Wednesday, May 29, 2013

FIRST LISTEN: Random Access Memories

France's Reclusive Beat Making Robots Return

 #1 in the U.S., #1 among robots
Debate may forever rage over the viability of the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) movement. To detractors,  sitting in front of a computer, turning some knobs and dials on a synthesizer, looping a beat or sample from an older piece of music--or any number of other sound-generating activities not involving the playing of an ACTUAL musical instrument--does not qualify as 'music.'  These formalists often argue that even hybrid acts--Chromeo, LCD Soundsystem, or Cut Copy come to mind--that combine electronic and amplified or acoustic elements--occupy a different (read: lower) rung on the Ladder of Musical Purism. Rap music, to take another example, is often dismissed outright by these skeptics, and lumped in for good measure are anyone with the words 'electronic,' or 'dance' associated with them.

So you can forgive Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter--known the world over as the genre's most influential and enigmatic partnership, Daft Punk--for being a tad prickly about the state of things in the genre they single-handedly exploded into a global sensation.

"Electronic music right now is in it's comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bangalter recently told Rolling Stone. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."

"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offered.

Williams, Rodgers: rounding out Punk's funk
Perhaps as a response to the now inescapable presence of EDM on top-40 pop radio, television shows and commercial endorsements, but more likely the result of an itch to reinvent themselves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have charted a new course on their fourth studio full-length, Random Access Memories.

The overall result should not totally surprise longtime fans of the duo. There is still the trademark presence of vocoder, talk box, and Auto Tune-drenched  vocals, and the disco-laced tempos on tracks like "Get Lucky," but also some experimental departures. The album is packed with live studio instrumentation, most notably by former Chic founder and guitar stalwart Nile Rodgers on the aforementioned "Lucky," but also live drum and bass parts supplied by studio contributors culled from bands previously assembled by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Madonna, and Sting.

Rounded out with guest vocal contributions from the like of the Strokes' Jullian Casablancas on  "Instant Crush," and former DP collaborator Todd Edwards on the snappy, R&B-tinged "Fragments of Time," and Random Access Memories goes far beyond the dance-and-house club anthems the group became best known for. "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers," Bangalter said in that same interview, "but with people."

Early returns suggest they have succeeded in a big way. One week after its release, Memories sits atop the Billboard 200--Daft Punk's first number one album stateside--and "Get Lucky" (feat. Pharrell Williams) is finding an audience across several different album/singles charts and radio formats.

Without a doubt, custom-built synthesizers, computerized loops, and banks of drum machines brought Daft Punk to this point. But their desire to branch out has added a textured new layer to their sound, while keeping their EDM roots intact. And experimentation, no matter what any music purist may say, is so very Rock and Roll.

Daft Punk's Random Access Memories was released May 21st under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Macklemore Steals Home on Record Labels, Naysayers

Hip-Hop Thievery

Criticize it for being 'hipster-hop.' Dismiss it for its Pacific Northwest slant and origin. Clown the artist for eschewing major label fortunes to retain control of his music and image. But don't say Macklemore hasn't beaten the odds by charting his own course.

A full 36 hours since its release and his debut full-length album alongside producer Ryan Lewis, The Heist, sits alone atop both the iTunes ALBUMS and HIP-HOP charts, besting new releases from the likes of Pink, Jay-Z, Muse, Kiss, and Mumford and Sons, all of whom pack the punch of multinational PR and marketing machines in their back pockets.

10/9/12, Seattle WA
While he continues to be ignored in some purist rap circles, the accomplishments and accolades continue to pile up ; an appearance on the cover of XXL Magazine this year as a nominee for 'Freshman of the Year' (despite being more than a decade on in his rap career) ; inking a deal with Miller to use his track "Can't Hold Us" in a commercial endorsement ; sold-out American AND European tours in the last year with stops from Los Angeles to New York, Dublin to Prague ; an already underway and mostly-sold-out world tour in support of The Heist, including a triumphant homecoming show with upwards of 8,000 tickets sold.

Mack is unconventional, to be sure. He raps about his love for second-hand clothes while others drop names like Hermes and Gucci just to get free samples. He supports gay marriage while travelling in and among the most traditionally homophobic of musical genres. And his ongoing struggle with chemical addiction has been a chance for him to inspire fans through the joys of his success since achieving sobriety, rather than celebrate the wobbly, weeded-out musings of his contemporaries.

In an art form that trots out the word 'real' as both noun and adjective, a look at the dictionary definition is warranted:

1re·al -  a : not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory : genuine b : having objective independent existence

His jeans may be tapered. His shows may be full of mostly-white 80's-and-90's-babies. Hell, he may fade into obscurity after this like so many of his Seattle-bred predecessors. But at this moment, nobody can tell Macklemore that his success is 'artificial,' 'fraudulent,' or 'illusory.' To the contrary, its as real as 'real' can get.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' The Heist was independently released under Alternative Distribution Alliance on October 9th, and is available on Itunes and record stores throughout the US:

Saturday, May 5, 2012

R.I.P. Nathaniel Hornblower
Beastie Boys : Generation X's Musical, Cultural Bellwether

Following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Rolling Stone's David Fricke famously--some say infamously--suggested the late Nirvana front man was the modern-day equivalent of Beatles co-impresario John Lennon, saying in part "...(like Lennon, Cobain) was writing very much from the heart, very directly, and he didn't play according to the rules."

Music purists lined up to chastise Fricke, dismissing the notion that a three-piece, three chord, post-punk grunge band could even approximate the level of musical and cultural impact enjoyed by the sainted lad(s) from Liverpool.
Yauch : Earth's Baddest Buddhist

If Cobain can even loosely be compared to Lennon, then the death this week of Adam "MCA" Yauch--co-founder of seminal hip-hop band Beastie Boys--will have many 50-and-under observers likening the imprint left by the Brooklyn-bred trio to that of a certain British foursome.

Consider, for starters, the music. Originally formed as a hardcore punk band in 1979, the Beasties attained some moderate local success in support of groups like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedy's before releasing their first hip-hop track, "Cooky Puss", in 1983. This led to further incorporation of rap into their live shows, their eventual collaboration with Ruck Rubin via his upstart Def Jam Records, and finally, in 1986, the release of Licensed to Ill. The album became the first rap LP to reach #1 on the Billboard album chart, and the best-selling rap album of the decade. It skyrocketed the group to international stardom and launched them on a world tour. Along the way, tracks like "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" became bonafide party/rap classics.

The Licensed to Ill tour also earned the group a well-honed party boy reputation ; the stage show featured caged female dancers and a giant inflatable penis. Several European crowds were whipped into riotous frenzies, with the Beasties accused of inciting/provoking crowds with their profane, beer-can-smashing antics.

With this as a backdrop, most observers predicted more meat head-friendly fare. But their next two projects--1988's Paul's Boutique, and Check Your Head, released in 1992--marked experimental departures for the group, and are held up as examples of their trailblazing musical style. On Boutique (ranked #156 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time), the Beasties pioneered the use of multi-layering amidst a staggering amount of musical sampling, cementing it as one of the great hip-hop recordings in history (despite less than stellar critical response at the time). Examples of this sampling approach can be heard on tracks like "Car Thief" :

Beastie Boys - Car Thief by Bro Hug

On Check Your Head, released on the group's own Grand Royal record label, the Beasties picked up their instruments once again, and embarked on perhaps their most groundbreaking recording to date. A sizzling, simmering mix of hip-hop, instrumental R&B, Latin, funk, and hardcore punk, the album achieved double-platinum status in the U.S., and ushered in the format for what would become their live/touring package; the use of turntable and sample-based beats, interspersed with 'live' or instrumental performances. Their awesome musical hybrid can be seen in this live performance of "Something's Got To Give" from the documentary "Awesome: I F**kin' Shot That!" (directed by the late Yauch himself):

Live instrumentation--with Yauch on bass, Michael "Mike D." Diamond on drums, and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz on guitar (Horovitz was also the primary beatmaker/studio producer)--remained a staple for the group.  Beginning with Check Your Head, the Beasties also collaborated with the likes of studio engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., keyboardist Mark "Money Mark" Nishita, DJ Hurricane, and frenetic turntablist/contributing musician Mixmaster Mike. This expanded musical approach was most famously realized on tracks like  "Sabrosa" (from 1994's Ill Communication), and, most recently, "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament," from 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part Two:

Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament by Beastie Boys

The band broke plenty of non-musical ground as well. Their videos--most notably their collaborations with acclaimed director Spike Jonze--often became instant spawning grounds for fashion trends, just by virtue of an item's appearance on one off the band members. In 1992's "So What'cha Want," it was flannel shirts, vintage tees, and wool hats. For Jonze's "Sabotage," the group made the un-coolest of bad 70's cop fashion cool again ; this time it was mustaches and aviator sunglasses. Later years saw them turn to Carhartt-style work wear in videos like "Intergalactic" (from 1997's Hello Nasty). Even back in the formative days of Licensed to Ill, Mike D. single handedly (if unintentionally) inspired a worldwide rash of automobile emblem theft by adorning himself with a large Volkswagen insignia attached to a chain-link necklace.

But perhaps the most telling representation of the Beasties' cross-generational influence and appeal lies in their most recent work, the video for "Make Some Noise,"  the lead single off what proved to be their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Directed--fittingly--by Yauch alter-ego Nathaniel Hornblower, the clip is a who's who of comedy, film, and pop culture stars both past and present, with Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen playing a slightly swollen version of the Beasties circa 1986. John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell, and Jack Black supply the fast-forwarded version of the group, and cameos throughout the 29-minute short film range from Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, and Ted Danson, to Zach Galifanakis, Steve Buscemi, and Maya Rudolph, none of whom seem the least bit inhibited by appearing in a production that includes willful property destruction, drug use, and an alarming amount of mutual group urination. "Its hard to find anyone in popular culture who's not a fan of the Beastie Boys," said MTV Music Group president Van Toffler, "...and any comedian would jump at the chance to be in a Beastie Boys video because they were so loud and unforgettable."

"Make Some Noise" not only re-illustrates the Beasties' singular influence in the realm of music videos (many consider their impact on MTV to be on par with that of Michael Jackson), but perhaps their most important contribution to rap music in general ; the acceptance of the genre by mainstream white America. While inducting the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, L.L. Cool J. praised the trio's proselytization of hip-hop , saying in part, "Run D.M.C. brought rap to the edge of Suburbia, the Beasties drove it right to the center of town."

If the Beatles reflected the West's turbulent transition from conservative 50's morays to the liberated, free-loving 60's, and finally the psychedelic 1970's, certainly Beastie Boys can be considered a more modern, American-bred standard-bearer. The former went from tailored, mop-topped songs about holding hands and the pitfalls of puppy love, to long hair and beards, experimenting with musical boundaries and world religions (not to mention LSD), and becoming a cultural reference point for what registered as important to millions of people not represented by The Establishment.

The Beastie Boys certainly didn't have Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement to contend with, but they also never shied away from social/political causes. They used the platform of an awards acceptance speech to rail against anti-Muslim stereotyping following the bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Yauch--who himself converted to Buddhism following a visit to Nepal in the 1990's--became heavily involved in the Tibetan independence movement, co-founding the Milarepa Fund and Tibetan Freedom Concerts, dedicated to raising money and awareness for the cause. And following the debacle of the Woodstock 1999 Music Festival--which was ended prematurely due to violence, arson, and scores of reported sexual assaults--Horovitz excoriated the music industry to campaign for safer conditions for females at concerts.

Their evolution from shallow, beer-bonging agitators into the respected, elder statesman of the craft certainly mirrors the maturation of rap music from a strictly urban-based fringe movement, enjoyed primarily by inner-city youths, to an art form embraced worldwide on pop radio, in commercial endorsements, across fashion runways, and beyond. Along the way they changed the perception of what a true 'rap' act can be, not only in terms of racial makeup, but perhaps just as important, musical content. They began as teenagers in the analog era of mix tapes and turntable scratching, and stayed relevant through the digital MP3 revolution and into their late forties, somehow always remaining arbiters of youthful, rebellious cool. Along the way, they created three decades of timeless hits, a veritable life soundtrack for people age 50-and-under. And that, in this era of American Idol, disposable Internet fame, and fly-by-night musical tastes, is testament enough to their importance.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

FIRST LISTEN : Black Radio

Robert Glasper's Genre-Bending Mix of Jazz, Hip-Hop, and R&B

There are many reasons to be excited about Robert Glasper's latest musical endeavour, even before giving it a first listen. Chief among them:

Radio: lacking categorization
-His band--comprised of saxist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Chris Dave--bears the name 'Experiment.'
-Glasper, already a Grammy-nominated pianist/keyboardist of significant acclaim, is signed to Blue Note Records, long considered the standard-bearer for all things good in jazz and blues, and home to current innovators like Madlib, St. Germain, and Medeski Martin and Wood.
-Glasper, 33, is schooled in jazz, but like so many of his under-forty contemporaries, was raised on a steady dose of hip-hop. He has a demonstrated track record of straddling both genres, with stints playing keyboards on Q-Tip's acclaimed 2008 album The Renaissance, and current role as musical director for the touring band of the artist formerly known as Mos Def.
Glasper: lacking boundaries
-The list of collaborators and contributors on the album reads like a who's-who in urban music; Erykah Badu, Bilal, Chrisette Michele, Lupe Fiasco, Musiq Soulchild, the former Mr. Def (now Yasiin Bey), etc..

A pretty good start just on spec. The music does not disappoint. Badu soulfully "Badu-izes" the jazz classic "Afro Blue" ;  Fiasco rhymes his signature Chicago-cool over Glasper's acoustic piano and a soaring vocal chorus from Bilal on "Always Shine" ; Bey jumps between machine-gun spoken word and vocal scatting on the album's jam-like title track ; Glasper even closes the album with a jazzed-out cover of the seminal Nirvana smash "Smells Like Teen Spirit," using a vocoder to funk-ify Kurt Cobain's famous lyrics.

Black Radio ; Completely experimental, totally unclassifiable, and undeniably cool:
Robert Glasper feat Erykah Badu Afro Blue by Hear This Smells Like Teen Spirit ft. Robert Glasper by Zack Sekoff

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


70's Funk/Soul Legend Continues Comeback with New Album

Neo-soul revivalists like Aloe Blacc, Raphael Saadiq, and Mayer Hawthorne most certainly owe a portion of their pedigree to Lee Fields. While the more polished (but still funky) crop of modern-day/under-40 acts have enjoyed increased success and acceptance in recent years, Fields (along with contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley), has a career in music spanning over forty years. First singing in his church choir then getting his professional start with Kool and the Gang in the late sixties, Fields has been howling, screaming, and grunting over classic, gritty blues and R&B since before most of his modern-day emulators were even born.

Admittedly, his music has changed over the years to reflect more modern tastes, but the end result is still raw, sweaty emotion ; a highly personal sound that is chalk full of soul and cuts right to the bone. While there have certainly been lean years/decades (Jones famously spent years as a Rikers Island Prison corrections officer before beginning her comeback on a Fields studio session in the 90's), Fields plugged away and gained some national acclaim with 2009's My World, teaming with Truth and Soul Records' house band The Expressions, on tracks like "Ladies," and "My World is Empty Without You." 

His new album, A Faithful Man, is set to be released March 13th  (30-40 tour stops are planned as well) , and the first single, "You're the Kind of Girl," is below: "You're The Kind Of Girl" by Lee Fields & The Expressions by truthandsoulrecords A Faithful Man is due for release on March 13th (Truth and Soul Records).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012



De La Soul Members Reincarnate as Basement-Bound Queens Emcees ; Album Due April 2nd

Long Island hip-hop legends De La Soul could loosely be considered a 'concept' rap group. From their participation in the Native Tongues hip-hop collective alongside acts like A Tribe Called Quest and The Jungle Brothers in the late 80's/early 90's, to theme-ish albums like De la Soul is Dead and the Art Official Intelligence series, they've long been comfortable assigning a back story mythology to their work.

It seems at least two of its members are poised to take things a step further.  Kelvin 'Posdnous' Mercer and David Jude 'Dave/Trugoy' Jolicoeur are in fact presenting First Serve as an entirely new band ; a press releases describes it as "...a dynamic hip-hop group, an album, a concept, the soundtrack to a movie that has yet to be made and a fable for our times."

In the cartoonish alternate-reality seen in this comical YouTube sketch, they are Deen Whittier (Dave), and Jacob 'Pop Life' Barrrow (Pos), two young friends from Queens, New York, with "...big dreams and larger rhymes (press release)." Hunkered down in Deen's mother's basement, the pair--which bear a striking resemblance at times to Rick Ross and of the Black Eyed Peas--have just hit the big time, signing a record contract with 'Goon Time Records' (another veiled shot at the mainstream music biz?). Both their costumed alter-egos and the dance-friendly first single, "Must B the Music," have many thinking that the entire First Serve project is to serve as one big middle finger to the industry at large (not totally unfamiliar territory to De La), but one listen to the laid back, expertly-sampled "Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along" (below), have many others thinking differently:
  De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 present First Serve - Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along by FIRST SERVE

De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 Present...First Serve is due for release on April 2nd through Duck Down Music

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


FIRST LISTEN : Blundetto
Blundetto, Warm My Soul (Heavenly Sweetness Records)

Just in time for winter's stretch-run, a ray of sunshine from French producer/beat maker/remixer Blundetto. A sizzling, simmering concoction of dub reggae, funk, R&B, hip-hop, and Latin grooves, Warm My Soul is the second solo offering from the somewhat reclusive Parisian, and is littered with contributions from an international roster of collaborators, including ethio-jazz quintet Akale Wube, Jamaican Courtney Love, and many others. On Hercules (a cover of the Aaron Neville classic), Blundetto teams with British vocalist Hugh Coltman, and American multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee: