Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kanye West Mixtape is Neither a Mix nor a Tape

I'm not one to pause for self-reflection, but I have to momentarily address my lack of postings this month. It all has to do with a tight schedule and project-work, so please forgive the massive hole. Wont' happen again, I promise.
Now, let's get back to the reason we're all here - Music.

Mixtapes are supposed to be illegal, or something like that, which means an artist has to give them away in order to avoid any legal wrangling.
So when Kanye West, one of the few hip-hop artists who matter anymore, drops a free mixtape on Memorial Day weekend, it becomes an event. The fact that it's pretty damn good is pudding on top of ice cream cake.

“Can't Tell Me Nothing” is one of the rarified mixtapes that is worth seeking out. Of course, mixtapes nowadays are total misnomers. They're neither mixed by a DJ nor tapes. A linguist would have a field day pointing out the flawed premise.
But 'Ye's mixtape does what all good mixtapes are supposed to do: provides anticipation for an upcoming project (in this case, 'Ye's upcoming album "Graduation), keep the artist accessible and, gasp, offer new, banging beats and rhymes.

It opens up with 'Ye punching a dateline on the mix, ”May 25, 2007.” This is almost the equivalent of a hostage holding up a newspaper in a photo to prove what day they are actually alive (one of the few uses print newspapers have these days). 'Ye talks big shit over a Daft Punk sample, which eventually cuts into a snippet of his second album single “Stronger.” Again, 'Ye flips the Daft Punk sample, adding space age thump, synth, and much boasting.

Then the album gets weird.

'Ye teams up with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell (the new super group CRS) to rap over a Thom Yorke track. That's right, a Thom Yorke track. Later on, Kanye jacks the Peter Bjorn and John hipster delight “Young Folks” to rap about porn and his Rolling Stone cover story.

Sounds tacky, but by the grace of trucker hats and PBR, it works.
The title track has been released as a single, with DJ Toomp providing a bed of epic organ keys and dramatic vocal chops, upon which Kanye dreamily warns "Wait 'til I get my money right."

Although awesomely self-centered, Ye isn't too caught in vapors to share the spotlight. Tracks from Common (off his album "Finding Forever"), Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Big Sean, Consequence and GLC stand strong alongside 'Ye's offerings. It's a G.O.O.D. family affair.

What makes this mixtape work is its revelatory nature, like 'Ye is giving us an exclusive sneak peek into his steez, almost a day in the life of. It's a good look for today's most relevant rap star.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Beat Q&A: El-P

He's one of the most inspired and original musicians in hip-hop right now, weaving noise-bumping boom bap with intense lyrical assault. El-P, owner and president of Def Jux Records, former leader of Company Flow, producer, lyricist, all-around bad dude, is a hip-hop original.

Fortunately for his equally intense and loyal fans, the New York product has kept to his unique formula of introspective song themes and indy as f*** mantra. With a new album out, "I'll Sleep When You're Dead," El-P continues his legacy of outdoing himself with each project. He will perform in San Francisco May 18 at Great American Music Hall.

His latest album finds El Producto rhyming alongside some of the usual suspects, namely Aesop Rock and Hangar 18 of his Def Jux label. But there are some new twists: members of Mars Volta pop up on the opener, while Cat Power and the one and only Trent Reznor lend their vocal talents to a few songs. It's fitting given El-P's ascendance as not only an indy hip-hop presence, but an indy musician in general.

El took some time to talk to "The Beat" about his latest tour, his new album, and whatever happened with that record he was supposed to record with Zach de la Rocha.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk to “The Beat.”
A: My pleasure.

Q: Where are you heading tooright now
A: Right now we're somewhere on the highway, heading to Boston.

Q: You said you had a trailer tire blow out?
A: Yeah, that's why it's just smoking.

Q: Is being on the road like second nature. I know you were known as a legendary road warior all the way back to your Co-Flow days.
A: It's second nature, yet, everytime you go back out on the road, it's a new experience. Of course, I've done it before. I'm not completely shocked. But there's nothing that can predict the insanity of what happens on the road. I'm a little more adjusted... hold on one second... (he goes to talk to someone).
Yeah, but, you know, it's great to be able to do it. I'm very lucky to be doing a bus tour, because driving across country in a van is enough to break any man's spirit. But after coming back from Europe, I was out there for 3 and a half weeks, America is, well, I'im feeling very patriotic. America is going to be a cakewalk.

Q: What was so difficult about Europe? Was it the travel, the venues?
A: Travelling through Europe in what they call a Highway Tiger, which is some strange contraption built by Mercedes that, you know, it's supposed to be comfortable but it's incredibly uncomfortable. It's all the stress and weirdness of the tour but with none of the familiarity of your own country. And of course you have to suffer through Germany, which is never fun.

Q: Some of the reviews of the tour suggest you've upped the ante as far as overall production value, with a live band and some of your Def Jux compatriots on there. Was this set up with the ambition of giving the fans something new and different than what they were accustomed to from you?
A: It was. I wanted to step up the general production value of what an indie rap show could be. And while rap shows can be fun, a lot of times they can be incredibly monotanous. I think that people get a little bored watching people calmly walk back and forth on stage and rapping. So I just figured I would do my part to try and spice it up a little bit and add a theatricality to it.
So we hired a lighting guy, you know. We've got some themes going on. The majority of the tour has my bassist...and my keyboard player... who both played on my record as well. They're joining us on Sunday. For the first few dates, they're not going to be with us.
But, you know, I think that it was just time for me, that's all. I've been performing for so many years, and I never really liked watching my performance. I would see videotapes of it and I would never like it. I would go to these other shows with other genres of music and just go, fuck, man, they got something there that my team doesn't have. This was the first time I felt like I really enjoyed putting together the show. Even when we're stripped down, with just Mr. Dibbs, myself, my lighting guy and my hype man, I think it's 10 times better than anything I''ve ever done.

Q: One of the interesting things on the new record was you've aligned yourself with not just indie hip-hop artists, but indy rock musicians in genreal. Working with Cat Power, folks from Mars Volta. Were you trying to transcend the indie hip-hop market and align yoruself as an indy musician.
A: I'm not trying to do anything. If I transcend that, it would be because I'm naturally transcendant , and that's not up to me to decide. I'm just a fan of music, and I don't see any difference in working with the Mars Volta as if I do with Aesop Rock. For me, my love of other people's music, this was the first record where I figured, fuck it, let me include some of these people. Now that I have relationships with these people and I've worked with them and we're familiar. I heard things that I thought would be really cool. It's just another frontier for me to experiement and have fun with it.
Musicians themselves are all fans. You kind of like what you like. The fact that me and Mars Volta and Trent Reznor are all mutual fans of each other, you know, (and)cat power, these things didn't happen on some cold, calculated level. It was born out of respect, you know, and born out of friendship and acquaintence and, you know, sort of the relationships that had formed over the years, you know. It's not about transcending anything for me. It's about having fun with music and being involved with people I like.

Q: I think it says a lot about you as an artist, that working with these other musicians was such a seamless collaboration. It didn't seem forced.
A: Thank you, I appreciate that. It was important to me. I wanted to work with these poeple, but I refuse to make a song in order for a collaboration to exist. The song has to exist, the idea has to be there and the collaboration has to be natural. I will take the song and the idea over the collaboration at any moment. There are things, if it's not working, it's not working... (pause, talks to the bus driver) Whoa, you're cutting real close there... Whoo! Good bus driver...

Q: How did you form the relationship with Trent Reznor?
A: He had reached out to me and we had kind of e-mailed back and forth for about a year. Then, he invited me to a couple of shows and we hung out. Then he asked me to remix the single off of his last album. That's how we hooked up. We just kind of stayed in touch after that.
When it came time for my record, I had this song in my mind, and I had the whole thing structured and pretty much done to a degree. I told him about it and asked him if he'd like to add to it because I was actually singing the chorus and I thought, you know what, A: I'm not a good singer and B: it would be cool to have another voice here, another idea here. So, I just reached out to him and he heard me and was into it, and was really generous about it.
He was on tour at the time, so it was an e-mail collaboration, you know what I mean. He did it on the road, but he was super cool about it. I respect him so much. I think he's just an innovator and one of the few people who has had serious staying power and has his own sound and continues to have his own sound. To me, that's rare and admirable.

Q: To me, that's what made it a good collaboration, because you both have your distinct, signature styles and sounds. It made sense for you guys to connect.
A: I thought so too, but mostly because I admired him and his career and the way that he did what he did. You want to be that guy who can exist outside of the pantheon of hipsterism. That guy who can comeback whenever he wants to come back and have his idea and have it be powerful. Those are the rare individuals who don't succumb to whatever is happening in the minutea of industry interest. Trent Reznor can come out with a record and motherfuckers will listen, and he's still doing interesting and new shit. I want to be that kind of artist and I definitely look up to him, because he's been that type of artist for decades. Beyond that, I just dig his music.

Q: Speaking of coming back when you want to come back, It took you, what, six years to release this record?
A: No, no, no, no. A little under five.

Q: Was it you were busy running the company, doing projects, you wanted to make the perfect album?
A: All of the above. I put out Fantastic Damage and toured for the better part of a year. I did a jazz album. I did a film score, produced Cage's record, Mr. Lif's record. I did a shit load of remixes. I was running a label and then I took my sweet fucking time to make the record, and I went crazy a little bit here and there. When it all boils down to it, time flew by, but really the record was done as soon as I could get it done... Or, no, that's a lie. I could have gotten it done (sooner) if I weren't crazy.

Q: What's the plan for the rest of the year as far as touring and projects?
A: Right now, it's touch and go. For touring, I've got this tour planned. We've got a few festivals and stuff and then I'm trying to do another tour in the fall. It's looking like I might be touring with The Battles, doing an El-P/Battles tour. But that's not confirmed yet. Aesop rock is the next record to drop at the end of the summer, then we got Rob Sonic's record. we got a busy year.

Q: Were you at Coachella?
A: Yeah, I just got back.

Q: How did that go down?
A: It was cool, it was cool. A festival show. It's like, a festival show is like I'm standing in front of thousands of people. One thousand of them know who I am and the rest of them don't. I'm sure that some of them were really confused as to what the hell we were doing. But, it's always cool. I like being put in front of audiences that dont' necessarily know who the fuck I am.

Q: Did you check out Rage Against the Machine?
A: Naw, I was on Friday and had to leave the next day.

Q: Whatever happened with theat record with you and Zach de la Rocha?
A: Whatever happened with the record? I don't know. I mean, I think that Zach never put the record out, he never completed it. I really don't know. I've beeen meaning to ask him (laugh).

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