Friday, 30 December 2011

Death Grips Like No Other Record of 2011

Before we begin let's make one thing clear: 99% of people who click on the video below will take a serious dislike to what they see and hear. That's not because the clip is offensive in any way. It's more because what they witness will strike them as a sensory assault. It is music video that is designed to disorientate and perturb the listener. Its minimalism and Spartan beats disturb rather than entertain. In a year where Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday was awarded 'Favourite Rap/ Hip-Hop Album and Artist' at the American Music Awards, it's no surprise that the video underneath might not conform to what most people consider a tolerable image of US urban music.

You've probably never seen or heard anything like Death Grips' Guillotine, and because of that reason, it is understandable why you may overwhelmingly hate it.

Death Grips started life 12 months ago in Sacramento, California as a team effort between its members, led by founder producer Flatlander, prolific drummer Zach Hill, vocal contributor Mexican Girl and main rapper MC Ride. The union of these core members produced a creatively combustible and sonically combative mixtape aptly named Ex-Military. The record progressively captured the attention of listeners and journalists around the world, with everyone from NBC to The Guardian writing features on how spectacular its thirteen tracks are. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that Ex-Military is an album that will register as something that is perhaps too nihilistic to be appreciated in its own era, but may, in time, be viewed as an essential record for the volatile epoch it was creatively forged in.

Death Grips seems the ultimate panacea to the bloated and derivative nature of current American hip-hop. It also puts to shame the repetitive and shapeless British urban 'grime' scene that is popular in our country. The Death Grips mixtape is not at all concerned with the acquisition of women or wealth―motifs that typify much of the rap products populating Billboard's charts. Nor is the record a singularly monotonous rant the way most of Eminem's work is, nor does it incorporate the juvenile frivolity of say Odd Future's output. Rather more, Ex-Military is thematically charged with aggressive diatribes against injustice, materialism and greed. In fact, when members of Death Grips were asked about anything specific influencing their work, the group simply responded by saying "Poverty and Bass." This thematic hook serves Ex-Military very well and the results are both tinged with abject nihilism and meaningful satire. It serves as a reminder of how music can, even in the age of mass-produced sanitised pop confections, remain a medium with a message.

Death Grips has taken its anti-establishment agenda to the next level by experimenting with the sales methodology for Ex-Military. While the mixtape can be purchased from Amazon for £6.99, it can be just as easily downloaded from the band's website for free. It is this very egalitarian nature of Death Grips distribution methods that further enhances the irregular and mischievous nature of the group.

Ex-Military―for the 1% that gets it―is  arguably the best album of 2011. Ever since its low-key release last spring, Ex-Military has become a countercultural tour de force. It's an album that powerfully emanates a startling energy, rebooting the rap genre in ways we never thought possible. Ex-Military presents a slew of wondrous and weird production techniques that will have listeners detecting new layers of sound every time they spin it. Its kinetic and cantankerous attitude makes Ex-Military a perfect case study of how to make a rap record that both honours the genres that inspired it, and advance it in directions that haven't yet been envisaged by hip-hop's more established peers.

Music critics across the length and breadth of America have engaged in lengthy and detailed analysis regarding the unique nature of Death Grips' sound, using scientific and metaphysical analogies in an effort to try and make sense of its leftfield aggressive splendour. Even the British music press, which typically avoids American rap music, has also devoted column inches to deciphering Death Grips' matchless industrial scale experimental sounds.

Death Grips is a brilliant remainder of the omnivorous and exploratory nature of American popular music. It's a solid memento of how the US instigated and founded some of the most important music trends the world has seen. Although genres like punk, techno, house and rock 'n roll may have been better developed and crafted in European territories, their origins are distinctly grounded in US music culture, forcing the rest of us to acknowledge that America, despite some of its artistic faults, is actually a truly pioneering and innovative source of groundbreaking composition styles.

Ex-Military is a demanding record that requires the listener to actively engage with its hostile beats and violent lyrical content. It is an uncompromising piece of work that will repel more than it will attract, but that is part of its endurance test. It does not exist to simplify complex ideas or water down its maleficent undertones. It seeks to unrest the listener and alters their expectations of what contemporary hip-hop can be. The masses will abjure Death Grips anti-society mantra, but there are many who will not be able to get enough of it.

Death Grips are a group that can, if it wanted to, become the most important movement in modern American music. Upon hearing Ex-Military you should have no doubt that these guys are the real deal: the kind of rappers that devour white guys with guitars for breakfast, lunch and dinner―only to regurgitate them and consume them all over again.

This is a seriously important record and this blogger cannot recommend it highly enough. It is superior stuff indeed. Depending on where your own personal taste in music stands, Ex-Military may be the greatest or worst thing you've heard all year.

Both viewpoints are understandable, though only one is acceptable.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ Garden

When you decide to give yourself a stage name as gargantuan as Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, people are going to have big expectations.

Orlando Higginbottom's essentially one-man dance project kicked off a few years back but has now gone global having been commissioned by Lady GaGa('s people) to remix Marry the Night, as well as getting Nokia to use his track Garden for its high profile Lumia mobile phone adverts.

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs makes the kind of music that indie guitar kids feel comfortable dancing to. It's entertaining but hardly revolutionary. Higginbottom is probably better known for his onstage dinosaur costumes and opulent feathered headwear than his mixing skills, but one gets the sense that the music he makes is designed to function as lucrative background noise for the commercials put out by major corporations.

'Tis really not the season for such obdurate cynicism.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Shameful Situation

While watching Roland Emmerich's latest film Anonymous, the first thing that hits you is just how atypical it is. Emmerich may not be known for helming revisionist prestige pictures but his handling of this particular Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare's authorship is a world away from the movies he's best known for.

You see, Emmerich makes overblown spectacles costing hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. He makes movies in which stuff gets blown up and things are thrown at the screen. It's the kind of cinema the entire world flocks to, especially boisterous young men.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roland Emmerich's output has less to do with his films and more to do with who he is. Emmerich is an openly gay filmmaker, yet his movies appeal to the most homophobic heartlands of America. The guy knows what fanboys respond best to and he creates movies catering to their tastes. If anything, Emmerich is a filmmaker who comes from a minority community but makes films for the masses. His sexuality is overlooked because he creates entertainment that generates serious revenue. Working in an industry where profit is everything, Emmerich is a bonafide money-maker.

Emmerich's sexuality could be an issue to some patrons but as long as he doesn't imbue his material with detectable homoerotic undertones, both audiences and financiers are cool with such an arrangement. I suppose the same principal applies to all jobbing filmmakers, but it's questionable whether race plays a more detrimental role in such a situation.

British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen is a hulking big black guy from London. Unlike the usual effete privately educated toffs that work as directors in the British film industry, McQueen is a different thing. He went to an ordinary comprehensive school and was raised in an average Afro-Carrabin family. His main passion in life was football but his creative talents set him on a different path altogether. After graduating from art school, McQueen got into experimental filmmaking which has led him to make two award-winning movies.

McQueen's latest film Shame has sparked equal amount of praise and controversy on account of its exploration of sexual addiction. Much like his previous film Hunger, a dramatisation of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Shame also stars Michael Fassbender and deals with the existential plight of Caucasian people dealing with psychologically extreme predicaments.

McQueen is a proud British black man but his art is not limited to that. He wants to tell stories that transcend race, culture and geography. But one can argue that someone like McQueen has a moral responsibility to champion the position of minority groups in Britain when it comes to opportunities for making films.

The video below is taken from an interview McQueen gave to the Hollywood Reporter where he, along with some other leading directors tipped for awards' recognition in 2011, talks about the nature of filmmaking in today's industry. McQueen addresses the lamentable lack of recognition and opportunities black people encounter in a largely unrepresentative American film industry. The inevitable question about race puts his peers on edge, but McQueen admirably admonishes a deeply unfair system that fails to include the wide range diverse social experiences that constitute modern America.

Shame may be a film that is set in New York, but it was made by a British team and stars British actors playing American characters. Whether it's a British or American film is up for question, but McQueen really should look closer to home before he rebukes the discriminate nature of current US cinema.

Britain is a real mixture of people. It's a rampantly multicultural country, yet if you watch most British cinema or television then you'll find that the lack of opportunities McQueen is berating America for is even worse here in Britain.

British cinema has been steeped in an obsession with its history and antiquated ideals. The most exportable properties coming from the UK tend to be period pictures set in the world of Austen, Brontë, royalty and pre-war history. Everything from Downton Abbey to The King's Speech is a product of this formula of filmmaking and Britain has done extremely well out of it. The international market responds favourably to such material and it makes enough money to justify its existence. These films and programmes sell around the world and, in turn, enable Britain to have a successful home industry.

The big question for me is if this tradition of geriatric coffee-table filmmaking actually providing an authentic picture of modern Britain? It is understandable why in period pictures they don't hire ethnic actors, principally on grounds of verisimilitude, but that risks actors of colour facing limited opportunities. In that sense, Britain's preoccupation with period cinema is actually suppressing opportunity, not enhancing it.

It's very important to have a UK film director like Steve McQueen. If anything, McQueen's presence in the British film industry is symbolic of its potential plurality. One has to celebrate the actuality that a black filmmaker like McQueen is afforded the opportunity to make films about non-black people, yet still project his unique style and sensibilities through the art he creates. This is the reverse of say Spike Lee who took 15-years before he was given the chance to make a film that wasn't exclusively about African-American characters (Summer of Sam). Perhaps in that sense Britain is ahead of America as it hires the best artists to tell a story regardless of ethnicity.

But if that's the case then why are there not more black directors like McQueen working in the British film industry? Why haven't more ethnically diverse writers and artists gone to the top of producers' wishlists?

You can argue that it has everything to do with opportunities and as long as Britain remains locked its creatively myopic mindset then black people will not get the necessary chances to make their mark on British cinema.

Going back to the Hollywood Reporter video, it's noticeable how sheepish American filmmakers are when it comes to answering why their movies never tell stories other than the experiences of white middle-class America. That's a shame because a capable filmmaker should always want to be challenged and take on material that is not necessarily in their comfort zone. For example, although Alexander Payne's The Descendants is a film adaptation of a book, surely there are equally good novels dealing with similar themes in contemporary African-American literature. If not, then the impetus should be on the filmmaker to perhaps think outside of the box and try something different with the source material. (For example, in 1936 Orson Wells directed a stage version of Hamlet with an entirely African-American cast. It was rapturously well-received and rethought Shakespeare in totally groundbreaking ways.) A similar argument can be applied to original story ideas like Jason Reitman's Young Adult, a comedy about a 30-something woman struggling to get to grips with adulthood, which could have easily been reworked with an African-American protagonist in the lead role.

Likewise, McQueen's Shame deals with a white man's nymphomania, but there are novels like Zane's Addicted that have told the experience of sexual addiction from the point of view of an African-American character. If McQueen was seriously committed to furthering back representations then couldn't he have adapted that story into a film? Then again, film distributors are more focused on content that speaks the largest audience base, thus movies with a multiethnic perspective are less likely to secure widespread distribution.

This is a seriously complex area of debate and I may have bitten off more than I can chew. True filmmakers are visionaries, not conformists. McQueen, Payne, Reitman et al will never make a story just to please a specific demographic if the narrative doesn't require it.

There are many different voices coming out of Britain and America. All filmmakers, regardless of their backgrounds, have a responsibility to push boundaries and create work that depicts the gauntlet of experiences occurring in a multicultural society.

If that's the case then one can argue that you can't get more radical than an average black guy from London directing a film about a privileged white American man's addiction to shagging.