Archive for the 'Music' Category

09
Nov
09

DJ Hero: A Hip Hop Historian’s Review (Xbox 360 Standard Edition)

jazzyjeffscratching_large Just like many other kids who were alive in the 70s/80s, I remember watching the Grammys where Herbie Hancock did a live performance of ‘Rock It’ (which at that time had the most visually eclectic music video to date.)  There was a lot going on in the performance – mannequins were moving around and other Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions swung in the background.  But what I remember most was the DJ in the background, where for the first time ever I saw someone scratching.  After that, I fell in love with the art and later with the skills of so many accomplished DJs, including Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, Jam Master Jay, Chuck Chillout, Marley Marl, Red Alert and Premier to name just a few. 

Very late into the craze, I decided to save up my money and get DJ equipment myself.  With immeasurable hope, I turned the pages to the back of a Source magazine advertisement and bought two of the most inexpensive Gemini turntables and a mixer that money would buy.  (They even threw in ten albums which I desperately needed, as buying two of each record wasn’t something that my 12-year-old budget was ready to handle.)

When my box and turntables arrived, within about 3 hours I realized a few things.  First, I learned that you pretty much get what you pay for.  But most importantly I learned that even the most expensive gear and dedication wouldn’t buy the years of practice and perfecting of the art it takes to be a true Hip-Hop DJ.  Watching DJs as a kid, all I saw was the scratching and crossfading.  But only when I used the turntables myself did I see just how much skill was involved.  I had to try to remember the positioning of the song, so that when I went from one turntable to the other, I would be at the correct position.  I had to remember to discern between what I was hearing in my headphones versus what was coming out of the speaker.  All in all, I developed more respect for the art of DJing that day than I ever had watching it alone.

Over the years, the art has been mastered and taken to new levels, as evidenced by watching movies like Scratch and guys like Mix Master Mike, Cut Chemist and many others.  DJing is such an iconic art that in Japan (where arcade gaming, although on the decline, is much more popular than it is here) there are more than a few games that feature turntables and simulate DJing.  I always wondered if one of those games would make it stateside and, more importantly, if they would be worth playing.

A bit over a year ago, I remember hearing that Activision reserved the name “DJ Hero”, (among many other Hero-based game names they reserved).  Ideas began to circulate in my mind about how a game like this might play out.  Exactly how would they translate the art of DJing to a video game?

About six months ago, I had my first look at the DJ Hero controller, and I was pretty impressed.  It looked like the iconic Technics 1200 model turntable that every Hip-Hop aficionado is familiar with.  (And actually I’m pretty surprised that Technics hasn’t attempted to sue Activision – the resemblance is more than minor.)  However, when I saw the screenshot, I thought I was seeing only part of the peripheral.  Where was the other turntable?  Well, Activision aired on the side of simplicity for the controller rather than authenticity.  Initially I thought this was sacrilegious to only have one turntable.  But after having played the game, I think – for now, at least – that they made the right decision.  So, does this game bring me closer to the experience of actually simulating the art of DJing?  Read on to find out.

Continue reading ‘DJ Hero: A Hip Hop Historian’s Review (Xbox 360 Standard Edition)’

29
May
09

The Man in Black – Johnny Cash

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a man in black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believing that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believing that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changing everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Oh, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s o.k.,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the man in black.

21
Dec
08

Hurt – Johnny Cash

Cash Hurt I’ve always been a fan of songs that express a certain degree of regret… (It’s Been Awhile – Staind, Say It Ain’t So – Weezer).  To me, there’s something much more authentic and genuine when artists talk about their shortcomings.  But no song exhibits as epic a moment of reflection on a life less than perfect as when Johnny Cash decided to cover Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. Trent Renzor himself said in an interview that when he listened to the song, he was moved to tears.  He says that when he heard the song, he realized that “it wasn’t my song anymore.”  (Presumably meaning that Cash gave the song some alternate meaning – not that he ‘took’ the song.)  The original is itself a powerful song, but somehow Cash takes it to a different place.  Trent’s lyrics are a masterpiece. Yet somehow Cash’s interpretation breathes new life into them.  And when you reflect upon the lyrics as they leave Johnny’s mouth, it’s almost as if Trent he wrote them knowing that Cash would sing them one day.

The song seems rather incomplete without watching the video, because it tells such an incredible story.  As you watch all of the accolades – the awards and pictures and statues that are piled up and dusted in the Cash home… and as you watch his older (and presumably wiser) self with clips of Cash as a younger man, it paints a complete picture.  It works on several levels.  Most obviously is the fact that Johnny is reflecting on his life minus the tales of glamour, as his wife June watches on.  (June would pass away in May of 2003 and, like the love story always goes, Johnny would follow her in September.).  But it’s also a cautionary tale.  It’s the wise, old man who takes a moment away from the chess table in the park and decides to impart some words of wisdom to you.  It’s the rock star who’s telling you that now that it’s all said and done, that some of the pain and struggle wasn’t really worth it.  It’s the black sheep of the family exclaiming that although you think he’s just a screw up, that he really wishes he could take back some of the moments of imperfection.

There are so many things about this song that I love.  But what truly brings the song together is the last verse.  As the song is brought to a crescendo, there’s the verse at the end that just doesn’t seem to fit.  It isn’t in line with the structure of the rest of the song.  However, it fits the emotion of the song perfectly.  It’s the final thought of a man reflecting on a life that’s been fun, but that has moments he wishes he could take back.  I recall watching Mickey Mantle at a press conference where he announced that he was dying.  I didn’t grow up a Mickey Mantle fan, but in that moment he earned my undying respect.  As he reflected on his bouts with alcohol that would eventually take his life, he decided to take the opportunity to do something most celebrities would never think of doing – he dispelled the myth of his perfection.  He talked about how all of his fans looked up to him and wanted to be like him.  And he answered them: “Don’t be like me.”  And this song encompasses all of the regret expressed in that moment:  “I will let you down… I will make you hurt… If I could start again… a million miles away… I would keep myself… I would find a way.”

Continue reading ‘Hurt – Johnny Cash’

03
Nov
08

If You’re Out There….

C6073662 I’ve gone on record before as saying that I’m bothered at the amount of attention that is being given to Senator Obama’s race (or at least one HALF of his race).  I totally understand the significance of race in this country.  Considering the fact that only fifty years ago Senator Obama might not have even been able to sit at the same table to have dinner as Joe Biden, this could indeed be an incredible point of arrival for this country.  However, my pride comes from the fact that he represents so much more.  I am sorta in between Generations X and Y.  And speaking for them, we’ve always had these legends told to us about being able to stand up tall knowing that your Chief Executive in the White House was someone who you could be proud of.  It’s funny to see pictures of relative’s homes and see images of John Kennedy and Martin King on their walls in the background.  And it’s not to say that we don’t identify with those men.  We certainly do.  But the question which has always lurked in the back of our minds is, “Where is OUR John Kennedy?”  Is the best we can aspire to now to sit and dream of images of our leaders of old?

I had a close friend laugh at me when I sent her the YouTube links to the Obama-inspired songs (Yes We Can and We Are the Ones).  She’s kinda reductive anyway (and she admits that she is).  But her comment was, “Do you think that a song or a video will coerce me into voting for a candidate.”  And although I didn’t take the time to properly respond (because you can always tell when someone is tuning you out) but if I did take the time to respond, it would be to suggest this: while I don’t believe that a song done ‘We Are the World’ style can tickle your emotions and cause you to action, the songs are more than just blind faith celebrity driven anthems.  They represent the things that I have been wondering whether or not people cared about anymore (particularly the ‘We Are the Ones’ video.)  After all, these are all pretty much millionaires who are supporting a man who tells them that in order to do the things that we need to do that he’ll raise their taxes (everyone making under 250K lowered taxes, assumption is that the ones over will contribute more.  We’ll see.)

But more than this, I have fears about tomorrow.  (Tuesday November 4, 2008.)  Will this be the day that we can start on the road to disproving everyone who says that the kind of change that has been talked about since January is false hope?  “How does he think he can get all that stuff done?”  Well, here we are again.  Every first Tuesday of November – seemingly every four years since 2000, I literally sit up, in the dark, after having cast my vote earlier and watch Tom Brokaw…and get a headache.  No, not a figurative headache.  A literal headache.  This is before the returns are even in.  It just happens.  Perhaps it’s anxiety.  (Maybe even it’s the fact that I’m watching TV in the dark.)  But it happens.  I am about as nervous as I’ve ever been with this election.  And my anxiety extends even past the election, but that’s another post.

My fears are largely concerning the fact that I wonder if all the shirt-wearing, bumper-sticker wearing folks that I didn’t see when I stood on empty voting lines in 2000 and particularly in 2004, will show up.  I just worry that people aren’t seeing the bigger picture and the potential unity that this might represent.  Everyone was partying when Senator Obama won the nomination – I didn’t quite understand why we were partying during halftime at the Super Bowl where there was no score.

Back during the Democratic Convention, someone told me that John Legend had written a song about the hope that Barack represents.  But more so about the call to action that it requires for this to become a reality.  I was working during the convention, so I only saw the speeches made by each candidate when I got home.  But I did download the song.  And I cried.

Continue reading ‘If You’re Out There….’

22
Jul
08

Soulmate

natasha (Performed by Natasha Bedingfield)

Incompatible
It don’t matter, though
Cause someone’s bound to hear my cry
Speak out if you do
You’re not easy to find

Is it possible
Mr. lovable
Is already in my life?
Right in front of me
Or maybe you’re in disguise

Chorus
Who doesn’t long for someone to hold
Who knows how to love you without being told
Somebody tell me why I’m on my own
If there’s a soulmate for everyone? Continue reading ‘Soulmate’

21
Nov
07

Guitar Hero III? Good Stuff. And Rock Band?….I’m a Believer

When it comes to most games that I purchase, I’m probably being robbed. Sixty bucks for about 5-10 hours of gameplay — by my own choice. There’s probably 10-15 hours worth of gameplay in the average game today if you consider all of the “extra modes” that games usually include to increase the perceived “good value”. But after awhile, repetition sets in and I stop playing. Most sports games have lost their appeal for me. And these days, it take a pretty special game to truly make me feel that my $60 was money well spent.

Guitar Hero is probably the only game that I’ve purchased in recent years and received more enjoyment than than the $90 put towards buying it. The original Guitar Hero provided me and my friends with hours and hours of gaming fun. It was just perfect. The song list was comprised of old time favorites and new songs that quickly became favorites. Guitar Hero II had some of my favorite tracks, but the general consensus was that it just didn’t seem to have the same appeal as the original song list. In looking ahead to Guitar Hero III, the song list seemed to return to the days of glory. My Name is Jonas by Weezer, One by Metallica, Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar, and, my personal favorite, Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones, made this new version of Guitar Hero the game to buy. However, there’s another game that was waiting behind the curtain… one that curiously enough was developed by the folks who made the first two games.

Rock Band is being developed by Harmonix — the studio that made the first two Guitar Hero games. (There’s been enough said about the split. Let’s just say that Harmonix is now doing Rock Band and Neversoft, makers of Tony Hawk, are doing Guitar Hero. OK?)

Two guitar-based games? Two years ago, we barely had hopes that the first one would be accepted. But now we’ve got this new “Rock Band” which incorporates singing, bass and lead guitar and the drums. It all seemed kinda strange to me. What could Harmonix legally take from the old series and bring to Rock Band? And more importantly, what would my old favorite, Guitar Hero, be like without them?

Well, the verdict for both games is in. I’ve played em both. Guitar Hero III has been in my PS3 for about three weeks now. And it’s fun. Real good fun. However, the one thing that I think gamers are in agreement about is the fact that, in an effort to add some flavor to the game, they’ve detracted from some of what made Guitar Hero the ‘pick up and play’ game that had Wii-like mass market appeal. It’s almost inexcusable that upon booting the game, you don’t have a complete song list. By now studios should understand that many people treat Guitar Hero and games of the like as karaoke-type games: they get a bunch of friends and play for fun. Why force people to play to unlock songs? But let me not get into details here — I’m not writing to give a review. Let’s just say what’s most important: it’s loads of fun. I look forward to coming home after work and banging out Evenflow and Paint it Black to ease some tension for many months to come.

I had a lot of doubts about Rock Band. For one, the song list seemed a bit uninspired. There were some great songs on it (Say It Ain’t So, Dani California, Epic, Paranoid, Highway Star) but as I looked over the playlist, I saw a lot of great bands — but “wrong” songs. Anyhow, my doubts also turned to the fact that at $170, would this really be worth it? How many times would I have one other person over to play — much less three other people — to justify the cost? And this big question mark for myself and many others was the inclusion of the most intriguing part of the package — the drums.  See, we’ve done the guitar. (Guitar Hero).  And we’ve done the microphone (Karaoke Revolution).  And as much as there have been games like Donkey Konga and a few others, I had to wonder: would a drum set even work accurately? And four players?? How is all of that information going to be represented on the screen at the same time — and not give everyone a headache? (I get confused sometimes with only two guitar scroll bars on screen. Imagine four sets of streaming data??!!) And what about this new guitar? Yeah, it looks ok. But I’m used to my Guitar Hero controller. And on…and on…

Well, this afternoon, I had a chance to check out Rock Band. And…well…. I’m in love. Continue reading ‘Guitar Hero III? Good Stuff. And Rock Band?….I’m a Believer’

01
Sep
07

Kanye Keeps My Faith In Hip Hop Strong

So I got a copy of Kanye’s soon to be released album, Graduation. I wasn’t really a big fan of Late Registration. I thought Touch the Sky and Home were truly inspiring. Heard Em Say was a nice, simple, cool out joint. Crack Music was hot. Uh… wait a sec… I kinda liked We Major and of course everybody dug Diamonds. Perhaps I wasn’t so down on the album. But I just felt like there were too many “filler tracks.” There were a bunch of songs that I just didn’t dig, and I know I’ve been told I have the strangest taste, but Golddigger just got on my nerves every time I heard it.

By no means is Graduation perfect. Of the 15 or 16 songs that are on the album, there are about 6 gems — which is par for the course in this day and age. But the difference here is that the good songs are so good that they approach — in my humble opinion — Jesus Walks in their ability to inspire. No, I didn’t say that they’ll reach the commercial success that Jesus Walks enjoyed, but certainly these songs have a lot to say. And this is such a welcome effort considering the current state of the industry. I agree with Nas. Hip Hop is dead. It’s this commercialized whore that used to be fine but now she talks to every guy she sees. She was wonderful when you first laid eyes on her. Then after you heard her speak enough you wondered what you ever saw in her. But enough with the metaphors. With this album, Kanye is doing something that apparently few others have the courage or perhaps the artistic freedom to do — he’s being himself.

Aside from a few appearances by other artists like T-Pain and Mos Def, this album has absolutely no resemblance to anything that a modern day “rap star” would release. And that’s a good thing. The album kicks off with an easy intro — Good Morning — with a few hard hitting facts to try and “wake us up”. This isn’t anything really to write home about. But this helps us ease into the album.

It’s funny — Kanye’s albums seems to have a formula all to their own. Yeah, we all know there’s the “school theme” (College Dropout, Late Registration and now, Graduation). But more than this, I am always ready for an inspiring song to kick the album off. All Falls Down, despite a message that was meant to bring us down to Earth, was an incredibly uplifting beat. Touch the Sky was even more inspiring in beat and in message. With Graduation Kanye kicks off the album with a song called Champion and it’s just golden. It’s a love letter to a few folks who don’t hit 50 home runs a year and who don’t win the NBA Championship but who are more important to us than we realize. Just a snippet of the inspiration….

….but everytime I wanted to lay-a-way or deposit,

My dad would say, ‘When you see clothes, close your eyelids’,

He was sorta like Will Smith and his son,

In the movie (I ain’t talkin’ bout the rich ones,)

Cause every summer, he’d get some brand new hair-brained scheme to get rich from,

And I don’t know what he did for dough,

But he’s send me back to school with a new wardrobe…. (Hey…hey…hey…)

(Chorus)

Did you realize…..that you were a champion? Yeah, right. Continue reading ‘Kanye Keeps My Faith In Hip Hop Strong’