Tuesday, December 18, 2007

High Explosives: Classified (short film)

Classified clocks in at a little under fifteen minutes but it manages to be intriguing, disturbing, hopeful, and strange in that short amount of time. The story centers on a seemingly ordinary northern Harlem youth named Chris (played with commendable restraint and thoughtfulness by Terron Jones) who coolly contends with earthly needs that range from establishing a more functional bond with his incarcerated father to keeping his fridge stocked and feet covered by immaculate kicks. His ultra-balanced composure and uncomplicated outlook are challenged and ultimately altered, however, when he nonchalantly decides to address his privations by answering an unusually vague job listing. Sherman Payne's skillful writing and direction move this profound urban mini-drama forward with just enough Twilight Zone appeal sprinkled in to add extra dimension to already weighty themes. Click on the links and check it out, and be sure to support it when it hits a film festival near you.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Keep It Surreal: Tread Water

De La were acutely sensitive to being branded "hippies," as plainly indicated by Pos's insistence on "Me, Myself & I," that the neo-counter culture characterization was nothing more than "pure plug bull." When they performed the song on The Arsenio Hall Show they placed particular emphasis on this line and even incorporated a portion of their b-side cut "Ain't Hip To Be Labeled A Hippie" as if to dead Arsenio's unflattering introduction on the spot. The video press kit for 3 Feet High And Rising appears to exist solely to recuperate their damaged credibility with the crowd that looks to the likes of Big Daddy Kane to speak authoritatively on matters of taste. In the video, DJ Red Alert grants De La their redemption from hooded-down mockery in a major way by suggesting that the cultist pacific trippiness that everyone perceives in the day-glo aura of the Long Island trio links them more closely to George Clinton than to anything that came out of Haight-Ashbury during "The Summer of Love."

If one were to disregard Pos's caveat and Red Alert's cogent observation and listen to 3FH&R without considering why a crew from North Amityville, Long Island chose to depart sharply from the rapidly conventionalized and commercialized rap aesthetic of the day, the hippie comparison is somewhat understandable. The brothers did after all volunteer to sample The Turtles and plaster their album artwork with psychadelic flowers and peace signs. In addition to songs that range from inexplicably bizarre ("Jenifa Taught Me") to downright silly ("A Little Bit Of Soap") to strangely moralistic ("Say No Go" and "Ghetto Thang") they also recorded "Tread Water," a plea for level-headed unity articulated through a series of tales that have Pos and Trugoy conversing with animals.

While it is true that eccentric stylized whimsy was commonplace in recorded rap music ever since "Rapper's Delight" was pressed, and De La's totemic parables have numerous antecedents in Afro-American and African folkloric traditions, "Tread Water" is almost singularly weird because its earnestness and irony combat each other without ever achieving a comfortable resolution. The music is disconcertingly bright and insistently happy. The De La emcees adapt rather quickly to the concept of talking squirrels and alligators, describing their surprise at this fact as the beginning of a Wordworthian communion with a larger universe of truth. The narrators walk away from the encounter satisfied and optimistic about the applicability of the lessons learned, but the strangeness here is a bit much to digest in one sitting.

Yet and still, "Tread Water" should not be misread as a mere throwback to the fallacious pastoralism and indulgent opiate-inspired flights of fancy sanctified in a bygone era. The harmonious and verdant world that is made real in the song is very much rooted in the greener pastures of a Strong Island '70s childhood spent imbibing a liberating spectrum of pop cultural moments including the funky if well-meaning oddness of Schoolhouse Rock and Sesame Street and the stardusted antics of Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie. "Tread Water" is absurdist theater made legible to an increasingly media-savvy, consciously post-modern generation of rap fans and thus never amounts to "rhymin' for the sake of riddlin'" or even psychedelica for that matter. However the very suggestion that real-world problems might be remedied by through the proscriptive wit found in populist folk allegory is delightfully confounding, coming as it does at a time when De La's peers were seeking respite from the world's ills in jazzy escapism, quasi-gnostic contemplation, or the cynical hyper-realism of "street knowledge."

De La Soul - Tread Water - Listen & Download

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Deep Space Nine

A few years back I wrote an essay on Mobb Deep's The Infamous LP that traced their musical lineage to fellow Queens legends Main Source and A Tribe Called Quest. In it, I suggest that Mobb Deep's foreboding, nearly Gothic production style parallels and illuminates their musings on eternal damnation, fatalism, paranoid claustrophobia, and fleeting escapism. Despite Prodigy's assertions on the "Just Step Interlude" that abstract spaciness was antithetical to their brand of ghetto realness, Mobb Deep were in fact preoccupied with issues of space - physical, psychological, and discursive - and their layered, eerie, Q-Tip-mentored sound beautifully reflects their grappling with these themes.

Mobb Deep never actually strayed too far from these themes even over a long career that has seen their style and image go through several noticeable evolutions. Mystical esoterica, Five Percenter lingo, and ruminations on good and evil continue to define Mobb Deep's lyrical content, and recently Prodigy blogged at length about his ongoing penchant for occult profundity in a post titled "Mystery Vs. History":

...1990-91 I started reading this book called "BEHOLD A PALE WHITE HORSE". i was real intrested in the book first of all cause of the weird cover, then secondly cause the god's back in L.I. and the god's i met in queens would talk about some of the things i was reading in the book and most of the god's i knew were extremely smart and spoke intelligently and i wanted to have the knowledge that they had...

... 1996 I Started to read alot more cause i realized that it was helping me with my song writing. when you read your vocabulary get's better and stores all that information. i was able to use words people werent using in ya average everyday conversation. My nigga i grew up with in Hempstead SHAMEEK, gave me the 120 lessons and after i read that it made me want to do research and learn more about the origins of humans, religions and the earth ... Me and hav started making the "HELL ON EARTH" album at this time and i started putting lil' bits and peices of information in my lyrics

... Before we were kidnapped from our homeland and made into salves [sic] to build America, we were a spiritual people with our own connection with the creator and the universe ... Mostly every story in all of these MAN MADE religions are ALL STOLEN from EGYPT. AFRICA is the mother of all civilisation and OUR-STORY pre-dates any story. Thats why the negative forces that control this world and have everyone under the SPELL of LEVIATHAN keep OUR-STORY a MYSTERY and they made sure HIS-STORY is the only thing being taught to the entire world. Yes the rabbit hole gets very deep.

Very deep, indeed, and it is great to hear Prodigy in this mode, both in conversing with fans and on now again on wax, err mp3. A recently leaked song (from his upcoming solo release H.N.I.C. 2) titled "My World Is Empty Without You," is partly a rebuttal to critics who took offense to his anti-dogmatic stance on "Pearly Gates" and partly a free association rant complete with references to the sphinx's nose and pyramids on Mars. Prodigy's vocals are laid back but not overly subdued, which gives his occasionally meandering lyrics an air of sobriety, and matches the soulful backdrop nicely. Listen and enjoy, and peruse the rest of Prodigy's blog post, as he also discusses aspects of his early musical career and family background that are not considered to be common knowledge (though not quite as obscure as some of the topics he broaches on "My World...").

Prodigy - My World Is Empty Without You (mp3)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Music, Space, and Place - ed. Sheila Whitley, Andy Bennet and Stan Hawkins (Ashgate, 2005)

In Music, Space, and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity, editors Whitley, Bennet, and Hawkins take up T. Denora's challenge to assemble an anthology of scholarly writing that examines the particular urban and rural locales "in which music "is experienced on a day to day basis" and provide "the socio-cultural backdrop for distinctive musical practices and innovations" as well as "the rich experiential settings in which music is consumed." The contributors devote a great deal of space to hip hop, covering fledgling rap scenes in the "increasingly contested" urban "ethnoscapes of South Africa, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sweden, and New Zealand, arguing convincingly in each case that music allows marginalized and displaced communities to cultivate and assert collective identities through localized "articulations of symbolic notions of community."

Although the chapters that deal with rap are exhaustively researched and engaging, the most suggestive and intriguing passages from Music, Space, and Place are located in Sarah Daynes' essay "The musical construction of the diaspora: the case of reggae and Rastafari." Daynes argues that diasporic communities actively construct and stylize a narrative of their own historical continuity that is foregrounded in the geographical and/or historical rupture that defines them as people. History, for a given diaspora, is "no longer a continuous flow expressed by an uninterrupted transmission" but "a time broken into before and after." As a result, the familiar settings of recorded historical events are replaced in the collective's imagination with a mythical " 'elsewhere' " which in the case of the Rastafari is an "idealized, imagined, fantasized, conceptualized and "intimately experienced" Africa.

The Africa of the Rastafari imaginary that comes to life in Reggae music is a complex affair, an "'archetypical symbol of elsewhere'" that is grounded in the rupture of slavery and "takes several dimensions, different but simultaneous and entangled." Daynes maps this out as lucidly as possible, demonstrating that in reggae Africa represents not only the geographic origin of the diaspora, but an originary culture antithetical to the West, a pre-slavery past-time paradise, and a future realm of redemption and liberation. In charting the multi-layered and multivalent Africa metaphor in reggae, Daynes provides us with a template to understand how musical practices and lyrical motifs in other diasporic traditions, particularly jazz, funk, and rap, view Africa.

Besides illuminating the seemingly cultist fetishism of Sun Ra and George Clinton, the study of space rap is augmented by Dayne's brand of inquiry. The "hip hop nation" even in North America should be examined as a diasporic community in which multiple back and forth movements and "disembarkation" inform localized constructions of larger identities. This pertains not to the children of blacks migrating from the South to the post-industrial North and back again, but also to the imaginary ascension outside of the confines of a center city neighborhood into expansive realms that is often depicted in rap. Let me ride.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

My Voicebox Locks And Accels Like A Rocket

Check Google Earth

A few years back the blogopshere and the internets in general were taken aback when KRS-One revealed to Vibe Magazine that he had engaged in a rather unconventional conversation with the rapper Nas:
KRS-One: Oh, Nas is “the one.” But you want to talk about someone caught between the CEO world and the movement -- Nas has issues. He’s in the hood, Queensbridge projects, he’s gotta keep it real with the fellas. Then he picks up the phone and talks with me discussing NASA and the universe and hip hop’s role on Mars. When I asked him, “Nas I want you to speak at NASA,” he hung up the phone on me. He couldn’t take it. He called me back an hour later saying, “Yo, man. I’m sorry man. Yo, man. Yo, you just too much man. I had to take a breather.” I said, “Stop being afraid. It’s just a building. You go and you talk and you leave.” But he wants the training. He’s interested in the training and he’s not afraid. It’s just I’m a crazy guy.
Riiiight ... just a building. Uh-huh. The hiphop nation collectively backed out of the room slowly after reading that one. Well, it turns out that this rather odd revelation may have had some basis in a reality external to Kris Parker's terror-dome, as indicated by this mtv.com article from 2004:
As part of his Temple of Hiphop's seventh annual Hip-Hop Appreciation Week, KRS-One is organizing a Hip-Hop Cultural Conference to be delivered at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 19. The game plan is to bring in 100 students from the D.C. area — possibly ranging from elementary- to college-age to hear members of the hip-hop community, social activists, spiritual leaders and NASA scientists promote the powers of math and science. "Nas is the keynote speaker," KRS said on Monday en route to a lecture at the University of Illinois. "Chuck D will flank him. Afrika Bambaataa is supposed to come as well."
I'm not sure if this event ever took place, and I cannot tell you whether or not Nas delivered the keynote address, but the brothers seem to have had their hearts in the right place and I doubt this is the last we will hear about these homeboys and outer space. The future (of space-rap, anyway) is looking bright and I can see just it now - future b-boys and girls uprocking zero gravity to a cosmic megamix that includes Nas' "Star Wars" and KRS-One's "Step Into A World."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Blutopia by Graham Lock (Duke University Press, 1999)

Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Part in the Works of Sun, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton seeks to "show how these artists were each influenced by a common musical and spiritual heritage and participated in self-conscious efforts to create a utopian vision of the future." The introduction and the section that deals with Sun-Ra's construction of an "Astro-Black Mythology" that imagines a liberated Afro-Future as the inevitable product of an equally compelling African past, is proving highly useful to me as I set out to chart rap's space obsession to its rightful antecedents. Lock draws on literary and historical scholarship to locate Sun Ra's mythology within a much larger musical, philosophical, and spiritual tradition and even illustrate how Sun Ra's extraterrestrial musings and name changes can and should be reread not as symptoms of insanity, but of deliberate, critical genius. Highly recommended.

Join SpaceRap@ning

From the OhWord Blog:

Ning is a networking community that "combines the better features of GoogleGroups and FaceBook."

At the OhWord community, we have a group set aside just for SpaceRap, and that is where contributors and fans alike will be discussing the project, sharing information, and dreaming up future possibilities.

All aboard - click on the badge located in the left sidebar and be on your way!

Monday, December 3, 2007

SpaceRap Call For Submissions


A few moons ago we informed you that OhWord.com is embarking on an exciting new project titled SpaceRap. Today we call upon our readers to join us in developing the project and brand, to help us brainstorm ideas and directions for the project as well as formulate, create, edit, and critique the materials that will comprise SpaceRap.

Currently, we envision SpaceRap to be similar in spirit to what we accomplished with Crack Week, when we compiled submissions from netizens across the blogosphere that examined rap’s fascination with motifs, memes, and narratives related to the culture surrounding the drug trade, and the ways in which the crack game and the rap game have begun to resemble one another, at least through the lens of popular culture. For SpaceRap the themes and imagery are a little more eccentric but just as prevalent throughout the genre’s development, namely space (both the outer space of the cosmos and the contested urban spaces that rap depicts and reinvents) and the future (dystopian and apocalyptic or connected to the revival of a Utopian past).

For SpaceRap, we seek to utilize formats tried and tested on ohword.com – essays (employing either an academic or journalistic approach or combining the two), album reviews (both concise and more in=-depth) line for line lyric analyses, and beat deconstructions. However, in the spirit of SpaceRap we also intend to exploit as many media formats as possible, and rather than settle for a week of blogging on the topic, we would like to create a dynamic presentation that incorporates graphical art, video, animation, and music and sound effects and thus we encourage participants to submit material that either stands alone or accompanies textual submissions. We are not sure yet whether or not SpaceRap will constitute another section within the existing OhWord website or if it warrants a site unto itself, but our vision is to provide a fun, educational, multimedia experience that combines the talents of the contributors in novel and intriguing ways.

Topics for SpaceRap can include (but are by no means limited to) the forerunners of SpaceRap (“spacey” musicians like Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire); space themes and motifs and spaciness (lyrical, aural, visual, or otherwise) in rap’s early era (Newcleus, Soulsonic Force, Jonzun Crew, etc.), the “true school” era (MC Shan, Ultramagnetic MCs, Eric B. and Rakim), in the ’90s and beyond (X-Clan, Keith Murray, Outkast, Eightball and MJG, Lupe Fiasco, Neptunes); the relationship between outer space, paradise, Africa, and diasporic spiritual or mystic belief systems influential in hip hop culture (5%ers, Zulu Nation, Nuwaabians, certain Christian beliefs, Rammelzee’s Gothic Futurism, etc.); rap’s relationship to artistic movements such as Afro-Futurism and Surrealism; how rap treats space (public, urban, contested, discursive, narrative, cyber- or otherwise) and its physical and psychological constraints; space, rap, and psychedelica, etc.

For SpaceRap essays and articles, we prefer that you formulate original connections between seemingly disparate topics and persuasively present your findings. Reviews should be objective and incisive, and interviews of artists should be relevant to the overall theme, engaging, and insightful. Multimedia submissions can serve as an homage to past artistic endeavors but should mainly showcase a contributor’s distinct talent in the context of appreciation. We are not opposed to employing humor, satire, or eccentricity in the service of such an odd project, but we do expect contributions to be as reverent, well-intended, and comprehensible as possible.

Tentative Due Date For Submissions is 2/11/08.

If you are interested in contributing to SpaceRap, or even just following the development of the project and the submissions, please email us at ohword.spacerap@gmail.com