Pete Rock & Smoke DZA – “Hold The Drums”

Pete Rock innovated soul sampling three decades ago and his music is still vital. Smoke DZA reminds me of Pete Rock’s old collaborator CL Smooth – competent and artful, maybe not an upper echelon MC but still capable of great lines (“the street game designed for us to lose so you can hold them crumbs/Pete this sample so ill that you can hold them drums”). Royce 5’9″ mails in a verse although he also had a strong 2016 including the autobiographical single “Tabernacle.” But it’s all about Pete Rock’s production – he’s like DJ Premier in that his beats make good rappers sound great and even bad rappers somehow manage classic albums (cf Group Home’s Livin Proof.) Don’t Smoke Rock has all the familiar Pete Rock touches with stray loops drifting up between songs, scratched in choruses and Pete himself babbling in the background. I almost get the same vibe from “Hold The Drums” as I got from Jay Electronica’s classic “Exhibit C.” I’d love to hear a Pete Rock and Jay Electronica colab album in 2017 but that would probably break the universe.

Van Morrison – “You’re Not Supposed To Break Down”

This 1972 Van Morrison outtake is aimed right at the heart of 2017. Is the chorus (“You’re not supposed to break down/Swallow the dirt/Keep listening to the hurt/You’ll be safe and sound”) some kind of ironic comment on society’s inability to accept weakness? Not in 2017 – NO! It’s a message of simple, universal wisdom. Toughen up. You’re human but you’re part of the natural world and it ain’t easy for the birds, fish, frogs, bears and bugs. The geese I feed are either fighting through the cold winter or have flown down to Florida without complimentary water and pretzels. But they’re surviving, just living their lives, cause it’s what they’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to break down.

We’ve got a Trump administration coming in 2017. Yes that sucks. But consider – we all have platforms to share our voices, opinions, and organizations. Want to organize a political activist group in your town? Do it, promote it, work at it. Write a poem, paint a picture, sing a song. Share it. Or just unplug from the politics and be grateful for what you have. Bad times will be coming and may have nothing to do with Trump – car accident, flooded basement, kid breaks his arm, a new boss at work. Life is tough enough without building up boogeymen to make it even worse. We all get up for work, take care of our families, dodging daily dramas. It ain’t easy. We all have ways of coping, some healthy, some not as much. I still expect great music, books, and journalism from 2017. But I’m not impressed by defeatism or partisan bullshit. Enough already. Humans can survive despots and bad kings, heartbreak and personal misfortune. Listen to a wise old Irish soul Van Morrison – you’re not supposed to break down.

Westside Gunn & Conway – “Pat La Fontaine”

I’ve already written about how Westside Gunn’s FLYGOD was the album of the year. Griselda Records drops tracks and EPs all the time and Westside’s brother Conway is next up for a solo album. Conway has a more rugged, traditional NYC flow that reminds me of Kool G Rap with a bit of Prodigy’s conversational style. But the better comparison is Ghost and Raekwon the way these guys compliment each other on tracks. They like to reference 80s and 90s wrestlers and sports stars as much as drugs and crime so “Pat La Fontaine” fits right in with “Bob Backlund” and the Hall & Nash EP. (“Gun long as a hockey stick/Pat LaFontaine.”)

But forget all that – listen to the flows on this track, one of the best of their many collabs floating around. Beat is grimey post-Illmatic greatness that sounds like it may have been unearthed from a forgotten Bob James LP. These guys are grinding to just make great music, organically building a fanbase themselves. Again – there are avenues and outlets to get your voices out there, more than ever in 2017. Work hard, put your heart in it, give the world something unique.

Grateful Dead – “High Time” 9/10/91 MSG

9/10/91 is one of the greatest Dead shows of all time. Some nights everything clicks, the band leaves, and the skeleton angels take over. This is one of those nights and Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby are among the angels. This is a supremely classy, artistic sort of night. Post 70s Dead can be spotty, without the improvisational energy of the peak era. Part of this is dual drummer syndrome with both guys bashing away at “party tempo,” part of it probably due to playing for football stadiums of stoned fans year after year. But mostly I’d say it’s due to Jerry himself disengaging somewhat from the Dead, putting instead his musical soul into the Jerry Garcia Band performances.

Regardless – let’s talk about “High Time.” This song started life in 1970 on Workingman’s Dead as a defiant little hippie anthem/come on – “I can show you a high time.” But like so many Dead songs, “High Time” changed over the years. (Like “He’s Gone” went from a country kiss-off of a shady manager to a hymnal elegy for fallen friends.) The 1991 version is a weary beast – high times have been had, the price has been paid. The good times are mostly gone, the highs not so high anymore. But here’s Jerry, sounding like the old priest of the universe he always was and always will be, his voice creaking, his spirit withered. So perfectly fitting the sadness of those first few lines which barely registered in the original take of the song – “You told me goodbye/How was I to know you didn’t mean goodbye/But please don’t let me go?”

“Tomorrow come trouble/tomorrow come pain/now don’t think too hard/cause you know what I’m saying.” We’re left with essentially the same message as Van’s song. Forget about a hippie anthem – the stakes are higher now.

Shem The Pen – “What Got Left Behind”

A little self promotion – check out the tune from my mixtape Just Because You Think You’re Right available to stream or download on audiomack. Up next I’ve got an album of cover songs, plus finishing up a film script. More articles on the blog etc. Just trying to do good work, with good habits, fighting the fight in my own way. You’re not supposed to break down.