Music Geography 101: Kendrick Lamar (Compton, CA)

I recently assigned my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”

A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).

My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.

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Hip Hop for the World

A colleague of mine from over in the Musicology department posted this video to the Music and Culture Society group. It’s hard to turn down anything involving KRS-One. It’s always a bizarre breath of fresh air hearing hip-hop in other languages, particularly in places people in the West rarely associate with hip-hop. This video is uploaded through San E’s VEVO account (he is the Korean rapper who appears first, after KRS’ intro), so it appears that he coordinated the video production, at least. I’ll be back soon with a big series of posts about teaching Musical Geography in 100-level courses. For now, if you’ve got 6 minutes to spare, take a trip around the world with a bunch of talented MC’s.

Postcards from Tampa Bay, 1938 (Part One)

Last week was even more of a mess than the week prior to it. This week? Plenty to do, but I do have a few minutes to post a quick update on some recent activity over here.

(mush records)

First, for those who missed it, I recently contributed a column to ZME Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of the release of my favorite hip-hop album of all time, Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth. Hip-hop had never cast such an anti-establishment love letter to any city as Ian Bavitz did to New York in a moment when that town desperately needed it. While what I wrote skewed heavier toward media studies and sociology than geography, there is plenty of place-based thought crammed into there. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you haven’t endured the positive brain-numbing of this record yet.

Last weekend, I inherited a massive stash of postcards mailed to Brooklyn from around North America over the course of the Great Depression and the onset World War II. I am not adequately prepared to explain the significance and context of these cards here, but I am happy to provide a teaser.

In honor of the upcoming 2014 Association of American Geographers meeting in Tampa, Florida, here are a few wonderful postcards from the region in 1938, with brief descriptions. Taken as a whole, they represent a fine cross-section of the pre-Disney Florida tourism industry imagery. (h/t to Derek Alderman for this observation). All scans are mine.

St. Pete's Green BenchesMany American cities have unfortunately done away with benches like these for class and urban blight-related reasons, but the ones in St. Pete have gone through a bizarre history, now lending their heritage to the city’s finest craft brewery. Read more about the green benches here.

HotelDixie_Bradenton_1938

Until I saw this one, all I could really tell you about Bradenton was that it was the subject of a Hot Water Music song. When I saw this archival photo on the postcard, flanked by these cool 30s-Hollywood decorations on the side, I discovered Bradenton had quite the fancy landmark back in the day. The city tore the building down in 1974. You can read more about that here.

DavidIslandsTampa_1938About eight decades before Dubai had everyone in the developed world talking about man-made islands, the enigmatic D.P. Davis (one of the kings of the Florida land boom of the 1920s; read about him and the boom in this masters thesis here) pumped a bunch of mud onto a pair of small grassy atolls and created one of Tampa Bay’s first upper class residential communities. More background can be found here.

hotelfloridian_tampa_1938Of course what better place to stop than the Hotel Floridian? It has a fairly common story: built at the height of the Jazz Age in 1926, fallen into disrepair, and restored to a modicum of its glory, and available for those who can afford rooms today. The ribbon was actually re-cut last year, so looks like it was just in time for the hordes of Geographers who probably can’t afford to stay there but will definitely pass through and take a look.

There’s more where this came from, so don’t worry. Here’s a quote from John Blacking (and a music video by a Tampa band that pretty much proves his point) to tide you all over until next time:

The value of music is, I believe, to be found in terms of the human experiences involved in its creation. There is a difference between music that is occasional and music that enhances human consciousness, music that is simply for having and music that is for being. I submit that the former may be good craftsmanship, but that the latter is art, no matter how simple or complex it sounds, and no matter under what circumstances it is produced.

– John Blacking, 1973 How Musical is Man?, University of Washington Press, (2000 Edition), p. 50.

Merchandise – Time from Id House Vid. Group on Vimeo.

Dispatches from Research Land (Movement One)

"Do you remember asking Run-DMC for permission to... oh, no one ever has? Okay."

Cultural capital that you can buy in T-Shirt form. You have to admit that the “RESPECT” one is really cool, though.

BSM-Chinatown

The 2-Day swap meet took place right in the core of LA’s historic Chinatown district, which made for an interesting juxtaposition of landscapes.

This weekend, I kicked off the first of what will probably be innumerable rounds of research on place-as-motivator for vinyl collecting at the 5th Annual Beat Swap Meet up in Los Angeles. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the organizers and the participation of a prodigious amount of vendors, collectors, rappers, deejays, artists, producers, and a bevy of the type of characters that only LA can generate, it was an unbelievable (and almost overwhelming) celebration of vinyl culture that took over the core block of Chinatown over the course of the weekend. I met a generous assortment of cool people, and I also dug up a few new gems for my own collection, including the single weirdest unauthorized issue LP I’ve ever seen. More on that later.

On Saturday, I visited the Swap Meet as a consumer and observer, going from post to post around the Grand Star Jazz Club, speaking with vendors and crate diggers about their love of vinyl. Two particular conversations stood out. The first of which was with a journalist who confided that he wasn’t a huge vinyl collector, but he had just bought the Grandmaster Flash “White Lines” 12″ “because that was his high school’s unofficial anthem,” and he didn’t have the money to blow (no pun intended) on records back in 1984. I asked him where he went to high (no pun intended) school; he is from the Bronx. A coked-up (no pun necessary) Jerry Bruckheimer couldn’t have produced a more formulaic script.

Another person I met, a young woman who grew up in Bakersfield with a musician and collector for a father, admitted to me that she loved crate digging because it reminds her of spending time at thrift shops with her dad back in the day. We spoke initially when she saw me holding an ESG record, exasperated that I had beaten her to it. She raved about ESG (who were another Bronx institution…not as formulaic of a conversational turn as if they had been from Bako, but I digress). I ran into her later and we had a long conversation about how certain songs, especially “Moody” remind her of very specific moments of her youth in The Central Valley. If only Dwight Yoakam or Korn (stupid lack of backwards letters on WordPress!) were this funky.

On Sunday, I attended as a vendor. As far as my research was concerned, being tethered to a table certainly put me at a disadvantage. I wound up taking fewer notes than I did just wandering around on Day One, and my conversations were not as involved, since most of the people who came up and looked through my records were loathe to get too deep into conversation. There were plenty of exceptions, of course, but as one of the owners of a Highland Park record shop told me, that time the vinyl junkie spends flipping through a crate of records is “sacred, and you don’t want to interrupt that.” In retrospect, I wish I had tabled on Saturday, because Sunday was the immeasurably bigger day for the swap meet. Also, more dealers specializing in punk and hardcore were around, so perhaps I would have done better than simply break even on the day. Thanks to my friend who watched my table, though, I was able to drift for a little while, do some observation, and take a few photos.

"My collection of 'T.R.O.Y.' remixes is almost complete!"

The Beat Swap Meet is setting an example for vinyl fairs in attracting higher numbers of female record lovers.

The Beat Swap Meet is remarkable for a number of reasons. Where most record conventions and vinyl-centric events attract a stereotypically male, white, older demographic, most of the music and vinyl-lovers in attendance this weekend were markedly more diverse in terms of gender, race, and age. Considering the BSM’s attention to underrepresented demographics in vinyl collecting culture, they also did an excellent job ensuring that kids were welcome and (very importantly) occupied. Signs posted around implored people to keep the Beat Swap Meet safe and friendly for children. All over the grounds, kids of all ages and races danced, played, and in my single favorite photo I took all weekend (see below), did arts and crafts.

Who wouldn't want their kid to be dressed this well?

Three girls decorate 7″ records, re-purposing one of the festival’s most sacred items. The two sisters who ran and organized the craft tent rescued these old 7″s (right before somebody threw them all in a dumpster) and found a great use for them.

Needless to say, I’m still recovering from the two days. On my way out the other day, I wound up getting into an argument with an older collector about my thesis topic. (More accurately, he started the argument with me when he saw my research flyers, but let’s not split hairs). He told me I’m “on shaky ground” with my argument and that one would need about 10,000 LPs in his/her collection to be taken seriously, at least from where he stands. I told him I would love for him to take my survey and he said he did not own a computer. Attracting passionate criticism from this individual (who once told me I’d “grow into” Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; I’m almost 30 and still don’t get it) can only mean one thing: I’m probably doing something right. If the Beat Swap Meet proves anything, it’s that the subcultures that preserved vinyl through its near-death in the late 80’s and early 90’s (dance and hip-hop) have grown back up and aren’t afraid to spread the ownership.

So, Upwards and on-wards. If any of you were at the BSM this weekend, I’d love to hear what you got your hands on and what you thought of the event. sonicgeography [at] gmail.

– Ty

Bonus Tracks

  • Few things will make you happier (if you’re an aging punk fan) than to see a group of teenagers ask you for Ramones records, and then being able to recommend Masked Intruder to them. 
  • I really wish I’d written down the names of more of the emcees and deejays I saw perform this weekend, but most of them are listed on the BSM site. I met too many outstanding personalities to really go into detail about here, but my personal favorite quote came from one dealer on Saturday who specialized in punk records from the 90’s: “I’ve avoided moving for 12 years because I didn’t want to [go through the trouble of] moving my records. You can just sell and replace furniture, but not a record collection.”
  • I’m not going to bore you all (or entertain you, depending on where you stand on vinyl) with a full list of what I dug up while in the course of my research, but I have no choice but to share this Johnny Cash bootleg with you all. If you don’t notice what’s wrong with this in under two seconds (and realize why its hilarious in under five), then you lose the internet. "These bootleggers didn't see anything clearly, now."