Curious about what else goes on at CMJ? Here’s a description of a more cynical and less glamorous part of CMJ.
What do Bo Burnham, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Reggie Watts, and Nada Surf, have in common? Well, for one, they all played Monday night at Rebel NYC at a free show to unofficially christen this year’s CMJ Music Marathon in NYC (a week of music, networking, and a lot of talk about the next big thing.) Somehow the show’s lineup—two musically-oriented comedians (who are otherwise almost perfect foils), a veteran indie band, and what might be the next big buzz band—actually felt alright. Despite being sardonically dubbed “Conflict of Interest,” it actually worked well. Though descriptively diverse, the identities of these performers actually have something in common that allowed for a cohesive showcase: every identity was a deliberate piece of their performance and never easy to read fully or take seriously. These four acts (I missed the first two—Oh Land and Kitten) were all very conscious of their stage personas…and I don’t mean that in a bad way…
Part 1 – Bo, yo
Bo Burnham is that awkward flamey teenage white theater kid on youtube who wears a tie-dye t-shirt while rapping and singing to his keyboard or guitar in his tiny bedroom. (Remember “I’m Bo yo!”?) But where can you really go from some funny youtube videos? I mean, no one’s going to take him seriously as a rapper with lines like “I’m a gay sea otter/I blow other dudes outta the water,” although you can’t say that a line like “Fucked a girl in an apple orchard and came in cider” wouldn’t be considered dope, if spat by a rapper with legit street cred. His comedian-ness apparently compels him to release CDs but his kind of comedy is very visual. In one of the more creative songs/routines that he did Monday night, he stood in front of the stage and silently reacted as critics, fake friends, and a potential agent spoke to him (in his voice, from a backup track) before pretending to remix the sound clips by tapping and punching the air to create new phrases and backup music. After adding Satan and Jesus to the mix (by pointing down and then up respectively—bestowing Jesus with an exaggeratedly gay accent) he settled on a loop that repeated “you think” “you know” “me” “you think” “you know” “me.” Even though his image was conceivably carefully calculated, effortlessly offensive (he made jokes about everything from the Eucharist to rape, and from slavery to Michael Jackson—all funny), and superficially sarcastic, there were moments like this (“you think” “you know” “me”) where he used his set to make blatant, if not explicitly articulated, indictments of his critics. This especially stood out during a set otherwise filled with rapid fire rapped jokes shot so fast that many flew by while my focus was still on the joke that had just passed. His comedy was mostly musical but carefully calculated and very visual. That was the theme of the night—mostly musical but carefully calculated and very visual.
So, Bo, a tall skinny white kid looking about 19, walked on stage to start his set in tight jeans and a tight faded purple shirt that said “Joker” on it (ironically ironic), and awkwardly sat down at the keys, hitting his audience with a quick jab: “So my girlfriend has this weird fetish where she likes to dress up like herself and act like a fucking bitch.” He got an easy and quick but hearty and deserved laugh with that accessible old-school zinger, as if to set the record straight that he was a real comedian and not just that kid on youtube. But, at the same time, he did his best to maintain that almost cute ignorant, awkward, whiteboy, image. Despite his persistence, though, there were one or two moments where his confidence got the best of him and I thought I saw a charismatic and bright 20something carefully masked by his awkwardly flamboyant comedic persona. Either way, the “real” Bo was elusive on stage and his act kept me guessing—while I was skeptical, I was more intrigued than distracted. His nuanced puns reflected the layers of irony he wore as his ostensibly honest but skillfully sculpted self. The one certain identity that he definitely deserves but will never be considered: dope emcee.
Part 2 – Jr. Jr.
Every year at CMJ there’s a band or two that emerges with a lot of indie cred as the next big thing (like cymbals eat guitars or black kids.) The problem is that the bands that do end up getting a lot of hype tend to be the ones that get a lot of hype because of the hype. People are so eager to anoint the next big thing–they know that if they don’t someone else will–that the musical skill or industry potential of the band is less important than the hype itself. These guys might be a good example of that. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.—a name that somehow seems more legit (but equally cute and ironic) attached to a band from Detroit Michigan—took the stage abruptly, doing the crowd a merciful favor by cutting off the extremely annoying MC (a girl in a belly shirt who apparently has a TV show on fuse.) The first thing that you noticed about these guys is that they were wearing full NASCAR bodysuits. (Well, at the least the two front men. The drummer was dressed unremarkably, soon to be matched by his drumming.) As soon as they dove into their set, it was obvious that the two lead singers had an MGMT-esque songwriting partnership. The exuberant not-quite-chubby one with curly hair and glasses mainly played guitar, while the other, who looked like Adrock after getting his wisdom teeth out, switched between guitar, keys, and sampler. But what did they sooound like? Well, they seemed to subscribe to the same set of influences as a band like Dinosaur Feathers. They (both) appear to listen to and draw subtly from Animal Collective but find more direct musical inspiration from the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Paul Simon/Vampire Weekend. Jr. Jr., though, were admirably not afraid to shock with a rocked-out-sample-ridden-climax or a pretty harmony, at any time. Their live show suggested that they’re one of those bands not scared of mincing identities and tossing them just as quickly. By dressing up so ridiculously, you can only really judge them by their music which is what you have to take seriously (rather than themselves.) A solid, though maybe accidental, strategy. The un-NASCARed-out drummer was an afterthought. Although his beats were quieter than the drum loops, he did add something to the band. Compared to a band like Dinosaur Feathers, these guys just sounded fuller. Dinosaur Feathers did figure out that a bass is important though. And Jr. Jr. appear to acknowledge that too—after a mostly bass-less set, one of them played bass on each of the last two songs which was necessary (and effective) for them to go out with a bang.
Part 3 – Watts/Left
The first thing you notice about Reggie Watts is his huuge afro. Seriously. It’s massive. He looks like a cross-between ?uestlove and Adam Duritz. His set was funny at times but it was more musical and impressive than strictly comedic. Like Bo (and the bands for that matter) his set revolved around songs. And his songs revolved around his brilliant ability to beat box, tightness with a loop station and taste with effects pedals. Unlike Bo, Watts created all of his sounds live, making extensive and effective use of panning. The dude can sing too. (Using a chorus effect, he sounded like the singer of TV on the Radio at times.)
After the first song, he spoke a little. His English accent suggested that, at one time, he might have actually pronounced CMJ as “smidge” or Biggie as “Bidgy” (as he did for laughs.) I spent the ensuing song searching desperately for traces of his accent in his vocals. I wasn’t sure if I found it. After that song, he spoke with a flamey Southern accent and I realized the prior English accent was a bloody sham! Someone who could easily be pigeonholed by his visual identity as an afroed-beat-boxing-black-dude, turned out to be a comedic chameleon with epic command. It was great. His last song that mocked hip-hop (“leave you hands by your sides!”) and included a tribute to Eyedea (who passed away earlier this week). As Reggie’s set closed and he rushed (seamlessly) through accents and personalities, it became more and more obvious that I wasn’t going to pinpoint this dudes “real” identity either. He appeared to break character a few times but as soon as I believed him, he would break character again, revealing the previous identity as façade.
Nada Surf closed the set. They went on about an hour late but it wasn’t their fault, the whole show had been behind schedule and, since it was free, I could understand them delaying acts to sell drinks and push promo shit. Nada Surf took the stage looking confidently like the indie rock vets that they are: the skinny drummer had curly hair, a nice shirt, and a tie; the guitarists also had button up shirts and deliberate hair. The bassist, on the other hand, had huge dreads (died partly blonde), his shirt slightly open to reveal a douchey necklace, a glow-in-the-dark bass that he wore super low and played super loud, and a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I found myself once again thinking ‘Is this guy for real?’ The two main dudes (a blonde guitarist/singer and the aforementioned bassist—the other guitarist was revealed to hail from Guided by Voices) looked like Lenny Kravitz circa 1993 playing with Justin Beiber circa 2021. Their music? Solid but bland. I left early.
All in all, great show. The mixed format (indie and comedy) really worked, probably because the comedians performed songs (and each band came off as a joke, in one form or another. Both bands parodied indie rock, whether they knew it or not.) The fluid identities worked especially well for the CMJ (or “smidge”) crowd. Hipsters have a hard time finding their own identity floating in a sea of like-minded, well, floaters. CMJ is a characteristically superficial festival (it’s about bands, labels, writers, distros, etc, networking more than about music) and thus a perfect place to exhibit your insincere self. It was a great show. Should be a great week. Maybe I’ll find myself. Better yet: maybe I’ll be there to anoint the next big thing. Here’s my guess: the rise of the explicit subterranean identity crisis. (See: Das Racist. But don’t actually waste your time seeing them.)
Honestly, some of the best albums to come out in the last year or so are Big Boi’s Sir Lucious…, Jay-Z’s Blueprint III, Raekwon’s Cuban Links 2. All three of those albums got ridiculous hype but somehow managed to live up to, if not exceed, expectations. (Is this because hype usually tends to disappoint and our awareness of that leaves us shocked when a super hyped album is actually good?..Doubtful.)
The obvious question is this: Is mainstream rap getting better?
Let’s check up on some of my all time favorite indie rappers—I’ve desperately tried (and apparently failed) to coin the term “hipster-hop”—to see what they’ve done lately, for comparison. After 2 awesome albums and 2 more amazing EPs, Mr. Lif released the disappointing I heard it today, last year. (There is one really amazing verse on the album but it’s from Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks.) Sage Francis just released another album, Li(f)e, with one or two really good creative songs and a lot of intimate BS on it (this time really embracing his indie identity by collaborating with a lot of indie artists, at least.) Cage got too emo. Eyedea, eh. Immortal technique still hasn’t figured out where to place his punch lines. DOOM still hasn’t thought of putting his funny but quickly annoying sound clips in between songs so you can skip them after a few listens. Meanwhile Nas just released a surprisingly solid album with Jr. Gong.
I think I know what’s going on here.
Let’s look to indie rock for a hint. Bands like Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear (who put on a great live show, if you ever get a chance to check them out), and MGMT (who put on a horrible live show) for instance, all sold a shitload of records out of nowhere. What does this mean for hip-hop? Maybe that these indie cats are getting too comfortable with their indie identities, thinking that their small scope will get them big bucks. Popular rappers, on the other hand, like Nas are taking chances.
You know who the exception to that is? The mega mainstream rapper who decided not to take any chance; to play it safe; to release a po(o)p record, featuring the likes of rhianna and pink, that would easily sell well: eminem. And that shit is pure fucking garbage. Sure he can still rhyme. But, even as someone who mercilessly refused to not play him even on my underground hip-hop show (chill out, I only played shit from Infinite) I’m actually disgusted by the recovery. The really frustrating thing is that all his best shit came when he was taking chances, doing ballsy shit.
I’m not sure where to put The Roots. They’re a household name but I’m not sure you can call them a mainstream artist. Regardless, how I got over goes the taking chances route and succeeds brilliantly. Collaborations with Johanna Newsome and a bunch of artists I’ve never heard of actually enhance the record (similar to Sir Lucious…, on which Jamie Foxx delivers really the only disappointing stuff. Actually that Vonnugut shit is pretty weak too.)
But I have to be honest. Mainstream rap really isn’t any better than it used to be. It’s probably worse, actually. That makes the good shit really stand out. It’s not like Big Boi, Jay-Z, Nas, or Raekwon, havn’t released amazing albums before. (In fact, half of their new ones are officially sequels.) And some of the indie rap records I dissed I obviously have listened to enough to know about, which means they’re not really garbage.
So what have we learned, in this selective survey of hip-hop? Well, the reason I’m probably listening to so much mainstream rap is because it’s mainstream. Everyone’s talking about it. This is an important point about WCDB actually. There’s a lot of damn good music that you’re not going to here on CDB. But that’s alright because you’ve already heard a hundred times. The truth is there is amazing indie rap out there. I just don’t know about it because I don’t listen to enough CDB.