The November 2008 issue of Spin Magazine (with MGMT on the cover) features a great oral history of Black Rock as told by the artists, journalists, and industry pros who made it happen. Check out the online excerpt from Spin - Black Rock: An Oral History by David Browne.
Archive for October, 2008
The Haze of Obama-mania
By Jeff Chang
Rosa Clemente emerged this summer as the surprise vice presidential pick of Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.
In a year marked by deep divisions around race and gender, and a historic chain of events that leaves the nation staring into a global crisis brought on by catastrophic political and economic failures, Clemente has been a fresh voice in left circles.
Before coming to the vice presidential campaign, Clemente was best known for her work in hip-hop activism and anti-police brutality campaigns with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement with R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop and Universal Zulu Nation.
This interview occurred in Las Vegas at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, for which she was a co-founder, in late July and more recently as the 36-year old mother prepared for a third party vice presidential debate in New York City in October.
She spoke candidly about the economy, the wars, and the stakes for the election. What follows are excerpts.
Q: When I heard about you running for vice president, I was excited. Then I was like, damn, is she old enough? I guess it struck me. You hear people say, ‘Our day is coming’. And then it gets here…
R: And you get caught like, ‘How did we get here’?
R: I guess people may question if I’m old enough, probably because I wasn’t born into activism or organizing. I came to it really when I was like 26, and then really, when I wrote the letter about Russell Simmons in 2001, that put me out there.
People always say they want their officials to be held accountable. Here is (Cynthia McKinney), being held accountable, because her party didn’t keep to their promises in ‘06 when they all got in. Pelosi and Conyers and all them finally get these ranks and—no impeachment and no pullout of the war. She actually stood to their principles. She could just have stayed in the DNC. She could have stayed the incumbent and she just didn’t.
People have always said, ‘You gotta tone it down Rosa, you’re too honest. You can’t always say what you say.’ And I think everything I did got me to this position, because I think I am genuine and I think that a lot of cats aren’t. It has come at the expense of a lot of shit. I know that. But I can’t be any other way. And I think Cynthia is just, she’s completely uncompromising. That is the most needed value right now in our movement.
Q: The hip-hop generation has been successful in terms of bringing more folks out to the polls. Every election has shown landmark numbers. But the numbers that, in terms of registration, they’re mostly the college kids. How do you reach the working-class young people, the youths of color who are completely alienated, the overwhelming majority of young people who still aren’t even registed to vote?
That’s what I’m trying to stay focused on. It’s a difficult situation. You can get into the communities because you now have a name, but you might not even have the resources to get a flight there. And that’s how real it is in our campaign. Even though the Green Party has been infrastructured for 25 years, they don’t get matching funds. And the less we’re in the media, the less people know we exist so there’s no money in the coffers to do that type of campaigning which is what I want to do. I want to get to the cats that aren’t even registered to vote. I don’t give a fuck about turning no Barack Obama Democrat around. I’m not even trying to waste my time.
It’s interesting that with the new vote rising, it’s defaulting to the Democrats. Who is gonna vote for John McCain? So what it essentially is, the Democrats in the back of their minds gotta be thinking we ain’t even got to talk about these young people’s issues. There’s this fervor because of all the work we’ve been putting down since 2003—all these hip-hop organizations—there’s the fervor to get out there and to register voters but it’s essentially defaulted Democrat anyway. So what it becomes incumbent upon me to say is: am I doing this for the Green party or am I doing it for my generation? Is that connected? If it is, how does that play out? And I’m trying to stay really focused on getting to the people that are completely dissatisfied and completely marginalized, not necessarily from joining the Green Party, which would be great, but to begin to tell them that this two-party system—that has to stop now. We cannot afford another two-party election.
Q: Talk about the platform. What do you think the Green Party has over the other parties?
This is the only party that even has social justice as its core principle. When we say ending the war, we mean all the wars. We need to get all the military out of every country, we need to begin to deal with issues of what peace can look like, how do you sustain that. Obviously, the Green Party is at the forefront of pushing the environment as a core value. There should be an end to imprisoning young people, an immediate stop to the death penalty, a livable wage, not a minimum wage. Impeachment for George Bush and them is critical. I think if we don’t hold them accountable as a people, then anybody can do the same shit that they did. Words are words, but we can make the words into deeds. If people would even open up the platform, they would see that neither the Democrats and Republicans would even talk about young people having rights and that we should be signing some of these international treaties, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The hardest part is to literally get people to open it up and want to be exposed.
Q: How do you and Cynthia view the mortgage emergency, the $700 million national bailout, and the global crash? What would the Green Party propose to resolve the crisis of the global markets that the two major parties and other third-parties are not?
Just today, European governments pledged two trillion to bail out more banks. Our take is that these are Wall Street billionaires who have stoilen from the people, essentially. The $700 billion bailout then became $840 billion and could become $1 trillion. When you look at that amount of money that they are stealing from taxpayers, we could fund everyone in this country to have health care. The reason this all started was because of the subprime mortgage crisis and predatory lending practices. Those people are still getting kicked out of their houses. I just don’t understand on a really basic level what is going that the majority of people in America are not rising up against it. It’s clearly corporate thievery right in front of our faces.
Cynthia has put out a ten-point economic program that will stop all foreclosures, and repeal the tax cuts. Part of it also is that everything we expect the two major political parties to do, they do the opposite. Both of the political parties are signing off on the bailout and not talking about what’s going on with the majority of people.
Q: Does the economic crisis make resolving the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more or less urgent?
It should have been happening. This doesn’t make me less want to end the war. It’s all interconnected. Something that’s missing in a lot of discussions this is not just about the stock market and not just about the elites. Whatever goes down with them is gonna economically affect us, it’s gonna change the structure of our neighborhoods, the policing. What happened in Minnesota with the police response (at the RNC) can be indicative of what could potentially happen if the global economic sphere keeps crashing around us…
Q: Let’s unpack that. Are you saying the police state we saw at the RNC will be one fallout from the economic crisis?
I think that the police state is already there. I think it’s been there post-2001. But this economic crisis and class warfare–I’m an activist so I know what’s on the ground—the police state will protect those interests if the people choose to rise up. They were clamping down military-style against people who were speaking and marching for the most part. So we can’t ever think they wouldn’t clamp down on the majority of working people if they take it to the streets. It’s interconnected.
Q: How are you feeling about the Party’s progress toward the 5% threshold you need to reach to receive federal matching funds?
I don’t think we’re going to receive 5%. We’re not polling that.
Now what’s happening to Senator Obama—the racist rhetoric, the lynch-mob mentality—is unacceptable. Clearly we as young people right now need to be writing about it, singing about it, op-eding about it. They’re setting up a lynch-mob mentality. I don’t get it twisted that in best of worlds if Cynthia McKinney was up there this wouldn’t be going on. How I’m feeling about the Green Party is that I think there are a lot of good chapters and this is the best ballot status we’ve ever achieved. Personally, I feel really good about what I’m hearing out there. It’s about people beginning to see through the haze of Obama-mania. No matter what’s gonna happen I’m rolling on the right side of things. For me, the Green Party has been learning a lot of ways of interacting with more different types of people, getting out of my comfort zone, having a little more patience, having a more long-term strategy right after the election. No matter what happens, the next day I really want to be building or rebuilding a solid left of multi-racial of working-class people. That’s what I’m waiting for.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ROSA CLEMENTE GO TO: www.thirdpartyticket.com/
HER NEXT DEBATE WILL BE: Sunday at 7-9pm, EST
JEAN GRAE’S BRIGHT SHINY MORNING
They convince you that you’re over-the-hill and too old to rap at age 30, or that gay people have no place in hip-hop music. Now who are they? The fuck if I know.
They fear the wizened perspective of grown rappers and the out-the-closet insights of gay emcees, and they definitely don’t wanna hear from smart women. Why? Again, the fuck if I know. Or care. Look, here’s a secret for your ears only – the winds of change are upon us. You know, change, the only constant in the universe? And those who fear change erect a wall of resistance to it, with growling culture-police dogs and water hoses.
Future rap star Jean Grae is the unseen change in this ailing music, Most High willing. She probably knows better than anybody that wall of resistance put up by the corporate rap machine to women who rhyme well. She’s not a horny pop tart and she ain’t rhymin’ about lip gloss. Not that there’s anything wrong with either archetype of girl rapper (big-up to Lil Mama and Mac Lip glass). It’s just that a new lane in rap music is long overdue and we all know it. The future is now, it’s a day after the election and there’s a new American president with a Kenyan name, and a new lane for women who rap with “Jean Grae” on the sign post.
Jean Grae’s rise is the X factor in the rap game, again Jah willing. She’s paid her dues over the years, starting out as the lone female in the late ‘90’s rap collective Natural Resource, producing her underground gem “This Week” and ripping stages around the world with her virgin tight flow. Rap luminary Talib Kweli has long championed the Brooklyn-bred emcee to the masses, and signing her to his Blacksmyth/Warner label imprint was hip hop’s equivalent of a super delegate endorsement. New threads pop up in chat rooms daily all over the net about Jean, and the bombshell news of her fake retirement came as a shock to the legions of fans who await her ascension to renown in the rap game.
Jean Grae is from the same planet that spawned heroic rappers like Treach, LL Cool J and Roxanne Shante, three changeling emcees who broke established style molds in their day. Changeling emcees, a term coined by my boy, the culture critic Greg Tate, are the standout rappers who weather years of invisibility and wood-shedding to then step up and lift the lyrical bar in hip hop with bravado, a touch of eccentricity and a whole lot of craft.
As those ridiculously imbalanced, all-male panel discussions on BET this year about rap music’s gender inequity seem to indicate, we need a clarion new female voice in hip hop music right fucking now.
When Jean Grae spit lines like “I took the mittens off/ I’m sluggin’ open-fist/Shadow box, slap boxin’/This world ain’t shit” on the vicious, anthemic “This World” her bare knuckle rhymes bring to mind other tuff b-girl MCs like Rah Digga and that classic Brooklyn fem-cee with a mac truck delivery, MC Lyte.
The sound of her new album “Jeanius,” released on July 8th, is a welcome return to the head-nod flavor of the early nineties rap, and Jean rocks a cocky flow that’s much evolved over the years. The elements of a true-school mic controller are all there: breath control, solid projection, a deep rhythm pocket. The beatmaker 9th Wonder sets the album’s sonic mood with a cocktail of dusty basement soul samples spiked strong with the N.C.-based producer’s signature new-millennium boom-bap.
Jean’s songs deliver clever wordplay with an irreverent sense of humor that sets her apart utterly from other rappers. “Jeanius” sparkles with its kooky in-jokes (“The Time Is Now,” her duet with the rapper Phonte is a hammy, hilarious riff off the glitter-spangled duo Ashford and Simpson), sly sexuality (Love Thirst) and moments of breathtaking pathos. A highlight on the album is “My Story,” Jean’s account of an abortion and its aftermath in her teenage years. The song speaks to the psychic and emotional wreckage of abortion that is often overlooked by pro-choice advocates, manipulated by religious fundamentalists and completely ignored in the stories that often surface in hip hop. Abortion is a volatile, stigmatizing subject indeed, and not since ever has there been a rap song like this. Recently, the rapper revealed that her artist-run label’s bosses went ahead and shot a video for “My Story” without Jean’s permission or participation (Et tu, Blacksmyth?), a development that is really disturbing and pitifully ironic. The more times change, the more they stay on some bullshit. Nevertheless, it’s a new day dawned now that Jean Grae is on the scene. And the influence of corporate rap thugs and okay-haters who loudly ignore talented emcees with a pussy is fading fast under the horizon.
If ‘I don’t give a fuck’ was an entry in the dictionary, underneath it would be a picture of a handsome, generously tattooed African-American man by the name of Eugene Robinson – probably wearing a crisp, tailored suit. Robinson is one of the most interesting, intimidating, intelligent and fiercely individualistic people to emerge out of the 80’s punk scene with their wits intact.
Despite the abundance of new technologies that allow easy access to a variance of musical and cultural forms, the presence of black folks performing and ./ or enjoying alternative genres of music outside of the rigid constraints of what is socially perceived as ‘black’ music is still rare. Perhaps this is why someone who has effortlessly and successfully broke down the social boundaries between race and music is like a whoosh of fresh, spring air.
The thing is, though, I don’t think Robinson really gives a shit about any of that. After the lengthy conversation I had with him earlier this year, I got the feeling that he’s never once let any social boundaries stand in the way of doing what feels naturally to him – maybe never even considered that there were boundaries to break. Since his teen years when he would shake his ass at one of New York City’s hottest disco clubs and the next evening, rock out at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City and as a student at Stanford University where he joined the legendary hardcore punk band Whipping Boy, he has done what he wants - when he wants. “Somebody might be tempted to use the word schizophrenic to describe it, but I don’t consider it to be schizophrenic. I regard people to be a product of a number of different influences,” he explains.
Labelling is certainly an issue for Robinson, perhaps because for almost twenty years he has been the vocalist for the San Francisco-based, critically (if not commercially) acclaimed band Oxbow. Even though over time the band’s music has naturally transitioned from ‘punk’ to ‘post-punk’ to a unique melange of improvisational jazz, noise-rock and blues, the quartet’s intense followers have kept up with the changes. “When we put out the first record (89’s Fuckfest) I sent every record we put out to various labels,” remembers Robinson. “We would have to fight to get a label – that’s why we’ve been on five different labels – and I sent something to Tony over at Fat Wreck Records. He sent me a letter- this was before email – and he wrote back something like ‘pretty cool not punk enough.” And that was the first time that it ever dawned on me that things were changing. What he meant when he thought ‘punk’ was different from what I understood it to be. That’s when I started reading in connection of our (band) name, ‘post-punk.’ I remember when it was really clear to me that we were no longer an alternative band. You will never read about us in any alternative publications anymore. Pretty much the only people who listen to us are those who read heavy metal publications. And both of those labels are not enough to tell you the full story.”
After their last release, 2007’s The Narcotic Story (which garnered a Grammy nomination - Producer of the Year), Robinson’s first book, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking was released last November through Harper Collins. Not just a ‘how-to’ guide, Robinson provides a raw, uncompromising yet humorous account about the history of martial arts, self-defense, combat-sports arena fighting, as well about his experiences as a martial arts enthusiast.
Also a journalist, the former editor for MacLife magazine has also written for a number of publications, such as Decibel, Hustler, GQ and Vice and even had a gig as a sex columnist. Not knowing much about martial arts, I knew that if I asked about specific details in Fight my incompetence would be glaringly evident, I decided to ask Robinson if there was a correlation between the lyrics he writes for Oxbow and his passion for fighting. Was there a certain anger within him that compelled him to write such songs that were so questionable that ex-Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra once suggested that he try writing more positive lyrics?
“Lyrically, I don’t see that there is. The violence that occurs in the Oxbow lyrical tableau is lyrically small, direct, knife-like. Unkindness and cruelty at its best. I look at Oxbow’s lyrical outlook as kind of a….These are love songs in my mind, and I don’t know if fighting has anything to do with love. We were at the Grammy’s and like Tina Turner says, ‘what’s love got to do with it?’” he laughs. “I guess I love to fight, so maybe there is some comparison with the whole love thing, but as far as my lyrics being a direct application to my life, you haven’t got a clear cut diary of my life in terms of the lyrics I’ve written. Maybe they are connected, but how it is played out in regards to how I live and how I’m fight - I’m not sure of that.”
Plus, Robinson says that despite growing up in a punk movement that included the likes of Biafra, Henry Rollins and for that matter, GG. Alin (about Alin, the deceased controversial performance artist, Robinson says, “I do believe that Alin was an artist, but his art was about pushing boundaries of what people consider to be acceptable behaviour in an art context. But cool, that was for him but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m pursuing a singular vision, a very Orson Wellesian vision. You will have to wait very long and hard before you see me eat my own shit! I pride myself to a certain degree of being a certain kind of specificate”) were all hyper-masculine, authoritative figures on the philosophy of punk, he had to remain true to himself.
“In Biafra’s case, it was in regards to a lyric that I had written, extolling what I considered to be the virtue of violence and methamphetamine addiction,” He laughs. “And while it’s always nice when you have someone who is willing to say and do the nice things, that somebody has never really been me. I always felt this compulsion when I looked at how the (punk legends) Bad Brains had all this creative space around themselves where positive things happened and I thought that they were an example that I could follow. I mean, of course they were just men, with the same challenges that men have.
“But I was never attracted to music for that reason. It’s never been part of my body of work, not my approach. To a certain degree, I see what we (Oxbow) do as inspirational, but I would never make any claims that it was aspirational. I’m about – to a certain degree – about really telling elemental truths about yourself to yourself, that you should probably do. I cannot advise you on whether embracing those truths will make your life better or not, but it certainly has made my life better. But my life being better and my life being good are two very different things.”
Despite writing a book about the martial arts, Robinson’s passion for fighting is evident at Oxbow’s live shows. You see, an Oxbow live performance is not your typical show: The band, who has toured extensively in the UK and Europe are known for their intense sets, most notably because of Robinson’s stage presence. The six foot-one, 200 + pound vocalist often begins their sets nattily dressed in a conservative pair of slacks and a nice, button down shirt and despite his muscular physique, could be mistaken for a middle-aged R&B singer. However, if you get close enough to the front of the stage (which you do not want to do if you are drunk/high and want to start trouble), you will see the silver duct tape covering his ears. As he lewdly gyrates to the music, he will slowly start undressing until his is standing on the stage in nothing but a pair of tight-fitting bikini briefs.
Another interesting facet about Oxbow’s live shows is the audience. It seems as though some, most often young white men, come out specifically to harass Robinson. Or is it harassment? Perhaps it is the sight if a big, muscular black man clad in only his underwear, thrusting is crotch into their faces and performing music that they are not used to someone like him performing, but there seems to be a weird mixture of anger, resentment and homoerotic lust that intoxicates and draws these fans into standing at the front of the stage, some goading him on, some starting at him in awe.
In the 2003 documentary Music for Adults: A film About a Band Called Oxbow, there was a scene which unfortunately, overshadowed the genius of Oxbow’s musical performances. A young man standing in the front of the stage tries to stir up trouble and suddenly finds himself in a ‘near naked choke’ by Robinson, who quickly renders the man unconscious. And no, this was not the first, and probably not the last time Robinson will give an unruly fan a piece of his own medicine.
“It’s like the whole joke about the guy who fucks the sheep. You fuck one sheep and then you never do it again. But I guess it’s the fact that it happened at all,” Robinson explains about the media’s fascination with his willingness to put asshole fans in their place. “People like their experience to feel real, that there is some element of danger to the proceedings, but that is not what Oxbow is about. Our reason for being is that we consider ourselves to be musical artists. I would hope that in every article, it would be made clear that when the show dissolves into violence, we are failing as artists. We are, at that point, not artists but defenders of art.
“And these are very different things. If I am choking someone out in the audience it is because they are attempting to besmirch art. I am an artist and I have been working and there was some guy whose drinking has interfered with that process. So I had to jump into the audience and punch him in the mouth. But has that become a part of our art? No. It will never be acceptable to me.”
While growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s and 70’s meant that Robinson had to learn how to defend himself at a young age, he never considered himself a bully. Because of his intellectual abilities, he was propelled at an early age by his parents into honing his writing talent. “I was an avid newspaper reader. I was always a media kid. It was probably one of the most structured things I did and I distinctly remember writing my first article when I was seven years old. It wasn’t really an article but a position piece on my love of cartoons.”
Like many kids of his era, he was influenced by a variance of musical styles, which not only opened his eyes to the possibilities of the world outside of Brooklyn but turned him onto music that spoke to his teenage angst. “My stepfather used to work for the New York Post and because I was a depressive teen, he thought it would be funny by giving me a record that was sitting in the newsroom by Eddie and the Hot Rods called ‘Teenage Depression,’” Robinson remembers. “It had a kid on the cover holding a gun to his head. It seemed to be directly down my line. There always seemed to be a sense of dissonance in my understanding of the world for me. It never seemed to be a cool place like everyone else though it was, for me. So I listened to the music, liked it, and started going to the clubs and buying more music.”
When asked if the younger generation should be encouraged to open their minds to alternative genres of music versus what is being force-fed to them by the media, Robinson was indifferent. To him, it is simply about being an individual and the individual journey one must make to find themselves.
“If anything, I would like to be the standard bearer for doing your own fucking thing.”
King Of The Jews (1991)
Let Me Be A Woman (1995)
Serenade in Red (1997)
An Evil Heat (2002)
The Narcotic Story( 2007)