Wednesday, July 6, 2011

5 Songs that made me stop the damn car!

A musical top-5 list request was made by my musical brother Jason over at The League of Extraordinary Music Enthusiasts. I figured I'd answer the call in blog form

The request: Name 5 important songs in your lifetime and the memories attached to each.

This question was too much for me to chew, and I didn't want to take 3 weeks to reply to my fellow League members, so I narrowed it down to... "songs so good I had to stop the damn car!" (either figuratively or literally)

Ron Trent - Altered States - I have had more than a few transcendent moments on a dance floor, but hearing this in 1990... dropped by DJ Psycho Bitch at Shelter-Chicago... wow. I basically climbed the 20 foot wall in front of the DJ booth to ask her who the track was by. Those that know me know I'll still stop mid-conversation and run up on a DJ if something's tight ;-) [ car stop type: figurative ]

Erykah Badu - On and On - was driving down the street in Evanston when local DJ Legend Herb Kent dropped this a good 3 months before anyone in Chicago had it. I remember asking at the record store weekly about this song "On and On" by Erika something-or-other... this joint was just ridiculously unlike anything else out at the time.... with Ms. Badu channeling Billie like a mofo! You can't learn time like that... damn... y'all feel that? [ car stop type: literal ]

Big Pun feat. Fat Joe - Don't Wanna Be a Player no more - I was driving down the street in Detroit... at first I thought it was a local track and I was like "Oh sh!t, tha' D has some fresh hip-hop!" I think this song his hip-hop/r&b perfection... and, to my knowledge, no one has rocked castanets in a beat before or since! I'd also like to think I'm an honorary Puerto Rican when I sing along with the "Boricua, Morena" refrain! [ car stop type: literal ]

Kanye West - Jesus Walks - I think I was walking down the street in the Chi when someone drove by bumping this... might have been just a bit before College Dropout dropped... it was a local DJ who had been blessed with a promo. Might sound crazy, but the moment I heard it, I figured whoever made that song would be one of the biggest things ever. Mr. West is crazy and can act a fool, but you CAN NOT front on his production skills, son. Still amazed that this song got radio play (but in a way, I'm not... its hotness is self-evident and cannot be denied) [ car stop type: figurative ]

Sufjan Stevens - Chicago - Weren't expecting this I bet ;-) I'm eclectic, what?!? I have WXRT in Chicago to thank for this... was station scanning and caught this... major "stop the car moment". I forget which genre bucket Stevens gets put in, but this is some seriously good song writing... love the lyrics and the soft/loud dynamic. [ car stop type: literal ]

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I look forward to all the car-stoppers yet to be revealed...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Pocket Guide to the Wu Tang Clan

(this post was prompted by a dear friend who's unfamiliar with The Wu and will be seeing them in concert soon...)

For me, the Wu Tang Era began in 1992... I was a DJ at my College radio station ( The NU Music, WNUR 89.3 baby! ) ... The custom at the station was that the program director would preview the new records and make comments on the record sleeve.

One day, A new 12" Single from a then-unknown group called "The Wu Tang Clan" was in the new-release stack. With one word written on the sleeve:


The single was Protect Ya Neck. It's hard to overstate how much we loved this tune. Wu Tang Clan had 9 members... every member rapped on the track. And while "posse cuts" were nothing new in hip-hop. What *was* new was that EVERY one of those 8-9 group members delivered an EXCELLENT verse. Each individual voice and approach was distinctive, but the whole thing was just *so* damn unified & coherent and, well, dope. (to borrow our PD's description)

Turns out WNUR was not alone in loving the first single, it was a HUGE college radio hit all over the country. And then? Nothing. We were expecting a followup single, but a good 6 months passed without anything new from the Wu Tang. Oh well, one-hit wonders were (and are) quite common.

Then one day our station manager returned from the CMJ conference in New York with a rumor that a Wu Tang Clan album was coming out... no release date, but he'd heard from someone who'd heard from someone that an album was coming. Not to date myself, but this was in the early days of the internet... there was no real Web yet and email was far from common (hard to believe now, I know) so 3rd hand conversations from music conferences was how us hipsters got our information... positively quaint these days... But, was the rumor true? All of us music junkies at the station were intrigued to say the least.

For about two months straight, I asked my local record store every week:

"Y'all got that Wu Tang album yet?"

And finally in 1993, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released. These dudes were no one hit wonders. For my money, this album is the most awesome debut in the history of hip-hop.

Musically, they are unique in that they are truly a supergroup... releasing classic music together and, in equal measure if not greater, releasing classic music as individual artists.

The Wu are fascinating from the perspective of Hip-Hop as business, but if I get into that, this wouldn't be a pocket guide. Although Dan Charnas tells this angle of the story quite well in his book The Big Payback

The Wu Tang Pocket Playlist (roughly chronological... my super-favorites are in bold):

Wu Tang Clan - Protect Ya Neck (From: Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) - 1993
members in order of appearance: Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Method Man, U-God, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, RZA, GZA

Wu Tang Clan - Wu Tang Clan ain't Nothing to Fuck with (From: Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) - 1993
members in order of appearance: RZA, Inspectah Deck, Method Man

Raekwon - Ice Cream (From: Only Build 4 Cuban Linx) - 1995
members in order of appearance: Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Cappadonna

GZA - Shadow Boxin - (From: Liquid Swords) - 1995
members in order of appearance: Method Man, GZA

Ol' Dirty Bastard - Shimmy Shimmy Ya (From: Ol' Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version) - 1995

Wu Tang Clan - Triumph (From: Wu Tang Forever ) - 1997
members in order of appearance: Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Cappadonna, Ol' Dirty Bastard, U-God, RZA, GZA, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon

Wu Tang Clan - Black Shampoo (From: Wu Tang Forever ) - 1997
members in order of appearance: U-God, Method Man

RZA - Samurai Showdown (From: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Soundtrack) - 1999

Raekwon - We Will Robb You (From: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2) - 2009
feat. Slick Rick - members in order of appearance: Raekwon, GZA, Masta Killa

(there is an audio companion to this post, just reach out to me if you'd like to listen to it)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

5 Really, really well flipped samples (and Record Store Day 2011)

This has not been the most productive record store week for me with regard to blog posts, in previous years I've tried to add a few top 5 lists leading up to the Big Day (which was yesterday 4/16/11). Could only squeeze out one post this year... c'est la vie.

This year's Top 5 list: 5 really, really well flipped samples

Sampling is a foundation of hip-hop... won't belabor that here, but what exactly does it mean for a sample to be "well flipped"? To me it means that a sample is:

a) used in an unexpected way... bringing out elements of the source material that might have been unconsidered or only hinted at in its original context, or

b) used in an obvious way, but so perfectly executed that you gain an appreciation for the source material, as if hearing it for the first time.

In no particular order, here's a list of 5 really, really well flipped samples, with links to listen to the tunes
  • Edie Brickell - What I Am sampled by Slow Down (Artist: Brand Nubian - Producer: Grand Puba, Brand Nubian)
  • The Flamingos - I Only Have Eyes for You sampled by Zealots (Artist: The Fugees - Producer: The Fugees) This is perhaps my favorite of the list as the Fugees track places the source material in a completely different context. Also I think Lauryn Hill is as dope as she's ever been on this track.. I mean, come on... sings her own hook *and* drops a ridiculous verse? Bananas.
Plus 1 more...

This year's shop: Waterloo Records, Austin Texas

A standout shop in a town with a fair number of really good shops... I was honored to celebrate Record Store day here!

Things I copped from Waterloo Records:
  • Lucinda Williams - World Without Tears
  • Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
  • book: Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to the Record Store (by Graham Jones)
  • Waterloo T-Shirts (for me and the munchkin)
Bonus List: Bands I was hipped (or re-hipped) to by my Austin host Clint Bishop
  • Band of Horses
  • Songs:Ohia
  • Godspeed You Black Emperor

Monday, February 14, 2011

Classic Material: Luther Vandross - Promise Me

Luther Vandross - Promise Me

Album: Forever, For Always, For Love (Epic, 1982)

As always with Classic Material, if you have to choose between listening and reading... listen!

Let me start by saying that I'm not one of those Luther fans who thinks he could do no wrong... the Dance with My Father single, for example.

But Luther Vandross made precious few missteps as an artist. He never had the Pop success of some of his contemporaries, but for fans of Soul and R&B, Luther is in a league with other "first name's" such as Stevie and Marvin.

While he was not too shabby with a mid or up-tempo jam, Luther was most beloved for his ballads. In fact he wrote or sang enough slow jams to populate at least two "Top 5" lists on that topic. On this Valentine's Day, I'd like to share one of these classics: Promise Me

An album cut from Vandross' 1982 LP Forever, For Always, for Love, Promise Me opens with an almost gospel styled intro of Luther's vocal and Piano. It's a tension building intro that resolves into a simple melody as the first verse begins. The entire arrangement is this awesome combination of sparseness and lushness. Simple melody, exquisitely spare backing work from the rhythm guitar & percussion... strings that Burt Bachrach would have to give props to... and great use of the bass, having it start the tune playing the lead melody and then shift into a rhythm role as the tune closes out. I get goosebumps everytime I listen.

I was super tempted to get into analyzing the "text" that is the song, parsing lyrics and all that, someone smack me if I ever do more than the bare minimum of that crap. Suffice it to say that within the space of 4:45, Luther's lyrics convey first unhappiness and uncertainty about the future, then hark back to the optimism of better days, and the song closes with the chorus "promise me..." repeated like a mantra. It is as classic of a "baby baby please" moment as ever I've heard in R&B. And the truth is, we don't know how the story ends, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned.

The masterful arrangement works to heighten this suspense... ascending minor key melodies are an important part of the tune, but in the verses, first chorus, and bridge, they resolve. Not so with the final chorus... along with the lyrical mantra, the ascending melodies are repeated, never resolving... heightening the tension, but in my opinion communicating an optimism that I like to think hints at happy ending after the fade out.

In my patented, Billy-Dee-Williams-works-everytime slow-jam playlist system, this is "prelude" song... building anticipation for the main event.

Let's be clear though, Luther has plenty of main event songs to choose from... but those, my friends, will be topics for another Valentine's day.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chuck D: US Lags in Hip-Hop Dopeness

Hat Tip to Grisel for hipping me to this open letter from Chuck D:

A key point that Grisel picked-up on was that "According to Chuck D, the rest of the world has surpassed the U.S. in hip hop skills (community activism, turntabilism, DJing, dancing, art, etc.)...."

I love Chuck D, I really do, and I think his point about "so many being pimped by so few" is legit. But on the purely artistic tip, I welcome other countries bringing their flavor to hip-hop and "surpassing" the US. Dope is dope, whether it's happening in Beijing, Accra, or Boise. And with all due respect to Chuck D's underlying social point, there's no musical arms race. And even if there were, as Q-Tip said: "competition's good, it brings out the vital parts..."

The story of 20th century popular music is basically a recurring cycle of new forms taking shape here in the US, then travelling around, influencing the world (and then coming back, influenced by the world). Jazz, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock, and now, Hip-Hop. We've seen this movie before, and I think it has a happy ending.... Again, just talking musically here...

Hip-Hop is as mainstream as it gets... Jay Z's new albums get reviewed on NPR and he gets name checked in Miley Cyrus songs. (Full disclosure: Miley's Party in the USA is a guilty pleasure)

Hip-Hop belongs to the world. And as a pioneer, Chuck has earned the right to be crochety and sound ever so slightly like Stanley Crouch. But, Hip-Hop is not what's "next". It will no doubt inform the shape of things to come, but it is the present moment. I love it as much as the next guy, but it is the music of the establishment, sorry.

As far as what's next? I'm eternally psyched that some kids in Capetown, or in Seno, Laos might be cooking up the next musical shot-heard-round-the-world