Tag Archives: hip-hop

Interview with Travis Morrison

When I last dropped a line about America Is Just A Word, I mentioned that I’d be interviewing a few different artists who’s bands’ narratives are either barely known or not given the proper coverage. One of those groups is The Dismemberment Plan, fronted by Travis Morrison. Of the three groups mentioned in the previous post (the other two being Mineral and Drive Like Jehu), The Dismemberment Plan have had a little more coverage, media exposure, and lifeline over the years, playing together for a full decade and receiving considerable notoriety among music fans. The Plan’s sound is an excellent mix of the cathartic stop-and-go guitar work of DC first-wave emo, hip-hop, electronica, and post-punk and the band are well known for having put on some fantastic live sets.

In the first of many correspondences to come, Travis answered all of my odds ‘n’ ends questions I tossed his way – poor guy. Here’s a small dose of the interview:

*What got you into music? What made you want to pick up an instrument in the first place?

Travis: “It’s hard to say. I was always very attracted to music. I sang along to Beach Boys records when I was really little. Talking Heads were probably the band I wanted to be in when I was 10-11-12.”

*How did you and Eric [Axelson, bassist] become friends? What made you decide to start a band with him?

Travis: “He was in a punk band at my high school called The Milk Carton Children and being in that band was a bandmate with one of my very close friends, and we stayed in touch as we went into college–really came to be better friends then, we were acquantainces before–and  we just started talking about playing.”


Image from DCist

Image from DCist

*Growing up in Bethesda, I always felt this ominous spirit of-sorts in relation to D.C.’s music community before I was ever really aware of Nation of Ulysses or Jawbox of Fugazi. When you were first starting up The Plan, did you ever feel the impact of that spirit, especially considering the year you guys formed?

Travis: “Sure. We loved all those bands. Still do. So inspiring to see bands like that on local stages. I look at YouTube clips of Fugazi, especially on the Repeater tour, and they were just amazing, like Zep. I cannot believe I was able to go see a band like that for five dollars at a church.”

*When The Plan first got started, did you feel welcomed by members of the D.C. music community at first, or did it take a while?

Travis: “You mean like older folks? I kinda got the sense that MUCH older folks thought we were a hoot, really punk and snotty, and that the people immediately above us were a little more doubtful or hesitant or just found us annoying. But I don’t know, I was 21 and stupid. I would never trust my recollections of my social standing then. ”

*The Plan is pretty well known for putting on an active, exciting, and fun live set. What initially made you think to get people up and really dancing during your set? Was it difficult at first trying to do this, simply with the idea of approaching potentially-complete strangers to open up and dance in public?

Photo of D Plans last show by Shawn Liu

Photo of D Plan's last show by Shawn Liu


Travis: “Well I mean rock and roll was originally dancing music. But I dunno, it’s become such a cliche now… I don’t even expect dancing per se, I just want them to wake up. Heckle us, dance, throw things at us, give us a cake with pornographic icing… all these things have happened and it’s what I think we really wanted. Interaction.”

*How much of your own innovation also comes from your interactions with other bands in the D.C. community? I know you guys are pretty well known for incorporating a strong hip-hop sound into the post-punk mix, but (for example) Smart Went Crazy were also doing something of a similar notion but to a bit of a different effect. Were you and Smart Went Crazy particularly close, in terms of musical interaction, friendship, etc?

Travis: “Oh, your peers are immensely important. We learned so much from the bands around DC. Hoover‘s weird time signatures… Smart Went Crazy’s tunefulness and colorful arrangements… and outside of DC, Alkaline Trio’s blend of gallows humor and heartfeltness… there’s many examples of that.”

Maybe It’s Called “Grammy” Because It’s For Old People…

I didn’t even bother watching the Grammys (nor have I in the past… well, who knows), because, well, for one thing, I rarely go out of my way to watch TV (especially on a Sunday night). But for one thing, of all the inumerable awards out there, the Grammys seem most meaningless; they toss aside critical flavor and often consumer favor for boomer taste. If you were to look at the nominees for many of the awards this past year, then yes, you may have to contend with the idea that 2008 was a lously year for music (especially considering the big winner of the night was an album that didn’t even come out this past year). And sure, Lil’ Wayne got a lot of awards, but they seem tailored for his genre and not his proven artistic merit… after all, they have so many hip-hop-based awards, somebody has to get them. (Not to rag on hip-hop, but rather the mindset of the award categories and concept… the hip-hop category appears to be the only one that does promote forward-thinking and inventive musicians on a mainstream level.)

And this is far from a unique complaint on my behalf. Just look at The New York Timeslive blogging from when Robert Plant & Alison Krauss won the big one…


“11:23 p.m. | Album of the Year — Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand”

Dave: Come on, you knew it.
Jon: I mean, what can you say? I did indeed know it. It just would have hurt to say it.
Dave: Is it really that bad a compromise?
Jon: Let’s think of some collaborations we’d assemble next year to win a Grammy.
Dave: Mick Jagger and Cat Power?
Jon: Julian Casablancas and Iggy Pop.
Dave: M.I.A.’s baby and Aretha Franklin.
Jon: Pretty sneaky, sis!
Dave: But back to the question at hand — is it that disappointing a victory? It could have been Coldplay…
Jon: I’m not disappointed in the music, only in the inevitability. I mean, next year, let’s dispense with pretense and nominate five albums for the NPR/AARP set.
Dave: This can’t be seen as a crossover album, one that reaches out to older listeners and, um, medium-age listeners?
Jon: Your great-grandparents, and your grandparents!
Dave: My parents and me? I like Zep, they like Zep. It’s a start.
Jon: Not my parents and me. I appreciate your Yes We Can attitude!
Dave: Next time you want to talk about your parents, I’m charging you $125 an hour.
Jon: It’s not that the Grammys need to surprise or shock, but more that they need to reflect what’s actually happening in popular music. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming a niche event. $125? That’s a bargain.”


Talk about nasty! And these guys aren’t exactly spring chickens to boot. (Just check out this hilarious annotated review of The New York Timespiece by the Fader on a Wavves show from this past weekend – the kind of gig that would seem to appeal to the most notorious vinyl diggers and uber-hip and not the middle-to-upper-class readership that NYT is famous for garnering.)

But their message is clear, and it’s something along the lines of “this is a farce. One big, giant stink that basically curtails the idea of an awards show celebrating current music, another bland attempt to celebrate the bygone eras, no matter what the music they produce today sounds like.” I could go on, but there’s plenty in there for another combination. But in essence, you don’t have to be some rabbid fan of indie, emo, hip-hop, reggae, salsa, klezmer, jazz, blues, funk, soul, R&B, world music, or even rock to notice that there’s something wrong when one of the only albums of this decade to sell over a million copies in a day (Tha Carter 3), a record that broke taboos for consumption and distribution while breaking online sales (In Rainbows… though it was released in 2007), and a couple of equally popular current pop acts are beat out by a baby boomer choice record that came out a year previously and also won “Record of the Year” despite having no discernable single released (according to Allmusic). It just doesn’t quite make… any sense really. 

In closing here’s the only thing from the night that I’ve been able to view on YouTube, and only one of two that I probably would’ve enjoyed seeing live on TV (the other being the performance of “Swagga Like Us”). And because this is YouTube and all, I was hoping to have been spared the introduction, this time an unfortunately horrendus ode to Radiohead’s brilliance by Gwyneth Paltrow (we understand you love ’em – your husband has made a career of trying to sound like them). Anywho, here goes:

Knowledge Is Power With A License To Read/Library Card

I was flipping through the CD collection at the BPL in Copley Square today when a curious kid no older than ten caught up to my perusing area in the Popular Music Section.

“Have you seen a My Chemical Romance CD?” The boy asked.

“No, but if I do I’ll let you know,” I replied in all sincerity.

Unfortunately, nothing to be found. However, online, there’s quite a catalog listing for MCR:

The black parade [sound recording] Show details
My Chemical Romance (Musical group)
Burbank, CA : Reprise, 2006.
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
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Location Collection Call No. Type Status Due Date
BPL – South Boston CD M1630.18.M933B6 2006x 21 day loan In Library
Add to "My List"

The black parade [sound recording] Show details
My Chemical Romance (Musical group)
Burbank, Calif. : Reprise Records, c2006.
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Location Collection Call No. Type Status Due Date
Malden Public Library Rock and Roll CD CD #2751 21 day loan In Processing – New
Add to "My List"

The black parade is dead! [sound recording] Show details
My Chemical Romance (Musical group)
Burbank, CA : Reprise, p2008.
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Add to "My List"
Location Collection Call No. Type Status Due Date
BPL Central Library – Copley Square CD Pop/Rock M1630.18.M9 B53 2008x 21 day loan In Library
BPL Central Library – Copley Square CD Pop/Rock M1630.18.M9 B53 2008x 21 day loan Due 01/23/2009
BPL Central Library – Copley Square CD Pop/Rock M1630.18.M9 B53 2008x 21 day loan Due 01/20/2009
BPL – Connolly CD Pop/Rock M1630.18.M9 B53 2008x 21 day loan In Library
BPL – North End CD Pop/Rock M1630.18.M9 B53 2008x 21 day loan In – Recent Return

And it looks like their live album should have been there…

If that isn’t enough to get you to pick up a library card, perhaps the sheer number of albums by James Brown, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, The Beatles, and any number of indie rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, blues, showtunes, and world music are available to pick up and listen to. And the book collection ain’t half bad either…

9 Things To Look Forward To in 2009

2008 is almost gone as the New Year will arrive in a matter of hours (or it may have already arrived depending on when you read this). So, in anticipation for the number of times I’ll forget to put “2009” on whatever documents need a proper year, here’s a little listing of 9 things I’ll be looking forward to in the next year…

9. Surprises

I suppose this is something resembling a cop-out in a list, but part of looking forward to the many things that will color our near-future is not knowing what will come next. Some of my favorite things from 2008 I never saw coming, anticipated, or was given any knowledge to anticipate at all. That includes things such as the release of TV On The Radio’s Dear Science, – which was a surprise simply because it was announced less than two months prior to its release so there was not any forewarning or buildup like with Return to Cookie Mountain – to movies such as The Wackness (a great summer coming-of-age movie that could have easily been a bust) and books I’ll pick up randomly, sunny days outdoors… by definition, anything really. Now how can you go wrong there?

8. New Food For Animals LP

Food For Animals – You Right (live in Baltimore)

You read it here folks, from the mouth of the animals themselves. Food For Animals will be dropping a new album in the next year, and if Belly is any indication, it should be one hell of a package. No info or sounds on what the trio of hip-hop noiseniks are cooking up, but in the last year since Belly was released they’ve certainly mastered their live set, and if the mixes posted on their blog offer any indication, they’ve got some great stuff coming around the corner.

7. Say Anything – Say Anything

Say Anything – Woe (live, acoustic)

I’ve been a Say Anything believer since stumbling upon …is a Real Boy in 2004. I’d found so few records that made such honest, emotionally compelling, and furiously anthemic when I picked up the album, and it remains a favorite of mine. The reason this isn’t ranked higher is because the long-awaited follow-up, In Defense of the Genre, was a bit of a disappointment (but really, it must’ve been rough following up that brilliant first record). Still, there were bright spots in that massive double album, and Max Bemis no doubt has set his goals high for a record he has said will discuss the nuances of every day life. Let’s see how people will respond to emo that strives to be simply normal.

6. Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back by Christopher R. Weingarten for 33 1/3

Public Enemy – Bring The Noise (live, Pitchfork Music Festival)

Here’s the math equation: Take one of hip-hop’s best albums done by one of the genre’s best bands, add in the former drummer for one of the best experimental rock outfits today, and multiply it by a publishing company that lets music obsessives run wild. What do you get? It looks like what may be one of the best books in the 33 1/3 book series. According to a certain schedule, Continuum should be releasing the book on It Takes A Nation of Millions… at some point this year, a read which should be wonderful in and of itself. Add in the fact that its written by Christopher R. Weingarten, the former kit-smasher for Parts & Labor who left the band to pursue a career in journalism and to write the Public Enemy book, and you’ve got an equation for what should be a success for Continuum and readers alike.

5. Jimmy Eat World Clarity Tour

Jimmy Eat World – Lucky Denver Mint

This is an emo/Jimmy Eat World/music fan’s wet dream. Celebrating the 10th year anniversary of the little-album-that-record-executives-thought-it-couldn’t-but-did, Jimmy Eat World will triumphantly play Clarity in its entirety for an American tour starting in February. Whether or not the performance will live up to some people’s expectations is one thing; the fact that Jimmy Eat World are touring this record is an entirely different aspect which meets any and all expectations. This is the album that by all intents and purposes was something of a failure; if Jimmy Eat World were to tour one record, it would probably be their critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful self-titled album. However, Clarity remains a fan favorite, and after the many years and stories surrounding the band and that album, J.E.W. are showing what really matters to them: the fans. It should be a fantastic set, simply by the band showing up.

4. The Road Movie

Still from The Road

Still from The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this past summer, a little while after it won piles of awards and recognition and a little while before the movie’s release. Turns out it was a little more than a little while before the film came out, as it was unfortunately delayed from its 2008 release. The book sent me into something of a shock after a quick gust through it in a matter of days. The transfer from the page to the screen is usually very tenuous, but McCarthy’s words have a very visual style that will no doubt aid the story’s sense of reality in a post-apocalyptic world. And noting the folks in front of and behind the camera for the movie, this may be on of the best to come out of 2009.

3. Dan Deacon – Bromst

Dan Deacon – Crystal Cat

Dan Deacon may have unintentionally thrust himself into the limelight with 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, but the man wasn’t unconscious of the world around him as it happened. Deacon has made a concerted effort to experiment in all forms of his life as long as he has everyone’s undivided attention and support (and he probably would if they didn’t). That means crazy local festivals, crazy town-sized tours, crazy kiddie-electronic-cum-rave songs that stick in your brain like putty. And with Bromst, an album that was meant to be released this year but has since been delayed until March, Deacon doesn’t seem to quit. No matter how the record will be received, it will physically (or at least sonically) be received, a testament to his enduring ability to test his own musical will and conceptual might. It should be quite a listen.

2. Watchmen Movie

Watchmen Trailer 2

Why question this? Again, like most of the things on this list, simply existing will make Watchmen memorable. As a movie, who knows whether the thumb of the public will go up or down (or better yet, that of the comic’s cult fan base). But, barring the recent legal activity surrounding the film and its impending release, as long as the movie hits theaters it will be a success. Not only commercially, but for the comic book movie genre and for struggling screenplays everywhere (this film has been in talks for since the original graphic novel first hit stands). And it looks so damn pretty.

1. Inauguration

Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech

No matter what your political beliefs are, this will be a massive event. “Historic” to a pin. I’ll be there, amongst however many millions of people that are expected to show up and see Barack Obama sworn in as the President of the United States. Just typing that is getting me excited for the new year.

Happy New Year!

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

More Hips to Hop

In a slightly tangential continuation on from the previous post, I’ve stumbled upon even more riveting recent hip-hop releases. Or, in the case of The Streets, soon-to-be-released….

Mike Skinner = The Streets

Mike Skinner = The Streets

Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, was a huge surprise coming out of the UK. Back in high school when I picked up the Streets’ first release, 2002’s Original Pirate Material, I was floored by Skinner’s cockney drawl and skitterish beats. The idea of a British rapper sounded gimmicky to me before I picked up Skinner’s album. Since then, British hip-hop has been anything but a gimmick, with the widespread influence of The Streets, grime, and dubstep (among numerous other hip-hop genres) back in the UK.

And while hip-hop has been subsumed into UK culture naturally, The Streets’ antics have been drawn more towards the realm of gimmick. The Streets last release, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, just seemed to plod familiar territory as Skinner made more news for his lengthy music videos than the content of the music in said videos. But, with the free, online release of “The Escapist,” off the upcoming release Everything Is Borrowed (due out in September), it sounds as if Skinner is making a turn back to churning out some musically ambitious material. It leans a little hard on the “slow Streets songs” method of musicality, but it’s still pretty great.



On the other side of the pond, Minneapolis collective Doomtree released their “official”, self-titled debut yesterday (I say “official” as last year’s False Hopes was also released under the Doomtree name). I never thought Doomtree was ever more than a hometown collective that P.O.S. would namedrop in his solo work. I was in awe of P.O.S. when I saw him open for Atmosphere at the Middle East three years ago; armed with an iPod and his own intelligent flow, P.O.S. was simply stunning and held the stage better than any other opener on the bill.

It’s easy to see how P.O.S., Atmosphere, and a handful of other acts who are loosely connected to the Rhymesayers collective have been tagged with the term “emo rap.” The lyrical content of these acts contains a certain sense of introspection while the performance of said songs is purely cathartic in ways that are almost alien to most modern hip-hop, they travel in the same circles as many emo acts (which has included prime spots on various Warped Tour outings), and many of their basic elements and ideology is derived from a basic DIY, punk element. It’s just as much hip-hop as it is punk, and yes, emo.



With Doomtree, it’s great to see a clan of folks that can match and flow with P.O.S. After years of hearing so much about Doomtree, but not hearing anything from said collective, I’m pretty excited at the chance to pick up their new album. Just watching the video for “Drumsticks” is reason enough (it also makes me want to join up with Critical Mass). But, enough writing. On to the music!

The Streets – The Escapist

Doomtree – Drumsticks video:

Nothing About Vonnegut

Sometimes life feels like a Kurt Vonnegut book, the way seemingly random events and lineages come together in unknown ways. It also helps when you checking out a heaping helping of Vonnegut novels from the library and his particular method of story-telling seeps into your life.

My current fix

My current fix

Let me explain:

Having recently graduated and awaiting the days before I enter the world of employment, I have to amend some of my routines in life. Specifically, I have to watch out for what I spend my money on. As I don’t do anything in the ways of illegal downloading, my music collection has grown in odd ways and forms in the past few months. As I rarely have the chance to buy anything new, I’m always on the hunt for free albums that musicians have circulated online. And more and more, my newly-acquired musics are within the realm of hip-hop. And justly so.

Mixtapes have always been a key tool within hip-hop circles as a way to circulate music. As each day passes, it seems that more free mixtapes are cropping up online, completely free of charge (at least, for a short span of time). And so, in my quest for free music, I happened upon a very Vonnegut-like happenstance: I discovered a great hip-hop artist that hit very close to home.



Wale (not to be confused with the irresistible Pixar film Wall-e) is a DC-based rapper who has recently signed with Interscope. For years I searched far and wide for a hip-hop artist who managed to break out of the confines for DC. Because in the world of DC hip-hop, if you don’t make it out of town, you’ll be on the out in town. I remember spending years clipping articles from The Washington Post about the search for DC’s great hip-hop hope… or hype. For some reason, of all the big cities in the union, DC was practically the only one without a well-established hip-hop artist or scene to call its own. Punk, jazz, funk, soul and any number of other genres had some great member who called DC home. But not so much in the ways of hip-hop.

As soon as I left DC for college – only to return for short breaks – Wale began to hone his craft. In 2006, Wale released “Dig Dug,” which grew into a huge hit in the DC metro area and its surrounding states. Since then, Wale has been heralded in everything from The Fader to XXL to Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly and my faithful Washington Post. Wale’s gotten chummy with the big kids such as The Roots and Lil’ Wayne, performed his song “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.” at the 2007 MTV Music Video Awards, and announced his signing with Interscope this past March. And all this time I was trapped in the college bubble.

And then this past weekend I noticed Wale was among a number of artists performing at Rock the Bells when it rolled through Massachusetts on Saturday. And I noticed he was from DC. Today I found myself a link to Wale’s most recent mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, a creative ode to Seinfeld. The mixtape was released back in May, but it’s never too late to discover it.

The Mixtape About Nothing

The Mixtape About Nothing

As numerous critics (and there are a ton that have turned their heads to hear this one) have commented on the mixtape’s peculiar relationship to Seinfeld, I was more taken by Wale’s intricate use of go-go. Go-Go is a DC-creation, one of the two dominant strains of music that have made their root in the city these past few decades. While emo eventually made its way out of the DC area after toiling in the underground punk circles of the nation’s capital, for the most part go-go has yet to really survive outside of the city’s limits. Go-Go, a subgenre of funk known for its call and response involvement with the audience, its syncopated rythms punctuated with a mass of percussive instruments, and its ability to draw out funk-grooves for lengthy amount of times (it’s ability to “go and go” in effect) has mostly spent its lifetime in the DC area. The two most recognizable go-go names/phrases outside of DC today are Chuck Brown – the genre’s creator – and the song “Let Me Clear My Throat.”

Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown

Remembering all those years back, reading articles proclaiming that DC’s best hope for hip-hop haven, The Washington Post noted that the individual that does make it should do so by making use of the city’s beloved sound, hip-hop’s distant cousin – go-go. And correctly so. Wale does this flawlessly on The Mixtape About Nothing and with enough gusto to (hopefully) impact a generation of international hip-hoppers. While “The Opening Title Sequence” is a great sampling of the Seinfeld introduction and has taken the critics’ cake, “The Feature Heavy Song” practically steals said cake with its go-go driven beat that takes a crack at all the morbidly uncreative instrumentals that have plagued mainstream radio stations.

Wale is being proclaimed as the next big thing. But for right now, my encounter with The Mixtape About Nothing is a tale for how I found my way back home through a musical entity I wish was produced when I still could hop on the Metro and go-go around DC.

Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing

Wale – W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E. video:

Bastards of Pop

By now most music-loving folk are aware of the pay-what-you-want, online release of Girl Talk’s latest album, Feed The Animals. But this isn’t about that… well, it’s almost not about that. As any other savy internet users are concerned, a trio of folks hailing from the greater Baltimore/DC area new about this all to well. Funny thing is, the title of Girl Talk’s new album is startlingly similar to a certain activity that these three individuals do to fulfill their creative impulses. And darn it if the members of Food For Animals didn’t do something about it. The savvy members of one of the top experimental hip-hop troupes in the country put their imagination to the test and came out with a remix of Feed The Animals that is as hilarious as it is genuinely well-crafted. The inversion of the Girl Talk record cover didn’t hurt either.

Girl Talk\'s Feed The Animals

Food For Animals\' remix

Sure, this may sound like another attempt by an under-appreciated musical act trying to grab some limelight off of the backs of pop sensations. Actually, pop sensations may be the key word to why this isn’t a case of bandwagon-ing popularity. That same realm where Girl Talk has become such a heroic image is one where Food For Animals have gotten their fare and deserved share of praise and following as well; from Spin to Pitchfork, numerous well-regarded places of music criticism have praised FFA for their latest album – Belly.

No, this is not a case of scraping for some 15 minutes of fame. This isn’t even about fame. This is a great case of that simple keyword… community. The FFA remix is more a work of humorous camaraderie than anything negative or self-serving. For Gregg Gillis and FFA, it is another mark of a shared aesthetic dedicated to the opposite of pop-sanctuary; underground artistry. Their physical hometowns may be separate (Pittsburgh for GT, and Baltimore/DC for FFA), but their ideal one is a special place known as Wham City.

Brooklyn\'s Matt & Kim at Whartscape 2007

Wham City is a collective of artists and musicians who’ve made a hometown in Baltimore. More than that, they’ve made a scene-worthy presence out of Baltimore. Although Wham City is a close-knit crew (headed by electronics wunderkid Dan Deacon) and is not the entire community of Baltimore’s diverse art-punk scene, they have nevertheless become the center and face of the creativity bubbling out of the once-forgotten town. While institutions as high on the music-critiquing food chain as Rolling Stone have come a-calling, it has yet to diminish the creative culmination of the relatively anti-establishment scene. If anything, it’s simply drawn other like-minded individuals to the area and those who have made themselves an important part of building an artistically-challenging community. The connections within the scene are more personal than musically-similar. This year’s Whartscape Festival features, along side Gregg Gillis (playing with his side project Trey Told ‘Em) and Food For Animals, a number of musicians from across the country who are more dedicated to pushing the bounds of music than they are to carving a universal pop niche. There’s The Mae Shi (from LA), Black Dice (NYC), Parts & Labor (Brooklyn), and a ton of local Baltimore acts. What they lack in definite sound they make up for in their shared passion for underground music, ingenuity, and community.

Emo was birthed out of a very similar thesis of community as seen through performance. Music was the cache, but it wasn’t the only distinct quality of those communities. The places friends within the scene would interact and think of as home bases, the venues that bands practiced and played, the ideas that individuals shared and used to challenge one another – not just musically, but in life – were as integral to the scene as the tag placed on the original scene’s existence.

The Revolution Summer scene, the first community to be burdened with the label “emo” was a particular exemplary of the feat of flexibility. Some ideological and musical characteristics were shared, but the common bond over strengthening the community beyond the rigidity that defeated DC’s hardcore scene was stronger than any detrimentally-inclined tag. The acts that followed in the footsteps of the broken-up Revolution Summer acts continued to build on the ideas of community, welcoming other individual-thinkers into their world, and emiting a new crop of bands that did little to conform to any standards. Groups like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Shudder To Think, Jawbox, and a host of others opened up the interpretations of the local “emo” sound to distinctly new possibilities. And others flocked to their community. Bikini Kill, though not emo, left the West Coast for DC, while Dischord welcomed Baltimore’s Lungfish in with open arms (quite a feat considering that Dischord was meant to be a forum for only DC acts).

With the breakthrough of alternative music into the mainstream, the emo acts of DC formed connections with others across America through correspondence, touring, and even producing; Jawbox’s J Robbins was a primary producer of many well-known 2nd wave emo acts. As the ideological, aesthetic, and musical aspects of emo spread around the country, tight bonds were formed by dis-separate acts throughout the Mid West. Those who form the core of 2nd wave emo acts  – The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, etc – were all connected through friendship rather than sharing three chords.

Even today, when emo has lost a lot of its elasticity of definition due to stereotypes, community is as an important aspect as ever. Acts bond through touring (such as playing together on Warped Tour), shared record labels (Vagrant, Fueled By Ramen), a communal upbringing (such as Thursday and numerous other acts who honed their sound in New Jersey basements), and friendship (be it Thursday and My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco). Community is the strongest bond of the most-creative (and often times, successful) emo acts. Those bands looking to take advantage of a currently-popular, commercially-consumed genre tend to bring out the worst in emo. But it’s community that has allowed emo to continue to thrive and survive to this day, and it’s community that will continue to drive some of the most ingenious and forward-thinking musical movements.

Food For Animals – Girl Talk

Baltimore’s Double Dagger at Whartscape 2007: