Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Could you do it?

Like a whole lot of other people that have 're-migrated' to the South, I came here because it is more affordable. And it is. Down here you can really have the home of your dreams, and it won't cost you a million dollars and your first born child. No, down here you can have a nice four bedroom, 3 bathroom, full-sized kitchen, 2 car garage, deck out back and porch up front for 159,000, and have plenty of yard space to go with it.

In the Bay Area - where I'm from, for 159,000, you'll be living way out in the woods somewhere and would have to drive 2 hours PLUS to get to work everyday.

So, anyway, here I was at work today browsing the web looking for houses and look what I came across for 375,000 bucks:

"This home has been in my family for over thirty years. I grew up in it during my teen years. The home is over two hundred years old. The home was built around the late seventeen hundreds to around 1800. It is constructed from the heart of Pine trees. Probably from Pine trees on and near the property. The home is surrounded on ten acres of almost level land. The home is about 4500 square feet. "

Wow, 4500 square feet! In San Leandro I lived in a 850 sq foot apartment. My friends have bought homes that are 2000 sq feet for the same asking price as that house. I now live in a 1450 sq foot townhouse...but 4500 square feet, I can't imagine it. What would I do with 4500 square feet? Ok, living room, dining room, kitchen, family room, study, bathrooms - and now we get to the bedrooms: ok Master bedroom, TJ's room, Malcolm's room, Jarred's room, Aaron's room and guest room. WOW, there is still space left! And the ten acres of land! What to do, what to do? Ok, recording studio, gym...I'm running out of ideas. Damn, I could entertain all kinds of family and friends in a spot like that. But then, I saw something I overlooked:

"It is an old Plantation Home"

I had to step back and do like Black Rob and say: "WHOA!" I don't know. I don't think I could live in a plantation. Even if I did buy it, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. According to the ad it says it was built in the 17 and or 1800's - that means at the peak of our captivity - somebody had slaves working that property. The ad also says: "It is contructed from the heart of Pine trees. Probably from Pine trees on and near the property." Guess who chopped the trees? The same somebodies that dragged the trees and cut them and built the house.

Slavery is our holocaust. Even though no one I know - or ever met, was ever a slave, the effects of it still effect black people 140 years after it was abolished. No I have never picked cotton, tobacco, sugar cane or anything else that comes from the ground - and it's because of the legacy of slavery that I absolutely r-e-f-u-s-e to pick anything now.

Now, we are in a time when Black people - in this country, have more wealth today than ever before. There are more Black professionals today than there were in the 60's when the Civil Rights Bill was passed. Black people own all kinds of black nostalgia ie; the Mamie dolls, Sambo posters etc., etc,...Will the day ever come when we own plantations?

The sentiment behind owning Sambo posters and the like is that, we should own our legacy no matter how painful it is. But a poster or a doll are different from the blood, sweat and tears that went into building plantations.

I couldn't live in one for all the reasons previously mentioned and, because doing so, would alienate me - and my family, from the local Black community. Word of a black person buying a plantation in the South would spread faster than a Tupac mixtape. Black folks would show up out of nowhere in the middle of the day, just to get a 'look' at who bought that damn house.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hip Hop Essentials: Volume Six

The 1980’s were a magical time for hip-hop. The musical gospel was being spread throughout the world by legions of disciples who had either been to the original Bronx parties or were directly influenced by the movement’s prime innovators.

One of the first people to take Kool Herc’s haphazardly spun break-beat formula from blueprint to fine tuned flesh and blood creation was Joseph “Grandmaster Flash” Saddler and his MC’s the Furious Five.

On a warm and sunny Oakland afternoon, along side my partners Davey D and Jeff Chang; I interviewed the hip-hop father himself: Kool Herc. As he spoke everyone in the room sat in awe of the man. The stories he told of the parties and of the early players thrilled us all. It was at that point that it dawned on me: Kool Herc is to hip-hop, what the Neanderthal man is to early Homo sapiens. He is the blueprint for the funk genetic code that would later be called hip-hop.

So I asked him, “Mr. Herc, I’m curious”, I said, “who were the first people that you saw rap as we know it today?’

Without a pause he said, “Mele Mel. It was Mele Mel and Kid Creole.” Looking down at his battle scarred hands and then out the window to Lake Merritt he continued, “they was at a boxing gym – as a matter of fact it was the last place that I saw Big Pun alive at. It was over in the Fort Apache area. In the middle of the ring, Mele and Kid Creole – as little as he is, with that big long Jackson Five afro, was in the middle of the ring rappin’ with Flash cuttin’ behind them.” It was at this point that a warm smile enveloped Herc’s face as he recalled watching them from the crowd. “I laughed to myself”, he said, “Cause I knew where they got it from – they got it from me. They took what we were doing to another level. I just laughed to myself. They knew where they got it from. As a matter of fact, Mele Mel saw me in the crowd and nodded at me. I laughed. I wasn’t mad at him”, the hip-hop father said.

Years later Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would wow audiences all over the globe with records like ‘Freedom’, ‘It’s Nasty’, ‘The Message’ and the unforgettable ‘New York, New York’. On the song ‘New York, New York’ Mele Mel and Duke Bootee got deeper than Bob Dylan and painted a harsher picture of city life than the original rap poet from 125th and Lenox, Gil Scott-Heron ever did. It was at this point in recorded rap history when lyricists – real lyricists who had something truly profound to say, would awaken the minds of a generation to the poverty, desperation and confusion that still holds America in a death grip. The listener is taken on a sonic trip into the underbelly of the inner city where chaos and claustrophobia fuel confusion and rage.

Before Snoop and the Dogg Pound threw down the gauntlet in the so-called “East Coast/West Coast” beef, the real hook went:
“New York, New York big city of dreams, and everything in New York, ain’t always what it seems. You might get fooled if you come from out of town, but I’m down by law and I know my way around. Too much. Too many people. Too much.”

The verses that followed were testimonials to the hardships of dealing day to day with life in the ‘Rotten Apple’ during Reagan’s America. Complete with rock guitar squeals and keyboard sounds that could’ve been in the soundtrack to an 80’s thriller like ‘Escape From New York’, the MC’s take you on a sonic tour through the urban struggle. But in all honesty those verses could’ve applied to any big city in America.

If only I could sleep just ten more minutes,
I might find the strength to make another day.
If I didn’t have to get up and do my thing,
I’d probably sleep my whole life away…
Ran into a pothole,
Got into a car crash,
Should’ve been thinking and tried to fake whiplash.
A crowd gathers ‘round calling me fat,
Who you looking at with a face like that?

Or this…

A man’s on the ledge,
Says he’s gonna jump,
People gather round and say he won’t he’s just a chump.
Cause he lost his job,
Then he got robbed,
His mortgage is due and his marriage is through.
He said he ain’t gonna pay no child support,
Because the bitch left him without a second thought.”

80’s hip-hop artists gave their teen audiences glimpses in to real adult life situations. Anything from the disparity that comes from unemployment to the confusion and desperate decisions made from an unwanted pregnancy – it was all on the table. This was the age when there really was a message in the music.

One of the legendary acts of the early era – in fact he made what was probably the fifth or sixth rap record ever called ‘Spoonin’ Rap’, was a man who always did his own thing: Spoonie Gee. While every other MC was out to cold crush the competition, Spoonie dubbed himself the “Cold Crushing Lover” and kept his rap – as that a ‘rap’ strictly for the ladies. Before Too Short, LL, Kane, Rakim or any other cat ever picked up a mike and tried to spit some smooth shit at a girl, Spoonie was doin’ it. He was also one of the first guys to rap in a laid-back, conversational style.

In the mid 80’s when everyone went political and talked about how hard the streets were – Spoonie talked about a bad girl, a “Street Girl”. After years of being out of the spotlight, Spoonie returned in the late 80’s when his generation was on the wane and only a few were able to hang with the new crop of MC’s, and dropped the Marley Marl produced classic “The Godfather”. Over the frenetic funk of the ‘Godfather of Soul’ James Brown’s ‘Soul Power ‘74’, Spoonie, smoothed- out and laid- back declared in a conversational style:

“Let’s get this straight,
There’s no contest,
So now you people know and don’t have to guess.
I’m not the king of rap,
Not lord not prince,
I was a young kid rappin’
And I been rockin’ ever since….”

Spoonie didn’t have to be the greatest rapper ever – because he was the smoothest rapper ever.

Speaking of the smoothest rapper ever it’s a tie between two other guys: Guru of Gang Starr and Rakim Allah. For me, it’s Rakim – when RUN-DMC and everyone else were screaming their heads off, I’ll never forget Rakim sitting on the stage at the Henry J Kaiser Center rhyming, “I take 7 MC’s and put ‘em in a line, and take 7 more brothers who think they can rhyme. And it a take 7 more before I go for mine – and that is 21 MC’s ate up at the same time.” Those were the best rhymes for at least seven years.

Gang Starr made their debut on a little known label called Wild Pitch Records (before there was Rawkus Records – there was Wild Pitch, get up on it) with the classic “Words I Manifest” sometime around 1989, this was back when baggy jeans and sweatshirts first came into style.

Gang Starr’s first major label single was called “Just to Get a Rep”. This was when there were more guns and crack all over the streets than garbage. You didn’t really wanna bling back then unless you had it like that – cause if you didn’t: Stick up kids were out to tax. Over an obscure break that’s bass line bounced like jazz, but was more eclectic than anything else; Guru detailed the painful costs of street life at the height of the crack era.

The last great single by the Sugar Hill Gang was called “The Lover In You” – it was the first time I heard a rap record on Quiet Storm radio. From the smoothed out beat to the mellow background singing, this was a record earmarked for ‘soft and warm’ formats like Vaughn Harper’s show on WBLS or Leslie Stoval on KBLX. For real hip-hop you had to flip the dial to the left end of the spectrum to hear a song like ‘Funkbox Party’ by the Masterdon Committee.

According to many of his contemporaries, the late great D.J. Masterdon would’ve given Grandmaster Flash a run for his money anytime of the day. He is described as having been a sharp dresser who always kept a cool head, and could rhyme just as good as he deejayed. Like Flash, he was one of the first deejays to utilize the beat box. Master Don called his the ‘Funk Box”. Master P’s biggest single was called “Make ‘Em Say Ugggghhh”, which was taken from “Funk Box Party” a record that captured the soulful singing of group member Gangster Gee and high-powered raps by Keith K.C., Johnny D, Boo-Ski and Pebblee Poo.

Hip Hop Essentials are essential to anyone that calls themselves a true hip-hopper.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Southern Food

You know I tried to be a Muslim once – I really did. I would be one right now, I have no attachment whatsoever to the Christian religion. I dig certain concepts like: Forgiveness, atonement, love your neighbor and all that kind of stuff. Now when it gets to the mythology…that’s where I have the problem.

I like Islam for the discipline – I dig that. The cat at the mosque said, “Brother, if you’re gonna join us you gotta be disciplined”. I said ‘Ok brother, right on.” He said, “No white women.” I said, ‘No problem brother, I have no attachment to them anyway.” He said, “No alcohol or drugs.” ‘I said, “No problem brother, I’m not into that anyway.” And then he crushed my heart, “And no pig brother…”

“Whew”, I thought, “No pig?’ No pork chops, no bacon, no ribs, no sausage, no ham…?”

I tried; I prayed, I ate chicken, fish and lamb for almost a year and a half. And then one late night at Safeway, it happened. A voice called my name. ‘Mark’, the voice said, “Over here”.

“Over where?” I said.
“Over here…follow my voice.”

It lead me straight to the frozen food section, right into a package of pork chops. “Awww man” I thought. I haven’t had a pork chop in a long time. And then it dawned on me. “Hey I can get sick from eating this. I haven’t touched this stuff in over a year. Better start slow – let’s get some bacon.”

And then I was back to eating pig again. No more discipline. I tried all of the mental tricks they give you in the Nation: ‘Brother, do you know what you’re eating? Hey, the pig is a cross between a rat and a dog. You are what you eat!” That didn’t work. And for my Muslim brothers y’all can keep believing that, while I throwdown on some baby back ribs. I know y’all are jealous, you smell that barbecue sauce and want a taste of swine too – don’t front.
Southern Fried Mark

Well I’m new to the South; I know absolutely nothing about Southern culture – beyond some of the food, I know nothing. When I was growing up I think I spent two summers down here – and that was in the eighties. I know nothing man. I don’t know anything about fried gizzards, fried chicken livers – I wouldn’t know a Turnip green from a Mustard green. I thought I stood out in California – boy do I stand out here.

For instance, the English language is a foreign language down here. Yes, ok they speak English down here, but not like you and I speak it. For instance let’s take a word like…Hmmmm, I’ve got one: Christmas. Now you and I say: Chris –t – mas. The ‘mas’ takes on a ‘mus’ sound. The ‘t’ is silent, but never the less, we know it’s there. Well, down here some of – well – a lot of our country brethren say ‘Crimma’. Yes, you are reading it right: ‘Crimma’. There is no ‘s’ and there is most definitely no ‘t’; just ‘Crimma’.

Now being from New York and California, I came up around our people’s re-interpretation of the English language all of my life. Hell, being from New York there are certain words I butcher to death like: Mustard. In New York we say: ‘Musted’. There is no ‘r’ in the word Mustard in New York. As a matter of fact, the ‘r’ gets hacked off of a lot of things in New York, most especially the name York. New Yorkers call it – New Yawk. And that’s alright (by the way, I bet it was in New York that the phrase aiiight was born – no ‘r’ sound) cause around other Easterners we sound normal.

In the West – there is a drawl; if you pay attention a lot of cats in the West don’t have heavy voices, not all, but a whole lot of cats don’t. Believe it or not, a lot of cats actually sound like Too Short and Eazy E – and the exception to the rule: Hammer. It’s true. Now slang is countrified out there – but that is by choice. If you really listen to a cat you can tell that he knows how to put his words together well, he just chooses not to. And that’s okay.

However, in the South, brothers really say ‘Who that is?’ Or ‘What that is?’ Or ‘What name is you?’…Sometimes upon hearing this I have to stop and think to myself: “Damn, now what did that brother say?”

Now in other parts of the country, you know when our folks are just speaking slang – and you go ‘Ok dude is just reppin’ his side of town or whatever’. But down here Ebonics takes on a whole other meaning. It really is another language. It has been passed down for generation upon generation upon generation…until it is what it is now: the norm; in other words, all you know.

What a difference an education can make.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I Laughed ‘Til I Cried

“These two niggas wanted to have a contest to see who had the biggest dicks in the world, right. Now, see they weren’t freaks or nothing they didn’t want everyone looking. So they went looking for somewhere to have their contest. And then they got to the Golden Gate Bridge and one nigga looked at the other nigga and said: ‘Man I got to take a leak.” And the other nigga said, “yeah me too.’

So he pulls out his dick and starts taking a leak and all of a sudden one nigga says: “Goddamn, this waters cold…”

And the other nigga said, ‘yeah and it’s deep too.”

Those words are from the immortal, the irrepressible and perhaps the most important comedian of our time: Richard Pryor. The first time I heard that joke I was eleven years old. I was wearing a pair of headphones because I didn’t want anyone in the house to know what I was listening to. I knew I was listening to something that I shouldn’t have been listening to. But I couldn’t help it. I had to do it. The albums were all over the house. Sitting there playing those records I laughed so hard until I cried. I had never had that experience before.

I memorized dozens and dozens of Richard Pryor routines – I should’ve been a comedian with the way I was obsessed with those records. But learning those records were a vital part of my adolescence. They were an important part of what bonded me to my buddies: Rodney Loche and Mark Standfield. The three of us laughed so much as teenagers – I can hardly remember a time when we didn’t laugh. We all loved Mudbone – a character Richard would bring to life in “Which Way Is Up?”

Mudbone was an old man from ‘Pee-ora, Illinoy’, he was probably an old wino - well, yeah that's what Mudbone was - a wino. He spoke with a Southern drawl and cracked wise about any and every subject you could think of. My favorite Mudbone stories were from the "Bicentennial Nigger" album. Mudbone was the character that talked about a guy named ‘Cockeyed Junior’ (Cockeyed Junior would say: Nigga pick that up…and four or five niggas bend down) my stupid ass – I nicknamed the janitor at our high school (Hayward High School) Cockeyed Junior, because, well, he was cockeyed. Sorry to say, I never learned the janitor’s name – I grew too accustomed to calling him Cockeyed Junior. I remember once me and my friend Mark were in the cafeteria and one of us, I can’t remember who, threw something at the garbage can and missed. Well, here comes the janitor – and guess what he says? Hey pick that up! Well, me and Mark being as silly as we were, we stood there pointing at ourselves and looking at him, trying to figure out who he was talking to, because that eye was looking everywhere but at us.

Richard Pryor’s comedy was kind of like a gateway or a peephole into an adult world that my young mind would’ve had no idea about had it not been for him. His routines about cocaine – while funny, were often scary. They were just scary enough that I never ever ever never touched cocaine in my life. Just by listening to him talk about the pipe calling him from another room, was enough for me to say – nah I don’t want any part of it.

Sex…well that was a different story. His routines about sex were dead on. Like this:
“You ever get with a girl you really been wanting for a long time and your dick don’t move? You be sittin’ there sayin’ to yourself ‘Oh God, not now. Please let it remain heavy if not hard.”

You don’t appreciate a joke like that until that shit really happens to you.

An artist if he is a sincere artist shares his joys, pain and sorrow with the audience. There are very few contemporary artists that do that. Most artists today – especially male artists want to depict themselves as super lovers, super players, super ballers, super thugs all on some souped up nonsense. These guys work day and night trying to live up to the myth of the super black man - when they can’t. If an artist is honest with himself, he understands he – and the world around him, are not a perfect world. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, trying to make sense out of the perfect universe that God has created. But God, who is probably the funniest comedian of all, can be compared with an absentee landlord, who leaves you to figure out how to clean up the mess he made. The artists’ job is to paint a picture (with words, sounds, or drawing) of that mess and hold it up to society.

Richard Pryor drew a picture of our society on a canvas in a way that we can all understand. And when he drew those pictures – they made me laugh until I cried.

I’ll miss you…
What a Difference a Chair Makes

Name a great thinker. Go ahead name someone. Anyone. Here I’ll drop a few: Galileo. Martin Luther King. Freud. Now what do they all have in common? This: I bet they were comfortable when they were coming with their great ideas.

Think about it. Galileo had to have a comfortable seat to think in to come up with all of his theories and whatnot. Let’s go back even further to Socrates, that dude probably didn’t have a comfortable seat to sit on, but I bet he had on some comfortable shoes. Most likely they were sandals. It’s good to crack the toe knuckles from time to time when trying to get the best ideas out.

Now you know Dr. King had a comfortable seat in his office. I’ve seen the pictures. Like that black and white photo where he is sitting pensively lost in thought. The impression I get from the picture is that it is early in the morning and Doc King is contemplating on the next level of the struggle. Either that, or he just had grits and bacon for breakfast and the photographer snapped the photo while he was quietly listening for the bathroom to be available.

Now why am I going on and on about chairs?

Well, I just moved to Columbia, South Carolina and even though I packed up damn near everything I own – I sold my couches and chairs – thus I have had nothing to sit on. I haven’t been able to write because I’ve had nothing to write on. Sitting on the floor sucks. How did the Indians and all them other people do it? My back and neck HURT when I sit on the floor. Not to mention my ass as well.

So one day I went to Office Max and what did I see? Chairs. Big comfortable chairs. They ranged in price from 39 bucks to 169 bucks. I tested them all out. I now appreciate the phrase “You get what you pay for”.
I spent 79 bucks on my big brown comfortable chair. My new boss gave me a desk. I’m living in a 3-bedroom townhouse – of which one bedroom is now my office. This is all I need to start to write the classics.
Move Over World...
Well after months of negotiating and late-night prayers, it's final, I've got my first big radio gig. I will be the voice of KJLH in Los Angeles. This is the station that Stevie Wonder has owned since the 70's - and it is the crown jewel of black radio on the West Coast...And for me, it all started with a little pirate radio station in Oakland, Ca: 104.1.

A few years back, my uncle and sometime deejay partner Ibi Judah, got a spot playing reggae music on this little pirate station in Oakland. It was located right behind what used to be one of Oakland's best soul food restaurants: 'Soul Brothers Kitchen'. And in between what once was - and probably still is, one of the hottest dope spots in North Oakland: Keller Plaza - or K.P. for those that knew, was the pirate station that was a constant thorn in the side of the FCC.

The only way to really describe this station is to say that it was truly the people's station. Since it was located in North Oakland off of Telegraph Avenue, which was really close to the Berkeley border, the station had a really heavy 60's radical influence. Homeless people had shifts - hippies would show up with their Grateful Dead records. Local rappers and deejays would get shifts from time to time. And ex- Black Panthers would show up just to rabble rouse. The most interesting thing about the station was when the homeless people would show up for their shifts, they would say things on the air that would make Howard Stern cringe. Things like: "Yeah, I'm homeless because my step-father fucked me..." Or my personal favorite:
"I'm homeless cause I like drugs - you gotta problem with that? Yeah then call me at ... And then we can meet in the parking lot where I'll kick your ass!"

The transmitter was located on top of a garage or a warehouse or something like that. Every few weeks the FCC would roll up there and shut it down. Now mind you this station could only be picked up on the border of Berkeley and as far 98th Ave in East Oakland. If you went beyond Ashby Ave. you could forget about hearing it. They [the FCC] would go in there with the cops and news media and would drag the homeless people and any other radicals out of there.

Since it was in Oakland, there were quite a few Rastafarians around that station. One of them told my uncle ( who is also a Rasta) about it, who then proceeded to get his own shift. Now, unlike the rest of the country, the Bay Area has many radio shows that play reggae music. Now, my uncle wanted an edge over the competition, so he showed up at my house one day and said, 'Hey I want you record somethings for me."

"Like what?' I said.

"Something with the station numbers and my name."

Hmmmmm, I thought to myself. How am I gonna pull this off? As a kid I grew up listening to Frankie Crocker on WBLS and Mr. Magic when he was on WHBI - New York radio folks. One of the the things I really dug about WBLS was that in between every song this really cool, velvet voice would come on and say: "You're listening to the sound of New York's best: The Total Experience in sound W-B-L-S 107.5 in...stereo...stereo...stereo...stereo". I always dug that kind of thing. Mr Magic had his own drops too where he would put a heavy echo on his voice and say: "
This is a Mister Magic's Super Blast!"

So, I reasoned to myself, why don't I do that kind of thing for Ibi - just use reggae music as the drop?

So I did it. And it came out real good too. Ibi got calls at the station from the other jocks and from the listeners asking "Who was that?" I thought to myself, "Damn how can I make some money doing that?"

And then one day and event happened that would change my life. My good friend Davey D got a gig as a programmer at AOL Radio. He was the guy who programmed all of the hip hop stations for America Online radio. Dave being Dave and with the connections he has in the music business went around to all of the top rappers and said: "Hey, I need you to record some station drops for me?"

But they were all busy.

I'm talking about your Chuck D's and many others. Finally, Dave got his good friend, and one of my favorite rappers Def Jeff to agree to do the station drops. But he to was always too busy. So one day Dave says to me, "Hey, I need you to record some drops for me."

I said, "Hell yeah". I owe my new career to Def Jeff.

We went over to KPFA - which ain't too much different from 104.1 ie; the homeless people, the 60's radicals, the Rastas - but these people were legit and have a huge signal. It was there that I met my partner Alex Mejia. Now, I had heard the name Alex Mejia before. He was some guy who was always doing mixes on KMEL - the so called People's Station. So they had me record some drops for the AOL old school hip hop stations. And it took off. My first paid gig voicing stuff.

And from there it was the Chuck D World Wide Hip Countdown. And then the Tupac Station. And so many others that I can't remember right now.

But when Alex called me some months back and said, "Hey KJLH is looking for a black voice - are you interested?" Once again I said, "Hell yeah.' He said KJLH was looking for a new direction they wanted someone that sounded Black - not Bryant Gumble Black - but Black Black. Well, that's me. I can do the Bryant Gumbel thing, but I prefer to just be me.

We recorded the demo and blew Stevie Wonder away. I've been doing this for three years now, and now starting January 1st it will be my voice that you hear on that station. A station - that programming wise is the closest thing to WBLS.