Thursday, December 27, 2007

not a top ten list

just some random holiday bullet points:

1. I've been saying it a lot, but January will mark the actual, physical completion of my new album, EL GUANTE'S HAUNTED STUDIO APARTMENT. We're putting the finishing touches on the artwork this week, and the tracks will be fully mastered soon. We're already booking release parties too: 3/14 in Minneapolis at the Blue Nile, 3/7 in Madison (not set in stone, but a good ballpark), and more dates coming soon for Milwaukee, Chicago and elsewhere. I'll probably be doing lots of self-promotion in the coming months, so forgive me.

2. Check this out: I got "Farewell of the Year" in Rich Albertoni's "Top Stories in Madison Music" article over at Isthmus. Can't wait to go back again-- i'll probably be there in mid-February for a few shows and some promo stuff.

3. We helped put together and promote a youth activism conference in Minneapolis a few months back, and here's the site of the national org that's spearheading these conferences all over the country: Youth Noise. It'll be interesting to see how this site develops. Hoping for big things.

4. I still haven't heard Lupe's new album. I know, I know. Go to hell. I've noticed that he has a pretty rabid fan base though-- anytime a blogger or message board says something even slightly critical of the guy, a horde of people show up to post vitriolic comments. Traffic here ain't bad, but it could always be better, so just allow me to say: LUPE FIASCO IS SLIGHTLY OVERRATED. Ooooh. Burn.

5. Jermaine Dupri, Young Jeezy and Mickey Avalon? Really? I mean, REALLY?

6. So i'm watching football on Sunday, and am shocked as hell at how out-in-the-open these commercials are about telling men what it means to be a man. It's not that i don't expect that type of ad to exist, it's just that they're so explicit. One would think that in the age of political correctness and metrosexuality or whatever that we could cool it with the "real men do this, feminized pansies do that" advertisements. It's like every other commercial, whether about cars, beer, jewelry or hamburgers-- they're all trying to tell me that unless i drink beer, drive a big expensive truck and act like a dumbass, i'm not a man. Fuck you. It makes me glad i can only watch the game a few times each season.

7. And on top of that, the game itself was awful. Though it's probably a blessing in disguise-- with such a pass-heavy team, they'll probably be better off in Dallas rather than Lambeau in January. (Yeah: "politics, hip hop, rage, sports." I'm multi-faceted).

8. Big Quarters and Kanser are playing the Dinkytowner on New Year's Eve. That should be fun. If i can overcome my anti-social agoraphobia i might actually go. Either way, YOU should go.

9. Almost forgot: PERSEPOLIS is coming out as an animated film. Go see it. The book was good, but from the clips i've seen the film looks even better.

10. Even though my profession (RAP GOD) isn't always exactly high-stress, i'm still treating this week like a vacation. Played some Warcraft 2 (classic), ate a lot of carrots, watched movies, spent time with old friends. I'll post some more interesting, meaningful and in-depth blogs (with beautiful pictures for looking-at) when i get back. I promise.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I AM THE GOLDEN ATONEMENT

(three short book-to-movie reviews for no reason)

I AM LEGEND: Beautifully acted, well-shot, tense as hell... up until the ending, which totally deviates from the book and ruins everything. And i'm definitely not a "faithful for faithfullness' sake" kind of guy-- i actually like the film better than the book for the first 2/3 of it. But the book's ending was just SO MUCH more compelling, more emotional, more powerful. This is a good film that easily could have been a great film. As is, it's worth watching for Will Smith, who does a hell of a job.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS: Everyone in fantasy-land, from Narnia to MiddleEarth to the crazy animal-soul land here, is white. That was kind of jarring, though by now it probably shouldn't be. Hollywood has always done that. Aside from that pretty major distraction, the film was alright. Too rushed, very little characterization, but not horrible. I'm also sick of how every damn movie has a "prophecy" and/or a "chosen one." Why can't regular people just be heroes on their own without that extra baggage? The film DID make me want to read the books though, which is the best thing i can say about it.

ATONEMENT: This is a great example of a movie that's too well-done for it's own good. All the pieces for a "great film" are in place-- love, war, emotions, good cinematography, good acting, etc.-- which ends up making it seem kind of unreal, as if the filmmakers were doing nothing more than trying to win Oscars. Add to this the emotional exploitation going on (a number of the deaths in the film didn't seem to serve much of a narrative or thematic purpose, they just bludgeon the audience into thinking "this is heavy"), and i really couldn't get behind it. Again, maybe i have to read the book.

I'm exciting about seeing Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men though.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Psychology of Pop-Culture References

First of all, I’m not against pop culture references on principle—in movies, in slam poetry, in music, there ARE ways to make them work. A good writer can use them to lend a certain immediacy to his/her work, a specificity that grounds the work in the real world. The fact that American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman can rattle off facts about Phil Collins makes him extra creepy. The Michael Bolton reference in Office Space is a pretty great piece of absurdist humor that actually adds to the film’s characterizations. Erykah Badu’s frustration over missing the Wu-Tang show--not just “the show,” but the Wu-Tang show--situates her as a down-to-earth hip hop head and not just a neo-soul bohemian queen.

I could go on; there are plenty of good examples out there of artists using the pop culture reference as a tool, as another literary device intended to add to the impact of the work. Hell, I have a whole song entitled “Harry Potter.” I LIKE pop culture references, when they’re done well.

But the problem here is that in the hands of lesser wordsmiths (or even great artists having lapses in judgment), the pop culture reference can be the cheapest, most inexcusable form of hackery. And it seems like that sort of laziness is becoming increasingly common. No pun intended.

Exhibit A would have to be films like Epic Movie and the forthcoming Meet the Spartans, films that masquerade as satire while really just presenting an endless string of disconnected pop culture references and the occasional gross-out gag. Rather than using the reference to advance a plotline, develop a character or tell a joke, these films simply present the reference AS the joke, like: “Hey, I’ve seen Borat. That movie was funny and now this guy is dressed like Borat and talking like him so that’s funny too. I’m going to laugh now.” These films are NOT the descendants of spoofs like Airplane or The Naked Gun, they’re something much more sinister and insipid.

Another example would be Common, especially in recent years, spitting lines like “it’s kinda like the Breakup, with Jen and Vince Vaughn” or “she on the treadmill like OK Go” or when he talks about “the dude from N’Sync” being gay. None of these lines add anything significant to his songs. Rappers can usually get away with making throwaway pop culture references if they’re part of a clever punchline or wordplay-oriented metaphor, but these are just pointless similes, lazy songwriting. I'm guilty of this at times too (we all are), but Common is particularly bad.

As a slam poet, I see this phenomenon all the time. A poet will be talking about the war in Iraq, and then for no reason say something like “George Bush and war is like Michael Jackson and pre-teen boys!” Unfortunately, the audience will usually respond favorably to nonsense like that, which brings me to the point of all this.

Why are pop culture references so powerful? Audiences absolutely eat them up, which encourages artists to go out of their way to use them more often. Why?

I noticed something the other night while watching I Am Legend. There’s a scene where Will Smith is watching (and reciting lines from) Shrek on DVD. Now I think this is a good pop culture reference—it shows how his character has used the film to escape the horrors of his life, and it is kind of funny to hear him reciting the lines. The audience, however, laughed before any of this was made clear, at the exact moment you see a TV playing the movie, as if the simple recognition was the interesting part.

That’s how these awful Epic Movie movies work as well. Their appeal isn’t in the writing or the performances or the jokes built around the references—it’s in the split-second of excitement that happens when the viewer recognizes something he or she has seen before. It reminds me a lot of performing at hip hop shows and seeing the audience respond to a jacked beat. The moment they hear the “Deep Cover” instrumental or whatever, no matter what’s being rapped over it, no matter how dope the original beats played up to that point had been, they go crazy.

And I’m not trying to be on some elitist “stupid peasants and their pop culture references” steez. Okay, well maybe a little bit. But I’m really trying to figure out the psychology behind this phenomenon. Why is the recognition of a reference as exciting, if not more exciting, than the meaning behind the reference?

It seems to be something very primal, very instinctual. Like how when apes are presented with a task they can’t complete, they go do something they know they can do well, like eat a banana or swing on a tire. Or how when my printer stops working, I punch holes in the drywall. It’s comforting. Maybe recognizing pop culture references and getting pleasure solely from that recognition serves a similar psychological purpose in some sense?

Because most people don’t go to the movies or listen to music to be challenged. Some of us do, but I doubt it’s a very significant fraction. Instead, the bulk of us prefer escapism or pure entertainment or whatever can make us feel good for a few moments. Maybe pop culture references are like sprinkles on some giant art-cake, adding sweetness to something that doesn’t always taste great.

But do those sprinkles rot our teeth? Should art be saccharine escapism or should it be a higher form of communication? Obviously, that’s an entirely different conversation.

In the meantime, I’ve been making a point to discuss this phenomenon in the writing workshops I lead, hearing what other people think and starting some kind of dialogue around this. I think it’s important. This whole pop-culture reference thing may seem like an insignificant pet peeve of mine, but I really think it points to something larger. As American culture gets faster and faster, this sort of thing is only going to become more prevalent, and the dumbing-down effect that accompanies it is a real danger to the future growth of, specifically, the spoken-word movement, but also hip hop, film and other media.

But maybe I’m way off-base. Any of you readers psych majors?

Monday, December 17, 2007

my 2007 end of year music list (link)

My list is up now at Dane101.com.

Check it out. I forgot a lot of stuff i'm sure, and i actually feel bad about not listening to so many albums this year. As someone who makes a living writing music and writing about music, i probably should do more "research." But i guess when it feels like research, it's not fun anymore, and that's what point #9 addresses.

Oh and here's a video that backs up my final statement in the linked article. I should have done a whole point on Gogol Bordello, but just watch this; what can really be said? This brings tears to my eyes:

Friday, December 14, 2007

SwingShift 1.0 Recap

So for the next few months, Tru Ruts will be doing "swings," mini-tours with 3-5 stops. The first of these swings took place this past weekend and if it's any indication, we're in for a hell of a year. I just hope the rest of the year doesn't look like the photo below, which was our wasteland view on the trip from Minneapolis to Chicago.


But that's how we do: risking our puny lives for hip hop. That's EG Bailey and See More Perspective in the front there. We had a good ride, discussing everything from Panda Express to underground rap beef to ABAB rhyme schemes. We also got a chance to listen to New MC's solo album a couple times through, the Figureheads LP, the "I'm Not There" soundtrack and some other stuff.

Our first stop was Chicago, at a beautiful arts space called Quennect 4. It wasn't a bar, hip hop club, theatre or coffeeshop-- more of an underground arts hideaway with a revolutionary aesthetic-- very cool. I go through my pre-show ritual of awkwardly standing by myself in the back, pretending to write things down or check my cell messages, while other people mill about, get into ciphers or whatever. I hate the time before performing-- i always want to watch the other acts, but i can't talk to people because the damn music is so loud (can't hear and can't be heard unless i scream, which kills my voice); i usually end up in the greenroom if there is one (and until i get famous, there usually isn't). So here, i played the wall and avoided talking to people so i could watch the other acts, who were all great. Nazirah P. Mickey, Phero tha Ill, Gilead7, Philip Morris, Aquil, SeeMore and myself all performed before the night was over. Philip Morris was especially memorable, due to his Pigeon John-like charisma, strong voice and GREAT call-and-response stuff. Turnout was surprisingly high.

The show was very Chicago-ish, if you know what i mean. That scene has a dominant aesthetic, and it was well-represented that night. I pissed some people off with my knuckleheaded shit-talking, out of which came some good conversations, which is always positive. Overall, definitely a success.

We stayed at another amazing arts space and connected with some beautiful people. Be sure to check out Naivete Studios, especially if you're around Chicago.

Next day, we packed up and headed for Madison, where i lived for some six years. I wanted to get there early enough to check out the spoken-word club i used to run at Memorial High School, but we weren't able to make it in time (though a bunch of my former students came to the show later that night, and they're AMAZING). To make the best of things, we stopped at the Parthenon on State Street and had some ridiculously good food (which will be a recurring theme in any tour posts i write): chicken ceasar pita with lots of parmesan-- damn. Best fries in Madison too. A random photo of me looking like a melancholy vampire in the the hotel:
So the first show in Madison was that night-- i was scheduled to lead a workshop and then feature at the Just Bust! open mic series, a monthly joint organized by UW's First Wave Collective. The workshop was very cool-- we discussed cliches and played-out topics and ways to make them fresh again, a subject i think all spoken-word poets should spend more time on. I love leading workshops because it allows me to spread my angry and bitter aesthetic philosophies.

The open mic was fun-- lots of good stuff, both poetry and hip hop. As the featured artist, i got to do a good 20 minutes, four new poems (Starfish, Smalltalk, The Mommy Effect and Love in the Time of Zombies) and some rapping with SeeMore on the beatbox. I also love opportunites to showcase myself as both a non-rhyming straight-up poet and as an emcee. The two forms are really different and i work hard on both of them, so it's cool to be able to highlight their interplay in my work. We took some video but i don't know if i like it-- the ONE thing about Just Bust! is that it's in the Memorial Union Main Lounge, which is a high-ceilinged, bright room. The footage is kind of eh. Heres' a photo though, courtesy of Kimanh Truong:

Went to Genna's afterward, one of the few bars i actually enjoy hanging out at. Partly because i know the bartender, but also because it's just a great spot. Everyone got to make fun of me again becuase i drink Midori instead of "real" liquor. Excuse me if i prefer the cool flavors of kool-aid or ecto-cooler to firewhiskey.

Next day, had lunch at the always phenomenal Taste of Asia and got some work done at Fair Trade Coffeehouse. I had wanted to connect with Mike, who used to work there, but he doesn't now due to his success as the frontman of Pale Young Gentlemen, whom the hipper among you may have heard of. Good for him. I played with them at one of their first shows, and would defintely like to again, now that they're all over Pitchfork and whatnot. Come on Mike, take me with you to indie-fame!

Anyways, that night we were slated to open for Brother Ali, but had some time to kill before rehearsal and soundcheck. EG met with the Figureheads on business, SeeMore got a mohawk, and i bought maaaaad cheap DVDs at a new resale shop: Blade II (the best one), The Chinese Connection, King Arthur (unfairly maligned), Kingdom of Heaven (also unfairly maligned) and Kiss of the Dragon (probably fairly maligned). Now i won't need to buy any action movies ever again.

So, opening for any big-name hip hop act is always a blessing and a curse. One one hand, you get to perform in front of a huge crowd who are amped up (this was a free, all ages show and was definitely packed), but on the other hand, you have to deal with a surprisingly large contingent of celebrity-hounds, people who don't *really* care about hip hop but who are just there to get drunk and see someone halfway famous whom the blogs tell them are talented. I'm not complaining about this-- it's just the way it is, and it really makes it that much more fun to really connect with the people who DO appreciate good art even if the artists aren't all that well-known.

The show went very well-- the space was called the Rathskellar and is in the University's Student Union. It's all ages, but they sell beer. Lots of creepy German art on the walls and a capacity of about 600. The lineup boasted some good opening acts (First Wave, Defcee, Lucha Libre, Figureheads), and we were on just before Ali. Me and SeeMore decided to put together a collaborative set, bouncing back and forth between his songs and mine. This was our first show together, so it wasn't perfect, but i think once we get more comfortable with one another we're going to be a formidable one-two combo. SeeMore is a positive cat, with a lot of charisma and a certain Lyrics Born kind of flow and energy. I'm the brooding, angry smart-ass rapper. It's definitely a kind of Yin/Yang relationship and we balance one another out very well. We're both really looking forward to building in the future. A few photos: Ghostly Guante and crowd by Diane Bezucha; See More Perspective looking dapper by Diane Bezucha, and the Figureheads by me:

Our set that night hype and people really enjoyed it, especially considering that they were getting anxious about Brother Ali (some had been there for three hours already). The ONE thing that bothered me was that they'd cheer for every drop, regardless of the lyrics in that drop. We'd do a killer punchline that they'd miss because of the absence of a drop, but then in one song where we drop the beat to emphasize how BAD the lines are (it's a satirical kind of song), everyone went crazy. Ah well, lesson learned: people love drops.

I also sold mad books all weekend, which was kind of surprising. I guess people DO still read these days.

The highlight of the trip, for me anyway, was the feast after the show. Me, EG, SeeMore, B-Fresh and a whole bunch of the First Wave crew went to Perkins, a restaurant with an iron-clad sentimental grip on my heart. It was very cool to meet and build with all the First Wavers-- one might expect a bunch of 18-19 year old artists to be kind of annoying, but they're all genuinely nice, fun people, a perfect inaugural class for the program.

So all and all, a beautiful trip. Good food, good music, good people (and good money); can't ask for much more than that. Hopefully there'll be much more this year. I'll probably be back in Madison for a few shows in February, and then all over the Midwest in March for album release parties. See you all soon.

Here are the other fliers:

Monday, December 10, 2007

foods for thought

So we're back from the Swing Shift 1.0 mini-tour. I'll post a full update with photos and maybe some video and a recap of all the crazy from the Chicago show, the Madison spoken-word feature, and the Madison Brother Ali opening slot soon. It was all amazing; sold a lot of merchandise, saw a lot of old friends, ate like gods.

In the meantime, i came across a great quote from an anonymous message board personality the other day. It went something like this:

"These kids aren't into 'hip hop,' they're into 'semi-popular recording artists.'"

How relevant is THAT?

Monday, December 03, 2007

the work is not the workshop

The Work is Not the Workshop by Catherine Jones

I came across this article a while back and figured i'd post it now. I think that, regardless of what's right or wrong within this particular essay, these are the kind of conversations that the social justice movement as a whole needs to be having. Very thought-provoking-- check it out.

Back when i co-facilitated SEED, a course dealing with identity issues, social justice and activism, at UW-Madison, we began to develop a conceptual framework around the idea of "making a difference," or different aspects of action. It went something like this:

1. personal activism (self-education, self-work, reading articles, going to lectures, really challenging yourself, etc.)

2. interpersonal activism (writing articles/blogs, teaching, having conversations around the issues with friends and family, etc.)

3. organizing (challenging institutionalized systems through WORK: grassroots organizing, long-term campaigns, lobbying efforts, community activism, etc.)

And the idea here isn't that these three points are a hierarchy; it's that for change to happen we really need all three simultaneously. Too many people seem to focus on one or two of the points and ignore another. You have workshopaholics who push themselves to be perfect in every way without reaching out into the bigger world to make change, and you have revolutionaries who want to smash the system without dealing with their own shit-- sexism, racism, etc.-- who invariably end up creating dysfunctional organizations and campaigns.

Anyways, check out the article.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

minneapolis hip hop

I really wanted to write a post about how the local media here seems to have a kind of blind, puppydog love for the local hip hop scene, endlessly, hyperbolically praising everyone without really offering any insightful criticism. Sometimes it feels like certain members of the media are just home-team cheerleading because they don't know enough about hip hop to really dig into it.

But it'd be hard to write that essay, because the local scene IS really that good.

I went to a show last night that featured Truthmaze, DJ Drea and Autumn Compton & the Most Wanted, and it was crazy, one of the best shows i've seen in a long time. Autumn and 'em do it EVERY Friday at the Blue Nile too, with different features and guest artists (i'm playing it on the 14th). Just a great vibe, great performances-- a lot of fun. Truth killed it-- people know him as a rapper and poet, but i can't get over how great of a singer he is. Not an American Idol type voice, obviously, but a beautiful stab-you-in-the-heart kind of voice.

The only halfway disappointing thing was that turnout was kind of low because of the Prof and Rahzwell CD release going on at the same time. Now i've never met these guys or seen them perform, but they're interesting. It's the kind of upbeat, goofy hip hop that i absolutely can't stand (could say the same about MC/VL), but it's SO well-done (at least judging from the stuff i've heard online) i really can't hate. Very professional, great production, very fun. I just hate fun. But check 'em out if you don't.

I've also been listening to New MC's solo joint, the Big Quarters album, the POS album, a bunch of stuff that stays in regular rotation. Then of course there's Carnage, Desdamona, the whole Doomtree crew, M.anifest, Kill the Vultures, Toki Wright and his various crews, the list goes on and on, including a million lesser-known acts (young rappers, more street-oriented rappers, hobbyists, etc.) who don't get the media attention yet but are still doing their thing.

Anyways, back to my original point, which i think still has some validity. While this area does have a surplus of talented hip hop acts, sometimes i wonder how many critics and fans are genuinely feeling the music, and how many are caught up in either celebrity worship (when it comes to the big Rhymesayers acts) or simple hometown pride. Nothing inherently wrong with either one, really. It's just that if this scene is to really grow (and with so many rappers at least trying to make a living off music, it has to), i think that at some point we'll need more constructive criticism-- from writers, from fans and from the artists ourselves.

A few points for discussion:

1. People say good hip hop is "hot beats and hot flows," but at what point is that not enough anymore? Where are the songwriters? Where are the rappers who aren't just rapping about rapping or rattling off pop culture references or stringing together impressionistic images and ideas without having a point? Of course, every song doesn't need "a point," but i think we're starting to see more listeners demand SOMETHING deeper than "rapping really well over bombastic production." Punchlines and platitudes get cheap applause, but thoughtful songwriting creates lasting art.

2. How can we tap into the non-hip hop audience? I think of this as the "Kanye Effect." Kanye, when you strip away his celebrity and hype, is basically an underground rapper with GREAT pop sensibilities. I think indie rappers can learn from him in that sense. I for one am not going to be satisfied with sharing the same fans as every other rapper in town, the couple hundred kids who stay going to shows. I love them, but they're not enough. How do we reach out to the college audience, the rock crowd, the activist community, all these different groups? I think the key is in songwriting, which relates back to point one, but also in marketing, which relates to point three.

3. This is now an age where the music is only part of our potential impact as musicians, if that makes sense. How can we become true multimedia artists, intertwining visual art, photography, video, fashion and other elements to create a total artistic package? I know this is thin ice, becuase a lot of cats still be on the "i just do what i do and don't like to think about that other shit" tip, but i really think that other shit is important.

And these are just a few points. It's fun to think about. I get to test ALL my theories in the next three months as we start the promo machine for my album. We'll see how they play out i guess.