Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Vibe magazine shuts down

Vibe, the music magazine founded by Quincy Jones and Time Inc., has gone out of business, effective immediately. (The New York Times story is here.) Times are tough for all print media.

I wasn’t a Vibe reader, but I have vivid memories of that magazine’s launch in 1992. Matter fact, I wrote about it for the Washington Post.

The big controversy back then involved the fact that top editor Jonathan Van Meter was white and gay... while Vibe was supposed to be a magazine grounded in the rap culture.

Russell Simmons, who conceived the idea of a “Rolling Stone for the hip-hop generation” along with Quincy, backed away from the project before it launched.

Part of the reason, Simmons told me, was that “they didn’t hire one straight black man to work on that magazine. I didn’t meet one straight black man.”

Below is some of my reporting on the birth of Vibe from the summer of ’92.
DAVID MILLS: To tell the story of Vibe is to waltz through the minefield of rap music’s politicized aesthetics. It’s about cultural authenticity. Street credibility. Race and power.

At the center of the story is Vibe’s editor in chief, 29-year-old Jonathan Van Meter, most recently a senior editor at Vogue.

New York Newsday’s pop music writer pointed out last January that Van Meter is “white and openly gay, hardly a combination that will endear him to hip-hop politicos.”

In conversation, Van Meter proves to be more comfortable dealing with the white thing than the gay thing.

“I understand the [racial] sensitivity, and it doesn’t make me angry... because I understand it completely,” he says with a relaxed sincerity, blondish hair combed back off his gentle face.

“My color will probably always be an issue, but what can I do? ... I could trot out my credentials to convince people that, as a white man, I’m qualified to do this. But there’s such a danger – it could sound really awful and really like, ‘some of my best friends are black’ kind of thing.”

For example, Van Meter says he played in his high school band, which was largely black, “so whenever we traveled anywhere, I was always in a bus full of black kids listening to hip-hop, and it just really affected the way I listened to music.”

Of the five top editors Van Meter assembled for the prototype, four are black. “And hiring black people was not something that I felt like I had to do, or nobody ever said I had to,” he says. “It was just a natural extension of who I am to hire a mostly black staff.”

On the gay thing, Van Meter turns chilly. “My staff’s sexuality is really none of my business,” he says. “I’ve heard the rumors, ‘Oh, everybody at [Vibe] is gay,’ which is just absolutely not true. It’s ridiculous. ...

“Will the 200,000 readers in America give a shit about me or what I am? Will they know I’m white or gay? Will they care? They’re going to read the magazine because it’s good or bad.”

But isn’t his gayness as relevant a political/aesthetic issue as his whiteness?

“Absolutely not,” Van Meter says. “I think it’s absolutely homophobic and ridiculous.”

When Quincy Jones, Russell Simmons and Time Warner began talking about a rap magazine, they had their eyes on the Source.

The Source calls itself “the magazine of hip-hop music, culture & politics” and prides itself on its dedication to “hard-core” hip-hop, and is widely respected for that. Even though (and this is going to get complicated) it was founded by two white Harvard students.

Jon Shecter, the 24-year-old editor in chief, says he and Source publisher David Mays turned down the chance to be hired by Time Inc. because they felt the corporation wanted a more “mainstream” product.

Shecter has seen the first issue of Vibe. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on us at all,” he says. “I think it has a sense of coming from the outside.

“Everyone we have working as an editor at the Source eats and breathes and shits hip-hop every day,” Shecter declares. “That’s all we do.”

Van Meter says: “I don’t need street credibility to be the editor of a magazine. ... What I bring to it is a journalistic perspective. And the Source comes out of a fan’s perspective.”

Regarding Shecter, “who went to Harvard and grew up privileged,” Van Meter says sharply: “I feel that I take more shit for being gay than he does for being a wannabe. ...

“I think I am closer to the aesthetic of rap than he is, because I’m lower-middle-class, big family, grew up on the edge of a black neighborhood, went to a shitty high school, you know. ... I mean, I feel, in some fundamental way, more qualified as a white man – if we’re going to talk about that – than Jon Shecter is.”

“He gets the bozack!” Shecter rejoins. “While he was voguing or listening to the Village People, I was listening to UTFO. ... I never claimed that I was a product of the ghetto. But I’m definitely a product of this music.”

(Told you it’d get complicated.)

Tuesday 12-inch Flashback: ‘Let’s Dance’

Monday, June 29, 2009

A free Maktub album download

Maktub, the soulful Seattle rock band fronted by Reggie Watts, is giving away its brand new album as a FREE digital download.

Best news I’ve heard in days.

I’m streaming one of the tracks on my Vox blog. Click here to hear “It’s Never Enough.”

The album is called “Five.” Follow this link and follow instructions to download the nine tracks as a ZIP file. (Mac users: When you get to the download link, CTRL-click then “Save Link As.”)

Betty Allen (1927-2009)

In the same week that Earth’s most famous singer died, a pioneering African- American opera star passed away at age 82.

Mezzo-soprano Betty Allen had performed with the San Francisco Opera, the New York City Opera, the Santa Fe Opera and others. As a soloist, Ms. Allen sang with symphony orchestras under such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti and Pablo Casals.

I’d never heard of her.

Betty Allen had also served as president of the Harlem School of the Arts, where she taught master classes in voice. She also taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music.

The New York Times obituary is here. The Washington Post obit is here.

A wake will be held tomorrow from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Benta’s Funeral Home in Harlem.

I’m streaming a Betty Allen recording on my Vox blog. Click here to hear her rendition of the old Negro spiritual “Deep River.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bootsy remembers Michael

You might be all Michaeled out by now... but here’s a talk-radio artifact I must pass along. Because I’m still that much of a P-Funk freak.

Friday afternoon, Bootsy Collins appeared on Bill Cunningham’s radio show in Cincinnati to reminisce about Michael Jackson.

Cunningham, if you don’t know, is a right- wing talker with a national reputation. (Hannity stole his line “You’re a great American” from Bill Cunningham.)

Now dig: Tonight on Cunningham’s nationally syndicated weekly broadcast – “Live on Sunday Night, It’s Bill Cunningham” – the host dumped all over Michael, repeatedly calling him a “drug addict” and saying his death was getting too much media coverage. As opposed to those “tea party” protests. (I swear to God, he brought up the tea parties!)

Cunningham wasn’t popping that shit when Bootsy was in the studio on Friday. Click here to hear a 13-minute excerpt on my Vox blog.

That conversation reminds me to mention, proudly, that I was in Cleveland in 1997 to witness the induction of Parliament-Funkadelic and the Jackson 5 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (I got within a few feet of Tito.)

Anyway, follow this link if you want to stream or download all of Bootsy’s appearance on the Bill Cunningham show.

‘Where were you when you heard the news?’

There’s a generation of African-American culture writers – journalists, critics, authors – who owe their professional success to hip-hop. They documented that cultural revolution in real time.

But those writers, now in their 40s, grew up on ’70s soul music. And they kept an ear on the larger world of pop.

For that generation, the passing of Michael Jackson has an impact greater than the loss of James Brown, Richard Pryor... any other entertainment icon you can think of.

These black writers have childhood memories of Motown 45s and LPs. Jackson 5 records were probably among the first they bought with their own money. Maybe they unwrapped one or two under the family Christmas tree.

Their high school and college years coincided with the nuclear blasts of “Off the Wall” and “Thriller.” They rode along on Michael’s entire journey as contemporaries. And so Michael belonged to them.

Two such writers – Harry Allen and Michael Gonzales (pictured above) – shared their thoughts and feelings about Michael Jackson on the radio last Friday. This happened on Harry Allen’s weekly program, “Nonfiction,” on New York’s WBAI.

I’m streaming an 8-minute excerpt on my Vox blog. Click here to listen.

If you want to stream or download the entire hourlong show, follow this link to the WBAI archives and look for the June 26 episode of “Nonfiction.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A free Africa Hitech download

Searching teh internetz for cool FREE MP3s is fun fun fun! Click here to hear one I just found – “Too Late” by Africa Hitech.

Africa Hitech is a side project of British-born beat artistes Steve Spacek and Mark Pritchard (both now based in Australia).

To cop the download, follow this link to Red Bull Music Academy. (Mac users: When you get to the download link, CTRL-click then “Save Link As.”)

Saturday morning cartoon

Friday, June 26, 2009

Overheard at breakfast

So as soon as my plane landed this morning, I rolled to my favorite diner – the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring – to get my scrapple- and-grits on.

And whom did I overhear in there but a cat talking about Michael Jackson like he knew him personally.

“I even know how he died,” the guy told his breakfast companion. “But I won’t say.”

Later on, ol’ dude said: “I hope they cover up the autopsy report.”

What made me pay attention was the fact that this gent wore a Majic 102.3 baseball cap and T-shirt. And there was a Majic 102.3 SUV parked out front. Majic 102.3 (WMMJ) is the top “urban adult contemporary” radio station in Washington. A Cathy Hughes joint.

I still don’t know who this guy was. But from what I picked up, his dining buddy was his producer.

Producer-man didn’t reply when Mystery Dude gassed on with this: “I used to drive Michael to Bible study at the Kingdom Hall.”

And this: “It was Marlon Brando who convinced Michael to leave the group. I said at the time, ‘Man, that’s a mistake.’ ”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

Michael Jackson is gone.

He will be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th Century. He was preparing for a series of “comeback” concerts this summer in London.

Michael, of course, will be remembered also for his legal problems, his family dramas, his plastic surgeries, his many eccentricities. For today, let’s focus on his extraordinary talent.

Before they were signed to Motown, Jackson and his brothers recorded a few sides for Steeltown Records, a local label in their home town of Gary, Indiana.

Their first single, “Big Boy, was released in January of 1968, when Michael was only 9 years old.

Click here to hear “Big Boy” on my Vox blog. To listen to the flip side, “You’ve Changed,” click here.

The Jackson 5’s early recordings were released on a 1996 CD called “Pre-History: The Lost Steeltown Recordings.” These aren’t good songs. But Michael had the magic even then.

Below, check him out at the age of 24. (Hat-tip: EbonyJet.com.)

Michael Jackson hospitalized...

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Michael Jackson was “rushed” to UCLA Medical Center this afternoon.

Reportedly, Jackson wasn’t breathing when paramedics arrived at his rented home in West Los Angeles, responding to a 911 call.

Follow this link for the L.A. Times story.

2:54 p.m. (Pacific Time) – This is serious, y’all. TMZ.com is reporting that Michael Jackson has died of cardiac arrest. ...

3:17 p.m. – The L.A. Times, citing a law enforcement source, reports that Michael Jackson is in a coma. ...

3:23 p.m. – The Los Angeles Times has just reported that Michael Jackson has died at the age of 50.

The Skip & Spike Show

Today on The Root: Henry Louis Gates interviews Spike Lee on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.”

Follow this link to watch the 6-minute video clip.

A free Thee Emergency download

Let me tell you about another black rocker chick. You know I like black rocker chicks. Seriously, can there be enough black rocker chicks?

The answer is no. No, there cannot be. Especially when they’re bringing as much hotness as Dita Vox, front woman of the Seattle garage- rock band Thee Emergency.

Click here to hear “Girl You Should’ve Known,” from the band’s 2006 album “Can You Dig It?”

Want that track as a FREE MP3? Hit this link to commence downloading.

For your listening pleasure, I’m also streaming a cut from Thee Emergency’s 2008 CD, “Solid.” To check out “It’s All in the Reflexes,” click here.

Supposedly the band is putting finishing touches on a new album called “What’s That? Some Sorta Cracka Slang?”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Doing the masochism tango

I wanna dedicate this tune to Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who today set in motion his own political suicide in front of the whole world.

By now you might be snarked out on this topic, between Facebook and MSNBC and the partisan blogs. You know... “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” “What happens in Buenos Aires doesn’t stay in Buenos Aires.” ”How do you solve a problem named Maria?”

But when it comes to providing a soundtrack, it’s all about UBM, baby.

Click here to hear “Mi Confesion” by Gotan Project.

Now, Governor... man up. It ain’t the affair that’s so bad. It’s your crying and stammering like a lovesick punk.

Next stop: “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!” Hey, could mean a free plane ticket back to South America. Or the Appalachian Trail.

Long live Ray Charles.

Forty-seven years ago this week, Ray Charles hit No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart with “Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music.” The LP stayed at No. 1 for 14 weeks. Music critics today consider it a masterpiece.

My mom and dad didn’t own a lot of records. But they owned this one.

The track I loved as a wee little kid was “Hey, Good Lookin’,” a jumping remake of the Hank Williams hit. Click here to hear it on my Vox blog. And if you’d like to hear the Hank Williams original, click here.

Mr. Charles put out a sequel LP (“Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, Vol. 2”) within six months. Now, the Concord Music Group has remastered and reissued both volumes on a single CD.

Time for me to get deeper into those sessions...

What could possibly be more cute than...

... a girl in love?

UPDATE (06/24/09): Oh wow. YouTuber “intro2the1” has now taken this video private. I don’t think my embedding it here had anything to do with that.

The young woman got a few hostile comments from out there in YouTubeLand. One black dude in particular got in her shit, saying she couldn’t be addressing her declaration of love to a black guy... because black women aren’t that sweet to black men.

She never did reveal the race of her beloved. But she happens to be in Japan right now teaching English as a second language. (Matter fact, I showcased another one of her videos last year, which I can’t find right now in my vast archives. Some of you might remember it.)

Anyhow... maybe this video should’ve been “private” in the first place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A free Joy Jones download

Now for something hip, tasty and free.

It’s a track by L.A. vocalist Joy Jones, an independent artist who combines electronic beats, old soul flow and an African diasporic sensibility (being that she is of Trinidadian descent and lived in England a couple of years).

Click here to hear her cover of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” streaming on my Vox blog.

To download the FREE MP3, right-click this link (or, if you’re a Mac user, CTRL-click then hit “Save Link As...”).

Ms. Jones’s debut album, “Godchild,” is coming out in two weeks.

But she’s been doing her thing in Los Angeles for years. Embedded below is a 2003 in-studio radio interview with the great Garth Trinidad of KCRW.

Tuesday 12-inch Flashback: ‘All Night Thing’

Do you like to watch the needle ride the groove? Like to see the vinyl spin round and round? Yeeeah... now y’all know I’m back.

Here’s a cut that really packs a nostalgic punch for me. This 1980 single by the Invisible Man’s Band – formerly known as the Five Stairsteps – sounds like my freshman year in college. That’s what it will always sound like.

Monday, June 22, 2009


You know what? I kinda feel like blogging some more.

I got a big piece of writing done (more or less) and feel otherwise refreshed. So for the next couple of months – before preparations for “Treme” get too thick – I intend to pump some life back into this site.

Get ready to turn up the volume...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Holocaust Museum gunman...

... who traded shots today with security guards in Washington, D.C., is said to be James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old white supremacist from Easton, Maryland.

Like many nuts, von Brunn had already left a footprint on the Internet. I particularly like this portion of his online bio, from his Holy Western Empire website:

“He is a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society. In 1981 Von Brunn attempted to place the treasonous Federal Reserve Board of Governors under legal, non-violent, citizens arrest. He was tried in a Washington, D.C. Superior Court; convicted by a Negro jury, Jew/Negro attorneys, and sentenced to prison for eleven years by a Jew judge.

“A Jew/Negro/White Court of Appeals denied his appeal. He served 6.5 years in federal prison. (Read about von Brunn’s ‘Federal Reserve Caper’ HERE.)”

Him and his “capers”...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Koko Taylor (1928-2009)

Koko Taylor, “Queen of the Blues,” died today in Chicago. She was 80 years old. The Chicago Tribune obituary is here.

Ms. Taylor’s recording career spanned more than 40 years, highlighted by her signature hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.” She performed that tune just a few weeks ago at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, where she received an award.

I’ve blogged about Koko Taylor twice before... here and here.

In her memory, let me spin another record. Click here to hear a funky 1975 track called “Voodoo Woman,” which Ms. Taylor wrote.