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.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 4

photo of Janelle Monáe at Spotlight Live © Sian-Pierre Regis

By Mawuse Ziegb

A while ago, the R&B Live series at Times Square venue Spotlight, hosted an evening featuring “Diddy and Friends.” Now, he of all-blinding bling and refined cheesecake tastes is fun to watch on the TV but was not who I necessarily felt like spending an evening with. Apparently, I have poor taste in mogul-hosted events as Janelle Monáe was one of the “friends” who performed and wrecked it. Janelle’s space age, cartoony soul was the last thing I expected from the night and I later remembered that the ingenue had recently signed to Bad Boy. Like many, I first saw Janelle with her two scoops of afro puff in the zany clip for Outkast’s “Morris Brown.” Prior to that, Janelle dabbled in off-Broadway plays, gained popularity in the Atlanta college circuit and was signed to Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label. Janelle’s southern pedigree and left-of-center appeal fits all too well with the ‘Kast’s playground-on-Jupiter aesthetic. But um, where amongst the sky-high boots and voluminous weave pieces of Danity Kane, the infuriating ineptitude of Cassie and the brittle, derivative soul of other middling Bad Boy acts would Janelle’s sunny, spacey music fit in?

It’s not that Diddy doesn’t have an eye for talent, he’s got an admirable sense of what makes someone a star. However, time and again, his eye for moolah tends to blind his eye for developing and nurturing artists. Diddy has signed countless acts who showed promise but were eventually banished to artist development obscurity when they didn’t come with a shake-n-bake marketing plan. Remember Fuzzbubble? Yes you do – they thrashed guitars and drums on the rock remix to Diddy’s 1997 hit, “All About The Benjamins.” Remember Dream? Yeah those nominally pubescent starlets who made forgettably sweet numbers like, “This Is Me” a while ago. Remember Black Rob who came out the gate with “Whoa?” I could go on like this but Diddy’s track record does not bear well for artists he signed after 2001. Faith, 112, Biggie, Total are still the flagship Bad Boy artists as no act since has been able to capture and grasp the attention of the fickle public (and perhaps their own label CEO). Even on their hit show, “Making The Band” Danity Kane has to beg Diddy for a just a smidge of his time.

Perhaps this diatribe is a bit unfair. Artists get signed, dropped and languish in obscurity everyday. Many labels have niche audiences that simply make it easier to market a certain type of artist. And even if it doesn’t work, I guess we should give Bad Boy props for being progressive and at least attempting to expand their repetoire. Apparently, her deal gives her some autonomy and allows her to continue work with her Wondaland Arts Society label. She could easily stay indie (reports say her album Metropolis has sold over 10,000 copies independently) and make it. I’m not telling her how to manage her career but in the myopic major-label shuffle I see her going the way of Imani Coppola and Kelis. Singular female artists who always brought an undeniable uniqueness to the music scene who are now working the indie circuit.

One very important thing about Diddy, that perhaps bodes well for all us snooty armchair critics is that he doesn’t really set trends so much as he validates them. If Janelle represents Bad Boy’s future, she represents music’s future. When the white rapper thing was all the rage, Diddy was armed for battle with Kain, who could have competed against Eminem and Bubba Sparxx. And Dream was Sean’s response to the huge pop bubble of the early 2000s when N*Sync, Britney, Christina Aguilera and The Backstreet Boys were blowing up CD scanners around the world. And tell me Danity Kane isn’t a multi-hued approximation of Destiny’s Child. In a music world where Jill Scott and Lupe Fiasco are handily outselling Chingy, Bow Wow and Omarion (Lupe even has the #2 video on BET’s hysteriafest 106 & Park), Janelle may really be what’s hot in the streets.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 3

Photo © Phillip Angert

By Mawuse Ziegb

If you could sum up Sharon Jones in word it might be “sequins.” Big shimmery sequins like the ones that dangled from her chocolate brown dress when she took the stage at The Beacon last Friday night. She and The Dap Kings took over the theater and sweated out everyone’s hairstyle. The crowd had the energy and sizzle of a rice cake but Sharon still managed to coax some of her fans to mosey on stage and wiggle to songs like “Gotta Be Genuine” and “Be Easy.” But Sharon really got down on tracks like “Once I Had A Good Man” and the greasy funk re-working of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” It went on like that for about an hour when Sharon left the stage and kept the house lights hovering for the all-important encore. When her band retreated to the stage we begged for her return like funked-up animals. She returned after a slick costume change to a tarty tight, black floral number and tickled the ivories herself for “Answer Me.” Then she really brought the house down with a heart-twisting rendition of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and then broke down her ancestral history by dancing and storytelling to more James Brown riffs. Another word to sum up Sharon and The Dap Kings might be “whoa.”

In other “whoa” news, the best-selling album of all-time, Thriller was re-released last week which has sold over 100 million records and counting (Who sells a 100 million of anything these days?). Michael Jackson’s banger-heavy beast took home 8 well-deserved Grammys and songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “PYT” still lord over dance floors 25 years after its original release. Trying to improve on “Thriller” is like trying improve on air. You can’t really replace it with anything else. But Will.I.Am does a hat-tipping job with his updates of “The Girl Is Mine 2008″ and “PYT 2008.” I definitely appreciate the synth-mad syncopation of Will’s take on “The Girl Is Mine” and the restructuring of “PYT,” stacked with tinkling congas and New Jack Swing-era horns. Although I could do without Will’s verse on the latter, he does a fine job of preserving the spirit of the well-worn classics. Some people who need to keep their hands off Michael’s work however, are Akon and Fergie. Akon’s nasally update of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is just bland and Fergie horning in on “Beat It” with her shrill vocals is just wrong. Some things should not be touched.

Last week was also the kick off Giant Step’s 2008 Hudson Hotel series featuring Rich Medina and honestly, I was a bit reluctant to go to. I’ve been seeing him DJ for a while dating back to my college years in Philly (Go Quakers!). I’ve seen him rip up venues long since faded into nightlife past, (R.I.P. SoMa, Tragos) and tear down spots that are headed for legendary status (long live APT and Fluid). I’ve seen him share the bill with everyone from King Britt to Chin Chin. I’ve been there for endless Afrobeats and countless soulclaps. I really thought I ‘d seen it all from this guy. But bless him, Monday night’s throwdown at the ever-luxe Hudson was really beautiful. The dancefloor was alight with savage disco energy from jump. People were actually jumping. Rich went hard with magnetic tracks like k-Os’ rambunctious “Superstarr Pt Zero,” Donald Byrd’s fluid “Think Twice” and Shaun Escoffery’s thumpy “Days Like This.” And popular kids like Taylor McFerrin, Bobbito and Mario Van Peebles stopped by for the fun. The night wrapped up beautifully as Rich faded out with the dreamy Earth, Wind and Fire gem, “Fantasy.” Some things are just classic.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 2

Photo of Kid Sister ©

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Last month, The Natural History Museum hosted a gang of Chicago-bred, genre-blending upstarts from the Fools Gold label. It was a Flavorpill production that turned the site of numerous ennui-inducing school field trips, into an electro-hop playground. Hip hop tag team The Cool Kids, known for their musical-head-nod-to-the-old-school single, “Gold And A Pager,” busted on stage with their reliable bag of rowdy tricks. Then Kid Sister, in a shimmery disco-flapper ensemble, doused the crowd with super sass, performing body-rockin’ numbers like “Let Me Bang.” But the skinny jeans really hit the fan when Kanye West hit the stage with a surprise performance and dropped his verse from Kid Sister’s single, “Pro Nails.” Mr. West then put on a mini-concert with tracks from his latest album including “Good Life” and “Stronger.” The party made a few headlines which mostly gushed about Kanye’s impromptu performance. But the real story is the hip, young artists who made the party possible. Kid Sister and The Cool Kids have the swagger to pack hundreds into a sprawling planetarium on the upper west side and are tossing out online releases met with bubbling critical buzz. Even with delighted critics and rapturous fans, including Grammy-winning rappers, some kids, through no fault of their own aren’t going to hit big. So, instead of list of artists who will hit big in the ’08, I’ve compiled a list of kids who should get gobbled up by the masses but are simply too cool for mainstream consumption (Also, while reading these predictions, please take note of the tongue in my cheek).

Photo of Santogold © Mel D. Cole.

Santogold, the dub/rock/electro project fronted by A&R turned rock-star Santi White, has been popping up on “Next Big Thing” lists from the BBC to Rolling Stone to The Fader. She’s showstoppingly adorable. She sits comfortably at the popular kids table, collaborating with artists like M.I.A., Mark Ronson and Spank Rock. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s wicked talented. She had a hand in the production of singer Res‘ debut album 2001 How I Do. Her latest music is laced with the same dubby, wafty tones and rockin’ urgency as the Res’ project. Producer Switch is helming her full-length.
Why She Might Go Bust:
Her esoteric lyrics and genre-averse sound might make it hard to brand her for the Wal-Mart crowd.
Why She Might Go Big:
Homegirl’s music is downright loveable! Angsty but with the most feathery vocals. Refreshing combo and with the proper co-signs by her friends in fly places (M.I.A. Mark, et al), she could be a contender.

Kid Sister
The aforementioned Kid Sister is bringing back sass in a big way. Her style is reminiscent of legendary b-girls Salt-N-Pepa and she counts ‘90s girl groups like Xscape and Total amongst her influences. On wax, her delivery is punchy and her rhymes are real – she goes off on everything from horny guys (“Telephone”) to hooked-up nails (“Pro-Nails”). While she definitely bring the girl powah, what really sets her apart is her refreshing humility. In her live performances she genuinely seems happy to be there. There’s a lot of, “thank you guuuuys!!” and kissy-faces to her boyfriend/DJ A-Trak (bless them for taking the Ashford & Simpson approach to hitmaking).
Why She Might Go Bust:
Her sound is fun and “serious” and “significant” stars aren’t supposed to be fun. She’s gotta pick up some pesky drug addiction or make electro-driven funereal music to turn the tide.
Why She Might Go Big:
She’s got swagger like Kanye, off and on the mic, but her ego is considerably more manageable. In a sense, the anti-Kanye.

DC has a soul history but not many hip hop stars boast a Chocolate City pedigree. Wale could potentially make his city pop his nimble lyrical action. I guess you could peg him as an East coast Lupe Fiasco in terms of skill level but he takes himself a lot less seriously. And thankfully too because that means droppin’ rhymes over anything that’s kicky from J.U.S.T.I.C.E.’s tinkling disco gem “D.A.N.C.E.” to Mark Ronson’s velvety instrumentals (he’s signed to the producer’s Allido label). He brandishes his envy-inducing rhymes skills with a swaggerlicious ease that pop music could use right now.
Why He Might Go Bust:
There are only so many songs you can make about your footwear (Meh, at least the kid has a hobby).
Why He Might Go Big:
He’s intellectual without being depressing. And he’s got that innate hipness that the masses flock to Pharrell for. More a tastemaker than a taste-chaser.
Whether or not these artists and many more like them lock down endorsement deals and receive gilded mini phonographs this year is fairly irrelevant. Pop success isn’t even all that appealing anymore since scandals and psych wards are what seems to keep people in the news these days. In a perfect world, we’d be making it rain on stars like the aforementioned up-and-comers. But since we live in the real world, perhaps the least we can do is give these artists little green pieces of paper in exchange for a few minutes of fun.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 1

February 4th, 2008: MLK Weekend
By Mawuse Ziegbe

This column is kicking off at the top of Black History Month and what better way to usher in February than with a bunch of celebrations in honor of that great orator and organizer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a student, MLK weekend often means a wave of essays, lectures, symposia and even pageants commemorating his legacy. As an about-town 20-something in NYC it often means spending Sunday night shearing rugs at crowded venues throughout the city.

Dante’s Fried Chicken is a celebration with a very simple premise: sizzle up sumptuous eats and dish them out to the too-cool Scenester / Afro-punk / Post-Black / Neo-New Wave community. I was brazenly underdressed, what with my lack of designer leggings in eye-searing colors and baroque approach to accessorizing, but it is always encouraging to the see the cool kids do their thing. At Supreme Trading in Williamsburg, a much hyped fashion show took a few hours to materialize but not before some unforgettable performances hit the stage. One lanky crooner took the stage in a waxy patent leather overcoat, mumbling some curious couplets about tea. There were some spot-on acts like J. Zilla who hit hard with attitude-laced electro and booty-shakin’ prodigy, Rye Rye, fresh off well-received appearances with M.I.A., who brought the crowd to its hype apex. After struggling through the dense mob that enveloped the food table, I finally got to taste Dante’s famed chicken which was most satisfying indeed.

Next I dropped by Meatpacking’s dance haven Cielo to check out Norman Jay and DJ Spinna at Giant Step’s MLK Weekend bash. DJ Spinna dropped soulful house throughout the night, blending left-field remixes with classic foot-stompers. I got there a bit early while worldly power broker-types calmly milled about while a few downtown dance heads unleashed their footwork on the sparsely populated dance floor. But about 20 minutes later, the momentum bubbled up during the raucous ebb and flow of Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” which was woven into some sweaty James Brown funk. Ultimately the blithe energy of tracks like “Another Star” by Stevie Wonder really made the night.

Later at B.B. King’s, The 5-year anniversary of the Friday night weekly, The Freedom Party, with DJ Herbert and DJ Cosi sharing deck duties, was all about Black (music) history. Like some interactive hip hop lesson, a parade of Golden Era-hip hop stars burst out of the wings and showered the crowd with dizzying energy and memorable melodies. After Chubb Rock warmed up the crowd, Bronx duo Nice & Smooth got heads a-noddin’ with well-worn hits like “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” and their verses from Gangstarr’s 1992 classic “DWYCK.” And in a moment straight out of 1992, Positive K bumrushed the stage and bounded through a verse of his hit “I Got A Man.” Then one of the demigoddesses of freestyle music, Lisa Lisa, took to the mic. She brought back school dance memories with flirty numbers like, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and “Let The Beat Him ‘Em.” She also brought back break-up memories as the crowd swayed to her epic power ballad, “All Cried Out.”

At 3AM, just as I was ready to pack up my heels and wander back home, hip hop icon Slick Rick majestically sauntered on stage, weighed down under a gargantuan amount of gold rope chains. With his laidback cadence, he casually launched into “La Di Da Di” until another figure lumbered on stage and a roar erupted from the audience. I tried to keep from fainting as Biz Markie started beatboxing with Slick Rick.

I woke up on Martin Luther King Day more tired than in previous years but also with a bit more perspective. Yes, of course, the parties are thrown because most kids don’t have school or work the following day. Still, if one figure can have Black artists from punk to house to hip hop music, pulling out all the stops, it’s a freedom that we all should be grateful for.