Monday, March 30, 2009

Final Four Finances

Big time sporting events are fun and everybody likes going to state-of-the-art venues where you can sit in row 1400 Triple-A and still see the action due to “great sight-lines,” but the idea that these events can “save” a city that has been a textbook example of urban decay for close to three decades is more ludicrous than Chris Bridges. Every time a sports commentator takes a break from talking endlessly about how great a human being Jim Calhoun is or that Tyler Hansborough deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor for returning to UNC for his senior season to comment on how the city of Detroit “needs” this event, we are all reminded of how truly one dimensional most of these guys are and that they should keep their mouth’s shut about everything not involving free-throw percentages and zone defenses.  

Anybody that follows the news at all knows Detroit is in trouble, the “Big Three” automakers are all on the ropes and have been decreasing their work forces for the last 20 years, unemployment is the highest in the country, violent crime is dangerously pervasive,the last mayor is in prison, the schools are in shambles and there are so many failed businesses that entire office buildings are left vacant and filled with homeless people.  A few years ago somebody looked at this melting pot of bad circumstances and decided this could all be remedied by building a massive hotel/casino complex and an obscenely expensive football stadium that has so far housed a winless football team, an Encore-era Eminem show and this debacle of a basketball tournament.  If I was jobless or living check-to-check in Michigan and I was told my taxes were increasing to put an astroturf field in a building I will never have enough money to enter I would probably rebel against my state government...if I wasn’t too busy watching American Idol, picking out ringtones and eating pizza with cheese-filled crust (sports are not the only opiate of the masses!).  But, now that these monstrosities are there and they need something in them because Kid Rock and Slim Shady are not currently on tour, they are claiming the Final Four and Michigan State are going to revitalize the city, let’s take a look at what’s wrong with this train of thought:

1. The downtrodden people of Detroit that are either unemployed or under-employed do not have the means to attend the event.  Tickets for the National Championship game are at least a grand and I somehow find it hard to believe that these sad-sack, unemployed, mid-westerners have that kind of money laying around (even under President Obama’s “Hope & Change” policies).

2. The people that do attend the event will be wealthy visitors that will spend all of their time and money in the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino/Restaurant complex and will not even think about shopping/eating/staying at local businesses or the cliched “Pumping Money Into The Economy.” I don’t want to sound cynical, but I’m not sure how shooting craps at a casino controlled by a multinational corporation with no vested interest in rehabilitating the economy of Detroit is going to “stimulate the economy” at all. 

3. On Tuesday morning all of the rich college basketball fans will run to their homes like roaches with the lights on and never, ever go back to Detroit unless there is another Super Bowl, Final Four or big Jimmy Buffet concert held in the city.

4. The businesses that will benefit most from this ordeal are large corporations that do not even employ many Detroit natives (Airlines, The NCAA, CBS, National Sponsors, MGM and chain restaurants). 

5. Even if Michigan State can defy the odds and win the National Championship, very few real MSU fans will be able to get tickets because of the astronomical cost of scalped tickets, lottery nature of being awarded face-value tickets and the overwhelming majority of tickets being reserved for corporate sponsors, alumni associations and other “people with connections.”  This is a particularly poorly thought out part of the plan: let’s fill every bar, restaurant and house party with angry fans that can not get tickets, have not been meaningfully employed in years and are probably living in trailer parks (word to “8 Mile”) and then fill them full of beer and Long Island Iced Tea’s and see what develops, this should be good for everybody.

While the people of Detroit are clearly in trouble, I can’t say I feel that bad for them.  The collapse of the “Big Three” has been imminent since the 1980’s when Europe and Japan either actually began producing superior vehicles or did such a phenomenal job marketing that the overwhelming majority of Americans believed their vehicles were safer, cheaper, more fuel efficient and lasted longer.  This problem (producing a product that most people considered overpriced and of inferior value) was compounded by unions that would not allow employees to accept wages that would allow the cars to be produced and sold at profit margins similar to their foreign counterparts and questionable financial decisions by upper level management that made the current situation all but inevitable.  If you know you are working in a dying industry, a poorly run company or see everyone around you affected by the downturn in the economy and you don’t do anything to improve your situation (night school, new skill acquisition, outside investments, etc) you simply do not deserve to be bailed out (either by Obama or the Final Four).  I don’t want sound like I’m full of myself, but in the last year I’ve completed an MBA, began writing a column on, started moonlighting in broadcasting, expanded my adjunct teaching schedule, acquired a girlfriend without the help of the internet and learned how to cut my own hair.  If you are struggling because you chose to be a fat f**k that gets loaded on Miller High Life and watch Sports Center 3 times a day I don’t feel bad for you!  Nobody told you not to “Git up, Git out, and Git Something” like OutKast. 

Also, building large-scale spectator sports arenas does not automatically halt the decline seen in many urban areas.  I live in New Jersey and have witnessed the building of the Camden Aquarium and the Prudential Center in downtown Newark and I can honestly say that neither has had a significant impact yet.  Camden routinely finds itself in the top cities for violent crimes and homicide for the entire US because of a complex matrix of causes (lack of jobs, poor schools, prevalence of single parent homes, abundance of liquor and gun stores and a thriving drug trade to name a few), none of which were solved when the residents got the ability to look at porpoises and manatees for the low price of $19.95 for an all day pass.  In the same vein, downtown Newark has been in steady decline since the 1970’s and bringing the Ice-Capades, Harlem Globetrotters and the occasional circus to town is not seeming to revitalize the area. While I hold out hope that these areas will return to the greatness they once knew it remains to be seen if building these structures will be the catalyst for full-scale renewal.   

Further, the people of Detroit (Eminem, Kid Rock, Obie Trice, Royce 5’9” and Axel Foley excluded) seem to be some of the worst sports fans our country has to offer outside of Philadelphia.  They elected a mayor that is now in serving prison time, they reacted to the Pistons winning the 2004 NBA title by rioting, flipping and burning several cars (great way to save the American auto industry!) and then attempting to fight Ron Artest and the Indiana Pacers at the start of the next season, continue to support a football team that is so helpless that they seem break new records for futility every year and celebrate by abusing an octopus every time the Red Wings win a game (where is Peta for this?).   I’m sure there are a lot of good people in the “D” and there are probably a lot of civilized sports fans that will celebrate like gentlemen if the Spartans win the title, however, history tells us different.  

Because I know many people attending this year’s festivities, I wish them the best and hope everybody has a fun and safe time watching the Tar Heels win the national title (no disrespect to my NC State people or Big East fans, but I like “Psycho-T” and if they win Nike will do some sick commemorative editions that I will hopefully have available on Ebay as part of my previously mentioned efforts to “Git Something”).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Album Review: Ghost Deini The Great

When Def Jam released Ghostface Killah’s “Ghost Deini The Great” last holiday season I was reasonably sure it was going to be another ill-conceived (“More Fish” 2006) or poorly marketed (“The Big Doe Rehab” 2007) project put out by the brain trust at the label to cash-in on Ghost’s core following without spending much on promotion before the end of the year.  I did not rush to buy the album when it was released in December 2008 because I already had many of the tracks in my collection and I was busy with the holidays, but I recently purchased the album for a very low price at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square (I guess this is the silver lining in the biggest single example of the music industry inadequately dealing with the advent of digital music, the closing of  Virgin Megastores nationwide is surely the death nell for purchasing music as a physical product , but at least I got a good buy on a pretty solid collection from Tony Stark). 

“Ghost Deini The Great” is cross between a Greatest Hits Album for casual fans and a Rarities/B-Sides Collection for Ghost-fanatics that may not have been able to track down all of these remixes and alternate versions.  The album is a sold introduction to GFK’s best work and focuses mainly on his more recent material like the crossover “Fishscale” from 2006 and 2007’s criminally slept-on “The Big Doe Rehab.”  While it’s cool to include these selections, which highlight Ghost on diverse tracks provided by producers ranging from Pete Rock (“Be Easy”) to MF Doom (“9 Milli Bros.”), the collection would have benefited from the inclusion of earlier material like “Daytona 500” and “Motherless Child” that really established Ghostface Killah as a solo artist.  Also, because this is a Def Jam project it only includes stuff from Ghost’s solo catalog that was recorded for the label, while this provides a wide array of material to chose from it excludes his classic appearances on “36 Chambers: Enter The Wu-Tang,” “Wu-Tang Forever” and Raekwon’s classic “Only Built For Cuban Linx...” these vintage verses are missed to an extent, but it does not really take away from the overall dopeness of this package.  

The album includes the ’96 classic “All That I Got Is You” (if you think Kanye started “Emo Rap” listen to this and realize it dropped 8 years before “The College Dropout”) and then skips most of the late 90’s to include cuts from 2000’s “Supreme Clientele” like “Mighty Healthy,” “Apollo Kids” and “Chez Chez La Ghost” which all sound incredibly fresh nearly a decade after their release.  2001’s “Bullet Proof Wallets” is completely ignored and 2004’s “The Pretty Toney Album” is represented by the remixed version of “Run” featuring Jadakiss, Lil’ Wayne, Raekwon and Freeway.  This is a rare occasion where a remix actually lives up to the hype created by the list of guest MC’s, Jada and Freeway sound hungry, Rae and Ghost are typically impressive and Wayne more than holds his own with New York’s heavyweights (remember, this was 2004 and Weezy was still trying to prove he was more than a typical “Southern Rapper”).  

More recent selections like the Wu-Tang reunion “9 Milli Bros.”, the Ice-Cube assisted “Be Easy” remix and the radio friendly “Back Like That” featuring Kanye West & Ne-Yo are all hot songs, but simply feel too new to be included in a career retrospective.  The album also includes a few rarities (does this concept even exist in the age of iTunes, Youtube and Limewire?) like “Slept On Tony” from the Iron-Man movie and a remix of “Kilo” featuring Malice from The Clipse that fans of Wu-Tang and Re-Up Gang will appreciate.  

The package also includes a DVD of Ghost on tour with a live band that is not bad, but not particularly interesting and will only be watched more than once by the most adamant fans, but as a free bonus it’s not bad to throw in the DVD player when there is nothing better on TV.  

Overall, “Ghost Deini The Great” is a good introductory course for fans of Ghost that may have jumped on the bandwagon with “Back Like That” and want to learn more about the MC and a solid refresher for those that may have forgotten how long and prosperous his career has been (the only other rappers from ’96 with this kind of relevancy today are arguably Nas and Jay-Z).  The thing that is most impressive while listening to this collection is that it’s nearly impossible to tell what year these songs were recorded because Pretty Toney never resorted to using fads, trendy slang or collaborating with flash-in-the-pan artists.  This kind of consistency is rare in Hip-Hop and the fact that this man has remained relevant for the better part of two decades without using Autotune, making up a silly dance, beefing with other rappers, collaborating with the R&B chick of the minute or getting tracks from “so-hot-right-now” producers like Scott Storch, Cool & Dre or Ron Browz is really a testament to his talent as an MC, his understanding of his fan base and his ability to tell his story regardless of what is happening in the rest of the Hip-Hop world.  I don’t want to throw darts, but I will be very surprised if ten years from now I am reviewing a similar album by Soldier Boy, Rick Ross or Young Jeezy...just sayin’. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's "Gigli" that bad

Every time I see a movie that is absolutely terrible I am somewhat confused as to how it came to be.  Movie studios, which are presumably profitable enterprises, spend hundreds of millions of dollars producing and marketing films and at the end of the movie there is a list of hundreds of names of people that contributed to the production , and somehow nobody in this massive network of gaffers, best boy grips and associate producers realized this movie s**ked?  I do not understand how a human being can spend the better part of a year on a project and not realize it is going horribly wrong and the finished product will be a disaster of epic proportions. “Gigli” falls into this category, when it was released in 2003, it was universally panned by critics, ignored by audiences, ridiculed by talk show hosts and lead to the eventual dissolution of “Bennifer.” However, all of those factors were not enough to scare me away, I wanted to see this type of large scale failure for myself (I’m kind of a hater, I also cheered wildly when the Detroit Lions went 0-16 last year) and judge if this movie was really as bad as I had been told.  

The main components of “Gigli” include: an organized crime figure learning a new word everyday from the dictionary, a Baywatch-obsessed mentally challenged man with a strange fetish for Australian accents, Ben Affleck acting like more of a buffoon than usual, Jennifer Lopez portraying a lesbian gun moll, an uncredited appearance by Al Pacino (he was probably embarrassed to have his name on this mess), the removal of a thumb from a human cadaver with plastic cutlery, an old woman receiving a shot of insulin in her bare buttocks and a lesbian slitting her wrists due to relationship issues...sounds like a winner right?  I am not sure how none of the parties involved realized how bad this was going to turn out because I would have figured it out after reading the paragraph above.  

The utter absurdness of this movie is hard to grasp without seeing it  for yourself, I had heard for years that it was one of the worst movies ever made, but I found it somewhat hard to believe. Both of the lead actors have decidedly mixed track records, Jennifer Lopez has made near-classics like “Out of Sight” and “The Cell” and really bad, formulaic movies made to cash in on her fame like “Maid in Manhattan” and “Enough.” Similarly, Ben Affleck has done quality work in “Good Will Hunting” and “Daredevil” but also made nonsense like “Reindeer Games” and “Armageddon.” Keeping this in mind I wanted to give “Gigli” a chance because I figured both actors are pretty good when they are at their best and there would probably be some on-screen chemistry considering they were a couple during the filming of the movie...WRONG! The acting is terrible, Lopez seems uptight and completely unconvincing as a lesbian contract killer and Affleck appears to be mocking stereotypical gangster speech patterns and accents until he completely breaks character and tells Lopez to respect his hustle in a Hip-Hop slang infused tirade that can best be described as Tony Danza reading the lyrics to an Ice-T album. 

The premise of the movie is that a mobster needs to prevent a federal prosecutor from putting his boss in prison, so he does the only sensible thing by hiring Lopez and Affleck  to kidnap his mentally challenged brother (this is already a classic based on premise alone). While holding the man hostage it becomes clear that he is obsessed with Baywatch and has a disturbing fetish for the Australian woman that works at a weather hotline, while I am not disputing that mentally handicapped people have sexual urges, I am disputing the idea that there is room for this kind of disturbing imagery in a big-budget hollywood movie starring two of the most famous people in the world. Also, while Ben and Jen’s career’s got back on track after this foolishness, they guy that played the kidnapped brother was basically kicked out of Hollywood for portraying slow adults in such a demeaning manner.    As they hold him hostage Ben Affleck becomes attracted to Lopez (big surprise!) and when he makes advances toward her, instead of politely turning him down so they can continue with their mission she launches into an asinine soliloquy about the desirability of the vagina compared to the penis.  I’m sure that whoever wrote this script thought this would be the hottest speech ever committed to celluloid, but the words are so stupid and the delivery is so stiff that it is hard to watch it with a straight face, much less be turned on.  

Eventually, Affleck and Lopez sleep together (either she was never 100% sure about being a homosexual or she couldn’t resist Affleck’s “extra on The Sopranos” charm, it’s never fully explained) and the love scene is arguably the worst I’ve ever seen.  I can’t understand how two international sex symbols with a professionally written script and the best make-up, lighting and camera work that money can buy could make a scene this insipid.  Honestly, celebrities make better sex tapes than this with camera-phones in dimly light hotel rooms...or so I’ve heard.

The movie finishes with Al Pacino coming out of nowhere to kill the guy that orchestrated this whole ordeal, Lopez and Affleck riding happily into the sunset and the mentally challenged man dancing with an Australian woman on the set of something that resembles “MTV’s Spring Break.” 

While “Gigli” is terrible, unintentionally funny, about as sexy as Artie Lange playing XBOX in boxers & dress socks and has no redeeming qualities I am not prepared to name it the worst movie I’ve ever seen. The first “Hulk” movie, 90% of all romantic comedies and pretty much all straight-to-DVD horror movies are worse than this and I have not seen other notoriously bad movies like “Battlefield Earth” or “Ishtar” to make comparisons, but “Gigli” is incredibly bad and I would not recommend using the DVD for anything other than a drink coaster.   

Friday, March 20, 2009

Top 10 One Album Wonders

In a 2005 Rolling Stone feature Chris Rock was asked to list his Top 100 Hip-Hop albums, and when commenting on The Pharcyde’s “Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde” he stated that Hip-Hop is the only genre of music with “One Album Wonders” (Meaning artists that produce one great album with a string of successful singles that greatly impacts the entire Hip-Hop landscape and just when they seem poised to establish themselves as “the next big thing” they vanish from our collective consciousness as quickly as they appeared in “Unsigned Hype”).  While I disagree that The Pharcyde falls into this category because their second album “Labcabincalifornia” produced the hits “Runnin’” (eventually featured on HBO’s Entourage) and “Drop” (whose video cemented Spike Jonze as one of the premier video directors of the 90’s) and sold respectably despite being released at the height of the East-West feud, Hip-Hop has produced it’s fair share of “One Album Wonders.”  

There are several reasons why groups/mc’s are doomed to “One Album Wonder” status, some stop working with the producers that made them hot and can’t seem to get their groove back (most Wu-Tang members, Snoop, Craig Mack), some focus on outside interests more than music (Foxxy & Kim), some are victims of timing as the game changes radically as soon as they are ready to release a follow-up (Black Sheep, Jeru) and some just lose their damn mind (Lauren Hill).  The following list of Top Ten “One Album Wonders” are artists that released well received debut albums that spawned several singles and seemed poised to make noise for the foreseeable future, but for whatever reason couldn’t deliver on the promise displayed on their breakthrough LP’s.  There are no “One Hit Wonders” here, Paperboy, Rob Base and Skee-Lo don’t qualify and artists that died after their debut album (Big Pun or Big L) or artists that faced career ending tragedies, either physical (The D.O.C.) or legal (Slick Rick) are also excluded.  This is a list of 10 artists that put out bangin’ debut albums and could not parlay that into an extensive musical legacy without extenuating circumstances (death, loss of voice, deportation, etc) preventing them from doing so.  

The following artists may have ultimately disappointed us by not fulfilling the promise they showed on their celebrated debuts, but the impact they had on the culture and the quality of music they put out was undeniable, even if they left us all hungry for more.

TEN: Any Wu-Tang Member except Ghostface Killah (94-97)

Tical,” “Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version,” “Only Built For Cuban Linx...” and “Liquid Swords” are classics.  “Tical 2: Judgement Day,” “N***a Please,” “Immobilarity” and “Beneath The Surface” are forgettable at best any any other albums by Wu-Tang’s “Varsity Team” are barely listenable.  There are two main reasons for this drastic drop in quality for post-”Wu-Tang Forever” solo releases. The first is that as the Wu-dynasty increased in size and scope Rza’s production became increasingly scarce on follow-up albums because he was so busy scoring movies, putting out JV projects like Suns of Man and Killarmy and releasing solo material, which left the bulk of the production on these albums to Rza-esque producers like Carlos “6 July” Broady and Tru-Master that were not quite ready for the big leagues.  Secondly, most people (myself included) have a maximum capacity of how much music we are capable of liking from one artist, I personally estimate this capacity at 100 songs (one of the reasons rock groups stay relevant so much longer than Hip-Hop acts is that they do not inundate fans with a steady stream of mixtapes, downloads, guest appearances and freestyles so the fan does not grow tired of say Metallica or The Rolling Stones nearly as quickly as they become bored with The Lox or Fabolous.  This is why the release of every U2 album is a major event for fans, but a new album by Jadakiss is somewhat anti-climactic because his fans have been listening to dozens, if not hundreds, of leaked tracks, diss songs, collaborations and songs that won’t make the album because of sample clearance issues for months before the physical album is available for purchase.)  While most groups with longevity spread this 100-song limit over most of a decade Wu-Tang released well over this number between 1993 and 1997 and by the time the double-album opus “Wu Tang Forever” ran it’s course, most fans were so exasperated from kung-fu references, wearing Wu-Wear and hollering “SUUU!” that they simply had nothing left for later albums by these talented MC’s. 

*NOTE: This does not apply to Ghostface Killah, he has released a string of quality albums without much assistance from RZA or other Wu members and has developed into by far the most consistent Clansman.  ANYBODY that claims they called “the kid with the ski mask” being the most relevant member 15 years after Wu-Tang’s monumental debut album is a LIAR!  Nobody, not even me, could have predicted this.

NINE: Capone-N-Noreaga (1997)

In the aftermath of the 2pac and B.I.G. murders and the glossy, sample-heavy dominance of Puffy in the summer of ’97 these two thugs from Queensbridge wanted to remind the world that New York didn’t go soft and not everybody was rocking shiny suits and guzzling champagne.  Their debut album, “The War Report,” featured production from NY’s legendary Marly Marl (a master of aggressive music responsible for the late 80’s Juice Crew and LL Cool J’s return to relevance “Mama Said Knock You Out”) and was an unflinching look into the mind of young New Yorkers ready to take the crown from their more established and polished peers.  Anthems like “T.O.N.Y.”, “Bloody Money” and “LA, LA” (a response to Tha Dogg Pound’s “NY, NY”) stirred up the thug in everybody like nothing since Mobb Deep’s “Shook One’s Pt. II.”  And while this record would eventually be named as one of the factors that prolonged the East/West rivalry, the dopeness of this incredibly aggressive and confrontational debut can not be overlooked.  

Following “The War Report” Capone was incarcerated for much of the late 90’s and NORE (no doubt a name change spurred by a desire to crossover to new audiences) established himself as a solo artist that introduced the world to production giants The Neptunes with his hit “Super Thug.” The group reunited in 2000, for the imaginatively titled “The Reunion” but except for one searing DJ Premier cut, it was clear this group’s time had passed.  In the 2000’s Capone has released several solo albums to minimal success and NORE has abandoned his thug tendencies to become “a fat, drunk, half-Puerto Rican reggaetone dancer” according to one Atlanta Fatburger patron.  Seriously, NORE has released a few quality singles this decade(“Nothin’” and “Oye Mi Canto”), but his “verses” have basically devolved into hundreds of “What What’s” and a few barely coherent threats, which most fans viewed as a far cry from the guy that murdered the classic Marly Marl beats on his debut album.

A new CNN album is slated to release in spring 2009, but it is doubtful that this will capture the magic that was “The War Report.”  

EIGHT: Craig Mack (1994)

In the wake of the release of the “Notorious” movie it is hard to believe that when Bad Boy Records debuted in 1994, Biggie was not the only star on the label.  The first smash single from Sean “Puffy” Combs’ upstart company was an undeniably funky and futuristic banger called “Flava in Your Ear” that was the soundtrack to the summer of ’94 for most of the Northeast.  After Craig Mack got everybody talking about this new company, he proceeded to drop the stellar “Project: Funk Da World” and really start the Bad Boy revolution that would continue with the release of B.I.G.’s massive single “Juicy” and classic album “Ready to Die.”  While “Project: Funk Da World” is often overshadowed by Biggie’s debut it should be remembered that the album spawned the club-rocking single “Get Down” and mixshow favorites “Makin’ Moves with Puff” and “When God Comes” in addition to the remix of “Flava In Your Ear,” containing the  classic verse from B.I.G. that made even non-believers admit he was worthy of being crowned “King of NY,” an appearance by LL Cool J that had Hip-Hop heads hyped for his upcoming “Mr. Smith” project after a disappointing album and laying low for a few years and introduced Busta Rhymes as a solo artist and Rampage the Last Boy Scout as the first member of his Flipmode Squad, signaling to fans that Leader Of The New School were truly over and Busta Rhymes the solo artist and Flipmode Squad were the future.  While I have always refuted Bad Boy’s claims to have “Invented the Remix” this song did popularize the format of putting 5 sick MC’s on the hottest beat of the moment in an effort to prolong the shelf-life of the single and promote the guest stars, a format that would eventually be used to death in Hip-Hop. 

Following the release of his debut album on Bad Boy, Craig Mack left the label and basically disappeared for most of the late 90’s.  He has appeared sparingly on various remixes (“Special Delivery”) over the last decade but has not attained any where near the cultural icon status of his Notorious label mate.   

While Biggie proved to be the much bigger star and have a huge impact on music even now, over a decade after his untimely death, it’s hard to argue that the Bad Boy movement was not bolstered by the success and quality of Craig Mack’s “Project: Funk Da World.”

Seven: Jeru The Damaja (1994)

In the heyday of the West Coast’s G-Funk Era and the rise of Puffy’s Bad Boy empire, one man from East New York stood as a voice of reason and Hip-Hop’s conscience in the the midst of mass marketed “gangsta rap,” rampant commercialism and the near eradication of the socially conscious Hip-Hop of the late 80’s.  Jeru’s debut single “Come Clean” in the summer of 1993 stood in stark contrast to the slickly produced “gangsta rap’” and R&B influenced club hits dominating radio and MTV. The beat, provided by a then-in-his-prime DJ Premier was murky and strangely reminiscent of a leaky faucet, the lyrics were straightforward and mocked the outlandish super-thug persona adopted by many MC’s of the era and there was no noticeable sample or R&B-like chorus to spur radio play. “Come Clean” eventually became the anthem for Thinking-Man’s Hip-Hop and the song still excites crowds at underground/experimental Hip-Hop venues because of the  obvious link between the aesthetics of the record and the current “Back Pack Rap” scene.

 The album that followed, “The Sun Rises in the East” (released in the spring of ’94) more than lived up to expectations.  The album was entirely produced by DJ Premier and spawned such classics as “Mental Stamina,” “Da Bi****z” and “D. Original” in addition to “You Can’t Stop The Prophet” a parable where Jeru embodies everything that is right battling everything that is wrong in the world, songs this ambitious are rare to say the least.  

Jeru’s debut was somewhat lost in the myriad of classic albums released in 1994, but he did make a decent impact and earned legions of hardcore followers. His 1996 follow-up (“The Wrath of the Math”) was somewhat lackluster because it had minimal input from DJ Premier and the new producers were not able to provide sufficient backdrops to Jeru’s witty, intellectual lyrics.  Also, by 1996 the “Gangsta Rap” and commercialism that the MC railed against on his debut had become widely accepted parts of Hip-Hop (hell, even Nas cashed in with “It Was Written”) and most fans were to busy buying Versace and poppin’ bottles to be bothered with the rapper’s critique of the culture. 

Jeru The Damaja continues to put out independently distributed music and tour but has not become the cultural force many predicted during the release of his debut album.  

SIX: Das EFX (1992)

Das EFX hit the Hip-Hop scene like a friggety-freight train in the spring of ’92.  Their debut single “They Want EFX” introduced the world to their “Diggity” rhyme style that combined raggae toasting, sublime pop culture references and straight up spitting in a cohesive package that simply blew people away.  Backed by EPMD’s high-octane Hit Squad (EPMD, Das, K-Solo and Redman) the duo went on to release the classic “Dead Serious,” which clocked in at under an hour and had only 10 songs, but all 10  are considered classics and were played on radio and mixshows throughout the summer of ’92 (you have to look to artists like Dr. Dre or Kanye West to see this kind of slugging percentage).

EPMD broke up at the end of 1992 and sadly, Das seemed to have picked the wrong side of the beef.  Erick Sermon went on to have phenomenal solo success as both a performer and producer in addition for producing a string of hit albums for Redman that helped the Funk Doc become an icon while Parish Smith languished as a solo artist and was unable to sustain interest in K-Solo and Das EFX. The combination of weak production (without Sermon’s influence) and the prevalence of stiggity-stuttering by biting MC’s made fans not want EFX quite as much as they did during the summer of ’92.  Das released the disappointing “Straight Up Sewaside” in 1993 and then made a bit of a comeback with 1995’s “Hold It Down” featuring production from DJ Premier and cameos from Mobb Deep and KRS-ONE, but never regained the momentum of “Dead Serious.”     

FIVE: Black Sheep (1991)

During the same summer that De La Soul dropped “De La Soul is Dead” and A Tribe Called Quest released “The Low End Theory” the artistic renaissance of the Native Tongue era was further established by Black Sheep’s “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.”  The album showcased the duo’s trademark sense of humor on tracks like “U Mean I’m Not...,” and “Strobelite Honey” ( a track anybody’s whose ever hollered at a girl in a dimly lit club can relate to), playful sexuality (“Similac Child”), critiques on the fickleness of Hip-Hop heads (“Flavor of the Month”) and the monster single “The Choice is Yours,” a song that still ignites dance floors with Dres’ “Engine, Engine number 9 / On the New York transit line.” The album was so complete and well-rounded that it appealed to fans far beyond the Native Tongue’s traditional fan base, the dark humor, overtly sexual subject matter and presence of true club bangers made this album a classic in various circles and the record had such a prolonged shelf life that they were still releasing singles from the project well into the fall of 1992, a full year after it’s release.

Black Sheep attempted to duplicate the success of “A Wolf...” with 1994’s “Nonfiction” however by this time Hip-Hop had taken on a distinctively harder persona and the playful wordplay and humor associated with the group were no longer in vogue.  The group has  released a few independent albums over the last decade and a half and occasionally performs “The Choice is Yours” at Old School shows but did not become the force to be reckoned with many expected in the early 90’s. 

FOUR: The Game (2005)  

The Game’s 2005 debut, “The Documentary,” featured an all-star team of producers and guest MC’s including Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Just Blaze, Timbaland, Faith Evans and Mobb Deep’s Havoc and somehow this new kid from Compton stood out amongst this three ring circus to shine as the undeniable star of this massive collaboration of the hottest names in the industry during the early 2000’s.  The Game was every Hip-Hop head’s dream artist: he could  out-rap your favorite rapper, he could tell stories and be emotional in his rhymes, he had access to the best beats, he had the best song writer of the era helping make his cipher-killing lyrics palpable to a mainstream audience and he had the marketing muscle of the biggest label in the game pushing him into the national consciousness.  “The Documentary” appealed to everybody from underground heads hungry for lyrics to commercial radio and video outlets because of it’s ability to combine Game’s intricate lyrics with 50’s ear for crossover hits and beats from the hottest producers of the decade. 

The album became an instant classic when it was released and spawned hits like “Hate It or Love It,” “Dreams,” “How We Do,” “Westside Story” and “Put You on The Game” in addition to the multiple album cuts that are widely considered classics in most circles.  The “name dropping” that was later ridiculed was refreshing at the time and showed fans that he was a true Hip-Hop head with a real sense of history for the culture, this was in stark contrast to the trend of “Trappers” and “Hustlers” that were only rapping as a means to “get paper” and seemed to hold rappers that focused on lyrics and expression in contempt. 

Sadly, The Game’s career was over almost before it started,  during the release of “The Documentary” he had a public falling out with 50 Cent stemming from his remarks about some of 50’s sworn enemies and the questionable decision by Interscope to release Game’s debut mere weeks before the 50’s sophomore LP “The Massacre.”  The rest of 2005 was confusing for fans as he was kicked out of G-Unit, back in G-Unit and then finally excommunicated from the entire Shady/Aftermath camp.  While it is unclear exactly what happened to cause this rift it was abundantly clear that Dr. Dre, Eminem and Interscope president Jimmy Iovine were siding with the biggest cash cow on their label and would gladly cast off an upstart rapper with questionable commercial appeal in order to preserve a relationship with the man that sold 10 Million copies of his debut album.  

The year’s following “The Documentary” were filled with beef (Memphis Bleek, Joe Budden, too many other mc’s to name, his family and possibly Jay-Z), reconciliations (Budden and possibly Jay-Z), countless guest verses and mixtapes, two lackluster major label albums, bizarre live performances (Hot 97’s 2005 Summer Jam, among others), disturbing body art (a butterfly, really?), possible mental illness and a maniacal dedication to disrespecting his old label mates with the extremely long and drawn out “G-uNOT” campaign.  

While The Game is as talented a lyricist as Hip-Hop has ever seen it appears he is doomed to the realm of great rappers that can not create songs and albums that resonate with fans and without the assistance of Dr. Dre and 50 Cent he is doomed to be categorized with Canibus, Chino XL and Rass Kass instead of Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem.  

THREE: Lil’ Kim & Foxxy Brown (1996)

Female MC’s have always had a hard time establishing themselves in the male-dominated Hip-Hop scene, but in the mid-90’s “Big Mama” and “Brooklyn’s Don Diva” blazed a trail for female rappers that was unprecedented and has yet to be surpassed.  Before Kim and Foxxy female rappers fell into two categories: roughneck tomboys that acted overly masculine to prove their worth to male peers and audiences (MC Lyte, Roxxane Shante, BOSS, etc.) and righteous defenders of women’s rights that consciously fought for respect and female empowerment (Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Yo Yo, Salt-n-Pepa).  With the release of “Hardcore” and “Ill Na Na” these two MC’s completely changed the parameters of what was acceptable for a female rapper, they were uninterested in proving they could spit hot 16’s with their male counterparts or educating the youth about the plight of women in a male dominated society with a history of objectification of women.  Instead, they completely embraced this objectification and rapped from the perspective of sex-crazed freaks in an effort to appeal to the more base desired of the predominately male Hip-Hop fan base. It was as if the strippers in Magic City or the extras in the “Big Poppa” video grabbed the mic and started graphically detailing every male fantasy known to man over hot, party-ready beats.  While this kind of Hip-Hop had been done before (most notably by Miami’s 2 Live Crew), it had never been done so vividly by women and had never had the ] production values of these two releases. While it is obvious these “MC’s” did not write their own lyrics and had copious amounts of help from some of the greatest rappers of all time (Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas) along with beats that were so bananas they may have been hits with anybody spitting over them, these two albums had a huge impact on Hip-Hop culture throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.  

Following their debut albums, Foxxy and Kim got into a long running beef that resulted in a shooting in NYC and still do not speak to or about each other.  Professionally, both have released several albums but neither seems overly committed to the art of rhyming as both have focused on outside interests like fashion, modeling, “Dancing With The Stars,” hating on “Notorious,” hearing loss and beating up nail technicians as opposed to focusing on quality music.  Since they have been out of the music game an entire generation of female MC’s that focus on sex appeal as opposed to rhyme skills has emerged and the two trendsetters have been surpassed by female MC’s that are more attractive (Trina), better rappers (Lil’ Mama) or just nastier (Khia) than the two that started it all.  

TWO: Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993)

Snoop was a beast on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and helped propel laid back, funk fueled tales of gang culture and drug use to the top of MTV’s Top 20 Countdown and he has clearly established himself as a permanent (no, not his hair) fixture in pop culture with various television, film and related products, but as a solo MC the “Doggfather” has never come close to matching the artistic and commercial heights attained by “Doggystyle.”  The fact that an album called “Doggystyle” shared Billboard chart space with releases from Nirvana, Mariah Carey and Rod Stewart is a testament to just how charismatic he was as a performer and how amazing his early creative output truly was.  “Doggystyle” was the most eagerly anticipated debut rap album in history at the time of it’s release because fans wanted to see if he could be more than Dr. Dre’s wingman and establish himself as an individual star.  The album was released to rave reviews, staggering sales figures and lived up to even the harshest critic’s standards.  The beats were more refined and accessible than those on “The Chronic” and proved that Dre had mastered the technique of using funk samples, groovy baselines and live keyboards to concoct soundscapes that appealed to listeners from LA to NY geographically and from Compton to UCLA socioeconomically.  Snoop’s lyrics were more mature and refined and he showed clear progress as an MC from the clearly raw talent displayed on “Deep Cover” and much of “The Chronic.” To ensure all bases were covered the duo included something for everyone, from party-starters that still get huge responses in clubs (“What’s My Name,” “Gin & Juice” and “Ain’t No Fun”) to incredibly hard street narratives (“Murder Was The Case” and “Serial Killer”) and a remake of Slick Rick’s classic “La Di Da Di” that not only met the approval of typically hard to please East Coast fans, but became a classic in it’s own right.  The impact of “Doggystyle” was enormous, Dr. Dre cemented his position as the best producer in Hip-Hop, Snoop became an international celebrity, Death Row records became one of the cornerstones of 90’s Hip-Hop, the West Coast became the epicenter of Hip-Hop and the smoothed-out “G-Funk” of this album would inspire countless imitators like Warren G, Domino and Coolio.  

While as an ENTERTAINER Snoop has been relevant since the release of “Doggystyle,” as a RAPPER he has never come close to the commercial and critical success of his classic debut.  Following Dr. Dre’s departure from Death Row Snoop released the embarrassingly titled and hard to listen to “The Doggfather,” then left the label to release three more god awful albums on No Limit during the late 90’s (note: these were bad even by No Limit’s typically low standards) , following the stint with Master P he released a few more weak albums, some lame side projects (“Doggie’s Angels” Really?) a few mediocre singles with The Neptunes (“Beautiful” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot”), got embarrassed by Eminem on “B***h Please II” and did a T-Pain impersonation on last year’s inexplicable hit “Sexual Seduction.”  With the exception of his contributions to Dr. Dre’s classic “2001” and few hot collaborations Snoop has been largely unimpressive as a solo artist since his debut and is responsible for exactly as many classic LP’s as Das EFX, Black Sheep and...

ONE: Lauren Hill “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” (1998)

While females have always had a hard time finding a place in the hyper-masculinity of Hip-Hop and some have found ways to attain superstar status at the expense of their self-respect (see #3) Lauren Hill ended the 90’s with the best manifestation of how a women could present herself in Hip-Hop and then vanished from the spotlight as quickly as she appeared. While the Fugees massive 1996 hit, “The Score,” established Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michael as not only stars but talented musicians, it was not until her solo debut two years later that the world would be held captive by the breathtaking talent of Lauren Hill.  

As an artist she was sexy, but not slutty, stoic but not militant and presented an image of Afrocentric womanhood that was authentic enough for women to relate to and feminine enough to attract male listeners.  Musically the album addressed the emotion of “Love” and all it’s facets including: infatuation/lust (“That Thing”), betrayal (“Lost Ones”), break-ups (“The Ex-Factor”), spiritual love (“Forgive Them Father”) and the love from a mother to a child (“To Zion”) and while no other Fugees were involved with this project contributers like Mary J. Blige and Carlos Santana more than filled the void to make this album appeal to fans of R&B, Soul, Pop and Hip-Hop. “Miseducation” was a massive hit, selling millions of copies, becoming a soundtrack to the lives of countless fans both male and female and garnering 5 Grammy Awards (a record at the time), however it appears this widespread acclaim and notoriety has worked against Hill and turned her into somewhat of a recluse that releases music sporadically and has increasingly bizarre public appearances.  

With the exception of a handful of iTunes only downloadable songs, two Fugee “reunion” songs and 2002’s ill-received “Unplugged” album (a record mocked by 50 Cent as having “no beats” on “Love Me,” his first collaboration with Eminem) Hill has basically retired from the music business and is no longer a public figure despite putting out one of the best albums of all time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Over and Under Rated 3 (2009)


College Basketball Conference Tournaments

I am well aware that ESPN refers to this nonsense as “Championship Week” and many fans view it as the unofficial start of “March Madness,” but honestly these conference tournaments make about as much sense as the Olsen twins joining Jenny Craig.  First, every team plays close to thirty games over four months to establish themselves as a legitimate national contender, now, as a big middle finger to the teams that have truly defined themselves as elite we are going to give every struggling program, team having a bad year, team with an imminent coaching change, team in a rebuilding year, team that was going to be good until the main guy got hurt, team that was going to be good until the main guy got caught cheating on a criminal justice test, team that was going to be good until the main guy got kicked off the team for “conduct detrimental to the team” or “violation of team rules,” bracket buster, bubble team, Cinderella and team that was so bad people seriously questioned whether they could even play high level AAU ball another chance to beat the teams that have established themselves as the best in the nation.  This makes no sense, if UNC beats UVA by 45 in January that should be good enough and UVA should not get a second shot in early March! I am not sure what any of this proves and if we are going to put so much emphasis on these conference tournaments and glorify teams that get hot for less than a week why do we bother with the rest of the season?  Couldn’t they just start this whole ordeal on March 1st and have it ended by April?

Also, “March Madness” gives the viewing public the chance to root for underdogs and see “Cinderella Teams” upset bigger programs (the fact that this celebrates teams that underachieve all year and blatantly punishes teams/players/coaches that have performed at the highest level since November as opposed to “turning it on” in March, and is part of America’s growing distaste for true excellence is beyond the scope of this posting). However, while conference tournaments theoretically provide this same type of opportunity to the “little guy” they realistically do not.  There are conferences where the tournament structure requires a lower seeded team to win as many as five games in five nights, in many of these leagues there are teams that do not win five games all year  (some don’t even win one!) so the idea of them winning 5 in less than a week is about as Chaminade winning the national title.  

And yes, a conference tourney is on my TV as I type this. 

HBO Sunday Nights

I know people that plan their whole weekend around being near a TV on Sunday evenings and I know other people that have actually subscribed to premium cable packages just to watch this line-up of HBO original programming...and to be totally honest it totally escape me.  “Big Love” is just creepy, I don’t want to watch a “dramedy” (how putrid is that word?) about some guy with 3 families and the joys of polygamy.  I’m not even trying to pass judgement about lifestyle choices, it’s just not an entertaining concept for  a TV show.  “Flight of the Conchords” was arguably the funniest thing on TV last year and has completely fallen off this season, I’m not sure if they are out of ideas or if once the novelty of watching New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk artists try to make it in NYC’s music scene wears off there is not much there.  There are still funny scenes, but like this year’s season of “The Office,” there seems to be something missing.  Finally, “East Bound and Down” has been highly recommended by a number of people I really respect and has done nothing but let me down.  The characters are cartoonish stereotypes, the jokes are obvious and not amusing after the first episode and the overall story is so depressing it’s hard to watch without feeling bad for all the people involved.  There is something mildly amusing about sitcom characters using the F-Word, but even that gets old by the third episode.  I am not saying this to disrespect any of my boys that love this show (I can think of at least 5 off the top of my head), but honestly, it’s not that great.  

I am so happy I’m not paying for HBO right now because between this debacle of original programming and nonstop showings of “Norbit” I’m really not missing all that much.

Giving birthday presents to people over 50

People over 50 should have everything they need and if they don’t it’s their own fault!  If half a century is not enough time for someone to amass all of the goods and services they desire I do not feel obligated to intervene.  


Under Rated

Joe Budden’s Marketing Campaign

After Joey Jumpoff got released from Def Jam he kept his name hot by dropping a series of successful mixtapes (Mood Music 1-3) and eventually signed a deal with Amalgam Digital to release his first “real album” since his self-titled 2003 Def Jam debut.  While signing to a smaller label with a smaller marketing budget would cause problems form some artists, Budden took it upon himself to use innovative tactics to keep people talking about him and salivating for his “Padded Room” album.  

First, he formed Slaughterhouse with fellow slept-on MC’s Joell Oritiz, Royce 5’9” and Crooked I in an effort to prove there is strength in numbers and accomplish as a collective what none of them has been able to accomplish individually.  I am only aware of two recorded songs by the group (both are FIRE!), a few live performances and had full knowledge that they were not featured on “Padded Room,” however, I was so psyched about this super group I had to buy anything the members put out.  Second, at the start of 2009 the rapper launched, which, after adding content for over two months consists mainly of radio station freestyles and clips of him hanging out with his girlfriend, a mulatto woman with the biggest a** I’ve seen not standing next to Sir Mix-A- Lot.  While nothing on the site is even remotely entertaining, somehow it got people talking and wanting to buy his CD.  Finally, when the album was released he employed his boys to go out in the tri-state area to buy every copy of “Padded Room” on store shelves, thereby preventing regular fans (like me) from buying the album.  I went to three stores in NYC and NJ and there were no copies, this inability to find the album produced a laser beam-like focus in me to find the CD and purchase it at any cost.  This insatiable urge finally lead me to a copy in a Best Buy in suburban NY State that cost $16, meaning I paid about twice as much as I would have on iTunes to purchase an obsolete technology.  After finally listening to “Padded Room” it’s pretty good, not great and basically serves as an appetizer to the four course meal that will be the Slaughter House album fans hopefully get by the end of 2009.  

Superhero Movies in IMAX

IMAX theaters are exactly the kind of mass produced strip-mall symbol of gluttony I usually mock, however seeing well produced comic book adaptations on a massive screen with insane sound is a truly awe-inspiring experience.  I have seen “The Dark Knight” (twice) and “Watchmen” in IMAX and left the theatre with my mind blown every time.  


TARGET is open less hours, has less selection and charges higher prices than WAL-MART, however I am willing to deal with all of these factors to not feel like destitute white trash while buying tooth paste and underwear. 

Working 9-5

What the ‘eff happened to the 8 hour work day?  Everybody I know goes to work way before 9 and comes home way after 5, even teachers spend afternoons doing lesson plans and grading papers way beyond the stereotypical 8 hour day.  If computers continue to make  jobs easier why is everyone working more? 

Sports Talk Radio

Some sports fans dislike listening to the opinions of others, I disagree with this kind of thinking. We watch sports to see people with unbelievable physical gifts perform amazing feats of strength, speed or endurance we can only dream of accomplishing ourselves.  On the same note we listen to sports talk radio to hear people with verbal gifts present well thought out, articulate and insightful opinions in ways we can not verbalize ourselves.  While this obviously doesn’t apply to every radio personality or caller, for the most part they provide a pretty entertaining drive to (way before 9) or from (way after 5) work.  Also, the other day I was listening to Mike Francesa and heard the following call:

Mike: Kelvin on the Cell Phone

Caller: Hey, Mike.  Kelvin Sampson, long time listener, 5,000th time caller.  

Monday, March 2, 2009

New York Sneaker Con 2009

Sunday March 1st 2009 was the first ever “Sneaker Con” held in New York City.  The event is an opportunity for area “Sneaker Heads” to get together and buy, sell or trade collectible footwear and see displays from some of the hottest sneaker spots in NYC.  Considering the wealth of sneaker collectors and high-end streetwear retailers in and around New York City (Alife, Rare Breed, Nort, Transit, Michael K’s, Supreme, etc.) it is surprising a Con[vention] like this had not been tried before, but the facts that it was on a Sunday afternoon, reasonably priced ($10) and a chance to see some Spring 2009 heat, it was basically a no brainer to attend.  Also, I was accompanied by Amber De Leggas,who is not a sneaker fanatic like myself, but based on the amount of fun we had at New York Comic Con a few weeks earlier (see previous post) she was more than willing to attend and take a shot at recreating that magic. 

The event was held in the lobby of a  comedy club on 8th avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, and while the vibe was fun and the music was bangin’, the space was way too small for the amount of Sneakerheads crammed into this tiny floor plan, but in the organizer’s defense it was the first year for the event, so expected attendance is hard to gauge, however they should seriously look into a larger venue for next year’s edition.  Once we got inside and took a look around we quickly realized this would not be as good as Comic Con (there was no 20 ft. high He-Man statue anywhere), but it would definitely be  a fun way to spend a few hours.  While all the vendors had cool displays and kicks most people only see on Hypebeast and Sneaker Freaker, a few booths really stood out from the rest: 

Two Artists That Would Paint Anything You Wanted on Any Shoe You Wanted

These guys had some cool stuff on display, mostly airbrushed skylines and graffiti-styled lettering, but the most unique thing at their booth was an 8-Hole Timberland boot with President Barack Obama’s likeness airbrushed on the side.  I am not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that people are so enamored with our new president that they want to have his face painted on their steel-toe work boots, but I question the person who buys a fresh pair of Tims and says “You know what would make these boots significantly better? A painting of President Obama!” 


MIKE is a NYC based street artist that has gained notoriety by appropriating signature Nike colors and patterns like “Infrared,” “Elephant Skin” and “Cement” and putting them on non-Nike merchandise like sunglasses, beanbag chairs and wind breakers.  While he is clearly  not entitled to use the patented patterns (evidenced by the amount of times Nike has tried to cease his operation with protracted litigation), most of the pieces he produces are awesome in the same way a producer digging in the crates for an old sample and then repackaging it for current tastes is awesome.  The coolest piece on display from MIKE at Sneaker Con was a pair of sunglasses covered in Nike’s “Elephant Skin” print (Air Jordan III), which came with a hefty $200 price tag.  While this may seem astronomically high for sunglasses not made by Oakley or a high couture brand like Gucci, it is understandable that he needs to charge premium prices to cover the overhead in a company whose 2009 prospectus includes being sued by one of the biggest corporations in the world on a near monthly basis.  

Kicks & Chicks

While it might seem odd to mix fetishes like obsessively collecting sneakers and looking at well-proportioned young women in various stages of undress, the guys at Kicks & Chicks might be onto the best adult entertainment combo since Scissors & Lace (strippers cut customer’s hair) and strip clubs that serve steak dinners, with the simple, yet brilliant idea of taking photographs of models holding sought after sneakers.  The company brought several models to Sneaker Con so they could interact with fans, but it was abundantly clear these were just typical hired models and in no way affiliated with sneaker culture.  The typical conversation between convention attendees and models went something like this. 

Sneaker Head 1: Aren’t you the one from the website with the Jordan 4’s balanced on your a** crack?

Sneaker Head 2: Nah man, she’s the one with the Puma Clydes covering her nipples!

Model: You guys got any blow?

Guy with pair of Eminem Air Jordan II’s

Last fall Jordan teamed up with Slim Shady to release 313 (Detroit’s area code in case you haven’t seen “8 Mile” recently) pairs of a black/gray/red colorway of the classic Air Jordan II accented with Em’s signature chicken-scratch handwriting and the backwards “E” logo on the tongue instead of the “Jumpman.”  These sneakers were damn near impossible to get your hands on because of the extremely limited number of pairs produced and the popularity of Shady and Air Jordan.  I asked the guy how much he wanted and he said “$900 and they’ve only been worn once on New Year’s Eve.”  First, wearing a collector’s item like this so some drunken hoodrat will think you are cool and possibly vomit on them while she is hooking up with you as the ball drops is effin stupid and people this buffoonish this should not have access to stuff this cool.  Second, the price is a little crazy, I am a huge Eminem fan (see previous posts) AND a huge Jordan fan (see my feet) and I wouldn’t spend close to a “G” on these unless I could be provided with conclusive evidence they were the pair of kicks he wore when conceiving Hayley.  

New York Sneaker Con 2009 was a good time and chance to see some of New York’s best collections in one place, while no where near as good a Comic Con I am still eagerly awaiting next year’s event and will continue attending as many conventions (of any kind) as possible.  

The College Drop Out: 5 Years Later

When Kanye West released “The College Drop Out” on February 10th, 2004 radio and video were dominated by southerners getting “crunk” and screaming about booze and strippers, Hip-Hop fashion was limited to throwback jerseys or white-T’s and Air Force Ones and the general public was fascinated by a super thug from Queens that rapped endlessly about selling drugs, getting shot 9 times and being a bad a**.  Five years later kids are meticulously matching their scarves with limited edition Nike Dunks and “Emo Rappers” (more on that phrase later) like Kid Cudi and Charles Hamilton are enjoying commercial success, so much has changed because of the release of this album and the subsequent rise of Kanye West as a superstar that it is hard to argue with his claim of being “the voice of this generation.”  And while his overwhelming hubris is evident in his behavior at award shows and in statements like “I’m the most credible and commercially successful artist of my time”  (while this quote makes him seem like an arrogant a**, it’s pretty difficult to refute the claim), the vulnerability and insecurity expressed in his music and his efforts to express himself as a human being as opposed to a “character” conceived by record executives is the reason why his music connects with fans of almost all ages, backgrounds and musical tastes. 

While Kanye West The Producer was known to Hip-Hop fans since 2000, starting with his first commercial beat placement on Beanie Sigel’s bangin’ “The Truth” and subsequent contributions to such high profile artists as Scarface (“Guess Who’s Back?), Ludacris (“Stand Up”) and Talib Kweli (“Get By”), not to mention providing about half the beats for Jay-Z’s 2001 opus “The Blueprint.” However, Kanye West The Artist was not a known entity until the fall of 2003 when he released “Through the Wire,” which detailed his near fatal car accident and the ensuing recovery over a soulful Chaka Khan sample. This heartfelt, somber and ultimately triumphant personal tale was somehow fighting for chart positioning with raucous club anthems like Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low” and The Ying-Yang Twins “Salt Shaker” and proved to be the first warning shot in a sea change for Hip-Hop music and culture.

Kanye followed up “Through the Wire” with “Slow Jamz” and this simultaneously sexy and humorous song introduced the world to three budding stars all on the verge of blowing up. Kanye established himself as a witty, funny , articulate lyricist in his flirtatious verse where he attempts to entice a female to come home with him with lines like “She’s got a dark skin friend that at looks like Michael Jackson/She’s got a light skin friend that looks like Michael Jackson.” The following verses are provided by Twista and showcase the MC’s talent for saying extremely long and complicated rhymes with mind-bending speed and accuracy, while Twista had seen some success before “Slow Jams,” mainly as part of the Speed Knot Mobstas and being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest rapper under the moniker “Tongue Twista,” he was viewed as somewhat of a novelty in most Hip-Hop circles until this song was released.  Following this collaboration Kanye continued to work with Twista and produced hits like “Overnight Celebrity” and “Girl Tonight,” while this marked the first time West would use his notoriety to help a Chicago favorite become a national star, it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  The memorable chorus was sung by Jamie Foxx, who was a respected and bankable actor, but by this time most had forgotten he was also an aspiring R&B singer that released an all but forgotten album in the mid-90’s.   Foxx’s soulful lyrics not only sang the names of great R&B singers and groups of the past , introducing a whole new generation to classic artists like Sly & the Family Stone and Smokey Robinson, but it propelled him into the public consciousness as a viable singer and would pave the way for a string of successful R&B albums and a collection of singles in heavy rotation on urban radio. Very rarely does a single have this kind of impact, the song was recorded by relative unknowns that went on to be three of the biggest artists of the decade.  “Slow Jams” provided a fun party song that was the soundtrack of clubs and house parties in the winter of 2004, introduced the general public to three future superstars and raised the buzz around Kanye West’s debut album to deafening levels. 

When fans listened to the “The College Dropout” they were instantly made aware that the two lead singles were no fluke and that this was going to be far superior to the typical compilation albums put out by most producers.  The album had a cohesiveness rare in modern Hip-Hop, this was truly a unified work of art and not a collection of singles produced by the hottest producers of the day with guest appearances by the most popular MC’s the label could afford.  The fact that Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam gave an untested artist of questionable commercial appeal this kind of artistic freedom to make an album free of the typical cookie-cutter “Rap Album Recipe” is a testament to the vision of those executives and the faith they had in West to make his singular vision not only a hit album, but the road map for the future of Hip-Hop.   In addition to the previously mentioned singles they album contained songs ranging from the pitfalls of materialism (“All Falls Down”), the indignities of working in retail (“Slave Ship”), the questionable value of higher education (“School Spirit”), the importance of family (“Family Business”), his rise through the music industry (“Last Call”) and opportunistic females (“New Workout Plan”).  

While the album was impressive from beginning to end (even if there were a few too many skits) the biggest departure from typical Hip-Hop protocol was “Jesus Walks,” a huge, gospel inspired, firestorm of a record where Kanye proudly proclaims his allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Most MC’s wouldn’t include this track on their album out of fear of being branded a “gospel rapper,” which makes the fact that this was released as a single with three video treatments and  achieved heavy radio and club rotation even more impressive.  No song sums up West’s appeal as succinctly as “Jesus Walks : The beat in undeniable to the point where staunch atheists can’t resist bobbing their heads and the lyrics are concurrently deeply personal and amusingly humorous.  While proclaiming is love for Jesus, he somehow works in references to Kathy Lee & Regis and actually quotes Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore.”  This dichotomy is what makes Kanye West palatable to a wider fan base than any other “conscious rapper,” just when you think he’s taking something too seriously or feeling himself too much, he lets you off the hook with a wink or funny lyric to let you know he’s still a regular guy that’s not that far removed from his audience, which allows him to rap contemplatively about religion, relationships, education and racism without becoming preachy and losing listeners.  This ability is exactly why A Tribe Called Quest achieved much more widespread acclaim than Native Tongue counterpart De La Soul, while both groups presented complex concepts and did not spoon-feed fans, De La lacked the “every man” appeal of Phife Dog, while Q-Tip was rhyming about abstract concepts, Phife was spitting about New Balance Sneakers, his height and sports, which allowed the group to connect with more fans than their less accessible counterparts.  West took this idea to the next level by combining the talents of Q-Tip and Phife into one man and truly lived up to his rhyme “The fans miss A Tribe Called Quest/And all they got now is this guy called West.”  

“The College Dropout” was released at a unique time in Hip-Hop, Jay-Z had just “retired” with the stellar “Black Album” (itself containing several tracks from West), the artists that dominated the early part of the decade like Eminem, Nelly, Ludacris, DMX, Ja Rule and Outkast were starting to slow down their creative output, the new sound from the south, “Crunk,” was starting to feel dated and wearing out its’ welcome only a few years after its explosion on the pop charts and the entire industry was dominated by 50 Cent and his “Bad Guy” persona.  The fact that West emerged from this set of circumstance to become the biggest Hip-Hop star on the planet is a testament to how the pendulum swings in Hip-Hop from one extreme to the other.  

In the early years of commercially available rap music major labels signed acts like The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow that combined the imagery and good time vibe of R&B and disco with lighthearted rhymes, however when fans grew tired of this type of Hip-Hop, Run-DMC was embraced with open arms when they came out with rock-influenced beats, aggressive rhymes and an image that was more street than show business.  Similarly, when fans became tired of the artists of the mid-80’s they gravitated towards politically conscious artists like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions until the pendulum swung the completely opposite direction with Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” While this “Pendulum Swinging” has been witnessed several times in the past few decades, including the shifts from the glossy pop-rap of Puffy and Missy Elliot to the darkly personal rhymes of DMX and Eminem to the happy-go-lucky ringtone ready rap of Nelly and Ludacris, the change from 50 Cent and “Crunk” to Kanye West and rappers crying ranks up there with the biggest aesthetic shifts in Hip-Hop history.  While Kanye did not invent this version of Hip-Hop and it was obviously pioneered by the Native Tongues in the late 80’s, continued by “underground” artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli in the 90’s and popularized by the N.E.R.D./Skateboarder persona of The NeptunesKanye brought it the masses in a way that had a massive impact on how Hip-Hop heads dressed, thought, spoke and expressed themselves and while this change was not overnight (kid’s didn’t trade in their throwbacks for pink polo’s the first time they heard “Slow Jamz”) listening to radio, watching videos or observing the overall disposition of today’s  young Hip-Hop fans reveals Kanye West’s unmistakable influence. 

The other major factor that made Kanye West’s debut success so remarkable was his unwillingness to be classified in a typical sub-genre like “Street,” “Commercial” or “Underground.” As a producer his beats were as suited for Freeway as they were for Mos Def and he continued this genre-bending aesthetic on “The College Dropout” by featuring guest appearances from commercial favorites like Jay-Z and Ludacris,  established conscious MC’s like Mos Def and Talib Kweli , street cats like Freeway and underground favorites like Consequence and GLC, and somehow blended this all into one cohesive album that was off the hook from Intro to Outro.  This not only exposed many of the featured artists to much larger audiences, but established Kanye as a “Renaissance Man” that would become the new ideal in the music industry as genre lines continued to blur.  West’s influence can be seen in artists as diverse as Gym Class Heroes, Akon and  Lil’ Wayne in the way that they blend several genres and sensibilities to appeal to wide audience without sacrificing their own individual swagger.  

While Kanye West had an indelible effect on Hip-Hop music, his contributions to Hip-Hop fashion should not be overlooked.  Before “The College Dropout” urban fashion was dominated by baggy jeans, jerseys and oversize T-Shirts, today’s decidedly more fitted look and emphasis on couture-influenced pieces, along with the current explosion of “Street Wear” (limited editions, artist collaborations, etc) can be directly attributed to the influence of Kanye West. 

Finally, Kanye West is often credited with pioneering “Emo Rap” and being the direct forefather of current “Emo” MC’s like Kid Cudi and Charles Hamiltion. While he obviously injected a ton of emotion into his music, he was not the first to do this.  First of all, all music expresses some kind of emotion, anger and aggression are emotions, so is Onyx  an “Emo Rap” group?  Secondly, if “Emo” is limited to emotions like sadness, loneliness and insecurity, LL was getting choked up about needing love, Ghostface Killah was damn near crying on records and Eminem was baring his soul way before Kanye got his heart broken or touched and 808.  While “The College Dropout” deserves credit for bringing this to the pop charts, it’s inaccurate to say he created it.

Following the release of his debut album Kanye West continued his ascent to the top of the music industry by releasing the ambitious “Late Registration” a year later, producing two classic albums from previously overlooked Chicago rapper Common, produced dozens of hits for other artists and appeared on numerous memorable collaborations and remixes.  On September 11th 2007 he released his third album, “Graduation” the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis and outsold “Curtis” by a 3-to-2 margin.  This victory proved to the masses what anybody paying careful attention knew for quite a while, the game had changed and Kanye was the new king.