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Elevator 27: Chuck D

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‘Fight the Power’ is arguably the most iconic and important rap song ever made. Public Enemy is arguably the most iconic and important rap group of all time. Right in the centre of the action is rapper Chuck D, a man who has eloquently opened the minds of numerous generations to the true state of the world and our ability to be agents of change. His contribution to rap is immeasurable.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of playing ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ to primary school classes, explaining to them the various elements that make Chuck D’s group so unique and giving them Public Enemy illustrations to colour in.

At times while listening to Public Enemy I start to weep. It happened again today. The sonic hurricane, the audacity of the lyrics, the mockery and fury in Chuck’s booming delivery, his belief that change can happen and the sheer ridiculousness that many of the grave injustices Public Enemy have been pointing out for the last 30 years have still never been addressed by those responsible.

Public Enemy isn’t just a clever name. The powers that be have set their media blood hounds on them throughout the years in an attempt to silence the group. They’ve also been an annoyance to other rappers who Chuck D claims have sold their souls away or are paying inadequate respect to their musical forefathers.

‘New Whirl Odor’, ‘There’s a Poison Goin’ On’, ‘Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age’, ‘The Evil Empire of Everything’:  album titles that paint a bleak picture. The strange thing is that despite Chuck being a prophet of doom, he’s approachable, warm and humble. In 2011 after performing a 25-song set at the Institute in Birmingham, I witnessed Chuck’s post-gig activities. This 51-year-old had the time and an astounding reservoir of energy to meet people [fans and others artists], to engage in proper conversations, to encourage and simply listen.

Chuck D’s manner, his lyrics and his cadence are that of a sports coach. He’s putting you through a body-breaking exercise, but he’s there with you, looking you in the eyes, cheering you on. He’s a leader, the kind of leader that is quick to point out others abilities and contributions.

Chuck D is a sage and a 5th columnist, black, proud, crystal-clear, unflinching, honourable, humble, deeply creative, a strategist, a revolutionary voice: in short AmeriKKKa’s real worst nightmare.

It seems impossible to turn earnest messages and discordant, pounding, screaming music into party anthems, but Public Enemy have made it happen over and over again. Because of the sheer magnitude of the PE sound, it was essential to have a primary vocalist whose voice cut through the racket. Chuck at times steamrolls over the beat, with idiosyncratic pauses and cadences more akin to beat poets or preachers.

Are you a long time rap music fan? Try to imagine hip-hop without Public Enemy. Try to imagine hip-hop without Chuck D’s baritone sermons. Imagine hip-hop without the outbursts of the world’s most charismatic jester/hypeman Flavor Flav. What a horrible vision that is!

In a world of easily snappable sapling rappers, Chuck D is a towering Sequoia redwood: steady, unshakeable and inspiring.

More killer tracks: Shut ‘Em Down and Air Hoodlum.

Here’s recent Chuck D interviews with Tavis Smiley and Arsenio Hall

PE’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame [some profound moments in this 21 minute clip]

Tune into Chuck’s weekly radio show here: www.rapstation.com/BEATSandPLACESTheSOUNDofHistory

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Elevator 24: Doom

23doomheaderMy friend Dj Dust introduced me to the rap song ‘Hey’ in 1997. The sustained organ, the brass stabs, the Scooby Doo samples and the rhyming were beguiling. Who is this? MF Doom?

I’d heard this man rap before as Zev Love X, but the material that Daniel Dumile was releasing under this new guise, a masked villain, was more volatile, funny, intricate, melancholic, rewindable and stubbornly lo-fi than anything else being made in the late 90’s.

Doom insists on breaking mainstream rap rules: Chorus? Often doesn’t bother. Quality mics and professional mic levels? Certainly not on his early recordings. Multiple verses? How ‘bout just one long verse instead? Polished production? Nope, found a sound on this ol’ cassette tape that I wanna loop.

After listening to a whole album’s worth of 2 bar loops, non-sequiturs, cartoon samples and chronically cryptic stream-of-consciousness vocals, your first thought shouldn’t be ‘That was enjoyable and invigorating’, but it is!

There is no other artist who dares the listener to cast aside slang dictionaries and wikipedia searches and just enjoy the word stew he’s serving. The diligent Doom follower discovers that he or she has by osmosis learnt a new vocabulary.

Don’t be fooled: there’s gratuitous gobbledygook but there’s also soul-searching and razor-sharp quips. Dumile’s various alter egos spin tall tales and give advice all in an effortlessly colloquial tone. In a 2009 interview Doom asserts: ‘I definitely have a lot of affection for literary work, especially Bukowski. I like the way he speaks through his characters…Speaking in character allows us to put a supernatural or otherworldly twist on things. I always write from an imaginary point of view, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rooted in reality.’

Here’s ‘Figaro’ from the 2004 Madvillainy album:

This Thom Yorke remix of ‘Gazzillion Ear’ certainly rivals the original from the album BORN LIKE THIS.:

Both ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and ‘Bookhead’ showcase Doom’s incredibly infectious flow:

Rapper Mos Def aka Yasin Bey obviously a big Doom fan recites entire Doom verses in awe.

In the ancient myth the hero Perseus slew Medusa with the aid of a mirrored shield, which he used to avoid direct eye contact with the snakes-for-hair monster. Doom’s back catalogue is a skewed reflection of the absurdity, the beauty, the angst and futility of contemporary Western culture. Through Doom’s eyes we can see the monster’s movements while avoiding for at least a short time its stony stare.

Finally a tip: there is perhaps no greater preparation for a freestyle rap session than listening to ten minutes of Doom.

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Elevator 23: Pharoahe Monch

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Pharoahe Monch has high expectations of himself. As he approaches a new project he sets the bar high. There are few other rappers in the world who marry wonderfully ambitious concepts with carefully constructed delivery. Once they’ve listened to Pharoahe Monch rappers of all ages are quietly embarrassed by their own lack of creative spark. Queens-native Monch is a humbler of artists and he should be honoured for this.

His contribution to the art of hip-hop lyricism is extraordinary.  Intricacy, wit, precision, melody, tone: if you’re doing a master’s degree in rap vocals you study Pharoahe Monch.

I first encountered Monch as part of the group Organized Konfusion in 1994 and I thought, “Oh, I guess this is the standard everybody’s gonna have to judge themselves by from now on”. ‘Stress’ and ‘Stray Bullet’ are not songs you forget.

His solo albums Internal Affairs [1999], Desire [2007], and W.A.R. We Are Renegades [2011] all have an epic, cinematic quality to them addressing global issues as well as emotionally nuanced narrative explorations most notably this tragic trilogy of songs.

Here he returns to the firearms issue:

In a 2011 Village Voice interview Monch laments: “There are real issues going on — I can’t believe the art world in general is removed. I feel like, you know, obviously in the ’70s and the ’60s the artists were more in-tuned with the world and social issues, but the world is so connected to digital information now that I don’t understand how peoples’ hearts are removed from Japan and Libya. We have a nuclear reactor less than 200 miles from here. How come that’s not being talked about?” The answer: those in the celebrity rap elite are too afraid to speak truth to power and the wanna-be celebrity rapper copies their flaccid chatter. In contrast Monch is outspoken politically, socially and prophetically. Check how dynamic rebel music can be:

And yet Monch enjoys salting each project with gritty, nasty rap songs that get rooms of drunken students swearing in unison, songs that you would have to mute the moment your grandmother entered the room.

And he also writes beautiful, inspiring soulful songs that would make him your mum’s favorite rapper. See:

He can and will surprise you.

In this Believer interview he talks about his writing process and his biggest influences.

Maybe it was inevitable that Monch would be one of my 70 elevators: he’s a master of his craft AND he’s an acrid voice of dissent fighting for a fairer, blacker, more beautiful planet.

Download his song ‘Stand Your Ground’ for free here.

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Elevator 14: Dave

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Dave from De La Soul is in my opinion is one of the greatest voices in the history of rap music. De La Soul formed in Long Island, New York in 1987. Their very first demo song ‘Plug Tunin’ is one of the highlights of 1980’s rap music. For a while De La Soul were unignorable.

Dave is a team player, so much so that you rarely hear about him without hearing about Pos, the other rapper in De La Soul. These emcees share verses and frequently back up each other’s lyrics and ideas. Unlike Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav or Andre and Big Boi of Outkast, the De La Soul vocalists are on the same wavelength. So what does Dave have that’s distinctive?

Dave’s vocal delivery exudes the melancholy and soulfulness of the rhythm and blues tradition – he doesn’t flaunt or draw attention to it. It’s just there.

His voice has both authority and a colloquial warmth, but listen closely and you’ll hear a deep anger brewing. The anger does at times spill out like in the classic ‘Stakes is High’. Dave’s verse starts in the laundrette:

Dave less frequently opts for the uppercut punchline than Pos and therein lies his power: restraint, understatement, wicked satire. His verses are like an unbroken stare that makes you second-guess yourself.

My journey with hip-hop music began properly listening to Doug E Fresh and Whodini but it was De La Soul’s startlingly creative album 3 Feet High and Rising and its follow-up De La Soul is Dead that spoke to me in a way that was life changing.

The tragic narrative of Millie Pulled A Pistol on Santa blew my mind, as did the up-tempo defiance of Say No Go. De La Soul managed to conjure up the image of Much Ado about Nothing set in a Burger King and exhibited satirical wit and sincerity in equal measures. These albums made me believe that rappers could be limitlessly creative, playful and dead serious. Dave is all three.

De la Soul will release a new album this year. Here’s their new single ‘Get Away’: Dave’s verse starts 1 min. 40 sec. in with ‘And some’ll believe that they’re leaders…’

Trying People

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Elevator 6: Eternia

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A few years ago when I heard about Eternia’s tour of high schools as part of a Plan Canada charity initiative, I felt compelled to write her to just say: ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing – you’re changing lives’. The tour addressed women’s and girls rights. As a parent of a young girl I’d be dead excited to have a female rapper who’s not afraid to be perceived as a role-model come to speak and rap at my kid’s school about identity, self-esteem and girls rights.

Eternia, originally from Ottawa, now based in NYC, exudes generosity. She’s not content with making records. She whole-heartedly champions various causes and artists. With trademark gusto she hosts this recent free-to-download ‘World Hip Hop Women’ mixtape.

She writes heart-on-sleeve raps. In this interview with Canadian Journal This Magazine she explains: “one of the running critiques of It’s Called Life [her debut full-length release] was, “Great album, great album, too personal.” People don’t want you to go that deep, almost like it made them uncomfortable. But I can say for the most part people really relate and appreciate having someone else speak their story.”

I’m partial to this Beach Boys sampling scorcher of a track ‘Evidence’ from that early album.

In 2010 Eternia and collaborator hip-hop producer MoSS released the heavy-hitting album ‘At Last’. Album opener ‘Any Man’ certainly pulls no punches.

But my goodness, it’s this song ‘To the Future’ which just melts your heart and shows Eternia at her most personal and profound.

Last week Eternia answered a few questions I put to her:

70elevators: Which of your positive attributes is most evident in your music?
E: Probably my faith. I like to think my music has a ‘victorious’, ‘overcome all odds’ feel to it, for the most part. And that is an accurate reflection of my personality and approach to life. The glass is half full no matter what the circumstance. I do my best to appreciate the journey, even in the lowest of moments.

70elevators: If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
E: People living compartmentalized lives and viewing the world in compartments.
Stereotyping, judging, making assumptions: this type of thinking and approach to life drives me crazy. I prefer a more holistic view and approach to all things and all people.

70elevators: If you were introducing someone to hip-hop music which album would you have them listen to?
E: That’s hard. Off the top I would probably say Nas’ ‘Illmatic’.

Here’s her music site: http://eternia.bandcamp.com

And her everything else site: http://therealeternia.tumblr.com/

Down-to-earth, undaunted, positive & profound, Eternia’s a one-woman destroyer of stereotypes and the brilliant thing about a vanquished stereotype is that when it’s gone it’s usually gone for good.