Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Vacation In Hip-Hop Nation

We went to Colorado to visit the in-laws and ended up in Hip-Hop Nation. What happened was our rental car had Sirius XM so I started scrolling through the stations, looking for those mythical shows I always read about but have never heard. The first named station I came across was simply called Elvis - and that's exactly what you got. First we heard a good song then we heard Bossa Nova Baby, which would be more tolerable if it didn't bait you into thinking you were going to hear The King sing Jobim - a heavenly proposition - and then switch you to vaguely Latinate generic pop. After a brief discussion with my wife about how Leiber & Stoller could write a song at the height of the Bossa Nova boom, include those words in the title, and then completely ignore the genre, I scrolled on, soon arriving at Hip-Hop Nation.

The display told me Torae was the DJ and that the song was Kanye West's Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2, featuring Desiigner, which I've listened to many times on The Life Of Pablo. In context, it turned out to both fit the format and transcend it. The beats have plenty of the spacious, minimalist production of many of the songs we heard, although more artistically deployed, but nothing else anything as starkly emotional as Kanye's "I don't even want to talk about it" line. Hip-Hop Nation is completely uncensored, too, and there was something fascinating about Kanye injecting that model's "bleached asshole" into something resembling a national conversation, beamed across the satellites. He didn't invent it, after all - it's something that some people do these days - he just chose to include it in a song, as valid a choice as the one made by the first artist to paint a smoke-belching steam engine at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Quelle horreur

Even after all the times I've heard the track - and it came up at least twice a day until we left - Desiigner's verse remains fine but hardly memorable. Kanye's reign, however, was not limited to his own song, he was also ruling with his guest verse on THat Part by Schoolboy Q. I've heard Kanye phone in a feature before, but this time he brought his A-Game. Let's just say that "beggars can't be choosers, this ain't Chipotle," is definitely one of the lines of the year and there's even the illusion of studio camaraderie between the titan and his protegé. Schoolboy Q more than holds his own with the legend and his Blank Face album, although a bit overstuffed, is well worth a listen. 

"If you can dream it, be it," they say, which is definitely the case with DJ Khaled, who shoehorned two tracks into Hip-Hop Nation's tight playlist. Both songs were ill-defined and disjointed, using their lazy beats to support a king's ransom of guest rappers who provided their only appeal. Khaled is like Woody Allen - it seems anyone will say yes to him. As to why a genius like Kendrick Lamar feels the need to do so, perhaps the fact that nothing from his extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly (or its nearly as good companion, untitled unmastered) was played in all the time we listened has something to do with it. Maybe he knows the only way for him to stay in the commercial game is to jump on a track by a far lesser artist. 

I'm not going to say that Chance the Rapper plays the that game better than Kendrick Lamar, but his No Problem (feat. Li'l Wayne and 2 Chainz), fit the Hip-Hop Nation format brilliantly, with the addition of charm, which was lacking in much of the stuff we heard. It might be the only song from Coloring Book that does fit, but it's a canny commercial move that also happens to be a really good song.

One thing Hip-Hop Nation is good at, even in the confines of their narrowcasting, is giving new artists a spotlight. Most times we listened we heard someone up and coming, including Young M.A., whose song Ooouuu had a beat that was a cut above, foregrounding her distinctive flow and sense of humor. "This kid's going places," I told my wife the third time we heard it. Speaking of kids, I'm not sure who gave Raes Sremmurd the keys to the studio but most of their stuff sounded like cheap trap pandering and something even they won't want to listen to in six months. Give me Lil Yachty any day - he's more fun - although I did hear a better song by Raes Sremmurd in the back of a cab the other day so maybe Sirius isn't playing the best cuts. 

In general I can't stand Drake so I counted myself lucky that he wasn't getting that much play during our time in Hip-Hop Nation. This was surprising as his album Views has been sitting on the top of the charts for weeks now, despite being almost universally panned. Even more surprising is that Hype (Remix, feat. Li'l Wayne), the one Views-related track they did play, was actually good, with some welcome self-deprecation and good backing sounds - the hi-hat programming is especially brilliant - by producer Boi-1da. Maybe he had a better ghostwriter on that one...I'll just leave that there. 

I used to listen to Hot 97 and 105.9 a lot and loved those intermittent tracks announced as "Back in the dayyyyy," which would usually mean songs more than two years old. There was no such feature on Hip-Hop Nation when we were listening and thus no sense of the past. The oldest thing we heard all weekend was from 2005, when they played Hate It Or Love It and Westside Story, both songs by The Game featuring 50 Cent. These songs have both held up well and, with their rich soul samples, sounded as lush as Rachmaninov in the current attenuated context. But why two songs from the same decade-old album? The only guess I can hazard is that it has something to with the beef that started after the release of that album, which has only recently been resolved (at a strip club, no less), and this was Hip-Hop Nation's way of saying, "Glad everyone is friends again!" Don't call it a comeback, but maybe The Game and Fiddy should make a comeback as they were very complementary back in the dayyyy.

Besides the erasure of hip hop history from Hip-Hop Nation (which is about the hits, after all) there was also no social conscience. You're not going to hear any governmental takedowns from Run The Jewels or Killer Mike or any of Kendrick's thought-provoking rhymes here. The closest thing to political expression was the transgressive freedom to say whatever the fuck you want (see Kanye West, above), which was only amplified by hearing all this creative filth in whitebread Colorado. 

Hip-Hop Nation is essentially party nation and, for the most part, we enjoyed our time there. I'll plead the Fifth on whether the fact that we were visiting family and needed to blow off some steam when we were alone in the car had any effect on the pleasure we got from listening to hours of commercial hip hop. I can also neither confirm or deny that we wrote a trap anthem about taking the toll road, which is apparently something older people avoid like the plague, even when it can save 20 minutes of sitting in traffic. What happened in Colorado will stay in Colorado, but we'll always have our memories of the Rockies, the aspen trees, our beautiful nephew and his family, the pizza at Locale in Boulder and, thanks to our able tour guides Torae and DJ Suss One, Hip-Hop Nation. 

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Sunday, August 07, 2016

BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

That there is a pipeline from indie rock to modern classical has been firmly established. What is less clear is the ultimate value of the music emitting from that spigot. My suspicion is that, as time tells its tale, the pieces produced by what might be called "rock informed" composers (Missy Mazzoli, Daniel Wohl) will prove more lasting than what those rockers have created for the concert hall. Or it may just be that if I don't like your band, I'm also not going to like your string quartet.

There is an interesting tangent to this rock-classical dialogue, represented by works like the trio version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or symphonic takes extrapolated from The Beatles' Revolution #9 or Brian Eno's Music For Airports, the last of which sucked us north up Route 8 from Stockbridge, MA to North Adams a few weeks ago. North Adams is a classic plot of small-town New England whose faded industry bequeathed us Mass MOCA, one of the most vibrant modern art venues in the northeast. 

Mass MOCA also hosts two major annual music festivals, Wilco's Solid Sound and Bang On A Can's Summer Music Festival. Wilco's event is always scheduled around the last day of school in NYC, a less than auspicious time for us to get out of town. Our reasons for missing the BOAC event are less clear-cut but let's just say that the words "Eno" and "live" in an email had my wife excited enough for her to insist I make a plan this year. It was even on my honey-do list. So I got it done, honey. 

Just to keep things simple, we treated ourselves and our daughter to dinner at Gramercy Bistro, the white-tablecloth restaurant that is right in the Mass MOCA complex. It was utterly worth it, with clever cocktails, sushi-grade tuna, and outrageous desserts providing a delicious prelude to what lay ahead. After dinner we ambled down to the building that holds the exhibition spaces, the excellent gift shop, and the performance hall, a large space ideal for any number of live events. 

Soon after we sat down, six members of the All-Stars came on stage for the first half of the show, which consisted of four pieces from their Field Recordings project, some of which were released last year on a collection of the same name. The first, by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is brand new, however. Called Really Craft When You, the field recording element came from interviews with quilters Shaw found in the Library of Congress archives, which she set to a fascinatingly fractured impression of jazz, featuring stellar work by drummer David Cossin, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and guitarist Mark Stewart. While she would occasionally repeat a phrase from the interview, there wasn't any Scott Johnson-style melodicism going on, more of a sense of weaving/overlay between words and music. Quilting, if you will. It was a deeply engrossing, and fully successful, piece, which I hope they record soon. Until then, you can hear its world premiere here.

Even with the mandate of the field recordings project, any composer would be up against it incorporating bird song into their music, what with classic works of musical ornithology like Cantus Arcticus by the (sadly newly late) Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara or works by Olivier Messiaen, many of which are inspired by bird song, and which are among the greatest music ever written. Considering all that, Gabriella Smith did an admirable job with Panitao, which was pleasant enough but lacked staying power for me. That I forgot it almost as soon at it finished may also have something to do with what came next. 

The third piece was Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's lapidary Hz, which used beautiful black and white footage and sounds of a hydroelectric plant as its pre-recorded element. It wasn't surprising that Johannsson included inspiration from the visual realm when you consider his recent sideline composing excellent soundtracks like the gloriously doomy Sicario. Hz is like time suspended, a sound that seemed to hover at the nexus of the performers, turning this way and that for our observation, almost a drone but with more dimension. Fortunately it's included on the album because I was ready to hear it again as soon as possible. 

Would that the intermission came next. Instead we were subjected to Rene Lussier's so-not-funny Nocturne, with a field recording of his wife snoring. Not for me, but fortunately not too long, either. 

The intermission was infinitely more entertaining, as I listened in on some music students chatting in the row behind me. I held my tongue until one of them said: "I just don't know about minimalism. I love Steve Reich but Philip Glass?" I had to weigh in: "Reich beats Glass every time!" They were amused and essentially in agreement. Since music is not a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, if I had wanted to say more I might have talked up Glass's film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Mishima, or mentioned that I've never seen Einstein on the Beach, which is apparently an essential experience. It also occurred to me later that Reich is a composer who uses minimalist techniques. Glass is simply a minimalist. Somewhere in there lies the difference. 

This discussion was an interesting thing to have inform BOAC's performance of Music For Airports, which they launched into after the stage was filled to capacity with musicians and singers. There was also a brief intro by Mark Stewart, which let us know that Eno approved of their rework but had little to do with its creation, and that because of the structure of the music we should feel free to let our minds drift more than we would if we were listening to, say, Schubert.

As soon as the music started I fell in love again with Eno's drifting soundscape, with its Satie-esque melodies that crop up now and again and overall mood of intelligent melancholy. Also, BOAC's adaptation of his electronic textures sounded uncannily right without being mere mimicry. It could be the intermission discussion influencing me, but listening to Music For Airports in this way made me recognize anew the minimalist principles behind Eno's conception. 

Naturally there is repetition as the piece was assembled from tape loops. There are even repeating cells, just as Reich might use, it's just that Eno's are so long and slow that it takes a while to see them as such. This made the music completely riveting for me as I thirsted for this arpeggio or that trill to recur. Barring a performance of Winterreise, my mind would probably drift more during a Schubert concert! Besides minimalism, Eno's ambient recordings also brush up against New Age, a relationship that came a little too close during one of the noodly clarinet interludes Evan Ziporyn composed for the last section, beautifully played here by Ken Thomson. It was only a brief lapse, however, and without lasting effect.

I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but as someone whose foundational music is rock, I'm primed to take Eno's music seriously. Even so, I'm skeptical enough of these kinds of transformations that I was holding what I heard at Mass MOCA to a very high standard. I'm happy to report that Music For Airports can withstand any scrutiny as a magnificent work of art. Is it "classical music" of even a contemporary stripe? I think the answer is somewhere between "Why not?" and "Who cares?" 

While I would love to hear how Arthur C. Danto would break down the aesthetic philosophy behind what happens when you take an artwork completely out of the context in which it was conceived, in this case a recorded work never intended for the concert hall, and rebuild it elsewhere, I think listening to the sheer beauty we heard that night is enough of a justification for BOAC's project. I would also say that while their recording of Music For Airports is lovely, it's not as essential as seeing them do it live. Get there next time and don't miss your flight.