Thursday, September 28, 2006

I Heart Bob Dylan

Ok, so I realize that until now I’ve only written about hip-hop, but today I’m going to ramble about one of our county’s great artists: The man, the legend, the unintelligible, Bob Dylan.

It took me twenty-five years to accept the genius of Bob Dylan, and I largely blame 1967’s dismal “greatest Hits’ collection. Part of the problem is that Dylan’s most popular songs have either been ruined from being on the soundtrack of too many nostalgic 60’s films (“Blowing in the Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changing”) or were never so hot to begin with “Rainy Day Woman”). Also, Dylan’s material covers too much ground to be represented well by ten tracks. It ends up just being a mish-mash of styles and genres, nuggets of brilliance that don’t really work when placed together. I was forced to listen to “Greatest Hits” on too many car rides in high school, and it almost turned me off to Dylan for good.

What finally changed my mind was a copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” that came free with a copy of L’Espresso, which is Italy’s version of Time, only with more boobies. I had heard “Like A Rolling Stone” a million times, but this was the first time I really listened to it. Besides the fact that it is a good song, it has got to be one of the most viscous singles released until rappers started releasing dis tracks in the 80’s. I was suffering from a nasty dot com hangover, and Dylan’s tirade was the perfect revenge anthem to all of the yuppie assholes who made my city so unbearable in the late 90’s. –

“You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it.”

All the angry punk rock anthems in the world can’t compete with Dylan’s vitriol on that track. The rest of the album holds up as well. Ok, so the lyrics don’t always make much sense, and it can get uncomfortably jammy at times, but it’s still really, really good.

Since I was in Italy, and it was tough finding decent music, I started buying all of the Dylan records I could find. I started with his most famous, 1963’s “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.” Despite the fact that it contains one of his most popular songs, it is not one of his best albums. First of all, do you really ever feel the need to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind?” Because I don’t. It’s sort of like a lot of the Beatles’ stuff – totally ruined by repetition. It’s still worth owning, however, for “Oxford Town”, and the brilliant “Masters of War”

Next I picked up hi s debut, 1962’s “Bob Dylan”, which is notable for Dylan’s touching ode to Woody Guthrie, as well as his covers of old blues songs. For a young Midwestern Jewish kid, he sure sold lines like “Lord I’m fixin’ to die.”

1966’s double album “Blonde On Blonde” has some fine moments that build on the more rock and psychadelic leanings of Highway 61 and Bringing it All Back Home. However, too much of the album seems to conflate being on acid with being creative, and it’s not nearly as effective today as it must have been when it was released.

My favorite album of Dylan is 1964’s “The Times They Are A-Changing”. The title track is pretty brilliant, if overplayed. The rest of the album is full of angry folk music that attacks American hypocrisy, classism, and racism. It has also got some gorgeous ballads, and is consistent the whole way through. Fans of Elliot Smith should check this out, as Smith was obviously inspired by Mr. Dylan.

I haven’t really listened to any thing else Dylan has done. 1975’s “Blood On the Tracks” is a pretty heavy break up record, but it gets a little to jam-rock for my tastes. I’ve heard bad things about a lot of his output from the late 70’s, and I sort of feel like I own enough Dylan at this point. His last few albums have gotten rave reviews, but again, I’m not really desperate to add more Dylan to my collection. It’s not that he’s not great, it’s just that I have to make room for some of the other billion good artists out there.

While Dylan’s nasally voice may not be for everybody, he has a rightful spot in the pantheon of great American musicians, as well as great pop musicians. Next you get shit from a European about how the US has no culture, you can reply “Oh yea?!? Well what about Bob Dylan, muthafucka?” That’ll teach the Europeans to think they are better than us just because their countries aren’t full of ignorant superstitious Christians who don’t know shit about anything beyond their television…what-EVER.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Get Hyphy!!!

Evidently hip-hop cannot exist unless it is some part of a movement, be it crunk, snap, screwed, trap, mobb, and now hyphy. Hyphy is a bay area movement that is basically uptempo, danceable hip hop that allows you to "go dumb". It's sort of like less aggressive crunk, or techno and house mixed with hip-hop. There are some hyphy gems out there - Wolfpack's "Vans", DJ Shadow's "3 Freaks", and some of the tracks off of E-40's album. I like the fact that an underground Oakland phenomenon is suddenly the next big thing. It's a little lame that so much of hyphy revolves around doing stupid shit like "ghostriding your whip" (ie. walking alongside your moving car), and doing other not-so-smart car-related things. Of course, they do call it getting dumb, so i guess it fits.

I've never been a fan of bay area hip-hop. Mac Dre, Mac Mall, C-Bo, even E-40....none of those guys have ever rocked my world. More underground/indie artists like DJ Shadow, Dan the Automator, Del the Funky Homosapien and Blackaliscious have put out some innovative and exciting stuff in the last ten years. The whole hyphy movement isn't rocking my world too much, although i can appreciate it from the sidelines. The one thing that bothers me about the whole movement is that it has to be a movement: it can't just be regional rappers. They all have to be part of a certain sound with a certain dance and a certain drug of choice and slang and aesthetic. I feel like that dooms all of these artists to obsolescence once the public burns out on hyphy in a year or so, and moves on to the next big thing.

Whatever. At least the bay area is getting some attention and props. Maybe hyphy will force bay area rappers to crank it up a notch and make hip-hop that is a little more innovative and interesting.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

David Banner Review

David Banner
Mississippi: The Album
Universal, 2003

For Fans of: Crunk, Lil’ Jon, guys who yell a lot.

I’m not sure how I ended up having this in my possession. For one thing, it’s crunk, and I don’t like crunk. For those of you unfamiliar with that genre, it’s derived from “crazy drunk” and is basically simple, aggressive hip-hop designed to make people go nuts at the club. Lil’ Jon? “Hey! What!!!?” Ringing any bells?

Second, Mr. Banner (in a name derived from the TV Incredible Hulk, who was for whatever reason named David, not Bruce) spends a lot of the album dissing women folk and just being an all-around ornery old bastard. For example, on the aptly titled “Fuck Them Niggaz”, he yells:

“What this hoe really wan' do? fuck or suck the stick
Like ooh, don't fuck me naw nigga, I'll fuck you
Two, three in your face till you're blue - black
Would you fuck her wit a jack top man?
I'll shoot ya in your back like BLAT BLAT BLAT!!”

Ahhh, romance. This followed up with a screamed chorus of “Them niggaz wanna hate? Fuck them niggaz!!”

It would be totally horrible and unlistenable, only it has got such a good beat. Granted, it’s a beat that hits you upside the head and leaves you with a migrane, but still. Banner’s agro tracks have the same quality that makes grindcore and powerviolence bearable –it’s so aggressive and pummeling that it ends up just sort of numbing you.

On the Lil’ Jon produced “Might Getcha”, Jon lays down a booming beat over a tinkling music box riff, which contrasts nicely with the verbal ass-kicking the song delivers:

“Might Getcha jaw broke
Might Getcha wig split
Might Getch car shot up
Might Getcha door kicked
Might Getcha kidnapped
Might Getcha neck snapped
Might Getcha your feelings hurt thinking this is just a rap”

So I hate crunk, but dammit if I don’t kind of like Banner’s stuff. It’s just so…I dunno. Aggro yet more.

If it was just a bunch of screamy songs, it would get old quick. However, Mississippi’s real strength is in its mellower, more reflective tracks, most of which are built around acoustic guitar riffs. Banner seems to hate just about everyone (except God), but at least he’s got a reason: “We from a place where my soul can’t be free/cuz a [Confederate] flag means more than me,” he declares on “Mississippi”, giving the listener an idea of just how fucked up and shitty it must feel to live somewhere where people still actively romanticize a period of history when your ancestors were treated like 3/5 a person.

“Caddilac on 22’s” follows in the slower, more thoughtful vein. The real gem is hidden track 19, “Fire Fallin’” . It’s downright pretty, almost like a mournful hip-hop spiritual. Serious.

In the end, Mississippi: The Album is a little too mean spirited (“There’s a bitch up in the club that I want to beat up/ Point that bitch out!”) and a little too noisy for me to fall in love with it. Still, even though it’s obviously not my thing, I couldn’t help being impressed by Banner’s ability to be both insightful and offensive at the same time. Maybe he’ll get older and mellower and stop making songs about how much he hates women. Then he’d be fucking awesome.

Rap: Feminist Propaganda?

Sadly, misogyny and hip-hop seem to go hand-in-hand. The rampant woman-hating on so many hip-hop songs is even harder to swallow than the rampant glorification of violence; at least when guys rap about capping a fool, it doesn’t necessarily have to be taken literally. More often it’s just bravado and bluff, an exaggerated show of strength. When you say “a bitch is a bitch, however, you can’t really read that any other way.

In fact, it was the bullshit sexism of NWA’s “She Swallowed It” and 2 Live Crew’s entire catalogue that turned me off on rap for a long time in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was ridiculous enough that my white-ass friends who lived in a white-ass community with no black people anywhere would be so into wanna-be gang-bangers talking about life in Compton; It was even worse when they tried to adopt the Two $hort/Eazy-E Mack persona. “Just Don’t Bite It?” Shit, we were a bunch of dorky 14-year-olds who would have been lucky to get a girl within arm’s distance of our johnsons, much less their mouth.

Sexism has ruined or spoiled many a hip-hop song and album. Dr Dre’s
“The Chronic” would be a masterpiece, but it’s just too goddamn hateful. “Bitches Ain’t Shit”???? What the hell is that? Jay—Z’s “99-Problems” – killer beat, brilliant lyrics, except for that whole “but a bitch ain’t one.” Bitch? Dude, you’re dating Beyonce! If I was dating Beyonce, I’d be writing songs called “Oh My god, I’m Dating Beyonce”, and “I’m Only Leaving Bed To Shower and Eat” and “My Girlfriend’s Voice (Is Almost As Nice As Her Ass)”. And if Beyonce really is a bitch, either break up or learn to deal with her assholicness. Jeez.

Ice Cube? A lot of brilliance, a lot of assholeness For every “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” there is a “Cave Bitch” or “Giving Up the Nappy Dugout”. At least with Ice Cube, you know he is just trying to fuck with people and piss them off. I’m pretty sure that Snoop really doesn’t love them hoes.

One of the worst offenders was Tupac, who would alternately sing sappy love ballads to his momma and scathing tirades against women. Worse still he would try and justify it by saying there was a difference between bitches and women, ala Jay-Z’s execrable (yet funky) “Bitches and Sisters”. (you know, the one with gems like “Bitches give up the ass/Sisters give up the ass/Sisters do it slow/Bitches do it fast”).

Which leads us to another rap cliché – the scandalous, money-grubbing female who’s only out for your money. I have absolutely no doubt that such women do exist, or that they are more common in the hip-hop scene than at, say, the alt-country scene. But see, if you rap about how much money you have, if you go out sporting six figures of jewelry, if you are driving a fancy car and drinking crystal in the club, you gotta figure that you aren’t exactly going to attract the down-to-earth, girl next door. A rapper complaining about attracting shallow, greedy women is a little bit like someone complaining that there are too many yuppies at the Matrix in the Marina, or that there aren’t enough chicanos hanging out at the Beauty Bar in the Mission. You reap what you sow, nyamean?

The misogyny in rap music bothers me for two reasons: One, I happen to like females, and I don’t really like anyone saying mean things about my friends or relatives. Two, it seems to me that if you are really such a manly man, you shouldn’t have to spend so much time dissing other people. If Snoop truly was a mack and truly was sure of himself and all that, he wouldn’t need to spend so much time expounding on how worthless females were. Get over it, shit. And anyways, if you hate ladies so much, does that mean you just want to hang out with your homies? A bunch of stoned, strapped dudes playing Halo? You go and do that - I’m gonna go have dinner with a lady friend.

I dunno...maybe hip-hop will get over its mysogyny, or it will become the exception and not the rule. Until then, I’ll just keep on trying to disassociate the words with the music, and pretend to myself that it’s ok to listen to guys saying bitch like it didn’t mean anything.

(It should be noted that the author does not assume that other forms of popular music created by boys who are “young, dumb, and full of cum” are paragons of feminism and understanding. Anyone looking for a nuanced, intelligent examination of the relationship between the sexes in popular music is stupid. Still, “Girls, Girls, Girls” is a pretty fly song, and I’ve always been partial to GnR’s “It’s So Easy”).


Thursday, September 07, 2006

T.I. Take Two

Um, so after singing the praises of T.I.’s dis track “I’m Talking to You”, I recently read that in May a member of his entourage was killed by gunmen aiming for T.I. in Cincinnati. In light of that, the sort of looses some of its luster. Trash talking is one thing- having it translate into actual violence is another. But at the same time, if you make records where you claim “We can shoot it out whenever you want,” you can’t be too terribly surprised if someone ends up taking shots at you. Likewise, the death of Biggie Smalls was very sad, but the man did make a shitload of money rapping about shooting people and dealing crack. I’m not saying gangsta rappers deserve to get shot at, but I do think that when you glamorize a shitty lifestyle (ie violent, drug-dealing gang-banger), you can’t be all that shocked when you end up in the shit.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Chamillionaire Review AKA Worst. Rap Name. Ever

The Sound of Revenge
Universal, 2005

For Fans of: 50 Cent, Paul Wall, all things Houston, Purple Drank.

First off, what the hell is up with that name? Does he have a million disguises? Does he have a Chamillion dollars? It's incredibly hard to take someone with such a lame-o name seriously, and I dismissed Chamillionaire until I read an interview with him on the uber-indie website Pitchfork. Chamillionaire purposely sought out Pitchfork precisely because they weren't the typical venue for his music. He knew that XXL and the Source would already be covering him. He wanted to try and recruit fans from different genres.

Chamillionaire is often praised as one of the best rappers to come out of Houston, mostly based on a series of mixtapes and underground CDs, including the classic "Get Ya Mind Correct" with ex-partner Paul Wall. However, while Cham's early material mostly concentrated on cars, rims, grills, chains, and getting one's lean on, Sound of Revenge sees him going in a more serious direction. While I definitely admire and respect this move towards maturity, it is not entirely successful.

Sound of Revenge offers up 15 tracks of melodic Texan hip-hop. Most of the production is handled by folks that I don't recognize (Beat Bullies, Sol Messiah, Cool-N-Dre). The only producer I had heard of was Scott Storch, who contributes a decent beat to the Lil' Flip assisted single "Turn It Up". In true Southern fashion, most of the beats are constructed around skittering drums and synth riffs. Although I much prefer the more analog boom-bap sound of old, Cham makes a convincing argument for the newer direction of rap.

Like 50 Cent, most of the songs have sung chorus, and Cham actually has a decent voice. Songs like "Ridin'", "Southern Takeover", and "Think I'm Crazy" actually have good melodies, and are some of the better songs on the album. For the most part, Chamillionaire's rhymes and flows are spot-on, although occasionally he would try and cram too many syllables into each line, and it sounded stupid (as on "Turn It Up".
The real problem with this album is the same thing that was wrong with "Get Rich or Die Tryin'": It's too fucking serious. For a rapper known for his sense of humor, Sound of Revenge is totally humorless, and the me-against-the-world vibe gets old. Also, while there are some great tracks, there are also a fair share of mediocre ones. The end result is a disc that demonstrates Chamillionaire's potential, but isn't quite there.

Wild Style

Wild Style
Directed by Charlie Ahearn

I'll admit it - it's a little weird that I'm so into rap these days. I'm neither African-american nor hip-hop. I don't aspire to become a b-boy, I'm not adopting hip-hop slang into my vocabulary, except for purposes of irony, and I am distinctly aware that I am an outsider to the culture. However, watching the 1982 film Wild Style, which documents the early days of hip-hop, I understood why I have such a fascination with the music and the culture. I grew up listening to punk rock, and was very inspired by the way that the punk scene tried to create an alternative culture that gave ordinary people an opportunity to make music, art, and actively contribute to creating culture rather than just be a passive consumer. I was essentially an outsider to punk culture as well, even if I did relate to it a lot more than I do to hip-hop. Part of what I loved about punk was the thrill of discovering new bands, of trying to find out more information about this underground scene, buying records based on what was painted on people's leather jackets, or by the name, or because you heard them mentioned in a magazine.

Hip-hop offers many of the same challenges and rewards, and Wild Style is evidence of this. Although technically a drama about a graffiti artist's trials and tribulation in the South Bronx, Wild Style works best as a documentary of the nascent hip-hop scene, and the devastated community that it came from. The film is full of real-life figures of the early rap, graffiti, and breakdancing scene. People like "Lee" Quinones, Zephyr, the Cold Crush Crew, Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, and some of the early breakdancing crews. The best moments of the film come from seeing the live freestyling at the Dixie Club. Rap was originally a live art form, and watching Busy Bee battle other MC's shows just how good early rap could be, and how poorly it translated to record. There is something very exciting about watching the DJ's and MC's creating the culture that is now a multi-national, multi-million dollar animal. It gave me the same sense of exhilaration that I get watching clips of the Ramones when they first started.

The acting is terrible, the plot is nearly non-existent, and the quality is not so hot. Still, Wild Style is a classic. Besides documenting the scene, it also contains a lot of clips that have been sampled by rappers throughout the years. The intro to Nas' Illmatic, the "Shut the fuck up, Chico Man" clip from the Beastie Boys "Professor Booty", the "Hey sucka nigga, whoever you are" from Tribe Called Quest's "Sucka Nigga". It was exciting realizing where these quotes had come from, and the impact this film had on so many rappers.

We live in a world where culture is mass-produced ,where rebellion is sold to the masses, where punk rock and gangsta rap have become tools of the very machine they were meant to criticize. Wild Style is proof that the world belongs to us, and that ordinary people have the power to create something innovative, moving, and revolutionary.

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