Category Archives: art

“Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?” MF DOOM

It is hard to fathom the loss of DOOM (editing note – “all caps when you spell the man’s name”). I listened to a lot of MF DOOM and spent quite a few hours discussing, debating and analyzing his lyrics. I can’t capture the depth and weirdnesss of thoughts about DOOM in a single post – every time I sit down to outline this post I get a gigantic spider web of entwined themes.

Black america, slang, diaspora reflections, coded language in hip hop, sample choices, mocking, survivorship, graffiti, families, drugs and alcohol, masking, comic books, representation, sex, communication strategies and a million other threads travel through DOOM lyrics. All you can really do is pull some of those strings and hope that they spark meaningful thoughts.

So maybe we start with the fact that DOOM wrote about his death, his legacy and the fragile nature of human existence in his first song as DOOM.

Daniel Dumile emerged in the NYC hip hop sphere as MF DOOM for the potent first album Operation: Doomsday with the support of Bobbito Garcia and his indie record label Fondle ‘Em. Although Dumile had rhymed with KMD, this was a new incarnation for the artist with a new mask, lyrical style and stylized representation as a villain – exhaggerating every hip hop trope with double and triple entendres.

“On Doomsday/ ever since the womb/ ‘Til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say/ Right above my government: Dumile/ Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?”

MF DOOM “Doomsday” from Operation: Doomsday.

Dumile’s brother Subroc was killed in a car accident the same week that his band KMD was dropped from Elektra shelving their second album Black Bastards. The band was fired because of the album cover art presenting the hanging of a Sambo character – symbolizing the birth of a new Afro-centric Black man who refused to perform demeaning roles. Cue Dante Ross.

How do you make art out of this kind of stuff? DOOM is honest about his own upcoming death in the chorus, then he names the stakes. It has been DOOM’s day (centered on him) and also a apocalypse/catastrophe (doomsday) from his birth until his death. His tomb might be engraved (famous) or he may finish his run on this earth as an un-acknowledged anonymous dead person but he is going to work.

It is a weird thing to put in the middle of your comeback/vengence album. But for DOOM life and death never seem all that far apart. This is the opening track (after the intro skit) an honored place in the hip hop album – the centerpiece to tell a consumer if they should buy the album. It might seem morbid, but this is life and death stuff and that crucible produces amazing art.

Doom reports that he made the album while semi-homeless, sleeping on couches, battling doubt and an industry that didn’t understand or like him. Which forced a very intimate album. The samples are friendly (if you like 80s and 90s RnB – DOOM and his friend’s limited record collections) and looped with careful MPC skill by the masked villain himself (as he writes in “Operation: Greenbacks” he owns the crown in “microphone, beats or the wheeles of steel”).

For me this song presents a declaration of his rebirth into a new world of DOOM. The song is an invitation to understand an artist’s use of the medium of hip hop to embody his own will to re-define and rearticulate himself. From a traumatized rejected creative artist who had tried to do the right thing (KMD) to a retaliatory bad-man who was beloved and could also pay his electric bill. That transformation came through intention, lyricism, imagination and the follow-through to make something happen.

We can imagine the tomb as an end piece – the final resting place – but we can also understand the tomb as a transition between worlds. Most mystery cults (and the saccharine descendants like the masons) use simulated burial, re-birth and re-naming as ritual symbols marking a person’s change by committing to the worldview.

In similar ways the end of KMD, ending of intimacy (you don’t get to see DOOM’s face after this) and the death of Dumile’s brother come to a focal point in this song’s chorus. Like a mystery cult burying an initiate in a stylized coffin suffused in incense and low lighting only to have them emerge reborn and shrouded in a new costume and given a new name.

For the comic book loving Dumile, it is also the birth of every significant bad guy character. It is Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four comic book crafting his metal mask, studying esoteric magic and creating the character to plague the comic book heroes. It is a great story arc for an artist and Dumile could foster a literal mask to keep the public just far enough away from the actual pain while still talking explicitly about how much he missed his brother and was still angry at the journalists and record labels that had ruined he and his brother’s career.

The new DOOM, clad in the metal mask is ready to make fun of the goody goody rappers like KMD. Not only that, he wants their money, the credit and the praise. In his mini Jeopardy segment in the song, DOOM chooses the category “Means to the end” – he will do what needs to be done to get the money. He is “Bound to go three Plat / Came to destroy rap.”

Emerging as a villain from the tomb had to be liberating – and DOOM is free to drive off with sexy women, brag about his toughness in jail, mock the current so-called tough guy rappers and play with verbal expression without any limitations other than being the best. And that is what made him a villain in their eyes — and a hero in ours.

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Filed under art, capitalism, communication, critique, disaster, hip hop, media, memorial, music, punishment, race, representation, resistance, rhetoric, vulnerability

Ghostfacemas 2020: the conservative discourse of the Ghostface Killah

Some decades ago I began celebrating December 26th as Ghostfacemas – at the time it seemed like a good pun on Boxing day.

But the annual return to the emblematic and lyrically gifted emcee is a good chance to think about Ghostface Killah in the current moment. It seems as though the hip hop of Wu-Tang golden era through the 2000s offered creativity and unlimited opporunities for growth. If you were talented, relentless and willing to match the moment then the world was your oyster. Cue the Wu Wear documentary.

Artists could make a living by spitting aggressive disrespectful bars spotlighted in videos of New York backstreets and bodegas made by friends, cousins and sycophants. I watched the RZA centered Wu-Tang: An American Saga which offers up the early years of the Wu-Tang conglomorate in glacial formation. The series has ended with the crew on the verge of what we know is industry-wide revolution.

In this series the Ghostface character comes across as heartfelt and desperate. A debonaire loyal friend with the need to earn money to support disabled siblings and a drunk mom. For those of us who spent years trying to decode Wu-Tang slang by rewinding the CD, the show was a revelation – background characters and stories come into visibility through memorized Wu-Tang lyrics. And then it all stops.

Amazing emcees with historic catalog of genre-defining tunes who get the veteran musician documentary treatment can still disappear (Ghostface Killah’s most recent album Ghostface Killahs charted at 25 on Billboard top 100, this video has a little more than 100,000 views).

I think that this experience of being squeezed out has guided Ghostface Killah to a more conservative discourse. The rhymes are crisp with clever inventive word choice (“My moms never knew she was nursin’ a wolf/And I wrote this on 9/11 covered in soot”) and the now-pattented rhymeflow that can only be Ghostface Killah (or Action Bronson).

But the subject matter is old. Guns, home invasions, objectification of women, liquor brands, fashion label, and the relentless juxtaposition of upper class symbiology brought to lower class contexts. I loved this from Ghostface Killah in the 1990s, but today it seems nostalgic and out-of-date. The fact that Ghostface created some of the most significant home-invasion fables of all hip hop history probably leads him to lean on this genre when it comes to 2019 recordings, but I find myself longing for a little more from Ghostface.

The other part that seems old is the use of the anti-gay slur “faggot” in a 2019 record. The last 30 years have been a significant period of culture change in hip hop. Hateful language and insulting slurs were the norm in hip hop and over the course of a few decades things have changed. The genre itself has opened, and the artists who record hip hop music select from a wider genre of symbols and narratives. There are quite a few hip hop artists who present a kind of repudiation of the traditional masculinity of hip hop (Lil Yaghty, Future, Young Thug).

The battle for the soul of hip hop can be understood as attempts of gender policing (Sean Price’s anger at emcees wearing tight pants). The small symbols and language of inclusion (and lessening of hateful language) should be understood as a genre discussing teaching, evolving and learning from itself. Careful observers of hip hop can map lyrical choices of emcees to understand how the discourse of the genre evolves over time.

Conservative hip hop vocalists might veer back into the gender policing of men in hip hop in order to dip into the well of hip hop authenticity. This is a tactic to identify who is real and who isn’t. But the cost is too great – the community of those who are comfortable with hateful slurs isn’t real hip hop – it is casual gate-keeping to create an artifical community that nurtures bigotry.

To understand the multiplicity of Ghostface Killer discourse should be a semester-long university course. The contributions of an artist who should be honored and critiqued in equal measure. Which is how we move forward into Ghostfacemas this year – critical, optimistic and savvy about the possibility that the next year might disappoint.

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Filed under academics, art, capitalism, communication, critique, disability, documentary, fashion, Gay, gender, hip hop, human rights, music, representation, rhetoric, sexism

Stooges: Look out honey cuz I’m usin’ technology!

Let this be a warning to you: you will turn your back on the Stooges three times before you realize your mistake!

I was a young punk and I didn’t like anything that wasn’t what I was currently playing on my cassette deck. The stooges just didn’t fit. They clanged out with punk that sounded too rock and roll to my purist ears. And the well-published Stooges story was all about punk as destructive front-man, a trope that I felt should be retired. At the time I valued music that was political, organized, focused and sober – pretty much the opposite of the Stooges.

My second invitation to listen to the stooges came when I taught for a summer at the Michigan Debate camp. The faculty (gathered from around the nation) were all housed in a recently renovated apartment building that was rumored to have been Iggy Pop’s. It was claimed that our apartment was Iggy’s and that I was staying where his old room had been. Payday at the end of a month-long gig was an incredible moment of consumerist joy and I remember weighing an Iggy and the Stooges CD, but putting it back in lieu of the 4xCD Stax/Volt box set (which changed my life).

Reading Gillian McCain & Leg’s McNeil’s book Please Kill me was my third chance to dive into the Stooges catalog. So many terrible stories of Iggy’s destruction and the aspirations of a generation trying to tell new stories with new sounds. Recording an album in Berlin with David Bowie that dabbles in gender play (a song called penetrate on a 70s rock album isn’t that unusual, but that tune is about Iggy being penetrated. )

Having been a music fiend my whole life, and with an origin as a frugal yankee, I look for the cheapest media with the coolest music when I’m buying second hand. I started buying a lot of records 20 years ago because you could get Stevie Wonder’s best songs for pennies at yard sales. In the last 5 years CDs have become useless to most people and they started selling a buck a pop or even less.

I spent a lot of my life desperately saving enough money to buy an $11 CD in a record store. To see an album I’d always wondered about for so cheap . . . sucks teeth. Which is how I found myself in a pandemic with a couple hundred CDs that I’d stacked up in a cupboard. I drew Raw Power from under a stack of abandoned albums because it was the right time and started really listening to the record.

The album is transformative – great guitars, excellent song-writing and some of the most 2020 tunes to be recorded at any moment. I was hunting for the making-of documentary that came out in 2010 when I came across a nice video of Iggy and the Stooges doing Search and Destroy in 2017.

Let’s skip all the body-shaming crap and ageist foolishness. It is great to hear a passionate song sung with passion by passionate people. I love Iggy’s plea for the crowd to save his soul that comes with the wild arm gestures. There is a clear juxtaposition between the naked and the clothed – Iggy of course is shirtless and glowing. But there is also a shirtless security guard who is moving around behind the amps. And there is a guy in the band shirtless playing a pair of claves. But every other member of the band looks like an 8th grade science teacher with tucked in dress shirts. There is the tiny club-sized set that Iggy has compressed into the center space of this festival stage. And the great contrast of how much space both sonically and physically the Stooges take up.

It is never too late to learn or investigate and discover the world. There is music out there that has not been heard and the day is just beginning.

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Filed under art, drugs, gender, juxtaposition, music, punk, rock and roll

Grant Morrison documentary

Fear draws out creativity – telling ourselves a story that we made up can be soothing. When we share our stories they go from sublime-to-mundane.

Good writers manage to capture some element of the sublime experience and convey it. Dragging some element of magic along in their prose.

Some writers make us feel more sublime than we have lived or experienced – their words point to something we can only imagine at that moment. Some rare writers create new possibilities by writing them into existence.

That’s Grant Morrison.

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Filed under art, communication, documentary, drugs, fashion, forbidden fruit, juxtaposition, learning, magic, rhetoric

Wingspan: creating inclusive boardgames

Wingspan and a tasty summer meal.

Long out of print in 2019, I was pleased to get a copy of the boardgame Wingspan this summer. Since it arrived we have played Wingspan almost every two days. Wingspan is one of the best constructed and fun to play games of all time.

Wingspan allows you to build an collection of birds in meadows, forests and wetlands. You operate mostly in solitaire mode, drafting birds, getting food and laying eggs for future generations. The mechanics resemble natural processes and the subject (170+birds) are simply beautiful.

The game play is very pleasing. I find myself lost in my own (almost solitaire-like) joy in strategizing how to get the right food to build a magnificent Golden Eagle or Mississippi Kite, the sense of competition falls away and I’m just in the zone. It is an innovative game mechanic – you finish every game wishing for one more turn.

Wingspan was created by Elizabeth Hargrave who has a robust life as a thoughtful board game intellectual. I’ve watched a few videos where she documents the process of creating Wingspan. She comes across as sincere, thoughtful and aware of issues of representation and power in all aspects of life. The below lecture given at the NYU Game Center is a good example.

https://www.twitch.tv/nyugamecenter/video/757846824

Hargrave outlines the creation of the game and the development of the innovative game mechanics. When given the opportunity she also unpacks some of the gendered assumptions about Wingspan (“Am I making games for women?” she asks at 41:20. ) The response includes this great slide:

Hargrave’s talk is for a group of students (MA and BA) who are studying game design. You can watch the video on a number of platforms, but watching it on twitch has the added benefit of seeing the commentary as Hargrave’s lecture unfolds. (This is also a refreshing juxtaposition, traditionally the text chat on the side of a twitch stream would be rapid-fire trolling copy/paste spam, replaced in this case by earnest classmates joking with each other and riffing sincerely on Hargrave’s arguments).

Hargrave is on top of the significance of representation in boardgames. She also shared the tools and strategies she used to build, and publish her game. She shares information about inclusive calls by game companies and scholarships for new designers. She seems earnest in a desire to open up games for new creators and to encourage sincere support for each other.

I appreciate the values expressed by this approach of game design. She also just comes across as cool. At 46:00 when she encourages future boardgame makers to experience wonder by making games about things that they care about or describing her ban on games that include castles, I got the sense that Hargrave would be fun to hang out with and game with.

One thing that consumers who share the values of inclusion, accessibility and nonviolence can do is BUY these kinds of games. Wingspan is published by Stonemaeir games and you can get all sorts of cool stuff there. I recommend the European bird expansion set.

While praising the game you have to pause at the incredible art that covers the cards of Wingspan. The hundreds of birds illustrated for the game are almost scientific-style drawings, but are really beautiful. You can check out the artwork of Ana M. Martinez and Natalia Rojas on their respective websites.

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Filed under Animals, art, communication, gender, juxtaposition, learning, media, nature, representation, science

1UP global graffiti innovations

I appreciate the thoughtfulness and strategic communication of the 1UP graffiti crew. The above videos are a pretty good representation of the trans-national cohort bent on leaving their shared name on any (un)available surface.

1UP have challenged the stereotypes before with their coral reef tag, and the #LEAVENOONEBEHIND campaigns. They are graffiti extenders – moving the practices of graffiti into new mediums and methods. The crew seem comfortable with a variety of new application strategies including the whole crew whole car strategy with the car in service, fire extinguisher painting, and of course repetition.

These two videos present some of the more interesting elements of 1UP practice. I’ll observe:

  1. Collaborative vacation. These videos document 2019-20 New Years Eve in Napoli. The crew pick a location and then paint up the town and socialize. They share a crew tag and a goal of making it beam from every surface in the city.
  2. interactions on the street. The 1UP crew zip around Napoli and paint on the walls with passersby interacting. These offer up some great moments like the memorial tag at 2:28. But the 1UP crew seem social, jolly, the paintings all seem pretty crisp and they seem to pass cans to people walking by if they express an interest.
  3. Include the failures. I really like the disruption of the standard graffiti video format. Including some high profile failures and semi-honest reflection about those tactics adds a lot to these two films.
  4. Strategic painting. Two giant cans of silver paint with fat caps allow a person to cover a lot of terrain. The use of teams (one person doing the fill and another to do the outline) and the multiplication of these roles if they are doing something larger was really impressive.
  5. Nostalgia. After a half a year of COVID-19 and stresses of the end of democracy in the United States, seeing a band of artists run through a European city on New Years eve seems like nostalgic hi-jinx.
  6. Vele. The Vele houses in the second video (10:45) offer up one of the best case studies of representation and voice. My concern is that it would be exploitative for the community members, so I appreciated that they foregrounded consent with the neighborhood and participation in the message-making.
  7. Art. I have some aesthetic preferences. Not sure what the face on the Vele houses was. Was not moved by the addition of the yellow streaks to most of the finished throwups. Really liked the rainbow drip piece. Appreciated the solid lines and old school letter styles used for 1UP across the project.
  8. Ethics. I’m sympathetic to anyone who was disrupted in their transportation to work. I bet quite a few people were terrified by the giant firework explosions. And I think that some of the crew shots of large gatherings of hooded men may seem menacing to some.

Overall these two videos are great examples of communicative strategy both in the video construction and the 1UP artwork.

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Filed under art, communication, cultural appropriation, do-it-yourself, documentary, graffiti, media, representation, Surveillance, technology

Canuck the crow

An amazing documentary about a crow named Canuck.  Worth a watch.

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Filed under Animals, art, communication, documentary, juxtaposition, kindness, nature

Money Mark and the paper Melotron

This video by the guitar pedal manufacuters Earthquake devices is particularly good.  Featuring Money Mark (artist and famed Beastie Boys collaborator) in a laboratory with some created tools to make music.

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Filed under art, do-it-yourself, documentary, music, science, synthesizers, technology

Berlin Kidz: Graffiti for the ages

 

 

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Filed under art, bicycle, capitalism, communication, critique, do-it-yourself, documentary, graffiti, juxtaposition, media, propaganda, representation

Synthesizers in motion: Bastl instruments documentary

This is a very enjoyable trip to Bastl instruments in the Czech Republic. Host Cuckoo is a charming interviewer and Bastl instruments showcase a people-oriented business.

My anticipation is that we’ll meet a lonely Eastern European modular maker, but what unfolds is a robust community has grown dramatically. Includes the boss describing how to avoid “poop face,” a woman modulating with a baby strapped on, Bastl’s boutique coffee plans, and a business where everyone is a musician. No really, it seems like *everyone* is a musician at Bastl.

Best part of the video is a chance to get some perspective from Peter Edwards (Casper Electronics) a circuit-bending scientist whose website has inspired a lot of people, including myself.

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Filed under art, capitalism, do-it-yourself, documentary, humor, music, synthesizers, technology