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Posts Tagged ‘Rage Against the Machine’

(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: 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.”

Keep Reading:

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

Review: The Roots (2008)

More Hip Hop on The Daily Record

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By Joel Francis

There is probably a good bromance film to be made about the relationship between male songwriters. They dynamics of a songwriting partnership mirror that of a romantic union – giddy joy at meeting a compatible soul, the steady rhythm of fruitful collaboration, independence and wanting to branch out and then either acceptance and adaptation or estrangement.

Some partnerships – like Morrissey and Johnny Marr – burn hot and bright, flaming out quickly. Others, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, settle into marriages of convenience. Jack White is quite promiscuous as a songwriter, flitting from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn and Dead Weather. Some songwriting partnerships turn into real marriages, like Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

Then there are the songwriters who have flown solo: Phil Ochs, Neil Young, But even the most ardent songwriting bachelors have had a subtle and unseen hands guiding their way and providing resistance to make the song better. Rivers Como had Matt Sharp, Jeff Tweedy had Jay Bennett, Stevie Wonder had Syreeta Wright. And Bruce Springsteen had Miami Steven Van Zandt.

Van Zandt made his presence in the E Street Band known immediately. He arranged the horn line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and contributed to the signature guitar line on “Born To Run.” For the next eight years his guitar was the muscle behind Springsteen’s songs, constantly challenging the band and its leader to keep moving and top themselves.

When Van Zandt left the E Street band in 1984, he was replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren had established an outstanding reputation on the basis of his solo work and his stints with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. As a musician he was a more-than-worthy replacement for Van Zandt, but was too easygoing to musically aggravate his new boss the way Van Zandt had.

In 1995 Van Zandt returned the E Street Band and Lofgren remained. The pair has now spent more time in the band together than they did apart. But during that time, Springsteen’s concerts have turned into carnivals rather than escapades. Musicians that used to labor over albums as a unit now record their parts separately. In short, the E Street Band is less a team than an all-star squad of longtime ringers.

Although Springsteen concerts remain incredible experiences and his albums are very good for the most part, Springsteen’s songwriting lacks the urgency, grit and desperation of his early work. Since Springsteen’s early ‘90s retreat from the E Street crew, he hasn’t had a foil, poking, prodding and disturbing him.

When Tom Morello joined the E Street Band onstage in April, 2008, the long absent counterpunch returned. Although his career was considerably shorter, the guitarist had been searching for his own artistic gadfly since the break-up of Rage Against the Machine and the disappointment of Audioslave.

Both performers were familiar with the material. Springsteen wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title song for his 1995 solo album and Rage Against the Machine released a covered it two years later. There are several elements in the live collaboration missing on either incarnation. Morello emulates Woody Guthrie in his solo guise as the Nightwatchman, but here and Springsteen add an element of longing and loneliness Guthrie would have liked.

Five guitars are played, but only two of them matter. Springsteen rips off a blistering solo with more intensity than anything he’s recorded in years – he came closest in his appearances on Warren Zevon’s farewell album “The Wind” – and Morello soars with passionate extended solo that combines Public Enemy’s Terminator X and Eddie Van Halen to end the song.

Springsteen originally wrote “Tom Joad” for the E Street 1995 reunion project, but didn’t like the band’s arrangement and set the number aside. That it took an outsider to help the group get the song right 13 years later points the direction Springsteen’s music should head. Too comfortable with the E Streeters, he needs an album-length collaboration with obvious disciples like the Hold Steady or a partnership with more-obscure-but-still-simpatico Black Keys.

Springsteen doesn’t need anyone reverential or deferential. He needs someone like Morello kicking his ass, forcing him to be better. Hopefully these eight tantalizing minutes are the first draft of an upcoming screenplay.

Keep reading:

Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (2008)

Review: Rage Against the Machine at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Book Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

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cover-front-chris-cornell-scream-2009

By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.

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Rock the Bells Zack

Public Enemy, Black Star, The Roots and Wu-Tang fight the Battle of the Bay in San Francisco

By Joel Francis

The Giants may have been out of town, but that didn’t stop the hits from pouring across McCovey Cove near ATT Stadium when the Rock the Bells festival landed in San Francisco last week.


It was a dream bill that 45,000 fans of ‘90s hip hop couldn’t resist, but with two stages of incredible lineups performing simultaneously some sacrifices had to be made. In the end, The Roots won over The Coup and Public Enemy trumped Blackalicious. Below are some of the day’s highlights.


Public Enemy

Public Enemy was raging against the machine before there was a Rage Against the Machine. Backed by a full band, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X showed that songs written during Reagan and Bush Sr. still had plenty of both relevance and resonance. The band did their best Rage tribute with a version of “Son of a Bush” that’s unlikely to win any fans at Fox News. That said, Chuck D probably knows he’s unlikely to win any new fans in the era of T.I., Chamillionaire and, shudder, Flavor of Love, so the band mostly stuck to songs off its groundbreaking initial albums like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Fight the Power,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” and “Public Enemy No. 1.” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian popped out to lend his axe to “Bring the Noise” and Flavor Flav closed down the set with a performance of “911 Is A Joke” that had the crowd rapping along.


The Roots

As anyone who saw the Roots perform at the Voodoo Lounge last spring can attest, this Philadelphia-based band is one of the most engaging and entertaining performers in the business – regardless of genre. Giving the only 45 minutes was criminal, though predictably the band made the most of what they had. MC Black Thought and drummer/bandleader ?uestlove opened the set with drums-and-mic duet “Web” before the rest of the band and a three-piece horn section joined them. Every song was a highlight, but to watch the group transition from the hip hop beats of “The Next Movement”  to the funky rock of “The Seed 2.0” to the neo-soul flavors of “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and finally a Philly soul cover of “I Can Understand It” was mind-bogglingly delicious.


Talib Kweli and Mos Def

Mos Def and Talib Kweli have only made one album together which was released nearly a decade ago, but they are still linked in most fans’ minds. There’s good reason for this, as each bring out the best in the other. Mos Def is one of the most improvisational MCs in the business, which is both a blessing and a curse. On his best nights, he rivals most jazz performers with his reworkings of song. On an off night, he comes across as bored. Kweli is one of the best MCs in the game (you don’t get props from Jay-Z on record for nothing) who keeps getting better, but can at times slip into auctioneer mode. Kweli keeps Mos from wandering off, while Mos pushes Kweli’s cadences.

Kweli opened the set on his own, teasing songs from his new album, “Ear Drum,” and launching into classics like “The Blast” and “Move Something,” before bringing out Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae. Though the guests – especially Grae – were a nice surprise, Kweli was at his best when the DJ dropped out and let Kweli rhyme a cappella. Mos Def took the stage halfway through “Get By” and the results were as close to jazz as two men with a mic are likely to get. From there the duo segued into the classic “Definition,” “Supreme Supreme,” a newer collaboration, and “Respiration.”


Mos performed most of his set on the ground in the area between the stage and the crowd barricade after noticing the strong wind off the bay had the lighting rigs swaying like chandeliers. “It’s hard enough to be a black man in America,” he quipped. “I got kids, y’all.” Fortunately, video cameras and three giant screens kept Mos from being invisible at ground level as he worked his way through a set heavy on newer material. Mos closed with a great medley of “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Brown Skin Lady,” which brought Kweli back out and, finally, “Umi Says.”


Wu-Tang Clan

Hip hop as a live medium tends to get a bad rap (sorry) and acts like Wu-Tang Clan are Exhibit A on how something that sounds great on record doesn’t always transfer well to the stage. Part of the problem is the makeup of the group. There are nine MCs in the Clan, which can be a nightmare at the mixing board. Throughout the evening, each mic was mixed at a different level, rendering lots of vocals inaudible and resulting in something that sounded like loud choreographed chanting. Most songs could only be recognized by the sample or the chorus. Oddly enough the evening’s finest number, “Triumph,” had little in the way of either. Method Man carried the rest of the Clan on his back and carried the night (when he wasn’t crowd surfing and being carried by the crowd), which leaned heavily towards the group’s debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”


Rage Against the Machine

After seven years and nearly two presidential terms apart, Rage reclaimed the stage with a force and energy so powerful a S.W.A.T. team should have assembled. In between Wu-Tang and Rage’s sets, the crowd quickly morphed from a diverse, backpacker good-times gathering to a muscular, white frat-boy mosh pit. There was a mixture of menace and testosterone in the air as a crowd who had patiently waited through three Audioslave albums hungered for the return of the real thing.

They weren’t disappointed. Singer Zack De La Rocha led the band through over a dozen volatile indictments that included hits like “Bombtrack,” “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerilla Radio” with album cuts like “Bullet in the Head,” “Vietnow” and the Afrika Bambaataa cover “Renegades of Funk.” This was the musical equivalent of “Fight Club.”


As the festival closed, the defiant refrain of “Killing in the Name” hung in the air. Seven years was too long to wait, but the combustion of Rage’s 80-minute set made it understandable why these ingredients couldn’t be mixed too often.

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