New York On A Nickel A Day Pt. 6: Pork Buns

One dollar won’t buy much food these days in New York City. Walk into a chain drug store like Rite Aid or Duane Reade with a lone dollar and try to buy a can of Coke or a candy bar, and you’ll be left high and dry.  I mean, you can’t even buy a newspaper for a dollar (well, you could buy the Post, but…).

What’s left for a dollar?  Dollar pizza, maybe a tamale or an empanada, if you’re lost and lucky in some pocket of Queens or the Bronx… By and large, if you’ve got a solitary dollar, you’re going hungry.

With that in mind, I thought I’d pull your coat as to where a dollar will put something in you more substantial than the aforementioned bag of M&M’s. Walk into lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, and you’re entering into perhaps the last stretch of Manhattan below 125th St (or 116th on the east side!) where people still know the value of a dollar, and will actually sell you something for that dollar that isn’t a cup of coffee (side note: any neighborhood in NYC where you can’t get a cup of coffee for a dollar is trash).

There are many bakeries, small restaurants, and food stands in Chinatown that still have menu items for a dollar or less.  When dollar Chinese food is mentioned, most people think of dumplings, but most dumpling spots in NYC haven’t had anything on the menu for a dollar for at least 10 years (I’m looking at you Vanessa’s… ).

But, there are still some spots out there. Jin Mei Dumpling House on Henry Street in a quiet section of Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge is one of them. The sign may just say “Dumplings,” but the steamed pork buns are what’s really good.

I feel like I have may have ranted about this before, but Shui Jian Bao (steamed pork bun) and Sheng Jian Bao (pan fried pork bun) are the best dumpling-related Chinese food items around.  The “steamed” part in the English translation is not quite accurate, usually these buns are simmered in a small amount of water, and end up crispy on the bottom. Honestly the above distinctions/translations could be completely off, I only know what I pick up from eating a lot and squinting at menus, and believe me, the Internet is no help at all with this stuff.  Most people on there know less than me, and are proud to show it off.

Let’s break it down:

Dumplings (Jiaozi): eh, baseline, basic… I mean, they’re fine, and will do in a pinch, but there’s something sort of unsatisfying about them.

Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) : I GET IT, YOU LIKE SOUP DUMPLINGS.  They’re a fun novelty, for sure. And they are tasty, but sometimes you don’t need your food to ejaculate into your mouth, you know?

Small Pork Bun (Shui Jian Bao / Sheng Jian Bao ): The best.  Goes under a variety of names in English (my favorite is the dumpling spot by the library in Flushing that calls them “large sumo bun”).

Many dumpling places don’t serve Shui Jian Bao (shuttered hipster favorite rat hole Prosperity Dumpling did not have them), or they have them on the menu, but almost never actually have them available (Ahem, Vanessa’s again).  Even if you can find them, it’s hard to find them done well.  The skin on can be way to thick or too doughy, or the flavor of the pork inside can be bland.

The pork bun at the place on Henry St are a perfect ratio of filling to dough and the filling itself is nicely flavored.  I mean, also it’s a dollar for 4 of these.  If they:

A)taste good

B) fill you up

C) don’t make you sick

you’re coming out ahead in this transaction.

These are currently my favorite pork bun in Manhattan, for whatever that’s worth.  If you spend a dollar on this and aren’t satisfied, you have bigger problems than I can help you with.

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R.I.P. Johnny Hallyday

Johnny Hallyday died last week.  He was beloved in France, selling millions of records there as their first homegrown rock and roll star, and eventually ascending to a weird inescapable fame; both tabloid fixture and national icon.

He was a worldwide figure of fascination, and possibly too easy an object of ridicule.

His fame in the rest of the world was a Catch 22: if you weren’t French and were worldly enough to have heard of Johnny Hallyday, you were probably too cool to listen to Johnny Hallyday.  Although he had a great ear for a tune, unlike Serge Gainsbourg he never produced a song that was catchy enough to appeal to the rest of the world.

Like many European artists, he had hit songs in neighboring countries, but never had a strong parallel career in Germany or Italy like Francoise Hardy or his ex-wife Sylvie Vartan.

The French people’s love for Johnny Hallyday and of the rest of the world’s relative indifference says equal amounts about each party.  Although Serge Gainsbourg presents a vision of Frenchness that the rest of the world finds perhaps more understandable (louche, disheveled, sophisticated), Johnny Hallyday’s theatrical warts-and-all emoting touched something deeper in the French national consciousness than Serge ever did.

As I mused in an earlier article, perhaps Hallyday’s lack of appeal to the rest of the world (and English speaking countries specifically) is that so much of his career was based on interpreting English and American music. He took American soul and folk, and British rock and made it thoroughly French.  If you were American or British in the 60’s, chances are you never listened to Eddie Floyd or The Animals and thought BOY I REALLY WOULD PREFER TO HEAR THIS SONG IN A LANGUAGE I CAN’T UNDERSTAND…

The smooth singing Francois Hardy had a fair amount of global success, perhaps because it was possible to enjoy her original melodies (unlike Hallyday, she wrote a lot of her own material and did not rely on cover songs) without understanding the words,  but Hallyday had a soul music influenced expressionist style that relied a lot on inflection.

Though Hallyday did try: in the early 60’s he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and he recorded in Nashville.  A part of me thinks that was putting in an effort for appearance’s sake, almost to show his French fans that they were backing a winner, and a player on the global stage. Although Hallyday was besotted with America, maintaining a residence in Los Angeles for many years, perhaps he recognized that his skills and persona would never have a place in the pop culture there.

About 10 years ago, I went through a period of being obsessed with Hallyday and bought every record of his I could find.  Going through them all, a few things became obvious. First, he was smart enough to surround himself with good backing musicians and able songwriters, like Long Chris and Mick Jones (the one who later played in Foreigner, not the one in the Clash, who spent a long period of time in Hallyday’s band, the Blackburds).

 

Second, like all good pop artists, he was a good trendspotter.  In the mid 60’s,  he recorded covers of British rock and American soul songs. After Jimi Hendrix opened a French tour for him in October 1966, Hallyday recorded his own French language version of Hendrix’s arrangement of “Hey Joe.”  From the 60’s into the 70’s, Hallyday touched upon psychedelic rock, country tinged rock (a la Creedence Clearwater Revival),  funky rock, and retro 50’s rock (a return to the sound that brought him fame in 1960).  If not all of these stylistic leanings worked for him, it didn’t necessarily matter, as Hallyday cranked out 4 or 5 (or more) albums a year in his prime (he eventually released more than 100), so if not every single one was good, who cares, on to the next one…

Lastly, like all stars, he had some inexplicable X-factor in him.  For him, each peak and valley of his life and career (drugs, car crashes, divorce, financial troubles) was a way for the average man on the street to relate to him.  Whatever X-factor Hallyday posessed, it resonated with the French public like few before or after him.

Below is a mix I did of Hallyday’s music at the height of my interest in him, as well as the original article that accompanied it.

TRACKLIST:
les bras en croix
c’est mon imagination (just my imagination)
le penticier (house of the rising sun)
le jeu que tu joues (with a girl like you)
je crois qu’il me rend fou (such a fool for you)
promenade dans la foret du brabant
les coups (uptight) (live)
mal (hush)
je suis seul (what is soul) (live)
absolument hyde park (blackbirds only)
psychedelic
voyage au pas des vivants
je n’ai besoin de personne
a tout casser
riviere… ourve ton lit (live)
hey joe
amen
cheval d’acier
je te veux
a tout casser (live)
le feu
son amour pour un jeu (strange shadows)
l’amour d’ete (love me tender)

Download link

http://tetecarre.blogspot.com/2008/04/johnny-hallyday-pt-iii.html

 

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Eskimo Dance 2014

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Back in December 2014, I went to Eskimo Dance in London. This was a big deal then, as it was one of the first times Eskimo Dance happened since 2004 (now it seems like they tour the UK doing them every other month).   I wrote a review for Vice’s subsidiary site Thump, which resulted in me never writing for them again.

Apparently a joke I made about people stabbing each other in London was not well received by Eskimo Dance’s PR people and I guess the UK and US editors of Thump don’t talk to each other much (the UK editor was schmoozing with Eskimo Dance, the US editor had no idea) and even though it got a lot of good buzz online, the bitching and moaning from the PR person resulted in the article being killed.

Hooray for journalistic integrity.  The PR person had reached out to me first, and I told them I wouldn’t change it, as overall it was a positive review and I was just recounting my experiences and I BOUGHT MY OWN FUCKING TICKET.

The specific complaint was about the passage:

I’ve realized no one in London says “excuse me,” ever. First I thought people were playing a game called “bump into the yank,” but then I noticed everyone else was running into each other, jostling each other, and shoving each other all night. This is probably why people in London are constantly stabbing each other.

Rereading it now, I stand by it.  There’s an underlying ugliness and aggression when British people drink, and I saw it that night. To put this in perspective, I saw Cam’ron last week in NYC (great show, btw). This was a hometown show for one of the most beloved rappers ever from NYC, and NYC turned out for him.  The crowd was full of goons and ex-goons (guys next to me were nonstop rolling blunts all night and yelling at the top of their lungs “I BROUGHT A HALF POUND IN HERE, FUCK ALL Y’ALL”), but anytime anyone bumped into me, it was “excuse me, my dude.”  Yo, we’ve been through that whole thing of people getting killed for stepping on sneakers, and we’re good with that now: good manners up in here.  I get that the 696 form gave the police license to shut down grime, and believe me, I don’t want that.  But, really is some half-assed diary entry blog by a random American going to kill grime?

Anyways, I am going to the Rinse FM Boxing Day show on December 26, 2016.  I’d sure love to write about it for someone. But, if not, expect something here soonish.  Original bridge burner of an article is below:

 

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As a grime fan, the original Eskimo Dance events from 2003-04 were legendary to me. I have repeatedly watched grainy footage on Youtube, where future stars like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Tinchy Stryder, and Lethal B trade bars and battle with each other.

So, when I found out that there would be a new one happening at roughly the same time I was going to visit my brother in Ireland, I made sure to find a way to get to London to see it. My flight landed at Heathrow on Saturday at 8:15pm and Eskimo Dance started at 10. After checking into my hotel, I headed over to the O2 arena.

11:50pm: The line to get into the O2 is longer than the customs line to get into the UK was. There is a metal detector, each person gets frisked, and they even do the hood club thing of checking inside your hat, so possibly it’s more thorough than immigration as well. In the 20 minutes I am waiting, I hear the word “bruv” more times than in watching “Kidulthood” and “Adulthood” combined.

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(pic of D Double on stage that night. I remember that Santa hat well…)

12:10am: I get in and see the Newham Generals, (Footsie and D Double), on stage. They are killing it, doing more of a straight PA of their songs than the usual rave style of spitting random bars. For some reason D Double’s mic level is really low, but still when he does “Streetfighter”, the place explodes.

12:30am: the Newham Generals set is over. Logan Sama tries to get the crowd to have sing-alongs to “German Whip” and the Fekky version of “Sittin’ Here.” Not feeling it. This is redeemed by a singalong of “Next Hype” which ends up with me in the middle of a churning crowd of dudes screaming “DUN KNOW WE GOT THE SHOTGUN THERE!” Since everyone in England wears cologne this is not as unpleasant as it should be.

 

1:00am: the first big MC set starts with Wiley, Chipmunk, Lll’ Nasty, Ghetto, and Flirta D. Flirta D can destroy a rave. He is basically everything hip hop MC’s hate about grime MCing. He only has about 8 different bars and mostly just talks in a weird voices and makes sound FX with his mouth like the guy in Police Academy. It’s noticeable how much better the veterans Wiley, Ghetto, and Flirta are compared to Lil’ Nasty and Chipmunk (I also had no idea Chipmunk was doing grime again, as last time I checked he was making collab records with Chris Brown and pre-famous Iggy Azaelia). This set was cool, but I think Wiley seriously spat for about 45 seconds total.

1:30am: DJ Majestic from Kiss FM plays a really nice set of old garage. In addition to seeing all the MC’s live, it was great to hear all these old tunes like “Bound for da reload” on a big system.

1:45am: FEED ‘EM TO THE LIONS!

1:55am: the DJ starts playing a Top 40 trap set which culminates in a singalong of “Coco” that is possibly louder than the grime sing-alongs were. It’s kinda weird to hear a room full of people sing along to “Mitch caught a body about a week ago” a week after Mitch got charged for that body. Also, in the Internet era there is no excuse to play this kind of set and play things like “Bugatti,” but not “Touchdown” or “Fight Night.” This set started to put me to sleep, but the bartenders seemed to like it.

2:00am: I’ve realized no one in London says “excuse me,” ever. First I thought people were playing a game called “bump into the yank,” but then I noticed everyone else was running into each other, jostling each other, and shoving each other all night. This is probably why people in London are constantly stabbing each other.

2:15am: The OGz set starts. Although it was just billed as P.Money, he brought the entire lot of the OGz with him. This may have been my favorite set of the night, as they were trading bars back and forth really tightly. P.Money spitting “Left The Room” over Pulse X destroyed me.

2:45am: I think I’ve heard the “Ollie Ollie Ollie, Oi! Oi! Oi!” chant used to hype up the crowd about 17 times tonight and every time it makes me think of that episode of The Office where David Brent makes a nightclub appearance.

 

3:15am: The main MC set starts. It’s billed as just Boy Better Know, but in addition to Skepta and JME the stage is crammed with old MC’s like Jammer, God’s Gift, Flo Dan, Manga, and Discarda, as well as newish ones like Kozzie, Merky Ace, and Big Shizz. No sign of Wiley, which is a bit disappointing. Again, it’s apparent that the older MC’s like Skepta and Flo Dan have a stage craft (and knowledge of what makes good bars to shout at a room full of hyped up people) that the youngers don’t. Even a marginally talented like MC like Discarda can come out and get better response out of “DISCARDA’S OUT, AND I’LL BANG YOU FATHER OUT” than a newer MC will get off a great technical bar.

3:30am:“That’s Not Me” is played to a large response but truthfully I was happier to hear God’s Gift spit the opening hook to“Know We” two minutes before this.

3:48am: Jammer sets a new record and spits his “Murkle Man” bars 5 times on the same half hour set. Man needs new bars.

4am: The set ends with “Funtionz On The Low” being played. Nice ending and probably the best way to sent out into the cold London night.

All in all, a good night. I probably could have done without hearing “Take Off” by Faze Miyake about 5 times (on the other hand, was totally fine with hearing “Pied Piper” multiple times). But, it was cool to hear a mix of classic 2004 beats with newer productions by Spooky, Preditah, and Darq E Freaker. After all, if Eskimo Dances only feature older productions and have older MC’s as the headlining acts, how long can grime be youth music? If all grime has to offer in 2014 is the stars of 2004, it doesn’t say much for the health of the genre as a whole. But, for new MC’s to come up they need to have a place where they can learn their trade in front of audience and having regular grime events in London is the only way this can happen.

 

 

 

 

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Reggae and Comic Books

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Long before Chuck D called rap music “black America’s CNN”, reggae served the same purpose in Jamaica, albeit in an amplified fashion. There is no limit to subject matter in Jamaican music. Song topics can include the sweetest hymn to true love (or God, or marijuana), gross scatological forays, musings about current events (or political doings, or pop culture), and graphic threats towards one’s enemies; often with all of the above coming from the same artist.

The last few months have given us Mr. Vegas singing about Pokemon Go and Vybz Kartel celebrating Usain Bolt’s Olympic success:

The Jamaican music industry is essentially a summation of Jamaican culture and cultural interests as a whole. And of course, like much of the world, a good share of those interests reflect the influence of the 900 pound gorilla to the north, those cultural imperialists, the United States of America.  American movie stars, athletes, and TV characters are just as famous in Jamaica as they are on their home turf. Witness the namecheck of Clint Eastwood’s new movie Dirty Harry in the intro of Big Youth’s classic “Screaming Target”

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A great reflection of American influence is the way American comic book characters show up in reggae music.

The Marvel Universe was birthed in late 1961, when the first issue of the Fantastic Four came out. The Jamaica music industry also began about that time, with the first big label, future Prime Minister Edward Seaga’s WIRL (West Indian Records Limited), starting in 1958.

But, Jamaican music really came into its own in the early 60’s, with homegrown ska music overtaking copycat r&b records in popularity, and when Jamaica declared independence from Britain in 1962, music was a showpiece of their new identity on the world stage (1962 was coincidentally also the year that saw the first appearances of The Hulk, Spider Man, and Thor).

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There are many reggae labels that reference comic characters, but let’s begin with ones that reference the Fantastic Four, specifically their crudest member, seen in the bottom left on the cover above: The Thing.

I’ll start with Grimm Ben, a label I have a soft spot for, as what could be nerdier than naming a label using the The Thing’s real name?

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The artwork is not the best on this, but again serious nerd points are given for calling Ma Grimm’s blue-eyed boy by his birth name.  The label was run by Jah Thomas, a successful DJ who also had a good run as a producer/label owner.

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The Thing’s strength, eerie visage, and true rudeboy attitude made him a fan favorite in Jamaica, as there was second label with his mug on it: Lloyd Campbell’s “The Thing”, which had much better art.

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Funnily enough, this Lloyd Campbell was not the only Lloyd Campbell in the Jamaican music industry with a love for comics; witness Lloyd “Spiderman” Campbell’s self-named Spiderman label, which he ran from the early 70’s up into the near present (with many different label designs), with records ranging from roots singers like Culture and The Tamlins to DJs like Yellowman and the Lone Ranger.  Lloyd Campbell passed away recently of cancer in Miami, and was active in music up until the time of his death.

 

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Spiderman was created by Stan Lee and  Steve Ditko in 1962.  Unlike the Fantastic Four, whose superhero identities were public and whose faces were visible, Spiderman was completely masked (an anomaly for heroes of that time: even Batman showed his mouth and jaw). Unlike the Fantastic Four, who were portrayed as being celebrated in public parades, Spiderman was an outlaw: hunted and hated.

ditkospidey

 jimmy-cliff_1Badman like Ivanhoe know the leg pose (Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come)

I’m not sure whether it was his popularity, 60’s cartoon series, or rebel vibe, but like The Thing, ol’ Spidey also lent his name and visage to more than one record label, with the second being dancehall label Spiderman Records International, run by engineer Delroy Thompson, who confusingly enough, also called himself Spiderman.  He may win the award for most stripped down depiction of a comic character.  I think my school notebook doodles from 4th grade contained more detail and weblines on Spiderman’s face.

 

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The wall crawler makes an appearance in a few other reggae records. Firstly as a name check in the dub b-side of “Squatter’s Connection” by Massive Dread, entitled “Spiderman Skank.”

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And then more notably as a protagonist in the form of the third man in Jamaican music to name himself Spiderman, and his partner Superman (not kidding).

 

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From early 80’s onward, DJ combinations were a hot thing in Jamaican music, as seen by the success of artists like Michigan and Smiley:

 

 

Spiderman and Superman were not quite operating on that level, but they did release a handful over of tunes spread out over a decade:

 

 

This makes me recall the first and most famous example of Spiderman and Superman collaborating, their oversized and historic comic book from 1976:

 

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Two dollars for a comic book back when they cost 30 cents? Clearly, this was something historic. This was the first time that a character from the Marvel Universe (Spiderman) had appeared with one from DC comics (Superman), so it was A REALLY BIG DEAL.  Not sure how the battle of the century took place between a demigod who could reverse time by spinning the Earth backwards and a dude who got taken out by a guy called the Kangaroo, but OK.

 

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If only comic fans had waited 10 years, they could have got the same thing from a reggae album:

 

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Well, that’s pretty underwhelming.

I can’t speak on the record itself. But, it does bring up a valid point: all of my examples have focused on the Marvel side of comics, but their Distinguished Competition makes some reggae appearances as well.

Noted eccentric/producer/owner of many labels Lee Perry’s comic connection is DC based: his label Justice League is named for the superpowered organization in the DC comics universe that, at the time, contained the combined might of Superman, Batman,  The Flash, and Green Lantern. Certainly a power worth harnessing and directing in the direction of dope roots reggae.

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Batman and Superman made many solo appearances in reggae music, but none on label art as far as I know.

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The above track by Joe Tex and Hugh Black is particularly awesome, as they pretend they are Batman and Robin in the intro to the tune, and there are lots of spacey dub effects.

I admit, I am more of a Marvel guy, so I am going to close out this post out with the most dumbshit of all the Marvel heroes: the Hulk.

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But, yo if the Hulk lights up, maybe there is a Jamaican connection… Oh wait, there is:

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Mad respect to this label because it was founded back when he was just another dude in the Marvel Universe and before the Hulk live action series in the late 70’s, which I must mention for having the best closing music of any TV show ever, and what a way to close out a post.  Goodnight.

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Merle Haggard: Love In or Leave It (or: “Someone Call Wes Anderson Now!”)

8x10_MerleHaggard 1970

Merle Haggard was an American music legend.  And yes, he wrote “Okie From Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side Of Me,” and other anti-hippie songs. Those are fine songs. And a lot of people I like them. I don’t particularly because, although I don’t like hippies, I see nothing wrong with burning your draft card or saying bad things about America. But reducing Haggard to those songs is pure foolishness.  Haggard was a rare talent in country music: someone who could sing incredibly well, was an accomplished songwriter, and was also a solid instrumentalist, playing lead guitar and fiddle.

Firstly, he was a superb singer, with great range and an uncanny ability to wring emotion from lyrics with his phrasing, without being saccharine.  Accordingly, his first success as a singer was as an interpreter of other people’s music.

His first hit record “Sing A Sad Song” from 1963, was very much a Countrypolitan pop record that was much slicker and lusher than his later sound, and his vocal leans towards the mid-range of his voice, highlighting his ability to effortlessly slide up into a high yodel like his idol Jimmie Rodgers.

On his first LP from 1965, Haggard wrote or co-wrote 5 of the 12 songs, mostly the filler material, with none of his own songs being hits.

In fact, Haggard didn’t have any big hits until his breakthrough in 1967, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” written by country singer Lynn Anderson’s mother, Liz:

That Haggard had spent 2 years in San Quentin prison made it an appropriate match for him, although Liz Anderson had no idea when she played Haggard the song. The song became Haggard’s first No. 1 record on the country charts, and provided his career with a direction and a persona. He wrote and performed similar songs (which became similarly big hits) for the next few years, notably “Branded Man” (which addressed the theme of a convict who served his time still feeling like an outlaw in society) and “Mama Tried” (containing the immortal line “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole”, which Haggard later admitted included the untrue last half because “it filled out the line”).

Haggard’s albums from this era began to feature more and more self-written material, which seemed inevitable, as he is as good a songwriter as anyone in country music. “Sing Me Back Home,” a song inspired from Haggard’s experiences in prison, is probably my favorite song of his, drawing on his memories of being in solitary confinement next to Death Row inmate and author Caryl Chessman (who was executed during Haggard’s stay at San Quentin) as well as the execution of his friend Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks. It’s one of those songs that has such a timeless quality that it’s almost hard to imagine it being written by any one person; if it hadn’t existed forever, perhaps it just emerged one day fully formed from the ether.

Haggard was born and raised outside Bakersfield, California in a converted boxcar, the son of two Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, who joined many emigrants from their home state in California during the Great Depression. As a youth, he had started running away and jumping freight trains at a young age. This begun a streak of juvenile delinquency that graduated into adult criminality when he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to a lengthy term at San Quentin at age 20 (interestingly, Haggard was born in April 1937 and, according to his autobiography, began his San Quentin term in March 1958, enabling him to indeed “turn 21 in prison”).

Despite this string of modern sounding hits celebrating (and lamenting) his hard man life, Haggard was, perhaps more so than any other country singer of his status, a traditionalist with the utmost reverence for country music’s history.  At the height of his fame in 1969, he released a tribute record to 1920’s country singer Jimmie Rodgers. Then a year later, he taught himself fiddle basically from scratch (although he had some childhood violin lessons) in order to record a tribute record to Western Swing star Bob Wills.

In addition to the Bob Wills album, Haggard began to record more instrumental material featuring his band, the Strangers. Although Haggard was a facile lead guitar player, he deferred to his guitarist Roy Nichols, a nimble and inventive guitar player whose clean clear runs were an integral part of the electric Bakersfield Country sound of the 1960’s, and a direct precursor to country-flavored rock players like Jerry Garcia.

Haggard’s band was one of the best in the business, featuring players equally adept with almost any 20th century American music ranging from jazz to honky tonk to pop, including fiddle player Jim Belken, formerly a violin player with the Dallas Symphony (“I quit when I realized I didn’t want to find myself fifty years old and gettin’ cussed out by some Hungarian”).

It was fitting that such a formidable band would record a few albums of their own, most notably 1973’s “Totally Instrumental with One Exception.”  It’s an amazingly varied album, with material ranging from throwback ragtime tunes to incredibly melodic and evocative pieces that seamlessly mix elements of country and jazz. Funnily enough for music from a such a tough dude, the album sounds to me like it was made to score a film by sensitive fop Wes Anderson:

Haggard’s story, going from the most famous prison in the nation to the top of the charts in a just a few years, is one that will probably never happen again, for a large variety of sociological and economical reasons. Haggard himself recognized this, observing in his autobiography:

“Can you imagine what would happen today if I was twenty-four, just out of prison, and trying to get a record deal in Nashville? When I got my deal, the labels were looking for artists who had their own style. Today’s sanitized country music is produced by a bunch of artists who sound like each other.”

I would argue that the cultural and economic stratification would probably prevent a 24 year old Merle Haggard from getting a deal fresh out of prison more so than musical issues. But, Haggard does have a point than yesterday’s country artists were much more distinctive, and his mimicry is just another one of his talents:

 

 

 

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Brooklyn Anthem- Team Shadetek featuring Jah Dan and 77Klash

Here are we now, a few years into the great grime revival.  Stormzy took a 10 year old instrumental into the Top 10 (and spawned a hoard of parodies and memes) and people from all around the globe are fervently tuning in to Rinse, Sub FM, and Boiler Room and chopping up their own edits of grime classics from back in the day. Grime has been established as an international music, with a producer like Rabit from Houston, Texas at the forefront of the music.

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But, this wasn’t always the case.  Back in 2004, grime was a proudly provincial music, with both its artists and its fan base basically limited to London, and with established strongholds in the East.  Most of the bigger groups of the time were based around people who grew up or went to school together in East London.

Roll Deep were all from East London, as were most of the other leading crews like Ruff Sqwad, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, East Connection, and Boyz in da Hood. Some exceptions to the primacy of the East were Meridian Crew (featuring Skepta) from North London or, slightly later, the OGz from South London.  Songs proudly proclaimed neighborhood origins, usually with groups NOT from East London most eager to let people know that there was more to grime than just postcodes that began with the letter “E.”

(The importance of East London in early grime can’t be fully explained without writing a sociology book, but certainly the fact the grime’s premier record store, Rhythm Division was in East London as were leading pirate stations Rinse FM and Deja Vu, helped make producing grime music a part of growing up in the area)

The fan base was equally localized.  Although people like Dizzee Rascal and Lethal B became nationally known in the UK at that time, grime was still a niche music even within London itself (and you weren’t likely to hear any grime if you went to cities outside of London).

Grime primarily existed only in a London network of record stores, raves, and anyone who lived within the broadcasting range of a pirate radio station. There were no reliable streams for Rinse, not much of the music was on Youtube or even on music torrent sites. The only place grime really lived on the Internet was the RWD forum, which was a wonderfully insular group of people that would openly mock anyone who was middle class or not from London, as this post from Dubstep forum in 2007 illustrates:

 im starting to get into (grime) music but need some help in finding aritsts/labels of a specefic sound. Basically, does anyone know a decent forum? not one thats full of 12 year olds typing ‘GoNa BanG YoU Up BlUd’ and who know sweet FA about the music (which unfortuantly seems to be common place).

 

To which someone replies:

just go to rwd forum anyway. so what if someone threatens to shank you in the eye.. it’s only the internet, nothing’s really gonna happen to you!

Everyone on RWD forum did indeed talk like a roadman from the ends, but there were bits of genuine insight and knowledge mixed in with the aggro. The best thing that happened on RWD forum was when Wiley himself registered and went on a binge, posting constantly and getting into petty online battles with everyone there and saying things like: “Bruv pick up your grandma she was doing a wheelie down Roman Road” and  “ive got volkumes of instumental albums come on i make beats in my sleep wake up and then really make the same tunes i heard in my sleep im a wizard.”

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So, in 2006 when New York producers Team Shadetek released a grime record, it was not well received in England. I remember it was stocked at leading grime store Independance Records in Lewisham and touted highly on their website. Within a few months, it was listed at drastically reduced price, not the sign of a hot seller.

On RWD forum, people were dismissive. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why. Sonically, the track sounds like a mix between Roll Deep’s Shank Riddim (aka When I’m Ere) and the Forward Riddim (aka Pow!).  Vocally, the song relies on solid ragga inflected vocals by 77Klash and a nice hook by Jah Dan lifted from Courtney Melody. Anyway you slice it, it’s an energetic grime tune that has aged better than many tracks that came out around that time.

In New York City, the record got a great response when I played it in grime sets. Of course, this was helped by the constant shout outs to Brooklyn, which encouraged sing-alongs, even from people who had moved to Brooklyn the previous week.  One might presume that the same localism that made the record popular in New York City, might have prevented it breaking through to the insular London grime scene.

Oddly enough a couple years after its release, it caught a second life in Brooklyn, as it became a favorite among a certain subset of young BK kids who liked to use a sped up version of it as an accompaniment to their juke-style dance routines.

What’s oddly fascinating is that the shouts of “Brooklyn” that may have doomed the record to get dismissed in the UK were NOT what made this song appealing to these Brooklyn kids. If you watch the clips, they are dancing to the instrumental, and it’s the propulsiveness of the 808 claps that seems to have won them over.

Team Shadetek continued producing grimey music, in 2007 coming out with a 10″ featuring songs vocaled Jammer and Skepta (probably recorded when Skepta played his first NYC show at Rothko in January 2006 (damn, was that really 10 years ago?), but I could be wrong).

Team Shadetek split up soon after the release of this record. Matt Shadetek continues to produce music, appearing on Grime 2.0 compilation on Ninja Tune a few years back.

 

 

 

 

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David Bowie: Father Of The Sleng Teng Riddim

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David Bowie has died, and the Internet is awash with praise for the man and his music, and rightfully so. Bowie cast a shadow over late 20th century music and pop culture so large, that’s hard to put it properly in perspective.  Of course, there are one or two wingnuts and sourpusses that want to transgressively call the man’s status into question or say his music wasn’t that good anyway.

Since arguing with trolls is a surefire waste of time, I won’t bother to make some laundry list of the man’s accomplishments. Instead I’ll just use one small example as a way to show the extent of his influence on 20th century music.

For fans of Jamaican music, the song “Under Mi Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, which came out in 1985, was a line in the sand: the end of the roots reggae era and the beginning of the primarily digital-based music known as dancehall reggae.

 

The song was based on a rhythm track preset on the Casiotone MT-40 keyboard called “rock.”  Essentially keyboardist Noel Davey just hit play on the rhythm preset and then comped some chords on top of it.

The song was an immediate smash and prompted a flurry of songs with either a new vocalist on the same rhythm track (phonetically known as a “riddim”) or on a recut version of the riddim by other musicians. There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of songs on the Sleng Teng riddim, and as a whole they make up some of the more beloved songs in the last 30 years of Jamaican music history.

 

In addition, the song changed the entire course of the Jamaican music industry, with one or two keyboard savvy musicians building riddims from scratch replacing entire bands. Live musicians would never be phased out of reggae completely, they would just no longer be the primary component (it’s worth watching live footage from the early 90’s, like Bounty Killer and Beenie Man at Sting in 1993, after the digital era has been firmly established, and watch how the live bands function is now to mimic these digital keyboard riddims).

Ok ok, you say, but what does this have to do with David Bowie?

Well, in the last few years, there has been a reexamination of that era of reggae and specifically the Sleng Teng riddim, notably starting with Wayne Smith’s death in 2014. Last month, there was a very good article on Sleng Teng that featured quotes from the creator of the Castiotone MT-40 “rock” preset, Casio’s Product Development and Music Engineer Hiroko Okuda.

In the article, Okuda disabuses the myth that the track was based on “Something Else” by 50s rocker Eddie Cochran (a rumor that has been repeated so many times it has become canonical) or on “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols:

 

Despite revealing to Engadget that the Eddie Cochran and Sex Pistol rumors are false, she did admit the preset was based on a rock track. A British rock record from the 70s is all she would confirm. “You would immediately notice it once you hear the song.”

I don’t have contact information for Hiroko Okuda, but I am positive that the track she is referring to is “Hang Onto Yourself” by David Bowie.

 

If there’s another “British rock record from the 70s” that sounds more like Sleng Teng, I’d like to hear it.

So, the history of the song that started a new era in Jamaican music can be traced back to David Bowie. I’m not saying this is anything more than an accident of circumstance, but I have a feeling that the more one examine’s Bowie’s career, the more such accidents one will find.

 

I have no doubt that Bowie intended that riff to be a 50s homage and most likely DID lift it from Eddie Cochran. At the time, Bowie was developing his Ziggy Stardust character, which was essentially a 50s rock and roller transported into a sci-fi milieu, and one of his main reference points was 50s rocker Vince Taylor.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the first demo Bowie recorded of the song was done the night he met rocker Gene Vincent in Los Angeles.  

Interested parties can get at me on twitter @pgunnNYC.

 

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