Category Archives: Hip-Hop

Alpoko Don, Folk Culture and the Ethics of Field Recordings

Seems a lot of old timers like to complain about the decline of the blues, especially when the blues is understood as the last bloom of a vital folk culture. Yet, as I’ve insisted before, folk culture is not dying. Like it always has, folk culture is changing and adapting to the times.

Alan Lomax provided an incredibly important contribution to musical history, driving around the countryside and recording poor, rural musicians whose voices would otherwise never have been heard. Yet the growing awareness of the economics and politics of representation often call into question the ethics of field recording. Is it exploitative for an educated, upper-middle class white man to travel to economically marginalized regions or countries and record economically and culturally marginalized performers, sometimes without payment, for the sake of furthering their academic career? Sublime Frequencies, one of the foremost contemporary field recording labels, often seems to be faced with similar charges of unethical practice.

Advances in international telecommunications technology and the expanding realm of do-it-yourself internet culture pose at least two solutions. The first, undertaken by the Bandcamp-powered record label Sahel Sounds is to use these technologies to distribute payment for field recordings in a more democratic manner. While this solves many of the economic ethics of selling field recordings, it doesn’t answer any of the representational problems. Who chooses who gets heard, and how is it presented?

Which brings me back to my original argument: folk culture is alive and thriving, and the new technologies that many decry as the end of regionalized, local folk movements are helping to keep it that way. In the series of popular videos Greenville, South Carolina rapper Alpoko Don has uploaded to YouTube, he sits on his porch, hums a melody, and taps out a beat with his hands, all the while freestyling with a unique and well-developed sense of humour and timing. When his jokes hit home, neighbours and friends laugh audibly off-screen while Alpoko shoots them a knowing look.

If all this, except for the rapping, sounds uncannily familiar, it should. Front porch, a capella performances such as this are the backbone of most American folk musics. They require no professional equipment or training, just time, talent and a desire to convey a message. Alpoko’s videos are field recordings curated and published by the artist himself. As digital technology become more and more accessible, folk culture won’t disappear, it will merely begin to assert itself and connect to other musics in more global ways.

As always, of course I have no desire to assert an oversimplified 1:1 equivalence between the blues and rap, or any variety of music. Rather I wish to demonstrate the thriving, changing face of folk culture. If the folk-blues are dead, folk-rapping isn’t.

Alpoko Don, “Sitting Sideways” (2012)

Clyde Maxwell, “Corrina” (1978)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Hip-Hop, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues

Kendrick Lamar and Blues Tropes

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Latecomer as always, See That My Blog is Kept Clean is back on the scene, and as usual, about a year late in acknowledging some hype-garnering artist. By this point, if you’re not familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City you’re doing something wrong. While much well-deserved praise has gone out to the clever voicemails that structure the album and Lamar’s competent verses, so far no one seems to have picked up on two somewhat odd instances of blues tropes that resonate with the album. The first is the most direct. On “Backstreet Freestyle,” Lamar intones “Goddamn, I’ve got bitches: wifey, girlfriend and mistress,” oddly echoing Son House’s assertion, “I’ve only loved but four women in my life: my mother, my sister, my kid gal and my wife.” (Wherein, “kid gal” refers to a girlfriend or mistress.)

Much more interesting, because Lamar’s version greatly alters the tone and setting, is the echoed version of the blues and country platitude “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” In “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Lamar modifies this inherently rural trope to update the phrase to the postmodern landscape of contemporary Los Angeles: “I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch / First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in / Pool full of liquor then you dive in it.” As the song deals more ambiguously with alcohol consumption than the blues songs that typically feature the above lyric, “Swimming Pools” contrasts this typically irreverent blues trope against a background of dark synths. Changing the setting from a river to a swimming pool alters the iconography, while maintaining the social resonance.

And yes, I understand Lamar is probably not in any way actually attempting to quote either of these blues traditions, but I do find it fascinating that these two common scenarios could be transferred across the years and styles from the blues to contemporary hip-hop. Culture is continuous, there are no hard and fast boundaries, and what’s green will grow, no matter what form it takes. I’m back.

Kendrick Lamar, “Backstreet Freestyle” (2012)

Son House, “Death Letter Blues” (1965)

Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (1950)

Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)

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Filed under Blues, Country, Hip-Hop, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

Pro Era Freestyle & BBQ

As you may notice, I have a penchant for hopping on the bandwagons of up-and-coming hip hop artists, so count today’s post among that series. After hearing the merits of Joey Bada$$ and the Progressive Era crew praised, I checked out their installment of the Pitchfork TV series Selector and was delighted by the skill and diversity of the young crew. Feel free to skip ahead to the 2:15 mark where the freestyles start flowing, and flow they do. While Joey Bada$$ is ostensibly the star of the Pro Era crew, and indeed his freestyles are lively and entertaining, I found myself prefering the more varied flows of Chuck Strangers and Dirty Sanchez, as well as the double-time rhymes of CJ Fly. With the already apparent success of the Odd Future and the A$AP collectives, it would seem that the second era of the rap crew has landed.

P4K’s Selector presents: Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era Freestyle & BBQ

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Danny Brown, “Grown Up”

One of the unfortunate aspects of a limited access to the internet is that I seem to miss out on a lot of the great new hip-hop singles. Lucky for me, the laid-back, nostalgia-drenched “Grown Up” by Detroit oddball found its way into my consciousness. Though I appreciate, dare I say enjoy, Danny Brown’s more vulgar tracks (see, “I Will” or “Die Like a Rockstar”), I’m glad to see him stretching his repetoire on this track and laying down rhymes that perfectly suit the mood built by the gauzy beat. Plus the young “Danny Brown” in the video does a pretty great job at exhuding the appropriate swagger. Free download here.

Danny Brown, “Grown Up” (2012)

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NEW Nas, “The Don”

The first single from Nas’ upcoming album Life is Good, “Nasty,” hit the internet a few months back, and yesterday the second single was released. “The Don” is a shade less aggressive than the first track, but features a pretty heavy beat co-produced by Salaam Remi and the late Heavy D, and a great vocal sample that gives the track an international flavour. The short bridge that hits around the 2:30 mark does a great job of momentarily conjuring the feel of Nas’ classic Illmatic. Nas hits the track pretty hard, and if the rest of the album is as good as the first two tracks, Life is Good is an album to be eagerly anticipated. Check it out below.

Nas, “The Don”

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NEW Big K.R.I.T., 4Eva N A Day

See That My Blog is Kept Clean has been supporting Big K.R.I.T. for a while now, so I’m certainly excited that K.R.I.T.’s delayed mixtape 4Eva N A Day finally dropped today. The album is available for free download over at Live Mixtapes, here. Check out the promotional teaser for lead single “Boobie Miles” below.

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A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP (2011)

Perhaps more than anything, A$AP Rocky’s most recent album, LiveLoveA$AP (2011), is a testament to the fact that the 1990s East Coast/West Coast binary has once and for all imploded. Southern hip-hop has taken the ascendant position in terms of visibility, essentially displacing West Coast rap as the laid back corallary to hardcore East Coast rap. In the terms of this shift, West Coast rappers and styles have been the losing party, yet A$AP Rocky troubles the potential binary of the new hip-hop landscape.

Mostly handled by New Jersey producer, Clams Casino, the production on LiveLoveA$AP is straight Southern: deep bass, chopped and screwed vocals, eerie synths, and a laid back beat. Rocky’s lyrical concerns also match Clams Casino’s production style, with their emphasis on, among other things, purple drink. Blurring the line between one H-Town and the other, Rocky mentions Houston nearly as often as his hometown Harlem on LiveLoveA$AP. The fact that both producer and rapper are so influenced by Southern hip-hop makes the pair an effective match, but the fact that both are from the East Coast (NJ/NY) also belies several important changes in the hip-hop landscape.

While the Southern influence on LiveLoveA$AP obviously is a result of the rising popularity of Southern rap, this influence is also indicative of the new respect accorded to Southern rap. Ten years ago, if a Harlem rapper had released an album this reliant on Southern-style production, one would have assumed it was to mock the South. Further, the fact that a Harlem rapper has released what is, essentially, a Southern rap album is a sign that regional binaries and boundaries have become fluid. In the last couple years, albums that showcase this fluidity have included Big K.R.I.T.’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here , J. Cole’s Friday Night Lights, and J. DaVinci’s The Day the Turf Stood Still. Though Southern and East Coast styles are currently the twin poles of the hip-hop world, they don’t form an oppositional binary in the same way that the East and West coasts did during the height of the feuding ’90s. Transregional borrowing and influence is not only common, but also commonly lauded by the critics.

This region blurring trend is perhaps best explained by the rising importance of the internet to hip-hop culture. Ten or more years ago, mixtapes would have largely been local affairs, rarely making a splash beyond their home turf. These days, mixtapes are probably more likely to be downloaded from a web-service such as Dat Piff than purchased on the street. Not only does this shift make a larger palette of influences more readily available, it also increases the possiblity of transregional collaboration and the exposure of amatuer artists more willing to experiment and cross boundaries.

Anyways, down to the meat. Rocky explicitly lays out his influences on LiveLoveA$AP‘s opening track, “Palace.” Check out that song below, along with official videos for “Peso” and “Everything is Purple.”

A$AP Rocky, “Palace” (from LiveLoveA$AP, 2011)

A$AP Rocky, “Peso” (from LiveLoveA$AP, 2011)

A$AP Rocky, “Purple Swag”

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