Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rockaliser Radio: Plug One, Plug Two

I haven't made much of a big deal about this, and that probably needs to change, but for the past few weeks I've been hosting a weekly theme-based radio show on Radiohive.org (whose studios we used to record our "rockcast" last year). It's called Rockaliser Radio and you can check out an archive of past shows (with descriptions and track listings) here. Each week's theme is different, but I especially suggest checking out this past Sunday's "Prince Samples in Hip-Hop," in which I probe the mutually beneficial-yet-prickly relationship between The Artist and The Genre. You can stream it, or download it and put it on your "pod" of choice.

One bit of errata: I mistakenly said "Do Me Baby" features on Dirty Mind, when it obviously comes from that album's followup Controversy. If you spot other mistakes, let me know.

Here's a description of last week's show:

Though their respective rises to commercial and artistic prominence ran basically synchronous courses through the 80s (in terms of continual MTV and radio dominance), the dual phenomena of Prince and hip-hop have always had a somewhat testy relationship. True, the artist formerly known as The Artist has paid odd tributes to the genre in his own inimitable way, starting with his hiring of a rapper (Tony M.) to fill out his early-90s NPG collective and later asserting during one of his myriad “comebacks” that “If it ain’t Chuck D or Jam Master Jay, know what?/They’re losing” in the lyrics for the 2004 golden age celebration “Musicology.” Prince obviously knew and appreciated the contributions of hip-hop, even as his tastes tended to veer sharply toward the old-school; his own attempts at rapping demonstrate an affection for an earlier, less linguistically-sophisticated (say, circa 1982) era of the genre, during its chrysalis.

Luckily, we have a long way to go before your host is forced to go with “Prince’s Greatest Raps” as a theme, so don’t be fooled by the inaugural choice of “My Name Is Prince” (it still fits with the theme–”My Name,” one of the Purple One’s early rap numbers, itself features a sample of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”). Instead, this week’s show will focus on notable cuts which prominently (for the most part) feature samples of Prince songs. Prince wasn’t a natural part of hip-hop’s DNA from the start, the way Sly, James Brown and Parliament would have been–his beatmaking prowess was a later addition to hip-hop’s lexicon, and while there isn’t an amazing amount of prominent stuff out there, there’s still a great, unappreciated backlog of diverse hip-hop which deserves to be listened to and commented upon.

Apart from issues of timing, part of the reason that Prince samples aren’t as prominent or ubiquitous as they once were has to do with outdated sampling copyright laws, as well as Prince’s own grim history of hoarding intellectual property. Though, it’s clear that the Internet has allowed and encouraged impromptu remixes of Prince jams now more than ever (see several Girl Talk songs), by the same token the notion of a great, Prince sample-centered song seems less necessary in a pop-rap landscape where Prince tributes (think The-Dream’s last album) are a lot more common and easier to write. Most of the songs below are sort of throwbacks, in this sense, and feature all types of wonderful samples, from synths to screams to sheets of guitar noise–your host hopes some of this will be recognizable. In the listing below you will find links to the invaluable web database Whosampled, which is a great tool for cross-referencing hip-hop research. Think I missed a crucial song? Email me here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Iowa: A Musical Wasteland?

In many ways, Iowa enjoys an outsize role in American life. Incredibly, the first Democratic and Republican caucuses remain in Iowa, which demographically resembles mostly itself and the Dakotas. The state is a shorthand for pleasant, uncosmopolitan Midwesterness (this pops up in The New York Times often). The first electric computer, the Atanasoff-Berry, was invented in Ames. Even culturally, Iowa is kind of important: the Writer's Workshop is in Iowa City, and the state was home to John Wayne and Johnny Carson, among others.

But musically, Iowa has always been a wasteland. Or a graveyard--the most important musical events to occur in the state were both deaths. The first was "the day the music died," when a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed outside Clear Lake. You can blame that one on the Iowa weather and Roger Peterson, a 21 year-old pilot from Mason City. The second event occured when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off an already dead bat at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Des Monies.

Not exactly edifying stuff. To be fair, Iowa was home to Bix Beiderbecke, a mysterious Dixieland musician who played clarinet and piano. However, I have never really felt like Beiderbecke's hometown of Davenport was really a part of my home state, so I'm not sure how Beiderbecke fits in. I'll confess that I'm mostly ignorant about his music, but it doesn't help the state's case that he was born 108 years ago.

On the other hand, tiny Shenandoah, hidden in the state's Southwest corner, can claim a couple impressive musicians: The Everly Brothers and Charlie Haden. Neither of the Everlys was born in the state, but they spent a decade in Iowa during their youth, and went on to record the epochal "Bye Bye Love." Haden was born and raised in Shenandoah, and has impressive pedigree as a jazz bassist, having played with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, and in his own Liberation Music Orchestra. You can also throw in Meredith Wilson, of Mason City, who wrote The Music Man and set it in fictional River City, Iowa. If I remember the plot of the musical correctly, it concerns a con man who dupes a bunch of foolish Iowans, and then relents.

But that's a pretty small imprint.* Where are all of Iowa's musicians?

Not in the Iowa Rock n' Roll Music Association, the group who run something resembling an Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you visit the Association's website, you'll notice that the organization seems to cling onto any group from the 50's or 60's with an Iowa connection. I won't pretend like I'm familiar with many of the Association's inductees, but those names I do recognize do not belong to Iowans, or people with meaningful connections to the state. Examine the Class of 2000, for example. Inducting Buddy Holly just seems cruel, and the Association fails to present a real reason that The Trashmen count as Iowans.

So, aside from a couple jazz greats, and some guys who died or passed through Shenandoah, is Iowa a musical wasteland? Not entirely. For one, Bob Nastanovich lives in Des Moines. Nastanovich was a member of Pavement, probably the greatest band of the nineties, and also played with the Silver Jews. Nastanovich's role in Pavement is limited, musicially speaking. Sometimes he plays a small drum set, or a few synthesizer notes, or shouts backup vocals. But he's been a full member of the band since 1990, and his joie de vivre makes him Pavement's second-largest stage presence. I saw the band on their reunion tour last year, in St. Paul and Nastanovich asked if anyone in the audience was from Des Moines. A few hands went up, and he shared his verdict on the city: "it's getting better." He works just outside of town, at the Prairie Meadows horse racetrack. Of course, the Iowa Rock n' Roll Music Association has ignored the chillest guy in indie.

The IRNRMA haven't enshrined Ames' Poision Control Center either--it seems there's an aversion to, or ignorance of independent music. I saw a fantastic PCC show last summer in Athens, Georgia. I chatted with the band after the show--Ames had just endured its worst flood in a century, so I asked if their homes were OK. But those guys are lifers--they didn't have homes, they were on tour.

Worse yet, the IRNRMA has neglected an Iowan musician who is an innovator and genuine legend. I'm talking about Arthur Russell, a cellist and songwriter who grew up in Oskaloosa. He's best-known for his avant-garde disco work, which was released under names like Dinosaur L and Loose Joints. Russell was an important figure in the New York art scene during the 70's and 80's, doing things like composing 48 hour orchestra pieces and playing cello on a discarded version of "Psycho Killer." Russell died in 1992, of AIDS-related complications.

Like most Iowa musicians, Arthur Russell didn't leave much of a footprint during his lifetime. But that has changed since 2004, when Audika mounted a reissue campaign spotlighting Russell's work. A prolific songwriter, much of his work went unreleased, but Russell's music has connected with many people in recent years (the Soul Jazz compilation The World Of Arthur Russell has been particularly influential). Russell's "mutant disco" and cello pieces have been rhapsodized about and discussed elsewhere. I'll accept that at face value--it's not my favorite work he made--and instead nominate his country album, Love Is Overtaking Me, as the greatest Iowa album of all time.

These 21 songs, recorded between 1974 and 1990, are lovingly crafted, simple, and full of heart. Russell's compositions--even standards like "Good Bye Old Paint" sound like originals here--have a homemade warmth. The plaintive Russell is not a born singer, but his unassuming voice fits the material. Despite the modesty of his approach, Russell's lyrics will tear your heart out. You'd have to be inhumanly stoic--even for a midwesterner--not to be moved when he sings "I couldn't say it to your face/but I won't be around any more." In Russell's hands, small details--orange birthday cakes, putting records back in their sleeves, the warmth of a friend's arm--lend the songs their lived-in feel. He seems to draw on his Iowa roots often, writing about love and uncertainty in a way that recalls Big Star, but with a more rural bent. This is most evident on "What It's Like"--the album's centerpiece, almost Southern rock--where he sets the scene: "In Iowa/In the tall grass/there's a couple."

It makes sense, then, that Love Is Overtaking Me's cover features Arthur Russell standing in a cornfield. This is the best Iowa Album there is, proof that there's life, even brilliance, among the cornfields.

*Compare this to neighboring Minnesota and Missouri. Even when you factor in a per-capita offset (both states are roughly twice as populous as Iowa), the Hawkeye State's imprint doesn't come close.