Saturday, July 30, 2011

Electric Relaxation: 15 Years and still Sublime

The first I heard this album was 10 years ago. I knew Sublime because "What I Got" was such a monster hit and when a friend at high school passed this to me, I figured I'd enjoy it. What I didn't expect was to go on a musical cruise that I never stop enjoying.

It's been 15 years since Bradley Nowell passed and I went from seeing him as a tragedy to one of the most underrated geniuses this city has produced. Sublime's mashup of reggae/punk/ska/hip-hop is still relevant today because when you hear them, you don't hear anybody else like them. You hear who influenced them but you still hear creativity and originality in bringing these styles together.

I loved the album in 2001 and replayed it to death. You have the easy breeze of "Garden Grove" with the hard rock of "Same in the End" and "Under my Voodoo" mixed with the Latin flavor of "Caress Me Down". It's the perfect mashup before mashups became vogue. Not to mention the hits that endured and still sound fresh on the radio today.

"April 29, 1992" is still one of the best songs describing the LA riots and at the time, I had never heard someone's perspective who wasn't Black. Bradley made me feel like it was a whole lot of anger going down and some White folks wanted to cause ruckus as much as we did. (Course I had a lot to learn about that day and glad I did).

After I had to give the album back - Mom wasn't too keen on me hearing certain stuff - I went to college and luckily I had a roommate who was a huge Sublime fan and schooled me on their influence on bands like Slightly Stoopid. He'd always play the Ziggens, a band Sublime was close to do on Skunk Records, and he'd tell me that there were plenty of bands who either borrowed from or dug from Brad's influence on the genre. I just soaked it up cause it added to my view on Sublime's greatness.

You can feel Bradley's soul in every lyric and with his death coming so soon before this album, you knew he thought this album would blow them up. Death often makes legends but it was clear that Sublime pre-1996 was destined for stardom. They already had local impact on KROQ and nationally on MTV. There was a budding ska-revival ready to burst through rock music. Had Bradley lived or not, I believe Sublime was going to be a major act.

Last year, I watched one of my favorite Youtube acts, DJ Funktual, break down this album and the other Sublime albums. It blew my mind even further because it showed Bradley's musical influences and how much he loved it. The self-titled album now became an album of covers and sampling so it proved how hip-hop Bradley was. Heck, even his reggae chops considering in Jamaican jams, folks would routinely honor  or cover other songs in a way that would influence hip hop.

Take "What I Got" for example. It briefly samples Richard Pryor and a famous drum break before Bradley starts singing that first verse. The melody of that verse? It's a rip of the opening melody on Verse 1 of Beatles "Lady Madonna". Say what!!!!! Of course, most folks know Bradley's 2nd verse after the solo samples Too $hort and Lauryn Hill. But did you know that the hook samples one of Bradley's idols in Half-Pint?

That's 6 crazy samples mixed in with an original jam with original lyrics. Watch that DJ Funktual video and then go watch the others. You'll appreciate Sublime and Bradley more. Props to Eric and Bud for being a great rhythm section as well. All three of them had a unique chemistry and even when you hear Sublime With Rome now, it makes you appreciate Rome a lil bit cause it takes a special guy to have chemistry with those two (not counting the Long Beach Dub All-Stars 10 yrs ago).

I bought the 10th anniversary album two years ago. It's cool hearing the original track order and the original version of "Doin Time" even if it's jarring to hear "Garden Grove" close the album instead of set it off. By the way, if you never heard the Wyclef Jean, Snoop or Pharcyde remixes of "Doin Time", you're missing out.

So far, it has 6.1 million albums sold and it'll keep on selling for years and years to come. Somebody will listen to it and realize how timeless it and other Sublime albums are.

This week, I listened to 40 Oz. of Freedom for the first time (Gotta hear their cover of "Scarlet Begonias" with some help from the Funky Drummer). It was just as enjoyable as hearing the self-titled album as hearing the covers and shouts out to KRS-One and James Brown let you know they weren't some ordinary band. They are forever legends in the SoCal music scene and I'm proud to say they repped Long Beach just as well as Snoop Dogg.

R.I.P. Bradley Nowell and thank you for the music. One of SoCal's finest and a musical genius who stayed original while introducing many folks to reggae, dub, old school hip hop and punk.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grief - Share in it, Understand It but don't Shame it

I was going to save this post for a blog on what Twitter has taught me the last two years. But I guess it's time, considering that people think there's an appropriate way to grieve or that people should grieve for big situations. 

Over the last two years, I've seen people pooh-pooh others when they express their condolences over a deceased celebrity. They question why do we go nuts over a celebrity when there's other problems in the world. The latest case is Amy Winehouse's recent death coming after the senseless tragedy in Norway where 93 were murdered by a sick soul. 

While I do think people's priorities are skewed, I don't think its fair to tell rational folks they shouldn't feel sorry for a celebrity dying. I've railed against the cult of personality before but I don't think [for the most part] death matters in this case. Somebody causing their death is less sympathetic than someone losing it due to someone but sympathetic nonetheless.

I can't imagine the pain that Norway is going through. A country of love and a strong sense of community where homicides are rare is now shaken beyond its core. Deaths of children always hit me hard because children aren't supposed to be victims. It's important to share in their grief because it's not just another tragedy to them. And the stories coming out are just heartbreaking

The LA Times has a Homicide blog on their page. I don't read it often because it is depressing. I live in a city where murder rates from 20-25 years in diff. areas still haunt how people view it. But I don't read about every single death because it numbs you to how sad it is. Let me share a personal experience on this matter.

When my uncle passed away two years ago, I sent a casual tweet sharing the news to my then-small circle of followers. I was crushed and as my family helped each other thrive, I was encouraged by folks who sent their best wishes to me. They barely knew me and I barely knew them. Yet they were courteous enough to send comfort despite never meeting my uncle. 

I don't think it's impossible to feel sad over somebody dying and at the same time feeling sad over larger-scale tragedies. I use that in quotes because suffering saddens me. Death saddens me. I don't feel remorse over proven killers being executed but I am sad their lives were wasted on evil instead of good. Nor do I judge people for feeling more sorry over one than the other because I don't know their reasoning (caveat to come later).

If we sit back and weigh which suffering was worse, we trivialize someone's pain. I've seen this with slavery, the Holocaust and the extermination of indigenous people. All three were terrible and had long-lasting effects on those communities. We should find common bonds in our pain instead of debate who had it worse, which should only be used when we try to dismiss someone's pain.

On the world scale, celebrity deaths aren't as important as the U.S. government discussing the debt ceiling, Japan recovering from the earthquake/nuclear reactors or other national/international issues. But in that sense, neither are private, unknown deaths that affect a few people. By the logic, my uncle's passing (and for that matter, my father's passing) shouldn't be grieved because somewhere somebody else lost their uncle or father or somebody lost their whole family.

When Michael Jackson passed away, the internet shut down. Scores of people turned out in droves to his house, his star in Hollywood and grieved around the world. I grieved for Aaliyah the same way 10 years ago and I felt sad when Guru from Gang Starr or other have passed. For some folks, there's a greater outpouring just because of who they are and it's not spitting on regular folks who passed. 

I had to cover my share of deaths during my newspaper days. I cried watching the reports of Jamiel Shaw (above), meeting his parents and covering several tributes to him. A year later, I attended the funeral of another athlete I had seen play who was gunned down. Even though those weren't the only two athletes gunned down that year, those two touched me deeply. Is it wrong that I cried over those than others? Not at all. 

I know that's extreme but it shows how dangerous that argument is. There is nothing wrong with feeling sorry for multiple events with the same (or different, depending on personal relation) emotion. You can't tell people how or what to grieve for. All you can do is make them aware and if the tragedy doesn't touch them personally, they aren't bad people. 

Grief is a strange monster. We don't know when it strikes and we can't judge those when it does. After the shock of my Dad's passing and the funeral, I didn't cry any more for months and I had a hard time knowing how to tell people what happened. I wasn't mad if people didn't feel my pain. 3 years later, some people walked the graduation stage with joy and glee. I left the stage in tears. Who was more right? Nobody because our thought processes were unique and deservedly so.

On a bigger scale, 9/11 hit us all hard. It hit some people harder because they had a personal connection to it. Some of us in California, however, grieved hard at first but not as much later because we didn't know anybody who died. Yet it's still a terrible tragedy that we feel sorry for. It just hits people differently and that's okay. Who are we to say that's wrong as long as we sympathize. 

Now I'll agree that some people react to famous deaths too seriously. Those folks use hyperbole and worship the cult of personality so much they have a warped view of the outside world. Those aren't the folks I'm defending because they're a whole different type. But most reasonable folks who are well-read, this is who I'm writing about. 

It's okay to feel sad about Amy Winehouse's self-destruction and the loss of her music. It's okay to feel sorry about both her and the Norwegian tragedy, something on epic proportions relatively speaking. Death is the end for somebody. Grieving for one doesn't always mean you aren't grieving for the other. I've done so for the famous as well as the not-so-famous and the sadness was different but still no less tragic.

For those of us who aren't family, it's important not to shame sending of condolences but try to understand it instead of saying what they should be grieving about. Some of us are just sensitive to death and sadness. Musicians, actors and artists make art that touches us so naturally their death will mean something. It doesn't mean we don't care about the Somalian famine or other terrible things right now. 

Be sadder if folks aren't aware and stuff is being unreported but don't be sad if folks are sad about something that they think is worth grief. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse - A Brilliant but Troubled Comet

I won't attempt to overstate the terrible loss of Amy Winehouse's death. I also won't lie and say that I didn't see it coming and for that, I'm saddened because that's what happens when you see somebody who inspires awe and pity at the same time.

When we saw her rise in 2007, the first thing I realized was she had demons. She had a gift of a voice but she was as troubled as any singer I had seen. Young, gifted and cracked out. You had to convince me hard we were the same age cause she looked 10 years older. Then when I saw older pictures of her? I wanted to cry at how nice she looked then.

I still remember reading Okayplayer and seeing ?uestlove rave about Amy's music and comparing her album to Lauryn Hill at her best. I didn't really go crazy over "You Know I'm No Good" except for the jazzy sound and raw voice. I didn't think Amy blew me away but it was nice in the same way that Joss Stone was nice to my ears. Just good, genuine soul.

Her music was great but her drug addiction made me feel sorry for her as a person. I'm sick of seeing celebrities and regular folks fall victim to it and hurting others while they hurt themselves. That's what bothered me about Amy - I didn't see the hope. The only time I saw her look decent was at the 2007 Grammys where she performed via video and even that was shaky.

Of course, there's no more ironic song for a breakout hit than "Rehab", the pop hit for the woman with an ironic name. It's a shame because that song will define who she was and her rebellious, live-fast nature. I'm sad for how drugs ruined a young healthy woman and turned her into a tragic star who would never live up to her potential. That song seemed like a kiss-off but if you hear it now, there's nothing but sadness. 

Amy needed help and had few around her to help until it was too late (Props to Kelly Osborne and Amy's dad for trying). She contributed to her demise for sure, as did her poor excuse for a husband. But self-destruction is often the worst cause of death. Even worse when it's played out before our eyes because you see it coming and can't stop the train barreling toward them. I just stopped watching cause it's a broken record you can't support.

She was a sad but brilliant comet. Her last show was a warbled mess that I tried to watch just now but couldn't. Nothing changed besides her boob job and trying to keep up with her band. Even now, I still didn't see hope in her.

She was in too deep and five years after Back to Black, her legacy will no likely be similar to (but not as great as) the other members of the 27 club - Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. I'm not going to hail her as one of the best singers of all time or a legend cause one great album can't do that. But let me tell you what she had.

She had a raw voice that made you feel her emotion. But her sound had a bigger impact. Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi brought that old-school, big-band, jazzy vibe back and it's impacted quite a few British vocalists and others. I loved the sound of her music and hearing it later on Nas' "Fried Chicken" (produced by Ronson) or Christina Aguilera's jazzy 3rd album showed that was the biggest influence of her career.

The biggest tragedy of Amy's death is that we watched the end of a gift self-destruct and we knew it was coming. It's a shame we'll never see her healed but I pray she's finally at peace. I leave with my favorite song of hers. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Electric Relaxation: Lupe Fiasco - Lasers (Album Review)

I should've had this album earlier this year. I've been a Lupe Fiasco fan since I heard murmurings of him when I was about to graduate college. I downloaded several mixtapes in 2006 for the most-talked about MC in ages. I've written this blog saying Lupe's the most complete/versatile MC I've heard since Eminem. I've said The Cool is one of the best hip-hop albums of the last five years and it's still flying over people's heads how deep a metaphor that was and how relevant it is.

So why did I delay listening to Lasers? Why have I kept it in my Amazon wishlist all year without feeling the urge to buy it? Maybe because I heard too much press that this was Lupe's Nastradamus or Encore. Maybe because Lupe himself told people this album was a compromise and punishment for getting the public to protest Atlantic Records not releasing it sooner. Maybe I saw that it was 12 tracks, way shorter than either of his last 2 works.

Despite the brilliance of hearing "Words I Never Said", I also heard "The Show Must Go On" and thought it was "Superstar" Part 2 and Atlantic forcing his hand. I heard "All Black Everything" and I heard him break down what Lasers meant on his Enemy of the State mixtape. But I still waited because of that warning. After reading the XXL feature, I said why support it if Lupe hates it.

Well the wait is over. Thanks to joining Spotify, I finally listened to Lasers risk free. My thoughts are as follows. I blame Atlantic Records for trying to turn the best MC of the last 5 years into B.O.B. (and that's not a diss to Bobby Ray, that's Atlantic being short-sighted in the name of hits).

Four years after The Cool blew my mind and went gold thanks to a pop single in "Superstar", Lupe has an album that's pretty much left-field pop rap. By that I mean, it fits in perfectly with today's climate without totally sounding like Drake or Wayne or anybody else in the mainstream. At the same time, it's not what you expect from a guy who made "Kick, Push", "American Terrorist","Dumb It Down" or "Hip Hop Saved My Life".

The biggest flaw with this album is production. Too much techno, not enough soul to match the fire of Lupe's lyrics. It also wasn't cohesive. "Food and Liquor" and "The Cool" were great listens because the production was consistent and pleasing to the ear. Lasers is the classic case of hip hop's failure in grabbing hot producers to make hits without thinking about a solid sound.

The hooks on some of these are downright awful. The album opener makes me wish B.O.B. took that beat instead of Lupe. "Break the Chain" has some powerful lyrics but that beat sounds like it should be played in a club instead of a sonic force like "Little Weapon" on The Cool. It may grow on me but it's not a perfect fit.

"Out Of My Head" with Trey Songz isn't bad ---- that is, it would be dope if you replaced Trey with a female singer and had another hook/different lyrics. Instead, you just say "yep, Atlantic made him do it" and press next. The always cliche song for the ladies that just doesn't fit.

The worst case is "State-Run Radio", which has a title you'd expect from him but a silly hard-rock beat and a terrible hook that waters down Lupe's rant about Top 40 radio. I dang near cringed when I heard this on Pandora last month and I cringed hearing it again.

(Then again, maybe that's Lupe's point - make an overly pop song with a crappy, anthemic hook to prove how bad Top 40 radio. Yet it doesn't exactly work like DJ Premier making that same statement with Gang Starr's "Mass Appeal" or Radiohead's "My Iron Lung")

At least lyrically, Lupe still shows why he's an elite MC. "The Show Must Go On" grows on you because of the inspiration in his lyrics. The first verse walks you into his shoes and then sets you up for the double-timed 2nd verse before he picks up your spirits in Verse 3. He successfully flows to every beat and rides it as well as a technically gifted lyricist should.

There are two absolute gems on here that are some the best songs of the year. "Words I Never Said" matches a powerful Alex da Kid beat, a haunting chorus from Skylar Grey and some politically charged lyrics to create a sonic, lyrical masterpiece. It's everything I expect from Lupe and you may nitpick the facts, but you can't deny the passion and it fits with his past political songs questioning the government. The video is amazing too.

The second gem is "All Black Everything", one of the best written songs in any genre this year. Lupe reimagines Black history/American history if slaves were never taken from Africa. It's creative and a great story that makes you really wonder. The dream-like beat only reminds you that it's not real and it's a perfect accompaniment.

"Til I Get There" is a decent song that sounds like older Lupe and I liked "Beautiful Lasers." The album closer with John Legend also surprisingly works well.

Earlier, I compared this album to Nas' Nastradamus and Eminem's Encore. Both albums are terrible failures except for a track or two. Come to think of it Lupe's "Out of My Head" might as well be Nas "You Owe Me" and as much as Lupe admires Mr. Jones, he'd be better off studying how Nas rebounded the same way he's trying to by revisiting his classic debut.

Let's consider Lasers a pop compromise despite Lupe winning to put it out. The terrible production/desperate search for singles/bad hooks overshadows his solid lyrics and once again, let's blame Atlantic Records following Industry Rule No. 4,080. I'm honestly disappointed yet resigned to the fact that it may be for the better good.

Am I happy it debuted at No. 1 and has sold 440,000 copies so far? Yes, but only because it means we're getting another album that hopefully will show Lupe returning to form with minimal interference. So while I'm happy for his success, I'm disappointed he had to sell out to hopefully make the music he wants. Doesn't change my views on him, but this album is at best a 6 or 7.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Inner Peace is More Important than World Peace

Last week, I listened to my favorite Chicago couple Miz Chartreuse and Bokeen wax poetic on things they thought were overrated or underrated on their podcast. On her final take, Miz C (one of my favorite bloggers as well) said that she felt world peace was overrated and inner peace was an underrated concept.

That might throw you for a loop. Isn't world peace something we all dream of? Isn't it something we strive for? Well yes but think about this for a bit. I sat listening to Miz C and thought she was right. Too often we don't find that happiness in ourselves that can't be affected by outside events and we often determine our mood by things such as weather, the music we play or what awaits us. 

Take one look at the news and you'll be disheartened by what's going on. World peace is such a noble thing for us to wish for but it's becoming as abstract an idea as anything now. It's a dream but I don't think everyday people can do enough to affect it. It's a concept in the hands of world leaders and armies and it looks different to different people. 

It might sound weird as a Christian saying that world peace is merely an ideal but as a realist, I know that it requires too many satisfying factors to ever come true and it's out of my control as well as yours. That's why I think inner peace is the greater goal.

Look at that Confucious quote. People used to strive to better themselves. We look all over the world and in books for self-help advice but the best advice is to find what brings you peace and chase it.

Inner peace will affect the world around you because it'll inspire people to look within themselves instead of look outside. It's something you can actually work for because only you can find peace within yourself. It requires you to be content and focus inward so that you can truly be an agent of change. You can't fix the world until you fix yourself.

Inner peace is also more attractive because people will want to know what makes you so chill. Once you gain confidence and satisfaction in who you are and refuse to let anything interfere with your joy, you'll be a better person.

Could life be better? Sure. My life could be better if I had certain factors come my way. But then I'd be overlooking what I have now that makes life great. The old hymn says "Count your blessings", not count what it takes to be blessed. So I'm focused on looking at myself and what I have and trying to be content with it in the meantime. You should do the same.

I'm not saying give up on world peace. I'm saying that in working towards it, work on yourself first. There are a lot of unhappy people in the world and the only way to heal that isn't by making the world as a whole better, it's helping them fix themselves and realize their self-worth. By helping people find inner peace, it makes the world better as well.

Besides, world peace will be in the United States next year. Assuming we have an NBA season.

Special props again to Charlotte for inspiration. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My 1st Live Sporting Event (A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum)

In keeping with my last blog about how I became a sports fan, I figure I'd share some of my favorite childhood memories/moments. Since we're in the middle of two lockouts and the Dodgers are finding new ways to disappoint their fanbase and waste Matt Kemp's MVP-caliber season, it's more fun recalling my past than thinking about the how bleak the present is.

Somebody asked me about the first time I ever attended a game live. So let's take it back to 1995 shall we?

I was just starting to become a Lakers fan when Mom told us we'd be moving to Inglewood. The coolest thing about my Dad's house there? Literally within walking distance of the Great Western Forum. Walk down the hill, turn right and you'd see the Forum packed with cars and limos for night games. We used to memorize back routes to get home because we knew on Fridays to avoid the main streets.

My first game was against the Sacramento Kings in 6th grade. I remember being tripped out because I was so used to hearing Chick Hearn call games that I didn't know what to expect live. I walked in super excited and anxious to see the inside of the forum. There's nothing better than the thrill of walking into a stadium and being a part of that electric energy.

During the 2nd quarter, they had an announcement for a halftime shooting contest. Sure enough, they called my seat! Actually, they called my sister's seat but of course, she didn't care about shooting hoops. It was time for me to live out my dream and shoot on the same court as Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lake Show.

The 1995-96 Lakers.

We walked down to the court before halftime and while we waited, we bumped into this really tall guy. Turns out we bumped into Magic and I was like "Hey, Magic!" as you'd expect a giddy 6th grader to imagine. He flashed that great smile but was wisked away quickly before he got hounded for an autograph. I remembered Mom telling me all kinds of stories watching Magic in the house and I couldn't believe he was right there in front of us.

Finally it was time to go to work. Now granted, I was still a year removed from learning the game and I couldn't shoot worth a lick. Did it matter? Course not. I got out there wearing an oversized T-shirt they gave me and pulled up like it was a 3-point shootout I watched on All-Star Saturday. I was so geeked that I missed every single shot and didn't feel embarrassed one bit. You catch me missing that many shots nowadays and I'm walking off the court without looking back.

I just smiled and laughed all the way back to Mom and my sister. It was a memory I wouldn't forget - my first live game ever and I got to shoot on the Great Western Forum floor. Even though I've been blessed to be courtside at Staples Center, stood at home plate of Dodger and Angel Stadium and on the sidelines of both the Coliseum and Rose Bowl, that's probably my favorite on-court moment as a sports fan.

I went back to the Forum a few times where my favorite moment was seeing Shaq and Penny and cheering when they beat the Lakers by 2. Once the Lakers moved downtown, I only stepped into the Forum a few times when the church that bought it hosted a New Year's party and this past year when I saw Prince. But few things top that first time and it's a reminder when Inglewood came alive 2-3 times a week down the street from my house.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Electric Relaxation: Stardust - Music Sounds Better With You

The first time I heard this song was in high school when I remember seeing the video and the references to classic MTV videos. I thought it was some 80's song yet it just sounded fresh, cool and out of this world. I'd hear it later on Saturday nights driving home on KIIS-FM's club playlist. I wasn't at that age where I hated techno yet but even when I got older, I just loved this song.

Only problem was I had no idea what the title was. I searched the last two years of my high school until somebody finally told me it was Stardust (initially I was told Daft Punk and Stardust). It became the first song I downloaded in college and the 1st song on my very mix CD.

So why is this song my favorite techno jam of all time and an all-time fave regardless of genre? It's a techno jam that actually has a groove, not just mindless noise. It may repeat the same loop over and over but every 4th bar, there's a cool lil inversion that doesn't make it so monotonous. Lyrically, like most techno jams, it's simple but describes the mood you feel in a club. That hook is simple yet exactly what you'd feel dancing with somebody.

Finally, it overpowers you without driving you nuts. Some songs overpower you and push you away but this song envelopes you into a great feeling on the dance floor. (And oh yeah, that video is cool with the song in the background as the kid builds his plane and gets excited each day - great concept!)

When I realized that Stardust was 1/2 of Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter) with two other acts (Alex Braxe and vocalist Benjamin Diamond), it made sense why the song has such great musicality. Daft Punk is one of the best techno acts because their songs aren't just repetitive, simple techno nonsense. Their songs have an energy and a groove that'll make even the hardest techno hater dance.

"Music Sounds Better With You" could easily be a disco record and it could be played alongside Daft Punk's "One More Time" and give you that same feeling of being in another world.

This was the only thing Stardust did so technically it qualifies as the ultimate one-hit wonder. 13 years later, I can still get excited listening to it at the gym, at the club or driving around town and I know a lot of folks can too. Even as I typed this, I was happy because this song put me in a great mood.

Even cooler that the song sampled a funky Chaka Khan tune. Enjoy!