While most kids ran around the park, scrapping elbows and playing Pirates, I sprawled out on my bed and copied the lyrics of my favorite Petula Clark song. My name is Melanie, and I am the oldest 25-year old that ever lived.
I was born with the heart of a 1960s hippie, twenty years too late. I blame my folks for this. My parents spent their youth as bell-bottomed teens with a penchant for the classics, particularly music birthed from Great Britain. In turn, they passed their “peace and love, man” ideals to yours truly. In middle school, I was the musically misplaced ‘oldies fanatic’ during ‘NSYNC mania. I hummed doo-wop songs before I even knew what ‘hip-hop’ was, and Justin Timberlake had nothing on a young Paul McCartney, bowl-cut and all. (To this day, I’m pretty sure I can belt out any Beatles tune if you ask nicely.)
What’s the point of this pretentious anecdote? To showcase the moment I nearly lost faith in contemporary music, upon stumbling across Justin Bieber’s “Baby” video on MTV. Once I had processed the mind-numbing chorus of: “Baby, baby, baby, oh // Like baby, baby, baby, no // Like baby, baby, baby, oh // I thought you’d always be mine, mine,” I could only sit on the sofa, absolutely dumbfounded. I felt as if I had just witnessed the decline of all human effort, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only person in the world who would actively campaign to get his songwriter fired.
To my relief, Bieber soon went bye-bye and a new video emerged like a musical Godsend. A solo artist named Gary Clark, Jr. swooped in to restore my optimism in the modern music industry. For the next five minutes, I was in guitar-riff heaven; captivated by this musician who shredded his way into my heart with a classic Gibson ES335.
Brazenly referred to as the modern-day Jimi Hendrix, Gary Clark, Jr. is the Texas-based crooner making waves with his commanding “cool cat” persona and fuzzy guitar rhythms. Though he has gained some notoriety on the indie-blues rock scene, Gary Clark, Jr. is relatively under wraps. For someone who has harnessed old-school influences to produce a modern blues vibe, this is one artist truly deserving of global recognition.
Listen to his first single, “Bright Lights,” a song chronicling his journey of self-exploration in the unforgiven metropolis of NYC. What’s your take on this up-and-coming artist? Is Gary Clark, Jr. the reincarnation of old-school rock?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
In general, the purpose of this column is to bring attention to living artists you might not have heard before, but the influence of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen on the underground rap community is simply too large not to explore here. When he died on October 16, 2010, less than a month shy of his 29th birthday, a huge and vitally important part of the Minnesota music scene was lost. Ask any young underground rapper in the Twin Cities, and they’re sure to testify that Eyedea was a major part of their decision to get into the game. His victories battling at ScribbleJamin 1999 and the Blaze BattleNew Yorkin 2000 basically put Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene on the map, and his legacy can still be felt in the scene today.
I first encountered Eyedea as a teenager, in a high school talent show where he was breakdancing, and subsequently freestyling in the courtyard of Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul. When he began releasing music in my senior year (he was two years ahead of me), I instantly became a fan when I heard lines like “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, don’t drink alcohol / Don’t carry I.D., don’t go to the mall” and “I like Jimi Hendrix more than any rap shit / My favorite movie’s Dr. Strangelove – that’s a classic” from the song “Weird Side” off his 2001 concept album The Many Faces of Oliver Hart (or: How Eye One the Write Too Think). Here was a rapper I could really identify with, a self-proclaimed weirdo who didn’t fit into any of the expected boxes and, because of his strange and unique approach, was suddenly the most exciting thing happening in local music at the time.
Eyedea and his partner DJ Abilities created something new with their first two albums, 2001’s First Born and 2004’s E&A, making Hip-Hop songs that showed a respect and love for the tradition from which they came, while exploring new territory and concepts on fascinating tracks like “Birth of a Fish” and the crowd favorite “Big Shots.” Eyedea’s distinctive flow and extraordinary storytelling ability proved he was more than just a battle rapper, and he was one of the few rappers able to make songs that could bring you to tears (like the devastating “Bottle Dreams”) or reaffirm your faith in life (like the beautiful, heartfelt “Here for You”).
Don’t get it twisted – Eyedea was probably the best battlerapperin the world in his time, and his freestyle ability was practically unparalleled. It’s just that he was never content to stand still and do the same thing, which is why he continued to experiment and grow with new projects like his rock group Carbon Carousel and his freestyle/jazz group Face Candy. His final album with Abilities, By the Throat, showed the influence of this experimentation, and the result is a heavy, abrasive, and simultaneously beautiful album that more than lives up to its name. Eyedea’s ferocious unwillingness to be just another part of the status quo can be felt throughout the album, especially on tracks like the sonic assault “Junk,” where he warns the listener “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m ready to jump.” At the same time, though, he never seemed to stop loving life, despite all its frustrations and disappointments; as he says in his guest spot on Kristoff Krane‘s song, “Best Friends,” one of his last recorded releases: “Whether five, twenty-five or eighty / As long I’m alive, I’m in love and forever changing.”
The music gods have once again seen the time fit to bless us Earth-bound humans with some more musical treasure from the late 1960s, this time with 12 previously unreleased studio tracks (mostly from 1969) from the greatest guitarist of all time. They sound more like they were recorded in 2009, which is fitting since Jimi was way, way ahead of his time. Thanks go to Jimi’s timeless skills and mixing by the great Eddie Kramer, who engineered Jimi’s recordings back in the day.
The title track is obviously the centerpiece of the album, and for good reason. If one tried to imagine a lost track from the First Rays of the New Rising Sun sessions, this is exactly what you would hope for. It’s got the funky sound that Jimi was exploring more and more toward the end of his all-too-brief time here on this rock, along with the metaphysical vibe he was increasingly getting into, with lyrics referencing Atlantean love songs and impending Earth changes. It’s classic late-era Jimi – the louder you turn it up, the better it sounds. The song is sandwiched in between a smoking “Stone Free” and a cover of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart,” to open the album with three consecutive numbers featuring Billy Cox on bass, while the rest of the album has Noel Redding.
Jimi’s take on “Bleeding Heart” is an up-tempo bluesy rocker that sets the stage for deep blues treasure on “Hear My Train a Comin’.” The latter is well-known by fans of Jimi’s highly influential Band of Gypsys project, with the Live at Fillmore East version being one of Jimi’s greatest performances. But it’s always nice to get another version of a seminal jam, and Jimi is clearly feeling it here. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, it’s the second longest track on the album (only “Red House” is longer), and it’s a showcase for all of Jimi’s skills with some nice scatting going on behind the first solo, and then some of his best wailing on the second solo.
The album also features two other premiere performances. “Ships Passing Through the Night” presents a mid-tempo tune about lonely ships hooking up and shaking the blues out of one’s hair. “Lullaby for the Summer” features Jimi riffing out all over, with the trio shifting directions toward a more syncopated groove in the middle of the song. This makes Jimi’s hot licks stand out even more, demonstrating superb use of sonic spacing.
“Mr. Bad Luck” is a funky blues workout from 1967, with Jimi clearly having been in a good mood during the recording. “Lover Man” gets a similarly tasty workout, but it’s Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” that conjures the big jam. Several live versions have been released before, but this one is a keeper, with a nice breakdown in the middle that builds back up into a big crescendo.
Familiar classics “Fire” and “Red House” get fresh readings and Jimi’s playing is scintillating on each. “Red House” gets the deluxe treatment with an extended jam taking the track past eight minutes as Jimi digs deep into the blues well. The album closes out with “Crying Blue Rain,” a tune that starts as a slow burner but picks up speed until it’s cruising over a galloping bass line. Jimi doesn’t go wild, but his rhythm playing is quite inventive, creating a superb collective groove that shows how to play for the song. He’s still the master.