BY MICHAEL FICHMAN I’ve worked on and off in sports journalism (professional, then amateur) for about seven years now. Periodically, the small-mindedness of a niche-interested group becomes apparent. For example, when a talented football player like Barry Sanders retires before his time, sportswriters lose their fucking minds. “How could he do that? He’s just walking away?!” When Michael Jordan came back for the umpteenth time (or decided to play baseball for that matter), people whined that he was tarnishing his legacy, as if MJ himself hadn’t created it. Most sportswriters and hardcore sports fans were once aspiring athletes, moon-shooting idealistic youngsters who would trade their dicks and life savings to play centerfield for the Phillies. They can’t be trusted to judge the situation fairly. Much like the sportswriters who spend their professional lives projecting their failed childhood dreams onto pro athletes, so too do music writers, critics and requin bloggers secretly lament their observer status. They watch the creators and project their own image over that of the artist and their work.
When DJ Shadow decided to put out a hyphy-influenced album (aptly titled The Outsider), pretty much every schmuck with a copy of Preemptive Strike made sure to sound off about the new album’s impurity and irrelevance. For good measure, they made sure to mention that Shadow was never able to pull off anything nearly as good as Endtroducing. But lucky for Shadow, he stayed behind the boards. The criticism of his (perceived) East Coast doppelganger RJD2 is more pointed. After all, RJ fucking sings on his new album. Say what you will about RJ’s new album The Third Hand (I think it’s alright), the content itself is barely the issue.
It would be bold to suggest that RJD2 singing or DJ Shadow going dumb would bear a parallel to Bob Dylan plugging in, but the analogy is apt, even if RJ and Shadow stand Spudd Webb next to Dylan’s Manute Bol (sorry Def Ronnie, didn’t mean to jive on your height). RJ and Shadow are zeitgeists of the third wave of hip hop producers . Furthermore, their debuts are firmly entrenched in the non-rap fan’s rap lexicon, and we all know that college educated white boys are the most unforgiving critics.
Despite the fact that hip-hop became uncool for the “over 600,000 units” segment of the white population (quoth Jadakiss), their music fit well enough into the post-rap indie explosion that they never suffered rockist marginalization. Also, their transcendent and singular success as the leaders of the “atmospheric sample-based production” genre saddled them with unreasonably high expectations. Shadow is constantly expected to produce another Endtroducing and RJ (and El Producto) is always expected to reassemble the Def Jux Megatron or change the game again like he did with June. That time is over and those records will never sell again. But the images and emotions of those albums will forever be projected onto these two artists, regardless of the progression of music at large and their artistic growth.
As an electronic music producer, I know that there is only so much credit and satisfaction to be had from the creation of a piece of sample-heavy music. Without a doubt, the song is a piece of craftsmanship but it is merely a clever and creative arrangement- a distillation of the producer’s aesthetic. Perhaps RJ felt the same way after lacing track after track of soul loops and chopped rolls. The more beats you make, the more records become off limits. The Skull Snaps break holds little promise once you are LPs deep into a career and vinyl nerds are scrutinizing your every time stretch. You want to create something more organic and spontaneous, whether anybody else likes it or not. However, you need a steady hand and calm demeanor if you are going to dip yourself into shark and blogger infested waters sans cage.
“In a way, I don’t know if [caring about other people’s opinions] is my business or not,” RJ told me, “I just try to stay focused on doing music from a perspective that is sincere and exciting from my point of view.” With the sort of capital he has to his credit, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to switch gears and release something he finds to be more “sincere”- because he can. Fuck what you think. It’s not a crime to like Morrissey and The Monroe Brothers and Das EFX. I know I do. RJ says that “all I can do is hope that some people get into it. I really think thats all that anyone can hope for that makes music.” But like Red told Andy in Shawshank- hope is a dangerous thing.
My boy Kenny tells me that this past Saturday afternoon, a guy walked into The Marvelous on 40th and Walnut and inquired as to whether the new RJD2 had hit the shelves yet. Without even answering the question, the clerk launched into a stinging critique of the album, decrying the absence of samples and suggesting that it was absurd that RJ would even attempt to sing on an album instead of just lacing another Deadringer. The most that RJ could muster was “I just wanted to see if you had my album in stock.”
PICKS OF THE WEEK:
Night: Tech Support at the Bubble House featuring Terry Radjaw (Seattle). It’s gonna be a “jump-off” as they say. Saturday, March 17. 34th and Sansom.