Saturday, 13 February 2010

Alexander McQueen and the rise of Shania Twain journalism

I don't know an awful lot about fashion, but I do know that anybody who's ever pulled on a pair of jeans for anything other than the purpose of manual labour is implicitly acknowledging certain things whether they like it or not. There's some proper "no shit, Sherlock" stuff coming up next, but please bear with me. Firstly, they are acknowledging that clothes can be more than just clothes in the most basic functional sense, and the things we wear make very specific statements about us, both as individuals and as a culture. By extension therefore, the people who create or model the stuff we end up wearing can be said to have a tangible influence upon society on all manner of levels. It may not be the most important, or even positive, of influences, but it's undeniably a significant one. You can find all the proof of this you'll ever need if you hang around the Oxford Street branch of Top Shop on any given Saturday. According to a friend of mine who works in the fashion business, it was well-known that Alexander McQueen, who was found dead on Thursday, had endured a grim few years on a personal level but, specifics aside, her view (and that of many others) was that the world of fashion had lost one of its brightest and most inspirational stars. She described him as "a genius in the vein of Yves Saint-Laurent; dark and troubled, but a romantic capable of great beauty". During Massive Attack's London gig later that evening, 3D dedicated Unfinished Sympathy to McQueen, similarly praising him as "an absolute genius".

Some people seem to have bristled at the use of this word in such a context, most notably Toby Young on the Hurleygraph's blog the following day. Rather like the once-omnipresent Canadian pop-country singer mentioned in the title above, Young wasted little time in declaring that the idea of McQueen being a 'genius' certainly didn't impress him much. Disguising his observations as an insight into the shallow world of the fashionista, he proceeded to beast McQueen over the course of a few hundred words. At the point he must have actually filed this tripe - the condensed version being "I met McQueen a few times and didn't like him", coupled with "the world of fashion is superficial" - McQueen probably hadn't even been dead 24 hours.

We see a lot of this sort of thing nowadays (thanks, Internet, but really, you needn't have), and here's how it usually goes. Person of note dies, people whose lives were in some way affected by dead person's work or life express sadness and grief on one hand, mad race to be first at letting the world know how unimpressed they are on the other. "Why all the fuss? He/she was just a pop singer/actor/fashion designer, and hardly a genius". As if only an Einstein could be such a thing and that it's unthinkable someone could be, within their very specific field of endeavour, a genius. In fact, this is more or less Young's opening point - Alexander McQueen? He just made frocks. Oscar Wilde and Jimi Hendrix? Now there's genius! Whilst I wouldn't argue with the latter point, you can always find someone, especially nowadays, who'll take against a well-established consensus for shits and giggles or, in some cases, with absolute sincerity. Such as the person who once insisted to me that Hendrix was simply an over-rated hack blues player, and that the Stone Roses' John Squire was by far the better guitarist. I swear to God.

It seems contrarianism is good for business, though, and in these straitened times people will do whatever it takes to get that money. Someone recently described the practitioners of this strain of lazy, bear-baiting, 'Shania Twain journalism' as "trollumnists", which I suppose is close enough for jazz. To me, it's just further depressing evidence of the general coarsening of public debate we find ourselves faced with; "freedom of speech" or "speaking one's mind" becomes the default justification for anyone in the business of spouting poorly-informed, insensitive, boorish crap. Elsewhere, in the Stygian depths of the comments sections, there's a bloody great hole through which anachronistic concepts like "common courtesy" are slowly draining away, while the malignant, paranoid ravings of what used to be known as The Silent Majority are cheerfully validated by a procession of lionhearted souls who supposedly speak truth to power but who are actually, for the most part, idiots. So, take a bow, Rod Liddle, Jeremy Clarkson, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Kelvin Mackenzie, Richard Littlejohn, etc., etc. You've all done very well. By the way, meet Toby.

You could argue, I suppose, that Young is merely shining a light on a world overly preoccupied with the transient and the trivial and calling for a little perspective in the process. If you were being extremely polite, that is. But how polite would you want to be towards someone whose familiarity with his subject extends little further than having been rubbed up the wrong way by him and his retinue at a few photo shoots many years ago, yet remains sufficiently slighted that he'd apparently use the guy's death as an opportunity to exact some kind of revenge? Throw in a handful of cliches as applicable to the rag trade as the world of haute couture, add a few back-handed compliments about McQueen's "creative flair" (but no real talent, eh, Toby? Just "prima donna-ish...force of personality"), and hit "send". Someone on Young's Twitter feed complimented him for his "courageous and funny" piece. If we're living in a world where sticking the boot in on the freshly dead can be described as "courageous and funny", then we're fucking doomed.

Nice as it is to be paid for having an opinion, I would hope there could still be some value placed upon holding your tongue once in a while. Especially when the person on whom you're offering your "verdict" has, literally, just died. But if you really feel you must be heard, then why not ask yourself a few questions first? Y'know, questions such as, "Is this person a mass-murderer, or a despot who's brought misery and hardship to millions?". How about, "Did this person, through his or her work as a pop singer or a fashion designer, contribute in some way to the gaiety of nations?". Once you've done that, you might want to do everyone a favour and consider this perennial of maternal wisdom - if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Friday, 5 February 2010

One Time For The Rebel, or; why you need some Son Of Bazerk in your life

Every year or so, I’ll dig out Son Of Bazerk’s one and only release, Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk, and usually I’ll end up playing nothing else for about a week. It's not super-obscure or anything – after all, it came out via a major label and, although long-deleted, you can still find second-hand copies on Amazon here and in the US. Nevertheless, I do feel it’s massively under-appreciated, despite loads of people being up on it and waving the flag for how good a record it is. One of its most committed champions is Questlove of The Roots. Questo has, on several occasions, declared it to be one of his favourite albums of all time, placing it “next to Pet Sounds, Nation Of Millions, 1999, Here My Dear and the similarly neglected debut album by Son Of Bazerk’s labelmates, The Young Black Teenagers who, some of you may recall, were neither black nor teenagers (that Chuck D – what a kidder, eh?). I wish I knew what happened to my copy of that one…

Son Of Bazerk featuring No Self Control and The Band (to give them their full, unexpurgated handle) grew out of a Long Island rap crew called The Townhouse 3, who were managed by Sugar Bear of Don’t Scandalize Mine fame. One of the crew, T.A. (Tony Allen), became tight with the emcee for Spectrum City, a local soundsystem who also did a radio show on WBAU, the campus station for Adelphi College in Hempstead. Spectrum City eventually became Public Enemy, their emcee Chuck D staying in touch with Allen, and when PE founded their short-lived S.O.U.L. imprint with MCA, Allen (now christened Son Of Bazerk) was one of the first signings. Joined by The Almighty Jahwell, Sandman, Daddy Rawe and Cassandra a/k/a MC Halfpint (collectively No Self Control) and a DJ, The Band, they got stuck into their first album with The Bomb Squad producing (Incidentally, in an epic rap nerd fail, I only recently learned that the enigmatic Carl Ryder, the Bomb Squad member who never gave interviews and was never photographed, was a pseudonym for Chuck D). Anyway, as I remember it, the concept behind SOB was something akin to Public Enemy through a James Brown Live At The Apollo/old-school soul revue filter, with the emphasis on cross-genre hyperactivity rather than the black radicalism which PE had brought to the forefront of rap at the time. Not that the militancy had been toned down all that much, mind you – Allen’s lyrics are still pretty forthright, and only a little less hard-hitting and tightly-focused than those of his mentor.

Generally, though, the main reason Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk is held in such high regard by those familiar with it is because of the production. Alongside the aforementioned YBT album and Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, it’s probably the zenith of the mid-period Bomb Squad sound, still chaotic, but not quite so densely-layered as the first couple of Public Enemy albums. Yet in spite of how it crams so many styles - hip-hop, funk, metal, blues, dancehall, soul, electro, hardcore and so on - into one record, sometimes even one song, it's still probably one of the funkiest and, idiomatically speaking, blackest-sounding records the Bomb Squad ever made. Listening to it now, it also sounds like a last, glorious hurrah for the era of “fuck it, we’ll sample anything” Wild West recklessness within the realm of hip-hop production, before Grand Upright Music Ltd v. Warner Bros Records, Inc. finally brought the shutters down on the copyright free-for-all that had become a hallmark of rap’s so-called Golden Age. I’m usually lairy of the rose-tinted nostalgia through which many rap fans of my generation (more or less) attempt to make sense of the music’s past, but all the same, I do miss the days when it was all still relatively new and underground, all bets were off, notions of what hip-hop was or wasn’t hadn’t yet been set in stone, and the whole thing wasn’t being sold to you as another lifestyle option by the same people who’d have held it at arm’s length a decade earlier. Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk kind of reminds me of that time. It’s certainly not the kind of record that could be made now, and while it’s perhaps fair to say that a record like this oughtn’t to be made now, it wouldn’t do any harm for someone to try and match it for ambition.

Obviously Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk barely sold a tap when it came out, and with hindsight that probably had as much to do with the way in which hip-hop was beginning to change as it did with how awkward it might have been to market an act like Son Of Bazerk, who didn't much look or sound like whatever else was out there. In 1991 the majors hadn’t yet figured out whether or not they could make money out of gangsta rap, and were thus more likely to get behind the next NWA than the pre-existing SOB. As it turns out, there was a second Son Of Bazerk album recorded in 1994 that was never released. MC Halfpint (now a schoolteacher) has a YouTube channel under the name ‘rebelsista’, and she’s posted up a few tracks from it. It’s decent stuff, too. The production – upright bass samples and Power Of Zeus boom-bappin’ drums – leans more toward that mid-90s T-Ray/Lord Finesse/DITC sound, but there are still a few Bomb Squad-ish touches, although I’ve no idea if they were involved. The most heartening thing about it, though, is that it still sounds like Son Of Bazerk, which proves that it wasn’t all the work of The Bomb Squad. Tough as it must be to impose your personality upon career-best beats by one of the greatest production teams in hip-hop history, SOB managed it, and made a hugely enjoyable record in the process.

For those of you who like happy endings, I’ve discovered whilst writing this that SOB have reunited and are working on new material with PE’s Johnny Juice Rosado producing.

“Five, ten, fif-teen, twenny, twenny-five, thir-teeee...”

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Is the ''one rapper/one producer'' hip-hop album on its way back?

Late last year, amongst the numerous attempts to summarise the decade before it ran out of road, one piece by Simon Reynolds on the Guardian’s music blog seemed to generate quite a bit of ire, as was perhaps to be expected of something decorated with the headline “When will hip-hop hurry up and die?” Echoing an earlier article in The New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones, Reynolds snottily attempted to wave away almost the entire decade, largely on the grounds that hip-hop had, in his eyes, floundered in its duty to pursue The New as an end in itself. Why he then flagged J-Kwon’s Tipsy – a Sainsbury’s Basics hip-pop knock-off of Grindin’ by The Clipse – as one of the decade’s high-water marks is all a matter of taste, I suppose, but it’s still a funny way to try and make an argument in favour of “more surprises…in terms of sound and style”.

In a later column, Reynolds went on to suggest that the widespread critical praise for Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt II (Time magazine called it the rap album of 2009) was somehow further evidence of the backward-facing creative stasis afflicting the music. Since the slender possibility of Reynolds paying much attention to anything rap-related this year is only likely to be matched by the increasing irrelevance of his disconnected musings, I'll say no more about him. The obsession some people have with The New above all else can be a bit tiresome, rather like the insistence that music should be “challenging”, “difficult” or “confrontational”. Personally, I’m happy enough for it just to be good, and to sound as though a bit of love and consideration has gone into it. If it also happens to sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before in my life, then so much the better, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, there’s a lot to be said for making sure you’ve got the fundamentals right, and three forthcoming rap releases suggest that, in some quarters, the creative focus could be returning to those very things.

A year or so ago, writing about Jake One’s album White Van Music, I hinted that a full-length collaboration with Freeway could be in the offing. Well, it’s finally here. The Stimulus Package is released in the US by Rhymesayers Entertainment two weeks from today (in an incredibly lavish package by Brent Rollins of Ego Trip fame/notoriety) and the pair’s buckshee mixtape from late last year, The Beat Made Me Do It, is still floating around as well. The latter is a good, solid listen – proper meat-and-potatoes rhyming over a grip of sample-heavy 80s r&b-flavoured beats, not too far removed from the boogie/modern soul flavour of Jake’s excellent A-R Music mixtape from a few years back. Whether or not The Stimulus Package follows a similar direction remains to be seen, but early reports are all positive. In any event, it appears Free has managed to put all that messy Roc/State Property business behind him and has adopted a Stakhanovite work ethic that’s resulted in some great music, especially over the last year or so. However, the anticipation this time around lies in hearing one great rapper vibing off one great producer, a combo that’s become increasingly rare in hip-hop. The age of guest-list rap albums with a multitude of names behind both the board and the mic may have helped disguise the comparative absence of strong, compelling personalities in hip-hop nowadays, but it’s also resulted in artist albums sounding like mixtapes, often lacking a clear or cohesive musical direction. How much this has to do with a shift in emphasis back towards rap’s roots as a singles-driven medium is anyone’s guess, but the way I see it is this; if you’re going to make an album, then make it sound like an album – something that can be listened to from end-to-end. Amidst the perpetual debate over whether old-school musical values are something to be cherished and maintained within hip-hop, or whether it’s all about looking forward and on-to-the-next-one, it’s easy to forget that the former approach resulted in some genuine classics, and there’s no real reason to believe it couldn’t do so again.

You get the feeling David Banner would agree. His forthcoming album, Death Of A Pop Star, also adopts the “one rapper/one producer” method, although it might surprise some people to learn that the Mississippi maverick (no mug as a producer himself) has stepped back from the board and brought in 9th Wonder to take care of the beats. Needless to say, this has resulted in some outrage amongst the hair-shirted “four elements” Taliban for whom 9th is something of a hero, one commenter on Nah Right even suggesting that the collaboration “might be the worst idea in music history”. Amusing as it is to observe the reaction when it dawns on a certain strain of rap fan that their heroes don’t necessarily share the same tastes as them, collaborations between performers with seemingly little in common are still fairly unusual. That said, from Crooked Lettaz onwards, Banner’s never been afraid to make room for thoughtful lyricism and musical diversity alongside “throw dem bows” raucousness, so perhaps this isn’t as awkward a fit as some are suggesting. Death Of A Pop Star’s broader concept is somewhat vague at this point, but for anybody seeking clues, Banner can be found most days enthusiastically talking up the project on his Twitter feed. There are also a couple of teaser/trailer-type things on YouTube, one of which (see above) shows the two of them, dressed buppie-style, playing chess in the library of some country pile. It looks a bit Ron Burgundy – “I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany” – and a teeny bit pretentious, but at least they’re making an effort. Certainly, on the evidence of the freshly leaked Slow Down and last year’s Something’s Wrong, there’s a distinct whiff of “grown-ass man rap” about the proceedings, which should bring a bit of much-needed balance to the hip-hop landscape. 9th’s beats are typically chocka with reconfigured soul samples, while Banner delivers the “I don’t know what this world is coming to” subject matter in characteristically declamatory fashion. Not sure quite when it’s out - there was talk of the pair making it available for free, but Banner has since poured water on this. However, he's offering fans and bedroom producers the chances to remix tracks from the album, the best of which will feature on a freebie remix album later in the year. All in all, this is looking like one to catch.

If these two albums do indeed represent a trend of sorts, then by rights Just Blaze and Saigon ought to have been at least 18 months ahead of it. When Just signed Saigon to his Fort Knocks imprint in 2005, it was on the back of probably the most impressive street buzz for a New York rapper since 50 Cent. Coming from more or less the same part of Jamaica, Queens as Fiddy, Saigon had also spent more than a little time on the corner and in the nick, but rather than choose the self-mythologising route favoured by Fiddy, Sai saw an opportunity to position himself as a somewhat more conscious, but no less uncompromising Yin to Fiddy’s Yang. A few enthusiastically received mixtapes (the high-points from which were later compiled on the Warning Shots album) and a short stint playing a West Coast version of himself in Season 2 of HBO’s Entourage saw both the momentum and the profile building nicely. Fort Knocks had signed a label deal with Atlantic, and Sai’s first single - the rowdy, J. Geils-sampling Come On Baby - came out in the spring of 2007. Jay-Z’s guest verse on the remix was seen in some quarters almost as an endorsement of an emcee many saw as being capable of putting New York City back at the centre of the rap universe, and Sai’s Just Blaze-produced debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, was scheduled for release later that year. Only it never happened. What happened instead was a salutary lesson in Industry Rule #4080 – postponement followed postponement, Sai began to use his MySpace blog to rail against the record biz politics that had stalled his career (he even announced, then quickly withdrew, plans to quit music altogether at one point), and sundry internet wiseacres began to snarkily refer to the album as “the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop”. Eventually, and just before the release of a second single (the glorious (Gotta) Believe It, above), Just managed to extricate Fort Knocks from its Atlantic deal, taking the masters of Sai’s now somewhat ironically titled album with him. A new deal was said to be in the offing. This was mid-2008, and although one or two cuts from The Greatest Story Never Told have since turned up on mixtapes, the album itself has yet to see daylight.

Miraculously, though, neither has it leaked, and if the latest release date – a somewhat vague “first quarter 2010” – is to be trusted, Just and Sai may actually find themselves bang on trend. Music is one of those fields of endeavour where leading the pack may not always be beneficial. History is littered with tales of innovators who were too far ahead of their time, or of trendsetting performers who had to wait years for the rest of the world to catch up, but perhaps the sight of three rapper’s rappers and three producer’s producers (rather than one of each) all purposefully moving in a similar direction will encourage a few more people to follow.