90s

Writing here, elsewhere (in the ethos, maintain & build)

Constant Elevation/ Maintain And Build 12'' Prod. Maniac Mob 1996

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the amount of website entries has reduced here. I haven’t moved to a Nepalese cave, or shack near a Lombok beach (or hiding out on a fire-escape in some major urban centre in the United States) where the Internet is tricky, even if the connection in Paris remains highly irregular. (Tech support faults my computer).

The past 18 months have been a mix for me following the death of my sister in late July 2017. Passing within a fog, at times – not depression’s stark certainty, but harder to define emotions such as confusion, doubt and loneliness. Splintered, exaggerated feelings and reactions, marked by pain. Where the suffering is cumulative, thick with the past, held within disorienting realisations: I am older today than my sister when she died, though her birth preceded my own by two years.   

Writers writing about themselves writing after loss are not my interest. Though I appreciate memoirs of writers experiencing extreme circumstances: imprisonment, political exile and the like. Sentimentality is always the main risk with this kind of writing, alongside falseness, egotism. Seeking out the “silver lining” when the cloud is more pertinent. Looking for meaning and transcendence when there is none. Ignoring the fact that it is never only this.

Suffering is malleable, shifting to fit within the lives we lead. Children need to be fed, jobs attended, bills paid. Ambivalence about this continuation of life when confronted by pain does interest me; as another example of the in-between emotion that shapes much of our lives - some refer to it as aversion. But the truth is as I was coming to terms with this loss, other aspects of my life were moving forward. I was working more as a journalist than before, for Passion of the Weiss and The Wire mainly, but other places too.  

This “outside” writing as a music journalist is the principal reason for the decrease for posts on my site. Since December 2018 too I’ve also been working on a project that I hope to finish this June. I won’t detail it here. One of the most useful pieces of online psych knowledge I’ve picked up is the danger of sharing projects (and success) prematurely – the chorus, or absence, of hosannas lessening the intensity required to complete something; the fact that there needs to be something to push against for us to complete the work. I’ll keep it quiet for now (“pray for me,” though that I get it done).

Some of this journalism I’ve published during this time can be read here at my Muck Rack page, but it’s not all here. The site provides a great service, compiling portfolios of journalists. Over time, I’ll put up some of this writing and will also keep you in the loop re a future by-line, which marks a new/old direction and for that reason means a lot for me.

Feel free to check out Passion of the Weiss - please consider donating to the Patreon so the site can only get stronger - and read/subscribe to The Wire, a print magazine dedicated to the underground and those making music because it means something to them, others is something precious in this era of the disposable, trivial-hysteric and slapdash.

Thanks to the great editors at Passion of the Weiss and The Wire, for the commissions and responsiveness to my ideas/work; to my family and all those in the Paris circle too.   

Coda:

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

“[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap 
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit, 
yo... now”

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

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Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006, 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)


“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972

“Twilight Song” Charlie Haden/Kenny Barron (Night and the City, Verve, 1998) plus “Sunshower” versions

Label: Verve/ Released: 1998/Genre: Jazz/Style: Easy Listening

“The third in a series of Charlie Haden duet projects for Verve in the 1990s finds the increasingly nostalgia-minded bass player working New York City's Iridium jazz club with pianist Kenny Barron. Moreover, it is entirely possible that we are getting a skewed view of the gig; according to Haden, he and his co-producer wife Ruth tilted this album heavily in the direction of romantic ballads, eliminating the bebop and avant-garde numbers that the two may have also played at the club. Be that as it may, this is still a thoughtful, intensely musical, sometimes haunting set of performances, with Barron displaying a high level of lyrical sensitivity and Haden applying his massive tone sparingly. Most of the seven tracks are fantasias on well-known standards, although one of the most eloquent performances on the disc is Barron's playing on his own "Twilight Song." If Haden deliberately set out to create a single reflective mood, he certainly succeeded, although those coming to Haden for the first time through this and most of his other '90s CDs would never suspect that this man once played such a fire-breathing role in the jazz avant-garde.”

AllMusic review, Richard S.Ginnel

What saves this music, or transforms it, elevates it above any designation as “easy listening” are the instances where Kenny Barron toughens his performance by introducing a kind of syncopated groove. This happens just after 5’30” then about a minute later and finally around 11’20”. Those brief shifts remind me of earlier pianists, earlier recordings and historical moments now passed, thus enforcing the piece’s nostalgic mood. Pianists such as Art Tatum or Duke Ellington shielding their less virtuosic selves, when they keep it still and quiet (with constant sparks of brilliance and surprise).

The way the music returns after the bass solo too is a moment of pure understated loveliness, as are the opening and closing sections.

A lot of contemporary (pop-inflected) music is said to reference Satie, perhaps wanting to connect with his music’s unadulterated melody without understanding the way he radically upturned previous tradition, blending high/low culture (let alone his eccentric, even odd theories and behaviour). John Cage cited him as a key, “indispensable” influence, as did other key members of the twentieth century US. avant-garde, while Ravel called his music “brilliant and clumsy.” See this 2015 article from the Guardian by Meurig Bowen on Satie’s later, more revolutionary music and then another article one year later marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. I thought about Satie when listening to this piece – the opening, closing - but also in the way the music encourages us to look beyond the liminal sweetness. A lot of the most popular jazz, even that by great artists – see Chet Baker – appears to be surface-only, pretty and diversionary, but here in those brief instances Barron signals other forms of Black American music and thus adds depth. Breaking the music down, making it emblematic.

The piece was recorded at the Iridium Room Jazz Club In 1996, a place that according to Wik was: “a basement room below the Merlot restaurant across from Lincoln Center; it initially booked "traditional, swinging jazz musicians of the second or third level"; Ronald Sturm, the club's manager and booker, told The New York Times his goal was to "hire people like the trumpeter Marcus Printup, or Cyrus Chestnut or Carl Allen"— the goal was to give a chance to "younger, mainstream musicians while still booking the legends."

Here’s a performance of Kenny Barron’s famous song “Sunshower” (solo piano), apologies about the amateur fan/listener video:

that became a standard covered by so many prominent jazz musicians, Ron Carter on his 1977 Piccolo LP among others and was first released on Sonny Fortune’s Awakening album in 1975. This is a beautiful performance, with Barron playing his composition, especially the final two minutes with that hard to place echoing sound. (Alto saxophone, flute, claves, shaker – Sonny Fortune piano – Kenny Barron bass – Wayne Dockery drums – Billy Hart. Recorded September 9, 1975 at Sound Ideas, New York City).

And the Kenny Barron recording in his own name from his Innocence LP three years later.

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

“[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me ”

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”

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In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

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Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

"Sundance" - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really. 

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

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