Friday, December 29, 2006

The Beat's 2006 Year-End Awards

Year-end awards time, second annual edition. The votes are all in, and the winners are:

I Done Came Up Award: Keak Da Sneak and Mistah FAB (tie)- Bay Area rap was all over the radio this year, thanks in large part to these guys. Keak came on strong in the first half, thanks to "Tell Me When to Go," with E-40. He got a good look nationally. FAB kept the momentum going in the second half with "Ghost Ride The Whip," which is still getting radio luv. All in all, the Yay Area's two strongest foot soldiers raised the hyphy flag and waved it proudly for the rest of the hip-hop nation to salute. Honorable Mention: Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Will.I.Am.

Biggest L Award: Tupac - This isn't a diss so much as a sigh of relief. I want to see Pac's legacy remain strong, but folks need to let him rest in peace, ie stop releasing 2Pac records! His latest album, "Pac's Life," did poor sales wise, and it was a thrown together compilation mixing his unreleased material with new production and lyrics from artists he might not have worked with in real life. It's time for Pac's spirit to be laid to rest, and for the music he released while he was alive to be celebrated. Honorable Mention: Lloyd Banks, Lil Jon, Fat Joe, Atlanta's hip-hop scene.

Best Local Artist: A Lee
- I've been singing her praises of late, but A Lee and her musical partner Jon Bo are the truf! Her album "The Channel" is a musical mural that would do Diego Rivera proud, with it's lush soundscapes and colorful blends. As a lyricist and singer, A Lee is pure fire. Here's hoping ya girl has a big 2007 in store. Honorable Mention: Lil Jordan, MC Lars, Wasted Noise.

Best song: "Lost Ones" Jay-Z - Am I biased? Your damn right. But nothing compares to this scorcher from Hov, produced by Dr. Dre. The production is instant classic material, but what takes it over the top is Jay's introspective lyrics, lamenting the loss of his best friends, his girl, and his nephew. It's the ultimate emo-hip-hop record, from the guy who can't leave rap alone because the game desparately needs him. Honorable Mention: Tell Me When To Go - E-40 w/Keak da Sneak; One Blood - The Game; Crazy - Gnarls Barkley; Long Time - The Roots; Hyphy Juice (remix)- Clyde Carson; What You Know - T.I.; I Gotcha - Lupe Fiasco

Next To Blow Award: Stat Quo and Bobby Creekwater of Shady Records

Best Verse: Black Thought of The Roots, "Clock With No Hands."

Best Show I Went To - Keak Da Sneak in Santa Cruz

Worst Show I Went To -Fatlip (formerly of The Pharcyde) in Santa Cruz

Best Music Movie - Dave Chapelle's Block Party

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Friday, December 22, 2006

My Top 10 Albums of the Year

I'll be brief: here's my gratuitous Top 10 albums list in this order:

1. The Roots - Game Theory: I'm biased up front - The Roots are my all-time favorite hip-hop band. They can do no wrong in my eyes. So "Game Theory," their debut on Def Jam Records, was probably going to be somewhere on is list regardless.
What makes it the best album of the year is the dark vibe throughout: there is not one sparkling radio single for miles. The lead single, "It Don't Feel Right" is so deeply involved in its paranoia that it threatens to suffocate the earth. For a band who has been doing it so well for more than a decade, this album is an artistic triumph. It's been nominated for rap album of the year Grammy. It deserves to win.

2. TI - King: T.I. earned the right to call himself the king of the south this year. He has the business savvy of a young Russell Simmons along with being one hell of a rapper. Not only that, but he his ear for beats and penchant for making word sounds rhyme (he makes rhyming "Nike" with "Lightening" sound like a genius work of aliteration). T.I. has cranked out no less than five singles out of this album, and he could work it for another two or three if he so chose. Call it king shit, because T.I. wears the crown.

3. J-Dilla - Donuts: Geez, how can I put the legendary Dilla at number 3? This genius reached a creative crescendo with an album orchestrated on a dime-store digital sampler, while he bravely fought for his own life in a Los Angeles hospital. "Donuts" isn't a typical hip-hop album: it's a sound collage of found rhythms and impossible breaks that weave into one another. Dilla didn't produce a record, he knitted a blanket to keep the world warm in the wake of his absence.

4. E-40 - My Ghetto Report Card: The nation wasn't ready for the hyphy movement, and rightfully so. It's not as formulaic as a snap dance or walk it out anthem. What 40-water did on this album was hint at the culture, whether it was the fascination with "Muscle Cars" or the anthemic rallying call to the "Yay Area." The entire album was way too long, but overall, the stand out songs overshadow any filler. And the skits were hilarious to boot!

5. Ghostface - Fishscale: A contender for album of the year that barely cracked the top 5! Ghostface would have gotten the top prize hands down any other year, but this was a pretty good year for hip-hop albums. All I can say is this: anyone who can get MF Doom and the entire Wu-Tang Clan together on a track is a brilliant artist.

6. Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor: Hip-hop is back, and even if Lupe didn't get a platinum plaque, he still had heads checking for him. I don't care if he flopped sales wise, the only reason he isn't number one on this list is because there were so many choices to choose from. I'll just put it like this: "Food and Liquor" takes the best elements of Mos Def's "Black on Both Sides" and Jay Z's "Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life" and mixes them together. Hotness.

7. Game - Doctor's Advocate: Alright, so I ate a little humble pie with this one. I didn't think Game could recover from being kicked out of G-Unit. But I got to admit, when he's on his namesake, he's a force. Extra props for the Just Blaze produced "Remedy," which outright jacks the beat from one of my favorite songs of all time, "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

8. Jay-Z - Kingdom Come: Quite possibly the most overhyped record of the year, but it was a necessary comeback for the king of hip-hop (don't front, Jay is that dude). The tracks with Just Blaze and Dr. Dre banged, as they were supposed to. Despite some radio-friendly filler (see collabos with Usher and Beyonce), songs like "Lost Ones" and "Minority Report" revealed a vulnerability 99 percent of today's MC's are afraid to reveal. Props for that alone.

9. Snoop Dogg - Blue Carpet Treatment: The West Coast Don stayed true blue to his Cali roots on this hefty release. Radio songs like "That's That S---" and "I Wanna Love You" became drive time staples in spite of their raunchy titles (check the CD for the real song titles). But more importantly, after Snoop's son mentioned to him that Cassidy had a better flow, pop's took it as a personal challenge. The result: Snoop's improved rhyme skills on full display, which is always a good thing.

10. DJ Heat: My Block - The Bay (Hosted by Sway): My choice for mixtape of the year. This CD featured all of the Bay Area slaps, slumpers and hyphy tracks that kept dance floors jam packed in the Yay this year. From Clyde Carson's "Hyphy Juice" to Too $hort's "Blow The Whistle," DJ Heat lived up to her namesake on this tape.

Honorable Mention: Nas - Hip-Hop Is Dead; Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury; Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere; Madlib - Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2; IceCube - Laugh Now, Cry Later ; Outkast - Idlewild

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

A.Lee Voted Most Likely To Save Hip-Hop, Class of '06

While most hip-hop album release parties are dog and pony shows, Seaside hip-hop soulstress A Lee's CD release party was truly a celebratory affair.

Held Friday night at Monterey Live in downtown Monterey, the club was at capacity, with folks getting turned away at the door. I was one of the unfortunate left in the brisk downtown chill, but after some patient chatter with the doorman, I got into the club midway through the band's set (next time I'll make sure to get my tickets well in advance).

By the time I got there, the crew was well into its jam, but there was still plenty to go. I didn't bring my notebook with me, so I couldn't get a proper set list, but what I saw was memorable enough.

The uptempo rhythm of the musicians, most notably the drummer and lead guitarist, complimented keyboardist/producer Jon Bo's fluid arrangements. It added a newfound bounce and depth to the recorded material, which is already pretty potent.

A Lee and her fellow MC kept the crowd captivated. A Lee gets more and more comfortable on stage every time I see her (not that she was ever uncomfortable, but there is progression in her presence). She even took time out to tell a joke involving Clint Eastwood and his fly whip. I thought it was pretty funny.

And of course, she blacked out on the mic all night, eliciting shreaks of "Seaside" and "We Love You, A Lee" in the same breath. This girl could go places if she gets the right guidance and connects. She's young ( just a biscuit over 21), talented and photogenic, which adds up to a hot product.

A. Lee's debut "The Channel," is easily the front-runner for local hip-hop album of the year. But calling it simply a hip-hop album is almost a disservice. There are tons of musical influences, from acid jazz to lounge to down tempo to even a little bit of trip-hop, and all are sometimes contained within the same track.

The title track knocks with a thick, fudge-pudge bass line, which lends itself to ALee's thick delivery. Hearing her spit on record, I sometimes mistake her for a conscious Brooklyn-bred word slinger, as opposed to a Seaside/Monterey artist. That's a very good thing.

Jon Bo's exquisite piano play fills in the gaps, making this a truly melodic excursion. The young virtuoso displayed his skills on the grand piano at the record release party, and you could imagine him in a bow tie and tails, getting his conceirto on at some symphony hall someday.

If nothing else, "The Channel" reveals A. Lee and her crew as being bigger than hip-hop. This is well timed, well-delivered musicianship with a social conscious. I've been calling it neo-soul in print, but that's too easy a label. A. Lee is food for the soul, and with any luck, she'll be feeding the masses in due time.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tonight in Monterey: Rubber Chicken Poetry is a Howl

Just got this e-mail from my boy Garland Thompson, host of the Rubber Chicken Poetry Slam:

Hey bro,
Just wanted to drop you a line and invite you down (Wednesday) nite. I'm doing a feature tribute to Ginsberg's "Howl" with Bill Minor and bassist Heath Proskin (the Suborbitals) over at the Rubber Chicken. I'm attaching a pdf of the poster for you to dig.

Hope you can make it!


Tonight, Garland will host the slam as a tribute to Alan Ginsberg's "Howl." Ginsberg's poem is one of those legendary scrolls that every college poetry professor inflicts on first-year creative writing students. It's long and loud and rambling.

The story of the poem goes something like this: Ginsberg debuted it one night in San Francisco, during a performance event where Jack Keroac ran around the crowd serving everyone wine and the best poets on the east and west coast converged for a huge meeting of the minds."The Six Gallery reading" took place on October 7, 1955.

Ginsberg's opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," cemented his legacy as a beat poet and prophet. Tonight, my boy Garland will recreate this momentous piece with musical back-up.

Tonight's reading takes place at East Village Cafe (formerly Morgan's Coffee and Tea), 498 Washington street (on the corner of Abrego St. and Washington) downtown Monterey. Cost is $5. Hope to see you there.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Decade Later, Ozomatli Still Sounds As Good As The First Time I Saw Them

As far as first time concert experiences go, none can quite match the first time I saw Ozomatli live.

The Los Angeles 8-piece band (or is it 10?) are my generation's War and Malo: a continuation of Chicano funk funnelled through hip-hop, salsa, cumbia and any number of musical styles they might pick up that day before the gig (this week it's middle eastern).

The first time I saw them live was in 1997, at a tiny bar in Sacramento. I also happened to be performing with my teatro troupe for the first time that night.

At that point, they were unknown (to me at least), but they brought the noise like a warrior's symphony. Then-DJ Cut Chemist masterfully mixed DJ scratching with straight-forward cumbia. Rapper Chali 2na (who would go on, along with Chemist, to further his fame as a member of Jurassic 5) spit baritone heat.

The horn section had the soul of a Motown review, while band leaders Wil Dog and Raul Pacheco orchestrated the chaos. I was immediately converted.

In time, I would run into the band at various gigs, even so far as to be invited on stage to spit a verse or two. I would talk the band up every chance I got, telling whoever would listen to check out their show.

All of these memories flooded back to me Friday night, as I went to watch the band almost 10 years after seeing them for the first time.

Playing a gig at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, Ozomatli simply brought the noise like they always have and always will.

I got to the gig late and regretfully missed openers Crown City Rockers (shame on me!). As I got in, I recognized the familiar thump, the salsa grooves grating against James Brown drums and funky horns. I ran through the sold-out crowd to get as close as possible, and saw the band on stage, commanding the crowd, jamming out at full blast. The audience ate up every morsel.

Standards like "Cumbia," "Feo," and "Como Vez" got the crowd jumping up and down. The latter two songs came as the big finish, a mega-mix that featured CCR keyboardist Kat joining in the fun.

A Spanish ballad by Pacheco also served as a big number, the type of arena rock, lighter-flicking tune that any great rock band a has in their arsenal.

As I stood watching the band from the upstairs balcony, my mind bounced back and forth between my first experience with them and now. I have literally seen them more than a dozen times, along with hundreds of other live concerts, since that first time. All through this, I have never quite had a moment that matched that first Ozomatli show.

Perhaps it was the music itself, which to me was a revelation - who knew back then that a band could so effortlessly mix traditional Mexicano and Latino rhythms with hip-hop boom bap?

Plus, the added treat of watching a band that I knew was bound to blow up was gravy. I felt like I had discovered a grand treasure first. Over the years, I've watched the group progress, switching members, switching sounds, winning Grammys, showing up in movies ("Never Been Kissed") and television shows ("Sex and the City").

Not to mention the added bragging rights of having performed with the band. It's enough to make me feel like I know some celebrities.

So Friday night's show was a re-visit with some old friends, not a concert review. If you haven'd done so already, go check out Ozomatli next time they come to town. The first time is always the best.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Freak-A-Leak Vol. 3.0: The X-Mas List

It's the holidays, which means record labels are pushing their big records for the shopping season. Already, we've seen albums from Jay-Z, The Game, Clipse, Shady Records, Snoop Dogg and Fat Joe.

But there are still some albums that are set to drop in the next few weeks. To build a buzz, they've been leaked to the music-downloading public, so record labels can gauge listener reaction. That's how the industry works nowadays.

Here are some quick reviews of four albums that leaked in the last week and-a-half.

Nas - Hip-Hop Is Dead: I've only listened to three-fourths of the album, but judging from what I've listened to so far, it's a banger.
Nas is fully confident for the first time in a long time, holding back nothing. The album's concept, the artistic death of hip-hop music, is prevalent throughout. Songs like the title track and the ensuing song "Who Killed It?" take no prisoners, indicting the record labels, artists and fans who have turned their back on the music's roots.
"Carry on the Tradition" is a rallying mantra for the true meaning of the music, while "Where Are They Now" name checks rappers of old, from K-Solo to Oaktown 357 (!), asking what happened to the old school artists who first brought to life hip-hop's soul.
I fast-forwarded to the final track, an acapella joint called "Hope." The song brings it all back with a somber spirituality, saying that there is hope yet for the music. With this album, Nas has proven that he is a big part of that hope.

Ghostface - More Fish: It's strange to me that Ghostface would release a second album in the same calendar year (He released "Fishscale" in the spring). Even more strange that it would appear to be mostly outtakes from the first album. An album of leftovers, if you will.
But "More Fish" has some tasty leftovers, and a more appropriate title might have been "Cold Pizza." Ghost sticks with a lot of the same producers he messed with on "Fishscale" - MF Doom, JDilla, Pete Rock. Those are considered underground elite.
Songs like "Alex" bang with the old soul grooves that have made Ghostface the most relevant and celebrated Wu-Tang Clan member. "Josephine" is another soul song that tells the sad, tragic tale of a young female crack addict.
Ghostface has always been a soulful, personable artist, and he flexes those muscles once again on "More Fish."

Mos Def - Tru3 Magic: I'm not sure if this is the official album, as it has two mixtape joints. "Dollar Day" was released last year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a song in which Mos implores every person on planet earth to donate a dollar to the victims of the hurricane. "Crime and Medicine" jacks the old GZA song "Liquid Swords," with Mos singing the hook.
The entire album is filled with Mos singing and rapping. His voice is interesting enough to go back and forth and pull it off over 14 songs. His Brooklyn accent and low tenor carry a low-fi, almost indy rock sensibility.
It's the musical accompaniment that keeps the pace movinging. When he's not rapping over sonic thump on songs like "A Ha," he's crooning over '70s acid funk like "Sun, Moon, Stars" and "There Is A Way."
The latter is a song I've seen him perform twice over the past year. Hearing it in recorded form adds a smooth sophistication to the mix, with it's simple lyrics becoming a complicated chorus. This guy still has the magic touch, as far as I'm concerned.

Young Jeezy - The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102: Of all the leaks, this one was possibly the most disappointing.
Jeezy is capable of monster singles, and he has a few on this album ("Mr. 15, "I Luv It" and "J.E.E.Z.Y." are dramatic, soulful ear grabbers). But Jeezy doesn't challenge the listener, sticking with the same ad-libs and vocal stylings that made his first disc a smash hit.
Jeezy manages to bring in a few up and coming producers that bring out the best in him, but his hired guns end up shooting blanks. The song with super producer Timbaland ("3 A.M.") sounds like a Missy Elliott throwaway track, and the collaboration doesn't work.
The lazy "I Got Money," featuring T.I. and Kanye West, is a tired concept that sounds pasted together.
When Jeezy has it, he has it, but this album is lacking the depth of his street classic debut.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wasted Noise Defeats Darth Vader To Win Rock Wars

Friday night's Rock Wars at Club Octane in Monterey was a coming out party for Salinas band "Wasted Noise."

The thick crowd of 100-plus was literally there just to see them. This was evidenced by the mass exodus once the band played its final note. There were also the loud chants of "Wasted Noise!" leading up to the performance, and the emergence of a band homeboy on stage rallying the crowd in anticipation of the set.

Wherever they go, these guys bring their own party, that's for sure.

Of course, they won the contest, with a whopping 122 votes. I don't have the numbers for any of the other acts competing, but I doubt it was close.

Their set was a high-impact, guitar-skanking rush of garage punk/ska, the type practiced in an auto shop garage (where the band rehearses). The horn stabs and rapid fire rhythms got the crowd wildin' out. A definite adrenaline rush.

Girls danced along furiously to the irresistable beat, perhaps none more so than the mother of lead singer Milo. She gushed with pride while two-stepping on a dance block in the back of the crowd.

It's hard to pinpoint just one attribute that has helped boost band's profile since I first saw them rock out more than a year ago, but one obvious factor could be the band member arrangement. The band previously had a lead singer/drummer, a weird front man situation that didn't last.

The personnel switch over the past year has included the ascension of Milo from percussionist to darling front man (with his stylish hats and neck-ties); a new drummer who maintains the band's aggressive pace; and a two-horn section comprised of members from another popular Salinas band, Dubwize (what up Moni!).

I've been keeping tabs on the band over the past few months. I was extremely impressed when I caught a suprise one-off show in the fall at the Fish House in downtown Salinas (the band was playing at a birthday party).

Talking to bassist Hankie Macias, a long-time friend and a very distant relative (he's my cousin's distant cousin, which in Mexican culture makes him a compadre or something), I could tell that the band was on the verge of a breakthrough. Their work ethic and devotion was bound to payoff.

They may have found it on Friday.

Their myspace page ( was full of well wishers comments after the show. Milo sent out a thank you to everyone who attended. You could tell the band is loving every minute of it.

Battle of the bands events function as a popularity contest. Friday, Wasted Noise showed they have their own built-in audience and they know how to rock it. It'll be fun to see what the next year has in store for them.

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