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Zack de la Rocha, MIA

Dear Mexican: What punishment could America give that would FINALLY make crossing America’s borders—repeatedly—unpalatable to Mexicans, when even Mexican natives admit that it is at least as harmful to Mexico as it is to America, and the “needless paperwork” in our immigration process is to TRY to filter out habitual criminals and recidivism, and to slant the incoming population to those MOST LIKELY to assimilate? Remember, our original immigration requirements were “good moral character” and a “working knowledge of English.” Or have America’s recent military defeats in Korea, Vietnam, and, possibly, Afghanistan (depending on whom you ask) simply removed any and all respect Mexico might once have had for America and our ability to protect our borders? And, if so, when can we expect Mexico to OFFICIALLY declare war on America? —Mines, Mines, Mines!

Dear Gabacho: For the pinche umpteenth time, Mexicans migrate to the United States—like nearly every immigrant in this country’s history—to better their lives, and because gabachos won’t do the jobs chinks and micks and slopeheads and wabs and wops do at the rates for which they’re willing to work. Stop getting your “original immigration requirements” from Wikipedia, and then wonder how ethnic enclaves have been part of this country since the Cajuns. We still respect Los Estados Unidos—how can you not give props to a failing empire? And one final debunking of your delusions—Mexico has been fighting the United States since the Spanish Armada set sail for England—except now, the only Black Legend in our camp pertains to Guatemala.

Zack de la Rocha, a person who I admire as an activist and musician, has described his hometown of Irvine, California, as one of the most racist cities imaginable. He once stated, “If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand.” Being a Mexican that lives in Irvine and that looks like a Mexican (chaparro y prieto), I’ve never felt discriminated against in any way—in fact, I think of Irvine as a city that embraces diversity. I’ve only lived here for the past five years or so; has it not always been the case, or could it be that I’m looked down upon and I’m too much of a pendejo to realize it? Does Irvine have a racist past that I’m unaware of? —Barranca Babobos

Dear Readers: Forgive this too-provincial pregunta, but it allows me to publicly call out de la Rocha, one of the great musicians of this generation who, unfortunately, is acting like Dylan after his motorcycle accident. Hey, Zack: Where is your solo album? Why the Rage Against the Machine mini-reunion instead of you pushing that amazing rap-rock-son jarocho fusion you were toying with a couple of years back? Why stick around in the progressive paradise called Los Angeles instead of fully committing yourself to the fight against your demented homeland of Orange County? Eres chingón, pero ya no mames, güey: marching and organizing against Arpayaso is vital, but we need you to remain relevant to the rest of America by putting out new music. As for why you haven’t experienced racism, Barranca Baboso: Irvinites probably think you’re Persian. And don’t use Wikipedia for pulling quotes.

 

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Angry local rap-rocking poet rages at the blood on our hands

Hip-hop is dead. Rock ‘n’ roll is dead. Hell, genre itself is dead. As dead as democracy in America. This is the premise of Saul Williams’s second album, and after approximately 50 listens, I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, the local poet-actor-activist-rapper-rocker thinks we should do about it. Apparently it involves getting rid of our egos, getting fucked up, and getting angry. Very angry. “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)” is probably the angriest song I’ve heard all year, loaded with anti-imperialist knowledge dropped by Williams over industrial G-funk beats from Anticon producer Thavius Beck. “If you have tears prepare to shed them now. For you share the guilt of blood spilt in accordance with the Dow,” he seethes, then drags Zack de la Rocha out to shout the chorus. Elsewhere, he channels that rage into outer-space dub, clanging Dizzee Rascal bling, woozy gothic ambience, sludgy Bad Brains hardcore, and, in “List of Demands (Reparations),” steely punk-funk bounce that slays anything by Franz Ferdinand.

Before November 2, I interpreted Saul Williams as a sign that all this anger could be galvanizing—maybe even world-changing. Now I’m sensing less and less hope in it. Those beats sound like shotguns. Those guitars thirst for blood. That voice is sick of all that crunchy-hippie unity shit. But maybe that’s just what I want to hear.

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Probably Not

At the end of the day Audioslave are simply a bore. Predictable, pedestrian, pro forma. Less than the sum of their parts, the album and the band don’t even amount to an interesting failure, because the known quantities do what they have always done only this time in tandem—Chris Cornell howls and croons; the Rage cats trot out their Zep and Jimi riffs laced with Tom Morello’s turntablist guitar moves. It might have been more enthralling had Cornell induced the band to come to him for alternate tunings, odd time signatures, and general harmonic, melodic and rhythmic sophistication, and also if he had taken a look out the post-9-11 window for lyric inspiration. Maybe, maybe not.

Unlike funk, rock is not its own reward. Unlike hiphop, it lacks a built-in sociocultural-tribal context to lend even mediocre acts meaning. Rock matters when it matters because folk are driven to create their own context, and their own engaging forms of exorcism, catharsis, confession, and martyrdom. In Audioslave, nothing is on the line other than perhaps the principals’ impending sense of mass irrelevance, pretty much the norm for rock in mass culture these days. Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden were exceptional rock bands for different reasons—Soundgarden for their high-poetic use of punk ferocity, Cornell’s pipes, and tossed-off musicianly sleight-of-hand, Rage for Zach De La Rocha. The Mexican insurgent provided the requisite outsider rage as Morello provided the double-entendre against-the-machine theory, directed both at the state and at his generation’s electric guitar(s), the turntable and the sampler.

De La Rocha, less successful in transfiguring his hiphop dreams, was a failed rapper like Mick Jagger was a failed soul singer, and out of that failure came something that rocked profoundly—more so onstage, where his implacable dervish provided the berserker quotient all great rock bands need to justify their existence. His lyrics could be more didactic than Chuck D on a lazy day, but his fervent way with them made Rage matter beyond the moshpit. Love ’em or lump ’em, they left a major socio-subcultural hole as the only multicultural (Black, Mexican, Anglo) modern rock band that had the ear of the young white masses, the ardor of MTV, and the attention of progressive African American hiphop/rock heads like this writer’s vicious circle. (Soundgarden was also multicultural on the down low—Native American, South Asian, and at one point Japanese—but suitably assimilated and too bohemian at heart to make hay out of it.) It’s worth noting that on Rage’s last album, The Battle of Los Angeles, De La Rocha whispered and nearly crooned. You figured maybe on the next one he might even sing something resembling a pentatonic melody. Instead he went off to do a hiphop album that’s now, what, five years in the making?

On Letterman with the ex-Ragers recently, Cornell looked as if he’d have rather had a V-8—absolutely tired of himself, more than of the band per se. There was something of a “What am I doing here?” look on his face, which was understandable considering where he’d come from. If go you by the number of times it’s rotated in my Walkmen, Soundgarden’s Superunknown was my favorite hard rock album of the past 10 years. One album later they bowed out so gracefully that their disbanding was like their last great song. Rage, on the other hand, came apart at the seams as young, successful, ambitious, tension-filled bands will when there’s no love lost among them, or when the frontperson up and quits, or both.

‘Taint hard to find irony in the most left-wing banner-flying band of the ’90s breaking up before 9-11 and the passage of Asshcroft’s anti-Bill of Rights wet dream, the Patriot Act. How far Rage might push the fuck-tha-police envelope in these muted protest times is a fascinating question to ponder. Audioslave fails foremost because the songs lack that elusive frisson thing that invokes surrender and delirium, but they also fail to make their joining of two great fallen houses matter more than the phone call that got them in a room together. Henri Cartier-Bresson said the difference between a great photo and a mediocre one is a fraction of a second. The difference in rock and roll terms is between having a great idea for a song and actually writing an anthem. Listening to this album becomes drudgery as you track through it—mostly because too many things sound the same and those that don’t, mostly ballad things, appear as not quite spirit and not quite flesh. It’s as if some pathetic half-formed golem were still being laboriously stirred to life.

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Two Worlds Apart

Though it’s nearly eight years old, boasts a Mercury Prize winner in Roni Size, and has infiltrated pop culture via car commercials, drum’n’bass still suffers from a giant insecurity complex. Briefly a golden child in the mid ’90s, when Goldie, LTJ Bukem, and Size were releasing albums to critical acclaim and when club kids couldn’t get enough of its fractured, quicksand beats, drum’n’bass saw its popularity fall by the wayside when it became clear that its crossover potential was limited.

Junglists, as we now know, don’t really like vocals, have no use for an image, don’t care if the hooks are catchy (and prefer them scary, anyway), and stubbornly hold fast to a DIY ethos. Next to Detroit techno heads, few fans take musical purity to such fascist levels. Big-name guests? Sellout. A dancer, especially one whose bad hairdo makes him look like a reject from the punk era? Fuck you. Next thing you know, Madonna’s gonna ask Bukem to produce her next album.

Roni Size knows all these things, and so he operates in two universes—making one record (In the Mode, Reprazent’s follow-up to New Forms) for the masses, and many others (mostly singles on his label Full Cycle) for the junglists. What he doesn’t realize is that there needn’t be two separate strategies. In the Mode is Size’s brash attempt to sway the uninitiated to the world of drum’n’bass via vocals and hip-hop. Discarding New Forms‘ lazy jazz-fueled rhythms for more poppy, dancefloor-friendly beats, Size pulls another trick out of his hat, except everyone could see this one coming.

To lure the dragon to the treasure chest, he enlists massive stars like ex-Rage Against the Machine scream machine Zack de la Rocha, Wu mouthpiece Method Man, and Roots human beatbox Rahzel. And where New Forms was overly long and mostly instrumental, In the Mode is short by drum’n’bass standards (one disc, where seemingly everyone else—Grooverider, 4 Hero, Bukem—insists on doubles) and relies heavily on vocals. Homegrown Bristol soul sister Onallee and swank rapper MC Dynamite find themselves—not the bass—at center stage.

Problem is, the things that made drum’n’bass groundbreaking (or boring, depending) were not vocals, choruses, or shout-outs (please, not another MC shrieking for rewinds), but broken beat structures, time-stretched basslines, and relentless repetition. Drum’n’bass cuts are supposed to be antipop songs, entire tracks consisting of only a chorus, but shrink-wrapped. Using the bassline like a junkie uses a hit of crack, a drum’n’bass producer follows up a melodramatic intro with a “drop” to get you addicted. The trick is to make the hook so compelling you actually want to hear it 500 times in five minutes.

Size mastered this art with his earlier tunes on V Recordings and Full Cycle—classics like “It’s Jazzy” and the blistering collaboration with Die, “Trouble,” demonstrate that the fastest way to a dancefloor’s heart is through a sucker-punched stomach. There are moments on In the Mode when Size remembers what made him famous in the first place. “Snapshot,” which debuted as a Full Cycle 12-inch before appearing here, is as simplistic as it gets: a funky motherfucker that works like a worm, wiggling in circles ad nauseam. And though “Back to You” is almost ruined by busy-as-a-bee bleeps, Onallee’s mantra merges with the monstrous, meaty riff and pushes the track over the top.

But by and large, Size ignores his wife and spends more time with his mistress. If In the Mode‘s special guests were able to accomplish what a single searing bassline could in the same amount of time, I’d give them credit. But it takes de la Rocha nearly seven minutes to finish his Diallo tirade in “Center of the Storm,” and you wish he would just shut up for a second and let the music do the talking. While lyrics of substance are welcome, I’m convinced there’s a great track buried underneath his pontificating, just dying to get out.

Size pretends his pairing of hip-hop with drum’n’bass is something new, but we’ve been here before: Aphrodite’s Puffy-esque forays into sampledelica made him king of the beats for a hot second, and Size himself owns the most successful smooshing of the two. Bahamadia’s slippery crawl through New Forms‘ title track was a shadowboxing delight, and a sharp contrast to Method Man’s shallow, sallow cheerleading in “Ghetto Celebrity,” a basic cut’n’paste slapdashing speedy beats against lagging lyrics. There’s a whole store of hip-step—as Jungle Sky’s TC Izlam calls it—but nobody’s buying. OutKast’s “B.O.B.” might be the closest to the mainstream d’n’b will ever get.

As exciting as it must be for a drum’n’bass producer to collaborate with hip-hop idols, the In the Mode tracks that ring most true are the ones with Onallee and Dynamite. Inserting lyrics and choruses into 170 bpm is risky business, so d’n’b vocals work best when they become part of the percussive fabric—looping, revolving, and evolving into the mix. Rappers either rhyme at half-speed, which makes them sound lazy, or they try to keep up and run out of breath. But Dynamite, jungle’s best MC, knows the rippling rhythms like the back of his hand. The obnoxious first single “Who Told You” notwithstanding, his nuanced vocal tics demonstrate a respect for the music by giving and taking, but never hogging the show.

And Onallee, when she’s not trying out for the R&B Diva of the Year Award, can be understated, seductive, and sultry. On “Lucky Pressure,” Size and Onallee leave hype and histrionics behind; she weaves her lyrics around his warped, warbling bass and spooked-out sound effects. There’s not a gimmick or superstar in sight, and what do you know—it’s an actual, honest-to-goodness song. One that could even be played on the radio.



Roni Size/Reprazent play Hammerstein Ballroom March 17.

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This Year’s Remodel

The word on Renegades is that it happened by accident when rap-rock agitators Rage Against the Machine got together with rap-rock eminence Rick Rubin to wham out a couple oldie B sides. They kept thinking of additional goodies until the project blew up into a full cover album—which proved the last with the original lineup when singer Zack de la Rocha decided to take his bat and go solo. So it’s possible that the most penetrating and engaging album of their career was a lark that turned fateful. But RATM are one band that could justify a whole album of covers by insisting that those who do not repeat history are condemned not to know it, and as it ends up, hearing rock and rap past through their ears is a pop education. In the wake of a flood of stillborn tribute collections, cover albums don’t have much status these days. But in fact they reinterpret history, as their own history demonstrates.

In his track-by-track rundown, Rubin stumbles on the revolutionary potential of cover albums: “An interesting thing about this record is the band was able to kind of move musically in different directions because they’re starting with the format of someone else’s song. It kind of allowed them more freedom to kind of try different things. And I think it’s probably more diverse than Rage’s other albums.” Poets write in forms for much the same reason. The poet concentrates so much on fitting the words to the meter that his or her subconscious censor shuts off and the language can reveal more. United by the struggle of making the swatch of killer tunes their own, de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk clicked with each other even as they notoriously failed to agree on anything else. They tell more about their artistic mission than they ever have before, maybe even more about the world. Renegades has the potential of firing up those who haven’t thought much about political pop, and that will be its long-term value. By gathering some of the favorites that formed them as activist artists, Rage Against the Machine join an extended, little-noticed lineage of rockers who have worked to affect the future by rendering history more coherent.

Unless you consider the British Invasion an onslaught of cover bands that got played on the radio where the originals didn’t, the first modern albums in the remake mode were Dr. John’s Gumbo in 1972 and the Band’s Moondog Matinee and David Bowie’s Pin Ups in 1973. In an era when yesterday didn’t matter if it was gone, these were defiant moves—history, how freaky. But although Dr. John had reinvented himself as an LSD shaman in the late 1960s, in fact he was a secret r&b veteran revisiting the New Orleans foundation of his career. The Band were already obsessed with the past, though their rehabilitations outclassed those of the hokey ’50s-revival groups in vogue at the time. Bowie’s camp trip had its Sha Na Na side, but a spaceman futuroid doing vintage tunes made the gesture seem cooler and less decrepit. The next year Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry ran roughshod over Bowie’s pirouette into the past with These Foolish Things. Ferry advanced toward Renegades in that he grabbed not just Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, and the Stones but the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley and gave them roles in his glitter-lizard cabaret while trashing the niceties of the original music. Style sense, and Ferry’s puce-velvet voice, conquered all. You could tell he loved these songs even as he throttled them.

Renegades‘ only equal, however, is Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 “The Spaghetti Incident?” Axl ‘N Slash (‘N sometimes Duff) played around with rock-clod and punk-neurasthenic archetypes like they didn’t have a drug habit in the world. Any band that could make the connection between the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” and the Damned’s “New Rose” had way more smarts and humanism than nonzealots could detect in “Paradise City” and its ilk. “The Spaghetti Incident?” has become the G N’ R album for those who don’t like G N’ R, but in 10 years it’ll be more cherished than Appetite for Destruction.

Renegades shares the same sense of adventure and self-discovery, though it has more of Bryan Ferry’s feral irreverence toward its musical sources. Since the material includes Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk,” Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes,” Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” and Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” if Renegades even equaled the originals, it could establish a new pop order. As it is, there are a couple mere curiosities: Devo’s “Beautiful World” redone as a bitter croon-toon and “Street Fighting Man” booted with a guitar-as-synth figure that’s more vintage electrofunk than techno retouch. And there are a couple rallying points: a howling “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that surpasses Bruce Springsteen’s sepia-dignified original and a relentlessly shouted “Maggie’s Farm,” an oldie that needed its case of rabies renewed.

The other tracks parallel Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” with the rap-rock proportions reversed: not replacements, but side trips to help the listener fully savor the songs. Bassist Commerford has gained more muscle and ideas than any player in the band and is now as expressive as Morello in all his sweet savagery. De la Rocha, on the other hand, has failed to develop, and remains as awkward as Mick Jagger taking on Slim Harpo back when. But Renegades may be his monument. The stark groove-and-hush of “Microphone Fiend” gets Morello’s crunch treatment as de la Rocha takes off from the memory of Rakim’s words rather than simply reciting them, adding a particularly effective “in E-F-F-E-C-T” chant. De la Rocha would never come up with Rakim’s “silly rabbit” aside, but you know he appreciates the gag, just as he knows the reverberated “Housin’ . . . housin’ ” refrain on EPMD’s “I’m Housin’ ” is the kind of oratory-free dramatic fillip he never manages on his own. Morello has referred to the “odd Iggy Pop vocal performance” of “Down on the Street,” but the discomfort is all de la Rocha’s, the limitation of his righteous anhedonia—unlike Axl Rose, who had no trouble maintaining a full-body erection for “Raw Power.” Then again, de la Rocha has the rhetorical chops to put every verbal lick in place on “Maggie’s Farm.”

Renegades revels in its historic shrewdness down to the Robert Indiana “LOVE” send-up of the booklet art, and will fascinate, inspire, and instruct for a long time. There are outtakes lurking, too—Gang of Four’s “What We All Want” and a bizarro hybrid of Eazy-E’s “Ruthless Villain” and Rush’s “Working Man.” Successor bands who hear Renegades will know enough to plow ahead to Fela, Bob Marley, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco. More than expanding our views of established performers and demonstrating that punk, rap, and metal can feast together on meaty hooks and high-fat beats, Renegades establishes radical-pop protest-racket as more than just an aberration in the music that descends from Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. In the sequence of songs RATM have selected, sly words and assault music bridge years and races. After this record, no one can dismiss amplified activism as the fleeting howls of isolated hotheads. It’s the forever underground.

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No Sleep Till Retrial

In a sold-out Continental Airlines Arena last week in support of either a merciless cop killer or a criminally enslaved African American dissident (depends on who you ask), Rage Against the Machine’s Jimmy Page powerchords and hectoring editorial raps played less as political rage than as pure fist-pounding testosterone for guys pissed off at parents or teachers or girlfriends.

But it was still Rage’s need to be seen as a moral force that explained why 16,000 people found themselves in the swamps of Jersey in the first place, at a benefit for a Pennsyvania death-row resident a lot of them knew nothing about.

Ascendant pop star Mumia Abu-Jamal— currently on the CMJ charts with his Alternative Tentacles release All Things Censored . . . , a recorded-in-prison collection of commentaries in which he polemicizes on economic injustice, mass media nefariousness, and why Tupac is better than R. Kelly— wasn’t around to provide any answers himself.

Plenty of his advocates were handing out flyers, though: “He’s such a symbol for our generation,” said James Alexander, 20. But most of the overwhelmingly white-boy crowd just wanted to rock, and fly their flyers as paper airplanes. “I’m really into Rage, I don’t care about the cause,” snickered Damian Jay, 19. “I couldn’t care if he was a serial killer or if he killed a thousand people. I’d still go see the band.”

The band’s set was plenty cathartic at first. Mouthpiece Zack de la Rocha demonstrated the highest vertical leap in rock ‘n’ roll, and Tom Morello wielded his guitar like a ray gun. But before long the grooves grew overbearing, and the crowd fell back, beaten down.

Days before, when word of the Rage-Beasties­Bad Religion bill had gotten to the Fraternal Order of Police, they’d joined with New Jersey governor Christie Whitman in calling for the show to be boycotted. Instead, Ticketmaster offered a refund, which 2000 fans took advantage of.

The shitstorm of criticism didn’t result in Rage backing off their support for Jamal. But even though they played in front of an upside-down American flag, their rhetoric was more conciliatory than incendiary. Their frequent cover of N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” was left off the set list, and de la Rocha said the benefit “is not to support cop killers or any other kind of killers.”

At one point, the band brought out Chuck D, with noted human-rights activist Professor Griff in tow, to start up a Free Mumia chant. Chuck stuck around for an antiauthoritarian finale that went “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” but the key Rage song came earlier, when they muscled up Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” “Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free, look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me,” de la Rocha declared, repeating the last words over and over in a high-pitched whine.

Forty-four-year-old Jamal is currently doing time at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Greene for the murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, who in 1981 was found shot in the back and in the face. Jamal was wounded by a bullet from the policeman’s gun, and Jamal’s .38-caliber pistol and five spent shells were discovered nearby.

The trial that resulted in his death sentence has been attacked as grossly unfair and racist by a network of supporters, from Ed Asner to Desmond Tutu. Last October, his conviction was upheld for the second time by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the appeal process is now aimed at the federal courts.

Despite all the controversy, there was no visibly greater police or security presence than normal at the arena. “It’s part of the job,” shrugged one state police officer. “I gotta come to work. I don’t think about it,” said Iris Reeves, 70, sweeping up a discarded Stop the Execution flyer. When I asked one security employee about teenage Refuse & Resist volunteers’ claim that their pro-Mumia handout had been confiscated, though, he refused to comment and told me to move along.

Between band sets, a pair of show-hosting British anarchists from Chumbawamba spoke against “in-juice-stice.” Critically annointed underground hip-hop duo Black Star had opened with 20 minutes largely unnoticed by the crowd, but Bad Religion fared better, stirring up the pit with their forthright SoCal thesaurus-punk. Then the Beasties did an hour-long version of their blue-garbage-man-jumpsuited
Hello Nasty set. Gray-haired Adam Yauch had been the only one who talked at a preshow press conference, but on stage an enlightened Mike D. quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye, and we’ll all go blind.” If paper airplanes don’t poke everyone’s pupils out first.