After three years toiling in anonymity, sifting the hidden gems from the, at times, overwhelming pile of mediocre CDs constantly being sent into our station, and holding painful conversations with promoters about how that White Boy Wasted record is doing, being a Music Director has finally paid off in a big way. In these five days of CMJ, I’ve seen some of the best concerts of my life, met some awe-inspiring musicians, and overall, had a ball. After spending a day and a half at Wesleyan, I trekked back to New York on Friday through 3 1/2 hours of some of the worst traffic I’ve ever had to deal with (it involved bewildering drives through Greenwich and the Bronx). Again, this was all worth it because of CMJ.
Day IV: Friday
My first stop on Friday was a non-CMJ event, the Third Man Record Truck at the Ace Hotel. Third Man Records is Jack White‘s music label, which puts out a ton of strange, awesome releases by the likes of Tom Jones, Conan O’Brien and, most bizarrely awesome, a cover of Mozart‘s scatology-themed piece “Leck Mich Im Arsch” by Insane Clown Posse (In case you weren’t familiar with Mozart’s poop-obsession, there is, quite helpfully, a rather long and detailed Wikipedia article on “Mozart and Scatology”). Third Man’s Record Truck operates much like a food truck, except that it sells records out its window. There I picked up a vinyl copy of The White Stripes‘ classic early single “The Big Three Killed My Baby.”
Next up, I met up with Adam and my friend Timmy at the Gramercy Theater for the Mass Appeal CMJ Take Over. The line for the event stretched around two sides of the block. While waiting in line, we met a Russian chainsmoker named Vlad, who told us we could buy a tank in Russia for 60 grand. This showcase was a hip-hop show, which reflected to some extent the current diversity of styles and content in the genre. Since the show was free, a large portion of the crowd seemed to be there just to see something free without any prior knowledge of the acts. Also, Asher Roth was the headliner, despite there being at least 6-7 more talented/respected acts on the bill. So while this show displayed plenty of what makes hip-hop, in my opinion, the most exciting, interesting genre around these days, this was far from a perfect concert, and there was plenty of bland, mediocre, and down-right terrible rap on display.
Starting things off was Alexander Spit, about whom there is little to be said, except that he wore pre-torn jeans and raps over obnoxious beats. Following him came Bodega Bamz, a rapper from Spanish Harlem, who has put out tracks with the likes of A$AP Ferg, Joell Ortiz and Flatbush Zombies, who came out for his last song on stage. His set was a definite breath of fresh air after Spit’s, but while his rhymes were serviceable and his beat-selection decent, he appeared to be merely a mid-level talent in the grand scheme of today’s rapidly expanding rap game.
Next up came Angel Haze, who released an excellent debut EP, Reservation this summer. Obvious comparisons have and will be made between her and the two biggest female rappers of the day, Azealia Banks and Nikki Minaj. Haze, however seems more interested in simply spitting fire than in the more schtick-y aspects of both Banks and Minaj. She had great stage presence, finally managing to get the lethargic crowd somewhat interested in what was going on on-stage. And she rocked a tube-top/crucifix outfit. I came out a big fan. Following Haze came Troy Ave, a street rapper who took his name from the street he grew up on in Crown Heights. Vice informs us that he “owns a grey Jeep and at least one gun.” Like Bodega, Troy Ave is another mid-level talent, who can rock a mic without embarrassing himself, but lacks any defining characteristic to push him to the next level. The most memorable part of his set was him leading the crowd in several chants of “Powder!” The next act, Ninjasonik made me almost nostalgic for Alexander Spit. When you look up the word “wack” in the dictionary, there should be a recording of this band performing their terrible pop-rap over that Matt and Kim song that your annoying co-worker has as her ringtone. Following their set, a fight broke out between a rather inebriated girl, who took offense with the young man next to her for not even being from Brooklyn. It was far classier than Ninjasonik.
There could hardly be a starker contrast than there was between Ninjasonik’s embarassing soft-as-a-lamb-rap and the sinister, coolheaded, wildly inventive Boldy James, about whom I can only gush as an unabashed fanboy. Boldy James is the kind of talent who should be spoken of in hushed tones by anyone who cares about rap as an artform. At this point, he is still relatively unknown, though well respected among true hip-hop fanatics, having collaborated on many tracks with Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks of The Cool Kids, as well as appearing on this summer’s posthumously-released J. Dilla comp, and working on a soon-to-be-released album with The Alchemist. I first became a massive Boldy fan when I heard the track “Life Time” off his debut 2011 mixtape, Trapper’s Alley – Pros and Cons: The Quikcrete Ready Mixtape. The song samples the hauntingly beautiful “Here’s to Life” by Shirley Horn and is perhaps the most vivid description of what it’s like to be in prison I’ve ever heard. It also features a virtuosic section in which Boldy recites a seemingly endless list of friends in jail, with names like “Slick Rick, Stank Mo, Marley and Blaylock.” Though it might not be out of the usual for a rapper to talk about serving time, Boldy has a way with words and a use of alliteration that is pretty unparalleled. I found an interview with Boldy on the blog Nothing Can Save You, in which he replies to the question, “Are you eating strictly off music now or is music a side hustle?” by saying, “In between the tic tocs of door knocks, rain drops, & gun shot’s, 3 hot’s & a cott, while runnin from the cops. Rap don’t feed me, so I eat from doin other things. It’s not a hustle yet it’s just something that I love to do whether I get paid for it or not. I look at it as therapy & I’m my own personal psychiatrist.” From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of the man. His set did not disappoint, featuring some of my personal favorites, “Home Invasion” and “I Sold Dope All My Life,” as well as his recent Inglish-collab “For the Birds.”
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire showed up next, putting on a crowd-pleasing high-energy show. It was my third time seeing eXquire and I don’t think I’ll be getting tired of seeing him any time soon. After the show I met his masked DJ, who told me that their show at Wesleyan last year was the moment when they knew they had made it. He also let me in on plans to jump on stage during an indie rock show at NYU.
Last up for us was Roc Marciano, a veteran MC from Long Island, who was once a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad and collaborated with Gangrene (Oh No & The Alchemist) on last year’s excellent Greneberg EP. He had good stage presence despite his low-key, icy delivery. As seen in the photo above, a large man in a Long Island hat carried Roc’s drink for him during the set, and another mysterious white guy wearing a cross, beret, leather jacket, sunglasses, and one black glove rocked out next to him. This is a good example of why you can safely say that rock is generally a less interesting genre than rap these days. Action Bronson, the big bearded man in the red hat next to Roc, came out for the last song, “Pouches of Tuna” off Bronson’s Blue Chips mixtape. He received, by far, the biggest crowd reaction of the night and threw several blunts into the audience. Again, when’s the last time you went to an indie rock concert like this? We headed out before Large Professor, The Alchemist, Prodigy and Asher Roth played their sets, having already taken in 4 1/2 hours of hip-hop.
Day V: Saturday
Saturday started with a return to Piano’s where Adam and I checked out Foxygen, a group who is quickly becoming my favorite new band. They released a great debut EP, Take The Kids Off Broadway this summer and seem poised for very big things. They look and sound like they were transported by a time machine from the ’70s and their lead singer even yelled out some endearingly bemused comments about the Internet. Pitchfork ran a snarky, meanspirited article about the band’s earlier performance at CMJ, written by Carrie Battan, who also managed to call Lil B‘s recent excellent, hilarious mixtape Obama Basedgod “downright boring, joyless, and indistinguishable from hours upon hours of the rapper’s throwaway material.” Seriously, “United States of Thuggin’” is boring and joyless?! I must experience joy and boredom in a very different way from this lady. Here’s what she wrote about Foxygen: “These kids are nothing if not serious students of their parents’ record collections, and their live show read like a mid-aughts Battle of the Bands at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Luckily for them, there’s no shortage of nostalgics hungry for their brand of sturdy, boilerplate psych and glam-rock tunes.” Ouch. While it’s true that Foxygen clearly are serious students of music history, I see this less as something to make fun of than to celebrate. Shouldn’t we want our young musicians to care about what came before them? And I must disagree with her characterization of their music as “boilerplate.” While the band comes from a lineage of fuzzy, exuberant psych/glam/garage rock, they have crafted their own distinctive sound. Additionally, the hilarious stage banter of their lead singer Sam France, and the clear fact that they’re having the most goddamn fun when they’re on stage sets them apart from any band I’ve ever seen live.
After Foxygen’s set at Piano’s, Adam went off to Brooklyn to watch his sister in a play. I met up with Mara of Lyons Den at DROM where we saw Boldy James for my second time. Outside the venue, I overheard one concertgoer tell his friend, “I go, ‘Is it CMJ down here?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, but it’s hip hop.’” Boldy put on another excellent show to a sparse crowd, and won over Mara as a fan, who dubbed him “the hipster Jay-Z.” After the show, I got to say hi to Boldy and was, far and away, the most star-struck I had been during CMJ. We agreed that he seemed like a genuinely good guy, whom we’d love to hang out with.
We capped off our CMJ experience with the most fun show of the week, another set by Foxygen, this time at Fuzz NYC, an unmarked venue in Chinatown, which reminded me of the exclusive day spa in Zoolander, so exclusive no one knows about it. Bizarre karaoke videos for Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, Madonna and some Japanese singers played on projectors behind the band. Foxygen rocked out and the audience was very receptive. All the band members are about 5’5,” but they make a hell of a lot of racket for some little people. They also slowed things down for a Suede cover. Sam France yelled out things like “This song goes out to the Teletubbies!” “Who here’s on mushrooms?” “I’m in love… with a milk cow!” In short, a perfect way to end a terrific week in New York.