I’ve been thinking about ways to review music here for a while now…
What I’ve decided is to assemble short playlists with each individual song sharing a broader theme.
It’s a new feature on Drunk and Humble: J-Money Mix Tape.
Today’s Theme: Alien Invasion
Earth People – Dr. Octagon
On the whole, Dr. Octagonecologyst is one of hip-hop’s most influential albums. It’s ground-breaking for its unique lyrical style (Kool Keith as Dr. Octagon) and inventive production (Dan the Automator).
Make no mistake about it, this is a modernist work.
I had a professor in college who used a famous quote from Ezra Pound to explain modernism: “Make it new,” he said.
And that’s exactly what Dr. Octagon did.
There’s a small niche genre called “Afrofuturism.”
Afrofuturism combines elements of reality with science fiction and fantasy. But whereas the larger science fiction genre is traditionally white (Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, etc…) this sub-genre focuses on Afrocentricity.
That is, it’s a genre through which black people (a people whose history has so long been oppressed, repressed, fractured and forgotten) can either re-imagine the past or conjure up a whole new future for themselves – a future outside the bounds of predominantly white culture.
The artist Sun Ra gets credit for pioneering Afrofuturism in music. And Parliament Funk expounded on it.
But it was Dr. Octagon who brought the genre literally into the future by melding it with hip-hop. And the result was a whole new type of music, Trip-Hop.
Kool Keith was so bored/dissatisfied rapping about this world that he invented one of his own, along with an extraterrestrial alter-ego – a gynecologist and surgeon who transcends both space and time.
So his rhyming goes beyond guns, gold chains and clubs, and even the more nuanced social commentary of hip-hop’s early pioneers. It’s a mash-up of medical terms and techno-speak.
In a recent article for Vulture, Questlove describes Kool Keith’s lyrics as “scatological, philosophical, philological, neurological, at times defiantly illogical. They thrum with the thrill of discovery, of what’s unknown and — despite the torrent of terminology — only half-articulated.”
They even almost make sense sometimes, but sense isn’t the point here. This is an elaborate sci-fi fantasy played out through stream-of conscious wordplay that is complex, visceral and imaginative.
This is a kaleidoscope of rhyme that, seemingly disparate, connects a sophisticated tapestry of words through assonance, consonance, and internal and slant rhyme. Ryhmes appear, disappear, and reappear at unexpected times and places.
At first glance, it looks like a mess, outerworldy even. But it’s really controlled chaos.
What’s more, is that for all the subtly, sophistication, and imagination Dr. Octagon brings lyrically, Dan the Automator matches him every step of the way. His driving beat, symphonic layers and sci-fi nuances turn the rantings of a linguistically gifted madman into a rich and varied soundscape.
It’s like we’re being taken for a ride on Doc Oc’s spaceship. And you better buckle the fuck up.
It’s achievement enough to create a metaphysical universe in which this lunacy can exist, but to bring that universe to life through sound is something else entirely.
Turbulence – Deltron 3030
Dr. Octagon comes from the year 3000. And just 30 years later comes another intergalactic anti-hero Deltron Zero (Del the Funkee Homosapien).
Like Dr. Octagon, Deltron is joined on his journey by Dan the Automator who takes his considerable skills with production to the next level.
The layers of instrumentation, sound effects, and texture are both multiplied and amplified, giving Del (maybe the most underrated emcee I know of) a huge playground for his linguistic talents.
His vision is also somewhat clearer and more consistent (not to say better) than Kool Keith’s. Deltron interacts directly with alien technology and creatures in a post-apocalyptic universe. Indeed, only the force of Deltron’s rhyming powers, fortified by the Automator’s beat, can save us from total subjugation.
That’s made perfectly clear in “Turbulence” where the planet earth is revealed to be nothing short of hellscape.
It’s so bad, in fact, that Deltron himself is ready to blast off to Mars just to get away. But before he does he makes sure to paint us a not-so-pretty picture.
A small group of elitists and an all powerful ruler govern society. Workers are forced to conform through brainwashing and propaganda. And resistance to the order means imprisonment, or even a lobotomy.
Does Deltron save us? I’m afraid not. There’s only so much one man can do. And despite all of Deltron’s juice he’s incapable of overturning the new world order.
He may battle the odd spacebeast here and there. Every now and then he jumps to the defense of a citizen. But he also spends a surprising amount of time smoking weed and reading Cosmo, resigned to the fact that change is a lost hope.
I guess Deltron is more like a Han Solo-type, who’s more content to make a living than try to save the world.
Still, his journey is a remarkable one. And in what is largely a sequel to Dr. Octagonecologist, Deltron matches and even surpasses his predecessor.
Clean Elvis – Dan Reeder
Departing from the realm of sci-fi trip-hop we come to a completely different genre, indie folk.
Here we find one of my favorite artists in Dan Reeder.
Reeder usually sings about really concrete, tangible things. Other songs of his include “Three Chords, “Food and Pussy” and “Work Song.” These are very straight-forward, almost hymnal songs.
That makes “Clean Elvis” something of a departure. It keeps the lulling melody but it replaces the folksy lyrics with abstract ruminations on bio-enhancement, technology, and of course, alien invasion.
As with all of these entries I have no idea what this guy was thinking when he wrote this.
It’s fucking insane.
Still, I’ve listened to it enough to formulate my own interpretation…
The lyric that always strikes me when I listen to this song is:
“When I say Vietnam it sounds just like Coca-Cola.
I believe most anything as long as it’s not real.”
Again, I can’t speak on Reeder’s behalf and say this is a commentary on the commercialization of warfare but that’s the association I make.
It makes me think of of the war-for-profit military industrial complex, as well as the more subtle corporate invasion.
Coca-Cola is the most iconic U.S.-based multinational – a company whose trademark is recognizable throughout the world. It, like many others, has planted its flag on foreign soil around the globe.
Now, I try to keep things light on this blog, and I’m not going to get too far into this…
But I think we can all agree that many wars have been fought on behalf of business. And it’s no stretch to say warfare itself has been the United States’ chief export over the past few decades.
Literally. We are the No. 1 arms exporter in the world. And through a policy of pre-emptive strike, we’ve ensured that our products reach our perceived enemies just as quickly as they reach our customers.
Just as bad, our soldiers themselves have been commodified and leveraged to extract financial gain for powerful people.
That dehumanization is what brings me to the second part of Reeder’s lyric, “I believe most anything as long as it’s not real.”
It seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of one’s own mental illness.
So whereas the first line of couplet is a nod to commercial warfare, the second line acknowledges the frequent result, mental illness.
It’s not just that lyric that makes me think of post-traumatic stress syndrome, either. It’s the mash-up of “I Will Always Love You,” and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love” that echo through the refrain.
The song is sung in the first person, as Reeder lists his super-human efforts to combat extraterrestrials, but his monologue is interrupted by the refrain of pop music. It’s almost as if the narrator’s imagination has conflated its fantasy with catchy music from the radio (maybe he’s got a plate in his head).
We’ve all had tunes get stuck in our head before, just imagine you’re an afflicted combat veteran who can’t distinguish between flashbacks from Vietnam and paranoid dreams of an alien invasion.
I think we’d all be pleading for help from Elvis.
And that’s how I think of this song…
In my interpretation it’s not just about about aliens, it’s about alienation.
Teenagers From Mars – Misfits
Before there was Eminem… Before there was the Insane Clown Posse… Even before there was Gwar…
There was the Misfits, a punk band founded in 1977.
Just as Dr. Octagon invented Trip-Hop, the Misfits’ aggressive, sexual and violent overtones established the framework for Horror-Punk Rock and Horror-Core Rap.
A lot of punk bands aired their grievances with society, attacking specific institutions, beliefs, and people. But Glenn Danzig of the Misfits sang about JFK’s shattered skull and Jackie Kennedy giving him fellatio.
Glenn Danzig eventually left the band, believing he was more talented and more dedicated than his bandmates. He was right, and his later work is darker and more personal. So much so that I wouldn’t attribute to it any amount of camp value.
He’s a serious and talented guy, and he was the force behind the Misfits. But as a band, the Misfits are decidedly campy and even self-deprecating.
This is even alluded to in the first few verses of Teenagers From Mars:
“We land in barren fields
On the Arizona plains
The insemination of little girls
In the middle of wet dreams
We are the angel mutants
The streets for us seduction
Our cause unjust and ancient
In this “B” film born invasion”
Obviously, there’s the explicit sexuality, but it comes in the form of a “B” movie.
That’s kind of what the Misfits are, a B-movie – even if they set out to be something more serious at the time.
But they also happen to be a really good B-movie. Think Evil Dead or Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Indeed, there are a lot of B-movies out there that have more artistic merit than today’s blockbusters.
That’s really the point: The mainstream is boring, monotonous, and governed by powerful (often shitty) people.
That’s where the whole punk rebellion stems from – a lame, out-of-touch mainstream.
And so, with the Misfits, there may be a lot of sex and violence on the surface, but the intended victims aren’t the ones who find their bodies bloodied or their skulls cracked. It’s the squares and parents that cringe at words and phrases like “insemination” and “wet dreams.”
The lyrics aren’t just there for shock value. They’re the barbed wire fence that keeps the establishment at bay, or better yet, puts it on the defensive.
The Misfits want to disrupt the system. They want to give their audience and their own teenage rebellion an avenue for expression.
Simply put, they don’t give a fuck. And they want you to know they don’t give a fuck. That’s what this song is about.
That’s why the refrain is:
“Teenagers from Mars
And we don’t care.”
As with Reeder’s song, the theme of personal alienation is personified with actual aliens. I mean, not to state the obvious, but they are called the Misfits…
So these aren’t earthbound teenagers, we’re dealing with. They’re teenagers from a whole other planet, here to blast your mindless structure and inferior connection. And they don’t care.
And as with many B-movies, I find myself rooting for the aliens in this case. In fact, I just might be a pod person – acting out my human duties like a functioning member of society, while secretly indulging in its disorder and hastening its destruction.
Maybe Danzig and I will hitch a ride with Deltron and Dr. Octagon. Reeder can stay. I think he needs to work through some issues.