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

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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.

Running Music 0

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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!

Monday Evening Nostalgia

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Just because I’m in the mood…

I Miss You (Come Home), by Monifah ft. Heavy D and McGruff (possibly?), from Monifah’s debut Moods…Moments. This is my jam.

The Things You Do (Bad Boy Remix) by Gina Thompson from her Nobody Does It Better album featuring a verse from the incomparable Missy Elliott. I love the cameos from Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy (Sean Combs will always be Puffy or Puff Daddy in my book).

Soon As I Get Home by Faith Evans from her debut Faith. This is still my favorite Bad Boy r&b album – a gentler, soulful take on the early New Jack Swing sound that dominated the genre (and the era).

What Kind of Man Would I Be by Mint Condition from their classic Definition of a Band. It’s hard to do a song like this without striking a false note, but Mint Condition finds a way.

Lady (remix) by D’Angelo with AZ. I love the original more (AZ’s verse is good, but doesn’t really fit the song), but this video, featuring Faith Evans, Erykah Badu and Joi Gilliam is everything.

Tell Me, by Groove Theory, from their eponymous debut.  I love the elegant simplicity of the production and the lyrics.

Sunshine and the Rain, by Joi, from her criminally underrated debut the Pendulum Vibe. I can’t say enough about this album.

More next week.

Life Hasn’t Been Very Good To Me Lately (FBB Classic)

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7/4/13
[originally published on March 29, 2013 at the FBB mothership. Heavily edited for clarity.]

I’ve spent most of the last six months thinking about trauma. In my day job, we’re investing a lot of time and effort to identify the ways in which the traumatic experiences of our clients (individuals from vulnerable populations with some involvement in the justice system) affect their lives, with the goal of developing interventions that can help them process those experiences and clear obstacles to a successful, independent life in the community. I’ve also thought about this in a more personal context, as the cycle of life and death has hit pretty close to home lately.

During the same period, I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve you More Than Words Ever Will is still in the rotation, as is Amy Winehouse’s Frank, the new Cody ChesnuTT (Landing On A Hundred) and the newest Bruno Mars album (Unorthodox Jukebox). But there are three albums that have had a dedicated place in the rotation over the last couple of months – Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, Killer Mike and El-P’s R.A.P. Music and strangely enough, the Django Unchained soundtrack. One day, I heard good kid from Lamar’s album, Willie Burke Sherwood from R.A.P. Music and Freedom from the Django Unchained soundtrack in succession and something clicked.

good kid is a soundtrack for trauma that evokes the experience of being a young black man in the inner city. A narrative about the intangible rents extracted by two forces struggling to establish a monopoly on the use of force in the community. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing that always strikes me about this song is how Kendrick uses his cadence to convey emotion. Kendrick finds different ways to build momentum throughout the album, from using a progressively more complex flow to shifting from soft to more percussive words or simply increasing the pace of his delivery. On good kid, he layers his vocals on the last third of each verse so that you feel the pressure build until you almost feel the foot on your neck.

The references to a foot on the neck evokes Orwell’s 1984(“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”) and serve as a visceral reminder of the physical brutality behind the metaphors. The phrase also helps puts the listener in the position of a victim of neighborhood violence and terror, someone who might think that the line between corrupt police and organized crime is gossamer thin.

Radicals have argued that badges are the only difference between police and gangs for decades, but good kid focuses on the psychic impact of this toxic dynamic on noncombatants. It’s the feeling of being stuck between two minority groups that make you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. When I was a young man, it felt like they were in an abusive, yet oddly symbiotic relationship. Even though both groups sincerely hated the other, it seemed as if police and gangs were invested in a vision of the poor/working class community as war zone/occupied territory, a narrative that crowded out competing views of the neighborhood.

I was uncomfortable with both narratives. Neither seemed to capture the messy contradictions of inner city urban life. If you drove by my grandparents’ neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant in the late 1980’s, you might assume that it was the kind of wartorn dystopia that Charles Murray warned us about in the previous decade. This ‘truth’ lost its power if you entered the brownstones or saw the people who filled and emptied the subway during rush hour. Maybe it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative in communities where mature gangs were deeply entrenched (and in small scale long wars with the local police department), but I imagine that in areas where mature gangs were deeply entrenched in the community, it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative, but even though the corner boys in Bed Stuy were pervasive, they weren’t part of mainstream culture like the Bloods, Crips or Folk, and most folk I knew from the area didn’t mistake their neighborhood for a literal war zone.

I was lucky. I had the right friends, knew when to appear tough and when to seem invisible, managed to avoid the wrong conflicts with the wrong people. My adolescence wasn’t traumatic, but it was emotionally draining. I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until I moved away to college. I had become so used to being guarded all of the time, to the pressure and stress related to maneuvering through neighborhoods, that its absence felt almost alien. There’s this moment in good kid where Kendrick says that he got ate alive the other day, and while he might be talking about getting jumped, I remember having that feeling at the end of the day without anyone laying a hand on me. I guess that’s why the third verse (which explicitly references drugs) feels inevitable. The ever present threat and reality of violence has a traumatic impact on the body, the mind and the spirit. It fills you with despair and animosity. It’s only natural to search for an anesthetic, something to numb the pain, ease the pressure. A little drink, a little smoke, a handful of pills. The only problem is that the cure is worse than the disease, an illusory balm that “release[s] the worst out of [your] best”.

Killer Mike comes at this from a different angle in Willie Burke Sherwood, his autobiographical song from last year’s classic R.A.P. Music.

In the brilliant first verse, Mike breathlessly recounts the string of violent tragedies that led him to adapt to the realities of violence in his neighborhood by creating a persona that would be respected in the streets. An identity equally informed by the Lord of the Flies and the music of Tupac Shakur – narratives about the anger that fuels an endless cycle of violence and trauma. While Kendrick hints at escape through narcotics, Mike copes by becoming harder, by becoming “like an iron man“. In real life, Mike went on to become a working class guy before going into music, but it’s easy to imagine how his decision to become hard could’ve had tragic consequences. Prisons and graveyards are filled with men who decided to become hard in the narrow way that garners respect in the street. Although Mike’s choices were different than mine, there’s something about the “and I bought my first tape by Tupac and I got hard” line that reminds me of how effective Tupac was at articulating the righteous anger that I felt through most of my teenage years. I distinctly remember what struggling to control my anger felt like. How hard it was to not overreact to every perceived slight. It starts as a defense mechanism, but ends up as a crutch, especially once I realized that I was carrying those feelings around with me where ever I went. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “even if you are not out in The Street, it’s very hard for none of The Street to live in you“.

Kendrick suggests a number of ways to resolve this conflict (or ease the tension) in Good Kid m.a.a.d. city, most notably in Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Black Boy Fly and the skit at the end of Real. But the solution that resonates the most right now is Freedom, by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. The need to escape implicit in good kid is brought to the surface in the gospel tinged duet from the Django Unchained soundtrack.

Freedom was one of the many perfectly placed (if on the nose) sonic accompaniments to the film. The song’s power grows on repeated listening. When I first heard it, I thought that it helped situate Django within the legacy of American folk heroes and the African American community’s long struggle towards freedom while reminding us that his struggle was an intensely personal one. It’s a song about desperate hope in the face of impossible odds, a brief intrusion of reality into Quentin Tarantino’s heightened fantasy.

Freedom is painful, but there’s something about the song that fills me with optimism. It’s the slight tremor in Boynton’s voice when she sings that the sun’s gonna shine on her nicely. Hamilton’s confident declaration that there’s got to be a winning in his bones.

The echoes of spirituals and freedom songs in Freedom serve as a reminder that in some small way, my generation’s struggles for inner and outer peace mirror those of earlier generations. The block presented its own challenges to my parents and grandfather as young people. My father spent his youth trying to embrace his neighborhood without being confined by it while my mother gingerly navigated the invisible land mines of her neighborhood as a young woman. In contrast, my maternal grandfather was determined to abandon it for the suburbs. That reminder of a greater struggle helps fuel the hopes and dreams that give us the power to process our pain.

The Nine

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It’s hard to avoid thinking about legacy in Philadelphia.

I spent most of last week in the city, my second visit as an adult. I was there for work, to attend a professional conference for people in higher education who work on issues related to gender equity. I stayed in appropriately generic hotels in downtown Philadelphia that featured good room service, warm staff and chilly conference rooms. I learned and networked during the day and wandered the streets in the evening.

During my first visit, I visited the Liberty Bell and walked by the Christ Church burial ground and Elfreth’s Alley. The city is filled with reminders of Philadelphia’s role in early American history, nods to the men and women who fought and sacrificed to win their freedom during the Revolutionary War. I felt like I was surrounded by America’s origin myth. On my second day at the 2016 conference, I learned about about institutional betrayal and Prof. Jennifer Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory.

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It was fascinating stuff, but everyone was too busy talking about the Presidential campaign. A recording of one of the candidates talking frankly about some of the awful privileges that come with power had surfaced, and everyone was either frightened about what might happen if the candidate became President or confident that this revelation would doom his candidacy. I wandered by the President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of A New Nation exhibit later that evening. It was a profoundly moving experience that I was eager to replicate on my second trip to the city.

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