Hip Hop: A Vehicle for Positive Change (plus ticket giveaway!)

We recently posted an editorial criticizing the negative cultural effects of gangsta rap’s bravado and glamorization of thug life (“The Game’s Game Is Lame”).  There are, however, always two sides of the coin.  With that in mind, we wanted to draw some attention to the ways rap and hip hop are acting as a positive force in society.  Additionally, we’re giving reader a chance to win tickets to see a high-quality hip hop performance from Del The Funky Homosapien!

Read on for just a few of how hip hop is making the world a better place…

Metal Machine Music: A Legacy, and Listener’s Guide


Lou Reed

“I was serious about it.  I was also really, really stoned.”
-Lou Reed


I’ve never been very big on New Years.  It’s a holiday that I’ve always had serious difficulty appreciating the significance of.  I’m sure part of the problem is that I have the worst sense of time ever.  Days, weeks and months seem to run together like a sloppy watercolor painting. I’m routinely shocked to discover that events that I thought took place only recently, were actually a product of several years ago.  This year, however, I’m making an effort to get into the spirit of starting fresh and orienting myself from a definitive point in time, and I’m going to do it with the help of the Lou Reed’s 1975 antagonistic electronic opus, Metal Machine Music.

Metal Machine Music

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Nestled between ‘74’s campy Sally Can’t Dance and ‘76’s classic Coney Island Baby, MMM has gone down in history as the ultimate cult rock album.  Critic David Fricke noted that “no other rock album by an established star and issued on a major label has generated such mad love and ferocious loathing—sometimes in the same listener…”

A Rolling Stone reviewer described the experience of listening to the album as “one of the better feats of endurance in my life, equal to reading The Painted Bird, sitting through Savage Messiah and spending a night in a bus terminal in Hagerstown, Maryland.”

Even Reed himself pardoned listeners for the confusion he knew the album would inspire.  “Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all,” read his brilliant liner notes.  “It’s not meant for you.  At the very least I made it so I had something to listen to.”

But Fricke later went on to describe MMM in a more accessible light—as an album “made with rock & roll tools, built from the base elements of electric teenage revolution: rage, joy, sabotage, righteousness.  Metal Machine Music was not a new kind of rock; it was every kind of rock, boiled down to its molten essence.”

The legendary rock critic, Lester Bangs wrote about the album at length.  He equated the experience of listening to MMM to a cleansing ritual.  In his words:

When you wake up in the morning with the worst hangover of your life, Metal Machine Music is the best medicine. Because when you first arise you’re probably so fucked (i.e., still drunk) that is doesn’t even really hurt yet (not like it’s going to), so you should put this album on immediately, not only to clear all the crap out of your head, but to prepare you for what’s in store the rest of the day.

Speaking of clearing out crap, I once had this friend who would say, “I take acid at least every two months & JUST BLOW ALL THE BAD SHIT OUTA MY BRAIN!” So I say the same thing about MMM. Except I take it about once a day, like vitamins.

Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs

Sounds good to me. What better way to start a new year for a music fan’s ears than by flushing out the musical congestion of the previous months?  I’ve actually been curious about this album for years, but never had any real reason to listen to it other than for experiencing its value as a true rock n’ roll novelty.  After hearing and reading so much about it from people who had already taken the plunge, I finally decided that novelty, and the pursuit of a experiencing a fresh start, was reason enough.

Few albums have made me this anxious before listening to them for the first time.  I assume part of this anxiety is due to the fact that I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I’m going to force myself to listen to its entirety regardless of the accessibility of its sound.  Every description I’ve heard of this album leads me to anticipate the most abrasive, irritating, and genuinely original piece of musical work on the planet.  Essential listening?  Sure, but the indulgent sonic masturbation of a grumpy art rock troll doesn’t exactly sound like a 64 minute joyride.

Grumpy art rock troll...

a grumpy art rock troll

Nevertheless, it’s go time.  You have my attention.  I’m listening, Lou…

Side One:

00:43 – This is the sound of anticipation, as Lou Reed’s maniac orchestra tunes itself.

02:06 – It’s looking like being in tune isn’t really the goal here…

05:09 – Something might be developing.  It sounds like robotic bagpipes, which is surprisingly easier to listen to than the description implies.

07:38 – I never thought that the classic nails-on-a-chalkboard screech could sound so relaxing.  Surprise!

12:36 – Oh sweet Jesus, we’re in bat country.

14:30 – Ding!  Going up…

Side Two:

00:08 – Shrieking souvenirs from bat country, only more intense. It sounds like a massacre.

06:44 – I kind of want this to be my ringtone.

08:08 – This is maybe some of the most suspenseful, spooky shit ever.

09:46 – Wait, OK, I want this as my ringtone.

11:10 – This sounds like the soundtrack to birth—the unrated version.

Side Three:

01:39 – I’m pretty sure side three is the same as one and two, just with more bats.

07:35 – I’m finding myself creating scenes for a musical starring a sassy calculator with a heart of gold in my head.

14:44 – This album is kind of a peaceful nightmare.

Side Four:

03:30 – So I take it this is the “emergency response team” side, complete with swirling sonic chaos and panic.

04:48 – I’ve always hated fax machines.  Points off, Lou.

08:45 – This would be incredible haunted house music.

10:26 – I wonder how Lou knew he was finished with this thing.

12:48 – The plane takes off…

13:35 – What way to go out.  War, bombs, Year Zero.

Over an hour of undivided listening.  You know, that’s a lot to ask of someone with the attention span of a goldfish, but I made it.  I made it, and I’m pleasantly surprised.  MMM wasn’t actually as irritating or unpleasant as an album described as a “densely layered soundscape constructed from feedback, distortion, and atonal guitar runs sped up or slowed down until they were all but unrecognizable” would seem.  True, this is a record that could only be created by the mind of someone as completely unaffected by the desires of his fanbase as Lou Reed, but it’s not actually all that difficult to listen to.

It’s essentially a background chorus of schizophrenic ramblings (without words, mind you), layered under the Martian national anthem.  It’s the musical equivalent to J.G. Ballard’s deviant autoerotic (pun intended) novel, Crash.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  What Lou Reed has done with this album is create something so wildly different from the musical forays of even the most avant garde artists, but you don’t have to be a junkie, speed freak, or EST patient to find that it approaches the realm of being aurally pleasing, or at least quite thrilling.

Another part of Lester Bangs’ essay on the album that struck me was how he attributed part of the record’s appeal to its ability to actively provoke and challenge its listeners, rather than merely exist as a passive artifact.  He said:

Why do people got to see movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, or Iisa, She Wolf of the SS? So they can get beat over the head with baseball bats, have their nerves wrenched while electrodes are being stapled to their spines, and generally brutalized at least every once ever fifteen minutes or so (the time between the face falling out of the bottom of the sunk boat and they guy’s bit-off leg hitting the bottom of the ocean). This is what, today, is commonly understood as entertainment, as fun, as art even! So they’ve got a lot of nerve landing on Lou for MMM. At least here there’s no fifteen minutes of bullshit padding between brutalizations. Anybody who got off on The Exorcist should like this record. It’s certainly far more moral a product.

Maybe that’s really why I’ve had my eye on this album for so long.  It’s the whole hurt yourself just “to see if I still feel” thing that is rapidly becoming the modern standard physically, emotionally, and (why not?) musically. When culture becomes so oversaturated with predictability, the only option left is to seek out something—anything—that can inspire a reaction until you’re reminded that you’re still human.  34 years later, this is still Metal Machine Music’s legacy.  Happy New Year.

–Shelley Peckham

Editorial: Too Indie For Our Own Good?

turntable

Indie music has had quite the evolution from its humble beginnings to its current condition.  Once simply a name given to DIY small labels and underground bands operating outside the much maligned confines of major corporations’ machines, now “indie” is commonly used to express collective associations with fashion, political beliefs, and even personality traits. Stemming from their love of music, indie fans have essentially created their own niche in pop culture, but what sort of impact has doing so made on modern music scenes?

“Music scene is crazy/bands start up each and every day/I saw another one just the other day/A special new band…”

-Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”

There’s no doubt that the internet has played a massive role in forming indie culture, ensuring that all things associated with it reach the largest possible audience.  Music fans commonly check in with music blogs as their meter for what’s cool and what’s not.  And who can blame them?  With the massive amount of bands already established and the seemingly endless string of new bands being formed at all times, there needs to be an effective way to sift through it all.  Frequenting music websites and locating blogs featuring the tunes and musicians who move you can be an invaluable resource in terms of staying up to date, expanding your mp3 collection, and discovering new artists–that is, when used in moderation.

Taking our musical cues from outside sources in excess has a downside.  Too often, having these sites instantly available at our fingertips fosters a culture of slothfulness and minimizes the significance of our own musical experiences.  How so?  Let’s consider Pitchfork.  Any indie kid worth his/her salt has visited the site at least once.  Full of in-depth album reviews and artist interviews, Pitchfork provides a one-stop-shop for absorbing a slew of engaging perspectives on music.

Pitchfork

The site, though, is starting to become THE authority on what’s hot and what’s not.  A good review on the site can do wonders for an up-and-coming band, while a poor one can mean the end of the road.  “If your band isn’t popular on Pitchfork, it might as well not exist,” is quickly becoming the implied sentiment in the critical community.

While it’s true that sites like Pitchfork who utilize a clearly knowledgeable staff of writers can provide some degree of guidance to music fans, they have become something of a hipster cool kids club that encourages listeners to mold their own judgments around the site’s predetermined ones.  Readers are presented with what they “should” like rather than an unbiased evaluation of the art itself.  Didn’t really care for Fleet Foxes self-titled album?  By the time you’re done reading Pitchfork’s review, you’ll be trying to convince yourself otherwise.  I mean, it got a 9.0 rating for Christ’s sake! It MUST be good. Don’t really “get” Radiohead?  Might as well kiss your credibility card goodbye.

The idea that disagreement equates to poor taste devalues individual opinion, morphing us into a society of sheep–even more so than we already are.  The music scene will be a much healthier place once we realize that part of the joy in fandom is choice.  Being able to articulate why a band or artist is uniquely special to you is a joy that many indie kids are missing out on.

Q uncut NME Rolling Stone Spin Blender

It’s worth noting too that the indie-friendly online music community is also having an impact on its print publication counterparts.  It’s no secret that American music mags leave something to be desired (especially compared to the in-touch approach taken by well-respected UK ‘zines like Q, Uncut, and NME). Rolling Stone just isn’t what it used to be, to say the least, and rags lilke Spin and Blender never used to be much of anything to begin with.

If American music magazines want to stay successful they need to begin devoting more effort to creating exclusive content such as compelling intelligent artist interviews and commentary with personality as the online community has done, rather than projecting themselves as a shallow, celebrity-crazed, sex-heavy time killer.  American print media just isn’t going to be able to compete with the immediacy and significance of web-based music news outlets unless their focus changes dramatically.

“Seen your video/That phony rock ‘n’ roll/We don’t want to know/Seen your video/Your phony rock ‘n’ roll…”

-The Replacements, “Seen Your Video”

As I mentioned above, it used to be that indie music was considered such because it was, well, produced independently of major labels.  While that still holds true for a great deal of bands out there, the term “indie” is also now being applied a little too liberally.  Now, it seems as though bands are achieving indie status through their clothes more so than their music.  It used to be that you could approximate what a band sounded like by how they dressed.  But with the increasing popularity of formerly indie-exclusive fashions like skinny jeans and vintage dresses, anyone within driving distance to Urban Outfitters can project themselves as a cookie-cutter product of a scene that they don’t have any legitimate affiliation with.

Jonas Brothers

Take major label darlings like The Jonas Brothers for just one example of fashion’s growing conflict with music.  They are, essentially, a pop wolf in indie sheep’s clothing.  Skinny jeans?  Check.  Trendy graphic t-shirts?  Check.  Hair styled to messed-up perfection?  Check.  They’ve got it all except the sound to match.  It’s the real-life verison of that scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character admits, “I felt like all those people who suddenly shaved their heads and said they’d always been punks. They just went and suddenly get a razor from http://factschronicle.com/best-electric-razors-of-2017-revamping-your-outlook-by-shaving-1377.html, and went ahead with the shaving, for me it felt like a fraud.”

As was the case with punk rock, the popularization of genre staples like leather jackets, studs, and hair dye, has cheapened the music itself.  If you can be “punk” by simply throwing on some Converse sneakers, what does it even matter that bands like The Damned, The Buzzcocks or The Heartbreakers even existed?  The messages and sentiment of the art (rebellion, individuality, irony, and–ahem–DIY) become lost to swarms of twelve year old mallrats with guyliner and anarchy symbols stamped on their Ts.

When you can pledge allegiance to a certain code of art without having the perspective or intention to back it up, the art itself becomes the joke.  Anyone who genuinely cares about the music that they listen to should take the consequences of these trends seriously.   In the current indie scene, as in the punk world, the music becomes secondary when, as Joe Strummer tongue-in-cheekily painted across his chest, “passion is a fashion.”

Joe Strummer

“We hate it when our friends become successful/And if they’re northern, that makes it even worse/And if we can destroy them/You bet your life we will destroy them/If we can hurt them/Well, we may as well…” –Morrissey, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”

Is it wrong to expect current indie bands to operate in the same manner as their predecessors?  After all, it’s hardly the same ballgame.  With the emergence  of quick methods of mass communication in the music world such as individual blogging and Myspace.com, bands are gaining fans at an unprecedented rate, leading to fewer and fewer true underground groups in existence.  It used to be that the greater difference in the talent to popularity ratio equated to legendary indie status.  Now, it’s hard to tell which groups even qualify.

Take Oasis for example.  The self-proclaimed “best band in the world” has certainly been one of the most financially lucrative.  The controversial and beloved Mancunian group has played to crowds of millions, topped the charts on numerous occasions, been awarded some of the highest honors in the music community, and its members have achieved A-list celebrity status.  So, can they still be labeled “indie” the same way that groups like Voxtrot or The Brian Jonestown Massacre are?  Well, why not?  Though they’ve had their share of major label involvement, Oasis got their start on Alan McGee’s Creation Records, one of the most famous and influential UK indie labels, and are now recording on their own label, Big Brother Records.

Big Brother

Somehow, though, their high levels of success and popularity has made their indie roots irrelevant in the eyes of the music community.  In this way, indie music has become self-destructive.  Commercial success is frowned on to the point that many bands find themselves facing an interesting choice at some point in their career:  Reject financial security, or reject credibility.

“I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers/Beautiful and stoned…” –Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”

As much criticism as I have for some of the components of the current indie music scene, I can’t deny that at heart I’m a fan, as many of the most exciting, intelligent, enjoyable, progressive and important bands of the last few decades have fit into that category.  Though I’m concerned by some of the things happening in pop culture as a result of its success, I’m actually looking forward to what will come next. With thoughtful change, I have faith that indie music can become more than a just cool kids club.  We owe it to ourselves to be conscious of how our culture is manipulating the world around us as well as how we can assure that it changes into something positive.

–Shelley Peckham

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