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Ground and Sky » Hip-Hop
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With today’s news that pioneering hip-hop label Def Jux is going on hiatus, I figured now is a good time to highlight the one track that put this label on the map for me. Fittingly, it’s the first track off of their first record release, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. “Iron Galaxy” immediately caught my ear as something different thanks to El-P’s incredibly dense production, all futuristic and cold and industrial like something a lone astronaut stranded in some abandoned, decaying space station would compose.
And then there are the rhymes: Vordul Mega’s lyrics are all but incomprehensible to me, but Vast Aire has a few lines that have always stuck with me: “You were a stillborn baby/Mother didn’t want you but you were still born” early in his turn, and later, this amazingly bleak depiction of the city:
Battered wives, molested children
Roaches on the floor, rats in the ceiling
Cats walk around New York with two fillin’s
One is in the mouth, the other does the killin’
Also there is a genius mean/median/mode reference for all the math geeks out there. Priceless.
I owe a couple more show recaps: first is Dälek at Rock & Roll Hotel, actually just a day after I saw St. Vincent at the same venue (this was a couple weeks ago and I’m just now getting around to writing it up). This show was predictably great; Dälek live is quite literally a punishing experience, and if you don’t have earplugs at one of their shows you’re doing some serious damage to yourself. This time around they had expanded to a quartet, and as this review of the Philly show amusingly puts it, “Dalek didn’t look like any hip hop band I’ve ever seen - a metalhead bass player, a laptop DJ that look straight out of Death Cab For Cutie, a giant tattooed turntable DJ, and an almost scarily intense MC.” (Oops — the “metalhead” plays guitar, not bass.)
I’ve seen these guys annually for the past three years, and each time they’ve added a member. In 2006, it was just MC dälek and Oktopus, the producer. I believe their turntablist, Still, had just left the group at that point. Last year, they added the guitarist. This year, they added the dude on laptop and keyboard. Incidentally, I don’t remember seeing any laptops at all the last two times I saw them, but this time, Oktopus and the two “new” guys each had their own laptop.
All of this lineup shifting didn’t seem to have much of a discernable effect on their sound as far as I could tell. I mean, with Dälek live, you can basically hear three things: dälek rapping, Oktopus’ beats thumping, and a shitload of howling noise, not necessarily in that order. I guess my ears aren’t quite good enough to figure out exactly what effect the guitarist and laptop guy had on the howling noise. Still, I do have to say that, though this is a statement totally lacking in specifics, these guys sounded good. Noise is at its best when it evokes emotion, and Dälek is masterful at tweaking their sheets of sound to get the emotional response they’re looking for.
I was happy with this set as it included some great stuff from Absence (”Culture For Dollars” was totally mindblowing) as well as the expected material from Abandoned Language. As with last year, the closing song was “(Subversive Script),” and what a fantastic way to end it was, seeing as how it is home to one of the group’s most lethal beats ever. Also as with last year, I was left wishing their set had been much, much longer. Oh well.
As for the other groups: I left before Russian Circles came on, which was my loss because I understand they are awesome. I didn’t much care for Young Widows, who were billed as “noise-rock” but pretty much just sounded like indie-rock with a lot of noise on top, which is really not the same thing. I saw that they recently got signed to Temporary Residence, a label I generally respect, so perhaps I’ll have to give them another chance sometime. For more useful takes on these two bands, check out this review.
I saw Dälek last night at Rock & Roll Hotel, a nice venue in an old DC neighborhood that one guy is singlehandedly trying to revitalize (he has acquired no less than eight liquor licenses — including Rock & Roll Hotel — in a three-block radius!). As I found out when I saw them last year with Isis and Zombi, this noisy hip-hop duo has an angry stage presence and a punishingly loud live sound. I came prepared with my trusty Etymotic earplugs, and boy am I glad I didn’t leave them at home. I can’t imagine how the folks without earplugs survived without their brains being completely pulped. Even though Dälek’s new album Abandoned Language is far less aggressively noisy than their last masterpiece, Absence, in a live setting the dynamics are so much wider and the group really exploits maximum volume to the fullest. They’ve added a guitarist of all things since I last saw them, although mostly he was just strumming his strings as hard as he could in order to generate a lot of white noise.
This was a pretty good show, all in all. Dälek the MC’s vocals are still a little recessed in the mix, which is intentional but means he’s a bit hard to understand underneath all the howling noise. But witnessing the way that the group played with dynamics, going from contemplative soundscapes to teeth-rattling beats and back again, was a pretty powerful experience. The only thing that disappointed me was that they played a short set, I think just playing Abandoned Language straight through (the closer “Subversive Script” was a serious highlight) and nothing else. I really wanted to hear some stuff from Absence, but no such luck.
On Sunday night I saw what should have been an absolutely astonishingly good show: Isis, Dälek, and Zombi. This unlikely but inspired combination of bands — a metal band, a hip-hop group, and a soundtracky electronic music duo — was the one single show lineup I have been most excited about seeing all year. Isis in particular is one of my absolute favorite modern bands, and I think Dälek’s Absence is one of the best hip-hop albums in recent years. Zombi I had heard compared to the likes of Goblin, and the clips I heard sounded promising.
The bands themselves didn’t really disappoint. I missed some of Zombi’s set, but what I heard sounded interesting — throbbing laptop beats with killer live drumming and the occasional blistering live bass. Definitely less soundtracky and more heavy electronica than I expected, but very cool. Dälek was absolutely killer; the dense, brutal industrial soundscapes that are so abrasive on record are absolutely crushing live. And Dälek (the MC) has an interesting stage presence, all anger and contempt and vitriol, glaring at everything and everyone while spitting his raps into the microphone or nodding his head to the beat. The producer’s rig went out on him at one point, forcing Dälek to freestyle for a bit; he was less than convincing in this respect, but every other part of his set was killer.
Finally, Isis was… pretty much exactly what I expected them to be. They didn’t deviate much from their studio compositions, but they didn’t need to. Their abrupt jumps from headbanging extreme metal to evocative soundscaping were so effective live that audience members were actually laughing in gleeful delight at some of their more powerful transitions. These guys take what Mogwai does best and one-ups them in a big way. Absolutely awesome.
So what went wrong? First, the sound in the club was just stupid loud. My ears were still ringing this morning, some 36 hours after the end of the show. You know how sometimes at shows you can feel the sound making the bottoms of the legs of your pants vibrate a little? Well, at this show all my clothing was vibrating noticeably, all the time. This was definitely the fault of the club and not the bands, as even the filler music player between sets was ridiculously loud, almost at the volume level of what a band at a normal show would be playing at. The end result was that, for Zombi, the live bass lines were so distorted as to be imperceptible; for Dälek, the electronics made Dälek’s rapping all but inaudible; and for Isis, the quieter moments were nearly overcome by what should have been subtle feedback and effects but ended up being overbearingly loud.
Second, I was just too tired. This is the first time that this has happened to me since NEARfest 2000 — I was so tired that it actually affected my enjoyment of the bands. Too bad.
Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I have ridiculously fond memories of the show (once my ears recovered). Isis and Dälek were both, despite the volume issues, pretty unforgettably powerful. I can’t wait until these guys come around here again.
I cannot abide listening to progressive rock fans babble on about rap and hip-hop. The extent of the vapid, self-righteous closed-mindedness of fans of what should ideally be an open-minded genre is disgusting.
Hmm, interesting counterexample to my assertion from the last entry that hip-hop lyrics are paramount in importance for me: Outkast. I don’t place much stock in their lyrics, but I love the music as a whole. Probably because it’s so energetic and, to risk misusing (or inventing) a term, maximalistic.
Eh, and another one is Anti-Pop Consortium, maybe. Although I really dig the flow of the rapping, which is generally absolutely amazing in its speed and cadence, the words themselves are too damn stream-of-consciousness to mean anything to me. So maybe that assertion just bullshit, and lyrics don’t necessarily take primacy for me even in hip-hop.
I might replace it with a somewhat modified contention that in hip-hop, vocals (not necessarily lyrics) are far more important than in most other genres. But that just seems like a truism. Rapping, after all, could be considered in its most basic form spoken word poetry. So obviously the voice is the key element.
An interesting philosophical point that seems to get raised pretty often is that of reviewer qualifications. There’s a dude over at ProgressiveEars who seems to dislike this site because our reviewers are young and relatively new to prog (i.e., they haven’t been listening to it since the 1970s heyday). While I’m sure those who have been fans since the 70s may be able to offer more in the way of comparison and personal experience and the like, I think there’s an advantage to being a younger reviewer as well. We have a different perspective on prog, one that may well be more in tune with the current cultural context. I know there are exceptions - there are plenty of older fans that are perfectly able to contextualize prog in the modern world - but as a whole younger fans are less likely to get stuck in a rut of cultural irrelevance. Whether or not this is reflected in reviews or review choice is a different matter, of course, but I think the idea that one has to be a grizzled veteran of prog in order to have valuable opinions about it is bunk.
This segues nicely into my most recent acquisition, which is decidedly non-prog, but which I’d like to talk about a bit. It’s the newest album produced by Dan “the Automator” Nakamura - Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By. No one can ever fault this guy for resting on his laurels: every single album I have of his is, stylistically, entirely different from the others. Well, except maybe Dr. Octagonecologyst is somewhat similar to A Much Better Tomorrow, but that’s because they were produced in the same period of time. Deltron 3030 is different from those, So… How’s Your Girl is totally different, and then of course there’s the Gorillaz project. And now there’s Lovage.
This is a hip-hop album, but not a rap album. There’s nary a rap to be found, but Nakamura’s beats are as hip-hop as ever, and there’s quite a bit of scratching by Deltron 3030 alumnus Kid Koala - in fact, “Everyone Has a Summer” sounds exactly like what his solo album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome would have sounded like with a producer (in my opinion, what it should have sounded like). Instead of MCs, what we get is Mike Patton (yes, that Mike Patton) and Jennifer Charles singing. I was first exposed to Charles’ voice on DJ Logic’s “Spider Dance”, and loved it - sensual and evocative. Her voice fits perfectly here, and the juxtaposition with Patton’s low growl is a delight.
The Onion calls this album “a cheeky detour into foppish pop, tongue-in-cheek trip-hop, and conceptual silliness”. There’s a focus on all things romantic and sexual, though it’s all a bit twisted. My favorites are “Book of the Month”, which masterfully contrasts the two vocalists over Nakamura’s beat and accompanying mournful cello loop, and “Sex (I’m A)”, a cover of the Berlin song. The latter is simply stunning - I wouldn’t have thought even Dan the Automator could have gotten anything good out of that song, but with the addition of a simple guitar part, a sultry beat, and the over-the-top-sexy voices of Patton and Charles (complete with strategically placed sighs and gasps), he’s somehow created a darkly sensual masterpiece.
Lovage has its weak points; some of the songs strike me as differentiated from pedestrian pop only by the Automator’s beats. But its high points are as good as anything Nakamura has put out so far.
Hunger’s Teeth is friggin’ awesome. And Susanne Lewis’ voice is priceless. How did I live without this thing? I only have one other 5uu’s album, Regarding Purgatories, which I didn’t find nearly as interesting… but Sean claims that the upcoming album, Abandonship, is great - I’m definitely looking forward to it.
I heard some Oysterhead this weekend on a long car ride, and liked some of it. From what I heard, Trey’s guitar sounds a bit more heavy and aggressive than his work with Phish, but the bass is pure Primus. Neither is a bad thing.
The hip-hop group The Coup, whom I really like and who just moved to the 75 Ark label, just released their new album Party Music. This album’s main claim to fame is that its planned cover featured an exploding World Trade Center; the cover was pulled after September 11th, obviously, just before it went to the printer. The Coup have an anti-capitalist stance, inviting lots of criticism from people who disagree with their politics as well as people who can’t stand rap music. This is a totally incoherent rant about The Coup and their new album that I think is really funny. An excerpt:
The Coup Leader/Rapper Boots Riley says: “The intent of the cover was to use the World Trade Center to symbolize capitalism, but there is an uncanny similarity to the events of Tuesday. All life is precious and this tremendous tragedy is by no means taken lightly by The Coup. This is a very unfortunate coincidence and my condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims.”
Make no mistake here, friends. These people made their vulgar, stupid rap album with the intent of slandering and destroying the American way of life. Like the worthless evil sneaky scum they are, they hide behind “artistry” saying they only made their statement to point out the folly of capitalism, not to hurt anyone or advocate violence. “All life is precious” the rapper says after indefensible evidence of the violent nature of his music is uncovered. In the true spirit of artistic freedom, the leftist rap group’s new album art will be something less offensive, maybe they’ll have the Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth as porn stars listening to Party Music!
After this misinterpretation in which the author basically accuses Boots of lying and being a murderous scoundrel, based solely on his political views, the article goes on to mention Dream Theater and the original cover of Live Scenes From New York, which features the NYC skyline - including the World Trade Center towers - aflame. The author claims that this cover is not as “vulgar” or offensive because “none of [the Dream Theater members] are avowed anti-capitalists bent on the destruction of America’s imperialism like rappers in The Coup”. Finally, he concludes that “Sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, friends, whomever asks for a CD of hardcore rap should be denied on the basis that it is overwhelmingly vulgar and un-American” and ends the article with a somewhat out-of-place, obviously rote recital of “Terror from anywhere against America will never destroy the American people. God bless America!”
Ignorance and intolerance masquerading as patriotism and compassion: God bless America indeed.
(I await the hate mail accusing me of being a pro-mass-murder terrorist sympathizer.)
Grrr… sometimes I can’t stand prog fans. I’ll probably offend a bunch of people who read this (”never bite the hand that feeds you” and all that), but fergodsakes, why are some prog fans so goddamned snobby and narrow-minded? I suppose this criticism applies to die-hard fans of any genre, but for some reason it seems that much more egregious when it’s prog fans. Maybe it’s because many prog fans pride themselves on being open-minded to experimental, “difficult” music, so it’s that much more disappointing when it turns out that this vaunted open-mindedness only applies to a very narrow genre.
This stems from a somewhat distressing conversation I managed to get suckered into at Progressive Ears. Some samples of statements that inflamed me:
Why would anyone be a rap fan? Where can it possibly go? It seems like even rap has begun to realize that having musicians and singers is a vital necessity. Eventually rap should be forgotten….people in my age group are doing our part to fill our childrens’ ears with music…. I hope that the standards will soon be higher.
Even the stuff on radio that involves musicians seldom yields a guitar solo, certainly never a drum or keyboard solo.
If it involves scratching records, I do not deem it musical. Give me a break. Consider what we all listen to and think of it as decay.
Bootom line C(Rap) isnt worthy of being defended or even disscussed in a prog forum. Scatching records and a beat box played to shity ass lyrics dont make it music.It bottom line sucks ass hard.Its the cat fish of the musical lake strickly bottom feeders.
C(RAP) is completly valueless and the music I listen to does indeed far surpass any hip hop rap trip hop or any other lable it wants to go by.
Prog is a Rolls-Royce: not too many made, but each with impeccable quality that only a select few can appreciate.
“I do not deem it musical.” You’ve got to be kidding me - that’s got to be the most overtly snotty statement I’ve heard since the rec.music.classical thread “Our Children and Music”. And the thing about solos just cracks me up - yeah, all forms of music should be judged on their instrumental solos. There were some sane voices in the conversation, particularly the guy who said “Don’t let [rap] get to you so much. I don’t like poison oak, but I try to stay away from it.” and then went on to basically summarize my point of view very well:
Art, in whatever medium, is a thing that connects with the human spirit. Once it does that, no matter how simple or studied, it cannot be refuted with technical terms; it has already succeeded in its purpose. The study of art is to study why things succeed in this way, rather than the comparitive study of why one thing might be “better” than another.
I’m skeptical of the commercial tie-ins here, and it has nothing to do with music, but nevertheless it’s cool that the New York Times has posted their reviews of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (from the mid-fifties) as well as of The Hobbit (from 1938). Notably, two of the reviews are by W.H. Auden.
The Roots just played a free show here in New Haven. An entire square block was covered in Yale students, New Haven residents, and people from surrounding towns and colleges. I stayed for a bit and they did a good show, but I couldn’t see jack and I’m not familiar with much of their music, so I wasn’t really feeling it. Shame, because what I have heard I’ve really liked. I’m going to have to pick up a couple of their albums at some point.
Although I’m really digging the hip-hop, post-rock, and indie-rock acquisitions that I’ve made in the past few months, I think I’m finally getting back into the swing of progressive rock. The list above has the highest proportion of prog-to-non-prog than any listening list has had for quite some time. This is dangerous for my wallet, but good for this website.