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Inside Urban Styles, a new book exploring the intersections of graffiti and hardcore

Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore by Freddy Alva is available now | via Amazon

Arguments about legality and aesthetics aside, the term DIY is never more applicable than when you’re talking about graffiti. How much more Do It Yourself is there than putting your art, whatever it might be, directly on a wall for everyone to see? There’s good reason graffiti has been around for all of recorded history: it’s completely accessible but also quite subversive and potentially dangerous. It’s also just so totally badass to write graffiti. You might be doing something illegal but you’re doing something illegal in the name of art. How cool is that?!

There’s a lot of parallels to be made between graffiti and punk. Both rose to a certain amount of cultural prominence in the 70s and 80s. Both owe a lot to people of color who trailblazed the path in places like New York City and Southern California. Both have occupied that funny place in society where they’re both accepted as a sort of protest but also serve as an example of everything that is morally wrong, oftentimes in the same sentence.

So while graffiti is most-often associated with hip-hop, it’s no wonder that there was crossover between the two, a shared movement starting in the early 80s and really coming to a head in the New York hardcore scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Freddy Alva’s new book, Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore, is an incredibly in-depth history of that period, documenting the bands, the graffiti crews, and the style and fashion of this cultural phenomenon. Continue reading →

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Festival celebrating DIY publishing in Philadelphia returns to the Rotunda today

A 1982 edition of Savage Pink | via Fanzine Addiction

The Philly Zine Fest has been going strong for 15 years now, an annual gathering of zine makers, zine readers, and just all around zine nerds. They come to The Rotunda every year to share in a community that’s based around a shared love of DIY attitude and ethics and being able to express whatever it is you need to express in printed form. That can range from poetry and art to personal stories to zines about specific topics, like cooking or bike maintenance or politics.

In many ways, the zine, in its most pure photocopied and stapled form, is like a song or album created and recorded by a DIY band. There’s the initial idea that is tweaked and shaped – and tweaked and shaped some more – until a final form is achieved. It’s then ultimately written down or typed out and copied and distributed. Sometimes, if it’s that kind of piece, it can be shared with others in a live setting. Sometimes it’s just between the writer and the reader, a conversation in the hushed tones of mutual experiences and emotions. Seem familiar? Continue reading →

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The Philly DIY scene is rallying around some of their own caught up in inauguration arrests

Sheer Mag | photo by Tom Beck for WXPN

At the Sheer Mag record release show at Union Transfer in late August, lead singer Tina Halladay read a statement from the Defend J20 Resistance, a group of activists banded together to support the 230 people arrested in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day. This was not just a political band supporting a cause they were passionate about, though Sheer Mag has done plenty of that. Halladay, like many in the Philly punk scene, knows a bunch of those arrested personally. So it was a no-brainer that the organization would table at the show, raising both awareness and much needed funds. Continue reading →

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Perseverance, Pride, and Percussion: Remembering the incredible life of Elaine Hoffman Watts

Elaine Hoffman Watts drums at a Curtis Institute of Music holiday party in 1951 | photo courtesy of Mark Rubin

When Elaine Hoffman Watts passed away last month at the age of 85, the celebrated percussionist left behind an exceptionally multifaceted legacy, both in terms of the music she played and her own personal history. Raised in Southwest Philadelphia, Hoffman Watts was klezmer royalty, the next generation in a family whose musical history stretches back to before they arrived in the country from Ukraine. Her father, Jacob Hoffman, was a noted xylophone player and percussionist who was a fixture in Philadelphia music for decades, especially when it came to the klezmer bands that would play at weddings and other occasions in the local Jewish community. It was under his tutelage that she originally learned how to play the drums in the basement of their house at 63rd and Ludlow.

Hoffman Watts quickly became a formidable drummer. She was so talented that she was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music, the first woman allowed into the the percussion department there. When she graduated in 1954 she was soon hired as a timpanist in the New Orleans Symphony. That was the first of countless jobs in orchestras, jazz groups – including sitting in for Duke Ellington and Count Basie! – and many other bands. While she’d occasionally get to play with her father’s band, klezmer gigs were incredibly rare, despite her family history and obvious talents. That’s because the genre was almost entirely closed off to women playing instruments and nobody would give her the time of day. Continue reading →

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Evolution, Not Throwback: Mace Canister Recordings’ Chuck Meehan is a punk scene vet living in the now

Chuck Meehan | photo by Karen Kirchhoff
Chuck Meehan | photo by Karen Kirchhoff for Loud! Fast! Philly! | loudfastphilly.com

Kevin Seconds of the band 7 Seconds might still sing about how he’s “going to stay young until I die,” but he’s in his late 50s at this point, and not getting any younger. That same attitude, this idea of youth as an ideal, has always been one of the pillars of punk. But what if you don’t live fast and die young? You can be like Seconds and still sing those same songs to the same group of nostalgia-seekers looking to regain their past glory or at the very least try and plug in to something that existed well before they were born. Or you can be like Philadelphia’s own Chuck Meehan – same age as Seconds, give or take a few months – and spend your time trying to make the current punk scene better than anything that has ever existed before.

Meehan played bass in hardcore legends YDi in the early 80s, but if you ask anyone who knows him now, that will be way down at the bottom of the list of things they bring up. “Chuck just gets it,” according to Amy Opsasnick, who plays guitar in Ramones-core band Dark Thoughts. “He doesn’t have to rely on living in the past because he is in the present, but can use his past in a positive way — in sharing wild ass stories, pointing out cycles, parallels, and tired trends. He’s more excited about what’s up now.”

When he’s not at his job as a coordinator at an international shipping company, Meehan’s free time is almost completely engulfed by music. He’s a fixture at punk shows across the city. While he sometimes ends up at a more established – read: legal – venue, his heart and soul firmly reside in the chaotic basements and warehouses of DIY punk, spots he jokingly refers to as geographically NOYFB (None of Your Freakin’ Business, in more polite conversation). Continue reading →

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Invention and Rediscovery: Crash Course in Science continues breaking barriers on Situational Awareness

Crash Course in Science | photo by David Uzzardi | via facebook.com/Crash-Course-in-Science-177747285586892

Crash Course In Science is truly a legendary Philadelphia band. But until a few years ago they only existed as the stuff of lore, their minimal post-punk electronic music, characterized by the strange tones of toy instruments and homemade synths, almost entirely forgotten. There was the show opening for Phillip Glass in 1980. The great “Cardboard Lamb” and “Glamour Pills” videos. The Signals From Pier Thirteen and the Cakes in the Home EPs, both club classics. An album, 1981’s Near Marineland, recorded but never released.

Their songs were fun and very futuristic, both in tone and also in the way the band manipulated sound. Listening to tracks that were recorded close to four decades ago, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that sounds dated or stale.

In 2009 Vinyl On Demand released a box set of everything up until that point, including Near Marineland, live recordings, demos, and rehearsal tapes. And the band got back together, in theory just to play occasional shows both in Philadelphia and elsewhere, including Europe where they had always remained quite popular. The fantastic electronic label Dark Entries put out a reissue of the Signals From Pier Thirteen 12” last year and there were a couple tracks on Minimal Wave compilations but otherwise the band was silent on the releasing music front, seemingly content with just playing live.

That changed earlier this year when they announced Situational Awareness, an album of all new songs on Dutch label Electronic Emergencies. Situational Awareness is very fun and catchy while maintaining that experimental, DIY spirit that has always characterized the band. Which is to say: it’s very much a Crash Course In Science album. The Key caught up with Michael Zodorozny from the band a few days prior to their record release show at Underground Arts. Continue reading →

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Still Freaky After Thirty Years: Revisiting Philly’s fearless EDO ahead of their School of Rock gig

Edo, circa 1994

Philadelphia always gets typecast as the underdog, this city of illusion-of-grandeur miscreants that drastically wants to be NYC or D.C. or whatever else but can’t. You probably know of the “6th Borough” label or the Rocky lovable loser trope or any of the articles that question why anybody would even try and find success in our wonderful city. Hell, even the Fresh Prince had to move to Bel-Air before he could make something of himself.

This is nonsense. Philly doesn’t want to be New York or anywhere else. Like we’re supposed to care about what goes on in those high-strung, obnoxiously stressful cities and somehow bend and break ourselves to fit that mold. What’s great about this city, our city, is that we’re not that. We don’t have to play by their rules. People in Philadelphia have always created their own scenes and that music, that art, is the essence of what makes us unique. It’s weird, freaky, and very much does not need to fit in.

Step into any West Philly basement and you’re almost guaranteed to see a band that sounds like nothing else out there and absolutely slays. If you were the kind of person to look for clues in history, here’s a hint: it’s been almost five decades since Sun Ra and his Arkestra landed in Germantown and rewrote the rules of jazz and really music as a whole. There is literally no end to the examples of Philly bands that have decided to do whatever it is they felt compelled to do, even if nobody else cared. Underdogs we are clearly not.

“I don’t know enough about other music scenes to know if all cities have it, but I feel like Philadelphia has such a strong undercurrent of weird shit.” That’s Eliot Duhan, lead singer of a band that’s a perfect example of all that: EDO. Since their formation at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD back in 1987 – they moved to Philly soon after graduation – the band has continuously defied norms and expectations. Somewhere between Frank Zappa’s matter-of-fact weirdness, the Butthole Surfers’ freakout rock, and the outer space groove of Parliament Funkadelic, EDO (the meaning of the name has been lost to history) occupies a singular position in Philly punk history, even if you’ve never heard of them. Continue reading →

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Maximizing Time: Philly’s Justin Duerr on constant immersion in music, writing and visual art

Justin Duerr performs with Northern Liberties | photo by Yoni Kroll

You might know Justin Duerr from Resurrect Dead, the award-winning documentary he helped make about Toynbee Tiles, the colorful and mysterious messages embedded in roads in Philadelphia, NYC, and elsewhere. You might know him from his bands, including the long-running ‘ghost punk’ outfit Northern Liberties or the acoustic duo Get the Great Cackler he does with his partner Mandy Katz. You might have seen his one-of-a-kind art on a t-shirt or a show flyer or maybe hanging on your friend’s wall. Or you might just have seen Justin intently walking around Philadelphia, tattoos stretching from the side of his head to the tops of his hands – including a portrait of pop singer Cyndi Lauper gracing his left hand – and wondered, “What’s up with that guy?”

Opening Friday at the Magic Gardens on South Street, Time’s Funeral: Drawings and Poems by Justin Duerr is a gallery exhibition including small, stand-alone pieces and huge posters that are part of an on-going storytelling series that Justin has been working on for almost two decades. As an added bonus, he’ll be playing music at the opening night. Continue reading →

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Yalla Habibi! Philadelphia’s first ever Middle Eastern punk festival, YallaPunk, starts tonight

Puzzlehead
Vancouver’s Puzzlehead plays The Barbary during YallaPunk | photo courtesy of the artist

“YallaPunk is a direct response to negative depictions of populations of Middle Eastern and North African descent in mainstream media. This event is meant to highlight creative accomplishments of MENA individuals and serve as a safe space forum for discourse about social issues. The idea is to celebrate music, art, film and other cultural artifacts created by this particular population in an intersectional and inclusive space free from sexism, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and bigotry.” – From YallaPunk.com

Even though this is the inaugural YallaPunk, the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) punk festival happening this weekend at various venues including Johnny Brenda’s and The Barbary, its roots stretch back more than 16 years to Blacksburg, Virginia. Festival organizer Rana Fayez grew up there, a young Arab-American immigrant trying to adjust to a new country. She had been in the United States for just a year when September 11th happened and everything changed.

After a particularly bad altercation with some older classmates who accused her of being complicit with the attacks, “… I thought ever since that people think I’m violent now, people think I’m not a good person. I felt very separated from my peers. I felt very isolated.” She soon found a home in her local punk scene. As she explained, “[Punk] gave me the guts to say: ‘I am who I want to be, not who you tell me to be.’”

Punk wasn’t just loud, angry music and a feeling of rebellion, though that was all very important. According to Fayez, “It was liberating. It was free. Punk rock shows were a sanctuary for me because I could exist [there] and a lot of my friends really accepted me.” Continue reading →

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Meet the music makers of the Philadelphia Folk Festival Campground

Philadelphia Folk Festival | photo by Lisa Schaffer | SkylerBug.com

Hours after Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo wowed thousands on the main stage at the 56th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival last weekend, Andy Walko wowed a couple dozen people over in the Hoagie campsite where a pickup band was running through the standards.

Walko isn’t a professional musician. A retired schoolteacher with a lifelong love of music, he’s been coming to Folk Fest for close to four decades and playing upright bass in the immense campgrounds adjacent to the stages for about half that time. It might not seem like he deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as the world-famous bluesman Taj Mahal, but Walko is just as important as any other performer at this volunteer-run festival in beautiful Upper Salford, PA. Continue reading →