Thursday, May 31, 2007


In the late nineties I lived in a run-down Victorian on MacAllister and Steiner, around the corner from the infamous Fillmo’ projects of San Francisco. There was an amazing inequality between the residents of the Fillmo and the rest of SF, which was in the orgiastic throes of the boom. The average monthly income of project denizens was around 10 – 12 thousand a year, which wouldn’t even cover most people’s yearly rent.

I remember one morning walking past Eddy and Steiner at 6:30, and seeing loads of police in riot gear swarming the projects and herding people into paddy wagons. It turned out that the project in question was basically taken over by crack dealers. There was a lot of that going on in those parts. I’d pass dealers smoking weed in front of the police station on Filmore and Eddy on my way to work, and the corners were always full of young dudes hanging out, looking shady.

There were several homicides that I heard of in my four years there, not counting the non-fatal driveby shooting in front of my house. Of course, I only heard about the murders that my roommates were witness to or that made the papers because they involved a football player or some other tragic figure. There were countless more homicides that involved people no one cared about shooting other people no one cared about, written off as “gang-related” (read: black on black ie. Does Not Affect Us). There were RIPs spray-painted on corners, trying to preserve the memory of the deceased against the elements and the sand-blasters.

I won’t lie: the project thugs scared the crap out of me. They were young, pissed off, and had nothing to lose. Their whole being was attitude and front. They’d swagger across the streets in slow motion, pants sagging, just begging motorists to honk at them so they could get into a scuffle. People got killed for nothing – flirting with someone’s girlfriend, dissing someone, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not the type to mess with anyone, but I especially don’t mess with people who got nothing to lose and everything to prove, whether it be the thugged-out kids on the street corners of the fillmo, or the roided out, wasted dudes trolling the marina on the weekends looking to drink some beer and kick some ass.

The disparity between the young men in the Fillmo and the rest of the city was mind-boggling. They had nothing to do with the world outside of their neighborhood, and the world outside of their neighborhood had nothing to do with them. People right up the street were getting rich off computer money, going out to eat at expensive restaurants, buying expensive cars, and they were scraping by in their scrapers, hustling for a living etc.. Totally different realities.

I was reminded of all this recently when I was listening to “So Hood” by Fillmo rap group Bullys wit Fullys. The Bullys are Messy Marv and Guce (pronounced, against all rules of English spelling, as “Juice”). The Bullys have been around for a while, and do their own version of Mobb music, which is the Bay Areas version of gangsta rap. And they are unapologetically gangsta, going as far as putting out an album titled “Gangsta Without the Rap” and declaring in rhyme “I’m a gangsta, not a rapper!”..
“So Hood” is a damn catchy song. It’s got a funky synth sound courtesy of Ea-Ski. The song is an ode to being a gang-banger, drug-dealer, coke-snorter, and all around badass.

“It's the project lover
But I'm a gang banger, and a drug smuggler
Gucey Guce, dope boy with the cake mix
I'm naked with it in the kitchen doin' late shift
See I been bout it, other niggaz rap about it”

They also throw in some classic bay area slang like
“Bitch I thizz and play with my nose” (translation: I like to take ecstasy and snort cocaine).

In some ways, I admire their balls and pride in their situation. There is a prevailing attitude in gangsta rap of “you think I’m a thug? Ima show you what a thug is!!” Or as NWA so nicely put it, “if you don’t like how I’m living then fuck you!” However, listening to the track, I couldn’t help but feel really sad. I’ve heard thousands of rappers spew the same type of lyrics, but never had it hit so close. Here they are bragging about being part of the poisonous lifestyle that keeps bay area cities’ homicide statistics in the triple digits, and has stunted Bay Area hip hop because all the MCs keep getting thrown in jail (like Marv himself). I admire their sense of pride, but I wish they were rapping about a lifestyle that was worth bragging about.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why Hip-Hop Sucks in 07....

According to an article in, 70% of hip-hop fans polled in a recent survey said they weren’t feeling the albums that have come out in ’07. This may explain why album sales are reportedly down 30%.

In an interview on said website, Talib Kweli said that he thought sales were down because hip-hop has gotten tired.

“If you look at the CD sales of rappers who are talking about that stuff, it's on the decline. It's been on the decline for years. And it's not because it's misogynistic, and it's not because they calling them hoes, it's because a lot of it ain't good," said Kweli. "The art of the music has suffered where everyone wanted to get in the game and just hustle. There's nothing wrong with hustling and getting your money, but when no one focuses on the art, when the art means nothing, then people are gonna stop buying."

He’s not wrong. The last few years have seen the hustla ethic in hip-hop degenerate to the point of absurdity. I know I’ve railed on him before, but Rick Ross is to me a prime example. His shit is straight garbage, with no talent or thought put into either the music or lyrics. Kids have seen jay or Tip go platinum bragging about being a hustler, and figured that all you needed to do was get a beat and boast and you’d be a billionaire. It reminds me not a little of all the bullshit bands in the mid 90s who heard Nirvana and figured that all they needed were some hooks and a distortion pedal, and voila, penthouses and limos!

I can’t help but feel that MIMS “Why I’m Hot” is the epitome of lazy hip-hop. Here is a song about how good a rapper the boy is, and it isn’t even a well-rapped song. It’s like wearing t-shirt with a designer label – it sends the message but fails in practice. Stop telling me you are hot, and start being hot.

The increasing laziness and lack of artistry in rap is compounded by the fact that too many people are doing it. With myspace and the interweb, any hack with a decent computer can get their mediocrity out for the world to be subjected to. This makes it harder to suss out what is good, and makes the process of discovering new music too much work with too little payoff. There are a lot of good new artists out there, I’m sure, but I think consumers tend to remember all the times they got burned by having to listen to shit that shouldn’t have ever even been a demo to want to wade through the mire of releases out.

I’m hoping the fact that it’s not so easy for any chump to string together 16 bars of bullshit about rims and ice will force hip-hop to step its game up. Maybe we’ll see an increase in the number of lyrical (you know, talented) rappers who actually have something to say and can do so in an interesting way. Of course, Port of Miami went platinum, and the Root’s latest record floundered, so maybe not.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Grrrls With the Bad Reputation

Bikini Kill were one of the first and most famous bands to be associated with the riot grrrl movement that sprang out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. Riot grrrl was a feminist reworking off punk rock that took the confrontational, anti-establishment, DIY attitude of punk and focused it on women's issues and empowerment. Riot grrrl was a response to and refuge from the sexism and boys-only mentality of both punk and mainstream music, and a venue for young women to express their nascent explorations into feminism.

Early Bikini Kill was very adolescent both in sound and philosophy, taking a "1, 2, Fuck You" approach to feminism. They were awkward, messy, full of energy and heart but lacked songwriting chops, and were overeager and undersubtle. Their first tape came out around 1990, and then they had a split LP with Huggy Bear in 1992, which were later paired around 1994 into "The CD Version of Their First Two Albums". There are some great songs on this disc, which was partially produced by punk legend Ian MacKaye. "Carnival" is a great punk song, and "Double Dare Ya" kicks things off with a healthy dose of anger. Mostly though, the songs are more full of possibility hindered by a lack of musical ability and maturity. Case in point: The chorus of "White Boy" : "White boy/don't cry/Just die!" It just doesn't quite work as either a chorus or a philosophy. This is the sound of a bunch of excited and pissed off girls (and a guy) in their garage furiously trying to put all of their thoughts into songs, and getting it a little mixed up in the process.

However clumsy their first release is, though, it is full of unrestrained energy. 15 years later it is still hard not to get caught up in their excitement when singer Kathleen Hannah screams "I double dare ya, girl-fuckin'-friend!!"

In 1993 they recorded their first proper album, Pussy Whipped. Pussy Whipped was a step forward for the band, showing off improved songwriting skills. The basic 1-2 punk off their earlier work was replaced with a dirtier, grungier sound, and the lyrics were a little less obvious. My favorite track is the chaotic, manic "Star Bellied Boy", which seems to be an attack on a date rapist. Hannah starts the song off screaming "He said he wanted to/just touch you" before hitting the chorus of "Star bellied boy different from the rest/prove you're different from the rest/you're no fucking different from the rest!" before yelling the final refrain "Why do I cry/every time I cum?/I can't I can't I can't cum!"

It's both heavy and empowering. Here is someone laying out sexual abuse while calling the fucker out for it.

In 1996, the came out with their masterpiece, "Reject All-American". The noisy chaos of their earlier work was replaced by better, cleaner production and actual hooks. It was a little like a punkier Go-Gos, catchy, fun, and smart. One of the highlights was the two-minute blast "Capri Pants" , a declaration of The Love That Cannot Be Named that has Hannah declaring "It feels so good it must be wrong!" The album was followed with a ton of singles that were eventually collected as 1998's "The Singles", which is a must-have. It features one of Bikini Kill's best songs, "I Like Fucking". This song shows how far the ladies came since their days as angry riot grrrls dealing with the darkest sides of gender relations, seeing males as adversaries, and recovering from inequality and abuse.
"Just cuz my world is so goddamn fucking full of rape/Does that mean that my body must always be a source of pain?" Hannah asks, before declaring "I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure!" It is a truly empowering song, and hints at the sex-positive feminism embodied by artists like Peaches. The fact that this has largely been degenerated in the mainstream into sluttiness-as-feminism just makes the whole thing that much more bittersweet.

By the late nineties Riot Grrrl was being used to sell everything from the spice girls to lipstick, as Madison Avenue jumped on the opportunity to use empowerment to sell the same tired stereotypes to women. Bikini Kill was distracted by multiple side-projects and celebrity, and drowning in scene politics. Like all punk bands, Bikini Kill was more focused on issues in the scene than issues in the larger world, and eventually caved into the pressure and broke up in 1998. Kathleen Hannah went new wave, replacing hooks and sincerity with keyboards and boring irony. The other ladies went on to form several superfluous indie rock bands that drowned in their own jadedness. Still, I can't be that disappointed by the Frumpies or Le Tigre. Bikini Kill left a large legacy, and I think they've inspired a lot of young women to form bands of their own, and have helped make feminism a more acceptable concept. Plus, they fucking rock, which is why they are and will forever be one of my favorite bands.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


There are rappers like Nas and Mobb Deep who rap about life in the streets with gritty realism that sheds light on the outside of legal society without glamorizing it. There are those like, Jay-Z and T.I. who brag about their hustling past while celebrating being over it. There are those like Rick Ross who make being a coke dealer seem sexier than being a movie star. And then there are those rappers who turn the whole argument on its head.

Gravediggaz were the first to brand themselves "horrorcore" and it was meant to replace gangsta rap as the topic of choice in hip hop. Their 1994 album Six Feet Deep riffed on the dark gangsta mythology that the Wu had established in 1993, and cut out the gangsta. Instead of talking about the horrors of the street, the went medieval on our asses, rapping about chopping people up, committing suicide, blood, guts, and mayhem.

The group was a collaboration between producers prince paul and the wu's own RZA, and it reflects both Prince Paul's twisted sense of genius and the RZAs dark, cinematic beats and byzantine mythology. Mostly, though, it's funny, clever, and has incredible beats.

Six Feet Deep was a critical success, but the group failed to steer rap into a new direction. Horrocore didn’t become the new gangsta rap. Their two follow-ups weren't as good or successful, and I think the project is pretty much dead by now.

I lump Cannibal Ox's 2001 "The Cold Vein" in the same category of the Gravediggaz, even though they didn't consider themselves horrorcore. Rather, Cannibal Ox used the same sense of dread of a horror movie to riff on life in the Rotten Apple. Where the Gravediggaz were tongue in cheek, Cannibal Ox were decidedly serious. They described the horrors of violence and disenfranchisement as if they were telling a horror story, and the claustrophobic, paranoid beats by El-P backed it up.

"And if there's crack in a basement
Crack heads stand adjacent
Anger displacement
Food Stamp arangements
You were a still born baby
Mother didn't want you, but you were still born
Boy meets world, of course his pops is gone
What you figga
That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure
So he steps to the next stencil, that's a hustler
Infested with money and diamond cluster
Lets talk in laymen terms
Rotten apples and big worms
Early birds and poachers
New York is evil at it's core, so those who have more than them
Prepare to be victims”

The Cold Vein is a brilliant record, and was for a time seen as the rebirth of underground hip hop. Then they broke up.

More recently, there are Jedi Mind Tricks. This duo has a name that sounds like some shitty jam band or crappy pop punk act, and album covers that rival those of epic metal bands like Iced Earth. However, they are neither shitty nor metal. Instead they combine RZA-inspired beats with horror-imagery-filled rants on the state of the bullshit. And vietnam. I checked out “Servants in Heaven, Kinds in Hell” from my local library, and I was impressed by their rhymes and beats, which often sample mafia-type songs
The combine war imagery, horror imagery, gangsta violence and good old boasting to come up with line like "You don't gotta go to church to get to know your god” or:

You ain't safe if the bomb exists
so I side with the Vietnamese communists
if you wit me mothafucka raise your arm and fist
and we can bust a fuckin' cap and see if God exists
I scarred your wrist, with a poisonous rusty razor
if its Jedi Mind Tricks then it must be flavour

At sixteen tracks, it’s a little too much darkness for my tender ears, but five or six albums in, they are still cooking.

So there you go. Three scary-ass hip-hop albums that also happen to be innovative and good.

Friday, May 04, 2007


I first came across Fela Kuti at the SF Public Library, where i found a copy of his "Expensive Shit!" album. I was pretty much sold on the cover, which featured fela surrounded by a bunch of nekkid ladies with his fist in the air. The story of the album is that the nigerian government was trying to bust fela for pot (which they may have planted on him), so he swallowed it, at which point the government jailed him so they could get his feces and prove he had pot. Fela managed to smuggle his poo out of the prison, hence the title of the album.

In a lot of ways, that title sums fela's music up. Absurd, funny, joyous, yet angry and anti-oppression. Fela sang about issues - the failure of trying to impose European values in africa (gentleman, lady), the oppressive government (zombie, expensive shit), trying to create unity (water). That's a lot of the reason why everyone from Uber hipsters at Pitchfork and hip hop heads like Blackaliscous are so into him.

The other reason is that his music is really, really good. It's the perfect combination of funk and jazz, all mixed in with more traditional african rhythms and musical tendencies. Fela called it Afrobeat. To me, it sounds like a close cousin of funk and r & b music from the seventies, and an uncle of modern day hip-hop.

The songs are long, and almost all of them revolve around the same repetive rhythm, the endless drum. Often they will have three minute intros before they even get to the main body of the song, and it is not uncommon for his songs to hit the 13 minute mark. In fact, they weren't ever really meant to be records. Fela was all about the live experience, and once he cut a track to vinyl, he stopped peforming it. His songs seem more like experiences and movements than careful compositions, masterful freestyles and improvs.

Fela kuti is also world music in the best sense, because it allows you to share in the experiences and emotions of another culture without feeling like a tourist. This isn't some hippy ass shit, this is the real deal, music that makes you feel alive (although I guess people that like hippy ass shit might think it makes them feel alive, too).

There is a readily available double disc greatest hits called "The Best Best of Fela Kuti that is pretty indispensible. At the very least it is proof that other countries besides the us and uk can rock out.


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