Thursday, January 29, 2009


Only a few weeks into a season that seemed to hint at the possibility of a 5ish seed in the Eastern Conference, Donnie Walsh gutted the Knicks by shipping out a reinvigorated Zach Randolph and axed Jamal Crawford, the player who had grown into the role of quiet, well-liked team leader in the exiled Stephon Marbury’s absence. The Knicks allegedly made these moves to be under the cap by 2010, accomplishing an unlikely feat, but with Lebron increasingly looking to spend his career in his hometown, and a handful of once can’t miss prospects beginning to come down to Earth, Knick fans are facing a long and winding road of mediocrity. I haven’t liked our new GM from the moment he came home to NY. To me, Walsh seems to have developed a swagger allergy, burnt one too many times by flashy athletes who don’t fit in “well” (i.e. calmly and respectfully) within a system. As a believer in style, in protest of Walsh’s abortion I had been doing my best to avoid my hometown team as much as possible since the trade, but like an abused lover with nowhere else to go I returned to the Garden on Monday night to see T Mac and the Yao-less Rockets.

The thing you’re struck by immediately watching the new Knicks is the one right move Walsh has made: The no brainer signing of Mike D’Antoni. Much has been made of his zen like approach to offense, and I’m not one for zen. Seemingly anyone can take their hands off the wheel when you have Steve Nash to steer and Amare Stoudemire in the paint. I'm more interested in details, what can you do to make my team work? All I can say now is believe the hype. From the beginning the Knicks had a fluidity to their offense I had never seen, not just under Isaiah, but ever in twenty plus years as a fan. With the removal of their cornerstones it took a few difficult weeks for the team to gel, but now they operate as a single organism, roles amorphous and seamless in their transitions. It was hard to understand at first because they aren’t without their moments of devolved, clear out isolation dependency, why is it suddenly so effective? It’s thanks to their constant activity and unpredictable nature of when the clear outs will occur and who will be operating. The defense is on their toes by necessity and newly found quick and decisive decision making lends the Knicks an advantage. Sometimes a possession is Duhon crossing his man five feet behind the arc and pulling up for an unlikely trey with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Sometimes it begins with Richardson driving in, then a series of a dishes around the perimeter and back inside, making the extra pass and then another and then another, but what’s strange is the natural rhythm of movement and the seemingly communal decision as to when and where it’s time to take the shot. Literally, five men operating as one. The key seems to be the extreme comfort under a no bad shot regime. D'Antoni believes in his players. With Duhon’s emergence as a legitimate threat from three and David Lee’s newfound ability to finish everything around the basket it’s hard to argue with that logic.

The calling card of this team is egoless diversity. A basketball cooperative composed of interchangeable parts that can drive and distribute. Finishers who can step back should it happen to be their turn to do so in the course of a possession. Their identity has become their lack thereof, a strange corner of the basketball universe where Larry Brown and D’Antoni have overlapped just barely. Al Harrington has become the embodiment of the unit, sometimes the kickout option, sometimes the insane, momentum changing, show stopper, sometimes the spoon that stirs the drink. He starts, he comes off the bench, he comes in and sits down with little impact on the product running up and down the court. He has traded in a trademark and become an on court chameleon, whatever the team needs at that given moment, and you could say the same for Wilson Chandler and Quentin Richardson. When you look at the grand design, drafting versatile players such as Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, Lee and Chandler, bringing in Richardson, Crawford, Randolph and Jared Jeffries, it’s Isaiah’s dream realized a little too late. It’s beautiful to watch. Monday night’s box score is more eloquent than I can be:

New York Knicks (19-25)

Field Goals

A.Harrington F 26:57 5-12 1-4 2-2 -10 0 2 2 0 2 2 3 0 0 13
D.Lee F 40:03 7-13 0-0 3-5 +11 2 11 13 2 2 0 3 0 0 17
J.Jeffries C 15:31 1-2 0-0 1-2 +2 1 1 2 0 2 2 0 1 0 3
C.Duhon G 40:39 5-11 2-6 0-0 +9 1 5 6 11 2 1 2 0 0 12
Q.Richardson G 19:50 2-5 0-1 3-4 -10 0 3 3 1 1 0 1 0 0 7
26:59 8-15 1-4 2-2 +13 0 6 6 2 1 0 0 0 0 19
28:00 6-10 1-1 5-6 +7 0 7 7 3 3 0 1 1 0 18
29:01 3-8 1-3 4-4 +8 1 4 5 0 4 0 1 0 0 11

Limitations were shown in the fourth, as the Knicks worked down the lead and the game crossed over into clenched fist, possession for possession crunch time. The dominant talent made his presence known, and that presence was Tracy McGrady. For the first time all night the Knicks swarmed as a unit, rotating and contesting like an actual professional defense, but it was all for naught as everyone in the building knew where the ball was going but T Mac continued to make impossible shot after impossible shot. The Knicks didn’t panic, continued to work their offense, got a few big buckets around the perimeter from several players and won the evening, but the message was clear. The lack of a star will relegate the team to a solid unit capable of .500 basketball and the occasional big game but that’s about it. In heated contests when you need a man to call for the ball, step up and suck the life out of an opponent’s stadium with a game changer there’s no man on the roster they can rely on. That man is wearing street clothes and running his mouth clamoring for a trade once a week. However, while I have been a long time Steph apologist I can concede after last night that the newfound cohesion would almost be inconceivable with him on the floor.

A decade deep in mediocrity, it’s easy to forget but New York will always be a Knicks town. The Yankees on the edge of the Bronx and the Mets out in Queens have each other to contend with, the Giants and Jets play in the same building in Jersey, only the Knicks can claim the heart of Manhattan, in an immovable dome below Times Square. Monday night, as the game came down to the wire we forgot the tragedies of Isaiah, our piddling record and our sorry state of affairs. The Garden erupted like it used to. I left the building that night surrounded by a crowd buzzing with a strange sense of satisfaction. You could say that after being de-sensitized to the reality of awfulness the city has reached an understanding with our difficult and occasionally rewarding franchise. The expectations are low, the future is grim and spirits are high.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Mask

“Told ya, on some get rich shit. As he gets older he gets colder than a witch tit. This is it, make no mistakes, where my nigga go?”

Figaro - Madvillain

The quote above comes from the mini masterpiece “Figaro” off Madvillainy, a collaboration with Lootpack producer/MC Madlib in addition to the culmination of the second movement in the career of Daniel Dumille, also known as Zev Love X, Viktor Vaughn and MF Doom among other aliases. The song is arguably the best on an album packed with snippets of rap, instrumental breaks, grainy PSAs and Saturday morning relics, a fever dream in a weed nap. “Figaro” is powered by a murky, water-marked, wavering melody blanketed in rattling tambourines, hand claps and a simple drum break. Then Doom goes nuts. He’s in no hurry to deliver a dense, random, relentless tirade of boasts and brags that merely serve as a vehicle for his heavily referential, tongue twisting wordplay. It’s the realization of the persona we’d met five years earlier, and free association rap at its finest.

Dumille broke in on the 3rd Bass classic “The Gas Face”, which proved to be a fitting introduction. The Gas Face as defined by 3rd Bass and Zev is a grimace typically attributed to flatulence. As understood in the song it serves as a facial “Negro Please”, a response to ignorance and bullshit. This is early Dumille in his essence. In 1991, KMD’s Mr. Hood was more focused on a Much Damaged society than a positive Kause. While often garnering unfair comparisons to 3 Feet High & Rising and One for All due to sharing Prince Paul’s sampling tastes and themes of 5% afrocentricity, KMD’s message contained a jaded pessimism and disillusioned humor that was light years ahead of its time, in fact one would be hard pressed to find a comparable level of sophistication in today’s Hip Hop market.

Constipated Monkey - KMD

Understanding this is important to understanding Zev Love because two years later, DJ Subroc, Dumille’s collaborator in KMD as well as his brother, would be tragically killed trying to cross the Long Island Expressway. This, coupled with Columbia shelving KMD’s sophomore effort Black Bastards due to controversial cover art and eventually releasing the group from the label lead to Dumille’s disappearance from the mid 90s Hip Hop scene. He would famously reemerge in 1999 as MF Doom, a Metal Faced super villain who had allegedly given up his conscious message, Plugish delivery, and native Long Beach, Long Island for a nihilist paper chase from the confines of a mansion in Atlanta.

While Dumille patterned his metamorphosis after the mortal nemesis of the Fantastic Four, the God John Coltrane makes for a more fitting analogy. Trane was frustrated with a Jazz market that had been co-opted by the mainstream, most successful and popular musicians earning their acclaim off soulful re-workings of Broadway hits and pop songs. He took his art away from the popular, choosing an amelodic direction, discarding soft palatable melodies and taking his cues from African and Eastern chant music, lulling his listeners into a trance through recurring patterns in walls of sound. In Doom’s newly found, scatter brained, mush mouthed, slurring style he uses his instrument similarly, never straying far from the rhyming sound a series of bars are wrapped around. I find at times it’s easy to allow the voice to wash over you and get lost in his intricate, breathless wall of cascading words.

Rhymes Like Dimes - MF Doom

If his first contribution as Doom is any indication, Dumille was thrilled by his liberation. Operation Doomsday has a feel and tone of absolute giddiness, a conscience free, subversive studio party, its participants having a ball with their irreverent experimentation. It takes continuous shots at a materialist mainstream he sets himself up as the opposition to, a staple in Dumille’s work from the beginning. What’s interesting is how the style itself, a convention eschewing insular world of heavily layered reference could be the biggest “fuck off” of all. More than the physical critiques of an uninspired Hip Hop offered, the effortless and alluring bending of the English language serves as his ultimate defiance.

Space Hoes - Danger Doom

Perhaps, dismissed by many as a gimmicky attempt at speaking to the ever-present white collegiate fan base, Dumille may have found his ideal muse in the Danger Doom project. In many senses Doom’s product has been the hip hop equivalent of a twisted race cartoon such as The Boondocks (the animated comic Dumille does voice over work for) since the KMD days. The Adult Swim lineup provides a wealth of perverted, hilarious snippets to sprinkle over Dangermouse’s whimsical Saturday morning score pitching directly to Dumille’s wheel house. He’s in his comfort zone as never before, firmly entrenched in a farcical universe, rapping with cartoon characters, keeping the light references regular and never showing so much as a glimpse under the mask.

I first began to suspect Doom’s persona went further than edifice after reading a harrowing account of the fate of MF Grimm in the Village Voice two years ago. While Grimm made several fairly grizzly accusations at Doom’s callousness to his plight, what was most alarming was Dumille’s Borat like devotion to staying in character, confirming and completely comfortable with his actions toward his unfortunate former Monster Island collaborator. If you were into narratives, you could argue that Daniel Dumille internalized his personal tragedy and professional strife and reemerged with a new name, face and technique, everything in his being standing in opposition to the world and industry that shunned him. Though fascinating, it’s almost sad to watch as this brilliant, wounded artist continues to fade into an inscrutable, nostalgic, fanboy fantasy of comic books and cartoons.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I Hate Northern California

On Friday due to circumstance I ended up watching Notorious on Mission instead of Court. Probably one of the most awful, disheartening experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Almost 12 years later the Hip Hop fans in San Francisco were vocal, rapping along to "Hit em up", shouting "Westside" whenever the opportunity presented itself and jeering when the fatal shots were fired. I can't say this with any certainty but I'm fairly certain no one was cheering in Brooklyn when Anthony Mackie got shot down. That being said, unless you're a joyless asshole I'd recommend watching the film in a less hostile environment. Gravy looks like a California Raisin and I can spit a more convincing Biggie flow but you will leave the theater with a smile on your face assuming it's not filled with morons wearing print hoodies who over pronounce their consonants. The fake Lil Kim is nicer then the real one and getting a little off mic time with Big, however tired the biopic format, is a pleasant stroll down memory lane for stans like me. As it is Sunday morning and I am here on the West Coast allow me to rise above and promote a little bi-coastal unity, dedicated to the fun and funky West Coast Hip Hop we know and love.

Monday, January 12, 2009

How Jim Jones is Reinventing the Remix

For me the fun of writing in this style, that is for and around A People’s History, is pursuing things I like in Hip Hop and what specifically makes it good. For that reason, Jim Jones presents an interesting challenge. His voice is frankly ugly, not grimy or guttural in the Jada or Jeezy mold, simply awful. A horse croak that lies flat on a beat. His flow is often deliberately off time, I’m still not sure what a good Jones verse sounds like, and content? Still, I enjoy his work on occasion, and for some reason the greater New York area does as well. “Ballin” was the biggest song of 2006. I’ve seen old ladies on line at a kosher grocery store in Midwood pantomime shooting fadeaways. Double up on that for “Pop Champagne”. For every critic out there tearing a hole in Ron Browz, try to remember how laughable “I’m in love with a stripper” seemed whenever the fuck it came out and how you wondered why that dreaded moron sweated Akon so hard. The song is a stripped down banger, and if you want proof try hanging out in the Journeys off Union Square for a half hour sometime this week. (Plus, dude produced “Ether”)

So what is it about the Capo that makes him compelling or remotely worthy of attention? In my opinion Jones wins with Personality Rap, a genre that has absolutely nothing to do with any classically valued ability on the mic and is all about salesmanship and presentation. It’s a style that’s prevalent in the periphery of New York’s hip hop scene. Sheek Louch, late Noreaga, Lil Cease, Tony Yayo. (some Personality Rappers are better than others) All rappers I should hate but occasionally drop songs I enjoy. And they do it around their verses and hooks, with intros, outros, jokes, quirks and ad-libs. They sell you with humor and warmth. They’re people you enjoy hearing on a personal level, and Jim Jones has found a new way to exploit this talent and remain relevant.

Jones has turned a position as Cam'ron's hypeman into a fairly respectable career. He's had a handful of smash hits, a few albums that don't suck and he won a battle with Jay-Z. You can’t talk about The Diplomats without talking about Cam. Present in his post Come Home With Me work is an embrace of an individuality, a weirdness Hip Hop historically works towards suppressing in the interest of cool. For your consideration: The willingness to wear pink, tight jeans, (unthinkable when the Dips began doing it pre-Hipster rap in New York) what amounts to basically an entire seperate slang language and songs about irritable bowel syndrome. Jones has basically taken that and made his aesthetic out of it, excelling with random punchlines and silly, self-aware, ostentatious style. (A one man play about his life?)

Case and point is the slew of remixes Jones has popped up on this season. What’s important to keep in mind is his selectiveness. Jones has his finger firmly on the popular pulse at the moment and more than his physical verses, his mere willingness to branch out and appear on these unlikely songs endear him to a listener considering Jones as a whole. Like a guy showing up at every rooftop party in Williamsburg regardless of whether the crowd is shrink fits and dunks, unwashed Levis and their girlfriend’s flannel or button downs and ACGs. Let’s take a look at three notable examples.

Kid Cudi- Day & Night

Kid Cudi is an artist I knew absolutely nothing about and made a conscious effort to avoid based solely off the circles in which his name had been ringing out. One of my boys practically forced me to listen to this and I’m glad he did. On paper this song should suck. It’s Kid Cudi and Jim Jones over a sped up “This is Why I’m hot” with a spacey, shimmering organ emerging from time to time. I don’t exactly know what to call the verses but I know it’s not rapping. The song is an emoish ode to smoking weed and being introspective. All that being said, this cranks. They say we’re post irony, Kid Cudi’s career might be a litmus test. (He does a fairly faithful rendition of “50 ways to leave your lover” on a recent not bad mixtape) You have to respect Jones for playing the elder statesmen and reaching out to an up and coming artist on a pretty unorthodox contribution. But, in what will become a theme, Jones understands the base he’s reaching out to. He’s catering to a new generation of listeners with diverse tastes and styles, not afraid to shuffle Cudi in with Bon Iver and unapologetic in doing so. To borrow a phrase from the stoner basketball heads at Free Darko, Liberated Fans. The generation gap is far too vigilantly held in New York in my opinion and everyone loses as a result. Jones’ verse here is typically light and engaging as he takes a slightly more earthly approach to Cudi’s theme, and for anyone who hasn’t taken notice he’s supplanted Jeezy as the best ad-libber in the game. In fact, Jim’s ad-libs have replaced the punchline for what you pay the most attention to in his verse. (“Sorry Judge”) I’m not even sure whether I can say I like this, but my lack of certainty and inability to define what exactly this is excites me. All I know definitively is this is the perfect song for a cold, solitary walk home from the train.

Jazmine Sullivan- Bust your windows (Remix)

I profiled this song a few weeks ago, and when I saw Jones dropped a remix I clamored with anticipation. This song is ripe for the kind of subverted turn-around 50 Cent used to be famous for with remixes of songs like "Fat Bitch" and ”Get on your knees”, taking something fairly heartfelt and genuine and poking fun in that specifically hood asshole, anti-hero manner he pioneered. Instead Jones runs with the concept. This is clearly an unofficial remix, he drops two verses that clock in somewhere around twenty seconds a piece. Most likely the least interesting contribution here but the most indicative of the approach I’m attempting to document. His mere presence is the point; if you feel a lack of investment, that’s because he’s not investing. It would appear Jones is reaching out to another branch of his demographic, or perhaps the very same that is amped to hear him over “Day N Nite” and “Electric Feel”. Not to say his work is awful, there’s a fairly intelligent extended metaphor relating to grimy behavior and tarnished clothing, and of course “Not the Lambo!” is definitely an in-joke right now with a group of friends who love Byrd Gang somewhere in Harlem. (Or Brooklyn, or Cincinnati, or Oregon) But it’s a cameo.

MGMT- Electric Feel (Remix)

Some people really hate this band and Jones’ appearance on the song, and I’m going to have to blame that on context. In New York, this song was for a time, wholly ubiquitous. I don’t mean in certain circles, at the height of their popularity here this Summer and Fall MGMT was everyone’s favorite group. I mean EVERYONE. This extends to Hipster get togethers mid-town in between Vampire Weekend and the Hold Steadys and grimy ass project apartment parties in Bed Stuy in rotation with Pete Rock and the Beatnuts, I literally have seen both. In a certain light this was the most logical of the three appearances profiled here. I think the idea that there’s this demographic of hipsters who like rap because it’s ignorant and stupid is insulting, pretentious and at this point a well worn, lazy cliché spouted by removed critics who hate from their attics with headphones fitted snugly over ears. Jones adds humor and swagger to an exuberant anthem that needs none, but his appearance is an open mind. A willingness to stretch the well entrenched comfort zone and once again, in New York (at least) there is an army of kids who genuinely love Dipset and MGMT without condescending to either. Do we fault Jones for understanding the changing nature of the game while simultaneously celebrating the South for bucking the institution? (circa 2000) What if he likes this shit and who should be dictating what he likes? I miss the logic. As for Jones’ actual contribution, it’s appropriately upbeat but nothing special. Talking around an already vague subject matter, dropping a few punchlines, a few ad libs, then keeping it moving. This is no star making turn. He’s adding very little to the product, filling up instrumental breaks with sex talk. It’s almost like he just stopped by to say “I’m feeling this. What’s good?”