Alsarah Talks ‘Silt’ & Embracing the Concept of a Living Tradition

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Former Giant Step staff member and singer Alsarah has gone on do some amazing things; Constantly on the go internationally and within Brooklyn, she’s enamored dozens of audiences with her vibrant music and dynamic stage presence. While her influences clearly draw from her Sudanese heritage, the frequent experimenter’s sound knows no bounds. Last month she released Silt, the debut album for her group, Alsarah & The Nubatones. Get a look into the rising star’s mind and what lies ahead in this exclusive interview!

Giant Step: What was the driving force behind you creating Silt? Where would you want it to reside in the greater musical dialogue?

Alsarah: I wanted to make an album that spoke to my experience as a musician. Something that both spoke to my roots as well as my present. I see it as being a part of the greater East African musical dialogue. A dialogue that I think needs to be heard internationally and not just in the region.

GS: Since many of your listeners may not speak Arabic, could you give us a rundown of some of the focal topics on Silt?

A: The over-arching common theme in this album is migration/immigration, and while that is never overtly addressed in a didactic sense, it is the common denominator. It is addressed directly sometimes in songs like “Bilad Aldahb” (The Land of Gold), which is part of the Nubian Songs of Return genre written by Ahmed Mounib. This song speaks of a nubian person’s longing for their home by the banks of the nile and their deep sense of loss with a repeating chorus that states “I am a human, and my address is the land of gold”. We also touch on it indirectly sometimes with songs like “Soukura (It’s Late)”, an original composition by myself arranged by The Nubatones that speaks of ‘secrets untold that must melt and pour out someday’. But we also flirt with the idea of this topic thru traditional girls music like the opening track “Habibi Taal” (my love come here) where a woman sings to her lover to come and be with her across all distances and different lands. Also, I’m working on a PDF of translations for all the lyrics of the songs that I plan on putting up on my website soon!

GS: How does being an ethnomusicologist inform your music making?

A: Well, I think the biggest thing is it put all my music in a larger historical context and allowed me to see myself as part of a larger story of music culture. It also helps me understand how the western world views the idea of ‘ethnic’ music and all the trappings that come with that gaze i.e. preserving traditional music in its purest format; what is authentic enough and why, etc. Once you see yourself as part of a living tradition but not its sole keeper, you are free to create new work within that tradition as opposed to just being a slave to the idea of preserving it.

GS: We had the pleasure of having you at Giant Step for a few years. How do your experiences working on the business side of music influence your approach to the music industry?

A: Honestly, it was one of the most valuable experiences I could ever have as a musician. Nothing can make you understand how the business works quite like being on the industry side of things. What’s really important and what’s not, the types of traps to avoid, who to trust or not and how to make that judgement call. All of that is nothing anyone teaches you as a musician; you are supposed to just learn it by trial and error, but working at GS for a few years has helped me avoid some serious mistakes so far.

GS: In your opinion, what qualities make certain music timeless?

A: I think music that communicates a past present and future is timeless music. And the most beautiful part of those qualities is the diverse array of ways to communicate them.

GS: As someone that seems to deeply enjoy experimentation and exploration, you’ve worked on an array of projects over time, including your recent release with Debruit. What’s next on the horizon for you?

A: There is lots brewing right now, so its an exciting time. I’m finishing up projects that were already started and starting new ones. Debruit and I are going on our first tour together in June around Europe and trying to plan an August tour in North America already. I’m working as the music producer on a documentary about war, music and identity in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions of Sudan where I traveled last year. We should have ready for release by the end of the summer. I’m also working with a few other producers and musicians making songs here and there that will be trickling out over the next few months. Another exciting project for me is working with folk musician Toshi Reagon on a new body of songs I’ve been writing but that’s still a long way from done, so we won’t talk about it now :)

The Flatbush Zombies Keep the Party Going Even When the Music Stops

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By Chelsea Whitaker

Thirty minutes before the Converse Rubber Tracks show featuring Flatbush Zombies, the line snaked already around the corner of Wythe avenue. The crowd skewed young – Brooklyn kids in black leather, camouflage, and hypebeast-worthy sneakers. One enterprising teen tried to sell me a lukewarm Heineken of a Herschel backpack. The show was free, but the investment to grab tickets and wait on a street corner dissuaded the more fickle fans. These kids were here to party – hard.

The event catered to this with a DJ set between each act by Nick Catchdubs – who co-founded Fools Gold Records with A-Trak. His ability to play a solid mix of the most popular hip hop tracks turned the Music Hall of Williamsburg into a massive moshpit party. I think some of the bros in the moshpit had a religious experience during his version of “Pop That”, which blended into a heavy trap beat punctuated by air horns and the “Fool’s Gold” drop. People were crowd-surfing and kick-fighting to tracks by Waka Flocka Flame and Kanye West way before the Zombies took the stage.

A$AP Nast came onstage in an unexpected appearance, heralded by six dudes in hoodies yelling “ASAP!” and throwing water bottles into the crowd. People quickly realized how wild Nast and A$AP Mob get, and I was struck by how many of Nast’s songs I knew. He played “Black Mane” and the crowd was singing along to every NSFW word. Nast ended with a performance of “Trillmatic”, an internet favorite that lightened the vibe and reminded us that Nast does, indeed, have bars as well as antics.

Eventually, eager fans started getting antsy for the Zombies. A spontaneous group-rap of “Thug Waffle” broke out amongst some bros, and it was surprisingly good. Just before the Zombies took the stage, cheesy dollar store graveyard decorations were set up on the stage, and a giant sticky spiderweb was thrown over the crowd.

With the theatrical elements in place, Zombie Juice jumped on stage. Erick “Arc” Elliott and Meechy Darko emerged from the sideline, with Meech wearing a ski mask. The trio’s strong chemistry was amplified by the fact Erick serves as producer on many of their songs. I have seen the Zombies before, and I knew what to expect: crowd surfing, mosh pits, blunt smoke and a compelling medley of spitfire lyricism. But this was all put to the test when the Zombie was forced to go acapella.

Two songs in, the music suddenly cut out. Meech jumped on the mic said he ‘spilled his 40 oz’ on the DJ’s computer… and it was dead. Despite the lack of instrumentals, the guys were devoted to the performance, spitting verses a cappella to enthrall the awestruck crowd until another computer was found. It was a moment I was glad to see – the energy and delivery of the Zombies made the a cappella verses in some ways more compelling than even the mixtape tracks.

For the rest of the show, the crowd sang, smoked and crowd surfed right along with Meech, Juice and Erick. At one point, a kind fan passed a blunt onstage to Meech, who welcomed it with deep inhalations. To take the party to the next level, Bodega Bamz joined the Zombies onstage for their song together “Thrilla”. The “New New York” whipped up the crowd into a frenzy. I guarantee more than a few people in the moshpit woke up the next morning with gnarly bruises acquired during this song.

The performance ended with Meech saying that he felt like it “wasn’t their best performance” – referring to him computer issue forcing us to endure 128 kHz instrumentals. Maybe he was right – the sound was a bit off. But the crowd energy was vibrant in spite of, or maybe because of, the intimate a cappella portion and the hours of waiting. The fans came out to turn up with rockstars, but in the end it felt a lot more like a house party with the coolest kids in Brooklyn – where the turn up doesn’t stop, even when the music does.

Iggy Azalea Delivers Danceable Inspiration on ‘The New Classic’

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By  Chelsea Whitaker

Iggy Azalea‘s days of “no money, no family, 16 in the middle of Miami” may be gone – replaced with runway shows and magazine spreads – but her past is far from forgotten. On her first full-length album, The New Classic, allusions to the struggle are sandwiched between cocky punchlines and personal anecdotes, leaving the listener inspired and empowered – something rare for any rapper, let alone a blonde girl from Australia.

Iggy has always struggled to find her niche, between rap, pop, EDM and reggae. She was, and still is, an outsider; She makes music for artsy kids and the club girls. Her spitfire persona flips between blonde bombshell and music nerd (with a big dollop of hustler swag thrown in), making her the perfect icon for wanna-be queens, drama kids, dreamers, and everyone in between. Her struggle was to find that core sound. Her rapping skills have always been on point (Iggy was the first female XXL freshman) but her production was missing that magical mass appeal her superstar lyrics deserved. The New Classic changes all that.

[Read more...]

Kelis Bares Her Soul on ‘Food’

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By Chelsea Whitaker

I’ve been impressed by Kelis since I heard her sing the hook to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money”. She was dripping in attitude, giving the track the vocal equivalent of a side-eye. Kelis moved on to find a distinct niche as top songstress of The Neptunes, who brought a unique playfulness to her hit songs “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There”.

It’s been 11 years since “Milkshake” permeated clubs and block parties. Kelis has released two albums since then, but neither of them truly recapture the magic of her debut album Kaleidoscope. By staying in the public eye throughout her divorce from Nas she was present but not musically relevant – and his song about her did not help. With the release of a new album, Kelis offers a departure from her past by embracing a vintage sound.

Kelis delivers a soul-drenched take on all types of nourishment on her sixth studio album, Food.  Kelis appears as a soulful kitchen goddess, and does so while keeping her sound toe-tappingly upbeat. This sound is a departure from her previous albums, and is deeply influenced by producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio. The result is a blend of deep yet mellow tracks perfect for any cookout or dinner party. [Read more...]

Amanda Seales and Kris Bowers Bring Jazz to Wu-Tang Classics at ‘Mo’ Betta Wu’ Show in NYC

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Words by Korby Benoit

Amanda Seales and Kris Bowers recently debuted their live collaboration Mo’ Betta Wu at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York.  Mo’ Betta Wu is a one of a kind show where the artists reinterpret hip hop classics by the Wu-Tang Clan as jazz standards. It all results into a spirited and comedic performance that will amuse hip hop heads and jazz cats alike.

Backed by an accompanying 4 piece band dubbed The Shinobis, Seales handles all the vocal duties as the character Killandra Bea (the name is a play on the term ‘killa bee’). Killandra is a long-time resident of Staten Island’s Stapleton housing projects. She is bold and quick witted, as she engages the audience with clever quips in between the reworked Wu-Tang bangers. Songs like “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Shimmy, Shimmy Ya” and “Triumph” are presented in a manner in which most hip hop fans would never imagine.

Seales flexes some impressive vocal range, while the arrangements of jazz pianist Kris Bowers  manage to retain the head nodding appeal of the original Wu-Tang material. The beats are easy to recognize yet unfold in new ways. This was a significant challenge for, Bowers as he explained, “That was a worry of mine as an arranger. Whether or not people were going to hear the samples through what we were playing. So I was glad that the audience picked it up.”

Much of the show is driven by the chemistry between the artists and the audience. Amanda Seales displays a certain awareness which allows her to be playful and improvise much of her performance as Killandra Bea.  She states, “It comes from a genuine connection to the audience. I’ve been really lucky to have that intuition and to be able to feel.  And this is going to sound really existential, but to be able to feel beyond what people are showing me. It’s what helps me be a good comic. It’s what helps me be a good DJ and good performer.”

With the 20th anniversary of  Wu-Tang’s seminal Enter The 36 Chambers upon us, as well as other hip hop masterpieces such as NasIllmatic, it is refreshing to see artists pay homage. Perhaps projects like Mo’ Betta Wu are a way to remind us of hip hop’s limitless potential.