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Hip Hop… an’ Ya Don’t Stop

Posted by: on Feb 16, 2008 | Comments (3)

No one who lives locally and goes to hip hop shows—that is to say, thousands of people in Sonoma County—could have escaped the shocking headline in last week’s local newspaper. “Phoenix Theater Bans Rap Concerts,” it declared, in a mystifying statement that was as bold as it was hard to believe.

That’s because it wasn’t true. The Phoenix Theater has not banned rap concerts.

Here’s what happened: in a letter sent out early last week, the Phoenix Board addressed the lingering issue of a 17 year-old from Concord who was found during a police dispatch after a Super Hyphy show starring Keak da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B.; while the kid was being tackled by police across the street, he allegedly tossed a loaded 9mm pistol through the doors of Pazzo, a nearby nightclub. In the letter, the Phoenix stressed that it would continue to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its patrons, and noted that it had postponed three upcoming hip hop shows while its security measures were reviewed.

Nowhere in the letter did the word “ban” appear. If anything, the Phoenix’s dedication to future safety and promise of heightened security pointed directly to a continuation of, and a commitment to, presenting live hip hop.

When I first saw the headline I was mortified. Then, as I read the article, I realized that the people at the Phoenix probably just felt like they needed to address the complicated workload of the Petaluma Police Department, the concerns of parents, and the irate comments posted online by blatant racists. So they said they’d lay low for a while, reassess a few things, and wait until the whole thing cooled off.

I talked with a member of the Phoenix board that night, and a letter to the editor showed up two days later from the Board president clarifying things; it turned out that my hunch was more or less right, and the Phoenix already has some hip hop shows booked again. But why, then, the completely incorrect headline?

As a writer, I should understand how media works. I don’t, exactly, but I do know of the propensity for criticizing what you don’t understand and wanting it to go away. Wanting so much for it to go away, in fact, that you might tell everyone that it actually had gone away in the hopes that it will follow suit and leave you alone.

Naturally, accusations of racism have been raised about the general attitude towards hip hop in Sonoma County, and while there’s no doubt that that’s an active element, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate per se, or, at least, that simple. What I think is at the core of racism, however, is the same thing that’s at the core of most denunciation of hip hop: making an uninformed choice to hate something based purely on surface elements.

You can say, and you’d be right, that a lot of balled-out, gun-toting, hoe-slapping rap stars bring condemnation upon themselves (you could also make a case for the obviously over-the-top, unserious extravagance of such poses, but that’s a different story). But to be honest, I believe that most hostility towards hip hop comes from recoiling in disgust at the actual sound of the music itself. 30 years after its inception, an opinion still prevails among older people—and especially the large population of older, rich, white people in Sonoma County—that hip hop isn’t “real music.” It instantly annoys.

And what’s so funny to me about the Rap Is Crap brigade is the same thing that’s so funny about the Kill Your Television crew—e.g., they never actually listen to the stuff.

If they did give rap music a try, they might discover some that they actually liked. Like evaluating a bottle of wine, subtle nuances either make or break a rap song, and finding the good artists only means ascertaining these idiosyncrasies. To your grandma, say, Talib Kweli sounds just like 50 Cent, but if she actually trained her palate and listened—listened!—she might say, “know what, mu’fucka, this Kweli cat is on some other shit!” (Or, you know, the grandmotherly equivalent thereof.) But is she ever going to do that? Hell no, because people get old and closed-minded and see numbskulls like Kanye West blathering away on television and make up their minds that rap music is a scourge on humanity and that’s that.

Growing up in the 1980s, listening to rap music for me was revelatory. Albums like Raising Hell, Paid in Full and Paul’s Boutique made me feel, at 12 years old, like everything in the world was within my grasp. I assume that kids these days feel the same way too.

In fact, I know for a fact that they feel the same way. I’ve gone to lots of hip hop shows at the Phoenix. And I haven’t seen as much empowerment, positivity and unity in one room in the last five years as I have at some of those Super Hyphy shows, crazy to say. Whatever your take on the style performed, there’s no denying that those shows provide a face-to-face opportunity for teenagers to relate to each other in a positive way with music that is distinctly theirs. If you strip kids of that opportunity, you’re not only erasing from their lives some of the most important memories they’ll have of coming of age, but also saying that you don’t trust them to feel like individuals or to form their own opinions. What kinda shit is that?

Ultimately, anyone trying to ban or acquiescing to media pressure to ban hip hop—clubs that change their DJs, radio stations that change their format—they’re all just gonna look like total fools in the end. Hip hop is the most alive and popular form of music in the world. It has been for years and years. You could say, harking back to the same damn thing that happened 50 years ago, that it’s here to stay.

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A few final things: I actually feel for the writer of the newspaper article; not a lot of people are aware that staff writers don’t come up with the headlines for their own articles. Blame the editor. And also, the first show that the Phoenix postponed was an Andre Nickatina appearance scheduled for the incredibly inconvenient hour of 3:00 in the afternoon, put on by Nickatina himself, which for some stupid reason cost an astronomical $35. No big loss.

The January Awards

Posted by: on Jan 31, 2008 | Comments (0)

Best Lyrics: Magnetic Fields – Distortion

The album title, Distortion, refers to the Psychocandy-esque fuzz that permeates every song on this album—making it sound drearier and more hungover than anything you’d expect from Magnetic Fields. But holy bejeezus, the lyrics are a goddamn hoot. Some reviews of the album have actually complained about the lyrics in particular, citing Stephen Merritt’s ongoing “downtrodden, sad-sack schtick,” causing me to wonder if Noel Coward could very well be out of work if he was born in the 21st Century. Making mirth out of the morose is a tight market these days, apparently.

From “The Nun’s Litany”:

I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer

I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell

From “Too Drunk To Dream”:

Sober, life is a prison
Shitfaced, it is a blessing
Sober, nobody wants you
Shitfaced, they’re all undressing

No one should listen to any Magnetic Fields album before they listen to 69 Love Songs, but for the already initiated, the sharply pained ribaldry of Distortion’s lyrics will remind you of at least one of a hundred reasons why you fell in love with the band in the first place. They’re playing two nights at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on Feb. 28-29, and man, is it ever sold out.

Best Sonic Quality: Black Mountain – In The Future

I saw Black Mountain late last December and it was undoubtedly one of the year’s highlights. I drove down to the show in San Francisco on a complete whim and had no idea what to expect, brandishing only an ardent fascination with their self-titled debut, released three years ago.

The lights went down. The guitar amplifier billowed smoke. The drums illumined with each bass kick. The voices of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean cavorted together, intertwined, above a thundering morass. I was stupefied.

In The Future doesn’t quite capture all of Black Mountain’s hazy bombast, and its songs aren’t as classic as those on the band’s first record, but it’s a mind-transporting headphone album nonetheless that just sounds great. They’re playing at the Independent in San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 4.

Strange New Band: MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

They’re too hippie-sounding for the fixed gear crowd but they’re, like, too concerned with their own image for the stoner crowd. I still can’t figure out if I like ‘em or not. Their video, though, is an absolute work of art. So, yeah: strange new band.

Teenagers In Other Countries Did Acid Too

Posted by: on Jan 27, 2008 | Comments (1)

Prevailing trends in World Music compilations are funny things. After Paul Simon’s Graceland, the record market was flooded with South African compilations; after Buena Vista Social Club came the glut of Cuban compilations; and between U2, Enya, Riverdance, Loreena McKennitt, Sinead O’Connor and Titanic, the ‘90s had a good ten-year run of hot-selling, yawn-inducing Irish compilations.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of the latest compilation trend, but lately people can’t seem to get enough of psychedelic music from around the world.

Whether it’s imported from West Africa (Luaka Bop’s excellent Love’s A Real Thing), Ethiopia (the crazy vibraphone sounds of Mulatu on Ethiopiques Vol. 4) or Brazil (Love, Peace and Poetry: Brazilian Psychedelic Music), world psychedelic music is super-duper hot right now. So hot, I hate to say, that lame-ass collections have started popping up under the false banner of “psychedelia,” corruptly hornswaggling us poor music hounds into chasing the diluted coattails of a trend that, barring any basement discoveries of Os Mutantes or Alla Pugachova outtakes anytime soon, appears to have run its ethno-trippy course.

Case in point: The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru, which is a very fine collection of dance bands from ’68-’78. The music, played largely by working people from poor backgrounds, is tropical and percussive, sometimes utilizing surf-style electric guitars, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers. The culmination of sounds evokes hot, dry days, dirt roads, lush foliage, and butterfly collars, and though rudimentary, it embodies the flavor of its era.

It’s pretty groovy. But is it psychedelic? Not in the slightest.

Just as film sequels are prime fodder for disappointment, music trends can industrially produce truckloads of hoppin’-on-the-bandwagon mediocrity. The difference is that it’s harder to trace the lineage of music trends, which don’t share franchise names as much as movies do. If they did, it’d be easier to sniff out the perpetrators—like if the Dave Clark Five were called “The Beatles Part II.”

But when a certain catch phrase does catch on and starts making the cash registers ring (a mixed blessing for world “psychedelic” music), you can bet your Salvadorean hookah that copycat products will line up and run the whole damn thing into the ground.

I’ll never forget the time I bought Oliver Nelson’s More Blues and the Abstract Truth, excited as all hell ‘cause I’d just discovered his flawless The Blues and the Abstract Truth album. Realistically, More Blues was a decent enough jazz album, but man, he shoulda just called it something different. Similar disappointments have plagued otherwise fine compilations like Night Train To Nashville Vol. 2, Bay Area Funk Vol. 2 or California Soul Vol. 2, all of them overflowing with weak sauce in inevitable comparison to each series’ kickass first volumes (get them now, if you know what’s good for you).

I won’t even start in on the obvious losers like Metallica’s Reload and Run DMC’s Back From Hell, or b-side cash-ins like Sufjan Stevens’ The Avalanche or Ghostface Killah’s More Fish. We’d all just get depressed. On the bright side, a small handful of sequels are warranted— Julie London’s Julie Is Her Name Vol. II isn’t that bad, come to think of it. But, you know. That was 50 years ago.