2 posts categorized "Reviews"

January 19, 2011

The Wisemen's 'Children of A Lesser God': Classic Street Rap in Full Effect

With 'Children of A Lesser God,' The Wisemen Deliver Classic Street Rap; But Don’t Call It a Throwback, the Essence of The Wisemen Has Been Here for Years


BeatTips Rating: 5/5

BeatTips Rating Breakdown

To be certain, The Wisemen's album, Children of a Lesser God, is quintessential, unmitigated street rap of the highest quality. I began here because it's necessary to point out. Why? Because at the moment, hip hop/rap music is overly “represented” (I use the term lightly) by three main unfortunate trends: (1) status quo safety efforts, you know, where the top acts do just enough to oil the mainstream machine; (2) lifeless beats and parochial rhymes [where sampling is surface-level at best, and where synth-based creations are either extra emo or just plain too “synthy”]; and (3) publicity-stunt rappers who say or do seemingly anything for attention.

Taken together, these three trends paint a disturbing picture of today’s hip hop/rap music. But this picture is, by any knowledgeable or sensible account, grossly incomplete. Truth is, there’s a lot of good, well-intentioned hip hop/rap music available today. Yet most of it is simply drowned out by waves of mediocrity. Thus in an environment such as this, we need albums like The Wisemen’s Children of A Lesser God to shatter through the Plexiglass.

When you think about it, it’s always been the quintessential street rap album (think Wu-Tang or Nas’s first LP efforts, for instance) that has had the best chance to cut through all the clown noise with something simultaneously threatening, enjoyable, and of course, meaningful. (Maybe that’s one of the reasons this album failed to get proper press coverage when in dropped back in October, 2010; ironically, on the exact same day as The Left’s celebrated Gas Mask. But I digress.)

That being said, street rap albums are a curious thing. They're difficult to pull off, mostly because of the balancing act of authenticity, creativity, and entertainment appeal. And they don’t always hit the mark established by similar albums from hip hop/rap hey-day eras. But The Wisemen’s Children of a Lesser God convincingly strikes the target.

Now, I’d be remiss if I did not mention that the Wisemen artfully use the Wu-Tang architecture as a guide. Here, let’s remember The Wu-Tang Clan: The Wu-Tang Clan were (and still are) in their own league; they were aggressively insular and self-contained; their slang, flows, and metaphors were the codes of their own world—outsiders be damned; they broke from conventional music forms; they rhymed to impress, to challenge, to compete with each other.

Many of these characteristics and qualities come to mind when you listen to The Wisemen’s Children of a Lesser God. And for good reason, as the clear Wu-Tang influence is an actual legitimate connection—The Wisemen front man, Bronze Nazarath is a recognized Wu-affiliate (his link to and work with The RZA has been documented). That being said, however, The Wisemen are not mere emulators of the Wu-Tang style, sound, and mystique; rather, they are the much needed extension of it. An extension, I should add, that is not homage alone, but inspiration, and more importantly, obligation. Indeed, The Wisemen seem to have a deep sense of obligation (duty) to maintain this extension (connection) and to keep alive the influence of one of the most powerful forces in hip hop/rap music history. Fortunately for us, they do a great job in this regard. (I especially liked Children of a Lesser God's inclusion of skits, an element unique to hip hop/rap—not always used or performed effectively—that Wu-Tang perfected.)

But homage and duty to Wu-Tang aside, The Wisemen are keenly devoted to representing themselves and their brand of self-contained community. Indeed, they are not given over to erasing the memory banks of their own background, just for the pursuit of an often romanticized hip hop/rap era (i.e. “the ‘90s”). Instead, The Wisemen understand that while past eras of hip hop/rap music may fade, the essence of these eras remain and never dissolve. As such, the characteristics and nuance of these eras can be studied and used by current music makers for the purpose of creating something that doesn’t simply attempt to mimic, but aims to be just as creative and mutually engaging. Where most of “the ‘90s” revival outfits miss this crucial understanding, The Wisemen absorb and internalize it, rendering a long player (album) that’s just as much reminiscent as it is authentically personal.

In fact, Children of a Lesser God demonstrates how The Wisemen reconcile Detroit’s unique sensibilities with other influential hip hop/rap cities. And I say this to make one thing clear: The Wisemen are NOT hip hop/rap carpetbaggers (like others I’ve noticed), avoiding the sensibility of their home town. On the contrary, The Wisemen are skilled music makers who have connected the rich soul music roots (and nuance) of Detroit to their hip hop/rap influences (some obvious, others not so much). Ultimately, this makes for a style and sound that authentically represents them (their specific interpretations of proven hip hop/rap styles and sounds) and their famed city.

BeatTips Rating Breakdown

Favorite Joints

“Thirsty Fish” ft. Raekwon
(Bronze, Salute, and Raekwon KILL this joint. One of the toughest beats I've ever heard! And Rae is in prime form; you can tell he was diggin' this beat—produced by Kelaar 7)

“Victoriuos Hoods” ft. Victorious, Planet Asia
“Makes Me Want a Shot”
The Illness 2
ft. Illah Days (Verse 1&2), Phillie
“Makes Me Want a Shot”
ft. Salute Da Kidd, Bronze Nazareth, Kevlaar 7

Sureshot Singles

“Thirsty Fish” (10)
“Children of a Lesser God” (10)
“Lucy” (10)
“Makes Me Want a Shot” (10)
“Panic at Vicious Park” (9)
“Victorious Hoods” (10)

Sleeper Cuts

“Faith Doctrine ft. Beace”
“Get U Shot”
“I Gotta Know”
ft. Salute Da Kid, Phillie, Bronze Nazareth, Illah Dayz

Solid Album Cuts
“The Illness 2”
“Do It Again”
“Corn Liquor Thoughts”
“Hurt Lockers”

Gripes and Weak Moments

Final Analysis

The Wisemen’s Children of a Lesser God is enjoyable. Quite a feat when you consider that most street rap albums are long on the “shock and awe” and short on the enjoy factor. I found that I was able to really chill with this album, you know, dig in to it. This album holds no skip through joints. Beats are not repetitive; each song lays down its own claim. And the song order; the lyrical quality (every rapper in the crew is distinguishable and more than capable); and the timelessness of the dope beats all combine to stop you from rush consumption. I’m also compelled to point out that I found Children of a Lesser God as—if not more—enjoyable than many of my favorite hip hop/rap albums (from the ‘90s til now).

On Children of a Lesser God, there’s no deliberate (or perhaps contrived) social commentary that you might expect to find from the likes of a so-called “conscious rapper.” Yet the social commentary comes through clear in an unflinching, “as told to you” manner. Of course there’s stories of crime, weed and liquor use, and sex-capades. But none of the subject matter on Children of a Lesser God is forced or meant as sensationalism. Instead, the material comes off naturally, with much nuance to take in and subtle lessons to be learned. I appreciate when lyrics inform, enlighten, and challenge without the stench of falsity.

The best parts of The Wisemen’s Children of a Lesser God, notably the songs “Thirsty Fish,” “Victoriuos Hoods,” and “Makes Me Want a Shot” exude a sound, polish, and feel that just isn’t equaled right now. This is not to say that there is no one else offering soul samples and hard raps. Of course there are. But many other acts who are using this formula (soul samples and hard raps) are doing little to draft their own unique blueprints from this foundational formula; nor are they doing a fairly good job at representing the pedigree for which they aim to emulate, match, or surpass. Does this mean that The Wisemen match or surpass the Wu-Tang Clan? No. But it does mean this: In their aim and effort to stay true to their pedigree and influences, they were, in turn, able to create something authentically theirs—something that will now stand for others to attempt to emulate, match, or surpass. That's the continuum promise of a dope pedigree.

Thus, my final overall evaluation of Children of a Lesser God? it’s a 5-star classic. Aside from its cache of razor sharp, crew-backed rhymes and hard—and often eloquent—beats, what truly makes an album like The Wisemen’s Children of A Lesser God a classic is not only it’s ability to take you back, but its enduring power to keep you focused here, in the now, while also giving you a glimpse of the promise of hip hop/rap’s tomorrow.


January 20, 2010

'Copyright Criminals' Comes Up Short

Sampling Documentary Too Limited in Scope; Does Not Succeed in Illuminating the Sampling/Copyright Issue, and Fails to Flush Out the Meaning and Cultural Value of the Art of Sampling

By Amir Said (Sa'id)

Last night (Tuesday, January 19) PBS premiered Copyright Criminals, a documentary film based on the art of sampling and the complexities that surround it. Billed as the examination of the "creative and commercial value of musical sampling," Copyright Criminals is mostly off base and surprisingly limited in scope.

The film opens with a very predictable titles on black definition of sampling:
"Sample (v)
1: to use a segment of another’s musical recording as part of one’s own recording."

I found this definition to be very misleading and rather disturbing. What's the purpose and significance of including the description: "another's musical recording," and not simply "sound recording?" The art of sampling—in its most fundamental meaning—is less about possession and more about creation, style, and reconstruction of any recorded sound that appeals to the would-be sampler. So as to where the filmmakers received that definition of "sample," is unclear. However, it is clear, right from the start, that the filmmakers intend to frame their discussion of the art of sampling in a context of ownership rather than one of art and/or cultural significance. Although I expected the ownership context (given the name of the film), I was surprised by Copyright Criminal's otherwise lax coverage of the cultural and artistic context of the art of sampling. Note. Heavy screen time with drummer Clyde Stublefield, member of James Brown's band (1965-1970), was appreciated, but not at the expense of a more thorough exploration of sampling's origins in the hip hop/rap and beatmaking traditions.

The next thing that I find rather troubling about Copyright Criminals is the fact that the film does not attempt to draw a distinction between the art of sampling in the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music and the current so-called “remix culture.” Instead, the film tries to (forcefully) situate the art of sampling as the nucleus of this remix culture. Wrong! The art of sampling does not come from, nor does it subscribe to, the parameters of remix culture (as first coined and described best by Lawrence Lessig). To be certain, the art of sampling—in the hip hop/rap tradition—is something entirely different than the “remix culture” of now. The art of sampling in hip hop/rap music is a direct outgrowth of the methods of early hip hop/rap DJs, a very critical distinction that Copyright Criminals mentions but fails to thoroughly flush out. Moreover, the film seems to ignore what the remix culture really is: the outgrowth of the combination of the outer limits of late 1990s hip hop/rap music, more advanced and accessible sampling technology, and the illegal download climate of contemporary culture. The latter component of this combination is never even raised in the film.

Copyright Criminals also features some rather curious interviewee choices.
Many of the interviewees (presumably drafted by the filmmakers for their expertise on the art of sampling or the legal complexities surrounding it) will be unfamiliar to most. More importantly, what was particularly disturbing was the absence of at least one hip hop/rap sample-based architect from the pioneering ranks that include: Marley Marl, DJ Premier, The RZA, Dr. Dre, Large Professor, Pete Rock (appears in a 3 second sound bite), DJ Shadow, Buckwild, Showbiz, Prince Paul, or the like. Indeed, some on-screen feedback from at least one of these pioneers should have been included. A discussion without at least one of them, or even a mention of them and/or their positions on and contribution to the art of sampling was, at best, irresponsible; at worst, it was negligent and reckless.

In fact, even just a bit of discussion with Just Blaze, or 9th Wonder, or some other post-pioneer sample-based beatmaker would have been more encouraging. And to be clear: I have nothing against DJ Abilities and Eyedea, or Sage Francis, or Miho Hatori, or Malmos (MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel). However, the question that begs to be answered is: What sort of informational reference point are the filmmakers trying to convey by featuring these particular artists (samplers)? Documentary films have the power of presumed authenticity. Thus, without any prior knowledge of the art of sampling, one might believe (assume) that these aforementioned artists (samplers) are indeed experts on or representative of the sampling field. Notwithstanding any of their talents or knowledge, however, they can not substitute for the 10 or so sampling architects that I previously mentioned.

I was also alarmed by the fact that the negative bias against sampling never seemed to be seriously challenged. Case in point is when Steve Albini (musician/recording engineer) rants against the art of sampling, using the very tired and superficial assessment of sampling as a “lazy” method of musical creation. Albini comes off as both an music elitist and someone who's clearly uninformed about hip hop culture, the hip hop/rap music tradition, and the art of sampling. In speaking about sampling he says:
“As a creative tool for someone to use a sample of a piece of existing music, for their music, I think it’s an extraordinarily lazy artistic choice. It’s much easier to take something that is already awesome and play it again with your name on it.”
Right. As if that’s really what the art of sampling is about.

The fact that the filmmakers chose not to include even one interviewee to directly address or counter Steve Albini's claims was rather disappointing to me. Moreover, to add insult to Albini’s woefully uninformed statement, right after he's done speaking, the film cuts to an image of MC Hammer winning an award for the song “Can’t Touch This” (1990), a song that uses a prominent sample of Rick James’ hit song, “Super Freak” (1981). This is an incredibly frustrating moment in Copyright Criminals, as here, the film seems to imply that not only is Albini right, but also that Hammer’s use of “Super Freak” personifies what the art of sampling is all about—as if that’s the only and most fundamental form of the art of sampling in the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music. And notwithstanding MC Hammer's commercial popularity, the film makes absolutely no effort to give context to viewers as to who MC Hammer was or his position in the hip hop/rap lexicon, or even how his use of sampling wasn’t even necessarily respected by his peers in 1990. Unfortunately, however, if you're unfamiliar with who MC Hammer is/was, which is the case for most current 13 to 30 year-olds, then this point is lost. But to perhaps give you context I'll say this: Using MC Hammer to personify the serious art of sampling is like using Diddy (Puff Daddy) to personify the serious art of complex lyricism.

Finally, as for the "copyright" spectrum of Copyright Criminals, there is much left to be desired there as well. I expected the film to include some discussion of what American copyright law and policy is. I mean, at least something on what the code of the Copyright Act actually says—especially as it pertains to sound recordings—was certainly warranted in a documentary of this nature. Unfortunately, there is no direct discussion of current American copyright law or even a brief break down of the original intent and purpose of American copyright law. Furthermore, although pivotal sampling infringement cases and suits are casually discussed and/or alluded to in the film, we really get nothing more than a glimpse of De La Soul's trouble with The Turtles, and Biz Markie's and Warner's problem with Gilbert O'Sullivan; we don't get the real picture (details) as to how De La Soul's and Biz Markie's predicaments affected the perception of the art of sampling and the subsequent legal policy towards it.

The Bottom line

Though there are some areas in Copyright Criminals that I found engaging and, at times, somewhat encouraging, (specifically the segments with media professor, Siva Vaidhyanathan), overall, the film just flat out disappoints. The fact that this documentary tries to (forcefully) situate the art of sampling within the new, supposedly grander "remix culture" is not only unfair to the chief architects and pioneers of the art of sampling, it's an utterly absurd gesture to hip hop/rap culture in general, as it implies that hip hop is a part of remix culture...not that remix culture itself is, in part, an outgrowth of the outer fringes of the hip hop/rap music tradition.

Furthermore, Copyright Criminals avoids delving deeper into the meaning and origins of the art of sampling, and how it might be reconciled with the original intent and purpose of American copyright law and policy. Indeed, make no mistake, Copyright Criminals is squarely focused on the art of sampling within an ownership (property) framework, not the context of artistic innovation or even the cultural parameters from which sampling was born. Because of this, the film comes off just as bland as some of the re-hashed, uninformed arguments made against the art of sampling. As a result, Copyright Criminals actually fails to illuminate the legal complexities surrounding sampling, and it offers no solution to or even a thoroughly clear scope of the problem associated with sampling and copyright law.

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