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Saturday
Jun042016

Muhammad Ali, The Magnificent Black Butterfly - Chris "Preach" Smith


I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be
what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

Muhammad Ali, 1942 - 2016 

Do you remember the first time you ever truly understood
what Black Magic really was, when it showed out? 

For me, one of those moments came when I was about 8 years old.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and I remember Pops had come home
from the office. The back door was open, and it was a cool breeze that
came in. The TV we had in the dining room then was tuned in to ABC.
“Wide World Of Sports” was on, and it was airing a boxing match. “The
Thrilla In Manila”, Muhammad Ali versus “Smoking” Joe Frazier. I had
seen Ali before in one or two kids’ shows, mainly the infamous “Different
Strokes” episode where he scared THE Gooch off Arnold’s back. Seeing
him fight, was a revelation. The surreptitious movements, the endurance.
The swagger that poured from him as much as the sweat did that day. I
felt it, even though this was a replay of a fight that happened before I
was a thought. Then I looked at Pops. His face was a mixture of calm,
assured delight. He grinned every time Ali danced, intently listening to
the play-by-play from Howard Cosell. That was Ali. That was Black Magic,
uncut. That was what he gave to US.

Photo Credit: AP

I have a dear uncle of mine in London, England. Uncle Pal, Leroy Silvera.
He went over to England to work in the 1950’s from Jamaica, & went on
to be one of the city’s foremost carpenters and construction experts. To
this day, while sipping a Guinness, over the phone, he’ll talk about how
he used to call himself the Cassius Clay of London and laugh. There was
seriousness to it - the moniker came because of how he had to put the
hands on a few racist blokes spurred on by Enoch Powell and others who
weren’t keen on Black Caribbean folks there. He admired Muhammad Ali
so much that he even joined a gym to hone his pugilism. Again, Ali was
a hero, one of the live wires that transmitted Black Magic to those who
needed it. 
 

On this morning, after 
Muhammad Ali has left this world, you’d be forgiven
for thinking that it simply isn’t true. Someone who has made history with
their heart as much as their fists, who’s that larger than life, shouldn’t be
bound by what mortal limits there are. I mean, consider the breadth of this
man’s life. Black. Boxer. Poet. Millionaire. Actor. Singer. Muslim. Revolutionary.
Philanthropist. Champion. If there is ever to be a visit from beings past our
ninth planet, it would not surprise me if after “peace” came from whatever
orifices they could speak through were the words, “Float like a butterfly,
sting like a bee!” Like I said, Black Magic transmitted. Floating. Stinging.
Lingering.

Photo Credit: AP


I take pains to emphasis how Black he was, because you’re undoubtedly
going to read and hear how he “transcended race in America”. That’s a
rope-a-dope that the system wants to you swallow. Ali wasn’t a sucker to
be blind to what ills this country suffered. There was a time where he was
the most reviled figure not only in sports in America, but the world. He was
outspoken about it, for our sake. Dig that - he was outspoken FOR OUR SAKE.
He was revolutionary, and willing to fight in and out of the ring for Black
people. He was keen on brotherhood, and peace and outspoken. He would
meet with anyone to do what was right - Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro. And
he would often be successful. It has to  be stated that way. Anything else is
an attempt to neuter who Muhammad Ali was. He faced up to the spite that
certain elements of this nation and society  threw at him, once he joined the
Nation of Islam, once he refused to be inducted into the draft. And he won.
AND HE WON. During a time where this nation was close to being ripped totally
apart due to the Civil Rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam War effort. We needed
that. He was one of a few Black athletes who was willing to take a stand for
freedom. He paid the cost. And entered a second act of greateness. The will, then
the skill. We needed that. We needed him.

And he gave, continued to long after the last bell. Long after his hands
slowed, and his speech slurred due to the creeping Parkinson’s that affected
him. But he fought it, to teach the world how to live with love and compassion
as his faith taught him. Think about it - even in the last years of his life, did
you ever see him slow down? Muhammad Ali was everywhere. Commercials,
books, magazine ads…proof positive that the man was an four-time champion.
The last being, a champion of life.  

Muhammad Ali, lives on. Long after the final bell, long after the cheers. He lives
on whenever someone laces up their gloves in the gym. He lives on in the ragged
breaths one takes as they’re pushing themselves to go one more mile. Ali lives on in
the steps of those on the streets marching against brutality and oppression. Ali
lives on in the joy that rises in the eyes of elders who remember seeing him in
the flesh. Ali lives on, in Louisville. Harlem. Rome. Kinshasa. Havana. Manila. And
all of the corners of the globe. Muhammad Ali will live on wherever there is magic,
and soul. And laughter. And like the Black butterfly he was, he has trailed
off into the horizon where everything is beautiful.

May he rest, and may we be better for him being here. 

 

Saturday
May282016

A Major Deal At Irving Plaza - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: Black Sports Online


I’ve always held fast
to the belief that the moment the temperature
rises above 80 degrees or higher in New York City, all kinds of wild
and dangerous activity increases. I’m sure that’s true most anywhere
else, but here it can take on a new shade of bizarre. And that would
definitely be the word to use given what took place at Irving Plaza
this past Wednesday night.

It’s been three days since four people were shot in the green room
balcony area at the concert venue during a rap show headlined by
the veteran MC & actor out of Atlanta, Georgia, T.I. One person, Ronald
“Banga” McPhatta, took a bullet to the chest and died later that
night. Another two people, including a woman named Maggie Heckstall,
were wounded. The fourth person? Troy Ave, who apparently shot
himself in the leg during the melee. As the night wore on into the
next day, it was determined that Troy Ave and his people including
Banga had words with someone else in the backstage area and it
led to guns being drawn. Currently, the New York Police Department
have placed Troy Ave under arrest upon his release from NYU Medical
Center, and detectives have claimed that all of the shell casings that
they’ve recovered to this point match the weapon that Troy Ave had
and fired that night. TMZ released video footage of part of the incident
Thursday, which appears to show Troy Ave letting off shots.

In the wake of this, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton went on
to state the following in the press conference: “The crazy world of the
so-called rap artists, who are basically thugs that basically celebrate the
violence they did all their lives. Unfortunately, that violence oftentimes
manifests itself during their performances.” Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly
refuted that statement in his remarks later that day, stating: “I think
that’s an American problem and beyond all of the issues of law which
we have to change.”

Taking all of this into account, the shootings at Irving Plaza have stirred
up a lot of emotion and anger and unfortunately, brought us back into
a mode of ultimately blaming rap music and hip-hop culture on a
whole in a knee-jerk fashion. I’ve grown up with, been let down by,
been lifted by, and ultimately love rap music. When stuff like this
happens, I find myself being a combination of historian and public
defender to those who aren’t into the music or the culture. Especially
if others rely on whatever they see on the television they watch, or
the webpages they go to. Hearing Commissioner Bratton’s remarks
didn’t surprise me. It’s customary to label an entire group as “thugs”
in sweeping fashion from those among his rank and file. I won’t deign
to stoop to that level and call all NYPD officers because I know better
and I don’t do blanket judgements. (Plus, given the ongoing drama
that his department is going through, those criticisms might be better
left unsaid.) The shooting at Irving Plaza only has one scant connection
to rap music, in that it was the vehicle that allowed two groups of
men into the same place to act like fools. That’s it. While there have
been numerous incidents over the past 40 years of rap music’s history
at concerts which have had tragic results, making such comments
ignores a lot of other factors. Plus, its interesting how easily we can
say this yet have no words on rising violence and deaths at country
music concerts
, or electronic music events, or even sporting events.  
I wonder why that’s the case. 

What happened at Irving Plaza? From what I’ve been seeing around
the web, it seems to be that Troy Ave and his people got into it with
some other group. They started to beef with each other. Then words
turned into fists, and escalated to gunshots. At first, there was some
speculation that he had a beef with Maino, who was one of the MC’s
on the bill that evening. Maino’s from Bed-Stuy, Troy’s from Brownsville.
Neighborhood beefs still spark tension. Maino has gone on record as
saying he has no beef with Troy. His set had just ended and he was
heading up to the green room when everything popped off. (Side note -
the woman injured is actually Maino’s girlfriend. She intends to sue
everyone involved.) There’s other speculation that the well-known
podcast host Taxstone was involved, and Troy Ave was incensed that Tax
basically kept cracking jokes on him on his podcast. Again, this is speculation
and nothing is verified. But Troy Ave does have a history, one that
doesn’t put him in the best light at times. 

Troy Ave has recently been in the news in dubious fashion, mainly
because of his comments about the late Capital Steez of the Pro
Era crew and Joey Bada$$. All of this as his debut album, Major
Without A Deal
, was released and essentially flopped according to
recorded sales statistics. Troy has made it a habit to mock others
online, even going so far as to mock the death of someone who
passed from brain cancer. And now, his actions have led to the
death of someone who was a close friend of his. Someone who
was dedicated to helping others avoid a path of violence along with
his brother out on the streets of Brooklyn. I’m sure there’s a ton
of jokes out there about him joining the “Cheddar Bob” club, but
if even one of these charges sticks, Troy Ave is looking at some
serious jail time. And he has no one to blame but himself. That’s
the price you pay if you want to prove you’re a major deal that way.
It goes back to what I had referred to earlier - part of the stigma
that rap music has gotten with these shootings has nothing to 
do with rap at times. It’s a matter of misguided pride and arrogance,
and sometimes that “crabs in a barrel” mentality that pits cats 
against each other instead of being glad someone is shining. It’s 
a combination that is encouraged by some in the street, and is 
exploited by some labels and media outlets. And some of those
entities have to accept some of the blame and change, not go into
the “respectability politics” mode and shift all of that onto the public.
If you don’t want rap music on a whole to be seen as gangster-laden
and violent, show off and promote artists who have a different 
message on equal footing with hardcore rappers. You know, like
you used to do?


Another factor to consider? The tendency to not pat down artists
or let them get a pass. This has been something long accepted in
the music industry on a whole. It’s why the green room or any
VIP area can look like a rock concert all by itself. That may never
change outright but you could see some restrictions. 

Ultimately, we have to look at this situation in this light: it was 
a stupid scenario that could’ve easily been smoothed over given
time. Rap music isn’t perfect overall, but we have to consider that
these incidents are now seen as rare. Most artists will take the
time to mediate disputes, and diffuse them. But that can only
happen when all sides want to do that. It’s clear Troy Ave didn’t,
along with whoever else is involved. It makes him the villain,
and as much as he brags about having all eyes on him I’m sure
this isn’t what he meant. But as James Brown once sang, you
pay the cost to be the boss. 

Thursday
Apr212016

Sometimes It Snows In April - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: ABC News

 

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last..

- Prince Rogers Nelson, 1958 -2016 


It’s been one full hour since I, and the rest of the world got
their hearts broken with the news that Prince was gone. In
that hour, there has been confusion, bewilderment, disbelief
and sadness. There’s a void now, one similar to what we all
felt when Michael Jackson took his leave seven years ago. 
It’s vast, it’s raw. And it will linger on.

I began the morning thinking about the impact of the late,
great Nina Simone who also left this world today 23 years ago.
It’s another reason that Prince leaving far, far too soon will
be on many minds - I once heard an old head on the corner
say in conversation, “The great ones pick when they go. How?
Because they are that great.” Today, it’s kind of hard to dispute
that. Amid all of the buzz and rush to confirm the news, I
found myself drawn to one song in particular. As you can guess,
it is the title of this article. “Sometimes It Snows In April”,
from the soundtrack to Prince’s second musical motion picture,
Under The Cherry Moon.  

As much as I love, LOVE Purple Rain, Under The Cherry Moon 
connected with me as a young cat as other critics assailed it.
It was a cheeky, spirited romp on the French Riviera that drew
influence from those Hollywood Pre-Code films I sometimes 
saw later on channels like Turner Classic Movies and other movies
that Pops would watch that featured Dick Powell and Myrna Loy
and many other stars. And it featured Prince and Jerome, brothers
whose swagger stood out despite the black and white scenery.
That and it being Prince’s directorial debut didn’t prevent it from being
seen as one of the greatest flops of movie history, sadly. But there’s
still some influential stuff from it that I dug. One of the scenes that
stuck with me is right here:

I mean, how utterly gangster is that?

The music from the film resonated with me too. It pointed
at a different direction from what Purple Rain had provided.
There was that same raw sexuality, the desire, the unabashed
personality, but it was smoother. It struck at the spirit. It 
told you to let your inhibitions down, your way. But the last
song, “Sometimes It Snows In April” hit me hard. From the 
very first lines, Prince sings with such emotion - but he lets
it build and build throughout until you feel yourself overwhelmed.
And yet, with all of that reflection, that passion - it still remains
a bittersweet ballad styled as a eulogy to what was. It also
sits as a reminder to cherish the good things that will pass
like anything else.

In writing this, all of these Prince-related memories came 
crashing in. I remember sneaking to watch Purple Rain as 
a kid, having a crush on Vanity and Appolonia and jumping
all over the room as the title track came on. I thought about
those earlier Prince records and songs, the utter funk that 
he had on their. Man, I will always point to his work on the 
original Batman score as some of the best movie soundtrack
work EVER done. Prince’s impact is immeasurable, not just 
as a musician, but as a thinker and artist. Who else could’ve
had the absolute balls to go around with “SLAVE” on their
face as a protest against his recording contract? Who else 
would’ve changed their name to a symbol and have it be 
accepted? And we all remember THOSE pants. Not to mention
his promotion of talented women musicians from Sheila E.
to Rosie Gaines from the New Power Generation days to his
all-woman backing band that rocked with him these past 
couple of years. Think about this - in the last few months, 
Prince never wavered in his activist sense, holding a tribute
concert for Freddie Gray in Baltimore and donating proceeds
to social justice groups all while supporting Jay-Z’s TIDAL. 
His legendary performance at the Super Bowl. In the midst
of an epic rainstorm. And many, many more instances of just
how great he truly was. He wasn’t just an artist of his times,
he was one of those artists who proved that they were for all
times, all seasons, all reasons. 

Photo Credit: Billboard

I know that there’ll be many more tributes, shared stories 
and memories that will be shared over the next few days
and weeks. I just can’t help thinking about, and playing 
that song. It’s helping me cope with the shock and disbelief.
But it’s also giving me comfort and purpose. Because no
matter what anyone else says, Prince is and deserves to be
regarded as one of the greatest artistic icons that ever graced
the planet. And that’s something we have to remind ourselves
of even as we process the news. Something we need to have 
as we share his songs and albums with everyone. There’s 
generations behind us that he’ll still influence. And the next
time it does snow in April, we’ll smile. Sadly, but we will smile.

Farewell to the Purple One. Your reign is undeniable.


 

Sunday
Apr172016

Addressing The Allegations Against Afrika Bambattaa - Chris "Preach" Smith



For the past week, I’ve had one or two people come to me in 
search of dialogue regarding Afrika Bambattaa and the recent
allegations made against him by Ronald Savage of sexual abuse.
One friend sent me a link to a story via Twitter. They followed up
with a question asking if they needed to get rid of their “Planet Rock”
vinyl record. Another person simply asked why there weren’t
more people talking about this.

The answers to both those questions, like the situation, is
highly complicated.

For those that haven’t kept up with the ongoing story, former
Democratic Party activist and author Savage spoke with the 
veteran radio host Star on a podcast and revealed that he’d 
been struggling with years of emotional damage - damage that
came as a result of being molested as a teen on five occasions
by Bambattaa around 1980. It was more painful to Savage since
he viewed the pioneer as a neighborhood father figure and refuge
from the streets. In the time since the story was covered last
Sunday, the New York Daily News has published another piece in
which three other men have come forward with similar claims.
The Universal Zulu Nation have issued vehement denials of the
initial charges by Savage in a full statement via All Hip-Hop. Afrika
Bambatta himself made a public statement to Rolling Stone, denying
the allegations as “a cowardly attempt to tarnish my reputation and
legacy in hip-hop at this time.”

Afrika Bambattaa is credited with being the godfather of hip-hop
culture, and rightly so. His contributions as a DJ, and as the
founder of the Universal Zulu Nation to the American and global
culture are undisputed. A brother from the South Bronx making
such an impact during a time when many left the borough for 
dead was, and still is inspirational. Bambattaa is an idol to many,
including myself. But when situations like this arise, you find
yourself having to wrangle with the fact once again that those
that have been lifted up onto pedastals may be pulled down or
may come crashing down due to their own flaws and decisions.
Even as I was working on the initial draft of this article, I found
myself really conflicted as to whether to speak on it. But I - and 
we - as a community, have to have this on the table. We cannot
sit and ignore the situation, no matter the opinions that may be
on either side. 

There are going to be folks who feel that even the continued 
mention of this situation will feed into an overreaching government
conspiracy to take down Afrika Bambattaa. They feel he is being
threatened, and as a result they are being threatened. But he,
and the Universal Zulu Nation have issued statements and are
still doing their thing. Savage, for his part, states that he has spoken
out as a way to support two bills currently in debate by New York State
lawmakers: one that would remove a 90-day claim window that is the
precursor to suing a government or public entity and the Child Victim
Act which would eradicate the statute of limitations in sexual abuse 
cases and give older victims a one-year window to pursue litigation.  
One of the other recent accusers, Hassan Campbell, acknowledged 
that he has met with Zulu Nation members and Bambattaa himself
to address his own claims of abuse in the past.

Another reason to discuss this situation at length, and frankly, with
each other is this: we live in an era where the court of public opinion
can and has proven to be as flawed as the current system of legal
courts has been in this country. We find ourselves in lengthy Twitter
back-and-forths and Facebook debates, not to mention the dank
ugliness that lies in the comments of articles and forums. The question
then becomes, how do I look at and interpret the situation to form my
own opinon based on what I feel is right?
 I think there’s the reluctance
to be caught up in those battles online that prevent folks from speaking
on this in a rational manner with each other, along with dealing with
those who put their ego above their point. There’s also the idea of the
fact that it’s men making these claims, which brings up rap music’s
problems with addressing and dealing with homophobia(i.e. Mister Cee),
not to mention how it has created a misogynistic environment that has
been accepted as par for the course in rap music. Not wanting to hear 
out Savage and examine the whole situation before making a judgement
is adding to what the harmful effects of power are: eliminating the narrative
that would compete -or not- on its own merit with the narrative of the power
structure in place. I do also think that it isn’t out of the realm to want
to hear more from Bam and the Zulu Nation regarding this. 

I often say at times, “Your faves are always going to be problematic. It’s 
up to you how much you can deal with from them, if you’re willing to do
so at all.” This situation is no different. The allegations against Afrika
Bambattaa are serious, and have to be viewed as such. I do feel that there’s
always more merit to a situation being discussed and confronted, no
matter how ugly it has the potential to be or how uncomfortable it makes
us. Because in that way, the truth will make itself heard one way or the other.

Wednesday
Mar232016

Phife Dawg, Forever Flawless - Chris "Preach" Smith



“Cuz where I come from quality is job one
 And everybody up on Linden know we get the job done”


I don’t think I can ever get used to hearing bad news
in the morning. It’s an unfortunate, but all too true part
of life. And this morning ranked among them, because 
I got the news that Phife Dawg, the Five Foot Assassin
and one-fourth of Queens’ own A Tribe Called Quest, left
this world. The cause wasn’t reported, but I and many of
us could figure that he just needed to rest. As I went on
throughout my day, winding through the neighborhood
I grew up in and still call home, here and there I could 
hear different ATCQ tracks being played. From cars, from
storefronts. Right now, as I’m typing this, the New York
Knicks are beating down the Chicago Bulls and the MSG
Network has been playing Tribe instrumentals at certain
breaks. I’d like to think Phife is up top enjoying the win,
but he’s also probably asking where was all of that finesse
earlier in the season.(And if you thought of the classic end
to his verse on “Problems”, you get some dap.)

Losing Phife Dawg is in some ways, losing another part of 
the New York City that made me and many others. New 
York City, and Queens for that matter. So much about the
city has changed, and not entirely for the better. The area
of Saint Albans is still standing strong, although a good deal
of people have made their way “down South” to Maryland,
Florida and other places because of rising prices and the 
city getting entirely too hectic. The Coliseum Mall, a place 
that Phife would hit up for kicks, is now empty and waiting
to be a real estate broker’s science experiment. Even though
Phife had relocated to Atlanta years ago, Queens was always
a part of him no matter where he went. That’s what we all
loved about him - he was the cat we’d see jawing with the
homies by the ball court waiting to get next or just chilling.
Phife was an everyday cat to us. Even as Tribe entered the 
rap scene with a distinct Afrocentric air that bordered on what
some would call “hippie”, Phife was the one dude who you
could see coming at someone’s neck either in a battle or 
on the corner.

Think about it - a lot of folks focused on Q-Tip for various 
reasons, but Phife not only held his own, he was equal to
Tip. THAT is what composed the core dynamic of ATCQ. It’s
more evident now mainly because of Phife’s lyricism which
made him one of the most charismatic in the game. I used
to get into a debate here and there with folks who felt that 
he was just “aight”. To me, Phife was one of the most versatile
lyricists from the “Golden Era”. He had the friendly, easy tone
that one finds with the great radio disk jockeys like Mr. Magic.
But you better believe he could SNAP on a track, earning
that Five Foot Assassin title with ease. There’s a bunch of
examples you can point to. His opening bars on “Buggin’ Out.”
The rapid-fire verse on the frenetic but harmonious “Lyrics
To Go”. The fact that he had arguably the BEST verse on a track
with Tip, Redman AND Busta Rhymes, that track being “Stepping
It Up” from ATCQ’s last album, The Love Movement. Even his
tracks as a solo artist had weight - if you haven’t had the chance
to, go listen to his Ventilation LP. It’s an album that didn’t get
the exposure it should’ve, and its a shame because it’s a solid
effort. 

Phife Dawg made an impact because he was also a visionary in
his own right. A sports fanatic who could never be seen without
a fitted or some sort of jersey, he was a connecting bridge between
that world and hip-hop culture and as a result, popular culture.
He parlayed that into doing some reporting on college basketball
and even scouting for different prep schools when not in the studio.
He also had a flair for tapping into pop culture with his rhymes
(who could forget the “Seaman’s furniture” line from Electric 
Relaxation”) and could also pepper his lyrics with patois that 
honored his Trinidadian roots and further bolstered his ties to an
area of the city that boasts a heavy Caribbean population. His 
visionary spirit also lay in his friendship and collaboration with
the late J Dilla, which would continue with another hit single in
tribute to the producer, “Dear Dilla”. He even had production on
that same Ventilation album from Hi-Tek and Supa Dave West
just before they both got major shine working with Talib Kweli.



So…I choose to remember Phife Dawg with joy and abandon.
I choose to remember him for what he meant and still means
to me, Linden Boulevard, Queens, New York City and the world. 
What right do I have to really, truly mourn too long for someone
who made his presence known so emphatically, but still managed
to be an affable and humble dude to everyone who crossed his
path. As much as there’s some pain in realizing that you’ll never
see him bounce on stage and spit fire into the mic again, can a
spirit like that ever really leave us? The man went through a serious
fight with diabetes and had to have a kidney transplant. Yet and
still, he kept on living and rhyming, doing it his way. I choose to
remember Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor as an inspiration. Hearing
his words pour out of a boombox in a bodega, seeing so many
ESPN shows pay homage to him - that’s the mark of someone
who was supremely and utterly flawless with his. And that’s
something that will live on in our hearts and in hip-hop.

Rest well, Phife. 

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