Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Taste

Azealia Banks is 23.

It's important to remember that fact when you consider the tumultuous two year period leading up to the release of her schizoprenic and excellent debut album. 

In those two years, she has amassed a mega-hit song, several acclaimed mixtapes, won and lost a major label deal and instigated many twitter beefs. She went from unbeatable to, in her own words, "untouchable".

Whilst the twitter beefs don't look like they'll abate any time soon, there is this album, and what a gorgeous mess it is.

In an age when average-joe consumer is likely to say that all music is mainstream, lets be clear.

This is not a mainstream album, but it is a great one.

I've been listening to the album in the background most nights, not really deeply listening, and it's almost as if that's the way it should be listened to. 

One time I walked in to the lounge-room and Azealia was adopting a perfect Spanish flow like a true chica on the funkily salsified "Gimme A Chance", whilst another time I found her doing her best Annette Funicello impression on the 60's Beach Party banger "Nude Beach A Go-Go". It's not a concept you're brain easily grips on to.

It doesn't stop there. Having equal skill in both singing and rhyming allows Banks to be flexible, but it also means she's spoiled for stylistic choices. If I'm so good at all these styles, why not do them all? 

There's a Garage/2-Step track "Desperado", sampled from the fantastic early aught's MJ Cole classic and there's of course her house-influenced 2012 world-beater "212".

You can see why Interscope was baffled with how to market her.

Regardless of whether she's mainstream or not, Banks is just being herself, a product of a broad cultural upbringing. She hails from Harlem, which up until the 90's was predominantly populated by african-americans. By the time she was a teen, she might not have even noticed that her neighbourhood had become more multicultural. 

Banks would have grown up in a populus that was infused with the DNA of local Hip-Hop denizens like Tupac, Cam'ron, A$AP Rocky, Mase and P. Diddy. Added to that, she would also have felt the influence of incoming White, Hispanic and foreign-born African communities, who have increasingly made up Harlem's numbers as Manhattans property prices have risen sharply in price.

This diverse cultural background partly explains her list of collaborators, which is as varied as it it is long. Lone, Diplo, Baauer, Disclosure, MachineDrum and Hudson Mohawke are among the better-known producers who have worked with Bank$, none of whom are among the mainstream soundsmiths that we typically associate with chart-topping pop acts.

However, it's precisely this melange of differing collaborators that ensures that Expensive is as restlessly interesting and entertaining as it is.

"Chasing Time", produced by Philly producer Pop Wansel, is classic Banks. It's an uptempo dance track that allows her to flex her considerable house muscle, but also challenges her to keep pace with her rap verses. This she does with an ease that very few, if any, of her contemporaries could manage. How does this happen? How does Banks rip through a track that most pop stars wouldn't even consider? Wansel has an idea. "Most rappers are not in a space right now to be innovative or to be open to different shit. They want to chase what’s on the radio. They want a “club banger.”

Banks wants club bangers too, but she also wants 60's pop songs and Garage tunes.

This record is not for everybody, hell, I'm pretty sure it's not even meant to be for me. For the person that it is for, Banks herself, it's important.

It's shows an artist in motion, someone who has spent the last three years working out who she is, and someone who is still working that out. 

As fascinated as I am following her journey, I kinda hope she never stops searching.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Three Questions about Creativity with Battle of the Year creator Thomas Hergenröther

Any Bboy or Bgirl who hasn't heard the name Thomas Hergenröther probably hasn't competed in Battle of the Year. Hergenröther is synonymous with BOTY because he was the man that created it.

As a fan of many BOTY's and of course the stellar 2007 documentary Planet BBoy, I knew I had to talk to Thomas about creating an event that has gone on capture the worlds attention.

Thomas was very generous with his response and his story encapsulates what happens when you have a great idea, a little motivation and an inclusive attitude. 

Most big undertakings start from humble beginnings with a few creative and motivated people, so my question was to find out what or who inspired Thomas to create Battle of the Year in the first place?

I was a Bboy and in the end of the 80s it totally died out in Germany/Europe. I kept on dancing and finally found few other Bboys who were still left. We sat down, discussed and then decided to try to bring it back and show the public that to us Hip Hop including Bboying is more than a fashion but passion. That was my/our first motivation to start the BOTY without knowing of course that in the future it will last so long and will grow so big.

In the end of the 80s we also met Battle Squad with Storm and Swift and they probably were our main inspiration at that time encouraging us to do something.

Creative people challenge the status quo, knowing that our best as human beings is always still ahead of us. Thomas found that although popular culture at that point had chewed up and spit out breaking, the spirit of the culture was still young and there were people crying out for a unifying event, not just in Germany, but around the world.  

Creating something is only half the battle, as you have to keep working on it day-in and day-out. I wanted to know what kept Thomas motivated to keep pushing year after year, especially in the early days?

Motivation especially in the early years was easy. It was all a big adventure during the age of no you tube, facebook and emails. You never knew what will happen and every BOTY from 1990 to 2000 was kind of unpredictable in terms of knowing which dancers and crews and also how much crowd will show up. Especially the first five BOTY editions (1990 – 1995) still had that original jam character, it was a very close and interactive atmosphere, very original in terms of the true meanings and vibes of hip hop culture.

It was more in and after 1999/2000 that I questioned our ideas a lot since we got quite some negative feedback in terms oft hat BOTY got too big and commercial, saying that we sell out the hip hop culture, which from my side really never was the case. My heart was and still is always with the culture and dancers of course with adapting to time and in the end of course business.

But I totally got over it since today I am totally convinced of our event and philosophy we spread for BOTY, plus nowadays we have so many BBoy events and the scene and audience for everything is so big that everybody can choose were to go and where not to go.

My main inspiration and motivation up to today still are important people keep on pushing us such as Storm, Mode 2, Crazy, Vartan / Flying Steps and also my brilliant team which is like family, with some we work together since 1995.

Youthful enthusiasm and having low expectations can provide motivation when you're starting out, but the inspiration you get from others you've met and work with because of your creation is what keeps you working on it.

Battle of the year is over 25 years old, and Thomas is a veteran of the scene now, so I was curious to ask Thomas if there are specific things that he does that helps him get in a creative state of mind?

I travel a lot all over the world watching different kinds of dance events, not only Bboy event but of course mainly Bboy events. I think we can learn from younger/new events sometimes. If we would still do the same things with BOTY as we did in the early 90s it would not work, time is running and the kids and also the Bboys change in attitude, needs, behaviour …

Beside that I do a lot of sports especially outdoor activities in my life and this keeps me down to earth plus calms me down a lot to think about new ideas and concepts for our events.

Although BOTY is Thomas's focus, he has other hobbies and sports that allow him to take time out from his work. Sometimes when you work in your business, you are so concerned with the day-to-day operations you forget you need to work on your business, and some of those business decisions require a clear and creative mind. The time away from work gives you the opportunity to think differently and more broadly, helping create new ideas and to remind you why you started in the first place.

Thomas has worked hard to create an event that has stayed as true as it can to the original spirit of the Hip Hop culture whilst still growing and changing with every generation. If you're looking to stay relevant creatively and culturally for the long run, taking Thomas's example is a good start.

Battle of the Year website
2014 BOTY Final on Youtube

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DJ Quik finds beauty in the Midnight Life

There's very, very few Hip Hop MC's that you can say were relevant in 1990 that are still relevant today. The list of relevant producers is even shorter, but DJ Quik is both relevant as an MC and a producer. More than relevant, he excels at both.

Midnight Life is his 9th studio album, and it's one of his best, which is saying something.

"Beauty is the promise of happiness" - Stendhal, 19th-century French writer 

"My music is flawless" - DJ Quik, Pet Sematary 

The live instrumentation that Quik raps over bears the signs of a restless producer who's been searching for the perfect sound for more than half his life. If beauty is truly the promise of happiness then Quik is trying make a lot of people extremely happy. 

Although this album revels in perfecting old school styles (G-Funk, Jazz, Vocoders) there are signs that Quik has one ear to the mainstream. With a little Ratchet here, and a little Trap there, Quik can co-sign the latest fads without giving over to them. That he is able to mesh more contemporary beats with the sounds that have cemented his legacy since Quik is the name, is all the more impressive. 

In taking the best of all genres, Quik constructs a well-designed piece of art, a package of sound that acts as a reminder to us of the values we wish to see in ourselves - clarity, attention to detail, integrity, depth, dexterity and perfection. 

However, Quik doesn't let perfection get in the way of a good time. A party starter from the get-go, the music of the Midnight Life reflects the attitudes of the easy-going Quik. The Jazzy late-night groove of 'Pet Sematary' lulls you into Quik's world, one that is simultaneously partying like its 1989 and 2014. 'Puffin the Dragon' even sounds like a TV theme song from the 1970's. 

It's not all gin and juice though. Anyone who heard the more scathing tracks on Quik's 2011 album The Book of David will know his real life has not been easy, and this every present fear pervades every verse of this album. Hailing from the notoriously violent suburb of Compton, and entering the game with the likes of NWA, Quik knows the gangsta life. 

His hood side is present on bangers like 'Trapped on the Tracks' and 'That Getter', although the paranoia explicit in those tracks is also sprinkled right through his album. Like the mafioso in the diner, Quik never has his back to the door. 

 Where does this perceived fear stem from? Maybe Quik feels that his comparative lack of success is unwarranted? 

 I suspect that he is keenly aware that his take on West Coast Hip Hop long ago ceased to appeal to the casual rap fan, and I believe he doesn't mind being the odd one out. 

If Quik is truly aiming for beauty in his art, and if art really is the "criticism of life", then Quiks art comes at a price, which may be in the form of decreasing radio spins and albums sales. 

That may be all be true, but in any case, the world is better off when Quik's trying to rupture the status quo.

Play now at Spotify 
Buy now at Itunes

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Iggy Azalea and the Appropriative Ceiling

I'm not here to comment on the already exhausted arguements about Australian-born rapper Iggy Azalea not rapping in an Australian accent, in fact I support her doing it.

Where would Hugh Jackman be if he didn't switch to the american drawl in his blockbuster role 'Swordfish'. Aussies have been donning the american slang since Errol Flynn was in tights, so why should we be angry that an Aussie popstar has done the same.

That said, making Hip-Hop in an American accent probably disqualifies you from claiming you are making Australian music, much the way Hugh can't claim that X-Men is an Aussie Franchise. This may expain why Iggy has long since distanced herself from her heritage in as many ways as possible. 

"To be 100% honest, I don't have any friends in Australia, just my family. I identify with Australian culture, of course; I was raised there. But there are parts of other cultures I identify with more, which is why I moved". 

But I don't really want to talk about that, as fascinating as that conversation is. No, I want to talk about the other controversy plaguing the Iggy persona - cultural appropriation.

Much has been made of her story - Girl from a small town learns to rap to American Hip-Hop in an American accent, is pushed out of the local hip-hop scene and runs away to the USA to become a star. I make it sound like an overnight success, but to be clear, her road to success actually took quite a number of years. I digress.

Along the way, as we know, she developed what Oliver Wang described as “a hat trick of appropriation: not American, not black, not southern”. 

With this triumverate of acquired skills, she has accumulated a hit single and the co-sign of one America's most successful rappers. The question is then, where does she go from here? She has the skillset, work ethic and connects, but she's yet to make a compelling personal record. 

If she doesn't have the benefit of american cultural DNA and she's unwilling to discuss her Australian upbringing, where is she going to get her lyrical content from? she can't adopt much more from African-American culture you would think, but it's an interesting question -  what's Iggy's Appropriative ceiling?

Characteristics of a Classic

If you look at the best African American, Southern hip-hop albums of all time, you can start to paint the picture of the directions Iggy would have to take to actually record a new classic .
Here's the characteristics of some of the best known Southern Hip-Hop albums.
Personal self-reflection - (8 Ball & MJG - In Our Lifetime, Vol. 1, Scarface - The Fix, UGK -Ridin' Dirty)
Street persona - (Rick Ross - Teflon Don, Young Jeezy - Let’s Get It, T.I. - King)
Social commentary - (Outkast - Aquemini)
Spirituality (Goodie Mob - Soul Food)
Violence and mayhem (Geto Boys - We Can't be Stopped)

For most of these artists, and indeed Hip-Hop artists in general, their best albums were recorded early in their careers. The characteristics listed above are not adopted, they're ingrained in ones upbringing and provide a life-times worth of first-hand experience.

I find it hard to think that Iggy will be able to embed her lyrics with these same regionally specific characteristics. At best you can hope she imbues her content with more story-telling qualities, recounting her travels through her early years in Australia and the US with the specificity and soul her music currently lacks.

Country Grammar

Iggy's not lyrically complex, and this holds her back in any argument for her Hip Hop immortality, and it doesn't stop there. Although her flow is precise, it's very studied and not yet lived-in, a product of performance over naturality. 

There's a sense that her flow will relax with time, into something that feels more an exaggeration of her true self and less like a Siri-fied T.I.

The Dungeon Sound

Another interesting point is that The New Classic doesn't sound geographically southern either, an indicator of a more globally-focussed Hip-Hop industry and a commercial sound designed to appeal to the largest number of music fans.

As she gains more autonomy over her sound, there is a chance that she would find productions that better suit her flow and even more promising, producers who craft tracks specifically for her.

Respect M.E.

Apart from the Southern Hip-Hop artists listed previously, Iggy's most obvious female comparison would likely be to Missy Elliot. Whilst other female rappers have made sexuality the focus of their lyrics (Lil Kim, Gangsta Boo, Trina), Elliot carved her own way, through the tripped out party music of frequent collaborator Timbaland

Her distinctive style set her apart, and yet Elliot found that she was able to stay largely away from personal lyrics whilst still being commercially and critically successful.

However, Iggy doesn't have Missy's cartoonish personality or a frequent collaborator like Timbaland, she lives or dies on hot beats from a coterie of collaborators. This typically works short term, but in the long term just focusses peoples attention on your producer.


Iggy could refashion herself into a trend-setting,globe-trotting chameleon, much like Diplo or M.I.A.,  however for now she seems content to stay her lane. 

Wherever she goes from here, it will be an interesting ride. Lets just hope that her success leads to more homegrown American female rappers getting deals and making great albums and not to more thinkpieces like this one.

Appropriative Ceiling: The upper limit to which you can  take possession of or make use of exclusively for oneself, often without permission