Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Brilliance of Paul Smith's Run on Uncanny X-Men

(Click on any of the images to see larger versions. These are scans from hard copies of the comics.)

I've been rereading old X-Men comics of late and a couple of different posts have been percolating in my head, but the first one isn't my usual style of analysis, this one is more about the art. To say that I'm an X-Men fanboy or that the comics had a massive impact on my life would be an understatement. As I'm rereading these comics, I'm learning that these really were some of the key texts in my life. With family largely abdicating moral education of me and my brother, and pop culture being a mixed bag, at best, especially during the 1970s and 80s, the progressivism that filled the pages of the Chris Claremont run on Uncanny X-Men was a massive influence on who I am. There will be a lot more about that later, this post is about someone else who played a role in those comics--Paul Smith.

It's very easy to forget Smith. His name is too common to remember. He only worked on the comic for about a year. And when you're proceeded by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne and followed by John Romita Jr., three of Marvel's greatest artists of the period, it's easy to get lost. Smith only drew 12 issues at the time, but there is so much great art in them that I couldn't even begin to include it all here. And this is not to say that Smith was perfect, many issues have bad panels, especially in the first few issues, but there are so many iconic images in these few issues that it's breathtaking.

Smith had a tough job jumping right into the middle of the Brood Saga, an X-Men classic, after Cockrum left. His first issue beings with this cover:

Uncanny X-Men 165, from 1983, is a superb example of something that Smith was brilliant at, saying a lot with very little. If you hadn't been reading the issues and don't know about the Brood Saga (shame on you), it's hard to fathom everything in this image. But here is Storm, probably the most important black woman in comics history going through the agonizing transformation into one of the most evil species in the universe, the Brood, which means not only the end of her life as she knows it, but probably the death of many of her family and friends, possibly the entire earth, where she plays a significant role. Her agony is just as obvious from this picture as the Brood's evil was. As a writer, Claremont was superbly good at picking up on other pop culture trends and seamlessly incorporating them into his writing in ways that never felt stolen or stale--in this case, the Brood are clearly in the spirit of James Cameron's Aliens, but they stand alone because only the surface details are similar. Artists of lesser quality than Smith and Dave Cockrum (who started the storyline) could have messed that up and not made them distinct. The continuity of inker Bob Wiacek certainly helped.

In that issue, there is a ton of great art about the world and the combined organic/technology approach the Brood take to their conquests, most notably their enslaved living starships, the Acanti, which Smith draws this way:

I haven't read enough of the backstory on this saga to know whose idea the Acanti were (probably Claremont/Cockrum), but this is a wonderous creature and a great take on what flying through a nebular might be like. The next issue looks like this:

The number of massive action sequences both on covers and internally that Smith had to put massive amount of time into in order to reach the level of detail you see here had to be intense. A key thing to note here, is that all of these characters have ridiculously distinct appearances, something that many X-Men artists later on couldn't say.

From the interior of the issue, we get this classic image that encapsulates so much of the modern history of the X-Men--the divide between Cyclops and Wolverine, with the other X-Men and their allies caught in the middle. This is seriously maybe the second biggest on-going X-Men storyline after the Xavier/Magneto civil rights conflict.

Issue 167 provides another classic cover, with one of the first "deaths" of Professor Xavier and the emotions of the X-Men in response. Note how Wolverine's shoulders are slumped and he looks defeated. Subtle but powerful. Also, note the ridiculousness of Kitty Pryde's costume. There is a running gag with the character in the early years that she's a young teenager who keeps experimenting with costumes and names until she figures out what fits. These were often comic relief, but Smith works it into this scene flawlessly, I think, helping keep the characters unique and consistent.

The cover of the next issue is even better to me. Here is Kitty Pryde, then 13, who is not sexualized and while she's clearly in danger, she's no damsel in distress, she's smart, tough, and determined to win. The story inside matches that, as, once again, the youngest X-Man takes on killer monsters well beyond her power set and proves herself a valuable member of the team after Xavier tried to shift her to the junior team, the New Mutants.

And you turn the page and get one of the most classic splash pages in Marvel history, directly part the storyline I mentioned above:

The next story arc is one of my all-time favorites, both writing- and art-wise. The Morlocks, a group of ugly, outcast mutants who have taken up residence in the tunnels underneath Manhattan under the leadership of Callisto. But she wants someone pretty to be her husband, so she kidnaps Angel in an attempt to force a marriage. It isn't going to be a happy one, as Angel is crucified, Christ-like. the reactions of the other X-Men are pretty well-drawn, too, I think.

This next sequence is where Storm went from being a character that I sort of liked, to being one of my all-time favorites. Before this, Storm (in a very uncommon pop culture leadership role for a black woman in the early 80s) replaces Cyclops as leader of the X-Men. Historically she has a very strong compunction against killing, but as she struggles with self-doubt in replacing the lifelong leader of the X-Men, of being forced to kill to survive, and the struggles her powers have encountered since she went into space (she'll soon lose them temporarily), she is crippled at times with inability to make the right decisions and is in constant conflict with Cyclops and Professor X. Then this happens:

There are so many amazing things that Smith has done in this sequence: The look of determination on Storm's face (she's no longer playing ANY games), the depiction of the action of her catching the knife is beautiful, the look on Callisto's face when she realizes that Storm is tougher than she tought, the look on Callisto's face when Storm stabs her in the heart in order to save her friends and take control of the Morlocks. Just insane quality here. And the look on Storm's face in this next panel is just plain unforgettable:

But Smith was just getting started. Here's the next issue:

Wolverine, in the height of his (the character's not the writer's) cultural appropriation phase, is getting married to a powerful Japanese woman who inherited her father's criminal empire. This image conveys so much: that Wolverine is finally going to have a love interest that isn't someone else's girlfriend or wife, that Wolverine has an obsession with Japanese culture, that Lady Mariko is powerful enough to warrant an invitation sent out by the emperor, that Wolverine loves his alcohol and his friendship with Nightcrawler, and that somebody, somebody dangerous, wants Wolverine dead.

From the interior, you get this amazing shot of Rogue:

The backstory here is that Rogue has just joined the X-Men (in the previous issue, not drawn by Smith), but she comes to them from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants where she not only previously tried to kill the X-Men, her powers ruined the life (by stealing the powers, memories, and personality of Ms. Marvel permanently) of one of the X-Men's closest friends. They hate her. And yet she travels with the team to Wolverine's wedding. In the shot above, Rogue, probably only second in power to Storm at this point among this group of X-Men, is shown here too look very, very meek in the face of what she knows is deserved hatred.

But this shot is even better, because it not only conveys everything I just described about Rogue, even more clearly, but so much more:

The divide between Rogue and the rest of the X-Men is so apparent, but not mentioned in the dialog or in Wolverine's inner monologue. And it's clear that all of the above turmoil related to Storm is being carried over into this pic, too. You also get a ton of other character-related info from this one shot: Nightcrawler is playful, agile, flexible; Kitty Pryde and Colossus have a burgeoning romance that is chaste and age-appropriate; Wolverine thinks of himself as a sexy beast, and if you had read the previous pages, you'd know that the woman in yellow kneeling and pretending to be a house servant is actually the deadly assassin Viper. Here she has sneakily inserted herself into the X-Men's safe abode (in the visual metaphor, she's literally right in the middle of the mix) where she's about to poison the X-Men and take most of them out of action. This is not only part of a great sequence, both art-wise and in the issue's plot, but it sets up what, at the time, was one of the biggest character changes in Marvel history, Rogue's transformation from a horribly evil person to one of Marvel's most iconic female heroes. That is literally set up by this sequence and couldn't happen without it. The next issue looks like this:

Again, there is so much conveyed with very little there. With only Wolverine and Rogue still standing, Rogue knows she both has to prove herself, but also follow Wolverine's lead, not just because she's knew enough to not really know everything that's going on, but because she knows she hasn't earned anyone's trust yet, and following orders and kicking a little ass will certainly help. Later she goes on to make several sacrifices that win her admiration from her teammates, but it starts here. And Wolverine looks really fierce here. He's used to being the last man standing and fighting his way through things, but now he's in charge and is fighting for the lives of his friend and for the love of his life. Then a few pages later:

Smith effectively recreating the cover on an inside panel, but notice how much more savage and animalistic Wolverine looks. Things have gotten more serious and he fears for his bride-to-be's life. And he's the best at what he does and what he does isn't nice. The transition here, from the cover to this interior panel, is amazing.

Smith is also good at action sequences. There's so much coolness in this brief sequence that helps establish how bad-ass Viper and her ninjas are:

Even better is this epic and brutal battle, presented without sounds or dialog, that goes a long way towards establishing Wolverine as the most rough-and-tumble fighter in the Marvel Universe. And it doesn't paint Silver Samurai as any slouch, either. This is just a beautiful sequence, as far as I'm concerned:

Even that last panel is amazing, as Wolverine shows emotion through the mask, with no visible eyeballs. He looks shocked to me that he was both pulled out of his beserker rage and that it was Mariko that did it.

The comes one of my favorite things from the period, Storm's new look:

Not sure whose idea it was, but Smith nailed the look that to me still says Storm, when she was written her best, is a unique and powerful character that isn't just another member of the X-Men, she's the leader.

Smith also does good at comedic sequences like this one, where Madelyne Pryor's face is perfectly still after discovering Kitty's pet dragon.

Most of Smith's covers involve action, not surprisingly, but this one goes in a different direction. So much of recent X-Men history is shown in this cover, particularly once you realize that isn't Jean Grey, but Pryor, on the cover. And that the storyline that led to her death was instigated by the character in the background, Mastermind. And this point in the plot, there was a lot of confusion as to who Pryor really is and Scott Summers falling in love and proposing to a woman who looks exactly like his dead girlfriend. And this cover gets at the big questions: Is Mastermind going to do it again? Is Pryor real or a Mastermind creation? Is Phoenix back? How will Cyclops deal with Mastermind trying to bring back, in one way or another, the worst moments of the hero's adult life? That and the colors are just as amazing as the composition of the cover.

Another one of those awesome busy Smith covers. He's drawing a team with seven unique members and a huge cast of supporting characters, and he never fails to make them each distinct and part of the action:

Several issues in this run have a strong Phoenix presence and Smith drew some of the iconic images of the character during the X-Men's rise to superstardom. This is one of my favorites, not just because of how Jean looks, but because of the way that Cyclops looks in defeat as Phoenix rises from his "ashes."

One last one to add here, since it's at the end of Smith's run, but here is a shot of the X-men reacting in shock where Smith and his collaborators took out most of the color. The image does a great job of conveying the shocking death the X-Men watch on TV.

Okay, that's all I'm going to share on this one, even though there are many other beautiful shots. You should definitely check out this run of issues, as well as the rest of the Claremont run, as it is, without a doubt, a classic of popular literature that is very, very well crafted. (More to come on Claremont...)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Great American Rock 'n' Roll Revival: One Million Pieces of Perfect Pop Culture #1

Note: You can listen to my Spotify playlist that recreates this album.

Thank God for the Columbia House Record Club.

Probably the first cassettes, of what would one day grow to be a collection of 10,000+, that I ever obtained were from one of these type of ads that came in the Sunday paper or in a magazine or something like that. For those too young to know about this deal, here's what it was: You basically signed a contract saying that if Columbia House (or one of the many imitators) sent you X number of albums for a penny, you had to by X number of other albums at inflated prices with ridiculously high shipping. They often offered a bonus, that if you bought another album at full price, right now, you could get 1-4 extra free albums. Then you would proceed to never fulfill your part of the bargain, and then go ahead and do the whole thing over again with a different name or from your new address or whatever. In other words, this was one of the main ways how poor people grew their album collections for many decades before the Internet.

The first time I did it was probably in 1985, and while it wasn't one of the full 12-for-a-penny orders like in the pic above, it soon sent me the first few cassettes I owned.  I can't remember everything that I got, but I want to say that it included Foreigner "Records," Duran Duran's "Seven and the Ragged Tiger" (now immortalized in a tattoo on my neck), something or another with Phil Collins (probably Genesis?), and, most importantly for this post, the Great American Rock 'n' Roll Revival.

That's a vinyl version, but mine was cassette, naturally. It was this new thing, a double-length cassette, that put two vinyl records onto one cassette. This was literally my first real world understanding (that I can remember) of why math was important, it helped me understand that different medium had different storage sizes and various other mathematical things that are obvious now that weren't when I was like 11 or 12.

I was relatively new to listening to music and hadn't taken it seriously before that. And along with the Duran Duran album (which I've now listened to in at least five different formats), this album changed my life. Here's the full track list.

The name is a bit misleading, as it was a pretty narrow scope of 60s rock n roll that was represented on the album, but man, what a selection. Certain artists are over-represented (Dion and/or the Belmonts appear nine times, for instance), but nothing here sucks. And this album is loaded with classic songs, and for almost all of them, this is the first time I heard them. At that point in my life, my musical interests came from three places: 1. MTV and video shows. 2. Top 40 radio shows such as Casey Kasem and Rick Dees, 3. What my parents listened to around the house, which had a relatively focused scope (Beatles, Elvis, Doors).  So a lot of the music from the 60s that wasn't made by the biggest superstars was new to me. This album not only introduced me to these particular great songs and numerous artists that would become among my all-time favorites (the Beach Boys, Dion, Del Shannon), it also helped me discover entire genres (doo-wop, surf rock, girl groups, Motown, 60s rock crooners), which I would then go and listen to in depth, but it would also introduce me into the concept of listening to an album without any prior knowledge of what was on it, a tactic I still use extensively today and one that has added great diversity and depth to my music knowledge.

There were subtle influences of this album on my politics, too. What I saw on this album, at a young and impressionable age, was that it didn't matter who you were if you made great music--the singers here are young and old, white and black, female and male, diverse.  It's not perfect, and there are some subtle hints of older values which I would reject here and there (particularly in terms of gender: the world 'girl' is tossed around a bit casually), but for the most part, this album is basically a 60s dance night where nearly everybody is welcome and I took that message to heart. In retrospect, it's obvious that there are some exceptions, but this album was pretty forward-thinking in terms of the time period of the music (which makes sense, since the compilation was released in 1980).

The album also introduced my ears to a bunch of different ways to make musical sounds that were interesting. Doo wop, in particular, was all about people making sounds with their voice that imitated instruments in various ways. There was a lot of what would be considered revolutionary by the standards of the late 70s/early 80s, much the way that punk songs often were throwbacks to garage rock song structures/styles. This music, at my age, my lack of experience, and intellectual development at the time was nothing short of revolutionary in its affect on me. I literally listened to this album hundreds of times. And I learned a ton from the experience.

Read more about "One Million Pieces of Perfect Pop Culture" and read more entries in the series.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


So in my attempts to be an actual musician, I have to create and record music, not just perform it live. When I started the process of becoming a musician, I literally had no idea how to record and create music. I had hosted podcasts and such before that, but those were using dummy-proof software that made it so easy a state legislator could figure it out (if you don't get that joke, trust me that most state legislators are pretty ignorant people when it comes to technology).

In my earliest days, I was part of a group called the Cap City Mob (starting in approximately 2007), led by an old friend. I won't rehash what happened there, but let's just say he was difficult to work with. But starting the group and including me in it was his idea (as was my stage name). Once I was invited to participate, he handled all the composition of the music and all of the entire recording process. He was talented and creative, but he didn't want to create original sounds (everything was created from copywritten material), he didn't want to work often enough (which is fine, because he had a life), and he refused to share any of his knowledge. These things bothered me enough that they added to an environment where other interpersonal issues led to me leaving the group and we haven't talked since.

After that, I really wanted to ramp things up, but didn't know how. So I did what any responsible person would do, I bought a microphone, grabbed my laptop and started figuring things out on my own. That was in early 2012 or so. By the time I had left Tallahassee permanently later that year, I had created a handful of beats, done some well-received solo live shows, and had recorded songs for each of those beats. None of those early recordings still exists, because as I improved at what I was doing, I rerecorded songs over and over again until they were better and better. So it isn't song ideas or concepts that was deleted, just early takes that weren't as good.

Since then, I've spent more than 150 hours recording songs and while I have figured out quite a bit of stuff, a lot of it is just from repetition and there almost certainly things that I'm doing the hard way that I could do easier. But, most of the time, I am happy with the way my voice sounds after recording, so I'm sufficiently happy with my skillset for now. I don't really have much interest in being an engineer or mixer or any of those things, I'm more a writer/vocalist, and I've only taken on these other roles out of necessity.

So my goals with recording are a bit varied. First and foremost is to create good music that will entertain or educate others. That is always at the top of my mind. My musical tastes are varied, but start with hip hop, punk, postpunk, new wave, indie, alternative, and the like. I want to create music that derives from those genres, even if I have some pop sensibilities that might also make their way into the songs. And, in no uncertain terms, my music always has some kind of message. A lefty political/social message. Even the party songs have something in that realm. And all of the songs are meant to be entertaining on some level, too. So creating music that fits that general concept is first.

I have two other related goals with recording. The first is to learn the technical stuff more, so that I can create the sounds I have in my head more easily. The other is to learn what my voice is, what it can do, and learn how to improve and expand upon it. That becomes a lot easier when you record the same lines over and over again, trying to perfect the line readings and try different approaches, enunciation, voices, etc. This is one of the reasons I post raw demos pretty frequently, it not only leads to feedback, it provides a strong incentive to continually improve and rework things. If I make a shitty recording and it's out there, someone could hear it unless I work on it and make it better.

I am a prolific songwriter. I have written more than 100 songs in the last three years and I have many, many more ideas that are in various stages of writing. But it can become an echo chamber when I write and record by myself and don't have to interact with the ideas and artistry of others. So I have made it a goal to not just record my own material, but that of others, too. I really like the idea of the artist, such as Prince or 2Pac, that spends massive amounts of time in the studio recording their voice, their songs, their inspirations, and leaves a lot behind for the world to listen to. The idea came from an article I read once where some semi-famous rapper started recording himself doing a bunch of other people's songs and posting the videos on YouTube. For some reason, I haven't been able to find that article again and I'm not sure who it was. I want to say Action Bronson, but I can't say that for sure since I can't find it. But it really made me think a few things. One was that doing a bunch of different rappers, with a bunch of different styles, in recorded fashion, would make my ability to perform and vocalize much better. And that has certainly been true as I've done it. The other was that if I had interesting takes or good performances of songs that already had fans, I would, in the great cover song tradition, obtain more fans. That has also been true, too, although to a lesser extent.

So in addition to recording more than 70 original tracks, I also started recording various cover songs. The first goal was to record 200 different rappers. Not just different songs, but 200 songs each by a different artist (I'm well past 50 on that goal now). But after recording a few songs by artists I really like, I quickly found that I wanted to record more songs by those artists, so I expanded my recordings to allow for that. A third approach I took on was to take songs that weren't strictly hip hop songs, but contained relevant elements. Songs that might not be rap, but sounded pretty close. For this series of "Almost Hip Hop" songs, I decided to take those tracks, and make them more hip hop, more in my own voice. It quickly became an idea that I didn't just want to copy the songs, doing all the exact same words and exact same line deliveries. Some songs I did relatively straightforward takes on, others I made some pretty significant changes to. My version of "Parents Just Don't Understand" is a pretty faithful Fresh Prince imitation, while my cover of Nirvana's "Downer" is so radically different than the original, it's a post-punk hip hop poetry reading kind of think, almost like a Butthole Surfers song.

A few guidelines I have for these variant takes:

  1. I never, ever use the N-word. No matter what. I'm a guest in hip hop and I understand the history from where it comes, so regardless of the original, I change the word to something else. I've even been given permission to use the word by numerous African American performers and fans and I will never use it.
  2. I rarely use words like "bitch" or other slurs that denigrate women or homosexuals. I don't fully eliminate them because at times they are being used by a character in the song. Robert DeNiro doesn't refuse to play sexist or homophobic characters because he can say something important through those characters and it isn't necessarily an endorsement of a character that you play them. I refuse to record lines, though, that are explicitly me using those slurs to denigrate anyone, unless the point is ironic (such as a recording of a 2 Live Crew song). Yes, I get the inconsistency between #1 on this list and #2. The reason for that is that the artform I'm using, hip hop, is an African American form, so I'm showing my respect for that by not insulting the innovators of the form I'm using. I try not to insult anyone based on such characteristics, so it's safe to assume that if you hear a word like "bitch," it isn't meant as a literal, unironic use of the word to denigrate women. I understand some will still reject my take on the topic, but that's the path I've chosen.
  3. I do my best to remain true to the spirit of the original track. I may change things around a bit, but the goal is homage and respect, not just the repeating of words that I like.
  4. As with most hip hop cover songs I've ever heard, when I choose to, I change references to the original artist's name to some variation of my own. Think Snoop Dogg's cover of "Lodi Dodi," which is true to the original, but has many Snoop-ified changes in the lyrics.
  5. I literally want to record at least one track by every hip hop artist for whom I can find an instrumental. Since none of these songs is meant for commercial release, I have no problem using other people's music and lyrics to make interesting sounds of my own. And since my goals involve diversity and technical skill, I will record versions of songs from artists I don't like, although I will note that when I have done that, it has increased my appreciation of those artists at times. At some point, I'd like to be able to say that I've recorded cover versions of more rappers than any other person on the planet. I assume that I'm already well on the way to that goal, considering I've now done 57 different rappers by my latest count.
  6. I want to add new things to songs. I like adding subtext, making cultural references, and tying different forms of art together. When I have an idea that serves that purpose, I pursue it.
  7. I want to make the songs work for my voice. I have a pretty good ability to mimic other voices, I always have. But in my efforts to perfect my own voice, it's important not to bite anyone else's style for the purpose of a recording. So while some of my recordings are pretty imitative of the original, others make pretty significant changes to line deliveries, particularly with rappers like Jay-Z or Kanye who, at times, eschew traditional melodies or pronounce or say words in ways that I wouldn't. I'm absolutely not interested in doing a Iggy Azalea and adopting speech patterns and slang that aren't authentic to who I am. I grew up in the Deep South, lived in mostly black neighborhoods much of my life, and from an early age was deeply immersed in hip hop and basketball culture. And you likely wouldn't know any of that from my recorded voice, since I'm not trying to adopt the patterns and culture of others, I'm trying to forge new ground in my own voice. On those rare occasions where you hear me use black slang, it's black slang I use all the time as part of my daily life, it's not an affect taken on for the purpose of a recording.

(I may think of more of those that I have used later and will add them to the list if I do.)

So, to give you all an example of these principles in action, I present to you, my most recent recording, an interpretation of Beck's song "Loser."

Here are the above principles in action for this song:

  1. Beck doesn't use the N-word, so not relevant.
  2. Similar to #1, not a concern here.
  3. I certainly change the vocals quite a bit here. Beck's original is laid back and almost indifferent to what is going on in the song. I use my more natural rapping voice, which is a bit of a hybrid of Beastie Boys and Chuck D. The original is just Beck singing, too, while I felt that my version was better served by having backing vocals for emphasis on certain parts. I also changed some line deliveries by adding a little delay here and there and having the rest of the line in question be rapped in double time. I think it creates some really interesting moments. I also radically reworked the chorus, going for a specific Rage Against the Machine feel and reference which I think add an layer to the song that, while not in the original, are in line with the original's mood, if not tone.
  4. I didn't do this a lot on this one, although I added a "motherfucker" to a spot where I couldn't get a good read on one of Beck's deliveries.
  5. Beck's not a rapper, of course, so this one fits the "Almost Hip Hop" approach, but he is an artist I have never covered before (and rarely sing in public), so it is in line with the spirit of trying different voices.
  6. There isn't much new subtext here (although there is some in the reworking of the chorus and the change in the vocal style from apathetic to aggressive), but the tie in to other cultural points is pretty extensive. In addition to the Rage-style chorus, the end of the song includes an explicit Rage line that is added, much of the vocal presentation ties in to artists like the Beastie Boys, and the added backing vocals have a wide range of influences from Beasties to Afroman to Eminem and others. There are also some attempts at sophomoric humor (emphasizing the word "balls," a Cartman reference on the word "beef") and to the sing-songy nursery rhyme styles of early rap songs (which is done on the actual nursery rhyme that Beck included in the lyrics). And these are just the conscious references I made during the recording, there are certainly likely to be subconscious references or things I forgot.
  7. I've already addressed this one, but needless to say, there are very few points in this song where I sound anything like Beck, either in my voice or in my line deliveries.

One last thing on recording. I have literally no patience or skill for rearranging and editing and punching things in. My process begins with the beginning of the song, I hit record, and I go forward from there. I generally record the song chronologically and do my best to do entire verses without a break. I've not always done that in the past, but I think discerning listeners can tell when the songs are edited, so if a song has a 16 bar verse, I try to record that interrupted before moving to the next part, and will try the same part over and over again until I am happy with every word (or nearly every word) in the segment, only breaking things up when it is naturally part of the song. The first verse of the Beck song above is one take, although it was far from the first take. I particularly have to pay close attention to improper breathing, which often shows up, sound levels (although those can be adjusted after the recording, it's better not to have to adjust them, it just sounds better), contact with anything else in the studio, etc. Ambient sounds usually aren't picked up by my mic, so that's fine, but if I bump the mic during a recording session, that take is a wash. I have a screen in front of the mic, so I don't get too many "P" sound problems, although there are still some other sounds (like "S" at the beginning of a word) that can be very problematic in recording. For a song like this with backing vocals and such, I will record the main versus and chorus first and come back in on a separate track and add those. I don't generally rehearse a lot before the song, unless it's new, although I'm generally recording songs I've heard many times, and usually songs I've performed at karaoke, so they have been practiced. Mass transit in a big city also gives ample opportunity to run through songs in your head before a recording session, so it's not exactly like I go in unprepared. Part of this is that I don't want to overdo a bad line and get it stuck in my head, so I like to be able to listen to what I've rapped to see if I'm doing it in a way that I'm happy with. I can only do that when recording and listening to the playback.

Okay, that's probably way more than enough for this post, although I'm sure that I'll talk more about recording when introducing other songs in the future. My next post will be about karaoke and why that's important to what I'm doing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


So for this first post of the new direction, I wanted to briefly talk about my goals as a musician, to provide a bigger context for what I'm doing and what I'm writing and creating. It won't be the most in-depth examination ever, but will give you a basic idea for what's to come...

So, my ultimate goal as a musician would be to become a worldwide superstar who performs for millions of people while retaining complete integrity in my music and voice, making people dance and sing along to my radical politics. Basically to be at the level that Kanye and Jay-Z are, where they can kind of do and say whatever they want and people are along for the ride in big numbers.

I realize that goal is totally unlikely to happen for any number of reasons.

A secondary goal, and a much more realistic one, would be to forge a career that lasts a few decades where I get to make whatever music I want and I build a fanbase that wants to hear what I want to make, wants to see me live, and where I can be a respected musician among other musicians for creating art that is true to my vision and values. In this scenario, I would get to tour, get to perform at festivals, collaborate with other great musicians, maybe even get on the radio or TV a bit as a feature on other people's work, and get to create art that people like and learn from.

I realize that is a lot of hard work and that most people who attempt to go down this path don't stick with it. But that's one of the great things about having asperger's, I'm obsessive enough about the concept that I'll stick with it as long as it takes, regardless of what other people think. I've been doing it long enough already to know that there will always be haters, including people that are friends or people that, by any logical though process, should enjoy what I do. But art, and people's reactions to it, is not logical and I understand that doesn't always happen.

The old saying about it taking 10,000 hours to become a master of a particular skill may not be particularly accurate, but you have to learn a lot by putting in those hours. I haven't done that yet, but I am closing in on 1,000 hours of activity related to becoming the best writer and performer I can be. I still have a long way to go, but I'm really happy with the progress I've made.

And while I know that a lot of artists like to only present the polished, fully-developed product to their fans, I've always thought a little differently about that and prefer to open up the door and show people what I'm doing, even if I make mistakes, even if I fail. I can handle the feedback and it all helps me develop my knowledge and skill towards being better, so I'll keep doing it.

Slight Change of Direction

The direction of this blog will change a bit. I will still be adding album reviews and pop culture memories and such things, but I'll also be chronicling my music and creativity, discussing and explaining my thought process and giving you a look behind the scenes at Professor Rex.