Season of the Tribe

A Tribe Called Quest's standout recognition among the glitterati at the VH1 Awards could be viewed as a subtle reminder that hip-hop does not adhere to a static definition, nor is it beholden to a single (commercial) goal.

It's that time of year again. As the air becomes crisp, the temperature cools, and the leaves change shades and fall, the changing tide quietly signals the arrival of none other than awards show season.

Although ratings monopolizers, like the Emmys and the Academy Awards, are most associated with this season, hip-hop has recently laid claim on the month of October. Since 2004, VH1 has sponsored the annual Hip Hop Honors, which recognizes key figures from hip-hop's history. The show returns for its fourth installment on 8 October.

While the show is inarguably the centerpiece attraction, the spectacle also includes several days of performances, discussions, and special events throughout New York City (for a full schedule, visit the Hip Hop Honors Weekend Web page). Though all of these "Hip Hop Honors" are (understandably) produced under the careful aesthetic eye and business principles of the major cable network, these events have also helped promote hip-hop's cultural history in a similar manner to the aforementioned shows.

So it is with curiosity that I read the 2007 list of honorees: A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Whodini, New Jack Swing producers Teddy Riley and Andre Harrell, and Charlie Ahearn's film Wild Style. While each year's roll call reads like a Stan's duh-of-course list of hip-hop artists deserving recognition, 2007's list is exceptionally obvious and indistinct for its commercial overtones. Snoop Dogg has been one of the most successful rappers to achieve (and maintain) contemporary celebrity status, while Missy Elliott is purportedly the top-selling female hip-hop artist. New Jack Swing's fusion of R&B and hip-hop laid the blueprint for more than a decade of mainstream hip-hop and R&B hits, while Whodini relied heavily on contemporary R&B sounds to make inroads on the radio (despite keeping company with "harder" acts, like Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC, in the mind of Chris Rock).

And Wild Style? The story traces the explosion of hip-hop as it travels from the Bronx to the chic clubs and galleries of Manhattan. While these artists or artworks achieved a disparate range of commercial success, they collectively signify the most overtly pop dimensions of hip-hop culture. Taken together, they represent the culture at its most lucrative potential, as opposed to past line-ups that also highlighted the qualitative aspects of hip-hop's development: past honorees have included such commercially minor figures as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, and even DJ Hollywood. Indeed, 2007 is perhaps the most VH1-appropriate line-up to date.

However, one exception to the list raises an eyebrow: the "headliner" A Tribe Called Quest. The Queens-based trio is often cited as being the progenitors of "conscious", "backpack", and several similar variations of "alternative" hip-hop. While each member bristles to this day over these manufactured tags, emcees Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and DJ/ producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad embodied a profoundly different yet agreeable aesthetic from their 1988 debut to their final album ten years later.

Though the group reached deep into African-American and hip-hop/ pop culture for its references -- everything from jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's '70s astrological jones "Soul Virgo" to Lou Reed's ode to cross-dressing "Walk on the Wild Side" found its way onto the first record -- it was never really as esoteric or abstract as they were perceived to be (contrary to Q-Tip's other nickname). Tribe simply interpreted common observations using their chosen speech patterns. "Industry rule number 4,080 / Record company people are shady." Their ideas were hardly revolutionary -- but they said it with such style and panache.

What makes VH1's recognition of Tribe so exceptional is its placement ahead of the far more mainstream Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott. True, the group achieved a modicum of success, but its three platinum and two gold records pale in contrast to Missy's worldwide record sales of over 24 million. Tribe also proved exceptionally playful with language, as evidenced in the Q-Tip quotable above. However, "4,080" never achieved the resonance of "Fo'shizzle". Apparently, Tribe appears to be celebrated here for its artistic contributions -- or, in lay-head's terms, "How they changed the game."

Granted, recognizing a critical darling and commercial underdog seems prudent when the industry has been beleaguered with well-documented criticism and declining sales. In this sense, celebrating Tribe (as opposed to Snoop) seems like a no-brainer and a win-win situation: give props to the runner-up that no one really openly criticizes, and no one will complain. Hell, it may even help Q-Tip's upcoming album sales. However, a more constructive use of criticism should be broadened to the temporal nature of awards show, or the un-sustainability of celebration. It is one thing to have a day of confronting critiques directly, or a day to recognize past pioneers and places, but another bag entirely to provide a sustainable mechanism for controlling and guiding hip-hop's identity. In other words, don't shoot the messenger when the message itself is kinda meh.

That said, A Tribe Called Quest's standout recognition among the glitterati could also be viewed as a subtle reminder that hip-hop does not adhere to a static definition, nor is it beholden to a single (commercial) goal. Rather, it can reflect multiple meanings. Like the music itself, hip-hop culture remains a palimpsest of sound, culture, and ideas. It is a space where 2Pac can flex like a thug one moment, then become vulnerable to his mother in the next. It is where a break from a '60s novelty rock group can form the rhythmic foundation for a Jewish rap trio struggling to shed its novel identity. It is where an upcoming hip-hop trio can appropriate an iconic performance by a disbanding rock band for a music video. In this sense, Tribe's recognition represents potential in hip-hop -- a point that, industry engineering be damned, doesn't hurt to be reinforced every once in a while.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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