Random Record Review: Billy Woods “Aethiopes”

There is this unspoken agreement among both fans and artists of hip-hop culture. That rap is at its core a form of orated poetry. Not really meant to be read but mainly heard. To be expressed and appreciated in the context of a song or a beat. While we have accepted this as the norm there has always been an exception to the rule. Especially when the infux of spoken word poets got into rap. A focus was being placed on not just the patterns and styles. There was more of an emphasis placed on word choices and vocabulary as well. Especially in the late 80s & all throughout the 90s.

Groups like Company Flow, Jugganots, Blackstar, and countless other underground acts. They all played their role in pushing lyrics to the forefront. I would even go as far as saying that this project while as a standalone is an important body of work, still pays homage to that era of rap. With cameos by El-P & Breeze Brewin, it’s fair to acknowledge Billy’s head nod to the era. A head nod that some would say is long overdue. So many of the artists involved in what some have dubbed “Renaissance” have yet to give the respect that is duly deserved to ones that came before, but I digress.

Since about 2018 there has been an uptick in rap that pays homage to this “Golden Era.” Whatever that means. If I’m being honest I hate that title. This idea there is this certain era when rap was at its best. I don’t think that really exists. I think as is the case with most art forms, there is an evolution. A cyclical process that allows for progress in subcultures as young as hip-hop. Styles are revisited and the culture basically moves forward. Continuing to show an eloquence in places not known for it. Rappers like Billy Woods give us more of a reflective mood to their story telling. Words aren’t just used to as tools to speak on crime cleverly anymore. Words writen like poetry can be spoken as such to a beat. Billy has this way of writing. His words would be just as poignant if read with no beat as they are with one. I don’t think the beat is really needed, but is a welcome texture added to the picture painted by the veteran emcee.

The black experience is so complex and subtly nuanced. Artists like Billy Woods are necessary reminders of the intelligent observers here to speak for those voices drowned out by the loud boastful raps we are too accustomed to. His project is “dense,” as Professor Skye described in his own review of the project. Laden with historical references, and samples from Kongi’s Harvest. The cohesive project places you in the landscapes created by Billy & Preservation.

There are parallels between Jazz & Hiphop. Billy & Preservation continue the tradition perfectly while also getting personal with descriptions of his youth. I love lyrics that are personal without being necessarily obvious about it, lyrics that make a statement without being obvious that either. Let’s call it intelligent discretion. Often in rap discretion is necessary because the rapper is usually referencing a crime or something that requires discretion when speaking on it. I think Billy in his way uses a similar discretion to both “protect the innocent” as they say, and to leave an aire of relatability to the stories.

His lyrics are more poetry than bars, more thesis than essay. There is a maturity to his subject matter and I think that’s great for the evolution of this culture. The hip-hop audience is growing, both in age and sophistication. For those of us who see things differently and think more deeply we have places we can go. Worlds we can explore thanks to intelligent writers like Billy Woods.

Where Does the Art Stops & The Art Business Begin?

I tend to have an equal amount of respect for the hours of practice and repetition it takes to master any craft. The same appreciation for the work a skateboarder puts in as with any other skill. It takes a similar amount of time to do that complex combination of flips and kicks as it does strokes on a canvas or hours on a basketball court.

Mastery usually comes at the expense of time and effort. At the sacrifice of personal relationships and private time. Constantly, no less than a thought is put towards the respective craft. Most would say that they would do what they love for free, but still in the same conversation would probably also say that they would also like to be paid for this passion. Wouldn’t we all (insert eye roll emoji). However just like the mastery so many of us work towards, being paid takes time effort as well.

Someone told me once that every entrepreneur is at their core was still a creative. I actually agree with them for the most part. No matter what you do there will always be a need to be creative in any area that you want to stand out in. There is still that point though. In every business owners path to success where you have to decide how much is enough. When is it about the money and not the love.

That figurative line in the sand. Creativity & joy on this side, sales & marketing on this side. A good creative business owner will have figured out how to thrive in the gray area. That special place where you still find joy in all aspects of business ownership, no matter what that business may be. I have had the pleasure of talking with so many successful and some not so successful creatives. Being a writer, we often have the luxury of sitting back and observing from a far exactly how tricky running a business can be.

There’s the politics of the industry, the dynamics of personalities, not to mention the fickle clients who have high expectations but a vague idea of how to express the needs they have. Finding the joy in a world that seems bent on taking joy from everything is tricky. Much less keeping what you love joyful and revenue generating. Lets just say it’s a struggle we share on the deepest of levels with so many other creatives. Who like us are just trying to balance it all.

The art and the money are no doubt binary. One can exist without the other, but to grow and thrive both are needed. I know so many artists. Painters, musicians, writers, and the like who all make sacrifices in their crafts to pursue money. Making compromises in their creative processes to please clients that commission them for very specific projects. Those same creatives that find joy in their work, no matter who it is intended for have a disdain for commission works. They’re a necessary evil it would seem though.

A revenue generating necessity in order to do what you love for a living. When is it for love and when is it just a job though. When is the creative project just a monotonous and soul draining as a 9 to 5 job. How do you keep the pitfalls of the typical job from seeping into your creative passion? If I’m being honest I have no idea.

All I know and all I’ve seen from personal experience and observations it that it doesn’t even matter. You just work through the 9 to 5 moments. You keep doing what you love no matter how you feel about the job. Because doing what you love is a thousand times better than the soul draining, life force dulling alternative of the rat race. I don’t know a single business owner who would not rather deal with the ups and downs of ownership versus the endentured servitude that is standard employment.

I don’t think there is a point where you are either an artist or a business owner. The truth is you are eternally both. Bound in a sacred matrimony of work and reward for you very survival. So you relish in the fact that you are doing what you love. You appreciate that the alternative is far worse and the ups are far greater than the downs. You don’t draw that line in the sand. You instead thrive in the gray. Where there is more balance between the two. Where the passion for the art and business lie.

Lost In Obscurity

Digital originals and digital copies. Well-presented physicals, and copies of those. Compressed, NFT’d, and Streamed. If marketed the right way these can help build some relevancy and buzz around your name (insert eye-roll emoji). The trends that everyone swarms towards don’t always bear the fruit promised. Unless you’re lucky, and still, the risk remains.

Here’s the catch. Even though everyone understands the risk, no one wants to be in a bad position. I mean that’s the goal, right? To put in all the work, finesse the algorithms, and get all the chips. I get it, we all want to be the winner.

Who’s in the middle though? Who’s laying the foundation for the “winners”? The ones who are content with thriving. Those whose idea of winning looks a little different than the ones winning. They make it seem like everyone wants to be on top. Rarely is the light shone on those who set the bar for what the top looks like by playing the middle.

I hear the reason everyone wants to be on top is the fear of being lost in obscurity. For your name not to be remembered among the greats. We have this obsession with living forever in the west. Like it’s even really possible. The fact is even the “greats” were influenced by someone you’ve never heard of. Someone who stood out in the middle. Made their impact in the shadows unbeknownst to you. Succeeding in a space most feared, and in that space becoming an inspiration to the greats. Keeping some semblance of a soul. Yet still having an impact on your favorite, whoever that may be.

There are those of us who would rather be great amongst the obscure, instead of obscure among the greats. Lost among the ones who won the popularity contest but fell short in integrity.

I love my old sayings, and there’s one that is just as relevant today as the day it was created. “Everything that glitters ain’t always gold.” The things that seem the brightest, the most sought after are sometimes just shiny rocks.

Shades of Black

As advanced as we are as a species, we still have a long way to go. Speaking both literally and figuratively of course. I mean where are the flying cars anyway? Didn’t Blade Runner take place in 2019? There is this utopian or dystopian (depending on who you ask) future that we are supposed be living in. Yet here we are riding in cars with 100 year old combustion engine technology and an infrastructure that is not all equipped to handle our modest technological needs. To be honest the tech may be the easy part to fix. The deep rooted cultural constructs always continue to resurface no matter how many times movements arise to “address” societies ills. These constructs and preconceived notions of what we are supposed to be seem inescapable. Tribalism and stereo types have a way of seeping into movements and dividing them.

The same can be said for art, music, and fashion. There is this need to place finite definitions of what, who, or it should be. Progress is a slow behemoth whose movements can’t be detected by the human eye. So while things are getting better, there is still enough room for those constructs to pop up again. To show us that with a culture that should be unified there is still division. This new found freedom on display these days often shows us exactly how deep we will have to dig to shake the false expectations we place on ourselves. Everyone wants to feel important, but that should not be at the expense of some else’s importance. The word inclusion is thrown around quite a bit, and yet the true meaning of the word is often ignored. Clicks and circles operate binary. Orbiting one another but never touching. Never connecting or giving a chance to bond. It’s like in horror movies there is the dark side and the light side. In these movies everything good is in the light and everything bad is in the dark. In these social circles they are the light and everything is sometimes dark. To preserve their importance they stay in the light and everything else is the dark. Unseen in the blackness.

Black is the culmination of every color in the spectrum. It is all encompassing and all inclusive, but made to seem negative. The shades, colors, and nuances that make up black are no different than the diversity that exists in us all. There would be no greens, no orange if not for yellow. Just like there would be no black if not for all the colors in the spectrum. Diversity is the catalyst for growth and evolution. To not nurture and appreciate diversity could slow down the behemoth. Progress could cease, and the norms would become more boring than they already are. The rainbow is beautiful but it would not exist if not for the black. The dark parts of the spectrum we try to hide. Not all differences are bad and not everything black is negative. Differences are important.

Artist Q&A: Toshihiko Okuya

There’s this myth in the west that some hold sacred. In the story the Babylonians supposedly built a city and in this city there would be this tower that allowed all the languages of the world to communicate. Pardon me for not getting all the details 100% correct, but you get the gist. At some point in the story our creator got concerned that humans had blasphemed by building the tower (he presumed was built to avoid a second flood). So in response to this blasphemous act the creator brought into existence multiple languages. People were then divided into linguistic groups, unable to understand one another. By doing this our vengeful creator put things in order, and reasserted himself to his rightful place I guess. If you choose to subscribe to these tales, I would imagine some part of the story is hard to explain. None the less one’s faith is important and stories like these ultimately helped shape our society and culture into what it is today.

I on the other hand feel that maybe the creator did not fully condemn mankind to being unable to communicate with one another. I mean to me creative expression is also a method of communication that transcends culture and language. Art is so subtly nuanced that there is room for many interpretations & understandings. No matter the language one speaks art in particular and expression in general “speaks” to us.

I was thinking about this story when I first reached out to Toshihiko Okuya. In a sense his work spoke to me. Even though we are both from two completely different parts of the world, I was still able to connect with him to some degree through his art. I would of course later connect with him via social media, but that’s a story for perhaps another day. His art (like other works of art), to me is in a sense universal. Images bring out emotion and everyone feels emotion. We are in a way united again through this emotion. So it would seem that in spite of our creators attempts to separate us we found a way. If you really have studied that book you’d notice that mankind usually finds a way. We usually always find… A way to unite.

So here we are. In spite of it all we have figured out a way to connect and perhaps understand each other. Our inner beauty, individuality, and intelligence all seen in works of art. I hope that like me you try to understand Toshihiko and his work that he has created. We truly enjoy it and hope you do as well, but enough about us. Let’s let the man speak a bit for himself.

Who were your biggest influences in your art, and what about these people had the greatest impact?

→ This is a difficult question. I think a lot of things, and people have influenced me.
Is there a coherence in what I’ve been crazy about in the course of my life? I will ask myself.
I was crazy about science fiction when I was in high school, and for a while I was also attracted to German Expressionism and Surrealism. I also read Georges Bataille‘s book even though I didn’t understand it very well. It’s kind of messy, and miscellaneous things are flowing into me, and I always feel confused.

Japan has a very rich culture and history. Do you try to highlight that richness in your work, or is it more introspective?

→ Rather, I take Japanese culture critically. Recently, racist and nationalist people have become more powerful. They support the war of aggression and colonialism of the Japanese Empire since the Meiji era and are trying to modify historical facts for their convenience. Although Japan was devastated by the defeat in 1945, it still advocates a Japan-centric, irreverent and exclusive way of thinking. Some Japanese culture is highly sophisticated, but I suspect that some are childish and distorted. If you can feel Japanese culture in my work, I think it’s because I lived in this country for a long time and learned naturally from an early age.

When I look at some of your portraits I feel as though I’m perhaps on a bench at a park watching people. Is it your intention to give us a glimpse of your subjects, or is more for us to get a glimpse of yourself? 

→ Sometimes I make it with some intention, and sometimes I draw it unintentionally. I welcome the viewer to receive any intent from the work. Whatever it is, it belongs to the recipient. I just want to keep drawing. I don’t feel like aiming for something or having any purpose, I just feel like I’m wandering around. And I think of the following. Why do I always think “I’m right and the other person is wrong”? Isn’t it necessary for me to think “I’m always wrong”? Do I maintain my dignity by hating or despising the other person? I seem to have multiple layers of myself.

What does art mean to you, or maybe I should ask what is the theme that you try to convey in your work? Is there even a theme? 

→ Of course art has an important meaning to me. But it’s hard to say what that means.
Henry Miller says “draw as you like and die happily”, and I feel that too.

I really enjoy the rawness of your works. To me they seem almost like sketches, but not. If that makes sense. Is there a deeper message in that rawness or is it just your style?

→ I think “the rawness” is important to me. I am more attracted to the underground roots than the flowers. The flowers are something of an idea and feel like a lie, but the roots seem to make me feel real and force me to see this world where I am.

Do you have a preferred medium to create in?

→ For now, the personal computer is my medium. From the viewpoint of “the rawness”, I think it is more appropriate to draw on canvas or paper, but for now, I am making works on a personal computer.

Art can be a very personal thing, both the art appreciators as well as the artist. What does it mean to you?

→ My eyeball and the brain connected to it currently occupy this space in the universe, and I can never give this space to anyone else. No one can occupy this place on my behalf. The viewpoint of this eyeball is unique to me. Everyone occupies such an irreplaceable place. No one can rob the place. So what kind of space does art occupy? I think from time to time.

 2020 has proven to be a tough year for a lot of people. How has your art helped you cope with it all?

→ COVID-19 has digged out the problems that the world is facing. The world is divided and growing inequality has emerged as a serious problem. Wealth is concentrated in the few rich and the poor are expanding. I think we’re already stuck, but if we want more economic growth, not only climate change, but also war and hunger will spread. I hope people move away from their obsession with “growth” and move towards the redistribution of wealth. Drawing has helped me for a long time. It prevents us from being (voluntarily) dominated by anything, rushing to occupy a higher position in the hierarchy, or getting caught up in the desire to gain greater power. I recently watched Jim Jarmusch‘s movie “Patterson”. What is depicted in the movie is similar to what I draw and live every day.

Has it been an inspiration or a hindrance to your work, and what should we expect from you in 2021?

→ I may have got some inspiration from COVID-19, but since I’m just painting at home, it’s not that much of a problem so far, except for the spiritual ones. Don’t expect too much. If possible, I would like to draw a different work each time.

Any advice for other artists? 

→ I think it’s about drawing as you like without following anything.

Art for Art’s Sake

You know the buzz word. That word that everyone is trying to leverage their popularity for. That word that adds value to any online content. If you don’t then that word is “Monetization.” The idea that you can push and market yourself to the point where you are paid for who you are is not a new concept. What was new, and has become somewhat of a norm however is the accessibility of that idea to anyone. What I mean is if you have the drive and focus, you or ANYONE can be paid for who they are. What happened to the artists, musicians, etc. Whom that is not what drives their creative process. There has to obviously be more to it all right? There has to be some sort other reason, something bigger.

Sometimes the reason is simply just because. The reasons we do what we do are not always for some value or great meaning. At times the reason or drive behind creating is just because. Just because it gives you peace, or you find solace in those private moments. The fact that that creation just so happens to draw a certain feeling from others is more just an added benefit, rather than an actual intention. Sometimes it’s those works, created in the moment that become the more important ones. That unintentional impact, that random connect is a value in and of itself. Value and creation do not always need to be paired together constantly. While I understand how business (if it is in fact your business) works. I also understand that impact can add value later. So it may not be the best idea to decide value out the gate.

Like with wine, time matters. Time to let it breath and flavors be developed. I’ve heard albums that I remembered feeling a way about it when it first came out. Then years later when I revisited the project it hit differently. It’s as though some things aren’t meant to be understood until a certain time, if that makes any sense. Sometimes art or expression is not meant to have a dollar value. Maybe it’s existence is just to be experienced. Like I said, that’s a value unto itself. Time to breath and allow the audience to grow and experience it differently, if that makes any sense.

The New Historians

History is written by the victors, or so I’ve been told. I’m not sure how much you might agree with this sentiment though. Because it may have been true once upon a time, but not anymore. History is sculpted to your algorithm now. Then told to you exactly how you want to hear it. There was a time when you could only hear one side of conflicts. We often hear about the brutal atrocities on the opposing side, but the allies committed them too. Those fellow champions who helped us to defeat our collective foe. All we’re told is that conflict can be ugly. Nevermind who did what. What matters is who won, right?

2020 has been quite the story to be told. As does every year, but this one hit different. Isolated, with most things remote. What is being experienced is being documented now by more than the victors. The people in the middle who don’t have a steak in either side can tell a more objective story. As story tellers creatives have an important role in today’s history. If that makes sense.

Creatives, are in some circles more trusted than the media. That’s a responsibility that we shouldn’t ignore. A responsibility to maybe show the flaw in the entire conflict rather than just one side. So history doesn’t repeat, and real change can occur. Before the stories get tainted with a hint of tribalism, as empires rise and fall. We have a unique opportunity to contribute more than just more of the same old tales. The idea of the historian is changing, just like so many other things going on in the volatile world. Change is coming. Change is good, and changing the way history is documented would be great.

Besides, what we post online will be saved and documented regardless. We might as well get more control of the narrative. The new historians, the creatives have to navigate it all. Charting ones course all while intelligently narrating the present, so others can get a glimpse of the view from the middle. That unbiased part of history where the full experience can be felt. Where you can catch a glimpse of the bigger picture, not just a small window. It’s the job of the creative to show that unique perspective. After all they’re documenting is all regardless. Might as well get a hold of that narrative before the victors only tell you about their glory.

The Pollution Problem In Fashion

Sometimes humans are as a species arrogant. Well maybe more than sometimes. In that arrogance we do things. Some of these things seem menial or simple. Like it’s not a big deal. Little do we know this simple thing has a great impact. It’s not so much the act itself, as mush as the scale that we do it. Remember the story of the person that died from Hydro Intoxication. Apparently too much of anything can be a bad thing. A friend told me once, “All things in moderation, even moderation.” Sometimes it’s hard to moderate how we over do things like clothing.

Everyone wears clothes, garments, & fabrics right? Everyone loves the feel of new clothes. The look of that never washed piece of freshness. That crispy piece of denim really puts the outfit together after all. Therein lies the problem. That denim doesn’t stay crispy forever, and that outfit goes out of season eventually. Our need to stay up to date is the reason the clothing industry is what it is today. It’s like the industrial revolution has morphed into a completely different animal. Long gone are the days of gray skies and layers of soot on buildings. Instead we have endless piles of fabric in warehouses and storage units. Landfills and sweatshops all accumulating piles. 

No one is innocent. Especially in the west. It’s just too easy to buy new shit. The fact is (the collective) we have a consumption problem. While new clothes are nice, making an effort to buy resell is a great option. Buying new is nice but some norms need to change. Actually, it is changing. The need for retro pieces and bespoked thrift store finds are becoming a norm. We’ve said it before, and we still believe bespoke is the future. There is a value in the idea of something sized just for you. It’s import that we have options to breath new life into the old. I mean we can’t just keep on this path of over production. Something’s gotta give. We see it so many other places in our society. We see the pitfalls.. Those same pitfalls lie in fashion. So we have to be responsible in our consumption. I read alot of articles speaking on those other areas of consumption but not ALL the areas. The big picture is important. 

How we adjust to this world of pandemics, social injustice, and environmental changes should be in the conversation right now. How we consume is just as important as how we interact. The focus on what we buy has been in the conversation a very long time. While where we spend our money should be a focus, how we spend it should be one as well. We have to be intelligent consumers. Because we control cool. We should do it responsibly. 

Random Record Review: Armand Hammer “Shrines”

Usually these reviews are done in a pretty timely manner. I don’t usually sit with the project for too, but this project is different. The bars are too deep to just give a quick review off of the intial listen. Deep music requires more time to absorb the work. It seems like this type of Hip Hop has been coming back in style. Well it’s hasn’t really gone anywhere but for sure mainstream is taking notice more so than ever. That’s a definite good thing.

Ok, so in order for me to really get you to understand where I’m coming from, I have to start with Vordul Mega (of Cannibal Ox). I’m not sure if you’re familiar with music from that era, but if you’re you should dig a little. What you’ll find is some of hip hop’s best, coming of age and really making their mark. Def Jux was a prominent underground label at the time, but there were most definitely other labels of note doing their thing. I don’t want to get to deep into that because I’m trying not to wander off subject though.

So anyway, Vordul Mega was coming out with solo projects pretty regularly and there was this guy who was featured on a few songs. If I remember correctly he was heavy on Megagraphitti, but he went by billy woods. His style was almost spoken word. Like, you could read it on paper and it would be just as well executed without the beat. So I started to delve into his catalog. I usually do that when I come across music that stands out to. He also did something I really appreciated. Like MF DOOM, he made it a point to conceal his face. I don’t know how others view it, but to me it speaks to the fallacy of ones image. Instead having no face and no definable image allows the music to make ones presence known. Don’t get it twisted though, he is definitely not just another faceless emcee.

When I came across Armand Hammer, I had an idea what to expect, but what I didn’t expect however was Elucid. His beats and delivery were a great compliment to a style I was already familiar with. I’ve always been a huge fan of lyrics that transcend the perspective of street life and hustling. I like that shit don’t get me wrong, but the “urban” experience is so much more than that. It’s refreshing to hear crews when they articulate sociopolitical issues with such care. To speak on the black experience in America in a way that is personal to them. That shit is important. Unique perspectives help weave the tapestry that is Hip Hop culture into something tangible. Maybe even relatable.

I remember there was this quote about one of my favorite rock bands (Sonic Youth). The quote said they were “too art to be punk rock, to punk rock to be art.” Ironically I feel like quotes like these also fit groups like Armand Hammer. They represent a part of hip hop that expresses with intelligence what so many feel. I related to the tiger on the cover. We have been quarantined after all. A primal energy kept under close watch in a tenement building, yea i relate to that. The art work like their music is based on real life. Art eloquently imitating it.

The Art of Mimicry

One of the most sacred tenets in art is to be original and true to one’s own vision. This unspoken rule in the lawless lands of creative expression is one kept close to the heart. However as time goes on and technology makes the world smaller, trends become more valuable than originality. That intrinsic value is not lost in the abstract of personal worth. It has a cash, take it to the bank value.

Matter of fact you don’t even have to go to the bank. They’ll transfer the funds directly to the account of your choice. The ease of the easy income has made it that much more logical to just mimic, rebrand, and find an audience that will still invest in your brand. No matter how similar or flat out identical it is to another creatives work. To put it frankly, the shit still sells. Identical sells. Familiar sells more so now than ever. Making mimicry a business, a big business at that. The tenets of creative expression have changed it would seem. I understand that mimicry and flat out copying has always existed, but in the creative space, the way it is being done now is new.

The “mimicers” have become savvy with their marketing. So the originals have to be a tad more strategic. A tad more resourceful. Careful that their ideas won’t get over shadowed by the well marketed recreation. As tech and perspective changes the way we do everything, including marketing ourselves has to change. In the wild animals evolve over time to adapt to their environment. The rate of evolution in this modern space has to be at a faster rate than most artists are used to. There isn’t much of a grace period anymore. The opportunity to profit is almost immediate.

You have to respect it though. There is an art to it, to being able to mimic something in a way that allows you to stand out. The wild part is there is room for everyone. To quote a favorite movie of mine, “everybody eats b!” Everyone can eat. Everyone can make some money out here. Everyone can thrive. There would have been a time where I’d have been salty about someone rehashing an idea to suit them, but that’s just what is done now.

Warhol, Basquiat, Haring… Countless pioneers of their respected styles, all mimicked. These masters of mimicry manage to exist undetected and even tolerated. Free to profit off a style that is not their own. These are the times we are in. So grow adapt and learn quickly. Refine your style, and hope yours is dope enough to be paid the tribute of mimicry.