Saturday, February 28, 2009

I’ll have a Polish and a Samba, Sex on the Side

Elston Ave. in Chicago is a long, secretive street. It spans blue collar neighborhoods along the city’s Northwest Side, and cuts a soft diagonal through some rather stark manufacturing corridors. If there is a street that looks, smells, and sulks like Chicago, Elston is it. Resting among the street’s Polish sausage stands, Irish drunkard haunts, and muffler repair shops is the Latin flavored bar N (en-ye). The small, dark, overtly romantic spot hosts some of the most interesting nightlife in Chicago.

N resides in a pewter colored brick building, hidden on the corner of Elston and Wellington. The bar's only identifying features are a wooden sign hanging above the sidewalk and some candle glow from the building's small windows. Once you walk through the door, you’re hit with an undeniable atmosphere that is both welcoming and exotic. The affordable, minimalist tapas menu at N contains dozens of spicy dishes that are perfect for sharing. To soften the blow from the the gallons of rum you will consume at N, try the chorizo (two homemade sausages served with chimichurri), empanadas (beef, chicken, ham and cheese, spinach) or a tortilla (mix of egg, onion, potato). Drinks include various South American beer varieties, domestic brews, wine, and tropical drink standards like Mojitos and Margaritas. N's menu, while elegant and delicious, is merely a prop for the establishment's sultry mood and music.

The sounds at N are pulsating and provocative. The Djs play a genital thumping mix of samba, salsa, and reggae that sends pheromones bounding off the small tables and candle-lit walls. The vibe at N is unpretentious and the bar is sexy without being sleazy. Young couples come to the bar to dance in the flattering light, sample sea food tapas and get blitzed on mojitos. The crowd at N is a pleasant mix of music lovers, potential nudists, foodies, and club hoppers. Tuesday nights feature a live samba band, and as the evening progresses, people get increasingly free with the dance moves and affection. This is the kind of steamy, haunting place that a pirate would visit to pick up a sea bride. N is also one of the best Latin infused bars in Chicago, and in a city that is almost ¾ Latin, that’s saying something.

2977 N Elston Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
Phone: (773) 866-9898

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Embedded in this post is the most disturbing video you will every see in your life. It has nothing to do with Chicago, or culture, but it scared the hell out of me as I watched it. It involves cakes and a man with the desire to end an instructional cake video with a boisterous musical ode to New York City.

For a brief period of time I worked as a cake decorator. I was paying for a higher education and I was also very confused about the direction of my life. As I watched this video, I became aware of the obvious pitfalls of being really good at something. If the guy in this video ever decides to take his frosting covered wrath out on the general population, god help us all. Click on the 'cake' photo and melt your brain.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009


C.W. Napkin / Its Got Things In It

Today we feature C.W. Napkin. We don't know much about this place, and we haven't eaten their food, but we are all huge fans of C.W. Napkin’s marketing. All the pictures featured here are from the C.W. Napkin website, and these mouthwatering digital photos speak louder than a thousand words ever could.

We’re guessing that the folks over at C.W. Napkin are such a bunch of bad-asses that they just don’t give two sh!ts about lighting, arrangements and composition. Leave that crap for the fags over at TGI Fridays. Visit the C.W. Napkin website and go on a culinary tour of your own. Check out the photo of the Chicken Caesar Salad Wrap (pictured bellow), it looks like it’s going to mug you and kick that shit eating grin off your face.

If you are in the Chicago area, visit C.W. Napkin and pick up a Chicken that Ate Cleveland Sandwich, or a plate of ravioli. C.W. Napkin describes their marinara sauce as "a great marinara (meatless) sauce. It's rich and thick and has lots of things in it."
Who doesn't like a few 'things' in the old marinara? Visit this place today and experience a culinary kick in the groin. The Napkin, it's like getting hit in the head with a whiskey bottle full of comfort food.

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Chicago brass band Hypnotic is the subject of this elegant web-documentary. The group is filmed as they entertain commuters in the NYC subway. The Hypnotic ensemble includes the sons of the great Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran. Hypnotic has never sounded better. Enjoy.

Hypnotic Underground from moriza on Vimeo.

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Porter Records / Eclectic Sounds

Music is a diverse and dense universe, crowded with divergent sounds and artistic interpretations. It takes a good record label to sift through the plethora of sounds and give life to important works of art. Porter Records, a small upstart created in 2007 by a record collector with a passion for sound, is turning out to be one of the most unusual and creative labels running. The label's variety of music is staggering, and label owner, Luke Mosling, is dedicated to keeping the variety flowing in the years to come. Currently, the label releases everything from hip hop, reggae, free jazz, soul, and experimental electronic. While eclectic, the music on Porter records is never elitist or confounding. If anything, Porter gives listeners the unique chance to experience a wide variety of sound in a context that is accessible and understated. The label also has a unique design aesthetic, reminiscent of the well branded packaging from labels like Blue Note and Impulse in the 1960s. Each Porter Records release has a distinct visual presentation, which helps the label stand out in a saturated market.

Mosling runs Porter Records as a one-man-band, and he views the label as an extension of his diverse record collection. In the next year, Mosling plans on putting out a host of rare-reissues and new releases featuring everything from organic hip hop groups to ambient electronic artists. The label also plans to reach into the global music community and release jazz and experimental music from Europe and Australia.

For information on Porter Records and its upcoming releases, visit

When Porter Records artist The Misled Children remix Dr. Dre and Snoop- it's a wacky affair.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Alexandra Pelosi, filmmaker, trouble maker and daughter of Nancy Pelosi, has made a new documentary film detailing the opinions of those who consider themselves part of red state America. The film, entitled Right America: Feeling Wronged is a depressingly raw view into the bizarrely undereducated masses that occupy the hamlets of the sprawling 50 states.

This is a brutal piece of work and a film of uncompromising reality. The characters in Pelosi’s film are not cartoons; they are normal, hard working stiffs with American flag t-shits and pickup trucks. It is disturbing to imagine that the wealthiest country in the industrialized world can still have a large segment of its population dwelling in ignorance and blatant stupidity regarding culture, religion, and foreign policy.

As we turn the corner into the 21st century, America has some heavy lifting to do with a portion of the population so willfully ignorant and stubborn. Alexandra Pelosi deserves credit for making a good film, but sometimes the process of making political sausage is better left mysterious.

Hipster Death Warrant

"Fashion designer Doron Braunshtein, aka Apollo Braun, whose store on Orchard Street has been selling T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the question 'Who Killed Obama?' says the people leaving him angry messages and death threats just don't get hipster irony. See, he loves Obama, that's why he's selling products that invoke his murder!

"I'm very punk rock," Braunshtein explains to the NY Press's fashion blogger, smugly aware that our primitive 2008 technology prevents you from reaching through your computer screen and slapping that smirk off his face. He goes on: "They don't understand what I'm doing. They think I'm spreading hate. Could you imagine if Obama were killed? They might blame me. Then I'd be taken to jail and have to have prison sex."

- Gothamist 2008

The Gothamist blog deserves a big thank you for bringing this first rate douchebag to the world's attention. Where to begin? The side-swept, grease-filled haircut, his Connecticut smirk, his self aggrandizing allegiance to punk rock, his irrelevant hipster posturing, his complete lack of creativity, or maybe we can hate him for his dead, soulless eyes? This ass-hole is a designer living in New York, and after drinking his fill of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jameson, this greasy weasel thought of a sweatshirt that would act as a giant ‘fuck you’ to the world. To combine the potential assassination of the first black president with the hipster ironic t-shirt phenomenon is a new low for modern culture. Guys like the “Who killed Obama?” idiot are what’s wrong with art schools, Williamsburg, and trust funds.

If I'm at a Sufjan Stevens show, trying to look sensitive, and I see this idiot and his moronic sweatshirt, the question will be, “Who killed the jackass in the 'Who killed Obama' sweatshirt?”

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The first cut is entitled "Tramp" by Lowell Folsom. This funk-blues joint first appeared on a 45" single in 1965 on the Kent record label. The track was a hit on the R&B charts and was later recorded by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. This track has been sampled numerous times, and the staccato guitar and drum intro still sounds fresh today. Yes, Cypress Hill sampled this song, but screw it, it's a great hook. Kill a man if you must.

The second track, EJI, was recorded by the Whitefield Brothers and appeared on a 45" single released by Soul Fire Records in 2002. This tracked can also be found on the LP In the Raw. The Whitefield Brothers are the J.D. Salingers of raw funk. Don't expect to see them play live or conduct interviews, they are a band of funky vapors.

The third track in this trio is something a little bit rare, strange, and yes, French. The track is called Troupeau Bleu by the French jazz/funk band Cortex. Yes, the French can pull off some serious Brazilian flavored jazz/funk. I'm not familiar with Cortex, except for the fact that they make me want to throw out my underwear and refrain from showering. Funky.


“My Echo Park bedroom was filled with the soft orange glow of mid morning sunlight, and part of my being was still drunk from the previous night’s soirĂ©e at yet another young starlet’s condo. The silk sheets were so inconceivably soft that it was pure torture to get out of bed. I searched around the lavender softness for my Gucci boxer briefs and brushed my luxurious hair out of my eyes. I leaned over grabbed the glass bottle of Pellegrino and my pack of Dunhill Lights and sat back against an over stuffed pillow. I lit the square and let the smoke cascade into my lungs. I took a swig from the fizzy Italian water and noticed a rustling under my pale blue, down comforter. It was Mia Trang and her friend Ivana Yerkova. I had invited the two aspiring models over to read a Wes Anderson script, but I must have passed out before we had the chance to get into character. They were completely nude. Their youthfully golden, firm bodies shimmering in the morning sun. Mia grazed her long fingers across my Gucci encased manhood and gestured for a Dunhill. I tossed her the pack and lit one up. She smiled, her full, mango lips wet like early morning flower petals…”

That is what I imagine actor Jason Schwartzman’s life to be like. Granted, I’m sure the guy has a few problems. Being mildly introverted, with a penchant for independent film can have its downside in tinsel town. I’m sure he has family issues or girl troubles like any moderately short man trying to make it in the modern world. Life is difficult even for a king among men like Schwartzman. He is, by any stretch of the imagination, a lucky bastard. His movies are genuinely well received; he is a great comedic actor, and a decent screen writer. So, my question to Mr. Schwartzman is: why the hell are you making music? Is it the accessibility of modern recording equipment? Is being a dilettante suddenly the thing to do if you are one of the beautiful people in Hollywood?

Schwartzman’s Coconut Records project comes on the heels of failed music projects by the likes of Scarlet Johansson and Kevin Bacon. Schwartzman’s project isn’t as sad and droopy as the Johansson and Bacon fiascos, but it still is a hard pill to swallow. Even as you listen to Schwartzman’s French pop meets Pavement musical sweet tarts, you can’t stop picturing that kid in Rushmore jacking around with Bill Murray. The concept of the actor/musician remains one of the hardest bridges to cross in modern pop culture. French beach blanket tunes and introspective pop are all well and good, but if Max Fisher is doing this, who the hell is jacking around with Bill Murray?…


Scarlet Johansson, why did you take my two favorite things and kill them with your foray into music? I love Tom Waits. My father owned a few of his early records like Night Hawks at the Dinner, and I would often sit at the hi-fi and listen to Tom’s crazy vaudevillian voice and back alley jazz instrumentation. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I knew it was good. I also love book smart blondes with porcelain skin and perfectly proportioned breasts.

Remember when Scarlet Johansson put on that crazy, pink wig and seduced Bill Murray with some seriously drunken karaoke in Lost in Translation? Most men would have killed to be in that room with Scarlet drunkenly moaning into the microphone. That brief scene was cute, charming, tender, and sexy. So why is Scarlet Johansson’s new record of Tom Waits covers, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head, so horrid? Some might say it’s the brutal fact that Scarlet Johansson can’t sing. It’s true, she really can’t sing. She is on par with Val Kilmer or William Shatner in her ability to Friday the 13th a pop song. That being said, I think what makes her project so uniquely stank-tastic is that nobody wants to hear a gorgeous, youthful, wealthy starlet sing the songs of a whiskey cured, bohemian hobo, with a voice like a bag of rusty nails. It provokes even the most gracious music listener to ask, “Are you f#cking kidding me?”

Maybe it’s sexist to say that a beautiful woman can’t make an emotional record about hard times and film noir style suffering, but if Scarlet Johansson wants to pull off another album of Tom Waits covers, she better bust out the whiskey and rusty nails.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Suicide Girls:The Cool Jerk

Pornography has been around since people discovered nudity. I suppose there was a time, shortly after clothes were invented, where a Cro-Magnon caught a glimpse of his wife’s cleavage as she bent over a hot pot of mammoth stew and said, “I’m going to paint these beauties on a cave wall and look at them later.” Recently, while visiting the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, I stumbled across a small clay tablet carved by ancient Assyrian people who lived in what today is Iran. The tablet featured a rendering of an Assyrian couple enjoying a little rear-entry action. On a card next to the pornographic tablet I learned that the Assyrians also invented beer brewing. This region of the Middle East really was the cornerstone of modern civilization. Living in a such porn filled society, it is interesting to see that modern humanity is the result of thousands of years of tradition. The ancient Assyrians had fermented barley wine and clay tablets; we have Schlitz and Suicide Girls.

Suicide Girls is an interesting phenomenon. It's a porn site, run by women, featuring pictures of nude women who see their bodies as expressive canvases for artistic interpretation. The tattooed ladies of Suicide Girls hearken back to the pro-women’s rights era of the 1950s when strippers were ‘burlesque dancers’ and prostitutes were ‘secretaries.’ It is a little funny that burlesque, a somewhat raunchy, mildly immoral vestige of mid-century America, is now seen as a liberating art form for women. Suicide Girls is a well designed porn website and an expansive forum for punk rock nudity. That being said, I see the tattoos and piercings as frosting on the proverbial T and A donut. I suppose the website is empowering, in that the models aren’t teen runaways and the photographers aren’t middle aged coke-heads with rum stained t-shirts. At the end of the day, Suicide Girls is a beautifully conceived vehicle for the male gaze and an erection enticing piece of internet fantasia. I'm sure the women that run Suicide Girls would be happy to know, that when I look at their website, my erection feels as if it might punch right through my American Apparel jogging pants. For Suicide Girls is not porn, in that disgusting Assyrian sense, it is modernist art in the cheap internet sense.


On a cold Saturday afternoon, sometimes it's nice to sit back and listen to some classic breakbeats. Those interested to know what a breakbeat is can Wikipedia it up.

La Petit Mort/ The Internet Has Gone Too Far

I’m a curious guy, and I like to investigate interesting subjects in the arts, culture, music, politics, and history. I am also a heterosexual man, and as such, I investigate nudity. On a recent investigation, I discovered a website entitled Beautiful Agony: La Petit Mort. The innovative site, featuring the faces of various young hip people as they achieve orgasmic climax, was confounding. The site was both interesting conceptually, a bit intriguing, and mundane. It also brought up a few interesting issues about internet porn, and the act of boiling down sex to a demi glace of various faces writhing in awkward ecstasy.

I discovered masturbation in a rather happenstance sort of way. As a preteen, I did not have the benefit of an older brother or sister to tell me about “self love” or the diverse range of potential lubrication substances. I was twelve, in a bathroom, bored on a cold Sunday afternoon, and for one reason or another I had a hand full of hair conditioner. The only familiarity I had with the female anatomy was the triangle of hair that adorned every Playboy centerfold’s nether regions from 1955 through 1990. In my twelve-year-old mind, sex was nothing more than a brief relationship with a hair triangle. I had figured it all happened inside of the triangle. That afternoon, for the first time, I came. My small, pale body dropped to the floor, convulsing in a shower of violent synapses, and my eyes snapped shut with a sudden flop of joy. My first orgasm flopped out of my body like a tired bus driver after a long day, as if to say “what took you so long?”

As I fondled puberty, I became increasingly interested in inspirational material. I scoured Sunday advertising sections in hopes of discovering a nipple in the Sears women’s underwear section. It was the late eighties and photoshopping stray nipples wasn’t yet advertising protocol. To be honest, Sunday supplements were often rather rich in nipples. One of my fantasies was to be locked in an adult bookstore alone, all the shelves free to peruse, without the prying eyes of the middle aged clerk. In the dream, which was reoccurring throughout my teen years, my soul would fill with the infinite possibility of a veritable nipple cornucopia. This teen dream was realized by a group of computer scientists in the 1960s. These brave men gave the world the never ending adult bookstore, the teenage fantasy land filled with an endless supply of nudity - these men gave us: the internet.

The creators of La Petit Mort, in their quest for an artful approach to nipples in the Sears Sunday supplement, have created an interesting, if strangely disconnected take on standard internet pornography. It seems that in this real life teenage boy fantasy of infinitesimal nipples, people are at their wits end trying to figure out what will be the next craze in masturbation material. To be honest, La Petit Mort would have scared the crap out of me as a teenager. Watching a lesbian from Berlin shout out in ecstasy, filmed at close range, would have given me more questions than answers. Is the world ready for sexuality this basic, this repetitiously human? Even in this golden age of digital sexuality, part of me would prefer a hidden nipple buried in the Sunday newspaper.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Chicago Music Spotlight: The King of Deep / Larry Heard

Larry Heard, born May 31, 1960, is a Memphis, Tennessee-based musician widely known for the Chicago-based house music he produced in the mid-1980s. Born on the South Side of Chicago, Heard grew up hearing jazz and soul music at home, and could play several instruments from a very young age. Before beginning his solo musical career in 1983, he played in various jazz and fusion cover groups. Heard was the leader of the influential group Fingers Inc. and has recorded solo under various names, most notably Mr. Fingers. Heard’s music, with its elegant, funky style and lush production, set the pace for Chicago’s ‘deep house’ sound in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As of 2009, Heard is still performing, recording and producing music.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Where in Chicago is Sam Prekop?

Sam Prekop is an elusive individual. A bus traveler, prone to introspective, beautiful ramblings about 'fox-glove eyes' and 'the sporting life.'' He also seems to have disappeared. The pop singer/songwriter, responsible for a legacy of notable Chicago bands such as The Sea and Cake and Shrimp Boat, seems to have vanished. The Sea and Cake just released a rollicking record entitled Car Alarm, and Mr. Prekop has released a book of black and white photographs, both projects to critical acclaim. To add insult to injury, and to complete the hip triumvirate, Prekop also makes beautiful abstract paintings based on architectural elements. So where the hell is this creative dilettante? Where does he drink his Shlitz and have his morning coffee? I would like to know.

Sam Prekop's music is worth seeking out. His tunes are a mixture of bossa nova, English pop sensibilities, and jazzy phrasing. The music is also painfully introspective in a way that feels completely wonderful. Those seeking sounds for a romantic evening with an art student should pick up a Sea and Cake record and dim the lights. Prekop's solo records are also worth checking out. Visit Thrill Jockey Records and pick up a few of his uniquely Chicago sides.




Closed: EndlessBassic Photography C. Arthur / Chicago, Illinois / 2008-2009

The Art Gallery Cabaret : Free Music, Cheap Beer

Hidden away down a nondescript side street is one of Chicago's secret pleasures. The Art Gallery Cabaret, a local Bucktown haunt for a few decades, is now one of the most unique spots to listen to undiscovered music in Chicago. The long narrow establishment is reminiscent of many Chicago corner taverns dotted across the city. In decades past, these after-work gathering spots served as a place of refuge and camaraderie for Chicago's blue collar working class. It's the kind of place where 60 year old men come to drink, after a meatloaf dinner, wearing fishing flannel and slippers. It's the kind of place where the Midwest is the whole world encapsulated in a snow globe of tap beer and brown liquor. The Cabaret's washrooms are dim, musty, and covered in phone numbers and show bills, but this only adds to the charm. The long bar is perfect for accommodating a group of drinkers, and if you are lucky, you might be able to strike up an interesting conversation with one of the Cabaret's regulars. The majority of the Cabaret's seating consists of cocktail tables strewn about as if a tornado had discharged them from its inner core.

What separates the Cabaret from the rest of the corner taverns in Chicago is the music. Acts of diverse aptitude perform almost every night and the sheer variety can be staggering. Country musicians open sets, only to be followed by middle age, jazz session cats reliving their glory days. Youthful big bands test out their chops on the small stage, and even more youthful punk bands test the limits of the room's PA system. I have been to the Gallery Cabaret on numerous nights and at first I was a skeptic. "Does Chicago really need a continuous amateur hour bar?" After going back again and again, I began to realize that the Art Gallery Cabaret does not offer a pristine musical experience, but an experience based on pure human expression. On a cold January night, I sat at one of the small cocktail tables, drinking a cheap glass of beer and watching a band of elderly jazz musicians, when it occurred to me that we could all be watching television instead of participating in this collective experience. Don't get me wrong, I like television, but there was something special about watching music happen with such a raw veneer and so little pretense. Suddenly, music was just a beautiful mood, and I didn't want to be sitting anywhere else in the whole god dammed world.

For those not overtly motivated by music, the Cabaret offers $4 pitchers of decent local beer, and some might say that cheap brew is more "Chicago" than good music.

The Art Gallery Cabaret
2020 N Oakley Ave Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 489-5471

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Piece of Plastic with a Hole


What the hell is genius? “A little piece of plastic with a hole?”
If you are unfamiliar with the production work of J-Dilla, you are missing out on a legacy that is both insane and brilliant. This is a man who could create musical soundtracks with layers of simplicity and unusually crunchy funkiness. His work is revered by most modern day hip hop producers, and I have even heard the notoriously bombastic Busta Rhymes get choked up when discussing the man’s talents. The interesting thing about Dilla is that he liked to play around. He was a prolific experimenter and his sketches are still out there, in the world, waiting to be put to vinyl. One of these sketch collections, released by Stones Throw Records in 2006, entitled Donuts, exemplifies Dilla’s penchant for insane creativity. Donuts is really just a collection of digitally chopped up soul, funk, doo-wop, and rock records, with a limited amount of sound effects and tampering. The record illustrates the genius of a man having a love affair with music history and the possibilities of a sampling.

A perfect example of Dilla’s production style and sketch technique resides within the tune “Workinonit.” The tune is a re-contextualized version of the British pop band 10cc’s song “Worst Band in the World.” The tune is a funny, sardonic, minimal attack on the modern music industry. For Dilla, the tune is sample rich, with tough funk drums, an echo filled bass groove and vocal stabs ready for the plucking. Dilla’s genius is the fact he identified the song as being great sample material. Anyone can hear a sample in a Roy Ayers groove, or a James Brown vamp, but to find a potential banger in a goofy, one off single, by a fluffy British pop band- that is quite another thing altogether. Dilla’s ears were golden and if more of his uniquely off the wall sketches see the light of day, the game will be better for it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Between Motown and a Hard Place : Recession Era Hip Hop from the Midwest

It’s all over the news, we hear it on almost all channels of communication: This is the worst economic period since the great depression. Once lucrative business are laying off hard working stiffs left and right, the auto industry is seeking bailout money, and unemployment numbers continue to grow. Living in Chicago, there are numerous signs of a downward economic spiral. It doesn’t take a sociologist to notice there are more rust covered cars on the road, young kids in dusty coats, stores boarded up, and more forlorn faces on the cold Chicago streets. This recession has affected Chicago in a very unique way. Chicago was experiencing a boom at the millennium. The culturally rich city was experiencing unprecedented real-estate growth and business development, and for better or worse, gentrification was awkwardly revitalizing parts of the Midwestern metropolis. Over the last eight years, Chicago has not been protected from the credit crises and the all encompassing national recession. Chicago, like many a Midwestern city, has succumb to a national gloom.

Detroit is a city familiar with depression. A city built on the dreams of auto manufacturing and industrial prowess. A modern city filled with progressive ideals and cursed by corruption. The recession has turned most Midwestern cities into a collection of micro- and macro- versions of Detroit. That being said, Detroit is one of the few cities that has built a cottage industry on struggling and surviving. Detroit’s music exemplifies the very middle class ideals of work, struggle and redemption. In the 1960s, the Motown label produced music born out of the civil rights struggle and the materialistic opulence of an auto industry at peak performance. The music on the Motown label was at once soulful, spiritual, and elegantly acceptable to a mass audience. Somewhere between Motown and Reaganomics Detroit city lost its zeal for elegance and began embracing its more bare-knuckled aesthetics. The global economic transitions of the 1970s and 80s proved to be fatal for the city built on the singular dream of dominating global auto manufacturing. After Motown, Detroit gave birth to burgeoning hardcore punk, techno, and garage rock music scenes. The music coming from the motorized city in the 70s and 80s was anything but polished. It was raw, masculine, and industrial. Whether the pounding drums from punk bands like the Meatmen or the unforgiving motor beats of producers like Juan Adkins, in the years following Reaganomics, Detroit music was trying like the devil to break free. Through music, Detroit was crushing its economic failures, while celebrating its hard fought work ethic and creative soul.

Detroit has been living the death of the American dream for decades, beginning with the race riots in 1967, up to its induction as the “murder capital of America” at the dawn of the 21st century. This story of boom and blight is a story being repeated throughout America’s Midwestern cities. It’s a tale being told in the back alleys of Chicago, and the streets of Minneapolis. Detroit has suddenly set the tone for the entire Midwest, and its music speaks loudly to an audience with active, open ears.

In 2009, it’s not New York, LA or the dirty south that is setting the musical backdrop for the blighted economy and the hopeful optimism of a new president- it’s the Midwest. The raw, soulful sounds born out of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit seem to be pushing forth a generation of beat makers and lyricists not concerned with stylistic convention or ashamed of hard times. Artists such as J-Dee Yancey and Black Milk in Detroit, as well as Brother Ali in Minneapolis, and Qwel in Chicago, continue to make music with a very Midwestern aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic that resonates over the sound of closed factories and foreclosed homes. These Midwestern music makers owe a thing or two to Detroit, a city that has been making art in the face of hard times for decades. The duality of art and struggle echoes loudly in the music of revered producer J-Dee Yancey. The producer, who worked with everyone from Common, Erika Badu, and Tribe Called Quest, gave his beats a rough hewn, collage feel. In a J-Dilla beat, it is as if each track had been compiled from rusted Motown studios, discarded Cadillac grills, and shoes wrapped around telephone lines. His music was not only sonically well crafted; it was music that was directly taken from the Midwestern streets on which he was raised. It could be argued that J-Dilla made music that described his city better than a thousand news broadcasts or documentaries. His legacy of local appreciation, home grown soul and acknowledgment of the daily grind is being continued by Detroit artists like Black Milk and Invincible.

This Detroit Aesthetic isn’t just held within Michigan state lines. In 2008, Washington bred producer Jake One collaborated with a host of divergent MCs for his eponymous debut LP entitled White Van Music. The LP featured numerous Midwest MCs and had an overt nod to blue collar roots and the raw, unvarnished style so loved in the bread basket of the free world. Midwest MCs Brother Ali and Freeway provided the album’s introductory single “The Truth.” The track, while overtly earnest and completely ‘un-hip’ lets both MCs showcase their Midwest values and speak to the problems that face middle America at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. What is so striking about this track, found on an underground hip hop record, is how unselfconscious the track sounds. On “The Truth” Brother Ali breaks into a sing-song verse more reminiscent of a Baptist sermon than the flow of an underground MC. On this track, Ali is blowing not in a palace, but a studio apartment in a Midwestern city, eating ramen noodles with a pregnant wife, and he’s letting the struggle pour out through every lyric. This aesthetic isn’t atypical in the Midwest. A few hundred miles underneath Minneapolis is the Chicago, home of Qwel. Like Brother Ali, Qwel has a flow partially borrowed from the African American Blues and Gospel spoken word traditions. On his 2005 LP, If It Aint Been In A Pawn Shop, Then It Cant Play The Blues, the MC fully embraces the role of a world weary sage speaking about blue collar hard times and survival within the maze of the city. On this recording, Qwel becomes something of a hip hop Nelson Algren and uses his mic to weave intricate stories about blue collar survival.

There is a workman like quality to Midwestern hip hop, and whether born out of Detroit or just influenced by its plight, hip hop in the middle of America is more relevant now that it has ever been. It’s the sound of factory fathers, bus riders, and tarnished silver chains. It’s the sound of aspirations, realized or not. It’s the wail of tarnished hope, untapped potential, and without a doubt, it’s a sound that deserves our attention.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What the F*$k is the Lowdown?

In 1976, at the peak of disco's cross-over success, pop-r&b vocalist Boz Skaggs recorded '"Lowdown" for his album Silk Degrees. The tune is an elegant proto-disco vamp with a thumping bass line and locked groove that highlights a lovely flute melody and Skagg's weird wedding singer/blue eyed soul vocals. The track was widely acclaimed on the disco infused pop charts of the late 70s and won a grammy for the best R&B song of 1976.

Anyone who has heard "Lowdown" knows that it is a strange, rare piece of American pop music. I recently djed a cocktail party filled with thirty something intellectuals, and when the opening bass-drum-keyboard intro came coursing through the speakers, a few stiff necks began nodding to the beat. Everyone at this strange party had a different taste in music, but this one song connected each person to a very weird moment in time. A time when disco and classic rock were making out in the panel van of pop music. It was a time when a guy, looking like a cross between a mailman and one of your dad's bowling buddies, could croon about a loose woman over a terse funk groove and create a timeles track of pure swagger. I have never been able to put my finger on why this tune is so universally accepted and enjoyed. I have played it at parties filled with trendy hip hop kids, metal heads, disco snobs, and jaded hipsters, and I've never heard a complaint. The strange thing about "Lowdown" is how it comes so close to failure, yet succeeds. Mixing disco, with blue-eyed soul, Phillie-strut, synth strings, and classic rock guitars sounds like something I would play to get a terrorist out of a cave. When all these insane elements are combined, what you're left with is a musical anomaly- the universally appealing tune.

Pull the "Lowdown" out at your next soiree and see if there is a sad face among the dancing horde. Not since Michael Jackson had skin the color of Swiss Miss has a piece of music caused so many heads to nod.