Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 8

By Mawuse Ziegbe

This week I was posted up with the sniffles so I spent most of my time chugging Spirulina, gawking at Andrew Zimmern’s cast-iron constitution on the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” and giving even less thought to my hair in the morning. However, I did get to know two people a lot better – Mike Ladd and Duffy.

Mike Ladd is a Boston ex-pat MC whose new album I was shamefully apathetic about for some time. I often leave the ‘pod on shuffle because I’m, well, I’m lazy and every now and then, whatever well-worn disco beat I was bumpin’ would give way to some rabid yet velvety cacophony. “Wild Out Day” is a grinding, urgent enterprise with wheezing horns and chaotic percussion – perfect for an afternoon of looting or whatever less genteel activities are etched in your planner. The whole album, Nostalgialator, has an ambient steadiness that underscores tracks like “Off To Mars” and “Earn To Fall.” Even the wily, elastic instrumentation of “Afrostatic” and the rickety thump of “Trouble Shot” sound comfortable next to the milky electro of “Housewives At Play.” Ladd also handily satisfied my weakness for lively songwriting with songs about a graying Benjamin Franklin and party-hopping throughout Asia. I’m not so down with his delivery which is noncommittal and hampered by a slippery command of rhythm. But all in all, the Nostalgialator did much to help flush out the sinuses.

Duffy has been lording over the UK charts with her dusty, folky, Northern Soul. Imagine Dusty Springfield with the defiance of Aussie singer-sourpuss Missy Higgins. Usually touchy-feely tones are not my thing but Duffy’s smoky sound has a straight-up authenticity that’s hard to ignore. Songs like the blissfully campy UK chart-topper, “Mercy,” are brimming with “not-gonna-take-this-no-mo’” sass. I imagine instead of an agile neck-roll and finger-snap combo my American sisters do so well, Welsh women put this on when they’ve had it up to here. I especially love the trembling crescendos and vintage orchestral sensibilities of “Warwick Avenue.” Her main weakness is that when listening to her music, there’s a lot of, “this kinda sounds like Dusty, Joni, Amy, etc.” The sound does warble into derivative territory but real talk; it’s very capable and satisfying pop music.

I wrapped up my week-long quarantine by watching Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a film made blocks from the crib and what seems like ages ago. Let’s take the way-back machine to 2004, when “Chappelle Show” was gleefully ruling the catchphrase circuit and everybody’s favorite rapper from Kanye to Kweli dropped by for the fun. It was an idyllic time when some of us were just chubby college-dropouts in ill-fitting blazers and none of us could win a televised Grammy. The Fugees long-awaited third album had a street date and I think Common and Erykah were still goin’ steady. Now Kanye rarely wears cardigans, I was more excited for Jill Scott’s new movie than her album and “Chappelle Show” doesn’t even live on through the magic of syndication.

But in 2004, I was an intern at Giant Step and now they’ve given me prime real estate on their homepage for my rambling musings. The moral of the story is get over it; things are usually better now and the past will always be on DVD.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 7

Photo of Little Jackie at SXSW BMI Showcase © Randall Michelson

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Hey boys and girls, today’s theme is friendship. Last week I was able to support some chums as they made their dreams come true – all while being comped and whisked into places like I was special (Maybe a more apt theme is nepotism).

On Monday night, I hit up Southpaw to catch friend-in-my-head, Imani Coppola and her group, Little Jackie. I’ve been an Imani fan since way back in the ‘90s when she logged MTV-time with that nutty video and song “Legend Of A Cowgirl.” Her work with Little Jackie is no less kicky (and loopy) as she sauntered on stage and muttered pleasantries to her two stuffed bunnies. The band bubbled through a lot of new stuff which combines the breezy doo-wop riffs of The Supremes with the biting, self-aware lyrics of well, Imani Coppola. My favorite was the swingy “Black Barbie” that takes the piss out of daffy celebutantes. Throughout the night she tossed bubblegum to the crowd and took her top off, because, well, why not. It was like watching Amy Winehouse if her eccentricities were triggered by a sugar high and not a crack binge.

Tuesday, a good friend hooked up me up with list space for Dizzee Rascal’s performance at my new Slope haunt, Southpaw. Dizzee pounced on stage with his incredibly chill hype man and pummeled through his three-album deep catalogue of punchy rhymes and steely beats. The crowd went batty on ditties like “G.H.E.T.T.O.,” “Paranoid” and “Flex” from his upcoming U.S. release, Maths & English. Backstage, a bouncy Aaron LaCrate discussed 2Pac while a sleepy-eyed Dizzee recounted slap-happy times as a rowdy East End teen and dropped sage ruminations about his Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage. It was a time.

Wednesday night, another buddy put on an acoustic showcase at The Cutting Room. Real talk, I hate acoustic music. I was there simply to send some sublime head-nods of support. However, I was not prepared for the billowy-haired songstress with the mega-dimples, Stephanie Michelle, and her sharp-edged version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Her voice was this rich cocktail of feathery tones and bold melisma. With her vulnerable and generous voice, the lyrics were that much more emotive. By the end I was down right dewy-eyed and I took my behind home to blubber in private.

Finally, I caught religion at a Saturday night performance of the Broadway hit Passing Strange. I first heard about Passing Strange about this time last year through this black rock blog, and how it was about identity and colored people strummin’ git-boxes. I’m pissed that I waited for it to blow up on Broadway (everyone from Toni Morrison to Barbara Walters have checked it out. We sat behind Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz). I have never seen an artistic narrative that spoke to my experience as a surly, arty, black girl constructing her identity in a too-postmodern world. The writing, the music, the performances were literally the best things I’ve ever seen – I was pelting out giggles in one beat and nodding in tearful empathy the next. Maybe I was just having an emotional week. The friend I saw it with gave me a hug.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 6

Photo of Jazzy Jeff © Nick Digital

When I told my friend about my weekend, she flatly informed me with thinly-veiled horror that it was “bizarre.” I’m on the fence about the term. You, gentle reader, can be the judge. Let’s pretend the weekend started on Wednesday where I was eagerly awaiting a performance by Kid Cudi at Left Village bar Le Royale. The whole hourly-motel air makes my head hurt (where do establishments still get mirrored walls after 1978?). Anyway, I was excited to see Kid Cudi hit the stage because his MySpace page be poppin’ with his spacey brew of intergalactic hoodness. But live…wow. He rocked the crowd with all the vibrancy of a Saltine. His stage presence was desperate and inelegant. Overall, crappy. There was a lot of shouting out “peoples” that helped him through the struggle. Once again, desperate. The anti-climactic set wrapped up at midnight as the crowd unceremoniously filed out into the stinging cold.

The bizarreness really cropped up Thursday evening when I saw author and Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis interview Mos Def at the 92nd Street Y. Mos ruminated on everything from his childhood (“too much basketball” nurtured his interest in acting) to his reservations about the good life (using the complimentary Bentley shuttle at a snooty hotel was a trifle much). He spoke with candid wit, dazzling the crowd with low-key astuteness and even previewing a freshly recorded track from his upcoming album, The Ecstatic. However, the question and answer period devolved into bedlam as the restless crowd began to claw at lofty echelons of inappropriateness. Shouts of “next question!!” rang out as an older woman told Mos his music had changed her son’s life. A fan behind me kept screeching “Mos!!” arbitrarily (or perhaps for the optimal annoyance factor) in my ear. Brassy women began loudly interrupting each other, vying recklessly for Mos’ attention. There was a bit of a “WTF” factor watching grown people ready to wrassle each other for some eye contact with Mos Def.

Friday night, I hit one of my favorite bizarro events, Flavorpill’s One Step Beyond jump-off featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff at the Natural History Museum (Rockin’ next to rock formations just never loses it’s heady “where-the-eff-am-I” appeal). This time, instead of the usual infestation of downtowners it was very grown n’ sexy: lots of wizened uptown cats and fly broads who bought “Summertime” on vinyl. The vibe was much more “family cookout” than “tight pants competition.” Jazzy played it safe but his comfort hits straddled a gang of genres. There was Crystal Waters’ never-say-die dance jam, “Gypsy Woman,” Mims’ mind-numbing ode to braggadocio, “This Is Why I’m Hot,” and Dee-Lite’s sunny heart-pumper, “Groove Is In The Heart.” The brazenly cool, Retro Kids made an appearance, bedecked in parachute pants, split-level fades and jocular dance moves that made the early ’90s the hotness. Between the Kids, Jazzy and the tunes, it was like 1992 came back for a quick spin around the planetarium. I was entertained.

The actual weekend was a furious blur of hookah smoke, karaoke, Sparks and disco as my posse and I decamped to this loopy loft party in the Brooklyn. One minute I was chatting up locals in a plastic spaceship, the next precariously creeping down an iron ladder in my pin-thin stilettos and later screeching on stage to an oddly captive audience with my boozy pals. When we finally stumbled out of the rabbit-hole into the pale dawn sunlight, we cabbed it to my friend’s Midtown hotel and ordered $17 fried chicken. However, I wasn’t licked yet and spent Sunday afternoon with my artist friend, Alexis Peskine in Hoboken, NJ (aka Stepford. I mean, is that place serious?) who asked me to pose for a painting. It was slightly disorienting to discuss the tension in the “subject’s” face when the image was my own surly mug.
Since I went this far without sleep I decided to keep the party going by hitting up the 718 Sessions with Danny Krivit. If anyone is deserving of a loyal groupiedom it is Krivit. He spun my brains into jelly with tons of extended mixes of plucky disco and early ’90s Euro-house. As I bounced to the beat, I felt like I was in the New York you see in movies. Lots of dark corners, never-ending vocal house and people having moments on the dance floor. This wasn’t a pageant where everyone is casing each other but a party where people swayed to the music with their eyes shut. Bizarre must be another word for “damn good time.”

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 5

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Recently, I went to Italy for the first time. For all the glossy Gucci, fierce Fendi and vampy Versace the country pumps into the world, I expected bronzed, hollow-cheeked glamazons marching through the streets day and night. So much for stereotypes. Milan, one of the glamour meccas of the world, struck me more as a quaint old-world city, with the modernity of a metropolis sprouting up between epic castles and canals.

One thing that was painfully too modern, however, was the soul-crushing exchange rate. Compared to the Euro, the dollar has the strength of a marshmallow. One Euro is about $1.50 and the prices of well, everything, were heartbreaking (cabs start at 6 Euros!! What the !!!) So while my plans changed a little bit (no more poppin’ bottles of vino in Lake Como), I was able to really live like a 20-something Milanese.

First, there is the very homey (and thankfully economical) custom of aperitivo, which is the Italian answer to the New York brunch. From 7 to 9 pm everyday, the city slows down and every bar offers an all-you-can-eat appetizer buffet with the purchase of one drink. It was a welcome comfort after trying not to blow my rent money on discounted Fendi and vibrating around the city hopped up on espresso (one of the only things I could afford).

I hit up a party or two, including a Levi’s shindig on Porta Ticinese, a hipster stronghold populated by edgy accessory shops and cozy boutiques. And in a very Devil Wears Prada moment, we passed by a Versace fashion show which was infested with frantic journalists and photogs (One cavalierly snapped my photo yet couldn’t be bothered to tell me what magazine she was from. Whatever.). Later in the week, I boogied to shimmery electro at spots like Yellow Submarine and Refeel and relaxed to groovy mid-90s trip-hop and soul at Cuore.

I also checked out a Roni Size concert, who is a drum and bass fave from way back. During the set, I participated in my first mosh pit. I didn’t expect to lose my moshing virginity at a D&B set in Milan but I did learn something: moshing is awesome! I never thought that fighting equals fun but pushing and shoving to a beat gets the adrenaline thrashing through your veins. Plus I figured, “I live in Brooklyn, NOBODY is going to out-rude me.”

Honestly, I didn’t take to Milan that quickly – it’s dirty, expensive and a lot of that fashion stardust rarely touches us common folk. But it’s also charming, with heaps of stunning architecture, cobblestone streets that snake aimlessly throughout the city and no shortage of chill bars. And, the purpose of the trip was to visit friends and I realized that whether we’re trading jokes over a cocktail or strolling along a piazza, love is still love – regardless of the language.