yellow magic

This past week has been difficult, as my significant other has had a very serious family emergency to cope with and I’ve been preoccupied with helping her get through it all. Needless to say I haven’t had much time or interest in doing things like blogging. But I’d thought I’d share with you some music that makes me smile and yearn for a return to the happier, simpler days of my childhood. It seems popular music today is showing a heavy influence of the electronic, danceable, early ’80s (in groups as diverse as Hot Chip, MIA, MGMT, etc). I’d like to pay homage to one of the bands that helped to create those wonderful electro-poppy sounds: Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Back in college a friend of mine named Rickmond (who had the unique talent of being able to instantly play, on his Casio keyboard, any television theme song you could name) used to tell me about one of his fav musician/composers, Ryuichi Sakamoto. The stuff he showed me at the time didn’t interest me much; it sounded like new-agey world music. Little did I realize this dude, along with 2 other Japanese guys, formed one of the most influential Electropop bands of the late 70s/early 80s. The only way I can describe them is like Nintendo meets Kraftwerk meets Hiroshima.

Their music video for the 2-song suite Computer Games/Firecracker (the former is an intro for the latter) is quite phenomenal and is rewarding to watch all the way through. And below is a video of them performing Firecracker live at the Budokan in 1980. You get to see Yukihiro Takahashi smack those synth drums with his Billy Dee Williams-esque pimp mustache, and there’s some nice shots of Ryuichi Sakamoto displaying his keyboard chops. But the highlight has to be the pig-tailed keyboardist and her aerobics instructor dance–she’s got more stage presence than all of the other guys combined. Definitely worthy of the slow-motion shots.

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Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 2:49 am  Leave a Comment  

racoon alley

Soran Wataridori album coverSeveral years ago I acquired a rather mysterious album at a garage sale. Well, the only reason it was mysterious was because it was a Japanese record with hardly a shred of English on it, save the title that was printed on the center label: “Soran Wataridori.” On the cover was a technicolor-ish photo of two young ladies wielding shamisens and wearing some crazy pointed straw hats. Based on their outfits alone I could tell this music was gonna be gangsta.

I was right. These ladies could really sing and play their shamisens, and they were backed by an orchestra. The arrangements were nice and definitely reflected the era in which it was recorded (1961, I believe). For the most part the tracks are fairly traditional Japanese folk songs, but towards the end of the album they start letting loose. The closer of the album, my favorite track, starts off with a kind of Rockabilly / New Orleans shuffle, and by the time the shamisens kick in I was hollering “wooo!!.” Shit is hot, check it out:

I decided to find out more about this album, so I enlisted the help of my grandma, who can read Japanese. When I showed her the name of this song, she laughed and said it was a rather strange title. The title, “Tanuki Kōji no Onēchan,” literally means “Elder sister of Racoon Alley.” When she translated the lyrics (which were thankfully printed on the album jacket), it started to make sense. I guess Racoon Alley is the name of a street. Here’s my grandma’s rough translation of the 1st verse:

Does everybody know them? Does everybody know them? / A lady has a little shop on Racoon Alley / a red neon sign comes on in the evening / 2 sisters are real sexy and charming, that’s the selling point / customers come every night, and it’s full of people / big sister plays the shamisen and sings with charm / the customers join together and dance

As it turns out, this genre of music is called Min’yō–traditional (or not so traditional) Japanese folk song. Coincidentally, my friend Lisa was trained in this style of music (her mother is a well-know and respected sensei of this style). I met Lisa when I had a weekly jam session gig down in Little Tokyo. One of the regular guitarists who would come and play at the session was a guy named Yu, and one of the bartenders was a singer named Natsu. Well, it turns out all three of them are in a band that fuses traditional Japanese folk songs with rock music, called Minyo Station. Check out their myspace page and listen to the track called “Yosakoi Naruko Odori.” It’s a dope, catchy song that makes me throw up the evil hand and thrash my imaginary hair–and what’s more, I’ve never heard anything like it. I imagine that if you could find Racoon Alley today, you’d find a cool little divey music club where the customers all get up and dance, and on the stage you’d find this band.

Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 2:07 am  Comments (3)  

down, down, down, red knight going down!

The other day my friend Renato emailed me this video featuring emcees who go by the monikers Prime Directive and Galaxy Class. I must admit, the video is quite impressive, with clips that must have been the result of sifting through countless hours of Star Trek: the Next Generation episodes, and even two Star Trek shorties (obviously their girlfriends cause who else is going to do this). I had a few LOLs, no doubt. But it only reminded me of the fact that years ago (the summer of 2000, to be exact) my best friend David Vaknin and I produced what has to be the definitive Star Trek rap. And this ain’t no “nerd core” soft shit neither. This is on some straight up from the streets of the Yay Area, battle-to-the-death tip. That’s right, we went hyphy before there was hyphy and we did in outer space!

What this song essentially is, is a battle rap between Captain Kirk and 1st Officer Spock. Only instead of battling to the death on the planet Vulcan (like that famous episode), they’re in some weird Medieval Times universe, a la one of the best scenes in the brilliant comedy The Cable Guy. The intro to this song is probably one of the funniest parodies of bad sci-fi I’ve ever heard, and Dave wrote the whole damn thing on a scrap of paper in like 15 minutes and then recorded it in one take. I don’t think he really even knew that much about Star Trek either (which probably made it funnier). And I’m not really sure why I’m channeling late 80s Will Smith as the voice of Spock, but somehow it works (must have been my non-stop rotation of “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” on Sony Walkman when I was 10).

So now folks, after a long-winded intro, here’s the ground-breaking (and newly re-mastered) track, entitled “Sworn NME.” From the summer of ’00. Eat your heart out Bret and Jemaine!

You can download the song here.

Published in: on June 4, 2008 at 2:19 am  Comments (1)  

my diet

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

The artist must be like that Marine. he has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.

-Steven Pressfield

This quote is from one of the most important books I’ve ever read: “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield . I made a copy of those two paragraphs, enlarged them, and taped it to my wall. It’s from the section entitled “HOW TO BE MISERABLE,” and whenever I’m feeling miserable I re-read those lines and I feel better.

A few mornings ago I woke up from a dream in which I was being disciplined by a marine corps drill sergeant. Except the drill sergeant was an old Boy Scouts “scoutmaster” from my childhood, who I didn’t particularly like.* He was yelling at us to press up our faces against a concrete wall. Except where I was standing, there was only a chain-link fence. I pressed my face up against it harder and harder, but there was a wire protruding from the fence, and it eventaully broke my skin and impaled my nose. All of a sudden, a lightbulb clicked on, and I pulled my face from the fence, with a bloody hole in my nose, and started yelling at the guy. I told him he had no right to talk to me that way, that I was a grown man now, and that I’d already been through shit, like the death of my dad, that would make marine training seem like a walk through the park. He was taken aback and had nothing to say; that’s when I woke up.

The night before I had been thinking about how the anniversary of my dad’s death was coming up in a little over a week. It will be five years. I’ve often felt that I’ve wasted away a good percentage of those years just trying to recover; and because of that, I’m a lot farther behind in my career and maturity than a lot of other artists my same age. But I think this dream helped me realize that I have the right to view myself as an adult and be proud of my accomplishments. That in this war of art, I’m not some young, green recruit but a full-fledged soldier in the field.** Take that stupid scoutmaster!

* if you know me, you know I’m sort of the exact opposite of the ideal Boy Scout, which is why I dropped out after the first badge–my dad often joked that I surpassed him by one badge, because when he was a kid he dropped out before earning any!

** Of course I’m not someone who would glorify real war… it’s a metaphor yo!

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 9:01 pm  Comments (2)