Monthly Archives: August 2005

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Natural Selection: 4th Avenue Jones

This is my first foray into music reviews since back when I was doing it on HipHopZone.com, so it’s somewhat appropriate that I jump back into it with a review of a crew I’ve got some history with, the fearless crew known as 4th Avenue Jones‘ (pronounced ‘joneses’).

The crew got their start as one of the original hip-hop bands, garnering critical acclaim through a series of live shows. They were signed to a major label (Interscope Records), but their 2002 album No Plan B Pt. II, was shelved after an industry shakeup. Now with Gotee Records, they’ve got the freedom to be who they are, a genre-bending conflagration explained in the title of their latest album Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul.

The strength of Stereo lies not just in its diversity of style, but in its continuity of style. Ever since Run DMC and Aerosmith teamed up with “Walk This Way,” bands have tried to combine rock and rap music, with varying degrees of succees. But with the Joneses, it’s not just a gimmick, it’s a way of life. Their leader, Ahmad, has always dropped rap flows with a mellifluous tenor tone, so as he transitions into actual singing, it’s just an extension of what he’s always done. And the second vocalist/emcee of the group, Tena Jones, complements Ahmad’s laid-back demeanor on wax just as naturally as she does in real life, being of course, his wife and the mother of their child.

As such, the Joneses have a unique lyrical voice. Their mix of raw emotional honesty with deep convictions is undergirded with the requisite headstrong bravado and rhythmic dexterity evident in any hip-hop crew worth its salt. Tracks like, “Stereo” a serenade about a boombox, contrast well with more serious songs like “Overloaded” and “Sorry,” which speak of emotional fatigue and conflict. By the time you hit the Avila Brothers club jam “It’s Over Now,” you’re amazed by the variety apparent.

Of course, appreciating all of the nuances of the 4th Avenue Jones vibe requires several passes. Because upon first listen, you might not really appreciate the sonic stylings of Gailybird, the illest violinist this side of Japan’s Midori. You might not understand the significance of Timmy Shakes, rock guitarist extraordinaire, claiming such a strong voice in production and composition of a band known primarily for hip-hop. You might not necessarily be able to break down how Phat Al and D. Calloway can move with the lockstep precision that such tight grooves require.

But you won’t need to — you can just crank it up and soak it all in.

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Homecoming ain’t what you think

We are leaving, and soon.


Matter of fact, odds are good that by the time you read this, Mrs. G*Nat and I will be well on our way. We’ll have already packed up our stuff, and commenced driving across the country – from Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Oregon.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, with most of my most formative years spent in Portland. I’m a die-hard Trail Blazers fan, and I have a prominent West Coast bias in the way I look at things. As a result, our decision to relocate to Portland was not surprising for many people in my circle. Many of my friends, in both Chicago and Portland, have referred to this trip as “moving home.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

I say this with no malice or bitterness. In many ways, I’ve missed living in Portland. God knows I’ve missed my family. Even though having a large extended family like mine can bring its share of issues into the picture, it’ll be good to be only a stone’s throw away from most of my family, instead of the two-time-zone difference I’ve had to endure for the last eight years or so.

But my home isn’t in N.E. Portland. Neither is it in on the north side of Chicago. It’s inaccessible by roads, bridges, or other forms of civic engineering. Most people have heard of it, but few know very much about it. It can’t be located on Mapquest, or delivered-to by Domino’s, FedEx or UPS.

I am a citizen of the kingdom of God, and my home is in heaven.

And that’s a hard truth to hold onto, the idea that the place where I dwell on a regular basis is not my true home. I’m reminded of the legions of Israelis who’ve recently been forced to relocate out of the Gaza Strip. I don’t want to trivialize their experiences by comparing them to mine, because they are, needless to say, incomparable.

Yet I find it to be a vivid example of a simple truth:

People don’t like to move.

Even if there are compelling, overarching reasons for the moving, reasons that are grounded in the perennial values of truth and integrity, those reasons don’t make moving any easier. Even if you ignore all of the logistical headaches, there can be significant heartaches inherent to the process of gathering up all of your earthly possessions and setting out for new territory.

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes familiarity breeds more familiarity. And when something is familiar, it feels, well, like family. That’s why it hurt so much when I lost the house I grew up in after my parents divorced. Afterward, I vowed to myself that I would, someday, buy that house back and live in it with my own family. Like a teenage Inigo Montoya (“you killed my father… prepare to die”), I was bent on reclaiming the house, because I longed for that sense of safety, security and acceptedness that I enjoyed in it. That‘s what made it home for me.

But the popular saying is true — you can never go home again. Because the place I knew as home really only existed in my mind. I enjoyed a great childhood with two loving parents who did their best to provide a nurturing, close family atmosphere. But if it were possible for me to relive those years with my grown-up mind, the illusion wouldn’t hold. I would see all the things that escaped me as a child: the economic realities, the potential dangers of criminal activity, the emotional strain of urban ministry, and a host of other issues that never penetrated my childhood bubble. Even if I would’ve grown up in a more affluent setting, it wouldn’t make much difference. You can’t gentrify the effects of sin. People in upscale communities still divorce, commit suicide, and overdose on drugs. White flight isn’t gonna fix it, either.

All of us, as we transition from childhood to adulthood experience an erosion of this sense of true home. We may not consciously address it, but it’s there – a sense that the world we thought was fine is somehow tainted. As adults, we see a fuller picture of the world’s fallen state, but we still long for home.

This is what the apostle Paul was getting at in 2 Corinthians 5:1-6 (NIV):

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling,

because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

It also helps to explain Jesus’ response in Matthew 8:20, when one of the scribes talked of wanting to follow him wherever he went:

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Reading it now, I feel like I finally have a read on what Jesus may have meant. So many times in the past, I’d read that verse and imagined Jesus as a divine Rodney Dangerfield, complaining about his digs (or the lack thereof). But that’s not it at all. I think Jesus was trying to portray what life as his disciple would be like – that, here on earth, there’s no real home for us. Not that we’ll never be comforted, but that it won’t come from a physical place – it will come from being in the presence of God.

That’s why you can’t read Psalm 84 (“How lovely your dwelling place… better is one day in your courts…”) and interpret it only in the context of the institution of church. The church exists to represent and accommodate the presence of God – not the other way around. It’s not a building on a piece of property that’s so lovely, that our hearts are longing for. It’s Him. And God’s presence can’t be boxed in.

So as my wife and I cruise down the interstates, you can wish us well. You can pray for us, or just hope for good luck if that’s what you’re into, but we won’t make it home until much, much later. And when we do, we won’t be driving any more. We’ll be flying, baby.

I’m G*Natural; thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Mixin’ It Up: FINE LINES

[title from Change of Subject, the blog of columnist Eric Zorn from The Chicago Tribune. ]

Today’s fine line was uttered by ESPN’s Dan Patrick during his nationally syndicated sports talk radio show. On the subject of star athletes who constantly feel the need to ‘keep it real’ during pre/postgame comments:

“You know, I can appreciate candor as much as the next guy, but keeping it real has its limits. If your wife puts on an outfit that makes her look fat, and she asks you how it looks, you can’t tell me you’re gonna keep it real then. ‘Cause if you do, you’ll be ‘real’ tired of sleepin’ on the couch.”

As Kornheiser would say, that was clahhssic.

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Mixin’ It Up: FINE LINES

[title from Change of Subject, the blog of columnist Eric Zorn from The Chicago Tribune. ]

Today’s fine line comes from my man Stephen Sharkey, during one of our (last) breakfast meetings at the local BK. Upon perusing the latest promotional material pushing their new ‘chicken fries,’ Steven had this to say:

“Nahh, I don’t trust those things. You know why? Because the whole concept of the chicken fry is like, ‘You think you’ve seen processed food? Oh I’ll show you some processed food.'”

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Subtitles added to latest Kirk Franklin concert video

[WARNING – this post contains explicit sarcasm.]

In the tradition of The Onion and The Lark News, I bring you a news story I’ve longed to see for a long time:



Subtitles added to Kirk Franklin concert video


FT. WORTH – In response to growing concerns about the clarity of his verbal communication, Gospocentric Records has provided narration in the form of subtitles for Kirk Franklin’s latest concert video. Industry sources say its parent distributor Provident has been pressuring Gospocentric for years to make this move, citing consumer confusion among many factors.


“People don’t know what to ask for,” says marketing associate Randall Grayson. “I’ve had stores tell our reps that their customers keep asking for that ‘lemme-hear-you-make-some-Holy-Ghost-crazy-noise’ song.”


Christian bookstore manager George Leonard actually got in an argument about a Franklin tune after a customer insisted on hearing a song she thought was called ‘Friday.’ Said Leonard, “I’m like, ‘lady… trust me. The song is called Brighter Day. That’s what they’re chanting at the end of the song, ‘Brighter Day.’”


Representatives from the Gospel Lyric Transcriptionist Association affirmed the move overall, though with mixed levels of enthusiasm.


“Sure, it’ll help the consumer,” says LaQuisha Richardson, a GLTA staffer. “But I don’t know how we’re going to be able to meet that kind of demand. With Kirk, you’ve got a lot of lyrics to put down. Sure you’ve got the chorus, the verses, the bridge… but then there’s all this other stuff he be sayin, so it’s kinda hard to sort it all out.”


Gospel music archivist Llewellen Hodges is anxiously awaiting the latest videos to arrive with subtitles. “I’m hoping it will help me decipher the ‘Stomp code.’” Hodges has been working on trying to interpret a five-second section of the hit single “Stomp” where Franklin utters, in his trademark style of joyful abandon, a completely incomprehensible combination of words and phrases.


“See here,” he says, rewinding the audio for the umpteenth time, “It’s right before the cameo appearance by [Cheryl] “Salt” [James]… he starts with ‘young people if you don’t mind’ and then I can’t understand the rest.”


Hodges hopes he can use the subtitles to plug into his linguistic analysis software, in the hopes that he could form a composite interpolation of what Franklin intended to say.


Industry speculation has it that if the subtitles prove to boost enough sales, Gospocentric will reissue a special-edition DVD boxed set of his previous concerts with subtitles added. And if Hodges proves to be successful with his software, one insider said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happen with Fred Hammond or John P. Kee.”


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Artists: Got a job? Don’t lose it.




Naysayers have always had plenty of ammunition to shoot down the aspirations of would-be artists. Most popular is the rationalization that creative pursuits aren’t worth the requisite time and effort, since they rarely produce steady income. If that’s the case, then recent developments are showing a devastating corollary:


Good creative decisions can get you paid, but bad ones can get you fired.


Armchair auteurs, moonlighting musicians and novice novelists, beware — ‘don’t quit your day job’ is slowly becoming ‘don’t lose your day job.’


Nanny Dearest

This axiom is no more evident than in the case of Helaine Olen and her blogging nanny. Apparently Olen, after being informed directly from her nanny about the blog’s existence, became disturbed by the her nanny’s postings. Not because they contained eccentric details from her social life, but because they also contained many personal details from the job – a job which took place in Olen’s home. So distraught was Olen about her nanny’s running commentary that she fired her.


But that, of course, wouldn’t be news by itself, would it? Nannies get hired and fired all the time. What makes this notable is the fact that Olen then wrote about her experience in The New York Times – a move which earned her plenty of ill will around the blogosphere. After all, if you fire someone for writing about you, then turn around and write about them for a much larger audience, it doesn’t speak well of your credibility.


While Olen was justifiably upset about her nanny’s commentary about her marriage and household, most of the shock and awe in the Times piece came from passages about her nanny’s bizarre habits and desires – passages that, upon further examination, seemed awfully blown out of proportion. The whole thing smacked of hypocrisy, a point which many bloggers have hammered home on their own.


And while the nanny herself later admitted that she probably shouldn’t have told her boss about the blog in the first place, it certainly took two to tango in this sordid sonata. The nanny probably could’ve avoided A) writing in such specific detail and B) telling her boss about it, but her boss certainly didn’t have to C) fire her, and D) write about it in a major metropolitan newspaper.


At the hazy intersection of creativity and responsibility, both parties charged forward with little regard to the ensuing complications. As a result, questionable decisions on each side left both parties looking bad.



Niner Gate: Too Hot For TV

Of course, some decisions only look questionable in retrospect.


Napoleon probably liked his chances at Waterloo. The Portland Trail Blazers were confident in their pick of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. I’m sure Ben Affleck had nothing but high hopes for Gigli.


And Kirk Reynolds probably thought he was really onto something with the concept for his training video.


Reynolds was the public relations director for one of the NFL’s flagship franchises, the San Francisco 49ers. As such, he had the unenviable task of creating a short film to show new members of the team, a film that would orient them to public life in San Francisco. I guess the idea was to expose them to all the particular facets of city life that they might experience as being 49ers.


In years past, Reynolds had taken a more straightforward approach with the video, which many players later told him was boring. So as he sat alone in his office (I’m assuming he was alone, because no one in their right would call this a good idea) he got the bright idea to – wink, wink – spice things up.


I’m not going to say it was obscene, but according to published reports, it was less “Spice Girls” than it was “Spice Channel.” Not only that, but it was also full of ethnic stereotypes and caricatures of public officials. Now gratuitous nudity and offensive typecasting are generally bad film attributes to start with, but they would’ve been much more forgivable had they come from the players themselves. The fact that the video was conceived and executed by the 49ers P.R. director, the one person in the entire organization who ought to have known better, made it ten times worse.


There are those who would say that one bad lapse in judgment isn’t an offense worth being fired over, but here I disagree. By making such a horrendous video, Reynolds revealed a clear inability to relate well to the general public. In his defense, I’m sure he probably never expected the video to go public in the first place. He probably just wanted to make a video that the players would remember for a long time.


I guess that’s why the phrase ‘time will tell’ is such a cliché. Because history is usually the ultimate arbiter of justice. In this case, once the tape was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, that’s just what Kirk Reynolds became – history.




When I Flow, It’s Hostile


Say what you want about Kirk Reynolds, but at least his motives were clear. The same can’t necessarily be said about Bassam Khalaf, whose story is so bizarre, it sounds like a sketch from the late Chappelle’s Show.”


Khalaf, 21, is an aspiring rap artist in Houston, TX. Like many emcees, he needed an angle, a niche – something to set him apart from the legions of other rappers out there. As it was, the only thing he could think of was his ethnicity, so he decided to cash in on the myriad of negative stereotypes of Middle Easterners by calling himself the Arabic Assassin and filling his raps with violent bravado and terrorist threats. Khalaf adopted his incendiary style in order to attract attention, in the hopes that the controversy and exposure would gain him a distribution deal for “Terror Alert,” his latest CD.


As the Arabic Assassin, Khalaf got plenty of attention – just not the kind he was hoping for. Apparently one of his coworkers found out about his microphone alias, read some of his lyrics from his website, and reported the findings to his superiors.


Information like this could be vaguely troubling to many employers, assuming of course that they weren’t amused by the absurdity of it all. But because Khalaf worked for the Transportation Safety Administration, working as – no, really – a baggage screener, at – I wish I was making this up – George Bush Intercontinental Airport – his is bosses were not in a position to find any of it funny. Thus, they promptly fired him.


I’m speculating here, but I figure Khalaf couldn’t have been too particularly talented, or else he could have found another gimmick. Granted, I don’t know if he is or not. Far be it from me to indiscriminately evaluate another rapper without actually hearing his work, so for the sake of argument, I suppose it’s possible that, talent-wise, he could be Tupac, Biggie and Eminem all rolled into one olive-skinned emcee. As my man Charles Barkley said, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.


And even if he was that good, there’s no way that he couldn’t have seen the axe coming from miles away. Talent can overcome a variety of misdeeds – just look at Terrell Owens – but it can only take you so far. There’s a reason why the ACLU’s not holding any press conferences to rally around this guy.


Newton’s Third Law


Simply put, nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion illustrates this rule in the physical world, but it’s true on a social and psychological level as well. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, any work of creativity should be evaluated not only on its own merits, but in the greater context that surrounds it. One of the responsibilities of being an artist is to, inasmuch as it’s possible to do so, anticipate the reaction of the audience.


This is why there are jokes that work on BET Comic View that would never fly on Letterman. There are some things that Black folks can say to other Black folks that no one else would be able to say without being offensive. That’s not necessarily fair, but it’s the way it is. This is also why “The Aristocrats” will never be televised on any of the main broadcast networks.


Ironically, had the blogging nanny never wrote the poem about the child in her care that prompted her telling the mother about her blog, she would probably still be that child’s nanny. And if the 49ers training video had never been leaked to the public, and if Assassin-boy would’ve just stayed to himself at work, neither of them would have lost their jobs, either. Having said that, though, each responsible party still took a tremendous risk by creating artistic product with such a significant potential to offend.


On the flipside, many artists will tell you that’s a key part of what’s so satisfying about creating art. If you do it well, the reward is worth the risk. That’s a sentiment that I agree with, having offended a few people in my day. However, there are some things that are so patently vulgar, offensive and lacking any redeemable quality that, quite frankly, you just have to shake your head and roll your eyes in disgust. (The new Deuce Bigalow sequel immediately springs to mind.)


As I see it, the trick is in learning how to manage the tension between being an artist and being a citizen. It’s in assessing your message and selecting the best method of getting your message out. It’s knowing when to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.


Getting all of that down… it’s a tall order. And you want to know something else depressing? You could devote your whole life to this pursuit and still not gain public acclaim, since doing it well necessitates living on the frontiers of acceptability. And if you eschew monetary gain and choose to be rewarded only by the validation of the artist community, word can still get around, and you can still be fired from your day job.


So killjoys, unite.


The rest of us will just have to be a little more careful.


I’m G*Natural. Thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Fanfic: Toby Ziegler vs. Jack Bauer

Ever wonder what would happen if characters from different television shows could have conversations with each other?

Observe Toby Ziegler of “The West Wing” take a phone call from 24‘s Jack Bauer:

The phone rings in Toby’s office. Toby picks it up, annoyed that someone is interrupting his time with this morning’s Washington Post.

“Toby Ziegler.”

“Mr. Ziegler, this is Jack Bauer of the Counter Terrorist Unit, and I need—”

Toby hollers at one of his assistants.

“GINGER!! … I said senior staff only. Why the hell is Joe Friday on my phone while I’m reading my Post?” (Toby turns back to the phone.) “I’m sorry… it’s Mr. … Bauer, is it?”

“Yes, Jack Bauer.” (Pausing for name recognition, he continues.) “I’ve been instructed to contact concerning a matter of grave importance. I’m investigating the disappearance of a young woman named Eva Jansen, a nutrition intern at Georgetown. She recently transferred from UCLA, and we think it may have some connection to recent events at the White House, particularly concerning you.”

“If this is another attempt to scare me into eating salads, as God as my witness, I’m not in the mood.”

“No, Mr. Ziegler. This isn’t… I’m calling you because I need—”

“Mr. Bauer, you’re a reasonable man, are you not?”

“Yes, I am, but I’m in no position to be –”

“Okay well whatever Josh Lyman is paying you to harass me, I can assure you – I’ll double it.”

“I haven’t contact Mr. Lyman yet, he’s next on my list.”

“Okay, it’s not Josh, so who was it – C.J.? Will? God forbid the President himself would have this much free time, but whatever. Seriously, I can and will pay you out of the nose, Mr. Bauer. I will break out a credit card right now, I will read it to you over the phone, I’ll tell you my mother’s maiden name and the blood type of my first pet iguana if you will leave me alone and let me read my morning Post.”

“Five minutes, Toby? You don’t HAVE five minutes. I’m trying to tell you, we’re in an emergency situation here, and if I can’t get some immediate, concrete answers from you – ”

“Emergency situation?! You want immediate, concrete answers? Get in line, pal. I’m putting in twelve, fourteen, SIXTEEN hour days trying to get the leader of the free world to give a good ten-word answer on capital gains taxes, not to MENTION trying to cure his blatant inability to read a teleprompter at disturbingly calculated intervals, so if you think you can get on my phone, rattle off your agency credentials and expect me to bow in obeisance, then you might as well speed-dial your real-estate agent and close the deal on that mountain chalet in the middle of Nebraska!”

Jack pauses, unsure of which tactic to take.

“I was afraid you would be uncooperative, Mr. Ziegler. I didn’t want to have to take it to this level, but you are forcing my hand.”

More silence.

Do you love your children, Toby?”

“What kind of Neanderthal do you think I am, of course I love my children.”

“Then you might be a little more responsive if this conversation were to take place at the George Mayfield Daycare facility in Annapolis, where Huck and Molly are enrolled.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?”

“What would you do in order to ensure their safety, Mr. Ziegler?”

Ensure their safety? … what the – Jack, you bastard. If you ever come within a five-mile radius of my children, so help me God, I will find your location and – waitaminute. George Mayfield? Andi took the twins out of Mayfield like … three months ago. Jack, get your people to do their homework first, wouldja?!”

Jack, putting the phone for a second, yells across the room.

Dammit Tony, I thought you said this intel was reliable!”