Taking a break…

So I’ve been writing this site for over a year now. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m proud to say that I haven’t missed a single scheduled entry. With that said I’m taking a hiatus from scheduled posting, possibly temporary, possibly forever. I really enjoy writing these entries but out of fear of becoming complacent I need to take a break and freshen up. I don’t want to become one of those sites out there that just pump out the same redundant writings that no one wants to read. I enjoy the creative writing process, doing research, making outlines, all fun stuff but if the words I’m typing out aren’t on point then they aren’t worth typing at all and I fear my posts may become hum drum. Also the issue of contributors has come up. I’d really like to continue this site with others writing as well but after a failed attempt to wrangle up some interested writers I’ve decided to take step back. On the other hand if I can some other motivated individuals and build up a good size article queue I’ll start the site back up again, so check back once in a while, ya hear?

In addition to wanting to take a break from this site I also have other projects I’d like to work on. Projects that I put on hold when I started this site just about a year ago. Finally I can get back to those and I’m excited to bring those to fruition. So thanks for reading the site and I’ll catch you on the flip-side.

The Sugarhill Gang

In the rap world MCs often talk about being old school. It is implied that a particular artist’s longevity in the rap world is a testament to their lasting originality, creativity and fortitude to trudge through the lulls of a long-term recording career. In some cases this may be true, in others it may be not but I’m not going to get into that. What I’m really here for is to talk about The Sugarhill Gang, the oldest, most original, commercially successful rap group ever to tickle our ear drums. Of all the rap groups that have been allowed to grace this earth few have had the impact that The Sugarhill Gang did in 1979, not necessarily in terms of sales but in terms of proving that rap was a valid form of music and not a mere urban fad. It would take years still for the skeptics to be convinced, but the seeds of the successful rap industry that we have today were planted back in 1979 by Sugarhill.

So what was so special about The Sugarhill Gang? What did they do that was so groundbreaking? They released a single in 1979 titled “Rappers Delight” and that’s about it. That single was the catalyst for the whole rap movement that followed in the eighties. Rappers Delight was the first rap single to be on the top forty in the US, it also charted in the UK, Canada and pretty much all over the western world. This seems like it was the beginning of it all but prior to Rappers Delight’s success rap existed. Rapping was taking place at various social events through out the seventies but what Sugarhill did was take the essence of what was primarily a live experience, polish it up and make it presentable to the masses.

The Sugarhill Gang was made up of three members, Wonder Mike, Master Gee and Big Bank Hank. Oddly enough they weren’t from the Bronx or Queens as one might think, they were from Englewood New Jersey, of all places. They were assembled by a producer that heard them rap in front of a crowd at a local funk concert. As stated earlier rap wasn’t taken too seriously at the time and the producer signed them up with the idea that he would be entertaining a short term musical fad. What happened when the single was released must have been a huge surprise because the song skyrocketed up the charts, especially for a “fad” song. There wasn’t even a single version of the song for sale in the US, if there was I’m sure sales would have been much better. Unfortunately for Sugarhill though the success didn’t last and they had to hand over the torch to the up and comers of the day like Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash. Sugarhill released a couple albums and a few more singles post Rapper’s Delight but nothing to much fanfare. They broke up in 1986. They’ve reunited various times through the years but nothing to make of it. Of their four album offering their first two are still pretty good.

1) Sugarhill Gang [1980]
2) 8th Wonder [1982]
3) Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party [1998]
4) Jump on It! [1999]

Vinyl records live on.

With the advent of compact discs and now digital music players the mainstream music world would have you think that vinyl records are dead and to a degree they are. I’ve seen vinyl records melted to make bowls, lampshades, cut up to make coasters and collages. I’ve seen them for sale for pennies at yard sales where the seller would practically pay you just to take their piles of this worthless bulky outdated medium. But you know what? Vinyl records aren’t dead at all. In fact vinyl records sales have climbed in recent years, with millions sold just last year, and those are RIAA sales numbers that don’t take into account independent record label sales. Indeed there is value to be had in this seemingly ancient media. In addition to it’s mystique also comes along a few benefits missing from the bullets points associated with the digital media we are overrun with today.

For anyone that isn’t familiar with vinyl records I’ll fill you in. There is a huge variety to vinyl and it can be confusing at times. They come in three primary speeds, 33, 45 and 78 rpm. This RPM speed relates to how many revolutions the turn table spins the record per minute. 33 and 45 are the more common speeds and care needs to be taken when purchasing a turntable if you want one that will play 78′s. In addition to the speed differences there are also size differences. In theory records can come in any size or shape as long as they fit on the turn table and are light enough to be spun, they’ll play. I’ve seen square records and even goofy shapes like rocket ships but the most common shape is a circle with varying widths, 7″, 10″ and 12″. They can also come in a limitless array of colors from solids to marbling effects to even having full color graphics. All of this is possible because vinyl records are made of a lump of vinyl, like a big ball and they have the sound information pressed onto them. It’s not a sterile high precision process like with compact discs, seeing vinyl records being made looks like much more of an artisan process. As you can imagine with all of these color and size options an artist can really personalize their release. And with all of this personalization comes collect-ability, something that is virtually non-existent with the current generation of media.

One of the biggest advantages of vinyl over the other popular medias of today is it’s low cost. Vinyl records are cheap to produce which makes them cheap to purchase as well. This low price point means that you’ll find vinyl records to be very popular among independent labels in addition to self produced albums, areas of the music industry where maintaining a low cost-to-market is a major concern. When I was a kid and I was really into punk rock music that was released on independent labels. As a result I have a big box of records that isn’t going anywhere simply because most of that music was never released on any other media. Many are prints of 1000 on small labels that only lasted a short while, the masters are long gone and all that’s left is the vinyl. This is still a common practice and small labels are still releasing vinyl today. Sure these same labels could just make home brewed cds and send them out but a home brewed cd doesn’t compare to a “real” vinyl record with a printed label and liner. The legitimacy that comes along with a vinyl record is a validation to a record label, no matter how small. In terms of value to the buyer I’d much rather have the vinyl then a half assed cdr with a hand written label. Heck, I can make my own cdr using the vinyl as a master whenever I like and this brings us to recording quality.

The validity of an audio format is it’s ability to replicate a given source. The accuracy of which a format can replicate a source or master is the meat and potatoes of the recording world. Through the years other elements have come to the forefront, durability, convenience, portability and cost. Vinyl records aren’t durable in the slightest, you have to watch what temperature they are stored it, they won’t survive a drop very well if at all and they scratch very easily. They aren’t the most convenient medium either, they are big and bulky and anyone with a large collection of them practicably has to have a room dedicated to storage. Portability is nonexistent with vinyl records, it’s comical to think of what a portable record player would look like. And cost? While vinyl records are cheap to make and buy a “quality” record player will set you back quite a bit more then a quality compact disc player. So while the media is cheap the equipment isn’t in the slightest. That leads us to the attribute I mentioned first, sound quality, the most important feature of a recording and this is where vinyl excels.

The inherent problem with digital music is storage size. It is a constant conflict between audio quality and how much space it takes up on the media, weather that be hard drive space or space on your ipod. The only way to make a bit of audio smaller is to truncate a part of it. This truncation is part of the process in creating compact discs and even more so in creating the various computer oriented audio files. Vinyl records do not suffer from this limitation. Vinyl based records are analogue in nature and contain a much larger sound wave then the digital formats which enable them to reproduce the most accurate sound playback of all consumer based media. There are drawbacks though because of the analogue nature of records they are prone to containing a high level of noise on playback. This noise is what has tainted the consumer’s view of vinyl as a whole and made them think vinyl records sound turdy. However on a high end sound system vinyl can be played back without noise and it’s full fidelity can be truly heard. So indeed vinyl is a paradox of being the cheapest medium but requiring some of the most expensive equipment to be fully enjoyed.

I’m not saying we should start a vinyl revival or anything. They are inconvenient as hell an to be honest I don’t break out my record player very often but then again maybe if I had one of those expensive setups I’d play them more. What I am saying is that vinyl does have a place, cassettes and 8 tracks are dead for real but vinyl continues on for some valid reasons. So don’t write off vinyl records. They are a fun way to listen to music and can be a nice departure from the demands of immediate satisfaction placed on mp3′s and compact discs. If you want to switch to the next song on a record you actually have to get up off your ass and move the needle. How’s that for analogue?

Raymond Scott

Raymond Scott was an extremely interesting music composer, instrument inventor, sound technician and professional musician. Raymond, his birth name was Harry Warnow, was born in Brooklyn New York in 1908(died in 1994). Gifted from the start Raymond attended the Julliard School of Music in NYC, graduating in 1931. After College his brother Mark Warnow helped him get a job at CBS Radio as a pianist in the house band. At that time commercial television was virtually non-existent and radio was the definitive means of reaching the masses. Radio stations used all types of music to score their shows and this is where Raymond was exposed to various methods of using music to accentuate a mood and portray a atmosphere. He would continue to build on the techniques he learned at CBS when he left it’s wing in 1936 and started his own jazz band.

Raymond handpicked some of the best jazz musicians of the day to be in his band, regardless of race. Raymond had a completely different take on jazz then many of his predecessors. An element which was a major part of many jazz performance back then and even today, improvisation, was discouraged by Raymond. He allowed people to improvise during song writing sessions but once the song was finalized improvisation was off the table. Also unlike most big name headliners Raymond took the back seat when it came to solos and preferred to back his fellow members on piano, humbly stepping aside where he thought his abilities were bested by his colleges. A final element that really set Raymond Scott’s music apart from the rest is his use of themes, in some cases very descriptive themes. Many of Raymond’s songs have detailed titles like “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House” or “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” these titles describe the scene you can expect to imagine while listening to the songs. A very interesting concept for it’s time. Most of Raymond’s music is purely instrumental so these scenes aren’t portrayed with lyrics but through very well thought out deliberate instrumentation. I happen to love Raymond’s take on jazz. It’s a departure from much of the other jazz that’s out there and quite refreshing.

In addition to his jazz playing Raymond Scott was also very active in the audio engineering field. After some years of playing in his band he eventually stepped off the stage completely and just wrote music for the band and thought of new ways to perfect it’s recordings. In time this love of audio engineering turned Raymond into a instrument inventor, primarily of electronic instruments. He was the forerunner of electronic instrument design and would mentor many of the big names we hear today in that field particularly Bob Moog but many others. Bob Moog who would himself go on to become a electronic instrument inventor perfecting on some of Raymond’s work and also pushing the industry in new directions. One particular instrument that Raymond worked on for his entire career, lifetime really, was called the Electronium. The idea was a instrument that could play music on the fly and completely at random. Kind of like a player piano that could even choose it’s own style, not bound to a single instrument sound or to a prescribed melody. A really unique idea, especially since he started work on the Electronium in the 50′s.

I’ve saved one of the more interesting things about Raymond Scott for last. You may not know this but chances are you are very familiar with many of his songs. In 1943 Warner Brothers purchased the rights to publish Raymond’s music. Anyone familiar with cartoons also knows that in 1943 Warner Brothers also owned and created Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies, perhaps some of the most iconic cartoons ever created. When Warner bought the rights to publish Raymond’s music that meant that the creators of our beloved cartoons attained full access to Raymond’s catalog. Raymond’s thematic swing jazz fit in with the cartoons seamlessly and was used to score hundreds of WB’s cartoon shorts. Ironically through Raymond Scott’s career he didn’t write a single tune with the intention of being used by Warner they were all picked up after the fact. Pretty neat stuff.

Below is not a full discography, Raymond Scott’s music has been released in various forms over the years and becuase of the randomness of his releases I’m only going to list the albums that you have a chance of finding. I have “Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights” and it’s great…

1) This Time With Strings [1957]
2) The Secret 7: The Unexpected [1960]
3) Soothing Sounds for Baby Vols. 1-3 [1963]
4) The Raymond Scott Project: Vol. 1: Powerhouse [1991]
5) Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights [1992]
6) Manhattan Research Inc. [2000]
7) Microphone Music [2002]
8) Ectoplasm [2008]

Pat Benatar

Rarely has a pop chick rocked quite to the level of Pat Benatar. Patti truly was one of the pioneers in female contemporary rock vocals, especially if her shear amount of charting material is taken into consideration. Her accolades over her career are almost endless. Patti has won multiple Grammies over the years, multiple American Music Awards and even was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. I remember watching Pat Benatar’s videos in the early days of MTV. I was just a lad at the time but I thought she was kind of sexy. I think it was her video for “Love is a Battlefield” that really got my little boy heart in a flutter. Whenever I was watching TV with my patents and a Pat Benatar video came on I’d get embarrassed like I was just caught looking at the underwear section in the Sears catalog.

Pat Benatar was born in Brooklyn New York in 1953. At the age of three she moved to Lindenhurst, New York where she would remain until college. Patti showed an early interest in music and her parents encouraged her to pursue vocals, particularly classical vocals. She was raised in a strict household where rock music was not allowed however her parents eagerly encouraged her to be active in many other types of music, symphonies, opera and theater especially, pretty much anything but rock. Anyone with an once of psychology knows what happened next as kids tend to gravitate towards the forbidden fruit. Patti would listen to rock wherever she could, at friends’ houses and even by sneaking some listening at home on her portable radio. Despite Patti’s rock interests though she stayed the course with the classic track for most of her teenage years. She did so well in fact that she was accepted into Juilliard, a prominent North Eastern musical school. This is where Patti’s story get’s tricky. She rejected Juilliard in favor of pursuing a rather hum drum career in health education at the state college. I bet there were much heated debates over that one at the Benatar household but Patti just wasn’t interested in spending her life in the classical realm. Things didn’t work out in the State school and Patti dropped out to marry her high school sweetheart. They moved to Virginia where Patti became a bank teller. She couldn’t resist the call of the lime light though and after as short while to became a singing waitress at a 50′s style restaurant. Things snowballed from one job to another and before she knew it she was living back in NYC and singing in night clubs there, this led to her being signed to a label and within the release of a couple albums her climb to fame was complete.

After learning about Pat Benatar’s background and observing her style overall it’s clear what region she is from. Having grown up in the shadow of NYC myself I notice certain people seem to echo that region more then others and she is a clear cut example. Emphasized especially because of her rock vocals. Her vocals are powerful, she doesn’t hold back. Her songs tend to be for the women scorned songs about heartbreak and picking up the pieces after an relationship has gone awry. Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuine love songs in there too but what female pop artist doesn’t have those? Looking over her discography I’d suggest starting with her 1980 release, “Crimes of Passion”. It was her breakthrough album and definitely one of her best. Of course you could also just get a greatest hits type-deal and take it from there.

1) In the Heat of the Night [1979]
2) Crimes of Passion [1980]
3) Precious Time [1981]
4) Get Nervous [1982]
5) Live from Earth [1983]
6) Tropico [1984]
7) Seven the Hard Way [1985]
8) Wide Awake in Dreamland [1988]
9) True Love [1991]
10) Gravity’s Rainbow [1993]
11) Innamorata [1997]
12) Go [2003]