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Cult of YE: The latest from an ever-complicated Kanye West unpacks fame, fear, remorse and more

Kanye West | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

“When you hear about slavery, that was 400 years. 400 years? That sounds like a choice!”

During a heated exchange that followed Kanye West’s surprising (and downright idiotic) proclamation that African Americans’ role in (or inability to break out of) chattel slavery was in fact “a choice,” TMZ reporter and Hip Hop podcaster Van Lathan scolded Kanye for this toxic and irresponsible statement. “Kanye, you’re entitled to your opinion, you’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but there are facts and real-life consequences to everything you just said. And while you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with the marginalization that comes from the 400 years of slavery that you said, for our people, was a choice! Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled and brother…I am unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something that, to me, is not real.”

When weighed against other hot topics that captured our instantaneous 24-hour news and entertainment cycle, this moment between Lathan and West is significant on a few levels. On one level, this confrontation represented an ideological collision between the working class and the rich/famous celebrity cult that Kanye has centered in both his artistic and social life. It can be argued that Kanye’s calculation that slavery was ultimately “a choice” for African Americans is a logical conclusion of the type of quasi-spiritual “law of attraction” self-help doctrine that many Hollywood celebrities traffic in (popularized by Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”).  If you only believe in yourself more and think positively, you too can be rich, famous, successful, not a slave. This confrontation between Lathan and West was also significant because it created a brief space for open discussions on the systemic nature of racism. Lathan’s response to West concisely identified racism as an all-encompassing system of social, economic, political and legal oppression that exists as a historical continuum stretching from the past to the present day and NOT a mere set of prejudices and attitudes that play out on the individual/interpersonal level.

For the most part, the general public processed this discussion much in the way that we process any significant event that happens in the public sphere: through an endless stream of tweets and memes, on our favorite daytime talk shows and podcasts. Hate him or love him, the public ate it all up and it became clear (to me at least) that Kanye was and has been sacrificing himself on the altar of fame and his own personal mythology. To the man who once packaged himself as a starry-eyed college kid who just wanted to get on, all press is now good press, and it doesn’t matter if the world around him is moved by affection or outrage.

Many dismissed Kanye’s statements (coupled with his fervent support of Donald Trump) as a publicity stunt or a cry for attention. This may be true, but a close listen to his latest album, YE, and considering his past as an artistic and public figure, it becomes increasingly difficult to write Kanye’s public and artistic choices off as mere stunts designed to sell records. His eighth album to date, YE is graphic, joyous, and a horrifying glimpse into the mind of Kanye West. If the inspiration for his haunting and lovelorn classic 808’s & Heartbreaks were the women in his life and the love he couldn’t give/keep, YE’s muse, the album’s raison d’etre, is Kanye West himself, his own heart, mind and the celebrity that threatens to tear him apart. Continue reading →

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Part burlesque show, part psychedelic stage play, Kid Koala’s Vinyl Vaudeville hits Johnny Brenda’s this week

Kid Koala’s Vinyl Vaudeville | via http://facebook.com/kidkoala

In the early 2000s, DJ / composer / author Kid Koala (birth name Eric San) established himself as one of the most unique voices in hiphop’s Turntablism movement. Growing out of the fiercely competitive DJ Battle scene, the sub-sub-genre blossomed into a musical style of his own where DJs stepped back into the spotlight, using their turntables as instruments to explore the farthest limits of sound. Koala’s debut Carpral Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tune) is a masterful collision of breakbeats, quirky samples and mind-bending scratches that has been hailed as a landmark of the genre. Continue reading →

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Dirty Harmony: Boogieman Dela draws from many musical pillars to create Future Currents

Boogieman Dela | via boogiemandela.com

Opening with the faint sound of birds chirping and oddly-metered “Doo-Doo-Doo-Dooo-Doo-Doooo” scats, “Believe” — the first track from West Philly MC/Singer Boogieman Dela’s latest EP Broken Watch 02: Future Currents — properly encapsulates the projects fresh, breezy spirit.

Once the over-sized kick drums hit, Boogieman enters with a slick, melodic flow and lyrics urging listeners to wake up and self-actualize. We caught up with him to chat about his beginnings in hip hop, his process, and the Gospel upbringing that helped shape his rich, soulful sound. Continue reading →

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Hospital Jams: The music that provided solace and motivation on our writer’s road to recovery

photo courtesy of John Morrison

On March 2nd,  I sat in my bedroom talking with my partner Melissa. We both knew something was seriously wrong. For days, I had been suffering from an unruly headache, fatigue and flu-like symptoms. The scariest development was a sudden impairment in my ability to form sentences and speak. Testing me, Melissa asked me if I was excited to catch the premiere episode of Atlanta (it aired the night before). “Tell me about the show” she asked. I struggled. I tried to sound thoughtful and articulate my thoughts about how the show plays with non-linear narrative structure and surreal/absurdist humor. What came out of my mouth pretty much amounted to a barely-coherent mush. “We should go to the hospital,” she said. I agreed reluctantly. As we got up and made our way down the hallway, I detoured to the bathroom, vomiting, the violent force throwing me to the ground. The next thing I know, I was being placed in an ambulance and transported to the Hospital of the University of Penn.

The next two weeks were a jumbled mess of tubes, needles and INTENSE hallucinations. Much of the time between March 2nd and March 13th is unclear to me. The entire experience is either “augmented” by cartoonish hallucinations, or completely missing from my memory. I beatboxed and made up songs, imagined that the doctors were hatching elaborate conspiracies against me, saw and held conversations with friends who weren’t there. I had been diagnosed with a mycoplasmic infection that caused viral encephalitis, which essentially translates to inflammation on the brain. Basically, I had randomly caught a virus that attacked my brain and spine. After weeks of laying in the hospital, one of my lungs collapsed, I developed a blood clot and had lost the ability to walk.

Throughout this ordeal, I’ve had a few comforts. My mom, Jackie has been an indefatigable source of support and inspiration. She’s pretty much been camped out with me since I was first hospitalized. I’ve watched her push the limits of her own body and mind to help me heal and cope with this life-altering series of events. Along with Melissa, my Mother has cried with me, laughed with me, prayed with me and I’m certain that without the help of these Women, I doubt I would have survived.

Along with the love and comfort I received from my family, my partner, friends and comrades, through this ordeal, I’ve been finding solace in music. On Monday, April 2nd, I was transferred from the hospital to Good Shepherd Rehab Facility in South Philly. Much of my day is spent undergoing intensive physical therapy designed to strengthen my muscles, legs and ultimately relearn how to walk. Trying to occupy the long days, I’ve spent my downtime watching junk TV, visiting with friends and family and listening to music. My fam was kind enough to bring me my laptop. I’ve scrolled through Spotify, Youtube, FB, Twitter and my own personal music library to find songs that gave me solace, the same as I have my entire life. Music for when I’m sad, music to motivate me through the hours of exhausting physical therapy.

This playlist features some of the stuff I’ve been listening to for the past month or so. It’s a bit all over the place genre and mood-wise, an accurate reflection of the scattered way that I absorb music. Ranging from nostalgic favorites (Bahamadia’s “Spontaneity” and Mazarin’s “For Energy Infinite”) to staples in my DJ sets (Fela Kuti & Roy Ayers’ “Africa Centre of the World”), the songs on this playlist have been with me through this experience that has changed me profoundly. Continue reading →

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Buzzing About Beats: The journey of Philly producer / MC DistantStarr

Distant Starr
Distant Starr | photo by Austin Eterno | courtesy of the artist

Originally hailing from New York, rapper / producer DistantStarr has been holding it down in both Philly’s underground rap and experimental beat scenes for about a decade. His sound, a rich mixture of spacey, ambient-inflected instrumentals and slick, razor-sharp bars tastefully embodies the spirit of both scenes. We caught up with Distant Starr a few days after his mind-blowing, impromptu set at Backyard Bxss (a live Beat showcase organized by Smth Savant collective). We talked about his latest release, Discover Tape, the unheralded history of Philly’s live Beat scene and the collaborative work that has connected him with artists around the world.   Continue reading →

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Music, Modern Art and More: Get to know Philly’s hip-hop renaissance man Ronniere Spacely

photo via twitter.com/brucespacelee

In a world of multihyphenates, Philly based MC / producer / multi-instrumentalist / visual artist, Ronniere Spacely effectively straddles disparate worlds of music, film and modern art. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, and a dedicated acolyte of Virginia production duo The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), Spacely absorbed the heavy-hitting, melodic and harmonically rich aesthetic of his hometown heroes into his own music.

He poured these influences into his recent self-released Uncle Lahk Jaw mixtape and his self-shot and produced short film Yo Bro, a lo-fi, experimental musing on love, infatuation and music. A striking work complete with oddball editing, vintage visual effects and a colorful musical score that bridges the gaps between hip-hop, pop and soul, Yo Bro made its debut this summer at the Black Star Film Festival. We linked up with him (via Facebook chat) to talk music, art and the spirit of inspiration.  Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: John Morrison’s five haikus for the homies

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

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2017 incredible. Today, Key contributing writer John Morrison shares five haiku reviews of releases by his Philly friends.

2017 was a fantastic year for music in Philadelphia. As a lifelong resident of this city, I’ve been blessed to build relationships with many brilliant DJs, MCs, producers and musicians. To honor those relationships and to celebrate this incredible year of music, I’ve compiled a list of my Top 5 favorite local releases, and written a short Haiku to capture the spirit of each.

Continue reading →

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Stepping Out of the Sub-genre: RVLVR and Ben O’Neill talk about synthesizing a spectrum of influences on Stiff Upper Lip

RVLVR | photo via facebook.com/rvlvrphilly

RVLVR is the nom de guerre of composer / producer James Sauppe. His latest project is a collaboration with another Philadelphian — the Grammy-nominated singer / songwriter / guitarist, Ben O’ Neil. The EP, Stiff Upper Lip is a sonically dense, emotionally layered set of mutant pop-songs. It’s gripping from the opening title track, which melds “Bohemian Rhapsody” style vocal harmonies with the  dystopian ambience of Another Green World-era Eno, to “Whole Pieces Whole,” the sprawling, ambitious closer that conjures up the spirit of Electric Light Orchestra and The Beatles “Within Without You.”

We met with Sauppe, O’Neil and producer Paul “Starkey” Geissinger (whose experimental label No Remixes released Stiff Upper Lip) at Community College of Philadelphia campus, where Geissinger and Sauppe both teach in the school’s music department. Over the course of our talk, we discussed the songwriting and production process behind this set of rich, heart-wrenching songs. Continue reading →

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Philadelphia Jazz Project launches Satellites Are Spinning, a six-month series celebrating Sun Ra, this Friday at The Barnes

via facebook.com/SunRaMusic

“If you ain’t crazy, then you ain’t trying to get nothing done. They called Sun Ra crazy too!” -Homer Jackson

Homer Jackson is a man on a mission. In 2011, Jackson founded The Philadelphia Jazz Project, a non-profit organization that stretches across the generational gap with a host of creative, eclectic projects and programming in the form of mixtapes, radio shows, live concerts and more. Speaking from his home in Philly, Jackson is excited about his role as PJP founder/director and his work as an advocate for the greatest art form ever produced on american soil. “I’m part curator and part instigator,” he said. “You can think of me as Johnny Appleseed and Che Guevara. Sometimes you gotta plant seeds and sometimes you gotta throw a hand grenade and blow shit up!”

Satellites Are Spinning is the latest in PJP’s effort to expand the city’s jazz culture. An ambitious 8-concert series, its goal is celebrating the musical legacy of jazz innovator and 21st century iconoclast, Sun Ra. Continue reading →

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Lady Alma and Loose Ends’ Jane Eugene bring the conversation and burn the house down at Kindred Presents

Kindred Presents | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

On a cool and crisp Monday night, a hundred or so people are packed into Warmdaddy’s, for Kindred Presents, a weekly series that is part talk show, part concert / jam session / revival. Most of the attendees were seated in the dining area, some standing by the bar, pretty much all were smiling, taking in the easy, familial vibe that permeated the room. Upon entering the room, I was seated at a large round table in the back with a group of folks I didn’t know. After a round of introductions, we shared a couple plates of Southern-style sweet and buttery cornbread, joked and made small talk, while waiting for the start of the show.

Aja Graydon Dantzler and Fatin Dantzler, better known as Kindred The Family Soul, took to the stage backed by their tight house band, laying down a mellow, soulful groove. For the past 26 weeks or so, Kindred The Family Soul have hosted Kindred Presents  a variety show-style live series in which the duo invites a veritable who’s who of contemporary Black music for an evening of soul food, fun, intimate conversation and music.

The show’s format is simple, Aja and Fatin conduct a short, casual chat with the guest, after which the guest proceeds to join the band and burn the house down! The first guest of the night was Philly’s own Lady Alma Horton. Continue reading →