February 24th, 2013

If this isn’t the deepest thing ever I don’t know what is. Also why aren’t there more instrumentals like this? 

August 20th, 2012

It’s the 10th anniversary of Clipse’s Lord Willin’. Inspired by my brother’s piece about the album in its time for Stereogum, I dug up this essay I wrote for The Philadelphia Independent on “Grindin’” and drug lingo. It’s not online, so major thanks to B. Michael Payne for this rather unorthodox reconstruction. Click to enlarge and read. 

May 10th, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Adam Yauch

For me, the pivotal Beastie Boys moment wasn’t when I first saw the video for “Fight for Your Right to Party” on a giant screen at a local Chuck-E-Cheese knock-off, or when I saved up enough change to make Licensed to Ill my first-ever cassette purchase. The video terrified me, less for what it sounded like and more for its wanton, idiotic cruelty. I may even have cried. But I also wanted to be it. The tape, copped at K-Mart with piggybank change, was played endlessly because I didn’t know what else to do with it.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Beastie Boys changed my life. But I’m pretty sure that this only really happened was when I realized that Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, who passed away this week at the age of 47, was the best rapper in the group.

When their place in the genre’s history gets discussed, the Beasties are frequently referred to as a “gateway” act; my relationship with them, in a sense, a generational trope. The screwball collages of Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Heads skate-punk soul jazz are considerably more original and highly-regarded; The Beastie Boys made the greatest impact with their first album, a novelty record whose cultural pastiche was more memorable than its musical accomplishments, then spent almost two decades proving they were more than obnoxious rip-off artists. 

Except Licensed to Ill wouldn’t have worked if it had simply lead so many of us to rap music. Licensed to Ill didn’t just put the idea of hip-hop in our heads, it taught us the basics of how to listen to it. 

The Beastie Boys played their delinquent scourge to the hilt, and the bratty, smash-and-grab ethos that shaped their image may have suggested that they were subjecting pop music to random acts of violence. That wasn’t it; they were riding the coattails of a new musical language. Their ceaseless trolling, Oprah-baiting and parent-frightening belonged to a time-honored tradition of commodified rebellion. The music, though, was a primer for a new language. What’s more, it was a surprisingly effective introduction to “the real” of artists like Run-DMC, Slick Rick, and Rakim, not to mention the groundwork that allowed Public Enemy and N.W.A. to have an even more marked effect on many of us a few years down the road. The Beasties didn’t teach me to yell over samples, they lead me straight to the Panthers. 

The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, are mistakenly credited with making a rock-influenced album as if they had anticipated rap-metal. Yet Rick Rubin’s guitar-heavy production, including Zeppelin samples and an appearance by Slayer’s Kerry King, was part part of the sound he had already established with Run-DMC on King of Rock. To make their case to the mainstream, Run-DMC had to had to make a “Walk This Way” video in which walls were forcibly removed and Aerosmith joined forces with them in seeming violation of some musical natural law (note: Joe Perry has said that he intended the original song to be a Meters-style groove, which suggests that rap had the ability to reinforce racial barriers even where none had existed in the first place). The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, had tracks that were very much a product of rap’s avant-garde impulses. This was new, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t also convincing.

Part of understanding hip-hop meant learning the difference between dope and wack, or whatever we said back then. Rubin provided the credibility but when it came to the actual rhyming, the Beasties walked a fine line between aspirants and outright parodists. That is, except for MCA. The reason why, for me, Yauch was always the most important Beastie Boy is that he made me realize that there were standards in rap; when I listened to him, I heard something that wasn’t there with Ad Rock and Mike D. It was part of the education; you might even say he was the first MC I ever heard who made me understand the importance of flow, breath control, riding the beat, and all those other things we expect of credible rappers.

Ad Rock seemed to relish sounding ridiculous, and Mike D could be wan and shaky, so the format probably. It was MCA’s booming voice that saved those composite, rapid-fire verses. The first voice you hear on Licensed to Ill is Ad Rock’s adrenal whine, stretching syllables in an unpleasant yammer: “Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about.” Then comes MCA, simpler, more composed, and vigorous: “I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out.” In its wake, Mike D’s “No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder” barely registers. At some point in 1986, I could hear that. MCA was the one who seemed to actually get this hip-hop thing and in the process, allowed so much of us to figure it out with him. He wasn’t battle-tested or battled-ready, but it didn’t really matter. He was the hook. He was what got us in for life; we all carried some of MCA with us down through the years. 

April 20th, 2012

Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel had a tendency to blur their singing voices, seemingly the ultimate acknowledgement that their group, and the plane of the imagination they inhabited, required a certain amount of surrender even at the height of expression. But Helm’s growl, his twang, remained unmistakable and essential. It’s Helm who sings that first line of “The Weight,” and even if Nazareth is supposed to be both biblical and a stop on a long interstate drive, only Helm could sanctify the rest stop and cast the parables in roadside neon.

Remembering Levon Helm and The Band at Capital New York

April 12th, 2012
It’s puzzling, though, that Drake’s “re-dedication” to the faith, a trope that sounds a lot like what jewelry stores might devise for marriage vow renewals, is more about a redefinition of his place in it. He’s had his bar mitzvah at the appropriate time. In the most unexceptional way possible, he was a Jewish boy who passed on into manhood. There’s simply no need to recreate, much less repeat, a ceremony from 13 years ago unless the aim is more of a reboot than a “re-dedication.” That seems to be what “HYFR” is getting at. The person Drake is now has reclaimed the ritual from, well, the ritual itself. The transformation is not of the person, but of the cultural framework surrounding him.Read the rest of my Awl piece on Drake and heavy bar mitzvah theorizing.

It’s puzzling, though, that Drake’s “re-dedication” to the faith, a trope that sounds a lot like what jewelry stores might devise for marriage vow renewals, is more about a redefinition of his place in it. He’s had his bar mitzvah at the appropriate time. In the most unexceptional way possible, he was a Jewish boy who passed on into manhood. There’s simply no need to recreate, much less repeat, a ceremony from 13 years ago unless the aim is more of a reboot than a “re-dedication.” That seems to be what “HYFR” is getting at. The person Drake is now has reclaimed the ritual from, well, the ritual itself. The transformation is not of the person, but of the cultural framework surrounding him.

Read the rest of my Awl piece on Drake and heavy bar mitzvah theorizing.

March 10th, 2012

My Brain the Sampler

The customary song-stuck-in-head is rarely a mystery. It’s either present in its entirety, or at least some self-evident chunk like the chorus or a key bit of lyric. When we only have a snatch of melody, it falls into another category. Unidentifiable, incomplete, and caught between irksome and haunting, these fragments have no value in themselves. They are signposts toward a whole—unsatisfying riffs, wordless melodies that defy Google—and can cause you to itch out your skull for entirely different reasons. Lately, though, I’ve hit on a third, and altogether less torturous, variation on this: the phantom sample.

I can’t really claim any intimate knowledge of samples. I’ve listened to hip-hop since elementary school, and plenty of soul and jazz after, but never much got into staking out or cataloguing source material. I’ve had very little first-hand experience with making beats, even as a spectator, and never felt the need to stock up on awesome breaks or totally flip-able joints. Yet just from having hip-hop on around me for so long, my brain has, on some level, wired itself to work like a sampler. I can’t help but catch myself thinking “that would totally work,” and over the last couple years, finding myself with prospective samples stuck in my head—stripped, however, of all context or identifying markers.

I know where they come from: Somewhere in the stack of records (these days mostly funk-less 70’s and early 80’s soul) that I listened to the day before. Once or twice, before I had an infant around, I’ve gone back and tried to track them down. Most of the time, I’m content to let them cycle, usually while I’m out on a walk with a stroller. I’ve got no use for them, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to home in on them. I’m most interested in the way that my brain seems capable of segmenting, even packaging, musical information in a way that doesn’t scream out for the whole. It’s as if I’ve become so accustomed to the sample that it’s now an acceptable unit of meaning in my brain. Or, to get even more aggressive about it, these loops rise to the surface, keeping out the distracting “what song is that” queries or the debilitating song-in-the-head (the violence of that metaphor is both apt and a little shocking).

Certainly, no one making these records was thinking in terms of atomization, and the best sample-based music is never as simple as one single loop. And I don’t think I’ve developed any great ear for samples. On some cognitive level, though, it’s become an ingrained part of how I make sense of whatever musical information is sloshing around in my head. I like to think of it as part-cultural symptom, part-coping mechanism. 

October 29th, 2011

Letty’s Top Jamz

Here’s what my 5 week-old is listening to. Her picks, not mine:

"Thirteen" -Big Star

"Living in the Ghetto" -Purple Image

"Train From Kansas City" -Shangri-Las

"Without You" -The Classic Example

"Tea for Two" -Bud Powell

Legacy of Brutality - Misfits

On the Beach - Neil Young

***for special occasions***

Fantastic Glissando - Tony Conrad

***update, after a rough night***

Glenn Gould’s 1981 “Goldberg Variations”