“The Ultimate Rule ought to be: ‘If it sounds GOOD to you, it’s bitchin’; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it’s shitty. The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don’t like.”
― Frank Zappa
Music has been a fundamental part of my aesthetic imagination since I can remember. My first memories involve listening to Lullabye Magic in the back of our car driving through the backroads of Wisconsin on long, dark road-trips. Raffi was also a good way to keep me and my siblings quiet in the back seats. Other than that, the first years of my life were primarily filled with classical music. Given that my dad is named after Johann Sebastian Bach’s son and my sister after his wife, it makes sense that our house was filled with classical harpsichords, angelic choruses and grandiose concertos.
Occasionally, we might hear a little early folk rock (he always had a soft spot for The Kingston Trio and Cat Stevens), but for the most part, if the radio wasn’t playing classical music, it was tuned to NPR. When we were younger, my mom complied with this plan, rarely listening to anything other than classical music. But, as we entered middle school and high school, she began introducing us kids to some of her favorite music from the 60s and 70s during our rides to and from school. Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel became staples during these trips, and my brothers and I would often have long and deep discussions about what song was better or who was the better musician. My sister would occasionally join in on the fray, but more often than not, she was wise enough not to engage.
As my older brother entered his teen years and became more aware of pop culture and music, he introduced me to 1990s alternative rock like The Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alice in Chains, which quickly became my (and about half the nation’s) favorite music. I remember when my parents first left him in charge of me for a weekend. I immediately went to whatever version of Sam Goody was nearby and bought Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic and played it over the stereo all weekend. The refrain from “Funky Monks” felt particularly apt that weekend, especially when he left for his bussing job at night: I really was “all alone.”
During these formative years, I didn’t really know anything about hip hop at all. As you might be able to tell, my parents sheltered us from popular culture, and we were left to figure it out as we were exposed to it by friends, radio and, on occasion, MTV. I remember being convinced of the genre’s inherent inferiority to rock and roll, thinking that it took little talent to rap and the production was uncreative and all sounded the same. I think a lot of this attitude developed from my early exposure to the genre through the pop production on Top 40 songs (these honestly still often sound the same to me), as well a lack of knowledge about the history and development of African-American music. That soon changed.
During my early college years, I schooled myself about the history of rock and roll, and quickly saw the importance of black musicians to the genre and some of my favorite artists. As I learned about basic historical facts, like Chuck Berry’s foundational influence on rock and roll, or Led Zeppelin’s “covers”(?) of classic blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, I began to understand that I understood very little about the history of American popular music. I also started exploring the reggae/roots scene, and quickly saw its influence on contemporary music, from hip hop to dubstep. Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Peter Tosh all because pretty regular fixtures in my musical rotation.
I started to see how much of my favorite music in the 1990s was intricately intertwined with black music and musicians. Before they settled into their current generic “soft alt-rock” sound, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were heavily influenced by the funky stylings of Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament; George Clinton even produced their second studio album, Freaky Styley. Sublime (another early favorite band of mine) found success by merging hip hop and reggae sounds with punk and SoCal rock. Most obviously, my early love of Rage Against the Machine clearly foretold where my musical tastes were heading.
Enter the 36 Chambers
I think it was around my sophomore/junior year of college I really woke up to the glory of hip hop. Suddenly, what had been a jumble of words I didn’t understand about a world to which I couldn’t relate became gritty street stories with funky bass lines; samples became more than just a bland reworkings of somebody else’s work, morphing into new, unique hooks and beats; and the flow … oh my god, the FLOW! I remember the first time I heard “Shadowboxin’” off of GZA’s 1995 masterpiece, Liquid Swords; Method Man’s effortless flow over this amazing bass line blew my goddamn mind (this still stands as one of my favorite tracks of all time). I could finally see past my preconceived notions of rapping to understand the stories, tones, and feeling conveyed across the diverse genre. I still think that one of hip hop’s strongest assets is (certain) lyricists ability to transport listeners into their world, regardless of the audience’s background. I wasn’t stuck in suburban Illinois anymore. The best lyricists showed me their world, while teaching me about the lives of people I would never meet and lifestyles I would never live.
While I respected 1980s artists like Run DMC and Public Enemy, I never really got lost in their work. All of my favorite artists started working after Rakim and Erik B. introduced a whole new level of lyrical dexterity to the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s.I stayed in the world 1990s hip hop for a few years, thinking it vastly superior to the current hip hop scene of the mid 2000s (I wasn’t exactly wrong, but I’ll get back to that in a second). During this time, I listened to Gang Starr’s discography and studied A Tribe Called Quest; I blasted Ready to Die on repeat; I danced to Black Star and Dr. Dre; I found Kool Keith, and studied the evolution of Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, and Black Elvis. My boss at work introduced me to some of the major underground innovators during the early 2000s, which ended up a breath of fresh air for me. While I still loved everything Wu-Tang, Aesop Rock, El-P, Typical Cats and Murs showed me that hip hop still had something to offer in the 21st century.
I still didn’t want to shake that laffy taffy, but I was acclimating to the idea that not all contemporary hip hop was terrible, and that not all radio rap was shit. Lupe Fiasco and Jay Electronica were making great records, and, at the same time, the current Atlanta sound was just beginning to form with Gucci Mane releasing his first project in 2005. I’m still not totally convinced that I like Gucci Mane (I’m a fan of lyricism: sue me!), but exposure to some albums from outside my normal palate quickly assured me that I needed to escape the self-imposed restrictions I had put upon my own taste in music. Looking at the history of hip hop, I quickly saw that you couldn’t strictly separate conscious hip hop from party raps; you can’t have “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five without DJ Kool Herc spinning records at New York parties. Party/club music is as important and influential to the current hip hop scene as any spectacular flow or attack on social norms.
Tha Carter III was a real eye-opener for me in this regard. While I had previously categorized Lil Wayne as a rapper with little lyrical talent, “A Milli” revealed how wrong I was and the rest of the album confirmed my ignorance; the production, storytelling, flow, hooks … just everything on the album is phenomenal. I even got used to the idea of accepting auto-tune as a useful tool in hip hop, rejecting dominant elitist notions of the underground hip hop scene. As soon as I saw how Wayne could be self-aware, lyrical and still bang, my interest in contemporary hip hop blossomed into a full fledged addiction.
By 2010, all I wanted to listen to was hip hop, or at least hip hop adjacent. I found some older, underground artists I hadn’t spent time with now blew my mind (e.g. MF DOOM, The Pharcyde), and I started exploring the more popular artists like Cam’ron and Kanye West. It turns out, they can be kind of amazing.
Meanwhile, the contemporary hip hop underground was also exploding. Between 2008 and 2013, some of the biggest names in the rap industry released their breakthrough projects. Kid Cudi’s 2008 mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi still stands as one of my favorite albums of all-time, hands down, and Lil Wayne’s No Ceiling’s mixtape in 2009 is often considered one of his best projects. In 2010, A$AP Rocky and Yams were teaming up to work on Live.Love.A$AP, while down south in Mississippi, Big K.R.I.T. put out the stellar K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. On the west coast, Odd Future released their inimitable debut, Radical, as well as the Earl Sweatshirt’s lyrical and disturbing Earl. In 2012, Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$ released mixtapes that threw back to the golden years of 1990s hip hop, and we can have no doubt about the one-two punch packed by Chance the Rapper’s Ten Day mixtape in 2012, followed by Acid Rap in 2013. J. Cole, Wale, Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj, and Danny Brown all made their breakthrough albums during this period, as did a small independent label out of LA: Top Dawg Entertainment. TDE released ScHoolboy Q’s first two studio albums, Ab-Soul’s first (and only good album IMO), Jay Rock’s debut, and of course, Overly Dedicated, Section.80, and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City during this five-year period. I was so up to my ears in hip hop that I ended up creating an archive just to try and keep track of it all. While I’ve dropped this archive thanks to some hacker’s deep need to get into my website, it was a useful method for keeping track of what I was listening to and what I considered important. I haven’t had the patience to set it back up, but I hope to, eventually.
What are you listening to?
By the time 2015 rolled around, I felt pretty satiated on hip hop. I had listened to a lot of music during my dissertation process, and after a decade, I started to feel a little burnt out on the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I still listen to way too much rap, but I finally felt like I actually wanted to explore other genres. Even at my hip hop headiest, I had always maintained a roster of a few musicians and bands who I would return with relative frequency (Ween, Beck, and Tom Waits have always been pretty regular features in my rotation), but I really started to want more.
In looking elsewhere for music, I have primarily turned to my friends to see what they are interested in. One of my close friends from high school has been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, but the Boss has never done that much for me. Most of my friends from college are big into punk rock and I see a lot of similarities to some of the aggressive hip hop I like. I saw Dillinger Four last year with a couple friends, and for not knowing any of their songs, I had a damn good time.
But, I still often find modern hardcore music boring. Of course, The Clash is great and The Ramones were unquestionably influential, and I’ve listened to a lot of their albums, but often the guitar riffs, angry scream/singing, and simple melodies of modern punk music turn me off quickly. I just get bored. One of the things that has kept me invested in hip hop for so long is that there are so many subgenres, so many different sounds, so many varieties and styles that I rarely ever get bored. Likewise, other musicians who have kept my attention over the years rarely get boring (to me at least). While Tom Waits maintains a regular style (singer/songwriter of ballads and angry polka), the variety in his vocal work never ceases to amaze. Beck regularly switches his style (see the difference between Morning Phase and his first single released after, “Wow”), and Ween is perhaps the epitome shifting sounds, moving between easily between punk, noise, reggae, ocean shanties, and country.
As I talked to other friends about what to listen to, I have quickly discovered that there are plenty of bands who don’t bore me (and plenty of groups who do), but it just takes diligence to search them out. I recently listened to Nick Cave for the first time, and I have to say, boring is not a word I would use to describe his work. I listened through the chronological first half of David Bowie’s discography a couple months ago, and it was far from boring until … well, after Heroes (1977) I was burnt out, just as Bowie seemed to be. I promise I’ll go back for the rest, eventually!
More recently, my wife’s taste in music has begun to change the way I listen to music in several important ways. When we first got together she was upfront that she is not that into music and that she listened to a lot of top 40 radio. She was obsessed with Shakira’s song “She Wolf” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and I think my intense fascination with underground hip hop may have made her bashful about her own taste. As we have gotten to know each other, I’ve realized that she has a very distinct taste in music, even if she is shy in declaring it. Before she started playing me songs from the 1980s new wave scene, I had never been too impressed with it. But, at her suggestion, our first dance was to “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by The Talking Heads, and since then I’ve grown very fond of Sting screeching “Roxaaaaaane”. My mind was recently blown when I learned that the hook for Blondie’s “Rapture” was the sample for “Step into a World (Rapture’s Delight)” by KRS-One. I can’t believe I only figured that out last month! She has even gotten me into some disco music. I’m still struggling with the fact that it’s basically line-dancing for New Yorkers, but it is funky and catchy. We watched Saturday Night Fever a few weeks ago (which I had never seen), and I actually found myself enjoying it. John Travolta gets down! The “disco sucks” movement can suck it.
As soon as I started to listen to more bands in the new wave orbit, the more I began to see their influence on the contemporary indie scene; specifically, I saw their music as influential for the rather vague category of music known as “indie pop.” I really became aware of “indie” music as a genre during my first couple years of college where my friends listened to a lot of Rilo Kiley, Silversun Pickups, and Elliott Smith. I have fond memories of rocking out to Modest Mouse and dancing at three in the morning to Tegan and Sara, but I never dove into the indie scene as heavily as my friends had. When I was by myself it was all hip hop all the time. But my wife’s interest in groups like Foster the People, Passion Pit, and MGMT have reinvigorated my interest in the genre and I’m starting explore it. LCD Soundsystem is a lightning rod in the middle of this field, and they are clearly holding the flame of what the Talking Heads started. Spoon, Tame Impala, Vulfpeck, Portugal, the Man, and Glass Animals are all producing work that maintains my interest and I anticipate their new releases regularly. Clearly, there is music out there that isn’t boring to me and isn’t hip hop; I think I just need to see how it fits into the landscape and history of American music at large before I find it interesting. And even then, I may not.
My Musical Imagination
“So what do you like in music?” my brother asked me after I shat all over Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. Taste is a tricky thing to define: I like falsettos and Tom Waits; I like a deep bass line, and a nice melody; I like staccato lyrics about partying, and I like smooth verses about politics. It’s not necessarily easier to talk about what I don’t like. I can provide examples (e.g. KISS is dumb, AC/DC is boring, Toby Keith … I just can’t even start), but you could probably come up with examples that disprove any general statements about things I don’t like. My younger brother really likes Amon Amarth, and I see the appeal of brutal lyrics about mythology, but the heavy guitar riffs do nothing for me. My older brother likes light melodies with female singers, which I see nothing wrong with, but often lacks the punch I like in my music. I think that my musical taste is actually most akin to my sister’s. I remember her rapping along to “A Milli” without missing a beat, and she recently asked me to come up with a playlist for some dancing music at her wedding (which is proving difficult, but enjoyable). Of course we also disagree on some music (she has an unsettling taste for pop country on occasion), but of all my siblings, I think our tastes are the most aligned.
I’d like to say that I like a wide array of music and that I have a super eclectic taste, and in some ways, I do. If something piques my interest, I’ll dive into the artist’s work and investigate what makes them tick, regardless of genre. However, my process for starting to like something takes a lot of time and energy on my end. In order to really enjoy a song, album or musician, I want to understand the historical context, generic conventions, and relevant musical skills and styles. I don’t always have time for this, and maybe this means that I don’t listen some really interesting music, and that’s ok with me. In the end, I mostly just want a dope flow over a beat that slaps. I’m not really sure why that is, but I offer no apologies.