Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why, precisely, can’t anyone at something resembling a major label put together a decent historically minded hip-hop compilation? I’m looking at you, Tommy Boy Presents Hip Hop Essentials 1979-91, a projected 12 compilations that on paper (and in the air--I got the first eight) all look exactly the same--namely, like Tommy Boy’s people put all the most obvioius stuff from the Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists Top 40 singles onto iTunes and then hit random. Voila! Instant product! What the fuck, people? Does it take a Ph.D to figure out that “Be a Father to Your Child” into “Just Buggin’” into “Fuck Compton" sounds as sloppy as it looks, or that even a minimum of effort in both vault-digging and sequencing would equal something anyone with ears might want to actively listen to instead of filing away or, worse, review by more or less saying, "I'm so glad I got these for free"? Why in hip-hop are rarities the exclusive province of rarities comps and not strewn in with P.E.-De La-L.L.-Biz-Rakim-EPMD-Kane-etc. yes-we-know-they’re-classics, where they might throw things into relief if not in fact offer some? Or if you’re going to just make some party comps then actually make them worth partying to instead of all this perverse too-lame-to-actually-be-jarring song-to-song-transition shit? Do you know how fast you’d get kicked out of a party by hogging the stereo only to run “Microphone Fiend” into “Bonita Applebum” into “Parents Just Don’t Understand”? What the FUCK? (Also, since this is such a “historical” and important enterprise, would it kill someone to have copy-edited the goddamned liner notes? Raquel Cepeda’s for Volume 3 verge on dada, and not just because of the typos--there are words missing in more than one sentence.) Jeff Chang’ll kill me for saying this (and not just because he wrote the notes for one of ’em), but these would’ve been a hell of a lot better if they’d just done them a la Soul Jazz’s Dynamite! series, where the range is so much wider that the random-button effect offers surprises around every corner. I mean, if that’s what you're after, why not just go completely nuts, throw in as many curios as classics, give the thing some dynamic range instead of this “Yep, that’s the way it was back in the day. I know, because I was there, and I saw it, and we believed” junk? We know you believed! Now teach us something we don’t already know.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Hi! I'm still here. I've just been swamped in work, and when not that, really enjoying not working, esp. on T-giving--MAN did I enjoy that 12-piece bucket of KFC and assorted sides I picked up for the occasion! I wish more were going on worth noting, but with year-end coming up and Gift Guides (not my favorite thing, but still, gotta do 'em) in the works, it's a hectic time chez Matos. I will probably do something longish here soon, though, so hold tight, and thanks for not taking me off yr sidebars (yet).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I'm very happy with this one: Me and 13 other writers chronicled 24 hours of music in Seattle. Not, of course, a new idea--City Pages did a stellar one of these three years ago, and Spin did a national version in 1990--but I think this one reads great.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Yesterday afternoon, just for sport, I created a CD-R length 1970 mix from the songs both Nate Patrin and I included in our megamixes for that year (mine had 128 songs, his had 100). The mix is a good one, if hardly authoritative, which in a way makes it more accurate--mostly avoiding landmarks, you get a more representational lay of the land, or of how the land feels, in a day-to-day-basis kind of way. Tracklist: Ennio Morricone, “Citta Violenta (Titoli)”; Free, “All Right Now”; Neil Young, “When You Dance I Can Really Love”; Can, “Mother Sky”; John McLaughlin, “Dragon Song”; Eric Burdon & War, “Spill the Wine”; Wilson Pickett, “Get Me Back on Time, Engine no. 9 (Pt. 1 & 2)”; Vicki Anderson, “Super Good (Answer to Super Bad) (Pt. 1 & 2)”; the Meters, “Look-Ka Py Py”; Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band, “Express Yourself”; the Lost Generation, “The Sly, Slick and the Wicked”; the Spinners, “It’s a Shame”; Overton Berry Trio, “Hey Jude”; the Slickers, “Johnny Too Bad”; U-Roy & Duke Reid, “Wear You to the Ball”; Desmond Dekker, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”; Jimmy Cliff, “Vietnam”; the Beatles, “Let It Be.”

Obviously, I’m exaggerating somewhat about landmarks or lack thereof. There’s plenty of stuff there that’s pretty legendary or at least somewhat. But I think the stuff that’s less so humanizes the mix, makes it approachable, turns it from That Titanic Year 1970 to 1970, A Year in an appealing way. That’s what I’d like to see more lists of this sort do, be they the Blender 500 or the Rolling Stone 500 or Pazz & Jop 2005 or whatever--acknowledge that the relatively ordinary is necessary to balance out the deliberate masterworks, and that both can function in the same manner, that they enhance each other without taking anything away from either. (Still annoyed at a much older coworker’s proclamation on Friday that A.J. Liebling can’t possibly be a great writer because he didn’t write about great themes; still think it’s total fucking hogwash, even more so now that I’m not drunk.)

Re-reading the piece I wrote for Baltimore City Paper three years ago about Boom Selection_Issue 01, I feel more than a little naive. For one thing, I was treating as an album what amounted to a paid-for CD-R dump of one man’s MP3 folder, a strategy I would soon be utilizing myself during my attempt to rid myself of a physical CD collection by digitizing the lot (a process that continues, though I’m in far less of a hurry to sell off items I like). For another, it’s utopian in a way I balk at even given my continuing tendency toward wild-eyed optimism. I don’t think either I or the piece were stupid, exactly; I’m just a little embarrassed at how thoroughly I had convinced myself that because mash-ups as a trend (not as a form; I was obviously familiar with their predecessors) felt exciting to me it might be the harbinger of something . . . maybe not new, but different, a wrinkle worth exploring, one that might shake out something else entirely, a border-crossing worth attending to.

Right after re-reading my piece I re-read Dale Lawrence’s from the Chicago Reader, which I thought then and still do got the tone I wanted exactly right. Both of us came to them, seemingly, as pop fans who heard an intensification of pop’s pleasure in physical fact rather than merely as idea--meta-pop that delivered. We heard lines being crossed and ideas blurred. It was novel, sure, but it kept moving past novelty into somewhere else altogether. For me, it felt like a next step after a heady period for pop, beginning roughly with the late-’90s rise of Timbaland and then the Neptunes (and OutKast), taking in the more voluptuous end of house (Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx, Luomo), and throwing in the more swaggering, sexed-up end of indie rock, however narcotic or neurotic that could be (Strokes, White Stripes). There was lots more, but as ILM and Pitchfork and a lot of other things began to emerge and dovetail, the end of the ’90s and beginning of the ’00s--1998-2002, to be schematic about it--felt blessedly heady. Mash-ups, it seemed to me then, were a meeting point, a place for everything to connect before, it’s obvious now, diverging again. In 2002 they felt like a portal to the next phase; now they sound like a cap on their era.

Like most things that gather momentum, mash-ups became a glut market, and that probably had as much as anything to do with the quiet diminishing of their cultural moment. But I have to wonder whether the iPod had more to do with it. I am trying to be careful here by emphasizing that I’m speaking only for myself, but 2002 felt like a pop year dominated by tech-driven methodology. Obviously, hip-hop and techno and ragga are dependent upon technology to sound the way they sound. But mash-ups are completely dependent upon technology to exist in the first place, even if we’re simply talking about live blends performed on dual turntables. Sure, you make a hybrid by singing new words to an old tune; mash-ups startle because they commingle the what I’ll call the basic sound-manufacture of multiple records in one place. This is different from e.g. MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” where we recognize the basic sound-manufacture of the Rick James backing track, plus there’s a guy rapping on top of it. With e.g. “A Stroke of Genius,” you recognize the basic sound-manufacture of the Strokes’ music and the basic sound-manufacture of Christina Aguilera’s vocal--not just the grain of the voice, but the grain of the production of that voice, and the grain of the production of the Strokes’ guitars, bass, and drums. It’s also different from e.g. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising or Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in that aural snippets and loops are given new shape and definition by the guys rapping on them--the effect is kaliedoscopic in a way that’s similar to mash-ups, but mash-ups are far more disorienting, because their shapes are determined by their components alone. Even when those components are rearranged, they’re still recognizable as themselves, and their inner logic seems to doing the work, rather than being sublimated to the rapper’s or producer’s will, whatever the actual amount of work the producer has done (in some cases, quite a lot) to ensure that A and B fit neatly together.

Mash-ups offered a glimpse into what a less-bordered sonic future might hold--a glimpse, I’d reckon, that the iPod broke apart. If mash-ups sounded like all the records in your collection commingling as records, rather than as discrete sonic artifacts, the iPod allowed them to commingle more intimately than ever as discrete sonic artifacts, with less overt disorientation but also without the taint of novelty. A shelf could fit in your pocket, and played on random it could take on a life and shape of its own that you might not have figured for it, one that might teach you something you didn’t know about your own collection. A lot of the shock of mash-ups had to do with their reconfiguring of well known songs, but the iPod reconfigured (in a different way) songs well known to their owner rather than the public at large, which gave them a more immediate and solipsistic appeal. That’s how it worked for (again I emphasize) me, anyway--once my collection became an easy-to-access playground (well, relatively easy--I still had to rip and upload the songs), the novelty shifted to hearing what I already had and liked in new ways, or just on easy repeat, which is probably my favorite thing about the iPod.

I hope I’m not belaboring my point here, and I do want to be clear that it’s a musing and not a manifesto. But I wondered where that future-shock feeling of that ’02 article went, and I suspect this may have been where.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Department of stuff that only Minneapolis people (and a handful of touring musicians) would appreciate: My Halloween costume consisted of my normal street clothes and some straw stuffed into the top of my shirt, sticking out of my chest. Who was I? Steve McClellan.