Freitag, 25. Dezember 2009

Farewell Transmission

Your dedicated blogger on his suicide mission to entertain his audience

So this is it. A year ago I wrote my first post and this will be the last. What started out as a way of writing about and promoting my own music evolved into an electro/hip hop historiography of sorts, with stories and genealogies about the pivotal year of 1982. And even more surprising, I found myself writing about new releases and artists at least half the time. So what is electro's state of health? Despite the continued popularity of retro-minded 80s electronica (La Roux, Annie, Sally Shapiro, Little Boots, Zoot Woman, Cold Cave, ...), real electro music has still failed to be noticed by the general public this year. And though this is pretty much the only blog covering this kind of music, I'm still just getting a handful of views.

But I don't want to end this on a purely negative note. Despite the lack of mainstream recognition, 2009 has been an excellent year for electro. Here's a very subjective (and incomplete) recap:
- Freestyle made a comeback (the group, that is ... the genre has always been around ... kind of).
- The Egyptian Lover has been active doing some collaborations and releasing his strongest material in years (Freestyle, Debonaire, Jamie Jones).
- Some other pioneering artists that have reared their heads again: Newcleus, Donald D, MC Chill, Debonaire, Scratch D, John Robie, Mele Mel, Mic Murphy ...
- The legendary Street Sounds label is back and has already released 2 volumes of the "Nu Electro" series.
- Randy Barracuda and a bunch of other Scandinavians made a lot of noise (lit. and fig.) and put the sound of Skweee on the map.
- Dâm-Funk took everybody by surprise with his massive Toeachizown release.
- Dominance Electricity's "Global Surveyor III" compilation just came out before christmas.

I'll just leave you with my favorite tune of 2009 - may the funk be with you!

Donnerstag, 10. Dezember 2009

Trendwatch 09: African Music

Well, the case could be made that this was already a trend of 2007 and 2008 with Indie rockers Vampire Weekend's commercial breakthrough and a site like awesometapesfromafrica gaining popularity. This year saw the rise of The Very Best, 2 DJ/producers who teamed up with a Malawi-born singer. And Fool's Gold. And folk singer Karl Blau's new album is supposed to have a lot of african elements in it, but I am not hearing any ... you might want to check it out yourself.

Here's a tune from The Very Best:

The Very Best's music is nothing groundbreaking, but it serves as a nice backdrop to Esau Mwamwaya's beautifully orchestrated vocals. This guy would sound great with ANY backing music. Guest appearances by M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend's singer (who both manage to pretty much ruin those songs) are telling for the discursive context that this music is now placed in. One is left to wonder when Diplo will pick up on the hype and put the final nail into the coffin.

Anyway, I wanted to get to something completely different. One artist that is mentioned in every review as inventor of that kind of Western/African crossover in a big World Music melting pot is Paul Simon. However, his 1986 album "Graceland" was predated a few years by an even bigger collage of styles and sounds: Malcolm McLaren's 1983 "Duck Rock". McLaren could be perceived as a Diplo of the 80s, scouting trends and watering them down for the general public. During a visit in New York he met Afrika Bambaataa and became fascinated by the nascent hip hop culture. He teamed up with New York radio DJs The World's Famous Supreme Team and Trevor Horn/Anne Dudley of Art of Noise fame to produce an electro hip hop album. At times the outcome is just plain awkward ("Double Dutch" which amounts to something like Soulja Boy Tell'em avant la lettre, or "Merengue" which is a failed attempt to throw some latin flavor in the mix), but other times McLaren's annoying persona stays in the background and Horn/Dudley and The Supreme Team rock the show.

Further reading:
- an earlier post about that album

Dienstag, 8. Dezember 2009

Miscellany Vol. 4: Global Surveyor, Dâm-Funk, Egyptian Lover

I've been on kind of a hiatus lately and this is probably going to be permanent. As Cosmic Rock is approaching its one year anniversary, my motivation is getting more and more affected by the lack of response and the general low turnout. So I think I will be shutting the whole thing down in a few weeks. Until then, here's a wrap-up of what happened in the past few weeks:

Dominance Electricity - Global Surveyor Phase III

East German label Dominance Electricity treats us with the third installment of their Global Surveyor series. This one is massive in scope, featuring an impressive number of 21 artists on two cds or three 12" records. The release date is set for December 18th.

I'm very excited about this cause 1) yours truly will be featured with one of his tracks and 2) this is exactly the kind of electro I want to listen to. Remember that Randy Barracuda interview where I complained about a lack of transcendence in modern electro? Well, this is the response. Just look at that marvellous space-kitsch cover art and you have the metaphysical side right before your eyes (and in the music of course). This is not about prosaic machine realities, this is about the big picture. Instead of reflecting a depleted world in depleted and soulless music, these tracks choose to accept the role of lost prophet and take the road less traveled. On their messianic quest for redemption, they recover lost emotional qualities and re-animate the machines. Not afraid of getting close to the edge of kitsch, the reward is great art.


* Weltwirtschaft - Amundsen Journey
* DJE - Defiler
* Global Surveyor feat. K1 & Gab.Gato - Global Surveyor (DBS Remix)
* Geoglyph - Face On Mars (Interlude)
* Middle Men - Space Quest
* LektroiD - Modular
* Keen K - Nozomi
* Gosub - Folding Time
* Kalson - Waiting In The Valley
* Audiogenetics - Cymatix
* Sbassship - Fall
* Evil Hectorr feat. Supreme.ja - Bass Wars (Original Version)
* Cosmic Rockers - The Wandering Of Humanity
* Varia - Night Drive
* Paul Blackford - Quasar (Sol_Dat Remix)
* Direct Control - Stars
* The Exaltics - No Time To Spend
* Dagobert - Fly 2 Night
* Mesak - Hustru
* Phundamental - Wheels Within Wheels
* CPU - Signals from the Dark

You can already order it at the Dominance webshop:

Dâm Funk - Pitchfork review

Finally the hipsters over at pitchfork caught up to the hype and gave his album a very kind review. This echoes what I had written about it:

It's the secret weapon that underscores how seriously he takes this stuff, the catalyst that should provoke listeners to realize this music isn't just a fun update of a classic sound-- it's a work of real transcendence. This isn't a comedic tribute to talkboxes and widebrims; there's no Snoop Dogg descending a foggy staircase through a faded VHS haze here. Toeachizown is a deep, astute collection that feels like a natural resuscitation and progression of funk as it stood just before hip hop usurped it.

Jamie Jones ft. Egyptian Lover - Galactic Space Bar

This already came out a few months ago. At first listen, I wasn't that impressed by its techno/housey vibe, but it is definitely a grower. It has always been the Egyptian Lover's smartest move to openly exhibit his limitations and flaws and that way have them transformed into assets. "Galactic Space Bar" is a textbook example: If anybody else came up with that sketch of a track it would have just sounded crude and simplistic, but the Lover's Midas Touch turns it into a wonderfully stripped-down and abstract tune. And thanks to the warmth of the 808, the Egyptian Lover's version of minimal techno is a lighthearted and funky one - West Coast style.

And let's not forget about the video - it's like they made a list of awesome things and tried to fit as many of them into it:
- the Egyptian Lover sporting shades and kangol hat? Check.
- the Egyptian Lover riding through L.A. in what looks like a 1969 Pontiac firebird convertible? Check.
- the Egyptian Lover singing about a galactic space bar? Check.
- a guy in a business suit and briefcase doing the most outrageous-and-awkward-but-somehow-irresistibly-cool dance since Napoleon Dynamite? Check.
I think I made my point.

And in A***-T*** related news:

Sonntag, 22. November 2009

The Master of the 808

In this video Tadao Kikumoto of Roland music talks about how he wasn't completely satisfied with his invention, the now legendary TR-808 drum machine. Especially the handclap sounded weak to him, like "breaking a bamboo stem". While the interviewer clearly can't hide his ardor, Kikumoto remains humble and keeps up his engineer / man of science habitus, a notion so old school that it seems touchingly nostalgic to us, white lab coat and all.

Here's another odd pop cultural find: a triptych featuring three pioneers of electronic music transformed into icons. Mr. Kikumoto can be found on the left with another invention of his, the TB-303. In the middle it is synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog and on the right we recognize Roger Linn, the man behind the LinnDrum machine and the MPC-60. In another dialectical turn, the triptych has apparently already been appropriated as a skateboard design.

Click for a larger picture

Anyway, back to topic. While Mr. Kikumoto's perfectionism demands our admiration, we are certainly glad that despite his reservations he did release the handclap after all. It became a staple of 80s (and beyond) music and it certainly is one of the most famous and recognizable sounds of electronic music.

When it comes to 808 handclaps there's nobody who pushed it as far as Chris "The Glove" Taylor. He had the trebliest, sharpest and most stinging 808 handclaps of them all. Listen to "Reckless", an early Ice-T song and witness The Glove going completely over the top. Occasional handclaps are duplicated again and again and again, bathed in delay until they become an amorphous cluster of sound hovering in midair like a giant swarm of birds or insects. (Extra geekiness: Another product of The Glove's aesthetics of hyperbole appears around the 1:44 mark - listen how the snare roll disintegrates into an early instance of glitch music, some 10 years before it became a popular genre.)

If you are interested in the triptych you might want to visit the artist's homepage where he is selling posters of it:

Dienstag, 10. November 2009

New Music: Dam-Funk, Ryan Leslie, Le Le, Seymour Bits

Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown

This surely is my biggest surprise this year - Dâm-Funks huge concept album "Toeachizown" has just been released (so far on mp3 format and as a 2xCD, later this year on 5 (!!!) vinyl lps). He is playing a mixture of old school synth funk and electro soul - think Prince, Loose Ends, SOS Band, Zapp ... all the good stuff, basically. This feels like it came from out of nowhere and it definitely is anachronistic - there is virtually NOTHING like that at the moment. But that is a huge compliment: It's been a long time since I heard music that is so funky and smooth, so warm and comforting, simply beautiful. I'm left speechless.

If you'd like to find out more, I highly recommend the following interview. Rarely have I seen such a humble, soft-spoken man who - at the same time - is so serious and dedicated about what he is doing. Quite a contrast to the overblown egoes of a lot of hip hoppers, here is a true artist driven by a love for music and THE FUNK.

The album is available via Stones Throw.

Ryan Leslie - Transition

Ryan Leslie's debut album which came out earlier this years has been one of the most underrated, slept-on records this year. And I am not talking about the microcosm of music that this blog is covering, I am talking about pop music: Why this hasn't become a mega-selling, chartbreaking album fails me. His sophomore record "Transition" has just been released a week ago, and while it might not have the epiphanic quality of the debut, it still contains a handful of great R&B tunes that put any other contemporary R&B to shame.

Check his myspace:

Le Le - Marble

Le Le is a dutch electro pop outfit who are not afraid to throw some electro funk, italo disco* and a touch of that modern french sound into the mix (without sounding house-y). Light-hearted, lively, humorous and just incredibly catchy.

*italo disco the Dutch way = slightly distorted, acid-like. I'm blaming I-F.

Check their myspace:

Seymour Bits/Comtron

The Dutch scene seems to be booming at the moment. Hailing from the same city as Le Le, prolific keyboardist/producer Bas Bron is Seymour Bits aka Comtron aka Fatima Yamaha aka Bastien ... this guy has more aliases than DXJ. Seymour Bits and Comtron are his electro funk monikers and I am hearing a lot of old school synth funk in his style. And isn't it nice to see some electro performed with live instruments?

Check his myspace:

Mittwoch, 4. November 2009

Randy Barracuda - New Album + Interview

For some time now I have been trying to sell the music of Randy Barracuda (formerly part of Finnish electro duo Imatran Voima) to my folks at Much to my surprise and chagrin, I mostly fell on deaf ears. It puzzled me cause his sound seemed so forceful, so compelling that I simply failed to understand how there could be ANY nonbelievers out there. But the electro heads called it too leftfield, too avantgarde. And you know what, they might be right (and wrong at the same time). When a lot of what today's electro has to offer is either retro-purism or new school techno-disguised-as-electro, Randy Barracuda's drunk funk surely must seem alien. Together with some fellow Scandinavian freaks he invented a wholly new and tremendously popular sound aptly titled skweee. Skweee is the bastard child of a mean funk foundation combined with a microeconomics of weird trebly electronics. It has gained quite a following all over the world in 09 so if this is all news to you, you better do your homework.

After a bunch of quality singles, Randy Barracuda has now finally released his first album - needless to say, the record is a monster. I'll promise you instant shivers as soon as the ambient sounds of the intro set in. And after that it's just the baddest and dirtiest grooves garnished with the sweetest, most soulful vocals you can imagine, plus bits and pieces of psychedelia, afro, cosmic, krautrock and old school synth funk dropping by to say hello.

The anthemic Skweee like a pig

There's a certain mystery about it, pointing to a hidden essence but denying it at the same time. The more I listened to it, the more enigmatic it got, until I finally decided to ask the man himself. So without further ado I present to you: Randy Barracuda. (Be warned though - the interview was conducted in a skweeee state of mind. Headaches and feelings of disorientation might occur.)

C.R.: I just listened to The Message again yesterday, and it now it felt like proto-skweee to me: the slow pace, the erratic, chopped up rhythm, the deep funk combined with weird electronic sounds. Has the whole world suddenly turned skweee or has it been around us all the time? What other songs/artists influenced the sound of skweee, and what artists were influential for your own sound?

Randy: Well, The Message was definitely one of those tracks that "did it" to me when I was a teenager. I remember getting high and listening to it over and over again. It also influenced "Duck Butter" for example. Other artists that were extremely influential for me: Parliament, Kraftwerk, Ramsey 2C-3D, Zapp, Airplay & Troy The Wonderboy, Whodini, Dr. Dre... Also synth pop, leftfield disco, modern R&B and Chicago acid played a big role. A lot of the tracks that now sound like proto-skweee (Ryuichi Sakamoto: Riot In Lagos, Pekka Airaksinen: Buddhas Of Golden Light...) I hadn't heard back then, so I can't really say that they influenced me.

C.R.:Your album seems like quite a departure from the hectic & aggressive sounds that dominated the last Imatran Voima record. Also, seeing how diverse the tunes are, is this rather a collection of songs you made over the years or is there an overarching concept behind it?

Randy: When I listen to the last Imatran Voima album now, I can't really recognize myself in it anymore. It’s definitely the soundrack for the years 2005 - 2007: angry, chaotic, distorted and paranoid. It wasn't the easiest time of my life: Speed, alcohol and despair were the keywords for that period. Or like me and Jaakko (Fresh-O-Lex) used to say: fear, self-loathing, hate and industrial alienation.

Imatran Voima - Welfare State of Mind

Last week I finished "Notes From Underground" by Dostoyevsky and just started giggling because it really reminded me of those days. Alone in the basement, frustrated and broke, stench of mold in my nostrils.

I'm very glad that you asked if the new album is just a compilation of tracks: It definitely is. After making two concept albums I wanted to let myself go and just make a straightforward record with no higher structure behind it. It's almost like an old library record (The electronic moods of Barracuda or some shit like that). Musicwise it's an homage to my psychedelic roots: Can, Harmonia, Kraftwerk (surprise, surprise), Tangerine Dream, La Düsseldorf, Hawkwind, Captain Beefheart and also modern soul with its rich and luscious synthesizer sounds and smooth soulful vocals...

C.R.: Haha, „The electronic moods of Barracuda“ - that would have been a great title! What about the psychedelia-turned-computer-age cover art? Is this visual skweee?

Randy: The cover art was done by the man behind Flogsta Danshall: Frans Carlqvist aka Pavan aka Afrika Bambaattaa of Skweee. It's also a part of the library theme. I wanted to have some spacey optical art and he provided it. I don't know if it's visual Skweee, but I think so since he single-handedly created the whole imagery of the label.

the album cover

C.R.: What is the challenge to creating a skweee tune? Compared to producing traditional electro, is it any different/harder? Why the slow pace? Do people still dance to this?

Randy: Well, of course first it wasn't hard because I just felt like I was funking to my own groove. I just started doing it because I felt I had nothing more to give to the contemporary electro scene. To be honest I even have no fuckin' idea what that is. (Fuck, there's a banner of a Dutch dating service blinking on the screen and the woman in the ad looks a bit like my old girlfriend. Very disturbing.) But yeah, making Skweee is great fun because it still is quite an open field and you can just throw in your own interpretation.

And yes, people dance to it. Last weekend I dj'd in a Stockholm club with Mesak from Mr Velcro Fastener. We mostly played 90-100 bpm Skweee and 400 people went loco. You just have to start dancing with your shoulders (think of R. Kelly, haha) and then move downwards, not the other way around.

performing Duck Butter live @Sonar festival 2008

C.R.: Sounds good to me! Now, one thing that I am still confused about is that Skweee seems to uphold an 8-bit/low tech aesthetic, but your music is rife with lush analogue sounds and an undeniable pop sensibility (in the same way that Roger Troutman wrote beautiful pop songs). How about that?

Randy: Don't be confused! When I was young and insecure I was ashamed of writing melodic songs. Now I'm old and I can do what the fuck I want! Ain't life grand?

The way I see it is that lot of Skweee is meant to sound two-dimensional, skeletal and dry and that's the absolute beauty in it. But since I am the starchild my shit is operating in all eleven different dimensions.

C.R.: I am still busy counting the dimensions ... but seriously though: In most of the songs, there is a palpable undercurrent of SOUL which I find remarkable cause it introduces a nonidentical, almost transcendent quality to your music that goes well beyond the immanence of your fellow skweeesters. Would you agree?

Randy: I think there is lots of soul in Skweee music. Just listen to tracks like "We Could Be Skweeeroes" by Eero Johannes, "People Die, Love Don't" by Daniel Savio, "Directors Musices" by Markis Sage or "Mouth Everest" by Beem and you'll see what I mean.

I also think that essentially it is the MOST soulful electronic music genre at the moment: Take a look at the Ibiza death camps of mass produced meaningless house and techno muzak floating in the blogosphere. Tracks made on monday and forgot on tuesday. And why? By popular demand? Where’s all the love and passion? I spoke to George Clinton two weeks ago and it really seems that his prophecy still holds: The Placebo Syndrome hasn’t gone anywhere. 2009 - enter the zone of zero funkativity.

Back to the start: I'm thrilled that you found transcendent qualities in my music, because that's the ultimate compliment I can get. I've always been quite a sentimental person and I think that's one of the reasons behind my output. I feel some sort of a bond with the German romantics of 19th century and their longing for distant realities. Maybe that's the transcendent undercurrent in my music.

And of course we can’t forget the singin’ caveman Michael Black Electro! Without him there wouldn't be 'nuff SOUL on the album. Rock on, brother!

C.R.: Damn inspiring words - thanks a lot for your time and may the funk be with you!

Randy Barracuda's album is available via Flogsta Danshall.

Donnerstag, 29. Oktober 2009

Electro Soul Satisfaction

You might remember this little clip I posted a while back of Brenda Starr performing "Vicious Beat" in the 1984 movie Beat Street. It was taken from the audition scene where Brenda is entering the stage right after this band:

Singer Mic Murphy and keyboardist David Frank were known as "The System" and played ... well, not really electro, more like synth-based soul. But it was the 80s when boundaries were still a lot more permeable and it was possible to score a couple of major r&b hits and still appear in a movie about hip hop.

Fast forward to the year 2009 and we are witnessing not only a comeback of Mic Murphy but also a collaboration with none other than legendary rapper Melle Mel. All that can largely be credited to the efforts of UK based DJ and electro head Lloyd Harvey who got in contact with Murphy and convinced him to sing on a tune that fellow UK producer Diplomat had created. This tune is now released in a beautiful package with 5 incredible (re-)mixes.

The original mix by Lloyd Da Zoid and Diplomat could have been an unreleased System track, ca. 1985. This is pure electro soul bliss: The straight beat and driving bass create a reduced frame that gives the track a lot of room to breathe - which is perfectly complemented by Murphy's soulful vocals and some unobtrusive yet haunting synth tapestries:

EDMX keeps it old school as well, so does Funkmaster Ozone who is delivering his trademark West Coast influenced bounce. Sbassship's perfectly crafted piece of German engineering turns the song into a freestyle tune (with more than a hint of that 90s Euro sound). Every note, every sound and every detail is in place. The production is nothing less than flawless - lush and polished, modern and New School sounding (not in that dark & technoid New School way though):

Finally I have to give it up to Dutch funkateer Seymour Bits who might be the biggest surprise on this record. This is what The System might sound like if they were still releasing records in 2009: cutting-edge, but with a lot of mainstream crossover potential. The remix is huge in a literal way: a wall of sound, compressed and pumping and quite reminiscent of the contemporary French style (think Daft Punk, Justice, DJ Mehdi). With its 4-to-the-floor bass drum it might even pass for house, albeit a mean and funky version of it. Equipped with a dirty bass and at a slow pace, it is irresistibly crawling - or better yet steamrolling towards you:

Get the limited edition 12" vinyl directly from the electro avenue homepage:

A digital release is set to follow later this month.

Montag, 26. Oktober 2009

Untold Stories: The Message

Much has been said & written about how Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock came into being as an amalgamation of European electronic music and American funk traditions. In fact, you will find quite a few Planet Rock genealogies on this very blog. But how about that other seminal 1982 classic, Grandmaster Flash's "The Message"? With its origins far less documented, you could think this was a truly independent and self-contained creation on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's part.

Not really - here's some fun facts.

Common knowledge:
- Grandmaster Flash didn't like the concept of The Message's gritty street realism. Neither did the Furious Five, except for Melle Mel. That's why he ended up doing most of the raps and being the only member of the group who appeared on the credits. And although it is Flash's first and most important record, Flash himself wasn't even part of it.

Untold story:
- Duke Bootee and Doug Wimbish of the Sugarhill house band wrote the music and part of the raps. Most of the experimental edge - the sampled and electronic noises and sounds - can be traced to the influence of Brian Eno's collage masterpiece "My life in the bush of ghosts".

Even lesser told story:
- Most of the music can be traced to the influence of another contemporary record: One Way's "Cutie Pie".

So although The Message has a completely different aesthetic - the slow pace, the street/social topics -, it's actually quite similar to Planet Rock: not only as an appropriation of other existing music, but more specifically as a clash of funk and experimental electronics.

Further reading/viewing:
- youtube clip on Duke Bootee's role in composing The Message
- interview with Doug Wimbish, co-composer of The Message

Dienstag, 20. Oktober 2009

Link of the day: Hip Hop is dead (again)

Hip Hop: alive & kicking in 2009

In a remarkable article for The New Yorker, Sasha Frere Jones talks about how much the new Jay-Z album sucks, how the new Raekwon album is actually pretty good and how Freddie Gibbs might be the best thing in hip hop right now. The article is spot on; he could have mentioned Lil B or Z-Ro instead of Freddie Gibbs, but I agree that the latter has the most commercial potential.

Jones' version of the much heard "hip hop = dead" lamentation rests on the assumption that hip hop is losing its paradigmadic status for pop music by accepting influences from other genres - most of all by adapting to 4-to-the-floor-beats of contemporary club music:
The tempos and sonics of disco’s various children — techno, rave, whatever your particular neighborhood made of a four-on-the-floor thump — are slowly replacing hip-hop’s blues-based swing. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the rudimentary digital sound of New Orleans bounce or the crusty samples of New York hip-hop: this music wants to swing and syncopate. On major commercial releases, this impulse is giving way to a European pulse, simpler and faster and more explicitly designed for clubs.

Two minor corrections:

1. Some of the earliest rap music was disco-based and had straight beats. Also, a lot of the P-Funk and Synth-Funk that influenced West Coast hip hop had a palpable touch of disco 4-to-the-floor beats. As of lately, there is a whole new wave of incredibly funky and modern sounding hip hop with a distinct 4-to-the-floor feel (and I am NOT talking about Baltimore) that is feeding on those old school funk influences instead of the techno/club music of today. I will be covering some of that in the near future.

2. You could also turn the argument around. It is a misconception that club music has to have a 4-to-the-floor thump. In 1982 the world was introduced to a form of syncopated dance music that has continued to be relevant and vibrant to this day: electro.

Samstag, 17. Oktober 2009

Street Sounds Nu Electro 2: A Sneak Peek

Doesn't it look beautiful? I think I even prefer the cover art to that of SSNE1. All in all it's a bit more reduced and purist than the first installment. The "electro" logo has its 80s flatness back - and isn't it incredible how bright and blinding a simple white shape can be? Light certainly is a leitmotif here, and the colour scheme goes well with the airy, minimal aesthetic. The appearance of the large figure steadily changes between sign/number and abstract shape - it's like looking at a drawing and seeing through the illusion, seeing that at a fundamental level there is nothing but a line dividing a plane and defining space ... only this time, the line is even more immaterial as it is made of "neon light, shimmering neon light".

Donnerstag, 15. Oktober 2009

Cosmic Rockers - Ondoka II (The Wandering of Humanity)

"The Wandering of Humanity" is part 2 of the Ondoka trilogy which explores the metaphor of nomadism as a material and psychological state of existence. Part 1 introduced the aspects of leaving and taking off, now part 2 is focused on the alienation and loneliness of being in transit.

I am really wearing my influences on my sleeve for this one:
- Newcleus: Why
- Newcleus: Programmed for Love
- Cybotron - Techno City
- DJ Quik (for the percussion)

Dienstag, 6. Oktober 2009

"Street Art"

Breaking news: graffiti now called "street art" ...

Donnerstag, 1. Oktober 2009

Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 - Cover Art

A while back I stumbled upon a Flickr page that featured some preliminary concepts and sketches for the SSNE1 cover art. I was immediately stunned by a piece labelled "first draft" which not only looked truly beautiful but also seemed to capture the essence of what made the old Street Sounds artwork such a forceful piece of design (or may I even say "art"?): The flatness. The pastel colors. A clean and organized composition, but never too strict or sterile.

(First draft - click on the picture for a larger image)

So I dug out SSNE1 again and all of a sudden noticed a lot of details and subtle references that I had missed at my first and cursory look (I know, shame on me). As I realized the amount of consideration and work behind it, I thought it might be enlightening to get some first-hand information by the man in charge. So here's a little conversation with Andy of Plus2 Studio about the genesis and evolution of the Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 cover artwork.

C.R.: It was really interesting to see all the different concepts that didn't make it - I wouldn't have expected them to be so diverse. So I'd first like to talk about the way from the first drafts to the final version. How did you get involved in the project?

Andy: I first got in touch with Morgan when the press release announcing the release of the Nu Electro series was circulated. I am a massive fan of the music, and I’m slightly obsessive about the original packaging. It was the definitive piece of graphic design in the 80s that inspired me to become a designer. I rebuilt the original cover designs as a self initiated project some years ago. Many hours were spent researching, to find a perfect font match for the heavily elongated and condensed text. I eventually purchased it from a small font foundry in France.

(The famous condensed typeface of the Electro series)

C.R.: What guidelines did you get from Morgan for the first concepts? Did he want a specific look, or did he leave it up to you to surprise him?

Andy: He was pretty open to interpretation. For the first draft, I kept some of the original elements to make the link to the original releases: the background colour, the condensed electro typeface and the flat colour treatments. I liked the minimalist approach. The new elements I added were the use of a metallic gold and some quite contemporary looking numerals. Morgan had seen enough to indicate that I was the man for the job even though this initial design was not quite what he wanted. It was a bit too "warp" / "electronic" (see above for a picture of the first draft).

C.R. So what were your own guidelines when you worked on what became the final version? What were you trying to express and achieve?

Andy: I was trying to keep one foot in the past but also represent the futuristic sci-fi elements heavily linked with the music. I thought I really shouldn’t be trying reinvent the wheel here, so I went back to the original Electro 1.

My influences for creating the 3D number one were two things: The original number one from Electro 1 and an excellent website with loads of CGI spacecraft. There’s one in particular I drew inspiration from:

The body text typeface is from an excellent type typographer ( This had just the the feel I was looking for. After a little bit of tinkering - there you have it. The spirit of the 80’s original and the sci-fi futurism of the now.

C.R.: That's interesting cause to me the 3D number and the typeface also have a slight retro feeling to them. The black background coupled with the sci-fi details give it a martial, muscular appearance that I alway tend to connect with early 90s American corporate design.The same probably goes for the typeface which looks like a 90s new school variant of the crude monospace pixel type seen on old computer screens. It seems that the current design paradigm is a return to reduced modernist aesthetics, so maybe the appeal to 3D phatness and computer symbolism can already be seen as old school in a way?

Andy: The number one was built using the exact outline of the "1" from the 80s original. It is I guess, retro/future. The type does echo the monospace type used on early VDUs but I think there is a definite futuristic feel to the type.

(The text typeface of Nu Electro 1)

C.R.: "Retro-futurist" describes it perfectly, thanks for the hint! One final question: Are there any artists, designers, schools or traditions that have influenced your work?

Andy: Loads ... I was particularly influenced by Neville Brody in the late 90's and also the work of Thirst, who I did a work placement with, before I started my studio. They did the design and art direction of i-D magazine. It was all PMT cameras and paste up, the traditional old school and very skilled way. Swifty is another influence, loved his work for Talkin Loud in the 90s.

(1988 Nike ad by Neville Brody)

I also like the work of Wim Crouwel, and Swiss minimalist typography. I love grids and structure and the use of space — anything that is considered and that has real craft. In terms of Electro AS1 Projects is doing some real good quality stuff stateside, with Monotone etc.

(Classic Wim Crouwel design from 1954)

Check out Andy's diverse portfolio at

Sonntag, 27. September 2009

Auto-Tune: Notable Exceptions

Last post on the topic whose name shall not be mentioned. Here are 2 auto-tunes (...) approved by yours truly. First one is by the Black Eyed Peas ... just kidding.

Kool Keith - Executive Suites (2009)

First impression: This might be Kool Keith's most accessible and catchy song to date. On second thought, everything about it is so over the top (including the not-so-subtle integration of auto-tuned vocals) that I'm getting highly suspicious. With all its subtlety and ambiguity, it is a far more intelligent (and hilarious) comment on an auto-tuned world than Jay-Z's and KRS-One's banalities. As Hegel would have said, Kool Keith is on some determinate (as opposed to abstract) negation shit. Plus it's a dope song which leaves me with high expectations for the upcoming album scheduled for october 13th.

Newcleus - Programmed for Love (2009)

Electro pioneers Newcleus return with some surprisingly new school sounding material. Big pounding drums and a distorted bass provide the backdrop for a soulful tune full of ambient sounds and effects. The use of Auto-Tune is very subtle: not as a means in itself, a bland l'art-pour-l'art gesture, but as a way to enhance and underline the dreamy and meandering character of the vocals.

So can we please get back to talking about vocoders now?

Samstag, 19. September 2009

Why I am glad Auto-Tune didn't exist in the 80s

I really don't want to mention Auto-Tune. Ever. But it's like tourette, I can't help lashing out against it. So I'd better make it quick & painful: There is one more Auto-Tune related post coming up and then I'm done for good.

Dienstag, 15. September 2009

Death Of Auto-Tune (Bonus Beats): A Brief Guide To Robot Voices

When KRS One and Buckshot dropped their anti Auto-Tune lamentation "Robot" a while back, they mentioned some pioneers of Auto-Tune that they exempted from their critique:

- Roger Troutman
- Afrika Bambaataa (Planet Rock)
- The Jonzun Crew (Pack Jam)
- Kraftwerk

One thing that these four have in common is: None of them has ever used Auto-Tune. So instead of lumping all robotic vocals together and calling them Auto-Tune, it might be instructive to have a look at the various types of voice modulation. Once you understand how they work it's actually not too hard to spot the differences (I am looking at you, KRS and Buckshot).

1. Auto-Tune

Auto-Tune is a device that tunes your voice. If used moderately - as in most of today's pop music - you won't even notice it's there. What you will notice though is the radical use of it as an effect to alter the sound of your voice. The human voice sings legato, meaning there is a smooth transition between notes of a different pitch. When you erase the transition and force the vocals to directly jump to the next note, the result will be an unnatural robot-like staccato effect that you know from too many bad songs. I will spare you the listening example.

How to recognize:
- flat and artificial sound of the voice
- sudden pitch shifts that create a stuttering effect

2. Talk box

A talk box involves two sound sources: your voice and a synth (or any other instrument). Or rather, the synth is the only sound source while the voice is only used as an effect. This is how it's done: First you play a sound or a melody on the synth. At the same time, the sound is sent into your mouth through a plastic tube. You use our mouth to shape the sound by "talking" without actually speaking - much like when you are at a concert or in a club and shape the surrounding noise by opening and closing your mouth, making "wah wah" without actually speaking.

It takes a lot of practice and articulation to get a good result, but when it's done correctly it produces a very distinct sound. Multiinstrumentalist and musical genius Roger Troutman was the master of the talk box, and I'd like to say DJ Quik is keeping his legacy alive. Posting the mandatory Roger Troutman video would be too obvious, so here is another one that I bet you all know (plus you can really see the talk box at work):

And here's a recent talk box tune that was definitely inspired by Roger Troutman:

And forget what I said before - here's the man himself:

How to recognize:
- metallic robot sound, often in the higher pitch/frequency area
- mostly monophonic (meaning there's only a single melody and no chords involved)
- can have vibrato and smooth transitions between pitches

3. Vocoder

This is basically the same principle: Two sound sources (voice and synth), one of which is used to shape the other. Technically it is a little different: First you speak into a microphone. The vocoder will analyze and filter your voice, pass it on to the synth and blend the two together to create the final sound. Vocoder voices can have a large variety of expressions, from deep and raspy to ethereal and dreamy sounds.

How to recognize:
- can have a full and polyphonic sound
- will generally sound clearer and more articulate, especially when consonants are involved

4. Speech Synthesis

Speech synthesis is the artificial creation of human speech: You type a text and the computer converts it into a sound that resembles the human voice ... or rather an artificial, robotic version of the human voice. Here's a beautiful example of speech synthesis (for the nerds: correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the 1981 Computerwelt uses a vocoder for the chorus while this one has speech synthesis throughout the whole song):

P.S. The time is 6:57 a.m.

How to recognize:
- some words might not sound right and odd pronounciations might occur
- often there is only one pitch, creating a monotonous intonation

Dienstag, 8. September 2009

Stop the Madness

Graphic aural content - viewer discretion is advised:


And for further entertainment, here's some 80s throwback stuff. If you make it to 4:05, you will be rewarded with 10 seconds of maximum hilarity.

Mittwoch, 2. September 2009

The Blueprint 3

So Jay-Z's new album leaked a couple of days ago.

Fun Fact: While there is a song called "D.O.A." (Death Of Auto-Tune) on it, a lot of the hooks sound so sterile and polished that I am guessing there are at least a good 5 songs that actually use Auto-tune. One of the songs doesn't even try to hide it. Which is such a blatant disregard for consistency that I am almost tempted to read it as an ironic comment on hip hop's obsession with realness. But I guess it is quite unintentional (which makes it even more ironic).

The music is not that interesting, so I'd rather talk about the cover art. Here are two recent album covers which might have inspired it:

The idea of three horizontal bands of color representing the number 3 is especially compelling. Stripes have a long tradition in the history of modern art - Abstract Expressionism, Minimal and Concept Art have all utilized monochrome stripes on a light/white ground.

While Agnes Martin's (top left) grids of lines are so low contrast that they seem to blend into the background, always on the verge of disappearing, John McLaughlin (top right) used to paint deep black rectangles on white canvas - somewhat reminiscent of asian calligraphy, or at least: a reduced, geometric version of it. Daniel Buren (bottom left) is often referred to as the "stripe guy". Buren's all-over paintings only have vertical stripes, but his companion Michel Parmentier (bottom right) also turned them horizontal.

Of course, red stripes on a white surface can also be seen as a reference to another iconic piece of art. Take a guess:

(Click on the picture)

Sonntag, 23. August 2009

Miscellany Vol.3: Kraftwerk, Dynamix II, John Robie

Kraftwerk announce 8 cd box set

Kraftwerk have announced the release of an 8 cd box set comprising their works from 1974 - 2003. The release was already planned for 2004, however it was postponed at the last minute. The new date is set for October 5th. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Included will be (digitally remastered, expanded artwork and whatnot):
Autobahn (1974)
Radio-Activity (1975)
Trans-Europe Express (1977)
The Man-Machine (1978)
Computer World (1981)
Electric Café (1986)
The Mix (1991)
Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

Apparently there is also going to be a vinyl release of this.

And speaking of Kraftwerk, here's a completely unrelated video by Chicago rapper GLC. It's easily forgettable if it weren't for the first 35 seconds where Bun B of UGK makes a short introduction - check out the shirt he is wearing. Not too bad ...

Scratch D of Dynamix II vs. John Robie - They're coming

Electro bass pioneers Dynamix II (or rather, one half of Dynamix II) have teamed up with electro funk legend John Robie to create 3 mixes of a new tune "They're coming". Dynamix II are probably most known for their seminal "Just give the DJ a break" and can be credited as being one of the first groups to transform the traditional rap-based Miami bass sound into the new school: creating a dark and sparse version of electro bass, with extra low end, copious amounts of vocoderized vocals and even a hint of breaks influence.

I've always thought it's ironic that this tune which so perfectly embodies their heavy and sinister style is based on an early 80s New Wave song: The main break was sampled from Visage's "Pleasure Boys":

Keyboard wizard John Robie was the mastermind behind the earliest electro records. Together with producer Arthur Baker he created Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock", "Looking for the Perfect Beat", Planet Patrol's "Play at your own risk" and was also responsible for some of the earliest Freestyle records. It's no overstatement to say that he was the main force that defined the music and the sound of electro, and by that created a blueprint that artists are still copying today.

What really set him and those early electro tracks apart was the fact that he was a musician. That was a rare occasion in early 80s hip hop where the focus was usually on the beat, and the compositions were crude and raw (not that there was anything wrong with that). A similar constellation can be found in contemporary electro. My biggest qualm with a lot of new school electro is its lack of musicianship. Most artists are beatmakers - and it shows: Sometimes you're left wondering if they are going for that reduced and minimal sound on purpose or if it's due to their limited abilites. So it's a welcome surprise to hear some artistry in electro music again.

UPDATE 08/24: I just got the news that this is not even supposed to be released yet. Please check back - I will write a more detailed review as soon as the final versions hit the stores.

Mittwoch, 19. August 2009

Going ExperiMANTAL

[ ] Yes.

[ ] No.

Sonntag, 16. August 2009

Miscellany Vol.2

An interesting article from Slate magazine on the rise of the "no homo" tag in hip hop and how it involuntarily serves to make everything a lot gayer after all:
Slate on the rise of no homo

Someone should tell Byron Crawford ...

New York magazine picked up the story but the entire point was lost somewhere along the way:
No Homo: Cause for Hope in Hip-Hop?

And on a lighter note: Harry Allen of Public Enemy (and nowadays: Media Assassin) fame likes the Russell Brothers!
Gettin' My "Russell Rush" On

I can only agree with him. This is a pretty rare records, so chances are you haven't heard it before .. and if so, it was probably on the "NY vs. LA beats" compilation from the Street Sounds series, perhaps my personal favorite of the whole series: The tracklist is incredible and the mixing is just perfect.

Afrika Bambaataa - Planet Rock
Hashim - Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)
Captain Rock - The Return of Captain Rock
Aleem - Release Yourself
Man Parrish - Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)
Pumpkin - King of the Beat
B-Boys - Two, Three Break
Russell Brothers - The Party Scene
Fresh 3 MC's - Fresh
Whodini - Freaks Come Out At Night
UTFO - Roxanne, Roxanne

L.A. Dream Team - Rockberry Jam
Unknown DJ - 808 Beats
D.E.F. feat. DJ Three D - D.E.F. Momentum
World Class Wreckin' Crew - Surgery
Egyptian Lover - Egypt, Egypt
World Class Wreckin' Crew - Juice
Unknown DJ - Let's Jam
Egyptian Lover - Girls
Uncle Jamm's Army - Naughty Boy
Knights Of The Turntables - Techno Scratch
Knights Of The Turntables - We Are The Knights
Chris "The Glove" Taylor - Itchiban Scratch

DOWNLOAD it here (really, do!).
(via DEF Momentum)

Mittwoch, 12. August 2009

Changes ... Vol.3: The Jungle Drum

Emiliana Torrini - Jungle Drum (2009)

When I saw this^ (#1 in the German pop charts for some weeks now), I had to think of that:

The Cool Kids - What Up Man (2008)

A long time ago, there was this:

Kraftwerk - Boing Boom Tschak (1986)

But even before that, there had been this:

George Kranz - Din Daa Daa (1983)

Honorable mentions: Italo Poppers Scotch with their Disco Band and MC Shy-D with the intro to "Gotta Be Tough". And "La Di Da Di" of course, but that's a whole different story.

Did I miss anything?

Dienstag, 4. August 2009

Wolfgang Riechmann - Wunderbar

"If there is anyone today to whom we can pass on the responsibilities of the message, we bequeath it ... to the imaginary witness - lest it perish with us." (Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer)

(Our way today: from Düsseldorf (left) to Cologne (right))

Last week a precious message in a bottle finally found its way to the shore: Wolfgang Riechmann's 1979 album "Wunderbar" was re-released. Riechmann was a contemporary of Kraftwerk and part of the Düsseldorf electronic scene. His only album is one of the most slept on gems from this time, eclipsed by the artist's untimely demise and by the success of Kraftwerk's Man-Machine which was released around the same time. Unlike other kraut and electronic music of that time, "Wunderbar" has aged very well and still sounds exciting today.

Riechmann composed meandering, repetitive and ambient pieces of music that bear some resemblance to Kraftwerk and their contemporaries such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. His music had an inherent beauty; it wasn't as erratic and abstract as Schulze's, had more soul than Kraftwerk's and less kitsch than Tangerine Dream's. He showed proof that electronic music can possess warmth and humanity. A strong undercurrent of palpable nostalgia and haunting romanticism pervades every song, and this content produces a beautiful dialectic when it rivals the electronic form.

Check out the first song off the album; a wonderful song with a slight spaghetti western feel that always reminds me of the For A Few Dollars More theme (as used in Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" ... as used in Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"). It's almost an instrumental piece - the only vocals are some onomatopoietic syllables and fragments that evoke a primordial language, a longing for lost security and happiness: (you might want to listen to the audio without watching the annoying video)

There is a sadness to it that becomes almost unbearable if you are aware of Riechmann's tragic fate. Only 2 weeks before the release of his album, he was brutally stabbed to death by two complete strangers while taking a walk with his girlfriend in the picturesque and peaceful old town of Düsseldorf. It was an act of utter senselessness, there was no motive and Riechmann was a random target.

DOWNLOAD "Wunderbar" from the web or order the re-released cd.

Talking about stabbings and knife attacks, this just in: Last week Bero Bass of Cologne gangsta rap group La Honda cut up a rival pretty bad. He is now incarcerated and facing charges of attempted manslaughter ... finally living the life he fantasized about in his lyrics. Here's my favorite La Honda tune. Fierce and aggressive, with simple yet effective raps over a 808/retro-flavored beat topped by a G-funk hook. You won't be able to understand the German lyrics, but the whole tune is basically just an extended chorus - incredibly catchy.

Samstag, 1. August 2009

Raise it up

2 great artists R.I.P.
Left: J Dilla (1974-2006)
Right: Baatin, who just passed away today.

J Dilla aka Jaydee and Baatin were two thirds of Slum Village. Here's the beautiful video to Slum Village's beautiful tune "Raise it up":

Fun fact: The quirky sample is lifted off a house tune, Thomas Bangalter's "Extra Dry". It starts off with the sample - a bit reminiscent of 8-bit/chiptune music - but gets increasingly noisy, distorted and abstract along the way:

Thomas Bangalter of course was one half of the influential French house duo Daft Punk. Their body of work was raw and innovative ... but at the same time incredibly club/mainstream friendly. It makes you wonder why they haven't been sampled more often. Sure, there's Kanye West's "Stronger" which is probably the obvious choice cause the original was a huge hit and has that nice memorable talk box chorus. Since it's Kanye it comes as no surprise though that his version is quite wack and pales in comparison to Mickey Factz' take on "Robot Rock". Good decision on Mickey's part to keep it simple and NOT to throw it in the neo (read: watered down r&b) hip hop blender, but straight loop the original and rap over it cause it ROCKS. Reminds you of the old days when hip hop was not afraid of appropriating contemporary dance and disco songs.

Check out his hyper-eclectic heaven's fallout mixtape where he samples everything and everyone from Bjork to The Prodigy to a Wes Anderson movie soundtrack back to Uffie to The Smiths to Daft Punk and Jamiroquai etc. etc. Hit and miss mostly but when it hits, it hits hard.

(What's up with Mickey Factz though? All that good stuff was from 07/08. This year so far: disappointing.)

Donnerstag, 30. Juli 2009

Disorderly Conduct

In light of recent events ...

I only found the dub version on the tube.

The Latin Rascals were the kings of edits: a style of remixing that chops up the original track in a stuttery, stop-and-go kind of way. Here's another sweet (pun intended) example of innovative editing ... Omar Santana's remix of Sweet Sensation's freestyle classic "Hooked On You":

Freitag, 24. Juli 2009

I Should Tell Ya Momma On You

Some incredible funk beatboxing by Red whose single dropped today ... and you can also download it via iTunes. Red rose to internet fame with a youtube video of him beatboxing in a backyard (check below). Even Justin Timberlake got caught up in the buzz and referenced him in a recent tweet. Add Mr. Timberlake to the steadily growing list of people who get confused about this auto-tune thing. Red's certainly not emulating any auto-tuned vocals - this is old-school talk box funk. Roger Troutman would have been proud.

If only DJ Quik had made that remix ...

(via Steady Bloggin)

Donnerstag, 23. Juli 2009


A while ago, Jay-Z proclaimed the Death of Auto-Tune, now hip hop's "grand oak" KRS One and Black Moon's Buckshot weigh in. The visuals are compelling, the beat is well-done but I cannot shake off the feeling that something is very wrong here. At first sight, it seems like another "the youth of today ..." lamentation - a story of generational conflict and the loss of authority on Jay-Z's and KRS One's side who have been left behind by a bunch of young and successful rappers. But there's more at stake here.

The general suspicion against the auto-tuning device rest on the bias against technological enhancement in music: the resentment that "we are being cheated". But can there be cheating in music? Only if you believe in the ideal of a true musician as master of his trade, working his ass off and shedding a lot of blood, sweat and tears for his art. Of course, this sounds much like the critique of "real" musicians when synthesizers and drum machines were introduced. Or even worse, a few years later when digital samplers became established. It's a bit unsettling to hear KRS One reproduce the same prejudice that hip hop had to face whose proliferating creativity was only made possible by new democratized technology.

He must have realized this, so we get a distinction between good and bad use of the technology. And as much as i like seeing Roger Troutman, Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk and the Jonzun Crew mentioned (and even their cover art shown - good PR for some good music!), I cannot help but wonder: What do they have to do with Auto-Tune? Nothing of course - he is not only talking about Auto-Tune. A pitch correction via Auto-Tune is a very subtle effect and will go unnoticed in 99% of the cases. In today's Pop music, all vocalists use some sort of auto-tuning device. It is quite ironic that only the reflective, self-confident use of it draws critique: artists like T-Pain or Lil Wayne make no secret of the artificiality of their vocals.

KRS One's beef is not primarily with voice modulation. "Robot" is a metaphor for all that's wrong in today's hip hop: commercialization, selling out, going pop, fake rappers ... you name it. And that's a paradoxical situation: Hip Hop has always been haunted by the trope of realness. It cannot do without the appeal to authenticity, but the identification has alway been imaginary and fragile. Thus all the hyperbole, all the symbolic staging to conceal the nagging fear of the emptiness of the real. Pop music on the other hand doesn't know any authenticity, it embraces surface and dissolves any substance or essence. With hip hop's entrance into the pop canon the contradictions have only become more apparent - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, cause the resulting friction might convert into some great music.