THOUGHT BUBBLE: On Jarv Dee’s Satellites, Swishers & Spaceships



Moor Gang general Jarv Dee dropped his Satellites, Swishers and Spaceships long-player a couple weeks ago. You should grab a copy for yourself and learn just why, on paper anyway, the Moor Gang continues to run the deepest, most skilled collection of rappers in the Town.

SS&S is often predictably turnt, profane and violent — exactly the characteristics that Moor Gang’s detractors will evince as to why this clique’s music plays secondary to the “message” rap of other crews who better fall in line with Seattle’s quasi-Socialist aspirations. Whatever.

No other Moor Gang release to date has exhibited the type of smart, pointed, sub-textual critique of this city’s rap standards like SS&S. Jarv exposes the privileged truth-sayers — like the Seattle Weekly author who penned this bit of criticism on fellow Moor Gifted Gab’s album Girl Rap — as writing from the inside of a pristine vacuum, blissfully unaware of potentially troubling outside empirical evidence.

The actual truth plays much more dirty and in different ways: there’s the luxurious, fully objective version which lubricates debates about the looting in Baltimore and Ferguson only to result in heaved gobs of responsibility politics getting splattered about; and there’s the even more insidious, damaging version which Jarv points to on tracks like “Mind of the Masses” and its accompanying interlude, “Fox Urban.” Jarv echoes similar concerns as the Moor Gang’s lofty-perched critics over what gets rapped about — drugs, violence, misogyny (the fundamental “Re-thug-lican” rap tropes as they’re hilariously coined here) — but from a position of greater authority than those uninvolved in actually creating — and, sometimes, living — the art. Jarv’s practice of hip-hop fuels his very livelihood, and so does the demand of accountability fuel the critics’. If the rapper is taking the time to question his motivation, shouldn’t outside observers be doing the same?

Satellites, Swishers and Spaceships is conspiratorial and paranoid because to remain otherwise means giving in to the “Mind of the Masses.” It’s a tug-of-war for which we all have a losing record, Jarv included. “Re-thug-lican” rap keeps bitches and guns around because there’s often nothing better to replace them with. Sure it’s the creature eating its own tail but, hey, at least there’s food.

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THOUGHT BUBBLE: On Ronnie Dylan’s “Manumission” Video

Get Off My Lawn

When you are a white rapper who decides to make the title of your second hip-hop album an epithet for the liberation of slaves, well, I’d say you’d better know what you’re doing.

Ronnie Dylan seemed to take to the task with an appropriately heavy hand, especially considering the weighty subject matter of his album in question: Manumission. I met Ronnie for coffee about a week ago at the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to discuss not only his new record, but his new music video for the title track which, upon first glance, features the unsettling — but not atypical in American pop culture media — image of a wilderness “savage”-type character portrayed by a young man with brown skin. Naturally, I found the video and the title of the album to be at perfect odds with each other and figured there must be some deeper explanation for the choices made in the video.

Based on my and Ronnie’s conversation, I’ll say this: I don’t believe the very earnest, and very young rapper consciously placed the image in his video as a way to express either, 1) an outwardly exuberant hatred of brown people, or 2) the very opposite: a subversion tactic meant to stimulate a meaningful conversation about race among people who are prone to picking up on these types of images (that whooshing sound you just heard was me raising my hand). If, however, that is what the video accomplishes, even among a handful of Ronnie’s friends and fans, then it’s certainly a happy coincidence.

Ronnie admitted to having picked up on the potentially troubling imagery after the casting and production of the video had started. He decided to move forward with it as a sort of extended metaphor for the “rap game;” a way to echo the sentiments of certain white rappers trying to break in to an artistic craft traditionally dominated — and created, of course — by black and brown people. That’s a convenient and troubling answer to explain away what was probably just a case of latent prejudice, a curse bestowed upon us by this country’s history and suffered by every single person reading this post.

The video ends with the protagonist (a young white male) donning the “tribal” markings of his hunter, and taking up spear to fight against the “savage.” Thus the hunted becomes the hunter, and our hero finds courage where once there was cowardice. The outcome of the encounter is left ambiguous, but that doesn’t really matter. In any resulting scenario, here we have a white character who will find some varied degree of redemption through the actions (nay, the very existence) of a person of color. Mainstream pop culture — especially film — is fraught with this trope, the only product of which is white people feeling pretty good about what they’re viewing because it speaks directly to their guilt or bigotry (and perhaps both at once).

It’s fine for characters of color to remind white protagonists of their burden through these fictional narratives. What’s not okay are these trending chronicles in which PoCs liberate whites of their burden through some sort of philosophically or spiritually redemptive act. Yes, white people have hard lessons to learn, but the last thing they’ve ever needed was to be granted freedom.

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THOUGHT BUBBLE: On Raz Simone’s “Macklemore & Chief Keef” Video

For a minute last year, Seattle became the center of the pop music universe based solely on the appeal of a pretty-good-for-hip-hop-karaoke indie smash hit. (Don’t worry Macklemore riders, I’m not forgetting the handful of Billboard sediment that got stirred up in the post-“Thrift Shop” tidal action. But I am saying the country wouldn’t know “Can’t Hold Us” in the same way if Mack hadn’t first rocked the faux tiger skin.)


The biggest irony of this unlikely shift in cultural orbit around the Upper Left was that even though the song in question was, in fact, a rap song, the city from which it emerged was never fully acknowledged as a “rap city.” Seattle as a bonafide center for hip-hop culture hasn’t been named as such in the Court of Public Rap Opinion. Of course we all know that’s unfair, especially if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, or, better yet, one of the many hard-working, nine-to-five wage-earners who also moonlights as a dope MC in the Town. Hip-hop grows wherever struggle lives, and that is to say everywhere. I know this, we know this. Blue Scholars, The Physics, Dyme Def, Thraxxhouse, and Moor Gang know this. But in a broader cultural context, half the battle in getting your town put on the hip-hop map is getting more than just a grip of outside observers to project that most nebulous of conditions upon you: Realness. Whatever that means.

Again, anyway…

In yet another corner of Seattle’s rap mini-verse stands Raz Simone. The Central District’s chief street reporter was busy in 2014 making moves with one of the most preeminent figures in rap music history. If you’re prone to making such subjective proclamations you could have said that, other than Macklemore, Raz was Seattle’s other “big story” in rap music in 2014. Since signing a creative partnership with 300 Entertainment Raz has been — in the parlance of our times — “on his grind,” touring with Strange Music’s Rittz and amassing a cadre of well-wishers, energetic collaborators and — very likely — straight dick-riders (hey, it comes with the territory). Raz’s “The Village” is equivalent to Macklemore’s Shark Face Gang, except that the latter’s import exists now only to stoke its fellow members’ enthusiasm for Mack. Shark Face Gang is the cult underwritten by Dr. Pepper. The Village, on the other hand, is still a natural resource. A resource that Raz himself knows is necessary should he wish to continue his ascent to music stardom.

Which brings us to Raz’s new video: “Macklemore & Chief Keef.” It’s true, Raz calls out Macklemore for not doing as much as he could to put his city on and that’s undoubtedly what internet commentators will obsess over. But Raz is savvy enough to know that charges of outright jilt are more complicated than that. He also knows that a particular contingent of folks in Seattle wish him to be the darker (pun intended) counterpoint to Macklemore — the real side of this 2-0-6 rap shit. (Again, whatever the hell that means.)

“My city thought I might part the sea open,” Raz proclaims here. But even a deal with Lyor Cohen and a national coast-to-coast tour hasn’t changed the fact that he’s “still in the field” in order to make ends meet. The further you get into this song, the more peripheral Raz’s displeasure with Macklemore becomes. There are grievances to be aired sure, but in the end it’s really only about what hip-hop’s political operatives have known all along: It’s the game, stupid.

Of course the greater lesson here is the natural attrition your creative vitality suffers as celebrity grows. The more number one hits Macklemore accrues, the more he becomes engulfed by the fake empire that his main collaborating partner preached about in a college art project. As celebrity grows, so too does the abstract nature of your persona. Jay Z, at this point in his career, is more of a story — an idea, really — than he is flesh and blood. Raz isn’t ignorant; he knows that’s how it works. My guess is that the venom he spits in “Macklemore & Chief Keef” is more a product of his frustrations over the reductive nature of ubiquity than the fact Macklemore might not be returning his phone calls.

In any case, the shit’s real, son.

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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: The Art of Going Viral – On Spekulation’s “Bout That Action” and Seattle’s Existential Super Bowl Angst

Beast Mode On

As I sit in front of my WordPress stats page, bewildered at the rapid increase in blog hits as a result of Spekulation’s now gone-viral remix of Marshawn Lynch’s charmingly glib Q&A session with Deion Sanders, two thoughts enter my mind: 1) Why the fuck didn’t I think of that? And 2) What, pray tell, is actually the perfect recipe for a meme to go viral? (It then dawns on me that if I truly knew the answer to #2, I wouldn’t be asking myself #1. So it goes…)

Going viral on the internet is as unpredictable as forecasting the weather. It’s something akin to opening a massive restaurant with a menu containing millions of items, and for some reason the grilled cheese with anchovies sandwich ends up being the most popular one. As the proprietor of said restaurant, all you really know is your customers are coming hungry, but for what exactly is unclear.

Sometimes the viral-ized captures the zeitgeist — like Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. Other times, it fulfills some sort of emotional need: The internet is so full of horrible news and horrible people commenting on said horrible news, it’s no wonder a tumbling sequence of adorable cat pictures with misspelled captions steals the productivity away from millions. And, yet other times still, going viral is simply a case of the blind squirrel finding the proverbial you-know-what.

My take on Spekulation’s “Bout That Action (Beast Mode Remix)” has nothing to do with dumb luck and everything to do with the Restaurant Corollary (terminology mine) I described above: There is a large community of Seattle sports fans that have no grand tradition(s) to fall back on in the lead-up to this weekend’s Super Bowl*. We — and I’m definitely including myself here — have rushed full-speed, head-on into a pre-Super Bowl state of celebration and agonizing anticipation, clinging only to our bankrupt estimations of what might — what could — possibly come to be. The emotions of a post-Super Bowl XLVIII universe where our favored team is inexplicably crowned the victor, is as unknowable and alien as life is on Mars.

“Bout That Action” is simply our gravity. It is the drum beat keeping regular time for our racing hearts. Hearts that threaten to destroy us by pumping lethal doses of anxiety into our already alcohol- and caffeine-saturated blood streams. Rapper Prometheus Brown seems to understand this. He cut a version of Spekulation’s track called “This Ain’t A Seahawks Anthem”, complete with precise, fastidious raps, and then followed up the song with these tweets:


The confluence of professional sports and hip hop in Seattle isn’t new, but the grand tradition of excellence has been fleeting. Until now, it’s existed just this side of a theory (1978-79 Sonics and present-day Macklemore notwithstanding). We are currently in a state of existential angst over these Seahawks. We are hungering at the door of an establishment we don’t truly know the inside of. There is a menu of items at our disposal, yes, but all we can really tell you is that we’re “bout that action”. That is, until the barriers guarding virtue fall on Sunday, and the mysteries of sports deliverance are solved in front of our very eyes.

*Yes, I realize the Seahawks have already played in a Super Bowl, but I contend this year feels different. Seattle fans have been able to stake a claim to having the best team in the NFL all season. The 2013 version of the Seahawks is an intense microcosm of what we’ve desired since the ’80s. It’s a little bit like the 2001 Mariners when they were the best… Until they weren’t.

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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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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.

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