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“Ghetto Sci-Fi Music” - in memoriam Ras G (1979-2019)

So sad to hear the news about Ras G yesterday. We had brief contact trying to set up an interview for this site related to his 2017 album My Kinda Blues, one of my favourite releases of that year and a record that still stands up in all its muted intent/musical intelligence.

Ras G was simple to interact with then, unassuming; gentle in his words and manner, open to the idea of talking with me even though there was no record to promote, no obvious benefit to him. The same qualities - simplicity, dedication to his music - memorialised yesterday online. I deeply regret not speaking to him when I had the opportunity to do so. That quiet presence, embodied in his person and heard in his music is rare, of real value.

I won’t write on My Kinda Blues here for the simple reason there’s a risk if I get started it won’t get done, and end up being filed in all my other half-written pieces (to be returned to). Though I recommend you listen to it in full, here’s the link.

Listening to the album again this afternoon, I was struck by how good the songs were and how distinctive; it is as the title has it, a personal Blues as felt by Ras G, filtered via hip-hop consciousness. I kept adding links of songs I liked to this draft, track 3, and 4 and 5 and 8 and it kept going on and on … Here’s track 8 - an amazing sound, no need to over-complicate anything, present it as it is:

Rather than an Afro-futurist cosmic vibe, as it appears was his wont, this album is intimate, sketches and ruminations with its own intensity. Far removed from that cliché of lo-fi – that enervates me so much, as music to chill to/to read a book to – this is music with depth and strong emotion coming through. It has its own distinctive voice and tone.

I liked this quote included in the Pitchfork story on his passing yesterday:

“My relationship with sci-fi is from a creational standpoint,” he told MerryJane in 2018. “My label is called Ghetto Sci-Fi Music, which is how I identify my studio and music-making methods. It’s Ghetto in terms of set-up/layout, but it’s a science to how it all works together and fiction to most who come from a more professional studio setting.”

Here’s an interview from February 2018 with Ras G sharing some of his dub picks, the genre he describes as the great-grand-daddy (if I heard it right) of all contemporary Black music genres … dub as a form of music that is felt, not seen or heard.

And here’s another great album, Beats of Mind - this is really fantastic (release info below the video).

As someone who appreciated his music but didn’t know him personally this news comes as a shock; the best way for me to pay my respects here is to put up his music.

Condolences to his friends and family in Los Angeles and fans/listeners across the globe. Please also consider donating to the GoFundme page for Ras G here, set up by his family to maintain his memory.

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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“You Can Win”/”Let’s Go” Bileo 7” (M.T.U/Watts City Records, 1979) remix & more

Not much information on Bileo – Bill Williams, Bobby Love, Joe Farnis, horn arr: Maceo Jackson – other than the group released two singles, this being one of them. The single was re-issued by Athens of the North in 2014. As the promo material for the re-issue states the single sells itself, the song too writes itself; it’s all there, the message of uplift and continuation. It’s a lovely thing.

Movin' up now
To higher ground now
Can use my stride! (?)
When I get there, yeah
I'm gonna smile now
Cause I'll be high!
High on love
That's all I need, yeah
To make my day!
I am happy
Happy now I'm
I'm on my way!

You can be there
If you want to, yeah...
You can be there
If you want to, yeah...

Another track credited to Bill William’s Bileo’s lead vocalist (under the name Bill Williams & Billeo is “Robot People” out on WCM, 1983), probably only of real interest for those seeking to “complete their collection.”

Ditto for another Bill Williams’s track: “Things WIll Be Better Tomorrow,” also from 1983. That said, this remix of “You Can Win” - Dorsi Plantar’s French Kiss Edit – is great:

“Night Comes On” dir. Jordana Spiro (2018; French title “Long Way Home,” 2019)

Some time ago I read a review of a film, the title escapes me now though I remember it well, which referred to the cliché of mould-encrusted bathrooms, seen in panning shots of the dirty tiles, to represent poverty. Not having money, or the time and skills to fix/remove the mould on the tiles, is represented as base, disgusting. The critic mentioned this as being a particular feature of films where poverty is “feminised.”

Aramide A Tinubu, in her Shadow and Act review on Night Comes On (or Long Way Home, to use its French title) refers to the importance of this film about two sisters and their grief for the murdered mother being written and directed by women:

“The importance of a female director and writing team in this coming-of-age film can’t be overstated here. Fishback’s body was never once put on display gratuitously and moments in Angel’s life, one marred with sexual assault and coercion aren’t used as plot points in the script. Still, it was the moments between the sisters, both the snippy banter and the softer connections where Spiro makes her mark as a director. It seems unimaginable that a male writer or director would able be to capture a 10-year-old girl’s horror at her first period and her big sister's detached but comforting reaction.”

Coming home last night after seeing the film that shared the Prix de Jury prize at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, a festival set up in 1975, I thought the same thing. I recognised my gratitude for the fact that one particular sequence – when Angel goes to get a gun – avoided spelling out a stereotypical representation of a woman in a state of duress, where her desperation leads to humiliation and abuse. The writer/director team seemed to be aware of this, moreover, drawing attention to what was expected, for it to be interrupted. When Angel does finally get the gun from the dealer, we are shown her walking away from the car, afterwards. Nothing is shown.

Most of all, I was moved by Dominique Fishback’s performance as Angel. Subtle expressions on her face carried this film, the performance by the non-professional actor playing younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is wonderful too, but Fishback’s characterisation has such depth, it reminded me of some of the great performances from Italian neorealist cinema, where the central female character tries to gain self-worth in an environment that if not explicitly out to undermine her remains indifferent.

I also truly loved the brief moments of connection between the sisters – see the moment when they touch hands in the above trailer at just before one minute; or when Abby sleeps against Angel on the bus (echoing earlier scenes where Angel sleeps alongside her mother, or dreams that she is). Spiro’s skill lies in the way this scene is deeply moving (even though nothing happens) and the fact that it is given more time than the next, which while a key moment in the narrative is undeveloped. This felt authentic and real.

The film is not flawless, some of it felt a bit too “neat” – perhaps even formulaic, made-for-TV in parts – but its simplicity and the performances of the two leads, more than makes up for any of its weaknesses.

Apparently, the English-language title comes from a Leonard Cohen song of the same title from 1984:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow I said,
Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world

Here is an interesting MovieMaker interview from August 2018 where the director Jordana Spiro describes the writing process with Angelica Nwandu:

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond. 

Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.

I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.

MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?

JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.

And an interview with the director and the film’s lead actors linked to the success at Deauville …

To read my writing on films (Barry Jenkins, Chantal Akerman and others) please go to the “cinema” tag.

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).

"DOOM & Westside Gunn are the Bad Guys on New Collabo" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 27 September 2017, read the article on the AFH site

Few would expect that DOOM would be taking on the straight role as he does in this vaudevillian Rap High-Art wonder, “Gorilla Monsoon,” produced by Daringer and more than ably set up by the unhinged prevarications of Westside Gunn.

Ayo/Ayo” Westside Gunn repeats in his squeakiest voice ever, alluding to himself as if he were Dorothy, far, far, far away from Kansas. “Ayo, I was in my cell, I clicked my heels three times / P Just 2’s, my khaki suit mastermind / Water whip, tossed the coke in the alkaline … Immaculate rhyme (Immaculate rhyme) / It’s so obvious / Watchin’ the world from up top / Snakeskin binoculars.” It’s hard not to be impressed by an MC that rhymes “obvious” with “binoculars.”

Stoned immaculate, the Buffalo, New York little brother sounds quite strange here. His helium-maniacal delivery is buttressed by the pure creativity of the Daringer beat, drenched in a tacky ‘50s B-grade movie vibe, but it sounds like he’s spinning about lyrically – letting off sparks.

It’s funny too, as Westside Gunn enunciates his rhymes with such an earnest style that sounds pre-adolescent: this is not an insult. He spits with great enthusiasm: “My bedroom had a bedroom, my wrist be dancin’ / My bedroom had a bedroom, my wrist be dancin’ / The flyest that’s livin’, we live and die by the kitchen / Choppin’ on dishes, rack the puff in…

In comparison, DOOM’s verse comes across as relatively sedate and even seems to make some sense. Unlike Westside Gunn’s verse with all its trademark Griselda interruptions – all the “skrrrrrtttt” and “Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow” and “Drrrrr” and “Du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…” – DOOM’s only has a subdued “yup” and “psst.”

DOOM seems to be taking on the older statesman role here, surveying the contemporary scene. His closing words are typically elegant, albeit with opaque references: “What’s revealed is of a certain feel – growth / Yellow moist mushy, banana peeled coke / At worst, could not be confused with real soap / Nope, you see disaster is intended / In the face of truth, don’t ever be offended….Overstand the past to get a grasp of the present (psst) / I make it faster than you spends it / End it.

What is particularly nice on “Gorilla Monsoon” is the way the musical mania is sustained by Daringer, in a way that supports the MCs’ imaginative flow. It never lets up, even while the drums are relatively relaxed and laidback.  Occasionally, there is a drum-roll, just for show almost, but it’s the wall of wavy sound that creates the highly cogent and distinctive mood that is almost beyond words.

"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.