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.
Sisters With Voices. Total. Destiny’s Child. You didn’t need a lyric sheet to understand the legion of R&B girl groups who dominated urban pop music in the 1990s. It was plain to hear, from the coquettishly sexual lyrics to their sassy, irreverent tones and lovely multi-part harmonies. Sadly, music critics often gave them cursory attention while devoting their time to untangling rap music that often required a degree in regional slang to understand. And between the breakup of Destiny’s Child and the emergence (and quick dissolution) of Danity Kane, the R&B girl group phenomenon seems like it’s over. Perhaps there can only be one diva in today’s gladiatorial fame Matrix, leaving little room for sisterhood.
It may be unfair to single out rap artists for their response to the tragic events of 9/11. Artists in every discipline, from music to movies to literature and visual art, have struggled to comprehend this defining moment. But in a genre that prizes topicality and ghetto realism, whether it’s a carefully edited documentary or an exaggerated form of musical verité, the halting way rappers chose to address the World Trade Center attacks is particularly glaring.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was mostly silence. The rapid-reaction MP3 infrastructure that swirls around any major event today didn’t truly exist yet, so most of the late-2001 release slate didn’t mention it, including Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (famously released on September 11) and Dilated Peoples’ Expansion Team. However, contemporaneous work took on new significance, including Cannibal Ox’s diary of New York squalor The Cold Vein, Trick Daddy’s condemnatory “Amerika,” and DMX’s street-revolutionary anthem “Who We Be.” Advance artwork for The Coup’s Party Music featured Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the twin towers with a radio tuner, but it was quickly replaced after the attacks and before the album’s November 6 release.
The lone exception to this disquiet was Sage Francis’ “Makeshift Patriot.” Recorded and released several weeks after the attacks as a free MP3, it has a reportorial perspective as he compares the terrorist-manned planes to Trojan horses and recounts how “the fallout was far beyond the toxic clouds where people were like debris.”
By the end of the year, stray references to 9/11 began to appear. “Who the f*ck knocked our buildings down?/ Who behind the World Trade massacre? Step up now,” rapped a newly patriotic Ghostface Killah on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Rules.” On his anti-war song “Rule,” Nas took a more expansive view, rapping, “Lost lives in the towers and Pentagon, why then/ Must it go on/ We must stop the killing.”
This approach prevailed during the next few years, as 9/11 became a throwaway metaphor for urban blight and American resilience. “This that 9/11 music right here, man,” bragged Jim Jones on “Ground Zero” from the Diplomats’ Diplomatic Immunity. (Ironically, the Diplomats also called themselves The Taliban.) On “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier,” Jay-Z compared a street hustler’s life to someone serving in the armed forces. “They’re both at war,” he observed. “Off to boot camp, they’re both facing terror/ Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan.”
While music about 9/11 has mostly disappointed, the subsequent War on Terror – along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — inspired a wave of memorable critiques against President Bush. “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects/ It was you, n*gga/ Tell the truth, n*gga,” chants Mos Def on Immortal Technique’s “Bin Laden,” which along with Jadakiss’ “Why” and Mr. Lif’s “Home of the Brave” advanced the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks as a Faustian global power grab.
Meanwhile, 9/11 as an event unto itself has largely gone unanalyzed. Perhaps hip-hop artists are more comfortable with using the U.S. government as a stock villain for all the hardship that has befallen us since that day, from never-ending wars to economic catastrophe, than imagining the complex forces that irrevocably changed 21st-century American life.
(Rhapsody – September 6, 2011)
Herein lies the “Land of the 1000 Dances,” a Shangri-la of popcorn grooves and sock-hop fun. Everybody knows how to “Twist & Shout,” but can you do the “Mashed Potatoes?” Yeah? Well, how about the “Harlem Shuffle?” You move it to the left, yeah, ‘til you go for yourself. You move it to the right, yeah, if it takes all night. Hey, I think you got it! Now “Walk the Dog,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” and do the “Loco-Motion.” C’mon, don’t let it up now! We’re “Barefootin’!” “Shake” it honey, and do the “Wah Watusi!” Look at you go! You’re lookin’ good, baby.
The Los Angeles electronic music scene is unlike any other in the world. For one thing, it is closely-knit – its main participants have usually worked together, cross-pollinating at avenues like underground radio broadcaster Dublab.com or the weekly club showcase Low End Theory. Their proximity to one another results in a sound that listeners have struggled to name ever since. Some just call it “beats,” which might partly be a legacy of a podcast called BTS Radio that helped spread the sound during its early years.
The beats sound emerged from instrumental hip-hop and downtempo. Instrumental hip-hop in particular has a curious history. Back in the late 1990s, it essentially died in the mainstream when club DJs stopped blending rap and R&B with instrumental “breaks” made by Frankie Cutlass, DJ Spinna, Mark the 45 King and others; and started mashing the latest hits together. (It was also when mainstream rap DJs stopped cutting and mixing and devolved into carnival barkers. But that’s another story.) While virtually ignored by radio rap fans, it continued to flourish in the underground, thanks to DJ Shadow’s elaborate sample pastiches, Madlib’s dusty beat loops, and others.
In the early 2000s, major developments elsewhere inspired LA beat producers to push into deeper waters. There was the glitch-hop trend, personified by Prefuse 73 and Dabrye, as well as groundbreaking UK imprints such as Ninja Tune and Warp Records. Detroit’s J Dilla and Waajeed mixed swaggering rap beats with electronic funk. Back in LA, Daedelus made an eccentric swirl of modern classical techniques and dance rhythms. There were the electronic duo Ammoncontact, the downtempo producer Nobody, the soul-jazz orchestra Build An Ark, and beat makers like Omid, Take and Ras G. In 2003, there was the landmark compilation Mu.sic, which debuted producers like GB (Gifted and Blessed) and DJ Exile.
2006 was a watershed year. J Dilla, who by then had relocated to L.A., finished his Donuts masterpiece before he passed away. Producer, mastering engineer, Alpha Pup Records owner and scene godfather Daddy Kev launched Low End Theory. And Flying Lotus, a former Stones Throw intern who cut his teeth spinning tracks on Dublab.com, released 1983 on local label Plug Research. When Warp signed him the following year, his subsequent string of works like 2010’s Cosmogramma turned LA into a global mecca for beats music.
Today, the LA beats scene cuts wide and deep. There is the “lazer bass” of the Glitch Mob; MPC-smacking, head-nod-inducing “blappers” like Samiyam, Jonwayne and Dibia$e; the atmospheric ambience of Teebs and Mono/Poly; the folk-inflected, electronics-infused indie-pop of Baths and Matthewdavid; and the baroque psychedelics of the Gaslamp Killer. Leading lights such as Nosaj Thing, Shlohmo and Tokimonsta evolve in new ways as they flirt with R&B, radio pop, and sundry post-millennial trends. Despite the eclecticism of these various artists, they share a common lineage that’s regional and wholly distinctive in sound.
(Rhapsody – October 9, 2014)