Thursday, September 3, 2015
Madlib – “Indian Hump” from Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: Beat Konducta in India (2007 Stones Throw)


I can probably get through this whole post without saying “East meets West,” right?

This track is one of 34 on the instrumental album Beat Konducta in India, a continuation of soundscapes he’d created with an eye towards cinema. About the first installment (Volumes 1 & 2, released in 2006), Wikipedia describes it as “a soundtrack to a nonexistent movie in Madlib’s imagination. That’s evident on this track (technically the second track on the first of the two LPs that made up the vinyl release of Volumes 3 & 4), which mashes up two vampy loops that shouldn’t go together – soul piano and Indian strings.

But Madlib is Madlib, and so it works. And when it stops to give voice to some Bollywood dialogue that I can’t for the life of me understand (I’m ashamed to say I don’t even know what language it is, but I think probably Hindi), it still kind of makes sense some how, punctuating the track with some urgency.

The beat that undergirds the whole thing is a sort of shuffling traipsy hip-hop beat that sounds exactly like the kind of thing a producer who likes to cut things up and put them back together would probably create.

I know I’ve said it before, but I think that Madlib is one of the most interesting producers in hip-hop. His creations aren’t always the most accessible (though this one isn’t all difficult), and that’s fine. There’s joy in his music — he’s creating the projects he wants to create — and that, to me, is the mark of high art.



Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Chance the Rapper – “Chain Smoker” (2013 self-released)


Chance the Rapper might well be one of the most refreshing things to happen to hip-hop in a long time, which is maybe why the free mixtape that features this song has been downloaded over a million times. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call it a reimagining of what hip-hop could sound like, or to suggest that perhaps we can hear echoes of Chance’s influences on subsequent releases that shade towards the more conceptual (I’m thinking of Kendrick Lamar and Toki Wright for starters, but that could just be me). Given that Chance was twenty when the mixtrape dropped, I’d say that’s pretty impressive.

Musically the landscape here is more Frank Ocean than Jay-Z (he references Ocean in a clever lyric about name-dropping). Still, even with that incredible R&B/neo soul influence, he’s Chance the Rapper, and it’s the blending of those two worlds that works so well here (incidentally, it’s heartening to hear a rapper who would become so mainstream as Chance claiming Ocean, who came out as gay the year before this mixtape dropped).

“Chain Smoker” begins with the smoothest atmospherics that an electric piano and some thoughtful production can provide (we can even hear Chance say “this sound like a Prince song”), crescendoing with each verse. The lyrics crescendo as well, into a requiem for Chicago’s fallen youth:

Rappin’ trappin’ trippin’ ‘cid
And sniffing glue and chewing Vicodin
Shoulda died — yelling YOLO was a lie
And you a liar wondering why you wanna die so young
You and I look just alike
And I’m afraid that this one right here
Might be [the] last time that I write a song

If it sounds like he’s passing judgement on the choices of his peers, it’s instructive to note that he refers to his own perspective as “an introspective drugged out standpoint.” In other words, to my white privileged eyes, he seems to be saying, look, all these drugs are scary and can bring a bad end, but on the other hand, can you even imagine what it’s like to live here and be young and black? 

And of course I can’t. I can think of what it’s like to go to a happy hour after a long and terrible day at work, though, and extrapolate from there, and I can be grateful for Chance and his truth-telling, and I can join him in feeling conflicted by everthing that I see around me: “The same shit that kills us / always tastes so right.” Indeed.

Oh, one more thing: I’m not sure what I really have to say about it one way or the other, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Chance squawks in each song on this mixtape.


Friday, July 24, 2015
The Pharcyde – “Passin’ Me By (Fly as Pie Remix)” from Sold My Soul: The Remix and Rarities Collection (2005 Funky Chemist)


The Pharcyde, in case you don’t know, were one of the greatest things to happen to hip-hop during its golden age, a total bohemian West Coast outfit. In fact, their song “Runnin'” may well be the greatest hip-hop track ever recorded.

That will have to wait for another day, though. “Passin’ Me By” is today’s track, and was the second single the Pharcyde released on their debut record Bizarre Ride II the PharcydeIt’s worth nothing the Pharcyde came on to the scene at the exact moment that gangsta rap, while hardly new, began to really rule the day. Even so, the group, along with contemporaries like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and a host of others, proved to be incredibly successful forging their own “alternative” path within hip-hop. Context: a record called The Chronic came out in 1992.

It’s also worth noting that this particular track purports to be a remix, though, given the fact that the vocals are a completely different register, unless there was some kind of Quasimoto situation happening in the studio, I’m going to go ahead and say that this is just a different recording. All the same, it’s pretty great. Where the original relied on scratchy vinyl and organ vamping, the “remix” sounds more like the kind of shopping mall Muzak one might have heard in the 1980s. Both utilize a house beat pretty handily.

Lyrically it’s a song about pursuing love and failing, which is probably a pretty universal theme. It is, unfortunately, not without its misogynistic moments — talking about sneaking a touch and calling women broads, things of that nature. We chalk that up to being the nature of hip-hop and then move on like it’s nothing, and I wish we didn’t do it. I get why we do it; we don’t want to stop listening to the Pharcyde. Still, though, I wish that stuff wasn’t so pervasive.

Maybe, if we really want a workaround, we could say that these guys are employing some kind of Junot Diaz style subtle critique of patriarchy, a structural rebuke at the sub-atomic level (after all, the protagonists end up broken and alone, their despair “pelagic”), but that may be something of a stretch.

Too bad, because the Pharcyde were really great. I’m not entirely sure I understand why so many of their songs were remixed so many times, but then again, I’m not complaining — it’s nice to see these songs enjoying such a long lifespan.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Aceyalone – “The Guidelines” from A Book of Human Language (1998 Project Blowed)


We’ve written about Aceyalone in an earlier Shuffler, but indirectly, while writing about DJ Mumbles. Now we finally get to give this gifted MC his due.

It’s a funny thing, but because of the popularity of G-Funk and gangster rap (I can’t bring myself to leave the word “gangsta” on my screen with anything approaching seriousness), it seems like most casual hip-hop fans are unaware of what a huge bohemian/avant-garde/alternative hip-hop scene the West Coast produced in the nineties, specifically the Los Angeles area. People think LA hip-hop from that era, they think Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube (but never his weirdo cousin Del), etc. When people think bohemian/whatever hip-hop, maybe they think New York: Digable Planets, Tribe, De La Soul, etc. Or maybe that’s just my perception of how people think.

At any rate, I have to wonder if Aceyalone wouldn’t be more of a household name if he hadn’t existed in the long shadow of the corporate gangster rap machine that dominated the West Coast at the time.

But then I remember that mainstream culture doesn’t always vaunt brilliance the way we wish it would, which is why, I suppose, the National Endowment for the Arts tapped me to start this blog.

Okay, maybe that’s not how it went down, but it should, just like we should all recognize Aceyalone’s genius.

It’s a genius that almost shouldn’t work. His music is super jazzy, very much a part of the nineties coffee shop cool that may have existed more strongly in our collective will than it ever did in actuality, but in Aceyalone’s case, he really was that cool, which is part of the attraction. His flow is very much influenced by spoken word, too, which (and I’m really putting myself out there now) for me means that it has a high likelihood of being unbearably annoying, insufferable.

But somehow it’s not. And I suppose that’s because Big Ace (as he calls himself in this track) spent a ton of time honing his craft. He first came out of LA’s Good Life Cafe open mic scene (the importance of which, I’m given to believe, can’t be overstated), which is where the Ace’s first group, the Freestyle Fellowship came together. Their deal, as you might imagine, was freestyle rap. I’ll tell you that their 1991 album To Whom it May Concern… is a must-have, and then I’ll let you sit with this rather laudatory Wikipedia statement:

Freestyle Fellowship’s vocal techniques focusing on the method of freestyle rap and their successful infusion of hip hop and jazz established the group as forerunners in the subgenre of jazz rap and placed them amongst prominent West Coast underground hip hop acts of the early 1990s such as Hieroglyphics and The Pharcyde.

Aceyalone was also part of the Project Blowed collective, which began as a freestyle rap/open-mic workshop (also centered around the Good Life Cafe) and then ballooned into something more: a rap crew, a label, two releases (2005’s Project Blowed: 10th Anniversary is a pretty instructive glimpse into this world). He’s also been involved in two other groups, the A-Team and the brilliantly-named Haiku D’Etat, but not knowing anything about either one, I’ll beg off any further explanation.

So when Aceyalone finally begins laying down the guidelines, it is with both a greeting of peace and a certain well-earned boastfulness:

Asalaam alaikum, people of good will
I offer you the greeting of thought manifested skill

And that really sets the tone for what’s to come in the rest of the song, a lot of braggadocio. And I know, it’s tempting to write that off as a tired trope for the genre, but good god if Aceyalone doesn’t pull it off like a goddamn master, because he is.


Friday, March 13, 2015
Aesop Rock – “Labor” from Labor Days (2001 Definitive Jux)


A few interesting facts about Aesop Rock before we begin:

1) He is not the same person as ASAP Rocky. When I first heard about that dude, it was during a really confusing conversation wtih a student when we each thought we were talking about the same person. We weren’t. I’ve never heard ASAP Rocky before, but Wikipedia says he was charged with beating a man in a clothing store after that man maybe videotaped him doing drugs in the clothing store. I guess I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but, you know, different dudes.

2) Vocabulary. Maybe you heard about this, but, because apparently researchers are bananas, but, uh, rad bananas. Data researcher Matt Daniels conducted a giant study comparing rappers’ recorded vocabularies to the recorded writings of one William Shakespeare and some Herman Melville character. Aesop Rock led the pack, literary heroes included, with 7,392 unique words used. We’ll get into that a bit later on, but damn. GZA‘s solo material came in a somewhat distant second, to give some perspective.

3) I remember a friend once telling me that he wasn’t crazy about Aesop Rock because he was “too angry.” Coming from the world of punk rock, I thought that was kind of funny. I’m not sure if there’s a point buried in here or not, but it seems that these things usually come in threes, and I don’t like to depart from convention.

So, alright. “Labor.” It appears, as noted above, on the Labor Days album, an album that produced the instant classic “Daylight” as well as the extremely heavy-handed “9-5er’s Anthem,” so for me it’s kind of a mixed bag. That crazy enormous vocabulary definitely comes into play on this song, the thesis of which is this: I’m such a boss at rhyming, and this song is about that, and you can’t even tell at first because of what a boss I am at rhyming. Like, if there was a bigger word for braggadocio, that’d probably encapsulate it. Favorite moment: “I twist characters like Twist characters.

There’s not a lot of anger here, necessarily, though the production is a bit aggressive, I suppose, with a heavy synth guitar and just a little bit of funkiness. It brings to mind the later work of Eyedea and Abilities, as well as fellow Def Jux conspirators El-P and Cannibal Ox. Like a lot of underground hip-hop from that era and especially from New York, it has kind of an ugly/beautiful dichotomy going on throughout, which really serves to underscore Aesop Rock’s arrogant dystopian vision of himself as a “fantastic planet urchin putting work in.

Aesop Rock isn’t for everybody, especially people who don’t know what words mean. Even if you do, he kind of makes you work for it where deciphering meaning is concerned, and for a lot of people, well, that’s not something they necessarily turn to hip-hop for. For me, I like that he’s literary, but sometimes it’s a bit much.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Common – “Cold Blooded” from Like Water for Chocolate (2000 MCA/Universal) common 20

People occasionally recommend music as a soundtrack for reading particular books as if they were doing a wine pairing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone recommend a book to accompany a soundtrack, though, so it is my pleasure to give you this contribution from the Shuffler Department of Reverse Engineering: William Upski Wyatt’s Bomb the Suburbs is a tour of mid-nineties Chicago hip-hop and graffiti culture through a social justice lens, and often mentions a young Southside rapper by the name of Common Sense and, if memory serves, treats The Source magazine as something of a sacred text. Six years after that book was published, Common had shortened his name and released this, his fourth album (and first on a major). On “Cold Blooded” he raps like he is still that young hungry rapper, musing “I be dissin’ magazines, but then buy The Source and “Battle raps is where it began / I’ma end it wherever I land.” In the fullness of time, we’ve seen this manifest itself as an actor, author, model, and, yes, rapper, something of a poster child for the conscious rap movement.

And I’ve mostly got no problem with this song, as it’s kind of just a swaggering proclamation of who Common is and what he’s here to do. But you know, I feel like if you’re going to be some kind of conscious rapper, your lyrics should maybe be held to a higher level of scrutiny. When Common raps about his ability to make “broads become Queens“, nevermind that i have no idea what it is that he’s actually saying here, I find the misogyny offensive. It’s certainly not the worst example of misogyny on the album, but it makes me wonder how someone who gave such a beautiful and moving speech at the Golden Globes last week could have been celebrated for his consciousness while saying such boneheaded things as this album contains (I’m hardly the first to make this point).

And, shit, in case you think I’m being too hard on him, please understand that I’m aware I could levy the same or similar criticism against a handful of other artists. Stick around, please, and give me that chance. I’ll get there in future Shufflers. Okay, but now that we’ve got that out of the way (I’m clearly just vying for a Webby in the Concious Blogger category), let’s talk about the music.

There are some pretty genius moments of flow here, set against a track produced by D’Angelo, Kelo and Questlove and the Roots, which is to say that it is super smoothed out. What’s funny is that there are a lot of Roots songs that, if one didn’t know a live band was involved, sound like maybe they were produced by Jay Dee, who it turns out did produce a lot of songs on this album, just not this one. If the golden age of hip-hop is said to have been from the late eighties to the early nineties, I think that this album and others are emblematic of a sort of second golden age, a time when hip-hop enjoyed a resurgence of creative energy. Whatever problems I might have with Common’s lyrical content from time to time, I respect his contribution to an exciting era. Like Water for Chocolate is hardly Things Fall Apartbut then again, what is?


Sunday, December 28, 2014
Mumbles – “Vision” from Book of Human Beats (2005 Sound in Color)


It would be tempting to call Book of Human Beats the instrumental version of the 1998 Mumbles-produced Aceyalone record, A Book of Human Language. Indeed, much of what’s on the internet regarding Beats pretty much describes it as such. It’s easy enough to see why — Aceyalone, the bohemian West Coast rapper from Project Blowed and the Freestyle Fellowship (among other efforts) finds the perfect canvas for his spoken-word/free jazz/hip-hop approach in Mumbles’ beats. And as MC/producer relationships tend to go, Ace is pretty much the star.

But there were seven intervening years between the release of Language and Beats, and in that time there was enough tinkering to make Beats its own animal. For instance, while Aceyalone has a song called “The Vision” that clocks in at 1:56, the Mumbles version, called “Vision,” is 3:54. That extra two minutes — twice the “original” — is a lot of time to stretch out in. So much so that, to my ear, the beats are completely different. Even so, both are super chill exemplars of the best that jazzy bohemian/alternative/whatever hip-hop had to offer in the nineties. Mumbles’ beats could be called a West Coast response to Digable Planets, though that’s probably reductive and gives too much credence to the artificial West Coast/East Coast divide that the media loved so much in those days. More constructive, perhaps is this: if these records came out today they’d likely be on Stones Throw.

So, Beats is an instrumental version of an Aceyalone record, sure, but it’s also completely different, its own piece of art that stands on its own merit. One review states that “A Book of Human Beats doesn’t work as an instrumental hip-hop record, if only because Acey’s absence is so conspicuous,” which I think misses the point entirely. Listeners who go into Beats with Aceyalone in mind will likely be perplexed, sure, but the key as I see it is to go into this album valuing each track as one of Mumbles’ own unique creations. Approached this way, it won’t take long for the upright bass in “Visions” to transport listeners to a far more tranquil and utopian land.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mumbles comes from musical stock. This from the Sound in Color website:

“Mumbles developed an ear for jazz and hip-hop music from an early age. His father, Steve Fowler, a professional flute and sax player, along with uncles Bruce, Tom, Walt, and Ed formed a musical legacy spanning from the early 70’s with the band, the Fowler Brothers. They played with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Bobby McFerrin, Linda Rondstadt, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, James Taylor and Brian Setzer, to name just a few.”

Friends: As sometimes happens here at the Shuffler, the YouTubes can’t keep up with our eclectic tastes, and so I am unable to provide video for you to check out this song/s. In an effort to accomodate those of you who are eager to listen, however, I’ve provided a link below for the Mumbles track. It is at rdio.com, and will require a free log-in. Since that’s kind of annoying, I’ve also provided (via YouTube) the full Aceyalone album. “The Vision” begins at 39:00. Enjoy.