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Introducing The Geekdown Podcast

Sometime in 2014, the Doctor Who relaunch hit Canadian Netflix. To that point my only familiarity with the show was a vague recollection of being terrified as a child when that creepy theme music started playing after Polka Dot Door ended on TVOntario. But with the 2009 reboot, and especially David Tennant’s turn as the Tenth Doctor, the show became a sort of phenomenon in my circle of friends, specifically with young women I knew who never expressed any tendency to nerdery before. So I made an effort to check it out.

And I hated it.

I could spot the reasons why I hated it (the camp, the mugging, the threadbare special effects), but every so often I saw what others saw in it: when the Ninth Doctor inadvertently stumbled on The Last Dalek in the Universe and proceeded to taunt and torture it, I thought I was all in. By the time the Tenth Doctor was fighting werewolves with Queen Victoria the next season, I was throwing up my hands. And I was troubled by what I seemed to be missing. Of course no one has to like everything, but this was something of “my people,” and I felt lacking because I couldn’t get over whatever was keeping me from just enjoying it. It couldn’t be the space travel, I loved Star Trek: TNG. It couldn’t be the time travel, I loved Back to the Future as much as any eighties baby. Was it the Britishness? I grew up loving American superheroes and Japanese anime (still do). Did my fandom fall along nationalist lines? I took these concerns to my friend Caitlin, one of the aforementioned young women who loved Doctor Who, from well before its 21st Century reboot. We never really reached an answer, but I never stopped thinking about this idea that Caitlin and I were both nerds/geeks/dorks, but in completely different ways. Surely our fandoms had to overlap somewhere?

And that’s when Geekdown was born. Every Tuesday, Caitlin and I will bring each other things from our various areas of interest, things the other likely wouldn’t check out, and talk about whether we like it, and why or why not, as we try to find the sweet spot where fandoms intersect.

There will also likely be high levels of nonsense, of the sort that only good friends of five-plus years can provide.

Subscribe to Geekdown on iTunes and Soundcloud.

The 2014 PFG Playlist

Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!

The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.

Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.

While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.

Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.

If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.

I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’tBecause all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.

Look at  it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.

Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.

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Step Right Up

If you were to guess that the flurry of activity around here lately had to do with me getting the itch again now that the draft has finally left my grubby hands and flown overseas to people like designers and copy editors, you would be correct.

You don’t need me to tell you that writing is like running, or weight lifting or whatever other questionable endurance sport you might partake in. Use it or lose it, and I took my damn sweet time recovering from the process of writing the book (Level 56 on Grand Theft Auto Online, email me for my Gamertag. Get at me, dog). But then ideas for things to write about start to percolate and the longer they stay in there the longer they fester until the process of expelling them from my brain is lacklustre and disappointing. Not unlike passing a bowel movement.

As for how I’m feeling now that it’s out of my hands, the wonderful Julieanne Smolinski summed up that feeling with more precision than I ever could.

Yup.

None of this is to say I’ve been completely slovenly the last couple of months. I continue musing about whatever nerdery comes to mind over at 22 Pages for the University of Toronto (latest are here and here) and I also branched out a tad by tossing some pieces to the folks over at The Same Page on, oddly enough, the 40th Birthday of Hip-Hop and the release of Grand Theft Auto V (do you think I’m developing a niche here?)

As well, my friends and colleagues at 22 Pages Khaiam Dar and Alex Correa have collected the first volume of the webcomic they started in 2011, Smells Like Maturity. If you’re in the Toronto area, swing by Red Nails II at Jane and Bloor for their release party on November 15. I wrote the introduction, so if you’re a Ferguson completist, you’ll want to pick that up. Writing it turned out to be a bigger deal than I was expecting it to be, but I’m really happy with the piece, and for the opportunity to toast those two jerks on the occasion of making their longtime dream come true. Of course they’d release their book six months before mine comes out.

So that’s what I’m staying up to, friends. It’s a moment of respite from book madness as it moves to the production phase, but I’m sure you’ll be inundated with Dilla-related content as the book nears release. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the relative peace and trying to figure out how to stumble my way into being a quote-unquote “writer” instead of someone who wrote a book once.

Kind of weird to think now about how that struggle is what this blog was meant to document in the first place. .

A Letter to Donald

‘Bino,

I woke up from a mid-morning nap following an overnight shift to a phone blown up with texts and tweets alerting me to the spontaneous listening party you’d announced for your upcoming album in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park.  I was a little shocked, as far as I knew you were still filming your episodes of Community, but with enough time to throw some clothes on and head down, I didn’t want this to be another of those “Cool things that happen in Toronto that I take for granted and don’t go to.”

There were only about fifty people or so when I showed up, standing around a kid with a pair of amplifiers. I foolishly thought attendance might actually stay at those levels, and that maybe I could tell you some of these things in person, but within fifteen minutes the crowd had swollen to around 200. As the crowd grew and 5.00 came and went the kid with the amplifiers started to look nervous, and it occurred to me it was wholly possible we were about to be trolled by a local crew of kids taking the opportunity to promote their shitty mixtape.  But then you showed up, no fanfare, pushed through the crowd to the picnic table, sat down, plugged your phone into the speakers and started playing the album*.

Aw, dammit. I thought. He’s on his art school bullshit again. I can’t lie, Donald. I’d been concerned. You first hinted at restlessness on the ROYALTY mixtape, so news that you were leaving Community (where I first became a fan) was disappointing, but not surprising. But that short film you made last summer (which I admit I didn’t even watch) caused some eyebrow arching, and then there were your Instagram notes last month. So when you strolled up without a word, I started to wonder if I was willing to hang with where you were going.

By the time I left Bellwoods, though, I was back on board, not from anything you did, per se, but from what the crowd did.

Toronto is…we can be a weird town. Superior yet love-starved. Many in that park seemed to think they’d be getting a concert of some sort, despite your earlier tweet to the contrary. A few climbed nearby trees to catch a glimpse of you. When you’d played what you wanted to, you stood up and answered questions from the crowd for half an hour. When a second person asked you if you were going to do any stand-up, a few of us groaned and you chuckled and mentioned someone had already asked that and moved on to the next question.

“Uhh, okay?  Thank you? For not answering my question? Appreciate it!” the guy hollered. And all I could think was Wowww, you know what?  Fuck youguy. He owes you nothing. And that was when it all sort of clicked in for me. You don’t owe me anything either. If I’m sad the antics of Troy and Abed will be shortened this year, tough shit for me. Would I really turn down the chance to run the ship at my own show if given your choice?  No, I wouldn’t. Neither would anyone else.

As for the ‘cry for help.’ Instagram notes, I watched your Breakfast Club interview where you explained that part of what inspired it was just feeling alone and lost, like damn near every other twentysomething butting their heads against the promises of history.

“Everybody stunts on Instagram. Nobody shows their buddy’s funeral, nobody wants to be vulnerable. People thought I was crazy because I was honest. That was it,” you said.

That honesty is what always drew me to your music, that willingness to admit fear that always causes “real heads” to get their backs up and start calling people “soft.”  Like Kanye said, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” He was never supposed to be the last.

When I was in journalism school my second writing course was on various styles of column writing, personal essays, shit like that.  For my first workshop submission, I wrote about something extremely personal that was going on with my family. I was older than most of my classmates, who I’d only known for five months by then. You could feel the air getting sucked out of the room as they read it. But I just threw it all out there because I couldn’t stand the idea of restraint, felt like all of our work work would suffer if we weren’t willing to go all the way with it. I’ve grown somewhat more diplomatic in how I deploy the truth in the subsequent years, but I still believe what I did in that class: that any art that means anything has to leave it all on the table. Your willingness to do that, rawer than how Kanye or Drake or even Eminem do it, is unlike anything I’ve heard in hip-hop, and is still so exciting to me. It’s like being 12 years old and listening to De La Soul is Dead for the first time, just being enthralled and anxious and confused all at once.

So what I guess I’m trying to say is do your damn thing, Donald, whatever that thing might be. If you want to write, write. If you want to make music, make music. I might not love everything you do, but you’ll always make it worthwhile to check in.

Best,

Jordan

ps: That “rainbow, sunshine” song? The one that sounded like Jhené Aiko sung a hook?  It’s a goddamn monster.

*Because the Internet, out Dec. 10.

 

That’s the Joint

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I’ve heard it mentioned on occasion that everyone has one story in them that only they can tell.  A story so inextricably entangled in the core of that person’s most authentic self that to withhold it does a disservice bordering on insult [series like The Moth or the back page of Toronto Life butter their bread on this very theory].

For a while now, I’ve known what my story is, I’ve just been trying to decide on the medium to tell it in [closest I ever came was about a dozen pages worth of graphic novel scripting, still sitting on my hard drive. If any artists out there want to take a crack, email me]. Longtime readers know I will always maintain that my coming of age, while not necessarily unique, or stuffed with hardships, was just really fricking weird.  

When you grow up in a rural part of Southwestern Ontario, Canada, during the 1980s, surrounded on all fronts by body shops, dilapidated tractors, abandoned barns, and poorly tended corn fields while the nascent forms of hip-hop, house and techno are crossing the river via radio signal from a Black cultural giant like Detroit…when you gravitate towards that culture, in that environment, it cements your outsider status, and it leaves you with a sense of, not isolation necessarily, but of standing apart, being out of step. And that feeling never really disappears. Sometimes you’re reminded why.

A few weeks back I came across the above photo on Facebook.  As a joke, it’s a cute pun but not very funny; as cultural commentary it’s a ‘facepalm and move on,’ type of trifle. It just amazes me that this some people still find the need to engage in this insecure dick swinging, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Take my Pops.  He took me to buy Fat Boys tapes at Devonshire Mall when I was nine years old, I still remember him trying to explain to the clerk what exactly it was I looking for [“I think it’s called ‘rap,’ or something?  I don’t know, it all sounds like garbage.”]. He loves to make jokes deliberately getting the names of MCs incorrect [‘Biggie Big’ is a personal favourite of both of us]. He’s watched me embrace this music for almost 30 years, he knows I’m writing a book about it, yet there is definitely a part of him that still cannot believe that this music, this culture, still exists, let alone evolved into the economic titan it is today. And that’s not entirely unreasonable of him: the origins of the music and the cultural concerns present therein couldn’t be more foreign to him.  They should be foreign to me; I’ve yet to suss out a reasonable explanation for why it resonated with me so fully, but it is what it is. Between the rhythm of the beats and the education in classic soul, jazz and funk they’ve always provided, I’ve just always found it a more rewarding musical experience than ‘Arrrrr, rawk!’ [I’ll give some slack to Deftones, who fully exposed their desire to be a Depeche Mode cover band somewhere around 2005. Abe still plays too busy, though].

And I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve never looked down my nose exasperated at a crew of gel-spiked dudes in Affliction t-shirts throwing up the devil horns at the camera, but I’ve tried to adopt a certain level of cultural detente with those camps as I get older and mellowed out; as the homie Big Ghost once said: “I aint really mad at it tho…like it aint horrible or nothin. It jus dont got no real purpose in my iTunes.”

It’s funny, I remember a few months back watching Lords of the Underground perform at Hip-Hop Karaoke’s Competition Round.  In the middle of ‘Chief Rocka,’ Mr. Funkee cut the beat off, and said the following before he finished his verse:


Let me explain something to y’all. I been doing this shit for almost 22 years. And there’s people that still can’t say this shit. So on this whole tour we’ve been on, I’ve been breaking this shit down so that people can understand it, because it’s important for us to communicate as hip-hop artists. Because they don’t want hip-hop to flourish, they don’t want hip-hop to survive, they don’t want…they hate this shit, dude. Trust me.”

I remember standing in the crowd thinking, ‘well, that’s a little dramatic.’ After three decades, the music had gone from a block party conceit to a globally dominant culture, and you can’t play the underdog once you’re on top.

But then I see that photo. And it occurs to me how wonderful it is that after all this time, this hip-hop thing can still get people shook enough to draw their lines in the sand, even via something as benign as a chalk sign.

That’s a beautiful thing.

Catching Up With Childish Gambino

Some of you might recall my glowing endorsement of actor/comedian/writer/ Donald Glover’s commercial debut as the rapper Childish Gambino, 2011’s Camp. I loved that album so much I started watching Community and fell in love with Glover’s character as much as everyone else does. So I can admit, I’ve become a bit of a stan for dude in the last six months. When he announced he was dropping a new mixtape last week, I downloaded it immediately.

Aaaaaaand……hrm.

Here’s the thing about rappers: success is usually the worst thing that happens to them, because then that becomes all they talk about. While Royalty doesn’t totally abandon the raw confessional tone that permeates much of Camp, this is clearly Glover-as-Gambino’s coming out party, complete with the requisite thousand guest spots [16 of the album’s 18 songs have guest verses by everyone from PFG favourites like Bun B, Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q to Beck and Danielle Haim of the tweerock sister trio HAIM] and lots of bragging and boasting about skills and money and woman-acquiring potency.

Glover’s clearly been putting in work on his flow [“more swag, pull back on the punchlines”] but for as much as he’s improved as a rapper, he’s grown less interesting as an artist. While some tracks have the same sort of straight talk that so impressed me about Camp, many of the songs have the sort of ‘hip-hop as usual,’ feel found on most rap albums. Which is fine, and maybe I hold Glover to too high a standard on the strength of Camp, but ‘hip-hop as usual,’ is never what I went to him for.

On the production side, Glover still handles most of the beatmaking with varying levels of success, while snagging beats from Beck, up and comer skywlkr and Toronto beatking Boi-1da.

Ultimately though, one line soured the whole project for me. On ‘We Ain’t Them,’ the first track on Royalty, Glover raps about making a guest appearance onstage with The Roots and talking to Questlove after the show. The talk prompts him to put his career into perspective [taking shots at his infamous 1.6 Pitchfork review in the process] and think about what he wants to do: “Back of my mind, though, I hope the show gets cancelled. / Maybe then I could focus.”

I know what Glover’s trying to say, but as a fan of said show and his work on it, it just comes off as ungrateful and unappreciative of the fans that have gone to bat for Community over the years. Last I checked, Glover wasn’t scheduled to join the rest of the cast at Comic-Con this year, further suggesting that he’s got one foot out the door in favour of music. And yes, I know to criticize anyone for following their passion smacks of the worst sorts of fanboyism and jealousy, but that’s just how it feels to me.

Now granted, free mixtapes are never the best way to judge an artist, and Royalty is by no means a bad project. “We Ain’t Them,” “One Up,” and “Black Faces,” start the album strong; Bun B drops the best Dragonball Z reference in hip-hop on “R.I.P.”, and “Wonderful” was the perfect song to start my weekend as I waited for a westbound streetcar at Queen and Bathurst. But everything that made Camp so fascinating is notably absent, and choosing to end the album with Tina Fey doing the usual, ‘white nerdy person comes hard on a hip-hop track’ not nearly as well as Natalie Portman did it concludes the whole affair on weird, sour note. It sounds like an artist with no lack of talent trying to figure out where he wants to go. Time will tell if I’m still interested in going with him.

Royalty is free for download on Glover’s website, and he hits Toronto for a sold out show at Echo Beach on July 31.

Brandwhoring: Achievement Unlocked

Best friends forever.

Friends, you will recall about a year ago when I was in the market for a new phone, I was (A) pretty certain I wanted to be as far away from Bell as possible and (B) happily ensconced in the world of Android.

How then, to explain the shiny black box in the picture above? A shiny black box provided by Bell, even?  As it happens, and what I already knew from past experience, is that when you’re legally clear to walk and threaten to do so, cell phone providers actually act like human beings.  Holding them over the bucket got me basically the deal I had before plus 6GB/month for pretty much what I was already paying.  I dropped the portion that gives me unlimited everything with ten numbers [MyFun Whatever the Hell They Call It] because I don’t think I know ten people I want to talk to that frequently and I can use Skype or some other service for long distance.

So why jump to iPhone now?  I admit, down to the wire I was still hemming and hawing, as new Android handsets were released [the HTC One series being the last device that had a shot].  But the decision to do so was twofold:

  • I’m an app whore. Right now, unless it’s coming from Google, most apps are designed for iOS with Android as an afterthought.  This might not be the case a year from now, but it’s the case now.
  • The woman I live with got one, and I had to watch her play with it for the better part of six months, all the while my HTC Wildfire S seemed to get wheezier and wheezier, after less than a year.

Look at this footage I took from the HHK Anniversary show back in March [turn your speakers down].

Now watch the footage she took with her 4S the same night, at the same time from farther away.

Come on now, son.  You can say I was justifying, but I immediately started thinking of all the things I could do with it from a content creation standpoint.  Buying the MacBook changed the way I can produce content for PFG, the iPhone has made the way I collect the raw materials for that content creation so, so much easier.

But lest the more militant of you whip out your flaming swords prepared to lance me as another slobbering fanboy to the House of Jobs, calm yourself a moment.  After playing with the phone for a few days, while I don’t regret my decision to go with the iPhone in the least, I can admit there are some things that Android does better than iOS.  I’ll break down some of them after the cut. (more…)

Speaking Softly: On ‘Quiet,’ by Susan Cain

During my brief and infrequent stints in an office environment, the one criticism consistently lobbed at me by managers and superiors was my perceived unwillingness to engage with people, to favor email over face-to-face communication, for vocalizing my ideas in the casual debriefing we would have after meetings. I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that my preferred method of conducting myself was something I needed to “get over,” and with no small amount of time and difficulty, I did to an extent. But the second my boss presented me with a request for information from somewhere in the company I’d never dealt with before, I would sit at my desk and have to psych myself up for something as simple as an email, then pore over every word, read the thing out loud to ensure the information was related clearly, then get irritated when my carefully constructed email would snag a two-line reply.

How lovely, then, to come across a book arguing that not only is it okay to be how I am, sometimes it’s even preferable.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a 300-page excuse for the introverted to retreatfurther into themselves, rather it’s an indictment of a certain type of Western worldview that puts a premium on the dynamic, go-getter extroverted types at the expense of the more reserved among us who would prefer to make decisions more slowly.  Cain travels everywhere from the Harvard Business School to Cupertino, California to an Anthony Robbins Seminar, marveling at how sharp the dichotomy is between introverts and extroverts really is, and how painful the struggle is for introverts trying to fake it in a world that doesn’t value them or what they can contribute [like the guy at the Harvard Business School who pulls great grades but feels he’s wasting his education because he can’t muster the energy to attend the multiple social outings he was expected to attend every week].

The worlds of business and education come under the harshest scrutiny from Cain, with their unrelenting emphasis on forced collaborations that sometimes do more to stifle innovation than encourage it.  I mean, I was a low rung on the ladder when I was in the office, my busiest day might have involved three meetings at the most.  That’s still at least three hours of the day that I’m not working, at least not under my definition of the word.  I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are actually busy there.

But, the book doesn’t let introverts off the hook, examining the ways in which they can stretch themselves into pretend extroverts to better make their way in the world. It can be done, but it’s important to note, and the book does so frequently, that it really only works when introverts believe fully and passionately about the things they are stretching themselves for: I was able to finally start speaking up in meetings because I fully cared about the ideas we were sharing; I can talk to someone I’ve never met at the bookstore for fifteen minutes or more because I’m passionate about books and reading and want to help a stranger in their reading experience.

While I adored the book, I found I enjoyed it the most when I was able to most recognize my experience in it; when Cain wrote about things like the science of introversion and extroversion or how to encourage introverted kids [subjects I agree the book needed to address] I found myself skimming ahead.

All told, Quiet was a fantastic read, and pretty mandatory for anyone who’s ever been made to feel like there’s something wrong with them because their idea of an amazing Friday night involves a pizza and a movie at home more than a house party crammed with people.

For the interested but lazy, check out Cain’s 16-point ‘Quiet Manifesto,’ [taken from her website] as well as her recent TED Talk on the subject.

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi