Fatty Says Dance

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.

Lousy Smarch Weather

It sucks outside

Hey look, I made a podcast. Remember how I used to do those?

To no one’s surprise, they are exceptionally easier to do when you have machine manufactured after 2004.

No real theme this time out. There seemed to be a rush of new music perfectly suited to the mood I descend into during the late winter months, and I wanted to highlight that here. If you’re looking for my dulcet tones, I’m sorry to disappoint, as I noticed in the last few episodes they kept ballooning into hour-plus affairs, on account of my emulating old radio shows I used to enjoy like Brave New Waves on the CBC, which were always crazy thorough with their info about the artists they played.  We live in the Internet age, if anything you hear on this show leaves you with a mad craving to know more about the artists, you can clink the links below.

BJ The Chicago Kid
Frank Ocean 
ScHoolboy Q
Childish Gambino
Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire
Hodgy Beats

Kendrick Lamar
A$AP Rocky 

If all goes according to plan, you can peep the new episode in the player below.

The 2011 PFG Playlist!

The last time I compiled one of these, I commented, with some surprise, at the lack of…well, “white music” on the list.  Not to say that there wasn’t any indie or traditional pop I enjoyed this year, but much of it was older music I got too late [Sufjan Stevens, why did I sleep so long?].  

Nope, as far as music produced in 2011, I was in a non-stop hip-hop state of mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Some rock and indie might have nudged their way into the party under other circumstances [Foster the People, The Black Keys], but like I said last year, that isn’t music I want to listen to.  That’s music where, if I hear it on the radio on a drive to see a movie, that’s cool.  But I’m not running home to buy it on iTunes.  These songs, I did.  So let’s go, in no particular order.


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.


Which is fitting, because I always was by him.

One Band, One Week: Verses From The Abstract

A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album The Low-End Theory is considered classic material for a number of reasons: the production style, the visual aesthetic [best album cover ever], the perfection of the chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife, but topping the list would have to be what the album meant to the art of the sample.  Before its release, the musical vocabulary of hip-hop was very firmly entrenched in the funk and soul of the 70’s.  There were notable exceptions before TLET [Afrika Bambaataa’s building Planet Rock around Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising using everything from The Turtles to Hall and Oates], but Tribe had grander ambitions, building a bridge between the two distinctly Black artforms of hip-hop and jazz.  Q-Tip lays out the theme explicitly in ‘Excursions,’ the album opener:

Back in the days when I was a teenager,
before I had status and before I had a pager,
you could find The Abstract listening to hip-hop.
My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop.

Delivered over thudding drums and the a subtly chopped bassline from Art Blakely and The Jazz Messengers, spiced up with some Last Poets spoken word, the mission statement is clear: Tribe was out to change the game.

Every song on the record is amazing [even Skypager], but I’ve always had a special fondness for one of Q-Tip’s solo songs, ‘Verses From The Abstract.’

It’s a fairly straightforward beat.  The drums, from American jazz saxophonist Joe Farrell’s 1974 song ‘Upon This Rock,’ are the sort of gift from heaven hip-hop producers live for.

Not only is it four full bars of drums, but the staccato way they’re played are perfect for chopping and sampling.  That’s just a no-brainer.

Less obvious is the song’s other sampled component, that clean guitar strumming that runs throughout.

British funk/soul band Heatwave would have been a standard in many Black households in the 70’s and 80’s.  Not only did they have a disco hit with the song ‘Boogie Nights,’ but their ballad ‘Always and Forever,’ is in the slowjam hall of fame.  But both of those songs featured on the band’s 1976 debut.  For ‘Verses,’ Q-Tip’s ear spotted a two-bar measure of guitar back in the mix of ‘The Star of the Story,’ from Heatwave’s 1977 sophomore album.

That’s some crate digging expertise there.

The song starts with Q-Tip’s odd, almost giggly confession that he had a dream about Busta Rhymes visiting the studio they were working in, foreshadowing Busta’s later starmaking appearance on album closer ‘Scenario.’ 

The lyrics in the first verse are almost scat-like in their content, not exactly making sense, but accenting the music going around it, Tip’s vocal inflections, his timing, his cadences are as percussive as rhythmic as the beat they’re being rapped over.

I’m movin’, yes I’m groovin’ ‘cuz my mouth is on the motor,
Use the coast in the mornin’ to avoid the funky odour.
Can’t help bein’ funky, I’m the funky abstract brother
Funky in a sense, but I play the undercover.
Once had a fetish, fetish for some booty
Now I’m gettin’ funky and my rappin’, that’s my duty.

Moving to the second verse, Q-Tip takes the opportunity to offer spread some positivity to the listeners, maintaining the vocal standard he set in the first.

I must regroup my thoughts and kick the next ones for my people
Please don’t be deceived by ugly slice of evil…
The thing that men and women need to do is stick together,
Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever.

All of this would make the song a pleasurable album track easily outshined by other songs on the album, but the presence of two guests elevate to something great:.  Vinia Mojica, a vocalist who worked closely with the Native Tongues throughout the 80’s and 90’s, lays a beautiful melody over the chorus informing listeners ‘this ain’t an RnB song’;  and legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter plays live double-bass on the song, which I think is the first time jazz and hip-hop musicians worked together on an album.  Carter reflected on the experience to Stop Smiling magazine in 2008:

“…when these guys called me about this record, I didn’t know who they were. I knew the genre, but I didn’t know them. So I asked my son who these guys were and he said they were the most musical guys in that zone. So I called the guy [Q-Tip] up and told him I’d do the record. But I told him, “Listen, you gotta stop using this cursing language with the drugs. I don’t do that, and I will be gone before you can spell the word exit.” He assured me they were talking about real issues and they’d make sure the language was okay for me. It turned out their language was much less crooked than everybody else’s. So I went in for two hours, made some tracks and came on home. I’m embarrassed to say this but I’ve never heard the record after all this time. I bought it last month and I’m going to listen to it.”

Whether Carter ever heard the record or not, an entire generation of kids got their first exposure to jazz when they heard, “my man Ron Carter on the bass.”

‘Verses,’ and TLET as a whole, inspired projects from Guru of Gang Starr’s Jazzmatazz series, to The Brand New Heavies ‘Heavy Rhyme Experience,’ and sparked a whole genre still practiced by DJs like Freddie Joachim from the Bay Area and California, and about two-thirds of most Japanese producers working today.

Tribe may have perfected the formula on Midnight Marauders, but The Low End Theory went down roads no one had thought to go down before them, leaving footprints artists are still tracking twenty years later.

One Band, One Week: Rumble in the Jungle

In 1996 the release of the Muhammad Ali documentary “When We Were Kings” brought us not only an Academy Award-winning film on Ali’s 1974 title match with George Foreman, it also gave us the only collaboration between the two biggest rap groups of the time: Tribe and The Fugees.

Also interesting is the rare appearance of Tip and Phife solely as vocalists, the production was handled by Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill.  Wyclef in particular has a tendency to be a little more pop influenced in his sample selection, and he still is here, but he thankfully built a track worthy of Tribe, with a headknock of a beat funked up by the intro to ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game.”

What always catches me first about the song is when the beat itself comes in, leading with a snare then two kick notes.  Normally when the beat drops it’s the other way around, bom-bom-CRACK instead of CRACK-bom-bom.  The dryness of the snare takes the song to the streets, but the synths and harp sample give the song a sort of regal flavour befitting the Greatest of All Time.  Of course Lauryn sings a hell of a hook, lifting the melody of the pop classic “Angel of the Morning” to lament the hole left by Ali’s retreat from public life.

Lyrically, Q-Tip shines the brightest on here to me, which is saying something on any track featuring Busta Rhymes as well.  He starts his verse so in the pocket on a double-time flow, with impeccable breath control; you never hear him inhale. Lyrically he takes it back to the block by bragging about how bad he is, while using a boxing metaphor throughout as a nod to the song’s ultimate purpose.

Hands blistered from holding mics tight
Some say it’s fight night
Well throw the R after the F ’cause I’ma take away your breath.

Phife, ever the sports fan, is no slouch either, peppering his rhymes with boxers, dissing Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier while rightly exalting Ali as the best to do it.

I’m hearing no comments
Everyone looks despondent
Dejected, rejected similiar to Liston catching lists
Beat it Sonny, my man is still the greatest in this,
To hell with Frazier yappin’ about that negative shit.

Notice how Phife flips Liston’s name into the condescending front porch insult; he’s “sonning” Liston.  Nice!

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a pretty even split online among people who think the song is ‘The Fugees f/ Tribe’ and those who claim is as ‘Tribe f/The Fugees.’  But who cares for ownership?  Regardless of the details of “whose song it is,” we still have a classic meeting between two of the best crews to ever do it, The Avengers meeting The Justice League.

And I mean, really. We all know where Clef lifted that break on Killing Me Softly, right?

One Band, One Week: Q-Tip’s Best Non-Tribe Productions

The actual creation of Tribe’s music has always been a little shrouded in mystery.  The liner notes always credited the group as a whole, and as a kid, I just assumed Ali Shaheed Muhammad did all the music, since that’s usually how it worked in groups, the DJ did the music.  Yes, children, back in the golden ages of hip-hop, most albums were created with one producer. ONE! No glorified compilation albums with the beatmakers du jour all tossed together. One or two guys make all the beats.  That’s why hip-hop was better in the 90’s, by the way.

ANYWAY. Yes, mystery. Even when J. Dilla became affiliated with the group and formed The Ummah with Tip and Ali, it was still unclear as to who did what. Everything just said ‘Produced by The Ummah.’  Now it’s easy to hear Dilla’s trademarks, but the creative partnership of Tip and Ali was always cloudy.  Of course, now we know Q-Tip did most of the heavy lifting for Tribe’s production, easily making him one of the best beatmakers of all time.

And not just for Tribe!  The Abstract Poetic’s lent his skills out to other artists over the years, creating more than a few classics in the process.  Here we go through five.


One Band, One Week: Favourite Phife Rhymes

Phife Dawg is not an exceptionally skilled MC, at least not in the way we think of it now, measured against the standards of rappers like Jay-Z or Eminem. There’s nothing exceptional about his rhyme construction, he usually operates in 4/4 time using hard rhymes (meaning the words actually rhyme, he hasn’t altered them with his speech to stretch or slur them into rhyming).

But as the man once said in an interview I still remember from Muchmusic’s Rap City 20 years ago, rhyming ‘cat’ with ‘mat’ does not equal ‘dope emcee.’

What Phife lacked in grammatical complexity, he more than made up for in creativity and sheer charisma. When you first start exploring Tribe’s music, it’s easy to miss the function Phifey serves to the group. He didn’t produce, as far as we know, and Tip’s a bit flashier in his wordplay. But Phife balanced Tip’s smoothed out intellectualism with the gritty braggadocio of the streets.  He was fun!  And he could surprise you; his ‘basic’ rhymes display more creativity than a lot of rappers catching ink today.

So to start Tuesday, we pay tribute to the mad genius of the Diggy Dawg with ten of my favourite lyrics, in no particular order.

1. Now which MC thinks that he’s fucking with this here? / Word to Queens I keep shit hot like a knish, yeah! [Step It Up]

2. Microphone c heck one, two, what is this? / The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business. [Buggin’ Out]

3. Hip-hop scholar since being knee-high to a duck, / the height of Muggsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck. [Steve Biko]

4. I like my beats harder than two day old shits / steady eating booty MCs like cheese grits. [Oh My God]

5. Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic? / When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic? [Oh My God]

6. Let me hit from the back girl, I won’t catch a hernia. / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture. [Electric Relaxation]

7.  Come off my stage before I grab your neck and hammer ya / wet you like poonanny, then dry you like Canada. [Mind Power]

8. I’m all that and then some, tall dark and handsome / bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from. [Scenario] [ASIDE: Phife deliberately volunteered to go first on this legendary posse cut, since he knew DJs usually only played the first couple minutes of a track, thus guaranteeing his verse would always get bumped in the club. Genius!]

9. Can’t forget the De La, the true originality / and if I ever went solo my favourite MC would be me. [Clap Your Hands]

10. So do like Michael Jackson and remember the time / put on your dancing shoes or something cause you sure can’t rhyme. [Scenario (Remix)]

Did I get your favourite? What did I miss? This is what comments are for, friends.