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Monthly Archives: September 2018

Rickie Lee Jones

The pirates first announced themselves to Rickie Lee Jones in New Orleans, in the fall of 1979, with a delivery of mysterious gifts.

Jones was traveling in support of her self-titled debut for Warner Bros., the slinky, imaginative sui generis blend of pop, soul and jazz that had already hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200, landed her on her first Rolling Stone cover, and associated her forever with the beret. In a couple of months, she would win the Grammy for best new artist. She was almost 25.

“It was the combination of them and Sal Bernardi’s crew in San Francisco that inspired the concept of Pirates,” she explained. Some of the pirates went to prison and got out. One moved to Costa Rica. One still lives in New Orleans and now, 36 years after the release of Pirates, her second album, so does Jones, although not in the Quarter: Her neighborhood is leafy and quiet, near a park where she can walk her dog and ride her bike, her freshly purple-dyed hair tucked under a helmet.

“To be really clear, I was a drug addict when I lived here,” she said. “It’s not possible to walk in the footsteps I walked then. I woke up late in the afternoon, and I lived at night.” It was a funny thing, really, to take off to the bottom of the U.S. at what seemed like the top of a career and hang around with dope smugglers, aging artists and weird characters — she was there at Professor Longhair’s last recording session, she said, and befriended the one-eyed junkie piano genius James Booker, who’d die in 1983, at age 43 — but it felt right to her, “like a refuge,” she said.

“For me, it was part of feeding who I was. I felt that if I stopped living that way, whatever it was that I really was would stop being authentic,” she said.

New Orleans and its characters helped inspire the cinematic storybook of hip that is Pirates, with its evocative imagery — the ’57 Lincolns, the slow trains to Peking, the Lolitas playing dominoes and poker behind their daddy’s shacks — as did Olympia, Wash., where she started writing it in 1979, New York City, where she was also paying rent, and L.A., where it was recorded. Close to forty years later, she still plays those songs onstage. Some feel different than others — for example, “We Belong Together,” the ecstatic, dreamy stream of consciousness that opens Pirates, inspired by her famous romance and breakup with Tom Waits.

“When I sing that song, to me anyway, it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s like a house I built. When I go in, I say, ‘I love this room. I’m gonna sit in this room.’ It’s a structure of its own and I get to experience the ride when I play it. But it’s not about Tom and me. It has a life of its own.”

“There are only a couple of songs that haven’t achieved autonomy,” she said. “And when I sing them, I feel like, ‘I don’t wear my dress that short anymore.”

But 36 years later, Pirates is a dress that’s not out of style, a house that still welcomes new residents. It’s canon, classic, a still-startlingly singular look at America both in style — the way it seamlessly weaves threads of beatnik jazz, fluid soul and aching, theatrical balladry — and in substance, as it captures perfect images of American romance and cool like so many Polaroid snapshots. Few pop artists have ever been as effortlessly cool; still fewer have managed to create a piece of art that sounds like it could have been crafted thirty years before it was, or thirty years after. Pirates has been influential, but rarely imitated. Who could?

Her latest album, 2015’s The Other Side of Desire, clearly has Pirates as an ancestor: the warm-blooded elasticity of her voice, her snappy fluency in the language of cool, and vivid lines like one rhyming “gold capped tooth” with “hot tin roof.” With songs that borrow the language, the structure and the melancholy of a Cajun waltz, Fats Domino piano rhythms and swamp-pop melody, it’s even more audibly rooted in her new (and old) home base — she’s using the same storyteller’s ear and the same keen eye for character, although both, now, she thinks, feel clearer.

The Success Of ‘Despacito’

The song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee been streamed over 4.6 billion times, and has kept its number one spot on Billboard‘s Hot 100 since before the official start of summer. Fonsi, the song’s singer and songwriter, says he’s ecstatic that the No. 1 in the world is in Spanish.

“The whole world is singing in Spanish,” he says. “We have everybody Googling, ‘What does Despacito mean?'”

“Despacito” was originally released in January of this year and quickly began climbing the global charts to become an international hit. When Justin Bieber jumped on the song’s remix this spring, it gave “Despacito” the boost it needed to hit No. 1 in the US.

The song has also brought up conversations about the power of crossover culture. Fonsi is far from the first Latin artist to cross into the mainstream, though his predecessors typically did so in English.

“‘Despacito’ was just the song that exploded through the door,” Fonsi says. “But I give a lot of credit to amazing artists who have done these kinds of fusions in the past, like Ricky [Martin], Enrique [Iglesias] and Shakira.”

“Despacito” also broke records this summer as the most-streamed song in history. Jesus Lopez, President and CEO of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, says that streaming has played a big role in the song’s success, partly because it makes more information available about how many times a given track is played.

“Before, you cannot see how the market was working because of the piracy. On the charts you only saw the official sales,” Lopez says. “Now you can see all the consumption of the music on the charts.”

Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s Head of Latin Culture, says that “Despacito” is one of a growing number of cross-cultural team-ups she’s seen lately, including collaborations between Romeo Santos and Drake, and J Balvin and Pharrell.

“I think ‘Despacito’ creates even more buzz about something that was already happening,” Guerrero says. “This is something that didn’t happen overnight — we’ve been working really hard for many years to push the Latin culture to the forefront of the music business.”

“The timing is quite perfect, you know, in this environment we live in,” he says. “I don’t want to turn this song into a political environment, because it’s not. It’s a great song to make us feel good. But in the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls — we’re going through a lot of change, so it’s quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now.”

Not only is the song in Spanish — it’s in the style of reggaeton, a genre born in Puerto Rico that mixes hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall music.

Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, says that reggaeton “has endured a lot of attempts to get rid of it.” The music, she says, was created in working-communities where many identified as black and/or close to Afro-diasporic culture.

“The communities that were associated with [reggaeton] culture were also communities that were stigmatized by the Puerto Rican government,” Rivera-Rideau says. “They were targets of anti-crime initiatives in the mid-1990s that represented [them] as chaotic, perpetrators of violence, tied to drugs and all kinds of stereotypes. So reggaeton became a cultural symbol of these establishments. They were looking at reggaeton as emblematic of all the ills and problems of this community.”

Rivera-Rideau says this moment is significant: Reggaeton has become a worldwide genre, with increasing numbers of pop artists drawing from its sounds. It’s a position many wouldn’t have ever thought possible for reggaeton back in the 1990s.

 

Removes Racist Music

In a statement on Wednesday, Spotify blamed the labels and distributors that supply music to its database but said “material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us. Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention.”

Tidal, the streaming service partially owned by Jay-Z, seems to be following suit. Two “hate bands” NPR found on the platform on Tuesday had been removed as of Thursday morning.

The existence of racist music on music platforms isn’t a new phenomenon. Nearly three years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out to Apple and the iTunes Store that they were selling, and thereby profiting from, openly racist, neo-fascist musicians, like the hardcore band Skrewdriver.

In March 2015, the SPLC published a follow-up to its iTunes report that specifically addressed the fact that other digital platforms — most notably, Spotify and Amazon — were continuing to sell such music.

Matt Alpert, the website’s managing editor, wrote, “I want to make something very clear to everyone who follows us and reads this site: Wide Open Country vehemently opposes any form of racism. We stand firmly against any type of hatred, bigotry and especially any Nazi scum.”

“I felt compelled to say something,” Alpert told NPR. “With this particular thing that happened in Charlottesville, we wanted to be clear about how we felt about that and where we stand. Seeing those comments, and seeing them rise to the top [of the post] … it felt like we needed to say something.”

Writing on Facebook Wednesday, country music royalty Rosanne Cash took aim at a “self-proclaimed neo-Nazi” who was photographed wearing a T-shirt with Johnny Cash’s face on it. “We were sickened by the association,” she wrote, going on to point out that her father’s “pacifism and inclusive patriotism were two of his most defining characteristics.”

Facebook’s terms prohibit posting content it classifies as “hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” The dominance of Facebook’s platform helped to legitimize voices like Cantwell’s through proximity to more legitimate news sources within people’s feeds, a problem it says it is working to fix.

In a memo to his staff yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced his company would donate $2 million and double its employees’ donations to human rights groups through Sept. 30. “As a company, through our actions, our products and our voice, we will always work to ensure that everyone is treated equally and with respect,” Cook wrote.

Kennedy Center’s First Hip-Hop Honoree

While Kennedy Center Honors acknowledge the lifetime achievements of contributors to American culture, the list has traditionally been limited in scope. But the inclusion of LL, born James Todd Smith, in this year’s honoree list further expands the center’s growing embrace of hip-hop culture. Earlier this year the center appointed Simone Eccleston as its first director of Hip-Hop Culture after naming A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip as artistic director of Hip-Hop Culture in 2016. Historic performances by Kendrick Lamar and Common have also underlined the center’s investment, and more programming for the 2017-18 season is expected to be announced in the coming months.

As rap’s first bona fide solo star, LL was larger than life in the ’80s, the first to embody the street-corner swagger and sex appeal that would become a blueprint for future hip-hop icons ranging from Big Daddy Kane to Biggie. Before an artist like Drake could legitimately mix hip-hop lyricism with R&B vulnerability, LL turned out the first hit rap ballad with 1987’s “I Need Love.” And the ladies loved him for it.

Best known today for his starring roles in TV and film, he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year. But after a career spanning 30-plus years and 13 albums, he’s yet to leave rap alone — he’s rumored to be in the studio recording with Dr. Dre.

In his statement on the Kennedy Center honor, LL credits his grandmother — the same one who inspired his 1990 hit, “Mama Said Knock You Out” — for his success, while dedicating the award to the hip-hop pioneers who preceded and the generations who have since followed.

“My late grandmother passed some wise advice to me: ‘If a task is once begun, never leave it ’til it’s done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all.’ That adage has guided everything I have ever done in my life and I couldn’t be more grateful because it has led me here,” he says. “To be the first rap artist honored by the Kennedy Center is beyond anything I could have imagined. I dedicate this honor to the hip-hop artists who came before me and those who came after me. This simply proves that dreams don’t have deadlines. God is great.”

But it takes a teen-aged LL to truly put his pioneering achievements in perspective. When rap still in its infancy, LL was already positioning himself as its rising star.

 

Powerful Experimental Pop

Káryyn seems perpetually overwhelmed—one moment by the complex and unpredictable machinery of life, another by its dazzling simplicity. On an August evening, she sits cross-legged in a cozy north London studio, where she is toiling away at a trove of experimental pop songs that may, if she lets them, become her debut album. The discussion is dense, a voyage through her harrowing family history laced with digressions into the afterlife, quantum physics, and the prefrontal cortex of jazz musicians. At one point, mid-sentence, she interrupts herself by saying, “I want to say something.” After 90 minutes of conversation, she mysteriously apologizes and proceeds to pace the room. She sits in an office chair, puts her face in her hands, and thanks me for listening. Then she asks for a hug and beckons me into a cluttered little space next door.

In the corner of the room looms an upright piano, strings exposed to microphones on angled stands. Barren white walls create a sense of erased space around the instrument, like brackets enclosing an afterthought. Káryyn stands with one foot on the piano’s mute pedal and performs three half-formed songs, her dreamy falsetto scything through ancient-sounding chords. During the finale, which she wrote the day before, the piano drops out as she sustains a rolling vowel sound. Turning to face me, she lets her voice tremble while forming an expanding ball with her hands, as if to demonstrate particles filling a balloon. She holds the note four or five seconds, in the space of which I forget to breathe. The impromptu performance is as strange and poignant as everything else about Káryyn and her curiously affecting music.

There’s a certain breadth to her handful of songs to date, uploaded to her SoundCloud page over the last six months and sometimes accompanied by videos compiled from childhood home-movies shot in her second home of Syria. On “Yajna,” her synths sound nuclear, mangled by unsettled beats; “Moving Masses,” recorded seven-hours deep into a nocturnal jam, is altogether gentler, a work of celestial simplicity. Despite joking about her talent for disrupting technology—on her first day in this studio, the entire complex had a power outage as soon as she started singing—she describes a meticulous process for manipulating sounds and space. She’s been called a “sonic architect”; in fact, she’s as much like a wrecking ball. Both sides will likely be on full display during her latest project’s upcoming debut headlining show in London, and they’re also apparent on her deconstructed debut single, “Aleppo,” a meditation on the Syrian city; snares shudder, shrapnel synths gleam, and operatic vocal fragments scatter like dust in the stratosphere.

Although borne by wild imagination, the story of “Aleppo” has tangled personal roots. From a young age, Káryyn understood that a legacy of misfortune has haunted her family all the way back to the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. “My grandfather was in my great-grandmother’s belly when her husband’s head was delivered to her door,” Káryyn tells me, her active eyes swiveling behind gold-framed glasses. “They collected the intellectuals and beheaded them and then delivered them back to their wives.”

Káryyn grew up between the States and Syria with her mom and “badass classical guitar player” dad. (He was a doctor by day.) In her youth, for three months a year, Syria was young Káryyn’s anchor, a second home. Her Syrian-based relatives lived in Aleppo and the nearby city of Idlib, where they owned a hotel and restaurant before ISIS took over in 2011. After the country’s civil war spread to the capital, it became too dangerous for her to return. “I thought I’d get married there,” she tells me. “It is devastating to know that there’s an entire place in this sepia tone in my mind, dusty and bustling, that is gone.”

She moved from Alabama to Indiana as a baby, and then, at age 10, to L.A., where she lives today. By her teens, she was writing hyperactive, narrative folk songs; her singing was inspired by Arabic music, and she says she played her guitar “like a machete.” This volatile oeuvre eventually won her an unlikely sit-down with a high-profile record label. “They made me listen to the Beatles for an hour,” Káryyn recalls, raising both eyebrows. “They told me, ‘You should do this, and then that to get here.’ I literally left. My sister was waiting for me outside, like, ‘That’s your way in! You have to go!’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do my own thing.’”

She did. What she calls a “reservoir of confidence” buoyed her to young adulthood, and at 16, she quit high school and transferred to Mills College in the Bay Area. A class called Women in Creative Music, tutored by the electronic composer Pauline Oliveros, inspired her to abandon medical studies. She made music by smashing light bulbs, manipulating tapes, and mastering various samplers and programming units. Her anarchic shows—fusing punk, electronic, and jazz—were a hit, at least among the 40 or so people who showed up. (Part of the reason she declines to publicize her full name, it seems, is to avoid detection of music from this period in her 20s.) Again, labels gathered. And again, something in Káryyn snapped. “One day, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m very deeply unhappy,’” she recalls.

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Music festivals

Man-bags

In 2015, Manchester’s Parklife risked alienating some of its style-conscious male punters by banning man-bags from the festival – a move that proved controversial, with some even branding it discriminatory against gay men, as reported by The Independent. Others wondered how they were expected to carry their belongings. Were satchels allowed? Bum bags? Stripey corner shop carrier bags? Utility gilets? What about men carrying women’s handbags?

Initially the reasons for the ban were unclear. Were the festival attempting to dictate male fashions? In a way, yes. In an interview last year with Complex, festival founder Sacha Lord-Marchionne explained why he’d banned man-bags from club series The Warehouse Project, which he also runs: “I noticed about three years ago… there was a certain genre of music that was attracting a crowd that I didn’t particularly like because they were quite moody… It became a little bit intimidating because there were in these big groups of lads and I looked at them and thought, ‘What have they got in common?’ They all wore man-bags… So I decided we were going to ban man-bags, and in the space of four weeks, we got rid of those bad elements.” Hence the ban was extended to Parklife, and remains in place today.

Hula hoops

Although they remain popular in Glastonbury’s Healing Fields, the humble hula hoop is another item to be banned from Coachella. It’s probably for the best – anyone hula-ing at a festival is wasting precious energy required for moshing, toilet-queuing and pushing their car out of the mud at the end.

Presumably, though, they’d make an exception for Grace Jones…

Show times

V Festival blundered this year when the Birmingham Mail noticed that “show times” appeared on their list of prohibited items. This raised the spectre of security confiscating clashfinder printouts, thus forcing people to purchase the official programme in order to find out when Jonas Blue is on. Thankfully, organisers quickly saw sense and amended the list to read “unofficial merchandise or lanyards”, emphasising that all show times would be available on their free app.

Pacifiers

Surely festivals are scary enough for babies without over-zealous security guards confiscating their dummies? Hang on… it seems this rule is aimed strictly at the over-18s, who are the only people allowed to attend Ultra festival, where pacifiers are banned. In which case, fair enough. Nobody wants to turn around in the techno tent at 3am to see a fellow raver dressed like an adult baby.

Feather boas

As festivals have introduced more glam and burlesque elements on top of the traditional rock’n’rave fare, so feather boas have become a common sight. But American festivals such as Shambhala have cracked down on this trend, arguing – reasonably – that they are an environmental hazard. “These items tend to fall apart very easily and the synthetic feathers are very difficult to clean up,” explains Shambhala’s FAQ page. “Any garbage that can’t be picked up by us is usually eaten by the cows, so please leave your feather boas at home.” Shirley Bassey wasn’t likely to play anyway.