The 90’s was one of the most creative decades for Black American cultural expression
for TV and film, but especially music. While hip hop came to the public eye in the 80’s, the
1990’s is arguably when hip hop exploded into mainstream popularity. This is why this decade is
often referred to as the golden era of hip hop. 1994 in particular was one of the best years for the
genre. The music industry saw debut albums from Nas, OutKast, and the Notorious B.I.G, plus a
sophomore project from UGK. But one group from the 90’s that often gets overlooked is the hip
hop super duo, Gang Starr. Gang Starr consists of the hip hop producer DJ Premier, and the
rapper MC Guru. One song in particular that I’ve always loved by Gang Starr is “Mass Appeal,”
one of the singles from their ‘94 classic Hard to Earn.
“Mass Appeal” is a prophetic warning for rappers, but truthfully it can be extended
beyond that. It is a message that is not only transferable to musicians and writers (rappers are
writers), but artists in general. Reflective of his time, Guru was a rapper who used the art of
storytelling to provide a narrative around the concept of “selling out.” As I grow as a person and
a writer, this song becomes more important to me. But what exactly does it mean to “sell out”?
What did Guru mean when he said, “and you’d be happy to get a record deal, maybe you’d sell
your soul to have mass appeal”?
Since the beginning of time, art, writing in particular has been driven by authenticity.
People who become a fan of a writer typically do so because of the author's ability to connect
with the reader. When I read someone’s writing, I want to hear their voice, I want to read them,
hopefully to relate to the story in some way. That is what the reader is saying when engaging
with a piece, whether they are conscious of it or not. They are electing to hear that artist’s
creative voice, a glimpse of their soul on that topic. As writers, when you receive an acceptance
for publication, that is validation from the magazine that your authenticity is a good fit for that
issue. That is the editor reinforcing to the writer that they have mass appeal, at least for this
particular piece, in that particular moment. In other words, don’t sell out, because there is a
literary magazine that your rejected works are a good fit for. Many times I doubted my craft,
when truthfully my piece just wasn’t a good fit for that magazine at that time. You don’t need to
change your style or who you are to fit a literary magazine, a publisher, a record label, an art
school, etc. Being your true self will get you much further in the end.
“Mass Appeal,” is not a song I listened to when it first came out. In fact, I was five years
old when it was released. But it is a song I discovered a few years later when I was a bit older. At
the time, I mostly enjoyed the song for the beat, and I’ll be honest I didn’t pay much attention to
the lyrics. It takes me back to middle school, when I would spend hours on crappy internet that
screeched before it loaded anything, much less streamed music. But as I matured, this song
became more important for me not only for nostalgia’s sake, but also contemporarily. For me, it
has become timeless. Quite frankly if you ask a hip hop fan aged 40+ it already was.
Gang Starr’s song is a declaration for artists to “keep it real,” to stay the course,
ultimately not “selling out.” MC Guru tells of how despite all of the hurdles, challenges, and
setbacks, staying true to who you are as a creative is most important. Being an artist is a journey,
and Guru conveys this for all 3 minutes, and 42 seconds. He notes that while some have instant
success, at what cost? Others may gain success at a slower pace, but in the end most likely
haven’t lost who they are or why they began to create in the first place. We live in a world where
people put on a show to be someone else every day. Now that the world will never be the same
again, the least we can do as writers is be authentic. Genuine artistry is all we have left after all.
As long as you are not harming others with your voice, there is a space for you to tell your story.
After all, Guru concludes with that on this masterpiece when he says, “I be kickin the real, while
they be losin’ the race tryna chase mass appeal.”
Author’s Note: R.I.P Keith Edward Elam, AKA MC Guru, 1961-2010
Chris L. Butler is an African American and Dutch poet, essayist, and historian from Philadelphia, PA. His work has been featured in Lucky Jefferson Literary Journal, The Lumiere Review, The Daily Drunk Mag, Versification Magazine, Trampset Magazine, Medium, The Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, and others.
Kurt Cobain died in April of 1994 twenty-one days before I was born. We look for patterns
everywhere. When he died it sparked a conversation about his age, twenty-seven, because fans
noticed it was the same age that Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were
when they all died within two years of each other over two decades earlier.
My favorite picture of Kurt Cobain is one of him wearing a crown of pink roses. For some this
might signal some spiritual connection to that earlier age in rock history when hippies adorned in
flower crowns could be found at festivals like Woodstock. For me though it’s a reminder of how
Cobain was vocal through his whole career in his support of the queer community—going so far
as to tell any potential homophobes who bought his album that he hated them if even they liked
him in the liner notes. And a reminder of how Cobain spoke openly about questioning his own
sexuality in adolescence and used to go around Aberdeen, Washington spray painting God is
When Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 it brought back public interest in the
supposed twenty-seven club. Since then the club has been expanded to include not just
musicians but actors and other celebrities who also died at that age. This expansion really serves
to undermine the idea that there’s some tragic cosmic force at play here. What started as an
observation about a coincidence among the age of musicians whose lives were cut short then
expanded to include other famous figures in order to create more data points to point to and say
see, there’s really something to this. It’s motivated by a desire to make meaning out of events
that we can’t understand or accept. But I’m not really interested in patterns or how are brains are
trained to look for them. I’m interested in the same thing as everyone else I guess, death.
I used to sit in my room as a teenager and scream along with Kurt as he’d yelp out You Know
you’re right over and over. For sure there was some over dramatic teen angst in this picture of
me in my room, feeling overwhelmed by things I’d be able to see in a few years as trivial. But
there was more that made me feel connected to Cobain then other angry singers I’d scream along
with. I didn’t know I was queer yet, and didn’t know about Cobain’s defense of the queer
community, but I could sense in his voice and his lyrics a kind of softness made jagged by a
harsh and hateful world. There was something else I felt in him too.
The reason twenty-seven seems so significant isn’t just because of the coincidence of multiple
public figures dying at that age—if someone noticed a bunch of musicians all died when they
were eighty-one nobody would talk about an eighty-one club—twenty-seven is young, to many
people it’s incredibly, tragically young. But when I would sit and listen to Cobain’s pained voice
as a teenager, knowing he died in his twenties, I would wonder if he too spent his whole life with
this sense that he wasn’t gonna be around for long. I wonder now about all the members of the
twenty-seven club—whether they took their own lives like Cobain, or died from overdose, or
even sudden accidents—if they struggled to imagine themselves as old or even middle-aged. I
wonder if twenty-seven ever sounded very young to them at all.
In a bit of serendipity, as I approach my twenty sixth birthday in two months, I’ve just recently
discovered a song that was written over three years ago. Anymore by THICK. Lately I’ve been
singing along to it every day I’m twenty-six / so sick of this / I’m not a kid / anymore.
DT McCrea is a trans anarchist poet living in Akron Ohio. Their work can be found at Honey and Lime and Taco Bell Quarterly. In their free time DT enjoys contemplating the nature of the universe and plotting the downfall of capitalism.
"Likewise" by Francis Quinlan
2020--Saddle Creek Records
For anyone who was eagerly awaiting more work from the Philadelphia-based indie rock band Hop Along, it was a pleasant surprise to learn of the release, last October, of the single “Rare Thing” by frontperson and songwriter Frances Quinlan, and the recent release, late in January, of her debut album Likewise. Throughout the album, fans will find a familiar lyrical elegance and the same incredible vocal gymnastics characteristic of Quinlan’s previous work, but it’s almost as if the constraint of being (essentially) briefly bandless has brought Quinlan to new heights of writing. She’s doubled-down on techniques we’ve seen before and broken through to bold new material.
Already a masterful storyteller used to combining the allegorical with references and anecdotes (Hop Along’s song “No Good Al Joad” comes to mind), Quinlan’s new stories “struggle for air”—words she sings herself in “Lean”—fighting as they do for a privacy of their own yet also yearning for intimacy. This conflict is at the heart of songs such as “Piltdown Man,” which opens with a contemplation of the likely fraud Charles Dawson, who may have falsely presented bone fragments as paleoanthropological evidence in 1953. “Why would he do such a thing?” Quinlan asks, singing. Then, immediately, as if a private revelation occurred, “Of course. What a stupid question.” That’s such a hilarious offhanded remark that we quickly forgive that she doesn’t bother to share her thought with us. What happens next is mysterious and beautiful: as if in explanation, or perhaps getting lost in her own private train of thought, she moves to describe a memory with the refrain, “Outside our little tent your dog must have caught something. I followed you both and then I screamed to be let in.” What prompts this anecdote is hidden from us throughout the song, yet we share these details with her and are, in fact, a crucial aspect to the story, considering she addresses the listener as “you.”
There’s an unknown intimacy between narrator and listener. Though we’re kept at arm’s length, both the listener and narrator share the details presented in the song: “Six AM so loud your mom had to kick us out. We ran the wheelbarrow around and around.” With interspersed sounds of children playing in the distance alternating with her singing, she continues, finally singing, “In the afternoon you both fell asleep still knowing more than me.” In a compelling reversal, the narrator believes the “you” listening knew more than her. This subtly poignant and nostalgic song exemplifies the refusal of Quinlan to allow her characters to be fully known or understood. Perhaps Quinlan is driven by a sense that such complete knowledge of another is impossible, but, of course, I would only have my best guess. After all, we can never fully “know” a person, or their motives (e.g., Charles Dawson), despite sharing life details (or details of a song) with them, can we?
Likewise proves a fitting name for this album. Like the Dawson reference and the anecdote that follows it, disparate images, anecdotes, and references relate to, describe, and expand upon one another in oblique and shifting ways. With Quinlan, all you get are bits and pieces. There’s a playful absurdity in her transitions from “documentarians throwing lemmings…over the edge” to “wartime juveniles shot and martyred for the crime of stealing eggs” to finally letting the listener know, “dinner, by the way, was divine,” in the song “Your Reply”. I encourage you to experience the joys of such writing yourself by listening through the whole album, out now with the record label Saddle Creek.
"Juliet" by Juliet
2019 Cellar Records--10 Tracks
Someday we’ll wake up and collectively want to be here. Someday sadness won’t be so temperamental or pervasive. I guess you can call it luck—making it through the day. Or maybe grace. Or the parachute’s deployment. Or the assumption our sun’s gonna come up tomorrow—whatever it is, we’ve got a gimmick to stick between our sock and the sole of our left shoe. Believe this, that when Otis Redding sang try a little tenderness he probably meant something about the failure of a hard heart to do anything but rot. We’ve all been missing someone for years; drunk in a bar never sounds the same as the music saved me ten thousand nights in a row.
I get it, I really do—the propellers stuck to your moon-boots, the way it feels to take your collar off at night. Freedom smells like the first time your mother made apple pie. I wouldn’t mind getting lost with you sings Juliet, in her self-titled debut album, we’ve already missed the exit you and me, we got lost in the song we were singing (“Lost”). Freedom asks of us sacrifice, and perhaps, we’ve been hacking away at parts of ourselves for a future all along. Check the lifeboats, there’s music playing from every boom-box and we’re all singing there’s an endless moment of silence…what will you do if your performance brings you no fame, we have different darknesses but they all haunt us the same (“Silence”). So let’s invite the monsters under our beds onto it and make friends with them, it’s been so long since anyone has loved them—yes, as much as Juliet’s debut album is about growing up and finding your place in the world post-adolescence, it is equally so considering the implications of loving yourself.
Let’s pretend we made Lucy Dacus drink sunshine for a year, this is how we’d go about manufacturing Juliet McCowin, the artist behind the Juliet moniker. A twenty year old from Youngstown, she fronted the Basement Society, a folk group from the same area, before going solo and signing to The Cellar Records, a small production studio and record label based in the region. Vocally reminiscent of the sonic overlap and controlled tremble of a young Taylor Swift, her range and technique closely resemble that of Maggie Rogers, all the while reaching for moments in the lyrics that sound like if Julien Baker wrote happy songs. While a little green and inconsistent on certain tracks, Juliet has moments of closeted intensity aching to edge their way into the music—her timbre and vocal register shine in both “Silence” and “Lost.” She possesses an endearing and genuine vocal quality urging you towards laying back with your feet up or taking a lengthy drive on a backroad at night. When she sings, it feels as if you’ve made a new friend.
While an overall sound project, at times the writing will border on cliché, I’m an open book but you’re illiterate (“Me and You“), I cut off all my hair and you never even noticed (“Me and You”), you unexpectedly came in my life, a different kind of different (“Different”). But these moments are overwhelmed by pointed lyrics overly familiar with grief, like we both know self-pity isn’t a party for long (“Elephants”) or I came in with presuppositions, the scars that you didn’t cause (“Different”), your entire life doesn’t have to be proving a point (“Anymore”).
The album serves as a treatise on growing up and love, but doesn’t shy away from heftier moments—“Elephants,” the best written song on the album, negotiates the relationship with a family member who has just attempted suicide, while other tracks address the singer’s struggles with a brain tumor. Juliet’s songs have solid narrative structure and a meandering eye that finds its way back to the point. Her voice shines on “Silence” and left me wanting more moments like that peppered throughout the project, where her voice rollercoasters between notes with accuracy and tackles more difficult maneuvers. I think Juliet would do well to go for broke and generate larger vocal presentations that elevate before sliding down into a comfortable vocal pocket, these would serve her content well. Yes, there are a few skippable songs, but in its entirety the album is cohesive and impressive for such a young musician’s debut, something to be proud of. I have “Anymore,” “Silence,” and “Elephants” added to my library for perpetuity. What these tracks share is that they stumble upon the fact that what we do on accident hurts. At this age, we’re all learning as young adults to carry conditionality while discovering that the self is a moment-to-moment negotiation we’re unable to run from. Juliet gives us the choice—face the reckoning of self, heart-breaks and all; or start trying to escape.
malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.