Peace Fat Beats

DJs and lovers of vinyl are in mourning following the closing of the Fat Beats New York City store September 4, marking the end of an era in hip-hop.  After 16 years, the legendary chain known for promoting and preserving the legacy of hip-hop is closing up shop literally; the final store in Los Angeles will close September 18.

Before shutting its doors for the last time, Fat Beats provided its customers with a week-long celebration to remember.  Each day during its final week the iconic store hosted a smorgasbord of hip-hop talent and legends including Ras Kass, Artifacts, Masta Ace, Just Blaze, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Immortal Technique.

The closing of Fat Beats last location is another unfortunate example of the turbulence that has been affecting the record industry since the dawn of the digital age.   But there is an open window to Fat Beat’s closed door; Fat Beats will continue to operate through its online store, www.FatBeats.com .  They are also planning to open a hip-hop lifestyle location in the near future. 

Photo courtesy of Duane Smith

Balancing the Scales

My first introduction to David Banner was the video for “Like a Pimp,” a hodgepodge of booty-shaking women encircled by horny men and quick flashes of racist iconography.  As I watched him on my screen looking like a neo Kunta Kinte, running through a cemetery of the so-called “un-segregated new south” with a shredded Confederate flag draped around his neck, my first thought was hell had ascended to Earth.    Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Jam Master Jay must have been performing 360 degree spins in their graves.   Is “Like a Pimp” what the civil rights movement and hip-hop had been reduced to?  Was David Banner another country coon looking to sling the musical equivalent of crack rock to the music industry and make a fast buck?  What did this man really have to say?

As I learned more about Lavell Crump, I realized “Like a Pimp” was just one half of the complex coin that is David Banner – his stage name.  The persona of this Mississippi-born rapper is more than just “Like a Pimp,” “Play,” “Get Like Me,” “Cadillac on 22s,” or the writer, producer and arranger for Gatorade’s “Evolve” commercial.  What I would come to learn is David Banner is one of the most profound, engaging hip-hop artists/producers in the game; he is a graduate of Southern University, a mentor, an actor (with parts in Black Snake Moan and This Christmas) and funny as hell.  I also learned he is a part time New Yorker, owning a residence in Harlem.

Although my first taste of David Banner was watching “Like a Pimp,” my real acquaintance came this summer at 92Y Tribeca.  On June 29, Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg hosted a live Q&A with David Banner and 9th Wonder to discuss Death of a Pop Star, a collaborative album set for release November 9.  Since the event was open to public, I decided to arrive at the venue early, but it appeared that I showed up too early.  There were no long lines as I had anticipated, only a lone black man standing outside of 92Y Tribeca dressed in checkered button down t-shirt and jeans.  I thought he resembled David Banner, but he wore none of the clichéd adornment associated with hip-hop artists, especially one on his level.  Before I could fix my lips to say, “Excuse me, are you David Banner,” a few men joined him and they quickly entered the venue.  I entered shortly after them and sat in the lobby as people trickled in, once the lobby began to fill, the small theater was opened and the audience began to claim seats. 

While waiting for the session to begin, I sat and nodded my head to hip-hop classics.   In between vibing to EPMD and Big Daddy Kane, I began to question the meaning of the title Death of a Pop Star.  Video Killed the Radio Star is more than just a song, it is a fact.   Music videos have propelled artists into stars and created icons.  What was David Banner trying to purge with Death of a Pop Star?  Was he attempting to kill the pop star residing within, or was he trying to pull hip-hop back from the slippery slope of mediocrity that has been on heavy rotation on most major radio stations and music networks?  The music stops, David Banner, 9th Wonder and Peter Rosenberg take their seats on stage and my questions will soon be answered.   “Actually I had come up with the idea where I wanted to do something similar to the Actor’s Studio for rappers.  I feel that since I’ve been doing this album with 9th Wonder, people out there feel like all of a sudden David Banner can rap.  But I feel like I’ve been rapping all the time,” he explains.

“I think [it’s] because of our strong 808 presence, our southern drawl and the things we talk about are not on TV, so they are not commonplace. If I say something about Mississippi, people have no point of reference.  So I was thinking if [9th Wonder and I] did an Actor’s Studio, people would have the opportunity to hear what I was saying.  Charley Greenberg does my internet marketing and he said that Peter Roseburg does something similar, so we put our ideas together so we wouldn’t have to recreate the mold.”

The Q&A was extremely successful and introspective, even David Banner admitted the response was better than he anticipated.  The questions asked by Peter Rosenberg took members of the audience inside the mind of David Banner and 9th Wonder – two men that have shared the same experiences growing up in the south as well as similar views on the state of black music.  They also shared the back story of how the collaboration and the album came to fruition.  In addition, they revealed intimate stories such as the counseling David Banner sought after a personal crisis.  “I learned to write about it instead of holding it in.  You know a lot of the stuff I talk about in my music is true.  I can bare my feelings on a record and not really have to worry about no backlash ‘cause I’ll beat ‘em,” he says as we both break into laughter.  “A lot of people are going through some of the same things that I’m going through,” he adds, “but a lot of men connect showing pain with weakness and that’s not true. “   

Since the Q&A was an open forum, the session turned into a symposium about the current condition of hip-hop rather than just a typical celebrity meet and greet.  David Banner and 9th Wonder became eloquent spokesmen representing hip-hop with the same verve as a senator representing a state.  Instead of standing on their proverbial soapboxes and imploring the audience to buy Death of a Pop Star thus increasing their bank accounts, they enlightened those in attendance  about not only the elevation of hip-hop, or the lack there of, but also the business behind the art.  Most people will agree that the streets dictate what is hot.  Most people will also agree that once industry executives realized the monetary value of hip-hop, the artistry in the music began to diminish.  The phrase “Hip-hop is dead” has been the subject of many arguments and debates, it also came up during the Q&A and David Banner has an adamant opinion on the subject. 

“I think hip-hop being dead is some bullshit. I think the people that used to be in power are not in power no more [and] they can’t make hit songs.  They tell kids that hip-hop is dead because that is the only thing they can do to try to regain some power.  They can’t rap their way out of the hole.  Hip-hop ain’t dead to me,” he says, “hip-hop has always been a reflection of society.  Society is f**ked up right now so hip-hop is suppose to reflect that.  Kids don’t have a good educational system.  They don’t have good television anymore.  Where do kids get substance to rap about?  The problem is our parents made a lot of mistake in the ‘80s with crack and people trying to chase the American dream, and they didn’t raise their damn kids.  Then kids starting getting pregnant, they weren’t raised, and now you have children raising children. It’s our fault; it’s bigger than music. And black people are really afraid to address the real problem.  The real problem is not young black men rapping; it’s old white men in power.”

Besides creating a great dialogue about hip-hop’s longevity and the ills that plague its community, the Q&A also was a public listening party for Death of a Pop Star.  In between questions from Peter Rosenberg the audience previewed a different track.  David Banner commanded the members in the audience to change our focus not only literally, but figuratively with this album.  Death of a Pop Star is a tour de force, a pivotal album coming at a crucial time in hip-hop.  Instead of focusing on gimmicks, it harkens back to the days when pure skill, lyrical ability and hot music created hits.  Death of a Pop Star is a “grown ass” album for “grown ass” people, addressing themes that are a concern to any individual 30 and above.  The topics explored are so essential that members of Gen Y could also find a clue by listening to this album. 

Death of a Pop Star does not only attempt to restore balance in an industry dominated by ring tone sales and iTunes downloads, it also an endeavor that brings symmetry to David Banner’s catalog.  On “Slow Down,” David addresses stripper lifestyle many women resort to in order to make ends meet.  “Channel 3” is a revealing portrait about the trappings of success.  “A lot of people talk about what they would do if they had money, but they ain’t ever had money, so they don’t know the pressures that come with it,” he states, “I literally went from being homeless to running a million dollar corporation in two weeks.  The pressure from people, family, friends and everybody placing their problems on you, the pursuit of always wanting more…it just didn’t feel right.”

There is no facet of Death of a Pop Star that does not reflect a strategic blueprint aimed to provoke thought, even cover art is a stop –you-in-your-tracks conversation piece.  “I wanted to make people uncomfortable,” David explains about the cover, “I wanted people to wonder if it was a movie or a book, and if it was an album was it rock or jazz.  I wanted people to ask, ‘What the hell wrong with them niggas?’”

Music is similar to justice in the fact that it is supposed to be blind.  In today’s music scene, an individual can crossover regardless of color, creed or in some cases talent, but as countless cases have shown the public, the verdict Lady Justice wields can be determined by the amount of money spent on the defense.  Music is the same.  At the end of the day, it is CD, ring tone and iTunes sales that speak the loudest, not critical acclaim.  David Banner and 9th Wonder may have tried to even the musical landscape by creating a work that could be considered a future classic, however without the sales to prove it this album could fall into hip-hop obscurity.  David Banner has a message for all who like to chew on the subject of hip-hop’s future as an art form, “It all about the finances dude.  If you want hip-hop to be successful, go buy a hip-hop record that is where the power is.”

Photos and video courtesy of Audible Treats

Ladies First

For its first original music documentary, BET decided to put women center stage in My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-Hop.  The film discussed the idea what it is like to be a female in the male dominated realm of hip-hop from industry vets like MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliot, Trina, Eve, Medusa, Lady Bug Mecca and more.  My Mic Sounds Nice also featured commentary by Kevin Liles, Swizz Beatz, Chuck D, Quest Love, Russell Simmons, Jermaine Dupri, as well as members of the media such as Big Lez, journalist Smokey D. Fontaine and others.

The documentary begins with the start of hip-hop creating its buzz on the streets of New York City during the late 70’s, early 80’s and placed a much need spotlight on the female pioneers such as Angie Stone, Sha-Rock, Roxanne Shante and others.  It progressed into what is considered by most hip-hop heads and aficionados as the “golden age of hip-hop” during the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s as female MCs like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa and others cemented their place in hip-hop history.  The foundation these ladies paved ushered in what I call the “Hailey’s Comet “of female hip-hop artists – a flash of ladies that shimmered during the mid ‘90s and eventually faded into the horizon as the new millennium evolved.

My Mic Sounds Nice also explored the concepts of the hypersexualized MC like Foxy Brown, Trina and Little Kim, MCs that exploded based on talent and originality like Missy Elliot and Lauren Hill, as well as the pressure of being a female MC, a pressure Nicky Minaj is surely feeling now as she is attempting to resurrect the idea of a female MC back into the industry’s collective consciousness.

After the first 20 minutes, I was well on my way to giving this documentary a D+, and the “D” was not for dope.  I felt like I was watching an over packed suitcase bursting at the seams, bustling on an airport ramp to nowhere.  I contemplated how director/executive producer Ava DuVernay could cram over 30 years worth of history as well as the question of the disappearance of the female MC into an hour-long documentary.  But as the film continued, I began to see the method of her madness.   The film was just as elusive as the notion of a female hip-hop artist in today’s industry.  Slowly my opinion changed from skepticism to optimism.  My Mic Sounds Nice is not a hurried, crash course in being a woman in hip-hop.  Instead, it is a well crafted mosaic of opinions created to provoke thought and evoke change.  Like the peep shows that littered Times Square in the ‘80s, it played with viewers mind –   tantalizing, teasing, forcing the viewer to demand more as the credits rolled.  If Ava DuVernay wanted the streets to percolate with the question of “Where are the female rappers,” then she has certainly sparked the debate with this documentary.  I give My Mic Sounds Nice an A for astonishing and thank Ava DuVernay for tackling a subject that is long overdue.

Female MC’s From NYC

Jay Z Heads The Rap Pack

 

Back in the day when I was rocking my Lee jeans and shell toe Adidas and spinning windmills at house parties, my mind could never fathom that the genre of music that I thought belonged to my generation exclusively would grow to dominate and influence the world, much less be mentioned in Forbes.    But it has done just that; despite Gulf Coast oil spills, an on-going war, a wretched global economy and changes within the music industry that have permanently altered the way business is done and new artists are handled, hip-hop is a juggernaut that can not be stopped. 

On August 17, Forbes.com released its annual “Hip-Hop’s Cash Kings” list.  Brooklyn-born rap mogul Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) was ranked number one raking in $63 million over the past year.  Well, it seems that the foundation of “The Roc” was built on moola.  But despite having the bragging rights of being hip-hop’s top earner, Mr. Carter is still not the bread winner in his household.  That honor goes to his wife Beyonce who pulled in a hefty $87 million, now that is bringing home the bacon.  Harlem native Diddy came in at second earning $30 million. 

The secret to their earning ability does not just lie in their lyrical savvy.  Creating a brand that has several streams of revenue is what keeps these artists from being one-note.    For instance, Jigga co-owns the 40/40 nightclub chain and is part owner of the New Jersey Nets franchise.  He is also serves as co-brand director for Budweiser Select and is one of the producers for the Tony award- winning Broadway musical Fela!

Rounding out the top five were Akon with $21 million, Lil Wayne with $20 million and Dr. Dre with $17 million.  Hip-hop beef maker 50 Cent also appeared on the list at number fourteen grossing $8 million. View the complete list at Forbes.com. 

 

Sneak Peek: Dres of Black Sheep – “Doin’ It Wrong Remix” Produced By Jim B.

Van Damn, it looks like Black Sheep is back!  At least one half anyway,  Dres, the lyrical half of the legendary ‘90s hip hop duo Black Sheep will be releasing a new album this summer.  In anticipation for From The Black Pool of Genius, Dres has dropped a new video for the remix “Doin’ It Wrong.”  Take a look and stay tuned for F.A.M.E NYC’s feature on Dres as soon as the album drops.

 

Video courtesy of Audible Treats

Remembering Guru

On April 19 the music world, hip hop in particular, lost one of its most illuminating lyricists.  Guru, whose real name was Keith Elam, lost his over year long battle with cancer at the age of 43.  Guru was part of one of the most prolific duos in hip hop, Gang Starr which consisted of himself and DJ/ producer Premier.  Gang Starr was formed in 1985 and released six albums before disbanding in 2005.

I was first introduced to Guru in 1989.  I was tween fresh out of jheri curls, watching Yo! MTV Raps after school when I saw the video to “Words I Manifest.”  I was hooked from that moment on.  I watched him stand behind a podium and spit as if he was the reincarnation of Malcolm X.   Conscious lyrics behind a danceable sample are always a pairing for success in my book. 

 The combination of DJ Premier’s beats, Guru’s lyrics and monotone vocal delivery was nothing more than pristine.  Gang Starr soon became one of my favorite groups releasing hits like “Mass Appeal”, “You Know My Steez”, “Step In The Arena”, “Dywck”, “Just To Get a Rep”, “Ex Girl To Next Girl” and so many more.

Another reason I loved Guru and Gang Starr was their music set the blueprint for fusion of hip hop and jazz, a genre of music I grew up listening to courtesy of my dad.    Gang Starr’s music blended my childhood like no other group.

To me Guru was one of the representatives of hip hop’s golden age.  It was a time of great diversity and lyricism at its finest.   Throughout his career Guru showcased what is best in hip hop and it is through his and many other’s pioneering efforts that hip hop dominates FM radio and pop culture today.

Thank you for all the gifts you have bestowed on your fans.  Although you are gone in body, your spirit lives every time I hear your music and the light you gave to hip hop will never be extinguished.

Empire State of Mind Top Single for 2009

Not since Frank Sinatra’s rendition of New York, New York has the Big Apple had a theme song that unites, describes and inspires the way Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” has.  Jigga hit pay dirt with this single and the feature of Alicia Keys, another fellow New Yorker, on the hook.  Both these artists are at the top of their game musically and could make for no better New York duo.  The song seemed to be perfect for the time since the Yankees used it as their theme song while clinching their 27th World Series victory.  “Empire State of Mind” took on a life of its own; from ringtones to victory parades, this single was everywhere.  It took more than 30 years for hip hop to deliver an anthem dedicated to the birth place of hip hop.  Thanks to Hov constant creativity, “Empire State of Mind” has reached beyond hip hop’s global borders with a timeless anthem that will carry us into the next decade of the new millennium. 

From Harlem to Off Broadway Top off Broadway Production for 2009

Women had The Vagina Monologues; thanks to Jim Jones hip hop heads have their own soliloquies.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones first debuted off Broadway in 2008 and had a brief revival in March.  It was a theatrical listening party of sorts as it featured singles from his album Pray IV Reign.  The play appears to be an autobiographical account about Jim Jones.  Playing himself, Jim Jones returns to Harlem to take the audience through different sequences of his life –relationships with his baby’s mom, fake friends, the police and himself are all examined.  Ultimately Jim has to decide if he should give his street life.

Director J. Kyle Manzay makes great use of the stage blending props and multimedia to give the audience the ultimate Harlem experience.  When I think of Harlem, I think of a place where cats are always on the move, even when they are sleeping they are looking for ways to make moves.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones moved and Harlem shook from beginning to end.  It is a cleverly crafted showcase of an artist who is definitely on my top ten best rapper list.  My sincere hope is that more productions like it will be debuting in the decade to come.