Marc Cabrera has nothing better to do than watch a lot of movies and television, and listen to a lot of music. Luckily, he has a job that pays him to blog about local and national arts, entertainment and pop culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.
So the big story last week was the videotaped blow-up of Kosmo Kramer, aka Michael Richards, using the uber offensive n-word (mind you, with an -er at the end, rather than the somehow more socially acceptable -a suffix).
Mainstream media jumped on the story, and Richards immediately appologized. As part of his image readjustment campaign, Richards set up meetings with Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson to ease the tension.
Richards tirade brought about renewed interest to the issue of use of the n-word, and when, if at all, it is appropriate. Shortly after meeting with Richards, Jackson held a press conference asking for entertainers to end their usage of the word. Among those on board were comedian Paul Mooney, who was a co-writer of Richard Pryor's famous comedy album "Bicentennial N-----"
So the next question is, who is going to take the weight? Can the word be banished from hip-hop at all?
In hip-hop, use of the n-word is as ubiquitous as an 808 bass drum or dj scratch. Thousands of song titles and album skits have included the word, and one of the genre's groundbreaking acts, N.W.A., appropriated the word into its band name. The word has been used as both a form of empowerment and a deregatory comment, depending on who you're talking to.
The most telling, and possibly heinous, outcome of the word's association with hip-hop is the free-usage it has achieved amongst non-blacks. The first time I heard a non-black person use the word was on a rap record, on the self-titled debut from Cypress Hill. The lead rappers in the group, B-Real and Sen Dog, are both of Cuban descent. Both used the n-word several times in different songs, and soon thereafter the word was being thrown out all over the place (at least from my vantage point).
I have always had a weird relationship with the word. As a fan of hip-hop music, it's hard not to use when I'm singing along to the lyrics of my favorite songs (I am not one to try and change lyrics even if I'm just singing to myself).
I am embarrassed to admit that there was a short period in my life when I felt comfortable with it's usage among my friends, black and non-black, during my late teens. But I grew out of that, and I can honestly say the word has been eliminated from my vocabulary for quite some time now. I just think it's an ugly word that no one should use, especially non-blacks.
At the same time, it's hard not to recognize the simple fact that it is a word inherent in American culture, good or bad. Private school kids use it. Surfer guys use it. Kosmo Kramer (ab)used it.
I really hopr Rev. Jackson gets this thingkick started, but he needs the right messengers. Mooney was good, but how about Dave Chappelle getting up and saying he won't use the n-word (and just as importantly, the b-word) in his routine.
Or what about rappers like Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg? (Snoop tried doing something like this, replacing the n-word with nephew, a few albums back, but he's since abondoned his stance). They might be the right leaders for this type of movement.
The only way to make a real change is to get folks at the top to admit that it is a bad thing. They have to begin by admitting that the word's usage has gotten out of hand, as well as into the wrong ones.
Zion I and The Grouch would seem to be an appropriate pairing. Both have roots in the Bay Area (Zion was born there, while Grouch is an LA transplant who got his break in Oakland). Both are pretty tall in person (which I think is kind of essential for most good MC's) and both have garnered pretty decent reps as underground rap stalwarts.
So when Zion talked about working with Grouch during his interview with The Beat, I was excited. But watching them last night at CSU-Monterey Bay's University Ballroom, I got a weird sense that the chemistry these guys would seem to have on paper hasn't exactly transferred to the stage.
Now, there were a number of pros and cons to the Wednesday night show: a live crowd was definitely in effect, and both MC's stalked the stage with a workman-like presence that hinted at their wealth of experience. The pair entered the stage to massive applause, easing through a pair of tracks that had a "one-two" chant in the chorus. Really solid stuff, kind of what you'd expect, and the crowd ate it up.
But in watching the show, I got the sense that these guys haven't necessarily developed a rapport on stage. Not that they didn't rock the crowd, but their combined energy didn't match up, it wasn't cohesive enough. Case in point: during the four songs or so following the intro, both MC's seemed to divide the stage in half and stick to the side of the stage they had manned. Rarely did they interact with one another enough to make it look like a completely united front.
That may be due in part to the freshness of the collaboration. The pair have not been performing together as a unit long enough, and this was most evident when they each performed their solo material.
The crowd jumped up in a frenzy when Zion I went into "Bird's Eye View," and got even more rowdy when Grouch busted out "Simple Man." Those two singles were easily recognized by the audience and served as almost comfort food, a way to stay the crowd. I especially loved Zion's rendition of "The Bay," which got the crowd jumping like Kriss Kross (hip-hop crowds do not jump enough at shows these days).
Another obstacle was the venue, which is basically a humongous meeting hall with nice carpeting. The space was good given the crowd size (between 200-300 by my own estimation), but it's so cavernous you can't really connect with the performers. When music performances are held in the ballroom, I get a sense that I'm at a high school dance, not a live show.
The opening acts were all solid. I caught the tail end of Rubicon's set, but I'm determined to catch these guys on their own for a proper review. M7 was on point, delivering straight-forward lyrics about revolution and Chicanismo. A.Lee was a revelation, rocking a large crowd with the verve and style. Living Legends producer/lyricist Bicasso rounded out the opening acts, getting the crowd hype for the main event.
I missed the Lady Sovereign show in SF last night (I was too tired to make the trek to the bay, my bad). But there is a backup plan.
Tonight at the CSU-Monterey Bay Unversity Center Ballroom, Zion I and Grouch will perform a hot show. Doors open at 8 p.m., admission is $7.50. For more information, checkout this flyer.
Zion I and Grouch, two of my favorite emcees, are performing in support of their new album, Heroes in the City of Dope. You can get all the info at their myspace page, www.myspace.com/zioni.
And not to be outdone, my folks A.Lee and M7 will be performing as the opening act. I've also heard good things about Rubicon, although I have yet to see them perform live. All in all, it should be a good show.
Full concert review in The Beat tommorrow. I promise.
So, last week the Demos demolished the Repubs in a true display of voter power, symbolically ending the Bush administration's stranglehold on national politics and turning George Dubya into a very lame-duck chief commanding officer.
Not a bad way to pre-celebrate one year of hip-hop blogging for The Beat.
This week marks the first anniversary of The Beat. But it's not about politics or the hope of a better America that has driven me to dutifully churn out 70 posts during the past 12 months. The Beat started out as a cool idea by my editorial superiors, hungry to bring in a young demographic that will, supposedly, stick around to check out what else my newspaper is covering.
However, I took it as an opportunity to provide left-of-center coverage to local and national stories involving urban pop culture, particularly where hip-hop music was concerned. I've done so with concert reviews, trendspotting, Q&A's and general observation pieces. I'd like to think I've achieved some success in each of these endeavors, along with a modest net following (since we started keeping track of blog traffic in May, The Beat has averaged 700-900 hits a month).
Sure, I've come out the side of my neck with a of my statements - I dissed The Game to my undoing, mistaken one Marley brother for another - but that's the way the blogging game goes. On top of the corrections, I've been called a racist and told that I have no idea what I'm talking about, albeit by people who were probably racists themselves and had no idea what they were talking about.
All of that is cool and the gang, because I'm not afraid to admit my mistakes and, more importantly, I'm not afraid to go out on a limb and speak my mind. To borrow a quote from one exiled opinion personality, former KNBR radio host Larry Krueger, "I'm often wrong, but seldom in doubt."
In taking stock of the good, I realize there's been plenty to go around: my trendspotting on local hip-hop groups and Web sites has led to cover articles in rival publications (it's all good if you use my blog to get story ideas, just make sure you spell it C-A-B-R-E-R-A); I've managed to do interviews with several artists whom I respect and admire (M-1 of Dead Prez, Zion of Zion I and Aesop Rock come to mind) and I've gotten to see a ton of free shows! But I'm not bragging.
So, as 2006 comes to a close and 2007 veers on the horizon, I will make a sophomore year campaign promise to continue my honest coverage of urban culture, be it local, national or international.
This next year I hope to include even more coverage of local artists, but y'all have to help me out on this one. If you know of anyone out there looking for a show review or who has a new album, hit me up.
I hope my hit numbers can increase, so again, I'll need your support. Tell a friend about The Beat, and let everybody in on the action.
Who knows, if we play our cards right, we may get The Beat elected to the Oval Office by 2012.
I was so ready to write the guy off, but I was probably wrong. Almost certainly.
Looks like The Game will win this rap race after all.
Earlier in the year, I made allusions to the fact that the Compton rapper's career was over, caput, fin del mundo. After being blackballed by 50 Cent and ignored by Dr. Dre, the Game seemed like a young prize fighter whose time had flashed before him with one unseen left hook. It wasn't a pretty sight.
But somehow, someway, Game has managed to offset the hatred by delivering an album that critics are hailing as the best in hip-hop this year. He's managed to sidestep the fact that he named his sophomore release, The Doctor's Advocate, after a man (Dr. Dre) who doesn't even appear in the album credits, outside of the obligatory liner note thank you's. And he has done it by going the old school route: a street-record posse track with a thick lineup of popular MC's.
I'm referring to the official remix of "One Blood," the album's lead single that not only wedged it's way onto pop radio and music video rotations, but has now become an unofficial street anthem.
But back to the remix. There's literally more than 20 MC's on the track. And the list is pretty incredible: TI, Snoop, Nas, The Clipse, Kurupt, E-40, Chamillionaire, Bun-B, Slim Thug, Juelz Santana, Lil Wayne, Jim Jones, Jadakiss and Styles P, Fat Joe. All contribute verses, and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
Another 10 more rappers appear, with the show-stealer coming from none other than Ja Rule - yes, I said Ja Rule, the other dude whose career 50 Cent supposedly ended. And Ja comes through with a decent verse of his own.
All of the MC's come hard with their verses, and listening to the track, you get the sense it's an organized front against 50 Cent and G-Unit, although none of the MC's reference any direct beef. Still, with folks in the mix like Jada, Fat Joe and Nas, who have all openly beefed with G-Unit in the past, it's hard not to consider it as an attack.
Game bats fourth before surrenduring the track to the thick roster of MC's, and it's a good look. He lets everyone catch a little wreck, adding only a few "Remix, Remix" chants to let everyone know that it is indeed his track.
Of all the MC's on the song, I like The Clipse best, followed a close second by Jadakiss and Styles P (I'm biased to both of these guys, though, full disclosure). Rick Ross and Chamillionaire also check in with stellar 16's.
The song stretches out more than 10 minutes, almost unheard of in the formulaic, verse-hook-verse-hook song structure popular in modern hip-hop songs. And there's no real hook, save for the Sizzla vocal breakdown that was on the original song.
All in all, Game may have not only saved his career, but provided the first real threat to 50 Cent's rap takeover. The album has leaked and is already being bumped in a hood near you, but I'm going to wait until the release date to give it a spin. I'm pretty sure I'll be proven wrong about this guy's demise, once again.
Perhaps it's an appropriate sign of the times that Lady Sovereign and Keven "K-Fed" Federline released their debut hip0hop albums on the same day.
Tuesday marked the release dates for K-Fed's "Playing With Fire" and Lady Sov's "Public Warning," almost 13 years to the date that another famous late October release date brought us the classic hip-hop albums "Midnight Mauraders" from A Tribe Called Quest and "Enter the 36 Chambers" from the Wu-Tang Clan.
That date seems like it was a hundred years ago, compared to the Tuesday releases.
Lady Sov and K-Fed are two sides of the same coin: both are rappers who come from foreign lands (Sov is from London, K-Fed from Fresno County), both have aliases that represent authority figures (Sovereign means chief of state in a monarchy, while Federline may be the first rapper ever to incorporate anything with "Fed" into their MC monikor), both are white but allow little to no reference to that fact in their respective music.
(Reading up on the two, I've been surprised by the amount of media coverage they've recieved. In fact, two stories on the news wire appeared today only one story apart, separated, appropriately, by a story on Keith Urban)
But that is where the comparisons end. Reading wire stories on both artists this week, I'm reminded of how times have changed, yet at the same time, almost nothing surprises me regarding hip hop anymore. The fact that these two will share shelf space in the hip-hop section at Best Buy is everlasting proof. For those keeping score at home, Lady Sovereign was Jay-Z's big find, a London raptress who would appear to be the anti-Fergie. Sov is hyperactive, noisy, and possibly the rap rookie of the year. Her song "Love Me or Hate Me" shot to number one on TRL, and she's about to blow. Oh, and she's an indy rapper with some credible talent. K-Fed, on the other hand, seems to have the talent of a man who has made a living getting other people to do stuff for him. He's been framed as the ultimate tailcoat rider, and the world's second-biggest kept man (behind only that guy from the AAMCO commercials who bagged Barbara Streisand).
While K-Fed may or may not possess actual rap skills (I only heard the leaked single "PopoaZao" and, not surprisingly, I was left quite unimpressed) he does have the wherewithal to hire people who do have credible rap skills. Namely, Bay Area rapper Ya Boy is among those who were enlisted to write K-Fed's rhymes. K-Fed also hired producer XL, who has worked on some of The Game's mixtapes and songs.
Ultimately, what this weird release date signals is that anyone who puts even the most minimal amount of effort into it can release a hip-hop CD. Sovereign is a cockney high school drop out who came up under UK grime and is now recording tracks with Missy Elliott; K-Fed just got lucky with the right teen pop queen and is now trading verses with some of Oakland's hyphy elite.
Maybe one day, when I release my rap album, I'll reach out and get Lady Sov and K-Fed together on a track. It'll be a remix to my first single, "Everybody and They Momma (or Famous Baby Daddy) Can Do This Rap Thang." Barbara Streisand's husband will produce the track, and Britney will make an uncredited appearance on the hook.