Why We Didn't Just Book A DJ

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Kev Brown at Lookout! Circa Nov 2007

I was surfing Myspace one night (it was October 2007), and one of my favorite rapper/ producers Kev Brown sent out an update saying that he was in London. It turned out his show had been cancelled and he and half the Low Budget crew were sleeping on Tranqill's floor. Virtually hyperventilating I called some friends with a live night called Lookout! and demanded they change the line up at the last minute. Two days later and Low Budget were rapping and making beats live on stage at Favela Chic.

The guys asked me to stay on and help programme, and through Myspace we managed to book Muhsinah, Ty, Blu and Ta'Raach, Stacey Epps, Eric Lau and Rahel, Fatima and lots of other artists with Alexander Nut and Cavalry as our resident DJs. There was a lot of sleeping on sofas, last minute line ups and minor emergencies, and we ended up giving the artists every penny we made on the door, but it was more than worth it. We were one of many similar live promoters at the time - Deviation which I also ended up working on, Doctors Orders at Herbal, Cargo and the Jazz Cafe were all putting on great live line ups of independent and emerging talent.

Fast forward to 2011, and things look pretty different. London has become one of the major cities in Europe international artists find it hardest to book a show in. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Taylor McFerrin, Blu and Exile, Cody Chesnutt, Mia Doi Todd, and many other great performers have all been on tour in Europe in the past year with no London date (not to mention the live talent based here). Generally venues and promoters are booking safe-bet big name artists slightly past their prime for lower fees, crowd pulling electronic producer-DJs who can just show up with a laptop (no backline, band members or tour manager required), or in the case of Cargo music so bad people have to get drunk to numb the pain.

I wasn't going to do another live night. It's hard and scary - you lie awake worrying about the sound system, ticket sales, flight prices and last minute cancellations. I convinced myself everyone must be happy enough with DJ sets and old school rappers. Then I saw Quadron perform at the Queens Head in May. The band were truly incredible - I will never forget that show as long as I live, but because it was a bit random and last minute there was only a tiny fraction of the familiar faces I knew would have felt the same way in the audience. I refuse to believe that the hundreds of Londoners downloading, blogging, tweeting and ranting on about amazing new music don't want to see it live. So I resolved to call my dear friend Eric Lau and ask for his help, and later this afternoon I'm going to go and hand in a deposit I can't afford to the venue for our first event.

It would be so easy to sit here and just blog, but this blog started in the first place because of the live events I was involved in, because I wanted to do something active to support the musicians whose work I love so much. I didn't know anything about anything, I was just passionate; so if you can offer an artist you love and want to see perform in London a spare room, a cheap flight hook up, a rehearsal space, or you just buy your tickets in advance, we would really appreciate your help.

Watching The Riots





"Black culture in this country has had a huge contribution, on our music and, a whole range of cultural ways…" My heart sank as I watched Owen Jones attempt to take to task an apoplectic and ill-informed David Starkey doing a fantastic impression of a racist on Newsnight this week as they discussed the London riots. Grateful as I was for the gesture, Jones's inability to think quickly of an effective and undeniably long list of positive contributions black culture has made in Britain was almost as sad as Starkey's shrieks of "Rap? You glorify rap?!"

In September 2007 I was working on the opening performance of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre - a desperately needed arts center in the heart of Tottenham dedicated to diversity, built by architect David Adjaye to commemorate the late Tottenham MP and community leader Bernie Grant. My daring boss tried to push the name of the devised piece of musical theatre created by a cast of 35 young people with London's finest directors, rappers, vocalists and songwriters past the board. We promptly had to do damage limitation on thousands of flyers and "RIOT" became "GRIOT". Her hopes to transform the negative connotations of the history of that word in that area associated with that MP from violence to joy and creativity were quickly dashed. The performance was a success as were many of our creative projects dedicated to diversity and cross-artform collaboration, but less than a year later most of us were made redundant. The official line to the press was that we lost our funding. The real story was much more heartbreaking, as issues of governance, ulterior motives and financial mismanagement reduced the dreams we worked ourselves to the bone for to virtually nothing in under a year. Three years later and Tottenham was once again on fire.

I watched last week's events unfold to a soundtrack of Watch The Throne, Jay Z and Kanye West's new collaborative album released in the same time frame as the riots. My initital reaction was utter revulsion, as on first listen I picked up on talk of watches, cars and shoes - themes of materialism, a word hurled at the looters of London like mud. Several listens later and I stand on the opposite side of that fence, but also with a greater understanding for the politicians, historians and anyone else whose limited perception of hip hop is that of a superficial, dark and frightening caricature. Subtlety can be hard to pick out on a first listen, even with open ears. 

Starkey's issues with the language of urban youth culture provided a sharp reminder that in Britain, a country with shockingly low social mobility, class is still a huge issue. In the US things are different, and money talks much louder than "the right" pronunciation, lineage and schooling - it generally brings with it a level of acceptance harder to obtain on these shores. I am privately educated (as with David Lammy when I speak you might not know my origin with your eyes closed), but that made little difference in my time as an arts fundraiser as I was probed by the well-to-do for information about my presumed absent black father or possible adoption, neither of which was the case.

Watch The Throne certainly has the familiar and almost obligatory sprinkling of club tracks and boastful lux-life references which help guarantee its success on US radio, but a more careful listen reveals a tale of the American dream. Jay Z is still talking about how he has escaped a poor upbringing, absentee father and dealing crack, whilst Kanye is still talking about the difficult effects his hard won superstar life has had on him (in particular his current pre-occupation with being disliked and labeled a racist), but that he's still fighting for it. Hiding or layering the depth of meaning is an intentional device rappers often apply, but many of this album's underlying themes are overtly aspirational -

"The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners
I got my liberty chopping grams up
Street justice, I pray God understands us
I pledge allegiance to all the scramblers 
This is the star spangled banner" - Jay-Z (Made in America)

At the end of 2009 Matthew Herbert remarked to Paul Morley in the Guardian that it would be difficult to tell what was happening in the world through listening to pop music over the past decade. That might be true of pop music but that's not exactly the case with much of hip hop and grime. They both come littered with references to popular culture placing them explicitly in time, and they are also often the autobiographical experiences of the writer. This is the political voice of many young people, positive or negative, it is a view of the world through their eyes and mouths. The tired argument so often made that hip hop is causing violence is quite frankly arse about face, since songwriting generally involves finding inspiration in what you know - the music is the product of experience not the other way round. Apparently because it's not written up in a shiny report (Standard English of course) it cost a shady quango thousands to produce it's not worth listening to seriously. 

Whilst I take issue with the way the riots and associated issues are being dealt with by our government and much of the media, it has made one thing abundantly clear to me. We are in dire need of a "British Dream". The inspirational American ethos, the very benchmark of their culture, that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth" sounds pretty good. Ours might need to be a bit more cynical with clauses regarding crippling humility and the weather, but surely anything's better than "The Big Society" - not even David Cameron's old pal Rhymefest could write a song about that.

Goodbye Amy.

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"I'm not surprised" was the resounding conclusion on Twitter. I was.

Without going in to specifics I've spent most of my life around addiction, and it's a long time since I was amazed by the toxic volumes people can put in to their bodies and survive, the terrifyingly dangerous situations they can stumble through unscathed, and the heartfelt promises to stop they can't keep. The point at which most of us would have found shocking or surprising was probably a road bump long since passed. By the time someone actually does go too far, they've usually gone further than we can possibly imagine.

Like a lot of Londoners, I met Amy Winehouse once. It was years ago with my sister in Kentish town, she started pointing and saying to her boyfriend "look, those two are so pre-eeyy" as if we were puppies she'd like to take home. Not quite sure what to say we just told her we were fans of her album at the time "Frank" and ducked out of the way. I remember thinking how strange it was that she was Amy Winehouse, yet she seemed insecure. The stories about her hadn't reached our ears at that point, we were just impressed by her brave, honest (and funny) songwriting, not to mention that voice. 

Fast forward to last night as I watched people blame Amy, the people around her for not intervening, the media for their callousness - the list was endless and totally understandable, but wrong all the same. Addiction is a disease, and it often ends up killing its victims. It's hard to sympathise with because the outward appearance is that the addict doesn't care and it's their fault for not trying hard enough. Apart from the mental side of it, the physical experience can be a similar urge to needing to eat when you're starving or drink when you're parched - for those who blame Amy I hope they ask themselves if they would be strong enough to suppress an urge that severe every single day. For those who feel her family should have intervened further, short of tying someone up and never letting them out again there's nothing you can really do to stop them. You just have to watch the person you love kill themselves slowly in front of you, and it's every bit as painful for you as it is for them. As for the media, it is our responsibility to hold them accountable for their behaviour before someone dies, not just blame them afterwards.

I keep seeing talk of how Amy Winehouse will forever be as defined by her addiction as she is by her music. I beg to differ. I think that is up to us. I choose to remember Amy for her inspirational yet down to earth songwriting, how her music got me through sad times or made me laugh out loud, her incredibly special voice, and how she opened the door for talented female artists who don't fit the mould, and don't hold back.     

Stop Rehearsing In A Vacuum.

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When talking to a friend the other day he was embarrassed that his clothes smelled of the rehearsal room he'd been in all afternoon because it was a "closed space", and it struck me how solitary and insular music rehearsals can be. Of course this makes sense sonically, but none of the other performing arts are rehearsed in this way and it got me thinking.

Before you reach a certain level, some things are almost inevitable. The soundsystem at the venue itself might (will) be crap. The sound guy probably won't care about your carefully constructed set. You might not even get a soundcheck and have to beg just for a line check. Your set may be cut short. You won't be the only act on the bill and the rest might be terrible. Most people in the crowd won't know your songs or be able to hear your lyrics. The crowd might talk (yell) all the way through your heartfelt acappella. It sounds quite bleak, but in reality, sometimes it can be - I unofficially manage a number of artists who are paying dues, and sometimes they get off stage and feel like crying.

The problem is, to the audience not much of that stuff really matters. Most people cannot tell if the mix or sound system is terrible. They're not expecting to be able to hear all of your lyrics - the only thing they may fully understand is what you say between songs. They just want to be entertained. Something I often feel at gigs is that musicians forget the obvious difference between being in the studio and being on stage - we can see you. It sounds glib, almost patronizing, but I say it because I come from the opposite end of the performance spectrum as a former dancer, where rehearsal is always either carried out in front of a mirror or an audience, we crave constant feedback and the soundsystem is probably the last thing on our minds. The idea of stepping on stage without that public preparation would terrify me.

Don't wait until after your gig to ask people for feedback, no one wants you to feel bad about something that has already happened and can't be changed. Ask some trusted and honest friends to come to your rehearsals, (not the day before your show, weeks before and regularly) so that they can give you some honest feedback about how your performance makes them feel. If possible, get their children to come along, that way you'll really know if you can hold people's attention! Ask yourself honestly if your show (not set, show) will make people leave raving about you to their friends no matter how crap the venue and circumstances, because that's what makes it worthwhile, not the rubbish fee. Think about what you will do in worst case (but probably not that uncommon) scenarios. Once you step on that stage your every movement is a performance and we want you to commit to it and deliver it to us with very ounce of emotion you had when you wrote it and more, (but this time also on a visual level that has to scale), no matter what happens.

I still talk about how they cut the power on Angie Stone at a festival ten years ago after just one song, but we all stayed in the tent in the dark with lighters, singing with her and clapping our way through her set. Or when Slum Village backflipped off the speakers. Or how Lissie's drummer can sing and play guitar all at the same time. When Matthew Herbert and Eska made the whole Barbican sob. James Brown holding his dancer over his head and being able to do the splits in his 60s. I could go on and on. I imagine you all have amazing gig stories too, but I doubt many of them started "the sound in this venue was amazing..."

"Instant Pop" To Beat Piracy (AKA Finally Starting To Meet Demand)

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An article written in The Guardian this Sunday left a strange taste in my mouth, and after doing some digging pretty much every other publication I've seen has "reported" the story/ regurgitated the press release in the same way (please will someone remind me of the difference between blogging and journalism again?).

The general premise is that "Wait is not a word in the vocabulary of the current generation", that "Piracy remains a crippling problem for the British music business", and that "Britain's two biggest record labels will finally try to play their part in stopping it".

I personally would like to say to that, bullshit. Below is Exhibit A, a cassette tape (yep, that's what that plastic thing is kids!) I recorded of Trevor Nelson's Rhythm Nation show on Radio 1 in 1999. My average weekend involved waiting for Trev to come on, recording his show (you couldn't leave because you had to turn the tape over), then painstakingly writing down the tracklist and six weeks later trying desperately to order in a few singles or albums from HMV in Brighton "LL Cool Who?". Is ripping a song that's not out for another six weeks off of Youtube any different?

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The iPod and iTunes store launched in 2001, and yet we're in 2011 and the process for selling music hasn't changed - 6 weeks of radio play to "build anticipation", then a single or two, follow up with the album. Just writing that makes me laugh. I wonder at times how many people at the top of major labels are actually music fans. If you are a music fan you search for a song because you can't get it out of your head and you really want to listen to it - not because you're a terrible and impatient person. Some people won't pay for music regardless, but it has been proven that the majority of free downloaders are also the biggest paying customers - because they are the biggest consumers of music.

The question is not so much one of stealing, but one of supply and demand. If I search for "Jessie J Do It Like A Dude", currently at Number 2 in the charts and all over the press release as an example of the new "on air, on sale" policy, what comes up on the front page is lots of videos and press - not an iTunes or Amazon link. I then click on her Youtube video where there is a link to buy the single, but that's an extra step in the chain and I've already sated my appetite. 79p is often the price consumers will pay for convenience and to save time searching online (not just because we are morally compelled to support an artist), in the same way we might pay 79p more for a Starbucks inside a train station than at the lovely local coffee shop 5 minutes down the road (even though we all know what sadly happens to many of them). Unless music retailers can better compete with Youtube as a music search engine they will still fail to truly compete even with this new release strategy (though its worth mentioning they do receive some revenue from online streaming).

The most worrying thing is the amount of pressure this "on air, on sale" strategy could put on radio playlists, which virtually dictate the singles chart. Great news if you can afford a radio plugger and a big campaign, good luck if you can't. Interestingly, the idea has been floated to create a broader range of charts to incorporate streaming or something like the new Billboard Social 50. It would be interesting to see the difference between a playlist created by committee (Radio 1) and one created by listeners (e.g. Last FM). This week the Last FM top 10 includes Florence and The Machine, Daft Punk, The xx and Arcade Fire, none of whom are in the R1 singles chart or A-Playlist.

The generally underexposed other side of the story is that more units of music are being bought, more music and music of a wider range is being listened to, and more musicians have professional careers than ever before - the music industry (or perhaps major labels) are not so much being "ravaged" as generally doing a very bad job of adjusting to the market whilst blaming some of their biggest customers for not remaining in the past with them.

Beats, Rhymes and Fights?



I've had numerous requests to screen this documentary at MF Social Club*, but I have to say I don't think it's going to happen.

Reason #1

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Reason #2

For me this is a question of legacy, who is responsible for telling this particular story and why - not just the story of A Tribe Called Quest, but a part of the story of hip hop.

When I first started working in music, I had to begin to make a distinction between the artist and the person. I don't expect visual artist Chris Ofili to smear his bedroom walls with cow dung and glitter, or dancer Sylvie Guillem to go to sleep with her legs at a 180 degree angle in pointe shoes every night. So I had to stop being surprised when I heard stories about my adolescent heroes. "Conscious" rappers (an imposed label, generally not their own) in "real life", being rude and arrogant, treating women like a tongue in cheek Common skit, listening to Gucci Mane and Jeezy, fighting with each other, blowing all their money on cars, and generally being human - fallible.

"Beats, Rhymes and Fights", which I imagine is a joke title, is ironic since it alludes to the album where apparently things began to fall apart for Tribe, or certainly Phife was starting to speak publicly about disagreements. However Beats, Rhymes and Life goes beyond being a Tribe album, and to a certain extent as a phrase it represents the best aspects of hip hop to many of us. "Life" was something ATCQ talked about in such an articulate, intelligent, honest and artistic fashion in a way so few have done successfully since, for that word to be replaced by "Fights" does them somewhat of a disservice.

Phife Dawg has regularly aired his views publicly over the last 10 years, so Tribe fighting is not news to most fans - he even released a Q-Tip diss record (which no one bought and Q-Tip forgave). The point is the music was more important, almost no groups last forever, it's their legacy that lasts. I hope this documentary isn't a superficial sensationalist gossip vehicle, rather than an opportunity to focus on the true importance and impact of one of the greatest music groups of all time.    


*The MF Social Club is on hiatus at the moment.

Video: Professor Green ft Maverick Sabre prod. by True Tiger "Jungle"



"It wouldn't have been possible without Henry Scholfield, Campbell Beaton, Ashley Rowe, Daniel Kenton and everyone else who took time out and contributed to the video! For those who only know me for my last three singles ('I Need You Tonight', 'Just Be Good To Green', 'Monster'), this is the first opportunity to see another side of my music brought to life. If Upper Clapton Dance was a look at life in the bits through a wide angle lense, then this is the ends under a micro-scope! This is real life, by real people. Ain't nothing nice round 'ere!"
Professor Green, Nov 2010

I imagine this might be a bit of a shock for the teeny boppers who could be forgiven for assuming at this point Pro Green doesn't really know any black people, was probably just joking about being from an estate and the record label paid someone to give him that bad boy scar that doesn't really match the blinging new teeth.

I sound like a hater but I was taken aback by just how squeaky clean the presentation started out, having heard "Jungle" on an industry friends' phone back in March and I was feeling it, so was surprised to hear cheese followed by more cheese from Pro Green this year. It's totally understandable and necessary if you're trying to turn in to a pop star but to come out with tracks like this so much later down the line is an interesting move.

I don't see the point in ignoring the fact that the video could easily lead to Daily Mail style hysterics and endless withering musings on the other side in The Guardian, at the end of the day it's a blunt depiction of extremely violent young black men in a white artists' video who isn't really getting involved and didn't invite them round to the "I Need You Tonight" video shindig. It's not as straight forward as that if you know of Pro Green's earlier work and you listen to the lyrics [he does say "we" not "them"], but it's a can of worms and I wonder if the fans who would have appreciated this song a year ago still have his back after all the cheese.