Gorillaz Perform Their Song “5/4”

GorillazHere’s a clip of meta rock ‘n’ hip-hop band Gorillaz with a cut off of their 2001 debut record Gorillaz. The ‘band’ is actually a project conceived by Damon Albarn of Blur, animator Jamie Hewlett (creator of the alternative comic Tank Girl among others), hip hop producer Dan the Automator, and other high-profile guests.

By 2001, Blur was on it’s last legs with guitarist and co-founder Graham Coxon having left to focus on his solo career, and leaving singer Damon Albarn to complete their most recent album Think Tank largely on his own.  But, I suppose Albarn too must have had itchy feet creatively speaking.  Because how different is Gorillaz from Blur?  How different is this project from any project?

Jamie Hewlett’s artwork is distinctive, edgy, and perfect for the music video medium.  Although it was a bold move to create a virtual band, maybe it’s not such a surprise that it was such a success in an age where multimedia is so vital to the success of a musical act, real or drawn.  And not only did the album get a nomination for the British Mercury Prize in 2001(later withdrawn by request of Albarn and Hewlett), the ‘band’ got into the Guinness World Book of Records for most successful virtual band, with the debut record selling seven million copies worldwide.  Their second record, Demon Days, came out in 2005 to enjoy equal success.

Hewlett and Albarn had been flatmates – they shared an apartment in the late 90s.  In discussing the subject of vapid music videos and the reliance of banal images to sell music through that medium, the two decided that they should try and make a comment on the state of the music video by creating something which satrizes it.  So, “Russell”, “Noodle”, “2D”, and “Murdoc” were born, even if the performances in the studio came from Albarn and a number of guest artists which have included Danger Mouse, Neneh Cherry, Ike Turner, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder, and actor Dennis Hopper among many others.

For more information and tuneage, check out  the Gorillaz website which gives backstories on each “band member”, and includes interactive materials relating to the project.  There are, evidently, plans for a third Gorillaz record in 2009.


The Gourds Play Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”

Here’s a clip of bluegrass homeboys The Gourds with their take on Snoop Dogg’s slice of life snapshot of Compton track “Gin & Juice”. This cover is taken from the band’s 2001 disc Shinebox.

This is easily one of my favourite cover versions of all-time, and certainly more then just a novelty tune.  Among other things it’s a great party tune in it’s own right, and proves that even the most seemingly cover-proof tune is coverable by the talented and the determined.

Not actually from Compton
The Gourds: Not actually from Compton

The Gourds hail from Austin Texas, calling themselves something of an alternative country band, even if stylistically they’re pretty traditional.  Even so, it’s hard to argue with the fact that these guys aren’t treading a predictable path.  In addition to this cover version, they’ve also covered Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” side by side with originals and traditional material.  But, this is the song which gained them attention on college radio stations, most likely for the same reasons I shook my head in wonderment the first time I heard it.

There was a spate of ironic cover versions which seemed to crop up around the same time as this tune, some better than others.  And this is certainly not meant to be taken too seriously, so much as it’s meant to get people dancing.  Yet, one thing that stands out for me is how the incongruity of it seems to point out just how far removed white culture still remains to be from black culture in the minds of many,  while at the same time pointing out how the differences between people aren’t really significant in any meaningful way.  The result comes off as being extremely funny, as the subversion of expectations tends to be.  Yet, I think there’s more there.

What I mean is that it is downright odd to hear a white, southern voice singing hip hop lyrics in the context of an Anglo-celtic musical form like bluegrass.  Yet, when you really boil it down, the events which take place – partying with friends who may indeed be of the fairweather variety – are pretty universal, barring some of the rock star excess elements, maybe. Despite the cartoon ‘bitches and whores’ in this song, to me this tune is really about the value of friendship, even when surrounded by those who wouldn’t know what real friendship is.

Luckily along with what could be considered some serious subject matter, the song rocks like a bastard as well as being interesting on a sociological level.  And it’s probably this that the band has intended things to be.

For more music and information, check out the Gourds MySpace page.

And also, investigate the official Gourds website too.


Wyclef Jean Performs ‘Gone Till November’

Here’s a link of ex-Fugee and Haitian-American hip-hop hero Wyclef Jean with his genre-bending 1997 hit “Gone Till November”, taken from his album Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee Allstars.  Watch for Bob Dylan, who appears in a brief cameo in the video.

Wyclef Jeans musical interests range from hip hop, to R&B, to 70s rock music.  He would go on to record a version of Pink Floyds Wish You Were Here, which is common when youre a rock musician with a guitar, not so much when youre known as one of the Fugees.
Wyclef Jean's musical interests range from hip hop, to R&B, to 70s rock music. He would go on to record a version of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", which is a choice common to rock musicians with guitars, not so much when you're known as one of the Fugees.

It should be said that I’m not really a hip hop fan very generally speaking, although I think there’s a lot of potential in the form.  My main obstacle with it, besides a lot of thematic material which I frankly find a bit dull, is the fact that I find the musical content to be pretty monochromatic.  There’s a synth line, there’s a beat, there’s a voice.  But, I find there is largely nothing much else in most examples of the genre that I’ve heard to date.  As such, this tune always stood out for me as being something of a refreshing exception to the rule.

For me, this track has all kinds of surprising textures to it.  The beats are there, but so are the strings (courtesy of the New York Philharmonic, no less) , and there are some interesting chord changes here too.  Coupled with the fact that this song hits an emotional center, with the theme of separation being pretty universal, I find it hard to resist.  It is one of my favourite tracks of the 1990s, which was a brilliant decade for music besides in all genres.

Another great thing about this tune of course is Wycelf Jean’s delivery.  A lot of rap and hip hop to me strikes an equally monochromatic tone in terms of emotional content too.  But here, we’re getting a range of emotions coming out of Jean’s voice; a hint of regret, plenty of sorrow, and some determination too.  Jean would of course be noted later on in the decade as having some fairly ecelectic tastes which go beyond the scope of those of his contemporaries.   His range not only as a performer, but also as a writer, arranger, and re-mixer of songs for other artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Sinéad O’Connor set him apart as well with someone who is engaged with the work, and not as overtly engaged in their own self-promotion.

Jean worked, for instance, with Mick Jagger on Jagger’s Goddess in the Doorway album.  As a bonus, he appeared in the Being Mick BBC TV documentary broadcast a number of years ago, which included footage of the recording of that album.  I found that the guy was pretty charming, and with a much-needed sense of perspective too.  Jean’s demeanour was like that of an excited child, a kid in a candy store, clearly gifted with an ear for music production, but also very aware of how fortunate he is to be working with one of his heroes. “Before this,” he said of working with Jagger and being a professional musician in general, “I was working a Burger King.”

It’s clear that Jean is a big music fan, is still wonderstruck by it, and is willing to utilize any musical tidbit to feed his own work.  This tune is one of the best examples of how that attitude can translate into great music that hits an emotional core, as well as one that remains to be interesting to the ear.  It helps that his interest in hip hop is equalled to his interest in R&B, reggae, rock music, and any number of other genres in between.

Here’s a link to an interview with Wyclef Jean as conducted by George Stromboulopolous for CBC’s the Hour shot earlier this year.

And of course, here’s a link to the Wyclef Jean MySpace page to get you caught up with what this fascinating artist is doing currently.


Gil Scott-Heron ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’

Gil Scott-HeronHere’s a clip of Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous spoken word piece, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, taken from his 1971 album Pieces of a Man.

Gil Scott-Heron is thought to be one of the progenitors of hip-hop, approaching his early efforts with a spoken word ‘rap’ as backed by an insistent groove, with some counterbalancing jazz flute acting as a foil to his strident vocal delivery. His was the street-level voice of a black man concerned that the larger American culture was leaving his community behind in the wake of cultural distractions.

Among these distractions was television and commercialism which took attention away from what was happening in neighbourhoods in cities all over America – that the poverty cycle and disillusionment caused by it was reaching a breaking point. Where Marvin Gaye was angered and saddened by this same trend as expressed in his “Inner City Blues” put out that same year, Scott-Heron is full of disdain and sarcasm, listing off the banalities of white America measured against the anger and rising tension that stood in contrast with it.

Whether or not Scott-Heron can be traced to today’s hip-hop in general is arguable, although his connection to individual hip hop artists like Grandmaster Flash (‘The Message’), The Disposal Heroes of Hiphoprisy (‘Television, The Drug of the Nation’), and Public Enemy (‘Fight the Power’) is pretty undeniable in terms of tone and subject matter. What Scott-Heron was trying to do with this piece and other early poetry pieces he’d done while working in the same vein as contemporaries the Last Poets was to shed light on what was happening in the inner cities.

Hip Hop today, for the most part with those listed exceptions in mind, is about rising out of what is happening there, and escaping it. Absent from modern hip hop is the concern for the community that is so endemic to Scott-Heron’s work, it seems to me. In its place is the same banal materialism that he is speaking out against in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.

What do you think, good people? I’m sure there are examples which prove this generalization of mine wrong. Are there some striking examples of social commentary and concern left in modern hip hop? I’d love to be turned on, hip hop fans!

Notes on Hip Hop

Lately I’ve been ruminating on the subject of hip-hop. To be truthful, it was only in the last couple of years when I have grown to appreciate sample culture as something artistic. I had previously held the party line of white guys with guitars – “if you can’t play an instrument, then you’re not a musician”. But it was brought to my attention that even my beloved Beatles had tried their hands at incorporating sampling into their work. The calliope sounds from “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was certainly not belted out by John Lennon. It was George Martin and Geoff Emerick who cut up bits of tape and spliced them back together. It was music from another time and made by others, but it had been transformed into something new.

In hip-hop culture, at least at one time, much of the sentiment of the civil rights movement was an integral part of the music being made in that present day. To sample a James Brown vocal, or horn shot, or whatever, was not to steal something better than anything you could do yourself, but was meant to tie you to a historical past, making the music part of a continuum. It was cultural continuity which was the object, and it had become realised in a brand new way. I had never before looked on it quite that way and I grew to deeply respect this dynamic. It was merely another way for modern musicians to take up the mantle of their heroes such as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Gil Scott-Heron as well as incorporating European music like Kraftwerk and Can.

Also, it became the music of protest, especially during the 1980’s with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and later with Public Enemy. Chuck D was quoted as saying that “hip-hop was “the CNN for black people”, which it may well have been. Some of what was being produced was meant to be the expression of rage – “Fuck Tha Police” by NWA being a prime example. Of course, much of the sentiments behind it – helplesness, frustration, ghettoisation – were eclipsed by how the masses interpreted it as a dangerous, even murderous statement, alienating the white establishment and presumably, much of the potential white record buying public too. Then, things began to change.

Talking with hip-hop fans today, even they are aware that hip-hop has become little more than an individualistic and unsubtle money-grab. The talk of protesting against political oppression has become supplanted by a “bling-bling” mentality, where self-promotion and individual wealth was the object, no longer a linking itself with the communities out of which the music had first come. In order to get out of the ghetto in this new world, it must be every man for himself – “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'”. There is no longer any talk of community, or of drawing common bonds and goals together. The anger of marginalisation has turned into shallow individualism, where self-perpetuated myths are so well constructed that even hip-hop figures from middle-class backgounds – like P.Diddy – have taken to going back to a ghetto of the mind, where the world of brandished weapons and street gang ethics are taken on not as a means to survive, but as garish fashion statements. The words seem emptied of any social value in a genre which was once supposed to be “the CNN for black people”. Without the input of figures like Tupac Shakur, who was certainly interested in making political statements before he was murdered in the street, there are no prophets left to take his place, but there are plenty of people singing about record deals and getting paid.

I suppose one could argue that all music is now devoid of social comment. It might also be argued that political leanings in musicians have never been anything more than careful image construction, or at very best well-meaning but ultimately naive sentiment of how a world should be, but not how it actually is. But for hip-hop to have lost its way is more of a shame to me, just because it’s form gives so much space for this kind of unbridled expression – there need not be “verse-chorus-verse” with a catchy riff in hip-hop, a dynamic which can bog down a lot of rock music. The most important thing in this genre has always been, as Grandmaster Flash called it, “The Message”. Yet it seems to me that that message has been drowned out, or silenced entirely, by the sound of cash registers, which is the least funkiest sound I can think of.