THOUGHT BUBBLE: On Raz Simone’s Cognitive Dissonance New York City Listening Session

Raz Simone - Cognitive Dissonance

Seattle rapper Raz Simone held his first-ever private listening session yesterday at Terminus Studios, a glistening recording space in midtown Manhattan. The occasion was to preview his upcoming album, Cognitive Dissonance, in front of a couple dozen industry people, a select group of fans, and a smattering of music writers and bloggers. Through what felt like an egregious error in guest listing, the homie Jason Chen and I found ourselves among the people standing inside the recording room, formed in a loose semi-circle around Raz as he introduced the ten tracks on his soon-to-be-released LP.

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THOUGHT BUBBLE: Macklemore’s Kendrick Tweet

Before we get to my thoughts on the tweet that nearly blew up the rap internet:

I’ve been enjoying this series of documentary shorts that followed Macklemore and Ryan Lewis around the globe last year during their Fall World Tour. The clips have been insightful, entertaining and, at times, even uplifting. Episode five (above) went up yesterday and concludes the series. It’s worth spending the 22 minutes to watch.

And now, because I can’t leave well enough alone…

Regardless of how you feel about Macklemore’s success — recently manifested in the four “gold sippy cups” he collected in Los Angeles this past Sunday — the big takeaway from the Kendrick Lamar tweet is that the man’s life has become one massive no-win situation. Being white, and a rapper, and blah blah blah, leaves him open to unique criticisms that otherwise aren’t applied to many of his pop star peers.

Having said that, I think most of the critiques are warranted — the smart ones, anyway — and, ultimately, valuable in the grand scheme of things. The fallout from Macklemore’s success, as it pertains to the non-white and non-heterosexual communities especially, is a messy business. There are bigger societal concerns at play here that have nothing to do with Macklemore the person, and everything to do with our culture’s frustrations and fears. It seems Ben Haggerty has become America’s favorite proxy for its grievances which is spurring mass conversation.

I don’t know Macklemore personally. I shook his hand and spent about ten minutes in a room with him a few years ago, but we never shared a conversation. But by all second hand accounts from people who do know him, he sounds like a good guy. Even when he participates in stunts that draw a raised eyebrow — editing down “Wings” in order to fit the NBA’s All Star Game marketing agenda; playing a role in the dubious mass wedding at the Grammys; the curious tweet to Kendrick Lamar — I never really doubt his honesty. In these scenarios it seems like he’s either being earnest to a fault, or led to participate by the sort of denial that could only be catalyzed by a sudden and disorienting amount of fame. The machine that he’s chosen to dance with is unforgiving and dispassionate and cares nothing for an artist’s personal principles.

With regards to the Kendrick tweet specifically, what was probably meant as a generous and heartfelt admission came off as an awkward and ill-advised form of damage control: a way of diffusing some of the anger “real” hip hop heads may have felt about Kendrick not winning the award. But if we’re being honest here, those so-called “real” heads already know what time it is. They don’t need Macklemore to tell them Good Kid M.A.A.D. City should have won, and they don’t need him to explain the function of these awards which are handed out annually in what essentially constitutes a magical pop culture vacuum. To make his message to Kendrick public was to insult the intelligence of the hip hop literati.

So consider the tweet a simple misstep in a career that will likely continue to be filled with them. Macklemore is a white rapper who was just certified as the best in his field by the biggest music awards show in the world. He will stumble again because the field he’s playing on is the slipperiest slope of all.

[Update, 1.30.14, 7:15am PST: Kendrick’s even-handed, democratic and existential response.]

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206UP.COM’S Top 10 Blog Resolutions for 2014

C and H

And yet another list.

The ten resolutions below came to me in a vision in New York City during my walk from the A train Fulton Street stop to the corner of Wall Street, where I make my “professional” home and persist to steal time from a well-intentioned not-for-profit. (I hope my boss isn’t reading, but if so… HI!)

Failure to make good on a minimum of five of these resolutions will result in the immediate deletion of this post. You will never see it again nor will I make mention of it. (In other words: if you have any intention of using this against me, copy and paste now.)

With that, here are the Top 10 things 206UP.COM professes to accomplish in the New Year:

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THOUGHT BUBBLE: The Problem with Online Music Criticism (and a Doris Album Review Drinking Game!)


The online music criticism universe is becoming an increasingly self-referential place. We — and I say “we” because I’m including my own stuffy self here — seem eager to stumble all over each other in a mad dash to be the first to say some shit about an album. Shit that will inevitably be repeated ad nauseum in numerous other reviews on various other sites that are all virtual clones of “that one” site we increasingly love to hate, but can’t help but click on during our first round of morning coffee.

To wit: In my Doris review I used the words “absentia” and “preternatural” inside the first two paragraphs of the piece. Why? Because I’m really fucking clever and I like to use precious vocabulary like this in order to prove my worth to the handful of uptight dicks who love geeking out over sickly turgid music criticism such as the kind I feel compelled to steal time at work to write (#runonsentence). So imagine my chagrin as I read Son Raw’s (excellent) take on Doris over at Passion of the Weiss and finding, you guessed it, exactly the same two words within the first two paragraphs of his review.

Earl(At this point in my #rant I find it important to note that I’ve made it my strict policy to never read the other reviews of albums prior to completing my own. This to avoid the dreaded sway of other writers’ opinions that I value, and the subconscious — and, let’s be honest, not-so-subconscious — lure of straight-up plagiarism. So, Son Raw, if you’re reading: I didn’t bite your steez, hand to God.)

(And also: I count myself lucky that David Reyneke, Andrew Martin, et al, have allowed me to be a regular contributor to their labor of music love, Potholes In My Blog, and I think that the stable of writers they’re putting on over there holds up in talent and knowledge base to any of the fools Metacritic feels worthy of co-signing.)

All this to say: the act of tapping out intelligent, well-considered album reviews these days feels like an exercise in expositional diminishing returns. And reading said criticism by other writers feels like the limpest circle jerk in the history of circle jerks. (And I say “circle jerks” specifically because, WE’RE ALL DUDES HERE, a whole other problem in itself that definitely deserves its own column/#rant.)

I’m not really here to offer solutions to the dilemma because I’m still trying to figure out what an adequate solution might look like. (Maybe it’s hopeless, like the Yelp Corollary [my term], which says that everything rated online and en masse inevitably trends toward the status quo.) Maybe I’ll start writing reviews that can only be read with a magic decoder ring. Maybe I’ll learn the alphabet of my native language and paint my reviews by hand on the sides of buildings in Flushing, Queens. Who knows what appropriately subversive tact I’ll take in order to exact my cold revenge? What I am here to do is #rant about it (obviously), and collate all of the standard tropes found in Doris reviews the web over into a comical and therapeutic game for drinking, aimed especially at folks like me who turn to the internet on the dawn of every major album release hoping for intelligent discourse.

Yes, it took me that many paragraphs to get here.

Mugs of beer

So, with that, take a drink every time…

  • A well-listened hip hop critic compares Earl Sweatshirt to MF Doom.
  • A self-important critic complains about how most of Earl’s verses “don’t make any sense.”
  • A warm and fuzzy critic praises Earl for his “autobiographical” and “confessional” lyrics.
  • An unimpressed critic is displeased with Doris’ understated production values.
  • A fussy critic reasons that there were too many guest features.
  • A concerned critic references Earl’s time spent in a Samoan rehabilitation center.
  • A highbrow critic notes that Earl’s father is a South African poet laureate.
  • A lowbrow critic refers to the lack of rape fantasies on Doris.
  • An impassioned critic declares Earl as the best rapper in Odd Future.
  • An armchair psychiatrist critic calls Doris a “therapeutic” exercise for Earl.
  • An estranged critic mentions Earl’s “absent father.”
  • A hyperbolic critic deems Doris a “classic.”

And finally, take a shot for me if…

  • You believe my review of Doris to be bloated overkill and an example of the exact problem about which I’m #ranting.
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THOUGHT BUBBLE: The Trouble with Macklemore

Macklemore SNL

The white rapper with the crazy red fringe game and un-Googleable hairstyle danced across Saturday Night Live’s venerable stage two weekends ago like it was his last performance on earth. At first glance, the “blandly handsome” Macklemore (as Grantland’s Steven Hyden put it) didn’t look much like a rap music harbinger of doom, but for a concerned segment of hip-hop’s literati that’s what he closely resembles.

If you were a viewer watching at home, or maybe even in the studio audience, your reaction was likely one of either intense bewilderment, extreme delight, or furrowed disdain. Macklemore’s number one hit single “Thrift Shop” has very humble origins and the story of its rise to fame contains the standard tropes now associated with meme-powered feats of acclivity. But while sectarianism as it concerns bubblegum acts like Carly Rae Jepsen and petri dish experiments like Lana Del Rey can be reduced essentially to matters of taste, Macklemore’s ascent is complicated by the genre he practices in and the resultant untidiness endured by racial semantics.

(Click here to continue reading at Potholes In My Blog.)

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DOWNLOAD & COMMENTARY: Danny Darko (Mixtape) – Avatar Young Blaze

Click album cover for D/L link.

Avatar Young Blaze is probably the most polarizing figure in Seattle hip-hop and not because he tries to be. By all accounts, he’s a hard-working young cat who grew up hard in the Central District with a love and knack for gangsta rap (though he doesn’t describe his music as such). He reps his ethnic roots proudly, just like anyone should (dude is Russian), and rarely makes a big deal out of the fact he’s a scrawny white kid playing quite successfully in a game dominated by blacks and Latinos.

The expectations and preconceived notions about the emcee are all bestowed by those bearing witness to Avatar’s hustle. When the general populace hears a white kid spitting hard over trap music, the immediate reaction is to reject and question validity. The obvious f-cked up thing about this is the implication that whites could never be gangsters, but blacks and Latinos always are (thank you, Institutionalized Racism).

I hesitated to even make an issue out of this since these truths have all been posited before and by folks with far greater eloquence and expertise. But admittedly I’m still getting comfortable with Avatar’s ever-increasing presence in Seattle rap’s landscape and certainly with his voice inside this particular sub-genre. My experience with hip-hop continues to be intensely personal at times, so consider this post part of my own awkward form of racial reconciliation therapy.

Thankfully my ace-in-the-sleeve in instances like this remains the fact that I’m not white. As a Korean-American it’s much easier for me to dissect the stereotypes and imposed perceptions of the power structure (read: White America) on people of color, simply because I suffer from them personally. I know that fear as a result of racism occurs in degrees. The level of false menace that America detects from people of color is hierarchical, with black and brown folks hovering somewhere near the top of the scale and yellow people coming in a distant third. Asians are the model minority, after all. We don’t tote guns and knives, we pack calculators and smartphones. We aren’t a threat to steal your car or your jewels, but we will snatch all the good computer jobs.

We don’t make gangsta rap music, but we will play every got-damn stringed instrument better than you.

Now here’s a false standard that hip-hop music (especially as it exists in Seattle) can help solve. Local emcees like Logics and Language Arts (aka. La), and non-Town artists like Bambu and of course Jin, buck the assumed trend of Asian men as emasculated, non-threatening figures. It’s likely they have to work twice as hard to garner affirmation from those that determine the status quo (white and otherwise), but their presence in the rap game is an assist to the greater cause of diverse representation. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they are torchbearers for every one of us who suffer marginalization as a result of being Asian. Not to say we should be proud there are Asian gangsters committing the same atrocities as other races, but the ironic twist is that the acknowledgment of their existence is itself an indication of progress.

The problem with America accepting the term “white gangsta rapper” as anything but an oxymoron is that the philosophical chasm necessary to cross for acceptance is a far greater trek than the one associated with “Latino gangsta rapper” or even “Asian gangsta rapper.” In the end, White is Alright continues to be the accepted maxim and that is often unfortunately the case even with people of color (hello, Internalized Racism).

Of course, personal experience has much to do with our perception of the world. People whose only exposure to minorities is through television and other forms of media will formulate their standards based on such. I grew up in an incredibly rural setting with very little racial diversity and subsequently have had to learn virtually everything about non-white races (including my own) later in life. That process has been a perpetual un-matriculation of everything I came to accept as truth.

Fortunate to my cause is the fact that I don’t possess white skin, a physical essence of being that I’ve ironically come to refer to as a “handicap” in conversations about this subject. In the often frustrating and stagnant process of racial reconciliation, I’ve taken solace in the fact that it is indeed a handicap for most white folks, one that prevents them from seeing beyond their false reality. By this definition, people of color will most assuredly always be more philosophically advanced, and I find some amount of petulant satisfaction in that.

As far as Avatar goes, I appreciate his hustle in the rap game. I’ll always believe that, fundamentally, we all deserve the fruits of our hard labor and struggle, regardless of the color of our skin. I’m also perversely satisfied, however, that a white rapper finds it much harder to gain acceptance within some realms of hip-hop, regardless of his or her personal experience. It’s a complicated and perhaps unfair stance to take, I know, but Avatar and other rappers like him shouldn’t take it personally. In the end, the consequences of racism aren’t about one or two people, they’re about everyone.

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OP-ED: The Dreaded “C” Word

changesmall2Here’s an interview with Blue Scholars and Common Market at the 2009 South by Southwest festival in Austin.

Note to self: Next time I see Sabzi, Geo, or RA Scion outside a venue after a show, do NOT, under ANY circumstances, “accuse” them of making “conscious hip-hop.”

Sheesh. Did you see the Sab’s reaction when Mr. Interviewer used the dreaded C-word to describe their music? You’d have thought the producer had been accused of stealing beats from the pre-made demos on his Casio keyboard! When did conscious rap become a bad thing?

I’m guessing the reason why he got so upset is because Blue Scholars doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular category, which I understand — labels are only good on clothes and produce. But in the interviewer’s defense, how is he supposed to quantify the very particular styles that exist within the genre?

My Lady once told me that she can’t listen to a Blue Scholars album all the way through because it eventually starts to depress her. I can kind of relate. Even their party-rocking tracks contain traces of the revolution. The fact is, Geo’s rhymes always reflect a consciousness of the world around him. This is exactly why his music resonates so loudly in a place like the Pacific Northwest, where we pride ourselves on being “progressive,” and “liberal,” and always down-for-the-cause, sometimes to the point of silliness.

I think most thoughtful fans of hip-hop like a little bit of that in their music. You could argue that the Scholars’ spirit best represents the very origins of the culture. Paying them this kind of compliment could be the highest form of praise for what they’ve accomplished as artists. So where’s the beef, Sabz?

I’d be interested to further hear his take on the matter and I shouldn’t speculate on what his particular thoughts might be. I do think that unequivocally putting the “conscious” label on some artists and not others is dangerous. Here’s why: it’s too broad of a term. When we say “conscious,” what exactly are we describing? If, in this case, “conscious” refers to Geo’s lyrics about his Filipino heritage and the struggles his people go through then, yes, his music is conscious. If “conscious” is synonymous with “political” then, yes, without a doubt Blue Scholars’ music is conscious.

For better or worse, in the world of hip-hop criticism, “conscious” is typically indicative of a style that’s considered more valuable than another. This is rarely explicitly stated, but the connotations are there. The problem is, we can’t conveniently use the term to describe one type of subject matter, while excluding others that might also contain value.

If you were to ask ten random fans to describe the subject matter of Blue Scholars’ rhymes, nine out of ten might use the word “conscious.” Ask the same ten fans to describe the subject matter of Dyme Def or D. Black’s music, and you’d be lucky to get four out of ten to use the term. This is where the problem might lie, and possibly why Sabzi gets so upset.

I have to presume that D. Black’s rhymes are inspired by his life experience. Black is a young African-American male in an “inner-city” environment. His experiences in life have thus far been shaped because of these facts. The angst from his trials and tribulations as a black man in America are completely evident in his lyrics. So why would we not describe his music as “conscious?” Would Mr. Interviewer have used the term if he were interviewing D. Black? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Other words might come to his mind. Words like “gangsta,” “street,” “ghetto,” “crack music,” etc. Words that don’t necessarily come with positive connotations.

Fact is, D. Black’s hip-hop is just as viably “conscious” as Blue Scholars. The general populace just doesn’t put as much value on it and therefore doesn’t use the term to describe it. And that’s a damn shame. The reasons for this extend far beyond what I am capable of as a writer, and are best left for the experts to meditate on.

In the end, I still don’t think we should stop using the term altogether. I would still use it to describe Blue Scholars, and I would use it to describe D. Black and Dyme Def. There are degrees to which “conscious” can be applied. If you really wanted to get technical, I suppose you could put all of Geo’s lyrics on a page next to all of D. Black’s and try to quantify how many times each rapper says something of value that might positively contribute to a discussion on racial/sexual/social politics. Who would win the “conscious contest?” Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not interested in conducting an experiment like that. I think it’s better to just listen to the words, actively, not passively. If we can recognize that there’s something to be learned while we bump this sh*t loud in our cars, then we’re steps ahead of the game.

Op-Ed Views From the Peanut Gallery

OP-ED: I Think I Hate These Guys

Before I get into this rant about Mad Rad, I suppose I have to confess that I’ve never actually seen them live, nor do I own their album, nor do I have any idea about their level of respect for hip-hop culture, how they came to be involved in the art form, who they are as people, if I am actually distantly related to one of them, etc.

I just know that whenever I see one of their videos or listen to their music, I can’t help but think they’re a bunch of f*cking tourists. I get the whole white-boy rap sub-genre that exists in the music, and I understand the need for white kids to express their jones for hip-hop and that that expression sometimes manifests itself in the form of a collage (bastardization?) of less-than-awesome styles (Limp Bizkit comes to mind). What doesn’t sit well with me is when I feel like the culture is being exploited at the expense of an artist or group’s personal gain, and this is where my own personal hypocrisies come into play. For example: I hate Fred Durst, but not Kid Rock. I hate Vanilla Ice, but not Eminem. I hate MC Hammer, but not P. Diddy. Who should be performing hip-hop at this stage in its history is a matter of complete conjecture, so who am I to question someone’s right to participate in the culture? I’ll try to explain myself…

Hip-hop, to me, is like your grandfather’s old Chevy. Whenever he lets you drive it, you should treat it with the utmost respect because, ultimately, it is not yours to keep. You shouldn’t eat in your grandpa’s Chevy; you shouldn’t drink in your grandpa’s Chevy; you shouldn’t make out with your girlfriend in your grandpa’s Chevy, unless, of course, you ask him for permission to do so, and he says that it’s okay.

Everything I’ve been told and read suggests that Mad Rad puts on a hell of a show. I understand they really get the crowd hyped, they have actual skills on the mic, and their production is on point (as much as a rap/punk/electronic collage of sound can be “on point”). I also know that they often behave like complete jackasses, getting themselves banned in local clubs, nearly destroying Chase Jarvis’ beautiful spread at his Songs for Eating and Drinking event, and generally causing hundreds of hipsters to lose their skinny-jeaned, coked-up minds in the streets of Capitol Hill.

So why must I hate? Probably for these reasons:

1. I’m not a member of a rap group, and they are. I can love hip-hop as much as anybody, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a particuarly active participant. I’m a consumer of the music, I pay for albums and shows, and I can hop in a car, put a CD on, and rhyme alongside my favorite emcee and think that I sound pretty damn dope (especially when the volume is turned all the way up). But I have never been in the studio, gotten in front of a mic and dropped 16 bars over a Jake One banger. And that will probably never happen. So why do I hate Mad Rad so much? The number one reason might be because I will never get to do what they’re doing.

2. I think hip-hop music ultimately belongs to the African-American community. If hip-hop was patented, it would be owned by the pioneers from the South Bronx. Of course, that would never happen because hip-hop, by its very nature, is a collaborative effort, and many non-African-American folks have come along in the game and done it well. In fact, arguably just as well, if not better than some of the music’s earliest founders. But that doesn’t mean true ownership has ever been transferred. I’m sure there are some pretty amazing Japanese chefs who can prepare Coq a Vin just as well as a French chef, but just because you’re Japanese cooking French, doesn’t mean you don’t have to be qualified.

And are Mad Rad qualified to be doing hip-hop the way they are doing it? Who am I to say? I guess my point is that when I see Mad Rad performing for their fans (who are majority white, hipsterish and presumably not the most learned fans of hip-hop culture), I get upset. Especially when Mad Rad is dropping lines like “smoke the dro/choke a ho.” Not that anyone should be able to get away with saying that and have it be okay, but when it’s coming out of the mouth of a white dude wearing ironic sunglasses and a gold chain? It sounds more like disprespectful parroting than a conscious attempt at what I can only presume is sarcasm.

In the end, I suppose the point of Mad Rad is to bring a different perspective to the genre. They appear to simply be a group of white men expressing their creativity and points of view as honest fans of the music. And, inherently, there is nothing wrong with that.

I guess I just wish they’d been required to attend a sort of Hip-Hop University where they first had to study the origins of the culture and earn a diploma before being able to release their first album. Come to think of it, the curriculum at Hip-Hop University would probably be useful for a whole gang of other hip-hop artists in the game today.

Probably the most important tool in helping propel the art form into the future, is a knowledge of the roots of its past. Mad Rad, in my opinion, haven’t properly traced those roots. They need to go back to Hip-Hop University. They need to ask their grandfather if they can ride in his Chevy.