Wednesday, May 21, 2008

EL GUANTE'S HAUNTED STUDIO APARTMENT: NOTES AND COMMENTARY

So though we’ve been selling it at shows and it's been getting some great reviews, June 3 marks the official release date of the album. It’s on Itunes right now. Go get it (and if you already got it, please tell your friends). For those who care, here’s a track-by-track breakdown—just some thoughts and reflections on the process of creating the songs and how they eventually turned out. Self-indulgent? Probably. But ain’t nobody making you read this.

First, a note on the mastering. Much respect to Scott Radke, who mastered the album; it was recorded in about five different places by five different people using five different equipment sets and must have been a nightmare. Lesson learned.

Also, a note on the interludes. The numbering gets weird later in the album because there are a number of instrumental interludes produced by See More Perspective. At first, I was against adding more tracks to an already bloated (in the good sense of the word) album, but they really make the CD, bringing everything together.

SESSION ONE: GHOSTS
The album is divided into three “sessions,” partly because of aesthetic differences but mostly just to break the 80 minute album up into manageable chunks. The first session is the concise, 12 track project I would have released if I cared what people thought. Haha. I know shorter albums generally get more critical acclaim, but this album, three years in the making, HAD to be long and I’m not trying to cut this release up into three EPs just to make the purists happy. Session One doesn’t necessarily have an overarching concept, but it does have a lot of recurring motifs, references and themes. Not that anyone ever pays attention to that kind of stuff these days, but it’s all there if you look for it.

1. Unmastered w/ Truthmaze
This is one of those verses you write that you end up using for everything. It’s not a specific political commentary or storytelling verse, just some straight-up flexing. I use it in schools a lot since it’s mostly age-appropriate and I guess vaguely uplifting, and I use it in shows as an intro or a capella breakdown because I think the half-time ABAB rhyme scheme makes it sound dramatic. Figured it’d be a good intro to the album, a kind of mission statement.

Originally, I had a beat for this from LuvJones, aka DJ Curfew. It was a great beat, and we’ll definitely be using that version for something in the future, but it was an honor to have Truth come through and beatbox for this one—had to take that opportunity. For those who don’t know, the guy’s a legend—definitely check him out live or pick up his last album.

2. Harry Potter
Pop-culture reference aside, this is another mission-statement kind of song. The overall idea here is that I’m juxtaposing the Harry Potter books and hip hop, not as specific pieces of art but as cultural phenomena. Both kind of exploded out of nowhere (in hip hop’s case, at least that was the impression for most people outside NYC) and, against all odds, made a huge global impact. I think that as artists, we can’t be afraid to be different, to reach for something more than “ayo that beat was hot” or “that melody was pretty,” but to consciously strive for that next-level-shit. I’ll admit it’s kind of a weird metaphor, but I think it works.

Ethos Mega of Office Hours made this beat, and I wish we could have gotten more from him on this album, but hopefully we will in the future. He killed the outro breakdown on the production side; that beat/rhyme combo on the last 16 bars is probably my favorite single moment on the album, and this song ends perfectly.

3. Esta Tarde (The Other Half)
I met G_Force on the internet, and have yet to meet him in person, despite the fact that he produced half of this album and half my last album as well. The kid’s a genius, and this song has really become a fan favorite since we unofficially released it way back in 2006 or whatever. That’s me and DJ Pain 1 in the background of the breakdown, talking shit and clanking bottles.

While most hip hop relationship songs are either faux-edgy, melodramatic catharsis-fests or saccharine, soulless sex jams, I really wanted to write a realistic love song. I think this comes pretty close to capturing some relationships that I’ve seen… not that I’ve been a part of, though, thankfully. It’s bittersweet, which is by far my favorite emotion for a song; making the most out of a bad situation.

4. The Fourth Wall
This is a good example of what I try to do as a songwriter: I think this song works on two levels, both as a celebration of the working-class everyman struggle (a theme that has been done to death) and as a call to transcend that, to be more than “everyman.” As someone who has worked a whole lot of different jobs, from janitor to food service to facilitating college classes to working in high schools to being a professional rapper, I’ve developed a complex relationship with the 9-5. This is really a song about trying to make a difference no matter what your day job is; it’s definitely one of the more personal songs on the album.

The beat is by DJ Pain 1; I love uptempo beats and this was a lot of fun to rap to. I couldn’t decide whether to rap the hook or really try to belt it out—it’s probably for the best that it ended up somewhere in the middle. Lyrically, this is a pretty dense song that, I think, comes off pretty straightforward. That was another goal I had going into this album: where a lot of rappers express simple ideas in the most abstract, weird way possible, I wanted to tackle issues with some depth but do so in everyday language. I think that worked out well on this song, but we’ll see what other people think.

5. One of These Mornings
Another great G_Force beat; I decided not to even record a hook and just let that sample play. I really like how this song turned out—it could be the next single. Usually I prefer edgier stuff, but this is one of those songs that is both really inoffensive and also, in my opinion, pretty deep and meaningful. It’s a song about connection, about why we live life the way we do. As a fairly introverted person who doesn’t have a lot of close friends, that connection piece is deeply tied to my art—touring and recording has allowed me to reach out to people and engage in the larger community, something I probably couldn’t do otherwise.

6. The Illusion of Movement
This song, oddly enough, is based on Zeno’s paradox, which basically says that you can never get from point A to point B, because you have to get halfway there first and there are an infinite number of halfway points on the way there. Movement, then, is an illusion, as is change of any kind. The metaphor in the song is that we struggle against impossible odds even when we know we can’t win. You can call it madness or you can call it love or you can call it simple stubbornness, but it’s what makes us human. As a love song, it’s kind of depressing and inspiring at the same time. And if that’s not the perfect description of love…

This is another Pain 1 beat, one of the best on the album. As a song, this one is really well-structured. I love the interplay between the lyrics and the beat and how it naturally climaxes and concludes. It’s been a surprisingly hype live song too.

7. Orwell Oh Well
The beat here, courtesy of DJ Pain 1, is a monster. It’s hype without being a cookie-cutter Just Blaze bite, and it’s smooth without being a soulless club banger. Definitely not a typical underground hip hop beat, which is high praise in my book. It’s just weird, so I wrote a weird song to complement it.

It’s one of the more straight-forward songs on the album I think—some smart-ass punchlines about how we’re happily marching (or dancing, I should say) on into oblivion, devouring ourselves without even noticing. It’s an anti-dancing dance song, I guess.

8. Your Boyfriend Leaves Much to be Desired
This might be the biggest curveball on the album. On one level, it’s a shit-talking song, a goofy college radio type song—most people will probably either love it or hate it based on that criteria. But really, it’s coming from a deeper place. When I was in Austin at the National Poetry Slam, my team hung out with some people one night after I had gone back to the hotel. One of the women they met told them about how her life’s dream was to be a trophy wife, to wait for her cheating, no good ex-boyfriend to come back to her. That story really got me thinking about how society devalues women’s strengths and pressures them to settle for jerks, how our culture ostracizes the single woman and makes her feel as though something is wrong with her. The sexism there isn’t so much structural or institutional as it is psychological, which is just scary.

The beat is by G_Force. I had originally wanted a more up-tempo, playful beat, but I think it turned out better with the more loungey piano beat. This is probably the song I’m most nervous about when it comes to releasing it into the public consciousness… it’d just be easy to misinterpret. But again, we’ll see.

9. Fake Plastic Emcees III w/ See More Perspective
I’ve been working with See More for a few months now, and we mesh really well. His upbeat positivity mixes very well with my brooding melancholy. We’re like the yin and yang of indie hip hop—he gives out hugs to our fans and I kick their puppies. He produced the interludes on the album, as well as contributing the beatbox here. I’ll mention that we one-taked this, no studio magic, layering or punch-ins, just him beatboxing and me rapping for three minutes or whatever.

I consciously tried to stay away from the rapping-about-rapping songs that are so prevalent on underground hip hop albums, but these three verses were too good to just waste. So I compromised and did a beatbox track with no (real) hook rather than put together a whole song. It’s a good example of how I struggle with tradition vs. innovation—these kinds of punchline songs are very much a part of what hip hop IS… and while I don’t think we should do nothing BUT punchline songs (as a lot of rappers do), there’s nothing wrong with a couple here and there.

I should also note something to avoid controversy. The mention of Rhymesayers and Doomtree in verse three are NOT underhanded disses. I’m saying that a lot of young rappers are simply emulating them rather than finding their own identities. I thought that was obvious, but apparently it’s not.

10. Flicker (Redux)
Yeah, this song was on my last album. But I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and the G_Force beat is just heartbreakingly good, so we had to put it on this album too. It’s a re-recording, cleaner and clearer than the original, but using the same beat and lyrics.

While most will probably hear this as a sweet little love song, to me, it’s really about time as a more general concept, about growing old and remembering little flashes of your life. It’s scary and it’s beautiful and I guess above all it’s bittersweet.

11. This Road w/ Jer 1 of the Figureheads
Jer is the only guest rapper on the album, and I guess that shows just how much I respect him. My only regret is not getting Greg (who is also in the Figureheads) on the album too, because both of them are amazing. Jer actually recorded his verse and wrote the hook before I got a chance to do anything, so this is really like his song featuring me. Pain 1 did the beat, which brings to mind the Figureheads’ style without being a carbon copy of it.

And I’ll admit, when I heard his verse I didn’t really know what to do. This is a pretty uplifting, positive song, and my whole M.O. for the past few years has been dark and dreary and angry. The resulting verse, I think, is one of my best—a meshing of a dark attitude with a really positive message. This is a song about priorities, about knowing what’s important to you and fighting for it no matter what. It’s really about love.

12. Spirit Bomb
This is yet another song that plays as a love song but was written about something else; namely, hip hop and art in general. Art is such a strong force to bring people together, to create connections between people who would otherwise not be interacting, and that’s a beautiful thing—even if those connections are superficial or transitory. As important or meaningful as our actual words can be, I think our real impact as artists involves building community and bringing people together.

The beat here is by DJ Pain 1 and is another subdued monster. That outro is so perfect, and it caps off the first “session” of the album really well.

SESSION TWO: I FIGHT WITH WEAPONS
The next three songs are bundled together because they were all produced by the Figureheads’ Dave “Tracksmith” Olson. Since they have a pretty radically different feel, we separated them from the first 12 tracks. Tracksmith’s style is rooted in electronic music, and this beats have a cold, pulsing vibe to them; it was great to finally get to work with him. Because of time restrictions, we had to more-or-less one-take each of these songs. Which was fine, because it was like 100 degrees in the booth, which was in the attic of a church.

14. Bring Out Your Dead (J’Accuse)
This song is a direct homage to a really old French film I’ve never seen. In it, fallen World War I soldiers come back from the dead and march through Paris, chanting “J’Accuse.” The only reason I know about this is Youssef Sawan, who co-founded the Madison Observer with me and had a regular column called, you guessed it, “J’Accuse.” Something about that image, the dead demanding reparations from the living, really stuck with me.

The deeper meaning here is that while a lot of people die and suffer directly in war, we are ALL affected by it on some level whether we realize it or not. Every war is an endless war. I think zombies are always, on some level, metaphors for the sins of the living, and there’s a lot of power in that—they come up twice on the album.

15. Scratching the Surface with a Sledgehammer
I think it’s really important to avoid preaching to the choir, to instead turn the lens on ourselves and our own community. This is a song about how predictable indie hip hop has gotten, point blank. And I’m guilty of some of the stuff I talk about here too, so don’t take it too hard (I’m not dissing any specific people, except for maybe homophobic battlerappers). I just think it’s an important conversation to have. The best art, to me, transcends formulas and attempts to do something new and different. Rapping about rapping, doing generic “girl songs,” spitting vague political platitudes—all that stuff (and more—this song could have been ten verses long) is fine in moderation… but it’s really overdone and I wanted to talk about it.

Funny story about that drop in the first verse (actually the drop wasn’t able to get added to the album version of the song, which kills me): me and See More performed this live once, opening for Brother Ali. The two bars in that drop (“my third eye is open, scopin’ for revolution/ my lyrical spiritual miracles are the solution”) are supposed to be WACK, they’re examples of what I’m criticizing in the song. But since we added the drop, the crowd went crazy at that part. The moral of the story: if you’re an emcee, add drops to all your punchlines no matter how wack they are, because people LOVE drops.

One last note: as “political” as I am, people often ask me why I don’t have more explicitly political, burn-the-flag-and-start-the-revolution-type songs. I think the answer is that everything I really want to say is in the third verse of this song and in “Kodama.” I’m not really into rapping about problems—I’ll rap about the idea that people have to figure out what issues they care about and then go do something about them, about the importance of activism.

16. Home Sick Home
In the spirit of rejecting the formula, this is a song that takes the idea of repping a city or region and turns it on its head—it’s a song about standing up for what you believe in, no matter where you’re physically standing or where you live or whatever. I wrote this on a road trip through southeast Wisconsin, and it was also informed by my time in north Illinois (the part that isn’t Chicago). This isn’t a big, sexy, flashy song, but I think it’s one of the more thoughtful tracks on the album. I hope people listen to the lyrics.

SESSION THREE: DEATH POETRY JAM
And this is the spoken-word section. All the poems are live recordings, and the interludes that separate them (as though it were a set with a DJ) were done by See More Perspective. These aren’t necessarily my best poems; they’re the ones that fit the vibe of the album, had high-quality recordings and were done in time. It figures too—I wrote three of my best poems ever after completing work on this project… maybe they’ll be on a future release. Though this session pushes the album into 80 minute territory, it was really important to me to include them. As someone who raps and performs poetry, I wanted to showcase both sides of what I do.

19. Misfortune Tellers (live)
This is kind of a transition piece. It’s written like a rap (couplets, 16-bar base) but it’s really meant to be an a capella poem. I wouldn’t ever record this over a beat. A popular misconception about the relationship between rap and spoken-word is that rap is just rhyming poetry. And it is, but it isn’t… rapping has a certain swing to it, and just because you’re writing rhythmic couplets doesn’t mean it’s going to sound natural over a beat.

Anyways, this piece is about the power of art. I write a lot about how art ISN’T going to save the world and how “revolutionary rappers” are fooling themselves. I stand by that, but I do think that art has some role in the progress of humanity—it’s not just a bystander. It can inspire us, it can document our successes and failures, and it can aid in the long-term social, cultural and moral changes that must accompany the specific institutional changes we need to move forward.

21. A Butterfly Flaps Her Wings (live)
A fairly subtle theme running through this whole album is that negative energy like anger and sadness and disillusionment don’t necessarily have to be “bad.” If you can focus them, you can use them as motivation to do positive things. That’s the metaphor in this piece. On a simpler level, this is also a goofy breakup poem. I don’t write a lot of poems like that, but I wanted to give it a shot, to tackle the most cliché of concepts and try to put a new spin on it. I think this piece was successful in that respect. It’s also one of my more well-structured poems—there’s a lot of build-up and crescendo and dynamics going on.

00. The Mommy Effect (live)
This is a more straight-forward piece, an examination of military recruitment and all that. But it’s based on something real—the “mommy effect” really is a term used to talk about how mothers are not letting their children enlist. And that just seemed so over-the-top condescending and sexist that I had to write a poem about it. We actually had to cut this piece from the final album due to time constraints, but it’ll appear on a future release.

23. A Paid Advertisement (live)
So this isn’t a very good poem, in the traditional sense. It’s more about therapy, about venting about all the stuff in the spoken-word community that annoys me. The full piece (which you can read in my book) is even longer. This piece might not win me a lot of friends, but I’d rather be open about what I think is wack than just talk behind people’s backs all day. This is yet another piece about being honest with ourselves in our own communities—I could have poems and songs criticizing gangsta rap, Republicans and reality TV (and I do sometimes), but those are easy targets. We really need to be talking about ways we can improve as well.

And criticism isn’t just about being a smart-ass or feeling good about myself. I love my community (spoken-word, hip hop, activist, etc.), and I want my community to be as powerful as it can be. Sometimes that takes tough love.

Also, I think I’ve just about outgrown these kinds of poems. I think the slam community has gotten past a lot of the clichés—not all of them of course, but things seem to be better now than they were five years ago.

25. Love in the Time of Zombies (live)
I get the feeling a lot of people don’t “get” this poem, but it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written—a straight-up love poem. Again, when you’re going to write something that everyone’s already written (like a straight-up love poem), I think it’s important to come at it from a new angle. I wrote this at the National Poetry Slam last year; I was so disgusted by the lack of originality I saw in a particular bout that I wanted to write something completely off-the-wall. Be sure to check out the video too.

This piece could also be read as a metaphor about colonialism. That subtext is buried, but it’s definitely in there (“pale and shrieking on the horizon,” etc.).

27. Kodama
So this is a piece, like Misfortune Tellers, that kind of walks the line between poem and rap song. I opted to do this one over a beat, partly because I just liked the beat so much (G_Force again) and partly because it did kind of work. As you can see, it’s still a little stiff compared to some other songs, but I like it better with the beat than without, particularly at the end when the music fades out.

So a quick explanation, because this may be one of the deeper tracks on the album: kodama were made famous by the movie Princess Mononoke—they were the cute little tree spirits. But in Japanese folklore, they’re more than that. The idea behind them is that it takes a great deal of effort to get a tree to start walking, but once you DO get a tree to start walking it’s even harder to stop it. And that’s just such a beautiful metaphor for activism and organizing.

This song also confronts the hip hop truism that says to make great art, all you have to do is look out your window and describe what’s going on. There’s a lot of value in doing that, but I think it’s equally important to imagine something different, to visualize a better world and fight to make it happen.

I like the idea of coming full circle, and this song ties up so much of what this album and the last few years of my career have been about—it alludes to the tree/head sticker and first single cover, it talks about ghosts and spirits, it talks about activism. And those last two bars are probably the most potent couplet on the album. All in all, even though this album isn’t 100% perfectly cohesive, I really like its flow. I think the sequencing was done just right, and See More’s interludes really add a lot.

80 minutes is a long time for a hip hop album; I fully realize that. But listening through this again, I stand by my decision not to cut it down. Each song is meaningfully different from every other song, and the variety in the beats and subject matter makes everything work I think.

THE ARTWORK
My cousin, Jason Myhre, did the artwork, just as he did on my last album. The back cover is a direct homage to (or parody of) “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” which I think is hilarious and fresh. But for those who don’t get that reference, it might be kind of an odd design. Oh well. The front cover was sketched without Jason having ever seen my actual apartment. Oddly enough, it’s pretty close to what it looks like.

With this album, we really tried to have a strong aesthetic cohesion between the album art, the art on the two singles, my book, and the stickers and other promo material: high contract black and white, subtlety, and interlocking images. The tree in the window on the album cover is the tree from the sticker and first single. The washed-out image inside the booklet is from the second single’s cover. The building on the second single’s cover contains the “haunted studio apartment.” The leaf and headphones on the back cover is a reference to the sticker and first single design. It’s all intertwined. I’m not sure if people are really going to notice that stuff, but I think it’s cool.

Anyways, I hope you all enjoy the album. It was a long, stressful, costly, but ultimately rewarding journey. Tell your peoples. Hit up the MySpace. I’ll be in your town soon.

2 comments:

Molly said...

glad you did the commentary...

my appreciation definitely grew for some of the songs when I read this and then went back and really listened, particularly home sweet home

Anonymous said...

"Love in a time of Zombies" has quickly become one of my favorite poems. It's a refreshing take on love in an improbable setting and it's awesome.