Music

Serengeti: Noticeably Negro

In hip-hop, the culture is represented by two distinct but equally important groups: the mainstream rappers at major labels and the underground rappers who focus on street cred. These are their stories. [Chong Chong]


Serengeti

Noticeably Negro

Label: Audio8
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: Unavailable
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What if I told you a hip-hop artist had released an album called Dennehy in honor of prolific actor Brian Dennehy? Well, first, please don't tell me you'd say, "Who's Brian Dennehy?" and risk losing the entire stash of cool points you accumulated last year. I know you know Brian Dennehy -- he played the father of Chris Farley's character in the movie Tommy Boy (among his many roles) and has appeared in television shows ranging from nighttime soap opera powerhouse Dynasty to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) (not to be confused with Law & Order: Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV), in which an elite squad of agents from the Environmental Protection Agency clamp down on pollution from gas guzzlers -- it comes on after Cheaters).

Anyway, here's the point: when we're thinking of source material for a hip-hop song, let alone an album, we're not likely to think, "Okay, you could rap about expensive cars with huge rims... Ummmm... being a big shot on the streets... Yep, getting shot is always compelling... and, oh yeah, you can't go wrong if you throw in a little Brian Dennehy." Well, there's one rapper who might've thought about it this way -- the guy who made the Dennehy album. And that would be Chicago, Illinois based rapper David Cohn, known artistically as Serengeti.

It's important to be aware of Serengeti's previous work, especially the Dennehy release, because his discography makes it easier to understand where he's coming from with Noticeably Negro. This album is a mishmash of vocal styles, freewheeling production, and abstract subject matter.

Now when I say "vocal styles", I'm talking about: his broken flow in "South"; his conversational flow on the title track; his full throttle, Ghostface-like lyrical assault on the opener "Island Bozos"; and his pained, almost Swartzenegger-ish wailing on "Cauc's Remix". That's right, there are times when Serengeti sounds a little like the Terminator, or at least like the Swartzenegger impressions you hear the comedians doing. That's not me being a mean critic taking a potshot at the rapper; it's just a description. In fact, I'm not even saying it's bad to sound a little like Arnold on a couple of tracks. I'm just saying it's…well, different.

And "different" is good, right? That's what we keep hearing from hip-hoppers-in-the-know and the "hip-hop-is-destroying-the-community" contingent (that could be the premise for another hour length legal drama, Law & Order: Hip-Hop, in which rappers are prosecuted when listeners try to imitate the action depicted in the song lyrics). Often, though, we mistake "being different" as a proxy for "talent", praising releases simply because they don't fit into the "gangsta" category or because they contain lyrics that take swipes at the "mainstream", sort of like "the enemy of the enemy genre is my friend". That's not happening with Serengeti, who has plenty of talent and doesn't have to rely on mainstream bashing. That doesn't mean he's opposed to critiquing the genre, as he does on "Bubble Bath":

Back when black folks used to work together

Now it's only songs about what weapons to use on each other

It don't sit right, it just seems funny

And I ain't anti-"rich and havin' money"

A lotta rappers seem like they're in the Ku Klux Klan

Can't get down wit' sh*t that's like anti-man

What separates Serengeti's critiques from the usual "rap song about what's wrong with rap songs" is (1) Serengeti spends the majority of his time performing the material he wants to hear, rather than talking about what others aren't doing and (2) Serengeti's critiques are woven into the overall fabric of his imagery, rather than operating as a one-dimensional complaint.

Last note about Serengeti's vocal style, although it's more along the lines of song structure: Serengeti's not real big on hooks. He's got hooks, yes, but their low readings on the catchiness scale imply that Serengeti's not overly interested in them. Some are simple (like the titular chant in "Waiting All Night"); some are sing-songy (as in "Bubble Bath"). But when it comes right down to it, you're out of luck if you're looking for club-happy, radio-savvy hip-hop tunes -- you must still be down with O.P.P. or spending too much time at the Candy Shop.

On the production end, the music is rendered in snazzy lo-fi audio, adding texture to the beats as much as it muffles them. The album features smooth scratches, hard beats, and disjointed rhythms. My CD has a sticker on the cover that calls the audio "crunchy", which inspired my instant curiosity. Sure enough, during the first spin in the stereo, Serengeti had dense, bass-heavy hip-hop belting out of my speakers, to which I exclaimed, "Wow, it is crunchy!" It was as if Serengeti had rigged a bowl of Rice Krispies with a microphone and positioned it inside my speakers (anyone for MC Snap, LL Cool Crackle, and DJ Pop?). I like Noticeably Negro's gritty, third-generation-cassette-tape sound -- it's raw.

Finally, there's the "abstract subject matter". Serengeti builds his verses on descriptions, similes, and seemingly random cultural references, an amalgam that straddles the line between subconscious connections and utter incoherence. Much of the album veers into the "incoherence" end of the pool, which again is simply a means of describing why it's different from other records. "Platinum Chains" is a good example, as it jumps thematically from the fakeness of other emcees ("Some rappers even have body doubles"), to paying respects to fallen hip-hop heroes ("R.I.P. Big Pun"), and offering a shout out to Serengeti's enemies ("Spittin' out bone chillin' intel to my dearest enemies -- yo, this one's for you, f*ckers: I blame all of you for my shortcomings and poor record sales").

But there are songs here that do more than compile references. Some are straightforward, like the political and socio-economic rap "Cauc's Remix". Guest rapper MF Grimm rhymes, "Bush is a drug dealer, Cheney is a criminal / White House, bloodthirsty, actin' like animals" while another guest, Juice, raps, "The government is sideways / They're sendin' money to kids in Zimbabwe instead of those by my way".

At the same time, songs like "Noticeably Negro", the title track, make connections in unexpected ways. In the case of "Noticeably", the song uses the title to generate an expectation that the subject matter pertains to race. Then it subverts that expectation with verses that have more in common with lady-watching than ethnicity. It's more "Around the Way Girl" than "Fear of a Black Planet". Between the verses, though, the hooks address and embrace the song's title, grabbing the "What are you?!" sample from the Michael Keaton-Jackson Nicholson-helmed Batman movie, adding a pedestrian query ("Uh, what are you, like, Puerto Rican or Arab?"), and finishing with the name of the song, "Noticeably Negro". But the song itself never expounds on issues of racial identity, which seems to be the point, as if to say, "It's not that big of a deal," all the while playing on Serengeti's racial ambiguity; that is, ambiguous to onlookers. In interviews, he's adamant that he's "black", amid questions of the gee-what-race-are-you variety that rarely yield prolonged and productive dialogue. Poking fun at this, Serengeti ends the title track, saying, "Yeah, man, I'm like half Korean and half Camel, and I got some Zebra, and um, a small, small part of Reptile, and the rest is Native American". Now that's hilarious.

By the end of the disc, Noticeably Negro may not impress you as hip-hop's next big thing, particularly with a lackluster stretch from tracks four ("Dinosaur Junior") through track seven ("T.R.I.U.M.P.H."). Still, it's important for artists to follow their visions to generate unique and personal statements. In this regard, Serengeti succeeds.

5

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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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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