Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The New Style - Reviews of Busdriver and K-Os

Busdriver looks confused, as the little tweety bird tells him to burn things.

As hip-hop music continues to splinter off into subgenres (indy rap, coke rap, hyphy) and flavor of the week fads (snap music, two-step music, hyphy), the ever evolving world of alternative rap music seems to be filling the creative gap left behind by the competing commercial forces.

Alternative rap music, one of those plastic labels journalists like to use to pigeon hole that which they don't understand, is privvy to the shortcomings of any other style of rap: record label branding, generic posturing, fickle fan followings. The avatar of the alternative rap universe would seem to be De La Soul, with subsequent offerings ranging from A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets (dope) to P. M. Dawn, Spearhead and MC Paul Barman (kinda ehh).

The set-up for alternative rap music is it doesn't necessarily conform to the street-approved brand of system-thumping, 'hood-credible hardcore rap. Alternative rap can be conscious, space-age, or outright weird.

Two albums released in the past two months have proven that, despite the whole "hip-hop is dead" amalgam promoted by Nas, Andre 3000 and the like, there is some creativity left in hip-hop.

Canadian rapper K-Os's new album "Atlantis- Hyms For Disco" and Los Angeles bohemian MC Busdriver's new album, "Roadkill Overcoat," are food for the famine. Each album takes the best elements of alternative rap and turns them into groove-heavy, lyrically challenging displays of where the music can go and, more importantly, grow.

K-Os is the more commercially viable of the two, yet he refuses any sort of cliches. On the song "Aquacity Boy" he defiantly pronounces a familiar mantra - "This ain't rock n' roll/ Cause the rap is in control." This while a sinister guitar riff and fuzzy drums, ala "Check Ya Head"-era Beastie Boys, bang along.

K-Os is a gifted vocalist, with a nasal voice that can channel Percy Sledge, like on the slow-burning "The Rain," or Morrissey, as on the new wave-y single "Sunday Morning." His singing is a bit thin, but endearing in that indie-rock sorta way. Where other alternative rap cats have fallen short on switching between rap and song (Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Andre 3000), K-Os finds a balance.

On the other hand, "Roadkill Overcoat" is a bit more advanced, a bit more abstract, a bit more hard to follow. Busdriver is a second-generation member of Project Blowed, the LA crew/movement founded by Freestyle Fellowship, a legendary underground crew who have pushed the boundaries of hip-hop to impressive heights.

Busdriver's steez is part Volume 10, the uncanny LA rapper who gave us the hip-hop classic "Pistol Grip Pump," and part Gift of Gab, the breathless rhyme slinger from Blackalicious. Add in some poignant new wave crooning and you've got one of the most unique voices in the game right now.

On the opening song "Casting Agents and Cowgirls," Busdriver rides a pulsing beat with manic glee, like a slightly demented circus announcer. The album is full of these sometimes cartoonish, but always engaging soundpieces. When he's not going for broke, he's experimenting on a synth-heavy banger like "Sun Shower." The song starts off like a mid-80s UK pop song, but Busdriver's mournful singing and shuttering lyrics gives it an updated bend.

On the moody "Mr. Mistake (Bested by the Whisper Chasm)," Busdriver manages to slow down the tempo without betraying his hyperactive flow. He also displays a song writer's lilt, with lyrics like: "I got people to disappoint/ I got mistakes to make/ How can you believe I'm not a waste of space."

What makes these two albums so distinct in the hip-hop market is they're written by song writers who aren't afraid to give their all. In the muddled hip-hop universe, it's a shame that these guys have to be referenced as an alternative, rather than viewed as the norm.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Amy Winehouse - Scary Goth Girl Soul

Amy Winehouse is one scarey looking chick. No joke.

She rocks more black eye makeup than your average goth girl, to paraphrase one Associated Press write up. She rocks tatoos of bare-breasted women (big breasted at that) on her arms. Every video or public performance she looks like she just tossed up a 40 oz. and smoked a few blunts.

One other scarey thing about the Brit-soul diva - she is scarey good. Down right frightening.

Peep her neo-Ronnettes steez on the addictive song “Rehab,” where she channels Martha Reeves and the Vandellas if Martha was piss drunk. “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no-no-no/ Yes I've been there but will I go back?/ No-no-no.”

It's Phil Spector wall of sound rock music, but with 100 times the attitude (and that's saying something).

Winehouse has been making plenty of noise across the pond, her drunken antics and all to her own style propelling her to the tabloid headlines. She's called out Dido and Kylie Monogue as farces, and even experienced public meltdowns to boot.

But it's not her on-edge persona that has made me a fan. I've been driving my girl crazy bumping "Rehab" and "You're No Good," her two ready made singles, for a few weeks now. But it's the moody stuff that gets me on one.

The uber-dark "Back to Black" is a desolate, clangy, hypnotic quiet storm of illicitly paranoid love affairs. The way she measures the chorus is incredible - "You go back to her/ and I go back to... Black." The dead space works so perfectly, you fall into the black hole right along with her.

Winehouse has been getting the royal treatment on for a few months now. Seaside b-girl A. Lee co-signs on her talent. She killed it on Letterman last night. Her sophomore album "Back to Black" debuted today in the U.S. Do yourself a favor and cop that. Don't be scared.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"The Beat" Q&A: Selau

Island girl beauty mixed with hip-hop soul talent, that's what makes Selau a unique fixture in the Bay Area rap landscape.

The 25-year-old singer has a hot radio single, "A Man That Goes" and is on the verge of signing her first record deal. She started out singing hooks for Keak Da Sneak and The Team. Now, she's set to take the spotlight for herself.

Selau took time to talk to "The Beat" about her music, her ethnic background, and the times when she's caught herself starstruck. She will perform a free concert Friday, March 9 at Club Octane, 321 Alvarado St. in Monterey. The show is part of a promotion for Salinas radio station Jammin 97.9. For more info, visit the Web site

How long have you been singing?

My whole life. My dad was a singer. It was something I did, just watching him. I guess it was in my genes. You see your dad do something, you want to do it.

He was a reggae singer?

Yes. It was mainly on the islands (of Samoa). I was born in the islands. When we came here, he had a studio in the house.

When did you come to the United States?

I moved to the states when I was 7. We moved around a lot. It's kind of weird. I lived in both San Francisco and Oakland. It kind of works for me, because sometimes the city and the town are so separated here, but I got the best of both worlds. Both of them get mad respect.

When did you start getting serious about your music?

I always was very serious about it as a kid. I used to enter every talent show. I always secretly signed myself up for it. It kind of was something my parents didn't want me to be, so I did it undercover. I knew it was what I wanted to be. Nothing could stop a kid with motivation.

I think it was in junior high, that's when I started. When you do a lot of talent shows, they start to say “Oh, that's the girl that sings.” That was my label...
Everybody has a cousin or friend who is a producer, and has their own label, and I've done it all. I've done my work. I've sang on some of the, let's just say, not so hot beats, just to do it and have a part in music.

How did you get your break?

From local rappers around my neighborhood. Just singing hooks for them. It escalated to being not just my neighborhood, but to the whole city, and to the whole Bay. That's how I got my start, was singing hooks. I got my big break with Keak. From there, it was like "Who sang that hook?" It escalated to that point, from singing one little hook.

Have you been starstruck?

It happened to me twice. I did a show with Slick Rick. I mean, come on, he's one of the founders of what I do. When I met him, I didn't want to talk because I didn't want to say anything stupid. I was silent the whole time. It was great to see him because he was so humble, even though those songs are older than me, he still rocks the house. He didn't have the fancy stuff around him, no hype man or back up singers. It was him and the mic. I told him, "Man, I want to do music like that. I want to do music that 20-30 years down the line is still hot."

For this dude, who has hits and hits and is a founder, to be so nice, he did not look frustrated one time. Me and my girls were bugging him and he was so nice.

I did a show with my band - I'm in a band too. Chico DeBarge was in the front row. I mean, come on, he's right there. I had to look around, I was like "Oh my gosh."

After the show, he was walking straight to me. I kind of looked the other way, I didn't want to get moded and assume he was coming to talk to me. But he came up and talked to me! It was really nice because he also had some good advice. He said basically, you have such a sweet spirit, I can tell. He said don't let the game ruin that for you.

Do you use your Pacific Island heritage to help project your image?

I don't think that I use it because it's already who I am. It's not anything I intentionally put out there. My name, when you hear Selau, you have to know that's not your average name. It was important to keep my name, because I was asked to change my name so it would be easier for people to pronounce. They were like "I can't see people calling in to request Selau." I said "If people can pronounce Schwarzenegger, and he got to keep his name, then they can pronounce Selau."

As soon as they hear that name, they know it's an island girl. I have a song that's been getting some burn, it's called "Island boy." I mention all of the islands in there, just to show some love, to let them know who I am. I'm not trying to be anything other than who I am.

Every performance, there's always a Polynesian in the audience. We have our little island things. We scream certain things when we see each other. When they tell me that their little sister or brother loves me and looks up to me and they know they can make it because of me, I take it very seriously.

As an island girl myself, there wasn't anybody I could identify with growing up. Now, it's like, Oh my gosh, there's a Samoan girl singing, I can do that.

After shows, we'll have meet and greets, and someone from the islands will be out there. It's like mad love and I feel it. I definitely want to make sure I do them proud. I think about everything as far as image. I have little island girls looking up to me. I want to make sure that their mom and dad aren't ashamed of me and want to buy my album.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

The End of An Era?

Hip-hop music is in a commercial and creative rut. Some wonder aloud if the music is dead.

I say, that may be that's a good thing.

Then again, I can't say that hip-hop is dead because it continues to be a pop-culture force. Unfortunately, that influence has become harder and harder to defend. Do you have any idea how hard it is to come up here and post three times a week, singing the praises of a musical genre that nowadays is only good for strip club anthems? (I never want to make it rain, and I don't want to be there when someone does).

Hip-hop is six steps away from death, but even then, according to who? If it stops being the corporate money maker it once was, will it be buried unceremoniously? If no more Public Enemies or Tribe Called Quests emerge, will the music's revolutionary verve get lost in a cloud of blunt somke?

Nope, because first and foremost, hip-hop sets the trends.

Hip-hop is the pulse of the streets, whether their paved with gold or gutter residue. From the burbs to The Bronx, hip-hop is on the lips of the children who foster cool.

It's scary when the music stops meaning something (hip-hop with substance is almost dead). It's a frightening prospect to the powers that be when they start losing money (which I could care less about).

But the culture will not die anytime soon. For all of it's drawbacks, hip-hop is still the beat on the street (gosh, that sounded corny).

The DJ never dies, thus, the hot wax will continue to get bumped in the club.

As long as nice cars with loud sound systems are in vogue (and isn't that the American way?), hip-hop will provide that boom-bap.

And as long as American youth continue to embrace a cool like dat aesthetic, hip-hop will provide the attitude, the rebellion, the necessary swagger.

What needs to change is the overarching principle that if it's not on crack, it's whack. If the violent and over-sexxed imagery is not what's selling, then maybe it's not what's hot in the streets. Can we get some substance on the block, por favor?

Can we get a sense of dignity back in the game? Not saying everyone has to come on some positive vibes, but how much more dying does the culture have to promote in order to turn a tidy profit for rich white dudes?

At what point do we realize that the suffering being commited to record and put forth to the public is no longer a reflection of what's going on in the ghetto, but rather a single-minded excuse to exploit the lower-classes? As much drugs, gunplay and sex that happens in the 'hood, you'd think there was some room to talk about the good times a little more, without having to degrade a woman or a race along the way.

Hip-hop is far from dead, but it may need life support. If anything, the band-aid over the shotgun wound is starting to peel off, and it's time to take a better approach to recovery.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

What's Beef: Carlos Mencia vs. Joe Rogan

I'm tryna' kick the shit you need to learn though/ That ether, that shit that make your soul burn slow

Beef is good business in hip-hop. Careers are made and broken by it. It's a spectacle like the WWE or Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In stand-up comedy, the big beef is between Carlos Mencia and Joe Rogan. It came to a head last month when Rogan was hosting a comedy show in LA, and while introducing an act, he referred to Mencia as "Men-Stealia," alluding to the charge the Mencia is a noted joke thief within the stand-up circuit. Mencia happened to be in the room, didn't take too kindly to the diss, and went on stage to address the situation. This set off a shouting match witnessed by a few hundred people live at a comedy show, and a few million who have since watched it on the internet.

Rogan, the host of Fear Factor on NBC and a veteran stand-up comic, has been riffing on Mencia, host of the Comedy Central hit "Mind of Mencia," for a long time. The internet beef has been buzzing for the past few weeks and, after a local writer mentioned it in his column tagline, I decided to check it out.

The clip is 10 minutes long, and can be viewed here

Basically, it's a tightly-edited propaganda piece produced by Rogan, with clips of the infamous Comedy Store show down mixed with pointed text aimed at punking Mencia.

During the video taped standoff, Mencia calls Rogan a "little b----" and says nobody cares what Rogan is saying. Rogan appears to have the crowd on his side, particularly when he gets on the mic and responds to Mencia. Rogan gets some good digs in about how Mencia is a good performer who doesn't write his own stuff.

Mencia tries to respond in his loud-mouth, reactionary manner but it doesn't work. He's too much on the defensive. Rogan specifically cites a joke that Mencia stole from another comic and Mencia denies it. That comic, a jewish cat named Ari, comes from the crowd and tells Mencia straight up that he stole the joke from him. Mencia is visibly stunned.

In comedy terms, Rogan ethered Mencia. I'm sure he can go back and high five his fellow comics, all the ones who shluck from gig to gig because they want to avoid real work. But that's about it.

Ultimately, only comics really care who steals material and who's truly original. The general public doesn't care. Case in point: when Mencia's show debuted two years ago, it was the second most popular show on Comedy Central, behind only South Park. It beat out The Daily Show and Colbert Report.

Whereas Daily Show and Colbert thrive on being the thinking man's funny, Mencia's low brow schtick has easily outpaced his colleagues.

Mencia may have taken the L on the comic circuit, but that's about it. His live shows will continue to sell out. His television show will continue to do well in the ratings. Mencia is a lowest-common denominator comic to begin with, and his brand is nothing that would appeal to comic snobs. He doesn't care either way.

Meanwhile, Rogan will continue to host UFC cable tv filler and whatever other frat boy side gig he can muster. Rogan recently wrote on his blog that his agent dropped him. He also admitted that he was fortunate enough to get involved in the beef at a point when he is established in his career. If he was a beginning comic, this would have ruined him.

It's to Rogan's credit that he is playing up the beef, in hopes that it will get his name out there. In that sense, he's taken a few pages from the hip-hop handbook. Rule No. 187 - Beef is always good for business.

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