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
Interlude (feat. Dwele)
S.A.R.A.H. (Someone As Real As Her feat. Dwele)
[Side 2]
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…

Naheed, he’s coming to you.

He hangs up his phone.

Careful, he’s breathing through his mouth.

Naheed’s phone rings. She answers it.

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

What was he doing when he hurt his back?

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

He was probably bowling with the devil.


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.

Monday, January 26, 2009

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

Bryan turns in his chair with surprise. Mike looks at him with astonishment.



Are you serious?

Of course.


On Touhy.

An Outback?



Outback Steakhouse.

Why the hell didn't you mention it before?

I was supposed to?

What the hell is Wrong with you?