Archive for March, 2012

Although Coachella has become better at getting headline hip-hop acts in the big font category, the festival has typically thrown its weight behind a wide swath of rock acts and tents full of electronic music heavy hitters. Last year’s lineup (with the exception of a memorable if divisive act from Kanye) felt at least a year or more out of place, with nostalgia act Lauryn Hill, tragically late Bond villain Cee-Lo, played to death Wiz Khalifa, and a respectable set from Nas and Damian Marley (whose album had dropped a full year previous). The hyped up and “edgy” Odd Future took what could have been a signature set and turned in a clusterfuck of a performance, cursing out the sound man in a set that was more incompetent than punk. The festival that brought amazing past performances from Jurassic 5, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, MF Doom, and Roots Manuva didn’t promise to be notable in this last year of the Mayan calendar.

The 2012 lineup brought a surprise though; this year is the first in ages where I don’t have a single thing to complain about. That stems largely from my reverence for late 90’s underground NYC act Company Flow, who are emerging from retirement, but has just as much to do with the last West coast representatives to own hip-hop, Dre and Snoop. Throw in hip-hop affiliate DJ’s like Shadow and Girl Talk; leftfield (in geography and music inclination) producers Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus; forward looking soul singers Frank Ocean and The Weeknd; and up and coming acts like Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, and you’ve got a ton of hip-hop gems at the polo fields. Unless you were holding out some sad, misbegotten hope for an Outkast reunion (just let it go, let it go) rap fans have a solid outing ahead of them in 2012.

Dre and Snoop: Gin and Juice

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1EaF50O-C8&w=853&h=480]

Coachella’s recent savvy in dropping a mainstream hip-hop act along with its lineup of rock and electronic acts has been admirable. While Kanye and Jay-Z brought significant star power, that was a warmup for kings of Southern Cali rap Snoop and Dre to bring their G-Funk to the desert.

Sure, it was gangsta, but with production chock-full of Parliament samples, and subject material just as devoted to weed smoke and backyard cookouts as shootouts in Long Beach and Compton, Dre and Snoop provided a more uplifting vibe than the relentless G’ed up stylings of predecessors like N.W.A.

Dre’s production chops reached beyond the West coast to unleash Detroit’s Eminem on the world and provided bounce to East coast stalwarts like Nas and Busta Rhymes; his synth lines could infuse SoCal sun into tracks like “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” or foreboding yet flippant undertones on “The Next Episode”. Snoop’s domain was less cosmopolitan and more pure West coast (let’s forget his Master P No Limit period); his laid back tales of G riding and weed smoking flexed with dextrous flows and tight delivery (his single guest verse on “Deep Cover” was sufficient to launch a sea of hype) defined Southern Cali hip-hop in the 90’s. Though Dre’s recent output has been largely limited to Dr. Pepper commercials and overpriced headphones, and Snoop’s lyrical prowess has been undermined by questionable producer collabs and lazy writing, the two rocking the stage in the Indio desert seems like a preordained classic Coachella moment.

Frank Ocean: Novacane

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMfPJT4XjAI&w=853&h=480]

Odd Future’s rise could be dissected from no surfeit of angles, whether it be the questionable influence of hipster blogs (even Tyler calls out Pitchfork, as one must bite the hand that feeds you to be properly outré); the interesting intersection of hop-hop with skate and animated culture (check that Adult Swim collab); whether they’re horrorcore or punk or just stupidly juvenile. The far reaching collective is not strictly defined by the flagrant members, and perhaps no one shows more promise than the quietly rising star of soul singer Frank Ocean.

You won’t be floored by his voice but there’s a certain informed insouciance and intelligence to Frank Ocean’s lyrics that elevate him to notable status. His two hook contributions to Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne are standout moments on an album that impresses despite (and thanks to) its indulgent largesse. If you want to get with the hip crowd and cop his unavailable mix release (if it was good enough for Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” it’s good enough for … everyone now) Google your way to nostalgia.ultra.

On “We All Try” Ocean belies hip-hop’s typical atypical conservatism by propping up love that’s not just between a man and woman, and a woman’s right to choose (rappers hate the Man but don’t mind bullshit patriarchy). “Novacane” offers a strangely wry tale of a romance originating on the Coachella polo grounds with somewhat off brand drug use and the first of several Eyes Wide Shut name drops. The highlight might be copyright flaunting “American Wedding”; Don Henley is a bit miffed as it samples (takes) the beat from “Hotel California” in whole. If he listened to it, he’d hear a elegiac track that brilliantly juxtaposes a young marriage doomed to failure before it begins with a tattooed wedding ring that he “might just die with”. Frank Ocean thinks the notion of the The Eagles suing him as “fucking awesome“; more likely it will be a footnote to a career that should afford him a better sample clearance budget in the very near future.

A$AP Rocky: Purple Swag

A$AP Rocky hails out of Harlem, the same spot that brought us Cam’Ron and the Diplomats, who dropped gangsta tales of murder and hustle while flossing with pink b-ball jerseys. That juxtaposition informs the chill vibe of Rocky’s world, rather than follow the gun clapping music of Queens rep 50 Cent, he follows the weed first, guns second vibe of Wiz Khalifa and the inventive codeine haze of Lil Wayne.

It helps the cause tremendously that he’s got solid producers including Clams Casino (also heard donating beats to The Weeknd) contributing a grip of tracks that are moody and spacey; stripping out the lyrics would sound something like the XX remixing an MF Doom Special Herbs instrumental album. Rocky doesn’t try to grab you by the neck with his hooks like Wiz Khalifa’s stoned but aggressive patter; he’s content to confidently stroll through his chorus and trust you to hypnotically bob your head along.

Today’s hip-hop world has gone more swag than gangsta (a zeitgeist that’s somewhere between metrosexual and hipster); the proving ground has moved from underground radio freestyle sessions to free mixtapes on the Internet. A$AP Rocky comes out remarkably fully formed for a guy that copped a 3 million record deal off the strength of two singles; out of any hip-hop act on the roster this Harlem rep needs to be playing at dusk, crowd full of weed smoke as the slow tweaked strings of “Purple Swag” wafts over the atmosphere.

Childish Gambino: Bonfire

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qL1B_r9nC9k&w=853&h=480]

You don’t need to be a fan of the so-clever-it’s-doomed sitcom Community to appreciate Childish Gambino, but it helps. His recent album Camp is both better and worse than you might expect from a rapping comedic actor (Donald Glover) who took his nom de rap from an Internet Wu-Tang name generator.

Glover does a lot of his own production, which is polished with choral flourishes, informed by modern electronic music (what isn’t at this point?) and wouldn’t be out of place on some of the recent emo-hop from B.o.B. or Drake. His flow and intonation is serviceable except for a tendency to drop into a squeaky growl that might be aggressively playful from Kanye’s windpipes but is cringeworthy from the Gambino.

As with a standup set you’re here for the punchlines – instead of dropping it like it’s hot, Gambino’s gonna ask you to “drop it like the Nasdaq” and will name check NPR’s Terry Gross, Carmen Sandiego, John Mayer before you hear him comparing himself with Biggie Smalls. There’s also serious tones and aspirations to outsider status, like when he points out “you’re not not racist cause the Wire’s in your Netflix queue” but ultimately Childish Gambino’s black but alternative (and relentless self-awareness) doesn’t break new ground beyond what Odd Future, or Lupe before them, or the Neptunes before them have put on ProTools. Donald Glover ultimately will settle into a middle ground; he’s not renaissance actor-rapper Mos Def, but his musical and acting chops outshines the likes of Tyrese.

Company Flow: The Fire in Which You Burn

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSvV5omRYJA&w=853&h=480]

1997 saw the stunning, sublime release of longtime hip-hop artisan Will Smith, whose Big Willie Style album and the particularly erudite “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” defined the mainstream rap music landscape. For those seeking somewhat grimier fare, an indie label renaissance was at work spreading music to a more niche audience. Fondle ‘Em brought the world the origin supervillain story of MF Doom, while Rawkus Records launched an astonishing roster including Mos Def, one of the earliest appearances from Eminem , Kool Keith sidekick Sir Menilik, and the “independent as fuck” Company Flow.

While Puff Daddy was honoring (exploiting) the fallout of the West coast – East coast beef, appearing onstage with Sting, Co Flow was kicking off their Funcrusher Plus LP with “Your eyes get wide like Tupac getting shot in the lobby”. The lyrical semantics may have been driven by standard anti-mainstream sentiment and edgy punchlines, but the paranoid sci-fi bent, noisy production, and forays into more personal material like the haunting domestic abuse tale “Last Good Sleep” elevated the album into classic realm. Prominent member El-P went on to have his own sonically uncompromising career; as to Co Flow, while the group only had one LP proper and they get small font billing, they stand as one of the most important hip-hop acts of the 90’s and should not be missed.

Coachella 2012: GET PSYCHED (Part 4)

Posted: March 4, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , ,

This week’s “GET PSYCHED!” is for that large percentage of my Coachella crew who attend the festival each year primarily to bask in the beats at the Sahara tent. Oh sure, they’ll make the occasional foray to the main stage to catch a major artist — but the real allure of the festival is the (usually) killer lineup of DJs and electronic music acts who keep the Sahara bumpin’ all the way up to curfew.

I’ll confess, however, that I wasn’t SUPER impressed with festival electronic music lineup this year. I mean … David Guetta? Calvin Harris? I suppose they’re both a step up from Tiesto, but damn. Charitably, I’ll call those obvious choices. Anyhow, I’ve learned to trust Goldenvoice’s taste implicitly at this point, and I figured that any fest that booked both Amon Tobin AND Atari Teenage Riot probably had some amazing acts lined up to get people movin’ without playing 100% to the cheap seats.

And, upon further inspection: my hunch paid off. And so, I present to you a short list of artists who will get asses shakin’ AND brains racing in the Sahara (and points beyond) this year.

Justice: ON’N’ON

OK, OK … yes. Justice is a fairly obvious choice here. The more observant among you will note, however, that the French duo, often lazily referred to as a sort of “Daft Punk lite” (because they’re a twosome of French DJs), is making its second Coachella appearance since Daft Punk made its one legendary stand at the Sahara in 2006. Points for staying hungry and not drifting into “flash in the pan” status. And, while Justice’s first album didn’t do a whole lot to dispel the DP comparisons, “ON’N’ON,” the first single from its 2011 album Audio, Video, Disco points to a very different direction — fewer driving grooves, more borrowing from big riff ’70s rock’n’roll and prog rock (as well as some small riff classics, e.g., CSN&Y’s “Ohio.”).

That makes for a VERY promising return to Sahara headline status, in my opinion. We’ll all be getting a high dose of the crazy stage set routine from Amon Tobin’s “ISAM” and DJ Shadow’s “Shadowsphere,” so the pressure is really just on Justice to show up with a crate full of ROCK. After listening to “ON’N’ON” about two dozen times this past week, I’m confident it can deliver.

The Rapture: Sail Away

It took seeing this Brooklyn-based dance punk group live for its music to actually grab me fully by the throat and make me pay attention. Sure, its 2011 album, In The Grace of Your Love (a “come back” of sorts) got a spin or two just on the merits of The Rapture’s rep, and (truthfully) because of its return to the DFA Records fold. Then I caught them live in Austin last fall, and the album quickly clicked for me in a big way, surging onto my list of “Best Albums of 2011.”

The Rapture had a strong following and tons of credibility already, thanks to its instant classic single, House of Jealous Lovers, and its “pioneer” status as part of the wave of Brooklyn bands that started fusing dance music with punk and post-punk back in the early ’00s. But, like most of those bands (and unlike LCD Soundsystem, which surged with each successive album), The Rapture eventually succumbed to “too much too soon” syndrome and followed up its breakthrough album with some mediocre records. When front man Luke Jenner departed the band to do some soul-searching in the wake of some heavy duty personal issues, it forced The Rapture to take a much-needed break.

In The Grace of Your Love was more than a return to form; it was the return of a band that had grown and evolved to realize the potential promised by its earlier work. Playing with variations and tempo and adding gospel and choir music into the dance / punk mix, The Rapture crafted nuanced, emotional record that still packs a hefty dance floor wallop. Having seen the band live now, I can testify to its undiminished power to get people moving. I’ll absolutely be one of those people, again, at Coachella this year.

SBTRKT: Right Thing To Do

I’m not sure who pioneered the practice of DJs and MCs wearing masks to create cartoonish alter-egos for themselves. I can say that, in general, these masked crusaders generally make music worth paying attention to. For reference: MF Doom, Dangermouse, dedmau5 (admittedly, opinions may be split here) and, lately, Aaron Jerome — AKA SBTRKT (pronounced, as you probably guessed, “subtract”) — a British DJ who creates a hypnotic blend of Chicago house, two-step and RnB. My first reaction to his music when I heard it was, “This sounds like Zero 7, if Zero 7 actually made me want to dance instead of fall asleep.” Think deep, soulful vocals layered over spacey electronics, driven forward by funky, FUNKY house grooves. In short: exactly what I want from a late night set at Coachella.

According to at least one interview, SKTRKT actually dons his particular set of masks (all of them, according to Wikipedia, “modern interpretations of native society ceremonial masks” in order to “subtract” his identity from the experience of hearing his music (a valid concern; Jerome has a career as a “nu-jazz” producer and musician, and probably figured that any new music put out under his own name would be judged according to impressions of his previous work). That flips the script on the typical motivation the drives most performers to costume up (dedmau5 has turned his giant mouse head into a global brand, for example), and it certainly gives Jerome freedom to explore different genres and musical textures without fear of violating preconceived notions of what his music should sound like.

Live, Jerome partners up with vocalist Sampha and jumps behind the drumkit to give his music a stronger kick and more room for improvisation; think house music or two-step as be-bop, a live act working through modern dance music forms, but calling back to DJs and crews like the Reprazent drum ‘n’ bass collective (which wasn’t afraid to stand its decks next to a drum kit to see where the beat could go next).

Santigold: Big Mouth

I’m probably more excited to see Santigold than any other act playing Coachella this year. I’m so swept away by her music — particularly her new tracks, like “Big Mouth,” that I consider the rationale for my excitement to be self evident. I mean … just listen to that song! But I suppose I should spend a minute breaking it down.

Santi White is a gifted MC, and her music is undeniably hip-hop … but she pulls in elements from so many different genres, and accentuates her own gifts (a distinct voice, an ability to drop instantly and credibly into Jamaican patois, a love of dance and old-school hip-hop tropes, like b-boying) such that she has emerged as a singular voice in the genre. I love that she pays homage to dub and new wave and old school rap in equal measure, and that she manages to work with so many different producers without sacrificing the consistency of her sound.

“Big Mouth” in particular has me totally jazzed. A slow builder, the song shows off some masterful use of rhythmic loops, each slowly entering the mix until they find a place in the arrangement, which gradually crescendos at the chorus. At that point, everything bursts wide open, and you’re swimming in frenzied tribal beats, reverbed “ooo ooo ooos” and “waa waa waas” and just generally catharting yourself all over the place. Then the whole piece resets and rebuilds to the next climax.

Mostly, though, I think her music’s just flat out great, and that she’s a ton of fun to watch perform. The inclusion of two b-girl dancers flanking her to perform synchronized routines, a la Public Enemy’s S1-W, adds immensely to her live show’s charm, as does the occasional gold lame track suit.

Modeselektor: Evil Twin

Big gigantic confession time: researching this article gave me my first real exposure to Modeselektor. I went hunting through the Coachella lineup in search of something other than dubstep or pop DJs who crank out predictable club bangers, and Modeselektor seemed a likely candidate. Oh sure, I’ve heard of them before, but I’d never taken the time to listen deeply.

Modeselektor have been saddled with the “IDM” genre tag, which is a tricky proposition for a show like Coachella. It generally implies something a bit more cerebral or experimental (read: not, in the strictest sense of the word, “fun”) than what you normally hear on the dance floor. I generally tend to gravitate to it when I need heavy focus to do things like write or to perform tedious, repetitive tasks. Modeselektor tends to skew a bit more toward IDM’s roots in Detroit techno, however, which means their sound is stripped down, pointed, and a bit bass-heavy — but that it’s also built for movement.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and the set will be more about head than heart. In any event, I’m intrigued, and always glad to hear different flavors of electronic dance music on the festival fields. It’s also worth noting Modeselektor’s popularity as a remixer; the duo has provided mixes for Bjork and Radiohead, and recorded a couple of excellent, moody tracks tracks with Thom Yorke. That provides some interesting potential for on-stage team-ups, given Radiohead’s headliner status at the festival.