1. So the New York Times is going ahead with a payment wall for its website. I still say this is a bad business decision. Newspapers have always made more money on advertising than on sales, and newspapers that force readers to pay for online content will significantly harm their advertising numbers without bringing in a lot of subscription revenue. The New York Times is about to get much smaller.
1. Forest Hills. I don't know these people but I feel like I do.
1. S. A. Griffin, a Los Angeles poet, actor, beatnik and longtime friend of LitKicks, is going to be filling the shell of a bomb with pages of poetry and touring the USA with it in 2010.
2. Here's another bombshell: the conglomerate that publishes Kirkus, a book review magazine, has been unable to sell it and will shut it down instead. Kirkus has a big presence within the book industry because it publishes early capsule reviews of many books, and is only known to most readers as the source of countless back-cover blurbs. It's unclear where publishers will now go to fill this back-cover blurb space. Here's more on the Kirkus shutdown from one of their freelancers.
(Please welcome Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading blogger and founder of The Quarterly Conversation, with a review of the latest by a LitKicks favorite.)
The more I listen to Jay-Z's music these days, the more I find myself accepting the fact that he's long since run out of things to say. I've been listening to Blueprint 3 all week and by now the conclusion is inescapable.
Make no mistake: I'm a fan of Jay-Z. As an entertainment phenomenon, the man is simply amazing. He's charismatic, he's a shrewd businessman, he spawned Kanye West. There's a reason why Jay has managed to defy gravity and stay on top for well over a decade while Eminem and 50 Cent and Tupac and Biggie and Puff Daddy (or whatever the hell he calls himself these days) and just about anyone else you can name has come and gone from the hip-hop limelight. They guy has more number one albums than Elvis, and you don't see that every day.
So Jay has accomplishments for days, and I give him due credit. But all the same, his accomplishments only make it all the more amazing that he's managed to keep himself going for so long after he's pretty much run out of things to talk about.
Let's quantify this a bit. By my score, the last album where Jay actually had something new to say was The Black Album. The reason for this is obvious: this was going to be his swan song (though who really believed that?), so Jay was quite inspired to rap about how much we'd miss him once he was gone and how he was going out as the greatest rapper ever. I, for one, really believe that Jay actually thought this was going to be it, so it completely makes sense that he'd have a lot he wanted to say. And he did. "Allure" and "My First Single" were particularly inspired tracks -- Jay was getting philosophical on us, and you could taste the mixed feelings as he remembered how he came up and bid the rap game goodbye. "What More Can I Say" remains one of his best full-length outbursts of lyrical aggression, "Public Service Announcement" had like 3 different conversations going on at once, and let's not forget "99 Problems." Even on the lesser tracks like "Threats" and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" Jay was trying to pack a lot of thought into each song.
You would think that after being off for three years (and let's not forget that when he released The Black Album Jay-Z had been pumping out an album per year for some time), Jay would have a lot of thoughts stored up for his return to the rap game. You would think. By now most of us can agree that Kingdom Come was a thrilling event because it meant Jay was rapping again, but as an album it was as spotty as anything since Vol. 2. True, there were some battle tracks where Jay-Z was bringing the heat like the old days, and he got some mileage out of his affair with Beyonce, but, c'mon, a whole song as an open letter to Emory Jones? A second mamma song? ("December 4th" was really enough.) Rapping with Usher about women in striptease gym classes?
In Kingdom Come Jay-Z was a man without a whole lot to say. It's my opinion that Jay's best topic has always been Jay, and that's cool because he's a pretty interesting guy, but by Kingdom Come it was wearing especially thin. And it says something that that after quitting rap, being Def Jam CEO, and going through enough rap withdrawal to come back, the best statement Jay could make about these three years was "The Prelude," a nice track to be sure but not nearly as interesting as Jay's best Black Album-era introspective raps. Even his Katrina track was basically the same stuff African American leaders had been saying for years ... it just didn't have any of the flavor or intensity or plain old bite of someone like Nas talking politics.
Kingdom Come's decidedly lackluster spirit makes it all the more notable that when Jay returned to form -- and American Gangster must certainly be his most consistent, most interesting album since Reasonable Doubt -- it was basically by reliving the album that kicked off his career. I'm not going to knock Jay for taking it back to '96 since, honestly, Jay-Z reliving his glory days was far more interesting than 90% of what was going on in rap in 2007, but in American Gangster he didn't say anything he hadn't already said. True, he said it differently (Jay's style has evolved a lot since those days), and, true, he said it from a very different vantage point, but it was still basically Jay talking about being a drug dealer. The thing was, it worked! It's one of the few Jay-Z albums with absolutely no filler, and the guy is rapping like a fiend. But he wasn't saying anything new. Nope. This was Jay talking about selling drugs, and he's already said that ad nauseum. This was an album built on sheer cadence and charisma, a master doing what he does best, but not doing anything new.
Which brings us to Blueprint 3. Already, the title has to make any fan a little uneasy. Blueprint 1 was a four-mic album at best. (No matter how often Jay tells people it's "commonly regarded" as a classic, it's not. Any album with "Izzo" on it is immediately disqualified, but if you need more there's also the decidedly average "Hola' Hovito" and "Jigga That Nigga.") But whatever. Blueprint 1 is solid material, but Blueprint 2 was so mediocre that Jay decided to chop it down into a comparatively svelt 2.1 version without all the crap. (And still, 2.1 was pretty weak broth ...) If you can chart trends, then the evolution from Blueprint 1 to Blueprint 2 does not bode well for Blueprint 3, and indeed, 3 isn't a great piece of music. It's like Kingdom Come without the few marginally interesting songs about Jay-Z's personal life that made that a tolerable album.
First things first: yes, "D.O.A." is as good as any single you'll hear this year. No I.D. has produced a simply ridiculous beat, and Jay is certainly inspired to tear it up. But then look at the drop off from that to "Run This Town." Instead of being a 1-2 punch like "Ruler's Back"/"Takeover" we get lyrics like "This is Roc Nation, pledge your allegiance / Get y'all fatigues on, all black everything / Black cards, black cars, all black everything." It's a testament to Jay's inner Fonz that he can make lame junk like that sound vaguely inspiring, how can you even compare those lyrics to something like "Don't let 'em gas you like Jigga is ass and won't clap you / Trust me on this one -- I'll detach you / Mind from spirit, body from soul / They'll have to hold a mass, put your body in a hole."
The first few tracks of any Jay-Z album are typically the best. He's flexing his muscles, he's bragging, and Jay-Z's strength has always been the brag: the man is strongest when he combines his brags with his oft-told tale of overcoming adversity, which then permits his to wax on about how good it is to be Jay-Z. (Kanye West appears to have absorbed this lesson.) Blueprint 3 is no different. The first four track are the big brag tracks, and they're all fairly decent (even if Jay as a postmodern feudal lord in the "Run This Town" video is just plain weird). But from there on, the brags sound notably lame, and repetitive. There's far too much here where Jay sounds bored, reciting lifetime sales figures, reminding you how much cash he has, etc. It’s not creative and it's certainly not new, and if Jay can't even carry his braggadocio through an entire album, something is seriously wrong.
But as diminished as the brags are here, I have to say that hearing Jay-Z try to go beyond them makes me wish he'd stuck with what semi-worked. "Empire State of Mind" is such a blatant -- and blatantly failed -- attempt to one-up Nas that it makes me wonder if there's another beef brewing between them. "Real as It Gets" with Young Jeezy brings back ugly memories of the days when Jay and DMX tried to rap together. "Off That" simply confuses me, as does "Venus vs. Mars" (is this Jay-Z trying to get meta on us?). "So Ambitious" just reminds me what a great song "Allure" was, and "Young Forever" may be the worst track Jay has ever released. My God, Jay feels old on this track ... real old. It' s Jay-Z without his cool, and Jay-Z without his cool is like somebody's dad trying to do a Jay-Z imitation. "Young Forever" is such a bad track that it's hard to believe that Kanye West actually produced it. Kanye may be a spotty producer these days, but I've never heard him make something this far off the mark. (Speaking of ... there's absolutely no excuse for Kanye West to appear on two (TWO!) separate tracks here. The least he could have done was bring in some ghostwriters that didn’t stink.)
As sub-par an album Blueprint 3 is by any standard, the fact that it has the Jay-Z brand behind it means that it’s still by far a good enough album to sell a few million copies and keep fans hoping for something better. And this, unfortunately, seems to be what Jay-Z specializes in these days. I'm not going to pull a Bill Frist and try to diagnose Jay-Z via his latest TV appearances, but I get the impression that he's not just trying to sell records at this point. That is, I think the guy has enough sincere pride in his status as top dog that he wants to write the hottest stuff anywhere. And that belief forces me to conclude that American Gangster was a bit of a fluke, and that these days Jay just isn't inspired or creative enough to beat out his past efforts. When even his bragging is just a shadow of former brags, the man is out of juice. The rapper that once asked us all "What More Can I Say?" now appears to have an answer to that question. I for one will be anticipating Blueprint 4, or American Gangster 2, or whatever the hell it is that Jay tosses at us next, but I won't be expecting him to say anything new. By my count Shawn Carter has been out of ideas for at least three albums now, and I don't see why he'd suddenly start getting them again. The logic of the emcee who built his career on bragging about himself has finally run its course, and this is where it ends. I'm sure I'll still love the top three or four singles that come off of each album from here on, but I'll be surprised if Jay outdoes American Gangster.
Two authors whose previous novels were celebrated by the now-defunct Litblog Co-op have outdone themselves with their next books. I've read galleys of both Katharine Weber's True Confections and Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I'm happy to report that readers have a lot to look forward to in both cases.
Katharine Weber's last novel Triangle was about an industrial fire, a subject so stark it made her comic sensibility hard to catch (though, certainly, it was there). Her new novel is about a screwed-up family that owns a small candy empire, and it's a slender tour de force. I will be writing more about this book soon, and till then here's a side-product of Weber's research: an article in Tablet (formerly Nextbook) about Jewish families in the candy business.
Sam Savage, meanwhile, wrote a novel called Firmin that didn't break through in his home country but became a bestseller in Italy. Firmin was about a literary rat who suffers in loneliness, and new soon-to-be-released The Cry of the Sloth is about a literary human who suffers in loneliness. I will be writing more about this delightful and surprising book too.
On a different front, meanwhile, news has just come down that the Queens rapper Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) is writing a book about his life. I have very high hopes for this one. Q-Tip has been a brainy and sensitive lyricist from Description of a Fool to Stir It Up (he's also the only hip-hop artist I bother to continue to follow on twitter). I'm looking forward to reading his entire story, and I hope there's a lot about his friendship and collaboration with the equally talented Phife Dawg.
What else am I looking forward to? Sure, what the hell, I'm going to read the new Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol when it comes out. Dan Brown is no Katharine Weber or Sam Savage ... but Da Vinci Code kept me going till the end, and I'm intrigued by the new book's Washington D.C. locale.
I like everything Jonathan Ames does, though I don't think he's ever equaled Wake Up Sir!, his perfect homage to P. G. Wodehouse. His new essay collection The Double Life is Twice as Good didn't win the approval of Carolyn Kellogg, but I bet his new HBO tv show Bored to Death will be more exciting.
Jag Bhalla's I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around The World looks like a fun read.
Sue William Silverman's Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir is reminding me to work on my own memoir, which will probably pick up again next week. I've enjoyed the break, but it's time to get back to work.
And if you aren't interested in any of these good books but just want to relish the joys of really bad (funny bad) books of the past, go to the Awful Library Books blog and have a feast.
1. Some Internet memes are meant to last more than a day or two. Like everybody else, I watched the moving Susan Boyle performance on YouTube earlier this week, and then I watched it again and again. What makes this so special? The quality of her singing alone doesn't account for the craze (and maybe that's why there's already a backlash brewing). What makes the performance so magical, I think, is the transformation we are allowed to witness. Before Susan Boyle sings, she appears dowdy, foolish, out of place. Then the music starts, her spine straightens and she becomes a different person, beautiful, elegant, confident, before our eyes.
Screw the backlash; I plan to watch this video at least ten more times. And thinking about Susan Boyle's televised metamorphosis makes me realize how often the appeal of music has to do with the excitement of transformation. With that in mind, here are a few more recent notes on music, literary and otherwise.
2. Inspired by an apparent nod from Bob Dylan, I've now begun reading Southern writer Larry Brown, who I'd previously only occasionally read about on a blog. I couldn't find the short story collection Big Bad Love in my local Borders, but I did find a novel called Dirty Work and it's excellent. It's very easy to imagine why Dylan would like this writer (the highly literary singer has also been reading and talking about Barack Obama's book).
3. I get many review copies of books in the mail, and not nearly as many CDs. A publicist for the Decemberists sent me their new CD Hazards of Love because it was supposed to have lots of literary content. After several intrigued listenings, I still can't quite make out the story (which seems to involve a rake's progress and a twisted love affair) but I love the music. It reminds me of nothing so much as vintage Jethro Tull -- dynamic, lilting and appealingly histrionic -- with a touch of late-period David Bowie, and I sure as hell do mean that as a compliment. Check it out for yourself.
4. There's nothing wrong with Neil Young's new automotive-inspired CD Fork in the Road either. Shades of Rust Never Sleeps, except now it's an ecologically-minded LincVolt rather than a sedan that's being delivered.
5. The new Jadakiss record includes "What If", a sequel to his great track "Why" that features a guest verse by Nas. I wouldn't mind two or three more verses, but Jadakiss has never been one to wear out his welcome.
6. He got erased from history in the otherwise good film Cadillac Records, but late great Chess recording artist Bo Diddley has another distinction: Malia and Sasha Obama's dog is named after him.
7. Xeni Jardin points to the always transformative Patti Smith on Easter Sunday.
8. An archived Ramones performance from Steve Wozniak's 1982 California bash the US Festival.
9. A new David Lynch video meditates upon Moby.
10. A four-year-old kid channeling Keith Moon.
11. A bunch of girls jumping rope.
If not one of these various offerings manages to transform you, I don't know what to say.
It seems to me that, at issue here is not the morality of the Legislators, but that of the pages: can we not fill these positions with young folks who can just say “no”?
We might note that Illegal immigrants, are, as the term implies, first and foremost, immigrants, which is to say, that they forfeited any claim on our compassion even before they broke the law.
Charles H. P. Smith is the creation of Pinteresque playwright David Mamet, author of confrontational plays like Glengarry Glen Ross, Sexual Promiscuity in Chicago and Speed-The-Plow and films like Wag the Dog, and will be played by Nathan Lane in a Broadway play called November (it's now in preview at the Barrymore Theatre). The blog, written in Smith's character, appears to be Mamet's own handiwork.
2. This was unexpected: a film called G, directed by Christopher Scott Cherot, transposes F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to the modern-day Hamptons, where a P. Diddy-like hip-hop mogul named Summer G. Jones (Jay Gatsby) pines for an old girlfriend named Sky Hightower (Daisy Buchanan) who is married to a high-rolling cad named Chip Underwood (Tom Buchanan).
The film captures some of the book's details well. We see the tawdry love story unwind through the eyes of a semi-involved narrator like Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway (here he's a smooth Toure-like hip-hop journalist named Tre), and this device provides the same wry distance here as in the book. The crowded love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom remains at the core of the story, and the actors play the roles with some conviction. There are a few attractive harbor shots of boats beating ceaselessly against the current.
But then the film unconsciably changes the ending, so that the wrong major character gets shot and dies. This is a bizarre choice and a major violation of the story's integrity, especially since it cheats the story of the great final sequence: the arrival of the downtrodden father, the discovery of Jay Gatz's notebooks, the desolate funeral. A fatal mistake, I say, but you still may want to check this film out. Here's another review of the film.
3. I caught a documentary tribute to the great ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music on late-night TV. This documentary combines a collage-form summary of the eclectic cultural anthropologist's life as well as a series of stirring performances of folk songs by the likes of David Johansen, Nick Cave, Philip Glass and Lou Reed. This film is directed by Rani Singh, who worked with Harry Smith (and is also an old friend of mine, though I haven't seen her in years). She does great work with this fascinating material.
Speaking of David Johansen, I wish he'd put out a third Harry Smiths CD, because the first two were damn great. Here's an article about him by Tom Watson at NewCritics.com.
And, speaking of folk music, you also won't go wrong with The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, featuring performances from 1963 to 1965 in crisp picture and sound. The much-discussed electric coming-out in 1965 is an anti-climax; the many acoustic performances before it are a revelation. Anybody who still thinks Bob Dylan has an inferior voice, rather than one of the most expressive voices in popular music, needs to listen to this version of Only A Pawn In Their Game.
4. On public television this month: Today's Man, a brave, funny, upsetting and raw cinema verite look at a modern upper-class New York City family that revolves around an adult with severe Asperger's Syndrome. Nicky Gottlieb is brilliant, joyful and strangely as self-aware as any New York City adult (which may not be saying much) ... but he can't commune with the outside world without breaking every unwritten rule the rest of us naturally understand. As his sister Lizzie Gottlieb's cameras roll, Nicky tries to get a job (that doesn't work out well at all), tries to convince his Mom that watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is still good for him (she gives in), and sings Gilbert and Sullivan. It all adds up to an enlightening look at a growing psychological phenomenon of our time, and a highly meaningful phenomenon for anybody interested in examining how an individual reacts to society.
There's also a big literary tie-in here: Nicky Gottlieb's father, who appears quietly throughout the film, is Robert Gottlieb, one of the most influential book editors of the 20th Century (and, for a short time, the editor of the New Yorker).
5. Good news for Burroughsians: a filmmaker named Jonathan Leyser is moving towards completion of a major documentary on the life of William S. Burroughs. I met Leyser and got a good feeling about this project. There are successful documentaries of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac out there, and I think a film that explains WSB to curious viewers will similarly fill a real need.
Leyser would like to hear from anybody with relevant contributions regarding the life of William S. Burroughs; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and here's an article about his project.
Along with EPMD, this book will bring you memories and surprising factoids from Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, M. O. P., Beastie Boys, Run-DMC (of course), Biz Markie, Digable Planets, Keith Murray, Das EFX, KRS-One, Cypress Hill, Marley Marl, Redman and Onyx. I got a chance to interview the supreme interviewer myself, and found Mr. Coleman ready to compare notes on many topics relative to the state of hiphop and hiphop poetry today.
Levi: Let's start by focusing here on the lyrical content of the great old school hiphop you profile in your book. Of all the artists you cover, which are the ones you admire most strictly as lyricists? Can you share some examples of hiphop lyrics that mean a lot to you, and tell us why?
Brian: You can't discuss hip-hop music without going into lyrical content, so that's obviously always going to be a big part of any fan's appreciation -- me included. From my own standpoint there are two kinds of lyricists who have always impressed me: (1) MCs who are more straight-forward and have a lot to say and get their points across in a powerful way and, (2) technical MCs who just kick your ass with the complexity of their rhymes. If group #2 also has a lot to say and gets their points across, then that's obviously the ultimate.
From the first group I'll point to Chuck D and Ice-T as two of the ultimate examples. They never tried to get all tongue-twisting or never went for style over substance. They both spoke as much as they rapped (Chuck was just a bit more powerful, mostly because his voice is just so deep and strong), telling tales and speaking their mind. I'd point to a track like Public Enemy's "Don't Believe The Hype" (from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Ice-T's "High Rollers" (from Power) as great examples of how to be a powerful lyricist -- talking to listeners by either telling great stories or just speaking your mind and engaging your audience.
From group #2 you'd have to put Rakim at the top of that list, as a technical, "scientifical" rapper who was incredibly complex but also had so much substance to his rhymes. For example just check out "Follow the Leader" from Eric B & Rakim's second album (Follow the Leader), among many other of his classics. Big Daddy Kane also falls into that category, just below Rakim. "I'll Take You There" from Long Live the Kane is a great case in point.
And the musical portion of any hip-hop track is a huge part, and all of the above had amazing tracks to rhyme over. Without that, they wouldn't be half as classic as they are. You have to have the mix.
Levi: I like it that your book hits on some of the literary connections in hiphop -- the fact that Phife Dawg learned poetry from his mom, the fact that Digable Planets reference Jorge Luis Borges. Do you think hiphop gets the respect it deserves from a literary/poetic point of view? And do you think this is a question that many of the top artists you've spoken to particularly care about, or not?
Brian: Hip-hop lyricists still haven't gotten the poetic respect they deserves, in my opinion. But I don't think that a lot of the top lyricists out there -- people like Rakim, KRS-One, Q-Tip -- really care that they're not accepted as poets in the poetry community. They care that their fans and peers respect them as lyricists. But I definitely think it's due to ignorance in the older academic or poetry community (or whatever term people would use to describe it) if there is that kind of disconnect. A lot of especially older academics seem to have a view of hip-hop like it's just a bunch of thug kids playing loud music and that's the end of it. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Younger poets and academics understand, because they grew up with hip-hop music. And they are the reason that hip-hop studies in academia continue to grow. I challenge any poet out there to go up against Rakim or Sadat X [from Brand Nubian] in a one-on-one a capella showdown, they'd lose. It may not be in the form they're used to, but like it or not, rappers -- at least the most talented ones -- are poets, no way to deny that.
Levi: What was the first hiphop record that grabbed you (and I'm going to disallow "Rapper's Delight" as an answer)? And how did you become involved in hiphop journalism?
Brian: I was only nine when "Rapper's Delight" came out, so I never heard that song until many years after that. And honestly I'm not 100% sure about the first hip-hop record that grabbed me. Unlike a lot of the artists in the book, I don't have that one moment when it all clicked for me in the beginning. My journey into hip-hop was a gradual one. I definitely remember loving the first Run-DMC album and I must have heard "Rock Box" first, and seen the video on MTV, to be drawn to it.
I was also a big fan of one of the most slept-on hip-hop groups of the early-to-mid '80s, the Fat Boys. Their first two records were both very popular and are both pretty amazing, and I loved both of them. Throughout the '80s I just kept paying more and more attention to hip-hop and it became more and more a part of my record collection -- alongside the rock (mostly punk) that I was listening to concurrently.
Regarding my foray into journalism, that was more by accident. It basically boiled down to the fact that I really just wasn't finding enough coverage of hip-hop in Boston media in the mid-'90s, so I took matters into my own hands. There was one guy in town who knew what was up -- Ken Capobianco from the Boston TAB, who still does lots of great work for the Boston Globe. But other than that, it was really sketchy and I thought that was ridiculous. So I just started writing for a local monthly paper called Boston Rock, for free. Covering groups like the Roots when they first started making waves, Organized Konfusion, that kind of stuff. That led to stints with Boston Phoenix, CMJ Weekly, CMJ Monthly and into national hip-hop mags like XXL and Scratch. It's been gradual and random and I've loved every minute of it. Right now I'm a bit bored writing magazine reviews and articles -- books are where I'd like to be. 500-word pieces don't really do it for me anymore.
Levi: Judging from the interviews in your book, it seems that different hiphop artists have widely varying approaches to being interviewed. For instance, I got the feeling that A Tribe Called Quest would have talked to you all day, whereas EPMD didn't seem to want to get too analytical or share too much. What strategies did you use to get the best interviews possible from these artists?
Brian: Actually, I think EPMD would have talked to me for a lot longer, but they were just really busy at the time I did those interviews, especially Erick Sermon. But even despite that, both of those guys gave me a lot of great info and I loved talking to them.
The thing I love about all the chapters in the book is that they each have their own personality. There's no set structure (although most of them are the same -- the Boogie Down Productions one is a notable exception), no set word count. They each just happen like they happen, and the quality of each is determined by how much time I'm able to spend with each artist.
My only real strategy in talking to the artists is really just talking to them person-to-person, on the same level. Not as fan-to-superstar or even journalist-to-interviewee. Of course I'm a fan and a journalist, and a lot of these artists are indeed superstars, but I try and push that to the side whenever I can. Surprisingly, every one of these artists seem to be fine with that.
The way I see it, they've all done way too many interviews in the past that kiss their ass and just stay on the surface, so they all seem to find going in-depth like I try and do a refreshing change. I think that's too bad, that they aren't used to really digging into an interview. But I really have one rule -- I won't talk to artists on their "press days" when they have 10 interviews lined up and they just bang them out one after the other. That's a horrible way to do an interview, although it's obviously a necessity if you're a big, in-demand star. But I'd rather wait a month or two (or more) to get a real interview, rather than take a 15-minute slot.
Levi: Did you feel intimidated by any of these artists? Are there any hiphop artists so great that you would be too nervous to interview them?
Brian: I'd be totally full of shit if I didn't admit to being intimidated by some of these artists at first, just the thought of interviewing them. But not because I'm star-struck, because that's one thing I've never been. It's more because I just have so much respect for them and because their music means so much to me. So people like Chuck D or Ice-T or Rakim definitely got my butterflies going. But not for long ... once things got going that all went away. And, in fact, those guys were some of the most fulfilling interviews I've ever done. That's not surprising, though, because all of them are huge fans of hip-hop, and fans always have great conversations with other fans. That's really the dialogue I'm trying to get going -- to get the artists to, at times, step outside themselves as the artist and look at what they've done on a more objective level. To look at their albums like I look at them, as a fan.
Levi: Finally, if you don't mind I'd like to bounce a theory of my own off you. Obviously, your book pays respect to old school hiphop, but I've been wondering if possibly the current decade, rather than the decades before, will go down in history as the greatest decade for hiphop.
Now, before you tell me I'm crazy, here's the evidence: Jay-Z's Blueprint ... Dre's 2001 ... 50 Cent's first (and only good) album ... D-Block ... Fat Joe ... Mike Jones. Do you think the hiphop of today stands a chance of being remembered as equal to the legendary era, or not? And do you think you'll ever write a book about the hiphop that's on the radio today?
Brian: In my opinion, someone would be treading on thin critical ice by comparing D-Block or 50 Cent with actual hip-hop trailblazers like Public Enemy or Wu-Tang Clan ... I would have to respectfully disagree with anyone that said that the last decade's music can stand up to the innovation and artistry as the groups covered in Check the Technique [1986 - 1996].
And I think it's important to point out one thing: selling great numbers of records doesn't mean you're a great artist. It means that you're making music that people want to buy, for whatever reason. A lot of major label artists, in my opinion, have gotten it in their head that sales are more important than skills. Which is fine if you want to be rich. But don't equate record sales with artistic greatness. De La Soul and Vanilla Ice both went platinum back in the day. Are they both great artists?
On the other side of the coin, the other aspect of what makes artists and albums classics is how much impact they had -- on the industry as a whole, and on the music and artists that came in their wake. Will Mike Jones or Kanye have as much impact as Das Efx or Pete Rock & CL Smooth or the Geto Boys did? Maybe. Ask me in another five or ten years. I hold out hope that some of the stuff coming out today holds up in another five years and ten years. Every artist in Check the Technique does, to me at least. That's why they're in there.
As I've said in other interviews, as far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be much reward in 2007 in the major label game (aka the stuff people hear on the radio) for being original or being great. In fact, if you want to get on -- or stay on -- a major label, you generally get demerits for being different and going against the grain. Outkast, Timbaland and the Neptunes are exceptions, but they've all had to put up with a lot of bullshit in the industry before they got their current "carte blanche" status. It's probably no surprise that those are the kinds of artists I'm drawn to -- innovators, whether they sell a ton of records or not. When you can innovate and get paid, then that's the best thing possible. I don't have much respect for rich rappers who don't have any real skills.
So ... sorry D-Block or Diplomats or Ying Yang Twins, don't wait around for my call about the next volume or the book. (I'm sure they'll be heartbroken!)
Brian Coleman will be appearing in New York City on August 9 and in Philadelphia (with Q-Tip) on August 18. Check his website for more info.
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
1. STRICTLY BUSINESS
A swirling blast from a wind tunnel breaks into I Shot The Sheriff, and we hear the distinctively unsmooth voice of Erick Sermon -- the E of EPMD -- for the first time. E's thick, flat enunciation is what makes this duo's sound so recognizable (the other rapper is P, or Parrish Smith of E and P Making Dollars, who can rap as well as E, though you don't spot his voice a mile away like you do with E's).
Erick Sermon likes to rhyme. The fact that he doesn't have a great voice isn't going to stop him, and he takes lines like this at double speed:
Yo, yo, you're still pickin' on that four-leaf clover?
Bring in the sandman, sucker, because it's over
My name is Erick Sermon and I'm back again
I see the heads still turnin' of my so-called friends
They smile in my face, behind my back they talk trash,
Mad and stuff because they don't have cash
Like the E-Double or the PMD
He drives a Corvette, I drive a Samurai Suzuki
It's E's erratic rapping that makes this duo work. You can almost hear his tongue tripping over itself, but the sly, dexterous rapper always manages to pull it off, and this stuttering style keeps you wondering what's going to happen on the next rhyme. Or the next track:
"Strictly Business" was good, but the second track is a masterpiece. Parrish Smith kicks off "I'm Housin'" with a tale of a neighborhood battle:
P. Coolin' in the scene like a horse in a stable
Brother got ill and tried to snatch the fat cable
I stepped back like it wasn't no thing
Punched him in the jaw with the fat gold ring
I had an ace in the hole when it came to that
E: Yo, P, you was packing?
P: You know I'm strapped
The story comes off as unintentionally hilarious because you don't really believe for a minute that this happened. As in many hiphop songs, the tension in these lyrics is enhanced by the visible gulf between the rapper and the character the rapper is playing. They play it up all the way here. After P exits the conflagration by spraying gunfire, E seems impressed:
E: What a way to go out
out like a sucker
Of course, anybody can tell that these guys are more interested in sampling vinyl than shooting guns, and I really doubt that Parrish Smith ever killed a bunch of guys, but somehow this doesn't harm the song a bit.
3. LET THE FUNK FLOW
The Beastie Boys "Let It Flow" is chopped up to create the backbeat for this track. "Let the Funk Flow" introduces one of EPMD's singature lines:
Lounge homeboy, you in the danger zone
which will appear twice more on this album.
4. YOU GOTS TO CHILL
Beat: perfect. Bassline: perfect. Lyrics ...
Relax your mind, let your consciousness free
and get down to the sound of EPMD
and you should keep quiet while the MC raps
and if you're tired then go take a nap
Destroy and employ
You're rhymes I avoid
Never sweatin' your girl
E: Why, P?
P: cause she's a skeezoid
This track also brings out the echo machine for the first time, to epic effect.
5. IT'S MY THING
This is the song. If you only listen to one EPMD track in your life, make it this one. We begin with the whirl of a helicopter's propellors, and then the repeating samples fall into place: "It's My Thing" ... "Goddam" ... "Louder!" ...
E: Style of the rap makes your hands clap
Take care of myself because the lines are strapped
They mean business, no time for play
If you bite a line, we'll roll your way
The more you bite, your body gets hot
Don't get too close, because you might get shot
Gnawin at my rhyme like a poisonous rat
Don't play dumb, boy, you're smarter than that
P: The rhythmatic style, keeps the rhyme flowin
Good friends already bitin, without you knowin
Can't understand, why your body's gettin weaker
Then you realize, it's the voice from the speaker
The mind become delirious, situation serious
Don't get ill, go and get curious
E: Nuff about that, let's get on to something better
And if gets warm, take off the hot sweater
And if you want some water, I'll get you a cup
And if you don't want it, then burn the hell up
I'm tellin you now boy, you ain't jack
Talking much junk like Mr. T at your back
but he's not, so don't act cute
Cause if you do you in hot pursuit
Everything works right on this astounding and highly danceable track.
6. YOU A CUSTOMER
How can they follow "It's My Thing"? Well, here comes Erick:
E: Knick knack paddy wack, give the dog a bone
Yo, don't give him nothing but a microphone
Don't stop, I'm not finished yet
You said I'm not the E? You wanna make a bet?
Remember this? "Lounge, you in the danger zone"
I figured you would, now leave me alone
Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle" provides an eerie backing track that works better than it has any right to.
7. THE STEVE MARTIN
This track totally dates the CD, because Parrish spends most of it explaining that he wants to replace the recent "Pee Wee Herman" dance craze (this was the 80's, my friends) with a craze of his own selection, based on Steve Martin in The Jerk. This is probably the worst song on the album, and I bet it's the one both members of the group wish they'd never put on this classic album. But even "The Steve Martin" turns great at the end when Sermon and Parrish start spontaneously yelling into the mic:
E: Awww yeah, Steve Martin in full effect
P: EPMD striking once again, funky fresh in the flesh
E: I think this is the last record on the album! We made it!
P: Yo, yo, what time is it
E: 1988 was so great ...
It's a great fadeout:
E: Cause we in there
and we're outta here
I don't even know what "outta here like gladiators" means, and I don't care. And, of course, despite yelling "I think this is the last record on the album", it's not. Three tracks left to go ...
8. GET OFF THE BANDWAGON
Many EPMD songs express a single theme: "stop biting my rhymes". Apparently, getting your rhymes bitten (stolen by other rappers) was a major hazard back in the 80's, and that's why this song exists. It's not the most inspired cut on the album, and even E seems confused at times:
While my volume was swaying, you were saying
"Who was that brother?" while the record was playing
I felt kinda happy like an ego trip
I had to lounge cause my image is hip
Or maybe he's just trying to come up with rhymes that nobody else can bite.
9. DJ LA BOSS
This is the obligatory "scratch song" that used to appear on all hiphop albums, in which they all tried to prove they could rock a party like Eric B on "Eric B. Is President". DJ La Boss was EPMD's original D.J., and this track is all him. Scratching solos don't always translate well to albums, so it's good that hiphop albums stopped including tracks like this ... hmm, right around the time this album came out.
This is probably the second best track on the album. It opens with a dialogue bit: Erick is refusing to take the album up to their producers, even though the recording is done, because, he says, "I gotta dis this girl". We then hear the long, sad saga of Jane, a fine woman with a haircut "like Anita Baker" who ended a night of wild love with a note telling Erick he had to be "better, bigger, stronger and much faster", to which P replies:
P: And you don't quit,
EPMD rock on with the funky shit!
And that's as far as they go with the sad story, since it's just another excuse to rhyme. In the world of EPMD, the only things that matter are the beats and the rhymes, and the never-ending struggle for respect in the land of the biters. Jane is a great choice for the closer on Strictly Business because it captures the combination of joy and humor and defiance that has made EPMD resonate with listeners like me for two decades.
Strictly Business is EPMD's first and best album. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith grew up together in Brentwood, Long Island, a fairly run-down suburban neighborhood about three miles from where I grew up (in the neighboring town of Hauppauge). E and P both mention Long Island frequently on this album, and they also name-check institutions like New York Tech, where P went to college. One of the most beloved rap groups of all time, EPMD kept their style fresh by never changing it much, always choosing great funky guitar beats to rhyme over, and avoiding the urge to act overly "hard core" in the gangsta era. The duo has broken up several times, sometimes bitterly, and their solo works include Erick Sermon's excellent Chilltown, which tells us:
I sound like me
You sound like Jay-Z
They also reunite occasionally, and this article was probably prompted by the fact that I am going to see them at B. B. King's on 42nd Street in Manhattan on October 14. I'm definitely psyched, and I'll be sure to file a report.