Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On an L.A. metro train

On an L.A. metro train
(nobody rides them
except crazy people),
I did something stupid.

I won’t say just what
because I don’t want to glorify
my actions. It was not a glorious thing to do,
it was a stupid thing to do.

A female beggar sitting across from me
was talking out the side of her face
to no one in particular,
asking to trade her panhandled coins for bills.

The sparse train car
was trying its best to pay attention
to anything else.

A security officer walked the center aisle,
coming from behind us,
asking to see tickets.

He asked the coin changer and she
lied the story of purchasing her ticket
while act-riffling through her effects,
where did her ticket go?

Then I did the stupid thing
and I should have been arrested,
the woman behind me said,
the cop was just a softy.

You can’t do things like that,
what would your mother think if you were arrested,
another said,
you’re not someone special.

Two other people patted me on the back,
you're a hero they said,
but never to do something like that
ever again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If It Ain't Ruff

(to be published in the forthcoming book "The Strength of Street Knowledge: Deep Inside NWA's Straight Outta Compton")

Straight Outta Compton is like a car crash you pass on the road except instead of the curiosity and voyeurism of disaster drawing you in, MC Ren is screaming at you to pay attention to him but that if you pay the wrong kind of attention he’s going to shoot you. So you better just nod your head, wave your hands from side to side, and enjoy yourself. You don’t really have any other choice in the matter.

On “If It Ain’t Ruff” MC Ren is given his own shot at defining the image and aesthetics of the group. Rapping over alternating guitar samples from Average White Band’s “A Star in the Ghetto”, Ren asserts himself as a natural-born antagonist. He establishes an easy to loathe persona, that of a violent, fear-inducing, girlfriend-stealing hoodlum from Compton. The biographical truth behind this image is debatable, but it doesn’t really affect the appeal of the song. In fact, using authenticity as a criterion for enjoying despicably violent entertainment is arguably despicable in itself. Whether Ren is or isn’t a cold-hearted, shoot your mother for a dollar style killer, he’s in a position to report on that type of figure. If one isn’t blinded by the criminal nature of the content and chooses to accept N.W.A.’s lyrics as journalism and cultural commentary, the group’s underdog status and charismatic bravado in the face of dismal context makes their success worth rooting for.

The sample source for the song has surprisingly parallel themes to N.W.A.’s back-story. A collaboration between Ben E. King and Average White Band, the lyrics of “A Star in the Ghetto” dismiss the signifiers traditionally associated with success in the music industry. The song shows disdain for the Grammy awards and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as established institutions such as Hollywood, Broadway, and Carnegie Hall. Since the song’s creation Ben E. King and Average White Band have both been lauded with the very honors they refute in the song. Like N.W.A., these musicians step outside of their own personal experiences to convey sentiments that are easy to identify with. The message and attitude of the song applies more accurately to the then-ignored West Coast hip-hop scene that gave rise to N.W.A than the canonized blues musicians who wrote it.

Dr. Dre takes the introduction from “A Star in the Ghetto” and adds a few touches of his own. Average White Band’s opening guitar line stinks of G-funk, but in the original version it’s quickly overshadowed by string and horn countermelodies. Dre ditches everything but the hard-hitting drum line and picked guitar figure. He adds a shaker to create an ominous pulsing groove and pans reverbed scratches to give the beat a large sense of space. After a brief instrumental intro, Ren jumps on the track and delivers an opening two lines that are perhaps his strongest in the song.

Threatening assertions and their reciprocal depictions of fear are Ren’s lyrical bread and butter. In the song’s first line he declares himself a villain and the listener a hostage forcefully captivated but repulsed by Ren’s persona. His threatening nature is a source of control over the audience and they are unexpectedly hypnotized by his charisma. The hostage-taking scenario also explores the idea of surprise, one of N.W.A.’s primary themes. Nobody expected the west coast’s ascendant rise in popularity and the group takes every opportunity to remind listeners that they’re coming out of left field.

The second line extends the metaphor using the same cause and effect structure but integrates less traditionally antagonistic imagery. Ren continues the hostage-taking line of imagery by advising them to “cover their head” and hide on the ground like an ostrich. This is Ren at his sharpest lyrically, reappropriating otherwise tame images into extended metaphors declaring his powers of intimidation.

Other than frightening the listener, Ren’s secondary goal is to denounce critics that question his authenticity. This begins in the third and fourth lines of the song as he describes the dichotomy created by his personal history. He directly addresses commentators who question the reality behind his image. His success is jealousy inducing to people who came from the same upbringing and question why Ren and his crew take it upon themselves to speak out. These critics eventually realize that the reason N.W.A. rose up above their peers is simply because they were cool enough to pull it off.

It’s important that Ren establishes this idea of authenticity, despite the questionable foundation in fact, in order to give his message credibility. Part of the frustration that runs through the group’s lyrics is based on the lack of commentary regarding their cultural position, and if they don’t establish themselves as primary sources, the message loses its power because most listeners don’t want to identify with a blatantly fabricated image. Although most fans can’t relate to the Boyz in the Hood style violence that N.W.A. have famously become intertwined with, the listener can easily recognize the age-old theme of coming from nothing, a claim that the group defends throughout the album.

The song’s chorus is the most blatant argument for Ren’s authenticity, a simple reflexive boast that “if it ain’t ruff, it ain’t me.” His identity is intertwined with the idea of appearing tougher than rocks. He denounces even the idea of being soft, the possibility doesn’t exist. He isn’t refined, cultured, or sophisticated, he’s ruff. He takes the traditionally negative term and uses it as a stamp of pride, which is what N.W.A. is all about. Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. Taking pride in this lack of refinement is another method by which listeners can relate to Ren’s image.

Not lyrically the strongest track on the album, Ren starts to sound like a bit of a broken record. He carries the same themes throughout, doing a passable job of depicting himself as someone you don’t want to mess with, but he doesn’t really break any new ground thematically. Several times throughout the song Ren awkwardly uses a reflexive lyrical conceit, essentially reusing the same phrase twice for no apparent reason but to complete a rhyme. It’s distracting and proof that at this point in his career Ren simply isn’t quite up to snuff lyrically with some of the other group members, but if you ignore the nonsensical repetition and occasionally disconnected statements, there are a few gems in the ruff.

The most interesting lyrics are Ren’s attempts to flip everyday imagery into signifiers of fear, intimidation, and charisma. “Get a cold rag and wipe your neck” is a simple line, but it’s a commanding way for Ren to once again illustrate a punchy cause and effect. He’s so in charge that he’s going to make you sweat then condescendingly tell you to go fix the problem. In the next line he says that you might as well clean your face while you’re at it to avoid acne, an awkwardly juvenile insult coming from a supposedly stone-cold killing machine and an indicator that he isn’t nearly as skilled at crafting longer more complicated chains of lyrics.

The third verse features another good example of flipping an ordinary image. Referencing the do not disturb sign often found hanging from the handles of hotel doors, Ren lets you know he doesn’t want to be bothered, and that usually when he doesn’t want to be bothered it’s because he’s deciding who he wants to fuck with next. His default state is that of the antagonist.

But despite all of MC Ren’s violent and aggressive tendencies, no one he directs his lyrics at can seem to deny his charisma. This love-hate relationship between Ren and his audience is representative of the whole idea behind gangsta rap and the reason an entire generation was genuinely dumbfounded by the genre’s appeal. As N.W.A. broke into the mainstream, the majority of their listeners weren’t urban youth who identified with the criminal personas created by the group, but rather suburban kids drawn in by familiar themes filtered through an inherently foreign cultural lens. Most fans may not be able to sympathize to the criminal elements of N.W.A., but they can no doubt relate to their greater myth of working towards one’s goals from a culturally, geographically, and economically disadvantaged position.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bon Iver

BON IVER (Oct. 4)

In winter of 2007, musician Justin Vernon moved from Raleigh, N.C., to a remote cabin in rural northwestern Wisconsin. After leaving his band and breaking up with his girlfriend, Vernon needed some time to think. Days spent performing simple chores gave way to cathartic day-long recording sessions. After three months in solitude, he played the rudimentary recordings for friends and became convinced the songs were worth hearing. Vernon self-released the album as {For Emma, Forever Ago} under the moniker Bon Iver and a star was born.

The project’s name (pronounced “bohn eevair”) comes from a purposeful misspelling of the French phrase meaning “good winter” and, for Vernon, it certainly was. After Internet acclaim, the album saw a proper release in 2008 on the independent label Jagjaguwar to wide critical praise. An intensely personal listening experience, it showcases Vernon’s vulnerable falsetto over acoustic guitars and beds of reverb-soaked harmonies. Each of the deceptively simple folk songs is like a private snapshot of his failed relationship and subsequent isolation.

After playing both the Glastonbury and Bonnarro festivals, Vernon, known for his exhilarating live performances, heads to Austin for the Live Music Capital of the World’s seal of approval. Much to the delight of badge-holders and non-badge-holders alike, he’ll be promoting the new EP, {Blood Bank}, first at ACL Fest, with a followup gig at the Paramount. Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave., 472-5050,

The Punch!

The Punch!

I’ve always had trouble taking off sweaters. I can never position my arms correctly to snake out of the sweater efficiently- there’s always some awkward pretezeling of arms and rising of my undershirt to expose my hips and stomach. It is not a casual exercise, I feel like a desperate man who knows he will not succeed and tries regardless. But now was not the time to worry about my exposed belly, I had madder dogs at my heels.

Taking off my sweater was a necessary part of the plan. It was very cold outside, and the thin black t-shirt underneath the sweater was not suitable armor for the early evening, but I wanted the wind at my elbows and the hair on my arms standing at attention. I also wanted to go unnoticed as the man who had just punched Rudy Giuliani in the face.

The punch was quick, one might call it a sucker punch in order to vilify my character, but I implore you not to subscribe to that type of commentary. Out of left field, true, but I must say that Ol' Rudy had a shot coming to him whether or not he was expecting it.

For the record, he wasn’t expecting it. He was holding a small child and posing for a photograph. All he was expecting were the lights of a few snake-jointed flash bulbs. I took advantage of that light. I could tell that he was smiling and waving to the morning papers rather than the cameramen or even the crowd, absorbed in the projected image of himself, blinded and unaware of his surroundings. Rudy thought of the impending by-lines and braced his eyes for the flash-bulbs, but he didn’t brace his neck for a right hook across the temple from a meek looking man in a black and gray argyle sweater.

I gave it to him good and the feeling of my knuckles crossing the left side of his forehead was like a great release. I had invested a great deal of time hating this man and I was letting him have it right in the face right in public and now I'm gonna have to throw this sweater in the dumpster because I've gotta look ultimately casual when I re-emerge from this alley, not like a man who just awkwardly changed clothes.

The pundits may say that this was the act of a simpleton with little to no plan, but I do take pride in some of the smaller details of the attack. I knew that Rudy was right-handed, and would therefore be supporting the head of any photo-opted child with his right hand. As fate would have it, I am also right-handed, allowing me to use my stronger arm to deliver the punch. I had also purchased a smoke bomb from a firecracker store and lit it just before the punch to add a theatrical element and cause enough confusion for an escape.

As I darted towards Chambers St., I did feel a sudden pang of regret and guilt. I did not expect the baby to go flying from Rudy’s warm leather-gloved hands. I wasn’t able to witness it’s landing (I was already running through the slowly building cloud of smoke and panicked crowd), but unless there was some stroke of great luck, that child will never be as smart as it could have been, because it’s head probably hit the ground very hard. This collateral damage was not my intention, only a consequence of the situation, and again I implore you to view the events with an open mind and not listen to the talking heads that will undoubtedly call my actions savage and irresponsible.

Weaving the 200 meters from the steps of City Hall to the Chambers St. alley was much easier than I thought. You might imagine hundreds of brave citizens immediately dragging me to the ground and piling on top of me like a loose football. This was not the case. The success of my escape was due largely to my smoke bomb, which performed rather admirably given that I received it free of charge after buying five other fireworks. Usually those things don’t even work, so let me tell you I was pretty excited to see smoke rising quickly above crowd-level, the smell of sulfur causing people to cough and become scared of an impending explosion. But it would be an error of humility to place all of the credit on that little smoke bomb. To take off some of the heat I pretended to be talking on my cell phone as I fled the scene and kept repeating that someone else just punched Giuliani and that it was a crazy thing to do.

I blame Rudy’s press-hungry, front-page mongering, exploitation for whatever happened to that young child who has no idea what New York was like before Giuliani decided to clean things up in the early nineties. But I understand that not everyone has spent two months in prison and therefore does not have the same perspective as me. If I thought that everyone had the same perspective as me I could emerge from this alley in my argyle sweater, warm and protected from the chill of late autumn, and raise my hands in the air and receive cheers for my bravery. But I understand the perspectives of others, and therefore I emerged wearing a New York Yankees cap and sunglasses, and not with my hands held high but one of them in my pants pocket and the other smoking a cigarette, looking maximum cool.

Emerging from the alley was the trickiest part of the plan. Despite my casual appearance, I did not go completely unnoticed. I was immediately tackled by a man much larger than myself, a man of gigantic proportions, a whale of a man. I flailed my arms in protest and feigned innocence, but he did not loosen his grip on me. As he lay stretched out on top of me on the ground I acted quickly, before a large crowd could form. The cigarette I casually puffed on my exit from the alley had flown from my hand as I was tackled, but it was still lit on the ground and within arms reach. I grabbed it and burned the whale of a man on the right side of his neck, just below his ear.

The man screamed and loosened his grip. People began gathering around the spectacle we had created. I freed myself and stood up, pointing and yelling at the man, accusing him of punching Rudy Giuliani. He screamed back at me from the ground, calling me a liar and blaming me for the attack. I felt like the people were on my side, largely because this man was so overweight and he was on the ground in a position of vulnerability, just where they would want their criminal to be. Call the police I said! Someone call the police!

Here is where my quick thinking truly paid off. In my pocket I had a string of Hot Pops, the other five fireworks that I had purchased from the fireworks store. As I backed into the forming crowd I lit the fuse casually, and dropped the string of fireworks on the ground. It exploded in five loud pops like gunshots, and the crowd reacted, running away from the whale of a man on the ground and forgetting all about me in my black t-shirt and Yankees cap.

Lucky J's Chicken and Waffles

Lucky J’s
5703 Burnet Road, 512.300.6262

In a town like Austin where Tex-Mex is king and barbeque a close second in command, you usually have to go to a national mutant-meat chain if you’re craving fried chicken. Not only does Lucky J’s fill that fowl-shaped hole in local menus, they drizzle it with maple syrup and serve it on top of golden waffles.

Inspired by Harlem soul food diners and the popular California chain Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, experienced Austin chef Jason Umlus (Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, Roux on 6th) recently opened the city’s first mobile-eatery dedicated to this artery clogging combo. Lucky J’s red and black checkered trailer on Burnet Road serves tender on-the-bone leg, wing, thigh and breast meat under a crispy layer of fried goodness, alongside generous helpings of freshly-pressed waffles. You’ll be surprised how well syrup compliments the savory flavor of the chicken. Wash it all down with home-brewed sweet tea, or if you’re thirsty for something stronger, Lucky J’s encourages customers to bring their own alcohol so you don’t have to sip on that sizzurp to get a buzz.

Their weekend brunch menu remixes the town’s ubiquitous breakfast tacos by wrapping ham, sausage, potatoes and cheese in waffles instead of tortillas, making for a satisfying hangover cure. Live bands on Saturdays and open turntables on Sundays (wash those greasy paws first, scratch-master) also make Lucky J’s an ideal afternoon pre-partying spot if you’re not too obliterated from the night before.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Stop Thief!

One time I imaginary stole
an aging Chinaman’s baby blue sailors hat
outside a duck roasting joint on a
hilly San Francisco sidewalk.

Plastic bags of Asian groceries swayed
left and right as he staggered down the street,
shrinking a little with each step.

From a distance the hat seemed
impossible to remove,
like stealing a smile from a statue.
It was the pivotal piece of his wardrobe,
but I had to have it.

The old man’s face wrinkled inward
at the intrusion of my arm
and he dropped his grocery bags.
He flailed his tiny joints,
pointing and screaming in Mandarin,
but by then his hat was mine.

I Get Money, Money I Got

(Originally published on the Rancho Relaxo blog on June 3, 2008)

In 1987, Curtis Jackson III was 12 years old and living in Queens with his grandparents, following the murder of his mother. If his grandparents subscribed to cable television, he might have seen a music video for “Top Billin’”, the surprise hit B-side from Audio Two’s single “Make It Funky”, on upstart music channel MTV. 1988 marked the launch of Yo! MTV Raps, broadcasting hip-hop into households across America, attaching visual significations to a burgeoning musical movement. It was also the year Curtis started selling cocaine.

20 years later, Curtis Jackson is better known as 50 Cent, and he doesn’t have to sell cocaine anymore. He is the second highest grossing rapper in the world with an estimated 32 million dollars in earnings in 2006 alone. He has his own brand of bottled water, condoms, body spray, a line of shoes under license to Reebok, two video games, a best-selling autobiography, two novels, and a film career. Audio Two, the duo of emcee Milk D and DJ Gizmo, have been relegated to relative obscurity. Their two LPs What More Can I Say? and I Don’t Care: The Album (both titles referential to single “Top Billin’”) sold so poorly that their third didn’t see a release. Milk D attempted to continue a solo career with the help of producer Rick Rubin, but it received little commercial or critical attention.

Despite Audio Two’s lack of future accolades, “Top Billin’” retains certified hip-hop sure-shot status. A golden era gem, it is referenced and sampled by both the hip-hop mainstream and underground. The likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, MF Doom, Danger Mouse, Madlib, and even Ed-Bangette Uffie have paid homage to Milk D’s laid back party rhymes and the disjointed funk drum programming by Stetasonic. But the most noticeable Audio Two reference in recent memory comes from 50 Cent on the first single from his 2007 album Curtis entitled “I Get Money.” Although it did not achieve the chart topping status of 50 Cent’s early singles (peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot Rap Charts), it was critically lauded and served as a ubiquitous promotion for Curtis, mainly through the success of the single’s music video.

Landing on the top spot on BET’s 106 & Park hip-hop countdown, the music video is an overwhelming piece of work. It begins with an LCD light marquee scrolling 50 Cent’s name in neon blue that explodes in digital flames, replaced with the minty green text “I Get Money.” The camera rapidly zooms and the shot cuts to a tightly framed letterbox image of Curtis blowing out two green candles in the shape of a 5 and 0. The candles are set on stacks of bound $100 bill bundles, as if they were a cake. Out of nowhere Funkmaster Flex declares, “This is the hottest record out.” The camera pulls back to reveal Curtis Jackson wearing a dew-rag, smiling. He wasn’t actually blowing out the candles; he was fanning them with a handful of more one hundred dollar bills.

The song’s production is minimal and aggressive. A dark meandering synth line accompanies gunshot snares, deadened kick drums and lack of hi-hat to create an undeniably sinister backing track. The letterbox frame around 50’s smiling face begins scrolling the text “I Get It, I Get Money” and the 1987 vocals of Milk Dee from Audio Two are sampled into a stuttering declaration of wealth, forming the song’s hook, “I get money, money I got.”

The video’s images loosely follow the lyrical content, displaying visual proof of 50 Cent’s bank balance. As Curtis rhymes about Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars, and Ferraris, the cars are used as stripper poles by a near-naked collection of hip-hop video girls. He brags about writing child support checks before the baby is even born and hands a check for one million dollars to a woman standing next to a 5 year old dressed in matching G-Unit T-shirt and headband. After a catalog listing of euphemisms for money, 50 Cent breaks open a package of Wonderbread to reveal it to be full of even more one hundred dollar bills.

The scrolling LCD marquee from the intro letterboxes the video for the entirety of the song, adding textual reinforcement to the lyrics and images. It follows the song’s hook with the text “I Get It!!” “I Get Money!” and “I Run New York!”, but also divulges from the lyric content, baiting other rappers with lines like “Pay Attention Stupid This Is Hip Hop” and “Watch This Sucka, Curtis Is Comin’ I’m #1”. The neon text declares “I’m Still Undefeated Undisputed, Hahahaha Straight To The Bank.” The subtitles conclude with a smart bit of marketing, a listing of the producers featured on 50’s new album. Curtis sold 691,000 copies in its first week.

But let’s backtrack 20 years. Back to when 50’s sneakers were a few sizes smaller and they weren’t his own signature Reebok model. In 1987, the release of “Top Billin’” by Audio Two was accompanied by a video of it’s own. It begins with a lo-fi digital wipe to reveal rapper Milk Dee drinking milk from a glass bottle.

The first striking parallel between the two videos is the use of textual supplements. Instead of the Technicolor scrolling marquee that letterboxes 50 Cent, Audio Two uses white poster board, held by extras that are presumably friends of the group. The poster-board subtitles stick to the song’s lyrics. Instead of reiterating Milk D and DJ Gizmo’s wealth, they serve as textual accompaniment for the subject matter of the lyrics. The low-budget aesthetic ads to the playful, relaxed and informal tone of the video.

From here things start to get confusing because I have a certain reverence for old school hip-hop music video aesthetics. Production values are so low they’re nearly non-existent. The locations and crowds couldn’t feel more authentic and relaxed. Everyone in the videos just seems to be having a great time, proud to claim the spotlight and show the world how they live. For a fan of old-school hip-hop who wasn’t ever a participant in the early subculture, these videos are a testament to my after the fact nostalgia for hip-hop’s roots.

Audio Two’s dingy production values, candid-style footage of the group, and choice to include footage of a concert performance, albeit one most likely staged for the filming of this video, captures that sense of realism that fuels my appreciation of older hip-hop. But by getting wrapped up in the joyful, asexual movements of Audio Two’s dancers, the genuine excitement of the crowd shots, and the silly milk bottles everywhere, it’s easy to ignore that both songs are essentially proclaiming the same thing. Milk D rhymes about partying, girls, money, and being a better rapper than just about anybody else. 20 years later 50 Cent is rapping about the same things, the difference is that he has the bank account to back them up.

The hip-hop stars of the eighties could not fathom the wealth and excess of rappers like 50 Cent and I love them for it. The bragging about money and fame seem an after-thought to the good times displayed in the video, not the driving force behind them. The depiction of money in Audio Two’s video is so detached from the duo that it’s almost ignorable. The shots of small-faced $100 bills are shown in passing, a quick cut to the bills blossoming out of an extra’s jean jacket pocket. The signification of money isn’t directly attached to Milk D’s image, it is acknowledging a consequence of his success. The shift is subtle but incredibly important. Money is a result of his identity, not a defining characteristic.

Many of the prominent symbols in the videos have evolved to explicitly include money in their significations. Audio Two’s matching embroidered jackets have warped into a bulletproof vest encrusted with diamonds spelling out Curtis. The hip-hop video girls have gone from wearing discreet black leotard pants and tube tops to G-Unit stripper wear. Instead of serving as silly ambiance, children are depicted wearing gold chains and showing a gleeful dependence on Curtis Jackson’s bank account. The charm of these visual signs, formerly rooted in sincerity, has evolved with cold calculation.

Even the chorus of “I Get Money” holds a fundamentally different signification than Audio Two’s original lyrics. The sampled line from the Audio Two song, “I get money, money I got”, is a party-rhyme twist of syntax that allows Milk D to use the words hunnies and hot to brag about his sexual appeal in the following line. It supports Audio Two’s chorus, “What more can I say, top billin’”, by building an image of self esteem that isn’t directly tied to any single signification in the video, but rather Audio Two’s overall success. 50 Cent re-appropriates the line as part of a branding statement, a specific and fundamental idea that drives his image and lifestyle.

I’m not trying to say that Milk D wouldn’t flash a smile if someone put a stack of hundreds in his hands and told him to use them to fan out candles spelling Audio Two. Filming a video for “Top Billin’” in 1987 was a financially driven marketing decision, but also served an important and authentic document of a cultural movement that hadn’t quite yet hit the mainstream. It was an investment into the talent, charisma, and legitimacy of a growing musical genre. 20 years later, “I Get Money” and 50 Cent’s entire mythology isn’t a slap in the face of hip-hop’s original values, but a reaffirmation of their power. It stretches the ideas to their absolute limits, detaches them from their original signification, and hollows the core, creating a social figure whose perfect exaggeration of a culture has come to define it.

I love you all