MC/musician Raw Poetic talks about his long-term musical partnership with DC producer Damu the Fudgemunk, the nature of freedom and (his uncle) Archie Shepp.
Friendship, music, remembrance
He stands in front of the electric fire, switched on with a click, the flames flickering blue and gold, and lights another cigarette.
One of the many he’ll smoke tonight as he inundates me with quotations recited from memory (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) or interesting/surprising information read aloud from books, newspapers, political pamphlets, while he takes on the role of 'DJ-fascist' usually starting out with dub, jazz or obscure electronic avant-garde to (frequently) end the night, after a reasonable amount of alcohol has been consumed, with more sentimental choices linked to his origins: Klezmer and Robbie Burns poetry, or the less comprehensible (or acceptable) from my perspective, polka and/or Tiny Tim.
On my most recent visit to Melbourne, I ventured to recite a little anecdote and got it wrong. Correcting me on its source, it was from a film not a true story, he also expanded upon it (possibly even including the original lines) and with that, the talk continued to barrel along in its typical fashion, barely stopping for breath, as he shared his enthusiasm for cultural reference points that shaped his life and gave it meaning.
Listening to the dub versions on Bill Laswell’s magical Havana Mood last night, I thought of my friend. This man who first introduced me to dub in a rented, ground-floor flat with no heating where the sounds of traffic outside were a constant presence, and then over the years continued to encourage my (mad) love for the genre. I also remembered how he had once said that his interest was always in the cultural diaspora, always.
Dub and jazz, rather than music that solely manifests its 'African' origins, created and located in the ancestral sites; Klezmer rather than – what would it be? – Israeli folk songs, I’m unsure. Other genres, funk, soul/R&B, disco and hip-hop never came into the conversation.
There is a risk I’ll repeat myself here, as this is something I’ve already written on (following the death of New York MC, Prodigy, and in other pieces as well), but it is something I sincerely believe, the only thing that matters, and it matters more than knowledge and expertise, is curiosity and the openness to difference. The appreciation flowing from this is the simplest love that I know. In an era when both sides of the political divide seem to be calling for allegiances based on 'apparently' uncomplicated strains of racial identification, my interest forever lies with the art and music that is ‘impure’ (mixed/remixed), driven by an inexplicable desire of an artist to create from the debris that remains.
The day before I left Melbourne my friend gave me a CD, Homage to Charles Parker by George Lewis, with Anthony Davis, Douglas Ewart and Richard Teitelbaum, released on the Italian label, Black Saint in 1979 that he had burnt for me. (The Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, was the most recent musical movement that he was insisting I learn more about, and appreciate). After ‘copyright breached August 2017’ he had written my name; following ‘in memoriam’ there was the name of my sister.
The 'Rhum & Bass' part of the album is the one that speaks to me; the version of 'Mil Congojas Dub' in particular, the way the trumpet returns - amid the softly ululating electronic sounds - is heroic. There is no other word to describe it. I haven't been able to locate this individual track online and the name of the singer is similarly missing, but you can listen to the albums here ('Mil Congojas Dub' is track 4, on CD 2).
Ibrahim Ferrer released a cover of 'Mil Congojas' on his 2003 album, Buenos Hermanos. Here is a really moving cover of the song by José Antonio Méndez (1927-1989).
(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2017)
One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.
Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).
Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.
Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’).
Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.
Darkness in hip-hop: the words that are currently used (possibly over-used) are ‘gritty’ and ‘grimy’ to speak about this quality, but little attention is given to what this concept might in fact mean in a musical sense.
The focus on ‘atmosphere’ is important but again what does this mean? Atmosphere, or mood as terms are neutral, you can have any kind of atmosphere (exuberant or melancholy, or anything in between). Subject-matter comes into it, whether for example MCs are speaking about violence, but one striking aspect of hip-hop is how the subject often seems less important than the demonstration of skill, not so much what is said, but how. This might be a minority opinion, I know other people hear it differently.
Sometimes when listening to an MC you have the feeling that the thought/connection is coming to them in the ‘moment’ and this feeling of spontaneity is what matters, as you have the impression you are listening in to their thoughts as they are being formulated, then and there, as they speak to you directly. (This is the genius in much of the work of early Nas the way he spoke with such confidence, but kept it loose, never becoming didactic).
The question remains, though, how might this notion of darkness be conveyed in a musical sense ...
This track captures one of my favourite qualities in music, to quote Bowie, of being “ragged and naïve” – it feels unschooled and natural, willing to remain simple as a way of showing its essential heart. It is full of impact, while remaining quiet. There is technique, certainly: at approximate one-minute intervals there is an addition to the music, or a shift (the most surprising being just after 2,40” where there is a brief hollowing out and return of the tinkling sound that was there at the start). Overall this music is extremely simple, under-developed, for want of a better word (as that sounds like a criticism).
Its dominant feature is the warmth of the central low sounds, a keyboard sample maybe and the drums, but what’s interesting is the way the drums though while at the centre appear to recede in favour of the other elements. Rather than trying to be ‘hard’ and dramatic, the music has an introspective, thoughtful quality and there you find its power.
Such music is dark in the best possible sense, it feels intimate and unpretentious; interested in ambiguity and feeling, rather than making a clear statement.
Here’s an excellent article on Da Beatminerz and The Arsonists (and more) putting their work in a broader context, “Bushwick’s Finest: Forgotten Heroes of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Underground” by Philip Mlynar published on the Red Bull Music Academy Daily site in 2014. And an audio interview with Mr Walt (from Da Beatminerz) from 2004 with Hugo Lunny via MVRemix Urban.
It starts with Mr Walt doing the intro: ‘Yo, one, two, this is Mr Walt of Da Beatminerz, baby, we’re coming fully loaded, fully loaded with static!' His little son is in the background, after his dad asks him to give his opinion about the fact that they're going to be checking out the remixes, he shouts: 'Let’s go!'
Nocturne, Suite 16 (Atlantic Records, 1970)
Flute, Flute [Pneumatic Bamboo], Flute [Bamboo], Saxophone [Tenor], Saxophone [Soprano], Oboe, Bells, Tambourine – Yusef Lateef with Chuck Rainey, Bass; Jimmy Johnson, Drums; Neal Boyar, Vibraphone.
Nocturnes, Atlantic, 1989
Personnel: Yusef Lateef: Flute, Alto Flute, Tenor Sax, Piano, Christopher Salvo: Clarinet, Hugh Schick: Flugelhorn, Patrick Tucker: French Horn
'Nocturne' (1970) from Suite 16 - wistful turning to bombast, almost military-style, just after 1’13” funk/electronic elements. Nocturnes (1989) an album that has been celebrated as mood music, but I find disturbing in the best possible way. This music offers a sense of depth, of spatial dimensions where sounds indicate both what is heard and suggested, creating a nimbus-effect transposed into music, an impression of a deep background. This captures the essential, defining quality of jazz (even though Lateef rejected that term, see below) of longing, reaching out, desire distilled, at times.
Remembering Yusef Lateef (born Chattanooga, TN 10/09/20, died Shutesbury, MA 12/23/13). Music for the new year.
Here is the AllMusic review, I found nothing else on the album, the author isn’t named:
'Yusef Lateef has always sought to extend the boundaries of musical expression. Continuing his quest for new vistas in jazz, Yusef Lateef's 1989 release Nocturnes is a subtle, even brooding, musical project that uses sound colors and stark musical landscapes to create, above all else, a sense of darkness and nighttime. This music is largely programmatic. In fact, Nocturnes is probably best summed up as a modern tone poem. The writing is gloomy and ominous, dissonant and angular. Yet, each track retains a distinctly gentle and placid disposition. Trumpeter Hugh Schick plays with a rich, full bodied and legato approach throughout and Lateef's own flute playing is often quite heartrending as he soliloquizes over his own piano and keyboard playing.
Nocturnes is a perfect CD for late nights or dreary afternoons, Lateef and crew challenge our ears to enter into a world that is at once desolate and austere, yet pretty and serene. In short, this is mood music at its best. Highlights include 'Compassion Duration' and 'Warm Intensity.'
To mark the passing of Yusef Lateef, the New York radio station WKCR played his music for 33 hours non-stop from the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2014.
Interview with NPR, John Rogers:
'(Lateef) was guided by a desire to develop his own brand of "autophysiopsychic" music — he disdained the term "jazz," and saw his own art guided by physical, mental and spiritual realms — as well as his devout Muslim faith.'
Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph interview, LA Weekly, 12/18/03, by Greg Burk
'Rudolph: Low sounds carry more overtones, so high is embedded in low, in a way that low is not embedded in high. Like a drum especially, you strike it and there are very complex overtones — that’s what gives it its character and its richness. So inside of that are all the other tones. But it’s also tension and release — so you control the low, and that controls the motion. Low to high is tension, and high to low is release. In Middle Eastern music they have a concept called usala, and that’s how they structure their rhythm. Also, Yusef and I were talking about Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist — he wrote this book Hyperspace. He postulated 11 dimensions that could exist, and as you get into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler. So rather than thinking about a stylistic milieu, we look at music in the higher dimensions — it becomes simpler and simpler.
What has made you evolve?
Lateef: It was my nature.
Who were examples to you?
Lateef: Uptown from where I lived as a youth was Lucky Thompson. He wanted a saxophone, but he couldn’t afford one. So he got a broomstick and carved notches on it, and practiced on the broomstick until he got a saxophone. John Coltrane, every time he’d come to Detroit, we would get together and study. And he was always looking for what he didn’t know. He always asked me, “What have you been following?” And I asked him the same question. He said, “I found the secondary dominants” [the fifth degree above a note other than the tonic], which were in Europe years ago, but no one had used them in improvisational music, and John told me he knew his secondary dominants backwards.
What moved you away from the blues and toward avant-garde and classical music?
Lateef: I think the basis of it is the moments that I spent sitting in the library in Detroit, and taking classes at Wayne State University in classical music, finding out what it involves — Mozart, Beethoven, and the Russian composers, Borodin et cetera. And I realized that to be a musician, there’s much territory to look into. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies — I’d like to write nine, too. I’ve written one symphony, I’ve got eight more to go.
Both of you have spent considerable time in Africa. How has that changed your attitude?
Lateef: It’s more compassionate. You see somebody who needs help, you got to help.
What attracted you to Islam?
Lateef: There was a mosque in Chicago, and I went and got some literature. It said through prayer and deeds one’s natural tendencies are directed to the proper channels. The only virtue is in your actions — that’s what Islam teaches. And it spoke about respect of parents and of neighbors, and I already believed those things from my Christian upbringing. I joined Dizzy Gillespie in Chicago, and when we got to New York, a mosque was there, near Art Blakey’s house. I started going to the meetings, and I said, “I better try this.” I thought I ought to change my name, and the reason I did was because Lateef means gentle and amiable, and Yusef means Joseph after the prophet Joseph. And Abdul Lateef means a servant of the gentle and amiable, a servant of God — that’s one of God’s attributes, gentle and amiable. And I said, “That’s something for me to try to live up to.”
Is nature an inspiration?
Lateef: Nature is a prototype for painters, for musicians, for writers. We didn’t create that, it’s beyond us. We observe it, and I think when we reflect on nature, it gives us ideas how to synthesize whatever we’re doing. It’s a great teacher. It’s reflections of the higher power. And we’re part of nature ourselves. This is something I believe: When we observe something that’s beautiful, it’s not the thing that creates the beauty. The force that created that beauty is really what’s attracting us. So that means a thing of beauty comes in pairs. There’s the thing itself, and there’s the thing that makes it.
Rudolph: That’s why I feel music is about something greater than music itself. Music is just a medium through which something is passing. It’s all ultimately in service of something else.'
Some time back a friend asked me to name a favourite recent film from the U.S., the title escaped me (Tangerine) but I remembered how it looked (bathed in warm yellows and oranges, Los Angeles sunshine) and some scenes with the two women in a laundromat and at Donut Time. I really loved that film on pretty much every level: its emotional pitch and humanity, the performances, the humour, its aesthetic.
Two nights ago, I watched the follow-up from director Sean Baker, The Florida Project with another friend here in Paris. This friend couldn’t be more different to me in terms of background, but we were both touched by this film. As we walked to the métro in the cold, we spoke of its elisions (why didn’t the second female character report Halley for beating her so brutally, was it her last, parting gesture of kindness knowing that her former friend was going to lose her daughter, had she been beaten so often before that it no longer shocked her, she saw no point in seeking out justice and restitution for her suffering?)
When I came home I read more about the film and discovered some fine pieces of criticism: the first, by Anne Helen Petersen published (surprisingly) in Buzzfeed in November. This part struck me as I too could feel the influence of European film-making, in particular the loose crowd scenes at the hotel, the way the camera was positioned then and the preference for keeping it low-key and allusive, elusive.
The fact that Baker couldn’t afford to fly in actors meant that most of the cast was sourced locally, as Petersen writes: ‘The characters feel deeply Floridian: They know the cadences of speech, but also the particular gait required in Florida heat; they have the listlessness down, the early crinkles around the eyes from squinting too much into the sun.’
I also liked this piece by David Sims from The Atlantic that focuses in on the scene where the Willem Dafoe character, Bobby, shoos away some birds.
'This has been Bobby’s role for the whole movie: He’s a protector. He’s kind and dad-jokey, softly spoken but authoritative as he takes care of a place that looks hellish at first glance. Bobby, though, is uninterested in accolades and is largely on the receiving end of verbal abuse from customers like Halley. In depicting Moonee and Halley’s life on the margins, Baker could have dialed up the gritty depravity just to drive home the film’s larger societal message. But The Florida Project is all the more powerful for portraying tenderness and optimism where one might not have expected it.
Bobby isn’t a hero. He’s just a person trying to make the lives of others a little easier, whether it’s Moonee and Halley (whom he indulges despite her increasingly difficult behavior) or the passing ibises, who serve as a reminder of the weird magical fantasyland that Florida still is. In the end, Bobby’s help only means so much—the end of the film sees him trying, and failing, to comfort Moonee as case workers from the Department of Children and Families attempt to take her away. It’s his effort that’s moving, not the result. The world Baker is showing viewers is mostly miserable, which makes the moments of compassion matter that much more.
Right after Bobby’s confrontation with the birds, the film cuts to Moonee and Halley sneaking into a fancier hotel and treating themselves to a big buffet breakfast, pretending to be guests to get a free meal. Moonee’s face fills the frame as she names all the foods she’s eating and narrates her delight as Halley looks on smiling. It’s an act of kindness from a mother who, in many ways, has failed her child. She might be scamming the hotel, but Baker still doesn’t want to overlook the goodness that drove her actions. That’s why The Florida Project is so transcendent, and one of the very best films of the year, despite its bleak subject matter: It’s a movie that can find something bright in the darkest corners, and can locate deep humanity even in a jokey, throwaway conversation with a flock of birds.'
Interview with Baker and PBS/Newshour report on the film:
For a producer whose work has set the foundations for much of the melody-driven, you could use the over-used word ‘orchestral’ here, music that is often cited as the soundtrack to the Golden Era/Golden Age …
this release, Lost Sessions – of previously unreleased in album format of instrumentals from the same period thereabouts – comes as a surprise. Only two of the tracks, ‘Brazilian Breeze’ and ‘The Life I Live’ resembles this earlier aesthetic. I was even a bit suspicious when listening to this record, wondering if it were some kind of trick (though a very cursory check showed me that yes, here is ‘The Life I Live’ with the vocals, with InI from 1995). Moreover, information in this thread from fans/listeners outlines the context of how/why the music was not released in a general sense, but I haven’t had time to check any of this out.
My other first reaction on first listen was to feel a bit underwhelmed, but this shifted. Without wanting to sound too ‘wild-eyed’ I think this music encourages us to focus on the hidden elements, the sounds behind the sounds. See, for example, the beautiful ‘Guitar’ that opens the record. The title seems a bit strange until you hear the tiniest, almost imperceptible guitar sound in the background, a miniscule ‘ting’ on irregular repeat, while the bassline plays around. The sounds stop and regroup, changing slightly each time and like many of the songs it ends with a very retro-fade (this adds to the impression of the songs being a little shy as there is no dramatic conclusion, the songs creep out of the room almost).
The second track ‘Aretha’ operates in a similar space. Again, what interests me is the way the key sample is so clipped that it is as if famous singer, the reason for the song, is being silenced and our expectations are being denied. We are not allowed to enjoy her voice, or even recognise the song she is singing. This impression is further backed up by the music’s sharp, harsh quality. Yet, this refusal is welcome, especially in an era when a lot of ‘Soul-based Hip-Hop production’ is so overwhelming, so omnipresent it positively drowns out everything else; the only thing you listen to is the vocal sample and the drums. Too much sugar, it's as if we are over-indulging on sweet food.
Such an effect can be interesting if it is intentional, a kind of musical attack almost in a total-punk-aesthetic that I link back to Gravediggaz/RZA as if the music is battling against what we expect, but most of the time it feels like the producers are so entranced by the sweetness of the vocal sample they allow it to dominate everything else. Even though the original recordings of these artists in the 60s, say from the classic Motown era were always about the elements working together, both in terms of instrumentation but the singer’s interaction with the backing vocalists in particular.
The other two tracks that stood out are ‘Flash Back’ and ‘Strung Out.’ Songs paired together possibly for their mood of containment, conveyed by an intense repetition that upends expectations of us being able to hear how sounds, or samples, are used. All this creates an interesting psychological space, not openly aggressive – the drums are there, but not highlighted as the most important element – but still a little manic.
Lost Sessions is different to the earlier instrumentals albums Pete Rock has become known for. This could be levelled as a criticism (this music is simpler, less developed), but there is interest in the way certain songs encourage us to listen to music differently. ‘Aretha’ reminded me of the more challenging, more intellectual aspects of Nujabes’ production. Not the easy-listening, chilled-out, total-completion side that has become so influential today, but his work that highlighted sounds in isolation. Not surprising, as the two artists worked together in this era, see this writing on ‘Still talking to you.’
& check out other mentions, writing on Pete Rock via the tags.
Better known as the well-regarded producer/engineer De La Fuentes within the French rap/hip-hop world, the Belgian artist Krisy put out an EP this year where he explored what he calls his hobby, or side-line passion, rhyming as an MC. Not all of it clicks with me, sometimes it’s just too poppy or overly sentimental (no surprise for an artist that has in the past apparently referred to himself as the ‘young Julio’ as in Iglesias and others have called a 'gentleman' rapper, using the English), but ‘Paradis d’amour,’ - produced by Freakey! - is great.
Both in terms of the music: in particular, that saturated, deep bassline sound on the hook and the kind of hysteric-sound-effect playing out in the background and its overall mood that feels very contemporary, but also echoes French-language popular music from the past. Say in the 60s when singers with serious reputations and standing would, on occasion, put out light-hearted songs to no apparent detriment to their careers. Notice then the classic bah-dah-dah riff around three minutes and the playful lyrics in this song:
My discovery of Krisy’s work came about after reading this list of the best French-language rap albums of 2017 - a list that covered releases up until that point when the article was published (in French). Here’s an interview, also in French, where Krisy speaks about the challenges linked to being a Belgian artist and why he doesn’t expect to make a career out of rapping, largely because of this, and so imagines that production will remain his focus.