(Spoiler: cool LP, flawed record player)
(Spoiler: cool LP, flawed record player)
I reviewed Kendrick’s new album for NPR. I got more to say but just throwing this up here for now .
Robbie Ettelson put in some %#()! work on this oral history of the UBB series. SALUT.
Every so often, I update my online portfolio to keep track of my music/cultural criticism and journalism. I finally updated it for 2014 and in doing so, I briefly revisited some of the stories from the year that I’m most proud of. Thought I’d share these in case you missed them the first time around.
Gimme The Beat (Box): The Journey Of The Drum Machine
For NPR’s Morning Edition (January 17, 2014)
The Internet and the R&B Upgrade
(Profile of The Internet)
For KCET’s Artbound (April 7, 2014)
The Secret To This Melt-In-Your-Mouth Pork Is In The (Soy) Sauce
(Found Recipes story)
For NPR’s All Things Considered (September 18, 2014)
Records Don’t Love You Back: In Search of Lost 78s
(Book Review of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records)
For L.A. Review of Books (October 15, 2014)
“Pistolgrip Pump” is one of my favorite L.A. hip-hop songs and now Eric Ducker has written a thorough history of how the song came to be (and truly, the many ways in which it could have NOT come to be). Great music journalism at work here.
(Also a sobering reminder of how the song ended up defining Volume 10’s style as something that was actually quite different from what it actually was. Listen to practically anything else on the album and his Good Life bonafides are instantly obvious).
Whereupon I admit that 20 years ago (last Sunday), I said something stupid on the interwebs: “Rap journalist Oliver Wang denied that Illmatic was a classic twenty years ago. We all have our regrets.”
Thanks to Wax Poetics for letting me get this off my chest.
One thing to add (that didn’t fit into the theme of this piece): I wasn’t a journalist or critic in 1994…just a college senior who had access to a primitive version of the internet.
But alt.rap and later, rec.music.hip-hop were completely formative spaces for me to work out ideas (even wrong ones) about music. It never dawned on me, back then, that I could not just read The Source but also write for them (that wouldn’t happen until decade’s end) but having a space to practice-how-to-write was incredibly important and useful. I’m sure most of what I wrote back then would completely embarrass me now (and likewise, what I write now might embarrass me in 20 years hence) but I don’t regret the growing pains process or the community of people I was able to converse with back then.
ONE MORE THING: RapGenius wouldn’t exist without the work of Steve Juon and WhoSampled.com wouldn’t exist without the work of Blaine Amsterd and those are both people whose labors of love blossomed during the beta-era of the hip-hop internet.
I’ve been doing record reviews for NPR for nearly 10 years now but this is the first reported piece I’ve done for them and I had forgotten how much work radio journalism entails. Most of it is fun – chatting with Prince Paul is always a pleasure – but then comes the culling of the darlings. This was exceptionally hard, especially since I’m so used to quasi-word limits where I can go over by a few hundred words and no one raises a fuss. Morning Edition, on the other hand, needs pieces accurate to the second.
I knew this going in but I still turned in a piece that was at least 2.5x longer than could have ever aired. Out came the editorial axe – swing, swing, chop in the slaughtahouse – and then an x-acto blade to finish the rest.2 It was a painful process since it meant I had to lose all these gems from my interviewees – including all my P.A. Mase quotes, sadly – and I wasn’t able to get into the “making of” of any songs besides “I Am I Be.”
But…the upside is that I can now get my Rakim Told Me on. In other words, I can use all the editing floor scraps to cobble together this companion essay on Buhloone Mindstate. Reeeeeewind
Prior to working on this story, I never thought much about “what BMS meant” to the group at that point in their career. Third albums just don’t carry the same weight of expectations as a debut or sophomore effort. Besides, De La Soul had already metaphorically slain themselves with the last album. How do you follow that up?
Dante Ross told me that, “I think they were at some form of a crossroads in a sense. And if the record had been a bad record, it could have been the end of De La Soul.” Stakes was high? Pos countered, “it was never like, ‘look man, you’re going to get shelved if you don’t try this or that.’ It was never nothing like that.” However, even if their careers didn’t necessarily hang in the balance, that didn’t mean that they weren’t getting pressure. Dave inadvertently riffed on Pos’s point, saying that “the label [was] telling us we should try this and try that.” And moreover, they were still living somewhere in the shadow of 3 Ft. High.
So the third album, we’re still stuck with the same stress of trying to have our own individual sound…but still competing with our first album. And you’ve got to understand, we had the pressure of the second album not living up to expectation. Our mindset for [BMS], or any album we made was, “We’re going to do what we want to do on our own terms, and try to make it as cool as possible.” As opposed to trying to recreate the first two records.
And here’s Dave/Trugoy:
We had been, I guess, through the “machine.” You know, 3 Ft. High was an experience… Its success, obviously catapulted us into a role and a position, and De La Soul is Dead was a bit of a reacting to 3 Ft. High and I think Buhloone Mindstate was…the effect of what those two albums did.
The trick became how to work on this third album on its own merits. As Mase put it, “I never went into any album thinking that we were going to do it as well as the first. You know? It was always a re-creation, reinvention, and kind of starting over.”Complicating all this was how everyone was getting older, starting families and settling down while still trying to balance the rigors of international touring and finding time to work together. It was a constant juggle and that meant, for example, that BMS ended up being recorded in several different studios, which subtly impacted how different songs would sound. Members were also working more on tracks on their own, before bringing them to the group as a whole. They hadn’t lost chemistry (just listen to album!) but they also weren’t spending every waking moment together, spitballing ideas 24/7. The group was getting older and wiser but as the execs at Tommy Boy would soon find out, they weren’t any less cutting in their sense of humor.
This was one of the earliest songs they recorded but it wasn’t originally meant to actually be on the final album. Here’s Pos:
We had this idea, “Yo! We want to scare the shit out of Tommy Boy by basically putting together songs that we knew weren’t going to be on the album, but we was going to have them sound really wild and different and then play them at a meeting.” Because that was one thing they had got into…they would want to sit around with all the people at Tommy Boy…and listen to what we were doing.
Dave picks up the story from here:
So we would put these silly, dumb songs together and give them a tape of that so they could build on it and get happy and say, “Yay! They’re working on this crazy, silly record again!” while we did our own thing on the side, and produced and worked on other songs. “En Focus” was just one of those songs that was the silly version that started off just really nuts; it was just really weird. But then, just listening to it, it had a groove to it. It had a vibe to it.
This was Mase’s favorite song:
That was the record we made with the original JBs: Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley. We spent a lot of time in the studio for about a good week and a half, about two weeks, really just recording a bunch of stuff, different loops and samples either I had or Pos had that we wanted them to play on top of. And then it was a point in time where Maceo or Fred Wesley just took charge in the studio and wanted to give us more than what we were asking for, because they’re just real musicians.
It was interesting to see Maceo and Fred Wesley debate on who was going to direct. Maceo don’t like directing, although he’s a great musical director, but he don’t like directing. He liked to play, and Fred Wesley did all the directing in the studio. It was an amazing experience. I mean, talking about James Brown, the original backing band. You know what I’m saying? I couldn’t have had a better experience in the studio.
Paul says bringing in the O.G. JBs’ players was his and Pos’s idea, after they heard a Maceo Parker album that sounded it was already using sampled drum beats:
I was like, “Yo!” and Pos was like, “Yo! I want to get Maceo Parker on this record!” And me being the egotist that I was back then, I was like, “I’m going to get him! Watch!” And so that was my mission, to get Maceo Parker on the album, and we lucked out and got Fred Wesley and we got most of the JBs down to record on that album. Yeah, that was an experience within itself. I actually have video footage of that. I have this on VHS, and I keep telling myself, “One day I will put it on YouTube,” but I’m too lazy!3
Long Island Wildin’
I remember, at the time, this song left the most heads scratching their heads. For one, most folks had never heard a Japanese rapper before, let alone on an album this prominent. And for the non-Japanese speakers, they had no clue what was being spit. On one level, the group put them on here expressly because they were in an experimental mood, they wanted to do whatever they wanted. But deeper than that, they also wanted to show their fans how far hip-hop had spread.
Paul breaks all that down:
[Takgai Khan and SDP] happened to be in New York at the time, and I was doing a remix, I think for one of their singles. And so I was like, “Hey! You know, come down to the studio!” We had the beat. I think Pos hooked up the drum beat, and he was like, “Yeah, okay, rhyme on this!” It was so ill because, you’ve got to understand then, even though rap was worldly, it was just so closed-minded at that point where New York was New York, L.A. was L.A., everything was restricted to its area. So, that coming out of nowhere—it was like, “Japanese rappers?!” A lot of people didn’t know they even existed!
I really wanted to make that the first song on the album, but the guys said, “No man, it’s going to make people not understand what the concept of the album is! It’s going to throw them off!” But I thought it was so cool at the time. It was funny! Do you know how funny that would be? They didn’t get my sense of humor at the time.4
Ego Trippin’ Pt. 2
P.A. Mase was always more than “just a DJ” but at that point in time, he really wanted to make it known to folks that he didn’t just spin records, he also could make them. Musically,”Ego Trippin’ Pt. 2″ was brainchild, owing partially to his own history, playing in marching bands.
I always had a personal connection to big band, marching band type of material. I was actually in the band myself in junior high and high school. So I was always compelled to that kind of music. And Al Hirt was the artist I started to follow. I came across “Harlem Hendoo,” and I had a fucking shit-fit! Like I could have pissed and shit on myself at the same time because I knew I landed on a gold mine! It just reached out and grabbed me the minute I played the record.5 So I spent a lot of time really trying to craft that beat, put it together.
You know, I didn’t think the guys would actually like that. My wife was the one around when I actually made the track, and she was like, “Wow, that’s really nice.” My wife is not much of a hip-hop head at all [but] she was totally into the groove of the track. The only person I played it for was Vinia Mojica, knowing that she was on the cusp of making her album, and I thought it was something that, if my group didn’t like, I think it would work with her. But, surprisingly enough, I played it in the studio and the group was like, “That’s it right there! That’s the one!”
I Am I be
Pos he calls “I Am I Be” “my favorite De La record,” and for many fans, they consider it the finest piece of song craft the group ever put out. This beat came from Paul’s personal collection and it wasn’t meant to be something he had created for De La.
I actually made [that] on a 4-track cassette. I guess now when people make music, they make it with the idea of, “This is going to trade on radio or I’m going to give it to somebody.” But I actually sit and make music for myself, and that was a song I made for myself. The guys came by the house one day and I was just playing music, and I said, “Okay, I have this idea for this album. I have this idea for this album, and I kind of passed through that one.” They were like, “Yo! What’s that?” “Eh, that’s not really for you guys. Let’s go to the next one.” They was like, “No no no, what is that?” And they said, “Yeah, we want to write it and use it for the album.” I was like, “Are you sure? It’s not really designed to be rhymed on, it’s just a song I made.” From that point, Pos wrote the concept and blew me away. I remember him writing—kind of giving me the idea of it and having the people in the beginning and everything, but when I actually heard his lyrics in the studio, it sent a chill down my spine. I was like, “Whoa, you took it some place I didn’t really think it could go.”
Back to Pos:
I love to reflect. I always love those kind of serious songs. I mean being around someone as fun and kooky as Paul, he brings it out of me to do that, but…I was always down to be more serious. That’s why I loved “I Am I Be,” when I can just take the time and look at myself in the mirror and be honest about where I am.
When Paul had given us the tape with that music on it, with the essential loop, I was like, “Wow!” I just loved the way it sounded, and it just got me to start writing. Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo, that just took it to another level. It’s just a great record. It feels good. It aligns itself with me, like as a person. And when I heard it, the hairs on my skin stood up, I just loved it. And after putting words to it, it just made me feel that much stronger about the record.
In the Woods
Here we go again: another track (produced by Mase) that wasn’t originally intended for the crew. Dave explains:
“In the Woods” was just one of those hip-hop beats that was really powerful to me. From what I understand, it was a track that he was doing for KRS-One, but that didn’t happen. I think “In the Woods” was amazing, and I want to say I think I was high when we were recording “In the Woods,” and the first thing I heard was an alter-ego kind of thing. So that’s why there are two different voices and I’m talking back and forth with this other voice; I’m an elf. It was just one of those songs that made me want to rhyme; it made me want to write a little bit of a rhyme-friendly feel, but definitely just experimenting as well.
The song prominently features Shortie No Mas, who was all over BMS in small, ad-lib ways elsewhere. Unlike other members of the Native Tongues who had guested on other De La songs, Shortie was a newcomer and BMS was as prominent a platform as one could ask for. Paul explains:
I believe Pos was like, “Yeah, I got this girl Shortie, and I want to put her on this song!” And then, I think it went from one song to, “Yo! I think Shortie would sound good on this song!” and “I think Shortie would sound good on [that] song!” I’m not sure if that was Pos’s project, to eventually work on her album or whatever, [but] that was kind of a launch for her.
Along those lines, Pos adds, “Shortie No Mas, she didn’t necessarily have to rhyme or anything. Her voice just needed to appear in every track somehow. We were just trying to have fun and still be in an experimental state of how we put together music.”6
Let’s start with the track itself, which came from Pos:
I put that together, literally, watching, I think, Motown 25. I saw a part where, I think, Smokey Robinson was doing—I want to say he did “A Quiet Storm,” and I had “I Can’t Help It” on my turntable in my room at the time.7
I’ve just always been one, within the group, I always could just hear melodies and how pitches and things could work together. And I was like, “Yo! I think his voice saying ‘break of dawn’ could work with ‘I Can’t Help It.’” I think this could really work! “Break of dawn,’ that’s like hip-hop! I put it together, found a beat for it, the “Can Can” beat. . I found the “Yes We Can Can beat. That felt right. And I just knew it was going to be dope.
However, like many of the songs on the album, it wasn’t a track that Pos originally meant to share with De La.
That wasn’t originally for the album. It was a track I produced for one of Paul’s artists called Mike Teluxe…around [the time of] De La Soul is Dead, but he had sat on it and never did nothing with it. 8 It wasn’t until probably towards the end of the album when Tommy Boy was like, “You know, we do need something a little bit more radio-friendly” and what-have-you. I already did “Breakadawn”…so that’s when we wound up snatching that back, to then use that as a possible single for Buhloone Mindstate.
Not everyone in the crew was down with the plan. Pos says, “Dave will tell you he hates “Breakadawn.” He didn’t want to put that on the album.” Naturally, I had to ask Dave if that was true. His reply:
I think it just was too much of a parallel of what we’ve done in the past, a familiar sample, the catchy loop, maybe almost happy-go-lucky-vibe-guys. I think that we passed that. I think songs like, “En Focus,” and “In the Woods” were where we were at. “Breakadawn” was just a fluffy record to me. It’s not what I wanted to begin representing with De La again. I mean, in the end—great record, people really appreciated it and embraced it..It worked. I rode with the consensus of the group and it was fine.
In fact, Raquel Cepeda tells a story of riding with Dave in the car when “Breakadawn” came on the radio:
I think he was driving me to my godmother’s house out of town, and I remember hearing “Breakadawn” play on the radio…We were just nodding our head back and forth, and just not talking, and just being in the moment. And I can see in his face, as stoic as he can be, I could see, especially at that time, that he was pleased with it.
For many De La fans I’ve come across over the years, Buhloone Mindstate is their favorite from the group but I remember, back in 1993, it didn’t come off that way. It wasn’t that it flopped in our minds but we just couldn’t quite get our heads around it. Paul, perhaps, says it best: “when we did 3 Ft. High and Rising, De La Soul is Dead [we got] instantaneous reaction. With this one, I don’t know what people thought. It was just ‘cool.'”
That same initial ambivalence extended to folks in the crew itself. For example, Pos felt the album was somehow incomplete:
As an individual, Buhloone Mindstate is the only album I think we’ve done where I felt it wasn’t complete…we were missing something, you needed something else. I was really proud in what we created, but just being critical, I just felt like it was missing maybe, I don’t know, it needed another two songs or just a better way for it to end. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending.
That was the first [LP] I could say, I didn’t feel too confident about the business of De La Soul. The creativity, the creation of De La Soul, I felt very confident about, but the business of De La Soul…I didn’t think it was going to be a successful record based on what was going on in hip-hop, period. I felt like, “Hrm. This might be our decline. We just might become a part of that alumni who has just three albums and we’re done with the game.”
In the eyes of the fans, they wanted us to recreate 3 Ft. Feet High and Rising. They wanted us to recreate De La Soul is Dead. Fans will always have an issue with you changing. I always say, “The fans don’t really know what they really like.” You know what I’m saying? They just like what they like, and they don’t really adapt to change much. It’s a slow process for them. But it was great to know that it was an industry favorite. Everybody in industry campaigned the record. I was happy that Chuck D loved the record, as opposed to my fans loving the record. I was happy that D.M.C. loved the record. We come from an era where I think it was more important for my peers, and my forefathers, and the people I’m a protégé of. It was more important to me that they liked my music.9
The fans did, however, eventually come around. Pos:
I’ve had fans who will come up to us, you know, even whether now or several years ago, but way after Buhloone Mindstate came out, and they all say, “You know what? I remember when that came out and what you guys had already given us previously, I didn’t really get it. When I had my first kid, or, when I got a little older…when I went back to that album, it really appealed to me more than when it first came out.” I have had people say that to me a lot about Buhloone Mindstate, all of us have.
And I’ll let Paul have the last word here, especially as he credits the album with helping burnish his credentials with future collaborators:
In hindsight, this album probably brought me the most work after. I got a call I remember from Macy Gray, “I love Buhloone Mindstate.” Really?! Chris Rock was like, “You know what? I want you to produce my next record. I really love Buhloone Mindstate.” Really?! It brought so much things out of the woodwork but [laughs] where were you guys when it came out?” Can I have that on the back of the album? “I love this record! –Chris Rock”
(Not that I’m some expert on this album now but if folks have other questions, I’m happy to search my notes for answers. Use the “Ask Us” link.)
Darondo (né William Pulliam) passed away today at the age of 67. His single, “Didn’t I” remains one of my favorite Bay Area records (and really, just an all-time great slow jam).
I interviewed Darondo back in 2006 for Wax Poetics and they just reprinted the article on their site. Here’s an excerpt:
The name “Darondo” is so unique, it’s hard to forget. But for many years, all people knew of him was only that: a name on a faded label. In his brief recording career, the Bay Area native only released three 7-inch singles, all in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In the music world, only a select circle of sweet-soul aficionados and Bay Area music collectors had any awareness of his existence, though he held his own notoriety in local cable television and, shall we say, “other” pursuits.
The thing about Darondo’s music though—especially the sublime “Didn’t I,” his best-known single—is that once you hear it, you crave more. That curiosity is largely how the Bay Area native has resurfaced after thirty years. Ubiquity recently released Let My People Go—less an anthology and more of a long-delayed debut album that combines his six songs on single plus an additional three songs taken from a previously unreleased reel of recordings from the same era. At last, Darondo is finally emerging out of obscurity, bringing his small but intriguing legacy with him.
Read the rest here.
I forgot I had these…Justin Torres, who was a huge force behind Darondo’s rediscovery, recorded a few tracks with Darondo live and shared them with me. I shared these, in turn, on the site back in 2006 and I’m bringing ’em back:
And here’s some clips from Darondo’s old local cable show:
(Title photo by Oliver Wang, 2008)
My recent deluge of work means a drought in posts but I’m finally back. Pardon the kitchen sink but I got a lot to cover.
First off, my early runner for “album of the year” goes to Laura Mvula. I’ve been singing her praises for a while but had been looking forward to finally reviewing the U.S. release of her Sing to the Moon for NPR. I feel like any kind of superlatives I might throw her way will be woefully inadequate. Listen to this, the first song on the album. If you’re not awed…well, maybe you’ll want to skip to the next part of this post.
Laura Mvula: Like the Morning Dew
From Sing to the Moon (Columbia, 2013)
I mean…good god that’s incredible. And practically the whole album is like that. Stunning.
I’d actually recommend folks in the U.S. throw down extra for the deluxe version, which only came out in the UK> I should note: the British “deluxe” version of the CD because it comes with a bonus disc with extra songs, alt. versions and demo versions. That includes this beauty of a track that I wanted to include in my review before realizing it was only on the deluxe version.
Laura Mvula: Jump Right Out
From Sing to the Moon Deluxe UK CD (Sony UK, 2013)
Oh yeah, speaking of albums of the year, don’t want to forget Lady. The duo was in L.A. about a month back and I helped KPFK’s Michael Barnes interview them live for his show, The Melting Pot. That included three songs, sung only with a single guitar accompaniment (also on the show). Very, very cool. Do take a listen.
And also, speaking of NPR, I recently contributed to their “1993” series of important/intersting hip-hop albums from 20 years back, writing about Biz Markie’s All Samples Cleared. In particular, at the end, I mention how Biz and his production squad flip five different versions of “Get Out of My Life Woman” including one of my favorite versions, Grassella Oliphant’s:
Grassella Oliphant: Get Out Of My Life Woman
From Grass Is Greener (Atlantic, 1968)
I’m not claiming this is the best version – there’s a ton of competition at the very least – but it’s a combo of the drums/organ/bass that comes together so beautifully. Biz knew that too when he flipped that particular version for this:
Biz Markie: I’m Singin’
From All Samples Cleared (Warner Bros., 1993)
Lastly, I wanted to share this little “mini-mix” I put together last fall for a wedding I did in S.F. (and then used again, partially) for a wedding I just did (also in S.F., as it were, a few weeks back). These days, most of the tiny edits I do are to create party song segments but the thing about something so specialized is that I don’t want to abuse them by playing them out all the damn time. So I figured, this particular mini-mix was used at least twice but I don’t want to try to stretch it out further so I’ll just share it with everyone instead. Once you listen to it, some of you might just dump it right away (you’ll understand why in a moment) but if you have kids under the age of 10, I’d almost guarantee they’d dig it. Swear.
Rihanna/Psy/Carly Rae Jepsen/Taio Cruz: We Found Gangnam Maybe, Now With Dynamite (O-Dub Edit)
The Root just published my 20th anniversary piece about The Chronic.1 You can read what I have to say about the album, the context in which it flourished, and its long-term legacies over there. I just wanted to add a personal postscript.
I didn’t like The Chronic when it first dropped. Much of this was for reasons that were quite silly in hindsight: I sided with Cube over the rest of the N.W.A. crew, I was a budding backpacker who was supposed to eschew so-called reality rap. Sonically, the main hits off The Chronic did little for someone who had come up on Prince Paul, the Bomb Squad and DJ Premier. For all these reasons, I don’t think I even listened to The Chronic the whole way through. I just figured, “if this all sounds like “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thing”, I’m going to take a pass.”
It was a stupid attitude but I was 20 and thus more prone to stupid attitudes.
Over the next ten years, I slowly but surely came around to actually – you know – listening to the album more, all the while also becoming more musically open-minded and less driven by a rigid ideological stance. But the main kicker came about 10 years ago, when I was putting together Classic Material. The writer who was supposed to take on The Chronic had to pull out at the last moment and I decided to step in instead. It was certainly a move more initially motivated by necessity than desire; I would never have chosen to write about The Chronic for the book on my own, initial volition.
This is one of cases where the assignment lead to enlightenment (rather than the other way around). Once I allowed myself to jettison old prejudices and simply try to take on the album at face value, I could far better appreciate all its subtly and majesties, both aesthetically and politically. There’s aspects to it I’m still going to be ambivalent about – its misogyny for example or the fact that, at the end of the day, I still don’t like those damn synths so much – but I also recognized that it was a far more well-rounded and thought-out album than I originally gave it credit for. That’s one of the nice things about a persistent love for music that spans decades. I heard The Chronic differently when I was 30 vs. when I was 20 and now that I’m 40, I’m sure I hear it differently again.
I added this comment to The Root’s page and it’s worth including it here too: it’s interesting to compare The Chronic with this year’s West Coast supposed classic: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Take a lyric like Kendrick’s “the one in front of the gun lives forever” and compare that to Dre’s “who’s the man with a master plan?/a n—-a with a gun.” Lamar certainly can thrown down the bravado with the rest of them – “Backseat Freestyle” more than aptly proves that – but for the most part, GKMC is far more “real” in its vulnerabilities and uncertainties than the “reality rap” of The Chronic. That doesn’t make one better than the other but it suggests that a West Coast sound has never been as monolithic as some of its critics suggest.