Saturday, October 5, 2013

It Was You

The song, the vocal performance, the horn arrangements... just perfect. This was our wedding song and it will always be one of my favorites.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Control" / "Exhibit C"

It's just past midnight. I should be waking up in a little under six hours. But I can't sleep. New school year starting, not to mention our wedding taking place in two weeks, so my head is going around with lots of fleeting thoughts. To-do's, itineraries, schedules, packing lists. Etc. Thought I'd sit out here and put up some tracks I've been listening to the last few days.

The first is "Control" and needs very little introduction, except that some smart dude came up with a flowchart to help you decide whether you should follow the multitudes and create a response to Kendrick's verse. Fuck it, just skip to around 3:00 and listen to Lamar's verse on repeat. It's crazy.

Second is Jay Electronica's "Exhibit C"... Not sure how I missed this when it dropped. A beautiful, hypnotic beat by Just Blaze and a song-length verse by Jay that's chock full of crazy rhyme schemes that just sound plain badass. Love the tight, clipped lines and the question-and-answer go-around on lines like "You either build or destroy/Where you come from?/The Magnolia Projects in the Third Ward slum / Hum." That double rhyme at the end recalls the primest DOOM. And, yes, Jay Electronica does have a lot of that classic Nas flow.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Jonwayne's Cassette 3: Marion Morrison Mixtape

This week I was treated to two of the best albums/mixtapes I've heard in a while. The first is Jonwayne's Cassette 3, the third in a trilogy of cassette mixtapes. The beats are on point and the lyrical tornadoes range from poetic to inane. From "Mean Muggin": "You know these rhymes recall because I knew son / and then he slipped the noose on / with his loose arm / and sang a new song." Here it is, below. Listen repeatedly.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Double Trouble at the Key Club

Recently talked a bit with Chicago artist ShowYouSuck about live rap and The Roots, while at the same time I had just been reading ?uestlove's Mo Meta Blues. There's an anecdote Quest gives about how when he showed the original beat for "Double Trouble" to D'Angelo, DJ Premier, and Dilla during the Voodoo sessions, he realized by their reaction that they were thoroughly unimpressed. They were being nice about it. But, as Quest puts it: "I took a long look at myself after debuting 'Double Trouble' for the room and realized that if I wanted to be in their fraternity, I had to pull it up a notch."

This is interesting to me because "Double Trouble" has long been my favorite track on Things Fall Apart. The back-and-forth between Black Thought and Mos Def is superb. There is so much momentum built by the frequency with which they trade bars and the variety of the rhythms they use for each new round is astounding. It's one of those songs so stuffed with intricate rhyming that it has almost limitless replay value for me.

I had found this live recording of a performance about a year ago. At first I thought it was from their tour in support of Game Theory (2007?), but you can see Mos is already using his now-ubiquitous red microphone, which I think he introduced well after '07. Anyway, the thing I love most about this performance is the communication you can see between most of the band members, most especially led by Quest as a bandleader. There are a few key moments when Quest speaks into a microphone, which I assume leads to monitors that allow him to communicate with the rest of the band. These short instructions get the band together for accents, stops, and changes in feel. I love watching Quest play music for this reason, because it's clear he is considering the entirety of the song's direction at any given moment. It's the same reason why Mo Meta Blues is such an insightful read.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lee Perry at Black Ark

Learning about the styles and production strategies of the early reggae producers is pretty interesting. Producer Coxsone Dodd, at Studio One, was a major player in the ska years, but then took a breather during rocksteady's heyday. When reggae came into view, he moved to the front of the pack. One of the reasons Dodd became the foremost producer when roots reggae came into its own, according to Lloyd Bradley in This is Reggae Music, was his work ethic at finding new talent and his system of auditioning young singers and songwriters. He also had a killer house band. Part of it also had to do with his production style. At that time, whether he had six or eight tracks to record through, he would double- or triple-track the bass to achieve the fat sound that was expected by listeners at lawn dances in Kingston. 

Lee Perry was another superproducer at around the same time, but differed widely from Dodd in his mannerism and approach to recording. Musicians from that era talk about Perry as a musical genius who knew exactly what he wanted. But his approach, from what I've read (and from what this video makes it out to be) was much less constrained. First of all, he let his musicians smoke the chalice openly (as you can see in the video). Musicians at his Black Ark studio claim that this is what led to so many great, relaxed recording sessions. (Dodd was not a fan; he didn't ban ganja, but his people knew he'd rather not have it at Studio One.) Perry was also a pretty eccentric dude, and something of a packrat. That's why photos and videos of Black Ark are so visually stunning. 

These are just some of the details I remember as I'm nearing the 450-page mark of Bradley's epic history of Jamaica's music. Obviously Perry went on to lead the Upsetters into the world of dub. Listen to his recordings from the early 70s. Also listen to King Tubby. But, for a window onto what life was like at the Black Ark, see below. Just try to disregard the patronizing, ethnographic narration.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bob and Marcia: Young, Gifted, and Black

Jamaican popular music was heavily influenced by American soul and R&B for decades, starting at its very inception with ska in the 1950s. You could argue that the musical transition from ska to rocksteady to reggae to roots reggae mirrored the changes in American black music and consciousness during that same time. As the 60s became the 70s, Jamaican artists were encouraged by the powerful messaging of Black pride in the U.S. This came across in the music. The popular themes of love and loss inherent to rocksteady turned toward Black liberation, as the message from across the Atlantic merged with the increasing prominence of Rastafari philosophy on the island itself. Reggae was beginning to come into its own.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, reggae was actually enjoying the chart success that it could never find in the States. Reggae releases were bought by large swaths of British listeners, especially by the West Indies immigrant community, but also by white youths, members of the skinhead subculture particularly. But since the BBC was still so unwilling to play Jamaican roots records -- explained more or less by racist ethnocentrism and fear of an immigrant takeover in popular culture -- producers would favor cover versions of tunes that were already popular in the UK. They would also dress them up with strings and orchestration to make them sound more Western.

Bob and Marcia's version of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" is a telling example of this trend. The song sounds quite different from the roots reggae that would become popular across the world as the 70s progressed. Tracks like these served as a palatable transition for British listeners and radio executives and helped break open the doors for acts like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Big Youth over the next decade.

Bob and Marcia:

The Gaylads:

Aretha Franklin:

Donny Hathaway:

And Nina Simone, of course:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Byron Lee and Mighty Sparrow: Try A Little Tenderness

Byron Lee was an originator of ska music, though his uptown reputation was contentious in the slum neighborhoods of Kingston. Half Chinese-Jamaican, Lee was recipient of many Chinee-man slurs. But besides his being treated as a racial outsider, he was also considered both musically inauthentic and a bandleader of questionable talent. He took ska just as it was on the up and up, dressed it in a tuxedo, and brought it to the high-class tourist hotels to make some bank.

The ultimate reward for Lee and his desire to bring ska out of the ghetto was an invitation to play at the Jamaica pavilion of the World's Exhibition in New York City in 1964. The folks in Kingston were none too pleased, considering this guy's version of ska was very mannered and polished, nothing like the rootsy and raw stuff they were playing back home. Meanwhile, the set didn't even go over that well (perhaps for that reason), and a bubbling interest in ska never took hold in the States.

Here's Byron Lee, half a decade later, teaming up with calypso king Mighty Sparrow, to cover "Try A Little Tenderness." I think comparing this to the Otis original is not unlike what it would have been like to compare Lee's version of ska to the stuff coming out of Kingston in the early 60s.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lame Drivers: Read This Album

This is me and my new Lame Drivers flexidisc. It's a book that plays you music when you put it on a turntable. It has awesome artwork. I've been admiring it all afternoon. Listen to these new songs!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tree: Back in Church

Chicago's very own Tree follows up the awesome Sunday School this week with Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out. I'm impressed upon first listen. Doesn't seem to have the same exuberant raw sound of the first mixtape, but the polished sound is well executed. Tree gives Elvis the warbled Chipmunk treatment on "Elvis" and he's got some hyped up features as he raps with Danny Brown and Roc Marciano. As a side note, I like how Tree is somewhat of an elder to the new school of Chicago rappers-- and he's just in his late 20s. Nonetheless, Tree has taken trap music and infused it with the soulful sound that put Chicago on the map more than a decade ago. He doesn't need to keep shouting out "soul trap" on these tracks though. The beats speak for themselves.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Waking on a Pretty Daze

Seems like everything Kurt Vile creates turns to gold. I'm not sure exactly why I'm so infatuated with this guy's music, but sometimes I think I could listen to his albums forever and never get bored with them. There's something very unassuming about his mumbling vocals and nice guitar work-- whether he's finger picking or shredding on an electric, every note lands perfectly. Here are some of my favorite tracks from the new album.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ecstatic Ecstatic

I've been a big fan of Mos Def's The Ecstatic since it dropped in 2009. If you have slept on it, or assumed that it was some mediocre, half-finished release, rearrange your thought processes and listen to it at once. Of course, it would be easy to assume the worst about the album, considering it seemed to have no label support, nor a single, nor any kind of promotional strategy to speak of. But it's just downright excellent.

Sixteen tracks, almost half of which are produced by Madlib, one by Dilla, a bunch of great beats by Preservation, and Mos rhyming about geopolitics and history and love. And Brooklyn. It features a guest verse from Slick Rick, who seems to be rhyming from the middle of a war-torn Baghdad (and trading verses with "a young Iraqi kid" who wins the battle with a declarative "Get the fuck out my country!"). The whole thing starts with Malcolm X and winds its way to a finale of an interstellar boogie that fades out into beautiful piano. Somehow it all holds together. And, by the way, the cover image is taken from Killer of Sheep, a movie I have referred to on this blog before.

Unfortunately, Mos Def's attitude toward performing is not as razor sharp as the production of this album. I wish he would have just performed The Ecstatic from beginning to end and then left the stage. But oh well. Here's a review of his performance from March 15 at the Shrine, which appears on Passion of the Weiss.

Monday, March 25, 2013

I Just Can't Stop It

I have added ever so slightly to my two-tone record collection by joining The Specials with The English Beat's I Just Can't Stop It (1980). "Mirror in the Bathroom" was the only track I'd heard for a while, thanks to John Cusack and his awesome kung fu, but a few years ago this album was sitting around an apartment I moved into in Providence. So it holds special nostalgic value for me after listening to it for the year after I graduated from college.

"Stand Down Margaret" is a reminder of the social/political context of Thatcher-era Britain. And "Tears of a Clown" is just a great ska cover. Also, one of the fun things about buying records from the 80s is you get to read the inserts that advertise the pre-internet merchandise you can buy if you send a check or money order. Records as historical artifacts and such.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Questlove Radio One DJ Mix

I saw this on the Style Matters blog. They must be some pretty awesome wedding DJs to put something like this up on their site. See how many hip-hop songs you can spot over the course of this set for BBC Radio. There were many original sources here that I'd never heard. It's funny how with some rap songs it is clear that the production is sample-based, while with others the sample is unnoticeable. I'm pretty sure the inspiration for "So Fresh So Clean" is halfway through this set, but I still can't figure out if OutKast used the original or not on the record.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I keep this blog as much for myself as for others. I imagine many years from now I might look back and wonder why I hadn't posted any thoughts about music in February 2013. There could be a few reasons. One is that I was posting elsewhere. Here are two pieces about hip-hop in Chicago that I posted to Passion of the Weiss this month. One is about Chance the Rapper. The other: Rockie Fresh. I plan to continue writing for the site in the future.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Passion of the Weiss

A few weeks back, I posted a link to L.A.-based writer Jeff Weiss's music blog, Passion of the Weiss. I recently got in touch with Jeff and yesterday I contributed what I hope to be the first of many essays/posts for the blog. The piece was inspired by a few records I recently bought. I noticed a theme of soul acts in the early 70s that were covering material written by singer/songwriters and folk-rock artists. Please read and add your thoughts. I'm curious if other listeners can hip me to some other tracks that fit this trend.

Hip Hop Transcriptions

The estimable Charles Hely has created an awesome archive of his hip hop transcriptions. The only tools used are pen, paper, and a ruler--and also an incredible ear for rhythm. We talked at length last week about this project.

Notice how Charlie chose consciously to use graph paper rather than sheet music. The typical music staves of sheet music would convey that hip-hop has evolved totally from a Western music tradition, which is debatable absurd. The graph paper allows the music to be viewed purely as a representation of time passing at evenly spaced intervals. It's cool to see these pieces as math as well as pieces of music. 

Also, I learned that Premier produced "Ten Crack Commandments" for Biggie. Thanks for filling a musical knowledge gap Char!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Diana Ross: Surrender

I bought a handful of records at Flat, Black, and Circular while in East Lansing, MI before the end of 2012. I bought Diana Ross's Surrender on a whim. I was struck by the cover, and thought I'd correct my lack of knowledge on her post-Supremes sound. I've since read that this is considered a rather sea-level effort for that part of her career. But I'll be the first to admit I really liked what I heard upon the first spin. Two tracks in particular strike me.

At first, I thought the last track of Side A was a super strange minor/major version of "I'll Be There". That song was made famous, of course, by the Jackson 5 (and didn't Diana Ross have a hand in that?). News to me that "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" is actually a different Holland-Dozier-Holland composition and was written in this really harmonically complex way. Need to take a few more listens to this one to see how it is structured.

Meanwhile, "Didn't You Know (You'd Have to Cry Sometime)" is just an awesome soul-pop song, pound-for-pound. It's the kind of song that, when you first hear the groove, you think, this has to be a sample somewhere. I just WhoSampled it... No samples! It is, however, a cover of Gladys Knight & The Pips (showcasing my ignorance here). Well, maybe I'll be the first (?) to give it a go.