Tag Archives: Hip-Hop

Brother Ali Finds the Middle Ground Between the Personal and the Political


Brother Ali knows that times are tough. He’s been spending most of this young century wrestling with that reality—not only as a musician, but as an activist. The five years since his previous album, 2012’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, have brought no shortage of new topics for him to tackle: the rising profile of Minneapolis representative and fellow Muslim Keith Ellison, to the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in his Twin Cities home.

This sort of environment might herald a new Brother Ali album as a potential call to action for what might feel like trying times. But All The Beauty in This Whole Life has a different dimension to it. Ali doesn’t shy away from politics, of course: “Dear Black Son” is a father-to-child conversation about racism; on “Uncle Usi Taught Me,” he contrasts the respect he received while lecturing in Iran to the TSA’s dehumanizing treatment of him on the return trip; “Before They Called You White” examines the ways European-Americans have become pawns of white supremacy. But as we spoke with Ali, he returned, again and again, to the idea of balance—of listening to fans as much as he speaks to them, and of acknowledging not only the world’s problems, but the moments of beauty and divinity that exist, and that we all need to fight for.

Continue reading

DIY in The River City: Richmond’s Thriving Underground Hip-hop Scene



Sitting almost perfectly in the center of Virginia, Richmond is a city of dual identities. On one side, it is home to a host of Fortune 500 companies; on the other, more than 25 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Known as ‘The River City,’ the music of Richmond has a similar duality. Home to influential rapper Mad Skillz and the source of whatever divine supernatural forces brought D’Angelo into this world, the city also gave us Lamb of God and cosplay-chic shock rockers GWAR. With a population of just over 200,000, Richmond punches far beyond its musical weight. But in hip-hop circles, the city is largely ignored. Still, as MCs like Fly Anakin and the André 3000-heralded Divine Council rep the RVA, behind the scenes, a new generation of genre-spanning producers are slowly amassing a humbling body of work. “In Richmond, it’s all about a group of people and how hard their talent is,” says Tuamie, a musician and Richmond native now living in Georgia. “That’s what kept me creating while I was there, and what keeps me doing it when I’m not. Richmond will never stop, that’s a guarantee.”

Continue reading

Hanni El Khatib on Embracing Multi-Racial Identity and Being Famous in France

Hanni El Khatib

Although he’s already four records deep into a successful career, Hanni El Khatib was looking forward to taking a break after he wrapped an extensive tour. But it wasn’t long before he found himself in the studio, banging out material in a series of low-stakes sessions that would end up on a series of EPs he released over the course of 2016. Now, those five EPs have been collected into full-length, Savage Times, released this past February on Innovative Leisure, the label he co-owns.

The album’s 17 tracks showcase El Khatib at his most diverse, each song pushing his signature take on rock and roll in a different direction. The album moves from the uptempo swagger of “Paralyzed” to the stark, hymn-like “Miracle,” to the rebellious “Mondo and His Makeup,” referencing a range of musical eras and movements along the way. Lyrically, El Khatib reflects on his experiences as a first generation American (“Born Brown”), considers his own bad habits (“Hold Me Back”) and embraces individuality (“Freak Freely”)

The child of immigrant parents from Palestine and the Philippines, El Khatib grew up in San Francisco, and has called Los Angeles home for nearly a decade (though he’s often away, perpetually on tour across the States and abroad, most frequently, in France). We met up with El Khatib during a one-week break in his touring schedule to talk about the challenge of self-reflection, how the immediacy of releasing songs as he finished them enabled him to be more honest, the value of personal freedom, and why the cycle of culture dictates that rappers are the new rock stars.

Continue reading

Las Cafeteras Put Modern Spin on Nearly 500-Year-Old Afro-Mexican Folk Music

Las Cafeteras

From their earliest days in 2008, the music of indie folk rockers Las Cafeteras was built upon the son jarocho, a Mexican immigrant art form that’s now being shaped by the cities in the United States to which it was transplanted. All of their irresistible beats are rooted in son jarocho’s venerable, nearly 500-year-old history.

In the 16th Century, in the times of colonial New Spain (which today is Mexico and a significant part of the southwestern US), enslaved Africans were brought to the colony, with a large number being taken to the coastal state of Veracruz. A few hundred years later, in that same area, son jarocho—a rich mixture of African beats, indigenous themes and melodies, European influences and call-and-response vocals—was born. Every part of the genre seems to reflect its history: The music is typically played using various sizes of small, guitar-like instruments called jaranas and a percussion instrument called the quijada, a donkey-jaw that players scrape with a stick. The lyrics are often structured according to a poetic form that was born in Spain in the 16th Century. The music is also accompanied by zapateado, percussive footwork on a raised wooden platform,  Some scholars speculate that zapateado may have begun when African drumming was forbidden as part of an effort to limit communication between the enslaved.

According to history, son jarocho was denounced by the Holy Inquisition for inciting lewd dancing. But it survived, and has continued to soundtrack Mexican rebellions over time: Songs were created to celebrate the 1910 Revolution, musicians accompanied the 2006 protests in the state of Oaxaca, and last year, students sang improvised satirical verses to son jarocho tunes at protests in the state of Veracruz itself.

Son jarocho also made it across the Rio Grande, taking root in cities like Chicago, New York, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. Musicians from L.A., including Ricky Valens (nee Ricardo Valenzuela) in the ‘50s and Los Lobos in the ‘80s, created their own versions of the most classic son jarocho tune of all time, “La Bamba.”

In Los Angeles in the mid ‘00s, a group of Mexican-American youth yearning to reconnect with their roots took up folkloric dance and music classes at a Cultural Center in East L.A., and fell in love with the son jarocho. Out of their friendship and musical experimentation, Las Cafeteras was born. It wasn’t an easy road. They warped so many of the genre’s rules—adding hip-hop and Spanglish, for example—that some of the more established purist members of the Los Angeles Mexican folkloric music community voiced their disapproval publicly.

Along the way, Las Cafeteras created their own iconic rebel version of “La Bamba”, titled, “La Bamba Rebelde”. That song was featured in Telemundo’s “Bajo el Mismo Cielo” (Under the Same Sky), one of the infamous and beloved telenovelas (soap operas) to which some Latinx viewers dedicate many an evening. While on tour, the band makes a point to highlight onstage the social justice movements of the cities in which they play, and have often partnered with local community organizations for the concerts. Just last month in Minneapolis, while there for a concert, band members also marched for farm workers’ rights.

We chatted with several members of Las Cafeteras about their long-awaited sophomore album, Tastes Like L.A., to be released on April 14. On two different phone calls from L.A., Daniel French (vocals, zapateado, jarana, MC), Hector Flores, (vocals, jarana, zapateado) and Leah Gallegos (vocals, quijada, zapateado) shared their thoughts on the latest album and the vision and mission of Las Cafeteras.

Continue reading

Long Live the King: Celebrating Toronto Rapper King Reign

King Reign

King Reign by Anna Keenan

The shocking news spread quickly across the Canadian music scene: on June 28th, 2016, the gravelly-voiced, well-respected Toronto rapper King Reign (born Kunle Thomas) had died of a heart attack. He was only 40 years old.

It was a devastating blow to his fans, and to a rap scene that Reign had influenced since he debuted in the hip-hop outfit BrassMunk in the mid ’90s (the group earned both major label recognition and a Juno nomination). Collaborations with Drake, Saukrates, Boi-1da, Rich Kidd, and Pharoahe Monch followed and, in 2014 King Reign (R-E-I-G-N was an acronym for Rhythm Energy In Gods Nature) struck out on his own with his first solo album, Sincere. The LP examined street violence, bullying, despair and racial stereotyping with an unflinching eye and tremendous compassion. Reign seemed primed to release more stellar and thought-provoking music. Then, he was gone.

Continue reading