Tuesday, October 30, 2007

anti-sexism training: some thoughts

I helped out with an anti-sexism training today at a local college, which was great because i haven't been as involved in that sort of thing since leaving my position at the Diversity Education Program at UW-Madison. It was nice to dive back into "facilitator" mode, even if only briefly.

This training was different, however, from what i've done before. I'm used to going in and just having a big discussion-- getting people's voices heard, raising issues, etc. The thing we did today was skit-oriented. In the past, i'd had a kind of bias against this sort of training because personally, i'm not a visual learner-- people acting out scenarios always seemed to me a roundabout way of addressing issues. But that's just me-- i understand that for some people, skits and theatre stuff are the best way to learn.

I had just never done it MYSELF, and then had to jump in, with two days of rehearsal, and pretend to be an awful person. I've acted before, but not so much improv, which i pretty much hate. The interesting thing i came away from this with, however, was how DIFFICULT it was to even pretend to be overtly, over-the-top sexist. Luckily, i had two other men in the group who could say the *worst* lines and do the fake fondling and all that and i could just play a support role, but it was hard nonetheless. I just couldn't bring myself to embody some of these characters whole-heartedly, even when i knew that it was fake and i knew that the audience knew that it was fake.

Is that just from three or so years of social justice immersion? Is that a real example of "oversensitivity?" Were the roles just too close to home? How the hell do real actors play Nazis and rapists and murderers and all that? I can see how that could play crazy tricks on your brain.

Overall, though, the session went very well. People seemed to be engaged and we had some good conversations. Also, the food was incredible.

On a completely unrelated note, i finished my book. More news coming soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

a few thoughts from ERIC MATA

Aside from being a pretty damn good poet, Eric also writes articles/essays occasionally. I'm going to start linking to them whenever he posts them. Here's a few i missed:

I Am Not Your Baby Daddy

How Women of Color Are Made Invisible

A Split Along Gender Lines: Teacher/Student Sexual Relations

Eric always has something good to say. I was going to invite him to just join in on this blog (and you can if you want, Eric), but linking allows us all to remain independent. And you know how men are with that rugged individualism stuff. Just kidding.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

a playlist (in no order)

What do these songs have in common?

~Black Ice (Goodie Mob w/ Outkast)
~Swing (Camp Lo w/ Ish)
~Runnin' (Pharcyde)
~One Love (Nas w/ Q-Tip)
~Steady Mobbin' (Lupe Fiasco)
~Thought Process (Goodie Mob w/ Andre3000)
~Crumblin' 'Erb (Outkast)
~Sharp Shooters (Dead Prez w/ Talib Kweli)
~Hate it or Love it (Game w/ 50 Cent)
~Pearly Gates (Mobb Deep w/ 50 Cent)
~T.R.O.Y. (Pete Rock & CL Smooth)
~Say Hey There (Atmosphere)
~Fucked Up (Dead Prez)
~Travellin' Man (Mos Def)
~Same 'Ol Thing (Tribe)
~Moment in Time (Pharcyde)
~Speed Law (Mos Def)
~Baby (the Roots)
~Pour Me Another (Atmosphere)
~Bread and Butter (the Roots)
~Fu-Gee-La (the Fugees)
~Shook Ones pt. II (Mobb Deep)
~Bleeding Hearts Club (P.O.S. w/ Slug)
~The City (Wu-Tang... well, Deck specifically)

I do dishes a lot because my sink is the size of a shoebox. I also work out every day. These two activities require an ITunes playlist that doesn't have to be babysat, something i can just listen to straight through while i'm not at the computer. The above songs are all rap songs i can listen to at any time, in any mood. There's no "look how cool i am" factor or songs added simply because i respect the artists rather than like listening to them (no Coup, no Brother Ali, no Blue Scholars, no PE, etc.). It was an interesting excercise.

I didn't transcribe the whole list, just a healthy selection. A few random observations:

1. Lots of Pharcyde, lots of Dungeon Family (Outkast, Goodie Mob), which i think is telling. Both groups had the perfect formulas of beats + emcees for the time, and they knew how to write actual songs-- interesting lyrics, creative flows, pop appeal, personality, the total package. And on both the Goodie Mob songs, Andre kills it-- his verse on Thought Process was my favorite growing up.

2. A suprising amount of 50 Cent, a surprising amount of Mos Def (two artists i'm not big fans of). But i guess they can make solid songs. Pearly Gates is the only song i kept when i deleted that awful G-Unit Mobb album.

3. Remember the Fugees? I know, dumb question. But remember how superlatively great Lauryn Hill was? Remember when Wyclef was a genius? Hell, i even thought Pras was dope. I think Fu-Gee-La is my favorite song of theirs. That pre-chorus is ridiculous.

4. Exposing my backpack: when it comes to both the Roots and Atmosphere, i guess i really prefer their later work. I think both acts have gotten better and better with age, though i doubt i'll find many people who agree with me. Game Theory was an absolutely brilliant album, better than anything they've ever done (at least sonically... the lyrics i could take or leave). And Atmosphere's last album was so solidly put-together, really inspiring.

5. I could have picked any three Camp Lo songs really. That's how good Uptown Saturday Night was. I think i like Swing because of Ish's verse and the "welcome to new york the illest of all places" line, which is just monsterous. But that whole album is never far out of rotation.

6. There were a couple songs i had on here at first but took off because of the "fast-forward" factor; when listening in mixed company (or just by myself, really), i ain't really trying to hear Gangstarr's "The Militia" or UGK's "International Players' Anthem" or Mobb's "Burn." They're all amazing songs, but i always have to cringe at one or two spots in them.

7. Can i just say that P.O.S. is a beast? I think he gets written off sometimes because of the punk rock connection, on some "oh he's just a punk kid trying to rap," but he's really a great emcee. From his albums to a bunch of different guest appearances, he always has something interesting to say and presents it fresh.

8. T.R.O.Y. is still a perfect rap song. Cliche choice, sure, but absolutely undeniable. And honestly i think CL is what does it for me, as great as the beat is. CL's verses are just so powerful-- kind of impressionistic, just hinting at deeper ideas, beautiful.

9. I guess all in all, it's a pretty predictable, almost boring list. Not a lot of left-field stuff. It's all American. It's all men (except Lauryn). Mostly either underground stuff or underground-friendly (like Outkast) stuff. Mostly late 90s stuff. It's very "hip hop," for lack of a more appropriate term. Maybe i'm not as weird as i think i am.

But again, an interesting excercise. Try it sometime.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

on "equal opportunity offenders"

This post is going to be all over the place.

Do you know someone who believes that because he or she is racist/homophobic/sexist/whatever against EVERYONE that that makes their racism/homophobia/sexism/whatever okay? Like white people who roll their eyes when your jaw drops after they say the n-word, saying something like “oh relax, I say offensive things about every group of people; I dislike everyone equally.”

South Park embodies this sometimes (sometimes ironically, sometimes not). Carlos Mencia, sure. Well-known blogger Brandon Soderberg, whom I just started reading and already can’t fucking stand, has explicitly stated this:

“As for the f-word, meaning ‘faggot,’ well besides me dropping many other derogatory terms for races/genders on this blog that go unchecked- this is a rap blog. Have you burned your Raekwon/Ghostface albums? They say the dreaded f-word too.”

Wow. That’s just dumb on a number of levels. But I won’t dwell on him here—maybe a future post.

The larger point is that “equal opportunity offenders” represent something sad about our culture. Aside from being an incredible leap in logic (“I don’t like your mother, but it’s cool because I hate your whole family too”), it’s also a manufactured hipster edginess that seems to say that as long as you’re honest about your prejudices, you don’t have to work on them. You’re just keepin’ it real, dude, and honesty is way more important than, oh I don’t know, being a decent human being.

And sure, there’s something to be said for hateful pricks who are open about it versus hateful pricks who only hate you behind your back, but people seem to forget that those aren’t your only two options. How about “making an effort to NOT be a hateful prick?”

But it’s not hip these days to make an effort at anything.

And I’m not just talking about hateful pricks (phrase of the day); well-meaning people often seem to use the “yeah, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m racist” statement as an escape pod, an excuse to disengage. Because it’s so “enlightened” to admit your prejudices, you’ve already done the work and can now sit back and relax, basking in the glow of your myriad imperfections.

But it’s not the hateful pricks or the well-meaning liberals I want to focus on, it’s the edgy hipsters who are usually neither. Considering themselves progressive by being above political correctness or “leftist extremism,” they’re the ones throwing ironic “ghetto parties” and ironically singing along to Rich Boy and freely using racial/homophobic/sexist slurs in an ironic fashion, and then rolling their eyes when you challenge them, as if to say “I’m so OVER racism, I can do this.”

I guess it all sprouts from the backlash against the PC movement. Privileged people didn’t appreciate the fact that they suddenly had to play by new rules, so they rebelled. “PC” suddenly became a euphemism for “oversensitive warm and fuzzy little baby language,” when all it really means is to try and be decent and respectful (how awful!). And I’m sure there were cases where the PC police went “too far,” but if you listen to some conservative commentators or edgy hipsters (funny how much they have in common), you’d be led to believe that ALL political correctness “goes too far,” that our cultural commons should be a Darwinist free-for-all and everyone should just toughen up, that the privileged should never have to give anything up, no matter how trivial, so that some disadvantaged group can feel better about themselves.

These days, our folk heroes are people who reject political correctness, courageously breaking down the walls of the establishment to tell it like it is. And while that’s a romantic notion, I think that sometimes we value the style of the “it” that they’re telling more than the “it” itself. For example, Aaron McGruder (creator of the Boondocks) and Carlos Mencia are both politically incorrect. But McGruder tends to make valid points in his humor about life, society and culture, while Mencia just does an offensive Arab impression or makes that “retard sound” he does.

But in the chaos of the PC backlash, we’ve lumped together EVERYONE who is anti-PC, regardless of what they’re saying, and made them heroes.

And usually, these “equal opportunity offenders” are in the Mencia group-- saying dumb shit so they can appear edgy, without any larger point or analysis. Rejecting political correctness can be a constructive thing, but it is, unfortunately, all too often used merely as an excuse to be openly and proudly prejudiced.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saturday: Youth Activism Summit!

Yeah, my name is spelled wrong, but i ain't mad because this is going to be great:

Workshops all afternoon, big show at night, all at the Capri Theatre, Free and All Ages!

I'll be there all day, facilitating some workshops early and then performing at night-- very exciting stuff.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

just thinking out loud about hip hop again

Interesting discussion over at Culture Bully on Brother Ali. I made a somewhat short remark on how as talented as he is, i'm tired of hearing him talk about himself-- how he raps, how he's great, how he's great at rapping, etc.. It maybe wasn't entirely fair, especially considering the fact that he's one of a very few emcees out today whom i think is worth a damn, but it raised some interesting points.

For me, particularly as a rapper myself, the most interesting is "what separates great emcees or albums from transcendent emcees or albums?" Because as great as Ali is talent-wise, he rarely ventures outside the box. And that's perfectly fine-- most people don't want to and there's nothing wrong with making straight-up hip hop. But it got me thinking.

The last "exciting" hip hop albums i can name are El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead," K-os' "Atlantis: Hymns for Disco" and P.O.S.'s "Audition." That isn't to say these are the only good hip hop albums to come out in the past year, but they're the only ones that have made me really stop and say "damn" or listen to more than once.

What do they all have in common? Let's break it down:

1. Musically, they all challenge conventional notions of "hip hop." K-os sings most of the time, "Audition" has incredibly dissonant and harsh production, and El-P is really on another world production-wise. It's all very much grounded in hip hop aesthetics, but it's taking hip hop somewhere new and interesting.

2. They're all definitely "albums," not just loose collections of songs. All three are remarkably cohesive and almost cinematic. I'll add to this the Roots' "Game Theory," which i think is brilliant for what it is, and is also extremely well put-together. I love concept albums, and while these don't exactly qualify, i think hip hop could use more of them.

3. They all feature creative songwriting. I'm not talking so much about content or lyricism here (K-os isn't a very good lyricist by any stretch of the imagination) as i am talking about song structure. There's not so much 16/8/16/8 stuff going on-- you hear long verses, pre-choruses, bridges, all those elements which make songs more dynamic.

By this criteria, i'm kind of excited to hear Jay-Z's "American Gangster," and i still have to pick up that Grayskul album, which looks promising. Maybe Lupe's album will be good... not really feeling the singles so far. The Wu are the Wu, and kind of sit on their own plane in the hip hop universe-- i'll probably pick that up too when it drops. Haven't heard much about Rhymefest's next album in a minute, but from what i remember it sounds really interesting.

Anyways, i think i'm just in the process of figuring out for myself what kind of music i like and what kind of music i'm going to be making in the next few years. I love straight-forward, throwback boombap or soul sample hip hop, but i have to admit i think it's getting kind of stale, particularly when you consider that thousands upon thousands of people are making it at this very moment.

I felt like i had heard Brother Ali's new album before, with the exception of the trio of songs that close it out. "Shadows on the Sun" was such an incredible piece of work, with concept songs and an emcee actually taking some risks, i felt that "The Undisputed Truth" was kind of a step backward-- rather than reaching for the stars (more concepts, more creativity, more risk-taking), he made an incredibly "solid" album (monumental intro, a bunch of shit-talking songs, some simple political songs, a few concepts, the emcee at the center of it all), which i think is what the indie hip hop crowd idealizes and demands these days.

And there's nothing wrong with that, really.

But Ali is talented enough to get away with that, for the most part. But at what point do we move on from these formulas? Why aren't there more hip hop concept albums? Why aren't there more low-key, folky hip hop artists? Why are there so few hip hop love songs compared to other genres? Why isn't there more hybridization with electronic music or bhangra or indie rock or industrial or whatever? Why do 90% of hip hop live shows sound and look the same? Why is subject matter so often limited to: rapping, being a rapper, wack emcees, or everyman struggles? Why are lyrics, whether simple or ultra complex, so often devoid of that spark that says "this is important shit you should listen to?" This is a music born of innovation; why are we (with a few notable exceptions, of course) so content to color inside-the-lines these days?

These are rhetorical questions-- anyone with some knowledge of underground hip hop culture and history knows the answers. But they're still important questions to think about. Everyone keeps talking about how attendance is down, CD sales are down, it's getting harder to be an indie-rapper (at least the people i've talked to). Do you think it has anything to do with the above questions? Has the average concert-going and album-buying fan seen and heard it all before by now?

And because i can already hear the negative comments, let me say that i can't stress enough that this post isn't about "what el guante thinks hip hop should be;" it's about my personal preferences. Because rapping-about-rapping over boom-bap beats while wearing hoodies IS hip hop. It always will be. It's just not ALL that hip hop can be. And THAT's what i'm interested in-- pushing those boundaries and trying to create something new and interesting. Shout to Outkast, Public Enemy, Atmosphere, the Pharcyde, Lauryn Hill, Lyrics Born, Busdriver and the Coup.

This is something i'll continue to struggle with here on the blog for a long time, probably changing my mind and overthinking this forever. I also devote a chapter to this in my book, which should be out in late November or thereabouts.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

more and more bullet points

1. I realize now that, as i've been doing these "bullet points" style posts for months now, i should have kept the numbers going instead of starting over at "1" each time. That would have been cool. Oh well.

2. Big shows coming up! I'll be performing at the downtown Minneapolis library this Saturday at 3pm, part of the "I Couldn't Live at Home" exhibit and performance series which examines community responses to children and youth in crisis. That same night, the Figureheads will be in town at the Dinkytowners-- i'm not on the bill, but i'll be there and it should be a great show. The next night, i'll be playing at the Candleabra with Broadcast Live, a hip hop band out of upstate NY. Next Saturday (the 13th), i'll be performing and facilitating workshops at the Youth Rising Twin Cities Youth Activism Summit. If you can't make it to any of that, be sure to come out to Club Underground on Saturday 10/20 to see me with the Scabs, Thosquanta and OBCT. That last one should be fun-- a punk/hardcore/genre-blending show with RollerDerby people everywhere.

So that's a library, a hip hop show, a youth activism conference and a punk show. That's gangsta. If you can't remember all this, check out the calendar at www.myspace.com/elguante.

3. As long as i'm promoting myself anyway, i'll mention that the album is just about finished and i'm aiming for a Halloween release date. I'm confident it'll be done by then, but the manufacturing may push that date back to early November. Either way, the first single will be out this month. Also, my book is now almost 100 pages of poetry, lyrics, essays, one-act plays and assorted writings. Look for that before the New Year.

4. Is there anything exciting going on in hip hop this month? I know Saigon is coming out (pass, thank you), the Wu (maybe), Lupe at some point (probably) but i'm drawing a blank now. I think making this album and writing this book has forced me to think so hard about what makes "good" music that i'm now able to hate on everything no matter what. Nothing is really exciting right now. Still haven't heard that Grayskul album yet though.

5. Did you know that season two of the Boondocks is starting up soon? And i don't have cable. Maybe when the album drops and i have a quasi-regular income i'll have to splurge.

6. Got robbed in a slam last night and i have absolutely no qualms saying it. It really doesn't happen as often as you might imagine, but every once in a while you just draw a weird group of judges, and it's like whatever. But i love my new material-- it's the best stuff i've ever written. Maybe not the most approachable, but definitely better than what i'd been reading at shows and slams. But that St. Paul slam is interesting. I know i have old, more cliche stuff in the arsenal that could win there, but i'm trying to avoid that temptation and just focus on the new, more creative material.

7. I've been getting into the schools here finally to do some poetry workshops, and those have gone very well. It's amazing to see how these kids respond to some of my stuff. I think it's important to challenge them, even the middle school kids, and am really looking forward to starting with the high schools this month. And that, to me, is what spoken-word is really about. Slams are fun and performances are cool, but poetry has really given me an avenue to work with kids and do something good in the community. I also can't wait to visit Madison and see how my old students as Memorial are doing.

8. Very interesting article on Teach for America at the New York Times: . Interesting because it deals with both the good and bad aspects of the program. While i don't think it's a monstrous demon that's killing the nation's children like *some" people i could name (wink), i do think it's definitely flawed. This article sums it up pretty nicely.

9. Another interesting article at Slate dealing with Wes Anderson and his film's casual racism. I love his style, and i think he's made a couple of great films, but this article is extremely valid and a must-read for Anderson fans: . I'd like to actually see the movie and be able to write about this more in-depth.

10. More brilliance from Jay Smooth, one of the few people in the universe i respect:

by the way, newish black sheep

This isn't exactly new, but this blog is rarely about breaking stories-- just sharing some great stuff. Dres is a fantastic rapper, always has been. He really hasn't lost a step.