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Saturday
Oct292016

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 
mountains.

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.  

 

Thursday
Oct062016

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
difference. 

Saturday
Aug272016

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
video.

 

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.
York.) 

 

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. 

 

Thursday
Aug182016

Ryan Lochte & The Tide Of White Privilege Abroad - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: NBC Olympics

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games are almost at
their end, and have gone on with all of the drama
one expects from the sporting spectacle and quite
a few standout moments. The International Olympic
Committee probably felt as if they were going to
see it end without any major controversy, given the
global speculation about the safety of athletes and
the fact that Brazil is currently in the throes of a
major political scandal with their former president,
Dilma Rousseff, impeached and awaiting trial under
a cloud of possible corruption from her opponents.
They figured they’d be home free.


Ryan Lochte has proven them wrong.

 

Lochte, the heraled American swimmer along with
his teammates Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and
Jimmy Conger claimed that they were robbed at
gunpoint this past Sunday night while returning
from a party at Club France to the Olympic Village.
In first hearing the story, it was curious how Lochte
made this claim and the Rio committee stated that
it wasn’t the case. Even more curious was Lochte’s
claim that he was like, “whatever” when a gun was
pointed to his head. After a few hours in the news,
the incident was picked up by global media and Lochte
faced a barrage of questions. The heat was on, and
apparently too much for him as he left the country.
Which was right before a Brazilian judge ordered that
he face questioning and not leave until he did. This
resulted in Bentz and Conger being pulled from their
flight home last evening. Feigen is still unaccounted
for at last report. And now it’s been found that the
entire “robbery” was one big fat lie, constructed for
the purpose of hiding a drunken altercation at a gas
station that apparently had Lochte and the other three
on tape getting into it with the staff at the station.
Complete with a broken door and pissing on the sidewalk
and cash to cover it all up. Yet there are still media
outlets who won’t call this what it is - criminally negligent
behavior unworthy of an athlete representing their
country. You have Mario Andrada stating that there are
no apologies needed, saying “We have to understand
that these kids are here to have fun.” For the record,
Lochte is 32.

Ryan Lochte has essentially thrown a cherry bomb into
the powderkeg that has been a bit dormant at the core
of these Olympic Games with these actions and further
added to a growing amount of voices questioning why
we should have the Games in the first place. Another
larger issue is at play here. Lochte didn’t just become 
another douchebag dudebro athlete with this. What he
has done is essentially exert a cutlass of privilege. Lying 
about being robbed in a city that has been known to
have an extreme amount of crime for decades is one thing,
but cast in the prism of being a white American in a foreign
city with a significant African heritage is heinous. It is
the triple privilege of being a white American athlete that
allowed him to do this and rope his teammates into it as
well. 

Photo Credit: USA TODAY

There have been precedents for this kind of behavior,
both hundreds of years in the making and now in
the present day. Think about how many stories you
have heard with international incidents of bad behavior
in other nations. How many stories have you heard
like this or this? It’s mainly been those that aren’t of
color, for various reasons. Then there’s an uproar over
how that nation treats them. I’ve been fortunate enough
to travel a bit, and I’ve seen the attitudes of some of
these people firsthand. Especially when they get sloshed.
Think about Brazil, and how much of this they’ve seen
in cities like Rio and Sao Paulo among others. Hell, just
go back to when you were in college and the tales you
heard after spring break. Lochte and these others could’ve
been hurt or hurt someone else, especially with the fact
that they fought a security guards. It’s as if the old maxim “free,
white and over the age” is still in effect. Which makes
this all the more wrong. It does shed a light on what is
deemed important by officials though. And it points out a certain 
hypocrisy among certain media outlets, and from those
here in the States as well who are sitting in bewilderment
over this major fabrication yet found more than a few
words to direct at Gabby Douglas for not holding her hand
over her heart after winning gold with her teammates in
women’s gymnastics. Nasty, hateful words that made her
teary-eyed at a press conference in a moment where the
nation should be lifting her up for representing them with
class and dignity. This incident by Lochte underscores the
sheer arrogance and meanness that unfortunately has
become stock and trade of some of our less humane fellow
Americans that we like to tuck away every four years for
these events. It’s also not a good look considering the 
bad behavior of some of our tourists abroad and even
a few of our Secret Service personnel in the past few
years especially in South America. Lastly, this behavior
rings deadly in a climate where in this country, you have
children of color being shot dead on the assumption that
they are criminals at first glance. What message do you
think this sends if Lochte isn’t held accountable?  

Lochte should be stripped of the medals he earned from
these Games and banned from competition for a year.
But it’s doubtful that will happen. Athletes are useful, until
they aren’t, especially those in the international spotlight.
In an Olympic Games where Black athletes, especially the
women, have proven their excellence once again, it should
behoove the U.S. Olympic Committee to get in front of
this and censure all four for their behavior.  Stem the tide
of white privilege, American style if only a little.  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Aug032016

Dummies On Demand - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: TheRapFest


About two weeks ago, the world caught a slight break on Sunday
from the political and social madness. This break came in the form
of two superfans - or super-stupid fans if you will - of Drake who
were so into the ongoing tiff between he and veteran MC and 1/4
of Slaughterhouse, Joe Budden that they decided to prank Joe. By
rolling up on him as he pulled into his driveway. You can guess how
it turned out from the lead photo above, but take a look at the
footage from the vantage point of these trolling buffoons:

 

Budden literally chased them down and had to repeatedly tell
them the next time someone would get seriously hurt. Of course,
he did this while throwing rocks at the car and causing some..
spillage on behalf of the once-brave Drake stans no doubt. He wound
up going to the house of one of the individuals afterwards and
spoke to him along with his parents, stressing to him the dangers
of doing something so outrageously dumb and dangerous. In
an interview after the incident, Joe did note that he had noticed
them hanging around the entire day and that it wasn’t hard
for him to find out where one of them lived:  “Because the Internet
will tell you everything that you need to know about someone.” 
The situation spawned a serious wave of memes that we all
enjoyed including Budden. Hell, he’s even making some paper
off of it
. But the underlying tone to this situation is one that 
should really make you pause. Especially when in combination
with another viral situation that took place that same weekend.

Photo Credit: www.mirroruk.com

The man in the photo above is a struggling rapper who goes
by the name of Kasper Knight. This genius decided that the
best way to shoot up the ranks of the rap game and to prove
his “realness” was to shoot himself in the face on video. In
case you can’t believe what you just read, he SHOT HIMSELF
IN THE FACE ON VIDEO. Then he uploaded it to his Facebook
page. After a wave of comments that ranged from horror to
disbelief, this cat decided to upload a second video all bloodied
and stitched up, even remarking that he might’ve swallowed
the bullet. He went on to eseentially dump all over his family
and friends, claiming “Your care for my life will never supersede
my disregard for it.” Knight even took WorldStar Hip Hop to 
task for not showing the video, claiming it was a racially-motivated
decision. At last word, police in Indiana were investigating.

As we’re in an era where all it takes is a short video clip to be
famous (take Antoine Dodson or Chewbacca Mom for example),
you can sit and say that this is par for the course. But then
you would be numb to, and dismiss something more important.
There are idiots out here, a nation of them, who wouldn’t mind
putting themselves and others at risk for fame and imaginary
success. I mean, when it comes to someone like Kasper Knight,
we can shake our heads at how incredibly stupid he is. But the
real question is, can you really laugh at someone who has that
much disregard for himself and others? He originally wanted to
have someone shoot him in the face for a music video. Can you
really look at someone like that and not wonder if he’d want to
go on a spree of shooting others for “shock value”? As for the
teens who stalked Joe Budden, that could’ve went sideways
really fast. Suppose Budden had a piece on him and was inclined
to feel like his life was threatened? You would’ve had someone in
the hopsital or the morgue and Budden in jail if he let off a shot
or two. And then there would’ve been comments from that crowd
that despises anything Black and/or rap-related quick to call him
a “thug” or “senseless” among other things.

The bottom line is, it gets to be a problem when you have such
an emphasis on quick viral videos as a way to gain fame and
money. It sometimes means that Black & Brown communities
get preyed upon the most in these videos, mainly by those who
are white or otherwise willfully ignorant enough to view them
as fodder to get clicks and views. I still remember seething when
there were two guys who felt it would be funny to go around
tougher areas of Brooklyn and step on people’s sneakers to get
a rise out of people. It wasn’t cool then and it isn’t cool now.
Look at that video of Budden and the OVO teens. Even as he’s
confronting them, the main one goes “okay, but follow me on
Twitter!!” And let’s face it, that fool may wind up being in a role
where he’s going to make decisions that impact you or me. Look
at your current election season for proof. You have to be careful
when dummies on demand are willing to go to any lengths for
some shine. In these days and times, it could be more dangerous
than hilarious.