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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

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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 →

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Rooted in history and looking to the future, Mick Jenkins will bring his sanctified take on hip-hop to the TLA

Mick Jenkins | via facebook.com/MickJenkins

Raised on the Southside of Chicago, but born below the Mason-Dixon line (Huntsville, Alabama, to be exact), the blues lies at the center of Mick Jenkins’ music. Historically, it has been the blues (and its stylistic cousin, gospel) that have acted as the animating core of all black music that has followed it: jazz, rock and roll, R&B and hip-hop. Throughout the shifts in popular music, the blues has remained, like a ghost, giving voice to the struggle, pain and transcendent joy of black American culture.

Over the course of the past decade, hip hop in particular has evolved to a point where synthesis and advanced musical programming techniques have replaced sampling, with more emphasis being placed on creating futuristic soundscapes and less on repurposing the music of the past. For the first time in the history of American popular culture, we are witnessing a mainstream black music that isn’t reliant on the influences of the blues and the gospel sound of the church. Continue reading →

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Bartok and Breakbeats: Philly son Thee Phantom on bridging hip-hop and classical

Thee Phantom | photo courtesy of the artist
Thee Phantom | photo courtesy of the artist

The distance between the North Philly neighborhood of Jeffrey Mcneill’s youth and New York’s storied Carnegie Hall is roughly 97.5 miles. The aesthetic, economic and cultural gap between those two locales is far greater.

Like many kids growing up in the dawn of Hip Hop, McNeill quickly found himself fully immersed in the emerging culture, channeling his creative energy into the new music. True to hip-hop’s tendency of appropriating and recontextualizing older music, Mcneill began writing raps and raiding his father’s classical music collection, making tapes that reflected his curious desire to fuse hip-hop with the music of the European classical canon. After christening himself Thee Phantom, McNeill and his ILL Harmonic Orchestra have succeeded in bringing classical instrumentation and hip-hop flavor to stages around the world, fulfilling a lifelong dream of performing at Carnegie Hall.

Fresh off of a successful run at SXSW, McNeill finds himself on the sunny side of a decades-long uphill battle to win acceptance and bridge the seemingly impassible gulf between hip-hop and Hadyn, Bartok and breakbeats. Continue reading →

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Inside Fishtown’s Watts Studio with budding production duo DYAD

Khemist and friends in Watts Studio with DYAD | via facebook.com/DYADProduction

dy·ad

ˈdīad/ noun technical

  1. something that consists of two elements or parts.

Seated in the spacious control room of Watts Studios located on the second floor of a unassuming Warehouse Space in near Front & Girard, producer/engineer Micah Forsyth cracks jokes with Anwar Marshall, a fellow producer, arranger and his musical partner in DYAD. Marshall, who also plays in the magnificent Philly Jazz Ensemble Fresh Cut Orchestra, crack jokes and casually discuss the work of Nigerian afro-beat pioneer, Fela Kuti. As a small crew of musicians filter into the space greeting the duo, Forsyth plays a rough demo recorded on Marshall’s phone. The voicemail is a recording of rapper and multi-Instrumentalist Khemist strumming a few chords on acoustic guitar.

Marshall recalls the recording excitedly: “As soon as I heard him playing that, I had to record it!” After laying down a drum track that references the complex, polyrhythmic pulse of legendary Fela drummer Tony Allen, Marshall finds his way over to a small keyboard in the corner of the control room and begins plucking out chords and incomplete riffs. Building on the energy of the track, the crew adds a sleek, live horn section and hip, peacocking bassline. As the tune begins to take on a life of its own, Khemist idles around the room, listening. The tune they are working on is for his upcoming solo project and it is clear that he is gearing up to put his stamp on the track. Forsyth asks “you got something?” Khemist nods and makes his way into the booth. In no time he lays down two verses and a slick, Latin inspired hook for the song. Slowly but surely, what started out as a rough demo is blossoming into an elaborate, fully formed piece of music. In the midst of the jokes and easy-going chats lies a serious sense of traditional musical craftsmanship met with modern creativity to make magic possible, even on a random Thursday afternoon in North Philly.

With a sound that fuses hip-hop and soul with tasteful, jazz-informed arrangements, DYAD bring to mind a modern update of 70s jazz-funk pioneers The Mizell Brothers or Steely Dan if Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had been born in the hip-hop generation. Over the past couple years, the duo has been making serious inroads in the city’s music scene, producing tunes for a host of artists including The Bul Bey, Elle Morris and their standout work on STS’ (aka Sugar Tongue Slim) recent Ladies Night project. Continue reading →