Dienstag, 28. April 2009

Am I even really a rapper anymore? Starring Lil B (of The Pack)

The Pack are some Bay Area kids who have gained fame for rapping about such topics as vans shoes or skateboarding over bassy, minimal, hyphy kind of beats. Oh, and they seem to be wearing tight pants too. If by now I got you thinking "hipster rap", that was completely unintentional ...

The Pack frontman Lil B has been off on a strange tangent as of lately, launching well over 100 myspace pages each containing a handful of original songs. The pages are said to be numbered chronologically and listening to them feels like listening to a creative diary of sorts. It all starts out pretty conventional with beats that could as well appear on one of The Pack's albums, but somewhere into the second half you can witness an erosion of order with Lil B giving up conventional rhyming in favor of some kind of improvised free-form spoken word vocal style. The music is getting increasingly erratic too, ranging from low-fi rave assault to meditative and abstract synth ambience. You really can't help asking: Is he serious or is he losing it?

Then I stumbled upon this little video and I couldn't resist posting it here (nice synth work + the line "my face in outer space" = definitely cosmic rock material):

Am I even really a rapper anymore?

Am I even really a rapper anymore? Starring Lil B (Of The Pack) from Riveting Entertainment on Vimeo.

I like. And I couldn't care less if he is still a rapper or not. This could be the beginning of some wack Kanye type of overinflated ego rampage. On the other hand, he could be on to something great, expanding and testing the boundaries of what is possible in this age of internet/myspace hip hop.

P.S. Can anyone confirm if this is the Berkeley Pier in the video?

Lil B music page #2
Lil B music page #112

Sonntag, 26. April 2009

Yaz (We've got)

Yazoo were a short-lived but highly successful British electro-pop duo consisting of Depeche Mode / Erasure mastermind Vince Clarke and singer Alison Moyet. In the US they were simply known as "Yaz" and had a couple of hits in the early 80s. "Situation" was released in 1981 and also appeared on their debut album "Upstairs at Eric's".

If I were to make a top 10 list of my favorite hip hop tunes, Newcleus' "Jam on it" would be at number one, and Man Parrish's "Boogie Down Bronx" would take third position. Quite interestingly, both songs were directly based on "Situation".

Once you compare the tunes, this becomes quite obvious. In Newcleus' case it is the prominent bassline – probably THE most famous bassline in all of hip hop – that is influenced by "Situation". "Boogie Down Bronx" borrows even more heavily from it.

Here's the breakdown part in the middle of "Situation":

And here's the beginning of "Jam on it".:

And finally, here's the beginning of "Boogie Down Bronx":

Actually, that's not the whole story. Check out "Situation" again and listen to the heavy, thunderous tom-tom rolls:

Is it a coincidence that another Man Parrish tune, "Hip Hop Be Bop" also has a lot of prominent tom-tom rolls? I don't think so ...
Listen to "Hip Hop Be Bop":

Finally, I'd like to direct your attention to a little percussive detail in the background of "Situation" - a sound that always seemed to me like water drops:

And once again, there's a hip hop tune (or rather a breaks record, but a very influential one) that uses a similar sound – I am talking about the Jive Rhythm Trax 122bpm:

The whole "Upstairs at Eric's" album is great, and you should definitely try to hunt it down. My favorite Yazoo song "Don't go" is also on that debut album. And I guess you won't be suprised when I present to you a hip hop tune that is influenced by it. When I say hip hop, it is in a very broad sense: I am talking about Planet Patrol's "Don't tell me". Planet Patrol was Arthur Baker's electro soul / r&b outfit. They sound like a soulful version of Afrika Bambaataa which comes as no surprise since Arthur Baker re-used a lot of his Bambaataa material when producing Planet Patrol. One detail I am interested in is the arpeggiated melody that's playing in the background of Yazoo's "Don't go" - here's an isolated excerpt:

And here's the beginning of Planet Patrol's "Don't tell me":

I always find it interesting to reconstruct the musical paths that led to the creation of hip hop and electro. In the early 80s, hip hop hadn't crystallized into a rigid form yet and influences were drawn from all kinds of music. There was no canon, and it was a period of openness that encouraged experiment and eclecticism. At its best, the resulting music was a cross-cultural rollercoaster ride where funk rhythms collided with pop or avantgarde music. Needless to say that today's state of hip hop is a step backwards in both musical and cultural terms: Flamboyant artist like Man Parrish would be considered gay and their music would stand no chance whatsoever.

Montag, 20. April 2009

The past that does not want to pass away

I have to be honest: When I started this blog a few months ago, I thought I'd write about Electro music from the safe distance of the historicist who confidently disposes of his material, mapping out a clearly defined terrain. Somehow things didn't pan out that way, and more and more I am finding myself surprised by current events. It seems like the material itself is resisting the historian's totalizing grasp, insisting that it does not want to simply pass away (and that it actually never has). I like that.

Today saw the release of Freestyle's new EP "Invade the Party". Freestyle and their producer Pretty Tony were responsible for putting Miami on the map of electro music in the 80s, releasing genre-defining masterworks like "Don't stop the Rock" or "The Party's just begun". In addition to introducing the latin tinge of their native Miami into electro, they were most famous for their extensive and virtuoso use of the vocoder.

Freestyle are no longer working with Pretty Tony; instead they have teamed up with producer Debonaire who himself has left a mark on the world as a pioneer of Miami Bass music and who has also been in the business for a good twenty years now. The results of the cooperation are sounding very familiar – which is a great relief (if you have heard Pretty Tony's latest works, you'll know what I mean). "Invade the party" could have been Freestyle ca. 1986 ... well, only it is not as good as their classic material and the hooks are not on par with Freestyle's early hits.

But this would be an unfair comparison, and "Invade the party" is a good song after all. Debonaire is a true master of his craft, channeling enough Pretty Tony moments to satisfy old timers and invoke lots of early 80s flashbacks. There are the wonderful 808 tom-tom rolls from "Don't stop the Rock" (I'm a sucker for those), the congas, the floating bass sound and of course the sweet sweet vocoder. He injects just enough of his own trademark style to make it sound modern, resulting in a very balanced and rich production featuring lush – but never distracting – amounts of bass, some edits and the crystal clear sound of modern Miami. Again, he is channelling enough Debonaire moments to satisfy old timers – just listen to the carefully tuned 808 cowbells reminiscent of his classic Tricky D joint "Take it to the Max".

"Invade the party" is successfully fusing the melodic, funky and warm retro side of Freestyle with Debonaire's own, more technoid, dark and reduced sound. And it is an ironic twist that it might just be this modern aspect of the sound that is negating the tune's pop / crossover potential. In that respect, the virtual B-side comes as a great surprise.

"All these girls" featuring a guest appearance by the Egyptian Lover is a reinterpretation of Newcleus' "Computer Age" into a very modern and very catchy pop rap / r&b tune. You could argue that if "Invade the Party" mimicks a style, "All these girls" must be even more derivative cause it emulates a particular song – but you would be so wrong. The genius of Newcleus works as a catalyst that brings out the best potential in any of the elements, and suddenly everything falls into place. Is this the harbinger of a new style that can hold its own against the minimal electro productions that have dominated the r&b and pop world for the past years? Well, at the very least it is catchy as hell. And I'd argue it's the Egyptian Lover's best tune to date.

GET the new Freestyle EP directly from Debonaire's site.

Oh yeah, catch the Manu-Dibango-via-Michael-Jackson reference? They must have said to themselves, "If Rihanna can do it, we can too (and better)". Indeed: Mamase Mamasa Mamamakossa!

Montag, 13. April 2009

DJ Jaguarskills - 30 Years of Hip Hop Mix

British DJ Jaguarskills played this mix on his BBC Radio 1 radio show just a few days ago. It features 500+ tracks, ordered by year, in just under an hour. Jaguarskills is notorious for taking up impossible projects like this one - in 2006 he already shocked the world with a similar undertaking, his "world record mix" of 800 tracks in 48 minutes.

With about 6 seconds per song it doesn't do the individual tracks much justice, but that's probably not what he was aiming at. It's more like a gigantic namedropping, with each tune being just a tease. That said, I don't have much to complain about it. It is mixed extremely well and with the resulting time-lapse view, it does a great job at showcasing the style changes over the range of 30 years.

Surprisingly, I didn't have as many "Why didn't he include X ?!" moments as I expected. Not sursprisingly, the quality takes a downturn during the second half. But you wouldn't have expected me to say otherwise, would you?

Take a look at the MASSIVE tracklist over at BBC.

DOWNLOAD the mix here.

Jaguarskills has his own blogspot address where he frequently posts his own mixes.

Freitag, 10. April 2009

First Months Recap / Late Editorial

Dear readers,

thank you for your company during my first months of blogging experience! At first I had thought of the blog simply as a medium to promote my (Cosmic Rockers) tunes and provide a little background information. Instead, the whole project has turned into an extensive hip hop historiography of sorts. I will continue to shamelessly plug my own music from time to time, but the main focus will be on analyzing 80s (and some early 90s) hip hop and electro music ... with enough space dedicated to unrelated stuff I feel like covering.

I would like to encourage all readers (even if you just stumbled upon one of the posts by accident) to leave a comment! The feedback I got so far has been tremendously motivating for me ... it's good to know that there's actually someone out there who is reading this. Also, don't hesitate to correct me or disagree with me - much of what I write is either my own opinion or some dodgy theory that could use a bit of discussion.

Martin / Cosmic Rockers

Sonntag, 5. April 2009

Street Sounds - Nu Electro 1

This news already has the underground buzzing with excitement: Morgan Khan is resurrecting his influential Electro series and will soon be releasing the first installment of a new "Nu Electro" series.

The original Electro compilations were crucial (pun intended) in bringing hip hop to Europe in the early 80s. This was a time when hip hop was still an underground phenomenon. Most of the early records were only released in limited quantities in the US and were impossible to find in Europe (if you ever heard of them at all). Instead of importing them, Morgan Khan licensed the tracks and compiled them on megamix-style records. For the first time, electro and hip hop were widely accessible and were able to cross over from underground to the mainstream in Europe – especially in the UK where the first Electro compilation even entered the pop charts at #18.

The series was probably the single most important contribution to Europe's perception of hip hop culture, creating a paradigm of its own which was somewhat different from its US blueprint. For us Europeans, the Electro compilations were the main source of information and therefore considered canonical. We didn't ask why those particular songs were selected – they had to be influential cause they were on the compilation, when it really was their being on the compilation that made them influential in the first place. That's why, among European listeners, there might be lenghty conversations about the merits of tunes like Star Raid, D.E.F. Momentum or Techno City while US hip hop heads don't even know these tunes. An even bigger source of controversy is the term "electro" coined by the series. This wasn't merely a question of taxonomy, of inventing a new name for an existing phenomenon. It meant the creation of a genre that didn't (and as many argue, still doesn't) exist in the US, giving rise to the sort of misunderstandings that two members of different language communities would be facing. Check out a stereotypical US (hip hop) vs. UK (electro) dialogue:

Picking favorites is an impossible task as each one of the compilations featured a number of great tracks. Electro 2 arguably has the best mix, starting out with raw and minimal rap by the B-Boys before exploding into colour with Xena's pre-freestyle "On the upside" and Hashim's mysterious "Al Naafiysh". Crucial Electro 1 probably has the most impressive tracklist. New York vs. LA beats was seminal cause it introduced the West Coast sound of electro to the world.

Later in the 80s, the Street Sounds label went bankrupt, largely due to Morgan Khan's ill-fated endeavors with his own Street Scene magazine. From today's perspective the downfall of the Electro series was only reflecting the downfall of electro music: By that time, hip hop had entered the Golden Age, and sampling had come to replace the 808- and synth-driven electronic tunes of the early 80s.

While electro was pretty much dead or at least hibernating by the end of the 80s, Miami bass and freestyle took over and carried the torch for some time. The rigid formal constraints of the genres prevented further evolution, which allowed freestyle and bass music to survive until today. But it also made them turn into clichés being caught in the respective ruts of car audio music or cheesy synth hooks over the same regurgitated planet rock beat.

The late 90s saw a resurgence of the electro sound. All of a sudden, the classics were being played again in clubs and the media picked up on the hype. At the same time, a wave of new producers invented what became known as New School Electro: a darker, technoid and sinister version of electro funk created by artists like Drexciya, Dopplereffekt, Anthony Rother or Aux 88. However, this was a short-lived phenomenon. By the year 2000 electro had once again faded into obscurity.

In the last couple of years though, it seems as if the table has turned again. Pop cultural references (Missy Elliot, Fergie ...), some pioneers' returns (Newcleus, Debonaire ...) and a number of new artists tapping the old school sound all point towards a renewed interest in electro.

It seems too early for any further judgement. As Hegel remarked, "the owl of minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk." Indeed, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Like any aesthetic phenomenon, musical style is time-bound. Even the most beautiful electro funk tune released in 2009 has close to zero historical relevance compared to the early 80s when the sound and the technical side of it were fresh, bold and exciting. The most it can be is good music. But then again, that is more than nothing. Facing the all-pervasive crisis of today's pop music, maybe we can only move forward by delivering tradition anew from the conformism which is overwhelming it, by setting alight the sparks of hope in the past. Only time will tell.

A review of Street Sounds Nu Electro 1 is going to follow as soon as it's out.