Underground Rapper of the Week: Mac Dre

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

It is far from uncommon for rappers – from Slick Rick and Flavor Flav to Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne – to create outsized, flamboyant public personae, and none have done it better than the late, great Mac Dre. For Underground Rapper of the Week’s second posthumous feature, let’s take a look at the man who could easily be called the James Brown of rap, a creator of numerous dance moves as well as an entire musical and cultural lifestyle. Though the term “hyphy,” a combination of “hyper” and “fly,” is credited to fellow Bay Area rapper Keak da Sneak, Mac Dre was perhaps its most important and revered practitioner. For those unfamiliar with this unique and eminently entertaining movement, a good place to start is the 2008 documentary Ghostride the Whip, of which Dre is the unofficial star.

Since ’84, Dre was a crazy prolific artist who strongly influenced his scene with his unique style and sound, creating dance moves like “The Bird,” “The Swabbage Patch,” “The Furly” and others described in songs like “Giggin’.” Perhaps his most influential contribution, though, was the “Thizz Face,” as seen in his live performances of songs like “Thizzle Dance.” “Thizz” is a Bay Area slang term coined by Dre for the drug MDMA, and the face is an exaggerated grimace resulting from biting into a pill. After his 1996 release from a five-year stint in prison, Dre lived for two things: his music and a lifestyle that was basically a non-stop party, which is obvious in his music. Steering clear of the violence and crime he had certainly been around in his younger days, the bulk of his lyrics focus on the good life of dancing, partying with women, and of course, his beloved thizz.

This is not earthshaking art, by any means, and Dre would be the first to admit his work wasn’t, for the most part, particularly deep. His main intention was to facilitate a wild good time, and encourage his audience to “get stupid,” by which he really seemed to mean cut loose and throw away your inhibitions. His music might seem disposable to some, but if you weren’t feeling him, you could certainly rest assured that he was always feeling himself. Though he was beloved by a huge subculture in the Bay Area and beyond, he remains an underground figure who never really crossed over to mainstream success, probably because, as he put it, he was “too hard for the radio.” Still, his legacy is continuing to be felt, as he is still shouted out by more widely known artists like Rick Ross and Drake, and his death by gunshot wound in 2004 left a gap in a vital culture. Mac Dre was and is a supremely fun rapper to listen to, and a vivid chronicler of the place he lived and loved.

“Le7els” by Avicii

Here’s a pretty cool video of this club track.

Promo info:

Avicii, born Tim Bergling in Stockholm, releases his new video for current single “Le7els” directed by Petro and shot in Los Angeles. “Le7els” has already conquered club charts worldwide, climbing to No. 1 on the international Beatport chart, as well as on the club charts in Germany and Australia.

2011 Song of the Year Candidate #2: Bell X1, “Sugar High”

This Irish dance-rock trio is fast climbing our list of favorite bands. The song “How Your Heart Is Wired,” from their 2009 album Blue Lights on the Runway, was in power rotation at BE headquarters, so when their new album Bloodless Coup arrived in the mail, we popped that puppy right in the player. Before “Sugar High” was even over, it was our favorite song on the album.

BellX1

Man, is it nice to hear two chords used so effectively. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and this song keeps it simple in all the best ways. Well done, lads.

Sugar High by Bell X1

ESDMusic’s South by Southwest 2011 Music Preview

AUSTIN, TX – The 25th anniversary edition of the SXSW Music and Media Conference is upon us this week and it’s shaping up to be another gala event for live music junkies. The initial lineup may have looked a bit underwhelming, but that first announcement never shows the big picture. When you have around 2,000 bands from all over the world scheduled to play, there’s going to be more bands that you don’t recognize than you do. But the big name additions have been coming in over the past few weeks, as has the rising buzz on up and coming bands contending to be your new favorites.

Here’s my top 10 “name artists” I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing (even a badge doesn’t guarantee access if a venue has reached capacity, while a small handful of showcases are also private parties necessitating an invite.) Then I’ll list five “buzz bands” I’m eager to check out as well…

Widespread Panic – ACL Live at the Moody Theater – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
The southern jam rock titans from Georgia are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2011. They’ll mark the occasion by playing the first ever SXSW showcase that will also serve as a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show. The brand new ACL Live venue – just opened last month – is a swank theater with a 2,700 seat capacity, although there have been rumors that ACL tapings will only take 800. Getting there early figures to be key, which is why Spreadheads may have to pass up the Strokes’ 8 pm set at Auditorium Shores (a park on Town Lake on the edge of downtown that offers free shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.) But Panic will also be preceded by some fine openers with the New Mastersounds at 8:15 pm and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at 9:30 pm.

The Foo Fighters – Austin Music Hall – Wednesday, March 16
The alt-rock icons will be in town for the premiere of the band’s new rockumentary “Back and Forth” on Tuesday at the Paramount Theater. It was also recently announced that they’ll play at “The 2011 mtvU Woodie Awards” on Wednesday along with Wiz Khalifa, Two Door Cinema Club, Sleigh Bells and more, which will air live on three MTV channels. But this is not listed as an official SXSW showcase, so badge holders apparently need to win one of 850 tickets MTV will be giving away. Fingers are crossed.

Men Without Hats – Club De Ville – Friday, March 18 – 1 am
Anyone who grew up with the dawn of MTV in the early-to-mid ’80s will remember this Canadian band and their iconic video for their infectious smash hit, “The Safety Dance.” There’s a lot of attractive showcases happening in this hour on Friday, but this Gen-Xer is not passing up his chance do the Safety Dance at one of Austin’s nicest outdoor clubs.

The Airborne Toxic Event – Stubbs BBQ – Friday, March 18 – 10:30 pm
These Los Angeles indie rockers with the heartfelt sound were one of my favorite random discoveries at SXSW in 2009. I was walking out of the convention center when a girl connected with the band in some way said I shouldn’t leave because a great band was about to play. She described them as having a Bowie-ish vibe with a female violinist. That drew me in to witness a scintillating afternoon set that was a triumph. They’re about to release their second album and playing at Stubbs – ground-zero for SXSW showcases – means they’re moving up to the big time.

Bright Eyes – Auditorium Shores Stage – Saturday, March 19 – 7:30 pm
Conor Oberst has put his Mystic Valley Band on hold to put out a new album with Bright Eyes and the band will headline the Saturday night show at Town Lake. You get an eclectic mix of people since it’s a free show and it’s a gorgeous location for a show with the Austin skyline looming in the background. The band got a lukewarm review on their Radio City Music Hall show from The New York Times, but hopefully they’ll be ready to deliver the goods here. Oberst starred with Monsters of Folk at last October’s ACL Festival.

Immortal Technique – Mohawk Patio – Wednesday, March 16 – 11 pm
One of the most militant and revolutionary MCs in the world, Immortal Technique is a role model for any artist that wants to do it their own way. He’s remained steadfastly independent, refusing to allow major label control of his music or brand. It’s hard to conceive of a major corporate entity that would let him do his thing though, due to his radical way he speaks truth to power. If you feel that 9/11 was an inside job, Immortal Technique is your man.

The Kills – Emo’s Main Room – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
Singer Alison Mosshart’s profile was raised to a higher level when Jack White teamed up with her in the Dead Weather. Now she returns to her previous band, where it should be interesting to see how charismatic dark angel incorporates her Dead Weather experience. I can’t catch this set since it conflicts with Widespread Panic, but I’m hoping to see them at the SPIN day party at Stubbs on Friday or their appearance at the IFC House.

TV on the Radio – Stubbs BBQ – Thurday, March 17 – 12:30 am
SXSW will be booming on Thursday night as these trendy indie-pop rockers will be headlining Stubbs BBQ. They’d flown a bit under my radar until Phish covered the band’s “Golden Age” at an Albany show in 2009, then played it again last fall in Colorado. The catchy tune and its uplifting message certainly caught the attention of the Phish Nation. Attendees of Widespread Panic won’t be able to get here for this either, but the band is also headlining that SPIN day party at Stubbs the next day.

Beats Antique – Frontgate Tickets Party – 1711 South Congress – Friday, March 18 – 4:20 PM
This trio out of Oakland has been blowing up on the festival and jam-rock scene over the past year with a groovy vibe that features an Eastern sound with mystical overtones. Their official showcase is Friday night at the Beauty Bar at 1 am, but that’s a conflict for anyone who wants to see Men Without Hats. But the band is also playing several day parties, as many younger bands do.

Liz Phair – IFC House – Friday, March 18 – 8 PM
The indie alt-rock princess of the ’90s has gone through various phases of experimentation and flirted with commercialism, but it seems like she just wants to rock now. She’s in her 40s, but she’s still a total hottie and her 2008 tour featured her classic Exile in Guyville album in its entirety. Now she has a new album where she says she’s letting it all hang out.

Buzz Bands

Most of these bands are playing multiple showcases and day parties, a common trend for younger bands looking to max out potential exposure…

Ume
This local Austin (by way of Houston) power trio features dynamic frontwoman Lauren Larson on guitar and her husband on bass. They were recently named one of the best unsigned bands in America by Rolling Stone. Larson’s petite size is a red herring for what a force to be reckoned with she is onstage.

The Joy Formidable
Another female-fronted power trio, of which there are still too few. This trio is from the UK and was also recently cited by Rolling Stone as a “Band to Watch”, with angelic vocals from Ritzy Bryan that bring Metric to mind, but with maybe a bigger guitar sound.

Jessica Lea Mayfield
This young singer/songwriter from Kent, Ohio was sort of discovered by the Black Keys. Her earliest stuff was way mellow and kind of depressing, but the single from her new album, “Our Hearts Are Wrong,” is so good that Dave Letterman had her on to play it for the national TV audience last month.

Nico’s Gun
A funky and psychedelic quartet of rockers out of Philadelphia. They have a diverse sound from groovy dance numbers like “Dirty Girl” to sparkling pop gems such as “We Are Fluorescent.” They apparently fancy themselves as a “punk rock Michael Jackson,” but they sure rock more than the Gloved One did.

Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess
Bluesy rock out of Santa Fe, New Mexico from another husband and wife team. Singer Stephanie Hatfield has a captivating voice that can really rock or go sultry, and guitarist/husband Bill Palmer is an ace bandleader who sets her up to win every time. The band burned it down at the Continental Club on their visit to Austin last year and will be showcasing tunes from their forthcoming second album.

Our Lollapalooza 2011 Wish List

A few weeks ago, there was a leak that Muse, the Foo Fighters and Eminem would headline Lollapalooza this year. In previous years, when band names have been leaked well before the official announcement, they’ve been accurate, so let’s assume that those are your headliners. Pretty cool and eclectic group, if you ask us. We’ve seen some dyed-in-the-wool alt rockers scoff at the idea of Marshall Mathers playing Lolla, but why the hell not? Snoop Dogg did it two years ago, and no one complained about that.

The festival’s organizers are a good month away from unveiling their lineup, so while we’re in the lull between the leak and the formal announcement, we decided to have a little fun. Here are some bands that we’d love to see take the stage in Grant Park this summer.

Motorhead

Don’t laugh – this makes more sense than the decision to invite Metallica in 1996. They rock harder and faster than anyone alive today, and courtesy of their appearance on “The Young Ones,” they were instantly grandfathered as alt rock forefathers (Ministry’s Psalm 69, anyone?). Still think it’s a long shot? Consider this: Head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl loves Lemmy and has recorded with him, plus the band just released a new record (The World Is Yours), which means a tour is sure to follow. Come on, Perry. You know this would be awesome. Lemmy shows up, drinks all the other bands under the table, and wipes the floor with them onstage. That’s the way we like it, baby.

Franz Ferdinand

Of the big UK bands of the last five years, only Franz Ferdinand and Coldplay have yet to play Lolla, and we’re not sure why. It looked as though the stars were aligned for them to play when the band released Tonight, Franz Ferdinand in 2009, but for whatever reason, it never happened. Considering the heavy nature of the three headliners, both musically and lyrically, the festival could use a party band. The only catch is that the band is not working on a new record, and therefore will not likely be on tour this year. Pity.


Read the rest after the jump...

Cut Copy: Zonoscope


RIYL: Talking Heads, OMD, Poi Dog Pondering

Hipster elitists would like to convince you otherwise, but pop is not a four-letter word. It’s short for popular, after all, and who doesn’t want to be popular? Hell, even hipsters want to be popular. How do you think they became hipsters in the first place? Because they were never popular.

Australia’s Cut Copy, on the other hand, has no such inhibitions about the notion of popularity, if their latest album Zonoscope is any indication. Rounded out to a quartet, the electropop band who started their career riffing on New Order and Daft Punk has opted for a sunnier – and a tad softer – approach this time around, toning down the guitars while unleashing sky-high synthesizer tracks. Singer Dan Whitford can do a mean impression of OMD’s Andy McCluskey when he feels like it, and in fact the album’s opener, “Need You Now,” bests anything from OMD’s recent reunion album History of Modern. The galloping “Where I’m Going” is flat-out irresistible, while “Pharaohs & Pyramids” has an explosive finale. Zonoscope sees the band stretching things out as well, with several songs surpassing the five-minute mark and the album’s closer, “Sun God,” clocking in at a whopping 15 minutes. This is fun, gorgeous stuff, capturing the spirit of new wave while giving it a contemporary sonic makeover. One can only hope that more bands follow their lead, because God knows the world could use a few more albums like this. (Modular/Fontana 2010)

Cut Copy MySpace page
Click to buy Zonoscope from Amazon

Audio Bullys: Higher Than the Eiffel


RIYL: Primal Scream, The Ting Tings, Basement Jaxx

Yet another lesson in why bands should choose their names carefully. The word ‘bully’ suggests someone aggressive and intimidating (and, conversely, someone insecure and a little scared). The Audio Bullys, however, are no such thing. They’re beat mongering rockers, like Hard-Fi pulling the late shift in an Ibiza club. (Singer Simon Franks and Hard-Fi’s Richard Archer should do a duet, just to mess with people’s head over who’s singing which line.) The band’s third album Higher Than the Eiffel has some good ideas – lead single “Only Man” is armed with one hell of a hook, and closing track “Goodbye” is a nifty modern-day take on the Specials – but is sorely lacking a filter, not to mention an editor. Two of the first three songs contain fragments of ideas stitched together, much like Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, but there is no flow. Why did “Daisy Chains” need to end with an a cappella bit? (Answer: it didn’t.) “Shotgun” is the only song here that takes advantage of melding two separate ideas into a whole, but it arrives a bit too late to care, thanks to the album’s 56-minute (!) run time. Take out some of the clutter, and this bully could have been a contender. (The End Records 2011)

Audio Bullys MySpace page
Click to buy Higher Than the Eiffel from Amazon

Pendulum: Immersion


RIYL: The Prodigy, Nightbreed, King Cannibal

Pendulum have the most apt band name in history, because they love to swing back and forth between two genres; drum and bass and hard rock. Their 2006 debut Hold Your Colour was almost exclusively drum and bass, but their 2008 follow-up In Silico saw the group abandon almost all of the drum and bass influences in exchange for a hard electronic rock style (think Nitzer Ebb meets metal) that put off much of their core fanbase. It also made them mainstream stars throughout much of their native Australia as well as Europe, leading bassheads around the world to cry “sellout.”

Well, this should shut them up, although it probably won’t. With Immersion the band takes a hard swing back to their drum and bass roots while still keeping just enough of their rock influence to sound exciting and different. They even pull in some electro-house and dubstep influences into the fold. Sometimes they even do it all at once, like with the two-parter track “The Island,” which starts as a straight-up electronic-rock song before suddenly exploding into a sea manic breakbeats and then transforming again into a shockingly good dubstep sound, a genre that is usually as boring and empty as the fans who listen to it. There are a couple mid-tempo tracks on Immersion that stick closer to the rock/dance formula of In Silico, and most of the songs still feature an abundance of vocals. I’m sure the most hardcore drum and bass fanatics out there will cling to those two facets of the album to convince themselves that Pendulum are still a bunch of sellouts. They can go ahead, the rest of us will be rocking out to the first great electronic album of 2011 (or the last great electronic album of 2010 if you live in the rest of the world, where it came out months ago). (Atlantic 2011)

Pendulum MySpace page

Destroyer: Kaputt


RIYL: Dirty Projectors, David Bowie, anything on Kompakt

Though he may be more known for his role in indie rock supergroup the New Pornographers, Dan Bejar has been enticing people into his strange world for the past 15 years via Destroyer. Backed by a frequently rotating cast of band members, Bejar uses Destroyer to craft his own brand of avant-pop-rock, unmistakable to anyone who has ever heard it. Over the course of nine albums, he weaves tales of numerous women, told in a hybrid of speech-yelp-singing with non-sequiturs, dense, visually striking metaphors (so dense someone created a Wiki for them), and references to his own body of work. So what happens when you’ve spent 15 years basically perfecting your own genre? What happens when what starts out as weird suddenly becomes the standard? With Kaputt, Destroyer’s ambitious tenth album, Bejar proves he can still make us question our notions of normality and taste.

When he serenades someone in “Blue Eyes” with the line, “Your first love’s New Order,” Bejar surely must be speaking of himself, because with the heavy synths, the saxophone and the female backing vocals that flutter throughout Kaputt, he seems to be unleashing his inner ‘80s. But, as tacky and oppressive as those reference points can be, under Bejar’s particular guidance, they are transformed into something delicate, as though he accidentally played dance records at half-speed and heard something he liked.

The first half of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” would make a decent soundtrack for footage of outer space. It opens with slow, steady synths, various sounds floating in and out of the background, such as a quiet guitar riff, light chimes, and what sounds like someone breathing. The song shifts drastically about half-way through, when some relative of the flute jumps in, followed by Bejar’s voice, cautioning, “Fool child, you’re never gonna make it / New York City just wants to see you naked, and they will / Though they’d never say so.” By the time the backing vocals arrive, one might conjure an image of Bejar in a white suit, performing at a hotel somewhere in Hawaii with a Robert Palmer-style all-woman band.

Though it arrives at the end of the album, “Bay of Pigs” serves as the obvious transition piece between Kaputt and Destroyer’s earlier works. Loosely relating to the 1961 invasion of Cuba, Bejar built an EP around it last year. In its original form, “Bay of Pigs” was over 13 minutes long. In its slightly trimmed down length, the 11-minute opus still finds time to transition from droning ambience to scaling blips that sound like they could come from an early Nintendo game, to the guitar-based avant-pop sound he became known for, complete with hand claps. It was around “Bay of Pigs” that Bejar’s record label, Merge, coined the term “ambient disco,” which is the most apropos classification for anything off of Kaputt.

Take off one of those Ts, and Kaputt becomes “kaput,” which means to incapacitate, break, ruin, or destroy. Knowing Bejar’s self-referential tendencies, it could be that he found a cheeky way to create a self-titled album. But with the new direction he’s embarking on, it speaks more fittingly to the ways he is destroying the Destroyer of the past, killing his old sound to create something new. (Merge 2011)

Destroyer MySpace page

Duran Duran: All You Need Is Now


RIYL: Duran Duran’s first two albums, Mark Ronson

It’s funny how people can surprise you even when you think you know them better than they know themselves. After spending a good decade releasing albums that ranged from underrated (Medazzaland) to underwritten (Pop Trash), Duran Duran reunited the Fab Five lineup early in the 2000s and dropped Astronaut in 2004. It was the closest the band had come to their trademark sound in 20 years, and they were rewarded with some of the best reviews of their career. But old feelings die hard, and guitarist Andy Taylor bailed on the band again the middle of making the follow-up to Astronaut. That album, titled Reportage, was supposed to be a back-to-basics affair, an angrier, more aggressive album. Rather than finish the album, though, the band dissolved their partnership (we’re guessing that’s a money move, so Andy would no longer be involved in any revenue sharing) and started over from scratch…

…with Timbaland and his hack protege, Danja Hills. Ye gods.

DD_London_3705_Reduced

The ensuing album, 2007′s Red Carpet Massacre, was a gigantic step backward, filled with wonky synthesizers and the worst drum sounds a rock band ever put to tape (and that includes Missing Persons’ Rhyme & Reason). The whole modern-day hip-hop production didn’t suit them at all, and the worst part is that there were ways that Duran Duran could have modernized their sound without looking silly; Timbaland was not one of them.

And clearly the band realized this, because midway through the tour for Red Carpet Massacre, they teamed up with UK It Boy Mark Ronson and asked him to remodel their hits. The collaboration proved to be fruitful, as Simon Le Bon would go on to sing on Ronson’s (great) 2010 album Record Collection (the title track, no less), and keyboardist Nick Rhodes contributed a song. Ronson returned the favor by producing the band’s new album, All You Need Is Now, and with that, they found their new Colin Thurston and released their best album since Rio.

Let’s qualify that best-album-since-Rio line, though. It’s their most consistent album since Rio, no question, with nary a duff track in the bunch. But it’s surprisingly lacking in the ‘killer hit single’ department. The title track is a gem, and “Runaway Runaway” captures the essence of the band’s glory days better than anything here, but as good as these songs are, it’s an album full of songs on par with “Anyone Out There” and “My Own Way.” There isn’t an “Ordinary World,” “Planet Earth” or even a “New Moon on Monday” to be found.

There is, however, a new “The Chauffeur” buried in the album’s final third. “The Man Who Stole a Leopard” is a masterpiece, but its run time (over six minutes) and tone will make it a hard sell for release as a single. Beginning with a flanged keyboard, string accents (courtesy of Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallet) and minimalist percussion, the song slowly builds into a melancholy dance track not unlike Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy,” with haunting call-and-respond vocals from Kelis. Easily the best song the band’s done since “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.”

It looks as though something good came out of Red Carpet Massacre after all. The band realized that chasing the pop charts is a fool’s errand, and that the best thing they can do at this point in time is simply be themselves. All You Need Is Now could be better, sure, but Duran Duran hasn’t shown this kind of focus in nearly 30 years, and that alone is reason to be cheerful. Well done. (Skin Divers 2011)

Duran Duran MySpace page

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