Archive for the ‘Street Culture’ Category

T.I., “Stupid” Choices, and Guns

October 22, 2007

Timely wisdom, from one of my favorite people in hip-hop: Jay Smooth. There’s not much else one could add to his insightful commentary (background on the T.I. controversy can be found here). Enjoy:
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If you haven’t peeped it already, Jay Smooth’s video blog, Ill Doctrine, is easily one of the best on the internet; don’t sleep…


My Commencement Speech at Kanye’s Graduation

October 13, 2007

They’re ain’t nothing more bitter than the fire spit by a blogger chillin’ at home on a Friday night (by choice, but you probably don’t believe me), so I’ll try to tone this rant down.

I’ve finally had it with Kanye West. I know. It took me longer than most to come to the same inevitable conclusion that dude is just plain obnoxious–to the point where it can eventually inhibit your ability to mindlessly enjoy his music.

When he first presented himself to the masses on The College Dropout (I remember DJ Sam Figueroa playing “Through the Wire” on WRSU, or rather what he called “that new single from the guy that produced H-to-the-Izzo” and me asking “oh, he raps?”), Kanye stood before the various sects of the hip-hop community as an exceedingly compelling and dynamic personality. To the “conscious” crowd, he was… eh… self-conscious; on “All Falls Down”, he called out his own materialism, but at the same time the hip-hop culture we all love. He was human–he knew wrong from right, but admitted to not always great at acting upon that.

Kanye continued his self-loathing in “Diamonds…”, the “Diamonds…” Remix, and “Addiction” from his sophomore LP, Late Registration. Musically speaking, Kanye’s sound matured on this album, and despite his grating self-absorption, you kept listening.

But it’s now four years or so since “Through the Wire”, and in 2007 Kanye is still apologizing for his obnoxious, self-absorbed behavior on Graduation–yet he apparently hasn’t done anything to change. This is akin to the abusive husband that apologizes profusely for his conduct, goes to the meetings, buys his wife flowers, but then beats her all over again, one week later. If you actually listen to the lyrics on this new album, aside from being some of his weakest he’s ever dared to spit, it’s nothing but an exercise in navel-gazing, of the most petty variety.

I get it: you went from nothing to something. No one believed in you. You had to work in retail. Now you are rich and famous, with rich and famous people’s problems: buying too much jewelry, drunk and hot girls, paparazzi following you and your girl around, flashbulbs, and then to top it off, the disappointment of finding out that you didn’t get free tickets to a Jay-Z concert at MSG. And you wonder why heads at the barber shops talk shit about you?

If Kanye was my boy and we were bullshitting over a beer, I’d listen and pretend to care, then slap him and try to put things into perspective–“people right outside this bar can’t afford food, dunny. Food!” But Kanye ain’t my boy, and I don’t care to hear about his pathetic non-problems–not when he himself has the perception to note much larger problems in the world, like the fact that his very own Chi-City, and many others just like it, are falling apart from poverty, drugs and violence.

Part of me finds 50 Cent‘s aloof, anti-social outlook easier to tolerate. There’s an amoral humility to it. 50 never claimed to be very self-aware, so you can’t hold him to any standard. He’s just a product of the streets, he’ll tell you. It’s unfortunate, but for some reason it’s easier to ignore 50 as a “lost one” and just bang the beats and hyper-masculine posturing. It’s perhaps a metaphor for how our society is aloof to the extreme poverty and crime that occurs in our inner-cities: the cities are “lost” and thus we feel little moral responsibility for anything that goes on there.

Now that I got that out of my system, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Kanye’s album before I started listening to the lyrics. “Good Morning” had me amped to start the show. “Champion” got me inspired in that “Touch the Sky” kinda way. “I Wonder” has some ridiculous drums, and “Everything I Am” sounds great. Oh, and Dwele’s presence is a great touch on “Flashing Lights” with those pulsating, Paul Oakenfold-esque keys. The passion in Kanye’s delivery is perhaps unmatched amongst emcees in the game today.

It’s just that just that his message is passionately petty, and I can’t get past it.

Kanye Quotes

September 2, 2007

In anticipation of more Kanye-related banter up on here, I thought I’d post my two favorite quotes from the album so far:

“I know people wouldn’t usually rap this / but I got the facts to back this / just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets / …man killin’s some wack shit / oh I forgot, except when n***as is rappin…”

Then there’s Kanye’s, shall we say, lighter side:

“I’m like the fly Malcolm X / buy any jeans necessary”

And there you have Kanye’s internal conflict–a theme I plan to develop in an upcoming, in-depth review of Graduation.

New Selection Coming Soon…

April 6, 2007

It’s been a minute, but with Easter break beginning, and school-related work at a whisper (if at least for only a week), I will be throwing up a new album for discussion this weekend. In the mean times, head over to Stones Throw and check out the Dilla Interview series…particularly the most recently posted Part 5.

I’ll never forget when I bought Jeru’s “Wrath of the Math,” and unknowingly copped the edited version. I thought I was hoodwinked, thinking that the album was less because there was no cussing (I was 17). But, that album got lots of spins, and I learned to like the edit, especially on tracks like “The Bullshit;” the edits seem a purposefully construct of the track’s message.

The reason I bring edits up is because I love the edited version of Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” (see link above). The release of the single (the week after 9/11) notwithstanding, this is one of my favorite Dilla beats and is a track that brings me back to my Aunt’s house (where I was living the first time I heard it) and the dichotomous message: in light of the support the NYPD, PAPD, FDNY, etc. were receiving during and shortly after 9/11, Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” was highlighting the corruption of police, particularly in in his city. (The personal story behind Dilla doing the track was unknown to me until I just peeped the video at Stones Throw). For what it’s worth, I think the release date was just that, a release date; the contrast between the track and the feeling in the country and world at that time was coincidental, a product of the historical events of the previous week.

The edited version is great because unless you heard the original, you wouldn’t know it was edited; Dilla’s stop & go flow on the track matches perfectly to create a seamless edit…

Click here to purchase at!
Jay Dee – Fuck The Police/ Move

Little Brother On Point…

March 18, 2007

Another line from that AP story discussed below really jumped out at me.

…Last summer, as the “Chicken Noodle Soup” song and accompanying dance became a sensation, Baltimore Sun pop critic Rashod D. Ollison mused that the dance — demonstrated in the video by young people stomping wildly from side to side — was part of the growing minstrelization of rap music.

“The music, dances and images in the video are clearly reminiscent of the era when pop culture reduced blacks to caricatures: lazy ‘coons,’ grinning ‘pickaninnies,’ sexually super-charged ‘bucks,’ ” he wrote.

Isn’t this exactly the statement that Little Brother was making with “The Minstrel Show”? Those are some smart brothers, and they deserve props–even if they kicked out 9th Wondra (kidding). But I’ll be damned if this isn’t the most scathing sort of criticism to lob at the hip-hop industry right now. It really hits on the underlying, messy issues of race at work here, and it comes from a voice within the hip-hop community. Hip-hop will never die with guys like this around.


Has Rap Music Hit a Wall?

March 18, 2007

That’s the question posed by a recent AP feature story, and the same question we touched on here. This article was too good to pass up mentioning it in a post.

The answer I think is all in how one defines the wall. If the “wall” is defined as the ongoing mainstream commercial viability of hip-hop, then I think it’s possible that the wall has been “hit.” But if the wall is end of the genre, or the utter lack of creativity or vibrancy within this culture, then I think you are dead wrong, and acts like ISWHAT?! are proof of that.

Some of the empirical evidence cited by the author was interesting.

Though music sales are down overall, rap sales slid a whopping 21 percent from 2005 to 2006, and for the first time in 12 years no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year.

A recent study by the Black Youth Project showed a majority of youth think rap has too many violent images. In a poll of black Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices last year, 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll bracket off the race issue (because that’s even more interesting). But like any market, there must be a point where the pop music market becomes saturated with thug rap. But are we seeing that right now, at this particular juncture? I can’t say that for sure (and I don’t necessarily think so), but the prospect is an interesting one to ponder as it is coming, at some point.

But you know what? Even if we are witnessing the end of the commercial viability of hip-hop, I’m not worried. I actually think hip-hop music is as strong right now as it’s ever been. The mere utterance of names like J Dilla, Ta’Raach, Black Milk, Platinum Pied Pipers, (Detroit is in house right now), Madlib, et al. is enough to rebut any suggestion that the genre is dead. And we should throw ISWHAT?! in there as well. People might write off hip-hop, but it’s been written off before–so that doesn’t worry me. Should the hip-hop “bubble” burst, the worst that could happen, in my view, is that Young Jeezy has to pinch a few pennies to make that Def Jam money stretch a little bit further… boo hoo.

viva la hip y la hop…


March 16, 2007

I love hip hop as well, and I like its diversity (allowing me to pick & choose). My taste goes in cycles. At times, my scope is narrow; other times, I consciously try to be more open to things that I may not ordinarily listen to. Right now, I’m in a state more aligned with the former. I usually make judgments (perhaps quickly at times) as to whether I like something based on the artist’s background. I love emcees and beatmakers who demonstrate a clear knowledge and respect for music (playing an instrument is a bonus but not a requirement). J Dilla – crazy beats; clearly knew music, innately it would seem. This quick litmus test is the reason I love guys like Madlib, Common, Pharrell, and Aloe Blacc. I listen to their music, and I can hear somebody who is an artist, lyrically or otherwise.

Often times, perhaps to a fault, I write guys off who I don’t think know jack about or respect music; guys who rely heavily on an image or gimmick to make a quick buck. Often, these gimmicks are built on perpetuating some stereotypical image, or some cheap topic, e.g. “how delightful it is to receive sexual gratification from this select bevy of women.” Like Kyle mentioned, I’ve too have become more sensitive to this as I read about real issues, for example, family dynamics in urban areas. It seems to me, while I claim to be no advertising expert, that a significant amount of this music is targeted at impoverished areas. Songs that make light of “beat[ing] the p*$sy up” are heard by children (despite the stickered warning). This, I find, is problematic for children who are internalizing these messages. Research has demonstrated that misogynistic lyrics have a similar effect as pornography on male listeners. Note that the subjects in most research has been college males (due to some ethical obligation not to expose young children to pornographic material, seen, heard, or otherwise) – think of the impact on an 8-year old who is still formulating his or her gender roles and identity. This doctor (Dr. Michael Rich), drawn at random (i.e. not hired by me) suggests in an interview with that:

“The connection to misogynistic music and behavior may be evident in other areas of young people’s lives, too, says Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Media Matters campaign.

“The music portrays this kind of dating violence and coercion around sexual activity as normal relationships,” said Rich.

“I see an acceptance among teenagers – both girls and boys, of the kind of sexual objectification celebrated in this kind of music. There is this notion that it’s okay to be used for sex and that there is not any emotional commitment necessary.”

That being said, it’s often difficult to draw the line to what I like or dislike; when do I use my musical judgment? When do I use my social judgment? Which brings me to Kyle’s post on positive rappers. I try to always give props to emcees who present lyrics that sound thoughtful…or even attempt to push a prosocial message. For example, Common’s “Love is” from Be. (Dilla, Dilla, Dilla). On it, Com explores the travels & travails of love in the ghetto. Also, The Procussion’s “Water’s Edge,” where they preach respect and love for others in a way that is still hip hop. The end soliloquy is one of my favorites , right up there with Common’s Pop’s monologues. (By the way, keep an ear open for Blu)

For me, the question always remains, how much art and I willing to sacrifice for social responsibility, or vice versa. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I think I’ll ever figure it out. Like other forms of art, a lot depends on feeling, something immeasurable, and situational. I’m satisfied knowing that for every gimmick, there’s an artist with integrity, artistic and/or social.

All I know is, “if I don’t like it, I don’t like it, it don’t mean that I’m hatin,” Com.


Armstrong, E. (2001). Gangsta misogyny: A content analysis of the portrayals of
violence against women in rap music, 1987-1993. Journal of Criminal Justice and
Popular Culture, 8
(2), 96-126.

Barongan, C., & Hall, C. N. (1995). The influence of misogynous rap music on sexual
aggression against women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 195-207.

P.S. The above are just some example studies that explore the misogynistic influence of “rap” music. Kyle & I are trying to run a clean ship here so I did not link to the original studies, although I think you would have needed a password to access them even if I had. There is plenty of similar research out there, as well as the specific damage done to young boys. For a great read, check out Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

Positive Rappers

March 16, 2007

I’m writing now just to give due props. Napoleon Maddux is an intelligent, insightful, and positive emcee, and accordingly, he deserves our praise for that. This might sound like a fairly uncontroversial proposition, but it’s honestly an issue that I struggle with, and here’s why:

On one hand, when I’m just clowning around or on my commute, I’ll bump tracks like Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” , U.G.K.’s “The Game Belongs to Me” or something from T.I., and I really enjoy them. I write them off as “hot tracks” that get your head bobbing, and I’m not bothered by the lack of substance and/or promotion of immorality because I don’t ultimately endorse any of it–I’m just there for the beat and the style, I’m not listening to ponder the world’s dilemmas.

I find some support for this care-free approach to hip-hop from its early days. Old school emcees weren’t really rapping about third world debt relief or warrantless wiretaps, they were just popping shit, saying anything to get your ass moving. So does Rich Boy. Ditto for Lil’ Jon.

Moreover, there is an unconditional facet to my love for hip-hop. I’ve never endorsed the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” argument. When Pimp C remarked that hip-hop needs Laffy Taffy as much as it needs Nasty Nas, I agreed to a certain extent (though choosing Laffy Taffy is probably a poor example). To me, it’s always evolving, and because I love hip-hop so much, I want to absorb every permutation of the artform and enjoy it like a parent enjoys whatever it is that their offspring choose to pursue as a career. Like any parent would attest, this isn’t totally unconditional, but it’s pretty open-minded nonetheless. So when the Whisper song dropped, I listened and bumped for a while. When Lil’ Jon blew up, I bumped, and I still keep an ear open for his unique sound. The message is utterly ignorant and morally reprehensible, but it’s all still hip-hop to me–and at the end of the day, it’s just a song to get asses moving, so who’s really harmed?

But on the other hand, it’s hard to look at the sorry state of urban America today and say that the criminal, gangster culture that these artists promote is utterly innocuous. The fact is that it’s not, and for someone like myself who considers urban renewal–particularly urban education reform–the civil rights issue of our time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the kids, who lack better role models, end up admiring these rags to riches dirtbags.

I’m also moved by the criticisms of black intellectuals. Torrance Stevens, a contributor at, writes here about what he calls “The New Knights of the KKK”

“It really is the best dream of the Knights of the KKK – I mean have people they despise and deplore do their dirt for them. To make it simple, they continue to encourage the stereotypes and promote self destruction to the extent that it has reached pandemic proportions. I hear songs that proclaim the manliness of killing and shooting another. I hear songs that encourage women to be unfaithful to their commitment to their men. I hear songs that give confidence to the ill importance of school. There even seems to an inordinate amount of songs that target “baby mommas” and how delightful it is to receive sexual gratification from this select bevy of women. And last but not least, songs that proclaim the material riches that you accrue are more important than anything else – in particular if they are displayed on one’s car.”

Stevens adds:

“Please folk, especially my men in the entertainment industry, lets try and check ourselves and decide what type of legacy you desire to leave for your kids and others, one of self-enhancement, or one of self-destruction by a new invisible empire.”

But it’s also heartening to know that I’m not alone in this state of tension. Paul Butler, also of, writes about his inner-conflict over Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s”:

“Any black person who practices the politics of respectability would say [“Throw Some D’s”] sets Negroes back ten years… So every time this song comes on the radio I crank up the volume. When the chorus comes around I shout out at the top of my lungs “throw some d’s on that b.” (they bleep out “bitch” on the radio). Yes, I hate myself afterwards. But the flow is frigging irresistible.” (emphasis added).

This is one of those things for which I have no answer, so I write only to capture my thoughts at this particular moment in time; and to offer Napoleon and the rest of ISWHAT?! my unqualified appreciation for their effort to strive for the best of both worlds: fun music that is also socially conscious. Being from the ‘Natti, they know as well as anybody that the hood needs it right now. Props.


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.