Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hip Hop, ours.

I want to write about hip hop, and what it means  to me. I’m not ?uestlove, I’m not critiquing from within. But there’s a place, I think, for me, and for my voice.

Listen with me to Danny Brown’s  Fields. Read along with the lyrics. Hear the spaces in the chorus - “And where I lived...It was house, field field. Field, field house. Abandoned house, field field.” You’re driving with him down grey-blue streets in Detroit, each word is a lot you pass. He’s gesturing out the window. Live it with me, he asks. So if earlier on the album, he becomes his most repulsive self, a consummate misogynist, what do you do? Do you think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing: “The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel,” and feel pity for Danny? Or do you hold him to the same standard you’d want to be held to, and wish to tell him that this performance is evil? And if off-stage, he still seems like his demonic self - gosh, I don't even want to link to it; I'm so embarrassed for Danny, and A$AP to boot - what do you say then? Are we still listening? 

I think all of us - people who are into hip hop, people probably my age and probably not much older, anyone who wants their art to channel anger into skill - remember the first time we capital L Listened to a rap album. I certainly liked Black Star. I still hear the B A S S bass in Astronomy and am back to early college, when I still had hair and spent time in Katonah, when the quality of their lyrics astounded me. But no, it was on a train home to DC from Princeton in Winter 2011, sunny Northeast bleak day. Kanye’s MBDTF. Listen to the chords that open Can We Get Much Higher, the way they twist. And maybe you’ll forget everything you think you know about Kanye the human and do nothing for 80 minutes but listen to the stories that unfold over thirteen tracks. You’re not judging, and you’re not identifying, not if you’re with me. But we are listening carefully. And if you’re with me still, then we start looking backwards. The perfect synthesis between beats and story-telling on We Got it For Cheap- from crack to rap to back to selling it pure. The outlandish perfectionism of the early Wu-Tang, their knack for picking exactly the right words. The disquieting nihilism of Biggie. The power and grace of Nas at the top of his game, battle-scarred and victorious. 

There’s a place for people like you in the culture! Here’s Peter Rosenberg on the radio, Rick Rubin consulted by everyone, How about your first cousin going by Mr. Green, making beats for strivers, turning spontaneous art into polished blueprints. So you hear repulsive things by people who you think just don’t get it. Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, even people you like (Pusha), talking about women like they’re consumption goods, always speaking to a male audience. You recognize how pathetic the masculinist fantasy is that moves it, and sometimes you’re just singing along, hey, it’s got a catchy hook by Kelly Rowland! But wait, are you identifying? 

Of course. It’s your best available option, the genre that’s innovating and has something to say. What should we do about our ambivalence? The aspects of the performance that are horrifying and harmful? Nothing. I’ve already paid up, I’m going to governor’s ball to see Outkast, Run The Jewels, Earl, Tyler, maybe Childish Gambino if Dan insists. 

But first, here, have a taste. The beat is so butter. Be a discriminating audience, and consume carefully. But there’s no going back now. Hip hop, it’s ours, we’re its.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Grad School, and New York

Hanging out in the library
Quite a few times, I heard that I should expect graduate school to be miserable; a professor at Swarthmore’s short answer to whether anyone should go at all was “no” and a different professor said that his first year of his PhD was the worst of his life, and that was just how PhD programs were. I’m just writing to say that so far, this has been hands down the most gratifying and meaningful professional experience of my life. Nothing on the costs/disadvantages side of the ledger — we could be making more money; we could be feeling like we’re having more impact; we are sometimes very busy — seems significant. And the advantages are terrific. My “work” is often talking to really smart people about things I care about; past some not-very-high threshold, there’s pretty much no external pressure for the next five years; once you’re part of an institution/network, opportunities for really cool things just seem to pop up; and the entire structure seems designed to help me pursue pretty much anything I decide is interesting. I’m just really happy things worked out the way they did.

Having said that, I can see why not everyone would like it. A strong perfectionist streak would be a burden. I think people who come from jobs in which they’re used to frequent feedback might feel a little adrift with how rarely anyone evaluates or praises our work. The academic writing and publishing style might be kind of constraining if you're really creative. But probably because of who I am, none of that bothers me, and for a certain kind of person, I couldn’t recommend graduate school enough. Job? Whatever. I’ll deal with that in 5-6 years. For now the experience is just intrinsically pleasurable.

I can’t say Columbia is as high-functioning as it could be. If the university were a PC, the department I’m in is like a fancy video card with the capability to magically update itself every few years. The administration is more like Vista: opaque and not oriented around users’ needs. The campus itself is like a gorgeous enclosure with some truly baffling internal wiring decisions. And IT support/their services are exactly like every workplace IT department you’ve ever encountered. (Are there any large, bureaucratic institutions anywhere that work well?)

But none of that matters because a) outside of my department I need very few things from the school — books, a quiet place to read, and really just one printer that works — and b) New York. Living here is just the best. I feel like there are so many people with preferences extremely similar to mine that it is never a challenge to find something that is cheap and exactly what I want to do. And because those people and I are so similar, I tend to like them.  You're perfect, oh please don't change a thing.

Today I’m going to learn some stuff; tomorrow I’m going to see a free classical show and then Nancy Whang do a DJ set in Williamsburg. And as she says, “I never thought I’d see the day, so I thank you just for being so damn, excellent.”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Four things to make rap shows fuller performances

Waiting for Kanye at Governor's Ball

One way in which I try to fill the empty forever is by going to concerts. Most often I go to classical -- the free shows around New York are just amazing -- and a fair smattering of EDM. At home, however, I mostly listen to rap. I think it's a generational thing, but to me, hip-hop seems like the genre that is both innovating right now and really has something to say. Rap shows, however, are often not my jam, and I think they could be much better.  Here are some ideas for how:

1) A live band instead of a DJ. It would be really cool to see a group of instrumentalists try to reproduce the interesting textures of great albums, and, for what it's worth, there is absolutely no substitute for being at a show with a live drum set. They wouldn't even have to be entirely accurate to, say, the weird melody which cuts off the dialogue on GZA's 4th chamber; I'd really just like to see someone play that on guitar or marimba or whatever! It would be surprising, and something you couldn't get just by listening to an album really loudly at your house. On that note,

2) More improvisation and chance. A lot of shows I see take you through a rapper's greatest hits, sometimes greatly sped up or abridged (Nas actually did this really well at Governor's Ball). I like that, but I would like some freestyles, unreleased material, or a verse mix and match even more.  good remixes are often just that -- peep Biggie's Suicidal Thoughts verse over Kanye's  Runaway -- and it would be fun to see rappers do the same thing with their own material, i.e. hear Pusha-T put his When the Last Time 16 over Nosestalgia. I mean it might work, and it might not. But it would be interesting, something you just could not get at home.

3) Put in a dance routine. Either have dancers, or learn some moves. Kanye had some good moves during his Glow in the Dark routine! I know not everyone's gonna be able to do this. I certainly couldn't. But hip-hop and dance music are really interlinked, and so it would be nice to see that onstage.

4) Drop the vocal track and only rely minimally on the hpye man. Seeing rappers shout the ends of their rhymes over both a vocal track and a hype man is pretty disappointing, especially when, hypothetically, a large part of that rapper's appeal is his or her understated/seductive/contemplative/sinister flow, what have you. Great rap shows, in my opinion, do this beautifully; here I'm thinking of Run The Jewels and Kanye, both of whose performances in 2013 I loved.

This is not to say I'm going to stop going to rap shows. Me and you, your momma and your cousin too are going to be at Governor's Ball this summer to see Outkast. But I wish there were some way to either encourage rappers to do the above, or to tell from the outset who already does. As in many aspects of my life, Kanye is the ideal here; I'm also feeling optimistic that Kendrick, touring with him, will pick up on the things that make Kanye a performing global superstar.

But until then, I'll probably be in Brooklyn dancing to Jessy Lanza.