangsta,” delivered this gem, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”  Questlove also notes that Cube is talking about a world in which the social contract is frayed, “where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?”

And herein lies the rub for me, at least insofar as the wider culture of hip hop and punk and their suburbanisation.  If you take the politics and intelligence out of punk and hip hop, you’re left with the anger, and a dangerous form of nihilism.  We’re left with Eminem fantasising about killing his wife and his mother.  Charming stuff, really.

This is not to say there is no place for bangers in hip hop culture, nor is to say there’s no place for the Buzzcocks (the progenitors of pop-punk in the late 1970s), it just means that this is a many-edged sword.

Hip Hop as Public History?

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) asked on Facebook if the Facebook movies, celebrations of FB’s 10th anniversary, was public history.  Um, no.  They are no more public history than those wordle things were a few years back, images and video clips chosen by an algorithm programme designed to grab what in people’s timelines was most liked, most viewed, etc.  In other words, it was rather random.

But, this got me thinking about curation, narrative, and how it is we decide what is and what is not public history.  And this went on as I listened to Young Fathers, an Edinburgh, Scotland hop hop band comprised of three men of Nigerian, Liberian, and Scots heritage.  Their music is a complex mixture of trip-hop, hip hop, with hints of indie rock.  But the music is also full of African and American beats and melodies.

Hip hop, as everyone knows, is a music form that developed in the Bronx in New York City in the late 70s, it is an African American music form that has been globalised.  It has also been adapted wherever it has gone; at its core, hip hop is poetry, set to a beat.  Echoes of hip hop can be heard soundtracking everything from suburban teenagers’ lives to the Arab Spring to the struggle for equality on the part of Canadian aboriginals.

I’m a big fan of UK hip hop, I like the Caribbean and African influences on the music.  Artists such as Roots Manuva, Speech Debelle, and cLOUDDEAD have long incorporated these influences into their music.

So, as I was listening to Young Fathers whilst pondering public history, I was rather struck by the idea of hip hop, at least in this particular case, as public history.  Young Fathers have appropriated an American music form (one member lived in the US as a child), and then remixed it with a UK-based urban sound, and added African beats and melodies, to go with the occasional American gospel vocal.  In short, these artists have curated their roots into their music, and presented it back to their audience.  It’s the same thing Roots Manuva has been doing for the past decade-and-a-half with his Jamaican roots.

What, of course, makes Young Fathers and Roots Manuva different than the Facebook algorithms is that the music of these artists is carefully constructed and curated, they are drawing on their roots and background to present a narrative of their experiences in urban subcultures (whether by dint of music, skin colour, or ethnic heritage).  So, in that sense, I would submit that this is a form of public history.

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