Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Conscious is Not Enough 2011 (FREE Mixtape Link)

Here it is.  The re-worked, updated version of my mixtape.  Download it here for FREE. Here's the official press release:

Twin Cities hip hop artist’s new mixtape is backed up by action

In 2008, Guante released “Conscious is Not Enough,” a collection of songs written around the idea that while voting in the 2008 election was important, coming together as a community and organizing for change was more important. While hip hop albums—much less mixtapes—don’t generally have thesis statements, CINE was a progressive call-to-arms, a rallying cry for those who believe that hope and change aren’t things you vote for—they’re things you work for.

With the recent turmoil in Guante’s home-state of Wisconsin, revolutions sweeping the Middle East and an assortment of battles taking place in Guante’s current home, the Twin Cities, rising indie label Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records is releasing an updated, re-recorded and re-mixed version of the mixtape.

Featuring original production from the likes of Big Cats! (Sage Francis, the Tribe), DJ Pain 1 (Young Jeezy, Chuck D), Calvin Valentine (Planet Asia, Phil da Agony) and others, plus a few jacked beats (including the crowd-favorite “Your Boyfriend’s a Republican” performed over the instrumental to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”), the mixtape is tied together by Guante’s relentless wit, political insight, technical virtuosity and pure, uncut passion for the subject matter. It’s also proof positive that political hip hop can have a sense of humor, and that smart rappers can also be entertaining.

The mixtape also serves as the official announcement of the MN Activist Project, a database of progressive activist organizations that Guante has pulled together. That database (www.mnactivist.com) will be tied to a promotional campaign aimed at getting more people involved in activism and organizing. The site also includes toolkits and resources for young activists.

“There’s a natural connection between art, media, education and activism,” Guante says. “This mixtape, along with the MN Activist Project, is about drawing attention to that connection and to the overlap that’s already there. Hip hop can put 300 people in the same room who would otherwise never be together; that’s a powerful thing. The website is partly about trying to focus that power.”

Guante, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, former City Pages’ “Best of the Twin Cities” artist and URB Magazine “Next 1000” artist, is a long-time social justice advocate. His work includes curating the “Hip Hop Against Homophobia” concert series, leading writing and social justice workshops in schools throughout the Midwest and serving as arts coordinator of the Canvas, a teen art center in St. Paul.

Also, check out this essay I wrote on what I think makes effective political art.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Hip Hop Against Homophobia series keeps going strong

We started doing these HHAH shows back in what, 2008?  I don't even remember.  But it's been cool to see the thought grow and include lots of different artists, organizations and individuals.  The whole idea behind the series is that most communities already overlap in some way-- let's shine some light on that overlap and try to make it even bigger so we can all work together in the future.  Here's info on the next one, which might be the 7th installment?  Again, I don't remember.

Here's the Facebook event page.  It'll be on Monday, April 4 at the U of M's Whole Music Club.  There will also be an open mic component, so come early to sign up.  At 7pm we'll be having a community discussion, and then the show/open mic starts at 8pm.  Since it's a Monday, we won't go too late, but there's a ton of talent on the lineup and it should be a lot of fun.  And it's free and all ages!

And that's not it.  We'll be doing a very special two-night installment of the series at Patrick's Cabaret in MPLS on June 17 and 18.  We have some very special surprises in store for those ones.  Also, it hasn't been announced yet, but we're thinking about doing yet another one at the Canvas Teen Arts Center on June 16 for the St. Paul family.  It'll be a wild three days.

Every installment of the series features some different artists, different sponsoring organizations and different venues.  It's inspiring to see people working together to build something positive.  Let's keep it moving.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

new mixtape in a week, plus thoughts on effective "conscious" hip hop


Back in 2008, I put out a mixtape called "Conscious is Not Enough," talking primarily about the 2008 elections and the importance of organizing; how while voting was/is important, it's not the only way-- or the most effective way-- to create change.  The mixtape was recorded in a day, and while it got a ton of downloads, some imperfections in it always bothered me.  Long story short, we're releasing an UPDATED, remixed, re-recorded version of that mixtape in a week.  It'll be available as a free download through Tru Ruts next week, and contains re-worked versions of old songs and some brand-new, never-before-heard tracks.  Follow me on Twitter for updates.  Cover design by Nickolas Davis.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what I think makes effective "conscious" hip hop.

First of all, I love “conscious hip hop,” “political rap,” whatever you want to call it. Those labels are generally hated by the actual artists that they’re attached to, but I embrace them. We’re all put in boxes, whether we like it or not—I figure I may as well be put into a box that actually means something. I grew up on Goodie Mob, PE, dead prez, the Coup and similar artists, and I still don’t think that there’s anything more invigorating than a hot song with real substance behind it. As I’ve written before, substance is what separates good songs from great songs, and talented artists from impactful artists.

All of that being said, I understand where the criticisms of conscious hip hop come from. It’s very easy to do poorly. The best socially-conscious rap music is able to balance form and content—if you go too far one way or the other, the end result generally isn’t effective. It’s either super preachy, didactic rhetoric-spitting that isn’t fun to listen to, or sonically-engaging pseudo-intellectual bullshit that doesn’t really make any kind of meaningful statement. There’s a lot of both out there.

Beyond that, I think that we, as artists, sometimes don’t give our listeners much credit. Here’s a fun activity: take your favorite conscious rap song and boil it down to its thesis statement, its one-line take-away message. If you even can, the odds are good that that message is something like “the world is messed up,” or “struggle is hard,” or “people need to rise up,” or something similarly simple.

And to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with songs like that. The Roots do it. Our favorite local artists do it. Any rapper who has ever had a token political track on an otherwise standard album has done it. I’ve done it. And I’d rather have platitudes of positivity than more materialism or emo-rap or thug talk or abstract super-scientifical stuff. But the point is that those kinds of songs are missing an opportunity to push further, to really explore the potential in the relationship between culture and society. We often assume that three verses and a hook isn’t enough space to really push the envelope in terms of content—but it is. It just takes more thought.

And I’m definitely not saying that every one of my songs is a brilliant political manifesto meant to change how you live your daily life, or that every song should be. I’m just saying that as a listener, as a consumer of art, I really appreciate artists who reach further than the obvious. Look at Toki Wright breaking down 400 years of American history and how that history always influences the present. Look at Invincible exploring the impact of gentrification and displacement in Detroit. Look at Sage Francis criticizing the media for the way it covered 9/11 in a song released right after it happened. Look at Brother Ali and Common writing new songs that make amends for homophobic language they had used in the past.

So what do these songs have in common? What are the elements of effective political rap? A few ideas:

First, the best conscious hip hop songs go deeper than platitudes. We already know that “the world is messed up.” Now what? Can you shed some light on why that is? Or what we can do about it? Or tell a specific story that inspires us to get involved in making it better? Or attack a given issue from a new angle that changes how we think about it? It's not 1988 any more; can we move the conversation forward?

Related to that, context matters. What might be obvious information to some is world-shattering to others, and vice versa. We need to understand who our audience is, and write songs that challenge them rather than pander to them. It’s not revolutionary when your entire audience already agrees with it.

Next, I think that if an artist chooses to engage with political material, the song should have an identifiable point. Subtlety and impressionism are important tools for songwriters, but too much is dangerous when you’re really trying to say something. If I can easily misinterpret your song, or completely miss the point of your song, it’s not a good political song. It may still be an amazing song, but do not mistake subtlety for wisdom. I still believe that there are ways to push the envelope artistically without losing the political point that is being made.

There are exceptions—a lot of Public Enemy songs, for example—but those exceptions are often based in context. A song as simple as “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas can (and did) become a radical call-to-arms if the conditions in the community call for it.

Finally, and most importantly, I think that artists who address social and political issues can and should be involved in actual activist work. It’s much easier to forgive a less-than-great conscious hip hop song if I know that the artist is down with the on-the-ground movements that he or she is rapping about. And of course, it’s hard to be a professional artist and a committed community activist… hard, but not impossible. Ask I Self Devine.

And maybe none of this applies to most artists, since most artists never talk about anything important in their work anyway. But I think it’s worth exploring and thinking about, especially for those of us who do believe in the power that art has to influence hearts and minds.

The most seemingly damning criticism of conscious rap is that people shouldn't look to rappers as role models or educators or leaders because in the end, we're just rappers.  But I believe that everyone is a potential role model, educator or leader, rappers included.  As MCs, we simply have a higher platform to shout from.  That's a privilege.  That's an opportunity.  It seems foolish to waste it. 

Any other thoughts? Disagreements? Hateful ad hominem attacks? Let’s discuss.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Idris Goodwin, Homeless, Kristoff Krane, Not Enough Mics, No Bird Sing, more

Another installment of "my friends are cooler than you... and probably me too."

1. First of all, I blogged a little about Idris Goodwin before, but you HAVE to pick up his new book, "THESE ARE THE BREAKS."  It just dropped today.  I had an advance copy, and it's honestly one of the best books I've read in years.  A kind of prose-poetry hip hop creative nonfiction mash-up, it's a MUST-READ for anyone who loves hip hop and was born in the late 70s or early 80s, as well as anyone who just enjoys good writing.  There's even a PM Dawn persona poem.

2. Kristoff Krane has a new video out. It's for the song "Inside Out." His last album, "Hunting for Father," was one of my favorite albums of 2010. Check it out at this link.

3. Homeless Ryan K. just put out a video too, for the Man Mantis-produced "Rest in Peace." I know Homeless from the poetry scene, but he's really come up over the past year as a rapper too, playing some huge shows and being tall and everything. Check out his music for free at this link.

Untitled from Not Enough Mics Collaborative on Vimeo.
4. I reviewed the debut release from the all-womyn's Not Enough Mics collaborative a while back.  Here's a very cool trailer they put together.  Definitely check that release out.

5. Finally, the homies No Bird Sing are putting out their second album.  Just announced a release party for April 29th at the Cedar in Minneapolis.  I'll be out of town that weekend (if you're in Brainerd, come to my show), but TC heads should definitely check out this show.  Kill the Vultures and Kristoff Krane will also be playing.  That's one of the best three-act lineups you'll ever see, and No Bird Sing put on one of the best live shows in the Twin Cities.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

my poem REACH live at the Loft Literary Center

The EQ show last Thursday at the Loft with Idris Goodwin, Lisa Brimmer and Ed Bok Lee was a great reminder for me of how powerful and important spoken-word poetry can be.  So much brilliant, transformative stuff in there.  Here's one of two poems that I did that night.  The other one will be part of a special post coming soon.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Review: Not Enough Mics: Vol. 1

“Pray for the 14 year old girls who will never know who MC Lyte is.” --Thiahera Nurse

I don’t do a lot of reviews on my own site, but every once in a while there’s a project out there that people really need to check out. The Not Enough Mics Collaborative is a new alliance of womyn-identified artists centered around Madison, WI (though they rep different cities). I’ve written about how and why women are underrepresented in indie hip hop before, and it’s great to see a debut from a collective like this that’s so confident, creative and fun to listen to. And it’s free.

After a solemn introduction from poet Thiahera Nurse, FM Supreme launches into the kind of slap-you-in-the-face rap song that can really only come from Chicago. It’s a great one-two punch of an introduction: the tension and release between an a capella spoken-word piece and a certified banger. FM Supreme may be one of the more experienced artists on the EP—she’s been doing some great things for a while now and is definitely someone to watch.

K.Raydio (who now lives and performs in the Twin Cities) serves up a nostalgic slice of neo-soul over a killer Man Mantis beat next. It’s a difficult thing to do neo-soul right these days—the genre was all but ground into dust by D’angelo and Erykah Badu imitators over the past decade. But this song has just the right amount of cool, originality and swagger to make it refreshing. K.Raydio has more free stuff to check out too.

Sofia Snow is one of the most talented people I know. And when I know talented people who also rap, I sometimes worry about their voices being boxed in by the traditional boundaries of hip hop. For example, someone who is a brilliant actor or spoken-word artist might feel obligated to write really cliché hip hop tracks, just to prove that they can indeed rap, rather than using their talents to push a new vision of hip hop forward. Fortunately, Snow’s track here is something very different; it’s very much a rap song, but there’s a playfulness to the patterns and complexity in the subject matter that is both intellectually engaging and a pleasure to listen to.

Myriha Burton just shows up for one verse, but it’s a monstrous 28-bar mission statement, very much a Detroit hip hop track. If you’re a fan of Royce and Em and them, not to mention Invincible and Finale and them, keep a close eye on Burton.

Bonnie isn’t an artist I’ve heard before, but I’m intrigued by her offering on this EP. She’s armed with a self-assured slow flow (a style I sometimes wish more rappers would employ), very different from the previous track, as well as a strong singing voice. The song as a whole comes together beautifully, capturing the bittersweet side of the struggle.

Twin Cities heads may remember Pyro. Even before she moved to Madison, she was one of the strongest young voices in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene. Her song here, “4 U Know Who,” manages to be the standout on an EP full of standouts. Whether rapping or singing, Pyro’s lyrics strike the perfect balance between specific and universal, and her voice is something really special. A lot of times, when critics say that someone has a great voice, they’re referring to pure power and control. But Pyro’s voice is something more than that—a truly unique instrument capable of communicating something beyond the big notes and the vamping, something transcendent.  And she has more stuff for free at this link.

Including DJ BlaireBlanco’s short and sweet outro, the whole project is just over twenty minutes long. But it’s a twenty minutes that points to great, great things for the future. All in all, this EP isn’t just a collection of songs from artists who happen to identify as female; it’s one of the strongest collections of songs I’ve heard all year. Download it for FREE at this link.

Get at them on Facebook at this link.  And they've got a Tumblr as well.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Download "No Capes" for free, WI updates, plus new mixtape announcment!

For one week only, we're making the Guante & Big Cats! song "NO CAPES" available for FREE.  Head over to the Tru Ruts main page for a download link

We released "No Capes" back in 2010 on our album, "An Unwelcome Guest."  It seems to be the song that most people tell me is their favorite.  I like it a lot too.  We wanted to make it available for free now because it speaks directly to what is happening in Wisconsin right now-- people working together to do what's right when our elected officials have failed us.

If you haven't been following the situation in WI, I want to point you to two of Josh Healey's blog posts.  Josh is a fellow poet/activist I know from when we both lived in Madison.  He moved out to the Bay, and I live in the Twin Cities now, but he's always got something interesting to say.  Read THIS ONE for an overview of the struggle, and THIS ONE for some thoughts on where it's headed.

We also wanted to make the song available as a prelude to my new mixtape.  "CONSCIOUS IS NOT ENOUGH 2011" is an updated, re-recorded version of the mixtape I put out back in 2008.  Lots of new songs, and better versions of old songs too.  If you liked that one, you'll like this one better.  If you never heard that one, even better.  The mixtape features original tracks and jacked beats, and talks about the importance of organizing, the power of community and much more.  I rap my ass off.  And it's funny.  And it's funky.  Political rap has a horrible reputation-- often for good reason-- but this mixtape is definitely something different.  Coming soon...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Quest for the Voice Schedule Announced

Photo of Kevin Yang by Orin Rubin

If you don't know, Quest for the Voice is an annual youth poetry slam series organizing by the Minnesota Spoken-Word Association and its partners and allies.  This slam series will decide which teens get to rep MN at Brave New Voices, the national youth poetry slam festival.  If you are a young poet, or you know some young poets, spread the word!

Rules: youth 13-19 can compete. Most preliminaries are one round only, but come with two poems just in case.  Semifinals and Finals are 2 rounds so come with two dynamic/original pieces.  Any style/any topic is cool, as long as it's three minutes or less.  The top 5-7 poems from each slam (based on sign up percentage) will advance to semifinals.  Top poets at semis will advance to Finals.

Quest for the Voice Preliminary Slams

Edison High School - Northeast Minneapolis
700 22nd Avenue Northeast, room 225
March 9, 3-5pm

Washburn High School - South Minneapolis
201 West 49th Street
March 10th, 6-8pm

The Canvas - St. Paul
1610 West Hubbard Ave
March 10th, 6-8pm

Perpich Center for Arts Education - Golden Valley
6125 Olson Memorial Highway
March Date/ During School

St. Paul Conservatory - St. Paul
Partnering with Golden Deli @ Golden's
Located on the first floor of the historic Northwestern Building
275 East 4th Street Suite 102
March 15, 6-8pmFree

Oak Park Neighborhood Community Center - North Minneapolis
1701 Oak Park Avenue North
March 17, 6pm

South High School - South Minneapolis
3131 19th Avenue South
March Date/ During School

Writing Circle/Prep for Semis
March 18 at the 42nd Avenue Station Coffee Shop
4171 Lyndale Ave North in Minneapolis
4:30-6pm; Free

Monday March 21 at the U of M - Moos Tower
515 Delaware Street Southeast, Minneapolis
Hosted by Voices Merging
6:30pm  ($3 students/ $5 adults)

Late May at the U of M; details TBA.