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Strained Vibes, Excellent Scenario in Beats, Rhymes & Life

So much petty drama has clouded the release of Michael Rapaport’s A Tribe Called Quest documentary. One version of the backstory casts the first-time director as a doofus actor wannabe (arguably best known for his role as Phoebe’s boyfriend in Friends) who persuades the seminal, but privately splintered, hip-hop crew to participate in a consummate career doc. After two and a half years of the corny B-lister shadowing and interviewing the foursome (in gratingly affected street patois), the final product gets accepted to Sundance and suddenly the group’s de facto leader, Q-Tip, reneges his support via Twitter. The actor/director always seemed like an opportunistic jerk-off, so when three-fourths of ATCQ boycott Park City and later whine on MTV about an errant production email they received conspiring, “We’ll fuck them,” it’s not particularly surprising. Everybody knows you don’t trust a fanboy poseur.

The wrinkle in this retelling is that Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a phenomenal documentary. Making a “love letter” to his all-time favorite musicians, Rapaport devotes the film’s first half to deftly curated archival material, golden-age hip-hop perspectives from the likes of DJ Red Alert and Monie Love, and testimony from an impressive constellation of Tribe’s peers and pupils—from the Beastie Boys to Pharrell Williams to ?uestlove—on behalf of “the Miles Davis of hip-hop,” as the Roots’ Black Thought remembers the band’s initial influence. (Black Thought also hilariously calls ATCQ’s early kente-cloth and dashiki wardrobe “some real questionable-type shit.”)

The fawning is more deserved celebration than drooling hagiography. Then comes the film’s second half, which veers into cinema vérité, focusing on the disintegrated ties between boyhood friends Tip, who has evolved into dapper VH1 royalty, and his 20-year collaborator, Phife Dawg, a squeaky-voiced sports nut who’s grown to resent how Tip’s calculated swagger shrinks him into a sidekick. (“It’s Diana Ross and the Supremes” is how Phife casts Tip’s attitude to the rest of ATCQ. “I guess Ali [Shaheed Muhammad]’s Mary Wilson and I’m Florence Ballard? Get the fuck outta here.”) Pitbull-stubborn and type-one diabetic, Phife becomes the movie’s wounded dark horse, enduring a desperately needed kidney transplant, calling his boyhood buddy a “control freak,” and venting about their “love/hate relationship.” At one point during a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour, Phife gives Tip the silent treatment so resolutely that an awkward shouting match ensues, with Ali and Tribe’s spiritual backbone Jarobi White left ducking the crossfire.

Despite the passive-aggressive bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hop’s Some Kind of Monster. (At one point, when Phife’s wife suggests band therapy, as Metallica underwent in that doc, he rebuffs her with, “I know what the problem is, I’m not paying for you to tell me nothing!”) And instead of editing his subjects into pre-ordained music biz roles, Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, both letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcase—as former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, “I love Q-Tip, but he’s a fucking nut.” It’s easy to see how a control-freak perfectionist would mistake such character assessment for assassination. It’s not, and even a fanboy poseur like Michael Rapaport knows that.

cdodero@villagevoice.com

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MAN ABOUT TOWN

With Record Collection, his third solo outing, Mark Ronson really wants to make the world notice Mark Ronson. That’s Mark Ronson the recording artist, not Mark Ronson the target of Winehousian Twitter battles, or Mark Ronson the DJ at some scenemaking event. He’s still twisting the knobs. But from the billing (the album’s credited to “Mark Ronson & the Business Intl”) to his having embraced the frontman position (mostly, he shares vocals with a host of guests), Record Collection is more assertively Ronson the dude—singer, rocker, bandleader—and less Ronson the aesthetic. He was already huge in the U.K., and “The Bike Song” is blowing up over there, but it’s the percolating “Bang Bang Bang,” with Q-Tip and MNDR’s Amanda Warner along for the strobe-soaked ride, that most effectively fuses together all of Ronson’s disparate parts and poses. It could be “Clint Eastwood,” it could be “Crazy.” But as long as you remember that it’s Mark Ronson, he’ll probably be happy.

Mon., Oct. 11, 9 p.m., 2010

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Q-Tip Emerges Triumphant in The Renaissance

Unfortunately for Q-Tip, he did not die. If he had, the decade or so that’s passed since A Tribe Called Quest’s unfortunate implosion (and his subsequent wayward, pop-centric solo debut, Amplified) would’ve served as a reverent mourning period, with fans and naysayers alike belatedly acknowledging the nasally Queens emcee as one of the most influential rappers of all time. Death’s finality mocks you like that. Beatnik college-radio stations would organize day-long tributes, a pandemic of graffiti immortalizations would sweep inner cities, and pseudo-intellectuals would make wild revisionist claims that Amplified really was brilliant: “Breathe and Stop,” the douchebags would insist, was obviously an examination of Freud’s postulation that faith in God reflects an infantile need to believe in something larger than oneself.

But Q-Tip didn’t die, and there is no validation in living, so it became easy to forget how seminal he’d been to the development of hip-hop, his rep as leader of the ultimate jazz-rap crew ostensibly usurped by idleness and the emergence of ringtone rap. But after myriad delays and label woes, it’s clear the interminable wait for new material was worth it. Amplified was mostly a bastardization of a niche icon, normally purposeful content replaced with a brusque rash of corporate-scented jingles propped up by a cool Hype Williams video. But The Renaissance, thankfully, is aptly titled. “ManWomanBoogie” (featuring New York soulstress Amanda Diva) and “Move” give us back the guy who leans on ’70s-soul sampling and his own veracious stutter-stepped flow. The Raphael Saadiq collaboration “Fight/Love,” which examines a young person’s decision to join the military, reminds us of Tip’s natural ability to storytell his way to crisp social observation: “It’s cheaper than college/And you get guns/And you get knowledge/Looking for your soul/And WMD’s/You can’t find nothing/’Cause it’s empty.” The sonic aesthetics of “Dance on Glass,” meanwhile, confirm that he remains one of the flagship artists in the field of praising the auxiliary.

The Renaissance closes with “Shaka,” a spin on classic boom-bap Tribe preceded by a poignant, not-so-subtle clip from an Obama speech, making the record’s point abundantly clear: I’m back, and I brought hope with me. Fortunately for us, Q-Tip did not die.

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Sneaker Pimps

Alife Sessions, the private concert series that kicked off last year with a counterintuitive pairing of John Mayer and Just Blaze, once again filled the Lower East Side haunt Alife Rivington Club’s courtyard over the weekend for Sound Clash—three hours of Moby and Q-Tip on dueling turntables. There were sneakerheads. And booze. And a lotta smoke. Turtle would not have been out of place.

Actually, Entourage similarities aside, it did feel a little bit L.A., due in part to the perfect 75-degree weather and all the smiling—this was one happy bunch of trainspotters. The crowd quickly formed a circle around Little Brooklyn designer Brad Digital when he briefly broke out his b-boy moves. Cheers went up when neighbors, perched on roofs and fire escapes, sent down paper airplanes. New York’s urban tastemakers—Jeff Staple, Futura, Ace Boon Kunle, nitro:licious’s Wendy L.—happily mugged for the cameras.

The Rivington Club taps into the same air of exclusivity as many of the city’s hot spots, but its wares are kicks, not cocktails. The front door has a buzzer but not a sign; the tiny foyer gives way to a posh interior with red carpeting, black leather banquettes, and a chandelier. The new, vintage, and rare shoes are exhibited in a grid of individually lighted cubbyholes and a locked glass display box, and customers are perfectly willing to drop entire paychecks on the latest limited-edition Nikes. On Saturday, though, there was no mistaking the appropriate door at Rivington and Clinton: Carefully dressed kids peppered the storefront for a chance to get in—they couldn’t—while two huge bouncers stood appointed on either side of a minidressed glam girl. (She was so sorry but I just wasn’t on the list; she was less apologetic when I pointed to my name. “Oh,” she said. “Well, I thought you said Amy.”)

The party started at 5 p.m., and an hour later it was nearly impossible to navigate the crush. Downtown fixture Moby was positioned on the right side of the stage, while Q-Tip—whose long-awaited
The Renaissance is set to drop in October—manned the turns to the left. Snoop’s “Who Am I” led into the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”; the crowd mingled in an orbit spinning out from the 10 Cane–sponsored open bar (also stocked with Teany, natch). Sometime after seven, Q-Tip introduced to the stage Juice Crew’s Craig G, the freestyler who penned most of the battle rhymes from 8 Mile. Filling out a “Queens Reigns Supreme” T-shirt, the rapper took to the mic with demands for “real hip-hop” and debuted “The Day Music Died” (I think?), a rhyme with enough name-dropping to rival Page Six (Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand, “Jessica and Ashlee,” and Fall-Out Boy).

The highlight, though, came soon after, when Q-Tip rejoined Craig G for a freestyle battle—”off-the-top shit,” Q-Tip promised. Craig G set it off, taking in his environs (“Let me pose for the man with the man on his shirt,” in reference to one of the two billion photogs swarming the stage); Q-Tip defended those photogs, then sent it back (“Explain to them how to be a real MC”), garnering a few fist-to-mouth ohhhhhs along the way. Back and forth they went, rapping about the World Trade Center, George Bush, and Murry Bergtraum High, Q-Tip’s alma mater. They finished to great applause, posed for still more pics, then headed inside. Behind me a girl was stumbling through the crowd, supported on either side by her nervously grinning friends. It was only eight.

As people filtered from the courtyard back into the shop—and then out the door, for lack of space—adorable pocket-sized staffer Dice buzzed around excitedly, boasting of the party’s success, evidenced by the fact that the T-shirts had sold out. The show had been papered with flyers for sneaker mag Kicksclusive‘s issue release party at Studio B later that night, but I suspect a number of Alife Sessions attendees instead hit up “The Bench,” the anti-scene scene at, yeah, the bench at the corner of East Houston and Orchard. For two months now, a group led by DJs Big Black Matt Goias, Ari Forman, Fancy, and Max Glazer have congregated in front of the American Apparel there to “talk shit,” “look at girls,” and “sit around,” according to the Bench’s MySpace page. In recent weeks, jazz musician Alex Toth received a G-rated lap dance while performing on the Bench, and Grammy winner Dante Ross attended with his award in tow. If it sounds ridiculous, know that the founders are at least self-aware; the whole thing started as kind of a joke, complete with fake press release.

On this night, DJ Cipha Sounds was slated to bring MTV cameras to shoot a segment for Sucker Free, the hip-hop video show that he hosts. Alife even printed a special-edition T-shirt to mark the occasion. The logo? “Abench,” of course.

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Explorations in Mixtape Nation

It gets me every time, and there’s barely any music to it. Mainly it’s a naked voice—mellow, soft-edged, playfully playground, flowing liquid over bass drum and down-low “Gold Digger” hook, which now signifies not “Ray Charles” but “classic Kanye you’re always happy to hear again (so far).” It’s a Q-Tip freestyle, and though it follows the Busta-meets-Pharrell expostulation “Followers”—”Shinin’ brighter on niggas just like a fuckin’ halogen/Spit clearer than water ’cause I’m lactose intolerant”—please believe that it stops the show.

He “ain’t really sayin’ nothin’ exactly.” So try to imagine Q-Tip’s simple words not just scanning but lilting: “Bite my style yo they bite my style/Turn up the music little bit more now/There’s the knob turn it up more Joe/And then we gonna spit this next verse and then we gon’ go/Because there’s radio shows by the dozen/But none is fuckin’ with this one cousin/It’s the Clinton the Sparks . . .” It’s lovely, infectious, virtuosic. When you obey Kardinal Offishall on the next track and Google “the best nigga who ever spit,” you get nothing, which seems just.

But right after that, things pick up big-time. Busta and project sponsor Kanye join in on “I’m still the motherfucker you love to hate/But cain’t” over a canted electric-piano hook I feel I know, and then come four impressive apprentices, with “motherfuckin’ savage” Remy Ma taking the cake: “Innocent girls and boys turned into bastards/I want bitches to die deaths that are tragic/And niggas fucked in they ass turned into faggots/Their balls cut off and mailed to their parents.” Remy Ma is female. Act like you know.

That’s 16 minutes of music toward the end of Clinton Sparks + Kanye West’s Touch the Sky, an unofficial recording you can buy for seven bucks both online and in clandestine geographical locations. Last year, producer Sparks, whose chipmunk snippet “Get familiar!” is imprinted like an aural logo on every track he does, oversaw the Clipse & Re-Up Gang’s celebrated We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2: sapient cocaine rhymes over an audacious array of hit hooks, many probably acquired 4 nothing—that is, jacked—like many other mixtape beats. But at least half of Sky‘s 78 minutes will disappoint admirers of the Clipse CD, despite several helpings of prime raw—exhumed Biggie stickin’ ice picks on the tip of your dick, “try-sexual” Lil’ Kim, lubricious Ludacris & Shawnna. It will also disappoint fans of West, who presumably undertook the enterprise for street cred I bet escapes him.

Someone should write a book about the mixtape world, which encapsulates hip-hop’s complexity. It’s dangerous, creative, materialistic, and uncontrollable, up from slavery and on both sides of the law. But as a music critic in for a quick look around, all I can say is that the eight or nine examples I’ve been sampling are mind-boggling. Since mixtapes are esoteric on purpose (like indie-rock collectibles, except they’re immensely more profitable), I should explain that they’re not tapes. The cassette era was when DJs began seguing original, remixed, and stolen music into album-length wholes. But CDs are easier to produce (and bootleg). Nowadays, many mixtapes are private product featuring a single artist plus loosely defined crew. These are generally “authorized,” as are some multi-artist DJ constructions. Labels often value mixtapes as promotional tools, building word-of-mouth for new artists or whetting appetites for forthcoming releases. But others are accounted criminal. Need I add that the RIAA has no idea what to make of them?

The individual-artist mixtapes I’ve heard are like regular albums, only not as good. Beats are cruder, hooks sparser, lyrics harder. Lil Wayne’s The Carter 2: Part 2: Like Father Like Son, featuring his Cash Money mentor Birdman, declares itself thusly: “This ain’t no mixtape, niggaz. This is a gift, from Cash Money, for the streets.” And except for the gift part that’s exactly right—it’s 2005’s Tha Carter II in thug overdrive. Substitute the likes of “Whrr Tha Cash,” “Lil’ Nigga,” and the assassinatin’ “Problem Solver” for a few weaker Carter II tracks, and Wayne would have quite the off-road hip-hop vehicle. Or take Ghostface Killah’s 2004 and 2005 projects: Theodore Unit’s 718 on Sure Shot, and with Trife Da God, Starks Enterprises’ Put It on the Line. 718 is fine till it turns crew showcase, because knife-voiced Trife merits collaboration and stolid Solomon Childs doesn’t, while Put It on the Line, oh well, has too much Trife on it. But though they’re simpler, I’d put either up against Ghostface’s somewhat disappointing regular release Pretty Toney Album, and call your attention to the decayed synth-horn (?) beat looped below 718‘s “Who Are We?” I’d never heard a sound quite like that grating buzz, and because of a mixtape now I have, and want to again. Realness fiends who claim, for instance, that Jeezy’s mixtapes beat Young Jeezy’s bestselling debut, are, after all, only Jeezy fans. But far more than indie-rock collectibles, mixtapes tap the world’s endless musical reserves—and render hip-hop-is-dead rhetoric ridiculous.

The traditional mixtape I’ll be replaying is DJ Green Lantern’s Alive on Arrival, and not just because it doesn’t include some overseer’s five-minute Alicia Keys interview, as Touch the Sky does. (Sparks: “Me personally I’m a huge fan of your body—of work.” Where’s Biggie’s ice pick when we need it?) Green Lantern’s don’t-miss track is the dissonant, tortured, funny, defiant “Shotgun Season,” in which a screwed-down Junior Walker contextualizes the gun talk of Fat Joe and Styles P., neither any favorite of mine. But there are other highlights, including every element of a sequence that moves from Dead Prez and Immortal Technique’s call to “Impeach the President” to Wyclef’s heartfelt plea that Bush and Osama smoke dope to Remy Ma’s autobiography of a crack baby to Busta and Ghostface’s unrepentant, double-time “Blow His Head Off,” directed not at a political figure but “any nigga who thinks he’s better than me.”

Of course, there are two gangsta sequences, one deadly, as in dull. With mixtapes, you take what you get. But if someone can direct me to T.L.E.’s supposedly anti-Bush Hidden Treasures, which I read about on an XXL message board, I’ll take a chance.

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Soft Sell

Brooklyn-based M-1 of Dead Prez doesn’t call the story coincidence, but something “the universe confirmed”: During a late-night session working on his solo LP Confidential in an East Village recording studio,

“I went downstairs to the street to get a Guinness stout,” he says, “and lo and behold, Q-Tip was standing on the corner.” He had just been thinking of the Native Tongue frontman earlier that night.”I knew he’d be perfect,” M-1 says, for “Love You Can’t Borrow,” a take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” It’s lovers’ rock on a light bed of violins, sounding a little like the pop-jazz blends that Quincy Jones hit big with in the ’80s, and smooth-talking Q-Tip’s still the dude the bonitas want.

“For some reason, people think I’m motivated by anger or something,” M-1 chuckles. “I love relationships. Some rappers don’t, but I love being in love. It’s a great focus. It motivates me.” His love-for-love is part of a black nationalist campaign, but quiet storm palettes make Confidential sound as sweet and safe as “Saturday Love” by Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal. “Yeah. We played some things that were kind of ambiguous, or some music that sounded sonically kind of light,” M-1 admits. “But I was looking to attract a different audience than the usual Dead Prez fans.”

M-1 is a gunslinger, though. So Fabrizio Sotti, the Grammy-winning guitarist who co-produced the album, helped achieve a more diplomatic approach. Sotti got his longtime collaborator, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and M-1 into the studio together, and Wilson agreed to sing “Love You Can’t Borrow” ‘s hook. M-1 admires her frankness. “Some people try to put on legend like a uniform; but her legend comes from inside her. She’s a real woman with a real voice,” M-1 observes. “It’s not nuthin’ played up; it ain’t ultra- glamorous. It’s just the realness.”

” ‘Til We Get There” and “Been Through” are also not dilutions, but part of a deliberate softening of delivery. Even the sparse breakbeats Dead Prez normally use, like those that remix D-Train’s “You’re the One for Me” in “The Beat,” are slowed just enough for grown folks from the old school to ride M-1’s freedom train “to the south BX/way cross 110th Street/before my daddy even thought about me.” And after that bit of reminiscing, the MC can slip in “better guard your grill or get Rodney King–beat” because he’s “been from braids to dreads and from dreads to fades.” “I’m finding creative ways to present all this revolutionary stuff,” he explains, “for the people who don’t really want to hear it.”


M-1 plays Nokia Theatre April 22.

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It’s Alive!

Cacophony. Sexploitation. Oblat. Jazz. Sleepaway. Perro.

Ilan Stavans defines these words and scores more in his latest work, and doesn’t dance around terms such as cocksucker or shy away from telling readers how many times he’s looked up dictionary. And while he’s at it, he kicks a little dirt on Samuel Johnson’s grave.

Stavans, the young academic powerhouse at Amherst whom The New York Times called “the czar of Latino literature in the United States,” has four books out in the first five months of 2005, ranging from a collection of Sephardic literature to a massive $500 Latino-culture encyclopedia. But his most intrepid work this year might just be his lecture-inspired memoir, which is not only charming and sweet enough to sip, but also an attempt to turn the arguments of lingual purists on their heads.

“As of late, we are looking at the dictionary as something less plain and less dead,” Stavans tells the Voice. “We use it as a template of sorts on which we can see our own circumstance and dreams.”

In his new Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (Graywolf), Stavans pushes the limits of how reference books can be read. He does so by pointing out their necessary imperfections, such as trying to lock a language in its time and place, à la Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. To Stavans, a dictionary takes on many other roles: sharp consultant, witty comrade, flip arm candy, live-in partner. In an ode to the rigid orthographic volumes, he even titles a chapter “Sleeping With My OED.”

The book is a brave feat not only because it shows he’s got academic boxing gloves on, but also for the intimate vantage point it affords readers. By opening up his personal life, Stavans seems to enhance his linguistic argument, recognizing that this intimacy—e.g., the hyper-detailed description of Stavans’s personal library bookshelves and his eight-year-old son’s talk of heaven—is part of why people read. Even the most pomo, Foucault-following reader can’t help glance at a biography now and then, or wonder if Kafka had as severe a roach problem as did the reader’s last Bushwick flat. Stavans takes this to another level by reading dictionaries as if they were blogs.

But reading a dictionary is also serious business. Stavans is deeply concerned with the stagnancy of lexicons such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Webster’s due to the manners linguists insist on. The first major dictionaries that showed up in the 16th and 17th centuries were compiled as tools to cleanse language from geographic and class dialect differences. They weren’t reference books for the people. They weren’t embedded in Microsoft Word programs.

Still, Stavans argues, most mass-market dictionaries in America aren’t utilitarian. He has found a definition of dog that classifies it as an animal that lifts its leg when urinating. And everyday objects like the Q-tip are nowhere to be found. Nor are many common curses.

“Happily, more recent editions of the OED have opened up, finally: motherfucker and cocksucker are in it now, safeguarded for the ages,” Stavans rejoices in his book. And he says: “Only recently do you have fuck in the dictionary. It is absurd that it wasn’t there before; it is one of the most used words in the English language, and one of the most elastic.”


Elasticity is a fine adjective to describe Stavans’s linguistic life—as well as his philosophy of language. A self-described Jewish Mexican American whose Eastern European parents raised him in the Jewish ghetto of Mexico City, Stavans grew up with Hebrew, Spanish, and American English chaotically intermixing like a tricolored pile of pickup sticks.

Stavans’s more controversial recent projects view that pile of colors from a distance and see a beautiful blur. For instance, his dictionary Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003) compiles thousands of American words with both Spanish and English etymological roots, born in barrios from Spanish Harlem to south Los Angeles.

“The purists believe that we in academia should not be paying attention to Spanglish,” Stavans says. “They tell me that any serious consideration undermines the standards of English.”

In his new memoir, Stavans projects the same “mixed-up is OK” approach to structure as he does to language. If he had categorized his thoughts more strictly, it would be easy to place Dictionary Days in the spectrum of reference-structured memoirs currently in bookstores. A few: Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s delightful Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (palatable even for those who aren’t charmed by an entry for “lollipop tree”), Steven Church’s ode to oddity and “memoir of record” The Guinness Book of Me, and The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs’s journey through the Encyclopedia Britannica into autodidacticism. Instead, Stavans keeps his thoughts tucked in a succinct memoir form, interjecting occasional dream-state revelations and fantastical visits from dead lexicographers. It opens with a birth scene of sorts (his son discovers a fascination with words) and ends by questioning whether dictionaries believe in the afterlife (they seem not to).

The lifespan theme is appropriate because some of the most tossed-around words in the academic debate over language today are creation and destruction. And Stavans is one of a small group of U.S. scholars introducing street speak to the ivory tower and arguing that language is not being destroyed, but rather, words that die are replaced by new ones. He has taught full classes on Spanglish and hopes to lecture soon on a language he calls “American.” And these are exactly the growing dialects that lexicographers fear.

The purist argument is easy to hear, as thinkers from Thomas Paine and Johnson back to Cicero were enchanted by the eloquence with which their predecessors from hundreds of years prior had spoken. But most of the time, according to Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher’s forthcoming The Unfolding of Language (Random House), it’s exactly the forces of destruction such purists fear that create new words. Anyone who’s ever used “gonna” contributes. And Stavans is fascinated.

His latest academic spar is one to watch: He’s translating Don Quijote de la Mancha into Spanglish, to the dismay of all those orthographic purists. But why cast an entire text into a piecemeal dialect? Ironically, for the same reason Johnson, Webster, and even encyclopedists like Flaubert made lexicons: to preserve and promote.

For Stavans, lover of mixed-up Portuñol and Franglais words, deviant curses and hip-hop graffiti (an insider language of sorts), his work conflicts with his ideology. Some say by codifying street speak into a dictionary, one is stealing it from the people and turning it into something that can be studied.

“True,” Stavans said. “But every intellectual pursuit is a theft, is it not?”

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New Abstract

The greatest aesthetic lesson to learn from past masters like David Bowie and Madonna is the value of reinvention. I still recall my teenaged shock at the ’86 Grammy Awards telecast, when award-presenting Prince emerged from the wings in a penguin tux with fingerwaves, an absolute about-face from the paisley psychedelia of his previous Around the World in a Day incarnation. The whole business of living revolves around change and re-creation, which is why chameleons like Bowie and ’em have transfixed the public’s attention.

Ever since Q-Tip became boys with Leonardo DiCaprio, New York dailies have been reporting sightings of the Abstract Poet as if their writers went home every night bumping A Tribe Called Quest. But for real for real, who could Tip be to these cats? The guy on that Janet Jackson song, maybe? Tribe never scored the pop appeal of Puff or Will Smith, so what could they be thinking?

(Likewise, in a classically crass record-industry move to capitalize on the radio-friendly- unit-shifting success of Q-Tip’s summer smash “Vivrant Thing,” Jive Records has released The Anthology, a collection of Tribe’s greatest misses. Largely drawn from the holy triumvirate of Tip, Phife, and Ali’s first three joints—People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders—the magic’s undeniably here. That hyperkinetic energy between the boho Q-Tip and Phife the B-boy supercharges most of Anthology. But since the compiled songs weren’t all chart toppers or even commercial singles, I’d rather hear “Butter,” “Youthful Expression,” or “8 Million Stories” than the Jive-selected “Keeping It Moving” or “Find a Way.” I’d also strongly recommend that newcomers buy the original albums for their fluid ingenuity, and their bonus beats: precise, bass heavy, and just right. . . . )

With Amplified, Tip gets brand new. Moomba reservations, Hendrixian head scarves, booty-filled Hype Williams videos, posing-in-Honey-with-no-drawers-on bravado: Q-Tip reinvented. Before, Q-Tip was the quintessential urban Nubian prince, repping an African-derived paradigm with the Native Tongues. He was enlisting the Nation of Islam to help him settle a beef with Wreckx-N-Effect over an eye jammy. Until Phife fine-tuned his own metaphorical fury of allusion on Low End, Q-Tip was the centerstage wunderkind of Tribe—which was largely Tip’s brainchild. Back then, he was at the vanguard of a hiphop segment dabbling in conceptualism and irony in lieu of dookie-rope caricaturist gangsterism. He was also a superho.

We’re merely distant cousins, it’s said, of who we were even five years ago. So then who is this far-removed relative, Q-Tip ’99? Libidinously, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree; the former MC Love Child is father to the man: “The movement is on/Mild-mannered mommies in Victoria thongs,” he rhymes on the hot second single “Breathe and Stop.” After trading flirting with being (semi)famous for actually being (semi)famous, Q-Tip restores the luster dulled by the comparatively malodorous records Tribe put out in their career twilight. His new videos might be jiggified, but Tip makes the distinction between him and others of that ilk clear on “Things U Do”: “See me in your Bentley, just honk, yo/And just know that your man too can get that/And just know that I don’t really want that.” And though admittedly Tip can come a little self-absorbed sometimes, he disarms such neuroses, literally with his mouth full of cereal, while introducing “All In”: “Yo, niggas be on the mic, they be all serious. They supposed to be serious, but effortless.” (Hey, didn’t the Artist eat Cap’n Crunch somewhere on Emancipation?)

Tip has definitely raised his energy—hence the title Amplified—but, unfortunately, this heightened inner chi doesn’t sustain throughout the album. “Moving With U,” “Go Hard,” and “Do It” could all be slightly tweaked outtakes from Tribe’s 1998 The Love Movement. A rising sound effect, resembling the last seconds of “99 Luftballons,” pops up repeatedly, in “Breathe and Stop,” “All In,” and Tip’s rebirth anthem, “Vivrant Thing.” Production duo the Ummah (Tip and Jay Dee) give Q-Tip solo a ballsier, punchier sound than Tribe’s. But expect an Amplified with at least half its tracks banging like the first two singles, and you’ll be disappointed.

(Q-Tip’s rhyme style hasn’t evolved much since the music on Anthology, but Tribe records were always more about his nasal cadence and the conversational ebb and flow of his and Phife’s mic interaction. The title MC means master of ceremony; some people who emcee don’t know what this term means. . . . )

As if following the edict of a certain New Age guru, Q-Tip is avidly pursuing the grandest version of the greatest vision he’s ever held about who he is. Who can blame him? And posing De La Soul’s musical question, what does it all mean? Constant evolution causes expansion. Wait till he gets to Hollywood.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Jay-Z’s Hard-Knock Week

If I shoot you, I’m brainless. But if you shoot me, you’re famous. What’s a nigga to do? When the streets is watching, blocks keep clocking. Waiting for you to break, make your first mistake . . . —Jay-Z, “Streets Is Watching”

Last Wednesday night, Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter) allegedly made that first mistake. During a release party for Q-Tip’s new album at the Kit Kat Club, a fight broke out in the VIP section that resulted in the stabbing—once in the chest and once in the back—of Lance “Un” Rivera, record executive and, by all accounts, a friend of Jay’s. It’s rumored that Rivera, who has worked with Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim and Cam’ron among others, had been facilitating the bootlegging of Jay’s new album, Vol. 3—The Life & Times of S. Carter, and that the attack was retributive.

Just hours before, Jay had performed selections from the album to a packed Irving Plaza, where he’d held his own listening session. The next night, after eluding police for over a day, he turned himself in, eventually getting released on $50,000 bail. If convicted of the attack, he could face up to 25 years in prison.

It’s hard not to kill niggas. It’s like a full-time job not to kill niggas.

In the era of Tupac and Biggie, the world of big talents and even bigger talkers, Jay-Z has always been the silent counterpart to his rowdy peers, near enough to the fray without ever being part of it. His slick-yet-reflective hustler persona (recall the tasteful ostentation of a fedora, white silk scarf and tie on the cover of his first album, Reasonable Doubt) was a far cry from typical thugdom. He knew how to get ugly; he just didn’t.

Not that it wasn’t ever called for. The player haters, the madd rappers, the wannabe flossers—they all take their toll over time, but still Jay remained unfettered, a shining example of the delicate balance between street credibility and pop appeal. The undisputed King of New York, he still had white kids in Oklahoma and grannies on the Upper East Side singing along to his version of “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” Nowhere to go but down.

Y’all niggas ain’t worth my shells. All you niggas trying to do is hurt my sales.

Far from an aberration, the bootlegging of Jay-Z’s album—and it most certainly has been bootlegged; check a street corner near you—is part of a larger epidemic. Recent releases by Nas, Rakim and Mobb Deep hit the streets months before the official release dates, though in slightly different versions.

Jay and Def Jam had been planning an extensive marketing campaign to boost the album to sales of a million copies in the first week of release (according to Def Jam, the album’s December 28 release date is unchanged). A little bootlegging around town would hardly damage their chances. That something so banal, so inevitable, could have triggered this series of events is not just stupid, it’s tragic.

Everybody want a piece of your scrilla, so you gotta keep it realer.

After the breakout success of last year’s Vol. 2—Hard Knock Life, the expectations on Jay-Z were greater than ever. In fact, it’s been speculated that the entire stabbing incident was part of some large marketing conspiracy to guarantee strong buzz and sales. In hip-hop, where crime is often flipped as a marketing tool, having your artist splashed across the cover of the Daily News may well work financial wonders, but that option seems absurd for a man in Jay’s position. Still, the very existence of such a theory hints at an underlying belief that Jay, of all rappers, is too smart to go out like this. Business, never personal.

Just before the attack, Jay, ever the poet, allegedly told Rivera, “Lance, you broke my heart.” But the real betrayal here has little to do with financial squabbles and crushed trust. Rather, it’s about spending an entire career cultivating a commercially and creatively successful persona; then, just on the verge of a complete triumph, tossing those years of perspective out the window over what amounts to, at most, a few thousand dollars and a bruised ego. The life and times of Shawn Carter are spiraling downward. Et tu, Jigga?

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Week

If I shoot you, I’m brainless. But if you shoot me, you’re famous. What’s a nigga to do? When the streets is watching, blocks keep clocking. Waiting for you to break, make your first mistake . . . —Jay-Z, “Streets Is Watching”

Last Wednesday night, Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter) allegedly made that first mistake. During a release party for Q-Tip’s new album at the Kit Kat Club, a fight broke out in the VIP section that resulted in the stabbing—once in the chest and once in the back—of Lance “Un” Rivera, record executive and, by all accounts, a friend of Jay’s. It’s rumored that Rivera, who has worked with Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim, and Cam’ron among others, had been facilitating the bootlegging of Jay’s new album, Vol. 3The Life & Times of S. Carter, and that the attack was retributive.

Just hours before, Jay had performed selections from the album to a packed Irving Plaza, where he’d held his own listening session. The next night, after eluding police for over a day, he turned himself in, eventually getting released on $50,000 bail. If convicted of the attack, he could face up to 25 years in prison.

It’s hard not to kill niggas. It’s like a full-time job not to kill niggas.

In the era of Tupac and Biggie, the world of big talents and even bigger talkers, Jay-Z has always been the silent counterpart to his rowdy peers, near enough to the fray without ever being part of it. His slick-yet-reflective hustler persona (recall the tasteful ostentation of a fedora, white silk scarf, and tie on the cover of his first album, Reasonable Doubt) was a far cry from typical thugdom. He knew how to get ugly; he just didn’t.

Not that it wasn’t ever called for. The player haters, the madd rappers, the wannabe flossers—they all take their toll over time, but still Jay remained unfettered, a shining example of the delicate balance between street credibility and pop appeal. The undisputed King of New York, he still had white kids in Oklahoma and grannies on the Upper East Side singing along to his version of “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” Nowhere to go but down.

Y’all niggas ain’t worth my shells. All you niggas trying to do is hurt my sales.

Far from an aberration, the bootlegging of Jay-Z’s album—and it most certainly has been bootlegged; check a street corner near you—is part of a larger epidemic. Recent releases by Nas, Rakim, and Mobb Deep hit the streets months before the official release dates, though in slightly different versions.

Jay and Def Jam had been planning an extensive marketing campaign to boost the album to sales of a million copies in the first week of release (according to Def Jam, the album’s December 28 release date is unchanged). A little bootlegging around town would hardly damage their chances. That something so banal, so inevitable, could have triggered this series of events is not just stupid, it’s tragic.

Everybody want a piece of your scrilla, so you gotta keep it realer.

After the breakout success of last year’s Vol. 2—Hard Knock Life, the expectations on Jay-Z were greater than ever. In fact, it’s been speculated that the entire stabbing incident was part of some large marketing conspiracy to guarantee strong buzz and sales. In hip-hop, where crime is often flipped as a marketing tool, having your artist splashed across the cover of the Daily News may well work financial wonders, but that option seems absurd for a man in Jay’s position. Still, the very existence of such a theory hints at an underlying belief that Jay, of all rappers, is too smart to go out like this. Business, never personal.

Just before the attack, Jay, ever the poet, allegedly told Rivera, “Lance, you broke my heart.” But the real betrayal here has little to do with financial squabbles and crushed trust. Rather, it’s about spending an entire career cultivating a commercially and creatively successful persona; then, just on the verge of a complete triumph, tossing those years of perspective out the window over what amounts to, at most, a few thousand dollars and a bruised ego. The life and times of Shawn Carter are spiraling downward. Et tu, Jigga?