Thursday, February 28, 2008

new piece: "The Family Business"



FUN FACT: This post/poem is from 2008, but I'm bending time and posting the 2012 recording of it, just in case google brings anyone here.

I'm kind of mad that this piece and Starfish weren't done in time for the album. They would have fit nicely. But they'll find official releases somewhere. I really like this piece. It talks about issues that i've struggled with, and will continue to struggle with, for a long time. Big ups to Sha Cage, See More Perspective, J. Otis Powell and the other people in the audience for listening and making some noise-- it's always more fun with a rowdy audience.

TEXT HERE:
The Family Business

Jackie’s been here for twenty-five years and he tells me you get used to it. He says your nose learns to seal itself when you dive headfirst into an ocean of dust; your eyes develop nictitating membranes to keep the chemical sprays out; and your hands… they will grow their own gloves, invisible and tough and permanent. I’ve been a janitor for three weeks and I thought I was made of stronger materials.

We play chess in the break room. Jackie asks me what my favorite piece is. I say the pawn because, you know, he’s the underdog; the odds are against him. Jackie identifies with the pawns too, but he finds nobility in their sacrifice, he sees beauty in their simplicity, in the fact that they’re always moving forward.

Jackie shambles from room to room, moving half as fast as me but somehow getting twice as much done. The night shift will mess with your head like that. Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I look at that face and feel like we are the servants entombed alive with the pharaoh, polishing someone else’s gold while our oxygen runs out, dutifully preparing a grand feast for a god who will never be hungry.

But Jackie tells me that there is honor in this. A good day’s work. An honest living. There is poetry in this.

But what kind of poetry lives in a can of orange naturalizer, the liquid breath of dragons? The mist dissolves every word creeping up my throat, overwhelms every idea. They got me wiping my reflection from the glass, scrubbing the shadows off the walls. They got me so scared of my alarm clock that I can’t fall asleep, even when my muscles drain out from underneath my fingernails and my thoughts stream out of my ears, and I am left with nothing but two eyes that refuse to close for fear of what they might see.

Is there really honor in this? Or is that abstract notion the carrot they dangle in front of us pawns to move us across the board?

But Jackie says you can’t think about it like that. He says that without us, the people who live and work in this building couldn’t function, that we keep the gears turning and that it might not be glamorous but it’s necessary. And maybe he’s right. Maybe I am just a working class kid who somehow hustled my way into college and got delusions of grandeur. Maybe now I’m “too good” to go into the family business: a hundred generations of janitors and farmers and infantry and factory workers and pawns.

So I suck it up… and last for two more months. And on my final day before an uncertain future, I make a point to shake Jackie’s hand, and I say:

“I’ve been thinking man. I think the reason pawns can’t move backwards is because if they could, they’d kill their own kings in a heartbeat.

“Instead, we are forced to keep moving, believing we can get to the other side and become royalty ourselves, but most likely dying on the way there, sacrificed for a cause we don’t even understand. I wish you… I wish you the best, man. I wish you horses and castles.”

Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen, and disappears into his work.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

as long as i'm linking to stuff

read this article from Howard Zinn. Now!

This is the shit i've been saying at shows. Voting is great, and we should try to elect the best candidate we can, but the important thing is what we do AFTER election day, what we do EVERY day, what we do to pressure our leaders no matter what party they belong to.

Monday, February 25, 2008

nader = running. you = mad.

Read this transcript of Nader's Meet the Press interview about WHY he's running again.

It's pretty interesting, if not almost convincing.

It's hard because i want to defend Nader against the liberals who have set him up as some kind of bogeyman, a scapegoat for their own failures and flaws, but at the same time i don't really agree with his tactic of running for president. Both sides of this debate seem to be missing some big-picture perspective.

It's too late at night for me to really dig into this, but i'll be writing a lot (and rapping a lot) about these issues all year. For now, i'll just say that people should read that interview with an open mind. I'm sure when the time comes i'll hold my nose and vote for the Democrat, but it's vital that we understand what's really going on, even if it doesn't make tactical sense to act on it.

Follow-up: analysis from john nichols

Sunday, February 24, 2008

like skyscrapers sprouting from farmland

So i played my first show ever in Des Moines last night (w/ Truthmaze, See More Perspective, Case the Joint and Maxilla Blue). Didn't really know what to expect from the venue, from the other acts or from the experience in general, but it ended up being on that "hip hop is so beautiful" tip-- great crowd, beautiful music and amazing people. Sometimes you can find all that in some rather unlikely places.

Traveled down there with e. g. bailey, Truthmaze and See More Perspective. Got some crazy footage of the sunset over the vast, flat, frozen wasteland that is southern MN and norther IA-- looked like Tattooine with only one sun. It was just as pretty as any sunset i've seen in Hawaii or anywhere. Anyways, it's nice to notice stuff like that when you're traveling. It can't all be about setlists and ten syllable rhymes and scene politics. I'll post that footage once it makes its way into a youtube clip.

The show itself was at the Vaudeville Mews, an archetypal grimey, dark, personality-filled bar/club. It took a minute for people to get there, but we ended up with a big, boisterous crowd, even a crew of b-boys and b-girls. In the middle of Iowa. And they were HOT. A few show photos, courtesy of e. g. bailey:

See More Perspective-- they're not the right style of pyramids in terms of architecture, but they'll do:

Here's the always-incredible Truthmaze:

Here's me. Apparently i've developed a kinetic stage persona and move around too much to photograph well with our little camera. Here's the best one i found:

And finally, this is Maxilla Blue:

Maxilla Blue was probably the most pleasant surprise i've had at a show since seeing Gigantic Mechanics in St. Cloud. See More said it best: "these days, you can find incredible hip hop EVERYWHERE. It really doesn't matter where you're from." This group was polished, had monstrous beats (courtesy of Aeon Grey), hot lyrics and a hell of a stage show. If you're on MySpace you should add them now.

Hopefully we'll be making Des Moines a regular stop on our trips.

I'm really excited about our crew helping to spin this web over the midwest, networking with amazing artists who are outside of the established circuit, really building a community based on more than business. As easy as it is to hate on some of the trends within indie and underground hip hop, shows like this one make me remember how much positivity and potential there really is underneath it all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

yeah i smile sometimes

...go to hell. I like ice cream, alright?


This was the only still i took on this last Madison tour/swing/trip. I did, however, get two hours of video footage that we're going to edit down to a short youtube clip and post later. It's pretty hilarious... partly just because this trip was so much fun.

Had a slam on Saturday night, a performance on Tuesday and two days in between to just run around town posting flyers, guerrilla performing, taking over radio shows and eating ice cream. We also ended up sitting in with the Big Mouth Cooperative at Cafe Montmartre, an absolutely ridiculous jazz group. I actually got my start rapping with them way back in 2001. Other than them, though, didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with close friends, but ended up hanging out with a bunch of new people, which is always a great experience.

See More Perspective came along with me, and we worked a lot on vocal/beatbox collaborations, something that really paid off at the Tuesday show. It was called EXPLORASTORY; every Friday in February the university brings in a different "style" of storyteller. Me, SeeMore and First Wave were there to represent for hip hop and spoken-word. The new album and the new pieces i've been writing are very story-focused, so it was great to be able to show that off and talk about it. And First Wave killed it in the opening slot. They're scary talented.

Madison still feels like home. I'll be going back March 8 for the Madison stop on EL GUANTE'S HAUNTED VAN TOUR. 9pm at the Memorial Union Rathskellar. Free and all ages. It's going to be a wild CD release show.

I'll post that video soon hopefully.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

ExerciseEXORCISE

So i did this ExerciseEXORCISE show this past Friday kind of late notice-- just a short spoken-word set, didn't know what to expect. But wow, what an incredible event. From experimental theatre to improv to hip hop to spoken-word to dance to more, this was one of the most unique experiences i've ever had as a performer. Aside from the fact that i killed it (which i gotdamn did) i really enjoyed myself as a spectator as well. It's beautiful to see all these different arts communities coming together.

The highlight, if you can call it that, was a short play that featured a real demonstration of waterboarding, one of the tortures that the US government uses. Absolutely chilling. Probably the most powerful performance art piece i've seen in my entire life. It might be easy to look at waterboarding and say "well at least it's not a pit full of scorpions or a branding iron to the face" or whatever, but seeing it live and hearing it described by the guy who had to go through it really made it real for me-- this is one of the worst things you can do to a human being.

The other acts were a bit lighter, as pretty much anything would have to be, but all very engaging.

DEFINITELY check out the other shows coming up:

ExerciseEXORCISE
6 Evenings of Dance, Theatre, Music & Film
Curated by Jeremey Catterton at The Bottling House Theatre:
Performed every Friday at 10pm, February 1 through March 7

Broadcast Live & Web-Stream by Twin Cities Radio

It is not every year that there are 5 Fridays in the month of February, and this year Minneapolis theatre company Lamb Lays with Lion is embracing this unique occurrence by unleashing the strange and unique performers of Minneapolis. Lamb Lays with Lion is proud to announce ExerciseEXORCISE, the Twin City’s opportunity to Exercise its creative demons and Exorcise the winter ennui, with 6 completely diverse evenings of performance. Each performance will be Broadcast by Twin Cities Radio, streamed on the web, as well as air by their sister station in Queens, NYC.

Friday, February 15, 2008

yet again: on "political rap"

Couldn't sleep last night, which was kind of a blessing because i ended up having a long internal conversation with myself about politics in hip hop, or more specifically, hip hop artists who try to be political. I can't for the life of me remember what inspired it, but here are the main points:

I've heard heads deride political hip hop because it is, so often, "preaching to the choir." I think this is a fair criticism. Most political rap songs today ARE on some "fuck bush," " we need a revolution," "mainstream radio is materialistic," etc, and most of the people who hear these songs already agree 100% with that stuff.

There are exceptions of course; namely, high-visibility artists who put something subversive in otherwise pop or mainstream albums/songs. Kanye talking about blood diamonds, for instance. Chamillionaire. Rich Boy. Andre3000. David Banner (quite a few southern artists, actually). And this is great. I think already-famous artists, because of their wider audiences, make more of an impact even when the politics are subtle.

But i think there's a problem when lower-level artists strive to do the same sort of thing. See, i'm a lot more interested in artists around my level-- independent, underground artists, many of whom strive to inject politics into their music. In the midwest, we know who our audience is likely going to be: liberal, young, college kids, often white, often middle-class, etc. This is, of course, a generalization, but i think it's a pretty safe one. So when WE "speak out against the evils of the world" in a generalized sense, i think it's less likely that our words are really changing anyone's mind, or educating anyone, or whatever.

Again, exceptions. Slug rapping about date-rape. Sage Francis and P.O.S. standing up against homophobia in rap lyrics. The Coup talking about Marxism. Murs warning his white fans to take a step back and see what's going on ("we ain't the same color when police show up"). Macklemore's white privilege song (google it). While the average indie hip hop head is probably going to identify as "liberal," few seem to really be in the know when it comes to things like racism, homophobia, sexism and truly progressive politics based around collective organizing. So hats off to artists who make political songs that DON'T just preach to the choir.

And i don't think a "fuck bush" song is necessarily a bad thing. It's just that when you're constantly performing for people who already agree with you, that sort of song becomes just another topic, like "the weed song" or "the ladies' jam" or "the battley punchline song" or whatever. All in all, i guess a song like that is better than another song about how dope your crew is, but we shouldn't be pretending that it's something it's not.

I guess my challenge to underground artists, and to myself, is to think about who is going to be listening, and CHALLENGE them. I think that these days, there are two major ways for indie artists to make EFFECTIVE political music:

1. Telling a story that humanizes a particular issue and makes it real in a way that people might not have experienced before. Storytelling is such a lost art in hip hop. We all want to get up on our soapboxes and preach. But it's so important to use extended metaphor, to create characters that a listener can feel for. Telling a story about a single mother on welfare is ALWAYS going to be more powerful than saying "hey poverty is bad."

...and more importantly:

2. Preach to the choir, but talk about stuff they might not want to hear (like the above examples). So you know your audience is likely going to be liberal... but liberals don't know everything. For example, 2008 is going to be an election year, and ALL our attention is on Obama or Hillary; so what i'm rapping about these days is how no matter who wins, our job will never be over. Voting is great and everything, but no Obama presidency is going to SAVE us. We need to organize-- we need to form campaigns and organizations that have the power to push whoever is in office to do what our communities need them to do. You'll get a bigger crowd response by saying "let's get the GOP out of office," but that ain't for me.

IDEALLY, political music can inspire us to take action, it can educate us about issues we don't know about, and it can bring people together for a common cause. I don't think much political music really does any of that stuff though. I'd like to see more. It's possible, it's just more difficult.

And of course there's someone reading this and saying "if you get your news and politics from underground rappers that's pretty dumb." Sure. No one's saying that we should all just listen to Brother Ali and stop watching the BBC. But i think that as artists who are so often face-to-face with our fans, we have a unique opportunity to spread the messages we believe in. Hip hop doesn't have to be political-- there's nothing wrong with party music. But it can also be a higher form of communication.

Just a few thoughts. This is an ever-evolving topic in my head.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

great review of the Truth and Chastity show

Check out the article here: HowWasTheShow.com. I'll just add that i was there and enjoyed the hell out of it, even when i wasn't performing. Chastity Brown is someone to watch, no doubt, and Truth just gets better and better every time i see him. Probably my favorite live performer in the twin cities. Anyways, here's the article:



Truthmaze and Chastity Brown at 400 Bar on 2/7/08
By: Jon Behm

Another sparsely attended night in the 400 Bar. Another great show. Honestly it's a mystery to me why this continually happens in a city with such a vibrant music scene. In this case it was local hip hop/spoken word artist Truthmaze, with Tennessean transplant Chastity Brown as the opener. If you aren't kicking yourself for missing this show, give yourself a good swift boot.

Chastity Brown started off the evening with an endorsement of her "energydrink," Jameson Whiskey, while holding a glass of the ambrosia in her hand. I wholeheartedly support that sentiment and double it, with rocks! Brown then proceeded to deliver a set of intensely personal, hauntingly beautiful songs with the help of bassist Don Strong and drummer Michael Johnson. While she has a voice similar to Jill Scott's, Brown also has distinct folk/country twang. This shows up in the overall sound more when she is on the acoustic as opposed to the piano, but is an underlying pleasure throughout the course of all of her songs.

While what immediately struck me was this young lady's gorgeous vocals, I was also taken aback by how much trust she put in the audience. Like we were all a bunch of old friends, she opened up all of her pains and sorrows to us, she shed a few tears, and never seemed to hold anything back. The highly emotional "Happy Sunday," was especially a treat, as she had only performed it live a total of five times in five years. I'm not sure what caused her to confide in us to the extent she did, but I was grateful for the intimacy of the performance.

Truthmaze, one of the most talented members of the local Tru Ruts collaborative group, gave props to Brown as he took the stage next. One of the "original b-boys of Minnesota," Truth has been performing his blend of hip hop and spoken word for some time in the Cities. His style ranges from African and Reggae influenced rhythms (the fantastic "Dat Rhythm,") to more politically inspired commentary ("North Side Blues Song"). At different times he conjured both Gil Scott Heron and KRS One, though his style is still uniquely his own. Where much political hip hop can be angry and jaded, Truthmaze's message seems to concentrate more on hope and equality. Backing him were the two other members of his new band, Dameun Strange on the keyboard and Maleck Davis on drums.

At one point two other talented members of the Tru Ruts stable, El Guante and See More Perspective took the stage to beatbox and rhyme alongside Truth for a few songs. Perspective is a beatbox machine, but also showed us some of his lyrical side, while Guante brought a fiery energy to the stage as well.

All too soon we reached the end of the night, and Truthmaze and company left the 400's stage. It felt as if these modern day street prophets had a great deal more to say, but were perhaps limited by the bar's time constraints. It doesn't bother me a bit though, as it just makes me eager to see what else they will have to say at future performances. If you are a hip hop, spoken word or even just an all around music fan, any one of these guys is worth checking out on your own.

Check out the article here: HowWasTheShow.com

Monday, February 11, 2008

a day in the life of a rap superstar

7:30am: Breakfast Cereal. Mini-wheats, to be exact. And a banana.

7:40am: Listen to mastered version of my album once through. Two songs sound a bit bass-y on my computer speakers, but my computer speakers are my computer speakers. And hey, bass is always good; it's hip hop, right?

9:00am: Judge a hundred sixth graders and their poetry. And no, that's not hyperbole-- there were literally a hundred kids in one big one-round poetry slam, and i was a judge. Yeah, i'll give a 3.5 to a ten year old, sue me.

Noon: Hummus and crackers for lunch. And a banana. Listen to mastered version of my album twice through. Sounds great in the Ipod. Sounds great with computer's INTERNAL speakers.

2:00pm: Week two of my residency at a St. Paul middle school begins. We watch some Marc Bamuthi Josepth on the DVD player, write poems about EVIL, discuss dynamics, and gossip/give relationship advice. Listened to the album on the way to the school, by the way, and it sounds great in car speakers too.

6:00pm: Chicken and Brussel Sprouts for dinner. Don't know why they have such a bad rep. Listen to mastered version of my album twice more all the way through and am satisified.

9:30pm: Do a thousand pushups, chat with Prince on the phone, play soccer with a bunch of orphans, read and memorize page 577 of the dictionary. Okay none of that stuff has happened, but it's only 9pm right now.

Midnight: Dream about zombies. Again.

So as you can probably guess, the purpose of this post is to say that the MASTERED version of my new album, EL GUANTE'S HAUNTED STUDIO APARTMENT, is done. Also, it proves to my grandparents that i actually eat halfway healthy.

It's a GOOD thing that one enjoys listening to one's own music constantly right? That doesn't mean i'm an ego-maniac; it means the music is good, right?

Of course it does.

I posted a new song over at the MySpace, but you didn't hear it from me. More importantly, two new videos! Headed to Madison this coming weekend for some shows and radio promo stuff-- lots more shows (and bloggy self-promo) on the immediate horizon.

Be thankful i don't post about my life EVERY day.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Engaging Youth with Hip Hop

I got an email the other day from a teacher asking me about some of these issues. That inspired this post.

So say you’re a teacher or after-school program coordinator or something. You have a class full of kids who love hip hop, but you don’t approve of the kind of hip hop they love. You’re an old-school, progressive idealist who grew up on Public Enemy (if you even like hip hop). You think this Soulja Boy and Young Jeezy and 50 Cent stuff is crap. And you’re right.

So how do you engage these kids around hip hop?

One common approach that I disagree with is introducing “good” hip hop to counteract the “bad hip hop.” You come into your classroom with a boombox and start playing Common, or Mos Def, or Talib Kweli, or Public Enemy, or Sage Francis or whatever stuff you approve of. In my experience, this approach just doesn’t work. Kids ain’t trying to hear “Between Me, You and Liberation.”

I think the mistake that some educators make is thinking that hip hop is hip hop and that if kids like one hip hop artist, they’ll like another. But hip hop is huge and complex, with countless subgenres and stylistic, cultural and generational differences contained within it. Old school flows (Cube, Tribe, pretty much anyone pre-1996) sound dated to today’s youth. “Conscious” rappers aren’t famous enough to command much attention, and their songs don’t have fun dances built into them. And above all, no one wants to hear that their favorite music isn’t good.

So what are some more effective ways to engage youth with/around hip hop? A few ideas:

1. Don’t force them to listen to your idea of what good hip hop is, listen to THEIR idea of what good hip hop is and start a conversation about it. What is this artist saying? What is this song about? Why do you identify so strongly with this message?

2. “Conscious” rap songs don’t only come from “conscious” rappers. A lot of artists you may not like have some really amazing songs with some deep, meaningful messages. Rich Boy, David Banner, Clipse, Kanye, Chamillionaire, the list goes on. Do a little research and find these songs.

3. Where socially-conscious hip hop doesn’t always connect with kids, I’ve seen some socially conscious spoken-word that can. Not all spoken-word, but some artists have made a career out of writing very immediate, engaging, powerful pieces that can speak directly to youth, something not many conscious rappers even attempt. Check out artists like Flood the Hood with Dreams (Kwabena Nixon and Muhibb Dyer), Talaam Acey, Rafael Casal, Chinaka Hodge, Dahlak Brathwaite, many more.

4. If you’re not comfortable with your grasp of hip hop, bring in a guest speaker. There’s a treasure trove of knowledge out there, from rappers to hip hop activists to other educators. Don’t place all the burden on yourself.

All in all, I think it’s important to avoid a condescending attitude. People all have different reasons for liking the music they like, and all music has negative and positive qualities. It’s so important to understand context. Most students aren’t hip hop heads who like hip hop BECAUSE it’s hip hop. They just like hot songs. When I see teachers try to talk about how “hip hop” Shakespeare was, or wonder why their students aren’t overjoyed to hear the latest Talib Kweli song, or basically just shoehorn hip hop into whatever agenda they’re trying to push, it’s frustrating.

Hip hop can be a powerful tool for engaging youth, but it has to be more than a “tool.” Educators need to have a genuine understanding of the culture—you don’t just read a Jeff Chang book and start planning your curriculum. Engage with the culture as it is TODAY, not as academics write about it (kids today have no idea that Flava Flav was once in the biggest hip hop group on the planet). We also need to always maintain our open-mindedness. Shutting down a song or artist because it’s “trash” is not a constructive thing to do—conversations are so important.

So watch MTVJ once in a while, browse Itunes for the latest releases, talk to your peers and definitely your students about where hip hop is at today. In my experience, hip hop as an academic subject is firmly rooted in history—you talk about the Bronx, about PE, about 2pac, and then there’s nothing… And that conversation is fine, but hip hop didn’t stop with the Fugees—the past ten years have been amazing, and I believe that educators who want to use hip hop effectively need to understand hip hop as it IS, not just as it WAS. It’s a challenge, definitely, particularly for those educators who are new to the culture and just trying to meet their kids halfway. It'd be nice if we were all heads, but i know that's not the case.

And this leads to the question of whether or not hip hop even belongs in the classroom, or once it gets to the classroom whether it turns into something else. But that's another post.

Friday, February 08, 2008

late pass on Lily Allen, random thoughts on songwriting

So i have this habit of avoiding acts who get a lot of buzz, only to rediscover them later, after everyone else has already gotten sick of them.

This Lily Allen album is great. She's not a strong singer, the production isn't all that revolutionary (though the bubble-dub approach is pretty catchy), and her personality might be an acquired taste, but this album has the one element missing from SO MUCH music (of all genres) these days: interesting, memorable songwriting.

That isn't to say that it's great songwriting-- just that it's memorable. Which to me, is HIGH praise.

Like Pharrell Williams, Amy Winehouse, Martin Luther, Ani DiFranco and a handful of others, Allen consistently writes songs that break from the formula. And whether those songs are good or bad, i think we should respect any artist willing to do that. Pharrell, for instance, sometimes writes some ridiculously weird and metaphorical stuff (see: all of N.E.R.D.'s catalog), but it makes his music all the more interesting. Winehouse might get attention for the sex and cursing and drugs in her music, but her songwriting goes beyond that-- her lyrics are thoughtful and complex without being artsy nonsense.

And none of these artists are perfect; not all their songs are good. But in today's climate, i'm thankful for them.

Songwriting these days in melodic popular music (read: everything on the radio that isn't hip hop or folk) usually breaks down into three categories:

1. Elementary-school love poetry ("hey girl i wanna be with you/ forever and a day, it's truuuue"). From pop music to country to R&B, this is everywhere. Simple AABBCC rhymes, straightforward emotions (either "i love you" or "i used to love you"), lyrics that 12-year old girls consider romantic.

2. Melodramatic gibberish ("it's a wall of presumption i can't climb/ falling forever and i'm falling behind"). This is the default lyric style for most rock music, from emo to metal to Nickelback. It sounds poetic, and some of it is, but most of it will wash right over you. Of the three, this is probably the most palatable for me; it's not wack, it's just easily forgettable. Like a lot of indie hip hop actually, the emphasis is more on impressionism, creating a vibe rather than making a statement or telling a story. I get it, i just think it's boring.

3. Corporate boardroom focus group sex talk ("you're lookin' fly girl are you here alone?/ i wanna talk to you, i wanna take you home"). Even though i just made that up, it's probably a real Justin Timerberlake lyric-- i can hear him singing it. This is the default lyric style for club-pop and, increasingly, R&B.

Occasionally you'll get some cutesy/quirky indie rock, some R. Kelly insanity, a country song about supporting the troops-- there are certainly songs here and there that don't fit into the above. But they're exceptions. Lyric-writing is a dead art form...

But hey, i'm trying to be more positive what with my album coming out soon and big things, generally, popping. So while i could write on and on about wack songwriting, maybe it'd be better to talk about songwriters i DO like.

David Bazan of Pedro the Lion is good. I like Regina Spektor. The five people i already mentioned. Haley Bonar. Erykah Badu! There ARE quite a few... it's just that they're so overshadowed by the mountains of crap out there. Such simple things can make huge differences: showing vs. telling, concrete vs. abstract language, storytelling vs. exposition... it's middle school creative writing class stuff.

But i guess the target audience for most music these days isn't yet in middle school. It makes sense. It's just a shame that music that IS marketed to adults (indie rock, neo-soul, etc.) is ALSO so full of platitudes and cliches and lazy songwriting. I can understand why Fergie would want to avoid getting too complex, but what excuse do all these pretentious art-rock bands and bohemian slam poet singer/songwriters have?

So i failed at being positive. Oh well.

I guess my advice to anyone out there who is in a band or trying to do the singer/songwriter thing is this: just because two lines happen to rhyme doesn't mean they belong together. Don't settle for mediocrity-- constantly revise and try to make your work better. Break the molds, push the boundaries, write lyrics that stand by themselves and don't use the pretty melody or your dashing good looks as a crutch. Anyone can write a song. How can you create a meaningful piece of art that people are going to remember?

I could do a whole 'nother post on how all this applies to hip hop too, but i've been talking about hip hop a lot lately. Thought this would be a nice break.

Any other good songwriters out there i'm forgetting?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"Starfish" and the nature of creating change

So i finally got a halfway decent recording of this piece, a newer one called "Starfish." With all this talk of "change" lately, i think it's pretty appropriate:


I'm in the middle of a residency at a middle school, so this piece is playing all the time in the back of my head.

I don't expect everyone to agree with what i'm saying here. I just think it's an important conversation for all us do-gooders to have-- both interpersonally and privately. We should know why we do what we do. We should be able to balance the NEED to engage in face-to-face, hands-on work with the NEED to have a long-term perspective and strategy. Too many people, in my opinion, focus on one or the other. You have activists who burn themselves out on specific causes without ever addressing the institutional aspects of the problems they want to solve, and you have intellectuals who know we need a revolution but never get down and start moving. This piece is about the former rather than the latter, but both are out there... both are in me, honestly.

And when you add in all this election craziness, this whole conversation gets even more serious. How do we change this country? I believe in voting (i caucused tonight, like lots of people), but i don't believe that voting is an effective way to REALLY change things. It's PART of the strategy; it's not THE strategy. But that's another post... coming soon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

purple rain

So i got to play First Avenue in Minneapolis for the first time:


It wasn't a full set or anything, just sitting in for a couple songs with the always incredible and inspiring Truthmaze, but it was a lot of fun. I love the cold, black boxyness of the space itself, and the crowd was big and hype and loving it. The event was a kind of a hip hop teach-in dealing with global warming and other environmental issues. Focus the Nation (or Focus Minnesota for that night) was the main sponsor.

One of the other groups who helped put the thing together was SUBSTANCE, a really interesting organization that books and promotes shows to benefit and raise awareness for social justice causes. I'll be doing another show for them on 2/22 at the Steak Knife in Dinkytown for Ready to Launch/Supports for Success, an anti-youth homelessness campaign. I'm exciting about working with them more in the future, as their work is the kind of stuff i've been doing for a while now.

In other news, i'm working on a couple big articles/posts... so stay tuned. I know we all love the self-promotion, but that's not really what this blog is for.