Thursday, April 9, 2015

Just Gimme A Second To Rant...

I'll just take a moment from my series on my relationship with Hip Hop to rant about my strained relationship with social media for a moment (because I have a headache and time on my hands)...

As you know, I hate Facebook.  I've left and come back on several occasions because I grew tired and frustrated with the content of the site and the site's continued manipulation of members and said content. Yet I still maintain a presence on the site in order to communicate with people who otherwise would not hear from me or are too averse to using other methods to share thoughts and ideas with me.  This I find both irritating and a relief (ooh, conflict!) because I don't talk much in person and even though I'm friendly, I don't embrace the idea of being around people for an extended period of time unless I know them really well and know that they actually don't mind me being around them. Workplace friendships are fine, but it's a different story after work when you notice that you don't have much in common with your work buddy and it gets awkward. 

To me, social media has much of the same dynamic; you communicate on a shared topic and maybe engage in playful banter or have rip-roaring fun playing with words, or maybe enlightening each other with information and trivia.  But when the idea of actually getting together to hang out becomes and option, it gets awkward. You make promises, but never keep them,  You hide away from repsonding, pretending you never saw the proposal in the first place. So many ways to hide from actual contact; a behavior which you may or may not have grown accustomed to.  I admit it, I'm guilty of this on many occasion. Technology and perhaps middle-aged perspective have put chains on my youthful enthusiasm and idealism to my consternation. Might I also add that the direct assault on my senses and intelligence by a majority of internet content and all media platforms have severely damaged my faith in human nature.  To put it bluntly (and quote an actual friend of mine): I'm disappointed in people. That's interesting; I had faith and expectations in the level of kindness and consciousness of humans once and it's been compromised by their overall nature.  So much so that Facebook has a fairly accurate count of the people who I would consider trusting enough to want to share intimate thoughts with, were it not for the fact that the whole world could potentially have access to them and contort them or use them against me in any manner possible. If I were to take that thought deeper, I could say that I would think I am a victim of my own hubris; thinking that my thoughts are far more important than they actually are, and social media exposes the ugly truth in numbers, clicks and view counts. Can I object to this?

Yes. I don't really care about those things because this blog is not about furthering a cause or monetizing or exploiting its content. When I'm ready to do such things, I'll put it all someplace where everyone can pay to read my thoughts.  But I know that virtually no one cares what I say, and I can ramble on like this for pages without a single content.  I won't beg you to look at anything you might or might not find interesting. I'm trying very hard to rediscover that madness that kept me doing things like this, especially with my comics.  My cartoons were everything to me at one point early in my life, and they effectively helped me save my life. I haven't been able to draw them for some time now, probably because I needed to focus on the everyday challenges of living on my own, with my own hands and feet and associated extremities and organs and skin. Yet, I find I need them again. I need to reconnect with something that had a purpose and gave me the reason to keep facing the next day. So as I rant and tell you how angry I am with people, I need people to understand that my intentions are well. I will not seek destruction or go out in a blaze of glory over some random or inexplicable cause or thought.  I am not sick, dying or losing touch with my senses. I'm trying very hard to be human in an inhuman and inhumane world that's going more and more digital by the second.  I don't want to be a quantity, an digit or a file in someone's computer. I just need someone to know that it; life, living and all that fits that description matters to me, and maybe I'll feel better if I know it matters to you.

I have a headache, and maybe just a little bit of heartache. I'll leave you with that, and return soon with my continued thoughts on the current topic. Thanks for the time and consideration.    

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Real Hip Hop (Is Over Here) - Introduction

The following is the beginning of a series of personal thoughts and discussions about the place Hip Hop culture has had in my life; past, present and future.  I've considered this post for more than a couple of months, trying to sort and proof my recollections, but I came to the conclusion as usual that my stream of consciousness yields the most honest results. In fact, there's really not enough words I can attribute to my complicated relationship with the music and the culture.  As someone who grew up in the suburbs of New York and came to the birthplace of what we know as Hip Hop as a young adult saddled with a lifetime of issues, I cannot conscript my experiences to one post.  In fact, I cannot fairly tell this story alone; I hope that some of my fellow auteurs will follow my lead and contribute to the tale as well.  

Also as such, I wish I had more pictures to go along with my tale, but unfortunately many of my vintage photos and drawings were lost in the fire. The picture above was one I took during a sound check for a concert I worked for several years ago. It seems appropriate somehow...

The most difficult part of all of this isn't even where to begin, rather it's where to end. Because, as anyone who knows anything about Hip Hop, ya don't stop... 

Summer of 1985, one year into junior high. I began to attend a summer playground program a half-mile or more away from where I lived in the Mid-Hudson Valley.  Among the new friends I made there were a couple of kids who lived practically next to the park itself, and right next to each other: Tom Loughran and Mike Perrini. Tom was the oldest of five brothers of Irish descent, Mike was the son of the substitute nurse at my former elementary school. Both liked to ride BMX bikes and skateboards; Rad Boys if you will.  They also liked to listen to music. Mike hands me three vinyl albums he had and figured I would like: Escape (Whoudini), Fat Boys (Fat Boys) and King Of Rock (Run-DMC).  I gladly accepted them and took them home for a spin on my plastic Barkers record player...

This was not, repeat NOT my introduction to rap music or Hip Hop, though I was a fairly young boy. I distinctly remember listening with my brother and oldest sister when they played certain records and cassettes or tuned into the distant radio stations emanating from The City that I had some fond childhood memories of, but rarely visited. Instead, this became the catalyst for fully embracing the culture that was emerging from the far-flung boros and creeping out to distant sentinels in the tri-state area. Before that, I'd already become aware of the lifestyle, the language and the rhythm that was in simpatico with simmering yearnings for understanding myself.  Visions articulated in straight-talking poets over often synthesized rhythms and syncopated beats. It was an edgy contrast to the staid, laconic suburban environment I was developing in, but later realized I had a strange disconnect with at a crucial age when I had to learn to make decisions on my own. It corrected my own vision of the world in many ways; not always in good ways, but in ways that directly effected the decisions I would learn to make.

In hand, I was dealing with three distinctly different groups with different sounds, yet they all propelled me in seeing something I had not seen before, and if I did it was in a totally different way than I was used to.  I was transported and in subtle ways transformed. The first two albums had come out a year earlier and I had likely heard some of their tracks in the background, but now that I had the solid substance in front of me, I was able to clearly identify the names of all the tracks and the style of music they produced.  The last one was new, and combined what I was familiar with from the environs I was in with what was now piquing my interest the most.  Each had their own distinct style and evoked different moods and sensations in different ways, but it all led to the same conclusion: this was Hip-Hop; moreover it was a style that was emerging which was more sophisticated than the "party emcee" that until then dominated and battled with each other over simple break beats. This would later affectionately or derisively be called "The Golden Age". 

The funny thing about discovering something "new" is that you suddenly realize how much of it has been around you the whole time. Terry and Joseph had stockpiles of records and cassettes laden with soul, blues, funk, disco, jazz, classical and even some rock of various genres. There were also lots of comedy albums (that I wasn't really supposed to listen to)... but as I looked closer, I found Hip Hop albums mixed in the treasure trove as well. I didn't know Terry had Sugar Hill Gang with "Rapper's Delight" and I didn't know Joseph already had Fatback Band's "King Tim III" (which was actually released a few months before "Rapper's Delight" and thus is considered the first commercially released rap record). Of course they both had Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on vinyl... the funny thing was, although vinyl was fine, I gravitated towards the cassettes because they were not only more portable, but recordable as well. Plus, the record players I was able to use were not necessarily the best quality (ever try to scratch on a Fisher-Price record player? Yeah, don't bother), and Mom wasn't about to let me use hers, so again I borrowed whatever I could get my hands on to either listen or record.

I constructed intricate metal coat-hanger towers along the mantle in my bedroom towards the window so that I could get the best radio signal coming from the south (I picked up more than city signals at night) and then pressed whatever cassette player I had to the speaker of whatever radio I had to record the late night weekend rap shows I remembered hearing from time-to-time when I was a little younger.  My niece Anese (Nikki) would join me on occasion to listen in and help fine-tune the radio signal.  The first rap radio show I remember listening to fully was Mr. Magic on 107.5 WBLS, but soon enough I encountered 98.7 Kiss FM with Chuck Chillout on Fridays and Kool DJ Red Alert on Saturdays. I was peripherally aware of 92 KTU from earlier years of listening with my brother, but the KTU I knew disappeared in 1985; the same year I began to formally build a Hip Hop collection.

It didn't take long for the rest of my family to figure out what I was doing in that regard; within the next couple of years I was given even more albums and cassettes to add to my collection (Kurtis Blow, Ultramagnetic MCs and Boogie Down Productions were Christmas gifts), along with my ritual taping of Chuck Chillout and Red Alert (I took over for Joseph when he got a place of his own). Mom was tolerant to a point with my new-found obsession; she did complain about Public Enemy's very loud and repetitive hooks on their "Nation of Millions..." album for example, but I'm almost certain she was intrigued by some of the sounds and lyrics I was listening to.  Even Dorothy had occasion to catch one of the lyrics of a different song and repeat it (though more confounded more than anything else, let's say she wasn't necessarily a fan), and her off-work fashion sense could have been influenced to a certain degree by the prevailing R&B/Hip Hop fashion (there is a picture of us of which I noted that she had the perfect B-Girl stance).

The best part about this era was the proliferation of music stores, big and small, where I would eventually start buying and collecting vinyl and cassette albums of all the artists I was listening to on Fridays and Saturdays. Yes, vinyl and cassettes coexisted to a large degree in large part because the Walkman and boomboxes made cassettes viable, but vinyl was still popular and respected not only for the familiar "warmth" and dust ticks/pops, but also because they were an integral part of making the music and the sound effects that were genuinely part of the culture. It was out of this milieu that Cut-Up City was born. But I'll discuss Cut-Up City in another post...

To Be Continued!

Friday, February 20, 2015

PathMark's Pizza Is Pretty Good, Actually...

I know, I've probably said it before, but it bears repeating. Via Roma, the premium brand of Italian pasta and sauce products distributed by A&P and it's subsidiary supermarkets (PathMark, Waldbaums, etc.) is pretty doggone good for store pizza. Store pizza, you say? Aren't I a certified snob when it comes to pizza? Yes, and that's why you have to trust me on this one. Sometimes you're in an area where you just can't get great pizza, so you either do without or diminish your expectations to what you consider an acceptable level and make do. I happened to try this pizza on a whim a few years ago and found it to be beyond acceptable, so I've been singing it's praises ever since for people faced with limited options:

Do you like Domino's or Papa Johns or Pizza Hut or (ugh) Lil Caesar's? Well if you try Via Roma's, can you accept the fact you will hate those other brands forever? 

Just try it and let me know what you think.  I don't know why the topic of pizza has been trending with me lately; my friend Imir recently pegged me on a post of his on Facebook in which he proudly indicated my snobbery with pizza from back when we first met in 1990.  Another friend, Chris, with whom I attended school from elementary-onward, traced my snobbery to the fact that I was graced with the efforts of fine pizza making from the Italians of the Hudson Valley. My sister and quite a few others have recounted the many establishments we inhabited or encountered that made good pizza as we were growing up.  When I went to college in DC, I was suddenly at a loss to find what I deemed good pizza; it was either Sbarros, frozen pizza or take your chances with the local establishments (and chances were very slim).  Needless to say, I further developed my own cooking skills after exhausting my options with the school cafeteria (a major disappointment for a heralded Black university), local take out (I despised McDonald's for a long time after DC) and dorm-style cooking (my specialties where potato-chips and cheese on radiator-toasted bread and what I referred to as "Arroz con Pollo" which was more gumbo than anything else).  I even invented a pizza-stick like substance that contained mozzarella cheese, breaded chicken patties and bits of toast microwaved in Tupperware and sliced into strips or Sicilian pizza-style squares.  What you have to do to get by.  There was also Chinese take-out, which I've always had a thing for and was actually pretty good down there, but you'll never believe what I found at Chinese take-out joint on 14th Street NW near the place I last lived in DC: pizza.  Good pizza, in fact.

Nobody would believe that a Chinese food place could possibly make good pizza, no matter what part of the country you were from, but I stumbled upon it and after a few weeks of skepticism while ordering my usual pork fried rice-and-ribs, I tried out the pizza.  Wowzers, I I was taken aback by how decent it was.  Great, no, but better than Dominos? Hell yeah! After some considerable and similar skepticism, my housemates also tried the pizza and came to the same conclusion.  It was a surprise hit. Now, I don't know if the place still exists (not likely), but I would bet that it was more or less hormones and deprivation that drove me to like that pizza back then.  Not so with Via Roma.

The best thing I can say about it is that it's better than the chain store pizzas we see nowadays.  If that's not saying much, then let me also say it does give some local parlors a run for their money, which is considerable when you factor in the price of ingredients, the labor and other miscellaneous overhead, not to mention delivery and tip if you go that route; with Via Roma you're getting a fairly similar pie for more than half the price.  It's fresh, not frozen (big difference!) and they claim to use premium quality ingredients, so the taste is better than what you would expect from the store.  

Trust me, I'm not trying to shill for them (I'm getting nothing for endorsing this brand), but I present it as a viable alternative to the Dominos and Papa Johns and Pizza Huts and Lil Caesars of the world that continue to rip you off with suspect pizza and pasta products.  Save your money; you can get two pizzas for what those places charge and have a better experience.  I say all this because I was just at PathMark and paying for my items; the cashier saw the pizza and asked me if it was any good.  I looked her in the eye and asked her, "Do you like Dominos?" When she said yes, I said, "If you tried this pizza, could you live with hating Dominos for the rest of your life?"

That's a pizza snob for you >;)

Post Edit: I looked on Google Maps to see if I could trace my old address and the stores I went to; the address is there, but renovated and new buildings have gone up on more than half of the block.  In fact, 14th Street looks brand new; none of the empty lots from the riots of the 60s stand empty; in place are tall apartment/loft buildings.  I welcome the revitalization of the area, as long as the people who have long lived here also benefited from the cleanup (but we know how gentrification goes).  Needless to say, the take-out place is also gone.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Charles Barkley Should Be The Next Joker (Because He's Gotta Be Kidding)

I have to admit that this started off as a rant to one of my email buddies about the internet condemnation of the kids of Jackie Robinson West who were caught in the middle of a grownups game of gerrymandering to organize a winning team that took them to the USA Little League Championship and appearing in the Little League World Series (won by South Korea). I had posted an interesting takeaway think piece (the latest often-pejorative term for thoughtful and sensitive journalism or blogging that few people will actually read, but in this case I really like it) of the resulting scandal from Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen that several people sympathized with, and this particular blog friend had made a comment about Rahm Emanuel's urban policies contributing to the problems the article focused on. I had read recently that Emanuel had decided to present the players with rings to celebrate their on-field accomplishments in spite of Little League taking away their championship, which of course garnered more backlash from social media (which is trying desperately to displace the often cockeyed, but admittedly legal and ultimate authority on legal interpretation, US Supreme Court) and then, realizing that it was becoming too epic to share with one person alone because I started another rant about privileged athletes and entertainers who think they qualify to chastise the Black community because of their media-appointed authority in all things Black, I shifted the entirety of that rant to this forum.  You can agree or disagree if you like, but from what I've observed and experienced I think I hit the head on he nail without having to indulge in relentless political and social theories that ultimately spell roadblock and spinning tires.  That helps no one but supporters of the status quo.

 "Interestingly enough, Rahm Emanuel plans to give the players rings in lieu of the title that was taken away from Little League officials. I don't know if that solves any problem any more than it exacerbates it; if anything I would do like McCutchen says and see to it that somebody sees how well individual players actually played and offer to support them in a continued effort to develop their talents. I think most of the people screaming at the kids claiming they knew exactly what they were doing, outside of being biased or prejudiced, are completely missing the point of youth baseball and that is WINNING ISN'T EVERYTHING (or maybe it is as long as you fit a certain criteria acceptable to the mainstream masses).

Only the league officials who made the decision seemed to have any regard for these kids as they said they should not be held in scorn for the decisions adults made in putting that team together. Instead, the outraged masses are practically spitting on the kids and calling them cheaters (I guess to relieve their frustrations in part for not being able to do anything against Tom Brady and the Patriots, who a lot of those same people will defend in the same exact breath) and shouting down anyone who defends these kids as naive. The lazy, seemingly inconsequential breeding of asinine thoughts and pseudo-anonymity the internet fosters has continually perpetuated the paradox of disavowing innocence of anyone accused of a crime while also desensitizing people from criminal acts in the first place. 

I also want to decry the sudden focus on athletes who are blaring the trumpet for the false dilemma of "get off your ass and stop blaming the white man for your own problems" championed and trumpeted by former NBA greats Charles Barkley and Karl Malone and virtually any rich and famous athlete or entertainer who is still loved by the mainstream masses because they haven't found anything scandalous on them yet.  For one thing, I don't seem to recall the entirety of the black middle class or even lower class working people who have blamed their problems squarely on the white man. We seem to understand that working and investing intelligently will get us a lot further than welfare and lottery tickets, but the broad and ironically anti-intellectual statements Yassuh Charles and Malone seem to make about the black community in general paint us as shiftless, lazy, naive and irresponsible sub-humans hanging off the nuts of wealthy and responsible individuals like himself and Mitt Romney.  But there is a saying that most folks anywhere know; be wary of a leader and others who claim that person to be your leader when you didn't elect them in the first place.  Barkley seems to have elected himself the spokesperson for "sane, rational African Americans" with the backing of ESPN and other large mainstream media conglomerates, while on the ground level he's getting more than an earful from the same people he supposedly leads. He obviously doesn't give a damn about what's happened to Bill Cosby, the last leader indoctrinated with the power to chastise his own roots (if you don't know anything about history, you're doomed to repeat it, I guess)... 

For another thing, athletes and star entertainers live in a different economic stratosphere than the average individual. Their experiences and quality of life are not relative any way, shape or form. The choices that one has to make are far different then the other, and therefore the opportunities and options that a wealthy athlete or entertainer has is far more expansive than what a median-or below salaried or per hour worker has. Yet, far more often than not, it was not education that led them to such wealth, but physical talent and opportunity to impress people with lots of money.   The exceptions, it would seem, have a lot more to do with engaging with the communities they leave behind in order to help them make their own advances rather than set up coin-operated charities for publicity and tax write-off purposes.  I don't know when 's the last time Barkley or Karl Malone went into a lower middle-class neighborhood and witnessed and/or reported the fact that increasing numbers of public schools are closing or failing miserably or that higher media-wage jobs are disappearing fast and cost of living is rising faster and few people have the means to adapt to these swift changes; especially middle-aged workers with families to support? How about the skyrocketing cost of college educations, selling degrees with less and less value as labor markets and technology change faster than college programs can adapt to those changes?

But being able to average nearly a triple-double your entire career and making millions for it and nothing else (outside of athletic endorsements or senseless political attacks on disadvantaged people or groups with philosophies you diametrically oppose on your bully pulpit) entitles you to tell people to get up off their ass and stop blaming everything on "the white man"? Maybe, just maybe if you stopped worrying about which side of your bread is buttered and start teaching people how to make their own bread then you wouldn't have to be annoyed by the straw men of your apparently nightmarish past." ...and maybe I should not be so worried about what a person I cannot relate to except by a distantly shared heritage has to say when he perpetuates the belief that by not being as "successful" as he is, we are failures, enemies of the state and the obstacles to "progress" by definition. Or am I just being a jerk? Nah...  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Further Reason To Believe Disney Learned Almost Nothing From Its Acquisition Of Pixar, But It Doesn't Matter Anyway Because You're Stupid

Anything that has children singing mindlessly in unison for no apparent reason and is simultaneously broadcast in every nook and cranny on the airwaves (and on the shelves of every store you walk into and out of) is probably Not A Good Thing.  But who the hell am I to complain, I'm just a alternately weird and grumpy uncle who refuses to have children of his own for various reasons (not the least of which is so they don't have to suffer through that). 

I'll let the guys from Cinema Sins explain further. Bottom line: Disney already knows how to manipulate and condition you, they just have much better tools to do it with... and yes, you're too dumb to notice, which is nothing they didn't already know. Carry on...