Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Are we in Baltimore? Are we in D.C.? Are we in Columbia?

Columbia, Maryland is a planned community that appeared out of nowhere in otherwise rural Howard County in 1967. It may have improved on '60s suburban sprawl, but forty years later it's still plagued by suburbia's basic problems: car-dependency, low density, lack of mixed-use development.

I was born and raised here and the temporary return has been rocky, mostly the sticker shock of having to pay for gas while still gainfully unemployed in post-graduation limbo, not to mention the sheer time consumption of driving at least half an hour to access urban culture. Indeed, Columbia is positioned about halfway between Baltimore and D.C., a perk for reaching the two major job markets, or a drag if you just wish you were in one or the other.

I've watched that tension blossom over the years, especially as friends have gone in one direction or the other to settle down: Is it a Baltimore or a D.C. suburb? The answer, of course, is both, but I've made a parlor game out of watching the barometer in either direction -- how many signs for commuter buses to either city, which sports teams are getting repped in bar windows and on baseball caps, what newspaper does a particular house subscribe to, what local news channel do you watch. Despite a Baltimore orientation in high school, I've gradually recognized that I orbit the District -- from the Washington Post at the breakfast table every day to the Nationals game I attended last night. Of course, a particularly snarky commentator could say that even Baltimore is a bedroom community of D.C.

Perhaps Columbia's only saving grace -- certainly culturally -- is Merriweather Post Pavilion. The venue is second to none, an early Frank Gehry (c. 1967) outdoor amphitheater, most definitely an idyllic setting on any summer evening, albeit hot in the daytime under a sticky mid-Atlantic sun. The artists at Sunday's Rock the Bells, a old-school hip-hop spectacular, put on a show at Merriweather from noon till night, but damn if they couldn't figure out where they were. Between Nas, Mos Def, De La Soul, and Rakim on the main stage there were shout outs to Baltimore, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, even Pennsylvania. Music as relentlessly urban and rooted in a particular place as hip-hop just couldn't find a comfortable nesting ground amid the leafy groves of Merriweather, even if it was a convenient meeting point for black/white, young/old, urban/suburban -- although the lack of public transportation may have kept some citybound fans away (I did see one Zipcar, much to my delight).

Another way of staking out location, of course, was through the music itself. Baltimore has club and D.C. has go-go, both of which Afrika Bambaata spun in an animated DJ set on a rainy side stage. He namechecked both -- said he couldn't play a set this close to either city and not drop Bmore breaks or pots and pans music. But in the hype circles of 2008, it's not exactly a fair battle. Go-go can't stand on its own as DJ material the way club can, simply because it's live music. Of course, a little go-go inflected hip-hop might be the perfect repartee. So while DJ Blaqstarr did his best to animate a thinned out side stage the way he did at the Paradox the other week (god-awful hype girl Oxy Cottontail, a Columbia native and ultimate hanger-on, should not have been sharing the stage with the likes of the Zulu Nation any more than I should have), I would he say he was upstaged by DC/MD's own Wale, who performed early on the main stage.

His breakout single "Dig Dug" samples D.C. go-go band Northeast Groovers, chops & screws it just a little but mostly lets it play. "Not from Northeast but I guarantee I groove."

Wale - Dig Dug

On his most recent effort, "Mixtape About Nothing," he tackles the Bmore vs. D.C. controversy head-on, mostly in jest.

Wale - The Bmore Club Slam

Even K-Swift (R.I.P.) gets namedropped. But damn if her beloved 92Q isn't showing PG County's finest any love.

While the Columbia curse means I can't claim any more cred to D.C. go-go than Baltimore club, even if I get the chance to spectate every once in awhile, if I'm in the D.C. area rather than a Baltimore suburb, it's still gratifying to have an up-and-comer to root for (and rock out to). And his DJ, Alizay of WKYS (the D.C. answer to 92.Q), even did a Rock the Bells mixtape.

In the end, though, it was finally Q-Tip who got it right. As he hyped the crowd up for A Tribe Called Quest's full appearance on stage, he yelled out, "Are we in Baltimore? Are we in D.C.? Are we in Columbia?"

The answer, of course, is all three, in different ways. And for a Columbia native, however conflicted it makes me feel, it was the rarest of treats to have music I normally drive at least a half an hour to hear in my hometown, a short walk away.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

K-Swift Be Unruly

What could or should just be ruminations on this Bmore club massive that I attended last Friday is clearly overshadowed by the accidental passing of K-Swift later that weekend. It's chilling to have attended her penultimate gig at Baltimore's legendary nightclub the Paradox, a hulking warehouse in the shadow of Ravens Stadium, where freight trains rumble past throughout the night making for their own industrial air horns. It's an incredible club, exactly the kind of gritty space in a gritty part of town for either club -- Friday nights -- or the wilder side of house -- Saturday nights, especially the legendary Fever party (scroll down to episode 2) that put Baltimore on the map for electronic music.

The Paradox is the kind of place where you watch your back and ask someone to walk you to your car, so it was particularly galling to see a sizeable crowd of skinny jeans, ironic t-shirts, and asymmetrical haircuts. To some extent it epitomized the popularity of club music over the last couple years among a certain hip set. You can hear club tunes cranked out in just about any city across the U.S., Europe, and probably elsewhere, but how is it received nowadays in good ol' Baltimore?

The City Paper certainly noticed the mixed crowd, and it's impossible to get an exact read in the ebbs and flows of a nightclub -- who danced with who, who laughed at who, who earned respect -- it's hard to knock anyone for wanting to come to a line-up that huge. It was tri-state (MD, VA, PA) plus the District, and some NYC to boot. Orioles hats, Phillies hats, even a Nationals cap or too -- maybe it's no longer Baltimore club, but mid-Atlantic club, and in 20 odd years it's only logical that those Baltimore breaks have spread up and down I-95.

My Crew Be Unruly may not have been a Baltimore secret on Friday night, but it was still inner-city Baltimore in tone, and that's what counts. I suspect the out of town, art student, and suburban crowds (myself included on the latter count, at least for the time being) were unlikely to need to avail themselves of the services offered by K-Swift's sponsor (it was plastered all over the K-Swift t-shirts):

Therein lies K-Swift's greatest strength and what made her the rising star that she was: cross-crowd appeal with credibility, from her regular shows on 92Q to sharing a headliner spot with Diplo. Blaqstarr may be the next young DJ (and K-Swift was only 27, too) to look out for . . . he was there on Friday too, and I'll be seeing him on Sunday at the Rock the Bells Tour.

In conclussion, it was all the more depressing to receive a flyer for a K-Swift pool party, given it was a pool accident that caused her death.

For the time being, if you're local, there is a viewing today and a funeral tomorrow (see the 92Q link for details). And head to your local Downtown Locker Room to get any remaining Jump Off mixtapes -- they're going to be collector's items soon.

And on the DC side, check DJ C's tribute, then come see him live tonight in Silver Spring, MD. Gotta put the good word in for my house guest.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

DJ Showcase Latinoamericano

This week is the Latin Alternative Music Confernece in el Manzana Grande. As part of it, global music purveyor S.O.B.'s is hosting a DJ showcase of Latin America's musica digital-bass-club-mashup on Thursday night. I'll be holding it down for the Brazilianists with plenty of funk and hip-hop brasileiro, but the rest are a strictly castellano affair -- Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.

The Zizek boys and their cumbia digital should be a big draw, especially on the heels of their monster write-up in Urb. Toy Selectah also has been mining the urban/rural frontiers for many years now and has hopefully cooked up something special for the evening.

Meanwhile, Refusenik and I keep wondering how a couple of white Jews of Eastern European descent (or birth, in his case) ended up on the bill . . . until I discovered my secret identity c/o TimeOut New York. Apparently I'm now from Sao Paulo! All the reason to rep Rio even harder.

In all seriousness, I understand it's going to be the party of LAMC, so if you're in Nova/Nueva York, stop on by.

DJ Showcase Latinoamericano
S.O.B.'s at 204 Varick St.
$10, 21+
Doors at 8:30 pm, show at 9:30 pm

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Neg Fondamental

The death of Aimé Césaire back in April passed through with minimal fanfare in the U.S., whereas the French broadcast his funeral live on television. As a poet, politician, and philosopher, he stands immensely tall in 20th century discourse yet hails from a comparatively small place: the island of Martinique. A former French colony and now fully-fledged department (formerly DOM, département d’outre-mer or overseas department, and now a DFA, départment française d’Amérique), Martinique has produced a remarkable number of noteworthy French writers in the last 60 years. Start with Frantz Fanon, then Césaire, then more contemporary authors Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphael Confiant, and Suzanne Dracius. It’s an impressive litany of forceful francophone writers from the colonial and post-colonial eras who have dredged their island’s history and its subordinate status to France to make powerful statements about the legacy of slavery, the effects of colonialism, the cultural bonds of the Caribbean, and the global black experience.

Césaire is, as he called himself, “nègre fondamental” (black at the core). The translation is tricky on both fronts. “Nègre” is a stronger term than “noir,” and has carried a derogatory connotation dating back to plantation slavery. It can still be used as an insult, but it isn’t nearly as ugly as English’s own six-letter word. While the hip-hop world has reclaimed that term to the Nth degree, I couldn’t imagine MLK or Malcolm X getting behind it. “Nègre” is something both rappers and writers use. “Fondamental” can be fundamental or foundational, both of which are applicable here. Rather than pick one and exclude the other, I like the notion of “at the core” as covering both the essence quality of “fundamental” and the building block notion of “foundational.”

In Martinique, where he was mayor of the capital, Fort-de-France, for an astonishing 56 years (1945-2001) and deputy to the French national assembly for another 48 (1945-1993), Césaire was the grand homme of the island. While his early days, especially his break with the French communist party in order to found the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, made for contentious politics, he simply became more revered the more he aged. Supposedly he held court in a square near city hall up until even a year or two ago. It was my surprise to learn he was still alive when I first discovered him back in high school, by which time he was already in his 80s.

While his voice was assured as early as 1939 with the publication of his epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a return to my native land), he lived long enough to be criticized. A younger generation of French Caribbean writers saw Négritude and its emphasis on Africa as undermining the uniqueness of Caribbean heritage, which they lauded as créolité (Creoleness). It was a healthy debate, though, and especially upon his death there was universal reverence. Patrick Chamoiseau, himself a founder of the créolité movement, wrote a stirring memoriam (Fr only). Politically, a half-century can surely get corrupt, and the night clerk at my hotel told me he was accused of letting henchmen run the show as he got increasingly old and incapable of managing all the details of mayoralty by himself.

But the signs -- literal billboards, posters, and public displays across the island -- of appreciation for Césaire were ubiquitous across Martinique, beginning the moment you stepped into the airport, even before passport control. The airport, I should add, is incongruously named after Césaire, something he wasn't exactly in favor of. Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, pushed it through -- two years after Césaire refused to meet him in Fort-de-France for his support of a bill acknowledging the "positive effects" of colonialism.

My stay in Martinique was short, just long enough to give the island a quick pass, stock up on some Antillean books (including teach yourself Creole!) and CDs (francophone dancehall and zouk galore) although I hope to return one day for a longer research effort. But it was enough to recognize the richness -- cultural, intellectual, literary -- of this particular corner of the francophone Caribbean.

I'm currently reading Chamoiseau's Texaco, which tells the story of a shantytown on the outskirts of Fort-de-France (built on the remnants of a Texaco facility) as it faces demolition at the hands of the city's urban reform efforts. In this neighborhood founded by rural exodus, Creole is at its strongest, yet it is here that I found the "Merci Aimé Césaire" graffiti, the largest I saw on the island, written in French but signed with a Creole name. Here that Chamoiseau eulogizes 200 years of Martinique history as they have resulted in the establishment of Texaco but thanks Serge Letchimy, urbanist and now mayor of Fort-de-France, who led the effort to raze the shantytown. The novel won the Prix Goncourt, France's equivalent of a Pulitzer, catapaulting Chamoiseau, Martinique, and Texaco to fame.

Even après-Césaire, Martinique -- and by extension the French Caribbean (most notably Guadeloupe) -- are poised to remain a hotbed of literary and intellectual activity. If anything, the outpouring from Martinique's younger luminaries simply confirms the multi-generational strain is alive and well.

[My own merci to Mylène Priam for her wonderful teaching on francophone literature in the Caribbean. She spoke about her work here, which garnered a bit of blog press in the Caribbean-academico-sphere.]

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