Slow Magic, an artist who plays drums and makes electronic music, won’t tell me his real name. Or his age. Or where he’s from. He won’t even tell me where he is as we talk on the phone and, since I’m a journalist, not a CIA agent, I can’t track his phone and find out for myself. The only things I know about him are that he’s a dude, he sounds rather young, and he wears a mask. So I ask him about the mask and I (finally) start to get some answers.
Slow Magic’s mask is striped, rainbow-colored, and outfitted with L.E.D. lights that change color with the music during his shows. It has almond-shaped eye holes, two ears, and looks sort of like a zebra-fox-wolf on acid. “It’s open to interpretation on what kind of animal it is,” says Slow Magic. “And I think that’s the essence of the whole project: It’s imaginary, so anyone can interpret it how they want to and they’re right.” (In that case, I’ll call it a zebra).
Slow Magic has worn a mask since his first show in 2012 because he’s a firm believer that “it’s more exciting to focus on the identity of the music than on the identity of me.” The original design, created by his “friend who is an artist,” has stayed the same over the years, just with a few improvements. Today’s iteration is sturdier, made of plastic and wood, and is “to an extent, pretty sweat proof.”
When you coming back, baby? When you coming back? / I will love you down, baby / When you’re coming back.
So starts the first track of electronic singer-producer Natasha Kmeto’s sophomore album, Inevitable. Though the lyrics are indefatigably simple, they reveal a fair amount about the musician, much more than she let on in her 2013 debut,Crisis. Listeners might pick up on Kmeto’s penchant for singing about love and relationships. Astute listeners might even figure out that Kmeto is queer.
No song on the album is more upfront about this than “I Thought You Had a Boyfriend.” In this cavernous deep-house track, Kmeto picks up on clues that a girl might be into her and questions her intentions. Though some of her listeners don’t understand — “I occasionally glance across audiences and I’ll see a couple dudes that look at me like, ‘What is she saying?'” she says, laughing — it is her most blatant and revealing song to date.
Kmeto, who lives in Portland with her partner of four years, “officially” came out six years ago. She says that after experimenting with women and questioning whether she was bisexual or gay, she came out to herself first, before letting her family members know one by one.
It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Azure is in his L.A. apartment watching the new Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq. Although he’s lived here since September, the apartment has a sparseness to it that is less a reflection of Azure’s interior design aesthetic than an indicator of his busy schedule.
Since the fall, the 27-year-old rapper, born Justin Park in Pinole, Calif., has been on the road quite a bit, either touring with Bay Area rapper (and HBK Gang founder) Iamsu!, for whom he DJs, or driving back and forth between the Bay and L.A. to record music with his recently formed rap crew, Down 2 Earth. And though he enjoys staying occupied, all of the traveling has taken a toll. “It just eats up so much time,” says the MC, who has planned for the last year to drop his fourth album, Leap Year.
On the SoundCloud page for Leap Year, which was released on Jan. 12 (and was premiered worldwide by SF Weekly), Azure issued an apology to his fans. “2 my listeners from the early days, I know I took a few extra moments to deliver this project to your ears,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to give you something rushed so I took my sweet time widit.”
It’s Thanksgiving Day and singer Jennie Vee could care less.
“I’m the most anti-holiday person ever,” says the 32-year-old from Canada, who headlines Oakland’s Stork Club on Friday, Dec. 4. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve not really enjoyed holidays. I can’t wait for them to be over.”
Vee’s blasé attitude is right in line with the punk rock ethos that has always guided both her life and music. Though she grew up in a “strict Catholic household,” Vee became a Goth, dyed her hair “every color of the rainbow,” and went vegetarian — and later, vegan — at a young age. She taught herself how to play guitar simply by listening to albums from Hole, The Cure, and Jane’s Addiction, and to this day, cannot read music. As a teenager, she dropped out of high school and moved to England because that’s where “all [her] favorite bands were from.” When she returned to Canada in her late teens, she formed a rock band called Tuuli and recorded a full-length album and EP. Over the next few years, through her own hustling and hard work, she wrote songs for a Comedy Central series and got a handful of tracks used on a Canadian cartoon show, as well as the hit teen drama television series, Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Kehlani has had a hell of a year.
The 20-year-old R&B singer signed to Atlantic Records and embarked on her first international tour. Her second mixtape, You Should Be Here, dropped in April and is now nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Rolling Stone named her one of the “10 Artists You Need to Know” and Billboardcalled You Should Be Here the “first great R&B album” of the year.
Her back-story is interesting, too. Kehlani, who grew up in Oakland, lost her father shortly after she was born due to gun violence. Her mother, a drug addict and criminal, was arrested when she was a baby, and Kehlani was taken in by her aunt when she was three-months old. When she was 16, she moved out and became homeless, stealing from big chain stores and sleeping at trap houses. She’s also openly bisexual, and it’s common knowledge that she had her first girlfriend by ninth grade.
So, when I heard that she was headlining a show at the Fox Theater (two shows, in fact), I figured I should check her out. Given all the hoopla about her this past year and her recent single, “The Way,” with Chance the Rapper (which has almost 8 million plays on YouTube), I was intrigued. Why is Kehlani so hot right now? I wondered. Not only was the Saturday night show I was about to attend sold out, but the Sunday night show was, as well. And there weren’t even any named openers – the show is billed simply as “Kehlani and Friends.”
It happened overnight.
On May 6, Jude Mc and Marcellus “MFK” Marcy, roommates in Los Angeles, were hanging out in their Koreatown apartment and ruminating on the current state of music streaming platform SoundCloud and the changes the site’s Berlin-based founders might make next.
Since 2014, SoundCloud has rolled out a number of additions, revamps, and policy changes to what was once the Wild West of music streaming and sharing. When the site launched in 2007, it was a place where half-finished demos, bootlegs, and copyright-infringed remixes could be uploaded and shared freely. Now that copyright infringements are staunchly patrolled, songs — and sometimes entire playlists — are regularly nixed from the site.
In the beginning, SoundCloud was free. Today, it offers paid subscription plans ranging from $38 per year to more than $100, and caps non-subscription users’ uploadable content. A continuous play feature that slips in “featured” songs has been added (unlike YouTube’s autoplay feature, it cannot be turned off), and the site has been rebranded to appeal more to listeners rather than the artists and producers who upload content in the first place.
David Duff’s body was on the floor when police arrived at his Richmond, Calif. house shortly before midnight on Dec. 30th. Only 23 years old, Duff was dead of a single gunshot wound. Three days before Duff’s murder, another man was shot and killed at a Richmond intersection. And two days before that, on Christmas night, five people, including a 19-year-old mother and her 2-year-old daughter, were shot at (but not killed) in the city.
Duff’s death marked the last homicide in Richmond during 2015, bringing the death toll to 21 last year (in a city whose population hovers around 107,000), almost two times the rate of 2014. The city consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., with 2015 marking the highest death toll since 2011.
“[In Richmond], a beautiful Tuesday night can turn into a deadly Wednesday morning,” says 27-year-old rapper Wantmore N8 (née Nathaniel Flentroy, Jr.). “If you stand outside for 15, 20, 30 minutes, two things will either happen: Somebody comes by shooting or the police comes.”
Despite these harsh realities, N8, who grew up in a south Richmond neighborhood the locals colloquially call “the backstreets,” has never left. “There’s no way around it,” he says. “It’s home.”
It’s easy to offend people, especially online. Doubly so if you’re trying to be funny. Just ask electronic duo Bob Moses, who posted the line “Music that will make you want to build a highway through a low-income neighborhood” under their Facebook bio.
“It’s a joke,” says Tom Howie, one half of the duo. “A sarcastic nod to where the name really comes from.” (Spoiler: Robert “Bob” Moses was a legendary and controversial city planner in New York City who campaigned for highways over public transit and who was accused of displacing African-American communities in his zeal to remake America’s idea of “urban.”)
One of the reasons why the pair like the Facebook quip and the name Bob Moses is because it ties them to New York. Howie and his other half, Jimmy Vallance, grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and knew each other peripherally from shared classes in high school, but it wasn’t until October 2010 that they reconnected — in a Brooklyn parking lot outside of a Lowe’s home improvement store.
Jazz is no longer cool.
Once the dominant soundtrack for nightclubs and bars, jazz is now relegated to elevators and radio stations at the lower end of the FM dial. Compared to newer genres like rap, jazz is an antiquated musical style, one that’s better suited for older crowds than younger Snapchat-obsessed audiences. You won’t hear it at house parties or while shopping at H&M. In fact, chances are, you won’t hear it at all.
But pianist Robert Glasper is trying to change that.
“The jazz genre hasn’t progressed in a long time,” says the 37-year-old musician. “And young people are not interested in it.”
About five years ago, he realized that to save the genre, it needed to become more palatable to the modern ear. By interweaving other musical styles within the framework of jazz and finding big name artists to collaborate with, Glasper, who once claimed he had “musical A.D.D.,” landed on a solution. (Click here to read more)
Let me start this by saying: I don’t like Metallica. It’s nothing personal against the band, I just don’t like metal to begin with (be it speed, heavy, or thrash). And yet, when I was invited to Metallica’s show at AT&T Park on Saturday night (a.k.a. CBS Radio’s The Night Before), I figured why not? Could make for an interesting article.
My coworkers gave me warnings. They told me to bring ear plugs and to expect a lot of black clothing and men — particularly men with long hair who like motorcycles and beer. As a lone female who had to take two forms of public transportation (gasp!) to get to the show, the over-abundance of testosterone and close quarters sounded less than appealing, but such is the life of a journalist. Sometimes you’ve got to dive into the trenches and squish into narrow train cars and breathe the same air as bewildered tourists, Super Bowl fans, and drunk fuck boys to get your story.
I purposely decided to do no research before going to the show. I knew metal was loud and brash and full of thundering drum and guitar solos — and I think I stumbled upon a stage where it was playing at last year’s Electric Daisy Carnival (before quickly retreating) — but other than that, I knew little about the genre.
(Click here to read more)
Last year, I became a statistic: on Valentine’s Day, I broke up with my boyfriend. According to data culled from Facebook relationship statuses, this is the most common time of year to ditch your ball and chain (second only to Christmas).
Since the odds are high that something bad might happen to your relationship this Feb. 14, here’s a list of 10 pro-single and anti-love songs to help get you through any rocky romantic circumstance.
Regardless of whether you’re happily single or not, these songs will do at least one thing: make you feel not (so) shitty.
And sometimes, that’s enough.
1. “Get Out” by JoJo
Get Out (leave) right now / It’s the end of you and me
JoJo was only 14 when she sang this song about a lying, cheating boyfriend (whose unfaithfulness she discovered by creeping on his phone). Cheating and lying are deal breakers at any age, but JoJo showed wisdom beyond her years. If, like JoJo, you find yourself in a similar situation (even if she found herself there via subterfuge), dump their ass.
Life (or love) lesson: Snooping is okay. And if you find something incriminating, dump ’em.
2. “Loner” by Kali Uchis (Click here to read more)
It was the night of Valentine’s Day and I was sitting next to my boo at Oracle Arena watching the Grammy-nominated singer Charlie Wilson. Flanked by four back-up dancers in light-up L.E.D. suits, Wilson had just finished singing the song, “Charlie, Last Name Wilson” and was, for the first time that evening, addressing the audience.
“Fellas, if you’ve got the most beautiful-est girl with you in the world tonight, I want you to stand up,” he said to the crowd.
Practically everyone in the packed venue stood up. Except my guy.
“But if she’s just butt ugly, don’t stand up,” Wilson added.
As someone who is both shy and stubborn, I turned to my boo (who is also stubborn, but not shy) and told him it was okay if he didn’t stand up. The woman behind us, however, was not as okay with it and politely nudged him and asked, “Why you not standing up?”
Thankfully, Wilson changed the topic and gave the crowd another command: Turn the flashlight on your phone on and direct it towards the stage. If you’ve been to a show recently, you’ll know that the lighter has now been outplaced by technology. And even though I’m usually one to shun modern advances, in this case, I applaud the change, which is not only safer, but a lot cooler visually.
Success has its caveats. Once an artist makes it big, there’s a certain visceral quality to the music that gets lost. The do-it-yourself, succeed-or-perish ethos that helped make the artist becomes irrelevant once they’re signed. The hunger vanishes. The yearning dissipates. And while the music itself might get better, there’s no denying that a shift has taken place.
Fortunately, that shift — or loss, if you will — does not yet apply to the R&B songstress ABRA. Though she is signed to Awful Records, the label started by Atlanta’s hip-hop darling of the moment, Father, her music is still genuine.
She still writes all her own lyrics and creates all her own beats, and her “studio” is still the walk-in closet of her bedroom in her parents’ house. She still records every song from an awkward, “super painful” kneeling position on the floor, and her “desk” is still an overturned clothes hamper. In other words, her music might not be as clean and polished or scrubbed down and reduced as it could be, but then again, that’s kind of the point. (And you’ll have a chance to hear her prove this point at the Feels IV party thrown by Wine and Bowties on Nov. 28 in Oakland). (Click here to read more)
Shura is a 24-year-old experimental pop singer from Manchester who makes dance music — but hates dancing. She’s a vocalist who doesn’t like the sound of her own voice. A musician who has anxiety performing in front of others. And an artist who’s about to go on her first U.S. tour, but hates flying.
In other words, it’s hard being Shura.
And also fucking awesome. In a little over a year, Shura, whose real name is Aleksandra Denton, has climbed out of SoundCloud obscurity and become one of the most promising up-and-coming crooners to hit the scene. Her first self-directed music video for the electronic-synth breakup song “Touch” went viral in 2014, and her singles have been played over three million times on Spotify. In a matter of months she went from “working full-time and making music whenever I had the time” to being a full-time musician, signed to a record label (Universal Music Publishing Group), with funding and resources at the ready to produce her first album. This summer, she released a 10-minute “performance film,” called Three Years, as well as her first EP, White Light, and she has plans to drop her debut album soon.
Amber London is in a moment of transition. Like many 23-year-olds, the Houston-bred rapper is contemplating moving out of her family’s home, what she wants from her career, and where her identity fits with that vision. “I’m figuring out who I am,” she says. “Just figuring out the world that I’m living in, and, you know, young adult-type problems.”
But Amber London—née Linwood—isn’t your average 23-year-old. She’s got five releases under her belt, 15,000 Twitter followers (and counting), and a standout flow that’s earned her endorsements from the likes of Spaceghostpurrp and Gangsta Boo.
It makes sense, then, that the self-proclaimed “Underground Queen” would document her life in flux on her latest release, Life II Death. The mixtape marks her first project since 2014’s chopped and screwed record Hard 2 Find. Her penchant for the style is still there, but it also sees her shedding the hazy, early 90s influence that dominated earlier works like 2012’s acclaimed 1994. Nixing the retro sound was a conscious decision, she says, largely because the 90s have become too popular for her taste. “The 90s will always be an influence, but I met too many people who are doing it now,” she says. “It’s all about staying ahead of the game.”
London, who grew up in Alief, Houston and still lives with her family, has been rapping since the age of 13. Most of her songs are born from the freestyles she spits through a computer mic when she has something on her mind.
Sometime in early September, a few hundred people around the world received in the mail a flat, cardboard box containing a heavily padded, highly anticipated vinyl record. Ostensibly, those same few hundred people slipped the record out of its astral-themed jacket and then placed it under the needle of their record player.
Assuming they started with side A, they would have listened to the opening track, “Control,” an upbeat dance-pop tune by the Sydney band Olympic Ayres. Had they started with the other side, they would have heard a moodier, piano-laced ballad called “Baptize” from a Los Angeles band named RKCB. Because therein lies the beauty of this vinyl release: It’s a mixtape, not an album.
Called Vinyl Moon, the nascent, Los Angeles–based endeavor is a subscription-based vinyl mixtape series, featuring a new 10-track release mailed out every month. Each curated release consists of songs from relatively obscure and unknown indie artists and bands. In addition to the records, each volume comes with stickers and postcards, and each record jacket is decorated with original, custom artwork from different artists.
At Time for a Cut Barber Shop in Inglewood, Lonnie Kimble, known to rap fans as Skeme, sits slouched in a faux leather chair, his dreads pulled back in a ponytail and his knees peeking out of holes in his distressed Yves St. Laurent jeans. A bootlegged version of Straight Outta Compton, with Chinese subtitles, plays on the TV, while the shop’s lone barber, Marlon, shaves the head of one of Skeme’s “brothers.”
It’s a sizzling Friday afternoon in September and some of the guys in the shop have wet towels draped over their heads. The rest of Skeme’s crew is camped out in the back of the room, sitting in a semi-circle around the shop’s lone floor fan.
As his friends joke and gossip, Skeme looks on with a smile. These men — his crew and the other customers — are the people he makes music for, releasing all nine of his mixtapes for free. Though he has been offered deals with labels such as Top Dawg Entertainment, he has remained unsigned. He hasn’t upgraded his lifestyle by relocating to Hollywood or the Valley, instead remaining a constant fixture in the neighborhood he grew up in and still calls home.
His music, he says, is tailored specifically for the streets, with themes of drugs, death and money. “These songs were made for Inglewood niggas,” Skeme says, his voice raspy from years of smoking clove cigarettes. “I speak with their tongue. I say the shit that they’re going through.”
The Internet is a peculiar thing. Especially when it comes to releasing and disseminating music. Take, for example, the brother-sister indie pop band, XYLØ. Even though they’ve never had their own show, haven’t recorded an album, and have only released four songs, their music is everywhere.
One of their songs, “Afterlife,” premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio station. Another song, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” played in the background of a KTLA newscast. Two of their songs have been listened to over one million times on both Spotify and SoundCloud, and they have fans hailing from as far away as Malaysia, Israel and Russia. And they’ve only been around for a little over a year.
“That’s what’s blowing my mind,” says Chase Duddy, the band’s producer. “With technology, you can just put your music out there and anything can happen.”
He and his 21-year-old sister Paige made their first song, “America,” in spring of 2014. “Most people think since we’re brother and sister that we’re in a family band and that we performed for our parents after dinner in front of the fireplace,” says Chase, who is 10 years older than his sister. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
They recorded one song for their parents and grandparents back when Paige, the band’s vocalist, was only 13. But that was just for fun; the idea of forming a band and taking music seriously never entered their minds. Not only was there a huge age gap that made working together difficult (while Paige was in middle school and high school, Chase was already pursuing his career), but the pair were geographically isolated from one another. Chase spent the bulk of his twenties living in Hollywood and Los Feliz, while Paige remained in Westlake Village, where they both live today. (Click here to read more)
Oh, Shea Serrano. It seems like just yesterday the beloved music writer was an 8th grade science teacher, moonlighting some of his first writing gigs for Noisey and dropping sage hip-hop knowledge and witticisms in pieces like his review of a middle school talent show and that profile on Houston rapper Maxo Kream. Well, Shea’s all grown up now, having found his way to a staff writer gig at Grantland. He’s even got a couple books to his name now. If you consider a “coloring and activity book” a real book, pssshhh. (Just kidding, we think it’s awesome.)
Serrano’s latest, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Reconstructed, hasn’t even come out yet—it drops October 13—and it’s already the number one best-selling book in three of Amazon’s categories (rap, history and criticism, and popular humor and entertainment). The publishers have even already ordered a second printing of it. We’re so proud!
And anyway, with a foreword written by Ice-T, there’s no way the fully-illustrated, 36-chapter year-by-year analysis of rap’s most important songs will suck. Of course, you might disagree with some of Serrano’s choices—was “Still Tippin’” really more important than “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004?—but that’s life, bro.
Given our excitement for what just might be one of the most important rap tomes in the history of rap tomes, we gave Serrano a call at his home in Houston to find out more about the book, blowing his deadline, and predicting Kanye’s bid for presidency. (Click here to read more)
Straight Outta DTLA
Nestled in the heart of the Arts District is the alternative music label and distributor, known as Alpha Pup. Co-founded in 2004 by renowned promoter/producer Kevin Moo (a.k.a. Daddy Kev), it is one of the most daring and innovative labels in LA, as well as one of the few labels to be based in Downtown. After a decade of producing and engineering albums, as well as throwing nightclub parties throughout LA, Moo decided to start his own label. Alpha Pup was not only a way for him to release music and promote new and up-and-coming artists, but it allowed him to pioneer trends and craft new sounds in the local music scene.
In addition to the numerous artist-run divisions that it sponsors, like Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, the independent label is also beloved for its weekly club night called Low End Theory, which has been held at The Airliner since 2006. On any given Wednesday, you’ll hear a congruence of rhythms and melodies at the event, where leading tastemakers in the underground music scene, as well as newbies and unknowns, take the stage. Though Low End Theory defies genres, “We were able to kind of maneuver around that,” said Moo, “which I think is a testament to the DJs we have and the variety of music they play.” You’ll hear a heady mix of rap, electronic, trap, dub-step, and maybe even a little jazz, as well as a whole lot of drum and bass. The music is not trendy or throwback, but rather so new that it’s a few years ahead of the curve.
“I met a whole bunch of other people who were interested in making the same kind of music as me,” said TOKiMONSTA, an electronic/hip-hop producer signed to Alpha Pup’s roster who got her start by spinning at Low End Theory. “We were just a bunch of kids who made beats and [Low End Theory] was a place where we could experiment and play the kind of music we wanted.” (Click here to read more)
The Memphis-bred Three 6 Mafia MC’s got you covered when it comes to turkey chops, butter cake, and a taste of southern living.
It’s a Friday afternoon when rapper Gangsta Boo pulls into the parking lot of a soul food restaurant in Inglewood. The Tennessee-raised MC—who was the first (and only) female member of Three 6 Mafia—is wearing jean overalls, an Eazy-E t-shirt, and a snap back hat with the words “Rap Fan” emblazoned on the front. Her boyfriend Emmett, a Playa Del Rey native, is in tow, she explains, because today’s his birthday, and she didn’t want to leave him alone. Besides, it was Emmett who introduced her to this very spot, bringing her one step closer to finding comfort thousands of miles away from Memphis.
Boo and her boyfriend walk into the restaurant and choose a booth in the corner next to a wall plastered with photographs. “I normally don’t eat soul food this early,” says Boo. But as she picks up the dense 12-page menu and starts flipping through it, she confesses that she’s actually rather hungry.
And for good reason. Soul food is, after all, the thread that ties Gangsta Boo to her time spent growing up in the South. “My mom, my friends’ moms, everybody cooks soul food in Memphis,” she explains. “You go to Grandma’s house on Sunday and she’d have soul food. It’s just a way of life over there.” (Click here to read more)