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Sunday
Jul232017

Squeezing More Out Of The Juice - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: ABC News

Last Thursday afternoon, I tried to avoid it.

The parole hearing of the disgraced NFL legend O.J. Simpson
was last Thursday. You couldn't help but hear about it thanks 
to ESPN and other networks touting this as "must-see TV". 
Simpson was serving a 33 year sentence for his role in being
the mastermind of a botched robbery in a Las Vegas hotel -
a robbery that was an attempt to get personal items and
memorabilia that he was advised was stolen from him. He had
served nine years of that sentence. The days before the hearing,
I began to see how other media outlets were preparing themselves
for the airing of the parole hearing. And I have to say, while
it irked me, it isn't a surprise. And when the board made the 
decision to grant him parole, releasing him in October...I knew
it would only get more people in a frenzy.

One of the open secrets that exists about America that O.J.
represents is that we are still undoubtedly all-day suckers for
sensationalism, no matter if its delivered in a slick package
or doled out in a crude manner like miniature alcohol bottles
from a cardboard box in the back of an SUV. And the media
outlets of this nation know it. They were laying groundwork
for interest in subtle ways at least a month beforehand. How?
Well, A&E Network began showing the highly regarded five-part
documentary "O.J.:Made In America" about 2 weeks prior. 
Other networks began showing their O.J. programs, mainly 
centered around the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown
Simpson and Ron Goldman. Articles were springing up about
O.J. How he stood to make a couple of million if paroled. How
he was conducting himself in prison. Last Thursday, I was 
working with the TV on in the background as I sometimes do
and I was flipping to avoid channels that had it on. I wound
up settling for an airing of a daytime judge show. I saw the 
social media flurry of activity once the decision was made. I
turned to one network to hear the analyst reaction and got 
what I was expecting - disappointment that Simpson got freed
and in the case of one particular analyst, outrage. 

Which leads me to this - another open secret that O.J.'s parole
hearing unveiled is that of race and privilege and how once 
again, he managed to buck the system. I still believe that a 
good deal of the ire against Simpson dating all the way back
to 1995 when he was acquitted in the murder trial is that by
the letter of the law, he got off. "This Negro got away!!" is what
still swims in the maudlin swamps some out there have for 
brains. In an ironic manner, the other news story that WASN'T
stemming from the White House? The story of a white Australian
woman who was a yoga teacher in Minneapolis being shot and
killed by a Black police officer after requesting help. A story that
has played out in recent years repeatedly, but with the ethnicities
of those involved reversed. And in the days since, we've seen
the police chief RESIGN over it and calls for the mayor to step
down along with an uproar from those who previously were 
so pro-law enforcement that they stooped to thoroughly demean
all of those who lost their lives at the hands of inept cops as "thugs"
and "deserving it" because of the color of their skin. O.J. getting
parole angers them in the same way. Color is the main denominator.

Let's make one thing clear - I'm not someone who is going out
of his way to defend The Juice. I do think he's done some really
reprehensible things, and has put himself in a position that has 
hurt a great many people all for his own ego. But last Thursday
reaffirmed to me that there's still a market for the kind of fame
that surrounds O.J. I mean, one of the better & albeit controversial
songs from Jay-Z's most recent album 4:44 has him as a central
point. The media at large, and O.J. himself, understands that 
there is still a lot left to be made from his existence in the public
eye. They dug up Kato Kaelin again for heaven's sakes. I know 
that one of my boys who worked on the ESPN doc has already
stated publicly that he hopes O.J. just sticks to the shadows. I 
don't think that will happen only because he, like a certain 
orange-tinted figure in politics, needs this attention. They've had
the fame either through adulation or disgust for so long that they
don't know how to operate without it. They confuse it with love &
validation from early on and it sticks. And there are always people
willing to feed into it. The last six months of this nation is a testament
to how that can backfire. But O.J. will still be willing to feel the 
squeeze as long as it gets him fame and the benefits once more.
But what about the other stuff that gets left behind as a result?

That's a question that goes beyond sound bites and half-hour 
televised debates.

 

Tuesday
Jun202017

Prodigy Moves On - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: CNN

Ayo I break bread, ribs, hundred dollar bills
peel on Ducatis and other four wheels
trite a book full of medicine and generate mills
tour the album, only for more sales

- Prodigy, "Keep It Thoro"


Yesterday, one half of the most formidable and forever respected
rap duos ever passed away. Prodigy. The H.N.I.C. The news hit 
many people hard due to the absolute abruptness of it. Like a
lot of situations these days, I had seen a report crawl across my
Twitter feed. I voiced my concerns and had 2 people immediately
respond. In the midst of that, I saw I had a missed phone call.
It was one of my old hangout partners from high school who 
has ties to that Queensbridge set. He confirmed the bad news.
Prodigy...gone. Only 42. The shock hit many of his fellow MC's
and got a lot of people quoting his lyrics. I was no different, 
choosing his opening lines from one of my favorite tracks from
The Infamous and an unofficial anthem for those who rep the
borough of Queens, "Give Up The Goods(Just Step)". As the rest
of the day unfolded, I started thinking about how much P had 
given to rap. And what that meant in the long run.

To those who came up in the borough of Queens as he and Havoc
set out on their careers, Prodigy was one of those dudes who
had a pipeline to greatness laid out. I hadn't realized that he 
had even been on the Boyz In The Hood soundtrack and that 
he had a deal with Jive Records until a few years ago. The first
recollection we had around the way goes back to when they 
first dropped as Mobb Deep with Juvenile Hell. Some weren't 
really checking for it, the only ads being those orange posters
featuring anime-like drawings of Hav and P with sickles that 
were posted in the windows of a dance school off Jamaica Ave.
The school belonged to Prodigy's grandmother (more on that 
in a bit). As a matter of fact most don't even recall that album
except for that one single "Hit It From The Back", which was
meant to be a house party grinding single. At least it was for
those who threw cut parties from school back in the day. So 
when the spring of 1995 rolled around, when The Infamous 
dropped - the shell shock of how gritty it was, how good it was,
how 'hood it was - knocked everybody out of their kicks. You
couldn't go anywhere without hearing that album. It was a 
universal joint. Imagine rolling past a park and hearing "The 
Start of Your Ending" out of the subwoofers someone installed
in their Nissan Pathfinder with the smell of nature in the air 
as you avoided stepping on empty fifth bottles of E&J on the
sidewalk. Or seeing at least one group of cats with a portable
boombox bumping "Give Up The Goods" no matter what 'hood
you happened to be in. That album helped define the NYC sound
in the mid '90's and put Prodigy front and center. It brought the
borough together on a whole - when I came up you still had a
bit of animosity between 'hoods. Jamaica Avenue was and is a
major thoroughfare for the meeting of northern and southern
Queens and at times it could lead to brawls and other situations
which I saw more of during high school back then and way less
of now. 


I got reminded by my boy Ty who I built with as I set out to
write this that at that time, there was a sentiment that he was
positioning himself to be viewed as one of the greatest all-time
lyricists. Even on fellow Queensbridge representative Nas' level,
and that's saying a lot. But in that time period from 1995 until
2000, it wasn't too much of a stretch. You had The Infamous.
Then Hell On Earth. Then Murda Muzik which I had heard about
2 different bootlegged versions of before it finally dropped. And
then H.N.I.C. That's a serious amount of good music in a five-year
stretch. That's not even taking into consideration his guest verses.
Joints like LL Cool J's "I Shot Ya" remix. "The Game" off of Pete
Rock's Soul Survivor album. "Hold You Down" with Nina Sky and
The Alchemist. Hell, even his last guest verse on AZ's "Save Them"
had some heat. Personal faves? His verse on "Back At You" from
the Sunset Park soundtrack and the leadoff verse on NBA Hall of
Famer and rapper Shaquille O'Neal's "Legal Money" track. P had some
bangers. Did he have a period where his skills had slipped? Yeah.
It's not uncommon for rappers to go into a zone where their skills
are at odds with the change in the tonal landscape of rap. You either
stay in your lane or you evolve to make your lane bigger. I would say
that he did the latter with Return Of The Mac in 2007 with The Alchemist,
which was the last joint he did before going in for a three-year bid for
possession of an illegal firearm. 

Prodigy appealed to a lot of people because of the fact that you
knew that he was a fighter. Willing to go toe to toe with cats on
the mic and off. Unabashed with his opinions. Think about this -
he and Havoc were on the front lines of the East Coast/West Coast
beef, to the point that 2Pac straight up talked trash about Prodigy
having sickle cell anemia. Prodigy was unfzaed - he ran up against
the Def Squad and Keith Murray in particular calling their raps "space
shit". His beef with Jay-Z is legendary for the fact that Hov got the
last laugh by throwing pictures of Prodigy from the old days at his
grandmother's dance school - the same one from the Ave - up on
the screen during a Summer Jam appearance at the height of the
beef. (It wasn't exactly a major revelation to those from Queens -
another of the homies had a sister who went to the same school.)
Through it all though, Prodigy was still someone who was going to
stand up and hold his own. 


The underlying effect of it all is that Prodigy had been fighting and
beating the odds for a long time on another level. Living with sickle
cell is something that one out of 500 African-Americans have to deal
with currently. There is no cure, although the debilitating effects of
it can be lessened due to lifestyle changes. When Prodigy went in
for his bid, it was a life-changing moment. He wound up using that
experience to teach himself how to eat better. And the man actually
wound up putting together a cookbook out of that that got major
acclaim. Hell, my own family members asked me about it when it 
dropped. He became part of the growing wave of voices that you can
say were mentors when it came to hip-hop and health at a time 
where it was needed which also includes The LOX, dead prez and
others. It added another level of luster to his legacy. And it's one 
part we may need to focus on more in the wake of his passing, since
all signs point to the crisis that eventually claimed him being brought
about by both the rigors of the road and the extreme heat he had 
to endure at his last ever performance in Las Vegas, Nevada as part
of The Art of Rap tour. Temperatures were registered at around 115
degrees. To the end, he was committed to rocking the crowd and 
must've fought through the onset of it all until he couldn't anymore.

Photo Credit: Supra

Above all, I think the best way to remember Prodigy is through
the spirit he brought to the rap game and the world. A spirit of
matter-of-fact realism, keen observational intellect and a limber
lyricism that reminds you of a skillful combination laid out by a 
middleweight champion boxer in his prime. Was he among the
best rappers lyrically in the game? Debatable at best. Was he among
the most respected? Undoubtedly. Folks will drink away the pain but
be glad that his music and his spirit will remain part of the culture.
Salute to Prodigy, Queensbridge's own and a true H.N.I.C. 

Saturday
Apr082017

Russell Westbrook's Historic Rise - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Sports holds a dominant position over the hearts and minds
of its fans for many reasons. One of those prominent reasons
is the fact that there are records that have been set in various
sports that to the naked eye, not only seem impossible to obtain
but to even break. Off the top of the head, there's baseball with
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak
of 2,630 consecutive games played. The lone undefeated season
record in NFL history still celebrated by the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
And in basketball, outside of Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a
game, the only other record that seemed out of reach was Oscar
Robertson's averaging a triple-double for the entire NBA season.

Until Russell Westbrook made this season one for the ages.

The 2016-17 NBA season was one major uncertainty for Westbrook
and his Oklahoma City Thunder. Mainly because the emphasis in
that first sentence was now firmly placed on the word "his" - Kevin
Durant made his fateful decision to join the Western Conference
rival and one of the best teams in the league, the Golden State
Warriors in the offseason. Adding to this, Durant apparently left
Westbrook out of any discussion over his choice, leaving a wide rift
between the two that hadn't even been realized before. Sports
media and fans ate it up because if there's anything that both
parties love these days, it's discord spread out on webpages and
newspaper print like a seafood feast at City Island. A lot of people
had an opinion that the Thunder & Durant were being hindered
because of Russell's all-out play which sometimes led to the disruption
of the team's offense. There was always this cloud hanging over
the team, a squad many felt could do better than one Finals trip
since both KD and Russell were drafted. A lot of blame was put
on Westbrook. I admit that I had my own doubts about him.

The thing about crisis when it appears is, it will show you what
disappears and what remains.

If there is one thing that can never be questioned after this NBA
season, no matter how the Thunder end up in the postseason, it's
that Westbrook's ability to lead a team through play and example
can never be in doubt ever again. The fact that he's averaged a
triple-double for the season is staggering enough on the surface
given the role of today's NBA player with outside commitments and
a more compact and rigorous schedule and international play. It
is when you dig deeper into the numbers that you realize that he
tapped into something that will further enshrine him in the legacy
of the game. Consider this - when he clinched the triple-double
season average this past Friday night against the Phoenix Suns,
he didn't even GET that stat in full - six assists that night put him
squarely in the average. Another point to look at - this season he
accomplished two rarities. He managed a triple-double without
missing either a shot attempt or a free throw. Also, he is the
first player since Karl Malone to average a double-double in rebounds
and scoring. On a slightly more dubious note, he also notched 
a quadruple double - with 10 turnovers in a loss. 

Photo Credit: Sporting News

All of this has occurred while he has been part of a dominant
and sometimes overwrought soap opera plot - will he and Durant
ever be cool again? That was what played out week after week
as the season began, with KD quotes that weren't too flattering
of Russ and his squad, and Westbrook effectively not making any
statements in kind except one social media image that spoke
volumes - a picture of a cupcake. The drama continued until
the All-Star Game in New Orleans, where one lob assist between
the two served as the knife to sever all that tension. But through
it all, Westbrook has not only proven he can lead a team, but that
he deserves to be put in the superstar pantheon along with Lebron,
Stephen Curry and Durant.  And SHOULD be the MVP - I don't 
want to hear any more waffling or statements that he and James
Harden of the Houston Rockets(who's having a fine season himself)
should share the award. Nope. Especially when you consider that
Oklahoma City at the sixth seed will face Harden's Rockets in the
first round and could knock them out of it. Would you want to
make a strong bet against Westbrook? In this scenario, I wouldn't.

When records fall, you don't really grasp the magnitude until days
after. The initial hot takes subside. History announces itself again
through the eyes of those who recall witnessing it or having heard
enough about it through those witnesses. The fact that Westbrook
did this as Oscar Robertson is still present to see it, is something
that should get your heart warmed up and should make you see
the similarities between the two. Robertson was a consumate scorer
and playmaker to the point that he raised ire and jealousy from a
former Boston Celtics great who was his teammate and coach, Bob
Cousy in Cincinatti. He also was key to NBA players having a say in
their own financial future through the advent of free agency. For
Westbrook, his sense of style and his moments where he has to
check reporters (we all know the famous mean mug he once gave
in the locker room) has set him apart from other players. That and
his unwavering commitment to the Thunder has softened even
some of his most volatile critics. It will be something to see how
the two greet each other in the wake of this regular season.

 

Wednesday
Mar082017

Hip-Hop Philanthropy In The Trump Era - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: HerCampus.com


We’re currently 47 days into the new Presidential administration
of Donald Trump. And it is safe to say that there is one word alone
that can leap to the minds of many to describe it - okay, two -
uncertain chaos. From the travel ban that has targeted Muslims
from six nations to rapidly increased deportation of immigrants
to frenzied deregulation, not to mention the tremendous cloud of
suspicion of foreign manipulation in the election and thus the
government, uncertain chaos is more than appropriate to depict
the feeling. And of course, people of color are squarely in the
crosshairs. What else can you call it when your current Secretary
of Housing and Urban Development is a Black evangelical conservative
neurosurgeon
who makes more news for ridiculous statements
and looking like a bemused doorman at press events? This climate
is why we celebrate news such as what took place in Chicago this
past Monday.

Chance The Rapper went back to his hometown and held a 
press conference at Wescott Elementary School to announce that
he was donating one million dollars to the Chicago Public Schools
system. This was after he met with Governor Bruce Rauner of
Illinois and went away with a high level of dissatisfaction with
possible bureaucratic stonewalling. The news generated a large
amount of buzz - but this is nothing new to Chance. The rapper
has been a keen advocate for the people of Chicago, from organizing
marches to the polling booths this past November to raising
over $60,000 for a charity that donated sleeping bags and
jackets to the homeless to now having a seat on the board
at the prestigious DuSable Museum.

Photo Credit: OurBKSocial.com

Jay-Z has also made great strides in this regard, announcing
this week that he is launching Arrive, a new company that
will be dedicated to helping startups launch successfully. This
is separate from his other startup ventures and expands on
his past contributions to these companies. Combine that with
his production efforts and placement of TIME: The Kalief 
Browder Story
, a documentary now airing on Spike TV that
chronicles the tragedy of a young man from the Bronx who
was imprisoned on Rikers Island without being charged for
three years. Browder was then released, and took his own
life shortly thereafter in 2015. The rapper will also be hosting
a town hall with fellow executive producer Harvey Weinstein
in conjunction with tonight’s broadcast. Jay-Z has stepped up
to bat for the people increasingly over the past few years in
both a public and private manner. In addition, Ice Cube also
is wrapping up a campaign to raise money for autism research
through sales of clothing bearing one of his popular lyrics.

So, why should this matter to you?

To have artists that engaged who is willing to use their
platform to mobilize and inform people is a wonderful thing to
see. It also may be the beginning of a resurgence of rappers
getting back and giving back in an increased fashion. It goes
without saying that there is going to be some skepticism
aimed towards rappers doing this. The easy play that is
enabled by some media elements (and reinforced by some
artists and their escapades) is that rappers are nothing
more than rapacious and unrepentant “thugs”. This is
the stick used to divide, demean and ultimately cause
indifference to suffering overall. This is what has to be
ignored. Some of us have spent quite some time wondering
why some artists don’t give back more to the community.
In a way, some do that to mask their own indifference or
chosen lack of engagement (I stress the word “chosen”
because it has to be said that not everyone is in a position
to give of themselves to causes depending on their situation.)
Having examples like this matter because it inspires others.
And in a way, it allows other people to not only get involved
with other actions from local groups and advocates but to
further spread the message to their circles. In an era
where news can spread like a wildfire thanks to social
media, the impact of these initiatives speak volumes. Is
it a replacement for the funds that will be lost to deregulation
and budget cuts like the one slated for NYCHA and the
Environmental Protection Agency? No. But in the face of
such stark change, one gesture can spur others. And we
need them more than ever. As much as we need more 
of the people to get involved, more than ever. 

 

Wednesday
Mar012017

How An Iceberg Becomes An Oasis - Chris "Preach" Smith


Photo Credit: Dandig.net

 

“I was born with small access to big dreams…”


That line opens up “Built By Pictures”, the third track from
the latest album by the prodigious producer and MC from 
Washington D.C., Oddisee. The album, and the artist, stand
poised to be another triumph of heart against and over the
vulgarities of the current administration of the United States.
The very name of the album, The Iceberg, holds a meaning
that the late Ralph Ellison would’ve chuckled at in appreciation
of it. It fits very well with Oddisee, who’s made a strong 
career due to carefully crafted atmospheric beats and lyricism
that provoke a great deal of emotions. The Iceberg dropped
last Friday, and the rapper is gearing up for another world
tour. This go-round, he’s gotten sponsorship from Carhartt
and another level of fans’ interest due to his message that
touches upon the Black American experience in the post-Obama
era as well as his own experience being Muslim in America
coupled with facing the xenophobia of the Trump travel ban
that affected seven nations including Sudan, where his father
hails from. 

Pushing all the talk of the latest rap beef aside for a moment,
I got a chance to truly listen to this album last night in lieu
of listening to the presidential address that had some elements
of the media and others rapturous because the president
barely managed to restrain his bombastic and narcissistic
tendencies. Hearing the album of someone who has literally
dealt with xenophobia masked as national security and patriotism
every time he’s traveled even though he was born here has
an entirely different note of truth to it. The Iceberg clocks in
at less than an hour overall, and it makes an ideal companion
to a walk in the city or as a backdrop to anything you’re working
on. Make no mistake though, Oddisee doesn’t create music that
lets you forget or even puts you in a place to cast aside thoughts.
“You Grew Up” is a perfect example. He speaks about both the
racism he experienced growing up in Prince Georges County in
Maryland and how such ire can lead to those choosing a life of
extremism no matter the place. This ability to express insight
into both sides of a contentious debate without sugarcoating
is something politicos and others could learn a great deal from.
This same introspection also shines through in tracks regarding
his own viewpoint on the current state of the rap game as well
as relationships and one’s own maturity.

Perhaps the best indicator of how impactful Oddisee is becoming
lies in one scene from a cold and crisp weekend afternoon out
on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I passed by a bodega with a sign
that simply said, “Our families are American families like yours.”
The door swung open, and what was playing? “Like Really”, from
the album. Sometimes the best message is one with more
feeling and heart than empty words. The Iceberg brings that
ideal home to anyone who has a true appreciation for what that
means in these troubled days.