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Good night, Circadian Rhythms.

Circadian Rhythms | courtesy of the band
Circadian Rhythms | courtesy of the band

On October 31, 2005, Halloween, my friend Justin and I set out for an evening of fun and NOT drug-enhanced adventure in Northeast Philly. On that crisp autumn evening, we made our way to a jam session in the city’s Fox Chase section. Carrying my Roland JP-8000 synthesizer under my arm, we made our way to the basement of my future friend and bandmate Mike Eckstrom’s house. I spent the next few hours in that basement, meeting new faces, talking shit and doing my best Brian Eno impression on keys. Someone was supposed to be recording that night but I’m not sure if anyone did. 15 years later, what I recall of the sound we made that night is close to what you’d expect from a group of young people — many of whom had just met each other — attempting to play coherent music together.

Taking a smoke break outside, Chris Clark, one of the kids present at the jam, invited me to his car to listen to his new band that he and a few childhood friends had started. We sat in the car as he played me a rough recording of their first rehearsal. From what I remember, the music was sparse, nimble and little bluesy. “Yo, I like this a lot,” I said, because I did. Chris informed me the band’s name was Circadian Rhythms. Continue reading →

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Gary Dann’s journey from the bedroom to the Boom Room

Gary Dann aka Boom Room Dude | photo by Fawziyya Heart | courtesy of the artist

Philadelphia-born musician, engineer and studio owner Gary Dann is a man who wears many hats.

As a drummer, he is a member of the Worldtown Soundsystem, a multi-headed musical juggernaut whose sound ranges from Afrobeat, house, Latin music and beyond. He is also the founder and owner of Boom Room, a beautiful two-level recording studio and rehearsal space located in the city’s Fishtown section. It was in his early teen years that his love of music and penchant for getting things done first began to take root. Continue reading →

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Chris Schwartz of Ruffhouse Records on the Philly of the 80s, the label’s heyday in the 90s, and his new memoir

The Fugees, circa mid-90s | courtesy of Chris Schwartz / Ruffhouse Records

In the summer of 1987, Philly manager/record promoter/jack-of-all-trades Chris Schwartz and his partner engineer and producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo founded Ruffhouse Records.

Gaining skill and music-biz experience doing everything from playing guitar in a Kraftwerk-inspired post-punk ensemble to managing Philly hip-hop legend Schoolly D, Schwartz had spent his 20s navigating the wildly eclectic and chaotic wonderland of the city’s music scene in the 1980s. In the 90s, Ruffhouse’s roster swelled, reading like a who’s-who of the decade’s brightest hip-hop stars. With massive multi-million selling acts like Cypress Hill, Kriss Kross, The Fugees, Lauryn Hill and more, Ruffhouse established itself as one of the premier hip-hop labels of all-time.

Over 30 years after Ruffhouse hit the scene, Schartz returns with Ruffhouse: From The Streets of Philly To The Top of The 90s Hip Hop Charts, an exhilarating and detailed autobiographical look into his life and career in music. We recently spoke with him and got a wealth of stories about Philly music history and insights into the events that shaped his book. Continue reading →

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From Punk Shows to a Pressing Factory: Federico Casanova’s journey to Soft Wax, Philly’s new vinyl plant

Soft Wax Record Pressing | photo by Lissa Alicia for WXPN

Federico Casanova is a first-generation American. Like many kids, he grew up surrounded by music. Before his parents came to the U.S, Casonova’s father hosted a weekly specialty radio show in the Dominican Republic called The Lonely Hearts Club where he would obsess over the music and mythology of Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr songbook.

“My father was a radio DJ back in the Dominican Republic,” Casanova recalls. “He had a show that aired every Sunday for two hours … and he would talk about everything that had to do with The Beatles and the music scene in the DR. My dad had a pretty tight record collection, I always messed with them when I was a git. He didn’t really play any instruments, but he was a huge appreciator of music and so it sort of just rubbed off onto my brothers and I.”.

After his family came to the U.S., Casanova and his brothers came of age in Miami’s vibrant DIY punk scene. Eventually, Casanova would branch out and join his brothers in a move to Philadelphia. Living in a collective house, Casanova and his brothers built up a lifetime of experience playing in bands, booking house shows tours and building community. The punk scene had lit the creative fire in him, but it would be his acknowledgment of a need in that music scene that would lead him down a new path. Continue reading →

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Sun Ra Arkesta and Sounds of Liberation head up a night of powerful, purposeful cosmic jazz at Union Transfer

Sun Ra Arkestra | photo by Emily DeHart for WXPN

When jazz pianist, composer and iconoclast Sun Ra and his Arkestra moved to Philadelphia in the late 60s, they took up residence in the city’s Germantown section, living and practicing out of a house owned by the father of saxophonist and current Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. When Sun Ra arrived in Philadelphia, he encountered a city steeped in a rich history of “traditional” jazz. The sounds of be-bop, swing and hard bop lived in nightclubs and bars like Prince’s Total Experience right off of Broad & Hunting Park or Pep’s Lounge in South Philly.

In addition to the city’s “traditional” jazz sounds, Philadelphia was also home to a small cadre of young players and listeners who had embraced the avant-garde sound that Sun Ra and his Arkestra had gained infamy for. Amongst the hippies and progressives that lived in Germantown at the time, there were a host of creative musicians who sought to experiment and stretch the possibilities of jazz. Some of these young upstarts would join and play in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, others formed ensembles of their own. One of those ensembles, Sounds of Liberation would release one ultra-rare album New Horizons in 1972 before going dormant and reemerging nearly 5 decades later in 2019.

Last night at Union Transfer, Sounds of Liberation would make their return to the stage alongside The Sun Ra Arkestra in celebration of Marshall Allen’s 95th Birthday as well as the release of a newly-discovered full-length album of material. Continue reading →

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How a fascination with Baltimore Club sounds led DJ Sega to New Jack Philly

DJ Sega | photo courtesy of the artist
DJ Sega in the lab | photo courtesy of the artist

Growing up in a musical family where his mother was a church choir director and his father a DJ for over 40 years, North Philly native Robert Taylor Jr. — better known as DJ Sega — has traveled the world rocking clubs and festivals with his unique set of virtuosic turntable skills. Before he gained renown as a DJ / producer himself, Taylor would find himself accompanying his dad to gigs like his regular slot at The Baby Grand Lounge in the city’s Nicetown section.

At the same time, Taylor discovered the sound of a revolutionary new sub-genre of dance music that was emerging about 100 miles south from the city of Baltimore. This sound, referred to as Baltimore Club, was a inventive take on the House music sound that was born in Chicago in the 80s. By sampling and layering the open drum breaks from Lyn Collins’ James Brown-produced anthem “Think,” and the Salsoul Records disco oddity “Sing Sing” by Gaz, on top of their propulsive new tracks, club DJs and Producers in Baltimore added a new energy and rhythmic complexity to electronic dance music’s steady 4/4 beat. For Taylor, Baltimore’s Club music would have a profound influence on his own life and artistry. Continue reading →

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Def Poetry Jam returns to its Philly roots at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

clockwise from left: Ursula Rucker, Vanessa German, Bonafide Rojas, Sonia Sanchez | photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In season one, episode four of the popular early-2000s spoken word HBO series Def Poetry Jam, celebrated poet laureate and Black Arts movement co-founder Amiri Baraka performs an excerpt from his poem “Why Is We Americans.” Filmed in the wake of 9/11 against a hellish political backdrop of war, nationalist paranoia, the Patriot Act and artistic censorship (in the form of Clear Channel’s infamous list of banned songs post-9/11), Baraka’s performance is crackling with fire and righteous indignation. Continue reading →

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A Philly DJ Roundtable: Exploring the state of the art of party rocking in 2019

DJ Lean Wit It
DJ Lean Wit It | photo by Dvvinci | courtesy of the artist

From the reggae sound systems of Jamaica in the 70s, to England’s illegal pirate radio stations of the 1960s and beyond, the history of global DJ culture is impossibly rich and complex. In music circles around the world, Philadelphia is recognized as a breeding ground for some of the world’s best DJs. Having to bridge the gap between technical skill, taste and a deep knowledge of the music one plays, the art of being a (good) DJ in this city no simple task. Club culture in this city is built upon a foundation of decades of history and tradition.

In the wake of the cultural and economic boom of the disco-era (led by Philadelphia International Records), the essence of modern DJing as we know it began to take shape. Spurred on by a few key technical innovations — most notably, the creation of extended, “remixed” versions of popular R&B / soul cuts, the 12” vinyl single, and the practice of creating a seamless flow of music by mixing two records together on two turntables and a mixer — the disco-era initiated a gradual shift of focus away from bands and concerts, toward DJs and clubs, and effectively changed the way we experience music. Continue reading →

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Keeping the spirit of hip-hop production legend Nujabes alive with Shing02

Nujabes (top) ft Shing02 | via Last.fm

On February 26th, 2010, Japanese hip-hop producer / DJ Jun Seba (more commonly known as Nujabes) was critically injured in a car accident on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway. After being transported to the hospital, Nujabes could not be revived and passed away at the age of 36.

Known for his prolific output of elegant, jazz-inflected compositions, Nujabes was well on his way to becoming a legend in hip-hop culture before his untimely death made him a tragic story. In the nine years since his passing, Nujabes has come to be recognized amongst the pantheon of hip-hop greats. His sound, rooted in sampling, is characterized by jazzy piano chords and melodies which would often toe the emotional line between sunny optimism and deep, nostalgic longing. Considered to be one of the forefathers of the niche instrumental hip-hop subgenre “Lo-Fi,” Nujabes’ thoughtful, dreamy style has influenced countless kids to take up making beats in their bedrooms. Continue reading →

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20 Years of Grandiose Hip-Hop: How Things Fall Apart taught The Roots to balance art, commerce, and deeply personal perspectives

The Roots, circa 1999

“We had given most of our adult lives to that point to the band. What if success never came to us, or never came in the form we expected? – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia in the mid-to-late 90s, radio was a really big deal. Guided by that old algorithm of the human spirit, a handful of radio shows and the DJs and personalities that captained them fed and diversified my ever-growing musical appetite, from J. Michael Harrison’s electric Jazz fusions on Temple’s The Bridge, to the quirky Indie Rock of the Sarah and Laurie Show from Princeton’s WPRB. I’d bounce off my bedroom walls to sounds of mainstream Alternative Rock on Y-100 and fall asleep to the ambient soundscapes of John Diliberto’s Echoes and Chuck Van Zyl’s Star’s End on WXPN.

Like many kids, I’d often call into radio stations and request whatever songs I wanted to hear. Unlike most kids, the budding archivist in me would compel me to press record on my combination radio / cassette deck each time one of my request calls made it on air or my name was shouted out by a show’s host. By the time I graduated high school and I had filled up a tape of my radio mentions and shout outs.

One night, a new song by Philadelphia’s own The Roots had come across the airwaves and floored me. Slick and modern, the song fused lovelorn verses from Black Thought and a pre-fame / pre-Ruff Ryders Eve with a killer hook sung by Erykah Badu (and written by Jill Scott). Two bars into the song’s final chorus, the plodding, straight-forward drum beat that Questlove had held lockstep for the entire song transformed into something altogether different. Continue reading →