Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 16

Photo of Muhsinah and Don Will of Tanya Morgan © Dorothy Hong

By Muwase Ziegbe

Hey lovers. Last week was all about the up-and-comers; the young’ns scrapping to the top of the heap with a song in their heart and a MySpace login. Tuesday night I hit up the issue release party for Theme magazine at 70 Greene Street (I love how “random recreation space” is the new “hot downtown spot”) featuring Eric Lau, Kissey Asplund and Muhsinah. Theme has its artful little eye on the deal-makers and rule-breakers making inroads in Asian culture and beyond. So having Eric Lau bring his Britain-based beatmaking skills to SoHo was definitely a good look. Lau flashed his head-nodding finesse on the wheels of steel, dishing out comfort soul from J. Dilla’s blissed-out take on “Think Twice” to D’Angelo’s guttural “Spanish Joint.” After swigging a few glasses of Black Swan Merlot, Kissey Asplund’s splintery, screechy vocals and absent-minded stage presence were disorienting. And Muhsinah is an able beatmaker and I was wicked excited for her performance but her gentle sound failed to connect with the audience. But impromptu performances from hip hop collective Tanya Morgan and rapper Eagle Nebula kicked up the energy a bit.

Afterwards, I upped the soul quotient at Be Easy, a Tuesday night jump-off at Tillman’s in Chelsea. Tillman’s is adorable with a nostalgic décor that reminds me of my rich auntie’s living room; the one who doesn’t want my grubby paws on her mid-century upholstery. But their recession-resistant prices definitely make me feel like an unloved stepchild. And as any night at the T, the people are like, totally beautiful; an after work spot for people whose jobs are obscenely cool – writers, artists, music heads etc. The playlist is powered by a rotating cluster of homies who take turns spinning and keeping the good vibes going. The music ranges from Little Brother to the Brothers Johnson to all the dusky hip hop soul in between. And host even hipped me to T.K. Wonder, a singer who makes buttery electro stuff and happens to slang dranks there. Even the wait staff is cooler than you.

Wednesday night I met the face of excess as Stoli and Wired magazine hosted a night of live digital art and dranky dranks at Hotel Stoli. The “hotel” was really just an expansive warehouse on the Hudson which Stoli tricked out with Ikea-esque rooms representing different flavors like Orange and Razberi. Conceptually the night was a winner: check out some artsy nerdlingers, like graphic artist Jelson Jargon, tinker and create digital art while you take your blood alcohol levels to new and exciting heights. And it was cool to see artists working in 10-minute intervals building upon each others’ work and birthing funky stuff like a radio tower inserted into a retooled photo of a soldier in combat. My only beef was that in such a huge space, there should have been more gargantuan screens on which to watch the magic unfold.

Thursday I saw your soon to be favorite singer, Janelle Monae. In the past month, I’ve seen everyone from Jay-Z to Erykah Badu and she handily threw down the best performance I’ve seen in a long time. She’s small and spry and kicked around the Highline Ballroom stage with trippy dance moves and spacey grooves. Imagine if a paranormal being landed in Roswell in 1957 and instead of seeking mind control over the masses, it just wanted to jam! Add a floppy pompadour and you’ve got Janelle Monae. Thoroughly satisfying.

Saturday night, I stayed up late to check out Korrupt, a party in a Chinatown food court hosted by Bijules and The Retro Kids (I actually missed the Retro Kids’ performance but one of them tried to get in my cab while I was still in it. I feel closer to God). Mussy-haired lost boys in too much day-glo infested the cutesy Chinese banquet room where I caught DJ Wools and DJ XXXChange packing the dance floor. The music was absolutely excellent with everything from choppy B-more club remixes of Curtis Mayfield to the Stardust’s Saturday night staple, “The Music Sounds Better With You.” Neo-disco begats debauchery so I was happy.

So what have we learned this week, boys and girls? The parties of tomorrow will be held in nameless rooms, footed by flossy likka companies where you’ll see MySpace singers before they become MySpace-sponsored singers. And you may feel closer to God.

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.