Where You Get Your Funk From?

On Bob James

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.

(more…)

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Graining on That Wood

Five years ago I sat in a Starbucks in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, pulled out my then-girlfriend’s burdensome six-pound Dell laptop and started a WordPress blog. I named it after something I’d had scrawled on a white board in my apartment, something I thought might have ended up the title of my first story collection.

Poetry for Gravediggers was my fifth blog, and my first after being downsized as the ‘Online Editor’ of The University of Windsor’s Lance newspaper. Freed from the demands of mandated content creation, I had a surplus of time on my hands and no receptacle in which to dump my ramblings. So I started this.

This is some of what I wrote on May 28, 2009:

“Maybe you got away from your city, eager for the opportunities for reinvention such a move would afford you.  Maybe most other aspects of your life are happy.  But that need to tell stories never really goes away, does it?  Whether retelling truth or crafting your lies, stories have strong roots, you can never fully pull that need out of you. So you start writing your little stories again.

And if you’re like me, you fail. A lot.  You don’t finish. You despise every word that goes on the page, you question the sanity of anyone who ever had faith in your “talents.”  You get irritable with family, coworkers, friends and lovers.

And if you’re like me, you probably get sick of feeling like that.  So maybe you decide to take some of the skills you picked up when you weren’t writing, and use them to keep  you motivated as you try to make something of yourself, because your thirtieth birthday is already fading behind you and you finally understand that no one is going to make it happen for you.

So maybe, you start a blog.

This site is for me, as I call the bluff of adolescent mentors and supporters; we’ll see if you were right.”

Yesterday morning Okayplayer, a site I’ve read off and on long before I started this site, posted a lengthy and complimentary review of my first book.

You could say it’s been an eventful five years. My then-girlfriend became my ex-girlfriend, I moved to a significantly less-fancy Toronto neighbourhood than Rosedale (as ice cream truck jingles and sires waft through my window) and somehow instead of getting any short stories out into the world I messed around and became a non-fiction writer.

And suddenly this blog  shifts from chronicling ‘How I Got Over’ to ‘How I Stay On.’ One of the best things I ever heard was from the songwriter Mike Doughty when someone asked him why he finally decided to write a book about his time in the 90’s alt-hop band Soul Coughing. He said the reason he did was because someone called his bluff: he’d been saying he should write a book for so long someone finally handed him a little money and said, ‘So go do it.’ And that’s terrifying, because, as Doughty said, if you actually try, if you put yourself out there, you lose the comfort of being an undiscovered genius. It’s a comfort I enjoyed a lot over the last five years. And now I don’t have it anymore, which is good, if unsettling.  I’ve heard it enough that the fear of failure is really just the fear of success, and I finally know what that means. Because now that I’ve achieved some infinitesimal measure of success (I’ve almost stopped shuddering when I refer to myself as a “writer,” which is huge if you know me), I have to do it again. Which I really have no idea how to do, judging from the wall of silence that greets me after I get introduced to editors by mutual friends.

Which is kind of….great?  I recently pointed out to a new acquaintance that I have zero connection to the literary community of this city, not out of any aversion to meeting them, I’m just socially awkward and keep weird hours to pay the bills, so don’t have much of an opportunity. But part of me likes being an unknown quantity who came out of nowhere. Part of me likes that whatever small ripple my book’s announcement made in the community was essentially, “Wait, who?!” Or, to quote that unsung poet, Miguel: “I’ll do it all without a co-sign.”

So what does that mean? Part of it means refocus on the next book (pitch being refined daily) double down on posting around here, make connections when I can but don’t relentlessly network to the detriment of the real work.

In 2009 I wrote a post reviewing two volumes of the 33 1/3 series. Five years later,I have my name on one. This blog may have fulfilled the promise it was created for, but its purpose never ends.

And we won’t stop.

Cause we can’t stop.

 

On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

Accepting the Snobbery

At the time, I thought it was a silly question.

Back in the summer my editors at Bloomsbury asked me to do a little interview for their website, all of the authors in my “class” were doing it, a way to introduce ourselves, talk about the albums we were writing about, what we were trying to bring to the table. By the time my turn was up, I started to get this itch like I wanted to jazz it up, do something new, not because I thought the interviews were getting repetitive, but because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. So I asked the editors if I could throw together a video instead.  It was fun, I always like flexing those muscles, even if I did blatantly rip off the rhythms and style of a million other video bloggers.

One of the later questions in the interview concerned how I listen to my music: vinyl, CDs or MP3. At the time I said that as much as I enjoyed spending an afternoon flipping through stacks of records, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood presents certain realities of storage space (not to mention the financial barriers) so most of my music had to live on my laptop.

A few weeks later I was back in my hometown staying at my parents’ house. The plan was to get out of the city, to the peace and quiet of small town living where I wouldn’t have as many distractions and could bang out the first terrible draft of the book, spending the rest of the month tweaking and polishing. I packed a gift I had received for my birthday the previous year, a copy of Donuts on vinyl. My folks had a turntable and I was curious to see if I’d hear anything different in the album in that format. Donuts is intentionally constructed as one continuous piece of music, meant for a compact disc. Listening to it on vinyl adds an entirely different dimension to it because the listener has to change the record every five tracks or so. None of this ended up in the book, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

The draft didn’t really get done while I was down there. In all honesty, it was one of the worst trips home I’ve ever had. In addition to opting for the couch instead of my father’s bed, which had been known to give me backaches (the couch gave me worse backaches) I also received some upsetting information of a personal nature that put me in a panic for most of the week. The plan was to wake up early every day, shower and coffee by 9.00 and put in a solid workday of bashing out pages.  That happened maybe once. The rest of the time I was texting friends, emailing colleagues for advice or lying on the floor and generally trying to avoid things in any way possible.

This is where I fell in love with vinyl again.

As later documented on Instagram, I spent an evening rooting around my parents’ crawlspace and digging through their record collection. It was filled with what one would expect to find in crates belonging to white people of a certain age: Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Journey, some disco, a little new wave. I grabbed a stack of LPs known and unknown and took them out to the stereo. My father’s had all of the same equipment for as long as I can remember, so even the act of turning it on was nostalgic and wistful: the chirp as I flicked the power switch on the receiver, the clicks of the levers on his old Dual turntable as the tone arm lifted and positioned itself at the edge of the disc, the pop and crackle through the speakers. There wasn’t much that made me feel good on that trip, but that evening I spent sitting cross-legged in front of my father’s stereo, as I had as a child and teenager was a happy moment. I started thinking it would be cool to have a turntable in the house. Back when I lived with a woman, we talked once about how cool it would be to take the CDs, rip them to a hard drive, sell them, then buy the essential, desert island discs on vinyl.

It’s an idea that never really went away, I just figured it would be too much of an investment. When you start digging through websites about this sort of thing, people will have you convinced that a minimum of 500 bucks is the minimum investment required to  really hear the nuances of the recordings and blah blah puke.

Last weekend I took a stack of birthday money and bought an Audio-Technica LP60. Cost me a hundred bucks. I’m running it through my iPhone dock. I couldn’t be happier.

Cause you see, what I was reminded of back at my folks’ house, what I had forgotten in recent years, is how vinyl forces you to really connect with a piece of music. When I’m walking the streets with my headphones on, I’m constantly skipping through tracks. Three hundred songs on my phone, I don’t want to hear any of them. You probably do the same thing. And walking the street or riding the train is the place for that. Thing with vinyl, though? I put that record on, I’m stuck with it. I have to listen to it. Sure I could skip songs or swap out the record, but that’s a pain in the ass. Putting on a record has forced me to reconnect with music in a way I think I’d maybe forgotten about.

What’s also fun about all this is how little I care for the ancillary concerns that fuel most other collectors. I’m coming at this as a fan, not an audiophile. An audiophile would see my setup and laugh me out of my own house (foremost among the reasons why, in my investigations at least, “audiophiles” are the worst). I don’t give a shit about original or Japanese pressings. I’m only buying albums I consider classics. I’ll get to my hip-hop essentials eventually, but at the moment I’m into soul, funk and jazz. I’m not really into 45s because they seem too disposable to me. I know I should splurge on the 180g  reissues, but I love a record that feels like it has some history. When shopping last weekend, I had to choose between the remaster of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or a cheaper copy in a dingy, weathered sleeve. Of course I chose the latter.

I’m giddy with the excitement of having a new obsession. I love drafting my wishlist in my head, I love the idea of heading out to the shops in this city, looking for the cheapest copies I can find. Comic books were probably the last thing that gave me a similar sense of meditative peace (sad as that is), but comics could only be found at comic shops. You can find records everywhere. I love the fact that you can spend 10 bucks on a used record and feel like you really bought something. CDs never made me feel like that. I love that the Donny Hathaway album I bought had a gatefold with liner notes by Nikki Giovanni.

Mostly, I just love feeling like a music fan again.

Going Home

There’s a neat conceit Zack Snyder & Co. use in the movie Man of Steel to get around the issue of Kryptonite: instead of being weakened by the radiation from the fragments of his homeworld, the cause is more environmental: General Zod and his crew maintain Kryptonian atmospheric and gravitational settings on their ship, which Kal-El is unaccustomed to, so when he ends up a hostage on there, it diminishes the powers that make him exceptional on Earth. It’s also a two-way street: when Zod gets his “breather” knocked off during battle, the sensory onslaught he receives from his superior abilities leaves him harmless as a puppy.

I spent ten days back home last week in an attempt to try and bash out the draft for my book. While it wasn’t a totally fruitless exercise, it left me feeling like both Kal-El and Zod: at times sapped of strength, overwhelmed at others.

It’s always been strange to me, going home. So much of my ‘second period,’ was defined by my seeming unwillingness or inability to leave the nest that every time I go back, I feel like the same trapped 25-year-old whose contrarian nature only left him more isolated as the people around him accepted the rules of the environment. This isn’t to say one approach was superior to the other, I could just never see any other way for myself.

Having been gone for almost seven years, not just from the nest but from the only place I’d known up to that point, there’s a cognitive disconnect there between me and my friends who never left, or left and came back. Again, I’m not saying one way is better than the other, it’s just that I was more acutely aware this trip than ever before that theirs is a lifestyle I stopped being accustomed to some time ago. I’d been seriously considering moving back there in the next couple of years [for reasons fiduciary and personal], but left there unsure if I ever could go back. There are definitely reasons that could entice me to return, and I know I would make a good life for myself there; but somewhere in the local news reports about iguanas on the loose and stolen prosthetic limbs I got that old nagging feeling of being a man out-of-place.

This is probably wholly my issue, and is something people usually chalk up to OoooOOOooh, Mr. Toronto’s too fancy for us, now! Which I would hope is obviously not the case. Most of the time when I’m in a room full of my friends who are now married and parents, I feel totally inferior, because I have not lived my life “according to plan,” and regretful that I’m usually pretty okay with that. My parents would like grandchildren, and while I always retain hope they might get them, I wouldn’t advise playing the over/under on that. And while my stance on children has gotten somewhat more fluid in recent years, my stance on marriage likely never will, as in, if she wants to, I’ll go along with it. But I don’t need any of that. And this is still an alarmingly rare position in small town Ontario.

I’m certainly not alone among people of my demo who find they have to click ‘remove from feed’ on Facebook with growing frequency to soothe the barrage of photos to children they have no connection to, but the sad fact is that you’re left with nothing but Game of Thrones memes and Zoosk ads as a result.

What’s all this mean, then? I don’t know friends. Toronto can feel painfully lonely, so much so that I often spook like a feral cat when friends back home call to say ‘what’s up?’, that’s how fully I’ve thrown myself into anonymity. But still, as I dragged my suitcase along Bay St, up to King to catch a streetcar, weaving through tourists and folks headed to the Jays game and bankers on their way home, I immediately felt more relaxed than I did that morning. Seated at my chair in my shitty apartment that I spend too much of my money to live in, I already feel more accomplished today than I did at my parents’ kitchen table.

Still. I once heard it said that a great life in a mediocre place is superior to a mediocre life in a great place. It’s always stuck with me. I would still love to force my will onto the culture of the Rose City. I just want a reason to go back.

Settling Accounts [for Amy]

photo-2Since I have two and a half hours left on this train and need to keep tuning up the band [Blogging: For when writing is too damn hard!].

Up top is Amy Clarke. I used to work with Amy Clarke, then I stopped and she went off and got a grown up life with things like ‘desk jobs’ and ‘health benefits’ and ‘a wife.’ Lives diverge, doesn’t mean you love people any less.

ANYWAY. Back in March [MARCH!] the lovely Amy Clarke left a comment here that she’d nominated me for some sort of award. Which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a sort of glorified chain letter, but when I swung over to her blog and read her original post, she said some very nice things about me, which has guilted me into answering the questions she laid out. Oh boo-hoo, you have to talk about yourself? Everyone knows how much you hate that!

Yeah, yeah….

So, since I don’t read enough blogs by actual people, I’m only doing the requested portions I can do by myself, which is a total cop-out, I admit, but I’m doing it anyway. Because reasons.

1. List 11 Facts About Yourself.

  1. I abhor lateness, in myself and others. For casual meetups I will always try to be early; for important appointments I will show up early and then wait, timing my arrival to the second. It’s a problem.
  2. I am terribly afraid of dying from an embolism. Because you can’t plan or prepare for that shit, just BAM, and that’s it. Which is probably one of the better ways to go as opposed to cancer or AIDS, but I still worry about it more than a normal person would.
  3. I consistently worry about being exposed as a fraud, for not being as smart of as good a writer as other people like to describe me as. This is a problem most writers have.
  4. I hate labeling myself as a ‘writer.’ Despite having done in most of my life, and in professional capacities for almost a decade, paycheques and all, I don’t feel I’ve earned it. People who bandy it about nonchalantly irritate me.
  5. I drank two liters of chocolate milk over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening. I’m not sorry.
  6. I love hard. Probably too hard, because it leads to attachments that typically backfire on me. Comfortably in my 30s, I can acknowledge this has made me somewhat distant to most people.
  7. I sometimes worry I’m a sociopath. I know this is a trendy self-diagnosis to make, but it still worries me. It’s not that I lack empathy, I just feel like I have a very limited supply, reserved for my parents, a dozen friends, and baby animals. I rarely find children interesting [but will likely think my own, should I have them, will be fascinating, and superior to yours. I’d like to think most parents do the same. Gonna be rough times at the swingset if not].
  8. I hate falling asleep. Not insomnia, I can fall asleep. I just don’t like it. Control issues, most likely. Being “the cousin of death” doesn’t help.
  9. My tragic flaw is knowing what I want to do, but inability to act. I’ve never really known where this came from.
  10. A combination of accepting my own introversion and having some small measure of success and affirmation of my writing has only made me less willing to compromise and do shit I don’t like. I am trying to figure out how to feel bad about this. It’s not working.
  11. Since moving into my place, while not increasing my income much, I’ve been amazed at how well I’ve acclimated a  to minimalist way of living. Well, as minimalist as you can be when you have an Xbox, giant TV, Macbook, iPad, iPhone and DJ controller, among other toys. The only thing I ever spend money on anymore are the bills and food, which I’m still terrible about. Probably because I justify it as an expenditure on a ‘need’. Food is a need. Doritos and Pepsi are not.

AMY HAS QUESTIONS!

  1. What website do you subconsiously always type first in your internet browser even though you mean to go to a completely different website? 

    I wish I could say something smart like The New Yorker, but it’s usually Facebook or Twitter, since most of my web consumption comes through things other people post. Social! Synergy! Buzzwords! Kill Yourself!

  2. What are you MOST looking forward to in spring? (Patios? Birds? Women wearing less clothing? (that’s obviously mine)) 

    I have never understood this city’s insanity for eating food and drinking beer while sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs crammed shoulder to shoulder on an unshaded slab of concrete. Honestly, Toronto, what is your damage with the damn patios?Daylight Savings Time is the thing I always look forward to. I was out of the house at 6:00 a.m. to catch the train I’m currently on and the sun was up and it was lovely and I was all, ‘Why don’t I do this every day!‘ then realizing with no train to catch I would have slept until 11:00 which totally defeats the purpose. I hate heat, but I love me some sunlight.

  3. What’s one of the weirdest gifts your parents have given you since you became an “adult”? 

    Is it weird if I asked for it? Last Christmas I got a pair of insulated Contigo travel mugs, and they have been life changing. One of them was eaten by the lunchroom gnomes a month ago and I’m still salty about it. When you realize you can brew your own for a month for what it costs to get two cups of Tim Horton’s, you’ll never go back. I had to stop at Tim’s today and I’m so angry, Amy. SO ANGRY. $1.65? Come on, now.

  4. Did you ever read a book all the way through even though you knew you weren’t enjoying it/going to enjoy it? School books don’t count. 

    It’s an interesting question, since I have a much more vivid memory of the books I let defeat me [looking at you, Roberto Bolaño]. The last Jonathan Lethem boks were a bit of a slog, but I loved his other work so much I powered through. If his next novel [sitting at home on the post-draft pile] has another pretentious know-it-all stoner in it, I may have to tap out and stick to his non-fiction.

  5. Ditto the above for movies (though replace “read” with “watch”/”pay for”) 

    Back before we had Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, if your taste in movies ran towards the weird or underground, you normally bought DVDs on the box art and then hoped for the best. I’ve sat through a number of Asian horror and action moves because I spent money on the DVD. They now, with few exceptions, live at the Annex BMV. I’m sure you can still find my copy of ‘Versus‘ in the basement.

  6. If you had to write a haiku (and you do have to) about your favourite Superhero, how would it go? 

    Superstitious lot,
    Criminals need a symbol.
    I will be a bat.

  7. What is your least favourite board game and why? 

    Previously, I would have said Risk, but having watched people play it at a recent outing to Snakes and Lattés, I take that back. Probably Trouble. I can’t abide anything that gets over on a gimmick.

  8. You’re trapped on an island. You can only bring with you one celebrity of your choice. Who do you choose? (For sexy times? For eating? Who would be the best at figuring out an escape plan?) 

    I’d love to say I’d pick Tom Hanks for all the amazing raft building skills he picked up on Castaway, but really, I just want to watch Alison Brie spearfish topless. I’m a base, base man, Amy Clarke.

  9. What is your go-to easiest meal to make yourself? 

    Besides Doritos? Vegetable noodle bowl.

  10. Sprite or crab juice? 

    EEEEEUUUUUAAAUUUGH!! I’ll take the crab juice! Amy didn’t actually have 11 questions, which I feel absolves me of any guilt I might feel about leaving this for four months, but I’ll steal one of the ones she was asked.

  11. Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

    Change or die.

Cool, I just gave you more content today than I have in months. Between the two entries, I wrote almost 2,000 words. If I do that 15 times, I’ll be done the book!  Piece of cake!  If you know, the cake is made of anxiety and frosted with tears.

That’s the Joint

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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.

That’s a beautiful thing.

DJ Wackness Rocking the Virtual Wheels of Steel

Okay, that’s not really my DJ name.  I don’t even have a DJ name, though Wackness would be pretty good, and likely already taken by someone.

So this one took a long time to do, actually. Longer than I was expecting. Maybe I wanted more than my skills and equipment could provide, I’m probably too much of a perfectionist. But it’s here for your enjoyment all the same, because after 26 takes, ‘good enough’ becomes a viable option.  For not having pre-cueing capabilities, I think it still manages to have some inspired moments. No theme this time, just some fun with some hip-hop. Tracklist below.


R. Kelly: Summer Bunnies
The Gap Band: Outstanding
Paris:  Thinka ‘Bout It
De La Soul: Buddy [12″ Version]
A Tribe Called Quest: Check the Rhyme
World Renown: How Nice I Am
J Dilla: Track 19 [From Another Batch]
Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician: How You Feel
Nujabes: Reflection Eternal
The Pharcyde: 4 Better or 4 Worse
Joey Bada$$: Don’t Front
Madlib: Pyramids
Quakers: Fitta Happier