Album of the Week: “Run the Jewels 2” by Run The Jewels

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Daniel’s Thought

There was a point in 2012 when the hip-hop higher-ups decided it was in our best interest to experience a collaboration between longtime hip-hop pioneer El-P and Grind Time Atlanta legend Killer Mike.

Oh what a collaboration that was.

Killer Mike’s 2012 release R.A.P. Music was more than just a release. With El-P behind the 1’s and 2’s, Killer Mike was able to command a record that provided him the necessary tools as one of hip-hop’s elder spokesmen. On the flip side, R.A.P. Music gave El-P another notch on his belt as one of hip-hop’s most versatile artists. Long story short, both of them benefited from the collaboration, and both artists worked together like smooth butter over the perfect piece of toast.

In 2013, the two came together again–this time under the moniker Run the Jewels–to release a joint mixtape of sorts called, well, Run the Jewels. At 10 tracks deep, Run the Jewels is an exhilarating rush that’s innovative without sacrificing energy or suffering from hip-hop cliches. With Killer Mike’s baritone Atlanta cadence and El-P’s futuristic and intimidating delivery (both lyrically and production wise), Run the Jewels is a record that raises standards and snatches your jewelry all in one listen.

This year, they released their follow-up, Run the Jewels 2. As an official album release, this record feels more like an album than its predecessor. It’s distinctly split into two operating halves, and the production is cleaner without losing any of its gritty spit-in-your-face attitude. The opener, “Jeopardy,” starts off on that classic El-P space buzz–something that’ll throw you back into the Cold Vein days–and as Killer Mike cuts in, he makes it clear that nothing has changed. “Bad man chillin’, the villains is here,” he chucks. “No Jesuses here, I hear the demons in my ear.”

On Run the Jewels 2, El-P carries his own on every track. Although his flow has never been questioned (and why should it be?), there have been times throughout his career where critics treat him like second fiddle. With a very dense and metaphorical delivery about space and far-reaching fantasy stories, El-P is undoubtedly one of the most unique and talented MCs EVER. I would argue that Run the Jewels 2 isn’t one of the top examples you should use for this claim, but his moments come in bunches that clearly prove how smart he is as an artist. On “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” a haunting track that slowly jaunts like a Southern club banger, El-P opens it up: “Authorities have spoken, demanded your pure devotion/ Get magnetized to the ground while the falcons of murder close in/ I chose to go guano, yall know kinda bat shit/ The bright lights of fuckery stuck in me automatic.” Later in the verse, El-P explodes with double and triple flow bars, something he’s been doing since his Company Flow days (mind you, this is way before K-Dot’s time).

Elsewhere on the record, Run The Jewels stamp their brand all over the place. “Angel Duster” closes the album, and it moves like a trap beat that’s accompanying the Death Star. Slow boasting horns carry the flow, and in-and-out mechanics such as synths and chorus “oohs” help make the whole picture darker. With the Travis Barker-assisted “All Due Respect,” the harsh buzzes and spacey feels run parallel with a percussion mix that goes off on many vectors. “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” follows “Jeopardy” and serves as the perfect “go HAM in your car” song that would make the predictable Diplo fancy a smile. Changing the scene a bit, if only momentarily, is “All My Life,” a track that starts with optimistic humming. The mood here is a bit more playful, with a dose of electronic organ notes that carry more of a “I could be friends with these dudes” vibe than a “holy shit they’re going to kill me” vibe.

What Run the Jewels 2 provides lyrically is intensity, maybe even more so than the debut. The downside here is that unlike their first record, there are very few instances where you see the two artists intertwining their bars in one verse, but that’s such a minute detail compared to the large picture. El-P’s characteristics are still here, and Killer Mike’s intricate methods of operation are ever present. If anything, this record provides more of a follow-up for Mike’s R.A.P. Music than Run the Jewels. On the aforementioned “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” he continues to put critics to rest:

“A revolutionary bangin’ on my adversaries/ And I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary/ Cause when you live on MLK it gets very scary/ You might have to pull your AK, send one to the cemetery/ We overworked, underpaid, and we underprivileged/ They love us, they love us (why?), because we feed the village/ You really made it or just became a prisoner of privilege?/ You willing to share that information that you’ve been given?”

If you’ve given Run The Jewels the credit they deserve, but haven’t yet picked up their second album, maybe you should get to your local music store and grab a copy of this. If you’re new to these guys, then start with their debut record–because who likes starting things out of order? All in all, everyone at some point should spin Run the Jewels 2, which is the perfect compliment to its older sibling that hits harder, gets darker and showcases hip-hop in a light where very little light is given.

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The Bump in the Night Beat Battle Recap

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By: Gus Navarro 

Hip-hop is a multi-faceted art form that can be difficult to categorize, and in my opinion, even more difficult to define. That being said, one thing that remains constant within the musical side of things is the presence of drums. In providing the tempo and rhythmic base for MCs to rap over, the beat has always been a key ingredient to hip-hop music. Hosted by the Lansing based hip-hop collective, All of the Above (AOTA), the Bump in the Night Beat Battle was a night full of on-point beats that made people holler and nod their heads in appreciation. Showcasing some of the best beat-making talent mid-Michigan has to offer, Bump in the Night brought old and new friends together, creating chances for fellow musicians to build with each other.

“It’s helping to get the creative juices flowing in Lansing,” said AOTA co-creator, Sareem Poems. “There’s artists here who don’t know about each other, and they’re getting a chance to meet and build possible collab opportunities. For us, it means the most to see this community come together and continue to build the hip-hop scene here in Lansing that people seem to forget about very easily.”

Consisting of four rounds, producers went head-to-head, each playing three beats for the crowd. Seated at the edge of the stage, four Judges, Seoul of the 61Syx Teknique B-boy crew, Matt Foust of 808 Ministries, KuriOto of the BLAT! Pack and Lansing legend, DJ Butcher, decided who moved on to the next round. These events can be difficult for judges because much of it is open to interpretation. During a pause in the competition, Seoul broke down the intricacies of judging a beat battle.

“All four judges are looking for something different. Each judge is looking for a certain thing in the beat so it changes things when it comes to judging. I’m looking for creativity and flavor,” he explained.“It’s a little bit different because my flavor isn’t going to be the same as somebody else’s flavor. So you gotta look at what appeals to everybody while also thinking about what catches your ear.”

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Nowadays, technology allows even the most average Joe the ability to make a beat. Anybody can press a button that sounds like a hand clap or kick drum, but that doesn’t make them a producer. A producer is someone who, with their percussive composition, is able to create energy and feeling from people who listen. Their beats make MCs want to rhyme and cause people to throw their hands to the sky.

Outersound Music Group producer, Young Heat, a previous beat battle champion and competitor, addressed his favorite part of being a part of beat battles: the people. “The people determine everything. We can have judges but if the crowd doesn’t like it, the judges won’t even matter.”

Young Heat may have been crowned victorious previously, but the night belonged to AOTA producer Ess Be. He climbed through the first two rounds, each of his beats seeming to get more sophisticated as the night went on. In a tense final round between Ess Be and The Sound Addict, another AOTA producer and past winner, Ess Be brought out all the stops, dropping trap beats and sampling Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the Ghost Buster theme. Every producer brought it, but Ess Be seemed to have a little more heat on this particular night and it was clear that he’s been hard at work.

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Being in the crowd for this event was so much fun. With each beat drop, you could feel the positive energy and passion from the crowd as they erupted in cheers, always wanting more hi-hat sizzles and crispy snare hits. Behind a backdrop of pulse-pounding beats, I got to catch up with people I haven’t seen in awhile and just be around a community of people that have welcomed me and have shown me nothing but love and respect. Between each round, an MC performed as well, giving everyone a chance to vibe to some lyrics and take a break from the competition. First up was AOTA student, Evan, followed by Miles Young of Outersound Music Group and finally, Sareem Poems. DJ Choppy Blades was on hand, spinning the beats for each contestant and Ozay Moore, the creator of AOTA, kept things moving between rounds, MCing the event to perfection. There is no doubt that the Bump in the Night Beat Battle was a successful event. On a mild October night, beats were dropped and the crowd erupted with joy. It was a celebration of hip-hop and a reminder of all the good it has to offer in Lansing, and communities all over the world.

Congratulations to EssBe!

The Contestants:

Olos

IzzyOnTheBeat

KillaTuHot

Ess Be

Young Heat

Paul Psych

The Sound Addict

Studio Addicts

Y’s Council

Drelo Beats

Oj Payno

Choppy Blades

Alex Malone

Amel

 

 

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Bonus Cut Poetry: “Consent” by Abby Conklin

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This is Bonus Cut Poetry, a series that features original poems by Bonus Cut staff, artists and YOU! In this series, our mission is to bring people together in poetry, share stories and display wonderful artistic pieces. If you would like to have your poems in the next Bonus Cut Poetry installment, just email us at bonuscut@gmail.com

This installment features Bonus Cut’s own Abby Conklin.

Consent
By: Abby Conklin

When you cut into a kiwi fruit kept
in the fridge overnight, sliding knife
through furred skin, things feel easier
than they should.  It’s as if, that whole
time you slept, the fruit was wrapping
itself in firmness.  Lighting up hair
by hair, until its whole was stretched taut
in anticipation of the warm cup
of your hand, and the betrayal
of its paring knife, at six-something
on an October morning.

When you cut into a kiwi fruit left
out on the counter, however.
Then, after a night spent in the wash
that is Upper Manhattan coming
in through the screen of your kitchen window.

Be prepared.

This fruit has not been slowly drawn
into the farcical comfort of numbness.
It will not give so easily.  Flesh,
dimpling under the unkind point
of your steel, will raise an eyebrow
in question.  One chance,
it will be saying.
One chance.
Consider the full weight of your action,
balance precarious as it nudges
closer to the surface of a life.  Do you know
what you are doing?

Do you know
what you will have done?

 

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Album of the Week: “You’re Dead!” by Flying Lotus

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Daniel’s Thoughts

Flying Lotus is now six studio albums deep–one of them was his Captain Murphy project Duality–and the first thing that comes to mind is where You’re Dead! stacks up against the rest. Almost incomparable are Los Angeles and Cosmogramma, near flawless works of art that are drowned in reckless counts of harp strings, manic synthetic rushes and liberating progressions of artsy jazz-hop. Somewhere swelling underneath these works stands You’re Dead!, perhaps FlyLo’s most exotic work, and definitely the most guest-heavy.

Penetrating deep into the stereo, You’re Dead! leads with quick-hitting intro tracks that paint a rushing mural of jazz highlights and rapid snare licks, where just the sound of each note feels like it’s living and breathing inside of the listener’s head. There’s “Turkey Dog Coma,” a song that sprints from the very get-go under anxious drum scats and Thundercat’s rumbling bass. “Ready err Not” on the other hand slows down, playing soundtrack to an imaginary video game that takes place in a dark creepy castle. And then there’s the Kendrick Lamar feature called “Never Catch Me.” You’d be hard-pressed to find another MC that can effortlessly spit over a FlyLo beat, but K-Dot is one of them. “Ain’t no blood pumpin’ no fear,” Lamar spits over a rushing trip beat and a flowing piano melody. “I got hope inside of my bones.”

You’re Dead!, like all of Flying Lotus’ records, paints this impossible picture of hip-hop, jazz, trip-hop, rock, electro, and blues intertwining in a cauldron of goodness. It’s a steady improvement over Until the Quiet Comes, with full-fledged themes constructed over the entire piece, and throughout you’ll get hints of Cosmogramma, Los Angeles and 1983 hiding like Waldo on the beach. If you want an “Album of the Year” candidate, look no further.

Gus’ Thoughts

Sometimes I think about dying, or rather, if anything happens after death. I don’t necessarily mean in a religious sense, although that’s part of it. Generally, it’s more about the mind. Where do people’s thoughts go? Do we actually just cease to exist? Surely there must be something following what we, in society, refer to as death. Considering this, Flying Lotus’ new record, You’re Dead!, may just be the musical manifestation to some of these ideas. Released on October 7th, 2014, You’re Dead! is a frantic, yet clearly intentional, compilation of hard-hitting beats, jazz melodies and rhymes that is driven by these thoughts. In some ways, the music is much like the Lotus we all know and love. However, as opposed to some of his other albums, which are packed to the brim with off-kilter percussion and spaced out synth, You’re Dead! is propelled by a very specific concept.

The beginning of the album has the feel of a long intro as the first four tracks, “Theme,” “Tesla,” “Cold Dead” and “Fkn Dead,” flow into each other, picking up speed and intensity with heavy guitars, bright keyboard notes and vivid saxophone. Just as we reach what seems to be a climax of sorts, piano cuts in and “Never Catch Me” begins. Easily one of the best songs of 2014, “Never Catch Me” features Kendrick Lamar, whose words add to the concept. Featuring Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris” and Flying Lotus rapping as Captain Murphy, the lyrics on these tracks push the theme forward. However, as one should expect from a Flying Lotus record, the music dominates the canvas in the best way.

With help from the piano man himself, Herbie Hancock, Thundercat on bass and soundtrack specialist Ennio Morricone, You’re Dead! is an on-point combination of more aggressive styles of jazz that fit perfectly with hand claps, syncopated kick drums, fast-moving horn and bass lines. With his sixth studio album, Flying Lotus has delivered a wonderfully furious combination of musical styles that moves together seamlessly, creating a journey through space, time and what the afterlife might just sound like.

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A Bonus Cut Feature: An Interview With The Black Opera

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By:  Gus Navarro 

If you haven’t heard of The Black Opera, get online and look them up. No seriously, do it. You should check them out because they are unlike anything else in hip-hop right now. With multiple costume changes and crowd participation, their live show is an explosion of anonymity and boundless, colorful energy. The Black Opera isn’t upfront and won’t say who is in the group. However it’s there, in plain sight, if you take the time to do your research. The Black Opera exists in a space that is in opposition to the rappity-rap clatter we encounter on a daily basis. Instead, the group is an international collective of artists that have come together around the communal idea that we, as humans, are connected, or as they so eloquently declare, “We are one.” Having released music since 2010, The Black Opera is beginning to reach a new level of acclaim as they continue to push the boundaries of what people perceive hip-hop should be about. If you have the chance to see them live, do it. If you can get online and listen to their music, do it.

During their tour stop at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was fortunate to sit down and speak with two members of the group in anticipation of their new album, The Great Year, released via Mello Music Group. In the interview we touched on topics such as the philosophy behind their music and the influence the Internet has had on the growth of the collective. After seeing them perform and speaking with them, I learned that The Black Opera’s music, stage presence and overall style are propelled by the idea that it isn’t always about who is talking, but what is being said. In a society where the individual is placed on a pedestal above all else, this is a powerful stance to take.

As opposed to revealing the identities of The Black Opera members I spoke with, each voice is denoted as Black Opera Member (BOM) #1 and #2.

Bonus Cut (BC):  What is The Black Opera to you?

BOM #1:  The Black Opera is a collective of forward thinkers, artists, musicians, producers, rappers and videographers who have one goal and that is to promote that all are one. All people are one and that we put art in the forefront of that.

BC:  Will you tell me who’s in the group?

BOM #2:  Everybody that we work with becomes a part of The Black Opera. So we have a lot of affiliates and black ops all over the world. The main focus is the music so we shy away from saying who we are. The best thing to do is just check out the music and find your way through it. You can go through the credits and use Google to find out who’s doing what. We try to make sure that the music gets to you first. That’s the whole goal.

BOM #1:  Research! Do your research if you want to know.

BC:  That’s exactly what I wanted to talk with you guys about. You’re very intentional about being vague and not explicitly revealing your identities. Is that liberating?

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BOM # 1:  Yes, absolutely. Joining The Black Opera movement was one hundred percent about liberation, freedom of expression and not being tied to anything from the past. Whether that’s the block you’re from, the hood, the city, the set you claim or whatever. A lot of times, especially with hip-hop, people get away with saying, “I’m from the city that’s this, that or whatever….”

BOM #2:  They build a box around themselves.

BOM #1:  Yeah, it’s like, “What else?” Especially if that’s not the life you live. You’re telling the story of your city but what else is there? Who are you? We don’t like to fall into that lane. We definitely feel that it was a liberating situation when we chose to join The Black Opera.

BOM #2:  Like he said, “Who are you?” Another question is:  “What are you here for?” Just because you are who you are doesn’t mean you have to create like you look, how you smell or how you move. You can create whatever you want to. It’s like when you put out too much information about who you are or where you’re from, you create this box of judgment. For example, people expect something specific with artists from New York. If you don’t know where I’m from you’ll hear the same song and be like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Let me find out more.” If you start with the music, the live show and unravel it from there it can be pretty dope.

BC:  In some ways, it seems like you’re creating a lane for people to use technology.

BOM #2:  To use it correctly. Nowadays people just go on Twitter or Facebook to see what everybody is talking about. Let me do the cool thing; let me be hip for today. People have so many outlets to find out information (Google, for example) and we’re challenging people to use the Internet in the correct way and think critically for themselves.

BC:  Would there be a Black Opera without the Internet?

BOM #1:  There would be a Black Opera without the Internet, but the Internet has definitely benefitted the growth of the collective. That’s for sure. A lot of our collaborations have come from people that we’ve worked with personally. A lot of the times we’ve grown those relationships organically through the Internet. We like what they do, they like what we do. We start building a relationship and that’s when the music comes. The Internet has most definitely helped in that process.

BOM #2:  We did a song called “Opera Hands” with a producer called Tall Black Guy. It ended up being, for our core fan base, one of their favorite songs. That came from a DJ in Atlanta called DJ Apple Jac. He literally took the Soundcloud link to the beat in its original form, posted it and said, “Yo, the Black Opera should be on this.” We listened to it and were like, “why not?” We were creating in the studio at the time. So that’s how we got connected with Tall Black Guy. Everything happens organically, at the flow of the pace of creation. We do have serious intentions and a serious message but when it comes to the creativity we like for it to just flow organically.

BC:  On your Facebook info page you talk in big terms about the art you make being a commentary on “OUR perception of timeless issues.” Can you expand on what that means and what those issues are?

BOM #2:  Basically this is what we do:  We have issues that are not going anywhere, right? They’ve been professed to us through the news, propaganda, homies and friends. Sometimes you have to find those areas where you can switch the perception on it. Like, what really is racism? What really is hip-hop? The things that are popular to the people that listen to our music, we take a piece of that and we twist it a little bit. It’s like art, you know? Some of the music on our new album has a trap influence. Why? Because you would be blind and you would be deaf if you didn’t understand that hip-hop is going through more of a danceable time. You have these guys that grew up in the ghetto trying to find something positive to do. We’re not trying to condemn them. We’re making the people that listen to hip-hop understand what they’re doing. We did that exactly with a song called, “Rich Like You.” The hook says, “I just wanna be rich like you.” They’re trying to find a way out and the only channel they have is through music. Us being the hip-hop heads, we hear that and we’re like, “Turn that off.” But really it’s like, “Yo, they need your help.” Give them some time. A lot of them sound no different than Ol’ Dirty Bastard comin’ out. They have off-time styles and are creating a lot of new flow; it’s just a foreign tongue. That’s what we do. We use our music to show people how connected we are. The simplicity of the human is really all one. Everybody just wants to breathe, drink clean water, be loved, seen and listened to.

BC:  How did you get to this point?

BOM#1:  I think we see things and we’re inquisitive. It just comes down to wanting to know more, wanting to dig deeper and not taking everything at face value. We’ve got a song called, “Black Nirvana,” where I say, “The same thing that happened to Cobain happened to Tupac.” You might hear that line and be like, “What? No. Cobain shot himself and Tupac was murdered.” If you dig deeper, you can see the similarities. They both were outspoken people, had a lot to say about the society we live in and a lot of people didn’t like that.

BOM #2:  Yeah, both were very misunderstood and heavily judged.

BOM #1:  A lot of people didn’t like the way they viewed society. So for whatever reason, they both died very young in this society. Why is that? There has to be something about this society that did not mesh with how they spoke. I think what got us to this point mentally is just through thinking in critical terms about the things that are presented to us.

BOM #2:  I was listening to a Souls of Mischief interview and Tajai mentioned our names with TDE and Pro Era, which is really cool. He was talking about their [Souls of Mischief] new album, and he was saying that they weren’t necessarily trying to make a hip-hop album. They were just in the studio creating and just trying to make the best music they could. That’s something different for a group that’s been together as long as them. They started talking about some of the newer artists, and he included us, in talking about how he feels like a lot of the new artists have hit a creative wall where it’s like, “I’m sick of doing this. I’m sick of seeing this. It’s the same old, same old.” Even the underground has become predictable and kind of sold out to a certain extent. That’s basically where we’re at right now. We’ve hit that wall and we want to know what else is out there. How can we stop chimin’ in with what everybody’s complaining about? How can we turn a light on and let everybody know that we can do something completely different? You can do whatever you want to and that’s what we’re bringing to the feel. You might look at us and say, “Oh, they’re rapping.” If you look closer, you’re going to see performing arts, art pieces and costumes. It might look like a play, like it could be on Broadway. We’re just doing what we want to do creatively and trying to connect with as many people as we can.

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BC:  How do you want people to feel after they’ve seen you perform live?

BOM #2:  “That was the best show I’ve seen in ages,” that’s actually a direct quote. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m inspired to go create, I’m inspired to do something different, think outside of the box and critically think for myself.  We are one.

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Bonus Cut Poetry: “Working Title: Go Fuck Yourself” by Abby Conklin

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This is Bonus Cut Poetry, a series that features original poems by Bonus Cut staff, artists and YOU! In this series, our mission is to bring people together in poetry, share stories and display wonderful artistic pieces. If you would like to have your poems in the next Bonus Cut Poetry installment, just email us at bonuscut@gmail.com

This installment features Bonus Cut’s own Abby Conklin.

Go Fuck Yourself
By: Abby Conklin 

I want to vomit
the last two years.
Uproot from my gut
the relationship, break
up, the before plus
its after.  The cramped
hiccups of crying
on my apartment floor.
A mind wreaking havoc
at all hours of the day
hazed over with the effort
of being awake.  Months-

months

months of fighting
for what turned out
to be nothing.  The getting
over, the moving on.  Enough
realizations to fill
meeting notes’ margins
on mornings after nights
walled with twisting dreams.
Shaking it all off, trying
to get the blood gone stale
to move.

I want to vomit it all
in my hands- my whole
life since you, and hold
it out as if it is the answer
you seem to still be searching
for.  Here.
Here is what I have made
for myself, and did you want
it back, strangling keeper
of dreams?  I seem to remember
everything I had being consumed,
teeth first, by you.  Here, take
it.  Make a meal of your poison:
the ways in which I
do not need you.

 

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Album of the Week: “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest

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Daniel’s Thought

“Once again a case of your feet in my Nike’s/ If a crowd is in my realm I’m saying, ‘mic please’/ Hip-hop is living, can’t yank the plug/ If you do the result, will end up kind of bugged”

“Be alert, look alive, and act like you know”

“A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see/ And a middle finger goes for all you punk MCs”

“East Coast stomping, ripping and romping”

“Industry rule number four thousand and eighty/ Record company people are shady”

Gus’ Thought

There is no question that A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most legendary hip-hop groups of all time. For the last twenty-five years, Q-tip’s signature velvety voice and Phife Dawg’s relentless staccato flow have influenced hip-hop heads, young and old alike. Released in 1991, The Low End Theory, contains a laid-back feel that is heavily influenced by jazz and the experiential narrative of two twenty-something African-American men from St. Albans, Queens.

Featuring guest bassist Ron Carter, The Low End Theory is driven by the low, pulsing notes of stand up bass. Whether its “Butter,” “Jazz (We’ve Got), or “Verses From The Abstract,” the pulse stays on the far backside of the beat, creating the perfect backdrop for Phife and Tip to tell their stories. With DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the 1’s and 2’s as well as features from Busta Rhymes, Sadat X and Diamond D, The Low End Theory is a primary document of sorts, allowing us to revisit the sounds and feelings of parts of hip-hop in the early 90’s.

On The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, they are in no rush to explain anything to you. Instead, the tempos are in the perfect spot for them to get there, when Tip and the Five Foot Assassin are good and ready. Don’t get me wrong, they want to rap and tell you their stories through the art form that is music. However, as they’ve done throughout their entire career, they do it on their own terms, at their own pace. Thinking about how the music industry is so heavily influenced and based around one-hit-wonders and what’s trending, it’s important to appreciate the artists, past and present, that make the music they want to make, for themselves, despite the industry. With The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest did this, and continues to do so.

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Word Becomes Flesh: The Magic of Marc Bamuthi Joseph

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By: Justin Cook
Photos taken by: Ian Siporin

“I seek to create space for ritual magic AS performance, and also ritual magic IN performance.”

Last week, I had the privilege to witness Marc Bamuthi Joseph perform in the RCAH Theater located on Michigan State’s Campus, in East Lansing, Michigan. To say the least, it was an extraordinary experience encompassing poetry, dance, hip-hop, critical race theory and everything in between. At times, it was as if Marc was channeling an other-worldly force light years away from planet Earth. His being became living, breathing art—an animated meditation on the black experience in contemporary America that is as intimate as it is enlightening and as terrifying as it is hopeful. But before I get into the magic that was Marc’s performance, allow me to breakdown what makes this man so special.

Originally, Marc was simply a spoken-word poet. After winning the National Poetry Slam in 1999, he began to experiment with poetry and movement, incorporating elements of tap, ballet, breaking and miming in his performances. Since then Marc has become “one of America’s vital voices in performance, arts education, and artistic curation” by continually pushing the boundaries of “traditional” theatre and reimagining the power of poetry and language. His accolades include, but are not limited to, gracing the cover of Smithsonian Magazine after being named one of America’s Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences, an inaugural recipient of the United States Rockefeller Fellowship that recognizes 50 of the country’s “greatest living artists,” the 2011 Alpert Award winner in Theatre, and in April 2013, he was one of 21 artists to be named to the inaugural class of Doris Duke Artists.

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Now, back to the magic: witnessing Marc perform in the flesh. That night, after a brief introduction, he got right down to business. First, he made us define a few words, which were central to his whole act: hate, greed, neglect, racism, self-hate and capitalism. Some of our responses were simple, i.e. hate is “misunderstanding,” while some were more academic, “capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.” From these definitions, Marc went seamlessly into his first piece, Word Becomes Flesh.

He began by using these words to develop a creation myth for what he referred to as the “Almighty Nigger Mentality,” a mentality that was created to oppress the African-American community through the siblings Racism and Self-Hate—the love children of Capitalism and Greed. Then, he broke into a spontaneous spoken-word/dance number that detailed the woes of the black community while simultaneously miming a lynching. Between every line, Marc let out a deep breath, and with every breath, the noose got tighter. Next, as if suddenly returning to Earth, Marc went into a causal dialogue about his relationship with his Haitian father. As a young boy, Marc wanted to learn how to tap dance. This didn’t please his father who saw it as part of Euro-American culture. But to Marc, the rhythms of tap were the rhythms of African drums, that slaves, ripped from their homeland, stripped of their traditional instruments, used their feet to keep the rhythm going on those long days in the plantation fields—because, you know, slave owners would never cut their slaves’ legs off.

Then he went right back into another section of Word Becomes Flesh detailing the inner-conflict of a soon-to-be father: should he stay and become a father, or should he run away as the “Almighty Nigger Mentality” would like him to? As Marc would later explain, with much joy, he decided to stay, his son now a teenager. The title of the piece, Word Becomes Flesh, then came full circle. Not only did Marc’s words literally become flesh through choreographed steps and miming, but also he gave his word, his promise, to stay, and now his son, an abstraction in the womb, is living flesh. This story, interwoven with over-arcing narrative of creation myth, allowed us into the intimate depths of Marc’s life while reaching outward to struggles of black manhood throughout the United States.

The second part of his performance was a few sections from his choreopoem red, black, & green: a blues, which focuses on social justice, activism and sustainability within minority communities—communities who are often absent from mainstream environmentalist movements. This piece was inspired by his work with the Life is Living project, which Marc spearheaded himself with the help of his community in Oakland, California. The idea behind the project is to create safer spaces where minority communities can come together and proactively change their environment through sustainable measures. Instead of using the term “Green” that most environmentalist groups use, which comes with many connotations, Marc decided to use the term “Life,” hence the project’s name, Life is Living (http://youthspeaks.org/lifeisliving/aboutus/). Since it’s inception, the Life is Living project has created numerous dialogues on the importance of sustainability and community across the country. It has even perked the interests of hip-hop legends such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and ?uestlove.

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He concluded on a spoken-word piece about gang violence, which is the harsh reality for many black teenagers in America. The piece was specifically about a Sudanese mother he had met while working with the Life is Living project in Chicago. Her son, and several other young men, were senselessly gunned down on a street corner. This is a tragedy that is all too common in oppressed communities around the world. The poem detailed his conversation with this particular mother, who continuously “spat seeds to the ground.” It was raw; every word, every movement, all synchronized to display the physical, emotional, and spiritual tension young black bodies face on a daily basis. It was as if the dead, as if this mother, was directly speaking through Marc.

Despite the serious subject matter, Marc sustained a light-hearted vibe throughout the night. He was engaging—often running up and down the steps of the theatre, jumping, twirling, spitting poetry like madman—and kept everyone on the edge of their seat. It was truly a unique experience, unlike anything I could have imagined. To share that theatre with Marc was an honor, and an inspiration. It was not only a testament to the indomitable human spirit, but also to the reality that art can be magic.

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