Top 5 Records of 2015

There was a lot of great music released in 2015. I could easily compile a list of the 50 Best Albums of the year, but instead I am keeping things simple and mentioning the 5 albums that made the deepest impact on my listening last year. If the list was longer, it would include such fantastic releases as Jamie xx’s In Colour, BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul, Panda Bear’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Four Tet’s Morning/Evening, Max Richter’s Sleep, and Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s Never Were the Way She Was, among many others. Here’s the list of my 5 favourite albums of 2015 with a selected track from each record.

5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s second release under the moniker Father John Misty tells the story of his courtship of his wife, Emma. This is a really fun record that reads like one long self-reflexive joke that we are let in on. This album is all about juxtaposition, placing caustic irony beside blunt declarations of love.

4. Kasami Washington, The Epic

For those of us who listen to jazz, it’s exciting to see how the genre is being taken in new directions. Last year’s You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus drew on the spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane to the progressive jazz fusion of Weather Report to the humourous and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Kasami Washington’s The Epic, also on Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint, builds on that format in a three hour jazz odyssey that digs deep into the past and pushes forward as a kind of generational intervention. The Epic features a 10-piece jazz band with augmentation from a string section and a full choir and holds its own with the best of fusion records. This is consciousness-raising music and it is getting lots of spins over here.

3. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah 

14 years after the critically acclaimed Voodoo, D’Angelo returns with the militant, powerful, and funky Black Messiah. The album is incredibly layered with murky vocals, unsettled grooves, and fuzzy guitars, with deep roots in rock, funk, jazz, and gospel. It’s an album that recalls Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 funk album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. An unbelievable comeback record from D’Angelo.

2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens’s beautiful Carrie & Lowell has been on repeat in our house since its release. The songs on the album are inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon in Stevens’s childhood. For me, this album is up there with Seven Swans and Illinois. This album is Stevens’s most personal and mature and it is also his most stripped down record, which allows his abilities as a songwriter to shine through.

1.  Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. This is art and music that is both relevant and functional, showing that you can make music that is both rhetorically powerful and aesthetically pleasing. Without a doubt, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is my favourite release of 2015. It certainly restored a lot of my faith in mainstream hip-hop. As David Jeffries puts it, “To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso’s Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.”

DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into the mix. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord
DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into Lamar’s powerful record. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord



#DJphoenixdailyrecord: January

Along with the complex smell of spices from my wife’s cooking, a steadfast in our home is the warm sound of vinyl records: beautiful, and at times crackly, orbs of sonic prophecy. Over the years, I’ve collected nearly a 1000 records in all genres. Last April, we were gifted with our son Phoenix who will be 10 months old this month. Given I’ve been playing records and dancing, or playing, with him every day before or after work, I thought it would be nice to document the process (for a whole year) on my Instagram account ( with the hashtag: #DJphoenixdailyrecord. I’ll post a recap of the photos for each month here, but if you have Instagram, you can follow along daily at:

January 2015:

IMG_0636 IMG_0637 IMG_0638 IMG_0639 IMG_0640 IMG_0647 IMG_0645 IMG_0646

Jan. 3: Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill
Jan. 4: Wu-Tang Clan, 36 Chambers 
Jan. 5: Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
Jan. 6: Ramin Djawadi, Game of Thrones Soundtrack
Jan. 7: Caribou, Our Love
Jan. 8: Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star 
Jan. 9: Fela Kuti, Gentleman
Jan. 10: Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Jan. 11: Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young” and “Step” (45)
Jan. 12: Bob Marley and The Wailers, Legend
Jan. 13: Tom Waits, Blue Valentine
Jan. 14: Esmerine, Aurora
Jan. 15: Charlie Parker, Boss Bird!
Jan. 16: The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow
Jan. 17: Flying Lotus, Los Angeles
Jan. 18: Boards of Canada, The Campfire Headphase
Jan. 19: Blue Swede, “Hooked on a Feeling” (45)
Jan. 20: Nirvana, Nevermind
Jan. 21: The Delfonics, “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)” (45) paired with The Fugees, “Ready or Not”
Jan. 22: Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream
Jan. 23: Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison 
Jan. 24: Max Roach Quintet, Conversation 
Jan. 25: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
Jan. 26: Krafwerk, TransEurope Express
Jan. 27: Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force, “Planet Rock” (RSD glow-in-the-dark vinyl)
Jan. 28: Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits
Jan. 29:  Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle
Jan. 30: Freddie Hubbard, Sky Dive
Jan 31: Paul McCartney, Ram

Featured Image is of Phoenix, the day after he was born. 

You’re Dead!: The Afrofuturistic Sounds of Flying Lotus

“The future is always here in the past.”
-Amiri Baraka, “Jazzmen: Diz & Sun Ra”

From Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to where we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination), particularly as a new generation of artists embody the movement’s philosophy and push jazz and hip-hop into new realms. As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Few working DJs in the “beat scene,” particularly with mainstream recognition, embody the creative spirit of Afrofuturism as much as experimental electronic artist Flying Lotus, whose aunt is the legendary Alice Coltrane. He’s also the cousin of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and the grandson of singer/songwriter Marilyn McLeod (notable for writing Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” and Freda Payne’s “I Get High (On Your Memory).”

Rather than letting his deep musical roots hold him down, Flying Lotus (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) forges forward, sounding futures and making music that uses past recordings—made live through scratching and remix—as sources for improvisation. Flying Lotus first came to recognition making beats for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, eventually releasing a full-length record in 2006 entitled 1983. 1983 (of which I have a hard to find copy on vinyl), like its follow up, Los Angeles (2008), is a fairly straight ahead and accessible beats record, although it comes from the left field of jazz-based eletronica, video game music, and experimental hip-hop. His more recent releases include the albums Cosmogramma, and 2012’s sparse sounding and critically acclaimed, Until the Quiet ComesUntil the Quiet Comes displays the complexity of Ellison’s production, characterized by consonant and dissonant sounds, counterpoint, diverse shifts in tone and feel, and various improvisational modifications in mood, time signature, and overall structure. The psychedelic undertones, a mixture of downtempo jazz and post-rock ethos, add a dream quality to the album. Andy Beta of Spin described the record as the “dreams within dreams within dreams” concept of the 2010 film Inception while Karen Lawler of State insists that, “If the limbo between awake and sleeping, dreams and nightmares could be expressed through music, this album might well be it.”

Unique to Flying Lotus is how much sound he can get using a computer and digital production tools. Often he performs with live musicians (such as Ravi Coltrane) and his complex melodies, syncopated rhythms, and textured productions are largely a product of his own diverse interests. Some of his favourite albums, as he describes in one interview, include Alice Coltrane’s Lord of Lords; Radiohead’s Amnesiac; Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Lady Sinner, and J Dilla’s Ruff Draft. Stylistically, Ellison’s music reflects these diverse records, as Lotus’s albums contain free form jazz undertones and jazz-based patterns and time signatures. In 2010, Flying Lotus worked with the Ann Arbor Film Festival in a live scoring of the 1962 avant-garde film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Flying Lotus continues to surprise his audiences with imaginative live performances and by remaining true to the cross-fertilization of ideas and technological manipulation so present in Afrofuturism, Lotus (and the larger movement of young creative artists) continues to imagine possible futures.

Flying Lotus’s latest release, You’re Dead! (October 2014), embodies his mind-bending Afrofuturism more than any of his earlier recordings. The album is perhaps what Sun Ra’s and Miles Davis’s sonic child would sound like if they birthed an album together under the auspices of hip-hop. You’re Dead! is a breaking away and fresh approach to jazz-influenced hip-hop that feels a lot like Miles Davis’s On the Corner or Bitches Brew. In the liner notes of Bitches Brew, Ralph Gleason argues that “electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging.” The great thing about You’re Dead! is that it recalls and echoes other fusion records, and yet its sounds are distinctive and in some ways unparalleled. You’re Dead! digs deep into jazz fusion, and takes the listener on a psychedelic journey into the unknown of the infinite afterlife. The exclamatory title (You’re Dead!) signals both the intensity and enthralled irreverence with which Ellison approaches death. Ellison’s own singing on the record is both goofy and haunting. Most impressive about this album is the well-orchestrated panoply of ideas, which are channeled through a tapestry of spirits and friends who converse together in the sonic afterlife.

Flying-Lotus-Dead-Mans-Tetris-608x804The artwork for the album is in itself a psychedelic trip.

The album’s musical influences range from the spiritual jazz of the Coltranes, the prog jazz fusion of Weather Report (a major stylistic conduit for Ellison on the record), to the humour and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Such a mix makes You’re Dead! Ellison’s most free sounding album to date; impressively the record never spirals out of control because it clocks in at less than 40 minutes. In those 38 minutes we encounter a wide spectrum of sounds (and silences) with more live instrumentation than any prior Lotus album. The collaborative cast on the album is diverse, and includes Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Captain Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, Angel Deradoorian, and others. Given his role at the helm of the fusion movement, Herbie Hancock is well deployed and his mellifluous keys on “Telsa” and “Moment of Hesitation” add to the jazz feel of the album. To really appreciate You’re Dead! you need to listen to the album in one continuous sitting: preferably in a smoky moon-lit room. The smoke could just as fittingly be from incense or cannabis. The tracks seamlessly flow together and the intense opening to the ethereal closing creates a cinematic experience that juxtaposes life and death, heaven and hell. This is cosmic music that is more meditative than it is consumptive. Yes, it is anthropophagic (cannibalistic) of other musical forms, but its channeling is meditative. We are not given a concrete answer to the nature of the afterlife, but I think that’s largely the point. The shamanistic journey FlyLo takes us on is Afrofuturistic because it lets us know that our past contains portals to explore the future of unknown horizons. You’re Dead! might just be the most exciting and confounding musical experience released this year.

images-4images-4images-4images-4 record 1:2(4.5 spins out of 5)

Check out some of Ellison’s music below, including the Kendrick Lamar collaboration on “Never Catch Me.”

Featured image from, here.

Sex Mob Plays Fellini

Sex Mob is a New York City jazz group, which initially began as a way to feature the slide trumpet of leader Steven Bernstein. Since then the band, as Bernstein’s website states, has developed an overarching mandate: “to put the fun back in jazz music.” The band is comprised of Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on alto sax, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The group first formed in the 1990s as part of a residency at the Knitting Factory, and their early material consisted primarily of Bernstein originals. That changed when Sex Mob played Bond Themes as part of an evening of film music, such as “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice,” which eventually culminated in a 2001 album, Sex Mob Does Bond. To Bernstein’s surprise the crowd went wild, and Bernstein realized that the audience was more in tune with their adventurous music if they could recognize the tune. And so their songbook expanded to feature everything from Prince, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, to The Grateful Dead, and even the “Macarena,” although you’ve never heard the “Macarena” like this before.

The guiding principle to their song selection is that the tune would have to be recognizable enough that it could withstand some serious compositional and improvisational destruction. The group still plays many Bernstein originals, although their sets now feature a great deal of covers given a humorous, yet sophisticated avant-garde reworking. As Bernstein unapologetically states in Jazz Asylum, “I realize that’s what jazz musicians have always done. That’s how Lester Young got popular; it’s how Charlie Parker got popular; it’s how Miles Davis got popular; that’s how John Coltrane got popular. They played the songs that everyone knew and because they could recognize the song, then that invited them into their style.” In many ways Bernstein is right, as the jazz tradition has always included space to take familiar songs and reassemble them with your own unique spin.

Since their 1998 debut, Den of Inequity, Sex Mob has released a diverse oeuvre of radical, yet accessible material. Their 2000 release, Solid Sender, continues their bold prewar jazz spirit through another mix of covers, everything from Nirvana to ABBA, with a dose of Bernstein originals. The same year saw the release ofTheatre & Dance, part Duke Ellington compositions and part Bernstein originals written for a renewal of the 1926 Mae West play “Sex.” Sex Mob continues to defy expectations, and their 2006 release, Sexotica (Thirsty Ear) is a homage to the soundscape of Martin Denny (the “father of erotica”), receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

Their latest release, the 2013 Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota), contains Sex Mob’s idiosyncratic arrangements over Nino Rota’s memorable scores. The title comes from a quote from Italian director Federico Fellini, who said, “My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.” The same could be said of Sex Mob’s exuberant music. Sex Mob Plays Fellini, like their earlier albums, will certainly offend jazz purists. I assume that’s part of the point. Love or hate their brashness, Bernstein summarizes the Sex Mob ethos as about having fun: “Jazz used to be popular music. People would go out to clubs, listen to the music, go home, and get laid. Simple as that. We’re bringing that spirit back” (All Music Guide). Sometimes it’s nice to simply get lost in the music, dance, and go out and enjoy la dolce vita.

Rutherford Chang’s The White Album

Front cover.
Front cover.
Back cover.
Back cover.

I own my share of peculiar records: The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (read by Timothy Leary); Natural Childbirth (an early 1950s record that documents the live birth of a baby); a record that is only frog sounds; a yodeling record; and to my growing vinyl oddities, I can now add Rutherford Chang’s The White Album. Rutherford Chang has been getting a lot of press for his art project, “We Buy White Albums,” where he only purchases copies of The Beatles’ White Album, displayed at a gallery (set up like a record shop) that only carries the iconic double album. All of the albums are first-pressings and Rutherford Chang’s website now lists the total number of copies at 918. At some point during the exhibit (here’s an interview on the process), Rutherford thought, “I wonder what it sounds like if you play 100 copies of The White Album at once?” And that’s exactly what Chang’s The White Album does: 100 (45 year-old) first-pressings of The White Album are synced up in a bizarre sound collage that moves in and out of the familiar and into the choral and cacophonous. Each copy of the record is unique, and given the slight sound variations in pressings, and the natural and scratched wear of vinyl, the listening experience captures the distinct history of each record. We start off with a familiar, but muddier version of “Back in the U.S.S.R,” and then move into uncontrollably new territory as the records slowly coast out of sync over the course of each side. Chang even layered the gatefold cover and disc labels with the worn and hand-drawn originals to create a visual collage that reworks the featureless original and highlights the individual history of each copy.

Poster of the 100 albums.
The poster of the 100 albums.

Pressed in a very limited run—which sold out quick—I am happy to add Chang’s The White Album to my vinyl collection. Of course, some purists might disavow the album, while others will welcome this innovative project as being in line with the experimental spirit of late-period Beatles. Have a listen for yourself.

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and mercurial composer working at the edges of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. Perhaps the rightful heir to Miles Davis, Smith is known for his introverted style of playing and his incredible use of space. In the 1960s he gained experience performing in R&B groups, later playing in the military, and in 1967 he was a member of Chicago’s AACM, going on to form his own group, New Dalta Ahkri, playing with such free jazz luminaries as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake, and Anthony Braxton, among others. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for the incredible American civil rights-era odyssey, Ten Freedom Summers (2012).

Smith's Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
Smith’s Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.

At 273 minutes the four-disc box set, Ten Freedom Summers, is an epic free jazz/classical/astral work that rightfully belongs in the jazz lexicon alongside Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, or Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige. Ten Freedom Summers evokes the civil rights movement through a series of freedom motifs and dedications, including a piece dedicated to Emmett Till, the Dred Scott case, the black church, Rosa Parks, and moves forwards (or backwards) to September 11th. Smith can shift the focus on an entire improvising ensemble at the sudden sound of a single note. While Ten Freedom Summers is meticulously composed, Smith wrote improvised elements into his masterwork, which could be heard by Smith and his Golden Quartet during their performance at this year’s 20th Anniversary Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) in moments of atomized energy. Sections of Ten Freedom Summers were performed at the GJF with Smith’s Golden Quartet of Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on double bass, and Anthony Brown on drums.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.
Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.

Have a listen to “Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Wadada Leo Smith from Ten Freedom Summers:

Also, check out the Golden Quartet’s “Rosa Parks” (excerpt), from the album Tabligh:

All Photos by Paul Watkins.

Still Bringing the Ruckus: Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers turns 20

My original copy of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
My original copy of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.

From the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again

The RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killer and the Method Man.

My grade nine girlfriend (who I’ll call Mable after the Goldfinger song we both listened to) introduced me to the Wu-Tang Clan. It was right around the time the Clan dropped their second classic album, Wu-Tang Forever. That album, and even more so, 36 Chambers, forever changed the way I listened to music and got me back into Hip Hop. At the time I was listening to a lot of alternative and punk music, and Wu-Tang synthesized the hard anti-assimilative sound of punk and alternative I admired, and fused it with incredibly verbose, funny, and cerebral lyrics. Heck, there was even a whole mythos around the group and their incorporation of the Shaolin Kung fu theme.

The distinctive sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) created a blueprint for hardcore Hip Hop during the 1990s. Its idiosyncratic sound also became hugely influential in modern Hip Hop production, while the group members’ explicit, humorous, free-associative lyrics have served as a template for many Hip Hop artists. The caustic and bizarre humour, theatrical personalities, cerebral storytelling, and the variety of lyrical technicians contribute to crafting an album that is full of play: martial arts metaphors, an unlimited supply of pop culture references, and a hyperbolic approach to lyrical violence are negotiated as different emcees trade off verses. Much of the sonic improvisation on 36 Chambers is the result of phonetic dialogism between sounds that mesh surprisingly well. RZA describes that he would start “sampling one note and playing it on different notes of the keyboard [. . .] chopping things down to notes and chords, not knowing which chords they were but knowing them as sounds” (Manual 197). It is this free rhythm and free style that help define the musical/linguistic aspect of Wu-Tang, influenced by African oral traditions of rhythmic talk-singing (signifying), recalling similar musical lines while also absorbing the entire gamut of popular culture.

The group’s de facto leader RZA, produced the album with heavy, eerie beats and a sound largely based on martial-arts movie clips and soul music samples, ensuring that the samples dialogically speak to one another. RZA describes the process of creating the sound on the album as belonging to a tradition pioneered by jazz pianists such as Monk and Bill Evans. He says:

I know that a sound I became known for at the beginning was that detuned acoustic piano zither—those creepy notes that quiver in the air. It’s the kind of sound you hear in ‘7th Chamber,’ ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin,’ and a bunch of other joints. It’s funny when people ask me the inspiration for it, because, to be honest, it was jazz pianists—mostly Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk—but the fact is I played most of it myself. (Manual 191)

To read more about the jazz influences on 36 Chambers, particularly Wu-Tang’s sampling and recontextualization of Monk’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” in their song, “Shame on a Nigga,” check out my article, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers.” The complexity of the music, the unique sound, and the absolute fun of 36 Chambers keep it on constant circulation on my iPod, or spinning on my turntable. I am a devotee of 36 Chambers, and over the years I’ve memorized lines and verses, vocal inflections, and still find the album refreshing after not listening to it for a while. Every track is a standout cut, but “Bring the Rukus,” “Shame on a Nigga,” “Protect Your Neck,” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” display the power and synchronicity of the Clan, and really get me hyped.

While I bought the first four Wu albums on CD, before I got big into wax, I’ve managed to acquire various Wu-Tang albums on vinyl over the years: the “Triumph” single, the deluxe Chess box version of Gza’s Liquid Swords, the original “C.R.E.A.M” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” single, an original copy of 36 Chambers, and my most prized piece of Wu-Tang wax, a copy of “Protect Your Neck”/ “After the Laughter Comes Tears” circa 1992 on Wu-Tang Records pressed in RZA’s basement (limited to 500 copies). As Rza explains: “We pressed five hundred copies and sold it directly to record stores and Djs. This was before the Internet and the whole direct-to-buyer explosion” (Manual 75). Initially Wu-Tang was part of the Tommy Boy roster, but the label made the decision to sign the all-white group, House of Pain instead. RZA describes that when his group was dropped he felt bamboozled, since they “‘chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me’” (73). Not long after on November 9th, 1993, 36 Chambers was released on Loud Records.

My very rare copy of the first pressing of "Protect Your Neck" pressed on Wu-Tang Records.
My very rare copy of the first pressing of “Protect Ya Neck,” pressed on Wu-Tang Records.
Chess box edition of Gza's Liquid Swords (limited to 750 copies, Record Store Day find).
Chess box edition of Gza’s Liquid Swords (limited to 750 copies, Record Store Day find).

In 2010 at the Rock the Bells festival in San Francisco, I had the privilege of listening to 36 Chambers live in its entirety with all remaining members present (with Boy Jones, ODB’s first-born son, filling in for his father). It was, of course, absolutely fantastic. The album is rightfully included in RollingStone’s Top 500 albums (sitting at 387), although it should be higher up, and currently the Wu are touring in honour of the 20th Anniversary of 36 Chambers. A seminal record in the Hip Hop lexicon, 36 Chambers is to Hip Hop what the Beatles’ St. Pepper is to rock. Long live Hip Hop’s original dynasty.

images-4images-4images-4images-4images-4(5 spins out of 5, classic)


Works Cited

RZA. The Wu-Tang Manual. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

This post was partially adapted from my article, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers.”

On Homophobia, Parody, Censorship, and Lyrical Retrospect in Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2


Eminem returns, or rather, Marshall Mathers, the madcap rap genius (who’s beginning “to feel a little bit like a rap god” (“Rap God”)) is back. Much about the content and soundscape has been, and will continue to be said about The Marshal Mather LP 2 (MMLP2) over the coming weeks—years even—and so I offer remarks in regards to the album’s overt and deliberate homophobia, as well as Eminem’s use of parody, and his lyrical prowess. I’ve listened to every album Eminem has put out, including the pre-Dre Infinite (1996), usually in the hopes he will be able to capture the gusto of his phantasmagorical mainstream debut, The Slim Shady LP (1999), and the even more extraordinary follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000). There is no album more influential on New Millennium Rap (2000—) than MMLP and its follow-up The Eminem Show. And there is no rapper more popular and notorious in that same period than Eminem: full stop. Like Rakim, GZA, Big Pun, The Notorious B.I.G, AZ, and Nas before him, Eminem uses polysyllable rhymes to create complex periodic sentences that delay thought for dramatic effect, thus resolving rhymes tendency towards obsolescence. The fact remains that Eminem has often done this better than his predecessors, and certainly with more shock value. Through the horrorcore persona and verbose lyricism of the Slim Shady persona on the MMLP, Eminem was able, as Stephen Thomas Erlwine writes, to “[blur] the distinction between reality and fiction, humor and horror, satire and documentary.” And yet, despite Eminem’s skill as an incredible word technician, we haven’t seen much new subject material from Eminem since The Eminem Show, as MMLP2 circles back to his common tropes, including homophobic insults.

Eminem’s indignant resolve has always been to stir the pot of controversy. As Eminem explained early on in his career, many of his songs are written from his alter ego, Slim Shady, and the cartoonish depictions of violence are “made-up tales of trailer-park stuff” (Lisa Verrico, “Bite me,” The Times). Further, Eminem has stated that his music and subject matter is entertainment, comparing his music to the horror film genre: “Why can’t people see that records can be like movies? The only difference between some of my raps and movies is that they aren’t on a screen” (“No Shame”). After all, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. contends, “censorship is to art as lynching is to justice” (The Anthology of Rap xxv). Art is (almost) always representation: there’s a difference between rap lyrics and the hate speech of the Westboro Baptist Church. While homophobic insults in Eminem’s music are used as disses (although it’s disrespectful), hip-hop verbiage remains a multifarious part of the music, imbedded within a tradition of signifying and parody, and parody is one of the most venerated forms in art. Further, Eminem’s parodies are often incredibly self-aware, as in the epic album opener “Bad Guy,” written as a revenge fantasy from the perspective of Matthew, the younger brother of the fan Stan, who calls Eminem out for his hypocritical perversions (articulated through a complex use of free discourse speech):

I also represent anyone on the receiving end of those jokes you invent
I’m the bullies you hate, that you became
With every faggot you slaughtered
Coming back on you, every woman you insult
That, with the double-standards you have when it comes to your daughters.

Does Eminem’s conscious (and self-aware) choice to use homophobic language draw attention to the problematics of such language, perhaps hinting at a deeper-rooted problem in society? Or, is Eminem just lampooning homophobic slurs in a crass attempt at shocking entertainment? What purpose might Eminem’s calculated offenses serve? Of course, misogyny and homophobia often mar the enjoyment of mainstream hip-hop music, and even though such traditions go back to toasts and The Dozens (a game common in African American communities of spoken word combat between two contestants, where participants insult each other until one gives up), these signifying strategies are hardly absolute. The vehement reactions to much of rap’s sexism, misogyny and homophobia, deny the vast existence of accepted sexist social practices that endue the male gender role, especially since such heterosexual, heteronormative, and misogynistic behaviors are often propagated by the media as acceptable.

Too often music, particularly rap music, becomes the scapegoat that diverts attention from larger issues of heterosexual masculinity—simply read the message boards on YouTube to find how prevalently “faggot,” “queer,” or “gay” are used as slurs to anomalously demonize others online. To lambast rap music, or a single artist, as the problem is to evade the larger social issues of sexism and misogyny that pervade North American culture. Further, we must remember that hip-hop has formulated its own critiques of sexism, misogyny, and violence. Despite this, Eminem is aware that his use of homophobic language—the current media topic of censure—will draw offense, which it did, overshadowing his incredibly violent tales of murder, such as his repurposing (from the song “I’m Back” off the first MMLP) of the once censured (in radio play) reference to the Columbine massacre:

So I crunch rhymes
But sometimes when you combine
Appeal with the skin color of mine
You get too big and here it comes trying to
Censor you like that one line I said
On ‘I’m Back’ from the Mathers LP
One where I tried to say I take seven kids from Columbine
Put ‘em all in a line
Add an AK-47, a revolver and a nine
See if I get away with it now. (“Rap God”)

It seems that he has gotten away with it, as a plenitude of critiques (such as from Boy George) of “Rap God” dealt with the songs bastion of homophobic slurs, more so than with Eminem’s over the top violent—albeit often anti-bully (such as on “Legacy” and “Brainless”)—depictions, which include graphic violence towards women, recalling songs like “Kill You,” “Who Knew,” “I’m Back,” and “Criminal” from the first Mathers LP: “Yeah I’m rich as a bitch, but bitches ain’t shit / I’d rather leave a bitch in a ditch” (“So Much Better”). In a kind of horrorcore homage, Eminem hyperbolically reminds his listeners of the violent parodies on the first Mathers LP, a morbid lyrical defense of free speech, as he did in “Who Knew,” back in 2000: “I’m sorry, there must be a mix-up / You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked? / [ewwww] Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts / Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up / Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor / Quit tryin to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement / [The kids!] But don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin him, apparently you ain’t parents.” The role of the performed villain is echoed on MMLP2 with a heavy dose of self-aggrandizement and self-awareness:

I came to the world at a time when it was in need of a villain
An asshole, that role I think I succeed in fulfilling
If anyone ever talks to one of my little girls like this I would kill him
Guess I’m a little bit of a hypocrite
dry up your teardrops I’m here
White America’s mirror […] You shouldn’t be as shocked, because everybody knows. (“Asshole”)

There was a time when Eminem played the antihero impeccably, although 13 years later it is starting to feel that the Slim Shady alter ego has overstayed his welcome. Nonetheless, Eminem remains a textbook study in persona, as he dually denies and acknowledges his psychosis: “And no I don’t need no goddamn psychologist / Tryna diagnose why I have all these underlying problems” (“Legacy”). Eminem’s alter egos are linguistic acts of transformation, as we try to figure out where Slim Shady steps in, where Eminem returns, and where the actual Marshall Mathers might mediate between the two.

Sadly, Eminem’s public defenses of his homophobic lyrics have been rather passive, which contrasts with his open support for the LGBT community—including his Grammy performance with Elton John on “Stan”—and his recent statement to Rolling Stone that “the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves” (Rolling Stone). Eminem’s open support for the gay community doesn’t divert our need to continually criticize artists for their use of homophobic slurs, and it reminds us how much has changed in the 13 years since the first MMLP was released. Even if Eminem hasn’t moved away from using homophobic language on MMLP2, a larger portion of hip-hop certainly has, announced last year with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ polemical pro same-sex anthem and powerfully charged music video, “Same Love.” Even Pope Francis recently said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” (New York Times). Openly gay MCs in hip-hop’s underground (Medusa, Deep Dickollective) have hardly made it to the mainstream, but we live in a time where homophobic language—often used so uncritically by Eminem— just feels outdated.

In fact, I’ve felt that Eminem has sounded a little outdated ever since The Eminem Show, a fact of his continued juvenilia, which he jokes about on the track “So far”: “But I blew, never turned back / Turned 40 and still sag / Teenagers act more fucking mature, Jack.” Criticism aside, Eminem continues to provide some incredibly vivid illustrations and macabre tales, even though the 41-year-old Eminem (his daughter Hailie was recently crowned homecoming queen of her high school) continues to tell fart jokes, make fun of gay people, and play the villain. With an attuned self-awareness of the role he once played, and still plays for many aggrieved youths, Eminem raps about how he is trapped in his own wicked imagery, like some kind of hip-hop Dorian Gray: “Trying to recapture that lightning trapped in a bottle / Twice the magic that started it all / Tragic portrait of an artist tortured / Trapped in his own drawings” (“Bad Guy”). Sonically MMLP2 is Eminem’s strongest album since The Eminem Show. Lyrically, the album is very dense, and verbally and technically Eminem is as proficient as ever with an alchemical control of language (like Yoda, who he parodically inflects in “Rhyme or Reason”).

More so than the singles (including the somewhat boring 80s influenced “Berzerk,” or the Rihanna collab on “Monster”), there are standout tracks, and some surprises on the album as well, such as the interesting flip by Rick Rubin of The Zombies’s “Time of the Season” on “Rhyme or Reason,” the hard-hitting “Survival,” the sprawling epic “Bad Guy,” and another Rick Rubin produced track, “So Far,” which speeds up the guitar riff on Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The biggest bombshell on the album is the open apology and plea for a united, albeit dysfunctional, union with his mother and family on “Headlights”: the same mother he once publicly tore to pieces in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” Often MMLP2 feels quite disjointed, while at other times it feels like Eminem’s jocular material is firing on all cylinders. Unlike Relapse and Recovery, which were about Marshall Mathers fighting addiction and enjoying soberness, MMLP2 showcases Eminem rapping (faster than ever) with more incendiary and viciously vivacious lyrics than he has rhymed in ten years. It’s too bad the album is often tarnished by a salvo of homophobic language and misogyny. But without such calculated offensives—insert dramatic pause here—could it be a proper sequel to one of the most controversial and rabble-rousing albums of all time? While Eminem and his evil twin, Slim Shady, might no longer be needed, there’s something to be said about remaining headstrong in the age of censorship: “Even if it is Charles Manson who just happens to be rapping” (“Rhyme or Reason”). I disagree with much of how Eminem continues to say what he says, and despite my better nature/character, for better or worse, for the time being, I will continue to “stay tuned and keep [my] ears glued to the stereo” (“Renegade”).

images-4images-4images-4 record 1:2(3.5 spins out of 5)

Deltron 3030, Event II Review


13 years after the self-titled left-field conceptual classic, Deltron 3030, Deltron returns with the long-awaited sequel, Event II, which takes place in the year 4010. Although only a fraction in space-time, 13 years is a long time to wait for a follow-up, and I can say it’s mostly worth the wait. Back are Dan “The Automater” Nakamura, turntablist extraordinaire Kid Koala, and funky lyricist, Del the Funky Homosapien. All three continue to make music and release albums, which is why it is surprising that it took so long for this album to come to fruition. Largely this was a result of Del’s writing process, which was in top form, even if his vocal delivery doesn’t always quite live up to what he pens. Last summer (2012) I had the pleasure of seeing Deltron 3030 perform with an orchestra in a free outdoor concert at the Hub in Toronto (part of the Luminato festival). Despite the rain, appropriate as nuclear fallout, the concert was fantastic, and although it was an album preview of sorts (without an album) for Event II, we had to wait over another year for the physical product.

Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 at Luminato Festival, 2012. Photo by Paul Watkins.
Deltron 3030 at Luminato Festival, 2012. Photo by Paul Watkins.

It’s hard to please everyone, and another watershed album with the impact of the first is as unlikely as Dan “The Automater” making dubstep beats, Kid Koala using a computer to scratch on digital vinyl, and Del using autotune. Fortunately none of those things happen on Event II, as the supergroup mostly stays within their comfort zone, working with much of the format that made Deltron 3030 so appealing. Event II opens with a straightforward monologue by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt who provides the backstory like the opening of a sci-fi flick. Back is the imaginative sci-fi universe painted with Dan “The Automator’s” operatic space oddity of hip-hop beats, punctuated by futurist cuts by Kid Koala, with rapid-fire madcap lyricism from Del overtop the production. Del’s lyricism is still incredibly verbose, although his voice has mellowed and lacks some of the alacrity of the previous Deltron Zero character. Given Del is now in his 40s and has been rapping since his 1991 debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, shortly after forming the Hieroglyphics collective, it is understandable that some of his vigor is gone, although the storytelling is as first-class as ever. In fact, Event II will benefit from multiple listens given that there is so much happening in Del’s labyrinthine and dystopian lyrical supernovas. Further, on tracks such as “Talent Supercedes” and “Citing Rising from the Ashes” (with the gifted and inventive Mike Patton on the chorus) Del hardly misses a beat, delivering his poetic words with as much gusto as any Del track.

I know you need a little background clear though

About your boy Deltron Zero, your hero

In three thousand thirty

We ain’t in the clear though

We was near toast, doing too much, who to trust

In a land so scandalous and grand?

Even the President got his hand in the contraband

They done control the band of information

Leading to education to a brainwaves pulsatin’

Event II is a largely self-reflexive and fun album, full of humourous skits that provide reprieve from the heavy subject matter of Del’s lyrics. There are a few too many skits, which slow down the momentum of the narrative a little, but the oddball cast of characters (with appearances from Lonely Island, David Cross, and others) adds to the comic sci-fi pastiche of Event II. There is also an excellent cast of artists, including Damon Albarn, Emily Wells, Zach de la Rocha, Jamie Cullum, and Mike Patton, who appear on choruses and add a theatrical layer of the grandiose that reminds me of the Gorillaz, a group Del was involved with, being featured on tracks such as on the eclectic “Clint Eastwood.” While the first Deltron album encompassed concept-driven tracks like “Mastermind,” “Things You Can Do,” and “Virus,” and mind-altering tracks like “Positive Contact” and “Memory Loss,” (and the whole album really), Event II does have some highly enjoyable standout tracks, including: “The Return,” “Pay the Price,” “Talent Supercedes,” and “City Rising From the Ashes.” While Event II will unlikely reach the audience spectrum the first did, which managed to move out of the milieu of underground hip-hop, it will indeed satisfy most of the original fans, and perhaps win over a few new ones.

I still can’t get over the fact that this album actually came out, gifting us with a new rap opera from Deltron 3030. Even though the album relies heavily on the concepts of the first, sometimes you need to look to the past to understand the future. And given how boring much of the present state of hip-hop music is, Deltron 3030’s Event II is a welcome reminder of where we’ve been and where we can still go.

images-4images-4images-4images-4 (4 spins out of 5)

Dawn of Midi

Dawn of Mid after their Guelph performance.
Dawn of Midi after their Guelph performance.

Dawn of Midi is an instrumental trio from Brooklyn comprised of pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni, and percussionist Qasim Naqvi. They make minimalist dance music that sounds as if their instruments are run through a digital midi interface. In actuality, all that is being played and heard is acoustic piano, drums, and standup bass. Dawn of Midi continue to craft their unique sound, building upon their semi-improvised and critically acclaimed debut (and aptly titled) First (2010). Their second effort as a group, Dysnomia (2013) is tirelessly composed, replete with polyrhythmic and locked grooves, and garnered praise from music critics from the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Radiolab, among others. Rightly so, as Dawn of Midi’s performance at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival did not disappoint. The trio has a way of replicating a single beat or note, as their festival performance covered Dysnomia in real-time (front to back), with each musician in tandem, hardly slipping out of a single polyrhythmic groove. While the concert wasn’t improvised in the typical sense, it was quite apparent that a slew of improvisation sessions are what lead to their disciplined, well-oiled super-trio generating a dizzying array of textures that blend and bend together in the immersive listening experience of Dysnomia. As Sun Ra reminds us, “there is discipline in freedom, and freedom in discipline.”


Belyamani echoes Ra when he describes that “Playing a locked groove like we do on this record involves a lot of discipline and hard work […] You don’t start out that way unless you’re a group of folk musicians from the same village” (group website). Watching Dawn of Midi live it was apparent how measured and cadenced their playing was, which provided a great counterpoint to Marianne Trudel, William Parker, and Hamid Drake, who followed Dawn of Midi as the second part of double bill with an abundantly improvised set. It was almost as if time stood still for the 45 minutes or so that Dawn of Midi played, as one rhythmic phrase blended into the border of another one until the rhythm gradually changed like an autochthonous machine moving seamlessly between different musical episodes. Dawn of Midi’s composition occupies a space of paradox as their sound puts electronic and acoustic music into productive dialogue, reminding us that all instruments are tools to express human emotion and convey a concept.

That concept for Dawn of Midi might be as lucid as blending sonic possibility within the aesthetics of format. A format found in the emotive potential for creating locked grooves that emulate computer music, and yet which sound incredibly human—meditative even. Dawn of Midi are masters of their instruments: they were able to achieve complex sonic patterns with as little as a single note. I watched in awe, as pianist Belyamani played a few notes on the piano with his right hand and then damped them with his free hand inside the piano to create muted harmonics that were at times resonant of a drum. The rapport between the three members made for an incredible set of music, seamlessly blending tracks like a DJ would with a gentle touch on the crossfader. The music circles back and we are left with a dawn of possibilities.

Pianist Belyamani.
Pianist Belyamani.

The new album Dysnomia, I assume, is named after the recent discovery of Dysnomia (2005), the only known moon of the dwarf planet Eris, which is the largest dwarf planet in our solar system. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “lawlessness.” Dawn of Midi continues to defy expectations and break the laws of how electronic, jazz, or improvised music is often marketed. We can only anticipate what other mixes, sonic discoveries, and dawnings Dawn of Midi has in store for us in the future.

Check out a clip from their latest work, Dysnomia.

The entire album can be streamed or purchased digitally here.

All Photos by Paul Watkins.