Quick thoughts on DAMN. (2017)

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I wonder how many people in the world enjoyed both the pilot episode of Saekano season 2 and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. today–definitely not very many. Anyways, without trying to analyze the album, I wanted to participate in the highly anticipated (in the hip hop world) release of DAMN.. It got leaked a few hours early, and I got a chance to listen to it twice now.

I realized that in order to review/analyze an album critically, it requires genre-specific knowledge as well as a head space in that genre. While I have decent knowledge about music production, hip hop, as well as the history of Kendrick’s releases, ever since I delved deep into the anime culture, I’ve become somewhat distant from hip hop records. I still listen to all the major releases, but the homogeneous sound of all the recent trap-influenced hip hop records have become painfully obvious in contrast to the generally upbeat–and at the very least–interesting Japanese anime/pop music. So as a DJ, I usually skip through tracks, spending about 10 minutes on an album to see any tracks stick out.

Having said that, and in credit to Kendrick, the album engaged me from start to finish: at no point in the album did I want to skip to the next track. Compared to the narrative focused gkmc and the musically experimental/ambitious TPAB, DAMN. is Kendrick’s most commercially appealing album to date. And this isn’t a bad thing, DAMN. has an incredible balance of accessibility while still showing the creative and lyrical side of Kendrick. Sonically, the album’s production is undeniably of the modern, trap 808 style of hip hop, but the groove and the instrumentation is quite eclectic. Similarly, even though the flow of rapping is of the typical trap flow, Kendrick’s lyrics are uncompromised and they’re still the narrative lyrics that we expect from Kendrick.

That’s my brief impression of the album. It seems that there are intricate themes and references, but I’m not there yet. I’m curious as to what Anthony Fantano, Big Quint, and Pitchfork will have to say about the album.


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Image is the cover art for DAMN.

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Anime fandom parallel to hip hop: my “normie” perspective

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As indicative of my recent posts pertaining to anime in general rather than individual anime series, my intention is to build a solid knowledge base in anime. Although in part motivated by my novelty to the medium, I’m also genuinely interested in learning about it; I don’t want to just enjoy consuming anime, I want to be able to understand and celebrate the thing I love. And in seeking this holistic understanding of anime, I want to be able to explain and share this passion with others.

Myself prior to getting into anime can be described as a twentysomething student living in the Canadian West Coast who would use the word ‘fam’. I never went as far as using vernacular such as ‘mad ting’, but it wouldn’t have been so out of place among my friends, many of whom are rappers. Speaking of which, I would like to call attention to how prevalent the African American Vernacular English (AAVE)–and the currently emerging Eastern-Canadian/London patois popularized by Drake and BBK–has become in the North American popular culture; hip hop has undeniably been integrated with the American society, growing alongside America since its come up.

While this is sort of obvious, at least when you think about it, what fascinates me is how anime seems to be becoming mainstream as well, in the West. Although my personal subscription of media content is biased, I think noticing anime’s popularity is a reasonable observance, which has been especially noticeable in meme culture. And in my frame of reference, Porter Robinson’s Shelter signaled a groundbreaking assimilation of anime into the popular culture, which cemented my anime fandom that only really started (a month prior) in September of 2016.

A semester (4 months) later, I would be experiencing my first time following an anime season (Winter 2017), which–by the end of this week–I will be finishing 9 of the season’s titles. This number isn’t even including many older series I’ve also been watching and… I found myself asking why, as this is objectively a lot of anime. Well, you could say that I’m obsessed (aka otaku), but probably, this is just a phase. I’m not implying that I’ll stop watching anime–it’s too culturally and nostalgically significant for me–but the time allocated to anime will naturally decrease.

There used to be a time when I would listen to at least one hip hop album a day as I felt inspired by rap and I wanted to learn everything I could about hip hop. I actively researched for ‘classic’ albums that I should listen to if I wanted to understand the culture. And I seriously dove right in: I’ve rapped, produced, DJed, and right now I’m even running a hip hop club at my university. What’s crazy is that this only started (almost exactly) 3 years ago when my friend invited me out to Rappers Without Borders, the aforementioned student club. But even though hip hop has solidified itself as a major element of my life, it doesn’t replace people, relationships, and community–and it’s going to be the same for anime.

In saturating myself with anime for the past 8 months (and I’ve actually yet to be satiated), I feel a satisfying sense of understanding for the current landscape of anime. And in feeling this way, I also realize my separation and differences in perspectives compared to the people who have watching anime for years: my appreciation of the ‘moe’ sub-culture. Before some of you dismiss me–although, really, who cares–what I understand of moe is that it’s very difficult to define it due to how diversely it is being understood and used today. And so, in clarification, when I say moe culture, while still acknowledging moe blob, loli, and CGDCT, I personally enjoy its focus on relational aspects of story telling (although this is slice of life), and the clean, cute, and colourful aesthetics they usually entail. In music genres, moe is the bigroom of EDM (generic), trap of hip hop (over-saturated), pop music in general (good production)–and all of these things are easy to consume.

Now, even if I recognize this, someone like me who actively enjoys moe may be frustrating to many. Although I can try to explain my pickiness within the moe genres, I can certainly sympathize with this frustration: hip hop has ‘youngins’ who only listens to Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, or 21 Savage. No shade against them, it’s just that they represent the currently over-saturated and derivative (mumble rap) trap sub-culture of hip hop. But let me offer this perspective, in prioritizing togetherness, understanding, and celebration of the positives: not that we can even stop art from evolving, new fans of the medium are nonetheless new fans. There’s no reason to discredit them or worry about the medium’s demise, because true fans will always seek out for more, as I am doing.

But I’ll admit: I have not seen all the ‘classics’, and at this point in time, it’s not my priority to watch all of them anytime soon (my MAL has over 100 PTW titles). I’m talking abut Ghost in the Shell (I couldn’t finish it), Your Lie in April, Clannad, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Code Geass, Gurren Lagann, and the list goes so on. While it could be argued that the classics must be watched in order to truly understand the medium, I think having this reference (at this point in time) is relevant in reflection of how newcomers come into the anime fandom.

My perspective, then, is when I came to the fandom that was post-Eva, post-Haruhi, post-NHK, post-K-On!, and post-Shirobako. I came in and enjoyed the likes of New Game! and Gabriel Dropout while also enjoying NGE and NHK. I didn’t hate One Room, I didn’t think the Monogatari series were confusing, I agree with the popular opinion that FMA:B is great, I’m slowly watching Cowboy Bebop… and K-On! is my favourite. Compared to modern anime, I don’t particularly like the character designs of early 2000s like in Clannad. These are just some of the ways to describe my viewing experiences.

In hip hop, there is a fairly vague divide in what we call old school and new school, in which old school is now synonymous with boom-bap (Just Blaze) and G-Funk (Dre). The original 80s sound of hip hop is probably called ‘super old school’ or ’80s hip hop. New school is whatever is new, which is trap right now so I guess the stuff in the middle like early Drake and MBDTF Kanye are… throwbacks? I guess it really depends on who you ask. And if Kanye’s 808 is said to have influenced all following 808 focused productions, K-On! is analogous in having created the CGDCT boom that is still popular today. Or was that Lucky Star (and Man on the Moon: The End of Day)?

In closing, I find it incredibly interesting that hip hop and anime actually amalgamates in some crossroads. Lupe and Logic watches anime (regularly?) and Kanye, at the very least, appreciates anime. And in both cultures, music is a huge part of the medium, which is a big reason for me being involved in the first place–I’ve seen entire anime series just because I liked the OP. I also can’t help but love the intonation of ‘seiyu’ (voice actors) and their dramatic, syllabic delivery of lines reminiscent of rapping.

There’s also vapourwave, which stands at an interesting junction between the two, a genre which is the soundtrack to the meme culture, that has the sampling aspect of hip hop and in which many of these samples are from ’80s Japanese funk records. How did this come to be? I don’t know, but it feels somehow catered to me.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found my frame of references as interesting as I did thinking about it. To read up on other personal perspectives, check out Diary of an Anime Lived.


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Image is from K-On!

Re-envisioning RWB as a club (2017)

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Here are a few thoughts that I have after leading as the president of RWB for a year. As my first time being in an exec position, I’ve certainly learned a lot and discovered many of my shortcomings. Here are some thoughts that I would like to pass onto myself and any future exec members:

Perhaps most importantly, I realized the importance of having a clear vision for the club. What is the purpose/motivation behind existing? Is there another organization or group that does the same thing? How are we different from what’s already available? Asking these questions are important because, unless we identify and understand this, we likely won’t have the motivation to continue when the times get rough. And it’s also important to realize that we can’t do everything. We need to do what’s possible with the resources that we have right now (funding/budget, availability, helpers, space, etc). Look at it as leaving room to grow.

And if we’re building a community, it may be necessary to consider the legacy of the club. How will the club continue to exist/run after the current execs are gone? We have to be intentional with inspiring or drawing the attention of future leaders.

And this is one of our current problems. I know that we want to build a community, but I realized recently that we’ve been doing it wrong: we’ve been trying to form a community around hip hop when we should’ve been trying to form a community through hip hop. What I mean by this is that we are not just a group of people who like hip hop. Hip hop has helped us in different ways, and we want to celebrate that.

Hip hop, then, is the coming together of diversity. We as students come from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We meet, express ourselves through the art of hip hop, and we learn from each other. That’s hip hop — a way for people from different backgrounds to easily come together.

Another thing I’ve realized was that we weren’t including people effectively. We certainly welcomed people and wished for their participation in our events, freestyling and performing may not be the easiest thing to introduce yourself into. Our focus on showing that we’re out there certainly generated interest, but this didn’t bring us very many returning members. If our freestyles were bad, people didn’t want anything to do with us. And if our performances were amazing, people shied away. We become a performance and therefore something for people to consume, not something to be a part of.

My friend Kevin told me this: every person and their stories are beautiful and incredible. There is something to be learned from each of them. So the question is, how are we including students who can’t/don’t want to freestyle or care about hip hop? Previously, our focus has been for us to be a platform for artists to connect and craft their skills. While there is certainly a need for such organization, in my opinion, this isn’t nearly as important as connecting people through hip hop. And the fact is, we simply don’t have enough resources to achieve this properly right now. I want to avoid being stretched too thin and instead build slowly but consistency.

Moving forward, we have to understand that we’re going to have to hand the torch off to someone else one day. And it is necessary to take our hands off completely because, otherwise, our presence and authority will be a hindrance to the club’s future growth. Instilling ownership is crucial to their success. I have to trust in other people’s vision and that a good seed has been planted.

As parting words, I want RWB to be a community that embraces hip hop to build ourselves. I want a club that I’m passionate about and is rewarding in itself to run. I want to have events that are inclusive and entertaining, by being something that will be fun even if it’s just the few of us. If we start off with like this, we can’t do no wrong. As for the bigger picture, I want a community and a culture of being inclusive by loving people for who they are. I want the community to be built on this ownership of changing our culture.


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Image is from The Get Down

Rappers Without Borders

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Plug: Rappers Without Borders is a community at UBC that loves hip hop and creates space where hip hop is celebrated. To root ourselves in cause, we raise donations for MSF (Doctors without Borders). As a club, we often just hang out, talk, and let freestyles happen (Freestyle Fridays). We also have cypher recording sessions and a monthly hip hop night at The Pit.

What’s interesting about me being the president of RWB is that I used to dislike hip hop back in high school. It’s more of the fact that I wasn’t exposed to it, but I generally accepted English teacher’s making fun of rap music as c-rap music. But in the second year of my university, my friend from my jazz combo invited me out to Freestyle Friday.

And it was there that I fell in love with hip hop.

There is something incredible about witnessing a freestyle. You may have seen some impressive feats from YouTube, but when you see it happen right in front of your eyes, as the rhymes reference the environment around you, and it react to your reactions, it becomes this powerful energy. Even just by being an audience, this energy is reverberated and connects everyone in the earshot.

It is sometimes easier to drive self-expressions to a rhythm. When the music is playing, you simply let go and share. And when we listen to each other’s words, there is real intimacy through this understanding.

The hip hop community is one of the first places where I felt a lack of diversion. It’s hard to describe but something was different. Differences weren’t concealed or highlighted, but simply understood.

Hip hop, as I understand it, is a culture that embraces diversity. Historically, it came out of a place of systematic oppression and racial prejudice against the black people. Hip hop was a counter-cultural, non-violent alternative to the youth who felt angry and hopeless. So since its beginnings, it has been a platform for the minority and the oppressed to voice themselves. It is the spirit of building something for yourself or for your community. This is why I embrace the hip hop community.


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Image is from Rappers Without Borders

Dear wordsmith

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When words leave your lips in a rhythmic dance that paints vivid imageries onto the mind, the uninspired become inspired.

You proclaim to the human kind the kindness found in the syllables of language.

When I hear you string together words, I am myself lost for words.

You create conversations, you open yourself up to vulnerabilities, and you speak with boldness, all the while having fun.

You play with words, with profound meaning and context and subtext and references, with each wordplay revealing more of yourself and connecting me closer to you.

These words become verses and the verses become chapters. Surely, the next chapters of your life will capture the hearts of many. Don’t lose this light. Demand rights and positivity.

You made me realize that the best artists are not always the ones on the radio or even the ones performing on stages at all.

Please continue to speak truth and let your lungs be filled the breath of life. The reverberation of your passion will be echoed throughout my life.

Thank you.

simok


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Image is of Huey Freeman from The Boondocks by SykotixUK

Sound of memories: summer

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[Soundtrack: one]

I recently uploaded a track on my SoundCloud. To break it down, it’s an acapella of Where Is the Love? by The Black Eyed Peas, on top of an instrumental I made by sampling The Name of Life by Joe Hisaishi (better known as One Summer’s Day, from Spirited Away). As background, this isn’t the first time I’ve tried making a hip hop beat with One Summer’s Day. The idea came to me about a year ago and I thought it would be the perfect amalgamation of the two very important elements of my life: hip hop and anime (representing my Asian culture). Unfortunately, due to my lack of proficiency in Ableton or FL Studio, I had to give up on the project — well, that is, until a few days ago.

I just knew what to do this time. I’m happy with how the track turned out, and even happier with the fact that it’s something that I feel comfortable in sharing. This is a personal milestone and I really hope that this continues. Although it may seem obvious “practice makes perfect”, I remember being downright scared about losing some of my artistic sensibility when I had decided to quit smoking weed. How shall I describe it… when I was sober, it felt as though I lacked the level of intuition I had with music compared to when I were high. This was deeply troubling and caused myself to doubt. Of course, in hindsight, I know I made the right call because what I eventually came to realize — and I think many artists will agree with me — is that having discipline and consistency is much more important than having passion and creativity alone. Having ideas, no matter how amazing they are, is not good or productive unless you actually do the work in bringing them to life. Here’s a paraphrase of what Mike Monday said in regards to how to make sure music projects get finished:

“Habits are more responsible for what you do and what happens to you than your motivation, desire, excitement, hope, skills or abilities.”

I had mentioned before that I had decided to put faith in God, to give God a ‘try’. Well, at some point, I found myself praying for consistency in my life. I wanted regularity in my sleep schedule, eating, exercise, and most of all, my mood. It’s still a working progress but it’s so clear that I’ve come a long way from skipping all my classes because I felt anxious to go outside. Having a schedule might seem like the opposite of being truly free, but I found that having a stable ground to stand on made it much easier for myself to heal, build, grow, and explore outwards.

In the past, I was very prone to losing myself in certain feelings of sadness or nostalgia. My thoughts often spiralled downwards into depressive states of mind like they were effected by the gravitational pull. And by the time I had noticed it, it would too late and I wouldn’t be able to find the way back up. Hours would go by in these train of thoughts and I found myself profoundly sad. Normally, you’d think that this was terrible, but for me, as an ‘artist’, these feelings felt useful and beautiful. It allowed me to sit in a pool of sadness and bathe in it until I couldn’t anymore. This tendency and attraction towards depression was very difficult to break away from, even when I realized that I was starting to drown in the deep end. This is a topic that I would like to elaborate very much on, but I’ll save that for a future post.

Although the point here — again — is the contrast to the ‘me of the past’, I’m not trying to say that the present me as a Christian is a perfectly happy person and that all of these predispositions are gone. Rather, having faith and accepting that the joy and peace in Jesus is the true reality has allowed me to navigate and explore these messy and dark emotions much deeper than ever before without actually getting sucked into them. Now when I swim in sadness, I know which way is up and I’m not drowning. If this isn’t a win-win then I don’t know what is.

Going back to the topic of music, a song like One summer’s Day would have had plenty of triggers for me of the past. I would get lost in ideas of nostalgia stirred up by the song. What I find interesting is that this feeling of nostalgia brought on by the song seems to be a shared phenomenon (though hopefully not to the same degree). As an example, here’s a YouTube comment that was posted in response to a song called Path of the Wind (from My Neighbor Totoro, also from Studio Ghibli and composed by Joe Hisashi):

“Ever think that these movies have a far-off memory feel like you were actually in them? Like a dream? I feel like I actually met Totoro as a child when I hear this music… such fleeting times they were…”

And comments like these are incredibly common in Studio Ghibli’s music, many of which were composed by Joe. Does this mean there is a certain property of sound for nostalgia? How would that be possible when nostalgia is subjective and complicated? Anyways, I digress.

As for me, One Summer’s Day feels like… a day in summer. More specifically, I picture a summer’s day in the Korean or Japanese countryside. There’s a feeling for longing, dreams that seem just out of reach, with little heart breaks here and there. Curious feelings, stream of water flowing, a coming of age. Waking up in the morning and thinking about the night before. These are some of the feelings and ideas of memories incited by the song. With this as a segue, I’m going to mention a few other examples of what summer sounds like to me.

Kikujiro no Natsu (1999) is another movie that Joe has composed the soundtrack for. The title of the main theme is simply called Summer. With this one, you can picture a countryside, where the sun is out, and you’re biking around. You can feel the wind flowing around you and everywhere you look, you see the beautiful mountains and the far stretch of farmland. I have a memory of watching movie as a kid back in Korea.

It was summer, of course, and I was sitting in my grandparents’ living room which was also my bedroom for the summer. My family and I gathered around what must have been a small, ~20″ TV to watch this movie. I don’t remember the details of the movie but it was about a child and a middle aged man adventuring together to find the child’s mother. But even without the plot, I can still vividly remember the feel of summer the movie captured on film. I think this was also one of the last times my family watched a movie together.

When it comes to the seminal sound of summer, it must be the sound of cicadas (you know, the sound from Evangelion). I don’t know about you, but my summers really did sound like this while growing up in Korea. This is the aspect of summer that is blazingly hot. T-shirts and shorts. Time seems to slow down. The sun is overwhelming and the stillness of heat can feel incredibly stagnant. For me, this is a very prominent aspect of summer.

There is a track called Peace Reigns in the Land (Tenkataihei) from Kare Kano‘s soundtrack. It feels like laying down on a green patch of grass staring at the bright blue skies — no clouds in sight. It feels exciting. This is the time during summer when you’re just so happy that the sun is out, and you want to spend your whole day outside. It feels opportunistic. Maybe go to the beach, maybe walk down the streets, or maybe tell that person how you really feel. Why not, it’s summer. And as the track nears its end, it really sounds like the day is getting darker and darker but it’s okay; there’s always tomorrow.

From Nadia: Secret of Blue Water‘s soundtrack: Electra’s Theme. This is an aspect of summer that is slow and kind of enchanting. Pictured is bright reflections of the sun on the ocean as the waves come slowly in and out of shore. You just lay there in the warm sand and just not think about the world for a while.

The last song/piece I want to mention is Vivaldi’s Summer. Other than its title, the iconic movement of Summer, “movement 3: Presto”, reminds me of the sudden and powerful downpours that happen in the summer… in Korea. As for Vancouver, I guess it’s not something that happens here.

Instead, in Vancouver, it rains in the winter, like right now. But even though my immediate environment has been terribly cold (for me) lately, listening to these songs bring me back into summer. This property of music is so interesting and has been applied quite extensively for me. Over the years, as I’ve discovered new genres over time, I’ve inadvertently encoded certain memories and feelings of the time period onto specific sounds. For example (approximately), metal, classic rock, and 80s pop were the sounds of early high school, jazz and progressive rock was late high school, EDM (of the time) was 1st and 2nd year of university, hip hop was 3rd and 4th and… so fourth. But I guess everyone experiences this, so much so that even Alzheimer patients can recall memories of their past when they hear music.

One of my favourite perspective of art is to view it as the process of bringing something into this world that only existed to the artist. As for music, music has the potential to influence, encourage, and empower people, and make people feel understood. Music can inspire joy and help us remember that life is more than just our immediate environments. Shout out to dance music for creating space for experiencing harmony and togetherness on a physical level through melody and rhythm. With all that’s been said, and knowing what music can do, I think it’s important to be intentional in creating music that helps us to focus on hope, joy, and peace — because this is promised. Romans 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”


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Image is from Kikujiro no Natsu

Soundtrack one is a generic sound of cicadas