New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: rap

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Reinvent Hip-Hop Classics in Harlem

“Rolling down the street, smoking indo!” soprano Anne Hepburn Smith sang, belting at gale force for maximum dramatic effect. A sold-out audience of white tourists exploded in laughter.

“Sipping on gin and juice!” Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s two MCs, Sandman and Do D.A.T. responded. There wasn’t a member of the chamber orchestra behind them who could resist a shit-eating grin. It was as if to say, we can’t believe we’re actually playing this song at all, let alone this way…heating up the coldest night of the year, Saturday night at the Apollo, no less.

In their first-ever New York concert, at the third-floor cafe space there, that Ensemble Mik Nawooj managed to deliver a show worth seeing at all was a major accomplishment. If they’d been able to hear each other onstage, if the sound mix had been even remotely decent, or if bandleader JooWan Kim hadn’t been forced to play the show and conduct the band from the floor, seated in front of the stage at an out-of-tune upright piano whose lid had been ripped off, there’s no telling how much more comfortable this mighty band would have sounded.

They take a well-loved hip-hop formula – moody, lush strings with eerily tinkling piano – to the next level. Hip-hop with a live band goes way back to acts like Rare Essence and Schoolly D, but this show had more in common with Yaasin Bey’s most lavish mashups of rap and classical music. Kim told the crowd that his new arrangements of popular rap hits, most of them from the 90s, would be radical reinventions, and he wasn’t kidding.

Smith didn’t come in until the death-obsessed second number, like Oya with the thunderbolt when things got really intense. The menacing twinkle from Kim’s fingers mingled with the washes of strings from violinist Clare Armenante and cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd. Flutist Elizabeth Talbert and clarinetist James Pytko animated the set’s funkiest moments while bassist Eugene Theriault and drummer LJ Alexander gave the tunes more swing than any sample or drum machine ever could.

The two MCs nailed the rapidfire rap toward the end of the show’s epic opener syllable for tonguetwisting syllable. Kim directed brisk, catchy ELO-ish chamber pop interludes, starry macabre set pieces and baroque violin passages in between the rappers’ manic flow, bubbly woodwinds interspersed with the lyrics over the tight rhythm section. They mined the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic first album for several joints, starting with C.R.E.A.M. (which to be honest, they played way too fast), then Shame on a Brother and finally their own version of a classic track which they recast as EMN Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With.

They went to their native Cali and made a march out of J Dilla’s Last Donut, and after Gin and Juice, tackled a second Snoop Dogg number, Gz and Hustlaz, shifting from bouncy flute funk to an ominous cinematic minor-key outro. As the show hit a peak, Kim revealed that this live set reflected his response to and eventual bounceback from a series of deaths in his family: it’s not hard to see how hip-hop death fixations and grimness would resonate with him. Beyond that cover of Gin and Juice, the biggest hit with the audience was when the two rappers left the stage, went to the middle of the crowd and dueled without any help from the band. Then again, Vanilla Ice could have gotten a standing O out of this crowd. Here’s hoping that EMN get better sound here the next time around – or play the  main Apollo stage, where the sonics are reliably excellent.

Relevant Mexican Sounds, and the Hip-Hop Elite Salute a Chinatown Legend

Fearless Mexican-American folk-rockers Las Cafeteras have a cool free download today just in time for President’s Day. If I Was President is off their forthcoming Tastes Like LA album. “We’ve got a different kind of party in the White House tonight.” For real!

And even if rap or stoner Chinese food isn’t your thing, and you’re a New Yorker, check out Narcotechs‘ great new video for their joint Chicken Lo Mein. They filmed it at Wo Hop. If you’re OG NYC, at one time or another you’ve indulged at the legendary Mott Street spot. This was filmed in the basement space – duh – not the street-level room, which draws the tourists in for more ducats. The production draws on a Wu-tang classic from back in the day. Relive your lost youth in this one if you can remember it.

Batida Stirs Things Up at Lincoln Center

“Somebody asked me what I thought about Black Lives Matter,” Pedro Coquenão, a.k.a. Batida mused to the crowd gathered around the stage at Lincoln Center last night. He didn’t address the matter any further, letting his multimedia performance answer that question. Footage from a rare 1972 Angolan film by Sarah Maldoror flickered on the screen above the stage, two Africans weighing the pros and cons of societal class structure. One espoused a proto-trickle-down theory: the rich are good to be around because you can work for them. The other guy was more blase: “The rich exist to keep the poor down.”

Meanwhile, Batida’s drummer kept a brisk shuffle beat going, his two dancers, a man and a woman leaping and pouncing while the Angola-born, now Lisbon-based electronic musician/rapper/freedom fighter worked a spare, catchy, pinging melody into the mix, like a mbira through a reverb pedal. But nobody was dancing: everybody was watching the screen, apprehensively. That’s Batida’s steez, sort of George Clinton in reverse: free your mind and your lower extremities will follow.

Although the atrium space was packed, this was an unusually small crowd for Batida. He typically performs for thousands at big outdoor EDM festivals, using that platform as an opportunity for tireless advocacy for human rights worldwide, and in his war-torn native country, as documented by Amnesty International. In roughly an hour onstage, his show came across as an Afro-Portuguese take on Thievery Corporation, but minus the doctrinaire worldview, with the welcome addition of a withering sense of humor. Batida is one funny guy. He jabbed at the crowd with a torrent of cynical banter between numbers, with a plainspoken charisma akin to Iggy Pop or Rachid Taha. He was that self-aware: when he broke the fourth wall and entreated the gradeschoolers in the crowd to disbehave, or self-effacingly made fun of his own penchant for appropriating imagery, for example. And he was just as intense.

And he turned out to be a master at how to work a crowd. After he’d set the scene with with some matter-of-factly disturbing found footage from years of war in his native land, he’d run the visuals through a gel filter and pick up the pace. His samples were diverse and were absolutely fascinating, the most hypnotically entrancing one being a rare mid-70s wah-guitar-driven Angolan Afrobeat vamp that he said was noteworthy for not having drums (it did have what sounded like a djembe or two on it). Iimagine that, a dance music maven spinning the one Afrobeat tune on the planet without a drumbeat. Irony is not lost on this guy.

As scenes that weighed heavy postcolonial issues, such as the lingering effects of collaborating with enemy colonizers, shifted across the screen, the sonics and the beats grew more anthemic and the crowd surged. With a sardonic grin, Batida told them that “You’ll like this one, this one’s for the ladies, it works every time.” And then eventually painted himself into a corner while poking fun at just about every gender stereotype out there. The crowd got a kick out of that, but he also held their attention when he sent a shout-out to his compadres back home who’d been sprung by Amnesty Internation’s efforts after being jailed for a year for reading literature deemed subversive by the dictatorship.

“I’m so excited I could almost die,” confided Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal beforehand, who explained that it had been her dream to stage this show since discovering Batida’s music four years ago at Other Music. Then without missing a beat she scurried up to the front to join the dancers. In the back, a veteran chronicler of the New York music scene, still on the mend from a nasty injury, eventually rose from one of the press seats and began swaying back and forth. Physical therapy never felt so good.

The next show at the Lincoln Center atrium – the rectangular 62nd St. space where the most culturally diverse and happening acts perform – is Jan 5 at 7:30 PM with Burnt Sugar playing a “greatest hits” show, which might include everything from hard funk to ambient soundscapes to psychedelically danceable covers by James Brown, Prince, David Bowie and Steely Dan. As always, early arrival at these free shows is always a good idea.

Nuclear Codes for the Game-Show Host

Mike Rimbaud recorded his grimly prophetic Going Down to Trumpistan – a free download – before last night’s election results.It’s sort of a mashup of early, classic Public Enemy and late 60s Carlos Santana. In his ominous baritone, the New York songwriter considers how

Journalists are the enemy
Torture is an art, seriously
Crowd control
No privacy
Going down, down, down to Trumpistan

He’s playing Otto’s this Saturday night at 11: it’ll be a party for our right to fight.

And for historical context, here’s Gil Scott-Heron’s similarly prophetic 1976 requiem, Winter in America.

Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Just like the cities that stagger on the coastline
And a nation that can’t stand much more
It’s Winter in America
All of the heroes have been killed, sent away
It’s Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to say

Tattoo Money Brings His LMFAO Act to Bed-Stuy While the Bright Smoke Haunt the LES

Tattoo Money is one of the funniest acts in New York. And he’s as talented as he is funny, a one-man band equally adept at Chicago blues, psychedelic funk, oldschool soul and hip-hop. He’s like the missing link between Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy and Rudy Ray Moore. This blog discovered him by accident, basically, late one night last December, when he headlined the Mercury Lounge after a harrowing set by art-rockers the Bright Smoke. It was after midnight, on a work night, but a friend was persuasive: “You should stick around for this guy, he’s hilarious.” No joke.

What Tattoo Money plays is loopmusic, more or less, which requires split-second timing and is even harder to pull off when you’re hitting the audience with one side-splitting one-liner after another. The multi-instrumentalist really worked up a sweat shifting from his guitar, to an electric piano, to his huge array of loop pedals and a mixing board, evoking sounds as diverse as vintage P-Funk, Isaac Hayes at his trippiest, or Fitty in a together, lucid moment (that last one is a bit of a stretch, but just imagine…).

Tattoo Money’s shtick is that he lays down a riff, or a vamp, or a beat, then sings over it, firing off some of the most amusing, sometimes X-rated between-song banter of any artist in town. Most of it has to do with the battle of the sexes. Midway through his set, he let down his guard. “When it comes down to it, what my songs are about is being single in New York, and waking up the next day, and thinking, I did WHAT last night?” he mused. And he kept the crowd in the house, no small achievement on a cold December night when the trains were a mess like they always are and everybody just wanted to get home.  His next gig is at the Way Station on July 8 at 10, followed at 11 by hotshot bassist Dawn Drake and Zapote playing their original high-energy, latin and Indian-tinged funk sounds. If there’s anybody who can get the yakking crowd at the bar at that place to pipe down and listen, it’s this guy.

The Bright Smoke are at the small room at the Rockwood on July 28 at 7 PM as a warmup for their upcoming national tour. A year ago, the group was a haphazardly haunting vehicle for frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s grimly sardonic, enigmatic narratives about hanging on by one’s fingernails, emotionally and otherwise. Watching them make the transformation into an incredibly tight, dynamic rock band, without compromising the blend of deep, otherworldy blues and enveloping, misterioso, psychedelic atmospherics that made them so captivating in the first place, has been inspiring, to say the least. They might be the best band in New York right now.

Wilson’s elegantly fingerpicked, reverberating guitar spirals built a ominous grey-sky ambience for guitarist Quincy Ledbetter to shoot thunderbolts from. As usual, he kept his solos short, other than one, long, crescendoing trail of sparks that brought one of the set’s later number to a volcanic peak. Drummer Karl Thomas had the challenge of playing in sync with the raindroplets emanating from Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter’s laptop, but with his clustering, unpredictable, jazz-inspired attack, he was as much colorist as timekeeper.

And Wilson has never been so much of a force out in front of the band, holding her ground like a female version of a young, pre-epilepsy Ian Curtis through the crushingly cynical lines of On 10, the bitter gentrification-era allusions of Hard Pander (does the current climate of conspicuous consumption overkill make us all whores?), and a starkly stinging, plaintive new minor-key ballad. They closed with a witheringly intense take of an older song from Wilson’s days fronting another first-class dark art-rock act, the French Exit, the bandleader leaving her feet as the song exploded in a boom of low register sonics at the end, rocking back and forth on her knees and channeling what seemed like a lifetime of pain. And injuring herself in the process (not to worry, she was pretty much ok after the show).

Or maybe that last observation is just projecting, from an audience point of view. Go and decide for yourself: if you have the guts to try it, you can get much closer to the band at the Rockwood than you can at the Mercury.

A Historic Marathon Weekend at Martin Bisi’s Legendary BC Studio

While booking agents clustered around the East Village at several marathon multiple-band bills this past weekend, another far more historic marathon was going on in a Gowanus basement. As chronicled in the documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, Martin Bisi has been recording and producing some of New York’s – and the world’s – edgiest music in that space for the past thirty-five years. A couple of years ago, a dreaded upmarket food emporium moved in, sounding an ominous alarm bell. Like a smaller-scale Walmart, when that chain shows up, the neighborhood is usually finished. And with rents skyrocketing and long-tenured building owners unable to resist the lure of piles of global capital, what’s left of the Gowanus artistic community is on life support.

BC Studio’s lease runs out next year. The historic space is where Bisi earned a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit, where Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls and innumerable other defiantly individualistic bands made records, and where a sizeable percentage of the foundation of hip-hop was born. If there’s any artistic space in Brooklyn that deserves to be landmarked, this is it.

This past weekend, to celebrate BC Studio’s 35th anniversary, the producer invited in several of the most noteworthy acts who’ve recorded over the years, to collaborate and record material for a celebratory anthology. Both a Sonic Youth (Bob Bert) and a Dresden Doll (Brian Vigliione) did and lent their eclectic pummel behind the drumkit to several of the acts. It was a quasi-private event: media was invited (look for Beverly Bryan‘s insightful upcoming piece at Remezcla). Bisi also spilled the beans and invited the crowd at his Williamsburg gig this past week, and from the looks of it, some of that younger contingent showed up to see some of the more memorable acts who’ve pushed the envelope, hard, over parts of the last four decades there. It wasn’t a concert in the usual sense of the word, but it was a rare chance for an adventurous crowd beyond Bisi’s own vast address book to watch him in action. And while he’d fretted out loud about keeping everything on schedule, that hardly became an issue, no surprise since he knows the room inside out. The most time-consuming activity other than the recording itself was figuring out who needed monitors, and where to put them.

Historically speaking, the most noteworthy event of the entire weekend was the reunion of Live Skull, who were essentially a harder-edged counterpart to Sonic Youth back in the 80s. One of their guitarists, Tom Paine couldn’t make it, but his fellow guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins made their first public performance together since 1988, in this very same space. Methodically, through a series of takes, they shook off the rust, the guitar lingering uneasily and then growling over the band’s signature anthemic postupunk stomp. Watching Greenholz Jaffe play a Fender with frets was a trip: in the band’s heyday, she got her signature swooping sound as one of very few rock players to use a fretless model. In a stroke of considerable irony, Mark C’s use of a synth in lieu of guitar on one number gave the band a new wave tinge very conspicuously absent from their influential mid-80s catalog. Both four- and six-string players sang; neither has lost any edge over the years. Greenholz Jaffe ended their last number by playing an ominous quote from Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades, arguably the weekend’s most cruelly apt riff.

Of the newer acts, the most striking was guitarist Adja the Turkish Queen, who splits her time between her more-or-less solo mashup of folk noir and the Middle East, and ferociously noisy, darkly psychedelic band Black Fortress of Opium. This time, she treated the crowd to an absolutely chilling, allusive trio of jangly, reverb-drenched Lynchian numbers: a brooding oldschool soul ballad, an opaquely minimalist theme that could have passed for Scout, and a towering art-rock anthem. Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch supplied a river of gospel organ, elegant piano and then turned his roto to redline on the last number, channeling Steve Nieve to max out its relentless menace.

Dan Kaufman and John Bollinger of Barbez – who have a long-awaited, Middle East conflict-themed new album due out this spring – were first in line Saturday morning. Bollinger switched effortlessly between drums, lingering vibraphone and a passage where he played elegantly soaring bass while Kaufman jangled and then soared himself, using a slide and a keening sustain pedal. Togther they romped through apprehensively scrambling postrock, allusively klezmer-tinged passages and elegaic, bell-toned cinematics.

Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle. In perhaps the weekend’s best-attended set, Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and boomoing low-register chords, followed by a gorgeously contrasting ambient soundscape by Dave W and Ego Sensation of White Hills. It was the weekend’s lone moment that looked back to Brian Eno, who put up the seed money to build the studio.

There were also a couple of performances that echoed the studio’s formative role as hip-hop crucible. The first was when Tidal Channel frontman Billy Cancel channeled the inchoate anger of the Ex’s G.W. Sok over Genevieve Kammel Morris’ electroacoustic keyboard mix. The second was former Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey‘s New Orleans second line rap over the virtuosic fuzztone bass of Don Godwin, better known as the funkiest tuba player in all of Balkan music. Wallfisch was another guy who supplied unexpectedly explosive basslines when he wasn’t playing keys.

The rest of the material ranged from industrial, to cinematic (JG Thirlwell’s collaboration with Insect Ark frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, bolstered by a full string section and choir), punk (Michael Bazini’s wry gutter blues remake of an old Louvin Brothers Nashville gothic song) and to wind up the Sunday portion, an unexpectedly haunting, epic minor-key jam eventually led by Bisi himself, doing double duty on lead guitar and mixer.

Music continued throughout the afternoon and into Sunday night after this blog had to switch gears and move on to another marathon: the festivities included Bert backing Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, an Alice Donut reunion of sorts and a set by Cinema Cinema. As much a fiasco as Globalfest turned out to be that night, the wiser option would have been to stay put and make an entire weekend out of it. As Kammel Morris put it, Bisi should host a slumber party next year.

Singles for 10/26

Here’s Labba doing Nice to Meet Ya featuring Illa Ghee and B Rutland – heavy-lidded, blunted ODB-inspired deep Brooklyn hip-hop. Nice vintage Ralph McDaniels-style video too (youtube).

Speaking of cool footage, here’s some from Coney Island now – for future archives, when the coastline is all deserted luxury condos turned into crackhouses – via Lorraine Leckie’s bittersweet Happy City video. She’s got a release show for her new album coming up at the Mercury on Nov 13 at 8; Nashville gothic singer Kelley Swindall opens the night at 7.

And another Canadian crew, the Rural Alberta Advantage bring to mind the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies with Terrified (soundcloud).

A Trifecta of Singles for 10/24

Rass Kass has been one of the world’s elite hip-hop lyricists since the 90s. Here’s How to Kill God – his succinctly poetic distillation of two thousand years of religion perverted by tyrants and psychotics – from the upcoming joint album Blasphemy with the Ugly Heroes‘ Apollo Brown. No one is spared: “Motherfuck Donnie & Marie!” check it out via bandcamp.

Unpaid Internship, by Onwe – say it without a French accent and you’ll get the joke – is a LMFAO phony shoegaze parody of Bushwick poser bands (bandcamp).

And since baseball is still going on – go Royals! – here’s Steve Wynn‘s Baseball Project immortalizing not the time that Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis took a hit of acid and threw a no-hitter, but the day in the spring of 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup. His manager pulled him from the game five batters in, and the Bucs ended up losing, but a message had been sent loud and clear. And Ellis was out there pitching again the next time his turn came around – no suspension, no fine. How times have changed (youtube).

Different Styles, Same Cruel City

Don’t believe the hype: The corporate media may gush about all the twee tourist traps, and the NYPD brass may perform all kinds of statistical voodoo to help keep the real estate bubble going, but New York remains a dangerous city. There are two new singles out that reflect that, very memorably, and neither is the slightest bit nostalgic.

Give Trigger Me by the Rebel Factory a spin. Co-written by guitarist Joe Nieves and his late brother Gus – a Vietnam veteran – it slowly builds a menacing late 70s Lower East Side ambience. A slowburning, noisy guitar solo takes it to an incandescent peak, like the Dead Boys but slower and more focused. Nieves’ ominous baritone drives this doomed story home.

Fly Free, by New York rapper Curzon, is just as haunting. Over producer Canis Major’s moody, vintage RZA-style backdrop, Curzon traces a death-obsessed narrative from the streets to his own family. As a lyricist, he’s more concerned with telling a story, painting a picture, than he is with verbal gymnastics, closer to Guru than Biggie (although each seems to be an influence). We need more smart wordsmiths like this guy.

The Lyrics That Fuel the Arab Spring Now Available For the First Time in the West

As the Arab Spring contines to spread throughout the Middle East and points further west, hip-hop music continues to be a prime force and a main source of information, something to be expected as citizens create their own means of communication to bypass the censors. For listeners outside of the Arabic-speaking world who might be interested in this furiously literate, stunningly sophisticated lyrical art form, Syrian-American producer Dub Snakkr has asssembled the brand-new Khat Thaleth (Arabic for “third rail”) compilation, a brave attempt to collect some of the revolution’s greatest hits.

Just as you need to speak English to appreciate American hip-hop, you need to speak Arabic to appreciate this, especially since such a variety of regional dialects, historical and literary traditions are represented. For the Arabically-challenged, fortunately, there are extensive if rather primitive English translations of the first seven joints on the album at Stronghold Sound’s WordPress page. Be aware that the page is a PDF that also includes the original Arabic lyrics, and don’t forget that it starts at the right margin and goes left. The cd also comes with a black-and-white printout of this page which is a lot easier to read. There’s also an abbreviated seven-track version of the compilation up at Stronghold Sound’s Bandcamp page for free download.

Musically speaking, it is what it is. Just like American hip-hop, the lyrics are the focus. Aside from some eerily minimalist guitar on the ninth track, some tantalizng oud on the song after that and then an organ-based backing track that reminds of what the RZA was doing fifteen years ago, there’s not a lot going on. But the lyrics…WOW. In the Arabic world, poets are rock stars: they sell out giant stadiums, and their books sell better than most albums (the week the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the #1 book on the bestseller list there was a poetry compilation). Because Arabic poetry is a part of daily life rather than an ivory-tower pastime, and because music and poetry are pretty much inseparable throughout the Middle East, it has always had more in common with American rap than any current incarnation of a western poetic tradition. And it’s always been a spectator sport. Throughout the Middle East, there are centuries-old traditions of a sort of Arabic version of battle rhymes, which just like the oldtime African-American game of “dozens” ultimately draw on the roots of where it all began back in Africa. You could make a strong case for the argument that an Arabic version of hip-hop predated the English-language kind by thousands of years.

Add to that the bottled-up hostility of emcees from Palestine, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon finally breaking free of the chains of oppression, and this is what you get. And just like American hip-hop, it’s just as cynical as it is incendiary: none of these lyricists seems to hold out much hope for a better future. Lebanon’s Touffar excoriates revolutionary-era profiteers and what he perceives as limousine liberals: “If you want to talk about the hungry, first try hunger.” Zeinedin and Narcysist  gloomily ponder the prospect that what comes after the revolution could be even worse than the terror of the present. Palestinians Yaseen and I-Voice pile metaphor on top of metaphor and do wild linguistic gymnastics as they take aim at western-oriented kleptocracies. La Tlatleh paints a cruelly surreal portrait of death in the streets, while Iraqi Al Sayyed Darwish (the rapper, not the legendary composer), La Tlatleh and El Rass elegantly and bitterly contemplate the fate of an exile, then El Rass chronicles decades of deceit and corruption and lays it at the dictator’s feet, while warning his revolutionary comrades not to accept anything American unless it comes from Occupy Wall Street. And Syria’s El Haqq draws a grim judgment day scenario where the dictator casts himself in the role of god – and then the people turn the tables on god himself. These are just a few of the thousands of lyrical gems in this collection, offering inspiration, encouragement or simply solace in the face of what appears to be hopelessness. Often creating their art in the face of mortal danger, these artists have captured the cruel complexities of a world all too often reduced to soundbites.