Saturday, October 29, 2016

25 Years: Ice Cube's Death Certificate remains the best West Coast solo rap album


The biggest shock for me as a hip hop fan is how people forget early Ice Cube. If you’re my age - 32 - you might remember “Check Yourself” and “It Was a Good Day” but you probably remember Cube from Westside Connection and the late 90s when he had more club records.

“Straight Outta Compton” might have reinvigorated interest in NWA but it only had a brief glimpse into Cube’s solo career after he left. People may know Cube was NWA's chief songwriter besides MC Ren and The D.O.C. but modern fans forget that from 1990-94, he was as great as anybody who ever touched a mic.

I’ve gone as far as to say Ice Cube is better than Tupac. Tupac was brilliant with his emotion and passion but the fact some of you raised an eyebrow showed why Ice Cube is probably more underrated than he should be.

Death Certificate is the crown jewel of that early run. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was a powerful debut that showed Ice Cube could hold his own away from NWA. Death Certificate was a step forward in taking that rage and skill and making it more West Coast friendly. The Bomb Squad handled most of the production for AMW but DC was all Cube and Sir Jinx making it funkier.

It’s also one of the most controversial albums ever made. A town in Oregon banned copies of it and several of these songs probably couldn’t be made today (Giving Up The Nappy Dugout!). It still reached No. 2 on the pop charts and it showed why Cube was the most popular and most feared rapper out. I've already written before why I think it's the best West Coast solo album but now that my musical ears have grown, I'm breaking it down even further.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Happy 25th birthday to Nevermind, Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Low End Theory

25 years ago today, three albums dropped that became game-changers. It wasn't planned. Nobody knew what they'd do. It was pure organic history and pure organic shifts in music with Nirvana's Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic and A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory.

All of them built up in their own way. Nirvana was blowing up in Seattle but Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were starting to make impacts on radio as well. The Chilis were Los Angeles legends just taking mainstream success with Mother's Milk but were known for punk-funk and rowdy shows around the country. Tribe? An incredible debut that had New York and others anxious to see what they'd do next adding to the Native Tongues landscape.


There's more than enough words on Nevermind today. The album that made most of us know who Nirvana was. The classic cover, the classic songs still getting play on radio so that when I was in high school (98-02), I knew them like they just came out. As much as Smells like Teen Spirit is overplayed, there's still a rush when you hear those opening chords and that chorus that brought in a new generation.

Now I've learned more about music to know Teen Spirit was heavily influenced by Boston's More Than a Feeling and The Pixies soft-loud dynamic (quiet on the verses, loud on the chorus - something you can really hear on "In Bloom").  "Come As You Are" stole the riff from Killing Joke's "Eighties" but it still sounds so murky and beautiful that you can't help but enjoy. It doesn't rob Nirvana of their power or how that album ushered in grunge in 1992.

Oh and "Breed" is one of my favorites because it hints at Nirvana's punk roots. To me, this song is all about Krist Novoselic's heavy bass and Dave Grohl's heavy drumming. Kurt Cobain has a nasty guitar solo that just fires me up but this was all about the total band just going all out, probably why I've had it on my running playlist a few times.

Contrast that with "On a Plain" which always moves me on the Unplugged version. Something about that record makes me feel the pain in Kurt's voice and it's perfect near the end.


Then we have Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Rick Rubin on board to help mature the Chili Peppers sound. But you know something funny? I waver on this album being my favorite sometimes with Mother's Milk.

Don't get me wrong. BSSM has my favorite Chilis songs. "Suck My Kiss" is just so raw and fun every time I hear it. The Power of Equality is one of the more underrated intros in their catalog. The title track has some heavy funk in there and "Sir Psycho Sexy" is hilarious and wild. And of course, "Under the Bridge" is a great love letter to L.A. and so uplifting to me even though it's a depressing revisit into drug abuse.

But something about it lacks the raw punk sound and wild energy of Mother's Milk. Part of that is Rick Rubin robbing that in folks he produces (and I wondered if my burned CD robbed some of that sound in college) but it's missing from BSSM. So I guess there's different things I love about BSSM than Mother's Milk but what I love is great.

You hear Anthony Kiedis show that he's a solid songwriter. You hear John Frusicante show why he's a musical genius even if the fame drove him away during the tour. His guitar work on "I Could Have Lied" is incredibly soulful and hints at the goodness he'd show on later albums. So the album has some wonderful highs I love all the time and it blew them up from the L.A. alternative scene they shared with Fishbone, Jane's Addiction and more to be rock legends.

I just have a weird relationship with it as a super duper Chilis fan. Oh and if you don't like "Give It Away" you don't have a soul. Period.



Now Low End Theory. I've written words already about this being the first Tribe album I heard but with Phife Dawg having left us, it's key to remember his presence is why this album stands out. We knew about Q-Tip being a great MC from the debut. We knew the first album was well-produced so the second would have it. But Phife's presence makes it have more oomph.

His intro on "Buggin Out" still gets me excited as much as hearing that bass kick in. His solo cut "Butter" showed the personality I'd become a fan of when I dug into Tribe.  And of course, his back and forth on Check the Rhime with Q-Tip became a new standard for group interplay.

I still love this album for what it has overall. The heavy bass sound. The immaculate production and Q-Tip giving us gems on "Verses from the Abstract" (The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket). It's hip-hop that was smoothed out but no less great. You can hear it now and know that the Native Tongues wasn't just De La Soul's left field greatness but it was also Tribe finding their own lane and giving us timeless music.

"Scenario" will be played forever and ever and ever and we'll get hyped like dungeon dragons with Busta. But today's birthday means we'll also miss Phife Dawg much more. The 5-Foot Assassin who gave us wonderful chemistry with Q-Tip and made Tribe one of my all-time favorites.  A classic album with bass and rhymes for days and helped usher in the alternative rap sound that Ultramagnetic MCs, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers and more started.

Happy birthday to three game-changers. Timeless works of art that will never leave my ears or many of us who grew up in their aftermath.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Nas vs. Jay Z Mixtape (A Celebration Collaboration)


During the spring, my buddy Matt Lane hit me up when I was doing a fantasy movie draft for Bro Jackson. We both love hip-hop as much as we love sports and we debated the idea of creating a similar draft for a mixtape featuring Nas (one of my faves) and Jay Z (one of his faves).

The format was simple. We create categories of songs to choose from and then create our ideal mixtape based on the categories. 24 songs total. This isn't a formal best-of-either artist but a way to celebrate the different vibes each one of them give off.

So over the next couple of weeks, we're unveiling the playlists 3 songs at a time. You can follow along on Twitter with me and Matt (@TrojanTeach) and we're using the hashtag #NasJayMixtape.  You can also check out our playlists below each list and any song not on Spotify will have a YouTube link.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Fire Is Here (On Baltimore - The Latest Volcano)

I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. (Martin Luther King Jr.)

So here we are again. Another segment of a city in revolt. Another person of color dead under suspicious circumstances by law enforcement. Another debate over property damage versus the spark of the anger.

Today it’s Baltimore. Earlier this month, it was South Carolina and Oklahoma. Last year it was Ferguson and New York. 5-6 years ago it was Oakland. What more is there really to say? The script we’re seeing this week is nothing new and it’s predictable. If you continue to be shocked, you need to wake up, smell the smoke and ask how we got here instead of why are a few idiots tearing stuff up.

Let me be clear. To only focus on those who riot instead of also those who have peacefully protested Freddie Gray’s murder - and it is murder, my readers - and the lack of an explanation from the Baltimore police department on his murder is shortsighted. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 Year in Review - Musical Faves



This was another year where I did as much as music discovery of older music as I did newer music. I fulfilled two of my goals of listening to the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder’s catalogs and my appreciation for them is so much deeper.

It’s no secret hip-hop had an incredibly down year in the mainstream. But I chose to not only lament hip-hop but show love to music that did move me. With Spotify and word-of-mouth from friends, there’s so much out there that I have to do more than just say Iggy Azalea’s music was derivative or YG’s album was more about DJ Mustard’s production than his rhymes.

So without further adieu, here we go.

TOP 10 ALBUMS
Run the Jewels 2
Spoon - They Want My Soul
Big KRIT - Cadillactica
D’Angelo - Black Messiah
Chromeo - White Women
Prince - Art Official Age (his best album since Musicology)
TV On the Radio - Seeds
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Sam Smith - In The Lonely Hour (better than I expected and he can sing his heart out)
The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers (light goodness that stayed in my head)

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 Year in Review - 40 Days of Challenge and Change


40 Days. It’s a significant time in the Bible. The length of the flood in Genesis. The time Jesus fasted in the desert before Satan tempted him in Matthew. The typical length of Lent. It’s a time of transformation and testing that leaves you far different than when you start.

For 2014, you can sum up this year in a 40-day period for me that left me similarly changed. August 30-October 9 will be a time I won’t forget because it shook me up, blended my insides and poured me out stronger. Few things this year affected me more.

August 29 - I’m robbed of my laptop in San Pedro following my first prep football game of the season.
August 31 - I arrive in Dallas for my cousin’s wedding and that night, I hear my friend/colleague/photographer Eric Wade dies suddenly after shooting the USC game.
September 1 - My cousin Jhanarius gets married on Labor Day.
Sept. 9 - While on a run, I get a call that I’ve been promoted to the LA Daily News as a full-time reporter,
Sept. 11 - I sign the paperwork to make it official.
Sept. 15 - My first day at the Daily News
Sept. 16 - Eric’s funeral
Sept. 17 - My 30th birthday
October 7 - My girlfriend and I break up after nearly four years of dating.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful at 30


This year has seen a lot happen so I had to dust off the Gumbo just to share how thankful I am for the last 365. The more I think about it, the more I have to say and follow the old maxim of count my blessings.

I still need to write the 30 Things I've Learned By 30 and hopefully I'll do that before the year is up. For now, enjoy this and just indulge my joy. So since November 2013, here's some of what I'm thankful for.

I'm thankful for being able to see some of my family this year at my cousin's wedding. I hadn't been to Texas in 3 years so to see them again, it made me smile.

I'm thankful for finally going to see Boston and meet up with my brothers and sisters at NABJ.  Thankful to see how my friends have hustled and gotten great gigs and to feel like I belong with even more peers instead of just happy to be there.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Garden State Turns 10 (An Intro to Indie Culture)


So I realize Virgo Gumbo is turning into an anniversary site. Already this year I've written on classic albums I love and there's more coming down the pike. It's been a nice distraction from covering sports and it's also good sharing what you discover about something you like as time passes.

With that said, I'm happy to share my stories about Garden State turning 10. A film about quarterlife crisis before I even realized what that was and a film that I would've passed over if not for friends in college saying I should watch it.

One thing I enjoyed about college is being exposed to a ton of things I wouldn't have known. I came to school thinking I would hear about singer-songwriters* and indie artists. So when I entered my junior year in 2004, I was invited to watch this movie in a friend's dorm.

I saw the commercials for Garden State that summer but I didn't get around to it even though I knew Zach Braff was from "Scrubs" and Natalie Portman made it seem good. All I heard was this movie was going to change your life - you know, typical young adult hyperbole we all indulged in. I figure why not watch it.

After I did, I had a feel-good moment that I hadn't felt too often from movies. Just something hit me in a deep place of great storytelling, acting, writing and music. It was different, funny, quirky and had a soul that didn't feel forced or over-the-top.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Paul's Boutique: The Beastie Boys Grow Up and Get Funky (25th Anniversary)


Quick story to celebrate today being the 25th anniversary of one of hip-hop and pop music's greatest records.

Around my college days and shortly after (2004-2007), I stayed visiting RapReviews.com. The strong, well-written reviews inspired me to dig in the crates and get albums like Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, UGK's Ridin Dirty, and The D.O.C.'s No One Can Do It Better.

This particular review was a favorite because while I heard about the Beastie Boys' Paul Boutique being this all-time great album, I had no idea why especially since they had no singles. The best Beastie songs to me were all over the radio so why is this obscure 1989 record so good? Well that review convinced me to finally check it out.

Since I was at a point where my musical education was starting to blossom, it opened my eyes in a big way. It's a masterpiece of sampling and a declaration of independence for hip-hop's party boys saying goodbye to Def Jam, their image and showing me the bridge to the Beastie Boys I saw in high school on.

I've called this album part of the Holy Trinity of Sampling along with Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. It's not just taking random beats and looping them - these albums created sonic landscapes by stitching together the familiar and unfamiliar to make something new. It reminds me of a term I learned in a communication theory called bricolage, the creation of something new from a diversity of things.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better (25 Years and Still True)

 
For years, I’ve felt that the greatest hip hop tragedy not involving a death was what happened to the D.O.C. Thanks to a car accident that trashes his vocal cords and suddenly, one of the West Coast’s most promising talents has been altered forever.

The biggest outcome is that future generations of rap listeners like myself would never get to hear him on records that dominated the West’s landscape. Future generations would also forget his talent and perhaps only remember him from Dr. Dre’s shoutout on “Nuthin But a G Thang” or his voice on this Jock Jam/sports arena classic.

To be honest, I didn’t even listen to No One Can Do It Better until 2009. Yet being forgotten or known as a sidekick does a disservice to perhaps the most technically gifted MC on the West Coast who could’ve made an even bigger impact that he has now as a ghostwriter.

This month is the 25th anniversary of the D.O.C.’s debut and it’s one of my favorites. He made rapping sound so easy and with Dr. Dre continued to build on his production style, it was a marriage that added a new layer to the West Coast beginning to make an impact on rap.