“new york is killing me”

July 7th, 2011 by | Tags: , , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the eighth, which I thought would be about the different ways people make songs about places, but instead changes tracks partway through. C’est la vie.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes

I took a trip back home in May, and a near-lethal dose of melancholy and shattered nostalgia left me thinking about how we relate to places, whether literally or figuratively. Where’s home? Where’s far? Is it a state of mind or familiar wallpaper? The usual rigmarole.

Listen to this while you read.

I listen to a lot of music that’s based around being from somewhere. Ages ago, Havoc of Mobb Deep said “Fuck where you’re at kid, it’s where you’re from/ ’cause where I’m from niggas pack nothing but the big guns/ Around my way, niggas don’t got no remorse for out of towners/Come through fronting and get stuffed with the 3 pounder.” The message is plain: where I’m from made me who I am, and all loud mouth foreigners need to remain strangers for their own sake. Where you’re from is part of your identity, right? That’s why there was inter-borough beef in NYC rap, and then bi-coastal beef, and then Andre said “The south got something to say” and bam, the Dirty South began vocally demanding attention.

There’s a couple different ways to make songs about places, near as I can tell. You can do the literal thing, where you explain what the place is all about, who lives there, or why people should care. The other option is to make a song about what it’s like to be from somewhere. You’ve got to put your soul on wax for that one, I think.

Though now that I write that out, those two things are the same thing, aren’t they? I’ve been mulling this piece over for a few days now, and was going to make that division the heart of the post. But nah, talking about a place has to involve what it’s like to be from that place, consciously or otherwise. Body language, word choice, even what you choose to describe and leave out all build a certain mental image, and it isn’t an unbiased one. I’d describe Georgia in terms I wouldn’t use for San Francisco, due to how I feel about the city and how I feel about back home.

This was going to be about music, not me. Switching gears.

The sound people choose to use when making songs about places is always interesting. “Amarillo,” off Gorillaz’ The Fall, is this slow, melancholy tune, with a rushing wind and hollow sound. It’s the music that plays when you’re driving alone down a highway in the dark, and the lyrics are about being alone and broken. It’s sad, and a very specific type of sad. I’ve never been to Amarillo, TX, but maybe that’s what life is like down there. I imagine that’s how Albarn felt, or maybe how it struck him, at least.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me”–I wrote something on this for Tucker a while back, here’s a quote:

“New York is Killing Me” is everything and nothing all at once. The beat is sparse, with a deep drum coming in over some rapid fire snaps and a brief acoustic guitar, but it’s incredible. Gil Scott-Heron is from an older tradition than rap, but tell me that this beat doesn’t sound like a descendent of The Neptunes’ sublime “Grindin.” Throw Gil Scott’s gravelly, aged voice on top of it and you’ve got something that sits in the blues range. And when the backing vocals come in for “Lord have mercy on me,” and you’re looking at gospel. The positively mournful “I need to be back home” toward the end? That’s soul. Add in the entire point of the song, which is that the city is an unfriendly, cruel place and sometimes you’ve gotta return to the country, and you’ve got a song that’s black history spread over the course of four minutes and thirty seconds.

This is a funked out blues song, like the story you tell about a break-up to your friends with a smile on your face. It’s been long enough to be a story you can tell at a party without it being a whole thing, but not quite long enough. It wavers, the smile does. That moan at the bottom of certain lines, the “I need to be back home,” all of that is regret. You’ve got to leave where you’re from because it’s the healthy thing to do.

I like the differences between Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” and Tupac’s “To Live and Die In LA.” Slug’s vision of LA is a brief burst of sights and sounds. His “I love it” at the end is true, but it sounds a little hollow, like when people say they love a restaurant with a sandwich they like or something. He likes it, but he’s not afraid to mock it. Tupac’s feels different. He has the advantage of a smooth track on par with “Summertime in the LBC” (another good song about a city, and perfect for cookouts) backing him, and he takes you on a tour of LA and everything he loves and hates about the city. I sorta feel like there’s two LAs. I know a gang of people who hate LA, but the ones that live there seem to like it well enough. It’s one of my favorite places, and I try to visit at least once a year to see friends. Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” seems like it’s about the LA that’s known for scandal and artifice, while Pac’s is more personal, like an insider dropping knowledge on someone new.

Black Star’s “Respiration” is theoretically about New York (BROOKLYN!) and Chicago, but it’s universal. It’s what I think of when I think of what cities are like. They’re claustrophobic and alive, and there’s no place better on Earth.

Big Boi’s “West Savannah” and Scarface’s “On My Block” fill the same niche in my head. Both of them hit you with rapid-fire details. “West Savannah” may be more biography than travelogue, but the picture it paints is vivid enough to create a picture of a young Antwan Andre Patton chilling on street corners as a kid. He breaks down the music, the spectacle, the gold teeth, even how folks drive their cars. Face’s “On My Block” hammers you with details over his three verses, and I like that he’s using the first person plural. It’s a song about a group of people, the people Scarface came up with and live in his city, instead of one person’s point of view. (Big Boi’s line “You might call us country, but we’s only Southern” is killer. There’s so much personality in that, both Big’s and the city’s, and really, Georgia’s.)

Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From” isn’t about a specific place, exactly, but it is about this nebulous idea of home. It’s a sad song about starting in last place, basically, and never managing to catch up. Like, the “where I’m from” that Hamilton is talking about has gravity, and that gravity is inescapable. His father bounced early, but haunts his life, get it? Home isn’t just four walls and a bed. It’s a period of time, or a foundation for the future.

Maybe I’m just talking out loud since what I thought was a good point deflated itself as soon as I crystalized it into words, but there’s something about songs about places and, more specifically, home that I can’t get out of my head.

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11 comments to ““new york is killing me””

  1. Do you know why I like this site? Because it’s cool.

  2. Women in comics on women in comics.

    Piercing commentary with a side of fun, and she has some strips on the Rum Rebellion up now too.

    Beaton is the queen of continuity comics and sends me rushing to Wikipedia to look up a name or event more than any other creator. The difference is that her comics’ continuity actually happened.

    Can’t wait for her book.

  3. @PeterV: Thanks man.

    @D. Druid: What’s that have to do with this post?

  4. Nothing, man.

  5. To engage, I think class is pretty often a factor in geography, a big part of how you can’t write about a place without writing about what it’s like to be there, for you. “Ballin’ on a Budget” is one of my favorite songs about where people are from, and it’s plenty specific, but it’s also about how one man’s western Kentucky is not another’s.

  6. Man, “Amarillo” is a pretty sweet joint, thanks for throwing it up there. Got me to thinking about a song with a slightly similar thing going on, but reversing the perspective to a Texas dude in London. It’s called “London Homesick Blues” by Gary P. Nunn, came from the Outlaw Country movement in the 70s and early 80s that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were also part of. Pretty jokey song compared to “Amarillo” and I’m not sure how much you get down with country and some ignorance with a smirk, but I figured I’d throw it your way.


  7. Shit, I thought I just threw the link up there, sorry for embedding a whole video. My bad man.

  8. @Brian D: Nah, that’s all good. I’ll check out the video in a bit, but if you can embed it, why not do so, right? That’s using the internet the right way.

  9. David, since you mentioned Atmosphere in the article, i’d like to throw in Slug’s mentions of Minneapolis for inclusion. those bars have always “read real” to me and, yet, been utterly relatable to my experiences with my region(triad, NC.

    also, would love to read your take on Murs’s “L.A.”

  10. Nice work.
    Got to the party a bit late on the Gorillaz’ Fall album as a whole. I like how much the whole thing sort of sounds like it’s on the move, but Amarillo really exemplifies that. It’s been popping up pretty heavily in my personal rotation with the things I’m working on.

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