Friday, June 16, 2006

My High School Years re-visited

Rap releases in recent months have had me thinking that it was 1995 instead of 2006.

Rappers like The Coup, Ice Cube, E-40 and Busta Rhymes have all put out new albums this year. All released albums 10 years ago within a year's time frame.

In 1994, The Coup released "Genocide and Juice," the same year Ice Cube released "Lethal Injection" and E-40 delivered "The Mail Man." Busta Rhymes was a member of the group Leaders of the New School, whose sophomore album "T.I.M.E." dropped in 1993.

I was still in high school during this time, and remember buying all of those releases back then. So I figured it was worth checking out the new releases from these rappers, especially considering that a 10-year rap career is equivalent to a 20-year career in Major League Baseball. Rap is a young man's game and the grizzled veterans still pumping out product deserve at least a nod from the hip-hop public, if not a curtain call ovation.

First on the list, E-40's album, "My Ghetto Report Card," has been out for a few months now. It's release was intended to be the nation's introduction to the Bay Area's "Hyphy Movement," which I've been pining about in my blog for a few months now.

The album, produced by Lil Jon and Rick Rock, has it's highs and lows. A definite high is the opening number, "Yay Area," which jacks Digable Planets (another veteran act attempting a comeback) on the hook. The "We be to rap what key be to lock" vocal sample sounds insanely pitch perfect when combined with Rick Rock's trembling drums. Another winner is the single "Tell Me When To Go," a club anthem and new school Yay area classic. If you haven't heard this one, you haven't been paying any attention to rap music in the past six months.

The Debbie Downer points come about six songs in, when you realize that the album is a marathon length when it only needed to be a sprint. At a robust 22 tracks, the album filler is half and half. By the time you drag across the finish line to the best lyrics on the song, the outstanding "Happy Just To Be Here," you feel so spent you almost can't appreciate the extended run.

Busta Rhymes is centering his latest album, "The Big Bang," as the platform for his "King of New York" campaign. He corronated himself such at Hot 97's Summer Jam a few weeks ago, according to written reports, but he has as much a chance of being Frank Black as Lil Wayne (which is to say, not much).

The problem is that "The Big Bang just doesn't pack that much bang. The best song, "NY S***" jacks a beat that's several years old (An old Diamond D track), and aspires to be the biggest NYC anthem since "Deja Vu" by Corey Guns and Al Tariq. Yes, NYC rap has been in steady decline since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings, but Busta as its savior? I love Bussa Bus, but even he can't bring the city out of its rut. And when you're trying to resurrect the NY state of mind using Dre's beats, maybe you're fighting a long-lost cause.

Ice Cube, meanwhile, could himself have tried to bill his latest album "Laugh Now, Cry Later," as another attempt to resurrect the West Coast, but he knows better. Instead, he simply reaffirms his status as West Coast don, almost like" The Soprano's" Johnny Sac returning from the pen and taking back his spot as the boss of Brooklyn.

Cube's first sing, the hell-raising "Why We Thugs," updates the revolutionary but gangsta steez he originated on his first two albums, the classics "Amerikka's Most Wanted" and "Death Certificate." The album's hook asks the very serious question "They give us guns and drugs/then wonder why in the f*** we thugs." It takes aim at Bush and Clinton without falling into arm chair political rhetoric, and the beat is a monster.

The rest of the album falls right in line with that barn burner. Cube wins by simply doing what he's always done: big upping the West Coast and apologizing for nothing. The gangsta you love to hate is back.

So to are hip-hop's favorite anarchists, The Coup. Their debut, 1993's "Kill My Landlord," is easily one of my top ten all time favorite albums. And with "Pick a Bigger Weapon," they bust out as rap's version of SF Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel, savvy veterans who maintain success by simply improving on their winning formula.
Whereas Vizquel uses his golden glove and on-base-percentage, The Coup dazzle with grass-roots activism and Oakland funk. Like Vizquel joining the Giants lineup, The Coup strayed from long-time independent status to release an album on punk rock imprint Epitaph.

"Pick a Bigger Weapon's" secret weapon is Boots Riley's underappreciated lyricism. Boots has always been a thought-provoking rapper, but he seems to have found the balance this time out, with songs like "I Just Want to Lay Around All Day in Bed With You" and "My Favorite Mutiny" serving as the perfect framework for Riley's mind spray. And the latter finds Riley in appropriate company: MC's Black Thought and Talib Kweli, some of the most effective lyrical assassins, stand side by side with Rilly in killing the track.

And more than a decade after my first exposure to The Coup, it's great to hear that they are maintaining not only their relevancy, but quality of work this far in the game.

Quick Note: Savvy readers may have picked up on the fact that I have been on an unannounced hiatus the past few weeks. I will continue to be on hiatus through the rest of June (although a show review may pop up in spots). Fear not. I have not abandoned ship, but am merely taking a moment to re-charge my batteries and line up some more goodness through the summer. In the meantime, be patient, shoot me your comments, and keep clicking the link to the picture of the guy with the chubby cheeks. Al Rato.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

"The Beat Q&A: Dem Hoodstarz

Jay-Z first popularized the concept of "Getting Your Grown Man On," but you can safely say that Dem Hoodstarz have capitalized on it.

The Palo Alto-based duo consisting of rappers Scoot and Band Aid established itself on the Bay Area rap scene with two smash singles in 2005, "Bull S***" and the monster "Grown Man On (remix)." The latter, produced by San Jo-producer extraordinaire Traxxamillion, recieved considerable radio airplay and solidified their presence in The Yay, in spite of their South SF Bay locale.

The group performed in Santa Cruz recently, bringing out their wild stage show to their "Bay Area neighbor." With a recent film just wrapped, "The Yadida Movie," and another film project with TI, Jeezy and Akon in the works, the group appears to be expanding its earning potential. The album "Hood Reality 2," with it's subsequent DVD, is slated for an August release.

Dem Hoodstarz took time to talk to "The Beat" about their newfound success. Here's how it all went down.

What's good.
Same e old same old man,

Thanks for taking time to talk to "The Beat."
We want to thank you for interviewing us...

So, I've done something similar with your boy, Traxxamillion, as far as this interview stuff...
: Yeah, Traxx, that's our go to guy. That's like Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, a good combination.
Scoot: Yeah, we help each other out. We can't do it without the beat, and he can't do it without the rap.

Will this be your first time coming to the Central Coast?
BA: No, we've been in Santa Cruz before, we was at the car show for the radio station...
Scoot: Yeah, we was in Santa Cruz, at a car show...
BA: It was in in Monterey, for KDON.
Scoot: Not that one, I'm talking about the one. It was just me and you. It was like a lot of Surenos, They had the girls in bikinis washing the cars...

BA: Oh yeah, that was in Santa Cruz.

When was that?
That was about a year ago. We was pumping out some new stuff.

Are you familiar with the area?
Oh yeah, for sure.
BA: Santa Cruz, that's the neighbor to the Bay Area

How important is it that all Northern Cali get involved in the Hyphy movement?
It's so important. Without everyone else participating, we can't get the attention we need to make it as big. We feed of the energyf the crow, we feed of the energy of the fans.
BA: Without them properly letting it be known, this whole Hyphy thing can't get out to the rest of the world.
S: It seems like the whole Northern Carolina is already with it. They with us right now.

You guys are planning a tour?
Yep, we just went on a radio promo tour, that was big. From Portland to Arizona, this summer, we're going to be working with the radio stations for more shows...
S: Just in Northern Cali alone, with the different people coming to the bay area we've been performing when they come out here. Like we're performing with with the Young Bloods and Dem Franchize Boys.
BA: Last night it was with Chamillionare and the field mob and that new guy, what's his name...
S: Lupe Fiasco...
BA: Yeah and on Sunday with Mobb Deep. And on Saturday, we're performing with Bubba Sparxx and Christina Millian.
S: And we just wrapped up a movie, "Yadida"...

Yeah, I want to get into that in a minute... Have you guys gone outside Cali? If so, what's been the response?

(On their page) We've been added to all types of space, all over the world. And when I say all over the world, I'm not saying the just the U.S. We've been getting added in Denmark, New Jersey.
S: We've been added in Alabama, Ohio, it's steady growing. The buzz has been phenomenal.
BA: Me and Scoot, we've always had dreams, but we never even thought our dreams would get to where they are now. That's making us push that much harder. We push for a goal, and we got past that. And now our goal is to reach a million, and that's our goal to reach a million people, worldwide.

What will it take to get people not from The Bay to understand the culture?
Right now, the Hyphy has spread like wildfire. With the success of E-40, with the whole BME, Warner Bros. situation, that was able to move it to a worldwide forefront. People like E-40, Too Short, ppl like the late Mac Dre, rest in peace, people like that is giving more light to the underground... But the Hyphy movement is not underground, it's real mainstream now... The whole world has accepted it, they've accepted what we got going on right now.That's the thing, we' making music right now, not just wax. We're making good music now, and they're able to feel it...
It's due to the success of E-40 and Too short, and now you see people like Keak tha Sneak, on MTV, a whole lot of record companies are paying attention to what's going on in the Bay.
BA: I don't think everybody really catches on, not yet. Really the only person who really is out there is like too short and E-40,
40 got that exposure, because he's on Warner Brothers, but he even said that his album wasn't all Hyphy. Too Short got that exposure, but that's just because he's been out for so long. They both have long money, so even if they company didn't help them out they're still out there...
I think they need to share some of that same spotlight with their fellow bay area artist, help some other folks get some of that shine. And then you can get a true understanding of what Hyphy is all about, because not everyone is getting it right now...
You can't never get the full definition of a word from the dictionary, that's why not everyone has been able to understand what we got going on over here.
To me, it seems like they really only listening to 40 and really not Keak. If they was his sales would be up more, maybe they should be out there giving him some more shine, some more face time on the videos and stuff...
I think everyone is catching up to it, but they not catching on to everything. They catching on to what 40 is doing, but there's new music coming out every day, and in stead of listening to one person, folks should be listening to everything that's out there...
Too Short, like I said, is talking about this pimping thing, and 40, the whole album is not supposed to be Hyphy. So (other regions) they need to hear different people's definition of Hyphy instead of going to one person, and then people will get a better understanding of how we living out here in the Bay Area.

You guys both sport them, so tell me, what's the significance of The Dreads? Is it anything like what Rasta's sport? Why is it the thing in the Bay?
It ain't just a Bay Area thing. It's not a bay, east, west, south, regional thing. It's a cultural thing. We rock our dreads as a statement, you feel me. We rock it as a statement of defiance. We shake our dreads and that's just how we do them. It's just for real, we just shake em, it's just a way of going down
BA: It's like, I know you been to a headbanger ball, when they be shaking their head hard, like "Arrgh!"
S: Yeah, you get to banging your head hella hard...
BA: Yeah, like that old school, Skid Row type of music... That's all Hyphy is. It's a form of crunk, a form of rock and roll, it's all that rolled into one...
It's a form of energy, and you can be doing anything. You can be kicking your friend, chomping off the head of a bat, whatever...
(begins to get excited) And you see, that's what makes it so crazy, we out there, we shaking our dreads, and we just acting out, and you might see someone on the intersection, they start to ghost ride the whip, and that makes you want to ghost ride the whip, go hard and go nutty. And then that maybe makes you want to jump on the hood of your car and start dancing, and it's like look at me, I'm going dum, I'm getting Hyphy, and it's in the middle of a damn intersection. And it's a party in the middle of the intersection...Damn, I just got hyphy on the phone (laughs).

What emphasis do you guys put on live shows? Do you try to do anything different from other artists with similar style?
Every show we get, we give it everything. If you've never been to a Hood Star performance, that's the thing. We keep that energy, it's wild...
BA: We was like, we underground, as far as the bay. As far as everyone getting into groups, our name wasn't mentioned on the radio or nothing, folks wasn't really talking about us like that. It wasn't until we started putting on shows, and folks started saying, "Hey, that Hood Star show, the crowd went crazy," and we started to make our name like that. That's kind of how we got started, was our shows.
S: We try not to ever keep the crowd calm. We want them to go crazy.
BA: We want to see a moshpit dance, like it was a rock concert, yadidamean. They moshpit dance like it was a rock concert. When we see them going, that keeps us going...

You guys just wrapped a movie. What was that experience like?
That was our first time ever acting. It felt natural other than the cameras up in your face, i twa s cool because we had a lot of fun doing it. I played a character named hook and he played a char. name D-Plug. We run a pizza shop...The story isn't about us, it's about a dude named Stacy...It's comparable to Ice Cube's Friday, based on Northern California culture and life...Basically, it's about this dude named Stacy who comes from NY, and he don't understand what everybody is talking about, he doesn't understand what people are saying, he doesn't get the slang or anything, and he has to figure it out...It's a good movie and it's going to come out in December.

Will it be released in theatres?
It's going straight to DVD...The movie we're shooting in July, it's going got movie theaters. We don't know too much about the story, we just know it's with TI, Young Jeezy, and Akon

Is there any different dynamic/attitude that comes from being Palo Alto representatives? Do you guys have a different steez from say Oakland or SF?
To tell you the truth, the only thing that comes from us being in a s smaller city, we have to work a little harder. We have to go get them different deals and get them different people to come to our community because they don't know about our community.
S: A lot of people don't hear about East Palo Alto.
BA: When you hear about Cali, someone that isn't from Cali, the first thing they think about is SF, then they think about Oakland or LA, they don't even know where Palo Alto is... It just makes it a little harder, to achieve what we want,
S: It's a struggle though. I'll tell you that.

You guys both have been through the system in terms of having both been incarcerated. Yet your music at times doesn't seem to reflect some of the hard-core gangsta living that other rappers with your guys background might suggest. Is there a conscious effort to keep your stuff a little more positive, less negative?
We tell our story. We telling our lives. We telling what we basically been through. We ain't telling nobody to do what we went through. We letting them know our story, at the same time, it's not like our album is based on that.
BA: It's based around things that go on in our hood. It's based around things that happen. It's surrounding those issues that you might not see in the TV or read in the newspaper, it's everyday thins that we do, whether it's going to the club, or just chillin on the day to day. It's stuff that's taken from our everyday lives, but we ain't candy coating nothing.
S: We got some subconscious songs, like about growing up with your moms on crack, because in the black community, that's what we grew up on. We just basically let them know how it really is and how it really was.

What's your definition of getting your Grown Man On?
To me, the reason why we had to talk about getting grown is we're trying to get everybody away from the Hyphy, get them out the white t -shirts and the dreads. We're trying to make our whole album well rounded, we try to say, we're with the hyphy movement, but we're not necessarily Hyphy. We're trying to make it so you're able to feel what we talking about on all kinds of different levels, and not just stuck on one mode.
BA: My definition, it means... when it's time to quit playing the games and you gotta really get your grown man, on, you can take your life and make things happen for yourself. It's taking responsibility for yourself, for your life, for your bills, and taking care of everything on your own. That means, you're doing it for yourself and not depending on anyone else.
Getting your grown man on isn't about living at home with your mom and pops or having your girl take care of your and your bills. What it means to me, is being able to do for yourself. If you're grown, you get your own money, if you're a grown man or grown woman, you're making your own for yourself. That's what it's all about.

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