Essays

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 …”

READ MORE

Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

READ MORE

Related article: "In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)" version one & version two

"The French Connection: Alchemist goes to Gaul": an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2

First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2018

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

READ MORE

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

xPaul-White.jpg.pagespeed.ic.CUzKArEtYb.jpg

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.”

READ MORE

New section on the site: Interviews & Essays

Some of you might have noticed the recent addition of a new section in the menu to the left - Interviews & Essays - well, the logic behind this is to collect my longer pieces of writing in one place. Writing on hip-hop; such as my first extended interview/essay on Detroit producer/MC Black Milk from 2015 and that of New York-based producer, Marco Polo ... or my conversation with MC Sha Rock, the first female MC in hip-hop culture.  

Also, you'll find essays on 90s instrumentals and Mick Jenkins' track, 'Fall through' from his 2016 record, The Healing Component - and my interview with BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk and Rodrigo Brandão) published in Ambrosia for Heads last year. Apart from the hip-hop related content, there are essays on French politics and police violence in the US and Paris and electro/DnB musicians from the UK.

Over time, I'll keep adding to this section, including pieces from the past and those to come. My hope is that those of you who are interested in reading the longer pieces, and there's quite a few out there it seems, will try out the various subjects and take a chance on something new. Mixing it up ...

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

READ MORE

Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.   

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses

UK writer, Neil Griffiths partly personally funded a new prize for books published by small, independent presses, on which he has bestowed the rather extravagant name, 'The Republic of Consciousness' and the tagline: 'hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose.'    

It seems that most have forgotten that the literary greats, let's say the Modernists depended on the existence of small presses and small literary magazines - see above - to get into print. Today these writers are studied in university courses the world over, but when they were alive they were scrounging for work as casual teachers of English in Trieste, or Rome. (I recently read this striking evocation of the peripatetic life of James Joyce and his family, where he was described as 'unsettled and penniless' - puts it into perspective somewhat).  

On reading the long-list of the authors on the Republic of Consciousness Prize, three immediately appealed to me, one so much that I ordered the novel from the publisher last night. See if you can resist, after reading this description of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas - a writer who was born in the UK, grew up in Jamaica and is now based in Colorado (the publisher, Peepal Tree Press calls itself: the 'Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing')  

A magical realist journey through the history of Rastafarianism, Bob Marley & Jamaica – not necessarily in that order. Rhapsodic, poetic, scripturally engaged and endlessly inventive. Not only is the electric atmosphere of Jamaica evoked with sensuousness, delicacy and love; so is the ‘dub-side’, a studio yard just the other side of death, where Bob Marley and a toothless and lisping Halle Selassie discuss the relative merits of routes to Zion.

Check out this longlist for the Republic of Consciousness prize; it offers up a multitude of interesting, innovative writers and books to be discovered. And here is the website for Marcia Douglas. Can't wait to read her book, described as 'a novel in bass riddim ...'