Archive for November, 2008

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 8

For a taste of October’s music, click here.

November’s update comes with over 100 tracks spanning both new and old albums, and quite a bit in terms of the Yancey family. We’ve got hip-hop and indie rock, R&B and rap. Enjoy!

Black Milk, Tronic: An album that pushes the traditional boundaries of hip-hop with futuristic synths and musical approaches, Black Milk still puts out several songs that utilize nostalgic samples. I won’t say much more because I’ve already written a full album review, but in my recent interview with Hieroglyphics members Opio and Tajai, they named Black Milk as one of the hip-hop producers they were liking the sound of recently. Read the full album review here. Don’t Sleep On: “Long Story Short,” “Bounce,” and “Losing Out” featuring Royce da 5’9″

Bloc Party, Intimacy: When Bloc Party released their initial effort, Silent Alarm in 2005, it brought a distinct sound to the indie rock arena with Kele Okereke’s emotional British accent and their hard charging guitars on songs like “Banquet.” That album spawned a remix album before the release of what I viewed to be a lackluster sophomore effort on 2007’s A Weekend in the City, an album that had three, maybe four really solid songs, tops. Thankfully though, Intimacy not only serves to take some of the band’s music in another direction, but returns the indie sound on their rock songs to the top-notch form that looked possible from their debut. Intimacy still has driving drums and screaming guitars, but the band has started to utilize more in the way of drum machines and electronic flourishes that create a new dimension for them to explore and in some cases creates some of the most musically advanced songs the band has produced to date. Okereke’s use of his voice is showing maturity, commanding more range of both pitch and emotion here. In some songs, it feels like the input they had on their work from Silent Alarm Remixes has prompted them to explore in new directions. A very solid album. Don’t Sleep On: “Signs,” “One Month Off,” and “Talons.”

Illa J, Yancey Boys: I’ve read a few reviews of this album that basically mock Illa J’s approach and state that he only made this album because he got posthumously released tracks from his big brother J Dilla. I think these reviews miss the point of the album in that Illa J doesn’t fancy himself a rapper or hip-hopper, he’s a self-described singer/songwriter, so it only makes sense that what he does over Dilla beats is going to be different from Dilla’s output when he was alive. On this album, the younger Yancey proves himself musically diverse and extremely relaxed, while also recognizing the importance of respecting Dilla’s production. The tracks here are laid back and jazzy, and Illa takes no effort to listen to, he’s that easy. Click here for the full album review, and click here for my interview with Illa J. Don’t Sleep On: “R U Listenin’?” feat. Guity Simpson, “We Here,” and “DTFT” feat. Affion Crockett

J Dilla, Welcome 2 Detroit: With the way underground hip-hop is structured and feeds into the mainstream, it’s often possible for fans to miss an initial classic album from an artist, and then never check it out once they’ve gotten big because it gets lost in the new music. With Illa J’s debut album dropping this month featuring almost exclusive production from Dilla, it only made sense to make sure people were aware of J Dilla’s initial solo offering and the way it intersects with the rest of the hip-hop genre. On Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla’s signature melodic and stoned out beats are in fine form with lyrical help from other Detroit rappers such as eLZhi (WIH6) and Phat Kat. The album, released in 2001, still sounds fresh and innovative today and features several tracks that showcase Dilla’s ability to fuse other sounds into his hip-hop such as the co-produced (Karriem Riggins) “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” which Dilla seems to have created in order to slip onto future releases of the 1977 Kraftwerk album Trans-Europe Express. Don’t Sleep On: “Shake It Down,” “It’s Like That,” feat. Hodge Podge and Lacks, and “Pause” feat. Frank-N-Dank.

Jedi Mind Tricks, A History of Violence: Underground hip-hop mainstays Jedi Mind Tricks return for their 6th studio album with more hard hitting tracks, masterful production and intricate lyrics. The conspiracy themes from previous albums remain here, and the production draws from interesting samples such as the strings and haunting foreign lyrics on “Monolith” and the sparse flute in “Trail of Lies.” The lyrical deliveries on these tracks are tight, concise and deep in content, and on the whole, the album is a display of exceptional craft from artists working together with a common musical vision and knowledge of their strengths. Don’t Sleep On: “Trail of Lies,” “Death Messiah,” and “Heavy Artillery.”

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks: Following the death of his mother, I was wondering what the latest output from an artist so in touch with his emotions and personal experiences would sound like. On the one hand, I could see West shaking off the events of the last year or so and putting out his most bouncy and sample-laden disc to date. On the opposite end of that, I could imagine West delving deep into what was going on and producing an intensely personal album. On 808s, West moves in a direction completely opposite of the roads he’s traveled before, and comes out all the better for it. Let’s be clear. 808s is not an album for anyone expecting the continuation of sound and work from West’s previous three albums, and it’s not an album that everyone is going to enjoy musically. Using an 808 drum machine and extensively using Auto-Tune to sing rather than rap, West has produced a stripped down and emotionally raw album. Heavy on synths and in points retro-80s sounds (tracks here could have made an Aphex Twin or Tricky album), West lays bare what’s going on with him and refuses to apologize for the new direction of his music. What’s amazing is that while I think the roster of musicians today who could completely change course from one album to the next and do so successfully is small, Kanye does make that list with this album. Dark, personal and musically adventurous, 808s and Heartbreaks exposes West as the musician he is rather than the hip-pop clone machine he’s often typecast as. Don’t Sleep On: “Paranoid,” feat. Mr. Hudson, ” “Bad News” (which features a sample from Nina Simone‘s “See Line Woman”) and “Street Lights.”

Ludacris, Theater of the Mind: While some artists are out to create philosophically moving pieces, or to in some way further the hip-hop culture, Ludacris doesn’t concern himself with such lofty ideals. He’s about making money. A lot of it. On his 6th studio album, Ludacris returns with the formula that has made him the hottest rapper in the South’s history… pulsing and grimy beats full of horns and deep bass kicks meet with quick delivery lyrics touching on sex, violence, money and his ability to outsell other rappers. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that this formula doesn’t work for him and doesn’t have its place within rap and hip-hop, but it is without any sort of creative growth that Luda moves forward. If there’s any doubt about the kind of sales Ludacris would like to see, this album is the most saturated rap album I’ve seen in years in terms of cameo appearances. Ludacris is the lone rapper on only 2 of the 15 tracks, getting guest appearances from Floyd Mayweather (yes, the boxer), Chris Rock (yes, that comedian), Jamie Foxx (still an actor?), Common and Spike Lee (one of them is a rapper, right?), Nas, Jay-Z and current Top 40 mainstays T.I., The Game, T-Pain and Lil Wayne. This approach either means that he intends to make a lot of money based on name recognition of his guests or he realizes that to put out an album that only has him on it, he’d need to come up with full lyrics to all of his songs, a task that might seem daunting (I mean, how many times can you really come up with new raps about rims and Cadillacs?) While musically and lyrically this album isn’t challenging, it has certainly produced some tracks that we’re sure to be hearing in clubs and parties very soon. Don’t Sleep On: “Intro” (only a minute of rapping, but well worth it, and one of only 2 songs with just Luda on it), “Undisputed” feat. Floyd Mayweather, and “Wish You Would” feat. T.I.

Opio, Vuture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1: The first in a trilogy of albums to be released by Opio from Hieroglyphics with production by Architect. The idea behind the albums is that people are saying hip-hop is dead, or at least that’s the popular expression lately. Vulture’s Wisdom refers to the ability to pick what’s left of life from the bones of the deceased, and this album shows that Opio hasn’t lost any of the edge that has carried him through more than a decade in the industry as a part of the Hiero Imperium. Be on the lookout for my interview with Opio and Tajai, where they discuss their plans to release a new single every week in 2009. Don’t Sleep On: “Don Julio,” “Mind, Body and Soul,” and “Some Superfly Shit.”

Singles… these are the songs where the full album just didn’t cut it, but the songs deserve their time in your ears. Check out “4 Wind,” a multi-lingual remix of the cut from Breez Evahflowin and Dirt E. Dutch’s Troublemakers album, and the radio ready hip-pop of T-Pain songs “Can’t Believe It” featuring L’il Wayne and “Karaoke” featuring DJ Khaled where T-Pain goes off on the rest of the industry (funny coming from the guy who did “Bartender”) and claims the only cool rappers are Kanye West and L’il Wayne. Well, at least he’s consistent. There you have it, the November update… up next is the second installment of last year’s 11 Songs to Be Thankful For.

Zion I Interview

Zion I

Zion I

From their initial release, 2000‘s Mind Over Matter, to last year’s collaboration album with The Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope, the Bay Area based duo of MC Zumbi and AmpLive known as Zion I has been making incredible music that incorporates hip-hop, world rhythms, hyphy, electronica and jazz sensibilities with intelligent lyrics looking at economic situations, social situations and meditative introspection. They’ve released an album in Japan (Break A Dawn) and have put out mix tape’s like Curb Servin‘ and remixes in the form of AmpLive’s re-working of Radiohead’s In Rainbows release. After their show at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco on Saturday night, I got a chance to sit down with these two and ask them about their upcoming album, The Take Over, making hip-hop in the Bay Area and their favorite Zion I song.

AC: How do you determine your setlists?

Amp: For a tour, we practice before we go out, but basically our set lists have been the same the last couple of years and just changes slightly with the albums.

AC: The last album you did with The Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope, what was it like working on The Take Over with just the two of you again?

Z: It was different because Grouch brings a whole different element, a whole different mind pattern. When we were working on Heroes, I remember sitting down and talking over each song really in depth, cause he’s a real insightful person, so we’d just talk out everything, so by the time the pen hit the paper, everything was already laid out. When it’s just Zion I, we talk about it, but my process is more about figuring it out as I go, like I feel something from the beat, and I have something but I have to remember to stay on topic. Grouch is just focused. Plus, Grouch writes half the verses too, when it’s Zion I, I have to write everything, so in that way it’s different. And I think with the beats, on Zion I stuff Amp is able to just go off more on his own. Zion I is just a more eclectic vibe, so we push a little bit harder and go off in different experimental ways.

AC: As you guys have progressed through your albums from Mind Over Matter to Deep Water Slang and the ones that have followed, what has become easier about making hip-hop for you, and what has become harder for you?

Z: Good question.

Amp: To me it’s never easy, because you don’t know if people are going to like it, and you just want it to be tight. Sometimes it’s hard knowing what to do, honestly, you have the way you feel, but sometimes it’s hard deciding what direction you want to go.

Z: For me, as a writer, it’s easier to know what I feel when I hear music because I’ve been doing it longer now as opposed to in ’95. I’ve been doing it 13 more years now, so I know what I feel. But still, like he said, you can’t get too cocky to the music or the culture, you have to be humble and a fan, you have to stay a fan. You don’t want to get old school, like you’re retro now on purpose, you have to have your ears to the street and just be open to the music. Sometimes it’s easy to get like, “Oh man, we used to do it like that back then and the new cats are doing it like this and that ain’t tight.” But you have to, as a fan of the culture, you have to have an open lingo to everything to stay fresh and relevant.

AC: That brings me to my next question. What are you guys listening to right now?

Z: In the van, we were listening to a lot of Santogold mixtapes, weren’t we? Cats just kept rotating that shit back to back. I listen to a lot of beat tapes recently, I get in my car and I’m looking for music and I’m just feeling the beat tapes. I’ve got some beat tapes from Bedrock, I’ve got this shit called Congotronics it’s club music, from Africa, it’s not even new, it’s kinda old, but it’s just really interesting. It’s hella rhythmic, with this bass sound and they take these calimbos, these thumb pianos and then they hook them up to these amplifiers so it sounds electronic, but it’s really traditional instruments, so I’ve been bumping them a lot.

AC: Zion I, E-40, Hiero are just three names in what makes up the Bay Area’s very rich hip-hop culture, I think in comparison to the rest of the United States. What is it about this scene that you think creates that?

Amp: It’s just such a big place with lots of variety, historically. The music that’s come up here, there’s a fan base that’s implanted here. There’s always a crowd for different types of music. I think there’s big energy.

Z: It’s California. People on the West Coast, we get a lot of ideas, just like the East Coast gets ideas, New York, Atlanta. On the West Coast we get ideas from a different angle, but it’s a place where people are very open to processing different perspectives, in the Bay Area especially. It has to be one of the most diverse places in the country, so I think it’s only right that our music showcases that.

A: What can people expect stylistically from The Take Over?

Amp: It’s all over the place, there’s a lot of different stuff on there. It’s definitely straight to the point in a lot of places.

Z: It’s eclectic, but there’s definitely a boom element, and there’s definitely soul, I think it’s a soulful record. Even though we go in a lot of different directions in the production, I think there’s a link through everything that’s very soulful, whether it’s the content or the singing or the way Amp produced the beat, it’s got heart to it.

AC: How many songs is Mr. Holiday going to be on on the album?

Amp: Codany Holiday. On the album, he’s on two tracks where he’s up front and then he does a lot of background vocals on a lot of stuff. You like Codany?

AC: I do. My exposure to him was through your Rainydayz Remixes.

Amp: You should go on my Myspace and download the Jamie Lidell, he did a Jamie Lidell remix.

AC: Last question here…favorite Zion I song for each of you.

Amp: From The Take Over?

AC: No, whenever. Through all of your albums, there’s a lot of music to choose from. What really stands out for you?

Z: That’s hard man.

Amp: We did a new song called “DJ DJ” that I like a lot. It’s a very DJ ready song that I think is really tight.

Z: Man, that’s really tough. What comes to my mind is either “Silly Putty” or “Innerlight,” because I remember when I wrote “Innerlight” I had just come home from meditating really tough and Amp was playing the beat already, and it just matched my state of mind so perfectly. When I wrote it, it was one of the easiest songs I wrote, ever. It just came off the pen, and it was just so easy, it just felt good. Same with “Silly Putty.”

Amp: It seems like “The Bay” was like that.

Z: Yea, but it’s just captured something different, it’s more inside, “The Bay” is more of an external thing, whereas “Innerlight” and “Silly Putty,” those were internal. “Silly Putty” I just wrote it and when Grouch got it and he just kept with it automatically and he just enhanced it. So probably those two songs because of the way they came about.

For a review of the Zion I show at the Grand Ballroom Saturday night, click here.

Zion I and The Mighty Underdogs at The Grand Ballroom

Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Mighty Underdogs
Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Mighty Underdogs

Zumbi of Zion I
Zumbi of Zion I

{to read Evolving Music’s interview with AmpLive, click here}
{to read Evolving Music’s interview with Zion I from after the show Saturday night, click here}

Hip-Hop shows, at their base, are usually only going to be as good as their crowds. With rock bands and other performers who play in large venues, just the sheer numbers will create an energetic atmosphere, and with pop songs, sing-a-longs easily get fans into the performance. With hip-hop, however, there are few performers who truly know all the words to their own rhymes. Often, performers will cut songs short in order to do just snippets of more popular songs. And the music is such that it requires energy from what is usually a smaller crowd, and the smaller the crowd, the harder it is to convince people to really sell out and get into it.

By these standards, the shows I have seen of Zion I have been some of the most varied in terms of audience enthusiasm and demographics of crowds. I’ve seen an incredible Zion I performance at the Fillmore where a truly live hip-hop crowd that knew their work was into it and the concert was amazing. But then I saw them a few years ago doing a back to school concert at UCLA. The venue was too large, there weren’t enough people there and the stage was set up in a way that allowed for almost no fan interaction. The people who were there mostly didn’t know the music, so what was an amazing set list got very little in the way of crowd appreciation.

On Saturday night at the Grand Ballroom, The Mighty Underdogs opened, and considering they’re made up of Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef the Truth Speaker from Latryx, they got short attention from most of the crowd. They were excellent though, bringing a speed of delivery that is difficult for most to imagine, and Gift of Gab’s ability to increase speed while maintaining a level of coherency in his diction was showcased in my second opportunity to see him do “Alphabet Aerobics” live.

And when they got to the stage, Zion I got another odd turnout in the form of what looked more like a high school dance than a hip-hop show. The majority of the people there were girls between the ages of 14 and 17. Watching them run enthusiastically during set changes to find a cigarette they could puff on was hilarious in and of itself. And what can you expect from this group other than that they’ll know the singles and their favorite songs, but won’t have the depth of knowledge of Zion I’s catalog to truly appreciate and buy into the set.

And that’s unfortunate considering that I view Zion I to be one of the hardest working live acts in hip-hop and true masters of their craft. AmpLive and Zumbi consistently work in both old favorites and new tracks, while also remembering the art of the true freestyle, with both of them taking turns improvising on either lyrics or beats. On stage, Amp becomes a grand marshal, moving the set seamlessly from one track to the next, and adding flairs through the use of a live sample and drum machine.

Zumbi (formerly Zion) is lyrically on point in all of his songs, never skipping a lyric or word, demonstrating just how well-prepared he is. Not two songs into the set he’s already worked up a sweat from interacting with the crowd, bouncing to Amp’s work and delivering the verses with an intensity and accuracy often missing in live shows. Furthermore, the performance never sounds like a canned delivery of studio albums. Zumbi’s expressions and tempo changes accentuate portions of the lyrics he finds to be important and each live show I’ve seen brings that feeling of song alteration.

In this show, the group was joined on stage by Codany Holiday, the soul singer who has crossed genres to work with AmpLive on his Rainydayz Remixes album of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. In concert, Holiday brings an energy and passion to his singing that fits right in with Zion I’s delivery and adds a soulful and musical depth to the songs. In some parts taking chorus and in other parts just adding background vocals, Holiday showed an impressive range in his pitches and was so obviously into the performance that his vocals soared and provided an excellent balance between Amp’s steady and polished hand and Zumbi’s raw energy.

For any hip-hop fan, Zion I is not a group to be missed in their studio albums or live performances, especially when the quality of the audience matches the quality of their music. Set list standouts from Saturday night included “The Drill,” “City of Dope,” “Fingerpaint,” “Silly Putty,” and three tracks off of their January release The Take Over, “Juicy Juice,” “Feel Brand New” and “Antenna.” They also mentioned onstage that the new album will include Brother Ali and Devin the Dude. It drops January 27th, 2009.

Ad-Funded Music: trueAnthem, WE7

“Brought to you by Fruit of the Loom.”

How would you feel about your music being preceded by a brief recorded message from the underwear maker? Are fans just as willing to listen to audio advertising at the start of songs as they are willing to put up with seeing ads? If it means they get the song for free, apparently the answer is yes.

We’ve talked about bands and brands partnering up (like Throw Me The Statue in an Urban Outfitters commercial) and the trend is clearly not slowing down. In this new frontier, it’s becoming imperative to think outside the box and explore new media. Even CBS is doing it: OMG Boobies: Victoria’s Secret on Your Mobile. One of the most prevalent examples of band/brand partnerships that we’re seeing as of late is the ad-supported music model.

trueAnthem, which we first stumbled across because of their early work with Ultraviolet Sound, has been forging ahead and signing more and more bands. Led by Brad Barnes, they are pioneering a “new way for independent and undiscovered artists and bands to get paid while sharing their music with their fans for free – and without having to sign away their lives to a major music label”. Check out their widget (which you can grab and post wherever) – you can download the artists’ album for free. Free, as long as you don’t mind hearing and ad at the start of each song.

Personally, I don’t mind at all. The folks at trueAnthem (probably largely thanks to Emaleigh) have done a great job of pairing the right brand with each band and presenting the sponsor’s messaging in an appropriate way. If you browse through the various bands, you notice brands like Guitar Center, Steve Madden, and Baby Phat… and when you hear that band’s music you can’t help but nod and go “yep… that’s a fit”.

Another interesting example is the recently launched digital music service WE7, which has “all four majors and hundreds of independent labels via The Orchard on board.” Compensation is derived from ad revenues.

What seemed like a distant pipedream not too long ago is certainly becoming the new reality. The music industry simply must accept that the new generation of music consumers – you know, the ones who grew up with the internet and can’t imagine a world without it – expect to get their music for free (one way or another). And they want to consume it in their own way, on their own time, and in their preferred way. So, we might as well make that possible and find ways to still pay the artists. And that is exactly what WE7 has done.

A key ingredient in this equation is obviously appropriate pairing of bands and brands. The sites and services who do this best will likely come out on top. The advertisers need to reach their target demographics. And the music capturing that particular audience might be just the vehicle to get them there.

John McCain: Music Thief pt. 2

Several weeks ago at the height of the election race, I posted concerning McCain and Palin’s unauthorized campaign use of songs by several different artists. Well, the campaign is over, McCain has lost, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to throw in the towel on the lawsuit brought against him by Jackson Browne. McCain (or, as McCain claims, the Ohio Republican Party) used a 30 second clip of the Browne song “Running on Empty” in a commercial televised in Ohio. While a majority of McCain’s usage of music by groups that are Democrats and in other ways don’t support this aging war-hawk isn’t eligible for trial as it was broadcast live and publicly at venues that traditionally have rights to use songs, Browne’s lawsuit is the exception because it did it in a nationally televised with without asking for rights to use the song.

But who would for a second think that McCain, despite making campaign promises based around honesty and integrity, would actually be honest and have integrity? That’s why, rather than admitting he did wrong and seeing to compensate Browne for it, he’s counter-suing claiming that these are frivolous lawsuits. McCain claims that, “Given the political, non-commercial, public interest and transformative nature of the use of a long-ago published song, the minuscule amount used and the lack of any effect on the market for the song (other than perhaps to increase sales of the song), these claims are barred by the fair use doctrine.”

That defense is contrasted by Browne’s claim that the use was a violation of his publicity rights, copyright infringment and a false endorsement. My question is how can McCain claim that his use was public interest? It certainly wasn’t in the interest of the person who made the song, a longtime Democrat. The use of the song didn’t help the public in any way. You can say that there was a minuscule amount of the song used, but 30 seconds of a 2 minute spot, or 25% of the commercial, doesn’t seem minuscule to me. But to me, the greatest threat here is the unauthorized use of a song to give the appearance of promotion on the part of the artist. If an artist is clearly against what a politician stands for, then the “political” fair use argument shouldn’t stand. Of course, this counter suit and the failure on McCain’s part to take responsibility for what he and his party did simply makes me more certain that the country picked the right President. But where do you stand on “fair use” and politicians using musicians’ songs without their knowledge?


Copyright © 2007-2009 MixMatchMusic, Ltd. All Rights Reserved