How to Fail at Blogging

Last week I wrote something called “How to Fail at Promoting Music Online” which was pretty much about a handful of issues I take with the way publicists and bands push music online, particularly via email marketing. It’s pretty easy to unload such unsolicited advice though, and truth be told, picking on some issues and poking fun at what appear to be obvious mistakes is kind of fun. Case in point: it’s the second time I’ve done so this year. Fun, but hardly groundbreaking stuff. What I’ve really wanted to do for quite some time though, which sort of does the same thing, is turn the focus onto the mirror rather than the window. It’s pretty easy to look outside and see what’s wrong, but it’s a little more difficult to take a serious look at yourself with the same sort of critical eye. When it comes down to it though, for every easy joke about mindless mistakes bands make or how bad at their jobs some PR monkeys are, it’s every bit as easy to look at how remarkably silly bloggers can be. Many may not be guilty of such offenses and many may not confess to them, but with a strong sense of sarcasm in tow, here are a few of the ways that as a blogger, and in particular a music blogger, you’re failing at what you do.

Never Stop Documenting

Your opinion is valuable. After all, it’s on the Internet. (You’re a “freelancer,” you say? Even better!) So why not give the people you’re best and document as much as you possibly can. Why be a spectator at an event and immerse yourself in it when you can “cover” an event and document what you experienced? Why listen to an album and give yourself time to appreciate it when you can hastily gather first reactions and spit out a blog post? Don’t know anything about a band? Don’t let that stop you from blogging about them as though you have an authoritative voice on the subject. And don’t stop with your experiences you’ve just had either, document experiences as they’re happening, or even better, document experiences that you haven’t even had yet. Sometimes in order to reaffirm your place in the blogosphere it’s important to serve as the window to what might be perceived as cool by others. Re-tweet, blog, or post “content” to Facebook that might be appreciated by potential readers whether or not it reflects your personal sense of taste, or whether or not you’ve even bothered to consume, much less, appreciate it.


What is your motivation with meeting people in your same industry and/or niche corner of the blogosphere? Not entirely sure? Don’t worry about it. Treat friends like acquaintances, acquaintances like friends, “contributors” like friends, or even better: blur the lines of each so no one really knows where they stand with you. Further, considering that your own intentions aren’t always “noble,” assume that everyone you deal with has an ulterior motive. Are people contacting you only to get something from you? (Are you only reaching out to others because you want something from them?) Don’t worry about setting these double standards: Take the time to mock others you deal with on a daily basis without taking a glance your own habits. Certainly just because you’re tired of people link-spamming you, asking you for some sort of “coverage” or “support,” that doesn’t mean that you can’t still do the same: Spam for re-tweets, follows, votes, or simply to “inform” others about new “content” that you’ve blogged about.

Welcome Jealousy

In addition to allowing yourself to gain no real perspective of what your personal motivations are, it’s okay to unjustly feel like every time something good happens to someone else, that it somehow takes away from your “cause.” Allow Facebook fan, Twitter follower or pageview statistics to dictate your personal value relative to your contemporaries, and allow resentment to build if you don’t feel that you measure up. Allow contempt to develop if ignorant acquaintances aren’t using the Right metrics program to monitor their traffic. Do you feel that there’s some elite group of bloggers who are undeservingly given the bulk of the industry-love and media attention, who subsequently may or may not be stiff-arming the development of others who aren’t in their clique? Toss a little more resentment into the mix whether or not that's a thing. Also, you’ve been blogging for longer that that other website, so why didn’t you get to post that “exclusive” track? Or if you did post something “first” only to later see other blogs posting about the same “content” long after you did, you allowed yourself to become angry at them, right? After all, whether or not they might have actually posted about the same subject on their own doing, they had to have seen your post first and didn’t cite you as a source or give you your much due link-love. Jerks. Do you feel as though you’ve been slighted or disrespected in some way? Act out! Take everything personally, strip names from your blogroll, bad-mouth bloggers behind their backs, or un-follow them on Twitter. Blogging is as much a pissing contest as it is a medium for personal expression. Never forget that.

Compromise Your “Content”

While blogging is an easy and widely used method to broadcast opinion (and pictures of cats), don’t feel that you have to be clear about what your motivation is — to others or yourself. Is your blog a business first or is it a personal platform to share your opinions (and pictures of cats)? Is your blog a medium which you use to personally “help bands,” “support artists,” or “promote good music” by illegally offering “sharing” free mp3s? Or is it about feeding a personal sense of self-esteem that you never really bothered exploring until the invent of Blogger? Are you supporting mediocrity to drive pageviews or are you truly standing behind the “content” you’re boosting? Are you constantly striving to find new music to “post” because you need more music to post or because you want to find more music that truly resonates with you? Is the subject of what you’re blogging about good, or just good enough to blog about? Are you lowering the bar for what you’ll promote so that in the event that a band miraculously breaks out one day, you’ll be able to have your own “I was there when…” moment? Are you so caught up in pageviews and SEO-hacking that you devote just as much time to that aspect of the “blogging process” as you do “content development”? Are you blogging to feed Google, to be the “first” at posting anything, actively searching for ways to support your own relevance (year-end lists and wrap-ups in early November… why not!), or to help drive eyes to your “brand”? Which outside sources are influencing what you blog about, and how clear is it for an outsider to figure out whether your “content” is the result of a PR-push, a band letting you into a show for free, a “sponsorship,” or if it’s something that you would be blogging about regardless of any outside factors? Does it even matter? Just go with the flow: addressing any of this might end up shedding an unpleasant light on you as a True music fan.

Inconsistent Habits

Aside from blurring the lines surrounding why you’re blogging, be as inconsistent as possible with what and when you’re blogging. Abandon ideas about the “direction” or “focus” of “content” on your blog as quickly as you adopt them. Want to cover news one week? Local news the next? Local artists the next? Music videos the next? Mashups on Mondays? Electronica on weekends? Metal on Fridays? Then forget all of that and only blog about pop? Do you post a dozen marginally interesting news items, music videos, or mp3s one day then go a week without posting anything? It shouldn’t matter, right? After all, it’s your blog and you should do whatever you want with it.

Take Your Readers for Granted
"According to Google Analytics, there are, as of this writing, over infinity active blogs on the Internet. And your article is battling all of them for attention. And you’re not just competing against other articles, or even other blogs; you’re competing against Facebook, and Wikipedia, and YouTube, and the news, and The Daily Show, and last night’s sports scores, and tomorrow’s weather, and online games, and an impossible amount of pornography. Just because someone’s sitting in front of a computer doesn’t mean they’re going to read a 2,000-word article, because they can be doing almost anything else. It’s a tough market on the Internet. Cheers gets a lot of credit for being a popular show, but Cheers never had to compete with the most comprehensive and specific library of free pornography that has ever existed in human history."
Pay no heed to such advice because, again, it’s your blog and the mere fact that you have taken the time to grace the Internet with your presence means that you deserve to be seen. Not only that, but your readers, Facebook fans, or Twitter followers should be fine with whatever inconsistencies you throw at them and support you in your online endeavors. Don’t take into consideration what might be in the best interest of readers when re-tooling the layout of your blog (it now takes three clicks to see a single article? Let’s do it: more pageviews!), or whether or not they’ll grow tired of you turning over new designs on a seemingly monthly basis. Don’t take a reader’s perspective into account when you flood their RSS reader with 20 posts one day, and none the next. Don’t bother thinking about whether or not your drunken live-tweeting of your YouTube surfing will be of interest to them. Of course it will! They wouldn’t follow you if it wasn’t of interest, right? Oh, and if you get burnt out on the upkeep of your blog’s Twitter or Facebook accounts and decide to delete them altogether, expect fans to re-emerge when you open up new accounts and latch back onto your every word. It’s not that you shunned their patronage, you were just cleaning the slate.

Overestimate Your Own Importance

You’ve made it! People now visit your blog. A lot of people, actually. So why not give yourself a little pat on the back? After all, you’ve got x number of pageviews, y number of Facebook followers, and z number of Twitter followers, and that really means something. Not just something about your blog, but something about you. Were you recognized for your work by another website? Perhaps you were invited to contribute a guest-post or two to a well-established media outlet? Maybe you were you asked to freelance by a magazine/paper/weekly/blog/website that has a strong following? Wild! Never let yourself forget that, because no matter how long ago it happened it’s still important. Why would it not be important? They picked you because your opinion is obviously original and your taste as a music blogger, nay, Journalist(!), is impeccable. Whether or not you say anything that’s remotely original, express anything that readers wouldn’t actually be able to pick up on simply by listening to the music themselves, or document your experiences with a competency that remotely reflects the level of education you have isn’t really important here. What is important is that you wouldn’t have made it this far if you weren’t important. Even if no one else does, and whether or not it really exists, be the first in line to acknowledge your own “importance on the Internet.” You deserve it, buddy.

I know that it’s more than a little ironic to rant about bloggers who inflate their own importance by writing something that’s essentially all about me, but that’s exactly what I’m doing here. I originally started blogging about seven years ago, and started Culture Bully a few months after that. In the following years I’ve not only made every mistake mentioned here (and plenty more), but I’ve actually grown from some of them. (That said, there are still plenty of mistakes that I continue to make. Plenty.) People are supposed to do that though, right? Make mistakes… change… grow… mature…?

All considered though, I’m all but done with what this blog has become because while certain methods and practices keep pageviews coming in, doing so doesn’t really mean anything. I guess that’s the main piece of advice that I can give here: Stop taking the things that don’t actually matter so damn seriously. In the end the pageviews, followers, likes, fans, and subscribers aren’t really important if you can’t figure out what’s so special about them. It’s not about popularity or even ad revenue (the latter of which I’m thoroughly grateful for, by the way), but it’s that in a world where there might as well be “infinity active blogs on the Internet” someone looked at yours, followed you, subscribed, or liked what you did. The most important thing about this blog for me has been that many times when I began to feel invisible it’s helped me feel like I’m not, or that among an endless sea of people spouting loony opinions, that sometimes what I have to say does actually have some sort of value.

Thanks to everyone who’s contributed to that feeling. I should have said it a lot sooner. I don’t know what it means to move on, because I’ve done that before, but I’m moving on from whatever the past six and a half years have been about. Maybe I’ll try reaching my full potential or something… I don’t really know.

(The rest of this is just personal rambling [in true blog fashion, right?] and I wouldn’t bother reading it if you’re looking for more “handy tips” on how to avoid being a dummy. Rather, it’s just here for me to help sort out my thoughts as I continue to fumble my way through a digital identity crisis.)

…Guilty as the Next…

As much as I’d like to say that band spam or “digital marketing” might be the most frustrating aspect of blogging, it’s probably the blogging culture itself that takes such a distinction. Why? Funny enough, because the landscape is filled with people just like me. In the summer of 2010 I was able to attend the Sled Island festival in Canada, but by the end I was really bummed out because of the overall vibe. My conclusion was that I was part of the problem. While I was technically there to lend coverage – as is the trade-off for access – I was not there having fun or immersing myself in beautiful moments. I was only regurgitating what had happened, be it through typed word or videos of performances. And I wasn’t alone. (Have you ever been to a concert and witnessed the band take the stage only to be greeted by a swarm of cell-phones and cameras raised to capture the moment? Ever feel sort of sick about that? Ever feel sort of sick about that only to realize that your camera’s in the air as well?) I swore off “live reviews” then and while a few local showcase recaps snuck in over the past year, I’ve largely stuck to it. While I haven’t been to remotely as many shows as I once saw (actually having to pay for these things is tougher than I’d remembered) it feels good to just be a spectator again. What I probably should have done was swear off blogging on the whole though, because again I think the way I’ve been doing things here has positioned me as a contributor to a similar problem as the one I saw up in Canada. Only it’s online. And it’s everywhere.

One of the most interesting things that I’ve picked up on over the years is how little music bloggers actually interact with one another. I don’t mean interaction through Twitter or via public meet-ups though (both are pretty good ways of making new friends, both online and off), I mean through each other’s actual blogs. Most music bloggers aren’t passionate about music blogs, we’re passionate about our music blog. But not even to the degree that it’s our favorite blog, it’s just something we expect others to find value in. The idea dawned on me one day: If I had to read my own blog, would I? For the most part I wouldn’t. Yet I expect other people to read it… Why?! This is partially what drives a lot of these issues that I listed above: a widespread feeling of over-inflated self-importance.

What follows are criticisms no different than those made of the younger culture‘s increasingly strong sense of self-importance fueled by the urge to constantly update the rest of the world of their every action and thought via Facebook and Twitter — a compulsion made that much worse every time society force-feeds the idea that we’re all special, we’re all unique individuals with something important to say, and even further inflated every time someone responds, likes, comments or otherwise shows interest in what that person’s sharing. I’m hardly an expert on the inner workings of the entire blogosphere, so whether or not this is widespread across various niches I really don’t know, but this sort of thing is really evident in the music blogosphere. Somehow music bloggers have become important not only because we have an outlet for opinion, but curious enough, because the value of what we’re doing is tied to the quality of what we’re blogging about. Curation, right…? But including a single enjoyable song on a post that features a dozen, or posting a single legitimately unique or enjoyable music video over the course of a week’s worth of slop somehow means the blogger (as a “curator”) has done an excellent job in some circles. The whole thing is bizarre.

Recently I wrote something for a friend’s zine called “Why I (Music) Blog,” with an overly-dramatic conclusion about how it’s helped save my life (yada yada yada). There’s actually a bit of truth to that, but at the time I wrote the essay I only skimmed over something that I was already really really tired of: the depressing nature of being a blogger. Not only is it depressing living tied to a screen in a room by myself for the majority of most days (which, it could be argued, is my own doing, and I get that… still a bummer), but the reality of turning a hobby into a business has its drawbacks as well. For instance, eating your favorite food every few days can be great, but what happens when you take that leap and make eating your favorite food your job? What happens when you’re in a constant dialog surrounding your favorite food with friends (or are they acquaintances… or contributors?), are hammered with emails constantly alerting you to all sorts of different brands of your favorite food, faced with an RSS feed bulging at the seems with updates from hundreds of other blogs spewing conversation of your favorite food, and are bombarded with countless Twitter and forum discussions surrounding the development, evolution, and business of your favorite food (largely between people who can’t cook to save their lives)? Sure, it all comes with the territory, but regardless of how much you once loved that food, immersing yourself into such a culture gets a little old. What’s worse is that to gain the most visibility, or succeed financially so that it’s still your job to do it all again tomorrow, it’s rarely discussion of your favorite food that is the most lucrative, but rather food that you would otherwise never waste your time with.

It should be obvious for anyone who’s checked this blog out over the years, but for me, blogging has long since become a continual push for pageviews rather than actually aspiring to showcase music that’s really good. Album reviews have been the pageview equivalent to bread and butter for years: so why not squeak out immediate reactions to an Eminem or Taylor Swift album following their leaks online, as they typically draw a good bit of traffic, and in theory ad revenue, rather than post something about a far less known act that I really enjoy? For the longest time I haven’t even been blogging about my favorite food, but food that I’ve only ever had a marginal interest in. Now the entire buffet of different flavors and aromas has lost quite a bit of its appeal. Every email from a band is as gag-inducing as day-old marked down tuna rolls from the local convenience store. They might be a hidden treasure but I’m too turned off by the idea what they might be to take that risk.

There are plenty of other downsides (having to have a basis for opinion on the entire history of a band in order to write anything about them for fear of being terrorized by commentors, or having to simply have an opinion on everything in order to keep up, for instance), but something I recently read spoke well to an issue I hadn’t even realized existed within me. In a recent entry in his Why We Fight column, Nitsuh Abebe (whose writing is genuinely as great a response as anyone’s to the accusation that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”) explained something that he’s lost over the years: his ability to be “suckered by trends.”
"I miss my capacity to fall for everything. I miss getting caught — hook, line, sinker, reeled-straight-in — by trends, revivals, passing notions, idiot bastard styles. I am trying to re-cultivate the overwhelming enthusiasm I have had for truly, truly bad ideas."
In August of 1998 one of my best friends and I made it our business to get out to the local electronics shop to get there just as it opened so we could be the first to get our hands on a CD on the day of its release. As the doors were unlocked, we rushed in only to find that the day’s new inventory wasn’t even stocked yet. So we had to wait for someone to go to the back and unearth a pair of discs for us. I guess there wasn’t much of a feeling that there’d be two ravenous teenagers anxiously counting down the minutes to get their hands on Korn’s Follow the Leader. Oh, how wrong they were. As unpopular as confessing to being one of those obnoxious nü-metal kids might be, that was one of the first eras of music where I can remember really feeling like I was caught up in a whole scene that was pretty awesome. Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was in there, as was Limp Bizkit, Soulfly and Pantera, but before long we’d drained the well dry (Cold Chamber) and moved on to the next trend. However, that wasn’t before I was also introduced to Rage Against the Machine and turned on to rap through such ridiculous and strange collaborations as Korn teaming with Ice Cube. Embarrassing? Absolutely. Regrettable? No way.

I’ve had similar moments of true fanaticism since then, of course, but after opening up the blog my perspective slowly changed from that of a fan to DIY “music critic,” and I’ve had fewer and fewer of them as each year passed. It wasn’t only that my opinion now seemed to matter, but that simply deciding who I paid attention to mattered. For all the nonsense that’s still projected at bands about the importance of getting music heard on blogs, the flip side is that bloggers start to believe that what their doing has importance. How could we not? Traffic takes off, ad revenue builds, a “fan base” develops, “contributors” reach out to you to join your team… hell, a couple years back a company flew me and a few other bloggers down to Austin for some parties (read: year-end tax write-off). All that and no one has ever even heard of this blog… Point is, it’s really easy to become caught up in the same wave of hype surrounding this whole “digital music explosion” from the blogger’s side of things as it is the musician’s. So as the years passed I spent more and more time grazing on PR emails than actually appreciating music, exploring my true interests or contemplating critiques by those who have been deep in the trenches of actual music journalism since long before my fascination with camo-shorts and backwards baseball caps began. Music blogging has quickly become a cog in machine that it first appeared to be raging against. Much like nü-metal ran its course with me, so too have the days of really taking this shit seriously.

Speaking of his work in radio and video, This American Life‘s Ira Glass explained in an interview a few years ago that “Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” Even when this blog was good it still wasn’t that good (which isn’t meant to undermine the many kindhearted people who’ve shared articles here), and to keep on with the way it was going was driving me crazy because I knew it was getting worse. I was becoming more complacent with allowing that to happen despite becoming more and more aware that I can actually put something together that means something to me. That’s kind of why I invited some new folks to join in over the summer and that’s why I started posting about the UFC. Also partially just to see what would happen, but more than anything I was looking for a way to not abandon my crap. I still can’t kill this blog — I have rent to pay and to be frank, the scattered advertising and completely out-of-place sponsored posts still help a lot with that — but what I can kill is the process of continually stumbling through the many many many mistakes accounted for above. I’m not sure I’ll ever be done blogging, but I’m done for now. (Or is posting to Facebook and Twitter blogging?) Hope you’ve gotten something out of my little blog post here, and if you’re one of the many making the same mistakes that I’ve made, do yourself a favor and reconsider why it is that you (music) blog. I know you could have spent it with anyone, but you spent your time with me today. Thanks for that.

The Trouble with Local Scenes

I moved to Nashville last summer on a whim, really only because one of my best friends lives here and it seemed like a not-so-terrible idea. And here I am 17 months later, still waking up each morning in some strange city that has somehow become a part of me. I can’t explain what exactly it is about Nashville that makes it unique, nor can I narrow down what it is about the city that I really enjoy, but perhaps part of my appreciation reflects the circumstances that have arisen during my time here that have allowed me to swap out certain labels that help define who I am. For the past three years I’ve been able to miraculously survive as a “professional” music blogger – which, as far as job titles go, doesn’t really have an authoritative ring to it, does it? – but in recent months, largely because of dumb luck, I’ve been able to slowly move on from that stage of my life. I can now just be a fan of music again, which has been kind of nice because I’ve become very conflicted about this whole blogging-about-music thing. The daily obsessing, processing and digesting of an endless supply of music is tricky, and for whatever reason, six and a half years of it has left me a bit tired of actually listening to new music. The irony of this coming to a head while living in Music City isn’t lost on me.

While reflecting on the past few years though it’s become quite apparent to me that this growing distaste for the process is largely of my own doing, and mostly because of my own inability to be honest with myself. For the most part, having to push out blog posts to get the page views to get the pay checks means promoting music that’s not necessarily good, but really only good enough to blog about. This issue becomes amplified for “local blogs” that seek to promote “local talent,” something that I’ve aimlessly tried to do for a number of years and something that, quite frankly, I’ve really made a mess of. Again, mostly because of that dishonesty with myself.

Early in 2007 I met a bunch of really fun and interesting people who were working together under the banner of a review website called How Was The Show in the Twin Cities. I wrote a few forgettable concert recaps for the site but the introduction helped open my eyes to something I hadn’t even really considered before: focusing on local bands. This process of digging into the scene was rewarding in that it led me to discover some cool music that I didn’t know existed, and the consideration of local artists ultimately spread to this blog where I started to document local goings-on. In the following years some friends joined in and this Twin Cities focus on the blog gained some momentum. Around this time the opportunity became available to contribute to the local alt-weekly, City Pages, where for a little under a year I put together locally-focused news posts online (nearly) every weekday, while also adding various show previews and features along the way to the print edition. By the end of 2009 though I was really struggling with some things in my personal life and I made some poor decisions which led not only to putting this blog on the shelf, but the unfortunate crumbling of a few good friendships. If I could do that all again, I’d handle things much differently.

A couple months later, I found myself unable to land work up in Canada, where I’d moved, and out of necessity to get some sort of income going again I started blogging again. I should have just done my own thing, but to some degree I had sold myself on the idea that there was some inherent value in building that local presence and promoting local artists. Unsuccessfully grasping for some sense of relevancy I tried to put together some locally-based news posts (something I later failed to do consistently here in Nashville, as well) and I even went as far as putting together a local band directory. Before long however I was back in the States and I lazily tried to again turn the focus locally. I really didn’t have any direction with what I was doing until some time in December though, when a phone call influenced how I approached the next few months of blogging.

Chatting with a friend online I was asked if I’d met John Gotty, who runs The Smoking Section, yet. Honestly, I hadn’t frequented the site in ages and had no idea he even lived in Nashville. A few days later I got in touch and we eventually connected on the phone. Unable to really figure anything out on my own, I was curious to ask him about what was going on in terms of rap and hip hop in the city and by chance it just so happened that he was preparing an idea that would start showcasing the very community I was trying to learn more about. He was still in the planning stages of bringing Yelawolf to town in a move that he was hoping to replicate: attracting audiences to come out to shows by alluring them with a big name and offering local MCs the chance to be seen by new faces by adding them to the bill. The Yelawolf show at Phat Kaps worked (big time) and the procedure has continued to do so, bringing a bit of visibility to local names who might not otherwise have the opportunity to perform in front of large audiences. But what it also did was spark a bit of a push to encourage local MCs in general.

This past May, Sean Maloney wrote an article in the Nashville Scene that covered this rebirth, of sorts, titled “How guys like Openmic, Dee Goodz and more are leading the Nashville hip-hop charge, and creating a scene all their own.” In the article Sean discussed a few of the MCs he felt were driving this new breed, while also touching on a few additional factors which were helping to drive the shift including an increase in media coverage, including a push from such blogs as Break on a Cloud, 2Ls on a Cloud (I still crack up at the unintentional similarity in their names), and this blog. Why go through explaining all this? To emphasize that while I’m still relatively new to Nashville, and still have no idea how deep or shallow the pool of talent in the city might be, I’m not new to the idea of supporting local artists, pushing for them in local online and print publications, and hyping local shows. What I am new to, however, is an idea that leaves me feeling that depending on how it’s done, it might not have the value that it appears to. But supporting the community is the right thing to do, right? Buy local, support local artists, etc. Well, there’s a little more to it than that.

Part of the reason that I personally grew tired of focusing on Twin Cities’ acts was that when it comes right down to it, a lot of them just really weren’t that good. Or maybe they were good, but they just weren’t my thing. Numerous times I was responsible for blog posts on City Pages’ website or show previews in the paper that promoted artists in the name of community who I genuinely didn’t care about. Instead of being honest with myself however I went with the flow: To some degree it’s part of the job, but had I realized then what I believe I do now I would have given up on the local-focus long before I landed in Nashville, and long before I got involved in promoting local artists here. I would have never blogged about plenty of the acts that hit the front page had it not been for the fact that they were based in the community which I lived. This doesn’t reflect well on me, and I realize this, and that’s fine, but it’s important to consider because dating all the way back to 2007 when I started to spend more time looking at the city around me, no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve hardly been the only person selling local mediocrity as something truly worthwhile. Sadly I think that this is a symptom of locally-aimed outlets wherever you go, and I might take some heat for saying this but Nashville is no exception.

What might be most interesting thing about Sean’s May-article came not in the cheerleading but in a comment which followed from “Yep” that read, “We’ve seen iterations of this same story since the early ’90s. Between Count Bass D, Iayaalis, Haystack, Utopia State and others, Nashville hip-hop still has not taken off. This city is still in retrograde mode when it comes to supporting music that does not have a country spin or a light & bright face attached to it.” Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by purpose, it was around the time that a friend of mine gave me an article which ran in the Nashville Scene in September of 2005 titled “Cashville Underground: Nashville’s hip-hop scene is poised to blow up.” The timing was remarkable.

Written by now-Managing Editor Jack Silverman, the article detailed the rap community in Nashville and defined the landscape as being “a scene that, given the right set of circumstances, could boil over at any minute.” Citing MCs such as Cadence & Jelly Roll, the article reflects a similar feeling of optimism that Sean’s did when he called Nashville “a scene on the move.” Jack’s article did well to not get entirely ahead of itself by explaining some of the difficulties facing local artists though, and while Sean’s didn’t detail them, many of the problems still exist: the city’s MCs tend to stand on their own rather than work together, there is a scarcity of local venues that consistently welcome MCs, and the list goes on. All of these issues might be changing, and some are even beginning to turn around completely, but there remains this curious tendency to hyperbolize the local rap scene here in the city. To some degree I think it has to do with the anger tied to Nashville’s image being so very tightly pinned to the development and support of country music (nearly exclusively), but part of it also has to do with that broader issue of supporting local for local’s sake. I want to make something clear here, I’m as guilty of this as the next person (perhaps guiltier than the next, even) and I’m not trying to point fingers or make a mockery out of anyone, be it artist or media member. What I’m trying to do is suggest that there’s an alternative way of doing business that might be more valuable to everyone involved. Sean and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but he’s a good guy and is leading the pack right now in terms of giving exposure to a largely overlooked faction of artist. And to be fair, I think he’s trying to confront this very same issue as he continues to push things in a positive direction.

In addition to various features which date back to long before I even moved to the city, Sean’s recently been compiling submissions from local MCs for weekly "Party & Bullshit" blog posts. We chatted about them a little bit online earlier this week and he addressed this need for better curation, “At the beginning P&B was mostly me with my fingers crossed hoping that I’d have a enough material to even write a blog post. Now it’s a question of whether or not I have time to listen to everything that comes my way and then wrestling with what I want to put in there. That there’s enough hip hop in Nashville these days to be really selective about what I cover.” I’m really glad he brought this up because what Sean’s saying here about the process of increased selectivity is as important to the ongoing development of any “scene” as it is for the growth of individual artists.

In a recent Huffington Post article, filmmaker Kevin Smith spoke to how unnecessary it is to degrade the work of creative-types, as on the flip side, “It costs nothing to encourage an artist, and the potential return is immeasurable. A song will cheer your mood. A movie will let you escape. A podcast will make you laugh. Nice dividends to a simple investment.” He continued, “Art can’t save the world, but it can make the world a lot easier to take. You tell a budding artist something good about their work, or share with them the things you’ve learned, or show them how to advocate for their art themselves? It costs you nothing but time. The potential upside? Maybe one day, they make your favorite movie. Or write the book you’ve read twenty times. Or record the most-played song on your iPod. Or rock the longest-running podcast in history. All because you said something kind.” He makes a great point, and I’m not here to argue that, but when these avenues of positive feedback are so widely open for access, and so readily lending encouragement it begins to water down the entire process of defining what’s actually good. C.S. Lewis has a funny quote that sort of applies here: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” There’s probably no real use in telling an artist that their work is laughably terrible. But it might be more detrimental in the long-run to lead on like what they’re doing is great when in reality it’s only marginally better than being entirely forgettable. It’s a difficult line to walk, finding a balance between insult and embellishment, and unfortunately we’re usually left leaning closer to the latter.

My opinion, over time, has became fairly worthless in this online forum largely because it’s been so heavily tied to nonchalant blog posts about artists who I really didn’t care about (this isn’t specific to local artists though, more on that to come in a later blog post). Without setting a higher standard for who we place on a pedestal and offer our support to, we’ll be left with preaching about how an act like Mobb Mafia could be the key to the success of an entire city’s musical development (as MC Kool Daddy Fresh did in Jack’s article). But even if we do place our collective weight and support behind a talent that we feel is legitimate, I’d still argue against putting the weight of such our-scene-is-on-the-cusp-of-breaking-out articles on their shoulders. You don’t really have to look any further than Jack’s article to see what I mean, particularly focusing an MC that he pumped up pretty hard in his piece when he explained that “It’s almost unanimous among local rap insiders that All Star is the next big thing to break out of Cashville.”

Now performing under the name of Starlito, the MC might have had the potential to be that break-out star that a scene needs, but damned if he didn’t face some major hurdles along the way. Hitting big with the 2005 Yo Gotti & Young Jeezy collaboration “Grey Goose,” All $tar struck a deal with Cash Money, but even so, by February of 2008, when the New York Times’ Kelefah Senneh wrote a feature about him, he was still struggling to rise to the next level. “He calls himself All $tar, and he has what most rappers dream of: a devoted fan base, a strong regional reputation and a big-time record deal. His major-label debut, ‘Street Ball’ (Cash Money/Universal), is one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated Southern hip-hop albums. But all that was equally true last year. And in 2006. And in 2005 too. All $tar, who just turned 23, has been Nashville’s next big hip-hop thing for so long that the title has stopped seeming like a compliment.” Starlito’s local shine hasn’t really faded away in the years that followed — this past December he released the full-length album Starlito’s Way 3: Life Insurance, and he dropped the Ultimate Warrior mixtape earlier this month — but that next level never really materialized for the still-young MC. This isn’t to say that he’s not talented, that he didn’t hustle, or that a breakout down the road might not still happen, but simply that it’s just ridiculously hard to actually break out and taste mainstream success, let alone carry an entire city’s roster of MCs into the public eye with you. Perhaps nothing would have changed if such a burden of potential success wasn’t placed on his shoulders at such an early age, but it still makes me cringe a little to see the same thing happen in 2011 to a talented guy like Openmic who’s barely legal, himself. Artists need time to develop, and if they’re being illegitimately touted (again, as I’ve been guilty of countless times) there’s a chance that they begin to buy their own hype regardless of whether or not they actually have the talent to back it up. The really depressing thing is that this empty hyping isn’t even the worst thing that I’m guilty of in terms of pushing the whole local angle on the blog. The fact is that I was being dishonest without even really realizing it: I’d been going about things the wrong way for so long that I didn’t even realize that I was trying to make it more about me, and my “personal brand” or whatever, than about the music.

It’s disheartening to go back through the mental scrapbook and realize all the times that my intentions were put out there for personal gain while I was spouting off about building community. Certainly I believed in its importance, and I still do, but I guess I wasn’t ever really honest with myself about how much of what I was doing was a personal grab at some sort of notoriety. Sad as it might be, this blog has been one of the only things that ever really made me feel important in my adult life, which might be why I’ve always returned to it, but that realization hardly cleanses the bitter taste that all of this has left in my mouth.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I feel that it’s the another one of the key issues that can get in the way of any local music scene developing: The music has to speak for itself and validate its own importance, not the importance of those who document it. There’s a documentary that I’d recommend people checking out called PressPausePlay that focuses on the democratization of art in the digital era. In it Pitchfork’s Amy Phillips touches on the idea that just because you can make music does not mean that you’re entitled to a fan base. The exact same thing is true of bloggers: just because we can figure out how to install WordPress and embed some YouTube clips doesn’t mean that we deserve to be seen. And just as they do with musicians, audiences have to assume motivation with bloggers. It just so happens to turn out that after all this time I had become largely misguided about what mine was. I feel like I’ve been deceptive and I really regret that.

Last week I asked Gotty, who continues to be nothing but a rock in this city, for some feedback about what he’s seen happen this year and he explained another problem facing Nashville artists, which could potentially be the most crippling. “The biggest challenge the city faces is much like any relationship: sustaining and finding a way to stay in love. Keeping the rap romance going requires continuing to spread the word and bring friends to shows, taking a gamble on shows where maybe you don’t know all of the artists on the bill but you know the show’s host and their ability to put together great bills or going out to a Wednesday night show because there will be newfound friends there, etc.” One doesn’t need to look any further than Jack’s article to see how short the lifespan of a regional talent can be, and I don’t know that many of the MCs and producers making music in the city right now will fare any better. But what seems apparent is that there continues to be a shift in the local culture. Sean added, “It used to be that I would know every show that was happening and every person that was going to be there and, well, that’s just not the case anymore. There are more club nights and shows and artists than I can even keep track of and there’s an audience that keeps showing up for all of ‘em, which is just mind blowing. I think Nashville hip hop has finally found itself.”

As far as whether or not there’s a legitimate chance that Nashville develops into a nationally-regarded scene for anything but country music is far beyond me. It’s still a strange city and I still have no idea about how it works. Take Nashville’s Dead for example: since I moved here it’s been one of the most influential blogs that I know of in terms of pumping local talent. The people who write the blog posts might be friends of the people they write about, or in the bands themselves, but it’s still a damn fine outlet to discover what’s going on in the city. Yet despite its consistency, or the work of my aforementioned Cloud friends, the Nashville Scene recently named itself the “Best Music Blog” for the second straight year, comically adding as its runners-up both a “music discovery platform” that recently (un-ironically, mind you) posted a Coldplay tribute, and a blog aimed at the sharing of “experiences in marketing music and managing artists” which most recently awarded Switchfoot as its “October Pick Of The Month.” (Yes it was a reader’s poll and yes Sean made room for a well-deserved special mention of Break on a Cloud, but that breakdown still concerns me.) Had I been paying better attention these past few months I’d probably be able to list a few more instances of goofy industry goings-on, but as such I haven’t.

Even if music-heads are able to avoid puffing up local talent that isn’t all that talented, even if those documenting the community don’t mistake their own importance for that of the subject their covering (essentially if you can do what I haven’t done), and even if MCs are allowed to develop slowly, with artists taking time to find their voices and grow into their music, this is still a tough industry city (maybe The Industry City), and from where I’m at the process of swimming upstream against the current here appears damn near impossible. Add to it that Nashville, by population alone, is a relatively small market, and thus has a smaller pool of talent to rely on. Interestingly enough though, I might be in the distinct minority here.

Sean closed our discussion by summing up his take on the future, “I’m thinking there are going to be a lot more high quality records from innovative artists. I also think that folks outside the city are going to start noticing what’s going on here.” He continued, “Basically, I’m thinking 2012 is going to make 2011 look like a quiet and unproductive year, which it definitely has not been…” Gotty reflected a similar feeling of optimism, “There’s no reason Nashville, as ‘Music City,’ should be continuously overlooked as a hub, either for tour stops and the music being created here. For years, the rap scene here has been overlooked and un-nurtured. Now, everybody’s working, taking shifts and adding their skills to the mix in order to make sure the garden’s growing.”

The whole purpose of this, other than it being helpful for me to figure myself out a little, is to say that I really didn’t go about things as I should have in Minneapolis, I was completely misguided in my lazy attempt to focus locally in Calgary, and to go on doing so in Nashville would be a disservice to not only those who are doing it with genuine intentions, but also the few artists who do deserve better. I take issue with the idea of a “scene” even needing to be built, when a strong community (there I go again…) is really what’s most important. If all that happens in the coming years is that MCs begin to really work together and fans continue to pack shows, the city will be immeasurably better for it. When it comes down to it I do want to see people succeed (even those who I don’t feel are all that good at what they do), but I don’t want to see this become another scenario where some blogger is pointing the finger six years from now saying we did things all wrong, questioning why there still isn’t any rap or hip hop scene in Nashville. Sorry if I’ve already let you down in working against that happening.

Mac L's "Raw Material"

It was just about 10 months ago that I first met Mac L. In a number of ways the cocksure MC served as my introduction to a side of Nashville that I didn’t know much about when first moving here, and certainly a sector that isn’t entirely visible unless you’re actively looking for it: the rap and hip hop community. The night we met we talked at length about the issues facing young artists in Music City, discussing in detail the lack of cohesion between contemporaries and other factors cramping development such as scarcity of live venues in the city that are open to “urban” acts and general disinterest from the media. I was a bit taken back by the reality that Mac painted for me that night and here it is, 10 months later, and I still don’t know what to make of this city. Sure, Nashville faces issues that strike every city, regardless of location, concerning the nurturing of local artists, but Nashville also has a few of its own problems that are more specific to its community that I’m still trying to figure out.

The main purpose of this article is to document and celebrate something Mac’s accomplished in the time since I first met him. To put it bluntly, I probably wouldn’t be posting this if I hadn’t told Mac many months ago that I’d help “sponsor” his mixtape (I’ve not really been blogging about much of anything lately). As time passed I about forgot my promise, but I figured why not – Mac’s my friend. This isn’t to say that his new mixtape, Raw Material, doesn’t deserve recognition however. It’s an interesting album in that it identifies a young lyricist in transition, slowly growing into the realities of the modern political and economic landscape, slowly identifying his changing perception of the country, slowly finding his place. One of the things that Mac isn’t slow to, however, is announcing his own importance as an artist, nor is he slow to suggest that his future will be anything less than successful. As irritating as his self-assured chest beating might be at times, which he does no more or less than any other MC who’s trying to gain attention, I admire Mac’s persistence – he isn’t about to let anyone tell him that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is.

A free download of the entire album is available below, and for those interested in learning a bit more about Mac there’s also a brief Q&A with him that touches on his future in the city, whether or not he’s calling it quits after this release, and why he feels that there is “no one else who makes music like me” (there’s also this interview with him from this past January). The bottom line is that Mac might not be every bit as phenomenal as he feels he is (yet?), but I’m still comfortable standing behind Raw Material and putting my name on it because it just so happens to be that in addition to being my friend, he’s also one of the select Nashvillian MCs whose work I actually enjoy. It’s my hope, as I’m sure it is Mac’s, that you too enjoy what he’s put together here.

On one hand you speak to how proud you are of graduating college, but the flip side is your own sense of feeling disenfranchised by the system: how the degree helps your self-esteem yet burdens you because it has yet to give you an advantage in finding a job. Do you feel people can relate to you on this and how much do you struggle with this daily?

Mac L: The short answer is yes. I know people can relate to me, simply because I know people who are going through the same things I’m going through, if not worse. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt, but you gotta have faith. That’s why I try not to let this get to me daily, because with despair comes opportunity. As of late I’ve come to realize my destiny, and ultimately I need to stop letting the system stop me from my dreams. With that said, I’m no longer looking for a job, but an expansion of my career.

We briefly talked about this before — cocktails might’ve been involved on either or both ends of the conversation — but you’ve hinted that this might be your swan song. Are you going to continue pursuing rapping as a genuine outlet following this release, and if so, what still drives you to push forward?

Mac L: (Laughs) Blame the alcohol. Rap always was and always will be my outlet. I enjoy music too much to quit, as an artist and a fan. With that said, I’m already working on my next project as I wait to release this one. I have two younger siblings that look up to me. They mean everything to me. My brother plays my music all through the house and even has his basketball teams (yes, teams) playing my joints. There’s too many people who enjoy my work, who depend on me, who expect great things from me, and that’s because there’s no one else who makes music like me, who can drop knowledge and entertainment at the same time. For me to give up, at this point, would be turning my back on everyone who has ever had a kind word for me.

“…and that’s because there’s no one else who makes music like me, who can drop knowledge and entertainment at the same time.” This isn’t meant to sound confrontational or critical, but do you really feel that way? Deep down inside, that you’re in an elite tier among MCs?

Mac L: Shit, I know I’m not the only one who can do it. I just feel like I’m the only one that actually takes a stab at it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts, but who doesn’t? As far as being in an elite tier, the record won’t allow me to say that I am. I will say that I’m on my way though. My plan and my ability will show and prove it for me.

How much did you invest in Raw Material when all’s said and done, and how much might that aspect of the artistic process play into whether or not you continue to release music in the future?

Mac L: I invested a lot of time, energy, and money into Raw Material. The few people that heard The Great American Paper Chase will understand that my main focus is progression. My next tape will be a further example. The only thing that would stop me from continuing to release music would be if I lost my artistic freedom.

Raw Material touches on everything from grievances with the President to celebrating nostalgia, but what was left on the cutting room floor? Do you have any half-finished ideas that you simply had to let go?

Mac L: There were TONS of songs, some finished, some unfinished. If you notice the tracklisting, there were basically no features on the mixtape. That’s not the way I originally intended. If Raw Material went the way I originally wanted it to be, there’d be a movie to go with it. I had more feelings to unload, more ideas, more stories, but it was too much. I had to understand that I’m not in a position where I can just do whatever I want and expect people to gravitate toward it. Some songs will be on future projects. Other songs may ultimately be scrapped. A lot of songs were put on The Prelude, which is up for free download now. For the record, despite my frustrations with our President, I’m standing by him.

Letterman Said it Best...

This started as a Facebook post. Initially I feared putting something like this up on the blog because it might be misconstrued as another in this weekend’s parade of tasteless grabs for pageviews and misplaced online celebrations. But my words eventually outgrew the word-count limit on Facebook’s “wall,” and I’d like to think that my concluding idea might be worth sharing with more people than the few dozen friends I have. (That last part is arguable.)

The idea of “where were you” is nearly foreign to me. My generation has no moon-landing, Lennon assassination or even its own “Who shot J.R.?” Additionally the news that does seem relevant is tweeted, aggregated, and archived before its genuine relevance is even really felt. Yet keeping that in mind, we don’t really have another time where we were collectively shot in the chest as when we were ten years ago: 9/11 is our only real “where were you.” And in my own “where were you,” I was at the dentist’s office with my father. I don’t remember the exact reason behind the visit, but I imagine that I was there to get a check-up because we weren’t sure when we might next be able to get our teeth looked at as we were on the verge of moving to the U.S.

I’d love to say that we had some kind of rah-rah patriotic intention in mind with the relocation, but we didn’t. We were merely moving to try something new. For my parents our leap from Alberta to Minnesota marked a return home: my dad was born in St. Paul and my mom, while born in Iowa, grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Coon Rapids. For my sister and I, the move would put us closer to our many cousins, aunts and uncles who live in the area. But at the dentist’s office, things changed.

We’d already sold our house, purged most of our belongings through a series of successful garage sales (which in my case included a mean 1984 Chevy pick-up), and were packing up what little remained, preparing it for the moving truck. But after what happened on the television in the dentist’s office we became afraid. This wasn’t Y2K, this was something real that could potentially prevent us from making the leap that we’d planned; after all, it’s damn near impossible to make a move from one country to another if the border is closed.

Without drawing this out, we were fine in the end. Making the journey in October, we found a small, minimally trafficked crossing between Saskatchewan (I believe, it might have been Manitoba) and North Dakota and as we had our documents in order, we were allowed to pass through. Our fear was that we’d have to unload the entire truck so that our belongings could be searched but the patrol guards barely gave us a once-over. Although I’d just turned 18, even then I knew that things could go sour real quick for us, but we made it through without complication. What a gigantic relief.

Despite the circumstances, the process of looking back on that period of my life, and comparing it with where I am now, is an enjoyable one. Comparing that time with the present in terms of where we are as a country, however, is much more complicated. There’s been a lot of change in ten years, and unfortunately much of that change has included painting the nation with a myriad of grays where black and white once appeared. This morning I was directed to an essay that David Foster Wallace wrote in 2007 which speaks to this shift while questioning the price of our liberties. Immediately my mind drifted from there to the foreboding article that Hunter Thompson wrote for ESPN in reaction to the events of September 11, before creeping toward David Letterman’s first show back on the air after, what he described as, the “obscene chaos.”

Acting as a modern-day Nostradamus, Hunter’s “Fear & Loathing in America” accurately mapped out just how war would evolve on a global scale and how it would affect each and every one of us. If you haven’t done so before I encourage you to read the entire article (it’s brief), and if you’ve read it before, it probably wouldn’t hurt to re-familiarize yourself with it.
"The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. But the Letterman clip is something different."
I don’t feel that there’s a place for Alex Jones-ian, Loose Change, building seven conspiracy rhetoric this weekend, so I’d like to stay away from dissecting his points about Rudy Giuliani and the like. Rather, what’s important to me about this clip is Letterman’s seemingly earnest, heartfelt reaction. This speech is the only time that I can recall hearing the utterance of “goddamn” on network television (which actually helped cement it in my mind), and the statement that surrounds that word is what continues to resonate with me,
"As I understand it — and my understanding of this is vague at best — another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor… religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamned sense?"
Dave’s words on confusion still move me, but more important than those, his remarkable thoughts on courage, and his brave ability to find humor among the darkness, was Dave’s touching anecdote about the spirit of the country’s people. While time has helped mask the bleak confusion that followed the events that took place a decade ago, what remains is something that I still cherish: the human spirit. This isn’t exclusive to a small town in Montana, nor the U.S., nor North America, but what continues to flourish around the world is the spirit to come together and help one another in time of need. We saw it after 9/11, we’ve recently seen it Haiti, and we continue to witness it in Japan.

So on a weekend when levels of celebratory flag-waving might reach an all-time high (if not for the anniversary, then certainly for the kick-off of the NFL season), what makes sense to me is to reflect not on the actual events of 9/11, the questionable politicking which followed, or the static surrounding the entire package, but rather: the persistent human spirit that remains within us all.

Jay-Z and Kanye West "Watch the Throne" Review

The success of Watch the Throne is going to have to be defined by how each unique passenger of the vessel approaches the collaboration. Kanye West and Jay-Z are undoubtedly two of the most elite and in demand voices in rap (or pop music, or simply music in general), and if the focus is the music, the album will be defined by its sound. With production by the likes of West, Swizz Beatz, the RZA, 88 Keys and Q-Tip, there’s no shortage of talent behind the scenes to allow the songs to burst with excellence. But if looking below the glossy exterior, the perception of what the core of Watch the Throne is all about changes dramatically. “Doctors say I’m the illest ’cause I’m suffering from realness,” teases Kanye in “Niggas in Paris,” a track which was recorded in the extravagant Le Meurice Hotel in Paris, France. Keeping it real never appeared so luxurious.

But in the world of Jay-Z and Kanye West, that’s what keeping it real has become: it’s about how hard you can stunt and the excessive lengths which your posturing can reach, while still retaining an appearance of realness. As Jay continues in “Paris,” “What’s 50 grand to a muhfucka like me?… The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy.” Perhaps the chest-pounding is no more excessive than it is on the Otis Redding/James Brown-sampling “Otis,” with Jay further reaching toward tasteless extremes, “Photoshoot fresh, lookin’ like wealth, I’m ’bout to call the paparazzi on myself” while Kanye boasts “Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses/Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.” In the world of The Throne this is the norm which is lived by, so of course it’s going to be a non-event when they brag of having “so many watches I need eight arms” as they do in “Who Gon Stop Me.” But what’s more is that this shift in belief is not only an expectation of the listener at this point, but of themselves: “I’m at the table/I’m gambling/Lucky lefty, I expect a seven/I went through hell, I’m expecting heaven/I’m owed, I’m throwed and I stuck to the G-code.”

The trouble isn’t in that this brand of living is the new elite standard, but that with every reminder of the duo’s swag comes an equally empty reminder of how it's deserved. In the Kanye-produced “Lift Off,” Beyonce‘s hook loops around the singer’s qualification that “you don’t know what we’ve been through to make it this far.” “Paris” finds Jay justifying his excesses, “If you escaped what I’ve escaped you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” Led by Frank Ocean’s hook, engineered for emotional appeal, the duo continue to expound on their life lessons in the track, while reconfirming just how in touch with the world they still are in “Gotta Have It,” despite having “Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs,” Yeezy adds “I remain Chi-town,” and Jay, “Brooklyn till I die.” And while he might be living lavishly, Kanye’s quick to remind us how hard Chicago still rolls (“And I’m from the murder capital/Where they murder for capital/Heard about at least three killings this afternoon”) which somehow adds further to his realness, if only by proximity.

If that contrast weren’t difficult enough to digest, Watch the Throne is ripe with plenty of other twists, turns, and inevitable Kanye-isms. Without even touching on Holocaust allusions (“Who Gon Stop Me”), the duo both lean on race to combat feelings of insecurity and perceived artistic injustice: Kanye accuses “white America” of character assassination in “Gotta Have It” while Jay preaches how they need to “put some colored girls in the MOMA” in “That’s My Bitch,” adding, “I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always all-white?” The RZA co-produced “New Day” takes an odd turn as both Jay and Ye speak to their future children, attempting to steer them toward private paths of happiness long before their birth, while still finding ways to be casually venomous, “And I’ll never let my son have an ego/He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go/I mean I might even make ‘em be Republican/So everybody know he love white people.” A faint shadow of poetry appears in the Swizz Beatz-produced “Welcome to the Jungle” as Jay looks back at the inescapable lows which still find a way to drown out the successes, “Work pots and pans just to come me some Airs/My uncle died, my daddy did too/Paralyzed by pain I can barely move/My nephew gone, my heard is torn/Sometimes I look to the sky, ask why I was born/My faith in God, every day is hard/Every night is worst, that’s why I pray so hard.” But cast among such a focused body of self-congratulatory work, the feigned sensitivity is washed away by wave after wave of empty boasting by the braggadocious tag-team.

For the numerous basketball related references that pass by throughout Watch the Throne, it’s interesting to follow how the two solo performers do in fact end up working together as a team on the album. But as Grantland’s Hua Hsu explained in his take on the album, this ability to co-exist shouldn’t be viewed as an immediate sign of greatness.
"Instead of competition, we now live in a culture that produces mutually beneficial agreements. Instead of rivals there are dream teams, talents taken around the globe in the name of common goals, brand visions, the quid pro quo backslap culture of “liking” and retweeting. Instead of a guy emerging from a bench-clearing brawl with his arm dislocated, we have the Miami Heat and their ‘Big Three.’ By most accounts, this is a far preferable way to live… But it doesn’t necessarily make for more interesting art."
Not unlike the “Big Three,” Watch the Throne finds Kanye and Jay bringing out an unusual side in each other, kicking back and basking in their collective glow, examining their successes, congratulating one another on sticking to the “G-code” and making a point to reference how selfless they’ve been in helping the less fortunate along the way, despite continually remaining targets themselves (which covers the lyrical basis of “Why I Love You,” the Cassius-sampling track which might be one of the musical highlights on the release). But this is far more blatant than “Big Pimpin’” ever was, instead portraying the pair as insiders looking back out over a world that they are no longer in touch with; their reference points so far changed that their extreme stories of success have become folklore championing the “everyman” within their circles. Illuminati? No need. What’s the use of a secret society when you can live and breathe your creed out in the public, documenting your own personal new world order in plain sight, painting it gold, and shelving it exclusively at a big box retailer where fans will still inevitably line up in droves, hard-earned cash in hands to see their reflection in its faux-metallic cover?

Well, if you’re approaching Watch the Throne from that perspective, the album might not present itself with quite the same value that it otherwise would. But at least it sounds tight.

311 "Universal Pulse" Review

In the ’90s, with the odd exception, there was no other band for me: 311 was it. As I ascended through junior high, then high school, the 311 insignia was not only a staple of my wardrobe, both emblazoned on t-shirts and patches that I had hand-stitched onto my backpack, but it was also found on various posters throughout my bedroom. More importantly, however, it represented not only my favorite band, but a strange fringe community of fans, a group that I felt I had grown with and one that championed a band that was tirelessly refreshing to listen to.

Like many, I believe I first became a fan following the release of 311′s greatest commercial success – the band’s 1995 multi-platinum self titled release – but when I took time to become engaged in the community surrounding the group and dug further into their catalog (I remember at exactly which shops I paid pre-Amazon retail prices for the band’s first two CDs: Music and Grassroots) I found myself hooked. By the time Transistor was released in 1997 it appeared that there was no turning back: the Hive had sucked me in.

The band’s 1998 Live album was fantastic, especially for someone who lived in a city where 311 had never played, and the musical experimentation of 1999′s Soundsystem only further cemented the group’s status in my mind. Seeing 311 for the first time in 2001, at a dusty race track in Western Canada as part of the Warped Tour, remains a concert-going highlight for me to this day, while the album that the band was supporting at the time, From Chaos, likewise remains a sentimental favorite. But after that something seemed to change.

Two years later 311 dropped Evolver, the band’s seventh studio album in nine years, which seemed to mark a turning point, musically, for the group. Critically panned, it retained an alluring core sound, but in retrospect it might have been evidence of 311 trying to do too much: a touring workhorse, the group was now locked into Sony’s Volcano subsidiary which, after recent comments made by vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum to Billboard, seems like it was slowly chipping away at the band.

A reggae-reaching cover of the Cure’s “Love Song” became a commercial hit in 2004, and was trailed by Don’t Tread on Me the following year. Again, the album wasn’t bad, but within 311′s growing catalog it hardly stood out. It was somewhere during this time, however, that the band lost me. To some degree 311′s sound was changing — a change for the worse in my opinion — and the part which remained true to the group’s past began feeling stale. Twenty years into their career as a band by that point in time, the decline in fresh-sounding new material was hardly shocking though – how many bands survive long enough to make a half dozen killer albums these days? – which only softened the blow of letting go, and somewhere between 2004 and 2009 I lost interest. It took the better part of a decade, but I had all the same gone from a die-hard fan to a glory days-seeking detractor. And up to just recently I had watched the group from the role of an outsider: curious about what they were up to, I no longer believed that they championed the style of music and values that once captured my fascination.

Now the band has released its tenth album, Universal Pulse. And with it comes a realization that somewhere between “Love Song” and now, I had simply lost the plot. Simply put: I was wrong.

Despite re-emerging with a seemingly half-cocked eight song release, Universal Pulse packages everything that I so thoroughly enjoyed about the band’s music into a palatable 30 minutes. “Time Bomb” quickly opens the release with the group’s familiar upbeat positivity before “Wild Nights” crashes down, delivering with it what might be Pulse‘s most endearing track. “Where would we be without the wild nights/Without the lows and highs, failing to get it right/Where would we be without the wild nights/Barely getting by, the days of getting high.” The theme of recognizing and growing from past failures carries with it plenty of personal sentiment, which lends the track even that much more emotional presence. “Trouble” later picks back up on the theme, complementing “Wild Nights” as Hexum details patches from a troubled youth, before clarifying that realization, maturity and self-awareness can alleviate such a burden. To a casual listener this is probably just more of the same old 311, but to thirsty ears, the significance of such uplifting themes is as refreshing as ever.

The album’s lead single, “Sunset in July,” is textbook 311, the song’s crunching guitars creating a base for Hexum and SA Martinez to trade verses as only they can. The song itself carries a special significance as it serves as a heartwarming thank you to fans, the light-hearted chorus revealing that the band has no greater joy than to watch their crowds dancing and singing along at shows. “Count Me In” is another stellar 311 track, led by a thick P-Nut bassline which carries through into “Rock On.” This track is unusual in that it offers the hardest throbbing sound on the album without detracting from the story of personal undoing and realization of self-abuse. “Your pattern became a prison the beast within you risen/Shop for your own device you pay the price/And so you give in to your pity party, party of one/No one shows up, another sip of poison, slow death fills your cup.” “Weightless” follows with what might perhaps be the softest record on the release, but it’s quickly overshadowed by album-closer “And a Ways to Go.” The airy song breezes by, a seemingly perfect arrangement to fall right into place aside Transistor, with Martinez vocally recalling the events of a wild dream. The track’s brilliant bassline breakdown notwithstanding, as the song drifts away the impression left behind is one focusing on the moment and calling for a loss of inhibitions. This is the 311 I remember.

Maybe I had changed too much as a listener, or maybe something had changed within the group, but by the time Uplifter was released in 2009 (peaking at the highest chart position the group had seen on the Billboard 200, a true testament to their dedicated and ever-growing fanbase) I was out. Yet while the ambivalence toward new material from the band had overwhelmed what was once a strong craving for all things 311 (56 kbps B-sides, you say? Yes please!), I never lost touch of the music that gave me so much joy during my youth. It’s easy to walk away, but it’s hard to forget how much impact an album like Transistor has had on not only my taste in music, but my life in general. Maybe they did change, or maybe my ears simply weren’t listening, but whatever the case, Universal Pulse has again shown why 311 have thrived all these years, and more importantly, why I once again am confident in considering myself a fan.

Things Could Be Different

If things had worked out differently I could be rolling with a ten year old kid and be married to someone who’s completely wrong for me. Essentially, I could have put a cap on my growth as a person. I could have foregone any sort of education and pursued the rest of my life with a fear of learning and a high school diploma which, as it turns out, was hardly worth the little time I actually invested in it. I could be bored with my life. I could think that what I was doing was a “good path,” pushing boxes around in a warehouse somewhere, or working as a hack-chef in an upscale chain restaurant; or at least I’d say it’s upscale to give myself some inflated sense of worth. I could be in jail. I could be in some gutter somewhere. I could be dead. But I’m not. Of all the things that could have happened, I ended up here. Looking at this screen on a Sunday night in a beautiful and safe apartment that I can miraculously afford in a state that I genuinely had trouble pointing out on a map as little as eight months ago.

Looking back on who I thought I was, and maybe even who I thought I was going to be, I could have never guessed that things would have played out like they did. I was in the 12th grade a decade ago, working to make up credits so I could actually graduate from high school. I had quit my job and picked up a taste for drinking beer and doing a bit of hash and weed. I guess though, when you carry your own pipe around with you pretty much wherever you go, ‘a bit’ is probably an understatement as far as usage is concerned. Point is, the drastic changes that life gives us are so immense that it’s sort of pointless to focus on anything but the moment. Sure, draw up your five year plans and figure out what you’d like to aspire to be in that given amount of time, or make sure that you’re working to meet your goals, but don’t think for one moment that some serious change isn’t going to happen between now and then. It will. Things could have been different now given the past, and things in the future will be different given the present. Suppose all that’s to be done, really, is to just try and enjoy yourself a bit right now.

Racism in Rap

[Note: This article uses language which some readers might find particularly offensive. Please be advised that the sensitive nature of the content is not being published with the intent to offend.]

“Hip hop’s vitality is directly related to its rebelliousness. You can tame it if you like (or try to), but whatever the result, it won’t be hip hop.” This statement comes from Hip Hop America author Nelson George in a 2007 Salon article titled “Is rap racist?” While that particular roundtable feature examined the core values that were tested during the Don Imus fallout, of any musical genre none has been so perpetually caught up in racial conflict as rap and hip hop. This isn’t to negate issues surrounding sexism and homophobia and their well documented places within the genre’s history, but race continues to be one of the leading topics which lends rap this “rebellious” connotation.

Everyone’s starting point in terms of this discussion is different, which is why everyone will have a unique perspective on the matter. Depending what effect racism has had on your life, that will leave you with a different starting point than I have. Racism isn’t foreign to me, but my history is limited to that of an outsider. I’ve never been the target of hate-speech, nor violence or physical harm based on the color of my skin. The starting point for Nashville MC Classic Williams is however very different, and he is releasing a new album tomorrow which tells his story. This past February the young MC first revealed his plans for The Soul of Nigger Charlie to me in an interview, however the album title carries with it connotation far beyond the simple words which comprise its title and lyrics.

Through one of our various email exchanges over the past couple of weeks Williams revealed why he felt it was appropriate to dive into such rough waters. “Me using the word ‘nigger’ in the title is obviously controversial, but it’s more than just that. It’s me freeing myself from the bonds the word placed me under growing up in the circumstances that I did. It’s one thing to look at the word and to fear it, but to actually experience being called the word on a regular basis for several years makes it a realer experience. As an artist, authenticity is everything — especially being a hip hop artist — and that’s about as real is it gets.”

The album itself bulges with bravado, opening with a female voice-over ripe with Blaxploitation-era reference. Adding to the idea that the album is in fact a soundtrack to his story, Williams offered note on the significance of the skits, “Honey Simmons is a character I created to narrate the progression of the album. I based her character off of the movie The Warriors. There was a women in the movie who announced what was happening in the street, in a sultry voice; extremely ’70s inspired. I felt like her presence on the project was necessary in order to make it sound more like a soundtrack rather than just a mixtape.” Despite using such methods to help relate his story however, during the album Williams wisely resisted stepping into the role of satirist. This isn’t to say that Charlie isn’t likely to become the source of misinterpretation, however.

One of the most challenging portions of the album comes in the form of recurring segments featuring another character, Lame Dodges. The recorded phone messages seem at first to be poorly guided skits featuring a stereotypical redneck aggressively tossing out slurs. But Williams explained that they are not as they might first appear. “Lame Dodges is not a fictional character. He is a real person, and these are actual calls that he left on my voice mail. I changed his name and turned him into a caricature. By turning him and all people who say racists things into a character that people can laugh at I negate the negative energy. People will find it funny, but really it’s sad.” They are, however, not funny in the slightest.

The backwoods drawl of Dodges lashing out at Williams is sad, the repeated taunts of “stupid nigger” reinforcing the hatred that lurks behind the words themselves. This is where intent and execution begin to blur. Even when given context the clips are unforgivable in their crass nature. While they project a mindset which I simply don’t understand, they do raise an issue which stands at the heart of why the discussion of race remains relevant in the genre (and in our society): the problems that persist don’t begin with the music or an artist’s volatile lyrics, but in the actual issues that remain prevalent in real life. In “Changes,” 2Pac once rhymed, “Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.” It’s such misplaced hatred as these Lame Dodges clips which beg the question which follows: Do these bouts of realist interjection detract from the album’s success?

In attempting to put personal ghosts from his past to rest Classic Williams has created an album which is sonically endearing while it also challenges personal comfort levels. Musically the production by Klassix Jones helps to further establish Williams as one of the most promising young voices in Nashville, but for every bit of good that can be gained from the album, its subject matter points to a focus which might potentially be misinterpreted or overlooked in the process. Perhaps The Soul of Nigger Charlie will leave an impression on people, perhaps it might simply go unnoticed. Regardless, the album suggests a willingness to approach a daunting subject matter in a serious way which many would immediately back down from. Is art at its best when it genuinely reflects the world around us? For better or worse, I feel that it is. Throughout his new album Classic Williams might be projecting a sample of the ugliness that remains in our world, but in doing so he’s reminding us that the word nigger isn’t simply a weightless term, but one which still carries with it a very serious impact, and one which cannot be taken lightly.

Record Store Day at Third Man Records (Nashville, TN)

Photos taken April 16, 2011 at Third Man Records in Nashville, TN.

Coolio Está Demasiado Caliente

A few weeks after “Wonderwall” had captivated listeners in the UK, Coolio returned with a flow back in your ear. One of Coolio’s greatest assets was that you didn’t have to be a rap connoisseur to get down with the man’s music back in the ’90s; much like the Spin Doctors, I think that some of Coolio’s songs still hold a place in hearts of music fans everywhere, regardless of whether or not they’d ever bother listening to them again. Seriously, when can “Fantastic Voyage” or “1, 2, 3, 4” hit the speakers without a party breaking out (in your pants)? But aside from those two tracks and “Gangsta’s Paradise” (which ended up as the highest selling single of 1995) there really isn’t much else to get too worked up over in the rest of his catalog; a fact made that much more unfortunate considering that he’s still making music. There are, of course, a few tracks along the way that garnered some heat: 1997′s “I’ll C U When U Get There” (back when using letters instead of full words was legit… and about a million miles away from the questionable taste of Ke$ha’s “C U Next Tuesday”) wasn’t bad, the awesome all-star cypher on the Space Jam soundtrack was a beast, there was a tight track from a godawful Whoopi Goldberg movie… Oh, and a commentary-heavy record about promiscuity and the necessity for contraception awareness. Which one of these things is not like the others?

“Too Hot” wasn’t exactly the peak of Coolio’s career, but it was hardly a low point either, eventually peaking at the #9 position in the UK while rising to the #24 position on the Billboard singles chart. The song has a good-enough bounce and a bit of a message, which was apparently enough to help it ride as the third most successful single from the MC’s landmark release. That’s all great and everything, but if anyone actually listened to the lyrics of the song, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have topped charts and broken sales records around the entire world. Allow me to indulge myself in the first five bars alone and you’ll see what I mean:
"Everybody listen up ’cause I’m about to get my speak on
Fools be trippin’ when it’s time to get their freak on
Runnin’ ’round town, puttin’ it down
Without no protection, funny erection
When it’s time for selection, what’s your direction?"
This isn’t even including the yeah-it’s-still-pretty-relevant-given-the-year-it-was-released shout out to Magic Johnson. Nor is it taking into account the brilliance of the music video’s B-movie special effects and questionable storyline (You get AIDS = you turn into colored sand, unless you’re a white dude, then you turn into marbles. Oh, and Coolio might actually be Satan). All I ask is that next time you think about Coolio, which might be days away, or it might be decades away, you reconsider this gem and ask yourself: “Without no protection, funny erection, when it’s time for selection, what’s your direction?” Simply put, “Too Hot” was, and is, nothing short of a masterpiece.

[This article first appeared on Tsururadio.]