Hip-Hop

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:

Madlib/Donald Byrd: “Stepping into Tomorrow”/“Distant Land” (Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, 2003) plus more

For x-number of months I did a “Madlib” (on Madlib’s discography). With numerous interruptions, living my life, doing my work, listening to other music, I focussed my attention on trying to hear as much as I could of his music, across the various releases, genres, decades, inspirations. This partly reflects my OCD-aspect, the desire to hold onto an essence of something as a system, to see how it works together. When gaining knowledge, I like to be able to get a sense of how things fit, as if there’s always a broader logic waiting to be uncovered.

It also reflects the fact that this discovery came about via YouTube - a bossy task-mistress insisting on certain tracks, repeating them over and over as recommendations until I heard them. Many of these picks, coming from some algorithm consciousness were Madlib tracks, or Madlib associated projects. The process took on a life of its own and lasted for a while.

The process was also a way of assessing the constancy of my own preferences and tastes; as a barometer, litmus test. Allowing for diversity, among genres, but being constant within them. This sounds egotistical perhaps, but I think it’s useful for writers to be simple and upfront in terms of all this. It’s much more interesting (for me) to think about what this/that preference says about the person, rather than to hear aspects of autobiography in the critical appraisals, in that this music helped a writer psychologically, when they were down or something. (Let alone some writer presenting themselves as the arbiter of universal taste).

I really don’t trust this self-disclosure either. If, when you’re affected by something painful the last thing you’d want to do is listen to someone else go deep into their suffering. What you want is to forget. But this might again reflect something about the way I listen to music. There are plenty of songs that I might have listened to in bad times, but it wasn’t because I could relate to the lyrics, usually it was something about the quality of the sounds, or the voice of the singer.    

I sincerely believe that we are all predisposed to liking certain sounds, and this says something about ourselves and our histories. It’s as if these sounds click with something internal in us, as if making manifest something in our DNA. It’s not the music itself that we like, but how it activates something in us. This reaction does not have to be anything particularly deep, or representative of anything bigger (I’m with Cage here, a sound is a sound it does not have to mean anything).    

Throughout this “Madlib immersion”, I was surprised by something: I had thought that with my background listening to a lot of jazz over the decades, it would be the jazz-inspired Madlib work that would impress me most. What I found there – often, not always, was that this music seemed a little contained, as if he was self-conscious about his own debt, or admiration. This limited the achievement and squashed what makes Madlib’s music most interesting for me, the experimentation and freedom you can find there. Of course, there were exceptions, such as this:

This is an extraordinary piece of music, listen to the thwack of that bassline/drum interplay, something that has come back more recently in Madlib’s beats – see many of the Bad Neighbor instrumentals, for instance or the forthcoming Bandana album with Freddie Gibbs. Here, containment is a positive quality in itself: the way it simplifies the original melody from the 1975 album.

What’s striking is the way Madlib doesn’t use the trumpet line at all, or if he does it’s there as a detail, rather than the central focus. This is interesting and perverse (considering that it’s by Donald Byrd – why use the piece to ignore its central motif and the essence of its origins?) Madlib’s reworking simplifies it, makes it dense and uncomplicated.

The original piece was similarly simple – in its intention, but not its execution. Listening to it now, perhaps this is enhanced by my bad sound system, it’s all fluttery and high-end, wavery, which is attractive, but far removed from the way Madlib turned it into an almost late 70s disco-funk song.

The first piece from Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note that I was kind of obsessed with was “Distant Land” – now it feels like a photograph almost, it’s not so important to me. This is the one with the drums that break the music, sounding over-present, but also add to the overall feeling of naivety. Just over two minutes in, I liked the way the sounds separated from each other – becoming individualised, solitary elements on display – but what I really loved and still appreciate is the way you expect the trumpet to come back, again it’s Donald Byrd after all, but it doesn’t.

This is wonderful and strange; the entire piece seems to be so accessible (that boom bap type drum pattern etc) and then denies our expectations at the crucial moment. This appeals to me, I like this. Then, when the trumpet does return about a minute later, it’s so quiet, you can hardly hear it.

The original (unreleased) Donald Byrd piece from 1972 has a very distinctive quality, it sounds half-asleep, but the trumpet line as you’d expect is clear and prominent (unlike the way it was re-imagined by Madlib, three or so decades later):

Listening to the original Donald Byrd track now, after a few months from my previous time listening to it – I didn’t like it much before, it struck me as overly smooth, easy listening, lacking spirit - my instincts are proven right, as in expecting the trumpet to return or be more prominent in the Madlib version. The track follows a traditional jazz set up, two or perhaps more solos (what sounds like a vibraphone, then piano solo, there might be a solo before this) to return to the leader of the group on trumpet, in what is deeply satisfying, as expected. Byrd returns with a majestic half-solo around 5’30” (you can almost imagine the audience applause).    

There are other songs, which I might even like more than the two I’ve written about here, “Mystic Bounce” say or “Montara” but this writing is a good example of what I was mentioning at the outset. What you end up writing on often is different to what the original impulse was, for questions of ease or simplicity, or getting carried away with something. Rather than discussing the album in full, I’ll leave it there: two songs inspired by Donald Byrd. That makes sense.

This was meant to be an introduction to writing on some Madlib instrumentals, no problem, I’ll come back to them another time.     

Coda x 2:

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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New Young Journalists Development Program - start date 1st May, 2019

This is a call for young writers, aged 17-22, interested in developing core writing/journalism skills who want to write on hip-hop/music and/or other subjects. Women especially encouraged to apply. Intended for a small group of two, or three people.

This program is designed for people who do not have access to such training at school or in their communities; people who might be interested in becoming journalists, but feel that it is closed to them for whatever reason. It is aimed for people who are not represented in mainstream media spaces, because of background/place of residence, who want to write about stories relating to their communities, thereby altering the current media bias towards white, middle-class voices.

The program could be a formal training program, or informal mentoring arrangement depending on the need and interest of the trainees. No previous experience or publications required - but preference will be given to applicants with no other opportunity for media/journalism training of this kind and members of under-represented groups.

If interested, or you have questions: contact me with a brief introduction to yourself and what you’d like to achieve at madeleinebyrne.writer@gmail.com Proposed program start date: May, 2019

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MF DOOM on writer's block; Mos Def/Yasiin Bey paying tribute; Kool Keith dispensing hip-hop wisdom

“I get inspiration from lots of different things, nature … silence …”

MF DOOM talks about how he deals with writers block at the Red Bull Music Academy Madrid 2011.

During the recording session for The Ecstatic

“98-year-old refrigerator” - This is extremely wise & useful (I think).

"Lloyd Banks Assists on Conway Campaign to Prove that He's the Grimiest, Ever" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 29 September 2017, read the article on the AFH site

That highly distinctive deep-atmosphere, kept so twitchy and tense, that defines the Griselda Records sound is on full display in “Bullet Club” – the first single taken from Conway The Machine’s upcoming G.O.A.T.  The track sees him paired up with G-Unit MC Lloyd Banks and fellow Griselda affiliate Benny.

Produced by Griselda beat-maker Daringer, the track perfectly captures the menace we now associate with the Buffalo, New York crew.  “Ni**as know something, don’t play stupid…” the sample at the start begins, setting the scene for Conway’s more measured than usual verse, against the trademark hysterical laughter and simulated gunfire.

Conway addresses the listener, or to be more accurate, the competition directly, telling us he’s “dropped the hardest tapes since ’94.” And that even though his face might be “twisted,” no other rapper can “spit it the way [he] spit it.” At one point, Conway challenges us to come up with a name equal to his, even stopping for “a minute” – literally. This adds a humorous touch to his earlier riff on people getting stabbed in the face and all the other elements that typically make up his dark musical head-space.

Lloyd Banks, who with 50 Cent dominated the East Coast Gangsta Rap game through the 2000s is fully at ease here with this next generation kindred spirits, setting it up perfectly for Griselda stable-mate Benny to close, as he makes a strong showing.

According to Mass Appealwho premiered the songG.O.A.T. will feature involvement from Alchemist, 9th Wonder, Styles P, ScHoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak, Royce 5’9”, and Westside Gunn.

"DOOM & Westside Gunn Sting with Bars on Alchemist Production" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 11 October 2017, read the article on the AFH site

Everything is muted, quiet like a beautiful, twisted lullaby on “2Stings,” the most recent single from the forthcoming WestsideDOOM (DOOM and Gunn) collaboration, produced by another Shady family member, The Alchemist. “2Stings” has a very particular feel to it: at once spacey and under-stated, but also dense with effects.

Sustaining it all is one of the most subdued drum sounds in recent Hip-Hop music and a solitary, discordant note that doesn’t let up until the very end, further enhancing the claustrophobic mood.

DOOM once again takes on the calm uncle role here; his verse made up of “New York-style wow” includes his trademark smart wordplay; at one point, for example, coupling “Pasadena” with “grass is greener (Black Bimmer).”

When Westside Gunn bursts onto the song’s scene, at about one minute in, it’s in his typical popping-arteries style at play. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles producer maintains control and the beat goes on as before. “Life is great,” the Buffalo, New York native spits with enthusiasm. He soon adds: “If they kick down the door / Hit the Fire Escape … Wait.” As a bonus, “2Stings” is available as a free download too.

No release date has so far been given for the release of a WestsideDOOM project. But in September, Westside Gunn announced on social media: “WESTSIDEDOOM is here prod by ALCHEMIST & DARINGER this is one of the illest projects I’ve ever heard when u think ART, this is it the RAWEST, FLYEST, GRIMIEST sh*t you’ve ever heard IN YA LIFE wats dope than FLYGOD & DOOM  spread the gospel the day is soon cometh.” In August, DOOM released “DOOMSAYER” on an Alchemist track. That song was removed from Adult Swim’s jukebox following DOOM’s sudden ceasing of his Missing Notebook Rhyme series.

Compared to the pair’s most recent offering, last month’s excitable “Gorilla Monsoon” produced by Daringer, “2Stings” is a masterclass in the power of musical restraint.

"Alchemist Dug Samples in Paris Record Stores then Made an EP with Local MCs" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 23 September 2017 read the article on the AFH site

Lush, abundant, playful; these three words perfectly describe Paris L.A. Bruxelles the recent project by acclaimed producer (and MC) Alchemist. This project sees him team up with a crew of French-language rappers.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, the project is subtitled: “One Producer, Three Cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert,” as it sets up a show on September 27 at Paris’ Trabendo. All samples used for the beats were unearthed in Parisian record stores the past summer, where the Gangrene and Stepbrothers co-founder then recorded the MCs in the Red Bull Paris studios.

Now Eminem’s official DJ, Alc’ has built his reputation as one of Hip-Hop’s best over the past two decades via his collaborations with artists such as the late Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Curren$y, Roc Marciano and Action Bronson.

Unlike the cool minimalism of Alc’s production on classic cuts from Prodigy (see: “Keep It Thoro”), here the producer’s experimental spirit is given free reign. The music remains consistent, while constantly shifting gear.

For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix.

Impressive is the way Al’ shifts moods throughout his production, see for example the single “Monnaie,” the title translates as “loose change” with its rehash of 60s Latin-Jazz, in the vein of Cal Tjader, that features Paris MCs Cool Connexion. Another stand-out is the opener, “Montre Suisse” (Swiss Watch) with the vocals of the Belgian duo Caballero and Jean Jass and the scratching of DJ Eskondo.

On social media, a few of the French MCs expressed their gratitude for the chance to work with such a great. The goodwill flows both ways, it seems.

Red Bull Music Academy✔@RBMA

Cet été, The @Alchemist était à Paris pour composer les instrus de la mixtape #PARISLABXL, à découvrir sur http://win.gs/ParisLABruxelles …

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10:41 AM - Sep 22, 2017

In a video released by Red Bull Music Academy, Alchemist shared how he appreciated the French capacity to “live life to the fullest.” A lot of the time, he said crate-digging feels like work, but here in Paris, he said, “they say, f*ck it, let’s have some wine.” Heads who tune in to Action’s F*ck That’s Delicious show regularly get to see Alchemist enjoying food, wine, and a musician’s life of exploration.