Survivors: An Interview with KRS-One and Buckshot

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This article originally appeared in Popmatters.

“You can become one of us by sounding like none of us.”
—Buckshot

“We use our minds to write rhymes that you can touch / My feet stay planted on the ground / You want that soft pop sh*t you better book another sound / We gets down, I know the streets / Ya’ll rappers got maps out looking all around.”
—KRS-One lyric from “Survival Skills”

For those weary and lost in the wilderness of auto-tuned rap and hip-hop, Kris Parker (aka KRS-One) and Kenyatta Blake (aka Buckshot) are coming to the rescue. Collaborating for the first time on Survival Skills, the duo assembled a team of emcees and DJ’s that spans three generations. It’s a sonic adventure that finds both artists exploring new territory and mapping out their next career moves.

Across 14 tracks, KRS-One and Buckshot educate the next generation of hip-hop artists and fans alike by calling out those who’ve auto-tuned away the heart of hip-hop in the mainstream. Survival Skills retains the old-school, boom-bap vibe while putting it in a fresh new-school skin.

On “Clean Up Crew,” street-smart rhymes mix with crafty humor, while “Survival Skills,” and “Past * Present * Future” impart wise and cautionary lessons to a new flock of hip-hop proselytes. Never ones to shy away from controversy, KRS-One and Buckshot lead Skills’ search party into a jungle of taboo hot topics. They address issues of race, relationships and originality that have tangled up and shackled mainstream hip-hop, but the emcees don’t get things twisted. As expected, they lead the way, with minor missteps, through a gritty and in-your-face journey that keeps it real.

Track for track, you can feel the strength of the collaboration. KRS-One, as one of hip-hop’s best emcees, spits righteous rhymes like he always does, while Buckshot—who pioneered the classic New York mean street sonic in the early ‘90s with Black Moon and Boot Camp Clic—delivers lyrics and production filled with grace and might.

While Survival Skills was produced and mixed, the duo used the Rock the Bells 2009 summer tour to test out the yet unfinished songs. They relied on what they felt from fans during the live shows to work out the final touches on lyrics and production on both the title track and the death to auto-tune anthem “Robot.”

Since Survival Skills is helmed by two rap stalwarts—who both have reps for reinventing and producing some of hip-hop’s best music—my phone conversation with them felt less like a normal interview and more like a lesson in hip-hop history as the two emcees fielded questions in harmonious tandem. Similar to the fluidity and symmetry you feel throughout the album, KRS-One and Buckshot completed each other’s thoughts while pushing our conversation into new places. They unfolded the bigger mission of Survival Skills and explained the reasons and inspiration for assembling such a talented list of emcees, DJ’s and artists (Slug of Atmosphere, K’NAAN, Mary J. Blige, Marco Polo, Talib Kweli, etc.) to collaborate with when they could have easily made the album by themselves.

To start things off, KRS-One explains how, as one of Rock the Bells’s tour hosts, he was inspired by the fans response to put the finishing touches on Survival Skills. “The tour was a real experience for me. I got to see the hunger in the fans and the new artists. Being on the tour showed me that hip-hop is by no means dead.”

“When you do an album you don’t get to test an album live,” says KRS-One. “I was still studying my lyrics when we were touring so I was relying on my free-styling skills during those shows, so that influenced the album’s final version. We got to do a litmus test with “Robot” to see how fans would respond. We had an idea of what we wanted that song to feel like but the vibe we got from the crowd gave us more creative direction of where to take it and how to say what we wanted to say. The feeling we got directly from the people is that radio is putting shackles on music. Even with so many artists using auto-tune, there’s still a growing group of artists rising up and going in the opposite direction making music that’s real and fresh. And those cats are getting back to the basics without auto-tune. And a lot of those cats are packing out venues without getting played on the radio!”

Shortly after my interview, Buckshot spoke out against Rock the Bells and its promoter Live Nation saying, “They don’t get hip-hop, its fans or its culture.” But during our interview, Buckshot did express that the connection between him and the fans wasn’t compromised regardless of his views of Live Nation. “When we got on that stage [at Rock the Bells] it was authentic. I wasn’t persuading the fans to respond to the new music. They did it on their own. And I learned a lot by watching Kris interact with the crowd. He played a big part in controlling the crowd because he’s a veteran and knows how to master the ceremony. He’s a true emcee.”

“That’s why true hip-hop culture is stressed in the music we made on Survival Skills,” explains Buckshot. “Rap is a word that the corporate world made up. hip-hop is a culture that’s always been around since the early days. Like the Rock the Bells experience—you get the real experience from the people who were really there as a culture celebrating the music together.”

There’s a wide range of emcee styles and experiences that spans almost three generations of hip-hop on Survival Skills. And when thinking about the making of the album and how all the artists where assembled, Buckshot points to one specific goal and the feeling that they had some “help from above” that guided the album’s production.

“It might seem like we planned to tour with the same artists on the album, but we didn’t create the album for the Rock the Bells. It just happened that way because that’s how the Most High works. All the emcees and DJ’s on Survival Skills share in common that they can rock a live crowd. And it all starts with Kris. He can entertain you off the top of his head and grab you with a lyric that has nothing to do with the song. But that one lyrical thread is perfect for that moment and speaks right to the heart of the crowd at that specific moment. And when you go down the list of K’NAAN, Talib, Slug and the rest of them can all do this, too. That’s what all the artists have in common on Survival Skills. I love that combination because I know that nothing will be able to match this package of artists. I’m proud because we all have that common quality of being a great live emcee. But at the same time making this album was a huge challenge because not all albums that bring together great talent work out.”

For KRS-One he can’t help but boast about the album’s originality and authenticity. “I’m so proud that we don’t sound like anybody else and that our album doesn’t sound like a Lil’ Wayne album. Each artist is doing their own thing, but we’re still jamming together under one roof. Sure, [Survival Skills] will sound average to fans who know what’s up. But for the 14-15 year old kids who are listening for the first time, all the real emceeing, rhymes and boom-bap beats will give them an education.”

Mixing the entertainment with education has always been a part of KRS-One’s approach. He never forgets what it was like back when he was paying his dues as an up-and-coming rapper in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But what he misses about those early days is how each artist had their own unique way of expressing the times.

“You had so many different voices and styles. It was a celebration with Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Salt-N-Pepa, Heavy D and the Boyz all having their lane. That type of diversity brought perspective about our culture that you don’t get today because it’s only one or two people who are talking about thugging and sex and drug dealing. It’s not the content but the diversity and the creativity that’s lacking today. Our whole perspective has been narrowed down to just one or two ways of talking about important topics. If you want to rap about selling drugs that’s fine but don’t do it like every other cat is doing it. But the truth is that most cats sound the same or they’re not being real about their experience. So when you hear most rap songs about drug dealing today you’re not even getting a true representation of drug dealing culture because the rappers I hear are rapping about it in a way I’ve never seen drug dealing. It’s not even authentic in that sense.”

Besides keeping it real in his rhymes—and after releasing 19 albums over the course of the last twenty years—KRS-One is in the process of recreating himself. His persona as hip-hop’s “Teacha” remains the same, and working with Buckshot and on a fresh business approach has led him into new territory. “Even after all this time I’m still learning, especially from Duckdown and the new business model. I can’t get away from 19 albums and 11 videos. I have to put a business model together because certain businesses are approaching me as a legend as if I’m on my way out. Same goes for the way I get presented on the VH1 hip-hop Honors and BET. I get lifetime achievement awards because of who I am and what I’ve done. But they want to put me in a place as if I’m on my way out.”

“What I’m learning from Duckdown is the revitalization of KRS-One. I get to be small and young again. But [Survival Skills] is not about my legacy. It’s about what’s happening in 2009. It’s about a collaboration between two artists who have a history in hip-hop and are coming together for the first time on record to form a historical project. I’m learning what it means to be KRS-One in 2009. I’m learning how to throw off 44 and flaunt it as a t-shirt at the same time. You may think it’s a football jersey, or I’m repping somebody’s number. But that’s my age. And I hope other 44-year-old’s get inspired when they come to the show.”

And the “Teacha” is showing no signs of slowing down in an industry obsessed with youth. Together with Buckshot, he’s looking to teach the younger generation lessons about longevity and relevancy. Alongside albums and constant touring, collaborations and a forthcoming 800-page book called The hip-hop Bible have kept him busy and able to speak directly to hip-hop culture’s biggest issues.

Survival Skills is full of banging anthems of crafty attitude and aggression, but it’s the equally hard-hitting and tender “Think of All the Times” that knits Skills together. The song features fluidly flowing rhymes by Somalian-born rapper K’NNAN, whose lyrical hook puts an unlikely twist on Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit single, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

“Think of All the Times” was created as each emcee crafted their lyrics to address a taboo issue that has plagued hip-hop culture. “I love how we each completed each other’s story on that song,” says Buckshot. “We wanted to speak to females, letting them know we are conscious of what they’re talking about with father/daughter relationships. My verse speaks towards the fellas and Kris’s verse speaks to the fellas and the ladies. And together what we’re saying is to not just talk about taking responsibility. By writing that song we wanted to go one step further and take responsibility ourselves and make a song that holds us and other dads accountable for the relationships with their daughters. Everything we say in that song is a grain of sand and when you put all the feelings about the struggle together it makes it feel like we’re all walking through the desert together, instead of pointing fingers.”

Speaking his thoughts on the subject matter of “Things..” KRS-One says, “Nobody wants to talk about this topic—our country or hip-hop culture. Many of us were raised without a father and the subject of deadbeat dads hits home in a lot of areas. Most of all, doing a song about being a father to your daughter flies straight in the face of the argument that says hip-hop is misogynistic. The song speaks directly to those who say hip-hop has no meaningful message to women and all we do is talk about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ [“Think of All the Things”] is another example of how culturally illiterate our critics really are. When I wrote my lyrics I was thinking about how a dad is at the club having a good time but their kid is at home saying, ‘Where’s my dad?’ And that speaks so directly to our fans. I’m looking forward to when we perform that song live because our fans are going to be neglecting their child support to come and see us, and we’re going to hand it to them right then and there, and say ‘Yo, man, what are you doing?’ And not only is the rest of the Survival Skills record timely, it’s addressing real issues that most cats don’t want to hear, but we’re going to say it to them anyway. And we were very intentional about making “Things” because we also wanted to show respect to “Cat’s in the Cradle” because that song spoke to the same issue at that time.”

Buckshot also feels that there’s a psychological importance in having “Things” on the album, giving it a cohesiveness that would be missing otherwise. “All the classic songs speak to the consciousness at large. And whenever you hear a classic song like “Cat’s in the Cradle” it brings you back to that era and mood. On [Survival Skills] we’re bringing generations together so we needed to reflect that in the music, too, not just the age range and experiences of the artists.”
“From the music styles to making people think, Skills represents three different generations all moving as one,” Buckshot says. “We sound like everything that is hip-hop, yet it doesn’t sound like anything else. And we know that the young kids and seasoned cats are going to get an education.”

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Live At Blogworld and New Media Expo 2009

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This article originally appeared in Popmatters.

Whether you were ready for it or not, Social and New Media changed our cultural landscape—online and offline—in 2009.

At the beginning of the year, experts speculated that social networking platforms and communities like Facebook and Twitter would impact our lives like never before, both sociologically and economically. Then, as the year rolled on, a long list of facts grew to support the impact we felt.

Facebook grew to over 350 million users (including ages 18 – 55 and higher), more companies spent money on social marketing budgets and an army of music artists became empowered. Moreover, as 2009 unfolded, many wondered if the social media buzz would build into something bigger or just fade away.

Skeptics questioned the longevity and possible negative psychological and sociological impact of new media and social networking on our culture, while social media enthusiasts championed the potential that social communities and platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—could have on marketing, the music industry and tribes creating groundswells pushing for positive change.

Skeptic or enthusiast, whether you see the growing influence of Social and New Media on our global culture as an ally or an enemy, you can’t deny the fact that it will continue to change the way we connect (or disconnect) with each other, build brands (consumer or personal) and have a say on whether or not the music industry lives or dies.

But what does the landscape look like for 2010? Will there be as many changes and surges forward as there were in 2009? Who led us in 2009 and who will continue to lead the way along Social and New Media’s pixelated path in 2010? And, more importantly, will you follow them or just block their friend request without a hint of guilt and hope that the revolution will stop being digitized?

Like you, I was looking for answers to those questions, so I headed right to the source. I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of the present and get a peek into the future. Over the course of four days I submersed myself in the world of social and new media at BlogWorld & New Media Expo in Las Vegas. I scoped out cool new social search tools, spoke with bloggers, listened to new media experts admonish their peers and heard music industry heads and outspoken artists talk about where they see things going in 2010.

BlogWorld Expo 2009
This year, conference founders Rick Calvert and Dave Cynkin merged two previously separate events into one large BlogWorld & New Media Expo, where over 3,000 attendees took in 150 + workshops, seminars and keynotes. It was also the most diverse gathering the conference had seen yet as bloggers (pros and hobbyists), social and new media influencers, news organizations (CNN, Current TV), brands/marketers (Johnson & Johnson, Ford Motor Company) music industry heads (Warner Music), ad agencies and vendors showcasing everything from social media & blog software to the latest affiliate & email marketing programs.

Let’s start by talking about blogs and quickly put everything in perspective.

It’s remarkable to think of blogging’s humble tech beginnings and quick evolution in just a few short years. In the grand scheme of the digital universe, blogs are a relatively new medium. And they’re constantly being redefined by their content, how we publish them and who reads them.

But do we really know the true impact of blogs on our culture and will blogs continue to be a part of our future?

State of the Blogosphere
During the keynote address, the world’s largest blog search engine and aggregator Technorati unveiled the results from its 2009 State of the Blogosphere report. For the last few years Technorati’s authority system has been one of the chief benchmarks for judging a blog’s influence through its authority system that ranks blogs according to how many other blogs link back to a blogger’s site.

The number one ranked blog is the Huffington Post and to be in the Technorati 100 or even the 500, is the Holy Grail for bloggers who want to leverage their rank for increased readership and influence. To get their report’s data, Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra said they polled a wide group of bloggers across various niches.

And among other telling and affirming facts, Jalichandra said that blogging is thriving. The demographics of who’s writing and reading blogs is becoming clearer as the blogosphere matures and develops. And he said with pride and confidence that blogging has undoubtedly influenced mainstream media in style, delivery, frequency and reader interaction and expectation.

So how much and how often do the top bloggers blog? Jalichandra said a top tier of blogs produces 300 times more posts than those with a lower ranking and the top 500 ranked blogs produced 100 times more posts, which means Technorati’s system favors frequency and the more you blog the bigger chance you have at being a top ranked blogger.

When asked how Technorati separates its search and ranking data between one-person blogs and the bigger blog networks like Huffington Post—who has a team of bloggers creating content—Jalichandra said Technorati currently doesn’t have a system in place at the moment to separate the two, but they are aware of the difference and have taken that into account.

Being a blogger myself, I was surprised at what the report revealed about the pop culture and relational impact of blogging. It showed that most bloggers are not interested in celebs or politics and that only six percent of those polled said that their families suffered as a result of their commitment to blogging.

I balked at this because some of the most popular blogs in Technorati’s Top 100 are both political and celebrity-based. Moreover, from personal experience, I know that blogging is hard and is only for the truly committed. And if you have a blog that requires 24/7 frequency and breaking update posts, the likelihood that you’ll sacrifice offline relationships is even higher.

Ask any blogger and they’ll tell you (if they’re honest) that balancing online relationships with offline relationships like family, is a constant battle, and sacrifice is inevitable. So I think that percentage should be higher than six.

But admitting and facing the blogger time management truth is often taboo in the blogging and social media communities. So I guess I’m not that surprised the percentage is a low six percent, because rarely is anyone quick to point out or tweet about this pixelated pink elephant.

Blog Me the Money
Sure, passion is a blogging requirement. But things have changed. Bloggers are not doing this just for “fun” anymore. 2008-2009 saw the biggest increase of brands entering, or increasing, their presence in the blogosphere. And you better believe that the bloggers are ready to claim their piece of the revenue pie and think monetization.

According to Technorati’s report, more bloggers are looking to monetize and turn the blogs into revenue makers. Since 2008, display ads are up 40 percent from 28 percent, ad tags increased by 68 percent and 17 percent of bloggers say blogging is their primary income.

Although, tech blogs have been working with brands and writing about consumer products for some time, one of the biggest blogging stories of 2009 was the influence of the mommy blogger on brands and their consumer audience.

Rise of the Mommy Blogger in 2009
You could say that 2009 was the year that mommy bloggers fully realized their influence on the consumer market. If you’re new to the niche you might be wondering what is a “mommy” blogger?

Well, first, you should know that most of them don’t like the “mommy” tag. But once you get poor use of adjectives out of the way, you’ll see that the top mommy bloggers are passionate like all bloggers. They’re also savvy business women who are fully aware of their power to build strong communities, influence consumers and, if necessary, take a brand to its knees with one post.

Some mommy bloggers are former PR or marketing pros who have leveraged their biz savvy and adapted it to the blogosphere, while others have gained attention through hard work and gradually building a following by providing honest value to their readers. Some do so by honestly (sometimes ruthlessly) blogging about raising their children and struggling with home life, while others share valuable consumer tips for fellow moms or by reviewing their favorite brand of dish soap, clothing or home appliances.

Like other blog niches, mommy bloggers have their own larger networks, too. Top networks like Momdot.com, Momadvice.com and Momcentral.com bring together legions of readers and bloggers.

Then there are the more personal and one-woman blogs like The Bloggess fueled by the hilariously scathing rants of Jennifer Lawson, or Heather Hamilton’s more literary and equally entertaining outbursts on Dooce.

Networks or solo, mommy blogs are led by a committed queen blogger who understands her audience and knows how to transform her blogging into a community (or even a business) that can have a tremendous influence on a consumer brand’s reputation on or offline.

In 2009, after a few years of groundswelling, the mommy blogger community experienced a “coming into their own”. Brands saw their rise and influence as a golden opportunity to reach and interact with a growing market of consumers.

During the Mind of Moms—a mini summit within BlogWorld, a group of top mommy blogger influencers covered the basics—from PR to ethics—in an effort to educate brands and bloggers alike about the business of mommy blogging.

One hot topic was the new Federal Trade Commission’s disclosure policy, which goes into effect on December 1st. In October the FTC ruled that all blogs must have a clear disclosure statement informing readers of the sponsored nature of their posts. How and where the disclosure is made is left up to the blogger. But it’s better there or the blogger can face some hefty fines or even lawsuits.

Until this ruling, the FTC has remained out of the brand/blogger disclosure relationship for the most part. But with the rise of the mommy blogger in 2009, one of the main reasons the FTC stepped in was to protect the consumer from being swayed or deceived by a product review without knowing the relationship between the brand and the blogger.

It’s a controversial topic among all bloggers and the details still need to be worked out. But most bloggers agree the FTC ruling is long overdue, welcomed and will help create clearer guidelines as blogs and new media continue to influence the consumer buying process.

The Influencers: Social Media Marketing
During the BlogWorld’s Social Media Business Summit, workshops drew top influencers—Guy Kawaski, Jeremiah Owyang, Mari Smith, John Chow, Darren Rowse and Brian Clark, etc.—educated marketers, ad agencies and beginning bloggers on social and new media’s future and best practices.

But it was Chris Brogan’s keynote address that best summed up the state and future of social media. With the rhythm of a stand-up comedian dishing one liners mixed with profane humor and applicable social marketing wisdom, Brogan admonished the new media world using abridged highlights from his recent New York Times Best Selling book Trust Agents (2009) which he co-authored with Julian Smith.

Brogan encouraged peers and proselytes alike to use social media as a way to give their ideas handles, stop hoarding knowledge and start creating valuable alliances. “The playing stage needs to be over and we need to do more than just create or play silly games like Farmville,” Brogan said. “We need to start using social media tools to impart real change.” The “real change” he’s talking about can be seen in the work he’s done via his Technorati top 100-rated blog, Podcamps and company New Marketing Labs. As an early social and new media adopter and experimenter, he’s been educating and empowering marketers, peers and brands to use the social media platforms like blogs, Facebook and Twitter to improve their lives and businesses.

The often humble Brogan probably doesn’t like the “social media rock star” label some have given him. But nonetheless, from Ford to MTV, he’s one of the most sought after advisors when top consumer brands and businesses look for guidance on building trust and reputation with customers in the socialsphere.

What’s also made Brogan so popular is his desire for creating a community of collaboration on the web. He wants to provide practical solutions to marketing problems using social media tools. One of the constant themes running through Brogan’s message—and communicated in Trust Agents—is for brands, marketers and his peers to use social media platforms to build trust, which during his keynote, he said doesn’t come from aimlessly racking up Twitter followers or wasting time playing Farmville. Building trust comes when brands and social media marketers take advantage of the opportunity to be transparent and authentic with social media tools.

Though he’s a hard guy not to like, not everyone is a fan of Brogan. And he’s often at the center of debate. Last December, he caused a controversy among his peers about disclosure and sponsored conversations on blogs when he participated in a blogger outreach with Kmart. Brogan’s not the only social and new media thought leader leading the way as many other aforementioned social media experts advised brands and marketers at BlogWorld. But he will certainly continue to be a key player in pushing the conversation forward in 2010.

The Journalism Ice Age is here
You can’t talk about new media in 2010 without looking at the impact it has had on journalism this year. Several workshops and keynotes were dedicated to addressing the fact that we now get our latest news from a myriad of social sources like Twitter, Facebook page updates and blogs. Social Media might be at odds with traditional media but progress is being made. During the Death and Rebirth of Journalism panel—CCN’s Don Lemon, Current TV’s Joanna Drake Earl, expert radio host Hugh Hewitt, NYU journalism professor/blogger Jay Rosen—all agreed that “traditional media and new media will have to coexist”. Although, that’s a big step forward. The panel didn’t provide much of a clear or bold prediction on what that future symbiotic partnership will look like. They decided to let time answer that question.

But can we at least get a glimpse of the future of journalism? Heading into 2010, it looks like we’re at least headed in the right direction. And the panel also agreed on the fact that many bloggers link back to major new sites. Does that mean that news organizations and bloggers want to work together? It depends who you talk you. “They’re going to have to,” said Don Lemon as he answered the question and tweeted from his mobile phone. “It’s a no-brainer to include social media in their platform. Doing so allows journalists to be transparent, authentic. CNN encourages us to be everywhere. Sure, some people are being exploitive by social media, but I’m not. CCN asked me to come to Blogworld so I came because it’s where the future of news and social media conversations are happening.”

Another important and lingering question that was discussed but yet went unanswered was “where will the next generation of journalists come from”? Some on the panel said that bloggers might be the new journalists as the craft unfolds and new media develops.

Could a hybrid of traditional and citizen journalism be the future? You could look at the model of Al Gore’s San Francisco-based network Current TV. Its CEO Joanna Drake Earl spoke about how Current has been successful by mixing professional journalists telling stories not covered in mainstream media with unique viewer-created content. She said their approach seems to satisfy their audiences without sacrificing journalistic integrity.

The whole point of the panel was to discuss the fact that old journalism is dead and a new one is being born. But old or new, we still need journalists to report the truth. But if social media keeps giving more people the freedom to “make” their own news, how do we filter, find it and categorize it? What new tools and platforms are being created to help reader and journalist alike navigate the clutter?

New social, meme trackers and news media filtering tools
Will we have to fend for ourselves in the internet’s swarming and ever-increasing amount of overwhelming digital ephemera in 2010?

Besides conversation and discussion, BlogWorld also provided the opportunity to check out new applicable platform and search tools to help us navigate the myriad rivers of user-generated content, tweets and blog posts that will continue to come rushing at us.

You can search via Google for keywords or set up an Alert in a feed Reeder or maybe even a real-time search in Twitter. But still, as more of us join the digital conversation across the socialsphere, social search has become the growing trend and problem to solve.

Brands want to know who and what is talking about them. And news organizations need tools to filter all the streams of possible stories popping up, trending and developing on Twitter or blogs.

Many developers showcased their platforms at BlogWorld and I had the opportunity to speak with the CEOs of Thoora and Twingly, who with their social search and aggregate platforms seek to solve the content filtering conundrum for journalists, bloggers and readers.

On the main exhibit floor Thoora CEO Michael Lee popped open his laptop and took me through a test of Thoora, a real-time news discovery service, which was publically unveiled for the first time at BlogWorld. When I asked how Thoora will tear down the silos of social and traditional media, Lee says the platform empowers users by merging content streams into a manageable dashboard that is customizable. “We’re right in the middle of the transition where a blogger or even someone with a twitter account can break a news story. So Thoora organizes tweets, blogs posts and news articles to reflect the living and breathing nature of news. It brings together all the blog commentary, tweets and breaking news to give a more accurate and complete picture of a particular topic.

Lee says that most platforms tend to focus on the sources and Thoora indexes everything into one page so you can see everything that’s going on in real-time on that topic. “We rank everything by size of reaction. The audience and not just news editors can determine what gets pushed to the top. You can focus on many different topics and not just breaking news because you’ll be able to track developing stories since we index every blog, considering language and content. Lee aims to answer one of the content pitfalls of the interwebs. “Generally only five percent of the blogosphere is cross linked so you’re never able to find the most relevant topics.”

Thoora’s set up is to mainly focus on general story context and values the contribution of how the content adds to the overall story. As an example, he cites pro tennis player Serena Williams’s outburst story. When that story broke he says Thoora found a pro tennis player’s blog who knew the rules and provided very valuable content, which would have never been found because most platforms like Technorati index content by authority. “The real-time search takes into account all the different factors that go into news gathering and uses them to bring together the most complete and useful collection of content.”

Thoora appears to be a viable tool that will help journalists and readers in the long run, but we’ll have to see what role it’ll play this year as real-time social media continues to be a main source of news. As the beta version develops and more people use Thoora, we’ll have to see if it’s truly useful solution for journalists, bloggers and readers alike.

Taking a more user-generated and community approach to social meme tracking is Twingly, a service that enables social filtering in real-time search to help people easily track any topic, brand or person. Twingly CEO Martin Källström says his channel-based platform protects people from information overload and encourages the like-mind to create communities based on their channel content. “People can curate their own channel and invite others to filter out what’s important.”

Combining favorite qualities of social networking site Facebook and link sharing site Digg, Källström says Twingly cuts away all the noise giving people the opportunity to be their own channel “editor” which he hopes will create value centered around people enjoying the content each user curates. Twingly will launch in February 2010, so he’s showing me an exclusive beta version explaining that development began with “a preview application process” to limit growth. At the time of our chat in the BlogWorld conference hall, Twingly had 124 subscribers, 250 unique channels and 500 people waiting to create more channels—everything from music and news to tattoo and dog breeding.

It’s clear that Källström aims to put a personal touch and more democracy into social meme search and aggregation. He doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel but instead solve the noise and clutter problems created by Twitter and hopefully bring like-minded people together to build strong communities around specific and shared topics of interest. Twingly is designed to put context to the articles, aggregate them via an extensive global coverage and then let the user’s dashboard present memes visually as social proof of what’s most important to the community that user has created.

During the testing stages, Källström says users have asked for a channel directory to easily locate memes. And brands have expressed interest in using Twingly to track consumer and influencer conversations in a closed channel service. So as a possible future revenue stream or sponsorship model, he’s considering creating a B2B model where companies could sponsor channels. Social meme searchers and new journalist and content junkies appear to have some cool tools to work with. But what about the music industry? Does the future look bright for artist, labels and fans on the social horizon?

Big Music and Social Media: Who’s Killing Who?
Is social and new media killing or giving to life to the music industry? Do these mediums help album sales and give fans more intimate access to your favorite artists? Does the music industry see the social and new media as an ally or the enemy? There were a lot of questions to answer as a panel of music industry folk discussed how Social Media is Saving and Killing the Music Industry. On the panel was Steve Koskie, CEO of Lifestyle destination site Dip Dive, created by the Black Eyed Peas.

Though the panel didn’t make many specific predictions on what the future would look like for social media and the music industry, Koskie did speak his mind on micro-blogging and the dismal future of a fading social networking giant. “Twitter will come and go. In the end those kind of social media tools are really only a way to help tell the story of the artist and their music. Look at Myspace. It’s a wasteland that will soon dissolve. I believe in cycles and none of us really know when the next one will start.”

And what do the major labels think? Jeremy Holley, Vice President of Consumer & Interactive for Warner Brothers Records, said Warner Brothers is focusing on the “tangible”, meaning strong sales show that fans still want special vinyl releases or specially packaged CDs and other unique content. “We’re testing different portals by offering more VIP packages for concerts and releases and focusing on the premium bundling.”

Social media can’t give an artist what they don’t have. Either you got or you don’t. “You still need to have talent,” asserts Chief Xcel, DJ/producer for hip hop duo Blackalicious. “Social media or a slick YouTube video doesn’t make you an instant star. Today more than ever, you must know how to perform live because most artists today make their money through touring. Social media tools don’t make it any easier to perform live or sell albums; they just allow you to have a closer connection with your fans.”

Taking Chief Xcel’s thoughts one step further, rapper Jermaine Dupri called out the music business and his peers during the New Celebrity panel and BlogWorld Press conference. Speaking for a legion of other music artists that have been empowered by social media, Dupri boldly explained how he’s embraced social media platforms to thwart the big music business model and gain more control of his music and fan relationships. “Social media has shocked a lot of people in the music industry because over several years the industry has gotten lazy. And now they’re paying the price. I’m trying to get around the middle man. It’s not really any tougher than it was twenty years ago, necessarily. It’s the fact that the gatekeepers and the middle men don’t want to change.”

Cutting to the core of why most musicians and celebrities don’t fully embrace social media’s rigorous demands of constant updates and tweet and blog posts, a roar of cheers arose after Dupri said “Blogging is hard work and it’s about being involved. The music business got really lazy. And if you’re a lazy musician, then social media isn’t for you. Top musician bloggers in the industry don’t blog on the weekends because they think it’s their time off. That’s fine but that tells me that they don’t understand social media. I’m [at BlogWorld] to break new ground and encourage those guys to change their business.”

Dupri said the heart of his struggle has been with the control of the corporate suits. “They told me you can do it for less, and then we’re going to stop giving money. But right now [the corporate suits] don’t think [social media] works. They told me my YouTube numbers don’t affect my record sales. That’s just not true because I know that I can sell 30,000 [albums] in 30 minutes because of the following I have on Twitter and YouTube. For the fan it’s all about the immediacy and authenticity. And I can give them that with social media tools.”

Dupri’s comments stuck with me as I left BlogWorld. True social media has given artists more control over their music and the relationship with their fans. Artists like Matisyahu, John Mayer, ?uest Love, Taylor Swift, etc. have all taken to tweeting as a way to be more available and transparent with fans. But do fans feels more connected? And does the connection make the music better? Is the listening experience on record and during concerts more personal? If Dupri, the social media experts, and the largest BlogWorld Expo attendance ever are any indication of what’s in store for 2010, then the next challenge for us is to strengthen the communities we’ve created in 2009 and stop “playing around” as Brogan commands.

What does not playing around mean to me? It means using social media to strengthen my existing relationships, discover and network with like-minded but geographically distant peers/colleagues, and embark on daily pixilated self-expression. If you haven’t picked up on the theme yet, I’ll say it again. We all use social media for different reasons. Brands track reputation and sentiment, some lurk, some network, and others do a mix of everything. The sheer fact that social media plays to basic human needs tells me that it was never a fad to begin with. And going into 2010, social and new media will continue to mirror, enhance and give greater opportunities to those who want to connect, get or be affirmed and self-express.

No, I’m not going to make any 2010 predictions (besides the Cubs winning the World Series). But I’ll share a few closing nuggets that you can tweet, share or blog about. Skeptic or enthusiast, I hope you discover new social media tools to make your communities more authentic, your businesses more transparent and your inner-circle relationships more intimate. For those of you using social and new media sociologically, I hope you see social media as a digital mirror reflecting the developing parts of human behavior and follow your curiosity to new revelations.

Expect it. In 2010, there will be lurkers, interacters, creators, enthusiasts and selfish narcissistic dweebs like there have always been on the interwebs. But as I mentioned earlier, the challenge will be clearing out the clutter and noise, so we can get to the meaningful content and build the relationships that matter to us the most.

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Popmatters Interview: Fool's Gold

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This interview first appeared in Popmatters

The debut album of Los Angeles afro-pop collective Fool’s Gold erupts with an exotic mix of African rhythms, percolating rock melodies and purring synths. The urge to dance grabs you instantly, shortly before the fantastic fusion of music and lyrics (sung mostly in Hebrew) sends you on an ancient journey that’s majestic, yet intimate, as the songs unfold with a spiritual subtext of adoration and celebration.

Sitting backstage with the band’s two frontmen—vocalist/bassist Luke Top and guitarist Lewis Pesacov—it’s obvious why the album sounds so warm and genuine. As we start to talk about the band’s origins, I instantly get the feeling that Fool’s Gold eclectic hybrid of joyous world rhythms is simply the result of a strong friendship that’s developed over time.

Many of the Fool’s Gold’s songs soar on the strength of Top’s bass work, but it’s his other strength—his unique vocal style—that recalls the soothing and emotive croon of an ancient Hebrew cantor. Top was born in Israel and moved with his parents (his Iraq-born mother and his Russian father) to Los Angeles when he was three, so he embraces his heritage and naturally melds the English and Hebrew languages to express deep feelings that speak directly to the soul, with or without help from the liner note translations.

But his mostly Hebrew lyrical approach concerned Top at first, even though it was giving him a new psychological perspective to songwriting. “Singing in these two languages really altered my psyche and changed me as a person,” Top says. “At first I was worried about singing all the lyrics in Hebrew. I was thinking that it would color our sound in a way that would make it undesirable. But people aren’t necessarily noticing it as Hebrew. I think that’s because when I listen to music where I don’t understand the language, the voice and timbre is usually enough for me to understand the song.”

When asked why he chose to sing the lyrics mostly in Hebrew, Top explains that his decision was a significant because it drove the creative process for the first two songs written for the album “Nadine” and “Surprise Hotel.” “As the lyrics became more complex, the music developed too,” Top notes, “so singing in Hebrew allowed me to sing simply even though I was singing about deep and emotionally complex topics. My mix of language helped us develop the album as we went along.”

Considering Top’s family history, playing music is nothing new. “My mom is a pianist and artist abstract artist.” Top says. “I’ve also been told that [I] have an Uncle Eno Topper who was a famous opera singer. I heard different stories about different family members, too. But for the most part I found music on my own. The bass fits my personality perfectly because I’ve always loved the natural feel and groove of bass and rhythm. I’m not formally trained in music so that’s why I loved playing with Lewis. We balance each other out because we use stretch each other by relying our strengths and challenging each other.”

As Top points out, lead guitarist Lewis Pesacov is a classically trained musician with a degree in composition. Taking his formal training in composition to the next level, Pesacov uses it to evolve Fool’s Gold songwriting into an exploration that starts with improvisation and works towards sculpting each song, incorporating other styles of Western rock and soul with a myriad of world music influences ranging from Congolese to Ethiopian to Eritrean to Malian.

Putting their passions together, the duo sets out to redefine the African pop and folk music that’s inspired them since they first began listening to and playing music.
In our tandem conversation, the duo explains that preceding their debut album, Fool’s Gold is also a story of two musicians coming full circle in their musical journey. In high school, Pesacov and Top had a friendly rivalry as each other ran with different crews and played in competing bands. And it wasn’t until they met in San Francisco in college a few years ago that they finally connected and began talking about playing together. “We’ve both always loved world pop music and gone through different bands from world music to Western rock,” Pesacov says. “And we’re excited because this is the first time we’ve been able to come together on album.”

Since that meeting in college, gradually and organically, the two began inviting members from some of other their music projects (such as Foreign Born in which Pesacov also plays guitar) to contribute to Fool’s Gold live shows and their first album. Song by song, and with each jam session, the band started to take form.

Top and Pesacov relied each other’s musical backgrounds and strengths to solidify how they wanted to celebrate write the album. “I studied and lived in Germany for awhile,” says Pesacov, who played and studied under American avant-garde expatriate composers Mark Randall and Frank Cox . “So when I met Luke and began working on songs it was good to get back to playing music instead of just writing it. It was very different and joyous.”

Since we were moments away from their live show in Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, I wondered how they approach transforming and unfolding the tracks in front of an audience. “We stretch out the songs more live,” Pesacov says. “Sometimes we’ll play four songs in 45 minutes. At times we even feel like we don’t come close to pushing the limits. When it comes to playing live, we’re very inspired by the intense psychological framework of Fela Cuti’s live performances. He would play songs with the intention of celebrating for hours all night long. So when we play live we’re aiming for that mood, too. Our sincere love of his music, and how he performs it, propels us so when we’re in front of a crowd it always feels very experimental, social and community-based.”

Their debut album was recorded live over a two day period with Top and Pesacov collaborating on the songwriting over a three-year span. Front to back, the songs are nothing short of beautiful. Some are extended rhythm jams and afro-pop anthems, some find their place as communal worship or sparks for community uprising, while others are just a gentle whisper between lovers. From the warm and buoyant lead track “Surprise Hotel” to the whispering crickets of percolating send off “Momentary Shelter,” nothing is lost in translation as Top evocatively croons and swoons. A helix of Top’s bass and Pesacov’s jovial guitar twists around “Ha Dvash” (Hebrew for honey), an eternal sentiment of love and longing, and a song that simmers as sweetly as its title suggests.

Now it was time to woo a live audience as Fool’s Gold took to the Bottom Lounge stage. As the tribe of several players gathered, I remembered what Top and Pesacov said about how their dealing with the reality of band’s touring plans knowing that can’t all travel together. “We know that there will be a shifting of players because it’s going to be hard to tour with twelve people,” Pesacov says. “But we’ll have a core group that will mix with other players in different cities.”

“It’s a miracle to bring them all together to make the album,” Top adds. “We’ve always kept a low pressure vibe in the band’s vibe and by doing that, [it has] made playing together a lot of fun. And we’re counting on that and our friendship to carry us forward.”

Putting their righteous mark on Chicago’s weeklong World Music Festival, Fool’s Gold filled the Bottom Lounge with their percussive and percolating rhythms, wrapping their set with the pulsing “Night Dancing” and the final soaring chorus of “The World Is All There Is.” It was fitting final celebration that surged through the crowd, moving and lifting our bodies to an eternal place.

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Follow Live Fix to BlogWorld 2009

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This post is a shout out to all my fellow blogging and new media buddies!  And a note to you my faithful and cherished Live Fix readers!

This Thurs-Sat (Oct 15-17), I’ll be taking Live Fix on the road to Las Vegas for the BlogWorld New Media Expo

BlogWorld will be my first “blogger conference” since I began Live Fix, so I’m excited to connect with and learn along with other bloggers. 

I’m looking forward to soaking up everything from the growing influence of mommy bloggers to the impact of social media on the music industry. Local Chicago blog network ChicagoNow will be talking about how they created their community.  And some of my favorite bloggers (Chris Brogan and Copyblogger) will also be speaking so I’ll be sure to share with you what I learn. I’ll also be writing a feature story for Popmatters about the key points during the conference as various industry leaders chime in on the state of the blogosphere, New Media and social media.

I expect it to be a huge learning experience and I hope that what I learn in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, because I plan on returning with more ideas for future Live Fix Experiments that we can test out. 

Send me your Vegas tips!

This will be my first time visiting Las Vegas, so if you’re a Vegas veteran let me know if there’s something live music related that I should check out while I’m there.

If you’re going too, please drop a comment or send me an email or a tweet.  I’d love to connect with you during the conference!

I’ll be doing updates during the BlogWorld conference via Twitter @chriscatania and Live Fix blog posts, so stay tuned…

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Live Preview: Fool's Gold, BLK JKS at Bottom Lounge

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For the last two months I’ve been re-absorbing  the self-titled debut album by Fool’s Gold, a Los Angeles band that blends world rhythms with afro-pop and rock. They seem to be carving out their own niche and style because their music speaks to me in ways that other afro-pop and world music hasn’t in a while. 

Maybe it’s the lyrical work of vocalist/bassist Luke Top who was born in Israel and moved with his parents (mom-Iraqi/dad-Russian) to Los Angeles when he was three.  It also might be how Top splits the lyrics between English and Hebrew and uses a mighty poetic mythologic songwriting style to express deep feelings that sound beautiful in his native tongue.

Fool’s Gold’s album has been many things to me over this summer and I’m excited to experience their live show tonight at the Bottom Lounge.  I’ll also be interviewing the band for a forthcoming Popmatters feature about their album which is due out Sept 29.  So I’m looking forward to asking them more questions about the band’s beginnings and those killer rhythms and beautiful sunset basslines.

The band’s early formation has an interesting backstory, so I’ll be watching closely to see if they continue their tradition of “asking friends, friends of friends and even strangers to join them on stage.”

The other band I’m looking forward to seeing for the first time is BLK JKS, a band from Johannesburg, South Africa that blends experimental psychedelic rock with funky polyrhythms. They also just released a debut album of their own in After Robots.  

The World Music Festival is also underway this week in Chicago, so I’m expecting both bands to lay down sets filled with grooves that progress the body and the mind to higher places. And I’m not expecting any reasons to call on F.A.N.S. either.

Live Fix Experiment

You can also join in on another Live Fix Experiment via Twitter tonight as I explore the show’s emotional, physiological and sociological nuances. And dish out bits of the interview with Fool’s Gold.  follow @chriscatania 

 

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Nerdy Music Journalists ''Q'' It Up at Lollapalooza

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Just one peek into the strange sociology of music journalists will show you that they’re a peculiar bunch.  I can say this because I am one. And it’s true. We are just as eccentric as the artists we write about (if not more!)

We are truly a strange and quirky breed.  We’re obsessive and overly protective at times because our love for music overtakes us on a daily basis.

And just like the human species, there are all kinds of species of music journalists.

Some of us are overly social while others are extremely anti-social, and some are in-between. Some have no qualms about public displays of self-expression and others are uptight and overly self-conscious. But no matter how we express ourselves, or interact with the world around us, we all share a common goal.

The reason why we do what we do is because we love music (live or recorded) so much (maybe too much) that when we’re faced with a moment where we can share our love for music and immense amount of music knowledge with the world, it can be a strange site to behold. 

And often our love for music interwines with our love for other forms of entertainment culture, such as movies. So when those two passions combine, the results can produce some strange albeit funny and humorously entertaining behaviors that those around us might not understand, and equally not want to take part in–no matter how much we appear to be enjoying the moment.  

Why the heck am I telling you all this?  Why am I explaining such a personal and sometimes taboo topic? 

Well, when I read this review of Lollapalooza  2009 by a fellow music writer Drew Fortune, his description of a moment during The Airborne Toxic Event’s cover of Q. Lazarus’ “Goodbye Horses”  describes exactly what can happen when geeked-out and “nerdy” music journalists get the right song flowing into their ears during a live concert. 

“Day 3 is always an endurance trial, but after a second wind, I remembered to have fun. The Airborne Toxic Event put on an amazing show, complete with a great cover of Q. Lazzurus’ “Goodbye Horses,” the song made famous in The Silence of the Lambs. Several other nerdy journalists and I did impromptu renditions of Buffalo Bill’s camera dance for this one, minus the genital tuck-back.” 

Moments like the one documented above can trigger a moment of self-expression and love for a song.  And Drew’s review painted a picture in my mind that has stuck ever since I read it. 

And when I asked Drew if he had any video of this event he said there was, un-Fortunately, none available. And with added humor he also assured me that “It was a terrifying sight. I even used my chapstick to apply the fake lipstick.” 

With no video from Drew I had to explore other options because, though the image was burned in my mind, I couldn’t share it because the technology does not (yet) exist for me to transmit the image burned in my mind to this post. I had to find other sources. I had to find an image that worked to illustrate this important moment in music journalism self-expression history!

So I cruised YouTube for a bit in search of a video to see if anybody else had captured the moment at Lollapalooza.  And to my surprise I found NO videos showing fans at any The Airborne Toxic Event shows (“Goodbye Horses” is a popular cover song for them live) dancing in a way to recreate that same Buffalo Bill scene. I found videos of fans recreating the scene in other ways (see Lollapalooza Contest video below) but not during a live concert, or during a The Airborne Toxic Event concert. So, sadly, I have no videos or visuals of this moment to share with you on this post.   

So without any pictures or videos to share. I turn to YOU (fans AND music journalists).  

And I ask you:

How do you express yourself when a band plays a song live that triggers emotions you felt when you watch a classic  movie like Silence of the Lambs?  Do you tuck and slap on the lipstick, or just  hold it in and bob your head and express yourself vicariously through the expression of other, braver and less inhibited fans, or nerdy music journalists?

What do you do?  How do you respond?

 

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Interview with Chicago's FM Supreme

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As promised here’s my interview with Chicago emcee/poet/activist FM Supreme. A link to the full interview on Popmatters is below.

A chilly drizzle begins to fall and soak the sidewalk as I speak with Chicago emcee Jessica Disu—aka FM Supreme—outside and under awning at the Wicker Well on Chicago’s North Side. It’s an hour before her late night performance at the Great Smoke Out Showcase, where Disu will perform with other up-and-coming Chicago rapper/emcees like Mic Terror and Rocketters. And like them, she’s looking to build momentum, sharpen her craft, and add to her already growing community of fans and supporters.

The rain doesn’t stand a chance against her countenance, beaming a blossoming ambition and brightening up the soggy and damp surroundings. She talks about her music career in fully excited animation, while she also gives bear hugs and flashes smiles in rapid fashion to friends and fans as they walk into the venue. The activist, poet, and entrepreneur fields my questions like she’s been at it for a lot longer than her 20 years would suggest. 

Read the full interview here.

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Popmatters Interview: FM Supreme

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This interview first appeared in Popmatters.

A chilly drizzle begins to fall and soak the sidewalk as I speak with Chicago emcee Jessica Disu—aka FM Supreme—outside and under awning at the Wicker Well on Chicago’s North Side. It’s an hour before her late night performance at the Great Smoke Out Showcase, where Disu will perform with other up-and-coming Chicago rapper/emcees like Mic Terror and Rocketters. And like them, she’s looking to build momentum, sharpen her craft, and add to her already growing community of fans and supporters.

The rain doesn’t stand a chance against her countenance, beaming a blossoming ambition and brightening up the soggy and damp surroundings. She talks about her music career in fully excited animation, while she also gives bear hugs and flashes smiles in rapid fashion to friends and fans as they walk into the venue. The activist, poet, and entrepreneur fields my questions like she’s been at it for a lot longer than her 20 years would suggest.

When I first stumbled upon FM Supreme at Decibelle Festival last fall, it was the nuance, explosiveness, and skill of her performance that made me take notice, encouraging me to dive deeper into her latest release, The Beautiful Grind Mixtape. During that show and the days after, I considered the possibility that she could be a catalyst for a much needed renaissance of the female emcee in today’s hip-hop culture. I knew very little about her at the time, but soon after her performance I learned that what I saw was the result of an upbringing in the music business and a genuine passion for spoken word.

And in the last year, I haven’t been the only one to take notice. Disu has been featured in local publications as one of Chicago’s “emcees to watch.” And with each passing month, the list of artists whom she’s shared stages with—David Banner, Black Sheep, MC Lyte, Saul Williams, et al.—continues to grow, too.

Her involvement in social and political activism is a strong thread through her music. In January, the Chicago Northside native went to Washington D.C. to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration with a group of other young activists from the Chicagoland area. “Being at the inauguration felt like a utopia,” says Disu. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place be so happy and inspired, even though we all could’ve been sad and depressed about the economy. I was so inspired. It was life-changing for me as person and an artist. I will be proud to tell my kids and grandkids that I was there to see the first black President be inaugurated.”

And Disu hopes to take that inspiration and channel it into developing as a strong performer with something to say, so she can bring back and celebrate the power set forth by female rapper/emcee legends MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Sister Solider, Eve, and Lil’ Kim. And the influences ring true in the way Disu rhymes and carries herself. At the core of her message is a desire to create a “movement.” When I ask her what that means to her, exactly, she tells me it’s her way of creating awareness and building momentum for social and personal action among her peers and her generation using hip-hop, spoken word, and youth activism.

At only 20 years old, I’m surprised at her knowledge and ambition. She smiles and immediately credits her mom—who was a local Chicago producer, manager, and promoter—for teaching her how to build her music career. “My mom was a jack-of-all-trades. She had her own label and she showed me how to be my own manager. I saw how and what she did to build an artist from the ground up, and I applied it to what I do now.”

Disu’s also quick to credit her high school education. “I owe a lot my knowledge of the [music] industry to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. I took a music business class with Jason Patera (Chair of the Music Department). He graduated from Berkley College of Music with John Mayer and Gavin Degraw. He told me, when I was 16, that if I still wanted to do this music thing after I took the class and I learned all the shady shit that goes on—if you still want to pursue a career in the music industry, then I applaud you and I’ll help you.”

Disu started college, but she’s been out of formal school for the last couple years, so she’s found other ways to stay sharp, hungry, and eager. “Over the last year I interned at Warner Brothers Records in NYC. Then I worked in Chicago with Jeff McClusky & Associates, up until this January, while also working at the Jane Adams Hull House as an event coordinator. I plan to enroll at Columbia in Chicago soon so I can finish up and apply my education to my music business plans, too. I’ve learned so much about life, myself, and how to develop myself on the streets in the time I took off from school.”

As a one-woman promotion machine, over the last few months, I’ve seen Disu apply her homegrown grassroots training and mix what she learned with new and social media promotions. From Facebook and MySpace to regular personal text updates to fans, Disu appears to be on her way to creating the movement she desires. I ask her about the fingered “C’s” I’ve seen her flash, and again she surprises me, telling me they’re not to represent the city she lives in, but to promote CommonWealth Entertainment, an organization she envisioned and has been developing since she was 15.

“Ever since I was ten or so, I always wanted to be hands-on and run things myself. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and applied it to creating CommonWealth Entertainment. I’ve always wanted to do everything in-house—because of my upbringing I’m a CEO by nature. So that’s why I’m planning on creating different divisions, so I can do all the stuff that goes into creating an album myself, and promote the kind of artist I believe in.”

Each of the last four years Disu has released a project—The Diary of a Mad Black Woman Mixtape (2005), Forever Maroon EP (2006), Basik Gumbo LP (2007), and The Beautiful Grind Mixtape (2008). But 2009 will be the first year she won’t be releasing anything new, because she wants to make her forthcoming album, The Go State of Mind, slated to drop March 2010, exactly the way she wants it without rushing it.

Then there Disu’s close friend and fellow Chicago spoken word teammate Deja Taylor. In the last few years, Disu has worked with Taylor, 19, to build a community and following among Chicago’s legendary spoken word community. It began with poetry slamming group the Chicago 7, a team Disu created and organized. Then Taylor landed opening slots for hip-hop giants Common and the Roots, putting her on the local buzz list and earning comparisons to a young Jill Scott. In 2008, Taylor won Chicago’s Youth Teen Poetry Slam festival Louder Than a Bomb, and in 2009 she’s featured in Russell Simmons new HBO series about youth slam poetry, Brave New Voices, performing her piece “Ode to the Female Emcee”.

Disu’s plan is to release both FM Supreme and Deja Taylor’s debut album together next year, and to continue to represent and speak to an audience she feels isn’t getting a voice. “I’ve felt for a long time that there isn’t anyone speaking to what my peers are going through,” says Disu. “By releasing our work together, we make it clear that we’re aiming for the same goal of inspiring our generation to be active, honest, and pursue the movement that speaks to who we really are.”

With just a few minutes to go before her performance, Disu tosses me a compliment and explains the interesting backstory to the Decibelle show when I first saw her. “Your review really taught me a lot,” she says. “When I read it I started to think how I can make the live energy come to the studio. People tell me they love to see me live because of the live energy I give off.”

“Since I started rapping and rhyming I’ve learned a lot from [Chicago emcee] DrUNkeN MoNkeeE,” she says. “We talked a few weeks before my live debut at the Decibelle festival and he really encouraged me to let the my “inner beast” out. So I was really excited to perform. When the moment came, I just decided to rock it.”

And she rocked it again. In just a limited two-song set, with fans jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder and the Wicker Well’s small stage at crowd level and the front row only inches away from Disu, she let it rip, rhyming over slick and bouncy retro house beats and spitting triumphant verses from her Beautiful Grind Mixtape.

With every performance, she’s expanding her audience and reaching out to new fans. And she made a point to show her thankfulness, because she knew playing this far north meant voyaging into the northern territory held down by other rising Chicago hip-hop duo the Cool Kids. Disu took her movement of CommonWealth international when she opened for Israeli rapper Subliminal at the Park West in Chicago at the end of May. Yet again, a bigger stage and a larger audience for FM Supreme.

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Concert Review: Black Moth Super Rainbow

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Black Moth Super Rainbow

Photo by Colleen Catania

On a warm Spring Chicago evening, Black Moth Super Rainbow and School of Seven Bells took the crowd at the Bottom Lounge for a psychedelic ride to a place where vocoders spoke of love and pain, and where ecstasy and horror evolved into joyful jubilation and perpetual elation.

Cracking open the door to this mid-week netherworld was Brooklyn trio School of Seven Bells lead by former Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis and twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza on guitar and keys. When their set began with a thick buzz and bump that rattled my rib cage, I had a feeling that the gorgeous and lush dream pop of their debut album Alpinisms was going to feel and sound a bit different in the live environment.

Flanked by the twins, with a curtain of bangs covering his face, Curtis kneeled down and began fiddling and twisting his mini-studio of laptop and mixers, while the Deheza sisters slowly merged their golden harmonies into one as the sparkling melodies of their guitar and keys sculpted the first song.

The set leaned heavy on Curtis as he fed his guitar into a mix of electronic effects and looping devices. At times it was hard not to think of his past creations, especially during the shimmering “Face to Face on High Places”, which seemed similar, and almost like an twin, or maybe an answer, to Secret Machines’ “Lightning Blue Eyes”. But as the set progressed it was clear that Curtis wasn’t trying to rehash. The comparisons quickly faded once the Deheza sisters’ warm siren vocals grabbed hold and took me upward on a spiritual journey filled with comfort and pleasure pop.

The lyrical wisdom that the sisters croon throughout Alpinisms took a backseat as the beauty of this show lay in Curtis’s strengths. He carefully mapped and mixed muscular riffs with gentle strums and picks. The trio’s faces glistened and glowed as they shook their hips ever so slightly and the crowd followed suit. They overcame a minor amp issue midway, and then glided through to the harmonic finale and subtle symphony of “Sempiternal/Amaranth”.

After a quick set change, Chicago rock poet Thax Douglas christened the second half of the night with a brief tribute poem to headliner Black Moth Super Rainbow.

But before the Pittsburgh psychedelic rockers unpacked a magic suitcase of fear, destruction, pain, anguish, grief, joy, sadness, hope, and ecstasy, we would have to wait through an oddly entertaining video tribute to the fans of Insane Clown Posse and a self-effacing video from the host of the Tim and Eric show that poked fun at “anyone stupid enough and silly enough to like such a ridiculously named band like Black Moth Super Rainbow.” Fans cheered, chuckled, and hooted their appreciation for being such “mindless followers and idiots.”

Then one by one the band members took the stage and a steady stream of sticky bass, murkily popping drums, humming Rhodes, and opulent vocals began to flow from the speakers.

While the meditative jubilation of flashing Novatron and woozy vocoded vocals filled the Bottom Lounge up to its rafters, homemade gore flicks played on a white-sheet video screen backdrop, while a hairy costumed character that looked like Sasquatch crawled on stage and joined the group of sleazy and short-skirted female and transvestite dancers who swayed like dejected Motown backup singers. All of them huddled over each other as if warming themselves by the fire funneling up from the man on the floor who whispered sunshine into a pink microphone.

This show tickled, touched, and tempted all my senses. They unveiled songs from their fourth studio album Eating Us (produced by Flaming Lips’ studio wiz David Fridmann), which doesn’t depart too far from what they’ve done before but adds more layers to the lush forest of their mythical wonder. Dipping into their last album, Dandelion Gum, “Sun Lips” floated images of Ray Bradbury munching on Big League Chew on a hot summer day through my mind as drum machines brought forth thick and sticky beats and samplers oozed psychedelic sounds seducing my inner parts and gyrating those around me. It felt like we were all frolicking through their hometown fields of western Pennsylvania in one gigantic mass of elation on a warm summer day.

As the set neared its final number, I looked around and saw euphoria painted on the face of fans. It was as if we were floating in the air and hovering over solar flares on the surface of the sun with bare feet but not feeling the burn, or maybe swimming through the group’s trippy and drippy album artwork. The happy tribe played on—relaxed, communal, and in full control of the folky electronic ruminations spreading throughout the venue.

And the show rang true. Because, together, the songs and the videos represented a truthful and honest union of nasty and beautiful that resides in our core. And it’s shows like this that allow the beauties and the beasts to run around and get freaky for a bit before it’s time to go back in the secret cage of our hearts and minds.

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Popmatters Review: Dam-Funk's Rhythm Trax Vol. 4

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I’d like to share with you this Popmatters review I wrote for Los Angeles electro-funk beatman Dam-funk and his latest Stones Throw release Rhythm Trax Vol. 4.  Dam-funk is known for laying down some seriously trippy boogie funk for his live shows. And if they’re anything like this album I hope to catch him the  next time he comes to Chicago so I can elevate into the “funkmosphere.”

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Popmatters: Interview with Danny!

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danny

So what does a hip hop artist/producer who loves creating lushly layered albums do when he can’t create the same feel live? He relies on his rhyming and storytelling talent. Those two combined can reveal to the crowd a deeper dimension of the music that can’t be conveyed on record.

Such was the intended approach explained to me by Atlanta-based hip hop producer Danny Swain  (aka Danny!).   I spoke with Swain for Popmatters back in December about his career thus far, including the recent  difficulties he had releasing his latest album And I Love H.E.R.

He had this to say when I asked him about performing his music live: 

Your albums are very elaborate and intricate with samples and layers of beats and interweaving story lines. When you perform live do you have the same sonic elements as they appear on the album?
When I’m performing live I look for the bigger picture. I pick the song that best fits what fans are expecting at a concert. I re-create some of the album tracks into more live party songs. I would eventually like to make my live shows more theatrical and have costume changes because I love doing that for the fans. I love giving them a show that they can dance to and get lost in.

You can read the entire interview on Popmatters.

What are your thoughts about seeing hip hop live?

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Popmatters Interview: Danny!

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This interview first appeared in Popmatters

Talking with Danny Swain (aka Danny!), the message is loud and clear: all he wants to do is make music and let people here it. The first part has been the easy part for the prolific producer/emcee. He began recording music with the production of his 2002 debut Danny Swain which was halted when he was expelled from Claflin University after being the alleged leader in a grade-changing scandal.

Using the “depressing and dejecting” situation for creative fodder, Swain bounced back with his official debut The College Kicked-Out (2004) and F.O.O.D. (2005). Over the last four years, he’s self-released four albums and various EPs. On his latest And I Love H.E.R.: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2008), Swain deepened his deftly orchestrated blend of soul, pop, and funk. Following the psychedelic jazz template of De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, Swain’s dreamy tapestry is a dramatic theatrical backdrop for his equally intricate and lush lyrical storytelling. Sometimes his greatest weapon and other times his greatest flaw, his interweaving flow of real life fact and fiction creates a storyline that makes you wonder how (and if) the events of his life really happened. But you never doubt his ability to create soulfully surreal and sonic wonder between your ears and to entertain with fresh and witty wordplay. And his artistic fortitude confirms that, though he appreciates the compliments, he never wanted to be compared to Kanye West.
Swain is a one-man production machine who’s always making music and promoting it. With Grammy shortlists nods for Charm (2006) and the “Beatles and noir detective film inspired” And I Love H.E.R. (2008), he is still trying to figure out how his prolific nature jives within the framework of a label.

In 2007, he won Definitive Jux Best Music on Campus Contest after he transferred to Savannah College of Art and Design. Winning the contest landed him a contract to begin recording what would eventually be H.E.R.. But after the label dragged their feet for most of 2008, Swain didn’t want his album to go to waste so he did what he’s always done and self-released it. (Def Jux has just released “Just Friends”, a new Danny! single.)

A week away from his first headlining tour in Atlanta—after relocating from his previous South Carolina home—I spoke with Swain about his Claflin grades scandal, the influence of being raised by military parents on his production style and the current status between him and Definitive Jux.

Why did you decide to self-release And I Love H.E.R. and where do you stand with Definitive Jux?
As far as I know I’m still at the label unless someone from Definitive Jux disagrees with me. I heard from the manager last week. But as you can see, two years after the fact I still haven’t put out my record yet. I just sitting around here twiddling my thumbs and I didn’t want to wait to see H.E.R. become old material. I don’t know what is going on at Definitive Jux because I don’t live in New York and I’m down here in Atlanta. Maybe it’s an out of site out of mind sort of thing for them but I can’t just sit idle. I wanted to release H.E.R. because it had been a while since Charm and that album was what got me signed to Def Jux. So if it’s up to them they would’ve released it this year. I had such a huge demand for the album that I just released it myself and waited to see what Def Jux would do since they know that a lot of fans were waiting for the album to come out.

So there are no hard feelings between you and Definitive Jux?
Not yet, anyways [chuckles].

Are going to continue to release on Definitive Jux and as an independent?
Well, I wouldn’t say I’m allowed to, but at the same time, if time goes by and I don’t hear from them for four months after trying to contact then I figure, “Why not release new music on my own?” The whole thing is a running gag. I was at concert a few weeks ago and a kid asked me about the situation with Definitive Jux so I was surprised that even the kids know what’s going on. Once I do what I did then all they can say is, “Well, we messed up.” All I want to do is establish a really good relationship with Definitive Jux so they know who I am and I can put my music out through their label.

You grew up in a military home where you traveled a lot. How did that influence your samples and orchestrate the mixture with pop music?
I didn’t really get in to hip-hop until I was 11 or 12. Rhe first song that got me into hip-hop was “Flavor in Ya Ear” [the remix by Craig Mack]. That really changed my life. After I heard it I was hooked and I started doing my homework. Before that it was pretty much soul, funk, jazz, or whatever my mom or dad had around. With them being in the military, we traveled all around so whatever my parents were listening to, or wherever we were—St Louis, Germany or Louisiana—that’s what I soaked up. Location played a huge role, but it was also having music-loving parents that really developed my love for music. I saw how music changed their lives and it influenced me. There was always music playing in our house. So when my mom had a Prince album on, I would go look up other similar rock artists and just build on it from there. When I first heard hip-hop, that’s when I really started to own what music meant to me. And at that point I already had a strong music foundation.

Where did you develop the love for storytelling in your songwriting? Sometimes it’s fiction and other times it’s your real life story. You mix and match and walk a thin line between reality and fiction.
Yes, I do weave a lot of fiction with nonfiction. I like to mix both of them together because I find it easier to tell a story or to create a story that’s mysterious or might be half real and half imaginary. It makes the songwriting more interesting for me and it’s the way I most enjoy making music. When I write a song in that way I can control where the song goes, add or take away if I need to, and not worry about the facts. I can focus on the song and the overall story that I’m telling.

This also comes from my love to write. I love words. I love the way they sound and the way you can control how they sound or what they communicate over music. I love the English language and being able to switch words around. I love making pun jokes, too. My friend and I do that all the time. It might be corny but it’s so much fun because of the language. Ever since I was a kid I loved to pick up a pen and write. Being an English major during my first years in college has a huge influence on my style.

When you begin creating an album—and you’re thinking about the song structure—is it more about letting the story unfold and then reshape it with orchestrated beats and melody?
The last two albums I had the general idea. Sometimes I start with an idea and I might take it in a different direction the more music I made for it. And I Love H.E.R. started out as a soundtrack idea. I wanted to tell a story in a French spy movie style. I took a few ideas from my previous albums to create the first track for H.E.R. Sometimes I start with a sample I like and I get far along. But then for whatever reason, I can’t clear the sample so I have to take the idea in a different direction. Charm was pretty close to what I started out with idea-wise, but the sonic feel of the demo was completely different from what you hear on the final album.

You have other artists featured on your albums but as far as producing goes, you work by yourself, right?
I do have a crew that I work with but, yes, I do primarily self-produce. But I do feature other artists and I want people to know that I do have a crew supporting me. I would like to have somebody do all the other things like PR someday.

Your albums are very elaborate and intricate with samples and layers of beats and interweaving storylines. When you perform live do you have the same sonic elements as they appear on the album?
When I’m performing live I look for the bigger picture. I pick the song that best fits what fans are expecting at a concert. I re-create some of the album tracks into more live party songs. I would eventually like to make my live shows more theatrical and have costume changes because I love doing that for the fans. I love giving them a show that they can dance to and get lost in.

Just as you were getting ready to release your debut Danny! In 2002 you were involved in a grade-changing scandal at Claflin University? On the The College Kicked-out you poke fun at it, but does that situation still come up as a sore spot when it comes to your musical career?
I’ve dealt with it and there’s no gag order. They didn’t have any evidence to put me in jail so all they could do was kick me out. I was allowed to go to the homecoming but I didn’t because I had a show. I make fun of the whole thing on my records. That’s my way of trying to use all the energy to make something positive out of it.
It seems you’re able to channel adversity into a creative project. Did you learn that from someone?
I learned that myself. I’m a cynical person so I can laugh at it and turn it around in a song or an entire album.

It’s almost a cliché with hip-hop artists retiring and then coming back to the game. And you seem to satire that, too on Charm and Danny Is Dead. But it also seems like you’re dealing with some real frustration in the satire.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s part of the hip-hop game. Everyone feels like that and I might be the most vocal about it. I do feel like quitting everyday but I just keep going. There’s a lot of music that I still want to make and I’m still having fun.

You titled your recent album And I Love H.E.R.. What do you think about hip-hop’s use of the women as a metaphor? It’s a common thing—no pun intended—but why did you choose to use it and blend it with the Beatles song?
(laughs) Yeah that was a good one. When I first heard Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” I loved it. It was pretty clever and I don’t think many people where doing it at the time. But then a lot of artists started using it and didn’t do it as good so it became cheesy. I didn’t even want to do the whole women-as-a-metaphor thing because I was going for more of the French detective noir feel. I wanted to tell the story of a real love between a man and a woman and still use the Beatles song title somehow. I was hesitant to approach it in that way because I knew a lot of people would think that I was rehashing the hip-hop woman metaphor. But as I went along it turned out to be double-sided, like a lot of my songs are. I don’t intend for them to turn out that way but that’s how H.E.R. ended up. I was happy with the way it turned out because I felt that I did it right and it wasn’t cheesy at all. It was my version of the women metaphor so it was different that how it’s been done before.

Since you’re an English major and you love storytelling, would you edit or rework any parts of the H.E.R.?
With a song like “Misery” I wanted fans to really enjoy that they mention other songs. I guess in the future I’m going to spend less time on making songs that I think are going to be great and work more towards figuring out what really clicks with the fans. I’m not compromising my art; I’m just paying more attention to what really resonates with the fans. You can sit and make music that you enjoy but after a while that gets old. I really want to make music that many people can enjoy and it takes work to make a song that I’m happy with and fans enjoy. But sometimes you can’t have both. With H.E.R. I think I might have been a bit too personal. It took away from the rest of the songs and the album as a whole. I would also use fewer skits or edit them down. Skits can really make a record unique but if you overuse them they can really ruin an album or take away from the music. I was using the skits to add the movie element to the album but looking back I probably would have cut the skits out because at 72 minutes it gets a bit long and I realized that the listener doesn’t need the skits to tell them that they’re in a movie. The music should do that itself.

Concept albums are still being made regardless of the MP3 single format. H.E.R.is a long cohesive record and it doesn’t easily mesh with the MP3 single format. Did you think about making it MP3-accessible or did you just focus on the story when you made the album?
When Charm came out I was really seeing people only making singles albums. But when it came to my albums I wanted fans to being able to buy the whole thing because I was telling a whole story. I wanted them to hear a complete story and create a sense of mystery that wouldn’t sound complete as a single and would make them want to buy the whole story to hear how it flows. That’s how I made H.E.R.. I make albums the way I would want to hear them. It is getting out of hand with other hip-hop artist making singles albums. When I buy an album I want to hear it from start to finish.

Was it hard for you then to release your songs on iTunes?
I wasn’t reluctant about it. I’ve had so many fans online and at shows ask for my old material that I was surprised. So when I had the chance to release my back catalog on iTunes it was really for the fans. I’m still surprised when a fan comes up to me and ask about F.O.O.D. I want to please those fans that have enjoyed my previous albums and I also want to be able to see the progression of my music for posterity sake.

So you were able to let go of some of your own fears about letting people see your progression, just so fans would be able to appreciate the progression of your music?
Yeah, I was really protective of my progression at first. I didn’t want people listening to my older songs saying that I sounded like Common or Kanye West. But at the same time I’ve realized that fans can appreciate the progression and see it as artistic growth and creative development. I didn’t want people looking at College Kicked-Out and saying I was a copycat. But I also didn’t want to let my own fears keep someone from enjoying an album that they really liked. I realized that a lot of times I’m worrying for no reason at all.

Do your parents still play a role in your music?
I still talk to my mom but not as often as she would like. But my dad passed away last summer right about the same time I was releasing H.E.R. I didn’t really have a relationship with him since my parents divorced. I made a beat for my mom for Christmas and she really liked it. She recognizes the samples that I use and she really supports my music. But when I sample European rock and jazz she doesn’t recognize it, but she immediately picks up the Delfonics and other soul funk and jazz she raised me on.

You’ve been called Tribe Called Quest on acid for your lush psychedelic production style but you also weave some pretty crafty rhymes. Who are some of your favorite emcees?
Biggie, Jay-Z, and Slick Rick for their wordplay, laid-back style, and storytelling abilities. I learned so much from them. Growing up and still today, my friends and I just kick around rhymes around for fun. After Charm made the Grammy shortlist I had a lot of guys coming up to me spitting rhymes and so I know that I also have to be sharpening and developing my craft.

I’m going to take everything about Danny! that is good in a different direction. A lot of the reviews don’t mention my rhyming schemes. They talk up my production but they say my lyrics aren’t as good. I put a lot of work into my rhymes. My next album is going to be similar to the minimalism of Madvillainy. I’d like to get more credit for my rhymes and talent as an emcee. Hopefully that’ll happen.

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Shaking Off The Dust of Wilco’s Ashes of American Flags

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He’s so right. I completely agree with Ben Rubenstein as he reflects in his MixTape Confessions Popmatters column on a recent trip to see Wilco’s concert/tour film Ashes of American Flags at the Music Box in Chicago.

Ben says that the crowd in the theatre was surprisingly subdued and that it made the screening of the film that much more of a downer. And I know exactly what he’s taking about. Because the crowd has way more power over a performance than we realize. Though this screening wasn’t actually a live concert I connected with Ben’s insight when he riffs on the feelings of having your expectations come crashing down.

Without going into the show with the right perspective and realistic expectations, watching a concert film of your favorite band (especially if you weren’t at the show featured in the film) can be like eating leftovers expecting them to taste  as sweet and succulent as the original meal.

I have yet to see Ashes of American Flags, but  I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t feature any Chicago shows but instead is filmed at the 9:30 club in Washington D.C. Probably another reason why Rubenstein and the crowd watched in subdued exhilaration as a hometown Chicago band played infront of a non-Chicago crowd forever captured in time and history on the silver screen and a forthcoming DVD.

Seeing Wilco live holds a special spot in my concertgoers heart on many levels as my experience of having a medical emergency at a 2006 show and last year’s Riveria show were both inspirations for Live Fix posts and personal concert highlights. Like most Wilco fans, I was also bummed when the original plans to release the footage from Wilco’s Chicago Theatre shows  for Kicking Television were aborted.  Nonetheless I’ll be sure to check out Ashes of American Flags and get back to you should there be any more insights.

Have you seen the Wilco film?  What’d you think of it?

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