Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Flowtation Device Prezentz: Gang Starr's "You Know My Steez" (RIP GURU) (some cussing)

How well DID we actually know Guru's steez? What words come to mind when you think of his flow? Probably "smooth". (Christgau: "For anyone wondering what 'flow' can mean, Guru's smooth, unshowy delivery, cool in its confident warmth and swift without ever burying words or betraying rush, is one ideal...") Maybe "monotone". (Oliver Wang: "[W]ith his laconic monotone, there was something mesmerizing in his flow.") How about "virtuosic"?

If you Google "guru premier flow virtuoso" (you have to throw in "premier" to avoid all the Indian raga virtuosi), you get results that call DJ Premier a virtuoso, or that call the various jazz players assembled for Guru's Jazzmatazz series virtuosic, but very little if anything applying the term to Guru. Christgau's got it right: he wasn't showy, he didn't rush, you could usually understand what he was saying. This is part of what made Jazzmatazz so appealing to me as a little high school pipsqueak. (That, and he didn't cuss, no doubt out of respect for his elders.) He wasn't, you know, TWISTA (hometown!), who's in the Guinness book for pronouncing 11.2 syllables per second. (Although, to be fair to my strawmen, "twista flow virtuoso" doesn't yield a whole lot more. Is rap resistant to the term "virtuoso", if not the concept?)

The Flowtation Device humbly proposes that, if your idea of virtuosity has room for Twista but not Guru, you deserve a verbal ass whip. A rapper's virtuosity isn't simply a juvenile parlor trick, the flow equivalent of a Dragonforce guitar solo. It's making the words breathe, commanding a beat, finding a way to spit life into a song. It might not land you in Guinness, but it's a musical challenge just as hard as talking like the Micro Machine Man (alma mater!)--and aesthetically it's worth a lot more. I'm not saying there's NOT room in the Virtuoso House for Twista or Bone Thugz (the FD is SO gonna get to them someday)--but let Guru in too.

So, how does Guru breathe life into "You Know My Steez"? Listen, and we'll discuss:

Pretty simple, right?--a rhyme every second bar, only a couple instances of triplets (which are a poor-man's virtuosity anyway), and that smooth monotone throughout, not even acknowledging his own jokes or death threats. How is Guru different than Rick Ross, who's quickly become our go-to example of a listenable hack-rapper? (Sorry dude.)

In a fascinating 2003 interview, Guru described his working method with Premier:

"Our formula is like this. We start with the title. Then, Premier makes the beat. Then, I do the rhymes. Each time I do a rhyme, I am writing it directly to the beat. So, whatever flow I do has to go directly to the beat."

Now, I've no idea whether Rick Ross tailors his flow to his beats or not--but since his flow is THE SAME IN EVERY SONG, I kinda doubt it. In "Steez", Guru rhymes every second bar because Premier's beat is four bars long. It's neat and tidy, a rhyme for every beat cycle. But Guru's virtuosity allows him to take this premise--"I will rhyme every second bar"--and then toy with our expectations, using only his mad love and the illest warlike tactics. The four lines that begin Verse 2 are the most straightforward statement of this pattern:

*.*.*.*the /
BEATisSINisTER.PRIMo / MAKESyouRElax=i'mLIKEthe / (2&)
MINisTER.*whenIbe / LACin'THEwax=.Ibe / (2&)
BRINGin'SALva=tionTHROUGHthe / WAYthatIrap*.*and / (2&)
YOUknow*andIknow*i'm / NICE_LIKEthat*work=through / (2&)

Every line-ending rhyme--"relax," "wax," "rap," "that"--falls on the "&" of beat 2. Of course, Guru throws in several interior rhymes and changes up the rhythm at the beginning of each line, so already he's two steps beyond Rick Ross's huffing and puffing. But this sequence is one of the exceptions to Guru's "Steez"--in most other line-ending rhymes, the rhyming words fall on different beats. Sometimes the rhymes are close, only off by a half-beat or a beat:

you'reINthe /
TERrorDOME_LIKEmyMAN_ / CHUCKd*said*it'sTIMEto / (2&)
DEthrone=youCLONES_*and / ALLyouKNUCKleHEADS.*cause / (3)

M.C'ShaveUSED.UPex / TENDedWARranTIES.*while / (3)
REALm=c's=andDj's / =areAmiNORiTY. / (4)

The rhymes of "warranties" and "minority" fall a beat apart in their respective bars, but this isn't uncommon for rappers of even modest skillz--right, Vanillz?:

DANCE.*.*bumRUSHthe / SPEAKerTHAT.BOOMS.*i'm / (3)

In the case of both Guru and Vanilla Ice, when the second rhyming word hits later than the first one, it gives the couplet a sense of added resolution. This technique is pretty common.

What happens, then, when the second rhyming word hits earlier than the first one? Why, we get one of the song's laff lines, from Verse 1:

*soASiHAVEinTHEpast / *iWHUPass=. (2&)

Guru sets up an elegy for The Game, ending on beat 4, and then lands his punchline--"I whup ass"--a beat and a half early, for emphasis. Since his monotone delivery doesn't change, it's important to note that Guru's selling his punchline SOLELY with his use of rhythmic placement. He lets his rhythm tell the joke for him, without feeling the need to change his inflection. That's a big reason people describe Guru as "smooth" and "cool" all the time.

In another variation, Guru turns a two-rhyme couplet into a three-rhyme couplet (triplet?). In Verse 1, he gives us these:

*.SPORTin'CAPS_PULLEDlow / =andBAGgySLACKS_*sub / (3)
TRACTin'ALLtheRAPpersWHOlack / *oVERpreMIER'S_TRACKS_ / (4&, 4)

*theWILDerNESSisFILLEDwith / THIS.*soMANyPEOple / (1)
SEARCHingFORfalse=lift*i'm / HERE_WIT'theSKILLSyou'veMISSED_ / (3&, 4)

Again, this isn't an unusual rhyme pattern--I think we witnessed Mos Def doing something similar--but it's another variation that Guru effortlessly sneaks into an apparently stable couplet pattern. Especially since he's been throwing in all manner of internal rhyme and assonance up to this point, it feels especially effortless, like a couplet masquerading as a secondary internal rhyme.

Finally, in Verse 2 Guru turns the couplet pattern around. Remember Premier's four-bar beat pattern? Up until now Guru's couplets have been almost entirely enclosed within each statement of the beat--the first rhyming word hits in the second bar, the second rhyming word hits in the fourth bar, and it's a tidy little beat/rhyme package. But then, Guru decides to add a third rhyming word, which pushes his couplet pattern back two bars, and his couplets overlap the beat until verse's end. Here's what it looks like:

[beginning of four-bar beat pattern]
WORldLYprob=lems=i / GOTtheHEALingPOWerWHENthe / 3
MIC'SwithINmyREACH.*i'm / FEELin'MOREpowERstealIN'at / 2&

[beginning of four-bar beat pattern]
LEAST.THREEminUTESofEV'ry / RAPraDIoHOur*it's /

[beginning of four-bar beat pattern]
IS_FORaPERson=to / RUN_ONE'Sown=life=. /
*that'sWHYiCAN'TbeCAUGHTup / *inALLtheHYPE.*i /

[beginning of four-bar beat pattern]
KEEPmySOUL_TIGHTandLETthese / LINES_TAKEflight=theAPpar /

[and so on]

Look at how, with the rhyme of the second "power" and "hour," the rhymes and the beat patterns stop lining up and begin to overlap. I'm not sure there's any programmatic reason for this effect--it seems to be virtuosity and interest for virtuosity's and interest's sake. But hey, what else is virtuosity FOR, right?

The worst examples of virtuosity (Dragonforce, some Bone Thugs) are off-putting; they erect a wall between artist and audience. Guru's subtler, more confident virtuosity draws us in. It's almost like he picked "Steez"'s deceptively simple rhyme scheme just to show how much he could do with it. He was a master, not just of maintaining interest, but of mesmerizing.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ke$ha's CD is TOTALLY WORTH IT!!!!

You know, "Blah Blah Blah" never really did it for me until I roller skated to it with a bunch of middle school kids.

Anyway, this is MY favorite Ke$ha review, at least--but then, I'm biased. God bless the Burnside Writers' Collective!

She was at the Grammys?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Surfing With Culture

Culture seem like a good entry point into discussing the Babylon symbol as it's used in reggae. After all, they have NINE songs with Babylon in the title, and plenty more that contain Babylon deep within their grooves and words. In reggae, the Babylon symbol is always present, if only between the lines, and its meaning is pretty consistent--it's the system that's opposed to the will of Jah, and that keeps Jah's people (the Rastafari) from fully experiencing the divine life. Reggae is more nuanced when it asks the question, "Given its existence, what do we do about Babylon?" Joseph Hill, Culture's head honcho and chief lyricist, railed against the symbol in various ways, so Culture's stuff can serve as a lens through which to view the rest of reggae's "Babylon" symbology. It's not an exhaustive lens, but a useful one nonetheless.

Their earliest Babylon song (going just by songs with "Babylon" in the title) was 1978's "So Long Babylon a Fool I (and I)", from the album Baldhead Bridge. To my ears, it's also their best--a slow elegy based on the older Nyabinghi drumming style, with some gentle horn and organ lines drifting along. (Nyabinghi drumming is built around three drums: the low Thunder, hitting on one and three; the mid-ranged Funde, sounding like a heartbeat; and the high Repeater, the song's lead instrument, improvising throughout. You can hear 'em all in this song! More familiar reggae beats and instrumentation grew out of this configuration.)

Lyrically, "So Long" has an ambiguous double-meaning. Sometimes Hill uses the title phrase to mean "farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu"; sometimes he means, "MAN, we've been stuck in Babylon a long time!" He'd echo this theme of leaving in 2000's "Nah Stay Inna Babylon," and the "leave Babylon" strategy has been operative since the time of Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line (or since Israel's exile, depending how far back you wanna go). So there's one option.

Another option, also considered by Culture, is to "chant Babylon down." They advocate this move in 1997's not-so-ambiguously-titled "Chant Down Babylon," and also 1979's "Blood Inna Babylon." Note that they never advocate direct violence, and indeed I can't think of any reggae songs that do, though I'm sure they're out there. (Leave your requests and dedications in the comments, please!) Instead, Rastas tend to go for non-violent options. "Chanting down" is popular, and recalls Joshua circling the walled city of Jericho (though of course Joshua also proved to be a non-non-violent genocidal maniac). The chanting can also refer to calling down curses upon Babylon, as in "Blood": "I hail if Babylon kills one more Rastaman, I say / The sun will stop from shining / The grass will stop from growing." So ending Babylon is something we do, but we do it through Jah's hand.

If those don't suit ya, you can always simply MOCK Babylon. This seemed to be Hill's M.O. in the '80s, with 1980's "Babylon Can't Study" (...the Rastaman because he's bigger than Babylon) and 1982's "Babylon's Big Dog." Here's an interview with Hill that explains the inspiration for the latter tune:

“Well 'Babylon Big Dog' is a song created from the
unnecessary worries that babylon gives me. It's like I
was coming from a place in Jamaica called James
Mountain, in a very old car belonging to one of my
brethen called brother Honey... Instead of coming in, in peace, there was a
murder somewhere down the road. And then we realised
that Babylon [THE MAN] and his big dog [A COP] was there. As we pass
through, babylon tried to catch us, but this old car
was modified, and was too fast for them... So while we was
chasing away from babylon, I just start singing the
song and brother Honey crouch over the steering wheel
and start pushing the old car down," Joe laughs again.
"And they never catch us. So it really means it was
making me feel more victorious making the song triumph
over them."

And then sometimes you can simply ride it out. I'm thinking of '96's "Down In Babylon," which isn't so much about Babylon itself, as it is a lament for any sort of stable resistance to Babylon. Around a plaintive trombone solo, Hill asks, "Where are all the Rastamen who used to teach human rights and stand upright and lead and feed our nation?" [I paraphrase.] This presupposes that we're staying in Babylon, at least for the time being, and are organizing systems of our own to help bring about a society that Jah would like better.

(I'm too lazy to link to all these, but you know how to use Youtube.)

There may be other answers to the question, "What do we do about Babylon?" These four are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they also indicate that reggae answers its fundamental question more symbolically than politically. I may be wrong, but I'm not sure any reggae since Bob Marley has had measurable political effects. But that's not to say the situation's hopeless, that a symbol can't make a difference.

For one thing, the ideas of "leaving Babylon" and "chanting down Babylon" can empower individuals to change their everyday lives, even if it only means getting through the day a little happier. And for another thing, these symbols aren't just PREscriptive, they're also DEscriptive. Trevor McNaughton of the Melodians told me a couple years ago, "Babylon fall every day, man." You see this in every act of justice, whether it's one person sitting down to a meal with a homeless guy, or the SEC fining archenemies-of-the-people Goldman Sachs. God's/Jah's Kingdom breaks in where it will, and we do what we can to hasten it.

And in the meantime, Joseph Hill would advise, we can make fun of Babylon as we ride it out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: John Anderson doing "Swingin'"

According to Rick Jackson and his nefarious "Country Hall of Fame," "Swingin'" is Anderson's signature song:

It doesn't really swing, though--lopes, struts, bounces, gallivants, rollicks, but there's no denying the fact that it's played straight and not swung. (Not that I'm complaining.) Likewise, Anderson plays his amusing story completely straight, seemingly oblivious to all the double- and triple-entendres he's pulling out of one innocent word. In that respect, Anderson's one-of-a-kind voice works to his advantage--it's so open and unusual, it allows him to play the part of The Wide-Eyed Rube while making jokes and social observations that are spot-on. (Rick Jackson and I also love Anderson's "Black Sheep." Describing his rich sister and her banker husband, Anderson sings, "They like to get together and talk about all the things they got." How perfect is that? And how many people like that do you know?)

Anyway, here's jazz critic Gary Giddins's mysterious definition of "swing": "a graceful way of advancing time that suggests ironic distance from time itself." I'm not sure how that applies to John Anderson--who is both graceful and ironic--but it's worth mulling over for the rest of the day. (For me. You don't have to mull.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Best Thing I Heard at the Institute of Liturgical Studies: the VU Chorale doing "Veni, Sancte Spiritus" by Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna contains the most hopeful dissonances I've heard. Nearly everywhere you listen, voice parts are singing a step apart, or crossing each other's lines, yet the music rarely SOUNDS dissonant. Instead, it's full of joy and wonder, rendered complex by its unexpected harmonies. All this is an appropriate setting for the ancient words of "Veni, Sancte Spiritus", which speak of faith in the complex context of fallen humanity:

Without your divine will,
there is nothing in man,
nothing that is harmless.

Wash that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,
warm that which is chilled,
make right that which is wrong.

The "VSS" is the fourth movement of Lux Aeterna, immediately following the more famous "O Nata Lux", which our church choir is singing Sunday. (Holla!) (This video is NOT the VU Chorale, but the Chorale sounded just as good.) In no way have I given "O Nata Lux" the analysis it deserves, but here's one tentative harmonic observation. Lauridsen seems to realize that a major triad with the second thrown in sounds banal if it's overused--think, maybe, the piano chords in "Bui Doi" from Miss Saigon. (Don't get me wrong, I sort of love that song, but you have to admit it's total schlock.) A couple big arrival points in "ONL" use the major I added 2, but Lauridsen wisely steers clear the rest of the time. Instead, he employs the same chord IN FIRST INVERSION, or with an added fourth instead of a second, and creates eternal chords of mystical wonder. Indeed, Lauridsen's been called "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic". I might add Morton Feldman, but his mysticism is different, more transcendentalist. Maybe Lauridsen's the only Christian mystic--though I've no idea whether he's a Christian or not.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman are WORTH IT

Or so sez me at the Burnside Writers' Collective.

I think I got a guitar technicality wrong: if Gary Lucas is swooping UP the fretboard, his pitch would go down, right? And vice-versa? Anyway, here's the song in question, "Let My People Go" (not exactly the same as the recording, still really impressive):

Bowman's impressive, too--now I'm concerned I gave him short shrift.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Intocable doing "Estamos En Algo" (PERHAPS MY SPANISH-SPEAKING FRIENDS CAN HELP)

Note: this photo's linked from, which is the best English source of Latin music info I've found.

The lyrics of this song seem to be a zen koan. Or no--they're a pool! A reflective pool, still and beautiful, that conceals the teeming life at the heart of every relationship. Here's the refrain, translated with the help of Google, a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, and my own refined sense of poesy:

Y si estas
Pensando en mí
Yo también
Pienso en ti
Y los dos
Y los dos
Estamos en algo

Which is beautiful, and which translates as--what?--

And if you are thinking of me
Then I'm also thinking of you
And we two
And we two
We are in something

This is Cartesian, right? Only now, our existence is proven by the fact that we're thinking of one another? (But that title--is "algo" ("somthing") maybe used in some idiomatic way I don't understand?) And by our longing--the verse lyrics (see bottom) seem to indicate that thinking leads to longing, and longing lets us know we're alive.

Dig those rhythms! I count three distinct ones, drawing from soul, ska, and even the herky-jerk '60s country of "Harper Valley PTA." They're what drew me in in the first place--the lyrics were just a nice surprise.

Here's the verse, for your edification:
Si no estas
Pensando en mí
No estas en nada

Pero yo
Pensando estoy
En tu mirada

Y si estas
Pensando en mí
Estas en algo

Yo por verte
Este día
Se me hace largo

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Worth-It Roundup January-March 2010 ($tarring Ke$ha!!!!)

Hello, happy music lovers, and a joyful Eastertide to you all! Did you know that "Easter" is derived from Babylonian fertility goddess (and friend of the blog) Ishtar? At least, that's the gist of all the paranoid "Babylon" updates I seem to get every year around this time. Actually, this year it wasn't so bad--the tinfoil-hat crowd seems more concerned that Ahmadenijad is going to bomb the US Air Force base at newly-rebuilt Babylon, razing that ancient city for good and paving the way for Christ's millennial reign. (I think.) At which point, you'll only be able to listen to the choir of heavenly host OR the eternal screams of damnation, depending on whether you voted for Obama. So before this impending eschatological brouhaha, might I recommend you hurry up and listen to the following 15 singles and albums?

I make no apology for this entry or my #2 album, below. It's not mindless boosterism--it's simply that I happened to hear them because of my "Babylon" alerts, and they're really good. Note that I'm making no mention of those scoundrels in SOJA.

Speaking of Soldiers in Jah's Army (Jah=Love, right?):"Soldier of Love"--Sade

"Speechless"--Lady Gaga
In case there was any doubt about what a great songwriter she is, here's her sop to old dudes who can't stomach dance music. Worked on me! This is my favorite song of hers, though I like plenty of the others. I love her unhinged growl near the end, and the fact that the drummer seems to be having fun, bashing away. I also enjoy that, while claiming to be speechless, she shows no signs of shutting up anytime soon. (This paradox finds precedent, of course, in Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon," the original song about not being able to sing.)

"American Saturday Night"--Brad Paisley
I won't lie, the happy consumerism of this ode to assimilation bothers me, insofar as it seems to elevate globalization over immigration, products over people. On the other hand, maybe that's just the baseline of his argument: "You Red-Staters keep talking about these 'damn foreigners', but they're great! At the very least, look at all the cool stuff they sell us." Or maybe I'm just sick of critics, including myself, imagining that Paisley is somehow their mediator with the "typical country audience." Maybe he's just a good songwriter who loves Amstel Light and plays some amazingly fluid guitar, of which this song has lots.

"Bedrock"--Young Money
Here's the entertaining ILM thread.

"Tik Tok"--Ke$ha
See Album #1, below. (Heard this at the Middle School skate party last night!)

"Call Me Dragon"--These Monsters
These monsters of post-rock have a sax player! Also, they rock. In fact, I'm not sure they qualify as "post-rock," and should instead be classified as "instrumental rock." You can't just call EVERY instrumental band post-rock; otherwise, you'd have to call the Ventures and the Surfaris post-rock, and that'd just confuse little kids. I dunno, this is all I've heard of them, so maybe in other songs they bring their formidable rockingness to bear on non-rock Aboriginal funeral chants or something. (Thanks, Castro!)

"Why Don't We Just Dance"--Josh Turner
"Bricks and Mortar"--Editors
"Chase the Tear"--Portishead
"Ala Freakin' Bama"--Trace Adkins
"Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong"--Martina McBride
"Rainy Days at the Beach"--Sable
"A Little More Country Than That"--Easton Corbin
Heard those last two just before the new decade commenced, driving through central Missouri, which unsurprisingly has better country radio than northern Illinois. Corbin's currently #1, so he counts for this year. I'm not sure about Sable--his song might be firmly entrenched in 2009. (It's gentle Buffett-country.)

When I posted this album list on this ILM thread, I mentioned that only the Ke$ha and WASP albums were consistently surprising and exciting. Ke$ha haterz cried foul. We discussed. If you wanna check out the discussion, go there and search by "WASP"--that'll get you where you're going.

The internet is, naturally, a glittery vomitorium of Ke$ha commentary. Much of it is really interesting. (Kogan's got a nice overview of links here.) Since nobody reads this, I'll go out on a limb and say that her singing is as important and challenging as Dylan's, Rotten's, Axl's. (This is what I was working toward in those ILM posts.) I need to do some more thinking about why, but basically it's this: her music is great; her singing is Wrong; the Wrongness of her singing is integral to her music's greatness. Which is to say, her music is NOT great in spite of her singing's Wrongness. Rather, she opens up previously unexplored vistas of Right Singing, showing how the rest of us have been wrong all along.

To do: elucidate what I mean by "Wrong." Obviously, I myself am prepared to be proven wrong at some point. Obviously, if you don't hear the greatness in her music, you might not care about her importance. But like Eminem a decade ago, her music is full of undeniable life that's going to take a while to explain. (And has anyone YET explained fully the greatness of The Marshall Mathers LP?)

Mary J. Blige--Stronger With Each Tear
Vampire Weekend--Contra
Josh Turner--Haywire
Some good chatter about Turner and the Carolina Chocolate Drops (see below) at the ILM Rolling Country thread.

David Bowie--A Reality Tour
Carolina Chocolate Drops--Genuine Negro Jig
XP8--Drop the Mask
Nneka--Concrete Jungle
Alicia Keys--The Element of Freedom
Los Tucanes de Tijuana--Retro-Corridos
Blake Shelton--Hillbilly Bone
Gary Lucas & Dean Bowman--Chase the Devil
Lady Antebellum--Need You Now