by carl wilson

Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Compliments Make Us All Blushyfaced

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A deep bow to Jason Gross (of Perfect Sound Forever fame) for including my Prince Paul piece (and mentioning my political music piece) in his annual roundup of the year in music writing on rockcritics.com - but the main reason to mention it is to point you to all the other hot stuff (great, good and otherwise) that Jason's web-thologized for our reading pleasure. Warning: Could cheerfully consume your whole afternoon.

As Jason quite rightly complains, you can't get to the pieces in question via The Globe and Mail website anymore, so you'll find them here on the flip. [...]

The Prince of hip-hop rolls his eyes at hip pop

SCENE
CARL WILSON
15 January 2004
The Globe and Mail

Did you hear Prince Paul is in town this weekend?

Who?

Prince Paul. Prince of Thieves? Handsome Boy Modelling School? Stetsasonic? De La Soul?

De La Soul!

Yep. Me Myself and I, Jenifa . . . He produced their first four albums, bringing in wild new sampling techniques — making tracks with sounds from cartoons and other unexpected sources, which changed rap's sound for good.

Wow, Me Myself and I? I remember when I heard that, back in college —when rap was good, before it turned into all that gangster stuff and, what do you call it, "blink blink"?

Bling. Bling bling.

Whatever. And that reggae stuff and the pop singers coming in for choruses, and the misogyny and violence and thongs. Uh, Eminem, 50-whoever . . . So what does this Paul do now?

In 2003 he made this deliberately bad album. It's called The Politics of the Business, an attack on the music industry and specifically what he calls "hip pop," which he says in the liner notes is "not to be confused with hip-hop." In other words, he agrees with you.

So it's an angry satire?

Not really. It could have been like the artists Komar and Melamid, who produced a bunch of paintings according to polling data, such as America's Most Wanted Painting — a landscape featuring George Washington, some animals and girls and a lot of blue, with the canvas about the size of a dishwasher because that was the most popular size in the poll. But Prince Paul seems too annoyed that his latest funny, sophisticated concept albums weren't well-served by his previous label to be precise about it. His parodies seem several years behind actual trends. It's mediocre despite a roster of hip-hop royalty on the mike, even Chris Rock pitching in on the comedy sketches.

Chris Rock is on it?

The sketches are the best part, with two-faced record executives and shallow wannabe rappers all talking crap to Paul. But then, he literally invented the tradition of the rap skit so he's got to hold that up. When underground rapper Mike Ladd tried the same idea with his Majesticons album this year, he parodied party anthems by making even catchier ones, showing how seductive they can be. Here the ironies are cheaper. It's as if Paul's veteran status has him caught in the same trap as a lot of music critics, deafened to rap's current glories by his preconceptions.

What glories — cars, champagne and sexpots?

No, that is tiresome stuff, but rappers aren't exactly America's first materialistic celebrities. There's also been a lot of musical innovation, production that incorporates complex electronics, new vocal styles, jazz and folk and Asian music, unpredictable beats that no other part of pop music would touch before hip-hop got to them.

Just tricks. It's not real music anyway, a bunch of computer loops. Well, I like that Outkast song.

I was just chatting with a bunch of colleagues about that: If you look around at many Canadian music critics' lists of the best of 2003, the Outkast album — a very rock-influenced hip-hop disc, with all its nerdy old-school joy — is often the only one not made by white people. People are calling it "rockism."

What kind of crazy idea is that?

Not so crazy. Most white critics over 25 grew up immersed in rock, so we demand rock's values be upheld even in hip-hop — not only musically, but its myth of the rebel poet who creates all his own music, plays it on his own axe — and never makes decisions for commercial reasons.

Sure, that's true creativity.

Yet rock never really worked like that. No form of pop music has. Most of it was always made with behind-the-scenes studio help — the Beatles had George Martin, Nirvana had Butch Vig — and they were trying to make hits. Yet it generated music that's venerated now. And it's culturally specific — it's one thing to play the underdog by spurning a suburban background and another to be a black kid coming out of that community, for instance. So "rockism" is mild compared with some other names you could give it.

As for poetry, complex lyrics aren't especially in fashion in rap right now. 50 Cent is no Rakim, Tupac or Chuck D. Prince Paul has a point about the intellectual content, but rock goes through its sharp and dull cycles too and it'd be schoolmarmish to fret. While 50 Cent seems aggressively boring to me, you can't cling to "underground" hip-hop and claim to be keeping up.

As my fellow critics pointed out in our chat, the script's been reversed: Underground in hip-hop once meant a "hardcore" black audience, but since hip-hop moved out of the margins to the top of the charts, underground has come to imply a white crowd. People are calling it "undie" (a sneer-play on underground plus "indie") or "backpack" music, for liberal-arts college kids. There's fine music there from rappers of all races — check out Aesop Rock, Prefuse73, Sole — but it's not where the energy is. More of it is with Timbaland, the Neptunes, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Dizzee Rascal, Punjabi MC. . . .

So will Prince Paul be stuck playing English-department wine and cheeses?

Nah. Politics was made in a fit of exasperation. "Since biting is no longer a crime, I gave it a try," he says in the liner notes, adding, "a painful process needless to say." (Lucky you can't read that before buying the album.) But then he says: "See y'all again when I resurface to change the world!" But he has to catch up to the world first — and if that's a challenge for a hip-hop legend, no wonder it bewilders a lot of us pale Canadian rockist geeks.

Now, Adeimantus, let us turn to the question, "What is justice?"

Prince Paul is the DJ at Doin' It, Klinik at the Sound Emporium, 360 Adelaide St. W., Toronto, on Saturday night.

* * *

Political music beyond the protest song

SCENE
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Thursday, Jul 15, 2004

When the late Ray Charles recorded his America the Beautiful in 1972, he began not with the usual guff about spacious skies, but with the third verse, "O beautiful for heroes proved/ In liberating strife."

Today, you might think of flag-draped coffins (if the White House hadn't banned them from sight) or of certain New York firefighters who loved "mercy more than life." But for the generation that witnessed the birth of soul, with Charles as its midwife, the heroes surely would be the civil-rights marchers on Selma and Washington in the early 1960s.

By 1972, those gains may have seemed to be slipping away. Yet when the man whose eyes would never see any purple mountains' majesties, whose family had sharecropped those amber waves of grain, came back to the traditional first verse, he would only make it more optimistic.

Charles said later that some of the original lyrics had been "too white" for him, so he mixed them up a shade. A decade earlier, he'd done something similar with his hit album of country songs -- the sound of the segregated white South, spiked with rhythm & blues. The Ray Charles gambit always was to refuse to see barriers, musical or otherwise. In his music, a dreamt America came into being so long as the beat lasted, a three- , four- or six-minute eternity.

So when he sang Katherine Lee Bates's 1893 plea, "[may] God shed his grace on thee" it became, "God done shed his grace on thee/ He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea." Past tense; mission accomplished.

If there is such a thing as political music, surely it can be found in his strategic use of music's unique power to alter and suspend time -- without a word of explicit protest.

But is there such a thing as political music, not the lyrics but the music itself? It is an old debate. Obviously, notes and chords can't lower taxes or threaten to invade Syria. But there can be social implications to quoting from other music, choices of titles (Opus IV or Abu Ghraib?) or the ways that musicians interact -- just as there's a politics to the stylistic fusions of Ray Charles or, closer to the territory of Chicago jazz trio Sticks and Stones, of Miles Davis.

Sticks and Stones' recent second album happens to be called Shed Grace, but the title track is a more drastic variation on the song many Americans say should be their national anthem: The melody issuing from Matana Roberts's saxophone has the hymn-like feel of America the Beautiful, but not the familiar tune.

Like Jimi Hendrix's anti-war revision of The Star-Spangled Banner, this brush with America is engulfed by turbulence; Josh Abrams's bass and Chad Taylor's drums churn and the sax has to twist and flail to stay aloft, unable to resolve or even complete its phrases, all grace untimely ripped away.

And as you listen to this trio -- two black musicians, one white; two male, one female -- somehow rearranging America the Beautiful without at all playing it, you're prompted to wonder where that absent grace has gone. Sloughed off like snakeskin in the Iraqi desert? Thearrested development of the sax line might represent American promise, unrealized at home and broken abroad.

It isn't political music in the sense of a protest song, like the many "Lick Bush" broadsides we're likely to hear by Nov. 2. But as Elvis Costello said to The New York Times last weekend, protest songs often seem more like personal venting than political action. As one on-line music writer (claps.blogspot.com) puts it, "How different is, 'I hate you for your foreign policy' from 'Did she go down on you in a theatre?' "

And also how different from the mercenary ideologues shouting one another down on Fox News? If the protest singer merely yells back at power -- even with the heat of Fahrenheit 9/11 -- the terms are already set. It is not an argument, just contradiction.

Actual politics has less to do with name-calling than with motile and ambiguous alliances and oppositions. And while politics may be a symptom of the inevitable failure of language, music lies out past language's limit, at once falling short and exceeding it in meaning. The artist's "beliefs" may only get in the way.

Bob Dylan's early polemics are narrow shrivelled things beside, for example, the more mysterious discontent of Maggie's Farm (which stretched out decades to find its target in Thatcher's England). As for Ray Charles, he sang for Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Republican convention, although he said he'd happily do the Democrats, too, if they were paying. He even played South Africa during the apartheid-era boycott. Did he contradict himself? Very well.

But what artists can contribute to politics may be precisely that capacity to inhabit other positions, other selves -- even the enemy's -- and imagine their way into the attendant ironies and conflicts, in order that "paths be wrought through wilds of thought," to cite one of Bates' lesser-known verses. (Just for Dick Cheney's information, Bates lived in a romantic relationship with another woman most of her life.)

On Shed Grace, Sticks and Stones also transform the militant funk of Fela Kuti's Colonial Mentality into a cool acoustic creeper; plays a startlingly straight Isfahan from Duke Ellington arranger Billy Strayhorn's 1966 Far East Suite; and throughout, exemplifies the quarrelsome conversation of equals that is improvised jazz's distinct contribution to political science.

Neither a harangue nor a lecture in disguise, this kind of political music generates a gravity that draws in a litany of voices to eavesdrop on the jabber of the living and the dead. It is "something ardent and sad," as Baudelaire wrote, "leaving the field free for conjecture."

And in these polarized times, that is a grace not to be shed lightly.

Sticks and Stones play Toronto's Music Gallery tomorrow and Montreal's Casa del Popolo on Saturday.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 05 at 2:38 PM | Linking Posts

 

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