Category Archives: Billboard

Interview: Linkin Park’s ‘Midnight’ special

BillboardLinkin Park‘s new midtempo rocker “What I’ve Done” may sound familiar when you hear it blaring from radios. The track, which hit multiple rock formats April 2, boasts the empassioned singing and thick wall of guitars that marked the group’s past hits. But an awful lot has changed since the last time Linkin Park graced the airwaves.

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Interview: Grandmaster Flash, Mele Mel send Rock Hall a message

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NEW YORK (Billboard) – You could spend the better part of a day listing the things Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five did first: In the embryonic days of the New York rap scene, they were among its first superstars, they helped pioneer the freestyle battle and Grandmaster Flash was instrumental in inventing the art of break-beat DJ’ing.

Legend also has it rapper Mele Mel was the first to dub himself an “MC”; fellow rapper Cowboy is credited with coining the term “hip-hop.”

So it makes perfect sense to add another first to the list: On March 12, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five will become the first hip-hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was 25 years ago that their groundbreaking single “The Message” helped hip-hop kick down the door into a world of bigger audiences, and in their third year of eligibility, the act — comprising Grandmaster Flash, Kid Creole, Mele Mel, Scorpio, Raheim and the late Cowboy — will join a class that includes R.E.M., Van Halen, Patti Smith and the Ronettes.

And though the Hall of Fame has traditionally played around with the definition of “rock’n’roll” — just last year, Miles Davis became a member — it’s yet to embrace hip-hop. Part of that is strictly timing: Artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording, which, in the case of Flash & the Five, was 1979’s “Superrappin’.” But there’s a satisfying time element to the 25-year anniversary of “The Message,” the group’s seminal track, which, with its dark, ingratiating hook — “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under” — sold half a million copies in a month and established hip-hop as a commercial and cultural force in the mainstream.

Billboard spoke with Grandmaster Flash and rapper Mele Mel on the eve of their induction.

 

BILLBOARD: HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE INDUCTION?

Mele Mel: I sleep with the TV on, so actually in my sleep I heard the woman reporting it. She announced Van Halen and R.E.M. while I was dreaming, and then I woke up to hear her saying, “Rap group Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five also made the cut.”

Grandmaster Flash: There had been two false alarms on it, so when somebody called my house, I didn’t take it too serious, to be honest. But when they told me, I just looked at the phone, hung up and went on my merry way. The next morning I started getting a lot of calls, so I just said, “Note to self: This is it.” But it’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Later than sooner still beats never!

 

BILLBOARD: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE THE FIRST HIP-HOP ARTISTS INDUCTED?

Mele Mel: It validates all we put in as far as pioneering rap music and making it a global thing. We’re overlooked because we started so early in the game, before it got corporate and commercial, but being inducted makes people take a second look at who we are. People still know our music, but for some reason these young rap cats and the industry don’t really think we’re as important as we are. The Rock Hall solidifies it.

The main thing that the induction would do for the industry is force it to grow up. They’re trying to make it a little too juvenile, a lot too ghetto. Everybody understands the dope part of it, the violent part of it, so now let’s get back to the music part. This forces everybody to put a different face on hip-hop as a music-driven culture: It can be a teacher, a star of the community, instead of just an act on the corner.

Grandmaster Flash: So many of the other prestigious associations have embraced hip-hop, but this had been one that sort of hadn’t. And as a DJ, it’s pretty important. I go in with some of the greatest keyboard players, drummers, guitarists, bass players, horn players, and I go in with my instrument, which is the turntable. So although on one side it’s sort of a sore thumb, on the other I’m going in as a special situation. This isn’t just Flash & the Furious Five; this is hip-hop going in, the breakdancers, the MCs, the graffiti artists. So it’s cool. It’s kind of nifty.

 

BILLBOARD: DOES THIS LEND A VALIDATION OR ACCLAIM TO HIP-HOP MUSIC THAT IT MAYBE DIDN’T HAVE BEFORE?

Mele Mel: It does, but I’m not going to say it’s for “hip-hop music.” What we could call hip-hop and what it is now is not actually the same music. I think it validates the fact that pioneering groups, traditional groups are the most important ones, the ones that to this day can move hip-hop forward.

Today’s music is more stagnant — they’ve been doing the same thing, saying the same thing, for years. It’s not going anywhere. 50 Cent may be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day, but he won’t deserve it. All he did was just make records, and the records made money. He wasn’t as influential as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five or Run-D.M.C., or Kurtis Blow or Public Enemy. These are the influential groups in hip-hop. That’s the bigger movement and the bigger story about what hip-hop is.

Grandmaster Flash: Let’s just say that it’s the cherry to the validation. I can remember when you couldn’t see a hip-hop video anywhere, when other music organizations thought (hip-hop) was just a ship passing through the night. It makes me go back to my humble beginnings. As an inventor, sometimes you invent something and the people say, “No.” So thank God they said, “OK, maybe this could be something.”

 

BILLBOARD: WHAT LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR YEARS IN MUSIC?

Mele Mel: That the business is the major part of it. We lost a lot of opportunities and chances because we weren’t as well-versed in the business side. We were just too busy being the creators and living the life of stars. It never got in the way of my talent, but it got in the way of moving forward as a group.

Grandmaster Flash: That I continue to love this. In some cases, I’m called an icon, but I look at myself as a servant. It’s allowed me to go from this little candy store that I made to a huge Wal-Mart-type of candy store, where I’ve got so much music to play and so many audiences to play in front of — whites, blacks, people overseas, audiences half my age. The lesson is that when you love what you do and you stick with it, it will take care of you. Hip-hop has taken care of me all my life.

 

BILLBOARD: WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

Mele Mel: “We’re doing promotion on (“Muscles,” his first solo record). (Wrestling’s) always had that hip-hop twist to it, and I’m a part of that.

Grandmaster Flash: I have an album deal I’m just about to close on. And I’m writing the story of my life, with the guy who wrote the Ray Charles biography, David Ritz. I’m really into these digital DJ applications, these sounds that used to be on the keyboard but are now on CDs. I’m a technology fiend.

 

Reuters/Billboard


Billboard: Bad Brains to rock the “Nation” with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch

Billboard — As standard bearers of the East Coast hardcore scene in the early 1980s, Bad Brains were partly responsible for helping the Beastie Boys first get into the recording studio. As previously reported, one of the Boys is returning the favor, as a long-awaited Bad Brains record produced by the Beasties’ Adam Yauch will see the light of day this summer

“Build a Nation,” recorded with the classic Bad Brains lineup of enigmatic singer H.R., guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson, is slated for a late May/early June release on Megaforce Records, Billboard can exclusively reveal.

For Yauch, producing the record was a labor of love. Bad Brains were one of the groups, he says, that shaped the Beastie Boys’ early hardcore years. “Those guys are really of a different caliber in terms of their songwriting and musicianship. We always used to throw songs together and play a little bit, but they were really intense musicians,” he tells Billboard.

With that in mind, Yauch went into “Build a Nation” with a plan. “I kind of felt like I knew the way they should sound, because I grew up listening to them, going to see them when they first came up to New York from [Washington] D.C. and were playing CBGB and Max’s [Kansas City],” he says. “My feeling was that the ROIR tape [Bad Brains’ self-titled debut record, released on cassette only] really sounded right-a lot of the stuff after felt to me like people were trying to clean them up and make them sound more palatable for radio. So I guess I sat around thinking, ‘Man, if I could just get in there.'”

Jenifer agreed, and when he and Dr. Know got together to lay down early riffs in his Woodstock, N.Y., studio, they aimed “to show fans who we are. Bad Brains has always experimented, forging ahead in terms of riffs and searching for unique ways to approach rock music, but we said this time we’re going to take it back to the way we used to kick it,” he says.

The two camps nearly worked together a decade ago. According to Yauch, Bad Brains were in negotiations to release a record on the Beastie Boys’ now-defunct Grand Royal label, but Madonna’s label Maverick Records stepped up “and offered them a whole bunch of money, and I understood they had to go that route.” (That record, 1995’s “God of Love,” was more reggae-oriented than its predecessors.)

But in 2002, Yauch found himself talking again with Jenifer, who mentioned that the band had been mulling new material. Yauch offered use of his studio, and the reunion was born. “For some reason or another it kept circling above the airport [since then],” Yauch says. But with vocals and overdubs now complete, it’s finally ready to go.

Beastie Boys and Bad Brains will appear at the Sasquatch Festival, to be held May 26-27 at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash.

Bad Brains will play some live dates this summer too, but “we’re not looking for 30-date tours,” Jenifer says. “We’re looking at dates in New York and San Francisco, to ease our way into doing this. There’s no mystery in our dysfunction, but we’re not a band. We’re like troubadours out there to give peace and love, and we’re very serious about wanting people to feel it.”


Interview: Snoop Dogg rolls out the ‘Blue Carpet’

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Billboard / Reuters — “You’re about to witness the eighth wonder of the world,” Snoop Dogg intones about “Tha Blue Carpet Treatment,” his eighth record and one focused squarely on the street-level gangsterism that fueled his rise from the hoods of Long Beach, Calif., to the top of the game.

“It’s not about what I’m doing or where I want to go,” he says. “I put all that aside for this one. I just wanted to make a record that feels good for the hood.”

In prescribing his “Treatment,” which Geffen released November 21, Snoop faced an editor’s nightmare: whittling a rumored 300 recorded tracks down to 21, which he did by adhering to those gangsta criteria.

There are quite a few VIPs walking down the carpet with him: R. Kelly provides a gooey-caramel hook on “That’s That”; the Game contributes a call for gangland unity on “Gangbangin’ 101”; B-Real adds Latin flavor on the Pharrell-produced call for black/brown unity on “Vato”; and Stevie Wonder lends vocals and harp to the redemptive “Conversations,” a sort-of remake of Wonder’s “Have a Talk With God.”

But the set’s most eyebrow-raising appointments come from the family doctor: Dr. Dre, with whom Snoop had not collaborated in five years. The most potent of their three co-headlining tracks is “Imagine.” Over a vintage-Dre beat of minimalist bang and twinkling piano, the pair envisions hip-hop both in an alternate universe (“Imagine Biggie with his son/Imagine ‘Pac being called ‘Pop’ by one”), and never having been born (“Imagine Russell still struggling/no Def Jam, just another n—a hustlin”‘).

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Asked what persuaded him to ask the Dr. for a house call, Snoop says simply, “Overdue. We waited long enough. My last two records were good without him. But it’s better when I work with him.”

But soliciting Dre’s involvement is a tricky proposition, because, as Snoop says, fans are looking for them to “make magic every time. When we started, wasn’t nobody expecting nothing. Now people expect some brilliant s–t from us. And 90% of what we do is magic. The rest, you’ll never hear it,” he says with a laugh.

Snoop admits to loving the work that comes with dropping an album and reclaiming his place. “I’m like an overseer,” he says. “You can say I come at the game from the perspective of a giant or a boss, but at the same time, I still play with these youngsters out there.”

How, you might ask, does he pull that off? “I do me,” he says, with a ready laugh. “When I do other stuff, the s–t doesn’t work. All I gotta do is be Snoop Dogg.”
True to form, “Blue Carpet” kicks off a Snoop-centric media blitz that will last for several months. He’s co-authored a book with David E. Talbert, “Love Don’t Live Here No More: Book One of Doggy Tales,” part one of a purported series centering on an aspiring rapper growing up in Long Beach. And next spring, he’ll star in “A Woman’s Touch,” a feature film he says will have the following effect: “Every black woman in America will love me,” he says, laughing, then breaks into a little Jennifer Holliday: “You’re gonna lo-ove me.”

“I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s something I’ve never done before,” Snoop says of his lead role. “I’m coming straight at the women with this. It’s not gangsta, not hood. It’s strictly for the ladies.”

A look, maybe, at the sensitive side of Snoop? “Nah, not sensitive,” he says with a laugh, “but an awareness that they are who they are. You know, in my songs it’s usually ‘bitches and hoes.’ But I wanted to make something specifically for them.”


Concert Review: Guns N’ Roses – Democracy Now! Or, Who The Hell Are You People?

Billboard — Even on a sticky Halloween night in Florida, with much of the crowd in costume and spooky holiday decor swinging from the rafters, nothing could quite out-weird the main spectacle: watching 1/8th of Guns N’ Roses perform a batch of 20-year-old smashes — as well as a few from a record originally slated for release during the first Clinton administration — in front of, among other things, a large and inflatable Homer Simpson balloon.

Welcome to the jungle, kids. We’ve got fun and games.
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Weird Al Yankovic: Best. Sales. Ever.

From the wires: Al hits the big-time! (Story by me, despite the occasional lack of a byline, which my lawyers are investigating).

Check it out here.
Or here.
Or here.

And here’s a guy who stole my quotes and research! I love you, Internet.


Interview: Indigo Girls are celebrating their ‘Differences’

Billboard — Twenty years — well, give or take a few — into a still-percolating career, the Indigo Girls remain a little island of consistency in an aggressively unpredictable industry. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers can boast 10 studio albums, a fan base as faithful as such things come and a well-honed offensive strategy — wholesome, earthen melodies from Saliers, darker, rawer stuff from Ray, and some sort of freakishly automatic sense of silvery harmony between — that’s been firmly set since their 1987 debut, “Strange Fire.”

Even if they weren’t a subtle lefty folk outfit, this would be no small deal. Bands rise and evaporate faster than the blogs that track them these days; Ray laments the vanishing of several in her rock-out track “Rock N’ Roll Heaven’s Gate,” from the pair’s new outing, “Despite Our Differences.” “It’s hard for bands now,” said Saliers. “Radio is horrible, most of it. We just came along at a good time and were able to ride a wonderful fan base.”

Indeed, the Girls merely persist with a tasteful determination that’s impressive for its productive quietness. Press materials pitch this as the Girls’ 20th year, a figure Ray and Saliers both dispute (“Well, we started playing professionally in high school in 1980, so…” Saliers sid), and as such, neither seems to have put a lot of planning time into the efficient arrangement that is the Indigo Girls. It’s just not something that’s needed a lot of tinkering.

But writing-wise, “Differences” sticks pretty close to the Girls’ playbook. Fully intact are those harmonies, as well as their interest in their core issues: gay rights, gender equality and social justice. “We’re basic lefties,” Saliers said. “I think we ask very simple questions: Who’s being oppressed? Why are they being oppressed and how can we take part in alleviating that?” Added Ray: “We’re political. There are people who don’t want to come see us, and that’s totally cool with me. But we try not to alienate.”

Still, if there’s a surprise in “Differences,” it’s the record’s relative absence of polarized politics. “Differences,” as the title infers, at least partly argues the Girls’ unease with the state of the union. But there’s very little overtness and not much attacking on the record; it’s more concerned with scraping out some senses of unity where feasible. “[The title] can describe the differences between me and Amy, and it has more global indications, obviously. But we feel we’re still in a situation where harmony can happen,” Saliers said.

Given their lively activist history, it’s either happy accident or savvy timing that the Girls’ fall tour — their first with a full band in a few years — gets underway at the same time as the fall election season. “I do sense a real shift in the country,” Saliers said. “And we do have an ultimate hope that people can get along at least better than they are now.” But, she quickly added: “You know what, it takes a change of administration, that’s one thing.”

Though the Girls’ quieter musical half, Saliers quickly gets animated when talk turns to Washington. “Politically, what’s gone on over the two past administration periods has just been so devastating to me, and these [upcoming] elections will be so important,” she said. “The tide has to turn, and I believe it can. But Americans have to take responsibility for our role in the world: How can we be part of the world community? If they take that to heart, we’ll make specific political changes.”

It’d be misguided to expect a totally politics-free Indigo record, and the lead track, Saliers’ “Pendulum Swinger,” does takes swipes at presidential grandstanding (“It doesn’t come by the bullwhip”) and institutional sexism. But the record’s more concerned with ballads like “I Believe in Love,” which reflect Saliers’ longstanding tendency toward breezy balladry. Ray’s showstoppers are first single “Little Perennials” and the ragged barnburner “Rock N’ Roll Heaven’s Gate,” a sonic cousin of the punkish material she stashed away for her well-regarded solo records “Stag” and “Prom.”

Ray sees more diversity in the band’s live audiences these days — not in race, she says, so much as the ages and background of people who show up. “There’s young people, and people who’ve grown older with us and bring their kids,” she said. “And I think there was a time when, if you were a gay performer, it was harder to get a diverse audience as far as sexual orientation goes, when the gay movement hadn’t progressed at all. And now in some areas, it’s really mixed, really family oriented. That’s great, because it means people are not afraid of the association. At one time there was a stigma, and I’m sure there still is, in some places. But it’s gotten better.”

But, she added quickly, both she and Saliers are “short-term thinkers” when it comes to their careers. Saliers even professed to being shocked when Hollywood came calling once their Epic deal was up. Ray said she’s mostly just thankful. “But it seems if I stop and pat myself on the back long enough, it’ll just fall apart,” she added, laughing.

Today, those short-term goals are touring, the midterms and, in a couple of years, the next round. “I always feel good when I still feel like writing. Because you’re always scared that you won’t feel like it. I’m not scared of writer’s block, I’m just scared of not having a desire to do it,” said Ray. “But right now I do, and it feels good.”


Interview: Jurassic 5 boxes the mirror with ‘Feedback’

jurassic5b1Billboard.com — Hip-hop artists generally spend an inordinate amount of their time dividing themselves into two broad camps: the Commercial, or the Underground, each of which has a virtual and often strict constitution of rules, rosters and prices of admission. But on their new Interscope album, “Feedback,” the L.A. collective Jurassic 5 once again splits the difference straight down the middle.

“The truth is, we’re kinda both,” said Nu-Mark, the group’s resident DJ, from his L.A. home and studio. “J5 is a group that gets asked, ‘Are you guys commercial or underground?’ But in the creative process you’re really just boxing in a mirror, trying to outdo your last record.”

Chali 2na, one of the group’s four operating MCs — and a hotly pursued collaborator whose rumbling, Darth Vader-worthy baritone is one of the most recognizable tones in hip-hop — concurs. “So many different types of people listen to our music — young, old, all races and creeds,” he says. “On MySpace I got hit up by a cat in Palestine — ‘Yo, we love you out here!’ That’s crazy to me.”

Jurassic 5 gets back in the ring this week with “Feedback,” its fourth major-label CD and first since 2002’s “Power in Numbers” (a two-month tour with the reconstituted X-Clan will follow). Though the group’s signature vocal style — speed-passing verses around like hot potatoes — is on full display, “Feedback” marks its first effort without longtime DJ Cut Chemist, who left before recording to pursue a solo career (his solo debut, “The Audience’s Listening,” was released in June).

It’s also the first to employ outside producers, as about half the record was supplied by names like Scott Storch, Salaam Remi and Exile. “I really liked Cut’s perspective on who we were,” said Nu-Mark, now the group’s sole ranking DJ. “But you have to think of ways to reinvent yourself. Keep it steady, but thinking quickly.”

Nu-Mark admits that with “Feedback,” the group is looking for a breakout. “We grew up listening to Run-D.M.C., P.E., Tribe, everybody you can think of on the radio, and we want to be on the radio,” he said. “We never dissed it. That’s kinda like the stamp of approval we’re looking for; it’d be the last piece of the puzzle for J5.”

To that end, the group’s pulling out all the stops. It must be noted that J5’s appeal has rarely been limited to traditional hip-hop quarters; the group has played Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and the Warped Tour, and has found itself on bills alongside Fiona Apple and the Dave Matthews Band. But it was a recent stint on the latter’s tour that led to the new album’s first single, “Work It Out,” a swooning, melancholy tale of troubled love that features a silky vocal hook by Matthews.

“We found out that a lot of his fans are our fans and vice versa,” said Chali 2na. “He was a very cool individual, and it was really natural.” The track with Matthews, Nu-Mark says, reflected his M.O. for “Feedback”: Throw it all out there.

“In the ‘EP’ and ‘Quality Control’ days, I used to say, ‘That doesn’t sound right for J5’ and not even play tracks for them,” he said. “It sparked a lot of arguments, actually. The guys would say, ‘We need more beats,’ and I’d argue that the other beats weren’t right, and they’d say, ‘Well, how do you know?’ And they were absolutely right. I had to check myself. Snoop Dogg, LL, guys like that are still here today and are relevant because they moved with the times. I wasn’t giving the guys a chance to hear different styles.”

Part of that expansion included bringing in outside producers, which was always part of the plan, even before Cut Chemist announced he was leaving. “We’d had three releases, so it was the stage of our career where we wanted to get a new sound into our songs. And I felt like since all these people were coming in with different styles, they’d be the different branches of the tress, and I could be the tree trunk,” said Nu-Mark.

Hence, the Salaam Remi-produced summer jam “Radio,” whose twinkling triangle riffs serve as a eyebrow-raising off-ramp for the group, and the Storch-produced “Brown Girl,” a Miami-flavored club jam with the geographically appropriate Latin twist. But there’s plenty of the group’s auto-grooving organics as well; opener “Back 4 You” employs a piano riff that calls to mind the group’s “Concrete Schoolyard,” while acclaimed funk mob the Dap Kings provide the backing on the banging “Red Hot,” a cousin of the “Quality Control” track “The Influence.” And Nu-Mark himself takes a left turn on the closer “Canto De Ossanha,” a chilled-out globe-hopping track that sews international influence onto’s J5’s audio territory.

For his part, 2na, who hopes to release solo record, “Fish Out of Water,” by the end of the year, said the group strives to avoid being boxed in, but that it’s an easier task than you might think. “If you look at our group, we’ve got all different kinds of cats,” he said. “People just write about what they can relate to.”

Nu-Mark agreed, but added a little more of a proactive approach. “Right around ‘Quality,’ we got into this thing of — well, I can’t speak for the whole group, but I think we kinda got to a point where we weren’t bored with touring, but we’d kind of done it all,” he said.

Hence, the band huddled to figure out what was next. “And we challenged ourselves — ‘Let’s see if we can play in front of a Green Day audience, see if we can rock them,'” he said. “I remember we got on the Warped Tour, and at some shows, cats were really upset that we were up there. But by the end of the show everybody was really feeling it. It’d be super loud, I-couldn’t-even-hear-my-damn-monitors loud. Then we’d bounce off that and do Smokin’ Grooves with the Roots, Lauryn and OutKast. So it’s like this back-and-forth thing, hopefully to prove that we really are relevant to the community, not just the urban community or the rock community, but the community of people that listen to music.”


Live review: Billy Joel in Jacksonville

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Billboard — No longer the angry young man but a gray, assured and fiery one, Billy Joel, in his first solo tour in eight years, is proving that he still knows his way around rock’n’roll. Especially for a retired guy.

Next phase, new wave, Broadway-pop, cinematic epics, sped-rapped history lessons: Joel has brought many things to many people over his three-plus decades, though he insists he’s sticking by the “retirement” from writing and recording pop music that he announced following 1993’s “River of Dreams.”

To that end, this early stop on the piano man’s first outing in almost a decade sans Elton John found Joel packing all that he could into an almost two-and-a-half hour show. That included throwing light on some of the cobwebbier corners of his vast catalog (as he did in box set form on last fall’s “My Lives”) in addition to showing that he still knows precisely what to do when his regular crowd shuffles in.

Joel’s Jacksonville show (only the second on a fast-selling tour that already includes six shows at Madison Square Garden) amounted to a full-on victory lap. It was a also a chance to set the tour’s ground rules; early in the 24-song set, Joel threatened experimentation, and that’s what he did (introducing “The Great Wall of China” from 1993’s “River of Dreams,” he cracked, “If you have to go to the bathroom, you should probably go now, because this is really obscure.”) Like Springsteen and McCartney on their most recent outings, Joel’s plan of attack-ack-ack-ack-ack involved more than simply handing out hits (notably absent from the set were “Uptown Girl,” “She’s Always A Woman” and, God bless him, “Just The Way You Are”); he was there in search of long-buried treasure.

Such excavation spanned the first chapters of the show. After the one-two punch of “Angry Young Man” and “My Life,” both big, baroque set pieces which successfully survived the trip from the ’70s (even if those whitewall tires haven’t), Joel began rifling around. He dug up the theatrically sinister “Stiletto,” whose serpentine groove was augmented nicely by Mark Rivera’s sax work and the band’s intimidating-looking finger snaps. Introducing the jazzbo “Zanzibar,” he remarked that after cutting the song in the studio he and his band “felt like adults.” “Sometimes a Fantasy” dripped with gooey synthesizer; “Sleeping With the Television On” worked up a solid, guitar-fueled lather.

But if Joel used the early half of the night for rummaging and evaluation (“That one worked!” he smiled to his band after 1971’s “Everybody Loves You Now”), the late half was reserved for a rock block: “I Go to Extremes,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Big Shot” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the latter two of which he delivered sporting a backwards ball cap thrown on stage, which was a nice touch. Closing the main set: an ageless and roaring “You May Be Right.” Saved for the encore: “Only the Good Die Young,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and that one about getting his fans feeling alright.

Despite what he indicated in a few age-related gags (those seated behind his rotating piano at any given time, he said, could “check themselves out in the back of my head”), Joel looked fit and sounded better. He dished up a sterling “New York State of Mind” with timeless ease and unleashed “Goodnight Saigon” to even better effect. One can’t help but think that after a few more installments of this quick-selling trek, Joel may want to rethink that business about retirement. He’s already survived the noble fight, and there’s little doubt left that he — and his fans — remain in the mood for his melodies.

Here is Billy Joel’s set list:

“Angry Young Man”
“My Life”
“Everybody Loves You Now”
“New York State of Mind”
“Stiletto”
“Zanzibar”
“Allentown”
“The Great Wall of China”
“Sometimes a Fantasy”
“Sleeping With the Television On”
“Goodnight Saigon”
“Movin’ Out”
“An Innocent Man”
“Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel”
“Keeping the Faith”
“I Go to Extremes”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire”
“Big Shot”
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
“You May Be Right”

Encore:
“River of Dreams”
“Only the Good Die Young”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
“Piano Man”


Interview: Atmosphere’s Slug steps outside himself

Billboard — Six albums into a career that has mobilized and polarized the indie rap underground, the Minneapolis rapper Slug, one-half of acclaimed Rhymesayers duo Atmosphere, is finally stepping outside himself.

Something of a superstar in that indie-hip-hop galaxy and possibly the least likely teen-girl idol currently producing popular music, the 33-year-old Slug (Sean Daley, to his parents) has spent years airing out his journal entries on wax, rhyming at length about what sounded like a couple hundred therapy sessions’ worth of lady-friend problems and harvesting a large female fan base in the process.

But Atmosphere’s sixth and most accomplished record, “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” includes a few choice couplets that seem designed to make some longtime fans do a double-take and punch the back button on the iPod. Like this one: “I’m returning this bleeding hearts club membership card,” Slug raps in “Say Hey There,” “because I want no motherf***ing part of it.”

It’s not that Slug has reached some sort of sun-splashed plane with the ol’ personal life — “she’s drama, I’m drama, we’re drama” the newly mohawked rapper admits from a Detroit tour stop, with the sighing-but-not-unpleased resignation of someone who’s cool operating under that definition for the time being. It’s just that everything isn’t necessarily filtered through the holes in a broken heart anymore.

“And I don’t know why that is,” Slug admits. “In the past, I wrote so much about myself because I didn’t want to project. I wanted it to be: If you’re gonna hate the story, then hate me. But I’m learning it’s OK to project as long as I’m offering at least a closure, or an opportunity for [listeners] to dialogue with friends. With where my life has gone, I’m able to tell these stories without putting them through the relationship factory. And I’m happy about that.”

In a speed-talking interview that manages to reference Billy Joel and folk songwriter Shawn Phillips, Slug is, as his hip-hop persona would indicate, wide-open and stream-of-consciousness chatty. But he’s writing now with the grounding of someone who’s got some miles behind him, and nuggets of aged-sounding wisdom and self-awareness creep into his monologues.

“It never was about ‘Look at me and my self-centered world,'” he said, “But I found a path of writing where I was able to personify any problem I saw as a relationship problem. So what happened was I was making all these songs about dysfunctional co-dependent relationships, when the song was about George W., or how I feel about the gentrification of [Chicago’s] Wicker Park, for Chrissakes.”

Slug attributes that externalizing to two factors: the severe reduction of his “self-medicating in general” and his adoption of a slightly more distanced role in his writing. “I’ve always been sitting in the watchtower observing,” he said, “But now I’ve totally climbed into the observer mode, as ‘This is my job.’ I watch people, and form ideas and bulls*** opinions about people, but I never wanted to come off as that guy on the soapbox preaching to the choir, because for so long, the kids that come to my shows are the choir.”

Between Slug’s lyrical stretches and Ant’s melodic, big-beat production, “You Can’t Imagine” represents Atmosphere’s best shot at breaking out of that underground to date. Not that it’s anywhere within shooting distance of mainstream — tracks like “Little Man,” a generation-jumping look at father-son relationships, are still more likely to pop up on NPR or a blog than radio. But “Watch Out” bangs like old LL Cool J (who gets a glancing lyrical half-shout) and “Get Fly” cribs a joyous gospel sample to underwrite its cautiously sunny worldview: “I can’t fight your war until I’m finished with mine.”

“I do think this is probably our darkest release, but, you know, it goes hand in hand with these being probably the darkest two years of my life,” Slug said. “I’d have to say that Ant, even probably more, had duress on his shoulders over the last two years than normal as well.”

But, he added, they never set out to make a dark-soul-of-the-night kind of record, or anything more than their usual “concept” of “following this guy Sean around.”

“[Ant and I] get together on Sunday and Saturday and have a great time making new songs about having a bad time,” he said. “It’s a really odd situation. And we sit around and laugh and try to make each other react to what we’re doing and when we’re finished we look at it and go, ‘It was a lot more fun to make that record than it is to listen to it.'”

“Panic Attack” bears that out — it’s a shuffling, fuzzy beat about America’s desperate overrealiance on medication. “Say Hey There” has a sing-song-y hook and verses in which Slug tries to step out of the image he’s created for himself. But the album’s best evidence of that is “That Night,” which opens sounding like a club banger and turns into a thanklessly tragic tale about the 2003 murder of a teenage fan after an Atmosphere concert in Albuquerque, N.M.

“When [Ant] sent me that beat, I said, ‘What do you want me to rap about? This is a dance song. I can’t come in here and be all aggressive.’ And he literally told me go and write a song that you’re not supposed to write, and that was the one song I’ve been afraid to write for two years now. I didn’t know I’d be able to write a journal about it, much less a song.”

It came together quick. “I went home that night, wrote it, took it back and said, ‘Here’s what I got.’ It’s the first time in my life that a song was only alive for under 24 hours and still made the record.”

Still, Slug, true to his hip-hop persona, is quick to launch praise for helping structure the record, from its old-school-tinted beats to its unmistakable sense of trying to find a balance.

“His deal was to be careful to always make sure to throw some lightness on, especially on some of the darkest songs,” Slug said. “Instead of being on some like ‘The world’s gonna end and we’re all gonna die’ s***, he’ll bring a pop sensibility to the music. That he thinks like this is amazing to me. To me it’s like, ‘There’s the beat, dog. Rap.'”

But Slug’s also got the unmistakably shifting priorities of a guy who’s getting older. “My son’s 11,” he says, “and last night in Chicago, there were kids that couldn’t have been old enough to have a learners’ permit. And now I think I’m growing in my position and I want to do the right thing with it. Maybe in a room full of 1,000 kids, I might just be able to divert two of them from becoming future frat-boy date rapists. And I think that’s why a lot of my writing has naturally refined itself. That’s kind of where I wanted to be all along — I just never knew it.”


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