Confused White People

Perfume

All In

Back when I was playing in the band, occasionally friends who knew me outside of the group would ask what I got out of the experience. I was never shy to point out that I rarely listened to the sort of proggish-metal we composed and performed in my personal life, Tool/A Perfect Circle and the odd System of a Down track being the occasional outliers. The response I would always give is that the simple explanation behind my musical preferences is likely no different than anyone else’s, I just require music to make me feel something. When I was striving to be the loudest thing onstage with three of my closest friends, that made me feel transcendent; when I listened to 90’s-era Manic Street Preachers I felt invincible; when I heard Sam Cooke I felt longing but never lonely.

You could argue I experience emotion a little more acutely than others (while being simultaneously oblivious to the feelings of those around me. It’s a process), I don’t think I’m unique in what I want out of music. We all have our artists that we cherish more than others because they strum that string in our souls that can be guaranteed to instantly summon a certain feeling. But it’s important to reiterate as I investigate how I became the guy who wrote a book on J Dilla and became totally enthralled with a Japanese girl group in the same year.

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Graining on That Wood

Five years ago I sat in a Starbucks in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, pulled out my then-girlfriend’s burdensome six-pound Dell laptop and started a WordPress blog. I named it after something I’d had scrawled on a white board in my apartment, something I thought might have ended up the title of my first story collection.

Poetry for Gravediggers was my fifth blog, and my first after being downsized as the ‘Online Editor’ of The University of Windsor’s Lance newspaper. Freed from the demands of mandated content creation, I had a surplus of time on my hands and no receptacle in which to dump my ramblings. So I started this.

This is some of what I wrote on May 28, 2009:

“Maybe you got away from your city, eager for the opportunities for reinvention such a move would afford you.  Maybe most other aspects of your life are happy.  But that need to tell stories never really goes away, does it?  Whether retelling truth or crafting your lies, stories have strong roots, you can never fully pull that need out of you. So you start writing your little stories again.

And if you’re like me, you fail. A lot.  You don’t finish. You despise every word that goes on the page, you question the sanity of anyone who ever had faith in your “talents.”  You get irritable with family, coworkers, friends and lovers.

And if you’re like me, you probably get sick of feeling like that.  So maybe you decide to take some of the skills you picked up when you weren’t writing, and use them to keep  you motivated as you try to make something of yourself, because your thirtieth birthday is already fading behind you and you finally understand that no one is going to make it happen for you.

So maybe, you start a blog.

This site is for me, as I call the bluff of adolescent mentors and supporters; we’ll see if you were right.”

Yesterday morning Okayplayer, a site I’ve read off and on long before I started this site, posted a lengthy and complimentary review of my first book.

You could say it’s been an eventful five years. My then-girlfriend became my ex-girlfriend, I moved to a significantly less-fancy Toronto neighbourhood than Rosedale (as ice cream truck jingles and sires waft through my window) and somehow instead of getting any short stories out into the world I messed around and became a non-fiction writer.

And suddenly this blog  shifts from chronicling ‘How I Got Over’ to ‘How I Stay On.’ One of the best things I ever heard was from the songwriter Mike Doughty when someone asked him why he finally decided to write a book about his time in the 90’s alt-hop band Soul Coughing. He said the reason he did was because someone called his bluff: he’d been saying he should write a book for so long someone finally handed him a little money and said, ‘So go do it.’ And that’s terrifying, because, as Doughty said, if you actually try, if you put yourself out there, you lose the comfort of being an undiscovered genius. It’s a comfort I enjoyed a lot over the last five years. And now I don’t have it anymore, which is good, if unsettling.  I’ve heard it enough that the fear of failure is really just the fear of success, and I finally know what that means. Because now that I’ve achieved some infinitesimal measure of success (I’ve almost stopped shuddering when I refer to myself as a “writer,” which is huge if you know me), I have to do it again. Which I really have no idea how to do, judging from the wall of silence that greets me after I get introduced to editors by mutual friends.

Which is kind of….great?  I recently pointed out to a new acquaintance that I have zero connection to the literary community of this city, not out of any aversion to meeting them, I’m just socially awkward and keep weird hours to pay the bills, so don’t have much of an opportunity. But part of me likes being an unknown quantity who came out of nowhere. Part of me likes that whatever small ripple my book’s announcement made in the community was essentially, “Wait, who?!” Or, to quote that unsung poet, Miguel: “I’ll do it all without a co-sign.”

So what does that mean? Part of it means refocus on the next book (pitch being refined daily) double down on posting around here, make connections when I can but don’t relentlessly network to the detriment of the real work.

In 2009 I wrote a post reviewing two volumes of the 33 1/3 series. Five years later,I have my name on one. This blog may have fulfilled the promise it was created for, but its purpose never ends.

And we won’t stop.

Cause we can’t stop.

 

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The 2013 PFG Playlist

Every year since I started running down some of the songs I enjoyed most in the previous 12 months, I’ve lamented in the intro about what a chore selecting the songs had become, as I grew more and more distant from the popular tastes of our age.

To my surprise and delight, 2013 broke the streak. I have no idea if that’s due to an improved ability at finding things I would like or an overall increase in quality this year; I have no overarching ideas or unified theories on music in 2013, but the fact that I actually to cut my list down to ten selections was a welcome surprise. Even more surprising is how this year’s selection ran across more genres than in previous years. There are actual guitars, y’all! Enough preamble! Let’s dig into this, in no order.

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The basement at the old Sonic Boom storefront in Toronto. Photo from their website.

Accepting the Snobbery

At the time, I thought it was a silly question.

Back in the summer my editors at Bloomsbury asked me to do a little interview for their website, all of the authors in my “class” were doing it, a way to introduce ourselves, talk about the albums we were writing about, what we were trying to bring to the table. By the time my turn was up, I started to get this itch like I wanted to jazz it up, do something new, not because I thought the interviews were getting repetitive, but because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. So I asked the editors if I could throw together a video instead.  It was fun, I always like flexing those muscles, even if I did blatantly rip off the rhythms and style of a million other video bloggers.

One of the later questions in the interview concerned how I listen to my music: vinyl, CDs or MP3. At the time I said that as much as I enjoyed spending an afternoon flipping through stacks of records, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood presents certain realities of storage space (not to mention the financial barriers) so most of my music had to live on my laptop.

A few weeks later I was back in my hometown staying at my parents’ house. The plan was to get out of the city, to the peace and quiet of small town living where I wouldn’t have as many distractions and could bang out the first terrible draft of the book, spending the rest of the month tweaking and polishing. I packed a gift I had received for my birthday the previous year, a copy of Donuts on vinyl. My folks had a turntable and I was curious to see if I’d hear anything different in the album in that format. Donuts is intentionally constructed as one continuous piece of music, meant for a compact disc. Listening to it on vinyl adds an entirely different dimension to it because the listener has to change the record every five tracks or so. None of this ended up in the book, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

The draft didn’t really get done while I was down there. In all honesty, it was one of the worst trips home I’ve ever had. In addition to opting for the couch instead of my father’s bed, which had been known to give me backaches (the couch gave me worse backaches) I also received some upsetting information of a personal nature that put me in a panic for most of the week. The plan was to wake up early every day, shower and coffee by 9.00 and put in a solid workday of bashing out pages.  That happened maybe once. The rest of the time I was texting friends, emailing colleagues for advice or lying on the floor and generally trying to avoid things in any way possible.

This is where I fell in love with vinyl again.

As later documented on Instagram, I spent an evening rooting around my parents’ crawlspace and digging through their record collection. It was filled with what one would expect to find in crates belonging to white people of a certain age: Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Journey, some disco, a little new wave. I grabbed a stack of LPs known and unknown and took them out to the stereo. My father’s had all of the same equipment for as long as I can remember, so even the act of turning it on was nostalgic and wistful: the chirp as I flicked the power switch on the receiver, the clicks of the levers on his old Dual turntable as the tone arm lifted and positioned itself at the edge of the disc, the pop and crackle through the speakers. There wasn’t much that made me feel good on that trip, but that evening I spent sitting cross-legged in front of my father’s stereo, as I had as a child and teenager was a happy moment. I started thinking it would be cool to have a turntable in the house. Back when I lived with a woman, we talked once about how cool it would be to take the CDs, rip them to a hard drive, sell them, then buy the essential, desert island discs on vinyl.

It’s an idea that never really went away, I just figured it would be too much of an investment. When you start digging through websites about this sort of thing, people will have you convinced that a minimum of 500 bucks is the minimum investment required to  really hear the nuances of the recordings and blah blah puke.

Last weekend I took a stack of birthday money and bought an Audio-Technica LP60. Cost me a hundred bucks. I’m running it through my iPhone dock. I couldn’t be happier.

Cause you see, what I was reminded of back at my folks’ house, what I had forgotten in recent years, is how vinyl forces you to really connect with a piece of music. When I’m walking the streets with my headphones on, I’m constantly skipping through tracks. Three hundred songs on my phone, I don’t want to hear any of them. You probably do the same thing. And walking the street or riding the train is the place for that. Thing with vinyl, though? I put that record on, I’m stuck with it. I have to listen to it. Sure I could skip songs or swap out the record, but that’s a pain in the ass. Putting on a record has forced me to reconnect with music in a way I think I’d maybe forgotten about.

What’s also fun about all this is how little I care for the ancillary concerns that fuel most other collectors. I’m coming at this as a fan, not an audiophile. An audiophile would see my setup and laugh me out of my own house (foremost among the reasons why, in my investigations at least, “audiophiles” are the worst). I don’t give a shit about original or Japanese pressings. I’m only buying albums I consider classics. I’ll get to my hip-hop essentials eventually, but at the moment I’m into soul, funk and jazz. I’m not really into 45s because they seem too disposable to me. I know I should splurge on the 180g  reissues, but I love a record that feels like it has some history. When shopping last weekend, I had to choose between the remaster of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or a cheaper copy in a dingy, weathered sleeve. Of course I chose the latter.

I’m giddy with the excitement of having a new obsession. I love drafting my wishlist in my head, I love the idea of heading out to the shops in this city, looking for the cheapest copies I can find. Comic books were probably the last thing that gave me a similar sense of meditative peace (sad as that is), but comics could only be found at comic shops. You can find records everywhere. I love the fact that you can spend 10 bucks on a used record and feel like you really bought something. CDs never made me feel like that. I love that the Donny Hathaway album I bought had a gatefold with liner notes by Nikki Giovanni.

Mostly, I just love feeling like a music fan again.

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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.

 

01

The 2012 PFG Playlist

This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.

That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:

These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.

Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.

The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.

BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II

Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.

Nas: Daughters

Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.

ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel

Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.

Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.

J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away

My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame

My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.

Usher: Climax

At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.

Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis

Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.

Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.

Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy

Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.

Knxwledge – wntwrk

My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.

BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above

Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You

I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.

Washed Out: Feel It All Around

This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.

Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel

The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.

Image: “Sound Wave” by Jin Shin. [h/t]

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What Would Be and What Is

Last Monday I spent most of my morning waiting around for my local TelComm technician to show up and finally get my Internet up and running at the new place, thus ensuring I could continue to Netflix and Hearthfire as much as my little soul desires [note: it desires a lot].

As is typically the case with waiting on TelComm technicians, he finally showed up in the last ten minutes of the four-hour appointment window, but I didn’t terribly care, I had the day off and being up that early gave an opportunity to take a significant bite out of the book I’d been reading. Out of the company van stepped a young black man, denim shirt a couple of sizes too big, Leafs hat cocked to the side. After he checked the lines at the side of the building I brought him up to the apartment.

“Hey Jordan, what novel are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s not a novel, it’s a biography. About a novelist, so that’s pretty much the same thing, though.”
“Yeah? You a writer?”
“Heh. Trying to be.”

I walk him into the apartment, he susses out the connections, stepped out to work some magic around the block, came back and told me to grab my laptop. I open my Macbook and start scanning for the network.

“Are those things good for video editing?” he asks me.
“Supposedly. I’ve done a bit here and there, nothing too extravagant, though. But they say these are the machines that make it really easy, you know?”
“They’re expensive though, huh?”
“Ha, yeah. This was the result of a lot of saving and a lot of birthday and holiday charity.”
“Yeah, man, cause you know my woman, she does a lot of videos on YouTube, right? She’s got like half a million views or something? I don’t know anything about that shit, I’m not on YouTube, Facebook, none of that. But she’s doing her thing, you know? She got a birthday coming up, says she needs a new laptop to really step all that up, you know? But man, like, twelve hundred dollars, though?”
“Yeah. Though you can always get a PC with the same specs for a lot less, it’s just a style thing.”
“Well, that’s her thing, though, right, man? She does these like, make-up videos? Like, showing girls how do apply it and stuff. Here, I’ll show you.”

I shit you not, friends. He spent at least 20 minutes showing me photos and videos of his fiancée doing her makeup tutorials. It was actually kind of cool, she does both high fashion and zombie/horror designs, which I’d never seen before. And the dude wasn’t lying, she’s got like 10,000 subscribers, hundreds of followers on Instagram…she’s doing her thing.

The installation’s wrapping up, he asks me for a pen so he can jot down his contact info in case of any problems. I can’t find one lying around so I grab one of the pair I keep clipped to my satchel, for pretentious Moleskine writing and the like.

“Thanks, money,” he says as he starts to write his name. He stops, suddenly. “Yo, this pen is SICK, dude!”
I start coughing on my laughter, “You have no idea how much it makes my day to hear you say that.” I take my pens seriously, what do you want?
“Dude, like, I’m about to write my full name on here, and I never do that, I just want to keep writing with this thing.”

He hands me the sheet with his info, asks me where he can find some lunch in the neighbourhood on the cheap and shakes my hand. Honestly, my whole heart is warmed by the encounter, to meet the cool guy who hooked up my Internet and shared my love of a good pen. And then this happened.

I’d left the apartment door open because he’d been running up and downstairs for equipment. Now, the hallways in my building are ceramic tile creating a sort of echo chamber effect throughout, and the doors all seem to have very loose hinges, meaning my neighbours are always inadvertently slamming their doors, the sound of which gets broadcast all around the building. And that’s what happened as I was shaking the technician’s hand. Someone on the second floor was stepping out, didn’t catch the door as it was closing and a loud POP! could be heard from my apartment one storey up. And when it happened, his whole demeaner changed for a moment. His grip tightened, his eyes grew wide and darted to the door.

“Yo, what was that?”
‘Huh? Oh, nothing man. Someone just slammed their door downstairs.”
“Oh!” he starts laughing, nervous and embarrassed. “Man, for a second there I was like…like, I don’t know.”

It takes a minute for my muddled brain to connect the dots: Oh my God! He thought it was a gunshot.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since he left, and what that says about the differing experiences between races. The writer/scholar/intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, in one of my favourite essays on the subject, once took aim at what he called the “Liberal Theory of Race,” the one that attempts to convince us that deep down, we’re all the same. It’s Dyson’s belief, and I’m inclined to agree with him, that such a viewpoint chooses to ignore, “…the irrefutable reality of race. Because it conceives of race as merely a part of one’s broader ethnic identity, liberal race theory is unable to make sense of the particular forms of oppression generated primarily by racial identity.”

An idea fully on display as I shook hands with my technician. To me, even if I didn’t know it was a door slamming, it would never occur to me that a loud popping noise could be a gunshot. But for him, it’s in the realm of possibility. Whether that’s a result of his own social conditioning or personal experience I don’t know. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He comes from a place where that kind of violence occurs to him, I come from a place where it never even boards my train of thought. And we can get along, have our chats about the fiancées, the appreciation of a quality pen, all that. But there will always be a gulf that we won’t ever be able to fully cross. All we can do is acknowledge it exists, because that might be the only way white and black folks can ever really fully understand each other.

[Jonah Lehrer confession: I made points similar to the ones found in here in a post for the University of Windsor newspaper in 2007. Since no one’s paying me for this, I reserve the right to recycle to a new audience.

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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.