The Urgency of NINNO’s ‘Simmer’

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-8-54-03-pm-01

“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” – George Orwell, Why I Write

When Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich first used the term “post-truth” in an essay for the progressive newspaper The Nation in 1992, the internet was in its developmental stage. The new age of information has since reached a terrifyingly massive scale, but as we go through the times, the farther we tread an ironic path to quote Tesich, of us as a free people who “freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” Two decades later, 2016 has uniquely and tragically embodied this concept to people’s utter dismay or determined denial.

It is of utmost relevance to understand why art plays an important role in shaping our perspective of life’s intricacies and trivialities, a reason why “stay woke” is not merely a millennial catchphrase to invoke on social media, but a valid rallying cry to a world asleep. NINNO spoke or rapped about socially relevant issues on several occasions, one of the underlying themes that Third Culture Kid brought back to discussions in hip-hop. Sure, ‘conscious rap’ has been around since the ’80s in America’s Reaganomics and local emcees have previously made politics and social issues a focal point in their songs, fracturing the genre’s novelty appeal to the Filipino audience and the notion that it’s sole function is to entertain, and substance is optional, if not entirely not in the agenda. But for most part, the topic remains in periphery in local music.

It is one reason why it isn’t surprising to hear a work such as NINNO’s described as ‘brazen’, or even tagged as political. It is also not surprising for his songs to be misconstrued as a proponent of partisan politics that can feed false dichotomies between both ‘sides’. In fact, on ‘Simmer’, NINNO is brazen on laying down a dichotomy, one often seen as ultimately rigid: of justice and crime.

Director Michael Manalastas capably fleshed out the visuals for ‘Simmer’ in piercing and haunting candor. NINNO chose to play three characters whose lives are almost congruent with impersonality and violence: a soldier, a writer, and a ‘suspect’ – whose tales, more often that not, end up as a casualty, a liability, and/or a statistic. NINNO’s fictional take on Juan Dela Cruz, instead of using his own name in said characters, imparts that none of us are spared from meeting the same fate if crimes against the governing power are penalized with death under the cloak of ‘justice’. It is a commentary far less about political leanings but more about a political attitude: that justice is an entitlement, that for the sake of peace we must war against those who want to disturb it, and that sentiments opposed to the ruling power can be deadly.

‘Simmer’ galvanizes with its searing visual commentary the realities of our time – not just history – the actions and inactions we are all culpable of. As long as systematic oppression remains entrenched in our society, our freedom remains to be in vain.

Advertisements

The Year Chance Said “Don’t You Color Out” Just When I Was About To

untitled

This year, my “Best Of” playlist was shaped by an inward sense of strengths and defeats. There’s no contention that 2016 was an extraordinary mess, but it has undoubtedly produced an interesting, insightful soundtrack of sorts (depends on who you ask). It’s easy to pluck the best out of them, songs that mattered deeply to me. And a year that yielded full-length releases from my heroes is perhaps the only thing that made sense in 2016. That, and at one point, standing within spitting distance of Kanye West (those lights were hot).

Some specifics: 3/4 of this playlist is comprised of hip hop cuts, many of which plumbed the depths of self-examination and unraveling, which literally kept me from mental breakdowns. For better days, there’s Anderson .Paak, whose stage presence alone is intoxicating, and threw in a Donna Summer classic, which was a part of Netflix’s The Get Down playlist, and a song I danced to countless of times this year.

But if I must really grunt, the unavailability of Musical O’s ‘House Tea’ (and a follow-up record) on Spotify – one of this year’s finest in local music, as far as everyone’s concerned – is just another reason why this year sucked.

NOT My Top Songs 2016

untitled

I don’t think my listening habits were significantly different from that of last year’s, but somehow, this playlist doesn’t reflect that. Out of 101 songs, I would have thought that Spotify, with its mostly decent ‘Discover Weekly’ playlists (where most of these songs are from), will capture my relationship with music this year quite accurately. Compared to 2015’s year-end compilations (Year In Genres, etc. – which I thought were very interesting) I think my six-year-old iPod Classic’s ‘Recently Played’ playlist outdoes Spotify any day. It’s largely comprised of SoundCloud producer cuts, with some songs I streamed frequently at work to tune out background chatter, around 10 I genuinely loved, and some I really enjoyed looping for days (i.e. Anderson .Paak’s songs).

I do not understand how a song like Sud’s ‘How We Play’ got in this as I didn’t even listen to the whole song. And that was one time. When it popped in my notifications. So egregiously inaccurate, because I am very particular in curating playlists.

To rub salt into the wound, James Reid’s ‘Randomantic’ was nowhere near on top of the list. Spotify ‘My Top Songs 2016’, like many things about 2016, you suck.

(Don’t) Stream the offending material:

TRACK: ‘4r Da Squaw’ – Isaiah Rashad

d0e77608

The strength of The Sun’s Tirade, Isaiah Rashad’s new record is his flow. It feels like, nowadays, only Run The Jewels make explosively angry rap, for lack of better term. Everyone else sounds nonchalant, introspective, defeated, exhausted, frustrated, and in very rare cases such as D.R.A.M’s, Chance’s and Kanye’s gospels (well, Ultralight Beam and Highlights, at least), uplifting, joyous. This album opener (I listened to it at least five times before I finally moved on to the next track in the record) is the best way to set the tone for TST, with Zay completely mellowed out.

TRACK: ‘Ocean Drive’ – 21 Savage (Prod. Metro Boomin)

21savagee

Massive props to this cut from 21 Savage’s Metro Boomin-produced album. This is, in my opinion, one of Young Metro’s best work to date, which, suprisingly, I liked better than his work in Future’s Evol. This just took me aback even though 21 Savage has never struck me as a fancy rapper head-on, his violence-riddled life rendering his lyrics autobiographical. An affecting work of potent lyricism swathed in hazy, eerie production, Ocean Drive is a soothing display of 21 Savage’s otherwise hardened and impassive persona.

The Rise of Nerdcore Rap: Shadow Moses, the First of Its Name and Breaker of The Reign

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 3.52.55 PM

The eruption of the Old Moses volcano formed Shadow Moses, an island that doubles both as a nuclear weapons disposal facility and massive weapons development complex. This is a significant location in the world of Metal Gear Solid, where the armed revolt of two elite black ops unit against the United States took place.

In hindsight, knowing the origins of the popular stealth video game’s incident might have inspired its namesake, the newest rap group in the block, in a local music scene where novelty and battle rap remain to hold the reins, and a filk subgenre such as nerdcore is unheard of. If you look at it, three-piece Shadow Moses is a minority within a minority, within a minority.

Although the nerdcore movement has been around circa 2000, when Damian Hess started releasing some of the earliest known material under the stage name MC Frontalot, there was a Grammy Award-winning single that fit in the nerdcore canon two years prior. Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” was released off their fifth studio album Hello Nasty (a sci-fi album in its entirety), with sonic themes and a Japanese Kaiju parody music video that served as a recipe of a nerd and hiphop enthusiast’s wet dream.

It would be interesting to note that rappers and nerds are almost mutually exclusive to each other. However, not all hiphop artists that gravitate towards nerd-centric themes fall under the nerdcore, or even geeksta rap genre; most are categorically billed under experimental and underground hiphop, such as Captain Murphy (Flying Lotus’s animated alter ego) and Daniel Dumille’s MF Doom and Viktor Vaughn. Other examples are the blatantly named Optimus Rhyme, the E.T.-slash-time-traveler Dr. Octagon from Ultramagnetic MCs’ Kool Keith’s eponymous Dr. Octagonecologyst album, and more recently and more prominently, the computer code ambassador, Childish Gambino.

It was only a matter of time we finally got our own.

Formed in late 2015 in Cubao Expo, the trio formally became a hiphop unit as a result of their shared interest in comics, video games, film, science fiction, professional wrestling, and of course, hiphop. Comprised of Chyrho and Ninno on rapping duties and Six The Northstar on beat production, each of them have been heavily involved in the genre before they joined together for Shadow Moses. Chyrho spearheaded the hiphop collective, AMPON (Amplified Messages Personified Over Noise), with B-Roc, with formidable members that include Caliph8, Nimbus9, and MIC. He also owns and operates The Appraisery, a boardgame café, where the trio frequently convenes. Ninno, a wordsmith affiliate of the Logiclub artist collective, is one of the fast-rising rookies in the rap game, whose debut LP Third Culture Kid is a personal vie for the best record of the year so far. Six The Northstar dabbles in funk, soul, jazz, old-school hiphop for most part, as showcased in his most recent beat collection, the cleverly titled, SixTrueMentals Vol. 1, and whose work appeared in several musical projects, including A Problem Like Maria, Archon Akeez, MDK, and Secret Invasion.

On their first outing, Expansion Pack, Shadow Moses debuts with fiery intensity and dynamics, delivered by its two MCs and ingeniously anchored by Six The Northstar’s crafty stitching of dusted samples, ‘90s NYC-inspired beats, unorthodox rock injections, and a hybrid of Matrix- and Terminator-esque blips and bloops.

Expansion Pack’s a six-song collection that explores the realms of millennial culture (there’s a song that put your #throwbacks to shame), a feat that a few have successfully accomplished, musically speaking. Its dark humor and witticisms fare well to the likes of Key & Peele and the Andy Samberg batch of Saturday Night Live, compared to, say, your typical Pinoy’s (lack of) sense of satire and parody. A thin-skinned gopper will take offense at Ninno and Chyrho’s playful jab at Larry Bird (“only Larry I know is the name of my bird”), Eddie Murphy (“what career?”), and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia (“fuck a faun”), and Wu Tang Clan (“Wu Tang won’t be forever without Viagra, no cream” – *insert thundering applause*) – and that’s just in fourth track, “Scott Hall,” alone. “Remember The Titans,” the first single and EP opener, lists down fictional gods, Jesus not included – depends on who you ask – of the upper echelon and briefly mentions the sycamore tree, possibly of biblical or Twin Peaks origin. Fans with great appreciation of b-movies will find track two, “Not Horrorcore,” which contains the EP’s sole feature, with A Problem Like Maria on the hook, a gem that namechecks pop culture deviants and familiar plotlines of slasher films and gore.

Deconstructing the pair’s verses is an extensive, but fascinating, work; their chemistry palpable and their wordplay relatable yet assertively the best (“Helter Skeletron Viktor Vaughn the Console Cowboy” and “Gun them like Bandai, gun them ‘til they all die” – *good god*), bar none. It is bursting with sweeping references not only self-professed geeks will chew on, but film and TV buffs, hiphop heads, gamers, and music fans as well. Shadow Moses did not waste any bar to cover all grounds, which seems overwhelmingly ironic for a niche subgenre.

Shadow Moses, far from the past and current wave rappers in the local music scene, ushers a new reign that widens the berth of the genre. It is a revolt against those holding the reins to rap, underground or otherwise – against the cats whose styles have become lyrical and thematic tropes in hiphop. They’re not playing other people’s game but instead created their own, and like in movies, video games, and comics, it’s an alternate universe wherein they are the conquerors, starfighter pilots, the final boys in horror movies, or even better, the realization of Metal Gear Solid’s Snake’s dream.

expac cover final

Shadow Moses is set to launch Expansion Packtheir debut EP, on June 17 at SaGuijo. Their first line of T-shirts will also be sold at the show. Supporting acts include Ryoku, Ilustrado, A Problem Like Maria, Duende, and She’s Only Sixteen.

ALBUM: ‘Failing Forward’ – Curtismith

curtismith1

At the beginning of Kendrick Lamar’s self-anthem ‘i’ was a proclamation: “He’s not a rapper, he’s a writer!” which, taken at face value, can be misleading: a denigration of the former. What this line alludes to is Kendrick’s disassociation from the venomous culture of rap, by propagating this very medium to fully express himself. In many ways, this applies to the direction and work of Logiclub hiphop artist Mito Fabie, also known as Curtismith. While it’s easy to regard his moniker only as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Anne Curtis, it is also a jab, a rally against an industry that puts a premium on celebrities-turned-recording-artists, often on the sole account of celebrity. And by adopting this name, he’s engaging himself to the counterculture of those on the other side of the field.

Curtismith’s rap persona is a fairly reserved one, easily shrugged off as the corny and divisive – but convenient – term, “conyo rap,” presumably on the basis of rapping in English and lack of being “street.” Even at his most brash moments (“Let me spit my game / And let these rappers borrow” from ‘No Sleep’), his style and candor is tamer compared to battle rap artists. His presence is reminiscent of Kid Cudi’s, specifically during the making of Kanye West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. During their time in Hawaii, Kid Cudi opted to sleep in while everyone’s out playing basketball. Cudi recounted, “I always had jet lag out there while other people were in the Hawaii groove already, but it worked out, because by the time they were done hooping, I was refreshed and ready to go.” Both are perceived as odd players simply for not fitting the norm, the pattern.

In a span of six months since his first mixtape, IDEAL, was released, Curtismith dropped his follow-up eight-track Failing Forward EP, which is hardly a concept album. His song structures are characteristically liberal non-sequiturs, and there’s a different cadence in his voice – his flow – that doesn’t quite blend with the beat, but has a tone of its own. It’s not melodic, is monotonous even, but almost always conversational, colloquial. He rarely raises his voice, isn’t calculating with his tempos, and yet manages to execute a style that not only makes him easy to listen to, but even to sing along with, with the EP’s strength lying mostly on its hooks. In hindsight, the EP doesn’t try too hard to suggest its need to be disarmingly brilliant and groundbreaking, but to challenge perception, narrate stories eloquently via the orthodox ways of rap – which is still fairly a minority in local music.

There’s no significant stretch between IDEAL and Failing Forward in terms of production. The bulk of the beats used in both mixtapes are familiar, bordering nostalgic. Curtismith has a flair for utilizing beat structures with softer and simpler textures that more of create, enhance, or sustain a mood rather than provoke. Only ‘No Sleep’ (credited as a Stimp C production, but more recognizable as a sample from Alina Baraz and Galimatias’s ‘Fantasy’) echoed a hint of aggression – both lyrically and sonically. Curtismith’s team-up with local producer Frank Savage on ‘Saucin’ incorporated Post Malone’s breakout hit, ‘White Iverson’, with a less dragging execution compared to its original. Failing Forward’s best production moment is arguably from his collaboration with CRWN, whose Midas touch in ‘LDR’ maximized the most out of the song without resorting to predictable gimmicks. It smoothly anchors Curtismith’s odd-timed verses in between strong hooks, easier to remember not just the lyrics but also details, breaks, and pauses.

In a TEDxTalk session, Curtismith stripped his rapper persona and told the story of Mito Fabie in a setting not too different from a studio or stage where he normally performs. His talk, “The Merits of Failure,” narrated a protracted path to achieve and cultivate success through music. Failing Forward – and in extension, IDEAL as well – is his artistic and introspective journal that recounted his mistakes, among many things. It is not meant to be regarded as an outline to anyone else’s story but his, but somehow, it bore similarities on how we approach (and as he rapped oftentimes, his fear that results to running away) our dreams and struggles: his was rebellion. It manifested strongly on ‘Ignant’ (“Teaching you to love all of the chains, but I was different”), where as strong as his defiance is, so is his desire to prevail. This theme recurs in the EP, presenting in different situations: about growing up, in ‘Afterhours’ (“Sharks in the dark trying to spark with the kids in their heart / Do my things from a broken home / But never lose your soul”); on coming to terms with the life choices we’re forced out of the guarantee of security versus pursuing passion in ‘No Sleep’, featuring a guest spot from rapper Simian; and in his title track, ‘Failing Forward’, where he fosters his faith with fight (I’m putting my faith in God / This spirit is all I got / But let me show what I do / You know He’s doing magic when He working through you”). While ‘Lookin Up’ is Curtismith thinking out loud and spitting rapid thoughts as they came, the track that best captured his headspace is ‘Note II Self’, which includes a sound bite from a 1996 Tupac interview. This is a song to and from each of his personas, as Mito and Curtismith, of self-love and preservation, of finding and living his purpose.

In the John C. Maxwell book, Failing Forward: How To Make the Most of Your Mistakes, there is a palpable message that cuts through its namesake EP, one that separates achievers from average people: their perception of and response to failure. Indicative of potential, Failing Forward EP had Curtismith carve out his own place through his music, using his own missteps to advance further and forward.

Download the full EP