Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Heard a Few Heads Say that Hip-Hop Is Dead

“No it’s not. It’s just malnourished and underfed.”

This Saturday, I will be interviewing the gentlemen who wrote the song in which the above lyrics appear. Yes, I am sitting down and chilling with the one and only Blue Scholars. They are headlining at LollaPLUza which is an annual concert here at my school in Tacoma. I’m doing a feature article for The Mast, the student newspaper I work for, and I will post a link here sometime in a week or so. I’m really excited because the Blue Scholars transformed my outlook on hip-hop, and made quite an impact on my understanding of music in general. I probably won’t be interviewing Radiohead any time soon, but this is opportunity is close to being that thrilling for me.

Growing up as a white, middle class nerd, I believed I wasn’t supposed to like hip hop. From the snippets I heard on the radio or in stores I happened to be shopping in, I had no natural inclination towards the rapping but occasionally thought the grooves were pretty cool. But instead of believing it might be decent music, I felt like a married man eying other women; it just seemed wrong. It was my problem and I clearly needed to refine my taste to the point where I didn’t enjoy any part of this poor excuse for music. The "melody" wasn't even a tune and the background was all simple synthetic crap. Not to mention the common themes of sexism and violence. How could it be of any quality? Answer: it couldn’t.

By 2007, I’d read and learned enough about popular music to understand that a lot of hip hop was genuinely respected by the music community. I caved and bought The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest to give it a try. To the contrary of what I had previously imagined, the album was pretty good! Their words were highly entertaining (“Yo, microphone check one two what is this?/The five foot assassin with the ruffneck business/I float like gravity, never had a cavity/Got more rhymes than the Winans got family”) and their beats were jazzy and unlike what I’d previously heard in this genre of music. I dug it but I didn’t love it. It basically proved to me that some hip hop could be okay, not that it was a completely legit musical school. Enter the Blue Scholars.

Listening to them for the first time back in the summer of 2007, everything seemed to click. Their lyrics were profound and eloquent yet simple and direct and often about the northwest! Equally impressive was the musicality. The beats were not the same one measure repeated eight hundred times. The sounds were genuinely well-written music clearly made by a musician and not an exclusive mix-and-masher. They were perfect to complement and not distract from the message provided by the vocals. It's hard to describe but from the moment I heard "Solstice: Introduction," I knew this was something I wanted to listen to many times.

I now have seventeen hip-hop albums on my computer by thirteen artists (Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Cunninlynguists, Jurassic 5 etc.). Still the Blue Scholars take the cake. And it’s because of them that I acquired the other hip-hop that I did. The Blue Scholars represent the best of hip-hop in my mind; they bring poetry to life and inspire the listener to get up and do something! Hip hop is all about the rebel mentality, but so much of it has warped into the “I am a rebel because I commit crimes because it’s cool.” The Blue Scholars look at real problems in our society and use their urban sound to get the message home. And they don't glorify the pimpin' lifestyle in the least. When was the last time you heard a rapper say “Wanna be somebody? Better get yourself some discipline”? Tell that to freakin’ Fifty Cent.

Hip-hop, like any genre, has its share of rotten apples. Just like Good Charlotte doesn’t represent rock, Soulja Boy Tellem doesn’t represent hip-hop. But the very best hip-hoppers can stand up with the cream of any musical crop. When I interview Sabzi and Geologic (the members of the Blue Scholars for you poor ignorant souls who are unfamiliar), I hope to get their perspective on popular music today and some of the other questions I’ve pondered on this blog.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

All My Little Words

Man, the Magnetic Fields are so good!

But that isn’t what this week’s rambling is about. I’d like to address how I feel about lyrics. Umm…they are important.

In a nutshell, music with a voice as the melody has a huge advantage in terms of expressiveness. Not only is the voice the most naturally intriguing instrument, you add an entirely new dimension using words. You can marry the lyrics with the music and create a result that’s way better than the sum of its parts. It also gives a chance for the more thoughtful listener to analyze the verse like it was poetry (which many sets of lyrics undoubtedly are).

All of this is to say SONGS WITHOUT THOUGHTFUL LYRICS ARE WASTING A GREAT OPPORTUNITY. I’m not saying songs without thoughtful lyrics are bad. There are hundreds of songs I’ve enjoyed instantly without initially listening to the lyrics. But the reason that songwriting is such a glorious art form is because it combines the best of both worlds. The bone chilling power of music with the life-changing power of language can usually make something half-way decent.

It annoys me when people say they don’t really listen to lyrics. I pity them. They are missing out on so much. It’s like enjoying chips and salsa while never trying nachos. I understand it’s often difficult to understand and more enjoyable to be swept up in melody than straining ones ears for an understandable fragment. But there are countless times where I’ve looked up a song’s lyrics and it has completely changed my understanding of the song. For example, just today the song “Little Brother” by Grizzly Bear. Wow…

Two great tools to use:
-Harmonic by mindquirk software. Download it from If you have a mac, it adds a widget that will show lyrics when you use iTunes. Doesn’t work for every single song, but certainly works for the vast majority I’ve played. Is essentially a forum for people to discuss what they think songs are about. Lyrics are posted there of course.

I have two Decemberists album reviews I recently wrote. I thought it was appropriate as they are a band with ridiculously good lyrics. The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife.

And on a completely unrelated note, Ichiro just hit a grand slam. My life is complete.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Popular Music...Today!

I thought that I would try to clarify what I’ve meant by popular music in my recent posts. I feel there are a good three accurate definitions. The one I’ve been using is the most general and that is: music in the style of a genre that has been popular and had its peak within the last hundred years or so. Essentially anything but classical, experimental/avante-garde and non-Western music. So even though kids these days might not be rockin’ to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman on their headphones, to me it falls under the umbrella of popular music.

Then there’s the much more specific definition of “pop,” which is short for popular music last time I checked. This popular music is Michael Jackson, BeyoncĂ©, and perhaps The Shins (though they usually fall under the hilariously contradictory indie-pop label). This is the melody-friendly, radio-friendly, ear-friendly stuff, blah, blah, blah. You probably know what people mean when they say pop.

Then there is the most common definition of popular music: music that is currently popular. This is a pretty revolutionary post so far, you don’t have to tell me. But thinking about this made me realize how despite listening to tons and tons of music under my definition of popular music, I know very little about what the most people in the Western world listen to today.

There’s no way of measuring what music is most listened to these days, but I figured that iTunes would be a decent way to take a stab at it. It’s by and large the place most music listeners get their music these days, now up to over 6 billion songs sold. So without further transgression, here are the top ten songs on iTunes, as of April 8th, 2009.

1. “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas
2. “Poker Face” by Lady GaGa
3. “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus
4. “Day ‘n’ Nite” by Kid Cudi
5. “Right Round” by Flo Rida
6. “Kiss Me Thru the Phone (featuring Sammie)” by Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.
7. “Blame It (featuring T-Pain)” by Jamie Foxx
8. “You Found Me” by The Fray
9. “Gives You Hell” by The All-American Rejects
10. “Love Sex Magic (featuring Justin Timberlake)” by Ciara

I listened to the 30-second samples of these songs. They are horrible. Horrible melodies (if you can call them that), horribly written lyrics, horrible messages, and horrible production. But to bash these songs is like preaching to the choir. If you are nerdy enough to read my blog (God bless you for it!), you probably don’t listen to Black Eyed Peas and company. So why am I writing about this music that is so popular today? Because I think it’s fascinating how contradictory the world of popular music is, that’s why.

I sometimes wonder if there is any correlation between what the media and general music critic population determines “high quality” and what people listen to. Case and point being Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. His most recent album, iSouljaBoyTellem, which contains the song “Kiss Me Thru the Phone,” doesn’t appear to have a single good review from a reputable source. Wikipedia lists five major professional reviews ranging from 1/5 stars to 2.5/5 stars (Yeah, it’s Wikipedia but the music review websites are legit). Metacritic comes out at 40/100, with a user rating of 0.9/10. Nonetheless, the album has sold upwards of 200,000 copies with peaking at #2 on the U.S. rap charts and #43 overall.

I know this is only one example. I know there are critics’ darlings that have made it big, even in recent years. I know I put in a remarkably small amount of research into making a big point, and that’s partially because it hurts me to listen to or read about the success of these “artists.” Still, I am constantly seeing signs that our world is turning into an Idiocracy, aka the mainstream is getting less intelligent, probably because intelligence isn’t all that convenient. Oh well, I’m not too worried. Great music will always be produced no matter what and I’m willing to dig deep.

To quote a visionary of our time, the great Ciara (who writes her own music and lyrics!!!!):

“Your touch is so magic to me
The strangest things can happen
The way that you react to me
I wanna do something you can’t imagine
Imagine if there was a million me’s talking sexy to you like that
You think you can handle, boy
If I give you my squeeze and I need you to push it right back.”

Look out Bob Dylan…