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The Fight Behind The Flashing Lights - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit:

The last 48 hours for Kanye West have been a hurricane
of news flashes, each more incredulous than the next.
The latest news, which reportedly stated that ‘Ye had to
have Los Angeles Police Department members summoned
to his house and resulted in the producer/rapper being
placed under psychiatric watch and hospitaliztion, makes
this another high-profile look at what may very well be
the onset of a mental breakdown. All of this after two
highly publicized rants at his shows, and the abrupt
cancellation of the rest of his Saint Pablo tour. It confirms
the worst of what many have suspected, and for others
it has been a spur to heap nothing but more jokes and

One recent name that comes to mind, is why I am not
joining the latter group: Deborah Danner, of The Bronx.

For those who don’t recall the name off-hand, Deborah
was a woman who had been struggling with
crippling mental illness. On October 18th of this year,
NYPD officers arrived at her apartment as they had done
so many times in the past - she had been hospitalized 
before in a number of incidents since her 20’s, as recounted
by her family and in her own writings revealed after
her death. A death that occurred after she was shot
by the sergeant who responded to the call, after she
had swung a baseball bat in a state of agitation at him.
That tragedy is added to the rising number of those
afflicted with mental health issues losing their lives in
contact with the police. It has spurred the NYPD to ramp
up mental health training for their officers on duty for
future calls, and the City Of New York has now installed
a helpline for those struggling with such issues to reach
out and connect with professionals who can aid them
in times of need. Too late for Deborah Danner, but perhaps
not too late for others.

Which brings me back to Kanye. Personally, I’m glad that
he’s in a position to get the help he may need. I don’t
know what struggles he may be facing, I like many others,
can only ascertain a theory. It all goes back to the passing
of his mother, Donda West, in 2007 after undergoing a
elective surgical prodcedure. There still hangs a heavy cloud
over what led to her demise, and last year in an interview,
‘Ye blamed himself. That’s not a thing to overlook. Add 
that to the fact that he’s survived a car crash that could’ve
taken his life a few years prior to her passing, gone through
a torrent of rage & dislike directed at him for his comments
on then-President George W. Bush during a televised benefit
for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2004, and then the
wrestling villain-heel turns that he’s incorporated into his
persona since then. His wife, Kim Kardashian, getting robbed
at gunpoint in Paris, France this past summer. The fact that
her having any more children could mean she could lose her
life. And the publicity-hungry side of her family that he has
to swim through. Kanye has been working and rising in
the midst of dark clouds for over 10 years. Ten.Years. As I
write this, it’s the sixth anniversary of My Beautiful Dark
Twisted Fantasy, an album some consider West’s best recorded
work. In hindsight now, that album was somewhat of a
full-blown essay that unveiled a lot about Kanye at that
point. That’s not to say that ‘Ye hasn’t made it a point to
be open and confessional in his music overall.

Photo Credit: FACT Mag

I’ve written about the need to seriously examine, recognize and
deal with mental health issues in our communities of color before,
given recent examples being seen through our celebrities like Kid
Cudi’s recent struggle. It’s not a coincidence that when Cudi got
out, one of his most recent public appearances was with Kanye
onstage. We’ve now seen three high-profile instances of possible
struggles with personal issues come out from behind the flashing
lights - one of them being rapper and controversial figure Azealia
Banks. She and West will get a lot more scorn and jokes because
of the sharp and erratic turns in behavior both have made, with
race, politics and gender at the root of their actions. Do they have
to deal with the consequences of their actions? Yes. Will they?
They are and probably will continue to, Banks more than West
due to her positioning within the eyes of the industry. Can one
have empathy for both of them while highlighting their mistakes
and intentional bad choices? Absolutely. Some fans of Kanye who feel
he has and can’t do any wrong are faulty because they wanted
him to be extra brash and projected their own personality hopes
onto him need to heed that last point. Also, those who want to
excessively dump on him need to step back a bit. Should people
use more empathy towards those in their own lives who may be
afflicted the same way? Absolutely. When you sit and ponder that
these issues in the community are rising, it’s a necessity that we
try to find some empathy in order to better guide our actions
towards those afflicted - even ourselves if we feel we may be going
down that road. Especially now, given that the holiday season
heightens these issues and incidents related to them. 

The fight behind the flashing lights has once again proven to be
all too real. Get well soon, ‘Ye. 


Instinctive Paths Of Rhythm In The Time Of Chaos - Chris "Preach" Smith

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep
creating they have to be about change.
- Miles Davis

It would be foolhardy to begin this article without at least
acknowledging the tragedy - travesty in the eyes of some -
that was the recent Presidential election. In sore times, in
tough times it becomes even more apparent that folks will
need to go to the well of community and love and creativity.
Every period of hardship, has been followed by artistic creations
that have not only depicted the mood of the times, but have
allowed those going through it to endure and ascend, and
speak to other generations as well.

In this case, the problem and the solution share the most
unlikely of birthplaces - Queens, New York. And it is the 
solution, the farewell album from one of hip-hop’s most 
iconic groups by the name of A Tribe Called Quest, that 
has brought some much needed light back into the epicenter
of the current state of the times.

There’s no subtle irony in the release of We Got It From 
Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
. When the news broke
a week ago that ATCQ was going to release a final album,
with ALL the original members, it spread like wildfire. To
do it on Veteran’s Day was even more poignant given what
the group from Linden Boulevard gave to the culture and
that one member is longer here to bear earthly witness
to how this album is being received. Phife Dawg passed on
this March, and this album is also a tome of gratitude to
his presence as the heart and soul of A Tribe Called Quest.
In listening throughout, Phife’s voice and spirit is highly
evident. It stokes a great deal of emotion at times on 
certain tracks, especially the last one. To some degree, it
is like the effect David Bowie’s Blackstar had after his own
passing that began the topsy-turvy year that is 2016. 

The album opens with “The Space Program” and immediately
puts you in the midst of what I’ve come to realize is a safe
zone for the soul. To hear the opening refrain - “we gotta
get it together for brothers…we gotta get it together for 
sisters…” you are immediately reminded of how much Tribe
owes to the armada of music that came before them and
how much it shaped their own sound. We saw ample evidence
of that in their Beats Rhymes and Life documentary and it
is used to the maximum extent here. “The Space Program”
lets you know you’re here to get lost in the rhythm, but you
will also hear some real deal truths. To hear Jarobi - Jarobi -
back on the mic in this fashion is another eye-opener just
off of these bars:

“space vessels off to Mars/population is overflowin’
what you think they want us there?/all us n****s
not goin’!!”

From there, the sequencing of tracks becomes more valuable
as Q-Tip flows over a synth-laden harmony of discordance that
has tinges of Loose Ends and Human League with bars that
speak directly to the angry and divisive rhetoric of Donald 
Trump’s presidential campaign. But Phife’s joining in provides
clarity and swagger to make the track have a positive underbelly
despite the ominous chorus. “Solid Wall Of Sound” is a welcome
melange of styles thanks to Tip’s production work with Jack
White, and Busta Rhymes steps in with his signature bravado
to tie everything together more neatly than one would think.
And that is another powerful factor behind We Got It From Here…
the amount of collaborative effort that both defines the beauty
of rap music and hip-hop culture as both truly American and
ultimately, global. German electronica, Jamaican reggae, Trini
soca, psychedelic and alternative rock music, even a touch of 
grime from the U.K. bubble throughout like a fine and hearty
serving of chicken and dumplings soup you’d get from the 
gleaming silver cookpot at your local pattie shop. Look at the
artists who took part on this album. Andre 3000, Elton John,
Jack White, Marsha Ambrosius, Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli,
even Kanye West. (Side note - I do think that on a sonic level,
We Got It From Here is successful because of what ‘Ye’s Yeezus
put forth but never quite hit the mark on consistenly in terms
of overall production capturing a bridging of punk & rock influence.)

(Photo Credit: Seattle Times)

We Got It From Here also serves as keen observation on the way
that rap has evolved. Take “Kids” for example. Andre Three Stacks
starts out with his deep and laconic style in a track that on the
surface seems to be an “old head” throwing shots at the current
generation of rap fans that dig the contemporary artists who some
view as having little to no substance. His wordplay with Q-Tip’s bars
depicting a young cat’s wanting to be grown and equating that to
material possessions makes this a track of understanding and
reconciliation once the two go back and forth to bring the lesson to
light - you have to have perspective. Andre 3000’s words here are
sharp as ever with some shades of the “Class of 3000” days. This
is real when you considered that ATCQ essentially disbanded in the
midst of the reign of Southern rap and the “bling” era. Another
generational and genre merge point is to be found on “Conrad Tokyo”,
with Phife joining forces with Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar to craft
a groovy and piercing track that could fit in 1995 as well as it does now.
Hell, one could even see this being done live with Bad Brains as a
backing group. Then there’s “Moving Backwards”, a highly introspective
duet piece with Q-Tip and Anderson .Paak. That track is lush, and
gives you some of the same feeling found on ATCQ’s The Low End
Theory. And then…”The Donald”. I had to listen to it a few times,
and felt a bit wistful. It is a fitting way to close out the album, with
Phife being the lead MC over a backdrop of Busta Rhymes providing a
‘90’s dancehall chorus to fit the cadence of production crafted by Q-Tip
and Jack White. At times during the album, you can hear Phife’s voice
slightly different but here - here is where the studio becomes a 
DeLorean-styled time machine. Also, I tend to believe that the name
of the track is more of a defiant middle finger to the reality-show magnate,
the signature “to hell with you”. Bear in mind, ATCQ rose to fame in
a city that was dealing with racial strife due in part to opposition by
some to the first Black mayor, David Dinkins as well as incidents like
the Central Park Five which Trump inserted himself into viciously and
without pause in true arrogance. 

In all honesty, what this farewell album does is the same as what 
has been brought forth by albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A
. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Solange Knowles’ A Seat At The
and many others. It is now part of the wellspring of healing and
revolutionary music that Black and Brown people - all people in the 
long run - can count as their own in these uncertain times. It’s right
on time and OF the time. That distinction can’t be overlooked. We Got
It From Here
also provides the perfect bookend to what A Tribe Called
Quest truly was. Think about the pop-up shop they’re putting on
this weekend. It’s located in Chinatown, a short ways from the site
of one of NYC’s most beloved concert venues, The Wetlands. Which is
now like many other cherished spots a victim of the onslaught of 
gentrification. Their appearance this evening on Saturday Night Live
with the great Dave Chappelle is also a reflection of a New York City
that many miss and only the stick-in-the-muds downrate. With this
album, A Tribe Called Quest cements their importance as one of the 
greatest rap groups of all time, but as one of the greatest influences
on music. Period. And in true fashion, they’ve given us the gift once
again of finding and keeping to the instinctive paths of rhythm we 
have had obscured in these dark times.




Ghostface Killah's "Ironman": Twenty Years Later - Chris "Preach" Smith

If there was ever an album cover that proved to be
prophetic for an artist, it would have to be Ghostface
Killah’s 1996 debut, Ironman. It was another stellar
output from the Wu-Tang Clan as they were at the
pinnacle of rap music, and one that began Ghostface’s
current run as one of rap’s strongest and prolific MC’s.

I remember running all over Long Island at this time
thanks to college and seeing the iconic poster with
Rae, Ghost and Cappadonna EVERYWHERE. Dorm rooms.
Mall stores. Construction site walls. And when the 
album finally dropped? Man. I recall playing that whole
CD at least twice the day I got it. It was one of those
albums that literally went with everything you did, a
day-to-day soundtrack that spoke to every fiber of your
being. Twenty years later, I see Ironman now as a
coming-of-age album - one where every emotion is
put up for display.

Ironman was groundbreaking for the vulnerability that
was intertwined with the swagger of the Staten Island
rapper in his lyrics. You get that sense the moment the
album begins with “Iron Maiden” and the dialogue sample
from The Education Of Sonny Carson, a Blaxploitation
flick I hadn’t even seen until this dropped. The horns on
the track behind Rae and Ghost’s effortless rhyming made
this a track that made you want to do 90 in an Audi on
the Belt Parkway. Cappadonna made his first forays here
as well, falling in with the established Wu tradition of
generous guest spots. The grittiness was established,
and then further bolstered by “Wildflower”. This track
is a snarling breakup song that veers into comical territory
with lyrics that are bugged out as hell - but something
you could see your boy saying even though he and you
don’t want to admit it. Women were NOT feeling that
track whatsoever - one cat I knew actually would play
that for a girl as soon as she walked into his dorm room
as a wink to others. But then, Ghostface would display
a romantic side worthy of WBLS’ “Quiet Storm” with the
sultry “Camay”. The beat on that track? Perfect backdrop
with the snare and the glasses clinking just as you would
imagine at a smoky bar. I’ve written about this track before,
and the grown and sexy vibe it evokes. Plus the quotable
factor? “Baked macaroni/turkey wings/a n***a starvin”
still ranks among one of the best Ghost lines ever out of
his verse.  

Ironman also contains one of rap’s greatest bangers, in
“Daytona 500”. The expert flip of Bob James to craft a
beat that is quintessential Wu could only be done here
by The Abbot. The fierce lyricism by Ghost, Rae & Cappa
is still thrilling - a line like  “I slapbox with Jesus/lick shots
at Joseph” being one of many. “Box In Hand”? Banger.
“Fish” is Wu Gambino glory at its finest, something that
one would imagine as the backing beat behind a shady
deal being arranged on a palatial terrace in Peruvian 

But as you get through the midway point of the album,
you find Ghostface truly shedding the untouchable persona
to reveal a truly reflective soul. No track personifies that better
than “All That I Got Is You.” Let me tell you something -
Ghostface reminiscing about the hard times growing up, as
Mary J. Blige sings a stirring refrain…if you don’t feel that
tug at your heartstrings, I may have to look at you sideways.
It’s an unexpected zone of realness mixed in with the songs
centered on that hustling lifestyle.

The sequencing of songs on Ironman makes the album a real
gritty masterpiece, almost like a Donald Goines novel turned
into an audiobook. There’s noir elements, confidence, soul
stylings thanks to The Delfonics and the Force MDs. There’s
also more of an introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths
sprinkled throughout. Ghostface has spoken of this album as
it being darker than he wanted due to his personal struggles
with the street life and finding out that he had diabetes at the
age of 26. His voice sounds different - partly due to the different
vocal compressors The RZA had to rely on in the wake of a
flood wrecking his basement studio, and partly due to these
issues weighing on him. But in expressing his lyricism that way,
Ghostface Killah became a beloved figure in rap. Much like the
Marvel comicbook hero he got his nickname from, Ghost made
certain to let you know that underneath the iron was true heart,
in all of its complexity despite the surface of swagger. It’s why
Ironman reigns supreme as one of his greatest efforts. And how
a rapper who took the name of a martial arts villain began to
pave a heroic career in the rap game.  



Kid Cudi & The New Road Of Rap's Mental Health - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: RunTheTrap

It’s only been a couple of days, but Kid Cudi’s open
letter to the public before he checked into rehab to
combat his ongoing struggle with depression and
‘suicidal urges’ has added more fuel to the fiery
conversation about mental health in the Black
community. And in some ways, it’s also crafted a
new road for Black men in particular with the rap
world being the vessel, evident through discussions
seen with the #YouGoodMan hashtag. The outpouring
of support Cudi has gotten, beginning with Kanye 
West who he had a publicized beef with just weeks
ago is heartening. And might not have been the 
case about a decade ago.

It aint hard to tell that this year in particular has
been alternatively triumphant and tragic for Black
people in America. Whether or not we each are in
a place to admit it or not, the struggle to just be
is that depending on how your situation is. In my
own case, I’ve grown to recognize and appreciate the
struggles of those dealing with mental health issues
in the community in all walks of life. Cudi’s letter 
and admission of his own issues parallels what I’ve
been witnessing for the past few years. Black people -
Black men now more than ever - are stepping up
and keeping it real as to how they are seeing and
dealing with the overt and covert pressures of life.
In doing so, they are slowly dismantling the years-old
precepts of not showing emotion. “Suffering in silence
is now being identified as truly harmful, yet it’s not
fully eradicated yet. This is mainly because a large 
number of folks in the community don’t have the 
means or access to clinical help as clinical depression
numbers have been on the rise.

Rap music has garnered many labels for itself, many
that focus on a mood that is a decadent and defiant 
bravado. A mood that can be translated in material 
means, from the “bling” era to “Money Aint A Thing”.
But for the past decade, we’ve seen more of the 
underbelly come through in rap. More of a deeper and
sometimes darker exploration of the inner workings
of the soul. Granted, you’ve had rappers and different
songs speak to these inner struggles in the past. Tracks
like Mobb Deep’s “Drink Away The Pain”, anything from
Scarface’s collection. Even Lil Wayne has dropped some
science on it. Kid Cudi’s own career has been essentially been
a juggling act of boisterous fun and clouded introspection.
Even now, you’ve got a slew of MC’s both popular and
not on the radar for contemporary rap who analyze these
issues of self and mental health like Kendrick Lamar,
Red Pill and Phonte among others. It’s vital in a time 
where state-sanctioned deaths of Black & Brown people
are dotting your television and social media feeds as if 
they were viral infomercials. It’s vital in a year where 
one of the presidential candidates has become poised to
totally turn the clock of American society back 50 years
and more if he and his base have anything to say about
it. To hell with reality TV, we need more of that reality rap.

Kid Cudi’s choice has laid more bricks down on a new road
in hip-hop culture. May he find the peace that he seeks,
and may his move help others to do the same. And the
next time you and your people link up whether it be a 
phone call, text or email, don’t be afraid to ask if they’re
good. Or afraid of the answer. You may just make a real


We Are The Celestial Travelers - OutKast's ATLiens, 20 Years Later - Chris "Preach" Smith

“In every part of the globe it is the same!! Hatred, fear and 
unreasoning have possessed men’s hearts! But the Silver
Surfer will have none of it!!”

- Silver Surfer


Listening to OutKast’s second album ATLiens, which celebrates
twenty years of existence today, carries a special meaning that
one might think is a bit far-fetched until you put the pieces
together. I tend to think that the second album by Andre 3000
and Big Boi was meant to be a lyrical starship. An album that
was meant to transcend boundaries, time frames and mind
states. And doing so in a way that fully enhanced what the
South had to offer the culture in a highly nuanced way than
what the culture had experienced previously.

OutKast had already proven themselves with their first album,
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Rich with potent lyrics delivered
in confident tones over classic bass-laden production that would
be the calling card of Organized Noise, that first album had
some bangers. I bet you that you still ride out to work with “Git
Up, Get Out” on your playlist. But they still got flack from a
base of listeners who were vehemently anti-Southern rap. For 
what I could tell then, a lot of heads dug what Andre & Big Boi
spit. It struck a chord as we were growing up, getting into those
young lion years roaming the streets of Southeast Queens and
the rest of New York City. And we were already feeling the rest
of the crew through the work of Goodie Mob, who had dropped
music that pierced the spirit thanks to the haunting “Cell Therapy”
the previous fall. So when the first single “Elevators” dropped -
MAN. The effect was an immediate rush that grabbed a hold of
you. I still remember tuning in to Rap City and seeing the music


Starting out with a heavy overture and Andre 3000 and Big Boi
leading a motley group through a swatch of jungle on an seemingly
alien planet? Then cutting to a young Asian-American kid reading a
comic book which delivered the story? “Elevators” was a triumphant
announcement of the new ground OutKast was breaking into. It
set the tone for what you were going to get from ATLiens - a
vessel to connect all of these different instances and elements
that in many ways made you feel as if you truly were an alien
in these United States. And the world if we’re being honest.
The duo hit you with that in so many ways both overt and subtle.
3 Stacks being seen as the above-it-all scholarly slacker who rocked
a turban, Big Boi as the cavalier hustler complete with the fresh Cadillac.
Both seeming to be fundamental opposites yet having so many
similarities in their collaboration. What “Elevators” did was tie
together so many things that mattered to me at that time - good
rap music that made certain situations more crystalline, a love of
science fiction that centered people of color, and comics. At the 
time, I was getting into Jack Kirby’s Eternals more and more in
addition to reading Octavia Butler and re-reading Frank Herbert in
addition to ingesting whatever Samuel F. Delany work I could get
my hands on. This was made a bit easier thanks to being in the
library in college. It helped me gain a further appreciation for what
was said on ATLiens, to understand that it was a message and a bridge.
(Side note - remember when some record stores carried that same
comic book with the album when it dropped? I still wish I had one.) 
Another note related to comics - this was the time when Milestone
Comics, the imprint founded by Black artists and writers, was now in
its waning moments. To have this album in conjunction with that
wasn’t lost on me.  

Think about how the album opens. Think about how real “You May
Die” is, even now with the heightened racial friction in this country.
It was, and is, a lesson, a parable, a balm. Simple, direct. Then you
plunge into the jazzy bounce of “Two Dope Boyz In A Cadillac.” That
track doesn’t get the props I feel it deserves for the feel of the
old-school park jam style of rap thanks to the cadence of both MC’s.
Sit and listen to it again. You’ll hear it. Sonically ATLiens is like being
lowered into a baptismal pool and feeling refreshed and anew with
those first tracks. You feel detached from the world, and that is owed
to the strong influences of dub, funk a la Parliament and reggae as
well as R&B from Earth, Wind & Fire. That last group factors into it
heavily because they along with George Clinton were the torchbearers
of space-inspired music with Sun Ra as the father. If you can, as I do,
remember growing up in a household where every Earth, Wind and
Fire album was treated with care and placed in a prominent spot in
your parents’ vinyl collection you know where I’m going with this.
And themes of space weren’t solely brought forth in rap by OutKast -
Eightball & MJG, Kool Keith, and many others were advancing that
concept(including the Nuwabian movement led by the infamous Dr.


As ATLiens continues on, that feeling of floating still takes hold
despite the tempo changes to create a truly mystical listening 
experience. “Wheelz Of Steel” was one of the few tracks not
produced by Organized Noise, but by Earthtone Ideas which
turned out to be a team of producers composed of Big Boi and
Andre 3000 along with Mr. DJ who contributed the scratches.
(Side note - I will forever remember my boy Govna from college
out of New Rochelle who made this his personal anthem anywhere
he went.) For me, “Babylon” still strikes hard and should be
regarded as one of Andre’s best verses ever just from how it begins:

I came into this world high as a bird
from secondhand cocaine powder
I know it sounds absurd
I never tooted but its in my veins

Let’s consider that for a second. These lines were delivered in a
time where we were not only just dealing with the after-effects
of the crack epidemic inflicted on us, but right as the rest of the
nation was beginning to plunge into crystal meth in the heartlands
and heroin was rising in the suburbs. “Babylon” itself is both a
sermon of keeping aware and keeping faith and a gripping
commentary from both rappers as to what really goes on beneath
the surface. To transition from that to “Wailin”? Pure dopeness.
“Wailin” is a Big Boi showcase, one that to me, proves that he
could be one of the most crackin’ battle rappers if he chose to have
been. And to close off that verse with a nod to the O.J. Simpson trial
which was still fresh on many minds? Superb. Then “Decatur Psalm”
punctuated with the sound of dropping into water?! Hearing all of
these cues 20 years later is for lack of a better term, mind-blowing.
And the emotional closing that “13th Floor/Growing Old” brings -
I have to admit that in a down period where I lost my Grandma
Smith, this was one of the tracks I leaned on to cope. The track
speaks directly to longevity and accepting the wisdom and maturity
that comes with age. Containing spoken word from Big Rube also
made an impact on me as I began to embrace poetry as a means to
amplify my own voice.  

ATLiens accomplished a great deal in that it helped to bridge a great
many things within the Black experience that at times seemed as
if they didn’t fit. It helped in further establishing Atlanta as that 
second great Black Mecca of the United States as it should rightfully
be seen not just on a musical level. You can see its influence today
in the vast nation of “blerds” online. It elevated Big Boi and Andre
3000 to veritable icons within rap and music as a whole. Both have
been on record as saying that they wanted to create an album that
would speak to their children and the next generation, one that
wouldn’t be solely concerned with the rising materialism being promoted
as the standard goals of rap music. From that point on, they didn’t just
look to the stars, they were firmly among them. And they showed us
that we could - and should be too. They told us we are the celestial 
travelers with ATLiens. And this is only part of the journey.