Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The White Rapper Show: Best. Thing. On. TV.

White rappers all across the suburbs probably hated VH1's reality TV series "The White Rapper Show," and it's understandable.

Here was a show that seemed to bypass selecting MC's with discernable talent in favor of characters, and exposed every single stereotype that has been attached to white rap artists since Vanilla Ice bought his first can of bleach. Monday night's season finale pitted the final two contestants on the reality-show competition against one another, with a satisfying if not anti-climatic finish.

The show's premise - 10 white rappers from across the nation are chosen to live in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop, to get a crash course in hip-hop culture and compete against one another for $100,000. Along the way, the contestants/characters are subjected to a number of physical, creative and racially charged challenges, from going through their ethnically-diverse neighborhood to earn street cred to filming videos and recording music to competing on a television game show that challenges their knowledge of black stereotypes.

The cast members themselves were an oddball, sometimes cringe-inducing assembly of white rapper personalities - a PhD candidate/white guilt tripper named Jus Rhyme; a Queens, NY-bred, n-word spouting, gutter princess named Persia; a sweet but awkward tomboy named G-Child (who wore her hair like Da Brat and openly admitted to idolizing Vanilla Ice); a dirty South, grill-sporting good 'ol boy named Shamrock; and a wide-eyed, seeming clueless yet fascinatingly ambitious hip-hop persona named Jon Brown (representing the suburbs of Davis, California, hollaback!).

Along the way, they were sheperded by one of the most legitimate hip-hop personalities from the golden age of rap, MC Serch (former member of the rap group 3rd Bass and the man who helped discover and launch the career of Nas). It made perfect sense to have Serch as the show's host. As a white rapper during the early 90s, Serch was on the frontlines to combat the inherent fraudulence of acts like Vanilla Ice, famously beating Mr. Ice (played by Henry Rollins!) in effagy during the video to "Pop Goes The Weasel."

Back to Monday's finale, I couldn't help but root for Shamrock as he battled Jon Brown. Shamrock seemed like a cool, down to earth guy who I might want to hang out
with and have a beer. Brown, on the other hand, immediately set himself apart from his fellow white-rappers during the show's pilot episode, declaring he is not a rapper, but an "entity."

Brown's schtick revolved around a "company" he founded called "Ghetto Revival." The principals were curious and a bit undefined. A "Ghetto Revival" was somehow necessary to unite the masses, under a proclamation of "Hallelujah, Hollaback." That's about as much as I could gather from Brown's babble. Oh, and Brown proudly proclaimed himself "King of the Burbs," which was a microcosm for the show's ultimate intent.

Hip-hop, like rock and jazz before it, has been reappropriated by white, suburban youth for the past 15 years. The outgrowth of that is folks like Brown, who log on to the culture and purport to be champions for the cause. Ultimately, their credibility has to be called into question because, unfortunately, of their ethnic background and social status.

Which also brings us back to the reason I would understand white rappers, or white people who like hip-hop in general, would dislike the show. Since hip-hop culture has been reappropriated to the point that white rappers can feel comfortable enough to flaunt their suburban status (like Brown), seeing these seeming charicatures can be a viewed as a threat. Maybe even set the white rapper movement back a few years (making Marshall Mathers hard work all in vain).

A lot of the contestants were lacking in the talent category. Although Persia, Dasit, Sullee, Shamrock and Jon Brown each had a legitimate reason for being there, the rest of the pack pretty much sucked.

To top it all off, the stereotypes of white rappers were on full display - Persia using the N-Word and trying to play it off like it was cool; JusRhyme doing his whole "We are all one people" conscious white MC routine; the british girl who was a fifth-rate knockoff of Fergie from Black Eyed Peas. It could have been called the White Rapper Stereotype show.

The show's producers, Ego Trip, a writing collective that published a dope indy magazine during the 1990s, knowingly put these people on the show because it was more interesting to play on those stereotypes and seach for the humanity beneath the fronting. Besides, who wants to see people with talent compete for a prize? You can watch American Idol for that kind of crap.

Personally, I think the show was one of the best things on television in a long time. Of course, I laughed at the characters, at Persia having to wear a large platinum chain that said "N-Word" after getting busted for its usage (imagine if every white person that said that word was forced to suffer through such a humiliation, Micheal Richards included).

I laughed at Jon Brown's embarrassing "King of the Burbs" boasts.

I laughed when the white rappers thought they were going to the studio to record and wound up on a game show.

But I also got a kick out of seeing these characters reveal their human side. Persia, a hard as they come homegirl, getting humbled after her N-word check. Or G-Child's manic insecurity upon her imminent departure from the show. I really felt sorry for the girl when Serch told her, politely, to step off.

And Monday's finale was cool because Shamrock, a level-headed dirty-south representative, beat out Jon Brown for the title. Although Shamrock's flow weren't ziplock tight (Jon Brown actually had a more polished delivery), Sham held it down for the Dirty and got by with swagger and style. Yes, he looked like Paul Wall with a busted grill, but that's beside the point. When it came down to it, Sham stepped up and did his thing, which was be himself on stage.

That's something any rapper or hip-hop fan can appreciate, black or white.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

RIP Agapito Cabrera: My Tata, My Friend

"Make sure you touch him, let him know you're there," my friend told me before I left to visit my tata, who was sick at the hospital. "If he's asleep, just wake him up and make sure he knows you're there."

I sat next to my tata, my grandfather, Agapito Cabrera, as he rested uncomfortably in his hospital bed. It was a Saturday afternoon, me and him, alone, together. I knew it might be one of the last times I would get to sit next to him. His short, solid frame made fragile by a thin hospital gown. Dark cheek bones and the proudest Mexican mustache I ever knew were reduced to pale flesh stretched ancient from the years, and a scraggly stubble of salt and pepper.

I hardly recognized my tata beneath the matrix of plastic tubes and wire, amidst the techno-mire of heart monitors and bed side remote controls. He feigned sleep in agonizing discomfort, every inch ached. I did my best to help him rest easier - shifted him this way and that, each shift met with a slight grunt of pain. Even in his state, he tried his best not to appear weak.

I could only hope to be so strong in perfect health.

At the same time I was saddened - here I was touching him, letting him know I was there, like I was told. Each time I touched him, it caused some measure of pain.

We couldn't say much during that one visit. The circuit of pain killers and meds kept him in a perpetual wooze, almost fitting for a man nicknamed "Boracho" (Dark humor was one of many heirlooms passed on through my tata's side of the family). Everything was regulated to "How's your Dad" or "How's work," simple guy-talk. His broken English and thick Mexicano accent punctuated each word. In his weakened state, it was a struggle for him to string those simple sentences together. I answered in soothing tones, hoping my words might medicate something.

After our brief conversation, some hospital food and a little more painful shifting, we got to a point where he was able to rest quietly. I sat there and read a magazine, making sure he wasn't alone.

If there's one thing Mexican families are good at, it's failing to leave one another alone. Usually, it's a bad thing - folks all up in your business, can't get a moment's peace. At times like these, when it's a tata and his grandson sitting alone, together in a hospital room, the bugging is a blessing.

I only pretended to read whatever it was I was reading, my gaze shifted more and more towards my tata. The handsome bastard. From him, I inherited a full main of jet black hair, skin dark as an olive, and this proud Mexican mustache on top of my upper lip.

As a child, tata chided me: "Never shave it, mijo. Let it grow naturally." My parents liked to remind me that my tata shaved his only twice in his lifetime: the first time by mistake, the second time when he joined the military.

I stared at my tata through a kaleidescope lens, as the details funnelled through slowly: as a child, his favorite saying to me was "Right on, cachaton." One night, on New Years Eve, after we had watched Dick Clark's ball drop, he offered me my first sip of beer. I was in fourth grade. He laughed when I made my bitter beer face.

On Sundays, my tata and my nana would pick me up after church and take me to McDonald's for lunch, the toy store after, and then to visit my nana's mom, who was in a nursing home. I always liked the toys best, but I remember those nursing home visits the clearest.

My nana would talk with my great-grandma for an hour, and tata barely said a word. I would sit there and play with my toy, oblivious to the Spanish conversation. My spoiled, pocho-behind did my best to ignore the generational exchange between ailing mother and aging daughter. As always, tata would stand by at attention and let nana do all of the talking. Tata was the strong, silent type, as my mom liked to say.

Back to the future, sitting alone, together, in that cold hospital room, tata's face was a telling frame of comfort, the first sign of relief in a long time. I leaned forward in my chair, inched my boday closer towards his. I inhaled his strength, big, long breathes. I swallowed slow, watching him, not wanting to disturb his restless soul. This was not how I wanted to remember him, but I knew I had to do something.

"Make sure you touch him, let him know you're there," my friend said. She was a family friend who grew up with my tias and tios and my father. Any time I saw her, she made it a point to ask how my nana and tata were doing . Now, she spoke from her own experiences with her grandparents, the guilt of watching them leave slowly and not doing enough to be there with them.

"If he's asleep, just wake him up and make sure he knows you're there."

Long years of Mexican machismo, of proud mustaches and boracheras and tata/grandson bonding, of pride and love and strong silence, all of that never made me a callous man. I thank goodness for that.

I reached out my hand toward his hands, which were folded securly at the top of his rib cage. I gently put my hand on top of his, betrayed my friend's advice to wake my tata. This would have to be a non-disruptive moment.

I let my hand rest there for a minute, not sure if tata was squeezing back on purpose, or if he was simply reacting to the touch. Either way, I believe he knew I was there. I believe he knows I'm there now. I believe it all, now.

Thank you, Tata.

Dedicated to Agapito Cabrera, my grandfather. 1924-2007. May you eternally rest in peace.


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Friday, February 16, 2007

Exclusive: Audio Interview with Selwyn Brown of Steel Pulse

The interview with Selwyn Brown of Steel Pulse is set to run this Sunday in The Monterey Herald. It's a good talk about the local reggae scene and Brown's insights into the performance side of show business.

Of course, I like to offer exclusives to my loyal readers, so, to hear the entire interview ahead of the publication date, you can click here. Enjoy.

In the immortal words of Jon Brown, "Hallelujah, Holla Back!"

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

"The Beat" Q& A: Steel Pulse

There are a few reggae acts who I absolutely must see anytime they come to town. Barrington Levy. Israel Vibrations. And the legendary Steel Pulse.

I'd like to say I could remember every time I've seen them, but when it comes to reggae concerts, my memory gets sort of fuzzy. That withstanding, I can assure you that their live show is one of the most memorable experiences I've been lucky enough to partake more than once.

It's a righteous mix of awesome music and energy and showmanship. Their catalogue is ocean-deep, their craft work brilliant. Live, they manage to make their music sound light years better than their recorded stuff, which is as good as reggae gets, in my opinion.

The band will headline the first day of the second annual Santa Cruz days, Feb. 22 and 23 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The band's keyboardist Selwyn Brown was kind enough to talk to "The Beat." Here's an excerpt from that interview:

Q: Whenever you do these festival shows, such as the Santa Cruz Dayz, where it’s five bands on one bill, is there any added pressure because you don't have as much time to prepare?
A: That's a good question because, what it is, it's a different kind of vibe. A different kind of organization. When we're doing our own show and everything is built around us and the opening band, we have time to come in and do our thing. It's hard, on us and even on our road crew. (At normal shows) they have more time to set it up and we have more time to do a proper sound check.
For a band like ourselves, we like to use sound checks as a kind of rehearsal as well. Sometimes sound checks are two to three hours, because we're working on new songs, working on songs maybe we thought we didn't perform particularly well the night before, or maybe there's a particular musician in the band that wants to rehearse a particular song to improve their performance on that song.
But with a festival, we just come in, we don't get a sound check. We get what's known as a line check, where we come in and make sure everything is actually working and hope the crew can get it together in time for decent sound on stage and in the audience. It's a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing. It's still enjoyable, but its a different thing, a different vibe.

Q: For reggae musicians, it seems like touring on the festival circuit is key to longevity. How tight knit is the community among the touring bands who work the festival circuit?
A: We all get out and hang out together. Which is good, because anywhere we go, it's like a big family. There's certain bands you're closer to than others, but it has nothing to do with record sales or a status thing, it's just a vibe thing. On a whole, it's a family sort of vibe, and you see guys you haven't seen in awhile, and you get together and it's like “How's so and so doing?”
Through these festival things, there's a lot of networking going on, so you might link up with other musicians to work on different music.

Q: Going back to the local scene, are you familiar with any of the reggae bands from the Northern California area?
A: Mostly bands like Soul Majestic, Mystic Revealers, Midnite, Boom Shaka.

Q: You ever heard of the Salinas band Dubwize?
A: I have, actually. I'm sure they gave me a CD at some point.

Q: The last time you guys released a CD was in 2004. Any plans for a new CD?
A: At the moment, nothing in the near future because we're so busy doing other stuff, touring and working with other people. I even go into schools now and do workshops with the kids, on the history of reggae and recording. I give out CDs and record music for fundraisers for schools.
As far as writing, we're always writing anyway, so material is always there. As far as anything new, realistically, I'd say we'd probably start at the end of this year, going into next year.

Q: For the Santa Cruz Dayz show, what can the fans expect?
A: As always, we'll give them the full Steel Pulse package. As far as energy levels, as far as the cross-section of songs. Hopefully, we'll do enough songs that most of the audience will like and recognize as favorites. Maybe more energy and some songs we're going to dig up from the archives as well. Hopefully, a lot of the fans will be excited as well to hear those old songs.

Q: I hope you guys bust out with “Ravers.” That's my favorite Steel Pulse song.
A: All right. We'll keep you waiting and hopefully we'll do that one (laughs).

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Dixie Chicks and Nelson from The Simpsons Collab at The Grammys

I really wanted it to be Mary J. Blige's night. And The Roots as well.

But Grammy awards night was all about those Dixie Chicks, and I guess I can't be too mad. After all, what it really was about was backing up three women who took a political stance against the war our nation's leader. You'd have to be a war monger to be mad at that.

Sunday was the first time I've watched the entire Grammy's award show program in a while. Awards shows have lost their luster with me - their too long and dull and predictable. But this year, I wanted to see if the Roots would win for best rap album. And I wanted Mary J. to own the night.

I didn't get what I wanted. I guess that's why I stopped watching awards shows a while ago. Sunday's show wasn't a complete wash. A few observations:

- The Police reunion was a good look. I love those guys.

- Mary J. had the show stopper of the night. Performing "Be Without You" backed by an orchestra, she tore it down. And her ghetto-girl greek chorus (homegirls were sanging and head bobbing with attitude) were hood fab. I kept telling my girl how much I love seeing Mary move her arms around like a rapper when she sings. She picked up her dress with her hand and it even looked like she was grabbing her nuts!

-Common got a nice dig at Kanye West when the pair presented the award for best rap album. "Everybody's tired of hearing you bitch when you lose," Com told his producer/label head. How many folks can get away with saying something like that to their boss?

- I wasn't too pleased with Ludacris winning for best rap album. Out of the nominees (Pharell, Roots, Lupe Fiasco and TI) Luda's was the weakest. I guess the academy liked Luca in "Crash" a whole lot.

- What was up with Xtina Aguilera doing the James Brown Tribute? Of all of the artists they could have chosen (Prince, Michael Jackson, D'Angelo, hell, even Usher) why did they choose her? How you gonna let the godfather of soul go out like that?

-The Dixie Chicks won everything (I'm glad they weren't nominated in best rap category, because they might have won). They celebrated with class (the one with the mouth managed to quote the Simpsons character Nelson, with a snarky but appropriate "ah-haa"), and you couldn't help but be happy for them.

It's gotta be hard for three Texas girls to be caught up in the middle of a national, political shit storm. I'm glad for the Dixie Chicks, even if they had to sand bag on my girl Mary J.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Good Bye Saladbowlmusic.com, Hello Street-Connect.com.

Saladbowlmusic.com is no more, but luckily, there is a new place where local hip-hop artists and their friends can log on and chat with like-minded souls.

Say hello to www.street-connect.com, which launched a few weeks ago as a replacement to the popular saladbowlmusic.com site. Hacker issues and a general plan to revamp the site were at the heart of the site change. So far, the site is pretty bare (a banner bearing the words under construction greets viewers), but the message boards are up and running.

The boards were what kept people coming to the original site, and the street-connect boards continue in that vein.

"These forums were created as a place for those making music to be able to network and promote their material online," said Gypsy Avalos, the site administrator and designer. Avalos works with local rappers Gemini and Doom to maintain the sight. Both are pominent throughout the boards, posting the lion's share of entries to this point.

Good luck to the street-connect team and everyone checking out the sight. It's always a good thing when local residents invest time in community building like this.

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