DJ Shadow Spins “Midnight In a Perfect World”

EndtroducingcoverListen to this track by turntablist poster boy and instrumental hip hop auteur DJ Shadow. It’s  “Midnight In A Perfect World”, a single as taken from the seminal record released in the fall of 1996 that kicked off a genre, Endtroducing. That record garnered near universal praise across the critical spectrum at the time, noted as much for its technical achievements as it was for the eerie and evocative atmospheres for which it is now known.

The album was created solely by its author, fuelled by raiding a local record store, Rare Records in Sacramento, in between work on the tracks, including this one. The cover of the album is pretty true to how it was made, searching the racks for grooves and textures, and then carrying them by the armful back home to be repositioned and transformed into a work that would establish a career and reputation for DJ Shadow, born Joshua Evans. The tools he had to hand to create this song were a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder. They were enough to garner not only rave reviews and sales, but also a Guinness World Book of Records entry for first album to be comprised solely of samples.

In an age before Garage Band, this was a neat trick.  But, this song and the rest of the album is far, far more than an amazing technical feat, although it certainly is that. It was the beginning of a new paradigm that generated all kinds of discussions about something in pop music that is rarely considered; context and how it relates to the way we hear the music within one, as well as the nature of what it is to “write” a song in the first place. Read more

Eels Play “Susan’s House”

Eels-Susan'sHouseListen to this track by LA-based concern with a penchant for vivid narratives Eels, led by head songwriter E (neé Mark Oliver Everett). It’s “Susan’s House”, the second single off of the band’s debut record Beautiful Freak in 1996.

This song, and its fellow single “Novocaine For The Soul” made a splash particularly in Britain where both of singles gained top ten chart showings. The success of this song surpassed that first single in the UK, quoting a piano figure from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Love Finds It’s Own Way“, and generally being a langourous and restful-sounding record, released in May of 1997 just as summer approached.

But, of course, there is plenty of restlessness to be found here in the urban landscape as traversed by the narrator as he makes his way to the titular location. There is plenty of tragedy, too. It makes one wonder whether this song isn’t just about a specific journey, but alludes to a greater one, too. Read more

Groove Armada Play “At The River”

Groove_Armada At the RiverListen to this track by London pop musical era cross-polinator duo Groove Armada. It’s “At The River”, a single from 1997 that was re-released two years later as a part of their Vertigo album.

The album was released during a period when chillout and downtempo beats were becoming equally celebrated in clubs and on the radio as pop songs in Britain. As such, both contexts and audiences are served here, with pop hooks and beats intertwining to make one of the most appealing confections of a genre that marked the times before the 20th century became the early 21st.

The central hook here comes from tin pan alley pop singer Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod”, a single from 1957 that came in turn out of a poem as written by one Claire Rothrock who’d fallen in love with the titular destination. The song was a hit, salty air and quaint little villages and all, and Patti Page would be celebrated by the region of Cape Cod for many years after for being a cultural ambassador because of her hit with this earlier pop single.

But, what’s it doing being referenced on a late-20th century dance record made in rainy London? Read more

The Verve Play “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

The Verve Bittersweet SymphonyListen to this track by post-Brit pop quintet from Wigan, The Verve. It’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, the first single from their high watermark 1997 album Urban Hymns. This was a landmark record that helped define an era.

This band formed at the end of the 1980s, building up steam into one of the most critically acclaimed bands in Britain by the end of ’90s. Vocalist and head writer Richard Ashcroft demonstrated his ability to come up with the goods on a songwriting level, while the rest of the band were able to fill out a big sound that brought that writing to life. Guitarist Nick McCabe in particular was instrumental in making the band what it was, returning after a period of estrangement after the completion of their previous record A Northern Soul.

This particular song was a top ten hit in the UK, top 20 in the United States, and with chart showings of similar caliber all over the world. By any measure, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a singular achievement. But, there was some controversy surrounding its creation and release. Read more

Cornelius Plays ‘Music’

Here’s a clip of Japanese musical mixologist and experimental pop musician Keigo Oyamada, known in hipster circles as Cornelius. It’s “Music”, as taken from his 2007 album Senuous, and pulling in ambient techno, jazz, and soul music into something entirely of its own genre.

There is a narrow field of pop music grandeur that lies between melodic warmth, and experimental texturing.  This is where, for the most part, Cornelius sets up shop.

Oyamada was inspired first by rock music, specifically centered around guitar playing, which is what he taught himself to do, starting out. But, in the same wave as the Pizzicato Five, Cornelius was born, the name inspired by The Planet of the Apes character as portrayed by Roddy MacDowell. What came out of these influences has been a throw-it-in-the-pot approach to techno music, with the hooks and overall appeal pop/rock music.
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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.