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Kool Keith – Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Kool KeithBlack Elvis/Lost in Space Ruff House WK 52000 (1999)

This is, without question, one of my favorite hip-hop albums.  Kool Keith is inimitable.  Maybe that’s partly because there is (or was) hardly anyone even attempting his kind of abstract, surreal vision of hip-hop.  This solo release came somewhat on the heels of the critically lauded Dr. Octagonecologyst album.  It seems like a lot of people like to talk about how Black Elvis isn’t as good as the Dr. Octagon disc.  Well, motherfuckers, I’m gonna say the exact opposite.  I think in every way that counts, Black Elvis is the better album.  On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith’s vocals are relegated to a decidedly secondary position.  Just listen to “3000” to hear producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura chop up the vocal tracks and–subtly–undermine the natural rhythm of Keith’s vocal delivery.  Now, The Automator is okay.  I’m not convinced he’s that great though.  But I am convinced that Kool Keith is a motherfuckin’ rap genius.  To take anything away from Keith’s vocals is, in my opinion, a big mistake.  Now, there’s the Black Elvis album.  It begins as kind of concept album, with Keith’s alien Black Elvis character descending to Earth and rapping about all that he sees from the point of view of this outsider rock star.  I mean, the “Intro” track alone is one of my favorite hip-hop songs.  Then it transitions to some songs that reveal the Black Elvis character to be just that, a public persona…he’s a guy that has to go home and live a life like everybody else.  The end of the disc (which might benefit from trimming a few of the lesser tracks) goes out with a bit of a whimper on some pretty “normal” tracks.  But that’s nothing really.  Through it all, the focus is on Keith and his vocals.  In that respect it corrects all the errors of the Dr. Octagon project (“Rockets On the Battlefield” even claims this is “better than Octo”).  Plus, the electro beats make the perfect foil.  I would go so far as to say this album has no direct precedent in hip-hop.  Some of Antipop Consortium‘s albums like Arrhythmia follow in its path, but even then, there weren’t even many people following up on what Keith did here.  It’s just completely left-field hip-hop.  The lyrics are loaded with the kind of hilarious non-sequiturs I adore:

“mechanical legs, mechanical legs”, “R2D2? Me too” (on “Rockets On the Battlefield”)

“in my monkey green rag-top Seville” (on “Supergalactic Lover”)

Keith’s disfigured, amplified vision is just so incisive and insightful here that it gets me every time.  No, this isn’t a perfect album.  But I love it.  I wish more people, including Keith himself, would step up and try to make more hip-hop this daring.  Outside of a few acts like Antipop Consortium, Sole, cLOUDDEAD, MF Doom (and aliases like King Geedorah), few have made the effort.

Opposites in History

A recurring phenomenon in history is that certain key figures represent a merging of opposite tendencies.  One early figure of this nature is Brasidas, the Spartan officer lauded by Thucydides in his history The Peloponnesian War.  Unlike the most of the terse-speaking Spartans, he was a gifted orator much like his enemies the Athenians.  He died in an attack on Amphipolis  in which he led by making an example of bravery and was one of the few Spartan casualties, though he prefaced the attack with a claim that he would conduct himself in action following the advice he gave to his comrades.  But earlier, he also led covert operations and engaged in deception of cities the Spartans wished to conquer or ally with. Thucydides was actually the Athenian general who led excursions against Brasidas, but he nonetheless praised Brasidas more than almost everyone else in his entire history of the war.  Characterized by his “charm”, that really meant Brasidas excelled at the qualities that his enemies prized, namely oratory.  He also acted quickly with bold, decisive and dramatic surprise attacks.  This quick action was not common among Spartans more known for endless deliberation and caution.  He was an example of one side, the Spartans, succeeding on the terms of the opponent, the Athenians.

John Muir, with the help of many others, remained the primary catalyst for the creation of National Parks in the United States.  He was undoubtedly a pantheist, and perhaps an atheist (as much as would be accepted at the time in his cultural setting).  But reading some of his writings, the overarching tendency is to rely on religious and moral argument.  He especially leans on the tone of fundamentalist christian writing.  Yet his advocacy pointed to a return to a simple appreciation of nature.  This resembled the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critic of civil society.  In this he merged opposite tendencies.  He used the language of the socially conservative religious status quo to advance a position that was ultimately a radical critique of the foundations of the economic system operating in his society.

Of course, history provides plenty of counter examples.  But it is worth pausing on some of the ways opposites do merge from time to time with spectacular effect.

The Flaw(s) of Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a flawed doctrine, from the viewpoint of general public well-being.  At least some of its support comes from the partial awareness of a very real phenomenon:  there are spheres of power, and government is one of them.  Government power can act as a limit and constraint on the power and actions of individuals, business, etc.  Libertarians are usually either very naive or very disingenuous in focusing on how government can constrain individuals (usually framed as curtailing their liberties and freedom), while ignoring the way that other forms of power, such as that arising from business, can also constrain individuals (and government, etc., for that matter).  The result is that a few intelligent but nefarious operatives use these doctrines to try to build support for the concentration of power in the hands of business/finance/etc., bringing along a rabble of “useful idiots” who want individual freedoms but lack an understanding of the full range of constraints on individual freedoms (not to mention that some of the particular individual freedoms that come up again and again, like a right to be a bigot, carry little moral authority on their own).  This critique of libertarianism arises from something like a hybrid of the sociological analysis that people like G. William Domhoff advance (the class-domination theory of power) and the economic analysis that people like Simon Patten advanced, which said reducing one monopoly merely frees resources to be captured by another (economic rent capture).  It also draws on the field theories of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (Loïc Wacquant has applied that approach to neoliberalism in a similar fashion).  But a similar critique has been astutely summed up by Corey Robin, who has written that what most libertarians want is not feedoms and liberties, but rather the maintenance of a particular social hierarchy–with particular men (always men) at the top of some node within it, of course.  Robin notes that these people are reactionaries because they seek to suppress emancipatory movements from below (Wacquant goes further to say neoliberalism is a revolution from above).  This is what distinguishes them from anarchists.  But the most superficially irksome flaw in the discussion of libertarianism in today’s context is not the political choice of inequality, per se (that topic is omitted entirely from mainstream discourse), but rather the hypocrisy that lies in obscuring that political choice behind rhetoric that speaks of liberty and freedom without explicitly admitting that it is advocacy of freedom and liberty for some at the expense of others.  This dissipates any credibility that libertarian advocates might otherwise have, but also explains their apparent inconsistencies and selective, limited application of doctrines that are usually stated as if universal.  It is the false appeal to universal principles, while always limiting their application to the maintenance of particularized hierarchies (making property ownership the only fundamental issue), that libertarians use to feign the support of a popular majority with policies that are plainly only in the interests of a minority.  It is a kind of political arbitrage, making a play against being called out for the underlying lies by the media or simply an uninformed public realizing the scam on their own.  For that reason, a captive and submissive media is essential for these flawed policies to have any chance in the public sphere.  Of course, eliminating hypocrisy does not prove or disprove libertarian theory.  However, doing so is a first step in debating its real merits, if any, as a political program.

Gareth Porter – Robert S. McNamara and the Real Tonkin Gulf Deception

Link to an article by investigative historian Gareth Porter:

“Robert S. McNamara and the Real Tonkin Gulf Deception: Pushing LBJ Into War”

It is interesting to consider Porter’s perspectives on this in light of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the “bureaucratic field”.  That is, Porter does not view the “state” as a monolithic entity, but a field established by and through its agents (and groups of agents) struggling amongst each other for authority.

Lexus Drivers

Something I realized long ago is that when walking or riding my bike around town, there is a very strong correlation between drivers who carelessly–or knowingly–endanger my life through reckless driving and those driving luxury vehicles like Lexus and BMW luxury sedans and fancy sport utility vehicles.  That is not to say that those are the only reckless drivers on the road.  I also noticed a strong correlation between aggressively reckless driving and driving extremely low-cost dilapidated cars or having carloads of many young men in any type of vehicle.  What always seems to stand out the most, though, were the luxury cars that were routinely driven in a way that put my life in danger only to save a fraction of a second travel time for the driver.  It gave the impression that my life was not worth the seconds saved by the driver.

As it turns out, Paul Piff, a social psychology researcher at the University of California Berkeley, has recently studied this very issue.  Not surprisingly, his data backs up what was already quite clear.  The affluent tend to have a feeling of entitlement over others.  They do feel that they are better and more worthy than others, particularly when driving.

“The Age of Entitlement: How Wealth Breeds Narcissism”

“The Money-Empathy Gap: New Research Suggests That More Money Makes People Act Less Human. Or at Least Less Humane.”

“Does Money Make You Mean”

The connection here is pretty clear if you view “money” as a unit of measure of “power” (arising from a milieu of credit and moral debts), and then consider the age-old saying often attributed to Lord Acton, “power corrupts.”  That ties this, by only an slight degree of separation, to psychology research like Philip Zimbardo’s “Standford Prison Experiement” (see also Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil).

There is also the question of so-called “Lexus lanes” that allow drivers to pay a premium for access to special, uncongested traffic lanes.  These more or less reinforce feelings of entitlement.  But that’s also a whole other issue.

It is good to see research like this being done.  It furthers efforts like The Spirit Level that show how inequality produces worse outcomes for everyone.