REVIEW: The VS. EP (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)

The VS. EP is available by free download. Click below for the link.

Macklemore makes music that’s nice to the ears and soul. He is at once confident, humorous, nostalgic, self-deprecating, and completely unapologetic for who he is. For these reasons, he’s one of Seattle hip-hop’s biggest nerds and one of its coolest cats. He’s the rapper other wannabe rapper nerds strive to be like. That is, if said nerds all had the gift of hip-hop gab like him which, alas, they don’t. They’ll just have to go on envying.

On his 2005 debut, The Language of My World, Macklemore showed he could bridge the gap between a white middle-class upbringing and hip-hop, without disrespecting the music’s origins. He found some quick success when he was “discovered” by Myspace co-founder Tom Anderson, and was a featured music artist on the seminal social networking site. It’s easy to accept Macklemore, a white man in a traditionally black and latino man’s game, because of the commitment he shows to the art form. Fair or unfair, white rappers typically have to work harder to be taken seriously, especially in mainstream hip-hop. The fact that Macklemore was willing to recognize and explore the implications of his race in a song like “White Privilege” showed a unique engagement and unspoken pledge to honor hip-hop’s racial history. It doesn’t hurt that Mack has found success as a performer in lily-white Seattle, a city that is eager to embrace hip-hop’s defiant tendencies especially if they’re delivered by someone who appears “safe”. This isn’t meant to criticize Macklemore (that would be faulty and completely unfair), it’s just an unfortunate condition of the racial atmosphere in Seattle. We are not as progressive as we would like to believe. But this is primarily an album review, not social commentary, so let’s get back on track…

The VS. EP marks Macklemore’s second proper album release. (He dropped The Unplanned Mixtape a few months ago as a primer to this.) The Language of My World was solid, sensible, underground hip-hop, and The Unplanned Mixtape continued in that vein, save for a few wacky excursions into comedic territory. VS, however, is a concept album of sorts, at least when it comes to its sonic arrangements. All production is handled by the talented jack-of-all-multimedia-trades, Ryan Lewis. Together, the duo made a conscious decision to dabble in dreaded rap-rock hybrid territory, a particular sub-genre littered with the carcasses of haphazard mash-ups and dubious commercial experiments. I’m happy to report, however, that while others have tried in vain to bridge the rap-rock gap, Mack and RL have created seven tracks of successful coalescence. VS doesn’t sound like something released in haste. It seems to have been well plotted from the start.

Lewis takes samples from well-known rock groups and combines them with hip-hop and electro dance beats, bass lines, and ornamentation. What Lewis attempts has been done before, but rarely with such good results. The lifted samples are blatant, but RL never lets the source material transcend the soul of the album which remains rooted in hip-hop. This isn’t a mash-up, it’s rap music comfortably co-existing with rock flourishes. For example, “Otherside” features an obvious lift from the Red Hot Chili Peppers song of the same name, an instantly recognizable guitar lick that, in the wrong producer’s hands, could have doomed the song. Lewis lets the melody complement the beat, however, and things stay cool. Likewise for “Life is Cinema”, where the defining vocal refrain (“I’ve got soul/But I’m not a soldier”) from The Killers’ Hot Fuss is used as a triumphant rallying cry for overcoming one’s deadly vices (in this case, Macklemore’s former substance abuse problems). And “Vipassana” employes The Moments’ “Love on a Two-Way Street” to a decidedly greater understated emotional effect than compared to the sample’s use in “Empire State of Mind”. Fittingly, the EP’s best tracks represent opposite ends of the experimental spectrum: “Crew Cuts” is a nostalgia-laced Seattle hard-rock posse cut, something that would sound at home on Damon Dash’s BlakRoc. And “Kings” (featuring Champagne Champagne) is an arena-sized Gladiatorial headbanger, with Thomas Gray emerging the victorious emcee.

All of the music works because of Mack and RL’s total commitment to the idea, which is really the greatest thing about Macklemore the rapper. He unabashedly embraces his creative instincts to the point where whatever he tries is sure to succeed. A song like “Irish Celebration” (a tribute to the rapper’s heritage) had the potential to be fairly corny and uninteresting to non-Irish folks, but with Mack’s passion and commitment behind it, it turns endearing. Macklemore is a capable battle-rapper and evocative storyteller, but on VS he’s mostly focused on introspection and confession. He describes his trials with substance abuse and the struggle to get sober in a near whisper that sometimes feels so intimate it’s uncomfortable to listen to on headphones. The song “Otherside”, a cautionary tale about syrup, feels like music as therapy. Anyone who’s ever tried to express a deeply personal part of their lives in artwork knows that that elucidation isn’t easy. It’s important to recognize Macklemore’s rhymes on VS for what they are: a brave and necessary release of the man’s inner demons.

I suppose one could say that Macklemore could single-handedly underwrite emo-rap in Seattle. That’s an unfair assessment of the man’s place in the game, however. To err is to be human, and to create a hip-hop confession of one’s transgressions doesn’t make you the official poster boy for emo-rap. (I hate that term, by the way.) Rapping about what you know is what “keeping it real” is all about. Lots of pretenders exist in the hip-hop game. Macklemore is not one of them.

Album Reviews Downloads

INTERVIEW: THEESatisfaction (10.23.09, New York City)

THEESatisfaction 2

Seattle hip-hop had a nice showing at this year’s edition of the CMJ Music Festival here in New York City. Performing alongside Champagne Champagne — but not officially on the bill — were THEESatisfaction who actually came out to NY over a week before the October 24th CMJ show to network, chill with friends, and just enjoy everything this amazing city has to offer. The ladies of THEESatisfaction, Cat and Stasia, were gracious enough to reach out to me for an interview. These two women (girlfriends, for those that don’t know) are funny, charming, creative, and beautiful. And it’s apparent, after spending a little over an hour with them, that they’re in this hip-hop sh*t strictly for the love. I met them for lunch at a diner in the Financial District a few blocks from my work the day before they were scheduled to share the stage with Champagne Champagne.

Talk a little about how you came to be involved with CMJ. Did someone associated with the Festival hear you and ask you to be involved?
Cat: No, nothing like that. We’re doing CMJ through Champagne Champagne, because they asked us to do a song with them that we perform all the time called “Magnetic Blackness.” Basically we’re just like a family, so whenever we have an opportunity to do [that song] together, we do it. It’s a really great opportunity, we appreciate Champagne Champagne for letting us be a part of it. I’ve known Pearl for years, before THEESatisfaction and Champagne Champagne [formed], and Thomas [Gray] is like family. He’s like my best friend’s cousin.
Stas: Yeah, those are our brothers!

The stuff Pearl Dragon was doing before Champagne Champagne is much different than what he’s doing now.
Cat: He’s really creative. He and Thomas and Mark [aka DJ Gajamagic] are all really, really creative.

What’s your take on the Seattle hip-hop movement right now? It’s really blowing up.
Stas: I think it’s amazing. I remember a time when I didn’t listen to anything [from Seattle], except for Blue Scholars and Cancer Rising. Now there are shows every weekend, everybody is collaborating with each other. It’s like a huge family. People are on the move. Everybody is coming to Seattle to do shows. Wu-Tang has been here [a lot]. It’s just bringing more attention to Seattle. [Before] we’d have to go to Portland or LA to see a good show.

It does seem like there are very few prominent female acts in the spotlight, though. I mean outside of you guys.
Stas: I’m blessed to be an example and inspiration for more of them.

Do you think more female emcees are out there and just not receiving the proper exposure?
Stas: There are a lot of artists out right now.
Cat: A lot of female artists have been sheltered or pushed to the side.
Stas: Not just being a [female] hip-hop artist, just being a female musician of any kind [is difficult].
Cat: It’s starting to change, though.
Stas: Another prominent group is Canary Sing. They just did a show at The Rendezvous.
Cat: JusMoni, too.

So you guys are now in the Bay Area, right?

Stas: No, actually we’re just traveling.
Cat: We were going to move to the Bay, but we never even wound up going there, [laughs] just to LA. We came back to Seattle for a show and now we’re in New York.

How’s the life of a traveling musician?
Stas: I love it. It’s exciting. I knew I’d be a wanderer, nomad child, that got into all sorts of crazy shenanigans.
Cat: It’s cool. At some point you just realize there’s so much more to see.
Stas: It’s nice to have friends to stay with. We have friends in LA and friends out here that we’re staying with.

Musically, what’s your background? Are you formally trained or self-taught?
Cat: I’ve been in choirs forever and I studied Jazz in college.
Stas: I didn’t [study music]. But I’ve been around music all my life. My mom is a choir director and plays the piano, my dad plays the piano and has been in multiple choirs. I’ve been a poet for about eight years.

I was wondering about that. Your music seems inspired strongly by Spoken Word poetry.
Stas: Yeah, absolutely. We both do Spoken Word.
Cat: That’s how we met actually, through the Spoken Word circuit.

What venue?
Cat: It was Retro Open Mic night at U-Dub.

Did you both go to the University of Washington?
Stas: I did.
Cat: I went to Cornish. But I was always at U-Dub events. [laughs]

I read that your most recent album, Snow Motion, was recorded in a basement when you were snowed-in during the famous Seattle Winter of 2008.
Cat: Yeah.
Stas: We recorded [the songs] in a closet.
Cat: Some of the songs were recorded on Beacon [Hill], some of them were recorded in the house. It was crazy. That was all bad. We moved into this house, it was on 23rd and Madison [in the Central District] and it was sunny and nice and everything when we checked out the house. It looked nice in May or June, and then it got to wintertime, and the house had no insulation. And then the rats came. It was infested with rats. You wouldn’t want to leave your bedroom at night because there were rats running all through the house. There were holes under the bathroom sink and they would come in through the cabinets and they would get in our food. Our refrigerator stopped working three times.
Stas: Then our laundry machine stopped working.
Cat: Yeah, it just filled up with water. And then, it didn’t just freeze over, it was a solid block of ice.
Stas: We were working at Costco.
Cat: Pushing carts outside. Our buses weren’t running, so we had to walk halfway [to work], from 23rd and Madison to Downtown to catch the bus. If you didn’t come in, you’d get fired or written-up. They were really determined to be open.
Stas: We recorded [Snow Motion] because we were fed-up and depressed. We had family members passing away. One of our friends was murdered in February [concert promoter Tyrone Love], literally down the street.
Cat: It was a really tough time. We were working all the time, too. It was really hard to finish the album.
Stas: There was no sane place for us to be.
Cat: No there wasn’t, because we had to find somewhere else to live, too. We were working all the time. We’d always come home tired. We just had to decide what we were going to do.

For as much of a horrible time that was, Snow Motion come across, to me at least, as a really optimistic record. I read an article on a blog that said something like, “THEESatisfaction creates Snow Motion while they descend into madness.” But I thought it was a pretty coherent record, for the most part.
Cat: Thanks! [laughs]

So nowadays, the life of aspiring musicians sounds busy.
Stas: It’s pretty hectic. We book our own shows.
Cat: We don’t have a manager or anything. Everything is just us two, researching things and at the same time making music, trying to keep it fresh.
Stas: It’s challenging, but I couldn’t ask for more. I’m having the best time of my life. I’m having so much fun. I can’t imagine ever working at Costco again.
Cat: I’d rather work my ass off at this than work a corporate job again.

When do you find time to write?
Cat: We write all the time.

It’s not a process for you? Like, I must write at nine in the morning every day?
Cat: No. The whole thing is a process. From updating the website, to writing the press releases, to burning the CDs, to mixing it down. We try to let things just come naturally.

What’s the first hip-hop music you remember listening to?

Cat: First stuff was like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. I have an older brother who’s 36 so he was putting me on to a lot of stuff.
Stas: I wasn’t even listening to hip-hop. My parents were only listening to gospel and r&b. I didn’t really get into hip-hop until Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records. That was my first exposure, that gangsta rap. Then, once I started seeking out on my own, I got into Tribe and De La.
Cat: I listened to only De La Soul and Tribe when my brother lived with us and then [after he moved out] it went back to jazz and, I don’t know what to call it: alternative folk music [laughs]. It was like hippie music, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.
Stas: I remember my mom got a hold of my Doggystyle album cover. Remember the cartoon? She was like, “What is this?!”
Cat: I was like the prude kid. Like, “I can’t hear that stuff, it’s bad for my ears!” I didn’t know about 2Pac or Biggie, or most other rap other than De La and Tribe until I moved to Seattle. [Cat grew up in the Bay Area and Hawaii]. I listened to Chaka Khan, TLC, Technotronic. I know about hella random groups like Pet Shop Boys [laughs]. Lately, we’ve been switching it up, listening to all different kinds of stuff but we’ve always listened to a lot of different [music].
Stas: A lot of soul music.
Cat: Yeah, a lot of soul. Temptations, The Spinners, old Chaka Khan, Al Green. A lot of Michael Jackson and a lot of Jackson 5. I mean, we typically listen to Michael Jackson all the time, anyway. On our first mixtape [That’s Weird] we sampled Thriller.

Where were you guys when you heard he passed?
Cat: We were in our house on Beacon Hill and Stas got a text message or something. We got a text message and I was like, “This is a joke.” So we got on Twitter, we started googling everything, turned on the television and saw that he’d been hospitalized.
Stas: Then we started playing his music videos.
Cat: It was too much, it was very overwhelming. It’s still overwhelming.
Stas: I still haven’t watched the funeral in its entirety. I’ve been watching it on Youtube. I think I got maybe halfway through.
Cat: I don’t think so. I think you only got a third of the way through.
Stas: It’s still emotional.
Cat: It is. I watched [the funeral] on CNN while Stas was at Costco and it was really crazy. I didn’t think it was going to happen in my lifetime.
Stas: Nice shirt too! [laughs]

Yeah, that’s why I asked. [Cat is wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt she purchased at a thrift store.]

So what’s next for THEESatisfaction?
Stas: We have a new mixtape coming out.

When?
Stas: We’re thinking December, January, February.
Cat: One of those three months! [laughs]
Stas: The beats are pretty much finished. We’re teaming up with OC Notes. We hooked up with him for this next mixtape. We’re trying something new.
Cat: It’s the first time [we’ve worked with just one producer]. It’s cool, especially when that person knows your groove and knows your sound and it fits. A lot of artists will just work with whoever, you know?

So, one more question. You’ve already experienced a small amount of fame in Seattle. What’s that been like?

Stas: I wish I could enjoy my life a little bit more. It’s weird. You have to watch what you say all the time. But I don’t, really. [laughs]
Cat: You just have to be yourself. Some artists are controlled by other people, their managers, their band mates, by their producers. For us, we have freedom. We can say, “I’m not feeling well today so I’m not going to that event.” I think that gives a different spin to it. It makes it a different experience. It doesn’t make it easier though, that’s for damn sure! People used to come up to us all the time in Costco. It was weird, the contrast between working at Costco and being on stage. There’s a different amount of respect people have for you when at work. There you’re just Joe Schmo. It’s like, “Go over there and fold those clothes!”
Stas: When we’re at shows it’s, “Can I get you a drink? Can I get your autograph?” At work it’s totally the opposite. You’re just a robot again.

Costco seems like a major formative experience in your recent lives. What else happened at Costco?
Cat: When I was at work one day, Justo [of The Physics] came in and was like, “Hey, what’s up?” We didn’t even really know The Physics.

Did you know who he was?
Cat: I’d heard of The Physics and seen their picture, but I was really tired at work that day, so it took me a second to put it together. [laughs]

Was that how the collaboration on “Radio Head” came about?
Cat: [Justo] came into the store just in general and recognized me and said he’d been meaning to get in contact with us. But yeah, that’s generally how it started. After that we went and got in the studio together.
Stas: That’s where we met Rik Rude from Fresh Espresso, too.
Cat: Yeah. We saw Sabzi in Costco. All of Seattle goes to Costco!

—–

Catch THEESatisfaction at their next show on 11.10.09 at Nectar:

THEESatisfaction at Nectar 11.10.09

And buy their album, Snow Motion, online here:

"Snow Motion" (THEESatisfaction)

Interviews Live Coverage

REVIEW: Self-Titled (Champagne Champagne)

Champagne Champagne

The three dudes that make up the group Champagne Champagne (emcees Pearl Dragon and Thomas Gray, and DJ/Producer Gajamagic) must find themselves in a weird space these days. Their shows are usually populated by twenty-something hipsters of the fairer complexion, rocking out with their cocks out, overjoyed at being at a hip-hop show, and certainly proud to tell their unlucky (and much less-cool) co-workers the next day about how “real” the experience was. Yet there’s this verse, from “Soda & Pop Rocks,” the very first thing Pearl spits on Champagne Champagne’s self-titled debut album:

You can see me leapin’
My words creepin’
Slowly
Now they know me
When my whole influence was
“Rollin’ With The Homies”
First off
One of the best to ever touch off
You can see me touchdown anytime
Randy Moss

You can take what you git from it
My words influenced by
The slums and they love it
Hip-hop no hipster
Words flip back you can see I rip through
Haters innovator rock paper scissor
See me as I
Cut up my nigga!

Take note, white hipsters, this is not your music. (Pearl even says so!) This is black music — a cousin once or twice-removed from Jimi Hendrix, Living Colour, and Outkast. Witness the emphasis of the N-word, not meant to make you feel down with the cause, but as a proud (however polemic) declaration of blackness. The word’s strong assertion made me feel uncomfortable and alienated from the track, which is exactly how anyone who is not black should feel. So, while the demographics of the audience probably accurately represent the consumers of Champagne Champagne’s music, the joke’s ultimately on you hipster motherf*ckas. Pearl’s city “isn’t pretty, it’s gritt-y.”

Fresh Espresso, the other Seattle hip-hop group that most closely resembles Champagne Champagne, probably faces fewer such dilemmas. While FE’s music is far more party-friendly (virtually no references to blackness that would inconveniently clutter their feel-good vibe), the afro-eccentricities of Champagne Champagne add a welcome layer of complexity to their music. Without it, there would only be the left-field hip-hop punkiness of the sonic arrangements and little to no traceable DNA leading them back to the revered architects of black music mentioned above.

Not that the hipsters are all in the wrong for digging this sh*t, they should. The group is, after all, called Champagne Champagne, a moniker that bestows upon them the responsibility for starting the party. And this does sound like party music. Live hip-hop is more about the beats than the lyrics anyway, anyone who attends the shows can attest to that. The distorted bass at the beginning of “Soda & Pop Rocks” sounds like a mic’ed-up human heart sitting on top of an 808 kick drum. It’s not only the best track on the album, but also Champagne Champagne’s official declaration of non-whiteness in a city full of white fans — nonetheless, I’m sure it rocks the hell out of their parties.

After the opening track, things immediately get more complicated. Is “Molly Ringwald” really a heartfelt tribute to falling in love with girls who look like the innocent sweet-sixteener? Or is it a perverse acknowledgment of the white-girls-who-love-black-men phenomenon that only Spike Lee has been brave enough to flesh-out in front of the general public? Pearl’s heartbroken vocals suggest the former (“I left a message but she never called me back”), while Gajamagic’s sinister production suggests the latter.

Later, Pearl lightens-up a little and does his best Andre 3000 impression on the guitar-driven, “Hollywood Shampoo,” and further tributes are paid to the fairer sex as the pitfalls of showbiz-life and love are lamented and celebrated on “Cover Girls” and “What’s Your Fantasy.” The production trends toward hippie futurism, and contains all the references to space and aliens that would be expected from such music. Yes, the hip-hop UFO thing is getting tired and it’s been done better before, but Champagne Champagne uses the levity in such themes to elevate the music to the upper reaches of that particular quality.

Finally, while “Soda & Pop Rocks” is the group’s declaration of identity, “Radio Raheem” is the frontman’s heart, exposed and bleeding for all to see. On it, Pearl raps about the shooting death of his older brother, Samuel Curry, by an off-duty Seattle police officer. The song plays its ironic and tragic part in inextricably linking the rapper’s proud declaration of blackness to the all-too-frequent instances of police brutality that grievously help define the black experience in America. Indeed it’s a heavy track, yet a vital addition to an album that would, however regrettably, be incomplete without it.

Album Reviews