Giant Step’s Resident 30: Detroit, Home Sweet Home, Sarah Palin, Maxwell

Photo of Jazmine Sullivan at STEVEN (c) Donna Ward

By Mawuse Ziegbe

When I’m not camping out in craptastic bars in the LES or at a concert furiously scratching notes like a geekazoid, I daydream about the most fantastical situations. Maybe one day I’m making Smores with Amy Winehouse. Maybe I’m taking a magic carpet ride with Diddy. Maybe I’m shaving Common’s head. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m in the Midwest having the bestest time in a truly underrated city. Last week, I went to Detroit on business which is like Narnia for cheap beer-swilling, early ’90s dance addicts like myself. God bless the Motor City Casino Hotel where the driveway is lit up with a maze of rainbow lights like so many glittering Quaaludes. Ce Ce Peniston and Crystal Waters jams are pumped throughout the lobby and the rooms look like the set of a J. Lo video. I partied with some friends at an “apartment” (which, after living in “cozy” NYC apartments, looked like an airport hangar) that held a boutique, a DJ booth and a mess of bedrooms. People were cheery, the music was good and when it wasn’t good, it didn’t matter because alcohol in the Midwest basically costs a hug and a kiss.

But New York is the only place you will find buxom soul singers sweatin’ out a shoe store full of beautiful people. Our precious Giant Step orchestrated another throwdown at Steve Madden’s LES outpost which was swarmed by rapturous Jazmine Sullivan acolytes who knocked over precarious stiletto displays. It was a short 3-song set which she ended with her balmy reggae single, “Need U Bad.” Music heads who have been waiting for her time in the sun and newly enchanted well-wishers were all pouting for more. But children, she is going on tour which, by the by, is fronted by MAXWELL!! I mean, THE Maxwell – in all his singing-naked-in-the-bathtub, Afro-and-sideburns-before-it-was-cool, making-songs-for-sex-scenes-of-every-Sanaa Lathan-movie-since -1995 glory, – is actually coming to your city! You can pay to watch him gyrate for a few hours and maybe touch his head or something if you camp outside the tour bus. With Maxwell, John Legend and Raphael Saadiq on the road, 2008 is officially the year of the intellectual groupie.

2008 is also the two-year anniversary of one my favorite bars, Home Sweet Home. It’s basically an unmarked, unfinished basement packed with taxidermy and a broken disco ball. But its appeal is the reckless, sensual and, if I may, crackity sensibility that makes downtown NYC so legendary. I’ve had nights where one minute I’m teaching some hipsters the Soulja Boy and the next I’m vomiting onto a stuffed weasel. So, of course the anniversary party had to reflect that psycho glamour with complimentary Patrón and a giant moose ice sculpture which doubled as a shot luge. Resident performers Sweatshop Labor and Young Lords held court and even smiley trip-hop vocalist Sia came out for a drink and a dance. And yes, I got a little reckless, sensual and crackity.

However, more than taxidermy and making up adjectives, the hottest thing in the streets right now is the election debates. When they plucked that Sarah Palin woman from Baby Siberia, I thought she must have been a brainy, ambitious, innovative politician who could really shake up the stodgy and grim Republican ticket. Instead, we have this aging beauty queen with prom hair and a foreign policy perspective that’s seemingly informed by Rainbow Brite. I wish I could skip through the most important test of my life winking and giving shout-outs to 8 year-olds. Maybe, just maybe…if I keep dreaming.

Giant Step’s Resident 29: Raphael Saadiq, Jazmine Sullivan and More

By Mawuse Ziegbe

I recently went back to Boston for a truly mystifying experience: my middle school reunion. Unlike high school or college reunions, it’s too long ago for grudges or festering sexual tension to result in a truly glorious Ricki Lake moment. Instead, I was peering at people who I last saw eating glue and making macaroni art talk about diversifying their portfolio. The Capri Suns and knee scratches have been replaced by Blackberrys and breasts. The girl who used to wear goofy leggings is now dating a mayor. The girl who I used to build forts with is now doing nerdlinger stuff at IBM. The curly-haired boy who used to live for “soccah (God bless those Boston accents),” now owns a landscaping business and looks like a skinhead. Someone brought out a faded lit-mag where booger-picking classmates wrote 5-line stories about the history of pizza. And at one point I heard the unmistakable wail of the Macarena. Even the post-reunion toke-up had that unshakable element of “I’m going to wake up from this foolishness any minute now.”

So let’s ditch my awkward memories for music reminiscent of a simpler time: Raphael Saadiq’s latest album, The Way I See It. Saadiq is having no part of the 21st century and that’s just grand. There are lots of sunny marches and churchy grooves that sound like they come with vinyl furniture and a pair of saddle shoes. I’m all about “Stayin’ in Love” and “100 Yard Dash” and Saadiq’s liberal use of the tambourine. The only handicap is that the songs sound very similar and are mostly distinguished by their relative amounts of tambourine (“Big Easy,” moderate tambourine, “Love That Girl” mega tambourine). But most importantly he still has that earthy sensuality and those magical basslines that really melt my butter.

Sonically, each track on Jazmine Sullivan’s debut Fearless is distinct but lyrically, she’s got the torch thing on lock. Imagine every possible way one could muck up a relationship and Jazmine’s got some lyrics dripping with melisma and “drama with my ex-boo” sentiments. There are speaker-crushers for any occasion: If you’re getting cheated on (“Live A Lie”), if you’re cheating (“In Love With Another Man”), if you want your boo back (“Need U Bad”) and if you’ve just caused sizable property damage (“Bust Your Windows”). A truly versatile record for those who think happy endings are for tossers. The Lauryn Hill comparisons can easily be made (the melodies, Wu-Tang samples, Salaam Remi connection, etc) but for the most part, Jazmine is her own woman. The biggest difference is back in the day we used to dub artists like Hill and Sullivan “Neo-Soul.” Now they’re simply known as “talented.”

Giant Step’s Resident 28: New York Fashion Week, Solange and Barack Obama

By Mawuse Ziegbe

New York Fashion Week is like a flu virus: most people are affected and the city is overrun with lots of sickly-looking people pretending they’re extra fabulous. But, it’s an NYC rite of passage and like all stupid traditions you have to do it once. I have one of those freakishly put-together friends who just mounted her first fashion show for the Spring 2009 collection of Harlan Bel. Underfed waifs stalked down the runway to the startlingly cool sounds of The Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By,” The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” “I Belong To You” by Lenny Kravitz and “Blow Ya Mind” by Styles P. The clothing was a survey of sleekly architectural construction; prim minidresses detailed with sharp pleats, daringly asymmetrical cocktail frocks and pin-thin slacks with choppy, low-slung waistbands. The types of looks you might find in the Judy Jetson Resort Collection but not at all cartoony and comfortingly wearable.

However, the lead-up to the show was the most nerve-wracking thing, not because I was involved in the process but because I had to show up to the damn thing looking, well…good. After stressing for days, I finally settled on a beige tunic, shorts and these vintage-y black and white flats that made me look like an abolitionist out for a lark. I was all smug until I arrived and realized that next to real fashionistas my “effortless downtown chic” looked more like “useless bumpkin,” complete with the sad clown shoes. Good thing the actual show was no longer than 20 minutes and I was free to run off into the night where I could be judged not by ability to accessorize but by my hearty alcohol tolerance.

Fashion week is all about celebrities – none of whose shiny Botoxed glamour I’ve witnessed up close – but some of them still release music on these flat donut thingys called compact discs. Solange’s second album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams is the best reason I’ve seen for not stopping at one child. Beyoncé (or Robot Knowles as I like to call her) is all oiled abs and billowy hair extensions and not enough actual personality for my taste. But Sol-Angel swings from downy, Mid-century soul to ethereal trip-hop to languid, churchy blues; all powered by Solange’s plucky vocals and candid, catchy lyrics. On this record she gets mad, ecstatic, vulnerable and high on “life.” Plus, she prances about in obscene amounts of chiffon like an extra in Mahogany. Lovely.

And since I have a degree in Political Science and not fussing over dry-clean only clothes, my only other fashion week event was a Barack Obama fundraiser at Sutra. Questlove lorded over the club crammed with supporters still gussied up from the tents. It was fun and all but I’m just praying that America judges the candidates on their ability to lead and not the just their runway potential. Although Obama has it sewn up either way.

Giant Step’s Resident 27: Gilles Peterson, Hercules and Love Affair, Bobbito

Photo © Erik Schneider

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Recently, I experienced one of the truly crappy things about living in New York: getting your bike stolen. My Schwinn still had that new bike smell when it was jacked on Bedford Ave. What’s different for me is that it was my first bike since I was 11 (why I never learned to ride is a long, stupid story). Most of you already know the sting of losing your first set of wheels and the accompanying playground anguish and can handle it with aplomb. Not me, however. For the first few days, I would narrow my eyes at anyone on a blue cruiser. I imagined myself pummeling the thieving hoodlum and riding off into the sunset as a row of toothy schoolkids cheered me on. But really, was I going to bound into traffic, outrun a thief with robust pedal-pumping thigh muscles and reclaim my bike without further incident? Hell and no. But after trawling Craigslist and following dead leads on free bikes, I thought, this is America; why not just steal me another bike? Now I narrowed my eyes at poorly secured racers and suitably daffy owners who have wondered off for a latte. But again, how conspicuously nutty would I look yanking on locks while the owner fetches an espresso? And if I was successful, what happens when the owner sees me pedaling off and chucks the scalding coffee square at my back and I fall off writhing in the street. Then I’m not just a failed criminal, I’m a stupid, failed criminal. And really, I can’t be a thief – I don’t even have a mask!

But on a more growned-up note, Giant Step brought Gilles Peterson to Cielo which was wicked awesome. I never realized how amazing the sound at Cielo is! Gilles warmed up with some punchy Afrobeat and sped up the BPMs with some chunky deep house – including a sassy cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools.” But when Gilles launched into his Latin Jazz set, it really sounded like a 12-piece band was crouched beneath the turntables. It was like if you just conquered an empire and trumpeters trailed you constantly with your own saucy theme music. Plus, the man must eat music encyclopedias because in an hour he hops between Afrobeat, disco and Latin jazz, easy as pie. And Gilles Peterson sets are also awesome because he’s got some loyal diehards. I spent a couple songs chatting with a fellow who would pause the conversation to shriek at the DJ booth “Whoo!! This is what we paid our money for! DAMN!” Indeed.

I also caught Hercules and Love Affair at Irving Plaza and ain’t they the bees knees! The rainbow-friendly NY collective released their self-titled debut this year which makes my heart flutter. It’s unapologetically new wave, nu-disco, New York nightlife fun combined with the theater of ancient Greece. So, of course the show was one big ol’ shameless dance par-tay! Doors opened at 9 and they didn’t hit the stage until midnight but the voguers and 7-piece band turned it out. They played the late-night torch song, “You Belong” and “Athena” with come-hither coos. It’s like if you took the words “hot damn!” and made them into a recording group.

And in other hot damn news, the kids were hotfooting it at Bobbito’s turn at Giant Step’s Hudson Hotel DJ series last week. Bobbito dropped a range of hits from Chrisette Michele to Paul Simon to Parliament. Dancers of the Week, Brian Polite, DanSir and Dashuan got all Saturday Night Fever with it, wiping the floor clean with their synchronized moves and b-boy swagger. When you’ve soaked your starchy button-up so much that everyone can see your chest hairs through your pocket, you don’t need to mention how crazy the party was.

Giant Step’s Resident 26: Giant Step’s SummerStage and Rock The Bells

Photo of Jamie Lidell © Phillip Angert
View photos here. Archive link here.

By Mawuse Ziegbe

When you miss things, your good friends will fill you in on the highlights and assure you that no matter the pyrotechnics, special guests or bales of free money thrown in the air, you didn’t miss much. Well. If you missed Giant Step’s 2008 Summerstage show, your friends probably fed you a barrel full of fibs. The vibe was laid-back with adorable chubby-cheeked kids and their still-hip parents splayed on blankets. In between sets, Gilles Peterson spun everything from “Creator” to “California Soul.” José James was all midsummery goodness, showing off both his bold, round vocals and his brain-liquefying scatting skills. Little Jackie pumped the crowd with “The Stoop,” “LOL,” “The World Should Revolve Around Me” and probably scared the chubby-cheeked kids with rebellious directives like “put your middle fingers in the air!” But throwing up the potty-finger wasn’t the most jaw-dropping antic by far.

Jamie Lidell turned out an epic performance looking like a crazy person in a dark shirtless blazer and darker tapered pants. He began his hour-long set with syrupy soul jams like “Green Light” and “Figured Me Out,” and soon switched into talkbox scatting. Most of the band was dressed in snappy man-onesies and the sax man even blew two horns at once. After the solos, Jamie was left to his own devices and sampled his own vocals to make a beat onstage. I mean, can humans do that? Even still both Jamie and Little Jackie began their sets with, “whoa! Did you guys see Janelle Monae??”

Monae took to the stage after her android-inspired introduction and unleashed her frenzied footwork and fiery energy that perked up the crowd. She rocked “Happy Hunting/Violent Stars!” “Smile” and “Sincerely Jane” where she kicked over the mic stand (much to the chagrin of the Summerstage audio guy) and crowd surfed. She rode the crest of concertgoers with enviable abandon, as husky security guards lumbered after her and weary label people in the photo pit began punching away on Blackberrys. In a moment of cartoony chaos, a pair of shoes flew through the air. She ended with “Lettin’ Go,” a track that’s good a ratio of The Neptunes’ spacey clinks to Miami Sound Machine’s calypso funk. Just before running off and leaving a park full of slack-jawed, sweaty, newly-converted fans in her wake, she crashed the mic stand against the stage more violently than before.

After the Summerstage show I ran off to Long Island to check out the Rock The Bells tour. 7 PM I leave Central Park. 10:30 PM I arrive at Jones Beach Theater. It took subway, rail, foot and gypsy cab to finally arrive in the amphitheatre in the middle of Nas’ set. I’ve never seen him live and he was…simple. A white T-shirt and a rope of bling completed his ensemble and only a spare N-A-S lit up the screen in the background. He played a ton of songs including, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” “One Love,” “Hate Me Now,” “Nastradamus,” and his current single “Hero.” The hip hop heads nearly exploded when he brought Jay-Z out for their two duets, “Success” and “Black Republicans.” But I personally believe that bringing out your erstwhile rival on wax to perform your mediocre collabos is not so crescent fresh. Overall, it was very…whatever.

The show closed with the legendary A Tribe Called Quest reunion I’ve been waiting on for, oh, ten years. At first Q-Tip came out alone performing “Higher,” “Let’s Ride” and other selections from his painfully jiggy solo debut that no real ATCQ fan gives a hoot about. Tip is out there shakin’ his tailfeather and I’m truly getting angry. Where is the group, the collective, the Queens trio that has never been the same since they disbanded? Making the show all about him was appalling. He didn’t come off like the Wyclef or the Lauryn – he was the Pras. Delusional, self-important and wasting the audience’s time. The show really started when finally, about 20 minutes in, Ali Shaheed descends upon the wheels of steel and Phife Dawg gallops out. And then they bring it. “Award Tour,” “Electric Relaxation,” “Find A Way,” “Bonita Applebum.” A fiery Busta Rhymes rumbles out for the posse cut of the ages, “Scenario.” Then we all, about 10,000 of us, put one finger in the air for hip hop – and for the 3-hour sojourn back to NYC.