New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: rap music

Ride the Cyclone: Funniest Album of the Year So Far

If Weird Al Yankovic, Boots Riley and Mel Brooks got together to write a musical, it might sound something like Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s Ride the Cyclone. In the original soundtrack’s twenty-two tracks, streaming at Spotify, no style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire. American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop, macho Russian crooner balladry, cabaret, emo and EDM all get a good thrashing at the hands of an eclectically talented cast of singers and players.

In one typical number, the amazingly versatile band here chew up ELO, Zapp and Roger, Huey Lewis bar-band rock, 1970s top 40 ersatz soul music and then spit them out, hard. Another song starts by spoofing phony-sensitive Conor Oberst sweaterboy sounds and ends making fun of the Osmonds. The jokes are too good to give away and are not limited to lyrics. This is the rare comedy record that stands up to repeated listening because the snark and savagery comes at you so fast that if you try to multitask, you’ll miss the best parts.

The musical’s Greek chorus is Coney Island character The Amazing Karmack, whose job it is to predict the hour of a person’s death. Adding an amusing level of meta, he gets to deliver some of the most corrosively hilarious punchlines. The story begins as the St. Cassian Chamber Choir, of Uranium City, Saskatchewan arrive at the end of the train line for a roller coaster ride. As you might imagine, considering Karmack’s involvement, things are not going to be quite so carefree as the cheery Canadians expect. A headless body is involved.

The characters are straight out of central casting, with several twists: this is also a parody of musicals in general. The dorky boy dreaming of louche life in the big city; a whiny Veruca Salt type; an operatic piano-thumping wannabe Sylvia Plath; and an oligarch’s kid posing as hip-hop star all get what they deserve, right down to the minute details. Where does Misha Bachinsky, “the best Ukrainian rapper in northeast Saskatchewan,” take his entourage to drink Cristal and roll blunts? No spoilers.

If Bill Withers and Jeff Lynne had teamed up to write the worst song of their lives, it would be It’s Not a Game, It’s Just a Ride. One of the soundtrack’s funniest interludes, Be Safe, Be Good, has sobering resonance in an era of 24/7 fearmongering from the corporate media. The cruel punchline at the end comes in the form of an American Idol-style New Nashville singalong. In a year of relentless gloom and a likely holocaust looming on the horizon, we desperately need albums like this.

In Memoriam: DMX

Charismatic hip-hop star Earl Simmons, best known to the world as DMX and one of the great lyricists of rap’s golden age in the late 1980s and 90s, died today after having been given the needle of death about ten days ago. He was 50.

While many rappers are creatures of the studio, DMX was devoted to performing live. His made both a live album and DVD, and he remains one of the alltime leading rap artists in terms of total concert appearances. Those weren’t just cameos, either: in his classic, gruff delivery, DMX would deliver a full set of crime rhymes, battle numbers, darkly cinematic portraits of inner city survival and the occasional sex joint. He was widely considered as a foundational artist of the east coast hardcore movement.

According to a statement by family members, DMX took the lethal injection in order to facilitate returning to live performance in New York State, which has not yet been liberated from dictator Andrew Cuomo’s fascist restrictions on free assembly. DMX joins baseball Hall of Famer Henry Aaron and champion boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler as victims of the needle of death.

White supremacists have been using people of color as guinea pigs for human experimentation for years: the Tuskegee Experiment is just the tip of the iceberg. If black lives truly matter, it’s time to stop this latest experiment in genetic modification before it becomes a holocaust.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Mash Up Cutting-Edge HIp-Hop With Classical Drama

There’s been more of a connection between classical music and rap than a lot of people realize. RZA is an imaginative keyboardist and may have played as much as he sampled on all those classic Wu-Tang Clan joints. Bushwick Bill is a big opera fan and did a loosely conceptual album based on it. And Yasiin Bey has been working with orchestras for more than a decade. Ensemble Mik Nawooj‘s album Death Become Life – streaming at Bandcamp – continues in that cutting-edge vein.

Bandleader/pianist JooWan Kim comes from the classical side: he had an epiphany when he first heard NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. On this album, MC Sandman fronts the group as they swirl and leap around, in a mix of original music and variations on well-known classical themes. The music here is closer to Bushwick Bill’s bombast than RZA’s looming, bellicose ambience, enhanced by the dramatic presence of soprano Anne Hepburn Smith. And the beats – all of them live and organic – are on the fast side, pushing Sandman to the peak of his lyrical skills.

Doesn’t it kill you when you hear a riff and you can’t place it? Is that Dvorak that the piano and then the strings echo on the title track? Meanwhile, Sandman’s torrential lyrics build a futuristic scenario and contemplate the possibility of reincarnation, through an unexpected, suspenseful lull on the bridge. It’s the first part of a trilogy: this is definitely as ambitious as any classical-rap hybrid ever devised.

There’s dramatic menace in the chromatics, string cascades, emphatic piano, tense calm and uneasy gusts in May Good Conquer Evil, Sandman firing off a long list of evils but also ways to beat them. That familiar piano riff and variations return in the suite’s conclusion, May Death Become Life, a swaying, understatedly operatic piece: big up to Kim for doing this live instead of sampling the piano intro from ELO’s Evil Woman.

With a mix of the baroque and brooding, cinematic lustre, Everything Ends relates the sudden loss of a dear friend. The band follow that with a low-key, sweeping instrumental aptly titled Hymn: is that a reference to the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

The optimistic Everything Returns to One is the closest thing to a catchy, vintage 90s hip-hop joint here. The heroic, anthemically pulsing orchestration of Who Would Be Born takes centerstage over Sandman’s tersely provocative lyricism.

The album winds up with three energetically reflective numbers based on classical works. Mozart on Joy is a clever mix of famous riffs, Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics here. Beethoven on Struggle fuses variations on the Coriolan Overture and other big hits, a majestic salute to the world’s rugged individualists. The album’s coda is Bach on Transcendence, with a deliciously new orchestration of the Toccata in D: it’s as funny and formidable as the composer ever could have imagined. The group turning in this inspired performance includes both original and new members:  Joyce Lee on flute; Liam Boisset on oboe; Davis Hampton on clarinet; Jamael Smith on bassoon; Craig James Hansen on horn; violinists Philip Brezina, Clare Armenante and Laura Keller; violist Ivo Bokulić; cellist Evan Kahn; bassist Michel Taddei and drummer Lyman Jerome Alexander II.

There’s also a matching series of videos scheduled. And Ensemble Mik Nawooj are a great live act: in their New York debut four years ago, they transcended a hideous sound mix at a ramshackle Manhattan space to deliver an irresistibly fun set. As the world slowly returns to normal, it might be overly optimistic to expect to be able to see them in their native Oakland. But people are flocking to free states like Texas and Florida for live music; maybe the band can hit the road this summer.

Purist, Bluesy Swing From Trombonist Mariel Bildstein

Mariel Bildstein may be best know as the high-voltage lead trombonist in Arturo O’Farrill‘s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but she’s also a composer and bandleader. Her new album Backbone – streaming at Bandcamp – is a straight-up, swinging, purist mix of tunes from across the ages. Bildstein maintains a remarkable focus and doesn’t waste notes.

The opening number, Horace Silver’s Ecaroh bristles with surreal harmonies, Stacy Dillard taking a couple of bracing solos on soprano sax, pianist Sean Mason bringing in some ragtime and gospel, the bandleader getting wry with the quotebook right off the bat.

Harold Arlen’s The Man That Got Away is a steady swing blues, Bildstein taking a spare, New Orleans-flavored solo as Evan Sherman’s drums drop out and bassist Ben Wolfe strolls along purposefully. A  nocturnal Spanish atmosphere permeates Rosita, from Mason’s biting bolero piano to Dillard’s misty tenor sax; the coy horn harmonies lighten the piece considerably as it goes on, with a jaunty little bass cadenza to cap it off. The Coleman Hawkins version is an obvious precursor.

Monaco follows a similar trajectory from stern intensity toward jubilation on the wings of Bildstein’s no-nonsense solo, handing off to Dillard’s spiraling tenor, Mason adding bluesy simmer. Bildstein looms distantly, then has sly fun with her mute over Wolfe’s slow, considered syncopation in their stripped-down duo version of Mood Indigo. The  group close the album by reinventing The Lamp Is Low as a jaunty cha-cha anchored by guest percussionist Keisel Jimenez’s clave.

ShoutHouse Trace the Turbulent History of New York With an Ambitious Blend of Styles

ShoutHouse play a lavishly orchestrated, absolutely unique blend of postrock, art-rock and indie classical pageantry. The obvious point of comparison is Sara McDonald’s similarly majestic NYChillharmonic. Both bands are (typically) fronted by women; the big differences are that ShoutHouse relies on strings instead of traditional jazz instrumentation, and they have a hip-hop edge. The group’s debut album, Cityscapes – streaming at Bandcamp – is a song cycle tracing the history of New York, from the days before the European invaders arrived, to a possible future. Bandleader/pianist Will Healy wrote most of the material.

The first track, Mannahatta has a bubbly, spacious, optimism reinforced by rapper Nuri Hazzard, David Valbuena’s clarinet and Connell Thompson’s sax adding verdant textures. George Meyer’s violin spirals and dips above Healy’s steady minimalism as Hudson Drones rises toward a lush peak, verses by Akinyemi and and Maassai reflecting how 19th century struggles here mirror those of today. Akinyemi spells it out at the end:

The morning of peace, took a trip around the hill
The same dividend impacted me, subtracted thrill
Add in all the negative: the subway stops, delays in the mix
As I’m released from these trapped doors
I’m faced with the fate of these past laws
My passion would probably pull me in a positive direction
I stop at the river entrance
Enthralled by the possibility but worrisome
Of the penalties that change by the minute…

Singer Majel Connery delivers a setting of a Billy Collins poem with brassy passion over a relentless drive and increasingly nebulous bustle in Grand Central. Drummer Aaron Ewing’s rhythmically tricky For Those Who Look Up shifts on a dime from minimialist mathrock to a summery trip-hop groove.

Percussionist Jesse Greenberg opens his contribution to the album, Ancient Tools, with tinkling bells over hazy atmospherics. Hannah Zazzaro’s pensive vocals over a catchy, syncopated sway evoke the Chillharmonic in a sparse, dancing moment; Akinyemi returns to end it with a long, rapidfire lyric.

Over a driving, emphatic sway, MCs Bush Tea and Nuri Hazzard put a wary, urban 21st century update on the old ant-and-grasshopper fable in the next-to-last track, Ants. The ensemble close the album with Rebuild, its tricky metrics anchored by Healy’s Radiohead chords, MC Spiritchild contemplating a rather grim cycle of death and renewal over an increasingly epic sweep. An ambitious achievement from a group who also include violists Leah Asher, Sofia Basile, Linda Numagami, Lauren Siess and Drew Forde; violinists Megan Atchley and Allison Mase; cellists Maria Hadge, Olivia Harris, Philip Sheegog, Mosa Tsay and Daniel Hass; bassists Luiz Bacchi, John McGuire and Andrew Sommer; flutists Kelley Barnett, Izzy Gleicher and Fanny Wyrick-Flax; clarinetist David Valbuena; guitarist Jack Gulielmetti; drummer Cameron MacIntosh and rapper Adè Ra.

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.

A Rare Broadway Show with Authentic New York Flavor

From the opening salsa rhythm to the long mashup at the end, the original Broadway cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – streaming at Spotify – simmers with authenticity. Anyone who’s taken the train to 181st Street and then gone up in the elevator day after day will confirm that this was a rare musical which accurately captured an immigrant New York milieu. Miranda knows his turf and didn’t sugarcoat anything for out-of-town audiences. If the upcoming film is as sharply detailed as this, it’s going to be a box office smash – if there is still such a thing as a box office by that time, anyway.

On one level, it’s a familiar story: brash aspiring rapper Benny knows that chasing clear-voiced, angst-ridden college student Nina Rosario, “the one that made it out,” is a longshot, but he does it anyway. It’s funny, it’s smutty in places, and it’s as gritty as the neighborhood. People work long hours amid crushing poverty but dream big. Anti-immigrant bigotry looms in the background. The ice man frets that Mister Softee is putting him out of business. The bodega guys resolve to stick around and defend the store on a particularly hot, violent and eventually lethal Fourth of July evening. Local kids feel displacement as yuppies move in. Generational tensions bubble over, and yet there’s irrepressible joie de vivre despite otherwise pretty dire circumstances.

This is a long album, 23 tracks worth of salsa, hip-hop, reggaeton, soul, Dominican and Cuban folk music and bouncy piano pop, sometimes all in the same number, in both English and Spanish. The band excel particularly in the brassiest salsa interludes. There are unexpected plot twists and a strong supporting cast who get as much if not more time in the spotlight as the central characters. No spoilers: dig in and enjoy.

Searingly Relevant Spoken Word and Steel Pan Music From Miyamoto Is Black Enough

Miyamoto Is Black Enough blend excoriating, politically fearless spoken word and innovative, kinetic indie classical compositions by the group’s steel pan player, Andy Akiho. Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler serves as bass player and also supplies metal riffage, with Sean Dixon on drums behind frontman Roger Bonair-Agard. Their brilliant debut album Burn/Build is streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s bookended by a piece titled Panifesto. The first part covers a lot of territory: cultural appropriation, Yoruban mythology, and the fact that the steel pan was invented in Trinidad solely to fuel an “exodus to freedom…a weapon in the continued unchaining of the enslaved.” As Bonair-Agard sees it, the steel pan tradition reflects genuine history rather than one codified by “victors and false discoverers.”

Zeigler solos slowly and plaintively over Akiho’s shimmering ambience as the defiant concluding half picks up steam: appropriately, Bonair-Agard’s voice pans the speakers. In Nina, Bonair-Agard teaches a child about genfrication over Akiho’s eerie, dancing pointillisms:

Nina, the bike shop used to be a bodega…
The bar with the M&Ms on the counter used to be a candy store…
This park used to be a park
With potholes and crack vials on the running track
And dirt in the center of the field where grass should be
And that dog run was a field of geraniums
The Dominican restaurant used to be cheap
Used to have a line out the door
I used to be able to afford to live above it
And come down in the middle of the night
Especially after my girl left and I was tired of looking at the linoleum
And the sloping floors…
Kim’s grocery used to sell 40s
This subway stop used to be dangerous…
These cops used to be in squad cars, and not always so polite…
Big Daddy Kane once played a block party right here on Marcus Garvey…
This garden used to be a drum circle
Before the new neighbors called the cops to complain…
That school used to be public
This used to be Brooklyn

Black Shapeshift is a sardonic hip-hop litany of common salutations in ebonics, “where n___a and god both mean love.” Over the Asian-tinged reggae of Revolver, Bonair-Agard chronicles the exploits of a former high school valedictorian whose colorfully vast knowledge extends to firearms and heroin.

21 for Jit, which traces a Trinidad steel pan star’s DIY journey to greatness, has a more hypnotic, circling backdrop. The title track has the album’s catchiest hip-hop groove and also the most venomously relevant lyric, perfectly capturing the outrage of the past six months: “The movement needs both builders and burners…praise guns in the hood waiting to clap back at the right time, this is the right time!”

The group take their name from Ariana Miyamoto, who was chosen to represent Japan in a beauty contest but was later accused of being insufficiently Japanese since her heritage is half African-American.

Trippy, Free Neosoul on the Northern Plains Next Weekend

There’s another intriguing free outdoor concert next weekend at 4 PM on Sept 20 at Terrace Park, 1100 W 4th St in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where neosoul singer and hip-hop artist Arlinda Peacock plays a duo set with keyboardist Gus Martins. Her most recent album is the Peacock Cassette, which came out in 2016 and is still available at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. It’s sort of Janelle Monae before Janelle Monae got really popular, with simple, swoopy layers of keys and a beatbox. Peacock has an expressive voice and doesn’t waste notes: you won’t hear any over-the-top American Idol bullshit in her songs.

Peacock opens the record (or the cassette, if you want to to call it that) with a loopy, twinkly, mostly instrumental trip-hop intro. The first song is Eff Annie, a Little Orphan Annie parable. Rapper Bob Rawss takes the bridge, with insights into how people who haven’t had positive influences growing up figure out how to make sense of the world.

”There was once a beginning, that we all decided to destroy,” Peacock announces as  Chosen Unchosen gets underway  It’s a simple, telling commentary on equality and how to create it. “We call them people these days,” she explains dryly.

Pony Boi is a trippy, spare number with a catchy piano hook and jazzy synthesized brass. “Don’t ever let me catch you looking down again,” Peacock sings in Bravery, a chiming, upbeat trip-hop anthem.

The album’s swooshiest and most psychedelic track is Attitude Rewind: it could be a Missy Elliiott tune from the late 90s. Peacock keeps the surreal, cinematic ambience going with the most ominous cut here, Justice.

Konstantly is even scarier, when you consider that Peacock’s character is talking to her dead mom. The last of the songs is the epically mysterious Timmy on the Run, set to a dark, classically-influenced, vintage RZA suspense/action film style backdrop. Peacock brings the album full circle at the end.

If you’re wondering why a New York music blog would be paying this much attention to such a faraway state as South Dakota, be aware that it’s one of the few places in the nation where it’s still legal for crowds to gather to see live music. Here in New York, the State Liquor Authority recently ordered restaurants and bars not to charge a cover or sell tickets to performances, and to keep musicians twelve feet or more from the customers. Presumably this bureaucratic overrreach extends to places that do not serve alcohol as well. Whoever thought we’d live to see the day when South Dakota would be kicking New York’s ass 24/7 as far as support for the arts is concerned.

Smart, Relevant Protest Jazz From Irreversible Entanglements

Protest jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements came together out of a 2015 Musicians Against Police Brutality response to the killing of Akai Gurley, who was gunned down in a New York housing project stairwell the year before. Their debut album, Who Sent You? is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s smart, conversational, powerful and surprisingly catchy stuff. MC Camae Ayewa (better known as Moor Mother), saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes have a tight, purposeful rapport that echoes the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s more kinetic improvisations, and Ayewa’s lyrics are spot-on. If music that’s in touch with reality is your thing, this is your jam.

The album’s first track, The Code Noir Amina has a galloping, hypnotic Afrobeat groove with sunny, sustained horn lines shimmering overhead, building to a relentlessly tumbling drive and then receding elegantly. “At what point do we stand up…do we stand up at the breaking point? At the point of no return?” Ayewa asks.

The title track follows a similar pattern, from a big pummeling whirlwind of an intro to a series of rises and falls, the horns first spare and then frenetic. There are light electroacoustic touches, a quiet, persistent, echoey horn break in the middle and an unexpectedly calm, reflective djembe-and-sax outro. “What are you doing here in my home, my neighborhood, who sent you? Where did they tell you to patrol, to oversee, redeem, crucify? Did they tell you to walk around with your finger on the trigger? Who sent you? Did they tell you how long we’re supposed to stay here, under your gun, the occupation, who sent you?” Ayewa wants to know. What an appropriate song for this summer, right?

No Mas opens with the horns building variations on a stark minor-key blues riff, then hits a bass-and-drums groove that’s the closest thing to straight-up hip-hop here. “No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer, divide and oppress, define our humanity,” Ayewa insists.

Blues Ideoogy is the album’s fastest number, starting out with a tight, racewalking pulse and fraying at the edges as it goes along: it’s a snide commentary alluding to child rape in the Catholic church. The album’s final track is Bread Out of Stone, Ayewa reflecting on a turbulent heritage of enslavement and resistance over a loopy bass-and-drums clave groove. If there are historians twenty years from now, they’ll look back to this as a foundational album for the beginning of a new era. But we’ll have to fight to get to that point if we do at all.