The Black List: Vol. 2

Angela Davis [Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders]

The sheer beauty of the images creates its own sort of narrative, a visual demonstration of The Black List's original impetus to recover the typically "negative" denomination of the "black list" and reframe it as positive and inspiring.

The Black List

Airtime: Thursday, 8pm ET
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Patrick Robinson, Majora Carter, Deval Patrick, Valerie Montgomery-Rice, Kara Walker, Melvin Van Peebles, RZA, Bishop Barbara C. Harris, Suzanne De Passe, Maya Rudolph, Charlie Pride T.D. Jakes, Angela Davis
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Vol. 2
Network: HBO
US release date: 2009-02-26

"When you're different, especially with children you're different." Growing up, Maya Rudolph remembers, she never quite felt she "fit in." Even as an infant, apparently, she found ways to express her dissent and her effort. She was a noisy baby, she recalls, and has been told since that her parents, black singer Minnie Ripperton and Jewish composer Richard Rudolph, wrote "Loving You" at least in part to quiet her. "La la la la la, la la la la la": Rudolph imagines her mother cooing her feisty child to sleep.

It's a lovely memory, however circuitous its route to the present, and as Rudolph tells it, she smiles. As she learned to "morph and transform" into various characters throughout her childhood, meeting and eluding the expectations of others, Rudolph discovered her own gifts, turning her discomfort into another sort of performance as an adult. "Sketch comedy," she says, "became the manifestation of what my brain was already doing." Resisting labels, she says, is her own norm: “I don’t feel black, I don’t feel white, I feel like me. There is no thing for that.”

You want to hear more -- about her experience, about her thoughts on "passing," about what it was like to live with these parents at the time when she did. But then Rudolph's interview in The Black List, Vol. 2 is over. And, much like in the first volume, both assembled by interviewer Elvis Mitchell and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, this film moves on to the next subject. The brevity of the interviews creates a kind of rhythm: each subject leaves you with a brief, most often intense self-reflection. The rhythm is part exhilarating, part frustrating: the snippets of recollection are left undone, fragments soliciting wonder. And yet the format is ultra polished, the sober gray backdrop and flawless framing suggesting portraiture, posed and finite.

As in the first film, this effect is a function of Greenfield-Sanders' experience as a photographer (the interviews yielded a multimedia product, including a photography exhibit and a book of portraits as well as the documentaries). Certainly, the sheer beauty of the images creates its own sort of narrative, a visual demonstration of the original impetus, to recover the typically "negative" denomination of the "black list" and reframe it as positive and inspiring. But as enthralling as the artifice may be, as much as it articulates questions concerning construction and oppression, the ways that signs are wielded within a culture, the actual limits of the interviews leave you wanting more.

It helps that each interview subject is so interesting in his or her own way. Rudolph, for example, is followed by Melvin Van Peebles. Of course, it is great to hear from him, remembering the choices he made during his career. Though he was courted by Hollywood following the critical success of his first film, Story of a Three Day Pass, he chose to remain an independent artist, to produce and distribute Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song himself. "I felt if I took a job" with a mainstream company, he says, "They would have the one black person who would have a chance under wraps." And so he went his own way: "I was just your basic upstart loner."

Many of the interviewees speak to this sort of experience, feeling alone or isolated or restricted, in ways that led them to push back, to seek release and self-expression. Kara Walker, whose silhouettes brilliantly evoke a range of pasts (individual and collective) while communicating present complexities of living with and through those memories, suggests that it's time to push on. "How much am I still interested in the conversation about the stereotype?" she asks. "I think there's a series of narratives I'm more interested in." Walker sees her art -- reclaiming so-called "women's work" and "craftwork" -- in multiple contexts. "There was something about the history of image making that had cast me out, that cast me as an object to be viewed or coveted, or seduced or killed or something other than what I wanted to be or what I thought of myself as."

RZA has his own version of this story of the search for forms, a means to express his rebellion against the "lack of history" granted to those "growing up black in America." It felt like, he says, "Our history was 'slavery' -- 'ghetto,'" with noting in between or before and after. He found in the 36 chambers another possibility. "The Asian history was remarkable, special, and also a history of oppression," in which self-sacrifice and self-making were means toward another end. "My presence, our presence as a people, has always been there. It was just buried under a lot of sand."

Interviewees who follow RZA are also sifting through sand, from Charlie Pride (who, as a young ballplayer, saw Jackie Robinson as a model for his own "way out of these cotton fields") to Deval Patrick (his move from the South Side of Chicago to Massachusetts, he says, was "like landing on a different planet") to Suzanne De Passe (thankful for the "protective umbrella of Motown" as she faced the enormous "barrier to entry to the entertainment industry"). Laurence Fishburne looks back on his own evolution as an artist and icon with some sense of irony. His work with Francis Ford Coppola, he says, beginning when he was 14 years old on Apocalypse Now, was crucial. It was his role as Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood that forever altered his career and public image, as "father to a generation of fatherless children." He reflects, "I was not close to my father and I think my father hunger has played out in this way."

Angela Davis describes her own significance in equally cogent, completely different terms. While she serves as a counter-example to most everyone, it is especially provocative and smart in this film's structure that she follows Fishburne here (that is, she surely does not evoke any sort of "father hunger"). Looking forward and back, she smiles at Richard Nixon's clumsy efforts to track her down when she was underground: he wrote a letter to her brother, then playing for the Cleveland Browns, presuming that a football player would never support a "terrorist," as Nixon and others named her. Now, she says, she embodies other sorts of fantasies for other sorts of observers. She is struck, she says, especially by those who are "excited" to meet her. She suggests that the thrill is not in her, but in you. "What is so exciting for you right now," she says, "Is not that you're meeting me. You're thinking about your youth, you're thinking about that whole period that had so much promise. We knew we were gonna change the world. It's that excitement that comes back to you. I'm just a vehicle, I'm sort of a vehicle for time travel." It's an apt description of how the many icons in this film work -- past, present, or future-looking -- that they allow you to imagine what can be, still.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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