Wednesday, December 31, 2003


more fun than they look

Two of the best movies I've seen this year have been animated (three if you include all the digital work in Return of the King). The first was Finding Nemo, the second is The Triplets of Belleville, a remarkable French movie with practically no dialogue yet is a fully imagined and executed narrative. I won't bother with plot details - believe me, it's better to just let the film unfold on its own pace - but the visual and narrative imagination in this film was fantastic. It reminded me, on a very basic level, of Murasaki's brilliance though this film was far more comically surreal than anything Murasaki has done (and it goes without saying, much better than most of what you'd see from Disney). It's only showing in limited art house theaters and may not be around in your town for too long so try to catch it when you have a chance.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003


mui - a wonder woman

Damn. Anita Mui died yesterday at age 40 after a very short bout with cervical cancer. 40! As an actress, I thought Mui had crazy class - it's a shame that most American audiences had to know her through Rumble in the Bronx which was well-nigh terrible. Mui kicked serious ass though in one of my all-time favorite HK flicks, The Heroic Trio.

Monday, December 29, 2003


This isn't really music writing per se, but I was (again) scouring the boards and came upon this amazing letter to no one/everyone by my man Alien Iverson (aka DJ Cosmo Baker) and I was so taken with it, I just had to share it. Feel this:

    :::GETTIN IN GONE:::

    and so here i am just sitting at a desk that belonged to my dead grandfather, who i did not know at all, and i am trying my best to recover from the last nights festivities. the hooverholler aka the challatronix aka what my mein meng tripledouble likes to call hooked-on-phonix was crunk. i drank too many beers, danced with too many women, threw too many bows, and today i pay the cost.

    im thinking about all that i have seen and suffered for these past days. im tasting this. im thinking of time ive lost, of people that i have lost. i know that i will lose much more of both in my life. i am powerless.

    im thinking about my mother. she is one of the most amazing people i have ever know, both vailant and frail. im sitting here, thinking of her, looking at what she gave me as a gift. this was most potent of "digs" that i could have ever axxed for.

    the 38 years never too late cause this is right now dig.

    all original posters - perfect condition

    *big brother & the holding company/bo diddly & bukka white - avalon ballroom 1967
    *jefferson airplane/mother earth/flamin groovies - filmore west 1967
    *the who/cannonball adderly/the vagrants - winterland/filmore west 1968
    *ten years after/sun ra/country weather - filmore west 1968
    *grateful dead/pentagle/sir douglas quintet - filmore west 1968
    *grateful dead/blood sweat & tears/spirit - filmore west 1969

    man, these shows. some of these lineups were sick. also, the art. its amazing - lee conklin, wes wilson, greg irons, stanley mouse - these dudes illustrated a generation.
    and thats whats up, because these posters are a peek at this time which is gone. much like the records that we all look for do. maybe thats what it is about our quest for records. maybe in looking for these grooves were actually looking to find a feeling, a feeling of what we might have seen as a simpler time, a time where we didnt have these worries, we think about that time that we didnt have and experiences that we never saw and the childhood that we want to grasp again, hold on to and define ourselves forever.

    included with the posters were copies of photos, unseen photos of my parents.
    my dead father, he has my face. he is filled with light. he is 18 years old in this photo. my mother is 17. they thought they had their entire life in front of them. they are filled with so much love that it makes me shiver inside. it is beautiful. i am filled with so much love that i think i might burst. i really dont have any idea of what is going to happen to me.

    i have to go now. thanks.


One more example of music writing that kicks ass: "'90s Punk Decries Punks of Today" from The Onion.


Ok, I admit - my latest internet obsession is tracking my main web pages (i.e. on my site) through Statcounter.Com, a free service that logs info on up to 100 visitors who come to your sites. Yes, it is INCREDIBLY egocentric of me but hey, half the time these days, my newly acquired caffeine addiction is keeping me up nights anyways so I might as well do something (un)productive. What could be more fulfilling at 4am then discovering that you have people from St. Louis...or Manila for that matter, reading this very blog? Try it - get your own Statcounter going and see if you can resist tapping over there every 15 minutes to see if anyone else from Seoul is surfing your site.


another mad rapper

Ah, salty indie rappers. They've been the bane of my existence these past two years since I've been dissed by such illustrious folks such as People Under the Stairs, Louis Logic and Jean Grae (this is a whole 'nother story for another time but hey, please do buy those albums I linked to - it helps get my name out there even more).

Defari hasn't dissed me on record (not yet at least) but he's mad salty - salty at white rappers in the underground that he thinks are taking away from his music sales. This is from an interview on ThaFormula.Com:

    Defari - Yeah because I'm out here trying to get shows and a lot of these dudes are taking my money you understand? It's like a lot of these cats are taking my money. The Ugly Ducklings, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, and all this shit that I ain't even heard of. I guess it's a lot of these young kids that always be on the computer that are into these MC's and these groups that kinda represent and look like them. When I hear these niggaz music I be like "damn that's horrible man." This shit is straight garbage.

Let's just spell it out: Defari thinks it's wack that white rappers are making money when he's not (never mind that Atmosphere's Slug is half-Black). Of course, many have noted that maybe the reason that Defari isn't moving Aesop Rock-like units isn't because of race but because Defari has yet to put out a good album (note: the folks at, not exactly known as picky critics, only gave D's debut album, Focused Daily, 3 stars which, from what I remember of the album, is at least half a star too generous.

Anyways, I've had some interesting conversations with folks over this topic, including with friends/colleagues Hua, Jazzbo and Jon C. and you can catch even more at the forums. Suffice to say, Defari taps into some interesting questions, such as:

1) Is underground/independent hip-hop now the roost of white rappers?
2) If so, does it even matter? And if so, to who?
3) Is this a harbinger of what may come to pass on the mainstream/major label side of hip-hop, i.e. will rap music "go white" like rock did?

Expect more on this in the near future but drop your own comments below in the meantime.


It's been forever, but I finally updated my playlists for my O-Zone radio show. You can now find playlists for all my shows in 2003 plus a few archived playlists from 1996, 2000, and 2001.

Sunday, December 28, 2003


doin' it up brooklyn style?

Many of you have likely already heard the news but Jay-Z has joined a consortium trying to buy the New Jersey Nets and move them to Brooklyn. Architect Frank Gehry is already on board to design the new stadium which would be at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic in the heart of downtown Brooklyn.

I don't know enough about the human costs in making this move (assuming it even happens) - after all, redevelopment, even for sports facilities, always has positive and negative benefits to people already living in the area. That said, if it happens, my main hope would be that they would rename the Brooklyn Nets to something more...interesting. "New Jersey Nets" worked fine since you had that alliteration thing going on. But "Brooklyn Nets"? Yaaaaawn.

My vote - it's so obvious: Brooklyn Zoo. Can I get an amen?

ol dirty says: "amen!"

Friday, December 26, 2003


who shot ya?

By the way, if you've never known, I have a section of my WWW site dedicated to photography which I just updated with some new Nikon and Yashica photos. I also bought a new digital camera recently so you know the flood is about to come.


you don't want to even ask

Happy holidays, all. Since 2003 is about outta here, I decided to jock myself and run down a list of my favorite pieces of the year...that I wrote. (It's my blog and I can preen if I want to).

  • Drunken Masters - an early, January column on the St. Ides rap radio commercials.
  • Pushing Buttons - an interview with director Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes)
  • Musing on why Al Green's I'm Still In Love With You is my one essential album.
  • Return of the Prodigal Son - a column on Nas' God's Son
  • Tales of the Tape - a feature story for the Village Voice on the new dominance of hip-hop mixtapes
  • Last Call - Contemplating Jay-Z's The Black Album
  • Crazy In Love - Rediscovering my love for pop in 2003
  • Classic Material - it's my book - cop it!

  • Wednesday, December 24, 2003


    orcs wit attitude?

    J-Swift over at the blog, writes about race, rhythm and Return of the King, raising the issue that Tolkein's world is colored in troubling shades of racism, a theme that the UK's Guardian picks up in more detail. Over at Opendemocracy.Net is an even longer exposition about framing the Lord of the Ring cinematic enterprise against the backdrop of current global politics and a return to empire. This, in turn, is replied to here. The debate rages like the Battle of Pellinor Fields! Or something like that. (thanks to sharon who dug up the latter two links and happens to be a big LoTR fan, even if she does get indignant over the changes Jackson made relative to Tolkien's text)


    I promised a few weeks back to include some examples of music criticism I DO like. Here's a short list of stuff from 2003 that's been standout to me:

  • Ta-Nahesi's oft-mentioned Voice piece on 50 Cent and gangsta rap in a post-crack era

  • Josh Kun on Eminem, Tupac and Race in America

  • Ernest Hardy's re-review of Meshell's new CD, providing great insights into not just the artist but Hardy's own process as a critic.

  • Elizabeth Mendez Berry's look at Jay-Z and The Black Album

  • Hua Hsu's essay on Nas from my book Classic Material - yeah, you gotta cop that book.

    Also, two things folks might want to check out.

    1) "Censorship by Word Count" by Kyle Gann - an articulate explanation of the phenom I was bemoaning before: declining word counts at most publications and why this is bad, bad, bad for music criticism.

    2) "Favourite Scribings of 2003" by Jason Gloss - a fairly lengthy breakdown of notable music criticism from the past year including a "worst of" list (I love "worst of" lists!)


    Back to Jin for a moment: thanks to everyone who's emailed me responses to my earlier blog entry about Jin. What's strange though is that, in two of the cases, people complained that it seemed petty of me to complain about the sexual imagery in Jin's video considering that such hackneyed displays of flesh and cleavage are practically mandated in the BET Handbook for Video Production. That to me, isn't much of an excuse, let alone explanation. My point and maybe I didn't state this plainly enough, is that Jin's attempt an instigating some kind of fundamental shift in racial perception is done partially at the expense of women.

    This of course, is not new. I point it out in Jin's video because the hypocrisy is so fucking apparent, I think it'd be wack NOT to point out that Jin wants to kill off the Chinese take-out boy stereotype but he's still pimping out women as nothing more than tits and ass? Color me contrary but contradictions like that are too glaring to ignore.

    In any case, that was the smallest criticism I had in the whole piece and I find it interesting that people commented on that and had nothing at all to say about the rest of my post, namely about how Jin's attempt to thuggitize Chinatown needs to be problematized.

    And in case it's not clear (and it's not), I do do hope Jin blows up. His success is theorized to be the rising tide that'd lift all the other boats of Asian American rappers out there trying to get a foot in the door. But shit, as an Asian dood myself, it's sort of hard NOT to want to comment on Jin. If you can't respect that your whole perspective is wack.

    By the way, the voice behind Dieselnation pointed out that I failed to actually give an opinion about the song itself though really, I think that's a little besides the point. "Learn Chinese" could be dumb wack (which it isn't) and the video could still be fascinating. Likewise, the song could be off-the-meter hot (which it isn't) and that still doesn't make a huge difference in how I'd approach talking about the Jin-man. For the record, Jin was right: he's not Eminem, he's not Jigga-man, especially when it comes to flow and lyrical complexity. I'm not mad at 'Clef's beat, though in this day and age, do we really need to hear yet another use of James Brown's "Blind Man Can See It"? I mean, Lord Finesse and Das Efx already killed that sample ten years back...


    Is this for real? According to news wires, an Israeli company is forcing male Chinese foreign workers to sign contracts that they will abstain from having sex with any Israeli women. This story is breaking this morning though I do find it a little odd that no one has bothered to name said company. That said, if this is true, wow - what a throwback to the anti-miscegenation laws that the U.S. imposed against Asian, Latino and African American men in the first half of the 20th century.

    Thursday, December 18, 2003


    they're nerds too

    I'm a "major music nerd" though apparently, that's not all that impressive according to the music nerd test. I only scored 40%! There's still another undiscovered 60% of nerdiness that I have yet to conquer. (spotted on Sasha's blog).

    Wednesday, December 17, 2003


    dropping to number four

    Not that I need more reasons to love the internet but where else can you find a list for The 20 Most Annoying Conservatives in 2003. Bitingly brilliant and funny. (as spotted through The Blueprint)


    not your ordinary language classes

    If you haven't seen it yet, you can view the video for Jin's new single, "Learn Chinese" at MTV's TRL site (scroll down to "Jin"). I'm still trying to unpack what to make of this and have had excellent conversations about it with Sharon and Hua. Here's the gist of some of my thoughts, though please take these as musings in development:

    Jin is faced with the unenviable task of having to position himself in a world dominated by Blackness from a subject position that's largely invisible, or at best, constantly misrepresented in mainstream media. His days on 106 and Park proved that his "Chinese-ness" will always be subject to scrutiny if not downright attack. With "Learn Chinese", he takes a page from the Eminem's successful school of pre-emptive racialization, in other words, Jin outs himself as Chinese before anyone else can.

    It's sort of a weird, pretzel logic but by making his race/ethnicity so prominent, Jin is actually deflecting the ability of others to make an issue out of it - the equivalent of a "yeah, I'm Chinese, so what?" taunt. On one level, "Learn Chinese" is a racial pride song but it simultaneously tries to critique how Chinese have been represented - not just within American popular culture, but particularly within hip-hop. That's why he opens the song talking about "the days of the pork fried rice and chicken wings are over" as well as saying, "this ain't Bruce Lee/ya'll watch too much t.v." Clearly, on a basic level, Jin is aware of the subject position of Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans by extension) within popular American media. His best line might very well be: "we should ride the trains for free because we built the railroads", showing off at least a basic knowledge of Chinese American history.

    That said, the video for "Learn Chinese" is rife with problems. One of the biggest and most obvious is Jin's gender politics - women figure in this video like they figure in most rap videos: sex objects desired for nothing more than their bodies. Disappointing but generically so. The more complicated issue is how Jin positions a racialized class element - the second verse of his song is basically about how gangsta Chinese can be, especially in Chinatown and this is Jin's attempt at equating, if not outdoing, the trope of the Black Ghetto by offering Chinatown as an even more lurid competitor. He's glamorizing the ethnic enclave in the same way that African Americans have glorified the ghetto and projects and Latinos talk about the barrio but Jin's approach to Chinatown is even less critical than these other examples. For one thing, as Hua pointed out, Jin didn't grow up in Chinatown - he went from suburban Florida to Flushing, Queens, notably middle class spaces that are as distinct from Mott St. as Monterey Park is from L.A.'s Chinatown or the Sunset District from Grant Ave, S.F.

    Hua shares, "most of the people I've heard who hate this video are the rare Asians who grew up poor. and they have a problem with how Jin sells an exoticized "Asian American poverty." Hua's main point is exactly right: Jin is sexing up the struggles of the Chinese underclass who live in Chinatown, not because they want to, but because economic, political and social marginalization forces poorer immigrants into those spaces.

    Most folks familiar with any of the major American Chinatowns know that the people who own the shops there don't actually live in Chinatown - they're all out in the new Chinese suburbs like San Mateo in the Bay Area, Flushing in New York or the San Gabriel Valley in L.A. The folks who live in Chinatown are there largely by circumstance, not choice and Jin's portrait of Chinatown as some Orientalized Badlands might play well for the BET crowd but like all glamorizations of depressed, segregated neighborhoods, it doesn't remotely come close to representing the realities of everyday life for those who actually live it there. In effect, Jin trades in one stack of stereotypes: kung fu fighters, take-out delivery men, etc. and just replaces them with another set of equally suspect images.

    That said, I do find the video fascinating. The opening is particularly interesting - the fact that the first image we see is of three Black men watching Jin's video (a video within a video) triggers me to want to think of what Laura Mulvey would say about this cross-racial, homo-social scopophilia but frankly, I don't want to bore you with cinematic psychoanalysis. What's interesting though is that I seem to think Jin is doing two things...he's both making a critique, i.e. "this is how ignorant black people view us Asians" but it's also an attempt to connect with a BET audience by suggesting that if black folk in the video can dig on this video, the BET crowd can too. The black trio are strawmen, to be sure, but they actually help to validate Jin on some level too.

    What are your thoughts? Hit that comment link below. (thanks to Sam Chennault, since, through his blog, I realized I could add comments finally.)


    into swinging

    Honestly, I thought the first movie was underwhelming despite all the hype it got and I'm skeptical about any sequel (Lord of the Rings excepted) but even I have to admit, the trailer for Spiderman 2 is kind of hot.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2003


    inaction jackson

    This is from the Blueprint blog - "i've had one brush with peter jackson and it was at the sharper image or brookstone or whatever at the beverly center--and, for the gazillions this man makes, he was wearing a black puffer jacket with a giant piece of duct tape on the back, poorly covering up a ridiculous hole. god bless the people that couldn't care less about appearances, but if i didn't know better, i would've offered him some spare change."

    Monday, December 15, 2003


    The mother of all "Best of 2003" lists. (As spotted on Sasha's blog)


    and you thought H.A.L. from 2001 was scary

    It's Robo-Cat. Insert your own punchline.

    Sunday, December 14, 2003


    Holy sh--, Lauryn Hill, unplugged at the Vatican. (Brought to my attention by Hua).

    Saturday, December 13, 2003


    Sam's latest counter appears on his December 10 entry. I actually don't have much to add at this point, mostly b/c I think the two of us are getting closer to agreement over certain points. Sam makes an VERY important observation - contentious as it could be - with this statement:

      "I think that in the early nineties there was still a lot of remnants of 60’s black radicalism, where people would empower themselves through identity, as where today’s artist realize that they have a greater degree of equality (notice I said greater, not total) and are looking for equity. Maybe that is the defining divide between the hip hop and civil rights generation."

    To paraphrase Sam, it's the difference between "freedom now!" and "free market now!" where today's rappers feel like they have their rights secure, but they want to make sure they can get their ritz on too. I think this is a great observation though I'm stilling mulling over whether it can explain everything that's happened. One point Papa Zen always makes is that with monopolization of the music industry during the '90s, you had "more money being bet on fewer horses" (or something like that) which meant that if A&Rs didn't think consciousness would sell while gangsterisms would, they're going with the thugs. In other words, the shift is as much a change in the economics of the rap industry as it is with changing ideologies at the street level. That would certainly explain why the independent market is filled with so many self-stylized conscious MCs in comparison to the majors.

    Sam points out that a lot of political consciousness in music journalism can be terrible and I absolutely agree. However, I never said that music journalism needs to be more "political" per se, especially not in ways that just smack of collegiate protest agit-prop. I think magazines and journalists need to reassert a fundamental separation between editorial content and financial priorities. The two serve very different ends and are absolutely antithetical to one another. However, the choice that most glossies have followed (alt. weeklies have done much better but they're also much poorer) is to go for the money, almost to the point where an "editorial" voice is in name only.

    Basically, what I'm saying, is that I don't want to have to pick up the New Yorker or LA Times or, god forbid, Newsweek and see them contributing better, critical pieces on pop music than music magazines are able to. Not that they necessarily have but the way things are moving, I wouldn't be surprised.

    Friday, December 12, 2003


    raekwon don't mess with serif

    This is from the Rap Matters exhibit that's going to be on display in Austin TX in 2004. It's done by Harsh Patel (that name's gangsta) and it's an interesting attempt at rethinking hip-hop through typography. Nod to Catchdubs' blog where I first saw this.


    From CNN News. I don't know why this stuff appeals to me but it just does.

      DETROIT, Michigan (AP) --More than 200,000 computers spent years looking for the largest known prime number. It turned up on Michigan State University graduate student Michael Shafer's off-the-shelf PC.

      "It was just a matter of time," Shafer said.

      The number is 6,320,430 digits long and would need 1,400 to 1,500 pages to write out. It is more than 2 million digits larger than the previous largest known prime number.

      Shafer, 26, helped find the number as a volunteer on an eight-year-old project called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search.

      Tens of thousands of people volunteered the use of their PCs in a worldwide project that harnessed the power of 211,000 computers, in effect creating a supercomputer capable of performing 9 trillion calculations per second. Participants could run the mathematical analysis program on their computers in the background, as they worked on other tasks.

      Shafer ran an ordinary Dell computer in his office for 19 days until November 17, when he glanced at the screen and saw "New Mersenne prime found."

      A prime number is a positive number divisible only by itself and one: 2, 3, 5, 7 and so on. Mersenne primes are a special category, expressed as 2 to the "p" power minus 1, where "p" also is a prime number.

      In the case of Shafer's discovery, it was 2 to the 20,996,011th power minus 1. The find was independently verified by other participants in the project.

      Mersenne primes are rare but are critical to the branch of mathematics called number theory. That said, what is the practical significance of Shafer's number?

      "People are going to make posters of it to hang up on the wall," said Shafer, who is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering. "It's a neat accomplishment, but it really doesn't have any applicability."

      As for his own standing in the world of mathematics, "I don't think I'm going to be recognized as I go down the street or anything like that."

      He said the method by which the number was found -- harnessing many computers together -- is more important than the number itself.

      "Somebody else could have found the number," he said. "You install the program on the computer and it takes care of itself." But "I get the credit, along with the people that developed the software."

    Wednesday, December 10, 2003


    Josh Kun pens one of the most brilliant dissections of race in contemporary hip-hop I've read in a LONG time. This sticks a sharp knife into the gut of those who think race doesn't matter anymore in hip-hop and then twists it for good measure.

    Tuesday, December 09, 2003


    not parker bros approved

    My fellow chinky-eyed bro' David Chang has created a game called Ghettopoly that's attracting considerable attention and controversy, not the least of which is because Urban Outfitters (in what has to be a business decision as ill-advised as Abercrombie and Fitch's t-shirt fiasco) is selling the game, just in time for the holidays!

    Chang answers his critics on the WWW site. I'll post it at length:

      A Message To The Haters
      Ask yourself; Is Jay Leno a racist because he made a comment about Asian people eating dogs? How about Snoop Dog, on his TV show on MTV, is he a racist too?

      What do you think when Rappers rap about "Chinky eyes" or "eyes slanted like", should they be called racist also. Or how about the broken English Asians who are portrayed in Black Movies, are the people who laugh, all racist?

      Should we also ban every single comedian who cracks jokes about Asians?

      For those of you who say, "why don't you make Chinkopoly ?" The word Chink is a Racist word, Ghetto is not. The last time I checked, there may be one Asian rapper on MTV, even then you would probably ask me who he is.

      Simply, there would not be enough interest in the American market place, because being an Asian in this Country is not consider too "Hip". Did you ever see an Asian action figure? And those that say "OH OH, he used the word Ghetto" that must mean he thinks all African Americans are just the images than that are in the game.

      There are all ethnic groups portrayed in Ghettopoly. Including Asians, Irish, Jewish, Hispanics, Whites, and Italians, just like any "Ghetto".

      It's a shame that when the news media decided to turn something into a story, they only speak of the black properties that's in the game. They always fail to mention cards and properties that are of other ethnicity. Remember, the game is called Ghettopoly not Blackopoly. The word black is not even mentioned anywhere in the game PERIOD.

      I hope from this message some of you should know that I am not a racist person, but someone who decided to make a game that we all can enjoy and relate to. And what is so wrong with a game that not made by your everyday corporations.

      When I play with a traditional board game with my friends, it simply does not appeal to me much. To your dismay, Hip Hop Culture is what I gravitate towards, so naturally when I decided to make a game, I want to give it an urban edge.

      Stereotypes are everywhere, when you flip to MTV or BET you do not often see the same images and lyrics, rappers rapping about sipping on 40's, pimping hoes, smoking the chronics, slinging crack rocks, wicked jump shots.

      So with that said, I think before you pass judgment on my game, you should just see it for what it is. It is just a game. It's not so different from what's already out there in the entertainment media in America.

      So if this game should be banned than there are tons of other forms of entertainments that also need to be banned. Just because you don't find this game funny and original, it does not give you the right to call me a racist or worst yet, try to ban it. However you do have every right not to buy it.

      I also think that some of you, not all, who wrote and called me all those nasty names are simply mad because you didn't think of Ghettopoly first. I am sorry that my last name is of Asian decent, maybe if my last name was different, some of you might not be so harsh.

      David Chang

    Chang actually raises a few points worth consider: one - that if he was black, reactions would be different. Two - it's not like racialized stereotypes began with his game. That said, neither actually remotely justfies the rampant racism that's all over his game. Ok, so he doesn't single out blacks - he singles out EVERYONE, which just means there'll be at least four different groups of folks out there looking to serve him a beatdown (wait until ADL gets into the game). The game is patently offensive to EVERYONE and while Chang could argue that he's creating a parody, the spirit of his game isn't to problematize these portrayals but to feed off of them. Like a big, fat, bloodsucking leach. Way to go Dave - you're an equal opportunity asshole. Enjoy your ill-gotten gains while you have them and wait for the karma train to come back around, full bore.

    By the way, my old housemate and up-and-coming public intellectual David Leonard pens a provocative look at the controversy and its wider social implications.


    My professor Patricia Hilden mentioned reading this NY Times article on artist Thomas Hart Benton's "Year of Peril" posters which followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The series, eight paintings in all, are fascinating, disturbing representations of the dangers of fascism from both Europe and Japan. His portrayals of Japanese, in particular, are grotesque in their caricature, presumably fueled by the anger and disgust Benton felt following Pearl Harbor. His painting in particular, entitled "Invasion" is particularly visceral in its impact: apart from the obvious racial/sexual paranoia being struck by seeing two Japanese soldiers about to rape a blond, white woman, another soldier seems to be phallically bayoneting her presumed husband/brother/father in the mouth. Yeah, subtle. What's interesting about the NY Times article is that author David Brinkley never once makes mention of the use of ethnic/racial stereotyping in Benton's images - a rather obvious detail to many of the series' posters, a fact my prof raised to me and it does seem strangely missing from Brinkley's piece. Either way, view the slide show that the NY Times provides - heady imagery to be sure.


    a good read at any time

    My friend Alicia, whose book recommendations I religiously trust, spoke so highly of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife that I went out immediately and put it on my library hold list. It wasn't quite as popular as The DaVinci Code (where I'm somewhere around 100 out of 231 people waiting in queue), but it still took nearly a month to come into my local library. I picked it up yesterday but avoided reading it for most of the day because 1) I had dissertation work to do and 2) it just looked long and I never like starting a book that I don't think I can reasonably finish in one sitting if I absolutely had to.

    Like an idiot though, I didn't start reading it until 1am and pretty soon, it's 2am and I finish Part 1 (roughly 250 pages) at around 3am which would be a logical place to stop - it's late, I've gotten through half the book in two hours (I skim at times, I know, cheap) but I'm so hooked at this point that I pull a When Harry Met Sally and jump to the end. Well, that's simply no good because now I'm moving backwards through the chapter to figure out how the narrative got to where it ends - which is beautifully by the way...reminds me a little of Ondatje and The English Patient except that I can't get that schmaltzy Christopher Reeves' movie, Somewhere In Time out of my head (truly an unfortunate connection). I end up skimming the entire second half and then slowed down to read the last few chapters again.

    I finally had to stop at 4:20am but slept poorly and ended up waking up at 7am and finished the second half before 9am. Yeah, I know, stupid of me but I'm like that with books. A good one will just keep me suckered in the whole way through until I hit end...this is precisely why I should never start a book at 1 in the goddamn morning.

    You can read a basic synopsis of the book at the link above but my take on it is that The Time Traveler's Wife is actually a fairly conventional "you had me at hello" love story between two star-, or I guess here, time-crossed lovers. The twist is that the narrative is told in a fantastical, fascinating way that maniacally jumps around with time and place. It's tempting to call Niffenegger's narrative structure a gimmick but it actually worked for me - after all, she's trying to convey the sense of chaos that exists for someone who is randomly being thrown out of time at any given moment. In that regard, I think she succeeds quite well in forcing the reader to deal with the incongruous experience such a phenomenon would entail.

    I would suspect there has been much talk about making this into a movie which could both be a really fascinating process or something utterly terrible (I suspect the latter). I kind of like that it doesn't work as a film - I like that, as a book narrative, it takes you places that would lose something if you tried to represent it visually.

    I do think the book loses some momentum in its second half - our two protagonists Henry and Clare have now "found" each other in the same time frame and like all great love stories based around the tension of the unattainable, once they hook up, the narrative threatens to jump the shark. Niffenegger does a decent job in navigating around that but the first half is definitely more of a rush while the second half slows things down more deliberately in order to get to the payoff at the end. The ending is decidedly heavy on the schmaltz factor, with a healthy dose of Titanic-esque monologuing at the end but I'm kind of a sucker for that stuff anyways and in my limited prose experience, I thought it was written quite well.

    All things being equal, this was an incredibly satisfying read - one of the first books I've read in as long as I can remember that almost had me on the verge of bawling like a little kid (which, if you really knew me, is a miracle since I NEVER cry. Ever.)

    Postscript: I've been trying to figure out why I find the ending so affecting (and don't worry, no spoilers here) and besides just, you know, melodramatic prose, I realize that the book ultimately confirms - from my read at least - that there's a benevolent logic to the universe. Call it God or destiny or whatever, but Niffenegger introduces a subtle element of the Divine that, despite my agnostic self, appealed to me.



    Of course, as bad as hip-hop journalism is, it will always be exceeded by the unbelievable stupidity of mainstream white journalists who think it's funny to be a minstrel for a day. Read Brent Batten's appallingly misguided (not to mention racist) column from last week's Naples Times.

    Sunday, December 07, 2003


    Here's Sam's latest reply, posted on his blog.

    >I think that there was a tremendous moral
    >reckoning within hip hop both during the Biggie and Tupac gangsta
    >years and immediately after their deaths.

    Where is this "moral reckoning" in hip-hop today? People wrung their hands and said, "man, we have to stop this encouragement of beef, we need to stop promoting all this materialism and violence, blah blah blah." And then a month went by and it was back to business as usual. Actually, it was even worse. I think people became so accepting of hip-hop's materialism, misogyny, misanthropy, etc. that critiquing it became seen as passe.

    Whether it is journalism's job to offer a critique is certainly a philosophical question and Sam points:

    >And what became of the great mid- to late-90s battles? The
    >conscious MC's won, while the conscious critics lost (for the most

    This actually seems to support my point - that any kind of critical take in criticism became frowned upon. And moreover, I rather disagree that the conscious MCs won. Compare 2003 with 1990 and clearly, so-called "conscious rappers" are now a small, tiny minority of the overall hip-hop field. Kweli, Mos, the Roots, etc., are exceptions not the rule. Keep in mind, I don't necessarily bemoan the changes in hip-hop...unlike other nostalgia-ridden folks, I don't need hip-hop today to sound like it was when I was a teenager, which is precisely why groups like Little Brother never inspired much in me.

    My concern is that music writing slipped even further into unabashed cheerleading since the mid-90s when it really should have gone the other way, especially given Tupac and Biggie's deaths. Why does the Source and Vibe read like Teen Beat in blackface these days? Actually, maybe one of the only good things to come out of Benzino's disingenuous attacks on Eminem and 50 Cent comes from the fact that it's at least introducing some level of critique back into the game.

    >And in many ways I agree with that dynamic. can't escape
    >from engaging with the outside world, and everything is inherently
    >political and so forth...but one thing that I've learned from my
    >short time writing about hip hop is that there are certain things
    >that you can and can't approach, and it is sometimes best if the
    >artists address these issues themselves, and leave it to us,
    >critique their critiques.

    No offense but that's a cop out and it's one that practically every journalist who has ever written on hip-hop has been guilty of (myself included). Who says that it should be up to artists to provide the critique and not us? I mean, what's the point is calling our profession "criticism" when we're not in a position to offer a critique? We're afraid of offending our interviewees, which could in turn, lead to us being alienated from our editors and publications, which could lead us to being blacklisted writ large, etc. etc. I mean, I'm sensitive to this too. When I interviewed Master P a year and a half ago for the Source, I knew I had to ask him and his family about C-Murder - the fact that he had been arrested and locked up on 1st degree murder charges. And while I got surprisingly candid responses from the Miller fam, part of me wished I didn't have to get into this because I was afraid of what the repercussions could be of "stirring things up."

    But in hindsight, I realize that if I wasn't allowed to ask those questions - either by my own reticence or higher powers - I wouldn't have been doing a very responsible job for my readership or my own sense of journalistic values. Artists aren't here to be coddled - they're not children even when they act like them. However, I think the culture we've developed in the music journalism world (and this is certainly not limited to hip-hop alone) is that we leave this all well enough alone so as not to alienate the artists (or more importantly, their ad-buying labels).

    To put it another way entirely, the fact that there are "certain things we can and can't approach" is part of a corrupt value system and in bowing to it, we're only complicit in its perpetuation.

    Sam asks:
    >Oliver, is it the Source's duty to address the value-issues or
    >"consciousness" surrouding hip hop culture, or is it there chargin
    >to engage the music and individual narratives of the performers?
    >I'm really asking this, because it's a line I'm not sure where to
    >draw. You could make an arguement that they don't do either very
    >well, and I would agree.

    The easiest way to answer this is to pick up a copy of the Source from 1991 and compare it with what you read now. They are VERY different magazines (not unlike comparing today's Rolling Stone with an issue from the '70s), not just because the music has changed, but because the editorial mission of the magazine has changed - from reporting on music and musicians to becoming more lifestyle mags. That shift is one of the main reasons why many of today's music mags have lost their punch. You can't have a lifestyle magazine that's critiquing the lifestyles, whether implicitly or explicitly. In comparison, a magazine that REPORTS on things would actually include some level of critical engagement simply because it is reporting on what's actually there, not picking and choosing what facts to include and which to gloss over.

    In regards to this question of short form vs. long form journalism, Sam responds:

    >While I love a big, sprawling piece, I also
    >love compaction in writing (it's a realistic way of engaging with
    >the audience), and some of my best pieces have been those that have
    >had a modest word count.

    I think economy is a wonderful thing in writing. One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Thomas Jefferson: "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." I also would assign any writing class Robert Christgau's "Rock Records of the 1970s", which to me, is one of the most compelling guides to how to write short and succinct music reviews without sacrificing quality of comment. However, how many people would go to the movies if they could only watch 20 minute shorts instead of feature-length movies? Or read short stories but not have access to novels? The sole mission of music journalism is not to simply act as a consumer guide, but it's also to weigh in on the larger import of music in our society and lives. You simply can't do that 100 words at a time.

    Last but not least, Sam throws down this gauntlet (it's all good baby pa, I ain't mad at you):

    >I'll get to the rest of what Oliver said later, but I will say that
    >I still think that Oliver is looking at the past in rose colored
    >glasses. There were individual spots of brilliance in the golden
    >days (and that is what is now remembered), but there was also a
    >whole lot of shit. Anyone remember how the mainstream music media
    >used to engage with hip hop? Rolling stone anyone? It's not great
    >now, but it was horrible and often racist then.

    I never said mainstream music mags are any better or worse now in covering hip-hop than they used to be. But I would seriously challenge the presumption that rap journalism in HIP-HOP magazines has improved. Moreover, I don't think things were perfect 10 years back but I think things have gotten worse now. The past, to me, isn't sepia-toned - it was ugly and a mess in many ways - but you got the sense that people were trying to work through that mess and get at something more. I think most publications stopped trying and opted instead to pretty things up but without actually addressing the complexities that the last gen had to contend with.

    Friday, December 05, 2003


    Oh yeah, and one more thing in regards to contemporary music journalism - this might be a rather insular comment, only of interest to other writers vs. the reading public, but what's most certainly happened too is that it's harder and harder for journalists and critics to find places to write for that actually encourage critical and thoughtful engagements with culture. This is sort of what I meant by the "Blender-ization" of content (which I ripped off from Jeff Chang) - everything is about zip and polish. Editors at most of the glossies want short, punchy reviews that are easy to read but that doesn't mean the writing actually says anything, only that it goes down easy. There was much hand-wrining over the Voice's decision to kill the long-form essay format in their music section and while some have argued that this has cut down on some of the bloated, convoluted pieces that more indulgent writers at the Voice have churned out, it also means that the opportunity to really get your hooks into something is gone. That same problem is practically everywhere in the current publishing world - from big blossies to alt weeklies, even WWW sites are trying to reduce word counts out of the assumption that readers are too lazy, impatient or stupid to appreciate anything longer than 100-300 words. Don't get me wrong - longer essays can be taxing as hell, especially if the writer is gassed off some self-aggrandizing ego shit (I don't name no names but ya'll know who's violating) but the problem with short pieces is that they make it damn near impossible for writers to ever get into "the big idea". This is something that Harper's covered in their May 2003 issue and while that article was not in reference to music or even cultural criticism per se, I think part of what Cristina Nehring has to say in that piece is wholly relevant to understanding why criticism/journalism has become so problematic. People are scared to speak their minds, scared to put the Big Ideas out there in fear of being criticized or ridiculed. So instead, we have all this diva writing masquerading as criticism on one hand and then snarky, soundbite fluff on the other.

    When I get a chance, I'll list some pieces of music journalism from 2003 that I think run against the grain and suggest what is still possible in an sphere on increasingly shrinking opportunities.


    Speaking of writing I LIKE reading - here's Jessica Hopper on why Atmosphere rocks.


    Ok, so Sam Chennault asked this of me on his blog:
    "I was a bit distressed to find Oliver Wang recommending this article.

    After reading the article, it seems to be your run of the mill nostalgia piece that uses seniority as a crutch and mixs in rockist cheap shots at celebrity/pop culture and a recommendation for the De Capo's Best of White Criticism guide.

    Yeah, we all give credit to Lester, Greil, and the other inhabitants of the rock crit cannon...but I really think that now is one of the best times for music criticism. With the advent of file sharing, people's music vocabulary and their thirst for new and dynamic styles has increased ten fold. And the internet has really brought the democratization of music criticism. Sure, a lot of the criticism "published" on the web may be half assed and amateur, but different perspectives never hurt anyone.

    With music criticism, I'd personally like to see (off the top of the dome) a new subjectivism; renewed interest in how, where and why people actually engage with music; and a further departure from formalism. There are a lot of critics/ journalist doing it and doing it well.

    And Oliver, your piece in the Guardian was great. So why are you gonna let this bitch-ass 40-something (probably) try to demean the new(er) generation of critics?"

    To which I can only say to Sam: I wasn't suggesting the Herald article was perfect or that I agreed with every single opinion expressed. Da Capo can get the gas face f'real though I didn't think the Herald article really said that much in support of it. But here's the reals:

    I passionately disagree that music journalism is better now than it has been in the past. While I'm heartened by your positive attitude, as far as I'm concerned, much of music journalism, especially hip-hop journalism, is absolute garbage or at the very least, a lot worse than it should be. Let's count the ways:

    1) Rap journalism has never been more toothless, irrelevant and in the pocket of industry as it is now. For a far more comprehensive and articulate explanation of why, I'd refer people to Jeff Chang's "Word Power: A Brief, Highly Opinionated History of Hip-Hop Journalism" in Steve Jones's Pop Music and the Press. He makes the excellent point at the end of that essay that after Biggie and Tupac were murdered, the Source's, Vibe's, XXL's, etc. of the nation had the opportunity to really confront their own value system and what they were contributing to hip-hop's community. Rather than step up and really start critiquing from within, most simply capitulated to the predominant values of the industry and most base interests of the culture. Investigative journalism and hard-nosed opinion-making in rap mags is all but dead - when it falls to the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone to research who killed Biggie and 'Pac while rap rags quietly tip-toe around it, afraid of pissing off the wrong people (read: potential advertisers) you've pretty much lit up a big neon sign that says "we just want to party and bullshit" and lost whatever mandate may have existed for them to actually be hip-hop's inside voice - both in terms of responsible reporting as well as serving as a consciousness.

    And frankly, no one can convince me that the level of writing in any of these major mags is as good now as it was 5-10 years ago. That's actually across the board - from The Source all the way down to URB. If you just compare the generation of active writers in the early '90s with the current pool of talent, it's thinned out. That's not to say there's not great writers abounding, but it's fewer and far between and what you don't see are the kind of all-star staffs that places like Vibe and XXL used to field. I'm not remotely on some ego shit with this because I was never part of that earlier wave.

    2) Meanwhile, over at the mainstream music mags, you have a lot of wanna-be hipsters trying to write on hip-hop without much of the knowledge base to really tackle it responsibly. Their criticism is long on style, short on substance which is pretty much the general problem with music journalism writ large. As the article notes, many publications have been cutting back on word lengths, aiming for sweet, short and snappy but it's come at the expense of writing that builds into something and is willing to get deep. While I appreciate economy as next as the next guy, what we're seeing is a generation of blerb-meisters on the rise while long-form essayism is all but gone. Call me old school but I think it's important to have writers who are capable of doing more than just breeze through 100 words of clever, snarky comments. I love reading Blender for its list festishes and what not but their review section just depresses me and having spoken to several of the folks who write for that section, it depresses them too. Now, everyone has seemingly followed suit, even the Village Voice.

    3) The Internet has created far more opportunities for aspiring writers to find a venue for publishing - indeed, my early criticism came in the form of newsgroup postings even though I didn't think of it as "writing" or "journalism" at the time. To that degree, I am grateful that it exists to give many people the opportunity to channel their voice somewhere. However, as you note, much, if not most, of the writing online is "half-assed and amateur." What's lacking online in most cases is any degree of editorial input that would help guide and improve the writing that's out there. So yes, I agree, the Internet has helped to "democratize" the field (insofar as those with access are now being heard, but of course, this doesn't mean doodles for the population that still lacks access, namely the poor and people of color, surprise, surprise.)

    4) I was talking with Joan Morgan yesterday b/c I'm trying to recruit her for the EMP conference next spring and she was sharing her observation that while there are more women writing on hip-hop today then when she got started in the late '80s, the amount of critical racial/feminist voices has actually decreased. I think this is immediately apparent when you survey the landscape. Definitely more bylines from women, but what's lacking is an active engagement - not to even mention critique - with the same kind of social issues and concerns that last generation's women writers really brought to the forefront in their writing. This isn't some "boo hoo, no one's talking politics anymore" lament for the good ol' days - I don't expect people to write about hip-hop in 2003 the same way they did in 1993 because times have changed. But is hip-hop (or rock for that matter) any less sexist and misogynistic or irresponsible? Hell no. Yet, with the exception of a few voices - Elizabeth Berry's Jay-Z piece for example - can anyone say there is a cadre of critical voices anymore as there were in the heydey of the Lisa Jones, Lisa Kennedys, Joan Morgans, Danyel Smiths, et. al. of the last generation?

    I'm not say there's no good journalism and criticism being written - there are MANY writers that I have tremendous respect and admiration for who are slugging away everyday. But I think it is totally valid - whether you're a 40 year old rockist or a 20 year hip-hop fiend (of which I'm neither) - to say that the state of music journalism right now, sucks. Between the death of smaller publications that once provided some balance in the field (Option and Ego Trip, R.I.P.), to the conglomeration of mass media outlets over the last few years (hello Clear Channel!), to what Chang has called the "Blenderization" of writing styles, I really think we find ourselves in troubling times and I'm glad people are willing to call this shit out. It's not an unmitigated disaster but we - as writers - could be doing a better job of contributing writing that doesn't pander to the status quo (andI included myself as one of the guilty in that regard).

    Thursday, December 04, 2003


    Plug! Here's a good review of my book, Classic Material. By good, I mean it's well-written (which is more than I can say about a lot of the reviews I've read of the book. I know, payback's a MFer.


    just don't bite it

    And you thought you had relationship problems.

    Wednesday, December 03, 2003


    more Bangs for your buck

    Ah, the imbroglio that is pop music criticism... This Miami Herald article does a commendable job of breaking down some of the main challenges facing pop critics today. Or another way to put it - the article explains why most modern criticism is a crapola.

    Tuesday, December 02, 2003


    after deconstructing the right, Lakoff starts in on his latte

    I saw this on Sasha's blog. It's a great interview with UC Berkeley's progressive think-tank professor George Lakoff where he breaks down the rhetoric of America's political Right.


    this plus a housing allowance

    This is probably a sign that I've been drinking WAY too much caffeine lately given all the cafe time I've put in to work on my dissertation but I had one of THE strangest dreams last night...

    I dreamt that I was offered competing post-doctoral fellowships, one from a school in New York, the other from a school in Los Angeles. The LA college (there was no name) was apparently staffed by pushy but beautiful Asian witches who magically materialized at my house with my fellowship package details. They intimated that I had better take their offer or else bad things could happen - these were, after all, magical fellowship administrators. Then one of them tried to seduce me by wildly thrashing herself against the wall - sort of like a surreal Calvin Kline t.v. ad. Though I resisted her advances (really, I did), I have to admit their offer was attractive (and no, I don't mean it that way). The money was good and they had bonus perks like housing and travel arrangements. That plus I get hang out around hot Asian witches. Like I said, decaf = good thing.