I don’t like conscious rap. Being a “conscious” hip-hop artist too often means putting your message before your music; artists of this ilk often forget that music is as much an individual expression as a social forum. Besides Kanye West and Common, I can’t think of any “conscious” hip-hop artists that I like.
Seattle’s Blue Scholars are definitely a conscious hip-hop group. Comprised of, as they say, “one DJ and one emcee,” the group writes songs about “the struggle” and “petty-bourgie pseudo-revoultionar[ies]” and the songs are obviously informed by emcee Geologic’s Filipino heritage. Bragging that both his parents are “blue collar,” Geologic firmly places himself in the protest music tradition, even telling a girlfriend in “Life and Debt” how he loves that she doesn’t “like art without a message.”
And this is my main problem with Geologic. You don’t need a message to make great music. Classic hip-hop albums like De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers don’t have big social messages, they’re just weird, creative albums that those artists felt like making. To privilege political music because it’s supposedly more important is ignoring the fact that creativity often can’t be contained by political ideology or some message.
But that’s Geologic. Don’t get me started on DJ and producer Sabzi. Like a billion producers before him, Sabzi likes jazz. I like jazz, too, but I’m not so sure it makes the best beats. I know that legendary producer DJ Premier uses jazz samples, but he cuts them up to create a specific mood, something that Sabzi should look into. Instead, the Blue Scholars producer often samples a bebop song at the start of the song and then segues into some weak, jazzy keyboard beat, only inserting the sample back in every once and while.
But I could be wrong. Maybe Sabzi is just cleaning up his samples so they don’t sound like samples, and those weak, jazzy keyboard beats I hear are actually, weak, jazzy samples. In that case, Sabzi should consider letting his samples sound scratchy and organic. On the Blue Scholars web site, Sabzi says he’s influenced by Madlib, but I’m not sure how. Madlib wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning up his samples or adding in keyboard beats. For producers like Madlib, one of the most wonderful things about old jazz records is the texture and warmth that comes from the vinyl recordings, so the thought of cleaning them up or adding pre-produced beats is nothing less than sacrilege. Anyone interested in how a producer can mix hip-hop and jazz with sublime results should pick up Madlib’s Shades of Blue; Sabzi certainly should have.
But I’m certain there are a lot of listeners out there who would love the loopy, melodic beats that Sabzi uses. To them, the big beats and synth stabs most mainstream hip-hop producers use are too loud, too in-your-face. I can understand that, and to them I recommend the Blue Scholars album. Because – despite critics’ opinions, mine or any others – they’re going to feel it. A lot.
See the Blue Scholars tomorrow night at the Wonder Ballroom, along with the premiere of ski and snowboard film, “The Tangerine Dream,” presented by Teton Gravity Research. Tickets available on Ticketmaster.
The Village Green
Ensconced in faux brown leatherette, the latest EP from Portland’s the Village Green might instigate in purchasers expectations of Neil Young’s vinyl heyday. But that impression is quickly dashed by the limey British taste of the album’s tunes. The opener sounds off with a grungy lick that seems out of an alternative radio time capsule buried in ’96, when Stooges worship warped into a fetishistic obsession with the Kinks. Of course, any band named “The Village Green” is broadcasting their Davies obsession loud enough that their music doesn’t need to cop any licks from the fab group’s classic The Village Green Preservation Society to seal the deal. But in case anyone didn’t get the name-check in their moniker, the Green tosses an audio cue with the droney ballad “Get Up, Get Out, Get High.” As a music fan I don’t really care a whit if a band is breaking ground or derivatively kicking out some hits – and the Green definitely falls into the latter category – but you’ve got to deliver some serious song-craft if you’re going to drape your rock music in Led Zeppelin or Ray Davies finery. That was the challenge of the 1990s alternative rock explosion; once shoegazing affection for your favorite nerd rock of the 1960s got you signed to Geffen, every half-bred hack weaseled his way into a pair of leather pants and got on stage with eyeliner drawn. In order to beat out the pleasing if flatulent sound of the Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, you needed songs, kid. Unfortunately, that’s where the band fails. None of these tunes – aside from the smart opener “Let it Go” and the stompy Spoon-inflected “The Way I Want To Be” – rise above comparisons to great has-been perpetrators of alternative retro rock. And on these two cuts, the band needs to let loose. British rock is nothing without the swagger, and copping a John Bonham drum march on the final cut, “Plastic Women,” doesn’t count. ?”Christian Gaston
Broken Social Scene
The new Broken Social Scene album requires two listens. First you listen to take it in and invariably decide it’s not as good as their classic You Forget it in People. Then you listen again and start to hear all the melodies and instrumental quirks you missed the first time, and it becomes evident that the new album is very different than You Forget it in People but in no way inferior to it. The biggest change in Broken Social Scene’s aesthetic is the volume of the vocals. They’ve been turned down so they’re almost equal with the rest of the mix, making it hard to pick out specific lines. But since lyrics were never really the band’s strength, it isn’t a huge problem, except for those listeners who can’t stand quiet vocals. The production is more post-rock, with guitars bubbling and keyboards much more airy and ambient. In fact, many of the instrumental tracks sound like songs you might hear on an early album by Chicago post-rock royalty Tortoise. Because post-rock as a genre has never really found a large audience, it’s possible the band is going to alienate a lot of fans with a denser and more experimental approach. Song standouts include “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day),” a rocker whose Pavement reference might hint at the fact that the song’s melody sounds quite similar to that band’s “Summer Babe,”; the Fleetwood Mac-ish “7/4 (Shoreline)” with Leslie Feist playing Stevie Nicks with a cold; “Fire Eye’d Boy,” which has whispered vocals by Kevin Drew and a robotic Krautrock groove; and “Hotel,” one of the sexiest songs the group has ever written, with an a woozy electro-funk keyboard line straight out of a trip-hop song. ?”Daniel Krow