Monday, September 21, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Moment From Work

Michael:
Are you wearing a T-Shirt to work?

Naheed:
Shut up.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lauryn Hill

An urban legend from my personal life finds a friend of a friend meeting Lauryn Hill backstage after a show in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He approached her, handed her a slip of paper with his ten numbers scrawled across the top and said, “you can call me, but I might be busy.”

I never met the man whose brain conjured such a scheme. I can’t even testify to the veracity of this anecdote. It may have just been a passing thought this person had on his way to or from the Fugee’s performance at Eastern Michigan University, a thought that became a memory through boastful conversations with friends in the following days.

But more than 10 years later I remember the story.

The absurd confidence displayed by such a gesture may also be described as hubris. Clearly, there isn’t a man breathing who doesn’t have time for a chat with Lauryn Hill. And this, of course, is where we discover the slight-chuckle-worthy humor in my little story.

I wonder now why I’ve retained this anecdote for so long, why it’s been sitting there in the back of my mind, collecting dust in my rolodex of stories to tell at parties or dinners with friends, waiting to be pulled out when any number of relevant topics are breached.

Perhaps the most notable reason, or the one that’s made the most sense to me, is that I’ve never understood that sort of confidence to begin with. I’ve never, not for one moment in my life, felt wanted. I consider this story and only see the failure of this quality that I struggle to attain.

So maybe I need this story to end differently. Maybe Lauryn Hill needed to laugh at the arrogance and smile at the young man who held out a torn up flyer with smeared ball point numbers scribbled on the back. Maybe she needed to take that man’s hand and fulfill whatever it was he sought to accomplish that day. Because in my mind, she simply rolled her eyes. She may have taken the number with a careless grip, but released it when he turned his back. It floated to the ground. It was trampled in the hall then swept up with the trash.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Moment From Work!

Michael and Bryan sit at the long table. Michael reads from a "yelp" review.

Michael:
This guy says the burgers are actually too big.

Bryan:
How can that be?

Michael:
It can't.

Bryan:
Who wrote that? That man is a bitch!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hip Hop Show

I went to a large hip hop show this weekend, the Rock the Bells Tour, and I plan on sharing more of my thoughts on that a little later. For now, a brief story...


I was attending this show alone. My ticket was labeled "artist comp" and I was disappointed by how unavailable my friend was. I just wanted to say hello and catch up for a moment, but instead I was watching the Knux try to elicit excitement from a sparse and uninterested crowd.


I took a walk in search of a drinking fountain. I had been desperately thirsty since I entered the place, but $6 for a bottle of water was highway robbery no matter how hot it was. I must have had a frown on my face, or been doing that distinct "lip thing" that my coworkers claim I do when I'm frustrated, because as I stomped toward the bathrooms, a large, tree trunk of an arm extended across my chest and grabbed my shoulder. I was twisted in my path and found myself face to face with a grinning giant wearing an A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt.

"Come on, man, smile, this is Hip Hop!"

He shook my hand and hugged me before moving on.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Moment From Work

Michael and Bryan walk from the kitchen to their desks.

Michael:
I think next year me and Luke should have a donut eating contest.

Bryan:
It would be more competitive.

Michael:
They could be Krispy Kremes-

Bryan:
Well, we both know who would win that.

Michael:
You?

Bryan:
No, it's just you and Luke competing.

Michael:
Oh Bryan, you can take part. It will be a three-way.

Bryan:
....

Michael:
I hope no one overheard that.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Contest

So it began last year. I had a passing conversation with one Emily Price in which we related our common nostalgia for the Cadbury Creme Egg. Having sworn off sugar, she expressed a slight, almost negligible longing for the confection. Me being the little bastard that I am, I showed up a week later and magically presented her with one of the delicious eggs - a candy she found irresistible.

As payback, Emily gave me two of the coma-inducing eggs this winter when they became available for their annual, three-month presence at drug stores everywhere. After Bryan and I consumed and lamented the overpowering sweetness of these chocolate abominations, I was struck with an idea. It wasn't even an idea, really, it was a mere phrase:

Cadbury Creme Egg Eating Contest

A quick google search yielded a video of a single young man attempting to see how many he could eat, and it wasn't that exciting. No, I had envisioned something better. Two men sitting face to face with nothing but a pile of the "creme" filled eggs between them, stuffing their faces with chocolate and getting seriously ill in the aftermath.

This thought made me giggle for the rest of the afternoon. I contacted my cousin Luke, widely renowned for his eating ability, and ran the idea past him. He found it hilarious, and immediately agreed to take part.

Here was the problem: I didn't want to do this crap, but from an ethical point of view, I couldn't ask people to do something I wasn't prepared to do myself. I had shot myself in the foot. If I wanted to see Luke - who spends his Sundays eating Jewel chocolate frosted donuts by the dozen - eat a stupid amount of Cadbury eggs, I would have to be his opponent.

The next call went to my Uncle Mark, who giggled with delight for our entire conversation, and designated Saturday, April 11th as the day the contest would go down. I also mentioned to him that we would only be allowed to wash down the eggs with warm coke, a stipulation he was careful to ammend as "the warm soda of your choice."

After the months passed, I had hoped that everyone had just simply forgotten about my hair-brained Cadbury egg contest idea, but earlier this week I got a call from an excited Uncle Mark - "you guys are on for Saturday."

Uncle Mark called me four times that day, the excitement growing in his voice with each subsequent call as he told me that Luke expected to beat me by "seven eggs." Then my brother called, asking to be my coach, and ensuring that I had everything I needed in order to compete at the peak of my abilities.

Apparently, the Cadbury eggs were getting scarce during this week before Easter. Fortunately (in a manner of speaking), Target had plenty. We arrived at my grandmother's house with 48 Cadbury creme eggs to be consumed by two wildly idiotic young men.

A bit of math about the Cadbury Creme Egg: Each one weighs 34 grams, 22 of which are sugar. For those unfamiliar with metric conversions, there are 454 grams in a pound, that means that if one were to eat 10 eggs, they would consume 220 grams of sugar, or roughly half a pound.

The "creme" inside these eggs is actually "fondant," which is most common in it's "rolled" form as a maliable topping for cakes. In it's "poured" form, it is basically a syrup of water and sugar that has been heated to enable an unnatural saturation of sugar into the water, and then vigorously stirred in order to create the "creamy" texture. I have no idea how the thicker, yellow "yolk" is created, and I honestly don't want to think about it at the moment.

I will share the details of the contest at a later date - when I have the video to post - but for now I will say that it was among the stupidest things I've done. In all, I ate 10 eggs. I felt hyper for about twenty minutes and then suffered a meteoric crash that has evolved into a killer headache this morning.

As I suffer here in my bed with a throbbing skull, sore throat, and foul taste in my mouth I have only one person to blame: Emily Price. Had she never brought me those two eggs, my immature and filterless brain would have never even considered the possibility of such a contest, let alone share it with my friends and family who are all prone to encouraging humorous and self destructive behavior. So it couldn't possibly be my fault.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Another Moment From Work...

Bryan and Michael take their desks at 8:00 am.

Michael
All right, you know what I don't get?

Bryan
What?

Michael
In Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Yoda is jumpin around, doin' all these back flips and what not.

Bryan
Yeah?

Michael
Well, there's only like, 18 years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Yoda is eight hundred years old! He's agile in one movie, then on death's door the next.

Bryan
Hey, hey, hey. Michael, the difference between eight hundred and eight hundred and eighteen years old, well, it's larger than the outer rim.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Question of the Day

Question of the Day is a feature in which one Dr. Bryan O'Tribble poses a question to Mr. Bahhaj Taherzadeh.

Question (Dr. O'): How many licks does it take to reach the center of a Tootsie Roll pop?

Answer (Bahhaj):

It’s hard for me to answer this with certainty as I honestly don’t know what a Tootsie Roll pop is, so, again, I will fall back on my keen powers of assumption.

Tootsie, a 1982 film in which Dustin Hoffman dresses as a woman in order to land an acting job, is clearly the first piece to this puzzle. It seems safe to assume that “Tootsie” within the context of your question can be defined as the act of dressing as a woman in order to get something desirable. A Tootsie Roll, then, must be an action that takes place when a man (you) dresses as a woman and rolls on the floor until he is rewarded with the object of his desire. Close examination of your sentence reveals that the word “pop” is not capitalized and therefore is not part of the phrase, Tootsie Roll. I can only assume then that “pop” is a name you are using to address me. This leads me to assume that you see me as some kind of father-figure.

Bryan, the warm feelings you set aglow in my heart by calling me “pop” fade quickly as I consider what it is you are asking of me. You wish me to lick you while you roll on the floor dressed as a woman. This is disgusting. I am humbled and repulsed by your request. For you to dress as a woman would be to break the dress code established by our National Assembly. For me to lick you would be to break my Fast—a Fast established by the Promised One of All Ages.

The answer to your question, Bryan, is zero. I will not lick you and I urge you not to dress as a woman.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen, My Review

I doubt the perception of a film could be more loaded than the way most of us will see Watchmen. Few comic books command as devoted a following or as high a reputation, and few filmmakers have what it takes to bring Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's vision to life. Zack Snyder is not one of these filmmakers. Under no circumstances did I expect that Watchmen would be the cinematic equivalent of its source material.

But I didn't rule out the possibility, either. 

In retrospect, I wish I had. 

If I can say anything about Watchmen it's, "gosh, everyone sure did their best," which is about all anyone can hope for these days. Unfortunately, the best these people could do wasn't necessarily good enough to bring this story to its full potential. 

Sure, it's not bad, I'm not upset that I saw it, nor do I think anyone will find this movie to be terrible. The basic story and characters that populate this world are so utterly compelling that anyone who were to do even a cursory adaptation would have an okay film on their hands, which is just about what I think this is.

The inherent problem with doing a film like Watchmen is that the fierce demands of the fanboy audience cloud the priorities of the filmmakers and the result is a film that strives to appear to be the story it's supposed to be telling. 

Zack Snyder can talk a good game. Hell, after the countless clips I've seen of him talking about this movie I was convinced he was the right man for the job. After seeing the clumsy transitions, the poor performances, and countless moments of characters speaking their subtext, I was baffled as to why this man was allowed to direct anything more than the music video for My Chemical Romance's bastardization of "Desolation Row." 

The first thing that struck me about Watchmen was the questionable pacing and structure of the film. Moments that demand to be contemplative and poignant are briskly hurried along while fight sequences and sex scenes are expanded into gratuitous parodies of themselves. 

The flow of the story, while handled gracefully in the first act, dissolved into a clumsy mess entering the film's second hour, as Snyder and his team futilely tried to mash 12 separate and distinct chapters of a story into a single, streamlined narrative. 

Many of the performances were hallow and uninspired, making the characters limp from the vivid creations on Moore and Gibbons' pages into the one-note cardboard cut-outs that inhabit this film. It's not often that bringing literal life to a character makes them less real, but Snyder's cast found a way to do it. Only Jackie Earle Haley's performance as Rorschach approaches the promise of the character imagined in the comic's pages. 

But examining each of these criticisms reveals the true problem with Watchmen: the fanboy factor. 

Watchmen is a dense graphic novel populated by compelling characters in a richly textured world. The deceptively simple artwork by Gibbons demands repeated analysis so that every detail can be discovered. The story is woven beautifully by Alan Moore, who devotes almost entire issues to fleshing out the backstories of his most compelling characters, Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, while also propelling his morally ambiguous and challenging deconstruction of super-hero mythology toward its conclusion. To include every layer and nuance of this story in a film of reasonable length would be folly, and rightly, the filmmakers don't attempt to.

Unfortunately, Zack Snyder and his writing team lack the vision and insight necessary to effectively adapt a beloved comic book into a film that works. Their feeling seems to be that the material content of the comic books is infallible, and that their audience will accept any word, idea or incident that is thrown at them, as long as these things find their origins in the pages of the comics. As a result, they lift and rearrange dialogue from the books, even when these words are unnecessary and redundant when combined with the performances of even the merely competent cast that Snyder assembled for his film. 

We don't need to hear three different characters telling us that Dr. Manhattan has "lost touch" with humanity when the behavior of the character overwhelmingly displays this idea. On the motionless, silent page of a comic book, the Comedian needs to say this, but not in a film. Not when there are other ways of communicating this idea. Comic books rely on the writer's words and the artist's illustrations to tell their stories, films use dialogue, performances, images, music, and editing to tell theirs. But Snyder assumes that fanboys are unwilling to hear anything but Alan Moore's dialogue, and are unwilling to see anything that isn't a frame from the book. This is not to say that Snyder shouldn't be concerned about remaining faithful to the material, but instead, that his definition of "faithful" is too literal for him to have any true confidence in his own creative sensibilities. 

When I first learned that Zack Snyder was directing Watchmen my first thought was one of terror. I wasn't terrified about the quality of the movie he was about to make, but instead about the pressure he had suddenly burdened himself with. In a climate where thousands upon thousands of parroting fanboy voices complain about Optimus Prime having "lips" or the omission of Tom Bombadil, I knew that this inexperienced director was about to be ripped to shreds before he conceived of a single frame. Or maybe, put another way, he would be ripped to shreds for conceiving of his own frames. 

Watchmen is a film overseen by a man without vision. Snyder's previous features are a remake and another comic book adaptation. The posters for Watchmen proclaim him a visionary for recreating the pages of Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller, but we have yet to see a film that is a true representation of his creative ability. Instead we find him slaving over the pages of Watchmen, cautiously trying to shape a single narrative out of twelve. 

Imagining myself on the set, I keep hearing people say, "the fans are gonna love this!" Why? Why are we going to love this? Because you added a gratuitous zoom out in the middle of a scene to show the "Gunga Diner" elephant flying above the city? Because you put Gibbon's signature as graffiti on a lamp post? Somewhere along the lines, Snyder and his team fell under the impression that constantly nodding at the comic book was enough to distract from a terrible, awkwardly paced script.

In Moore's original serial, the disjointed narrative and layered themes worked because the monthly installments allowed him and Gibbons to explore different ideas in different issues. When all of these things are compressed into a single experience their incongruities become apparent, the different ideas cloud each other out, and the story becomes a din of high-concept garbage left to rely on tricky motion effects, gratuitous blood, and the crappiest soundtrack ever compiled to tell its story. 

I doubt I have ever seen a movie more unsure of itself than Watchmen. It captures the material and content of the world portrayed by Gibbon's illustrations, but not the feel. It speaks the words of Alan Moore, but misses his point. It contains the same plot, but ignores the themes. It features the same characters and the same stories, but refuses to let them breathe. Snyder replaces subtlety with bones popping from flesh, blood spraying across rooms, and awkward sex scenes. He relies on high-tech special effects to create Dr. Manhattan where a dude in blue make-up surrounded by a light saber glow would have sufficed. He uses molded plastic muscles where flowing cloth would have been fine, and forgets that at its core, Watchmen is satire. 

As I feel this rant getting away from me, let me share a final story. Unsure of my feelings toward this film after Thursday/Friday's initial viewing, I took one of my most insightful and trusted movie companions to see it on Sunday night, knowing that she was completely unfamiliar with the comic book. With lowered expectations, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I originally did, but she hated it. She was appalled by the violence. She found the characters dull and uninteresting. She thought the plot was a trite and simple, and the ending uninspired. 

What did I learn by bringing my mother to see Watchmen? I learned that the movie only really holds up if you like the comic. It only even seems passible if you already know what's going on, and who these people are supposed to be. After explaining countless things to my mother over dinner she was open to the idea of reading the comic, and could see where this film was a wimpy excuse for it. 

Ultimately, Watchmen is a crippled film using its source material as a wheelchair. It fails in the sense that it will never, ever separate itself from the books on which it draws its story. It is different from other comic book films in the sense that, while Superman, Spider-Man and other heroes have established, iconic mythologies, these characters exist only within the context of this single, finite story. 

Basically, if you want my opinion, they should have made a mini-series. 






 

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Kepler Hope

I read on the MSN news page yesterday that Detroit, my old stomping ground, is the fourth most depressing city in the U.S. More telling than this opinionated ranking is the reminder that the Motor City has an unemployment rate of %18. As Bryan pointed out, those are "developing country" numbers, and things are looking worse and worse by the day. Of course, Detroit isn't the only city in this country to be facing such a crisis, nor is the United States the only nation. The trial that we face belongs to everyone.

Tomorrow NASA will launch the Kepler Space Telescope. Its job is to search the heavens for Earth-like planets that would be suitable for life to flourish. In a climate where misery surrounds us all, mankind is standing on the brink of what could be the greatest discovery in our collective history.

For many of us, such a discovery has been portrayed and discussed in science fiction stories to the point of near meaninglessness. Fringe thinkers have shared their theories about Roswell and government cover-ups, while others claim to have been abducted by aliens. But through all of this, the grand question still remains unanswered, and for all we know, we are alone.

Tomorrow we are taking a giant step toward answering this question. We're not merely launching another satellite into space, we are uncovering another chapter in our collective existence and clarifying our unity on a galactic scale. Through this most powerful lense we will see into our past and our future. We will find our neighbors or our solitude. The answer, of course, is either yes or no, alone or not, and both circumstances will have a profound effect on our collective understanding of who we are.

It's been a long time since humanity embarked on a journey together. These ancient stories that spring from our collective being have been dormant for too long. Perhaps this story lacks the visible hero - the astronaut clad in his burdensome suit - but it only takes a gentle leap of the imagination to see that we are all on this mission of discovery together, and that the outcome belongs to us all.

So while we fear for our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves in this time of struggle, let's also be mindful of the fact that even now we are still moving forward. Even now we are still discovering, and even now, we are still one.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another Moment From Work...

Bryan
This says Watchmen is 2 hours and 43 minutes! I don't think I'll stay awake that long.

Michael
Don't worry, you'll have me and Gavin sitting beside you.

Bryan
It also says that Dr. Manhatten is naked for most of the movie.

Michael
Yes, and you see the floppy dangle of his skyscraper the whole time.

Bryan
Oh dear Lord.

Michael
You get long, lingering looks at the statue of liberty.

Bryan
We get to see the wide expanse of his central park.

Michael
We can -

Bryan
Really, there are just too many landmarks in New York, this could go on all day.

(Pause)

Bryan
The graceful art-deco thrust of his Chrysler Building.

Cinco Boy!

I think this may be one of my favorite things that Tim and Eric have ever done.

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Michael
How do I get this out of my head?

Bryan
The fish thing?

Michael
Yeah! It's all-consuming!

Bryan
Just think about something else.

Bryan faces his computer.

Bryan
Sing Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

Michael doesn't respond. A moment passes.

Bryan
Because you know you wanna dance with somebody.

Michael continues his work, clicking away on his mouse.

Bryan
You want to feel the heat with somebody.

Michael stops and slowly turns in his chair, discovering Bryan, who has been looking at him the whole time.

Bryan
With somebody that loves you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Michael
I gotta go to Old Orchard after work, do you wanna go to Old Orchard with me?

Bryan
Michael, why do you have to go to Old Orchard?

Michael
Wow, are you offended?

Bryan
Yeah, it sounds like I'm really angry that you're going there.

Michael
Like it's, "Michael, I wanna go to the Pot Luck, not Old Orchard."

Bryan
Wait, is there a Pot Luck?

Michael
No.

Bryan
$*&% You.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

15 Albums!


Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill...

The challenge is: do this in 15 minutes, as if nobody's judging your answers.

I left the short version on my Facebook page. This is the long version.


1. Radiohead OK Computer

I honestly didn't hear OK Computer until it had been out for a few years. In high school I was only interested in hip-hop music, and Radiohead (or anything else) simply wasn't on my radar. But when my friends came over to my house and forced me to listen to this record, everything changed. OK Computer was like my passport into a larger musical world and nearly all of my current tastes stem from this album.


1. Common Sense Resurrection (tie)

I am among the many so called "backpackers" who are of the mind that hip-hop music achieved perfection in the "golden era," which I narrowly define as 1992-1995. I was just becoming a teenager during those years, and perhaps the first album I ever loved was Resurrection by Common Sense. As an adult, I point to specific lyrics and concepts and things to support my claim that this is one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. As a 13 year old, I loved the similes, humor, and distinct absence of pretense (although I wouldn't have called it that) that Comm' Sense brought to his unmatched classic.


3. Gang Starr Daily Operation



I got my first CD player when I was 14 years old, in the summer of 1995. Before then, I was listening to my brother's cassette collection one album at a time. When I went to Best Buy to purchase my first batch of low-cost CD's, this was among them (along with Resurrection). Gang Starr was always among my favorite groups, but my appreciation and obsession with this record has grown steadily over time.



4. The Boogie Monsters The Riders of the Storm



Of those first, identity-defining albums, Riders of the Storm holds a special place in my heart. Criminally slept-on, The Boogiemonster's debut is the record that captures the spring of 1995 in my memory.



5. The Veils The Runaway Found / Nux Vomica






I cannot separate the two records (thus far) by the Veils because my discovery and subsequent obsession with one bled into the release of the second. "The Valleys of New Orleans" was the first song I ever heard by the Veils, a story I tell in a past blog, and The Runaway Found became one of my favorite records. I was fortunate enough to discover this gem of a band a few short months before the release of Nux Vomica, a record even more powerful and beautiful than their debut. The combined effect of these two records has created a lasting obsession which has only been mildly and temporarily put on hold by releases from lesser-artists. With their third album Sun Gangs on the way, I doubt I'll be hearing many other artists for a while.



6. Spiritualized Let it Come Down


The first of my post-Radiohead obsessions, my love for Spiritualized is outmatched only by The Veils and those five ugly nerds from Oxford. There are over 100 musicians featured on this album full of grand orchestrations, blaring trumpets, and gratuitous gospel choirs, and I love every minute of it.


7. Outkast Aquemini


In the summer leading up to my senior year in high school, I was so desperate to hear a new verse from Andre Benjamin that I took a few days to search all of the used record stores in my area for copies of the Higher Learning, Money Talks, and Soul Food soundtracks because they all included songs by Outkast. "Rosa Parks" had yet to hit the radio, the video wasn't out yet, but they had performed it on some BET concert program, and I was wise enough to tape it. When school resumed, I would sit in art class going, "Ah Ha, Hush that fuss, everybody move to the back of the bus..." annoying the hell out of my friend, Big Don. When Aquemini was finally released, it was on the same day as Black Star's debut, A Tribe Called Quest's final album, and Foundation by a reunited Brand Nubian - but this is the one I listened to. To this day, I can't help thinking about my senior year of high school and the summer that followed when I hear this album.


8. Doves Some Cities


I wasn't a huge fan of Doves when this album was released, but my girlfriend at the time was. When I heard "Black and White Town" for the first time I liked it, and was inspired to buy this album upon its release. I didn't listen to anything else for the next 3 or 4 months, and if I did, it was one of the Doves' other albums. This album became my theme music when I made the leap and moved to Chicago in 2005. Doves' new album, Kingdom of Rust may have a similar connotation this summer...


9. Erykah Badu Mama's Gun


I don't know what I was thinking: when I heard that the radio version of "Bag Lady" was not going to be included on Mama's Gun I was livid. Of course, at the time, I was still listening exclusively to hip-hop music, and the souled-out, jazzier version of the song wasn't as dope to me as Erykah doing her thing over the beat she jacked from Dr. Dre. But when me and my main man Lew saw Erykah from the front row in the Fox, Mama's Gun came to life for me. It was like I had never heard a single note before I saw it performed in front of me. I couldn't stop listening to this album for months after that, and it remains one of my all time favorites.


10. The National Boxer


The newest album on this list, Boxer is a record I'm still having trouble putting down, even after a year and a half. Of course, it took me months of persistent listening for it to get its claws in me, but now that they're in, I fear I'll never be rid of them, and for the rest of my life I'll hear a deep, patient voice in the back of my head singing, "brainy brainy brainy..."


11. Sigur Ros ()


Sigur Ros in 2002 was an admittidly difficult band to get into. The distinctly lighter fare of their subsequent releases was sitting a few years on the horizon. Instead, they dropped an album with no name, no lyrics, and 8 tracks distinguished only by numbers. The seemingly contradictory notion of something being so moving on an emotional level while also being meaningless on a literal level was so damn compelling to me that I couldn't do much at all without listening to this album. I think it made me crazy for a while, but you'd have to ask the people that know me whether that's true or not.


12. Outkast Southernplayalistic...


The third album on this list from 1994, Outkast's debut was one of those initial records that inspired my love for hip-hop music. That this album is at number 12 on the list should say more about the fraction of a hair's width that lies between each of these choices than it does about this record's place in my heart. In the fall of 1994, riding around in my mother's Toyota with my brother and some friends, this cassette saw more attention than any other. Just like Aquemini defined my senior year, Southernplayalistic defined 8th and 9th grade.


13. Mos Def Black on Both Sides


In October of 1999 Mos Def was one of the most hyped artists in the hip-hop world. Backpackers loved the Black Star album, he had released a few underground singles and made a couple of memorable appearances on a few albums and compilations. But none of those things prepared me for this. From the opening verse on "Hip-Hop" I knew that this was a different Mos Def from the one we had all heard before. In an age where so many artists become victims of their own ambition, Black on Both Sides is the rare example of a hip-hop artist exceeding expectations as well as his own potential. I remember the rainy Friday when Nick Speed and I drove over to Chauncey's Records on 6 Mile to buy it 4 days early, and then were tortured because my car didn't have a CD player. Few hip-hop albums since then have even come close to matching this one.

14. O.C. Jewelz


I have a lot of great memories from the summer of 1997: my brother and I arguing over games of Risk while eating Vito's pizza and drinking Faygo Moon Mist, working mornings at Hollywood Video while arguing about hip-hop music with my boss, Ramon, and listening to Jewelz. I would never venture to call O.C. my favorite rapper, but this album is a slept-on classic, and one that stayed in the deck all summer.

15. Elbow Cast of Thousands

Back in 2005 I had a subscription to Q Magazine. They included a CD in one of the later issues from that year that included a great song called "Great Expectations" by Elbow. One snowy night in November I was bored out of my mind and found myself in Best Buy, browsing for any CD or DVD that would entertain me for the next few nights or so. I decided to look for that Elbow CD with the song I liked on it, but all I found was Cast of Thousands. I played this thing to death. It was a natural progression from my Doves obsession, and introduced me to a number of songs that are among my favorites today. I would eventually purchase the album I was looking for, Leaders of the Free World, but this one holds a special place in my heart.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bryan and Naheed are having a conversation. Michael works, as he should be.

Michael
Wait, wait. Are you guys saying he likes to be "late," or "laid?"

Bryan
GOD! Michael! That's the worst thing you've said in weeks!

Bryan laughs. Naheed continues to talk.

Michael
Well, hold on, which is it?

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Michael sits alone at his desk, surrounded by a mountain of invoices.


Michael
Bryan?

He waits, there is no response.

Michael
Bryan? Naheed?

Again, there is nothing. Michael is alone.

Michael
Damnit.

Michael looks around, digesting the silence.

Michael
That bastard forgot his briefcase.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Step in Progress.

My grandfather's used to smolder in a tray beside him while he sat on a plastic chair in the garage watching heavy rains fall. He would clutch it in his teeth while he read the paper to choose his "winners," the horses that never won. Now that cigar haunts me, its dirty smell permeating the air around me, bringing me back here, cementing my feet in that place that would see me drown.


He is ahead of me. I barely see him in the dark, but he is there, walking unaffected by the cold, cigar smoke dragging in the air behind him. His hair is gray, his coat is red. He reaches the corner and turns. I reach the corner and follow.


Does he know I am here? Is he frightened by me? Am I threatening? These thoughts pass as he pauses to look at the sky. He takes a drag from his cigar and the odor swells in the wind. I keep my distance, following unintentionally, or perhaps dragged by sentimentality.


The old man leads until I cannot see him anymore. He does not turn a corner. He does not step into the street or walk up a path. He becomes invisible. Or perhaps I lose track of him, or fail to notice when he does deviate from the sidewalk that we both follow religiously. He is gone now, and with him his confounding cigar.


Here, I come upon an elegant house, bathed in warmth and stolen from children's stories. It glows with conviction and the ensigns of forking paths hang in the windows.


Were it not for common etiquette I would enter without a moment's pause. The porch wood creaking beneath my steps, the door knob chilling my palm, the heavy door announcing my arrival with an ancient cry; the scene would seem familiar. Things from my pockets would slide across the table. I would leave my shoes to dry near the rack where I hang my coat. I would casually venture deeper into this mysterious place, passing photos and porceline plates and strange artwork hanging on the walls.

Passing through the kitchen, I would discover once again the smell of smoke hanging in the air. The sweet, leathery scent of burning tobacco creeping slowly from the basement would beckon my curious steps into the den below. I would not take these stairs with caution nor haste, but with the distinct ease of habit. The room that would be waiting would not be new to my eyes, like the spaces above, instead it would be clothed in memory.

The old man would be sitting there, rocking in that same wooden chair. He would be quiet at first, as he was known to be at times like this. His cigar would bleed its smoke. The wrinkles would fail to conceal those sharp, distinct eyes. He would turn to me at last, and with the smile of recognition passing briefly across his face he'd say, "what took you so long?"



Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bahhaj stands while Michael and Bryan remain seated.

Bahhaj
You ever notice how small Michael's hands are?

Bryan
No.

Their eyes move to Michael's hands. They spend a few moments in palpable, awkward silence.

Michael
That's what I get for avoiding manual labor my whole life.

Bahhaj
Is that what it does?

Michael
Well-

Bahhaj
Is that how you think it works? Do you believe construction workers go into work with hands like that?

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bryan and Ariana stand, putting on their coats. Naheed walks in.

Naheed
Where are you going?

Bryan
We've gotta take someone out.

Ariana
Me and Bryan just have to go say goodbye to someone.

Bryan
"Say goodbye" to their knee caps.

Ariana laughs.

Bryan
I keep more than condoms in that briefcase.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Michael and Naheed stand near Bryan as he sits at his desk with a defensive posture.

Michael continues his rant.

Michael
Any time a man makes a sudden acquisition of clothing and accessories that means he's interested in a lady. I mean, look at me, the last time I bought any clothes was before Pilgrimage, where I was going to meet all sorts of women.

Michael looks at Naheed.

Michael (quietly)
That's not really why I was there.

Bryan
Oh yes it was! The first thing Michael says is always the truth. It's like he's got a truth Tourette's.

Michael
Come on!

Bryan
The second thing he says is always socially acceptable, but the first thing is where he's at.

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Naheed stands, talking to Michael and Bryan.

Naheed
You should get the Turkey Club. It's so good, and it's so big, I always get it but without the bacon.

Bryan
What? No bacon?

Naheed
I don't like it. I have them take it out.

Bryan's mouth hangs agape in disbelief.

Bryan
How you gonna have a club with no bacon?

Naheed
I just don't like it. I don't like most pork meats.

Bryan
Girl, you ain't right.

Minutes pass. Michael and Bryan busy themselves with their work, and then -

Bryan
I mean, it's like the bedrock of a club.

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bryan, dressed in a new, tailored suit, sits at his desk. Michael looks at his computer while Naheed stands in their cubicle.

Bryan
It's Valentine's day. Every place is going to be "romantic."

Michael
Not Hot Doug's Gourmet Encased Meats.

Bryan laughs.

Bryan
Did you just make that up?

Michael
No. Of course not.

Naheed changes the subject.

Naheed
The only thing your outfit needs now is a briefcase.

Bryan
Yes, a briefcase. I can bring it on my "romantic dinner."

Before Michael can respond to Bryan's patronizing sarcasm-

Bryan
I can keep my condoms in it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25 Things About Me (Facebook Tag)

I don't know that I'll be able to think of 25 things about myself that are very interesting, and I'm afraid I'll disappoint those of you that tagged me. My hope is that I was tagged out of a necessity, as if you thought, "oh, who can I tag? I'll just tag Mike."

One thing that jumped to mind is that (1) I've always wanted to see a blue whale. They're the biggest animals on earth! Why wouldn't I want to see one? Of course, maybe giant squids are bigger, but those things are disgusting. Whales are mammals that live underwater. That in itself is cool. So far (2) the closest I've ever come to seeing a blue whale is seeing a manatee at the Dallas aquarium, but as you can tell, that's not very close at all. The manatees were cool though, and it was a fun day. I kept chuckling as I thought back to the fake manatee-themed-porn from Conan O'Brien's website.

I can't exactly place where my fascination with the blue whale comes from. As I think now, it may have to do with my (3) childhood obsession with dinosaurs. (Sorry for including that one, by the way, I guess most boys were obsessed with dinosaurs when they were kids.) But the only way that blue whales are related to dinosaurs are that they are big, so I guess I think the size of these creatures is what makes them compelling. I mean, how many kids do you know would call compsognathus their favorite dinosaur? That's right, none!

When I was a kid, (4) my favorite dinosaur was always the one they hadn't discovered yet, and were only theorizing about. You know, the one that was spectacularly huge and fantastic but always turned out to be a hoax to disappoint impressionable minds like mine and make them give up their dreams and settle for whatever job pays the bills with the least amount of effort or responsibility. You know, like what Santa Claus is to Christian kids. 

(5) While I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I was also obsessed with knights and armor. One of my favorite books was the "visual dictionary" about old weapons and stuff. I loved dreaming of my own stories, and drawing my own characters with strange armor that was really just me trying to copy the old samurai images and then call them my own. I think I liked dinosaurs more because they were more mysterious, so they allowed me more space to convince myself that my own fantasies were true. (6) When I was a kid, I would always tell stories (lies) and convince my sister that they were real. For example, I once cut the hair off of her My Little Pony doll and told her it would grow back. Beyond that, I told her that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were real, and living under the auditorium at Ray Elementary. Looking back now, I think the reason I did that was because it made our world that much more interesting. It made it one we actually wanted to be a part of. 

(7)There's no one I look up to more than my siblings. I have had many different role models growing up: parents, relatives, teachers, friends, etc, but none have ever meant as much to me as my brother and sister. Isaac is someone who I will always have the utmost respect and admiration for, and will always look up to. I look at other people who don't have the sort of relationship with their brother that I have with mine, and I realize how blessed I am to have Isaac in my life. I admire Anna for different reasons, but easily just as much. I doubt there is anyone more universally talented and creative than Anna. She is one of the only people I know who just "gets it," perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the fact that she's the only one who truly knows what I mean by this sentence. As I ponder her character now, I can think of countless virtues that she strives to exemplify on a daily basis. The world would be better if more people were like my siblings. 

I think I am so close with my siblings because of my parents' divorce, and the massive crater it left in our early lives. Since then, (8) my only purpose in life has been to make other people happy, and this is a significant problem for me. I remember when I was 6 my mother was crying in our kitchen. My parents had just had a fight and I don't know where my father was. But my mother was crying. To my six year old mind, the cause of this fight was that the American-brand potato chips that my mom bought were stale, and my father didn't like them. So I sat down next to my mother and I ate the chips and I told her I liked them. 

I don't know how I got the impression that the fight was over stale chips, but to a six-year-old, such a thing makes perfect sense. I don't know where I got that memory, by the way, as my recollections of my childhood are patchy at best. (9) My memory is always vivid when I'm meeting someone important. When I think back to the first time I encountered people who would become my best friends, I can always remember every detail of those moments, even down to which song I had stuck in my head or the music I was listening to. When I think about all of the people who are my best friends today, I can tell you almost every minute detail about how and where I met them. 

I'm not saying that I would hesitate to call someone whose first impression I can't recall one of my best friends, but (10) I'm usually very insightful upon first meeting someone. It doesn't take much for me to know whether or not I'll get along with someone. I would never go so far to claim anything particularly unique about this insight I claim to have, but I will say that it's derived from my sensitivity and my deductions. I notice a lot when I'm on guard, and people can't really hide the way they are. My cynicism frames this in terms of me being able to spot the people I don't like, even though I should actually be looking for the opposite. 

(11) I am severely controlled by my habits. This is one of the things I've been working on lately, but without much success. Thankfully, I don't have any habits like smoking or drinking that are related to addictive substances. Instead, I have habits like eating comfort food, or listening to the same three bands at night in order to fall asleep. Also, I recognize my relationship to my habits and am trying to create new ones that will have a positive impact on my life, like writing every night or jogging. 

(12) I often find writing and conceiving stories to be the most difficult and abhorrent activity that I could inflict upon myself, but I do it anyway. I have spent so many frustrated hours looking at half-blank documents on my computer that I feel ashamed at how much time I may have wasted. The romance, prestige, and even intellectual elitism that people associate with this common craft of writing is beyond me. To me, there is nothing special about being an artist of any kind, but (13) there is something mystical and powerful about art. The art is what connects with people, the art is what they respond to, not the artist. 

(14) The "art" that I seek to perfect is storytelling. Whether this is through prose, through film, through screenplays or smoke signals, I wish to tell stories. 
I suppose this goes back to me telling my sister lies I called stories, like the time she stepped on a flower and I told her it was covered with a lethal poison that would disintegrate her skin unless she washed it off in five minutes. Or maybe it's because my favorite thing to do as a kid was watch movies, read comic books, and draw my own comics about clearly derivative characters and plots. (15) Now, I write movies about similar themes, and am finally beginning to feel good about them. It's only taken me about 10 years to figure it out, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. I've discovered the themes that are important to me, and a multitude of avenues by which to explore them. (16) The first movie I ever wrote was about an underground rapper who becomes famous. Now I'm writing a movie about a famous rapper who returns to his underground roots. The second movie I ever wrote was a slapstick comedy about a President based on George W. Bush that I stopped writing after September 11th. It was called "Pickles," and it actually had some funny, Simpsons-inspired jokes, but as you can imagine, lacked anything remotely compelling to keep me interested in writing it. Adjacent to these ideas, (17)I have been working on the same story for the past 10 years. I have always called it "Above All Things," and have always considered this a "temporary title," but doubt that I could realistically call it anything else at this point. I still don't have names that I'm happy with, nor have I been able to devote the focus to writing it that I feel it needs to get done.

(18) I am a passionate person, but I am also reserved with my passions. I love movies and music, generally, but these loves aren't universal, and I am easily bored by movies and music that are outside my parameters of interest. With music this is especially true. In the grand scheme of things, I don't like many artists at all, mostly because (19) I am a nerd, and that means that when I fall in love with a band I must immediately collect all of their albums, singles, imports, rare material, and essential live concerts. I used to alphabetize my DVD's according to director name. I wrote an essay about the movie Heat for fun. Hell, just a few nights ago I posted a long-winded analysis about a rap album that nobody has ever heard for fun.

Here's a big one: looking back on my life, (20) I don't think I honestly became a Baha'i until December 9th, 2008. That is the day I first stepped inside the Shrine of Baha'u'llah. It was also my 28th birthday. People often ask me "how was Pilgrimage," and this is the answer I feel like giving but never really have enough time to elaborate on. Maybe I'll tell you in person one day. 

When I was in college I did a lot of reading of philosophy and literature and all kinds of good stuff, but (21) nothing has ever resonated with me as profoundly as the following passage by Jorge Louis Borges:

It's Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause - mechanically now, perhaps - to gaze at the arch of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is hostile - I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to an individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition. Beyond that, I am doomed -- utterly and inevitable-- to oblivion, and fleeting moments will be all of me that survives in that other man. Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything. Spinoza believed that all things wish to go on being what they are - stone wishes to eternally be stone, and tiger, to be tiger. I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others', or in the tedious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I moved on from the mythologies of the slums and outskirts of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now, and I shall have to think up other things. So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away - and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.

I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page. 


Monday, February 2, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Mike sits at his desk, staring at his screen. Bryan speaks up.

Bryan
I've moved on from my fascination with the "Stuff White People Like" blog.

Mike
Oh yeah?

Bryan
I am now reading the "Stuff Korean Mothers Like" blog.

Mike
What?

Bryan
These women are brutal. And it's all true.

Mike thinks for a moment. He clicks from one invoice to the next.

Mike
Oh that reminds me, I have to drop off some dry cleaning.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bryan and Mike sit at their desks.

Bryan
I was asking Corinne where there's a Denny's.

Mike
What? Denny's?

Bryan
Seriously.

Mike
Why?

Bryan
It's free. 

(pause)

Bryan
I don't care how bad it is, that s&#t is free. 

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Elzhi: Out of Focus, My Analysis

I met Elzhi in 1999. I was a senior in High School and was only a few months passed 18 years old. My brother Isaac and I went to see Black Moon perform at St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit. It was one of those shows that had around 4 or 5 opening acts culled from the local scene that weren't really that good. One group that performed that night was called The Breakfast Club, and it was the only one that got our hands in the air. 

Walking through the wide alley beside St. Andrews after the show, my brother struck up a conversation with two of the emcees from The Breakfast Club. One of them was Hodge Podge, now called Big Tone, and the other was a shorter, quiet guy with dreads called Elzhi. 

A couple months later, my sister Anna and I were standing in line waiting to see Phife and Xzibit perform and Elzhi was standing right behind us. He and I got to talking, and our conversation carried on for the rest of the night. Over the next couple of months he would call me at random times and ask for an opinion on a track he had just recorded. I didn't know what it was then, but he was playing me the songs that would become Out of Focus, his now legendary, unreleased EP. 

Honestly, hearing these songs only once and through a phone didn't do them much justice. I remember trying my best to hear his lyrics over the static and feedback as the snare drums cracked through the headset of our cheap phone. But even under these circumstances, I knew that I was hearing something special.

The following analysis is about as unbiased as I can be.





10 years ago, a young emcee from Detroit got together with a small selection of unknown collaborators and created a masterful collection of songs that would never see the presentation or release that it deserves. The artist is eLZhi, the talented lyricist from the group Slum Village, and the songs are found on his underground debut, The Out of Focus EP.

After making appearances on songs with Binary Star, The Breakfast Club, Hodge Podge and others, eLZhi headed into the studio with Detroit hip-hop guru DJ Houseshoes to work on his solo project. After writing and recording a wide variety of songs, selecting a track list, designing and printing labels, and acquiring blank cassettes on which to print the music, eLZhi decided at the last minute to abandon the project. The songs remain unfinished and unmixed and the EP was never completed. 

The raw material, however, is there. The beats, rhymes, and concepts that form Out of Focus are sufficient to say that, had eLZhi completed his vision and given his debut the release it deserves, it would be regarded as one of the best hip-hop debuts of all time. 

The Track List:

[Side 1]
Broken Frames (Intro)
Scattered Pictures
MuSick
Interlude (feat. Dwele)
S.A.R.A.H. (Someone As Real As Her feat. Dwele)
[Side 2]
Interlude
The Big F.U.
Boomerang Slang
Where it All Begins (feat. Hodge Podge)

[It should be mentioned that when eLZhi finally allowed friends to have copies of this material on CD (thus spawning a leak), three additional songs were included on the disc. The first track commonly referred to as "Horny" appears as track number 4, following "MuSick." The remaining 2, "Choose" and "What I Am" appear following the 2nd Interlude, prior to "The Big F.U."]

Exclusively considering eLZhi's intended track list, the EP is a remarkably crafted set of songs. Thematically consistent, lyrically poignant, and conceptually diverse, Out of Focus is the rare hip-hop record that provides a listener with a fully realized, multi-faceted narrator. The genius of the project is not limited to the emcee's gift for words, but also the simple honesty of his character that is unafraid to share all of himself with his audience. 

The spoken word intro performed by Theory 13, "Broken Frames," combines with the autobiographical "Scattered Pictures" to open the album. In all honesty, I feel the inclusion of "Broken Frames" as an intro is eLZhi's only misstep on the project. It succeeds in introducing the motif of obscured vision, which I'll discuss in a moment, but it fails in the sense that the recited poetry simply cannot compete with eLZhi's lyricism. Instead, the single, epic verse of "Scattered Pictures" would be the more powerful opening, as he raps:

...My feelings inside become a sentence
Snatch a thought from a black cloud
That hung a distance
And got good at it
Just a skinny black kid with thick glasses
And book baggage
And a torn jacket
But lookin' back, I can hear 'em crackin' jokes again
It's hard to see the future with a cracked lens and broken frames

The titular idea of being "Out of Focus" is one that eLZhi revisits throughout the record. Here, he concludes his verse with a single line that seems to be the guiding force behind the selection of songs that follows. 

The next track, "MuSick," finds eLZhi lamenting on the state of popular hip-hop music. "We at the point of thinkin' somethin' is hype when it's just down right decent," he raps as he viciously attacks an ominous beat by DJ Houseshoes. On the surface, "MuSick" seems like a relatively basic song. At the end of the 90's, eLZhi wasn't exactly swimming in uncharted waters by writing a song about the sad state of the art form, so he constructs his complicated rhyme patterns and similes to compensate for his relatively unoriginal subject matter and allows his skill as a wordsmith to distinguish him from his less talented peers. What fascinates me most about "MuSick," however, is how the line I quoted above fits within the thematic framework of obscured vision. 

Basically, the driving point behind "MuSick" is to say that the quality of hip-hop music has gotten so bad that songs that are merely good are misperceived as being great. The malfunction is one of perception; what we understand to be true is actually false. In the case of "MuSick" it is aural sensation, elsewhere it is vision. Nevertheless, the principle of apprehending inaccuracies is consistent. So while eLZhi may be completely unaware of the connection I draw between his "Out of Focus" concept and the lyrics to "MuSick," they are still undoubtedly related. 

Sandwiched between a vibed-out segue and the end of side one, "S.A.R.A.H.," eLZhi's exhortation on unrequited love, is the clear centerpiece of Out of Focus. Rhyming over a gentle guitar, eLZhi tells a story about a having a crush on a young woman who he hasn't approached. 

Her aura's a radiant light
Very fly like takin' a flight
On a plane, she's not plane
She's eccentric
From a distance I've admired her
Feeling like the man she wants, I'm far from
But jet tryin' to get close...

...It's a cold cold world
I steady put myself out there
Wearin' it thin
Eventually becoming lovesick
She's beautiful
Her personality sweet as her fragrance 
As usual
My mouth shuts speakin in body language
I shift to the corner
Where the eyes, shift to the corner
Watchin' these clowns approach her...

Taken on the surface, "S.A.R.A.H." can easily appear as the EP's "girl song," and be lumped into a conventional category of hip-hop songs. Generally speaking, "girl songs" often find the emcee either confessing his love to an unnamed woman, or bragging to women about his sexual abilities. ("The Light" by Common, "Electric Relaxation" by A Tribe Called Quest) And while eLZhi's song easily falls into the category, the vulnerability he expresses by describing his inability to approach her is a rare thing. In a genre so often associated with bragging and womanizing, suggesting that a woman would want someone else, or that he is somehow inadequate, eLZhi is dramatically going against the grain.  

Another interesting aspect to eLZhi's approach to writing "S.A.R.A.H." is the role he takes as observer. His relationship to "Sarah" is one of admiring her from a distance and hoping for them to get together in the future. While the idea of being "Out of Focus" can be associated in a relatively abstract way to being an observer (as it is on "MuSick" with eLZhi's relationship to hip-hop music), on "S.A.R.A.H." it is more closely related to eLZhi's perception of the future. 

Returning for a moment to the final line of "Scattered Pictures," "it's hard to see the future with a cracked lens and broken frames," where eLZhi defines the idea of being "Out of Focus" as a difficulty to see where he is going. The same concept is true on "S.A.R.A.H.," as the general concept of the track echoes the idea of being unclear about where he is headed. While eLZhi clearly expresses the way he feels about this young woman, her feelings are never mentioned, imagined or assumed. eLZhi devotes numerous lines in his verses to fantasizing about a future relationship with "Sarah," but never frames them as anything more than hope. 

As the second side begins, the idea of lacking clarity on the future is examined in an interlude where eLZhi has a conversation with his father, who would rather he pursue something more practical than a rap career. "The Big F.U." immediately follows, and, like "MuSick," is one of the EP's more aggressive tracks. 

"The Big F.U." is an odd song relative to its neighbors on The Out of Focus EP, but it is also completely essential, as eLZhi sends a message to a few local emcees who got on his bad side. Without going into the details of ten-year-old drama, the song remains timeless in the sense that it is an example of how so-called-friends back bite and become enemies. "What's really messed up is that I thought you was cool / That ain't nothin' friends would do," Elzhi spits at the end of the first verse. So while the song is undeniably speaking to specific people regarding actual events, the principle that eLZhi focuses on is the one where his understanding of friendship is violated. 

"Boomerang Slang" is probably the most well known song to come from the Out of Focus sessions. One of the most impressive demonstrations of eLZhi's raw lyricism, it finds the young emcee weaving a litany of loosely related narratives into an intricate canvas that captures his surroundings. Rhyming over one of DJ Houseshoes' most memorable beats, the song was regarded as an instant classic by those who were close to the ambitious emcee and had the unique pleasure of hearing the track. 

As he did on "S.A.R.A.H.," eLZhi plays the role of observer, this time, however, he refrains from placing himself into the environment until the second verse, and remains separate from the people and events he describes. Seemingly distinct from the concept of being "Out of Focus," "Boomerang Slang" is a vivid and chilling portrayal of street life. Punctuating the song with his final line, El' raps, "It seems to me that cats rather rest in peace instead of keepin' it." This, of course, clarifies the unifying concept of the song, as every character El' describes is someone with misguided priorities. Whether it's the preacher who "knows the Bible but don't know Jesus," or the woman who lives a fast life style despite the health of her unborn child, everyone populating the song is unable to focus on what is right. 

"When I wrote this I was out of focus / vision blurred from the tears" El' raps on "Where it All Begins," the final track on Out of Focus. A tribute to Bugz, a Detroit emcee who tragically lost his life too early, the song is a collaboration with fellow Breakfast Club emcee Hodge Podge (now called Big Tone). Clearly, this is where the EP gets its title, as El' uses the image of his "vision blurred from the tears" as a metaphor for the sudden lack of clarity that happens when one is afflicted with something devastating. The song is one of the highlights of Out of Focus and is a fitting closer for this stunning collection of songs. 

Throughout the record, eLZhi, whether consciously or not, is examining the discrepancy between perception and reality. Or, put another way, he is looking at the many ways his world is "Out of Focus." On "Scattered Pictures," he tells his life story, emphasizing the difference between what should have happened and what did happen. "And they keep tellin' me it's going to be okay / But it transforms to lies" he raps, outlining the countless tragic turns his early life took. On "MuSick," eLZhi draws a distinction between the music that people should be making and what is actually being produced. On "The Big F.U." he draws a similar distinction between friends and back biters. These discrepancies are not the driving concepts behind these songs, of course, but subtle aspects to each of them that, perhaps serendipitously, unify the album.


Perhaps the most unique thing about Out of Focus is the sheer amount of himself eLZhi seems willing to share with his audience. "Scattered Pictures" touches on a number of deeply personal moments from the emcee's childhood. "S.A.R.A.H.," "The Big F.U." and "Where it All Begins" are all based on episodes from his life, and even the Interlude that opens side 2 is inspired by El's actual relationship with his father. The remaining songs, "MuSick" and "Boomerang Slang," both touching on relatively conventional hip-hop topics, are the songs on which eLZhi chooses to brandish his raw skill as an emcee. The result is a well balanced mixture of concept, talent, and empathy that few records by established veterans are able to achieve.  

In many ways, the record sounds naive today, as if eLZhi was unable to write about anything but himself. The single moment of pretense, the intro performed by Theory 13, is the only track on the EP that seems forced (as I write this I realize I make it sound worse than it actually is), mostly because it is the only contribution to the album that isn't coming directly from eLZhi himself. Every other song, however, gives a clear and precise image of a different aspect of eLZhi's character. That he chooses to write "S.A.R.A.H." instead of a more conventional song about sleeping with multitudes of women, that he writes an honest and pointed tribute to his friend, and that he opens the album with a detailed and revealing autobiography reveals an artist in the purest sense of the word. In 1998, eLZhi only knew how to be himself. Granted, in the 11 years that have elapsed since recording this EP eLZhi has grown as an artist, but Out of Focus remains his timeless masterpiece. 

I had known Elzhi for over a year before he finally gave me and a few other of our friends copies of this material on CD. I had heard some of the songs a few times. Nick Speed had played me "Boomerang Slang" and "Where it All Begins" a few times, but I had never heard the album in its entirety. 

While I had already seen him perform and heard some of his music when we met, I got to know Elzhi outside the context of his music before really becoming his fan. I knew that he was an emcee, and I knew he was dope, but the true talent and gifted insight into the art of emceeing was a mystery to me.

Although, there was one occasion when we were going to a drive through joint with a few friends. Elzhi got in my car and asked if I had any beats. I popped in a cassette of DJ Premier instrumentals and he proceeded to freestyle for the duration of the car ride. Now, this was a notoriously slow Burger King we went to, and he never stopped rhyming. Even when a homeless man approached the car, El' told him to go away within the context of his rhyme. When it was time to order, El's food request was part of his verse. And when I almost ran over a jay-walking pedestrian, El' told him to get the hell out of the way without missing the beat. This may sound impressive on its own, but let me just add, for anyone who hasn't heard Elzhi come off the head, that when he freestyles he still rhymes with creative and unique patterns. When I turned off the car I knew that the man in my passenger seat was one of the most gifted rappers alive.

When I got my own copy of Out of Focus I was blown away. After a while, however, I became frustrated - why did he hold back? Why didn't he release it? Elzhi's answers always seemed to deflect the question rather than address it, but I think part of it was that he was concerned that people wouldn't respond to it the way he hoped and that with so much of himself revealed in these songs, the risk was too great. 

A couple of years later, Elzhi performed a rare solo show at a small club outside of Detroit. It was one of the best performances I've ever seen, and something I still talk about with my friends who were there. Shortly afterward, El' started recording with Slum Village. 

In 2004, Elzhi released Witness My Growth, a mix-CD of material that outlined his pre-Slum, solo career. In December of that year, Elzhi performed an album release show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Fans who purchased the CD at the show were given copies of Out of Focus on cassette, finally putting those blank cassettes and unfolded covers to use. (Anyone who claims to have a copy of this tape released in 1998 is actually fronting, and posing the 2004 release as being genuine. And yes, the copyright date on the 2004 tape says 1998.) 

In 2008, Elzhi released his solo album, The Preface, which I whole heartedly urge everyone to run out and buy twice. 


Friday, January 30, 2009

Another Moment From Work (That I'll Never Get Back)

Bryan holds his phone on his shoulder. He presses a couple of buttons…

Bryan
Naheed, he’s coming to you.

He hangs up his phone.

Bryan
Careful, he’s breathing through his mouth.

Naheed’s phone rings. She answers it.

Bryan
He sounded like Dick Cheney when he threw his back out.

Michael
What was he doing when he hurt his back?

Bryan
I don’t know, but he was probably breathing heavy.

Michael
He was probably bowling with the devil.

Bryan
Probably.

Michael
Except when Dick Cheney bowls, the ball is white and the pins are black.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big Night! (Part One: An Evening with Tim and Eric and Friends)

There is bonding that happens when friends laugh together. This is not a unique or exclusive concept, and not one that I will elaborate on any further, aside from mentioning that one of the reasons Gavin and I have become such close friends is that we share a common love for the comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.




On Saturday, they came through Chicago for the second time within a year. We got off the Red Line at the Belmont stop at around 5:30, a full two hours prior to the advertised show time. We turned the corner and discovered around 20 dedicated fans waiting in the near-zero cold to get a good spot to see their favorite comedy team.

Much to our surprise we encountered David Liebe Hart, one of Tim and Eric’s most popular guest stars. He was dressed in ill-fitting clothes and carried a bright blue tote bag with the logo of a 99-cent-store printed on the front. He was mingling with his fans, taking pictures, signing autographs, and selling his homemade CDs. He eagerly approached us, and pointed out his “North Shore Line” hat.

“I’m wearing this hat because it was my favorite train line that ran here in Chicago before Metra and the CTA had them shut down…”

He was also excited about performing in Chicago.

“I grew up in Chicago on 61st and Ellis near Hyde Park where my father was a public school teacher for 55 years before we moved to Park Forest Illinois…”

Without taking a breath, he seamlessly transitioned to his favorite topic of discussion.

"I'm black Irish, just like Oprah and Obama, and the Irish are descended from a race of Aliens called the Omegans. And the Irish like the color green because the Omegans have green blood. but after they started mingling and reproducing with other Caucasian peoples, their blood eventually turned red and brown in color..."

David Liebe Hart is an interesting person to say the least. He is a singer and puppeteer, and frequently appears on the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The comedic nature of his songs is something I've often discussed with Gavin and other fans of the show because, assuming that we consider ourselves "good" people, laughing at a man who is afflicted with a clear mental handicap and has a heart as kind as his would be... well... wrong. 

The conclusion that I've come to about David's appearances of T&EASGJ! is that his earnest attempts to sing and perform his music fit into the strange world that Tim and Eric are creating. He's not, however, something that they are presenting as a subject of mockery. Of course the puppets are awful, his songs are simple, he can't sing well, and his overwhelming preoccupation with Alien theories is creepy, but he is genuine. He does his best, and that's the only reason he works. 



So as Gavin and I listened to this man telling us his random presentations on whatever subjects crossed his mind, I couldn’t help but see the joy and excitement coming from inside him. I felt bad that I didn’t have the cash to buy a CD, but I was glad to have met him.

David went on about his business, posing for pictures with other fans, selling CDs to some, while Gavin and I discussed our food options. We had spotted a Mediterranean joint near the train and felt this was our best choice. As we hurried away from the line, we spotted David talking to a woman at the box office window.

“I’m wearing this hat because it was my favorite train line that ran here in Chicago before Metra and the CTA had them shut down…”

He was at it again.

I stopped Gavin and said, “maybe David wants to get some Falafel with us.”

“Why not?” Gavin responded. We stopped to wait for David to finish.

“I grew up in Chicago on 61st and Ellis near Hyde Park where my father was a public school teacher for 55 years before we moved to Park Forest Illinois…”

The woman in the box office was nodding and smiling as David elaborated on his childhood.

“Alright, I’m giving him one more minute,” Gavin said after listening to David’s conversation for much longer than we should have.

“Just interrupt him,” I said.

Gavin stepped over, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “hey David, wanna get some falafel with us?”

“Yeah, okay.”

David waved good-bye to the nice lady in the ticket booth and joined us as we hurried up the block to get some food.

“I’m wearing this hat because it was my favorite train line that ran here in Chicago before Metra and the CTA had them shut down…”

We knew as soon as he opened his mouth to tell us his story for the second time that night that we were suddenly responsible for this man.

“How much time do you have, David?” I asked.

“About ten minutes.”

We hurried our pace and listened as David told us more about the “Electroliner train that went 200mph and was stolen by the Japanese,” Aliens, and life on the road with the Tim and Eric Awesome Tour.

When we got to the falafel joint, David asked for two sandwiches, and two drinks. I was happy to buy them for him. He gave me a CD in return, which he really didn’t have to but I’m glad he did. David’s food was ready before ours, so he and Gavin departed the restaurant early, just in case the Tim and Eric crew were worried. After they left, the guy behind the counter asked if I was buying food for a homeless guy.

“No,” I said, “he’s performing around the corner.”

The man was appropriately surprised.

When I got back on the street, I intercepted David as he tried to enter a used bookstore. He excitedly pointed into the window and said, “see, that’s the electroliner, right there!” We honestly didn’t expect to see it, but there it was on the cover of a book in the window of this store.

As Gavin and I escorted him away he asked us to go in and purchase the book for him, assuring us that he would reimburse us later.

Enthusiastic fans were waiting for David at the Vic Theater. Gavin and I stood at the back of the line and ate our sandwiches. All of these people were asking him for autographs and pictures. Some sang his songs and asked him to sing along. We bought him falafel and listened to him for a little while. We were glad we invited him. Of course, as soon as David was gone we realized just how cold it was that night.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we would end up standing in the cold for another hour before the doors opened. The two high-school boys behind us kept reciting jokes from the show while one of their dads periodically checked in. Gavin believed that the young woman in front of us was dragging her boyfriend to the show, and that he was going to be very upset if he wasn’t entertained tonight.

The single worst thing about waiting in line, aside from the cold, was the pair of drunk high-school girls waiting a few people ahead of us. One of the girls was rotund, and drinking booze from a PowerAde bottle. The other was skinny, ugly, and wearing a leather coat with the word “exploited” written on it. They were loud, obnoxious, and yelling the word “nipple” at anyone who passed. Their presence combined with the vicious cold to make me a shamefully intolerant person during that hour before the show.

Once inside and warm, we got as close to the stage as we could and made ourselves comfortable. The drunken girls were still closer than we would have liked, but that was okay. We were mere inches from the stage and it wouldn’t be long before DJ Dougg Pound would come out and do his thing.



As we expected, Tim and Eric started their show off with a bang by running out on stage wearing skin-tight, sparkling spandex and singing a song called simply, “Diarrhea.” Gavin and I were falling all over each other with laughter. I found it hard to breathe and we suddenly realized that our obnoxious cackles must have been so much more annoying to the people around us than the drunken girls shouting “nipples.”

Much like their show at the Empty Bottle last year, Tim and Eric brought out some of their best-loved characters, and incorporated them into the show in brilliant ways. Spagett!, the Beaver Boys, the Kidz Break kids, and even the “Sexual Romance” guy all made appearances. Supporting guests such as James Qualls and the aforementioned David Liebe Hart were highlights, but the biggest surprise of the night came when John C. Reilly appeared on stage as none other than the beloved Dr. Steve Brule.



We were floored. With every passing moment the show was getting bigger, better, and exceeding our expectations. What could possibly happen next to give this show the fitting end it deserves?

Tim and Eric walked out onto stage and proceeded to give a sales seminar on something they called the “Tim and Eric Touch.” As the seminar continued, their clothes came off, and it transformed into a frightening and hilarious dance number with Tim and Eric leaping around the stage in form fitting, neon green leotards.

Then this happened:



Yes, that was Gavin getting pulled onto the stage and fondled by his comedy heroes. Immediately afterward he was assaulted by a man dressed as a little Dutch boy wielding a giant plush mallet. I am not making this up.

The show ended with all of the performers taking a bow on stage. Gavin and I were beaming. It was the end of one of the most surreal experiences of our lives. We didn’t need to say much as we filed out of the theater, we both knew what had just happened, and we also knew that it couldn’t really be explained.

As we bundled up and braved the cold, Gavin discovered that many of our friends were at a party in the neighborhood. Rather than walk the distance in the now sub-zero temperatures, Gavin and I took off running down the road.

It was Corinne’s birthday, and Andre was leaving town. No one at the party could really know what had just happened to us. Our words couldn’t explain the jokes, we couldn’t verbalize the experience or convey the inspiration that we derive from seeing these guys work. Our clumsy explanations of these skits and songs don’t do them justice, even the individual clips fail to give the total picture of what it is that Tim and Eric do. But for that single night Gavin and I were in the audience, we were part of the show, and we made it ours.