The ‘Ills’ of borrowing and stealing

23 May

“Good writers borrow; great writers steal” is a paraphrased adage from T.S. Eliot that comes up regularly in conversations about literature and other artistic endeavors. With good reason. With millions of books and albums already released and thousands more saturating the shelves every week, it’s become nearly impossible to be totally original, as there are a limited number of words to be written and notes to be played. At this point, imitation is far more common than innovation.

For my money, the greatest works of contemporary art are the ones that manage to imitate and innovate. The mixtape that’s been on constant repeat on my iTunes for the past week is one that seems rather innovative in the way that it imitates. Detroit MC Elzhi’s Elmatic is probably my favorite rap release of 2011, even though it’s a tribute to a record that came out 17 years ago – Nas’ Illmatic, held up by many critics as the holy grail of hip hop. The concept of a “tribute” album as executed by Elzhi is new to me. Like Illmatic, Elmatic features the same 10 sets of beats, except the backing tracks are performed in a different sequence by a live backing band (Will Sessions), a group with the jazz chops to improvise through different sections of the original songs. The instrumentation is a genius move that makes Elmatic sound far fresher than you would expect.

The other aspect that differentiates the mixtape from its inspiration is that while Elzhi keeps the chorus hooks from Illmatic, his verses on Elmatic are completely different, aside from a few subtle callbacks that remind listeners of the rapper’s fondness for the source material. And while Elzhi might not quite be on the same level as Nas as a lyricist, he comes damn close. Because Elzhi’s rhymes are good enough to be alternate (not meaning lesser) takes from Illmatic, the project pops. It’s like getting a second chance to listen to Illmatic for the first time. Considering it’s available on the internet free of charge, it’s quite the gift for any fan of hip hop.

Elzhi – “The World Is Yours”

Beyond being a fantastic listening experience, Elzhi deserves props for illustrating a new way for artists to repurpose their influences. Because it’s a tribute mixtape, the former member of Slum Village isn’t stealing from his idol, as evidenced by the fact that Illmatic producer Pete Rock offers his effusive praise of the project at the beginning of the final track on Elmatic. But in the spirit of Eliot’s quote, he’s not exactly borrowing. He’s stealing with permission, a paradox if there ever was one.

Artistic plagiarism has always been a literary issue (and not in the sense of teenagers copying term papers from the Internet), one that received some real attention with the 2010 release of David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a book written in the form of fragments, many of which are unattributed quotations from other sources. I haven’t read the book (hopefully this will change soon), but it seems to be in a similar vein as Elmatic, considering there is original material from Shields combined with previously published work.

Even though Reality Hunger created a buzz, writers haven’t been as innovative with the concept of reuse as musicians have. It’s unclear what effect Shields will have on the next literary movement, but perhaps someone will take a page from the artists who have made covers, mash-ups, and tributes commercially viable. Allow me to indulge by sharing a few of my favorites:

“Tyrone” – My Morning Jacket [Erykah Badu cover]

“Killa Bees Live” – The Wudos Band [Wu-Tang Clan / The Budos Band mash-up]

For now, I’ll stick to what I’m best at, making pithy points and posting YouTube videos, and leave the in-depth analysis of the issue to real scholars, like Motherless Brooklyn author and all-around great guy Jonathan Lethem. For the writers who visit this blog, Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” is a must-read. For those who want more hip hop, I offer you Elzhi’s take on another Illmatic classic that not only pays homage to Nas, but also to The Gap Band in its extended coda.

Elzhi – “Life’s A Bitch”

The Gap Band – “Yearning For Your Love”

Fresh rhymes mixed with a legendary hip hop hook and an R&B nugget from the early 80s. T.S. Eliot would be proud.


The Art of Storytellin’

19 May

A great deal has changed in my life since the last time I posted regularly on this blog, which was nearly three years ago. When I started this blog, I kept the general rule of not talking about my personal life. I figured that my readers fell neatly into two camps: 1) friends who knew me and would find autobiographical information redundant, and 2) total strangers who couldn’t care less about the man behind the post, faceless internet junkies lured here by the promise of a concert review or a silly list they might have stumbled upon during a meandering search engine session.

But it’s time to toss that arbitrary restriction aside because I’ve come to the realization that having an idea of why I’m posting what I’m posting probably makes the posts more interesting. And why the fuck was I pandering to my audience anyway? Let’s talk about me. Back in the days of old, I was a journalist for a smallish community newspaper who needed an outlet for writing swear words without repercussion. During my hiatus from WordPress, I quit journalism and decided to go back to school. Having recently completed my first year in a Creative Writing MFA program, this blog called out to me as a way for me to bolster my writing regiment. Since I’m attempting to write everyday, it seems selfish to keep all these words to myself. Why not share a little bit with the world wide web?

My focus has shifted from reporting to storytelling, with the ultimate aim of one day finishing one of those odd paper-stuffed objects pictured above. Although reading novels and short story collections is essential to my growth as a fiction writer, I find myself frequently finding inspiration in other forms. Today, a hip hop track and an internet short stimulated my muse. Allow me to share. That’s what cyberspace is for (other than porn, of course).

“The Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 4” – OutKast

If you’re a fan of Andre 3000 and Big Boi (or just transcendent rap in general), you might recognize this as a follow-up to Parts 1 and 2 that appear on Aquemini. Even though I’m a huge fan of a group, I was unaware of the existence of Part 3, which appears on Speakerboxxx / The Love Below as “Knowing”, and Part 4, which was released in 2007 as part of DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz: The Album. If you have four songs that reference the art of storytelling, you better damn well be a good storyteller, and OutKast holds up their end of the bargain like a burlap sack with a dollar sign scribbled on it.

Ever since I’ve started grad school, I’ve felt this strange gravitation towards hip hop. In spite of the fact that I’ve plowed through the pillars of literature, it hasn’t prevented me from being taken aback by the wordplay laid down by the finest MCs in the game, and I can honestly say that their intellect and insight and often sticks with me longer than the established authors that I’m supposed to appreciate. I could type out all the lyrics to “The Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 4”, but I think the first few lines should give you the idea:

So I’m watchin’ her fine ass
Walked to my bedroom, and thought to myself,
That’s the shape of things to come
She said, “Why you in the club, and you don’t make it precipitate, you know, make it rain when you can make it thunderstorm?”

Well, ‘Dre, you managed to drop an allusion to H.G. Wells and put a fresh spin on the tired rap cliche of “making it rain”. Being that prolific with language is certainly something I wish to emulate. The fact that OutKast isn’t taught in college poetry classes is an American travesty.

“Successful Alcoholics” – T.J. Miller and Lizzy Caplan
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Clocking in at 25 minutes, this video is more like a brief feature film and less like the traditional fare on Funny or Die. But if you have the time to watch it all, it’s unquestionably worth your while. Although the presence of T.J. Miller (who I’d only encountered playing douchey guys in terrible comedies) had me skeptical, I couldn’t resist the allure of Party Down goddess Lizzy Caplan.

As expected, Caplan kills it. Her wry smile sells the humor while her outspoken eyes bring the pathos. It says something that her shirtless scene wasn’t the highlight for me (not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it). What surprised me was Miller. Somehow his performance is off-the-rails, yet totally believable and pitch-perfect for the script. Which he wrote. Which is quite an accomplishment.

Even without the visuals, “Successful Alcoholics” would make a great short story. In fact, it’s exactly the type of story that I’ve been aspiring to write – one where laughter comes to the front door so that heartbreak can sneak in the back entrance. Miller’s script is both hilarious and tragic, and, although I’m reticent to compare a goofy looking actor to some of the more brilliant fiction writers of our age, “Successful Alcoholics” echoes some of my favorite stories by Kurt Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle, and George Saunders. No matter the credentials, artful storytellers leave us with the kind of hangover we expect after a night of being blackout drunk. But counter to the reality we’re used to, our Advil-popping asses still end up remembering every  last sobering detail.

Your daily dose of Vitamin C

18 May

If you don’t want scurvy, just listen to the following songs:

“Orange Juice” – EarlWolf

“Orange Pineapple Juice” – Common

“Orange Crush” – R.E.M.

“Tangerine” – Big Boi

“Citrus” – The Hold Steady

Now that you’re feeling right, come back tomorrow for some real content.

Has it really been 2.5 years?

16 May

It has. But I can’t keep rocking with my blog tucked away. It feels so uncomfortable.

Consider it a long nap. I’m awake again and in need of caffeine (with a mocha twist).

Much more coming soon. Welcome back, all.

This one goes out to: the Grammy nomination panel

4 Dec


Really? Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” for Song of the Year? Five musicians who I’ve never heard a single song from for Best New Artist? Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance? Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance? The Eagles of Wal-Mart for anything? The list goes on and on…

While there are some respectable names on the list (M.I.A., Radiohead, Daft Punk, Hot Chip, Kings of Leon, Beck, My Morning Jacket), it’s obvious that someone needs to reboot the whole damn institution. Maybe I’m being too harsh though. At least it appears (as of today) that they’ve actually selected artists who sing their own songs.

What planet do these tone deaf blowhards come from where Jethro Tull is considered metal? This one goes out to you, Grammy nomination panel…courtesy of a fellow extra-terrestrial, Dr. Octagon…

This one goes out to: Notre Dame football

3 Dec

Michigan St Notre Dame Football

Bravo to everyone involved. Charlie Weis is coming back for another season – good news for people who love bad news. Have fun watching Pudgy McCockmunch waddle along the sidelines with his stupid Drew Carey haircut for another 12 games next year.

It would be one thing to be patient with the guy if he wasn’t a total a-hole. When people are writing stories like this about your coach, it’s time to let bygones be bye, gones. Another year of Weis is only going to further soil Notre Dame’s once sterling reputation as a college football power.

Dynasty be damned. This one goes out to you, Notre Dame football…courtesy of Modest Mouse…

Whoppers are great, but…

3 Dec


Have you seen these new Whopper Virgins commercials? I normally love BK ads. They feature an unusual amount of self-awareness and a warped sense of humor. They named one of their breakfast sandwiches the Meatnormous. Do I need to explain myself further?

Here’s the thing though. They’re pimping this serious (at least as far as I can tell) documentary about bringing burgers to villages where the natives don’t even have a word for the food. Here’s the web page, which must have borrowed its name from a fat fetish site.  

While I applaud them thinking outside the lines of the traditional taste test, how can they contend that this is an unbiased poll of which burger is better? These people have probably eaten tree bark and insects their whole lives. I doubt their palettes are very developed. Also, they’re probably starving. So they’re naturally going to prefer the larger of the two burgers. It’s like running the test with dogs. They don’t care what tastes better; they’re just happy to have some human food. 

It seems that Burger King has set up a poll that the Whopper can’t lose. Clever marketing ploy, no doubt. But don’t get a Whopper because Sagat and his friends from Thailand dig it. Buy one because it’s way better than a Big Mac. Take it from me, a real connoisseur.

Just don’t ask for my opinion on bamboo.