Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What I've Been Listening To

I'm back on a reggae kick after a few months of not listening to much reggae at all. I'm not sure what motivates these changes in the music I want to listen to. What does it say about my state of mind that I mostly want to listen to seventies dancehall and roots reggae? As always, it's a slippery slope to go down, because there are literally thousands of records from that era, which means a lot of gems to uncover. I downloaded Prince Alla's Only Love Can Conquer, which is great roots music.

I was sick two weeks ago, and had a sick dream in which Amoeba closed. That dream made me want to give the ailing record store some of my hard-earned scratch before it goes the way of 8-tracks and affordable health care. I bought the Abyssinian's Satta Massanga Deluxe Edition, which collects their debut album (which was not originally called Satta Massanga) and some other tracks. "Satta Massanga" the song was a massive hit, and has been called reggae's national anthem. They were essentially a Rastafari gospel group, and most of their songs are heavily religious and practically sacred. Most reggae artists in the seventies were Rastafarian, but the Abyssinians were the real deal. To be honest, I'm not a fan of "Satta Massanga," but the rest of the album is pretty good, mellow reggae. I'm actually not a massive fan of this vocal group style of reggae. I've had trouble really getting into the Congos, Culture, and Burning Spear for the same reason. Something about the vocal harmonies doesn't quite sit with me. Not to say they aren't geniuses, just that they aren't quite my thing.

What I'm more excited about is far less noble: dancehall. Basically, a dude chatting over a version of an album, usually in a patios that is totally incomprehensible and dropping references I wouldn't understand anyways. One of my favorites is General Echo, one of the original 70s DJs. I came across an album he did as Ranking Slackness called, appropriately, The Slackest LP. "Slackness" means dirty talk, and in the 80s and 90s this came to mean the dancehall equivalent of x-rated gangsta rap. In the seventies, it was more like songs about seeing your dad naked in the bathroom. It's potty humor to the extreme, super childish but also funny in a stupid way. I got a collection of his non-slack reggae called Teacher Fi De Class which is pretty great.

I've also been going back to Jessica Lea Mayfield's Tell Me, which has some incredible moments, and TV on the Radio's 9 Types of Light. Both are really heartbreaking and sad.

Speaking of, Gil Scott-Heron died this weekend. He was sixty-two. He had been struggling with drug addiction for years, and it got the best of him. Sad end to a great musician.

IAME and Scrilicon Reviews

I reviewed two albums for RapReviews this week. The first was Scrilicon's 2 Steps Left of Center. It's an indie release featuring Silicon Valley rappers Scrilla V and John?Doe. I wasn't feeling it, but you can check it out on their bandcamp page and see if it's more to your liking.

The second album I reviewed was IAME's Lame. Think of him as Portland's answer to Atmosphere. It's a solid, ambitious album, best summed up by the video for "Thy Will."

IAME - Thy Will from Wordsmithjr on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Acid Reign Review

I reviewed Acid Reign's Diversity last week for RapReviews. Positive hip-hop from Project Blowed alums. Not to be confused with THIS Acid Reign:

Or THIS "Acid Rain"

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mobb Deep

There is an excellent interview with Prodigy of Mobb Deep on the Sound of Young America this week. He just got out of jail on weapons charges (the downfall of so many rappers), and he talks about his upbringing, how his father was a jazz musician/heroin addict who would take him on heists, and how sickle cell anemia made him hate God.

Mobb Deep's 1995 album The Infamous is considered a classic. It's dark, cold-as-ice New York gangsta rap, sort of like a more realistic and cold-blooded Only Built For Cuban Linx. It's so dark and dreary and hopeless that I have a hard time listening to the whole thing, although it's powerful in small doses. It came out when they were 19, and they seem like babies rapping such sinister lyrics.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vast Aire and the Aztext Reviews

I reviewed Vast Aire's OX 2010: A Street Odyssey this week on RapReviews. Vast Aire was/is one half of legendary underground NY crew Cannibal Ox, who released one classic album,a  few eps, and not much else. They've been threatening to make another record for five years. This disc is solid, and will please his fans.
Nomad is one of the better songs on the album.

I also reviewed the Aztext Who Cares If We're Dope Volume Three EP. This time the duo is working with XPL, and is trying out some slower jams.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I was obsessed with Hole's 1991 debut Pretty On The Inside when I was in high school. It was dirty, nasty, druggy, and nightmarish, a muddy wave of grinding guitars and Courtney Love's banshee howls. A tormented mix of ugly noise and tormented screams and hints of melody. Brilliant.

Love was ugly in a way that few females were in 1991. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth was tough and cool, but Courtney went one further, laying it all out there. While still being sort of sexy. Kate Bjelland of Babes in Toyland (terrible name, not much better band) accused her of stealing her babydoll style, but Courteny worked it better.

I liked Live Through This, the follow up, even though it lacked the edge of Pretty On The Inside. When punk loses its rawness, the result is often bad rock, which definitely showed its face on Live Through This. "Ms. World" seemed calculated to play on MTV, and it did, and Hole made it big.

Love has always wrestled with demons, and has often been a train wreck that everyone like to watch and laugh at. After melting down post Live Through This, she cleaned up, got made over, and got her shit together. The resulting album, Celebrity Skin, wasn't great, but the title track is one of my favorite songs.
She's rocking a new look, working the crowd like a pro, and seeming more like a rock star than a punker.

I stopped following Love at that point. She's released solo albums, Hole has reportedly rejoined, I don't care.
I briefly got excited about the Distillers six years ago, when it seemed like singer Brody Dalle was following in Hole's footsteps. Then I lost interest. I still dig out Coral Fang every once in a while. Like scratching a scab, in a good way.

All of this led me across a rare live video of seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill doing "Orange Julius" live in Nebraska. I love this song. Reject All American and their collection of singles are both pretty amazing. And they have some good song titles.

"I believe in the radical power of pleasure, babe, I do I do I do."

Friday, May 13, 2011

An old story

I wrote this seven years ago and just found it on an old blog I had. Some details have been changed and names omitted to protect the guilty.

My friend M had skin cancer that metastasized and spread all over his body, so he ended up in St. Mary’s Hospital on chemotherapy and all that and his friends decided to throw a benefit for him and for their other friend who had a brain tumor. It had a tumor theme and M designed the flyers, but didn’t make it to the party because he was too sick. When I was young and 21 and drinking too much and staying out too late, no one mentioned brain tumors or cancer. Our worst problems were hangovers, and even those weren’t as bad as they are now, and our idea of being broke still allowed us to go out three or four nights a week.

I had met M through my friend C at a party in the South of Market that we went to that was kind of disappointing, but we didn’t really care because we were all pretty drunk on booze and camaraderie and singing Judas Priest songs. Me and M had grown up on punk rock, and we would reminisce about seminal bands like X and the Minutemen, who on second thought weren’t really that seminal because no one really sounds like them because no one really listened to them, which is probably why we like them so much. M had this slow, staggered way of talking, and had kind of a California twang, because he was raised in Berkeley, and he would say things like “Wohl, fuckin’, like, Fear were like, fuckin’ the ultimate punk band.” Marcus also had dubious taste in movies and so I was suspicious about his recommendations of both the Fight Club and the Matrix, but I liked them both.

He did animation and dated a beautiful 19-year-old, even though he was 34, and once drew an anime chick on the message board of my old house during a party, next to notices to pay Shannon for the electricity bill. He had a lot of tattoos and used to have a drug problem so we forgave his overindulgence in the drink as the lesser of two evils.

He was all into Burning Man and had these friends who were part of a something called the Space Cowboys who put on an event called Space Lounge which I never went to because I wasn’t really into that kind of thing, I mean the bleep-bloop music and everyone being so fucking happy and the drugs. I was more into going to shows and complaining about how derivative and lame they were and how stupid scenesters were.

It was the Space Cowboys who threw the benefit party. It was in an old church in the Mission, right around Halloween 2001. I was still freaking out about September 11, and it was the first time I had really gone out since all that badness happened; The planes crashing into buildings and our reaction to it, Bush preaching biblical revenge, and the liberals being totally ineffectual and that horrible feeling that something really really bad was happening, and losing faith in my country and not being able to do anything about it.

The night of the party I was tired and felt lazy and didn’t want to spend the 20 bucks to get in, but I knew it would be worth checking out, and I had invited this cute Australian girl, so I dragged my sorry ass out. There was a live fire show out front, but we waited in line to get in.

I went for the retro look, wearing my rust colored plaid jacket and brown hat. I knew I didn’t have any appropriate clothes, and so opted to totally not fit in rather than try to and fail miserably. The crowd was typical of those kinds of events in those days; ecstasy-damaged graphic designers and computer programmers and webmasters who walked that fine line between artist and dork, yuppies with better taste in drugs and music than their khaki-wearing brethren clogging the bars of the Marina, foreign-exchange students, party girls, and aging hipsters, we being in the latter category. Girls dressed as sexy nurses sold cheap drink tickets, and all the organizers were dressed as mad doctors. Some of the crowd had decided to dress in theme. There were tons of dj’s playing house music, but both of us were more into dancing to rock or old soul, so we went outside to watch people smoke and be able to hear ourselves talk.

C and I were both in grad school as a way to put off getting a real job, he in the humanities and I in history, and we would talk about music like we were writing our graduate thesis on it. We couldn’t just think that, say, X’s “Los Angeles” was a great song. We had to deconstruct it and analyze it within the context of L.A. at the time and the racism there and the white flight. Which would lead us to Fear’s homophobia and Quentin Tarantino’s bogus use of the word “nigger” as if racism never happened. I think it scares the uninitiated, those people who have the audacity to just like the music they like without considering its past and future and its place in the history of popular music and youth culture and the politics of the time and take it all with a seriousness that probably belies some gnawing emptiness in our lives.

A friend of C’s from Berkeley was there, and he was married and had a kid, which was weird for us because neither of us were even self-sufficient, much less organized enough to take care of another sentient being. But it was also kind of cool, especially in the environment of the party, because we felt like we were part of a new, alternative generation, one full of nice, good people who weren’t part of the shitty, greedy, consumeristic and stupid mainstream who were plastering American flags on their cars and pouring out their French wines and eating freedom fries and voting on American Idol. It was a world miles apart from all the embarrassment and horror that greeted us when we watched the news.

In a lot of ways the party was a very punk rock thing, or at least was the kind of thing punk rockers would aspire to do, only if they did it the music would have been suckier and everyone would have had to pretend it was lame and there wouldn’t have been as many cute girls and they wouldn’t have been dressed as well and everyone would have been drunk on cheap beer or fucked up on speed rather than drunk on vodka tonics and fucked up on E.

 (I went to a hardcore show in Milan a few years ago, and all the crusty anarcho-punks [called “punkabestia” in Italian, literally “Punk animal”] were staggering drunk and dressed the same and had the same dreads and the same type of mutts on the same rope leashes and I asked myself, “so this is the revolution?”)

By two a.m. me and C were drunk and tired and wanted to go home. Both of us felt too old and too tired and we had things to do the next day for school. Which we wouldn’t end up doing anyways.

So I left as everyone else was just coming, and went home four hours before the event ended, to sleep fitfully and wake up feeling tired, elated, and a little disappointed, because something great could have happened to me that night but didn’t.

M died a year later, and I didn’t go to his informal wake, which was held at the Wherepad in the Mission, because I felt like I didn’t know him THAT well, and it would be fake, and C wasn’t around to go with me. I had only been to one wake in my life, and I didn’t like it. My reaction to being sad was to get angry at the rest of the mourners, and when I wasn’t doing that I was breaking down and spilling tears in my coke. But now I regret not going because even if M wasn’t my best friend, he was still a good guy, and I find myself missing him.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

What I've Been Listening To

I have an 8 gig iPod mini, so what I choose to put on it says a lot about what I'm into at a particular moment. Right now hip-hop is winning out with 220 songs. I've been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately. I have the new Vast Aire (of Cannibal Ox fame) to review, and I'm also working on reviews of the new Aztext ep, and have been meaning to review Open Mike Eagle's Unapologetic Art Rap and Madlib's last album for about three months. I also got Pharaoh Monche's new album, which has convinced me that I respect him more than I like him. Maybe if I listen some more.

The album that has been getting heavy rotation is Has-Lo's In Case I don't Make It, which I reviewed last week. I complained in my review of how it was a downer and dragged towards the end, but it has stuck with me. He's a great if understated album, and it is a heartbreaking album. In the same vein, I bought OC's Word...Life. He was a contemporary of Big L and part of the Diggin in the Crates crew, only where Big L excelled at bravado and wicked one liners, OC is a much more thoughtful rapper. I've only given it a few spins, but already I love it.

I'm also loving Big L's Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous. I wrote about it a while ago, but it has stayed on heavy rotation. It's classic 90s East Coast gangsta rap in the vein of the Notorious BIG or Nas, but without the remorse. Big L is rude, crude, and raps about robbing and killing people in the most creative way possible. Here are just a few choice lines:
"This ain't Cali, it's Harlem, nigga, we do walk bys"
"Me bein' a virgin, that's idiotic/cuz if Big L gots the AIDS every cutie in the city got it"
"I wasn't poor, I was Po'/I couldn't afford the O-R."

On a less offensive note, I have also been listening to the new TV on the Radio. I had decided I didn't like them that much after I lost interest in their last album, Dear Science. My problem with them is that they are too complex, and there is too much going on in their songs. Which is an idiotic thing to complain about. Nine Types of Light is a mellower album, but their instrumentation, songwriting, and sound is so rich and rewarding. I'm a fan.

Here's a video someone made for my favorite song on the album, "Keep Your Heart."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Deadverse Massive and Has-Lo Reviews

I reviewed Deadverse Massive's The Takeover for RapReviews this week. It's dalek's crew, an underground rapper I never messed with because I thought he was weirdo art rap. Instead, this is grimy East Coast circa 1995. I was into it. You can find a fan video for their first single here.

I also reviewed Has-Lo's In Case I Don't Make It. It's a heavy, somber record that drags in places but is totally worth it for tracks like "Everything Is."

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