Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Space is the Place

I owe Tom Jones and my ex-girlfriend for my discovery of Unwound. I was on a Tom Jones kick, it being the mid-90's and kitch being king, and my then-girlfriend mentioned that he was on the cover of an Unwound album. A year after we broke up I came across a used copy of said album, Fake Train, and bought it, only slightly bitter that it was tangentially attached to my ex.

It instantly became, and remains to this day, one of my favorite albums. I think it easily ranks as one of the best indie/post punk/whatever albums of the 90s.

Unwound at that point were basically a hardcore band who had learned how to play theirr instruments a little and listened to a lot of sonic youth. Their early singles were more on the hardcore bent, and lacked the melodies and listenability of their later works. On fake train, they retained their hardcore element, but coupled it with large amounts of melody, and an overwhelming does of late twentieth-century ennui.

The album kicks off with the repetitive riff of "Dragnalus", over which they sing "You're so bored with tv, radio, audio, video". It perfectly encapsulates the blahness of suburban life, and the boredom of late adolescence.

It immediately jumps into the feedback-fueled "Lucky Acid Trip", which recalls their origins as a punk band. The whole album sees the band veering from the sad but beautiful longing of Kantina/Were, Are, Was, and Is and the chaos of "Valentine", "Ratbite" and "Gravity Kills". The whole quietloudquiet thing has been done to death since then, but it was still relatively new in the early 90's, Unwound still sounds much more convincing than anything on Victory's label, not to even mention all the top 40 suburban emo bands.

I got bored with punk because it was too simplistic and two-dimensional. Punk songs all used the same structure, same chords, and same angry rants about how society, like, fukin' sucked. Albums like "Fake Train" managed to harness the anger, passion and rawness of punk but make it a little more nuanced and interesting. God bless Tom Jones and my ex for introducing me to this Fake Train. It's the perfect album for the 20th/21st century blues.

Holy shit...after reading over this, i realize that it sounds almost exactly like one off Patrick Bateman's "American Psycho" pop culture rants. Jesus. I gotta go return some video tapes.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Rebel WIthout A Pause

The Coup
"Pick A Bigger Weapon"
ShoYoAss/Anti-/Epitaph, 2006

For Fans Of: Public Enemy, RATM, BDP, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Outkast, Roots, Jello Biafra

This Bay Area hip-hop group have been doing their Commie-rap thing for over a decade. Where other rappers rhyme about grills and killing rivals, the Coup rap about overthrowing the boss and starting revolution. While other Yay Area crews are all about getting stupid, thizz face, and ghost riding whips, the Coup stay far away from Hyphy, and concentrate their energy on trying to raise consciousness and get the proletariate angry.

In theory, this should be my favorite album ever. I miss the days when artists like PE and Ice Cube instilled hip-hop with righteous anger. It's disappointing that so many artists are so self-centered, materialistic, and focused on perpetuating shitty lifestyles. It's sad to me that Fifty Cent is the hero of choice for today's youth, and that hip-hop came to be a means of bragging about dealing drugs rather than escaping from being a dealer.
In practice, the Coup suffer from the two weaknesses intrinsic to message-oriented music: It sacrifices the music for the message, and it is too didactic and self-righteous.

The basic template of the Coup is slightly preachy revolutionary lyrics over Bay Area funk. While sometimes the lyrics are on, more often than not they are clumsy and simplistic. It reminds of Christian music that tries unsuccessfully to hippify its Jesus-talk. Lines like "I'm here to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor/And help the damn revolution come quicker" don't flow well, and seem like obvious attempts to reach the masses.
Boots' goofy Andre 3000 meets E-40 meets high school teacher flow doesn't help matters much, either. I've never been fan of that type of exaggerated rhyming, and this disc didn't do anything to win me over. It's possible that with a different MC I'd find the Coup more palatable, but I just wasn't feeling Boots.

While in general I agree with their politics, they share Jello Biafra's strain of ultra-left, ultra-paranoid smarmy radicalism, and likewise share Jello's unfortunate tendency of coming off like they know everything and are just trying to let the dumb masses in on it.
"Head (Of State)" tells the story of the Bush family's connection to Saddam Hussein, but its sing-songy storytelling would be better as a column in a zine rather than a hip-hop song. Here's a sample lyric:

"Saddam Husssein was their man out there/ [The C.I.A.] told him to rule by keeping people scared/ Sayin' any opposition to him, he must crush it/ He gassed the kurds/ They gave him the budget."

It's just too….i dunno, simplistic and awkward, I guess. I mean, I think it's awesome that they are pointing out how closely connected the administration was with Saddam, but the delivery does nothing for me. I kept comparing this with David Banner's music - half the time Banner is a sexist, mean bastard, but when he drops science on the state of the bullshit, it's done in a much more convincing manner than the Coup. It's more about him expressing his own anger and frustration over how he is fucked over by the system, rather than trying to educate and raise consciousness.

Maybe I'm just not the right audience for the Coup's message. If I was an angry, confused teenager, this would probably seem a hell of a lot more intense. After all, I used to think Jello Biafra was a political genius. And I think the Coup's slightly awkward but good intentioned music is miles better than all of the guns violence drugs and fucking music that is polluting the airwaves. It's also refreshing to hear rapper talk about uniting the working classes and trying to create a cooperative system where the poor aren't fucked over by the rich, rather than the multitude of rappers bragging about how they want to get rich so they can be the ones fucking people over. I'm glad artists like the Coup exist, and I wish them the best of luck. If you are into BDP, the Roots, or the Outkast, you'll probably dig this album. Personally I'm going to respectfully pass.

-Patrick Sean Taylor

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Best Of
Nature Sounds, 2003.

For those who don’t know, KMD was the first group that MF DOOM was in (then called Zev Luv X). It consisted of Zev, his brother Sub Rocc, and Onyx. The group released their debut, “Mr. Hood”, in 1991. They started recording a new album, then Onyx quit the band, Sub Rocc was killed in a car accident, and the band’s label immediately dropped them when they saw the proposed coverwork for the follow up, Black Bastards. The cover showed a Lil’ Sambo character being lynched, and in the wake of the “Cop Killer” scandal, Elektra wanted no truck with any controversy. (Incidentally, I saw a white kid wearing a KMD shirt recently that had the Black Bastard character on it, and I gotta say, just as white kids can’t say “nigga”, they can’t wear shirts with sambo’s on them, even if it is a KMD shirt).

“Mr. Hood” is still available on CD, and I think that “Black Bastards” was finally released in 2001 by another label, although there are older copies around that sell for a lot of money.

This collection basically combines most of the two albums and two unreleased tracks into a single disc. Since the band only released two albums, it seems like it would have made more sense just to release a double album collection with all of the tracks from both albums, and include the original album artwork, some liner notes, and any unreleased tracks laying around. Or do it as two separate discs, for that matter. As it is, it’s not really worth it to buy both albums, but it’s frustrating to have almost all of KMD’s songs except for a handful.

Then there are the liner notes, or lack thereof. Besides the name of the album and a catalogue number, there is no information about the band, label, tracks, or anything else on the disc. The liner notes include a lot of photos of the bands’ notebooks, which is kind of cool, but I think I would rather have had a track listing and information about the songs. I’m confused why the greatest hits collection for an obscure band would do absolutely nothing to shed light on the artist. Is it one of those “if you have to ask” things? Like you need to be cool enough to know everything about KMD in order to appreciate the disc?

Whatever. Enough about the packaging. The important thing is the songs, and those are good. The first half of the album is from the more upbeat “Mr. Hood”, a concept record about taking a clueless white guy through the hood. The clueless white guy is played by what sounds like an English phrase record from the fifties. Mr. Hood spouts of lines - “I’d like another shirt. This one is dirty”. Hello, may I get my hair cut?” – and the KMD crew give responses. Musically, it is sort of like De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising”, only a little darker and less hippy. KMD sample Sesame Street, offer bouncy, funky beats, and their rhymes have the sing-songy flow and clever wordlplay typical of the era.

The second half of the album is from the darker “Black Bastards”, which is laced with Last Poet’s samples (or what I’ve been told are Last Poet’s samples, never having heard one of their records). It definitely brings a different, more hostile energy into the mix – For example, “What a Niggy Knows” starts of with the Last Poet’s screaming “He was a nigger yesterday!!! He is a nigger today!!! And he’s gonna be a nigger tomorrow!!!” Then it goes into the whistling, synth riff from Sheila E.’s “Glamorous Life”. Crazy shit, yo. I’ve had it in my head all week, which is not so good considering I’m a white guy.

So how do KMD size up to DOOM’s stuff? Well, for one thing, while fans of DOOM will recognize him as Zev Love X, his flow and style has changed since ‘91. He is much more spry and energetic on this disc, an eager young pup compared to the blunted veteran of today.

While he has progressed and improved since he dropped these rhymes, it’s still DOOM:

On the bouncing, jazzy “Popcorn”, Zev/DOOM/Dumille spits:

Zev Love a brother I never budges
I hold everything from mics to like grudges
I won't let a bygone be a bygone
Back to play the bitch niggaz like a fly horn
I'm controllin all you snakes with, hookin up the cakes
with hot butter, the same like your grandmother bake up
Butt naked, take it from the Riddler, Batman
Who be the oddball, Jake or the Fatman?

Bottom line is, despite the dubious art direction on this package, the disc is a must-have for fans of MF DOOM or early 90’s afrocentric rap.

DOOM has said that he’s working on another KMD record as we speak, by the way. Hopefully his choice of covers this time around doesn’t get him axed again.


Monday, November 06, 2006

The Death of Jazz-hop

There are some who espouse the following version of music history: In the early 90's, conscious, jazz-influenced hip-hop was destined to dominate the airwaves and the culture, until Dr Dre's Chronic album seduced the masses with it's g-funk tales of misogyny, drug use, and violence, thus hurling hip-hop into a gangsta-rap dark age from whence it has yet to emerge from.

There are a few things wrong with this theory: For one thing, jazzy hip hop was never that popular. The other thing is that gangsta rap was never unpopular.

Let's set the wayback machine to 1990 and check out what the kids of Aptos High were listening to. The heshers were still enjoying the last gasps of the hair bands - AC/DC was huge, Aerosmith was massive, and Metallica was the number-one stoner shirt of choice. The freaks were happy in their alterna-land, knowing that they would have an instant kinship with anyone who had heard of the Smiths, Joy Division, the Cure, or Fugazi.

The hip-hop fans would rush to the Santa Cruz flea market every Saturday to pick up bootleg tapes of their favorite artists. And who were they listening to? Tribe Called Quest? De La Soul? Brand Nubian? HELL NO. They were blasting Ice Cube, Ice T, NWA, 2 Live Crew, and any other artist who swore like a sailor. They'd fuck with PE, but only because Ice Cube was on a few of the tracks, and they made being conscious seem rebellious and angry.

As the decade slowly progressed and Nirvana forced all of LA to get a haircut and distortion pedal, were the hip-hop fans at Aptos High checking out the Low End Theory or Digable Planets or Guru? Hell no. And why the fuck would they have? Metallica, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were all about being bummed, angry, and wanting to get laid. Why would you expect the hip-hoppers to be digging on jazz cats or getting into how the Tribe was using live instruments? "We got the Jazz?" "Smooth Like Butter"? Um, no. We are talking about teenage boys who are young, dumb, and full of conflicting emotions - do I beat someone up or beat off? Why fuck with boring-ass jazz shit when you've got Ice-T saying "That Bitch Tried to Kill Me"?

Let's put it another way - how many teenagers were/are into jazz? Um, like four, and they are all in the jazz band doing their best worst Coltrane to poor unsuspecting saxophones. So why are kids alla sudden gonna want lots of jazz in their hip-hop?

Let's put it yet another way - in 1991, two artists released iconic, seminal indie rock albums. One was My Bloody Valentine, whose "Loveless" is a masterpiece of swirling, abstract guitar goodness. It sold less than half a million copies, and made their label go bankrupt. The other was Nirvana's "Nevermind" which was equal parts punk, seventies rock, and contemporary teen angst. Not revolutionary, not terribly original, certainly not nearly as experimental and mind-blowing as "Loveless". It sold a bajillion records and even warranted a Weird "Al" parody. The point is, the masses love shit that is visceral, immediate, and easily digested. If they gotta think too much, they'll stay away. At Aptos High, the only other person I knew who was really into Tribe was Amy Santora, who, like me, was more of an indie kid. Everyone else was too busy rocking out to the Chronic.

And let's face it: The Chronic is a good fucking album, just as nevermind is a good fucking album. If you are a young kid looking to start making music, doing rhymes about capping fools and getting high over seventies funk seems like a hell of a lot more fun than busting out your thesaurus and Miles Davis albums and trying to play bohemian.

So the Chronic won out. Kids raised on Run DMC and License to Ill were not going to be suckered into becoming mellow, smacked-out jazz cats. They wanted something angry and banging, and that was about drugs they did. Let me ride, byaatch.

Jazz hip-hop went in several different directions. People took the mellow instrumental with a beat thing and created leagues of downtempo jazz-house records. St. Germaine, Tosca, basically anything that makes urban professionals want to sip cosmos, buy designer clothes, and make sweet love. Other artists took the jazz influence and turned it into something darker, ala Nas' first album, or Mobb Deep's "Infamous". Same upright bass riffs and jazzy beats, but with gritty rhymes about guns, drugs, and inner city life. Q-Tip was present on both albums, proving that the marriage of hip-hop and jazz wasn't just a one-trick pony.

Finally, there are a ton of artists out there who count "The Low-End Theory" as one of their favorite records of all time, and Tribe's mellow beats, clever word play, and conscious lyrics have lived on in a lot of acts, from underground artists like, well, most of the Stones Throw catalogue, to more mainstream artists like the Roots and Common.

So next time you hear someone lament the fall of jazz-hop and rise of gangsta rap, tell him to shut up and buy a Yesterday's New Quintet CD. Now allow myself to excuse myself while I go put on the Digable Planets. Remember to vote, because those fascists are some heavy dudes.

Blog Archive