Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Man Enough to Care

I recognized at an early age that the masculine roles being offered me were nothing I was interested in. As a boy I was allowed to be feel angry or horny but not much else. Sadness and empathy were for faggots. Showing the world you gave a shit about anyone or anything was verboten. My friends and I at school spent our time picking on each other and the weak. The roles the older generation had-stoic provider-seemed to leave them helpless when left alone and on a path to be dead by 65. By the time I was in Jr. high I was demanding that my mother teach me how to cook. When I was 17 I decided I needed to move to San Francisco. Though I wasn’t gay, I figured any city full of queers would have space for a wimpy dude who didn’t know the first thing about sports and was more interested in hanging out with girls than dudes. 

Most of my male role models growing up were punks who challenged traditional male roles while providing a trajectory for a redefined and more functional masculinity. Ian MacKaye, who was tough yet sensitive, criticizing the sexist macho thug culture while presenting an image of self-reliance and take-no-shit-ness. Joe Strummer whose lyrics showed an empathy for the underdog, and who managed to embody 50s cool without the sexist trappings of that image. The Subhumans, Crass, 7 Seconds, and Operation Ivy, who all wrote songs that challenged traditional male roles. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Hole, X, even the Go-Gos and Blondie, who all modeled strong female figures. Even Jawbreaker and Green Day, who were sensitive but cool guys who managed to attract cute girls to their shows and show that punk didn’t have to be about macho aggression.

Last week I downloaded an old 7 Seconds song called "Man Enough to Care." It’s from their New Wind album, which is when they were moving away from melodic hardcore and trying to be U2. (Before you laugh, remember that this was when U2 were an alternative band, and one of the reasons Minor Threat broke up is because half the band wanted to be U2 as well - just listen to “Salad Days”). New Wind isn’t an amazing album, but it has some great songs including “Man Enough to Care.” It’s a little punk, a little Bob Dylan, and details the way in which boys are indoctrinated to not have feelings.

Daddy always told you, do it like a man
Never get too friendly,
Some won't understand
'Cause boys don't crave affection,
Boys ain't got no fear
But did they ever show you how to shut those feelings on then off again

The tear-jerker for me is the end of the song, where it talks about how this cycle continues:

Handshake show you're friendly, but don't get caught,
You gotta fight to prove you're not afraid
Fuck just to prove you're not,
And all your life you play this game and it goes on and on and on and on
Now you've grown into a man, proud as hell to be,
It's now your turn to raise a son, don't let him be one
And you can teach him all the things you were taught yourself

And now you gotta hide yourself, hide yourself away,
Show you care and you might show the world that you're only gay,
Crying is for babies, for boys is it a sin,
To be a caring, sharing, loving, human one”

That song is 30 years old, but it still rings true today. Even in the liberal Bay Area I hear parents tell their young sons not to cry, or that pink is for girls, or any number of things that reinforce the idea that they have to suppress emotion and focus on being physical. I hear it in the rap songs I listen to that call anyone that isn’t out making illegitimate children they aren’t going to support or killing other young men of color a faggot. And I saw it in the toxic and confused misogyny that led to the murder of seven people in Isla Vista this weekend. (I’m not reprinting that fuckers name. He’s got too much attention already. Fuck him.)

Another punk song that helped me define my conception of masculinity is Crass’s “Big M.A.N.” It’s a more caustic and polemic take on the traditional male role of violent, stupid, womanizing wife-beater. Maybe an overgeneralization, but I’ve always loved the lines:

“If you're a man, you'd better act like one,
Develop your muscles, use your prick like a gun.
Fuck anything that moves, but never pay the price,
Steal, fuck, slaughter, that's their advice.
Are you man enough? Ask the posters on the walls,
Have you got what it takes? Guts and balls?
Keep your myth of manhood, it's been going on too long,
A history of slaughter is the proof that it is wrong.”

Finally there is Operation Ivy’s “Here We Go Again,” which was the most direct call to action in terms of redefining masculinity:

Analyzed the world I was born into
But I could never understand
Knew I never wanted to grow up if that meant being a "man"
Dominating strict competition is the meaning of our lives
Stomping on the weak keeps us the winner of the battle in our minds
Tensions in our lives that are destroying our minds
Unite themselves together to make our consciousness blind
Conditioned to self-interest with emotions locked away
If that's what they call normal I'd rather be insane
Relax yourself from giving what you want to do with your life
Ease up from giving up things like control of your own mind
If you never ask any question
Then you're never gonna get no answer
Always be wondering what do you want
While you keep getting older faster
Here we go again
Another test of manhood just when you thought you'd won
The more we keep competing
The more the battle has just begun

Of all the things that music, and especially punk music, gave me, one of the most important was the knowledge that there could be another definition of what it meant to be a man that didn't fit in with the stereotype. Fathers, don't raise your babies to grow up to be assholes. Let them know that real men aren't violent. Real men don't intimidate. Real men have feelings. Real men don't rape. Real men treat their mothers, sisters, coworkers, girlfriends, wives, and the women they are trying to pick up with respect. Which means like human beings. It's not actually that hard.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Survival Knife

I've been really enjoying the Unwound reissues, and I was intrigued to see that Unwound singer/guitarist Justin Troper had a new band, Survival Knife. I was even more intrigued to see that they rocked. There is the angularity you'd expect from the guy from Unwound, but Survival Knife's music is rooted in hard rock and metal as much as post-punk.  There is a little Fucking Champs, a little Loose Nut-era Black Flag, and a whole lot of chunky riffs. Who says you have to mellow with age?

And for comparison....

Jessica Lee Mayfield

Jessica Lee Mayfield's 2011 album Tell Me remains one of my favorite albums of the past decade, so I was excited to hear her follow up, Make My Head Sing. Unfortunately, she's ditched producer Dan Auerbach, opting to self-produce this one. The difference shows. There was a warmth and complexity to the production on Tell Me, which added weight to Mayfield's airy vocals and nicely balanced her rock, country, and folk influences.

Make My Head Sing has strong songs, but too often they get lost in the production. Songs like "Oblivious" "Pure Stuff," and "Anything You Want" work the best. They are grounded in chunky, grungy guitars, and sound like she's being backed by the surviving members of Nirvana. It's the quieter songs that suffer the most from Auerbach's absence. As a result, Make My Head Sing is not a bad album, but it's also not as amazing as Tell Me.

Atmosphere Review

Originally posted at

Rhymsayers, 2014

Atmosphere have mellowed since the days that Slug used to rap about his romantic troubles, sexual escapades, and tendencies towards over-consumption of booze, cigarettes, and drugs. This mellowing has happened over time. After a 2003 incident in which a young woman was raped and killed by a janitor at an Atmosphere show in New Mexico, Slug’s lyrics got more serious and less sexually irresponsible. A series of copyright lawsuits convinced Ant to stop digging crates for beats and start working with live musicians. Turning 40, getting married, and having kids was the final nail in the coffin of Atmosphere’s younger, smart-ass persona. There’s nothing worse than an aging hipster and you don’t want to be the 40 year old who still parties like he lives in a fraternity. 

Atmosphere have put aside childish things as they’ve matured, and their sound reflects that. 2008’s “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold” was their first foray into Grown Man Rap. It was a collection of downtempo, muted explorations of poverty, abuse, and other studies of imperfect characters. 2011’s “The Family Sign” kept the somber tone and focused on families, including good relationships, abusive relationships, and bad daddies. 
They continue on the same trajectory with their seventh album, “Southsiders.” Those hoping that the duo would return to the more uptempo feel of “Bam” or “We Love the Things That Hate Us” are in for disappointment. Most of “Southsiders” is as grey and depressing as the neighborhood it is named after (at least if liner photos are accurate). 

“Bitter,” the first single from “Southsiders,”. “Bitter” is also the album’s weakest track. Slug’s sing/rapping sounds like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, another group who have mellowed with age. The chorus is terrible, the lyrics aren’t great, and it sounds like an outtake from “Lemons” or “The Family Sign.” On hearing it I had to wonder if Atmosphere destined to keep writing the same ballad over and over again like the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been doing since “Under the Bridge?” Second single “Kanye West,” is better, but not great. It also points to the two biggest weaknesses of “Southsiders” as a whole.

The first is the beat. “Kanye West,” like “Bitter,” like almost all of the songs on their last three albums, is downtempo and dour. It is the opposite of a banger. It is not the song you put on when you want to get pumped up or feel like you can conquer the world. It is not meant for the club. It will not start a street dance craze. Of the fifteen songs on the proper album, only two of them (the title track and “The World Might End Tonight”) could be said to be uptempo. Everything else is either mid- or downtempo, which gives the album a subdued feel. That’s not to say they are bad (more on that later),  but they aren’t exactly energetic.

The second issue with “Southsiders” that is evident in “Kanye West” is that Slug is struggling lyrically. Too often on the album he relies on irony (saying “put your hands up if you DO give a fuck” on “Kanye West,” rather than the more common “put your hands in the air if you just don’t care”), cliche, or making no sense. “Star Shaped Heart” has a line “The handprints are bloody/Because the puppy outran the bunny” which almost ruins what is otherwise a good song. Even “Flicker,” a powerful song about the rapper Eyedea, who committed suicide in 2010, has some seriously dubious lines like “When I hear your smile it’s outlined in sadness/You poked holes in the magic.” There are many adjectives I’d use to describe Slug’s lyrics - self-punishing, insightful, sincere, nakedly honest, cynical, poetic - but cheesy is not one I’d normally use. Yet there are several moments on “Southsiders” where Slug is downright cheesy.

Those criticism aside, “Southsiders” is still an Atmosphere record, which means it ultimately redeems itself. Slug always manages to kick you in the guts with his rhymes. Even when he’s depressing, Ant still maintains an old-school feel in his beats even when he’s working with guitars and synthesizers. He might build a track entirely around reverbing guitar, but you better believe it is going to have banging drums. His beats hit hard even when they are mellow. The  bluesy wail and handclaps of “Arthur’s Song” might not work well for dancing on a pole, but they hit you where it counts. The piano and synthesizers of “Fortunate” manage to convey a sense of hope and promise that matches Slug’s lyrics. By sampling live instruments, Ant manages to capture both the homey feel of analog instruments and the percussive repetition that comes from flipping breaks. “Southsiders” may not be the most exciting album, but it sounds good.

And then there is Slug. Slug is a consistently interesting rapper, and one of the few MCs who are willing and able to tackle such personal subject matter. His domestic bliss may have dulled his edge, but he still manages to offer biting insights into the human condition with serious microphone skills. He can be neurotic: on “Fortunate” he raps, “I highly doubt y’all think about sex anywhere near as often as I think about death.” He spends a lot of the album analyzing friendship, what it means to get older, romantic relationships, and how to keep moving forward when the whole world seems like it is going to shit. When he’s flossing, he’s dropping knowledge with his daggers. “Southsiders” is a takedown/love letter to the neighborhood he came up in, and Slug sounds like an OG calling out all the young kids:

“Whole Southside been up in your guts
Don’t even know how to describe how much you suck
And it’s not just you but everyone of your plus
Follow each other around like a bunch of ducks
Just turn the music up and get dumb
Stretch your skin around the biggest drum
Born from a neighborhood of click and run
And already gave away my last stick of gum”

I pre-ordered a physical copy of “Southsiders” even after I had spent a week streaming it for free. I rarely buy CDs anymore, but I knew I needed a hard copy of this album. For one thing, Rhymesayers always puts a lot of care into their physical product, making it worth the purchase price. For another thing, while Atmosphere may stumble at times, they get it right enough to make anything they do worth listening to and worth paying attention to.  While the line in “Flicker” about poking holes in the magic is a misstep, Slug closes strong:

And now I’m trying to write a song for a dead songwriter
That wrote they own songs about life and death
And every breath is full of self-awareness
Don't ever be afraid to be embarrassed
So I wrote these words to describe what I cry about
But I’m certain if you were here right now you’d ridicule these lyrics
You’d hate this chorus
You’d probably tell me that the concept is too straight forward”

It’s lines like that that keep me coming back to Atmosphere’s music, and make “Southsiders” another solid entry into the Atmosphere catalogue, warts and all.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sage the Gemini Review

I reviewed Sage the Gemini's Remember Me this week at RapReviews.

If you listen to the one of the local hip-hop stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, nine times out of ten the song playing is either Sage the Gemini’s “Gas Pedal” or “Red Nose.” Those songs are so ubiquitous that Sage has admitted in interviews that he’s sick of hearing them. He worked hard to be at a point where his songs are driving people nuts. The 21-year old dropped out of high school in Fairfield, California to focus on music full time, and it took five long years before “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose” finally took off in 2013. 

“Remember Me,” which dropped in March, collects several songs that were on 2013’s “Gas Pedal EP” plus nine new tracks (thirteen if you buy the deluxe version). Sage uses the album to prove that there is more to him than making songs to get girls shaking their asses. 

Musically, the songs on “Remember Me” stick close to the template that has earned him a spot in the Top 40: stripped-down, pulsing beats with a keyboard providing melody. It’s a sound that can trace its roots to hyphy staples like “Vans” and “Blow The Whistle,” as while as the Neptunes minimalist classic “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”  He also throws in some hi-hats, snare snaps and synthesizers. He favors ambient elements over dance elements, which gives his compositions a dreamy feel. Sage the Gemini’s music mirrors his lyrical persona: laid-back, a little street and a little romantic. P-Lo, League of Starz, the Exclusives, and Jay Ant also take the boards. The wistful beat on “Mad At Me,” the punishing 808s of “Down On Your Luck,” and the whining gangsta lean of “Second Hand Smoke” show that Sage is as adept at choosing beats as he is at making them.

“Remember Me” delivers somewhat on its promise to show that there is more to Sage than booty anthems. There are several songs where Sage flexes his newfound money and fame at the people who ignored him when he was coming up. The title track is Sage the high school dropout saying nyah nyah to the people at his school, bragging about his success and proclaiming ‘“Cool bro, bitch I’m a nerd!”“Second Hand Smoke” is about how he has tried to avoid the streets, proclaiming “I can’t handle the pen unless it’s a record deal.”  “Go Somewhere” is a surprisingly romantic song from a guy whose biggest hit asks women to dance like dogs:

“Excuse me? I know you don’t care
But I saw you from across the room
And I just want to say I like your hair
Maybe some time we can go somewhere?”

His range only goes so far, however. Sage has said in interviews that he doesn’t really drink, smoke, or hang out in the club. That’s odd considering that many of the songs on this album reference drinking and smoking in the VIP section of clubs. Sage and his HBK crew fall into the same trap a lot of younger rappers fall into,  dropping the same twenty references to luxury goods, smoking blunts, drinking champagne, and getting with bad bitches in the club. There is a rigidity and conservativeness to the subject matter that is at odds with how expansive the music is. Maybe it’s a product of being 21. At that age, what more to life is there but girls, partying, and hanging out with your friends? And do we really want to hear songs about hungover Mondays and working shit jobs to pay the rent?

It’s frustrating that so many of the songs stick to the same cliched themes because Sage can actually rap. He’s got a low-key charm, spitting his rhymes effortlessly. He sounds like a dude who knows what he is doing, not some kid who is barely old enough to buy his own liquor. “Remember Me” isn’t a perfect album, but it has some great songs and a lot of promise. Sage the Gemini has established himself as an artist worth remembering.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Child and His Lawnmower

I got into two separate online debates with gun enthusiasts in the comments sections this week. The first was in an article on ProPublica about a guy who is trying to study gun violence. My point was:

... to me, killing people is wrong, and guns are far more likely to be used in crimes, suicides, or accidents than in self-defense. If you feel so unsafe that you can't go to Starbucks without packing heat, the answer isn't more guns.

The second was in an NPR article about a shooting at a FedEx facility in Georgia.  Several people noted that this was a gun-free zone, to which I commented sarcastically that clearly the answer to gun violence is always more guns. 

I'm not uniformly anti-gun. I'm anti-gun for my family, but I understand that the 2nd amendment guarantees Americans the right to bear arms, and that most gun owners are responsible and hopefully not nut jobs who are preparing for the race war when Obama tries to put everyone in FEMA death camps (if you think I'm joking, look up "preppers").  There are even a few pro-gun commenters who point out some of the mistakes and errors in the gun control crowd's arguments (i.e. not knowing an assault rifle from a shotgun). And they aren't wrong when they say that many more people are accidentally killed by cars than accidentally killed by guns. For the most part, however, the pro-gun commenters in any online article about guns, no matter how moderate and reasonable, scream and howl about how they can't protect themselves unless they have a mini nuke in their back yard and are allowed to have a bead on people with their AK-47 AT ALL TIMES.

The answer to the gun problem in America is not more guns. It is not to make it so that everyone everywhere at all times can be fully strapped. It's ironic that the gun lobby makes fun of how gun control advocates "sensationalize" mass shootings to call for stricter gun regulations, while using those same mass shootings as evidence that we need looser gun laws so everyone can be "safe." And that statistic the NRA loves to throw around that 2.5 million defensive gun uses by citizens? It's based on extrapolating a 225 person survey from 20 years ago.  In other words, utter bullshit.

But enough ranting. All this gun talk has me thinking of two songs that address the matter. The first is the Dead Kennedys "A Child and His Lawnmower," from the Not So Quiet In the Western Front Maximum Rock n Roll Comp and their Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death collection. It's a short blast from their hardcore phase, and the lyrics describe the kind of weird news story that singer Jello Biafra used to collect for his Fuck Facts collages. 

"Some clown in Sacramento was dragged into court
He shot his lawnmower
It disobeyed
It wouldn't start
Might makes right
It's the American Way
Judge fined him 50 dollars
And sent him on his way"

It was the chorus that has stuck with me to my adulthood:

"You know some people
Don't take no shit
Maybe if they did
They'd have half a brain left"

It's a similar sentiment from what Ice Cube raps at the end of "Dead Homiez"

"So I take everything slow
Go with the flow
Shut my muthafuckin' mouth if I don't know"

As I got older I realized it was a variation both on the Christian idea of turning the other cheek, and the Buddhist idea of being generous with people and not giving in to hate and anger. There's also an element of that business maxim "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." The point isn't to be passive and let people walk all over you, but that if you constantly walk around with your dick out looking for a fight, you'll probably find one. And not live that long or happy an existence,

Secondly, there's the video to El-P's "Deep Space 9mm." When every people salivate over concealed carry laws and call for armed guards in schools, I imagine that this is the future they want.

Blog Archive