May 13, 2011

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Initials B.R. Single Edits

Four of the songs on the new album overlap. This download consists of bonus single edits of those four album tracks, so you can enjoy and share them individually without awkward starts and stops.

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Initials B.R.

’01. INITIALS B.R. we have seen the moment of our greatness flicker
’02. SESAME we never sleep
‘03. STRIKE ON BACK we play with fire
‘04. HEAVYWEIGHT BULLION we buy gold
‘05. THE MUSIC MAN we are open for business
‘06. THE CONFIDENCE MAN we give you our word
‘07. HENRY DARGER we need a moment alone
‘08. WALTER SICKERT we have got to be kidding
‘09. T.R.O.B. we quit

This album was made in Cambridge, MA and Santa Fe, NM from 2005-2008 and mastered by Alan Douches at West West Side Music. The photograph for the cover art was taken by the very talented peon. This album would not exist without its initial conception with B.R.other Stephen Brackett (!) aka Brer Rabbit. It’s been a long time coming and many thanks go to Mom and Dad, my wife Caroline, Molly and Robert, Joey and Alana, Thom, Farhad, Devin, Torin, Galen, Sam, Simone, and Big Digits for their influence and support during the making and releasing of the record.

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Prelude to Initials B.R. (Part 2)

A two-part introduction to the debut album. Initials B.R. is out April 4…

People don’t rap years anymore. “2006” doesn’t sound cool. We’ve arrived in the future and been here for a decade. Somehow, this millenium still feels alien. I wouldn’t say I’m simply nostalgic. It’s something about the gestalt of the decade—it doesn’t congeal.

As cliché as it has been to revisit the deaths of Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur and to aggrandize their talent, the transition into 21st-Century rap music has eerily reflected the fate of their ghost-voiced posthumous catalogues. After two decades as a fearsome outcast, rap music, the enemy of American Puritanism has ascended into its own life-after-death and been rewarded for all its earthly effort with everything one could imagine. The popularity of urban culture, the modernity of the genre itself, and the investment of major-label record companies in rap markets has turned the art form into the number one selling genre in all of music. Furthermore, the mixtape and DJ culture it created became one of the most successful translations from physical to digital media delivery, playing a pivotal role in the redefinition of the material of recorded music. Without a doubt, in the last ten years, we’ve seen incredible success and we’ve heard incredible music. But we’ve also come to know something about authenticity.

Take it back to ’88 (one of the best sounding years you could ever speak). In that year, Rick Rubin left Def Jam because of conflicts over musical integrity, upset that rap music was becoming more concerned with commerce than with creating moving art. It was a hint at what was to inspire the late-90s conflict between underground credibility and commercial success. Just a few years later the war bore the two sides their prophets. In ’94 (“rugged raw, kicking down your goddamned door”), we received two of the best rap albums ever by two of the greatest rappers to ever pick up a microphone: Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Nas’s Illmatic. The former exploded with critical acclaim into an international phenomena; the latter received the first 5-mic review in The Source and sold disappointingly. But what the character of these two albums embodied, what the tenor of these two voices conveyed, was a deep dichotomy of artistic expression.

When an artist creates his work, he stands in himself to engage what he is and what he knows. When an artist sells his work, he goes into the world to engage what it is and what it wants. All artists operate on this spectrum, moving between persona and position, between actor and individual. In 1994, what B.I.G. and Nas established for the rap world were the definitions of public music and private music. B.I.G. raps on the corner, for the corner; Nas raps from the corner, transcending the corner. B.I.G. raps in a mansion, in a Benz, in a fantasy; Nas raps at a barbecue, in a bedroom, on a pad. Where is B.I.G.? “The back of the club, sipping Moet is where you find me. / The back of the club, macking hos, my crew behind me.” Where is Nas? “I be ghost from my projects / Take my pen and pad for the weekend, hitting Ls while I’m sleeping. / A two-day stay, you may say, I needed time alone / To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home.” It took me years to understand what these albums were, but when I did, everything clicked.

The 2000s, for me, have been about finding private music, however publicly it may be distributed, against an overwhelming inundation of public music, about searching for honesty, however it may manifest, against a tsunami of rap factory product. It’s been about trying to breathe in a dump of bloated mixtapes and turgid recyclables, hoping to come across something that might remotely resemble the Illmatic architecture that eschewed a jam-packed buffet for the craft of nine perfect songs.

Since 2000, for as long as I have been making rap music, it has been all done up in heavenly gowns, shrouded in celestial mists, reeling, opiated, Roman. Initials B.R. is an elegy of the 90s as much as it is an ode to the 00s. It is a glance back at the days when we rapped our years like mile markers on the road of history. It is a hymn to the vastness of possibility which in the 21st Century forgets what year it is except that it is the future.

Initials B.R. is my attempt to cover the public/private dichotomy in narrative form, each song being a stage in the journey of, on the one hand, making an album, and, on the other hand, forging and forgiving a career. We compose. We practice. We share. We present. We perform. We sell. We work and we tire. And when we have exerted our effort completely, we concede to fate. We finish; we put our things in order; we quit. Initials B.R. is my attempt to come to terms with being impelled to make art, with selling my work on stage and in stores, with lying to listeners, with self-delusion and make believe. It is as inspired by Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and Common’s Resurrection as it is Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne” and Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is an homage to con films and musicals. It is my own silly Makaveli legend.

But most of all, it is done. I hope you enjoy.

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Prelude to Initials B.R. (Part 1)

A two-part introduction to the debut album. Initials B.R. is out April 4…

The first record I was ever given—or ever really owned for that matter—was LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer. When I received the present for my eighth birthday from my father’s coworker, I had no idea what was in store for me. It wasn’t Elvis (my first musical infatuation). It wasn’t David Bowie (my perennial musical hero). But it was utterly new. And it was mine. It clearly left an impression…

I don’t claim any kind of authority in the realm of rap knowledge. But like anyone concerned with some subject over a long period of time, you discover at some point that the individual present moments that seemed so dire at the time have congealed into a historical perspective that’s far more meaningful. Everything lines up in rows and columns and reads like a story. With regard to my rap romance, I can evaluate the world I lived in at any given time in conjunction with the music to which I listened.

For the most part, through my listening childhood, I was still just a kid. I chose Public Enemy and Ice Cube alongside Moni Love and Father MC. It was a strange, enchanting world that I was young enough to ingest, but fresh enough not to process. I noticed things change in my relationship with rap in the early and mid-nineties, as grunge and alternative began to hack at the music industry and the subversive urban genre grew into its hand-me-downs. Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, A Tribe Called Quest: these figures heralded a new age for a new musical landscape. I went through puberty with this music, growing with it as it too began to demand the respect of adults. And by the time I finished growing twelve inches in eighteen months, I felt so intimately involved with rap music that it was more familiar to me than my awkward body. I had arrived and so had rap. I drove my car around Denver consumed, blasting the opposing epiphanies of Common’s Resurrection and Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, marinating in the defining spectrum of my musical understanding, thinking without worry, “It will never get better than this.” In some ways, for me at least, it didn’t.

In 1996, when Busta Rhymes rapped “There’s only five years left” in the introductory track of The Coming, he wasn’t far off. As the nineties elapsed, the schism between commercial and underground rap became the defining characteristic of the genre itself. Entrenched against Puff Daddy’s & Hype Williams’s decadent and blinding vision of the promised land, the indie renaissance made Rawkus Records the Mecca of underground hip-hop culture. Yet just as soon as it had risen to prominence, it pulled its best Sugarhill Records impression, short-sightedly letting their greed get the better of the music they built. Soundbombing II was the zenith pronouncing the denoument of golden era rap, bearing “1-9-9-9” as its poster-child and Mos Def & Talib Kweli as its prophets, bragging that they knew the real Eminem as he shrewdly slipped away towards unbelievable fame and fortune. The abysmal self-destruction of the Rawkus enterprise was the Y2K of rap. By 2001, the upstarts were doomed. It took just five years.

In the post-apocalyptic rap world, New York crumbled at the hands of the marauding South, the West built their Alamo around the great white hope and gangster nostalgia, and avant-gardists such as Def Jux and Anticon scurried through the rubble surprising the establishment with firefights like erratic survivalist militias and pesky terrorists. Meanwhile, against all odds, the music managed to conquer the world. But we all know how that went: Jay-Z the emperor, Kanye the crowned prince, 50 Cent the enforcer, Lil’ Wayne the court jester, Drake the savior, and more nobodies than ever fighting for the crumbs. Here we are.

But really, where are we?

To be continued…

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“Strike on Back” Single out Now

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“Henry Darger” Single out Now

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March 10, 2011

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Return to Ten Point Oh

I think I’m just allergic to critical praise.

Matt is right: I give Pitchfork too much credit. Joey is right: it’s to their credit that they’ve been bold enough to give a perfect score to an album that isn’t a reissue. Joey is also right: there is no album more appropriate to justify Pitchfork’s independent pop/rock/electronic + mainstream rap editorial agenda. Justin is right: five stars > 10.0.

All criticism withstanding, here’s a toast to the assholes: this album is 9.5 great. I get the moment.

How do you moralize about rap music without sounding white? How do you ask more of it without being an asshole too?

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Hardcore Will Never Die

I would love to remember my first listen to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91… The Empire Strikes Black. How ridiculous is it that a 10-year-old white kid would have chosen to spend his weekly allowance on that tape of all things, that my rap-enthusiast father would have been parentally advised and eagerly complicit? There’s just no way you could slip that tape in the deck and not feel like you were encountering something that demanded a far more complex response than “this is good music”. You had to feel assaulted and discombobulated. You had to feel white and subversive, the oppressor and oppressed, guilty and guilt-less, tourist and earnest. You had to feel totally pumped. I was 10 years old and listening to this…

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What?! After a five-second warning/threat/promise that “The future holds nothing else but confrontation”, Public Enemy are going to ease you into this album with a band roll-call set to the sounds of demolished relics and renegade emergency vehicles. It’s diabolically ill and there’s no way I could have understood it.

What brought me to the album was this video for the single “Can’t Truss It”, which I must have seen on The Box at some point because I keep picturing it obscured by scrolling jukebox numbers…

By then, I had seen videos for “Fight the Power” and “9-1-1 Is a Joke”, but this was different. I wanted more. Once I had it, I remember obsessing over “Can’t Truss It” and pouring over the lyrics in the liner notes. I remember wishing they had made a real song out of that first track, “Lost at Birth”. I remember wondering what Arizona had to do with anything. At some point, I moved on. I think my Dad borrowed/stole the tape from me. I didn’t revisit it again until college, when I worked for Buildings & Grounds, for whom I would rake leaves and remove trash among milling peers, seething in a righteous headphone bubble, clearing the way “for the S, the S1Ws”.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon the eBay auctions for the leftover Sandbox Automatic vinyl stock and picked up the “Nighttrain” single, not even remembering that it came from Apocalypse ’91. It didn’t matter–the album track isn’t even on the single. Instead, we get the “Get Up Get Involved Throwdown Mixx”…

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Now that is a disgusting track. Though the album version has its virtues and sits naturally in the sequence, this one slays the album version and is just about one of the gnarliest, hardest, most hectic rap hits ever. It makes me want to wild out every time I hear it. I melt for that “oohwaayoooh” cut with the pitch slider in the chorus. I assume it’s Terminator X but it may well be the man talking all over the track’s background, unmistakably responsible for the alchemy: the one and only Pete Rock, who injects the harsh PE aesthetic with some nasty funk flavor that inspires a bit more dancing than the usual headbanging. As well as it works, CL Smooth guesting on a PE track doesn’t make a whole lot of sense beyond the obvious affiliation, so I find it distracting (same thing on Run-DMC’s take on this formula, “Down with the King”). Though I prefer the “Throwdown Mixx”, the “Pete Rock Strong Island Mt. Vernon Meltdown” on the B-side is pretty hot as well and apparently was the version used in the video…

Pete Rock also provided the remix for another Apocalypse ’91 single, “Shut Em Down”…

The beat is ridiculously hot. But it sounds far more distinctly PR than PE; it works very well but not seamlessly. Fortunately, when Pete Rock decides to drop his typically lackluster verse, Chuck’s superiority is abundantly clear and the quality of Chuck’s voice and delivery ultimately sell the product as a whole. But the style is more music than movement, which isn’t the Public Enemy aesthetic.

All Pete Rock contributions aside, Apocalypse ’91 is an amazing album. Public Enemy has to be the craziest pop group ever assembled. A vitriolic leader, an oddball jester, a silent giant on the decks, a dancing security corps, a Department of Information, an elusive but ubiquitous production squad. It’s elaborate theater and dead serious. And then you have the music. They put “Lost at Birth”, “Nighttrain”, and “Can’t Truss It” as three of the first four tracks on the album. It’s ruthless and relentless. The PE militia might as well be punching you in the face with the speakers. You can’t remove their politics here, but I mean to celebrate statement and grandeur. How can you not miss that kind of conviction in modern rap?

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