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Catching Up With Childish Gambino

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.

Aaaaaaand……hrm.

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.

Baby DJ Learns to DJ

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

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


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

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

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

(more…)

Uhh…. Now What?

I haven’t shaved since Thursday. I don’t think I’ve eaten a proper vegetable in longer than that. My four-month-old Macbook blew a pixel somewhere during the process. My fluid consumption hasn’t been caffeine-free since last Saturday. But I pulled it off.

Yes, friends, I finished it. I submitted it. It’s fate rests in the good hands of the folks at the publisher.

If you squint at that photo you can suss out what it was for. I won’t openly acknowledge it since I’m superstitious like that. I should know either way within the next couple of months. Me and all the other cranks who took advantage of the open call, ha.

Whether or not it gets accepted or not is kind of irrelevant, though. It was a good idea, and it’ll still be a good idea if they decide it’s not a good fit for them right now. I’ll find somewhere else for it.

What’s more important is the education this whole whirlwind provided me. Chief among the lessons: This is what I love to do. Waking up at 6.00 a.m. some days was still a pain in the ass, but once I got the coffee maker working, sitting down to work on it was a joy. I’m sure this was partially due to the pressure of the oncoming deadline thanks to my brain’s inability to summon an idea until just over a week before the due date, but it was more to do with loving what I was doing. The hardest part now is waking up tomorrow and not have to immediately rush to the cafe or the kitchen table to get some work in before I went to my job.

I hope it will be habit forming. This last week was the only time in recent memory I wrote every day. On something I valued, not cranking out a blog entry to distract myself from short stories or anything else I had on the go. Working on the proposal only served to affirm how much I love to make things, whether that’s podcasts or stories or blogs. These are the things that bring meaning to my life. Some of you probably knew that all along. I’ve always been a bit of a dullard when it comes to these things.

Thankfully, I have two other writing projects to try and finish this week, along with the aforementioned Macbook display issue to try and remedy, so I’ll be able to keep busy. Turns out, I kinda like busy.

Before I collapse in slumber, I would be remiss if I did not thank some people for their love and support this past week. I can be….,, unpleasant to deal with when immersed in a project like this. It lives in my head and consumes my thoughts, which can lead me to expect people around me to read my mind by osmosis, or to understand what I mean with little explanation. This can…strain some relationships occasionally. My thanks to those who gritted their teeth and let me go crazy, or kicked my ass when I was needing it.

To Richelle Gratton, Tera Brasel, Jeff Meloche, Khaiam Dar, Caitlin MacKinnon, Sarah Jacobs and Nicole Bryant: you all get shouts in the acknowledgements. And I hate acknowledgement sections in books.

Now, I think I’ll go pass out.

Exposing the Business

The kids love graphs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click away, friends. Let me know.

The PFG Throwback: FLCL

Not an accurate representation. Actual show much more insane.

I’ve made no secret of how far anime fell from my good graces as I got older. Comics are probably the only nerdly pursuit I’ve invested more time and money in, but they can at least be sold one day for something resembling a return on investment. The 150+ VHS tapes I ultimately left at our old apartment when we moved were never going to get me a dime.

This sort of thing will sour a person.

But, despite my aversion to the Narutos and Bleaches and Death Notes of the world, there are series and movies that will always have a place in my heart and will always get a pass. And no collective except Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli gets carte blanche with me quite like Studio GAINAX.

These are the people who made the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remix Nadia. The people who crafted a beautiful meditation on faith and space travel with The Wings of Honneamise. And the people who continually reinvent the giant robot genre from Gunbuster to Gurrenn Lagann to a little known show called Neon Genesis Evangelion.

But perhaps none of their collected output means more to me than their 2000, six-episode miniseries FLCL, aka Fooly Cooly.

Essentially a demo for the studio’s newly finished CG division, FLCL is almost an indulgent vanity project, with the director throwing everything he loves [guitars, scooters, Lupin III, baseball] into a spastic bouillabaisse that doubles as an allegory for puberty.

How could this possibly be bad?

Naota is a middle schooler trying to play cool and nonchalant during a difficult time in his life. His brother has left him to play baseball in America, his brother’s girlfriend Mamimi is getting all kinds of inappropriate with him, and then a girl who may or may not be an alien runs over him with her Vespa and smacks him with a Rickenbacker bass guitar. Robots begin to spring from his head shortly thereafter. The series charts Naota’s struggle to deal with the changes in his body and his life, while trying to figure out what Haruka the alien girl is really after and defending his city from continued robot attacks. Yup.

Like most things featured in the Throwback, FLCL was hard to track down for a while. Despite popular airings on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, the company responsible for the original DVD release went under, copies dried up and prices shot up: the original Synch-Point boxset being the only thing I’ve ever been ripped off for on eBay; cost me 75 bucks, never showed up. I almost punched out a vendor at Toronto’s Fan Expo two years ago for implying my tastes were antiquated. Luckily, the show’s been reacquired by licensing behemoth Funimation, allowing me the chance to pick it up for a cool 30 bucks.

Visually, the animation hasn’t held up especially well. I can’t speak for the BluRay release, but the colours on the DVD look a little washed out, probably partially due to the yellow palette used on the sky most of the time. The animation isn’t quite as revolutionary as it was a decade ago: those 360-degree shots of people flying through the air look downright precious, although the famous ‘manga scenes,’ when the show changes from traditional animation to a camera panning over a narrated manga page, and the South Park cutout scenes look as good as they always did.

The Funimation set appears to preserve the original Synch-Point dub and director commentaries. For a guy who originally saw the show on a downloaded fansub, the show makes a fair bit more sense with the aid of a professional translation, though not much more.

And of course, there’s the music. Longtime readers of the site know how I feel about the pillows, and this is the place I first heard them. From the second the acoustic guitar chords of ‘Brannew Lovesong’ played during the menu, I was swooning like it was 2002 all over again. I know fans have given the band shit over the reworked instrumentals they did for the show, but I’ll always hold them in special regard. The video for ‘Ride on Shooting Star’ is even included in the special features, giving me the first legitimate piece of pillows memorabilia I’ve ever owned.

FLCL is still an amazing, ballsy work to witness, in the way that a lot of Gainax’s work is. It does exactly what it wants to do and doesn’t give a damn if you get it or not, and makes no effort to explain itself. If you know the pigeons that fly by in episode 5 are a nod to John Woo, or what the talk about red vs. blue ‘Cagliostro Castle‘ jackets, great. If you don’t, tough shit, you’re on your own. But an intimate knowledge of the jokes isn’t necessary to appreciate what a wonderfully mad experiment it is. It could even make me love anime again.

Ha! No, I can’t do that with a straight face.

FLCL: The Complete Series is available now on DVD and BluRay from Funimation.