Friday, April 18, 2014

Illmatic at 20 and How It Shaped Me at 20

I can’t say enough that Illmatic is one of my favorite albums of all time. Not just because Nas is one of my two favorite rappers of all time but because it’s a timeless record that is a gold standard for lyricism and production being married so perfectly.

As the 20th anniversary is celebrated Saturday, I want to just share my reflections from hearing it for the first time. I believe that if I heard Illmatic at any other time, it might have resonated differently to me but I think the timing was perfect. So here we go.

Back in 2003, I was still exploring Nas. I loved Stillmatic and I was getting into God’s Son - which was the first Nas album I bought. I lived through the feud with Jay Z and was getting ready to enjoy Jay’s farewell on the Black Album.

It hit me to finally listen to Illmatic - an album I had heard of for years but never bothered to check yet. So I began to search and download the album. This was back when the Internet was so tricky, you might have to download stuff before bed and wait til you woke up to hear it. So there I was on Bearshare downloading every track to Illmatic.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The College Dropout: 10 Years Later with Kanye

10 years ago today, the greatest rap (musical?) debut of this century came out. Kanye West’s College Dropout dropped in like a breath of fresh air and my ears and love of hip-hop would not be the same. I wrote in brief for Bro Jackson about it but I need to expand more.

For me, it was the first time a rapper had touched me in a way I could relate. I connected with Eminem for his passion, Nas for his lyricism and Tribe Called Quest for their vibe. I enjoyed Nelly and I tolerated 50 Cent while not becoming the full G-Unit fan most were. I still hadn’t found too many rappers that spoke to where I was.

That’s where Kanye West came in. A middle-class kid from Chicago who grew up like I did. A guy who didn’t fit in to what convention said a rapper should be just like I wasn’t what most of my peers expected of Black kids. He cared about his fashion, wore backpacks and looked like a combination of underground cred with mainstream appeal.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

5 Years on Twitter: What I've Learned

That was my first tweet. January 12, 2009. I had no idea what to expect after I got convinced to join Twitter by my friend Bree. I remember thinking "Is this just like posting status updates or what?" and it'd be a fad I'd give up since I was so into Facebook.

Five years later, Twitter's become everything Facebook was back in 09-10 and more. A news source. An outlet of emotions. A way of interacting with people you'd never meet everyday. A community. And for me, it's been as much a part of life since 2009 as anything.

Back in 2009, I was looking for a spark. 2008 was a huge year for my newspaper and I wondered what the year would hold now that Barack Obama was President. Personally, I was slowly recovering from a breakup and wondering how I would start meeting people outside of work. 2 1/2 years out of college, I still had yet to find a consistent circle of friends to hang out with besides church.

That's when Twitter came along. I only knew that one friend and I ended up following President Obama and Dart Adams, a writer who had inspired me with his site Poisonous Paragraphs. I didn't know what to expect but I figured it was a bold new world. Plus I was just about to start this blog so the timing was perfect.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013: Music Favorites and Digging Deeper

I dug deeper into (clockwise from top left) Passion Pit, Haim, The National and my new favorite band, Vampire Weekend in 2013.
I do this every year and I wasn't going to forget in a year where I dove deeper into more artists and took some chances.

10. Booker T. - Sound the Alarm (A summer classic from one of America's finest soul men/arrangers)
9. Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go (Finally realize how great he is)
8. Killer Mike/El-P - Run The Jewels
7. Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience Part 1 (Welcome back JT)
6. Janelle Monae – Electric Lady (Best R&B album of the year
5. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (It got so much better with time)
4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
3. Haim – Days Are Gone
2. Arctic Monkeys - AM
1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Why Vampire Weekend? Modern Vampires is a great album about growing up and questioning your world around you. It’s questioning faith without giving it up. The single “Unbelievers” sounds like a folk song that fits the grown nature of the album without sacrificing the light-hearted optimism in Ezra Koenig’s voice. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013: A Year of Transition

2013 felt like Jesse Pinkman in Season 3 of “Breaking Bad”. You finally shake some demons and step up to be the person you need to be.  It started on a cold January day running a 1-mile loop in my neighborhood and it ended with me driving home from a game on December 30 in my new car.

In between there, I lost 30-35 lbs, started a sports blog, added another job, challenged myself to think even more critical. I learned more about discipline and patience through running than I did before. In total, I ran 370 miles and some change, which still blows my mind.

Losing weight was one of the hardest things I’ve done and for 3-4 months, I sacrificed fast food, late night eating and devoted myself to night workouts.  When the summer came, I realized how much different I looked. Clothes fit better, energy was stronger and I was more motivated to write and think.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blackface and Kanye: Too Comfortable with Hate

Transcending race. Being colorblind. These are all terms that I seem to hear often and after reading David Sirota's "Back to Our Future", I understand these are fairly new concepts introduced in the 1980's. That's why last month was so interesting to me.

Two things happened that showed the problem with this idea. The annual issue with folks dressing up in blackface and Kanye West adding the Confederate flag to his fashion at his shows. First the blackface.

The problem with blackface is that we have a couple of generations removed from the "racist past" who think it's cool to do it without realizing the consequences. They actually bristle at you when you dare tell them it's wrong and offensive instead of apologize and realize the error of their ways.

But today's youth has a unique situation. White kids grow up with a Black president, Black rappers being the biggest pop stars on the planet and White pop stars using Black influences (which isn't new). They're in a society where pop culture is more diverse than ever yet their understanding of individual cultures is limited.

Friday, September 27, 2013

9/29/98: 15 Years Later (The Love Movement)

A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite group of all time. Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders affected me deeply in college and Midnight Marauders is in my personal top 10 – not just hip-hop, but all time.When I saw their documentary last year, I was both happy and sad. Happy to relive my favorite things but sad to see how things fall apart after Midnight Marauders.

That's why it's hard for me to write about The Love Movement because it represents the end*. The end of Tribe. The end of an era. One of the saddest farewells in hip-hop and 15 years later, it still is sad thinking about it being the last album we have with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Love Movement isn’t a bad record. It’s not on par with their first three but it’s better than Beats, Rhymes and Life. It’s a farewell where all the old friends gather to pay respects but it’s not a celebration.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

9/29/98: 15 Years Later (Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star)

This is the second in a series looking back at September 29, 1998. A classic release day in hip-hop where several gamechangers came out. This is Part 2 looking at Black Star’s classic debut “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.”

It was fitting that A Tribe Called Quest released their last album on 9/29/98 because their torch was passed in two ways. It was passed to OutKast on Aquemini (which I’ll discuss later) but also Black Star, who took a similar road that Tribe carved out.

I first heard Black Star’s album in fall 2004. One of my advisors in our multicultural center passed me a copy that I burned along with The Roots “Things Fall Apart”. Soon as I listened to it, I was hooked by the beats, rhymes and life of hearing two of my favorites start their careers.*

The album felt like a throwback while looking ahead. The “B-Boys will be B-Boys” skit reminded you of when hip-hop was a park jam and dancing was just as important as MCing.

Maybe that’s why Black Star is significant 15 years later. While Jay-Z revived Biggie’s formula and DMX brought the street element, that album was one of the first to try and recreate that early 90’s feel of alternative rap groups like Tribe, De La Soul and others.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

9/29/98: 15 Years Later (Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life)

15 years ago this Sunday, several albums were released that became gamechangers or showed pivotal moments in the artist’s career. September 29, 1998 would forever be known as a great day for hip-hop and I wanted to reflect on four of those albums that dropped. First up, Jay-Z’s “Vol 2...Hard Knock Life.”

Jay-Z’s growth to the most popular rapper in America is amazing to me because I remember that moment when it first happened 15 years ago when I was starting high school.

It’s when I heard the twin combo of “Hard Knock Life” and “Can I Get A…” dominate the radio that fall of 1998.  Throw in “Money Ain’t a Thang” and all a sudden, Shawn Carter is no longer just another New York rapper but a multi-platinum artist thanks to his third album.

With hip-hop still in a weird place post Biggie/Tupac, enter Jay. His first two albums were great and he had radio singles that were dope (Reasonable Doubt’s “Ain’t No…” and “Can’t Knock the Hustle”) and obvious panders (Vol. 1’s “City Is Mine and “Sunshine”*). He had yet to cross over and this is where his hustler mentality took over combined with his great skill.

In 1998-99, Jay’s success benefited from several things. 1) Linking up with DMX and Ruff Ryders**, 2) The Hard Knock Life Tour which was huge for restoring rap in the public eye, 3) His ability to take what Biggie/Puff did – use obvious samples with gritty rhymes - and go to a higher level, 4) Rap was on the verge of becoming more popular than ever.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

NABJ 13: Lessons Learned, Skills Acquired, Confidence Raised

So how do put NABJ 13 into words? The annual convention for the National Association of Black Journalists was incredible, inspiring and worth every dime spent. Last year's experience was eye-opening and felt like a goldfish swimming in a bigger tank. This year, I knew what to expect and my plan was stronger.

I asked more questions at panels and took chances to put myself out there. First panel was understanding the business of yourself and how to promote who you are. I signed up to give a 60-second pitch and even though I was nervous, I stood up, handled my business and got some great feedback.

As a bonus? I met a few folks from Los Angeles in the panel, including moderator Mark Luckie from Twitter. I also ran into a friend from last year who ended up becoming one of my closest partners in crime this year (what up Jasmine!). But that symbolized my convention - taking chances and seeing what you can learn from it.

Some more tidbits.