Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

The Past and Future of Hip-Hop Dance :: Me on Rennie Harris

Illadelph Legend :: Rennie Harris Puremovement celebrate their 15th anniversary next month.

Ah it’s great to be writing again. Here’s a piece I’m particularly proud of. It’s on Philadelphia hip-hop dancer/choreographer Rennie Harris.

Folks in hip-hop’s dance community know who he is and how important he’s been to the culture, from his work with Magnificent Force back in the day to the pinnacle of the global dance theatre with his company Puremovement to his founding of the Illadelph Legends Festival, probably one of the central events in the hip-hop dance revival.

Hip-hop dance remains the least well documented of all the original hip-hop arts. But the dancers retain that one-to-one folkloric tradition-passing much more than any of the other arts. The dance community is close-knit and well organized, and often presents a unified front on questions of its own history. That itself is a situation that Rennie has played an important role in helping make happen.

So, for me, Rennie’s story helps shed a lot of light on the story of hip-hop dance. Let alone the fact that he’s an incredible storyteller, and his journey has been a truly amazing one.

(If you find yourself jonesing for more of the real deal, get with someone like FABEL or Mr. Wiggles or the Rock Steady Crew or any of the many pioneers who are still around. Plus, check Rennie’s site for info about this summer’s Legends Festival.)

Rennie has been the Rakim of hip-hop dance and hip-hop theatre. His impact can be seen in the rise of the new generation of brilliant hip-hop dance companies and solo artists who are making noise all around the world, like Rubberbandance Group, or Compagnie Kafig, or Jonzi D and Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

If you’re luck enough to be in Philadelphia in 2 weeks, Rennie and Puremovement will be presenting a rare retrospective of their body of work over the course of three nights at the Kimmel Center. Those tickets won’t last long…

You can download the article here or preview it here. An edited transcript of the interview with Rennie is included in Total Chaos.

posted by @ 10:52 am | 3 Comments

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

DJ Drama, Major Labels & The New Rap Distribution Game

By now, it’s probably old news that DJ Drama and Don Cannon have been arrested. (24 hours, damn, welcome to the wired world.)

I think Noz is on point when he says: “As far as I know, it is the first time they have cracked down on an artist rather than a store. In case you were wondering the RIAA is not a government agency. They are a private sector trade group that represents many of the larger record labels and distributors. But they will use your tax dollars to kick in your door if they think you’re fucking with their money.” Emphasis on “fucking with their money.”

But what I find most interesting is how the situation actually reflects a larger change in the distribution of rap music. It all starts with the inability of major labels to meet the demands of the rap market.

Mixtapes have surged in popularity over the past 5 years because they meet the demand for rap that the major labels can no longer fulfill. As media monopolies have grown bigger and labels have consolidated (look for EMI to be sold very soon), there are fewer hip-hop artists receiving major distribution and release dates come fewer and further between.

But hip-hop will always find a way to get to its audiences with the newness, major labels and their big clunky distribution be damned. So mixtape masters like Drama fill the void by keeping up the excitement amongst the hardcore heads. (As often as not, they’re funded either directly or indirectly out of major label promotional budgets.) Mixtape DJs can work as fast as the artists want to get the stuff out, which is about as fast as the kids want it.

At the same time, indie distribution companies are stepping into the breach–getting mixtapes some decent placement in stores and through digital download spots like iTunes and eMusic. For major labels, it brings back bad memories of the period through the early 90s when indie labels controlled the rap business (an intolerable situation that caused majors to go on a crazed buying spree in the mid 90s). This is new, and it’s an important development. Not a few years ago, when you asked about mixtape distribution, folks stammered.

As for the question of demand, since production has sped up again via mixtapes and distribution is more and more viable, we as fans have now conditioned ourselves to pick up and rip the mixtapes, or download them as opposed to sitting around and waiting for the major label product. Why wait on this corner forever when there’s another one open up the street? The product eventually isn’t too different.

And then everyone goes home wondering why the rap industry has come off one of its worse years since the 80s.

That’s even more of a reason that major labels don’t want to go back to a time when they didn’t dominate the rap game and have a hand in most of all the dollars being made. So whether or not the artists approved the music on the mixtapes, whether or not the majors’ own funds made them possible, and despite the fact that the whole mess is one of the major’s own failures to meet the demand in the first place, the main issue at stake here is that the labels still aren’t getting their cut.

The RIAA had to move on someone making mixtape money. DJ Drama has become the first casualty of the new hip-hop distribution game.

It will be interesting to see in the coming months how the major labels try to move on:

1) the big mixtape distributors to either shut them down or cut a deal, and
2) their own artists to enforce the exclusivity and copyright clauses in their contracts…

Mixtapes won’t die. But 2007 may be the year that the mixtape begins to really be absorbed into the machine, which may be a kind of a slower death.

UPDATE 1 :: RIAA: “We don’t consider this being against mixtapes as some sort of class of product. We enforce our rights…”

UPDATE 2 :: Chief James Baker of the Morrow Police Department said this is the second raid in an effort to stop pirated CD sales. “Our first raid also happened in Atlanta on Metropolitan Parkway on Oct. 11, 2006,” says Baker. “It was run by a bunch of immigrants, the majority here illegally, from West Africa. We seized over $14 million of counterfeit CDs, five vehicles, cocaine and marijuana.”

UPDATE 3 :: Davey D breaks down an industry insider perspective + Aishah Simmons, acclaimed filmmaker and the sister of DJ Drama, brings the context…this is a must-read.

posted by @ 10:27 am | 10 Comments

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Moving On Up: Me on Jay-Z

How good is it to be king?

Better late than never: me on Old Hov in The Nation. Holla.

posted by @ 11:16 pm | 8 Comments

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

Best Books of 2006

The best hip-hop scholarship book of 2006 (& maybe 2007?)

More roundup lists for ya. This one’s for the books. Most, if not all, were originally published in 2006…

Zen’s Favorite Books of 2006 With More Pictures Than Words
* Jessica Abel :: La Perdida (Pantheon)
* Robert “Wisk” Alva and Robert “Relax” Reiling :: The History of Los Angeles Graffiti Art (Volume 1, 1983-1988) (Alva & Reiling)
* Banksy :: Wall and Piece (Century)
* Boogie :: It’s All Good (powerHouse)
* Charles Burns :: Black Hole (Pantheon)
* C100 :: The Art of Rebellion 2: World of Urban Art Activism (Publikart)
* Martha Cooper :: Street Play (From Here To Fame)
* Per Englund & Mlamli Figlan :: The Beautiful Struggle (Dokument)
* Vincent Fedorchak :: Fuzz One: A Bronx Childhood (Testify)
* Zaha Hadid: Thirty Years of Architecture (Guggenheim Museum)
* James and Karla Murray :: Burning New York (Ginkgo)
* The Nasty Terrible T-kid 170 (powerHouse)
* Murray Walding :: Blue Heaven: The Story of Australian Surfing (HGB)

Zen’s Favorite Books of 2006 With More Words Than Pictures
* Paul Beatty, ed. :: Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (Bloomsbury)
* Will Blythe :: To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry (HarperCollins)
* Taylor Branch :: At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (America in the King Years) (Simon & Schuster)
* T. Cooper & Adam Mansbach :: A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing) (Akashic)
* Mike Davis :: Planet of Slums (Verso)
* Ewen + Ewen :: Typecasting: On the Arts & Sciences of Human Inequality (Seven Stories Press)
* Amde Hamilton :: Me Today You Tomorrow: Journey of A Street Poet (Classic Cut Musiz)
* Marlon James :: John Crow’s Devil (Akashic)
* Rattawut Lapcharoensap :: Sightseeing (Grove Press)
* Michael Pollan :: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press)
* Simon Reynolds :: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin)
* RJ Smith :: The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance (Public Affairs)
* James G. Spady, H. Samy Alim, and Samir Meghelli :: Tha Global Cipha: Hip-Hop Culture and Consciousness (UMUM Press)

A special note on this last book, because it came out really late in the year, and I think it’s a really important one.

Philly journalist James Spady’s works–including Nation Conscious Rap (1991) and Street Conscious Rap (1999)–have been an essential resource and reference for serious hip-hop scholars for years. I used his books heavily in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. (I was also very honored to lecture at one of UCLA professor Samy Alim’s classes last year.)

Spady, Alim, and Meghelli’s Global Cipha picks up where those classics left off. All the books in this series are eclectic collections of interviews that span a wide range of artists, from pioneers to of-the-moment rappers, DJs, and b-boys. They’re also critical snapshots of key moments in hip-hop history. The arc of this trilogy moves from the Afrocentric American rap of the late 80s and early 90s toward the rise of African rap in the diaspora at the turn of the millennium.

Spady is an unsung hero of hip-hop studies. For me, he’s up there with Davey D as one of the finest hip-hop journalists in the world. Like Davey, he knows the culture up down and sideways, and he’s a fine, probing interviewer. (When Spady interviewed me, I think I learned more about myself than he did about me!)

And, like B+ in It’s Not About A Salary, Spady, Alim and Meghelli are keenly concerned with letting the artists speak for themselves, not mediating their voices. There is an essay at the beginning of Tha Global Cipha that provides a context for the decentered hip-hop being produced now–the hip-hop of a thousand local scenes, all with potential global audiences, a network of infinite creativity and possibility. But then the authors mostly stand back and fire questions to their subjects, some of whom people like me have always wanted to but never been able to track down. Now, these books tend to be over 500 pages each–this one is 700+. So some interviews are more compelling than others. But overall the words are truer and more enduring than a lot of the hip-hop scholarship that is out there.

To get the first two books, you may have to hand over a small big fortune to an internet seller. But to cop Tha Global Cipha, head over here right now or contact the authors directly at Black History Museum Publishers, P.O. Box 15057, Philadelphia, Pa. 19130. They tell me they’ll knock off 10% off the $25 list if you note that you read about it here. (You still gotta add $5 for postage and handling.)

Fam, trust that I wouldn’t plug it if it wasn’t worth it.

posted by @ 7:05 pm | 1 Comment

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