Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amazing Artwork: Westside Connector (A Tribute To Ice Cube)

By Scott Tre

Sometime in the summer of 1990, my older relatives from New York deemed Ice Cube as the "exceptional" west coast rapper.  In other words, it was okay for me to like his music.  Thus began one of the strongest connections I ever had to an artist of any kind.  Ice Cube was my favorite rapper from fall of 1990 up until the release of Redman's debut Whut Thee Album in the fall of 1992.  I listened to the "life side" of Death Certificate obsessively.  After only a few weeks the print and song titles were barely visible on the cassette.  I almost had a heart attack when my walkman ate the tape.  Luckily my father, ever the handyman, was able to rescue it from oblivion even though he strongly disapproved of my taste in music. 

I rode with O'shea through the relatively disappointing (at the time) releases of Predator and Lethal Injection.  I never really hated either.  In fact I liked quite a few songs on each.  They just never clicked with me the way Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Kill at Will and Death Certificate did.  Cube became something of a non-factor to me during the mid to late 90's and onward.  Part of this was due to me getting older and moving on, another was that he declared war on the big apple at the height of the East/West feud.  Still, my love for his early work refused to be faded.  He taught me what it meant to be timely and fearless.  He showed me it was possible to make art that was both popular and potent.

As a grown man, I respect Cube now more than ever.  Not only is he one of the few vets who has aged gracefully as a MC, his catalog contains more direct hits than misfires.  He may not be a real gang banger or a true black militant, but he is surely one of the greatest rappers to ever grab a mic.  This Drawing is a salute to Ice Cube and what his music meant to me as youth, and what it has grown to mean to me as a man.  On "The Nigga You Love to Hate" he urged us to yell "Fuck You Ice Cube" at the top of our lungs.  I'd rather give the brother a pound and say thanks.  Per his request, I'll make it a firm shake.

"Black Dynamite" Soon To Be The Baddest Mofo in Toon Town

By Scott Tre

When the trailer for Black Dynamite first appeared, many felt that there was no way a feature length film could deliver on the promise of such an inspired concept.  I imagine that as those same skeptics breathed a heavy sigh of relief after initial viewings of the film, the animated sequence during the ending credits created a similar sense of anxiety.  It was funny and hinted at just how well the concept of Black Dynamite lends itself to animation, but surely it would be folly to think that such momentum could be maintained for the duration of a series. 

Well who is to say that lightening can't strike twice?  Carl Jones, producer of The Boondocks, has been preparing a Black Dynamite animated series for Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block of programming.  Earlier today, released some exclusive stills from the upcoming series and they look very promising.  Peep Cream Corn riding shotgun with Black Dynamite in the second image.  Then again, that would be hard to do considering the ultimate fate of that character in the movie.  Well, if Cream Corn does make an appearance, hopefully he'll be voiced by Tommy Davidson.

Dy-no-mite! Dy-No-Mite! (Sorry, I couldn't resist)

Black Dynamite (front right), Cream Corn (front left), Bull Horn (rear right), and Gloria Gray (rear left)

Black Dynamite in all of his Alpha-Male glory!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Straight From The Soul: An E-Conversation With Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti

Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti

By Scott Tre

I was once told that you can't learn about "the hood" by association, you have to have lived it.  The same can be said for just about any harsh or extreme experience there is to be had in this world.  Voyeurs hope to gain overstanding by consuming reference materials and anecdotal advice from those in the know.  While such knowledge is valuable, a true ground zero perspective trumps all of that.  Being able to intellectualize and categorize the experience of others is no substitute for first hand knowledge.  For a very long time, even a voyeur's view of organized crime was an unobtainable vantage point.  Now, information on ethnic mafias past and present increases exponentially in the blink of an eye.  The internet has allowed for information not only to be provided but verified at the speed of light.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

All of The Stars Are Aligning For Superman's Next Animated Adventure

By Scott Tre

One of the many wonders of the DC Animated Universe Original Movies is how easy they make efficient storytelling look.  Even hokey and overexposed characters like the man of steel become interesting when made the focus of a DCAU project.  The inherent corniness of these characters is revealed in the overly simplistic way that their origins and back stories were conceived.  That's why every few years they have to be revamped, since they were made as diversions for a simpler time.  Somehow, the DCAU is able to provide quality contemporary entertainment without betraying the quaint sensibilities that birthed these characters.  That is a skill that often eludes the very best of comic writers.

Grant Morrison managed to crack that nut with his All-Star Superman Series, which will now be incorporated in the fabric of the DCAU.  The upcoming All-Star Superman is the animated  send up of Morrison's work. The recently released trailer shows that the animators have remained faithful to the style and character designs of artist Frank Quitely, maintaining the established tradition of every DCAU feature having its own visual identity.  Superman has always been a difficult character to keep interesting as his invulnerability and omnipotent pedigree make it hard to foster a sense of danger or consequence in his adventures.  This trailer does that from the outset.  At this point, I think it would be wise for Warner Brothers films to place a temporary moratorium on all live-action adaptations (save for Chris Nolan's projects) and dump all of those hundreds of millions into theatrically released DCAU films.  It would result in a much more satisfying product.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TV Review: Steve Buscemi and Martin Scorcese use the Demon Rum to Build a "Boardwalk Empire"

By Scott Tre

As America laments the onset of prohibition, a select few celebrate.  Among them is politician Enoch "Nucky" Thompson.  Like other gangsters across the country, he anticipates the financial windfall that prohibition represents.  He can now rake in huge profits since the outlawing of liquor allows him to sell it at an inflated price.  His protege, World War I veteran Tommy Jimmy Darmody, wants more out of life.  His misguided ambition causes him to make a decision that threatens the business prospects of Thompson, putting him in an uncomfortable position.  It becomes apparent that the throne of Atlantic City will not come easily, or without  bloodshed.

While the prohibition era has provided fodder for countless other filmmakers who dabbled in the Gangsters Paradise, crime maestro Martin Scorcese has curiously never tackled the period.  That changes with the pilot episode of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire", which teams Scorcese with Sopranos writer Terrence Winter.  The series itself is an adaptation of Nelson Johnson's book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.  While Scorcese will only actually sit in director's chair for the pilot, he serves as the series executive producer.  This ensures that his influence will linger on even though he will no longer be behind the camera.  The foundation he provides for future episodes is one of colorful, lavish production values that service a hard nosed look at an era than many mistakenly remember as mannered and respectful.

What becomes clear with this show (and much of Scorcese's output over the last fifteen years) is that the Scorcese of old has disappeared into the fabric of this newer version.  The intensely focused filmmaker that emerged in the 70's has started to think a lot bigger, making films that resemble the lavish productions of old Hollywood he enjoyed as a youth.  The characters, however, remain the same, the only difference is that they are playing for greater stakes.  They  may have started as knock around guys from the old neighborhood, but the exceptional (or simply more aggressive) among them have graduated to a higher stakes game.  One can see the progression from Mean Streets to Goodfellas to Casino and now to Boardwalk Empire.  Thompson is clearly a man of leisure and taste.  His world is rendered in dream like hues of flawless consistency and texture.  This isn't really Atlantic City in 1920, but what it appears like in descriptions of books and novels.  A true gangsters' paradise.

Steve Buscemi goes against most peoples idea of what a man of power, especially a gangster, is supposed to look like.  He is not physically remarkable in any way (aside from his rodent like facial features).  One probably would not look twice at him on the street.  He has the look of a guy that had to prove he was someone to be reckoned with as his appearance would never suggest it.  Buscemi has made a career out of characters like that...guys who are capable of much more than their slight and nerdy demeanor lets on.  They could just as well be indistinguishable factory workers.  But they want more.  "Nucky" is a different guy altogether.  He comes from meager beginnings and will not hesitate to use that story to make it into his constituency's good graces.  Now that he has tasted the high life, he has no intentions of going back.  He intends to maintain his standing.

Micheal Pitt also exudes a "more powerful than I appear" demeanor, or at least he plays a character who would like to believe that.  Jimmy has squandered opportunities for the high life.  He opted instead for a chance to fight for his country.  The skills he learned on the battlefield would come in handy in Nucky's line of business, but Nucky's disappointment in Jimmy's life choices up until this point leave him weary.

While the usual saucy language associated with a Scorcese crime picture is in full force (it's amusing to see such elegantly dressed characters throwing "fuck" back and forth casually), the earthy emotional pyrotechnics of his earlier work are muted here.  We still get emotionally charged situations, but there seems to be a bit of restraint in the dramatic scenes.  The graphic violence is very much present, though not in the messy, gritty fashion that made him famous.  It has a very artful feel, even as craniums are cut in half by shotgun shells and the fourth wall is sprayed with brain matter.  The beating of Billy Bats in Goodfellas was cringe worthy.  The deaths of Boardwalk Empire are shocking but beautiful.  This Scorcese seems a bit more methodical and calculated.  He has learned to contain and aim his vigor.

A young, pre-kingpin Al Capone makes an appearance and teams up with Jimmy.  The pilot casually weaves these big names of organized crime into its tapestry.  None are given big entrances.  They all simply exist in the same world and come together to do business.

The Pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire lays out the first chapter of this new series in way that befits three hour epics such as The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and Scorcese's own Casino.  While HBO's wildly successful The Sopranos simultaneously showed the influence of Goodfellas while paving the way for Boardwalk Empire, Scorcese wisely steers clear of making the show in that same vein.  Tony Soprano shares a table with the brutish oafs of Henry Hill's world, while Enoch "Nucky" Thompson is of a much more mannered (though certainly not more moral) ilk.  Ties, overcoats and clean shaves may not change the true nature of gangsterism, but they sure are nice to look at, and "Nucky" seems like an interesting man to know. 


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miami Life: A Phone Conversation With Billy Corben

By Scott Tre

For the past 4 years, Billy Corben has played a major role in the way the city of Miami is viewed in popular culture.  His Cocaine Cowboys films exposed the underbelly of Miami's cocaine wars in a way that Scarface and Miami Vice only hinted at.  The U showed how the emergence of Hip-Hop coupled with the racial tensions and harsh economic realities that existed in Miami at the time played a role in reshaping the University of Miami's football program for better or worse.  In fact, that phrase is indicative of Corben's filmography.  It could be titled South Florida: The Good, The Bad & The Indifferent or maybe South Florida: The Crazy, the Wild, and the Outrageous.  The tales told in his films are as outlandish as anything you'd read in a supermarket tabloid.  The major difference is that it's all true.  You're hearing from the horses mouth.

Review: Ben Affleck Robs "The Town" Blind

By Scott Tre

A good cops and robbers movie is one that succeeds in spite of the inherent predictability of the genre.  The "crime doesn't pay" moralizing of generations past is more prevalent in modern times than most of us realize.  We know that no matter how slick or advanced the robbers are, their winning streak cannot last.  We will see them pull off a few jobs with clockwork precision, sexy weaponry, and the most advanced equipment this side of a nanotechnology lab.  Inevitably, there will be that one job that goes awry thanks to a crew member that has a little too much blood lust. From there, it's only a matter of time before the climactic apocalyptic shoot-out with the coppers.  The pieces are all there and we recognize them better than our reflection in the mirror.  Yet, when pulled off with bravura and gusto, they draw us in and cater to that secret desire to see the bad guys get away with it.  It's one of those tried and true formulas that can't fail if done right.

Doug Macray (Ben Affleck) is a professional bank robber in a town teaming with professional bank robbers.  He and his crew hail from the rough and tumble Boston Neighborhood of Charleston, Massachusetts.  Charleston is a veritable breeding ground for characters like Macray and his "brother-from-another-mother" James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner).  They are half of a four man crew who treat local banks as low hanging fruit on a the forbidden tree.  In another life they'd simply be working class Irish Americans raising families, but in this life they are the New England incarnation of the Jesse James Gang.

After knocking off a Cambridge bank and taking bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, the crew figures it would be wise to do some surveillance on her.  Macray takes the assignment, fearing that Jems viciousness might yield unnecessary bloodshed.  Macray gets much more than he bargained for and begins a romantic relationship with her.  He continues with the affair in spite of how it perplexes Jem, who is taken aback by Macray's bad judgment.  All the while, old school "G-man" styled FBI agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm) chases after the gang with the tenacity of a blood hound.  As Macray's loyalty to Jem coupled with his obligations to the old guard of Charlestons gangster traditions conspire to keep him from moving on to a new life with his lady love, Frawley closes in on him.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogans novel Prince of Thieves, but owes an equal or greater debt to Micheal Mann's Heat.  It also references plenty of other modern crime films, Scorcesian and otherwise.  It is a genre piece, not interested in recreating the wheel so much as it is in creating an efficient machine from a well worn blueprint.  Director and Star Ben Affleck has never exactly been the most celebrated actor of his generation, but seems to have found his true calling behind the camera.  He seems to want to create a cinematic identity for Boston similar to the one that Scorcese has created for New York.  While he needs much more time to achieve such a lofty goal, Affleck has shown himself to be a fast learner.

The Town does not seek to distract the viewer with meticulously framed shots that turn everything into a picturesque landscape.  In many ways, the camera work is like the Boston portrayed in the film: suffocatingly ordinary.  The camera merely documents what is in front of it.  That is not to say that the film is without nuance or style.  Quite the contrary: It is a workman like style for a workman like town.  These guys aren't glamorous, and their exploits are not documented as such.  These are average guys who happen to have a larger than life (not to mention illegal) occupation.

The story telling is straight forward.  The screenplay by Ben Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard portrays Charleston not as an urban hell a la Menace II Society, but as a town that sucks the life out of it's inhabitants through it's mundane grind.  Manual labor or civil service are the only happy endings that neighborhood kids can hope for.  The smart alec dialogue is perhaps a bit overdone (much of it sounds like an extension of the more memorable bits from Good Will Hunting) but perhaps this is the point.  These are guys that cover up their lack of education with wise ass remarks and a "too cool for school" attitude that New England residents know all too well.  It is a facade that covers up the deadened souls of guys who gave up on life a long time ago.  It also sets up an interesting dynamic between those that have resigned to their fates, and those who realize that they actually have a choice.

The action follows in the tradition of Micheal Mann, and while nothing here reaches the heights of the classic shootout on the streets of L.A. in Heat, Affleck manages to stage some very believable and compelling sequences.  Things happen fast and not a single moment is lingered on for stylistic flourishes.  As the staccato of machine gun fire prattles off and muzzle flashes flare, there is working class sensibility afoot.  It is spectacular to us because none of us are bank-robbers, but for these guys it is simply a job.  They shoot past any obstacle in their way.  While Heat made you hold your breath, The Town never quite reaches that level of tension yet keeps you itching for the next moment regardless.  The action scenes in a movie like this make you instantly realize just how invested you are in the characters.  That the film follows the structure and feel of Heat so closely yet still maintains its own identity is a testament to Affleck as filmmaker.

As Macray, Affleck doesn't set the world on fire but he does create a character that is believably ordinary.  Much of that is because Affleck's demeanor makes it hard to imagine him being "the best" at anything,.  Macray is good at robbing banks, yet the seemingly bloodthirsty Jem seems evn more efficient and disciplined.  Macray is sympathetic, yet Jem by comparison seems more realistic and accepting of the way things are.  That is accomplished through Jeremy Renner's "Ordinariness".  Dare I say that the characters in this film benefit from not seeming all that remarkable as people.  Life is work.  Rent, heat, gas, and food cost money.  You get it how you live.  These characters seem to understand that and not much else.  Dare I also say that this is probably the first film I have ever seen where I sympathize a little more with the crazy "live wire" character than with the "Sympathetic" protagonist.  Both are likable, and both win over the audiences fervor, but Jem is about his business.

Then there is John Hamm. Sporting a hairdo that makes him look like a Treasury officer from the Prohibition era, and sense of morality that is a bit more black and white than the crew from Charleston.  He isn't a pansy though, and Hamm brings a sense of strength and personality to a role that stands in contrast to Kevin Costner's bland turn as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.  Frawley isn't as attractive a character as Jem or Macray, but he is smart and headstrong.  He isn't a square by any means.  He knows and understand the world the robbers operate in, her just happens to be on the other side of the fence.

The Town is a well oiled machine of a genre piece.  Sturdy and strong though not world changing.  It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does add a brand new tire with fresh treads.  It may not reincarnate the heist film, but it keeps it alive. Ben Affleck is one of the pleasant surprises of recent years.  That such a maligned actor is emerging as a solid master of the modern crime film is exciting to see.  Someday, this guy may very well have his Goodfellas.  One can only hope.  

Musical Memory: DFC & MC Eiht Warn Us About What Happens When "Caps Get Peeled"

By Scott Tre

There are great deal of people out there who do not let Billboard charts, commercial radio, or video outlets determine what makes their personal playlist.  This was as true in 1994 as it is now.  While the mighty Death Row was familiarizing suburban kids all over America with West Coast gangsta music, there were a subset of underground heroes that did not have the benefit of "the machine".  They may have had a major label contract, but they weren't given the same push as the more marketable artists of the day.  Many exhibited the independent spirit,  toiling below the radar and depending on word of mouth to spread their gospel.  They may not have achieved gold or platinum success, but they appealed to a constituency that cared more for authenticity then marketing muscle.  They knew what their fans wanted and related to.  They sought not accolades and acclaim from the hip-hop press or the taste makers in the big eastern cities, but sales and approval from the audience that matters most: The Streets.

DFC and MC Eiht exemplified such sentiments.  DFC hailed from Flint Michigan and got their start with the late Great MC Breed, (who's debut single "Ain't No Future In Yo Frontin" achieved Gold status in 1991 and turned him into a cult hero).  The letters in their name stood for "Dope Flint Connection" or "Da Flint crew".  The duo was made up of Al and T-Dub. MC Eiht was the lead rapper of the group Compton's Most Wanted.  CMW never quite managed to achieve the same level of commercial success as others of their hometown, but they produced a raw form of Jazzy gangsta music that appealed to purists.  After MC Eiht's supporting turn in the Hughes Brothers crime film Menace II Society, (as well as his effective contribution to the soundtrack, titled "Streiht Up Menace") Eiht began to garner attention as a solo artist.  Such Bulletproof respect reached all the way to the 5 boroughs of NYC, where Eiht had a sizable following.  The west was emanating a sound and attitude that the whole country could feel, especially those who lived in Midwestern cities where street gangs from both LA and Chicago had been infiltrating throughout the 80's and 90's.  It makes sense then, that DFC and Eiht would have a mutual appreciation for each others style.  That appreciation would culminate in a track that would make little noise in the mainstream, but that had obvious appeal for anyone familiar with the kind of music made by both artists.

The lead single off DFC's second album Things in tha hood was not directed at the radio, but at those who make nightly runs to the liquor store in customized whips.  This was the spring of 1994, the height of the G-Funk era.  MC Eiht and DJ slip were increasingly leaving behind the break beats of their earlier albums.  The Jazzy yet funky bottom heavy synthesizer aesthetic used on "Streiht Up Menace" worked like gangbusters (no pun intended), and CMW planned to explore and refine it to it's very limit.  They provided the musical backing for "Caps Get Peeled": A contemporary R&B/Jazz track with thick bass and coasting strings that create a sinister yet relaxing vibe.  Oddly, it suits the violent subject matter.  The laid back mood adds a sense of normalcy to it all, as opposed to slapping you in the face with all to obvious shock value.  In the enviornment that DFC and Eiht come from, violence is routine. 

The video gives us the standard images associated with the era.  It begins with a disclaimer that  espouses the by then tired mantra of gangsta music "reflecting reality".  This was when video outlets such as MTV began to wilt under pressure from political and parental watch dog groups to edit violent content from music videos.  Up until this point, one could actually spot semi and fully automatic firearms in rap videos.  By 1994, such things were routinely blurred out (along with close ups of 40's being guzzled and blunts being toked).  The video for Caps get Peeled was fairly uneventful, featuring classic cars giving their augmented up hydraulic systems a workout.  DFC and Eiht are shown cruising through the hood on a liquor run while seeing other young black males being searched and frisked by the police.  Hard to believe there was actually a time when artists didn't profess to be hard while blatantly filling their videos with the most extravagant imagery imaginable.  Though the gangsta rappers of the mid-90's were still phony in their own right, they often made music that emanated the mood, feel and tastes of the streets.  Nothing exemplifies that better than this west coast and Midwest collaboration, showing that game truly recognizes game.    

Musical Memory: St. Ides Commercials Went Down Easier Than The Beer Itself

By Scott Tre

I never was much of drinker, mostly because it's hard for me to imbibe something if I can't stand the taste of it.  When I moved to Mount Vernon, NY in the mid 1990's, I fell in with a crowd that frequently indulged in the recreational use of mind altering substances.  At the time, alcohol seemed to be the most benevolent and fashionable of the aforementioned poisons (that, and my aversion to smoking, snorting or injecting anything into my body repulsed me from trying any of the harder stuff).  The preferred lager of choice was malt liquor, which can be found in the cooler of any corner store or bodega.  The crew I hung out with would alternate between Old English 800 and St. Ides Malt liquor.  The more refined among them had graduated to Budweiser.  I chose St. Ides for three very important reasons: the "Crooked I" logo that appeared on the label of the 22oz bottles was reflective on the adhesive side, meaning that it looked cool when viewed through the opaqueness of cheap beer and glass.  The second was that multiple viewings of Boyz N the Hood, Juice, and Menace II Society added a certain chic to carrying around a 40oz glass bottle filled with dark brown, foamy water.  The third is that the commercials for it featured some of my favorite rappers of the time.  I was young and easily influenced.  Sue me.

A bit of background for those who don't know: Malt Liquor is beer with high alcohol content.  More specifically, any alcoholic beverage equal to or exceeding 5% alcohol by volume.  Well, St Ides contained a whopping 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, making it one of the most potent around.  In many ways it was a successor to Old English 800.  During the 1990's, malt liquor companies began to aggressively target the "urban audience" (IE young African Americans).  This was hardly new even back then, as anyone old enough to remember the Colt 45 commercials featuring Billy Dee Williams can tell you.  What made St. Ides stand out was that its advertisements skewed really young, as evidenced by its use of rappers to hock its wares.  Keep in mind that the rap artists used were not of the "pop friendly" or crossover variety.  You wouldn't see Hammer in a St. Ides commercial.  Who you would see were your favorite hardcore rappers of the period.  The kind of guys that made it to gold and platinum success through word of mouth and street acclaim.  This added an air of legitimacy to the brand.

This drew the ire of many who saw such marketing as dangerously irresponsible, as a good deal of the fan base for these artists were not of legal drinking age.  Many saw the marketing of malt liquor to minorities as tantamount to cultural genocide.  Rumors of certain brands causing sterility and violent behavior in black men ran rampant through the hood.  Ice Cube remained the brands most consistent and visible spokesman in spite of the black nationalist stance he took on albums such as Death Certificate.  When the company used Public Enemy front man Chuck D's voice in an advertisement without his permission, the self proclaimed "rhyme animal" went ballistic and sued the Mckenzie River Brewing Company.


It is important to remember that this was long before rappers became enamored with expensive alcohol.  They saw more honor in swigging mouthfuls of malted barley on the stoops, porches, and street corners of America.  Whether you lived in a high rise project in Brooklyn or in the lower income areas of the south or the midwest, rest assured there were gaggles of true blue brothers tipping bottles in tribute to fallen comrades on a corner near you.  At the time, I too saw them as being more "authentic" than me.  The great thing about youth is how it affords one a number of excuses for stupidity.    

My new found relationship with malt liquor was a short lived joke in very poor taste (both figuratively and literally), though my need to feel "down" prevented me from seeing that.  The permeating, putrid taste of "Crooked I" brew gave me such a hard time that once I numbed my palette with an entire roll of Certs before guzzling a bottle.  The fruit flavored variation of St. Ides, called Special Brew, wasn't much better.  You can add fruit flavors to refined urine, but at the end of the day you're still drinking piss.  I used to laugh at the reactions of more seasoned and knowledgeable drinkers as they tasted Special Brew for the first time, and they used to laugh at my guttural taste in beer.  By the late 90's I was back on the wagon for the long haul.  In fact, I was driving it.  Good riddance.  Kool-Aid and fruit juices have always been more my speed.

The one thing I will always savor as a gift from the malt liquor Gods in corporate America are those glorious commercials and posters.  As a fanatical Ice Cube fan during the early 90's, there was only so many ways you could be exposed to him.  It was exciting to see him in a commercial selling something while portraying the same character I had gotten to know on Amerikkka's Most Wanted and Death Certificate.  Plus, he was always rapping, not simply reading an endorsement slogan off of a cue card. Rappers did actual songs for these commercials, and they were dope!  The advertisements done by Cube, The Notorious B.I.G, Snoop, 2Pac, The Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, MC Eiht, Eric B & Rakim, King-T and The Wu-Tang Clan could just as well have been excerpts from a mixtape.  None of these songs were ever "officially" released on albums or as singles.  The only way you could hear them was by  the commercials or catching the radio spots.  That's right, St. Ides was hooking up fans with exclusive content!

St. Ides understood what mixtape DJ's always had, that fans want that new shit.  In the spring of 1995, B.I.G rapped over what would end up being the instrumental of the Dogg Pounds infamous New York, New York.  The commercial aired months before the November 17th release date of New York, New York as a single, or the Halloween release of the Dogg Pound's debut Dogg Food.  Wu-tang performed a spot that ended up being ambient noise in a skit on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.  Even commercials featuring lesser known artists had something to offer.  Peep the emotional violin sample that Threat rhymes over on his spot.  Just crazy!

These days, rappers of all kinds can be found endorsing all manner of products.  40's have long since become the exclusive province of broke ni**as, as drinking expensive liquor, prescription cough syrup and popping pills are seen as much more attractive vices.  In the end, I never really developed a taste for liquor, though I have been known to enjoy a Rum and Coke and fruity "light weight" drinks on occasion (Man Law: Never be seen in public holding a glass with an umbrella sticking out of it).  Parrish Smith may "crack a forty-O" and go for his, but I'd rather do so with some sweet tea or lemonade.  What I will always savor is that great music, as I continue to ponder how one of the greatest rappers ever managed to sling "bean pies and St. Ides in the same sentence".


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Maximus To Enter The 36th Chamber

By Scott Tre

E! Online has reported perhaps the most unlikely pairing imaginable.  Volatile Oscar winner Russell Crowe will costar with none other than The RZA in The Man With The Iron Fist, a 20 million dollar martial arts film that RZA is also set to direct.  Torture porn poster boy and likable sicko Eli Roth will assist with writing and production duties.

Russell Crowe appearing alongside the RZA in a kung fu film is startling enough, much less the idea of him taking direction from the founder and front man of the Wu-Tang clan. The two first appeared together in Ridley Scott's American Gangster in a considerably less shocking capacity. While the presence of an Academy Award winner may add an air of legitimacy to the proceedings, it also feels a bit unnecessary.  Crowe seems a bit too intense for a project like this. Perhaps he could make a decent heavy provided that he allows himself to tune into the films wavelength.

Scorcese, Pacino,De Niro, and Pesci May Soon Be Painting Houses Together

By Scott Tre

The fact that Al Pacino and Martin Scorcese have never worked together on a film is one of the great mysteries of modern cinema. The two have so many things in common that such a pairing would seem to be a natural fit.  Both have left an indelible mark on the modern crime film.  It is a genre to which they are inextricably linked, despite the fact that their bodies of work show more range than either is ever given credit for.  Though many believe that their best days are behind them, a project pairing them together would surely be a cause for celebration for any true cineaste.  Throw De Niro into the mix and you have have a can't miss event ordained by the movie gods. 

That time may soon be upon us.  According to Mike Fleming over at Deadline, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci have expressed interest in an Scorcese project titled The Irishman.  It is based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, which tells the story of mob hit man Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran.  Sheeran claims to be the man who pulled the trigger on none other than Jimmy Hoffa.  De Niro has been developing the project with Scorsese over at Paramount.  Scarface, Tommy Devito, and Travis Bickle starring in a gangster film directed by Scorcese?  It's the mob movie equivalent of a drug overdose.  The idea alone is enough to reduce any true connoisseur of such films to quivering mound of orgasmic glee.  If there is any justice in the world, this project will come to pass.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Captain America's Costume is Worthy of a Super Soldier

By Scott Tre

New photos have emerged from the set of Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, at long last revealing the costume of America's most patriotic superhero in all its freedom fighting glory.  The design is obviously based on The Ultimates iteration of the character, looking like something that would be much more functional on the battlefield than Cap's original costume.  Caps shield has all of the appropriate scars, scuffs and dings.  It reminds me of George Lucas observation that the future should look "used".  In this case a rather futuristic suit is placed in past and given a "lived in" look.  It gives the impression that the Captain America of this film earns his pay.  The bulky physique of Chris Evans stunt double gives us little to no idea of how the costume will look on Chris Evans himself.

The pics of HYDRA agents on motorcycles for some reason recall the bike chase in Indiana Jones : The Last Crusade, suggesting that at least this portion of the film might be shooting for a Spielbergian feel.  The HYDRA agents themselves look like they should be packaged and sold as part of Hasbro's G.I. Joe toy line from the 1980's.  The films of Joe Johnston have always had a retro feel which should be well suited to laying out Captain America's origin.  All in all, things seem to be shaping up nicely.  The bitter memories of the 1990 Captain America adaptation and the 1970's television film beg to be erased from the collective fanboy consciousness.  That such an old fashioned and arguably hokey superhero might be successfully adapted into a modern blockbuster shows just how far superhero films have come over the last few decades.

Musical Memory: Onyx Gives Us a Glimpse of the Apocolypse With "Last Dayz"

By Scott Tre

Spurred by the success of various acts during the very late 1980's, the golden state cemented its dominance in the early 1990's with the release of The Chronic and the reign of the mighty Death Row dynasty.  Slow to react to the changing tides, east coast rappers eventually came to the conclusion that a new battle plan was needed.  Listeners outside of the five boroughs were unmoved by the abstract stylings of the Native Tongues and the Afrocentric/militant posturing and "uplifting" messages of conscious rappers.  West Coast Gangsta rap cast an inescapable shadow over the industry.  The writing was on the wall.  If the east wanted to survive it had to adapt.  Enter the hard black stones known as Onyx.

The fearsome foursome from Queens offered a more nonsensical and animated form of ghetto violence than their west coast brethren.  The group originally started out making dance music, but had reinvented themselves bald headed New York styled stick up kids that would just as soon scowl at passers by than nod a polite hello.  They regurgitated bile filled growls and yells and raspy voices over energetic yet opaque tracks by Chyskills and the late great Jam Master Jay.  At their shows they encouraged crowds to slam dance.  Their biggest single "Slam", was crafted as a primer for the activity.  They grimaced cartoonishly into cameras and offered interviews that played like parodies of the kinds done with known criminals.  It was all gloriously over the top and resembled self parody, but it worked.  Their debut, Bacdafucup, became one of the few East Coast rap albums to achieve platinum sales in 1993.  One couldn't go anywhere in New York City in the summer of 1993 without seeing a t-shirt sporting the Onyx mad face logo.

When the Def Jam machine started up again in 1995 to set the stage for Onyx's second album All We Got Iz Us, the east coast was in the midst of a renaissance that started in late '93 and had yet to subside.  Cocaine traffickers and black gangsters with la cosa nostra monikers were the order of the day.  Onyx's approach to gangsta music proved too gritty and even dated compared to the dapper yet rotund Notorious B.I.G.  Fickle fans had moved on without acknowledging how Onyx set the stage for this transition.  Still, Sticky, Fredro and Sonny Ceaser pressed on without the dead weight of Big DS and crafted a sophomore LP that was even more rich in musical texture than Bacdafucup.  It was even darker, as evidenced by by the chilling first single "Last Dayz".

The mood is set by perhaps the loneliest flute sample to ever blow its cold wind over a boom bap track.  The unmistakably east coast factory like plod of the drums slumps along like a lumbering giant leaving crater like footprints in his wake.   This cold and unfriendly beatscape was crafted courtesy of group member Fredro, who utilizes a sample from "Love Lips" by Bob James and Earl Klugh.  As the song title suggest, the song is a visualization of the kind apocalyptic dystopia that the newly illuminati obsessed east rappers loved to paint.  The song reeks of New Millennium paranoia.  Fredro starts things off with a verse that portrays a world were criminal endeavors have become the only reliable means of survival.  Sonny Ceaser follows with Sticky batting clean up as his verses are always the most memorable.  He takes a page from Suicidal Thoughts on B.I.G's Ready To Die: 

Thinking about taking my own life
I might as well
'cept they might not sell weed in hell
and that's where I'm going
cause the devil's inside of me
they make me rob from my own nationality

The video depicts a police state in which society had devolved into all out war between cops and thugs.  Police prowl the streets gestapo style.  Plain clothes/undercovers go about their business while uniformed officers engage street corner grinders in mini riots and melees.  Onyx goes about engaged in traditional Hip-Hop sign language, mugging and grimacing into the camera with their jaws so tense that veins bulge from the necks and temples.  Lots of the action takes place on freight elevators and corridors, presenting the group as some sort of resistance movement à la John Conner in the Terminator films.  As a whole it's not exactly one of the more memorable videos of its era, but it is quietly unsettling.  It possesses the same low key power as the song itself.

All We Got Iz Us was not as instantly likable or as attention grabbing as Bacdafucup, and began a slow and unremarkable crawl toward gold status.  Though trendy record buyers had moved on the the likes of Bad Boy and Wu-Tang, the faithful were treated to a follow-up that was more musically  and thematically varied than Bacdafucup.  The album was still hopped up on rage, though a more focused version than the first time.  Last Dayz was the only single released from it, and strangely enough, it was all that was needed.  Onyx was headed in a new direction.  Those who didn't want to follow were free to move with the mercurial winds of pop culture.  The Official Nasty Niguz had moved on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Micheal Jai White is "The Moor"

By Scott Tre

This few minutes of footage for a Micheal Jai White vehicle named simply The Moor is not actually a trailer for an upcoming film, but rather a "concept reel" of sorts meant to give potential investors an idea of the completed film might look like.  Micheal Jai White did something similar for his superb Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite and was eventually able to get funding for the project.  The Moor is a different animal altogether in that it takes itself deadly seriously.  It also looks considerably more ambitious.  A prince destined to take his rightful place as king is accompanied by a Moorish protector who is skilled in the ways of the Shaolin monks.  That is all that I am able to gather from the trailer, and I suspect that is all one needs to know from a story standpoint.  Most of the information I have been able to gather about the project comes from a small mention on Bey Logan's Dragon Dynasty blog entry from three years ago, as well as small details I have been able to gather from various message boards. 
The footage features Micheal Jai White sporting a turban and a beard styled similarly to Popeye's arch nemesis Bluto (surprisingly this is even more funny when you consider Micheal's observation about Kimbo Slice resembling an evil Black Santa Clause on the Blood and Bone commentary track)  While the budgetary limitations are shamelessly obvious, the fighting and swordplay are impressive.  Jai White's hulking frame moves with unexpected grace and precision.  The other physical performers move with a sense of speed and timing that Hong Kong action cinema fans should be familiar with.  The footage was shot in China, and the presentation recalls the gritty sensibility of the Martial Arts period pieces from the 1970's and 80's.  While the initial glimpses of Micheal Jai White in his Moorish garb will prompt the expected giggles, that slowly dissipates as one witnesses his physical prowess.

In his own way, Micheal Jai White seems to be providing the kinds of films that African American action fans have long fantasized about.  Black militants have long cited the history of Moorish conquests as source of cultural pride for black people.  While the accuracy of such claims can be debated, Micheal Jai White continues to place African American protagonists in the most unlikely of action settings, and does so unapologetically. I hope that audiences do the right thing and forgive the below par production values on display.  The Moor looks to have an abundance of other elements that will readily compensate for whatever shortcomings it might have as a finished film.  In Micheal Jai White's Hollywood, historical epics and action driven period pieces are not the sole province of white stars made to look like foreigners via makeup and lighting.  He should be encouraged to keep pushing for that vision to become a reality.