You know it's hard out here for producers; here's a good example of how to cope.
Last year, I advocated support groups for music fans. The idea was that we needed a way to alleviate the stresses caused by defending the quirks and idiosyncrasies of our favorite artists. I still don't think they understand the trouble we go through to champion their work. That's right, buddy, every time you get arrested or decide to make some seemingly weird life choice (Mike, we never recovered from that thing with the Elephant Man's bones), we're the ones who have to justify what we like about you.
This year, I'm worried about producers, especially the ones in hip-hop. Why? Well, basically, I worry because many of us don't really know what hip-hop producers do, making it a potentially thankless job in spite of the financial bonuses the "producer" title might generate in a recording deal (real, upfront cash instead of a future percentage of a forthcoming but uncertain royalty stream). Did you see the December 9, 2006 episode of Saturday Night Live? The Funhouse cartoon, called "Diddy Kiddies", showed P. Diddy hiring some kids to pull a Scooby Doo to solve the mystery of "What Diddy Does". Having ruled out job possibilities like being a dancer or a comedian, the kids are unable to figure out what the hell Diddy does to earn a living. At last, they conclude that he's a fraud, to which Cartoon Diddy says something like, "That's it! I'm a fraud! Let's celebrate."
Cheap shot, I guess, almost as bad as the Ninth Circuit Court's description of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White in White v. Samsung Electronics, 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992). Ms. White claimed that Samsung's VCR ads infringed upon her intellectual property rights, including her right of publicity, by showing a female-shaped robot dressed in a blonde wig, long gown, and jewelry while playing a word game. In its ruling that the lower court erred in dismissing Ms. White's right of publicity claim against Samsung Electronics, the Court had to determine the components of Ms. White's identity. In other words, the judges were asking, "What does she do?" As part of the thought process, they came up with this gem:
The robot is in the process of turning a block letter on a game-board. Vanna White dresses like this while turning letters on a game-board but perhaps similarly attired Scrabble-playing women do this as well.
Oh, no they didn't just equate Wheel of Fortune with "Scrabble"! And is that all Vanna White does -- turn letters on a game-board? Everybody knows Ms. White is the life of the Wheel of Fortune party. In fact, she doesn't even have to turn the letters anymore; the blocks just light up for her like in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video when he prances along the sidewalk.
And we know what Diddy does, don't we? It says it right there on the back covers of those CDs: "Executive Producer." Diddy's a producer. Right? Hello? Anybody? I'm sure somebody can back me up on this.
At any rate, while I'm concerned about the welfare of today's producers, I don't think they'll need support groups to help them cope with the gamesmanship of the music biz. Rather, wouldn't it be nice to have some good examples of how to handle the role of "hip-hop producer"? Absolutely.
Enter Black Panther's My Eternal Winter, a 14 (plus a bonus) track suite from the Brooklyn, New York producer who brought us 2003's The Darkest Night Ever. There's a lot to like about Black Panther, including the fact that he sidesteps the possible Black Panther Party persona (his panther logo looks like a cute little Hello Kitty character) in favor of what he truly is -- a gifted DJ. For success, there are many paths, but My Eternal Winter provides a dependable blueprint. Black Panther's path involves great collaborators, solid beats, and a unifying theme.
Collaborators: What's a fly beat without a fly rhyme from a dope emcee? Exactly. Good producers know how to network with emcees, musicians, and engineers to crank out enjoyable product. Of course, some rappers get on a hot streak and turn up on more records than others do. That's why, for a while, Method Man's collaborations made him the hip-hop version of the mythical "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" (play the Bacon game at the University of Virginia's "Oracle of Bacon" website). Just like people say you can link anybody in Hollywood to Kevin Bacon through feature films, there was a time when you could probably link hip-hoppers to Method Man within two or three albums.
For The Darkest Night Ever, Black Panther recruited well known and underground emcees such as: Jean Grae, Murs, Kimani, Diabolic, and Sub-Conscious. This time around, My Eternal Winter follows the formula, showcasing rappers (Oktober, Pumpkinhead, M.F. Grimm, and Dead Prez's M-1) as well as singers (Maya Azucena belts it out on "The Half" while Meredith Dimenna nails her vocals on the title track).
Beats: No producer-driven album can make it without beats. And, contrary to what the haters might think, beatmaking requires more than looping a sample from Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, or Parliament. Your first taste of Black Panther's approach to production comes at the beginning, with the album intro, "Winter's Calling". The intro is a futuristic, industrial track that prepares you for an album of strangely sublime rhythms and special effects.
That, however, is not what you get. Instead, My Eternal Winter consists of a wide array of sounds and textures that complement each particular track rather than displaying a specific style throughout the set. There are the sped-up vocal samples in Oktober's "All Falls Down" and the posse track "Dreams". Although I tend to think of Alvin & the Chipmunks whenever I hear sped-up samples in hip-hop, these are considerably well done and actually fit conceptually within each song.
There's more variety from Black Panther's boards than you might expect: the seemingly never-ending guitar riff that permeates J Treds's "And the Day Keeps Coming"; the fantastically funky disco stylings of "The Half"; the melancholy piano in the title track; the synth-and-clap workout, "Invasion", and the crisp, Neptunes-like minimalism of "You Don't Know". It's ear candy that delights even as it properly keeps its place as accompaniment. Black Panther finds a happy balance between, on the one hand, being so sonically flashy that the music overwhelms the vocalists and, on the other, being so boring that the listener would have preferred Def Poetry Jam. Usually, flashiness is the problem, like back in the day when Public Enemy's DJ Terminator X used the most overpowering beats on his first solo joint, Terminator X & the Valley of the Jeep Beats. If you've got a voice like Chuck D, no beat is too big. But if you're Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, you might have to be more selective.
Theme: Variety of sound and style might sound like heaven on paper, but variety can also be at odds with cohesion. A set of sonically diverse songs might end up sounding like a collection of singles instead of a unified album. Black Panther avoids this problem with lyrical cohesion, with "winter" acting as the running theme. Winter generally evokes images of struggle and death, and is easily associated with ice, snow, illness, hibernation, migration, and a billion other terms.
Some songs carry the winter theme in their titles, like the instrumental opener ("Winter's Calling"), the title track, and "In from the Cold" (featuring Masai Bey, L.I.F.E. Long, Savage Messiah and Mr. Melodic).
Other songs deal with the theme directly through lyrics. On "The Half," Maya Azucena sings about poverty and domestic violence, calling her experience "the longest winter I ever had." Meanwhile, "In from the Cold" works in nearly every "winter" and "ice" reference you can imagine. Through the second verse, I collected these lovely buzzwords and phrases: blizzard, storm, frigid, ice, freezer, atmosphere, winter, abominable snowmen, Eskimos, degrees, subzero, chill, and igloo. I'll let you listen to the album to see how the emcees stitched the terminology together, but these lines from the second verse should give you an idea of how the seasonal metaphors play out:
Right before the temperatures drop, trees lose leaves
Like life cycles when bodies fall, souls leave
I never understood why we complain about heat
I'd rather relax in sunshine avoidin' swines on beat
Sometimes the subject matter of a song recalls the isolation and despair often associated with winter. In "Love Letters", Paze Infinite kicks two verses about coping with estrangement and death. The first verse is like a letter to a friend sentenced to prison; the second expresses the emcee's sorrow over his grandmother's death.
Another example is MF Doom's "Nothing Personal", a two-minute romp through the cold world of deceit and betrayal ("My main issue with him wasn't that he got me / It's the fact he didn't look me in the face when he shot me"). Revenge, as they say, is best served when it's not warm. On "You're Mine", Shabeem Shadeeq offers a similar tale, a classic Bonnie and Clyde love story, except the Bonnie of his story leaves his narrator's Clyde in the cold when the going gets tough.
Nitpicks: Only a few. If my vote counted, I probably would have left off the few tracks that didn't quite connect with the winter theme. They could've been used for another project. And although I appreciate Black Panther sparing us from annoying interludes and short instrumentals, I would've liked an instrumental outro to balance the intro.
But those are minor complaints. My Eternal Winter is a strong conceptual effort that's definitely worth your time. There's no question about what Black Panther is doing to earn his living: he's making good music.