Who, What, Where, When, Why Not?
In the bar, no one can hear your stomach scream. That doesn’t mean you should go hungry. Recently—and I don’t want to know what this says about my eating/drinking habits—I’ve found myself comfortably enjoying a barroom beverage when the pangs of hunger hit. Should I leave and find cheap eats elsewhere? Bring grub back to the bar? Get it delivered? Go home and cook? God no. Fortunately, there’s another option you might be overlooking: the bags of potato chips dangling behind the bar. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s disgusting.” “Who in their right mind eats that shit.” Well, I do, depending on the brand. At my neighborhood dive bars, there are two great chip options: McClure’s and Zapp’s, both of the thick-cut, kettle-cooked variety. McClure’s are dill-heavy—understandable, since they’re the pickle lords of NYC—and tangy, a nice sidekick to your brew. But my go-to, the best of the best, are Zapp’s Cajun Dill Gator-Tators. Sweet lord. These are on the spicy side, also with a bit of dill, great with or without Miller High Lives. I don’t usually quote from company websites, but they’re “the only kettle cooked chip with the Cajun crunch that packs all the flavor of Louisiana.” Yes, that is correct and I want them. Barkeep!
In the liner notes to his 1965 album Freak Out, Frank Zappa implored students to “Drop out of school before your mind rots from our mediocre educational system.” Inspiring words for a high schooler. I didn’t take Frank’s advice on education, but I’ve always loved reading stuff like that, the little album extras known in the record world as liner notes. They’ll include things like biographies, studio notes, photos, anecdotes, etc.—extra insight into the artist’s story and process. But hip-hop fans haven’t enjoyed this liner note pleasure. Most hip-hop LPs had nothing more than producer credits and a few photos—no bios, no interviews, no extensive photography, no weird stuff. We’ve been missing out. In his new book Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, that’s what Brian Coleman does: adds the details, back stories, interviews, photos and ephemera to 25 of hip-hop’s classic albums. Finally, the minutiae we crave.
My record-buying experience was a glorious pastime. I loved going to the record store the day a record came out. I’d hand the cashier my money, rush home and tear open the packaging, put the album on and turn up the volume to an immature level. I remember listening while repeatedly looking at the cover art and—for non-hip-hop records—reading interviews, lyrics or stories about the recording. Shit, even bizarre photographs and absurd artwork were cool with me.
Brian told me the journey for this book series began with an observation he made about jazz LPs. “I am a big jazz fan and I used to promote a lot of jazz artists, so I know how important liner notes are to that world,” he said.
A Sonny Rollins album from Pat’s collection. Look at all those liner notes.
I am *cough, cough* a bit of a jazz fan, so I investigated my collection of jazz albums scattered around the house. The first three albums I pulled—Sonny Rollins’ Volume 2, The Complete Quartets by Grant Green, and Wes Montgomery’s classic SO Much Guitar!—had no shortage of liner notes: biographies, short anecdotes about the recording process, even some stylistic analysis. The liner notes in Grant Green’s album, for instance, recall an improvised moment during the recording process when Art Blakey, the brilliant jazz drummer, loved Sonny Clark’s piano solo so much that he wouldn’t let Sonny finish; he kept goading him to continue soloing for nine exhausting choruses. That explains the yelling on the recording.
“The more I really thought about it and looked into it, the more I was shocked at how hip-hop albums pretty much never had real liners,” Brian says. Yes, a few artists broke the mold: Somewhat surprisingly, Salt-n-Pepa—you betta shoop—included liner notes in their LPs, and the Roots, who wear a jazz influence on their sleeve, used liner notes in their albums starting in the early ’90s, decades before Jimmy Fallon called.
DJ Jazzy Jeff, from Fresh Prince’s crew, told Brian about how, as a kid, his family had tons of old jazz records lying around the house; his father was even an MC for jazz composer Count Basie. It’s that kind of jazz influence that makes you wonder why hip-hop didn’t fully embrace the liner note tradition. Besides producer credits, some photos and maybe some shout outs, there wasn’t much. I know more folks than me were wondering: How’d these guys get that sound? What’s this song about? Who the hell is this, really?
Mind you, this was before the Internet blew up, so hip-hop fans were for the most part left to their imaginations. Everybody loves a good “behind the music,” so why wasn’t hip-hop playing along?
“I have never gotten an easy answer to this question,” Brian says. “The artists are certainly partially to blame—if you are a type of person who wants a scapegoat—because many of them could have insisted on doing more extensive liner notes.”
But it may be more so about how hip-hop is made. It’s an “of the moment” musical form, so “once an album is finished, the first impulse is to get it out as quickly as possible,” Brain says. “In the past, that was simply to get it out to fans quickly, to blow minds before their producer or MC peers put out their next killer record.” Speedy production and quick turnaround were essential skills for the cutting-edge hip-hop artist. This genre-wide attitude of urgency, a beat-the-game mentality, probably accounts for artists bypassing the work required for liner notes—can’t let that shit hold you up, namean?
Today, hip-hop’s “of the moment” DNA hasn’t changed much, but these days it’s not so much their peers they’re worried about. “Now, it’s more to get an album out before it can be leaked and bootlegged, since it can happen so quick digitally.”
Check the Technique Volume 2 fills the void. Continuing where Volume 1 left off, it’s full of behind-the-scenes stories about how MCs and producers started out, created songs and challenged each other in the process. I love one particular story involving legendary producer Prince Paul, creator of the horrorcore super group Gravediggaz, which featured MC Frukwan, Poetic and a young RZA (from Wu Tang). While recording verses, Prince Paul would pit the MCs against each other, like some kind of mastermind instigator: “Poetic would rhyme in a normal way, and I’d be like, ‘C’mon, man, you can’t let RZA outdo you!' ”
And of course I’m into stories of how the beats were made. (You may remember, I’m fond of drum machines.) For example, the original beat for Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was from the hip-hop outfit Bomb Squad, but Cube and co. ripped it and improved on it. It was a good day. There’s tons more stories, photos and interviews like that from the likes of Black Sheep, Naughty by Nature, Smif-n-Wessun, KMD and, one of my personal favorites, Company Flow.
Although Brian considers this volume to be the last in his 66-album series, that hasn’t stopped fans from emailing him with suggestions for who to interview next. “These books and chapters are very personal to me as a music fan,” he says. “If I haven’t done the chapter already, it’s either because although I like an album, I might not love it. Or, in just as many cases, I’ve tried multiple times to get a hip-hop MC or producer and have been rebuked by their handlers.” And so, the hip-hop/liner note battle continues.
Not gonna lie, I've been holding on to this one for a while. It's too good, too comfy, too me. Didn't want you spoiling it. But if, like me, you prefer Monday night to Friday night, I suppose you're invited to The Shanty, the best Monday night spot in Williamsburg. Regardless of the day, they put out great stuff from a drink menu that's eclectic but not overcooked. Professionally chilled glasses and proper ice let you know it's real. Mondays, however, are even more serious: all-day happy hour, with most of the cocktails dangerously priced at only $7. If it's uncrowded—usually is on a Monday—they might let you walk next door and scope out the attached distillery, New York Distilling Company, where they produce the menu's gins and whiskies. (The whiskies are new, i.e., a bit rubbery to the taste since they aren't aged very long. You might prefer the Dorothy Parker gin, like I do.) I know, I know, not everybody's up for several cocktails on a Monday night. The place will be quiet, nearly empty. Plus, you don't really like gin. You know what, don't come here. I've got it.
I talk about Spotify so much, people think I work there. I don’t—yet—but I’m a big fan. There isn’t a better way to discover, share and listen to music. Yes, I assume the ads are intentionally bad so as to encourage us to fork over 10 bucks a month to get rid of them. But it’s worth it, particularly with artist biographies courtesy of Allmusic.com, the best out there. If you get lost in the hyperlinks, Related Artists and Discover features, I guarantee you’ll stumble upon somebody you wish you’d heard before. For me, the big one is Arthur Russell—avant-garde cellist, studio rat, dirty disco pioneer, folk singer, Dev Hynes’ idol. (Dev played several Arthur Russell tribute concerts, including the one I went to in May.) As Spotify shows, Arthur’s output mostly consists of scattered mixes, remixes, remasters, singles and pasted-together outtakes, many compiled after his death in 1992 from AIDS. Nevertheless, Spotify has a huge chunk of his catalog, including pseudonymous tracks he produced as well as the one LP released during his lifetime. The latest compilation, Corn, from earlier this year, was a bit underwhelming, but you’ll still find a startling array of incredible stuff. ’Tis the season and all, so I went ahead and put together a Spotify playlist of my favorites (here’s the web link). Have at it.
Nick Gazin’s art for Run the Jewels was the shit and everyone knows it. Even Marvel Comics. So you’ll be happy to hear that Gazin’s latest show, “Hello Badmind,” kicks off this Saturday at World Money Gallery in Williamsburg. The show’s title—inspired by Gazin’s favorite Chan Dizzy reggae song—hints at the inner struggle between good and evil, something we all relate to when we’re sober enough to realize it. When I chatted with Ne$$, the gallery’s co-owner and Weekend Money rapper, he told me, “I appreciate other artists’ work of all mediums, the creative process, the struggle, the journey, all that. Opening the gallery is my way of celebrating that by helping dope artist friends show work and by being a bridge between artist, the art and art lovers.” The show runs through June 30, but, per usual, Saturday’s opening night should be a fun, boozy mix of local friends and newcomers. It’s a good place to shoot the shit with people who are weird, like you.
Guyletter is a goings-on website about random shit. A guy named Ryan is the editor. Since 2012, he and the gang have written about things to eat/drink/see/hear/do, sometimes at the same time, often in New York. It's usually pretty fun. You might also enjoy Gayletter, our brother publication.
Feel free to direct your compliments, threats and musings to email@example.com.