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(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

Keep reading:

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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(Above: A fan video for one of Girl Talk’s sonic creations.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Just because Gregg Gillis doesn’t play a musical instrument, doesn’t mean he can’t make you dance. For 80 minutes on Friday night, Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, had a packed Crossroads getting down in a downpour.

That set time may not look very long, but it was both exhausting and generous. Girl Talk specializes in creating ultimate mash-ups of literally hundreds of songs from nearly every genre and artists ranging from Boston, ODB, Radiohead, Simon and Garfunkel, Ben Folds and UGK. The shorter list would be the one encompassing all the artists Gills didn’t play. Suffice it to say, if it was a pop or club hit in the last 40 years, it was fair game for inclusion.

Girl Talk’s performance is more than matching beats per minute, however. He is the master of extracting the peak moment of a given song, pairing it with the pinnacle from another disparate track and creating a new climax higher than either cut could achieve alone.

The high-energy set was paced to jump from one high point to another, but a couple moments stand out. During Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” he teased out the verses, delaying the explosive chorus. When it finally hit a shockwave went through the crowd, amping the atmosphere even higher. He repeated the same trick drawing out the intro of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” before the glorious guitar riff detonated across the venue.

There’s a reason why most DJs are hidden in a booth at the back of a club: there’s usually not much visually going on. Gillis, though, took a cue from the Flaming Lips, flanked by a cast of dancing fans onstage and two assistants who were constantly streaming rolls of toilet paper and confetti into the crowd. They got an assist from Mother Nature, who provided an impressive lightning show in the sky above as the rain continued to pour throughout the night.

Although there was a video screen and basic light show, the most animated element of the night by far was Gillis himself. Taking the stage in a hoodie, it wasn’t long until he was shirtless and sweating profusely. His legs were never still, hopping back and forth between laptops on nearly every beat. Combine that with bouts of jumping on (and off) the table, arm waving and exuberant shout-outs and Gillis gave himself a heck of a cardio workout. The result was a performance far more entertaining than the typical person-behing-laptop/turntable.

Most of the set centered on recent hits, but Gillis mixed in two old tracks for the finale. The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” was virtually unaltered, save a hip hop beat underneath. The same trick that worked at the skating rink was just as effective on a larger scale with adults. The evening ended with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which crawled at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the night’s fare. Of course by then the message had already been received.

Keep reading:

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Chris Cornell – “Scream”

Review: Lupe Fiasco

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By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

“Seduction” is the key word in the thesis-length title of thePhantom’s new EP, Bohemian Seductive Grooves for the Gay Soul. But thePhantom, aka Kansas City rapper/producer Kemet Coleman, would rather have you in his head than in his bed.

The five-track release is thePhantom’s attempt to translate the urban theory he’s been soaking up as a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City into urban beats and rhymes. Dropouts needn’t worry. The vibe is more relaxed than the last day of school, with wordplay more effortless than a third-grade spelling test.

The low-key production on opening track “Midnight Seduction” sets the mood. ThePhantom’s words are set against a wash of synthesizers perfect for that late-night comedown when the energy starts to fade but sleep is still a long way off. “Downtown,” the second cut, bumps the tempo, but the rest of the album plays like lost tracks from a chill-out compilation.

ThePhantom says his master plan is to unite Kansas City’s diverse citizenry on the dance floor, a place where both blue-collar and artisans are equally comfortable. Of course if that effort creates a gathering of eligible women, thePhantom’s fine with that, too. On “Just Right” he makes the case for romance without stooping to the crass cliches common to the genre.

On December’s Destroy and Rebuild, thePhantom had an entire album to present his titular concept. Padded with a five-minute instrumental, the EP’s 22 minutes are ample time for thePhantom to gather his bohemians and gay souls, but not long enough to keep them on the dance floor. The result feels more like an outline than the conclusion. Sadly, that’s exactly what this is. ThePhantom has announced this EP will be his final project. Even so, he leaves behind a body of work worth further study.

Keep reading:

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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(Above: Chuck D pays tribute to Muhammad Ali.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Legendary hip hop ensemble Public Enemy is $20,000 away from fulfilling its efforts to raise enough money for its upcoming album. But PE front man Chuck D doesn’t want to spend much time talking about that project.

“I’m not spending long on this. That’s a 2011 project,” D said in a recent telephone interview. “I will say that it is a collaborative effort with Tom Morello, Boots (Riley, of the Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club) and Z-Trip.”

D quickly moves on to more immediate projects, like the three-CD, three-DVD retrospective of the band’s post-Def Jam era. Or Chuck’s second solo album. Or the other bands he’s trying to break through on his SlamJamz label.

The “Hits, Vids and Docs” box set is three discs of live cuts, remixes and album tracks covering the band’s history since 1999. Three additional DVDs contain interviews, documentaries, music videos and concert footage.

“This set covers the last 10 years since we left Def Jam,” D said. “Some of the video material has been repeated from other sets, but there is also new content. One thing I’ve learned is that if you are going to try to release anything in retail as an independent you’d better give the customer chock-full of their money’s worth. This certainly does.”

A dozen years after his solo debut, D is preparing to drop his second effort, “Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’.” Unlike the first, proper album, “Riddlin’” is a collection of D’s collaborations and one-off projects. The album will include “Tear Down the Wall,” his response to Arizona’s controversial immigration bill.

“The artists in SlamJamz are another big concern,” D said. “We just put out a song called ‘First Lady’ by a trio of female MCs called Crew Grrl Order. They also did a song called ‘Go Green’ which is a response to the BP disaster. My thing is just to try to encourage people in the genre to take action for themselves. Don’t look to me to do it for you. I will help you, but you have to be the one to do it.”

But while D is loaded with current projects and thinking of the future, Public Enemy has also taken some time this year to look back. D, Flava Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Lord and the SW1s have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark release “Fear of a Black Planet” by performing the entire album at special concerts and festivals.

“’Fear’ was the first album where people had expectations of us. We had broken through. It’s fun to think back to that year, because I just kind of put it out of my mind,” D said. “There are several cuts on there we either haven’t done before or haven’t done in a long time. It can be a challenge just to remember the words.”

Even the United States government got caught up in the celebration. The album was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

“The people in government are different from the government as an organization,” D said, clarifying Public Enemy’s legendary anti-establishment stance. “Washington, D.C. is the large sum of many parts. The day we were honored was a good day to be in D.C.”

Keep reading:

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

Review: Public Enemy, Rage, the Roots and more at Rock the Bells (2007)

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(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)

A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Lilith Fair

I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.

Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.

Lady Gaga and John Lennon

My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”

I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”

I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.

Going Deep

In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.

The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”

This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.

Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.

Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.

Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.

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 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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(Above: “Shining Down” was one of several new songs Lupe Fiasco performed at his recent concert at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s Kansas City debut promised to touch the sky, but left many fans hanging in midair. While Fiasco’s 65-minute set was strong, the lack of an encore left the brief evening seeking resolution.

As his guitar player noodle a riff reminiscent of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Fiasco launched into “Shining Down,” a song he released as a on-line single last year. A handful of similarly low-profile or unreleased cuts were sprinkled throughout the set. It has been three years since Fiasco’s last release, and the crowd happily embraced the new material.

Hip hop always sounds better when delivered through live instruments. Fiasco’s band included a drummer and a DJ, who rocked two Macs instead of two turntables, and it flexed its muscles several times. The setlist included a devastating reading of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as Fiasco spit some of his most articulate and angry rhymes of the night. The players also bridged one song to another with brief solos or instrumentals.
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Although the new songs were appreciated, the evening didn’t officially seem to start until the fifth number, “Hip Hop Saved My Life.” The performance raised a sea of hands and kicked off a powerful run through most of Fiasco’s biggest songs. A surprise detour through N.E.R.D.’s “Everybody Nose” (“all the girls standing the line for the bathroom”) led straight into “Go Go Gadget Flow” and Fiasco’s pride for the Windy City. The run culminated with the skateboard anthem that took Fiasco into the mainstream, “Kick, Push.”

The favorites were exhausted, but Fiasco still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. “Scream,” another new track, was a low-key mood piece set in a wash of keyboards and guitars over insistent drumming and magical delivery. From there Fiasco made his biggest statement of the night. The trio of “Little Weapon,” a song about child soldiers in Africa, “Streets of Fire,” a portrait of inner-city gang culture, and “Fighters” created a stirring case against violence and war. 

The cavernous Midland was more empty than full. The upper balcony was closed and the floor was only three-quarters populated. While the fans’ energy rarely flagged, the sound suffered, and one had to wonder if the performance wouldn’t have been better in a smaller venue. 

A lot of the band’s sound seemed lost in the room. The drums were thin and it seemed only the guitar or DJ could be heard in the mix at the same time. Only Fiasco’s ultra-enunciated, rapid-fire rhymes consistently penetrated the space.

The set ended with two of Fiasco’s biggest songs off “The Cool.” “Superstar” is a portrait of the fragility behind a celebrity’s public armor, and the hook-happy “Paris, Tokyo” is a hip hop love song about life on the road.

When the band departed after a little over an hour, an encore seemed inevitable. Too many good songs –including Lupe’s duets with Kanye West, “Touch the Sky,” “Us Placers” – had yet to be played. Chanting for their return, the crowd continued to stand in disbelief when the house lights came on. As the canned music grew louder, they gradually filed out.

Les Izmore: The local MC turned his 30-minute opening set into a taste of the city’s hip hop scene. Backed by a DJ, he performed one number alone, then brought out Dutch Newman for another. His set really took off when the four-piece horn section and rhythm section from Hearts of Darkness came out. “Middle of the Map” had a tight James Brown feel, and the Afro-beat number “America One” got the crowd involved. Izmore took the stage wearing a duck head and leading the crowd in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but quickly proved he’s no joke.

Setlist: Shining Down, Solar Midnite, The Instrumental, The National Anthem, State-Run Radio, Hip-Hop Saved My Life, High Definition, Everyone Nose (N.E.R.D. cover); Go Go Gadget Flow; I Gotcha; Kick, Push; Scream;Little Weapon; The Cool; Streets on Fire; Fighters; I’m Beaming; Superstar; Paris, Tokyo.

Keep reading:

Les Izmore – Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album
Review: Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek
Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy
Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

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