All posts by Euge

Eugene is a former movie and music critic, and currently writes about the intersection of race, politics, & culture as it relates to hip hop and pop music. He also creates pop cultural-based hip hop under the alias Adam WarRock (http://adamwarrock.com). He used to be a lawyer. It sucked. Hard.

Documenting a Live MF Doom: Evil Genius? Or Just Plain Evil?

MF Doom

Being that hip hop originated not in the studio, but in a live party atmosphere, it’s sort of sad that most live hip hop sucks nowadays. With the exception of a few acts that have distinguished themselves over the years (Outkast, Kanye West, a cadre of underground acts that cut their teeth on the live show), most live rap shows amount to a terrible sounding and unjustly, yet mercifully, short experience simply not worth the time and/or the money. Yet in a fledgling music industry, where sales of albums simply aren’t where they used to be, the live show remains most artists’ main source of income. It’s a chance to build a stronger fanbase, to sell tons of merchandise, and to get a semblance of a steady paycheck; all on top of the fact that performance, in some form or fashion, rests at the core of all musical creativity. You make music for others to hear, the most direct means to do so is a face-to-face live performance. You are a musician, therefore, you perform.

With this much riding on the live performance, you’d like to think that even the most terrible of rap live acts at least have every intention to put on a good show. Even from the more cynical, disinterested artists, we as fans at the very least demand the facade of concern or desire of wanting their respective live show to be decent. I mean, surely no rap act in his or her right mind would want to put on a flat out BAD show, right?

MF Doom would probably disagree with you. While being a heralded beatmaker and prolific rap artist with a legion of faithful, dedicated fans, MF Doom is a terrible live act for a myriad reasons. For one, he is known to show up late to his live shows; that is, if he bothers to show up at all. His shows have often fallen into “less than half hour” group, at times going so short as ten minute sets as the headliner. He’s been known to lip sync at rap shows, or even stranger, simply mime rapping motions without opening his mouth. For those keeping track at home, all of these make Doom a TERRIBLE live performer.

But perhaps the strangest element of a modern MF Doom show is the growing list of concerts and events where MF Doom sends an imposter, or a “Doomposter,” to perform his songs. As Doom’s live act involves wearing a metal mask while delivering his mumbly, mush-mouthed delivery style, it’s not unfathomable to think that a Doomposter could sort of pull off Doom’s songs; but the recent spate of blatant Doomposters has caused many industry experts as well as fans to speculate that perhaps the real MF Doom has not performed for something close to 4-5 years.

When asked to respond to this controversy, Doom simply stated:

“Everything that we do is villain style,” he explained. “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it. Once I throw it out, it’s there for interpretation. It might’ve seemed like it didn’t go well, but how do we know that wasn’t just pre-orchestrated so that we’re talking about it now? I tell you one thing: People are asking more now for live shows and I’m charging more, so it must’ve worked somewhere.”

And the question has to be asked, is he just another bad live rap act, or is he the best live rap act that none of us could possibly understand?

MF Doom, aka Daniel Dumile, emerged in the rap scene as a member of the seminal rap group KMD. Having debuted on the classic 3rd Bass song “The Gas Face,” Dumile went on to record two albums with KMD under the moniker of Zev Love X, releasing the now classic album Black Bastards, an album that became as rare as it was essential for its controversial cover art.

Black Bastards

Shortly before the release of Black Bastards, Dumile’s brother, fellow group member and younger brother DJ Subrocwas killed in a car accident, causing the demise of the group and Dumile’s retreat from the music industry for the next few years, during which Dumile reportedly fell into a deep depression. Sometime around 1999, Dumile resurrected his rap career behind a metal Dr. Doom mask, and began making music again, releasing the seminal underground album Operation: Doomsday. A legend was born.

As recently as 2004, Doom was performing 45+ minute sets, fetching high performance fees and drawing huge crowds. In 2005, Doom released Live from Planet X, a forty minute continuous blast of 15 songs, displaying Doom’s prowess and ferocity on stage. At the time of Planet X‘s release, Doom had begun collaborating with the best of the independent music scene (Madlib, Danger Mouse, a rumored project with Ghostface Killah was on the horizon). A cult had grown around Dumile in a way that no one could have predicted, all for the right reasons: the music was dope, and the theater of the music was even better.

Shortly after that, the Doomposters started showing up, shows were canceled, a growing sense that Doom was having his fun with the public was first received with tongue-in-cheek humor, but was soon replaced with a growing anger by his fans. In 2007 at the world famous Rock the Bells tour, side by side with the modern day legends of rap, Doom sent out a blatant Doomposter, causing a crowd chant of “bullshit!” from the crowd.

NYMag’s Vulture blog’s Amos Barshad recently reported that MF Doom was planning to release a new album on September 14 titled Expektoration. Barshad raises the obvious question: is this going to be a live album of the actual MF DOOM, or is this going to be a continuation of Doom’s recent spate of flouting public expectations for his live show?

The thesis isn’t surprising, but maybe we are all missing the point. To look at it in a few other ways, one could argue that Doom’s live show is, while objectively terrible, a fascinating conceptualization of his persona and his musical legacy. As Doom stated in his response above, he is a villain; and presumably, the most villainous thing he could do would be to cheat people out of their money. It’s gotten to the point now, almost six years running, where people are finally starting to question the wisdom of even going to live MF Doom shows. SIX YEARS of being consistently snookered by this guy, and people are only now questioning whether it’s time to give up on the efficiacy of the MF Doom live show, while he laughs all the way to the bank.

In another light, Doom’s framing of modern hip hop is fascinating, if not cynical. Modern hip hop is a studio monster, one comprised of punch-ins, over-production and overdubs, with a live show that’s both restrictively shackled to the studio blueprint of a song, while also completely devoid of any chance for interpretive embellishment by means of delivery to the public. Put it another way, you go to a live show because you want to hear a song that sounds like the song; and yet, just hearing the song in the exact same way is inherently unsatisfying because it’s a live show. Whereas rock bands can switch up tempos, add in guitar solos or fill-ins, the hip hop live show blueprint is married to a beat that on some level, has to sound identical to what you’re used to, while also married to a vocal track that the live emcee can try, but will never mimic in all of its studio glory. Somewhere in MF Doom’s strange theory may be the only exciting way to interpret hip hop in a live setting: to simply raise a middle finger to all the expectations and try to deliver a show that at the very least creates an intense emotional reaction, even if it’s one of betrayal and hatred. At the very least, you can’t say that it isn’t interesting.

Barshad poses this simple question: “Are we overanalyzing this because it’s Doom?” Probably. But the fact that we’re even analyzing live hip hop, by all accounts a mostly unexciting cultural element, while theorizing about the worth of performance content versus performance art delivery is a worthy conversation for such a troubled, confusing, and at times, maddeningly genius rap artist like Dumile. Is it enough to get me to plunk down the cash to see a live show, even if I know that it might last 10 minutes with an imposter miming around on stage to a laptop simply playing Doom’s songs?

Honestly? Yeah, it might be.

Where The Street Ends: The Rap Stylings of Childish Gambino

Don Glover

At the age of 26, Donald Glover’s résumé reads like that of a lifetime achievement award: former writer for NBC’s 30 Rock, ensemble cast-member of NBC’s surging Community, award-winning stand-up comedian, sketch comedy writer and performer with the internet sensation Derrick Comedy, and writer and star of the same group’s feature length theatrical release, Mystery Team. And yet, maybe his most impressive feat is the fact that amidst all these projects, Glover still found time to regularly make music under the alias Childish Gambino, releasing a series of underground mix tapes that received an almost perplexed reaction from fans of Glover’s comedy and rap fans alike. Was the rapper’s squeaky, hyperactive delivery and chest-thumpin’ hip hop bravado for real, or just some elaborate joke that he was playing on all of us?

Enter Cul De Sac, Glover’s first full length album released last month, in the form of a free download. And joke’s on us: it’s pretty damn good for a number of reasons. Do yourself a favor and skip straight to track 7, “Let Me Dope You,” if only to hear the opening line, in which Gambino snarls: “Welcome to the Cul De Sac, this is where the street ends,” and you’d have a better idea of the place Childish Gambino represents in the fabric of modern day hip hop. And while some may say that the songs on Cul De Sac may not even be hip hop in the most traditional sense, there’s no question it’s an exciting peek into what may be the future of the below-the-surface rap scene that sits between the clutches of the synthed-out klaxons of the mainstream club hits and the shackles of underground and independent hip hop still lost in a decade-old musical reverie.

Don Glover's Cul de Sac

Why is Cul De Sac not exactly rap? A song like “Do Ya Like” is closer to some weird acid-hop track, more akin to a sort of modern Morcheeba; a niche genre that’s been woefully forgotten in today’s DJ compositional culture so taken with house/dancehall/dubstep aesthetic (not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily). Gambino sings over the organs and faint drum beat, drowned out in echoes, seamlessly moving in between singing and rapping. It’s a stunning feat of musical awareness that Glover manages to recreate multiple times on the album, creating songs that you label as rap, notwithstanding the fact that they do everything possible to eschew predictable rap tendencies. Listen to Gambino as he raps over a gorgeous piano riff in the album’s opener, “Difference,” or the neo-soul “So Fly,” that manages to end as if it were straight from a Shins song; this is an album that strives to do something more than simply indulge some rap-star delusion that Glover had in between casting calls and writing sessions.

There are some genuinely beautiful moments on this album, originating from a musical sensibility flavored by alt-indie influences that Glover obviously loves. Listen to “These Girls” (featuring, of all acts, the comedic duo of Garfunkel and Oates) and tell me you can’t hear that fitting right in with any number of indie bands you’ve heard about on Pitchfork. And yet, Cul De Sac is, at most times, a distinctly rap album. The swelling strings on “Hero” sound like the best kind of Bad Boy track, while songs like “I Be On That” and “Let Me Dope You” are straight riffs on Young Jeezy, aggro-Southern rap styles. The chorus alone from “You Know Me” could be the best hook on any number of Dirty South rappers’ albums, and yet Glover pulls it off in a way that is all his own.

Perhaps the most astounding feat of Cul De Sac is how much it manages to avoid sounding completely derivative, while being consistently familiar. Part of it occurs due to Glover’s skills as a spirited and creative rapper; his over-excited delivery and clever punch lines would be enough to keep your attention on even the most familiar beats. But, it’s almost as if Glover is so informed on the music he’s seeking to emulate, that he’s become a master at each of them, twisting it in small, subtle ways. The familiar elements register in your brain on a visceral level, but the logical part begins to delve into the content and realizes there’s something different and, more importantly, worth listening to there.

The closing track, “The Last,” expresses Glover’s philosophy in succinct fashion:

Other rappers try to go and get over
You want that hood shit? Best to go and call Hova
I was a good kid, backpack on my shoulder
98 test score, in my Thundercats folder.

Amazingly, Glover’s unapologetic refusal to act like other rappers makes the times he attempts to sound like other rappers sound … well, original. And sure, there will be people who will try to detract from his accomplishment, saying that this album isn’t like the hip hop they’re used to hearing. The left-of-center space that a growing contingent of rappers are trying to fill, somewhere between the club hits of the radio and the monotonous drone from the underground, is becoming a fascinating place, full of skaters and hipsters, people who have an undying love to hip hop, but have grown up in a culture where music is ubiquitous to the extent that everyone will listen to almost everything. And in a week where we saw rising rap star Kid Cudi’s new single “Erase Me” drop on the scene sounding like some weird Weezer, pop-core ode, it’s becoming harder to see where rap ends and other genres begin. Some may bemoan that phenomenon, but I remain excited for the future. If only because as much as I love hip hop, I don’t always want to listen to only rap. Donald Glover is probably the same way, and it seems that he’s comfortable with letting us know it while being pretty damn great at saying it too.

P.S. I’ve been thinking about Don Glover and Childish Gambino so much that I made a song about him, called “Don Glover 4 Spider-man.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Why We Watch Drake

Having never seen Degrassi, I don’t know much about Drake, a/k/a Aubrey Graham’s history in portraying Jimmy Brooks on the popular Canadian teenage drama. But there’s no question it represents a weird hip hop origin story. Even more unexpected wasn’t so much the fact that Drake had aspirations to be a rapper; it’s not like that was an unheard of phenomenon in the world of celebrities. The surprising result was that Drake was actually…well, he was really good. So good, he piqued the interest of Lil Wayne, signed a deal, and went on to rap alongside some of the best in the game (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, et al.). It wasn’t long before the unexpected rap star was being touted as the next big thing, all leading up to the release his official debut LP, Thank Me Later, which was released almost one month ago.

Well, surprise! Thank Me Later isn’t very good, at least in my opinion. The listless and redundant-sounding songs seem to fade in and out of each other, many of which eschew well-crafted hooks for auto-tuned wailings or rambling, overly long choruses over the sparse and mostly unexciting sonic landscapes. In between these hooks, Drake seems to fill in the gaps with his brand of stuttered, moderately off-beat flow, cramming in words to fit rhymes or strike a punchline or lyric that reeks of over-exertion in the attempt to seem “lyrical,” while still being street enough to appeal to the masses.

There’s no question that Graham’s voice is striking in a smooth, warm, and strong manner; and in a way, his earnestness comes across as real and sincere, at times almost making up for the missteps that plague the album as a whole. His commitment, however on or off target it might be, is displayed to great effect in tracks like “Fireworks,” one of the few songs that works with its slow, ambient beat and reflective lyrics. It’s the kind of song that would have worked best as a closing bow, an earned moment after an album that took you somewhere; only Drake chooses to use it as the table setter for the whole effort, further showing how much the album, and maybe Drake, strives to be something that it isn’t. It isn’t 808s and Heartbreaks, as much as songs like “The Resistance” and “Karaoke” wish to exemplify the concept. And it isn’t Tha Carter IV, as much as songs like “Up All Night” or “Fancy” may want to play off the best side of flossy, dumbed down rap. But hey, “Over” is a pretty awesome track, I’ll give it that much.

So the album wasn’t my cup of tea (as I’ll show later, plenty of people loved it, so it’s not like my opinion is definitive). But I’m more interested in what Drake’s initial effort represents: a mainstream “pop-rap” album created by a self-proclaimed “hip hop head — an unreconstructed backpack rapper’” who grew up on Tribe Called Quest and touts his favorite emcee as Phonte, of indie darlings group Little Brother.

Generally, a “backpacker” is a term from the ’80s and early ’90s used to describe NYC urban culture kids who wore backpacks to hold their spray paint cans and other tagging paraphernalia. Sometime in the late ’90s with the rise of the underground movement, it came to be used as a term describing any hip hop fan who only listened to underground hip hop, exemplified by the early fans of acts like Company Flow, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, and the like. Sometime towards the end of the decade, the term began to take a derogatory nature, used to describe fans who ONLY listened to indie acts, refusing to even acknowledge the popular existence of rap; many of whom were white suburbanite kids who grew up during hip hop’s boom in the 1990s.

Drake’s musical pedigree unquestionably falls into this era, born in 1986 and spending his formative years in a period when indie rap was peaking during a time when rap music was always in the popular spotlight. Regarding the racial aspects of the backpacker aesthetic, Drake grew up a half-black/half-Jewish kid, splitting time between two cities: one, Toronto, a city whose underground rap scene developed its own brand of flossy yet lyrically gifted and indie-approved acts like Choclair, Saukrates and Kardinall Offishall, exploded during the same era (Choclair, Saukrates); and two, Memphis, one of the main scenes that helped to formulate the Southern rap blueprint giving way to the Southern rap boom that his eventual benefactor, Lil Wayne, was very much a large part.

All the elements were there for Drake to develop into what he eventually became: an artist with a strong sense of commercial awareness, coupled with a social and self-conscious mindstate. He was both anchored by a dedication to rap’s roots, while also somewhat standing apart from the insular community of rap’s urban culture due to his location, privileged youth, and racial identity. In a way, it makes complete sense for Drake’s Thank Me Later to sound as it does: confused, flickering from club banger to somber, introspective navel-gazing; an effort to create something new, but still shackled to a musical sensibility that rests in the footsteps of those before, sometimes veering into mimickry.

There’s a lot of hate out there for Drake’s new album. Hell, there’s a lot of hate out there for Drake, period; whether it’s the fact that the dude from Degrassi is now rappin’ with Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, or the infamous Blackberry “freestyle” that had Drake reading lyrics off his phone while rhyming at Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show, or from close-minded rap fans who believe that a rapper has to fit a certain mold to be considered true to the game.

And sure, some of the criticism is warranted, but most of it is misdirected negativity rooted in an anachronistic view to what rap music is inevitably going to become. I can’t help but be fascinated by what Drake represents for the future: already christened as one of the avatars of the post-gangster modern emcee image, Drake seems more concerned with creating pop music steeped in rap’s sensibilties; and as much as Thank Me Later may sound like a normal rap album, the place it comes from and the current landscape of popular rap music makes me wonder if this is not so much an album that fails to be a good rap album, but rather strives to be something that’s one step beyond rap, as flawed an effort it might be. You can’t say that Drake didn’t try to create something different with this album; and in an age where pop rap arguably sounds…well, tired, Drake deserves some respect for creating pop music that isn’t simply another obnoxious, forgettable, hook-heavy, mindless rap single about guns, hoes and booze. And just because I don’t like itdoesn’t mean Thank Me Later isn’t getting a lot of love out there either. The LP sold 447K in its first week, and entered Billboard as the number one album on the R&B/HipHop and Rap albums chart. Since then, the album has been certified gold, and has been favorably reviewed by critics at major media sites like The AV Club, Paste Magazine, Village Voice, Spin and Vibe.

Most telling in Drake’s current place in the music scene is the surprisingly positive review Thank Me Later received from Pitchfork, an indie music site notoriously fickle about the hip hop acts it favors. There, Ryan Dombol gave the record a stellar 8.4 rating, praising it with a particularly interesting statement:

As much as rap is built on artful navel-gazing, it’s also founded in struggle. And just as Drake’s dramatically exposed selfishness is unique to hip-hop, so are his adversities. He grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb and was graced with everything but a functional pair of parents, who split when he was three. Like Kanye West before him, Drake vies for superstardom while embracing his non-drug-dealing, non-violent, non-dire history– one that connects with most rap fans in a completely reasonable way.

The backpackers of Drake’s era carried mixtapes and music collections with them everywhere they went, clutching on to these musical artifacts as if their lives depended on it. Now, we live in an age where music is disposable, lost in a cloud marked in mp3s on our laptops and ipods. Music, hip hop in particular, is increasingly antiseptic, even cold or cynical in a way that many of its current fans, having grown up in the ’90s, may not connect with in the way that more personable acts (like A Tribe Called Quest and the like, one of Drake’s major influences) used to be. And there’s something earnest, relatable, and well … real, in Drake’s music, as pop as it may be. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t keep us at an arm’s length, and is unapologetic in making music so influenced by its predecessors to the point where its derivativeness is earnest rather than sinister; so lost in its own sense of personal reflection and misguided drive that we, in our ever-increasingly voyeuristic society, are compelled to watch and engage with.

Say what you will about Thank Me Later; Lord knows I don’t have that much praise to say about it. But I know that I’m willing to give Drake another chance before writing him off as another flossy, boring popular rap industry creation (paging Mims?). He may not make the greatest rap album ever, but I truly believe he’s going to make something special by the time he’s done. It might not be rap as we have known it, but it may be the rap we come to know as we, the casual fans and the backpackers, stride into the future together, intrinsically linked whether we like it or not.

Self-Titled Eponymous: The Wackness and Creating the 2000s Hip Hop Aesthetic

The Wackness

If you’ve ever seen Jonathan Levine’s 2008 film The Wackness, it’s both comical and sorta sad how easy it is to create an aesthetic representative of the 1990s, at least in a hip hop sense. The coming of age story followed Luke, a marijuana dealer, as he spent the summer after graduating high school pursuing the girl of his dreams, dealing with his family’s financial troubles, and consulting with his psychiatrist/customer, Dr. Squires, about his growing depression and malaise towards his place in life.

Luke, like most NYC kids in those days, was also a huge hip hop head, and the movie’s depiction of the blistering heat of NY combined with Luke’s disenchantment used staple ’90s hip hop as the backdrop for Luke’s journey from isolated desperation to hopeful strength. And weirdly, the music used in the movie, from the emergence of Notorious B.I.G.’s defiant statement of desperation, Ready to Die, to Luke’s dormant idealism shining through in his touting of acts like The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, sorta makes sense. The journey of hip hop, coming off of the golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s, was one of triumphalism in its newfound commercial success, as much as it was a reaction to the reality of what that success would bring. You need look no further than 1997 to see the reality that the culture’s success had wrought, in the deaths of two greats and the ushering in of a new era that would change not only the public’s perception of hip hop in the popular sense, but also in the way that artists and industry professionals saw themselves.

Watching The Wackness (which in my personal opinion is a good and highly recommended, but undeniably flawed movie) made me think what the musical aesthetic of the 2000s would be, when we finally look back and see our culture for what it really was. Being that 2010 marks the end of the decade (semantic arguments about when the decade actually starts/stops aside), we must first examine where hip hop was when the decade actually began. I’ve spoken about the state of mainstream rap, but on the other side of the genre, the independent movement was coming into a more stable, and economically viable state with bigger, more powerful indie houses like Rhymesayers (1995), Rakwus (1996), Stones Throw (1996), and later Definitive Jux (1999) all coming into their own towards the end of the decade.

The most lasting result of hip hop’s commercial success was the clear delineation of indie vs. major label stylings, as the early 2000s brought the mp3 digital revolution, giving widespread access to all acts without the need for major label marketing or corporate-backed PR exposure. The early glut of independent acts that could consistently release a high-quality product was bolstered by the rise of the Internet, allowing smaller acts to find a wider audience; and more importantly, allowing smaller acts to earn a living based solely around touring and the development of indie scenes in almost every major or college city.

As the 2000s dawned, major labels were still pushing big event albums in pursuit of what was still a very emergent Billboard rap single hit. The early 2000s saw the release of Outkast’s Stankonia (2000), Jay-Z’s Blueprint (2001), Eminem’s The Eminem Show (2002), 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003), and Kanye West’s College Dropout (2004). Stepping away from the loop-sampled bedrock style production of the ’90s by acts like DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee, hip hop’s general aesthetic seeemed to be progressing in two directions those days: either the sped-up vocal sample over soulful funk tapestries made famous by Mr. West himself, but also 9th Wonder, Madlib, and Jay Dee; or the drum-machine heavy, bouncey style influenced mainly by the rise of the Southern rap movement that ushered in an era of crunk, Lil’ Jon, and the continued success of acts like Mannie Fresh, DJ Paul, Jermaine Dupri and other southern producers whose sound would become a premium in the years to come.

In the same way that the late ’80s/early ’90s hip hop culture documented its representative youth culture so accurately, the ’00s hip hop continued the tradition, but was now speaking on behalf of a completely changed youth fanbase. Having grown up with rap, many kids had foregone the drumkit or electric guitar in place of turntables and a vinyl colleciton. The rise of crate-digging DJs as a kind of withdrawn, isolated existence of DIY savants would come to influence wide-ranging acts from Jay-Z and Linkin Park to bands like Grizzly Bear or XX. The early ’00s saw the rise of DJs in a way that no one could have really predicted, with a new focus on vinyl preservation and treasuring hunting for the perfect jazz samples to not only use in live performance, but also to create complex, sample-heavy musical compositions in the vein of DJ Shadow, Madlib, or RJD2. It was unclear where hip hop’s general sound would eventually end up, with acts incorporating everything from Casio keyboards to live instrumentation; and there was something satisfying about seeing the artists who grew up on the building blocks of rap’s history to create a new pastiche of ambient, acid jazz influenced soundscapes, which would eventually become the basis for not only indie hip hop, but also non-rap indie acts in general.

At the same time, the youth generational culture was living in the mire of the Bush years not long removed from the tragedy of 9/11, still reeling from the delay of forming a cultural identity to deal with national tragedy. The general malaise of the ’90s gave way to a sort of motivated apathy, a pro-active need to simply do something, as meaningless as it may have seemed. As a result, many younger artists and producers simply set out to party. In a way, it was only appropriate that party music’s first big shot came out of the South, a region that was removed from the national spotlight of 2001′s tragedy and further unmoved by the coming economic crisis, as many of its areas remained economically depressed through the ’90s and into the ’00s.

What resulted was an aggressive, loud, and largely glossed-over version of the grittier, sloppier ’90s version of Southern rap, only this time helmed by artists who had cut their teeth on rap music that begged for more than just a banging beat and an easy hook. Gone were the lazy pop-funk samples or militaristic Bomb Squad-style beats restricted by what was already there on the record; in their place stood musicians who grew up in an age where everyone seemed to know how to play a musical instrument, backed by advances in musical technology that allowed the music to match the imagination.

It’s hard to know where all of it came to a head, resembling some form of musical identity. Maybe it was Jay-Z’s comeback in 2006, maybe it was Kanye’s collaboration with Jon Brion for Late Registration in 2005, the rise of acts like M.I.A. and the reggaeton/dancehall craze that took root in or about 2007. But towards the end of the decade, hip hop opened up to a bigger, broader sound. The Southern craze had died down to a large degree, leaving behind a non-regional, almost non-subgenre-specific style of hip hop further muddied by the mash-up craze that had taken the nation by storm. Here was a genre that was not only trying to party, but was making music in a hip hop aesthetic, only using non-hip hop elements, such as classic rock, soul, and modern day electronica.

Strangely, hip hop’s in kind of a reset mode as we head into 2010. The underground is still bubbling, but gone are the blow-up successes that marked the early decade with major crossover appeal. The mainstream is still bending to the whims of hip hop’s latest trend (no one can deny that the bulk of non-band based pop stars make music that is largely influenced, if not directly made by hip hop producers), but strangely missing from that music is the rapper. And unlike The Wackness, we can’t necessarily point to seminal releases like a Ready to Die that would evoke an entire aesthetic.

I do know that in my opinion, the most appropriate and timely addition to the 2000s canon is Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” It’s an anthemic stadium song, built upon a history steeped in hip hop tradition, elevated by a young, virtuosic artist whose sensibility is a callback to the old soul songs of yesteryear. It’s a song that’s best played at a party, not because you want to party to forget, but you want to celebrate to remember. And it’s a love letter to the city that suffered the most this decade in a way that affected all of us, as we all look to the future ready to have a good time, but this time, in a more exciting, and perhaps more meaningful way.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Reggie Watts – Making A Positive out of a Negative

I’ve tried to write the introduction to this review four times, deleting and revising my attempts to introduce the uneducated to Reggie Watts. I give up. It’s impossible to truly explain Reggie Watts in any kind of condensed, summarized version. He stands for so much, while also standing for nothing. He’s hilarious but unfunny in the most intentional and unintentional ways. He’s a genius composer and skilled beatboxer. And nothing about him makes any sense unless you want it to.

With the release of his newest standup/music CD, Why $#!+ So Crazy?, we finally have a document that’s somewhat representative of the improvisational, nonsensical music/comedy act that Watts has been crafting since 2004. Firmly based in jazz and hip hop, Watts’s live show consists of him beatboxing drum patterns, basslines, and harmonies one by one, looping and sequencing them with a delay modeler pedal to create the musical backdrop, before unleashing a stream of consciousness rant of nonsense words and sounds in the form of an abstract emcee or beat poet. And strangely, each song builds, swells, and moves to crescendos, resulting in fully formed musical pieces. There is a method within his madness, and the result is maybe the most pure representation of how purely powerful the elements of music can really be, both individually and collectively.

Why indeed?

Watts’ music is a testament to the exploration of negative space musical elements; specifically, the non-obvious (and some would even say unimportant) parts of “normal” hip hop, or even general pop music. For instance, take a normal rap song. You actively listen to a song to hear (a) the actual lyrics that the emcee says; and (b) the overall texture of the beat that’s been preproduced to meld with the rapping. You don’t care about how the beat was created, you don’t really listen to the grunts or the sounds that a rapper says in between the words. You don’t care about the moments in between the words, the spaces in between the sequences of the beat. You want a fully formed product. Sure, you can always engage in deconstruction if you want, but for the most part, you are listening to the song as a whole, unconcerned with the elements and the parts that are literally there to fill the space in between the more important or meaningful parts of the song.

Watts comprises songs full of those unimportant noises and sounds, those grunts and nonsensical babbles, that are usually there to fill space. He creates the beat piece by piece for you, to the point where you listen to the song as a collection of elements, rather than a song as a whole. You don’t even notice that you’re bobbing your head, so those moments where Watts throws a conventional music moment at you (a beat drop, a hook or refrain), your mind has to cycle back around to the realization that you are actually hearing something enjoyable as a whole, not just fascinating or impressive in the elements he lays out in front of you.

That isn’t to say that Watts doesn’t have things to say. His studio single, “Fuck Shit Stack” is an over-the-top celebration of crude language that slowly transforms into a scathing indictment of the childish tendencies of rappers and hip hop culture. Buried deep in “A Future in the Future” lays a dense rant against the cyclism and futility of technological improvement, told in the completely insignificant metaphor of candy wrappers making noise during movies. “Rainbows” is a simple story of a drug deal, formed as a love ballad to the ritualistic tendencies of users. And the gorgeous R&B-like “Social Construct” is a drug-infused existential exploration of daily life. And to be honest, I could probably write this review ten times, and attribute ten different meanings to each of these songs.

The songs are as meaningful and profound as you want, like all true art should be. Regardless of what Watts originally meant in creating the songs, they exist in the cultural consciousness and become what the audience wants it to be. And in an era where pop music consumption is so passive and lifeless, it’s been a thrill to have something to sink my teeth into, without being unenjoyable to wade through (see: lots of jazz). At any time, you can turn your brain off and enjoy the beautifully crafted beats, or listen to Watts’ gorgeous melodies, or, like I’m sure Watts intended, you can just sing along to the chorus of “Fuck Shit Stack,” which is way more fun than I really care to admit.

The comedy aspect of Watts’s style is more perplexing. It’s no surprise that Watts won the 2006 Andy Kaufman Comedy Award, as his comedic stylings in many ways mirror the almost antagonistic way that Kaufman treated his audience for the sake of humor. Watts doesn’t directly antagonize, but often phases in and out of accents and voices, creating characters and telling jokes that don’t have punchlines in between his songs. Meanwhile, there are moments in his music that are simultaneously hilarious and borderline disturbing, such as the ending rant on “Get Your Shoes On,” in which Watts recreates a fight between a man and a woman trying to get out the door to go out for the night. Filled with hilarious lines, it builds to the man yelling furiously for her to “get her motherfucking shoes on.” You laugh because it’s all you can do; all while feeling like the artist could be funnier if he wanted to, but simply has no interest in being conventionally hilarious in the way we expect him to. And believe me, I mean that in the most complimentary way possible: Watts is a fearless performer who has pulled legions of fans into his sphere, forcing them to recognize the beauty and genius of his music and style. That is the hallmark of a revolutionary artist.

The first time I was exposed to Reggie Watts a few years ago, I was convinced I had just seen one of the greatest performances I had ever seen, even though I couldn’t figure out why. My friend turned to me and simply yelled in desperation, “What is he doing?!?!” Over time, I’ve come to understand the reasons why I love him so much, and watch with delight in seeing so many other people starting that journey in understanding why he’s such a fantastic performer and creative talent. It’s not easy; and for what it’s worth, I’m glad there aren’t more people doing things like Reggie Watts. I think we’d all burn out pretty quickly. The world only needs, and perhaps can only handle one Reggie Watts at a time. But thank god we’ve got the one.

“Fuck Shit Stack” video:

Self-Titled Eponymous: Arizona’s Got Beef: The Music and the Message

In 1991, Public Enemy released a song called “By the Time I Get To Arizona,” an angry, incendiary track in which Chuck D described a fictional assassination of then real-life governor of AZ, Fife Symington, III. The anger originated from AZ’s failure to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official state holiday. In 1990, a referendum supporting the recognition of MLK Day failed, due in no small part to the governor and other legislators’ staunch opposition to the citizen’s ballot initiative.

Almost twenty years later, AZ is in the news again for similar reasons: a hot-button political issue has again raised the ire of hip hop artists. This time, governor Jan Brewer has signed an immigration law that allows police officers to detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants, and demand to see official documents. Many have called this law “legalized racial profiling” against the Latino/a community, an ethnic group that makes up a large percentage of AZ’s population, as well as a growing percentage of America’s population as a whole.

And like in 1991, hip hop has responded. Artists Queen YoNasDa, DJ John Blaze, Tajji Sharp, Yung Face, Mr. Miranda, OCean, Da’aron Anthony, Atllas, Chino D, Nyhtee, Pennywise, Rich Rico and Da Beast have remade Public Enemy’s historic song in a show of opposition to the law, reigniting the anger and political atmosphere that Public Enemy’s song helped create almost two decades ago.

It’s easy to forget that hip hop used to be one of the more convincing and necessary hydraulic levers in our culture’s socio-political system. Hip hop often addressed a lower economic strata, and with that context came a demographic that statistically had less formal education, less political activism and overall less general awareness of personally relevant domestic issues. For the ’80s and early ’90s, hip hop admirably filled this gap, and spoke in a way that made that demographic not only want to listen, but also act on the things they were being educated about.

And so, when crack/cocaine was on the rise in the ’80s, Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow released “White Lines” as an anti-drug dance anthem. When AIDS became an epidemic, KRS-One released “Jimmy,” informing kids to use condoms. And when police brutality was on a rampant run, Ice-T released “Cop Killer,” bringing the issue not only to the attention of an already angry population, but also straight to the doorstep of Washignton, D.C. Artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul helped spread a positive message to an angry youth, while the X-Clan and Public Enemy helped spark the Afrocentric movement that put a generation in touch with its heritage for the first time. Politics have always been present in hip hop, and the convergence of the two things often produced important and meaningful results, even if those results were often bathed in controversy and contention.

As Chris Richards of The Washington Post succinctly put it:

But isn’t that the beauty of both hip-hop and American politics? Opinions run hot. Mud gets slung. In a crumbling music industry where survival often depends on playing nice, hip-hop is not afraid to push envelopes.

In an era where popular music is so utterly devoid of importance and meaning (including currently popular hip hop), never before has there been such a staggering gap between the upper ends of meaningless pop drivel and the lower dregs of obscure, socially conscious music. Music and message used to be one and the same, whether you were Woody Guthrie in the ’40s or Neil Young in the ’80s. It was possible to be successful while contributing a substantive message to those who only wanted to turn on their radios to ignore. The message was there, ready for acceptance when you chose to notice.

Hip hop is no different. There was a time when Public Enemy was both one of the most popular groups around as well as one of the most respected because they were a group that had something important to say. Today, it’s almost impossible to even conceive of an artist succeeding solely on the fact that he or she has a message to say. The AZ law is just one of a multitude of reasons why it’s more important than ever that we get our medicine with our spoonful of sugar on the radio.

In a genre of music that actually forces you to say something before you can say anything, it’s heartening to see some hip hop artists using their talents and clout to speak out on an issue that is completely worthy of a debate from all people, most notably those who it affects the most. Music doesn’t always have to be important; I appreciate a good party track, I like to have mindless power pop to sing along to in the shower. But one look at the Billboard, one scan of the radio, you’d go hungry looking for anything substantial to chew on, other than a choir of country artists singing about how great ‘Merica is. We deserve more than that; and music deserves more from us.

And as for the law itself, you know how I feel.

Eugene records & performs hip hop under the alias Adam WarRock.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Post-Racial

Unless you lived under a rock in 2008, you probably heard the term “post-racial” used in reference to President Barack Obama’s candidacy. The term refers to the fact that his being black was for all intents and purposes a non-issue. This, in running for President of a country that only four decades prior was still segregating schools on the grounds of race.

Obama’s viability and eventual success gave credence to a sea-change in our public consciousness, that we had moved past, or beyond the era where race was the first and foremost thing that needed to be both dealt with, and then ignored. In other words, it wasn’t about electing a “black president” as much as electing the forty three men before him wasn’t about electing a “white president.” He was judged first on his own faults and merits. And whether you believe it was an historic step towards doing away with racism or a non-starter of an issue, it was undeniably a step in the right direction. However big or small you believed it to be, that’s for another discussion entirely.

So is race still a big deal in our culture?

Duh. Of course it is.

But think about this question: does race still matter when it comes to hip hop? Having its roots in black culture, the genre has only been around for thirty years or so. And it’s questionable whether race or skin color is still a legitimate issue in terms of acceptance in the insular rap community or the mainstream audience. It used to be if you were a white rapper back in the early ’90s, you were seen as simply being a white kid who was trying to be black, or in the case of a novelty like Snow or Vanilla Ice, a joke.

Even well respected white rappers like MC Serch of 3rd Bass dealt with heat from the likes of artists like the X-Clan, an afrocentric and militant all-black group. The pejorative term “wigger” was coined to describe, well, white kids acting like..you fill in the blanks, and with it came a deluge of accusations that once again, like rock n’ roll and blues and jazz before it, the white man was simply co-opting the black man’s culture.

That was almost twenty years ago (3rd Bass’s Gas Face was released in 1989), a full decade before Eminem released The Slim Shady LP in 1999 and the whole world changed. For the first time arguably ever, a white boy was spoken about as one of the best emcees alive, and for good reason. Once you got past the voice, the persona, and well, the horrific debut single “My Name Is,” you began to hear a flow and delivery that had a legitimate claim to the GOAT crown that so many rappers (namely black ones) had sought to hold. More notably, it was a crown that white rappers, as few as there were in the public eye, never tried to grab. Sure, we all love the Beastie Boys, but would any of you declare that AdRock was one of the best rappers alive? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

If we say that the “modern” era of hip hop began sometime in the early ’90s (say, around the time when Wu Tang, Biggie and Death Row were all starting up), it’s remarkable to see how quickly the culture changed, not only in its substance, but also in its perception to those outside the scene. The genre went from being called a fad, the “next disco,” to being the most dangerous, damaging and controversial music in the world during the height of the “Cop Killer” and N.W.A. uproar of the early 90s.

Hip hop became arguably the largest source of cultural influence to the coveted youth demographic, affecting everything from fashion to liquor to sports to, hell, even video games. Its introduction was sharp, pointed, and sudden; and to many people, it was scary because it was simply a new thing, rather than an inherently black thing. Change is scary, and people often react to fear with spurn and anger. And let’s face it, Ice-T is kind of intimidating. Don’t believe me? Ask Aimee Mann.

As the ’90s went on, hip hop grew to be the largest musical force in popular music, up through 1998 when Puff Daddy’s No Way Out was released on the heels of Biggie’s death. Back when everywhere you stepped, you couldn’t not hear “I’ll Be Missing You.” When everyone was in some small way a rap fan, even if they said they hated rap. The end of the ’90s brought an appropriate closing-of-the-door on the sample-heavy East Coast sound and the G-funk/West Coast era to make way for bounce, bass, and the eventual reign of electronica that dominated the ’00s, and still makes up for most of the Billboard’s Top Charts. And with it, a generation of whipper snappers who had spent their formative years regarding rap as something that wasn’t necessarily ONLY black. By the early ’00s, a whole slew of white kids (like Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, Stones Throw) were ruling the independent scene, as well as a burgeoning scene of Asian, Latino, and European rappers, DJs, B-boys, producers, and maybe most importantly…fans.

All of that may explain why the artist and fan base isn’t so monochromatic anymore, but does it necessarily explain why we may no longer care about race in hip hop? Maybe it was the rise and fall of the intense political correctness era that, so overly concerned about not crossing racial lines in the sand, only ended up drawing more of them. Whatever the cause, you’re much less likely to write an emcee off for being white, just as you’d be an idiot to write off an indie band for having a black lead singer. And for all the talk about our country’s entrance into a post-racial era thanks to President Obama, maybe we’ve already been there when it comes to music. Maybe we’ve been there for longer than we thought.

Perhaps the only ones who ever cared that only black people were rapping were the media and onlookers. In the early days of hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation was always a multi-racial entity, promoting the unification of all cultures and races under a peaceful banner. Mr. Freeze was accepted into the Rock Steady Crew as their first white member long before this sort of an event was ever of any interest to the public consciousness.

Maybe the simple fact was that the founders and purveyors of the culture never cared that it was a racially exclusive club; they were simply waiting for everyone else to join the party. And the influx of non-black rappers was not so much an acceptance, but an obvious destination for other races and ethnicities to an artform that allowed you to speak in ways that other musical genres couldn’t provide. The appeal wasn’t “black”; the appeal was music. And maybe that’s what the originators always wanted, or at the very least, believed in some respect. I mean, Masta Ace asked Paul Barman. What do we know?

If hip hop is in a post-racial era, then it’s less a “thank god” thing, and more a non-event…nothing more than a taking-inventory moment for a culture that was once decried as the scourge of white suburban society. It’s undeniably a good thing, but the explanation about the how and why is probably less important, and maybe less complex than the explanation of racism and the things that Obama’s presidency brings to the table. Maybe the simplest explanation is this: a post-racial America is, in essence, a meritocracy. And regardless of what you believe about everyone else’s tastes, music has always been a personal meritocracy on a person-by-person basis. And even if some of us may still say “oh wow, he’s not black?” when we hear a dope emcee, a good song is a good song, no matter the color involved.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Why We Love Music

Former music critic, Steve Almond, wrote an op-ed piece over at the Boston Globe this past week, blasting the music criticism industry. He stated, rather eloquently, that good critics–himself not included, by his own admission–could never capture “what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.” When faced with the question hovering in front of everyone’s face, he stated the obvious:

“Am I suggesting that music criticsm is a pointless exercise? Yeah, I guess I am.”

It’s an argument that’s been coming up a lot lately in every realm of popular culture (like here). Which begs the other obvious question: what is the value of cultural criticism as a whole? In olden times (y’know, like, fifteen years ago), the value of critics was simple: no one had the money, time, or in some ways, the taste-based fortitude to listen to all the music that was out there. Critics, and music publications or large-circulation websites, were there to simply tell you in broad strokes what music was worth your time, and what music was not.

There’s no question the importance of musical criticism has dwindled since the rise of blogs, digital downloads, and whatever other technological innovations that the RIAA can claim is responsible for the decline in records sales. But no matter what your taste in music may be, the collective reality is the same: the majority of music out there is mediocre, and simply not worth listening to or talking much about. That isn’t to say that a lot of that music is bad, there’s only so many ways you can say that a band is okay for what it is, but not really your thing.

Since the internet basically exists for prolonged conversation, it’s only expected that the people talking the loudest would be about the two extremes of the fan spectrum: the love, and the hate; something that Almond confirms when he says, “[Now], I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don’t like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.”

What’s strange about Almond’s sentiment is that it seems oddly representative of a generation that he’s not a part of. At 44 years old, Almond was a teenager during the dawn of the 80s, a heyday of cultural pop indulgence that was embodied in lavish hairstyles, cock-rock metal, and other-worldly synthesized soundscapes. It was an era of excess bathed in a political conservatism that superficially kept the culture strictly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Even assuming that Almond’s critical career went well into his 20s, he would still identify with an era of grunge, alterna-rock that was too disillusioned and confused to know how to assert itself; a wash of teenage angst and a general spurning of the pop sensibilities that characterized the past decades, leaving in its wake an amelodic, overly complex, almost comically emotional decade of pop music that slowly killed itself out of social atrophy, rather than the excess of the stars of the 80s. As Y2K gripped the country in fear and peril, the pop cultural landscape was a hodge podge of street rap, electronica, power pop, and a resurgence of grandstand pop music that seemed like it was out of the 50s.

By the time Almond would reach his mid 30s, it would’ve been the mid-2000s (presumably sometime around the point where he came to his op-ed epiphany), leaving him smack dab in the middle of this confused era. An era where he and other industry professionals bemoan the downfall of critics and journalists as “taste makers,” with the belief that their ability to drive cultural taste represented their main value.

Yet, the interesting thing about our modern era is that this is the first generation in possibly half a century where people are no longer simply reacting to the generation that came before it, whether by incorporation or by rebellion. There’s an exciting acceptance going on where indie hipsters are willing to admit they listen to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” (no lie, I still love this song to death), as much as pop whores are tuned in to the latest Goldfrapp single. And unlike the ’90s (or the punk vs. New Wave war in the 80s), no one really seems to mind.

Perhaps professionals tend to see our generation as a “critical generation,” as Almond remarks; I see it as a generation that, for the first time ever, has the knowledge, facilities, and (perhaps thanks to some less-than-fully-honest means) the financial capacity to fully enjoy all the music that they always could have. And ignoring the hateful echo chamber section of the Internet for one second, there’s a lot of love going on; and that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.

No longer is it about hiding in your room and feeling like you’re the only one who understands the Smiths (you and Lester Bangs maybe). We are so interconnected with our friends, our family, in our schools, at our jobs, and with strangers we feel close to on the Internet. And we, as a culture, seem want to connect rather than retreat. And quite frankly, you don’t need a professional to tell you when you love something. The one thing Almond is dead right on…when you love a song, you don’t need a critic to justify it.

Say what you will about Almond’s article. The guy loves music, and perhaps that is the most valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the armchair critic deluge that the web hath wrought upon the professional circle. Maybe we all need to go back to the basics, and have a discussion about what we’re all talking about. And maybe the starting point for that discussion is the simple statement, “Why do you love music?” The importance is that the discussion is even happening, and that even when the majority of music out there is music that will leave us unmoved, it still seems like there aren’t enough days to write about all the music we do love. And critics, just like non-professionals, are there to remind us of that either directly or indirectly.

Self-Titled Eponymous: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Mainstream

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as being written by Ken Lowery. It was, in fact, written by Eugene Ahn, who writes Self-Titled Eponymous every two weeks.

Paste Magazine’s February 2010’s cover story asks the question, “Is Indie Dead?,” a take on John T. Elson’s 1966 Time Magazine cover “Is God Dead?,” an article that raised eyebrows and, in some cases, furor on both sides of the believer/non-believer debate.

The tongue-in-cheek irony of Rachael Maddux’s well-written article is that for many musical fanatics, the indie genre and mentality might as well be God, and with the general acceptance of indie as not only a genre of music, but also an aesthetic and identifier of things that actually aren’t independently produced, the argument is a fair one to make. As Maddux delves into the history and modern definition of indie, as well as the future of what will inevitably replace indie mentality and music, the subversive message that exists between the lines is, without a true indie movement, all we are left with is somehow deficient, or in more cynical, sinister terms, inherently faulty or pejorative. And my question would be, why?

As the article points out, there was a time when the term “indie” did mean something. The very idea of pop music, or the need to demarcate it as such, is a relatively new phenomenon, as music labels and studios were once the gatekeepers of well-produced, high-fidelity quality music that we came to regard as an invisible minimum bar for judging the sound of any band or musical act. Coming towards the latter half of the twentieth century, the presence of an entire segment of overproduced, glossy, high-profile music required some way to indicate the obvious separatist movement of DIY punk bands, garagecore acts, and bedroom producers and emcees. Technology destroyed the need for that distinction, as nowadays, smaller acts and independent musicians can afford to make good-sounding music at a fraction of the cost, to the point now where popular mainstream music could start out as a purely indie endeavor (see Souljah Boy).

So if the sound doesn’t separate the camps, then what does?

Is it indeed?!Out of sheer necessity, the “indie” mentality began to translate directly to the message inherent in a segment of the alternative movement, and the corporate and/or financial background of certain acts. The representation of a band backed by a gigantic, corporate conglomerate seemed antithetical to the notion of music’s inherent purity, and, in some respects, its democratic value. Everyone plays with the same musical scales, and works with generally the same musical language to produce the countless combinations of melodies, rhythms and messages that all genres and segments that music can offer. The equalizing power of music as an artform, as a creative exercise, and as an industry carries with it the soul of the conventional American Dream myth: that anyone with a guitar and three chords can write a song that could, in fact, change the world.

Exploitation of that lofty message for pure profit seemed wrong, even if it’s less than realistic to believe it could be otherwise. And while bands have always attempted to speak out against “the man,” or any number of political causes, it was the message that the music held, separate from partisan politics or individual beliefs, that was important. There was still something pure about the way music was created, and by proxy, the way good music was distributed (word of mouth, grassroots movements, needle-in-a-haystack success stories).

However, beyond mere musical contexts, the concept of independence is a myth. No longer can people retreat to Walden pond, or simply unplug from the world. There is something inherently faulty in peoples’ attempts to maintain this belief that music is somehow able to remain independent in an era where, due to informational access, technology, and simply the way we do business, it’s easier for acts to get exposure through more conventional means, while missing the fact that the conventional means are simply less conventional than they used to be. And while it may not be truly “indie” in the way we understand that term, pop music and the industry that surrounds it are inherently “more indie” than they ever used to be. And isn’t that a good thing?

Which leaves my original question: why is mainstream or pop music still viewed with such aspersion by a crowd that should be happy to let go of indie’s little brother status in the mainstream media? Think of how you regularly consume music. There used to be a distinction in terms of how we found music; a secret society that kept its doors bolted, paging through local zines, or word of mouth; small labels that printed limited runs of LPs and dusty record shops that allowed us to have the kind of discerning tastes that people in small towns, less metropolitan areas, and people simply not in-the-know didn’t have a chance at having. Those days are gone, and in its place, a scene where the dissemination of information has allowed smaller bands and limited run LPs to reach a wider audience. The Internet has allowed people who don’t have direct access to these kinds of informational sources to know which bands are good, and which bands are not.

So, what value do we derive from having a distinction between a group like, say, The Knife and Miley Cyrus? Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. But in reality, what is the difference between say, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSexLoveSounds and Hot Chip’s Made in the Dark, if both albums make you want to get out on the dance floor? Does the fact that one was made with a higher budget and bigger PR machine somehow distinguish its quality to a greater degree, and in some way should make us deem that one or the other is better?

The answer to that goes back to the earlier discussion of music as a democratic concept. And maybe that’s incorrect. Let’s call music a “personal meritocracy.” Which isn’t to say that the “best” music will always succeed the most (what is “the best” anyway?), but rather, the music you like the best will always be the music you go to first, that you purchase, that you play more. That’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? One of those wonderful things about culture and personal taste is that no one else can tell you that something you love isn’t better than the thing they love; because, personally, it’s not true. You will laud the best music, and you will pan the worst music. The problem with the indie/mainstream distinction is that it informs our opinion of personal meritocratic beliefs about music by adding in external factors, and ruining the ability to judge music in a true, personal sense.

You may disagree, and simply cite the number of horrid, awful musical acts that top the Billboard charts. That’s a fair argument, but again, it’s one informed by your personal belief of what’s good and what’s not, while simply ignoring the fact that (a) there may in fact be many, many people who personally DO love those songs; and conversely, (b) that the Billboard Hot 100 is not the only way for new music to be disseminated, and is not the only avenue for artists to get attention and financially succeed. In other words, that music is the loudest because, traditionally, those outlets have simply been there the longest; and in many ways will always be the same, whether it jives with your taste or not.

Beyond that surface-level glance at what constitutes modern pop music, consider for a moment the mash-up genre. The appeal of the genre is familiarity with something new; and most of the time, the familiarity originates from some earlier iteration of pop music mixed with some form of modern, possibly less well-known musical act. The combinations of the familiar and unfamiliar creates the kind of enjoyable music that many people (myself included) cannot deny. The lack of a need for a distinction between mainstream and indie music is a surprisingly cogent view of the very discussion that Paste is engaging in, and may in fact prove Paste’s thesis that indie, at least in the way we know the term, is in fact, dead as a doorknob.

My question still remains., Why is this a BAD thing? The question of the death of indie is posed in such a way that it’s something to be bemoaned, because without a thing apart from the mainstream, we are all lost as music fans, as geeks, as scholars. That somehow, we are missing something, as if the prior definition of “indie” has disappeared simply because the scene is no longer prevalent, or even necessary.

There were punk and hardcore bands that were simply “too loud, too fast, or too rough” for pop music in the 80’s. There was gangsta rap music that was “too explicit, too damaging, too horrid” for the 90’s. And there was electronica music that was “too soulless, too machine-like, too repetitive” in the 2000’s. And yet, in some form or fashion, these are all still present, both in the popular eye in some form, and beneath the radar in a million other ways. The end result is that everything has been accepted, and isn’t that a good thing?

The death of the scene that surrounds indie acts simply means that indie has in some ways become the mainstream. And that, for the first time in maybe ever, the music YOU love has a chance at being commercially successful. And in the end, music can be more representative of what everyone is in fact listening to. I still say this is a good thing.

Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question in the context of Paste’s article. As Paste asks, “Is Indie Dead?” and subsequently answers “yes.” Maybe a better reaction would be, “Who cares?”

Self-Titled Eponymous: Critical Exploitation of Scandal

[Author's Note: I write a lot about hip hop and the convergence of race, media, politics, and culture in music, with occasional dalliances into other genres of music]

I was listening to N.W.A. this week and “A Bitch is a Bitch” came on. For those who aren’t familiar, the song is exactly what you’d think it was. It was hailed as a misogynistic nightmare by early ‘90s critics, and the C. Dolores Tuckers of the world began their all-out assault on gangsta rap and its destructive effect on Main Street America. None of this should be a surprise, as rap and urban culture has long been painted in broad strokes as a misogynistic, demeaning genre, and at times, for good reason: insert your favorite 2 Live Crew lyric here.

From videos depicting women as mere sexual objects, to penning songs solely dedicated to the act of “bitches giving head” (take your pick: “She Swallowed It”; “Slob on My Knob”, et al), the genre at times digs its own grave, and we, as listeners, give it a pass. The lyrics of “A Bitch is A Bitch” are appropriately explicit and to most people, probably very offensive. And it’s become one of the resounding classic anthems of West Coast gangsta rap since its release. Hell, I personally love the song dearly.

I was pondering this cognitive dissonance in my head when I passed by a magazine rack and saw this cover:

That’s the cover for VIBE’s Winter 2010 issue (they moved to a seasonal release schedule after the former owners closed out the magazine in June 2009); and yes, that’s Chris Brown. I’ve already written at length about the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident and music journalism’s coverage of it at my older site, so I won’t rehash that. With my history of lambasting hip hop journalism’s coverage of the scandal, I of course had to read it. And lo and behold, I found gems like this:
“His speaking voice is full of texture, adding an air of sincerity to his answer. You get the impression that he’s done some real soul searching.”

The quality of VIBE writing aside, there’s something both encouraging and unsettling about Chris Brown’s ostracism from all of rap and R&B culture, and the coverage thereof, after the charge of domestic abuse against Rihanna.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging that so many famous artists and personalities associated with rap and R&B were willing to take a stand against Brown for what was an undeniably atrocious crime, especially in a genre that has long abided by a “stand by your man” policy—often for understandable reasons. For a genre that is barely 30 years old, hip hop and R&B spent much of the early 90′s trying to escape the net of “fad of the moment” status that the likes of The Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC had to battle against as they became relatively popular acts.

In a culture that previously had not just supported, but elevated, acts with criminal records (the article itself mentions Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Queen Latifah, and Aaron Hall of Guy as examples of BET Awards performers (1) with criminal records), the outcry against Brown is both a startling display of humanity from a culture that spent decades cloaked in thug and gangster bravado, but also represents a watermark moment of a genre that maybe, for the first time since its inception felt confident enough in its own cultural importance that the alienation of an artist that VIBE refers to as “The Future” was a blow that pop-urban music could endure.

On the other hand, it’s unsettling in the sense that Brown’s “long road to redemption” is still a viable media draw for commercial purposes. The magazine chose to give Brown top billing with arguably the biggest pop-rap act currently on the scene, former Degrassi star Drake, in a series of dual covers for its inaugural new-format issue. Moreso, the rehabilitation of Brown’s image and public persona says a lot about a culture that, for the most part, feels the need to somehow explain why the presence of even the most lovey-dovey R&B singer was, in essence, the worst fears of people who once feared the thug culture that groups like N.W.A., or even more palatable acts like Run DMC would bring to white suburbia.

Q: If it wasn’t for all this attention, do you think you and Rihanna would have gotten back together?
A: Yeah, if it wasn’t for the media and everything else, I think it would have definitely been that.

Brown’s story is simultaneously a stereotypical and universal example of the machismo extremism that rap and R&B (the male artists, at least) both feed into as well as originate from. Beyond anyone’s concern that Brown is specifically black, the fact that Brown beat a woman is the crux of the problem that now many media outlets will attempt to repair in the public eye, though his actions are as atrocious as they are completely predictable, given how rap and R&B treats its women. Gender, more than race, is the central concern here.

There’s no shock that men rule the rap/R&B genre, and as a result, get to shape the depiction and internal treatment of women. To this day, there hasn’t been an across-the-board successful female emcee (2) (sorry Foxy Brown, Lil Kim.) Contemporary R&B artists who dominate the charts are mainly men, while the most successful female artists are sexual objects as much they are singers. So it’s no surprise that the music media machine has always worked to rehabilitate the images of male artists who mess up, whether it’s the redemption of R. Kelly (still a wildly successful recording artist even after peeing on a fourteen year old girl) or the continued forgiveness of Michael Jackson’s follies and eccentricities during his lifetime (ironically one of Brown’s idols, probably now moreso than ever.) The same is happening with Brown, and this time it feels inherently dirty because Brown’s crime was an indisputable act of aggression and anger. (You can’t argue that Rihanna “wanted” Brown to savagely beat her, while some have argued the opposite for MJ or R. Kelly.)

VIBE’s cover story of Chris Brown is not shocking, or even surprising. It is what it is, and he will probably have a very successful career and continue to make great music (I was, and I guess technically still am a fan of his stuff, if I’m being honest). I don’t blame Brown for trying to cobble together a comeback, or even to sincerely repair the pieces of what I imagine is a (self-imposed) shattered personal life. Everyone is allowed to move forward after making a mistake.I blame the media for feeling the need to do it for him, when even in this instance, an artist as big as Jay-Z is very publicly damning him for what many would call an unforgivable mistake. You’d think that in this instance, they could take a pass because his crime was to blatantly abuse a woman.

“Behold the 20-year-old one-time golden boy as he finds his footing after a long slide that deflated his ego and demolished his public image.”

If you pick up the Winter 2010 VIBE issue and flip through the first few pages, the third advertisement is a two-page foldout promo for Rihanna’s new album, Rated R. On the right hand side of the page, she arches her back and displays cleavage in a skimpy dress. Turn the page again, and you see Chris Brown on the table of contents page, standing tall, arms extended mid-dance and dressed to the nines, with a note at the bottom detailing the fashion designers that dressed him. Sorry Rihanna, this is a man’s world.

(1) BET removed Chris Brown from its Awards Show, where Brown was slated to perform in the Michael Jackson tribute, shortly before the broadcast.

(2) Queen Latifah is the closest, but for as legendary as her status affords, her career spanned a total of about four years before she got out of the making music game completely.