Pop Life

Friday, January 16, 2004


the mystery of mike

Here's how it begins... Two record collectors in D.C. come upon a flea market with a box filled with hand-painted LPs and 45s by someone who calls himself "Mingering Mike." Everything about these records are hand-crafted: including the records themselves: they're discs of cardboard painted to look like vinyl. And we're not talking about one or two examples of "I was bored one afternoon" - Mike created a record catalog for himself that included probably close to a dozen LPs, plus another half-dozen 45s. (The collectors also located reel-to-reel tapes belonging to Mike so there might be some songs he recorded for himself too.)

The collectors originally posted their finds on Soulstrut.Com and the story was so intriguing that a few other cats picked it up on their own blogs. Within 24 hours, over 7,000 have subsequently visited the board to follow the story. (Update: out of privacy concerns, namely that Mike's legal name was being thrown about, the original post has since been removed but said record hounds are in the process of re-presenting Mike's work in a more professional and organized light).

I think the now-legend of Mingering Mike is captivating for several reasons. First of all, it certainly appeals to the record geeks out there who are into rare and unique finds and this certainly qualifies as one, but more to the point, Mike loved soul records from the '70s so much that he invented titles and concepts based on the music around him. That took him on some strange journeys of the imagination, including one fanciful title called Fractured Soul, another, presumably blaxploitation/kung-fu inspired one called Brother of the Dragon and even one named Sickle Cell Anemia.

You don't even have to be into records to be intrigued by who Mike was and how his imagination manifested in this way - as people on the board have noted, this is a great example of outsider art (a topic which, true to internet message board form, has broken off into its own thread-within-a-thread with contentious results) and the fact that an entire collection has been discovered all at once just makes it even more interesting. (I did some snooping around myself, and it's possible that Mingering Mike = 12th generation descendent of a Viriginia Plantation, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

Right now, the great mystery is: who was Mike? What was he doing in the late '70s? What did he go on to do? And most of all, what inspired him to spend the kind of time and effort to create all these imaginary records for himself? I'm sure others might think this is all a little silly, but there's something rather powerful about his dedication and creativity that I think explains why it's attracting so much attention. Hopefully, some place like Wax Poetics might be down to help give this story even more shine.
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and you thought the meter
maid was tough

If you've never seen an episode of The Shield (on FX), do this immediately: go rent or buy Seasons 1 and 2 of the show in time for the beginning of Season 3 (March 9). Trust me - this is one of the best things on television right now and certainly my favorite show (though Alias has to come in at a close second).

I've had a hard time figuring out just what it is I like about The Shield so much. Certainly, it was well casted, written, directed and acted but not more so than Sopranos which is probably t.v.'s most accomplished show in all these categories. Nor does it offer the sheer joy that seems to accompany ever episode of The Simpsons. Yet, I find The Shield both more entertaining and compelling than anything else on t.v. right now and I surmise it really comes down to the central character at heart in the series: Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chicklis, who won an Emmy for his role after Season 1).

For those of you who have never seen the show, there's not too much to explain: imagine Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris character from Training Day, make him white, bald and with a small tummy and then give him a fully realized, human personality. Mackey is the dirtiest of dirty cops in the fictional city of Farmington (somewhere in L.A. County) where he leads up the Drug Task Force. In essence, Mackey is running the Farmington drug game as part of his own private fortune, he exerts control over who can sell and who can't, taking a cut for himself and his partners on the Task Force and conveniently making sure that any potential opposition is eliminated. Meanwhile, he has to deal with the scrutiny coming from his co-workers, especially his police captain David Aceveda (played with simmering frustration by Benito Martinez) and Detective Claudette Wyms (played beautifully by C.C.H. Pounder). His double life is also a huge source of tension with his wife Corinne (Cathy Ryan) who is not aware of Mackey's criminal enterprises.

This basic narrative set-up is certainly not that original. There is, of course, a long history of films that revolve around the lives of corrupt cops - Training Day and Bad Lieutenant come immediately to mind. Coming from the other side, The Sopranos has famously "redefined family" by accentuating Tony Soprano's daily grind trying to keep his family and the New Jersey Mob happy (which in turn, borrows heavily from The Godfather and other seminal gangster films). Where the unique and compelling execution of The Shield comes to play is with Mackey/Chiklis.

For a guy who was doing bad sitcom just four years ago (the short-lived Daddio), Chiklis imbues Mackey with a depth of character that took many (myself included) by surprise. Mackey is a study in tension and conflict - here is someone who is holding things together, but only by the sharpest of margins and every episode is guaranteed to find him looking on the verge of exploding (on very rare occasions, he has a meltdown but Mackey tends to express his frustrations outwards, not inwards).

This is in marked contrast to other, ostensibly similar characters. Mackey borrows very little from Training Day's Alonzo Harris who is a monster cloaked in charisma. Mackey, on the other hand, is very much a character who earns your sympathy even though his actions are morally beyond redemption. He know he does bad but he also shows genuine care and affection for those around him (so long as they're not trying to get in his way). Sure, he's an alpha dog with an arrogant swagger, especially in how he brusquely treats criminals (potential and real alike) but he exhibits a leader's charisma that comes from his force of will rather than charm.

This too is different from Tony Soprano, t.v.'s other major anti-hero. Both are men dealing with lives that are out of control, both of their own making. The main difference is that Mackey has a razor-sharp focus on all things whereas Soprano often times seems caught up in forces far beyond his ability to handle. Both are subject to human frailties but ultimately, you get the sense that Mackey can handle his business when he needs to - Soprano is always one step away from a very long fall. To put it another way, in a showdown between the two, it's not even a fair fight: Mackey would take out Soprano faster than he could say, "badda bing".

Suffice to say, Chiklis makes the show, followed closely by C.C.H. Pounder who brings such fantastic gravitas to Claudette's character. She's the only character in the whole show not scared or cowed by Mackey and is able to communicate so much weight in just a stare. While I like some of the other satellite of characters (in this respect, The Sopranos is considerably better), her and Chiklis are the two best reasons to watch the show, especially in Season 3 where the two of them are destined to roll head-to-head more oftne.

By the way, it doesn't even matter if you like cop shows - in general, I don't at all. I never grew up watching Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue or even Starsky and Hutch but I adore The Shield far less because it's about the police (snooooze) and far more because it offers such rich stories, both within each episode as well as the long arc of each season. Believe me - try this. You'll like it.
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Thursday, January 15, 2004


still ill

Holy f%#in' s#@! - Illmatic is ten years old now. Goddamn, do I feel old. Yet, what speaks volumes about Nas' talent at this early point in his career is how un-dated the album feels. Illmatic rocks my iPod on the regular and oddly, it feels both like a hip-hop LP from a different era (which, of course, it was) but does feel anachronistic in the same way as Public Enemy or Run DMC can. It's not just Illmatic influenced hundreds of MCs that followed - the album stands as a testament to what happens when talented rappers team up with talented producers and produce a clean, simple project (this CD is less than 45 minutes - think about that) with no filler, no ego preening, but just 11 incredible songs. It's the veritible definition of "leaving people wanting more." (Alas, Nas gave us more but not necessarily more genius material. Like Jay-Z said, a one-hot-album-in-every-ten-year-average isn't much to crow about.... Ok, two hot albums in ten years - I did like God's Son).

Favorite Song: I've gone back and forth on this over the years. It used to be "One Love" (see below), then briefly, "Memory Lane" but now, I'm pretty set on "NY State of Mind," mostly because it boasts so many incredible lines.

Least favorite song: Folks will think I'm tripping, but I never could get into "Life's a Bitch." I just found the production far too syrupy, especially in comparison to the rest of the album. Even Large Professor looping up Michael Jackson (on "It Ain't Hard to Tell") is preferable to sitting through the saccharin sound of the Gap Band.

Best lines (like Pringles, you can't just pick one):
    Rappers I monkey flip 'em/with the funky rhythm/I be kickin'
    Musician/inflicting composition/of pain
    I'm like Scarface/sniffing cocaine
    holding a M-16/see with the pen I'm extreme
    -"NY State of Mind"

    I ain't the type of brother made for you to start testing
    Give me a Smith & Wesson/I'll have ni**as undressing
    -"NY State of Mind"

    I'm living where the nights is jet black
    The fiends fight to get crack/I just max/I dream I can sit back
    and lamp like Capone/with drug scripts sewn
    or lead the luxury life/rings flooded with stones
    -"NY State of Mind" (you get the idea)

    I'm the young city bandit/hold myself down singlehanded
    For murder raps/I kick my thoughts alone/get remanded
    Born alone/die alone/no crew to keep my crown or throne
    I'm deep by sound alone/caved inside in a thousand miles from home
    -"The World Is Yours"

    I reminisce on park jams/my man was shot for his sheep coat
    Childhood lesson make me see him drop in my weed smoke.
    It's real/grew up in trife life/did times or white lines
    The hype vice/murderous nighttimes/and knife fights invite crimes
    -"Memory Lane"

Best Moment: Undoubtably, Nas achieves one of his greatest moments ever with the cinematic evocativeness of these lines from the third verse of "One Love":
    Then I rose/wiping the blunt's ash from my clothes
    then froze/only to blow the herb smoke through my nose

Best Production: For me, it's a toss-up between three songs. If you want some gritty, paranoia-induced heat, go with DJ Premier on "NY State of Mind." Primo also laces "Memory Lane" with just the right kind of nostalgia-inducing jazz loop. And Q-Tip kills it by being the first to mine the Heath Bros.' incredible "Smilin' Billy Suite" for "One Love."

I'd say more but frankly, the best essay I've seen written on this LP comes via my friend and colleague Hua Hsu, who penned an amazing essay on Illmatic for my book, Classic Material (act like you knew and cop it if you didn't).
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Monday, January 12, 2004


reaching out to touch someone
(but in a good, non-icky way)

Ok, since my "blog family" to the right keeps ever-increasing, I decided to highlight the ones I spend the most time reading.

  • Yello Kitty is written by my girlfriend Sharon and though I suppose I'm highly biased, she's pretty much the smartest person I know, with a wonderful command of prose to boot. She usually only updates once a week or so, but covers a diverse set of topics, from the links between architecture and terrorism to winter fruit.

  • Jeff Chang is one of the other smartest folks I know and his Zentronix blog mixes up all kinds of topics that deal with both contemporary politics and culture, not to mention tantilizing details for his upcoming, fall 2004 book, Can't Stop, Won't Stop that's going to change the game as it comes to books on hip-hop.

  • Writer, scholar, baseball nut Hua Hsu finally got his blog, To Here Knows Where, going and while it's still in its infancy, I have high hopes for where he might take it.

  • Sasha Frere-Jones is a blogging machine - dude posts at least three times a day and is seemingly online more than I am (believe me - that's a scary reality, if true). I always get something out of visiting his blog, each time I go.

  • J-Smooth's hiphopmusic.com blog is far, far more than just about hip-hop. His interest in politics, criticism, movies, etc. is stunning and between him and Sasha, I probably get more ideas for blog entries than from any other sources.

  • Ian Steaman's Notes from a Different Kitchen and Nick Barat's Catchdubs blogs are similarly diverse in the range of news items they tackle, and both have a great sense of humor when it comes to what they post up.

  • Portland's Julianne Shepherd has a great blog, Cowboyz 'n' Poodles that mixes up the personal with the cultural in a way that I appreciate and always get something out of. I'd say the same for her friend Jessica Hopper over in Chicago, with her Tinyluckgenius blog, especially since she's now actually posting on it more than once a month :)

  • On the media tip, I turn to Fimoculous and The Blueprint on the regular since both bloggers are fairly prolific with the amount of information they post. The latter is more opinion-based which I like since she's willing to bash when necessary. The former appeals to the info-geek in me since he's always pulling out interesting tidbits on society and technology.

  • And before I forget, Margaret Cho is a MFin' blogging monster. I can't believe that with all the other things she probably has to work on, she has time to post up on her blog as much as she does. Moreover, she's not posting up some self-aggrandizing bullshit but is really out there advocating on politics and social issues. I actually feel really bad I spent so much of the mid-90s bagging on All-American Girl. Check her out.

  • Last but not least, I've been winding my way through the explosion of first-person sex blogs which have become all the rage since...well, duh...they're first-person sex blogs. The problem is that while the confessional aspect of them is what attracts people's voyeurism impulse (myself included), the vast bulk of them are boring. I mean, let's face it, any of you who have ever watched boring porn knows that sex, on principle, is not always that interesting and just because someone wants to put up a blog about their sexual exploits doesn't mean it's any more compelling than reading about someone's gardening exploits. One lone exception is the much lauded Dirty Whore Diary which, far from the prurient name it has, is equal parts open therapy, relationship advice, and compelling personal narrative (not to mention frank, candid descriptions of sex you wish you were having). I mean, this is the kind of stuff that people get book deals off of (though usually, they turn out to be entirely shitty fluff like The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada). Read it now before she sells out and get co-opted into writing Nora Ephron-meets-Hustler type dreck.

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  • Sunday, January 11, 2004

    APPLE's "1984" goes "2004"

    those shorts are still soooo early '80s

    In honor of the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh, Apple has given their groundbreaking "1984" ad an update. The change is rather subtle and I didn't even pick up on it the first time watching until I noticed that signature white headphone cord dangling from Ms. Hammer's ears. Yup, this time around, Big Brother gets shattered by someone sporting an iPod. This, of course, brings to mind the question: What do you think she's listening to on her way to destroying the New World Order? I'll cast a vote for P.E.'s "Bring the Noise." (spotted on fimoculous)

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    As if the Recording Industry Institute of America couldn't sink any fucking lower. Ben Sullivan writes about RIAA's new pseudo-SWAT team in the LA Weekly. (spotted from J-Smooth)
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    I can appreciate how the Right has managed to dominate much of the rhetoric and language within media but that doesn't mean they can write. What I'm continually awed by is how conservative pundits have managed to dominate popular media yet, as writers, can't even eke out a compelling sentence. This has nothing to do with ideology - there are many writers whose opinions I disagree with but whose command of prose and language still has me nodding in admiration.

    Case in point - the right-wing extremist (see, I know how this works) National Review Online got S.T. Karnick, editor of another conservative fundamentalist nagazine (that's not a typo), American Outlook, to write a column on the best music of 2003. I don't have issues with his choices - that's just a matter of opinion - but Karnick sounds like he's a college sophomore, applying for a job at his school paper.

    For one thing, his intro analysis of "what's wrong with the music industry" isn't even good enough to be called Adorno for Dummies even though he's trying to tackle it from the angle of "commercialism hurts art". Wait - I thought right-wing extremist fundamentalist cultural terrorists LIKED capitalism. What's going on here?

    Also, he separates rap from hip-hop. What, is he going to start talking about how "today's rap doesn't represent the four elements"?

    Through the remainder of his column, his descriptions of albums he likes usually manage to say nothing at all - he's a classic tell-er, not show-er (which, to me, is utterly in line with a conservative pundit since they spend all their time telling people how to think anyways). I mean, what do we gain from this?
      "David Bowie's Reality easily ranks among his best albums of the past two decades. Covering nearly all of the many musical styles Bowie has worked in during his career, while applying lots of new wrinkles and his knack for odd, unexpected, but enjoyable musical quirks, Reality is quite impressive in its musical creativity. A high point is "Days," a lovely song both musically and lyrically, which should become a classic."

    Ok - I have absolute NO idea what Reality sounds like based on this review. Not a shred.

    I could go on and on but really, Karnick's piece speaks more loudly to its own faults than I ever could. Does anyone out there actually know of WELL-WRITTEN cultural criticism from the Right? Inquiring lefty minds want to know... (saw info on Karnick's column on Sasha's blog originally)
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