“Let’s take it back to the concrete streets/ Original beats with real live MCs,” harmonized the Jurassic 5 MCs on their underground rap classic “Concrete Schoolyard.” Chanting in a collective voice inspired by the near-mythic old-school pioneers Cold Crush Brothers, the four MCs exuded goodwill amidst a sample of Ike Turner’s “Getting Nasty.” But their vision of primordial hip-hop authenticity was less convincing than the cheeriness with which they expressed it.
Here’s a brief list of notable rap albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.
This is a feature on Nicki Minaj that I wrote for 944 magazine’s Atlanta edition. It was published in November 2010.
You can’t pin down Nicki Minaj. She’s a burgeoning sex symbol, a fashion idol-in-the-making, a blooming pop tart, and an impressive rap lyricist. And with the forthcoming release of her debut album, Pink Friday, the 25-year-old woman from Queensbridge, New York may become the first major female hip-hop star in a generation.
Nicki embraces the pressure. “I have high expectations for myself,” she says during a conversation at the W Hotel in downtown Hollywood. As she sits on the bed in her Wonderful Room suite, she drapes herself in a white terrycloth bathrobe, nearly covering her street clothes, save for a pair of hot pink Keds sneakers. She’s sweet and unpretentious, politely introducing herself as she enters the room with her management team. But the day’s round of promotional activities have clearly taken a toll. Near the end of the conversation, she slumps and hangs her head, exhausted from all the attention.
This month brings an excellent compilation, Change the Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1980-1987. Celluloid Records was founded in Paris, France in 1979 by Jean “Karakos” Georgakarakos, who had previously helped create the much-admired BYG label and issued classic free jazz such as Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Message to Our Folks and Sun-Ra’s The Solar-Myth Approach. Just as BYG was a key imprint of the avant-garde revolt of the early 1970s, the label became an influential player in the New Wave culture-clash of 1980s New York.
Before Karakos sold Celluloid in 1988, the label traversed the underground music spectrum: funk improvisations assembled by prolific musician Bill Laswell, imported Afrobeat by Fela Kuti and others, and electro-rap joints from the likes of Grandmixer D.st and Afrika Bambaataa. This appreciation covers some of the major themes of the label’s output, much of which is covered by Change the Beat, and some of which is not.
Most music journalists become successful by identifying a niche. They present themselves as knowledgeable about music culture — specific genre(s), aspects of the business (venues, major label operations, marketing), themes (mainstream vs. underground, chart action) — with hopes that outlets will call on them to write about their expertise.
But that process of accumulating knowledge has to begin somewhere. For some, it’s an outgrowth of fandom. You saw Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on Friday Night Videos and suddenly want to hear Off the Wall; then you spent hours at the record store looking for Jackson 5 LPs; and then you dove into the Motown catalog. Or perhaps you watched Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on 120 Minutes; then you dove into Sub Pop’s catalog, and rented a copy of 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Today, younger critics are just as likely to cite the first time they heard Aaliyah, Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Radiohead’s Kid A, Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3…
These are generalized examples. The point is that while we are surrounded by music throughout our lives, there is usually a spark that inspires us to consume music actively instead of passively. The act of turning that passion into a career calling often arrives after that moment.
But can that spark be reduced to a singular moment? No, not for me.