Monthly Archives: May 2012

THAT’S WHAT REAL IS

People love to pretend like there are these huge divisions between different artists and subgenres of various art forms, but closer examination almost always reveals that it is the fans of these artists and subgenres that are creating these divisions, not the artists themselves.  The artists do sometimes make certain moves to perpetuate these divisions, but at the end of the day there is usually an acquiescence to an “alright, we’re all artists here, we’re not that different” mentality.

Common might be the #1 dude on the list of dudes perpetuating division between big camps in hip-hop.  One of his most famous and beloved songs (by his fans) is “I Used To Love H.E.R.“, where “H.E.R.” stands for “Hearing Every Rhyme“.  It’s an allegory of his feelings about the history of the hip-hop scene told as a love story with a fictional woman.  In the beginning she “had so much soul”, she wasn’t “about the money”, she had nothing to do with all the stuff that people who listen to “conscious rap” think shouldn’t be talked about.  Then later when she started hangin’ with the “boys in the hood”, Common tolerates it for a while, admitting that she is getting “more well-rounded” and still has faith in her future.  Eventually, when she starts only talking about selling drugs and being violent, Common seems to give up on her as a lost cause.  This was back in 1994, and while a lot has changed about rap music, a lot has stayed painfully the same.  Common is still one of the main rappers cited by those who’d like to see all MCs rapping about uplifting the downtrodden and fighting the power, and this derision and disappointment with rappers who have violent lyrics or shallow content is as pervasive today as ever in many circles.

Common – I Used To Love H.E.R.

I think the fact that Common chose this metaphor for telling the history of hip-hop is very telling about his and many of his fans’ mentality about what rap is.  To them, hip-hop is this abstract notion, a Platonic ideal, a single concept that must be preserved and and controlled.  The main issue I take with this perception, besides the fact that it completely ignores the fact that hip-hop was not originally conceived of in this way at all, is that rap actually is just a vehicle for a huge spectrum of people to express themselves and tell their stories about the situations they’ve experienced.  Hip-hop as an object does not exist, there are only the people who make hip-hop, and each person that makes it gets to redefine what it is with every song.  If your experience compels you to rap about social and political issues, then you can still do that.  If your experience compels you to rap about murder and crime, then you can do that too.  If your experience tells you to rap about sex and money, then that’s also an option.  If your experience tells you to rap about everyday life and the struggles of day to day humanity, knock yourself out.  The fact that someone else is rapping about different things than you does not prevent you from rapping about what you want to rap about.  When “gangsta rap” came on the scene, “socially conscious” rap did not cease to exist (I use quotation marks because both of these terms are absurdly simplistic and unfair to all genres of rap).  There are still new artists in that subgenre, and there always will be as long as rap exists.

It seems, however, that Common has perhaps loosened his uptight viewpoints on what legitimate rap can be.  In a recent interview, Common said this about meeting Waka Flocka, who is arguably the best possible example of everything a die-hard evangelistic Common fan hates about rap.

I love that he came out and said what he felt ’cause, I mean, who are we to judge what that meant? We ain’t the gatekeepers of hip-hop. We love the music. We love the culture. But, I mean, that’s his experience and that’s what he felt. And it’s somethin’ about him that … he got a soul to him that’s like, that I feel I see why people respond to his music.

He also makes a point very much like the point I tried to make back in this post, interestingly.

That’s what real is, when you talk about real. You want the truth, people to come out and just speak they mind. The things that, you know, some people are embarrassed to say, they say. I respect those guys and artists and women the most, the people that just speak they mind.

I’d really love for every fan of what they would arrogantly call “real hip-hop” to read those quotes and really take in what Common is implying here.  Gone is the perception of hip-hop as a pristine, immaculate, abstract concept that can be sullied by anything not conforming to its rigid guidelines.  In its place is a much more human and humane understanding that we’re all just people in this world going through different shit.  We’re all different, we all have different places we come from, and we’ve all got something to say.  Hip-hop is just one way to say things.  And as I’ve argued before, one of the most important roles of any artist is to say those things that most people are too afraid to say out loud, so that when people think those forbidden thoughts, they can at least know there’s somebody else that feels that way too.  It would be nice if that idea was just common sense.

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BAD GIRLS

Among the probably millions of videos posted in reverence for the passing of Donna Summer, I happened across this one the other day.

Donna Summer – Bad Girls

One thing that struck me about this video is that for how raw, physical, and sexual this song is, her stage presence is actually kind of limp and unsexy.  She definitely has power and conviction in her voice and facial expressions, but the rest of her body is just not keeping up.  Her posture is often hunched, when she tries to strike some kind of pose it often comes off as awkward and forced, and her attempts at sultry hip-shaking and stage strutting look more like somebody’s dorky friend on the sidelines of a dance party, looking off in the distance and moving just enough to not stick out as the one girl not dancing.  Luckily, Donna has enough vocal abilities to make this performance still shine, but it really makes you wonder about just how comfortable she and other artists like her are with their sex symbol image.  I’ve noticed this same phenomenon in some more contemporary artists as well; sexy songs with an attractive woman singing, sounding completely sincere and honest, but betraying a surprising lack of animal magnetism in their bodily movements.

Nicki Minaj – Starships

Lady – Yankin’

In Nicki Minaj’s case, it’s a little bit more subtle.  I think she has enough money behind her for there to be some coaches around helping her out with her movements and stuff, but I still feel like there are times — even in her official music videos — that her natural, awkward, unsure physical side comes through.  If you really pay attention to her backup dancers and how they move compared to how she moves, even in her sexiest moments, there’s really no comparison.  Judging by how Lady comes off in her video, and with the knowledge that she doesn’t have anywhere near the financial backing Nicki does, it’s safe to assume she’s not getting as much coaching on her movements, but  I think in some ways she actually pulls off the physically inept thing a little better than Nicki or Donna.  She seems to be more conscious and accepting of it, in this video it kinda feels like part of her “I don’t give a fuck” persona.  But it’s still interesting how much sexual imagery is used in these songs and videos while the artist in the spotlight is coming off about as sexy as a shrug.

I hope nobody thinks I’m trying to belittle these women or criticize their beauty in any way.  You will never catch me saying or even thinking that any of these women are the least bit unattractive physically, and the last thing I’m interested in is making fun of an R&B legend for being unsexy less than two weeks after her death, or any other time for that matter.  My point isn’t to point out their unsexiness, my point is that examples like these make me wonder how inescapable it is for many artists to be put in the position where they are supposed to be sex symbols whether or not they genuinely want to be.  I can’t speak for Nicki or Lady, but I have read that Donna Summer was pretty heavily coerced by the music industry to take on a more sexual image than she originally intended for herself, and watching that performance of “Bad Girls“, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true.

It reminds me of the stuff I talked about in this post, which is coincidentally (or maybe not-so-coincidentally) also about Nicki Minaj to a great extent.  Probably the most sure-fire way for a female artist to overcome the skepticism I talk about in that post is to play up their sexuality, and people in charge of record companies have known this for decades.  It’s about sales for them, and if you can get your already talented and attractive female artist to even hint at her own sexuality, then huge sales will soon follow.  I imagine some female artists genuinely want to play up their sexual side and would do it whether or not they were on BET, but I feel like somewhere in those videos is at least some shred of discomfort with the pressure to be overtly sexual that probably a lot of women feel who are trying to be successful artists, or to be successful in many other fields for that matter.  And I hesitate to truly condemn these examples, maybe I’m incorrect about these specific cases and all these women don’t mind or even enjoy flaunting their sexuality in these performances.  Let’s also not forget that there is a distinct possibility that artists like Nicki Minaj and Lady could possibly be, to some extent, parodying the overtly sexual overtones of pop music as much as they’re playing into them.  I can’t know for sure.  But I still feel that the phenomenon that these examples reminds me of is a real thing that would be good to bring up.  I should also mention that this phenomenon is not limited to female artists either, this article about D’Angelo that Simon sent me recently illustrates that very convincingly.

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I WISH I COULD HAVE MY LOVED ONES BACK

One for all the fallen soldiers this Memorial Day.

Z-Ro – 1 Night (feat. Trae)

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TWO FRENCH VANILLA BLUNTS AND TWO FRENCH FREAKS

I kinda hid this Waka Flocka song in this post under the link “new rap”, which may not have enticed many of you to actually click through to see what was behind it.  Maybe after you hear it though, you’ll be more inclined to check out all the little miscellaneous unexplained links I throw into posts.  Or maybe not.

Anyway, after throwing that link into a pretty unrelated post, I decided that song might be worthy of a post itself, so I went and found out what the main sample in this song is because I think it’s kind of an awesome song and it’s maybe the first time I’ve heard Flocka over a sample-based beat like this.

Waka Flocka – Foreign Shit

I’d expect to hear that beat with like Jay Electronica or Mobb Deep rapping over it, but I think it’s a real nice change of pace to hear Flocka switch his style up a little bit for this one.  He’s still totally himself, but there is a little bit of adaptation to the more stripped-down sound of this production, and I appreciate that.  But that wasn’t the biggest surprise this song had in store for me.

Vanilla Fudge – Eleanor Rigby

Now that’s a surprising source if I ever saw one.  If you’d told me after Flockaveli that I’d hear Waka Flocka rapping over a weird 60s psychedelic cover of a Beatles song, I’d have been fuckin’ skeptical.  Shows what I know.  For more rap songs sampling obscure versions of “Eleanor Rigby” (yes, that’s a category of songs now apparently), check this post.

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FIND ME IN MY MITSUBISHI EATIN’ SUSHI BUMPIN’ FUGEES

Happy birthday, Lauryn.

DJ Screw – The Fugees: Fu-Gee-La

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CONSTANTLY READING EVERYTHING ABOUT MORPHOLOGY, C.R.E.A.M.!

Raise your hand if any of these mean anything to you: N.W.A., U.G.K., KRS-One,  D.I.T.C.,  TLC, Y.M.C.M.B., MondreM.A.N., E.P.M.D., O.F.W.G.K.T.A., Big K.R.I.T., M.J.G., RZA, GZA, M.O.P.?  If not, you better pay more attention when you read this blog.

When it comes to abbreviations for shit, rap’s got everybody beat.  I’ve always taken this phenomenon in hip-hop for granted, it never crossed my mind to examine it closely until I somehow stumbled across this explanation of where the word “O.K.” comes from.  If you think you know, you might be surprised, because apparently there are a lot of incorrect stories out there involving everything from ex-presidents to French seaport prostitutes, but the real explanation, though less colorful, actually makes a lot more sense.

The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964. The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”

Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

This explanation brings up another interesting point too: intentional misspellings.  Just like in rap, sometimes words are misspelled in a way that reflects how they’re actually pronounced in that given time period and region; “nuff” instead of “enough”, “yuse” instead of “use”, “oll” instead of “all”.  Other times, a certain misspelling is chosen that actually confuses the meaning of the expression instead of clarifying its pronunciation such as “know” instead of “no”, “wright” instead of “right”, or “korrect” instead of “correct”.  This is also a very common device used in rap music.  Have you ever listened to Z-Ro before?  How about Suga Free or OutKast or Salt-n-Pepa?  Or Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire?  The list could go on indefinitely.  It’s interesting that in the 1830s version, they combined the two devices into one, first misspelling the words and then abbreviating them, while in rap it tends to be more one or the other, but both devices are still at work in both arenas, and rap has another interesting practice of taking existing words and acronym-izing them after the fact.  2Pac famously put the word “nigga” in a positive light in “Never Ignorant, Gettin’ Goals Accomplished“, while K.R.I.T. took on the negative form of that word to draw attention to the traps that he feels too many of his race fall into: becoming “another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism“.  Cee-Lo told us in ’94 about how “the GoodDie Mostly Over Bullshit“.  Killah Priest puts forth a pretty surprising evaluation of the Good Book given his chosen moniker in “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth“.  Once again, the list goes on.

But why would anybody want to do this?  Superficially speaking, it seems to create a barrier between writer and reader.  It takes words that everyone is familiar with and obscures them with confusing mangling and mutilation.  But where language purists see verbal disfigurement, rappers and writers see verbal hot-rodding.  Why does a car need to go 160 miles per hour, or have doors that open in every possible way except the normal way, or have 26″ rims and a wood grain steering wheel?  Because it’s cool.  And I don’t mean “cool” in a diminutive way at all, in this case “cool” plays a very important social and cultural role that should not be scoffed at or underestimated.

In the case of the custom car world, any or all the modifications mentioned above could easily get in the way of the normal functioning of a car in the same way that all the transformations words go through in the hands of rappers might get in the way of someone immediately understanding what is being said.  The same thing can be said for rappers’ extensive use of slang.  But for people who use these linguistic devices, part of the message being conveyed goes way beyond the literal meanings of the words being used.  Part of their reason for rapping is to convey a certain access to a set of knowledge only available to a select group of people.  If you can’t decipher the message that’s being put out there, then it probably wasn’t for you in the first place.  To understand what is being said, you have to either be born (or at least raised) in the culture that gives rise to these word modifications, or study really hard and learn it as a second language of sorts.  Some might argue that this is an unfair and exclusionary practice that makes people feel left out, and under certain circumstances I might be inclined to object to these practices, but in this case I don’t, because I feel it’s aimed in the right direction.  This is not a case of powerful people of the world imposing an obscure coded language onto a lower class to marginalize those who can’t gain access to the cipher, it’s a tool used by people in positions of societal weakness to have something of their own that they can relate to each other about and gain some shred of power back from those who have more of a say over how their lives go than they’d like.  They might get lower wages, get put in jail more often, have more difficulty voting, and not get proper justice for crimes committed against them, but they can at least make you feel really “uncool” when you hear “bickin’ back, bein’ bool” or “MOB Piru Damu” for the first time and have no idea what they’re talking about.

Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M.

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GIRL YOU KNOW I – I – I – I – I -

It’s been a while since I did an old-fashioned sample discovery post, I guess I’ve just been listening to tons of new rap lately and not stuff like this.  Maybe I’ve been fuckin’ up…

Lenny Williams – Cause I Love You

If you need to know where this is used, you clearly weren’t at the same parties I was at in the early 2000s.  Check this post for clarification.

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PAINT THAT AREA GRAY

While I’m following up previous posts that I didn’t plan on ever following up on, here’s this song to go with this previous Pootie Tang-inspired post.

Zeroh – blq&whyt

Did you catch those wah-da-tah‘s at the beginning?  Haha-ha…   yeaah.

For a really awesome free Zeroh mixtape click here.

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WITH FINGERTIPS LIKE PICASSO (PART 2)

I didn’t know that this original post was going to be a “Part 1″ until I saw this video on The Smoking Section.

Alpoko Don – All I Know

I wish I knew a bunch more songs with dudes like Alpoko Don & Royal Rock doin’ the tabletop MC thing (definitely let me know if y’all know of any), but I have noticed that making a song centered around this somewhat modest expression of your knowledge can yield some really nice results.

Rich Boy – All I Know

MED – All I Know

Feel free to let me know all that you know in the comments section, anytime.

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PUT HANDS ON A MAN, FUCK UNITY

At first glance, this video might seem like a pretty straightforward interpretation of this new E-40 track.  It’s a rap song about fighting, so you’ve got some shots of dudes fighting, and some shots of some dudes rapping.  Alright.  If you really pay attention though, there’s another element in here that adds some depth to this otherwise obvious interpretation.

E-40 – Catch a Fade (feat. Droop-E and Kendrick Lamar)

Mixed in with the shots of E-40, Droop-E (who is E-40′s son), and Kendrick Lamar (from Black Hippy, who apparently I can’t stop writing about lately) and some dudes catchin’ a fade (that means getting in a fight) are some other dudes who are doing something kinda in between.  Sometimes solo, sometimes in groups, there are a few dudes on here who aren’t quite putting hands on each other, but are expressing themselves physically, and somewhat competitively, in a different way: they’re dancing.  In this particular video, the dance mimics, pantomimes, and caricatures the motions of physical conflict, but any battle in this arena would be won with originality, creativity, and technique rather than brute force.  Now I’d be doing my good friends Ivan, Charles, and every other martial artist in history a great disservice if I didn’t point out that originality, creativity, and technique also certainly play a role in physical combat, as does self-expression, but there is still a brute force element of fighting that is removed in the kind of dancing in this video.  But isn’t it interesting that in describing this video I’ve found only one element that differs between fighting and dancing?  The dancers seem to be competing much in the same way the fighters are, or the rappers for that matter, and when you see all of these different expressive modes in quick succession, the boundaries between them begin to break down.

Rap and hip-hop have a long history of competitiveness being more central to the culture than most other art forms.  Rap battles, DJ battles, breakdance battles, these are all commonplace.  When is the last time you went to a jazz battle?  A sculpture battle?  An architecture battle?  Probably never, unless it was ironically billed as such.  Yes, these art forms have elements of competition and even hold formal contests, and there is such a thing as a “battle of the bands” in rock music, but I don’t think you could argue that the centrality of competition in hip-hop is paralleled in the art world, except for the martial arts of course.  Rap is probably somewhere in between painting and football in the spectrum of competition-based arts.  Or, you might say, between brawling and dancing.  Competition is found in all of these places because humans are competitive, and the cultures that give rise to this or that form of expression imbue it with the level of competition inherent to that culture, which is probably based on something like the level at which the people of that culture historically feel their survival is at risk.  Hip-hop grew out of a time and place where survival was far from easy or simple to accomplish, and clearly the tradition (and the culture that gives rise to it, to an extent) continues.

You don’t have to love violence to love rap.  I don’t think you have to love violence to love martial arts either.  But I think you do have to acknowledge that violence exists to have any kind of understanding of either of these art forms.  We compete all the time with each other.  We might call it different things, we might not even think of it as competition exactly, but we do it.  We argue, we make jokes about each other, we belittle other people or their ideas, we see somebody do something and we try to do it better, or try to make what that person did look worse, there are countless ways that competition plays a role in our lives, and I think that one thing rap can do is force us to be a little more up front about your competitive nature, and see that it can be fun, as well as fulfilling, and not just something to be avoided for fear of being defeated.  I believe that even a person who attempts to isolate him or herself completely from competition from others would still find themselves alone, trying to outdo themselves, mentally and physically, throughout their life.  It’s what we do, and recognizing that can really help hone it in positive directions,  and there are countless street rappers that credit rap with being exactly that influence for them: the thing without which they would have been reduced to a much more brutal form of competition in their probably all-too-brief lives.

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