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Lost In The Neighborhood: Rediscovering the millennium-era rock of Philly’s Ruby Keeler

Ruby Keeler | photo by Eric Wareheim | via rubykeeler.bandcamp.com

At the dawn of the millennium, it was clear that mainstream rock was in a state of crisis. Southern-flavored hip hop had emerged as a cultural movement while Lou Pearlman-constructed boy bands like N’SYNC & Backstreet Boys ruled the charts with an iron fist and frosted tips. The few guitar bands making waves on radio were of the post-grunge variety and the less we say about that regrettable stylistic aberration known as rap rock, the better. To put it simply, if a guitar band blew up and achieved any degree of success during this period, they probably sucked. On the underground side of the coin, things were a bit more complicated. Many bands in smaller markets throughout the country were still traveling out from the comfort of their local scenes, touring around the country and wrestling with the musical innovations and cultural shifts that were laid out in the wake of the 90s Grunge and Indie Rock explosion.

Philly based quartet Ruby Keeler was one such band. Continue reading →

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New Orleans born trumpeter Christian Scott reaches out from the birthplace of jazz to embrace its Diaspora of sound

Christian Scott | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

“We have all of this music that has grown out of jazz music over the course of the last 100 years,” says Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. “What this generation is doing is trying to re-acculturate all of this music and collapse all of it back into a cohesive sound. We’re stretching jazz to fit all of the conventions of the things that have grown out of it”.

With his latest album Diaspora (the second installment of an ambitious trilogy of works he’s releasing this year), the New Orleans born trumpeter / composer seeks to illuminate the underlying harmony of the seemingly disparate musical cultures of the world. The music of Diaspora is a highly thoughtful melding of sophisticated jazz harmony and melody (“Our Lady of New Orleans”) with trap and NOLA Bounce Beats (“IDK” and the title track, respectively). The record is a masterwork which finds Scott and his ensemble reverse-engineering the past ten decades of American popular music, connecting it all back to the roots of the tree, jazz and the blues.

We spoke with him ahead of his September 10, 2017 performance at World Cafe Live. Continue reading →

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Philly-born auteur Naeemah Maddox starts in her bedroom studio, ends with a prog rock epic for the ages

Naeemah Maddox | photo by Kev Steele | courtesy of the artist
Naeemah Maddox | photo by Kev Steele | courtesy of the artist

As early as 2007, singer / guitarist / composer Naeemah Maddox began working on a collection of straightforward but evocative songs designed to capture the spirit of the human condition. Working through a series of personal and professional struggles, the music grew slowly but surely. These simple tunes would serve as the backbone of her recently released full-length, Vile Tyrant And The Middle Men. Plugging away for nearly a decade, Maddox recorded demo versions of each song in her small home studio setup meticulously laying down vocals and guitar in the privacy of her West Philly apartment. As Maddox explains, the interplay of her voice with the guitar served as the launching point of the dizzingly complex songs.

“All of the songs have a simplistic foundation,” Maddox says. “Although it may be hard to discern. All of the basic structures of the songs, with the exception of ‘Fun with Fun,’ were started with just guitar and voice. Guitar is an important tool for my songwriting, basically because of all the harmonies you can use and discover. It’s easier for me to created from the bottom up…the bottom being the guitar harmony.”

As the years passed, Maddox — currently based in Brooklyn — continued to revisit these simple demos, pouring out ideas, reimagining harmonies and outfitting the songs with impressively complex arrangements. The end result is powerful collection of soulful and challenging rock music. Continue reading →

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In a highly politicized time, Black Star Film Festival 2017 focuses on resistance

Tales from Shaolin | via facebook.com/BlackStarFest

Entering into its sixth year, Philadelphia’s Black Star Film Festival has grown as a platform highlighting the vanguard of African American and African diasporic independent cinema. The programming for this year’s festival is remarkably eclectic and robust, offering impactful shorts and ambitious feature-length films. Stylistically, this year’s batch of featured films range from a traditional to experimental and outright avant-garde.

Louis A. More and John Michael Neal’s Tales From Shaolin: Part One – Shakey Dog is a crime drama influenced by Wu-Tang and Tarantino, while Ephraim Asili’s Kindah, is part documentary, part experimental short that is the latest in a series where the filmmaker explores the connections between communities throughout the African diaspora. Continue reading →

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Meek Mill’s Wins and Losses and the sound of perseverance

Meek Mill’s Wins and Losses | via facebook.com/MeekMill

Nearly two years ago, to the day, Canadian pop-rap Superstar (can you imagine reading that sentence 15 or 20 years ago? LOL) Drake released “Back to Back,” a vicious and oddly anthemic diss track aimed at Philly Rap star Meek Mill. Seven days earlier, Meek had taken to social media to launch a seemingly unprovoked attack against Drake, questioning the pop star’s authenticity: “Stop comparing me to Drake too….he don’t even write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t Tweet my album because we found out!” Whatever latent feelings of hostility may have slept right below the surface of the two stars (and collaborators) relationship had now erupted into open warfare and VERY public rap beef.

Although, he launched the first bomb (an act which seems to have been provoked when Meek learned that Drake had employed a ghostwriter to pen his guest verse on Meek’s song “R.I.C.O.”), Meek was clearly not ready for an all-out battle. On the day that “Back to Back” dropped, Meek was about 9 weeks deep into the North American leg of his then-romantic partner Nicki Minaj’s Pink Print tour. Far removed from the days of Nas and Jay-Z battling it out with diss records released months apart from one another, rap battles today, are settled on the internet and victory usually goes to the combatant who can respond swiftly and control the narrative. Once Drake started releasing songs dissing him, Meek should have quickly responded with an equally vicious attack himself, but he did not. As the days went on and the chatter grew louder, we all witnessed the stock of one of mainstream rap’s brightest stars plummet lower than ENRON. By seriously underestimating his opponent and putting himself at a strategic disadvantage by initiating a war while away on tour, it became clear that Meek was in serious trouble. By the time “Back to Back” had finished reverberating out into riding on a wave of instant quotables and countless fan-generated internet memes, it seemed as though Meek Mill’s rap career was over, dead in the water. His name had become synonymous with failure and he became the closest thing to a laughingstock in mainstream hip-hop since rapping popsters like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were exorcised from the culture in the early 90s. Continue reading →

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Kendrick Lamar brings his intimate dance with good and evil to the stadium

ELEMENT.

A post shared by Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) on

In the fall of 2015, following the release of his critically-acclaimed, platinum-selling album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar announced that he would bypass the round of huge, multi-city touring that would customarily follow such a successful project. While the decision to forgo a large stadium tour in the wake of Butterfly would have struck many as a misstep, the move was perfect.

Instead, Kendrick hit the road with a mini-tour, “Kunta’s Groove Sessions,” a quick and dirty, eight-city jaunt which found him pulling up on mid-sized theaters throughout the South and on both coasts. The purpose behind this choice was clear: To Pimp A Butterfly’s quirky, complex and jazz inflected hip hop songs required a level of intimacy and even physical proximity to the audience that would be difficult to reproduce in a 20,000 seat arena.

Much like Public Enemy’s Chuck D in the summer of 1988 or Jay-Z on 9/11, 2001, Kendrick Lamar had established himself as the pacesetter of the day. He was / is, the rapper with the loudest, most (culturally) resonant voice. In the months immediately following the reception of Butterfly, it was clear that in the minds of many that he was one of, if not the leading creative voice in mainstream hip-hop. A large part of his emergence as the mouthpiece of his generation has been his ability to relate his own personal fears, hopes and ambitions with those of his audience. Throughout his work, the notion of individual triumph and/or failure at the hands of forces larger than himself has remained a central component to his songs. Continue reading →

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Ursula Rucker reflects on the idea of home in “Soil”; see her at the African American Museum on Friday

Ursula Rucker | Photo by John Vettese

Bringing together a host of legends such as Chaka Khan, Andy Bey and Marvin Gaye collaborator Leon Ware, Dutch producer / composer Stephen Emmer’s latest project has a diverse guest list and a global focus. Proceeds from the album, Home Ground, will benefit international charity War Child, whose work provides support for children who have been traumatized and displaced by violent conflict.

The album’s standout track, “Soil,” features Philly spoken word heroine Ursula Rucker. Emmer lays down a delicate bed of music for Rucker’s resonant voice to explore. The track comes complete with jazzy piano chords, thematic strings and a skittering kick and snare pattern that suggests hip-hop. Stepping confidently into a powerful vocal performance, Rucker plays with the idea of home. Not just home as a physical space, but home as a feeling of safety, love, community and family. “What is home? Not just house or country or place home, home like heart home, soul home… We all just nomads, looking to be rooted in something….real.” Continue reading →

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Listen: King Britt talks new Fhloston Paradigm album, After…

King Britt | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Philly grown, internationally known Producer, DJ and composer King Britt has been pushing the broad and malleable boundaries of Electronic music for the better part of the past two decades. Working under a variety of genre pseudonyms, Britt’s catalog serves as an illustrative study of dance music’s hallowed past, with several experiments that point to potential futures. Firefly’s heady take on Classic House music, the pristine Future Soul remixes released under the Scuba moniker. Keeping with this practice of exploring specific sounds/genres under different names, Britt premiered his Fhloston Paradigm project in 2011. Under the Fhloston Paradigm moniker, Britt infuses experimental production techniques electronics with Afrofuturist ideals. Deviating from the soulful, dancefloor-ready of his earlier work and diving into strange, evocative soundscapes. The Fhloston… project reached a high point of detail and refinement with 2014’s The Phoenix full length, released on the Hyperdub label. For his latest FP album, After…, Britt has fused the highly abstract style of minimalist composers such as Phillip Glass and Steve Reich with his own experiments in sound design

  Continue reading →

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Calling You In: How Solarized is challenging the status quo and diversifying the the punk scene

Solarized performs at Break Free Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Throughout history, the potent dynamics of race, gender, economic class and sexuality have shaped every aspect of human social activity. Politics, love, war, art, all of it has been invariably touched by these social forces, and music is no different. The realities of racism and the complexity of identity play themselves out nationally, internationally and in our local music scenes. For all its historical emphasis on rebellion, freedom and challenging of the status quo, punk as a subculture has not avoided the oppressive aspects of these social dynamics.

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Sounds of Psychedelphia, Part Three: The torchbearers of today

Ill Fated Natives
Ill Fated Natives | Photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

Sounds of Psychedelphia is a three-part series exploring the history of psychedelic rock in Philadelphia. this month, we begin by studying the scene’s origins in the late 60s and early 70s.

At the dawn of the new millennium, the post-grunge alt-rock hype had died down, making room for guitar-oriented bands to stretch beyond conventions that had grown stale by the later part of the 90s. This, along with the emergence of mp3s and file-sharing technology, drastically changed the landscape of rock and the music industry in general.

In Philadelphia, an intriguing brew of cross-pollinating musical styles and DIY ethos began to bubble up as underground bands were able to use the internet to engage their audiences. While many of the “Psychedelphia”-era bands of the 90s like Photon Band, Asteroid #4 and Bardo Pond carried on into the 2000s as integral parts of the Philly scene, a new, younger crop of acts began to make noise as well. Much like their forebears of the 60s and the 90s, many of Philadelphia’s millennial bands retained the melodic, guitar-pop influences of the U.K. (The Beatles, Kinks etc.), fusing those sweet sensibilities with a decidedly heavier, muscular sound. Continue reading →