25 YEARS AIN’T NUTHING TA F’ WIT
BREAKING: GRAPETOOTH, LALA LALA, BOYGENIUS
14 THE REAL WORLD AND ROAD RULES OF SWEARIN’ 18 WHAT A FOOL, AND SHAD, BELIEVE 22 AT HOME WITH SPIRITUALIZED, AN ORCHESTRA OF ONE 26 STILL CRANKY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: LOU REED’S LIFE IN INTERVIEW 32 CHAI WANTS TO KNOW WHAT WORDS ARE WORTH 38 THE RAGE AND RESISTANCE OF M.I.A. 52 WU-TANG CLAN: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AIN’T NUTHING TA F’ WIT
PUBLISHER ALAN SARTIRANA PUBLISHER / EDITORIAL DIRECTOR RANDY BOOKASTA EDITOR-IN-CHIEF NATE ROGERS MANAGING EDITOR ANYA JAREMKO-GREENWOLD ART DIRECTOR MELISSA SIMONIAN EDITORIAL ASSISTANT MIKE LESUER WRITERS CARLOS AGUILAR, SOREN BAKER, BRIAN BOONE, ELIZABETH BREINER, DAVE CARNIE, CARRIE COUROGEN, DAN EPSTEIN, ELLA GALE, NIMMI GOWRINATHAN, ANDY HERMANN, DUSTIN KRCATOVICH, JAMIE LAWLOR, LIZZIE LOGAN, LEAH MANDEL, ASHLEY STULL MEYERS, ANDREA MORE, MISCHA PEARLMAN, PAT THOMAS, JASON P. WOODBURY IMAGES DYLAN BALLIETT, BOB BERG, DAWOUD BEY, JACK BLACK, JIM EVANS A.K.A. TAZ, MICHAEL LAVINE, WALLACE RICHARD MILLS, MICHAEL MULLER, CARA ROBBINS, ROB ROGERS, MICHAEL WONG ANTHEMIC AGENCY COREY ANDERSON, ANA DOS ANJOS, MICHAEL BAUER, JOAN CORAGGIO, JESSYCA ESTRADA, JACQUELINE FONSECA, AMBER HOWELL, MICA JENKINS, TAYLOR NUÑEZ, MAI-LAN PHAM, KYLE ROGERS, RICARDO RIVAS VELIS M.I.A. COVER ART BY JIM EVANS A.K.A. TAZ; PHOTO BY JAN LEHNER / WU-TANG CLAN COVER ART BY MATT GOLDMAN; PHOTO BY BOB BERG / TABLE OF CONTENTS PHOTO BY BOB BERG
GRAPETOOTH “I SWEAR YOU JUST TALKED ME INTO IT WHILE I WAS DRUNK,” Clay Frankel of Twin Peaks says, of how he was convinced to officially form Grapetooth. The group’s other half, Chris Bailoni, recalls a night in 2016 when his childhood friend Knox Fortune (who won a Grammy for his performance on Chance the Rapper’s “All Night”) needed an opener for his record release show: “We had a few songs we’d made together, and I figured we couldn’t fuck it up that bad.” That show inspired the completion and release of their first single, “Trouble,” which within months had garnered them a local Chicago fan base and a deal with the indie label Polyvinyl. From the average aspiring musician’s perspective, that’s a feat expected to come after years of tedious business strategy and expensive rerecordings—but Grapetooth insists that their entire album was borderline accidental. “A lot of these songs were made from beginning to end in a single day,” Frankel says. Bailoni explains that the album was recorded entirely with a single hundreddollar microphone in his bedroom. “A lot of people think we went fully analog on this project, right onto tape, but it was really just my laptop, my one synth, and some digital plugins.” He identifies that one synthesizer as a cheap digital Yamaha he found years ago in an alley behind a friend’s house. It’s the primary instrument of every song they made.
As we discuss the recording minutiae at length, a jarring scratching noise overtakes the call. “Oh, sorry, can you hear that over the phone?” Frankel asks, interrupting Bailoni’s train of thought. I ask him what the noise is. “I’m just drawing something into this table with a screw,” he says. “I actually built this table, by the way.” During the interview, they are sketching ideas for their own merch. I ask him if he’s hand-built anything else lately. “I built a snorkel with a hose once. It didn’t work.” Even with major indie backing, the two certainly haven’t shed their DIY work ethic.
MEMBERS: Clay Frankel (vocals/guitar) and Chris Bailoni (synthesizers/production) FOUNDED: 2016
Shellacking the album’s vibe of an intoxicated vision quest, Frankel reveals that the lyrics on “Hangover Sq.” are lifted almost word for word from a poem that opens the 1941 Patrick Hamilton novel of the same name. Hangover Square, and its subsequent film noir adaptation, is a black comedy based on an alcoholic drifter with dissociative identity disorder. “I had a habit of wandering toward Chris’s bookshelf to get a lyrical ball rolling, and just started singing it as I opened to the page,” says Frankel. “It was really serendipitous because, rhythmically, it fit perfectly into the vocals I had in mind.”
FROM: Chicago, Illinois YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Frankel’s main gig as a singer and guitarist in Twin Peaks, or Bailoni’s solo project Home-Sick
“Any art project should start as something just for yourself and NOW: Releasing their self-titled debut album via Polyvinyl maybe a few friends,” Bailoni says of Grapetooth’s long-term mentality. The typical career musician’s path is fraught with perfectionism, secondFor an album so satisfying to come together impromptu is hard to guessing, and twentieth takes, but the real deterrent of a dream seems believe—but at the same time, it feels like the only possible way. Perhaps to be all that strategizing in the first place. Be it synthesizers from the delinquent bounce of “Trouble” or the post-punk anthem “Violent” back alleys, lubricated commitments, or black-comedy transcriptions, are works that could only be achieved as a result of dadaist automatism, Grapetooth’s existence can attest that finding greatness has little to do Frankel’s Sky Saxon–esque howl meshing alchemically with Bailoni’s white- with deliberately looking for it. hot synth stabs on each track. BY JAMIE LAWLOR 8
PHOTO BY ALEX HUPP
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LALA LALA SINCE 2014, LILLIE WEST HAS BEEN UPLOADING MUSIC TO HER BANDCAMP PAGE UNDER THE MONIKER LALA LALA, a playful name that reflects the raucous, Elephant 6–indebted recordings that culminated in her 2016 debut, Sleepyhead. Originally from London, West fell in love with the DIY music scene as a transplant in Los Angeles, and began writing her own songs after moving to Chicago to attend the Art Institute. “I went to shows a lot when I was a teenager,” she explains. “A lot a lot. I loved it.” Now at the center of one of the country’s most prolific DIY communities, her sentiment doesn’t seem to have changed.
that your life’s gonna get taken away from you suddenly, and you’re like, ‘But I’m not done yet, I’ve wasted so much time that I’m not done being grateful.’ I really felt like I spent so much time underwater, not thinking about anything, throwing things away, throwing people away, just being a non-conscious, wasteful person, and now every moment I am so deeply grateful.”
“I think that there are freakier people in Chicago,” she says, comparing her current city’s scene to that of LA. “Freaky good, or just freaky strange—I do feel like people take more risks in Chicago.” Among her heroes are Melkbelly’s Miranda Winters, who played bass on a few of Lala Lala’s recent Midwest tour dates, and Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, with whom West just recorded a cover of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.” “I feel like in Chicago people are just making art for art’s sake—for their friends, to enjoy themselves.” BACKSTORY: A die-hard showgoer turned DIY VIP
“I’ve had too much fun, when will it be taken?” West ponders early in the album, on “Water Over Sex,” before later sighing, “It was too good all along,” on “Scary Movie.” The record’s emotional climax arrives on the penultimate track, “When You Die,” which West wrote predominantly based on a conversation she had with friend and labelmate Jilian Medford immediately after her band IAN SWEET was involved in a car crash (they’re OK; their forthcoming Crush Crusher is more than OK). “It’s about death and keeping my friends safe. I just want everyone to be safe inside their house all the time,” she says, confessing to a lingering irrational fear of loved ones getting hurt or dying. “Oh god, yeah, this song is sad,” she concludes upon revisiting the lyrics.
On The Lamb, Lala Lala’s debut for Hardly FROM: London; now living in Chicago via Los Angeles Art, West swaps a haphazard energy for a Despite the density of the album’s YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: Touring with Wolf Parade, LVL UP, WHY?, more focused, meditative, and confident lyrical content, The Lamb is still a and Mothers NOW: Rolling out her sophomore album, The Lamb, via Hardly Art disposition, echoing the glowing guitars of curiously fun record, from the earworm NE-HI and slow-tempo programmed beats melancholy of opener “Destroyer” of Owen Ashworth. “On Sleepyhead I wasn’t to “See You at Home”’s saxophonic paying attention, and I was like, ‘Whatever happens is fine.’ And I would say send-off. Above all, it feels hopeful: “When I stopped drinking and doing with The Lamb, a lot of it is the complete opposite. I tried a lot harder.” drugs, I had to really change everything about my life, particularly how I communicate, or how I interpret the world,” she says. “[Naming this West attributes her new songwriting philosophy to a new outlook on life, album] The Lamb, I was thinking about me as a baby sheep learning how to notably defined by a recent decision to get sober. Lyrically, The Lamb walk, learning how to live, ’cause I really didn’t know before.” Regardless wrestles with this adjustment, particularly the paranoia of sudden stability: of whether Chicago remains her permanent home, West is headed toward “I’ve heard from other sober people that once you get sober you really worry greener pastures. BY MIKE LESUER 10
PHOTO BY ALEXA VISCIUS
“I founded the Preservation Hall Foundation in 2011 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to guarantee that our city’s rich musical and cultural traditions will survive for generations to come. PHF serves more than 30,000 children annually and employs 50 culture bearers in classrooms, detention centers, concert venues, and community centers around New Orleans, the nation and the world. We are committed to our city and the special community that blesses us every day with their beautiful, heartfelt, joyful music. Our work would be impossible without the generous support of individuals, companies and foundations. Those contributions enable us to offer a wide variety of free experiences and resources, share music with underserved audiences, and so much more. — Ben Jaffe Follow us and help us spread the word. Facebook: Preservation Hall Foundation Twitter: @PresHallFound Instagram: @PresHallFoundation
BOYGENIUS IMAGINE LUCY DACUS, PHOEBE BRIDGERS, AND JULIEN BAKER STANDING AROUND A SINGLE MIC IN THE LOBBY OF SOUND CITY, the legendary LA studio where Neil Young recorded After the Gold Rush. They’re singing “Ketchum, ID,” the final track on the EP they made together, just about twenty-five minutes after they finished writing it. They nail it in one take. The EP in question is titled boygenius, the same name the three wildly talented twentysomethings decided to call the supergroup they formed after booking the US tour they’re embarking on. Julien was the hub of this particular wheel; she became friends with Phoebe and Lucy separately, after each of them opened for one of her shows in 2016. She’s a warm presence on the phone from just outside Malmö, Sweden, when she tells me it all arose organically. Obviously, she says, the tour was the perfect opportunity to perform something together. At first they thought they’d do a cover, then maybe an original song—and maybe release a single with a B-side. And then there was a Google Drive folder, with ideas for lyrics and Voice Memos containing melodies. Lucy and Julien flew out to LA, Phoebe’s hometown, in June. It was the first time they spent together as a trio, and to call it successful would be an understatement. They spent a day writing and rehearsing, and the rest in the studio: five days brewing up six knockout songs. They’re the kind of women who typically write their own songs alone, Lucy tells me from her living room in Richmond, Virginia, and they were all pleasantly surprised at what a joy it was to work with people who truly, truly understood them. It came easily.
MEMBERS: Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus FOUNDED: 2018 FROM: Los Angeles, Memphis, and Richmond, respectively YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Phoebe Bridgers’ clever and heartbreaking Stranger in the Alps; Lucy Dacus’s introspective breakthrough, Historian; Julien Baker’s tear-jerking Turn Out the Lights NOW: New friends who took five days off from their regular touring lives to record six epic folk songs
BY LEAH MANDEL 12
“We treat each other as peers,” Phoebe explains on the phone from LA. It has something to do with being women around the same age and positions in their musical lives—they all make forceful, folk-minded songs of a highly personal and emotional nature. But it’s more than that. There’s a certain empathy and wisdom beyond their years that they share, too. They let each other be heard. Calling boygenius a supergroup gives it “the respect it deserves,” Phoebe says, of the term that’s more often than not used to refer to
PHOTO BY LERA PENTELUTE
the projects of men. That they all took time out of their very busy lives and crazy tour schedules to make this gives it a unique power. It is decidedly not a side project. Its energy calls to mind the 1987 and 1999 Trio recordings of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt; Julien says she was thinking about case/lang/veirs, the album Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs made in 2016. But whereas those albums were recorded with the help of men, boygenius was purely the product of Julien, Phoebe, and Lucy. “I actually think it’s very fucking significant,” Phoebe says when I mention the gender thing. Lucy says recording boygenius was a rare, “specifically feminine atmosphere.” None of the three had ever recorded with only women, so it was special that they self-produced it. The usual studio power dynamic was shifted. They felt more open to sharing ideas, and nobody was talking down to them about gear. It’s easy to feel inferior or insecure about your talents when “some dude that’s been working in the studio for years tells you why what you want can’t happen,” Lucy explains. It was freeing. Having that shared experience helped them address and break down the inherent fear and hesitation that arises when you’re a young woman in the vicinity of male gatekeepers. They wanted to “intentionally contradict the impulse to defer, to not be the ones in charge,” Julien says. By the end of the week, there was a brightness, a confidence, a pride in what they’d done. You can tell which songs were whose, originally. “Me & My Dog” is distinctly Phoebe Bridgers: a little hazy, all frank and literal, about kissing and forgetting to eat, and the things she wants (“I wanna hear one song without thinking of you”). “Stay Down” is Julien: She sings about being in the “back seat” of her body, “steering [her] life in the video game,” with her trademark subdued fire. And “Salt in the Wound” sounds very Lucy Dacus: slow-build, deep riffs, a characteristic metaphor that Lucy leads, singing, “Trick after trick / I make the magic / And you, unrelentingly, ask for the secret.” Well, very Lucy but also very boygenius: about being women who tour, about relationships that keep taking and don’t give back.
“AS WE WROTE LINES, WE BROKE EACH OTHER’S HEARTS.” — LUCY DACUS
The song they all love most is “Ketchum, ID,” an idea Phoebe had that the three of them built upon. It’s also about touring, the feeling of not really being anywhere. “As we wrote lines,” Lucy remembers, “we broke each other’s hearts.” It has a far-away sound, like a “hi-fi iPhone Voice Memo,” as Lucy puts it, with wistful bluegrass-style harmonies that conjure images of campfires beside the highway. Their very different timbres eddy around each other and unite with ease. There’s a trend in music writing of lumping all women rock musicians together. Before boygenius, Phoebe tells me, every once in a while she’d see some silly headline like, “Meet Lucy Dacus, the new Phoebe Bridgers,” as though there’s not enough room for more than one. “How many white-boy SoundCloud rappers or five-white-boy bands that sound exactly the same would that never happen to?” she asks. Ironically, coming together as boygenius forces people to consider them as individuals. “Working together begs the discernment of us as very different artists,” Julien expounds. “You can’t really perpetuate the idea that it’s all comparable.” So, yes, it is very fucking significant. Not just because these six songs are so good, but because of the extraordinary way they came together—what it shows the world about the capacity that lies within the deep folds of friendships between women. “I want this project to be an example of how collaboration is so much more beneficial than competition,” Julien says. “Every single time, collaborating will yield a richer reward for the artists themselves, and for music in general.”
THE REAL WORLD AND ROAD RULES OF
Allison Crutchfield, Kyle Gilbride, and Jeff Bolt were just getting started when Swearin’ first called it quits. But then they said fuck all that and made something new.
BY DUSTIN KRCATOVICH PHOTOS BY ALI DONOHUE
When Swearin’ broke up in 2015, they left a lot more broken hearts in their wake than just those of their central members (the band’s initial split coincided with the dissolution of a romantic relationship between singer/guitarists Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride). The Philadelphia group’s fuzzy, basement-bred take on pop-punk—situated somewhere between Cub, Pixies, Helium, and The Thermals, with a little Mascis-fried guitar tossed in for good measure—meant quite a bit to many people, and few of them were ready to give it up so fast. Luckily, neither was the band. After taking some time and space for themselves—which, for Crutchfield, meant a move to Los Angeles, touring as a member of her sister Katie’s similarly beloved band Waxahatchee, and putting out a solo record under her given name; for Gilbride, engineering/producing for acts such as All Dogs and Girlpool— Swearin’ have decided to get the gang back together, reuniting with original drummer Jeff Bolt, and bringing on a new touring bassist, All Dogs’ Amanda Bartley, who is now an official member of the group. Their new record, Fall into the Sun, finds the band more confident than ever, and just the slightest bit tidier, too—though nobody’s going to mistake their rough-hewn, homemade sound for Carly Rae Jepsen just yet (or ever, if they’re true to the ethos outlined on the following pages). We sat down with Swearin’ between two shows in Portland (both opening for another band that people were stoked to see back together: Jawbreaker) to get up to speed on all their new doings.
FLOOD: Allison, how did going off on your own for a while impact your writing process for Swearin’? Allison Crutchfield: It gave me a lot more confidence. When Swearin’ stopped doing things, I immediately decided to focus on solo stuff, without giving much thought to how that would be different. When you’re the center of something, though, everyone’s looking to you for answers, everyone’s asking you questions, you’re making the production choices... It was really exciting for me, even though I like collaborating a lot. But it was also really anxiety-inducing. That made me excited to do Swearin’ again, just for the pure “oh, yes, I don’t have to do everything by myself!” factor. We’re a team that makes decisions together. I think the distance, for each of us, was also good. In the first iteration of the band, we were touring together all the time, living together, and everything was very intertwined. Not doing that for a while, all of that’s sort of been untangled. Now we’re adults who don’t spend all of our time together, and we actually have new things to share when we see each other. Jeff Bolt: At the end of the first version [of the band], Kyle and Allison were still dating, and three-fourths of us were living together, so it was a lot to handle. Allison: It went from being a Real World–esque thing, where we were a bunch of young adults dumped into a house together, and things were really wild and dramatic, to being something more familial. Coming together to tour now is like coming together for the holidays: We know
each other well, we have a lot to catch up on, and we all know how to navigate each other’s quirks and annoying things. FLOOD: Right, that gets easier with age. It all kinda fades. Allison: You just stop giving a shit at a certain point! FLOOD: Given the personal circumstances, was it difficult to get back into the band dynamic? Allison: One thing that made it a lot easier was having a new bass player, who’s bringing a new energy to it. Amanda’s made it more positive for the rest of us, but also having her in the band has made us want to be on our best behavior so we don’t scare her away, even though she’s an old friend!
Kyle: Whether it was intentional or not, we just kind of picked up where we left off, and we were both thinking about the time and space between. FLOOD: This album sounds the slightest bit crisper than previous efforts. That’s a minor change, but do you ever think about just doing a full 180? A slick synth-pop record, free jazz... Allison: Or, like, going really hard in a big studio with a “real” producer? Nah, definitely not. We’ve all got outlets to explore other things. Kyle: I think there’s an ethos to Swearin’ that we hold true to. FLOOD: How would you define that ethos? Kyle: No frills, no bullshit. Across the board.
Jeff: Yeah, even though we’ve all traveled together before, we’re hyper-conscious about it. Allison: But honestly, it hasn’t really required much of that. It was actually surprising how easy it was. Kyle Gilbride: One of the most encouraging things initially was how organic it felt coming back together. It was really natural. FLOOD: Is there an overarching theme to the new record, either implicit or explicit? Allison: I think so. It wasn’t on purpose, but there are things Kyle and I both wrote about. I wrote a lot about moving to the West Coast and getting older...
Allison: Also, I think we’ll always do selfproduced records. This record was actually recorded the exact same way as our other records: at home, with Kyle engineering and coproducing. If anything, I think the difference is just that it’s been five years since we’ve done a record, and Kyle has gotten better at recording. We never take longer than five days to record an album—I can’t imagine this band ever not operating that way. We tried to work with someone else [once], and when we got home from the tour we were on, we all agreed we couldn’t use it. Kyle didn’t want to be the engineer at first, but as soon as we tried something else, we knew it felt wrong to do it any other way.
“WE NEVER TA K E LONGER THAN FIVE D AY S T O RECORD AN ALBUM —I CAN’T IMAGINE THIS BAND EVER NOT O P E R AT I N G T H AT WAY. ” — ALLISON CRUTCHFIELD
On the concept album A Short Story About a War War, the Canadian rapper has created a world—and a war—that’ll hit close to home, wherever you are. BY ANDY HERMANN PHOTO BY JUSTIN BROADBENT
“Sometimes a simple story, a simple metaphor, can unlock something,” says Shadrach “Sometimes story,possibility a simple or metaphor, can unlock says Shadrac “Shad” Kabango. a“Itsimple can unlock hope, or some sense ofsomething,” a way forward.”
“Shad” Kabango. “It can unlock possibility or hope, or some sense a like way forward.” Other parallels, like the Snipers, are more complex.of “I feel it’s our
Metaphor lies at the heart of Shad’s latest album, A Short Story About
a War. On the one hand, the album is exactly what its title promises:
default social and economic philosophy in a lot of ways,” Shad explains,
a fictional narrative about a war-torn world in which enraged
“which is this idea of: Climb as high as you can, because that’s what’s
Revolutionaries battle the shadowy powers behind the Establishment,
gonna give you a relative amount of safety and power. And the problem
Snipers pick off street-fighting Stone Throwers from the safety of their
with that is there’s disconnection. The metaphor also extends to this idea
perches, and a lone figure called The Fool wanders weaponless through
of disconnection from the ground—the people on the ground, literally
it all because he doesn’t believe in the power of bullets. But it’s also
the soil.” On a different level, Snipers are also in constant competition
the most deeply political album of the Toronto-based emcee’s career—
with one another, trying to rack up the most kills and leveling up to
an allegory for our divisive, hair-trigger times. “The story that’s at the
higher perches. “Our system is competitive, and increasingly feels sort
center of it—the war—was one that just popped into my mind,” says
of life-or-death competitive, I think, which is part of the reason why the
Shad. “And right away I was seeing these parallels to our world.”
tenor of our discourse is hyped up and angry.”
Some of the parallels are obvious, like the Revolutionaries, whose self-
Of the Sniper, Shad says, “It’s a character I relate to a lot”—a surprising
contradictory rallying cry—“We make war to make peace!”—echoes the
statement coming from a rapper known more for his humor and infectious
often-violent tactics of Antifa, or the Establishment, who justify the
smile than for diss tracks and mean-mugging. But even in Canada, which
high-tech weapons they manufacture with cynical corporate speak: “Our
until the emergence of Drake was better known for left-of-the-dial rappers
lawyers make sure [that], technically, we don’t make war.”
like k-os and Buck 65, the hip-hop game is a competitive one, and Shad is as
ambitious as anyone. Emerging in the mid-2000s—a time when, as he puts
with a diverse palette of contemporary and throwback beats courtesy
it, “it was all about ‘hit the road and try and build a fan base’”—he quickly
of many of Canada’s top producers, including Kaytranada and A Tribe
became one of his country’s most popular and acclaimed emcees, earning
Called Red’s 2oolman, the latter providing an eerie, emotionally charged
multiple Polaris Music Prize nominations (Canada’s most prestigious
soundscape for the album’s stunning centerpiece, “Magic.” Here, Shad
music award), and even beating out Drake for Rap Recording of the Year at
uses a powerful sleight-of-hand metaphor to trace the origins of the
the 2011 Juno Awards, Canada’s answer to the Grammys.
racism and economic injustice that keep the fighters in the album’s world—and in our own—so deeply divided. “They steal, then they take
In 2016, Shad surprised everyone by releasing Adult Contempt, an album
your memory of the theft,” Shad raps, as a chorus chants, “Poof!” with
of throwback, guitar-driven pop-rock in the guise of a crooning alter
the guttural intensity of a Jim Crow–era chain gang.
ego called Your Boy Tony Braxton. He now describes that stylistic left turn as the beginning of a new phase that led, however obliquely, to
“The reason I like this idea of magic is that it gets into the history, for
A Short Story About a War. “Now I’m on another journey and Your Boy
sure,” Shad says. “But it’s about something deeper, I think. It’s about evil.”
Tony Braxton is part of that; this is part of that. I have a feeling my next project will be very conceptual like those two,” he says. “I don’t know. I
It’s also about fear, which Shad says is the central theme of the entire
never thought I’d make this many albums. So it’s weird.”
album—that, and the possibility of overcoming fear, a likelihood represented by the recurring character of The Fool, the only figure
Though he’s a star in Canada, Shad remains something of a cult figure
on A Short Story About a War who doesn’t treat every encounter as a
among US fans in independent hip-hop. Many might know him better
confrontation. “So often our posture toward a stranger is defensive.
as host of the excellent Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, on which Shad
And it’s like, why?” says Shad, explaining The Fool’s mentality. “What
explores hip-hop’s holy sites in New York and Los Angeles, and meets
if I didn’t come with that energy? What if I approached any interaction
a who’s who of the genre’s elder statesmen, from Afrika Bambaataa to
with an open posture, a disarmed posture? What if I thought about my
Grandmaster Flash. “It’s a big mystery,” Shad says of his American fan
political conversations that way? What would happen? Is there a real
base. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking going down there to play because I’m
threat? Or is it just, like, a threat to my ego, which is not a real thing?”
not in touch. Sometimes we’ll show up somewhere and I’m like, ‘I literally don’t know if anyone here has heard my music.’”
He continues: “I guess the album kind of wrestles with that. It wrestles with that because I wrestle with that. I feel like I relate to that Sniper
A Short Story About a War should change that. It’s the most ambitious
mentality, but then there’s a Fool character in me, too, that I’m trying to
and immersive album of his career, not just conceptually but sonically,
trust—though I don’t know if I can.”
F LFOLOODO D 2 12 1
Jason Pierce considered having the bedroom-recorded And Nothing Hurt be the last Spiritualized album— and even though it might not be, it still sounds like quite the finale.
Just like the seven Spiritualized albums that preceded it, And Nothing Hurt is a cinematic and orchestral affair in which instruments aplenty soar beside each other, reaching toward the sun to revel in its warmth and light. This is the kind of thing that Jason Pierce, the band’s creative force, has been doing since the release of Lazer Guided Melodies in 1992, shortly after the dissolution of his previous outfit, Spacemen 3. Spiritualized quickly became one of the UK’s most celebrated groups, thanks in large part to their third album, 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. The monumental record reached the number-four spot on the UK album charts and reaped universal acclaim that is still growing to this day. Its importance—not just in terms of the band itself but in the grand scheme of psych rock and British music at large—was underlined by a pair of celebratory shows in London two years ago that saw Spiritualized perform the album in full, accompanied by a gospel choir and a fifteen-piece orchestra.
BY MISCHA PEARLMAN PHOTOS BY JULIETTE LARTHE
The success of that record wasn’t isolated, either—2001’s follow-up, Let It Come Down, hit the number-three spot on the same charts. Given that history and legacy, it seems surprising to think, two decades and a handful of similarly accomplished records later, that the equally grandiose and elaborate And Nothing Hurt was actually recorded almost entirely by Pierce alone in his home studio—using a laptop because, working without a proper advance, he didn’t have the money to make it any other way. “Of all the people to give funds to,” he says, “it seems like I’m quite a reasonable candidate. I just think that people don’t sell records. There’s just not as much money and oftentimes record companies will only release complete records—if you take a complete record to a record company they’ll release it, but investing in it is a different world. I was just too stubborn to let go of the idea of the record I wanted to make.” His voice is dry and almost emotionless—somewhat at odds with the emotional music he makes—but there’s as much a sense of stoic, knowing humor in his tone as there is a sense of resignation. While that’s a pretty direct indictment of the state of the music industry, Pierce’s stubbornness led him to find a way around it: by teaching himself how to use digital equipment and starting the painstaking process of sampling chords from classical records, building up the orchestral symphonies that swell throughout And Nothing Hurt’s nine tracks. It was laborious and time-consuming, and Pierce admits it nearly drove him insane—but now that it’s done, he also says he wouldn’t have changed the process. “I certainly wasn’t sitting there depressed at this chore I had ahead of me,” he explains. “I’d chosen to piece it together because I wanted to make something that was like Ray Charles or Gil Evans or Lee Hazlewood, and I thought a laptop would give me time enough to make that rather than do something smaller with the funds that I had.” Amazingly, if you didn’t know this record was made largely out of samples, it would be impossible to tell. Heavily informed by those orchestra shows, And Nothing Hurt is as close to making what Pierce wanted without him actually making what he wanted—an irony that he acknowledges, with one simple caveat.
“The idea wasn’t to trick the listener,” he says. “It was just to get that result. And in a strange way the process makes it what it is—I’m glad it doesn’t sound like a Ray Charles record. So hindsight is a good thing, obviously, and now that it’s done I feel amazing that I got there, but I also got somewhere better than anything I had in mind.” While most artists of his stature would probably balk at the idea of doing what Pierce did, for him it served to highlight the level of engagement he believes musicians should have with their art; to throw anything less than everything at a piece of work you’re creating is to do yourself, your work, and—perhaps most importantly—your listeners a disservice. It helps, he says, if you also have a mild case of OCD. “I know how obsessive I am,” he laughs, “and I know how obsessive I get. I know how much I want to try everything and push everything into corners it doesn’t want to go into, because I’m just as fascinated by how much things don’t work as how much they do work. I feel like albums should come with this great responsibility. They’re not to be entered into lightly and not to just be released in the way that people seem to throw them out as a means to get on the road. I make records because I feel like I’ve got a good record to make and I feel like there’s a space for it—not because it’s required.” Be that as it may, one of Pierce’s main ambitions for And Nothing Hurt is that it allows him to play these songs, especially now that the hard part—the actual making of it—is done and dusted. “The intent was to make as beautiful a record as I was able to and not be satisfied with anything but,” he says, “so I don’t really have any hopes for it. I know it’s part of the business, but it never really feels like my part of it. Music seems to be the only art form where you make something new and people want to hear the old stuff, and I kind of understand that, but I’m interested in the idea of presenting a new album like a new theater production. And I know these songs will do that. I get to play live and travel again and hold on to the good that I’m taking forward—and that’s a very special thing to be able to do.”
Still Still Cranky Cranky After After All All These These Years: Years: Lou Lou Reed’s Reed’s Life Life in in Interview Interview
Years ago, Lou Reed told an interviewer, “My shit is better than other people’s diamonds”—referring to his lesserquality songs. Not long before that, in the self-penned liner notes for his infamous Metal Machine Music album, Lou declared, “My week beats your year”—which is where my creative partner Michael Heath got the title for our new book of Lou Reed interviews, published by Hat & Beard Press. After Lou’s death, there was a movement by some of his friends and fans to rewrite his legacy, making him out to be a good guy with rarely a bad word for anyone. Not only did that seem false to me, but I also felt Reed himself would have been pissed off about it, as he spent much of his career trying to annoy people—he’d hate to see all that hard work go down the drain. (There was obviously a tender side to Lou’s songwriting, too, and based on the memoirs of people close to him, it goes without saying that he wasn’t always prickly.)
PHOTO BY MICK ROCK
As we pulled together the interviews for this book (the first-ever collection to cover his entire post–Velvet Underground career), we didn’t consciously seek out his most combative interactions with journalists; rather, they were just sitting there, waiting to be found. Don’t get us wrong: We love Lou’s music, and we adore him for being provocative with the media. That’s why we did this book. What follows is just a small excerpt of what the final product contains, but don’t let these snarky interactions frighten you—much of it is also filled with thoughtful insight. This is just one of several ways to consider the complicated legacy of Lou Reed. — Pat Thomas
The The Quotable Quotable Lou Lou Reed Reed “I’D RATHER SEE PINK FLAMINGOS.” “IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF LIKING IT; IT’S SOMETHING ONE’S BORN INTO, IT’S LIKE NOBLESSE OBLIGE. I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A STAR… LIKE, I HAPPEN TO BE A STAR IN ROCK, AND IF IT WASN’T THAT… YOU KNOW?” — on being a rock star (Swedish radio interview, March 1977)
— on his desire to see Bob Dylan’s new tour (Circus, May 1974)
“THE INTERNET. THERE IT SITS. THIS GLORIOUS THING WITH ACCESS TO THIS AND THAT. AND GUESS WHAT? WHO LEAPS IN? THEM.” — on censors (Addicted to Noise, February 1996)
“ALL THE THINGS THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN IN THE PAST…” — on what will happen to Lou Reed in the future (Swedish radio interview, March 1977)
“THEY’RE DOING A GOOD JOB OF IT. I LIKE IT. IT MAKES THE SUBWAY CARS REALLY COLORFUL. THEY’RE NOT GRAY AND DINGY ANYMORE— THEY’RE BRIGHT AND FILTHY.” — on graffiti artists in New York (Interview, March 1973)
“HAVE YOU SEEN THE SHINING? THERE ARE SCENES IN THERE THAT ARE ABSOLUTELY PRICELESS. BUT IT’S A VERY UNPLEASANT FILM—IT DOESN’T HAVE ANY SOCIALLY REDEEMING QUALITIES. THAT’S THE THING THAT BOTHERS ME ABOUT IT, THAT I WONDER ABOUT... LIKE, WHY WAS IT MADE?” — on The Shining (BBC Radio, June 1980) “I’M STILL HAUNTED BY THOSE LIES. PEOPLE CONTINUE TO ASK, ‘DID YOU REALLY PUT A RIFLE TO A GUY’S HEAD?’ AND ‘DO YOU REALLY HAVE A DEGREE IN MUSIC FROM HARVARD?’” — on his long history of lying to the media (Los Angeles Times, January 1992)
“HOW OLD ARE YOU? YOU LOOK ABOUT EIGHT YEARS OLD. AND YOUR HEAD’S TOO BIG FOR YOUR FUCKIN’ BODY.” — on the appearance of his interviewer (Melody Maker, April 1977)
“SURE, I’LL WATCH ANYTHING. YOU KNOW, WHEN THERE’S NOTHING ON I WATCH THE DOTS. WHEN YOU LOOK AT IT, IT’S LIKE THE PORTAL OF A SPACESHIP, AND I MAKE BELIEVE I’M IN A SPACESHIP AT NIGHT WHEN IT’S ALL DARK, AND ALL YOU HAVE IS THIS THING WITH ALL THESE DOTS. IT’S WEIRD. THEY START TAKING SHAPE AND BECOME LIKE CARTOONS, AND I CAN GO ANY PLACE JUST BY STARING AT IT.” — on whether he watches TV (The Aquarian Weekly, October 1974)
“WILL YOU STOP TALKING IN THAT FUNNY LANGUAGE!” — on Swedish (Melody Maker, April 1977)
“IT’S UNFORTUNATE FOR DYLAN THAT STUDIO TECHNIQUES HAVE IMPROVED TO THE POINT WHERE IT’S VERY HARD FOR HIM TO CONCEAL ANY LONGER HOW MUSICALLY BAD HE IS.” — on Bob (Rolling Stone, April 1976)
“I THINK THE PRESENCE OF SATAN IS IN THE CARPENTERS.” — on The Rolling Stones being considered “macabre” (The Drummer, Spring 1975)
CHAI W h at W o r d s A r e W o r t h
The Japanese band is rocketing into the West with a full-blown stylistic vision firmly in place. And that vision doesn’t include any preconceived notions of what it means to be “cute.”
BY CARRIE COUROGEN PHOTOS BY CARA ROBBINS
“Cute” carries a lot of weight for such a small word. In its earliest usage, dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a shortened form of “acute,” meant to describe something—or someone—as sharp and clever. By the early twentieth century, its meaning shifted to more of an aesthetic judgement, meant to describe something attractive with childlike sweetness. It’s this definition that caught on in Japan in the early 1970s as kawaii, which quickly became an all-or-nothing standard of beauty that girls and women were measured against. The members of Japanese art-rock group CHAI remember what it was like to grow up with such suffocating cultural ideals. They were tired of being made to feel ugly for not falling in line with the cookie-cutter kawaii features that favor large eyes, pale skin, and a delicate frame. So they decided to challenge the idea of what it means to be “cute” in the first place. Enter neo-kawaii, or the “new cute,” a message the quartet promotes that proclaims: “We’re all cute in our own ways.” “Things that don’t fit into one beauty standard—like not being skinny or having smaller eyes—are the things that have beauty within themselves,” drummer Yuna says, speaking through a translator, as does the rest of the group. “It shouldn’t be that we have to fit into something we don’t necessarily have. So we are the new cute.” CHAI was first assembled informally in 2012 by twins Mana (keys and vocals) and Kana (guitar and vocals), their high school friend Yuuki (bass), and college classmate Yuna (drums), all joining together over a shared love of music and a desire to rail against the kawaii status quo. Upon graduation in 2016, the group moved to Tokyo to pursue the band as more than just a hobby, at which point they began to garner a cult fandom in Japan for their eclectic sound, a mix of synth-fueled pop, dreamy New Wave, and shouty riot grrrl punk. And neo-kawaii isn’t just a talking-head message or marketing ploy in the age of prepackaged female empowerment. CHAI embodies the concept wholeheartedly, from their genre-defying music to their carefully curated aesthetic. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Basement Jaxx, Tom Tom Club, and Devo—groups that have also crafted their own signature, unconventional sounds that defy the pop landscape—the band plays preconceived definitions of cute against each other to create their own new one. Sweet, sing-song melodies are crafted around witty lyrics, jagged guitar riffs, and propulsive synths on songs like “Boyz Seco Men,” which mocks lazy men attempting seduction. On “Horechatta,” they pen a dreamy slow jam professing their love of dumplings. Why write artifice about experiences they have yet to go through just to fit into pop norms, the band reasons, when they could dig into something they think about everyday, like food? On stage, the band creates a high-energy dance party with choreographed moves that show off their pink uniforms—an aesthetic choice acting as a sly middle finger to social norms that frown upon anyone other than little girls wearing the hue.
“We feel like, no, that’s not really right,” Yuuki says. “We should be able to wear pink whenever we want to. You can be fifty or you can be twenty-five—you should be able to wear pink if you want. Pink is not a cute thing, it’s a cool thing.” 2018 has been a whirlwind year for CHAI, as they begin to make inroads in the Western musical world. In March, they played a couple of buzzed-about shows at SXSW—their second year in a row at the Austin festival—and in early September, Burger Records put out a rerelease of their debut album, Pink, on vinyl in the US. After finishing up a few shows Stateside, they’re heading to the UK to tour with the internationally affiliated experimental pop group Superorganism. The band is still humming with a morning-after buzz following their show at Rough Trade NYC when we meet up the next day at Café Grumpy in Brooklyn. The coffee shop is shrouded in anxious silence punctuated only by the intermittent roar of an espresso machine and the sound of people typing purposefully on laptops until the four of them walk in. The energy of the room changes, and, with the same giddy enthusiasm heard in their music, they marvel at how much has changed since the last time they visited the States in 2017 as part of a small tour with other Japanese acts. “This was our first time headlining in New York,” Kana explains. “This was a real show for us—I was so worried only ten people would show up.” A few more than ten people did show up. The band was met with a packed house, and fans even approached them afterward to model their own pink outfits and pigtails. “People are now singing the lyrics that are in English, but they also sing some in Japanese!” Yuuki exclaims, recalling the audience’s embrace of unofficial neo-kawaii anthem “N.E.O.,” with its shouty English chorus of “You are so cute! Nice face! C’mon! Yeah!” “That’s crazy,” she continues. “We want to cry but we don’t want to show that we’re crying on stage, so we try to keep it together. That’s kind of hard when we’re so happy that people actually respond to our music, especially in another language.” As if that wasn’t enough excitement, they reveal their surprise that they’ve suddenly started meeting so many of their artistic heroes, delighted to see that the admiration is mutual. The group dissolves into ecstatic chatter recalling their surreal meeting with Devo a few nights prior. “A dream come true! Oh my gosh! Amazing! It doesn’t even feel real!” they say over each other. It’s this kind of genuine exuberance that pushes CHAI forward. “We don’t want to be known just as a Japanese girl band,” Kana says. “We want to be known as a worldwide band, and we want to change the standards of cute all over the world.”
“you can be fifty or you can be twenty-five — you should be able to wear pink if you want. pink is not a cute thing, it's a cool thing." — yuuki
BY NIMMI GOWRINATHAN ART BY JIM EVANS A.K.A. TAZ
ORIGINAL PHOTO BY JAN LEHNER
A new documentary about Maya Arulpragasam’s life—detailing an upbringing caught in political turmoil, leading to a rap career perpetually at odds with the status quo—opens up room to ask the question: What is the responsibility of the individual on behalf of the group? And what’s more: What if that individual happens to be one of the biggest pop stars in the world? Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, founder of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative at The City College of New York, spoke with M.I.A. to get some answers.
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A., the new
documentary by Steve Loveridge, is not a traditional musician’s biopic, zeroing in on the eccentricities that make the artist. Instead, Loveridge relies on archival footage, the brutal honesty born of their close friendship, and a specific point of view to reveal how M.I.A. sees herself. “Matangi” is a variant of her birth name, Mathangi; in Hinduism, Matangi is the ferocious avatar of the Divine Mother, Devi. M.I.A. is the name she chose as an emerging Tamil rapper, and the persona it encapsulates has often been controversial. Her first album, 2005’s Arular, was released to immediate acclaim, praised for its progressive sound and unapologetic lyrics. (“Arular” was one of her father’s names—as one of the key members of the nascent Tamil militant movements in Sri Lanka, he chose a code name for his political work.) In 2007, the track “Paper Planes,” which makes tongue-in-cheek reference to the widespread fear of immigrants, became a sensation, peaking at number four on the US Billboard Hot 100. By then, everyone knew M.I.A.’s name. From a young age, the film makes clear, Maya has been comfortable both behind and in front of the camera. But when I speak with her, it is what her critics (and fans) choose to focus on that she struggles with. For Maya, the farther we zoom out, the greater the clarity. A view forms that spans the entirety of her struggle and the struggle of oppressed Tamils in her family’s homeland of Sri Lanka—one that captures a segment of humanity under siege. It is here, in a wide lens, that Maya situates herself. We begin with rage—a topic that’s important to both of us—but specifically the rage that runs through her music and her politics. Where does rage sit when the target keeps moving? “Tamil women in Sri Lanka made moves thinking not about themselves as individuals, but as a collective,” she explains. “They made rage-driven decisions thinking about others.” As the camera zooms in on M.I.A. the individual, Maya pushes back. “There is a part of me, yes, that is diaspora, that was raised in the West. That part was taught to think like an individual.” It’s the individual that the West insists is an icon. This tendency, she fears, is a mistake. “When you are used to thinking about your own personal needs [in the face of repression], it would take a drastic shift to organize as a movement. To find the rage to resist.”
PHOTO BY TRACKS SAFLOR
PHOTO BY TRACKS SAFLOR
The new film is a partial answer to the question of who M.I.A. is, and—perhaps more importantly— who M.I.A. is not. Loveridge was given footage that depicts Matangi as the victim of violence during her time in Sri Lanka—footage that he decided would not make the final cut. This is not the conversation Maya wants to curate. She is not a victim. I last saw Maya in 2014 at an event hosted by the Canadian Embassy in London. She, along with a few other celebrities and activists, were there to read the direct testimonies of Tamils who had been tortured during the war. Maya wasn’t in it for the press, but to lend her voice to the cause. In a rare reversal, important people from the West stood in silence as the uncensored violence fell heavy on the crowd—forced, momentarily, to bear the burden of that weight. As M.I.A. began to read the testimony she was given (“I have a child, I told the soldiers...”), she paused. It was an intimate detail that drew tears. For Maya, this woman’s life was personal enough to elicit pain and distant enough to unearth an insistent guilt. And yet, at her most vulnerable, she owned the room. Today, Maya tells me that the event unsettled her for weeks and months afterward. Still grappling with her own role in viewing Tamil women as victimized, she is clear on one thing: “It’s just not how I want to remember them.” They are fighters. “Tamil women believe in their dignity, and they’re strong and they believe in their roots, their culture, their people. They’ve taken up arms to defend their babies.” This, to Maya, is an acceptable form of resistance—one that doesn’t fit neatly into the cause of Western feminism.
M.I.A.’s often-graphic, always-contentious music videos play with what power looks like— particularly for women. In the 2004 video for “Sunshowers,” a group of Tamil women mimic the plaid shirts of women in training camps for Tigers—the Sri Lankan secessionist militant group that her father eventually had ties to—moving through the jungle without guns, but ready to attack. In her 2015 video for “Matahdatah Scroll 01 ‘Broader Than a Border,’” young Indian women deftly handle swords as an art form. Both videos depict the women carefully braiding their hair before battle, embracing tradition, and dabbling in violence—breaking out of the roles set for them. “In my songs,” she tells me, “I am trying to collage this person. The one who comes from extreme violence and beautiful traditions.”
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As MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. moves from deeply personal shots of Maya prodding her mother for a laugh in her childhood home to the very public performance as M.I.A. on the 2012 Super Bowl stage with Madonna, Maya oﬀers up her own challenge to power and privilege. The film replays the now-infamous moment in that Super Bowl performance when M.I.A. ﬂipped oﬀ the audience—an act that felt safe in the shadow of Madonna, an artist who, for Maya, was the embodiment of revolution. It was a familiar feeling: She was brought in as a rebel, but reminded that she was still a guest. (She was also hit by a $16.6 million lawsuit by the NFL following the show on account of the hand gesture.) Pulled by opposing forces, Maya once again notes that individual power can’t be reconciled with a community struggle: “Tamil women, and others caught in violence, are seeking collective liberation, even as the goal post for what liberation looks like keeps moving. These are women resisting, who aren’t doing it for the men, or war, or being accepted.” She articulates a struggle that plagues my own work as a professor on rage and radicalization in women’s politics: “How do I talk about feminism and cross out this woman who takes up arms— the one fighting for her people?” If the only feminism she is oﬀered is the false promise of individual empowerment, Maya is not a feminist.
Marcell Shehwaro, a Syrian activist, recently explained to me that in Arabic they don’t use the word “refugee.” It feels powerless. Rather, they use “forcibly displaced peoples,” insisting that the label recognize the violence that pushed those people out. Maya was very young when she became a refugee. “For us, a refugee was someone escaping violence. I come from experiences of violence done to you, as a people, by a powerful government,” she says. Maya’s identity, and her politics, stem from an intimate understanding of brutality. The color lines that threaten to divide us today dissolved in the shared experiences of her host country. When she first arrived in the UK, she remembers, “It was common and expected that what you went through in Sri Lanka was the same as the kid next door who arrived from Somalia. The idea is if you can’t use your personal experience to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, what’s the point of you having a voice or being exposed to experiences and being equipped with the emotional intelligence to understand and be reﬂective?”
PHOTO COURTESY OF M.I.A.
M.I.A. IN MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. / IMAGES COURTESY OF CINEREACH
â€œIn my songs, I am trying to collage this person. The one who comes from extreme violence and beautiful traditions.â€? FLOOD
PHOTO BY JAN LEHNER
I ask her about a subject being debated recently on college campuses in the United States: What does it mean to center the “me” in a movement? “I find it weird that, in 2018, activism is very individual,” she says. “On social media, it feels like, ‘I’m going to say something and it’s exactly the same as your experience, but this is about me right now.’” As is often the approach for women from the developing world, the West looks to M.I.A. for a distinctive, individual “voice.” Maya is more concerned with participating in the diﬃcult conversations needed to address the multiple political crises of the moment. “Violence,” she argues, “is a reality of human life—whether in low-income housing projects or the wave of refugees from the Middle East or North Africa. We should have discussions about it. That’s healthy.”
M.I.A. is not problematic, but her politics do present a problem to those unwilling to confront the story that defines her, and the resistance she represents. Even the acronym associated with her widespread fame (“Missing in Action”) is not about her: It was chosen in honor of a cousin who disappeared at the hands of Sri Lankan government soldiers. We end our discussion back in the homeland. In Sri Lanka today, Maya insists, “Tamil women’s struggles are still not worth talking about—like they’re not fully human.” Similar to Maya, though, the Tamil mothers publicly demanding the return of their children are not waiting for American attention, or permission. Matangi the goddess is believed to have supernatural powers—the ability to control her enemies and attract attention. If M.I.A. has the power to attract people, she clearly intends to redistribute that power to her community and to others like it. Sitting between a history of violence and a celebrity persona, Maya exists in a continuum of women who are political, pissed oﬀ, and ready to fight.
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WU-TANG CLAN TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
TA F’ WIT
A quarter-century after 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang has become one of rap’s most surprising and enduring success stories. Here, RZA, Method Man, U-God, Masta Killa, and Inspectah Deck guide us through the life of Wu, and give an account of how failure, focus, and perseverance helped earn them a religious following.
BY SOREN BAKER
PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE
GZA (LEFT) AND RZA (RIGHT) PHOTOS BY MICHAEL WONG
GZA and RZA responded to their early musical setbacks differently. In 1991, rap was largely raucous, ribald, and raw. N.W.A, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, Geto Boys, DJ Quik, Cypress Hill, and Ice-T dominated the landscape with brutal, politically minded, and salacious tales of the streets, of a corrupt America, of unending violence. But the initial forays into music from future Wu-Tang Clan members GZA and RZA were anything but raucous, ribald, or raw. GZA’s debut album, 1991’s Words from the Genius, floundered after its intended crossover single “Come Do Me” failed to connect with audiences. Although the fifteen-cut collection from Cold Chillin’ Records (then home of rap stars Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane) became an underground favorite of sorts—thanks to GZA’s street-based narratives on such songs as “Life of a Drug Dealer” and “Drama”—The Genius, as GZA was then known, grew discouraged, got a job as a bike messenger, and virtually stopped recording. For his part, RZA (then going as Prince Rakeem) endured a similar fate with “Ooh I Love You Rakeem,” a popish 1991 single on Tommy Boy Records that didn’t reflect RZA’s personality. “Tommy Boy didn’t see in me what I saw in me at that time,” RZA says today. “They saw maybe what I saw when I was nine years old—more of a certain kind of kid. But I was not that guy then. I was strictly Timberland, rough, chop your head off—that was my personality, my energy. And maybe because the Will Smiths were the strength and the power of the hip-hop industry, they felt I could fit in that field as some kind of cute guy.”
It didn’t work. After GZA and RZA’s material was released, they abandoned their respective labels with little fanfare. But for the members of what would become the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA and RZA had broken through. “For us, it was success because they came from the block we came from,” Inspectah Deck says. “While Kool G Rap’s ‘Road to the Riches’ got big, we had ‘Life of a Drug Dealer.’ So they were famous and big-time in our eyes regardless, because it was like Staten Island’s own.” “I was RZA and GZA’s biggest fan,” U-God adds of the pre–Wu-Tang Clan era. “We still saluted them and thought they were the illest. That’s just how it was. That was our Rakim, our Biz Markie. They were our shining lights, our examples.” This was also long before the Internet became ubiquitous and social media rose to prominence. Thus, when Masta Killa met GZA, he didn’t know he was a recording artist. But where GZA had largely retreated from the music industry, RZA used his experience to pave the way for what the Wu-Tang Clan would become. He learned from his one-time manager Melquan Smith, as well as Melquan’s father James Smith, how to run an independent label— Yamak-Ka Records in their case—which released material from the rap group Divine Force. From Tommy Boy, RZA learned the importance of networking and being business-minded at all times. “It was Mr. [James] Smith’s knowledge that gave me the idea of forming my own record company, forming Wu-Tang Productions, making my own records, spending my own money, doing it, and selling it right out of my house,” RZA says. “Tommy Boy provided me [the opportunity] to travel, to get to see other emcees work. Getting to see that industry thing gave me the chance to develop that business personality.” He continues: “I had enough consciousness and relationships to know that as my own businessman, like Mr. Smith was, I should be able to guide my own path. Experience can be the best teacher, even the experience of failure.”
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FROM LEFT: GHOSTFACE KILLAH, OLâ€™ DIRTY BASTARD, METHOD MAN PHOTOS BY BOB BERG
FROM LEFT: INSPECTAH DECK, MASTA KILLA, RAEKWON, U-GOD PHOTOS BY MICHAEL WONG
hen GZA and Masta Killa were developing their friendship in Brooklyn, they bonded over chess and the Nation of Gods and Earths, a mystic movement espousing the belief that only a small portion of the population knows the truth of existence. More of a reggae fan at the time, Masta Killa had rebuffed GZA’s invitations to go with him to the studio. Then GZA played Masta Killa some music from his crew, which was based in Staten Island. “He put the tape on, and it wasn’t even completed yet, but it was ‘Protect Ya Neck,’” Masta Killa remembers. “When I heard ‘I smoke on the mic like Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the hell-raiser,’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He was like, ‘Yeah. This is what I do. That’s why I was telling you to come. These are my Shaolin Brothers.’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit. Now I get it.’” Now in the fold, Masta Killa joined RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah to form the Wu-Tang Clan. As they worked on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group’s now-famous blend of martial arts, the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths, larger-thanlife personalities, grimy soundscapes, and witty wordplay created a mystery of sorts surrounding them. Even the members themselves didn’t know quite what was developing. “Going into making that album, it didn’t feel like we was making an album,” Method Man says. “We didn’t get to hear it until it was actually done done. We didn’t get an advance copy, none of that shit. RZA was very tight with everything. He didn’t want shit to get stolen because all kinds of shit was going on. When I heard it, the way he put that shit together, it didn’t sound like anything else I had heard before. Anything. Up to that point, most of the albums I was getting, they would have one or two songs on there that were great. The rest of them were just filler. That was a rap album to me. This had song after song. Even the songs I didn’t like, the fans liked. It just boggled the mind.”
arly on, it was clear that the Wu-Tang Clan was about more than music. It was a movement—a brotherhood— that was slowly revealed as the group independently released “Protect Ya Neck” and then Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on Loud Records in 1993. The group took the unusual step of not showing their faces on the LP’s cover art. “It just showed that we weren’t looking for fame,” Inspectah Deck says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Yo, I need my face seen ’cause I’m cool and I want everybody at school to know it’s me.’ Nah. It helped to create that mystique of who these dudes was. Nobody knew who we was, but they heard the music. They heard ‘Protect Ya Neck’ and these karate chops. They were like, ‘Yo, these mothafuckas go hard on the mic, but they sound different from everybody else.’ It made you want to check. You can’t see those faces. You don’t know who’s who.” The video for “Protect Ya Neck” was striking in its simplicity, even for the time. A gritty compilation of shots of the group in and around the Park Hill Projects in Staten Island, the clip also features group members brandishing swords, and RZA holding a Bible during his verse. Several of the group’s disparate influences were immediately on display: the streets, religion, and martial arts. At the same time, the song and video were a lot to digest in less than five minutes, with eight rappers delivering hard-hitting verses. (Only Masta Killa, who wasn’t yet in the group, did not appear on the song.) Method Man likens the early fascination with the group to what he calls “The Five Deadly Venoms/Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai Effect”—the way fans rally around a group of people fighting for a common cause. Wu-Tang Clan had, in effect, created its own society of sorts, complete with its own culture and language. The phenomenon quickly built on and sustained itself. “It started off with, ‘Do you know who the members are?’” Method Man says. “OK. That’s the mystery off top right there. ‘How many members do they got?’ Then when you start hearing the names,
it’s like, ‘Oh shit. These dudes is colorful.’ Then it was like, ‘Do you know about the philosophy—the thirty-six chambers and where that comes from?’” [Editor’s note: Nine members = nine hearts. Four chambers to each heart = thirty-six chambers.] “Then there was the whole infatuation with the Nation of Gods and Earths. If you were up on Wu-Tang, it was like an inside joke, and you were in on the joke.” As 36 Chambers singles “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” “Can It Be All So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” and “Method Man” were released, the group’s mystery was balanced by its inclusionary tactics. On “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” for instance, RZA concluded the song by shouting out cities, regions, and HBCUs. “RZA was naming all those places, and people took that for real, like, ‘He’s shouting us out. We’re Wu-Tang Killa Bees, too,’” Inspectah Deck says. “We allow people to feel like it ain’t just us. There’s Wu-Tang Killa Bees in Russia.”
oday, the Wu-Tang Clan and its members have released scores of solo and side projects, collectively selling more than forty million albums. (Sadly, Ol’ Dirty Bastard died in 2004 from drug complications.) Its protégés and associates number in the dozens, while its influence is evident in the careers of Drake, A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Joey Bada$$, Donald Glover, SZA, and Joey Purp, among others. “That’s where rap started for me, so it was an honor to have them on my shit,” says Joey Purp, who featured RZA on “Godbody – Pt. 2” and GZA on “In the Morning” on his latest album, QUARTERTHING. “It was the world that they created. They were coming with different styles, coming from different places, creating different worlds, and dropping that science, but putting the medicine in that candy while keeping it funky.”
PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE
PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAVINE
“ENTER THE WU-TANG, IT’S LIKE A FLAG POST. IT’S THE MEASUREMENT OF, ‘THINGS WERE THIS WAY BEFORE IT, AND THINGS BECAME THIS WAY AFTER IT.’ ON A MUSIC LEVEL OF HIPHOP, AND WHAT THAT MOVEMENT CREATED, IT’S JUST AS IMPORTANT AS OBAMA BEING THE FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT, IN MY OPINION.” — RZA FLOOD
“It was just slapping,” says JPEGMAFIA, who first came across the Staten Island crew and its “Protect Ya Neck” video while watching a music program on television in the early 2000s. “It was ferocious. At the time, it was like the most demonic thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was so hard to me. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It just didn’t make any sense.” Once he started researching Wu-Tang, JPEGMAFIA quickly became mesmerized. “It felt like rap to me,” he says. “I didn’t know that that’s what that feeling was. Now I know what I was feeling at the time. It was just like, ‘This is it. This is what I see everyday. I love this. This is dirty.’ At the time, I associated groups with *NSYNC, so I was just like, ‘Yo, this is nine niggas and they’re just spitting.’ It was like a reverse boy band.” “They created this whole universe of this Shaolin style,” says $uicideboy$’s Ruby da Cherry. “Bringing the whole kung fu and martial arts imagery to rap was so fire. I think so many people use that style to this day.” “I owe them a lot,” Purp adds. “I feel like we all do.” The Wu-Tang Clan has also remained a collective associated with and influencing much more than music, of course. RZA has emerged as a prominent film and television actor/producer/director/composer. GZA has spoken at Harvard. Raekwon has a wine line ready to debut. In addition to appearing in the HBO series The Deuce and the Jennifer Garner film Peppermint, Method Man hosts the popular TBS celebrity rap-battle show Drop the Mic with Hailey Baldwin. He believes that the latter, in particular, is helping spread hip-hop culture. “People that wouldn’t normally even listen to hip-hop records are going back and listening now,” Method Man says. “Molly Ringwald was on the show spittin’, son.” Inspectah Deck has also enjoyed a robust career and found a different type of musical outlet beyond the Wu-Tang Clan. In addition to his production work, he is one-third of the acclaimed rap group Czarface with 7L and Esoteric.
“Czarface allows me to do everything that I can’t do with Wu-Tang,” Inspectah Deck says. “I can say, ‘Catch me slow dancing with Scarlett Johansson’ with Czarface [on ‘Talk That Talk’]. All the lyrics that I can say in Czarface are pop-culture references. With Wu-Tang, we touch on Knowledge of Self, educating yourself, speaking on world facts. It’s raw hip-hop, straight, uncut. With Czarface, I realize that Esoteric can’t rhyme about the streets and slapping niggas and all that crazy shit that I might and can say.” U-God found a similarly rewarding way to express himself: by writing a book. His Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang was released in February to favorable reviews. “That book took me two and a half years to write,” he says. “That takes focus—continuous focus. It’s like going in the ring, getting knocked down, and then getting back up. You have no idea how many pages I tore up, how much I had to hide names and move shit around just to preserve certain things. There’s no easy way to do it when you’re creating something. You have to really sit there and take your time to do something and master your craft.”
wenty-five years after the release of 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang Clan is one of rap’s most durable groups, a global brand that has penetrated the worlds of music, film, television, and fashion.
“Enter the Wu-Tang, it’s like a flag post,” RZA says. “It’s the measurement of, ‘things were this way before it, and things became this way after it.’ On a music level of hip-hop, and what that movement created, it’s just as important as Obama being the first black president, in my opinion. I say that because it changed so many things after it. With 36 Chambers, it took a whole community and brought it to the surface. We didn’t bring one emcee, or two emcees. With us, it was, ‘Here they are. Here’s your whole fuckin’ neighborhood right in front of you.’”
Soren Baker’s new book The History of Gangster Rap is in stores now.
PHOTO BY KYLE CHRISTY