Bonus Cut Films Presents: An Interview With Raphael Downes

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The hip-hop scene in Lansing, Michigan is an interesting one. It seems to rise and fall with the student population that comes and goes every four years from Michigan State University. There are also MCs, producers, DJs, B-boys/girls and graffiti artists that were born and raised in Lansing, developing their craft within the Capitol area.

Raphael Downes is one of these MCs, having been in the scene from the days of Respiration at Mac’s Bar. When you watch him perform and listen to his music, you can tell that rapping is something that comes natural to him. However, its also something that he’s worked on, which has to be done if you’re serious about making a career in music. During a freestyle, he gets open with the best of them. On stage his persona is nothing short of infectious.

Raphael is a man of faith. There is the religious side to him, something that drives his everyday life, as well as his belief in hope and being positive. These themes are deeply rooted in his music and are the essence of hip-hop; speaking on your truth and experiences. There are references to raising his daughter, living paycheck to paycheck and how good it can feel to build on even the smallest of victories during the day. Raphael’s project, The Bridge, will be released in the near future and incorporates these ideas.  With the superb production of Ozay Moore and KuroiOto, The Bridge is supported by a strong percussive foundation. Guest appearances by James Gardin, Jahshua Smith and Red Pill only add to an already solid effort by Raphael. The allure of The Bridge is that it’s not about buying into a certain set of values. Instead, The Bridge is about hope and survival, no matter what the circumstances might be. This is something that people do all over the world everyday. We may come from different places, but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate to each other.

Recently we were fortunate enough to sit down with Raphael and talk about how he got involved in hip-hop, his love of literature, the All of the Above Hip-Hop Collective (AOTA) and what went into creating The Bridge.

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The Happenings: Talib Kweli and the Hip-Hop Defense of Palestine

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By: Daniel Hodgman

“Let’s get free just like the Palestinians!” –Black Star “RE: DEFinition (Live at Club Nokia 9/22/2012)”

Let’s Get Free Just Like the Palestinians

The quote above is a reworked bar from Black Star’s song “RE: DEFinition.” Playing to a packed Club Nokia in Los Angeles in September, 2012, Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey switched things up during their live set of the song and pronounced to the crowd, “Son we way past the minimum, entering millennium/ Let’s get free just like the Palestinians!” (The original line is: “raps will hold a gat to your back like Palestinians”). It was, in one swift and dominant showing, one of those “bigger than hip-hop” moments, and with two of the most conscious MCs out there in Talib and Bey—not to mention Beat Junkies creator and mastermind J Rocc behind the 1s and 2s that night—the message was clear that hip-hop was at the defense of Palestine.

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Experiments in Hip-Hop Part One

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By: Justin Cook

The aesthetic of hip-hop is ever-changing—it in and of itself is a global experiment, living and breathing through a million MC’s. That’s what made this a difficult article to write. Originally, I set out to track the history and evolution of “experimental” hip-hop music. I soon found almost all artists worth fucking with challenge the industry in their own way, and it’s difficult to define what exactly “experimental” hip-hop is. Artists have experimented lyrically and sonically with hip-hop since its inception on the streets of New York. Some do this through live instrumentation, psychedelic/electronic beats or tempo changes. Others do it through interludes, elaborate transitions or by simply being a member of the LGBTQ community. In this day and age if you’re not a Top 40 rapper, you will probably be labeled as “experimental” or “alternative.” So I came up with a compromise. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite scientists of sound, who continually push hip-hop music into the outer dimensions, and break down what makes them so incredible.

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Album of the Week: “Thirty Eight” by Apollo Brown

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Apollo Brown
Thirty Eight
Mello Music Group, 2014

Daniel’s Thought

Apollo Brown is one of the most cinematic producers of our generation. Painting pictures on MPC murals, the way he can fluctuate his sound to varying projects while retaining his patented style is one of the greatest accomplishments very few producers achieve these days. From the blue-collar sound and feel of Ugly Heroes, to the gritty slam of Dice Game, to his re-working of Adrian Younge’s Twelve Reasons to Die, every project Apollo embarks on is an individual branch on his overall tree of sound. Like any branch from a tree, there are characteristics that are shared among many of the other branches, but also characteristics unlike any other branch hanging on the tree.

Thirty Eight is his newest project, and as it crackles and spits, clear-cut imagery and cinematic sounds burst from the record’s framework. “All You Know” rattles with Apollo’s coveted hard-hitting boom-bap and intense sound cuts (this time a quick synth one-hitter), but it also twinkles and rattles as if it’s playing along to a Great Gatsby-like car chase. On “Dirt on the Ground,” the production is layered into typical Apollo Brown fashion, with repetitive samples ooh’ing and ahh’ing throughout the track, but there’s also an added background buzzing that makes the song accompany the visuals to something like Road to Perdition. The album’s big surprise, “Felonious,” glides smoothly under a rush of synth pads and a cool and collected guitar melody that shows us what tricks Apollo Brown has hiding for us at every turn.

So yes, with Thirty Eight you’ll hear the quirks and familiarities Apollo Brown is known for. But you’ll also hear new and intriguing sounds that he is unleashing for the first time as an overall ode to 70s Blaxploitation soundtracks. Much like any tree and its branches, Apollo’s discography has all the features you expect to hear and new ones sprouting with each branch.

Gus’ Thought 

There is no question that over the years, Apollo Brown has established himself as one of the most consistently bangin’ producers in hip-hop. Whether he is making beats for a group (The Left and Ugly Heroes), an individual MC (Boog Brown, Hassaan Mackey, Guilty Simpson and OC) or an instrumental album, there is a cleanliness to his music that allows him to work in many different situations. While Apollo Brown beats have come to be associated with heavy sampling and hefty drums, he has still been able to create different sounding beats and adapt to the various projects he’s been a part of. There is certainly a formula to the way he does things and its a damn good one. His most recent instrumental project, Thirty Eight, showcases this. The predominant musical characteristics are recognizably Apollo Brown. However, he brings a completely new thematic element to this album that is much scratchier and rough around the edges.

Released in April 2014, Thirty Eight is more soundtrack-like than anything else, the music painting vivid scenes when bumped at the appropriate levels. The description of the record via the Bandcamp Page reads:

These are suites sounding from long barrels held by lone men lurking in grimy project hallways. Tinged with revenge and regret, shrouded in thick tendrils of hollow-point smoke, the songs have all the makings of an epic gangster tragedy. They’re also great when paired with anything Raymond Chandler.”

With its lack of lyricism, the brilliance of a well-made instrumental album is that it allows the listener to imagine. Brown’s Thirty Eight does this extremely well, creating a vast expanse of musical landscapes and potential stories. With blaring horns and a slow tempo, “The Warning” sounds like the build up to a drive-by shooting in 1940’s Los Angeles. “Lonely and Cold” could accompany a scene in a 1970’s Blaxploitation film set within a murky shipyard stacked with smuggled goods. The twangs of “The Laughter Faded” creates a terribly hollow feeling of despair and the loss of prosperity and good times as the title suggests.

With Thirty Eight, Apollo Brown has created an album that should be a welcome addition to the rotation to those that already support Apollo’s work as well as for those that aren’t as familiar. Using certain elements of his tried and true method of sampling while adding new textures and styles to his sound, Thirty Eight comes across as a much needed soundtrack to the Noir/ Mafioso/ Blaxploitation genres that are colorful and full of drama. The beauty of this record is that it allows the listener to create their own ideas and stories without abandoning Brown’s overall vision of the project. Additionally, Apollo Brown continues to demonstrate why he is one of the most dependable and skilled producers around.

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Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Lansing Hip-Hop Artist and Educator EssBe

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By: Gus Navarro

The first time I met EssBe, I thought he was a rapper. This was at the ULITT Conference at Michigan State University back in March and he was participating in a cypher workshop led by the incomparable Toni Blackman. His rhymes were on point and to be quite honest, I didn’t know any better. As it turns out, he is in fact a producer and member of the Lansing-based hip-hop collective, All Of The Above (AOTA). Although he has been making beats for over ten years, you probably haven’t heard of EssBe unless you’re aware of what’s going down hip-hop wise in the Lansing area. This is because he just recently released Bag Fries, his first official instrumental project. Spanning onlyThe first time I met EssBe, I thought he was a rapper. This was at the ULITT Conference at Michigan  seven tracks, Bag Fries is a project that demonstrates his varying production styles and abilities.

Not only is EssBe a good producer, he is a good person that is passionate about music and developing his craft. In this interview he speaks about playing pots and pans as a young one and then the moment when he first picked up a pair of drumsticks. From there we learn about the beginnings of his hip-hop production, something that he would come to work on obsessively, locked away in his room for hours on end. Bag Fries is the result of the work he’s put in over time and is something that he can bring back to the students he teaches at AOTA. It was a pleasure to sit down and talk about Bag Fries, hip-hop culture and Fruity Loops. With more music on the way in 2014, stay tuned to what EssBe has in coming down the pipeline.

Podcast

Listen to Bag Fries here

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The Mixes: The World Cup Mixtape

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By: Daniel Hodgman

The Mixes is a Bonus Cut series that focuses on themed mixtapes. The purpose of this series is to share music in hip-hop, but also to share the ability to express feelings through mixtapes. The premise takes after Rob Sheffield’s book Love is a Mix Tape, but unlike his book, these mixes will vary in theme. Although I will have notes explaining why I included each song, the overall interpretation of the songs and the mixtape as a whole is on you. Music is fickle because it triggers different emotions, and one of the greatest feelings is determining your thoughts for specific music on your own. Although Bonus Cut provides The Starting Five, a weekly list of songs the creators are currently digging, The Mixes is an individual entity because of its focus on certain themes.

PAST MIXTAPES
The Mixes: The “Dice Raw” Mixtape
The Mixes: The “Dreamin’ in Color” Mixtape
The Mixes: The “Keeping a Current With What’s Current” Mixtape

The “World Cup” Mixtape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know full well that the biggest sporting event is taking place this year: The World Cup. Despite the stories surrounding Brasil and FIFA’s actions regarding preparation for this year’s tournament–and believe me, there was and still is a lot of controversy–the fact remains that these countries and squads are playing now and that hundreds of millions of fans are enjoying these games. Today I’d like to share some tunes from countries participating in the tournament and get everybody groovin’ to some worldly music.

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Album of the Week: “Parts of Speech” and “Parts of Speech, Re-Edited” by Dessa

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Dessa
Parts of Speech 
Doomtree, 2013

Gus’ Thought (Parts of Speech)

After having listened to Parts of Speech multiple times by Dessa, Minneapolis’ darling and Doomtree executive, it’s clear that she hasn’t followed the same formula as her first effort, A Badly Broken Code. More singing, slower tempos and an increase in live instrumentation lead to an album that is packed with emotion and musicality. I can’t say that self-proclaimed “hip-hop heads” or “purists” may find her second full-length album difficult to digest. Her style is far different than what some may or may not associate with rap music. However, if you can get past a traditionalist mindset, there is no doubt that Parts of Speech should be in your rotation. This is because what Dessa brings to the table is unique and different in the most refreshing kind of way.

A lot of this has to do with the way she uses her lyrics and singing skills to create vivid images and feelings that are relatable to multiple audiences. At the same time, Dessa is still able to make these stories seem specific to her experiences. There is the first track, “The Man I Knew,” that is about how relationships can completely change over time, even after ten years of loving someone with all your heart. As she sings in the chorus, “The Man I knew/ I don’t think that he can hear me now/ So dizzy with the altitude/ It’s just too far/ Who am I to tell you to come down?” Later, “I’m Going Down” continues the discussion of change within relationships. This time, it’s unclear as to why things are different but Dessa again has a way of telling the story so that it feels that you are the one going through it all. Primarily accompanied by guitar and upright bass, Dessa calmy throws out, “Pull you close but when we kiss/ When we kiss I can feel the doubt/ I remember back when we started/ My kisses used to turn you inside out.” With every track, Dessa continually brings her lyrical intelligence and emotional depth that has made her a mainstay in Minneapolis and around the world. This can be heard throughout the album and on the more up-tempo  “Skeleton Key” and “Fighting Fish.”

Dessa’s Parts of Speech is an album that will take you on a journey that is grounded in the theme of change. Grounded in spoken word, Dessa takes the art form to new levels. The lyrics soar with depth that is reinforced with production by Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak and live instrumentation. This is not a hip-hop album in the traditional sense. Dessa isn’t even a “traditional” hip-hop artist, whatever that even means. But I have to ask, in a pop culture hip-hop world that is saturated with commercialism and swag, why should we hold onto tradition? Why not seek out artists that take the art form and create something new that’s actually worth listening to? Parts of Speech by Dessa is one of these types of albums.

Daniel’s Thought (Re-Edited)

It’s now been one year since the release of Parts of Speech, the critically acclaimed record from Doomtree’s Dessa. After a year, Parts of Speech still stands gracefully, with its multi-mood, multi-genre approach. This is Dessa’s second full-length studio record–I’m not counting her remix album Castor, the Twin–and like her previous material, this album continues to transverse the genre/sound sphere. For Dessa Darling fans, this isn’t new: her albums usually avoid simplistic categorization with many layers and a diverse range in overall sound, and by taking broad-ranging themes and whittling them into little concrete statements, Dessa’s albums require attention to detail; these records are hard to grasp, even after multiple listens. More important however is the growth Parts of Speech showcases: Dessa continues to broaden her style with more singing, more intricate poetry over multiple mediums and a production background that steps up from the beginning stages of her discography.

In all, Parts of Speech deserves the recognition it still sees these days, and to celebrate the one-year anniversary, Dessa has released a remix EP of the record called Parts of Speech, Re-Edited.

Re-Edited doesn’t cover all 12 original tracks–in fact, “Fighting Fish,” “Warsaw” and “It’s Only Me” are remixed twice–but it does provide a good platform with eight tracks that justly represent an expansive remix record.

Opening is the lead-single, “Fighting Fish (The Hood Internet Remix),” a slower, more tethered version than the original. The Hood Internet carry their own though, with low reverberating lyrics and music that features strong electro waves and droning with sincere tones. It’s a great pick for a remix album opener, with enough to distinguish itself from the original while at the same time reiterating its main constructs. “It’s a shadow in the dark,” The Hood Internet say under blocks of electric guitar chords near the end of the track, and as a remix album it may just be a shadow compared to the original, but it possesses enough “darkness,” variation and change to express itself freely as its own.

Other tracks on the record are just as unique and experimental as the opener. On the Lazerbeak & Ryan Olson (their duo name is COMMITTEE) remix of “Call Off Your Ghost,” the two take Dessa’s vocals and stretch them across a clinky electronic shell. With a sound that slightly mirrors something off of Passion Pit’s Chunk Of Change,–although, nowhere near the chinsy-ness of Passion Pit as a whole–the two make this remix a different kind of sad–the original is sad in its own right, but this one puts it into a whole new category.

On “It’s Only Me (Grant Cutler Remix),” Cutler trades soothing string melodies for synth pads and a drum machine, which takes the song’s tone and makes it livelier. The setting and content behind the lyrics is still all Dessa, but Cutler switches up the music to make his remix more fitting for a bar or club than a symphony hall.

The “Skeleton Key” remix on the other hand, which is the album’s closer, absolutely shines with added instrumentation, as the Youngblood Brass Band provide a very formidable backdrop. Using their patented New Orleans fusion sound, along with their experience working with other hip-hop artists, the Youngblood Brass Band does what they do best as they explode all over the speakers with strong horns, raging saxophone bombardment, a frenzy of percussion and a fitting stage presence.

With other guests remixing Dessa’s songs such as The Year of the Horse, Dustin Kiel, Budo and Cecil Otter, Re-Edited is a worthy remix album. Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Parts of Speech makes this little project special, but without that certification, the music and artists would make this record stand anyway on their merits alone. Listen to the original Parts of Speech and then crank Re-Edited; celebrate Dessa’s music for all to hear!

Parts of Speech

Re-Edited

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The Return of Dave Chappelle and a Look Back at His Block Party

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Starting on June 18th and running through the 26th, Dave Chappelle will be performing in New York City for the first time since 2004. Over the course of eight days, Chappelle will be at Radio City Music Hall, reminding audiences why he is one of the great comedians of our time. While the first five nights will not soon be forgotten, the last three will be monumental. On the 24th, the program includes a performance by the Legendary Roots Crew. The following night, Chappelle will be joined by Busta Rhymes, DJ Premier and Janelle Monae. Finally, the one and only Erykah Badu will grace the stage as Chappelle’s return to NYC comes to a close. With these last three nights, the goal is to bring back the magic that occurred ten years ago.

In 2004, Chappelle set up and hosted an all-day concert in Brooklyn with some of the the most respected and explosive musicians in the business back then and currently. To name a few, Kanye West, The Fugees, Dead Prez, John Legend, Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Common, Erykah Badu and The Roots were all there sharing the stage. The footage of that day was eventually released in 2005 as Block Party, a feature length documentary film written by Dave Chappelle and directed by Michel Gondry. Dedicated to the memory of J Dilla, Block Party gives us a glimpse into a day of hip-hop that was full of dope artists, great music, a loving crowd and an amazing concert. Whether you enjoy or dislike the comedy of Dave Chappelle, the man knows his music and how to bring artists together. In anticipation of his run at Radio City Music Hall, we take a look back at ten of our favorite hip-hop moments from his show on Comedy Central and from Block Party.

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