You know how, like, 89 percent of rap shows are a clusterfuck of towel-waving hype men and a ragtag set of songs? This wasn’t like that at all. Castro and Zilla hit the stage with a definite purpose. If there’s one (humbling) thing I learned hanging out with these guys for two days, it’s that I have a long way to go in keeping up with hip-hop’s rich culture – past and present. Whatever I thought I knew, they inspired me to keep digging.
And it’s hard to illustrate what I appreciate in their intensity and preparedness much better than what comes across in this video I took on my digital camera. Don’t tell me you’re not feelin’ the drop at about the 39-second mark … “There’s nine rappers I actually relate to / the rest are a waste of my time.”
I’m embarrassed that I’m late to the game (no pun intended) on Random, a Philly-born emcee/teacher who has called Phoenix home for about four years.
In 2007, Random released Mega Ran, an album inspired by the video game Mega Man, complete with 8-bit beat samples from the game. That earned him a letter (on MySpace, no less) from the game’s publisher, Capcom, that Random assumed would be a cease and desist. Quite the opposite, actually: Capcom offered him an official license. As Random told Wired in 2008, “I really thought they would be livid that I had bastardized their tunes, but they really were supportive, and I thank them for that.”
Continuing the tradition, Random (aka Mega Ran) teamed up with producer K-Murdock of Panacea and released Forever Famicom in July, a 14-track ode to the Nintendo games of our youth.
I spent countless hours on the Nintendo – mostly playing RBI Baseball and Tecmo Super Bowl (with some Double Dragon and Contra thrown in there) – so I appreciate the inherent nostalgic value here. But Mega Ran’s ability to weave clever storytelling makes it more than a trip down memory lane.
After about three dropped calls in a failed attempt to record using Google Voice, I scrapped that plan and typed as fast as possible to keep up with everything Zilla Rocca had to talk about – from the pitfalls of the scene in his hometown Philadelphia to his love of noir fiction to 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers, his long-distance collaborative project with Douglas Martin. Between some random ellipses and shorthand I can’t remember, the gist of our conversation is spelled out below.
If you haven’t figured it out by now from this week’s posts, Zilla Rocca and Curly Castro are playing Hidden House Friday night (that’s tonight) with Random. Cover is a mere $5, so fork over your weekly allowance for taking the trash out and come have a good time. From Zilla’s description, their show is not to be missed.
Ever been to Phoenix?
No, never been. Only been to Vegas and LA out there.
For people who have never been here, I’m always curious: What’s Phoenix look like in your head? Like a hybrid of Raising Arizona and then The Tao of Steve. It’s either a crazy bugged-out Mad Max desolate area or kinda cool spaced-out interesting place where people drive motorcycles and play a lot of outdoor Frisbee.
What’s the Philly scene like?
The hip-hop scene is comatose. It’s a nightmare. It’s strange. … Philly used to be really vibrant and full of cool stuff around the beginning of 2000. The neo-soul thing – we were the place to be.
Even after that, in 2002-2003, there were live hip-hop bands, spoken-word dudes, slam poets, that was really bubbling, too. They were performing at really cool places. Problem was, all these venues started closing and promoters started moving on. I got in the scene around ‘05 and even from ‘05 to now, it’s just a ghost town. There’s nothing exciting. Everyone is playing to their base and their corner and their little neighborhood and circle of friends. There’s no reason to leave your house to watch anybody, nobody is transcending or doing anything different. … It’s a mess. There’s really nothing. Even guys known nationally, they’re not here, they’re not playing here.
Philly is where people go to get comfortable. It’s very nice and very comfortable. … No one wants to be into stuff. There’s a lot of posturing and a lot of conditional love. It’s really bizarre. I don’t really concern myself with the Philly scene anymore. … It’s strange. I’ve just seen it devolve in the last three years. Now, the only thing I do in the city is non-traditional stuff – art galleries, art festival or play with a band. I don’t do rap shows. I’m done with that stuff. You’re playing for the same people. You’re playing for other rappers.
It’s not an inspiring or welcoming, bubbling scene. But then people want to own it; people want to be king of Philly, but nobody cares outside of Philly. I’m surrounding myself this year with really cool and interesting people that have nothing to do with hip-hop – a drum-and-bass dude and graphic-design guy and comic-book geeks. If I’m gonna stay, I need to maximize my surroundings. There’s no musicians, no rappers that inspire me in Philly, but not a lot of rappers that inspire me in general.
What is inspiring you?
I’m reading a ton of comic books and more crime-based noir – Raymond Chandler, pulp-heavy books, Ed Brubaker. There’s different stories about people in disastrous situations and how they deal with it. I like that stuff.
How did you meet Random?
He came up to me three years ago at this place Medusa Lounge. I hanging out there one night and he came up and was really cool, really personable. I got his CD. It was decent. I remember randomly see that album cover in random places, just out and about, and I thought, “There’s that guy.” Then he moved, I think, three years ago. I did one session with him a year and a half ago. He’s really personable, really cool guy. He found his niche with Capcom video-game dudes and really just killed it.
He was in the scene for years and years, so for him to exploit the opening in the marketplace, that’s fantastic. He’s just a great guy. It’s good when you see people like him make it. I think this is first show I’m playing with him at the same time. I’ve always missed it. Everyone always loves his set. It’s the first time I’ve ever played with him.
How did the Shadowboxers project come together
I was writing column for Jeff (Weiss) and would do it every month or so. Douglas (Martin) was hearing my stuff and was a commenter because he really enjoyed it. He got at me and said, “I made a track and I hear your voice on it.” I had it for like a month. I told him, “I’m just kinda stifled, you got anything else?” He was like, “I just made something.” It was High Noon. Whoa, oh my God. That song just pulled out this whole other side of me. … It was tapping into something I forgot about for years.
Douglas sent me a few more tracks and they have these interesting titles for songs – it was like a puzzle. It was like what is Weak Stomach, and Eric Lindros? … And it kind of developed into this thing. His stuff is really challenging. Some songs I would do in two days and some I had for three months. He pulled out this whole other thing in me I didn’t know I had. It was so organic and dope.
It’s an Internet story of success, I guess you could say. It just became this thing and everyone I played it for liked it. It wasn’t divisive or weird or scary. And I’m like, “I’m onto something here with this.” So let’s put out the record and get a publicist, shoot some videos and do some promo. It’s really refreshing. I’ve done so many albums and groups and projects and EPs under various names and this works, this is what I like. I’m comfortable with this. I don’t hear anyone making beats like this. I can’t mail it in when I do stuff with Douglas. It pushes me. I like that. I don’t like making same songs or writing same rhymes or making same albums.
He cracked that door open. He didn’t even know. I didn’t even know. This feels normal, feels comfortable. Like putting on old jacket again.
You’re meeting Douglas for the first time this weekend in LA, right?
I’ve never spoken to him on the phone. Everything is e-mail, or texts every once in awhile, Twitter. I’ve seen him progress and do other stuff that’s interesting. He’s a really dope rock writer. I’m like, “It’s time to make some more beats.”
You have a new Shadowboxers album in the works? Kinda like piece by piece. We have two songs in the can now. I gotta wait on him for whenever he feels compelled. I’m an artist of many whims and transitions. He used to do singer/songwriter lo-fi folk at first and then, probably around ‘07-’08 started doing Shadowboxers beats like crazy. … I try to be cool with it and give him his space. I’m sure we’ll hang out and talk about this stuff.
So you guys are just exchanging the music via e-mail? Yeah and Douglas doesn’t give any notes. He trusts me to do what I want. He just gives me a starting point and it’s up to me to figure out what it’s about. None of it is on a whim. Not with his music. It’s very moody. I know it kinda sounds lame, but I have to be in certain places to write to what he does. His music kinda tapped into that.
There’s definitely a distinctive style and theme to the album At first when he sent me stuff, I wanted it to be separate from other stuff I was working on – more free-flowing, free-creating and I didn’t know what the hell it was. I would just write all this stuff down. That’s why I like guys like Raekwon and Camp Lo. Just sayin’ stuff that sounds really cool. I’ve always been attracted to rappers like that. So I was gonna make this a free-form thing. After I did it, Jeff said we needed dialog to tie the album together. All pieces of dialog and themes are from the movie Blast of Silence, a 1961 pulp noir movie. I became infatuated and was reading up on noir and Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’m into look of pulp art. It’s really gritty – thes eedy underbelly of the ’40s and ’50s. I thought, “Jesus, I could just do this all the time and make it this one thing and not try to be everything or industry.” I’m not trying to compete with Mickey Factz or Wale; I don’t really want to. We started calling it “noir-hop” on press releases. Noir is everything: suspense, sex, danger, crime, loneliness, alcoholism. The language in it is so good. It’s slang. And that’s hip-hop. Hip-hop is slang. I started shooting photos all dressed up like detective or hitman. I’m trying to make it this very specific thing. And when I’m on stage, it’s that.
I don’t have discipline all the time to be in character, but when I go on stage and write, that’s when I become this thing, this character or this noir detective. I went to the library today and got this Chandler book. I just engulf myself in it and digest it and give it what it needs to be. Guys that rap about drugs, those guys lived it. They know the emotions and how it feels. So I’ve been leading like a purposeful pulp life … it’s kinda like research. I just like doing this in general. Now it became my life. Before it was just a way to write a rap record.
Give me an idea of what the live show is like Just to tie it all in, what we’re doing is very specific. Had to really sell the imagery behind it and have some of voiceovers in between songs or before first song. … We’re just trying to give people an overall picture and feeling instead of me just rapping over an album. I want people to be weirded out at first or maybe they think it’s ridiculous or a gimmick, but maybe by end, they’re like, “Oh, this is cool.” It’s more exciting to have to get dressed up and I have to go to drycleaners. It’s more fun, like going on date with girl for first time. You gotta make sure you look right. This is new – no one’s done this. So how do we do this and people kinda understand what it is when we’re finished? We want them to be disoriented at first.
Are you worried that the imagery might distract from the music? That’s fine. Most rap shows are terrible. I don’t have a band. I have nothing else for people to put eyes on. If they never heard your stuff, they’re going to give you the first song and tune you out. If images are cool and beats are cool, then they’ll give me shot. People have no choice but to watch.
I know, these are all California artists, you say. But cut ‘em some slack: These are Phoenix first-timers. Don’t think I’ll let them leave the desert without educating them about Bombshelter DJs, Supermarket, The Shop, Blunt Club, Universatile and more (over some Four Peaks brews, of course).
Being asked to reveal the most influential Hip-Hop albums of my lifetime, the answers are almost infinite. So I decided to lessen the “Atlas pressure” on my shoulders, and focus on two albums that fortified and evolved my Past + Present styles of Rhyming.
Now I am a Brooklyn-raised 80’s baby. So i was present as the Hip-Hop lexicon was in its genesis. All the Top-to-Bottom pieces on the entire Subway system, the B-Boy exhibitions on every corner, and the new and fresh sounds coming out of Boomboxes as they pass each other on the block made up my New York state of Mind. And no release in the 90’s signified all those elements more than Funcrusher Plus, Company Flow’s LP.
From the audacity of Bad Touch Example to the illuminati-infused Population Control to the mastery displayed by The Indelible MC’s on The Fire in Which You Burn, Funcrusher Plus echoed dystopian/steel-sharpens-steel/NY Babylon Hip-Hop. I was into many a conspiracy theory and Co-Flow brought paranoia home with a pipe Bomb. The scissorhands cuts of DJ Mr. Len, the Graffiti-soaked lyrics of Bigg Jus (Lune TNS), and the Bombsquad-esque/Mantronix sound of El-Producto, made Company Flow the ultimate justification of my late 90’s Emcee-ing.
Co-Flow made it alright for me to rhyme on syllable overload, to drown my lyrics in New York Newspeak, and be part of the “Independent as F*ck” generation.
Fast-forward to now, as we witness the birth of Nu-Gangsta: Shabazz Palaces. I discovered the Gypsy Hip-Hop of Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces through their first video for Belhaven Meridian. It is an homage to the film Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett, and features a selection of their records from their two debut EPs.
The track that stood out immediately to my rhythmic sensibilities was played during the opening of the video: A Mess, the booth soaks in palacian musk, palaeer in vintage LRG, yes pure NS, uppowndet watermelon lips beat. The lengthy titles alone signify the inherent DOPENESS of the release. The biggest record to drop in 2010 (my honest opinion) parallels my own musical evolution. The “Nu Gangsta” motif exhibited by Palaceer Lazaro (formerly Ish of Digable Planets) & partner Palaceer Doug-e is a testament to DIY ethics. And focuses on the Music above all Else.
The lack of interviews, the stubbornness of not naming the musicians involved, the staunch stance to not take redit for the Solar-powered Phunk work, all coalesce to bring that “Nu Gangsta”, that adrenaline shot to Hip-Hop’s limp arm. 32 Leaves Dipped in Blackness… will bust your lip if you are not careful while listening. This is not your brother’s Hip-Hop, it’s your Godfather’s. It’s Bambaataa in a time capsule, accidentally cracked while digging for ancient Egyptian artifacts. It’s Pure Uncut Dope.
Thank you to Kevin and SoMuchSilence.com. I will be performing in Phoenix on the 24th of September at the Hidden House, alongside 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers & Megaran (Random). Hope to see some of you readers there. Won L.
We got a flyer now, so you know it’s official: I’m teamin’ up with Al Page at the Hidden House, one of my favorite weekend spots in the Valley, for a Friday night of live hip-hop that stretches from Phoenix to Philly.
It’s a reunion of sorts: Transplanted Philadelphia emcee Random, who calls Phoenix home now, on the same bill with a couple of his hometown homies – Zilla Rocca and Curly Castro. Phoenix singer MysticBlu is on the docket, too.
If the 100-degree weather in late September doesn’t floor Zilla and Curly, then the cache of Four Peaks beer I have in holding will serve as a fine welcome to our city. As it stands, Curly is slated for a solo set, followed by a performance as 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers, the long-distance collaboration between Zilla and Douglas Martin.
It’s gonna be a great night, and I hope anyone in the Valley reading this can make it out. I’ll have some goodies all week about the show. In the meantime, check the links for some essential listening and peep the video of Random on The Train Tracks below.
I can’t remember which song exactly – I think it was Wet Hair – but Japandroids managed to inspire a mini mosh pit of sorts at their show on Friday at the hot-and-uncomfortable-as-hell Clubhouse in their opening slot for The Walkmen.
It’s unlikely Heavenward Grand Prix, the third single in the band’s five-part 7-inch series of previously unreleased material, will inspire such self-inflicted body bruising. By Japandroids’ standards, Heavenward takes a bit of a mid-tempo breather from their usual frantic pacing.
Yet it’s still not hard to imagine the song – like Art Czars and Younger Us before it in the 7-inch series – fitting in on Post-Nothing, the debut album whose writing sessions birthed these tracks. At just eight songs, Post-Nothing probably had room to take on another song or two. But given the duo’s minimal aesthetic, some tough cutting-room decisions were likely made because none of these tracks in the 7-inch series feels like obvious throwaway material.
You can pre-order the Heavenward Grand Prix 7-inch, which includes a cover of PJ Harvey’s Shame on the B-side, at Polyvinyl’s website.
I picked up Freddie Gibbs’ Str8 Killa EP over the weekend while I was in Los Angeles, and I’m kicking myself for not knowing he played Fat Beats on Friday night as part of the store’s swan song.
I’ve had time to give the EP only one proper spin, after first getting over my initial shock that the standout Crushin’ Feelin’s didn’t find a place on the new release from its mixtape predecessor, Str8 Killa No Filla.
There’s still plenty to go around on Gibbs’Str8 Killa, including the final track, Oil Money, which features an all-star cast: Chuck Inglish of the Cool Kids, Chip Tha Ripper, Bun B and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who sings the hook but doesn’t make an appearance in the video below.
One of the more enlightening and interesting conversations I’ve had with any musician was an all-too-brief chat with Columbus, Ohio-based emcee Blueprint when the Paid Dues Festival hit Arizona in 2007.
If you’re not familiar with his work, you have no excuse now: Blueprint put together a 17-song best-of collection, which he’s made available as a free download. The collection pulls from his solo work and collaborative efforts, including Soul Position with RJD2.
Once you’ve digested that, you can move on to another project he just released, Blueprint Who, an EP that pays homage to/samples The Who.
Below you’ll find two tracks off the best-of compilation, which you can download in full here, and a video for Dream Big off the Blueprint Who EP.
More indisputable evidence that Ben Bridwell is one of the more genuine dudes in rock: He and two of his band members delivered a surprise performance of Marry Song at the wedding of a couple that got engaged at a Band of Horses show earlier in the year.
“Njal proposed to Elin at the Band of Horses show in Oslo earlier this year. When the Bride and Groom heard that BoH was to play a festival in Tromso on the same day of their wedding, they contacted the band and told them their story. With all the coincidences surrounding the wedding, the band said, “What the hell” and decided to surprise the couple. The band showed up minutes after landing in Tromso to play Marry Song at their ceremony. BoH was honored to be a part of the couple’s special day. Congratulations Njal and Elin!”
The groom seems torn between looking at his soon-to-be wife or the band.