The barbershop has played a defining role in contemporary urban life, so naturally it’s played a role in the history of hip-hop. It’s not for nothing that Spike Lee, the first filmmaker of the hip-hop generation, set his student film at NYU in a Brooklyn barbershop, any more than it’s a coincidence that rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube’s most successful movie was set in a Chicago barbershop. The place where you get your head cut is often a unique synergy of style, community and creativity, not to mention a fair bit of the swaggering self-promotional streak that informs hip-hop’s competitive nature.
That’s why it’s not surprising that the northwest side’s modest and unassuming Model Barber Shop plays a growing role in Chicago’s hip-hop scene. That’s where you’ll find Kevin Slimko, better known as Slim the Barber. “I’ve been cutting hair professionally for four years, but I’ve been fadin’ kids’ heads for about 15 years,” says the 29-year-old Slim. The military regalia that take up the bulk of the shop’s wall space belongs to his father-in-law, who owns the place, but the headshots of local MCs are all his. Model Barber Shop is his full-time place of employment, but it’s also the site of Barbershop Hip-Hop, the television show he produces, directs and edits.
Hosted by Puggslee Atomz (formerly of Chicago hip-hop collective the Nacrobats) and airing on Chicago public access CAN-TV Channel 19, Barbershop Hip-Hop plays an important role in a scene often marked by fractiousness. “In Chicago, MCs and DJs are upset that there’s not more unification,” explains Slimko. “In places like New York and L.A, and down south, they all build each other up.” The divisiveness of the hip-hop community in America’s third-largest city can be frustrating: “In Oakland, you could have a Souls of Mischief, an ultimate backpack type of group – people that only real hip-hop heads listen to – and those guys will go around bumpin’ Spice1 or Too $hort. In Chicago, on the north side, where you would encounter the most backpack-type guys, they won’t listen to a Soldiers at War album, because those guys are street, they’re tough. They won’t do shows together. I think that if they could diversify the audience at these shows, you’d get a broader spectrum of people supporting local music.”
Slim hopes to do just that with Barbershop Hip-Hop; the show’s focus on local talent and underground hip-hop, sets it. “I stopped watching Yo! MTV Raps because in its later days, you would turn it on and it would be all Puffy and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony and Coolio,” he says. “And that’s the same thing they were playing all day on MTV.” Past guests have included national acts like Dilated Peoples and Slug as well as old-school giants like Big Daddy Kane (“he had all the pimps in Chicago with him…all the guys who are down with Archbishop Don ‘Magic’ Juan were there”). But it’s the sound of the Chicago underground, personified in guests like Thaione Davis, Capital D and Rhymefest, that keep him going.
Of course, even an unrepentant local booster of the scene can get served up some beef: one song on Kanye West’s College Dropout album suggests that the Chicago superstar was none too happy with the show. “I don’t really know for sure if this is true or not,” Slim confesses, “but I know that he’s got a line in ‘Two Words’ that goes ‘Barbershop/playa hated/mom and pop/bootlegged it’. We had the Rhymefest version of ‘Jesus Walks’ – Rhymefest co-wrote the track with Kanye – a long time before College Dropout. I hope that he’s not mad at us. I’d love to have him on the show and find out.”
Approaching its third year, Barbershop Hip-Hop is looking to expand its scope; in addition to more live performance (Slim predicts “everybody who writes rhymes will throw away their pens” after they hear an a cappella performance by Capital D featured on the latest show), tours of local studios, and in-depth features on the mechanics of beatmaking, there’s a chance it will find wider broadcast distribution. Since the birth of his second child, Slimko’s output has decreased, but he’s not pulling the plug on the show anytime soon: “I’d like to keep doing the show forever. I like being part of the scene as much as I am, or as much as I think I am – I get into the shows for free, at least.”
Information on air dates for Barbershop Hip-Hop, as well as archives of all past shows and DVDs of videos produced for the show, are available at BarbershopHipHop.com.
Rachid Taha is the biggest and best musician to come out of Algeria in a generation, and he’s famous (and infamous) in his adopted homeland of France. In the U.S., though, he’s made much less of an impact – something he hopes to change with the stateside release of Tékitoi (Who Are You?), his most recent album. Long since a master of the native rai music and a past hand at incorporating trance beats and Arabic instruments like the oud and the darbuka into his music, Taha makes a great leap forward into western rock forms on Tékitoi. “I find a lot of rock rhythms hidden within Arabic music,” he says. And from a satisfying punk edge to his vocal approach to a collaboration with the legendary Brian Eno (with whom he claims to have formed a “mutual appreciation society”), he incorporates the two seamlessly. A sly cover of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” may cause a stir; his last cover hit, a snide punky interpretation of a beloved French pop hit, caused a furor in Paris, and “Rock el Casbah” nicely confronts the listener’s prejudices about Arab culture. But Taha denies any subversive intent: “I recorded the song because I like it and as a tribute to Joe Strummer, who was an early hero.” Hoping to make the kind of impression in America that he’s made during successful recent tour stops in London, Moscow and St. Petersburg, he promises Chicago “serious rock ‘n’ roll” blended with electronica and stunning pan-Arab influences. “Rock music is read from left to right and Arabic music is read from right to left,” Taha explains. “I’m playing rock music, but from right to left.”
Tékitoi (Wrasse) is out now; Rachid Taha plays at the Logan Square Auditorium (2539 N. Kedzie; 773/252-6179) on July 1st..
This article originally started with the line “Everything you know about Jandek is wrong.” It’s catchy, sure, but really, it’s about as resonant as saying “everything you know about microbiology is wrong”. What most people know about Jandek couldn’t fill a nutshell; even for those who are familiar with his work, the information content graduates to a thimbleful. So let’s start with the basics.
For those who don't know, Jandek is the alias of (presumably) one man who (presumably) lives in Houston, TX and has been (presumably) writing, performing, recording, releasing, selling and distributing his own music for almost 25 years. No one knows anything about him for sure; he has never given an interview or played a live show. He has no record label save his own Corwood Indistries, no manager save himself, no band save the handful of equally anonymous cohorts that occasionally surface on his albums. The only reason we know what he looks like is that he often puts pictures of someone (presumably himself) on the covers of his albums -- which now number an amazing 33 -- and even that could be a ruse, a joke or a psychotic tic. He is as anti-commercial as an artist can possibly be; his entire catalog is available only from him, and given the way he sells them -- dirt-cheap, with shipments that often contain far more records than the customer ordered -- it must be assumed that they're a two-decade-long money-losing proposition.
That’s what we know for sure. It’s not much; enough to fill a single paragraph, and that’s padded out with a lot of speculation. But speculation is all you get with the man from Corwood. Behind the guesses and the assumptions, there’s just an empty hole. Not that there’s any shortage of people rushing to fill it up: Jandek shares with the Residents the ironic trait of having maintained his anonymity to the point that its probable purpose – to eliminate the man making the music and leave only the music itself as a subject of contemplation – has backfired completely. His non-identity has reversed itself, and far from being a means of disappearing, it has become perhaps the most discussed aspect of his existence. Katy Vine, a Texas journalist, stalked the man she thought was Jandek in an attempt to get an interview, only to be frustrated by his unwillingness to cop to who he really was. Different people have imagined him as a millionaire recluse indulging his misguided artistic urges, a dangerous psychotic exorcizing his torturous inner demons, and a dilettantish prankster with a 30-year agenda. Not a single clue can be found on the albums that would indicated when or where they were recorded, leading some to think they were all made at the same time in the late 1970s (when the first Jandek albums appeared under the name of the Units) and have simply been released at the rate of roughly one a year since then. If the man on the cryptic album covers is indeed Jandek, he’s got to be at least his mid-forties by now – if he’s still alive.
Indeed, it’s impossible to avoid playing amateur detective, armchair psychologist and musical archaeologist when even thinking about Jandek. Whoever he is, he’s left us, like some ancient lost tribe, with nothing but a few relics of his existence from which we are compelled to construct a whole world. This is why, even if you think you know something about him, you might as well forget it; with Jandek, deconstruction is impossible and reconstruction is unnecessary. What you’re doing when you think about the man is really construction – the building on empty space what was not there before. Everyone who approaches him critically does this; it’s as irresistible as fate. The internet music guide AMG has essentially thrown up their hands, turning reviewing duties over to another noted musical eccentric, Eugene Chadbourne, as if admitting that this jokey effort is as good a way to approach him as any. His ‘official’ website, run by a fan named Seth Tisue, features a comprehensive and valuable discography that features a biography of sorts in the recaps of each album – speculation as to Jandek’s activities, whereabouts, and mental state at the time he probably wrote each one. But even this, probably the most in-depth resource in existence of the artist, is essentially invented out of whole cloth. An upcoming documentary, Jandek on Corwood, is eagerly awaited by his fans, who cannot help but wonder how you make a documentary about a man of whom nothing is known, who was not interviewed for the film, and about whom, according to one of the filmmakers, “you can write what’s known…on an index card”.
In the end, those few who have heard the man – and, more to the point, those even fewer who find his music worthwhile – must tell their own stories about the man, but this is just game-playing, diversion. For some this may be the point; more than one critic has suggested that people who like Jandek are simply engaged in a particularly pretentious round of one-upmanship, allowing their infatuation with his enigmatic persona, his air of mystery, his reputation as the most extreme of outsiders to overshadow the merits (or lack thereof) of the music. But if that’s the goal, it won’t work. Because in the end, there is nothing else. All there is to Jandek, all he will allow us, is the music. So what about it?
I Threw You Away and The Humility of Pain, the first Jandek albums in years to feature instrumentation (his previous few records were all ‘solo voice’ albums), are it's quite good; they might be termed a return to mid-period Jandek, when he was starting to test the limits of his own self-imposed and arbitrary boundaries. But, still, saying whether the record is good or bad...well, I don't want to say it doesn't matter. It always matters if the record is good or bad; it never misses to point to ask that question. It's not that there's no purpose to be served by considering the quality of Jandek's albums, or that it's impossible to apply a critical approach to it; it's that the very language of the creation is so alien to the terms of musical criticism that it leaves you very much at sea as to how to judge it.
Virtually every non-mainstream band has been called ‘hard to describe’ at one time or another, but this is usually a failing of the person doing the describing. However, it's never been more aptly used than with Jandek. Broadly, he plays (for the most part) horribly mutated acoustic folk-blues; but that gives the music a far more structured connotation than actually exists. Simply put, Jandek's music is alien to every aspect of traditional musical sensibility. Not that he’s necessarily incompetent; he’s just not working in a context where competency matters. He can't (or doesn't want to) sing; the vocals range from a toneless, cavernous, subterranean muttering to a desperate, shrieking half-holler. He can't (or doesn't want to) play the guitar; he wields a frazzled, un-tuned acoustic that wanders, frustrated, around stuttering progressions that utterly fail to progress. Occasionally a piano, a harmonica or a drum kit will make an appearance; they're played with the same depressive, meandering anti-skill as the electric and acoustic guitars. The recording quality ranges from lo-fi to no-fi; mic pops, feedback and Jandek hitting the microphone with his mouth are recurring motifs. The songs have no rhythm, no structure, no melody, no harmony, and no counterpoint. They are music only in loosest, most theoretical sense of "organized sound".
So what’s to like? His guitar, so badly (or un-) tuned that it sounds almost like a gamelan, so rarely wanders near anything resembling a chord or a melody that it seems like he's just batting at flies that are resting on the strings. The lyrics, while often well-written, darkly poetic and disturbing, are ‘sung’ in a way that either renders them inaudible or makes the hearing of them painful. And listening to a single album all the way through is a torturous exercise in patience and endurance. But it’s also music that seizes you, that demands your return, that haunts you in the most precise sense of the word. It's eerie stuff that comes from the most personal space imaginable; there is no filter whatsoever between creator and audience. It’s pure and raw in a way that mocks the use of those words to describe other musicians. It’s also absolutely original: there simply isn't anything else like Jandek anywhere in the world.
But most of all, it's music that forces you out of the modes of critical assessment you get locked into with more traditional performers. It's so alien, so at odds with conventional musical structure, so completely removed from the terminology and theory normally used to critique music, that it makes you open up new venues of expression to describe it. And that's a skill that comes in handy when you go back to the ‘real world’. Just as the black hole where Jandek’s personality should be forces his fans to invent their own histories to imagine the man, the complete otherness of the music forces the listener to come up with a new critical language to describe what they’re hearing, even if they don’t like it. Even if you hate what you’re hearing, you’re forced into a mode of reception and response that is infinitely more challenging – and thus, ultimately, more rewarding -- than you’re going to get with the merely good or the run-of-the-mill bad. In our homes, with these mysterious objects from the lost civilization of Corwood, we think we’re building our own mythology, but it turns out that it’s really shaping us.