Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Interview: Jorge Arana of the Jorge Arana Trio

What feels like quite awhile ago, I was sent a track by Jorge Arana called "Peanut Butter," and its jazzed-out chaos had me pretty excited. When I finally heard the Jorge Arana Trio's full album, Mapache, I wasn't let down, and I couldn't wait to talk about it with Jorge. Mr. Arana was nice enough to answer some questions, which you can read while listening to the album.

Who from the KC area are you listening to right now?

Ambulants, Fiat, Gemini Revolution, Janet the Planet. They all have albums less than a year old.

What national/non-KC acts are you listening to?

Got the new Zazen Boys album. And the new David Byrne + St Vincent. As for dead folks, I've been listening to some solo Monk and there's a Schostakovich quartets boxset that I always have in the car.

Why is Kansas City a hip-hop town?

Not sure if KC is an anything town... I don't mean that in a bad way. Of course it has a long history of black American music... I'm sure that plays a part of it.

What aspect of Kansas City shapes your music the most?

Maybe the facility to catch a wide range of music, not unlike any of the big musical cities. Whether it's a punk house show, a modern chamber piece at UMKC, a jam at the Jazz District, a metal show in Westport, etc. And having time to do so, since it's fairly cheap living here.

I know KC Psychfest seemed to generate a lot of good feedback. Do you feel like the band identifies more with a psych, experimental, jazz, or metal scene locally? 

That's hard to say. Experimental, maybe? I do know the Trio seems to resonate well with other musicians with more adventurous inclinations.

"Adventurous" is a good word, because aside from some more of the mathier metal bands and jazz bands I hear a lot of in your music, some of the tones and structures remind me of the Minibosses [who if anyone doesn't know, are a rock band who cover video game music]. Are there any not-directly-musical or not-conventionally-musical places you pull from when writing or arranging?

Funny you say that. I did grow up in the NES days, so I do know a lot of those old Castlevania and Megaman tunes very well. Some of that's ingrained in my brain, for sure. A bigger influence though is the music from animation. I grew up in Mexico in the early 90s. Back then, they used to broadcast a lot of awesome 80s anime dubbed in Spanish, like Mazinger Z and Queen Millennia. The music from Saint Seiya is still a favorite of mine. I probably have around a dozen different soundtrack disks I've imported or bought at random comic-cons.

Does the size of the KC music scene generate "bands we get along with" associations rather than loose genre associations?

It used to be mainly bands we would get along with, even back in the days of Pixel Panda, but there's been a rising amount of really awesome mainly-instrumental acts recently. All with a very different approach.

This album's really, really good. And tight. Was recording meticulous or was there room for improv? Were there many takes or rewrites during the recording?

Thank you, man. Most songs have very set parts, but certain sections are open for transformation. A few others only have one part set while everything else is different every time.

We recorded it all (except vocals) live in one day. Having always done it at my place, the studio made me a little nervous, which led to somewhat of a rough start. Once we got over that initial hump and fixed a couple technical problems, we got most of it down in one or two takes.

Why do you think there was that nervousness? Extra people, different environment, formality?

Knowing we had to get everything done in one day was the big one. Then, some initial problems with my amp sucked a good chuck of time too, which was worrisome. But once we got into the swing of things it started to go pretty quickly.

Are there any differences in your live arrangements vs. the recording?

Other than the freer parts, we tried to keep it pretty close. Though live, you'll hear a few more wrong notes... played purposely and otherwise. Plus a bit of grooves Jason and Josh like to throw in between songs.

What other bands have you guys played in?

I played in Pixel Panda, and a little project called Cliff of Fame. Josh has been with an assortment of groups... Latin, Maps for Travellers, Pixel Panda, Wad, Savitar. Jason plays in Fat Bobba, Various Blonde, and a new group with me tentatively called "Parents".

What's Parents sounding like so far?

It's sort of a mix of dark surf and noise rock. I'm playing drums; Jason from the Trio's on bass; my brother, Luis, on guitar; and Doby Watson on vocals. I'm looking forward to start playing some shows.

Could you talk a bit about the release of Mapache and the decision to release it on tape?

We're self releasing the album. My friend Andrew Heuback suggested the cassette route. He ran a cassette label called Overland Shark that put out a lot of cool stuff. CDs seem to have kind of a bad stigma at the moment, and you generally have to make about a thousand copies to make get them for a good price. Though with cassettes you can make high quality small runs, package them with a download, sell em for cheap. Made a lot of sense. The natural compression and hiss you get from the tape is quite fun to listen to as well.

Thanks again to Jorge for taking the time, and to the Trio for releasing a killer album. Stream it, buy it, order the tape, buy your friends copies. Honestly, a fantastic album, and I look forward to seeing it on my year end list, and if there's any justice in this world, everyone else's.

Also while I have your attention, go over and check out #KillYourTV, organized by Internet Friend and great local musician William Chaffin. They also liked Mapache, and keep a solid focus on all-things KC music. We don't always agree, and that's a good thing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Interview: Brock Potucek of Lazy/South Bitch Diet

In what I'll describe as the most-my-fault delayed interview ever, Brock Potucek and I've been passing questions and answers back and forth for a little while. Brock's a member of Lazy, who released Obsession this year. His solo project, South Bitch Diet, recently played KC Psychfest, and has a self-title album circulating. Brock was nice enough to put up with my questions and talk about both projects.

Who from the KC area are you listening to right now?

Ghosty, Scammers, Nature Boys, Ssion, Fag Cop, Pizza Party Massacre, Witch and Hare.

What national/non-KC acts are you listening to?

La Dusseldorf, Pangea, John Maus, Toupee, White Fence, Tame Impala, Polyrock,

Why is Kansas City a hip-hop town?

Every town is a hip hop town. Every town has local music of all sorts. Hip hop wise, I like Stik Figa, Team Bear Club, Tech N9ne, Pocket Change. . .

What aspect of Kansas City shapes your music the most?

Resources: like available venues, record stores, musicians, scenes to play with/at. Also, the time to work. KC is relatively inexpensive to live at.

What gear are you using live in both projects?

Brock - A yellow Danelectro 59DC guitar with a Fender Front Man 212 amp with Electro-Harmonix big muff and a cheap chorus pedal from Target.

Zach - A sunburst Fender P bass with vintage Sunn Coliseum 300 and Electro-Harmonix big muff.

Sarica - An Epiphone SG Cherry Red with Fender Front Man 212.

Billy just got a new drum set. I think it's from C&C Custom Drum.

What's the cassette scene like in the area? Could you talk about your relationships with Whatever Forever and Manic Static?

The cassette scene started for me in Lawrence. Lillerne Tapes started there in 2006 by Gabe Holcomb, who later moved to Chicago. He made a few tapes and zines and it was inspiring. Shortly thereafter I, along with Drew Gibson - who is in Baby Birds Don't Drink Milk, Boo and Boo Too, and Katarina Stoneheart - started Solid Melts Tapes in 2008 in Lawrence, KS. I got too busy to do it but Drew moved to Chicago where he keeps it up. As time goes on I found out about other local tape lables, like Overland Shark, Beer on the Rug, XO Press. I think that people started to notice cassettes as more than a kitsch market and they saw the potential of its medium as a cheap and viable product to make. As for Whatever Forever and Manic Static - They were both interested in working with us. Whatever is from Lawrence and Manic Static is from Chicago. We have worked with other small run tape labels before too, like the Tape Machine. They all work hard at what they do, and have a passion for it. It's definitely more than just home dubbing.

Does the live setup for South Bitch Diet include extra people?

All South Bitch Diet shows have involved more people, with the exception of the last Psychfest. That was the first one I performed alone. Members of Lazy come in and out for the performances depending on availability. We've performed as large as a four piece before.

The South Bitch Diet songs seem to focus on big change ("New Job Blues," "New City Blues," I guess even the name "Lottery Money" implies either a quick payout and dynamic shift, or spending your money to hopefully win and make a quick change). Which end do these fall on: wanting to change or changes you've made?

Neither. They are not about change, but about longing and the understanding of place. New Job Blues is about labor laws or hating your boss. New City Blues is about dreaming of a better world to be a part of, and Lottery Money is about knowing when to move on or build up. Also, if this may be helpful for understanding, I formed the release on a country theme. Most of the song titles are references to classic country albums/movies/songs, as is the design and layout. I was playing with themes like loneliness, lost love, new love, fights for justice, giving up, good times- The songs lyrics may or may not match the song titles at all. The titles are there to create a cohesive package visually and contextually within this outsider country idea that I had. 

In regards to the SBD tape having a country theme: Is the entire project confined to that country-aesthetic, or do you have different overall themes planned/foresee different themes for future releases?

Art wise, album layout wise, I was going for a country inspired them. Musically, it's all over the place, being garage, lo fi, synth pop, psych, punk. I love the designs of classic country records, by their simplicity and I was going for that.

With Lazy, all the members have great creative art directions, so it's hard to say what future Lazy releases will look like. I can say that a great deal of thought will go into it!

How exciting is KC Psycfest? Have their been any other local-centric showcases like this, and do you think it fits SBD pretty well? [note: our asking/answering period overlapped Psychfest. Greg at had great coverage]

I'm glad FOKL is doing it and I'm happy it's coming into fruition. It's influenced, in part, by the Austin, TX festival of the same name. The Monta at Odds guys are doing a ton of the planning too, so props to them. There have been local showcases like this in the past - to name a few: Center of the City Fest, Troost Fest, North By North West, Noise Fest, Chomp Womp Fest. There have been house show festivals like this in the past in both Lawrence and KC. And yes, I do think that South Bitch Diet fits it. To me, Psych is a varied term with multiple applications of meaning - like drone, experimental, lo fi, noise, chill, electronic, industrial, shock, so forth. It also means whatever you think it does, but that's how I feel about it.

For being recorded fairly lo-fi, I think Lazy's Obsession sounds pretty big. In general [I think] it's a more fun album than SBD, sound-wise. Does the lyrical content fit that?

Obsession was recorded/mastered/produced professionally in a studio with Ashley Miller, who also plays in Ssion, Snuff Jazz, and a list of other projects I can't keep track of. It took a week to record, three weeks to mix, and one to master. All the songs on Obsession were made within the last year. I don't think that Obsession is as "fun" as SBD. SBD to me, is more whimsical and has more humor than Lazy. South Bitch Diet [the self-titled album] was all recorded on a Fostex Four Track within a five-year timespan. I write a lot, and I record nearly all my songs on a four track first. Where they go from there varies. All the songs on Obsession were made on a four track first. The SBD [album] is a compilation of some of my favorites that didn't make it into the Lazy sound bank - and I have a large amount of songs to choose from. To re-record them in a studio seemed unfitting for the South Bitch Diet style I desired. I purposely wanted South Bitch Diet to sound Lo Fi to an audience cause that's what it is. I write nearly all the material for Lazy and all the material for South Bitch, so I'm sure they have same lyrical themes. I create lyrics after I write the song. And usually, I just try to find a theme and make it fit the structure. 

Regarding Obsession's studio recording: are you happy with it? I think it's great, but I know musicians who have a hard time calling a recording/album "done." Are you like that, be it with Lazy or SBD?

I think that what has been recorded and mastered thus far for Obsession is done. We do what to add more songs to it though. But take all the Obsession songs and add it to another six or so to make it a full length. With that said, Obsession is basically an EP released as a LP.

Recording for Lazy isn't as hard for us as mastering and mixing. We can do that forever. It comes to point though where enough is enough!

South Bitch Diet is on the inverse. Recording can take a long time but editing is hardly an issue.

Would you say the style of Lazy is based more around retro-fitting a style and asthetic or personal nostalgia?

I've gotten this question before - and neither. When people ask what my band sounds like, I say X, Crass, Germs, and Pere Ubu. All artists have influences, all take and form from old styles and place them into new styles. All is regenerated. Lazy has punk influences, but it's not a punk tribute band. I'd like to think that it has it's own fingerprint.

Huge thanks to Brock again! I appreciate his patience with this. Go pick up the Lazy and SBD stuff on your preferred physical or digital media, and check out the Whatever Forever and Manic Static releases, as well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

An Interview: Cool Calm Julio

Earlier this year, Cool Calm Julio put out a self-titled EP that was as smart as it was relaxed as it was fun. The references jump from Kansas City to professional wrestling to infamous big music biz stories that aren't well known outside of their immediate scene. And all that's just the first track.

Cool Calm Julio was nice enough to answer the following questions.

Who from KC are you listening to right now?

Naturally all of the current Vital Nerve releases are in heavy rotation as well as Greg Enemy, Stik Figa, DR+2,and Dom Chronicles. Very talented cats, yo.

What national/non-KC acts are you listening to?

I can’t lie, I listen to my fair share of Waka Flocka Flame, 2Chainz, and Spaceghostpurrp but every now and then my ears just need to chill to Moka Only or Teebs.

Why is Kansas City a hip-hop town?

Kansas City is dead center in the middle of the map, which means were pullin’ musical influences from all angles as well as our jazz grassroots. Those key factors form together like Voltron to make some slick ass joints from our emcees that just has that uniqueness you can’t find from the east or west coast.

What aspect of Kansas City shapes your music the most?

Definitely the diversity. I could be chillin' in Waldo, then take a 20 minute trip to Midtown and get an entirely different atmosphere. I was raised around different parts of Kansas City and some areas and my interactions within them played a part in my life, which is directly linked to my material.

Many of your songs on the Cool Calm EP tend toward the shorter side, which I like versus (for example) the bloat of the last Kanye album. I also think it's kind of punk as fuck to drop a chain of shorter songs, which might sound like a contradiction given your demeanor on tracks. Could you talk a bit about what influences the composition?

I like to keep my delivery unexpected and unique when it comes to projects. I like to think it makes for a more interesting experience for me and the listener as opposed to tapes with a bunch of hooks.

Who all is involved with Vital Nerve, and what are the end goals for what's produced? Is it limited to musical output?

Vital Nerve is an underground artist collective that consist of myself, Unlucky Menace, Missing Link, Dead Bent and Logikally Speaking. We set up, promote, and put on shows pretty regularly around the KC area with some of our affiliates to promote the scene and gain exposure to other fanbases. All of the crew each have their respective projects and dope music you can check out on [note from kcmj: do it!] but there's more to it than that. We own all the equipment we use for live performances, record, mix, and master our vocals and utilize social network sites. Its definitely an investment on all sides,

You've indicated that you're a mixed media artist on your tumblr site. Do you currently have or do you have a plan to incorporate any art into live shows?

I’ve been into the arts for the majority of my life and consider myself to be an artist first over an emcee. I do create the fliers, video, website design, branding, and some album artwork for Vital Nerve. In earlier shows I would incorporate live video projections of old kung fu/ninja films and 1950’s anti marijuana propaganda I edited into our earlier shows, haha, just because I had the resources, haha.  I just really like to let my creativity run within the crew and I haven’t had any complaints.

The line "... like Universal did to After the Smoke" is one of my favorite references from any song this year.  Do you make your own beats, and is what they did with that Yelawolf track something that you and/or the local KC music scene worries about happening?

Ha, thanks! I’m glad you noticed that. I do a little beat making every now and then, but those and staying in my secret stash for the moment. I left the beats on the Cool Calm EP to some of my very talented peeps, Osiris-1 (“Sonar”) and Wise Enough (“Dividends”). However, that After the Smoke and Universal fiasco (no pun) was a modern day “David vs. Goliath” story. It's always nice to see the indie groups triumph over the major labels in cases like those and gives me hope for the industry. I think with the social networking era playing a part in musicians fanbases, there's too many voices that can’t possibly be unheard.

Thanks to Cool Calm Julio for taking the time to answer my questions. Any interview that contains a Voltron AND a Waka Flocka Flame reference is an A+ in my book.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Small Bit About Local Christian Albums

Before you ignore this, there's very little regarding content, and more about bandcamp distribution.

If not obvious already, I love bandcamp as not only a discovery tool but as a barometer of local trends. Having the opportunity to preview music for free levels a lot of preconceptions I'd otherwise have from other local music blogs. I'm not immune to the ingrained idea that "if it costs more, it must be better." I've done a good job shaking it off, but as long as it's a cultural trait, I'm sure I'll struggle with it.

So this brings me to the crux of this baby rant, which is: what's the deal with the Jesus-y albums being so expensive? I promised when this started not to post long form reviews, so bands here will go unnamed. That said, I've noticed that content doesn't reflect price as far as quality goes. And not just song-quality, but production quality. I refuse to believe that some of these people giving music away for free incurred less cost than some Christian albums going for 10 bucks a pop.

And does that money go to them or their church? While I don't care, it technically might. Churches generally have bad ass sound equipment. I wouldn't put it past some to run their own recording studios. Actually, I'd totally consider recording in one. If there are any entrepreneurial churches out there, make a note of that.

Also, there's a lot of it out there. As a barometer, I can't tell me if that indicates religious tendencies in the KC area or an actual musical preference. There may be a bazillion Christian acts, but do they play out? Do they just play at churches? I know one particular act that seems funded by a predominant Protestant branch, but I couldn't tell you if they end up at any venues. It's not my scene, but if you have a built-in audience through a congregation, maybe these album prices are justified to them because they actually move volume every Sunday. I tend to believe this is more smart than dubious, unless their music is filled with hate-filled rhetoric (and there's one particular 0-receiving band I'm thinking of).

I wouldn't mind hearing from some Christian bands to find out what they're basing their prices on, how they record, and if their church is running a sweet studio. Feel free to drop me an email or leave it in the comments.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

KC2K11: The 20 Best KC Area Albums of 2011

Great year. 136 albums reviewed, more listened to, some just flat out skipped for sympathy. Some skipped for over-productiveness (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). But I have to say that this project was and is a fantastic outlet for me, and has led me to a  greater appreciation of what this area produces.

So without worrying about feelings or agendas, here are my 20 favorite albums from the area I heard in 2011. (NOTE: I've tried to label the ones with 2010 that were released in 2010. If you're picky, just feel bad for all of the December albums I miss.)


The straight-fowardness of this hardcore album is endearing to every punk-sensibility I have. Nothing fancy, nothing overly technical. As I mentioned in my original review, an album of anger called '2011' that sounds like a late-90s hardcore album would be ironic, if the things to be angry about had changed in over 10 years. Alas, they haven't. In many ways, one of the most relevant albums of 2011.

19. THE GRISLY HAND: Safe House (2010)

This overly-folksy outfit has more in common with Fourth of July than, say, Union Station. Something intrinsically local about them is great. Fourth of July had one line that stuck with me when I was living in Illinois (where I'm from): "I hear in Texas it gets hot as shit / and I know Kansas 'cuz I burned in it." The Grisly Hand's song "Paris of the Plains" may as well have had the very line. From operating fair rides in Sedalia to dealing with shitty public transportation to trying to find a job. I'm absolutely in love with this album.

18. R. ANDREW LEE: Ann Southam, Soundings for a New Piano

There was a student as Indiana Statue University who received a grant to go to their School of Music. It was a fatty grant, too. And the dude wrote a song called "Pi" where he played a single note repeatedly:

Three times.
One time.
Four times
... and so on to the 100th or so place of Pi. Legend has it (as related to me by a student of the program) that audience members at his grant-mandated recital, which included donors and college sponsors, began leaving.  I tell you all of this so that you understand that there's a difference between shitty modern/contemporary music and good. This is good. If you really need an explanation, read the liner notes.

17. FURNITURE: The Decision

I contacted the band and had to ask if they were playing through VOX amps, because that's the only way you can get the kind of tone they put out on this album. They confirmed my suspicions. If you want fun pop, great recordings, and highly consumable music, I recommend Furniture. Listen, pop's not a dirty word, so I hope they're comfortable in their own skin.

16. CLAY HUGHES: The Whether Machine

This album is the perfect form of its genre, and a premonition you should all heed. Have you heard the new Yelawolf album? The music critic I trust the most loves it. The AV Club didn't. But AV Club pointed out something I agreed with: Yelawolf tried to record an Uncle Kracker song. The thing is, Uncle Kracker has an idea of what HE THINKS some kind of folks/blues/rap hybrid should sound like. Yelawolf tried to copy what someone else thought that ideal should be. Clay Hughes fucking aced it. I called it the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of his genre, and I stand by this. Its highs and lows happen within the confines of what a sound should be, and goes to town on it. Does it suffer from it? Sure, but like the Kanye album referenced, it triumphs in the end and exists as an ideal for a sonic idea others who have tried have failed at.

15. ELSA RAE:  Plays Tiny Instruments

Hands down the greatest voice in the entire list. I harp on this a bit much. Nonetheless, her album has what should be a death sentence (ukulele, guys) and is carried by her voice. She makes a kazoo not as ridiculous as it sounds. I'd love to hear all of these songs reimagined for a Beach House set up with some synth and drums. Even without that dream, this album is a great set of songs I'd listen to over and over again.


Three sparse tracks that evoke a Saves the Day teenage prison (without the horrid mutilation of exes!) They're deceptive tracks that feel larger than they really are. Part of this depends on you filling in the sonic blank spots with what you've already learned from Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists, and similar. I can handle a codependency on pop-knowledge, and in many ways the awareness is commendable.  These aren't backhanded compliments, and the desolate, lonely images you find familiar aren't any less powerful in these three tracks.


Letting go feels good. There's a moroseness to drinking binges that are singularly indulgent, and an empathy towards those that lack a selfish destructiveness; those that have an awareness that this world's a shitty place and you're just gonna party until it's over. Bands like Titus Andronicus might list out everything wrong in one's life, but there's an amount of responsibility taken. Also, listing what's wrong doesn't necessarily imply a cry for sympathy. That's kinda what this does. Maybe Deer Tick was a better comparison? Regardless, it's fun. Maybe overthinking this one was a mistake. It's just fuckin good.

12. 18 CARAT AFFAIR: N. Cruise Blvd.

Denys Parker is one of the most innovative and creative musicians in the Kansas City area. This smaller set of tracks is a good entry point for people to either get into his music projects, or even to get into thinking of music as art, or to get into the 80s, or to get into music criticism. If you follow the Twitter feed, you probably suspect there'll be more 18 Carat Affair. You're a smart person.


Mr. William Chaffin has put out about thirty billion songs between all of his music projects. Black Bullet Promise, Chocolate Velvet, and Vitae & the Pale Horse are just three of them, and they've all got high and low points. But I really had to just stop reviewing his albums because, even though I listened to all of them, that's a lot of coverage for one dude. So then, he goes and releases his best album at the end of the year after I've already made this decision. Chocolate Velvet is his project that's just a little bit funkier, a bit more polished. And the tracks may be more independent of each other than, say, V&tPH, the album's are more beginning-to-end solid. Aries was a nice surprise at the end of the year. Even though I could build an album or two out of Vitae tracks I like better than this one, Aries is my favorite Chaffin release.

10. LES IZMORE: The Granny Smith Theorem

D/Will is the best producer in Kansas City, Les Izmore is a fantastic rapper, and this Halloween present to Kansas City proved to be one of the most solid albums to hit all year. With the aggressive cadence of what I imagine a sober ODB would sound like, and probably 3 times as talented, Les Izmore drops rhymes that might appear lackadaisical, but always conclude to demonstrate that he has 100% control of the songs at all time.

And can I say, holy shit those horns on "The Line?" D/Will's magic.

9. THE LONELY HEARTS CLUB: Skinny Jeans for Fat People

Dutch Newman and Johnny Quest combined to make one of the most fun hip hop albums of the year. Listen to "Hold it Down" and I dare you to not get hyped. Seriously, every track on this is awesome. It's got guest spots from Approach, Stik Figa, Str8jakkett, and other local personalities that you should all know by name. There may not be anything overly complicated about this album, and it may not warrant a thirty page dissertation like every track 18 Carat Affair's ever released, but you're probably never gonna throw down in the pit to a 18 Carat Affair song.

"Errbody here gettin' white boy wasted."

8. THE ACBS: Stona Rosa

A lot of things done right on this album, not the least of which is their use of chorus on the vocals (or doubling or whatevs you want to call it). Honestly, they're like a Phoenix on the Prairie (which is kind of like Paris of the Plains?) The strengths in production are worth noting, but the song writing and instrumentation is what makes the songs themselves great. The artwork and production complete the album package, but it's gloss on well-written pop music.

7. D/WILL: Beat Emporium: Cartoon

Before JDilla died (actually, on his death bed), he put out Donuts. It was like a marathon of what he could do, a last minute appeal to the world to say "I mattered." And he did. He always will. He's one of maybe two people I who could wear a Detroit Tigers hat and not fill me with rage.
Luckily (as far as I know!) D/Will is not suffering a degenerative blood disease, and he has plenty of time to build up his already bulky resume. All of his collaborations and production credits are one thing, but Cartoon is his JDilla moment. The accomplishment of this release should put him in that level.
And in addition to the idea of throwing down beats as a figurative gauntlet to all challengers, the focus on the cartoon theme and samples is something that hip hop should've been doing for years by now. It's one solid album on its own from which dozens more could be extrapolated from (just like Dilla).

6. MEATSHANK: Scavengers (2010)

The speed-metal of the mid-1980s gets less attention than the hair metal, and I don't know if I could make a band-to-band comparison to tell you if that's good or bad. I'm glad bands like Meatshank paid attention. A modern sound with 80s awareness, possibly the best metal album of the year from Kansas City, Scavengers is well-executed and assembled. Every metal cliche you could harp on is done too well to complain. I've listened to a lot of bad metal this year, so I hope more local musicians take notice to this.

5. 18 CARAT AFFAIR: Televised Tragedies

As I mentioned earlier, I could write 30 pages on each track Denys Parker has released. This most recent release is another darker turn in what I read as a collective work. Much like Samuel Beckett's vagabonds and rakes, I cannot examine one work of Parker's without considering its place in a canon, and its reliance on 80s nostalgia encompasses the lighter Miami Vice coke binge with the serious hangover. You can remember the fashion as something goofy, or you can take it seriously and appreciate whatever it may have meant. You can have the patriotic victory of the Star Wars NASA campaign, but you have to know who Christa McAuliffe is. The point is, there's no winking or mockery here: it's the collage of what made the 80s: not made it bad or good, but acknowledges it existed as whole, and helps us understand it a little bit better.

4. ABSCESS: The Black Diamond

This is, beginning to end, an album that sounds like it's by robots, for robots. The rawest sounding drums that are actually part of the industrial riffs, the patterns that form from them are infectious. From the opening track "mazz murder" which sounds like a chainsaw and a tornado siren, all the way to some fucked up Katy Perry remix, it's as if Skynet was prepping a mixtape for the apocalypse. But sometimes the fuzz is less NIN and more QotSA ("ankle grinder"'s a good example of that), and that doesn't break up any cohesiveness. When I heard it I was convinced it'd be the best album of the year. Clearly that changed, but it's not because this became worn out.

3. REACH: The Pen Pusha Mixtape

The tracklist scared me: 18 songs on a hip hop album often implies bloat, and in addition there are remixes. I'm leery of that on a singular release. But what made this album were how good those remixes were, and how well it was arranged. Kansas City is full of great hip-hop tracks, but an album assembled beginning to end this well is rare anywhere. The cameos are understated and the choice of collaborators suits Reach's style. If you don't think that's important, please see half of Nicki Minaj's guest spots. Where it isn't mixed as well as other albums released this year, the songs hold together on their own strengths. I enjoyed this album a lot, and it hasn't left rotation.

2. 18 CARAT AFFAIR:  Life of Vice

One of my nerdy artist friends only ever cared what I thought about his art, and never told me what it was supposed to be. That was overly frustrating to me, but as long as I got something out of it, he was happy. I swear this is related.
On the scale of light to dark, Life of Vice feels like a turn towards something more serious in Parker's work. It's my favorite thus far for where it sits in the narrative I've created (or, if I am a profit, observed; I won't dare give myself that credit). I won't go on any longer, except to say that I hope Denys is happy i've got something out of 18 Carat Affair, and I hope that others do to. This stuff deserves a lot of play.

1. D/WILL & STIK FIGA: #HappyHour

In a time where hip hop is pulling backwards, you frequently end up with two different results: The Lex Luger retreads of Three 6 Mafia or the instrumental heavy sampling that Hi-Tek perfected in the late 90s. D/Will and Stik Figa might fall closer to the latter while being influenced by the former, but as both independently pointed out to me, there's a bit of Gangstarr in there, too. But as I've harped on too much by now, D/Will is the greatest producer in the area, and what I haven't had a chance to say is that Stik is the best emcee. #HappyHour, a quick preamble to the also very excellent Crown & Coke, has not left rotation in my house since its release. It's everything a great rap album should be: fun, smart, well produced, thoughtfully polished, and cleverly accented. Ladies and gents, your KC album of the year.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

An Interview: Stik Figa and D/Will

#HappyHour is (so far) the best album from KC this year, and for me, the 6th for all releases this year. Stik Figa and D/Will released it as a warm up for the also excellent Crown and Coke. They've both got other projects (D/Will's Beat Emporium albums are textbooks for aspiring producers), and they're also both beyond cool for agreeing to an email interview.

Who from KC are you listening to right now?

D/Will: While working on projects, I tend to not listen to music from the same genre. I try and clear my palate [to] give the listener all me! But I did get a chance to check out Greg Enemy's new jawn and I like Gee Watts so if he drop something I'll peep it.

Stik Figa: From Kansas City I'm listening to Ron Ron, Rondoe, Greg Enemy, Cowboy Indian Bear, Grisly Hand, and Maal A Goomba.

What national/non-KC acts are you listening to?

Stik Figa: Probably way too much Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar; I really enjoy both those releases. Also the Kanye and Jay album Watch the Throne has been gettin' a lot of burn. I initially hated it though.

D/Will: A lot of the artist I'm currently working with: Fresh Daily, One be lo, Dominique Larue, Addlib and a few others. Really dig that Evidence Cats & Dogs... Outside of that I listen to a lot of old soul and
blues. Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland and even Dan Auerbach's 2005 release
Keep It Hid.

Why is Kansas City a hip-hop town?

Stik Figa: I dunno if KC is a hip-hop town, I know there is a lot of great music coming out of this area.

D/Will: I think the deep jazz and blues roots have a lot to do with why kc is a hip hop town.

What aspect of Kansas City shapes your music the most?

Stik Figa: KC has shaped my creativity by giving me an outlet to share it with interested people. As a Topeka artist, it gives me a lot of support for something I didn't think anyone would care about. I really appreciate that.

D/Will: I tell my homies in Cali all the time that the weather here shapes my sound! One day it's cold and
gloomy and the next day it's 70 and gorgeous. I get inspired by the little things.

Have both/either of you been around KCMO long enough to see Johnson County grow? I'm curious if you've noticed how people relocating from areas like Illinois or Texas has impacted local music.

Stik Figa: I haven't been able to see how JoCo has made an impact any more or less then any other area. There's talented folks on both sides of the state line.

D/Will: I live in North Kansas City and although I respect Johnson County, I'm not around it enough to be able to recognize the difference. Although, we rocked at JCCC a few years back [October 9, 2008 with Deep Thinkers] and the crowd was all love!

I'm embarrassed to recognize the "I wanna get chocolate wasted!" sample in "Black Jack". (That said I love it.) When the beats and lyrics come together, how much time is spent afterwards adding subtle things like that? 

D/Will:  I feel like that's my job as a producer! I want to impact the mood of the listener and I always bounce off lyrics. Stik will say things in the rhyme that triggers images and feelings -- I take that image
and translate it to sound.

Stik Figa: We make all kinds of things happen after the fact. Mostly it's us building on the skeleton off the song, and wanting to make them more fun. I will say, "Ya know, what would be funny if...." or D comes up with fresh additions like live guitar or bass. 

D/Will: The process is simple: I send Stik very basic beat snipps, probably between 10-20. He picks what he feeling and begins to write. We meet at the studio and record over the basic skeleton of the beat. I take the session home and complete the production and mix in my home studio. Sometimes the beat needs a lot of work, sometimes I don't change anything, sometimes I change the entire beat!

Stik Figa: It's a very organic thing with us. Just a couple of friends havin' fun making a record.

KCMJ: Since the recording process is fun, does that normally lead to songs being better the faster they get done, or does it being fun make being meticulous about tracks easier?

Stik Figa: Well [the process is] fun simply cause we're creating freely, adding and subtracting, tweaking as we go along. D is more detail oriented than I am, which is absolutely necessary since he is also part of the mixing process. And me, I just try to add my personality to the songs, and make the listening experience more personal.

D/will, I think Beat Emporium: Cartoon is really picking up on something I can't believe hasn't been more prevalent (sampling 90s cartoons). I think it sounds great on its own, but is the purpose of releasing them so others will use them/rap on top of them?

D/Will: The Beat Emporium was the biggest blessing ever!!! I've gained a great new audience from it; I didnt make that record for emcees at all. I made it for the people that enjoy my production style, cats like you that understand hip hop and the sampling process.

KCMJ: I think you really set a bar with them. Will Cartoon Beats sneak into any of your other music projects?

D/Will: Thanks my man! I had a lot of fun making that record. I'm not sure if cats are gonna rap on'em or not but if they do it's cool. But if your familiar with my work you can notice some of those Beat Emporium joints from previous projects. Example. "HeartBrake" was on Hello and Goodbye. Cartoon Beat Emporium 2: March 2012.

Stik Figa, could you talk about how the title of the song "Mike Vick" is connected to the lyrics, excluding the more obvious intro and outro to the song?

Stik Figa: Yea Mike Vick was one of those things, man. I felt that he was someone who was made to be the medias whipping boy for a while, and it wasn't entirely fair. So, I was just kinda of relating to that on a day-to-day level. When people don't necessarily have all the facts and details about a person, they're quick to make judgments. I am really glad to see him make a comeback!

The #HappyHour mixtape is constantly in rotation at my house. It reminds me of Black Star and other late-90s DJ HiTek projects. Are you guys fans? What other groups/DJs from that time period have been influences on you guys?

D/Will: Maaaan! People are always tellin us that they love Happy Hour!! We made that album in about 2hrs!! He came out to my spot, I bought some Crown and Coke, and we got faded and made it, hahaha. It was a lot of fun! Im a Black Star fan but more of a Premo [DJ Premier] and Guru type guy. From the very start Stik and I modeled our style after Gang Starr and kinda kid about being the KC version. Dirty, minimal, but decent mix quality. Most of all we just wanted to create our sound, and I think we did that.

Stik Figa: I am definitely a fan of duos like Gang Starr, Black Star, Kweli and Hi-Tek...

KCMJ: I didn't know about Gang Starr until I saw them open for Rage Against the Machine in 1999. Do you think they ever got their full due?

D/Will: I think they did, but in their own way. Ask anybody that loves hip hop to name a group and they will prolly say Preem and Guru. 

Stik Figa: But me and D/Will are both fans of Three 6 Mafia. Always been into their approach to production and making songs that make ya wanna fight somebody.

D/Will: I'm a huge Three 6 fan!! I've got the full discography including solo albums. Three 6 Mafia & Lords of the Underground inspired me to want to make beats. As a kid, I would memorize the beat and sequencing of songs rather than the lyrics. I took pride in being able to hear the little things going on in the back of the track.

KCMJ: Three 6 turned 20 years old as a group this year. I think Waka Flocka Flame/Lex Luger pull from older Three 6 a lot, especially in production. Do you think rap's pulling a "Remember the 90s?" like alternative/indie music is?

Stik Figa: Yea rap is being more self referential then its been in a while. You have guys like Spaceghostpurrp who sounds a lot like Three 6 back in the Prophet Posse days, or a NY artist like ASAP Rocky who seems to get infulence from Houston underground and Bone Thugs. So as long as acknowledgement of the past is around, I see it as a good thing for the music.

Thanks again to both D/Will and Stik Figa for their time. Make sure you visit their bandcamp pages and buy what you dig.