Ebony and Imus

“There’s a white brother named Paul Woodruff singing—he sounds better than Robin Thicke!” Princeton University professor Cornel West says excitedly, referring to “Still Here,” a single on his new spoken-word CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. West, the public intellectual and widely cited authority on American race relations now famous for playing himself, “Councillor West of Zion,” in the last two Matrix movies, calls everybody “brother” or “sister.” It’s so very ’60s and Christian and gentlemanly of him. He and “Brother Prince,” Mr. 3121 Jehovah’s Witness Brother Prince himself, wrote Never Forget‘s first single, “Dear Mr. Man,” and have become good friends. Prince surprised a few people with last month’s protest LP Planet Earth, and now this. “The question is” (one of Professor West’s favorite phrases), since when has he been down for the cause?

“I went to Paisley Park some years ago,” says West. “You know, [Prince] has those xenophobia conferences every year. He brings in people from all around the world. He pays for it, actually. They’re there for three days. There’s dialogue during the day on all the various forms of xenophobia. I gave a lecture. And then that night, I remember seeing Norah Jones before she was big. Of course, Sheila [E.] was there. Maceo [Parker] was there. Chaka Khan was there . . . ”

“Dear Mr. Man,” an organ-goosed open letter to the U.S. government in which most of West’s contributions consist of ad-libs like “Break it down, Brother Prince!”, finds the Purple One railing against environmental abuses, constitutional abuses, Geneva Conventions abuses, and institutional racism. We tired of y’all, he says. We tired of y’all spyin’ on fellow citizens, adds West. We tired of y’all lyin’ to justify war. We tired of y’all torturing innocent people. And though other Never Forget tracks like “America” (featuring Black Thought and Rah Digga), “Mr. President” (featuring KRS-One and M1), and “Bushonomics” (featuring Talib Kweli) tout similar sentiments, not all of the fire and brimstone here is directed at the White House. West also calls out his rap-artist brothers and sisters for “degradin’ other folk.”

“50 Cent, Snoop, Game, Nelly,” West says, as if he’s writing their names on the board. “On one level, I love those brothers, because their artistic and aesthetic work is a part of who I am . . . . On the other hand, I challenge those brothers because I’m just against misogyny. I’m against homophobia. So somebody can be in my house and in my community and I still have to present a moral critique, because I’m just against those things. I just think they’re wrong. “So the question is,” West continues, “how do I deal with the love and embrace of them as artists and at the same time respectfully challenge them? So in that sense, I’m not really with the crowd that trashes hip-hop. I can’t stand that. That’s ridiculous. And I’m not with the crowd that somehow tries to give some justification for misogyny or homophobia. I just think the critique of homophobia has to be more explicit on hip-hop records—that’s why I’ve addressed it on my album. Including the domestic violence and the misogyny and the sexism and so forth—it goes hand in hand with that. That’s true with anything—anti-Semitism, it could be racism, any form of bigotry. I just have to take a stand against that. It’s just who I am. Now that’s a little different from this post-Imus trashing of Snoop. Because I’m not part of that crowd. At all.”

West bridges the generation gap on Never Forget by including guests from Lenny Williams and Gerald Levert (before his death late last year) to Andre 3000 and Rhymefest. Though the opus is hip-hop-heavy, West doesn’t consider himself a part of the hip-hop generation. He calls himself a “Motown–Philly Sound–Curtis Mayfield–generation brother” who “intervenes in the culture of young people.”

“It’s a matter of trying to present to young people a danceable education,” he says. “Or what I call a ‘singing paideia.’ [Paideia means “a deep education” in Greek.] You have to get people’s attention and focus on serious issues. Then you try to cultivate their self and put a premium on critical reflection, and then you try and engage in the maturation of the soul, which has to do with courage, compassion, and just love, basically.”

That’s what’s happening on “The N Word,” the Never Forget dialogue with Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. It’s a sequel to a song of the same name on West’s 2001 CD, Sketches of My Culture, in which he calls on black folk and rap artists to stop using the word “nigga.” In April of this year, Russell Simmons and other record-industry leaders officially called for a moratorium on the word in hip-hop records. Many argue that in the last half-century, the term has been appropriated by blacks as a term of endearment among themselves. The 2007 version of “The N Word” continues the debate as a flautist (“an Italian brother, Brother Dino”) darts in and out of West and Dyson’s statements over a James Brown–ish vamp, just as Brian Jackson would with Gil Scott-Heron.

Dyson: We have to use the n-word, even if we agree ultimately in it being retired. There is not yet the point in our culture when we can afford to surrender that word. One of the reasons I deploy that term is because I wanna remind white folk and other bourgeoisie negroes who have looked upon me . . . as “that nigger,” but refuse to say it to my face: “I know [what] you’re saying about me, so I’m gonna put it on front street.” We may be using the same term, but we’re not using it the same way. We’re not giving it the same meaning.

West’s response: Take a text like Huckleberry Finn. The word “nigger” is used over 100 times. It’s a work of art. The work wouldn’t be the same without that word. You could make the same case for Tupac’s art and the use of that word . . .

West believes that the pejorative “nigger” can’t ever be completely separated from the hip-hop-friendly “nigga.” But if he can’t get people to stop using it, he hopes they at least become more aware of how, even with the best intentions, the word can become dangerous or grossly misunderstood.

“There is a rhythmic seduction with the word,” West says. “If you want to say ‘cat’ or ‘companion’ or ‘comrade,’ that doesn’t have the same rhythmic resonance as the word ‘nigga’ . . . The rhythmic seduction goes hand in hand with how black people use language . . . you’re just not going to get folks to stop using words like that. It just ain’t gon’ happen. The question is, when these young people use ‘nigga’ with an ‘a,’ are there elements of self-hatred—dishonoring each other, disrespecting, distrusting each other, which is part of the history of the word with an ‘-er’? It’s really about, “Show me the love and the respect and the honor and the dignity, and you can basically use any word you want.” But if I see these young folk using nigga with an ‘a,’ and they still disrespecting one another, dishonoring one another, mistreating one another, and player-hating one another—then I know the effect of the ‘er’ word is still operating in the ‘a’ word.”


Powder Burns

On a Sunday morning, long before sunrise, dancers gather downtown at Club Shelter, New York’s most respected house party. No one is dressed up or looking for love—inside, they head straight for the dance floor with three changes of clothes in a duffel bag and . . . baby powder. “A little dab’ll do ya,” says Red, a confirmed house-head from the Bronx who’s co-directing the first annual House Dance International Festival NYC. “You’ll see a house-head with baby powder in a plastic bag, which looks totally like something else,” she continues. “And then you’re like, ‘What is this person doing? What kind of party is this?’ And suddenly they’re pouring it on the floor.”

The baby powder helps your feet glide and spin. A house dancer spins like a top, jerks and jacks his or her body to the beat like a pogo stick, quietly swan-dives nose-first to the floor, jumps into the splits like one of the Nicolas Brothers, and mimics the rhythms in the music with footwork so fast it looks like skating. Since its early development in the late ’70s, roughly coinciding with the rise of house and electronic music in Chicago and New York, house dance has codified a technique and a philosophy that’s now big business in Asia and Europe. The four-day House Dance International event will raise U.S. awareness about these developments, offering dance workshops at Alvin Ailey, dance competitions at the Sullivan Room and Club Shelter, documentary screenings, panel discus- sions, and parties.

“House dance parties go for eight hours,” says Hell’s Kitchen resident Santiago Freeman, executive director of the festival. “A song is 10 minutes. So, as a dancer, you have to be able to ride that wave. You have to build your vocabulary over time and tell a story.” Freeman’s Dance Warrior Project—using choreography that fuses house dance with folkloric styles from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil (“Some people call it Afro-house,” he explains)—is one of a few emerging companies helping to transition house dance from the clubs to the concert stage. “It’s hard to capture,” he says. “Because when you’re in a club and you’re freestyling, there’s this emotional release, and it’s hard to capture that when you’re in a dance studio. . . . At the same time, you have dancers who are amazing onstage, who can pick up any choreography, but you put them in the club in the middle of the circle and they don’t know what to do. So finding dancers who can do both is great. It’s a challenge, but they are out there.”

But 26-year-old Harlemite Linda Madueme, winner of this year’s freestyle dance contest at Miami’s Winter Music Conference and a member of the NYC house-dance collective Mawu, maintains that it’s important to separate house dancers from those who simply dance to house music. (Born in Nigeria and raised in Austria, her senior thesis at Princeton was titled Deep Deep Inside: The Ritualized Body and the Semantics of Dance in New York’s Underground House Scene as Contextualized Cultural Space.) “A lot of people come into house, and they love the feeling of house music and the freedom that it offers, and they come with a background in Latin dance or classical dance or jazz, and they feel accepted,” she says. “Part of what makes house music so special is that it’s accepting of so many different people—people of different ages, backgrounds—so you start to see a lot of dance styles within house that aren’t necessarily house, but still enrich the community.

“House dance didn’t make sense to me until I discovered jacking,” she continues. “Jacking is what made it all make sense to me. . . . Whether it’s a house step or a modern step or an African step, the jacking component is always there.” And for that, you may need a little baby powder.

The House Dance International NYC festival runs July 11–14,


Totally Use Your Illusion, Dude

Da Shop Boyz
“Party Like a Rockstar (Totally Dude)”
From Rockstar Mentality (Universal Republic)

“Party Like a Rockstar”
Official remix featuring Shop Boyz, Jim Jones, Chamillionaire, and Lil Wayne (Universal Republic)

“Rock Star”
Unofficial remix featuring Flo-rida, Brisco, GunPlay, and Dre (Poe Boy Entertainment)

As you dudes and dudettes well know, “rock” has long been used as a code word for “white.” Black rock musicians continue to be rendered largely invisible in America, but Shop Boyz’s “Party Like a Rockstar” is a boon, a crunk-and-rock mash-up serving as a poignantly parodic whiteface minstrel show of rock stardom that’s caught fire in Crunksville like the pyrotechnics at a Spinal Tap concert. Now there are “rockstar” nights in the hood–celebrating the rock style and attitude, and utilizing more goodtar-driven music.

On the Atlanta trio’s original and its slew of remixes (same beat, different rappers), the partiers mockingly imagine themselves being stereotypically “white” (totally, dude), save a single reference to a Jimi Hendrix tattoo on Flo-Rida’s arm in the “unofficial” Miami-rapper version. No one even mentions Lenny Kravitz. When you party like a rap star, Five-O clocks your every move. When you party like a rock star, though, you don’t have to give a durn since there’s no constant surveillance–you can “fly down 20 looking good in your hot car,” as Sheed puts it, and not worry about getting stopped for DWB. Tequila runs, golfing, “getting a tan,” and “surfing screaming ‘kowabunga'” (what is this, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?) . . . all this can be yours when you party like a rockstar.

Wouldn’t it be great if VH1 created The Black Rocker Show and promoted it like The White Rapper Show, so we could watch these dudes totally try out?

Brisco: The groupies say the kid rock/I stand on the bar and tilt my hat like I’m Kid Rock.

Jim Jones: Young Tommy Lee/Big house on [Canavere]. (Stereotype alert: Due to the size of his member, Tommy Lee may actually be black.)

Flo-Rida: Metallica soul/Green Day when I’m reppin’ the Poe/Gene Simmons we taggin’ these ‘hos.

Dre: You fucks don’t know what rock ‘n’ roll is/You’re looking at two-double-O-seven Axl Rose.

Chamillionaire: I am Bruce Blingsteen . . . Mick Jagger with my swagger.

The original “Party Like a Rockstar” rocks out in dirt fields and in trailer parks, populated by white dudes and dudettes with facial piercings and mohawks and gold grills. Hood rock this very well may be–the production by Pit is a hoot, with its stock Slash-style guitar rips. And the irony: Slash is a black dude.


The Motormouth of the South

The platinum Terror Squad medallion worn by Palestinian-American producer and radio announcer DJ Khaled makes quite a thud as it lands on his desk. It’s got to be heavy, maybe one reason he takes it off as he sits in the offices of Serious Promotions, his music company, situated across the street from 99 Jamz, South Florida’s only station for hip-hop and r&b. A framed photo of Khaled and Russell Simmons sits on the table behind him, near his Rolodex.

“How y’all doin? Everybody good?” he says into his BlackBerry, addressing the street team at Koch, Khaled’s New York label. “It’s so important that y’all go in hard, because we’re making history right now. Not just DJ Khaled, but Koch Records. You got Jim Jones with the biggest album, biggest single. UNK: biggest album, biggest single. You’ve got DJ Khaled with the biggest album, biggest single. I am Koch’s lucky charm, you understand? I started off the movement with Koch.” As he talks, the diamonds in his watch and bracelet catch the afternoon sunlight through his office blinds, creating rainbows.

The rapper’s graveyard no more, Koch has bumped up its cachet since scoring so many Billboard hits in the past two years—it’s now a jump-off where underground rappers can actually maintain a career and still get some airplay. Even rappers with major deals like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Young Jeezy, Juelz Santana, and Snoop Dogg have done little side projects with Koch.

But Khaled doesn’t do little side projects. He makes what he calls “movies.” Like “We Takin’ Over,” the bombastic lead single on his new album, We the Best—the track features Akon, Lil Wayne, Birdman, Rick Ross, Fat Joe, and T.I. “That’s huge. That’s a big event. That’s never been done before,” Khaled says. “I’m not trying to sound cocky, but that’s the biggest thing out. You’ve got everybody’s favorite rapper on one record and it’s big. So that’s what I do is pull off the impossible. Can I just make this quick call to this radio station real quick? You sure?”

The voice of underground hip-hop in Miami since the late ’90s, Khaled Khaled (his birth name) got his start on pirate radio station Mixx 96 before jumping to 99 Jamz as a mix-show DJ. Listeners enjoyed his enthusiasm; soon, he was offered a nightly prime-time show called “The Takeover,” along with his co-host, K. Foxx.

“Man, I’m feeling good,” Khaled says as he goes live on Orlando’s 102 Jamz. “I’m on my way to Orlando ’cause it’s my brother’s birthday. Mayne: Happy birthday. I love you. No homo. You know how we do. It’s your birthday. God bless you. Mayne and Drew [of the Runners], they’re the biggest producers out right now. They hurtin’ the game . . . and you know they produced half my album, and trust me, that comes out June 12. They got a record called ‘I’m So Hood’ [featuring DJ Khaled, T-Pain, Trick Daddy, Rick Ross, and Plies], ’cause we so hood. And tonight I’m-a have a party with Mayne and Drew. I’m poppin’ bottles. I’m doing it big. I’m jumping in the crowd. I can’t wait. Rick Ross and my brother Fat Joe, we makin’ a movie.”

Khaled mostly plays the role of hype man on both We the Best and last year’s Koch debut, Listennn . . . The Album, shouting catch phrases that serve as rallying cries over the Runners’ tracks of lavishly overloaded organ and the swashbuckling synths of Miami production duo Cool and Dre. Khaled only produced one track on We the Best: “Before the Solution,” featuring Beanie Sigel. “You have to understand,” Khaled says. “I could produce the whole album, easy. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to have different sounds and help other people and bring different types of vibes. I’ll be in the studio while they’re making it. Everything is hands-on.” He compares himself to Lil Jon—there’s even a Crunk Juice refrigerator (that happens to be empty) in this office. “He does his ‘Yeah!’ and ‘OK!’ ” Khaled explains. “I do my ‘Listennn!’ and ‘We the best!’ ”

Even before he blew up in Miami, Khaled had important contacts from his days as a college-radio DJ in Orlando and his stint DJ’ing in New Orleans, his birthplace. Many of the major artists now appearing on his albums, Khaled knew and supported them before they got their major-label deals.

“You know the saying ‘Real recognize real’?” Khaled asks, sneakers propped up on his desk, leaning back in his black leather chair. “That’s the relationship I got with Jeezy. I knew Jeezy when he used to come to town to just party. Before I even knew he was a rapper. Then he got music and I let him rock one night in the club, and the club went crazy. He was standing on top of the bar rapping one of his songs. And they loved him, and I was like, ‘This kid gon’ be big.’ Lil Wayne and Birdman I knew when I used to live in New Orleans, when they were selling CDs and tapes out of their trunk to mom-and-pop shops. So I’ve seen their growth. And they’ve seen my growth.”


He gets another call. The DJ who’d just interviewed him wants Khaled to do an additional drop. “Can I do this real quick?” Khaled asks me. “Uh yeah, go ahead,” he tells the DJ. “But I’m doing the Village . . . what’s this called again? The Village Voice interview too.”

Soon, Khaled and his assistant drive across the street to the 99 Jamz studio in a black Cadillac Escalade. Yes, it’s sittin’ on Ds. At 6 p.m., on what happens to be Haitian Flag Day, the theme to “The Takeover” (a take on Dennis Edwards’s “Don’t Look Any Further” with verses by Trick Daddy, Busta Rhymes, et al) blasts through the station’s control room. Khaled cracks his mic and ID’s himself: “Yeah it’s DJ Khaled, the Don Dada, the Big Dawg Pitbull, Terror Squadian a/k/a We the Best!”

Then the menacing, fire engine–siren synths of “We Takin’ Over” take over. If this were the remix—featuring R. Kelly, Akon, T-Pain, Young Jeezy, and very special guest Lil’ Kim, we’d hear R. Kelly chanting Khaled’s name as if it were part of the Salatu-I-Fajr, the Muslim early-morning prayer. But this is the original, which climaxes with Lil Wayne’s verse. A group of us can’t help but rap along:

I am the beast
Feed me rappers or feed me beats
I’m untamed I need a leash
I’m insane I need a shrink
I love brain I need a leech
Why complain on easy streets
I don’t even talk I let the Visa speak
And I like my Sprite Easter pink

A few minutes later, while R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt” is on the air, Khaled hits up r&b singer T-Pain on his cell phone. “We the best, T-Pain! T-Pain, talk to me,” Khaled yells, surrounded by mix-show DJs. “Yo, Pain. Yo, listen. When I say the whole world loves the remix, all they’re talking about is that remix! It’s the biggest thing in the game right now. R. Kelly, Akon, T-Pain, Young Jizzle? Yo, Pain, what do you want me to do? Stop? Never, Pain. Yo, Pain, Pain, talk to me man! [Pain lets out a hearty laugh.] Where you at?”

“I’m in Tallahassee,” T-Pain replies, audible through Khaled’s phone .

“You’re in your hometown?” shouts Khaled.

“Yeah, my sister’s getting married tomorrow and I’m going to the wedding,” T-Pain says.

“We need to perform that ‘We Takin’ Over’ right there,” Khaled says to raucous laughs in the studio. “Perform that ‘We Takin’ Over’ at that wedding, Pain.” T-Pain cracks up again.

Khaled’s a member of New York rapper Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, and talks openly about the influence New York City rappers and DJs have had on him. “Kid Capri I always looked up to big time,” he says. “I think he’s one of the greatest club DJs. When he was DJ’ing a party I was like, ‘Man, this dude is going in.'” He also thinks Hot 97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex took the radio game to another level. Some have even dubbed Khaled “The Funkmaster Flex of Miami”—he’s also a member of Flex’s DJ crew, the Big Dawg Pitbulls.

As to the schism between Northern and Southern hip-hop, Khaled seems to want to squash all that with We the Best‘s final track, “New York” (featuring Jadakiss, Ja Rule, and Fat Joe). “I’m about unity man!” Khaled implores. It’s something of a reprise of Ja Rule’s “New York” lineup from 2004, and Ja is like: “ I can’t believe niggas saying N.Y. fell off/And L.A. came back/The South is runnin’ shit/Then one blood rule/The shit is all developing.” New York hip-hop is often influenced by Southern hip-hop (the snappiness of Mims’s “This is Why I’m Hot”), while Southern hip-hop continually borrows from the classic New York sound—on Khaled’s “New York,” Cool and Dre appropriate what sounds like the beat from Whodini’s 1984 hit “Friends,” the chorus announcing “New York is back!” while Khaled shouts out his New York peeps, solemn as a proclaimer of names at a commencement ceremony: Funkmaster Flex! DJ Enuff! Mister Cee! Cipha Sounds! Green Lantern! DJ Absolut! DJ Camilo! Kay Slay! Envy! Jabba! Bobby Konders! Jazzy Joyce! Cocoa Chanel! Angie Martinez! Fatman Scoop! Miss Jones! Ralph McDaniels! DJ Clue! Red Alert! DJ Kid Capri! DJ SNS! Ron G! Doo Wop! Double R! Big Mike! DJ Clark Kent, I got you! DJ Threat! Jam Master Jay! Big Pun! B.I.G! We the Best!


Saw’d Off

Lady Saw claimed she’s “too nice fi inna cock fight” and “too rich to argue with bitch” on 2004’s “Man Is the Least,” but that was all chat compared to her eighth LP, Walk Out. “Make me introduce you to mi cutlass,” she threatens one heffer on “Chat to Mi Back”; on the title track, she tells her man’s new so-called friend, “Walk out let me bust up your mouth/When mi done wit you/You’ll wish you never knew mi spouse.” Meanwhile, she’s putting hickies on your boyfriend. If you can’t control your man, that’s your problem, apparently, and she’ll soon have him losing his senses and jumping wire fences for her special, no-wine-necessary pum-pum grip called cock fi numb.

But “Mama Saw,” as she’s been recently christened in the dancehall world, will still help a sister out: “Low self-esteem?/You don’t need that,” she explains during a mini-lecture in a song she sings (rather than raps) called “Not World’s Prettiest.” And on “No Less Than a Woman,” which has gotten the biggest buzz, she explains that “not having a child doesn’t make me any less of a woman,” opening up about her real-life struggles with infertility. (Being a childless woman in the Caribbean has a much bigger stigma than it does in the States.) The wild card here is a country and western torch song, “You Need Me,” in which she plays the long-suffering house lily.

Though a lot of tracks produced in Jamdown lag a few years behind stylistically compared to the U.S., somebody’s really gotta cull some better producers for Lady Saw—people who sound like they’re actually writing music in this decade. (For now, Saw produced many of Walk Out’s tracks herself.) Timbaland would be a dream if he can swing Jamaican riddims—even Stephen Marley or Dave Kelly, who she worked with a bit on her last album. It’s a shame that the first dancehall female to win a Grammy—and a writer with such great lyrical talent—has to maneuver through unsophisticated music arrangements that lack the nuances of her words.


Rhodes Scholars

Here’s to more songs using the Fender Rhodes—that archaic electronic keyboard that’s sorta like an organ, but with tones so effervescent, buoyant, and luminous it took Miles Davis’s ’70s albums into some intergalactic, extraterrestrial territory, and also played a hand in creating Stevie Wonder’s potent Innervisions. Retro-futuristic, the Rhodes is all the rage lately in neo-soul and soulful house.

4Hero feat. Bembe Segue and Kaidi Taitham
“Something in the Way”
FromPlay With the Changes (Milan)

Dudes from London made this track—employing just a vocalist (Bembe Segue), a Rhodes (via Kaidi Taitham), and a drum machine (4Hero’s Dego sure knows his way around beatboxes or Pro Tools or whatever the heck they’re using these days)—sound like damn near 20 people. You don’t hear many dance tracks this fast anymore, but this brisk, jazzy tune has a marching band drum line and djembe rhythms thrown atop to make for some vintage-sounding George Duke shit. 4Hero’s MySpace headline: “Soul has many forms.”

Jill Scott feat. Sergio Mendes and
“Let Me”
From Collaborations (Hidden Beach)

Originally on Mendes’s Timeless project, what just about ruins this quaint little bossa nova is there’s hardly any Jill and way too much Will. Attention When you’ve got the Brazilian maestro Sergio Mendes on Rhodes, you’ve got to do a little more than just throw a flimsy “Funky Drummer” sample on top, bro. This drum programming sucks. But because it’s Sergio (and Jill), it somehow sticks, even though it sounds a little like Jill learned this tune the night before, or perhaps right on the spot.

Elisabeth Withers
“Be With You”
From It Can Happen to Anyone (Blue Note)

Withers’s birth name is Mendes; no relation to Sergio, I guess. She’s made her name playing the part of Shug Avery on Broadway—you know that play about a color close to lavender produced by the big O? It Can Happen to Anyone lists “piano” in the liners, but no piano sounds like that. It’s a Rhodes. (May as well have just put “keys.”) But this is ’80s Rhodes stuff, not ’70s—there’s a diff. Withers is channeling ’80s Gladys Knight here, especially when she groans, “Tonight I’m gonna be every woman in your fantasyyyyy.” But then Withers whispers, in her naughty late-night phone-sexxx voice, “You like that?” which is something Gladys would never do. Well, you see, soul has many forms.


A Bewildering Underground MC, Somewhat Decoded

Parsing the nonpareil, nonsensical flow of Los Angeles MC Busdriver (né Regan Farquhar) can be challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible. Here’s a rough rubric for a few tracks on his prodigious, word-spangling fourth LP:

  • “Pompous Posies! Your Party’s No Fun”

    Style: Way-Off-Broadway showtune waltz.

    Topic: Sucky showbiz politics.
    Premise: “This year I thought I’d do away with celebrity-endorsed barbarism rather than entertain sore feelings at board meetings with these corporate mooches.”

  • “Sun Showers”

    Style: Depeche Mode–y disco.

    Topic: Desiccated romantic relationships.

    Premise: “There’s a place for you and a place for me/Return to the bourgeoisie while I sift through debris.”

  • “The Troglodyte Wins”

    Style: Big-beat raggamuffin rudebwoy ragga.

    Topic: Erroneous identity politics.

    Premise: “The troglodyte wins because you voted in the defaulted Cro-Magnon man.”

  • “Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is the Sport of Now)”

    Style: (Concrete) jungle drum’n’bass.

    Topic: Contrived corporate culture.

    Premise: “You stinky motherfucker… barbecuing sorted meat substitutes, arguing at your bleak study groups in your turtlenecks writing cross reference checks in the relief money fund.”

  • “Secret Skin”

    Style: Boom-bippy prog rock.

    Topic: Facetious new ageism.

    Premise: “This self-made mogul alpha male now seeks a Dalai Lama to become a cocoon due to my album sales.”

  • Categories

    Milk-Eyed and Heaven-Bound


    Neko Case,
    Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, #8

    Joanna Newsom, Ys, #9

    As the old hymn goes, usually His Eye Is on the Sparrow, but unfortunately not in the case of Neko Case’s “Maybe Sparrow.” This particular sparrow is on his own, though he did get a warning (which he didn’t heed) about the hawk. All the sparrows in Joanna Newsom’s Ys are OK, though. And birds from both camps are able to talk to human beings and other animals with no problem—when the heroine of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood‘s title track asks the fox, “Who married me to these orphaned blues?”, he replies, “It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder/When the death of your civilization precedes you.”

    Now, that’s not good news. But as in older times, animal fables like Newsom’s “Monkey and Bear” were meant to instruct humans toward living a fuller, more spiritually focused life. Neither of 2006’s Top 10–charting female singer-songwriter albums qualifies as straight gospel or is even overtly religious, but since both Case and Newsom are concerned with spiritual matters, their songs are more sacred than secular—the latter artist is an epic bard, and the former a parable weaver. Central to both the pastoral parlor songs and old-world female gnosis of Ys and the countrified new-world apocalyptic judgment of Fox Confessor is their reliance on old-timers’ music like the blues, ragtime, bluegrass, and spirituals.

    Take Case’s cover of “John Saw That Number,” the traditional hymn about John the Baptist. Just like the Sunday morning version in a country backroads church, it begins and ends a cappella, but more important, it retains the chorus of clanging tambourines, the congregation’s syncopated clapping, the boogie-woogie piano, and the three-note bluesy melody of most gospel. The addition of electric guitar just gives it a honky-tonk revival meeting vibe. And then there’s “A Widow’s Toast”—Case’s solemn, minute-and-a-half, mostly a cappella hymn about the love of a God that “catches you from falling”—wherein church women pledge, “I’ll put my hand on the truth by God,” in four-part harmony. The relatively rock-oriented “Fox Confessor” is less God-fearing, but it concerns the shame of sin, and at song’s end, when the narrator’s faults are recognized, she offers a plaintive plea to her animal savior: “Will I ever see you again?/Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?”

    As for Ys, on the first whiny, bluesy moments of “Emily,” we’re immediately thrown into a Good Book flashback, led down by the riverside where “the meadowlark, the chim-choo-ree, and the sparrow/Set to the sky in a flyin’ spree for the sport of the pharaoh”; some time later, we learn that “everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk, and dour.” And as the old hymn goes, all God’s children have got wings—and a harp. Newsom often makes hers sound like a kora, or more to the point, a banjo—once you cut through all the classical art-song veneer and paddle to the heart of “Emily,” you’ll hit a jug band sequence, rootsy yet aimingskyward: “We could stand for a century/Starin’/With our heads cocked/In the broad daylight at this thing/Joy/Landlocked/In bodies that don’t keep/Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being.” Here, actual banjos are added to the score, as well as a Jew’s harp. The result isn’t exactly “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but with all that
    Song of the South orchestration in full effect (just like during the “And all those lonely nights down by the river” sequence in “Cosmia”), it doesn’t sound out of ken when Newsom sings, “Don’t be bothered/Leave your troubles here/Where the tugboat shears the water from the water,” ya hear?

    Ys sustains that baptismal bent throughout. Swinging string-band fiddlers appear frequently on “Monkey and Bear,” along with requests for jigs—”C’mon, won’t you dance, my darlin’?”—and attendant pleas to get things done before we “turn to dust.” Then there’s the shucking and jiving, as Newsom calls it, of the banjo-filled hillbilly reprise at the end of “Only Skin,” in which Newsom claims, “Take my bones I don’t need none,” with a deep-voiced Bill Callahan stopping by to declare our bones “gone, gone, gone.” Even better is Newsom’s country preaching on “Sawdust and Diamonds,” a melancholic hymn that shouts, “We deserve to know light and grow evermore lighter and lighter,” and exhorts, “Though our bones they may break and our souls separate/Why the long face?/And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soul/Why the long face?”

    Case seems to have gotten right with her God, too. Regarding that great getting-up morning, she bravely explains amid the windswept guitars of “At Last” that “If death should smell my breathing/As it pass beneath my window/Let it lead me trembling, trembling/I own every bell that tolls me.”

    Though both albums engage spiritual enlightenment, they ultimately prefer self-knowledge through the careful observation of nature. The old-time religion and the old-time music aregood enough for both Case and Newsom to reach the land of milk and honey, though—”Darlin’, we will get there yet,” Newsom’s Monkey assures Bear.


    Def in a Jam

    It is December 7, 2006. Brooklyn-based rapper and Emmy-nominated actor Mos Def is up for a Grammy in the Best Rap Solo Performance category for “Undeniable,” a track from his not-yet-released third LP,
    True Magic. It’s the 33-year-old’s second Grammy nod, though you’d think there’d be more, seeing as the Black Power rhymes over blaxploitation palettes on his 1999 solo debut,
    Black on Both Sides, preceded by his guest appearances with Native Tongues and his tenure in pivotal rap unit Black Star (along with Talib Kweli) cemented him years ago as a monumental figure in hip-hop history, Black.

    (Dec. 16, 2006 @ 22:22 comment by Rashadlogic)
    “Undeniable” got nominated for the Grammy’s, but I think it’s because of the poor selectin. Let’s be honest, who the hell is going to vote for a song that they never even heard of: no music video, no radio play. I think he was last minute entry, just to fill the last spot.

    It is 1999. Black on Both Sides, a masterpiece of musical, intellectual, and lyrical finesse, has come down on the game like a ton of project bricks. The production, though sample-heavy, is flawless, incorporating styles from reggae to rock and making particularly thoughtful use of Roy Ayers’s jazz vibraphone. Obligatory female conquest track “Ms. Fat Booty” aside, the album is a manifesto covering everything from economics to ecology. “New World Water” addresses the world’s water shortage years before Jay-Z noticed—”You can take it as a joke if you wanna/But it don’t rain a full week some summers”— and most everything else Mos has to say will be relevant for years to come. Like this Emmett Till connection from “Mr. Nigga”: “O.J. found innocent by a jury of his peers/And they been fucking with that nigga for the past five years/Is it fair?/Is it equal?/Is it just?/Is it right?/Do they do the same shit when the defendant’s face is white?”

    (Dec. 20, 2006 @ 20:33 by RobbieK)
    Listen to Black on Both Sides . . . then listen to it AGAIN . . . THEN REALISE MOS HAS EARNED NUFF RESPECT

    It is 2004. Critics are not responding well to the experimental nature of M-dot-Def’s second solo LP, The New Danger. In his unrelenting mission to recover rock ‘n’ roll as black intellectual property—a project initiated on the Black on Both Sides track “Rock and Roll,” which taunted, “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul/Bo Diddley is rock and roll/You may dig on the Rolling Stones/But they ain’t come up with that style on they own”—Def has formed his own rock band, Black Jack Johnson, which anchors a good portion of Danger and constantly draws connections between hip-hop and rock, connections peers like the Roots are starting to pick up on and utilize. In a time when Blue Note’s roster (shout-out to Madlib) gets whiter and whiter and bookings at the Village Vanguard go to the Tierney Suttons and Diana Kralls, while the Nnenna Freelons and Rachelle Farrells are invisible, some ethnocentric cynics say hip-hop, like rock and seemingly jazz, is soon to be jacked too.

    (Dec. 13, 2006 @ 16:08 by JasonP)
    Oh, man, I had to return just to say this. No disresect, but THE NEW DANGER did not suck!!!

    It is September 2005. In response to the Bush administration’s slow-as-fucking-molasses response to Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts for the mostly . . . wait for it . . . black people of New Orleans, Mos Def records the vocals to “Dollar Day for New Orleans (Katrina Clap)” all in one take. The song contains the hip-hop quotable “If you’re poor and you’re black/You’re better off on crack/Dead or in jail/Or with a gun in Iraq.” It will be the first single off the forthcoming True Magic.

    (Aug. 31, 2006 from
    Mos Def (real name Dante Smith) was taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct tonight after an unauthorized performance outside Radio City Music Hall during the MTV Video Music Awards. According to authorities the rapper pulled up in front of the venue in a flatbed truck at around 10 p.m. for an impromptu performance of “Katrina Clap” for the people gathered outside. An NYPD spokesperson said officers asked Mos Def and members of his entourage to shut down their operation due to crowd conditions and the overall safety of everyone involved. It wasn’t clear whether Mos Def ignored or refused the orders.

    (Dec. 20, 2006 from
    Geffen continues its trend of mishandling hip-hop projects—well, just the ones with no direct ties to 50 Cent and/or Eminem—by dropping Mos Def’s True Magic with little promotion. After several pushbacks, True Magic is now scheduled for release on December 29, 2006. The album features production by Pharrell Williams, Minnesota, and Preservation.

    (Dec. 20, 2006 @ 13:06 comment by Nero)
    Dec. 29? Isn’t that a Friday?

    (Dec. 21, 2006 @ 22:02 by Alex)
    Thats weird, I saw this album last night while shopping at Target. hmmmm, makes me wish i would have bought it just to figure it out. Might see if its still there tomorrow

    (Dec. 27, 2006 @ 16:11 by Mark)
    sup kids, i just bought the album this morning . . . i keep seeing a release date of the 29th . .. but there were 4 copies at meijer when i got it so i have no idea what is going on

    (Dec. 28, 2006 @ 12:02 by Eddie)
    I bought it the other day at Best Buy, since the dates kept getting pushed, I guess they had them in stock already. They werent in the shelves, but i asked and the dude gave me a copy to purchase. probably doesn’t want to clash with other release dates, since it got no promotion

    —–Original Message—–

    From: [address redacted]
    Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2006 16:56:13
    To: [address redacted]


    Thanks for your email.

    On December 21st, Geffen moved the release date from December 29th to sometime in January. I will not know the actual date until Geffen reopens from the holiday break on January 2nd. The album did leak. How I don’t know but as a result I was told that it is changing and additional tracks will be added.

    I do not know why the albums release date was moved but at the point it changed, albums had already been shipped to Universal distribution. I was told by the record label that a few copies may make it out into the market place. I was not told they would be at Target. I will speak to the label about this. This is also the first time I have been told that the album is being streamed on the label’s site. I am sure that Mos is unaware of this as well.

    Thank you,

    [Mos Def’s Publicist]

    Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless

    —–Original Message—–

    From: [address redacted]
    Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2006 21:23:28
    To: [address redacted]

    How can Target be selling this if it hasn’t been released yet?

    Also Geffen’s streaming the entire album from their website. They’ve got the whole dang album up. Are they trying to help Mos sell records or what?

    (Jan. 8, 2007 from
    Now you see it, now you don’t. At least that’s what Geffen Records is hoping will happen with Mos Def’s latest album, Tru3 Magic. Although the LP was available for purchase online and at some retail outlets as early as December 19th, representatives from Geffen are calling the project a limited-edition “pre-release” rather than a full-scale album release by the rapper—a rare if not unprecedented situation. Now a springtime release, featuring a slightly altered track list and full artwork (the current packaging of Tru3 features only a picture-CD in a blank plastic case), will be set even though the project officially charted last week — debuting at 151 on the
    Billboard albums chart on 11,004 copies sold, according to SoundScan. So fans who manage to get their hands an early copy of Tru3 Magic, consider yourself the owner of a collector’s item.

    Parts of True Magic sound as impromptu as his performance on that flatbed truck outside of Radio City: just noodling on the boards, “Ooh, that sounds cool—let’s leave it”–type moments, improvised ditties like “Perfect Timing” and off-the-top shit like “Lifetime.” “There Is a Way” was recorded live and consists of a single refrain—”There is a way/No matter what they say”—sung over and over. Sounds good, but less like a full-bodied track and more like a jingle.

    Yet despite its occasional lax moments, the album as a whole has an intensity and rambling impromptu-ness that few artists ever attain. The Temptations-sampling “Undeniable”—wherein Mos tells us, “Live your life right” and describes himself as “a foundation that cannot be moved”—is catchy and safe enough for Grammy voters, but hardly the strongest cut. The counterpointing bugles of “True Magic” are a fitting soundtrack for an action hero like Mos, whose idiosyncrasies and singularity of purpose hip-hop desperately needs. He’s a masterful storyteller and rhetorician, an MC in the classic sense of the word who utilizes a diverse array of lyrical and musical approaches to communicate his theses. At first you wonder why he breaks into the antebellum Negro spiritual that goes “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom” at the end of “Fake Bonanza.” Could it be ’cause blacks as a whole are pretty much still enslaved?

    (Dec. 13, 2006 @ 16:04 comment by JasonP)
    Do you not realise this is an album soley made to get out of a record contract with Geffen? You make some good observations, you just don’t seem aware of the reason no one including Mos cares if this album sucks or not . . . As far as the Grammy people . . . well . . . what do they know anyway? they are dated fools.

    Because (everybody now) . . .

    All white men is runnin’ this rap shit
    Corporate forces is runnin’ this rap shit
    Some tall Israeli is runnin’ this rap shit
    We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in
    Cocaine is runnin’ this rap shit
    Viacom is runnin’ this rap shit
    ‘Dro, ‘gnac, and E pills is runnin’ this rap shit
    MTV is runnin’ this rap shit
    AOL and Time Warner is runnin’ this rap shit
    We broke out our asses for a chance to cash in

    (“The Rapeover,” from The New Danger)

    Anyway, True Magic. Will someone please tell Mos his singing ain’t all that? No one wants to buy his CD and hear him singing half the damn time. All these motherfuckers tryin’ to be Al Green.

    (December 19, 2006 @ 02:12 by J)
    You’re all fools—this album is nuts! One of my favourite right now. Mos Def puts most MCs to shame with effortless flow.

    Mos Def performs at Lincoln Center on January 17 as part of its “American Songbook” series,


    Flow Charts

    There’s just something about the cold steel CLANG! of slamming prison cell doors that’s music to the ears. Must be why r&b lothario Akon prefaces all the tracks on his filler-filled sophomore LP, Konvicted, with the noise. CLANG! His prison time, however brief, means to establish the thug cred he requires to trade verses with Styles P, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Fat Joe, and Papoose . . . even though he’s not a rapper. “You know my pedigree/Ex-dealer used to move ‘phetamines,” he boasts on “I Wanna Fuck You.” (!) Does Akon’s rapping really suck? Does it matter? There’s hardly any hardcore rapping—and few hardcore singers—on urban radio these days. What we hear now is watered-down sing-rap talk-sing from rappers and singers alike.

    An earlier indication of this move toward sing-rap was the 2001 Jennifer Lopez–Ja Rule duet “I’m Real.” What folks could’ve asked—instead of whether or not J.Lo was down enough to call black guys “her niggas,” as she quite naturally rapped—was whether or not she was legit enough to trade verses with Ja Rule. It appears, in order to ensure longevity on urban radio, r&b singers must align themselves with rappers, drop in on mix tapes, and generally have some kind of “flow.” And that doesn’t just mean being able to rap a little; it’s synonymous with game, hardness, street smarts, and the smooth, even callous way an artist presents and handles him- or herself in front of the competition and the opposite sex. Akon’s gotten his flow by being an ex-con and flaunting his unparalleled ability to “smack that, all on the floor.” But do my ladies run this motherfucker?

    Beyoncé: Her version of “In Da Club” outed 50 Cent as a singing-ass rapper with lines like “Don’t wanna be your girl/ I ain’t lookin’ for no love/So come give me a hug/You a sexy little thug.” Even her Destiny’s Child stuff, though, had more flow than her B’Day raps—wack lines reveal faltering confidence and a bewildered, dick-whipped view. Should’ve called it J’Day. Despite facilitating some top-notch production, here’s what Jay-Z didn’t tell his girl: Flow is about attitude. A conceited attitude. A chick with real flow is just not gonna record an entire LP sweating a dude, and those hollow threats about jetting (“Irreplaceable,” “Kitty Kat”) don’t count. Step up and spit real game, B: “When he acts wrong” is not when you “put your freakum dress on”—that’s only for when he acts right.

    Amerie: No longer Ms. Congeniality, she’s going for the crown by starting more beef than Cam’ron on her new mix tape Because I Love It, Vol. 1, hinting that Beyoncé (among others) has been trying to “bag her swag.” Furthermore, “Chicas try to bite it/But they can’t cop my delivery/My style/My aggression on the track/’Cause y’all chicks know you wasn’t singing like that.” She’s kinda right, but she’s not exactly singing. Amerie yells her way through tracks and her intonation is hit or miss, but she gets flow points for her jazzy, polyrhythmic phrasing, along with her rapper-chick audacity and breezy demeanor with the guys. In her version of Ludacris’s “Money Maker” she turns the tables and breaks it down, albeit somewhat disjointedly: “I don’t need your cash for elevation/Hold myself down every occasion . . . Drinks for my girls when they get thirsty/But the men just get some water with a cherry in it.”

    Kelis: She changed “beat that pussy up” to “eat this pussy up” in her version of “Wait (The Whisper Song).” And for the past few years she’s had modest success, but stayed competitive and self-assured. Now Kelis Was Here, alright. “Bossy”—on which she brags about her naked-body tattoo on hubby Nas’s arm—is the all-new flow-focused r&b-chick anthem. (Now she’s claiming she’s the first girl to scream on a track. Ever hear Grace Jones’s “Sex Drive”?) “Let’s just say/I like to take chances” she adds flirtatiously on the sex-tape of a song “Blindfold Me.” Is Kelis singing or rapping “When he want it/He blindfolds me/Then I get sexy on him/Get sexy on him”? She’s actually talking most of the time, but sounds hella good.

    Still, as Cash Money Millionaire Teena “Lady T” Marie—who hipped us to the “T” in her seminal rap on 1981’s “Square Biz”—put it, “I’ve heard a boatload of other ladies’ raps/But they ain’t got nothing on me.” CLANG!