Friday, July 30, 2010

Monae for nothing*

One of the bit players in the below-mentioned documentary, Biggie and Tupac, is the odious and ridiculously-monikered P Diddy, aka Sean "Puffy" Combs. Regular readers may have surmised my low opinion of this idiot from previous posts; those just joining us can probably infer it from the previous sentence. Why the dislike, you may ask? Well it isn't (just) personal, though by all accounts his personality leaves much to be desired. If anything, it's that he's brought so little to the table, artistically, and yet claimed so much, critically and commercially. While judicious sampling and appropriation are the lifeblood of hip-hop, the best use it sparingly and wittily, to complement, or contrast with the material it rubs up against. Diddy, on the other hand, like a bull in a china shop, simply licences entire (already popular) tunes (e.g. Every Breath You Take, Kashmir), adds little or nothing, and keeps most of the money. Exhibit B: his dorkish assertion (in 2002, no less!) that his record label "invented the remix". Oh really? Try telling that to Tom Moulton. In 1975. Or King Tubby, in the 1960s. Exhibit C: take a look at his album Press Play and the associated single sleeve above, then note how the typography and photography style of both is lifted lock, stock and barrel from Playgroup's LP of some 5 years earlier. The guy clearly doesn't have an original thought in his head. And yet, he's the one with the jet-ski. Where's the justice?

It therefore pains me to have to say that the most recent release on his usually execrable Bad Boy Records label is an out-and-out winner. That it also displays much of the verve and imagination of the artists that Diddy, Kanye, and the blowhards that recorded for Death Row have largely displaced (i.e. showmen like Ram Ell Zee and Afrika Bamabaataa) is telling. Janelle Monae (for it is she) has looked beyond the tired tropes of "The Street" and turned her eyes skywards, and the result is compelling and at times quite audacious. A concept album (a phrase which usually induces suspicion, not least in hip-hop where a "concept album" is often sub-par material linked by weak and unfunny "skits"), Archandroid is reportedly based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and while I occasionally lost the conceptual thread that supposedly links the work to the film that served as its inspiration, there's no doubt that Lang's masterpiece has spurred Monae to vault far ahead of her contemporaries. The film, which up until now had only given rise to a mediocre re-interpretation by Queen, has inspired her to create a dazzling melange that takes in R&B, rap, pastoral folk and psych rock, and features a guest appearance by Georgia art-rockers Of Montreal, the latter telling you all you need to know about Monae's expansive and inclusive worldview. As others have pointed out, she displays the ambition and range that Prince did in his heyday. High praise indeed. Anyway, it's well worth a listen (the tracks Sir Greendown, 57821, and Mushrooms & Roses are particularly good), as is its predecessor Metropolis: The Chase Suite, supposedly the first part of this ongoing "suite" . They're both on Spotify and available to buy (links below). BTW, I have two Spotify unlimited free invites (i.e. not the 20-hour a month ones) to give away; if anyone can make use of them, let me know in the comments and I'll pass 'em on.

Listen to Archandroid on Spotify

Buy Archandroid by Janelle Monae

*I was going to title this post Monae, Manet, Tipyy-Tippy Day-Day, but realised that this was too wilfully obscure, even by my standards. Any Irk The Purists Seinfeld fans out there?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cosmic thing

I recently caught the (8 year old) Nick Broomfield doc Biggie and Tupac and while Broomfield employed his trademark schtick throughout the film (i.e. saying very little so that his interviewees fill the void and inadvertently say more than they planned; acting slightly dumber than he really is, to the same end; and filming at all times rather than setting up shots, again in the hopes of catching interviewees off-guard), his conclusion that the obnoxious Suge Knight of Death Row Records was behind the killing of the equally obnoxious Tupac Shakur overlooks one obvious and fundamental flaw-- if Knight had indeed ordered the hit on his major cash cow, why was he stupid enough to place himself alongside his intended victim in a car in Las Vegas?

The entire unsavoury business stands in marked contrast to the conditions that gave birth to hip hop some 18 years earlier. While it’s an old story, told often, it’s worth remembering that the genre was initially a way for impoverished New Yorkers to transcend the mundane and petty realities of gang activity, and offered a form of escapism. Science-fiction, video game and comic imagery abounded, and hip-hop took its aesthetic cues from the earlier cosmic templates laid down by George Clinton—just think of Afrika Bambaataa’s cosmic shaman outfits, Newcleus’s interplanetary jams, and the Jonzun Crew’s spacey beats.

Perhaps the most out-there figure in early hip-hop was Rammelzee (aka Ramm Ell Zee), who has recently passed away (peacefully, through ilness) at the age of 49. A maverick figure, with his permanently-attached ski-goggles and Transformers-via-Oxfam garb, he existed on the fringes of avant-garde hip hop for over 25 years and left behind a small but perfectly-formed body of work. His early graffiti work led to a friendship (or rivalry) with Jean-Michel Basquiat who produced (and provided the artwork for) Ramm’s first foray into vinyl, the hallucinatory and unsettling Beat Bop with the mysterious K-Rob. Later occasional work with Bill Laswell and the Death Comet Crew (featuring Ike Yard’s Stuart Argabright, who went on to produce Rammellzee’s debut solo album, some 21 years after Beat Bop) kept Ramm's reputation alive, but the sporadic nature of his recorded output and his insistence on cleaving to his own personal iconography of letterforms, cosmological signs, quantum mechanics and, frankly, utter gibberish, served to keep him a marginal figure in a hip-hop mainstream more interested in Cristal, bling and bitches. A shame really, as footage of his work (below) shows that in a parallel universe, hip hop could have developed further along this path rather than the one its protaganists chose to take, and been more about ideas and Philip K. Dick than about materialism and dick with a small d.

Download Hisstory by Material and Ramm Ell Zee (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)

Ramm Ell Zee personal site

A definitive interview by The Wire

Obituary from LA Times

The Sound of Husik

Here at Irk The Purists Towers, we've had some success in flushing out our heroes (and heroines) that are currently languishing in the "Where Are They Now?" files. For instance, Todd Levin stuck his head above the parapet in response to this post. And Fiona Russell Powell got in touch as a result of this, and on subsequently meeting La Powell, I can happily report that she's as vivacious and waspish as ever.

So, let's try for third time lucky: Beaumont Hannant, where are you? I'll confess, I know very little about Mr. Hannant, save for what I can glean from and the like. But I also know that for about 18 to 24 months around 1995 he was one of the names to drop, and was as ubiquitous a remixer, producer and svengali as William Orbit. In fact, the comparison with William Orbit is entirely appropriate, because just as Orbit had his stable of collaborators, so did Hannant. In particular, Lida Husik occupied a similar position for Beaumont Hannant as Caroline Lavelle or Laurie Mayer (no, not this one) did for Orbit. He produced and remixed a number of records for her (more info on him and Husik here), and formed one half of production duo Outcast. But since 2000 or so, pretty much nothing. Where did he disappear to? What's he up to? I wish I knew, and I wish he'd get back to music because I used to love pretty much everything he did.

To jog memories (sort of like an audio Crimewatch), here's a couple of tracks featuring Hannant's skills, the first a bone-crunching, clang-heavy Bjork remix from 1996 or so, the second a rather lush Lida Husik track that Hannant produced for her album Faith In Space and which was remixed by one Mark Tibenham. Enjoy. And please remember: don't have nightmares, do sleep well.

Download Bjork Hyperballad (Over The Edge mix) mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)

Download Lida Husik The Planet's On (Syzygy) mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alternative TV

If I haven't been posting recently, it's in part because I've just spent ten days lazing on a beach without internet access, and partly because I've been engrossed in Cherry Red TV.

"Whassat" you say? Well, if you can overlook the ultra low-budget production, it's a great offshoot of the label that spawned it, and a terrific and candid look behind-the-scenes of the music biz. And, in fact, the production values are entirely appropriate, given Cherry Red's precarious and seemingly haphazard business methods over 30-odd years.
Highlights include interviews with small (mostly Cherry Red-affiliated, admittedly) label heads, such as Ann-Marie and David of Survival Records (aptly named, the label went from curating early electro from the likes of Tik and Tok and Drinking Electricity to, bizarrely, Celt folksters Capercaillie in more recent years), and Mike Alway talking about his label, El. Cherry Red label head Iain McNay also gets an hour to talk about, naturally, Cherry Red, but the channel is generous enough to feature anecdotes and business advice from like-minded individuals not connected with Cherry Red, including Nude's Saul Galpern, Bella Union's Simon Raymonde and the late Charlie Gillett of Oval.
The artist interviews are equally enlightening (and similarly cheaply-made); Cherry Red mainstays Louis Philippe, Bid (of The Monochrome Set) and Momus get to discuss their art, naturally, but so do Bridget St. John, John Otway, Alvin Stardust, Benjamin Zephaniah and Martin Newell. This eclectic mix is extended further by the inclusion of Brion Gysin and William Burrough's Final Academy Documents. Take a look and you'll see why I only manage a few blog posts a month...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Free bird

Holy crud. Martin Rev finally makes it onto Letterman, in the company of MIA (below) for a live performance of the Suicide-driven Born Free. Unusually, Paul Shaffer declined to accompany the performance.

Is it too much to ask for Glenn Branca on Craig Ferguson? Or Z'Ev on Jay Leno?