portrait of the artist

Step Right Up

If you were to guess that the flurry of activity around here lately had to do with me getting the itch again now that the draft has finally left my grubby hands and flown overseas to people like designers and copy editors, you would be correct.

You don’t need me to tell you that writing is like running, or weight lifting or whatever other questionable endurance sport you might partake in. Use it or lose it, and I took my damn sweet time recovering from the process of writing the book (Level 56 on Grand Theft Auto Online, email me for my Gamertag. Get at me, dog). But then ideas for things to write about start to percolate and the longer they stay in there the longer they fester until the process of expelling them from my brain is lacklustre and disappointing. Not unlike passing a bowel movement.

As for how I’m feeling now that it’s out of my hands, the wonderful Julieanne Smolinski summed up that feeling with more precision than I ever could.


None of this is to say I’ve been completely slovenly the last couple of months. I continue musing about whatever nerdery comes to mind over at 22 Pages for the University of Toronto (latest are here and here) and I also branched out a tad by tossing some pieces to the folks over at The Same Page on, oddly enough, the 40th Birthday of Hip-Hop and the release of Grand Theft Auto V (do you think I’m developing a niche here?)

As well, my friends and colleagues at 22 Pages Khaiam Dar and Alex Correa have collected the first volume of the webcomic they started in 2011, Smells Like Maturity. If you’re in the Toronto area, swing by Red Nails II at Jane and Bloor for their release party on November 15. I wrote the introduction, so if you’re a Ferguson completist, you’ll want to pick that up. Writing it turned out to be a bigger deal than I was expecting it to be, but I’m really happy with the piece, and for the opportunity to toast those two jerks on the occasion of making their longtime dream come true. Of course they’d release their book six months before mine comes out.

So that’s what I’m staying up to, friends. It’s a moment of respite from book madness as it moves to the production phase, but I’m sure you’ll be inundated with Dilla-related content as the book nears release. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the relative peace and trying to figure out how to stumble my way into being a quote-unquote “writer” instead of someone who wrote a book once.

Kind of weird to think now about how that struggle is what this blog was meant to document in the first place. .

“So, how’s the book going?”

It’s a reasonable question. It’s about the halfway mark of this adventure I’ve been on. I’ve read a pile of books, a stack of articles, reached out to and spoken with amazing, brilliant people, I’ve listened to Donuts and the records used to create it at least 75 times front to back [and that’s likely a conservative estimate].  So I can certainly understand why people ask.

Doesn’t mean I have any fucking clue how to formulate an answer.

But I try. People are being polite, taking an interest, and I’d like them to pay for the thing when it comes out, even if they have no intention to read it and buy it out of courtesy. I’ll take it. The popular answer, as in the one I go back to again and again is the ‘oil tanker’ response.

See, oil tankers actually consist of eight to twelve smaller tanks within the ship. Keeps the cargo from slooshing around too much, which could compromise the ship’s balance; less movement = more stability. My brain currently feels like an oil tanker with a single tank: production techniques, Soren Kierkegaard, the Kubler-Ross scale, Albert Camus, different approaches and opinions on late style, Roland Barthes, the epidemiology of lupus; all these things are just rolling around clumsily from one end of my brain to the other. I’ve given numerous lengthy and sensible ideas to the showerhead as I prepare to face each day, but this hasn’t translated into as many words on paper as I would like.

Put it another way: late last year the webcomic Toothpaste for Dinner put up a single panel gag called ‘The Creative Process.’


That seems accurate. We’re well into the ‘Fuck off’ segment of the program, far enough from deadline that panic isn’t on my back yet, but it’s waving at me from just over the horizon, a box of tissues in its twitchy hands.

And that’s fine, because I know it’ll get done. The structure of the thing, what I wanted it to accomplish, has been loosely in place since I began, a requirement of the proposal. Scenes, fragments, caveats and addenda are floating to the surface with more regularity than they once were; you can’t have all that material swishing around in your brain without something coagulating into something usable eventually. It will get done. It might have more academic meandering than the heads will want, and not enough for the theory kids, and maybe it gets savaged on Goodreads and the Stones Throw Message Board, but it’ll get done. If you’ve been with me a while, friends, you know that’ll probably end up the most surprising victory of all.

So keep asking the question. It’s good, it keeps me focused. Just don’t expect me to have an easy answer for 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.


Which is fitting, because I always was by him.

Day Twenty-Eight: A Song That Makes You Feel Guilty

I spend a lot of my creative time thinking about the nature of memory, about how imperfect they are, how much of them we construct out of necessity. Even though I’ve managed to discard many of the mistakes I made as a teenager and younger man, it doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Just because you didn’t know me then doesn’t mean I imagined them.  However dull their impact may seem now, it doesn’t mean I live without regret.

You can’t have all of this story. But you can have some of it.


Origin Story

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It’s the money shot of any superhero narrative: the story of how the hero came to be. How he earned his powers and what motivates his mission of justice.  I thought with such an increase in interest for the Song A Day adventure, I would try to answer the question I’ve been getting asked more frequently.

What the hell does ‘Poetry for Gravediggers’ mean, anyway?


Day Fifteen: A Song That Describes You

Ten facts about me.

  1. I have been accused [as recently as this morning] of being pessimistic and negative. I think that’s an opinion cultivated by projected image that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as most of the posts for the past two weeks will attest.
  2. That said, I do hold grudges. Long past the point they make sense.
  3. The aspects of my creative output I see little value in are always the things people like the most.
  4. I remember everything.
  5. I forget as needed.
  6. I understand in most of my relationships [save the important ones] it’s expected I play a certain role, and I can deal with that.
  7. Part of that role involves displaying a level of confidence I don’t actually have, but I think I can fake it well enough.
  8. I’ve realized with age just how full of shit I can be, and have trouble tolerating it in others.  Maybe that’s where the negativity allegation comes from.
  9. I never imagined I would become as big a crazy cat person as I am.
  10. I can run in fits and spurts.  A blast of ambition is typically followed by a drought of inertia. I feel a little like I’m teetering between both lately.

The last point is kind of what this song deals with, which is what makes it special to me.  I dug on Common since ‘Like Water for Chocolate,‘ but couldn’t get behind ‘Electric Circus.’  He followed that by hooking up with an old acquaintance from Chicago named Kanye West and dropped the modern classic ‘Be.’ Some argue that the acclaim for the album has more to do with Kanye’s beats than Com’s rhymes, but I disagree.  He sounds energized on the whole album, and this song [which appears on the record as a live recording from Chappelle’s Show] is a subdued salute to perseverance, and a tribute to even smallest of advancements, which are the ones I usually make.

Now the money coming slow, but at least a [player] know slow motion better than no, no no…

Everyday, just keep it moving a little more.  Even if that means finishing your blog post and getting another 50 hits on your traffic.

Day Ten: A Song That Makes You Fall Asleep

The title suggests that I should be selecting a song that causes drowsiness because it’s boring or uninspiring.  It also suggests I could pick a song that lulls one to sleep with its serenity and ethereal beauty.  I like that option.

I don’t know where I first heard this song, but I know I saw it pop up everywhere once I did.  In that sweet spot of the late 90’s when ‘electronica’ seemed poised to supersede grunge as the next revolutionary genre,it started getting used in any movie that wanted to seem cutting edge or future forward.  I know I heard this song in Hackers and Mortal Kombat [no lie, I still love that first Mortal Kombat movie. The second one was a steaming pile, but I’ll stand by the first, guiltily].

I found out later that the mix of the song used in the video is from a 7″ that came out before the album release. The 12″ mix [found on the ‘Brown Album’] isn’t lesser, it’s just different, the elements are organized a little differently.  I might prefer the video mix, but the original is what I always fell asleep to.

See, back when I was living at home [which is not as far back as it should have been, heh], I always used to listen to music as I fell asleep.  I don’t know if I would say I was more passionate about music then per se, I just a big pair of headphones and a boom box setup right next to my bed.  And I’d always pass out.  Putting on track four of an album would lead to me waking up 20 minutes later with a sore ear from where the phones were pressing into my head.  And this song always knocked my ass out cold for one reason:  the panning at the end.

To really appreciate this song, you need a quality bitrate mp3 [or get the CD, god forbid], and a pair of good headphones.  Because as the elements of the song fall away one by one at the end of the track, you’re left with nothing but the sample [the heavenly voice of Kirsty Hawkshaw chopped up with Dilla-caliber finesse], which has been panned quickly back and forth between the channels, in essence giving you the sensation that the sample is swooping around your head,and it’s still one of my closest connections to any piece of music in any genre.

Sorry about the damn dragon graphic, it was the only clip I could find.

Honourable mention: I’ll have to find an excuse to talk about Yoko soon, since her music played such a large part in my life in the early 00’s. This is one of my favourite pieces of hers, for the way she takes four separate melodies, mashes them into an atonal mess that’s still compelling, then switches  gears on a dime twice to morph into a string quartet piece of utter beauty.  I’m thrilled this silly little meme gave me a reason to think of this song again.

And with that, to bed.