Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

Order restored

May 31, 2008

With the addition of a new network card, via a new computer, and the inclusion of an Apple Time Machine to my world, I’ve finally restored some normalcy to my own WWW. No more manipulating the rabbit ears to check my email.

My inconsistent WWW over the previous month has left me feeling a bit out of the loop. I’m not sure how accurate my own perception is, however. I’ve still managed to procure Tanya Morgan’s The Bridge, Kidz in the Hall’s, The In Crowd, Al Green’s Lay It Down, Jackson Conti’s Sujinho, and most recently, Common Market’s Black Patch War. I’d say that’s a pretty good yield for a month. Isn’t it interesting that there’s an apparent correlation between my WWW access and music acquisition? I can’t say I saw this coming in 1998, when I was still racing to Music in Your Ear on Thayer St. with my boy Skillz to cop Blackstar and The Love Movement.

Thanks to WTR for throwing that Common Markets track out there. I’ve been listening to Black Patch War for literally 24 straight hours. Sabzi’s production is a subtle throwback. Kind of reminds me of late 1990’s Shawn J. Period, employing lots of floating horns, flutes, scratches, etc. And RA Scion makes me think of Talib Kweli without the nasal congestion. Feel of album is akin to the contemporary-old school-feel goodness that has been coming out of the Pacific NW, see Blue Scholars & Ohmega W-W-Watts, Watts. (Note: I’ve also added Common Market, conveniently located on the WWW too).

Al Green’s Lay It Down. Talk about a throwback. Maybe I’m an ageist, but I usually don’t get too amped when old school cats come out with new albums. It’s a long story I suppose, but in short, it has something to do with the given, now-aged artist, attempting to contemporize their style in a new context. It’s a tough task. Or…maybe I am just an ageist…(or maybe I just have the bad tastes of Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige in mind). Whatever the case, Lay It Down exudes the familiar Al Green of I’m Still In Love With You…30+ years later. Much of this credit of course is due to the man himself. His voice is as smooth as ever. Green’s adlibs are fresh. The man is soulful. The title track, featuring Anthony Hamilton, has Green all over the musical scale, but it works just as it did on “Call Me.” On the production side, The Randy Watson Experience (James Poyser & Questlove) continue to make amazing music. The backdrop they provide Lay It Down preserves Al Green’s soulful crooning. Some how they manage to capture soul of Green’s early days within a 2008 context. At points through Lay It Down, it’s difficult to date the song. That’s the definition of timeless.

Sujinho brings together Madlib and Brazillian drummer/percussionist Mamao, as Jackson Conti (their respective last names). Sujinho is Madlib doing his homework. This isn’t him simply diggin’ through some crates and putting a YNQ spin on some old standard, or concealing some 1964 drumline in some far-out, Quasimoto-Monk Hughes amalgamation. This is Madlib, as Otis Jackson, being the music fan and doing his homework; traveling to South America; eating local cuisine; and kickin’ with an old-school drummer. The result plays like a jam session. Sure, it’s got that now-classic YNQ style to it – the indiscrete shifts in tracks, the occasionally discordance of sounds – but this time, you can hear that more than one person and his imaginary friends are playing together. Madlib and Mamao have made what I presume all jazz-fusion albums of the 60’s and 70’s were like. A few dudes getting together and trading industry secrets, and experimenting. This is nicely demonstrated on “Brazillian Sugar.” Honestly, I’m still digesting the final product. While I’m not a music theorist and cannot dissect the the technicalities, I can judge feelings sounds provide; the overall sound is dynamic, feel-good, & is a perfect Spring-Summer soundtrack.


Morning cuppa Go…

January 17, 2008

Been meaning to compile a list of morning tracks that get me going on my 5 mile commute to work. Kyle and I have traded tracks for years now, when our sleep cycle is stoked by a particular “morning” track – I think I’d be doing a good service to share them, you know, in case anyone is looking for a musical pick-me-up in the morning. Please feel free to post your own in the comments, I’m always looking for a new morning cuppa go…(these aren’t presented in any particular order) “Okra” by Olu Dara (from 1998’s In the World: From Natchez to New York) – Olu does is damn thing here, with this sense-sational track that awakens more than the eyes. This laidback, breezy track reminds me summer days sitting in my uncle’s apple orchard, eating fresh strawberries and plums; and that cornet…like coffee teasing the olfactory sense. “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela (from Still Grazing) – probably one of the more recognizable trumpet melodies, Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is one of the most invigorating tracks in my music collection and man, you have to love the cowbell. If I were a producer, I’d make the cowbell my signature piece. I would say this could be considered a standard, as it’s been covered by several artists, since it was first written in the mid-1960’s; if you prefer the harmonica, check out Eivets Rednow’s version from 1968’s “Alfie.” (yeah, that Stevie Wonder). I can’t think of anything off-hand that has sampled this, other than this from Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t a Damned Thing Changed. “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield (from Curtis) – Kanye did us all a service by bringing a much-deserved light to this gem. Mayfield actually has a few candidates for the A.M., but the horns on this certainly move it up the list. “Work to Do” – Kidz in the Hall – ill soul-sample; empowering message; beat that instills optimism. This is a great track to pump when you know you’ve got a contentious meeting waiting for you. “I Was Made to Love Her” – Stevie Wonder (from I Was Made to Love Her) – What can I say? I love Stevie and I love how Stevie seemed like he was always singing for the last time ever. This is a great example of why soul of the 60’s and 70’s trumps the majority of “soul” or “R&B” today – you can’t help but believe Stevie loves Susie; most contemporary cats don’t get this aspect of singing. Thank God for cats like Dwele. “Starlite” by Panacea (from Ink is My Drink) – love the pace of the beat and the effervescence of the melody. “Jaimerais” by Hocus Pocus (from 73 Touches) – it’s in French, I have no idea what he’s rhymin’ about (or if he’s even rhymin’), but I reckon it’s some tale of lost love (?). The melody and chorus create a care-free sound, and the horns put the nail in the coffin for this being a morning classic. I swear, that singer sounds like Vinia Mojica…but I have nothing to back it up. “Me, Myself, & I” by De La Soul (from 3 Feet High and Rising) – if you don’t know, you better ask somebody “Won’t Do” by J Dilla (from The Shining) – there are a slew of Dilla-produced tracks that make their way into the A.M. playlist, e.g. SV’s “Raise it Up,” but this is one of my favorites. Great sample! And Dilla, on the hook! “Whatever You Say” by Little Brother (from The Listening) – if this beat doesn’t conjure buds, bees, and birds, and all things related to the seeds of amorous feelings, the good old vernal equinox, then I’m through. Phonte’s non-rhyming verse is classic in my book, and 9th killed this…as with the majority of tracks on that album.That list is not exhaustive of course, but it’s a good start to any morning. Throw them on a playlist, and enjoy better days in 30 days or less…Peace

Soul is good for your health

August 29, 2007

I’m trying to get my RDA of soul, not that I need it – I’ve been bumpin’ Stevie, Curtis, & Dwele for about 72 hours – but capitalizing on it’s salubrious sound nonetheless. Soul is great, because unlike, say, chocolate, too much is never bad for you; but similar to chocolate, it’s condusive to remarkable tastes, perpetual good moods, and in the right context, amorous exploits.

While I’m a huge Dwele fan, and have been pushing (at least to myself) to get a Dwele post on TT, I need to pay some respect to Bilal. Remember him? Him & Raphael Saadiq freaked us with “Soul Sista,” and he even was nice enough show up on Common’s LWFC, including what I consider one of the smoothest, illest interludes in the history of music, which coincidentally closed out one of my favorite Dilla beats, “Funky For You.” Not to take away from that song (excellent track!), but I used to fast forward to about the 4:32 mark so I can get a quick listen to Bilal pleading with somebody that it was “going to be okay” right before I walked into class. Brilliant voice!

Earlier tonight I was dyin’ for something smooth (duh). I found a cover of EWF’s “Can’t Hide Love,” featured on Interpretations: Celebrating The Music of Earth, Wind, & Fire, revisited by The Randy Watson Experience (Quest & James Poyser), and featuring Bilal. A few thoughts: first, I love Quest’s perspective on music (definitely aware of that ill “something” that makes classic soul so f*cking cool), and I love the prospects of him and Poyser producing an entire album under the Experience. I could be wrong, but I think Poyser also joined Quest on Pharrel’s Out Of My Mind, which really is a great listening experience.

Anyway, so I’ve been bumpin’ the most recent incarnation of “Can’t Hide Love” with Bilal teasing the listener: I’ve never heard anyone say he couldn’t sing. To me, Bilal is the quintessential soul/jazz singer. At one minute, he’s voice is smooth and dips down into the “holy crap this sounds amazing” part of the body. And then a few moments later, he can stir that same part of the body into an uncomfortable, yet intriguing, frenzy dancing between various tones/harmonies/[insert appropriate musical theory term here]. Whether you’re a music expert or not, you know what I’m talking about when it happens, and Bilal is a master at it. (Refer back to 1st Born Second’s “Love Poems” versus “Second Child,” and compare how he conveys two contradictory moods with his voice. Note: “Slyde” is one of my favorite tracks – “I’ve been eyein’ you for a long time, and I don’t think you really understand, that I’m just so fucking in love with you…” Amazing.)

Besides knowing that there are label issues floating around Bilal, I don’t know the specifics about the delay of his supposed sophomore album, Love For Sale. What I do know is that whenever I see his name as a featured guest, I am sure to grab the track(s). On Sa-Ra’s The Hollywood Recordings, the Bilal featured “Sweet & Sour” is one of my favorite tracks: Sa-Ra’s synth production really is a great match for Bilal’s unpredictable delivery.

So, in a roundabout sort of way, that’s what I’ve been listening to for most of this evening. RWE’s “Can’t Hide Love,” EWF’s “Can’t Hide Love (always love hearing the contrast, regardless how subtle they may be…it’s worth noting that the horn section that closes out the Randy Watson Experience version is simply amazing (starts around the 3′ mark).

Other tracks that have been on steady play today include Dwele’s “Weekend Love,” from Some Kinda… (the trombone in the beginning IS soul as far as I’m concerned), and Raheem DeVaughn’s “Guess Who Loves You More.” If you’re not familiar with it, Raheem (probably best known for his cameos on Jazzy Jeff projects, e.g. “Love Savior” from The Magnificent) has a classic falsetto sound, and his casual delivery on that song IS also soul.

Common & Patrice Rushen & Joe Henderson

August 20, 2007

  My roomie from college is a jazz man. And as such, he’s been a valuable source of information over the previous few years as I’ve delved deeper into that genre (Went to my first jazz show with him in 1998, Joshua Redman…also went with his then girlfriend and future wife). Anyway, a while back, maybe in 2004, John put me onto Joe Henderson, whose Page One as become one of my favorite albums (“Out Of The Night” is ridiculous).

Fastforward to the other day – I get back from a trip and instead of unpacking, I get caught in one of my zones where I need to research an individual’s discography, including random contributions credited to him or her. Joe Henderson was my target. (I couldn’t get “Blue Bossa” out of my head on the return trip). Lo & behold, my trek some how brought up a familar name: Patrice Rushen. Now honestly, the only thing I really know about her is she is an R&B singer/songwriter, whose credits include 1982’s “Remind Me,” which Ynot sampled for Common’s 1997, “Reminding Me (Of Self).” With me so far?

To my surprise, it turns out that Patrice Rushen broke into the music industry as a jazz musician, handling the piano and keyboards; she put out three albums (all on Prestige) as leader before breaking into R&B/Soul with Elektra.

The tie with Joe Henderson, you may have guessed, is that he was on saxophone for her debut album, Preclusion, in 1974. I’ve yet to get into the album but I’m pretty excited to hear it.

Nina Simone, the truth!

July 30, 2007

I have been thinking about getting back to TT for a minute now…and what a way to return! I swear man, Nina is the rare singer that can send chills up my spine. One thing that particularly interests me about Nina (and several of her contemporaries, particularly within jazz) was her intimiate relationship with the civil rights movement. Her cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” “Backlash Blues,” one of my favorites, and her tribute to MLK Jr., “Why (The King of Love is Dead” are but a few examples, but it seems for her, music certainly was a weapon of the people. This 1965 performance of “Four Women” is ridiculous!

RE: “Talent”

April 30, 2007

Not only does Madlib make crazy beats (plenty of hot beats out there) but his willingness to experiment – to take an accepted sound, and totally flip it around, interpolating seemingly incongruent samples with synths, and singers who can’t really sing – some how, through Madlib’s ears, sounds colorful and deep.

Kyle’s certainly right in that Madlib isn’t easily digested to all listeners. But I think across his discography, his respect and knowledge of music are evident – and I think it’s those qualities that make this project, and others, e.g. Quas, YNQ, brilliant. When I listen to much of his work, I don’t hear arrogance; but I do hear somebody who has the freedom to do as he wishes with his sound, and it is refreshing to hear an artist utilize the full spectrum of his artistic freedom. As it is, Dudley Perkins is a nice fit for Madlib’s production because his sound and style are as incongruent as some of the other ingredients Madlib uses…

You won’t find too many bigger Madlib advocates than me. He’s one of those rare contemporary musicians that is timeless, in that, you could take him and place him in any decade be it 20’s, 40’s, or 60’s (or anywhere in between) and he’d make hot shit. He’s got that ear and desire to push music boundaries, a la John Coltrane. Some jazz critics (back late 50’s) suggested that Coltrane was too unbridled and his sound was incongruent; he was constantly experimenting with sounds, e.g. trying different reeds, biting on them, etc.

In the words of Miles Davis (of John Coltrane), Madlib’s also a “bad mother fucker.”


April 25, 2007

Kyle & I have been pluggin’ away here (admittedly, more Kyle as my semester is over tomorrow). TT will be back with more tapes for y(our) ears. It’s difficult to find time to pull some words together on the recent pick, DP’s A Lil’ Light, as my listening has been punctuated by school-related reading & work-related…work. Furthermore, the dialogue that Kyle & I have been sharing has been focused on all the publicity that hip hop has been receiving in the shadow of Don Imus’ comment/firing. While the comment was idiotic, the aftermath, in my opinion, has been productive. There have been numerous conversations across all media outlets on the message(s) that spew forth from popular hip hop music. Kyle & I have been on top of this before Imus and as a hip hop fan, I’m encouraged by the all the discussion (from blogs, to radio, to Oprah and news outlets). The opinions have varied but the discussion is necessary to address the real problem, which I think is the fact that an entire community has gone beyond complacency, and is advocating a culture that is violent, misogynistic, and teaches its young to devalue education, authority, and women. The time of displacing responsibility has passed. It is time for the hip hop community to look at this problem introspectively. I’m pleased to see influential people like Rev. Al & Russell speaking out on this important issue.

In addition to the news, my music listening has also changed gears a bit as I’ve delved into the jazz scene. I am currently reading Ashley Kahn’s A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. While not a fluid read (it reads kind of like a journal), it provides an excellent account of the background and context that birthed Coltrane’s masterpiece. I’m not all that well versed in music theory or technical jazz terms, but Kahn does a good job of breaking the music down and I’ve really begun to listen to and appreciate the tracks all that much more. As I read Kahn’s description of 1959 jazz releases, I couldn’t help but conceptualize that period as akin to the early 90’s Golden Era, or vice versa. The work that came out in the late 50’s, by most jazz standards, is considered some of the best. I’ve been exposed to some great albums (currently listening to Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and loving it). Through my blog travels, I came across this the other day and thought it was appropriate to what I was thinking. Needless to say, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has been ascending my list of favorite albums for a few years now and Kahn’s breakdown facilitates this progress – “Acknowledgment” amazes me and for me, is great as a late night track, or an early morning one. (Admittedly, I’m still partial to “Say It (Over & Over Again)” from Ballads but “Acknowledgment” is making it’s way up the list fast). I’ve been a peripheral jazz fan for a few years now but really become more focused on it over the last few months. Coincidentally or not, I’ve enjoyed the escape from the pop hip hop scene and Coltrane, Mingus, & Colemen have been a comfortable immersion.

With that said, I assure you that Kyle & I will be talkin’ hip hop shortly. My spidey sense tells me that Sa Ra’s The Hollywood Recordings may be in Trading Tapes future. I have copped it and through two listens am really diggin’ the fresh vibe. “Hey Love” & “Sweet Sour You,” with Bilal are the standouts early on…as is the renewed “So Special.”

Review: ISWHAT?! “The Life We Chose”

March 19, 2007

ISWHAT?! – “The Life We Choose”
Hyena Records (2006)

They’re probably much better live.

ISWHAT?!‘s second LP, “The Life We Chose” provides ample evidence for this half-compliment. The album’s only two live tracks–“Kashmir” (yeah, that Kashmir) and “Pilgrimage”–really capture the energy and originality of their stage act. While I might ask for a better quality recording (it almost sounds like there was only one mic), these tracks really shine insofar they showcase emcee Napoleon Maddux’s jazz beatboxing skills and the avant garde jazz skills of saxophonist Jack Walker and bassist Matt Anderson.

But ISWHAT?! is also a hip-hop/jazz fusion act, so what of the other tracks? Well, for better and worse, they’re all over the place. Overall, emcee Napoleon spits the usual leftist, socially-conscious rapper screed: calling attention to the corporations and corrupt politicians conspiring to keep everyone poor, particularly minorities (the artists say that politics actually brought them together in the first place). But he also takes some time to call out hip-hop culture for its own foibles (discussed at length on this site all week). I’ve spent some time commending Napoleon for using this medium to talk about issues of consequence, so I do not pass judgment on these views. I’m just happy that he can offer a message of critical thought, political awareness, and social responsibility.

But let’s get into the music. After starting off with the Kashmir cover, the first studio track on the album is, “Casket”– a punchy, energetic song with Napoleon spitting what is mostly a braggadocio, uplifting, I’m-staying-positive-in-spite-of-the-hard-times kind of message. The keys and the sax make for a smooth melody, and the bass lines are aggressive (as they are consistently throughout the album). But ultimately “Casket” just sounds overproduced. To me, ISWHAT?! sounds best when they are stripped down to their core elements. Here however, you have some pretty generic scratches, the melodic but powdery keys, a moog-type rock organ that sounds like its from a Fatboy Slim track, and a repetitive beatboxing all crowding the song, trying to sound polished. Perhaps they thought this would be commercially viable, as I’ve suggested, but this is one of those places where you should just stick to what you do best.

Immediately following Casket is “Profiles”, a track that I love, and that I’ve discussed before. I’ll reiterate here that I believe that this where the ISWHAT?! experiment truly shines. It’s just drums, bass, sax, and some scratches accompanying Napoleon. It’s really stripped down, reminiscent of something from The Roots’ debut “Organix” and there definitely will be times when you do hear Black Thought in Napoleon’s delivery and flow. It’s additionally noteworthy that there’s no hook on this track–simply Jack Walker’s ode to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Contrast this with the instances where ISWHAT?! tries to organize its song in a more traditional hip-hop formula, with a hook driven arrangement, and mostly lackluster results. (See: “K.N.O.C.K” and “Ill Biz”). The hooks are often just monotonous and not credible in a hip-hop sense.

When I say that the tracks are all over the place, it’s because of songs like “Front.” Here, Napoleon is rhyming over a polished trance beat that sounds like it could have came from Paul van Dyk. There is the occasional wawa-ed sax from Walker, but otherwise it just isn’t original sounding enough to persuade me to genre-hop so abruptly.

The title track “The Life We Chose” is well-done, and stands as an exception to the awful hooks found elsewhere on the album. The main melody is provided by another wawa-ed sax from Walker and it works really well, weaving in and out, from the background to the foreground (the same goes for a harmonized vocal element humming an eerie “oooooh, oooooooooh” kind of thing). The drums really knock too, and at times they sound like they are being punched in with a sampler. Overall, the entire beat is seemingly in a state of constant change, and it really keeps you interested.

The theme for “The Life We Chose” also interests me, because it seems to belie the politics discussed elsewhere on the album. This sort of message of self-responsibility–that we “choose” the path that our life ultimately takes–seems to suggest that life’s struggles are of our own creation. It seems to me the message is intended to promote empowerment (if we choose it, we can change it), but that may contradict the marxist-type arguments that appear elsewhere, suggesting that higher powers (corporations, government) are in control and responsible for our social ills. Perhaps he’s just talking about the hip-hop game. I’m confused, so take a look at the lyrics on the hook and decide for yourself:

so you a boxer with a broken nose
hands up, this is the life we chose
hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes
dress up, this is the life we chose
a farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow
dig up, this is the life we chose
grab tissue, face issues and fight your foe
cause you know this is the life we chose

Other solid tracks to check for include “Mooch” (Pete discusses it here), “Pilgrimage” (I discuss it here), “The Voice Within”, and “Writer’s Block” (I discuss it here).

But what do all of these tracks have in common? Napoleon doesn’t rhyme on them. Ditto for “Kashmir” as was discussed above. And I don’t necessarily think he’s a poor emcee, it’s just that this album doesn’t showcase his rhyming talent well enough. I will say however, that sometimes he sounds like he’s going too fast and his delivery suffers (lines don’t get the proper emphasis, others sound rushed, that kind of thing). But dude can rhyme, and he has this super unique, half Dougie Fresh/half scat-singing beatbox style going for him. It’s just that I don’t come away from this album saying, damn get this guy a solo album.

Overall, I think “The Life We Chose” is a good effort, and an interesting composition, but it is ultimately a flawed album. The song styles can be all over the place and the attempts at traditional hip-hop sounding tracks are sub-par. The band shines on the stripped down tracks that either a) are live, or b) sound like they could have been live. That is to say, I think IsWhat?! has good thing going, but their attempt to put together a studio album falls short here.

I give the album 3.0 out of 5.0 Tapes.

New Track

March 16, 2007

After a couple weeks of listening, my general feeling about ISWHAT?! is that they’re probably better live. With that being said, the two live tracks on “The Life We Choose” are solid, with my favorite being “Pilgrimage.”

ISWHAT?! – “Pligrimige” (iTunes)

Napoleon really rips it up with the beat box here, and the scratches are on point (contrast this with the rather generic scratches and beatboxing on “Casket”). Really, everybody comes with it on this energetic track, and it’s just evidence that these guys must be an interesting act to catch live.

Napoleon notes at the outset that this track is an interpretation of Andrew Lamb’s “Pilgrimage.” Once you go back to the original, it’s obvious that the beatboxing on this track is mimicking the brash rhythms on the Andrew Lamb track. And he does one heck of a job with a difficult task.

This has been one of my favorites so far, and I highly recommend it.


New Track

March 15, 2007

Moving on, one of my favorites tracks so far has been “Profiles” and I thought I’d discuss it here.

ISWHAT?! – “Profiles” (iTunes)

Here is where I think Napoleon, Jack Walker, and Matt Anderson are at their best. Napoleon spits a verse that is the verbal equivalent of weekend people-watching in Washington Square Park. His flow is emphatic and works really well here. The drums knock (we’re spared the beatboxing) and the upright bass is excellent yet again (there’s something about rhyming over an upright bass arrangement that is so hip-hop–no songs are coming to mind, but I know there’s a ton from the golden era). Overall, there’s a cohesiveness to this track that is lacking on some others. It brings the unorthodox and improvisational elements of jazz, and does it without sounding impromptu and slap-dash. It’s polished, but not formulaic. That’s what good hip-hop/jazz fusion should strive for, in my opinion.

And I finally figured out where that sax melody came from, though it didn’t take much digging: Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Somewhat coincidentally, I come to the ISWHAT?! album on the heels of a relatively lengthy jazz phase in which I took the time to really dive into Coltrane’s catalog. In some ways, I suspect that this album has been a bridge for me, carrying me back into a steady hip-hop diet over the last few weeks.

John Coltrane – “Giant Steps” (iTunes)


The Line

March 14, 2007

First, just to touch upon the question Kyle about where ISWHAT?! lies (“Said differently, does hip-hop/jazz fusion get its own wing in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame or the Jazz Hall of Fame?”) The fact the question has been raised as to whether something is hip hop (or jazz in this case) suggests, to me at least, that hip hop has extended beyond its once, clearly defined territory. Hip hop is no longer separate; some insoluble sound sitting at the bottom of the musical world (as some may have wanted it to stay). It has been absorbed into the worlds of jazz, rock & roll, pop, alternative, etc. While it once may have been considered by some a phase that would pass (whoops), hip hop has grown from the fruit at the top of the musical tree, and now has it’s own branches stretching from it.

Kyle will tell you that I often make quick judgments when I hear something, particularly when that something is displeasing. But I love hip hop and this blurring of boundaries is a positive sign for the music. I think this is especially true in cases like ISWHAT?! I interpret it as contemporary hip hop looking down its own ancestral tree and respecting the history; realizing that where it came from what a pretty damn dope place. And who can argue when you hear a modern beat built around a sample from a trumpeter in 1955? It’s interesting that on The Life We Chose, Napolean dedicates a lot of his effort around poking holes in hip hop, specifically the cookie-cutting that Kyle mentioned. It’s paradoxical – here you have an emcee bringing light to the circus (more on that in a minute) that is hip hop, yet at the same time, proving that hip hop is strong, artistic, individualistic…despite the “tamin’ & trainin'” that goes on. ISWHAT?!’s embrace of hip hop’s past, jazz (even, as Napolean explains, signing to the same label that Thelonious Monk was on), reminds me that hip hop is legit.

At any rate, that brings me to “Circus.” Kyle and I have exchanged a few remarks on the track, particularly the hysterical woman (presumably a mother who has lost her son) that dominates nearly the entire second half of the track. Upon first listen, I couldn’t help focusing on the her crying. My initial reaction was, “ugh, studio acting…” Simultaneously, I was disturbed. It was awful listening to this woman wail about the loss of her son.

ISWHAT?! – “Circus” (iTunes)

I interpret two messages of “Circus.” First, similar to “Writer’s Block,” it works as a commentary on hip hop, likening it to a circus (of course):

“We full of popcorn and pop videos trainin’/
Cotton candy radio to keep the wack maintainin’”

However, Napolean attempts to reach further than hip hop, and infiltrate communities:

“How the hood is self-hatin’ with blatant disrespect/
The world turns and the planet laughs/
And the grown man slips on a banana that’s been left in his path”

Napolean elevates the imagery beyond that of hip hop simply being a circus.

But the most profound imagery is yet to come:

“At a loss for words, no, I’m at edge/
Emotionally disturbed, cause I’m seein’ the lion
Bein’ teased while I’m takin’ a seat on the curb
He roars but it won’t stop the tamin’ and trainin’”

Is he still talking about hip hop? Is he talking about something more sociological in scope?

And then wham…a gun shot, and a woman wailing. I’m rethinking her loss. You?

Musically, the soundscape of “Circus” aligns well with the message(s). I think the bass is most dominant. It sounds foreboding at one moment, and the next, it sounds as if it’s counting down to some unforeseen tragedy…perhaps the “banana in the path”?


Currently Bumping…

March 12, 2007

I’ve been yapping Pete’s ear off about this track of late, and I figured that I’d finally post it here. It may or may not say something about ISWHAT?!’s lead-emcee Napoleon that he doesn’t appear on my favorite track from the LP. But I’ll get around to commenting on dude soon enough (hint: he’s solid).

ISWHAT?! – “Writer’s Block” (Featuring Ill Poetic & Fatal Prose) (iTunes)

But here, you have one of those classic relaxing, end of LP tracks (See: ATCQ’s “God Lives Through” in Midnight Marauders).

Well, sort of.

The title of song is “Writer’s Block” which immediately brings to mind a distinct sort of anxiety unique to creative types; and Ill Poetic & Fatal Prose’s somewhat manic, slam-style verses add to the anxiety that is this song’s “Yin.” They do a good job using clever wordplay and conscious lyrics to glance with a critical eye toward street culture, and its influence on hip-hop culture.

To the ice-grillin thugs: “If you don’t like people, don’t come out in public… stay at home and get drunk.”

To the dope-heads: “You stay addicted to drugs, I’ll stay addicted to substance.”

To the street-dwellers: “If you can’t think outside the box, you can’t think outside your block.”

Clearly, the “Writer’s Block” to which they refer is not their own. They’re talking about hip-hop’s cookie-cutter, commerical-thug culture.

Meanwhile, the “Yang” to this track is my favorite part. You have laid back, jazz-style snares, high-hats, and cymbals (yes, the beat-boxing can get old on this album), a rhythmic piano melody, and a trumpet that is soft and repetitive in the background (the kind you’d hear punching in and out of a golden-era hip-hop beat).

It’s the sort of mismatch that, for better and/or worse, pervades this album–where it sounds like a band was playing on an open mic night and an emcee spontaneously takes the stage. In the case of “Writer’s Block” it sounds like a couple spoken word poets jumped on stage with that random jazz band. The mismatch works well here, and stands as one of the better replay-value tracks on the album for me.


Endless Possibilities

March 11, 2007

I just wanted to call attention to a remark that Pete made in his description of ISWHAT?!’s unique sort of chemistry. He said:

“[They are a] kind of back-to-the-future-esque meeting between the young and the old; Pete Rock & CL Smooth playing with Tom Scott as opposed to sampling his “Today.”

Take a minute to consider the possibilities for that kind of recording: hip-hop acts “reuniting” with the artists they sampled to make not only hit records, but a new genre.

It’s particularly relevant that Pete and I grew up in the “pre-Diddy” golden era which loosely ran from 1988-1998 where looped up jazz samples were the norm, and hip-hop had a much stronger connection to the music from which it was sampled.

For better or worse (and I offer no opinion here right now), that era is now quite clearly over, and I suspect that the relationship between some of these hip-hop pioneers and the jazz artists they sampled was not always great. For guys like Erick Sermon, Diamond D, Biz Markie, and maybe even Pete Rock, that tension over copyright basically killed a career. For acts like ATCQ and Prince Paul, it nearly had that same effect were it not for some creative repositioning (e.g. Tribe bringing Dilla into the fold).

Well, maybe we’re past that tumultuous period, and perhaps these artists can all get along. There’s nothing like a live band reinterpreting a sampled hip-hop beat–it’s great. But imagine the original artist performing the track? Imagine if it were possible to reunite the late James Brown and his band with Rakim? Maybe this just makes beat-heads like me salivate, but I suspect that even hip-hop heads would feel a JB/Rakim “reunion.”

But this very interesting thought also raises a values question for us to ponder: would hip-hop be hip-hop if Pete Rock simply called up Tom Scott in 1993 to record a saxophone hook? Doesn’t that distinguish what ISWHAT?! does from what we normally consider “hip-hop”? Is there not an inherent “have not” appeal to sampling a big and famous jazz artist and sculpting it into a fresher, new art form for ghetto kids? If the “pre-Diddy” hip-hop producers, living in their mom’s basements, could afford to hire the jazz artist for a studio session, wouldn’t that cease to be hip-hop? Does that leave ISWHAT?! as forever an outsider to what we consider hip-hop? Said differently, does hip-hop/jazz fusion get its own wing in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame or the Jazz Hall of Fame?

If you can resist the urge to critique the reliance on labels like “hip-hop” (or that Tom Scott and his Hawaiian shirt doesn’t look “hip-hop” in the slightest), and really look at the culture quite generally, I wonder where you come out on this?

Given the dearth of truly classic hip-hop/jazz fusion acts, I call it a jazz offshoot, rather than a hip-hop offshoot. But I need to ponder the question myself.