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.”
(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)
A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
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.
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.
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.
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. . 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.
Michael Franti’s first trip beyond the borders of the United States came when his family spent a year in Canada.
Seeing his homeland from the outside opened his eyes.
The musician has been around the world several times during his 20 years as a performer, but he has never stopped searching for new perspectives. Many of those experiences are funneled into the music he makes with the band Spearhead, which combines pop, rock, reggae, hip-hop and world influences.
“Playing music was really my first opportunity to travel,” Franti said. “Wherever I went, I would always go out and see stuff — museums, architecture, rivers, lakes, parks.”
As Franti became familiar with the larger offerings of major cities, he started seeking smaller experiences.
“The most unique experience you can have is just to have a conversation,” Franti said. “I’ve had heartfelt talks with people in parks in cities, and farmers in undeveloped countries who lay out plastic tarps to collect rainwater.”
Standing six and a half feet tall and sporting long dreadlocks, Franti rarely blends in with a crowd. He can often be spotted with a guitar slung over his shoulder, walking barefoot.
“I’ve carried my guitar to places with the most harsh conditions. I’m talking about famine, hunger, poverty,” Franti said. “But those people don’t want to sing about how hard life is. They want to dance and clap and sing along.”
The adopted son of a teacher and university professor, Franti formed his first band while attending the University of San Francisco. He has been fronting Spearhead, his third outfit, for 16 years. Although Franti’s medium has shifted from hard-core punk to hip-hop to reggae and pop, his lyrics have always retained a fervent, though upbeat, political bent.
In 2006, Franti took his politics to a new level when he toured the Middle East with his guitar and a movie camera. His goal was to capture the emotions of war-torn people on film and in song. Franti returned with 200 hours of footage that was edited down to the 86-minute documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The music from the trip appeared on the album “Yell Fire!”
“These experiences helped me realize a political song is only as good as its ability to make people dance and move,” Franti said. “I started writing songs of upliftment, inspiration. A lot of songs are about conviction for life and rising above.”
Franti and Spearhead’s most successful song by far is “Say Hey (I Love You).” Despite being released nearly a year ago, the song has taken on a surprising second life. It has popped up on the television show “Weeds,” appeared on the “Valentine’s Day” movie soundtrack and peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
“Say Hey” had just started to crest last summer when Franti’s appendix ruptured, sending him to the hospital and the band’s concert dates by the wayside.
“We had been touring for a while, and things were starting to blow up,” Franti said. “Suddenly I have a near-death experience, and I’m in the hospital. It was a healthy reminder that life is precious, and you have to value every second. There are several songs on the new album about the preciousness of life and how grateful I am to be able to play music.”
Continuing the trend of his previous two albums, Franti made his new record, “The Sound of Sunshine,” in Jamaica with producers Sly and Robbie. The legendary duo has worked with everyone from reggae giants Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
“Working with Sly and Robbie is always a thrill. They are so quick to share their knowledge,” Franti said. “Every time I think a song needs a better beat, they’re the only ones I think of.”
As Spearhead worked in the studio in Jamaica, people on the street could hear the music they were making. The band could tell how well a track was working by how much it inspired the people outside.
“Jamaica is an island of contradictions,” Franti said. “It’s a tropical island, but a poor country. I could see what people were going through trying to find the light. That’s really what I was trying to write about on this album.”
One of the few places Franti hasn’t taken his music to is Haiti.
“We’ve been invited, but it hasn’t worked out,” Franti said. “We have played in East Timor, however, which is in a similar economic situation. I remember thinking when we played there, if this place ever had an earthquake, everything would crumble. There was no economic infrastructure.”
John Mayer, the headlining act on Franti’s current tour, once sang he was “waiting on the world to change.” Unlike Mayer, however, Franti says he has seen progress from his actions.
“When I first got started, I wrote a lot about the prisons in California and how much money was spent there instead of in schools,” Franti said. “Then someone asked me if I’d play in a prison, so we did that. Afterward, people would come up to me and tell me what they’ve done and how much music has helped them through that time and what they want to do to get out. I’m still getting letters from guys I played for.
“That’s why I travel with my guitar,” Franti said. “I don’t want to just sing about it, I want to be directly involved.”
An early visit to Kansas City
For all of his travels, Michael Franti will always remember Kansas City. In 1992, his political rap group the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opened for U2.
Shortly after their concert at Arrowhead Stadium, Franti was hanging out with Bono and another band member when William S. Burroughs walked in. The Beat Generation legend was living in Lawrence at the time and was about to record an album with the Heroes.
“He came in carrying what looked like a bowling ball bag with him,” Franti said. “He drops it on the bed and it bounced like it was real heavy. Burroughs looks at us and goes, ‘I just thought you’d like to see my gun collection’ and pulls out a pistol with a barrel longer than my forearm.”
While Franti and Bono collected themselves, Franti’s bandmate Rono Tse picked up one of the weapons.
“Burroughs reaches over to him and says, ‘Give me a second here.’ He opens the chamber, dumps the bullets out and gives Rono the gun back,” Franti said. “Bono and I were talking about it later. We think he did it just for effect.”
Michael Franti timeline 1966 Michael Franti is born in Oakland, Calif., the son of an African-American father and an Irish-German-French mother. His mother puts him up for adoption because she is worried her family will not accept the baby. Franti is adopted by a couple with three biological children and one other adopted child.1986 As a student at the University of San Francisco, Franti forms his first band, the Beatnigs, an industrial, hard-core punk outfit.
1988 The Beatnigs release their only album. Their song “Television” becomes an underground success.
1990 Franti and his bandmate Rono Tse form the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The group is known for its jazz-based samples and heavy political lyrics.
1992 The Heroes release their only album, “Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury.” The band is invited to open for U2 on its tour, which stops at Arrowhead Stadium in October.
1994 Franti forms the band Spearhead, which releases its first album, “Home.”
1997 Spearhead leaves Capitol Records after releasing two albums. Franti starts his own label, Boo Boo Wax.
1999 Franti founds the annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in San Francisco.
2000 Franti rails against the death penalty on the concept album “Stay Human.”
2003 Spearhead responds to the post-9/11 landscape with the song “Bomb the World” and the album “Everyone Deserves Music.” Franti works with reggae musicians Sly and Robbie for the first time when he hires them to remix a track.
2006 Inspired by a trip to Israel, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Franti produces the anti-war film “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The trip also influences Spearhead’s album “Yell Fire!” which is produced by Sly and Robbie. In June, the band headlines on the main stage on the final day of the Wakarusa Music Festival outside of Lawrence.
2007 Franti and Spearhead make their second appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The group made its Bonnaroo debut in 2003 and is scheduled to perform there this June.
2008 Spearhead releases its sixth studio album, “All Rebel Rockers.” Again produced by Sly and Robbie, it is the group’s best-selling and highest-charting record to date.
2009 “Say Hey (I Love You)” is released as a single in June. Weeks later, Franti is hospitalized after his appendix ruptures. The band is forced to cancel its headlining slot at Wanderlust and several other festivals.
2010 Michael Franti and Spearhead open for John Mayer on his Battle Studies tour.
(Above: “The Sixth Sense” – A classic joint from a classic album.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Trumpet player Hermon Mehari of Diverse kept a copy of Common’s landmark hip hop album “Like Water for Chocolate” in his car for two years, but it wasn’t until he saw Les Izmore at the Czar Bar in January that he knew what he wanted to do with it.
The idea was as ambitious as the album Mehari wanted to celebrate: to combine the jazz chops of Diverse with Izmore’s hip hop style. Both outfits are staples of the local music scenes that rarely overlap.
“The people in the jazz scene often worry why people don’t go out, but the truth is some people don’t have a reason to go to Jardine’s or the Blue Room,” Mehari said. “Likewise, a lot of people may never have been to a hip hop show before. Hopefully this will give everyone a reason to get out more.”
Izmore frequently performs both on his own and with the Afro-beat collective Hearts of Darkness. Diverse made a big splash on the jazz scene when Bobby Watson unveiled the combo in 2008. They kept the momentum alive with a self-titled debut the following year and several high-profile shows and collaborations.
“Diverse has wanted to do a cross-genre collaboration for a while,” Melhari said. “I heard Les that night and was impressed. Could to tell from Les’ rhythms he liked all of that.”
By “all of that” Mehari means Common, Black Star, the Roots and the other members of the late-‘90s New Native Tongues movement in hip hop. The low-key faction turned their backs on the hard, gangsta stance of the moment to focus on socially conscious lyrics backed with soulful or jazz-influenced production.
“Hermon pretty much said he want to link up in the future,” Izmore said. “I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know he already had an idea. When he brought up ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ I was like hell yeah. That’s one of my favorite albums ever.”
On Friday, March 19, Izmore and Diverse will collaborate and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Like Water For Chocolate” at the Czar Bar.
That album’s music, there’s no album with the sound like they have,” Izmore said. “That was my way into (Afro-beat legend) Fela (Kuti) because (his son) Femi is on there. That album can get you into so much stuff. You have the jazz guys, the hip hop, DJ Premier, Jill Scott. It’s a who’s who of that time. These are some of the best artists of their time.”
The “Like Water for Chocolate” roster also includes jazz trumpet player Roy Hargrove, rappers Mos Def and Slum Village, DJ Premier, Black Thought, Rahzel and Questlove from the Roots, soul singers D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Bilal and future Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo. Producer James Yancey, or J Dilla, a longtime friend of Common’s who had worked with A Tribe Called Quest, tied all the elements together.
In keeping with the spirit of the album, Izmore and Diverse will have a few friends on hand to help them out as well. Hearts of Darkness singer Brandy Gordon will take on all the female vocal parts, and Lee Langston will stand in for D’Angelo, Bilal and Cee-Lo. Local MCs Reach and Vertigone also help out.
“We will definitely keep the jazz tradition and hip hop tradition of improve and freestyle alive,” Izmore said. “We’re not going to do the album straight through, and we might even skip a song or two. We want to leave a lot of room for improv.”
As an MC who grew up with the album, Izmore said he needed little preparation for the show. Diverse had the tougher job translating and arranging the record’s sounds and textures.
“We all expected this show to be harder than jazz shows because of a lot of the intricacies,” Mehari said. “Some of the things you have to do goes against the nature of a jazz musician. Like in jazz there are usually a lot of changes, but here because of the loops you have to find ways to be creative within that repetition.”
Izmore and Diverse worked out their parts separately, then rehearsed together in the weeks leading up to the performance.
“When I first heard them I was ecstatic,” Izmore said. “I knew it was going to be a fun night, because they got it down. It doesn’t sound like jazz players doing hip hop.”
Mehari said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction in the jazz community.
“When Diverse played a house party at 57th and Ward Parkway, people there asked me what we had coming up,” Mehari said. “I wouldn’t have expected them to get excited, but they did.”
With its socially conscious poetry, innovative rhythms and intricate rhymes, Mehari said “Like Water For Chocolate” forced him to grow as an artist. Now he’s hoping to use the album to expand the horizon’s of Kansas City’s music community.
“This is how the scene grows,” Mehari continued. “I think people are too reliant on fans. I think it’s our job as artists to take things higher.”
Author Elijah Wald has dedicated his past two books to stripping away the legend and mythology surrounding two of music’s most iconic figures, and placing them in the context of their times. In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald demonstrates how Robert Johnson was very much a product of his time, and how his deification was established. Wald’s latest book expands that motif, and bears the inflammatory title “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.”
Wald recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record about some of the themes in his new book and, of course, how the Beatles changed rock and roll.
In the book you talk about how “everything old becomes new again,” and use the Twist to illustrate your point. What are some of the other examples of cyclical trends you discovered?
To be fair, I don’t say everything old can always be recycled. When something new comes along, we tend to look back and find things that seem similar to us. But I think that may be less a recognition of real cycles than a way of making the present seem less strange.
Clearly, things come back, but when they do come back they are different. I’m not sure things are cyclical. It may just be they way we get comfortable with them. When the Twist came around, the way the entertainment industry handled it was to talk with Irene Castle and say “This is like what was happening in 1914, isn’t it?”
Why do you call “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of the ‘20s?
This is really the germ of the whole book. I was reading how people in the people in the 1920s wrote about “Rhapsody in Blue” and noticed how similar it was to what was said about “Sgt. Pepper’s” in the 1960s.
(In the 1920s) everyone was saying how until now jazz was a lot of noise and music for rowdies and kids, but now this had turned it into a mature art form. This is exactly what happened with “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Leonard Bernstein said he was excited about it and Lennon and McCartney were compared to Schubert. Just as “Rhapsody in Blue” created a respectable thing that could still be called “jazz,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” created something respectable that was still considered rock.
Who was Paul Whiteman and what was his impact on music? Why has he largely been forgotten today?
I spend a whole chapter in the book on this, but in a nutshell, Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s. He was the man who transformed the perception of jazz from noisy, small groups into large orchestras who played not only fun dance music, but also at Carnegie Hall.
I think Whiteman is largely forgotten because he didn’t swing by and large and was resolutely white. We have understood the history of jazz to largely be a history of African-American music. Whiteman tried, for better or worse, to separate jazz from that heritage.
In many ways, the 1940s parallel today, in that there is fear new technology will usurp the traditional way artists got paid. Then it was a fear of jukeboxes and radio’s reliance on pre-recorded music and today, of course, the dominant issue is digital piracy. What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve observed between these two decades?
The huge difference is that all the things we talked about in the ‘40s did involve musicians getting paid, just different musicians. It was R&B and country musicians getting paid instead of big bands. A lot of people previously neglected became huge stars.
What’s happening now is really dangerous, in terms of musicians continuing to be able to make a living. It is exciting, in terms of everyone being able to make their music available to millions of listeners, but it is getting harder and harder to make a living in music. It’s more like a lottery – win and become a star or lose and go on to something else.
There are skills you develop as a professional musician that we’re seeing less and less of because people don’t perform as much. Everyone in my book went through an apprenticeship playing seven nights a week for four or five hours a night. Those opportunities no longer exist. There’s no way to build those kinds of skills today.
Explain the difference between hot and sweet combos. Why have the hot survived while the sweet are dismissed?
A lot of people will say this is a false dichotomy. Everyone played some sweet and some hot, but the best way to explain the difference to people of my generation is to go back to the British Invasion. In the U.S., we thought of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as belonging to the same genre. In England, however, the Beatles were called pop and the Rolling Stones were called R&B, and it’s easy to understand why.
The way we look at it today, hot bands played for boys who were into music as fans and listeners, while sweet bands were for sappy girls. That’s not the way I would phrase it, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Women have always been the determining pop buyers, because they like to dance, but men have always been the main critics. In any case, in the 1930s the two extremes were Guy Lombardo on the sweet end and Count Basie as hot, but most bands were in the middle.
One reason the hot bands live on is because by and large the only people listening today are jazz fans and they always liked the hot bands better. There’s also the racial component I mentioned earlier. I don’t disagree that what is exciting in American music was largely taken from African-American music—I would argue that it’s more complicated than that, because they are always interchanging, but as a listener I am certainly more excited by Basie than by Lombardo. As a historian, though, I am interested in both, and well aware that in their era Lombardo was far more popular.
What is the connection between swing and rock and roll?
It was the hot dance music, youthful, noisy dance music. We think of these worlds as separate, but a lot of the same musicians crossed over. The first house band for Alan Freed’s rock party was the Count Basie Orchestra. Bill Haley and the Comets all did their apprenticeships playing swing. Musically, there was a lot of overlap.
How did the success of the Beatles and other late-‘60s rock bands segregate the music industry? What are the lasting effects of that segregation?
Two things happened at once. One, the Beatles arrived when the industry was moving very heavily toward black music. The myth is the Beatles rescued us from Frankie Avalon, but they really rescued us from Motown and girl groups. If you look at the charts, black groups had so completely taken over, they actually stopped having separate charts.
The Beatles and British Invasion bands were exciting, but their rhythm sections were old fashioned. In a world of Motown and James Brown they played archaic styles. Black kids were not much interested in the British bands, because they weren’t as much fun to dance to—and it was not just black kids, but everyone who was dancing to Motown, which included a lot of white kids, especially white girls.
At the same time, the discotheque craze was hitting, so people didn’t have to have live bands. The lasting effect of that is that you no longer had to have one band who could play every style of music. Before you couldn’t have a band play only black or white music, because people wanted to dance to and hear the full range of current hits. In the ‘60s, though, you could have one band only play one kind of music, because when you wanted to hear a different kind you could just change the record.
In the epilogue you discuss how rock and dance music gradually began playing to divergent audiences. Do you think they will intersect again?
Today we don’t have bands that have to play anything, period. It’s a sad reality that if you listen to hit records – or even records that aren’t hits, by little-known, local performers – the number of records where the group on the album plays regularly is vanishingly small. The number of hits that can be recreated without recordings is virtually none.
Don’t get me wrong; hip hop couldn’t exist in a world where you had to play everything live and I think hip hop is exciting. Overall, however, the world of live music is becoming extinct. There are certainly plenty of people for whom live music is important, and I’m sure there always will be, but they are increasingly a minority.
(Above: The title says it all: “Professor Griff drops knowledge.”)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Onstage, Professor Griff, minister of information for the veteran rap group Public Enemy, rarely smiles. Griff rarely takes center stage, but sets the tone of the show by marshalling the S1Ws, Public Enemy’s uniformed faux-security force, through their militant dance steps.
Offstage, Griff may not be mistaken for Flavor Flav, the group’s much-lampooned comedic foil-turned-reality TV star, but he is far from the grim-faced drill sergeant he appears. In fact, right now he is laughing.
“At first, I was DJ Griff,” the founding member says through a chuckle. “I laugh because people don’t see me like that. Then it morphed into minister of information, because I was always studious. I took it upon myself to be an avid reader and study. That’s how I got the name Professor.”
Griff, nee Richard Griffin, describes the early days of Public Enemy and discusses his political views and philosophies in his new book, “Analytixz.”
“Readers already know the media’s version of who Griff is. This lets me tell aspects of my story without writing an autobiography,” Griff says. “The ugly truth and the controversies are there. I don’t like it, but I can’t write it with a pink cover and make everything cute.”
The lengthy first chapter covers the most controversial part of Griff’s career, when he was kicked out of Public Enemy for being quoted making anti-Semitic statements in the Washington Times.
“The first chapter was the most difficult,” Griff says. “It was the only time I had to stop tape, because it brought back a time I didn’t want to re-experience.”
Although that rough experience is the lynchpin of the book, another hardship brought the manuscript to fruition.
“’Analytixz’ came together in 90 days because I lost the other three books I was working on when my house burnt to the ground,” Griff says. “It comes from a place of hurt and pain, but I wanted to fulfill my promise to put out a book.”
Griff laughs again remembering how Run-DMC’s DJ Jam Master Jay and Def Jam label co-founder Rick Rubin’s original plan for Public Enemy.
“When Jam Master Jay saw (Public Enemy MC) Chuck (D) at Adelphi University, he and Rick Rubin wanted to sign him as Chuckie D,” Griff says through a snicker. “Chuck and I are still laughing about that one. Basically, Chuck brought Flav along, and everyone else came from me.”
“Everyone else” is the groundbreaking production unit known as the Bomb Squad and the group’s DJ, Terminator X.
“Members of the Bomb Squad had a group called Spectrum City, which included me,” Griff says. “We brought Chuck on board to be part of our mobile DJ unit.”
Public Enemy is nearing its 25th anniversary, but Griff, Chuck and company are still intent on bringing the noise. After leaving Def Jam, the band is financing their new album through SellABand. By purchasing $25 shares, fans can help the band reach its goal of $250,000 and get everything from a mention in the liner notes, to profit sharing and input on the final product.
“It’s interesting to see how things are unfolding,” Griff says. “People say, Public Enemy, you guys were popular, it should be no problem to raise that money, but they’re on the outside of it.”
While many rap acts from the ‘80s are dismissed as old school, Public Enemy has worked hard to stay at the vanguard. The band pioneered the digital distribution model with their album “There’s A Poison Goin’ On” 10 years ago, and introduced a play-listed based album on 2002’s “Revolverution.”
“Me and Chuck are 49,” Griff says of his bandmate, who was born on the same day in the same hospital. “It’s not over. We still have to put our period at the end of the sentence.”
What’s on Griff’s iPod?
“If I lent you my iPod for one day, you’d probably say ‘What the hell?’ The first thing you’d notice is I have a large music collection – easy listening, rock, soulful stuff. When it comes to my hip hop playlist, you’ll see Rage Against the Machine, the Roots, Immortal Technique, Wize Intelligent, Dead Prez, KRS-One – because I’m still learning from him – and the new Can-I-Bus. There’s no Nelly, no Snoop Dogg and nothing produced by Jermaine Dupri.
“The most surprising thing on my iPod is (long pause) Asher Roth, which is on there probably because me and my son share a computer. I play that song when people come in the car with me and they say, Griff, what do you know about a white Jewish boy? I listen to everything, man.”
(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.
The Dodos – “Time to Die”
The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.
Blakroc – “Blakroc”
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.
Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”
Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.
Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”
Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.
Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”
Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.
(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)
Practice is vital but when it comes to rapping, nothing improves skills like a live, trial-by-fire MC battle. This weekend, several rappers will have a chance to compete for money.
The third annual Versus Emcee and Beat Battle goes down Saturday night at the Record Bar, 1020 Westport Road. A pre-battle show will be held tonight at the Riot Room.
“Battles are how you prove yourself and show how far your skills have developed,” said Clarence Draper, who goes by the MC name Vertigone. “This is also a way for people who aren’t actively involved in the scene or new to the area to get up and connect and get involved.”
The contest is open to the first 16 MCs who sign up. Draper encouraged them to arrive between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The winner will take home $500.
“This is first-come, first-served, so they need to be there early,” he said. “Plus people should come out to see the beat battle.”
In the beat battle, six DJs will use their own equipment and go head- to-head in six rounds that include using a common sample to create distinct productions.
Draper said the final evening will resemble the battle scenes in “8 Mile” but without scripts. Everything that comes off the stage must be spontaneous.
“At Versus we reward the freestyle,” Draper said, “which is the most pure idea of the MC not having anything and being ready to rhyme.”
Draper practices his freestyles during his normal routine, incorporating things he sees, such as traffic signals, into rhymes.
“The socially conscious stuff I do on my albums is not going to win you any battles,” he said with a laugh. “I practice all the time how to rhyme, which words work together. I focus mainly on two-syllable words like ‘eventually’ and ‘century.’ It’s not all ‘cat’ and ‘hat.’”
MC Les Izmore, who releases albums on his own and performs as part of Hearts of Darkness, participated in last year’s Versus battle. For him, the night is more about building his skills than beating others.
“I know a lot of people practice their freestyle, but I’m not prepping,” Izmore said. “(Last year) was a thrill. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I may not know the person I’m up against, but I’m there to challenge myself as an MC.”
Although boasts and insults are a large part of the battle repertoire, presentation plays a large role. In other words, sweat the technique.
“Battling is more than insulting people. You have to have style and swagger to how you do it,” Draper said. “You have to work the crowd as much as your opponent. When someone says something that sways the crowd, you have to win them back.”
While the Versus battle is only in its third year, its tradition runs deep in Kansas City. During the city’s jazz heyday, musicians would spar in ‘head cutting’ contests nearly every night in the 18th and Vine District.
“I’ve been at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and seen the musicians, all of them were just in this mood, this groove,” Draper said. “And then they started jumping off of that with solos, each person trying to outdo the other. It’s the same thing we’re trying to do in a freestyle.”
Vertigone and his friend Raymond “Kartoon” Hardy hosted the initial Versus battle because they felt there was a void in the community after the demise of the successful Mic Mechanics battles in Lawrence.
“Battle rhyming starts out under the street lights and on the corners in the neighborhood,” Draper said. “Eventually you get tired of that and want to take on other people. We are trying to keep this going for anyone who doesn’t have an outlet. It’s as much about social networking as anything.”
Izmore has one final word of advice for everyone joining him onstage this weekend.
“When I was up there (onstage last year), I could feel a ton of raw energy,” he said. “You gotta make sure to come with your best, because you don’t know what will come up next time.”