Personal

Personal

Baby DJ Learns to DJ

By now most of you know that my love for hip-hop has its origins in acts like Run-DMC and The Fat Boys. What you might not know, and what I’ve really never talked about until now, is the one tape I probably valued like no other: DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. Like many eleven-year-olds, I found the lyrics [and video] for ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ hysterical, and the beat was different, falling somewhere between the disco rhythms of rap’s origins and the bludgeoning 808s of early Def Jam [courtesy of a Peter Frampton loop, of all things]. So my always accommodating, if somewhat confused parents ponied up the 20 bucks so I could run down to Tra-Kel Records in the Fort Malden Mall and pick it up. If I could even find that copy amidst the artifacts tucked away in my parents’ crawlspace, I doubt it would even play properly. I burnt that thing to a crisp with repeated plays. Much as I enjoyed the young Will Smith’s charisma or the songs about video games, what I was most drawn to were the gems buried on the album’s B-side. Most people forget or either don’t know that He’s the DJ… had at least six songs that were either classic MC/DJ party rocking in the most traditional sense [big’ing up your DJ, swagger and cockiness] or outright instrumental jams of Jeff scratching his ass off over classic breaks.

Those were the tracks my obsessive little preteen brain latched onto, and the moment I fell in love with the art of the scratch. I remember sitting at a folding card table in the basement of the childhood home, headphones on, trying to approximate the scratches I heard on songs like ‘Hip-Hop Dancer’s Theme’.


It’s a fascination that never really went away. On the rare occasions when I go to clubs, I never dance, I’m standing there watching the DJ. I’ve seen Questlove spin twice, and both times could have cared less about dancing, I just wanted to nerd out and watch what he did. For the pair of you who listen to RadioPFG when it comes out, you know I’ve started messing around with software to put actual mixes together instead of just fading in/out on complementary songs. Next on my gadget/toy wishlist will be a MIDI controller so I can properly scratch and pre-cue properly.

Thing is, I used to play drums in a band pretty regularly. However, now that I live far from my former bandmates, and frankly don’t have the room or finances to maintain a drumkit, I need to find other ways to express that side of me. I’ve found that DJ’ing and mucking about with consumer level drum programming [DM1 for iPhone, you are life changing, all for a dollar] to fill the creative gap left by no longer playing

Because I have wonderful people in my life who know these things about me, when they see deals for three-hour DJ classes on Wagjag, they buy them for me and don’t tell me. That was back in December. Yesterday, I finally went.

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Caught Sleeping: On Community

A few short hours after I post this entry, I’ll be plopped on my ass on the couch eating Doritos for dinner and engaging in something I haven’t done in years: appointment viewing.

DVRs, On-Demand and piracy have all but driven to extinction the idea that viewers make sure they’re home for a first-run episode of a beloved television show, but that’s exactly what I’ll be doing tonight as Community wraps up its third season with three back-to-back episodes.

I’m late to the Community party. The pilot failed to grab me [as it fails to grab most, real talk] and as many other commentators have noted, when the show isn’t being meta or working in the conventions of television cliche it rarely ascends beyond typical sitcom tropes [something like Troy’s 21st Birthday being a rare exception].  But when it hits, please believe, it’s unlike any other show I’ve ever seen: dark, painfully self-aware, equal parts lacerating and affectionate in its parody, Community is arguably the most creative show on television right now, certainly the best comedy.

Which probably means it’s doomed after next season.  Conflicts between showrunner Dan Harmon and star Chevy Chase [never known as an easy man to get along with, if one’s to believe the portrayal of him in the Saturday Night Live oral history Live From New York], a reduced episode order for Season 4 and a timeslot change to the wasteland of Friday Nights all forecast doom and gloom for the Greendale crew, but if that’s the case, what a ride it’s been [UPDATE: Harmon announced on his Tumblr Saturday morning that he’s been fired from the show he created].

What shocks me the most about this show is how much I adore the characters.  I care about them with an alarming level of fanboyishness.  Troy and Abed are one of the greatest on-screen pairings in television history. Annie has taken my passing crush on Alison Brie and inflated it to unhealthy levels. When I see Brie appear onstage at one of Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino shows, I feel giddy because I want to believe these people are as good of friends offscreen as on. The constant teasing of a Troy/Britta hookup this season has filled me the sort of rage usually reserved for online message boards. Not because I preferred the Jeff/Britta pairing of previous seasons, but because I don’t want any of them to get involved with each other.  I’m a guy who thinks the purity of their friendship, the camaraderie of  the Greendale Seven as a study group should be cherished more than any romantic dalliances.  It’s probably more realistic to assume that the young and single members of a group that tight-knit would hook up with each other, but this is a show that’s featured two epic paintball battles, a stop-motion holiday episode, crossovers with Cougar Town and a journey in a space simulator built by Kentucky Fried Chicken: realism was never on the table.


Thankfully, I likely won’t have to worry about that in tonight’s finale, as our [expelled] study group fights to rescue Dean Pelton from imprisonment and overthrow Ben Chang’s child-policed dictatorship [and can we tip our hats to Jim Rash, the man who portrays Dean Pelton? Everyone loves Troy and Abed, me included, but really, Dean Pelton is the MVP of the show on a weekly basis].  And when it’s over, I will feel sadness in my heart, because I will miss them. And I am fully aware of how insane that is to say, but it’s the truth.  As a guy who still cherishes the two years he spent studying journalism at a college in my hometown, Greendale strikes a disturbing amount of familiar yet happy chords.

Have a great summer, Greendale Seven.  I’ll be spending my time making E Plurbius Anus t-shirts and writing Inspector Spacetime fan-fiction and looking for Annie’s Boobs in every air vent I pass.  See you in the fall.

More Juice than Picasso got Paint

B-Boys Makin With the Freak-Freak.

I’ll call this out at the top:  When Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch lost his battle with cancer this week, an era of hip-hop ended.  We’ve suffered many losses in hip-hop, many of them are senseless.  But this one….maybe because it’s natural causes, maybe because it’s not something anybody could have prevented, it just saddens me so much more.

The Beasties were never the best MCs [I always made the joke that they got paid everytime they told a listener what their names were], but they were charismatic as hell, something that has to be credited to the unique personalities and tonalities of their voices.  They each occupied a different sonic register and complemented the other two perfectly: AdRock’s played the nasal high, Mike D sat in the middle, and MCA rounded out the bottom with his signature rasp. It’s incredible when, individually let alone as part of a group, an artist can develop a voice instantly recognizable to a listener. And now one of them is gone.

My entry to hip-hop came on the playground. Schoolyard boomboxes blasting Run-DMC and the Fat Boys at recess made me a fan for life.  It wasn’t a popular position in a world where The Bangles and The Pet Shop Boys were dominating airwaves. Classmates subjected me to the usual accusations of being a ‘n—-r lover’ and cursed at me to turn down that “monkey music.”   But things started to change the next year: people started getting their hands on License to Ill by The Beastie Boys.

There’s no arguing the point: for white kids on the playground, The Beasties made it okay to like hip-hop.  Even if your friends didn’t want to follow you to the worlds of LL Cool J or Eric B. & Rakim, you’d always find common ground with License to Ill.

I can’t overstate how revolutionary that album is.  The Beasties and sometimes DJ [and Def Jam Records founder] Rick Rubin took the aesthetic of black hip-hop and used their own musical heritage to make something wholly their own but respectful of the mode they were working in. Instead of James Brown, they were using Led Zeppelin.  Much as I never want to hear ‘Fight for Your Right’ or ‘No Sleep til Brooklyn’ ever again, there are a surprising number of jams on that first album that were killing dance floors in the ’80s.  The Def Jam coffee table book that came out last year specifically discusses how much it frustrated some black MCs that a song like ‘Hold it Now, Hit It’ was so good, because they really wanted to hate them.

Three years later they took whatever superficial fans they made with License to Ill and tossed them under a bus with the crate-digging opus Paul’s Boutique. A more traditional ‘rap album,’ but with an a progressive view of sampling rivalled only by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like their debut, this is not an album that could ever exist under current sampling laws and pay structures.

The album that resonated with my friends and I the most was 1992’s Check Your Head. The Boys returned to their punk roots to perfectly coincide with the grunge explosion, not just playing punk songs [‘Gratitude,’ ‘Time for Livin’] but taking the chopped guitar riffs of License to Ill and rubbing them full of dirt to give the songs a gritty, lo-fi, DiY feeling.  It was the perfect record for a 15-year-old trying to fake a love of rock music while gangsta rap was leaving him alienated from hip-hop.  It worked for a while. I mean, watch the video for ‘So What’cha Want.‘ That’s basically how we all dressed until 1996 [toques in the summer all day, son!].

I fell off after Ill Communication, really stepped off after Hello Nasty [too many wack people who reaaalllly liked ‘Intergalactic’], checked in and was pleased by To the Five Boroughs  and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Though I never had any reason to, I always considered Yauch the most creative of the three, maybe because he so overtly stepped into other arenas like directing their videos or crashing awards shows as his lederhosen-wearing alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower. If you need a clear indication of the group’s cross-generational appeal, watch that video for ‘Make Some Noise‘ again, and count just how many celebrities were willing to take a day to be a part of a Beastie Boys video.

Had they toured this summer, I probably would have gone to see them, not because I’m any sort of super fan, but because they’re legends and I should have seen them when I could.  Now I can’t. But if Yauch’s out of pain, if he was at peace with his passing [as a Buddhist, I hope he was], nobody has any right to complain.

Rest in Peace, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch. Thank you for constantly reminding us that the foundations of this thing we call hip-hop can still rock a party after 25 years.  Don’t believe me?  Watch the Boys rip ‘Shadrach’ from Paul’s Boutique on Soul Train, and pay attention to how that crowd goes from skeptical to buck wild thanks to a skillfully placed ‘Funky Drummer’ drop, some ‘Don Cornelius’ chants and the sheer will of the Beasties’ enthusiasm. A lot of rappers today could do well to take some showmanship notes from these dudes.

BRB

So, things are going to go silent around here for the rest of the month.

‘You say that like it’s not a regular occurrence.’

Oh, so you all are some funny muhf**kas now, huh?

I agree, my fits and spurts are well documented.  But something happened, friends.

I recently learned a series of books I greatly enjoy was putting out an open call for submissions.  I mused over it a little bit, ultimately dismissed my ideas.  But something happened as I waited in line at the 7-11 to pay for a carton of milk, laughing at the woman in front of me who dropped a vial of cocaine from her purse as she fumbled for her wallet:  I had an idea I didn’t hate.  An idea that excited me. An idea that had me telling everyone I knew I was thinking of doing it.

So I am.  Deadline’s the end of the month, and I’ll need every second I can find between now and then to do it.

In what I’m hoping is a bit of personal growth, the likelihood of failure isn’t getting me down at all:  because whether I get selected or not, it’s a good idea. Getting approved or not won’t change that.  It costs me nothing to do it, and in the worst case scenario, I’m just another of the cranks who submitted an idea. I know I won’t be the only one.

So that’s the scoop, friends.  You can still find me on Twitter during the interim, and the odd photo or quickie may very well go up on Tumblr, but my attentions will be off PFG for a couple of weeks. 

If I’m willing to do that, it must be important.  See you in May. Wish me luck.

A Letter to Meg

Meg is a friend and former Canadian Tire co-worker from back in the Windsor/Amherstburg days. We hadn’t spoken in the better part of five years when I get a message from her via Facebook, asking me if I blogged.

I swear, people, I wonder why I even try.

Anyway, Meg was interested in writing regularly and wanted to start a blog to do it. Sounds familiar. She wanted to check out mine, if I had one, to see what it was like. 

“Blogging is so super strange,” she wrote. Yeah, it is.  But it can also be kind of fun and amazing. I thought I would reply to her in public, as a chance to wax poetics on everything I know about blogging, which ain’t much.

Meg,

I was pleased to get your message, if a little surprised, given how long it’s been since we last spoke. I’ll admit, somewhat shamefully, to having you and the rest of the former CTC crew on the Facebook chopping block not too long ago.  I’m glad I didn’t drop the axe.

So, you’re looking to start a blog to keep the chops up.  That’s actually the very reason I started this up in the first place.  In 2009 I’d long been downsized from my position as Chief Blogger/Onine Editor for the University of Windsor paper, cranking out a couple of entries a day eight months a year. Suddenly I had a surplus of free time on my hands. Working at the bookstore had put me in a more literary frame of mind, as did the friendships I formed with a number of my coworkers there.  By that point I’d been blogging since 1999 or so, writing mostly in the style of emo, though we didn’t have a name for it then.  Writing for The Lance had scrubbed most personal details from my writing in favor of news and opinion, with the occasional reference to the persona I’d constructed to stand in for me.

What became PFG’s been a bit of an amorphous beast since then, moving from the story of a guy who wanted to finish some fiction and try to get it published, to pop culture commentary, to something that’s now spun out into the occasional podcast or video and now sort of back to a fiction focus [though results in the recent poll suggest that’s not what people want from me].

I’ve thought a lot over the years about what blogging means to me.  I still, despite the bile most Internet-famous writers push into my throat, believe blogging and the ease of access to content creation for most people is one of the most important developments in recent memory.  Yes, a good number of blogs, including some of the more famous ones, are little more than vanity projects or single-topic stunts trying to spin into a book deal, it’s still an amazing tool with an infinite number of uses [something I had the amazing fortune to speak about to a group of students at the Queen’s Fac of Ed years ago. It was a simpler time].

Anyway, advice.

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Exposing the Business

The kids love graphs.

The best thing about blogging with WordPress [and there have been some bad things about it lately, infinite scrolling!] are the statistics they keep, allowing me to obsess over every visit, read post and clicked link. There really is nothing better than seeing the bars on the graph grow taller, charting the increases in engagement with people who swing by to read the site.

I have a pretty basic [as in, one step above rhesus monkey] understanding about building that engagement: more content = more views. Consistent voice, consistent posting, the two primary tenets of blogging, an idea so basic at this stage in online content creation it seems inconceivable anyone could screw it up.

I posted three entries on Monday, each occupying a different lane on the content freeway that is Poetry for Gravediggers: a Wrestlemania wrap-up in the morning, the next installment of Thirty Days of Stories and a rare personal post later in the afternoon discussing what I wanted for the site. No surprise, I had a good day for traffic. But I noticed something when I started looking at the numbers a little more closely.

The post on the short story got zero views, while the laid back, freeform, ‘personal’ entry received far more than I was expecting. It gave me pause, since I go out of my way, and have explicitly stated that I’m kind of over talking about the ins and outs of my own melon; I’ve done that so much in blogs, with PFG I was trying to connect with something bigger than myself. I’m fricking boring, people.

But the numbers yesterday have me reconsidering. They would seem to suggest people prefer when I’m blathering on about myself, and could care less about the aspiring writer’s journey or the musings on hip-hop or other pop culture commentary. You’ve piqued my curiosity.

This is very informal, I’m not about to say I’d actively change how I do things around here [I’m finishing those 17 other stories whether you people like it or not], I’m just interested. The stats for yesterday would suggest people would prefer I natter on about myself, which seems dreadfully boring and the sort of thing you can get from at least fifteen million other bloggers, some of whom are not averse to posting photos in varying degrees of undress. I’m not that dude, will never be that dude. But if the response was overwhelming, I might consider it. To an extent.

Click away, friends. Let me know.

Souls Stay Eternal

What with all the days of stories and podcast production and general Seasonal Affective Disorder, I neglected to properly commemorate the second anniversary of Nujabes’ passing a couple weeks ago.

If you’re new here, Nujabes is probably second only to J.Dilla in my all-time hip-hop producer hall of fame. When I first arrived in Kingston before I found a job, I spent most mornings watching Samurai Champloo, the follow-up series by the production team behind my favourite anime ever, Cowboy Bebop. It was on that soundtrack that I first encountered his music, and it became daily listening to me, along with his other full length releases and remixes. Something about it always suited the cold Kingston days.

As far as just…shock at having lost an artist I admired, the only thing close to what I felt when I learned he had passed was when MuchNews interrupted a block of music videos to tell us all that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. But that was different. Cobain’s death was deliberate, and I could process it with friends who appreciated him as much as I had, probably more [I preferred Soundgarden].

With Nujabes, it was just a random tragedy cutting down a man in the prime of his life, and I had to process it alone, none of my friends were into him like I was. I’m not trying to make it into more than it was, it’s not like I lost family, but you take for granted that the guy’s always going to be there, that every six months I could scour some message boards and score a new batch of his own work or some production he’d done for other people. Instead you find out he’s been killed in a car wreck on a Tokyo Expressway, and all you can hope for are some half-finished tracks he left behind, the mandatory tribute albums.

But the music lives on, and I stay thankful for the joy it’s given and will continue to provide. Rest in Peace, Seba Jun.

For anyone who’s interested, I did a [too] lengthy podcast on Nujabes’s career last year, you can check that below.

The New Workout Plan

As you may have gathered from last week’s post, I probably feel worse about my writing than I have in years. I feel utterly devoid of ideas, creatively bankrupt, a victim of my own paralysis and high standards.

Simply, this cannot continue. As tempting as it is to sit in my pajamas playing Sonic CD until April 1 when my mood starts to improve, I know it’ll leave me more miserable than I already am. So, time to commit to something.

One of the cooler things I did recently was sign up to Poets.org’s ‘Poem a Day’ mailing list. Every morning I get a new poem in my inbox, from the classical to the contemporary.

But poetry is not where my interests primarily lie; I’m more interested in short fiction (but ‘Short Stories for Gravediggers’ didn’t have the same ring).

This is the short story shelf of our bookshelves. All of those books are mine, and while I’ve made a sizable dent in them over the years, they’re nowhere close to done. this isn’t including the pile of McSweeney’s Quarterlies a couple of shelves down.

So here’s the plan: for the month of March, I will a read one story from one of these books each day, and give it a brief writeup here on PFG, highlighting what I liked about it, and more importantly, what I learned from it, since what I’m looking for here is inspiration.

The familiar knowledge goes that the two most important things any inspiring writer can do is read a lot and write a lot. I’ll worry about the second part if I get through this.

Thirty days, thirty stories, no author repeats if possible, and no rereading anything I’ve already read, with a concerted effort to go outside my comfort zone [example: The Lady’s Bradbury collection]. You lot seem to like when I commit to thirty-day challenges, hopefully you’ll stay with me through it.

When it’s all over, who knows, maybe I’ll have enough in me to finish something. Hold your breath on that one. But we’ll have some laughs as we go down in flames.

Everything You’ve Done Wrong: On Learning to Love Elder Scrolls V

Of course I went Khajiit. Don't act so surprised.

I spend half my time fudging with inventory. I spend the other half in load screens.  The combat is like fighting Jell-O, nothing seems to connect despite the sound of the clanging swords.  The notorious glitches are frequent: I’ve fallen through walls and witnessed the mythical backwards flying dragon.  It’s a glorified to-do list.

It is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And I can’t stop playing it. And I’m  not the only one.

While never averse to RPG’s, I learned after a brief dalliance with Fallout3 that the specific brand of game put forth by Bethesda Softworks are the sort I no longer have the right lifestyle to accommodate.  Some early reviews boasted 300-hour experiences, and I just don’t have that sort of time anymore.  

Sixteen hours in, it would appear I do.

So what the hell is it about this game? There are all the aforementioned strikes against it, and forget about the story, I only know what’s happening 20% of the time [Empire? Stormcloaks? Uhhhhh…] so why can’t I stop?  Why is writing this entry about Skyrim making me angry because it makes me want to stop writing to go play Skyrim.

If I have a gun to my head, I would probably settle on “immersion.”  While Skyrim has the same open-world, sandboxy gameplay I love about Grand Theft Auto (IV in particular), GTA lacks any sort of character skill progression or first person perspective.  In both games, you’re never beholden to perform the tasks the game demands, but you will run out of things to do in Liberty City and go back to the main story line.  I went four days in Skyrim without going anywhere near the primary narrative. Even when I did decide to go to High Hrothgar or whatever the hell it is, I ended up meandering into mill towns and military camps, picking up some quick gold clearing out a dungeon or two. I just adore the world Bethesda’s created.  The first time I saw the aurora borealis over the fields surrounding Winterun my jaw actually dropped. The first time a dragon unexpectedly thundered overhead I panicked and hid behind a rock [actually an effective strategy it turned out].  I also enjoy the absence of Fallout’s karma system.  The few hours I spent with that game, I didn’t enjoy constantly being reminded that the game was watching and ticking off everything I did, always placing weights on the scale of judgment.  If my intent was to be a good person, one point of negative karma could undo hours of play.  With Skyrim, the decision to steal, pickpocket or murder innocents is purely up to your own moral code.  And, interestingly enough, as with Red Dead Redemption, it’s never occurred to me to start tossing fireballs at shopkeepers.

There’s also the matter of character creation.  I know this is standard practice in any RPG worth a damn, but it’s a feature I haven’t had the opportunity to tool around with in a very long time.  I feel an ownership and connection over that ball of fur pictured above that I haven’t experienced in a game in a very long time.  I anguish over every decision I make for him, every skill to build, the type of game I’m going to play [one-handed brawler].   I might have enjoyed tooling around Liberty City with Niko Bellic, but when Iloru Sachiel [a name I agonized over, even consulting a fantasy name generator] runs around Skyrim, it feels like me, because I control how he looks, how he fights, his abilities, what he wears.  When I take Lydia my ‘housecarl’ [pictured above, think medieval personal assistant] out with me, I constantly check on her safety during battles.  I even get bummed when I have to kill other Khajiit, because I don’t like killing my “own kind.” And I am fully aware of what a pitifully geeky thing that is to even say, let alone praise.

It actually wasn’t my idea to get the game.  For the first time in history, The Lady bought a video game she wanted to play. And we are already playing two different games: she’s playing as a Nord woman with a preference for two-handed weapons.  She’s done different quests than I have. If we swapped notes after a week, we’d probably find we had very unique experiences.  When you take into account the numerous class builds you can make [I’m already thinking Highborn Warmage my next go around], you start to realize just how much is hiding under the hood of this game.

I acknowledge this is all very surfacey praise, and anyone who’s played the previous game Oblivion or even World of Warcraft figured these things out years ago, but it speaks to Skyrim’s overall success if it can win over players like The Lady and I back to its snowy bluffs hour after hour. After hour. Why am I still talking to you?

Remembering Heavy D



It’s interesting how news of a death hits us in the digital age.  Before the 24-hour news cycle and social media, news of someone’s passing used to smack like being hit with a 2×4.  Now there’s this creeping dread as the rumours hit Twitter, speculative stories hit the web and you wait with a sink in your stomach for the inevitable confirmation.

That’s what I was feeling as I rode the streetcar last night and learned about the passing of Dwight Myers, better known as Heavy D. He was 44 years old, ten years older than I am now. We will ignore that for now.

Last spring I did an episode of RadioPFG lamenting the disappearance of fat rappers from the hip-hop landscape. Writing the script to that episode I learned a couple of things about my relationship to hip-hop, how it got its hooks into me at such a young age.  Part of it was my innate fascination with rhythm and drums, but I really think another part of it had to do with rappers like The Fat Boys, Chubb Rock and Heavy D.  As a weird overweight kid in Southwestern Ontario, hip-hop was the only musical form that not only showcased artists that looked like me, but celebrated it. The philosophy of hip-hop is confidence, bragging and boasting, even if you had some extra pounds packed.  Heavy D was the best of them.  He didn’t ignore that he was a big dude, he wore it as a badge of honour. He called himself the Overweight Lover and made songs celebrating his love of beautiful women.  Riding the crest of the New Jack Swing Era of the early 90s, Heav busted out dance moves better than some dudes half his size.

That was just his own career.  He played a role in the careers of so many artists: cousin of Pete Rock, as an employee at Uptown Records he hired a young intern named Sean Combs who brought Mary J. Blige to the label.  He gave the Notorious B.I.G. his first extended verse on the posse cut ‘A Buncha N*ggas’ in 1993.  He wrote the theme to In Living Colour. You know you remember him keeping the crowds at bay on the Bed-Stuy stoop in Biggie’s ‘One More Chance’ video.  He did tracks with Janet and Michael Jackson. He returned to performing at the BET Hip-Hop Awards last month. And we all thought we’d have him for much longer than we did, because who drops dead at 44?

This was his last tweet, sent hours before he died.

http://twitter.com/#!/heavyd/status/133793313668071424

Which is fitting, because I always was by him.

The PFG Social Club: Death Cab for Cutie at the Molson Ampitheatre

Skinny Ben Gibbard, you still scare the hell out of me.

Considering how hip-hop heavy these proceedings get, regular readers may find it surprising that I would even be at a Death Cab for Cutie show last Friday, let alone to learn they’re one of my favourite bands. I can tell you why, but it’ll take a few paragraphs, and it occurred to me recently that maybe, friends, you don’t want to hear my whole life story before I tell you whether whatever event I attended was good or not. So for those people:

The Death Cab show last Friday was fantastic.

If you want to hang, I’ll be behind the cut.

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The PFG Social Club Presents: The Hip-Hoppingest Canada Day Ever!

Asking Shad where he got that ill 'Ehlife' shirt.

But of course, you might already know some of this if you check out PFG Express.  You  do check out PFGX don’t you?  You really should.

As previously mentioned in these pages, I don’t really do heat, and outdoors, and the sweltering masses.  What I will do, however, is free.  So when Shad says he’s giving a free outdoor show as part of the Toronto Jazz Fest, I sort of need to be there.

Regular readers and listeners of RadioPFG [you do listen to Radio PFG don’t you?] will remember how quickly Mr. Kabango won my heart after I saw the video for Yaa I Get It and heard him chew the mic for for almost four minutes with no hook.  It was all love after that.  

I’d dragged my heels on seeing him live since I knew he liked playing with a band, and I’m sort of lukewarm to rap acts playing with live musicians, since sometimes even the best bands lack the sort of urgency I get from the actual sampled recordings.  But credit where due, Shad’s trio were on point, and the soundman in Metro Square knew how to punch the drums and bass to an proper level of kick.  They worked surprisingly well on most songs,but Shad didn’t try to shoehorn the band into every song if it wasn’t best for the song.

Maybe it was the weather, the festive patriotism in the air, but Shad put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, by anyone.  Because even when he was playing a melancholic song like Telephone, he’s so damn charismatic, so happy to be practicing his artform, he makes the audience want to follow him wherever he wants to go.  His show brought it back to the essence of what hip-hop is supposed to be: he cold rocked the party.  Song after song got the heads bobbing, even when he spit rhymes no one knew, he was doing it over familiar instrumentals, like when he went on in ‘Close To Me’ by The Cure.  Just because.

Should have kept the film running.  He did ‘Creep’ by TLC after that.

Fittingly, he closed with the broke ass anthem ‘The Old Prince Still Lives at Home’, since we were all at a free show anyway. As he told the crowd, ‘It’s that stay-at-home swag.’

All told, he may have gone for less than an hour, but he just killed it.  You know it’s a good show if I feel the need to elbow through a crowd to tell the guy.  If you ever get the chance to see dude rock a crowd, just go, he will not disappoint.

Oddly enough, the show was not the last time I saw Shad on Canada Day, as he swung by Roots drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s DJ set at Revival later that night.

I’ve seen Questo spin before, and while that was like attending a master’s course in hip-hop musicology, I was relieved to hear him announce he was our ‘Human iPod,’ and wanted the crowd to get dancing. And that’s what we did for the next three hours, although I will admit he seemed to go off on a late-70s/early-80s R n”B tangent that lost part of the crowd for awhile.  Nothing a little Katrina and the Waves couldn’t fix. At one point a speaker caught on fire, causing the usually unflappable Thompson to exclaim, ‘That’s never happened before! We blew the speakers out!’ with a laugh.

But you know it ain’t a party until some clown-ass sucker has to ruin everyone’s good time, and no exception here. We endured the obnoxiously quartet of broads humping each other all night only to have the set came to abrupt close just before 3:00 a.m. when some fool tossed a bottle of Evian at the stage, splashing Quest’s gear in the process.  Genuinely upset, Thompson lamented the TB of music he keeps on laptop, then told the crowd that was it.  A tweet the next day let everyone know how that worked out.

A sour end to what was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time, and that’s not even mentioning catching Melissa McLelland and Esthero at Harbourfront, or doing an impromptu rendition of Shimmy Shimmy Ya with some Hip Hop Karaoke regulars for a crowd of families and children.  A little something for everyone, friends.

I just don’t know where you kids get the energy.

A Love Letter to Sonic the Hedgehog, on the Occasion of his 20th Birthday

Bad motha-shut yo' mouth!

In the early 1990s, boys of a certain age were suddenly faced with a difficult decision, one that could lead them to question everything they believed was true: Sega or Nintendo.

In the 1980s, you could play video games on something other than a Nintendo Entertainment System, but why would you ever want to?  The NES had Mario, and everyone wanted to play Mario.

But by 1990, a lot of us were having our faith shaken.  The Genesis was out, and while it looked cool and the games undeniably had better graphics [which was all we cared about back then] it didn’t have the killer app yet.  I mean, Altered Beast wasn’t exactly a system seller.  Plus, the Super Nintendo was on its way, with a shiny new Mario game packed in the box.  For many of us, that made the decision for us. But Sega was ready to fight dirty.

I should not feel such affection for a blue animated rodent.  He certainly hasn’t done anything to deserve my devotion in recent years.  And yet, I will always pledge fealty to the 16-bit days of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose first video game appearance came 20 years ago.

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Continuing Studies in Hip-Hop, or, Mourning the Adolescence I Wish I Had

She said reading Junot Diaz sounded in her head like I was reading it to her, since she found it so similar to my writing style. I told her it was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me, and was also a reminder that I should step up the blogging again.  She agreed.  We’ll see if she still does when this is over.

People, this was a banner month for New York hip-hop history.  A couple of weeks ago, the folks over at DJPremierBlog got their hands on the full 10-minute clip of a 1995 freestyle session between Big L [RIP] and some guy named Jay-Z on the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia show on Columbia University’s WKCR.  And one week after that freestyle hit the web, Stretch and Bob hit the air for a 20th Anniversary show.

Like, you need to know, Stretch & Bobbito are responsible for probably the most important radio show in the history of hip-hop.  Saturday overnight, on a noncommercial radio station in the heart of the city, during the mid 90s.  That’s Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang, Big Pun, Fat Joe, what most people consider the last great Golden Age of hip-hop.

Here, listen to Bob tell it.

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A Note for Lisa

At Book Expo Canada, 2008. Back when I was 40 lbs heavier and dressed like a white guy.

She was one of the people I first talked to on a regular basis when I started my job. I was new to Toronto, didn’t know anyone, and I’d started working at a business where it seemed like most of the staff had a certain history, one I was entering but still outside of.

But she was one the one who spoke to me first.  She called me kid, even though I was clearly older than her. She demanded I tell her ‘stories’. That was her big thing, whether she hadn’t seen me in two days or, after she got sick, two months: she’d want me to tell her some story. So I’d tell her about a night out or what games I was playing on XBox and she would listen intently then reply in that weird cadence of hers, ‘Yeah. That’s cool.’ And then walk away.

Her voice is what I’ll remember.  When I tell my Lady stories about people from work sometimes I have to use nicknames as shorthand so she can distinguish who I’m talking about.  I somewhat regret referring to Lisa as ‘Tommy Chong,’ in reference to her laid -back, relaxed speech, so strange coming out of a tiny Chinese girl. She was so wonderfully awkward and strange.

I remember I would walk into the lunch room and she’d be stirring her freshly heated lunch, rice and chicken and Chinese greens, which I thought was amazing but to her was as pedestrian as a PBnJ.  She’d give me this exasperated ‘What are you talking about?!’ then offer to have her mom make me lunch the following week.

And of course, as anyone who worked with her will tell you, there was her appreciation for beautiful men.  When the Toronto firefighters, or some Harlequin cover models would do appearances at the store, she would get so bashful, but there was always a glint in her eye, a flash that told you she’d never be so forward as to ever make a first move, but god help the man who did. She’d tear him apart.

But the first story that popped into my head when I heard she was gone was some random day, must have been a Sunday since that was the only day she was working at that point.  I was posted up in Fiction like usual and Susan Boyle was playing on the stereo. She walked by, her kerchief and ponytail meticulously positioned to conceal the cysts on the side of her head.  She stopped where I was and did that little head nod of acknowledgment she would do.

“You like this music?”
“Oh, you know I do, L-Tran.”
“Yeah, I could tell. You love this. It’s your favourite. You go home and sing it every night,” a point she illustrated by launching into the most hysterically exaggerated performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ I will ever hear in my lifetime, in a voice I’d never heard her use before or since.  It was a brief glimpse into who she was outside of work, the woman her friends and family knew well.

They’ll bury her the day after my birthday this year.  I’ll wake up on that day like I woke up on this one, thanking life for the day ahead, because it’s already one more than she got.

Rest in Peace, Lisa Tran.