Paradigms Crossed: Building and Burning Bridges in Skateboarding’s Disposable History

Ever since I first saw Wes Humpston’s Dogtown cross on the bottom of a friend’s skateboard in 6th grade, I knew the wood, the wheels, and the art were going to be a part of my world. Like Alex Steinweiss and the album cover, skateboard graphics created the look of skateboarding. There were years where the only thing one knew about a particular skateboarder was the image on the bottom of his (rarely her) board. In the pre-internet world of skateboards, there were only a few companies, fewer videos, and only a few people who controlled almost everything. If you know anything from this era, it’s probably tied in some way to Powell and Peralta’s Bones Brigade.

The Bones Brigade

Only a few professional skateboarders outside of those pictured above mattered on as large a scale during the 1980s. Arguments could easily be made for Christian Hosoi, Gator Rogowski, Mark Gonzalez, and Natas Kaupas among others (my favorites from the era are Neil Blender and Jason Jessee), but The Bones Brigade defined the times. Stacy Peralta, already a skateboarding veteran from the Zephyr Team and the Dogtown of the 1970s, handpicked an iconic group of guys. From the household name of Tony Hawk to the kooky innovations of Rodney Mullen, from the longevity of Steve Caballero to the fierce fun of Lance Mountain, The Bones Brigade is the most legendary team in skateboard history. The empire they built only crumbled when it grew too big to feel or follow the zeitgeist.

Sean Cliver's Disposable

“While other companies scrambled to reinvent themselves with fresh, young teams and a more street-oriented direction,” Sean Cliver (2004) writes, “Powell Peralta remained steadfast in sticking to its guns but floundered in exactly how to go about bridging the old and new generations–especially when it came to graphics” (p. 50). Two main people bridge the genetic fallacy of the Big Five of the 1980s to the populist era of the early 1990s: Rodney Mullen and Sean Cliver. The former invented many of the maneuvers that make up modern street skating, and the latter designed the graphics and artwork. All credit due to Steve Rocco, Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzalez, and Marc McKee, but those guys all remained in separate and largely opposing camps. Mullen and Cliver are the only ones who worked under the Bones Brigade banner at Powell Peralta as well as the Jolly Roger at Rocco’s Word Industries (Mike Vallely notwithstanding, who was more of a pawn than a player and who didn’t seem to want any part of it).

Skateboarding pro-cum-team manager Steve Rocco was once told by a company owner that skateboarders couldn’t run companies. After getting fired as a team manager, Rocco decided to do just that. He sniped team riders, pirated images for graphics, and concentrated on a street-smart street style that immediately connected with the kids of the time. The intense intricacies of freestyle were dead and the barriers to entry for riding monolithic vert ramps were prohibitive to most. Street skating was anyone’s game. Walk out the door, jump on your board, grind a curb: you’re street skating. Focusing on that and the irreverence of youth garnered Rocco unmitigated hate from the established skateboard companies, cease-and-desist orders from copyright holders he violated, and millions of faithful followers.

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A lot of what Rocco did for skateboarding was no different from what Marcel DuChamp and, later, Andy Warhol, did for art. It’s also no different from what sampling and Napster did for music. In his book Disrupt (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams writes, “Differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The irony in skateboarding is that the products don’t differ very much from brand to brand. The subtleties of one board, wheel, or truck are infinitesimal. A world like that needs a Kuhnian shaking-up once in a while, and a lot of the shaking Rocco did back then is still reverberating today: Most skateboard companies are run by current and ex-skateboarders, most BMX companies are run by BMXers, street is the largest genre of either sport, and, thanks in large part to Rocco’s Big Brother Magazine, Jackass is still a thing. As the founder of Foundation and Tum Yeto, Tod Swank, put it to me (2007),

…when Rocco started World Industries, what he really did was liberate skateboarding so that it could move forward. He helped a lot of people start companies, not just me. He lent money and gave advice to a lot of other skateboarders who wanted to start companies. He wanted to see the industry run by skateboarders (p. 274).

“The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult,” wrote Christopher Hitchens (2001, p. 3). Conformity is its own reward, dissent is not (Sunstein, 2003), so by upending the established order, Rocco brought a lot of grief upon himself. There’s the world the way you want it to be, and there’s the way that it is. George Powell and Stacy Peralta depicted skateboarding as they wanted it to be. Steve Rocco was more of a mirror of what it was becoming. For better or worse, it’s still going and growing in that direction.

References:

Christopher, Roy (2007). Tod Swank: Foundation’s Edge. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (pp. 269-276). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Cliver, Sean. (2004). Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art. Ontario, Canada: Concrete Wave.

Cliver, Sean. (2009). The Disposable Skateboard Bible. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

Hill, Mike (Director). (2007). The Man Who Souled the World [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Whyte House Entertainment.

Hitchens, Christopher. (2001). Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books.

Peralta, Stacy (Director). (2012). Bones Brigade: An Autobiography [Motion picture]. Santa Monica, CA: Nonfiction Unlimited.

Sunstein, Cass R. (2003). Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Luke. (2010). Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

Tales Rabbits Tell: Dominic Pettman’s New Book

Welsh naturalist Ronald M. Lockley spent a large chunk of his life on the rabbit-riddled island of Skokholm just southwest of Wales. When he found he could do better writing about rabbits than catching and breeding them, he wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit (Macmillan, 1964). The book, which is a detailed account of all rabbit activities and proclivities, has become the manual on rabbit life. It informed Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972), which is the rabbit adventure tale, about the ways and mores of leporid life. Fiver, the runt-rabbit guide embodies the spirit animal that bunnies have become in many mythologies, pop cultural contexts, and other great stories.
Rabbit
Rabbits extend far outside of the hillsides, downs, and Easter baskets in which we we typically envision them. Examples I can think of without too much effort include Bugs BunnyGreg the Bunny, the Playboy Bunny, the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, 8 Mile‘s B. Rabbit (played by Eminem), the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll, Bambi’s pal Thumper, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Watership-Down mythology of Fall of Efrafa’s Warren of Snares, and the out-moded rabbit ears of broadcast television. As Susan E. Davis and Margo Demello (2003) write in their definitive Stories Rabbits Tell (Lantern, 2003),

…besides inhabiting forests, fields, backyards, and homes, they inhabit the realm of representation–in folklore and photos, on television and film, in gift stores and in literature. These fabricated rabbits may not tell us much about the lives of real rabbits, but they do tell us a great deal about how we think about rabbits and their place in society (p. 129).

Look at the BunnyLook at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology by Dominic Pettman (Zer0 Books, 2013) uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.

Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. “The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” Pettman writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes he mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,

Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).

A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie WarkWilliam Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.

Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,

The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).

Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit.

References:

Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings.

Davis, Susan E., & Demello, Margo. (2003). Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books.

Lockley, R. M. (1964). The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

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Rabbit drawings by Roy Christopher.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.

Upstream Color

Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.

The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).

Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.

———-

Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:

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Until the End of the World, 2012

The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.

Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.

Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.

We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and me at SXSW, 2012.

Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.

Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.

Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”

Page Hamilton and me backstage at The House of Blues.

Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…

Music of the Year:

I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:

Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:

Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.

“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.

With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.

 JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.

Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.

On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.

Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.

Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean Price Mic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:

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Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].

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Movie of the Year: Looper. Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.

Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.

Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.

Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.

The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.

Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.

Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.

Cloud Gate

Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.

Documenting Hip-hop: Ice-T’s The Art of Rap

Though he rarely gets his due outside of hardcore heads, Ice-T has always been one of Hip-hop’s best storytellers. Songs like “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (1987), “Colors” (1988), and “Drama” (1988) set the bar high for poetic narrative. These songs were gritty tales from the streets of L.A., “gangsta rap” before it was so-called (back then Ice-T called it “crime rhyme”). Now he’s set out to tell the story of Hip-hop itself in the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina, 2012).

In addition to his pedigree as an emcee, Ice-T also knows every veteran of the game. On the selection of rappers in the film, he told Soul Culture (embedded below; runtime: 6:48), “I just went through my phonebook, that’s all it was. It wasn’t an intent to cut out the young kids or anything. I just said I’m going to do a movie (and) I can’t offer money. I can only get favors, so let’s call my friends. And I called up the people I toured with.” That explains a lot of the inherent omissions of a documentary of this nature. With that said, the film is a fun collection of thoughts from a range of Hip-hop luminaries. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth.

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There is a literacy to Hip-hop. “It’s just like a language,” says DJ Premiere, “You have to know how to listen to it… And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” The Art of Rap is similar in that it helps to already have a knowledge of the history of the culture, its major players, and their relationships with one another. For instance, when fellow West Coast rapper Ras Kass asks if Ice is getting an interview with Xzibit for the film, Ice says he can’t find him. Ras calls XZibit at his house down the street, and Ice-T makes it his next stop. Or when he’s up in Eminem’s studio. After talking with Eminem at length, Ice is chopping it up with Royce Da 5’9″, and Em comes in rapping Ice-T’s “Reckless” from Breakin’ (1984).

When Ice-T sits down with many of these folks, it’s obvious that they’ve been friends and colleagues in this for years–especially people like Ras, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Rakim, Redman, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, and Lord Jamar. With others, Ice doesn’t even step in front of the camera (if he’s even there; it’s especially noticeable during the Kanye West spot). The Art of Rap gives one glimpses of the heavies in the game, but knowing a bit of their backstory helps those glimpses go together.

Of course, Hip-hop has been explored in previous documentaries. Peter Sprier’s The Art of 16 Bars (QD3, 2005), DJ Organic’s Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Bowery Films, 2000), and Doug Pray’s Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001) provide a decent overview of the complexity of this art form. But Ice-T brings a special touch to the film. He knows almost everyone in this movie in a way that other documentarians of same do not.

If you lack the interest or the time to read some of the great books written about the genre and culture, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap won’t school you completely, but it’s a fun companion piece to your further knowledge. As always, Ice-T tells the stories well.

Here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:33]:

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