Friday, December 31, 2010
Monday, December 27, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
For the holidays I got Jay-Z's new book, Decoded. Part autobiography, part collection of thoroughly annotated liner notes, part coffee table art piece, this book is undeniably and wholly Jay-Z. I was around friends and family for a few days and I promised myself I wouldn't hole up with the thing, but one day later and I'm halfway through it. Here are a few thoughts.
Right off the bat, I consider this a seminal and important book, not just about Jay-Z, but about the music, culture, and industry of hip hop, specifically East Coast hip hop. For a genre and culture that has spent decades slowly gaining credibility with critics, too few excellent books have been written on hip hop. (More on this later.) Alternatively, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop is a book many fans and academics consider the book on the music, which leans heavily toward West Coast. (Chang, who I love, is from California.)
Oliver Wang, another California hip hop devotee who I deeply respect, recently posted on soulsides that he considers the new book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop to be "one of the best books ever written about hip hop." His list includes Chang as well as The Book of Rap Lists, but leaves out Tricia Rose's Black Noise, notable for its early publication (1994), its compelling critique of the rap industry, and Rose's treatment on misogyny in rap. This book doesn't get enough credit.
But Wang left Decoded off that list too. Jay-Z's career again and again sums up hip hop's relationship with white audiences, and the release of what is essentially an art book to give new perspective to his career is the perfect show-and-tell here. Jay-Z writes believably about hip hop defined his experience as a young black boy in New York and then about how his commitment to reaching a wide fan base does not, in his opinion, compromise his integrity as an artist. What Jay-Z leaves out (so far), but what everyone knows (including Jay) is that rap's primary industry target is young white adolescents and teenagers.
But now Jay-Z is on Fresh Air, ribbing with Terry Gross, and releasing a book that teenagers will not buy nor really understand. The man has broken into a demographic and is communicating directly with an audience that rap has largely ignored: white adults. How many rap artists can claim that? I mean artists who are still putting out solid music. No disrespect to Chuck D.
The truth is that lots of hip hop artists, and not just the so-called socially conscious ones, share a worldview very similar to whites who read the New York Times. . Jay-Z writes, "New Orleans was fucked up before Katrina. This was not a secret. The shame and stigma of poverty means that we turn away from it, even those of us living through it, but turning away from it doesn't make it disappear." When I read a line like that, I think of my suburban parents, Times Magazine in their laps, turning to me a week after Katrina telling me this was a social and government disaster more than it was a natural disaster. They might not have gone as far as "George Bush hates black people"-- but they weren't far off. The same parents, though, wouldn't hear shit from me when I tried to explain why I believed an album like Illmatic defined a generational experience as much as The Beatles or Marvin Gaye.
The crazy thing about Jay-Z is that, with the release of this book, with his interviews, with his legitimate business status, people like my parents can listen to him and begin to "get it". Just like middle-aged HBO viewers can watch "The Wire" and suddenly have an intense sympathetic and nuanced view on the toll that poverty and addiction take in Baltimore, now white adults can finally begin to see what many kids of all colors have been saying for some time: rap tells an important and complex story about a part of America whose voice is typically skewed, if not altogether silenced. Jay-Z, for all his self-promotion and braggadocio, is a major force today in getting that message out.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Sometimes a music fan gets lucky when checking out the liner notes of a new album. On the lookout for connections across bands and genres, I usually turn first to the lineup of backing musicians on a record. I'm interested in which notable musicians may be behind the scenes on an album. Just last week I was surprised to find, while leafing through the Sticky Fingers booklet, that 70s guitarist (and later producer of the Buena Vista Social Club) Ry Cooder played guitar on the Stones' "Sister Morphine". Not being a Stones
It made me wonder when I was reading the extensive liner notes of Roky Erikson's release True Love Cast Out All Evil: how many artists have released an album where one of the backup guitarists is simply credited as "Unknown Inmate"? Although the bulk of the songs off of this album are new recordings backed and produced by Austin band Okkervil River, "Devotional Number Two", the first and one of the best songs, was recorded in 1972 while Erikson was confined to a maximum security psychiatric prison. Based on the band of inmates he was playing with at the time, that guitarist had either stabbed a young girl to death with a screwdriver or raped and murdered a twelve-year-old boy. Erikson was in there after being arrested for possession of a joint and a misguided attempt to plead insanity at his trial.
I start this post with a description of Erikson's time as an inmate because it is in many ways it is at the core of his tragic story. Once the visionary leader of and forceful singer in the garage-psychedelic-rock band the 13th Floor Elevators, he spent the next 30 years of his life in an LSD-induced schizophrenic state, confined to his home without access to medical care due to a legal guardian-his mother-who feared and resisted all forms of modern medicine. It was not until the late-90s when Erikson's younger brother won a lawsuit that allowed him to take legal custody of Roky. Within a year, Roky Erikson was radically changed, beginning to live independently for the first time in 15 years, and playing music again. His mother's argument at her son's custody trial was that she thought the practice of yoga (rather than antipsychotic medication) could rid Roky of his schizophrenia. She was a complete nut.
Yet by reading about Roky Erikson's tragic story in the liner notes to this album, watching the excellent documentary of his life, You're Gonna Miss Me, there is a danger in only listening to and interpreting Erikson's music through the lens of his illness and tumultuous life story. It is easy to mesh an artist's biography with an artist's music. Think of Brian Wilson's triumphant return with Smile. Warren Zevon's later-career recording of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" took on a certain resonance as he hurried to record The Wind in the final months of his life. Jazz guitarist Pat Martino's later albums have always been of interest to me, as a brain aneurism in 1980 wiped out his ability to play guitar. He spent seven years re-teaching himself by listening to his old recordings. His albums from 1987 onward showcase his new (old) talent.
I've tried, since picking up True Love Cast Out All Evil, to make the case to myself that this album should be heard independent from Erikson's life story, that somehow this confusion of the man and his music would serve as a sort of golfer's handicap for the songs. Any flaws in the material might be explained away by the sadness in Erikson's struggle and the ultimate redemption in the fact that a written-off artist had at last made a new recording. Try as I did, I've come to the conclusion that the opposite is true. These songs require an understanding of Erikson's story. His lyrics are somewhat veiled, but they are about his own experience. He references years of electro-shock treatments ("Electricity hammered me / Through my head / Until nothing at all / Is backwards instead"), his relationships with his mother and brothers ("I don't care what they tell me / I don't care what they say / I don't care what they think / I love my family always"), and his times in and out of psychiatric prisons ("They said you were a criminal / No one sees no crime / They said I might need their dirty prison, / But I love the way you don't give me time.")
The songs on this album are strangely shaped, dotted with wordplay reminiscent of schizophrenic linguistic tendencies, allusions to God and Hell. In short, True Love Cast Out All Evil is not a return to form. It is not a 13th Floor Elevators record. It is a decent album that serves as yet another document to help listeners piece together one of the strangest musical lives in the second half of the 20th century.