Sunday, October 24th, 2010

New In The Reader: WHO WE BE PREVIEW + Uncle Jamm’s Army

Check The Reader for two new pieces:

+ A recent piece I did on Obama and race in the U.S. at the mid-point of his first term for the Brazilian weekly magazine, Ilustríssima. The piece also captures some of the themes and topics of my new book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America.

+ An extensive transcript of an interview Mike Nardone and I did for Rap Pages with Rodger “Uncle Jamm” Clayton, Egyptian Lover, and Iceberg of Uncle Jamm’s Army in 1994. Plus you can download a copy of the original article with design by Brent Rollins! We repost it now in tribute to one of the most important figures in West Coast rap. RIP Uncle Jamm.

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Sunday, October 24th, 2010

WHO WE BE PREVIEW : Post-Racial Or Post-Hope? :: Race In The Obama Era

Published in Ilustríssima
Folha De São Paulo
October 4, 2010

+ Download the PDF (in Portuguese)

This piece was commissioned by Folha De São Paulo‘s Sunday magazine, Ilustríssima at the midpoint of Obama’s first term. It meant to capture the racial moment in the U.S. for Brazilian audiences, but it also reveals some of the themes and topics of Who We Be: The Colorization of America, due out on St. Martin’s Press in late 2011.

For most of 2008, the most arresting image in America was a screen print by the street artist Shepard Fairey that appeared on posters, stickers, and clothing from sea to shining sea. The image was of a Black and white man rendered in red, white, and blue. The man was named Barack Obama and the four-letter word below his image was HOPE.

Obama was, of course, the presidential candidate who had come from the far geographic and cultural edge of the United States, its Pacific border in Hawai’i, to secure the Democratic Party nomination. He ran on a platform of mending a divided country. In a speech in March called “A More Perfect Union”, he offered his own biracial heritage—the unity of Black and white histories in his own body—as a symbol of reconciliation.

That address, now popularly known as “the race speech”, was in some ways as historic as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial almost 45 years earlier. “The complexities of race that we’ve never really worked through”, Obama said, remained “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” If Americans could move forward on race, he seemed to say, they could move forward on anything.

From the height of the civil rights movement through the Cold War into a new era of globalization, the United States has trumpeted the value of inclusion as central to its version of democracy. Yet any student of U.S. history knows that the reality of race has belied the nation’s image of itself. Race has driven four hundred years of civil and cultural schisms, and has brought the nation to the brink of dissolution. Race, another four-letter word, is still the most troubled national divide.

So when Barack Obama’s candidacy began to gather steam in 2008, some pundits wrote that it was a sign the rancor over race in America was finally dissipating. Obama dismissed the notion in his “race speech”, saying, “I have never been so naive as to believe we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.” Yet his triumph was epochal. In the glow of the historic victory of a Black biracial president, many declared that the U.S. had entered a “post-racial” era.

But in the summer of 2009, when, in a press conference, Obama said white police who had harassed the famous African American scholar Henry Louis Gates in a local incident had “acted stupidly”, he caused a national uproar. Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck called Obama a “racist” who had a “deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” More recently the Obama administration fired African American official Shirley Sherrod after a conservative white blogger accused her of being anti-white in a speech to the NAACP. Sherrod—whose father had been killed by white racists—was in fact speaking candidly of how she had overcome her own prejudices against whites, and the administration hastily tried to rehire her.

During the hot summer months, opposition to Obama’s proposals have been mobilized by thinly veiled racial images. Last year some far-right Tea Party members protested the president’s health care reform package with picket signs depicting him as a witch doctor. Others circulated lies that he was Muslim or that he was not born an American citizen, stories that crystallized their beliefs in Obama’s inextricable foreignness. This year Beck drew thousands of Tea Party supporters to the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” to celebrate “the end of darkness.” Halfway through Obama’s first term, flare-ups over race have reached a velocity and pitch unseen since the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and early 1990s. (more…)

posted by @ 4:16 pm | 0 Comments

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Saturday Nite Fresh : An Interview With Uncle Jamm’s Army

Rap Pages
December 1994
By Jeff “DJ Zen” Chang and Mike Nardone

+ Download a PDF of the Original

In tribute to the great Rodger “Uncle Jamm” Clayton, we’re proud to bring back this feature that another legendary LA hip-hop DJ Mike Nardone and I were blessed to be asked to do by Sheena Lester for Rap Pages. Rodger Clayton, Egyptian Lover, and Iceberg were in the house.

We did the interview on June 28, 1994. I remember we met in a studio on the westside. I have lost my notes from the interview so I can’t remember the specifics of it all.

The real deal is that I had misplaced the tapes for years and, when I found them, I had only transcribed parts of the entire interview to use for Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. When Dave Tompkins was writing How To Wreck A Nice Beach, he asked about the tapes knowing of the Army’s vocoderistics and I lent them to him. Dave transcribed the whole shebang. (Thanks Dave!)

What follows are lengthy excerpts from those tapes. Some of it made it into the RP article, some of it didn’t. (There’s stuff in the RP article that isn’t below, either. So collect them all!)

Last note: Oliver Wang was fact-checking a piece the other day and started us on a convo about how Rodger spelled his name. The upshot is that we learned he spelled it both “Uncle Jam” and “Uncle Jamm”. The former was the name of one of George Clinton’s labels back during the era when Clinton was running game Wu-Tang style by recording under all kinds of aliases (and pissing off lots of execs because of that)–and P-Funk was Clayton’s influence. He seems to have added the extra “m” a little later as the crew became more widely known.

We want to dedicate this to the whole Army and to the Clayton family. Enjoy.

U: Uncle Jamm
E: Egyptian Lover
I: Iceberg

Uncle Jam/Egyptian Lover

E: It all started with house parties.

U: First house party was right after I got out the ninth grade. I set up in my garage. I had a trip light. Remember the trip lights?

E: That’s all you needed.

U: I named my party Industrial Shop. I had the color organ. I had a speaker hanging in the corner. I had a little record player and ran the speaker into that and we were jammin’ Dr John, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” That was the first dance I did, that was in my garage. My graduation party after ninth grade. That was ’73. 1873!

ZEN: Reconstruction—after the Civil War.

U: I did that house party in high school. Charged like 50 cents. Made good lunch money. Good ass lunch money in 11th and 12th grade. Then I got outta high school and I was working at a factory six to six. And I gave a dance at the Sojourner Truth Mansion down on Crenshaw, across the street from the Kappa house. It was two dances going on. I had more people at my dance. Somebody from the Kappa House snuck across the street , found the electrical outlet switch and cut off all the power at my dance. Everybody left my dance and went across the street. I ‘ll never forget that. That was some fucked up shit man. Then my buddies Gabe Martin, who went to school with me–they had rented Alpine Village. They called me to DJ it and I DJed it and they had only 150 people. Said, “Let’s do this right.” Went back to Alpine—this was when we were called Unique Dreams. Egypt used to come and dance.

E: I was a big time dancer.

U: We gave our first dance. Had some posters. Even brought some radio—we brought KDAY. KDAY had little ten second spots where they used say it in ten seconds: “Uncle Jamm’s Army”. Used to sell ten second spots for like twenty dollars.

E: And they worked.

U: We used to buy ten second spots and we did that dance, our first dance at Alpines, called “Bustin Out.” Because “Bustin Out” was out by Rick James. We got like 500 people, man. After that we did “Bustin Loose” because Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers was out.

E: Whatever the hottest song was out—they’d name the party after.

U: Back then, man, the music was incredible. It was just like funk, man. (more…)

posted by @ 12:29 am | 0 Comments

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Hip-Hop, Copyright + Cultural Legacy, Part 2 :: A Conversation With Angus Batey

Photo by the great Glen Friedman.

For Part 1, click here.

Here’s Part 2 of my conversation with the fine journalist Angus Batey of The Guardian. (Part 1 is here.) Angus was pulling together material for a piece that came out last Friday on hip-hop reissues.

In this clip, we get deeper into the lost Public Enemy Def Jam boxset, geek out on what hip-hop boxsets could include, and speculate on what this all means for how we pass on our shared musical and cultural history.

Angus: Public Enemy has got a box set out now, but it’s just of the post-Def Jam material. I imagine those issues over clearances for previously unreleased material will remain an issue for Universal. Chuck D has told me that it would have been easy to do under the Def Jam/Sony relationship because there was – to paraphrase him – a very different set of corporate instincts regarding the risk inherent in that kind of project; but after Def Jam was bought out by Universal there was a change in attitude.

He also talked about something he called “new discovery” which would happen if and when anyone went back to the original PE master tapes and remixed or remastered them: there are sonic elements on those records which are unidentifiable, and indeed pretty much inaudible, in the finished and originally released versions, but without which the tracks don’t work – yet the legal onus would be on the company releasing a remaster to go through the multitracks and ensure every last thing was cleared. Chuck said those PE albums didn’t just contain samples from hundreds of records – they came from thousands.

Full clearance would be impossible under the present free-for-all rules; and there is absolutely no incentive for any of the people in the clearance industry to have those rules changed — unless, of course, it could be definitively demonstrated that a flat-rate clearance system would enable so much more sample clearance to take place that the overall sums involved would mean the whole pot of money accruing to each entity along the chain would be greater than that generated through the present system.

Here’s a different question: As a music nerd I yearn to be able to buy something like a box set of “3 Feet High and Rising” that includes all the b-sides and remixes but also the out-takes, the demos, the failed skit ideas, and has a big booklet with new interviews with the band and Prince Paul about how they made the record and what was going on in their heads at the time. (more…)

posted by @ 7:26 am | 11 Comments

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Hip-Hop, Copyright + Cultural Legacy, Part 1 :: A Conversation With Angus Batey

Angus Batey is a one of the most original and thoughtful music critics and cultural journalists I know. Over the past couple of weeks, we had an email exchange that began as an interview for a piece he was doing on hip-hop reissues. That excellent piece was published at The Guardian, where he writes regularly.

That conversation quickly evolved into a broader discussion on what copyrights are good for and bad for, how the record industry handles Black music and artists, and the role that copyright plays in the way we understand musical and cultural history. Here’s Part 1 of the conversation.

Angus: One of the reasons I’ve heard advanced several times for the lack of a hip hop equivalent of the Beatles Anthology series of releases or a big four-disc expanded, remastered box set of a classic rap album is the hip hop audience’s supposed lack of interest in old music and obsession with the new and with what’s coming next. Do you feel this is an excuse for laziness on the part of major labels, or is the average hip hop fan really not that interested in the music’s history?

Jeff: The people arguing this are either being disingenuous or stupid. The primary market for hip-hop reissues is not the 18-24 year-old demographic, it’s the 35-50 year-old demographic, just as it is for the rest of the reissues market.

Where I go off the rails is when I begin to hear such arguments as a cover for not treating Black music acts in the same way that others are treated. Most Black music tends to fall behind the copyright fences about 10 years after it’s been released.

There’s a cycle that happens to Black music. About 20 years after the music has been released, hipsters and DJs rediscover the music–and champion it once again, oftentimes rewriting the history that comes with it. It happened with jazz, the blues, soul, free jazz, funk, fusion, and now it’s happening again with hip-hop. Hipsters and DJs do two things–they create audiences for previous musical genres and they recontextualize the music at the same time.

This underground economy of hipster rediscovery has lots of upsides to go with its downsides, and it’s worth a longer separate discussion. But let’s focus for a minute on the question of impact. I find it infuriating that right now it is impossible to find De La Soul’s first 6 albums for legal download on iTunes in the U.S. The last one came out in 2001!

Yet major labels would never let a Jackson Browne album or an obscure new wave band with primarily local appeal, like Translator, go out of print. That’s not to diss Jackson Browne or Translator, both of whom I’ve liked, it’s to make the provocative argument that major labels place a low value on Black music not currently on the pop charts. (more…)

posted by @ 9:02 am | 0 Comments

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Fiasco Friday and Rap Artist Protests :: The Agony Of Victory

Why are these people smiling? They have different reasons.

Lupe Fiasco’s third album “Lasers” finally has a release date. After more than 2 years, dozens of songs, a 30,000 signature petition, and threats of a protest next Friday at the Atlantic offices in Manhattan, his album will finally be available on March 8, 2011. A single is being rushed out in about two weeks.

The announcement comes a week before a mass protest organized by Richard Baker and dubbed “Fiasco Friday” was slated to take place. As of this morning, over a thousand signed up through the protest website to attend. No announcements have been made yet as to whether the protest will still go on next week.

Fiasco Friday was simply the most prominent in what seems to be a growing trend of rap artist protests against their labels. Big Boi and Nas have both been involved in similar fights with their labels about albums that they say the companies have wanted to leave on the shelf.

Nas’s beef with Def Jam over the release of “The Lost Tapes Vol. 2″ hit a new height with a withering letter to Def Jam execs that hit the web yesterday. Nas even made a veiled reference to Fiasco Friday. In an email headed “PUT MY SHIT OUT” Nas wrote:

Honestly, nobody even cares what label puts out a great record, they care about who recorded it. Yet time and time again its the executives who always stand in the way of a creative artist’s dream and aspirations. You don’t help draw the truth from my deepest and most inner soul, you don’t even do a great job @ selling it. The #1 problem with DEF JAM is pretty simple and obvious, the executives think they are the stars. You aren’t…. not even close. As a matter of fact, you wish you were, but it didn’t work out so you took a desk job. To the consumer, I COME FIRST. Stop trying to deprive them! I have a fan base that dies for my music and a RAP label that doesn’t understand RAP. Pretty fucked up situation

This isn’t the 90′s though. Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago. @ this point I just need you all to be very clear where I stand and how I feel about “my label.” I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my own way because since day one I have been my own man.

Nas and Big Boi’s situations are slightly different from Fiasco’s. In both cases, their labels have used the exclusivity and copyright clauses in the artists’ contracts to try to force them to release the works the label wanted to see. In Big Boi’s case, Jive wanted an Outkast record. In Nas’s case, Def Jam wanted a new Nas album. (Nas and Damian Marley’s “Distant Relatives” project was also reportedly held up for months for this reason.)

Lupe Fiasco is a mid-level artist, which is a bad level of hell to be caught on these days. (more…)

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Thursday, September 30th, 2010

It’s History

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Monday, September 13th, 2010

On Hip-Hop Criticism, Race and Generation :: Richard Beck Vs. Thomas Chatterton Williams

Here is a compelling piece by Richard Beck in the new N+1. Along with Nitsuh Abebe’s “Decade In Indie” piece and Rachel Maddux’s “Is Indie Dead?” piece, this is some seriously passionate, seriously good writing.

They are good because of their risk and ambition, their desire to take on Big Questions in this age of microniched segmented superserved thinking, good because they can also be granular, especially attuned to not just the fit but the fiber of the subjects, good because when we think they’re wrong they are even more worth debating, good because those of us lucky enough to have book contracts or tenure or steady work or at least be on the other side of 35 ought to be jarred out of our smug righteousness over having solved similar such–but never the same–questions in our own youth, and even more out of our narcissistic despair over wasted young minds.

Rich Beck’s target here is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s book, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, in which Williams describes his relationship with his dad and his attempt to come clean from a foul lifestyle he ascribes to hip-hop.

In many respects, Beck’s piece does to the book what PG&E did to San Bruno. It is overkill. It is true that Williams’s thin book doesn’t merit the weight of Beck’s response. But then Rich has a lot to say–about the uses of hip-hop, identity and race, and most of all, the aesthetics of hip-hop music.

I find myself disagreeing with Beck’s premise that thinking about hip-hop should only amount to thinking about music, because we’ve come too far by now. Thinking about hip-hop is also thinking about race and generation and identity.

But Beck is right that the good thinking about the music may be getting lost–at least in terms of what’s being published on dead trees (because the WordPresses and Movable Types are full of granular discussion about the music). The last third of his essay offers a template for what could be a lifetime of interesting work on the aesthetics of hip-hop.

If he chooses to pursue it, Beck’s theory will have to make much more intellectual space for the voice, specifically the Black voice, at least if the focus is on North American hip-hop music–this is a problem with most of the mid-90s British writing on hip-hop that seem to be his inspiration. But I read his point in the here and now as a correction.

But I’m most moved by another of the points Rich makes:

Given the racial climate of the early 1990s, it was probably inevitable that newspaper columnists and Congressional candidates would use hip-hop as an excuse to attack “black people,” (Jeff note: those are his quotes) or to defend them, or to diagnose their problems, or to argue that their problems just weren’t worth addressing at all, because of the hopelessness of the whole thing. But politicizing debates is what politicians are supposed to do (it is literally their job). Cultural critics and academics had the chance to do better, and failed.

The throat-clearing face-saving thing to do would be to stammer, “B-but we tried.” For the record I don’t have any illusions that the columnists or the politicians on the other side felt any remorse about the “hopelessness of the whole thing”; they simply wanted to use culture as a weapon against youths of color and they succeeded. In any case I certainly saw CSWS as my attempt to “do better.”

Yet the criticism stands.

Often one generation will invoke Santayana like Jim Jones: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But when the next generation has a chance, it often retorts, “What has your past left me?” It’s a question both Chatterton Williams and Beck are asking.

Fair enough.

posted by @ 10:46 am | 0 Comments

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Facing Race Conference In Two Weeks

Another event to announce…this one’s gonna be amazing.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Van Jones, Tim Wise and Maria Teresa Kumar–and that’s just for starters. How about Rich Medina, Kamau Bell, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, John Murillo, as well?

In Chicago.

Click above for info or here.

posted by @ 11:13 am | 1 Comment

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

THE RECORD Opens Today!

Jeroen Diepenmaat’s “Pour des dents d’un blanc éclatant et saines” (2005)

Big ups to Trevor Schoonmaker on the opening today of his museum-size ode to vinyl, “The Record”. If you’re wondering how hip-hop can reconfigure the art space, here’s one outer edge. Trevor’s been at this for years, and to see his vision finally coming to fruition in the beautiful Nasher Museum is gratifying.

(Trevor was also the driving force behind the groundbreaking Fela: Black President exhibition at the New Museum back in 2003, which is still echoing through to the beautiful set for our favorite Broadway play.)

So many of our favorite folks in life and art are repped here and in the museum events it’s hard to know where to start: Dave Tompkins, Mark Anthony Neal, Fatimah Tuggar, DJ Rekha, Malick Sidibe, Christian Marclay, Lyota Yagi, Carrie Mae Weems, Ujino Muneteru, and the 9th Wonder. The list goes on. Where else could you see Mingering Mike and Ed Ruscha together?

If you can’t make it out, the Nasher has a great B-Side website that includes links to that classic YouTube video series on how records are made and Barkley talking about his record collection. I have a little essay in the catalogue and I will admit that makes me a tiny bit proud of myself today.

posted by @ 12:17 am | 0 Comments

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