Soulja Boy.

That was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?


now what you hear is not a test

Why does my race (white people) have to ruin everything cool? Everything cool?

Item the first: from the upcoming VH1 documentary series, “Lords of the Revolution,” each episode highlighting a controversial figure of the late 60s. Episode 101 is about Muhammed Ali:

In an era defined by protest and turbulence, perhaps nobody captured the attention of America in the late 1960s more so than Muhammad Ali. As heavyweight champion, Ali electrified the sports world with his sharp tongue and showmanship flare. (His spontaneous rhymes, in fact, are often considered to be the precursor of rap.)

Oh my fuck.

Look: for at least a few decades before Rev. Run met Jam Master Jay, the word “rap” was known to mean “talking in a loose, rhythmic manner,” hence the phrase “can I rap with you for a second” used by cool cats in the 50s and 60s, hence the phrase “now what you hear is not a test / I’m rappin’ to the beat” in the Sugar Hill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight,” because of the relative novelty (to non-urban America) of someone rapping over a bass track and the result being recorded as a song in its own right, so, while perhaps Muhammed Ali’s rhymes might be a precursor to hip-hop music, they could not be a precursor to rap, because that is in fact what he was doing; he was rapping; everyone who heard him do it called it rapping; people rapped all the time, and while the word “rap” may be synonymous with a genre of music today, it wasn’t in Ali’s day; saying that Muhammed Ali invented rap is like saying Russell Simmons invented poetry, and while it may seem like I’m blowing a poor choice of words out of proportion here, I’m freaking out of my skull because the choice of words belies a fundamental ignorance of (A) black culture, (B) popular music, or (C) the culture of the late 60s, and failing at even one of those, if not all three, suggests poor things for a documentary on the Lords of the Revolution.

(deep breath)

# # #

Item the second: two hipsters covering the theme from the Jeffersons:

This shouldn’t evoke a stronger response in me than “meh,” but I can’t help it.

“Movin’ On Up” is a soulful and danceable song about overcoming poverty through upward class mobility. It translates the American dream – that hard work can pay off for anyone – to the struggling black community. It’s full of celebration at having arrived (on the East Side) and optimism for an even sunnier future. But what really makes it beautiful is being able to bring the whole family along (“as long as we live, it’s you and me baby; there ain’t nothing wrong with that”). We’ve finally got a piece of the pie.

So: rising in social class through the use of labor and capital. Sticking together as a family. And the struggle for black identity in America. If I had to capture the opposite of those three concepts in a single symbol, it’d be a North Carolina hipster playing a trombone on his iPhone.

I’m not saying1 that “Moving On Up” is possessed of some special negritude that means white people could never possibly sing it. Music ain’t like that. And I’m not saying that the theme song from “The Jeffersons” has some untouchable sanctity. You could play it for laughs. Hell, Hitler singing it is hilarious.

But if you want to cover a really good song like “Moving On Up,” you ought to either (A) cover it faithfully or (B) add something of value to it (like humor, or a new and interesting interpretation).

Is this a faithful cover? No. It’s two white guys who just robbed a thrift store. They bulge their eyes and put on fake soul accents for the close-ups. They play their instruments with as little emotion as possible. They shoot the video in front of backdrops so featureless that the Gap would call them bland. They insert editing tricks for their own sake (overlaying a close-up from a different shot on top of their bodies! wacky!). This song could only vault further from its origins if one of them had bagpipes2.

Does it add something of value? No. It’s not particularly funny, aside from the absurdity of two white guys rich enough to afford an iPhone, an HD camera and After Effects CS4 “movin’ on up” from anywhere. And even that’s more of a how-dare-you absurd than a ha-ha absurd. It’s not as if a jazzy number that had a full band and gospel choir in its original incarnation suffered for lack of a slide trombone.

Hipsters! Ruining everything!

# # #

Is this what white guilt feels like?

1 I probably use this phrase more often than any other in this weblog.

2 My thanks to reader Tom D. for coming up with the least soulful instrument on a moment’s notice.

’cause I’m as ill as the convict who kills for phone time

If you’re not already subscribing, you should check out this week’s Overthinking It podcast, in which four white guys and an Asian argue about rap music. We also sling terms like “racially normative” around and, at one point, call Mozart “soulless and technical.” It’s the most controversial podcast I’ve ever been on; don’t miss it.

# # #

Media blows monitor your movements:

Brazil: Tasha Robinson over at the AVClub gave Terry Gilliam a lifetime pass for directing Brazil, and I have to agree with her. With a savage look at the demoralizing effects of bureaucracy and the numbing balm of consumer culture, Gilliam depicts a world too plausible to be real. It’s 1984 with punch and savage wit. The puppeteering and other effects, dated though they are, work wonderfully: Jonathan Pryce as an airborne angel, the legions of hunchbacked baby-faced ghouls, etc.

Half-Life 2: Started playing this about a week ago. I can go at it for maybe forty-five minutes at a time before I get revulsed or frustrated. Either something disgusting leaps out of a corner and attacks me (oh fuck, it’s on the ceiling, it’s pulling me up into its mouth, oh FUCK) or I hit a repetitive stretch of gameplay and tap out. However, I can definitely see what the fuss was about: the controls feel smoother and the enemy A.I. smarter than any other shooter I’ve played in a while. And there’s such an obsessive level of verite in every aspect of the world – from the scraps of paper and graffiti to the periodic radio announcements from City 17 – that I almost don’t want to leave.

there ain’t no need for ya

I have a real problem with pop songs that coast to success by sampling really, really good songs.

The most recent example of this is M.I.A.’s breakout hit, “Paper Planes.” The backing track comes from The Clash’s classic ur-ragga of post-colonial blues, “Straight to Hell.” Take one good song, a catchy hook (“all I wanna do is blam blam blam blam“), some mediocre lyrics and voila! Instant pop music! And not only are the lyrics fairly pedestrian, she repeats them twice. So the food’s no good and the portions are too small.

M.I.A. I can excuse, however, because screaming hordes of teenagers don’t instantly recognize “Straight to Hell.” There’s no law saying a sample has to be obscure, but I prefer it. It proves that people evaluate your song on its own merits, not by nostalgic transfer.

By that standard, Kid Rock’s 2008 dump, “All Summer Long,” is pure garbage.

Yeah, that’s a sign of true artistic talent right there. That’s the hallmark of genuine aesthetic integrity – sampling two of the most popular rock songs of the 70s, songs that are practically encoded in the DNA of every American born since 1977, and snarling half-baked lyrics that sound like John Mellencamp’s rejected first draft of “Jack and Diane.” You think folks will like it? Really putting yourself out on a limb there, Kid Rock! You bold genius! You maverick auteur!

The most egregious example I’ve ever seen of this comes from Mase and Bad Boy Records, circa 1997, with “Feels So Good”:

Never has the gulf between build-up (“ohmyGAWD, it’s DJ Kool, this my jam!”) and let down (“oh, shit, it’s just Ma$e again”) been so tragic.

I don’t object to artists sampling popular tracks for their songs. Kanye does it. Biggie and Tupac did it. Hell, “Good Times” wasn’t exactly an obscure song when the Sugar Hill Gang looped the bass. But in the two examples listed above – and in countless other examples I’m sure you can think of – the sampling’s so obviously mercenary. It’s talented hacks riding the coattails of more popular songs. That shit’s garbage, and I won’t stand for it.

I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin

Observed in Target this past Thursday: a scruffy white guy in his late-20s with an oversized sweatshirt, depicting one of Snow White’s dwarves giving a fist jab to the Grim Reaper, under the motto “COUSINS.” I stared unabashedly at the guy until I recognized the dwarf as Sleepy, and then I was like, oh, yeah. I would have totally given him the cool nod, but it took me five minutes to make this connection.

* * *

Another Target observation: some commentators blame the current credit crisis on Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies encouraging easy lending. Some blame it on Fannie Mae’s decision to ease credit restrictions for home loans back in 1999. Both of these are correct, but I’d like to suggest an additional culprit: the fact that you don’t have to sign for credit card purchases under $20 with most cards.

When did that happen? I know I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I think it only happens at the larger chains – Shaw’s Groceries, CVS, Target, etc – but it’s started to expand. The cashier rung me up for $3.50 worth of generic wet-naps*, and I swiped my card faster than it would have taken me to pull out four singles and get change.

If I ever steal a credit card – and with your continued readership, it shouldn’t become necessary, hint hint – I’m going to rack up a string of $19.99 purchases all across Boston. I figure I could get away with it for days before anyone noticed. And the useful things you could get for less than $20 would surprise you.

* * *

In last Friday’s post about why I don’t understand a mandatory 30-hour work week, a few misconceptions surfaced (over on LJ, not here). So, to clear those up:

  • Yes, of course, only rich people have the choice between time and money.** Poor people – and I mean the genuinely poor, folks for whom the necessities are still touch and go – don’t have this to worry about. People with existing financial obligations, like children or debt, don’t have this choice to make. This is certainly true. And you know what? A law mandating that they can only work 30 hours per week would fuck them.

  • My blithe dismissal of the notion – “if you want more time, choose more time; if you want more money, choose more money” – isn’t a Four Hour Work Week thing. I was that kind of an asshole long before I picked that book up; that much should be obvious.

* Best way to wipe off fake blood, like the kind I’m covered with every night in Gorefest. Get your tickets today!

** “Rich” by the standards of either the planet or history, meaning: anyone reading this right now.

I’m a leader at last, this a don you with

Clayton Bigsby: Hey, niggers! Turn that jungle music down! Woogie boogie, nigger! Woogie boogie!
Hip-Hop Fan: Did he just call us niggers?… AWESOME!

– Chappelle’s Show

“Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Gimme My Money,'” I asked, covering the mic with one hand.

DJ Paul, who runs the karaoke at Asgard on Wednesdays, has the most extensive selection of any karaoke-jockey I’ve ever seen. I rarely have to check the book anymore; I just ask him for a song. I’ve been going there for well over a year at this point.

Paul shrugged. “I don’t have it. What’s your backup?”

Ten seconds later, the loop from Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache,” stretched and down-pitched, blasted over the speakers. “I hope all of you like Nas,” I told the crowd (largely friends), “because that’s what I’m fuckin’ doing.” I pounded the shot of Canadian Club I’d just purchased and took off.

Now let’s get it all in perspective,
For all y’all enjoyment, a song you can step with
Y’all appointed me to bring rap justice
But this ain’t 5-0, y’all know it’s Nas, yo …

I struggled a bit with the last drops of whiskey for the first verse but picked up some horsepower. Even folks who didn’t recognize the song – or know it as well as I did, wandering into the crowd with my back to the screen – bobbed their heads in time.

At about this point (and here I rely on other witnesses), a guy in his 20s walking by the Asgard’s open window stopped and stared open-mouthed. He had a knee-length T-shirt and a Celtics cap with a flat brim and the sticker still on it. Leaning through the window, he stopped his girlfriend with a hand on her elbow and pointed.

They shootin’! Aw, I made you look
You a slave to a page in my rhyme book
Gettin’ big money, playboy, your time’s up
Where them gangstas? Where them dimes at?

By the time the final verse rolled around, I’d loosened up fully and fit into the flow. I still hadn’t turned my head three feet to the right and seen the conversation transpiring just outside the bar, of course; that might have thrown me a bit.

“Made You Look” ends with Nas freestyling after the track shuts off, which the karaoke prompter doesn’t always transcribe. So you have to really know it and really sell it in order to cap the song well.

And I like a little sassiness, a lotta class
Mami reach in your bag, pass the fifth
I’m a leader at last, this a don you with
My nines’ll spit, niggas lose consciousness

The audience applauded, I handed the mic back. The whiskey swam in my head with an earlier Guinness, giving everything the arm’s length distance of a plausible dream. That was the end of it, I thought.

The young guy with the baggy shirt had now leaned halfway through the window and beckoned DJ Paul and I over. Confused, I followed.

“Yo, that was tight, man,” he said, clasping my hand and snapping off it. “That shit was all right. But I hear that coming out the windows, you got me wound up. Now I’ve got to get on that mic.”

“All right, man,” I said. “Go for it.” I’m used to people making exorbitant promises on karaoke night; you expect that sort of thing. What I didn’t expect was for the man to lope in through the front of the bar ten seconds later and make his way right to the back.

“Yo, rewind that,” he said. “Gimme that same track again.”

And this complete stranger proceeded to rap two tracks of his own devising off the top of his head while a dazed Cambridge audience – composed entirely of white people and Filipinos, I should add – watched and applauded. “I just wrote this one a couple days ago,” he said, between sets. “Still working it out.”

Having absolutely ripped it, he returned the mic to DJ Paul – and to thunderous cheers – and headed out. “Which one of you’s taller?” Paul asked of the two of us.

“How tall are you?” the rapper – whose name we’d since learned was Blacklight – shouted across the bar.

“Six five and a bit,” I said.

“Six four,” he said, with a shrug.

“So you won that contest, at least,” Paul said.

Looking back on the whole thing, I would think the whole thing was a dream if I didn’t have twenty close friends as witnesses. The whole affair had that shifting vagueness conferred by a pleasant buzz to begin with. But the situation on its face – some stranger off the street says I’m rapping all right, but comes in and takes the mic for two tracks of his own, and the DJ says it’s okay because I’m taller than he is – barely seemed real.

I got into economics because I love situations where two strangers can meet and trade and both walk away profiting. He got to work the mic in front of a crowd and show up a stranger. And I was considered worthy enough to be rapped against by a hungry pro at the game. A win on both sides.

I’m still not sure I believe it happened.

nat turner with the sickle, pitchfork and machete

Could someone with more street cred than I explain the appeal of Lil’ Wayne? He has the most mediocre flow of any mainstream rapper I’ve heard in months, combined with the voice of the pimple-faced teenager from The Simpsons. Compress Lil’ John by 80% and hit him in the face with a plugged-in iron and you get Lil’ Wayne.

For instance, find below one of his “hot” new releases, “Lollipop.”No flow. No rhymes. Not even very good production values.

On the other end of the spectrum, why did nobody tell me about Immortal Technique? Damn. Mix the literate stylings of Mos Def with the raw attitude of Method Man and Immortal Technique comes pouring out. Listen to him name drop Zyklon-B, the Knights Templars and the star called “Wormwood” from the Book of Revelations in “The Point of No Return”:

Finally, I think I may have discovered the worst thing on YouTube.

So, as much as I love the Notorious B.I.G. and the gangsta style, his song “Gimme Da Loot” has always made me really uncomfortable. Listen to the lyrics and you hear a different Biggie than you might be used to: an insecure murderer hopped up on meth. Consider:

Man, listen all this walking is hurting my feet
But money, look! Sweet! (where?) In the Isuzu jeep!
Man, I throw him in the Beem, you grab the fucking cream
and if he start to scream – bam, bam – have a nice dream!
Hold up, he got a fucking bitch in the car
Fur coats and diamonds, she thinks she a superstar.
Ooh Biggie, let me jack her, I kick her in the back
Hit her with the gat / Yo chill, Shorty, let me do that

You really have to listen to it to get the sense of disgust in the “fur coats and diamonds” line. How dare she think she’s better than the streets! Look at her, dressing up and wearing nice things. Ha, ha. We’ll show her.

Anyhow, yeah, not my favorite.

As offensive as that song sounds, could it possibly get any worse? Yes. That song could get worse with two white boys in ski masks and Enyce jerseys lip syncing it:That is how that song could get worse.