Posts Tagged ‘hip-hop’
23 Jun

Week 215: “Liquid Summer” by Diamond Messages



Here are some things I plan on doing this summer:

  • Going barefoot
  • Spending 48 consecutive hours without wearing a watch
  • Spending 48 consecutive hours without the internet
  • Reading at least one terrible mystery novel
  • Impulsively going to see a band I’ve never heard of
  • Riding my bike aimlessly
  • Getting a sandal tan

And whenever I can’t decide what to do, I’ll sleep on it.

In a hammock.

While this song plays.


What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The contrast between the ultra-deep kick drum and plinkety-plink glockenspiel at 1:15.

2. Despite the pounding 4/4 time of the drums, the bass skips along in triplets, like a kid playing hopscotch.

3. Although it feels like it could loop forever, the song grinds to a sudden halt, like summers often do.

Recommended listening activity:

Catching drips of ice cream as they make their way down the cone towards your fingers.

12 May

Week 209: “Sex Slave Ship” by Flying Lotus



When you’re up late working on something – a creative project of some kind, usually – there comes a moment when you have to make a decision: do you go to bed now or just work through until morning?

It’s an exciting moment; you look at the clock, you look at what you’ve done so far, you look back at the clock…and there’s a sudden rush when you make the decision to be nocturnal. You’re defying logic. You’re rejecting society’s expectations of what a work day should be. You’re declaring a temporary victory over your own circadian rhythms. You put on some coffee, crack your knuckles, and dive in.

Flying Lotus makes music for that very moment.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s hyper-bassy. But despite that, there’s plenty of high-end stuff here too, most notably the jangling tambourine.

2. It’s hyper-compressed. This is a signature of Flying Lotus’ music; filling the entire dynamic range until the sound feels ready to burst. (It reaches the limit at 1:37.)

3. It’s so short that it begs to be looped over and over, until your nocturnal project is finished.

Recommended listening activity:

Losing track of time.

10 Feb

Week 196: “Yeti’s Lament” by Berry Weight



As the album’s title suggests, the songs on “Music For Imaginary Movies” are very good at evoking mental images. And they’re more than just mental images. They’re the kind of animated mental pictures that float through your head as you drift in and out of a light sleep. The images that cross your mind when you’re on the bus, and you zone out for a while.

But it’s not just the music that is evocative. The song titles themselves are sometimes enough to spark your imagination. Magician’s Assistant…The Way of the Dodo…The Day Nothing Happened. If those were real movies, I’d go see them in a second.

Of all the tracks, however, no imaginary movie is as intriguing as “Yeti’s Lament”. I can picture it now: our abominable furry friend trudges through the snow, pondering the meaning of his existence, lamenting the loss of…whatever a yeti might lose.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening clarinet. Mental image: the yeti looks at an old photograph and lets out a snowy sigh.

2. The turntable scratches at 0:53. Mental image: a panicky mosquito gets trapped in the yeti’s fur.

3. The way the two clarinets harmonize from 2:05 to 2:16. Mental image: the yeti frees the mosquito from his tangled fur, and realizes that he can make a difference in the world, no matter how small.

Recommended listening activity:

Drawing your dreams.

20 Jan

Week 193: “Song 2″ by DJ Krush



Have you ever found yourself staring at a particular word over and over again, re-reading it so many times in your head that it stops making sense? It starts to look wrong. It starts to sound strange. Is it even a word?

From what I understand, this type of intense focus on something simple is part of the idea behind incorporating a chant into the process of meditation. Known as ‘mantras’, these chants can be words, short phrases, or even nonsensical syllables; it doesn’t really matter what the sound is, as long as it is repeated a specific number of times.

The most common number for repetition of a mantra seems to be 108. This number may sound random, but it has plenty of significance. Tibetan Buddhist rosaries have 108 beads. Ayurveda counts 108 pressure points on the body.  Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter. In Japan, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times to welcome the new year. 108 shows up all over the place.

Music, of course, is often associated with meditation. I find sample-based music to be particularly meditative. The word ‘mantra’ itself can be translated as ‘instrument of thought’, and to me a sample is like a musical mantra: a short phrase, plucked from its original context, repeated and repeated over a new beat.

Of all the great sample artists, few produce music as meditative as Japan’s legendary DJ Krush.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s very simple, with only three main components – the thumb piano, the flutes, and the drum beat. This makes me think of the number 108 again. Its three digits can be thought of as representing the universe; 1 representing existence, 0 representing nothingness, and 8 representing infinity.

2. From 4.09 to 4.23, the drums drop out, and the strictly-kept time of the song is suspended, leaving the flutes to soar for a few moments.

3. Just for fun, I decided to count how many bars long this song is. Counting the stop-time section noted above as one bar, the song comes in at exactly…you guessed it…108 bars.

Recommended listening activity:

Breathing deeply.

28 Oct

Week 181: “Skipping Rocks” by Oddisee



Do you remember the first time you learned it was possible to skip rocks?

I bet you probably do. The first time someone shows you how to skip rocks, it’s like a kind of magic. You’re having a lazy day at the cottage, at camp, at the beach, or wherever, and somebody whips a stone across the surface of the water.

Your jaw drops. They might as well have levitated the rock using their minds.

This is a rock. Something heavy. Something that’s supposed to make a single splash before sinking to the bottom. But instead, this wizard of the waterfront has turned the rock into some kind of hovercraft. Instead of making a splash, like all the stones you’ve ever thrown, this one leaves a trail of expanding ripples in the water, like a jet leaving its vapors in the sky. Amazing.

Living in the grown-up world, sometimes you’ve got to seek out the things that pull you back to that kind of amazement. Maybe this song will help bring that feeling back.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The stuttering rhythm shared by the bass, piano and drums is the perfect instrumental representation of a stone gliding across a pond.

2. The horns really open things up as the song hits the 1-minute mark.

3. The strings in the background make sure that the horns don’t party too hard.

Recommended listening activity:

Well, obviously.

07 Oct

Week 178: “A Maze” by Freddie Joachim



Every once in a while, a song will enter your brain via your ear, set up camp, and stay there for a while. Usually, this is an annoying experience, an experience that leaves you feeling infected, as if the song is a flu that you can’t shake. The worst is when the offending piece of music is something you never liked in the first place, like “Love Shack” or “Mambo #5”.

“A Maze” by Freddie Joachim was playing on repeat inside my brain for pretty much the entire month of August, but not in an annoying way. It would start playing as I poured my morning coffee, and I’d be happy to know it was still there. I’d stir the sugar in time with its laid-back beat, open the front door and skillfully pick up the paper with my foot, do a little dance while brushing my teeth. It made my mornings feel way cooler than they normally are. Like I was the Golden Boy from those early-90s Golden Grahams commercials.

In other words, this song is the soundtrack for the beginning of a kick-ass day, and you probably won’t mind if it gets stuck in your head.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The drum sample is big without being overbearing.

2. The “B” section, which happens for the first time about 40 seconds in, is so perfect that I can’t even think of a suitable metaphor.

3. There’s lots of percussive elements; vibraphone, glockenspiel, even the organ sounds percussive. But it’s not headache-inducing. It’s pleasantly percussive, like a tap dance recital performed by teddy bears. Hmm. Maybe I should give up on descriptions for today.

Recommended listening activity:

Sliding around the kitchen in your socks.

10 Jun

Week 161: “Natural Green” by Blazo



You’ve been inside too long. Go outside.


Go take a walk.

Bring this song with you.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening laid-back jazz sample turns into a full-out groove. The musical equivalent of a long winter turning into a sudden spring.

2. After the drums come in, you can still hear the brushes of the original jazz drums in the background.

3. It’s shorter than you want it to be, begging you to put it on repeat all morning.

Recommended listening activity:

Practising the ancient art of dance-walking.

06 May

Week 156: “Fighters” by Lupe Fiasco



In the 1980s, rock and roll had become ridiculous.

Or at least, the most popular bands were ridiculous. A genre that started out as something rebellious, grassroots, and political had become a parody of itself. The outfits. The huge hair. The songs about partying and girls. Overly sanitized production and lyrical emptiness that took the heart out of the music. There is certainly a place for that kind of music, don’t get me wrong. But as the 80s turned into the 90s, mainstream rock was not doing anything new.

Meanwhile, a new kind of musical culture was emerging. Hip hop was rebellious, grassroots, and political in the same way rock had been a few decades earlier. I remember buying my first hip hop record and feeling immediately connected to something exciting.

Fast forward to the present day. I would argue that hip hop has evolved in the same way rock did. Most mainstream hip hop today gives us very little in the way of rebelliousness or political statements, but is more concerned with partying and girls, just like mainstream rock was in the 80s.

Which is why artists like Lupe Fiasco, and albums like his 2007 release, “The Cool”, are so refreshing. He’s a reminder that hip hop is doing fine, as long as you’re ready to search beyond what makes it to radio, and the generic, watered-down suburban mall rap that is currently occupying the mainstream.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion is really light and crackly. It almost sounds like a needle skipping at the end of a record that someone forgot to take off the turntable.

2. Guest vocalist Matthew Santos has an interesting voice. The way he articulates his words reminds me of Feist.

3. With each chorus, there’s a bit more harmony. Except the very last chorus, when everything else fades out, and we’re left with a single vocal line.

Recommended listening activity:

Giving something a second chance.

15 Apr

Week 153: “Chrometrails” by Vanilla



Vanilla is a producer from the UK who makes delicious soul-inspired beats. If I were a rapper, I would immediately hire him to make beats for my upcoming platinum-selling release. But since I’m quite clearly not a rapper, I will instead encourage you to listen to the title track from what I believe to be his strongest album, “Chrometrails”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Sparkly piano. Hip-hop thrives on low-end, but a lot of beatmakers forget that they key is having something nice and shiny in the high frequencies to complement the bass.

2. Off-beat percussion. Can’t tell if the kick is a bit behind, or if the snare is a bit ahead, but it gives the track a laid-back, Flying Lotus type of groove.

3. High-def vinyl crackle. Especially when those strings come in. Like the fabric-fluff sound you hear when you plunge your face into your favourite pillow.

Recommended listening activity:

Riding the bus through your favourite neighbourhood at night.

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01 Apr

Week 151: “Underground Vibes” by DJ Cam



Sleeping is one of my favourite things to do.

I’m not trying to imply that I’m lazy, but nothing beats a really good sleep. Especially when it’s punctuated by a really good/bizarre/realistic dream.

One of the coolest dreams I ever had was…well, like all cool dreams, it’s almost impossible to explain. But basically, it involved commuter trains that transformed into rollercoasters whenever I wanted them to. They functioned in slow-motion, and I could control everything about them; direction, speed, even when I wanted to feel weightless. I only had the dream once, but for years I tried to fall asleep while thinking about rollercoasters, just to try to trick my brain into doing it again.

But that’s the crazy thing about your brain: even though it creates your dreams, you can’t tell it to replay one. And when it does replay one, it’s probably a dream you didn’t particularly want to experience again, like the one where you’re trying to recite tongue twisters while naked and dizzy in front of every ex you’ve ever had.

Anyway. This all comes to mind because I’ve recently been listening to DJ Cam. He was France’s main contribution to the trip-hop craze of the mid-90s, and his jazzy samples really set him apart from the sea of Portishead clones that the era gave us.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening sample. It’s eerie and inviting, the opening bars to the dreaminess that’s about to come.

2. The vibraphone. So clean and clear compared to the gritty sampled drums.

3. The quote at 3:17. A great and paradoxical quote to include in a song built out of samples. The speaker is Eric Dolphy, and although he’s talking about music, he might as well be talking about dreams.

Recommended listening activity:


25 Feb

Week 146: “Bag Lady” by Erykah Badu


There are two versions of this song, and I couldn’t decide which version to post, so we’re going to do this the “choose-your-own-adventure” way. Here’s the situation:

You’ve just gone through a difficult break-up, and are worried that the emotional baggage you’ve been left with won’t allow you to move on with your life. Do you skip work and spend the day curled up under a blanket with a bottle of wine and a trashy novel? Listen to version 1: 

Do you dance your anger away while throwing out anything that reminds you of your ex? Listen to version 2:

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. (Version 1) The soft but militant marching-drum. Smooth and purposeful at the same time.

2. (Version 2) The harmonies and handclaps. Feels like you’re partying with at least 5 Erykahs.

3. (Both versions) The repeating guitar line. If I hear it in the morning, I’m whistling it all day.

Recommended listening activity:

Having a two-course meal in which both courses are dessert.

04 Feb

Week 143: “A Touch of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff



1987 was a big year for hip hop.

Looking at a list of hip hop releases from that year, it becomes obvious that this was a genre struggling with the fact that it was breaking into the mainstream, but not sure whether doing so would harm its authenticity as an artform.

Rap was heading into a lot of directions all at once; Public Enemy pushed the political side, NWA was building the foundations of 90s gangsta rap, and the Beastie Boys were…well, white. A comment in the liner notes of Kool Moe Dee’s 1987 album “How Ya Like Me Now” hints at how apprehensive many experienced rappers were of hip hop’s sudden appeal: “The Beastie Boys: We rappers have worked very hard to get rap to the level it’s at. Don’t mess it up.”

One of my favourite hip hop songs of 1987 is “A Touch Of Jazz” by DJ Jazzy Jeff. When I first heard it, I hadn’t even considered the fact that you could make a hip hop song without someone rapping, and it really made me listen to the way he blended samples to make something new. It was the beginning of my love affair with sample-based music, and the soundtrack to many a solo dance session in my room.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. His choice of samples. Jeff earned his nickname by sampling outside of the standard roll of funk breaks that DJs were sampling in the 80s. The jazzy, spacey vibe he accomplishes sets him apart, and makes his songs interesting enough to stand alone as instrumentals.

2. The sample at 0:51. It comes out of nowhere and totally changes the direction of the song.

3. You can tell it’s mixed live. This is one guy with two turntables. Sometimes the cuts are just a bit off the beat, something that wouldn’t happen nowadays, as everything would be done to a click track and edited with computer software. But the fact that he’s not metronome-perfect reminds you that it’s a human manipulating various records on the fly. That’s real DJ-ing.

Recommended listening activity:

Developing a secret handshake with a friend.

15 Oct

Week 127: “Changeling” by DJ Shadow


When the unmanned Voyager space probe was flung into space in 1977, with the hopes that it would one day be found by intelligent (and, we assume, surprised) aliens, it contained a golden record that included 90 minutes of music from around the world, carefully compiled to give a complete sampling of what music was like on planet earth.

By now, Voyager has probably left the solar system, and that golden record is still sitting patiently inside, just waiting to be discovered. It’s an incredible thing for us to have done, if you think about it…one of the most hopeful yet desperate, admirable yet futile things the human race has ever attempted.

However, if we ever decide to do it again, I’d like to suggest that we save ourselves the trouble of compiling another golden record, and just include a copy of DJ Shadow’s 1996 masterpiece, “Endtroducing…” If you have never listened to it, start to finish, you really should. It’s like boarding a time machine that malfunctions, sending you simultaneously into the past and the future.

But if you haven’t got 63 minutes to spare, then at least spend the next seven listening to “Changeling”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The 7/4 time signature. Different enough to stand out, but still head-nod friendly.

2. The sample at 1:38. It comes from this song, and it’s unexpectedly bright and cheery.

3. It starts to break down at about 4:37. The drums get clippy, then drop out altogether, giving way to ethereal guitars and atmospheric noises. It’s like the song is disintegrating, slowly coming apart and floating away. Entropy.

Recommended listening activity:

Closing your eyes and imagining that you’re slowly leaving the solar system.

13 Aug

Week 118: “UWM (feat. Leland Whitty)” by BadBadNotGood


Everything about BadBadNotGood seems designed to freak out old people.

Their Bandcamp page proclaims that “no one over the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album”. They dropped out of a highly-regarded jazz program at Humber College, apparently bored with teaching methods that prioritize tradition over exploration (read the fallout here and here). Even their name flouts the common rules of typography with its blatant disregard for the space bar. Scandalous!

But whether you think of them as innovators or aggravators, you’ve got to love the spooky intensity of this track, from their 2012 release, BBNG2.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s heavy. The percussion alone is enough to knock you out of bed; the fact that they don’t treat the drums with any reverb makes it sound like the drummer has set up shop somewhere in your inner ear. By the time the upright bass comes in, you’re not sure whether to nod your head or check your ear for a trickle of blood.

2. It’s moody. The great melody played on the electric piano in the opening minute is contrasted by the uneasy b-section that begins at 1:19. Chromatic and edgy, it builds in intensity until finally going back to the melody. (Random thought: the chromatic section of this song reminds me of the music at 7:39 in this video. Maybe I’m crazy.)

3. Instead of fading out, it grinds to a halt. Like a wind-up toy slowly running out of juice. It reminds us that even though some of the instruments sound synthesized, these are live players, and they’ll slow down if they feel like it.

Recommended listening activity:

Designing a brilliant homemade Halloween costume months before Halloween.

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18 Jun

Week 110: “Funk For Joy” by The Extremities


One of the best things about the mp3 age is the phenomenon of iPod serendipity. This is when your iPod, happily shuffling its way through your library, suddenly seems to sense what’s happening around you and pulls out the perfect song.

You’re calling your accountant and “Taxman” by The Beatles comes on…you’re frying up some breakfast and it plays “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MG’s…you’re emptying the garbage just as “My Heart Will Go On” starts to play…

But sometimes, iPod serendipity isn’t that specific; sometimes the song that plays just seems to match the general mood of the moment rather than the particular event. It happened to me once with “Funk For Joy” by The Extremities.

I was leaving work on the last day before a summer vacation; it was a perfect, breezy, sunny day, and as I walked past a park I saw a group of kids chasing madly after bubbles that their mother was blowing. They were going nuts, in the way that only five-year-olds can go nuts. Their happy giggles sounded like part of the song, and two of them were jumping in perfect time with the beat of the song. It was as if they were dancing to the music that only I could hear.

At that moment, I realized two things: first, it was going to be a good summer, and second, I needed to stop staring at them, because their mother was getting uncomfortable.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening piano. It kind of makes me think of a ringing church bell. Because the interval is a fifth, you can’t tell at first whether the song is going to be major or minor. But then that soothing sax comes in and the joy-funk begins.

2. The piano flourish at 0.48. It’s pure piano happiness, and it’s mirrored by an organ flourish at 1.41.

3. The out-of-nowhere bridge section at 1:48. It would have already been a great song, but then they throw in this great moment, featuring a great vocal sample from a funky little ‘70s gem called “You And The Music” by Donald Byrd. It’s moments like this that separate groups like The Extremities from less thoughtful sample artists.

Recommended listening activity:

Breakdancing with your fingers.

16 Apr

Week 101: “Beneath It All” by The Slakadeliqs feat. King Reign & Shad


Name your own price here.

The Slakadeliqs are not actually a band, but one man, the talented and extravagantly-named Slakah the Beatchild. Having spent years producing other people’s music, Slakah adopted the Slakadeliqs moniker on his 2012 release, “The Other Side of Tomorrow”.

It’s the type of album that only someone with a producer’s mind could create; sonically fascinating, with hints of just about every genre you could imagine. This song alone has bits of folk, soul, and hip-hop floating under its soothing surface. It’s reminiscent of “Hallelujah” by k-os, but perhaps even more hypnotic.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strummed guitar in the first verse is so soft, as if the guitarist is wearing gloves. Along with the glockenspiel and the harp, it gives the song a really fragile feel.

2. The switch to 7/4 time as the song hits 3 minutes. It’s hard to think of another song that has a rapped verse and 7/4 time.

3. The repeated chord progression in the final section. After a fairly normal descending set of chords, we get a bizarre major chord on the fourth degree of the scale thrown in, adding to the urgency of the song’s last minutes.

Recommended listening activity:

Tracing your hand and writing a poem inside the shape it leaves.

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06 Feb

Week 91: “Hallelujah” by k-os


Canada is not a country that would spring to most people’s minds as a hotbed of hip-hop, but over the last few decades, it has produced a disproportionate amount of great music in a genre dominated by American acts.

The one thing that strikes me about Canadian hip-hop is its variety; from auto-tune pop-rap to indie hip-hop with a sense of humour, the little scene that could has something for everyone.

One genre-crossing act who caught my ear a few years ago is k-os. While some argue that he spends too much time singing to be considered a true rapper, I think his 2004 album “Joyful Rebellion” is one of the catchiest and most sonically interesting Canadian releases of the past ten years. Most songs on the album are, true to its title, either joyful or rebellious, but right in the middle is this track: a quiet, almost mournful reflection on the state of hip-hop.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The organ. With the religious undertones in the song’s title and its lyrical references to Babylon, the organ was the perfect choice for filling out the sound.

2. Halfway through, he seems to give up on the words. K-os famously suffers from narcolepsy, and I can’t help but think he was on the verge of sleep during the recording of this song. But in a song about being disillusioned, it works.

3. The chaotic drums towards the end. Rather than fade out, the song disintegrates, in keeping with the message of a hip-hop industry that promotes its own worst stereotypes, and is slowly collapsing in on itself.

Recommended listening activity:

Watering a plant that looks too small to survive.

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24 Oct

Week 76: “Ghostwriter” by RJD2


Some songs are hard to love. They take multiple listens and an open mind before they finally begin to grow on you, getting gradually better with each listen.

This is not one of those songs.

For me, this song was an insta-love. It was 2004, and I was wasting time in the record store (remember those?) at one of those “listening posts” that were so handy in the pre-YouTube era. I was giving a first listen to the album Deadringer by RJD2, which had been highly recommended by a friend. For no good reason, I skipped to track six. Within five seconds, I was intrigued. Within thirty seconds, my head was nodding approvingly. By two minutes, I didn’t know whether to discard the headphones and run to the cashier, or continue to demonstrate my erratic dance moves to the increasingly uneasy co-shoppers who were quietly edging away from me.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s got spooky sampled vocals. Listen for them starting at 0:46. They’re similar to the type of samples Moby used to use, but more haunting.

2. It’s got big funky horns. Clear some space around you before you get to 1:30. Those horns have been known to cause some serious cases of spontaneous running-man.

3. It’s got some serious groove. Try walking with this in your headphones. You will be unable to stop your feet from walking in time with the beat. Add those horns, and before you know it, you’ll be walking with some serious attitude, like you just gave that annoying co-worker a piece of your mind.

Recommended listening activity:


23 Aug

Week 15: “The Crow…” by DJ Food



As explained in the liner notes of their brilliant 2000 album “Kaleidoscope”, DJ Food is not a person. Rather, it is an ensemble of British turntablists and electronic artists who, in the early 90s, put out a series of jazzy samples for use by DJs…a kind of food for DJs, hence the name.

This song is by a member named Patrick Carpenter. Often listed on their albums by his initials, Carpenter was mistakenly assumed by some fans to be nothing more than a personal computer. On this song, however, he proves to be more than mere circuitry, as he assembles a wide range of samples to create a stunning piece of music. And you’ve gotta love a song with an ellipsis in the title.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. It starts with some quiet bongos, and builds into looped drum madness by the end.

2. The samples. Many turntablists and turntablist groups use samples as accents, or even filler, but in this song, little vocal snipits and other various bits of noise build a spooky yet beautiful atmosphere.

3. The vibraphone. Is there any instrument more likely to put you into a deep, satisfied snooze than the vibraphone? It’s used sparingly in this song, but they throw it in at just the right moments. The end is particularly great, as the vibes sink lower and lower, disappearing and reappearing, until you’re so relaxed all you can manage is a blissed-out grin of satisfaction.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking through your favourite neighbourhood late at night.