*pulls tarp off of website, shakes out the cobwebs*
Hey. How was your year?
I meeeeeaaaan, look. I’m not going to defend the lack of activity here. I work nights, I’m not perpetually tired, but I’m pretty tired a lot of the time. I wrote some stuff for some people, but a lot of where my non-day job hours of consciousness ended up was on the retooled RadioPFG. What was once a semiregular directionless podcast has now become, on the strength of the two years I’ve spent as a junior-intermediate crate digger, a weekly hourlong show I produce myself live every Saturday at 2:00 pm. I broadcast it on Mixlr every week, then toss the newest episode on Soundcloud for the following seven days. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and the feedback from the friends who are listening regularly has encouraged me enough to keep working on it from week to week.
If there’s one thing working on the show has done, is that it’s allowed me to re-engage with music on a deeper level than I have in a few years. After years of writing these preambles and lamenting that music was boring me or that I couldn’t find 20 songs that I loved in any given year, I had more music than I could handle in 2015, and what’s more, I was actively seeking it out, which is new. Record collecting and programming a show has made my tastes weirder and (no surprise here) more global. Let’s take a stroll through the songs that blessed my ears the most this year, not the objectively superior, not necessarily the most innovative, just the ones I liked the best, in no order.
Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!
The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.
Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.
While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.
Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.
If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.
I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’t. Because all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.
Look at it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.
Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.
In what’s been a monumental development for me but standard operating procedure for most of you, I am now finally, legitimately on Spotify.
You’re confused. You would be. I will explain.
Despite being available to our Southern neighbours for over three years, the online streaming music service only launched in Canada last week (making it the site’s 58th market. Oh yeah, Lithuania had Spotify before we did).
I’d managed to finagle backdoor access to the site here and there and understood the appeal, but having the full experience via the app on my phone has been game changing. I’m using the service for free for the time being, so there are some limitations, of course, but who cares if I can only shuffle my playlists, I made them, so I like everything on them.
As an aspiring and inexperienced vinyl collector, Spotify’s already proven itself a godsend. I can search for songs I might have own on vinyl but not digitally, or albums I’ve been thinking about copping, add them to a playlist, and check them out while working overnight at the day job. It’s given me a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for songs I knew, but couldn’t really listen to closely because I’d only ever had them on vinyl.
Songs like “Nautilus.”
“Nautilus” is the last song on One, the debut solo album by jazz keyboardist Bob James. Blending a stinky groove from bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad, the spacey pings and tones of James’s organ and cinematic string flourishes, the song immediately caught the ears of hip-hop producers rifling through their parents’ record collections.
In the subsequent years, flipping “Nautilus” became a compulsory part of a producer’s education: everyone has taken a pass at it. Which is amazing enough in itself, but what’s even crazier is, according to an intervew James gave to Noisey last year, the song was kind of a throwaway to begin with.
“It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. “Nautilus” was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” said James. “It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we [improvised] in the studio. So it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”
I spent a morning this week exploring some of my favourite interpolations of the track, amazed at how a truly exceptional producer will find some kernel of the song that hasn’t really been explored yet, or slice and dice the track like a samurai and reassemble it into a speaker-blowing monster.
I woke up from a mid-morning nap following an overnight shift to a phone blown up with texts and tweets alerting me to the spontaneous listening party you’d announced for your upcoming album in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park. I was a little shocked, as far as I knew you were still filming your episodes of Community, but with enough time to throw some clothes on and head down, I didn’t want this to be another of those “Cool things that happen in Toronto that I take for granted and don’t go to.”
There were only about fifty people or so when I showed up, standing around a kid with a pair of amplifiers. I foolishly thought attendance might actually stay at those levels, and that maybe I could tell you some of these things in person, but within fifteen minutes the crowd had swollen to around 200. As the crowd grew and 5.00 came and went the kid with the amplifiers started to look nervous, and it occurred to me it was wholly possible we were about to be trolled by a local crew of kids taking the opportunity to promote their shitty mixtape. But then you showed up, no fanfare, pushed through the crowd to the picnic table, sat down, plugged your phone into the speakers and started playing the album*.
Aw, dammit. I thought. He’s on his art school bullshit again. I can’t lie, Donald. I’d been concerned. You first hinted at restlessness on the ROYALTY mixtape, so news that you were leaving Community (where I first became a fan) was disappointing, but not surprising. But that short film you made last summer (which I admit I didn’t even watch) caused some eyebrow arching, and then there were your Instagram notes last month. So when you strolled up without a word, I started to wonder if I was willing to hang with where you were going.
By the time I left Bellwoods, though, I was back on board, not from anything you did, per se, but from what the crowd did.
Toronto is…we can be a weird town. Superior yet love-starved. Many in that park seemed to think they’d be getting a concert of some sort, despite your earlier tweet to the contrary. A few climbed nearby trees to catch a glimpse of you. When you’d played what you wanted to, you stood up and answered questions from the crowd for half an hour. When a second person asked you if you were going to do any stand-up, a few of us groaned and you chuckled and mentioned someone had already asked that and moved on to the next question.
“Uhh, okay? Thank you? For not answering my question? Appreciate it!” the guy hollered. And all I could think was Wowww, you know what? Fuck you, guy. He owes you nothing. And that was when it all sort of clicked in for me. You don’t owe me anything either. If I’m sad the antics of Troy and Abed will be shortened this year, tough shit for me. Would I really turn down the chance to run the ship at my own show if given your choice? No, I wouldn’t. Neither would anyone else.
As for the ‘cry for help.’ Instagram notes, I watched your Breakfast Club interview where you explained that part of what inspired it was just feeling alone and lost, like damn near every other twentysomething butting their heads against the promises of history.
“Everybody stunts on Instagram. Nobody shows their buddy’s funeral, nobody wants to be vulnerable. People thought I was crazy because I was honest. That was it,” you said.
That honesty is what always drew me to your music, that willingness to admit fear that always causes “real heads” to get their backs up and start calling people “soft.” Like Kanye said, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” He was never supposed to be the last.
When I was in journalism school my second writing course was on various styles of column writing, personal essays, shit like that. For my first workshop submission, I wrote about something extremely personal that was going on with my family. I was older than most of my classmates, who I’d only known for five months by then. You could feel the air getting sucked out of the room as they read it. But I just threw it all out there because I couldn’t stand the idea of restraint, felt like all of our work work would suffer if we weren’t willing to go all the way with it. I’ve grown somewhat more diplomatic in how I deploy the truth in the subsequent years, but I still believe what I did in that class: that any art that means anything has to leave it all on the table. Your willingness to do that, rawer than how Kanye or Drake or even Eminem do it, is unlike anything I’ve heard in hip-hop, and is still so exciting to me. It’s like being 12 years old and listening to De La Soul is Dead for the first time, just being enthralled and anxious and confused all at once.
So what I guess I’m trying to say is do your damn thing, Donald, whatever that thing might be. If you want to write, write. If you want to make music, make music. I might not love everything you do, but you’ll always make it worthwhile to check in.
ps: That “rainbow, sunshine” song? The one that sounded like Jhené Aiko sung a hook? It’s a goddamn monster.
I’m writing this on a train southbound to Windsor, where I will then drive another half an hour south into the asphyxiating humidity of Amherstburg, Ontario, where I will hole up in my parents’ house for the next week and a half to take the scraps, scenes, scribbles and scrivenings I have floating around my hard drive, in Moleskines, on ripped papers currently stuffed in my pockets and attempt to stitch them into something resembling a cohesive narrative for 30,000 – 35,000 words, which I will then take the month of July to edit and polish, and then send off to the powers that be and hope they still want to publish it. I will likely need to write a giant decompression post when that happens. But that will be later.
Today, I want to talk about that photo up top. See, this past Friday the good folks at Hip-Hop Karaoke Toronto had their inaugural ‘Posse Cut’ Edition. After three annual solo competitions, the crew listened to feedback from folks who wanted to compete as groups, and set up this event for duos, trios and quartets, keeping everything nice and equal.
Hip-Hop Karaoke has always been a thing I do a lot with one particular person. I used to date that person. I no longer do. No further details necessary.We still see each other, we still hang out. Sometimes it’s weird, most times it’s not. People find this confusing. I don’t really care.
But for some reason, it always felt to me that we never really got over. We had a couple rough performances, we [okay me] can be socially awkward around people so friendships with the other regulars were limited to a quick dap and ‘S’up?’ walking through the club. But when the group competition was announced, we knew we had to do something.
There was some minor bickering over song selection: I’d thought‘The Next Episode’ by Dr. Dre was something unique I hadn’t really seen done before, and the Nate Dogg portions could inspire some fun crowd interactions. She thought it was a little slow, might bring the energy down. She suggested “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC. I was a little hesitant, considering the song’s age, and how much the kids in the crowd might know it, but it had some good back-and-forth work [the thing everyone remembers about that MOP performance], some classic lines, and even if the kids didn’t know the song specifically, everyone knows that Bob James break by now. So I agreed, and we spent the next week working it out.
I didn’t turn to look at the judges behind me while we performed, but I heard from friends later that they were going pretty nuts. All I knew at the time was when I decided spontaneously to throw out some classic, ‘Lemme hear you say ho-oooh!‘ to the crowd, the response was far louder than I’d anticipated.
“Oh shit,” I thought, “We could actually place.”
Well, we didn’t place. We won the whole damn thing. Full disclosure, we ended up tying with a pair of ladies who have become regular in the last six months and have always impressed. I didn’t have a problem with it, it was good company to be in.
I’ve thought about that night a lot this weekend. About how, despite no longer being together, I’ll always trust that girl implicitly when I step on stage with her, just like I used to trust my band mates back in the Ictus days. The band always used to say we’d never do it with anyone else, just because that sixth sense of understanding you develop with performers you’ve known for years, that’s too hard to find. We used to call it ‘bedroom eyes’, that look we’d give each other when a change-up was coming. That’s how I felt about her at HHK. I’ve performed with other partners, and while it’s gone well enough, there was a spark missing.
I’ve also thought a lot about how the classics never go out of style, about how the song that probably got me into hip-hop in the first place, just two guys from Queens saying nursery rhymes and big-upping their DJ could still tear the place down, 30 years after it was first released.The whole point of hip-hop was to rock a party. Despite how much time has passed, the tools for party rocking haven’t varied much, and that makes me very happy.
There’s currently no video footage of our performance, and I almost prefer it that way [if some turns up later, I’ll post it here or more likely on PFGExpress]. I like the idea of it only existing in the memories of the people who saw it, and in ours. Just one more thing she’s now staked for herself in my brain, one more item shoved into the folder of things that will always remind me of her, along with Coco by Chanel, Volkswagen Beetles and a million other things.
I once said ‘the couple that HHK’s together, stays together.’ Time might have proven me wrong, but it doesn’t mean we won’t eat a pair of microphones when called to do so. We have the medals to prove it.
I’ve heard it mentioned on occasion that everyone has one story in them that only they can tell. A story so inextricably entangled in the core of that person’s most authentic self that to withhold it does a disservice bordering on insult [series like The Moth or the back page of Toronto Life butter their bread on this very theory].
For a while now, I’ve known what my story is, I’ve just been trying to decide on the medium to tell it in [closest I ever came was about a dozen pages worth of graphic novel scripting, still sitting on my hard drive. If any artists out there want to take a crack, email me]. Longtime readers know I will always maintain that my coming of age, while not necessarily unique, or stuffed with hardships, was just really fricking weird.
When you grow up in a rural part of Southwestern Ontario, Canada, during the 1980s, surrounded on all fronts by body shops, dilapidated tractors, abandoned barns, and poorly tended corn fields while the nascent forms of hip-hop, house and techno are crossing the river via radio signal from a Black cultural giant like Detroit…when you gravitate towards that culture, in that environment, it cements your outsider status, and it leaves you with a sense of, not isolation necessarily, but of standing apart, being out of step. And that feeling never really disappears. Sometimes you’re reminded why.
A few weeks back I came across the above photo on Facebook. As a joke, it’s a cute pun but not very funny; as cultural commentary it’s a ‘facepalm and move on,’ type of trifle. It just amazes me that this some people still find the need to engage in this insecure dick swinging, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Take my Pops. He took me to buy Fat Boys tapes at Devonshire Mall when I was nine years old, I still remember him trying to explain to the clerk what exactly it was I looking for [“I think it’s called ‘rap,’ or something? I don’t know, it all sounds like garbage.”]. He loves to make jokes deliberately getting the names of MCs incorrect [‘Biggie Big’ is a personal favourite of both of us]. He’s watched me embrace this music for almost 30 years, he knows I’m writing a book about it, yet there is definitely a part of him that still cannot believe that this music, this culture, still exists, let alone evolved into the economic titan it is today. And that’s not entirely unreasonable of him: the origins of the music and the cultural concerns present therein couldn’t be more foreign to him. They should be foreign to me; I’ve yet to suss out a reasonable explanation for why it resonated with me so fully, but it is what it is. Between the rhythm of the beats and the education in classic soul, jazz and funk they’ve always provided, I’ve just always found it a more rewarding musical experience than ‘Arrrrr, rawk!’ [I’ll give some slack to Deftones, who fully exposed their desire to be a Depeche Mode cover band somewhere around 2005. Abe still plays too busy, though].
And I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve never looked down my nose exasperated at a crew of gel-spiked dudes in Affliction t-shirts throwing up the devil horns at the camera, but I’ve tried to adopt a certain level of cultural detente with those camps as I get older and mellowed out; as the homie Big Ghost once said: “I aint really mad at it tho…like it aint horrible or nothin. It jus dont got no real purpose in my iTunes.”
It’s funny, I remember a few months back watching Lords of the Underground perform at Hip-Hop Karaoke’s Competition Round. In the middle of ‘Chief Rocka,’ Mr. Funkee cut the beat off, and said the following before he finished his verse:
“Let me explain something to y’all. I been doing this shit for almost 22 years. And there’s people that still can’t say this shit. So on this whole tour we’ve been on, I’ve been breaking this shit down so that people can understand it, because it’s important for us to communicate as hip-hop artists. Because they don’t want hip-hop to flourish, they don’t want hip-hop to survive, they don’t want…they hate this shit, dude. Trust me.”
I remember standing in the crowd thinking, ‘well, that’s a little dramatic.’ After three decades, the music had gone from a block party conceit to a globally dominant culture, and you can’t play the underdog once you’re on top.
But then I see that photo. And it occurs to me how wonderful it is that after all this time, this hip-hop thing can still get people shook enough to draw their lines in the sand, even via something as benign as a chalk sign.
This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.
That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:
These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.
Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.
The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.
BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II
Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.
Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.
ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel
Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.
Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.
J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away
My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame
My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.
At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.
Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis
Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.
Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.
Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy
Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.
Knxwledge – wntwrk
My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.
BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above
Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You
I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.
Washed Out: Feel It All Around
This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.
Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel
The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.
They say if you love it, you should let it out its cage
And fuck it, if it comes back you know it’s there to stay.
Thirty-five. That’s how long I was going to give it. The great thing about writing is you can do it no matter how old you are, no matter where you are on the planet. But after three years of futzing around with half-finished short stories, blog entries and excuses, I was starting to think that, if by the time I turned 35, I didn’t have anything to show for this dying dream I’d been dragging around like Django with his coffin, I’d just hang it up and embrace mediocrity. Find some office data entry job with decent benefits and something resembling an RRSP. Blog a bit on the side, but never doubt my place, or lack thereof in it.
Then, an acquaintance of mine [and author of the volume on Portishead’s Dummy], blogged about the open call for submissions to Continuum’s excellent series of music guides, 33 1/3. I’d always romantically daydreamed on how cool it would be to write one of them, so I started musing on what album I would do if I could: Midnight Marauders. The Shape of Punk to Come. Albums I love, but nothing that could summon the sort of passion necessary to pump out a 50-80,000 monograph on it. Like so many other things I think about doing, I put it to the side, tried to forget about it a couple of weeks before the deadline.
That weekend, I’m standing in line at the 7-11 on my way home from work at around 11.00 pm, grabbing a carton of milk for the morning. The girl in front of me is buying what looks to be her groceries for the week and fumbling in her purse for her wallet, dropping a vial of white on the floor in the process. When I get over what I’m witnessing [country mouse ain’t never seen coke in person before], I pull my headphones out and scroll through something to listen to.
I want to listen to Donuts, I think to myself. I haven’t listened to that in a while.I pay for my milk as the accelerating churn of ‘Workinonit’ kicks in and step out into the cool Toronto night.
Man, someone should do a 33 1/3 onthis album, I think. That could be amazing.
I stopped at the corner. Wait. I should write a book on this album.
So, in a rare flurry of energy, I put a proposal together. That was in April. In June, I got word that my proposal for Donuts made it through the first round of cuts, from 471 to 94. Enough of an achievement on its own, certainly something to be proud of. I said at the time, I knew I’d had a good idea about the book, something no one had stumbled on before, I thought I deserved to make the second round. Which, if you know me, is not the sort of thing I’m prone to saying. So, I got what I wanted. But man, wouldn’t it be cool to actually get the go ahead to write it?
I was sitting at a cubicle at the company home office when my phone buzzed, alerting me to an email from the editors of the series. I froze, and started prepping myself for the letdown. It’s okay, I told myself, to make the shortlist your first time out, that’s an accomplishment in itself. You couldn’t reasonably expect them to take a chance on an unknown property like you. “It’s an honour just to be nominated,” right?
I tapped the email, and skimmed it. All I saw was ‘accepted,’ and my stomach dropped. Son of a bitch. I got it.
I couldn’t talk about it publicly right away, until the publishers had all their ducks in a row. I got the green light email on Aug 31.
People ask my if I’m excited. I mean, of course I am, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work in the meantime, plus my personal life’s been simultaneously enduring no small amount of upheaval. Now that that’s settled, and contracts are on the way, interview subjects have started being reached out to, I can start to appreciate the fact that I’m actually going to do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, that I’m moving from observer to participant. And I realize that there are probably going to be more than a few people wondering, ‘Who the fuck is Jordan Ferguson?’
All I can say is I’m a guy who is well aware what the work of Dilla and this album in particular means to people, because it means the same to me. And I’m a guy who wants to write this book not to get myself over, but because I want to celebrate the man’s work, life, and music. Other than that, y’all will just have to trust me. I promise I won’t make you regret it.
Feature image by Happy Sleepy. Found on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Life is….flux-y right now, friends. I’m still debating whether or not its flux….y-ness is a worthwhile blog topic but in the meantime, I’m channeling my nervous energies into sonic landscapes for your enjoyment. Just a selection of chillout and downbeat for your pleasure on these hot summer nights. From Toronto to wherever you are. Enjoy.
It should also be mentioned that since I’m too poor to pay for a Soundcloud account, I’ve only got enough space to host one more episode after this one. When that happens, I’ll either shift those episodes over to PodOmatic or offer them for download for a week before taking them down, or throwing them on a file hosting site for anyone who wants them.
Tracklisting Bibio – Fire Ant Large Professor – Back in Time Pete Rock – A Little Soul RJD2 – Salud Fat Jon The Ample Soul Physician – Cold Memory Knxwledge – seeinkRowt The Roots – Hall and Oates Steve Spacek – Dollar Freddie Joachim – Meditate Evil Needle – Mood Music The Internet – Fastlane Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx – My Cloud Oddisee – The Carter Barron Madlib – For My Mans [Prelude] The Jet Age of Tomorrow – The Knight Hawk [PFG’s Clumsy Drummer Edit]
Some of you might recall my glowing endorsement of actor/comedian/writer/ Donald Glover’s commercial debut as the rapper Childish Gambino, 2011’s Camp. I loved that album so much I started watching Community and fell in love with Glover’s character as much as everyone else does. So I can admit, I’ve become a bit of a stan for dude in the last six months. When he announced he was dropping a new mixtape last week, I downloaded it immediately.
Here’s the thing about rappers: success is usually the worst thing that happens to them, because then that becomes all they talk about. While Royalty doesn’t totally abandon the raw confessional tone that permeates much of Camp, this is clearly Glover-as-Gambino’s coming out party, complete with the requisite thousand guest spots [16 of the album’s 18 songs have guest verses by everyone from PFG favourites like Bun B, Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q to Beck and Danielle Haim of the tweerock sister trio HAIM] and lots of bragging and boasting about skills and money and woman-acquiring potency.
Glover’s clearly been putting in work on his flow [“more swag, pull back on the punchlines”] but for as much as he’s improved as a rapper, he’s grown less interesting as an artist. While some tracks have the same sort of straight talk that so impressed me about Camp, many of the songs have the sort of ‘hip-hop as usual,’ feel found on most rap albums. Which is fine, and maybe I hold Glover to too high a standard on the strength of Camp, but ‘hip-hop as usual,’ is never what I went to him for.
On the production side, Glover still handles most of the beatmaking with varying levels of success, while snagging beats from Beck, up and comer skywlkr and Toronto beatking Boi-1da.
Ultimately though, one line soured the whole project for me. On ‘We Ain’t Them,’ the first track on Royalty, Glover raps about making a guest appearance onstage with The Roots and talking to Questlove after the show. The talk prompts him to put his career into perspective [taking shots at his infamous 1.6 Pitchfork review in the process] and think about what he wants to do: “Back of my mind, though, I hope the show gets cancelled. / Maybe then I could focus.”
I know what Glover’s trying to say, but as a fan of said show and his work on it, it just comes off as ungrateful and unappreciative of the fans that have gone to bat for Community over the years. Last I checked, Glover wasn’t scheduled to join the rest of the cast at Comic-Con this year, further suggesting that he’s got one foot out the door in favour of music. And yes, I know to criticize anyone for following their passion smacks of the worst sorts of fanboyism and jealousy, but that’s just how it feels to me.
Now granted, free mixtapes are never the best way to judge an artist, and Royalty is by no means a bad project. “We Ain’t Them,” “One Up,” and “Black Faces,” start the album strong; Bun B drops the best Dragonball Z reference in hip-hop on “R.I.P.”, and “Wonderful” was the perfect song to start my weekend as I waited for a westbound streetcar at Queen and Bathurst. But everything that made Camp so fascinating is notably absent, and choosing to end the album with Tina Fey doing the usual, ‘white nerdy person comes hard on a hip-hop track’ not nearly as well as Natalie Portman did it concludes the whole affair on weird, sour note. It sounds like an artist with no lack of talent trying to figure out where he wants to go. Time will tell if I’m still interested in going with him.
Royalty is free for download on Glover’s website, and he hits Toronto for a sold out show at Echo Beach on July 31.
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.
In recent posts on Drake and Kendrick Lamar I’ve pointed to the generational aspect of this hip-hop game. Like most pop culture, hip-hop is a culture that prioritizes youth, something that’s created a pretty sharp schism between the kids today and their predecessors. For every annual batch of XXL Freshmen there’s another crew of retirees riding off into the sunset or putting out another underground mixtape in the hopes that it will help put them back on. It’s a young man’s game, and while someone like Jay-Z can still move records as he moves into his 40’s, he’s the exception: for every Hova, there are two dozen Whodinis, Erick Sermons and Positive K’s littering the hip-hop freeway [Freeways too, for that matter].
What to do then, when the game’s passed you by? That’s the subject of ‘Adult Rappers,’ a new documentary from former Def Jux signee and Hangar 18 member Paul Iannacchino, Jr. Featuring with interviews from artists like Jarobi from A Tribe Called Quest, R.A. the Rugged Man, J-Zone and the Artist Formerly Known as Hot Karl, Jensen Karp, the doc looks like it’ll provide a complimentary contrast to Ice T’s upcoming doc celebrating all things hip-hop ‘Something From Nothing.’ The rap game can bring unmeasured joy and sometimes wealth to artists and audiences, but as Iannacchino notes on his film’s Kickstarter page, the game is also, “cruel, cruel bitch with little to give but heartache, bad credit and chronic wanderlust.”
Iannacchino’s Kickstarter for the project met its finding goals earlier today, but if you’re of the generous persuasion, the page will be open until tomorrow morning. You can peep the trailer there, too, since WordPress won’t let me embed iframe widgets. [H/T Ego Trip]
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.
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.
But of course, you might already know some of this if you check out PFG Express. You docheck 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.
Computer officially destroyed. Hope whoever threw that water last night feels satisfied in Toronto. Gig ruined.
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.