Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past

Where and what: Wu-Tang Clan “Rebirth” Tour, Sherman Theater, Stroudsburg, PA January 1, 2011

Who: 8 out out 9 of the Wu Tang Clan plus some Wu cousins

The word: Long time friends "Elp" and "'Lish" offered tickets last minute (ayo, thanks again!) The venue was close, a stage I actually spun on four years ago for some sort snowboard-Red Bull promo party. This would be foolish to pass up.

With the game and soul
of an old school flick

Heading north, I listened to a long ago aborted comprehensive ARM 18 mix series called “Enter the Wu-brary.” Compiled in 2002 from wax, radio dubs and a healthy dose of Audio Galaxy swipes, the series met its maker when a crashed hard drive sizzled, snapped and caught fire. Protons Electrons Always Cause Explosions.

Listening to the first two volumes of this mix, hit singles (“Bring the Pain,” “CREAM”) sounded rugged and raw, I repeat, rugged and raw, astonishing me the Clan impacted MTV and urban radio 15 years ago. I nodded seriously to classic album cuts (“Rawhide,” “Ice Water”) that detailed the mythology of the Wu and fast-forwarded through obscure mixtape fodder that seems like fast food now (“American CREAM Team” or “Grid Iron Rap”). The music was the uncompromising and unabashed sound of 90s east coast hip hop and yet unique unto itself as the Clan has no imitators.

I could not think of any single pop cultural antecedent of what this crew has accomplished so here is an elaborate bloated allusion: The Wu Tang Clan from the 1990s had the bravado of the Furious Five, the kinetic energy of Kung Fu, the funky noise of Public Enemy, overseen by a producer/MC who had the meticulousness of a Stanley Kubrick.

Give an Ezra Pound
and a bear hug
The group was a rapping Wild Bunch, with their lyrics expressing an astonishing range of experience, emotion and spirituality akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But their song structures and verses were never straightforward, always broken and oblique with an E.E. Cummings or Ezra Pound flair. Lastly, the group had a sleazy, drug induced charm that made them counter culturally appealing, like Jagger and Richards in Northface jackets and Lugz.

Older Gods
Rap concerts are notoriously long, loud, tardy anti-climatic affairs. Rap music has thrived on using studio trickery to create an almost cinematic experience during playback, see above ride to the concert. This rarely translates well live on stage unless you are seeing old school veterans whose singular purpose is to rock the crowd. So if you go to such an affair, you prepare for the worst and find yourself amused by whatever scraps are thrown the audiences’ way.

Syracuse’s Woodfellas were the undercard. (There is a challenge to this group's credentials.  See comments below)  To their credit, they executed their performance well but were undermined by their material that made 90s white rap groups The Goats or Blood of Abraham sound truly dynamic and talented. While their posse of supporters were thick in one section, ultimately the biggest mock cheer came up as they left stage and their signage was removed and the Wu “W” banner descended.

Can you hear him now?
The Wu sent out LA the Darkman to hype up the crowd. LA is a long time Wu affiliate that always sounded better freestyling on radio than on anything he ever released. But there was a palatable excitement of a white audience when a real rapper walked on stage; “real” as in outfitted impeccably in sagging jeans, oversized leather jacket, hood up, eyes hidden and conspicuous gold chain glowing in contrast to his dark features. This is the type of perverse fascination that equates black skin with alluring danger that Richard Wright wrote about in Native Son 70 years ago.

For LA, "warming up the crowd" meant rapping menacing gun talk over his pre-recorded lyrics. For a little bit. Most of the time, he chanted “Turn me up, soundman, turn me up” endlessly on beat. I thought it was his new single. Over and over again he rapped “Turn me up, soundman, turn me up” until front of house obliged and brought the volume up to a rumbling earthquake. When he did rap, LA showed lyrical dexterity that far outshined the plodding Woodfellas and did, I suppose, increase the anticipation for the Wu.

New testament
Old testament
Surprisingly, the Clan hit the stage maybe 10 minutes after LA the Darkman, getting the show on the road by 10:30 pm. This had to be some sort of rap concert world record. The Clan began by ripping through the first 3 tracks of 36 Chambers non-stop: “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame On a...” and “Clan In Da Front.” They continued the frenzy with other highlights from the first LP, celebrated singles from solo LPs (“Liquid Swords,” “Bring the Pain,”) and a half a dozen Wu Tang Forever cuts. The performance was crisp, each song not lasting more than a few verses, 3 minutes tops. Each rappers performance was surprisingly tight and coherent, save some flubs by the GZA and the hoarse voice of Inspecta Deck. There was little pauses or asides between songs, pressing the show forward with an enjoyable wonder-what-song-is-next vibe.

Clan in the front
Cappa (left) thirsty for his catalog
Rae (right) rapping criminologist
Each member arrived on stage to much fan fare as they kicked their verses: the bulldog Raekwon, colorful Ghostface, verbally nimble Method Man, stately GZA, the focused energy of Masta Killa, the happy-to-be-here U God and the inconspicuous Inspecta Deck. Other notables were Meth side kick Street Life, Poppa Wu sermonizing over the O'Jay's “Family Reunion” and, to be sure, Cappadonna. He stood on the wings, bending back and forth to the beat like a rag doll until he could ferociously rap verses from “Ice Cream” or Forever favorite “For Heaven's Sake.”

When I die, my seed'll be ill like me
The Clan saved their most genuine hype for two unexpected special guests. First, was a teenaged Young Dirty
Use the Force
Bastard (left) who rapped his father material (“Brooklyn Zoo,” “Shimmy Shimmy Y'all”) with a mix of reverence and insatiable fervor. It was a reminder that at the height of Wu’s accession, ODB provided unpredictability and an irrepressible spirit, a welcome foil to the precision and seriousness of some of the Clan’s other MCs. The other guest was current northeast PA residents, S.I. transplants, the Force MDs (right) who appeared on stage after a lengthy and lauding introduction by Ghostface. There was no "Daytona 500" though- actually anything from Ironman- which was somewhat of a disappointment.

Speaking of catalog, what was clear was the “Rebirth” tour was not about a re-imagination of the Wu but actually about cementing the status of Wu Tang as it was during the mid 90s. There was not one song from any of the hit and miss Wu Tang LPs of this decade: The W, Iron Flag and 8 Diagrams. There was nothing from any solo members albums or guest spots from this decade, notably Ghostface “hits” or celebrated songs from Raekwon's Cuban Linx sequel.

Wu where? The unopened 21st century chambers

The Rebirth tour's intent is to ensure the back catalog of the Wu Tang Clan is understood as classic and undeniable today as it was then. There was very little, “Yo, I got a new album coming out and here's the first single...” type promotion from any of the members save for a moment at the end. In fact, there were two gracious monologues by Raekwon and Method Man thanking fans for their fandom. Meth went so far as to say that Stoudsburg was “liver” than Pittsburg but maybe he tells every crowd. Regardless, these are effective tools to oblige a fanbase.

Boom, and this,
any color you want
From a performance point of view, the Wu is not the Cold Crush but nor are they Jim Jones. Method Man and Young Dirty were by far the most energetic, running back and forth on stage, Meth literally stage diving and being carried by the crowd while he rapped. Ghostface (right) gave an occasional obligatory colorful editorial (“Turn off these fucking white lights, man. Make ‘em all purple and shit. Yeah, yeah, keep ‘em like that.”) The Clan’s DJ, Allah Mathematics gave the obligatory 45 second “kick off your shoes” lightning quick scratch routine in which he literally kicked off his Timbos while cutting and scratching with his feet.

GZA (left) and Deck (right)
authors not actors
of modern day operas
But otherwise, most members stood in place uninterestingly. There was a moment during “Duel of the Iron Mic” where all the members circled Inspecta Deck on one knee in deference to Deck's lament: “Plus shorty's not a shorty no more, he's livin heartless / Regardless of the charges, claims to be the hardest / individual, critical thoughts, criminal minded / Blinded by illusion, findin it confusin” The choreography highlighted the intent of the lyrics well. I am not suggesting the shuffle step and roll like the Temptations but a more coordinated stage show would go a long way for a visually more dynamic show.

I was told by Audiogoldrush partner Boogieman that sometimes the Clan's music doesn't necessarily translate to overseas audiences; Wu tracks lack melody, rumbling and booming, short clipped loops move in and out of the mix randomly. Earphone masterpieces to be sure but there are no spirit to move your limbs other than to nod your head when hearing the Clan. Hearing their music at 500 million decibels I have to agree. But only a few songs had any sense of musicality, these were tracks entirely propelled by the cleanly looped soul/R&B samples underneath such as “'97 Mentality.” There is no doubt; the Wu Tang is driven by the personality of each Clan member and their respective lyrics, period.

The absent Abbot
Which is why the RZA's conspicuous absence was inexplicably ignored by the Clan. Maybe it's old news. Nonetheless, the RZA's name was dropped only once during roll call, he was never acknowledged in a meaningful way and songs abruptly ended when his verse was due next. Judging the enthusiasm exuded by the attending Clan members, I could help thinking that the RZA has such a strong, sanctimonious personality the rest of the Clan was happy to play while the Abbot was away. Do financial and aesthetic disagreements still linger? Does it matter if by the close of the show, the crowd is rapping Triumph line for line ecstatically?

The RZA graduated from being simply a rapper and producer a long time ago and so maybe it was inevitable. The last song of the night was oddly “Da Rockwilder” by Method Man, sans Redman as the other members began to stroll off the stage. Along with RZA's absence, it was the only moment where you could see where the pieces of the Wu Tang puzzle begin to crack, where solo careers, different 'hoods, motives and priorities began to pull at the seams that keeps this thing together. Really, it was evidence that these dudes are bonded primarily by songs like “Protect Ya Neck” that are almost 20 years old. When you hear of a successful nationwide, 8-week tour playing such “oldies,” it is hard not to realize that the future of the Clan's music is preserving their past.

All live photos above from Sherman Theater, 1/1/11
Above video showcases DJ Allah Mathematics, Poppa's Wu sermon
and Forever favorites "Reunited" and "For Heaven's Sake"
from Rebirth Tour Chicago stop, 1/8/11


Lost Angels

If GG Allin and Ol' Dirty had a love child that sk8 and dress like the Pharcyde. These kids are unconscious and smart and not for the faint of heart. Coming soon to a theater near you.  Sample Thrasher interview below:

If Odd Future gets huge, do you think you’ll have to rap about less messed-up stuff?

Tyler, the Creator: I say be what the fuck you want to be. Always make music you want to listen to and fuck everyone else’s opinion. That is probably one of the reasons 
I like Jason Dill so much. He won’t do a big-ass nollie tré off a 15 set, but he’ll do a sick ollie off a bump in the middle of the street. I think that shit is amazing, because he’s skating the way he wants to. When I make a song, I think about it as if I was making a video sequence. I’m trying to put picturesque detail in your head while you’re listening to it.


ALS24 vs. Carl Sagan

A guest post from my daughter, Anna aka ALS24.  As hilarious as it is true...

Captain Sagan and his magical hand motions. He's doing a spell.
I am in what may be a literal spaceship, which may also be a literal dandelion, and, on top of that, is definitely a metaphorical embodiment of imagination and discovery, hurtling through space-time with an oddly dressed madman who is smiling wildly apparently at the beauty of it all. This happens to me quite a lot, but this time is different because neither am I watching Dr. Who, nor am I having one of my incredibly odd dreams. (Ed. note: she has really weird dreams) No, the strange things I see actually happened (sort of), a long time ago (read: the late 70s), in a galaxy far, far removed from normalcy. 

Like a creature from your worst nightmares...
This is Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. I’m only two or three episodes into it, but it’s already starting to creep into my mind at peculiar times, the way any show I immerse myself in does, and rightfully so. Cosmos, if it remains unknown to my poor, deprived reader, was a PBS television series about scientific discovery that aired in 1980 and was presented by Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist, author, science advocate, and über-nerd. Given that elevator pitch, I probably would have given up on it before it was half spoken, mostly because of the link with PBS, a channel I associate with crappy puppetry and awkward segments on the evils of spam mail by people who look like they think they’re talking about the Unabomber-esque figure who torments people by mailing them processed meat in a can.

However, I did not discover this show in a rational frame of mind. No, I found it late at night, while skimming through a Netflix channel labeled “Mind-Blowing Movies” (which also inexplicably included a Spiderman movie. Spiderman may be soul-crushingly whiny, but he is not mind-blowing. I really don’t know what the Netflix gnomes who make such decisions were thinking).  I clicked on it, entranced by the impression of it I had gotten through Symphony of Science, an incredible project that Auto-Tunes scientists (most prominently the aforementioned Dr. Sagan) speaking about the wonder of the universe. On a whim I watched an episode and what I saw changed me forever (maybe). 

You have to understand, floating calendars are part of this guy's
everyday life. This isn't weird for him. This is just Tuesday.
Cosmos seems like what would have happened if the Dharma Initiative took astronomical amounts of hallucinogens, and then wrote poetry about science and how "fucking beautiful the world is, man" and then someone made their genius/insane observations into the most widely watched series in the history of American public television at the timePresented to us by the show is an incredible universe, full of stars and supernovas and possibly aliens, and brimming with wonderment. Also presented in the show are these insane diorama things of places like the lost library at Alexandria and the “cosmic calendar”.  The universe is truly an incredible place, we are told repeatedly through beautiful images and enthralling, dramatic music.

"When will then be now? Soon."
Throughout our discoveries of these new worlds, we are given Carl Sagan as a guide. This is an interesting choice, given how ridiculous almost everything this man does on camera is. Yes, he is teaching science, but he’s teaching it while sitting in a field, smiling at a dandelion, wearing a leisure suit. The impression his guidance leaves you with is that someone has taken your high school physics professor, gotten them slightly high, dressed him in a polyester windbreaker/turtleneck/pants-and-sports-coat combo and told them to explain time travel to you. In other words, it’s awesome, despite the fact that it’s impossible to explain why.

As I watch the show, I find myself realizing while you can wonder at it, day dream about it, laugh at it, and get scared of it, you cannot attempt to dissect it. You can’t question. If what you thought was Earth turns out to be an alien planet, you roll with it. If we are suddenly on a rickshaw in Egypt, you just accept that fact. And if your cosmic chaperone has decided the only way he can communicate is through vaguely mysterious hand gestures like a stoned Italian, you will learn to love this. Because it’s all just part of the fathomless ballet that is this show.


B Side Wins Again

Honorable mention props for my Stax inspired remix of Public Enemy's "Say It Like It Really Is" 


ARM 18 Minutes of Funk - Lenten Sacrifice

Lenten? Maybe, as each song contemplates choices we make, things done or left undone. Ok, Group Home is a stretch.

Track Listing:
1. ARM 18 Intro
2. Moment of Truth -Gangstarr
3. Lately (I've Been Thinking) - Common & Sean Lett
4. Drink Away the Pain - Mobb Deep
5. Sacrifice - Group Home with Brainsick Mob
6. Life's a Bitch - Nas with AZ


Why a DJ Saved My Life Last Night

Admittedly I have held an aversion to iPods and the digital DJ software of this decade. Like the unfounded resentment you hold against your high school girlfriend’s adult husband, I was certain digital DJing could not compare to my old school analog love.

The ease of acquiring 50 billion gigs of music by the swap of a few hard drives undermined the single most important quality of any kind of DJ no matter the genre: selection. Prior to proliferation of compressed digital music, selection was largely based on a DJs ability to acquire and refine the ability to organize, select and master their material collection of music to maximize their ability to entertain. Even during that interim period of vinyl and mp3s, my man’s Cap Cee’s CD/DJ operation required a precise ability to manage a 50 book collection, recalling what CD and what track he wanted.

But I have come to the conclusion after watching Cap Cee and other digi MacBook DJs rock crowds with their Serato aided ability to mix and blend, I realize that effective DJs still very much employ the crucial skill of selection. If anything, I believe we are coming full circle to another renaissance period similar to 1970s and early 80s where a DJ who hones their craft can elevate party people to other worldly experiences.

The stories of the Paradise Garage or Bronx Hip Hop or Detroit’s Music Initiative are the legends of pioneering DJs crafting great breakthrough audio experiences, fortifying a communal subculture and transforming a night of dancing into a genre. All of these movements evolved from audiences being elevated by innovative DJ selection and production that united the immediate faithful and attracted critical interest after the fact.

As this decade re-establised the DJ as a connoisseur of the infinite digital pop music galaxy, I forsee communities and movements organizing themselves around the most talented, visionary DJs who have developed their own sound and particular experience. Why? Because as I listen to Pandora pick songs based upon a logarithm tailored to our tastes, it is evident how fractured and rare communal pop experiences are these days. Between iPods, the taboo of playing music in public spaces and the decline of terrestrial radio’s influence, the possibility of a worldwide- even nationwide- “Thriller” anymore are slim to none.

DJs may combat this alienation by making it a point to create their own particular palate of sounds. This will be of especially good news to the alternative/underground band/artist that live a life of quiet desperation presently. Think, the alternative artist’s whole mystique- championing the purposeful effort fans must make to discover your music, celebrating that the world at large doesn’t even know the artists name- is no longer a badge of honor but status quo. The underground is now united in anonymity, its obfuscation more monotonous than dangerous. When a DJ finds ways to take the unacknowledged and put it into a popular context, the rising tide elevates all involved.

I have purposely avoided the dramatic rhetoric of calling DJs “high priests of the dancefloor” or other such nonsense to try to deflect the inherent self service of my thesis. Think of DJs more as musical traffic cops, performing as both educator and entertainer. The best DJs will balance populist requests with daring selections that attempt to push the envelopes of audiences tastes and expectations. Otherwise, the pop music experience will be one of listeners united only by the banality of hard drive storage space, infinite choices and the loneliness of automated shuffle.


Anatomy Of A Murder : Black Moon's Enta Da Stage LP

Preface: For the purposes of fandom and content focus, this dusted discussion between myself and long time Bardian friend and ethnomusicologist George Murer (aka KG) focuses solely on the works of Evil Dee and Mr. Walt though Da Beatminerz team includes or has included Baby Paul, Rich Blak and Chocolate Ty. On another note, Ultramag's “Poppa Large (East Coast Remix)” in 1992 is credited to Ike Lee & Aaron Lyles as "Da BeatMinerz”, putting the production crew on the map but Lee and Lyles subsequently went their own ways. "Finsta Baby" was Evil Dee and Walt's first released production work.
Mr. Walt and Evil Dee

ARM 18: Evil Dee and Mr Walt's production profile emerged on a national level in 1992 with the Black Moon debut 12” single “Who Got the Props.” The hit single overshadowed the track on the flip, the organ propelled “F**k It Up.” While the texture of the underlying sample is interesting, the latter was a rudimentary uptempo jazz reflective of early 90s east coast hip hop. The “F**k It Up” intro even gives a moment to the group's unwieldy mission statement: Brothers who Lyrically Act and Combine Kickin Music Out On Nations. Not surprisingly, it was “Props” that received the spins and initial interest.

The elongated four bar “Props” sample was distinct, so lush with strings and electric piano my first guess at hearing it assumed the Brand New Heavies or some live band had been sampled. Sampling to this point in hip hop music had largely been 1 or 2 bar samples or snippets of samples overlapped. The length of the backing track carried the energetic, young Buckshot Shorty easily like a boat on water. Alternately, a MW Smooth Mix of “Props” was mixed by the studio appeared on the 12” as insisted upon by Nervous Records label owner Mike Weiss. It combined the long sampled groove with a New Orleans be bop trumpet and trombone intro that feels like a compulsory nod to the jazz horn filled hip hop of that early 90s era.
Ultimately, “Props” production hinted at a new direction of the digging in the crate jazz-hop aesthetic that was to emerge in the next year on Black Moon's full length Enta Da Stage and A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders most notably. But even “Props” did not prepare any avid fan of hip hop of this era for what Enta Da Stage had in store production wise when it was released in November of 1993.

Explaining the fairly successful DJ, radio, and critical reaction to
Enta Da Stage's music is a story of its singles and album cuts and the interplay of the two. Preceding the album by a few weeks, “How Many Emcee's” was what I would call a version record. Considering the Jamaican influence Evil Dee and Walt pepper their music with throughout their career, it is not a stretch to identify “How Many” as such. The Grover Washington “Hyrda” loop had been used by EPMD two years prior but for Black Moon's first single, Evil Dee and Walt chop it in half to one bar, adding understated horns and flutes that flutter in time like flags in the wind. A classic KRS line is cut up in the hook. It was tough but accessible with its familiar sampled elements. Two other album cuts, the opener, “Powerful Impak!,” “Black Smif n Wessun” and “Slave” were versions of already broken beats. Whether serving as a hook to the average listener or a creative retort to other producers or simply flipping a record as requested by Buckshot, either way these types of tracks were straightforward whereas the majority of the album's production pushed the envelope of established production practices.

ARM 18: It is these album cuts that really make Enta Da Stage a remarkable piece of Hip Hop production work. The four bar bass loop of “Niguz Talk S--t” emerges a churning leviathan, with slapping dusty drums and a brittle echoing horn swinging forward over the pitch black bottom bassline. Another four bar walking bassline is found in “Son Get Wrec” with sporting drums, swinging to great effect again. The long horn sample of “S--t Iz Real” smothers the churning basslines and pulsating drums for a unique sonic tension.

KG: It's also interesting to wonder, behind the mythology of the perpetual digging in the crates or rooting around in Aunt Millie's record collection, what sort of consultations might have been going on that would have delivered some of these less obvious source materials into consideration. Like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the Ten Wheel Drive or "Mannekind" for "Come Clean". These are not ready-made motifs really. I'm not doubting that it could all have happened in the conventional listen-to-a-ton-of-music-and-construct-a-dope-beat sort of way but I bet there are some interesting accidents and interventions here and there. Agency in music built upon samples and collage can be wonderfully diffuse.

countercounterARM 18: Even when Da Beatminerz employed shorter, more conventional basslines, the “melody” and warmth provided an intriguing mood that only a few producers to this point had captured save for the pioneering efforts of Large Professor's “Looking At the Front Door”, Gangstarr's “Ex Girl” or Pete Rock's “Reminisce.”  Examples of this can be found in “Ack Like U Want It”, the album version of “Buck 'Em Down," "Make Munne" “Enta Da Stage.” My fascination with “I Got Cha Opin” for this fact is well documented.

countercounterKG: There seems to be a fascinating genealogy. The same way that Led Zeppelin built upon and perfected the monster bassy riff that had already been put forth by like Iron Butterfly and Cream and before them by Charlie Mingus perhaps and other jazz cats with their bass and baritone sax ostinatos, I feel like the Beatminerz have been able to hone in on elements introduced, as you mention, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth and Main Source.

counterARM 18: Taken as a whole, there is dark and blunt sound to this entire LP. Somewhat similar to Nirvana's Nevermind, all the highs seem to have been EQd out of the mix except for perhaps in the snares. Horns, scratches, strings, even vocals seem to be muffled in a sonic smog. It lends itself to a low-fi sound in stark contrast to the bright and expansive mixes of Dr. Dre in The Chronic or Efilrofzaggin. Nor does the production sound as intrinsic like Bomb Squad or deliberately jazzy like A Tribe Called Quest. The beats for Enta Da Stage rumble like a subway train underneath pavement, seemingly alive and sinister in its unstoppable force.

KG: A lot of the production models and aesthetic choices you have discussed- for instance the warming up of the bass line- seem to have exerted considerable influence on a whole wing of production-based music, like stuff one associates with "lounges" and boutiques, a kind of welcoming, "naturally soulful," unostentatiously electronic sound with a back bone of beautified hip hop grooves. It's always very studied and it's interesting to imagine its architects pouring over some of these examples.

Coming Soon, Part Two: Enta Da Stage's Singles, Remixes and B-sides