Thirty Nine.

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2017-11-13 18.19.55
39. Love. One of my favorite Tupac lines was always “last year was a tough one, but life goes on” – it always feels true. I turned 38 during a tough time in my life. My career was going well, my personal and professional relationships were solid, my kid was healthy and happy and my marriage was a good one. I should have been content. I was still in shock from a national election that seemed to foreshadow a dark future. It was a reminder that the past was not past.

I ran ten miles on my birthday that year because I hoped that I could outrun what was starting to feel like more than a standard post-election funk. There was a quote from an old Radiolab podcast that stuck in my mind – “if love and mercy are good things, why are they missing so much of the time?” I found myself listening to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker on runs. When he referenced the binding of Isaac in the chorus “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready Lord”, I was moved. I was ready to serve, but felt lost.

The running worked for a little while, but I didn’t really start to feel better until family came by for Thanksgiving. Cooking and talking to my extended family helped me feel balanced. I shared the story from the podcast with my family – how Robert Krulwich struggled with the meaning of the sacrifices that Abraham and Noah were asked to make in God’s name, about how much can be read into the silences of the Old Testament narratives. I told them that we all needed to find that love and mercy in one another. We were all we had. In the months that followed, the reactionary resurgence in this country was met by a wave of progressive activism led by an awe inspiring range of people from different backgrounds and cultures, with different experiences and gender identities, from a wide range of groups that could be defined as ‘left’. There have been a number of setbacks, but there have been some hopeful moments. I’m not under any illusion. The next few years will be extraordinarily difficult and we will all have to endure some challenging times. But we’ve got a chance.

I ran 11 miles this year for my birthday run. I originally planned to run to the veterans memorials on Long Wharf to briefly pay my respects, but I just felt compelled to keep going. I only stopped when my phone flashed a signal to inform me that it had 10% battery life and was going to shut down. It felt different this time. I felt content. I didn’t have anything to outrun.

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Cell Therapy (Or Am I Born To Lose, or is This Just A Lesson?)

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I’ll Be Coming Home With Our Future In My Pocket (Running Mix 7)

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(7) Dedication 2 (2006) DJ Drama, Lil’ Wayne

This is all about the tension between the sample of Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Cher’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), the sample of the Diplomats’ anthemic Ground Zero and Wayne’s vicious abstract boasts. This song is from the era when everyone almost thought that Wayne was the best rapper alive. He made his case for the throne by overwhelming us with albums, remixes, freestyles and random tracks that never made it on an official release. Wayne seemed to have an inexhaustible reserve of energy. Wayne’s best songs begin in media res, filled with lines that were uneven in quality but which always felt  spontaneous. There’s a thrill that comes from the feeling that you’re listening to someone in the midst of the creative process.

On a separate note, I’m still waiting for a rapper/producer to sample Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) in a way that comments on the meaning of the song. Bang Bang is a 1966 song written by Sonny Bono for Cher’s second album and covered by Nancy Sinatra in the same year. To my ears, it sounds like a torch song from the prior decade.

Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) is a song about how a man harms a woman (and about how men harm women) through rituals that appear safe and ordinary. It starts with a woman recounting a children’s game she played with an unnamed male friend, a pretend battle between good and evil cowboys that always ended with his victory. It’s a game played for ‘fun’, but there are echoes of real conflict beyond the reference to unrest during America’s westward expansion. She describes the sound of imaginary gunfire as awful and the listener isn’t just reminded of the jarring sound of actual gunfire, but all of the ways in which we sanitize the terrifying sound of a firearm discharge. The woman continues with a scene set later in her life. She is romantically involved with the male friend, who frequently reminded her of their childhood game that he always won. He seems to acknowledge that the game was more than play when he echoes her comment about the awful sound. The third verse takes place some time later after she married the man and he left her for mysterious reasons. The uncertainty is painful. When I first heard this song, I thought that he died. Maybe it was all the violent imagery that preceded that moment or the plaintive “never had a chance to say goodbye” line earlier in the verse that made me think that she had become a widow, but the line telling us that he didn’t take the time to lie removed much of the doubt.

I first encountered Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Bang Bang in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1, when he used it to accompany a silent black and white flashback of the Bride’s wedding day that ended in a brutal betrayal and assault – transforming emotional betrayal into an ugly, physical reality.

The songs that sample Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) tend to use the song for a similar purpose. The producer/artist typically sample the chorus to accompany or introduce violent stories that involve firearms. The resulting song highlights the darkness in the original by transforming the violent metaphor at the heart of Bang Bang into literal text. The blend of two incongruous works with superficially similar lyrics can also inspire some interesting, possibly unintentional interpretations of the finished product. Sometime the references to guns in the sample and the hip-hop song feel like a sly reminder that gun culture has always had a place of prominence in the American pop imagination. America’s love affair with guns predates hip hop. In some songs, (like Dedication 2) the sample suggests that the violence referenced in the hip-hop song is as imaginary as the make-believe gunfight between two children. More than anything, I’d love to hear a hip-hop song use it to explore the kind of relationship like the one suggested in Bang Bang – defined by power struggles and betrayal.

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Running Mix 0
Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes
Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 
Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 
Running Mix 4: The Thug N***** Have Arrived And It’s Judgement Day
Running Mix 5: Ain’t No More Sqad In Me
Running Mix 6: Bumping E-40

Bumpin’ E-40 (Running Mix 6)

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Bumpin’ E-40, three shorties in my 750, I’m 7-30, that’s twenty left, but no twenties on it

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(6) Becoming King (2013) King Los

I’m usually a big fan of lyrics that are evocative or carry meaning, but I love when mcs make me pay attention to the way words sound in combination. Los starts with one of the best intros for a run (Killer Mike takes the gold with this one because it’s still Grind Time Rap Gang – Bang. Bang. Bang.). He tells the audience that “it’s not about how bad you want something, how bad you want something is meaningless/if how bad you’re willing to work for the thing you want/isn’t ten times as intense as how bad you want it/I can’t sell you desire, I can’t bottle up passion/And give it to you in the form of some magic potion”. Once the intro is done, he goes into high velocity battle rap mode. The lyrics aren’t particularly clever, but it’s fun to focus on the speed of his delivery, the density of his rhymes and his rhyme schemes on a run, especially if my energy is low. The references to the legendary rapper E-40, a BMW and an examination to determine whether a defendant in a NY criminal action has the capacity to understand the proceedings are all entertaining on their own, but the internal rhymes throughout the song make it a worthwhile addition to the mix.

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Running Mix 0

Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes

Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 

Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 
Running Mix 4: The Thug N***** Have Arrived And It’s Judgement Day
Running Mix 5: Ain’t No More Sqad In Me

Ain’t No More Sqad In Me (Running Mix 5)

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(5) Moment of Clarity (freestyle) (2004) Lil’ Wayne

There’s a moment in any run when I need music to serve as a mantra. Moment of Clarity isn’t the most high-energy track in the world, but it helps focus the mind. Luis Resto and Eminem’s track pulses like a metronome. Wayne’s free associative style perfectly matches my mindset in that moment – I’ve forgotten about my goals or the pace that I wanted to keep – everything is focused on movement, on maintaining that sense of forward momentum.

Running Mix 0

Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes

Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 

Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 
Running Mix 4: The Thug N***** Have Arrived And It’s Judgement Day

Tuesday Evening Nostalgia (Nine Square Countdown Edition)

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1994 was a special year.

  1. Sound Bwoy Bureill, Smif-N-Wessun, from their debut Da Shinin’. I’ll be frank, the lyrical content of this song does not age well (hint: it’s the wildly homophobic lyrics). The production of this song is still top-notch. I’m not sure that anyone was better at blending hip-hop and dancehall than the Beatminerz. Smif-N-Wessun were one of the most underrated duos of the era. They had the darkness and menace of groups like Mobb Deep, but the horns and flutes in the background and haunting basslines suggest a world that’s slightly less bleak than Havoc and Prodigy’s Queensbridge. They created a sound and mood perfect for long subway ride.

 

     2. Time’s Up, by O.C., from his debut Word…Life. One of the things I love most about O.C. is that he felt more like a working artist than a wanna-be celebrity or mogul. He rarely sounds like he’s trying to jump on a bandwagon or adhere to some trend. There’s a refreshing sense of honesty he brings to this track – insistent without being self-righteous. Time’s Up is the kind of jeremiad against hip-hop that glorified violence and misogyny that was extremely popular in New York at the time, but O.C. adds a personal touch (“I know your folks, you was a sucka as a kid”) that distinguishes it from songs like Jeru the Damaja’s Come Clean. Buckwild’s beat is unforgettable. I can listen to this forever.

 

3. I Got A Love, by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, from their second album Main Ingredient. This is just a perfect blend of beat, vocals and video. I still can’t believe that this duo only released two albums.

 

4. Rockafella (remix), by Redman, from his second album Dare Iz A Darkside. Whenever I hear (or read) people talk about the great producers of this era – Dr. Dre, RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Quik, Organized Noize – I want to interrupt to remind them that Erick “the Green Eyed Bandit” Sermon deserves to be in the conversation. And no one does a better job of riding a Sermon beat than Redman.

5. Release Yo’ Delf, by Method Man, from his debut Tical. When I first heard Tical, this was my favorite track. Love the epic sounding vocals from Blue Rasberry.

 

Bonus: It Ain’t Hard To Tell, by Nas, from his debut Illmatic. It’s hard to explain how it felt to listen to Illmatic in 1994, but it quickly became a barometer of quality introspective hip-hop. Nas’ lyrics on this track are abstract, but there’s a sense of purpose and precision to his delivery that separates him from his contemporaries. When I listen to this song, I’m reminded of a time when Nas was the best rapper alive.

The Thug ***** Have Arrived and It’s Judgement Day (Running Mix 4)

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The thug niggas have arrived and its judgement day

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(4) Can’t C Me  (1996) Tupac Shakur ft. George Clinton

The track starts with a silent moment. By this point, I’m in a groove. I’ve exorcised any morning blahs and all concerns about work and home are in hibernation. The only things on my mind are the route and my breathing. The peerless George Clinton  breaks the silence with an intro that always sounded like a subliminal aimed at Dr. Dre and the g-funk era (for this to work, you’d have to believe that the “million pairs of eyes” belonged to Dre, Quik and the g-funk producers of the 90s “who will never see… the P!”). Tupac obliterates the track with a blend of bravado and rage. It’s post-prison hyperbole that helps me maintain that M.O.P. and Freeway fueled momentum and makes me nostalgic for that moment when Death Row felt like an unbeatable dynasty.

Running Mix 0

Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes

Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 

Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 

When Will Queens Realize That The Flow Don’t Stop? (Running Mix 3)

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(3) Quiet Storm (rmx) Freestyle (2001) Beanie Sigel, Sparks, Oschino, Young Chris, Freeway, Memphis Bleek (intro by Jay-Z & Funkmaster Flex)

Posse cuts are a great listen for a run, especially if the crew has obvious chemistry but distinct styles. The beauty of the freestyle posse cut is that you get the benefit of impassioned verses without being distracted by carefully constructed verses. You also get messy tracks that go on for far too long, which is perfect for a long run. On this one, Beanie and Free are joined by Sparks, Oschino, Young Chris and Memphis Bleek for an almost fifteen minute long freestyle to close out State Property’s visit to Funkmaster Flex’s radio show. Beans and Free are in the starter/closer role. Sigel delivers a powerful freestyle (that sounds like a written), but Omilio Sparks wins the first half of the track with a verse that goes from standard braggadocio to:

“This life I lead cost more than your Rolex, money
Cost my homie Nook his whole life, you heard me?
Damn…
When he was here it was easy to love him like a brother
Now that he’s gone, I find it difficult to talk to his mother”

Neef and Chris are the palate cleansers. Neef delivers what every good posse cut needs – a competently delivered replacement level verse that allows the listener to digest the earlier verse and serves as a reminder (by contrast) of how good the other mcs really are. Young Chris’ appeal is tied to his relative youth. The best part of his verse are the frequent reminders from Jay-Z that ‘he’s sixteen!’ and his offers to provide a birth certificate. Chris would release some stellar songs in the years following this freestyle, but this isn’t his best work. Freeway delivers the knockout blow. His lyrics are fine, but his energy and flow are truly memorable. The ghost of Memphis Bleek makes an unexpected appearance at the very end of the track to remind us of the many times when Jay tried to convince us that Bleek had next. Bleek does his best with an aggressively delivered generic verse. There’s something sad about the fact that Bleek’s career was mostly defined by the gulf between the bright future predicted by Jay-Z on songs and skits and the ordinary music Bleek put out. His verses were mostly unremarkable. His delivery and flow were competent, but indistinguishable from ‘your buddy who likes to write verses and join the occasional cypher’. His production was good, but all second tier Roc-a-Fella, the tracks that Jay rejected. His albums weren’t bad, but had no reason for existing. The crew cheers the end of Bleek’s verse, when he declares that he’s “ghetto like using a lighter to write your name on the ceiling”. It’s an evocative line, but he slightly rushes his delivery. In some weird way, the crew’s enthusiasm makes his delivery sound slightly more clumsy. Free follows with an impromptu perfectly delivered verse that makes Bleek sound like an amateur.

It is a star making moment for an mc who came very close to becoming a star.

To hear it for yourself, check out the third track from the Running Mix 0 post linked below.

More soon.

Running Mix 0

Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes

Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 

I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob (Running Mix 2)

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(2) U Don’t Know (remix) (2002) Jay-Z ft. M.O.P.

Sometimes I need a boost of energy and a reminder of my home borough. In those times, I turn to Just Blaze, Jay-Z and the fine folks from the Mash Out Posse.

Lil’ Fame and Billy Danze bring an aggressive energy to their music that can’t be ignored, especially in small doses (How About Some Hardcore, Ante Up, B.I. vs. Friendship). I’m still not sure that their approach works for an entire album, but there’s no one better at getting you revved up within a short period of time.

Jay wisely avoids any efforts to match M.O.P.’s aggression, opting to complement their rage with something I like to call ‘anthemic Jay-Z’ – clever, slickly delivered lines designed to highlight his wealth and his street roots.

Just Blaze does beautiful things to the Bobby Byrd sample at the center of this track. He has produced countless classic tracks, but this is one of my favorite. He contorts Byrd’s voice until it sounds like an inhuman plea and transforms the brass and drum sections of the song into something magical.

 

The Devil’s In Him Lord, Focus His Eyes (Running Mix 1)

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(1) I Shot Ya Freestyle (2001) H Money Bags, Beanie Sigel, Freeway (intro by Jay-Z and Funkmaster Flex)

One of the best experiences in hip-hop is that moment when you first realize that you’re listening to a unique voice (or set of voices). It’s like the scenes in movies about pop/rock stars when everything finally gels and the band/star show flashes of their future as the next big thing, except stardom is besides the point in hip-hop. I still remember when I heard Royce da 5’9” and Eminem freestyle on the Stretch and Bobbito Show in 1998 and felt like I was watching the birth of a star and a legend. There are also the moments when you first realize the strength of a local scene or movement, like the Cam’ron/Dipset mixtapes from the early aughts, the Bad Boy freestyles from 96-97 (which introduced many of us to the LOX and the talent brewing in Yonkers) or the Clipse’s We Got It For Cheap mixtape series in the mid aughts. This track (and the longer one later in this mix) are from a mixtape that has elements of both – it served as an introduction to Freeway (who had a brief guest spot on 1-900 Hustler from Jay-Z’s Dynasty: Roc La Familia album a few months before) and  the State Property crew from Philly. It was also the moment when I realized the true potential of Beanie Sigel.

The track starts with a classic Funkmaster Flex station id and some quick banter between the DJ and Jay Z. Flex puts on the instrumental for the I Shot Ya remix (from LL Cool J’s 1995 Mr. Smith album). H Money Bags’ verse is a great warm up – he says all the tough guy things that one might expect, from “side blocks and dumpsters, that’s where I leave niggas” to “put three in your liver, leave you leaking cheap liquor”.  It’s entertaining but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from any other verse from the era.

Sigel and Freeway arrive on the track next. Sigel had that super clear ‘voice of god’ flow that conformed to my notion of ‘good rapping’ throughout most of the nineties and the early aughts. Freeway was the revelation. He had a strangely high pitched melodic flow that complemented Sigel’s aggressive percussion, particularly when the two exchange verses. The duo start with a dialogue about a robbery scheme (“man, I’m dying to see if my face still work in this mask…”) and transition to individual stories about their transition to adulthood. Beanie emphasizes every word in a way that helps me build momentum during a run. He starts with “sixteen, dog/and I ain’t talking bout years/I’m talking bout bars/I’m talking bout tears” and I find myself tapping into a reserve of energy that I didn’t know I had. Freeway follows with a truncated verse mirroring Beanie’s sketch of his teenage years. It’s a good verse, but it becomes great when Free pivots into a freestyle that is so impassioned that I barely notice when the beat changes. Check out the Youtube video here.

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Some words on the current playlist before it goes into retirement.

The original version of this post included some reflections on the individual songs from one of my most frequently used playlists. I don’t think that it worked at all (as evidenced by the fact that no one read it). I neglected to include a narrative thread that would have tied the entries on each song together and it was far too long (if you know me at all, you know that I tend to ramble). So, I’m going to call a mulligan.

I’m a runner who is reliant on weird playlists. When I first started running, I read a great post from Brent Rose about the importance of tempo in running playlists. My first few playlists were based on his sage advice, but I quickly abandoned that for a ‘songs that interest me/get me hyped’ approach to building a playlist. At one point, I even included most of the first Run the Jewels album. On another occasion, I included most of the Hamilton soundtrack.

My two current playlists are a mix of hip-hop songs released in my teens and twenties (when I had more time to commit to keeping up with and loving hip-hop). It’s a messy blend of tempos, subgenres and styles, but they all resonate with me at some point in a typical run.

My next one will probably be a bit more of a standard one to help me get better. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve split up my original post into a few separate posts in the hope that it makes it an easier read. Hope you like it!