‘Korn Dogz’ DANGERDOOM (Occult Hymn, digital release, 2006) plus Nico & Nas, interview excerpt

Something that appeals and does truly, madly etc is when an artist or piece of music or an artist clicks with me despite my instincts not to like to it. MF DOOM was held in the category (of not being something I'd like) for a long while, until I came across some music by chance.

Knotted up like roots of a mangrove with plenty of contradictions, something about his popularity (with people who read the same kinds of books as me and get burnt by the sun easily) made me suspicious, and I was wary because of his image as someone whose rhymes were ‘cute’ or self-aware. Even if this didn’t make much sense, as that moment of self-consciousness when an MC smiles, knowing that they have blitzed it is one of the first things I loved about hip-hop performance this second time around. Then I came across this, not so long ago …

At some point I’ll write more on DOOM, when I can find an angle that makes sense to me without it becoming too academic and … well, see above. What turned it was an emotional depth I could hear at some points in some of his verses, principally a sadness or chastising tone that went against the stereotype of DOOM as the 'funny guy/entertainer in a mask.'

Added to that I couldn’t help but be impressed by his brilliance. No other MC comes close to the way DOOM builds associations that have weight to them and are not just left hanging in a three-point lyrical rhumba: first idea, second, third the final word running on a rhyme that echoes a phoneme. At its best, DOOM’s lyrics can dazzle you with their skill, while also imparting something serious. Moreover, as I’ll argue below his tendency to shift tone, without developing it, is in itself intriguing in terms of technique.

When I discovered that this track from his collaboration with Danger Mouse, DANGERDOOM  sampled Nico’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ from Chelsea Girl, especially at this time when I’m thinking a lot about the use of strings in popular music, not just hip-hop but across the genres, well ping! Transformation of prejudices time (this has been sent to me).

It's said that it also samples ‘What The Beat’ from DJ Klue, feat. Method Man and Royce da 5’9 from his 2001 record, The Professional 2

To again use the negative rhetorical set-up, the trademark elements of a DOOM track that had distanced me before were here, principally the skits/or samples from TV, moreover the production style is so clean/considered, normally it’d be too conventional, at least with a lesser MC, but the opening less than 5 seconds the way it unfurls on itself is beautiful with the strange grunt, bamboo style drums and strings is nice. There’s the essential cleverness/wordplay:

We don’t suggest you let your girly go alone
Come home all glowin with the the pearly glow
It was the super AKA super sperm
Hit her in the chin, told her rub it in like lubriderm
Finished, oh spaz go next
Who’s fault is it if her face taste like Vazoplex?

The use of the ‘we’ is interesting and reinforces the menacing mood, it sounds threatening because of the ambiguous subject (to read about the play on lubiderm/Vazoplex and the rest of the song, go here). Then that emotional depth I referred to before comes through:

... It ain’t funny
Ever since a young’un sonny, take the money
His first business made each day a grand
His only comp, shorty with the spiked lemonade stand
That’s how he ran his hustle
He came with a plan that took least amount of muscle
Two for one, dime frogs for the lickin’
And all you can eat, ”Corn dogs for the pickin”

As DOOM says, this isn’t funny, he establishes the scene of possible sexual violence – though it’s deadpanned, pure description so that’s not clear – to describe a situation of exploitation; 'that’s how he ran his hustle,' telling the story of someone who again is not identified. This refusal to set up characters is interesting. A more conventional MC would either describing a friend back at school or who is now in prison etc or him/herself as the narrator, DOOM rarely does this. He creates a lyrical space where we are already inside it as he tells the story, this in itself is interesting and experimental, the way he gestures towards telling a story, without actually doing it. He refers to a situation (as above) but then doesn’t allow us to have some kind of conclusion, as you’d expect.

The narrative does continue, but is the ‘seemingly modest fellow’ the same as the ‘young’un’ I don’t know.

... A seemingly modest fellow
With a DJ’s ear and graffiti artist elbow
Nose of a Mouse and the brain of two weasels
Discovered a name and new strain of the measles
He say you accidentally caught it
And sold circles and dots to those who could afford it
Once you squeezed his face through the gate
It got stuck, too much fake soy-based cheese product
Did a scheme and was in it for the Aspercreme
Slashed your team, let’s see who can make Casper scream
Down to the last marine
See him as your cable man, sizin’ up your plasma screen
Instead of doin a jux with pistols
Or workin’ in the back, cookin’ sacks of crystals
Or runnin’ on logs out in deep water kickin’
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Compare this ambiguity and refusal to tie things up neatly with Nas’s narrative/storytelling style that develops characters or stories to represent his arguments, in ‘What Goes Around’ from his 2001 album Stillmatic :

The genius of Nas's lyricism is apparent certainly. He like DOOM doesn't over-state, or over-extend his references to other people's stories, he touches on them/makes connections then moves on. And yet the characters are clear to us, as is the overall argument of his lyrics. Neither could be said about DOOM's lyricism, even if we sense that they exist.  

See here how DOOM then jumps to another subject, posing a question about ‘dedicated dads’ before – apparently – critiquing the self-absorption of his contemporary MCs suggests his intent is also to provide some (critical) commentary on the current state of affairs:

What up to all you dedicated dads
As stated, rap sucks Tucks medicated pads
And these rappers need to gather their belongings
Or get wrapped up in they extra long thong strings
For singin’ the wrong things
Ain’t no delayin’, you playin’ with the Pong king
A nerd with insight and a Urkel smirk
Purposefully misplaced invite to your circle jerk
... A bunch of men in cyphers
Fake you out tough guys and make pretend lifers
It’s still a few loose screws in his face
Turn away as he pulled a phrase out his usual place
... Combination jewel case
Almost popped open if it wasn’t for the cruel space
Critics talkin’ slick chicken shit to sick men
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Here’s an excerpt from a longer interview with DOOM where he speaks about his lyricism, the way he writes his rhymes with the listener in mind, thinking about how they will have expectations to then skirt around them.

In praise of: ‘Sparrow’ Marvin Gaye (Here, My Dear, Tamla, 1978) plus ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’

Personnel: Vocals, keyboards and synthesizers Marvin Gaye, drums Bugsy Wilcox, percussion Elmira Collins, bass Frank Blair, guitar Wali Ali, trumpet Nolan Smith, tenor saxophone Charles Owens/ Fernando Harkness, alto saxophone (solo) by Ernie Fields

Something to value is an artwork, a song, a piece of music that expresses the spirit of an artist, while gesturing out in new and unexpected directions. ‘Sparrow’ from Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is the perfect example of this. Wiks suggests that the lyrics have a ‘poetic and religious tone’ to them, but what does this mean?

In 1968 Marvin Gaye covered ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ a gospel hymn, written by Civilla D. Martin with composer Charles H. Gabriel in 1905, see the description of how the song came about (which is kind of eccentric, stolen from Wik as always) 

Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel-chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.

This hymn has been covered by all the greats: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston and by Gladys Knight singing at the funeral of Michael Jackson. (What’s interesting is the way the piece of music resonated with artists from particular eras, with nine recordings in the 50s/60s, two in the 70s and 80s each, before experiencing a resurgence in the 90s, with seven artists putting out versions of the song). Here is Marvin Gaye's interpretation: 

‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ with its stirring music and final resolution, moves from the opening spirit of despondency to comfort, knowing that God is ever-present, ‘watching over’ the one who is lost. Quoting Marvin Gaye's lyrics:

Why should I feel so discouraged
I wanna know why should the shadow come
Oh tell me why why should I feel lonely, so lonely
And long for heaven and a home

Since Jesus is my portion
A constant friend he is
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me

I sing because I'm happy
And I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know Jesus watches me

Note how Marvin Gaye simplified and loosened up the original lyrics of the hymn, leaving out the more literary, but touching refrain: “Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears.’

Compare this then with 'Sparrow’ from the angry, sprawling and brilliant ‘divorce’ record from 1978. On one level, Gaye’s tone is tender, gentle as if addressing his lover in 'Sparrow' (his ‘sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird.’ Even if in the same verse he refers to himself in the third person, ‘Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away ...’ thereby diluting the sentiment). 

As with any gospel song, 'Sparrow' begins with the expression of loss, difficult circumstances, the problem or obstacles faced by the artist:

I used to hear a sparrow singing, baby
Oh, but one day as I went along I didn't hear his song
But I know the sparrow should sing
Sing on such a morning in spring
Oh sparrow, why don't you sing?

Sing to me, oh, sparrow come around
Come around, why don't you come around?
Sing about melody, aww, melody
About the things you see
Anything you want to sing about
Just sing it on out now, sing it on out

Let the world know what life's all about
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Oh sing, little sparrow, won't you sing for me?

This encourages us to think it could be about artistic inspiration, with Gaye feeling abandoned by his muse, but then the next verse flips this entirely. Distancing himself from the lyrical framework of gospel music Gaye does not place himself in the role of the abandoned (sparrow). The ‘sparrow’ is said to be his previous support, as he sings: ‘Every time I'm feeling low/I know I can always count on you/Sing, little sparrow/About the troubles you're in, places you've been/You can sing I know it, don't you try to pretend ...’

Taking it at face value, Gaye is singing to a sparrow (a lover) and this fits with one of the key tropes of popular music, from soul/R&B and pop music, the idealised (or real) vision of the lover who is forever true. Carried within this is the awareness that the expression of longing is what counts, the desire for the idealised love.

Yet the song’s true achievement (outside the extraordinary musicianship, take that as a given) lies in the way it changes lyrically/musically half-way through, following the lull in the bridge, when Gaye returns, just after 3’30.” Any and all of the previous gentleness is gone, ‘Sing to me ...’ Gaye begins with a tone that sounds more like a directive rather than an expression of affection or gratitude.

And what does Marvin Gaye want his ‘sparrow’ to sing of - the focus is light years away from gospel and indeed any kind of straightforward love song :

Sing to me about man's inhumanity
And all the injustice you see
Sing sparrow, sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing about what to give
Sing about about how to live
I want you to sing your tune sparrow
Oh, little sparrow, sing

Sing to me of jealousy
Aww, sing what that's all about
Sing it all out, shout, little sparrow
Aww, sing at me
Sing me a, sing me a song
I wanna know what's wrong, little bird, tell me
Aww, sparrow

Sing sparrow 'cause I wanna know
You sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird
Sing before you go
Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away
Never stop singing sparrow till we hear your song

Sing your song
Sing your song
On and on and on and on
On and on and on and on and
I remember a bird

‘Mr Majestic’ Calibre & High Contrast (12” Signature Records, 2004) plus Horace Andy ‘Money, money’/ ‘Money is the root of all evil’ (prod. Phil Pratt/Bunny 'Striker' Lee/Lloyd Barnes/Scientist)

No interviews to cut and paste, no artist comment connected to the release, dated 2004, but it’s no issue as this track stands by itself as something that is immediately accessible and still effective more than a decade on. Whether you like it for the song construction, the sharp horn sample taken from the Horace Andy/Bunny Lee classic track, or the simple lyrical concept:

“I man no like/A man who tried to cheat her.”

Interestingly, this striking vocal sample remains unidentified. Many of the online sources claim that the horn sample comes from Horace Andy/Phil Pratt Allstars' 1976 single, plus dub, ‘Money is the root of all evil’ released via Pressure Disk, produced by Phil Pratt, but as you’ll hear that isn’t correct 

The source of that distinctive horn sample is the Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee produced version from 1978 (some places say 1979):

Lee returned to the song with Don Carlos/John Wayne in 1983, changing the focus to include women into the sources of corruption (as one listener below the line joked the one ‘down vote is from a female capitalist’).

There are other, maybe even many other versions of this classic song, here is the very beautiful one from Horace Andy’s Dance Hall Style (Wackies, 1983), produced by Lloyd Barnes.  

I've already written about this album before, see below, and referred to Jo-Ann Greene's AllMusic review, but I'll quote from it again here:   

By modern standards, a six-song set barely qualifies as a single, never mind as a full-length album, but with each stellar song featured in its extended form, Dance Hall Style doesn’t merely pass muster as an album, but as a masterpiece. As with all the Wackies sets from this era, it’s the riddims and arrangements that inspire absolute awe, but as Horace Andy gives each of them his all, this album is as notable for his performances as for Lloyd Barnes’ sensational production and his studio band’s phenomenal musicianship. Incidentally, Andy himself provided bass, rhythm, and lead guitar on the album. Not all the songs, however, are new — two revisit a pair of the star’s earlier hits. Andy cut “Lonely Woman” for Derrick Harriott back in 1972, and for it, Barnes created a sizzling new riddim that bristles with militancy, while still echoing back to the days of early reggae, before flashing over into pure roots rockers in the tense dub section. “Money Money” was cut for Bunny Lee a few years later in rockers style, and so Barnes instead takes it immediately into deep dread territory, filling the atmosphere with absolute menace.

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

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In a melancholy mood: On hip-hop quiet and instrumental music

(This is a revised version of an essay I first published on this site in 2016. This version was reworked for publication in Passion of the Weiss. Thanks to Jeff Weiss for his guidance on this edit and the others before and since).   

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published "In Praise of Shadows," an essay that recognized “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather … that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”
  
Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the musical genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the 90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call hip-hop quiet.  

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Paris Récit: ‘La Ritournelle’ Sébastien Tellier, feat. Tony Allen (Politics, Record Makers, 2004)

Surprisingly my tolerance level for schmaltz, the eternal swoon is higher in music than in other art-forms, if this song by Sébastien Tellier is any guide. My feeling of affection for this song is genuine and real. This music touches my heart even if its techniques of manipulation are so explicit, all those strings, and so on the surface. Notice how Tellier sings his words of apparent devotion, the addition of the coy, or twee backing vocals after the line where he sings a line ending with 'I love you.'

Central to the music’s impact is the drumming of Tony Allen. There is such beauty to be found here, the way Allen maintains a kind of coiled precision in his drums, without his performance feeling caged in. This is the mark of his genius the way he keeps the rhythm so perfectly, with the impression that it could break out at any moment (as it does, just slightly, before the verses come in).

Oh, nothing's gonna change my love for you
I wanna spend my life with you
And we make love on the grass under the moon
No one can tell, damned if I do

Forever journeys on golden avenues
I drift in your eyes since I love you
I got that beat in my veins for only rule
Love is to share, mine is for you

Tony Allen is such a wonder on so many levels; he deserves all respect and praise that comes in his direction.

One listener said that this music is ‘a song for hope.’ I understand this. I have been listening to it on repeat over the past weekend until now, I’m not part-time in terms of my preferences, letting it flow into my psyche, as I make my way around Paris, letting the music become part of me, allowing it to soothe me.

Listening to it when walking through the grimy underground space of Les Halles and observing how people tend to congregate together, stand and move in groups, leaving space at the edges near the concrete walls; how they push forward in their movement, forcefully trying to be somewhere else. What I keep thinking is that even though this music is deeply sentimental, allowing us to feel a proximity with others it is equally manufactured. It is real and fake at the same time. It is the musical equivalent of the cinematic version of Doctor Zhivago

where the archetypal Russian male character is played by an Egyptian with an incongruous moustache. And yet, it loses none of its power for that, just as the final moments of the song is Tony Allen’s drums, unadorned, it allows us to transfer something of ourselves onto it as if it were a mirror. A musical surface offering solace. For this reason, I am grateful for its existence.

Coda: