Monday, November 28, 2005

Is it Usher or Ursher?

I missed the premiere weekends for both "Get Rich or Die Trying" and "Walk The Line." I managed to catch "Walk the Line" on Thanksgiving (it's dope, go see it; J-Cash was the original gangsta rapper) and I imagine I'll watch "Get Rich..." somewhere down the road (probably on UPN or something).

So that left one other music-movie to check out for the holidays: "In The Mix," the Usher Raymond vehicle that came out last weekend. In the movie, Usher plays a DJ who must protect a beautiful Mafia princess from her father's enemies. Being the bad-ass that he is, he takes on the Mob and falls in love in a movie that can only be described as a cross between "Donnie Brasco" and "Friday" - if both of those movies sucked.

Here are a few things I observed after watching "In The Mix":

- It's really hard to write notes in a dark theatre. I kept losing my space and writing over my own words.

- I was one of about five people in the theatre (along with a bi-racial couple and some employees). I was shocked that other people actually paid to watch the movie.

- During the previews, they teased a new movie from Tyler Perry, of "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" fame. He does the whole cross-dressing thing (again) and looks like the Momma Klump from "The Nutty Professor" franchise. Eddie Murphy must be pissed.

- In the movie, Usher plays a DJ named Darryl, but we only see him in action twice. He keeps Nelly and Frank Sinatra in his record crates (no joke). Usher may be the all-time worst DJ in a movie, period.

- The great Chazz Palmentari plays a New Jersey mob boss named Frank Pecculli. I remember when he played Sonny in Bronx Tale. Now he's playing second fiddle to Usher in a cheesy ghetto/mob flick. I really miss Sonny.

- Frank Pecculli's capos are named Fish, Jackie and Fat Tony (like The Simpsons character!). Maybe the filmmakers thought Vito, Joey and Vinnie sounded too trite.

- Within the first half-hour, you know that Jackie was the one who tried to kill Frank. The real fun is in trying to figure out how long it will take before Usher does a dance routine.

- According to the movie, Mafia hit men and homeboys share the same taste in designer shoes, proving once and for all that we're really not that different from one another.

- Cute little black girls say the darndest things! The girl in this movie asks Usher's girlfriend if they "did the nasty." When she said it, my heart wanted to melt.

- Usher's love interest is the daughter of a New Jersey mob boss; curiosly enough, she looks almost identical to Meadow Soprano, the daughter of another New Jersey Mob Boss, Tony Soprano.

- Another curiosity: When mob bosses meet to discuss a beef, they do so in back alleys or underneath the Jersey Bridge. Oh, and rap music plays in the background (because that's gangsta).

- Usher gets shot! This is not a surprise if you've seen the movie previews, but he looked really convincing as he lay on the floor bleeding. I almost wanted to be there to console him.

- It's an urban film, so there's bound to be a white boy hip-hop poser. This guy does the whole mook schtick to a tee, and is easily the best hip-hop poser since B-Rad in "Malibu's Most Wanted."

- Multiculturalism 101: According to Usher's best friend, everyone knows that when a brother gets shot and lives, you celebrate at the strip club.

- When Usher snarls at mafia hit men, he looks like he's trying to suck a booger back into his nose.

- One of the perks of being a mafia bodyguard: A room next to the pool, and easy access to late night canoodling with the boss' daughter.

- About an hour and a half into the movie, we finally get the first of two dance routines from Usher. Apparently, this was a contractual obligation.

- Usher doesn't have a Ms. Right, just a lot of Ms. Right Nows.

- Multiculturalism 102: Never play poker with a Sicillian. You will lose your dog and your glock.

- After Usher and the mafia princess finally do the nasty, we learn at an awkward moment that she likes her coffee black (just like her..., oh, never mind).

- I don't want to completely spoil the ending, but as you may have guessed, it involves a disco ball.

- Just when you thought the writers had completely exhausted every urban/mafia cliche in the book, they end it with a phat joke, as in "Hey Fat Tony, you're phat, but with a p-h." It's 2005 folks. Do we have to go there?

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Comments and Critiques

I guess it's only fair to warn everyone who logs on here: if you post a comment with profanity, it will not get published.

I've been getting a lot of comments with profanity and since this is a family-oriented publication, I must insist that no swear words appear.

There are ways around this: simply write the first letter of the word and then dash out the rest (ex. s---, or s*** will do in place of the four-letter word).

I screen all comments and cannot edit them. Therefore, if it has a cuss word, it will not get posted.

Tune in tomorrow to get my take on the new Usher movie, "In The Mix." Yeah, I saw it, and I know you're all dying to hear what I have to say about it.


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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Confessions of a hip-hop nerd

Hip-hop culture, as far as I can tell, is all about representation - where you're from, what you know, even what you wear and how you act.

Therefore, the moment someone opens their mouth and says that they are representing for hip-hop, they are immediately leaving themselves wide open to an unending line of scrutiny: How can you say this about so and so when you claim to rep such and such? What are your credentials?

The result can be as innocent as a misunderstanding between homeboys on the corner, or as devastating as an East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop war with real-life casualties.

Even as I type these words, the pundits are firing back with warning shots: Who are you to define what the culture is all about? What gives you the right to claim this culture as your own? What do you know about anything regarding hip-hop?

There are no simple answers, and I certainly won't engage in a debate over standards and qualifications, my own or otherwise. I'm simply a kid from east Salinas who recognized early on the power of this music and cultural movement, and decided that, at least for myself, it was a calling, not a fad.

Along the way, I've been able to meet people who share some of the same beliefs and understandings, and therefore have validated my allegiance. In turn, I've developed my own opinions and beliefs that have been shaped not so much by the music and the artists, but by the interpretations I have transmitted from the messages that lie within the music.

To that end, I have qualified myself as a hip-hop nerd, one prone to overanalysis of the subject, but who does so with the truest of intentions.

The fact that I have continually referenced myself in this manner is not an attempt at elitism, but rather a chance to present myself as someone who is well-aware of the hip-hop culture and it's evolution. So much so that I am eager to intellectualize a subject that is not normally given such consideration.

And thus, a hip-hop nerd is reppin' for East Salas, one whose socio-political consciousness was molded by the militant viewpoints and street-wise lyrics of early-90s rap music.

Public Enemy's social commentary helped me see the parallel between the African-American civil rights movement and the Chicano movimiento. NWA's music mirrored the cries against police brutality and boasts of bad-ass street thugs in Compton that were prevalent in the Norteno-Sureno gang infested barrios in my small farm town. That was my foundation.

As I've grown older, I've developed a critical eye and a strong voice informed by my understanding of the music and culture. I've listened to everything I can get my hands on, and then pressed rewind to listen again, just to make sure I got it right.

I've studied. I've written columns. I've taught my interpretation to the next generation.

All of this has helped me become what I am today: a keen observer of the culture who is now in a position to present it to wide range of people, and infuse that presentation with an intellectual slant that mainstream media (of which I am also an active participant) normally fails to get right.

Am I perfect? Far from it. In fact, it's my imperfection that makes me perfect for this job. I want to be proven wrong, just for the sake of making sure I get it right the next time.

Am I willing to admit my mistakes? You bet. When the time comes, I'll be first in line to acknowledge my bad.

Am I going to piss people off? Probably, simply because, as I stated before, the fact that I'm representing this hip-hop nerd status will set off a lot of red flags.

Ultimately, this statement is just to let folks know that from here on out, I'm reppin' for this hip-hop as hard as I possibly can. Folks can applaud, haters can hate, but remember this: If I said it, I meant it, and I came to represent it.

And if you don't know, now you know...

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Ill (Cali) Communication

One thing about hip-hop shows in Santa Cruz: there's bound to be tons of white college kids in the crowd (yeah, I said it). There's just no getting around it.

Thursday night was no different, as the Cali Comm Tour rolled into SC at the Catalyst. Lotsa Brads, Todds and Brittney's in the building. And that's not a bad thing, because everyone brought a genuine energy which lifted the half-full venue on a Thursday night (the small attendance was perhaps due to the fact that it was the third hip-hop show in as many days, following visits by Damien Marley and The GZA/DJ Muggs, respectfully).

The tour itself is a special treat for west coast underground heads, i.e. fellow hip-hop nerds, who are unmoved by mainstream radio rap and seek a more refine brand of hip-hop. This is the alternative hip-hop culture, where MC's like the Legends, Acey Alone and some guys called One Block Radius (a band I've never heard) get a chance to shine.

I missed the first act (those One Block Radius guys), but got there in time to catch Milpitas-born DJ Peanut Butter Wolf. Ridiculous name aside, Wolf is actually one of the more forward-thinking businessmen in the game. His label, Stones Throw Records, has put out some of the best hip-hop material of the past decade. Oh, and he can spin his a-- off too!

Wolf played a bunch of g-funk and gangsta classics, mixed with new school boom-bap to appeal to the nerds. He also brought out one of his MC's, a guy whose name I couldn't remember (forgot my notebook on this one), but got the crowd going with some old school call and response. Wolf gave shout outs to George Bush and Pee Wee Herman, which was awkward and almost off-setting, but his show rocked regardless.

Acey Alone came up next. A member of the legendary Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed crews, I've seen this cat about a dozen times over the past 10 years, no joke. Every time he brings something unique. This night, he rapped with no DJ (a first for me), just a laptop that was programmed by one of his hype-men.

The crowd did its best to rock along to songs like "I'm a B-Boy" and "Sidelines," and Ace-One kept them enthralled for the most part. However, sloppy song cueing and crappy mic levels prevented everyone from dumbing-out completely. His set was still a nice respite from anything on BET's 106 and Park countdown (except that 3-6 Mafia song, "Stay Fly," that's number three right now).

But the night clearly belonged to the Living Legends, a veteran crew that is more than 10 years in the game yet still tours harder than your average punk rock outfit.

I remember seeing these guys hustling on the Telegraph Ave. in Berkley in like 1995, selling copies of their 'zine, "Unsigned and Hella Broke," and hosting showcases in the dingiest of dive bars in Oakland. Now, they're touring the world and riling up all the skater and stoner kids in SC.

Six of the group's eight members showed up: Grouch, Luckiam.PSC, Sunspot Jonz, Bicasso, Aesop and Scarub. The other group members, Eligh and Murs, were nowhere in sight. Still, the ones who made the trek gave it their all, and displayed wicked showmanship to boot.

Aesop dressed up like a french mime complete with black top hat and matching jacket. Bicasso, the resident artist, painted live artwork during the show and spit like a certified gangsta. Grouch, the crew's token caucasion, got the most love during his solo songs, which the melanin-deprived audience mouthed word-for-word.

The other cool thing about these guys is that they have a huge catalogue of material that translates real well on stage. I couldn't recognize half the songs, but I still nodded along for most of the night. And the ones I did recognize banged with added depth.

The tour was a chance for true believers of hip-hop culture to unite and share their love. It was also a chance to celebrate west coast's talented underground scene.

And regardless of the crowd make-up, everyone in the house represented Cali love to the fullest. I can't be mad at that.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mic Check One-Two... Is This Thing On?

I am a self-styled hip-hop nerd. Please try to understand.

It goes back to third grade in Mrs. Villegas' class at Bardin School. The kids would gather at lunch and have breakdance competitions. One day I joined in, a 2-foot-tall pop-locker who shocked the lunchroom crowd with his joint-breaking moves.

That moment would be the portal to a universe of graffiti art and broken slang, of beats, vibes and life. I haven't looked back since.

And so, now, I'm a full-grown, socially conscious features writer who never got over my love affair with the boom-bap rhythms that originated in the 1970s Bronx neighborhoods in New York City. And that is what I will present to you fine readers every week in this blog, a mix of concert, performance, movie, DVD and CD reviews, both local and out of the area .

Now, not every entry will be about hip-hop. I will try to embrace all different aspects of pop culture, whether it's rocking out with the local indie punks and rockeros, or reviewing some funky spoken word show in the Bay Area. But please believe me when I say that it will all be filtered through my hip-hop pathos, with a little east Salinas homeboy twist.

I promise it will be a fun ride full of rhyme and reason (probably a lot more of the former than the latter). And every week, I'll do my best to keep you informed and entertained, as long as you all understand where I'm coming from.
And so, without further ado, I present to you my first review (hey, I oughta be a rapper or something...)

Searching for Free Love in hip-hop is about as far reaching as trying to find a shred of blue-state liberalism in country music.

Yup, it's that bad.

Still, when the love is there, it makes for interesting performance art. Particularly when the love children involved are Brooklyn MC's Mos Def and Talib Kweli, along with a special appearance by the unofficial pimp daddy of hip-hop free lovin’, Ghostface of the Wu-Tang Clan. The veteran rappers stormed the Catalyst nightclub in Santa Cruz as part of the "BreedLove Oddyssey" tour, a roughly 20-city excursion sponsored by Sony PlayStation.

The fact that the Santa Cruz show was taking place on Halloween night seemed to ensure that the crowd would be at its freak-daddy mojo-ist. Thus, it was up to the artists to set the mood, and for most of the night, love was indeed in the air.
Opening up with the old school soul jam "Sitting in the Park," Ghostface proclaimed his as "Soul Music for those of you that don't have any soul." That feeling wouldn't last long, however, as the Staten Island MC ripped into a frenzy of his more sinister cuts, including "Ice Cream" and "Run," the former performed with particular crassness aimed at the ladies.

Still, the lyricist dubbed "Pretty Tony" managed to keep it lovely later on. He charmed an army of females onto the stage to "shake that a--" for the poppy number "Cher Chez Le Ghost."

Talib Kweli came up next, dressed in a puse polo shirt that looked like it was a hand-me-down from Kanye West. Mixing old classics such as "Good to You" and "The Manifesto" with new material from his forthcoming album "Right About Now," Kweli found a comfortable balance between street knowledge and good vibes.

That balance peaked during his performance of the Just Blaze produced "Never Been In Love," when even the most hard-knock, doo-rag sporting homeboy was moved to sing the song's butter-soft chorus. But Kweli couldn't hold on to the moment, and quickly lost
momentum on his next song, The Beatles 'Elanore Rigsby'-sampling "Lonely People."
The Mighty Mos Def showed up to wild applause during his partner Kweli's signature song, "Get By." Sporting a green shirt that read "I am not a Rapper," Mos grabbed the mic and uttered, "I have nothing to prove" before the keys came on to his opening number, a numbing, rambling song he called "The Undeniable" that consisted of him singing (off-key) "Oh me, Oh myyyy" for close to five minutes.

The crowd was confounded, Mos was in the moment, and the "love" was so thick you could cut it with a shank.

For the rest of his set, Mos went back and forth between the party-going, freewheeling Brooklyn MC he started out as and the earthy, esoteric artist he has become.

One moment, he was singing a song with only one lyric that went, "There is a Way, No matter what they say;" the next he was teaming up with Kweli on such classic Black Star fare as "Respiration" and "Re:Definition."

Bringing it back to the night's theme, Mos was particularly quixotic while doing his most catchy song, "Ms. Fat Booty." Trailing off into the Gregory Isaac's song "If I Can't Have You," Mos the crooner surfaced, serenading the ladies with an incense-toned proposition. Later, the Black Star duo performed the sultry "Brown Skin Lady" for the mostly-white girl crowd. Despite the seeming inequity, the song still resonated.

Aside from the headliner's spasmatic approach, Mos and his cohorts managed to be captivating, if somewhat alienating, to the sold-out crowd. And while true love may be hard to find, the night proved it's an attainable goal in hip-hop terms, with a sexy groove to match.

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