Saturday, 10 November 2012

Hip-hop is folk music grown from the struggle

We were having a conversation the other night about music, as people in pubs are wont to do.  The basic thread of the discussion was that music never sounds as good as when you first hear it.  Bands flagged up for our generation were general alternative sounds, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Offspring and various nu-metal bands, and ages referenced about 13-14.

I’ve been thinking about the conversation last day or so, and thought about my Love Affair With blogs where I analyse my affection and history for bands which made me (click here for The Ramones, The Who and Sonic Boom Six).

I am a very nostalgic person, and I do cling to music passionately I discovered when I was 16.  The Clash, The Ramones, Sex Pistols…  But I guess the thing about those bands was I played them over and over again, learnt every single word to every song and read all the biographies, autobiographies and watched the documentaries.  And they came thick and fast all at once.  And within a very short space of time, pretty much 2005-2007.

However there is a song which for me, totally proves that I can still get excited my new music.  I had never heard of B.Dolan before I saw him support Scroobius Pip at Fibbers last year, and my only interaction with the name has been tweeting on Twitter and asking how much his CDs were.

B.Dolan comes from a spoken word/poetry background, but it essentially a rap artist.  My rap knowledge isn’t bad, but I’d never claim to be a hip-hop fan lest I put my foot in it.  I like NWA, Grandmaster Flash, Sage Francis, Lowkey, Jurassic 5, Flobots and, of course, Public Enemy, but I’m afraid I don’t know much beyond the artists I like into the genre as a whole.

But B.Dolan released House of Bees vol. 2, on which is a track called Which Sid Are You On.  This is an old, old Union song.  Probably to the punk scene, DKM have the most famous version, but I have a track recorded by Natalie Merchant and the Almanac Singers.  The song dates back to Florence Reece in 1931, and a perfect example of an America pro-Union pro-pikcetline folk tune.

B.Dolan’s version is about homophobia in the hip-hop scene, lambasting homophobic and sexist rappers and declaring unity and pride within the gay community.  It’s a powerful statement to make in America alone, never mind the rap circuit.  But B.Dolan has the conviction to pull it off, the lyrics are ferocious and direct, but also wrapped within his staunch delivery.  What I love, with the almost-eerie backdrop of the folk music, and I adore his lyric:  “Hip-hop is folk music grown from the struggle” and that understanding everything is connected linked and is a continual growth is so very exciting.

Tomorrow night I see the ace Al Baker, the man who without doubt cemented my love for radical folk music and opened my eyes to the folk-punk scene.  Al covers a song by Evan Greer called Go Call FEMA, but rewrote the lyrics for the UK.  Around 1930, poet Alfred Hayes wrote a tribute to mighty US socialist and Unionist Joe Hill called ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’.  Earl Robinson turned the poem into a song in 1936 has been covered and adapted by Pete Seeger, The Dubliners, Billy Bragg and Tom Morello.  Al’s version is a dedication to 1960s folk icon Phil Ochs.  That is the tradition of folk music, to hand down a song and for each generation to tweak, change and adapt.

This probably comes down to me being a fairly obsessive person, I get fixated easily on one genre/thing.  However I think for hip-hop and folk, there are still new areas to explore.  Folk and hip-hop has deep roots but constantly evolve.  Punk does too, but in a more dawdling fashion.  Theatre evolves too, the second we say “everything has been done that can be done” we have failed ourselves as artists and our audiences.

So please watch B.Dolan’s Which Side Are You On, come see Al Baker on Saturday night at the Black Swan and keep music fresh, and still get excited by the evolution.

Some bands I recently discovered that have blown my mind:

I would LOVE to catch Apologies, I Have None and Crazy Arm live. Last year I discovered Louise Distras, Grace Petrie and Richie Blitz as fantastic political folk musicians.  I will go and skank to Faintest Idea at Pie Race 4 next week.  And Jake & The Jellyfish are still to release a proper album.  I’m listening to Crowns new album.  It’s not flawless, but a find addition.  And Frank Turner has never set me wrong.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

My Love Affair #3: Sonic Boom Six

My Love Affair With #3:  Sonic Boom Six (click here for The Ramones and The Who)

I was 17 in 2006, and just discovered politics, philosophy and, importantly, punk at York College.  We would rock to Sex Pistols tribute bands, UK Subs, Anti-Nowhere League gigs and battle of the bands.  One gig, watching the local streetpunk band The Mighty Boooze, led us to catch this bizarre ska-metal band.  A few months later, I went to check out that odd ska-metal band again, this time they were supporting another odd fusion outfit.  The ska-metal band were, of course, Random Hand and the band the supported were Sonic Boom Six.

I didn’t know what to make of this band.  They played to a smallish crowd, little dancing but everyone was into it.  It sounded fresh and very different, but all I bought was a poster and went away feeling impressed, if a tad puzzled.

 ♫ What'll it be like when we get older?
We can be far away from here we're going to the moon my dear.
I see the spaceman over my shoulder wave to earth and disappear ♪ 

Later that year, I hunted down their debut album, I think for £13, from HMV and gave it a spin.  From then onwards, I was hooked and tracked down the Boom from the grandest of Slam Dunk Fests to the grim little venue in Knaresborough, Daddy Cools.

The best gig that really cemented it was The Boom, The King Blues, Mouthwash and Failsafe at Joseph’s Well.  It felt packed-out, it felt electric with people singing along, dancing and I felt part of something.  I know that’s cliché, or a wishy-washy punk rhetoric, but it’s true.  The music of SB6 made me part of a special underground scene.  Made it feel like it mattered.  I don’t think I can underestimate the power of discovering a modern underground ska-punk scene.  Not a 30 year-old feature in Uncut Magazine, a real, tangible and rockin’ movement.


Oh, and I got into Uni.

I went merrily off to Leeds Uni, and interviewed them for the student radio for their Arcade Perfect tour alongside Grown At Home and The Flamin Tsunamis (did anyone else ever notice the drumsticks on that album cover made Barney look like he has antenna?).  A song from this time sticks out, September To May, which was seemingly about students feeling like their home was temporary and never committing to politics of community in their new city.  I raised points like this throughout my time at Leeds, including a seminar on David Peace. 

City of Thieves didn’t wow me at first, but the album revealed itself to me in time as a cleverly constructed masterpiece, and didn’t disappoint.  Neither did their 2011 singles, and it’s a shame Sunny Side of the Street isn’t part of their live set, nor got more acclaim from the mainstream.  Beautiful track.

♫ So forget the having all the best of what they make
And make the best of you do have ♪

Sonic Boom Six were part of my Big Three.  The King Blues, for their riotous politics and Random Hand, for their intense live show.  But SB6 were always out there as my favourite modern band.  At the time I listened to them, I was discovering my politics and my place in the world.  I was understanding how I felt about music, I was understanding how I felt about politics, and I was beginning to really try and craft my writing as a playwright and poet. 

♪ It’s not about choosing guitar or the decks, it’s going it yourself that gets the respect ♫

I can break the Boom down to having about three different styles of writing.  They will sing about:

1.       Fusing genres (Rape of Punk to Come, Bigger Than Punk Rock, All-In, New Style Rocka)

2.      Politics, community, society and nationality (Blood for Oil, Piggy In the Middle, Bang Bang Bang Bang!, For The Kids of the Multiculture, Virus, Ya Basta!, Flatline)

3.      GrownGRoTell a story about a character, often a girl (Don’t Say I Never Warned Ya, Shareena, Flower, Rum Little Skallywag, Gary Got a Gun, Sound of a Revolution, Meanwhile Back In the Real World)

There was so much wealth in their albums.  I picked out so many ideas about consumerism, war, poverty, the media etc. as well as how to craft a story.  Also, importantly, music can be fused.  I was a mod who loved punk.  Of course music was an open platter to mix and match. They (alongside The Hand) taught me the relevance of rap and hip-hop music (and Street Fighter).  In fact, I’d say SB6 were an educational band.

♫ Back in the Stone Age people worshipped The Sun and after 20,000 years you might have thought we’d have moved on ♪

So after Ben left to live abroad in America, what did I think to the new Boom?  The new writing is still very good, the songs have energy, make you want to dance and do have messages, ideas and stories all crammed within.  Their live show was still very enjoyable, they have that cheekiness live as well as understanding what makes a great gig, throws songs at the crowd until they beg for more.  In terms of the musical content, I do miss the skankability and the punkiness, but I’m giving the album time to grow on me as I have done with all albums, including SB6’s first releases.

Remember before when I said I felt part of something special with Sonic Boom Six and the ska-punk scene?  I feel that way with politics and anti-cuts action, I feel that way with the poetry scene in the UK, and the theatre scene in York.  SB6 wrote these words:

♫ So stand, be proud, of this underground that we have found: this is our sound.

Within these walls we are as one, beyond the rape of punk to come. ♪

I’ve seen SB6 so many times I’ve lost count.  Perhaps about 20ish times?  So yes, I do remember the day we caught the train on their latest track Keep On Believing.  And, yes, I do remember the legends, the bands, the gigs and the song lyrics.  And here, in 2012, as I look at this rank ConDem government hacking apart everything seemingly without resistance and the US on the verge of electing a madman like Romney, I still have faith in the music of Sonic Boom Six and what we choose to believe in.

♪ You gotta keep on believing.  Maybe all we know is there’s a world much better than this… ♫

Essential Track:  OK, so I'm afraid it's got to be a classic track, which is a shame, like I say, nothing wrong with their new work on the new album, but for me it's gotta be:
Essential rock moment:  I remember after they supported RBF and Streetlight Manifesto played Manchester Met I bumped into all three bands outside and drunkenly escorted them to Slam Dunk at the Cockpit, being sober and able to navigate Leeds.