Montag, 23. Februar 2009

Electro goes Pop Culture

Been a bit busy lately and haven't found the time to write, so for now I'll just leave you with some fun stuff.

Every once in a while some electro reference will appear in the world of pop culture. I guess synths and vocoders are signifiers of choice when something is supposed to look retro/80s. Kind of sad in a way cause it goes to show that that part of hip hop has been irrevocably sidelined, or better yet: overrun by the merciless train of world history. General pessimism notwithstanding, it always puts a smile on my face when I stumble upon something like this recent ad for Cadbury (a chocolate company from the UK):

It heavily samples Freestyle's "Don't stop the rock", one of the most amazing vocoder electro tunes ever written. No wonder this came from the UK - it often seems the Brits are more determined than the rest us when it comes to preserving the electro legacy:

Here's another example ... a 2007 track by R&B singer Amerie:

I'm not too keen on modern reworkings of 80s tunes, but in this case I gotta admit the female vocals work well with the feel of the original track. It's not much of a reworking after all, just 2 loops lifted straight from Malcolm McLaren's "World's Famous" (beat & piano provided by Trevor Horn and Anne Dudley of Art of Noise fame, vocals by The World's Famous Supreme Team):

Freitag, 13. Februar 2009

Hip Hop goes Art World - The [Abstract] Best

This mixtape would be worth getting even if it was just a "Best of Q-Tip/Tribe" ... which it isn't. On top of that, it features an impressive roster of guest appearances, a whole lot of remixes, Tribe sample sources and even a bunch of interview-type interludes dropping science on Tribe history, Tip's production techniques et al., all mixed to perfection. Just have a look at the tracklist. If by now you don't feel the irresistible urge to listen to it, please get out and never visit this blog again. Seriously though, get it while it's hot! You can download it directly from J.Period's site.

The artwork is quite a ride, too. I like how the organic colors of Q-Tip's head hint at the trademark Tribe artworks of red/green figures on a deep black background, above all referring to the collage on Midnight Marauders (which in turn is an allusion to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band").

Highly surreal/symbolistic in nature, the collage on "The [Abstract] Best" goes to show that by now it isn't only Hip Hop but a more general concept of black (music) history and identity that defines Q-Tip's persona. The camouflage pattern covering his face is reflected in the background which also consists of a decorative ornament: a reduced geometric black and gray shape. But wait, did I just say ornament? Even if it might look like a random pattern, it is indeed a sophisticated reference ... and it is no coincidence that the mixtape's title is "The [Abstract] Best":

Looks familiar? I thought so. This is a relatively unknown painting by one of 20th century art's most prominent figures: Piet Mondrian. Mondrian went on to become famous for his highly reduced abstract paintings consisting of rectangular, asymetric grids of black lines filled with red, yellow, blue or white color. He had a highly theoretical, almost ideological approach to art and he imposed rigorous constraints on himself: In later years, Mondrian completely banished diagonal lines from his works and even early on, he wouldn't have rectangular and diagonal lines in the same painting. As the story goes, he apparently went at great lengths to hide the above painting cause it contradicted his own theory.

As a proponent of avantgarde painting, Mondrian was strongly opposed to the decorative, ornamental and playful lines of Art Nouveau. He preferred a rational and geometric - some might even call it sterile - form of Abstractionism. If you trace the development of his art there is a logical progression leading from a short stint with Cubism to his own style of Neoplasticism. However - and this has been swept under the rug in art history -, that way necessarily passes through a geometric-ornamental period (as exemplified by this black and gray painting). Far from the restrained emptiness of his later works, it evokes the spiritual and transcendent qualities of islamic art ... entangled lines forming an infinite pattern ... a geometric arabesque. Fuse Green, who did the artwork for the mixtape, intuitively brought to light that hidden subtext which amounts to nothing less than the missing link in Mondrian's art.

On a lighter note, here's another Mondrian appropriation:

This would be more a case of "Art goes Pop Culture", though ...

Samstag, 7. Februar 2009

Look out for the OVC, or: The Great Historical Divide

In late 1983 a strange, almost instrumental track dropped on the world like a monolith from outer space and subsequently enjoyed a surprising success in the pop charts. Surprising, because it couldn't be any farther from the feel-good pop of the times. It's a sparse and minimal track – a jam, as the title says. The only constant element is the trademark beat, the rest has an improvised feel. There are some space effects, a dominant and dark bass that chips in from time to time, and a short, menacing synth line that's slicing through the rest every now and then. On top of it there are some evil vocals which are completely vocoderized, kind of like Scorpio's evil twin.

So what's interesting about this track (apart from the fact that it is seriously dope, and apart from the fact that 2 french guys were clearly impressed by those space helmet outfits 15 years later)?

The Jonzun crew were a group of musicians fronted by the brothers Larry, Michael and Soni Johnson who had left their native Florida in the 1970s. In their new hometown of Boston, isolated from the subcultural revolutions that were taking place in New York at the same time, they invented their own version of electro funk, arriving at similar results as Afrika Bambaataa. While Bambaataa's approach consisted of an „Anything goes“ recklessness – the infusion of white German electronic music into a genuine black American tradition, creating an improbable cross-cultural hybrid -, the Jonzun brothers' electro funk emerged out of funk's own potentials. You could say they were standing on the shoulders of American pioneers that had already begun integrating electronic aspects into their music, namely the p-funk created and popularized by bands such as Parliament / Funkadelic or the electronic funk of bands like Zapp.

But that's not the whole story. Ironically there were 2 versions of Pack Jam and the genealogy of that jam is a textbook illustration of the great historical divide that the 1982 release of Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock meant for all of music. The first version was called Pak Man and it was released on a small Bostonian label in 1982, a few months before Planet Rock saw the light of day. Musically it is almost identical to the later version and it already featured the p-funk influenced „clappy“ beat with the spooky reversed-snare effect. The drums were played live – even on later records the Jonzun Crew still used live drums which might be seen as a refusal to completely disconnect from their older, pre-electronic musical roots:

For comparison, here's a contemporary funk track, The Dazz Band's „Let it whip“:

Pak Man was re-released as Pack Jam in 1983 on the newly founded Tommy Boy label, the same label that had unleashed Planet Rock. The 1983 version has a much fatter, in-your-face sound but apart from that it's almost identical to the former – with the exception of a slight yet decisive detail: an ominously ascending synth melody that wasn't part of the 1982 version but which is almost identical to a synth melody in Planet Rock. And as if that wasn't quite enough reference (or rather, reverence) they even put a little orch5-like orchestral stab at the end ... just like the famous orchestral hit in Planet Rock. Hearing Planet Rock, the Jonzun brothers must have immediately realized the connection to what they were doing and decided to change their song in order to place themselves in this tradition and context even more ostentatively. Here's Pack Jam:

And here is the breakdown towards the middle of Planet Rock with the prominent synth melody (which in turn was heavily inspired by the dark romanticist nostalgia of Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express):

So this is just an example how 1982 was a crucial point in time: New ideas tentatively surfaced at different places, branching out in an interdependent, rhizomatic way. Very quickly though, Planet Rock became the dominant paradigm that subsequentially absorbed and bundeled all other forces under its umbrella, creating a blueprint sound. Oh, and in case you are still wondering what the OVC was supposed to mean: It's the Outer Space Visual Communicator.

Sonntag, 1. Februar 2009

Fly Girls!

Soul Jazz just put out an amazing compilation titled "Fly Girls! B-Boys Beware: The Revenge of the Super Female Rappers". There's a lot of classic material on it, plus some newer (read: 90s) stuff that I haven't heard yet:
JJ Fad — Ya Goin' Down*
Princess MC — Pump Up The Funk
Tanya Winley — Vicious Rap
Sweet Tee — I Got Da Feelin'*
Nikki Giovanni — Ego Tripping
MC Lyte — Cha Cha Cha
Two Sisters — B-Boys Beware
Cookie Crew — Secrets of Success
Sequence — Simon Says*
Bahamadia — Paper Thin
Sparky D — I Can't Stop
Queen Latifah Featuring Monie Love — Ladies First
Lady B — To The Beat Y'All
Camille Yarbrough — Take Yo' Praise
Missy Elliot — The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)*
Dimples D — Sucker DJ
She Rockers — Give It A Rest
Sarah Webster Fabio — Glimpses
The Kryptic Krew featuring Tina B — Jazzy Sensation*
Roxanne Shanté — Bite This

I won't give you any download links for this ... you can do a google search if you must, or you could also spend a few bucks and get the whole package with extensive liner notes and whatnot.

While you're waiting for the LPs or CDs to arrive you can pass the time with a little compilation I put together for you. This is by no means a competing effort ... I just threw in a few of my favorite female fronted hip hop tunes that I felt were missing on the Soul Jazz album. Enjoy!

01. L'Trimm - Cars with the Boom
02. JJ Fad - Supersonic
03. Anquette - Shake it, do the 61st
04. Bonnie & Clyde feat. Terminator X - Homey don't play dat *
05. Roxanne Shanté - Roxanne's Revenge
06. The Real Roxanne feat. Hitman Howie Tee - Bang Zoom
07. MC Lyte - Lyte as a Rock
08. Leonie J & Sweet Tee feat. Davy DMX - The DMX will rock *
09. Sexy Lady feat. MC Chief - Beef Box *
10. Chilltown - Rock the Beat
11. Sha Rock, Lisa Lee & Debbie Dee - Us Girls *
12. Menusha & the Girls - You Boys (Can Boogie Too)

(* Some names might appear in an unorthodox order ... nevermind, it's the same song)

Get it here