Tuesday, April 27, 2010

City Pages Feature: "Guante: A Warrior With Words"

Here's the link.

For those who don't know, City Pages is the big Twin Cities alt-weekly. Village Voice kind of thing. One excerpt:

"Guante and Big Cats! create intelligent, political hip hop that mercifully doesn't come off as preachy or self-righteous. It's sobering, demanding your attention like a car crash, yet emotional and alarmingly intimate at times."

M.I.A.'s new video, with some thoughts about radical art

This is very graphic, very disturbing, and-- I would argue-- important to see:

M.I.A, Born Free from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo.

So a few thoughts:

This is the kind of art I've been talking about (see previous posts about poetry). At best, it's transformative; even at worst, it makes you feel SOMETHING BEYOND a rush of endorphins from a pretty melody, a tinge of nostalgia from a sad song or a smile from a clever punchline. To me, this is what art should be.

That being said, I feel that it's a missed opportunity to present images (or words) that are so impactful, and then just leave them. As a socially-conscious artist, it's tempting to tell an audience/listener "here's this; do something with it," but I think the reality is that almost everyone has no idea what to do with these feelings, these thoughts, these impulses.

So that's why it's doubly important to tie radical/progressive art to an actual radical/progressive movement. Here in the Twin Cities, this was a big conclusion that came out of the recent "Vices to Verses" hip hop and activism conference: how can people who care about their community plug in? How can people who are pissed off about police brutality, American imperialism, Arizona's immigration laws, the public school system, the prison/industrial complex or a whole host of other issues get involved and make a difference? And when we, as artists, stir up these kinds of sentiments in our fans and listeners, what is our responsibility to point them in a particular direction?

Lots of questions. Working on the answers. Big things happening this year, and I'm not talking about music.

Finally, here's another video that had a big impact on me, in terms of how I see music and art in general, Dizzee Rascal's "Sirens:"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

MORE thoughts on writing, slam and spoken-word

I had the pleasure of traveling to St. Louis with Khary Jackson and Sierra DeMulder for a couple of shows and a workshop this weekend. Had a great time, got to perform our favorite pieces for people who have never heard them, and got to just TALK... about slam, about writing and about the purpose of art.

You may have seen these points I posted a few days ago. Here's an addendum, spurred by some of our conversations and my own private thoughts:

11. One of the things I love about slam is that it's participatory. The audience is supposed to respond to the poetry. Ooooohs. Aaaahs. Snaps. Whatever. This is fun. But what's been happening lately is obligatory audience response, not sincere audience response. Audiences are being shepherded by a poet's friends or team members, who are "oohing" and "aaaahing" to pieces they've heard a million times before IN ORDER TO shepherd the audience. On top of this, all too often, these audience responses are undeserved. A poem could start with "it was a dark and stormy night," and someone in the audience is going to say "OH SNAP" or "WHAT" or "OH MY GOD." It's getting ridiculous. It's BEEN getting ridiculous.

And me and my team were guilty of this at Nationals, I'll admit. You get caught up in the moment, looking for any possible edge or tenth-of-a-point in the scoring. But I'm done with it. No more.

12. Related to that, audiences have recently been conditioned to respond to the rhythm of a poem as much as its writing or content. They laugh if a line should be funny, whether or not it actually is. They'll "ooh" and "ahh" at the poems rhythmic climax, whether or not it's well-written or meaningful. Again, this is a function of the participatory nature of slam, and it's cool that the audience is so READY to be entertained. But it's just kind of weird. That's one of the reasons it's been so much fun these last few months to perform for audiences who have never seen slam before, or who are used to a very different style of spoken-word (as opposed to Minnesota Emo Literary). You have to really earn positive responses.

13. Innovation is generally talked about as a form thing, though I prefer to think of it in terms of content. I agree with people like Marc Smith, who call for (paraphrasing) "more weirdness" in slam. However, weirdness doesn't have to be about form. It doesn't have to be about writing in ultra-complex meters or using obtuse nosebleed imagery or talking in a funny fucking voice. It can be about saying something new. Attacking an issue or idea from a new angle. Telling a story from a new perspective. It seems simpler, but it's probably harder to do. I'm focusing on spoken-word here, but this point is even more relevant for rappers.

14. I think it'd be good to start seeing more "spoken-word music videos," as opposed to performance footage on youtube. We can be creative and do some cool things. Ed Bok Lee has a good one. Ryan Hurley has a good one. There are more out there, but not as many as you'd think. I'd like to explore this.

15. Come to the events! Here's the info:

~April 22 at the Bedlam Theater is the Hip Hop and Spoken-Word Theater Festival/Preview. I'm debuting a segment of my one man show, "The Fist that Lives in Your Neck."

~April 27 at Kieran's is the Minneapolis FINALS.

~April 30 at Peach is the Punch Out Poetry Slam

~May 3 at the Artists' Quarter is the St. Paul FINALS. (I'll be competing in this one)

Anything can happen. If nothing else, all the shows are going to be good. The National Poetry Slam is August 3-7 in St. Paul.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Should Know About Kristoff Krane (w/ new video!)

First of all, here's the new video for "Miracle?" from Kristoff Krane. There's a long story behind the making of and eventual release of the video, but I'll just say it's really soul-affirming to see it actually complete and available for people to watch. Big congratulations to Chris.

Also, pay attention to the promos at the end. Yes, me and Big Cats are playing the "Picking Flowers Next to Roadkill" release party on May 15, so you should come to that, but DEFINITELY DO NOT SLEEP ON "Hunting for Father." the OTHER album Kristoff Krane is releasing in May (on the 28th at the Cedar). I got an advance copy, and it's one of the most revelatory listening experiences I've ever had.

Stylistically, Chris mixes rapping, singing, live instrumentation and a kind of "wall of sound" sampling technique. None of those things are new or innovative in and of themselves. But what he DOES with this sonic palette is unlike anything I've ever heard. The songs on "Hunting for Father" are at once completely weird and out-there AND immediately catchy and listenable. His ear for pop hooks and singalongable melodies is out of this world. And somehow, he makes an acoustic-guitar driven folk song next to a monstrous, bass-heavy hip hop track next to a ridiculous mash-up of it all work, and work insanely well.

Honestly, it's like El-P meets Regina Spektor. And that's not a crazy comparison for a crazy comparison's sake-- that's really what this album sounds like. In a good way. MAYBE mix in a little K-OS. Some people might hear some Buck 65 in there, or some Kimya Dawson, but there's a sledgehammer sincerity and earnestness to Chris' vocals, not to mention his technical mastery as a rapper, that makes the prior comparison more apt.

But more than all that, the album is about WHAT Chris is saying. I've made no secret of my personal dislike for impressionistic rap (lots of cool-sounding phrases that don't really mean anything... or maybe they do, but the meaning is buried underneath a million layers of gibberish) and "oh my feelings are so important" rap, and this album traffics in both of those things to some extent, but in a way that really transcends that approach. There are a few songs that make no sense to me, but the warmth and humanism and (for lack of a better term) REALNESS of the writing makes me WANT to come back and figure everything out.

And where a lot of hip hop these days tries to be clever, and some tries to be intelligent, there's a real wisdom in this album, and that's a very different thing. Not in the sense that it's going to solve all your problems for you, but it deals with issues of perspective, love and community in an absolutely enthralling way.

It'd be very easy for Kristoff Krane to relax. He's one of the best freestyle emcees on the planet (again, I don't think I'm exaggerating). He's a brilliant rhyme technician and could make album after album of punch-you-in-the-face underground hip hop if he wanted to. He could ride the coattails of his more famous friends and make a comfortable living in indie-rap land as a really good emcee. But what I love most about Chris is that he doesn't want to be "a really good emcee." He wants to make innovative, original, life-changing, beautiful MUSIC. And with "Hunting for Father," I think he's really succeeded.

This is a very exciting time for Twin Cities hip hop, especially if you can get past Rhymesayers and Doomtree (no disrespect to them, but they get enough love). Chris is releasing two amazing albums. No Bird Sing has one of the best live shows I've ever seen. Call me crazy, but I really like that Guante & Big Cats album that came out in January. The new albums from Big Quarters, See More Perspective, The Tribe, and many more are going to be monsters. I could rattle off the names of everyone I know who is doing big things this year, but that would take too much space. And the two Kristoff Krane shows happening in May should be a perfect entry point for anyone looking to explore what this scene really has to offer. See you there.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Save the Arts video and poem

Milwaukee's Ryan Hurley is one of my FAVORITE poets and people. This is just beautiful, and has a very important message too.

Monday, April 12, 2010

thoughts on writing, slam and spoken-word

There's been a great surge in chatter around slam poetry lately, people talking about the future of the art, the community and more. With Finals coming up in a few weeks and then the National Poetry Slam in St. Paul this year in August, here are a few of my thoughts, in a lovely bullet-point format:

1. My primary goals as an artist are to create work that is impactful and transformative, and to get that work seen/heard by as many people as possible. It is not to "write great poetry," or "make a living" or "get people to like me," though all of those things may be part of the process at some point. To me, art is not about some mystical expression of my soul; it's about communication, pure and simple. A work of art that changes how I see the world or makes me re-evaluate a previously-held belief is always more valuable, to me, than a work of art that is just entertaining, or just something I can relate to, or just something with a lot of dramatic or poetic power. Obviously, this isn't an oppositional binary, but it's something to keep in mind.

2. Poetry for poetry's sake, like "my ribcage is a toothy locomotive," is boring to me. I'm not saying that it's devoid of value, just that I have no interest in it. Similarly, super straight-forward "I believe this and this is why!" style poetry is also boring to me. Tell stories. Write persona poems. Engage the audience. I'm from the "art is communication and can/should serve a purpose in the real world" school of thought, for better or worse, but I also believe that good writing helps propel that message. I guess it's about balance, which seems really obvious, but is ignored time and time again.

3. But what does "engage the audience" really mean? After all, audiences love bullshit spoken-word. Here's what I mean: a lot of slam/spoken-word stuff is like being hit by a blunt object. Look how loud I am. Look how brilliant and complex my imagery is. Look how I flipped this. Blunt objects. I prefer being stabbed in the heart. Engaging an audience goes beyond impressing them, or entertaining them; it's creating a real connection between poet, audience and poem-- something they remember after the show is over. The best-written poems, the highest scoring poems, the poems that get the biggest responses in the moment-- they're not necessarily the most memorable or transformative poems.

4. Spoken-word doesn't have to be good poetry to be good performance art. I think we get hung up on that debate too much. What I do is a combination of poetry, prose, theater, hip hop and oratory. If you judge it solely as poetry, then no, it might not be that great. But you shouldn't be judging it solely as poetry, because it's not JUST poetry (or more accurately, it's a specific KIND of poetry, with its own rules and goals). I would argue, however, that spoken-word falls under the umbrella of poetry, and people who would deny this are being intellectually dishonest.

5. Slam has been good for spoken-word. For all the talk of competitiveness and formulaic poetry (both valid points), slam has forced spoken-word artists and poets to create work that can be engaging in a noisy dive bar, that can speak to someone who hates poetry; it can take poetry into places it's never been. I agree with Mike Mlekoday that slam is (to some extent) a useful tool for gauging the effectiveness of a given artist's work. If you're a brilliant writer, but you can't connect to an audience, you should be punished, at least in this setting. Of course, slam success is an imperfect measure-- audiences are random, the luck of the draw is an issue, a million other factors go into how your work is perceived and ingested; and yes, a crafty artist can "trick" an audience into a high score with melodrama or pure volume or whatever. But at the end of the day, the game is about getting people to listen to you, and then saying something once they are. This, to me, is healthy for poetry.

6. The national slam scene needs, more than anything, to do more outreach. We have a vibrant, dynamic community, but it's not as big as it should be. It's actually kind of insular and nepotistic, at least in my opinion. This is one reason I've become a lot more comfortable with some poets doing the same poems over and over (if they're good)-- a slam should be about giving the audience the best show possible, not about proving to the other poets what a prolific writer you are. Every big national event should be community-oriented; its primary goal should be to nurture more writers, performers and audience members in every host city, not to be a big party for a few scene regulars. Also, let's get on TV.

7. On success: to me, success is at least partly about access. Winning the National Poetry Slam last year has given me access to audiences and gigs I wouldn't have had otherwise. It's another reason a reviewer will write about my album as opposed to some other rapper's album. It's a conversation starter. Beyond that, the abstract idea of winning a national slam, or competing on Finals stage, or whatever, doesn't mean that much to me. I know we worked really hard and wrote good poetry, and I'm proud of that, not winning. But the other half of success is what you do with that access once you have it. I know a lot of poets and rappers who have more fans than me, play bigger shows and have a lot of what most people consider "success." But they're not saying anything. They're not building anything. They're just entertaining people or providing background noise while people get drunk. And that's their prerogative, but, well, see point #1.

8. The thing I love about slam poetry is that it doesn't ignore context, like a lot of page poetry does. At least in my academic experience, a page poem is supposed to succeed in a vacuum, whereas slam is pretty explicit about different environments calling for different kinds of poems. I think this is really healthy too. I know poets who would never make an NPS team, but their work is perfect for connecting to rowdy eighth graders, or poets who are revered in the slam community but would have nothing to say to a prison group or after-school program or whatever. I like having a pocketful of poems, not unlike Pokemon, that are good for any given scenario.

9. There are about three main performance poet archetypes, and I think we need more people willing to smash those molds. You can do incredible work inside those boxes, but boxes in general become constraining over time. That's one reason I like Khary-- I don't always love his writing, or his performances, but he doesn't sound like ANYONE else on the scene. Extra points there for both originality and ambition. If you're a great writer and a great performer, but you sound exactly like someone else (in terms of rhythms, cadences, approach, whatever), you're hurting yourself.

10. Now I'm going to kind of contradict that last point. Cliche doesn't always have to be a bad thing. Yes, every progressive male poet has a masculinity poem. A million people perform what have been derisively called "identity poems." Many of us consider ourselves "teaching artists." Zombie poems. Anti-war poems. And yes, rape poems. Of course, you have to do all of these things WELL if you're going to do them, and try to attack them from new angles or whatever, but I'm tired of the mindset that "oh that's just a black man poem" or "that's just a violence against women" poem. Some issues deserve to be talked about over and over again. Again, you have to do it well, be original and not exploitative and all that, but part of what being a poet means is that you create conversations around issues, and keep existing conversations moving. Also, this relates back to point #8: a piece that is beating a dead horse at a poetry slam might be completely revelatory to a high school class or rally or whatever.

Anyways, I'm in the process of putting all these random points (and more) in a more formal, condensed context. Just wanted to share my thoughts for now.


Monday, April 05, 2010

Guante interview in the Onion

Courtesy of the AV Club Madison. I talk about the album, buffets, death, etc. It's worth a read, and there's a cool B-FRESH photo of me as well.

Here's the link.

Friday, April 02, 2010

April Shows: slams, dead prez, madison, st. louis, beyond

April is always when I celebrate New Years. Lots going on:

Saturday, 4/3:
Going back to Madison, along with Big Cats, for Dane101's Fifth Anniversary show at the Frequency. Looking forward to Parthenon, Dotty Dumplings, Teddywedgers, Bluephies cake and the Chocolate Shoppe, all somehow done in about twelve hours. Should be fun.

Monday, 4/5:
LAST CHANCE SLAM: this will be the last St. Paul poetry slam before finals (May 3), so if people are trying to qualify for finals, they'll be going all out here. I'll be competing too. 8pm at the Artists' Quarter.

Friday, 4/9 through Sunday, 4/11:
VICES TO VERSES HIP HOP CONFERENCE: all kinds of workshops, panels and performances from people like Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Rosa Clemente, Bakari Kitwana, and many more, plus a concert at the Cabooze on Saturday featuring dead prez, Toki Wright, Maria Isa, me and my crew and more:

Friday, 4/16:
I'll be traveling with the St. Paul slam team (2009 National Poetry Slam champions, in case you ain't heard) to the University of Missouri in St. Louis for a performance and workshop.

Wednesday, 4/21:
Hip Hop and Spoken-Word Theater festival at the Bedlam Theater: I'll be debuting an excerpt from my one-man show, THE FIST THAT LIVES IN YOUR NECK. 7:30-9pm.

Friday, 4/23:
Performing with the St. Paul slam team at Metro State University for National Poetry Month.

And honestly, May is looking even more exciting. We're having a huge show on May 1 at the Fineline (details coming), plus the St. Paul slam FINALS on May 3, plus Kristoff Krane's two CD release parties (May 15 and 28), plus more. Check my calendar for more details. Thanks!