Tag Archives: NOW

The Game is Flat

I’m not sure if Bosing is Sikkim’s first rapper, but I’ve heard over and over again that his self-titled album is “Sikkim’s first full-length hip-hop album.” Bosing is a 24-year-old from the village of Lingmoo in South Sikkim. His album was recorded and produced in a studio in Tadong. The album was being put out as the first such project by Gangtok nightspot Café Live & Loud. By every account, it should be a very Sikkimese piece of music. Except it isn’t.

I met Bosing, whose given name is Tashi Wangchuk Rapgyal, this week to talk about his music. He is quick to tell me about his primary musical influence and artistic role-model: Tupac Shakur (sometimes “2Pac”), the famous and genre-defining West Coast gangster rapper, tragically killed in his prime in 1996. Bosing pulls up his sleeve and shows me the somewhat incomplete but still undeniably clear sketch of Tupac he has tattooed on his right shoulder.

“Tupac was the first to come out with real gangster rap,” Bosing tells me excitedly. Bosing’s album is filled with talks of gangsters and “gees” and of famous American street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, as well as direct allusions to Tupac’s lyrics. Plentiful too are references to the classic East Coast/West Coast rivalry that defined hip-hop through the nineties and into the aughties — a battle in which Bosing unwaveringly aligns himself with the West, both stylistically and ideologically.

As we talk, we are sitting in the second floor of a Cacao, my favourite café in MG Marg, and I lean over the railing to watch the shoppers placidly wandering the pleasant street. I’m not the best judge in the world, but it just might be one of the least gangster places in the world. It is hard to imagine anyone getting shot coming out of Café Live & Loud. It is a low blow, but I ask Bosing if he feels like a gangster and if he thinks he might one day get gunned down by a rival like his idol.

“I’m not a gangster, not a deadly thug, but thuggish in my own way,” he replied.

That seems as fine an answer as any, and as a white, nerdy, suburban kid from the American Midwest, I’ll be the first to admit that hip-hop’s ideas and aesthetics (even the “gangster” ones) can be appealing and meaningful to many outside rap’s original demographic of poor African-Americans from the urban ghettos. Still, one has to wonder what terms like “gangster,” “bloods and crips,” “East Coast, West Coast,” “thugged out,” “ghetto gospal,” et al mean here in Sikkim, so far removed from their original context. It seems to me that “keeping it real” and “holding it down for the red ones” may be fundamentally different acts in Gangtok than in Brooklyn or Compton.

For me, as a reviewer of this sort of thing, that is the crux of my difficulty processing this album. Divorced from all context and history, Bosing is an earnest and talented rapper whose first album strikes me as pleasantly unremarkable. Bosing’s lyrics at times feel like strung-together catch phrases that could be inserted into nearly any poppy hip-hop song today without raising comment. This is not entirely a bad thing. His beats are catchy and his tracks well put together. His flow is adequate and his rhymes usually rhyme. All this makes Bosing’s first album quite entertaining.

A couple songs do stand out to me. “Love You Mom” is a heartfelt ode to Bosing’s mother, and all single mothers. “Holding It Down” recalls the violent history of hip-hop rivalries and pleads for an end to it all because “we can’t live like this forever.” “Lost Loved Ones” remembers, well, lost loved ones. Sentiments like these are actually fairly common throughout hip-hop, but these sorts of songs rarely become chart toppers or club bangers and are thus less remembered. That Bosing chose to include his own versions on his album is to me a clear testament to his nuanced understanding of the genre.

Despite all these fine qualities, I can’t quite get over the fact that this album, billed as “Sikkim’s first hip-hop album,” lacks anything that feels even remotely Sikkimese, or even Indian. But for a couple passing references to Delhi and Lingmoo, an uninformed listener would have absolutely no clue even what continent this music comes from. It is almost uncannily generic. In fact, between all the references to American street gangs and such and the fact that Bosing raps and sings entirely in English — the language he tells me he finds most “convenient” — and has a very indistinct accent, one would probably assume it came from somewhere in the USA. (Not that I’m complaining about the lyrics being in English, mind, as it certainly makes my job reviewing it easier.)

This album feels a bit anonymous in time as well as space. Bosing raps a bit about his haters and say he is “coming around with another hit, man, another hit, man.” But this is Bosing’s first album, his breakout debut. Does he already have haters worth taking down in song? When has he produced hits before this? All of these are phrases that get used a lot in hip-hop, in one form or another, but knowing Sikkim and having briefly met Bosing, it all seems a bit off to me.

I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t exactly think Bosing’s album would be all talk of pujas or Himalayan majesty or…or whatever. But I did expect a certain amount of inherent Indian-ness.

I am actually a bit ashamed of this rather orientalist line of thinking, but there is a second (preferable) explanation besides that I’m easily sucked in by stereotypes. It could be that hip-hop is now global, flat, accessible to all and no longer tied to any particular demographic or culture — so much so that it doesn’t matter where you are from anymore, and that the East Coast and West Coast are no longer places but ideals.

Discussing some of our favourite artists working today, Bosing mentions The Game, a fantastic rapper coming out of retirement in the next few months. “A month back I got into trouble, and I kept wondering ‘why did it happen to me?’ When I listened to Game, it helped me figure out what I’d been through,” Bosing says.

Maybe it is all universal, and the attitudes of gangster rap, with its aggressive and darkly confident stance towards life, can find purchase in any life, anywhere. And maybe in this moment some of the social critiques of gangster rap can apply just as well to India, even Sikkim. Bosing points me to a line in his album alluding to a Tupac lyric about “a black panther born in the ghetto every twenty minutes.” Replace ‘ghetto’ with ‘slum’ and ‘black panther’ with a more generic rebel, anyone oppressed and fighting those in power — well, it does apply to India, doesn’t it?

I don’t think there is an answer to the question this implies: whether it is better to rep your origins and your past as uniquely as possible or to fully integrate with a global movement and help determine its destination and its future. For now, I’m content to just keep an eye on Bosing to see where he goes next. He tells me he is planning to release a music video for “Holding It Down” in the next couple weeks. He hopes to soon be travelling to Hyderabad and Delhi to perform at clubs and concerts. He is already working on his second album.

Bosing’s self-titled album is available at Café Live & Loud on Tibet Road in Gangtok.

Five more reviews, still for the price of one

I think I have to do this occasionally: review five mixtapes at once just to clear out a backlog of opinion that builds up while I work on critiquing one single album in a review that has pretensions towards being an essay. So if you want to listen to a ton of awesome hip-hop this week, start with these.

To kick us off, let me point you to the record I’ve been kicking at every opportunity over the last couple weeks: XV’s “best of” mixtape V for Vizzy, presented by Evil Empire (who added annoying DJ tags aplenty). XV gives us a collection of just…really catchy tracks. Beats to bounce too, hooks that worm into your brain. And yet the polished production isn’t a way to help us swallow lyrics that are shallow and materialistic. There is real intelligence here, in a mix of storytelling and touchingly honest autobiography related in a shocking variety of surprisingly original narrative forms. I really can’t say enough about this album, or about XV’s prodigious skills as a rapper and writer. Just get it. You can find it at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/08/04/xv-v-is-for-vizzy-mixtape/.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here: I’m mostly including Aleon Craft’s new mixtape, The Stargazing Soundtrack, because I want to comment on the the bubbling of space-themed hip-hop songs that is turning into a positive trend. B.o.B., Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and even Eminem have had “spacey” tracks in their most recent outings, with more looking to show up as the twenteens wear on. Is there something in the zeitgeist, some yearning for science-fictional escape and exaltation? In a way, though, it worries me, because the tone of these tracks usually suggest that outer space, rocket ships, other planets, et al are dream states more than graspable reality. I want civilization to make space development a real priority. I don’t want to see it slip into some cultural neverwhere of fantastical alternative future divorced from serious politics. But that doesn’t have much to do with this mixtape, really, and this mixtape is quite good. So just check it out at http://aleoncraft.com/2010/08/the-stargazing-soundtrack-aleon-craft-smka/. And vote for space.

Probably the most significant mixtape to drop recently is the G.O.O.D. Ass Mixtape, presented by Perajok. What we have here is a collection of recently released new tracks by artists on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, plus a few associated acts. (In case you were wondering, G.O.O.D. stands for “get out our dreams.”) The whole thing comes as excitement is building about the release of Ye’s fifth studio album, which was originally going to be called Good Ass Job (completing the quartet of albums begun by College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation). We’ve got, among others, Big Sean, Consequence, GLC, Tony Williams, John Legend, Kid Cudi and of course Yeezy. To be perfectly honest, I mostly copped this to get the new Kid Cudi tracks, plus Kanye’s new “See Me Now” single and a live version of the stunning “Power.” But the whole thing is seriously good. Great even. Grab it at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/08/16/perajok-presents-g-o-o-d-ass-mixtape-mixape/.

We have established by now that I have a deep, unshakeable love for the delightful novelty of mashups — music that artfully combines parts of two often very different musical works into a new, mutant whole. So of course I was pleased to find the recently dropped Dub Kweli by Max Tannone, which puts Talib Kweli’s vocals over dub reggae. I wish I knew more about the reggae source material used here, to better appreciate everything going on with this album — it is one of those, so good that it demands more from the listener. The reggae is a good match to Kweli’s particular vocal patterns, and his lyrics are fascinating as ever. There are a few unexpected gems here, including yet another attempt at remixing Kanye West’s “Get Em’ High” — an impossible feat, of course, since the original track is so perfectly produced, but an enjoyable attempt nonetheless. Snag it at http://www.dubkweli.com.

While on the mashup ride, I found a similar project from last year by the same guy: Jaydiohead, Jay-Z over Radiohead. I have started saying lately that Jay-Z mashups are more fun to listen to than in his original songs. Maybe this is because Hov’s unique and, of course, compelling rap style always has a certain dissonance with the beat that stands out on studio albums but is par for the course — preferable even — when mashed up with something unintended. This is kind of a “have my cake and eat it too” situation for me, as I have, on occasion, been forced to defend hip-hop’s artistic worth against comparisons with the paragon of moody and “deep” alternative rock, Radiohead. Give it a download at http://www.jaydiohead.com/.

The Drizzle and Daydreams of Pang Lhabsol

Rabong means “wet goat,” and few names would be more appropriate. The jeep ride from Gangtok took us through hill mists and showers, in and out of low hanging clouds. When we arrived the whole town was dripping, globbed by watery mud, run by rivulets flowing through the cracks in the streets, enshrouded by a thick white fog that gives everything within thirty meters a delicate and blurry glow — and obscures completely everything else. As we picked our way down the slick hill to the press seats, I was entranced by the ghostly spectacle of a radio tower, which faded into nothingness at its peak like some djinn-built babel ladder to heaven.

It was the first day of Pang Lhabsol, the annual Bhutia festival worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga and for little Rabong one of the biggest events of the year. The three days are packed with sports competitions, cultural programmes, religious ceremonies, development exhibitions and general merriment. The inaugural programme featured an address by the Chief Minister and a series of traditional tribal dances, to be performed on Rabong’s famous and now rain-slick volleyball court.

Coming from a society that has boiled away anything resembling traditional dances or tribal garb in the melting pot of history, and that probably wouldn’t be very interested in that kind of group identity even if we had any left, I must admit that I find these sorts of cultural demonstrations a little odd and not particularly exciting. With the overpowering dampness that had descended on Rabong that day, the whole endeavour seemed especially sad and banal. I didn’t realise the extent of it, however, until the first group of dancers shuffled out onto the court, shivering in their bare feet and colourful but sleeveless garments. You couldn’t see them. The fog was too thick. Barely thirty feet away, the dancers were pale will-o-wisps, bobbing in and out of the overtaking grey. Here dozens of residents and visitors had turned out in the rain to watch these dances, and all the detail of their clothes, all the precision of their hand movements and the coyness of their narrative smiles — all of it was lost in the dull depths of the cloud.

But as I looked around, expecting the audience to be filled with faces of disappointment, or at least resigned boredom, I saw none of that. Certainly the crowd was less than comfortable in the chill and the damp, but still they stared loyally into the fog, watching the dancers move and occasionally adding some sharp shout to the twangy, upbeat music. We went amongst the audience to ask how they were feeling, getting positive and carefree replies. And when we departed mid-programme to explore the other Pang Lhabsol festivities, we passed more coming to join the audience — young children and bent elders incredibly climbing up the many, many steeps steps from the bazaar to the Mane Choekerling Complex.

We found a similar enthusiasm in town. Though the moisture had turned into drizzle, and the drizzle into rain, residents and visitors still crowded the streets, eating or shopping or making their way to the programme above or just generally milling about. Festive little lights were strung overhead, and through they remained unlit the coloured wire still brightened the muddy scene considerably.

The Pang Lhabsol celebration in Rabong this year was marketed in part as a great event for monsoon tourism, so we were quite excited to spot what appeared to be two genuine monsoon tourists coming up the main road. Ruth and Yussef Habibi, a British couple, were visiting Rabong after spending several weeks volunteering at a school in East Sikkim. The two hadn’t known about the festival before arriving but considered the timing fortuitous and were keen to check it out. We asked how they were liking their “monsoon tourism experience,” and the couple replied that they were enjoying it, appreciating it for what it was — but weren’t likely to want to come back for a second go next year.

At the covered exhibition compound many stalls were still empty on the first day of the celebrations, but there were plenty of poorly lit displays of crafts both traditional and contemporary: seeds, shawls, handbags made from denim jeans and cheap good from Thailand. These last had been brought by a Bangkok resident named Yocshai, who, after previous visits to the the North Eastern hills, was contacted to bring his wares by a member of the celebration’s organising committee. Yocshai, more than anyone else we talked to, was dissatisfied with how things were going — not so much because of the rain but because of how slow business was going. Still, he hoped things would pick up over the next two days and said he wouldn’t rule out further trips to Sikkim in the future (if not to Rabong, then to Gangtok).

Wet and tired but somehow vaguely impressed with how the little festival was turning out, we took a taxi back to the Mane Choekerling Complex to catch the end of the cultural programme, not wishing to trudge up those endless stairs. And as we pulled into the muddy parking area, our driver, Anmol, told us how he felt about the whole event. According to Anmol, the celebration this year was actually better than it has been in past years — in fact because of the rain. More rain meant more people like us, willing to skip the stairs and spend Rs. 100 on a cab. The weather had to be working for someone, I suppose.

Mountains, perhaps more than any other entity or object worshipped by the myriad religions of the world, are things you can see. They are huge and imposing in their sheer size and physicality, and of course that’s what makes them worthy of reverence. I don’t know whether one could normally see Mount Kanchenjunga from Rabong, but that cloud-cloaked day of still and bulbous mists nothing was visible. The idea of worshipping a mountain that one cannot see seems to me both ironic and profound. It takes a certain perseverance, and maybe that’s what kept the residents of Rabong so chipper. Maybe that’s what made them willing to walk up a hundred stairs to watch a dance show they couldn’t even properly see. Maybe we’ll just call it faith.

I have been told I tie my shoes like a child

Pictured above is, according to Anupa, the correct and adult way to tie one’s shoes, and more comfortable besides. Okay.

For Your Information

Long ago, I remember seeing the inner city black kids that got bussed in to my suburban high school sit in the computer lab looking up rap lyrics on the Internet. I didn’t get it at the time — I was wandering through the too-bright wasteland of “nu metal” and its ilk — but it struck me that these young people who had no interest at all in memorising Hamlet or the periodic table of elements (neither did I, of course) were so compelled by this music that they would spend their free hours learning every word.

I get it now, of course, and I do the same thing with really catchy songs, googling the lyrics and playing them over and over in my head on long jeep rides or rainy walks home until I can recite the whole verse, the whole song. There is a prissy, rational part of me that insists that that time and mental energy would be better spent committing to memory facts and figures or eloquent quotes from respectable literature — knowledge more useful than crude rhymes about fast money and faster women. But unfortunately we don’t get to choose the medium that grabs us. For me and millions of other hip-hop fans, rhyming phrases and dope beats form an irresistible combination with an addictive power. Now if only there was some way we could harness that power…for science!

Last week an ex-girlfriend of mine inexplicably emailed me a link to an album by an artist I’d never heard of before: Baba Brinkman. Curious, I downloaded The Rap Guide to Human Nature, and just a couple tracks in I understood why this music made her think of nerdy, hip-hop loving me. Baba Brinkman quite literally raps about science, specifically about evolution and, in this album, how it shaped and continues to shape human behaviour.

Apparently Baba has been doing it for quite a while now, and he has a couple other similar album covering other topics from an evolutionist perspective. Like any rapper he goes on tour, but not of big stadiums or traditional concert venues: he performs at college campuses, there to educate students as much as entertain. He isn’t a parody, like “Weird Al” Yankovic or some of the early nerdcore artists who tried the science gimick; it is obvious that he genuinely loves hip-hop and works hard to make his music accessible as well as informative. And that pays off, for while he doesn’t have any club bangers on here, his beats are fun, sophisticated and competently composed.

The science is solid too. I am especially entranced by the five short “Hypothesis” tracks, which eloquently and concisely argue five different theories of human nature as they relate to evolutionary theory and the sex and violence that permeates rap music. Though brief, “Creationism,” “Spiritualism,” “Social Constructivism,” “Biological Determinism” and “Evolutionism” are the most valuable tracks on the album from an educational standpoint, because because by masterfully putting them in rhyme Baba makes the basic points and fallacies of each theory almost absurdly easy to remember.

Baba Brinkman isn’t the only one out there grinding for more academic hip-hop. I’ve always been a big fan of the nerdcore act MC Hawking, which used a voice synthesiser to recast renown theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as a crude, gat-blasting gangster rapper. I especially enjoy the tracks that quite literally articulate scientific concepts like The Big Bang or entropy, and when I played those for a professor of mine he said he would like to use them in his natural science classes — if it weren’t for the dirty joke about priests watching child porn. Most everything I know about 18th Century American treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton comes from a hip-hop performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But Baba Brinkman does more than lay out the facts and theories: his songs deftly weave together the science with personal opinion and autobiography, as well as commentary about the flaws and power of the rap game. “The Planter’s Dilemma” isn’t just a recitation of the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” thought experiment on the tension between cooperation and competition — the song talks about how Baba’s family worked in ecosystem restoration and describes the unique practices of reforestation subculture. The delightfully framed “Twin Studies” gives us a glimpse into Brinkman’s life on tour, while still digging into the classic “nature vs. nurture” debate and how some of those questions can be answered by studying twins separated at birth. “Parental Investment” is an ode to the producer that makes the beats for Brinkman’s songs, and then goes into the difference amounts that males and females are required to invest to have a child. Baba is more than just his schtick: he’s a legitimate artist whose work has a lot of mainstream appeal. He isn’t going to blow up on the charts anytime soon, but I think rap fans who aren’t as geeky as me can really enjoy — not to mention benefit from — music like this.

I believe in hip-hop just like I believe in science. And I believe in what Baba Brinkman is doing, taking the powerful techniques of rap and using them to literally make his audience smarter. That’s not something a lot of artists can say, I don’t think. Any good album will make you think, of course, and broaden your experience, but science is better than platitudes or aesthetic clichés. If you give The Rap Guide to Human Nature a few solid listens and honestly try to learn the insights articulated within, you will be better equipped to act more rationally and understand the irrational behaviour of others. That’s a big deal.

You can listen to Baba Brinkman’s new album, The Rap Guide to Human Nature, which is also available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis, at http://bababrinkman.bandcamp.com/album/the-rap-guide-to-human-nature. Check it out, and learn something.

Possibly one of the best photos I’ve ever taken

Tribal faith healers parading past Tibetan prayer wheels to the Pang Lhabsol celebration at Ravangla’s famous volleyball court. Pang Lhabsol is a three day Bhutia festival worshiping Mount Kanchanjunga. We used this shot on the cover of Tuesday’s edition of NOW.

All Respect Due to the Wu

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, of course. Without slipping into obsession with past founding fathers, it is healthy to occasionally acknowledge our influences. So let me direct your attention this week to a new mixtape by the annoyingly named Bronx rapper CurT@!n$, The Dissertation: The Wu-Thesis.

The mixtape uses familiar Wu-Tang beats and skits, though touched up a bit and mixed with surprising elegance with CurT@!n$’ own similar material. Mixtapes often use beats popularised by other artists (though less and less these days, as mixtapes become more like interim albums), but spitting over classic Wu-Tang takes guts. If CurT@!n$ had been even a little bit whack with his lyrics, the resultant scorn would have been intense.

Thankfully, he does pretty well, jumping from pun to pun with decent wordplay and an aggressive, occasionally bitter attitude. CurT@!n$ obviously worked really hard to do these famous beats justice. In a few of the tracks he is a little attention deficit in his relationship to the subject at hand — not unlike A Man and his Mixtape favorite Cobe Obeah — but the standout tracks, “The Gentrification” and “Letter to the People pt. 4,” stay devastatingly focused.

There are some big differences between the classic works of the Wu-Tang Clan and CurT@!n$’ homage. The most obvious is size and scope. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a huge album by a huge group — nine dudes! — with songs four to seven minutes long with up to seven verses by various members of the Clan. CurT@!n$ is just one guy, and his mixtape is ten tracks, most less than three minutes long. But CurT@!n$ isn’t trying to match the Wu, he is merely paying his respects to one of the most influential hip-hop acts of all time. I suspect that in this project CurT@!n$ in some ways imagined himself a member of the Clan, and composed his short one and two verse tracks as if they were going to be tacked on to the originals right after Method Man or ODB finished spitting.

The best way to think about this album is, happily enough, as a dissertation: a synthesising of what CurT@!n$ learned after extensive study. See, not only does CurT@!n$ use Wu beats, he follows in their footsteps thematically, discussing with impressive intelligence the sociological roots of poverty, violence and drug use in African-American New York City. This is a topic that the Wu rapped about extensively a decade ago, and CurT@!n$’ deft updates of old complaints are cutting in their contemporary accuracy. “The Gentrification” breaks down the futility of modern attempts to fight urban poverty with commercial development.

But the Wu-Tang Clan didn’t just write social commentary. Their depiction of life on the dangerous ghetto streets set the stage for songs that are really about personal transformation. CurT@!n$ does the same in his thesis. Yes, he spends a lot of time on posturing and put downs, but in the end, particularly in “Letter to the People pt. 4,” he argues that moral uprightness is more important than material success.

I definitely recommend checking out CurT@!n$’ new mixtape, The Dissertation: The Wu Thesis. You can download it for free at http://usershare.net/2DopeBoyz/4wv8pwmtxgbf.