Posts Tagged 'hip-hop'

Blue Scholars to be Re-Released on Duck Down

I received an email today announcing the release of Bayani Redux. When I saw this, I was under the impression that we were going to get a release of B-sides and remixes for the sophomore album by Seattle based Blue Scholars, Bayani. For anyone who has followed Evolving Music for a length of time, you’ve seen the concert reviews and album reviews for the duo of Sabzi and Geologic (aka Prometheus Brown.) And yet, I still find trouble reconciling myself with how talented they are and how little mass exposure they have. Granted, some of the best music falls through the cracks and gets chewed up by the massive grinder of the music industry, but I hold out hope that the word of mouth on some of the best underground artists will reach surface and flip the industry on its head.

I feel like the music industry is caught in a bad dream. That dream where you keep running, turning corners, opening doors, all to get away from something, and yet you can’t. Every time I turn on the television or flip through the radio dial, it’s like I’m opening a door in the dream and finding myself in the same place, listening to recycled music from the past twenty years, sometimes infused with a new trick like auto-tune, sometimes not. But people keep buying, and therefore, labels will keep re-packaging. This is an old rant of mine, but one that came back to the surface after reading the release details for the second coming of Bayani.

When Rawkus Records released Bayani on June 12th, 2007, it was the second album from the duo and one that promised an enormous amount of future material based solely on the progression of the artists between it and their eponymous debut. However, in reading the re-release article, I come to find that only 20,000 copies of it have sold. That’s 10,000 per year in the two since its release, which averages out to about 28 albums per day. That’s not too bad, until you think about the fact that Flo-Rida probably averaged 28 single downloads per minute for his crap and the current iTunes chart topper is Miley Cyrus.

What do you need to do to expose people to good, quality music these days? 2007’s Bayani is a far stronger album than Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, yet that went Platinum with 1,000,000 sold in just three months and we’re talking two years later at 20,000 for a better hip-hop CD. Is it the lyrics? Are lyrics with depth and intelligence, as pushed out by Geologic and the majority of his underground counterparts, too much for radio listeners? Is it that any variety making a beat sound like something you haven’t heard in every Top 10 song for the past 5 years is frightening? Personally, I’m not sure. But what I can tell you is that while Kanye West walks around making an ass out of himself with all of the money the pop-hypnotized public gives to him, quality artists like the Blue Scholars are trying to figure out where the inspiration for and money to produce their next album will come from.

So do yourself a favor. Turn off the radio, stop watching MTV, and do something other than Shazam the latest club track you heard last night while you were drunk off your ass. Check out Indiefeed, your local independent record store or any vast number of music blogs and resources online and find something new, something different, and in many cases, something more artistic.

Bayani Redux comes out with three previously unreleased tracks on September 1st.

MixMatchMusic Artist Update

Summer concerts are in “full steam ahead”, “pedal to the metal”, “all systems go” phase at this juncture of the earth’s trip around the sun. Festivals are in full swing and summer concert tours are movin’ and shakin’. Speaking of, two MixMatchMusic artists in particular are sweeping the nation, rasta styleeee. John Brown’s Body and Slightly Stoopid are showing these fine states how summer can really be enjoyed, just chillaxin. I had the pleasure of checking out both in the last two weeks. Observe…

John Brown’s Body

John Brown’s Body took over Federal Hill at the 8×10 Club in Baltimore. The house was packed with people of all ages. No joke, I saw a variety of teens, 20 somethings and a handful of parental units decked out in tie dye having a blast. The crowd was friendly, excited and down to bounce to rasta beats. I gotta give it up to the opening act, Passafire who incidentally have a couple of local VA/MD boys in the band. I downright dug their style. It was more of an upbeat, rock/punk/particularly reggae mix. Each song was pretty different so I can’t really put them in one complete category. The keyboardist especially had a ton of energy, as did the whole band. They were a great set up for John Brown’s Body who completely blew me away as well. I was pleasantly surprised by how full their sound was. The band includes a trumpet, sax and trombone player which would bring great vibe to any venue. The lead singer has a captivating voice that puts you into a trance. Also, I’ve never seen a dude half bald, with dreads, kill a mic. I highly suggest checking out this tour if it comes to your city and you like reggae in the least bit. Find future dates HERE. They’ll even be in the UK!!

John Browns Body in Federal Hill, Baltimore

John Brown's Body in Federal Hill, Baltimore

Passafire, killin it!

Passafire, killin' it!

Slightly Stoopid

I’ll go ahead and say it, I’m stoopid for these guys. (Sorry, I had to go there.) I’ve been streaming them a lot lately and honestly, I’m digging the 2am remixes. But, uh, back to the lecture at hand, the Blazed and Confused tour, a whole different scene from the previous concert attended. First of all, the concert was at a beautiful outdoor venue tucked away in the trees of Colombia, MD called Merriweather Post Pavilion. LOVED attending a concert there. They had a great variety of drinks, food and entertainment on top of the actual concert. There’s a club on site for 21+ to get away and grab a drink as well as a music themed pinball arcade, waaaay cool. Second, I’d say the average age was a bit lower than what I’m used to. Slightly Stoopid/Snoop/Stephen Marley, keepin’ it real with the young’ins! As usual, Marley started it off with a crucial reggae style set to open the show. Then… Snoop D-O Double Gizzle hit the mic. He did a bunch of old school stuff which was exactly what the crowd (and myself) was hoping for. Also, Lady of Rage got on the mic and did an Afro Puff segment. Totally took me back to the good ol’ 90’s. Definitely a highlight of Snoop’s set as well as his official smoke break.

Blazed Individual

Blazed Individual

Snoop D-O Double G

Snoop D-O Double G

Slightly Stoopid came on stage with quite the set up. They had 2 large skulls on either side of the stage, lit up totem polls, a hazy Polynesian night themed backdrop, and an array of lighting that gave off a pretty stellar stony ambiance. The crowd was diggin’ their vibe and they often kicked it up a notch with some punk. These San Diegans definitely know how to please a stony crowd. Also, it’s pretty cool that they are headlining the tour.

Stoopid Set Up

Stoopid Set Up

Slightly Stoopid Set Up

Slightly Stoopid Set Up

Slightly Stoopid, kickin it up a knotch

Slightly Stoopid, kickin' it up a knotch

Enjoy the rest of the ’09 summer concerts! Please, you’re welcome to post your comments especially if you’ve checked out either or all of these artists!

Slang Metaphor or Stupid Misogyny?

[Disclaimer: The following is a lyrical discussion and analysis that looks at gender roles, gender attitudes and diction choice within hip-hop in general and Aesop Rock‘s song “Daylight” in particular. If you are uncomfortable or in any way close-minded to an honest dialogue about any of these issues, please do not read any further. The full text of the lyrics to the song are at the bottom, and a link to the song is here, should you want to examine and listen for yourself.]

I sent out a quote yesterday and was surprised to see a Twitter follower I had conversed with many times on a variety of subjects unfollow me as a result. As I had blocked out the profanity in the lyric, I was curious as to what prompted the disconnect. Her response when I asked what happened was:

“I didn’t want to read misogynistic rap quotes on my Twitter, like I don’t get those messages everywhere else. :P”

A pretty harsh thing for me to hear, especially given that I try to take a good deal of care in acknowledging that my audience comes from all backgrounds and walks of life and I like to be, unless consciously trying to be otherwise, non-offensive to the widest cross-section possible. I think what I should start with first, when about to engage in a discussion of this extent, is a simple definition… let’s look at the accusation of the quote:

Misogyny: hatred, dislike or mistrust of women
Misogynist: a man who hates women

At this point, you must be wondering what kind of filthy, horrendous, patriarchal and utterly degrading line I must have sent out. Surely something along the lines of the song that I love to hate, “superman dat ho” or the massively inappropriate and inescapable club track “Lollipop.” These are songs that show some serious hatred and lack of respect for women. The quote:

“Life’s not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman, you only call her a bitch ’cause she wouldn’t let you get that p***y.” – Aesop Rock

And it got me to thinking… what about this quote is misogynistic? For starters, the quote isn’t about a woman or women at all. The lyric is based on the popular metaphor, “Life’s a bitch.” Now, the argument can certainly be made (and I would agree) that this popular metaphor is misogynistic. It’s a colloquialism used to equate the negative parts of life with a derogatory term for women derived from the noun for a female dog. This is, of course, if you choose to take the word literally. Some would argue that the movement to slang of the term (see “bitchin'” as a good thing) softens that blow, but for the purpose of this analysis, we’ll assume the harsher meaning is implied.

So to start we have a misogynistic metaphor for life as the basis of the lyric. It’s a negative and pessimistic metaphor, but one could argue that in the context it is most often used, it looks more spitefully towards life than towards women. Of course, going back to the “harsher meaning is implied” baseline, the implication would be that the phrase is hateful to both life and women equally.

However, in the quoted lyric, the misogynistic (i.e. hateful) message of the metaphor is flipped. Aesop in this line is not saying life is a bitch, he’s saying the exact opposite: that “life is a beautiful woman.” In the song, his anger is reserved for those that don’t treat life with the respect it deserves, and therefore by extension of the lyric, the respect he feels women deserve. He mentions “the result’s a lowlife counting on one hand what he’s accomplished,” and his greatest disdain comes at the end when he’s asked by someone who hasn’t seized their life if he has seen their “little lost passions” and he responds, “yeah, but only when I peddle past ’em.” In these lyrics, Aesop is hateful not to women, but to those who disrespect their life enough to call it a misogynist term.

Of course, we have to look at the full quote as my reader saw it, and it does end with “she wouldn’t let you get that p***y.” I’ll point out here that in my quotation, I did and continue to block out the majority of that word as I recognize it as one that can be felt and interpreted in a pejorative context. Were I to have no sensitivity to the use of the word, I would have written it out. While it is simply street slang for “vagina,” it does have a derogatory connotation that was clearly recognized in the censoring. The intent of the use of the term becomes the question, and for that it is a case of context.

Were the lyrics to be referencing a woman or sex, the word would most certainly be misogynistic in value. However, the word here is tied to the earlier metaphor and in this case used to denote the joys and pleasures of life to someone who is complaining of their failure to achieve and experience them. At this point, it becomes a question of an individual’s personal feelings towards the word, but also more importantly their feelings towards the context and how they interpret the author’s use. The thought that gnaws at my brain is whether this person read and understood the quote as Aesop Rock meant it, or if simply seeing that word was enough to cloud the meaning of the rest of the quote for her.

It also brings to mind the question of Twitterability. When limited to 140 characters, is it smarter to stray away from something that takes too much explanation? Keep in mind, in order to respond to the accusation of misogyny I had to step far outside 140 so I didn’t come off as disrespectful of her concern and opinion. “All due respect, but I think you’re wrong,” isn’t the path to a clear and open communiqué. The quote, especially when coupled with the chorus of “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day/put the pieces back together my way,” has always left me feeling hopeful, respectful and fervently energetic towards life.

Would the quote have made more sense and been therefore less offensive had the entire stanza gone out?

“Life’s not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman,
you only call her a bitch ’cause she wouldn’t let you get that p***y –
Maybe she didn’t feel y’all shared any similar interests,
or maybe you’re just an asshole who couldn’t sweet talk the princess.”

With the next two lines, the before ambiguous intent of the original quote becomes more clear. By addressing the person who is calling life a bitch as an “asshole who couldn’t sweet talk the princess,” the entire context of the p-word is altered. Not only is life a beautiful woman, but in the second portion life gets upgraded to princess. Revered as such (again – life, not women – must remember we’re talking metaphor here), that the asshole would set such a crass, base and lustful goal devoid of any real commitment is in the end disrespectful only to himself because it is the foundation of his personal failure. The lack of commitment is furthered by the “sweet talk” nature employed, rather than a serious and respectful approach. While the metaphor is life as female, if one were to want to examine them in the context of relationships, my analysis would be that Aesop Rock here is promoting a respectful and thoughtful approach rather than the commonly held hip-hop view of women as objects.

Unfortunately, a simple breakdown of that stanza and the reasons why I don’t feel it should be taken as misogynistic may only scratch the surface of this reader’s reaction. It is a direct interpretation of the words and the way I analyze their meaning within the song, grammatically and metaphorically, as ones that do not promote hatred of women. While this is literal and I believe to be analytically correct, it does not take into account the entirety of my education and therefore the possible reason this quote might have been viewed negatively by my reader. In the larger picture of Feminist theory, it could be the very personification of Life as female, thereby ascribing gender, that my reader read as misogyny.

Within a language construct framed by patriarchy where gender is indoctrinated in the way we learn to speak, delving to the deeper reading of the basic articles can be beyond the thought of some. But it’s there, this grammatical gender divide, every day, from the things we teach children to the way we address our possessions. Take for example Mother Nature and Father Time. Or simply the way someone talks about a car saying, “She’s a beauty.” A car is an object and yet is often referred to as a female object.

I’m not bringing this up to get into a drawn out explanation of how the very influential nature of gender within the English language helps further shape and extend ideas of patriarchy (which it does.) I bring it up merely to demonstrate that even if the quote is taken as a positive description of life and the respect that it deserves in the form of a “beautiful woman” and “princess” as opposed to being viewed as “bitch,” another perspective found in Feminist theory would view it as, at the least questionable, and on the other end despicable, that life needed to be tagged with the gender to begin with.

Finally, I’m left to wonder whether, knowing all of this, and recognizing that I had thought it out to such an extent, this particular person would have still unfollowed me. Would the recognition of the censorship and perspective that I take all of these theories into account brought deeper thought about what those 140 characters contained? Who knows. But I’m glad it got me thinking this evening. I hope it did the same for you. And maybe, just maybe, upon depth and analysis added to the quote, I might even convince my lost reader to follow me once more.

One thing did sting… the passing off of Aesop’s lyrics as rap. Of course, while Aesop Rock is certainly of the rap and hip-hop genres, I think most people would agree that his lyrics have more in common with poetry than what you expect to hear on a rap album. Here are the lyrics to “Daylight.”

“Put one up for shackle-me-not clean logic procreation.
I did not invent the wheel I was the crooked spoke adjacent,
While the triple sixers lassos keep angels roped in the basement,
I walk the block with a halo on a stick poking your patience.
Y’all catch a 30 second flash visual
Dirty cooperative med platoon bloom head-trip split ridiculous
Fathom the splicing of first generation fuck up with trickle down anti-hero smack. Kraken.
I pace me game for zero hour completion cretin, splash.
Duke of early retirement picket dream,
American nightmare hogging the screen.
I’ll hold the door open so you can stumble in if you’d stop following me ’round the jungle gym.
Now it’s honor; and I spell it with the ‘H’ I stole from ‘heritage’
Merit crutched on the wretched refuse of my teaming resonance.
I promise,
Tempest tossed bread with a bleeding conscience
See, the creed accents responsive but my spores divorced the wattage.
And I’m sleeping now (Wow!)
Yeah the settlers laugh…
you won’t be laughing when your covered wagons crash,
you won’t be laughing when the buzzards drag your brother’s flag to rags,
you won’t be laughing when your front lawn’s spangled with epitaphs,
you won’t be laughing.
And I’ll hang my boots to rest when I’m impressed ,
so I triple knot ’em and forgot ’em,
His origami dream is beautiful but man those wings will never leave the ground,
without a feather and a lottery ticket, now settle down.

All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day, put the pieces back together my way.

Slacker bound intimate tabloid headline with a pulse shimmy ‘cross the centerfold,
Enter dead time engulfed; divvy crumbs for the better souls,
When 7 deadly stains adhere the blame to crystal conscience,
the result’s a lowlife counting on one hand what he’s accomplished.
Link me to activism chain, activate street sweep,
Plug deteriorating Zen up in pen dragon
I hock spores coursed by the morbid spreading of madmen (Alley Gospel)
Sinking your Lincoln log cabin and Charlie Chaplin waddle
I could –
Zig, Zag, and Zig ’em again before the badge gleam sparked in my brick wall windows,
Another thick installment of one night in Gotham without the wretched
‘Houston we have a problem,’
Attached to the festive batch of city goblins
Who split holiday freaks on a box cut cinema high road bellow;
head gripped watch red bricks turn yellow.
Sorta similar to most backbones at camp Icarus
where all fiddler crabs congregate and get pampered for bickering.
Life’s not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman,
you only call her a bitch ’cause she wouldn’t let you get that p***y.
Maybe she didn’t feel y’all shared any similar interests,
or maybe you’re just the asshole who couldn’t sweet talk the princess.
Kiss the speaker wire,
Peter pacifism peggin’ threshold
Stomach full of halo kibbles,
Wingspan cast black upon vigils,
Here to duck hunt ticker tape vision and pick apart the pixels.
I got a friend of polar nature, and it’s all peace
You and I seek similar stars but can’t sit at the same feast
Metal captain
This cat is asking if I seen his little lost passions,
I told him ‘yeah, but only when I peddled past ’em.’

Kero One – Early Believers Review

Early Believers

When Kero One released his debut album Windmills of the Soul, he had no backing and no name recognition to speak of. The album’s success came about through his persistent work to get it heard which resulted in it becoming a hit in Japan first, a humorous twist for a Korean DIY hip-hopper born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through this success, he has managed to remain independent, starting Plug Label, releasing The Tones’ debut album and doing end-to-end production on his sophomore release Early Believers.

It is this spirit and energy that infuses Early Believers with an unfettered sense of optimism and musical joy. From the instrumentation to the lyrics, the album is unmistakably a complete work by a focused artist. The music is consistent and full, utilizing both hip-hop and jazz influences, while the lyrics are often personal and focused on a specific story. The marriage between Kero’s thoughts and his beats serve to offer an album that never feels forced or out of place. Unlike some current hip-hop albums that feel like the goal is musical shock for shock’s sake, Kero One never tries to do too much or move too far out of his range. On the opening track “Welcome to the Bay,” Kero raps about the pros and cons of the area where he grew up over an easy synth and fresh beat produced by King Most. Jacqueline Marie provides the chorus about the mentality of never leaving the bay for a piece that is heartfelt and unmistakably San Francisco.

“When the Sunshine Comes” is an easy, sunny day melody. The pace and mood of this song seem to be the best fit for Kero’s vocals, letting him sit back and rap without tempo pressure. The smooth delivery of tongue twisters is unhurried enough that it doesn’t make the listener feel stressed that the words won’t come out. This track gives way to “Keep Pushin’,” a much more up-tempo track that lyrically resembles something Kanye might have produced, with a little more pop to it. The fusion of jazz and a glitchy stop-and-go guitar/handclap back and forth brought to mind edIT’s “Crunk de Gaulle” off Certified Air Raid material. On his “I’m better off single” track, “Let’s Just Be Friends,” Kero brings a sing-along melody to the chorus (performed by Tuomo) and manages to make his desire to stay single sound happy and upbeat. The album then moves into Latin Jazz influences on “Bossa Soundcheck,” where Kero displays the keyboard and piano education he was brought up on. Sounding like it would be best heard in a dimly lit lounge atmosphere, Kero manages to make a hip-hop song that would fool non-hip-hop fans into listening and enjoying.

A solid feature of Kero One’s music is that he doesn’t sacrifice his choruses like most contemporary hip-hop and rap acts have done to get radio air-play. There’s no, “she made us drinks to drink, we drunk them, got drunk” fillers here. The choruses are integral parts of the overall whole, demonstrated again through Tuomo’s easy delivery on “Love and Happiness,” bringing to mind some of the better work done with Codany Holiday on Zion I’s latest album. This is the second King Most produced track on the album, and together they make the only two not produced by Kero himself. In “Stay on the Grind” Kero raps about the difficulties and rewards of choosing the DIY route, and just when you thought the whole album would be hip-hop, “A Song for Sabrina” shows off the instrumental prowess in a hip-hop/jazz/funk fusion track that includes Vince Czekus on bass and electric guitar.

In the most poignant and introspective track on the album, “This Life Ain’t Mine,” Kero uses an easy and straight-forward hip-hop track to back an autobiographical story about his life and entry into the hip-hop career, looking at his choices in friends and religion. The easy keys sprinkle melodies over “I Never Thought That We” as Kero looks at his unlikely and unpredictable path from his parents’ wishes to his chosen career. And, without missing a step, the album ends on a Kero One exclusive instrumental, “On and On,” which lets the album fade out in a jazzy way, reminding the listener of the progression of the album as a whole, and that it wasn’t just rap or hip-hop you were listening to.

An easy listen, Kero One’s Early Believers takes chill to the next level at every step. Gone from this album are the stereotypes that you need raps about money and women, pop-induced repetitive hooks and coarse language to produce a solid hip-hop outing. Instead, Kero relies on excellent production, live instrumentation and honest lyrics from his point of view to make an album that flows from start to finish and will most likely end the year in more than a few top ten lists. While it isn’t edgy or controversial, and some listeners will harp on a lack of perceived street credibility, Early Believers reminds us that hip-hop doesn’t need to be any of those things to be fun. Early Believers will be available from Plug Label on April 7th. Check back here for our exclusive interview with Kero One.

Zion I – The Take Over Review

In 2006, Zion I released their album Break A Dawn, an album previously released only in Japan and brought stateside following the release of their collaboration with The Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope. And then, radio silence. Without question the group was staying busy with live performances, interviews, AmpLive’s foray into remix work with the Rainydayz Remixes of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, but the gap between Break A Dawn and tomorrow’s release of The Take Over has been the longest drought of new Zion I material since the gap between 2000’s Mind Over Matter and their sophomore 2003 release Deep Water Slang. And the good news? The Take Over shows what ten years of maturity, musical comfort and genre influence can do to two people dedicated to their craft. The bad news? It clocks in at under 50 minutes, and when it ends, you can’t help but wish there was more.

While The Take Over doesn’t carry with it the same continuity of thought that made Mind Over Matter an intro to outro listen, it does bring the most eclectic genre influences into the music since that album. AmpLive’s creativity with his hip-hop and stunning ability to incorporate other genres helps create a musical backdrop for Zumbi’s lyrics that transcend plain hip-hop or rap. Following the intro, “Geek to the Beat” kicks off the album with a mixture of tribal drums and background chant sounds that are mingled with electro synths and heavy 808s. While it would be very easy for other artists to fall into the trap of using one of these sounds at the expense of the others, Amp has managed to find the balance, alternating between the very simple beat and chants during the verse and then bringing in a heavier electric feel for the chorus. The video below has a snippet of the song performed live on Friday night in Oakland.

“Takeover” follows “Geek to the Beat” and provides a much more traditional hip-hop sound. Amp brings in a boom-bap beat with simple keys in the background and a cut up sample that creates a feel of building in the song while you shrug your shoulders to the sample and then feel the beat come back underneath. Zumbi sounds effortless in his lyrics, and as it goes to chorus, the “takeover” sample mixes with undulating synths and a soulful sounding male vocalist sample. As the song fades and goes to outro, Amp’s musical skills are once again on showcase with a funky electro sound that sets up one of the singles off the album, “DJ DJ.”

This track is certainly one of the more out there cuts on the album as it uses techno and fast paced electro sounds with a chorus snippet in Spanish provided by Deuce Eclipse. Amp on here pays homage to his craft by sprinkling in something of almost anything he can find, including 80’s synth work that could have worked in almost any dance hall. What is perhaps most exciting about this track is that it goes in so many different directions, yet the potential for the evolution of the song is further enhanced by the fact that the group has released the stems to the songs online for fans to remix their own versions. Below is a brief clip of their performance of “DJ DJ” from Friday night.

This goes into one of the most solid songs on the album, “Antenna” featuring Amp’s main collaborator on the Radiohead remixes, Codany Holiday. On this track, Holiday’s refrain of “make me feel brand new” sounds at once both current and retro, a heartfelt line used more as hook than as chorus. What’s fantastic about it is that Zumbi appears to have felt it too as he structures his verses around Holiday’s hook, the simple and in places sparse beat and Amp’s synth work which here sound like falling sheets of rain. The result is a reflective song about Zumbi’s current situation and thoughts, with ascending vocoder sounding samples through the chorus. The electro remix and distortion at the tail end of the song helps to break it down before leaving you with the full beat and hook as it trails out. Video of Friday’s performance of the beginning of this song below.

From there we go into the track duo of “Caged Bird Pt. 1” featuring Brother Ali and “In the Mornin’ (Caged Bird Pt. 2).” These two tracks work as contrasting pieces. The uptempo and refreshing strings provide the melody for a moving and full sounding hip-hop track with a sample-heavy chorus complete with scratch effects and chop up by Amp. The lyrics focus on the idea of something better, and the feeling of the song as a whole is that the street and the cage provide the lyrics, but the music helps open it up and make flight possible. The easy, soulful and bluesy transition to the beginning of pt 2. then gives way to a grimy and deep sound with a much heavier beat. Pt. 2 sounds a bit less hopeful and upbeat than pt. 1, as if pt. 1 is meant to help the caged birds sing, and pt. 2 takes a view of the grind that creates the cage. What’s amazing here is that using the same melody and samples, Amp weaves two completely different songs together with such precision that the split between them is virtually invisible.

“Radio” takes a page from the “Hey Ya” book in that it incorporates a traditional drum/clap sound and acoustic guitar strum, making it sound like a hybrid of hip-hop and 50’s pop music. Zumbi raps about genres and musical evolution on this track that is really a retrospective of radio music and pays homage to the great artists of the past, from Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix. And on the following track, Amp attempts to bring in a good portion of this retrospective with “Gumbo,” a brief interlude song steeped in horn work and Ragtime influenced jazz. But careful never to let his genre influence tilt too far in one direction, Amp takes the horns and decomposes them to electronic fluctuations of a space jazz variety.

“Country Baked Yams” featuring Devin the Dude is probably the largest departure from Zion I’s signature sounds on the album. It’s a song that will probably do very well on the radio and will have followers, but for me is a bit off. This isn’t to say that I don’t recognize the attempt at something different here and praise the attempt, I just personally don’t think it works. The track is steeped in bubble gum synths and the vocal alteration to a higher pitch makes it feel almost a bit childish. But the chorus is finely crafted with a simple vocal part and a very nice guitar melody with a nice bass line. It’s certainly closer to pop than I’ve heard from Zion I, but as an exploration and experiment, it shows that they’re willing to cross lines and try new things, which I’m never opposed to, even when the results fall short.

“Coastin” featuring K.Flay follows, opening with and carrying through piano that sounds heavily influenced from Amp’s work on Radiohead’s music. The drum clap gives a background for K.Flay’s smooth and somewhat smoky voice and the lyrics by Zumbi sound like he was without question coastin when he wrote it. Amp mixes in some crowd sounds to complete the track. The result is a driving song, perfect for late night with the sunroof open or mid-day with all the windows down. See the clip below:

The last single of the album, “Juicy Juice” comes next, and is the first song that I actually heard off this album a few months ago. The deep 808s and the hyphy feel come out on this Bay Area track that could easily have been placed as the opening track in place of “Geek to the Beat.” The sing-along worthy track, “Peppermint Patty” follows and has the vocal singalong part backed by horns and an eerie melody behind Zumbi’s lyrics. Next is “Bring in the Light” with a grim outlook on the current state of the world, including the bleak but all too familiar thought in the lines “Killing for oil/protest for peace.” Throughout the track, Amp brings jazz touches in, which go full steam ahead in the last minute of the song as he experiments with digitally distorted samples from the song mixed with a jazz piano and more space jazz sounds. While all of the tracks are solid on this album, the outros and interludes are where Amp really shows what kind of producer he is and how well grounded he is musically. They end the album with “Legacy” featuring Ty and Jennifer Johns, a jazz/lounge/pop fusion that draws on some of the tribal beats that show up throughout the album.

All told, there’s something for just about every listener on this album, whether you’ve followed Zion I since Mind Over Matter or if The Take Over is the first time you’re hearing about them (in which case, which rock have you been living under?) Latin, Jazz, Techno, Dance, Blues, Funk and Rock all find a place here, and even when they may not work for a particular listener, the desire to try and experiment with everything can’t be overlooked and is part of what makes the album great. What’s important to note is that while the song by song break down goes to describing what can be found on the album, it doesn’t do justice to the music here. Zumbi’s lyrics are introspective and conscious enough to get better with every listen, and similarly, AmpLive’s production work incorporates so many genres and layers to the musical tapestry he creates here that it’s hard not to constantly pick up new pieces to the sound that you hadn’t heard before. The Take Over drops tomorrow.

Part 1: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California based Hip-Hop collective Hieroglyphics has taken on many shapes and sounds, from the lyrically complex and dense solo stylings of Del tha Funkee Homosapien to the rapid-fire and diverse delivery of Hieroglyphics to the smooth and masterful underground sound of Souls of Mischief. Spanning nearly two decades, Hiero and Souls of Mischief have brought new sounds and ideas to the industry while also providing a backbone of creativity that has helped influence the entire Bay Area music scene.

In November I had the opportunity to sit down with Tajai and Opio of Hiero and SOM, two members responsible for an incredible amount of solo and collaborative work for the HieroImperium. In part 1, we discussed their musical backgrounds, the formation of Hiero and the difficulty of staying relevant in a music industry that places an emphasis on the “next big thing.”

ACtual: Starting off early, what were both of your initial musical influences and inspirations, and when did you decide that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Opio: I used to be hella into Reggae, really. Yellowman is one of my favorites, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they had the swagger that got me on rap. My parents were really into music, so through them I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, stuff like that. When I first really started to hear rap, I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” stuff like that, Grandmaster Flash. They used to play Rock and Roll stations out here, mixing, like college radio. Really the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” I was just hooked to the way he was spittin’, it was cool, and it just evolved from there. All the older cats in my neighborhood were listening to them, breakdancing, graffiti and all of that was a part of it too. At the same time cats were breaking, graffiti artists, so it was that whole Hip-Hop culture, it wasn’t only just the rapping, I was breakdancing, all of that.

Tajai: Funk, I would say Funk was my biggest influence. Parliament, Bootsy, George Clinton, and then Too Short is probably the main reason I rap just because all the other rappers, I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t think that people from here could do it. As a kid, it was just my perception of it was something that other people did until I saw Too Short rapping and then I was like, “He’s from here and he raps.” That’s when I really started seriously rapping.

AC: You two as well as the Souls of Mischief crew met early on. Talk about how all of you met, came together and the creation of both Souls and Hieroglyphics.

T: We grew up in the same area, so I’ve known Casual and A-Plus since like Kindergarten, 1st grade. Del was at the same school as us, we just sort of all had a mutual interest in Hip-Hop, so once Del got on in ’91 he sort of brought us into the industry, but we had been rapping together for a long time before that. Casual went to junior high with Op.

O: The first time I went into the studio ever, me and Casual rented a studio in the 8th grade. Our man Terai came with us, he was in the 7th grade. I wasn’t even rapping then, I was a DJ, so I was DJing, scratching during that time. This is in the 7th/8th grade, me and Casual went to junior high and he already knew them. I would listen to their music when I was in junior high but I hadn’t really started to kick it with Tajai and A-Plus, but he would have tapes and be like, “listen to my partners.” I’d see them up the block and be like, “there goes Tajai right there.” We really started hanging out in high school, but the whole time we lived right around the same area. We all lived around the same block as each other but we weren’t really in communication until high school, and that’s when we really became a lot more serious about the rapping.

AC: You were released on Jive Records in 1993. Talk about the process of creating that album and what working for a major label was like. You were what, 17, 18 when that album came out?

O: Yea. That album to me was something, that, I would listen to songs that they had done when I was in junior high and me and Casual went into the studio, we were kinda serious about the whole rap thing. Tajai and A-Plus were working with Sir Jinks and they had a professional sound that inspired us to get on our business a little more. This is early on, so we had been working on our craft until we came out. We were probably 13, 14 really serious going to the studio.

That album, even though we recorded it in 2 weeks, it was something that was formulating for a lot of years. I really think it was highly influenced also by the whole crew aspect, not just the fact that we were Souls of Mischief, because we’re competitive by nature within Souls of Mischief, but then there was also Del and Casual, Pep Love, we had these other fierce MCs. Even during the time before ’93 til Infinity came out, everybody heard the demos, so we had something to live up to. People would hear the demos and be like, “the album will be wack, whatever,” and they heard other cats around us that were really shining, so it was a long time coming to me, that album getting done, even though it seemed like it popped out of nowhere, we had been working for some years.

AC: When Hiero formed, what was your original vision for the group and how did you go about making Third Eye Vision?

T: We’ve been together as a crew since before Del’s first record. Our vision then was let’s just all be the best we can be, get signed and be super stars. That’s different than how things progressed just dealing with major label politics, and the fact that, for someone to walk into Hip-Hop today, they have no idea that even when we came out it was still like a sub-culture. So being a super-star and blowing up meant selling a couple of thousand records, maybe going gold, but not platinum. The only people going platinum were guys like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer.

So once we got off the majors, it was like let’s not stop making music just because we don’t have a label, let’s keep making music and then Domino was like, “Shoot, we might as well put this record out instead of trying to shop it, and from there we started Hiero Imperium and we’ve been rolling since then because it’s been, I’m not going to say easier logistically, but easier in regard to being able to be agile and creative. And now, almost 10, 11 years later, we’re really reaping the rewards of having laid that groundwork of being independent so long. Third Eye was something we recorded out of the need to make music, and then from there it built up to this independent label.

AC: With HieroImperium, you guys have been putting out albums and podcasts for a while now. What do you find to be the hardest part of being in this industry for as long as you guys have?

T: We’re not new, that’s the problem. To people who have never heard of us, which is not that many people, it’s like, “Wow these guys are fantastic!” But to people who have, it’s like, we come with something we feel is our best work and it’s like, “Ok, that’s dope.” There’s so much garbage out here that gets attention because it’s new, and that’s the frustrating part about it. If you’re consistent in music, that’s not good enough a lot of times, you have to have controversy or you have to fall real low to bring yourself back up, but we’ve been consistent and there’s so many of us, that that’s the biggest problem I see, we’re not new.

O: Also, over the years of doing it, touring, consistently going out and being on the road, not just only recording the albums, but the whole rap life in and of itself can take its toll. Sometimes people get jaded, but I think that luckily because there’s a lot of us, we’re able to keep ourselves focused and sharp. Without other people pushing you, and you’re hearing people recording songs and maintaining that creative energy and you don’t have it, your brother can lift you up a little bit and you hear some new shit, “oh man that’s dope,” it kinda gets your juices flowing. Maybe you’re at the house just bored, you wrote so many raps you’re through with it for a hot second, so it’s always a good thing to have other cats around you working and doing stuff. Casual, he’s always busy, Del is always in the lab working, A-Plus just consistent with the beats, so you can always go to those guys and be like, “What’s new?” just to get a little spark.

AC: In terms of approaching the writing, how would you say that your styles differ when you’re trying to come up with stuff for an individual album vs. working on a Souls project or working on a Hieroglyphics project, how do you approach each of those differently?

T: You’re competing against yourself when you’re making a solo record, so you get to look at things more holistically, you look at the entire project as a whole and where things fit in. Whereas when you’re in a group, you’re looking at how you fit into that particular song. With your own records I think it’s harder because you have to push yourself a little bit harder to be better than yourself, verse by verse and song by song. With a group album I think it’s easier because there’s so many other people you’re competing against that you have to come with your best work, that’s the main difference for me.

O: To me, I just feel more comfortable in the group element whether it’s Souls of Mischief or Hieroglyphics, I like the collaboration aspect of things and working with other cats, so to me that’s always been fun. I saw the challenge more so than doing music with others, trying to do something by myself like it’s a Herculean task cause you have so much more that you have to do. At the same time, once the process gets going, you kinda relax in your environment and it’s a good place to be because you can advance your style a little more. You get to go longer.

Especially in Souls of Mischief, we try to keep that quick jab approach so for me it’s kinda fun to just run my mouth for a little while. I’ve always been trying to explore more avant-garde styles whenever we’re doing songs with Souls of Mischief, so you can see the different elements that we bring to the table when you see our solo projects. You can see the different parts working. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what it’s like when you’re listening to the group all together then you get to hear the solo and be like, “So that’s how Souls of Mischief comes together,” at least for me because I’m a fan of Souls of Mischief too, even though I’m in the group, when I’m with other cats I love to hear the music and I like to hear the solo albums as well to see them even go further with it.

AC: Going off what you were saying earlier about the hardest thing is having been here for so long because new stuff always gets more attention. You hear a lot of mainstream writers, media people that say Hip-Hop is dead, and rappers will sometimes say that too. But there’s a lot of really good Hip-Hop out there if you know where to find it, so what do you listen to and what other artists in the genre inspire you?

T: Percy P, Guilty Simpson, Madlib, Black Milk. There’s a lot of groups that you probably won’t hear anywhere but satellite radio. I like Lil Wayne because he’s pushing the boundaries of mainstream but he’s doing something wild and crazy to something that just listened to dance rap so that’s good because maybe their minds will open a little more to people who dwell completely outside of that, but ain’t really much on TV that I like, not because it’s on TV, but because Rap music is really Pop music now. Hip-Hop can’t ever be dead. It may not inspire you the way that it used to, but that’s probably because you’re just not into it anymore. But as far as Hip-Hop, when we do shows and there’s thousands of kids there, it’s like, what are they talking about?

O: The way that Hip-Hop has been brought to the table and how it’s shown, it’s really not the true artform of it. It doesn’t represent. It’s more for trying to sell products, clothes, alcohol, stuff like that. It’s like a big commercial. But when there’s true artists trying to explore the creative process and what it takes to make a great song or a great lyric, a guy like J Electronica for instance is really dope. There’s people out there that’s doing it, but when you watch Rap City, you don’t get to see those guys that often.

I just feel like the vehicle that people are going to start getting Hip-Hop with is going to open the doors for more creative styles, people that are pushing the envelope stylistically and creatively which for me is the essence of Hip-Hop. How it was when De La Soul was coming out and A Tribe Called Quest was coming out, new flavors. I feel like that old form of commercialized, over-commercialized Hip-Hop, that is dead. It’s old hat, you can only use that so much before people get numb to it and it becomes a hard sell, pouring champagne everywhere, throwing money everywhere, people have seen that so much it doesn’t sell shoes how it used to, so now they’re going to start looking to the underground to do that.

AC: We were talking earlier about your latest project, Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1. Talk about your vision for the trilogy, when the other albums are going to come out and what the idea behind these solo albums is.

O: I was just working with my man Architect, I’ve always been a fan of his music and his beats for a long time. He’s always been a cat that was out there, the style of his music is something that I always had a good time and enjoyed listening to. He worked next to us at High Street studios, he had a spot next to me so we had more of a chance to kick it and hang out and we were talking about doing a record, but it never really came together. Eventually I saw him in traffic one time and he was like, “I’ve got some beats, I’ve been thinking about you, we should do an album together.” When he hit me some of the beats and the style he was working with, it was perfect, we were right on the same page at the same exact time, so from there we just started collaborating and made a lot of music. Then we decided that we should not really stop at just one thing but hit cats with at least three projects, so that’s how the whole idea for the trilogy came up. The concept behind the title, like we were talking about earlier how everyone says Hip-Hop is dead, there’s nothing there, it’s over with whatever, we were like, “Nah, we can eat here, it’s still a viable option for us,” so that’s how the Vulture’s Wisdom title came into play.

We just are really trying to kill the backstory in terms of that being the forefront, we want to make the music the forefront, the style, the beats, the rhymes, the lyrics, not really like this guy did this, that, and the other. There’s always the story and sometimes it’s more interesting than the music and then you hear the music and you’re like, “this is what all the hoopla is about?” We want to bring it back to where the music is what people care about more so than the imagery. I feel like the 90s are something that people are trying to reach for right now, like that’s the golden ear, which for me is ’88, but other cats are more caught up in that ’93 era right now, always reaching back to the 90s and trying to bring it forward to here. Whereas I’ve always been a part of that connected to the whole essence of real Hip-Hop, so that’s where I come from, that’s my pedigree, whereas other cats might be trying to bring that back, I’m just trying to stay in that vein that I’ve always been in, that true essence of Hip-Hop, so it’s not a stretch for me to come and do something that people might call “real Hip-Hop,” that’s what we do, that’s Hieroglyphics, some of that good shit.

AC: Tajai – Stanford Anthropology grad, is that right?

T: Yea.

AC: How do you feel that education, that degree has helped your music? Have you incorporated that in your career at all?

T: It’s helped me with research, but that’s about it. School is school, it’s different from music, it just helped me research topics. Aside from that, it maybe helped me be organized in terms of my business, just going to school in general, but that’s about it.

AC: How important is it to you guys that you’re not major label? Do you think that you would have gotten anywhere near what you have accomplished if you were working for a major?

T: You’re just at the mercy of the market. There’s artists like J*Davey, Bilal, artists that you’ll never see their record. They’ve been in the industry now for almost a decade but because it doesn’t fit the labels idea of what records are supposed to be, it never comes out, so in that respect we probably would never have been able to bust the moves we could. It’s still different, it’s not like you’re doing it for a more noble purpose when you’re independent or you’re major. The way it is now, we’re like a major independent, us, DefJux, Rhymesayers, probably Stones Throw are labels where people want to get on the label, so it’s like they’re treating our independent record label like we would treat a major as a signed artist. We have more control, but really the market determines a lot of it and it’s harder right now to not be seen as generic in this marketplace because there’s so much. I mean, I think there’s more musicians than fans almost, especially rappers. So it’s hard to distinguish yourself as far as “into the marketplace,” so in that respect, it might even be better to be on a major label where they have the money to market you, where you have a shoe and a commercial and an appearance on Entourage and all these different things that are going to give you more exposure. Like when we put out a record, when we put out Vulture’s Wisdom, it has 8 videos, and how many of those are going to be on TV? We send them to TV, but do they end up on TV? No. So it’s really like we’re relegated to YouTube and MySpace and satellite radio and internet radio, and that’s the downside of being independent. It’s more a matter of exposure and it’s a double-edged sword. They’ll spend the money to expose you, but if they don’t like what they hear, they’re not going to expose you at all and you might never see the light of day.

O: If you’re doing it in terms of a business endeavor, you have to take advantage of what’s out there. I feel like for Souls of Mischief at the time, how the market was, us going major label was the best way for us to go at the time. To try to go independent would have been a bad look. It gave us a really good opportunity to get our music out there. We made what we really wanted and it got out to the people. For a time, the labels were all about trying to make super Pop Hip-Hop and I don’t know if they were going towards super avant-garde now, but definitely the tide has changed in terms of which artists are selling records. Lupe Fiasco is outselling artists, he’s like top-tier in terms of who the guy is. Kanye West outselling 50 Cent, so there’s a changing of the guard where if you are really more on the creative side of things, you might be able to get in and bust some moves, if you’ve got what it takes. Some people don’t necessarily have that appeal so it might be bad for them to go the independent route, you gotta really weigh your options. Cause the main thing, what you want to do is get your music out there for people to see you and listen to you and at the end of the day, to me that’s the most important thing. Then you can do whatever you gotta do with your hustle.

Check back with Evolving Music on Friday for part 2 where we discuss the future plans of the group, their thoughts on the remix culture and their favorite Hip-Hop albums of all time.

Musical Musings

With 2008 and all the music that came with it steadily speeding away in our rear view, I got to thinking a lot about what we did and didn’t see last year in the musical world, and what’s coming. When it comes down to it, 2008 was largely defined by some of the musical trends we saw, the continuing struggle over DRM and the ever growing attempts to market, brand and distribute music in ways that utilize multiple media and social platforms.

Musically, there was a greater push towards mash-ups (AmpLive Interview) and punk fueled Indie rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party among many others kept driving guitars, sometimes melancholy lyrics and music that’s in your face in terms of pace at the forefront of the radio mainstream. Hip-Hop continued its usual pond-like trend: scum on the surface, beautiful water underneath with “artists” like T.I., T-Pain and Flo-rida topping the charts while rappers like Akrobatik, eLZhi and Black Milk continued struggling to boost their word of mouth. The line between Hip-Hop and Pop was continually blurred as radio Rap brought in more Rock and World music sounds into their songs.

We saw Kanye West rebound from a personally disastrous year to re-vamp his sound with 808s and Heartbreak, and we saw Guns ‘N Roses dig themselves out of a nearly 20 year grave to release the much anticipated Chinese Democracy album, something that many fans thought they’d never hear. Of course, most fans expected to hear either a new Eminem album (Relapse) or the long awaited and highly anticipated Detox album from Dr. Dre, and they got neither.

The DRM battle raged on in 2008, and in even just the beginning weeks of ’09 we’ve seen a nice movement in the area. For most of 2008, the IFPI (2) and the RIAA battled downloaders, both large and small, in court. Looking for lost compensation, they took to trial serial filesharers and spent massive amounts of time and money scaring college kids into settling out of court for fear of an expensive and punitive sentence against them. In the end, these efforts were largely useless, and in my mind, a joke, as they claimed to be fighting for the artists, while we all pretty much know how little the labels show the artists from individual song downloads.

The record industry spent months wringing their hands over lost profits and ways to control music that they long ago lost almost all control over. You have to wonder if, looking back now, they aren’t thinking of all their recent efforts as merely shutting the barn door after all the animals already escaped. And the change in tune has been brisk… Now, just two weeks into ’09, Apple has announced one of the broadest and most accessible withdrawals of DRM and price restructuring of MP3s in years. The four major labels have helped produce this movement, and it shows the increasing power of the consumers in the music marketplace. Once tied to hard copy formats like CDs with an average price table, consumers this year found diverse and creative ways to obtain their music, forcing the hand of the labels to recognize that DRM is not what the people want. How this lack of DRM will effect iPod sales or iTunes downloads remains to be seen. The launch of the App Store on iTunes also took music mobile with an incredible number of music related apps (and a few apps that are just plain incredible) designed for the iPhone.

The idea of Take Away shows and having artists perform live in unconventional venues took off. Nine Inch Nails picked up on Radiohead’s experiment with a free download format of an album, but they’ve taken it a step further now by offering over 400 GB of HD video footage from their concert tours up on torrent streams for fans to remix and create DVDs. This fan interaction has become tantamount to bands in the last year with MySpace including music, and a large number of acts going from conventional websites to social networking platforms.

And while these social networking sites and the bands that use them were beginning to become increasingly entwined, musicians were getting in the mix as well, literally. Late in 2008, MixMatchMusic officially opened its doors to musicians from all over the world to create, upload, collaborate and work with stems to broaden the ways people approach making music. With the DemoGod award at Demo ’08, a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular RemixSarahPalin.com, this vision of worldwide musical collaboration and the power of mixing and matching steps closer to being a full-fledged reality. (MixMatchMusic)

So what’s next? With the DRM barriers falling, the new foundations of band and fan interaction being laid and Web 2.0 casting a wider net over the ‘net, music in 2009 could be anyone’s game. Personally, I’m just waiting for The Detox… And now a moment for the outstanding musicians we lost this year, Bo Diddley and LeRoi Moore, among others.


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