Global food politics didn’t crop up on many albums last year, but it featured prominently on one: Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Seeds, the title track of which became known as a “diss track” to Monsanto, the infamous multinational agriculture company. Here the Las Vegas-based songwriter and record producer talks food, farming, and our environment of fear, giving us a lot more than two cents — pretty generous for an artist who admits she’s living paycheck to paycheck.
Chrome Canyon visualizes a future that didn’t quite arrive. Morgan Z’s songs are wordless stories, synthesized literature for the 21st Century, with the technicolor hope of Tron and the rain-soaked desperation of Blade Runner.
Last month ALARM presented its 50 favorite albums of 2012, an eclectic, rock-heavy selection of discs that were in steady rotation in our downtown-Chicago premises. Now, to give some love to tunes that were left out, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.
Another year, another torrential downpour of albums across our desks. As always, we encountered way too much amazing music, from Meshuggah to The Mars Volta, Converge, Killer Mike, P.O.S, and many more.
When Peanut Butter Wolf started Stones Throw Records in 1996, his friend and rap partner Charizma had just been killed. What started as a cathartic way to release the music they recorded together soon grew into something much larger, a record label releasing an eclectic range of music, with artists as diverse as Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, and Omar Rodriguez Lopez on their rolls.
In 1992, a collective of up-and-coming hip-hop artists at UC Davis — future big names DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel of Blackalicious, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Lyrics Born — started up an underground record label called Solesides Records. Seven years later, the label transformed into Quannum Projects, and with the change came a host of esteemed releases that made it an independent hip-hop powerhouse alongside labels such as Definitive Jux, Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, and Anticon.
In addition to its commitment to quality hip hop, Quannum upholds values of ethnic diversity, artistic freedom, and do-it-yourself perseverance, sticking to its roots as a fully independent label throughout hip-hop’s pivotal evolution from burgeoning statement to mainstream farce. In advance of the label’s 20th anniversary, ALARM caught up with Lateef to chat about underground hip hop, his debut solo LP, and “selling out.”
What is your definition of hip hop? Do you think that the rise of mainstream rap diluted the art and culture of hip hop from decades ago?
To me, hip hop is a lens through which you see the world. I think that because the history of hip hop is not really something that is taught or passed on, different generations have different colored lenses. I don’t know if hip hop has been diluted as much as it has simply changed.
Unfortunately, a lot of that change has been dictated to the culture from those outside the culture. When pop culture values become the dominant voice of a counter-culture, the counter-culture becomes a pop culture. That’s kinda what’s happened to hip hop. As the genre became popular, the things that sold were the things that reflected popular culture values more than the values of hip hop. The stuff that sold more was viewed as more successful and (in the eyes of pop-culture values) “bigger.” The values of hip-hop culture were quickly trashed as being invalid.
One example is the notion of “selling out.” At one time, the concept was taboo to the point of rhetoric in hip hop. These days, it’s a key point in most marketing plans. People actually consider themselves lucky if they can sell out. It’s kind of the point for a lot of artists now, the reason they are even in hip hop to begin with.
In a lot of ways, hip hop has been commodified in a way that reduces it to a sales pitch. I mean, a lot of bubble-gum-pop singing acts are tagged as “hip hop” because they wear cargo pants. Crazy but true. It’s just another way that the culture is exploited by those that have no respect or real appreciation for the music or culture. They don’t really care, and nobody’s going after them, so why would they stop?
Still, I think there are a considerable number of artists – old and new – that are still making great music, even in a challenging and rapidly changing musical environment. In some ways, those that are making music in what is increasingly becoming a market wasteland are doing it for purer, more passionate reasons than ever.
That was probably a much longer answer than you were looking for…
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As the soul revival sound goes, Mayer Hawthorne is in a league of singers who strike the proper balance between old school and new school. Yes, the singer’s act takes greatest influence from the early Northern soul era, but there’s more to Hawthorne’s music than a game of name-that-classic-45.
In exception to the Impressions EP and the New Holidays cover on his 2009 debut, A Strange Arrangement, Hawthorne’s music is wholly original. He shows his appreciation for the throwback song-craft by mirroring its fundamentals: carefully placed horn sections, sweet harmonies, tight group-vocal backing melodies, and exceptionally smooth and polished arrangements.
For his sophomore effort, Hawthorne reaches deeper into the late-’60s, early-’70s reference bag to make a no-frills record packed with tolerantly addictive soul hooks. How Do You Do? covers a lot of ground and shows some new sides to Hawthorne’s musical palette with cleaner and more robust production and instrument arrangements. Whether or not his jump to Universal Republic from Stones Throw has anything to do with it is arguable, but Hawthorne finds a way to use time-honored soul maxims to forge an individual sound.
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One of the most important figures in DJing and turntablism over the past two decades, J Rocc is finally releasing his debut effort of original cuts titled Some Cold Rock Stuf. Original in all senses of the word, J Rocc has amazed audiences from Los Angeles to Tokyo with a distinct style that began by co-founding the landmark DJ crew the Beat Junkies in the early ’90s with Melo-D and Rhettmatic.
Along with fellow beat junkie Babu, and the likes of Mix Master Mike and Q-Bert of the Invisible Skratch Piklz, J Rocc was a part of the pioneering scene that brought respect back to the DJ, establishing the turntable as instrument while forging a new path towards instrumental hip hop.
Gritty garage-rock grooves from mid-’70s Zambia comprise Now-Again Records’ latest release, Dark Sunrise, the double-disc (or three-LP box set), 31-track chronicle of Zambian “Zam Rock” godfather Rizketo Makyua “Rikki” Ililonga and his groundbreaking band Musi-O-Tunya.
The anthology fits Now-Again’s current obsession with Zambia’s 1970s music scene, whose landmark bands WITCH and Amanaz have seen record reissues from the specialized global funk label. But after one listen to the killer rock grooves from Dark Sunrise, with its furious fusion of US/UK/African rhythmic dynamics, fuzzed-out electric guitars, and hypnotic brass sections, audiences will come to understand why the obsession is exceptionally reasonable, if not completely necessary.