Archive for May, 2008

International Music Spotlight: Ugandan Hip Hop

Those who know my musical taste know I’m a big fan of world music (Putamayo, anyone?) – both traditional cultural music as well as the more modern fusion of ethnic sounds with, say, an awesome dance beat. As such, I’ve decided to start an international music spotlight series with occasional posts highlighting specific genres from specific cultures each time. Off we go!

I’m no expert when it comes to hip hop, that’s for damn sure. But I do know when I hear something I like. And I like a lot of hip hop…and how revolutionary its artists can be. Some of them truly empower their followers with their impassioned lyrics. Some of them are heroes in their communities and fierce activists. Hip hop* is music with a purpose.

*Obviously, I’m referring to the underground (or at least less mainstream) artists whose works are centered around poignant topics like political corruption, poverty, war, HIV, social change etc…NOT mainstream “hip pop” stars who rap about meaningless crap (e.g. money, drugs, sex) but have catchy beats that propel their songs to success in the clubs and on the charts…though those artists certainly have a right to their place in the musical spectrum.

The global hip hop scene could be conceived of as being still in its infancy – at least in terms of large scale awareness. Despite an increasing number of destinations like Flight 808, an international hip hop site/blog, and Nomadic Wax, a “record label, production company and events production company specializing in hip-hop and underground music from around the globe”, most international underground hip hop is, you know, still underground.

Today, I chose to spotlight Uganda, because my aunt has been working in Kampala for several years and it’s next on my wish list of places to travel to.

Ugandan Hip Hop (Lugaflow)

An excellent starting point is this documentary called Diamonds in the Rough:

O’Reilly Radar has a good description of the film, which follows Bataka Squad, a Ugandan hip hop group who raps in their native tongue, Luganda, and uses their art form to raise awareness of local issues, inspire youth and do all kinds of good. Click here for a brief history of the group.

Bataka Squad is a great example of a local group who refuses to sell out and play the kind of music that is popular in favor of staying true to their roots and disseminating their message. Thanks to their perseverance, they have not only garnered a local following among Ugandan youth but have caught the attention of a more international audience ranging from the first African hip hop summit in South Africa in 2005 to the Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco in 2007. They even met Bill Clinton.

After the Artist Activism workshop that I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking more and more about the inherent power of music and its ability to empower people, spread positive messages of hope and change [insert obvious Obama plug here], and educate the international community about local issues.

On that note…

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 2

Alright, it’s time for the May update and the second installment of What I’m Hearing. For those that missed last month, this will be a monthly post centered around the new music I’ve put on my iPod. The May update, for those interested in numbers and stats, contains 135 new songs, and they are excellent! Here’s what I’m hearing now…

Atmosphere, When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold: After two releases viewed largely as disappointing in musical content, Atmosphere has returned with an excellent set of hip-hop that finds the duo of Ant and Slug returning to the stylistic methods that created their success originally. The beats on this album are tight, with many melancholy tracks for Slug’s introspective and multi-tiered delivery to lilt over. Ant produces an album that ranges from sad slow hip-hop to upbeat party movers, with songs based in undulating bass rhythms as well as melodic piano rifts. Slug, rapping about various people’s personal perspective on life, finds new inspiration for his rhymes by rapping from both a first person and omniscient angle and creating rhymes that could be interpreted multiple ways. Don’t Sleep On: “Yesterday,” “Me,” and “Your Glass House.”

Blue Scholars, The Long March EP: While I have been talking consistently about their self-titled debut and sophomore release Bayani, I just discovered this EP full of previously unreleased tracks. They continue the smooth music and laid back lyricism of the two studio albums and deliver a number of excellent tracks. This may be an EP, but it listens like a full effort album. Don’t Sleep On: “Sagaba (Remix),” “La Botella,” and “27” (technically off the Butter and Gun$ release)

Chicha Libre, Sonido Amazonico: When you pick up this album for the first time, your initial thought is that you’re listening to some 70s music out of South America. The style hails from Peru and in its heyday was an amalgamation of pop, reggae and Latin music. Here, this North American band has picked up the style, dusted it off and infused it with a natural and unforced feeling that also includes some surf music vibes among others. The instrumentation is exquisite, with hand drums and an organ being used to great effect throughout the album. This music is perfect for summer weather and boat trips. Dig it. Don’t Sleep On: “La Cumbia del Zapatero,” “Sonido Amazonico,” and “Popcorn Andino.” Here’s a quote from the group’s website…”CHICHA is the name of a corn-based liquor favored by the Incas in pre-colombian days. Chicha is also the name of a South American music craze which started out in the late 70’s in the Peruvian Amazon. Cumbias amazonicas, as they were first called, were loosely inspired by Colombian accordion-driven cumbias but soon incorporated the distinctive sounds of Andean melodies, some Cuban son, and the psychedelic sounds of surf guitars, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers. The group draws its personnel from barbes regulars Bebe Eiffel, One Ring Zero and Las Rubias del norte.”

Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs: The indie scene has been good to Death Cab, and the release of their new album, written in California, exemplifies the standard sounds we’ve come to expect from the group while also integrating a few new ones. Light piano and guitar, easy melodies and Gibbard’s heartfelt and sometimes falsetto voice form the basis of the album, but the band branches out here with a few more intense segments, heavy drums and wall of sound concepts. Death Cab remains their strongest on the shorter melancholy songs and the ones where the music is just enough to keep Gibbard from sounding miserable, but their radio single of this one, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is a bit self-indulgent in its 8 minute running time and the long intro seems to go almost nowhere for minutes. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” demonstrates the group’s ability to turn a very sad song into an enjoyable tune. All in all though, another solid installment from the group. Don’t Sleep On: “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” and “Grapevine Fires.”

Immortal Technique, The 3rd World: I can’t say much more about the 3 full tracks and 4 clips I’ve heard in from this album other than what I said late last week in this post. What I will say is that these three tracks (“Reverse Pimpology,” “The 3rd World,” and “The Payback) are all stellar, showcasing familiar Tech topics over a very different set of beats that forces him to find diversity in his delivery. He succeeds and makes June 24th’s release date seem just too far off.

Nine Inch Nails, The Slip: Reznor’s come a long way since Pretty Hate Machine, and the journey has allowed us to watch an angst-ridden young artist develop a genre, spawn numerous imitators, become an incredible global success and then use that success to work independently against the record industry that gave him his start. While Reznor’s success has changed the way the music is approached and distributed, it hasn’t changed what is an obvious hunger within to continue to create. The Slip is the album follow up to the esoteric and instrumental Ghosts I-IV released a few weeks ago, and finds Reznor returning to songs with lyrics and savage musical intensity that were missing on the largely landscape tracks of Ghosts. While I personally feel that the honesty, intensity and pure force of will in albums like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral will no longer be matched, Reznor doesn’t try to duplicate the formula or make apologies here. The songs are a logical progression of his growth as a musician, and still deliver some satisfying NIN. Distortion, a combination of live and machine drums and heavy guitar saturate this album. Don’t Sleep On: “Lights in the Sky,” “Echoplex,” and “Demon Seed”

Portishead, Third: Following over a decade without a new studio album, Portishead’s Third was widely anticipated, and it was largely feared that they may have remained in limbo for those 11 years, coming back with a 90’s-esque trip-hop sound that would be dated and sedated. So it came as a surprise when the new album came out and, while retaining the haunting vocals of Beth Gibbons, sounded almost nothing like its predecessors. And that’s a very good thing. Here, the trio explores new ground, venturing into the electronic and glitch landscapes that were just starting to exist at the beginning of their hibernation. Don’t Sleep On: “Silence,” “Machine Gun,” and “The Rip”

Seu Jorge, Carolina and The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions: Singer? Sure. Soundtrack writer? Absolutely. Movie star? You bet. Brazilian Seu Jorge does it all, and he does it with flair. You can’t get more MixMatch than that! He appeared as crew member Pelé in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as well as playing Knockout Ned in the amazing slum epic City of God. Not only acting in Life Aquatic, Jorge also provided a bulk of the soundtrack when he tackled David Bowie covers in Portugese on his guitar. Here we have two very different albums from the man. The first is a rollicking expression of Brazilian samba pop music that occasionally infuses hints of reggae and soul, and the second is a studio version of songs that were originally packaged directly from the film (and most often in outdoor spaces). While the tracks from the movie are spectacular because they really make you feel like Jorge is on a boat next to you playing them, the sound quality could be better. Here, they get the full studio treatment and come out sounding polished. Jorge’s music is fun, light-hearted and extremely listenable. Don’t Sleep On: “Starman,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hagua”

Various Singles: These songs didn’t get their full albums downloaded, but they’re sweet singles. Check out “Mathematics,” and “Letters From the Ambulance” by The Fashion, “In a Cave” and “Your English Is Good” by Tokyo Police Club, and the studio version of “Business Time” off of Flight of the Conchords‘ freshman release.

Grime: The Gritty UK Love Child of Garage, Dancehall, and Hip Hop

A recent post on I Guess I’m Floating, and the comment war that followed it, introduced me to a genre I (much like IGIF writer Nathaniel) had no previous exposure to: Grime.

I won’t go into a detailed breakdown of the origins of the genre, the tendency toward social and political commentary, the stylistic elements and what not. You can all read. Go to the wikipedia link if you’re so damn curious!

What piqued my interest was the debate in the aforementioned post’s comments about which bands are true Grime and which aren’t and whether music-minded people are retarded for not knowing about the genre. Since I fall among the ranks of the uninformed, I did a little poking around.

Clearly, Dizzee Rascal is thought of as the one of the top Grime artists (along with his mentor, Wiley). The “futuristic electronic elements and dark, guttural bass lines” [Wikipedia] of the genre are well represented in Dizzee’s “Graftin”. Some of the commenters suggested Skepta‘s “Sweet Mother”, which I found interesting with the juxtaposition of its frenetic rapping and choppy breakbeats over the laid back islander vibe of the chorus. Listening to his freestyle (9 min freestyle? holy crap…), you get a feel for the competitive element involved in Grime, reminisent of American underground hip hop battles, with all its shit-talking and jab-taking.

I haven’t quite decided whether I like this music or not…but it’s intriguing.

For a good insider view into the genre and culture, check out this Grime Documentary:

First Listen: Immortal Technique – The 3rd World

(Follow this link to Evolving Music’s interview with Immortal Technique.)
(Follow this link to the full album review of Immortal Technique’s “The 3rd World”.)

Following the announcement of the release date of the upcoming Immortal Technique album (June 24th), us media types were treated to a few tracks to introduce us to what could be the most anticipated independent album in years. And when I say independent, I’m not talking about a rapper on an underground label. I’m talking about a rapper who sold his CDs on the street and now refuses to sign with a label that could provide more exposure as it might infringe on his message and mission. However, with the announcement that a large amount of production for the album was completed by Jay-Z’s DJ Green Lantern, it had yet to be seen if Immortal Technique could stick to his guns amid production that on previous albums had been handled by far more independent names like Southpaw and 44 Caliber.
The press release was accompanied by a quote from “The Payback,” “I make rap about lyrics not beats and marketing.” And after listening to this track, “The 3rd World,” and “Reverse Pimpology,” there is no question that regardless of the beat behind him, Immortal Technique will not change his message or the power in his lyrics.
On the first listen, I liked the songs, but was concerned. These didn’t sound like Immortal Technique songs I had heard off the first two albums. The beats are more accessible, and even in an unmastered format, are a bit more polished than some of the more basic tracks off the two Revolutionary albums. On previous releases, while there are numerous tracks that grab musically from the first beat (“Caught in the Hustle,” “No Me Importa, “Obnoxious,” and “Harlem Streets” to name a few), one of the staples of the style is that the beats are more of a backdrop for Tech’s lyrics than anything else, and appreciation for them is derived mainly from how he sounds over them.
So when “The Payback” comes on with a vintage hook that could have come out of a Kanye song and laid back horns, the initial auditory reaction is to think the lyrics are going to follow those pop sensible lines. But when he opens in typical Tech fashion, “I want to run for President and the focal point when I’m campaignin’/is to put FEMA to work on plantation at Camp David,” it becomes clear that nothing has changed but the background, and even that difference is then altered by Tech’s forceful delivery and unmistakable style. By the end of the cut, as much as you could imagine hearing the beat on a radio station, Tech has made it completely his own, and you can’t imagine someone rapping about women, money or any of the other surface level topics popular in the genre today. The song is all the stronger for it.
The first beats of “The 3rd World,” while retaining the ragga-street melody style of tracks like “Peruvian Cocaine,” employs a thump and kick beat that’s harder and more fleshed out than Tech listeners are used to hearing. His mastery of lyrics, both in how he fuses lines and words together while never losing sight of his content, is again in full display here with lines like, “from where the bombs that they used to drop on Vietnam/Still has children born deformed 8 months before they’re born.”
When the initial reaction is to the first few measures of music, it’s easy to forget why you’re listening. So much of hip-hop today is based on listenable production that masks otherwise impotent lyrics. For a second you think you’ve stumbled into one of these before you remember that you’re listening because it’s an Immortal Technique track. And when you remember that fact, you start listening and realizing that not only is he the same rapper from the previous two albums, but he’s better because his message and delivery is truly incredible regardless of the beat he chooses. In short, these songs take an already potent lyricism and delivery and drive them home with an increased versatility derived from new musical landscapes behind them.
While Revolutionary Vol. 1 and 2 were perfect for his style and his message, they are largely an extension of each other. With these first three tracks from The 3rd World, Tech demonstrates an ability to adapt over any beat, and when he spits that he “makes rap about lyrics not beats and marketing,” the idea behind the new album and his collaboration with Green Lantern becomes more clear. He doesn’t care what he raps over, as long as his words are heard, and he doesn’t care who sells his album because he knows it will get out there if his message remains strong. While on a first listen these songs might shock Immortal Technique fans, the second and third listen reveal lyrics that are just as potent as the previous releases, packaged in beats that will change the way you listen to him. The elements of government conspiracy, poverty and disrespect to the major labels all show flashes here, and any concern that Tech would get soft in his lyrics or his delivery is washed away instantly.
With production coming from Green Lantern, Southpaw and Buckwild, and every indication that Immortal Technique’s strength as a lyricist and ideas as a revolutionary have not waned in the years since Revolutionary Vol. 2, I can tell you already that these three tracks make an excellent starting point for what is shaping up to be a forceful album. June 24th, Viper records, Immortal Technique, The 3rd World. Just to be fair, I’ve also heard bits of the tracks “Mistakes,” “Death March,” “Lick Shots,” and “Golpe de Estado,” but I’m not going to ruin the entire anticipation for the album here!

For a review of the full album, click here.

Brad Sucks Does Not Suck

Self-proclaimed “one man band with no fans”, Brad Sucks (Brad Turcotte) is one of the pioneers of “open source music” and the Free Culture Movement. By waiving all the rights to his songs and giving fans access to the source of his songs for remixes, Brad has not only built a huge following, but his songs have been licensed for commercials and many of his fans choose to pay for his music.

This serves to further reinforce the school of thought which maintains that giving fans access to free music (whether for listening or download) actually results in increased sales in the end (of CDs, digital music, concert tickets, merchandise etc.)

Here is one of my favorite Brad Sucks songs (in a fan-made music video done as a film project and editing test):

Carefully, Correctfully Wrong has an interesting way of describing Brad’s sound: “…a smooth mix of indie rock and electro, mixed with sardonic lyrics and pounding disco beats. It’s what the Scissor Sisters would sound like if they weren’t trying to be the Bee Gees.”

Brad Sucks is a great example of a DIY musician who has taken full advantage of the tools available to artists online. Other than his official site, you can find him on MySpace, CD Baby, ccMixter,, Magnatune, iLike, Sellaband, Jamendo, MOG and Twitter to name a few. Not only does Brad Sucks encourage remixing of his songs, he invites fans to submit their remixes so he can post them on the site.

I love the simplicity of his site and the plethora of options he offers his fans for how to enjoy his music. On the home page you can view the progress of his next album, view his upcoming gigs (you can also “demand” to see him live…), buy the album there (or Amazon, iTunes, CD Baby etc). On the music page, you can listen to songs, download them for free, buy them on a number of sites, or make a donation etc.

Also. Is it just me or is this guy a freaking marketing genius? With a self-deprecating artist name like “Brad Sucks” and an equally likable album name, “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”, and the simple almost child-like branding style, he gets your attention immediately and is not easily forgotten.

Brad Sucks genuinely understands the power of encouraging direct artist-fan interaction by giving his listeners what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. And by letting them have a voice.

And he definitely does not suck.

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