Giant Step’s Resident 20: Detroit Electronic Music Festival 2008

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Memorial Day weekend ’08 I wasn’t passed out, tummy distended, on somebody’s gritty Brooklyn “rooftop lounge.” Instead, I trekked to the Midwest to take in The Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Everyone from Mark Farina to Richie Hawtin to Benny Benassi to The Cool Kids camped out near downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center as I spent Memorial Day weekend in a flurry of D&B, hard house, deep house, minimal tech and corn dogs (I’d never had a corn dog before, those things were delish!).

Day 1
I began my Midwest sojourn by flying on the ever dodgy Spirit Air which had $9 fare sales but the seats looked like they were ripped open by a cat. An angry cat. When I touched down my friend gave me two things that apparently make Detroit really special: Faygo soda and BetterMade chips. They were like Sunkist and Lays on steroids. Angry steroids. Favoring proximity to the festival over any semblance of quality, we checked into the Comfort Inn; replete with unidentified stains on the curtains and a view of, um, the parking lot. But that night I hit up a party with a grip of house artists (what is the point of Detroit without house music) just off Jefferson ave. We got there wicked late and the music was fine, sultry, epic deep house. But loud. Lawd-a-mercy, everywhere in the D everything was just too dang loud! We went to sleep to rest our swollen eardrums.

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Real Detroit © Mimi Louya

Day 2
Comfort Inn was giving us the willies so we upgraded to the St. Regis which at least looked like there was a washing machine on the premises. Then we got brunch at the Detroit Breakfast House and Grill. A lot of restaurants in the Motor City have adorable entrees like “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Waffles” and we tucked into some Bananas Foster pancakes and sky-high stuffed French toast. With our diabetes-inducing brunch packed in our stomachs we moseyed to the festival. Raves are still de rigueur in the D as tweeny girls with neon clip-on dreads and buzzed guys with Freshjive wide-leg pants milled about (Since pants are so passé, many girls just cut off the pant legs and taped them around their thighs). The festival grounds included two stages, two DJ set-ups and this underground lair called Real Detroit. Egyptian Lover put on a truly epic hour-plus performance on the Red Bull Music Academy stage and later I caught Mike Grant puttin’ it down in the lair. The hottest part of the night was Pete Rock who threw down a Pu Pu Platter of regional classics with early ’90s jams by Snoop Dogg and Biggie. The crowd was ravenous for more, even though the sound cut out on the last song, his own hallmark track with C.L. Smooth, “T.R.O.Y.” We ended the night watching Moby pack the Vitamin Water outdoor amphitheater with tons of die-hards bopping to Basement Jaxx and beyond. It was like something straight out of the ’9-9-6.

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photo © Mimi Louya

All day we’d been jonesing for a party that was straight of the ’9-7-6: Soul Skate ’08. It was a skate-party at Northland Skating Rink where even Amp Fiddler came to roll, bounce. And this is one of the ways the Midwest kills New York: good clean fun. There were couples, singles, groups and teams teeming with good Midwestern spunk, gliding along while Motown favorites and funk staples blared from the speakers. Then there was a skate competition where suave teams from Chicago, wiry pimpalicious old-heads and fresh young anklebiters in sagging pants went at it, flippin’ around, spinning on one skate and whatnot. But the victors were a buxom couple that swirled along to Ne-Yo’s “Can We Chill.” Three cheers for love.

Day 3
After another boozy…er, social brunch, we went thrifting where I picked up a checkered gingham number (you just don’t find quality gingham in the city) and a tailored gray shift. Then, galvanized by the wonders on wheels from the night before, I promptly bought some roller-skates (I’ve been actually wheeling around at parties like a lunatic since). We made it back to the festival grounds where we saw the one-man party that is Girl Talk. Known for his storied, blithe electro mixes he was all brash, shirtless cock-rock excess, playing to a stacked crowd of admirers. On the other side of the festival and the performance spectrum, Carl Craig spun a tidy, minimal house set that, sadly, served as little more than electronic muzak.

Afterwards, we jetted to Detroit venue The Magic Stick where 2 Live Crew performed. We wanted to go to check out one of the legendary pillars of shock rap who even fought for their right to be nasty all the way to the Supreme Court. Following a warm-up by Peanut Butter Wolf, they demonstrated many reasons why today they can barely pack a living room. For one, those fools have no stage presence. What’s changed now is that they’re older and creaking across the stage, damn near wheezing out their rhymes. And their rhymes are not good elbow-nudging fun; they’re horrifyingly obtuse, boorish and offensive. Times when a swear word is far from necessary, the Crew will jam in three. What really torpedoed my innocence were their dancers. Women who were probably full of life and naturally occurring collagen back in 1992 were slower, um, wider and less artful about jigglin’ it. One lady went completely topless as flabbergasted fans flashed camera phones and dollar bills. It went from Magic Stick to Magic City with one flick of a tube top. Even The Cool Kids watched, mouths agape, at the pandemonium. I was pretty much done.

I had an early flight and went straight to the airport after the show. Overall, I really found the city charming. There’s not much development so it’s fixed in time; lots of grand marquees and restaurants that haven’t switched up the décor since the 1930s. Not many people and very spread out so it’s a relatively quiet big city with a pretty cool view of Canada. It’s scrappy and things shutter early but it was a welcome respite from the glass castles, grimy debris and endless buzz of NYC. Beer, brunch and beats – I could call the trip “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Wonderful.”

Giant Step’s Resident 19: Bugz In The Attic, Brown Girls Burlesque, The Roots Picnic, J*Davey

By Mawuse Ziegbe

I know a lot of you beautiful flowers were wilting in this weekend’s oven fresh heat but I was cookin,’ honey. And I ran into some children who didn’t let the heat stop them no way. Monday night, DJ Daz-I-Kue of Bugz In The Attic was serving up global burners including fiery Afrobeat, disco and tribal house selections at The Hudson Hotel. And Wednesday night, the fabulous people let me moonlight in their world at the Fashion Delivers Pay It Fashion Forward event (ooh, what a cute pun!) honoring young designers. It was hosted by chipper ex-”House Of Style” host, Daisy Fuentes (ooh, where has she been?) at Marquee. Of course, the hook for me was Janelle Monae who swayed the blasé fashion types with a table dance and blithe accompaniment from her bewigged guitarist Kellindo.

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Janelle Monae © Jason Green

Thursday night, the fashion types gave me a reality check as I partook in a long, storied New York tradition: getting shut out of a party. Giant magazine cover girl Kimora Lee Simmons hosted an issue release party at Indochine. We loitered outside – I was with a writer whose story appears in the issue – while the doormen shooed us away, barking some business about capacity and not being shallow enough (I kid, I kid). After catching Kimora’s dramatic arrival, towering above a clutch of bodyguards (for serious, that woman is like, 10 feet tall. I’m not convinced her name isn’t Kimora Lee Bunyan), me and some other little people went to the House of Campari and did it up royal. The three-story loft housed loads of the bitter Italian liquor with groovy 70s-era commissions lining the walls including a shrine featuring a disco album by Robert “Benson” Guilliame. Outta sight.

Chicava HoneyChild at Brown Girls Burlesque © Vishnu Hoff

Last week, Prince Rogers Nelson got his AARP card and I celebrated by taking in the Shockadelica tribute by Brown Girls Burlesque. You know, instead of choking down EZ-Baked brownies, shimmying topless to “Kiss” is what I always envisioned my imaginary big sister would teach me. It was all fun and boobs as women of all sizes got the crowd all hot and bothered to songs from all eras of Prince. Then at midnight, ladies with hot draggy names like Miss AuroraBoobRealis and Sunshine Fayalicious passed out shots of purple likka (which went down like a fistful of needles). And the crowd went batshit when Dame CuchiFrita, undressing to “Little Red Corvette,” clamped the jumper cables to her…nevermind. You can find out how to join at www.myspace.com/browngirlsburlesque

Saturday, I rode the Chinatown bus in 90-degree heat to The Roots Picnic in Philly (and why was Zoe Kravitz slummin’ it in the seat in front of me?). I love how their idea of “picnic” is an outdoor festival complete with inflatable castles and um, baked bean stands. I caught Deerhoof which was weird; beeping noises and disjointed “rhythm.” Yeah. Although audio problems plagued the day-long concert, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings as per usual, shut it down. And I’ve seen the The Roots googol times and they’re just swell. They rocked everything from their own “Love Of My Life” to a pop medley featuring “SexyBack.” Even legendary bassist Hub came back for a special solo. And 8 hours after the show began, Gnarls Barkley took the stage. Although Gnarls was fine (no funny costumes), the audience was kind of stoned, er…tired and the LSD grooves were not helping. Cee-Lo even asked, “Did you hear the album.” The crowd responded with a slack-jawed, “whaaa?” Blame the ooweee.

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Gnarls Barkley © Mel D. Cole

Sunday night back in NYC I tried to get my culture game up by taking in Rachelle Ferrell at Blue Note. Blue Note is one of those institutions shrouded in New York legend but the performance was memorable because they had zero air conditioning. Or a fan. Or a window. But the heat ain’t stop Rachelle no way and she performed a gaggle of jazz and pop songs until she was literally soaking. And I have never witnessed that level of vocal virtuosity. She would jump from a sharp, tinny falsetto to a cavernous, guttural bass note – in the same word. Can we get a summer blockbuster featuring Rachelle Ferrell dissolving amateurs with her vocal prowess?

Afterwards, I saw J*Davey pack the house at S.O.B.s. Following high-energy sets from Taylor McFerrin and the duo Heavy (homeboy had a key-tar that sprayed spoogy silly string on the audience), Jack Davey and Brook D’Leau, backed by a live band, played a grip of their famously synthy catalog like “Slooow” and even a cover of “Message In A Bottle” by The Police. The highlight was during the slow-jam “No More” when girl-crazy NYC photog Mel D. Cole undressed Jack down to her black bustier and lacy boy shorts. My girl who took the tempo slowdown as a cue to fetch a beverage came back just as Jack pulled on her shirt and chirped, “What did I miss?”

Oh and before I go, FYI: Wale’s “Seinfeld”-inspired Mixtape About Nothing is that good good. Download it (and maybe rub it on your teeth to make them tingle). You’re gonna need something to keep cool.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 18

Photo of Mickey Factz © Mel D. Cole

By Mawuse Ziegbe

I consider myself a hip hop head. But being a hip hop head with a vagina is not all tea and crumpets. For one thing, every show kinda feels like crashing a bachelor party. When I keep a hopeful eye for my sistren, I usually find a couple of ladies, eyes glazed over, clearly dragged to the show by their bedroom-producer boos. What really ruffles me is when MC Such and Such screeches, “this one’s for the ladies!!” Like, what? The other hour and a half of your set wasn’t for me? Why was I standing in heels and elbowing tipsy NYU kids all night? How about I return your album and just download that one song “for the ladies.”

So why do I keep going? Mostly, it’s hope (as Obama proves, yes we can!). For every clumsy cock-hop rapper flapping his gums, there’s a Kidz In The Hall. Back in undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, I heard about this senior, Jabari who was actually going to chase his dreams and become a rapper. Usually, Quakers file out of Penn and into cushy jobs like so many overachieving automatons (People don’t really blow 200 Gs on book-learnin’ and then go hustle and flow for a living). Maybe crippling student debt drives the duo of Naledge and fellow Penn album, Double-O because their latest album, The In Crowd, is all sorts of fantastic. Their influences are all over the place as glimmers of N.E.R.D., Camp Lo (who appear on the album), Little Brother (see track 2), and Eric B & Rakim are in the mix. They’re not immune from lyrical foolery but the Kidz do put their schoolin’ to work with the wordplay. They sound like good chilluns who cut-up in seedy pool halls.

Plus, they know err’body in the bourgeoning nerd-hop scene. Travis McCoy from Gym Class Heroes, Estelle, Skyzoo, Phonte from Little Brother, one of those beefy guys from Game Rebellion and more all came through their party at S.O.B.s like there was some collapsible clown car on stage right. The best surprise of the night was Mickey Factz who also impressed me at the In The Mood party last week at Midway. Ubiquita DJ SheRock (who you can often catch feverishly waggin’ her behind at a Hudson Hotel event) was unleashing burners in the DJ nook and downstairs Mickey was one big ball of dapper swagger, ending his set with a hearty version of his addictive midtempo track “Automatic.” He can be very on-trend (there is the boneheaded thump of “I Like Your Supras”) but his music is fairly classic – think powdery future soul with introspective lyrics and hot girls singing the hook. Overness.

The same night, the Brownswood Sessions 7 went down at NuBlu with José James. Another Ubiquita beauty, DJ Moni held court with the chunes as crackly projections bathed the walls. Once again, Brownswood, with José’s bold, round vintage vocals gives off that intimate, jam-session-in-my-bedroom feel that makes up for that wily trek to Avenue C. And speaking of home, I recently checked out Stanley Lumax’s “Back To My Roots” exhibit opening at Habana Outpost. I really liked his photos of rural Ghana when he showed at Harriet’s Alter Ego back in April and this exhibit features more colorful and poignant snapshots of Africa’s west coast. And thankfully there’s none of that forced “Africans are beautiful too!” visual rhetoric that cheeses up those Benetton campaigns.

But honestly, stark Benetton billboards featuring smiley Africans could have been the backdrop to every scene in Sex and the City: The Movie and I wouldn’t have noticed – I loved it!! It wasn’t the Couture Four still running around the island cocktailing and teabagging but rather sad yet lovely new phases for my favorite characters. Next week I may wax about what it’s like seeing the movie for the 4th time – because SATC is definitely for the ladies in the house.

Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 17

Photo of James Pants

By Mawuse Ziegbe

Recently, I’ve discovered two bands who’ve made me want to slap my mama…out of joy of course. There’s lots of buzz about shiny new bands brimming with spunk and glamour. But for The Kills and The Whitest Boy Alive, dizzying laptop-critic buzz is old hat. I absentmindedly downloaded “Cheap and Cheerful” after hearing journos in the American Apparel media (Nylon, Fader, Pitchfork etc) yapping about the platonic punk pair Alison “VV” Mosshart and Jamie “Hotel” Hince. Can we talk about the rowdy that song is? The pouty vocals, the snappy lyrics and snarly guitars, all kicked off by a phlegm cough from “VV.” Their latest, Midnight Boom, is twinkly lo-fi – moody and spare with moments of spry wit and petulant kick. I thought I was all on the pulse only to learn this is their third album. Drat.

And when I stumbled onto The Whitest Boy Alive I was straight-up sore that no one invited me to the party earlier. The Whitest Boy Alive is actually several (four) white boys (German to be exact) who pump out plucky electro rock. Think the bastard child of Peter Bjorn and John and The Rapture. Sorta like beach music for the city. Sunny jams like “Figures” and “Burning” make their 2006 album, Dreams enjoyable. But the shadowy laments of heartbreak and smoky soul on tracks like “Golden Cage” and “Done With You” make it memorable.

I wish someone had hipped me to The Kills and The Whitest Boy Alive earlier but with the glut of music the average listener is faced with, things slip through the cracks. Here are some newbies whose hype you should believe wholeheartedly. Listen hard when their publicity machine comes grinding in your direction.

Janelle Monae
You may have first seen her in the sunny clip for Outkast’s “Morris Brown.” Diddy got wind of her fabulousness and now she’s on a joint deal between Bad Boy and Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon labels. Tiny and uncontained, the ex-drama kid brings a genuine sense of theater to her performances. Her peppy sound bounces between breezy, plush lounge and something that sounds like punk rock for fairytales. No tired torch songs here just cryptic yet poetic lyrics about aliens and androids – you know, girl stuff. And can we talk about how homegirl keeps a reserve of spankin’ fresh saddle shoes? That alone is worth a marriage proposal.

You should check out: “Violent Stars / Happy Hunting”

http://www.myspace.com/janellemonae

Black Kids
Let’s not pretend that name isn’t a head turner. It smacks of gimmicky desperation. But praise MySpace their skills extend beyond a flair for catchy name-selection. The five members of Black Kids (only two are actually black) hail from Jacksonsville, FL. That may account for the balmy guitar that cloaks the tracks on their 2007 EP, Wizards of Ahhs. Their appeal lies in their irreverent teenaged cool (“it’s Friday night and I ain’t got nobody so what’s the use of a making a bed?”). Only bad thing is that they’re currently soooooo cool that they’ve got a hit song in the UK (“I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You”) and they’re touring all over Europe with nary a stateside date on their MySpace. Boo.

Check out: “Hurricane Jane” www.blackkidsrock.com

Muhsinah
So Muhsinah is a name that has been peppering my favorite media outlets like nobody’s business (check out the power-fawning over at Okayplayer.com). At first listen her appeal is very basic: lots of dreamy soul with liberal use of horns, flutes and dusky percussion. But the DC native mixes it up on her album Day.Break. Bless her for weaving together sensual Bossa Nova with steely beats on “Only and Always.” The project is entirely self-produced, shaming a lot of the children cluttering the Hot 100. Her knob-twiddling style is reminiscent of both Nicolay and J. Dilla and her vocals can be disjointed yet comforting. She’s a bit subtle for the meatheads but that’s always a good sign.

Check out: “Only and Always” www.muhsinah.com

James Pants
James Pants is pretty much my favorite producer, music-maker and funny-picture-taker right now. He churns out splashy noise that at first sounds like a racket but when the melody settles in…ooh chile. Pants is a chubby-cheeked producer-singer based in Washington who clawed his way up from intern to artist at Stones Throw and homeboy has got some soul. His sound is flossy disco topped with a healthy dollop of shimmery tambourine-laced sound effects. Imagine if Gary Wilson wrote and produced for the Bee Gees. His money-hungry single “Kash” came out last year and since then he’s dipped his funky little toe in everything from rowdy garage rock to moody new wave. At this rate, next year he could be doling out hip hop polkas with finesse. And I need to hear that.

Check out: “We’re Through” www.myspace.com/jamespants

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.