Monthly Archives: September 2005

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Mixin’ It Up — Quick hits

Okay, these are the little things that I’ve been thinking about that won’t fit together in a real column. Call me lazy if you want, but hey — you’re gettin’ bonus reading material, so quit yer complainin’.

* * * *

My cousins four year-old son (does that make him my second cousin, first cousin once removed, or tertiary cousin ad nauseum?) was over recently, and he, being the rambunctious lad that he was, started peering over my shoulder, looking at me while I was working on my laptop.

“Hey, I wanna see a monster.”

“Sorry, no monsters here. Just me and my boring Word document.”

“But, but, this is a computer right… so… I like monsters. I think you should go to Monster.com.”

I’m chuckling at this point.

“Trace, I can take you to Monster.com, but it’s not what you think. It’s just a website with a bunch of jobs and stuff. Pretty boring.”

“Nuh-uh, I think there’s monsters there. Come on, go to Monster.com. Come onnnn…”

So finally I relent, and show him.

And you know what? He was right. On the front page of Monster.com, there is a big old crazy looking monster. I guess he must be their corporate mascot or something. Shows you what I know.

After Trace spotted the monster, he looked at me with a precocious grin and nodded, as if to say, trust me, I’m a kid… I know these things.

* * * *

You know, if my name was Katrina, I’d be really annoyed at most media coverage of the recent hurricane. It’s journalistic shorthand to omit the word ‘hurricane’ when we speak of the devastation and all of the various related issues therein. And I understand the need for such editorial practices. Having to write or speak “Hurricane Katrina” just to differentiate between life-altering cataclysm and the popular first name would be banal and, after a while, more than a little redundant.

But by now, I imagine there are a few women out there named Katrina who are probably feeling a little defensive.

I can just imagine a Katrina on her lunch break, erupting to no one in particular.

“Look! I didn’t leave death and destruction in my wake, I didn’t force anybody to move, and I’m not responsible for the worst flood in the history of Lousiana, okay?! I’d like to eat my bagel and read my newspaper without being accused of visiting unspeakable horrors upon mankind.”

* * * *

Portland is a significantly smaller city than Chicago, so I figured that it would take me a little while to adjust to living in the Rose City again. Man was that an understatement.

There are many things I love about living here (fall in Portland is absolutely gorgeous), but I can’t help feeling that I’m living a bad sequel to The Truman Show. It’s seems like every other day I’m running into someone who I knew a long time ago and haven’t seen in years.

Just in my first two days at my new job, I coincidentally met a coworker from another department that used to go to my church when I was in elementary school AND a bus driver I befriended in high school, who’s now driving a route that stops next to my building.

So today, after I had walked past the desk of one of the management personnel for the third time, I was trying not to stare, but I could feel my familiar Spidey sense going off again. I tried to let it go, but I was too curious, so I knocked on the outside of her cubicle, and apologetically asked her if she went to the same high school I went to.

She smiled, and said “Nope… I went to Tubman, though.”

So that’s where I knew her from… middle school.

We small-talked for another minute or so before I triumphantly strode back to my desk, feeling grateful she recognized me. Not necessarily because I wanted her to remember me, but because I didn’t want her to think I was trying to hit on her or something.

So I’ve been at my company for a total of three days and already I’ve covered all the phases of my secondary education.

If I find out there’s somebody here who went to North Park, I’ll be humming the theme music to “This Is Your Life,” and looking for hidden cameras.

* * *

So yesterday my wife Holly and I stopped at a fast food joint to grab a bite. As I parked the car, I casually glanced over at the strip mall next to us, and I was amused by what I saw. Squeezed between Pizza Hut, FedEx Kinkos, and a retail store devoted to selling on eBay was a tae-kwon-do facility. It didn’t even have a real name, it just said, in a big yellow lighted sign, “TAEKWONDO.”

Hmm. Fast food, high tech document reproduction, e-commerce, and a martial arts program that emphasizes discipline and restraint.

One of these kids is not like the other one…

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get some sort of coupon-group-deal, maybe something out of the Entertainment book, where you could get two slices of Pizza to go, make a few copies, and get five tries to land a roundhouse kick on the local instructor.

And then maybe if the coupons got popular enough, you could sell ’em on eBay.

Okay, that’s all for now. I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Mixed messages don’t keep it real


For a culture that rallies around the idea of keeping it real, there sure are a lot of mixed messages in hip-hop these days. The business side of music, the world of vertical integration and corporate synergy, has collided with the protect-your-rep street credibility of today’s rap stars. As a result, there is a troubling level of duplicity involved in the messages being sent to hip-hop fans. That fact on its own isn’t a terribly ominous sign, but the fact that a sizable market segment of rap fans have not shown an ability to discern the mixed messages therein… well now, that’s another story. When style becomes more important than substance, then the truth becomes – say it with me – chopped and screwed.

Houston, we have a problem.

Enter rap entrepreneur and marketing genius Mike Jones. His rise to fame in the Houston rap scene was aided by an unorthodox tactic: prominently using his actual cell phone number in songs, videos, and wearing it on T-shirts. In an interview with MTV, he explained that he resorted to that tactic because shady promoters were booking shows in his name without his permission. They would take half the money, and fans would get angry when he wouldn’t show up. He decided to publicize his phone number to elimination confusion and prevent impostors from cashing in on a common name. That, combined with his repeating his name over and over in his songs, helped to build his brand as an up-and-coming rapper. Thus, Jones has become quite the success story.

As a matter of fact, the Mike Jones saga is one of overcoming obstacles and triumph against the odds. Or, at least, that’s how it reads in the mainstream press. In that same MTV interview, he thanked the Lord for getting him out of the Houston criminal element so he could start doing something positive with his life. And in an Associated Press interview, Jones credited his grandmother as being an inspirational figure in his life, someone who believed in him when everybody else thought he was crazy. She was the one who told him to use his real name as his stage name, and she encouraged him to use other forms of guerilla marketing in order to become successful. Jones feels so indebted to his grandmother that he immortalizes her memory with his song “Grandma,” the final track on his successful major label debut, Who Is Mike Jones.

It’s all pretty heartwarming stuff, until you get into the details of it. Then, at some point, the polish begins to fade. Really, Mike? Your grandmother inspired you to visit strip clubs while you were underage, and write customized raps for each of the strippers to dance to? That’s what she would be so proud to see if she were still alive?

Essentially what Mike Jones is saying is that he thanks God for allowing him to exit his criminal past so that he could instead use his God-given talent to more easily facilitate the exploitive transformation of women with low self-esteem into sexual objects. His message is that he believes in honoring the woman who helped raise him by dishonoring the other women who raise his, uh, (*cough, cough*) vital organ.

A while ago, the venerable Snoop Dogg — he of Chrysler commercials and “Soul Plane” – made headlines when he started his own Southern Cali youth football league. At the urgings of his two sons on the roster, he volunteered two years ago to be a “daddy coach” for the Rowland Raiders. The team was a resounding success under his leadership (they won the title), but the experience whet his appetite for bigger things. Frustrated with some of the restrictions the current league imposed on his team, including registration fees that he thought were cost prohibitive for many local kids, Snoop started a new league.

As you might imagine, this caused quite a stir, not only because his Rowland Raiders were known to get the star treatment (high-tech bus rides, extravagant gifts, etc.), but also because – not coincidentally – Snoop’s celebrity status gave him a mighty leg up on everyone else when it came to recruiting the best players. That advantage was taken to another level when he formed his own league, and since then, the hemorrhaging of good players has shown to be detrimental to established community teams. That was the case for the Long Beach Poly Junior Jackrabbits, the team Snoop played for as a youth. Even the Rowland Raiders, his former team from last year, found itself bereft of its best players. Apparently tradition and community can’t compete with a team bus that blares out “Drop It Like It’s Hot” from three blocks away.

Now I’m not necessarily judging Snoop’s motives here. His motives may be pure. I mean, he’s getting older and so are his kids, so maybe this is one way he’s trying to become a better father. But if Snoop wants us to believe his whole family man act, then he’s gotta go all the way with it. He can’t trumpet fairness and responsibility (in wanting to have lower registration fees) on one hand, and at the same time engage in renegade recruitment tactics that eliminate any element of fairness. He can’t extol the virtues of youth football, talk about how it’s gonna help keep them out of gangs, and talk about how his football coach helped instill in him respect for God and religion … while at the same keeping “Drop It Like it’s Hot” as his team theme song – a hit single that perpetuates the gangsta image that made him famous in the first place.

In other words, if Snoop wants us to believe that he’s a changed man, then – what a concept! – he’s really going to have to change.

For both Mike Jones and Snoop Dogg, the messages are mixed up. They’re standing up for what’s right – but only a little bit, and only when it’s convenient.

These types of mixed messages would be unbelievable if they weren’t so common.

Take a look back to 2003, and the furor over rapper Nelly’s entrepreneurial venture, Pimp Juice. After his hit single extolling the virtues of an aphrodisiac, Nelly decided to release an energy drink to capitalize on the publicity. When media watchdog groups had a collective heart attack over it, he tried to spin it positively by – I wish I was making this up – sponsoring a college fund and making the word ‘pimp’ an acronym for Positive, Intellectual, Motivated Person.

Now I can understand how language is inherently a malleable, social construct. Words that used to mean one thing can evolve to take on additional meanings. This is why the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” may not be as popular as it used to be, because people are less and less comfortable singing the line, “don we now our gay apparel.”

Nevertheless, some meanings are too tied up in a particular cultural context to be effectively redefined in another way. If Nelly really wanted to redefine the term “pimp” to be a positive, intellectual, motivated person then he wouldn’t shoot videos to his music that objectify women, videos like his “Tip Drill” in which he swipes a credit card through a woman’s thonged behind.. The fact that he still does, and yet wants us to believe that he’s left his old pimpin’ ways to become a new kind of P.I.M.P… it means both his ignorance and audacity have reached stratospheric levels.

It didn’t used to be this way. It used to be that rappers would engage in whatever forms of debauchery their brains could imagine, without pretense or equivocation. Take Naughty By Nature’s 1991 anthem of adultery, “O.P.P.” A party jam if there ever was one, its basic message was, hey, I’m out get as much sex as possible, and I’m not interested in a relationship. The title itself referred to Other People’s Property (or, more to the point, Other People’s Privates). The only way you could possibly extract a positive message out of that song was if you got fleeced, like my parents did, by one of the many street vendors selling hats and T-shirts emblazoned with O.P.P. on the front. They were told it stood for Our People’s Progress.

Now I’m amazed that those street vendors were able to tell such a bold-faced lie with a straight face. But at least the rest of us knew it was a joke, which was why my brother and I made sure my Dad never wore his “O.P.P.” hat out in the community where he could be seen. Being young and culturally relevant, we knew what was going on, and we weren’t going to let our Dad get played by some hustler pushing secondhand goods.

But who are going to be the gatekeepers for this next generation? Where are the regular folks who can recognize a bad idea when they see one? I don’t know… but if there were more of them, then maybe Bryan Hughes and Joyce Jackson of Howard University wouldn’t have needed to craft an essay describing their “P.I.M.P.ness” in order to win Nelly’s $5,000 Pimp Juice scholarship. Talk about some serious rhetorical gymnastics… hard-working responsible college students having to call themselves pimps so that a popular rapper can get a few laughs and push more product.

Ridiculous.

What’s worse for me is that there are no voices from within hip-hop’s elite decrying the ridiculousness of what was going on. I give Kanye West credit for coming out against gay bashing and criticizing Bush for his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, because these were both things that needed to be said – particularly by someone with his level of social profile. And I was particularly impressed with his addressing of the diamond trade (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”) on his latest album, Late Registration. But if Kanye really wanted to attack hip-hop’s sacred cows, he could start by saying this, the next time some rapper wants to call himself a pimp:

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. Contrary to popular opinion, a pimp is not a positive, intellectual motivated person, or a sharply-dressed player who always gets the ladies. A pimp is, in fact, an incredible lowlife who preys on women, exploiting them both sexually and financially. All positive connotations of this word should therefore be stricken from the record. The next cat wearing pinstripes and a fedora who calls himself a pimp should be brutally raped and have all of his wages garnished before he decides to make that lifestyle his personal trademark.”

I would love it if someone big like Kanye West had the cojones to say that. But I’m not holding my breath. Frankly, he would have too much to lose to take a stand like that. It’s fine and dandy to record “Jesus Walks,” where a hustler is depicted as still having a vital relationship with Jesus. But it’s another thing altogether to take a stand against the crimes that same hustler perpetrates. This is why even though I respect Kanye West quite a bit for his artistic virtuosity and his social consciousness, his messages are mixed, too. He’s traveled a lot further down the road of reform than his chart-topping counterparts, but he’s still got work to do.

And it’s no wonder that even Kanye West mixes his messages. Because radically dedicating one’s self to a truly countercultural idea is inherently risky if you also want fame and fortune to go along with your cult following. I’m reminded of LMNO, the lead emcee from the marginal hip-hop group Visionaries. You know what LMNO stands for? Leave My Name Out. Here’s a cat that values substance over style. The reason why you’ve probably never heard of him before is because he’s not prostituting his identity for airplay and residuals.

Think about that, and then read the lyrics of my man Phanatik from his rap called, “Me”:

This is reason # 73 / not to get hung on on the actor, the rapper, the pastor, the reverend, and me / whoever claims to be long on the throne / needs to bring long lasting satisfaction that’ll never leave you alone / you know them sad and lonely nights / your superstar in his souped-up car ain’t comin’ to hold you tight / (why?) he don’t even know where you live / and you ain’t gonna go see him (why not?) / you don’t even know where he lives / but they know outta sight means outta mind / so they spend mad dough on ads and radio time / it’s like they’re trying to be (where?) everywhere, everywhere a person can stare / billboards, TV screens… the mirror / but I ain’t playin’ that game / sayin’ my name fifty times in one rhyme so I’ll remain in your brain … don’t let them make you think you need them, they’re sittin’ there thinkin’ ‘bout how much they need you.

I included those lyrics for those of you who were wondering if I was just going to crabbily kvetch about everything that’s wrong instead of highlighting something that’s right. Because at last, here’s a guy who gets it. If you’ve never heard of him, pick up his album, The Incredible Walk. It’s full of thought-provoking rhymes, and not once is his message contradicted.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t highlight the Phanatik just because he was talking about God. Say what you want about 50 Cent, but he’s not walking around pretending to be a family man. He goes all the way with what he believes. And I respect that, even if I don’t respect his views. You don’t have to be all about God or whatever if that’s not what you’re about… but if you’re going to be about what you’re about, then don’t mess around and half-step with it — be about it.

There’s a Master P joke in there somewhere, but I’m just gonna let it pass.

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

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Artificial digs can’t replace purpose

Joyce Poole and Rick Warren have probably never met, but if they ever do, I bet they’ll have a lot to talk about.

You might be familiar with Rick Warren already, what with all of the Purpose-Driven products out there. It started with The Purpose-Driven Church, which did a lot to revolutionize the way evangelical ministries are structured and executed.. Several iterations later came The Purpose-Driven Life, which garnered national attention last March because of its involvement in the surrender of Fulton county homicidal maniac Brian Nichols.

And now it seems like there are new ones popping up every day. I mean, seriously – am I imagining things, or is Emeril on the Food Network trying to flip a Purpose-Driven omelet? I’m sure he’d have no trouble coming up with his own acronyms for stuff:

“B.A.M!! – it stands for Bridging Across Myself… you know, ‘cause that’s how you take it to the next level, is by… ahh… knowing yourself. Yeah. So anyway, put the skillet on low heat…”

Warren has gotten worldwide recognition for his series of books and videos related to living with purpose, and deservedly so. I like to mock the merchandizing phenomena that it created, but I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that if we’re not living according to purpose, we’re not really living. You know what I mean? Not really living, in the way that people mean when they say things like, well you haven’t really LIVED until you’ve gone paragliding, or taken a cross-country car trip, or started your own business, or auditioned for “Riverdance.”

[Quick note – I’m kidding about “Riverdance.” That’s an easy target for a jab. If there are any Michael Flatley fans reading this, forgive me. I’ll make it up to both of you. But as for my own little recommendation… if you haven’t seen a Broadway production of “Stomp” or “Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk,” well… you know the rest.]

The point is, there’s a difference between taking up space and oxygen, and actually living. And I would be willing to wager (if Vegas put odds on these kinds of events) that Joyce Poole would agree. She made headlines recently by testifying before a Chicago city council to say that zoo elephants have no educational value, essentially because the artificial habitats that zoos provide are so antithetical to the way of life that elephants are supposed to lead. Poole was testifying in part because of the public outcry related to how the elephants have been treated at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, where there have been three elephant fatalities in less than a year.

Poole has spent over 30 years studying elephants in Africa, including a stint as head of the Kenya Wildlife service, so you have to at least take her claims seriously. Her take is that children could learn more from watching a TV documentary about elephants than from two lonely elephants standing in a scrap of land that’s an umpteenth of the size it should be. Reading such a damning statement from such an expert, it leads one to wonder two related thoughts:

1.) If that’s so, then couldn’t you make the same claim about cats, dogs, hyenas, zebras and other animals in zoos?
2.) If that’s so, what does it say about us as people?

The first question is a complicated one, fraught with ethical nuances that I have neither the time nor qualification to completely explore. My basic answer, though, would be that, while it’s probably true that most zoos aren’t exactly good for the animals that inhabit them, the cumulative effect is probably a lot worse for elephants than other animals because of their enormous size. That is, the deficit of space and social interaction that elephants face while living in a zoo is a lot greater than that of other animals, since they are smaller, and by extension, might have more of their own to interact with and/or more space to inhabit.

But it’s the second question that really intrigues me.

What does it say about us as people that we would justify doing this to an elephant on the basis of our children’s (albeit educational) enjoyment?

Don’t get it twisted – I’m no PETA apologist. As a matter of fact, it’s not even the relative cruelty of captivity that sends my red-flags-a-flyin’ – because if it was, I would generally be opposed to the whole concept of zoos in the first place. (And I loves me some Lincoln Park Zoo, especially since it’s FREE. Chicagoans, take note.) No, what chaps my hide is the idea of purpose – or in this case, the lack thereof. That someone powerful could’ve thought to him or herself, you know, this isn’t exactly how elephants were made to live, but screw it – it makes my kids happy.

The sad truth is that many decisions get made this way, and often without even a cursory thought devoted to this idea of purpose. Many of us are faced with important choices, choices related to where we will live, where our kids will go to school, what kind of car we’ll drive, etc. If purpose is not a driving force in our decision-making, then we can end up in situations that, upon further inspection, prove themselves to be less than ideal.

It reminds me of Woody’s dilemma in Toy Story 2. (Come on, now. Don’t act like you ain’t seen it.) Woody, the main character, had a chance to become immortalized in a display case as part of a museum exhibit dedicated to his eponymous 50’s-era television show. Initially, he is thrilled by the idea, but the prospect of going without any direct kiddie playtime action overwhelms him. And Woody has an epiphany of sorts – he realizes that he is, essentially and primarily, a toy. And even the luxuries of meticulous detailing and climate-controlled display cases can’t compensate for his innate desire to be loved and played-with.

I imagine that sense of urgency and despair is what those elephants in the Lincoln Park Zoo live with every day. Or maybe what caged birds feel like. Like Brian Regan says in his stand-up routine about pets:

“Hey, thank you… I’ve been blessed with the gift of flight… appreciate the environment… I know how to fly, and I’m standing here on a stick!”

As I sit and think about the second question I posed, what it says about us as people that we would choose to inhabit an elephant in a manner so alien to its purpose… well, I guess it says that we’re selfish. But that’s not news, is it? We all know that humanity in its current condition has a nasty streak of selfishness running through it. But selfishness alone can’t account for this lack of purpose in our decision-making. No, I think the real reason why we would mistreat an elephant without regard to its purpose is because we, all too often, mistreat ourselves in the same ways.

And it’s not always immediately obvious. We may think that we’re doing the best thing for ourselves or our families. Think about the corporate officer who routinely works an 80-hour week so that her family can afford to vacation in Tahiti every year. She may despise her job, but she stays with it because she wants her kids to have the best of everything. But what if she wasn’t meant for that job? What if she only got her MBA because her parents pressured her to do so? What if the most fulfilling thing for her would be working as a probation officer or something with more direct contact with people? And what if instead of flying off to some tropical locale, her children might be better served if they, as a family, went camping instead?

I ask such questions not because I trumpet camping over vacationing in Tahiti, or working as a probation officer over being the CFO of a Fortune 500 company. I ask because over and over I see the wreckage that occurs when people chase after affluence instead of trying to figure out what they’re actually meant to pursue. No amount of money can make it go away, and no level of artificiality can substitute for an authentic solution. At the end of the proverbial day, living according to purpose is what can make the difference between marking time and actually living.

It’s true for elephants, it’s true for animated wooden dolls, and it’s true for you and me.

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