Friday, March 24, 2006

MJ in his prime...

So, because of all the wedding hoopla, and work, and my successful attempt to disconnect myself from Okayplayer, I didn't find out about the tragic passing of James Yancey (aka Jay Dee/J Dilla) until last week. For folks who don't know Dilla's music -- it might turn out that you do. He barely promoted himself at all, even in his solo career, but he made some of the best and most distinctive hiphop in the last 20 years. Amongst heavy-duty hiphop fans he was totally revered, to the point of fetishization.

I've been wanting to write something about him for the last week. But his history, and his struggle to make music through the illness, are well documented in articles by the Detroit Free Press and And you can hear a lot of his live music at, which recently produced a tribute (this link also gives you the uncharacteristically personal and emotional statement from Roots MC Black Thought, which is a must-read).

I guess I don't have a whole lot to add. Dilla's work demonstrates, even on first listen, that he had one of those minds just built for music. There aren't too many composers out there whose music you hear, then right away understand their personal connection to sound and rhythm. And that quality obviously extended to his collaborations with other musicians. He had a talent where whoever he was working with -- Tribe, D'Angelo, Common, Talib Kweli, Madlib, Badu, Busta, etc. -- it seemed like the perfect match, and at the same time his music brought so much new out of those artists that they seem deeper and stronger with him behind the boards.

Anyway, I've also been thinking about the signature Dilla "sound," if there is one. Dilla was versatile almost to a fault. He went from producing R&B (Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone", D'Angelo) to jazzy boom-bap (Common's "The Light," "Dynamite," for the Roots, etc.), to sparse, percussive bangers ("So Hardcore," the best track on Busta Rhymes' When Disaster Strikes). And that doesn't even count the entirely new style of beatmaking he introduced for his own group, Slum Village -- which I don't even want to try to describe. Whatever he made, it was usually characterized by the absence of instruments rather than their presence. That's one of the ways you can tell a Dilla beat in the first few seconds. The archetypical Jay Dee beat is uneven drums, with a sloppy hi-hat and a too-loud snare, an expressive bassline so weird that no one would play it in real life, and a loop filtered beyond recognition. Overall, his beats tend toward purposeful sloppiness, but the good kind. The kind practiced deliberately by jazz and funk bands in an effort to get further into your guts. Hearing (and feeling) a good Dilla beat makes you worry that your heart rhythm will go out of synch with your lungs. Or, if that doesn't make any sense, it's like the experience of patting your head, rubbing your stomach, and chewing gum while you're walking down the street. Discombobulating and exhilarating at the same time.

What I really wanted was to write a sort of blow-by-blow review of Dilla's work, and make a list of his incredible innovations and moments of genius. But ?uestlove already did it here, and much better than I would have. So if you like hiphop, soul, jazz, or funk, go get Fantastic Vol. II. Get Like Water for Chocolate. Get Donuts, get Jaylib, and Mama's Gun, and Voodoo, and Labcabincalifornia. You'll have Dilla fever soon enough.

One last thing:
I've noticed that it really seems to get to me when people with remarkable, unique approaches to creating music die. Elliott Smith's is another that comes to mind right away. I think my sense of good in the world, more than I'd care to admit, is inextricably tied up with my sense of good in the world of music. The existence of people like James Yancey and Elliott Smith is sometimes what gets me up in the morning. The gratitude I feel for their music, and the hope I hold for the things they haven't written yet. I'm discovering that the indescribable feeling you get, tearing off the shrink wrap, is hard to live without.

James Yancey's music gave me that feeling, no question. But obviously I can't describe it very well. If you want to pay your respects to Mr. Yancey, find the music and listen to it. I'm sure that wherever he is, or isn't, that would make him happy.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"it's unbelievable..."


This is a huge settlement, both in financial terms and in terms of its impact on future litigation. Not only did Bridgeport win a high-profile, lucrative sampling case in a what has become murky territory for the law, but they actually got the album pulled from shelves and the radio.

A number of things entertain me about this. Where the RIAA is insanely vigilant against piracy, they regularly appear on record and in amicus briefs in opposition to restrictive sampling law. And now we see why. I don't know Ready to Die's current sales volume, but imagine if this happened to the Blueprint or College Dropout. Pulled off the shelves and ITunes for sampling violation? Damn. Of course, it wouldn't happen to those artists because the modern-day sample climate in mainstream hiphop is incredibly paranoid, especially since the 2004 ruling I linked to above, but breakout hits from lesser-known (and less cautious) labels often emerge from the underground, and those're the people who don't have the budget to clear the samples, but could be seriously exposed in a situation like this.

I really want to know how they made this case, considering that the samples would be pretty hard to recognize and identify for your average jury. Maybe Bridgeport music hired Questlove as a jury consultant.

Anyway, this quote piqued my interest (from the Tennessean) .

"We're glad the jury listened very closely to the evidence and found appropriately for Westbound and Bridgeport."

I'm trying to imagine prosecution: "So, here, you can clearly hear a half-second of the guitar lick, right before Biggie says 'I put the 12 gauge to your brain/Make your shit splatter.' Listen very closely to this evidence."

But of course, there was probably never any contention over whether the sample was used, but rather whether the sample falls under fair use guidelines. I think it does, but obviously the jury was following the 2004 ruling that even one second of recorded material, regardless of use, should be actionable. For what it's worth, there's no question in my mind that the fair use doctrine applies here. After all, we're not talking about "Ice, Ice Baby."

P.S. I'd be remiss if I didn't link to Jesse Kriss's History of Sampling 1.2, a graphic representation of sampling's history. It requires some serious Javascript but it is awesome.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Anna Eshoo chronicles...

Josh makes reference to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, (D. CA) as an aside to his recent piece on Mark Warner's press coverage.

That prompted me to recall my various encounters with Congresswoman Eshoo. By the way, keep in mind that whenever I use phrases like "which prompted me to..." in this blog, what I mean is: "I was bored and someone or something provided me with the thinnest of pretenses to stop working and write a NewPlastic post."

The first time I saw Anna Eshoo, I was, no joke, a drum major in my junior-high marching band. I wasn't one of those fancy drum majors who do twirls and tricks and stuff. A week before the May Day parade, my band teacher said that we needed a drum major. By the way, for people not in the know, the only reason a drum major exists is because marching bands walk on flat ground, with no conductor, so you need a big long stick to show the folks in back where the beat is. I have a suspicion that the band teachers approached me to do it because I was an inch away from quitting the band, and somehow they knew that, in my little world, even the role of drum major was superior to plodding along in a line. We were not one of those tricksy marching bands. We walked and played, simultaneously, and we didn't even do that very well.

Anyway, after the march was over, Anna Eshoo came down the parade route after us. I was with my mom, who, when the Congresswoman appeared, shouted:

"YAAAAY!! Womens' Suffrage!! Whoohoooo!"

That's a verbatim quote. Believe me. I was with my then-girlfriend, Caitlin Levin, who thought I was weird enough as it was (I think that was why we were dating), and she heard the whole thing. I hid behind a tree.

Come to think of it, that encounter wasn't particularly impressive or edifying. And that's the best of the bunch.

Speaking of female members of Congress, and my mom embarassing me, it reminds of the time my parents held a living-room fundraiser for Barbara Boxer. Caitlin wasn't there to document the mortification of that particular occassion -- but she didn't need to be.


Because I still have my pair of "Barbara Boxer" boxers.

They say "Barbara Boxer" on them.


Back off, ladies. I've got a ring on my finger now.

Friday, March 10, 2006

also re: fortune cookies...

I was looking for other things people add to the end of fortune cookie fortunes, and I came across this site.

I was, to put it mildly, STOKED.

Why? Because I have, for the last few years, held on to a hilarious, weird, horribly bleak fortune cookie that simply read: "Everything is not yet lost."

Things didn't stay tubular for too long, though.

Scroll down.


fortune cookie suggestion...

So, you know how people play that stupid game where you add " bed" or "...between the sheets" to the end of every fortune cookie fortune? The claim is that this addition always seems to both work grammatically and transform the fortune into something more risque. But of course, what usually ends up happening is you get something like this:

You: "Wait, wait, lemme read mine! I'll go, I'll go!...Ahem: 'You will be traveling to distant lands for business purposes'...IN BED!!"


You: "...huh."

Anyway, a few days ago in the car, inspired by recent conversations/blog entries, I came up with a better fortune cookie addition. I hereby present it to you, free:

Upon completing the recitation of your fortune cookie, append the phrase: " the RENFAIR!"

Wait for hilarity to ensue.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Taos Music...

Taos, NM has a remarkable music scene, for a town of around 5,000 people.

I don't know how to describe it. It's not "Americana," though that'd definitely be the record-store genre classification.

Maybe AmeriCaneToad.

Taos is known for having the highest per-capita number of art galleries of any city in the world. But its quotient of mandolins and bouzoukis is probably pretty damn high, too, if the CDs and the live music are any evidence.

I was very happy.

Camille & I went out and saw a bunch of live music while we were there, and I bought three CDs of local artists, though there were plenty more to choose from. Taos Music is a good introductory website for the scene, and you can also buy music through it (getting more money into the hands of the local artists).

I brought back Am I Born To Die, a collaboration between Chipper Thompson and Mason Brown, which has been in non-stop rotation in the car since then. Their version of "Pretty Peggy-o," I'm sorry to say, puts Bob Dylan's a little bit to shame. It's got a sweetness and delicacy that Dylan missed, and the whole fun of the song (to me at least) is in the mix of gentleness and surprising brutality. Their takes on "Banks of the Ohio" and "Oh Death" are also terrific. I think these kinds of albums are important for people whose sense of traditional American music has been deadened by the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou flood of "roots" releases.

I also brought back a collaboration between Thompson and Roger Landes, a Southwestern bouzouki master and founder of Zoukfest (no relation to this). Fans of Uncle Tupelo have heard a lot of bouzouki, because it was all over their third album, March 16-20th, 1992, which is incredible and a must-have. Go get it. Bouzouki has a lute-ish sound. When Camille heard the album, she said "One word: Renfair." Then we argued about whether it really sounded like a Renfair, even though neither of us has been to the Renfair. The whole Renfair thing came up because I described the band Big Country as "U2 meets up with Talking Heads at the Renfair." That's actually a good description, by the way. Moving on.

Bouzouki's been a mainstay in Irish music for a while now, though it's actually Greek in origin. When you think about it, "bouzouki" does sound like the kind of thing you'd marinate in garlic and lemon juice and bake wrapped in filo. It also sounds like a slang word made up by Missy Elliott to describe some bodily area she wants to inform us she's shaved. Anyway, the album I brought back is called The Janissary Stomp, and it's good if you've got a high bouzouki tolerance.

Finally, I bought an album by "Dulcimer Dan" Arterburn, who is, believe it or not, one of multiple "Dulcimer Dan's" out there. The album's called Just Pickin'. I assume the "...Ma" is implied. This album is only for folks that are seriously addicted to the twangahol. I doubt I'll be playing it too often in the car. Because even though I loved it at first listen, it's pretty infrequent that I feel like pretending I'm in the Blue Ridge Mountains ca. 1904. Even more rare that Camille wants to take that little trip. But I'll have the album just in case.

One last aside: I have no idea how these guys keep their instruments in tune when there's literally no moisture in the air at all. It'd be like playing bluegrass in an airlock.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


I'm back from my honeymoon.

In case anyone's interested in honeymoon advice -- make sure you ask whoever takes your room reservation about the bathroom situation.

I'll give you some tips.

Wrong way to conduct this conversation:

You: So, you have a room for those dates?
Other guy: You betcha.
You: Does it have its own bathroom?
Other guy: (pause) ...yes.
You: Sounds great! See you then!

Right way:

You: So, you have a room for those dates?
Other guy: You betcha.
You: Does it have its own bathroom?
Other guy: Sure.
You: Is the bathroom significantly separate from the rest of the room?
Other guy: Yes.
You: Not to belabor the point, but by "separate," do you mean "Right on the other side of a waist high adobe wall?"
Other guy: Nope, it's completely separate from your bedroom.
You: Okay. And, just to cover the obvious loophole here, it's not located in someone else's bedroom, right?
Other guy: Don't worry.
You: Ha ha. One last thing. Will people sitting in the hammock outside be unable to avoid looking directly through a window at the toilet, or, failing that, the shower, resulting inevitably in awkward eye contact?
Other guy: (pause)
You: Forget it. We're going to Cancun.