Friday, September 29, 2006

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Mike Realm, Motion Man, Bukue One, A-Plus at Knitting Factory 9/29/06

Self-respecting b-boys/girls should need little prompting to shuffle their backpacks into the Knit for this veritable cornucopia of hip-hop heroics. Tonight’s headliner is the original indie rapper, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien of the eternal Hieroglyphics crew. Dropping underground classics ever since his seminal 1991 debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, Del belies his deceptively laid-back style with stiletto-sharp wit and future-shocked forays into sci-fi fantasia (see Deltron 3030, Gorillaz). DJ phenomenon Mike Realm scratches everything he can get his hands on into an exhaustive multimedia pop-culture explosion sure to leave skid marks on your mind. Kool Keith affiliate Motion Man will keep it freaky, Bukue One brings his skater style from the Bay area, and A-Plus righteously reps the Souls of Mischief. Now where my heads at?

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 09/06)


Are we still talking dance-punk in 2006? You bet your sweet ass we are, and ex-Dischord punks gone dedicated dance commandos Supersystem are doing their damndest to give it a good name (or at least tack on a “post” prefix). Existing somewhere between the politicized polemics of Radio 4 and the new-wave pulse of the Faint (maybe it’s all those pseudo-British accents), Supersystem set themselves apart by having the audacity to incorporate world-music influences, particularly in Rafael Cohen’s fluid guitar lines. Their new album, A Million Microphones (Touch and Go), takes things even further into the global stratosphere (harps are involved), all the while keeping bed-heads bobbing. Pittsburgh’s Zombi recalls the glory days of analog electronics with a swirling sea of soothing synthesizers. Jean Michel Jarre rules!

(Originally published in LA Weekly, 9/06)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


“I’m surprised that I’m not still working at Kinko’s, especially making our weirdo music,” deadpans TV on the Radio guitarist-producer David Sitek in his Brooklyn studio. He’s working on a remix for an upcoming Beck single at the moment, but in just a few days, TV on the Radio will be leaving to tour behind their major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain. “Artists like Brian Eno and John Coltrane were on major labels. It’s not that case anymore, so I definitely think that we are the wild card. It’s kind of Dada,” he ponders, referencing the anti-art cultural movement that emerged in protest of World War I. “I can see someone saying, ‘Well, if TV on the Radio can get on Interscope, maybe I can fly.’ ”

No shit, considering how unlikely it is for a band as iconoclastic as TV on the Radio to be sharing a label with the Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas. It’s been a surreal ride for the group from the moment they first dazzled the indie underground with their ’03 Young Liars EP (Touch & Go). Mirroring the shaky mood of a post-9/11 New York City, the five-song collection of post-indie art rock (including an a cappella take on the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” — equal parts gospel reverence and barbershop quartet) sounded like nothing but itself. While it pulsed with dense swaths of orchestral guitar noise, majestic samples and sublime electronic beats, it was the voices that really commanded attention. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s aggressive, heartfelt croon — intertwined with guitarist Kyp Malone’s soaring falsetto — put an indelible stamp on the sonic liturgy. Sad and mournful, yet full of hope and possibility, their sound perfectly captured the sense of uncertainty that blanketed the country at the time. The repercussions were felt far and wide. Discriminating DJs such as Diplo even produced white-label remixes of the single “Staring at the Sun” to take that feeling to the pretty young things on the dance floor.

Their L.A. debut was a packed, sweaty affair at the Silverlake Lounge, surprising fans with stripped-down arrangements and an unexpected torrent of aggression. “We had no choice,” Sitek recalls. “Our sampler got crushed in the luggage hold of an airplane coming back from Europe. So we just turned the guitars up and called it ‘The Rock Tour.’ ” Still, the band’s grandiose heart shone through, particularly the passionate delivery of Adebimpe, whose live-wire presence sparkled with a new romantic spirituality like an interstellar Sam Cooke.

To me, TV on the Radio were a revelation. Somehow, they juxtaposed shards of My Bloody Valentine’s slow-motion guitar shimmer with echoes of the Beach Boys’ teenage symphonies to God, and the ghostly, brokenhearted dream-pop of post-rock pioneers A.R. Kane. Still, they were completely original. A band hadn’t stirred my wide-eyed eternal-adolescent hunger for something so decidedly other since the early ’80s, when I used to covertly tape Detroit DJ Mike Halloran as he played then-burgeoning acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen for the first time.

I wasn’t their only evangelist: David Bowie was also a huge fan, eventually becoming a band confidant and ad hoc adviser (and quietly contributing background vocals to “Province” on the new album). It’s appropriate, as their melodically discordant transmissions could be blood-related to the Thin White Duke’s fertile Lodger/Scary Monsters era.

“[Bowie] didn’t break down our star signs or anything, but he’s been an open ear to us,” laughs Sitek. “He made his feelings about our music known pretty early in the game. Right after Young Liars came out is when we first heard from him. He’s been very encouraging. He’s a remarkable man with an incredible wealth of experience and probably one of the few people I’ll actually listen to on this Earth.”

Following Young Liars with the equally outstanding Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (replacing drum machines with the flesh-and-blood rhythm section of Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith), TV on the Radio proved to be more than a fluke or moment in time, but a force worthy of my (and Bowie’s) reckless admiration.

Now they’ve taken the precarious leap to the murky major-label world to release the ambitiously beautiful Return to Cookie Mountain, which finds the quintet flying even closer to the sun, shimmering with disembodied samples anchored by treated acoustic sources and those captivating harmonies. Combining the atmospheric majesty of the first EP with the grittier buzz of Desperate Youth, the new album hums with an experimental fervor. The manic “Wolf Like Me” is all machine-gun tempos and psychosexual allusions as eerie as the video, which features werewolves and America’s Next Top Model Cycle 4 winner Naima Mora
(“. . . When the moon is round and full/Gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind”).

“This record was a lot more time-consuming and complicated than the others,” sighs Sitek. “I guess you could say there was a lot more addition at the beginning, followed by a lot more subtraction,” he adds somewhat cryptically. “We recorded every possible way and on every medium you can imagine. Every member of the band took ownership of different parts. We’re chronic overdoers.”

When Sitek brushes off the idea of the band’s being upset by the rampant Internet leak of Cookie Mountain earlier this year (“We just knew right then and there that we could make a big deal out of something we had no control over, or we could just get some pizza. We chose the pizza”), it’s obvious that music is not foremost in his mind these days.

“In the grand scheme of things,” he muses, “given situations like Katrina and wars overseas, we’re way more concerned about other, far more important things. We didn’t set out to make a political record. We were just trying to cover all aspects of what it’s like to be a human being right now. It was just impossible to ignore what’s going on in the world.”

That’s obvious, from the new album’s opening line (“I was a lover/before this war”) to songs like last year’s free-download single “Dry Drunk Emperor,” which harshly criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the Katrina situation.

“I’m not surprised, but definitely disappointed [by the lack of more message-driven music]. I do think that it’s happening, it’s just not supported by the music industry,” says Sitek. “I’m more surprised about the lack of Abbie Hoffmans than the lack of Bob Dylans at this point anyway. Huxley would say that the government doesn’t have to bother controlling what people can read, since most people will just take Soma and not be interested in reading anyway. I’d say what we’re experiencing right now is a combination of fear and Prozac.

“I’m obsessed with the idea that there are billions of people without clean drinking water. It’s really fucking with me. It’s kind of hard to be talking about music and simultaneously thinking about that fact,” he says. “I’m really into the work of Dr. [Masaru] Emoto, who wrote The Hidden Messages in Water” — which postulates that water can absorb and transmit human emotion. “I read that and The Secret Life of Plants in the same month, so now I’m really sensitive to the idea that as a human species, we’re all connected, and how our thoughts can affect outcome and physical properties. What kind of overwhelmingly positive experience can occur in the world to drown out the sound of doubt and fear that’s so prevalent right now?” he asks.

TV on the Radio’s music poses the same question — and answers itself with itself. Modesty aside, Sitek knows there’s no need to belittle its value. Music is not a luxury.

“Instead of focusing on the world falling apart, we should be thinking that something beautiful and possible could explode right in front of us,” Sitek continues, animated. “Music is an immediate way to break a cycle. You can blast the speakers and overwhelm yourself. With this record, we really wanted to contribute to the positive power of that feeling.”

Can I get a witness?

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 09/06)

Monday, September 18, 2006


What are the makings of a legend? Throughout the history of contemporary recorded music, precious few bands and artists have faced the seemingly insurmountable task of following up a certified masterpiece — a musical milestone that comes to define its time and is beloved by legions of fans as the soundtrack to a particularly golden moment in life. For DJ Shadow, that moment came with the release of his debut album, 1996's Endtroducing… (Mo'Wax). Built entirely on an infinite universe of samples (Guinness World Records casts it as the first LP composed completely from sampled sounds), it was the album that introduced the rest of the world to the vinyl-obsessed world of the bedroom DJ/producer, forever searching for long-lost memories and melodies to recombine into something brand new, vital and ultimately timeless. Its intricate arrangements and decidedly hip-hop approach to making mood-driven, emotional music all but defines a major portion of the 1990s, bridging the gaps between the beat-driven pulses of inner-city streets to the choicest of high-end boutiques. Put it on today, and Endtroducing… still sounds shockingly relevant, as if countless producers and artists haven't spent the last decade desperately trying to replicate its magic.

By the time DJ Shadow himself reemerged with the always-precarious second album, 2002's The Private Press (MCA), the landscape had more than changed; it had exploded into a million tiny subgenres that found everything from trashy indie rock to glossy hip-hop, spinning new sonic landscapes for a far shrewder and infinitely more astute audience. When The Private Press played more like a postmodern mixtape than Endtroducing… part two, fans and critics wondered what happened to their instrumental hip-hop golden child. And don't think he didn't notice, especially when it came time to create his wildly eclectic and exceedingly confident third album, The Outsider (Universal Motown, 2006).

“With this new album,” Shadow says from his Bay Area home base during a break from tour rehearsals, “it was a case of me sitting down in my studio and going, ‘Okay, what do I like?’ and ‘What do I want to say right now?’ After The Private Press, I felt like I didn't really have a whole lot more to say in that vein right now. And when I say ‘that vein,’ I mean the sound that most people associate with me, which is a cinematic, kind of emotional and instrumental-type vibe.

“I was a little bit disappointed with how The Private Press performed,” he admits. “When you're in a business, you don't want to go down, down, down; you want to go up, up, up. I didn't feel very encouraged to head down that direction again, particularly after how that record was received. I also think that in the spirit of being realistic, for me to put out an instrumental record, be it now or 50 years from now, people will always have a knee-jerk reaction and automatically compare it to Entroducing…. I just didn't feel like dealing with that either,” he adds wearily.

If there was a pigeonhole mold left for DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis) to shatter, he blows it to bits with the party-time “hyphy” hip-hop meets introspective, Radiohead-ish contemplation that marks the aptly titled new album. “When I was working on that album, I didn't have anybody to try to please, any fan base to satiate,” Shadow says. “I was just making the record I wanted to hear at that time. When I sit down on the rare occasion that I have the time to make a compilation CD of things that are around me, it sounds a lot like The Outsider. The sound of different types of music smashed right up against each other doesn't bother me. I think in this current iTunes, mixtape world, people are ready for this type of record.”

When you were first coming up as a producer, did you hear any important advice from your mentors about making music?

Dan The Automator was pretty important. When I first started working with him back in 1992, he was just a local hip-hop producer, and I devoured any record that he would put out. I don't think he had ever met anybody as gung-ho about talking to him about his own work before me. He's about six or seven years older than me and was definitely something of a mentor. He gave me a lot of advice. I can't say enough about the things he helped me with along the way, especially during the process of making Endtroducing…. There would be times when I would just need a pep talk, and he was really good for stuff like that. I remember one particular day, when I had one of those awful challenges in the studio and was just wasting time, and I was getting despondent about a track. He got me out of the studio, and we talked about it over dinner. When we got back, I was able to nail the track with his guidance. Just for that alone, I'll always feel kind of indebted to him.

When you start creating a beat, finding a sample or writing a part, how and when do you know which direction it's going to go?

Lots of times I sit down intending to do one thing, and by the end of the night, I quickly realize that it's heading in another direction. If that's a direction that I haven't gone in before, then it's exciting for me. If, for whatever reason — whether it's the mood I'm in or just a sequence of decisions that I make — I end up with a weaker version of what I set out to do, then I just let it go.

The Outsider is so diverse, from venturing into the Bay Area — based hyphy scene to more cinematic, funky, rocky or folky sounds. When do you decide if you're going to want a thuggish kind of rap, an ethereal vocal or whatever?

Every time I put out a record, I try not to repeat myself. I think that's one of the reasons I found it more fun and rewarding artistically to make tracks that don't sound like what I'm normally associated with. This is my 15th year making records. Most artists that I respect and have a long-term career don't just sit in one place. They evolve. With a song like “3 Freaks,” I set out to make what in hyphy terms is called a “slapper” [characterized by teeth-rattling bass lines]. As unorthodox as it is, I felt really strong about it. It came fairly quickly and hit all of the buttons I wanted to push. But for every track like that, there are three or four that didn't go very far.

Last time Remix talked to you when you were working on The Outsider, you said the album would be a mix of samples and live instruments. How did that play out?

I didn't constrict myself to using only vinyl. I was buying vinyl before I made music, and I'll be buying vinyl long after this quote-unquote “crate-digging scene.” Vinyl will always be a tool, but it's nice to sit down and write music, too.

Still, there has to be something — be it a synthesizer sound or a sample — that I feel is worthy of building upon; that's where I start with most tracks. On a song like “Erase You” [featuring singer Chris James], I just wanted to tweak the beat, which is fairly well known in the funk world, into something new. With that beat in particular, I had the intention of it being the beat centerpiece of the album, the one where my programming really comes out. Then I sat down with a keyboard and worked out the melody lines.

With the song “What Have I Done” [with singer Christina Carter], which is one of my favorites on this record, there's not a single live instrument on there, even though to me it sounds like it. I played a lot of Mellotron, and there's a lot of complicated sample work going on. Another one without any live instrumentation would be “Backstage Girl” [featuring rapper Phonte Coleman]. But then there are songs that are all live. Using musicians was just another medium that I wanted to explore. “You Made It” [with Chris James] would be a good example of a song that combines the best of both worlds, live and sampled.

In addition to mixing live parts and samples, you've gotten more into working with MIDI. How did that help your process?

After The Private Press tour, the first thing I did when I came back was to move my studio out of my house into a separate space in the city, so that I was commuting to and from work every day. I told myself that I didn't want to make music on the MPC anymore. It took me a good year of making noise on Pro Tools 7 that didn't sound very good before work on the record started. [Shadow and engineer Count ended up sticking with version 6.9.2.] MIDI is one of those things that can seem very simple once you get it. It's nice when it gets to a point where all of these different technologies aren't mysterious or daunting but instead are conduits for the artistic impulses in the moment. But it takes a long time to get to those places.

You use Native Instruments Battery, Kontakt and Reaktor. In what way did using soft synths and samplers change your music?

One of the things that I like about Battery is the concept of injecting a live feel by having the trigger points randomized a little bit. For example, I would randomize the volume and attack of the hi-hats within a certain small parameter. Subconsciously, it begins to feel less robotic. I think that works on songs where you want the drums to sound live.

It also took me a little while to figure out how to place a sample on the computer screen grid to correspond to my MPC. In other words, when I hit the keypad in the lower left corner on the MPC, I wanted the sample in the lower left corner on the screen to play. It might sound simple, but it took days to figure out. Native Instruments stuff isn't always the user-friendliest gear in the world, although I recently heard they just came out with a new tactile device [Kore] that tames all of the different plug-ins into a universal tool. That sounds good to me, since I found that with every different Native Instruments plug-in, the rules were totally different. I'd hit one shortcut key on the keyboard, and it would do one thing with one plug-in and something totally different with another. That's the kind of stuff that I think is daunting to people. I remember talking to producer Droop-E, who did a remix of “3 Freaks,” about Battery, and he said he had to send it back because it was too complicated. I totally sympathize. But that's why I gave myself a good year to wrap my head around all of this technology I was using before I started getting serious about The Outsider.

Did you have any challenges constructing the more sample-centric tracks on the album?

With the song “The Tiger,” just getting that polyrhythmic effect with all of the different percussive samples that are in there was just grueling. It took two weeks to get all of those sounds to work together. Throughout the album, there's a lot of weird time-signature stuff going on. I found “The Tiger” to be rhythmically really exciting, and I didn't want to let that down. “Backstage Girl” was another real hard one, as I set out for it to be the sample showcase on the record. That's for the people who enjoy my ability to combine different samples into one coherent idea, so they could know that I've still got it. [Laughs.] There were just so many tracks on that one. If you listen closely, you can hear that the song speeds up gradually, but I'm still using the same samples. When you're working on a grid, doing that can be a real trick.

When you're working with guest singers or rappers, how do you help bring the best out of them?

An example of someone that was totally malleable and willing to go in whatever direction would be Phonte Coleman [of the hip-hop trio Little Brother] on the song “Backstage Girl.” He flew here from North Carolina right in the middle of a lot of family stuff. He came in, put his head down and went to work. No matter what I threw at him, he was ready to give it a try. It was a truly easy and effortless experience. Everything that he did, he kind of nailed on the first try. That's an example of a dream experience. Then you have people who take a little bit of direction, and then what they end up doing may or may not be anything like you had in mind. I think one of the challenges for me when that happens is figuring out how to make the track my own again. That's why when I give people tracks to write to, I only finish them halfway. I know there's no point in finishing it before they've added their part. I like to see what people bring to the table, so I can wrap the track around what they wrote.

When a song just isn't working for you, how do you tackle trying to get it back on track?

That's the great struggle. When I finish a day of work, and I feel really shitty about it, that's when I just strip everything back and basically start over. The older I get, it just feels like I have a lot less time to do what I have to do than I used to. I find myself having to deal with a lot more shit I'd rather not deal with than I did when I was 21 and in college. You just don't care at that age, and you're willing to work for 12 hours straight. I find that really hard to do now.

[Nowadays], there seems to be pressure to get more stuff done when you have that time set aside specifically to work. I hate those days. The song “Enuff” [featuring Lateef the Truth Speaker and Q-Tip], was one that at a certain point I was really struggling with. I'd gotten the music quite far along compared to a lot of demos that I do, but it still wasn't coming together. It's like looking at a Rubik's Cube and thinking you'll never fucking figure the damn thing out. But then you make that one twist, and suddenly it starts to make sense. A few twists later, and there you have it. Although I never did figure out how to solve a Rubik's Cube, so perhaps that's not the best analogy. When those things happen and you make all the right decisions, it feels really good and is the most rewarding. I think that's the reason why I'm uncharacteristically vocal about how much I love this album. The Outsider has the highest ratio of successes to failures as far as seeing songs through to the end in the way that I originally envisioned them.

Do you have a song junkyard that you visit to resurrect certain songs parts from?

The song “Six Days” from The Private Press is the best example of that. Back in 1994, I'd intended to do an EP with the [rapper] Gift of Gab, and even though the music at the time was some of my best work, for whatever reason, we couldn't get it together. So those tracks were just always languishing in the archives. By the time I was working on The Private Press, I ended up going back to the original record where I'd mined the main loop of one of those old songs and totally rethinking the way I used and treated it. The more I listened to it, the more I realized that I needed to finish the track. “Six Days” will always be one of my personal favorites. That song, along with “You Can't Go Home Again,” really hit the spot as far as what I was trying to do with that album.

At what point do you abandon a grandiose idea or sample combination to save the song?

Even when I spend two weeks on something, I feel like I have a pretty good internal monitor to let me know if I'm doing something good or just wasting time. At the time I was working on “The Tiger,” I felt like it was worth investing the time. It provided a really unique element to the album that I just didn't want to fuck up. I recently saw the movie Dig! There are a lot of scenes where Antone Newcombe, the main guy from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, seems to be just spinning his wheels in the studio. I've seen that throughout my whole career and even felt it at various times. I think that the biggest mistake any artist can do is to not release their effort at some point. I've seen so many friends of mine do great albums and then spend the next three months just second-guessing the whole project and not putting it out. That's just a real shame, I think. For me, when the time you've given yourself to record is up, just put it out, good or bad.

That's why I think I'm so hard on myself in the studio because I don't want to confront failure. Although I have had to deal with it, like on the UNKLE album [the 1998 Psyence Fiction record Shadow made with Mo'Wax founder James Lavelle, which corralled guest vocalists such as Radiohead's Thom Yorke, The Verve's Richard Ashcroft and Beastie Boy Mike D]. When we were mastering it, I knew in my heart that it was missing a song or two. I was really conflicted about the nominal segues between the songs because I thought they were just a waste and not helping the album. But you never know that until you get to sequencing. That's the day of reckoning. With Endtroducing…, sequencing was really effortless. With the UNKLE record, I think there are great songs there, some among my best work. But as an album, it doesn't really hold together. With The Outsider, I felt good during sequencing. I wasn't intimidated by the different nature of the various songs, and it came together in the end as a complete album.

(Originally published as the cover story of REMIX Magazine, Sept. 06)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Party Time in Bear City!

*Meet Sweden’s newest black-metallers-turned-pop-tarts, the Teddybears*

Few can crank out the guilty/not guilty pop pleasures like the Scandinavians: ABBA, Roxette, Ace of Base, teen-pop impresario Max Martin, Junior Senior. The Scandy-pop tribes simply have an uncanny knack for sating the world’s musical sweet tooth. The latest in a proud tradition: The Teddybears, a former hard-rock band — called Skull! — from Sweden, now making dancy indie rock-pop-dancehall-electronic fluff. Their debut album, Soft Machine (Big Beat/Atlantic), is an unabashed and better-than-expected good time.

The Teddybears wear huge bear heads, but their identities are not a secret. You may remember Teddybear Joakim Ahlund from his other other band, Caesars. No? How about “Jerk It Out,” Caesars’ catchy-cool garage rocker that sounded like Franz Ferdinand doing Smash Mouth, heard on those flailing-silhouette iPod commercials last year? Yeah, I thought so.

That song was overexposed to the point of ubiquity; now, the Teddybears are reaping the benefits of that (literally) commercial success. Ahlund has reinvented Teddybears into a jumpy dance-pop outfit somewhere between DFA, Fatboy Slim and a semi-ironic Hollywood hipster party (like there’s any other kind). And since we hook-hungry consumers can’t get enough of scarily catchy tunes in adverts, their hand-clappy raga-charged single “Cobrastyle” has been making the rounds in spots for Tab Energy drink and, most effectively, a break-dancing Heineken ad worth finding on YouTube. (Note: “Cobrastyle” refers to guest vocalist Mad Cobra.)

The disc has plenty of sweaty dance tracks à la “Cobrastyle,” including “Throw Your Hands Up” (with dancehall hero Elephant Man on the mike), but keep your ears open for two particular standouts. “Yours to Keep” is a sunny, top-down anthem featuring the original Kelis (that would be Neneh Cherry) on vocals, with new school Swedish pop queen Annie cooing behind her. A close second is “Punkrocker,” featuring the king of them all, Iggy Pop, barking to the guitar-powered beat. So: While Soft Machine may not exactly be a work of substance, that’s pretty much the point. In short, don’t think — just dance.

THE TEDDYBEARS | Soft Machine | Big Beat/Atlantic

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 9/06)

Favourite Sons, Sea Wolf at Spaceland, 9/18

The multinational coalition Favourite Sons trade in what the Waterboys’ Mike Scott would call “The Big Music,” a grand, anthemic sound that soars on emotion and muscular musicianship. Singer-songwriter Ken Griffin fronted ’90s Irish shoegazers Rollerskate Skinny, while his cohorts paid their dues in Philly psychedelics Aspera before crashing together in New York City during 2004. Rabid blogerati have already anointed them serious contenders for the Next Big Thing of 2006 for songs like the hard-charging “Hang on Girl,” eagerly spewing superlatives all over their debut, Down Beside Your Beauty, possibly the most genuinely earnest record ever released on the Vice label. Recalling Doves channeling Ocean Rain–era Echo & the Bunnymen fronted by a civilized Iggy Pop, their refined sincerity is a welcome relief. Promising L.A. atmospheric folkies Sea Wolf share the bill.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 9/06)

Thursday, September 07, 2006


*Underground L.A. rapper Pigeon John can’t help it — he’s weird*

Pigeon John looks almost nervous. But not for long. A slight guy dressed simply in jeans and a plaid button-down shirt, the longtime L.A. rapper steps to the microphone on a balmy summer night. The venue, Safari Sam’s, is a converted strip club, and it kind of shows: Red velvet lines the walls, and the remnant of a stripper pole stands in a darkened corner. The setting is oddly appropriate — the exotic dancers of yore replaced by a mob of aspiring microphone fiends on the maiden Scribble Jam Tour. From far and wide, rappers have descended on Sam’s with a vengeance, talking shop and slinging CDs in the parking lot between turns onstage before the all-out rap battle that concludes each event.

The crowd curiously eyes Pigeon John’s band — an unassuming bunch including a drummer, a guitarist/keyboardist and a DJ. But the curiosity turns to involvement; soon John’s self-effacing sense of humor and catchy, melodic tunes, mostly from his new Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party on Quannum, have pulled people in from the parking lot and closer to the stage. The draw is partly the stage electricity, partly the songs, with their deft juxtapositions of the funny and the poignant.

John’s not afraid to make light of hard times and bleak situations. “This one,” he explains cheerfully, “is about the time I woke up to find an eviction notice on my front door!” He tosses a curve ball: “This next one is for all of the gay brothers in the house. Put your hands up!” (He’s straight, recently married to his longtime girlfriend.) The audience just look at him, not sure if they should laugh, boo or throw something. He introduces “Do the Pigeon” as a new dance he made up that morning in the shower, then launches his body into a spastic whirlwind of clapping arms and bugged-out eyes, like the cartoon character Ren of Ren & Stimpy come to life — hip-hop in Technicolor. One vignette features a booming voice-over demanding he get off the stage. “What am I doing here?” he laments. “No one wants to hear from a 43-year-old rapper.” Everyone’s laughing now, including fellow L.A. underground rapper Busdriver and Beat Junkies DJ Rhettmatic. “That was good, but a little disturbing,” says one friend at set’s end. “He’s funny, but the songs are kind of... heavy.”

Told of my friend’s response, Pigeon John throws his head back and laughs. “I love that. Going back to my early days, the only way I really stood out and got people’s attention was to encompass my music in a happy vibe, even though there are deeper meanings to the songs,” he says, sitting on the front patio of downtown’s Standard Hotel, smoking a cigarette and sporting a tiny pin emblazoned with an image of Hank Williams. “I like contradictions. I love really happy songs that are terrifying. Simon and Garfunkel are great at it, and the Beach Boys are the best. I’m a big fan of movies as well, and Wes Anderson is phenomenal at doing that. On the surface, his films like The Royal Tenenbaums seem like comedy, but then there’s suicide, divorce and stuff. He finds a way to case it in a candy-coated shell. That’s the way I do rap music. The kind of hip-hop I’m most into is hardcore like early Mobb Deep. But when I try to make straight-ahead hardcore rap, it comes out totally different and kind of weird. It’s not really my purpose, but I just can’t help it,” he shrugs.

Contradiction comes fast and furious for this happily conflicted rapper. When he was a mixed-race kid in an all-white area of the Midwest, his mother was young, maybe too young, and dealing with demons of her own.

“I was born in Omaha, and then moved to L.A. in, like, kindergarten. There was a lot of moving,” he remembers. “My mom was only 23, and we never stayed in one place for too long. I was very used to having her wake my brother, sister and me up in the middle of the night; we’d lay a sheet down in the living room, throw all of our clothes in there, tie it up and go. We didn’t realize it was to skip rent and stuff like that.

“Being in Nebraska in the ’80s, there weren’t a lot of black people,” he sighs. “I had a couple of friends, but it was mostly an onslaught of the N word, very terrible things for a kid to deal with. When I moved to Inglewood, it was the total opposite. I was the sore thumb once again. But that’s when I really discovered music, particularly rap.”

Going from being the only black kid in Nebraska to the lightest in predominantly black Inglewood, young Pigeon John escaped to the same refuge so many other tortured souls seek out in desperate times: the radio. “All of that turmoil eventually had a lot of influence on my music, which was filtered through listening to the original KDAY as a child. They played UTFO, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, but they also played Madonna, Human League, Oingo Boingo — it was the bomb,” he smiles wistfully. “In that era, everything was mixed together. So when I started writing music, what came out sounded very ’80s. I can’t escape melodies and harmonies. I even get a little annoyed at myself, like, ‘Why can’t you just rap?’”

First getting on at L.A.’s legendary Good Life Café in the early ’90s, John busted his ass to find his own voice. “The first time I got onstage, I thought I was fresh,” he laughs, “and there was no reaction whatsoever. I went back every week for three years just to get people to pay attention, let alone be impressed.”

Now he’s toured across the country more times than he can count, releasing well-received independent albums (like the affecting emo-hop of Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister) and creating an audience for his genuinely colorblind brand of boom-bap. He’s now signed with the influential heavyweight indie label Quannum, which will take his show to Europe and Australia after an American tour alongside Busdriver.

“It’s been a sloppy, slow process,” he muses with a grin. “But looking back, it all seems very natural.”

For his new album, John uses that lifetime of experience to create arguably his best work. The rugged “One for the Money” finds him holding his own on the microphone alongside the awesome Rhymesayers rapper Brother Ali (no small feat), but those insistent pop hooks are never far from the fore; Mr. Hansen would be happy to pen something as peppy as “Brand New Day,” while “Money Back Guarantee” taps a sample of the Pixies’ “Hey” to ignite the chorus.

“I listen to all music through a hip-hop mind; everything is loops. But I’ve always loved the Pixies and wanted to do something with that song. My hope,” John stresses, “is to go back to where there are no lines, where it’s just music. Someone like Beck is amazing at it. What he makes is just good music that everybody can enjoy. That’s my goal.”

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, September 2006)