Wednesday, April 30, 2008


If there's one thing I love more than vaguely obtuse economics talk and French theory, it's sandwiches! I've experimented with sundry ingredients such as kimchee, English muffins, and sriracha sauce. This article describes 7 interesting culinary stacks available in New York.

The "Sandwich Marguez au Harrisa": "Mr. Atif’s time at the Cordon Bleu served him well, but eventually his cooking circled back to the spicy, paprika-reddened merguez sausages he said he learned to make from the Jewish butchers of Casablanca. The merguez are made daily at the cafe, cooked to order and stuffed into crusty, grilled “petit pain” — “little bread” in Casablanca, a.k.a. Italian rolls in Queens — with cubes of cucumber and tomato, chopped green olives and a hot-pink, spicy, garlicky harissa, also made in-house. “I mastered it through many kitchens,” he said. Wine vinegar and extra oil emulsify Mr. Atif’s harissa into a tangy sandwich spread that takes a bow toward mayonnaise."

I think I'm more exited to try that sandwich than to see anything else in New York, and I'm pretty interested in seeing New York.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

French Theory in America = Freedom Theory?

Mr. Fish has been on a roll lately. I've enjoyed his two recent columns decrying the recent guilt by association nonsense in the political press. And on top of that there's his two part discussion of French Literary Theory, another hobby horse of mine. The basic idea of French Theory is that we can't know the capitol T Truth because language affects our understanding of the world. This strikes me as somewhat common-sensical, but maybe that's because I've watched the Matrix too many times. Fish's point (or the point of the book Fish is discussing because Fish doesn't say things, he only says things about things *wink*wink*) is that French theory is accurate, but that it doesn't matter. This was the conclusion that Little Earl and I came to 5 years ago in our undergrad English program. Maybe Stan wouldn't be such a bad guy to have over for some arugula after all.

Any Econ Fans Out There?

Reading about economics is a hobby of mine, and I particularly enjoyed this speech by Jamie Galbraith, "The Collapse of Monetarism and the Irrelevance of the New Monetary Consensus". Galbraith critiques Milton Friedman's, and by extension Greenspan's and Bernanke's, approach to monetary policy. He believes that the current crisis demonstrates that government should concern itself with regulation of banking and speculative investment instead of focusing solely on the money supply.

Jamie Galbraith is the son of famous liberal economist, John Kenneth Galbraith. Wikipedia provides the following summary of his book The Affluent Society: "Galbraith's main argument is that as society becomes relatively more affluent, so private business must "create" consumer wants through advertising, and while this generates artificial affluence through the production of commercial goods and services, the public sector becomes neglected as a result." A lot of populist economics is drivel, but I agree with that criticism of America. I could do without the extra few inches on TV's and different flavors of corn chips in exchange for better mass transit and schools. I think I'll add it to my summer reading list, after Bleak House and Against the Day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I Laugh At Torture

So as I was reading this charming little piece in the New Yorker detailing the history behind the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib (found by way of the Slate review of Errol Morris' new documentary Standard Operating Procedure), I couldn't help but laugh. Yeah, fine, torture is no laughing matter, yadda yadda yadda. But it's just that the whole enterprise reminds me so much of something out of a bad week at scout camp. I mean, sure, when I first heard about it, I was like, "How could this have happened?" But the situation, as presented in the article, is so basic, so common-place, really, I feel like I could have just as easily done the same thing. It's just the age-old problem of the people in charge not bothering to tell the underlings where to draw the line. Besides, once we decided to go to war like we did, what was the point of acknowledging any sort of moral rules at all? It's like, "Well, we can invade any country we want, but once we're there, remember not to abuse any of the prisoners!" Uh, don't think so. It's war. What did people expect? Some choice bits:

“I’m like, ‘Hey, Sarge, why is everyone naked?’ You know—‘Hey, that’s the M.I. That’s what the M.I. does. That’s the M.I. thing. I don’t know.’ ‘Why do these guys have on women’s panties?’ Like—‘It’s to break them.’ Guys handcuffed in stress positions, in cells, no lights, no windows. Open the door, turn the light on—‘Oh my God, Allah.’ Click, turn the light off, close the door. It’s like, Whoa, what is that?"

The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names. Officially, they referred to their wards by their five-digit prison numbers, but the numbering system was confusing, and the numbers told you nothing about a person, which made them hard to remember. So the soldiers gave the prisoners nicknames based on their looks and their behavior. A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean. A prisoner who repeatedly soaked his mattress with water was Swamp Thing. There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl.

Harman said that she began photographing what she saw because she found it hard to believe. “If I come up to you and I’m like, ‘Hey this is going on,’ you probably wouldn’t believe me unless I had something to show you,” she said. “So if I say, ‘Hey this is going on. Look, I have proof,’ you can’t deny it, I guess.”

“I guess we weren’t really thinking, Hey, this guy has family, or, Hey, this guy was just murdered,” Harman said. “It was just—Hey, it’s a dead guy, it’d be cool to get a photo next to a dead person. I know it looks bad. I mean, even when I look at them, I go, ‘Oh Jesus, that does look pretty bad.’ But when we were in that situation it wasn’t as bad as it looks coming out on the media, I guess, because people have photos of all kinds of things."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures In Rap #2: The Sugar Hill Records Story

To truly gain a comprehensive picture of rap's early days, I decided to give the 5-disc Sugar Hill Records Story a listen. And oh, the oddities I found.

The Sugar Hill Records box set takes a scholarly approach towards music that was never in one hundred million years intended to be viewed in a scholarly light. Think of it as the first set of The Complete Motown Singles series...without the following nine. Here we find rap as some sort of mutant bastard child of disco. Indeed, it is not clear from the music gathered here that rap would have been headed toward any sort of meaningful artistic future.

With the surprise success of "Rapper's Delight," Sugar Hill Records, one can assume, decided to milk that fluke for all it was worth. And so we have the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Reprise (JAM-JAM)" (chorus: "Jam jam a jibbie a jam jibbie jibbie jam jam jam on"), Wayne & Charlie (The Rapping Dummy)'s "Check It Out," and The Moments' "Baby Let's Rap Now (Dance A Little Later)," which is actually a straight-up soul ballad containing nary a whiff of rapping. Sadly the world would never hear from Super-Wolf again, although his introductory anthem "Super-Wolf Can Do It" suggests otherwise:

I'm the people's choice in this Rolls Royce
The ladies freak when they hear my voice
Every rich girls' dream and every poor girl's supreme
Often known as a sex machine
I'm the ladies' pimp and the men's threat
If you're looking for better they ain't made it yet
I know I'm tough, I've got the soul
When they made the Wolf, they broke the mold
I'm the Super-Wolf from Cherry Hill
I never work and I never will
My daddy was a player, my grandpa too
I don't know nothing else to do
So when you hear this beat and you hear my howl
You know the Wolf is on the prowl

And let's not forget West Street Mob's "Ooh Baby," in which a sexy chorus of disembodied disco divas chant "We - want - have a funky par-tay/But - make - sure...that you don't hurt nobody," to which a male vocoder voice replies "Ooooooh baby, I want to see you dance/Ooooooh lady, I want to touch your pants." Or Kevie Kev (Waterbed Kev)'s "All Night Long (Waterbed), which begins with the exhortation "Kev touch himself to prove that he's a freak!" The track that takes the cake in the strangeness department, however, has to be Chilly Kids' "At The Ice Arcade," which I am convinced appeared on Sugar Hill due to a mix up at the plant involving a shipment of Disney records, because otherwise I have no reasonable explanation for how it ended up here:

My homework's gotta wait, you know I'll do it later
But we rocked the Ice Arcade playing - Space Invaders!
I flunked my test, the teacher's annoyed
But we rocked the Ice Arcade playing- Asteroids!

But mostly the tracks are just standard generic disco/funk with the occasional curveball thrown in. It's interesting to note that at this stage in the game, the backing still consisted of live performance from Sugar Hill's house band rather than from sampling or DJ production, which is a major reason why Sugar Hill rap does not sound particularly far removed from that polyester-bespangled genre. The lone exception is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," which cuts between samples of "Good Times," Blondie's "Rapture" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and which, so I'm told, can lay claim to featuring the first recorded appearance of scratching.

Another aspect of early rap that feels like spillover from the disco era is the rather extended song length. Very quickly, rap songs became a good deal shorter, eventually nearing an average of roughly four to five minutes per song. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because rappers began taking the emphasis off dancing in order to stress emotional urgency?

It couldn't have been a bad move, because at this embryonic stage, it seems as though rappers didn't really know what to rap about. Take "Freedom," the debut single from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, for example:

Melle Mel is right on time
And Taurus the bull is my zodiac sign
And I'm Mr. Ness and I'm ready to go
And I go by the sign of Scorpio
My name is Raheem, I don't like to fuss
My Zodiac sign is Aquarius
Kid Creole is the name of mine
And Pisces is my Zodiac sign
I'm Cowboy and I'm running this show
My zodiac sign is a-Virgo
And Grandmaster Flash cuts so odd
His zodiac sign is Capricorn

Apparently rap needed a little more time before it realized that suitable topics extended beyond a) sexual prowess, b) video games, and c) astrological signs.

What I want to know is: who was the target audience for this music? What did early rap offer that standard disco did not? Was it really worth one's hard-earned money to hear second-rate Barry White wannabes rhyme about waterbeds? Then again, only a select few of these tracks were genuine "hits," so perhaps we have our answer right there.

Fortunately, rap would quickly find its own voice with the 1982 release of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's "The Message."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Add Another Blogger

Hello all.

A select few of you might recognize me from my various comments on this here blog, and some of you might even know me in person (luckyyy). I have accepted an invitation to offer up my point of view on subjects first hand as opposed to simply leaving a couple of poignantly scathing tidbits in the comment section.

I hope to bring a little more variety to the blog, and a little different viewpoint since it is blaringly obvious that I am a smidge more conservative than pretty much everyone posting or reading this blog. But forget all that; I don’t intend to blab primarily about political issues (regardless of the upcoming election), but instead to throw something different and fun your way.

Here's to fun.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gaffe Me With A Spoon

It takes quite the brouhaha to rile up a Little Earl, but I couldn't help but cringe in disbelief at some of the comments I saw floating around, particularly on Slate, regarding Obama's supposed "flap" toward working-class Pennsylvanians. Now call me crazy, but when I first read these words:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

I actually had to twist my neck and squint my eyes and hop up and down on one foot to find the "gaffe." To me, a serious gaffe would be a comment more along the lines of "You know, in a way, the United States deserved 9/11." That is the kind of comment that could actually kill a candidate's campaign. But this "bitter" comment is so ambigious and so nuanced that its gaffe potential seems murky at best. Which is why Hillary Clinton's attempt to milk the "flap" for all it's worth comes off as awkward, transparent, desperate, and unintentionally humorous. It's like she had to mold and shape the comment in order to turn it into a soundbite; as it is it's not very punchy.

But Hillary's feigned outrage is no surprise. Slate's apoplectic fatalism is. According to the pundits in The XX Factor, McCain might as well prepare his inauguration speech, because with his "bitter" comment, Obama has just rendered himself unelectable. Melinda Henneberger calls it "The worst thing I've heard Obama say." She writes: "Poor wording was not the problem; on the contrary, it was his precision that was so unfortunate, and his ability to pack half a dozen unintended insults into a single sentence uncanny. And in San Francisco, no less? Roger Ailes couldn't have planned it better, unless he'd maybe followed up the event with some impromptu windsurfing in the bay." Emily Bazelon seconds that emotion, calling the comments "bonbons for the GOP" and adding "Part of what's prompting the wincing and deep doubts, I think, is that Obama sounded like an anthropologist talking about objects of study to an audience that he assumed has the same disassociated point of view." Hannah Rosin piles on, noting that "This 'cling' flap just keeps getting worse," fretting, "He either recognizes that he insulted wide swaths of people and feels badly about it, or he doesn't even see it yet, in which case we're in real trouble," and finally concluding that it's a "bad moment to be a Democrat."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Had I read the same quote? I mean, if this is the kind of comment that is going to convince a person who would otherwise vote for Obama to suddenly not vote for Obama, then I am more out of touch with the American public than I already thought I was. Melinda Henneberger writes:

Here's how a high-school teacher in Fairfield, Ill., put it: "I used to be a Democrat, and I'm still very much independent. I voted for Clinton [in '92 and '96]. I'm religious but not a fanatic; I see a lot of gray. My mother has Alzheimer's, so I'm for stem-cell research, and I'm not against people's right to an abortion.'' But Kerry "just struck me as arrogant,'' while Bush inspired "the feeling that this was a more open person who would not be "I'm important and you're not.' ''

I don't think this high school teacher and I are even on the same planet. If, for working-class whites, Bush v. Kerry boiled down to that, then I really don't know what to say. If Americans want to treat the presidential race as some kind of intuitive "relatability contest," then don't expect me to have much sympathy when the country goes down the shitter. I mean, I've got news for you, Working-class Joe: There are so many more issues at stake in the world than your own personal pride. Get over yourself. Please.

But now we have liberals on Slate scared stiff because Obama actually said something honest, which means he'll lose the election, right? Well I've got news for you too, Slate columnists: one presidential candidate will not a liberal America make. It's not like, "Oh, well if we can just fool working-class people into voting for a Democrat, by making the candidate come off as folksy or down-home or whatever the hell we need to do, then we'll be set." The American people need to commit, one by one, to serious change. Otherwise we'll simply have an empty figurehead who'll be replaced by a conservative every four to eight years, and no one will be much the wiser.

Not that I care too much about the fate of America anyway, of course. But it hurts to be witness to such confusion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I saw the headlines, "Barrack Comment Offends Rednecks," "Obama Hates Real Americans," and "Infant Faints After Hearing Obama on Evening News." I expected to find some charged racial remark or perhaps something about free trade. Nope, what I got was:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

My immediate reaction? That statement is TRUE!

Sure, he could have picked something nicer than "cling" to be political, but don't we have enough political nonsense in this campaign already? Hearing Barrack say something 1) true, 2) important, and 3) that needs to be said makes me think more of him, not less. But then maybe that's because I'm an evil big city Californian (the worst of the worst). Even though I'm not from the city. Even though all the elitist rich farmers and real estate developers (increasingly the same thing now that small farmers have disappeared) in my home town vote Republican and my Democrat father taught me to shoot a gun and my Democrat grandmother reads the bible while my atheist Republican grandfather rants about the evils of religion. Frustration is leading to run on sentences so I'll stop soon.

One thing I'd like to note - us California suburbanites make fun of rural and urban folks equally. We make fun of militia nuts in Reading and spoiled faux-idealists in San Francisco. Everyone makes fun of LA, and LA makes fun of everyone else. "Real" Americans are no more likely to know how to take care of a farm than they are to get a BMW for their 16th birthday. Jefferson's ideal died 100 years ago - big business, by way of "the free market," killed it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ratatouille (Bird)

Rave reviews for a Pixar film induce more and more yawns from me with each successive release. I understand why their films are so highly praised. Pixar movies, given their built-in audience of younger persons with not-so-discriminating taste, could afford to be so much worse than they really are. Let's face it: as long as a movie has bright colors and talking animals, a child will watch it. The critic, given these low expectations, is then simply blown away that such a big-budget marketing apparatus is also so thoughtful, so intelligent, so witty.

If only I were so easily satisfied.

You see, many times I have come away at the end of a well-crafted Pixar film, and thought to myself, "Wow, that's going to be a classic." But then a little time passes, my initial impression begins to change and I develop the hunch that for whatever reason, although the film seemed to have all the elements of a perfect family feature, it would not become a classic in the sense that Snow White and Pinocchio have become classic. Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo - immensely enjoyable, all. And yet they have not stayed with me, the way that even some of the lesser animated Disney films have stayed with me. Perhaps it is because I am no longer a child. Or perhaps it is because the Pixar movies are not as good. As an adult I have returned to almost all of the Disney films and they strike me as better - as an adult. So I take that as a sign.

Speculate for hours on this topic as you wish. Are the Pixar films too cute? Too calculated? Too snarky? Too hegemony-reinforcing? Valid points, all. But for me, what's really lacking in the Pixar movies is a sense of risk. Cheesemeister he may have been, it nevertheless could not be said of Walt Disney, in his first few years at least, that he was a man who played it particularly safe. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was roundly predicted to be an embarrassing flop. "Who's going to sit in a movie theater and watch a cartoon for 80 minutes?," they all proclaimed (Oh, but he had the last laugh, my friends). Fantasia? Walt did not sit around and preview Fantasia for focus groups. He just freakin' made it. In fact, Disney did not achieve financial security until the opening of Disneyland in 1955. The point is, sure, Walt was a master of marketing, but he took chances, God damn it. Whereas Pixar's attitude seems to be more like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And that is why I have ceased becoming too excited about any of their films.

I have also tired of the CGI look. It may be the world's most labor-intensive process, but at this point it no longer feels that way to me. Disney animators literally spent years drawing every ripple in a pond in Bambi or Pinocchio, and it shows. Also, Disney altered its look from film to film (at least until the cheap-o years of 101 Dalmations and The Aristocats, that is). In "making-of" documentaries, Pixar animators will gush about all the "new techniques" and "state-of-the-art" technologies" they use, but I'm sorry, it's all starting to look the same to me. And in the end, at least 50% of a movie is its look, and if I don't like the look, then I'm lukewarm on the movie, no matter how gripping the storyline may happen to be.

So with a fortress of skepticism standing there to greet it, how did Ratatouille fare? Little could I have anticipated that the very subject of Ratatouille happened to be the struggle of the artist in a hostile world and the skepticism of the snobby critic. So by gummit, I'd say it fared well. The storyline, slave to such a well-oiled marketing apparatus as it needed to be, was rather esoteric and unconventional given the circunstances. I mean, if Little Earl starred in a Pixar film, he would have starred in Ratatouille. I don't know how many kids are really be able to grasp the plight of the creative mind and the longing that is buried in the heart of the icy intellectual. I thought the whole business with the rat controlling the young chef's body by tugging on his hair was contrived. But the final scenes, in particular, I found surprisingly moving. Hell, like Anton Ego, I was ready to come at this flick with all my might, and in the end it won me over.

But by how much, really? As with all the others, it seemed terrific at the closing credits, but the day after I barely even gave it any thought. So what gives? Do I just have it out for Pixar because I'm a rat bastard? Grant me a sliver of humanity at least. No, ultimately Ratatouille did not resonate with me on quite the level I wanted it to because I did not feel the connection between the beautiful sentiments of the story and the sentiments, and the experience, of the filmmakers who tried to imbue it with life. Ratatouille is an extremely individualistic story shaped by committee. Brad Bird may be the legitimate auteur of Ratatouille, but it does not show. More likely, the story was sliced and diced by a million different hands until every target demographic was included, every focus group appeased. No, Walt himself did not lovingly hand-paint every frame of Pinocchio, but those movies smacked of his personal vision. And until Pixar can learn to match a personal story with a personal approach, I'm sticking to my guns.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ***

Friday, April 11, 2008

Satire Is Just As Good (Or Bad) As It's Always Been

In his Slate piece "The Satire Recession: How Political Satire Got So Flabby," Troy Patterson seems to suggest that at one point or another there existed a "golden age" of political satire. But I would wager that 90% of political humor over the course of the eons has largely been disposable, and only the cream of the crop lingers in the memory. So most political jokes "rarely transcend the level of pure ad hominem mockery"? Welcome to the story of the human race. That being said, I like the distinction he draws between the intellectually lazier late night humor of Leno, Letterman, and Conan and the sharper barbs of Stewart and Colbert:

"Senator John Kerry is in trouble for making a joke about soldiers being uneducated," said Conan. "As a result, Kerry promised to stop making jokes and stick to boring people." Peterson would class that harmless jape—John Kerry? Dull? No?!—as "pseudo-satire," which is cynical and shallow and treats politics "like an infection" and stands in contrast to the real satire that, for instance, Jon Stewart offered on the subject of the botched joke and the way it was spun: "After an election in which the GOP has been beaten up by, let's say, reality, the party has rediscovered a winning issue: the has-been's faux pas." Where O'Brien's pseudo-satrical joke trivializes the political process, Stewart's engages it by laughing at that very trivialization. The distinction isn't simply a matter of what's funny; well-constructed pseudo-satire often deserves more laughs than preachy satirical jokes. It's about the fact that comedy can perform a watchdog role and seems more ready to shirk it than Judith Miller. "By avoiding issues in favor of personalities," writes Peterson, "and by 'balancing' these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy."

Also, Conan's joke is mostly just mean. It's like, "Wow, John Kerry is so boring. God, aren't you glad you're not as boring as John Kerry?" There's not really anything of value to take away from that. Stewart's joke is more valuable because when you hear it you laugh in mutual recognition along with Stewart on the timeless nature of political desperation. The joke is like a weapon against manipulation (and what's more valuable than that?).

Speaking of humor as a weapon used to alleviate emotional pain, Bruce Reed's rant on the nearly 15-year futility of the Pittsburgh Pirates fulfills that function admirably:

Seven years ago, in a desperate bid to revive the Pirates' fortunes, the city built PNC Park, a gorgeous field with the most spectacular view in baseball. From behind home plate, you can look out on the entire expanse of American economic history—from the Allegheny River to 1920s-era steel suspension bridges to gleaming glass skyscrapers. The result? As Pittsburgh writer Don Spagnolo noted last year in "79 Reasons Why It's Hard To Be a Pirates Fan," Pittsburgh now has "the best stadium in the country, soiled by the worst team." (The Onion once suggested, "PNC Park Threatens To Leave Pittsburgh Unless Better Team Is Built.") Spagnolo notes that the city already set some kind of record by hosting baseball's All-Star game in 1994 and 2006 without a single winning season in between.

Ack! Zombies! or OMG UR TEH RASCIST!!

Today on two other videogame-oriented blogs I regularly read, a firestorm erupted concerning the upcoming Resident Evil 5 video game. For those not aware, the Resident Evil series is a survival-horror style game with you, the player, shooting up lots of zombies as you attempt to survive. The previous installment, Resident Evil 4, was a huge critical and sales success. It took place in Spain, where you, as American super agent Leon Kennedy had to go investigate a town where the President’s daughter had last been seen before disappearing. Turns out the entire town has turned into zombies (what else). I’m usually not a horror fan, but man, this really is one of THE best games of the past few years.

At last year’s E3 Entertainment Expo, a trailer was shown for RE5. This time it's taking place in Africa, or possibly Haiti, and the trailer shows you, a white American dude, shooting up lots of African black-people zombies. There was a minor uproar about this when it first debuted, saying that it could possibly be construed as racist. Recently Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal commented on this trailer, and other parts of the game he had seen in development with the choice quote of “Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.”

Today this interview with Croal was put up on blogs Joystiq and Kotaku. Well, a shitstorm of comments erupted. Kotaku got over 1,000 comments. Needless to say there was a lot of disagreement over whether the game was actually being racist, or whether N’Gai was just trying to perceive/construe it as being racist.

Personally, I can see what N’Gai is saying. Me, I’m not really offended by the trailer. But someone who isn’t familiar with what Resident Evil is and they turn on the TV and see a commercial for a new game with some white dude shooting up poor looking African villagers? Not a good thought.

I thought an interesting comment from N’Gai was, “What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it (racism). Like literally couldn’t see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?”

Reading the comment sections of Joystiq and Kotaku I think this is what most of the commenters missed (just read the first comment on Kotaku to see what I mean). What do you think? Watch the trailer here. Read the interview with N'Gai Croal here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventures In Rap #1: "Rapper's Delight"

Rarely is the first song in a genre so easily labeled as such, and rarely is said first song so great, as it is in the case of rap and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Well, OK, if you're a stickler for such technical distinctions, apparently the absolute first rap record was "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" by the funk band Fatback, recorded a few months prior. But come on. The reason why "Rapper's Delight" is so obviously the first rap song, even if it isn't, is because it defines the pleasures of the style so well and suggests within its fifteen minutes so many of the possible directions rap both has and hasn't taken.

As with many watershed artistic moments, the charm of "Rapper's Delight" is in our awareness, while listening to the song from a vantage point of almost thirty years, that the Sugarhill Gang, while recording it, did not know they were inventing rap. Imagine: you and a couple of colorful characters from your neighborhood are farting around in a studio one night, making up a slew of ridiculous rhymes over a disco hit (and even stealing some from local MCs), and then someone comes up to you and tells you you've just created the first record in a genre that will one day produce a million records. Get your ass back in that phone booth, Rufus, and stay the hell out of San Dimas, right?

Well, what's spooky about "Rapper's Delight" is that it almost plays like "The First Rap Record." As if they really did know. Listen to these introductory rhymes:

Now what you hear is not a test--I'm rappin' to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
See I am Wonder Mike and I'd like to say hello
To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow

These first few rhymes almost function as a clarion call, whether intentional or not, as if to say, "No, this is not a joke; this is the new sound." At the time, "Rapper's Delight" was considered a terrific novelty record, a catchy fluke, a one-off. To those who don't like rap at all, perhaps it still is. I won't be cocky and say that if I had been a rock critic at that time, I would have known that "Rapper's Delight" represented the first salvo in an exciting new genre and not, as many were claiming, an artistic dead-end. Because I would have said the exact same thing. "Who would want to hear more of that?," I imagine my burnt-out, late '70s alter-ego muttering.

But in retrospect the power of the style is obvious. It also helped that the Sugarhill Gang's rhymes sounded as though they were just about being made up on the spot, particularly Master Gee's:

Well it's on and on and on on and on
The beat dont stop until the break of dawn
I said M-A-S, T-E-R, a G with a double E
I said I go by the unforgettable name
Of the man they call the master gee
Well, my name is known all over the world
By all the foxy ladies and the pretty girls
I'm goin' down in history
As the baddest rapper there could ever be
Now I'm feelin the highs and ya feelin' the lows
The beat starts gettin' into your toes
Ya start poppin' ya fingers and stompin' your feet
And movin' your body while youre sittin' in your seat
And then damn ya start doin' the freak
I said damn, right outta your seat
Then ya throw your hands high in the air
Ya rockin' to the rhythm, shake your derriere
Ya rockin' to the beat without a care
With the sureshot M.C.s for the affair
Now, I'm not as tall as the rest of the gang
But I rap to the beat just the same
I got a little face and a pair of brown eyes
All I'm here to do ladies is hypnotize
Singin' on and on on on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singin' on and on on and on on and on
Like a hot buttered a pop da pop da pop dibbie dibbie
Pop da pop pop ya don't dare stop
Come alive y'all gimme what ya got
I guess by now you can take a hunch
And find that I am the baby of the bunch
But that's okay I still keep in stride
Cause all I'm here to do is just wiggle your behind
Singin on and and on and on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singin' on and and on and on on and on
Rock rock y'all throw it on the floor
I'm gonna freak ya here I'm gonna freak ya there
I'm gonna move you outta this atmosphere
Cause I'm one of a kind and I'll shock your mind
I'll put t-t-tickets in your behind
I said 1-2-3-4
Come on girls get on the floor
A-come alive, y'all a-gimme what ya got
Cause I'm guaranteed to make you rock
I said 1-2-3-4
Tell me Wonder Mike what are you waitin' for?

Now, raise your hands please, if you're reading those lyrics and you're not thinking to yourself, "Damn, I could do better than that." Because you know you could. "On/Dawn"? "World/Girls"? "History/Could ever be"? "Eyes/Hypnotize"? I mean you can actually hear Master Gee stretch his sentences out with filler words so that his raps still fit the beat. A million kids must have immediately realized, "Hey, that could be me." Those rhymes are no better than the rhymes you come up with in your living room late at night while goofing around with your friends. The song was like a challenge. "Rapper's Delight" was like the Ramones of Rap, except with a little something extra. As the Ramones did with punk, "Rapper's Delight" outlined the skeleton of a musical form that could be (and possibly should be) performed by anyone. Unlike the Ramones, who gleefully paraded their lack of obvious talent as though it were a virtue, however, "Rapper's Delight" most likely made people want to grab a mic and outdo these guys.

But just because the rhymes are shaky doesn't mean the song is bad. Quite the opposite, because the energy of the improvisation is infectious. It's like watching your parents try to make up a bedtime story as they go along. When are they going to screw up? Nothing beats this bizarre (and gleefully un-PC) verse from Big Bank Hank:

Well I was comin' home late one dark afternoon
A reporter stopped me for a interview
She said she's heard stories and she's heard fables
That I'm vicious on the mike and the turntables
This young reporter I did adore
So I rocked a vicious rhyme like I never did before
She said damn fly guy I'm in love with you
The casanova legend must have been true
I said by the way baby what's your name
Said I go by the name of Lois Lane
And you could be my boyfiend you surely can
Just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman
I said he's a fairy I do suppose
Flyin' through the air in pantyhose
He may be very sexy or even cute
But he looks like a sucker in a blue and red suit
I said you need a man who's got finesse
And his whole name across his chest
He may be able to fly all through the night
But can he rock a party 'til the early light
He can't satisfy you with his little worm
But I can bust you out with my super sperm

When was the last time you heard a rapper drop a verse like that?

Anyway, let's admit it, the rapping alone could not have carried the day here. At least half of the appeal of the song, as with so many more rap songs to come, simply lies in the smart choice of sample - in this case, the deathless groove of Chic's disco anthem "Good Times." Indeed, I don't think the Sugarhill Gang realized just how fitting a choice "Good Times" was, for while "Good Times" smacks of hazy coke-infused Studio 54 hangover and stands as a perfect coda for its era, "Rapper's Delight" conjures up images of a graffiti-laced street corner in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Sampling a weary disco smash as the basis of the first rap record was like the perfect passing of the torch.

In the end, perhaps the most curious aspect about "Rapper's Delight," at least from a historical perspective, is that even though it's a relic from the early days of a young genre, it doesn't sound too far removed from the sound of the genre as we know it today. Listen to Elvis' "That's All Right," for example. You couldn't call it straight country, and you couldn't call it straight blues, but after hearing even Elvis' recordings from just a few years on down the road, you have to admit that the song doesn't really sound like "rock and roll." But "Rapper's Delight" sounds like...rap. In fact, when I first heard the song a few years back, I thought I was listening to an updated remix, not the original recording. Shows what I knew. Well now I can go put that in my bang bang boogie say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogity beat.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Not Your Mother's Skyscraper

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The picture above is not a drawing, but rather an actual photograph of the Burj Dubai, soon to be (or already is, depending on whom you ask) the world's tallest building. Look at that sucker. It's like something out of The Wizard of Oz. I mean, the rest of the neighboring skyline is already quite impressive. That tower to the right, for example, would by some distance be the tallest building in any other city. And the Burj Dubai simply dwarfs it. And it's not even finished!

I remember the days back when it all used to be so simple. I'd peek in my encyclopedia and there, in a nifty little diagram, were five nice, big, American skyscrapers. You had the Sears Tower in Chicago as the undisputed champion. Then those two other buildings I need not mention. Coming in third was an old classic, the Empire State Building. And rounding out the top five were two obscurities that only the true skyscraper geeks such as myself could name: the Standard Oil Building (now Aon Center) and the John Hancock Building, both in the Windy City (which for some inexplicable reason was kicking New York's derriere in this particular field). And it stayed that way for years.

But right around 1998, I guess the lid was once again lifted off the box, especially in Asia. Chicago and New York suddenly found themselves getting spanked by Hong Kong and Shanghai. First you had the the Bank of China Tower and Central Plaza in Hong Kong, and the Jin Mao Building, CITIC Plaza, and Shun Hing Square in China proper (I think Shun Hing Square is my favorite; it looks like a giant 9-volt battery). But it only got crazier from there. Hong Kong's new Two International Finance Center makes the other nearby skyscrapers seem like wimps. The Petronas Towers in Malaysia famously dethroned the Sears Tower upon completion. The Shanghai World Financial Center doesn't even look physically possible. And Taiwan's Tapei 101, possibly the most elegant of the bunch, officially remains the world's tallest building until completion of the Burj Dubai.

What the hell happened? I guess architects and governments might have been feeling some skyscraper fatigue around 1975, and they simply got their mojo back. Or maybe Asia just wanted to show off. Either way, who really cares? I think skyscrapers are cool (although after 9/11 I'm not too sure I want to be particularly near them). I love how each skyscraper has its own personality. The Empire State Building is regal but serious, like the father of the family, whereas the Chrysler Building is more fanciful and exuberant, like the eccentric uncle.

So now apparently all caution has been thrown to the wind, and the race is on. I think the Burj might hold the crown for a while, though. The architects are being rather cagey as to the final height of the finished building; according to Wikipedia, "The projected final height of Burj Dubai is officially being kept a secret due to competition from other buildings under construction or proposed; however, figures released by a contractor on the project have suggested a height of around 818 m (2,684 ft)." 2,684 feet! Hell, the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet. That's just absurd. I mean, if any skyscraper screamed out "terrorist target," it's gotta be this thing. "But it's in the Middle East," you say. Well sure, except the architects are American.

And that reminds me. Lest you think the Americans are simply being left in the dust, check out these suckers: the Chicago Spire (2,000 feet), the Freedom Tower (1,776 feet), and the Bank of America Tower (1,200 feet). In fact, San Francisco, a city not known for its skyscraper lust, may possibly be jumping into the action a little with the Transbay Transit Tower and the Renzo Piano Towers. Some people can't stand these things, but personally I love the surreal, futuristic quality that skyscrapers can bring to a city. Just as long as they don't collapse on me.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Confused by Stones lyrics

I realize this might be a trivial topic, but I was driving home from work yesterday flipping through the radio for something to listen to and I came across "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones (107.7 the Bone FTW!).

I'm quite familiar with the song, but there's always this one line that bugs me because I don't understand what it has to do with Mick not getting satisfied. Specifically I'm talking about:

"When I'm watchin' my TV/ And that man comes on to tell me/ How white my shirts can be/ But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke/ The same cigarrettes as me"

The first three lines sound like Mick might be about to rail on the commercialization of daily life, or maybe he's annoyed at the pointless ads on the radio (like the 'useless information' line from the previous verse).

But instead Mick goes off about how the guy doesn't smoke the same brand as he does, and somehow this translates into the man on the TV not being a 'real man'. Say what again? How does this leave Mick unsatisfied? What does it have to do with cleaning shirts? Why is the man cleaning the shirts smoking, and why do the cigarrettes make him less masculine?

Complete overanalyzation - yes. Looking to Little Earl for a response - check.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Introducing Herr Zrbo

Well here I am, been me a' deputized and given the reigns here to this ol' blog. Hopefully I'll be able to provide some enlightening discussion and topics of interest for everyone. I foresee many of my posts dealing with:

A- Video game related crap
B- Music you've never heard of and don't care about
C- Random topics/thoughts of interest

First thing you may be wondering is: why did I graffiti my screenname all over that poor person's house? This is actually some grafitti I saw when I first moved to Vienna back in '02. We may never know who the real Herr Zrbo is, but I will carry his mantle so the legend may live on.

Back to topic A. I saw this amazing movie trailer for The Legend of Zelda movie. Too bad it was on April 1st. Still, very well done, and very convincing. My girlfriend saw it and said "Why the hell don't they just make a real movie, all the video game nerds would go run out and see it!" She's got a good point. Watch it here. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Scorsese + Stones = My Complete Indifference

As my latest entry in the ongoing series one might conceivably refer to as "Movies Or Albums I Criticize Before I Actually See Or Hear Them," I thought I would hone in on an easy target and speculate on the potential quality of the new Scorsese/Rolling Stones IMAX movie, Shine A Light. Now let's think for a minute. This has got to be another one of those classic "Be careful what you wish for" artistic couplings. Like Brian Eno and Paul Simon. Or Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass. I mean, I might have been excited to see a Martin Scorsese/Rolling Stones collaboration. About 30 years ago. But at this late stage in the game, call me cynical, but something tells me this will not be a major artistic breakthrough for either party. Scorsese recently seems to be trying to fulfill every pop culture geek's wish list of "cool things Scorsese should do," which of course automatically renders every project he touches anti-climactic. "Dude, Scorsese should do a Jack Nicholson movie!" "Scorsese should do a Dylan documentary!" What next? Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg make the world's ultimate special-effects mob movie blockbuster? I mean he can do whatever he wants but don't expect me to be all hot and bothered about it. I will say this, though: it's an inspired coupling for an interview.