04/22/14 Guest Blog

Rap journalist Oliver Wang denied that Illmatic was a classic twenty years ago. We all have our regrets.

Twenty years later, Nas's masterpiece still stands the test of time

Illmatic - Nas

Back in the primordial days of the Internet, even before “WWW” had become a household term, there were message boards. On one of them, alt.rap, I wrote this on 4/20/94:

“Look, [Illmatic] is NOT the second coming…please get off the Source’s jock!!! This is a good album. This is a great album. This is probably the best debut to come out of New York since Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage. BUT, this is not the classic everybody’s been calling… Naw man. Like Criminal Minded or Paid in Full? C’mon.”

A few points:

    1. Yes, I actually wrote that twenty years ago.
    2. Yes, I regret that I wrote it. Mostly, I regret that it’s still on the interwebs two decades later.
    3. Yes, I completely got this one wrong. Wasn’t the first, sure as hell wasn’t the last.

In my defense, I was… Actually, I can’t mount a credible defense. I was young, overly opinionated, and worst of all: a close-minded listener. My initial reaction to Illmatic was that it didn’t sound like I thought it might and I was so self-centered then that I processed that surprise as a shortcoming of the album instead of a product of my narrow expectations. (I probably shouldn’t admit this but I felt the same way about Low End Theory on first listen too: I didn’t get why it was so bass heavy, thus completely missing the point of the album title. I really was a bit of a toy back then.)

The irony is that, of course, Illmatic would eventually become one of my favorite albums ever—and yes, a classic—though that transformation didn’t happen overnight. It’s more like it unfolded in stages, where I gradually became more attuned into its transcendent qualities. Obviously, there’s been much ink spilled over Illmatic’s importance and you don’t need me to build a case for its canonization (least of all since I already gutted my credibility with that 1994 post). However, by way of paying penance for my previous foolishness, and in celebration of the album’s twentieth anniversary (accompanied by the new Illmatic XX release), let me highlight a few qualities that have continued to stand out the most to me (and that I should have caught back then).

First of all, while Nas’s cinematic storytelling on Illmatic is rightfully lauded (especially on “One Love”), what impresses me even more is the sublimity of his flow. When he first broke out, on guest spots like “Live at the BBQ” and “Back to the Grill,” people would talk about his imaginative, bugged-out lines: “kidnap the President’s wife without a plan” or “pointing automatic guns at nuns.” However, more than any single line off the album—and Illmatic has notable quotables for days—it’s Nas’s delivery that continues to be a thing of utter, devastating beauty. This may be too obvious, but come back to how he opens “NY State of Mind,” after telling us he doesn’t know how to start this (yo):

Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’
Musician, inflictin’ composition
Of pain, I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine
Holding an M-16, see with the pen I’m extreme, now

Not only does he cram over fifty syllables in those four bars, but the rhyme scheme is as precise as the imagery is wild. Most rappers would feel triumphant to just get that far, but then Nas races ahead and drops forty bars worth in that opening set of verses, seemingly exhaling everything out in one breath. Those verses instantly clarified the difference between possessing style vs. trying to be stylized (think tongue-twiggety gimmicks or weird tonal inflections, both of which Jay Z was guilty of back then). Every time I listen to “NY State of Mind,” I never failed to be awed, wondering in what fever dream did Nas manifest those lines and the alacrity necessary to corral them. He’s hit that stride again and again throughout his career (most recently on “The Don”), but Nas was nineteen/twenty years old when he penned “NY State of Mind.” Just sit with that for a moment.

His age is actually relevant for the other dimension to Illmatic that continues to haunt me. I probably didn’t start listening to the album again—end to end—until the late ’90s, when I had gotten to the point where I felt the tug of nostalgia towards it (cue: “jiggy era rant”) and what I was struck by in making that return was how deeply nostalgic Illmatic itself is despite it being a debut album by a rapper barely out of his teens. Yet Nas wants to play elder statesman here, dispensing counsel from project benches, mentoring gun-happy QB shorties when he’s not cutting songs literally called “Memory Lane.” No rappers like to be thought of as old, but Nas wants the listener to know that he’s wise beyond his years, dropping that “ancient manifested hip-hop straight off the block.” Then again, it would take a young man’s moxie for Nas to dare sell himself as an old soul, but it’s hard to argue with how convincingly he pulls it off.

Lastly—and this is something that I undoubtedly couldn’t have fully appreciated back in 1994—there is an incredible simplicity and purity to the album with its ten tracks and forty-minute run time. That kind of economy was rare even then, let alone by decade’s end where it seemed like everyone needed to drop a double album (Nas included). Maybe that’s why the two “anniversary” editions—the Platinum Series (2004) and the new XX set—don’t add much to the album’s luster or legacy; their “bonus” material (remixes, unreleased songs) do little to change, let alone improve our impressions of the album or the artist.1

Perhaps the most potent gem slipped into the XX edition is the liner notes’ centerfold photo: Premier, Q-Tip, and Large Professor standing in the studio. There’s a few folks MIA (Pete Rock, AZ, L.E.S.), but the image of those four men says enough for a platoon. An elite handful of hip-hop’s greatest talents got together and created themselves a classic. I was too short-sighted to properly perceive that accomplishment in ’94, but I’ve spent the last twenty years, and probably will spend the next twenty years, gazing into that brilliance.

Oliver Wang still writes silly things on the Internet, usually for his site, Soul-Sides.com

 

Note:

1. This isn’t to say the bonus material is unwelcome. The XX edition includes the demo song, “I’m a Villain,” which is a compelling snapshot of Nas back when he was only seventeen. It’s a pity there’s not more vault recoveries like this (see Mobb Deep’s incredible bonus disc from The Infamous Mobb Deep for a comparison), though for more casual Nas fans who had never heard Large Professor’s excellent, Biz Markie–laced remix of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” or Q-Tip’s flip on “The World Is Yours,” the second disc saves them the trouble of hunting these down off of 12-inch.

04/18/14 Contests

Miles Davis live at the Fillmore 1970 recordings are released in glorious box set by Legacy Recordings

We're giving away three copies!

Miles Davis at the Fillmore

Few artists have jarred multiple genres like Miles Davis did during his fusion period. The jazz crowd was confused with his direction, but it helped him gain a new audience: the rock crowd. Miles at the Fillmore – Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 captures Miles Davis and yet another new band on a four-night run at the Fillmore East from June 17 to the 20, 1970, while a handful of bonus tracks fill out some discs with Fillmore West tracks.

Across four discs, this set finally realizes Davis’s dream of having “every set, every note made available to the public” of these shows. A number of tracks are included on each disc. With Miles, like Hendrix, each performance is unique. “Directions,” “Bitches Brew,” “The Mask,” “It’s About That Time,” and the very short “The Theme” all vary in track length, sometimes by a full minute. Bandmates Steve Grossman, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Airto Moreira help deliver the message. Indeed, it’s about that time.

To listen to the shows is as challenging today as it was back then. It can often be dissonant and head-spinning, but it’s also bold and no-holds-barred. When Miles raises his horn vertically to perform, as shown in a number of photos included in the set, it’s like a middle finger to the establishment. One of the best quotes ever stated about Davis and his influence is that Davis didn’t follow jazz. It followed him.

Included in the latest bootleg series, which has won acclaim across the board, is an 18 1/2 x 13 3/4 black-and-white poster showing Davis point his regal trumpet skyward. On the back of the poster are various clippings of publications from the day—Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Village Voice—as well as a letter from CBS Records to Bill Graham of the Fillmore West outlining why Davis could be a big draw at Graham’s famed venue. This is all housed in a thick, brick-like package that unfolds into five panels showing the four CDs in vivid color, matching the album cover’s vibrant paint splashes.

Legacy is offering three Wax Poetics readers the opportunity to win one of these sets. Email contest[at]waxpoetics.com with a subject line of “Miles at Fillmore” along with your name and address, and we’ll pull the names out randomly to determine the winners. The contest ends April 25.

04/17/14 Guest Blog

Illustrator Wilfred Limonious drew over 150 iconic dancehall LP covers

New book collects artist's work, also displayed at Hometown HiFi in L.A.

Wilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.com

Wax Poetics is partnering with Sonos Studio in Los Angeles to present HOMETOWN HIFI, an art show running through April 24 about the roots of Jamaican sound system culture, featuring works by Beth Lesser, Limonious, and Pekka Vuorinen, as well as artifacts and films.

In today’s interview, Canadian musician Chris Bateman (of the Operators 780 former local fame) explains his obsession for the art of the underground dancehall illustrator Wilfred Limonious, who died in 1999 after having drawn over 150 iconic LP covers. As expected, the quest he embarked on in 2009 to compile the ultimate Limonious retrospective book turned into quite the treasure hunt…

Wilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.comWhen did you first become aware of Limonious?

Chris Bateman: I first came across Limonious’s covers when my band toured across Canada in 2003. We stopped into S&W Soul King records in Toronto—which was a block from my grandmother’s house. S&W Soul King was an amazing reggae record store and label. I picked up the Stalag LP that day, and our guitar player picked up the Josey Wales Undercover Lover LP. We were all blown away by Limonious’s album art! From there, my friends and I would come across more and more Limonious LPs, and the conversation would always come back to “Why isn’t there a book of his work?” In about 2008 or 2009, a friend sent me a link to a message board thread about Limonious, and that’s when I started to think about a retrospective book a little more seriously.

Wilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.com

Why him in particular? What did he have that, say, Jamaal Pete didn’t?

That’s a good question! I liked a lot of cover artists before I saw my first Limonious jackets, Tony McDermott, for example, I always loved his sleeves. Limonious was the first album jacket artist to make me stop in my tracks though. His lines were so simple and intentional and his colors were so bold. There was also so much humor; I love that. It was immediate and light hearted. His covers looked just as the records sounded. With so many small details and scribbled patois lines, I would comb over a Limonious jacket like a child reading a comic book.

What made you decide to go and track his traces in Jamaica?

One of the first people to contact me in a really supportive way about this project was Orville “Bagga” Case. He was one of the most prolific jacket designers from the early dancehall era, and his email to me was so supportive and nice. We emailed back and forth for a while, and when he started giving me addresses of people in Kingston that I should interview, I knew that I had to actually go down there.

Wilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.com

Wilfred Limonious illustrations courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.com

What was the biggest surprise for you among his body of work?

It was a huge surprise for me to learn that his time as a newspaper cartoonist was a significant part of his career. When I would mention his name to people on the island, it was often more recognizable as a newspaper cartoonist than an album jacket designer. He created a number of comics for smaller publications also. Those were really exciting to find and are in the book.

Wilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.comWilfred Limonious - courtesy Chris Bateman / www.infinestyle.wordpress.com

At the end of this quest, can you draw a more precise image of what kind of person the great Wilfred Limonious was?

Everyone that I met with had the same thing to say about Wilfred Limonious: he was a quiet person that loved to draw. One of his friends who runs a printing plant in Kingston told me, “If you came here and he just thought, ‘I feel like drawing,’ he’d draw you just like that.”

 

In Fine Style – The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious by Chris Bateman will be out soon on DJ Al Finger’s One Love Books.

 

Sonos Studio Presents "Hometown HiFi"

Sonos Studio Presents “Hometown HiFi” © Stephen Paul

Sonos Studio Presents "Hometown HiFi" © Stephen Paul

Sonos Studio Presents “Hometown HiFi” © Stephen Paul

 

“HOMETOWN HIFI,” curated by Wax Poetics contributor Seb Carayol: Sonos Studio (145 N. La Brea, Los Angeles) until April 24. Hours: 12–6 PM, Wed.–Sun.

 

04/17/14 Events

Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York’s “Bounce Ballroom”

We're giving away a pair of tickets!

Red Bull Music Academy - Bounce Ballroom

In the tradition of last year’s RBMA NYC United States of Bass event, the opening night of Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York will once again celebrate a range of hyper-local dance music sounds that have made a global impact. On May 1, Brooklyn Night Bazaar will serve as a unique playground for “Bounce Ballroom,” showcasing four different sounds and dance styles from the New York/New Jersey area: housing, voguing, flexing, and Jersey Club.

 

We’ll be randomly selecting one winner for a pair of tickets. Just email contest[at]waxpoetics.com with your full name in the body and “Bounce Ballroom” in the subject by April 24.

 

Taking to the turntables, some of the most revered DJs of their respective club sounds will provide the soundtrack for four dance crews comprised of celebrated masters of their dynamic craft. Customizing the large, open Williamsburg space to fit the occasion, four unique stages will be set up to showcase each style with a distinctive twist. Throughout the night, the crews will rotate between stages, creating a compelling environment that invites the audience to partake in the eclectic dance mayhem.

Holding the musical reins for bruk up will be dancehall king Bobby Konders. Characterized by moves such as the crab walk, the shoulder pop and the ghost walk, bruk up was embraced by NYC dancehall lovers in the mid-’90s, and slowly transformed into the style known today as flexing (or bonebreaking). The dance roster will include Drew Dollaz and Bones the Machine, who have toured with Madonna as her backup dancers, Samiam, who has earned the nickname “Moviemansam” for his cinematic dance interpretations, and Bed-Stuy Veteran/LOUD League crew founder Albert “The Ghost” Esquilin.

 

Nourished equally in clubs, loft parties, and raves throughout the United States over the last 30 years, house dance is now a staple of urban dance battles and dance school curriculums worldwide. Hoisting the dance flag for housing and waacking (a disco-driven street dance style that originated in Los Angeles in the 1970s) will be Cricket and Eriko, who host a frequent house dance cypher called The Lab in Manhattan, as well as prime waacking authority, Princess Lockeroo. NYC house legend Todd Terry will provide their musical backdrop.

 

Evolving out of the gay ballroom scene of 1980s Harlem, voguing and ballroom house has recently made a strong comeback in popular culture. To the sounds of Fade to Mind-affiliate DJ MikeQ, as well as the fierce commentator Kevin JZ Prodigy, a trio of legendary voguers is set to make jaws drop at Bounce Ballroom. A true ambassador of the dance, Javier Ninja represents the House of Ninja, a main staple of vogue since its early days. Dashaun Wesley from the House of Evisu is a master of a dizzying array of duckwalks, catwalks, dips and spins, while Leiomy Prodigy embodies vogue femme attitude, performing effortlessly in all manner of skintight outfits and six-inch heels.

 

The youngest style in our celebration, Jersey Club has been causing a storm over the last five years. Already a veteran of the breakbeat- and call-and-response-based sound at age 23, DJ Sliink will soundtrack the stage along with his protégée Mike Gip. On the dancefloor, Gip is bringing his young ’n’ hype Jersey squad, including SoSo, Emanni, and artist/rapper/DJ/dancer Fiinesse. Add to that a trio of dancers affiliated with DJ Lilman’s Team Lilman dance team—Ani TL, King Naboo, and Urkle—and you can expect to see the Tip-Toe, the Getty Up, the One Leg Back, the Sexy Walk, and whatever new dances Newark has invented this week.

At Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York’s inaugural Bounce Ballroom night, prepare for a history lesson that your booty will never forget.

Purchase advance tickets here.

Enter to win a pair of tickets by emailing contest[at]waxpoetics.com with your full name in the body and “Bounce Ballroom” in the subject by April 24.

 

 

 

04/14/14 The Nod

Universal is reissuing Gang Starr, Ludacris, and Kanye West vinyl for its “Respect the Classics” campaign

Step in the Arena, Back for the First Time, and 808s & Heartbreak

Gang Starr Step in the Arena

Over the last several months, the Respect the Classics vinyl reissue campaign has offered releases from West Coast gangsta gods and East Coast street hip-hop. In February and March, they looked to the legendary pairing of Guru and Primo for their 1990 album Step in the Arena, and one of the Dirty South’s great rhyme spitters, Ludacris, with his Back for the First Time major label debut, as well as Kanye West and his curveball 808s & Heartbreak.

During hip-hop’s golden era, Gang Starr’s DJ Premier created his first real production with “Just to Get a Rep” that laid out a formula that would serve them well throughout the rest of their careers. That formula oftentimes included snappy drums, precision DJ cuts, and lovely looped soul and jazz samples creating a bed for Keith Elam to display his Gifted Unique Rhymes Universal philosophy. That was on full display when Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” got looped over a booming bass drum yielding jams like this:

Fast forward a decade later and the South was on fire, finally moving out from the underground and into the mainstream. Ludacris’s Incognegro was retooled into a major-label smash as Back for the First Time, eventually going triple platinum. To further bolster production by the likes of Bangladesh (“U Got a Problem?” and “What’s Your Fantasy,” both club bangers), Organized Noize (“Game Got Switched”), and Jermaine Dupri (“Get Off Me”), the Neptunes and Timbaland got in on the action with “Southern Hospitality” and “Phat Rabbit,” respectively. All of that provided the perfect backdrop for Luda’s confident delivery straight out of the ATL. The vinyl reissue contains a lenticular cover to bedazzle the eyes.

Merely a few years later, Kanye West was a critic’s darling. Having released three albums that topped many year-end lists thanks to catchy singles like “Gold Digger” and “Stronger,” they were also nearly flawlessly executed albums in concept laid over a good bit of chipmunk soul with lyrics relating to the everyman. There were allusions to cash and women, but this sounded different. In one of God’s great mysteries, Ye’s ego was able to be fitted into shiny platters for the whole world to digest. In November of 2007, West’s mother passed away unexpectedly, causing a radical shift in sound for his next album.

In 2008, the world heard its first glimpse of 808s & Heartbreak during the MTV VMAs when he performed “Love Lockdown.” Over taiko drums, West opted to sing, via Autotune. It was an artistic gamble, and one that not every critic loved in their reviews. However, it showed that Ye wasn’t going to confine himself to a box. One of the album’s single, “Heartless,” was covered by the Fray and even on American Idol by winner Kris Allen. 808s remains a challenging but rewarding listen thanks to its dark imagery and dank production techniques. Now the album is reissued on vinyl and includes a copy of the album on CD.

• • •

The contest has ended.

04/10/14 The Nod

African-influenced funk band Ikebe Shakedown drops new album

Stylistically, Stone by Stone leans much more ’70s funk and soul than their handle would lead you to believe

Ikebe Shakedown Stone by Stone

 

It was nearly a year ago that Ikebe Shakedown gifted us with a taste of their upcoming album, Stone by Stone. With the limited-edition 45 release of “The Beast,” now only available digitally unless you get lucky and run across one in a shop, we were treated to a slow and steady funk-building instrumental. Its B-side, “Road Song,” exclusive to the 45, would have sounded right at home on a Menahan Street Band album thanks to another strong bass line and laced with a nice dose of melodic piano. That sound was influenced greatly by where it was recorded: Daptone Studios in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Stylistically, Stone by Stone leans much more ’70s funk and soul than their handle would lead you to believe. There are still African influences to be found on the album such as “Chosen Path.” Far more prevalent, though, are slinky, and at times, bluesy guitar riffs and timely horn patterns. Being a fully instrumental album—no spoken word intro, chants, grunts, or vocal effects of any kind are to be found—it gives the listener the opportunity to immerse themselves into a greasy and sometimes trippy funk world.

Ikebe Shakedown

Ikebe Shakedown notes a shift in the sound for their latest album. “Our first two releases were very focused on capturing Ikebe’s live sound,” percussionist Dave Bourla recalls. “Stone by Stone is more focused on developing rich textures and layers that we could achieve in the studio including putting a lot more keyboards on the tracks. Still, we’ve always been committed to tracking everything to tape. Being at Daptone gave us the freedom to explore creatively while keeping us tied to the traditional recording techniques that make the House of Soul [studio] unique.”

That revivalist Daptone New York soul sound wasn’t first realized with the new album though. “We recorded our first releases, the EP Hard Steppin’ and some tracks off our self-titled LP with Tom Brenneck at Dunham Studios,” Bourla says. “Off of that, a few of us started to play in the touring bands of Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, while other guys were playing with Lee Fields (from Truth & Soul Records). As a result, a bunch of us had gotten to know the tape engineer at Daptone, Wayne Gordon, whose talents we greatly respect. When he had a couple of days at the studio free, we jumped on the chance to record in a place that’s inspired all of us.”

That inspiration has led to some very cohesive work, not only within this album, but across their sound as a whole over these past five years. As Ikebe Shakedown calls out, having multiple members (in this case, seven) can be positive instead of debilitating. “Our tastes as players and composers are pretty diverse,” says Bourla. “This album is just our newest attempt to make sure that we’re creating a new kind of sound using all those influences, turning them into tunes that we really enjoy.” Additionally, they bring a lot of their influences from their favorite music. Specifically, they are proud to point out the following, “For Stone by Stone, our inspiration ranged from some of the more lyrical instrumental music of West Africa, the powerful grooves of our favorite soul acts like the Mar-Keys and Booker T., the Meters, and the deep emotional and cinematic storytelling of composers like Morricone.”