Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Year in Review

 I somehow forgot to write a year-end wrap up back in 2009, so I'm attempting to do that now, here in 2011, by looking over old website posts.  Will probably miss some things.  Here we go:

1. Took first place at the 2009 National Poetry Slam as a member of the St. Paul team.  We performed pieces that we believed in, and we were rewarded for it.  Slam is so imperfect, but it still feels good to be validated on some level-- we did, after all, put a TON of work into our writing and performance.

2. Organized and performed at the very first Hip Hop Against Homophobia concert, along with Toki Wright, Maria Isa and more.  Since then, there's been almost a dozen more.

3. Won the VERVE grant through Intermedia Arts, plus won the people's choice for "Best Slam Poet" and "Best Artist/Activist" at the Urban Griots Spoken-Word Award Show.

4. Played the SOUNDSET FESTIVAL, the biggest and best indie hip hop festival around.

5. Did a ton of music writing for CultureBully.

6. Co-coached our amazing MN teen poets at Brave New Voices, along with Khary Jackson.

7. Released two projects-- the Guante & Big Cats! EP "Start a Fire" and the See More Perspective-produced "Return to Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment."  Technically, "An Unwelcome Guest" is a 2010 release, but we had the release party at the end of 2009 at the Bedlam Theater and it was huge.

8. Started serving as the Arts Coordinator of the Canvas, a St. Paul teen arts center.

9. Toured with Junkyard Empire, played a million shows, facilitated a million workshops, made a million appearances, etc.  I guess these were the important things, though.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why "Hey Ya" is the best song of the decade

So I found this old article I wrote back when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped (2003). I did a close reading of Andre's "Hey Ya" and broke it down. Side-note: being a writer can be scary because anyone can google you and find OLD shit you wrote that's awful. I have my share of awful writing, but also some stuff I still like. Like this piece.

As long as we're all doing end-of-the-decade lists and stuff, figured I'd share some of my conspiracy-theorist rantings concerning why this song is the most insanely brilliant track of the '00s:

Double meanings have always been important in American music, from the slave spirituals that contained secret messages about escape, to some of the seemingly innocuous “love songs” of the Civil Rights Era that, whether intentionally or not, provided inspiration and rallying cries for the marchers in the streets. Inserting potentially subversive comments into popular forms of art is a way to reach the masses and avoid the troubles that go along with actively, conspicuously supporting or commenting on controversial material. It can also be a lot of fun—watching those who “don’t get it” go about their business, not getting it.

A contemporary example of this could be Outkast’s (or more specifically, Andre’s) monster hit “Hey Ya.” A bouncy, euphoric pop song, “Hey Ya” can be heard everywhere, from shopping malls to top 40 radio to your mom’s stereo to every damn house party in the city. It’s simply an infectious track—a catchy melody, a driving beat, and inoffensive, easy-to-remember lyrics. It’s the perfect pop song. Perhaps too perfect.

Listen closely to the song. I generally hate over-analyzing things, but I am thoroughly convinced that “Hey Ya” is a very deep artistic statement, and that Andre is, through the medium of pop music, commenting on pop music and popular culture in general. The song is taking shots at the music industry, at the artists, and perhaps most of all at the fans.

The evidence is mostly in the lyrics, lyrics that to the casual listener deal with the slow death of a romantic relationship. But read the lyrics—on a literal level, the song isn’t really dealing with those issues in any concrete way. Most of the words are just catchy phrases that can be repeated—incidentally, the absolute most important thing for the modern pop song. The chorus, perhaps the most obvious example, is just a nonsense phrase repeated eight times. Here, I think that Andre is commenting on the lack of content in most pop music hooks: does “hey ya” really say any less than the typical Nelly or Ja Rule chorus? (remember, I wrote this back in 2003)

There are more clues: “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” is probably the most popular line of the entire decade, let alone the song. Everyone sings along during that part of the track. A Polaroid picture is a copy. There is no originality left in music, and the fans don’t even care—they’re singing along.

Related to this are the lines: “you think you got it/ ooh you think you got it/ but got it just don’t get it until there’s nothing at all/.” Few people seem to be noticing the what the music industry has done and is doing to popular music. Media conglomerates promote products, not art, and the result is “sure-thing” pop music, music that will be immediately devoured by the public and then left on the roadside to rot.

Another point: “Don’t want to meet your Daddy/ just want you in my Caddy.” This is about lust—not just sexual lust, but artistic lust. It’s about enjoyment without commitment. In a market driven by singles rather than albums, music becomes a quickie rather than a romance. Most pop albums, rushed to release in order to maximize profit, contain one or two sure-fire singles and ten tracks of filler. A song may stay with you for a long time—much like an incredible night of passion—but in the end, if the artist can’t deliver again, you will forget him or her and move on to the next fool with a hit single.

The key, however, is the point in the song where the instruments drop out and Andre sings, “when we know we’re not happy here.” Immediately after that, as the chorus comes in, the careful listener will hear Andre say quietly, “but y’all don’t wanna hear me you just want to dance.” This is not printed in the album’s liner note lyrics, and is buried in the track—I didn’t notice it until just recently. This is explicit: people don’t care about art; they care about a good beat and a catchy hook. Now those two things are fine and there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying them, but without some substance, without some meaning, even the catchiest pop record is just a product— a vacuum cleaner or a used car.

On top of all this, the sonic qualities of the song hint to a deeper meaning as well. Dre has something cold in his voice—whether it’s desperation, resentment or disillusionment—it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. The edges of his voice are much sharper and harder than a simple love song warrants. Though jubilant and up-tempo, “Hey Ya” isn’t exactly happy; it’s more of a cocaine high than a genuine feeling of joy. This is particularly evident in the “alright alright alright alright alright” part.

Finally, the video contains a number of clues, the most intriguing being the big green casket in the center of the stage. In an interview, the director said that the casket was actually there for some other idea that they had originally had for the video, but after changing ideas they had simply decided to keep it in. I’m not so sure that I buy this. A casket is not just some random prop—it has very specific connotations. Perhaps Andre is commenting on the death of innovative music.

And “perhaps” is always an important word. All in all, “Hey Ya” can be read in two (or more) ways, and it’s probably true that no single reading is entirely correct. None of this can take away from the fact that “Hey Ya” is a great pop song. All I am saying, however, is that it can be a great pop song and much, much more simultaneously, and that we should be paying closer attention to our music, or at the very least believing that an artist can be capable of creating something beyond a catchy sugar buzz.


That's the piece I wrote six years ago, with a few very minor adjustments. I still believe a lot of it, and "Hey Ya" is still one of my favorite songs. Maybe it's crazy to dig that deep into the lyrics of a pop song, but I wish we lived in a world where all music is actively listened to. Who knows what we're missing.

And this is my pick for "song of the decade" because of my two great loves: good pop music and subversive, thought-provoking lyrics, two things that, incidentally, very rarely go together. Maybe my analysis is off-base, but I'll give Andre the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

release party debrief

Rodrigo snapped this photo. More photos and video coming soon.

I feel like I've been holding my body and sanity together by sheer force of will this past week, and now that the release party is over I can finally just fall apart. But wow. What a show.

Packed house, amazing sets by Kristoff Krane (who waded into the center of the crowd and played a song on acoustic guitar, between monstrous hip hop tracks), No Bird Sing and the Tribe, killer guest appearances from Chastity Brown and Big Quarters, great staff and space, a trip to Little Tijuana afterwards-- pretty much everything I could have asked for.

Loved the stage set-up. You'll be able to see it in other photos more closely, but we had a multi-level stage and there were fake trees all around. Very cool. And despite a few sound hiccups (our monitor blew after our second song or so), I thought we played our asses off; best performance of ours, ever. Even got to do my "we are waking up in our caskets (CASKETS!)" call and response thing.

Turnout exceeded expectations. Pretty much a packed house, even earlier, and people stuck around until the end. The Bedlam is a pretty big space too, so I'm not sure what our actual numbers were, but I'm beyond happy. Big thanks to everyone who made it out.

So for now, you can ONLY get the new album through the Strange Famous web store. Our official release date is January 12, so after that it'll be in stores and Itunes and all that, but for now, head over to Sage's house and pick up the special package (signed CD, sticker, instrumentals and PDF booklet) for just $9.99.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Strange Famous Records has our new CD for sale! Now!

With the Twin Cities release party just two days away, we're announcing now that out-of-towners, people who can't make it to the show, or even people who ARE coming to the show can get an exclusive package through Strange Famous that includes:

1. A signed CD

2. Limited Edition Sticker

3. Download Card with a code that unlocks the album instrumentals and a booklet with lyrics, commentary and more.

ALL FOR JUST $9.99. Even if you're coming to the release show, this is the best deal you're going to get.

. Shop around too; lots of good stuff on there. Strange Famous is Sage Francis' record label, and they also have stuff from B.Dolan, Sleep, 2mex, Cecil Otter of Doomtree and many other acts.

“Earnestness can go wrong in hip hop. On this album, it goes very right.” --Sage Francis

On a side note, this is very cool. BIG ups to Sage, SFR and my label, Tru Ruts, for putting this all together. Me and Big Cats poured a whole lot of ourselves into this album, and I'm ecstatic to see so many people excited about it and helping us push it. Please take advantage of this pre-order deal, even if you plan on coming to the release party-- it's really a fantastic deal, and we want to support those people who are supporting us. Thanks!

Friday, December 04, 2009

everything's comin' up guante

Finally, after a grueling year-plus of work, we got the physical copies of the new album. Had to go to Keegan's in NE tonight with Big Cats and e.g. from Tru Ruts to sign a whole bunch of copies. Why? You'll find out soon.

Some lady walked by and bought one, out of nowhere. Good omen?

If YOU want one, you'll have to come to the release party (12/12 at the Bedlam). Nobody gets one before then, and since the show itself is more of a "special Twin Cities preview," you won't be able to get one AFTER the show either, at least not for a little bit. Something very cool is happening-- can't talk about it yet, but soon, like, early next week.

Oh also-- I know everything is digital these days, but you really should get a physical copy. The art (done by Big Cats himself) is beautiful. Get the little booklet that comes with the album too; I make them myself and they have all kinds of cool stuff in them-- lyrics, song notes, more. Fun fact: the mystery figure on the cover is a doctored photo of Truth Be Told from the Tribe.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Only a few people have heard the new Guante & Big Cats album, but one response we've gotten a few times is "I didn't know Guante could rap; I thought this was going to be a spoken-word album over beats." So yeah, so we're all on the same page, let me talk in third person for a second:

Guante raps. Guante is not "a poet who raps." Guante raps really well. Guante also performs spoken-word really well, but for him, those two things aren't related all that much. It is possible for one person to do two (or more) different things at a high level.

And yeah, I like spoken-word, and I like writing songs "about stuff." But like I say in the video below, no one likes to be pigeon-holed. So here's a video of me rapping about rapping while Big Cats plays the MPC: