Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Year End Awards

What the hell happened in 2005?

The south dominated in a year that didn't include an album from Outkast. The only noise coming out of New York was from Dipset? Jay-Z made up with Nas! And the West Coast was on the rise for about two months (does anyone care about The Game anymore?).

It was a weird, weird, weird year in hip-hop, where folks more than ever paid more attention to soundscan numbers and marketing strategies than actual music. Never has the almighty hustle been more prevelant than in '05, when the king of the mixtape hustle, Curtis Jackson aka five dimes aka fiddy aka 50 Cent finally showed some wear and tear (did anyone watch "Get Rich or Die Trying?").

In Monterey County, well, the music scene showed some signs of promise. Heiroglyphics, Flava Flav, Zion-I, Baby Bash, B-Real, Cali Agents, The Pharcyde, Sugarland, The Eagles, even Tony Bennett all performed locally. One fly Salinas heina, Ms. Veronica, turned up in Kanye West's video for "Gold Digger." The Cherry Bean started hosting live shows in Salinas. And The Black Box Cabaret on the CSU-Monterey Bay campus provided some of the best hip-hop shows of the year.

All in all, it was a strange kind of wonderful year. I will salute it with my year end awards:

'I Done Came Up'Award-Danger Mouse: Kanye had a bigger record, Jay-Z made more power moves, and DipSet kept the streets and the hipsters watching, but nobody came close to DangerMouse in terms of sheer come-up status. He had a platinum album with The Gorillaz, the cartoon group started by Blur frontman Damon Alburn (their song "Goodtime Inc." was used for those iPod shuffle commercials). He had a ghetto platinum album with MF Doom ("The Mouse and the Mask," which made my top 10 albums list) and he will probably win Producer of the Year at the Grammys next month. All this from the guy who thought it would be cool to mix The Beatles "White Album" with Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and came up with "The Grey Album." He's the best producer you've ever heard, but never heard of.
Honorable Mention: Kanye West, Jay-Z, DipSet.

Biggest L Award - 50 Cent: Who cares if it's Fitty or Fiddy or 5-0? In '05, Curtis Jackson finally learned the meaning of the word overexposure, and it wasn't a good look for him. 50 exposed the whole beef-as-marketing-ploy to the blind sheep that constitute his fan base, picking a fight with his crew member The Game four days before his album was released! His movie was defeated at the box office by a chicken cartoon with a scrawny white boy who stars in a TV show called Scrubs!

Naysayers will state the obvious by pointing out 50's record sales (4.7 million to date, second only to Mariah Carey's crazy ass), but seriously, most of those sales were knee-jerk by suburbanites who just have to have the latest, greatest ghetto-cred accessory. Owning the 50 Cent CD was like owning a razor scooter five years ago: you wanted it because everyone else had one.
Honorable Mention: The Game.

Next to Blow award - Bay Area rap and the Hyphie Movement: Alright, this one has been simmering for about two years now. And Hyphie - the bay area counter culture that, depending on who you ask, is either crack baby music or the next hip-hop phenomenon - is in jeopardy of becoming a non-phenomenon due to the stagnation. But things look promising: E-40 has a record coming out on Lil John's TVT label in 2006. And if Houston's ascencion into hip-hop relavance has learned us anything, it's that even the most unassuming scene can gain relevance with the right amount of talent, heart and patience. Right now, the 'Yay Errreaa has all of that in droves, yadidamean!

Song of the Year - "Stay Fly" Three-6 Mafia featuring Young Buck, 8-Ball and MJG: The Village Voice is riding Lil Wayne's jock to the point of lunacy right about now, but this is the real deal. Three-6 gave us a glorious ode to getting lifted, using heavenly vocal harmonies, stuttering drums and a choppy, distorted vocal hook to delirious delight. None of the MC's really shine on the track, yet if you listen intently, you will know every word to the song.

Honorable Mention: 'Super Hyphey,' Keak da Sneak; 'Gold Digger,' Kanye West w/ Jamie Foxx; 'Soul Survivor,' Young Jeezy w/ Akon; 'Break 'er Down Like a Shotgun,' Felt 2.; "Sittin' Sideways," Paul Wall w/ Big Pokey; "Welcome To Jamrock," Jr. Gong; "Lovin' It," Little Brother.

Favorite Local Release - Central Bay Life compilation: Although released late 2004/early 2005, the CD featured the best collection of local talent in a long, long time. It also caught the ire of the Seaside Police Department, and a pair of non hip-hop loving detectives who took exception to being called out by name in a song (no word yet on whether the SPD is recording a diss record in response). Constructed by Monterey Peninsula-based clique 'Tha Undahoggs,' the CD featured 20-plus tracks entirely produced, written and recorded by Monterey County artists. A second comp is in the works, scheduled for release in early '06. To get a copy, visit the Web site www.undahoggs.com.

Favorite local band - Hate For State: When a band can make a non-metal head banger such as myself get busy, that's a good sign. These guys straight up rock, sounding like a dirtier version of mid-90s Helmet (sorry for the comparison, but that's the closest I can get). Hailing from Salinas/Prunedale, they have been on the grind for a while, performing locally almost every weekend. Check them out at 9 p.m. this Saturday night, Dec. 24 at The Lava Lounge, inside Club Octane on Alvarado St., Monterey.

Best show I went to: Zion-I at The Black Box Cabaret at CSU-Monterey Bay.

Show I wish I had caught: Damian "Jr.Gong" Marley at The Catalyst.

Best movie about musicians: (tie) Hustle and Flow and Walk The Line.

Worst performance I had to endure: Cuban Link (former Fat Joe/Big Pun protege) at The Boo-Bomb concert in San Jose.

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'The Beat's' 2005 Albums of the Year

It's sort of a self-gratifying luxury for music writers to pick a top 10 list. Basically, it's composed of the albums that were personal favorites through the year, the ones that stayed in rotation on the CD player or iPod.

However, once they're published, the arguments begin over who got it right and, more often than not, who got it wrong.

As a relative newbie to the music writer fraternity, I will further this indulgent tradition with my own list. Just go ahead and start writing those argumentive comments right now:

10. Keak da Sneak - That's My Word: Although not an official release (it was thrown together to capitalize on his summer-time popularity in the Yay) it did feature the monster-single "Super Hyphey," which is making a serious argument for my pick as song of the year. Despite the rush job, Keak proved that even a phoned-in effort is not only servicable, but engaging. Can't wait for his official release on Thizz Records in '06.

9. The Game - The Documentary: Game is getting recognition nowadays as the greatest fall-off in hip-hop history. Still, this album had the anticipation of both "Doggy Style" and "Get Rich or Die Trying," and when it hit, the streets was watching - for exactly two months (or at least until 50's mediocre "The Massacre" was released). This album featured some of Dr. Dre's best production work in years, and singles like "Dreams" and "Hate it or Love it" made strong arguments for gangsta rap's relevance in pop music.

8: Paul Wall - The People's Champ: Paul Wall is quite possibly the first white rapper ever who has not been scrutinized on any level (streets, music industry, media) for being white. His album was also the only one out of the '05 Houston invasion (which included Bun B, Slim Thug, Mike Jones and Chamillionaire) that stuck exclusively to the H-town sound: slow, bumping bass with church organ synthes and thick southern drawl. Plus, he pulled it off without being overlty misogynistic (aside from a few b's and h's) or prone to violence (he didn't kill anyone on his songs).

7. Fort Minor/DJ Green Lantern - We Major: The major label, Jay-Z executive produced release "The Rising Tied" was a snoozer. But Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park fame) brought the goods on this mixtape, filled with irresistable samples that would have been impossible to clear, even for a multi-platinum rock star like Shinoda. Plus, the song "SOBGz" features not only a killer Guns n Roses riff ('Sweet Child o' Mine') but the oddest lyrical triple-threat of the year: DemiGodz, Linkin Park and DipSet!

6. Zion-I - Tru and Livin': NYC hipsters turned their collective backs on backpacker rap this year in favor of DipSet and Lil Wayne. It's a shame that they missed out on one of the counter cultures best album's in a while. MC Zion is a beast on the mic with a voice that sounds like he sucked in one too many Co2 cartridges, while producer Amp Live is doing DJ Premier better than Primo these days. Oh, and they're reppin' hard for Oaktown, which is set to blow nationally in t-minus 3, 2, 1...

5. DangerDoom - The Mouse and The Mask: MF Doom has been carrying underground rap on his already heavy shoulders for the past three years. This time out, he got an assist from white-hot producer DangerMouse, the most brilliant hip-hop producer of the 21st century (yeah, I said it). Together, they made the producers of Adult Swim seem like the hippest animators in the world, while reviving Talib Kweli's underground relevance and giving Cee-Lo something to do with his robust talent. A coup on all levels.

4. Little Brother - The Minstrel Show: Was there a more controversial hip-hop album this year? The editor-in-chief at The Source resigned over the magazine's 4-mic rating (he felt it should have gotten a 41/2 mic rating, which it eventually did). Texas rap legend Bun-B was perplexed: he loved it, but wondered aloud if they were talking about him. Ultimately, The Minstrel Show was an indictment of mainstream hip-hop, but a celebration as well. It's dope beats and dope rhymes, so what more do you want?

3. Felt 2 - A Tribute to Lisa Bonet: Murs of Living Legends and Slug of Atmosphere teamed up to create the most underappreciated hip-hop album of the year. Their alliance was like Ice Man teaming up with The Human Torch for a night on the town. Producer Ant is also the most slept on beat-maker in hip-hop, period.

2. Common - Be: For all the pre-release hype, this was not Common's new resurrection as much as it was a re-introduction to those who thought he had fallen off. And Com didn't sound rejuvenated so much as he sounded re-focused over Kanye West's beats. The album proved that he didn't need to bring the fire, just the earth and wind that he was grasping for on his previous efforts. Folks can argue all day whether or not he has an actual classic with this album, but "The Corner," "They Say," "It's Your World," and especially "Testify" all qualify as classic material.

1. Kanye West - Late Registration: For my final trick, I'mma go ahead and say that Kanyeezy has surpassed his mentor Jay-Z in terms of sheer talent and material (and Jay's my favorite MC!). He's also on a clip to match A Tribe Called Quest in terms of releasing three -straight classic albums (he's still way off from reaching Outkast, who have, in my opinion, five-straight classics).

'Late Registration' is a throwback to the days when us hip-hop nerds would argue about which album song was our favorite, which verse was our favorite, and which beat was our favorite. There is no real filler on this album (the singles are hot, the album tracks carry weight, even the song with Brandy gets play in the whip). The fact that he added rich orchestration, collaborated with a non-hip-hop producer (Jon Brion, Fiona Apple's former svengali) and snuck in some social commentary (Diamonds from Sierra Leon talks about the blood diamond trade in Africa), makes it an instant classic.

Oh, and if you're keeping score at home: my favorite song is "Gone," my favorite verse was from Cam'ron, also on "Gone," and my favorite beat was "Heard 'em Say."

Happy New Year, y'all!

*Tune in tommorrow when I release my year-end awards list. You don't want to miss it!

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Reggaeton Night in Gilas?

Invariably, a search for local music of the urban persuasion will lead a writer to something like "Reggaeton Night" at a dive bar in, of all places, Gilroy (Gilas to the homies).

So, there I was, on a Thursday night, holding a Dos XX in one hand, a note pad in the other, waiting for Seaside crew 'Tha Undahoggs' to do their thing. Did I mention it was a Thursday night in downtown Gilas, which meant that hardly anybody bothered to show up?

Still, I did manage to make some interesting observations:

- The DJ's played every popular Reggaeton song you've ever heard on the radio (which amounted to about 8 songs; 9 tops). Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" was played because there's some sort of international law that requires it to be on every reggaeton club play list. Oh, and that ubiquitous Shakira song got some burn also. Made me think about her abs the rest of the night.

- One of the bar tenders went into the sparse crowd with a leather shoulder holster that held a bottle of Cazadores Tequila. In place of bullets were shot glasses. And just like that, I knew exactly what I wanted for Christmas (the holster, not the girl).

- I'm so glad I don't have to go schlucking for phone numbers anymore (say word if you're in a committed relationship like me). I saw one guy try to get a girl's attention by tapping his drink with hers in a mach 'cheers' greeting. The girl didn't even look away from the conversation she was having. I felt bad for dude and wanted give him a cheers greeting of my own, just to show love.

- It was a tie between Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot" and that stupid Black Eyed Peas song "My Lumps" for the night's "freakiest dancing induced by a minimalist hip-hop track."

- The promoter gave me a shot out, which was cool but embarrassing at the same time (I almost felt like I had to write a positive review of the night because of it).

As for the show, the Undahoggs came on around 11 p.m. for a short but energetic set. The five (or is it six?) member crew stalked the cramped stage like a pack of silent assassins, waiting for the kill.

The group had a decidedly West Coast feel, minus the thugged out posturing and/or the manic, ADD-style dancing you see at a lot of Bay Area 'hyphey' shows. There's was more of groovy slouch that got your head nodding to the pipm-strut beat. Lead rapper Chiefa was all homeboy-cool, along with the other members, while lyricist/comedic foil Billy Bud Toker came with a little more energy than his partners.

The group appeared multi-cultural, with white, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black and Latino/Native American all sharing the stage. They also had a fly female vocalist (whose name I unfortunately did not get)who held her own with the guys while shaking that thang with confidence and even some swagger.

Okay, now here's the tough part: the group used their backing vocals for all of the songs, which made it hard to distinguish between their stage voices and that being played through the speakers. And when the DJ dropped the beat for supposed dramatic effect, they didn't quite know how to pick it up. At some points, group members paused mid-flow, as if the song had been cut off prematurely.

Still, it was nice to see a local crew go for theirs in front of a foreign crowd and emerge relatively unscathed. At the end of the night, BBT grabbed the mic and yelled "This is m-----f----ng fun y'all," which was all I needed to hear.

Monterey County has yet to produce a true break-out hip-hop artist or group, someone who gets respect on an expanded regional level while holding down for their stake of land. Maybe the Undahoggs are it, maybe not. But for the moment, they've shown this writer that they have the passion and, more importantly, the potential to make it happen.

For more information on the Undahoggs, visit their Web site at www.undahoggs.com.

* photo provided by Rafael Garcia

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Masterpiece Theatre

I've seen bands play in the strangest of places: a dingy, back-alley wharehouse building in East Salinas; the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains; a deserted piece of land in the So-Cal desert.

On Saturday night, the strange list got a bit longer: The Regency Theatre movie house on Alvarado Street in Monterey! Salinas homeboys Cali Nation put on a a strange yet funky show in a venue more accustomed to Bollywood dramatics (the theatre recently hosted an Indian-film showcase) than beer-bong antics.

And if it doesn't seem that weird at first, I ask you this: when was the last time you saw 50-plus party animals running around movie theatre aisles and rocking out to a live band? Even better, have you ever watched three grown men perform a set of live music on an eight-foot wide movie screen lip? Have you ever seen a VIP section in a movie house balcony?

I thought not.

The show was preceded by a screening of the snowboarding movie "Future Proof," a quick-cut, freewheeling showcase of some of the world's best snowboarders doing their thing in a gang of different locales.

The stunts these crazy whiteboys pulled off (snowboarding at night, getting pulled by a car on a snowy roadway, doing rail grinds and boarding down hillsides flat as a building-side) had me tilting my head and uttering "dannggg" for most of the movie. Definitely a dumb-out type of movie.

After the screening, Cali Nation took the stage for what had to be their first time in a movie theatre. And with movie theatres being what they are (filled with seats and sticky floors covered with old candy and food) it was hard for them to get into their initial groove.

Lead singer Andrew Nack turned off the stage lights because they annoyed him, but all you could see was a silhouette of his tall frame in the darkness. The band opened up with the Slightly Stoopid song "I'm So Stoned," a laid back number that seemed appropriate.

The band went into some new material," Way Back," which sounded loud and raw and funky. The line "I thought I had the world by the balls, so many things I didn't know" seemed to resonate with people in the crowd (especially the folks in the VIP, who seemed to be having all of the fun).

The opening strains of "Hail Mary" came in next, and by this time, the theatre seemed like it was the victim of a friendly occupation. Girls were dancing in the aisles, the promoter was smoking in the theatre, and the band sounded loud enough to tear the house down brick by brick.

The band has a hype man/side kick who wears snow goggles and seems to run around randomly, getting the crowd hype. He was in overdrive for this show, seemingly bouncing off of the plush walls and filling the theatre with his energy. Somebody needs to do a movie about him.

As the dancing and the pounding continued, the band finally caught its groove, but at the expense of a dwindling crowd. Halfway through their set, half of the crowd had either retreated outside to smoke cigarettes or were up in the VIP area (I couldn't get in there; promoters weren't trying to look out for a brother), but it still made for interesting theatre.

Maybe next time these guys can get booked at an opera house or something.

*photo provided by David "El Mero-Mero Guerro" Royal

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

(Time Keeps on) Passin Me By?

As far as time machine's go, a Pharcyde concert is right up there with the Delorean going 88 mph, or those electrical charges in "The Terminator" movies (minus the naked part).

It's not that their music is aged. It's just - if you're a longtime fan of their music and you go to watch them, you feel like you've been whipped away in a time warp to your rightful place in high school, class of 1995, singing the chorus to "Passing Me By" to your ex-girlfriend while joking with friends in the lunch line.

Or maybe that's just me.

Back to the future-present, the 'Cyde came to The Black Box Cabaret at CSU-Monterey Bay last Friday night to rip through their impressive catalogue of music. Minus two members (long gone are Fat Lip and Slim Kid Tre, the group's more recognizable MC's), the crew still did the darn thing. Booty Brown and Imani stood poised to let the world know that they can still move the crowd in 2005, more than a dozen years after they first emerged from the LA underground.

There to greet them was a throng of CSUMB students rearing for a flashback or, in some cases, an introduction (one girl asked me if these were the same guys who sang "Back in the Day." I informed her that wasn't the case, she was talking about the LA rapper Ahmad). Opening act Para La Gente serviced well enough, live band, female vocalist, conscious Chicano MC and all.

The night, however, belonged to the Pharcyde, who wasted no time in delivering the goods. They offered up their seminal single "Drop" a few minutes into their show, getting the party started. Backed by a big brother on the drums (nickname Big Sexy), a keyboardist programming tracks on his lap top, and a DJ, the music sounded refreshed and live. Imani started pop locking, and I was reminded that the group started out as hip-hop dancers before picking up the mic.

Despite the absence of their former members, the crew did not, I repeat, did not skip over any verses. This was somewhat strange to me only because you don't often see that at hip-hop shows.

Normally, when someone does a song that features an absent MC, the verse is skipped or the song is cut-off. But these guys did the entire song, starting with "Drop" and continuing through other classic songs like "Ya Momma," "Runnin," and "Mr. Officer."
It worked, along with the extended musical shifts.

"Pack The Pipe," a personal favorite off their first album, "Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde," was led off by a 5-minute dance hall intro. "Passing Me By" had the distorted Jimi Hendrix sample from "If 6 was 9," but then the drummer picked it up and did the nasty while the group harmonized the hook (She Keeps on Passssing Me BYYYYYY!!!).

I swear I turned 15 again the way I sang along.

Towards the end of their set, the group appropriately raced a rendition of the single "Runnin." Imani flipped the opening to his verse to say "It's 2005," instead of the original "It's 1995." And then it hit me: Their sophomore album is now a decade old. Their debut was out in 1992.

Has time really been Passin Me By?

I looked back to the stage and saw the crowd still jumping, the MC's were still hype, and I stopped worrying about it. As long as the music sounds this dope 10 years down the line, I'll keep throwing my hands in the air.

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