Live Recordings: Ibeyi (Mama Says/Better in Tune with the Infinite)

“Ibeyi” – twins, in Yoruba.

Born in Paris, sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, twenty-two years old possess that kind of virtuosic magic that is impossible to discount, or miss. Their father is the late Cuban percussionist, Anga Diaz, their mother, the Venezuelan- French singer, Maya Dagnino, who appeared in their heart-rending video for ‘Mama Says’. (To be blessed among women)

Such sweetness and strength in this rendition, I especially like the way Lisa’s vocal performance – all emphasised consonants, “gone” – is imperfect and the way the sisters close their eyes, as they sing together. How Naomi taps out the beat on the drum, on her body. The simple lyrics that are perfect, while appearing to be a little lost in translation (‘I’m afraid that she’d be hurt and .. sink’)

I appreciated this comment below the ‘Mama Says’ video from Monroe Rodriguez Singh

I love this group because they write in metaphor based on Afro-Caribbean tradition spiritual music/stories and pair it with their own lives and music. “The man is gone/And mama says/That she can’t live without him. ...There is no life without him.” In this song, at first glance it’s about the loss of their father and how their mother is dealing with that loss. Towards the end, they sing a song to Elegua and the lyrics “the man is gone, there is no life without him” bring new meaning because Elegua, is the Yoruban orisha of communication, roads. He is the bridge between the spiritual world and the material world. He is the first orisha to be saluted in any ceremony. So in essence, when he is out of the equation, there is no ceremony, no communication to the divine, no path, so there is no life without him.

During the same performance recorded at Seattle’s KEXP studios, they transformed and unearthed Jay Electronica’s ‘Better in Tune with the Infinite’ –

Here is an entire, albeit short, concert by Ibeyi filmed in Paris at Le Ring last year.

I have read a number of really lovely, interesting, evocative articles based on interviews with the Diaz sisters, take this one for example by Jazz Monroe published in The Skinny in 2015.  (There are many more). 

Eminem, BET Hip-Hop Awards Freestyle Cypher, Detroit MI, 10.06.17 (Rap as poetry & LKJ)

Would some of the age-based prejudice that afflicts hip-hop - distorting the critical reception of the contribution of artists and encouraging a kind of jockeying for space and attention - fade if we spoke of MCs as poets, and often great ones at that? As Rapsody said recently when dismissing the sex-based labelling of women who rap, being a skilful MC is not linked to physical strength, it’s all about the intellect, so why is there a culturally imposed age limit on the practice?

I’m no particular fan of Eminem. This reflects my inbuilt interest in the marginal and esoteric: there is comfort to be found in this quiet space for people with a temperament like mine. But most of all, I have never listened to an Eminem record from beginning to end because I will never accept the premise that there is anything worthwhile in music, or art, that revels in violence against women. Just like I wouldn’t sit down on a Sunday evening to watch a classy-take on a lynching, or a well-shot video showing the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of a child, I refuse to acknowledge music/art/literature that holds up violence against women as entertaining, or cathartic (choose your adjective) for men. I make no exceptions here. None.

For too long male artists have argued that their art matters more than the abused bodies of women: in a literal or figurative sense. But it seems the times are changing, as even pretty, white women are speaking up about the abuse they have suffered in the popular media these days.

But to return to Eminem and this question of rapping as poetry. Certainly, this freestyle is manufactured and stagey and not even something I’d listen to twice, but it has an undeniable power. It is pure and resolute in its political message and I hope impact, not unlike this wonder from Linton Kwesi Johnson from another era, another locale (1980).       

Both peel your eyelids open and force you to take notice, while carrying the imprint of the artist. Within the critical/cultural milieu surrounding LKJ it would be strange for someone to dismiss his art and contribution, past and present, based on the fact that he is no longer 20-years-old, simply because it is a generally accepted fact that he is a ‘tap natch poet’ (and a much respected, beloved one at that). 

Maybe a similar shift would occur within hip-hop culture, if we just changed the terminology: rather than focussing on MCs as performers, jumping around, we started to speak about them as poets, speaking truth to power ... Maybe the overwhelming response to this Eminem freestyle will be part of this cultural change, we’ll see. It’s certainly needed.  

In praise of: “Aground/Aerial” Rhythm & Sound (Rhythm & Sound, 2012)

There’s something extremely attractive about the stripped-back, but highly insistent minimalism of this 2012 release from Berlin producers, Rhythm & Sound. As even though you’d expect the cool of the music to reduce the feeling, in fact, it does the opposite.

Allowing the elements to be exposed like this makes the music appear rich and redolent of meaning (full of heart), while demonstrating a deep knowledge of the essence of the dub genre, which is all about purity. It helps that I discovered this music via these kinds of super-simple videos as well, forever my preference.

Below the videos is a sweet and earnest request that appeals to me : “To be played on a suitably loud system, bass being of great importance.”

My favourite of the two is perhaps “Aground” mainly because of the way the music maintains a self-contained universe, rarely diverging from the centre; and I just really like that sound that reminds me of drops on rain on animal-skin, alongside all those incidental sounds that create the highly textured background.   

Rhythm & Sound don’t seem to have a big online presence, at least based on my fairly speedy research; here’s some info from Discogs on their releases, dating back to 1996.  

Wikipedia tells us:

Rhythm & Sound is a dub techno German record label, a sub-label of Basic Channel. It was founded in Berlin by the duo Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, also known as Basic Channel. The label released seven 12-inch singles and one CD compilation album between 1997 and 2002.

But how about this, in 1998 they re-issued, or released, Chosen Brothers / Rhythm & Sound - "Mango Walk / Mango Drive"? See my appreciation of this pretty obscure track from 1979 that I published in June last year. Birds of a feather, it seems … (Or once again some angel looking out for me).

New gig, writing for Ambrosia for Heads

Maybe you've noticed, but I've been a bit quiet here. Well, there's good reason for this as for the past two months or so I've been writing articles and reviews for the US hip-hop magazine, Ambrosia for Heads. Info from the website's "about":

Ambrosia For Heads was launched in 2010 with the purpose of bringing a core audience the best of everything. As the name suggests, we aim to connect those in the know with the food of the gods, or the best content available. Whether music, Hip-Hop, film, fashion, comedy, or otherwise, we respect our history and usher the future for a utopia where only the finest is celebrated.

At times this work has seemed more like a reporter's boot-camp than the chilled-out, leisurely life of a writer for hire, as conceived in the public imagination. The editor contacts me with an idea, normally around dinner-time here in Paris and I get to work, trying to get the story done - and done well - within the shortest possible time frame. Don't misunderstand me, though, I'm loving it (as they say).

Working like this is a jolt back to my journalist past, feeding into the same adrenalin-driven buzz that I remember from working as a SBS TV World News reporter chasing down people to interview, racing around the Sydney suburbs, never feeling completely at ease, always fully aware of the daily deadline inching ever closer. It's fun and a challenge and I'm happy; and I'm learning a lot as a writer and a devotee of the culture. 

A large part of this satisfaction comes back to Ambrosia for Heads editor, Jake Paine who first gave me a chance last October with the BROOKZILL! interview. Jake has that right combination of calm, supportiveness and encyclopaedic knowledge that makes new writers on the team like me feel confident. (Is there anything Jake Paine does not know, it astounds me). 

I should add that I feel really proud to be writing for AFH, as it has long been my favourite hip-hop magazine. In such a crowded media landscape - I mean, how many dozens of hip-hop magazines and blogs exist out there? There seems to be trillions, all jostling for attention - it is different. It is different in the way it respects hip-hop culture in a way that is inclusive to those who shaped it, not falling into the trap of pitting one generation against the next, while forever remembering the centrality of community, from which hip-hop emerged and continues to gain its power. I only hope that my association with AFH can continue to build in strength.    

Over this period, I've had some great assignments, here's some of them: Weldon Irvine and Stevie WonderNas speaking about his debt to Biggie; a review of "Bullet Club" (Lloyd Banks/Conway/Benny); a story based on research into the "Migos Flow" tracing it back to Bone Thugs and P.E.; and more recently Alchemist in Paris and O.C./Apathy's Soviet-themed album, Perestroika.

Spellbound, totally ...

In praise of: ‘Books of War’ MF Doom & RZA (2015) prod. Omegah Red/PoiSoN FLoWeRZ

(He’s a shady character, what’s his name?
Ah wait a minute, I’ve got his card
Oo yes! here it is, DOOM......... I see.)

.... It ain’t nuttin’ like... Hip Hop music...

Bandcamp tags: Experimental, Shinjuku …

Quite appropriately considering the artists involved, there is plenty of mystery surrounding this track. Using an instrumental from the 2013 record, Doom is for the Children Instrumentalz by Japanese producer Omegah Red, also known as PoiSoN FLoWeRZ, the verses come from two earlier releases. Is it a fan mash-up? It seems it might be, but reliable info is hard to come by. Was it ever officially released? 

No matter about any of this, though, as it is perfect, delicious in its grace, lyrical conceits and when it comes to RZA’s contribution, in its tough-minded history lesson, delivered deadpan (in his gorgeous, guileless accent): a jewel in the morass. 

To talk about simple beats, well, this is a very simple beat with what appears to be only one sample …

It’s taken from a 1970 recording of a Cambodian singer, Ros Serey Sothea. Omegah Red does very little to it, in terms of adding tricks; he plays around a little with the beat, especially after 4’30” but throughout it remains understated, pausing at times, stop-starting it, to allow some space, some air. 

Omegah Red’s simple production is smart. First, because the sample itself has a kind of power, not surprising maybe when you know something about the life of the singer, Ros Serey Sothea – the artist King Norodom Sihanouk gave the honorary title, ‘Queen with the Golden Voice.’ Ros Serey Sothea disappeared at the age of 28, or 29 during the Pol Pot regime: 

Like everyone else when the Khmer Rouge took over, she was forced to leave Phnom Penh. There are many speculations regarding her fate from a variety of witnesses.
Sothea was initially able to hide her identity well as she was from the Cambodian countryside and adjusted well, contrary to most of the “New People”. The survivors from her camp didn’t even know she was amongst them until she secretly confided with them. Eventually she was discovered and was forced by Pol Pot to marry one of his assistants in 1977. As a prolific singer, Sothea was forced to exclusively perform songs for the new regime.
Her new marriage was an unhappy one marred by physical abuses. Eventually the disputes got out of hand and the Khmer Rouge cadre of her village decided she was more trouble alive. She was told that she and her family would be moved to another village and she was last seen by survivors departing by ox cart. She then disappeared under typically mysterious circumstances and is almost certainly dead.
— Wikipedia

Keeping it pared-back musically is also wise considering the highly controlled style of the emcees. MF Doom and RZA are matched by their deadpan delivery and the sharp intelligence of their rhymes (yes, Doom is seen to be one of the genre’s wild mavericks, but if you spend time looking at his rhyme sequences you quickly see the method in the so-called madness).

I’ll let you read/appreciate the words in the video above, no need for me to cut and paste bits and pieces here; suffice to say, both verses are incredible. Doom’s verse comes from ‘It Ain’t Nuttin’ from The Herbaliser’s 2002 record, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which in contrast to this track is positively jaunty. 

While RZA’s verse first appeared on the 1997 Gravediggaz single ‘The Night the Earth Cried’ from The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel.

Jazzy Wayz* - writing on jazz and hip-hop

Jazzy Wayz* (Notes towards an essay)

For a long while I’ve been pestered by a desire to write about jazz/hip-hop connections, moving it towards a discussion that doesn’t just cite samples as evidence of the link between the genres, but rather locates the influence of jazz on hip-hop in terms of the aesthetic.

The writing below - on London producer/musician Alfa Mist's 2017 record, Antiphon is a beginning of this work and reflects some of these thoughts. 

What you’ll find in this ‘series’ – even if that sounds a bit lofty and organised, my ideas are free-form and scattered for now - are occasional notes; writing that I will shape into a more considered piece, or series of pieces, at some point in the future. My focus will be on contemporary acts, to try and move the analysis on from inevitable nods to the recent hip-hop past (Madlib, GURU ...) though they – or at least the sensibility and work of the L.A. producer - will be at its heart, to a degree.

Too often in hip-hop music criticism there is an off-hand reference to an ‘old-school/jazzy/90s’ feel or whatever it might be in reviews, with no real discussion of what this means. It’s become a marker, a point of reference, a kind of shorthand. My goal here is to go a bit deeper, even if this writing will also reflect my process and progress, let’s say.

Disclaimer: the use of the ‘jazz sample’ by hip-hop producers, past and present, has often seemed problematic to me as to understand jazz, to really get it means appreciating the movement of music over time. To notice how elements shift/coalesce/break down/splinter/merge. This development is hard, or even impossible, to achieve within the framework of classic hip-hop production where the sample is just one element repeated and the drums (usually) come first.

The value of the sample works on the basis of its sound, its capacity to echo and work with other sounds, so it can’t really embody movement (even if producers, of course, play with this sonic element, stretching and manipulating it, giving it form. It’s electronic – there is no pure, unadulterated sound; it’s not the sound of wind on leaves outside on a tree). 

Of course there is movement in hip-hop instrumentals. Indeed, the skill and finesse of the producer lies in the way they are able to capture the spirit of live performance, or if not that to manipulate the sonic elements in such a way that there is development and change. Perhaps if I were to sum up the nature of this inquiry it would be this: to understand better the essential nature of movement and development in jazz and hip-hop, in a musical sense. 

I would not like to give the impression that hip-hop is a kind of blocky construction - sample 1, sample 2 and repeat - even if some of the least imaginative examples of the genre can be just that, boring and predictable.   

And yet there is a tension here, in that the idea of taking a snippet from a jazz composition and then repeating it just because it sounds good arguably goes against the very essence of jazz; moreover, it could be said that it also shows a lack of understanding, or disrespect to past musicians and their intentions.

Whereas the great jazz musicians of the past wanted to recreate the essence of freedom and collaboration, in the hands of average hip-hop producers a ‘jazz sample’ has the potential to be used in a way that enacts containment, entrapment. Caging a bird in wire, and then clipping its wings.   

This may be why it is, in fact, relatively rare to see pure, unadulterated jazz samples being used by key producers in the past or present.

Other less 'weighty' genres, prog-rock/Funk … and music from other eras, the 70s of course but also the 80s, or sampling other hip-hop tracks seem to be preferred. (Some of the 90s greats did rely on jazz compositions as their main source, it seems, and became known for this. This is why, I’d suggest, it’s become such a short-hand reference for critics as they are still in that mindset of seeing the world through a golden-tinge).   

Perhaps taking a jazz sample was seen to be too easy, too obvious by those seeking out musical challenges; see Kool Keith’s comment in this video interview posted in 2014 about how he tried in his solo work to move the production sound forward by using ‘new’ records, back in the 90s so as to not ‘just’ rap over a Ron Carter sample (at 5 mins), for example … Or maybe it reflected mixed feelings among producers who loved jazz in a really profound way, on a spirit level.

One last thing: I’m interested in writing this as well because of the way people have been responding to my work, here on this site and elsewhere (see my article on Weldon Irvine published in Ambrosia for Heads earlier this week).

It makes me so happy, for example, to see how one piece on Pharaoh Sanders’ Harvest Time, which is little more than a few paragraphs is being shared alongside the hip-hop writing. There seems to be a kind of renewed interest in the jazz/hip-hop nexus these days. It is also arguably a period of renewal for both genres, with new blood being recognised and new voices coming through. This, of course, appeals to me and I want to contribute to this moment. 

So here, then, is my first missive on the truly transcendent record Antiphon by London based producer, Alfa Mist that is certainly conscious of this landscape, while allowing the imprint of the artist to shine through; just like any classic jazz release from the past, of course.

Keeping it nice and pure and forever personal.   

Jazzy Wayz*: Antiphon, Alfa Mist (Pink Bird Recording Company, 2017)

Personnel: Alfa Mist, Keys/piano, Kaya Thomas-Dye, Bass, vocals, Jamie Houghton, Drums, Rudi Creswick, Bass, Jamie Leeming, Guitar, Johnny Woodham, Trumpet, Maria Medvedeva, Alto Saxophone, Mansur Brown, Guitar, Gaspar Sena, Drums, Jordan Rakei, Vocals, Tobie Tripp, Violin/strings, Lester Salmins, Violin/Strings.

(Go to the Bandcamp album page to see detailed listing re tracks and musician performances)

Such a deserving record, this one, so worthy of the accolades, praise and attention. Released on the independent label based in East London, Pink Bird Recording Company - which is described as a label that works ‘with artists that create all types of music, ranging from Rock to Classical and everything in between’.

Outside the fact that this record has met with such justified success – I remember when it was first posted by the great Provocative Educative Youtube channel, one of my principal sources of new music online and have since watched it creep to nearly two million views following its release in March, only five months ago – it is also encouraging listeners to look at jazz afresh.

Of course, yes, there could be debates about what kind of music it is in fact. I have no real interest in making a case either way, but Alfa Mist’s Antiphon should be celebrated I believe in the way it gives life to the loosely framed genre of jazz, while adding hip-hop inflections.

Throughout the record there are samples of men (a man?) speaking. It’s difficult to make out exactly what the voice is saying, his voice is not highlighted, or brought forward – it’s just another element, just not a musical element – and this adds a definite warmth and human dimension to the music.

Of course this inclusion of a voice, or voices reflects a jazz lineage; throughout the 60s and 70s black American jazz musicians frequently used spoken-word elements in the work. One of the most dramatic examples of this is Archie Shepp's 'Malcolm, Malcolm - Semper Malcolm' from his 1965 classic, Fire Music (Impulse!). 

But the quality and role of this voice is different: it is self-conscious, poetic and presenting a message whereas the voice on Antiphon sounds like it's expressing thoughts in an informal, spontaneous way. It is a completely different register and level of intensity or intent. 

Descriptions of the record state that Antiphon was ‘created around a conversation with his brothers’ (and that it ‘blends melancholy jazz harmony with alternative hip-hop and soul’).

This idea of including voices, voices that are not presenting an argument, or making ‘a point’ or being funny or whatever it might be strikes me as a really interesting development in both genres – jazz and hip-hop. It reminds me of Mick Jenkins’ inclusion of conversations with his sister on his 2016 The Healing Component. See my essay on his track ‘Fall Through’ from this record that I published in March this year. 

These voices create something that is both personal and universal; specific and general, while adding a deep layer of intimacy to the music. One definition of the word ‘antiphon’ is: ‘verse or song to be chanted or sung in response’.

For me, the two stand out pieces of music on this record are the opener, ‘Keep On’ – the wonderful performance of drummer Jamie Houghton is often highlighted, but the work of the bassist Rudi Creswick is equally impressive. This is music where the give and take is central, see for example the kind of delicate ‘anti-solo’ almost between the principal instruments, see the two minutes from about 7’40, with Alfa Mist offering up his own accompaniment with an intelligent modesty.

and 'Breathe' (ft. Kaya Thomas-Dyke)

The only piece of music with vocals, provided by vocalist/bassist Kaya Thomas-Dyke; such a perfect evocation of desire, muted in a kind of dream-scape that never falls into cliché. And then just after five minutes, the entire mood shifts just like a beat switch in a hip-hop track, to then conclude with a piano-based coda of rolling movement as if it were an interlude.  

‘All these rappers’ Ol’ Dirty Bastard (rare, date unknown) plus Nas/Beastie Boys – the hip-hop ‘scrappy aesthetic’, punk & Griselda

Before Wu-Tang became a global brand, known and beloved and worn as merchandise from one obscure part of the planet to the next, lauded on best-ever magazine lists, the Staten Island emcees offered a direct line with something much darker.

Listen in, for instance, to the rare outtakes and recordings, such as this one from Ol’ Dirty Bastard – date unknown (see also my earlier piece, from 2015, 'Super Rare Ol' Dirty Bastard Freestyle 1995 & hip-hop monstaz').

ODB today is often seen to be a kind of caricature, or vaudevillian joke act, but he’s always been my favourite out of the Wu-Tang crew because of his ability to convey tough logic and sentiment via off-the-wall humour, while representing a dark energy and freedom.

His voice, delivery and his flow is messy and hard to contain; it’s all over the place and wherever – and this makes it appealing.

ol-dirty-bastard__1.jpg

This rare recording, date unknown which seems to have been re-released in another version *with music* in 2001 conveys perfectly what I call the ‘scrappy aesthetic’ in hip-hop. If you wanted to, really wanted to, you could divide New York in the 90s into two streams – and much else besides, of course; on one side, there’s the cool formalism and control of DJ Premier, given voice by Rakim and then there are all these oddball mavericks, or voices from ‘the cellar’ like ODB and RZA, the Gravediggaz  … (and plenty more besides).

My personal bias/essential nature makes me gravitate towards the second group, as this kind of worldview makes me homesick for the punk music that shaped me as a kid and formed my musical education. But there is something about this that transcends the personal and conveys something essential about the genre; this idea that rap is a kind of music outside the norms, essentially and potentially disruptive and subversive.

What’s the use of all the technique if it gets fossilised into a kind of elegant pose, unable to be chipped away at, easily consumed as an artefact the world over like a McDonald’s hamburger?

Most of the times when rappers tackle politics it bores me stupid because it’s so explicit and there’s no interest in the music chugging along behind it. And yet I believe that these recordings are essentially political, not only because of the lyrical territory but the way they sound.

Just like punk they’re saying we’re not going to play the game, or meet your expectations; we’re not trying to please you.  

Made up from the scrap, speaking of the experience of the rejected, all this points to a kind of radical refusal in the music that rejects attempts to commodify it and sell it. Just on the basis of the sound alone it’s interesting because it actively, enthusiastically draws attention to its own messiness; it’s a kind 0f outsider art or ‘scrappy aesthetic’.

Bringing it up to the present now, there’s a direct point of continuum between this kind of thing and the Griselda artists -  that stable of emcees and producers – who I believe are producing the most interesting work in hip-hop today (will write more on them soon).

No longer is assessment of worth based wholly on the skill and versatility of the mc, their ability to express their thoughts with a high-level of language, or charm – see the Rakim paradigm – here it’s all about the capacity of the mc and producer to convey mood and give voice to those from the underground.

On the basis of language etc much of the lyrical content in this output doesn’t amount to much, but to talk like this is to miss the point spectacularly, I believe; just like the way critics of punk used to bang on about how the musicians could only play three chords, or what they produced sounded like unbridled noise.

Well, being ‘unschooled’ was the essential point – punk was a reaction against the ‘cleverness’ of all those boring musicians from the 70s who took themselves and their work so, so, so seriously.

What punk was encouraging was a re-assessment of music and performance, while asking questions about who had the right to perform and be heard; it was about refusing to ask for permission. It was about taking it, making space. Much the same could be said about this kind of thing in hip-hop past and present, this ‘scrappy aesthetic’.

All this is music from the offcuts, music and voice from long-forgotten, maybe, radio shows; the hiss and scratching of it all. No need to be so clean and considered and tasteful, much better to keep it raw, uncooked.

For the bubble-gum version, but still nice:

Coda:

RZA & Ol Dirty Bastard - Freestyle (Rare / Unreleased)