Guest Playlist: William Elliott Whitmore’s top anti-war songs

William Elliott Whitmore: Field SongsWilliam Elliott Whitmore: Field Songs (Anti-, 7/12/11)

William Elliott Whitmore: “Everything Gets Gone”

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Folk songwriter William Elliott Whitmore graced the cover of ALARM 35 back in 2009, right after he had made the jump to Anti- (read story here). At the time, he was promoting his new album, Animals in the Dark, which saw his blues-infused creations bolstered by additions of pedal steel, organs, strings, and drums. Now, he’s set to release a new full-length, Field Songs, which speaks to a uniquely American experience. Never one to hide his political beliefs, Whitmore was kind enough to share with us 10 of his favorite anti-war songs.

10 Anti-War Songs
by William Elliott Whitmore

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A bit of protest from the Bay Area’s premier ska outfit.

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Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: The Scrutiny of a British Hip-Hop Hybrid

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: AnglesDan le Sac vs. Scroobius PipAngles (Strange Famous, 5/12/08)

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: “Look for the Woman”

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It’s a slightly overcast but warm September afternoon in Chicago when the English duo Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip takes the Hideout Block Party’s stage. DJ le Sac appears and situates himself behind a deck tangled with the requisite mix of wires, keys, and laptops, and then MC Scroobius Pip’s modern-day Abraham Lincoln figure pops on stage, looking as though he’s ready to spar his focused partner. Before practicing crowd-pleasing warm-up exercises — stretching as though preparing for a marathon — Scroobius Pip delves into the subject that most preoccupies his thoughts and will become, in his words, the Chicago appearance’s theme.

“Right, so, we just found out the other day that our album was given a 0.2 by Pitchfork,” Pip says, teasing the Pitchfork-staff–peppered audience, which promptly boos the rating. Whereas some artists would leave it at that, feeding off the feel-good responses from a mid-afternoon crowd, Pip follows with what has become his trademark MC lyrical technique: mixing conscientious politics in the tradition of Gil Scott Heron with a dash of self-deprecating humor à la Atmosphere’s Slug and rearranging the ideas behind them in such a way that the words, layered over le Sac’s trippy beats, become a manifesto to disregard, debate, or adopt.

In the case of the Pitchfork theme, he slides the site’s name into his banter and underneath the gyrating rhythms of the songs, renaming it Bitchfork and Pitchfuck to more applause. But Pip isn’t out to just name-call; he’s setting the groundwork for a deeper dig. For the remainder of the DvS Hideout set, Pip splices in comments about the review, reading from it as well as previous reviews from the same critic. It would be a squeamish, alienating tactic had the band not become known and loved for such scrutiny: of themselves, music, religion, and whatever else takes the lyricist’s attention.

Rapping tracks from DvS’ debut, Angles — a collection of previously released singles whose lyrics touch upon such wide-ranging topics as child abuse, suicide, and misguided readings of biblical scripture — Pip alternates between jaunty stabs at the reviewer and the review, with the main argument seemingly that the duo is not a pair of hip-hop wannabes. What they do, Pip reiterates via phone some days after the Block Party show, is a mash of hip hop, spoken word, indie pop, punk, and electronica. It’s why they can open for acts as diverse as Saul Williams and Adele and Mark Ronson.

“You’re not meant to be able to agree with everything; that’s the whole point. For people to blindly agree with anything I say is to blindly agree with anything anyone says.”

And even though he understands that “at the end of the day, a review is just a review,” he is particularly annoyed by this reading of the band, which was based on the assumption that DvS is, if not hip hop, trying really hard to be street.

“We’ve never set out to make a specific genre of music,” Pip says. “I do spoken word and emceeing, and Dan makes electronic, almost hip-hoppy beats. It’s just a variation. We never set out thinking, ‘Let’s make a hip-hop album,’ or ‘Let’s make a dance album,’ or ‘Let’s make an indie album.’ We just made the kind of songs that came out.”

From the Hideout Block Party stage, the two joked about being “street enough,” but in private, Pip seems genuinely perturbed by this idea of authenticity. “It’s hard to get a harsh review like that,” he confides, turning the authenticity question back on the reviewer. “But then when you read that the reviewer reviewed the latest Puff Daddy album and thought it was a pretty good hip-hop offering, and that he felt that we should be grateful that a band like Coldplay exists on this earth, it’s not quite so hard to be reviewed in that way.”

The main issue that Pip has with music isn’t authenticity, he notes, but lyrical irrelevance and contrived posturing.

“Don’t get me wrong; they’re a really good band,” he says, adding to his thoughts on Coldplay. “But I don’t think they’re quite up there yet as a legendary, ‘music wouldn’t be the same without them’ band. I don’t think that they’re changing that much at the moment. I’ve got nothing against them at all; they’ve made some good music. But it’s just…they’re one of the bands that seems in interviews to be quite political, and speaks about social issues and challenging issues. Ten percent of their audience will never read the interview, whereas all of their audience will hear their lyrics. Yet in their lyrics, they continue to talk about relationships, and love, and stuff like that. If these issues mean a lot to them, put some of it on record and get the word out.”

A track like “Thou Shalt,” a 2007 single that shows up on Angles, speaks to this idea. The song name-drops a series of legendary bands and immediately dismisses their hallowed legacies with a chorus punctuated by “just a band.” Such proclamations in both DvS’ lyrics and interviews are what seemingly raise critics’ hackles most and are primarily what reviewers focus on when calling the band “angster rap.” They also question whether Pip — this 27-year-old white kid from Essex’s working-class Stanford-le-Hope — can speak from such a position or even knows his hip-hop history.

“When talking on subjects like this, I don’t want to lie; the area I live in isn’t that bad,” he says. “I live in a pleasant-enough little village. I’ve only had two or three people try and mug me in my life, which isn’t by any means bad.”

He also agrees with reviews about his flow, which he admits is always in development but has been labeled quaint, Dickensian enjambment without direction. “That’s one of the things where I agree completely with the Pitchfork review,” Pip says. “I never consciously have a style or flow. The way I write, it’s about the content and the lyrics. The flow is just me fitting it all in, so I can’t argue there. I don’t claim to be well versed or trained in many different flowing techniques.”

Yet when it comes to his proclaimed lack of hip-hop knowledge, the former record-store worker couldn’t agree less. “I’m not an expert, but I’m a big fan of hip hop,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty good understanding of its history and lineage.” Pip adds that although he may have come to the hip-hop/spoken-word game later than most — after a long stint in his teen years as a guitarist/singer in punk bands — he has since done his homework.

“Finding out that hip hop wasn’t just this braggadocio kind of genre, learning about KRS-One and Rakim or learning about Gil Scott Heron, inspired me,” Pip says. “There’s an argument on where hip hop began: was it Afrika Bambaataa or was it Atmosphere’s Slug doing skits in between tracks? But there’s a Gil Scott Heron track called ‘No Knocks,’ which I think defines — more than anything else that I’ve heard — the first real hip-hop song, before it was called hip hop. Learning about stuff like that just opened up my mind to hip hop and spoken word as a broader genre, despite Pitchfork thinking I have no knowledge on hip hop and thinking I’ve got no right to speak on the subject.”

Some may find through Pip’s responses that the duo takes itself too seriously, but nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of its videos and live shows are a testament to the exuberant spontaneity and good vibes inherent in its music, and, as mentioned, self-analysis plays a strong role in its approach.

“We’re not particularly angsty, angry people,” Pip says. “We’re having a laugh out of it, particularly with ‘Thou Shalt,’ which was the one that got misinterpreted, because people thought we were so angry and lecturing. But it’s meant to be tongue in cheek. A lot of it contradicts itself, intentionally. It’s a song that tells you what to do for three minutes, and then at the end it says, ‘Think for yourselves.’ You’re not meant to be able to agree with everything; that’s the whole point. For people to blindly agree with anything I say is to blindly agree with anything anyone says. So the whole point of it was to make people question for themselves.”

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P.O.S: Hip-Hop Innovation, Punk-Rock Disposition

P.O.S: Never Better P.O.S: Never Better (Rhymesayers, 2/3/09)

P.O.S: “Let it Rattle”
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Between finishing up a tour with his other musical endeavor as the vocalist / guitarist for Minneapolis punk band Building Better Bombs and filming videos for tracks on his third album, Never Better, rapper P.O.S has been chilling in the Land of Lakes, schlepping to gigs in his crusty-but-trusty ’95 Honda (the one with “the broken heater that you have to kick”), and enjoying invaluable time catching up with his nine-year-old son, Jake. He’s been on a roller coaster of work lately, but at least he hasn’t had to work a day job since 2004.

After the release of his first album, Ipecac Neat, in 2004, P.O.S (a.k.a. Stefon Alexander) quit his day job and devoted all of his time to making music. Since then, he released a second solo album with 2006 full-length Audition, and he followed that in late 2008 with the debut Building Better Bombs album, Freak Out Squares. In February of 2009, however, he released his magnum opus — his third solo album, Never Better. With a carefully crafted mixture of samples, big beats, snare rolls, and rock riffs — topped with Alexander’s lyrical prowess — Never Better is vying to be the best hip-hop album of the year.

Speaking from a video shoot somewhere in north Minneapolis, Alexander speaks about the importance to him of working on music full time. It’s a theme that is crucial to Never Better. “More than anything, the biggest theme that keeps coming up is the idea that 90 percent of people work in an office, or work at Dairy Queen, or work at a fucking graphic-design chunk of Target where they don’t necessarily care about anything that they do with 90 percent of their day,” Alexander explains.

“They just spend their entire day waiting to get off work so that they can go spend the rest of their time while they’re tired and hungry eating some food, and playing their video games, and living off of somebody else’s dream. The norm should be: people do what they care about, what they want to do, and what they love.”

Given how the 27-year-old speaks, it’s easy to see him as a young Gil Scott-Heron. Alexander is steeped in the “everyman” experience, from his single-parent upbringing to his punk-rock beginnings to his desire to be a social-studies or music teacher if his voice gives out. There’s no thug, gunfire, bump and grind, or swagger to him or his music, and there probably never will be. His self-described and self-imposed “punker-than-thou” guilt prevents him from following that route, even when performing in the often ego-bloated rap world.

“Ninety percent of people work in an office, or work at Dairy Queen, or work at a fucking graphic-design chunk of Target where they don’t necessarily care about anything that they do with 90 percent of their day. The norm should be: people do what they care about, what they want to do, and what they love.”

“The ego thing is embarrassing to me,” Alexander says. “There’s a rapper’s ego, and then there’s Kanye West. That sounds like talking trash, and it’s not talking trash. It’s just one of those things where you give your full support to somebody — and I was like, ‘Yo, this guy’s next to blow, next to blow!’ — and then he comes out with a wreath on his head on Rolling Stone.

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect Kanye West — and maybe it’s the young punk rocker in me — but I think of Ian MacKaye as the supreme icon of integrity and an attitude of DIY. I respect Kanye West more than I respect most of the rappers out there, but I’m one of those people who comes from a place where I feel that there’s a difference between being humble and showing some humility. If I somehow manage to miraculously sell a million records, and then I get up and I’m like, ‘See, I told y’all that I’d sell a million records. Fuck y’all! Look at me. I’m the fucking shit!’ Then yes, you can call me to laugh. But I guarantee that that’s not how it’s coming out at all.”

Though he’s humble about his ambitions, Alexander does not hide his pursuit of them. Never Better is a classic example of how to get things done by using the indirect route of Minnesota niceness.

“When I first turned this record in, the owner of the record label said, ‘It would have been amazing if you had turned this record in before you turned in Audition,’” Alexander says. Rather than break into typical rapper histrionics, he left the demo with Rhymesayers’ owner for a second spin. “It took him sitting down to listen to it — maybe two weeks, three weeks — and his entire view on it had changed. It’s just one of those records that doesn’t hit you immediately.”

Never Better is Alexander’s subversion of Audition’s pop-leaning sensibilities. “I deliberately went in there and made music that I felt was interesting to me — really angular stuff,” he says. “I wanted to have crazy toms and crazy, abrasive beats. I wanted to make it actually aggravating in some points. The production quality is a step back a little bit from Audition, because I wanted to make it sound different to me.”

His rationale, Alexander explains, was reinforced by a recent pop-saturated experience. “I did this tour with Gym Class Heroes,” he says. “And I have no disrespect for Gym Class Heroes. I think that Gym Class Heroes do their thing, and I like those guys, and they were really hospitable on that tour. But I don’t have the need or want in my life to make pop songs. It’s a good skill for someone to have, and maybe it’s my own way of sabotaging myself, but I only want to make these kinds of songs.”

This new P.O.S album also is heavy on political content, touching upon topics such as greed, corruption, and consumerism — themes that are common with the Midwest and East Coast rap traditions with which P.O.S most connects, versus the bling-bang-boobs-bongs themes at play in old-school, West Coast rap. These political themes are strongest on Never Better’s first track, “Let It Rattle.” “The line in the song is, ‘They’re out for presidents to represent them,’ which is a throwback to the Nas line in ‘The World is Yours,’ when he says, ‘I’m out for presidents to represent me,’” Alexander says.

“He’s talking about money. So I say, ‘They’re out for presidents to represent them. You think a president can represent you?’ And I’m still talking about money there, like, ‘Do you really think that money is going to represent who you are and who you can be?’ And then I say, ‘Do you really think that a president can represent you?’ I’m talking about whatever president is in office. So I’m talking about money almost more than I’m talking about the physical president of the United States.

“But then again, if you look at the album artwork, there is that Shepard Fairey print of Obama. It’s all blacked out, but in the negative space of Obama’s shirt, the artist has a Nike swoosh to present the idea that you need to be careful who you give your whole-blood faith to. You need to realize that a lot of what you voted for is branding, is marketing, and it’s going to be a couple years before we realize ‘yes, Obama does know.’”

Alexander voted for and has hope for the Obama administration, but his punk-rock sensibilities make him healthily wary of any authority figure. It is this type of scrutiny that keeps Alexander honest when analyzing his accomplishments as P.O.S. “That’s one of the things that happen when you grow up in Minneapolis,” he says.

“I don’t know my level of success yet. I just know I don’t have to work a normal job. I don’t know who actually listens to my music, except for the people that come to my shows. It would be really presumptuous for me to be like, ‘Hey, can you contact [Spoon singer] Britt Daniel and see if we can have our people meet?’ Because I don’t have people. I mean, I guess that I have people, but I don’t think about them as ‘my people.’ That’s not me.”

After a pause, Alexander adds, “You know, the thing about punk rock  —  it might be the only kind of music where the more underground you are, [you’re getting] more fake respect, and the more ‘hardcore’ you are. That kind of vibe is sought out and respected. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true of any other style of music. When you’re a kid and you submerge yourself in that whole punker-than-you thing…well, anyway, being from Minnesota, you never want to presume that you’re a big deal. You never want to presume that people want to work with you or people want to hear you. You just keep your eyes on the prize and do what you want to do.”

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