Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, “Dang is Invincible”

On the surface, this visual accompaniment to “Dang is Invincible” doesn’t seem to have much to do with Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics about powering through life in spite of his insecurities. However, an artist statement from director Alex Pierre, who headed the DOULZIA animation team that made the video, reveals otherwise. It’s worth reading:

“Conceptually the video parallels Mike’s stream of consciousness and the narrative style of rap. The video follows Studio Doulzia’s Noul (the protagonist of their film concept Skeletonblood) moving through train cars in a New York Subway Q Train. Noul anxiously looks for a train car where she can feel at ease, her journey speaks to finding assurance and humor in the subtle unfamiliarities that exist within the atmosphere of intimate settings like train cars, that otherwise could make a person feel vulnerable. The song felt really visceral, and we wanted to capture that as much as we can visually.”

A Guide to Madlib (Circa 2011)

I’ve written about and interviewed Madlib many times over the years. I may have written about him more than any other hip-hop artist, with the possible exception of Kanye West (who I almost had a chance to interview — but that’s a story for another time). This post dates back to 2011, when he was finishing his Madlib Medicine Show project, and gathers some of my thoughts and opinions about his work. It’s also a good starter kit for his ever-growing catalog.

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Last year, Otis “Madlib” Jackson, Jr. made plans for a Madlib Medicine Show: twelve releases consisting of six albums of original material and six mixtapes of songs by other artists. It proved a failure, with just nine installments reaching market, including a tenth chapter and no ninth. Add those discs to gigs producing Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson and Guilty Simpson’s OJ Simpson, and excursions such as Young Jazz Rebels’ Slave Riot and the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble’s Miles Away, and that only made for … thirteen releases in 2010. Amusingly, Madlib couldn’t finish the Medicine Show, but he couldn’t curb his excessive productivity, either.

Madlib is an unapologetic throwback to the pop and jazz years of the 50s and 60s, when musicians would simply participate in recording sessions, and labels would compile albums from the best material. This could lead to several titles a year from best-selling bandleaders like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra – a far cry from the new-every-two strategy employed by today’s pop stars. Madlib functions the same way as his heroes: he records constantly, and occasionally stops to compile the results into yet another release.

Thanks to classics such as Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Madlib is regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of the past decade. Unlike Timbaland, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West, or even J Dilla, he remains an underground phenomenon, issuing nearly all his material on indie imprint Stones Throw Records. Certainly, he has never had a mainstream hit. However, major artists with an appreciation for progressive beats have sought him out: he made tracks for Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, and Ghostface Killah’s More Fish. Rumors abound that he contributed uncredited tracks to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and that he may land some credits on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s forthcoming Watch the Throne. It’s impossible to understand the genre’s recent developments without listening to his work.

With the reclusive producer set to restart the Medicine Show series this month with No. 11: Low Budget Hi-Fi Music, it’s a good time to take a deep dive into the Madlib Invazion.

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The World of LA BTS

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)

Rating the Grammys’ Album of the Year Awards

1959-1966: Skipping ahead. The Grammys did not acknowledge the rock ‘n’ soul era during these years. The Beatles were nominated for Help! in 1966.
1967: Frank Sinatra, A Man and His Music <<<<< The Beatles, Revolver
1968: The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1969: Glen Campbell, By the Time I Get to Phoenix (shrugs)
1970: Blood Sweat & Tears, Blood Sweat and Tears <<<<< The Beatles, Abbey Road
1971: Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water
1972: Carole King, Tapestry = Isaac Hayes, Shaft
1973: The Concert for Bangladesh <<<<< Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson
1974: Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
1975: Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingess’ First Finale = Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark
1976: Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years (shrugs)
1977: Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life
1978: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours = Steely Dan, Aja = The Eagles, Hotel California
1979: Saturday Night Fever
1980: Billy Joel, 52nd Street (shrugs)
1981: Christopher Cross, Christopher Cross (shrugs)
1982: John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (shrugs — but fuck, this was two years after John Lennon was assassinated, so it gets a pass)
1983: Toto, Toto IV (shrugs)
1984: Michael Jackson, Thriller
1985: Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down <<<<< Prince, Purple Rain; Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
1986: Phil Collins, No Jacket Required (shrugs)
1987: Paul Simon, Graceland <<<<< Janet Jackson, Control; Peter Gabriel, So
1988: U2, The Joshua Tree = Prince, Sign O’ The Times
1989: George Michael, Faith
1990: Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time (shrugs)
1991: Quincy Jones, Back on the Block (shrugs)
1992: Natalie Cole, Unforgettable…With Love <<<<< R.E.M., Out of Time
1993: Eric Clapton, Unplugged <<<<< U2, Achtung Baby
1994: The Bodyguard soundtrack (shrugs)
1995: Tony Bennett, MTV Unplugged (shrugs)
1996: Alanis Morrissette, Jagged Little Pill
1997: Celine Dion, Falling Into You <<<<< Beck, Odelay; Fugees, The Score
1998: Bob Dylan, Time out of Mind <<<<< Radiohead, OK Computer (but hey, it’s Bob Dylan)
1999: Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
2000: Santana, Supernatural (shrugs)
2001: Steely Dan, Two Against Nature <<<<< Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP; Radiohead, Kid A
2002: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack = OutKast, Stankonia (being generous here)
2003: Norah Jones, Come Away With Me = Eminem, The Eminem Show
2004: OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below = The White Stripes, Elephant = Missy Elliott, Under Construction
2005: Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company <<<<< Green Day, American Idiot; Usher, Confessions
2006: U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb <<<<< Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi; Kanye West, Late Registration
2007: Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way <<<<< Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
2008: Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters <<<<< Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
2009: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand <<<<< Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
2010: Taylor Swift, Fearless = Lady Gaga, The Fame = Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
2011: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs 
2012: Adele, 21
2013: Mumford & Suns, Babel <<<<< Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
2014: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories = Kendrick Lamar, good kid, MAAD city
2015: Beck, Morning Phase <<<<< Beyonce, Beyonce
2016: Taylor Swift, 1989 <<<<< Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2017: Adele, 25 <<<<< Beyonce, Lemonade

(shrugs): Underwhelming slate of candidates. Next year, do better.
=: Other candidates were as equally deserving as the winner.
<<<<<: Shouldn’t have won.

R&B’s Doo-Wop Revival

During the second installment of The New Edition Story mini-series, one of the characters makes a derisive comment about the group’s doo-wop misadventure, Under the Blue Moon. The album is so poorly regarded that the one-sentence dismissal is all the coverage it gets.

It’s easy to set aside New Edition’s misguided and overly saccharine attempt at reaching the same oldies-loving audience that turned Dirty Dancing into the biggest summer hit of 1986. But Under the Blue Moon was also part of a oft-forgotten movement that flourished throughout the 80s and into the 90s. While R&B never experienced a full-scale old-school doo-wop revival, it lasted as a minor trend, thanks to Force M.D.’s, Take 6, and New Edition’s greatest protégés, Boyz II Men.

Below is a short post and playlist on the subject I wrote for Rhapsody.com in 2013.

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment: The emergence of doo-wop in modern-day R&B. Actually, it wasn’t all that brief. The pioneering Staten Island group Force M.D.’s used doo-wop harmonies on their 1984 hit “Tears,” and New Edition nearly made it an official trend with their 1986 album Under the Blue Moon, a collection of doo-wop covers on which they generously invited Little Anthony of the Imperials to guest on “Tears on My Pillow.” And when Christian vocal jazz quintet Take 6 landed a surprise hit with their 1988 self-titled debut and “Spread Love,” it seemed like numerous groups absorbed their remarkable a cappella melodies, including Troop, who added a Take 6-like “Spread!” to “Spread My Wings.” Bobby McFerrin was a vocal jazz artist, too, but his Grammy-winning Simple Pleasures captured the mood as well.

So it was one of those inspirations that persisted for several years until around 1991 and the arrival of Jodeci, whose rough harmonies on Forever My Lady were decidedly more hip-hop than the angelic sounds of doo-wop. While doo-wop was easy to miss amidst other trends like New Jack, gospel, hip-house, and freestyle, the evidence is there, including After 7’s vocal interplay on “Can’t Stop,” Color Me Badd’s “la-la-la-la” bridge near the end of “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Boyz II Men’s cover of the Five Satins’ “In The Still Of the Night,” and finally, Shai’s 1992 a capella smash “If I Ever Fall In Love,” which closed the chapter on this wonderfully underrated period in soul music.

Recommended:

  • Take 6, “Spread Love”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tears”
  • New Edition, “Earth Angel”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tender Love”
  • New Edition, “Tears on My Pillow”
  • Troop, “Spread My Wings”
  • Special Generation, “Love Me Just For Me”
  • Troop, “All I Do is Think Of You”
  • Miles Davis, “The Doo Bop Song”
  • Bobby McFerrin, “Good Lovin'”
  • After 7, “Can’t Stop”
  • Special Generation, “Spark of Love”
  • After 7, “Ready or Not”
  • Color Me Badd, “I Wanna Sex You Up”
  • Take 6, “I L-O-V-E You”
  • Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly”
  • Force One Network, “Spirit (Does Anybody Care?)”
  • Boyz II Men, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday”
  • Quincy Jones, “Septembro”
  • Boyz II Men, “In The Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember)”
  • Shai, “If I Ever Fall In Love”

(Rhapsody – May 8, 2013)