Wednesday, July 29, 2009
When hip-hop first swept the suburbs in the mid-1980s, it came across as a conflicted art form. While it was a brash, new music fighting for mainstream acceptance, a preservationism was already at work, guarding the music’s black, inner city roots. Purists worried, with good reason, that their music would be hijacked by white people, as had happened to rock ‘n’ roll thirty years earlier. A mixed message was sent to outsiders, “You must love us, but you can’t join us.”
Over twenty years later, hip-hop is in an interesting place. It is the predominant form of popular music in the U.S., but it is still almost exclusively made by a minority population - black people. Twenty-three years after the Beastie Boys, twenty after 3rd Bass and twelve after Eminem, the idea of a non-black rapper is a novelty, even though, as of the 2000 census, only 12.3 percent of the U.S. population is black.
Red Arlington was born in the mid-1980s, within months of Run-DMC collaborating with Boston-based hard rock band Aerosmith to do a rapped cover of Aerosmith’s 1970s hit, “Walk This Way.” That song is credited, or blamed, with bringing hip-hop music to the white mainstream.
Red Arlington is a white MC making Top 40-influenced hip-hop music. He’s a young guy from the Boston area, just out of college, collaborating with producer/friend YoungBoy, aiming to create songs to soundtrack wild college house parties.
“The Long Weekend” is Red Arlington’s album. It’s an eight-song EP chronicling the debauched weekend before college graduation. The apprehension that might come with an approaching graduation is completely dispensed with, and Red focuses on the fun and lighthearted drama that goes down on this, or any, beer-filled weekend.
The EP starts off with a slinky live drum beat and a series of voicemails from friends, inviting Red to parties, checking in about what’s going on that night, and, of course, planning a huge trip to the liquor store.
The beat carries over into “The Packy’s My Best Friend.” As explained in the song, “packy” is Massachusetts slang for “package store,” or “liquor store.” The first verse finds Red stuck in a class discussion, watching the clock, wondering why someone always has to hold things up by asking a question with a minute left to go.
It’s the little truths and details like the talkative classmate, or the girl with cartoons on her bedsheets in “Textually Frustrated,” that elevate Red’s lyrics above the realm of vacuous party anthems, and make them believable and heartfelt. While some rappers brag about the exclusivity of their partying - name-checking upscale champagne and VIP sections - Red comes off as a likeable dude who wants everyone to have a good time alongside him. You get the idea that Red would, a) show up at the party with a twelve-pack of beer under his arm and b) bum you one of those beers before they started to get warm.
The Long Weekend’s narrative is loose, but the songs progress, touching on the themes of a wasted weekend – the liquor run, the elation of the booze buzz, the drunk dialing, the hangover, the stories swapped, the next party. While some songs stay topical, Red’s at his best when he gets specific, and The Long Weekend’s standout tracks are “Red Cups” and “Textually Frustrated.”
The music on “Red Cups” sounds like a homemade take on an Akon song, with plaintive minor-key synths and a rollerskate beat on the drums. The song is an ode to keg cups, and the reflective music is contrasted by the biggest, funnest, catchiest chorus on the album. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but I will tell you that the lyrics involve Solo cups, asses and basketball, and I had to seriously check myself when I realized I was singing it out loud while walking around at my job last week. I’ve included a “Red Cups” download link at the bottom so you can hear it for yourself.
“Textually Frustrated” is bouncier, but the beat is based around a farty slap-bass synth that sounds like the music they play when “Seinfeld” comes back from a commercial. Luckily, other keys and percussion get layered in as the song progresses, and the synth bass blends into the mix. The song finds our hero Red at a party, a few drinks in and texting a girl he recently hooked up with. She takes a long time to write back and he’s left in that drunken limbo, not sure where he’ll wind up at the end of the night. There’s a funny sung breakdown, saluting all of the digital ways would-be lotharios have of contacting their love interests. You may not write Red back right away, but Red will keep in touch with you through Facebook, MySpace or text.
It’s odd, that, while The Long Weekend is supposed to be a party soundtrack, the music is often not quite upbeat enough to move a room full of drunks, and the slower pace of the songs is better suited for the day after, when the roommates all emerge from their bedrooms in the late morning and congregate on the couch, rubbing their heads, swapping tales, filling each other in on the details, and maybe regretting a misguided pass made at the opposite sex.
There’s a big, white elephant in the room when you’re discussing an album by a white rapper who talks about college parties. That elephant is named Asher Roth. Roth is a major label MC whose hit is called “I Love College.” While Roth spends some time rhyming about beer blasts and blunt cruisin’, he sounds more like he’s reminiscing than living in the drunken trenches. If Roth looks back at college through rose-colored lenses, Red is there, updating you in real time. And Red’s obsession with the minutiae, with the amount of tax on a rack of beer, surpasses Roth and brings to mind another white guy with a laptop, a hoodie and a buzz, Mike Skinner of The Streets.
The Streets’ first album, “Original Pirate Material,” was released in 2001 and chronicles the life of hard-partying, broke, young urbanites. The deliberations over girls, the puffed chest closing-time confrontations and drunken combination of self-doubt and braggadocio come together to form a perfect example of the psyche of a beery guy in his early twenties. “Original Pirate Material” is now at the awkward age where it’s not old enough to be retro or formative, but it is just old enough to feel passé in a music world where some albums are old by the time they reach year-end Best Of lists. Red Arlington’s lyrics cover similar territory to The Streets, but it’s easy to assume that The Streets, who are nothing more than a cult favorite in the U.S., have flown completely under his radar. The Streets best work isn’t current, it isn’t in the present, and because of that, it’s not inclusive or conversant enough with today’s pop culture to really hit home at your average frat party, circa 2009.
White rappers are asked a lot of questions about their own authenticity, as they create what is basically popular black music. This continues, even as hip-hop becomes as omnipresent and bloated as the hard rock of twenty years ago. No, I don’t think that hip-hop should be stolen from black people the same way that rock ‘n’ roll was in the 1950s. But I do think that if that theft were going to happen, it would have taken place a long time ago. Chuck Berry and Little Richard had only been at it for a couple of years before Elvis Presley came along. No, Red Arlington is not Elvis. He’s not Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s not Buddy Holly. He’s a pop musician, plain and simple, and he is working with the sounds and styles that he grew up on, and for that you cannot fault him, especially if the results are as infectious as “The Long Weekend.” And besides, I dare you to find something more authentic than a white suburbanite singing the virtues of beer pong.
Click here for a free zShare download of "Red Cups."
Monday, July 27, 2009
It's been a while, so I thought I'd check in. I finished my first year of grad school and have lived in Chicago for a year now. I'm spending my summer writing and working a couple shifts in a coffeeshop.
I started a novel in class this past spring, and spent the last couple months writing a full draft of it. It's a YA novel about a week in the life of a thirteen year old boy, and the first draft is a little over two hundred pages long. I've set it aside for a bit before going back to editing, and am working on some other projects, including:
- Record and zine reviews for Razorcake.
- Book reviews for Mostly Fiction.
- A couple short fiction stories (fingers crossed on those surfacing somewhere).
- A writeup of a hip-hop EP by my cousin, Red Arlington, to be posted here soon.
That's about all. I've got some zine ideas and I still need to get off my ass and paste together my recent haiku diaries. Patience, Grasshopper.
Aight. Peace and hair grease,