Outspoken Princeton professor, decorated scholar, and bestselling author Cornel West recently released a political hip-hop album that features songs about topics like September 11th, racial profiling, the "N" word, and the Bush administration. It's no wonder that Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations has been slugged "Edutainment to the fullest."
With a spoken word delivery backed by hip-hop beats, West reminds me of Gil Scott-Heron, a political spoken word artist from the 60s and 70s. Similar to Scott-Heron and also the 70s spoken word group the Last Poets, West's CD skewers our nation's political and ethical choices through music. But with guests like Prince, Andre 3000, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, and KRS-One, this album has a more current sound.
In an NPR interview about the CD, West explained that "A paradigm shift is taking place in hip hop. It's going back to the best of the tradition, by connecting with young folk In the end it's about dignity and respect." And I think 2007 is ripe for it.
First we hear Kanye is off to Sweden to perform with Peter Bjorn & John; now we get news that the hip-hop superstar is working with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami on the visual aspects of his upcoming album Graduation, out September 11th. Murakami has already designed two covers for the first two singles from Graduation, "Stronger" and "Can't Tell Me Nothin'" (see below). West met the "Japanese Warhol" on a recent trip to Japan, where he visited Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studios; photos from the visit are here on the Kaikai Kiki website (including a possibly NSFW glimpse of Hiropon, the girly anime sculpture). Apparently Murakami has also created an animated video to one of the tracks from the album. Artnet points out the rapper and the artist have something in common: a fascination with Louis Vuitton.
U.S. officials, who I'm sure are eager to present an image of an America different from the footage of soldiers fighting insurgents in Iraq, recently sent the Grammy-winning band to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia on a U.S. State Department grant. Their trip included visits to orphanages, schools, and community centers. They also hosted master classes and music workshops.
Illegal piracy has been around for quite some time, but alarm over the issue has increased dramatically with the rise in downloading and sharing capabilities. Students and young people are often targeted as the most likely culprits. It appears, though, that stern letters and a shaken finger from a parent or official aren't taking care of the situation, and some are taking the matter into their own hands.
One solution attempted by the film industry is that Los Angeles boy scouts are now able to earn a copyright patch by watching public service announcements about copyright violations, touring movie studios to find out how piracy can harm people, and identifying types of copyrighted works and ways they can be stolen.
And the government has their own scheme. Universities will soon have to submit annual reports to the U.S. Education Department on illegal downloading. Punishment for the worst offenders? Decreased government funding.
What ever happened to the days of a good old-fashioned fine?
In my recent rundown of the new M.I.A. album Kala, I said track four, "Jimmy," sounded like Boney M; turns out I was both way off and weirdly close. The track is in fact a spot-on cover of "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja," by Parvati Khan and Mithun Chakravarty, off the soundtrack to the 1982 Bollywood musical "Disco Dancer." Actually, it pretty much sounds like M.I.A. just sampled the whole song and sang over it. The reason it was confusing to me is probably because both this and Boney M were huge in Russiaer, the Soviet Unionback in the '80s and '90s. By the way, how weird is Russia's obsession with super-gay disco? Army of Lovers, anyone? That song was inescapable back in 1990 when I was studying over there, and it's basically like full-on trannies covering "Haveinu Shalom Alleihem." Seriously. Anyway, like most Bollywood stuff, "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja" is super super duper awesome, and you can buy it on iTunes, watch the video below, or grab an mp3 at Gorilla vs. Bear who tipped me off on all this.
In a move that says to the world, "no, of course we're not desperate and fearful, as our industry crumbles around us," music-licensing group ASCAP is now going after bars, clubs and restaurants that play any of the over 8 million songs by artists they represent without paying appropriate fees. ASCAP have apparently sued over two dozen venues recently who have failed to pay their royalties. Of course, legally, ASCAP is right: if I charge people $5 to come listen to the new U2 CD, it sure seems like that's money U2 should get. Since, you know, they need more money. But business owners often pay music services for chatter-free background tunes; is that different from just turning on the radio? Most amusing is this statement from Vincent Candilora, ASCAP senior vice president for licensing: "As long as it's [played] outside a direct circle of friends and family, it is considered a public performance." So, how many friends and family can I have before it's not considered a "direct circle?" We need friendship guidelines!
British band Hard-Fi have garnered some negativepublicity after the cover art for their upcoming sophomore release, Once Upon a Time in the West, was revealed: a yellow field with the words "NO COVER ART" in large type. The band gave a statement about "breaking the rules" or whatever to the NME, but in fact, cover art that's anti-cover art has been around for a while.
First of all, the cover that seems to have directly inspired Hard-Fi's art prank: San Francisco punk band Flipper's 1982 release, Album Generic Flipper. It's the same Generic Yellow, and features a similar font; somehow, though, I imagine Hard-Fi's new album won't be quite as ground breaking.
Flipper's generic cover concept was said to have influenced Public Image Limited's multiple covers for their 1986 release, alternately titled Album, Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on the format. I even own 12" Single, featuring an extended mix of "Rise." Flipper returned the favor by later releasing a live album called Public Flipper Limited.
Of course, the blank concept art-cover basically began with The Beatles; the 1968 release was designed by Richard Hamilton, who had put together a Duchamp exhibit at the Tate the year before.
Wikipedia says The Damned was the first band to explicitly invert the concept with their Black Album in 1980, although there's actually quite a bit going on here. More literally black covers can be found on later releases by Prince and Metallica; for a list of albums featuring basically blank cover art, check out this list here.
Can we trace this trend back to Kazimir Malevich's 1915 Suprematist masterwork, "Black Square?" The painting was placed in the position on the wall traditionally reserved for a religious icon, usurping the image of Christ; are blank album covers similar denials of their creators? Not that rock stars consider themselves Christ-like or anything.
This weekend I was lucky enough to catch the aptly titled The Simpsons Movie at my local independent theater. With all the hype—7-11s transformed into Kwik-E-Marts complete with Squishees and Buzz Cola, annoying ads during other Fox shows—I was ready to be wowed. But what wowed me, I didn't expect—the movie took on the thorny issue of environmentalism ... well, sort of, if you count Homer fighting power-crazy environmentalists with motorcycles and dog sleds.
In the film, Lisa crusades door-to-door for the salvation of Springfield's lake and, predictably, gets many of them slammed in her face; Homer's her undoing, dumping a silo of "pig crap" into the lake that turns it into a seething, green, boiling pool of acidic sludge; and there's an interesting twist, wherein, the EPA actually cares about the environment. Humorously, the EPA puts a huge, glass dome over the city to keep the lake's toxins from spreading (they care more about the trees than the people of Springfield).
The Simpsons of course fight back and attempt to free Springfield from its doom in the dome and the EPA v Homer battle is surely amusing, but unfortunately, after 87 minutes of comedy, the sentiment that people should not drop "pig crap" into lakes is pretty much forgotten. Not that I was really expecting (okay, I kind of was) great pearls of wisdom from The Simpsons but I had hoped for more examples of criminal environmental degradation, especially since the mastermind behind everything Simpsons is from my home state of Oregon, a state with a long history of fighting the timber and fishing industries to preserve its unique natural beauty.
This week, the Top Ten celebrates music from around the world, mostly even outside of, like, California! Also, I manage to restrict myself to only one track that could qualify as French techno (More about Daft Punk's live show later). So come take a round-the-world trip on Riff Airlines, no carbon offset credits necessary.
10. Manu Chao - "Rainin in Paradize" (from La Radiolina, out 9/4 on Virgin)
A perfect track to kick off an internationally-themed top ten, the uptempo beat of "Paradize" contrasts with its darker lyrical themes. Polyglot Chao here gives voice to various "calamities" and "atrocities" from Baghdad to Zaire, with repetitive lyrics that take on the aura of a kind of chant, or a prayer.
9. Mumiy Troll - "Ru.Da" (from Amba on Real) (mp3 via their site)
Vladivostok combo Mumiy Troll (Мумий Тролль) are saddled with greatness: ten years ago, they made Morskaya, a near-masterpiece of an album that perfectly captured the excitement of post-Communist Russia. While their latest effort isn't quite as inspired, single "Ru.Da" leaps from Pixies-reminiscent verses to an epic chorus.
8. Various Artists - Optimo - Pitchfork Mix 01
This set from the Glasgow DJs redefines "eclectic," effortlessly mixing from Brazil to Germany to Norway to, er, Sonic Youth. While the duo are known for favoring "psych-rock," the hour-long set is, at its core, utterly groovy, in the best possible sense.
7. Mexican Institute of Sound - "El Microfono" (from Piñata on Nacional) (listen on his MySpace page)
MIS is basically a one-man band (Mexico City's Camilo Lara); he brings together hip-hop and electronic sounds as well as more traditional Mexican influences on his new album. "Microfono" has a quirky, loping sample and mellow feel, over which Lara delivers a laid-back freestyle rap.
6. Various Artists - Typsy Gypsy Mixes
(mp3s via 'T Nieuwe Werck, more info at Boing Boing)
Belgian DJ Typsy Gypsy (of the Balkan Hot Step Soundsystem) has put together two mixes featuring a fusion of Klezmer and Balkan sounds with electronic beats (which, the blog brags, all come in over 150bpm). Hopa!