Ty: Upwards

Terry Sawyer



Label: Big Dada Recordings
US Release Date: 2004-03-09
UK Release Date: 2003-09-29

Could it be that that British hip-hop has finally come of age? The past couple of years have seen our friends across the pond shed their Garanimals and get over the anxiety of influence that comes from working in a genre that was born and bred in America's urban decay and milk fed it's best and worst cultural fixations. Not that the entire world hasn't embraced hip-hop, but us Yanks measure those foreigners by their ability to make some noise on the charts here. When Mike Skinner dropped his debut, the Brits finally seemed to have caught on. The Streets' Original Pirate Material resembled nothing produced on these shores and yet had absolutely everything that makes hip-hop so compelling for disaffected youths banging on the bars of adolescence. Skinner made unabashedly parochial music is some respects, right down to the flex and swagger of his homegrown slang lifted from a roguish world of clubbing, drugging, and PlayStation. Then there was his flow, an anti-rhythmic, stumbled cadence drowning in a slurry accent, an in-your-face refusal to ape any of the American rap Saints. The follow-up breakthrough of Dizzee Rascal carved the path wider, making room for an MC who rhymed like skidding tires over beats of screeching cacophony. Together they heralded a new wave of British hip-hop not slavishly shadowing their American brethren.

In the evolution of British hip-hop, Ty is two steps forward and three steps back. (Hopefully, that sentence didn't make a really bad Paula Abdul track start looping in your head.) On the one hand, he's clearly working from the UK canon, particularly Roots Manuva, and taking his time doing so with a flow that sounds blissfully anesthetized. But there are more than a few missteps and songs which plod, drift, or mine lyrical domains that sound like Barry White reading headline news on CNN, a prospect that all the lovers of the world should find unsettling.

Upwards certainly puts its best foot forward. "Ha Ha" has a lazily wide stride of a beat that plateaus on keyboards that could be a kazoo quartet. It's also the best display of Ty's hilariously lobbed rhythm which sounds like a stoned slinky missing every other stair. Upwards seems to have front loaded all the gems, before it gets swamped in open-mic rough drafts. "Wait a Minute" rapidly skips across a funk-flicked guitar riff and lyrics revealing the scorned man half a bad relationship argument. The best tracks on this album eschew the breathy male R&B choruses and instead use hooks that hit a faster clip. "Oh You Want More?" scores in my book for being the best use of circus music I've ever heart in hip-hop coupled with Ty picking up his scuffled flow to a pace that sounds positively explosive compared to the rest of the album. I don't want to undervalue the bright spots of Upwards because, while they're not as frequent as I might like, they're certainly have enough heft to hold their own against any given new American hip-hop release that is far more likely to be unbridled shit from start to finish.

For every track that licks your ear and does the splits, there are a sloppy handful of desiccated hobblers. "Rain" fits snugly into the maudlin, tear jerking tradition of hip-hop served up with a slice of simpering cheese. With a Boyz II Men chorus and lyrics that traverse everything from the number of Ty's ho's to the unfortunate availability of guns in his neighborhood, it's a by-the-numbers slab of remedial social commentary. There's something sort of slapdash and rote to this song, a patina of "this one's for the ladies" that conjures up images of mood lighting and rose petals dumped on the bed for the video shoot. It's an unfortunate pattern that perpetually clotheslines Ty's every effort at sincerity. "Dreams" addresses the conflict between what people want out of life and how their environments constrain their aspirations. Sadly, the music kills any desire you might have to sift through sentiment with its swinger's party flaccid jazz and chorus harmonies (you guessed it: the title word repeated until your temples cave) so thin that they only serve to neon the track's general flatness.

"Music 2 Fly 2" by far sets a new standard for good intentions gone wrong. Thirteen minutes?! Well, technically it's just six minutes or so with a break followed up an equally bad hidden track, but either way, it's squandering bloat dissipated my desire to cut him a smidge of slack for having something to say but flunking in execution. Baffling for just about any song, this track takes a muzak background from Shaft and allows Ty a free-range reign that's punishingly cliché, To pull this off you'd need mad lyrical prowess and a flow that tickles rather than lingers like a dead tongue on your thigh. "In the inner city/ People are busy being into what they're into" says Ty and I have to wonder how that passes for something interesting to say about anyone. I'm into what I'm into, does that mean I'm deeply in touch with my inner "inner city". This is the kind of abstraction that suffocates many a good statement, by draining it of specificity and believing that you can change people's hearts and minds with platitudes that hit life like a dragonfly on a monster truck grill.

Ty needs a DJ and Ty needs a crash course in the school of hard beats. It also wouldn't hurt to ease up on the bad orchestral soul music which has a tendency to cede all ground to the background, leaving tracks with no bite to their rhythm. But for all his ear-scarring missteps there's that golden sliver of a remainder that telegraphs a bit of funk to your ass and makes this album not just a written-off debt to better American peers. Not every UK hopeful has to raise the bar and there's worse things than a record that does little more than maintain a spotty, middling coast through sedated flows and flimsy backdrops.

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In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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