I took my fiancé to a really expensive restaurant last week because it was her birthday and because it was expensive.
Food culture being the new rock n’ roll and all, Manhattan is awash in pricey eateries these days. You can’t score a piece of chicken below 92nd street for less than $30.
But this restaurant, written about exhaustively and fellated by food critics from the New York Times and elsewhere, was on another level.
I’m talking $75 for a piece of fish and $60 for a plate of pasta. I don’t think there was a wine on the menu that cost less than $35 a glass, and if there was it probably tasted like pee.
Ask me how I can afford this on what I make?—?let me be painfully honest?—?I can’t. This wasn’t dinner, it was a stick-up. When the check came I thought I’d just hand the waiter my wallet and run.
However, the point of this is not to bemoan a popular establishment. You could easily obtain this overpriced cuisine in another borough, but why would you? The restaurant caters to the elite New Yorkers who populate the tony West Village, and if one can reasonably overcharge for the simplest of meals and get away with it, why not? A sucker like me is born every minute.
And yet the thing is, when you’re dropping $500 minimum on a table for two, even if that’s not something you do very often, you are afforded with the rare opportunity to partake in a bit of tourism, if you will. In that brief moment, that two or three hours you spend imbibing and ingesting like the gluttonous gilded age baron that you occasionally fantasize about being, you get to see how the other half really lives. Okay, maybe not the other half. Maybe only a percent. Maybe only the 1%.
But regardless of what the percentage is, the average New Yorker?—?heck, the average person, period?—?will never step into a place like this restaurant. They will step into it elsewhere, as a unique experience and byproduct of their own neighborhood, because that’s all this place was anyway, but never as the expensive tourist attraction it is in the West Village, where everyone is a tourist now anyway, even if they live there.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but pay a lot of attention to who else was in the restaurant. There was the J. Crew-clad couple across the room, dining with their parents, who looked like they had just flown in from Charleston. And the two stylishly-dressed young women sitting to our right, maybe employees at a big media company like Conde Nast, who wanted to try out a swanky restaurant, but were so budget conscious they wound up splitting an entree.
And then there was the table to my left, a booth in the corner, shaded by a brick wall that obscured whomever might have been sitting there. When we initially sat down it was populated by two young women?—?one Latin, the other perhaps Eastern European. They ordered drinks, fiddled with their phones and waited for the rest of their party to arrive. Twenty minutes later, two affable gentlemen in their mid-40’s strode in.
One was a tanned, Arabic-looking Brit. He was stylishly-dressed in a form-fitting suit, wearing silver glasses with his hair messily slicked back. He looked like he’d just left a board meeting, and being a middle-aged dad-type out for a night on the town, he was not particularly handsome. But he was trying, and that’s nice.
The other fella was a chubby Indian or Pakistani. He was poorly-dressed in a suit snatched from a discount rack at Men’s Wearhouse, his hair balding, forehead wrinkled and belly hanging sloppily over his belt. He was not particularly handsome, but neither he or his dinner guests seemed to mind. And that’s also nice.
If I was just guessing, I would assume that these two guys were either briefly in town for some business and wanted to have a nice expensive meal on their expense account, or they were hedge fund dudes doing what hedge fund dudes do. Quite possibly, they could have just been anything that actually pays real money, unlike writing, which admittedly, tends to taint your view of things.
But whatever, hugs were exchanged and cheek kisses were awkwardly planted and the Brit sat on the far side of the booth, sandwiched between the two girls, who were both in their late-20’s or early 30’s, and quite attractive at that. The other guy sat off to the side a bit, somewhat removed from the other three, almost disinterested in a way, with a dour look on his face.
This being a birthday dinner for my fiancé, whom I obviously wanted to focus all my attention on?—?and the fact that I’d probably never spend this much money on a meal again in my life, so I was going to eat the shit out of it?—?I tried to ignore the scene just to the side of us. But perhaps because on too often an occasion a loud laugh was elicited or a voice was raised, it was hard not to glance over there to see what was happening.
Again, the Indian/Pakistani dude sat off to the side, occasionally chiming in with a word or two, by and large content to just stare off aimlessly at the wall, in his own world. My back was to the wall so his glance and mine met a few times. I smiled and he feigned a smile back, but it was almost like he didn’t want to be seen there. He was nervous. He looked at his phone a lot. He shook his leg under the table.
Meanwhile, his partner, trying to be a debonair playboy, was in the middle of these two women, attempting to chat them up, but at the same time not doing quite a good job. He’d mutter a couple sentences?—?something about business or this country or that country, shit rich people talk about?—?and then go back to fingering the stem of his wine glass, shaking it back and forth to reveal all the floral scents that a $300 bottle of wine gets you. He was very smug and self-satisfied.
The women, for their part, tried to appear as interested as they could, and they seemed well-traveled and worldly and as jet-setting as I suppose whatever it is they did allowed them to be. They could have been models or maybe not models, because even the ugliest people in Manhattan nowadays looks like models, but if anyone laughed, it was them. They were trying. Trying to make this pair of rich losers interesting. But it just wasn’t really working. I felt bad for them.
I felt bad for the guys too. What brought them here on this night and why were they with these two women, whom they obviously did not know well, if they knew them at all? Had they met on Tinder or through some other random hookup site for the wealthy elite or was their some madam off in the shadows texting them a time and a place to meet two dudes with money to blow and time to waste and expectations to wind up in bed at some point, even though that looked like it might be the last thing either of the women wanted?
Or maybe in some strange alternative universe, which is not that strange at all these days?—?if you live in New York, at least?—?the women were the ones calling the shots, and maybe they were interested in a unique experience with a fine pair of gentlemen, and were being summarily let down by one guy who was far less interesting than he perceived himself to be, and another that couldn’t muster up the energy to even pretend to want to be there in the first place.
I gathered from their body language and their actual language that what brought them together was probably some type of financial arrangement, as can often be the case. And aside from the food, which was nominally tasty, despite costing what it might cost to put a small child in Africa through college, neither party particularly wanted to be there at all. They were just stomaching each other, going through with the pleasantries and pageantry that one goes through, in order to get to what they really want.
As for us, we ate and drank, and ate some more and drank some more and then said?—?“Wow, how the fuck did we eat so much?”?—?because it was a birthday and birthdays are fun and festive and reasons to indulge even when you don’t have the money and probably never will have the money and can’t possibly fathom who might ever have the money to afford such an overpriced meal in such an overpriced neighborhood in an overpriced city for well-off people who don’t know what overpriced even means.
In the end, the meal was decent but like most things in New York these days, altogether too expensive, special occasion or not. And despite our well-to-do company, the rich men and the women who temporarily pretend to love them?—?a night of fake laughs, stilted conversation and feigned excitement almost certainly ahead of them?—?we knew the only truth that was worth knowing after a dinner like that. The only thing truly clear and truly obvious.
That the only people who got fucked that night was us.
What I used to love about blogging was that it felt very much like punk rock. Or even hip-hop, for that matter.
While the establishment had their expense accounts and fancy photo shoots, bloggers took things they found on the internet and re-contextualized them. They gave them their own spin. Like rappers sampling break beats, blogging was all about taking something else and making it your own.
When you think about it in context of music?—?let’s just stick with punk here?—?blogging wasn’t reinventing the wheel. Punk was the same 3-chords that all music was based on, just with unnecessary embellishments taken out. It wasn’t big and bombastic. It was fast and loose. It was offensive, angry and fun.
And that’s what blogging was. A sort of low-budget way of making media, creating things out of other things, people saying things nobody with a salary and a fancy job title had the balls to say. Taking the piss out of the media business. Giving the people what they wanted. The good shit. The dirt! Written by amateurs, devoid of fluff.
I think that’s why blogging really took off. It was so anti-establishment, so middle finger at the big media companies, and people really embraced that. It was kind of like how corporate radio rock was in the seventies. A whole gang of folks were standing there ready to embrace whatever was the antithesis of that.
Blogging is not really like that anymore in that blogging, at least in the popular sense, doesn’t even exist now. I suppose there are attempts to bring it back, but there isn’t quite that level of energy around blogging anymore. That was a rather unique moment in time, when a lot of people were just getting online and even the idea of streaming video was a novel concept.
A personal blog can’t really compete nowadays, which kind of sucks. Because I never looked at blogging as a very precious thing. You wrote something quickly, dashed it off in thirty minutes, then moved on to the next thing. Again, it was very DIY punk rock-style, get the song done and move on to the next song. No overdubs, no bullshit. Every day was a chance to make a new fan.
But I guess those days are over, and that’s sad.
We went to see Entourage this weekend, and when that was over (it got a standing ovation?—?take that, critics!), snuck in to see Love & Mercy, the excellent new movie about Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.
The film tells Wilson’s story in two particular epochs?—?the rise of the Beach Boys in the 60’s; and subsequently, the 80’s, when he’s insane and under the care of an abusive psychotherapist who treats him like a slave.
The younger Wilson is played by Paul Dano, the older by John Cusack. Both do a great job but it’s in the younger years where we see Dano as Wilson toiling away in the studio, possessed by some higher power, trying to make the sounds he hears in his head come to life.
The effort Young Wilson expends is enough to drive him to the deep end, literally (he can’t even get his bandmates to swim out of the shallow part of a pool he’s wading around in), and the film does a great job exploring what music-making was like before we all began carrying around virtual recording studios in our backpacks.
Naturally, the Beach Boys, who would rather just do the same happy-go-lucky stuff they’d been doing for years, reject Wilson’s new sound, as does his father?—?whom he’s fired from managing the group?—?and the young creative begins to come apart at the seams.
One thing that happens is his sonic obsessiveness starts bleeding over into his real life, and he becomes particularly sensitive to natural, everyday noise. The clinking of silverware against plates at a dinner table. A group of people having five separate conversations at once. This stuff drives him mad.
I found this part of the movie to be very interesting because it’s rare that a biopic really gets into an artist’s creative process. The director might show a few instances of the artist at work, but there is this assumption that viewers don’t want to see the nerdy stuff, so it winds up on the cutting room floor.
The director Bill Pohlad wisely created the entire Young Wilson narrative out of that nerdiness, in part to show that this formative experience?—?as well as other things, like drugs?—?is actually what lead him, later in life, to be so stricken with psychological problems.
But the effect is more to the point?—?we are watching the tug of war between madness and genius take place right in front of us. It’s the making of the myth. Let the music be the proof.
When we left the theater, I remarked that sometimes when you have to spend countless hours perfecting something, and the competition is so thick and stakes are so high, you can’t help but drive yourself crazy. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is just how crazy you are.
The next day, we went to my father’s house to celebrate his 66th birthday. Told him we’d seen the movie, and he surprised me saying he was actually a big Beach Boys fan when he was a kid. Raised in a musical household, I can’t remember ever hearing the Beach Boys.
But anyway, we pulled up some Beach Boys music on Spotify and turned the volume down just low enough that we could hear without being disturbed. Some time passed and I almost instinctively went looking for something else to listen to, wherein I switched to Bo Diddley, then Chuck Berry.
The third or fourth Berry song that played was “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and it was then that I turned to my fiancé and said, “You know that’s where Brian Wilson stole the Beach Boys song ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ from, right?”
She gave me a confused look. As a music person, I take it for granted that everyone knows these little trivial things, but like most people not well-versed in this stuff, she didn’t know.
And it was only while I sang the melody to ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ over Berry’s music that it became really apparent. Then, just to prove the point?—?like any real music nerd?—?I turned on the Beach Boys song and it was plain as day.
“So Brian Wilson’s not such a genius then, is he?” she asked. “The movie portrayed him as someone who composed every sound and every note. His vision.”
“He is a genius,” I said. “But ya’know, back then a lot of white musicians took the stuff black musicians made and tried to pass it off as their own. Not that it makes it right. It’s just what happened. Till’ this day, people still think Elvis invented rock n’ roll.”
Now, I obviously wasn’t alive when Berry wrote “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and who knows, Berry himself could have cribbed his clever guitar lick and what is now a standard rock n’ roll progression from somewhere else, because almost every great idea comes from somewhere else.
But “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” are almost identical, and to add insult to injury, Berry was in jail when the Beach Boys song was released. That’ll make you raise an eyebrow for sure. Regardless, Berry threatened to sue and the Beach Boys eventually awarded him credit for the tune.
Love & Mercy takes place largely after all this happened, and in real life the Beach Boys never shied away from acknowledging Berry’s influence?—?just as the Beatles never played down how early rock and soul influenced them, too?—?but with our black music legends dying off (B.B. King passed away last month; Berry himself is in his late 80’s) these are things you have to think about a little bit.
Because most people just doesn’t know the history.
Unless, of course, there’s a Chuck Berry biopic in the works. I’m not holding my breath for that.
“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”
That’s the message an old friend of mine shot back at me after I sent her an article I wrote. She liked it because, of course she did. But getting her to read it?—?to spend a whopping 10 minutes looking at a computer screen or her phone or whatever it was she was looking at it on?—?that was a chore.
This is what she said. I repeat:
“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”
As someone who nominally plies their trade putting words and experiences together on the internet, for people on the internet, it was like getting stabbed in the heart with a cutco knife. Actually, no. It was more like getting disemboweled on some William Wallace Braveheart shit. It hurt.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Maybe she’s right. Maybe wherever we are into the lifecyle of the internet?—?25 years or something, no??—?the place to do hard reading, at least for non-media folks, is still not on the internet. It’s in books and maybe magazines and newspapers, occasionally something short that you can digest on the phone, but meaty subjects, that stuff has no place online.
Surely the data?—?big data!?—?would suggest otherwise. People want content. They’re hungry for it. Starving for it. Gimme cookie, gimme content. Content content content. More more more.
But, yeah, I dunno. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s something we just tell ourselves so that we have purpose, so we can keep the checks coming in, keep the lights on, keep doing what it is we do. It’s tough to say.
It’s like, there’s only so much time in a day. People are busy. The average person really isn’t sitting around leisurely just waiting for your thing you wrote, no matter how good it is.
Sometimes on a weekday?—?during normal working hours?—?I take my car into the shop or I go into a grocery store or I just walk around aimlessly observing life. And, wow, people are really just caught up in whatever it is they’re doing. I would say on the whole, they have no idea what is really happening on the internet at all. I mean, maybe a little, but not much. Certainly not enough to keep up with the pace at which everything is moving nowadays.
Of course knowledge workers, people who objectively have to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, they might have more time than others to muck around online. But by and large, people, I think, are still using the internet just as a utility.
That’s primarily one of the reasons why “how to” articles are still so popular. People go online when they need help with something. You need a fact, you look up the answer. You need to make something, you look up a recipe. You need to get somewhere, you look up directions. You need to buy something, you look up the product.
But this idea that you can just hit someone with an article out of nowhere about god knows what and have a mass audience suddenly interested, I think that’s probably false. The audience for that is really a lot smaller than we think it is, or at least smaller than many in power would hope.
I get the New York Times delivered on Sunday, because I dunno, I guess I still like newspapers or something. But the reality is, a lot of times I’m busy on the weekends and the paper comes, then it just sits there. I bring it inside and just dump it on a chair. By the time I get around to reading it, if I read it all, I’ve already read a few of the articles I want to read online. The other stuff, it’s an effort to get into it. So time-consuming.
I’m probably the outlier though, in the sense that I do a lot of my reading online. I’m actively looking for things to read, because I’m a heavy consumer of content. I don’t suspect that most people are really like that. In actuality, I think most people are still very passive, and would like to get things fed to them, in easily digestible formats, in predictable ways.
If they are going to sit down and read, they probably are still doing it the old fashioned way, with a book or better yet, a Kindle. Maybe they’ll tackle some big magazine-style piece on their way to work, but even that, I think fewer and fewer people have an interest in. During their commute, they might be more inclined to listen to something than actively enagage in reading because, gee whiz, life is fucking brutal and riding crowded trains and buses is a modern-day form of torture.
So, do people go on the internet to read? I don’t know. But I’m thinking about that a lot.
What do you think?
Earlier this month, Apple Music was announced.
One of the features included is this thing called Beats 1 radio. It’s internet radio except with real humans (remember them?)— talking, playing music and doing things that terrestrial radio jocks do.
The general consensus on this feature was—huh? This is 2015. Who the hell cares what Zane Lowe, a forty-something white guy from the UK, thinks about music. Who cares what anyone not named ‘you’ thinks about music?
Internet radio, whether through an app or on your desktop, is not a new idea, and in a nutshell, the entire rise of the internet can be boiled down to this?—?getting away from these assholes. And now we’re suppose to go back to that? Get real.
In an interview with Billboard, Jimmy Iovine said:
What’s gone on in the last 15 years in radio is that it’s really become manufactured. It’s either genre-based or beat-driven or research-driven. So I said, let’s build something that’s got none of that that just plays music because it’s great.
Jimmy is right. Radio is awful. There are 4 terrible songs an hour and twenty minutes of commercials. Radio isn’t for music, it’s for advertisers.
Needless to say, alternatives already exist. YouTube. Pandora. Satellite radio. Apps like TuneIn can give you almost every radio station on earth. Playlists on Spotify, Tidal and Prime Music. Mixcloud. Soundcloud. Dash Radio. If you want to hear good music, you’re not going to struggle to hear it. You don’t need to pay $9.99 to have Zane Lowe tell you what’s hot?—?you already know.
Or do you? The opinionated among us take knowledge for granted. You have Google at your fingertips, therefore you must know everything! But there’s more content being generated now than anyone can possibly keep up with, and music has a major problem?—?the good filters are gone.
It wasn’t always like this. There was once radio and record stores and magazines and for a time, music blogs. Yes, briefly, we turned off the radio and tuned in to websites where passionate fans endlessly sifted through trash to find hidden treasures. But then that business got commodified, the government came swooping down on file-sharing, and the influence of bloggers waned.
In the wake of their demise, the uninformed among us turned our attention to streaming services. Sure, an odd mix of humans with algorithms can occasionally help us find a record we like, but discerning music fans still don’t have a better turnkey solution for hearing great music than just turning on the actual radio. Most streaming service playlists are unimpressive, and so are their algorithms. The ‘skip’ button has never been more popular.
Streaming on its own?—?without radio?—?is not a complete failure, though. Perhaps more important than what a booming voice in the sky is telling you, you can see what your friends are into, and you can make your own playlists. Because after all, the power of having all this music in front of you is that you, too, can be Zane Lowe, without having to actually like, be Zane Lowe.
But that’s assuming, again, that you even know what you’re supposed to be listening to. The average person certainly knows enough classic rock, Motown and hits from the 90’s/2000’s to get by, but at a certain point, they’re lost. They’re not at a fork in the road. They’re at a million forks in the road. Behind the wheel of a Tesla.
So, the curated listening experience is a tough nut to crack. Nobody has really done it well online at mass. And the thing about listening is, it shouldn’t be work. It should be easy. That’s why the greatest DJ’s are who they are?—?they know their listeners, can read their energy and know what to play next. There is an intimacy there, a familiarity. That relationship has value and throughout history it’s proven to have worked well.
But ultimately, radio is really simple?—?shut and play the hits. In a world where it’s gotten harder and harder to find the hits, is that worth paying for? I think so. But you tell me.
Last week, just a day before I was ceremoniously laid off from AOL Music, Talib Kweli joined me for a live chat via Google Hangout.
Among the many topics we discussed, there was some talk about his longtime friend and collaborator Kanye West. And according to Kweli, the whole ‘Kanye interrupts a show’ thing is not new. He’s been the victim of it himself, back when West was opening shows for him in the pre-College Dropout days.
“He would cut me off during my shows,” Kweli explained. “So when I see him do it to Taylor Swift, I’m like ‘Oh, that’s what he used to do to me. He literally would come on stage while I was rapping and stop the music and say, ‘Yo, I gotta kick this rhyme. And I would have to be like, ‘Yo, you can’t, this is my show.’ But that’s how passionate he is about the music.”
Not only that, but Ye’ would also occasionally opt to fly to shows over taking the tour bus, proving that the diva act that he’s become known for is not exactly new, either.
“Kanye used to do that, and then we would have to get on the tour bus to go to the next city and he would be in his room, and we’d be banging on his door and he’s not answering,” Kweli said. “He’d call me three hours later like, ‘What city are you in now?’ And then he would get on a plane, even though he got have just got out of bed and got on a tour bus, he would fly to the next city and meet us and apologize. It makes sense when you think about him as a person.”
Kweli feels that Kanye gets more negative criticism than he deserves.
“He’s done some things that have been looked at as arrogant, and I’m sure that he’s dealing with them,” he said. “And he’s done some things that he’s apologized for. He also said George Bush don’t care about black people. He’s also done some revolutionary things. At the end of the day those positives and negatives are what make him the great artist that he is. And I can tell you from first hand experiences that he didn’t change… The way he is now, he was like that before the money and the fame. He was talking about he was the best producer; ‘I’m the best rapper,’ ‘I’m the best dresser.’ His attitude was exactly the same.”
Also, he gives credit to ‘Ye for shining a light on the underground.
“Kanye is a champion of our culture and he’s somebody who’s driven the culture forward in such a way that it’s benefited all of us,” he said. “Like, me directly. I can speak for myself, Common, Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest. All of us have benefited from Kanye West beats, from Kanye West talking about us, from Kanye West working on us. He elevated that brand of hip-hop to the mainstream…. He’s given his all. Kanye gives more than people. He’s given his entire being to hip-hop. We should be thankful and gracious that he gives us so much of himself.
Watch my interview with Talib Kweli
I’m pleased to share that Project E.A.R.’s new album “Revolution” is finally available for sale.
I’m really proud of the records I produced and co-wrote on the album— “I Don’t Care,” “Chasing Rainbows” and “Can’t Get Enough,” respectively— and I wish the band nothing but success with this album.
For me, personally, I’m excited that people will get to hear something that I (and everyone else involved) worked on really hard to get right. These songs really took shape over a year ago. Let me explain.
Back in the middle of January 2012, I was on BBM with my friend Yaniz in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Yaniz manages a handful of artists and DJs there and is essentially just one of those people who makes shit happen in Southeast Asia. She tells me that the band she manages, Project E.A.R.— a super group of sorts, made up of members of a handful of band members from different countries in Southeast Asia— is getting ready to work on their album and is looking for beats for it.
Beats? Well, I always have those. So I sent a few over, and literally within hours I’d heard back from her saying that they wanted to purchase two of the tracks I sent. I love selling beats soooo, yeah, exciting !
The story would have typically ended there, as I’ve sold beats to international artists before. And while we might have connected eventually as I traveled through their respective countries, and vice versa— as I’ve done with artist artists I’ve worked with in that capacity— we’d probably never actually work on the songs together in the same room. And I kind of hate that.
In the midst of BBM convo, Yaniz told me that the band members would be flying in from their individual countries and convening in Bali, Indonesia, to record the project. They were renting a surf villa in Oluwatu for a week, and would be building a studio inside, where they would make the record.
To be honest, Bali was not somewhere I was planning to go. I know Bali has this allure to it, especially since “Eat Pray Love” was shot there and all that, but to me it just wasn’t on my radar like that.
“You should go!” Yaniz said to me in a BBM message. “It’s Bali!”
I mulled it over for a few minutes, thought about working more hands-on with the band and how that might lend itself to making better music— especially considering that these beats I’d sent were largely just skeletons— thenlooked at my schedule, decided that some of the stuff could stand to get canceled and made a rather impulsive decision. Fuck it, I’m going to Bali. Two weeks later I was on a 24-hour flight to the other side of the world by myself, having never met the people I was going to work with and the lofty goals of making some great records.
Upon meeting the band members— Moots (Malaysia), Dandee (Thailand), J.D. (Malaysia), A.J. (Malaysia) and Jamir (Philippines)— I could tell right away that we would make some good tunes. There’s just a vibe you get from certain people, where they’re very genuine and sincere. The fact that I’d traveled so far, it wasn’t lost on them. That type of energy goes a long way when you’re being creative. On occasion I’ve worked with people who aren’t so open and down to just try things out, and I’ve found that it’s often lead to poor results. I don’t know how anyone can work in a creative field these days and not be down to just do whatever. We have all these tools to produce amazing things, have unlimited computer power and space. It’s the perfect canvas to just throw things at the wall, see what sticks. What do you have to lose?
But I digress. The Project E.A.R. guys were not like that at all. If I had a suggestion, they’d at least give it a shot, see how it sounded. If collectively the consensus was that it was wack, we’d delete it. They let me produce their vocals, help them with lyrics and adjust their flows to sound more palatable for an American audience. It was a collaborative effort.
So anyway, over the course of a week we worked on the three songs I produced, and they also cut a few other songs from the album as well. I wasn’t as intimately involved in those tracks, if for no other reason than because I was so jetlagged. I would literally wake up in the morning there and we’d have a communal breakfast type thing— the people at the villa cook for you— and then we’d just jump right into working.
There really wasn’t much down time. By the early evening, following dinner, I’d be so tired. I would just retire to my room in the villa and pass out. Because of that I’d usually wake up early, too. And then I’d just lay on the couch with the door open, listening to wind blow and the waves crash outside. It was among the more peaceful experiences I’ve had in my life.
One day I walked down from the villa and went for a swim in the Indian Ocean. The water was warm and the corral was rough. I was by myself and surrounded by Australian surfers who were just there to catch a wave. I waded in the water and looked at the sky. I thought to myself that it was altogether incredible that some musical ideas that I thought up one cold and lonely night in my Staten Island apartment brought me all the way to where I was. That’s pretty cool.
“I Don’t Care” features Dave Kennedy of Angels and Airwaves, and is an ode to arena rock, complete with a scream and shout-style chorus that I think you will hopefully have stuck in your head after you hear it.
“Can’t Get Enough” is a keyboard-driven pop rock song, a love letter to that one thing each respective member can’t live without. My favorite part of the song is probably the Nile Rodgers-style disco guitar on the song’s chorus. That, I can’t get enough of.
And there’s another song, “Chasing Rainbows,” which isn’t available yet on Soundcloud. When they make it available I’ll be sure to post it.
But anyway hit me up, let me know what you think.
Been meaning to upload this for some time. This is a song (“Du Allein”) I produced on Joy Denalane’s 2011 German-language LP Maureen, which dropped in the Spring. Honestly the song and album release fell of my radar for a bit, because the whole process of working on it goes back quite a while.
I actually made this beat some time in 2006. I had previously produced “For The Love” on Joy’s 2006 LP Born & Raised, and was still making a lot of tracks in that same vein. Except at this point I was looking to scale back the hip-hop vibe— particularly the drums— and make tracks that were more palatable for a vocalist to sing on.
In around March or April of 2007 (memory is hazy), I was working as the Technology Editor at Scratch magazine when I found myself on a plane to Frankfurt Germany for the annual Musikmesse convention with the mag’s Ad Director Geoff Martin. It just so happened that Joy had a show in Frankfurt one of the nights that we were going to be in town. Odd coincidence. So I rolled to the show solo that night, popped up outside the venue to Joy’s surprise and watched the show. It was great to hear “For The Love” played by a live band again (I’d heard it just one time previously, when she did her big New York showcase at the Canal Room a year prior). Backstage, I told her I had this one beat that I’d made that was perfect for her. I emailed it to her when I got back to my hotel. Then I didn’t hear anything back for a really long time.
In January or so of 2009, an email hit my inbox from Joy’s manager saying that she’d recorded to the beat and that they wanted to use it on her new album, which she was still working on. We did our due diligence on the business side and everything was ready to go. Except I’d still not heard the song. Then, in June of 2009, she played the completed version of the tune for me in Downtown Studios, in New York. At this point, the song was in English and sounded fucking amazing. I’m thinking, okay, the album should be out soon. But then it just… wasn’t. I really had no idea what was going on with the tune. Eventually I caught wind that she was going to be releasing two versions of the album, one in English and one in German. I happen to have the English-language version of the song sitting on my hard drive, but ya’know, whenever they’re ready. Anyway, the album release just sort of slid by me, cause I’m doing a million and one things and pretty irresponsible like that lol.
In all though, I’m happy the song and album was finally released. I haven’t made that many tracks like this in a while— the demand is low, and every time someone wants to buy one I get slaughtered on publishing with respect to sample clearances— but it brings back a lot of memories for me. Like, I actually remember finding the sample, how I made the beat, how there were two or three different versions with different drums, what it sounded like before all the instrument parts were replayed, etc. It was definitely one of those beats I listened to a whole lot. I really remember what I was trying to do musically at that point. It was a moment in time.
And just to hear another language over it is crazy to me. Maybe that’s a small thing to someone else, but to me it’s cool as shit. I remember around my birthday— maybe it was this year, maybe last year, can’t really recall— I was having a rare conversation with a friend of mine from Staten Island. Somebody who I produced records for in my late teens, early 20s, part of a group I funded and subsequently released thru my own indie production company back when I didn’t really even know what I was doing. Anyway, we were talking and as I often do, I was questioning who I am and what I’ve done in this world. It’s hard not to do that as you turn a year older.
“Dude, didn’t you produce some music for some artist in another country who’s like the biggest thing in the world out there?” he asks me.
“Well, yeah,” I replied, matter-of-factly.
“Out here (Staten Island) people can’t even produce music for someone on their own block, let alone someone who’s actually known in another country,” he said.
“I guess you’re right,” I ceded. “Sometimes I feel like I exist in a space removed from all of that, where it’s almost expected to do those things, though. Ya’know, this has been beyond hobby status for me for some time.”
And then our conversation continued along the lines of that, running down a list of things I’d done and so on. I guess it was kind of cool. Occasionally you get lost in the translation of everything that is going on, and you don’t pause to consider the magnitude of stuff. Like, real shit, I have producer friends in Germany who think it’s a big deal to work with people in their country that even they can’t. Me personally, I just don’t even think about it like that. It’s just something else to do. However, it’s always fascinated me whenever I’ve been involved with anything international. There’s just something about knowing that I was sitting in the garage in my dad’s house making this beat and then it winds up being super personal for an artist, and consequently their fans.
Also it’s kind of a reminder of how long certain records take to come out thru proper channels. I mean, seriously, the process of this all started 5 years ago. One song. 5 years! Crazy when you consider how much music comes out every day.
Well, maybe it won’t mean that much to you— heck, doubt anyone outside of German-speaking folks can understand it— but enjoy.
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another essay on Lady Gaga!” Bear with me here as I’ll try not to bore you much with what has become increasingly boring subject matter. Namely, Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga’s new album, Born This Way, leaked last night. I haven’t heard it yet. I really don’t know when I’ll get around to listening to it. Maybe some time next week, maybe next month, maybe next year. For someone with as much buzz, so much critical fanfare, so much fan support, why am I so indifferent to listening to this new Lady Gaga music?
Because it sucks.
For all the hype, the pyrotechnics, the glossy production, most of these new Lady Gaga songs— “Born This Way,” “Hair,” and “Judas,” in particular— have really not moved me in any way. Maybe Gaga has transcended that point in an artist’s career where they need a surefire hit record to make people care about them, but I’ve always believed in two types of music— good and bad. Good? I’ll listen. Bad? I’ll pass. Everything else— the color, the backstory, the message behind it, blah blah blah— just something that sweetens the deal and provides added context to what is a purely visceral experience. That shit means nothing if there isn’t something to make me want to listen in the first place. We’re talking pop music here, not experimental jazz.
Everything about these new records is so busy, so all over the place, so “trying to do everything all at once,” that they lack any flow. They feel like they have a nice rhythm going, then they explode, then explode some more, come back to a little rhythm for 2 seconds, then explode again, only this time bigger and more explosive. She’s like the Michael Bay of music right now. What gives? The lone song that is listenable, “Edge Of Glory,” is the only one of the bunch that doesn’t feel like it’s doing too much. It’s a mish-mash of progressive house, glam rock and an oddly-placed Clarence Clemons saxophone solo at the end that gets seemingly drowned out by the production fireworks. Still, it’s tolerable.
While it may seem like these songs are popular, a lot of that can be attributed to Gaga’s diehard fanbase. Even if the music was god awful, they would still support. In this day and age, that’s a beautiful thing. As an artist, I think you want to eventually make it to that point where you can be daring and take some risks and not have to make a cookie cutter pop tune to have people listen to you. What happens though, is as the music gets worse, over time that fan base starts to wither, as it collectively questions and further realizes how not so awesome the music actually is.
There’s no debating how big of a fanbase the Wu-Tang Clan has. They are hip-hop’s answer to The Beatles. They will tour the world for the rest of their lives and continue to make money so long as they have vocal cords that allow them to rip microphones on stages. But have you been to a Wu-Tang concert in the past five years? They largely perform material from the early to mid-90s. Maybe a few stray songs from some solo projects in the 2000s. But it’s pretty safe to say that their fan base, while still overly dedicated to the group, withered once they began putting out subpar material. What’s more, there were other acts that came along and diverted the attention spans of those fans. The Wu had gone too far left, too far into pleasing their own audience, that they actually curbed their growth. It would be like Google, if Google only created a search engine. Their would be no gmail, no google reader, i.e. nothing to keep you really interested and nothing to attract new interest.
In the 90s and a good portion of the aughts, it would take years for you to really notice the waning influence of a musical act. Things moved slower then. There was less music. Less clutter in the marketplace. We sat around and waited for albums to drop on Tuesdays. We purchased them. We spent money on them, so we were in some ways forced to listen and at least try to like them. Now? Not so much. In the blink of an eye, or rather, a drag of a file to the recycle bin, you’re practically gone. That’s not to say that you won’t have your fan base, but as far as growth, it sort of stops at a certain point very quickly. Namely, when the hits dry up.
Gaga is such a machine that there would be no way all these songs from Born This Way don’t make it onto the charts. Those singles will be rammed down your throat if you so happen to listen to the radio, and she’ll be inescapable on other media as well. You’re not going to sit through an episode of “Glee” without seeing or hearing Gaga (not entirely sure you’d want to sit through an episode regardless, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s the major label marketing muscle putting itself to work. In an era where there are fewer stars than ever, Gaga is one. And so she will be the biggest and baddest and the one that breadwins for practically the entire music industry. It’s the 1980s all over again. Gaga is going to save Interscope (if Eminem didn’t already).
But are these songs good? To me, no.
There’s that point where an act goes from cool and cutting edge to just flat out doing shit for the sake of doing it. And that’s boring. Because you want to talk about things because they’re genuinely good. Regardless of my personal tastes, MIA was all the rage a few years back. Then her music
always sucked started to suck. No longer all the rage. No coincidence here. Music either hits you or it doesn’t. That scathing Lynn Hirschberg profile on MIA that everyone seems to think brought her down? Less consequential than you think. Sure, it made people pause for a second and ask themselves how seriously they took MIA, but would it have mattered if MIA had a genuinely awesome record? Probably not that much. Look, nobody is thinking about a New York Times profile when a song is playing at max volume in a nightclub and you’re trying to cut something. “Paper Planes” made people feel a way. Because it was genuinely good. The minute I heard that song, I said, “What the fuck is that?” I remember that day like it was yesterday. Sure enough, 6 months later it was a hit.
Where Gaga is in her career, on this pedestal that seems to only have enough space for one person, it’s probably not by choice. Do I have any doubt that she wants to be the biggest star on the planet? No. I think she does. But she couldn’t have foretold just how fast she would rise, how iconic she would become. But beyond that, everything else is done for shock and awe purposes because it needs to be shock and awe for anyone to even care. Look, Ke$ha has had a string of HUGE records over the past year, and while she may eventually be a big star, she’s barely on the radar when it comes to Gaga. Where Gaga’s life as performance art project comes off as artistic and daring, Ke$ha lacks that story, lacks that depth, and ultimately lacks Gaga’s appeal. I don’t think they’re in it for the same reasons, and had Ke$ha preceded Gaga, maybe Ke$ha would be doing what Gaga is doing now. Who knows. But I think we’ve hit that point now with Gaga where it’s like, cool, here’s the story, now where the fuck are the songs? She’s clearly making them. They’re just not great.
What was my point? Maybe I didn’t have one. Or maybe it was just that it’s disheartening (I know, poor idealist) to see the story— bear witness to this elaborate profile in The Guardian— touted above the music. So much conversation about the religiosity of the lyrics, the imagery in the videos, the outfits. Judas, Juda-a-as. Fuck, is the melody great? Do the drums hit? Does it elicit a visceral reaction from you? If not, get that shit the fuck out of here. Basically.
The image above is so telling. Last July, Prince told the UK’s Daily Mirror that the internet was finished.
“The Internet’s completely over,” he said. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
He compared it to MTV, that bastion of tastemaking that long ago kissed music programming goodbye in favor of reality shows, docu-style TV and now scripted programming. Too bad Prince was wrong. And so is everyone else who says anything is over. Nothing is over.
The internet is just the most obvious example to use to make that point, because on the internet, everything seems to be over before it even starts. What’s the shelf-life of any piece of content online? Unless it goes viral and makes its way to soccer moms in flyover states and little Kim and Nicky start sharing it with their Twilight-watching friends, most things online die within a few hours. A good friend and colleague of mine who runs one of the most popular websites for the 18-35 year old “cool” kid demographic once told me that working on that particular media brand’s website was like closing a magazine …. every single day. Which means you’ve got to keep your site stocked with fresh content every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is virtually impossible, but everyone does the best they can. It’s only within recent years that people seemed to realize, “hey, this internet thing doesn’t have an ‘off’ button.” But that’s neither here nor there.
The reality is, when you’re pressed for new content every 30 minutes, the content-cycle moves very fast, and thus logic would predict that only the cream would rise to the top. But that’s not really how it works. Are cat videos the cream of the crop? Not necessarily. Yet they’re universally seen as the type of content that draws massive amounts of views on Youtube. Most of them are shoddy camera phone-shot videos that capture some short moment of cuteness that you just have to watch to brighten up your life.
Now I’m not saying the entire summation of Youtube or online content comes down to cat videos >>> everything else. VEVO, for example, has trounced many things on Youtube with its pre-roll ad-supported major label videos to the tune of billions of views between Gaga, Eminem and Justin Bieber. Sometimes looking at the view counts on their videos is a mindfuck. Like wow, 378 million people watched the video for “Bad Romance?” That’s more people than the entire United States population. Now that Youtube has launched their top 100 chart, it may be even easier to see the discrepancy between professionally-produced content and that of the DIY filmmakers who upload their stuff hoping it may have the slight chance of being seen by one person, or— gasp!— going viral. Charts make a big difference.
Still, that doesn’t mean that things that don’t chart well don’t exist. And that is ultimately the salient point that I’m trying to make here (although admittedly, I think I did a terrible job at it). It’s this idea that because one thing has 378 million plays, another thing isn’t totally cool with its paltry 1 million. Fuck man, that’s still 1 million people watching. Do you realize how many people is 1 million? That’s a lot of faces. It would probably take you a month to personally introduce yourself and shake hands individually with 1 million different people.
So we always hear of business models being dead, things not working anymore, so on and so forth, but the reality of it is, nothing ever dies completely. That’s not to say that something is still effective or that it makes much sense. I always use the bicycle as an example of this. Say you were making bicycles in the early 1900s. By around 1920, you were basically fucked. Because not as many people wanted bikes anymore. People wanted cars. I’m sure bike production was still high and that bikes still sold, but the automobile industry was certainly on the rise. It’s like that with music, with publishing, with anything really. New models come in, the business evolves and whatever it was you were doing starts to look like it has less of an upside.
The Clash said it best though, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”
That depends on your goals. If you were a manufacturer of vinyl records, you probably would have bailed that business long ago. But here we are in 2011, and sales of vinyl records are up more than 300% since the early 90s, when the compact disc became en vogue. These aren’t boom times for vinyl, but someone somewhere is making money off of them.
Which is all just to say, trends change. Things are cool and then they’re not cool. Like stocks. Stuff gets hot, stuff gets cold. Are you riding the hype looking for a quick buck or are you gonna be the Warren Buffet type, buy and hold? The internet isn’t dead, just like MTV isn’t dead. Just because you don’t buy records in a record store doesn’t mean a whole bunch of people are the same way. Every week soundscan numbers come out, and every week evidence is there to support the fact that someone is plunking down their cash on a physical CD. Are the numbers shrinking? Of course. Just like the numbers of bicycles sold after the automobile was introduced most likely did (don’t have any hard statistics on this handy). But bicycles are still selling. Maybe their use has changed. Maybe they’re a novelty item. Maybe they’re for specialists. But to suggest something is dead just silly. And nobody in their right mind who calls themselves a business person takes a product off the shelf if people are still offering their money for it week after week.
Wanna see the best example of this? AOL. Yes, some people still pay for dial up. Less relevant? Certainly. Dead? Definitely not.