Saturday, August 29, 2015

Omar Souleyman profile in the Guardian

I'm not sure why these types of articles bother me, but they do.

I like Omar Souleyman, but that's not the point of this post. This is about the way in which he's profiled in Western media.  These kinds of 750-1000 word mini-profiles are standard fare for non-music exclusive online and print media, but even within that relatively short word limit, there is plenty of space for digging into a musician's background and providing some meaningful analysis. But for this piece about Omar Souleyman (which is typical of the coverage he's been given since becoming a semi-known name in the English speaking world), it's amazing how little research goes into understanding the culture he comes from.

First, the article tap dances around the reasons for his success.  It's presented as a mystery still waiting to be solved -- his music is unlike anything else on US and UK pop radio, so why have people taken to it?  If you've never heard a Souleyman song, the article offers a description -- his music features "[a] dizzying use of ululating keyboards, pounding synthesized beats, and throaty vocals".  You might as well say that a certain techno artist's music features "looping, hypnotic beats, a club-rattling bassline, and a catchy electronic riff that belies the lack of vocals".  In other words, thousands of Middle Eastern musicians could fit that description, so it doesn't tell us very much at all.

We know why Western audiences have been paying attention to Souleyman's music.  Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) likes his music and has produced albums for Souleyman that have been released on Western music labels.  Souleyman has a few well-connected friends who have helped open doors for him.  That's what sets him apart from other Middle Eastern artists who don't have the same connections.  I've read countless articles about white rock bands that meticulously catalog their rise to prominence in the music industry in ways that are less than flattering -- in the right place at the right time when four A&R people happened to wander into one of their concerts hoping to check out a different band on the same bill, mentored by managers and producers with plenty of clout, etc. -- and searched for quality within their music as an afterthought.  With Souleyman the narrative gets flipped, the role of his well-connected collaborators are ignored, and a desperate search for greater meaning behind his popularity is halfheartedly begun but left unfinished lest people find (justifiable) reasons to doubt the entire premise.

Second, for an article about an artist from a troubled country, politically, there is absolutely no attempt to dig deeper into the artist's thoughts on the subject.  Half of the paragraphs mention the Syrian civil war and/or Souleyman's relationship with his home country. Don't get me wrong, I am not at all a fan of bringing political discussion into musician profiles.  But if you're going to devote so much attention to it in the article (and obviously Souleyman's career has been influenced by the situation in Syria), then why not ask Souleyman for his opinion on the matter?  Which side is he on?  Again, it shouldn't be relevant which side he's on, but it's impossible to imagine taking a "political" bent in an article about a Western (or Israeli) artist and not at least raising the issue.  Is Syrian politics off-limits in a way that Western (or Israeli) is not?

Third, every article on Souleyman makes reference to him as a "wedding singer" with hundreds of live albums to his credit.  The inference is that he has only recently crossed over to being a "proper" recording artist after decades performing in obscurity at weddings.  To a Western reader, a wedding singer is not a "real" artist (i.e. not a contemporary pop music singer), just like a "wedding DJ" isn't a real club DJ who tours the world and plays in top dance clubs.  Nobody would assume anything different without the proper context.  Another example -- in North American movies, hit songs from movies are songs contributed to the soundtrack by established artists, not songs that are sung by the actors themselves (exceptions such as the Grease soundtrack are rare).  This is not true for many movies made in India, for example.

The truth is that the natural sphere for a performer like Souleyman is the wedding circuit.  Appearances at weddings and other celebrations pay extremely well and are considered prestige gigs.  For a Western artist, once your songs get on the radio and you release an album, your days playing concerts at non-ticketed events are over.  That's not how it works in the Middle East -- even the biggest artists with their songs all over the radio will still hire themselves out for private parties (in addition to whatever solo gigs they might play).

Why does it matter?  The first two points can be hand-waved away via vague notions of adhering to "cultural sensitivity".  That's fine, but for the third point, cultural sensitivity suddenly becomes unimportant, and Souleyman is presented as somewhat who rose from wedding singer obscurity to performing for adoring ticket-buying customers at Western clubs and festivals.  That's the kind of narrative that Western readers can easily relate to, but it's not accurate and actually disrespects Souleyman, his culture, and his music.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

I haven't seen "Straight Outta Compton" yet, but there have been plenty of good articles about the film so far, and a fair number of strong criticisms about what got left out or glossed over.  Most notably, incidents involving women have been left out of the story completely, such as Dr. Dre's assault of Dee Barnes, and JJ Fad legitimizing Ruthless Records and giving them the credibility to release NWA records.  JJ Fad's "Supersonic" (the song and album) was legitimately huge, the album went gold, the group earned a Grammy nomination, their singles ruled the clubs, and I honestly have no idea how this kind of thing gets left out of the movie. 

Most Hollywood biopics get scorched by critics over what they leave out, or the liberties they take with the truth.  I usually accept this as part of the challenge of trying to bring a complicated subject to the big screen, and am understanding of the fact that not every great story necessarily makes for a great movie (without some embellishment or added scenes that likely never took place).  Again, I haven't yet seen the movie, but the always excellent Wesley Morris touches on many of the movie's weaknesses for Grantland.  The final paragraph stings, paraphrasing, the movie avoids showing the realities of the lives of the people it claims to be accurately portraying in favour of accentuating how rich and famous they all got.  That could apply to just about any Hollywood biopic.  The only thing that Hollywood likes more than movies about people who are success stories are movies about people who overcame serious obstacles to become success stories.  Anything that interferes with the telling of that basic narrative gets left out.  Even the biopics that end on a tragic note make sure to redeem their subjects by emphasizing that their legacy lived on far longer than they did, in which case anything that detracts from their ordeals is also quietly left out (I'm looking at you, "The Imitation Game"). 

NWA didn't invent "black reality", for instance, Public Enemy were superstars long before "Straight Outta Compton" and famously described their music as "black CNN".  The critical respect they garnered at the time was widespread even among white critics.  Hip hop already knew how to portray the reality of the streets in a way that would sell records, but NWA were selling something a bit different.  As Morris writes, "NWA didn't invent 'scary' as the black-male trope.  They perfected it".  That reality includes the misogyny and other stuff that seems to have been dropped from the movie.  A movie about black kids who grew up in a dangerous neighbourhood and became rich is a salable concept.  A movie about rappers who beat up women and made money off their reputation as such is not. 

Finally, there's a clear interest on the part of any filmaker to put on rose coloured glasses when taking on a project like this.  Movies like these get made to honour their subjects, not to show them up by dragging old skeletons out of the closet.  It should also be said that Dr. Dre is a billionaire who is one of the most powerful people in the music industry, and counts several other powerful heavyweights among his best friends and business partners.  Did we really expect anyone involved in this picture (who still plans on being involved in the music industry in any way) to insist on telling the whole truth? 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 25

"This hot streak has suddenly turned the MVP race into a two way mix", 74 minutes

Yet another mix for baking in the summer heat, but with a completely different feel from the previous podcast.  This was another one of those "dig out some old CD's and see what happens" mixes, and is mostly downtempo but with a moody, tension-filled edge to it.  The slower parts aren't strictly ambient either, as you might expect from previous mixes.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A brief history of the featured rapper in pop music

In all seriousness, I've been waiting for someone to write this article for about fifteen years.  I had assumed that the trend had its roots in hip-hop and had later spread to pop music in general. However, Molanphy's analysis shows that it was more likely that pop hitmakers wanted to hybridize the then-popular styles of R&B and dance, while siphoning off hip-hop's cred in the process.  Early 90's producers racked up the hits and helped rap become more palatable to mainstream listeners, and in the long run everybody won.

At some point in the early to mid 90's, the guest spot went from a rare occurrence (and one that often required a careful reading of the liner notes to uncover) to a requirement, particularly in hip-hop.  I've heard that attributed to LL Cool J ("Mr Smith" was his turn away from rap and towards R&B and was full of guest spots), or the massive success of "Gangstas Paradise" by Coolio featuring L.V., or any one of a handful of other candidates.  Featured raps were prevalent in the G-Funk scene -- Snoop Dogg's career was famously jumpstarted by his verses on "Ain't Nothin But a G Thang" -- but the scene was too insular, with the same crew guesting on each others records, in the spirit of Molanphy's claims, their influence didn't cross genre lines, that is, unless you want to claim an indirect influence when Dr. Dre branched out and worked with other artists (e.g. Blackstreet).  Molanphy does a great job of tracing out the history of the trend, finding clear answers to all the "hows" but the "whys" are still lacking.  Did musicians suddenly become more democratic?  When Mick Jagger or John Lennon would sing background vocals for their friends, they hardly needed the publicity.  Was the "featured" spot looked upon as a way to break a new artist in a relatively low pressure setting?  In other words, the lead artists' name value would have to carry the record, but the featured artist could still break through if the record was a success.  That might have been the case twenty years ago, but you could argue that the pressure is now shared equally because featured spots are now so prevalent.

Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" comes across as the unsung hero of the piece.  Melle Mel didn't get a "featuring" credit, but his rap is the most iconic and most imitated part of the song.  Previous collaborations blended backing vocals into an existing song, or gave the songwriter/producer a featured space to put their stamp on a record that was theirs to begin with.  The rap on "I Feel For You" brought a completely new element to a Chaka Khan song, and even overshadowed her while paradoxically cementing the song as a hit (as well as Chaka's big comeback).  The song was written and recorded by Prince, and covered in previous years by other acts, but it's Chaka Khan and Melle Mel's version that everyone remembers.  As with other songs that were covered multiple times but eventually owned by one particular artist (Aretha Franklin's "Respect" is a more well-known example), this version had a certain it factor that the others didn't.

Unsurprisingly, Eurodance gets somewhat overlooked in the article, as is usually the case with modern day critical reappraisals of 90's music.  Dozens of Eurodance records featured verses by unsung rappers who never received their proper credit, or vocal hooks by singers who were replaced by models in the videos.  Molanphy discusses C+C Music Factory and Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations", but there are countless other examples that are waiting to be thoroughly unpacked in an article like this.  It's a difficult task mainly because of the maze of labels/remixes/re-recordings involved.  The labels wouldn't bother to clear samples, the song would be re-released with new vocalists who also weren't properly credited (and were dis-invited to the video shoots and occasional live performances).

I could swear that there was a version of Snap!'s "The Power" credited to Snap featuring Chill Rob G, but I can't find any evidence of that now.  The original version featured his rap over the same backing track that was on the megahit version.  "Featured" is too strong a word -- Snap!'s svengali producers lifted the rap word for word from one of his songs -- and later rerecorded it with new verses (keeping only the "it's getting kinda hectic" line) and a different rapper (who also never got the proper credit), in order to avoid getting sued into tiny bits.  The new version was an even bigger smash, and a transcontinental one at that.  I thought that eventually something was worked out and the Chill Rob G version was rereleased as a type of remix to go along with the more famous version, but I seem to have been wrong about that.  Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" was credited to Technotronic featuring Felly and was a huge smash, which would appear to predate all of Molanphy's early 90's  examples.  But of course all the vocals were by Ya Kid K and Felly was only the model they put in the video.  It's also not like they were hiding Ya Kid K completely, like C+C Music Factory did with Martha Wash.  She was duly credited on other singles.  To make things more confusing, the album track "Move This" was featured in a Revlon ad campaign for years (this may have only been in Canada and not worldwide), and if you were alive between 1992 and 1995 you will remember being bombarded by it constantly.  It was remixed from the three year old album version, rereleased to capitalize on its newfound popularity, and retroactively credited to Technotronic featuring Ya Kid K.  Why the sudden change?  Why did the song "feature" a singer who was already a regular collaborator for Technotronic?  I'm not sure.

If you've read this far and still not clicked on Molanphy's article, do it now.  His pop chart analyses are consistently some of the best music writing around.