Creatively Boundless

The Pittsburgh Sound – AJ Allen & Kai Roberts by ajallen92
August 9, 2009, 1:44 am
Filed under: Features

Art lives on the corner of Baum and South Highland, at Shadow Lounge, where local artists congregate to express themselves. Though this venue offers a way for artists to grow collectively, some say many Pittsburgh artists are looking out for solely themselves. Many artists say selfishness, arrogance, and pride keep Pittsburgh artists from prominence.

In a glance around Pittsburgh’s hip-hop scene, one is exposed to a dismal reality.  Hip-hop appears to be a dying movement, illustrated through voiceless emcees, mere remnants of old graffiti art, gig-less D.J.s, and b-boys out of shape from inactivity waiting for hip-hop’s reincarnation.

The hip-hop music industry is dried up and an under-accomplished enterprise suggests E. Dan, the owner and operator of I.D Labs Studio, in Lawrenceville. He says there is not a much of a hip-hop scene in Pittsburgh, and that past years have shown there are little means for expression and production. He says the music industry was better a few years ago, but has declined as time progressed.

Over the last few years, Pittsburgh has shown that it has the capability to produce big name artists such as Wiz Khalifa and Pittsburgh Slim. The recent news of the closing of WAMO radio station is no help either.  “WAMO closing is sort of like the nail on the coffin to me,” E. Dan says with a slight chuckle.  He adds that WAMO is the only radio station that is dedicated to hip-hop and R&B.

With the lack of active establishments and means of promotion to local listeners, the status of the Pittsburgh music industry might be deterrent for young talent.   Other underground hip-hop enthusiasts see WAMO as a station that fails to adequately support its local artists. Though it is the only black-owned radio station in Pittsburgh, local artists such as Tim “SMI” Guthrie feels that the loss of the station is nothing to fret over.

To remedy this problem, what are local hip-hop artists doing to aid local talent and build a stronger hip-hop industry in Pittsburgh?  E. Dan said that to build the industry, Pittsburgh artists must take chances on venues that will showcase hip-hop music and elements of hip-hop culture.  He adds that there are very few establishments that are bent on showcasing and recording.  Two notable exceptions were the Shadow Lounge located in East Liberty and I.D. Labs.  E. Dan calls his studio a place where local artists can record, collaborate with one another and market their products.

The Shadow Lounge attracts a diverse group of people who share a common interest in local music. Guthrie, a local artist and co-founder of the Shadow Lounge, believes that the lack of success among local artists has little to do with talent. Guthrie sees a lack of marketing and production.  He also believes that success is relative. In the words of Guthrie, it “depends on what you’re in it for.”  Guthrie describes that the Shadow Lounge is an establishment that showcases local talent and gives local artists the means of expression.

Loran Boksenbaum, a Shadow Lounge attendee, felt the reason for the limited success of local artists was their passivity. Boksenbaum thinks local artists need to be more proactive in promoting their music.

Local poet Luqmon Abdus-salaam has an optimistic attitude. Abdus-salaam said that talent is not hindering local artists but selfishness amongst local hip-hop artists is. He adds that many artists are looking for their prosperity for themselves but not their fellow artists. Instead of working together to achieve success they conflict with each other, Abdus-Salaam said.

Another local hip-hop figure is Armstead Brown, the co-founder of a hip-hop competition called Rhyme Calisthenics, which is held at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre in East Liberty. Brown calls it an emcee competition that challenges the diversity, skill, style, and endurance of 16 local rappers.

“We wanted young rappers to be more expressive and more versatile with their music, ” Brown explained.  Established in 2007, the competition has continuously grown in popularity and funding.  Now with corporate sponsors such as Nakturnal and community support, the competition is gaining influence in the Pittsburgh area.

“Pittsburgh has a lot of great talent,” Brown says in agreement. He said that young artists have to learn to embrace the hip-hop culture, and to create an individual and creative voice in their music.

Aside from establishing venues and programs, E. Dan believes that the responsibility rests on the hip-hop community. “It’s up to the artists,” he says.


Contemporary Jazz – AJ Allen by ajallen92
July 21, 2009, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Features

A few days ago I started a Pandora station in search of, what I consider to be, Contemporary Jazz. I figured that adding elements of both Amy Winehouse (jazzy pop) and A Tribe Called Quest (jazzy hip-hop) would help me to reach a happy medium. I feared finding the top 40 pop artists that are too often worshiped in the modern music culture. On the pop end I found myself listening to Sara Bareilles and Norah Jones both who use jazzy elements in their music more often than one would think. On the hip-hop end I found myself listening to more Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Black Star, and the Fugees (with some of Lauryn Hill’s solo work). On the Jazz end I heard, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, and even Frank Sinatra.

One of the artists that really stood out to me was Adele. Her influences, Etta James and Jill Scott, add a soulful element to her music which iTunes classifies as pop. She is not the first British pop artist with a soulful voice; in fact her voice is reminiscent of Joss Stone’s but they differ in their musical styles. Adele does an amazing cover of Sam Cooke’s “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin On,” through which she shows her outstanding abilities as an artist. After listening to this I thought to myself that this is the Contemporary Jazz that I was searching for because of its ability to be representative of both modern music and the soulful music of Sam Cooke’s time.

“That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin On” – Sam Cooke

“That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin On” – Adele’s Cover

While listening to my music, I noticed that some of today’s pop artists have in fact made attempts to connect with the music of the past. I knew that all music is a result of music in a prior era and that music has evolved. Regardless, I thought that the majority of today’s pop artists had lost touch with the past and therefore the quality of their music had deteriorated. Through my listening experience the last few days I discovered that not all pop music has deviated too far from its roots. Songs like Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” and Corine Bailey Rae’s “Til it Happens to You” show a logical progression or evolution from one era to another. Finally, I discovered that Jazz of yesterday has evolved into the Pop & R&B of today, and that the artists of today still appreciate the music of their predecessors.

I Got Soul – Nico Satryan by ajallen92

Over the past few years, the artist John Legend has crashed into my musical vision.  I discovered this artist on the soundtrack of the Will Smith movie Hitch, the track a soulful take on the Stevie Wonder classic, “Don’t You Worry Bout’ A Thing.”  Legend has a soulful voice, and an amazing mastery of the piano.  In many ways, you could say that he is much like Stevie Wonder. In fact, the two have played together on a few occasions, usually performing Wonder’s standard, “Higher Ground”.  Legend is great artist, and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so because the guy has six Grammys under his belt.

Legend’s most popular song right now on iTunes™ is “Green Light” with Andre 3000, and although the track shows significant musical talent, it is not completely representative of his ability.  Many of Legend’s songs have uplifting lyrics, though some rely more heavily on melody than poeticism.  Regardless, you will be hard pressed to find a meaningless Legend lyric, whether they are about love, peace, or just dreams.

Legend’s first album, Get Lifted, was a great start to his musical career.  Before this album however, he did participate in a few collaborations with other notable artists such as Kanye West, but still put off recording any of his original creations until this album.  Personally, I think the best songs on the album are “Ordinary People”, and the title track, “Let’s Get Lifted”.  Some say that “Let’s Get Lifted” is about an experience he had while high (on drugs), while others suggest that it just discusses a feeling of happiness and love.  This second theory is backed by the fact that the song is a duet with a notable female singer.

Ordinary People” has a truly awesome meaning behind it, and it’s put into beautiful words.  (I suggest that you listen to the lyrics when you listen to any song instead of listening to just the music or the beat)  Before the first chorus of the song, Legend sings, “I know I’ve misbehaved,/ and you’ve made your mistakes,/ and we both still got room left to grow./ And though love sometimes hurts,/ I still put you first,/ and we’ll make this thing work,/ but I think we should take it slow/ We’re just ordinary people…”  Legend is stressing his thoughts on the necessity of taking things slow in love, and not rushing into things.  Legend goes on to describe how deep love can run, and how fragile love is.  On top of all this, it’s a beautiful song, especially when the 20 seat orchestra chimes in to his explosive last chorus.

These songs make Legend’s first album a hit, earning it multi-platinum status.

His second album, Once Again was another great album to follow up his debut album just two short years after.  The first single from this album was a song called “Save Room“, which had a very nice feel to it.  This song discusses the complexities of life, and how easy it is to get caught up and miss things along the way.  Legend tells us to “chill” and “save room”.  Legend sings, “Say that you’ll stay a little,/ don’t say bye bye tonight./  Say you’ll be mine, just a little bit of love is worth a moment of your time./…Save room for my love./  Save room for a moment to be with me.”

Another great track on the Once Again is a song called “Heaven” which again talks about another love related topic.  Other great songs on this album include “Show Me”, “King and Queen”, and (my personal favorite from this album) a song called “Each Day Gets Better.”

Legend’s most recent album, Evolver, has some really meaningful songs.  A song called “Everybody Knows” is about how truly clueless we really are on some things.  In “Everybody Knows“, Legend sings, “Everybody knows that,/ nobody really knows,/ how to make it work,/ or how to ease the hurt./ We’ve heard it all before, and/ everybody knows,/ just how to make it right./  I wish we gave it one more try.”  This song is about the word “if”.  We all use this word.  We all wish we could do some things differently now that we know something that could have helped back then.  This album also features a really cool remix of “Green Light”, that has a more reggae feel to it.

Check John Legend out on iTunes, or just youtube him.

Chi-Town – AJ Allen by ajallen92

Over the years Chicago has produced some of the greatest rappers of all time. Many of these rappers are conscious rappers and have taken hip hop to a higher level with their creative lyrics and their original sounds. These rappers are extremely good lyricists who made the lyrics in they’re songs incredibly significant by making people think about things in new ways and giving their listeners their intelligent opinions that are very different from what you typically hear in commercial rap. Not only have these artists taken their lyrics to new heights but they have also all found ways of infiltrating the main stream. It is very odd to find conscious well known rappers. One thing that many of these rappers had in common was their hometown Chicago, Illinois, also known as Chi-town.

One of the very significant Chicago rappers that we see today is Kanye West. West grew up in Chicago and went on to do amazing things with hip-hop. In his first album, The College Dropout, he talked about subject matters too honest and too real for most commercial rappers. Kanye was one of the few rappers to dig deep and discuss topics that would typically be ignored, and still manage to get on the radio. One of the most amazing things that West did in his entire career, was get radio play for his song, “Jesus Walks.” In this song he speaks about the lack of variety of subject matter in mainstream hip hop music, and attempts to diversify hip hop with a track about Jesus. In the song he says, “So here go my single dog radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played Huh?” Oddly enough the song that he thought would get absolutely no radio play managed to become very popular amongst listeners of mainstream hip-hop. Since The College Dropout, West’s music seems to have taken several bad turns. West seems to have become extremely caught up in his fame and fortune and the majority his music seems to reflect this. But independent of outside influences and fan pressure, West managed to pull off one of the greatest conscious hip-hop albums of all time in, The College Dropout. The College Dropout shows how West’s experiences growing up in Chicago have given him the experiences necessary to promote and encourage social change.

Another amazing product of Chicago is Common. He is by far the rapper who has been around the longest of all the rappers mentioned in this article and has done extremely well in establishing himself as the face of conscious hip-hop. The rapper has proven himself through thick and thin, and has never been a big radio artist, but has perpetually left his mark on the conscious rap community through great tracks that make people think and that emphasize the struggles that he has been through. Common has made amazing songs but he also expresses himself extremely well through spoken word poetry. Common opens this piece, “Be Known”, by setting himself apart from commercial rappers and sharing his intentions as a hip-hop artist.

Another Chicago rapper who has done extremely well in making meaningful tracks is Lupe Fiasco. This artists has amazed his fans more and more with each and everyone of the tracks on his albums, and the freestyles on his mixtapes. Fiasco is a former comic book writer manifests that creativity in his albums. Fiasco manages to use poetic devices in his music to help him to get his points across to his intelligent listeners. Fiasco is known for going over peoples heads because of his surprising knowledge of all the subjects he raps about. If you can manage to interpret Fiasco’s lyrics you will find that he is the greatest lyricist of all time. Fiasco enjoys talking about where he came from and how he has managed to escape mistakes that the people around him have made in order to get where he is now. He talks about his native town Chicago and the type of environment that he grew up in, in his song “Comin From Where I’m From.” In this song he talks about the struggles that he had to overcome but also shows admiration for his city and the person that it has made him today.

T.I.’s Transformation – AJ Allen by ajallen92

Over the years hip-hop artists have made efforts to reach the people and to change the dynamic of inner-city life through their music. Amongst much main-stream hip-hop there is a significant group of artists who pride themselves in their ability to affect young minds. Many of these artists take mistakes that they have made in their lives, or mistakes that they have seen their peers make, and find a creative method to inform their listeners on how not to make those same mistakes.

One artist who has used their music as a way to help young people not to fall into the same traps that he has fell into is T.I. He has experienced an exceptional amount of adversity throughout his career. He has had an exceptional amount of charges and arrests and has finally decided to take full responsibility for his behavior and change his life for the better. Due to his prior faults he has been sentenced to a year and a day in jail. His sentence with good behavior could potentially be shortened to 10 months.

It has taken T.I. many arrests and even the deaths of his friends for him to change his ways. In previous albums T.I. has spent a significant amount of time talking about drugs and guns. In his 2003 hit song, Rubber Band Man, he starts the song with, “Rubberband man/wild as the taliban/9 in my right/45 in my other hand.” This is a clear representation the life that the rapper used to live. Since then a lot has changed for T.I. he has became a completely new person. Maybe it was his most recent charge that caused his change of heart, but T.I. is proud to notify the public about his changes.

T.I. was required by law to serve 1,000 hours of community service telling children about the dangers of gang violence. The rapper took this even further, when he started a show on MTV to help kids who had made the same decisions that he had earlier in his life. T.I’s Road to Redemption was a show where T.I. would talk to kids involved in criminal activity and show them the consequences they would face if they continued to live the way that they were living. He changed many lives through this show, for not only the people who were on the show, but also his viewers.

T.I.’s most recent album, Paper Trail, has also been a way for him to showcase the mistakes that he has made and make things right with his fans. He devotes a significant amount of his album to telling his listeners not to make the same mistakes that he has. He still has the radio hits such as Swagger Like Us, Whatever You Like and Live Your Life but he has many other tracks talking about the changes that he has made in his personal life such as Dead and Gone, Slide Show, and No Matter What. The rappers turn for the good has shown his dedication to becoming a new and improved person, and his message of responsibility and learning your mistakes has been clearly expressed and hopefully embraced by his listeners. The rapper’s message to the public is clearly communicated in his song, Dead and Gone, when he says, “No regrets I’m blessed to say/the old me’s dead and gone away.”