ALEXIS MAGAZINE WHERE FASHION MEETS ENTERTAINMENT Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
INSIDE THIS ISSUE: • STANLEY ENOW-A MUSICAL YOUTH AMBASSADOR • • WHY CULTURE, NOT RACE, DETERMINES TASTES IN MUSIC • • DID ACADEMIA KILL JAZZ? • • AND SO MUCH MORE......
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Editors note Welcome to the first issue of Alexis Magazine where fashion meets entertainment.Music is the path to the soul and we all know that if you have the right passion and drive,then nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams.I am an avid listener and artist publicist plus I love to share my experiences with the whole world.In this magazine Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll take you through the revolution of the music industry from back in the 70s uptil this 21st century.Walk with me and discover the world of music that is deemed with alot of negativity and yet there is so much talent out there oozing to be discovered.Lets dig deeper into some of the challenges of being a celebrity and how to ensure that music becomes the voice of the voiceless. All Stanley Enow photos by Mode Maison PR c/o Motherland Empire
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
• HOW TIKTOK GETS RICH WHILE PAYING ARTISTS PENNIES • STANLEY ENOW-A MUSICAL • YOUTH AMBASSADOR • EARL SWEATSHIRT DOES • NOT EXIST • WHY CULTURE, NOT RACE, DE• TERMINES TASTES IN MUSIC • DID ACADEMIA KILL JAZZ? • • HOW AFRICAN COUNTRIES ARE • DOING IN BALLOONING DIGITAL • FLYING LOTUS AND HIS GRANDMOTHER TALK BEMUSIC REVENUES ING IN A FAMILY BOUND •
Alexis Issue 1 JULY 2019 Published By Alexis,ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Chief Editor:Wanjiku Thuku All Content photos by Wasafi Media,Victoria
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Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
STANLEY ENOW-A MUSICAL YOUTH AMBASSADOR STORY BY WANJIKU THUKU In reference to the article why Culture not race,determines tastes in music,one artist I can say has cut across the African and International music scene is Stanley Ebai Enow.Originally born and bred in Bafoussam,a city in the west region of Cameroon,also known as ‘’Bayangi Boy’’,his roots have influenced a whole generation.Rapping in ‘’’Francanglais” that is a fusion of French,English and words taken from Cameroonian dialects in order to connect with youths who constitute the majority of his fanbase. With recognition by the United States Congress,lining with the Obamas,to going to universities and various schools,winning accolades of awards as well as being profiled by CNN as a global ambasssador,he has shown that through hard work and determination,anything is possible and one can use their talents to make a difference in the world. Following Sierra Leone Akon’s footsteps,Stanley Enow made it clear that he would like to use all of his influence to back the hydro plant and help bring electricity to his beloved Cameroon and Africa in general.His love for children is also a part of his leadership and mentorship goals to nurture them into being responsible people as well as representing various corporate brands like Samsung,Airtel,MTN and so on raising the Cameroonian flag high.
WHY CULTURE, NOT RACE, DETERMINES TASTES IN MUSIC By Winfried Lüdemann One frequently hears questions such as: Why do different races generally listen to specific genres of music? Why do music genres have a huge racial divide?In societies obsessed with and manipulated by the notion of race, these questions are understandable. But it is also understandable that, for many forward-thinking people, they are highly troubling.It says a lot about our state of mind that we have become used to linking matters to race even if they don’t have a racial basis. Our preferences for specific musical genres do not have a basis in our genetic makeup, if one regards race as a genetically determined phenomenon. We should take delight because in respect of music, there is only one race: the human race.It has to come as a tremendously liberating realisation that music is one of the attributes that makes humans human.By engaging in music, humans articulate their humanness and – even more so – their humanity.They have done so since the dawn of humankind in Africa.
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not of our racial makeup. Even if it so happens that cultural diversity is, or has been,coincidental with the various human “races” as they evolved, musical diversity has to be seen as culture-specific, not race-specific. What makes a music genre
In music, as in other arts, the word “genre” is not used consistently. In literature, the term can be used to distinguish between poetry, a novel or a play. In painting, between a landscape and a portrait, or between oil and water colour. For that reason, medium, style and form are additional terms that can help us to distinguish between different kinds of art.Jazz, rock or classical are terms frequently used to distinguish between different “genres” of music. But they could also be described as different “styles”. In that sense, “style” would denote the more general and “genre” the more specific characteristics of the music concerned. Be that as it may, it is helpful to regard “genre” as a description of the social function of music.For example, a hit song may be in the same style as a musical, but the two have different functions. Similarly, a symphony fulfils a different function than an opera.It is also important to understand that when one likes a piece of music,when it becomes meaningful to a particular person, some of the meaning of that song will here in the style or genre in which it is composed or performed. If I am into jazz
If that is so, how are we to understand the undeniable existence of different musical genres? As humans dispersed out of Africa and across the world, they took their culture with them. As they dispersed, they lost contact with their respective cultures. And since the new environments they encountered differed vastly from one another, a great diversity of cultures developed in response – and continue to develop all the time.So, the existence of different genres and loathe heavy metal then has to be regarded as a manifesthat preference will make me tation of our cultural diversity and Photo Courtesy Of Darrio Johnson
reject a particular song in the genre of heavy metal regardless of whether it is a good song or not.So, a good deal of the meaning that comes across when I listen to music lies in its style or genre. It is like the saying: The medium is the message.The flipside is that there are kinds of music where I don’t understand the stylistic conventions or the “vocabulary”. Therefore, music in that style will be meaningless to me, even if an individual number in that style is highly popular among its followers.It is like being able or unable to understand a particular language. If I don’t know French I will be unable to distinguish between a joke and an insult directed at me in that languag
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 Where divides in music taste come from Music is a less neutral form of communication than language. Consequently, different kinds of music seem to represent different kinds of value. Rock music may represent the values of youth rebellion against what is perceived as the narrow-minded and materialistic value system of an older generation, while traditional folk music may be representative of an uncorrupted rural idyll.Such value systems are not fixed but can be rooted in the mind of the perceiver. For some classical music expresses the most profound sentiments of which humans are capable. For others it is elitist, imperialist, boring or simply uncool.Comprehensibility and value, then, are the reasons why there are cultural – not racial – divides between adherents of different kinds of music.Where do these divides come from? They are the result of any number of contributing factors, including upbringing in the parent culture, education, peer-group interaction, expression of a person’s individual identity, even a marker of territory.For example, religious groups tend to articulate their identity and mark their territory with very specific kinds of music, even if their aim is to give expression to their religious aspirations. And in many cases the music that people listen to is determined by their mood. In this case they will even be prepared to switch between different genres, as long as the music is felt to act as a stimulant or to soothe the nerves. In societies plagued by strong cultural divisions, music can be a very significant vehicle for reconciliation. Music is not a universal language, but it holds a special significance and meaning for all of us. We all articulate our humanity by means of music.By learning to respect the significance and meaning that a particular kind of music has for my fellow human beings, even if I don’t subscribe to its value system, I will be able to recognise their human dignity in their music. This is regardless of whether that person is a vagrant singing his evening song, a child singing a nursery rhyme, a worshipper praising in song or a sports fan supporting his favourite team.It would be even better if we could start talking to each other about what makes a particular kind of music meaningful and special to the other person. Who knows, we might even begin to practise musical multilingualism. Photos Courtesy Of Nandy
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 our insights are relevant to music music streaming.Firms of both HOW AFRICAN COUNindustries across Africa.Our work types have become key players in TRIES ARE DOING IN suggests that while new modes of Kenya’s music industry over the BALLOONING DIGITAL distribution using mobile telepast decade. They have expanded MUSIC REVENUES communications networks offer their activities beyond distribureal alternatives to piracy, African tion, into audio and video producChristiaan De Beukelaer musicians continue to struggle to tion,talent management and award reap significant benefits.Digital shows. This has solidified their Last year was a good one for the distribution in Africa [.There are hold over the industry. The CEOs music recording industry. After vast differences in both music of a mobile service provider or the years of decline 2018 marked the styles and market economies principle of a digital content firm fourth consecutive year of growth across the continent’s 54 counare the Kenyan music moguls of in music industry revenues. Actries. But there are some features the 21st century.This new reality cording to the International that are common across most. poses new challenges for African Federation of the Phonographic These include a combination of music economies and,especialIndustry, this was driven by a weak recorded music distribution ly, African musicians. Mutual significant rise in interests/Recorded music “digital” revenues distribution has always been which accounted for tied up with the technology nearly 60% of the firms that have sold playback total.The federation devices. Radios, record playalso points out that ers, CD players and digital the music industry music players only appeal to is now more “globconsumers if they facilitate al” than ever thanks music playback and give to the successes of access to a large catalogue of Korean and Latmusic. This has historically in American arthelped to align the interests ists,among others. of companies selling music But one very importplayback devices and comant music market is missing from networks,relatively unregulated panies selling recorded music – the federation’s report: the Afridigital markets, a legacy of unlioften, companies have sold both. can continent. This is especially censed music distribution (includ- Apple’s foray into media distriproblematic given the remarkable ing “piracy”), tensions between bution is no exception to this. developments in digital music cultural rights and copyright, and Across Africa, however, there is distribution through mobile dewidespread disruptive effects of one key difference: internet access vices that have emerged in many digital innovations.The rapid and is widespread, but “unlimited” African countries.Although the pervasive uptake of smartphones broadband access via cable is rare. rise of digital media technologies and mobile internet has driven Instead, most internet access is has created new forms of interAfrican music sectors along a mobile. And “unlimited” internet mediation and interdependence different path of digitalisation access is very rare.Mobile service worldwide, the changes in African than in the west. This has meant providers sell “data bundles”. But music sectors don’t simply mirror that power has been placed in the demand for data relies on customwhat’s happened in the West.Our hands of different sorts of firms. ers having a research provides a window into In Kenya, for example,digital mu- need for data. This is where music what’s happened on the continent. sic distribution relies on two kinds comes in. Musicians need access It sheds light on how mobile tele- of firms: “mobile service proto paying customers in the communications and technology viders” (telecom networks) and absence of reliable distribution firms have transformed business “digital content firms”.The digital mechanisms. Mobile service propractices and revenue flows in content firms provide customised viders need to sell data to the music sectors of Kenya and ringtones,ringback tones (where competein cutthroat telecom Ghana. Our data relate to just two the caller hears a song paid for by markets. countries. But we believe that the callee), music downloads and
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 And mobile hardware manufacturers require connectivity and “content” to make their multimedia devices attractive.Given the strong reliance of Africans on mobile, these companies need each other. As they developed economies of scale in a huge market, musicians (or, to be more precise, music rights holders) are not necessarily getting their fair share of the proceeds. BenefitsIn 2016 Kenyan gospel singer Eunice Njeri, one of the most popular artists on Liberty Afrika’s music distribution platform, lamented:I got to see the accounts and how much my songs, which were signed to Liberty Afrika, make and I am not happy … I was told my song made Sh1 million in a six-month period, when in fact it had made about Sh24 million. This anecdote suggests that mutual interests and the promise of revenues have enticed musicians to collaborate with mobile service providers, digital content firms and mobile hardware manufacturers. But ultimately, musicians have a limited bargaining position that leaves them as vulnerable to exploitation as they have always been. The problem is that the political economy of music distribution goes unchecked. Despite the promise of better opportunities, music sectors remain a market constrained by distribution bottlenecks. In technical terms, music markets are oligonomic in character. This means that intermediaries (labels, distributors, promoters, media outlets) continue to act act as an oligopoly – when a few sellers control a particular market –towards audiences and as an oligopsony – a market with many sellers, but few buyers – towards musicians.In the best of cases, fierce competition between mobile service providers gives the most popular musicians some leverage over whom they sign brand marketing deals with. But most musicians have little or no leverage when it comes to being paid a fair share of revenues from digital music services. Digital rising The global rise of digital music distribution is undeniable. But who reaps the profits when digital disruption occurs? And how can we make sure music distribution through mobile networks across Africa is reflected in global industry data?Currently, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry is not paying enough attention to the nature of music economies on the African continent. This needs to change.
Photos Credits By Safaricom and Boomplay Limited
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HOW TIKTOK GETS RICH WHILE PAYING ARTISTS PENNIES The company behind lip-sync app TikTok is reportedly worth three times as much as Spotify, but the artists whose music powers the platform are seeing very little of that money. by Duncan Cooper ILOVEFRiDAY’s first song was a troll. The music video for “Hate Me” saw one half of the duo, a 21-year-old Pakistani-American rapper who goes by Smokehijabi, hitting a blunt in a hijab and making unsparing use of the N-word. Problematic in a half-dozen ways, the video was a minor sensation online, particularly among the edgy sort of joker with a meme account on Instagram. In January 2018, one such user posted a fake tweet that looked to be written by the retired porn actress Mia Khalifa that paired a screenshot of Smokehijabi from the clip with the caption, “She’s so disrespectful to all Muslim women and gives us a bad image smh.” Now, one year later, people pay awed tribute in that post’s comments section. “BRO,” says one, “YOU CREATED AN EMPIRE.”The image was quickly copied and re-posted on dozens of other meme pages. There’s some debate whether iLOVEFRiDAY initially understood it was a joke, but they say it doesn’t really matter. “All of our fans were like, ‘Screw Mia Khalifa, we don’t like her, diss her!’ So we dropped a diss track,” Smokehijabi tells me. On that song, dubbed “Mia Khalifa” and released last February, Smokehijabi is at her absolute brattiest: “Hit or
miss, I guess they never miss, huh?/You got a boyfriend, I bet he doesn’t kiss yaaaa!” Though Smokehijabi lives in Atlanta, her delivery has an almost Midwestern whine to it; her melodies are straight and piercing, catchy to an obnoxious degree.
According to XenOCarr, her partner in the group, in its first few months on YouTube, the song amassed five million views, an inspiring number for an unsigned act.Then it hit TikTok, and people’s lives changed. TikTok is a mobile app where users can create and share short videos. After merging with fellow lip-synch app Musical.ly last year, it has become something like the new Vine. What’s new: On TikTok, you can soundtrack your videos using a massive library of officially licensed snippets of songs. Alternatively, you can upload your own audio, which enters the app’s sound bank so anyone can use it.“Mia Khalifa” wasn’t initially in the TikTok library, so a South Dakota high schooler named Cheyanne Hays uploaded it herself. Hays already had a big social following for someone who worked at Subway, having gone viral with a silly online video where, through feigned tears, she complained that her mom had confiscated her vape because she failed English
class and implored Shakespeare to “suck my dick.”In Hays’ TikTok to “Mia Khalifa,” she stared blankly at the camera, her steady eyes making Smokehijabi’s boyfriend line seem even more comically mean. But her video was only
a proto-meme, good for 16,000 likes. Using Hays’ “Mia Khalifa” snippet, a young British woman named Georgia Lee Twinn lip-synched the same lyrics for a clip that currently has more than 360,000 likes, while an interpretive dance by a user called NyanNyanCosplay has netted 315,000 more. TikTok, which declined to comment for this article, doesn’t display view counts, but they do show how many videos use a certain sound. Currently, that same 15 seconds of audio from “Mia Khalifa” has been used in over four million TikTok videos.The songs that go viral on TikTok are refreshingly unpredictable—they aren’t a simple reflection of streambait pop or what’s big on the radio. Sure, a song like Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” has a million TikTok
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digital distributor that places videos of its own, but that’s music on YouTube, Spotify, Last year, a rare profile of not what defines the platform. and Apple Music, and pays ByteDance’s founder, YimInstead, it’s freaky, relatively artists royalties from streams— ing Zhang, claimed that the unfamiliar voices like Smokebut it doesn’t license songs company is “what comes after hijabi’s that cut through.Down- to TikTok. (TuneCore did not Facebook.”Though TikTok is loading a TikTok video to use respond to requests to comcurrently free and without ads, off the app is easy, and last ment.) When I first spoke with there’s endless value in its summer clips of NyanNyaniLOVEFRiDAY in December, trove of videos: ByteDance’s Cosplay’s “Mia Khalifa” dance shortly after TikTok’s Beivice president says they’re started bouncing over Youjing-based parent company, able to process 50 million GB Tube, where they appeared ByteDance, had raised another of data every day. And analyzin compilations and multiple $3 billion from investors, Xeno ing its 500 million users’ video videos by Pewdiepie, one of told me he was surprised that clips has potential applications the most popular vloggers on nobody from TikTok had confor content recommendation, Earth. Plays on iLOVEFRitacted them and asked me if object recognition, and, ultiDAY’s official music video inI could reach out to them and mately, surveillance. The webcreased by a factor of 10, and, see if we can be compensite for ByteDance’s research on YouTube, snippets of the sated.”Not long after, TikTok lab boasts, “This virtuous song have been played over finally got in touch with their cycle of AI has allowed us to 200 million times. Based on manager, who tells me he venture into areas of machine reports about YouTube’s royal- worked out a deal that grants intelligence the world has not ty rates, the video giant could TikTok continued, free use of seen before.”That’s great for have easily paid the group “Mia Khalifa” in exchange for our future android overlords, $150,000. I LOVE FRiDAYs the promotion of i LOVE FRibut what about the musicians manager, Terrance Rowe, DAYs future releases. “At the whose work the AI team—and wouldn’t confirm that number, end of the day, the relationship TikTok’s very lucrative busibut he laughed know- ”That’s great for our future android overlords, but ness—depends on ingly when I suggest- what about the musicians whose work the AI team— to attract users? ed it and replied, “It’s and TikTok’s very lucrative business—depends on Jeff Price, the really great money, CEO of Audiam, a to attract users? Jeff Price, the CEO of Audiam, a let’s just say that.” company that specompany that specializes in licensing, collecting, (Incidentally, I LOVE and distributing royalties from digital platforms, cializes in licensFRiDAYs original vid- tells me there’s a fundamental disconnect in the way ing, collecting, and eo was recently taken music and tech do business. “The music industry distributing roydown due to a copy- and artists—songwriters and publishers and com- alties from digital right claim by a Ro- posers—all traditionally make money off of the sale platforms, tells me manian visual artist, or license of prerecorded music,” he explains. there’s a fundaLivia Fălcaru, whose mental disconnect illustrations were used with TikTok is more important in the way music and tech do in a few shots without payment than asking them to pay me for business. “The music industry or her consent.)But as iLOVEa record,” he adds. “It’s giving and artists—songwriters and FRiDAY were amazing views, us exposure, and that’s what publishers and composers—all and dollars, through YouTube, we need to push the brand traditionally make money off they weren’t making a dime forward.”For tech giants, music of the sale or license of prefrom TikTok. We literally put is monstrously big business. recorded music,” he explains. TikTok on the map, for free,” Though ByteDance, which “Technology companies make Smokehijabi says. “So many owns TikTok as well as several their money from valuations on people made TikTok accounts other platforms, has yet to turn Wall Street or venture capital because of the song—I mean, a profit, Bloomberg recently or private equity, which are I made one.” Like many young valued it at $75 billion—three based on market share, and artists, they had released “Mia times more than Spotify’s curthat’s based on their number of Khalifa” using TuneCore, a rent market value. users. They don’t actually have Photo Credits By Tiktok
to make money off of music to make money. It doesn’t matter if they lose money. As a matter of fact, they all lose money.”Copyright, of course, still applies, and musicians are technically required to get paid if their work is used. For the song in any TikTok video, there are two basic copyrights at play: the right to public performance (the composition of the song, which is typically owned by the songwriter or their publisher), and the right to mechanical reproduction (the recording itself, usually owned by the label). In America, statutory damages for breaking either can make for an intimidating punishment of up to $150,000 per violation. That’s ostensibly why, in 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Part of a global treaty in the name of innovation, it protects tech companies from copyright claims that might otherwise squash them. Essentially, the DMCA makes these companies immune from liability for the copyright violations of their users, so long as they tell them not to do it and aren’t aware of individual violations as such.They just have to take the files down once someone tells them about it, and that burden is on musicians and their representatives. When artists see a copyright violation, they send the company a fabled DMCA takedown notice—or, in the hypothetical case of “Mia Khalifa,” four million of them, one for every video that used the song.So when tech companies do make licensing deals, it’s typically on their own terms. In 2016, Jeff Price considered an offer from Musical.ly to license
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Audiam’s catalog, and asked to talk to the company about making changes to their proposed agreement. According to Price, Musical.ly’s lawyers were unwilling to negotiate. He recalls them telling him, “
It’s either you can sign this contract and get paid something, or don’t sign the contract and your music’s still going to be here but you’re not going to get paid anything. You’re going to have to deal with DMCA takedowns. Goodbye.” Audiam didn’t take the deal.That’s not always an easy decision, though. Joe Conyers III is the co-founder of SongTrust, another digital rights management platform, and he explains the trouble many rights-holders have in saying no, even professional distributors and royalty collectors. “All these services will get contacted by Facebook or TikTok or YouTube, and they’ll get the manager and the artist hyped up, and they may not understand that they are not going to get paid. They say, ‘OK, well, they’re going to put me on the front page. That’s worth it. Let’s just do it for free.’”That’s not the only tricky part. Conyers tells me about a recent study by Music Reports, a company whose database contains the rights information for 150 million distinct sound recordings. In the 1980s, Music Reports found, songs in Billboard’s Top 10 had an average of two writers and two publishers; this decade, hits typically have four writers and six publishers. “ You end up with these crazy circumstances where there could potentially be hundreds of copyright claims against a
video,” Conyers says. “Everyone is going to get their fraction of a fraction of a fraction. But if you’re not part of the system, you’re gonna be out of the system.”Once all those fractions start rolling in to publishing administrators, some of which represent over 100,000 artists, deciding how to distribute the money is another hurdle. Some platforms, like YouTube, grant access to sophisticated, searchable content ID systems. Others will simply send over a spreadsheet every month or so, and it can be difficult to verify their accuracy: If a song isn’t labeled within the system, how do you search for it? What if, like TikTok, the platform doesn’t show you total views? One common solution is to go by an artist’s market share on a DIFFERERENT PLATFORM.
that offers better reporting. For example, to gauge TikTok payouts, a publishing administrator might calculate the percentage of their roster’s total plays that each artist drives on Spotify, then pay them the same proportion from their TikTok buyout.But that market sharebased approach would be no help for a band like Falling in Reverse. At the time of its release eight years ago, their song “ Good Girls Bad Guys” was a raunchy, retrograde pop-punk single that didn’t chart. (Sample lyric: “Sorry girl, if this is quick/So please just take it in the ass and suck my dick.”) On every streaming platform, its numbers had long plateaued.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 Then, last year, someone trimmed the track to its 15-second hook, and on TikTok, it became rocket fuel.There’s something almost wholesome to the meme Falling in Reverse’s song inspired. First, participants cower before the camera in their dorkiest clothes, as the song whines away: “So why do good girls like bad guys?/I had this question for a real long time.” Then they cut to a dramatic outfit change to reveal puffed chests in leather jackets or racing shirts with ripped-off sleeves, along with the lines, “I’ve been a bad boy and it’s plain to see/ So why do good girls fall in love with me?” Falling in Reverse had already granted TikTok permission to use “Good Girls Bad Guys” through their deal with Epitaph Records, which licenses the band’s catalog via Warner Brothers’ Alternative Distribution Alliance. Independent labels like Epitaph use the security and influence of collective bargaining deals with major distributors to ensure they’re paid, but when it comes time to negotiate those deals with platforms, the majors are still the ones dictating the terms and even parceling the money out. In 2016, Warner was the first label to announce they were sharing music with Musical. ly, and as is typical of early arrangements with tech companies, they did a blanket license, also known as a buyout: The royalty-holder grants access to a bundle of songs, with a payment up front to distribute however they see fit.By mid-December, TikTok’s pay-
out to Epitaph, through their distributor, was a grand total of $1,500. Half of that went to the band.I ask Ronnie Radke, Falling in Reverse’s lead singer, how he feels about the whole experience. “I loved it—sales and streams skyrocketed off that song,” he says, adding, “I’ll be honest, I don’t really get the TikTok movement as a whole, but to each their own.” Like i LOVE FRiDAYs manager, he seems to view TikTok as a means to an end, like trickle-down economics: So long as something—anything—reaches the little guy, it doesn’t really matter what happens up above. But Brett Gurewitz, the founder of Epitaph and a longtime member of the punk band Bad Religion, has a different take on the situation. He likens today’s TikTok deals to a long, sad history of music industry swindles. “It’s what we saw with Chuck Berry getting a Cadillac instead of royalties,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s vinyl or an app, every time there’s a new way of doing music, the creators always get screwed.”
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 moa for being a hellraiser, just as his friends in Odd EARL SWEATSHIRT DOES NOT Future were becoming internet sensations. Ever EXIST Thebe Kgositsile’s rap persona is saddled with baggage he no longer wants to carry and representative of a time in his life that he continues to outgrow. by Sheldon Pearce On a warm November day, Earl Sweatshirt is holed up in his cozy Los Angeles duplex. His head is enveloped in a hood he never takes off, with two baby dreadlocks peeking out. For hours, he slowly paces to and fro in stonewashed Supreme jeans, casually discussing everything from the quirks of personal trauma to his favorite JAY-Z verse to the importance of privacy. Occasionally, he shuffles to a window, looks off into the distance, and takes a long pause. He chooses his words carefully. He never leaves the house.This type of insular behavior makes perfect sense for a noted misanthrope who named his last album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. But that was four years ago. Nowadays, the rapper born Thebe Kgositsile—all of his friends call him Thebe, not Earl—insists that he feels most himself when he is out in the open, breathing fresh air, even soaking up some sun. He says he went to the beach almost every day last summer.“I’m really just working so I can be like @chakabars on Instagram,” he says affably, nodding to the social media star known for his chiseled physique, charity work in Africa, and love of mangoes and bananas. “That’s the endgame. I wanna be self-sustaining, make my own food and weed. Just eat fruit and be rude.” Today, though, Thebe decides to stay out of public view because he doesn’t want to be recognized as Earl Sweatshirt. The now 24-year-old rap vet makes a clear delineation between the man he is and the pseudonym he bears; over the course of the day, he refers to Earl as an “operation” and a “thing.”Back in 2010, Earl Sweatshirt’s origin story was rooted in mystery, fantasy, and projection: Who was this 16-year-old rapping gorgeous scenes of mutilation with the coldness of a bloodless sociopath? His mom sent him away to Sa-
since, he has been chased by his boy genius legacy—small karma for being a teen terror. While he was away, the fanbase formed a rallying cry—“Free Earl”—hoping to liberate him from a reformatory he wasn’t ready to leave so he could make dark songs he didn’t want to make anymore. They knew next to nothing about him, yet he’d become their profane patron saint. Existing in a vacuum of information kept him at arm’s length, which led many in his cult base to think of him as a myth, an idol.“The deification actually works in total opposition to what I’m trying to do, which is to humanize the situation,” he says. “One thing I know for sure is I want to be normalized. I’m here, nigga—not in a chest-thumping way, but as in, I’m here with y’all on Earth.
”Before he was even able to find his musical identity, he’d been swept up into a narrative he couldn’t control, so he is enthralled by the idea of one day existing as an artist without pretense. Everything he does now is a push not to be a prisoner to decisions he made as an immature savant, and decisions made on his behalf when he was half a world away. “My teens were under a microscope and really threatened to define me—and it still do,”
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 he admits. “But that shit can’t govern what I’m doing anymore. It’s really important for me to figure myself out.”Thebe’s unassuming house is tucked off a main road in L.A.’s Mid-City neighborhood, nearly hidden. between two large hedges. Mid-City, he says, is a transitional zone; the end of the hood. The area has a quiet, suburban feel, with Little Ethiopia nearby, and a Jewish Community Center just around the corner. But the diverse community is rapidly gentrifying. “They found it,” he sighs, explaining the influx of people from the Valley and Hollywood, and then proudly points out the black owners on his street “holding on.”His place appears to be the oldest building on the block, or at least the only one that wasn’t recently refurbished. He grew up nearby and moved back to reconnect with his sense of home.After spending some time in New York City the previous couple of years working on his reflective new album, Some Rap Songs, this is where he’s been decompressing.Perched on a stool in his living room, he rolls the first of two spliffs on a large wooden table. Framed paintings by black artists depicting images of black people lean against the walls. A stray Akai drum machine sits on the sofa, and under the table is W.E.B. Du Bois’ famed 1935 essay Black Reconstruction. There are two stacks of books and magazines on the table, including a copy of Thrasher and Segregation Story, a collection of photo essays by civil rights photojournalist Gordon Parks examining racism in the American South. As he offers thoughts and ideas on topics ranging from rap goof troupe YBN collective to the Man Booker Prize winning author Paul Beatty, his voracious hunger for both learning and sharing becomes clear. He wants to find the right balance between being bookish and being active. His quest for self, he explains, involves his music, brain, and body. On more than one occasion he makes reference to becoming strong, noting the physical toll rapping takes on his constitution; in the past, he’s been forced to cancel tour dates due to pneumonia and exhaustion. Through his aunt, a practitioner of acupuncture and Eastern medicine who he calls “Professor X,” he’s been working toward fixing his body
chemistry and finding a healthy balance. “I can’t ignore my body anymore,” he says, sipping some iced tea. “I saw someone online said: ‘Just imagine the music this nigga [Earl] would make if he would drink some water.’Facts, bro.”As a child of writers, he is starting to come to terms with the idea he was groomed for this life. His mother is UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris, who last year received the Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is also the son of the Keorapetse Kgositsile, who, in 2006, was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate. Thebe jokingly calls his childhood oppressive—growing up, his mom would make him write essays to explain why he should get anything he wanted. “Being raised by educators, there was a point where my stupid ass made that an enemy,” he says. He’d like to go to college but feels like his celebrity won’t allow him, so he’s considering taking some online classes.His ongoing education on black history and white supremacy had a clear impact on Some Rap Songs, which he calls an album explicitly geared toward black listeners. “It’s for a specific chemical equation,” he says, adding that he enjoys playing people the new track “The Mint,” with its lyric, “Crackers pilin’ in to rape the land.” “That’s a timeless line,” he says, smirking. “My niggas from 1513 felt that.” “I’m trying to communicate myself using sacred theme music for my soul and for people’s souls,” he says, now cross-legged on the stool as weed smoke whisks around his head. “I’m trying to submit this as my contribution to the tapestry. I spent time making sure that it stands out but still fits into something that’s bigger than me.”Largely conceived in New York, Some Rap Songs is the result of a chance encounter that more or less changed the trajectory of Thebe’s music. In 2016, the young underground rapper MIKE and producer Adé Hakim stopped Thebe near the Supreme store in Soho to tell him they were fans. (“My first impression of Thebe was that he didn’t trust anybody, and with good reason,” Hakim tells me.) A few months later, Thebe happened to buy a MIKE project on Bandcamp by coincidence. Shortly thereafter, Thebe fell in with MIKE and Hakim’s sLUms collective, whose sound is marked by woozy samples and a disinterest in hooks, along with other like-minded artists. By summer 2017, they’d all become fast friends, hanging out at pro skateboarder Sage Elsesser’s place in Brooklyn and listening to music.Thebe has always been an artist whose ideas crystalize when he can see them through others, and falling in with the right camp feels instrumental to his process. Tagging along with Odd Future’s rabble-rouser mis
Photo Credits By hypebeast.com and nowtoronto.com
fits produced his most daring provocations. His most isolated album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, produced his most depressive songs. Hanging around the members of NYC’s current irregular hiphop vanguard while making Some Rap Songs seems to have centered him.Some of these artists contributed raps and production to the record, but their wavy style can be felt subconsciously, too. Thebe was drawn to experimental clique Standing on the Corner’s 2017 project Red Burns, a single-track, freeform jazzrap opus turned cityscape, and he brought its architect, Gio Escobar, on board to give shape to his new material. Naming the album Some Rap Songs was an attempt at “breaking the fourth wall,” as Thebe puts it, and another step toward self demystification. some online classes.His ongoing education on black history and white supremacy had a clear impact on Some Rap Songs, which he calls an album explicitly geared toward black listeners. “It’s for a specific chemical equation,” he says, adding that he enjoys playing people the new track “The Mint,” with its lyric, “Crackers pilin’ in to rape the land.” “That’s a timeless line,” he says, smirking. “My niggas from 1513 felt that.” “I’m trying to communicate myself using sacred theme music for my soul and for people’s souls,” he says, now cross-legged on the stool as weed smoke whisks around his head. “I’m trying to submit this as my contribution to the tapestry. I spent time making sure that it stands out but still fits into something
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that’s bigger than me.”Largely conceived in New York, Some Rap Songs is the result of a chance encounter that more or less changed the trajectory of Thebe’s music. In 2016, the young underground rapper MIKE and producer Adé Hakim stopped Thebe near the Supreme store in Soho to tell him they were fans. (“My first impression of Thebe was that he didn’t trust anybody, and with good reason,” Hakim tells me.) A few months later, Thebe happened to buy a MIKE project on Bandcamp by coincidence. Shortly thereafter, Thebe fell in with MIKE and Hakim’s sLUms collective, whose sound is marked by woozy samples and a disinterest in hooks, along with other like-minded artists. By summer 2017, they’d all become fast friends, hanging out at pro skateboarder Sage Elsesser’s place in Brooklyn and listening to music.
Photo Credits By ticketfly.com nd en.wikipedia.org
Thebe has always been an artist whose ideas crystalize when he can see them through others, and falling in with the right camp feels instrumental to his process. Tagging along with Odd Future’s rabble-rouser misfits produced his most daring provocations. His most isolated album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, produced his most depressive songs. Hanging around the members of NYC’s current irregular hip-hop vanguard while making Some Rap Songs seems to have centered him.Some of these artists contributed raps and production to the record, but their wavy style can be felt subconsciously, too. Thebe was drawn to experimental clique Standing on the Corner’s 2017 project Red Burns, a single-track, freeform jazz-rap opus turned cityscape, and he brought its architect, Gio Escobar, on board to give shape to his new material.Naming the album Some Rap Songs was an attempt at “breaking the fourth wall,” as Thebe puts it, and another step toward self demystification.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
Illustration By Wanjiku Thuku
“There’s a freedom in not being so romantic about that shit,” he says. At the same time, the title is a mark of his effort to return to a more fundamental rap ethos, one inspired by watching 2 Raw for the Streets battles and listening to old radio freestyles. “They say in all the creative writing books: keep it primitive—that’s a space where you can stay excited.” He wants to return to the teenage unboundness that produced his debut studio album, 2013’s Doris, when he didn’t have to worry about his bank account balance or if his rent would be paid. “It’s like that point when you was 16: It wasn’t to chart, I was thinking about the art of it,” he says. “That type of awareness lets you do the experimental shit that you want to do.” Between these two modes, quick-rhyming technician and experimentalist, a conversation is taking place about who Thebe Kgositsile is and what Earl Sweatshirt represents. Many of the tracks on Some Rap Songs were recorded in his home studio here in L.A., an isolated, gear-crammed little room. The bareness of the space reflects the record’s nofrills directive. The walls are completely naked except for a pinned headshot of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He recorded most of the vocals for the album alone in this quiet sanctum. “I’ve become so attached to this idea of finding and sustaining self being more ultimately important than if you could dance to the shit,” he says.The sounds on Some Rap Songs are textural and tightly coiled, meant as a longplaying piece.
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The album has an intimate relationship with the jazz of America and South Africa, re-interpreting the genre’s alien sense of time with outof-step, dusty drum loops, through which Thebe presents extra-spatial raps. It ebbs and flows in a way that feels emblematic of journeying across an undulating landscape. (Escobar says he was pushing hard to present the entire record as one long standalone track, but the powers that be wouldn’t allow it.)
Thebe’s work is reflective of a commitment to albums amid a changing music industry. He laments the terrors of streaming: “These algorithms are weird and undefeatable.” He compares such innovations to other Silicon Valley blunders claiming efficiency always equals progress. “I miss the old evil,” he says, chuckling, referring to traditional music industry machinery. “Deification is the only other alternative to being a number now: You’re either a number or a god,” he adds, considering being an artist under the grey cloud of Big Data. “And if you’re a god, they love you like a god and they hate you like a god. Neither is real.” He seems to relish operating outside of the established system, which now means willfully subverting the online music economy that made his name.Many of the music business practices of today were fomented by Odd Future, and few know the power of the internet like Thebe does. But he’s wary of those who might wield that power to certain ends—mostly kids who are the
age he was when Odd Future broke, or younger. Facing away from a TV that’s connected to a Playstation 4 and a GameCube, he talks about being especially mindful of the gamers (“Them motherfuckas is about to be a political party”) and more recently recalls watching his young fanbase hijack his album’s rollout on Reddit when it leaked while he was vacationing in Palm Springs.He’s cognizant of where his older music—songs about raping and dismembering women—fits into the spectrum, too. “There’s an incel community that fucked with OF super tough, just the idea of just boys being misogynistic with their bros,” he says. He wants that association erased. His breakout mixtape, Earl, was a product of teen angst and internalized rage frothing to the surface, and while he doesn’t wholly regret making it—after all, he wouldn’t be where he is without it—he’s now hoping to bury it with music truer to who he really is.“I hope the internet is not God for kids,” Thebe says, worriedly, washing his spliff into a ceramic green ashtray with three frog heads poking straight up out of the rim.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 But after a moment of introspection, he reconsiders. “I don’t want to be sitting up piping all this negativity, bro. Because my heart is telling me, when I start to wander down them sentences, that niggas is figuring it out, and I can’t shit on they efforts.”He acknowledges that Some Rap Songs may seem out of left field to some of his fans—or to Columbia, the major label that released it. “Figuring out how you can be radical from within the system breaks your head,” he says. “That’s where I’m really at: that frustrating-ass place. And this is the best attempt I got. Only so much can happen above ground.” He says Some Rap Songs is the last Earl Sweatshirt album on Columbia. “I’m excited to be free because then I can do riskier shit,” he adds.Hearing Some Rap Songs makes you wonder what “riskier” might even sound like. It packs a dizzying amount of information into tight windows, and brevity is a core tenet of the 24-minute record. “I don’t want to waste people’s time,” Thebe explains. “Niggas got shit to do out here, period. I’m trying to say a lot of shit. It’s really dense. It can be overwhelming and have an air of exclusivity to it, a pompousness that I feel is only balanced out by me being like, I know what I’m doing to you. So I’ma sprint for you. I’ma act like your time is valuable.” As a result, his verses all seem to maximize moments, with their breadth exceeding the given room.“Thebe takes these situations he’s talking about and enters from a fifth or sixth dimension,” says Escobar. “He’s looking at it from a
completely different corner of the room that we can’t even conceive, but people don’t give a fuck about that. So much of it is marred in expectation and the spectacle—him being who he is and everything that’s happened. I wish people would fuck with how sci-fi this shit actually is.” By giving more of himself, Thebe hopes to close the space between those otherworldly skills and his humanity. “I’ve really been trying to infuse myself into my work,” he says, “and a part of that self is the importance of family.”In the past, members of his family were merely dimensionless figures floating around the outside of his music and his story, but on Some Rap Songs there are samples of his mother and father speaking publicly, as well as the music of his uncle, South African trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela. At one point, he raps, “Mama said she used to see my father in me.” On the massive table where books are stacked in his living room, two collections of poetry by his dad are off to a side by themselves. Keorapetse Kgositsile had a great respect for jazz, and he treated it as a sort of entry point into the black American experience; in a poem for legendary drummer Art Blakey and his collective the Jazz Messengers, Thebe’s father once wrote, “For the sound we revere/we dub you art as continuum/as spirit as sound of depth/here to stay.” In a way, Some Rap Songs honors this lineage, serving as a bridge between the jazz of two nations, treating rap as a medium, and serving as a tie-
in to his South African heritage. Fittingly, the hard looping. album seems to be closing a few loops of its own: not only linking generations of black music and finding its place in the continuum, but also tracing Thebe’s genealogy.He tells me that he’s the youngest of six siblings that he didn’t grow up with because they lived elsewhere. “I always had this yearning for siblings,” he says. It wasn’t until recently that a deep loss unexpectedly brought him back to his kin. Last January, Thebe’s father died. His voice trembles a little when he talks about the man, who’d always existed on the fringes of his life. There is an obvious lack of resolution that hangs in the air whenever the topic comes up, and he sometimes retreats into a shell when confronted with the newness of this pain too intensely. But he’s mostly unambiguous about it all. He says his relationship with his dad was “painfully sparse” near the end, in large part a product of Keorapetse’s predisposition to let providence sort things out.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 After his dad passed, Thebe says, grieving prevented him from eating.Some Rap Songs was largely finished before his father’s passing, but Thebe had to write a song about it for his own sake. The result is “Peanut,” a transient eulogy written and recorded alone and drunk in the Mid-City home studio. “Flushing’ through the pain, depression, this is not a phase/Picking out his grave, couldn’t help but feel out of place,” he raps, groggily. The song is a snapshot of an unfinished mourning process.“The way that was mixed, the fucking hiss—that song feels like when depression hugs you,” Thebe says of “Peanut.” “That moment was like engaging that hurt but still keeping the humanity intact by being really honest, getting myself to a point where it’s not a wallowing situation.
life to be as high-functioning as this shit is calling for me .”He stands with his arms outstretched to be right now,” he says. “I’m just excited to get a new explaining how he dealt with the loss: perspective on reality. Because that’s the cycle: collect, “My dad dying was the most traumatic reflect.” There’s a long pause. “I’m still figuring it out and moment of my life, but grief doesn’t just I’ll be figuring it out for the rest of my life. All I can do now work as sadness—funny shit happens in is live.” there. I’m depressed every day and I be having fun. I feel like the music feels like how the brain is wired to work: The most traumatic shit can happen and you could think how you need Lysol.”He stayed with his sister while he was in Johannesburg making arrangements for his dad’s funeral, reconnecting with her in the process, and he laughs about having to unpack the complicated history of the word “nigga” for his 5-year-old nephew. “I lost my father so that I could be reunited with my family,” he says.Through it all, his mom has been there for him, and he’s been sharing his music with her more than ever before. Once the primary antagonist of Earl Sweatshirt fans for sending him away to Samoa, Thebe says she is the most influential person in his life. “There’s no coincidence that I’m at the most myself now and have the album that I can play my mom,” he says.Thebe is seeing a therapist now, an experience he calls “incredible,” though he doesn’t get to go as much as he’d like. “I’m gonna have to change my Photo Credits By Pitchfork.com
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 DID ACADEMIA KILL JAZZ? By Adam Gustafson Jazz seems to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance among movie directors – look no further than documentaries such as “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, biopics such as “Born to Be Blue,” and recent Oscar winners like “Whiplash.” While films about jazz are everywhere, evidence suggests that fewer people are actually consuming the music, putting the genre more on par with classical music than with today’s pop artists.There are a host of reasons for the decline of jazz as a popular music, but the one that interests me as a music historian is the role that academics played. In our attempt to elevate jazz to the ivory tower, we may have inadvertently helped to kill it as a popular style. However, all is not lost. While the genre might seem destined for academic obscurity, jazz continues to kick around in popular music – just in subtler ways. Jazz captivates the country In the 1920s, during the early years of the Great Migration, waves of black Americans migrated from the South into the industrial cities of the North. Black jazz musicians, particularly those from New Orleans, brought their sound with them. They moved to neighborhoods such as The Stroll in Chicago, Black Bottom in Detroit, 12th Street and Vine in Kansas City and, of course, Harlem. This occurred just as the record industry blossomed and radios became mainstays in American homes.Jazz was well-positioned to become the most popular genre of music in the nation. Over the next decade, the genre underwent a transformation. Artists began to amass larger ensembles, fusing the energy of jazz with the volume of dance bands. The Swing Era was born, and jazz orchestras dominated pop charts.During the Swing Era, the Lindy Hop was a popular dance. UCLA These developments led to a new set of issues. Larger bands meant less freedom to improvise, the cornerstone of jazz. During the 1940s, music recordings became increasingly important, and jazz musicians found themselves frustrated with how little they were being paid, resulting in a series of strikes by the American Federation of Musicians.By the time these problems were resolved, America’s youth had already begun gravitating toward new styles of R&B and country, which would eventually morph into rock ‘n’ roll: After that, jazz never really recovered.From the club to the classrooJazz underwent another, more subtle, shift during that same time period: It left the club and went to college.After World War II, jazz genres fractured and the music became more complex. It also became popular among college students. Dave Brubeck Quartet released several albums in the early 1950s that acknowledged the group’s popularity with the college crowd, including “Jazz at Oberlin” and “Jazz at the College of the Pacific.”Perhaps university administrators wanted to elevate a distinctly American genre to a status of “high art.” Or, maybe they just wanted to capitalize on jazz’s popularity among college students. Either way, universities started to create curriculums geared towards the genre, and by the end of the 1950s, several institutions, such as the University of North Texas and the Berklee College of Music, had jazz programs up and running.In the classroom, jazz was explored in a new way. Rather than hearing jazz played while grinding on a dance floor, it became something to dissect. In one of the earliest jazz histories, “The Story of Jazz,” musicologist Marshall Stearns captures this shift. He begins his book by explaining how difficult it is to categorize the spirit of jazz. He then spends over 300 pages trying to do just that.Popular culture began to reflect jazz’s shifting identity as the music of educated people. The 1953 film “The Wild One” features a bouncing big band soundtrack that underscores the shenanigans of a motorcycle gang led by Marlon Brando. Photo Credits By academia.co.za
Just two years later, “Blackboard Jungle,” also features delinquent kids – except this time, they prefer the sound of Bill Haley. In one scene, their math teacher tries to get the kids to appreciate his collection of jazz records. The scene ends with the kids beating the teacher and breaking his records.‘Music is based on mathematics, and – it’s just, the next class is a little more advanced.’Jazz had gone from the music of youthful rebellion to that of the cultured elite. During the 1960s, jazz may have been as eclectic as ever. But academics like historian Neil Leonard continued to push for jazz to be made into a serious subject of academic inquiry, as he argued in his book “Jazz and the White Americans.” Professional groups devoted to the study of jazz education were founded, such as the National Association for Jazz Education. During the 1970s and 1980s, introductory jazz courses started to reach critical mass and led to the growth of what jazz critic Nate Chinen dubbed the “jazz-education industry.” Playing jazz required a college degree. Jazz had become the music of the educated. It was the music of Cliff and Clair Huxtable, one a doctor and the other a lawyer, from “The Cosby Show.” Just don’t call it ‘jazz’ In the last 20 years, jazz’s identity as an academic art form has only grown. At my institution, almost all of the non-classical course offerings in the music school are about jazz.Today, in any given semester on any given campus, you can find college students sitting in classrooms at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday trying to absorb the importance and
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complexity of a music meant to be heard in a club at 2 a.m. on a Saturday.It’s become brussels sprouts for budding music aficionados: You know it’s good for you, but it doesn’t necessarily taste all that great. Outside of the classroom, a dwindling audience base has forced traditional jazz venues to play into the notion of jazz as an educated person’s music. The current iteration of Minton’s Playhouse, a club that was once a bastion of jazz energy, now calls jazz “America’s classical music” in an attempt to raise the profile of the genre (and perhaps justify the cost of the steaks being served there). Other venues have minimized jazz. This year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will feature decidedly non jazz artists such as Katy Perry, The Rolling Stones and Chris Stapleton.Despite jazz’s distance from its popular roots, a little digging shows that we still like listening to jazz more than we think. We just stopped openly calling it jazz.Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is every bit as much a jazz album as it is a rap album, thanks to Lamar’s collaboration with the saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Washington also had a short film, “As Told to G/D Thyself,” based on his album, “Heaven and Earth,” at Sundance.Lamar’s album was such a revelation that it inspired David Bowie to feature a jazz ensemble as his backing band for his final rock album, “Blackstar.”Meanwhile, the music collective Snarky Puppy has become an international sensation by creating long-form jazz works while avoiding any specific labels. Another music collective, Scott
Photo Credits By lucstamrah.com
Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, has found a way to keep the sound of jazz alive – and to embrace jazz’s lighter side – by transforming contemporary pop songs into historical jazz genres.With academia positioning jazz as art music, the genre is unlikely to experience a popular resurgence any time soon.But today’s artists are proving that the spirit of jazz is alive and well, and that jazz is much more than its name.Maybe this is fitting: The earliest jazz musicians didn’t call their music “jazz” either. Instead, they blended their sound with pre-existing pop genres, and, in doing so, created one of the most distinct forms of music in American history.
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FLYING LOTUS AND HIS GRANDMOTHER TALK BEING IN A FAMILY BOUND BY MUSIC The two musicians talk Motown, drum machines, and Marvin Gaye by Claire Lobenfeld Flying Lotus is being out-styled by his grandmother, Marilyn McLeod. The two are sitting next to each other at the Steinway piano in his Los Angeles home, recalling memories of the experimental electronic artist’s childhood. FlyLo, born Steven Ellison, looks effortlessly cool in a motorcycle jacket, but it’s the 80-yearold McLeod’s black-and-white blouse with a high-neck collar that has everyone—including photographers and Ellison’s friends— commenting. McLeod’s accolades far, far precede today’s look, though. In the 1970s, she became part of the musical legacy of her hometown of Detroit as a Motown hitmaker, composing disco reconstructions like Diana Ross’ 1976 chart topper “Love Hangover,” and Freda Payne’s “I Get High (On Your Memory),” which New York Photo Credits By Pitcfork.com
rapper Styles P memorably sampled on his 2002 smokers’ anthem, “Good Times.McLeod also co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s “The World Is Rated X,” a funk track about drugs, violence, and the neglected conditions of the impoverished with lyrics like “Dirty water we can’t drink/ Dirty air, it’s so unfair” that are still relevant today.Ellison’s living room walls are painted dark, and the space looks like a creative nerd’s paradise. There’s an internet-enabled arcade console that can host a ton of retro gaming system emulators; Afrofuturist art; a vintage rocking chair which he says reminds him of one that “Auntie used to have”— Auntie being McLeod’s sister, jazz and spiritual music legend Alice Coltrane—and other sundry oddities, from books on David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky to Aphex Twin merch and a replica Chucky doll.Ellison and McLeod’s rapport goes beyond grandmother and grandson; the pair share a palpable musical camaraderie. In between stories about McLeod’s career or Ellison’s precocious interest in music,
he noodles on his piano while she comments on his playing, as well as her own declining abilities. In 2011, McLeod suffered a stroke and she has since lived with some physical limitations. Throughout the interview, Ellison, whose sixth studio album, Flamagra, is out this week, goads her to touch the keys. It’s not evidence of any erstwhile brattiness but a glimpse at the devoted relationship they’ve built since he was a little boy, growing up in McLeod’s home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley with his mom Tammy. He toiled over a lot of music there, including his debut album, 1983. At one point, Ellison turns on some old family videos digitized from VHS cassettes in his studio. “They were having crazy parties before I was born,” he says. “Every home movie is just them dancing at the house.It seemed so cool.”At one point in the afternoon, Ellison pulls out his phone to play a recording of a song called “Lucky Baby,” which McLeod wrote only to play for him when he was a baby. It’s a fluttering pop-R&B track that renders the two beamingly nostalgic,
beamingly nostalgic, singing along to the lyrics and sharing family secrets. When it’s over, Ellison tries to get McLeod to play the piano again. He has pulled her right arm onto the keys. “Smack it,” he says. McLeod plays a few notes.“You gotta give me your powers now. You’ve had the powers way too long. Give them to me. Put them in my hands,” he says, half-joking, extending his hands to his grandmother. McLeod puts her hands in his. “You got it, baby.” Pitchfork: Steve, what do you remember about growing up in your grandmother’s house? Steve Ellison: She had synthesizers and drum machines: 808, 606, 303. She was always making music when I was a little kid. A couple times she would try to get me to sing on stuff but I was all shy and ran away. Marilyn McLeod: You always wanted to be in the mix when we were trying to make songs, though. Ellison: I always wanted to be around but I didn’t want to be on the songs—same as now. When I look back on that time, it totally makes sense. But it’s such a weird thing. When I tell people about that, they can’t believe you had drum machines at the house.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 McLeod: It was special to have those. Ellison: When I look back, I realize how it was so rare. Is there a moment you can pinpoint where you knew Steve was in love with music? McLeod: He was always right there. [To Steve]: You remember that video you showed me? Ellison: There’s a video of me trying to take a microphone, fighting with my little cousin over it, and then a Stevie Wonder song came on the radio and I just stopped everything and went over to the radio [in a trance]. Ms. Marilyn, how did you know you wanted to be a musician? McLeod: We had a house full of music because my sister made music. I just wanted to do what my sister did. I wanted to be like her because she was a really outstanding pianist. Ellison: How old were you when you started playing? McLeod: 10, maybe. Ellison: Were you reading music then? McLeod: I was trying to really do it and play the music. Now, I can’t. I’m mad about it. Ellison: I would be mad, too! She had a stroke and now her left side doesn’t work too well.
McLeod: It really hurts me emotionally. When I try and go to the piano and do something, it’s not there. But I gotta keep going. I get really angry about it because I want to do it. I’m a pianist. I still am. I try to do it sometimes and it’s not coming right, but I gotta get out of my head. I like that roll-up piano you gave me because I can play it in bed. When did you start playing piano, Steve? Ellison: A year ago. I’ve been messing with it for a long time but I’ve only been taking it seriously for a year. Reading music has opened up me up so much. I’ve been experimenting for so long and trying to make sense of things just from my ears. It takes forever. Now I can get where I want much quicker. YouTube has been really helpful. There are apps that teach you piano and ear training. When did you know that you were a songwriter and not just a musician? McLeod: I can’t even remember, I was so young. We lived close to Motown and I just started getting to know some of the people there. I met Berry Gordy, he was the man. Then I met Janey Bradford. Ellison: She became her writing partner. I think they were rivals, lowkey. But who was writing the keys and who was writing the words? McLeod: Both of us. And that’s what makes the whole tune. Ellison: What was it about her that made you want to work with her?
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 McLeod: I was good and she was good. Seriously. They wanted us to do things one way but we always tried it our way. Ellison: I remember you guys doing stuff at the house, but she wasn’t who you wrote your bigger songs with.
ally so reserved. Ellison: I was shy back then. I was just playing video games and being an introvert with my Ninja Turtles. When I got into music that was another way to be by myself.
McLeod: That was Pam Sawyer. Me and Pam really got it together. We were really stars. She and I just hit it off. It’s really hard to find another writer like that. We did a lot of songs and we had hit records. That was the best part of the whole thing. Ellison: How did you even get to work with Marvin Gaye? McLeod: I liked Marvin Gaye a lot. He liked me, too. Every time we would go in the studio, he’d be like, “You’re getting better.” It would make me really angry, play angry. What did you think the first time Steve played you his music? McLeod: I loved it! Ellison: Don’t lie. Remember when I was 16? That’s when I first started making beats. And you would be like, “Why does it sound like somebody kicking down garbage cans?” McLeod: But I was surprised and loved it when I found out he was making it. He’s always been that kind of person who is gonna try and he’s gonna get it done. His music is different. Everybody likes it. Everywhere we’d go together, everybody was talking about it. I was surprised that he was going that far. He was usuPhoto Credits By Pitchfork.com
Ellison: I always wanted to be around but I didn’t want to be on the songs—same as now. When I look back on that time, it totally makes sense. But it’s such a weird thing. When I tell people about that, they can’t believe you had drum machines at the house.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 21 YEARS AGO: SYSTEM OF A DOWN RELEASE SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM BY JON WIEDERHORN American / Columbia In 1997, when System of a Down signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, no one knew exactly what to make of them. Like Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine there were elements of metal, punk and funk on System of a Down’s self-titled debut, which came out June 30, 1998. But System of a Down were vocally zanier and their guitars were more frenzied and metallic. Plus, they lacked any real vestiges of hip-hop.Since they didn’t really fit in the nu-metal category, and couldn’t accurately be called funk rock, pundits scrambled for a category to slot them into and, without too much research, noticed that the members were all Armenian and had spoken before about their contempt for governments -- especially Turkey -- that still failed to recognize the Armenian Genocide in the early 1900s. Suddenly, magazine editors were including the band in features about ethnic-centric metal and wrote pieces specifically about the rise of the supposed Armenian metal community, areas System of a Down had little interest in being associated with.“We’re proud of our heritage and it’s definitely an influence that we don’t want to deny as far as our music and our standing and some of our thinking,” vocalist Serj Tankian
told me shortly after the album was released. “It’s just not specifically something that we’re trying to involve in our music, and say, ‘Look we’re Armenian!’ We don’t want to point to it all the time because I don’t think we need an excuse. I don’t think it’s cool to come out and say, ‘Okay, we’re an Armenian band so we’re going to try to capitalize on that.’ We just happen to be Armenian guys who know each other from the community and like to play music.”After the breakup of their earlier band, Soil, Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian formed System of a Down in 1994. At first they had trouble finding a drummer, but eventually anchored their rhythm section with John Dolmayan and developed a strong following in the Los Angeles community, which praised their quirky, bombastic sound. In 1997, System recorded a three-song demo that caught the attention of Maverick’s Guy Oseary and Rubin, among others. “ There were a number of labels looking at us when Rick and Guy both came and saw one of our shows at the Viper Room,” Tankian said.“We were actually going to sign with Universal at one point,” added Malakian. “But then we went into their offices and looked at the posters on the walls and what they were promoting and we realized they didn’t have any rock acts. And they didn’t have anything, anybody in there that even knew what to do with rock. It was pretty much a hip
hop/R&B culture that they were building there. As soon as we walked out of that meeting we said,‘You know, man, we should just go with Rick. He believes in us and he’s not following any trends. He’s just going with his instinct.’” In no time, System of a Down had signed their deal and booked time to record at Rubin’s legendary mansion. Loaded with enthusiasm and confidence, the young rockers burned through a set of skewed, metallic songs that, at first listen, sounded like a hybrid of Dead Kennedys and Slayer.“I was totally influenced by Slayer because I grew up a total metalhead,” Malakian said. “When I was four years old, I saw KISS and I was scared as hell, but I was way interested in them. The first record I got was Def Leppard’s Pyromania and from then on I was really into metal, and by the time I was, like, 11, 12 years old, it was Slayer, Metallica and a lot of Bay Area thrash.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 I liked Overkill and the German stuff like Destruction and Kreator. Then came death metal like Obituary and Morbid Angel -- all the Tampa bands. As I got older I was seeking the heavier stuff and when I turned 14, 15, it was just, like, as heavy, you know, and as uncomfortable as I could make it. But then I realized that there’s more to music than heaviness and when I was like 18, 19 years old, I really started listening to Bowie and the Beatles. I actually hadn’t listened to them in my younger years and I was fascinated by how these songwriters could make great, simple songs that were full of melody, but still a little weird. That really changed me and changed the way I looked at music.”“We have a powerful metal edge,” added Tankian. “But our music has a lot of dynamics that come from different genres. We’re into punk, death metal, metal, classic rock, jazz, gothic, hardcore, grindcore, Middle Eastern music, Armenian music, European music, poetry, funk. When we were kids, we started out listening to one type of music, but as we progressed we were all turned onto different genres. You can only listen to so much metal before you start hungering for more. We intentionally try not to stay in one genre. It’s definitely helped mold out sound into something more dynamic.”Dynamic is one way to describe the album System of a Down. Suite-Pee” is a galvanic blast as powerful as C4 at a demolition site; “Know,” a song about the Armenian Genocide, is more caustic and angry sounding; and “Spiders” is a frantic web of punk rock insanity. Then there’s “Sugar,”
Photo Credits By Kerrang.com
a spazzy, jazz-spattered noise rock freak-out and “Suggestions,” an atmospheric prelude, perhaps to the more melodic strains of their future single “Aerials.”“We had a lot of fun making the record with Rick and Dave [Sardy],” Tankian said. “It was surprisingly easy. I did the vocals in a tent at Rick’s mansion because the room there was not built as a studio. It’s a study kind of room with windows and cement. So we set up a tent in the middle of the room and put in antique furniture to get the right vibe.””The album cover art of an open hand was based on World War II anti-fascist poster by John Heartfield, a member of the Communist Party of Germany. The political commentary fueled critics pegged System of a Down as a political band with the potential to impact the youth as indelibly as Rage Against the Machine had. But calling SOAD a political band is kinda like calling ‘THem a metal group.“It’s part of what we are. But System of a Down is based on something more global,” Tankian said. “Injustice would be one of the main things we look at, but we also talk about sex, mind control, legalizing dope, war, genocide, alternative beliefs on the origins of man and things that are happening in front of our eyes involving the CIA and other groups that we don’t want to see. There are no rules. If we want to write a song about it, we’ll do it.”System of a Down was certified gold by the RIAA on February 2, 2000. Two years later, after the band’s mega-selling album Toxicity came out, it was certified platinum.
HOW MADLIB BECAME HIP-HOP’S CULT KING Warning: the surgeon general has determined that the sounds you’re about to hear could be devastating to your ear. Take a deep breath — inhale — and fill your lungs with Madlib. In nearly three decades, few have released as much music, of such quality, under so many different guises and styles as the DJ, rapper, and beatmaker extraordinaire born Otis Jackson Jr. His discography comprises more than (an estimated) 60 albums, and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. As his record tally rises again with the release of Bandana, Maadlib’s second album-length collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, here’s a rundown of why any new Madlib music has the hiphop world on tenterhooks.To understand Madlib, you must first understand what came before Madlib. Specifically, that means Madlib’s dad Otis Jackson Sr — the soul singer behind such ’70s hits as “Beggin’ For a Broken Heart” — and his mom Dora Sinesca Faddis-Jackson, who is credited with writing many of Otis Sr’s tunes. That musical heritage runs deep in Madlib’s music, with soul and funk providing samples for such records as Piñata (his first album with Gibbs) and Madvillainy, his almost untouchable collaboration with metal-faced rap enigma MF DOOM. Take Madvillainy’s gorgeous “Operation Lifesaver AKA Mint Test,” which incorporates the psychedelic funk guitar of George Duke’s 1975 track “Prepare Yourself.” Shimmering beneath those
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
grumbly raps, this unerring sample use is testament that Maaadlib — as DOOM puts it elsewhere on the album — has “got more soul than a sock with a hole.”Though he often leaves the bars to MCs like DOOM and Gibbs, Madlib — like fellow producers J Dilla and Kanye West — has tried his hand at rapping too. And — unlike Dilla and Kanye — he’s actually quite good, most notably when operating as his squeaky voiced alter ego Quasimoto. With his voice pitched up (supposedly due to insecurity), Lord Quas raps about anything from police discrimination to forgetting the limes for his Coronas. Albums like 2000’s The Unseen and 2013’s Yessir whatever are the most comprehensive exhibitions of Madlib’s lyrical side, but check his verses on Soundpieces: Da Antidote from 1999, the first and only album by Madlib’s OG rap group Lootpack. “Questions” and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 soundtrack cut “Whenimondamic” are two of many highlights.In case it’s not already clear, Madlib has always been more than a hiphop producer. Among his many pseudonyms (seriously check out his Discogs alternative aliases list) are Monk Hughes, Ahmad Miller, Joe McDurfey, and Malik Flowers, all of whom are members of Madlib’s jazz band Yesterday’s New Quintet and all of whom are widely believed to be fictitious creations, with Madlib playing every instrument in the group. YNQ album Angles Without Edges
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is probably the second-most surprising left-turn in Madlib’s oeuvre (stay tuned for number one), but his defining jazz work is the 2003 remix album Shades of Blue.Tasked with reworking the back catalog of seminal jazz label Blue Note, Madlib turned his turntablist attention to tunes by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ronnie Foster, whose “Mystic Brew” — as previously used in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” — provides the bassline for Madlib’s slinking “Mystic Bounce.” Shades of Blue was a milestone for Madlib and for hiphop, the mark of a producer using the studio as a musical instrument in ways first pioneered by dub reggae legends like Lee Scratch Perry. It’s not the only demonstration of Madlib’s dub credentials: there’s a bass-heavy undercurrent to many of his productions, like “Killin’ It,” his contribution to Tha Alkaholiks’ 1997 album Likwidation, and “Episode XXVII” from Medicine Show No. 5: History of the Loop Digga: 1990-2000. The connection is solidified on Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, a fantastically underrated Madlib mix from 2002, chosen from the archives of vital British reggae label Trojan Records.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 Expect tunes from dub legends The Upsetters, King Tubby, and Prince Far I among trademark Madlib production flourishes like vinyl crackle and plenty of public-service announcement-style vocals. Yet perhaps the most obvious alien in the Madlib universe is his foray into broken beat (aka BRUK), the short-lived syncopated house style that grew out of London in the late ’90s. 2004’s Theme for a Broken Soul is Madlib’s clubbiest record, comparable in sound to the early, post-garage folktronica of Four Tet or a few of rave pioneers 4hero’s more obscure side-projects. Despite that — and despite being credited to DJ Rels, another fictional creation whose “real name” is down in the liner notes as “J. Relmond” — it still sounds like Madlib, with every hop-scotching beat underscored by a squidgy, squirming bassline, the sort that could only ever be his work.That singular style — tapping into the sweetest few seconds of an obscure record, slicing it in among other samples and watching them sashay together — has earned Madlib a spot at hip-hop’s top table. Among his many collaborations to date are records with MED, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Georgia Ann Muldrow, and Kenya West, with whom Madlib produced 2016’s “No More Parties In LA.” The most telling collab of all is Champion Sound, a 2003 album produced in tandem with the late great J Dilla, and a meeting of minds bePhoto Credits By Redbull.com
tween two of hip-hop’s greatest ever producers.When Dilla died of the rare blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura in 2006, Madlib responded with two tribute albums, Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6 (or the Dil Withers and Dil Cosby suites). These blissful, psyched-out jams were not just Madlib mourning his friend; they were educated imaginings of the music Dilla might have made had he still been alive. They were also a striking reminder of two of the only producers capable of captivating, frontto-back instrumental hip-hop albums.Because for all Madlib may be, be it fictional jazz band leader, crate-digging reggae fan, high-pitched rapper or ravenous remixer, he is, first and foremost, a stone-cold producer of irresistible hip-hop beats. His magic touch has been cultivated through an appetite for all corners of music — and little else. According to popular belief, Madlib doesn’t have a mobile phone and doesn’t use the internet, spending his time instead by
making music and scouring through record stores (and presumably putting in a few hours with his family). His deployment of samples is unrivaled, splicing together trailers from 1940s films, live jazz recordings, and ’60s psych-rock all in the same record. The quote that started this article — the “surgeon general” warning — was used in History of the Loop Digga, sampled from the 1969 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, a warning against the dangers of tobacco.And he keeps getting better. Madlib’s last album with Freddie Gibbs, 2014’s Piñata, is his best record to date (don’t @ me). Well, at least until the dust settles on Bandana.
Words: Sam Davies
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 ALBUM REVIEWS
BY RICH WILHELM
gentle electronic percussion greet the listener, immediately calling to mind a quiet interlude on any one of Stevie Wonder’s classic 1970’s albums.
South Africa’s Seba Kaapstad have created a deep musical statement in Thina, in which music, lyrics, and performance interact in a way that will wash over you and leave you feeling musically and emotionally refreshed if you let it.Sometimes this world seems like an ugly, tacky place in which qualities like beauty and subtilty are easily cast aside in favor of noise and bombast. The members of Seba Kaapstad, a multinational band with roots in South Africa, Swaziland, and Germany offer an alternative on their luminous second album, Thina. Band members Ndumiso Manana, Zoe Modiga, Sebastian Schuster, and Philip Scheibel originally met in South Africa and released their debut album, Tagore’s in 2016. The spiritually uplifting Thina finds the band moving forward with a seamless fusion of jazz, soul, and electronic music. Some of the tracks, such as “Billionaire” and “Heckman” serve as brief, abstract pieces transitioning from one proper song to another. But all tracks on Thina, long or short, serve the same purpose: creating and sustaining a musical mood that is serene and reflective, while still being adventurous enough to allow for flights of both instrumental and vocal fancy.The album-opening title track establishes this mood. Initially wordless vocals and
Piano, percussion, and various electronics swirl through the mix as Zoe Modiga begins singing multilingual lyrics noting that she is “aware of the perils that will surely come” but finds strength in the knowledge that “there’s more guidance in the quiet places and the friendly faces”. The sound and feel of “Thina” are echoed in the next track, “Africa”, though this song adds a few rapped verses and an empowering set of lyrics directed at African citizens into the mix. The words touch obliquely on politics but mostly try to impart a sense of empathy and optimism for the continent and its people. The aspirational themes of Thina continue in the quietly anthemic “Don’t”, which is perhaps the most beautiful track on the album. “The world is such a game we play these days / Looking at it all I’m so amazed / Caught up in the fog; it’s such a haze / Want to keep the fire in me ablaze.”The questioning lyrics gradually lead to a sublime, mostly instrumental coda featuring the interplay of piano and violins.While optimism is the prevailing mood of Thina, the members of Seba Kaapstad understand how hard-won happiness can be. In “Dezaster”, vocalists Manana and Modiga contemplate the end
SEBA KAAPSTAD’S ‘THINA’ REVELS IN SUBTILTY
Photo Credits By sebakaapstad.bandcamp.com
of a relationship, or perhaps even the death of a loved one, noting “It’s a disaster / But my heart will heal.” As if to underscore that healing, “Dezaster” leads directly into “Playground”, the most buoyant track on Thina.”Playground” is, in turn, followed by “Welcome”, a message of advice and instruction for newborns, or for anybody who might be metaphorically returning to life after enduring a crisis. The album eventually closes, like a gently receding wave, with the appropriately titled “Bye”, in which the vocalists contemplate the possibility of pursuing a friendship that could have romantic implications. Thina sounds wonderful simply as background music, but there is more happening than just that. Seba Kaapstad have created a deep musical statement in Thina, in which music, lyrics, and performance interact in a way that will wash over you and leave you feeling musically and emotionally refreshed if you let it.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 ALBUM REVIEWS Noname-Room 25 by Briana Younger The Chicago rapper’s second album is a transcendent coming-of-age tale built around cosmic jazz and neo-soul, delivered by a woman deeply invested in her interiority and that of the world around her. If Noname’s 2016 debut Telefone was the musings of a young woman trying to write her way into a sense of place and self, then Room 25 is the blazing soliloquy that spills out after putting the pen down to live a life. Almost immediately, we’re met with one of the greatest lines of the year: “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/ My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.” It goes on, a modern coming-of-age tale, the now 27-year-old rapper examining her triumphs and shortcomings with sharp commentary. Acutely aware of her fallibility as both subject and narrator, she avoids falling into the trap of painting a blemish-free portrait of herself. And it’s this sincerity that allows her music to connect: cheap perfection may go down easy, but sitting with the truth is transcendent. Reared in Chicago’s poetry community, Fatimah Warner’s flows are less breakneck spitter and more delicate spoken word—soothing but imbued with purpose, soft but commanding. On Room 25, she enlists fellow Chicagoan and frequent collaborator Phoelix, whose resonant live production bathes Noname’s lyrics in a haze of cosmic jazz
and smooth neosoul. When she raps “Somebody hit D’Angelo/I think I need him for this one” on the vulnerable “Don’t Forget About Me,” it solidifies the connection between generations of organic, mindful, black music: Room 25 is the stylistic lovechild of Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun—genre-marrying albums as transformative for listeners as they were the artists that created them. With this record, Noname takes a metamorphic period in her life and shapes it into music. She details the courage of allowing a lover to trace the geography of her body and the heartbreak that followed; the gratification of realizing of a dream and the responsibilities that came with it. She is an enigma parading as an open book, and the details she chooses to divulge seem to hide as much as they reveal. But in the absence of oversharing, there is something universal in her work. She fashions herself an everywoman, and her words become scripture for simply moving through it. On the charged “Blaxploitation,” she takes the broken politics of the country to task in a flurry of multisyllabic rhymes. She opens her verse breathlessly: “Penny proud, penny petty, pissing off Betty the boop,” the consonants falling on top of each other. The production, a looping confection of funky drums and bass, is the kind of beat that is constructed for the sole purpose of showcasing
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how Noname can punish it into submission. Quotes from ’70s films Dolemite and The Spook Who Sat by the Door surround her on either side. Along with the more mellow “Prayer Song,” it is the most explicitly political moment on an album that is powered more by subtle observation than outright attacks. She seems to smile and wink through lines, sometimes belying the gravity of them. “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomniblack,” she suggests, her voice sounding like she just delivered the punchline of a joke that wasn’t really a joke. But Noname isn’t laying claim to any “woke” labels just yet. She can do the bravado thing with the best of them or take off her cool and catch an orgasm or two. Her multitudes give her depth—something real for us to latch on to. “Ace” is a good ol’ fashioned victory lap for a trio of Chicago rappers who, over the past few years, have seen their star power continue to grow; Smino’s soulful vocals on the hook bend the track towards R&B, while Noname and Saba snap back with verses celebrating their personal successes and that of other artists coming from their hometown.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 The sunny “Montego Bae” also stands out as one of only a few truly lighthearted moments on an album of humble prayers and solemn reflection. Chicago singer Ravyn Lenae’s voice flutters atop the keys, percussion, and low end, as she and Noname fantasize about a Caribbean fling. Evidence of Noname’s sexual awakening is on proud display here: “I know my nigga like me, I know he cook his curry spicy/I know he eat me like I’m wifey, you know my hotel over-pricey/So he gon’ fuck me like I’m Oprah.” Still, the sting of heartbreak lingers. Sometimes it comes out as fiery barbs (as on “Self”) and sometimes it’s more matter-of-fact. “I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway/I guess a bitch like to gamble, I guess a bitch like to lonely,” she confesses on the radiant “Window.”Through the
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existential dread of “Don’t Forget About Me,” she grapples with immortality and the feeling that some demons follow you no matter where you go: “Welcome to Beverly Hills/Welcome to Vicodin, I took the pills/I think they save lives.” What is pain is also affirmation—her best and only proof that we are not alone in the dark. And in the album’s final minutes, she finds some semblance of peace. She is reborn on the guitar and piano-laden track “no name,” clear-eyed and steady, exposing the things that make her unbreakable and reminding us that after a tumultuous year on the road and a personal transformation, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Noname doesn’t exist in contrast to other popular women rappers or to the narratives of violence that have plagued her
hometown. She’s not interested in exceptionalism, only in her interiority and that of the world around her. And Room 25 reconciles expectation with result, the choice of others versus self. It’s the kind of album you make when a new place and a fragile heart threatens to unravel you and when you inevitably cobble back together the pieces that, it turns out, were never lost. She relieves herself of the need to answer her own tough questions— about her career, her relationships, about who she is as a person—and allows herself a gentle acceptance. Room 25 is quarter-life crisis turned breakthrough, a balm through which Noname offers a taste of the simple sort of heaven that she’s still searching for herself.
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019 of timbres, with soft projection ALBUM REVIEWS Miles Davis The Complete Birth of the Cool by Nate Chinen A modern-jazz touchstone that opened the door to the sleek introspection and sophisticated aplomb of 1950s cool jazz gets an exquisite and essential vinyl reissue.“And right now, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you something new in modern music,” announces Symphony Sid Torin from the stage of the Royal Roost, a chicken shack turned bebop haunt on Broadway, near Times Square. “We bring you: Impressions in Modern Music, with the great Miles Davis and his wonderful new organization.”This introduction opens Side 3 of The Complete Birth of the Cool, a deluxe vinyl reissue of a modern-jazz touchstone that opened the door to sleek introspection and sophisticated aplomb and, fairly or not, was credited with the boom in 1950s cool jazz.Davis was only 22 at the time of the Royal Roost gig. Best known as the trumpeter who’d bravely succeeded Dizzy Gillespie in the Charlie Parker Quintet, he had been workshopping a less mercurial, more chamberlike strain of bop in collaboration with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans. Their experiments in form and mood, fleshed out in Evans’ New York basement apartment on 55th Street, expanded on ideas that had gestated in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra before the war. Thornhill’s signature was a delicate blend
and virtually no vibrato—a far cry from the regimental blare of a garden-variety big band. Evans, who arranged for the orchestra, famously described its effect: “The sound hung like a cloud.”The unorthodox nonet that Davis brought to the Royal Roost in 1948—featuring bebop confreres like Max Roach (drums) and John Lewis (piano) as well as forward-thinking Thornhill alums like Lee Konitz (alto saxophone) and Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone)—did in fact represent “something new in modern music.” But as Symphony Sid’s next utterance implies, the ensemble wasn’t yet known by a catchy album title. Studio sessions for The Birth of the Cool were still months away, initiated by a Capitol Records producer, Pete Rugolo, who was persuaded by the gig. Those sessions would yield a series of 78- rpm sides in ’49 and ’50. The iconic moniker wouldn’t be attached to the project until a compilation album in 1957, touted on the LP jacket as “the classic recordings” that “launched a jazz era.”Which is to say that The Complete Birth of the Cool is a repackaging of a repackaging, informed at every stage by a canny awareness of its own cachet. Seventy years since the studio recording of The Birth of the Cool, we’re equipped to understand that phrase as a signifier of aura and intention in Davis’ multifarious career. A documentary film by that name premiered at Sundance this year. It’s also the title of a new children’s book. To state the obvious, that earlier tag, Impressions in Modern Music, has a lot less mystique;
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The Birth of the Cool, timed to coincide with the rise of hi-fi systems and the word “cool” as a lifestyle, had a title intrinsic to its success.The music itself is rightly considered a landmark and in this new edition, mastered from the analog session reels for the first time since ’57, its exquisite intricacies assume an almost tactile form. I’ve been listening closely to The Birth of the Cool for about as long as I’ve been listening to jazz. Hearing the new reissue on my turntable was a revelation: not so much a matter of “warmth,” as vinyl proponents often put it, but rather a function of spatial clarity. The slithery inner voicings of Evans’ orchestration—on both a lissome swinger like “Boplicity” and the intriguing highlight “Moon Dreams”—sound present and alive in a way they hadn’t before. Some sly, murmuring touches from the tuba and French horn are clearer in the mix, without diverting from the coherence of the whole. The other arrangements, mainly by Lewis and Mulligan, shine nearly as bright; there’s a unifying style that makes each piece seem like a room in a house, with Davis’ trumpet serving as a guide. (For a present-day listener, the only truly jarring moment may be “Darn That Dream,” a vocal feature for Kenny Hagood that evokes the bandstand customs of the big-band era.)
Due to the limitations of the source material, there isn’t nearly as much improvement in the quality of the Royal Roost recordings, made on Sept. 4 and 18, 1948. (They first appeared in sanctioned form on a 1998 2-CD reissue, also titled The Complete Birth of the Cool.) So the primary selling point here is the superior sound of the studio material. The new set also features exemplary liner notes by Ashley Kahn, who connects all of the dots while preserving a big-picture narrative arc. Among the sources that Kahn quotes is the authoritative jazz critic Gary Giddins, who once wrote that The Birth of the Cool nonet went “straight from cult to classic,” at least among jazz cognoscenti. “Its musicians redesigned jazz in the ’50s,” Giddins goes on, “calming bop’s fevers, soothing its brow, bringing wreaths to its entombment.”Davis always expressed ambivalence on the subject of West Coast “cool jazz,” which made stars out of Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker and others. There was a racial dynamic at play in the popularity of the style, and Davis wasn’t one to let such matters slide. “Birth of the Cool came from black musical roots,” he asserts, maybe a touch defensively, in Miles: The Autobiography, first published in 1989. “It came from Duke Ellington. We were trying to sound like Claude Thornhill, but he had gotten his shit from Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.” At the same time, it’s worth noting how harmoniously the nonet functioned as an integrated unit. Davis heard complaints from black musicians about that, as he recalls Photo Credits By vice.com
Issue One /Volume One/Date:AUGUST 1ST 2019
in his book: “I just told them that if a guy could play as well as Lee Konitz I would hire him every time, and I wouldn’t give a damn if he was green with red breath.” (Listen to Konitz’s harmonically daring and hummingbird-quick alto saxophone solo on “Israel,” a John Carisi tune, and the remark will make perfect sense.)
In his notes, Kahn also consults with arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading authority on Evans, who elucidates the quantum leap of a track like “Boplicity,” in which “all the inner parts have strong melodies, much in the way you would write for strings, which brings out the strength, warmth, and color of the piece.” The Birth of the Cool not only opened the next lyrical phase in bebop’s evolution; it also foretold the expansive Davis-and-Evans collaboration realized on albums like Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960)—feats of synthesis between jazz and symphonic music, often hailed as emblematic triumphs for the classical-jazz hybrid known as Third Stream. Davis himself regarded them as high-water marks in his recorded career. And yet it would be an error to categorize The Birth of the Cool as a document of transition. The “birth” in the title may have been a marketing flourish, but this music did signal a new set of possibilities for modern jazz, while establishing Davis as a savvy bandleader and a leading trumpeter. The unhurried calm in his phrasing as he improvises on “Move,” the brisk opener, could be seen as a statement of intent. Even in the most boppish of cir-
cumstances, with Max Roach swinging fast behind him, Miles is going to set his own terms: unharried, unhurried, and yes, fundamentally cool. Whatever this album prefigured in his career, and in the modern-jazz discourse, it should take a backseat to an experience of the music. As this new reissue only helps clarify, The Birth of the Cool stands very much on its own—not as a counterargument or a checkpoint, but a singular achievement unto itself.