Time Goes By…

July 19th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I’m at San Diego right now, chilling in a hotel room. It’s busy, it’s nice, I’m digging seeing the show from this direction. But I need to write, and so I’m writing this:

I love weed songs, from Bone thugs~n~harmony’s “Buddah Lovaz” to Kid Cudi’s “Marijuana.” I’ve had OutKast’s “Crumblin Erb” stuck in my head for a couple weeks now, particularly Sleepy Brown’s work on the chorus, which is one of my favorite of his performances:

There’s only so much time left in this crazy world
I’m just crumblin’ erb
I’m just crumblin’ erb
Niggas killing niggas they don’t understand
What’s the master plan?
I’m just crumblin’ erb
I’m just crumblin’ erb

I’ve been thinking about this song, mostly by mulling over the lyrics as best I can remember. Andre’s “splish/splash/of blood” bars stick out, Big Boi’s first four bars or so are stupendous, “sprinkle sprinkle motherfucker, don’t be crying on me” is one of those things I’d love to say in real life, but what I only just realized now–and please believe by “now” I mean 8:00 on Friday morning, July 19–is that this isn’t a song about the joy of getting high. It’s a weed song, but it’s not a weed song.

I love Meth & Red’s “How High.” It’s an OG weed song as far as I’m concerned, and it’s basically just a regular rap song with tight lyrics that talk about weed. “Crumblin Erb,” like a fistful of other references to weed in rap, isn’t about how being high feels good in and of itself so much as how being high feels good because it pushes back against the pain. It’s melancholy, not exuberant. It’s a coping mechanism.

I feel like I knew this before now, because I’ve honestly listened to pretty much every OutKast song a hundred and fifty-eleven times, the joints on Idlewild included, and they’re one of my favorite groups, so they occupy a lot of space in my head. But I didn’t know it in relation to, say, Tupac’s “Krazy,” which has this for a chorus:

Time goes by, puffin on lye
Hopin that it gets me high
Got a nigga goin cra-zy
Oh yeah, I feel cra-zy

Before segueing directly into these four bars:

Last year was a hard one, but life goes on
Hold my head against the wall, learning right from wrong
They say my ghetto intrumental detrimental to kids
As if they can’t see the misery in which they live

Or this verse from Deck on “CREAM”:

Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed and I ask what’s it worth?
Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
and stray shots, all on the block that stays hot

Or even Layzie and Krayzie Bone’s couplet toward the end of “Buddah Lovaz”: “It’s a Bone thang how a nigga like me smoke and maintain/ Maintain, maintain.”

“I’m maintaining” is a phrase I love and have used myself, the rap version of “I’m fine.” I can only hear it in El-P’s pitched-down voice from “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” now, part of the first verse on the song. I bit & edited these lyrics from OHHLA but they seem pretty right:

Bumped into this kid I knew, he often would walk strange
So I ignored the blood on his laces so this cat could save face
The dunks and the gaze stayed in an off-grey haze
And the lump in his pocket talked to the ox that he clutched safe
So I saluted him there, waiting for the A
Trapped on the empty platform without the option to escape
Gave him the standard: “Yo, what up man, how you landing?”
And the hypnotized response was no surprise: “I’m maintaining.”
“Yeah, we all do, that’s the standardized refrain
“But on some really real man, good to see you, really, what the dealy deal?”
Oops, fuck, screwed the pooch, asked too much, knew the truth
On the train now, a caboose
In his brain now, no recluse
80 blocks to uptown spot, destination vocal booth
MetroCard like: “You get what you pay for, stupid!”
No excuse
He pulled his hoody off his cabbage, rugged practical
And began to fancy the words I mistakenly jostled loose
The stogie he brazenly lit where he sit looked legit
But when the flame touched to the tip I could smell it’s of another nit
He leaned his head back and inhaled the newpie dip and said:
“The whole design got my mind cryin’, if I’m lying I’m dying.”

Even Kid Cudi’s “Marijuana” leans melancholy. “I-I, I be on it all day like my nigga Big Boi said/ That’s the only thing that keep me level up in my crazy head.”

Lauryn Hill is the queen of this, though. Remember “Ready or Not”? How ill of a way is this to open a verse: “Yo, I play my enemies like a game of chess/ Where I rest no stress if you don’t smoke sess.” I love it so much. Rap music!

I don’t have a point or big revelation here for you at all. I already knew that weed is an amazing coping mechanism, and I knew that rappers sang about that aspect of it regularly. But I was struck by how “Crumblin’ Erb” took root in my head recently and that I never made the obvious connection that the song made between weed and melancholy, between weed and what we like to call The Black Condition.

This is what people mean when they say rap is real or the CNN of the streets. This is rap reflecting life reflecting rap reflecting life.

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THUG LIFE: Manhood, suicide, and love

September 19th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Almost ten years ago now, Cameron “Killa Cam” Giles, one of my favorite rappers, launched an assault on the rap industry. He came out wearing pink polos and pink fur coats while driving a pink Range Rover. It was a dare and a dis, all wrapped up in one incredible package. The dis was that Cam was so much more secure in who he was than every other rapper that he could co-opt pink, a feminine color, and rock it like it was all black everything without losing any of his manhood. It dared other rappers to say something about him, so that he could turn any of their attacks back on them. “I dare you to test me over what I’m wearing,” the pink seemed to say. “We’ll see who the real man is.”

Killa Cam botched the dis from word one, though, by clinging to “no homo.” Any power his pink swagger might have held over insecure rappers was utterly defused by Cam’s own insecurity and fear of being seen as feminine or homosexual. He went from alpha male to typical punk over the course of three short syllables, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

One of the worst things about having a rough year are those moments of clarity that come along every once and a while. They aren’t respites from pain so much as a quick gasp of air before returning to drowning. They give you a chance to understand exactly how far in over your head you are.

I had one twelve days ago, and it hurt. It hurt so bad that I had to sit down and write out exactly what’s gone wrong and how I could fix it. It started as something I thought about putting on the internet and quickly turned into a conversation with myself. No, it quickly turned into a heated and honest conversation with myself.

I wrote out where I’d been lying to myself, what I’ve been doing wrong, what’s gone wrong, and how I got here. I wrote out where I wanted to go and why I’m not there yet. I cussed myself out and smoothed myself over. I admitted that the best I’m able to do lately, physically/emotionally/mentally, is “I’m maintaining.” I tried to work out solutions to the things I could handle and a gameplan to treat water until I could handle the things I currently can’t. I made it a point to make myself uncomfortable, to be even more unfair to myself than I generally am, so that I could get the job done.

The solutions, such as they were, weren’t the hardest part, but they were close. I don’t have many, but I wrote down a lot, just to see how they tasted. Reasonable ones, unpleasant ones, unthinkable ones, I wanted to know how they all felt jockeying for position in my head. So I wrote them.

I looked at a certain subset of those solutions and said, “No. These are weakness. Unacceptable.” And I crossed them off my list and put them out of my head. Accepting them would have drastically changed who I am and how I live in ways that are uncomfortable to think about. So I rejected them. I don’t want to be weak.

Malcolm X, 1965: We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

I latched onto Malcolm because he didn’t beg or plead or ask. He told. There’s something attractive and powerful about that, when you’re small and unsure. Something real manly. Something strong.

“I am a man. You are going to treat me like one, or you — not me, you — are gonna have a problem.”

I’m an ’80s baby. I was born in 1983. My mother raised me. My father didn’t. Without a template to follow, my idea of manhood is a patchwork affair. A little Tupac, a little Malcolm, a little Denzel by way of Malcolm not much Martin at all, a little of my grandfather, probably a little of Shawn Corey Carter, a little of my uncles, and a little more from here and there. Instead of being shown, I had to figure out manhood for myself. Trial and error. What skin fits the best? What school of thought will get me killed? How hard do I have to try to get this right? Can I get this right?

I know where I stand on a lot of things. I avoid passive-aggression at all costs. If it’s important enough for me to want to pass-agg somebody about it, it’s important enough to be worth naming somebody’s name. I frown when my friends go pass-agg over something. I believe in being direct, because that is what a man does. No dilly-dallying, no fooling around. You get it done as efficiently and cleanly as possible. I learned to work until the job is done, no matter what it takes, from my grandfather. I learned to get in somebody’s face when they treat you like trash from my mother.

I still don’t have it figured out.

There are a lot of men like me.

Kendrick Lamar, “Chapter Six,” from Section.80: There’s a more important topic I’d like to discuss: the dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan Era. Young men that learned to do everything spiteful. This is your generation. Live fast and die young. Who’s willing to explain this story?

When interviewing Ron Wimberly about his graphic novel Prince of Cats, I said: “Tybalt, like the world of Prince of Cats, feels so familiar. His suicidal rush toward manhood and respect reminds me of… honestly, almost every black man that I’ve known, myself included.”

“Suicidal rush toward manhood and respect.”

I don’t know if I stole the turn of phrase from somewhere. I probably did. Regardless, it’s an apt description for what I’m trying to talk through. We want to be men, by any means necessary (“by a very specific set of means, all of which are necessary,” maybe), and that means proving ourselves against other men. “Give me the respect I deserve or I’m going to take it by force.” “Time is running out, tick tock, like the grains of sand. Every man sharpens man, like steel sharpens steel.” Boys, desperate for the attention of men so that they might be seen as peers, as equals, instead of children.

Live life reckless.

Part of that suicidal rush is rejecting the soft and the feminine. In figuring out what it means to be a man, you define your manhood by specific absences. You discard forgiveness for vengeance, defeat for victory. Death before dishonor. Being a man is inviolate, and anything that tests your manhood, that shows you anything less than the respect you feel you deserve, is targeted for destruction.

Cee-Lo Goodie, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, from Still Standing: So many black men out here trying to be niggas, keeping it real to the point that they dying to be niggas.

I look at Wimberly’s Tybalt and I see a man that’s uncomfortable expressing love directly to his loved ones, but eager to show his love by demonstrating exactly how much he’s willing to hurt whatever threatens the object of that love. “I love you” is hard. Putting a blade to someone else’s throat is easy.

Romeo’s intrusion into Tybalt’s life, and attraction to Juliet, is an insult. He’s a rival, someone to be defeated, not someone to love as a brother. So, instead of having a conversation with Juliet after he discovers that she’s married a man he hates because they’re in rival crews, Tybalt steps to Romeo. “Thou art a villain,” he says, and dies a man.

But imagine what happens when your new husband kills your beloved cousin over petty beef. Imagine the trauma, the hole that would leave behind, all for the sake of manhood.

Big Boi on OutKast’s “Return of tha G” from Aquemini: Man, a nigga don’t want no trouble. A player just want to kick back with my gators off and watch my lil girl blow bubbles. But still ready to rhyme, standin’ my ground, never back down, willin’ to rob, steal, and kill anything that threatens mine.

Drake first hinted at an upcoming Aaliyah project during an interview with Tim Westwood in March. “I have some great Aaliyah news coming soon,” Drake told Westwood, adding, “You know it’s hard for me to ride around to a female singer because at the end of the day, you’re a man, but she always kept it so G with the writing and the melodies. It was something to ride to, especially when it was chopped and screwed. That’s when I used to love.

Aubrey Drake Graham on Aaliyah

Drake is either playing a role here — and by that I mean lying — or he’s insecure. That’s the only excuse for what he’s saying here. The idea that Aaliyah was more of a gangster than other singers (she wasn’t, that’s silly) and is therefore more appropriate to rock in your whip is insane. Who thinks like that? It’s a parody of thugs, which Drake is most definitely not.

This is what happens when you grow up spiteful. This is what happens when you are obsessed with being seen as, not just a man, but more of a man than most men. You reject your own history and your own softness. You define yourself not as a man, but as not-female, and you reject anything that feels female to you.

Drake is implicitly dissing Aaliyah here, and more than that, he’s dissing every woman singer and rapper that came before her. He’s dissing Lauryn Hill, Sade, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, and everyone else who helped provide the soundtrack to our lives and history. He’s lumping them together as something soft and not-gangster, something I think those women would be pretty surprised to hear, considering the nonsense (nonsense just like this quote!) they had to fight through just to be heard.

Drake once said that he was the first rapper to successfully sing and rap as a style. It’s a boast, another desperate grasp at a thin vision of manhood. “Nobody’s as good as me, you know? I’m just the real deal.”

Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott would beg to differ.

Andre 3000 on OutKast’s “Return of tha G” from Aquemini: Return of the gangsta, thanks ta them niggas who got them kids who got enough to buy an ounce but not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo or to the park so they grow up in the dark never seein’ light so they end up being like yo sorry ass, robbin’ niggas in broad ass daylight, get down.

It’s a cycle. The average black man only influences a small number of people over the course of his life. Children, friends, cousins. Coworkers maybe. They can give people poison or peace, depending on who and what they are, and those that are influenced in turn influence others. I didn’t become a man and suddenly know exactly what manhood entailed. I had to be taught, I had to figure it out, and at some point, I’m going to end up passing that on. Actually, I already have. I have younger cousins who looked up to me when I was growing up, and I’ve undoubtedly influenced them already.

I can look at my mother and see my temper. I can look at my father and see my distance. I’m an amalgam of what I’ve learned, and those that I will influence are the same thing. We feed off each other and others. Each one teach one.

Drake has an audience who listens to his words and are piecing together their own fragile manhood, too. My audience is maybe two dozen strong. His is larger, much larger. And when Drake demonstrates his insecurities in public, people don’t see a small man desperate to be seen as something larger. They see a famous, successful man, a man women want to sleep with, and they digest his words in that context. I did it with Jay-Z, Mos Def, DMX, and the Dungeon Family. I internalized a lot of poison because it seemed like the right approach to take. I worked some of it out. I absorbed some of it. Work in progress.

This cycle won’t ever end. It’d need a seismic, or apocalyptic, shift in society to force that change. But the cycle is a vicious one, and it results in stunted and deficient men. Men who have no idea how to be men and keep picking the wrong route on their way to an early grave or a poisoned life. Not always, obviously, but too often.

We’ve got to change the situation, but that’s a tall order, isn’t it? There’s so much inertia, so many ingrained prejudices and ideas to work out. I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that I can’t support these fakes.

But then, even though I don’t support these fakes, I definitely get down with a few others who are fake. So maybe it’s all bad. Everything. I’m not man enough to make a decision I can consciously recognize as being the right decision for whatever reason. So, in a way, I’m propping up and perpetuating the same thing that I hate.

Tupac Shakur: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.

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Screw Music: Cocaine Pentagrams and the Twerk Team at a Black Mass

February 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fifteenth. I realized I had a lot of screw music in the official rotation. It’s a type of music I like a lot, but find it hard to articulate why. There’s a good reason for that, I think. I keep going to a few key words, though–it sounds evil, it sounds wrong, it sounds off, it sounds abstract, it sounds sideways, it sounds like Hell… it sounds great. It’s just that whenever those monks get around to updating the Ars Goetia, they’ll have to add a footnote that King Paimon is the patron demon of screw music.

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, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs

Drive by Xheathcaresx

Press play on this joint while you read.

I’ve been thinking about writing about chopped and screwed music for a while now. This cat named Heath Caring created a C&S version of the Drive soundtrack and it came on my radar a little bit ago. I’ve been regularly spinning it ever since. The problem is that the appeal of screw music is such a weird and specific thing. Screw music is post-modernism stacked on the already pomo origins of rap. I’ve been mulling it over for days, trying to find an angle of attack, but it’s a slippery subject.

My man Ray, a dude who has put me onto a lot of good screw, recently said this while spotlighting a new screw mix:

I’ve come to realize, trying to explain chopped and screwed music to people makes you sound like you’re fucking insane. The idea of slowing down music and making it skip on purpose isn’t the easiest thing for heads to imagine. That’s why instead of explaining what the music actually sounds like it’s best to describe the feeling screw gives you. Sometimes you feel like you’re being dragged through a black hole where time and space are being warped. Other times screw feels like you’re at a dope pool party but you spent the entire affair chillin’ out at the bottom of the pool listening to the DJ do work.

And that’s it right there. It’s about the music, but it’s not. It’s about how it feels. Listening to screw, whether you’re sober or high, is like listening to regular music, sure. There’s a beat, and you can bop to it. You might could even do a slowed down version of the wop to it if you had the right song, and I mean the wop that your parents used to do when they hit up house parties, not the wack dance that swept youtube a few years back. But screw music is… it’s like abstracted rap. Not abstract, like Q-Tip or Aes Rock. Abstracted. Taking a thing and making it different. It’s psychedelia for people who were raised on Three 6 Mafia and UGK instead of The Beatles.

But it’s real hard to explain what screw music sounds like to people who can’t parse the idea that DJ Mr. Rogers’s chopped and screwed version of Drake’s “Say What’s Real” sounds like the feeling you get when you walk into a black mass in the basement of the club by accident and realize that the chief anti-priest is your ex-girlfriend. The way the harmonious melody in the background is slowed down changes its sound from a generic triumphant rap orchestra into a funeral dirge, Drake’s voice goes lower and he’s enunciating clearly, but the track keeps skipping and hopping and stripping all the smooth charm out his voice. That feels different from “I like how John Lennon sings this song because you can hear the hurt in his heart” to me.

I’ve been describing that screwed version of the Drive soundtrack to other people as evil, like a house party in Hell in the ’80s where all the coke’s run out. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” turns into something else entirely when the upbeat synth-pop gives way to a voice that moans and groans the words out and the synths are stretched to the breaking point. It sounds slow, is the thing. It sounds wrong, and I mean wrong in the sense of what it feels like to come into your house and realize something is out of place, but not being able to figure out what that out of place thing is or who could have been in there but you. “Nightcall” turns into the musical equivalent of a gross leer, and you can’t do anything but let it wash over you.

The wildest part of the mix to me is the point when Kendrick Lamar’s “ADHD” rolls in. I didn’t even realize that it had faded in on my first listen, because it’s slipped in there so smoothly and the song sounds so different. There’s a great thematic link between Drive and Lamar’s Section.80, but the screwed “ADHD” tripped me out. It fits so well, and the Clipse joint that comes after is tremendous.

It sounds so full, like it’s just overflowing out of your speakers. It sounds like something you want to bang so loud on your speakers that your neighbors spontaneously shatter into dust from the bass. Like a… like a sustained earthquake, or something. It rolls over you and makes you feel trapped. Claustrophobic. The lyrics twist and turn uglier than they might be at first glance when they’re this slow.

This specific example of screw music is like the most comfortable uncomfortable situation ever, like the tail end of what happens when you screw up and eat an entire hash brownie, not realizing you only needed half to get right. It feels like that last hour or so of being over-high for thirteen hours straight, when you’re done panicking and you know you’re way too high, but man the couch feels too good right now and you feel so relaxed and life is so nice that it’s all to the good.

I like this Lil Sprite mix Ray hooked up, too. It’s called Cocaine Pentagrams, which makes it incredible from jump. Sean Witzke was on Twitter talking about how it made him think of David Bowie’s Station to Station, and I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s dead on. Station to Station is an incredibly funky album, and one of my favorite Bowie joints. He was so coked out while working on it that he doesn’t even remember doing it.

At the forefront of my mind was Andre 3000 beginning a verse “I came into this world high as a bird from second-hand cocaine powder” and ending another “They call it horny because it’s devilish, now see, we dead wrong.” on ATLiens. Bowie is just the icing (provided by Freeway Ricky Ross and the CIA) on the cake, the missing puzzle piece that pulls it all together. Just from the start, Cocaine Pentagrams is ill, and that’s without even hearing a single word. It’s evocative. It’s the precursor to an experience.

It’s not just about slowing down a song or getting high and turning on an mp3. It’s an experience that’s different from how I regularly listen to music. I try to really listen when I’m playing songs, but with screw music, I just go with it and see what happens. I do a lot of writing to screw music. It just sorta sits at the back of your head, infecting your subconscious until you’re through. It’s music that’s easy to absorb when you aren’t thinking too hard about it.

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“new york is killing me”

July 7th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

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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“It’s a new way of thinkin’…” [On Vinyl]

May 31st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the seventh, which is about how I listen to music, in a way.

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)

Aww, Mr. Death To All Print Media is buying records now? What a hypocrite.

I regularly carry around a tiny device that lets me hold two thousand songs. My mp3 collection is over twenty-five thousand songs deep, and the distance between “thinking of an album” and “being able to listen to that album” is getting smaller and smaller each day. One side effect of the rise of MP3s as my preferred format for music is that music itself has been devalued, and any associated rituals eliminated.

If I want to play an album, I flick my thumb up and down a screen that’s probably an inch and a half wide and tall. On my computer, I have hundreds of albums that I can play one after the other in a random order, and if I let it play through, I wouldn’t hear the same song twice for weeks. iTunes is Jukebox Plus, a program that can hold every song ever made and play whatever I want, whenever I want.

Music used to be something you did, in addition to listened to. You had to fast-forward through cassette tapes to get to the song you wanted, or hope you put the tape in on the right side because the text was rubbed off. I used to have a bunch of unlabeled CDs in my car that were random mixtapes. I would shuffle through them in the morning, find the one that was the least scratched, and throw it in.

There was a ritual. You had to do something to make music go. Every album was a discrete unit, rather than being part of a mass.

So, when a friend offered me the Hanna soundtrack on vinyl, I thought about it and said, “Why not?” I grew up around records, though I rarely played them as a kid. They were around, but our needle broke at some point, so they never got played. I went out, picked up a cheap turntable, spent a few hours trying to get it to work with my computer the way I wanted, and then went out buying vinyl.

I set some ground rules for myself before I went on a mad shopping spree, though. If there is going to be a ritual to my music playing, then it’s going to be with music that’s worth it. No singles and no EPs. Anything I buy would have to be actual albums that I can bump from top to bottom, rather than anything I ‘sorta like.’ I’m only buying things I already own here, in whichever format, so the outlay of cash had to be worth it.

On top of that, I decided to buy a limited number of albums a month. I would allow one strong burst at the top to flesh out my collection, but after that, one or two albums a month, max. I don’t need to waste more space in my place. I figured that setting a foundation for a library and then building slowly would be a nice way to keep myself in check and only end up with things I enjoy.

After a couple weeks, I own Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Leftfoot, Blu’s Her Favorite Colo(u)r & Celln’Ls/ GurlFriend’ 7″ (free with HFC), Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night, Chemical Bros’ Hanna, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, David Banner’s Certified, Ghostface’s Fishscale, Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, Little Dragon’s Machine Dreams, Michael Jackson Off the Wall & Thriller, Outkast’s Aquemini, P$C’s 25 to Life, Richard Pryor Wanted, Tupac’s Makaveli, and Young Jeezy’s The Recession. A few of these I found used for cheap, a few were new, and more than a few were at rock-bottom clearance prices.

I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, and I’m pleased with how this experiment is working out. I have to consider albums as their own thing now, which is a little different than queuing up a playlist. Fast-forwarding is a pain, and while selecting individual tracks is possible, it isn’t an exact science. Vinyl makes me look at albums as one whole, rather than a selection of songs and skits.

Skit placement makes more sense now. They tend to come at the top of a side of a record, rather than randomly throughout a set of mp3s. They feel like something that will ease you back into the music or serve as a reintroduction, rather than something somebody thought was funny once. Bonus tracks are gone now, too.

Vinyl requires active listening. I’ve got a few double LPs (and one triple), and you’ve got to be paying attention so that you can switch sides and play more songs. It’s more interactive than my iPod, which I find really interesting. I’m always aware that vinyl is spinning, rather than the fire and forget way I approach iTunes.

I wake up an hour early so that I can work out every morning. As it turns out, records are a nice way to keep time. I was listening to music anyway, but now I have one album to go through a day (or 75% of an album, depending). Switching sides or records provides a nice break between sets, and playing an album lets me accurately judge my time, too.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a vinyl nut. I prefer the digital format entirely too much. But, for certain specific situations? Vinyl is very cool. Another new way of thinking.

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Das Racist, Big Boi

September 2nd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Das Racist’s “Who’s That? Brooown!” is a dope song, and this video manages to homage several 8-bit games I grew up on. Well done. Link courtesy of Ron Wimberly.

How to sum up Big Boi and Yelawolf’s “You Ain’t No DJ,” with Andre 3000 on production? Is it Yela’s “Yeah, I’m pale, but I’ll impale you with an Impala” or the bit about taking your couch and stealing your truck to move it with? The track suit girls? The kids dancing? Who cares! It’s dope, get your watch on.

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Big Boi – Sir Lucious Leftfoot, the Son of Chico Dusty

July 6th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Half of the greatest rap group of all time drops his solo record today. I copped the deluxe edition, personally.

The intro track to Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Leftfoot is called “Feel Me (Intro)” and was produced by Malay. It sounds like Sleepy Brown singing, with a Roger Troutman accompaniment, but I might be wrong. It’s Antwan Patton’s resume. 15 years off in this game, still ain’t changed, feel me. It’s a command, not a request. This song is funky, with an Ennio Morricone whistle and laid back sound setting the stage for the album. There are no vocals from Big Boi until the very end, after the music drops out. “Damn,” he says. “And that wasn’t nothing but the intro!” Cocky or confident? Who cares, he’s right.

I’ve been looking forward to it forever, personally. OutKast always got broken up into the pimp and the poet, but that was never quite right. Big Boi was just as weird as Andre, but weird in a different way. SIr Lucious Leftfoot, as an album, is proof of that. He finally gets around to rhyming orange in a song, something I’ve been telling people he’d do since I was in high school. He flows over a variety of beats that have one thing in common: they all knock.

There’s a gang of guest appearances, but his album never feels crowded. George Clinton makes his second appearance on a Kast track, Yelawolf and Bobby Ray represent for the New New South, Andre 3000 produces one song (and would have had a spot on the album if Jive wasn’t run by idiots), Gucci Mane delivers a verse that doesn’t suck, and Big Rube makes a triumphant return to wax. Too $hort comes through for a guest appearance, and apparently he listened when GZA told rapper’s to make it half short and twice strong. His four bars are his whole style in miniature and still being dope.

You can easily draw a line from Speakerboxxx to Sir Lucious Leftfoot. The production doesn’t sound like your normal radio clips, and what samples there are are all over the place. There’s a lot of Dungeon Family-oriented production, too, whether from Mr DJ, Big Boi Andre, or the almighty Organized Noize itself. It’s a little more focused than Speakerboxxx, but when separated from Andre 3000, you can see where Big Boi is spreading his wings. He switches up his flow, whether via computer tricks or just good old fashioned spitting. There’s not necessarily a Rosa Parks or Hey Ya on this record, nothing that’ll put the radio on smash, but every song is bumpable.

I dunno if I can or should pick a favorite. “Turns Me On” is silky smooth, and I love Sleepy Brown. “Tangerine,” his joint with T.I. and Khujo Goodie is ill, too. “Fo Yo Sorrows” is nuts and includes a breakdown, something you don’t see often enough in rap these days. Big Boi’s verses on “Night Night” is crazy. Don’t even get me started on “Shine Blockas.”

I like this one. That’s really all there is to it.

You might wanna argue with me about best rap group of all time, but go ahead and listen to Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, ATLiens, Aquemini, Stankonia, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and watch Idlewild. We told you the South would rise again. You just didn’t realize it happened in 1995. DF!

Relevant videos:

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The Adventures of Bobby Ray

April 27th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

B.o.B./Bobby Ray is pretty great. I’ve been following his career since… 2008? He’s dropped a few mixtapes I really dug, had some 5-star guest appearances, and I basically told myself I’d buy his album after hearing his “Who The Fuck Is B.o.B.?” mixtape for the first time. His new album, B.o.B. Presents The Adventures of Bobby Ray is out, and I just copped it. Eight bucks on Amazon? Not even a question.

Bobby Ray is a child of the Dungeon Family, just like most of the better artists out of Georgia. Goodie MOb and OutKast are in his DNA, but not in a copycatting sort of way. There’s just a clear influence there, but he is clearly his own artist. He has the ability to put a deeply weird song next to some old school funk next to some skinny jeans rap next to something pimp tight and not have it clash.

(That’s another post-Dungeon thing. Andre 3000 has a rep for being the conscious poet, the weird half of OutKast, but he’s still the dude who spit “I got up in them hoes and I told ’em “Bye bye!”/ About two weeks later, she called me with some bullshit/ Talkin’ ’bout her period late… Guess what I did:/ *Click*.” It’s not cognitive dissonance so much as recognizing and embracing the fact that people go deeper than one word labels. It’s the same thing that puts Talib Kweli on a handful of songs with Pimp C. Put differently: “Is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall?”)

What I like about Bobby Ray is how he walks that fine line. He’s open about how he used to try to rap in a more radio-friendly style on “Generation Lost,” a track from The Adventures of B.o.B. He has talked about playing B.o.B. like its a role, and how he eventually had to learn to be comfortable being Bobby Ray and be okay with playing guitars or pianos on a track. He had to learn how to be him, and being him sometimes involves a song like “Grip Ur Body” or “Nigger” or “Haterz Everywhere.” There’s a spectrum of experience there.

It’s a lot there that I can personally relate to, is what I’m saying.

Him, Killer Mike, Pill, Jay Electronica, Yelawolf- they’re keeping southern rap interesting. I love Jeezy, but he doesn’t have the same range these cats do. Maybe it’s because they aren’t fully mainstreamed, I don’t know, but Yelawolf’s Trunk Muzik is crazy good, Pill spits fire on every verse, Jay ElecHanukkah is dope, if a bit MIA currently, and Bobby Ray and Killer Mike are the two finest heirs to OutKast’s legacy I can imagine.

Youtubes below. Listen to them, and if you dig it, pick up the record. “Nothin On You” is on the album, the rest are older tracks of varying ages. It’s black future music, baby.

(The “I’ll Be In the Sky” video vaguely suggests continuity between Bobby Ray and OutKast. Consider the video for “Elevators (Me & You)” from forever ago. You can even draw a line from the content of “I’ll Be In the Sky” to “Elevators.” Pay attention.)

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Yo! 4thletter! Raps! 01

March 26th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Being a quick roundup, with commentary, of my favorite music videos of the week. A weekly feature, barring a week where no one with talent releases a music video worth watching. This first week is playing catchup a little, so you might’ve seen some of these before. Videos subject to go down for copyright violations, so browse wisely.

Big Boi – Fo Yo Sorrows feat. Too Short, George Clinton, SamChris
Let’s be honest: I grew up on OutKast, and they are definitely the greatest rap group of all time. Andre 3000 built a rep as the poet and Big Boi as the pimp, but over the past few years, Big Boi has shown that both halves of the duo are both skilled on the mic and eccentric on the beats. This video features Too $hort, who is way older than I expected but still the same old G on his four bars, and “Just to let you know that everything is straight/I say stank you very much ’cause we appreciate the hate/Now go get yourself a handgun, you fuckin wit a great/ Put it your mouth and squeeze it like your morning toothpaste.”

And, most importantly, it’s a music video with an extended break, something that probably hasn’t happened since the last time OutKast dropped.

Pac Div – Shut Up f. The Cool Kids
This beat is tremendous– it’s the kind of sparse speaker music that really knocks. Something to ride to with the volume all the way turned up. The way the beat spins down between verses… I’m a fan. “Don’t talk to me about fashion, dog, you be wildin/You still think Coogi stylin, who’s the stylist?”

Below the cut: Reflection Eternal, Joell Ortiz, Bobby Ray, and more Reflection Eternal.
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