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kottke.org posts about hip-hop

De La Soul’s Fight with Tommy Boy Over Copyright and Streaming Revenues

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 02, 2019

De La Soul.jpg

This week, music fans were rejoicing. The legendary hip-hop group De La Soul’s catalog was finally coming to music streaming services. Three Feet High and Rising on Spotify!

Alas, it was too good to be true. It turned out that De La Soul themselves would only be getting 10 percent of the streaming revenue after costs, with label Tommy Boy taking 90 percent.

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Don’t feed the Vultures, support and respect the culture #30years If you wanna support De La Soul, cop the #grinddate and #anonymousnobody albums , Coming soon: #delasoul @realpeterock and @djpremier 2019!!!

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Now, everyone had speculated that De La Soul’s catalog wasn’t available on streaming because the label had never resolved the legal issues attendant to De La’s innovative use of sampling. The band and label had been sued by The Turtles for their use of a sample in a landmark case that forever changed hip-hop. In 2014, De La Soul gave away free digital copies of their albums to try to get their music to the fans. But now that the albums were to be made available via streaming, everything must have been sorted, right?

Wrong:

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We are being placed in the line of fire. @discogs @spotify @applemusic @tidal @googleplay @deezer @vinylmeplease @amazonmusic We understand respect and appreciate your support and business. We regret that you and fans have been place in the middle of this mess. De La Soul cannot afford negligent hurried business. We are fighting for our livelihood. Imagine trying to settle a #phantom2millionddollardebt and now possible lawsuits lurking??? There goes that 10% Thank you @tommyboyrecords #respectourlegacy #dorightbytheculture #tommyboycott #4080 #delasoul #30years

A post shared by De La Soul (@wearedelasoul) on

This sparked a boycott movement from artists/De La Soul fans like Nas, Pete Rock, and Questlove. Better to avoid Tommy Boy and the new streaming music entirely than put De La Soul in the jackpot for little reward. Tidal also announced that it wouldn’t stream the new album, in respect of the band’s wishes.

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I hate that it has come to this. Seriously. But there is no “if I have to choose a side?” #DeLaSoul means everything to me. @WeAreDeLaSoul gave me and millions of music lovers LIFE. I been hoping and wishing and praying for their back catalogue to be made available on digital media FOREVER—-but not like this @tommyboyrecords. This narrative has been going on since the blues, since jazz, since rock n roll, since disco, since soul——-I’m proud of De La for using their voice. Let’s fix this. For the greater good. Let’s be respectful and fair. 90% to the label & 10% to the artist is not fair. Normal protocol is just to accept that’s how it is nowadays. We can change that. Change starts now. As much as it pains me to not cop 10 of those issues each and share all their timeless work of genius to a generation that has no clue—-join me in standing w De La Soul in this #TommyBOYCOTT. Do y’all understand I been waiting DECADES to finally listen to their awe inspiring work in the car, on lunch break, in the gym, just chillin? I can’t do that to them. Until you do right by the soul? There is no convo.

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On Thursday, Tommy Boy announced that it was delaying the release of the albums on streaming services, likely missing the window for the 30th anniversary of Three Feet High and Rising, but preserving the possibility of a more equitable agreement.

“Because Tommy Boy has not had the opportunity to sit down together with De La Soul and finalize our negotiations — something we’ve wanted to do for months — we have decided to postpone the digital release of their catalog scheduled for tomorrow,” the statement reads. “We know fans are eager to hear these amazing recordings and we are hopeful for a quick resolution.”

A rep for the group did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment.

While a rep for Tommy Boy stressed to Variety that sampling was not a central issue of the disagreement and “negotiating points are still to be finalized,” the group’s catalog with the label has been plagued by legal issues over uncleared samples since shortly after the release of their first album, “3 Feet High and Rising,” some 30 years ago. That album — widely considered to be one of the best and most influential hip-hop albums ever released — and several other titles from the group never have been legally available on streaming services, as the catalog has moved from Tommy Boy to Warner Bros. and back again without the sampling issues being resolved.

On Friday, De La Soul gave a lengthy interview to Billboard where they spoke on these issues, and their hope that they might be resolved:

“It’s a victory,” Pos, of De La Soul, tells Billboard. “It’s great that people who supported and understood what we mean to the culture, whether it’s someone who’s so dear and close to us like a Q-Tip, or someone who could admire the moves we’ve made creatively, but we ain’t necessarily been in the room with each other nothing but maybe three times together, like a Jay-Z. You can have people just feel like, ‘Culturally, I support and understand where they are coming from.’” …

“He [Tommy Boy’s Tom Silverman] can legally do what he wants, but the issues that I raised [was that] in all that you’re doing with what you’re able to do, did you clear it? Did you clear those samples? When he got the catalog back, is it cleared? What he said on the phone was, ‘If anything comes up, we will deal with it the way we’ve dealt with it in the past.’ And what I know that to be is that if a lawsuit comes up, we’re gonna settle because we’re in the wrong. I say we because we do suffer from that.”

As De La Soul’s Mase told Variety, the band has never earned money from its recorded catalog because of the levies the original copyright owners have placed on the band’s samples. “Let’s be straight up: We don’t really financially benefit — there’s so many infractions around this whole thing that we’ll probably never see no money from it or any project that has these infractions.”

It’s a shame, because De La Soul created some of the most exciting—and original music of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Let’s hope that the band and label can come to an agreement, the samples can be properly cleared, and we can hear these albums on whatever service we want (with the band finally getting their fair share) soon.

Remembering J Dilla On His 45th Birthday

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 08, 2019

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On his 32nd birthday, February 7, 2006, J Dilla (born James Dewitt Yancey, in Detroit, MI) released an unusual instrumental album called Donuts. Three days later, he was dead, from complications of lupus. Since then, February 7 has become an especially important day for fans of Dilla and Donuts, and this year (which would have been his 45th birthday) was no different.

His local alt-weekly, the Metro Times, gathered a collection of memories from other top producers and collaborators, including Q-Tip, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and T3 from Slum Village, the underground hip-hop group to which Dilla belonged for years.

At High Snobiety, Danny Schwartz published a lengthy tribute to and analysis of Dilla’s contributions to musical history:

J Dilla operated within the rich tradition of sampling, and like many other hip-hop producers, he used the MPC to layer jazz, soul, fusion, and other styles of music on top of breakbeats. What distinguished Dilla from everyone else was his holistic approach that imbued his massive production catalogue with a dynamic range of sounds and textures. His most important innovation was that he turned off the ‘quantize’ feature of the MPC, so that his kicks and hats might arrive significantly before or after the beat. To put it another way, he loosened his beats from their rhythmic bedrock; they were not rigid, but gambled forward with a woozy lilt. One could easily argue that Dilla and Lex Luger influenced the rhythmic sensibilities of pop music more than anyone else since funk drummers like James Brown’s Clyde Stubblefield. Dilla was a perfectionist, and his rhythmic idiosyncrasies, however off-grid, were perfectly calibrated; like Gandalf, he arrived precisely when he meant to.

An MPC is a sampling machine. A little over a year ago, Vox put together a nice little video specifically about Dilla’s idiosyncratic, influential use of his MPC3000:

A 2006 feature in The Fader has memories from everyone from Madlib to Erykah Badu, but Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey (affectionately known as “Ma Dukes”) talks specifically about Donuts, probably Dilla’s most famous album (although you’re sure to start a fight if you call it or any other of his albums his “best”):

I knew he was working on a series of beat CDs before he came to Los Angeles. Donuts was a special project that he hadn’t named yet. This was the tail end of his “Dill Withers” phase, while he was living in Clinton Township, Michigan. You see, musically he went into different phases. He’d start on a project, go back, go buy more records and then go back to working on the project again. I saw it because I was at his house every day, all day. I would go there for breakfast, go back to Detroit to check on the daycare business I was running, and then back to his house for lunch and dinner. He was on a special diet and he was a funny eater anyway. He had to take 15 different medications, we would split them up between meals, and every other day we would binge on a brownie sundae from Big Boys. That was his treat.

I didn’t know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product. He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change. “Lightworks,” oh yes, that was something! That’s one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time.

At okayplayer, Elijah C. Watson focused on Dilla’s influence on contemporary hip-hop artists, especially the emerging subgenre of lo-fi hip-hop:

Also called “chill-hop,” “jazzy hip-hop,” or the more specific “lo-fi hip-hop radio for studying, relaxing, and gaming,” lo-fi hip-hop has become a subgenre and subculture. It’s a subgenre featuring instrumentals rooted in the melancholy melodies of jazz and boom-bap drums of golden age hip-hop.

Playlists dedicated to lo-fi hip-hop can be found on music streaming services but YouTube serves as its primary base (with a looped image of an anime scene often being featured.) Channels like Chillhop Music, ChilledCow, and Private ChillOut offer 24/7 streams of the subgenre — the subscriber count anywhere from 102,000 to 2,500,000. Through these channels, the aesthetic of lo-fi hip-hop is best experienced. Fans from across the world listen to the tracks and engage with each other in real time, all while a looped image of an animated character writing or working on a laptop is featured.

At Ambrosia For Heads, Dan Charnas discusses his research for his forthcoming academic book, DillaTime: How a Hip-Hop Producer Reinvented Rhythm and Changed the Way Musicians Play:

[J Dilla’s] story gets complicated first as he encounters some of the pains of the business and then, later, illness. The thing he most wants to do becomes harder and harder for him to do. But that laser focus, as his friends and family have painstakingly documented, remains until his final hour. Talk about triumph and pain mixed together. One of the things I’ve grappled with since the day I walked into his basement in 1999 is why people have such an overwhelming emotional connection to this person and his work. And one of the answers I’ve come to is that, in every piece of music, we can somehow sense that overwhelming will and spirit…

My co-author, Jeff Peretz, and I took about 20 students to Detroit in 2017 as a part of my Dilla course at the Clive Davis Institute… The Detroit experience was a real eye-opener for our students. Context and environments are crucial to understanding. I’ll tell you one of the things that always strikes me about the D: everyone in Detroit always seems to be building something. Dilla’s ‘Uncle Herm’ isn’t just a chef and baker—he gutted and built the donut shop with his own two hands.

Hanif Abdurraqib contributed this unforgettable anecdote

We miss you, Jay. You should still be here.

Hip-Hop’s Fragile Symbiosis With Pop Culture

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 16, 2018

Kool Moe Dee Purple Avatar.png

For some reason, the only YouTube channels I subscribe to are about hip-hop (with one or two dead design vlogs thrown in), and most of the hip-hop reviews and discussion I consume happens there. Likewise, almost all the podcasts I listen to are about sports, and when I’m looking for sports content, I start with podcasts. Who knows how or why these things happen? When I was a media reporter, I’d have theories about these things. These days, I chalk most stuff up to contingency.

Anyways, a favorite show of mine is Dead End Hip Hop, or DEHH, which is a kind of Around the NBA-ish take on new and old music. It’s four guys, all about my age, who have musical touchstones in common with me and each other, who argue with each other about music. It’s brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish, and I love it.

In their latest episode, the DEHH crew and a couple of younger guests answer a reader question: What will hip-hop look like in twenty years? It turns into a thoughtful (and brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish) discussion of the history of popular music, generational change, the relationship between music, technology, and the broader culture, and the dangers of becoming too popular for too long:

The general consensus boils down to three things:

  1. Hip-hop has an unusually rich, symbiotic relationship with pop culture in a way other pop music forms just can’t match, with music and culture informing each other;
  2. The musical dominance of hip-hop has generally been bad for the quality of hip-hop, and the longer this dominance continues, the more degraded the music gets;
  3. There is no reason to expect this dominance to continue indefinitely, and every reason to expect it will be exchanged for another cultural form.

Now, hip-hop has some advantages. It’s unusually capacious, almost greedy, when it comes to culture. It’s not just music, but dance, fashion, slang, and visual art. Plus, when it comes to interacting with other forms of popular culture, you can pour almost anything into it and get hip-hop back out. (For instance, hip-hop was into superheroes before it was cool. And PS: superheroes’ days at the top are numbered, too.)

But is hip-hop really that much more resilient than jazz, or rock n’ roll, each of which had their turn leading the way before turning into something else besides the most popular music in the world? Seriously: jazz is looking at hip-hop with its eyes all the way to the side, along with boxing, musical theater, and smoking cigarettes.

The harder question to answer isn’t whether something will come next, but what it will look like. In the 90s, techno and dance music were legitimate heirs/threats to hip-hop; in comparison, EDM and what’s left of indie rock seem to be pretty insular corners rather than comers.

The coolest thing to imagine is the future evolution of hip-hop, even if it loses its spot on top of the music/culture heap, into a richer and more personal form of artistic expression. I hope we haven’t seen its full flourishing. But then again, I’m 39. That’s the kind of stuff I like. And the days of hip-hop caring about what guys my age like are waning, if not over.

The Stories Behind Legendary Hip-Hop Photos

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 02, 2018

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Hua Hsu reviews Contact High, a visual history of hip-hop by Vikki Tobak that takes interviews, essays, and outtakes from over 100 photographers through all of hip-hop’s history, from early b-boys and b-girls breaking to iconic album covers.

There’s something thrilling about seeing Michael Lavine’s outtake versions of OutKast’s “Stankonia” cover, where André 3000 has his hands up rather than pointed toward the viewer in a hex, or alternate versions of Danny Clinch’s famed portrait of a shirtless Tupac and his “Thug Life” tattoo, where he’s looking down at the ground with a measure of peace, rather than toward the sky or directly at the viewer in defiance. These images are like portals into alternate time lines. There’s a lone photo of the Notorious B.I.G., wearing a crown and grinning, surrounded by a dozen versions of him flashing a tragic scowl. The crown was the photographer Barron Claiborne’s idea, meant to evoke Biggie as the king of New York. Biggie’s close friend and producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs, feared that it made him look like the Burger King.

Here are a few photos and contact sheets from the book, including Biggie in his crown, plus outtakes from Baduizm by Marc Baptiste, and the Rock Steady Crew’s Frosty Freeze by Martha Cooper.

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This was taken in 1981. I love it so much.

The oral history of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 21, 2018

On Sunday, September 23, OutKast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will be fifteen years old. About ready for a learner’s permit. Damn.

Okayplayer assembled an short oral history of both albums, with fresh input from contributors like Cee-Lo Green and engineer Neal Pogue as well as digging into the archives for commentary from Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Just like the albums, it’s a lot of fun.

Cee-Lo Green: They don’t make physical copies of physical CDs anymore. So basically, streaming is just like, “We like this a lot” It’s like analytics. I don’t know what else actually did Diamond or better. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will probably be one of the last albums in history that will have moved physically over 10 million copies. That ain’t never gonna happen again.

Khujo Goodie: That was the biggest thing it Atlanta, man, because along with Goodie Mob, those guys are the pioneers of Atlanta, Georgia music! They’re the pillars. Just to have some guys representing where you stay, it wasn’t nothing but love when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, man. And you got a double album, that was just icing on the cake right there!

Big Boi [via MTV News, 2017]: When you’re inside of [the creative process], you don’t know [the impact], you know what I mean? You just go in and try to create something new. One thing that we do is never revisit what we’ve done, although we stand on it and we know it’s there.

I would never go back and try to create a song like “The Rooster”, or “Unhappy”, or “The Way You Move” — That’s too easy, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I could dig about the younger generation. I like to see who’s gonna play it safe and who’s gonna evolve into that other thing.

We really could use a full documentary about OutKast, digging into each of their albums, both principals, and the development of the scene/family around them. Someone should make that happen.

Grandmaster Flash built his first mixer using parts from Radio Shack

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash grew up in the Bronx and attended a public vocational high school. There he learned how to fix electronics. He was also into music — his father had a huge record collection. In this video, Flash talks about how he combined those two interests and built his first mixer using parts he bought at Radio Shack.

Grandmaster Flash was tinkerer and a hacker. There were commercially available mixers at the time; he built his own. He absorbed the nascent music culture developing around him and twisted it to his own ends, developing new mixing techniques like beat juggling. He perfected scratching and brought it to a wider audience.

Any scientist, engineer, or artist would recognize the process at work here, how tightly coupled the development of new technology and fresh ideas is. Club DJs wanted a way to transition from one record to another without missing a beat, so the mixer was invented. Once that technology existed, people started using mixers to do things other than their initial purpose. New tech begat new ideas begat new tech, the adjacent possible expanding all the while, until a curious kid who dabbled in electronics and was obsessed with music came along and helped invent hip hop, the most culturally significant movement of the past 40 years. (via kelli anderson)

What is a freestyle?

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 29, 2017

Kool Moe Dee Purple Avatar.png

In swimming, “freestyle” means the swimmer can choose their own stroke; in biking or skating, “freestyle” is a kind of informal series of stunts on varied terrain. In rap, to freestyle at its limit means to improvise lyrics off the top of one’s head. But very few lyrical freestyles are actually done completely off the top; the more salient criteria seem to be that the lyrics are memorized, they’re not from a record, they don’t conform to a verse-chorus structure (or sometimes even a verse structure), and they’re meant to showcase an MC’s lyrical gifts. A little more like an orchestral jazz solo than something completely unstructured and improvisational.

The Roots’ Black Thought, who performed a highly acclaimed freestyle in this mode on Hot 97 earlier this month, explains the difference to Rolling Stone:

When I was coming up, a freestyle wasn’t a freestyle unless everything was completely improvised, in-the-moment and right there, and you had to incorporate various elements of what was going on in the room on the day. That’s still a part of it. But I feel like it’s evolved into something more, where you have to have the improv element, but you also have to have a certain script. As an actor, the theatrical side of me identifies with the concept of having a script, and memorizing the lines, and then being able to be “off book,” so to speak. If you know your lines and everybody else’s lines, and you have those beats in your muscle memory, then you can improvise and go off-script. And if you reach a point during the improvisation where you feel like you’re about to stutter or second-guess yourself, then you can immediately fall back on the part that you already know. So that’s what [freestyle] has evolved into. It’s like the new definition of freestyle. I mean, it still has to be witty, and you have to have punchlines. But in order to make it super dense, and incorporate all those layers of meaning and depth to the listener, it has to be both improv and muscle memory….

There has to be a research element involved. No public speaker or stand-up comedian, I mean, there’s no one who’s going to give a speech completely off the top without having worked on the beats, and how you’re going to say what it is that you’re saying, or worked on the tone.

This last bit about public speaking and performance reminds me of this anecdote J. Period’s told a few times about Tariq Trotter’s time at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts:

Hip-hop vlogger Justin Hunte includes this anecdote as part of his case for Black Thought being considered one of the greatest MCs (if not the greatest) of all time.

Black Thought’s ten-minute freestyle

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 15, 2017

Warning: this is the best thing you’re going to see today, even if you already saw it yesterday.

In this clip, The Roots’ MC dishes out an album’s worth of rhymes from memory, while hardly stopping to breathe.

For once in his life, Sean Combs may not be exaggerating:

But as his bandmate Questlove pointed out, Black Thought has been doing this for years:

And Genius fulfilled its one true purpose, with fans getting the freestyle transcribed and available the same day.

Update: Aaaaand Genius took the post down, without explanation. So the quoted lyrics you’re about to get are as close to definitive as we have.

What I love about Black Thought’s freestyle is that it does everything hip-hop at its best does. He has the technical virtuosity and improvisation, both of which are first-rate. He toasts, boasts, and roasts. He plays with words, and the words play right back.

But he also tells stories, including this striking one about his mother:

My mother was a working class very lovin’ woman
Who struggled, every dinner could’ve been the last summer
I come home, chasing good-for-nothing half-cousins
And then walk in the crib to the smell of crack cookin’
She was introduced to that substance abuse
On some of the strongest drugs that the government produced

He gets philosophical and abstract. Like, real abstract.

I made the 21-pound for some a new found religion
When money’s put down, it’s only one sound to make
OGs and young lions equally proud to listen
The secret amalgam is an algorithm
Coming from where only kings and crowns permitted
The darkness where archaeologists found
My image in parchment rolled into a scroll
Holding a message for you, it says
“The only thing for sure is taxes, death, and trouble”
The anomaly swore solemnly, high snobiety
Freakonomics of war policy, dichotomy
That’s Heaven and Hades
Tigris and Euphrates
His highness
The apple of the iris to you ladies
As babies, we went from Similac and Enfamil
To the internet and fentanyl
Where all consent was still against the will

He pays homage to rap history:

Maybe I’m the new Rakim
Maybe I’m fat Pharaohe
Undergarments of armor be my intimate apparel
Pre-Kardashian Kanye
My rhyme-play immaculate
Same cadence as D.O.C Pre-accident
Maybe my acumen on par with Kool G Rap and them

And to his own discography:

I hate to say I told y’all, but I told y’all
Things fall apart when the center too weak to hold y’all
I’m just collecting what you owed to my old jawn
You ‘bout to get swooped down on and stoled on

He charms and disarms:

You in the residency of the one they call
King Dada
Ali Baba
The Talented Mr. Trotter
Inside of my right palm, the mark of the stigmata
Big Poppa wig chopper
Emperor Joffrey Joffer
Motherfucka, I’m stronger than the coffee out in Kaffa
All y’all niggas vagina-hop
Remind me of Icona Pop
I step in the booth, I’m a bull inside a China Shop
Mollywopper
Watch another cotton-pickin’ body drop
Every time we rock
Yo they actin’ like it’s Mardi Gras
‘Til the party stop
Skirt off like she that Ferrari drop
So psyched he pumpin’ that Earth, Wind and Fire body I
Cool a product doc
A la Marina, hard-body yacht
You seen another rapper cleaner? Mami, probably not

And sometimes, he just kills it:

How it feel to be the best that did it, I admit it
I’m visiting from planet bring these niggas death in minutes
And y’all know I’m exquisite
Wicked as Wilson Pickett
The sickness I exhibit
I’m too legit to quit it
I don’t fake it ‘till I make it
I take it to the limit, and break it
Never timid, what I’m about, I represent it
Infinite just like Chace is
Been a million places
Conversation is how beautiful my face is
People hating on how sophisticated my taste is
Then I pulled up on these motherfuckers in a spaceship

Even reading this, it’s just too good.

I am a walking affirmation
That imagination
And focus and patience
Get you closer to your aspiration
And just cuz they give you shit
Don’t mean you have to take it
My words capture greatness
Sworn affidavits

Meanwhile, the talented Tariq Trotter himself kept it humble:

Jay Smooth’s Ill Doctrine is still the best

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 19, 2017

It’s 2008. George W. Bush is President. The Democratic primaries have just ended, and Barack Obama is the unlikely presumptive nominee. The economy is circling around the drain, and America is about to have its first black Presidential nominee by a major political party.

I don’t know exactly how you might measure and graph a country’s level of plausibly deniable racism or awkward attempts to identify or discount such racism, but if you could, summer 2008 would have to be one of its peaks.

That’s when Jay Smooth posted “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” one of the greatest videoblog entries of all time.

Jay’s video turned into a TED Talk and a video series for Fusion called The Illipsis.

But mostly, he’s still hosting WBAI’s Underground Railroad (since 1991!), keeping up his site HipHopMusic.com (not much lately, but he started it in 1997!) and writing blog posts and making consistently great videos about music, race, politics, and culture at Ill Doctrine.

Watching Ill Doctrine is to feel the power and pleasure of seeing a mind at work. He’s always thinking around seven or eight sides of an issue and following them through all the way to the end. He does what you might call “explainers” but without any of the condescension to the audience or pretense to having settled an issue once and forever endemic to the form. It’s conversation.

He’s the best editor of any weblog I know — every cut is a new thought, a new idea, a new argument to hang on the thought right before it, and the cumulative effect is like a cubist painting.

He’s still experimenting with the format, adding interviews, letting his cat co-host, always oscillating between the public and the personal. Jay’s still the best at what he does.

Update: Jay just launched a Patreon campaign to keep Ill Doctrine going well into the future; if you love his work, please consider supporting it.

Revisiting “Juice,” 25 years later

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

It’s been a (very!) eventful two weeks, but I still can’t stop thinking about Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s terrific appreciation of Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film Juice. That’s as good a reason as any to share it here.

Juice might be Tupac Shakur’s signature performance as an actor: he’s charming and frustrating, thoughtful and thoughtless — accelerating through emotions and personalities like an athlete changing speed mid-play — beautiful and wrathful and doomed, like Achilles or James Dean. Or, like Tupac.

Willis-Abdurraqib zeroes in a key part of the story, and of the best art from the era in which the film was made — “what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there.”

Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it…

A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.

I should add, especially for readers who’ve never seen it, that Juice is beautiful. Dickerson was/is one of the best cinematographers alive before he became a director, and it shows. And the soundtrack is amazing. You could say it was a forgotten movie, but it’s just so unforgettable.

How “My Boo” got its name

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This is fun: an oral history of Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 hit “My Boo.” Did you know that Lil Jon started out in A&R for So So Def? Or that he picked the title “My Boo” over “I Want To Be Your Lady” and pushed to include it on an early label comp? (I did not.)

#RunningmanChallenge ???? @jerrygunnz ???? By @malachi_variations IB By @Rah2bandz

A video posted by Kevin Sözé ???????? (@11.oo7) on

I was also very late to hear about the Running Man Challenge, which put “My Boo” back into circulation and the sales charts back in April, but in my defense: I am old.

You may also like: this oral history of hyphy and the Bay Area hip-hop scene at the turn of the millennium. It’s a little distended and the photo layout almost feels like Beats By Dre sponsored content, but it’s a loving look at a moment that’s gone.

And who shows up halfway through, helping to break hyphy nationwide? Lil Jon! That guy is everywhere.

(Hat-tip: @xohulk, @myhairisblue)

Rosie Perez on Soul Train

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 14, 2015

At 19 (so, around 1983 or 1984) Rosie Perez moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to help a cousin with her children and go to college for biochemistry. Then she was recruited to be a dancer on Soul Train.

In her line dance solos, you can see early versions of many of the moves that would be immortalized in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing.

You also see a lot of what Perez calls “face dancing.” “Face dance means you don’t know what the hell the rest of your body was doing but your face is fierce. That’s face dancing.”

According to this Esquire article, Don Cornelius was dead set on packaging Perez as part of a girl group of hip-hop/R&B dancer-singers. Perez was uncertain and wouldn’t sign the contract. This led to a confrontation where Cornelius grabbed Perez, and in response, she threw a box of chicken at him.

That fight ended Perez’s time on Soul Train, but she soon had jobs choreographing Bobby Brown, The Fly Girls on In Living Color, and more. Arguably nobody did more to bring hip-hop dance to mainstream attention than Rosie Perez.

(Via @eugenewei)

Teach me how to dougie

posted by Tim Carmody   May 04, 2011

We’ve waited too long for a First Lady who can pull this off:

It’s not just that Michelle Obama is the first black First Lady. It’s also that she was born in 1964. She’s sixteen-seventeen years younger than Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. She was in high school when hip-hop broke. Even Barack was already in college. She probably did a few of these dances in a South Shore parking lot when her husband was already thinking about getting into law school. In Joshua Glenn’s generational scheme, Barack is part of Original Generation X, while Michelle’s firmly in the next cohort, alternately titled Generation PC/the Reconstructionists.

Michelle is the first First Lady of the hip-hop generation. And not only does that explain a few things; it’s incredibly awesome.

PS: Here’s the Beyonce dance-as-teen-fitness video the First Lady and DC junior high kids were trying to imitate. (In the mid-late 80s, learning a few of these moves from my sister, I was not unlike the chubby kid in the white hat.)

The Beastie Boys, Annotated

posted by Tim Carmody   May 02, 2011

The Onion A/V Club has put together a short, alphabetical guide to obscure, semi-obscure, and I-forget-that-other-people-might-find-that-obscure references/allusions in the music of The Beastie Boys.

It’s called “‘Electric Like Dick Hyman’: 170 Beastie Boys references explained.” Here’s a representative entry:

Drakoulias, George (“Stop That Train” from “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” Paul’s Boutique)
Def Jam A&R man George Drakoulias helped discover the Beastie Boys for Rick Rubin, and later became a producer for Rubin’s American Recordings, working on albums by The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty. There’s no record of him ever working at an Orange Julius.

I obsessed over this stuff as a kid, especially with Paul’s Boutique: I was nine years old, living in Detroit’s 8 Mile-esque suburbs, not New York, hadn’t seen any cult movies from the 70s not titled Star Wars, and had no internet to consult. I was literally pulling down encyclopedias from the shelf and asking my parents (who generally likewise had no clue) obnoxious questions to try to figure out what the heck they were talking about.

In a post I wrote here last summer, I said that hip-hop’s culture of musical sampling and what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “digging in the crates” for old records helped ensure that a significant chunk of my generation would be into history.

But it was definitely the references, too. Whether silly or serious, you couldn’t listen to The Beastie Boys or Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions and not try to sort through these casually dropped names, memes, and places and try to reconstruct the worlds where they came from.